THE PACT (PART TWO): A SHORT STORY COLLABORATION

Here it is, part two of our short story collaboration, based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. If you haven’t had a chance to read part one yet, you’ll find it here. Thanks once again to Madame Editors Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who are also part of this week’s writing team. You can find bios and links to individual author websites at the end of the piece. Happy reading and hope you’ll be back for the third and final part next week.

Linda Huber

The police car wound through town, Will trembling in the back and Todd tense beside him. To Will’s surprise they didn’t turn up the High Street towards the police station.

“Hey, where are you going?” The policeman in the passenger seat was astounded. The driver made no answer, but Will knew. They were going home.

Granny was waiting at the door, the papers he had dropped that morning in one hand. She approached the car and pulled Will from the back seat. He flinched at her touch. Her hands were cold, cold as her voice when she spoke to the officers.

“You have seen nothing. You will remember nothing.”

Todd scrambled out and stood beside Will as the police car moved away and disappeared round the corner.

Will could hear the panic in his own voice. “So where’s Randy?”

Granny turned into the hallway and the boys followed her through into the front room. There on the floor was the blood-soaked corpse of Will’s tormentor, flies already gathering in the wound under his jawbone.

“Not a very nice boy, dear,” said Granny. “He knew rather too much, I’m afraid.”

You killed him?”

The cat slid into the room and stood behind Will’s grandmother, its tail swinging from side to side and its eyes fixed on Will. And all at once there was a perfume in the air, a faint but unmistakable whiff: his mother’s perfume.

“Of course not. That was the others. Poor fool you are. You’ll understand tomorrow.”

She wheeled round, but the cat had vanished. Will looked at Todd. Tomorrow was his eighteenth birthday, but why would he understand then?

“I think you should go, Todd. You might not be safe here.”

“Of course he can’t go!” snapped Granny. “Why do you think I made the boys in blue bring him back here? He’s the witness.”

 Jessica West

“What if I said no?” Will fidgeted under Granny’s glare.

Todd inched over closer to him, nudging Will’s arm with an elbow.

Her eyes narrowed. “I know what you’re thinking. If you run,” she gestured to Randy’s corpse on the living room floor, “your friend will end up like this young man.”

Will felt the shudder that ran through Todd, but to his friend’s credit, he held his ground.

“Who’s to say I won’t end up like that anyway?” Todd straightened to his full height. Though he was tall, he was also lanky. He didn’t exactly strike an intimidating figure. “Some weird shit’s going down, and you need to give us some answers.”

“Yeah,” Will said.

Grey, bushy brows rose high above Granny’s hazel eyes.

Still bolstered from Todd’s speech, Will spoke the words her glare had previously silenced. “And it seems like you need us more than we need you.”

Granny smiled and shook her head. She tilted it to one side as she appraised him. “I never thought you’d have the guts.”

Her smile struck Will as malevolent and proud at once, as though she were examining prey that had turned into a worthy opponent. Her features shifted to a blank expression as she lifted her hands. When Granny turned her palms up, lightening arced outward, shattering every bulb in the room. With one palm facing the window, she curled her fingers into claws.

The glass cracked and shattered.

With her other hand, she drained all colour from the room.

Peach walls and beige carpets bled out, leaving them black. The colours melted and burned midair, turning into a thick, dark syrup.

Granny guided the liquid into the shards of glass, the pane now a crackled black barrier against the light and life outside.

Drew Chial

Todd tried to pry the door open, kicking the wall for leverage. He tested the locks, but the door refused to carry out its function. Todd examined the crack. Molten glass had bled over the threshold.

“We’re fused in,” Todd tried to phone emergency services, “and it looks like that black stuff is killing my cell reception.”

Will couldn’t look away from his classmate’s corpse, “I’m more concerned about what happens when this smell starts circulating.”

Todd turned to Granny, knitting on the couch, confident her display of power had gotten the message across. The cat rubbed figure eights around Todd’s ankles, putting him in his place.

“What am I here to witness?”

Granny winked at the feline avatar, “The completion of a transaction. On the eighteenth birthday of the first son, the shadow lenders will collect payment.”

Todd shook his head, “Right, they’re malicious, but they won’t mess with minors, huh?”

Will threw a blanket over Randy’s body. “What do you mean, payment?”

Granny stretched her design to reveal a spiral symbol from some ancient alchemy stitched into the yarn. “Your mother sought benefactors for her invisibility cloak. They required a return on their investment. When the clock strikes midnight, they will come.”

Will scoffed. “She’s full of shit. I was born in the late afternoon. I was a fat fetus, took all day to deliver. Mum never tires of telling the story because she loves me. She would never offer me as payment to anyone.”

Granny nodded. “That was part of the deal. They wanted her to mother you, keep you nice and sweet. They have refined tastes.”

Will balled his hands to fists.

“Ha!” Todd tapped his phone. “The WiFi’s still up. Looks like she doesn’t have dominion over all the utilities, yet.”

Amira K. Makansi

While Todd frantically typed in a message to the local police via Facebook, Will stared between Granny and the grey cat, unsure whether the two were allies, enemies, or something in between. The courage he’d sought all his life seemed to hover before him, ready to snatch out of the air if he so chose. But between his mum missing, the strange cat, his Granny’s witchcraft, and the body buzzing with flies in front of him, Will wasn’t sure he wanted that courage.

