Tag Archives: short story

The machine starts? What can we learn from stories?

Phil: A few days ago, the government floated the idea that everyone 50 years and over should be shut away for the duration of the pandemic. While they quickly denied that they had suggested the idea to some excitable tabloid journalists, it stuck in my mind. Partly ‘cos I’ve just reached the age of being locked up and doubt that government food parcels, if they are part of the plan, would include Tunnocks teacakes.

At the same time, I was discussing the prospects of going to public shows and exhibitions on my blog.

Both there and on other bits of social media, I find plenty of people who quite like being locked down. Not in a purvey way (stop sniggering Nolan) but a mixture of introversion and social anxiety means they are quite happy being told not to go and mix with other people. A couple said they were quite happy ordering everything online and chatting via video calls. Hunkering down at home and shutting the world out is appealing.

This put me in mind of the short story, The Machine Stops, by EM Forster. The story describes a world in which most humanity lives in isolation underground in standard rooms, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global machine. This gradually breaks down, but acknowledging this isn’t allowed.

You can read the full text here.

Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like the natural extrapolation of all those happy to shut themselves off from real contact? Unknowingly, Forster is showing us our potential future.

We see it in film too. Look at the people in Disney’s Wall-E. Locked in their mobile seats endlessly staring into a screen.

Some say we should learn from history, but it’s just as important to look at the worlds writers have conjured up for us. After all, we are the first people who can deal with our problems in this way. When I was a kid, the Interweb was science fiction. Mail order existed, but only by telephone. Grocery delivery was unheard of. Now, for many, there is no pressing reason to leave the house, and we are constantly told many excuses not to do so.

Imagination is a powerful thing. We should harness it.

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Do TV adaptions kill book sales?


Phil: As I watched the final episode of Strike – The Cuckoo’s Calling, I wondered about the sales of the book it’s based on.

Obviously, JK Rowling (writing as Robery Galbraith) isn’t worried about the royalties, but I’d certainly be interested to see how the sales fare. Surely, most of the joy of any whodunnit is trying to work out who the criminal is, and once you’ve seen it on telly then the secret is blown. OK, you might still enjoy the read but part of your brain is always going to be shouting, “The butler did it!” as the characters bumble arnound trying to solve the crime.

Or does knowledge of the outcome allow you to get on and enjoy the story?

(Note to broadcasters – This isn’t an issue for Kate vs the Dirtboffins, there’s loads more to the book than the whosdoingit aspect, which is why any adaption will be so succesful the other channels will just switch off to save electricity. Please start the bidding war for rights now.)

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500 Words

500 WordsPhil: Because I am old (Apparently, although not old enough to shop at Marks & Spencer. Still at least 130 years too young for that) during the day, my wireless is tuned to Radio 2.

In the morning, they have been running a short story competition for children entitled “500 Words”. This tells you pretty much all you need to know about the rules. Sadly, we are too old to enter but that doesn’t mean they will be short of stuff to read. This year, there have been 120,000 stories submitted. That’s one child in 30 taking part – an impressive statistic.

With all these words, 50 million, there is an interesting analysis performed by the Oxford University Press. You can read the full report in PDF form here.

Children use the characters around them as characters in the stories they make up. Minions, from the film Despicable Me, are big this year. Lego gets a look in with and increased appearance too.

Sinkholes have been in the news and obviously attracted a lot of attention. You can see why – who knows what is at the bottom of the crevasses that has suddenly opened up? (Geologists I suppose, but I bet their answers are boring).  News programmes full of flooding earlier in the year have provided some handy jeopardy, perhaps the kids are putting themselves in the soggy shoes of those they see on-screen.

Cynics will scoff but I think this is brilliant. Children have always made up stories, I know I did, and encouraging them to limber up their imagination is surely a good thing.

Mind you, reading Chris Evans height in books might take them until they hit university!


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While we have been a bit slack on the writing front and don’t have a festive story as a present for you this year, we have a couple of pieces in the nolanparker archive that haven’t been given an airing. This effort was destined for a short story writing competition which we assume we didn’t win. Despite this, we don’t think it’s bad, so hope you enjoy our non-Christmassy tale.


The house was uninviting but her future lay inside.

Grey paint peeled from weather beaten walls. A few straggly plants clinging to life drooped over the edges of a rotten window box. Peering through the filthy glass, all she could see were threadbare and stained curtains. A tiny, barely glimpsed movement revealed there was someone in there.

She stood in front of the front door and reached for the knocker. A moments pause. Just as she had paused before. Each time something had made her turn and walk away. Now it might be too late.

A final furtive look around to see if there was anyone watching her. All she could see was the clouds of her own breath. The gathering gloom made it feel even colder. Every breath felt like someone was stabbing the inside of her lungs.

