Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

wp-1467027189258.jpeg

Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

img_20160625_170741045_hdr.jpg

Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.

 

Towers of Words.

Flying Scribbler eschewed flying last week and took to the waves for a trip to Arran.received_641117452708841.jpeg

In years to come, memories of this holiday will, like all memories, fade away. Traces will remain of the walks, the cheese, the whisky; even the hare which sat for a second outside our rental cottage, before leaping away into the long grass. But one memory will linger, persisting in my mind far loner than any other.

Pebbles.

I adore pebbles.

I would always prefer to spend time on a pebble beach than on sand. img_20160518_210818128_hdr.jpg

Pebbles have so much to offer: they are things of beauty; they are tactile; they can be skimmed on the surface of a sunset-drenched sea; and they can be balanced, one-by-one, to create centre-of-gravity-defying, teetering towers.received_641117662708820.jpeg Sedimentary upon metamorphic upon igneous constructions,  growing from the beach, playing chicken with the evening breeze.

The attraction for me is in creating something so temporary out of something as permanent as the rock of the earth. These towers can’t last: even those built away from the reach of the highest tides won’t survive a storm, or the flap of an oyster catcher’s wing. Whilst those built as the waves lap at their very bases will be re-consigned to their horizontal plane in mere moments.

I wonder if by writing, I am constructing something as temporary as the pebble towers, or as permanent as the pebbles themselves?

The paper my words are printed on will, in time, degrade and decay to dust.  If I become published, even the copies of my book held in the permanent collections where all books are destined to be stored, even these will disappear given enough time. The memory of the words I write can only ever be as permanent as the memory of the last person to have read them.

Stories have a finite life. It may be a long life in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, the Norse myths or the Bible. But even these will fade from memory in the millenia to come.

And although those pebbles rolling and frolicking in the surf on Arran, will themselves be reduced by friction and attrition to tiny particles, they will endure far longer than words. They will endure until Earth’s final moment.

So in writing my stories I am creating my own, temporary, pebble towers.

The trick is to build them on solid, even ground, away from the elements, to give them the best chance of standing tall for as long as possible.

As I write, word upon word, line upon line, page upon page, I’ll keep in mind those towers on a beach in Arran, and build the best stories I can.

The Object of my Rejection

Another day; another rejection.

It’s part and parcel of all writers’ lives. And as today’s rejection crashed onto the doormat, winding me like a boxer’s well-aimed punch (metaphores you understand…my in-box pings rather than crashes and I think my shoulders only sagged momentarily as I read the one line auto-email rejection), I decided to not let it incur too heavily on my day.

The attempt to carry on as normal was a failure, but the intent was there.

Rejection letters do ruin your day. At least, they ruin a good few minutes of mine. Then I remember the submissions I’ve yet to hear back from; the submissions I’m currently preparing; the submissions I’ve yet to even think about sending. It’s the thought (call it ‘hope’ if you will) of receiving something other than a rejection that keeps me sending my manuscript out. It’s the same thought that keeps me writing the sequel. It’s the same thought that spurs me on to formulate other projects.

Of course, rejection hurts. I would have to be a hard-hearted, mean-spirited kind of person not to feel it. Luckily, for those suffering from rejection’s cruel caress, there is the internet. Social media is platitude central when it comes to dealing with rejection, but try as I might, I can’t seem to squeeze any comfort from them. They feel anti-septic; wiped clean of real emotion; meaning bleached away.

In fact, they leave me wondering if people really live their lives by these words. Some folk’s social media postings worryingly suggest that they might. Am I missing something? What’s that you say? A heart? How rude.

Go on then…see if these speak to your soul:

rejection3

No…not feeling it.

rejection1

‘fraid not.

rejection5

I’m not suggesting a rejection from an agent is exactly a struggle by the way…it’s not. Ask me again when the rejections hit fifty in number.

rejection6

There’s undenyable rhythm to this one, it’s almost a bit rappy, but it still feel vacant; as if it’s been written by a Hallmark cards copy writer.

rejection9

Thanks Bo. Stating the obvious ‘aint helping either.

rejection14

Believe me, I can be bought. Name your price.

rejection16

OK, so this one cheered me up; I admit it. But only because irony works every time. It doesn’t help me grow, or improve, or (and feel free to shoot me down for this) become more mindful. Of anything.