“So where is my mum, then?” He asked innocently. He glanced at the cat for effect, inquiring if she was the cat, but Granny just smiled, peeling back her lips to reveal a perfect set of pearly whites.

“You guys are so loony,” Todd muttered.

In a blur of teeth, claws, and fur, the cat leapt past Will and latched itself onto Todd’s chest, clawing and biting with the fervour of a demon.

“I’d watch what you say, young man” Granny shouted above the clamour of the cat’s yowls and Todd’s shrieks of pain. “Tempers are frayed enough already!”

Will jumped to his friend’s defence, trying to pry the cat from Todd’s chest and neck, but was only rewarded with a sharp bite. For a moment it continued like that – Todd howling, Will scrabbling at the frenetic cat, and Granny watching the encounter with narrowed eyes.

Then, quite abruptly, she barked out several words in an alien language, whose sounds could only be described as ghoulish. The cat calmed, releasing Todd and dropping to the floor, cleaning its face as if nothing had ever happened. While Todd whimpered and surveyed his wounds, Will stared at his Granny.

“You’re not even on my side in this,” he said. “For God’s sake, Gran, what are you?”

Joanne Blaikie

“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m not. I’m not your grandmother, but you always suspected as much didn’t you?”

Will stood unflinching at the news.

“Go on. I’m listening. I mean, it’s not like I have a choice, now you have us captive here.” He gestured to the sealed door.

“That was a necessity,” the old woman snapped. “I told you when you found those papers that we must prepare, but would you listen?” She rose from the couch and glided over to Will. “It’s not easy to explain, but I am on your side. We hoped never to have to explain all this to you, but your mother’s work on that invisibility cloak remains incomplete and now they will make her pay.”

Will saw a look of sorrow cross her wizened features.

“Goodness knows I’ve done everything to protect her from this day!” She suddenly threw up her hands and, turning from Will, took a deep breath. “My name is Scareesha.” Her voice softened. “I am a Protector. There are many of my kind and our Order work against The Shadow Lenders. I was sent to protect your mother after she became embroiled with them.”

From behind the couch amber eyes flickered.

He was one of us.” She motioned to the body on the floor. “An immature, foolish Protector who got himself killed by them for meddling in matters beyond his comprehension, but a Protector nevertheless.”

“I wish you could lay an invisibility cloak on him.” Will balked at the stench emitting from the lifeless mass.

Scareesha considered the corpse for a moment, nodded, then stepped back. She raised a hand as before and a lightning bolt shot across the room. In a split second the body and blanket disintegrated into dust leaving no trace of Randy MacGuffin.

The Writers

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She's the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos (see also Madame Editor), and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. Www.west1jess.com Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She's the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos (see also Madame Editor), and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. You can find her at prosebeforehohos.com. She also maintains a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com artz3.wordpress.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com

 

THE PACT (PART ONE): A SHORT STORY COLLABORATION

Here it is at last, as promised in my post last week, part one of an original short story collaboration based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. Thanks very much to the contributing writers and to editor genies Jess West and Joanne Blaikie. You are appreciated and one day we will have that drink. We hope you like it and that you’ll be back to read part two next week. Drum roll please…

Nillu Nasser Stelter

He slept in a room full of colour and familiar objects, but the silence crept under the door and touched his face. A blue-black curtain of darkness still hung in the sky. Unease gripped him. He rolled out of bed to look for his mother.

The door handle spun easily in his hand as he padded out into the hallway. The house was dark and didn’t look much like his house at all. Shadows followed him as he stole past closed doors to his mother’s room, expecting to hear the rumble of her snore. Instead, he found her bed empty except for a pair of socks. She didn’t even wear socks.

That she was not there worried him. As a small child he had wept with passion when his mother had left him unattended. Now, even though he was almost grown, she still told him where she was and when to expect her. She had left the older woman in charge then, the one who lived with them and who they said was his grandmother though he had never quite believed it. He had sucked sherbet lollies while she was gone. The instinct was still there. The sugar left his teeth grainy and his mind alert. He was glad. He was never one to trust strangers, and there was something about Granny that sat all wrong.

A man-boy yearning for his mother’s comfort in the dead of the night was not someone who won at life. For a moment he wondered whether to search the remainder of the house for her. But though he was a clever boy, he was not a very brave one. Instead he retreated back to his bedroom and hid underneath the covers until the sun came up. He did not notice the grey cat with amber eyes watching him from behind a pile of discarded clothes.

J. Edward Paul

Will woke to a petrol sunrise, toes curled against the chill of morning. Scrubbing sleep from his face with dry hands, he levered himself off the old mattress and into a pile of dirty laundry. A brief search produced a pair of jeans and a Superman t-shirt that smelled of three-day old cologne.

Silence still held the house hostage, but it seemed less ominous in the light. TV fire burned in the still dark living room, casting technicolour shadows over empty furniture. Uneaten oatmeal sat warm on the sideboard in the kitchen and the orange juice was out.

“Mum?” Will called. “Mum, I’m running late for class. Can I take the car?”

No response came. He knew he should check her room, but his professor did not take kindly to tardiness. Grabbing the keys off a hook in the foyer, Will opened the porch door. It would take him hours to realise it had been left unlocked.