A few months ago, it had all been so different. The summer sun was shining. The flowers were in full bloom. She was studying at Berlin University to become a doctor and in a few months planned to be back home working in the same Dresden hospital she had been born in.

Best of all Bernhard would be with her. They had met at a concert five months earlier and had been inseparable ever since. The day he asked her to marry him was the best of her  life. There had been no hesitation in her answer or any restraint in the kiss that had followed it. For a month she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off the ring he had bought her. The ring she could now feel under her glove.

After the best day came the worst.

Bernhard was an engineering student. He was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in a conference had at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg.

A trip to decadent West”, he joked proudly showed off the papers that would allow him to travel, “I will try my best to avoid being corrupted by their degenerate ideals”.

They laughed. Like other students, they enjoyed what little Western music they could find of and sometimes gazed at the other side of the city wondering what it was really like. Surely not everyone was an evil Nazi as the political officers told them.

Bernhard even got into a fight with a drunken party member in a bar who berated them with stories of what he said was the evils being perpetrated just a few miles away and demanded to know why anyone should want to expose themselves to them. She dabbed his eye with a cold flannel to stop the swelling and soothed his temper. He would soon see it all with his own eyes. If they weren’t black that is.

A couple of days later, she chocked back tears as he climbed the steps of the coach that would take the group to the conference. Bernhard waved and blew a kiss from through the window. She watched the street until the vehicle was out of sight. Then it was back to her rooms while repeating that he would only be away for four days. She went to bed staring at the calendar where the date was ringed in red and drifted off to sleep.

Then the wall arrived.

In the university canteen everyone was talking about it. Overnight soldiers had started stringing barbed wire along the streets. People said that they had heard gunshots and someone claimed to have seen a man trying to cross the line being killed. Her heart froze as she realised what this meant. Bernhard was on the wrong side of the divide.

Weeks seemed like years  but she heard nothing. Concentration on daily tasks became impossible. Nights were filled with dreams of her love calling over the barbed wire.

Suddenly there was a letter. It took a few moments before she recognised the writing as his. People said it was hardly readable but it didn’t matter. His fingers had touched the envelope. His pen had caressed the page.

Not just his hand though. The letter had been opened, probably by the Stasi. Everyone knew about them of course but until that moment her life had never knowingly been touched by the secret police. Now they had pried into her private world. Defiled it. Dirtied it. Tears welled up. How dare they ? In a flash of anger she nearly threw the envelope away.

But she didn’t.

She unfolded the letter and read it. Quickly at first and then again and again. Each time absorbing the words as though trying to soak the ink itself into her fingers. His ink. The only connection they had.

Bernhard was safe. He had been found a room in the house of one of a fellow student from the conference. When news of the division of the city reached them, many had decided this was their chance to stay in the West. He said he had wanted to come back to her but had been worried that if he tried, the authorities might wonder why only a few of the party returned. The Western authorities had been only too happy to help these poor refuges from Communism.

Should she reply ? How could she ignore it ? Not knowing if her letter would ever arrive she hurriedly scrawled on some writing paper. At the post office the teller looked at her oddly but took the envelope and said it would be delivered. As she left there was a feeling that someone was watching her.

The wait for a reply seemed interminable but at last it arrived. Again, the envelope had been clumsily opened and re-sealed. For a while she just stared at the paper without reading the words.

Another letter posted. And another. And another. The teller was starting to recognise her so she started using different post offices around the city. After a few months she had been into nearly every one within walking distance and then had to start taking the tram to new districts.

Bernhard even remembered her birthday. He mentioned he might be travelling East on the day to meet Charlie. There was a point he wanted to check at noon. The code was crude but she in a flash she knew what he meant. Everyone knew that Checkpoint Charlie was what the Americans called the crossing.

On the day she stood at one side of the crossing and stared hard at the other side of the wall. He was there. A little fatter than before but unmistakable. He saw her and waved. She waved back. He tried to shout but the distance and noise was too great. In the end they just stood and stared at each other. She tried not to cry but eventually a tear ran down her cheek. A guard spotted her and shouted. Then he pointed his gun and she had to move away.

Back in her room she howled into her pillow. How could she bear to be apart ? Enquiries to see if there was a chance to visit the West had been sharply turned down. Far too many students had managed to escape already. The man she had talked to described it as a “brain drain”. He advised her not to try anything “silly” either in a way that made her shiver.

Her friends tried to console her. They said that the wall couldn’t last forever. Maybe Bernhard might come back. After all, he loved her and maybe the West wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway.