Incidentally, I thought Louise Brown was the world’s first test tube baby. Is she writing now?

Finally, and only because the internet just loves a cute animal…

rejection4

I know the mouse is supposed to be doing chest pumps or something, but it still kind of looks dead to me. The cheese looks less perished.

If a photoshopped rodent helps you through a moment of rejection, well, good for you. I need something else. Something to own the word. Something to make me less scared of seeing it next time. And what better way to do this than with words themselves?

Come to think of it, that platitude with the rhythm, the one with the rap-sound…it’s given me an idea for a platitude of my own. Now I don’t need to pilfer off the internet for words of wisdom; I can turn to my own very own reminder to not giving in to rejection.

Here it is…feel free to copy and paste onto a background of your choosing and post and share with abandon. (But please don’t harm any defenceless mamals…that poor mouse…was it someone’s pet, do you think?)

An injection of rejection is cause for objection.

Subject it to ejection; save your writing from abjection.

© flyingscribbler

Publication Day.

It’s a day all writers hope to see; a day to dream about, sitting at a desk, staring into space. A day which often seems impossible, unlikely, unobtainable. A day to confirm the belief in yourself which you don’t always possess.

First Publication Day.

image

Not for me the Fourth of July.
Et ce n’est pas le14 juillet. Non.

I haven’t been hoping year after year, month after month, day after long day, for independence; I’ve been waiting for publication. To see my name in print; in a book.

And so, the 17th July will henceforth be referred to chez flyingscribbler as ‘Publication Day’.

Ok, so it’s not my book per se. I’ve yet to publish anything bearing my name on the cover, ( something, naturally, I hope to put right in days, months, years to come), but I’m more than happy to settle for two of my stories to appear in a short story collection.

image

So I won’t be earning a penny from sales. This is not important. If I’d wanted to earn a living from writing, I would have given up ages ago….a report last week said your average published writer earns £11,000 a year from their toil. This is so far below the minimum wage as to make it practically worthless.
Sales of the anthology of winning stories in the Words with Jam ‘Bigger’ short story competition instead go to that publication (check it out, do), and to amazon.

But I don’t care. I’m currently on cloud nine, basking in my small degree of success; intending to celebrate in rather bigger style, almost certainly out of proportion to my achievement.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned since picking up my pencil, it’s that even the tiniest success must be celebrated.

Is that a cork I hear popping?

Incidentally, if you wish to add to Amazon’s groaning sack of cash, oh, and read my two stories, the book is “An Earthless Melting Pot”, published by Words with Jam,  (www.wordswithjam.co.uk).

Justin N Davies. Writer.

The Ship That Never Sailed.

Having joined Historic Scotland recently, (they can be very persuasive; and they made it seem like such a good deal), it was decided, late in the day, that a visit to Blackness Castle was in order. It makes sense to use the membership after all, and I’m a sucker for anything historic. Apart from which, it’s a year since we moved to Scotland; I ought to know more about the country’s past.

Blackness Castle is also known as ‘The Ship That Never Sailed’. I find this a touch melancholic: ships are designed to sail; if they fail to, they haven’t reached their potential. 
It’s also more than a little melodramatic; especially if you project the words with theatrical flair: with added theatricals: “THE SHIP THAT NEVER SAILED!”. Same phrase, different interpretation.

It is all a question of angles; of point of view. The castle gets its tag from the fact that, seen from the sea or from the air, it really does look much like a ship, with its bow attempting to plough on through the water. Unfortunately, the stern is very much stuck fast to solid rock.

image

All aboard to Nowhere!

Seen from another perspective, it is (I won’t say “just” because Blackness isn’t just a castle..it’s a really good one), simply a castle. A castle as castles are…built solidly on land.
image

Viewing things from different angles is what writers do. Finding stories when you least expect it; seeing stories where others might not: these are the rocks on which our output exists.

Walking, (stumbling, actually), over the rocky enclosures of Blackness, apart from asking myself how they managed to get around in the 1600s without twisting an ankle, I saw potential everywhere. Who, for example, could walk past an original seventeenth century castle latrine without imagining some poor soul baring his all to the gulls outside the walls, willing the job to be done before freezing his unspeakables to the seat? (it’s cold up here in the winter, especially when an easterly blows in down the river from Siberia).
What tales of wo and hardship could the prisoners thrown into the prison pit tell?
And the guards? How did they pass those long northern nights?