Frosted air nipped at his bare arms. Once in the car, Will rummaged through a pile of greasy bags and discarded Styrofoam cups, coming away with a thin jacket more dirt than fabric. Slipping one arm into a cold sleeve, he used the other to turn the ignition. Manic clicks sent a flock of sparrows scattering toward the town centre. The car was dead.

Will lay his forehead on the steering wheel. “Why today?”

Suddenly, a grey cat landed on the hood with a thud. Will jumped and then nearly scrambled into the torn passenger seat when something moved in his peripheral vision. His grandmother, wide and still, slowly turned toward sunrise.

“You scared the shit out of me, Granny,” Will said as he climbed out of the car.

“They came again,” the old woman whispered.

 Natasha Ahmed

“What?” Will frowned, exasperated by his grandmother’s cryptic words. “I don’t have time for this, Granny.” He jerked. “I need to—“

“They came last night.”

He stopped. The flimsy jacket still dangled from his left arm. A gust of wind tossed a swirl of snow across Will’s face and he blinked. Had his grandmother suddenly become translucent? Her words penetrated the morning fog in his mind and he looked back at the house, remembering something about socks…

Will ran past his grandmother into the house, dropping the jacket behind him. The entryway was suddenly grey and cold, and he realised there was an emptiness to the house he hadn’t observed when he first got up. The porch door swung shut with a bang behind him, and he jumped. Cold fingers of fear slid through him. He moved towards the kitchen in the back of the house.

“Mum?” His voice wavered slightly as he called out. Where was she? “Mum, where are you?” He searched the refrigerator for a message, a note, something. She always left a note. Always.

“Mum!” Panic laced the word. He turned away from the refrigerator and almost pissed his pants. Granny was standing at the kitchen island, staring at Will. He hadn’t heard her come in.

“Granny. Who came last night? Where’s Mum?”

“They will come again.”

Will felt like punching her, but she still looked transparent, almost as if she wasn’t there. Would his arm go straight through her if he tried? Fear made his voice squeaky, his words terse. “What’s wrong with you? Tell me where Mum is. I…I have to get to college.”

“We must prepare.” The old woman, now shimmering slightly, moved towards the ottoman in the family room. “Come.”

She lifted the lid.

Margaret Locke

He didn’t want to follow her, fearful of what he might see within the bowels of his once favourite climbing toy.

“Wh-what’s in there? What’s happened to my mum? Who ARE you?”

Granny snarled, exasperation written across her face. “Come, you idiot boy.” She reached down and Will nearly fainted, frightened of what she might show him. Her hands came up again, clutching…papers?

Papers? That was it? No ancient voodoo doll, no cracked human skull, no secret book of spells? He sighed in disappointment as he walked over to her. Mum always told him he had an overactive imagination.

“What are they?” He wished he had a lolly, or maybe some of that oatmeal over on the counter. He’d forgotten to eat breakfast and he was hungry.

“Evidence,” Granny whispered, her eyes darting around the room, as if expecting someone to be lurking in the corners.

“Evidence? Of what?” He took the top sheet in his hand. “It looks like gobbedly-gook to me, just a bunch of numbers.” His eyes widened as he noted the drawing at the bottom. “Is this an -”

“Invisibility cloak? Yeah,” Granny broke in, impatience lacing her words. “Obviously in beta, which is why you can still see me.”

“But what—How—?”

Granny scooped up the rest of the papers and came toward him. “You think all the woman did was cut the crusts off your bread? This—this­—is her true life’s work. Not you, you ungrateful idiot.”

The cat slinked into the room, its amber eyes fixed on both of them.

“Take these and go quickly,” said Granny, thrusting the papers into his arms. He stared, bewildered, as she bent down to the cat and began to whisper in an indecipherable tongue.

Jimmi Campkin

“It’s ok, he’s not in today.”

A sense of relief and shame washed over Will as the lecture hall slowly filled, like a gentle incoming tide. Even Todd, his closest friend, now felt the need to tiptoe around him. To handle him like a fragile ornament.

“Randy MacGuffin.” Todd spat out the syllables and left them, rotting, on the sticky carpet. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

Everyone did though. Blessed with the supreme confidence of someone who habitually relieved the local store of soda cans and chocolate bars, Randy was the figurehead of the year, a larger than life character through whom all events were channeled. He was an opinion piece and a newsreader in one cocky swagger, and now his top scoop featured ‘Weird Willy’ and his papers. And his grandmother, and the cat.

“Just so you know, I don’t laugh at the incest jokes about you and your mum.”

Todd had a knack of comforting you in a barbed wire blanket.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether he is here or not,” lied Will, as students turned away from the huge screen towards him. He tried to maintain eye contact with some but their smiles grew, eyes twinkling with malevolence.

The room fell silent as an officer walked in, furtively whispering to the lecturer. The two sets of eyes locked on Will. The rest of the room followed the gaze. A ripple of astonishment hovered over the collective heads, incredulous that the rumours might be true.

Minutes later Will learned about Randy’s corpse and that his engraved pen knife had been found jammed deep into the dead boy’s neck.

- ENDS -

You can read part two of The Pact here.

The Writers

Nillu Nasser Stelter

Nillu Nasser Stelter is happiest barefoot with a book in hand, or when writing in her attic. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. nillunasserstelter.com.