She hoped and dreamed they were right. Then she scolded herself for thinking that way. If Bernhard came back to her, his first few days would be spent being “de-briefed” in some  Stasi basement. Who knows what the bastards would do to him. They’d say he was a spy. She was sure that someone had been watching when they saw each other. They weren’t stupid, evil maybe but not stupid, they would have worked out Berhard’s code.

A week passed. Her friends were concerned. They kept telling her she needed to eat but her appetite had gone. Gone west. As she sat in the refectory toying with some awful slops pretending to be goulash, a blond man approached. He asked if the seat opposite her was taken. She grunted a response which he took to be negative and sat down.

Her companion seemed more interested in his food than she was. He was wolfing down the nauseating stew like he hadn’t eaten for a week. She tried to ignore the noise he made. Despite her best efforts he kept looking at her. Suddenly he spoke. Her face tried to express complete disinterest but there was something about his eyes that drew her in.

For a few minutes she resisted conversation but eventually he wore her down. He seemed to know a lot about her. For a moment she wondered if he was a plant. They said that there were spies at the university to check on disloyal feelings. He seemed to know about Bernhard. One of her friends had told him he said. Suddenly the tone of his voice dropped. He drew closer to her. She thought for a minute he was going to try and kiss her. There was still a bit of cabbage leaf in his beard. Seeing her recoil he looked slightly hurt and then lent in again.

Checking that no one was listening in he revealed that he asked if she had ever heard  about something called the Girrmann Group.

She thought and then shook her head. Even if she had known anything it wasn’t wise to admit it. You never really knew who you were talking to.

He smiled. The Girrmann Group might be able to help her he said. If she wanted to know more then she should meet him again the next day.

Suddenly her mind was a ball of confusion. Why was he telling her this? Was is a Stasi test? Had he thought her fiancée was out of the picture and was trying it on? How could she be sure? She twisted the ring on her finger again and thought  of Bernhard. What could the authorities do that was worse than separating her from him ?

More meetings in the refectory took place. Apparently discussing things in plan sight was the best way to avoid suspicion. That’s what he said anyway. She was glad of this. If he couldn’t try anything in a public place and she made sure he saw that she still wore her ring. Just in case

A week later and contacts were made, instructions given. No luggage. This was a one-way trip.

When it was whispered that escape was via the sewer system she had only a moments pause. All of a sudden it was serious. Until then, everything had seemed a bit like a game. Unreal. At the back of her mind a little voice said it could be a trap or even a cruel joke but she couldn’t bear the thought of that.

Her friends had become distant. Some had spotted her regular rendezvous and thought that she was “moving on” as one put it. Others felt she was just pining for Bernhard. She knew that if this worked, they would be questioned. Everyone would. The less they knew the better. Was it fair to them? Should she just wait for a bit to see if everything blew over?

In front of the house she pulled the bit of paper out of her pocket and looked at it for the hundredth time. This was the right address. The one she’d been at before and turned away at the last minute. This time she had to go through with it. Her friend had said that the route the group had used was likely to be closed. It was now or never. She turned at took a last look at the overcast October sky and knocked on the door.

Her future lay ahead. Whatever it was. At least there would be answers.

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You have to chuck the right person off the roof

Oxford RoofPhil: As mentioned on Tuesday, we had a bit of a writing sesh last week where The Book received a good reordering.

Much of the feedback from test readers mentioned that we have fallen into the newbie trap of taking up too much valuable reader time setting introducing characters and setting up the story. If I’m honest, while the first third is sublime, we don’t really get stuck in to the story. Having expended a lot of effort in short stories and also analysing other peoples books, we realised that you have to pitch the reader straight in and worry about explaining things later.  To make matters worse, this the three first chapters that are submitted to agents, the very people you need to grab by the throat with your writing.

Some months ago, I had a go at tackling this. Taking a scene midway in the story that only receives a passing mention, I expanded it out with the intention of providing a bit of drama and introducing our main character. The result was (I thought) funny and reasonably dramatic but it didn’t really do it. Despite revolving around someone nearly going over the edge* of a roof, we didn’t feel it was right for the opening.

My choice of start point was partly influenced by a lack of imagination as to how we got back into the main story afterwards. It’s all very well being dramatic but if you cut straight to the chase, the book ends up ten pages long and no one has a clue what lead up to the denouncement. I grabbed an extra scene that was fun but only introduced one person. It simply didn’t do enough.

Candice was braver and picked a different point with someone going over the edge. We don’t do a lot of it, but chucking people from the roof is dramatic and no one can tell me otherwise. By using a single viewpoint we get three main characters introduced quickly and manage to incorporates a mystery element in too. All in just over two pages. Best of all, in our pre-cake rehashing, we worked out how the intro can drop us back in the main story and even use it to make the main character more sympathetic. To be honest, it’s pretty much perfect.