But then, forget a reconstruction of what could have been….tilt your head to the side, squint your eyes and……imagine….. . Things look different when you dare to dream a bit.
From a castle wall…
image

appears a coiled snake, ready to attack:
image

That hole in the wall…..could it really be a porthole?
image

Has the ship that never sailed actually departed?

And that stepped gable end….Where does it lead? What dimension could you reach if only you dared to climb
image

It’s no coincidence that Blackness Castle has been used for location shoots over the years; places like this conjure up images and ideas at the drop of a royal crown. The trick is in first spotting, then seizing the potential (oh, and then going home and turning the idea into a best-selling work of children’s fiction), before the ship sets sail and the moment is lost to the encroaching mist.

‘Roots to Love’ A new flash fiction

I woke up this morning thinking that root vegetables would be an interesting starting point for some flash fiction. It seemed like a good idea at the time anyway…..

google images

google images

Roots to Love

George was halfway through the hourly sweep of his section, surprised, as always, at how much produce ended up on the floor.

‘Excuse me. Are those yam or cassava? I’m never quite sure.’

George was on his knees, reaching under the display for an escaped turnip, but he could still tell that the woman was taller than him; and she was solid, in the way that well-nourished women were.

‘The ones on the left are the yams. Beautiful thinly sliced and fried.’

‘That sounds delicious.’

George stood up. She was about an inch taller.

‘But not as good as plantain.’

The woman scanned the shelves.

‘I don’t see any here.’

‘That,’ said George, ‘is because I bought the last of them yesterday.’

‘Shame. I’d like to have tried them.’

George replaced the turnip, checking the pile for stability.

‘I could make some for us, if you like.’

It took three months to work their way through the whole root vegetable section. Patricia insisted on their taking turns, although George preferred to be in charge of the hot oil.

‘It’s dangerous,’ he said, ‘for a beginner.’

The carrot was the surprise success, and they agreed that parsnip was both reliable and tasty; but the sweet potato was disappointing.

‘Pappy,’ said Patricia, ‘like cheap bread.’

They had just finished a second bowl of ‘Yukon Gold’ one evening, (“crispy yet predictable”), when Patricia suggested they lay off the fried food for a while. George wiped the bowl with his finger.

‘But what will we do instead?’

It was a sensible question to which neither George or Patricia had an answer.

George continued experimenting alone, tweaking his technique. Each vegetable, he found, had its particular thickness for the optimum fry. Only the oil was a constant; the temperature and brand never varied. The oil, he understood, acted as a conduit for the vegetables, transporting each to a higher plane of enjoyment.

Patricia hadn’t been back to the supermarket for a while, but appeared one Tuesday morning at George’s check out.

‘You’ve progressed from fruit and veg then?’

George glanced at the mountain of carrots making their way along the conveyor.

‘My manager said I’d be more comfortable here, sitting,’ said George. His swivel seat creaked in protest as he shifted position.

‘Good for you,’ said Patricia.

‘They’ll make you a lot of carrot chips,’ said George, ‘you’ll never get through all them on your own.’

‘These?’ said Patricia, laughing, ‘oh, we’re juicing them. You wouldn’t believe how many carrots it takes to make two glasses.’

‘We?’

‘Yes. Peter, that’s my partner; he just loves carrot juice.’

George pushed the carrots into the bagging area.

‘You said a relationship couldn’t be based on a mutual love of root vegetables.’

‘Did I?’

‘Yes. I wrote it down. On a ‘post-it’.’

‘I don’t remember.’ Patricia looked at the counter. ‘Don’t forget our celery. They taste great together; the celery gives the juice an edge.’

‘But celery isn’t a root vegetable.’

‘No George, it isn’t. But a varied diet is healthier.’ Patricia bagged her vegetables. ‘How much will that be please?’

© flyingscribbler 2013

Please comment on my writing, if you have the time. It’s really very useful. Other flash fiction writers can be found at #fridayflash on twitter and at fridayflash.org.

Did you catch my post about historical accuracy in weights and measures? Vital advice indeed for budding historical fiction writers.

 

 

 

The measure (and weight) of historical accuracy in fiction.