J. Edward Paul is a writer, artist, and mailman. When not slinging letters, he is pounding his head into a keyboard hoping for a bestseller. jedwardpaul.wordpress.com

J. Edward Paul is a writer, artist, and mailman. When not slinging letters, he is pounding his head into a keyboard hoping for a bestseller. jedwardpaul.wordpress.com

Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer who occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. She is the author of the romance novella Butterfly Season. dearrumi.com

Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer who occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. She is the author of the romance novella Butterfly Season. dearrumi.com

Margaret Locke is a writer of witty, quirky romance who also dabbles in flash fiction. Find her at margaretlocke.com.

Margaret Locke is a writer of witty, quirky romance who also dabbles in flash fiction. Find her at margaretlocke.com

Jimmi Campkin is a writer and photographer in the North East of England. When he does something noteworthy, you’ll be first to hear about it. jimmicampkin.wordpress.com

Jimmi Campkin is a writer and photographer in the North East of England. When he does something noteworthy, you’ll be first to hear about it. jimmicampkin.wordpress.com

A COLLABORATION UNFOLDS – TAKING OUR CUE FROM A SURREALIST GAME

Photo by Bill Rogers

Photo by Bill Rogers

I am very excited to announce that I’ll soon be posting a three part short story on this blog, which has been written in collaboration with fourteen talented writers. The project was inspired by this original short story in The New York Times in October, to which renowned authors – Zadie Smith, Rebecca Curtis, Mohsin Hamid, R.L. Stine, Rivka Galchen, Nicholson Baker, Anthony Marra, David Baldacci, Elif Batuman and James Patterson – each contributed 100 words. It sounded like a fun process and my initial reaction was if those big names could pull off a writing relay, then so could the writers I’ve met on Twitter! You’ll soon be able to see the results of this experiment yourself.

The rules we came up with were simple. Each writer wrote 300 words. Once the story landed in their inbox, they had a maximum of four days to read the preceding parts and submit their own. No discussions with other writers in the group were allowed. There were no genre restrictions (and this for a group which includes fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, horror and literary writers). The story was edited only if necessary for continuity or grammar. I’ll be posting the results of the collaboration here on three consecutive weeks beginning on Monday. A huge thanks to all the writers involved, particularly @DrewChial, who is working on a group picture of the writers to accompany the complete piece. *Sends a very uncool but grateful high-five through the ether*.

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

@jimmicampkin called this collaboration a literary Chinese Whispers. Its informal nature reminds me of the oral tradition, or specifically, stories told around campfires. In fact, the game is based on an old parlour game called Consequences. In the 1920s it became popular with artistic and literary types during the Parisian Surrealist Movement. Andre Breton played the game with friends at a house at 54 Rue du Chateau in Paris. They renamed it Exquisite Corpse after a particular game in which they came up with the sentence “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” – “The exquisite corpse will drink the young wine”.

Exquisite Corpse can take many forms and can be played with stories, poems and pictures. Surrealists, including Andre Breton, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert and Benjamin Péret, used games not only for recreation but for investigation, believing that randomness could play a part in conjuring art and that the unconscious mind has an important role to play in creativity. They were keen to disrupt the waking mind’s penchant for order.

As a child I used to play called Consequences with my friends. We would sit in a circle, each with our own piece of paper. The game required us to write down the name of a boy, girl, where they met, what they said to each other, what they did and what happened at the end. Each time an element of the story was written the paper would be folded over to conceal the words, then passed to our neighbour to write down the next words. Sometimes we used people we knew, boys we fancied. Or famous people we liked. We would end up with silly jumbled up stories that produced merriment and sometimes had synchronicity with real life.

There you have it then. Tune in on Monday for part one of our version of Exquisite Corpse to see which writers are involved and hear about the trials of our protagonist Will. I can’t wait to see what you think.

LOVING YOU

Photo by Blentley

Photo by Blentley

My love for you is burned
Onto the pages of my journal
It pools in the grooves
Where my pen has pressed
The past in a capsule

Let me savour the man I knew
The one hidden by cares
I’ll hold the memory of us
On my tongue
And let it mellow there

In unguarded moments
We buoy
Interlaced fingers
Lingering kisses I want
To keep in a glass jar

By night our feet are magnets
Lumps of flesh melting together
Warmth that spirals up
To where my heart is
And yours

I mourn for the day
We will be separated
By a force greater than me
I will rip the cries
From where they are buried

And try to follow you

DEAR SANTA: THE BEST KIND OF PRESENT

Christmas is over five weeks away and I just bought myself a present. I grew up in the UK and my Indian parents would bring a plastic Christmas tree down from the loft. It was small. Fast forward thirty-three years and I am married to a German. Christmas is celebrated on 24 December with a real tree that is chosen for its magnitude and I spend a significant amount of time during the festive period on my hands and knees sweeping up an avalanche of pine needles.

Over the years as our family has grown, choosing gifts has become stressful. Despite the best intentions not to go overboard, our desire to please each other inevitably results in a mountain of gifts that are ripped open and quickly forgotten. The kids are beside themselves with glee, and torn pieces of wrapping paper fall from the sky like snow as we lose track of who gave what to whom. It is happy and exasperating mayhem.

I think long and hard about what gifts to buy. Kids love the same en vogue toys which make their mothers groan. Do you play to the likes of family (“no, I am not buying you a box of cigarettes, granddad”) or go the education route (“how about this book on Imran Khan, dad?”), or try and force some much needed relaxation on them (“we couldn’t possibly take the time out for that spa day, Nillu”)? What’s wrong with another perfume or scarf for mum, or a pair of socks or aftershave for dad, you might ask?