By the time we were looking at coloured cupcake, we were in possession of a plan. This is a relief. I’ve been pondering the problem on and off for a while but while I could see the solution, it always seemed in soft focus. A bit like the world before I put my glasses on in the morning. Now I can see it not just with specs on but through recently cleaned lenses.

*True fact. As I was typing this, on my iPod the Manic Street Preachers were singing “Suicide is Painless” on random play. How’s that for serendipity?


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Will famous people please step away from the keyboard. Thank You.

I used to be a local radio DJPhil: Some people have suggested that being famous doesn’t make it easier to get a book published. Presumably those same people are so stupid that they can’t work out how to eat or have just been discharged from a jury.

Of course it’s easier to be published if you are famous. Publishing is a business and if you want to sell units to a celebrity obsessed public, then you comb the pages of Now/Hello/OK and pick your writers from the “bikini bodies” section. Lets’ face it, Martine McCutcheon wrote a book and she’s not even clever enough to remember that everyone has to pay taxes, or at least find a good accountant who can provide a good reason that you don’t.

Anyway, my ire is raised by spotting a couple of things in the media recently.

1 – Frank Lampard has signed a 5 book deal to write a series for children called “Frankie’s Magic Football”.

Now, I’ll admit to knowing nothing about football. I never got picked for a team at school, being the leftover who just joined the team that hadn’t picked last. From there it was a position in defence, or hanging around nowhere near the ball, as it was probably better termed. Still, I did my research and looked up Mr Lampard’s Wikipedia entry (Yes it IS research, you think the BBC/ITN/Sky reporters do any more than this?). Sadly, the page goes on forever and I couldn’t be bothered to read it.

At the end, it appears he has an A* in Latin. Assuming this is accurate (it’s Wikipedia remember) then he might be better placed to be the new Pope since it’s the only job that requires a working knowledge of the language. The Catholic church might even benefit from a bit of star status. What we can be pretty sure of is that the books will not appear in Latin. I don’t care how desperate the publishers are, lines are drawn and it doesn’t matter what words are on the page, as long as they are in English.

Anyway, Frank has bagged a deal to write children’s books about a footballer called “Frankie”. I know you are supposed to write what you know but this is ridiculous. The cynic in me suspects that the illustrator  is under strict instructions that “Frankie” must look a lot like Frank.

2 – Richard Hammond is a judge for a short story competition.

OK, lets start with I watch Top Gear and think “The hamster” is a fine presenter. Not as good as James May, but pretty good. He’s also smart enough to milk his popularity for all it’s worth, hence the BBC being full of shows that start with his name. It’s also good that the BBC is running a short story competition for kids. On Radio 2 amusingly, so for middle-class kids who don’t like an endless diet of R’n’B from Radio 1.

But, there are real writers on the panel: Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Charlie Higson for a start. Hammond is there for no other reason than the competition needs Celebrity. Presumably someone in the Beeb thought, “No one will enter if we don’t have a famous face involved.” and hit the Hammond speed dial. He worked out it wasn’t going to take much time (teachers and librarians are being asked to do the first sift to create a shortlist – for free) and would add a bit of gravitas to the CV. And that a shed-load of money would be heading his way for a quick voiceover.

Look – I understand the marketing advantages of a famous face, but I’m still bitter OK?


Filed under Phil, Writing

Stop the Cavalry

A festive tale by nolanparker

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here
To say we’re doing splendidly

Alice turned over in bed. She couldn’t get the stupid song out of her head. Bloody Christmas tunes. Bloody Jonah Lewie.

If I get home, live to tell the tale
I’ll run for all presidencies
If I get elected I’ll stop, I will stop the Cavalry

Except you didn’t get elected did you Mr Lewie?, she thought. You didn’t get elected, you didn’t stop the cavalry and because of that, I’m lying on an uncomfortable mattress about to hear a rousing call to get up at 0600 hours.

The lights came on. Around the grey room there were the sounds from the girls she shared the dormitory rubbing their eyes. No one slept much but that didn’t make getting up any easier. For a moment, Alice stared at the bottom of the bunk above hers.

Mary Bradley waits at home
In the nuclear fall-out zone
Wish I could be dancing now
In the arms of the girl I love

He nearly got that bit right. This is my home and since the first attacks a couple of days ago, it’s under the nuclear fall-out zone. Sixty feet underground, encased in concrete.

For a moment her mind drifted back to the scene a week ago; fairy lights in the windows, a tree, last-minute present buying, Patrick.

Get up private Riley! This isn’t a bloody holiday camp!”

