I (sometimes) call myself Mr. Pondersome. I'm a rather wordy, weirdy person. I say hullo a lot. I write a lot more. While you're here, why not give some of it a read?

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Out in the World with a Chunky Blue Jotter (a.k.a. What Actually Happens When You Write in Public Places)



Pub

I grabbed a seat in a busy pub and waited for a friend. He wasn’t late, I was early. Still I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to hear each other over the laddish din. Even the short bar stools were occupied by people spilling their pints on the varnished circular tables.
            Across from me sat three lads sharing a phone. One in a maroon rugby jersey was holding off about some ‘fat bird’ he knew in his nasal Geordie accent. He thumped the shoulder of the lad who was holding the phone, seemingly just for the hell of it.
            By this point I had taken out my chunky blue jotter and was distracting myself with a jokey story about the Trolley Problem.
            It took the Geordie lad a moment to notice this. “Harry Potter over here,” he muttered. He meant the glasses as that was the only similarity between me and the boy wizard.
            “Hey, mate,” he said. “What you writing?”
            “Something for work,” I lied.
            “What’s it about though?”
            “Nothing of interest.”
            Though he still had on his open mouth smile he clearly wasn’t happy with that answer. “Seriously though, what you writing?”
            I paused and looked him in the eye. “Work, you know?”
            He would have asked a third time had the phone holder not thumped him back. It occurred to me the Geordie lad thought I was writing about him and his mates or maybe even the ‘fat bird’ they just had been discussing. Perhaps I should have been more open and honest but I really wasn’t in the mood to justify myself to a nosy bar fly.
            My friend arrived shortly after that and supplanted himself between me and Geordie lad who had fortunately lost all interest. He announced to the whole pub that they would move on to a nearby alehouse and make a proper night of it. I was glad to see him go.
            A frustrating experience but, most frustrating of all, I didn’t get back to my story. The Trolley Problem had run away without me.

Café

I hid away in a café that itself was hiding from the high street. I settled at a granite top table beside an oak staircase and ordered a hot chocolate with all the trimmings.
            Having brought my chunky blue jotter, I started outlining a plan. The idea was thin, about a printer that printed dreams, but I made it work with two creative characters. Sometimes that’s all it takes to be inspired.
            The short blonde manager in a comfortable green hoodie stood behind the counter's cake display and grinned warmly at me. “Are you a writer by any chance?”
            “Yes.”
            “Is it a dissertation?”
            “No. I’m not a student.”
            “Oh. So you’re a creative writer?”
            “Yes.”
            “Excellent.” She seemed genuinely pleased. “Well, I’ll leave you to it.”
            Such interruptions can put me off my stroke but not that day. The sun was shining and the background chatter was moderate. Soon enough I had finished the plan and had started the story itself.
            A meeting broke up and a tall black-suited man with thinning brown hair stopped beside me.
            “Sorry to bother you but I’ve never seen anyone write so fast before.”
            “Thanks.”
            “Well. You do remind me of a lad I used to know. He had fast penmanship too. Hand-wrote his entire dissertation. Is that what you’re doing?”
            “No. I’m not a student.”
            “A creative writer then. Published?”
            “Some places. Not many.”
            Nevertheless he seemed genuinely interested. He offered me his hand to shake. “What’s your name if you don’t mind me asking?”
            I told him. He repeated it though if he was actually committing it to memory I do not know.
            “Right. Well I’ll look out for you on the shelves.”
            Another, more substantial interruption but I didn’t mind. The sun was still shining and the background chatter had diminished even further with his exit. Besides I had been rather sweetly complimented. The manager must have noticed the little smile playing on my lips as I sipped my hot chocolate.
            “Our own resident writer,” she said with a chuckle.
            I’m afraid I haven’t been back since.

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

What I Have Learnt from Writing Guides (and What Actually Sticks)

There are so many writing guides out there. Too many, some would argue.
            I personally enjoy reading a variety of perspectives on what constitutes good writing. While ‘how to’ guides can irritate with single-minded arrogance and even intimidate with the rigidity of the ‘rules’ they set, all that is really important is that you find at least one idea that you like and want to implement.
            Over the years I myself have come to look on every ‘definitive’ guide as an orchard from which to cherry-pick the juiciest stylistic suggestion. A lot of these books contain a variation on classic advice (e.g. show don’t tell, ‘said’ is the best speech tag, step-by-step plans etc) but sometimes the author shares a suggestion that is uniquely appealing. These are often small and based on personal quirk but if it works for you then it’s made for you.
            That being said here are three writing guides that have gifted me with tricks and techniques that I still use to this day:

Reveal Character or Advance Action – 8 Rules for Writing a Short Story


While this is strictly speaking a short list, it has still proven an invaluable guide to the way I approach writing.
            Of the eight rules, the most important to me is ‘4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.’ It’s obvious when you think about it: what purpose does a fiction sentence really serve if not to tell us something we need to know?
            Consequently a big part of my editing process now involves going through each sentence of a short story or chapter and marking them green if they advance action or yellow if they reveal character. Then I go back over the sentences left white and get rid of them. It can get fiddly but it is truly rewarding to see whole paragraphs of green and yellow sentences, knowing that not one has been wasted.