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Photo by Kevin Dooley

But what if there are some significant misfires in your present history? Like the time I was given a clothing item I turned upside down and inside out, none the wiser to what it was, before dissolving into fits of giggles in front of the mortified present giver. And when my mum visited recently and brought us some toothpaste and a box of tampons. Make of that what you will!

It’s the thought that counts. We are lucky enough to be in a position that all of our needs are fulfilled. The rising wave of seasonal materialism can leave a bitter taste in the mouth especially when the world feels bleak. There’s nothing to say we need to give presents, or that we shouldn’t give them to others instead.

Except we all want to feel loved and it is a joy to open a thoughtfully chosen present wrapped up in glistening red, green and gold on Christmas morning. So what if we disregard the surprise factor and ask for what we want? I’m not very good at accepting gifts or compliments, for that matter. When I am asked what I would like to receive, all sound thoughts evacuate my mind and I am left with a very guilt-ridden “oh, but you don’t need to buy me anything”.

Still, let’s face it, there is enough potential for clashes during the festive season – over what kind of gravy to make and whether Brussels sprouts are a must-have or a smelly no-no – to be coy about what we would like. If pressed, my wish list would read:

  • A new set of pans because frankly the ones I still have from university are embarrassing
  • Some free time for a lie in and then a whole day of writing
  • A massage not restricted to one hour (who doesn’t feel disappointed when the time is up?)
  • A bath without my two year old coming in and shouting “boobies!” at the top of his voice
  • A weekend at a yoga retreat to see if the enlightened me I think may be lurking inside is really there
  • A glass of wine that is invisible to my stricter-than-me Muslim parents for when the conversation gets really boring

My favourite presents tend to be the ones I buy myself. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a very happy mix of self-love and control-freak. The present I just ordered for myself is this planner, which is a hybrid of journal, calendar and goal setter. I am very excited (although I will break down and cry if the second edition has the typos which reviewers said were in the first edition).

What makes seasonal festivals special – Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Thanksgiving, you name it – is feeling loved, connected and grateful for what we have. Presents have somehow become central to our experience of Christmas, but my favourite parts of it are: the quiet moment when everyone is round the table and too busy eating to speak, carols being sung unexpectedly in the street, and the lights. The lights are awesome. As for presents, here is my letter to Santa.

Dear Santa,

please bring me a present which is cheap and useful but shows me you know who I am.

Love,

Nillu

Over to you. What is in your letter to Santa? What are the best gifts you have received and have given?

NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED: USING CRITIQUE GROUPS TO ACCELERATE YOUR LEARNING

Photo by Kean Kelly

Photo by Kean Kelly

In case you missed it, it’s Nanowrimo (I’m hearing trumpets, triangles and all sorts in my head right now). I’ve been writing my socks off and so far I’m on track. Tough spots are lurking for me around the corner though as I tend to get saggy middle of the month syndrome. Still, for now I am celebrating the fact that I am writing. My head and heart are fully immersed in my story world, my fingers are flying over the keyboard, I am untangling plot knots and getting excited. I even made my own rather rubbish first book cover (apparently, writers are statistically more likely to finish the month as a 50k winner if they upload a cover). What we all know though is that rewriting follows writing, especially fast writing. While I am embracing this seat of your pants ride, there will be plenty to fix come December. I mean, let’s face it, I am throwing words onto a page right now, and I’m lucky they are not throwing themselves right back.

Sitting at our desks, or in bed, or in that field of long grass, with your notebook or laptop, formulating thoughts, writing down those words…is what makes us writers. That is, first and foremost, how we learn what works and what doesn’t in story-telling. But how can we accelerate our learning? Craft-books, reading widely, online and in-person courses, writer blogs, book clubs, first readers, beta-readers (which I blogged about here), mentors, editors, fans all play a part. But what about critique groups? It is hard to judge our own work. Are critique groups – where writers submit their work to their peers for comments – a tool for increased self-awareness as a writer? Have you been brave enough to try one?

If you’ve been hiding your words away in a drawer or on your hard-drive and they are just for you and our loved ones, fair enough. If, however, you have plans for world domination, or say, domination of the publishing/reading world as a starter, it’s probably not the best idea to upload your lifetime’s work to the black hole of the internet without putting it through some robust scrutiny. If you do, you are likely to either end up sinking into the nether regions of the web without a trace, or your potential fans will not so much read your work with hallelujah choirs at their backs so much as devour it in a bloody frenzy, leaving a trail of one star reviews in their trail…(of course, you may be a ready-made writing superstar. There are always exceptions to the rule).

So, are you ready to go into battle Sir Knight and Lady Winalot?