Sergeant Cross stood in the middle of the room. Everyone else was hurriedly pulling on clothes and stumbling towards the canteen. As she touched the floor her stomach lurched. Last nights rations splattered the sergeants feet. She looked up sheepishly.

What the hell?”, for a moment the officer was speechless, “What’s wrong with you Riley?”

Alice pulled herself upright. She had no answer.

Are you taking your PI tablets? They are supposed to stop this kind of thing.”

She nodded weakly. At the same time thinking of the unopened packet of pills buried deep in her bag.

Well get it cleaned up. Then get yourself on duty.” and with this, the sergeant turned on her heels and stomped out of the room.

Alice looked down at the pool of sick. For a moment she thought it was about to get a second helping.

A hand appeared on her shoulder. Rose from two bunks along looked at her with sympathy. Alice took a deep breath and tried to smile.

Don’t worry. I’ll sort it. Get yourself ready. Let’s face it, we’re none of us exactly ourselves at the moment.”

Thanks Rose. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Think of it as a Christmas present.”

Christmas. Alice looked at her watch. December 25th. Not that it was going to be exactly festive. That song was still going around her head.

Dub a dum dum dub a dub
Dub a dub a dum
Wish I was at home for Christmas

Suddenly, her mind filled with Patrick in the stupid festive sweater she had bought for him last year. He had opened the present, laughed and put it straight on. She could almost see the reindeer on the front as he danced around the room making her laugh.

Where was he?

She choked back the fear.

It was no good, they had all been ordered to the shelter. The call had come while he was at work. All she had been able to do was leave a message on the answerphone saying she’d be back in time to sit down with turkey and all the trimmings.

She tried to shut the thoughts out of her head. Everyone was in the same boat. No-one had thought that anyone would be stupid enough to use the bomb. Now as she reported for duty in the operations room there was a map showing the scale of the devastation. As she sat at her desk it was like the whole thing was some sort of game. She had wondered, hoped even, if it was just another exercise – the army liked pulling stunts like this – but everyone knew this was the real thing.

Around the room people were doing their jobs. Everyone operated with calm efficiency. Numbers were crunched. Reports typed. Details filed. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, it was easier to be on autopilot. The army had drilled them and now they fell back on the training. If you thought about what you were doing, what those numbers meant, what was in those reports, you would fall apart. Better then, not to think.

Most of the time it worked. They had only been in the bunker for three days. It had been two days since the sound had reverberated around the concrete walls. Terrible dull roars. They knew what the noise meant, but no-one dared talk about it.

There wasn’t time to talk anyway. Suddenly the wires were full of chatter. Teletype machines burst into life. For a moment it was like going back two decades – even the army hadn’t bothered updating the equipment. They hadn’t expected to need it. It was 1989 after all. The Cold War had reached stalemate. There was no serious expectation of anything flaring up.

Alice vaguely remembered watching the news. She didn’t really bother following events. There had been something In Hungary about people escaping to the West but it seemed to mostly be men in bad jumpers waving McDonalds burgers at cameras. People had been protesting at the Berlin Wall and someone in the East Berlin Government had ordered the army to stop them. Then the Americans protested. It was all a bit hazy after this. She didn’t know who had started shooting. It didn’t matter. The results were on the map.

Carefully pinned on the wall and covered in a shiny wipe-clean coating, the map showed their sector. During the exercises everyone had taken delight in trying to spot where they lived. Some messed around scrawling mushroom clouds on the football grounds of opposing teams. Sergeant Cross had given them a bollocking for that!

Alice hadn’t paid too much attention in the past. Now she stared at the where she thought her house was. Their house. Patrick and hers. The one with the little garden. The garden with bulbs they had planted a few months ago.

Bang goes another bomb on another town
While the Czar and Jim have tea.
If I get home…

The area had been coloured in red.

She stared at the map willing the ink to fade away. Suddenly her eyes began to prickle with tears. She swallowed them. No-one else was crying.

A deep breath. She was a soldier. Trained to deal with this sort of thing. Getting emotional wasn’t going to help anyone.

Another deep breath. Then the world went black.

Coming too, Alice found herself sat in a corridor. Beside her was Sergeant Cross.

That’s the second time I’ve had to wake you up today Riley.”

I’m sorry. What happened.”

You fainted.”

I’m sorry. Where am I?”

Alice looked around. Although the bunker wasn’t massive, she hadn’t explored it, you weren’t encouraged to walk around much.

You’re in the medical section. I want you back on duty so you’re going to see the MO. He’s going to fix you up and get you back into battle.”

Oh. I’m sorry.”

Stop apologising for feeling ill. We expected people to have problems. Provisions were made for it. What we hadn’t expected was you to be so unhappy with your food. Don’t you like it or something? The MOD even put in a new canteen recently.”