Until yesterday I hadn’t been considering writing a piece of historical fiction; it isn’t the sort of thing which I would automatically think about. This has always struck me as odd though because I enjoy reading historical novels: give me anything by Tracy Chevalier or M.R. Lovric and I’m a very contended reader indeed. I love losing myself in their settings; these writers have the knack of effortlessly placing the reader bang in the middle of eighteenth century London or Renaissance Venice. Their skill is such as to leave you unaware of the work they have put in to make the details both accurate and natural, (although, as we know, there will always be those pedants who make a sport out of spotting anachronisms in historic fiction or dramas). The trick is to make the props: the clothes, food, books, music etc, so realistic to the time in question, that they disappear, chameleon-like, into the background. In effect, these writers work doubly hard to make their efforts invisible.

It is this level of brilliance that has, so far, put me off attempting even a piece of flash fiction set in the past. And then I discovered this little gem lurking on my bookshelf.The Young Man's Companion

I had completely forgotten about it until last night, and then promptly lost an hour or so leafing through and marveling at its contents. (To those of you who are shouting ‘procrastinator’, I shout back ‘research!’).

‘The Young Man’s Companion’ was published in the sixties, but is based on the sort of thing a gentleman of Victorian times might have kept in his pocket. It claims to be a ‘friendly adviser to educational knowledge, worldly council and gentlemanly deportment.’ Within its pages one can learn how, amongst other things, best to behave in female society; how to dress appropriately on any number of occasions; and even which accomplishments a gentleman ought to consider acquiring.

However, it is the list of useful facts and figures at the back of the handbook which really caught my interest. Here is a wonderful collection of archaic (and, for those of us living in countries which stubbornly refuse to let go of the imperial system, not so archaic) words for assorted weights and measures which would stick out like sore thumbs in a piece of contemporary writing, but which, if used correctly, could add authenticity to a piece of fiction set a couple of hundred years ago.

Quite how your average victualler managed to remember this lot I don’t know; I have enough trouble working out how many grams of flour equal a pound. Here’s just a taste of what the Companion has to offer:

Imagine you are organising a gathering; a wedding party for example, or a New Year celebration. You visit your local wine and beer merchant and place an order for five pints of wine, assuming (or hoping) that your guests will limit themselves to about 2 gills each (4 gills making a pint). Unfortunately, this merchant is of an old-fashioned bent, and insists on dishing out the drink in runlets, tierces, hogsheads, puncheons, pipes and tuns (a tun being 252 old gallons, a pipe half of that, a puncheon being a third of a tun, reducing in capacity down to the diminutive runlet at eighteen gallons). You opt for pipes (the expected numbers have suddenly gone up and they drink a lot round here) and decide on a pipe each of Fayal, Madeira, Sicilian and Tenerife, not realising that whereas a pipe of Fayal equals 89 gallons, a pipe of Tenerife is 100, that of Maderia is 92 gallons and Sicilian pipes measure 93.Wine Measures

 Come on, keep up!

Then you remember your Great Aunt Wilhelmina and her predilection for German wine, so you place an order for some Rhenish, which, confusingly is sold by the aulm, which is 30 gallons, (it’s rather a lot, but she normally starts drinking at breakfast. There’s one in every family).

Before you leave, you place a last minute order for some beer; best to cover all bases after all. But should you buy a firkin or a kilderkin? The kilderkin would go further (it’s 18 gallons or 2 firkins, don’t you know?), but you mustn’t forget to leave some cash for a firkin of butter as well (which is 56lb….that’s a lot of puff pastry). In your pocket you have a half-crown (which, if you remember correctly, is two shillings and sixpence) and a sovereign, which is a pound in old money.

By the time you’ve finished, you have also purchased another firkin, this time of soap, weighing in at 64lbs of cleaning power, rather than the 56lb firkin of butter. In addition, you couldn’t resist a puncheon of prunes (it’s only later that you realise this is over a thousand lbs of dried fruit), and a truss each of New Hay (60 lb) and Old Hay (56lb) for the horses. Finally, you ask your deliriously happy merchant to deliver three bushels of coal, otherwise known as a sack, but increase your request to a chaldron (12 sacks or 36 bushels) when you remember it’s the middle of winter and the event is being held in a marquee forty poles (a furlong, where 8 of these equals a mile) from the house and those braziers will need continual stoking.

Phew.

I don’t know about you, but armed with that array of historic terminology, I feel more prepared than ever to tackle a story set in the 1800s; as long as it takes place either in a grocer’s or the kitchens of a country house.

© flyingscribbler 2013