Photo by Jon Jordan

Photo by Jon Jordan

The advantages of critique groups

  • The best critique groups will give you an honest appraisal of your writing. We are all a bit too close to our own work
  • Writing can be a whimsical adventure, but we sometimes need support to stop us stalling before the finish line. For those of you, who like me, enjoy Nano because of the sense of community, critique groups can give you both support and deadlines to keep you moving forward
  • They allow you to use the critique to polish your manuscript before you query
  • If you are open to listening – which is easier said than done when you are laying out your project, your baby, for criticism – critique groups are a great way to benefit from other people’s experiences, saving you time in the long run
  • Any hey, who’s to say your group even has to spoon feed you solutions? The best groups give rise to discussions about your writing, which help stir your imagination and unknot your own problems
  • It’s not just about you. But really it is. You will learn huge amounts by listening to the work of others and by hearing the criticisms they receive

The disadvantages of critique groups

  • They can lay your vulnerabilities bare and be hard for the ego. In fact, I would question whether they are useful if you come away each week with your ego intact
  • The biggest risk for me is damaging your confidence. Don’t risk attending a critique group if you are not ready to hear the criticism and it will affect your mojo. The last thing we want is to scare you away from getting the words down in the first place
  • You know those tried and trusted writing wisdoms?: ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, avoid prologues, extensive descriptions, exclamation marks, regional dialect, the list goes on. There is a danger that we all consume the same wisdom and risk losing our originality. Let’s not turn into one giant symbiotic organism. Dare to break the rule, once you know them
  • The critique group only sees part of your work in progress. They cannot see inside your head and embrace your vision nor would you want them to (shhhh, else the magic will escape). For this reason their criticism of your novel is not based on the whole picture. Trust your instinct above theirs
Photo by Daniel Parks

Photo by Daniel Parks

Making the most of a critique group

  • Avoid disheartening misfires by choosing the right group to start with. Find writers with diverse backgrounds, careers and interests but with knowledge of the genre you are writing for
  • Don’t slack. If you have committed to bring work to the group regularly, shelve the excuses and deliver
  • Be generous in critiquing the work of others, but avoid providing solutions unless explicitly asked. You are not a co-author. You are there to light the way.
  • Avoid false praise and give constructive criticism without being personal
  • Make your own mind up on which points you will take on board for your edits. You don’t have to accept all the criticism (but don’t defend yourself at the group as your sessions will never end). If you find you are going home with no changes at all, you will probably find you are not being entirely honest with yourself. Write down the comments you receive so you can digest them in your own time.
  • Agree in advance how much time each member of the group will have to avoid Mr I Am Everything dominating the evening, you getting frustrated and/or feelings being hurt when you have to cut him down. Death by committee is no fun.
  • If you don’t click with a group or the advice is not delivered constructively, don’t hang around. Find a new one or set up your own (Nanowrimo forums are great for building friendships. What are you waiting for?)
  • The last thing you need is for your critique group to be a time suck. If it is not working, leave the group as politely as possible or use Skype as a way to connect without the commute

Setting up a group

Finding a local critique group was fairly easy back on my old haunting ground in London. But what if you are unable to find an existing critique group where you are and you fancy setting up your own? Here is what you need to think about:

  • Setting membership rules: who is the group open to?; who decides who is allowed to join?; how will you handle a member who is disruptive, dominant or overly critical?; how big is the group allowed to be (given you have limited time)?
  • Practicalities of a critique group: how often and where will you meet?; will the stories be read in advance or on the night in question (as a rule of thumb you are more likely to get better feedback if you read the stories in advance)?; how will the manuscripts be delivered and how long can they be?; appoint a time-keeper.
  • Critique guidelines: Line-editing is probably not a good use of a critique group’s time; clarifications of critiques allowed, but defending your story from a critique in an active session can lead to an emotional clash that takes up valuable time
  • Create a crib sheet of what is useful feedback. The writer in question may ask the group to focus on certain areas when circulating the story. For example, if s/he is after a big picture analysis, you might be asked if the characters behaved consistently and believably, if the story works for the target readership, whether the pacing kept you interested. If s/he is after a detailed analysis, you might be asked if the title is arresting or if you stumbled over any phrasing or imagery.

So what do you think? Would you try a critique group? There is a reason why admissions panels to many acclaimed writing programmes subject candidates’ writing to strong criticism before deciding whether to accept them onto the course. They are testing reactions to their challenges, whether you can defend your ideas and are open to learning. The question is, have you got the stomach for it?

LET A GRASSROOTS WRITING MOVEMENT GIVE YOU SOME ROCKET FUEL

20141101_103827October has drawn to a close, signalled by the advent of All Hallows’ Eve with its ghosts, ghouls, black hounds and masked children asking for sweets at the doors of strangers. Next up November (where did this year go?), and you know what that means. It’s National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), when writers of varying abilities take their dreams of being a novelist firmly in their hands and attempt to write a novel from start to finish of 50,000 words or more. Technically, today is day three of Nanowrimo, but don’t let that stop you joining in the fray. This is the month that word wizards can do anything!

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never reached the finish line with Nanowrimo, but plenty of people have. Last year over 300,000 people from across the globe took part. They dipped into the lively forms, tracked their stats in fun graphs, received free pep talks and they wrote. And wrote. This year Veronica Roth and Chuck Wendig are mentors. For me, it means writing fast and not overthinking. Because perfectionism can be the very thing that stands between you and finishing your novel. Participating in Nanowrimo means a word count boost and it means that for the month of November, there are people out there who are toiling towards the same dream. The lonely writer in the attic becomes instead a group of writers on an island.

It is magnificent. And never more so when magic happens, like the fact that Hugh Howey’s Wool began as a Nanowrimo novel. Or that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus did too. Especially Morgenstern’s Night Circus. I fell head over heels for the vivid colours of Le Cirque des Rêves, descriptions that appealed to all the senses, the layers of melancholy and hope in a fantastical setting, the whimsy and eccentricities of the world she created. Summit Entertainment and David Heyman, producers of Harry Potter series, have bought the rights to adapt the novel for the big screen. A quick search of Etsy reveals how many products it has inspired, from purses to prints and Kindle sleeves. A new voice, a sprawling fan base and a whole industry sprouting from a seed planted in an internet-based writing event. That is what words can do.