Sorry. Oh, sorry. What do you mean?”

Look Riley, if you don’t like your lunch then keep it away from my shoes. It’s the second time for that today too.”


The Sergeant tried what she hoped was a smile. Alice stopped shivering and smiled a little in response.

It’s just that. Well, I looked at the map.”

You’ve got someone out there.”


We all have. The best thing is not to think about it. There’s nothing any of use can do.”

Have you…”


Oh. I’m sorry.”

Thanks. Now, I think the Doc is ready for you.”

Walking in to the Doctors office, she saw the tired face of a man who couldn’t remember the last time he had slept. His dead eyes would once have been kind. Days of handing out bad news and dealing with patients on the brink of breakdowns had nearly broken his spirit. He was about the same age as her.

Private Riley”. He looked at her notes and sighed. “What seems to be the problem?”

She paused and tried to think what to say.

I’ve been told to report to you. I fainted. I’m having a bit of nausea too.”

Humph. Well, we’re all feeling a bit upset. Hardly surprising really.”

I think Sergeant Cross was just upset I puked on her shoes”

Just the hint of a smile appeared on his face for a moment.

So the problem isn’t sickness, just your aim?”

She smiled. For a moment they looked at each other.

Well. I suppose I have to ask. Have you been a good little soldier and taken the potassium iodide tablets like we are all supposed to? They should stop you ruining the good sergeants efforts with the shoe polish.”

She bit her lip and thought.


No I haven’t.”

Why not?”, he turned and picked a pack of pills from a pile, “Take these and you’ll soon be fine. Well, as fine as we can be down here.”

Alice shook her head weakly. “I don’t want to.”

Why not?”

She touched her stomach. For a moment he paused, looking at her fingers.

How long.”

About 6 weeks. It’s going to be a summer baby.”


Please don’t tell anyone. It’s all I have. Of…”, her voice tailed off. Patrick’s face filled her thoughts. The moment she had told him.

The doctor smiled. Colour returned to his face. The dead eyes sparkled.

Well, I think in a little while, everyone is going to work it out for themselves. But I won’t say anything.

Thank you.”

It’s the least I can do. How does the song go? You know, the one they play as soon as the tinsel gets unwrapped.”

Dunno. I’ve had that Jonah Lewie thing going in my head around since I woke up.”

Wrong one. You need some Slade.”

She thought for a moment. “You mean…”

Look to the future now
It’s only just begun

He put his hand gently on top of hers.

Yes. It’s Christmas!”


Filed under Candice, Phil, Writing

Time limits

Phil: To those who’ve taken the time to read our short story, Lot 38, thank you.  Today’s post was supposed to show the feedback we received from Writers-Forum but about 10 minutes ago I read this comic on the Oatmeal and changed my mind.

One of the panels explains that “I sometimes solicit ideas from other people, but I rarely use their suggestions. Instead, hearing their idea allows me to see another one more clearly.”

This is true and it’s how Lot 38 came about.

Candice and I were lunching in the pub one day, discussing writing short stories. We decided that if you want to carry the reader, your tale needs a bit of pace and that possibly the best plan was to look for ideas with a timescale or deadline. A classic plot involves is a bomb, which in the movies is always fitted with a great big red countdown timer. There’s no need for this but it helps build tension as the audience know that something is going to happen. We don’t know what but even if the hero just sits around drinking coffee, events will carry on around him. Should he wish to affect the outcome, it’s time to step away from the latte and get a move on.

Bombs are a bit old hat but there are lots of other situations that can be employed – the arrival of a train was good for 3:10 to Yuma. High noon and 24 both stuck the timescale in the title.

I don’t know how, but as we chatted, the idea of an auction popped into my head. Maybe it’s because Bigwoods auctioneer’s operate from opposite our lunch venue, or maybe it’s just that I love the atmosphere of a good auction and have sat in quite a few over the years. Candice has never been to an auction, probably a good thing as I fear that she would be fantastically competitive leading to paying well over the odds to win, or hunting down her opponent later. (Can you tell she’s on holiday so I can say this without fear?)

Anyway, I had the scene, all I needed was the story. We rattled some ideas around a bit, by which time I was fired up to go and make some words. Writing the piece didn’t actually take very long and the subsequent edits were minimal. Sometimes, an idea is so strong that it just works.

Anyway, you probably want to know the official critique:

Title: Apt for the story, but not intriguing.

Opening: This introduces the main character and contains a hook to grab the reader’s attention, giving us a reason to read on.

Dialogue: Very good – the dialogue helps to drive the story onwards and also aids characterisation.

 Characterisation: Good – the characters come to life on the page.

Overall: The ending is a bit too predictable. I feel you need to mislead the reader more. Throw in a couple of subplots to take the reader’s mind off the main storyline. You have an easy to read writing style, but in a short story one of the characters (usually the main one) is changed or grows as a result of what happens to him or her. This depends too heavily on the twist (which, as I have pointed out, is easy spot almost from the outset) and needs a few more layers to give the plot depth.

One to learn from – use this experience to help with your next story

So, not bad but not great. I’m not sure how to cram more subplots into the story but not add more than about 1000 words. Suggestions for the sort of sub-plot that we could wedge in would be appreciated too. Part of the joy of using an auction is the intensity of the moment. When you are bidding, it’s a battle of nerves between two people. Perhaps the other bidder should have been more aggressive but then I wanted to contrast his attitude with the main character who so desperately wanted the painting. Maybe the idea of it being of great value and a potential financial saviour should be turned up to 11, the daughter could take a larger role, perhaps with her own internal dialogue.

Maybe there will be Lot 38 (MKII) here soon!


Filed under Phil, Writing

Lot 38

It’s National Short Story week, so here’s our contribution:

Lot 38Gavel

Next up, lot 38. Oil on canvas.”

As the auctioneer recited the description a porter held a painting aloft. The weekly sale had attracted the usual small crowd of dealers and locals sheltering from the rain. They looked at the picture and someone from the back wolf whistled. Most of the others sniggered and returned to their conversations.

Reclining nude. Unknown artist.” he continued and then, more in hope than expectation,  “Shall we say fifty pounds ?”

At the back of the room, David steeled himself. This was what he’d come for.

Thirty pounds ?”

Looking around, he could see that most people weren’t interested.

Twenty ?”

He couldn’t wait any longer and raised his hand. Was it too quick ? Had he given away his  enthusiasm ?

The man on the rostrum looked relieved. “Twenty Pounds. Who has twenty five ?”

For a moment no one had. David’s heart was in his mouth. Could he get it on a maiden bid ?

From the front, one of the regulars lazily waved a catalogue without even looking up.

Twenty five. Who has thirty ?”

David nodded. Mustn’t look too keen.

Thirty. Thirty five ?”

Another wave.

Thirty five. Forty ?”

He nodded again. What was that idiot bidding for ?

Forty. Forty five ?”

There was a pause and then the catalogue moved.

Forty five. Fifty ?”

Wondering if his opponent was wavering, David responded quickly. From the next seat, his daughter looked at him with alarm.

I have fifty. Sixty ?”

Another pause. Slightly longer this time. Then a wave.

Sixty. Seventy ?”

Dad, what are you doing ?” she hissed.

It’s all right. I know what I’m up to.” he whispered, signalling acceptance at the same time.

Seventy. Eighty ?”

No delay this time.

Eighty. Ninety ?”

Dad. Stop it. You can’t afford that much for a picture.”

She was right. Twenty years ago, the family business had collapsed. David had sold everything to pay off the creditors. Two decades later, he still lived in a one room flat. The thought caused him to pause before nodding again.

Ninety. One hundred ?”

At the front, the other bidder turned to see who he was up against. He weighed his enemy up for a moment before wafting the catalogue again.

No Dad. You can’t.”

Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”

What do you mean, you know what you’re doing. You’re bidding on a mucky picture that’s not even by a proper artist.”

I know who painted it.” he replied looking her in the eye.

He’d not wanted to join the family firm. They were all engineers and had never approved of him studying art history at university. Despite this, he’d done his best but it hadn’t worked out. For years his parents had barely talked to him. Even when his small gallery opened they had refused to visit. There was no money in art apparently.

You know ?”

Yes I do.”

The auctioneer interrupted “Are you bidding sir”

Sorry, yes.”

One hundred pounds. Do I see one ten ?”

Sensing victory, there was an immediate response from the front.

One ten. One twenty ?”

Are you sure Dad ?”

David nodded at both her and the auctioneer. He thought of his wife. She would approve. A shared love of art had kept them going through the tough times.

One twenty. Do I have one thirty ?”

The room had fallen silent. Most lots were little more than junk went after a couple of bids.

One thirty. One forty sir ?”

Well, I hope you’re right.” she smiled. David nodded again. They had visited galleries just to keep warm when money for heating was short. After a few years they knew more than the curators.

One forty. One fifty ?”

A scowl from the front followed by a wave.

One fifty. One sixty ?”

Everyone turned to look at the back of the room. David blushed and then nodded. Time to concentrate.

One sixty. One seventy ?”

The man paused. Was he having second thoughts ?


One seventy. One eighty ?”