Most of us can only dream of Hugh or Erin’s success, and I remember reading that Erin reworked her novel significantly after Nanowrimo. But here’s the thing. I’m not promising that you can write a masterpiece in the next thirty days. What you can do is get those words on paper. Pull them out of your head and deposit them there. Give birth to your first draft. It’s ready. And so are you.

HALLOWEEN FLASH: MOTHERLESS MARY

To the inhabitants of Maudsley the girl was as familiar a sight as the village church, though they averted their eyes when she passed. She was a sickly child with spidery veins pressing through her taut skin. She walked with pondering steps through that backwater town, tracing the river bed, circling back time and again, always accompanied by a mangy hound with yellow eyes, a fixed snarl and fur so matted it was unlikely he had ever known the warmth of a fire.

Then one day they disappeared. The villagers mourned her absence, the girl nobody had wanted to mother. Weeks passed and suddenly, after the night of the blood-red moon, there she was again in the village square with her black brute, dressed in rags of azure blue. She called herself Mary and the hound Lucifer, and he bared his fangs while she waltzed barefoot outside the church hall with madness in her gait.

Not long after the crows fled the steeple and the howling began. It was mournful and triumphant all at once, and lasted until the early hours when the villagers woke with rumpled faces and complaints about their poor sleep. They found the girl underneath the railway bridge with eyes startled wide, her neck twisted, her stomach torn. Lucifer was standing over her, yellow eyes glinting in the dawning light, gore dripping from his muzzle. Afterwards they said the hound probably took her straight to hell. I reckon she was there already.

A SMOKING GUN AND A PLEA NOT TO JUMP TO CONCLUSIONS

It’s a horrible habit, isn’t it? Waking up and before you’ve even stretched to reach for your phone on the nightstand. I do it daily, scanning the news headlines and social media before my eyes have even focussed. It’s the sort of action which removes you from your physical environment and throws you into the external world. There you think you’re a participant, but more often than not, you’re a bystander, a spectator, a voyeur with cotton-mouth.

The kids and I went to a friend’s house for a Halloween party today. There were fancy dress witches and wizards, crocodiles and pirates. It was Geneva at its best, an eclectic mix of cultures celebrating a tradition that none of really grew up with. The woman whose house we visited is Muslim, a lawyer, who like me married outside the faith. Her children eat chicken sausage rolls and go to Qu’ran lessons. It reminded me that religion at its best does not have to be at odds with modernity. Instead, it is an enabler, a source of comfort and enlightenment that provides a framework for lives in which we still retain choice.

I sent the kids for a nap once we got home and crept into bed myself. When we woke I reached for my phone and it was then I realised the world had turned on its axis again: there had been a shooting in the Canadian parliament. The breaking news came to me via The Guardian, but I soon turned to live coverage from @josh_wingrove, a Globe journalist in the midst of the action, as he reported his experience tweet by tweet. There’s something macabre about our appetite for immediate on site coverage of trauma and atrocities. It seems less about empathy and accountability than to do with a morbid enjoyment of the unfolding events which reinforce our own fears.

Solutions. The overwhelming majority of global citizens abhor the crimes we see playing out on the international stage. Why are we unable, as a collective body, to block out the evil? Am I the only one who dreams of a flash of white and for poverty and hunger, war and disease to be felled? Childish fantasies. We may never truly know if evil exists in the womb, pushed out into the world in a gurgling baby cooed over by its parents. In his excellent essay entitled ‘A Devil on Both Shoulders’, @jabe842 says ‘it would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple’. More likely evil is born of desperation, a sense of injustice, trauma and manipulation. What worries me is that we have begun, once again, to label the other as evil.

Have we come to a point in history, where for the first time a religion is being used as a cover for baser instincts? Do killers now become Islamist converts as a fast track to murder, not because of their beliefs but more because it has become a club for the disillusioned, for those who can’t find the joy and hope to quell the darkness inside them? As a Muslim woman, I have to ask myself, what is it about our religion that gives shelter to dangerous misfits and tyrants, and that allows the weak to be manipulated?

After I read the news I stood in our kitchen in Geneva, a political centre that somehow seems untouched by world events, and I wondered why it was that Canada was attacked. It’s a country that, after all, isn’t as gung-ho as some of its international counterparts and doesn’t seem to be an obvious choice for terrorists. Much like Switzerland (though I was surprised to find here that our house has a nuclear bunker and that Switzerland is said to be the only country in the world with the capacity to shelter almost all of its population in the event of a nuclear attack) it is seen by many to be impartial. That is, until it recently joined the coalition against the Islamic State. Was this an arbitrary act then (unlikely, given the target was a war memorial and parliament), a lone gunman fuelled by some unknown slight, or was it a more organised attack, one that has its roots in religious fundamentalism? Even for a Muslim, or perhaps more so for a Muslim, it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion after September 11th.