In his ear, David heard the whisper “What do you reckon it’s worth ?”. He looked to his side and gave his daughter a knowing wink.

One eighty. One ninety ?”

Another scowl but also a nod.

One ninety. Two hundred ?”

This time, David received a smile from his daughter. He raised his hand.

Two hundred. Two twenty ?”

This was getting serious now the bids were going up in twenties. To David, the pause before the bid seemed to last forever.

Two twenty. Two forty ?”

The crowd were swivelling their heads like people at a tennis match. David nodded and all eyes turned back to the front.

Two forty. Two sixty ?”

Another long pause.

I can do two fifty if it helps.” the auctioneer offered.

We’ve got him Dad.”

One more wave. Weaker this time.

Two fifty. Two sixty sir ?”

Bugger. I thought he was beaten.”

David looked the auctioneer straight in the eyes and nodded firmly.

Two Sixty. Two seventy ?”

This time the pause seemed eternal. Then the man looked down glumly and shook his head.

Two hundred and sixty pounds. Two sixty going once.”

Another paused. David looked around the room to see if anyone else fancied a go.

Two sixty. Going twice.”

Why doesn’t he just get the gavel down ?

Sold for two hundred and sixty pounds.”

Relief swept over David like a wave. He brandished his bidder number towards the rostrum weakly.

Well done Dad.”

Next up, lot 39. A German art pottery vase…”

Two hours later they stood in the car park examining the picture.

Well Dad, who do you think it’s by ? It looks like some of those I’ve seen in your art books. A Leighton perhaps ? Or a Godward ?”

David smiled. His daughter had always shown an interesting in art. She was more practical than he was but still, a little bit had rubbed off on her. Since his wife had died he wondered if she was humouring him a little but hoped the interest was genuine.

Go on. Tell me who you think it’s is. Have we discovered an old master ? Is it worth a fortune ?”

Take a close look. I think you can work it out.”

She paused and returned to her examination, holding the canvas inches away from her nose.

I don’t know. It’s not signed. The frame is old. I can’t help feeling the model looks familiar though. Is she famous ?”

Not famous but very special.”

She looked at him quizzically.

David smiled again and took the painting from her. Holding it at arms length and examining it again.

You mother was always a beautiful woman. She was younger than you when I painted this. And to me, it’s priceless.”


Filed under Writing

The Cathedral Killer feedback

Phil: OK, you’ve now read our short story, The Cathedral Killer (Part 1 and Part 2) we entered it into the Writers Forum short story competition and also paid for some feedback. Here’s what we received:

Presentation: Manuscript layout needs some attention. You might find this post useful: http://suemoorcroft.wordpress.com/manuscript-presentation/ and also this one: http://thewritersabcchecklist.blogspot.com/2011/01/punctuating-dialogue.html for dialogue punctuation. When a sentence starts with a number it has to be written out in words. Salaciously isn’t the right word in context. Typos: over hang/overhang, though/thought, brothers/brother’s, see/seen, back packing/backpacking, no-where/nowhere

Title: Good – apt for the story and intriguing.

Opening: This introduces the main character, but it doesn’t contain a compelling reason to read on. A strong hook is needed to grab the reader’s attention.

Dialogue: The dialogue helps to drive the story but doesn’t do as much as it could to aid characterisation.

Characterisation: Brad didn’t come to life as a real person. I think you could have used his dialogue to flesh him out more – particularly as you want the readers to believe he is the killer.

Overall: I realised a bit too early that she was the killer – it had to be her because it obviously wasn’t Brad. I think you need to give us another red herring so that readers will believe it is Brad. In other words, make another character suspicious, the readers will discount him and look for someone else, so Brad needs to be the next logical person but appear to be above suspicion (which then makes him suspicious).

Needs some work but has potential


OK, it’s not the ringing endorsement we were hoping for but I think I can see where most of it comes from. We’re still at the stage of trying to balance writing enough story to make it interesting with keeping the short story, well, short. If another character was added to make Brad more suspicious, would we need to increase the length of the thing by a third to give this person some dialogue ? Does this matter ?

To be fair, I’d had the same “I guessed the killer too early” point made by a friend who read the story. Throwing red herrings in is much harder than you would think. Agatha Christie was brilliant at this yet she’s often accused of writing pot-boilers. On the other hand we want people to be able to guess the outcome. I hate it when a deus ex machina gets the writer out of a hole. I want to solve the crime, or at least realise I could have solved it.

Still, at least we have potential. Maybe we will re-work the story and re-publish it at a later date in some sort of anthology. Mind you, we’ve also had ideas along the lines of turning it into a play where the audience take the part of the tourists following the tour. Potential indeed.


Filed under Phil, Writing