It’s too early to draw conclusions about whether this was a terrorist act. Perhaps it was a coincidence that the driver in the hit and run accident, which killed one soldier in Canada and injured another just before the heightened terror alert, was a convert to Islam. The intelligence services noted extra chatter online that contributed to the raised terror alert. But as I stood in my kitchen questioning why Ottawa was a target, I wondered whether the attack was fuelled by the opening of the Toronto-based Ismaili centre and Aga Khan Museum, a project that cost millions and seeks to provide a deeper understanding of Islam, a symbol that there is good in this religion, that good people are Muslims.

More than anything, what works in favour of madmen is fear. They don’t want to foster understanding of Islam. Fear turns us against each other. It ostracises. It helps fuel their rage. Are we arming terrorists with our fear? After all, you can have the biggest army and the best weapons in the world, but can you wage a successful war against a hate-based, fear-fuelled ideology? I emailed a friend with my theory. Were the Islamists punishing Canada, not only for joining the coalition against IS but for supporting moderates, for allowing the Toronto centre on their soil? A few sentences, the word ‘terrorist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘be careful’. I pressed send and wondered whether those words, taken together in an internet message, were ones that could land me on a CIA watch list.

I am a writer. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Londoner, and an Indian, and a European. I am a Muslim married to an atheist. I accept the layers which have built me. I do not want to assimilate to the point where my heritage disappears and all that is left is my skin colour to show a distant past. I may no longer hang prayer beads in my car but I will not leave behind elements of myself in this new world order. I will not allow fear to consume me, though it inevitably leaves its mark. I am proud of my culture and my religion. My watery curries reflect a lack of skill, not a lack of interest. I feel guilt that my children do not speak the mother tongue of their grandparents and that they are removed from the organised religion and supportive community I benefitted from as a child, because these are good things. There is goodness in their father’s German atheist background and in my Indian Muslim one.

For now, we won’t jump to conclusions about the impact of my half-baked prayers or whether this was indeed an Islamist attack. Let’s just watch and wait and be ready to recognise where evil exists and where it doesn’t, and where the lines blur.

THE ROMANCE OF YOUTH AND ROMANTICISING WRITING

There is something enchanting about the innocence of youth. Have you ever noticed how the old take comfort from the young? As if an encounter with youth is a tonic for their own regrets, cleansing, a guard against mortality even. The promise of youth is a wonderful thing. Yet however exhilarating this passionate freefall, disappointments inevitably beckon.

Life experience teaches us to be wary and wise. Loss and failure take their toll on blind faith. We no longer approach our passions with the same zealousness as our younger selves. Often idealists are tinged by realism, hopeless romantics end up in hopeless situations (I’m thinking Die Leiden des jungen Werthers here) and those on the political left drift over further to the right.

For a time I mourned the dying parts of my personality. I recognised the setbacks and disenchantments that had changed me, and sought to understand how I had ended up there in the first place. We can’t control everything, my older self knows that. Back then doubt grew in the place of fearlessness.

Still, to romantise youth and spurn old age is folly. We can learn from the young to go after our dreams bravely, to dance in the rain, to view things simply. Age too brings wisdom and clarity. Too often we dismiss that we need both sides of the equation. That’s why our journey is so necessary and clever.

Eventually I recognised that growth doesn’t quash the integral elements of our personality, it simply adds complexity. I have found that my idealist streak ebbs and flows dependent on my encounters. Being with the kids reminds me to see things through their eyes. Exposure to politics allows threads of cynicism to take root. Writing feeds my romanticism. Moving countries unravelled some assumptions and reinforced others.

It is this diversity of experience that feeds our life and our writing. Conforming to one world view is always dangerous. The characters we write may be initially chosen to embody one angle, but like us they need to be exposed to the unexpected and the irrational and become multi-dimensional if they are to be anything other than cardboard cut-outs. I want to see the whole spectrum in the books I read: blue skies and thunder, imagined futures and burning reality, wizards and psychopaths. A psychopathic wizard even. Oh wait, Sauramon and Voldemort have that covered.

In real life, we don’t do ourselves any favours if we remain rigid. Some professions encourage realism. Others nurture idealism. I realised recently that I had fallen into the trap of romanticising writing. But tempting though it may be, this may be the very thing that is holding you back. To build up this profession so that is almost feels holy puts too much pressure on us. We do not magically download our words. If you wait for the muse you may not ever get your novel on paper. My kids believe in the tooth fairy but I am sure as hell going to get rid of the teeth underneath their pillow when she doesn’t show.

It is not a magical being who writes your book. You do. You develop the concept, research, sit at your desk day after day, chipping away at the story until you finds its core, rebuild it from there. Once the last chapter has been written you and your team edit and polish the manuscript and begin the work of formatting, cover design, marketing and sales.

It is work not a divine intervention. Choose when to be a realist and when to be an idealist. The heavens have gifted you your talent not the finished product. Indeed this cultural block, the underestimation of the labour that goes into a book, may be a contributing factor as to why writers are poorly compensated unless they reach the upper echelons of fame. Yes, writing is often much more than a job. But don’t knock having a job. Recognise that your emotional attachment to writing is both a source of power and an impediment.

Let’s demystify the writing process for our own sanity. Certainly for me, the huge industry around writerly doubt and fears is starting to grate. We don’t have to subscribe to the image of the tortured artist. Passions, fear, loss and disappointment are part of the human condition. At the end of the day, as in any field, success comes down to any number of factors but determination is one of the most important ones. If you really want something, just sit down and do the work.