The Curse of Knowledge – Wired for Story by Liza Cron


In Wired for Story, Liza Cron shares a cognitive approach to reader relationships with the text and how a writer can make best use of it.
            One of the concepts that she shares is Chip and Dan Heath’s “The Curse of Knowledge” which they describe as ‘Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
            This provides an essential insight into why some writers fail to connect with readers. It certainly goes a way towards explaining my early years where I wrote disconnectedly, hoping that the reader would do the work for me. Cron’s book dismisses such thinking in no uncertain terms: if you don’t convey the full story, the reader will just put it down and walk away. They are under no obligation to stick around until it gets better.
            I like studies that confirm how readers generally interact with a story, they provide a swift kick in the pants for lazy kids like I was.

The Cosmic Sentence – Why Will No-One Publish My Novel? By Fay Weldon


Every story needs a reason for existence, something that can be summed up in a single elegant line. Every fairy tale has a moral and every scientific study has a hypothesis.
            For those who are dismayed, I once thought this sacrilegious too. How can one possibly condense a nuanced story wherein so much is going on? It has taken me a while to realise that no story is too complicated to summarise. Indeed, if you can’t, then how will you ever sell it?
            This realisation was cemented by Weldon’s hype about the cosmic sentence ‘that sums up the thought that started you off, the idea that caught you all of a sudden, the emotion you were trying to validate, the point you were trying to prove.’ When put like that, you can’t deny that every piece of fiction has some kind of cosmic sentence at the heart of it.
            You might say the cosmic sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is ‘revenge is fatal for all’. The cosmic sentence for The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien is arguably ‘adventure enriches the soul’. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has part of the cosmic sentence in its subtitle: ‘the Modern Prometheus’.
            I can’t say how many times I have caught myself wandering off point with a story and dragged myself back to the original cosmic sentence. It is my best focus.

***

Suffice to say, most of the inspiration I have drawn from writing guides is for editing and rewriting. These are the two aspects of the process that I find hardest and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
            Being disciplined is hard and so the mind naturally seeks distraction. I would argue that reading writing guides is the most effective way to distract yourself. Still mind you don’t stop writing because you’d rather be reading writing guides. I find them oddly addictive and so read them only occasionally.
            At some point you need to get out of the cherry orchard. It’s tempting to fill your basket but then you may never fill it to satisfaction. Instead take those cherries, those ideas, and make something from them.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Comma Press Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2020 Update (a.k.a. Publication!!!)

Comma Press - Northern Fiction Alliance

Following my previous announcement about being shortlisted for the Comma Press Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2020, I have news.

While I did not win this time (that honour goes to JE Rowney and her marvellous short story Protect and Serve), I have been included in a Comma Press ebook publication collecting all five short story on the shortlist.

This is titled Comma Press Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2020 AI Stories. As of publishing this post, this ebook is available from the Amazon Kindle store at 99p!!! If you are curious to read Protect and Serve, The Problem Unit and all the other excellent stories, please click the following link: 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B085S922PM?fbclid=IwAR3D4qs7ESP5Ka8tPMuuapDVRXFMkCANcMgQY9RTvIUrHmim5V9cvOHvjuY

If you want to hear a bit of my story The Problem Unit, here is a video of me reading an extract from the middle of the story (no spoilers):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdIyAZHCSO0&t=9s

I want to thank Comma Press again for honouring me by including my story in the shortlist and publishing it in AI Stories. It's been an awesome experience!!! 

Sunday, 12 April 2020

WHEN OPENING AN EASTER EGG (a.k.a. A List of Serious Instructions for Approaching Chocolate Ovoids)


The Cardboard Packaging

  • Open at top then, once egg is safely put aside, open bottom too.
  • Tear off flaps in case a bee needs to be captured and delivered outdoors.
  • Put hand through curiously-shaped window and rattle like bracelet.
  • Answer puzzles on box or otherwise decorate with permanent marker.


The Plastic Packaging

  • Turn upside down and flap two halves like filmy wings.
  • Use scissors on plastic just for click and wobbliness of cut.
  • Keep aside in case ovoid mould comes in handy for later occasion.
  • Wonder why weeks later and promptly chuck out.


The Tin Foil

  • Peel off carefully and flatten, cutting off wherever torn.
  • Apply to action figures as shiny face mask.
  • Peel off carefully to preserve face imprint then scrunch up with sadism.
  • Play catch with precious nugget until bin intercedes.


The Chocolate Egg

  • Tap against lip of bowl to open.
  • Break down into chocolatey shards.
  • Use thin sharp shard to write name on bigger shard.
  • Preserve in fridge or devour in one.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

HER IMPERFECT MEMORY (a.k.a. Two Poems for International Women's Day)




Her Imperfect Memory

All she is now is a name,
full name so as not to forget.
Sometimes she's her golden mane
with curls as memory set.

With focus she becomes her stance,
her wrists bent down as she walks,
little jiggles suggest a dance
but soft groans whenever she talks.

And yet every morning, she’s there
right on the tip of my tongue,
obsession with absent blue stares
soon gone with the day begun.



She Died at Second Cactus


Mary the Sioux,
they'll say,
made a move for their guns,
those Hamish Boys,
and fired through the brim
of a ten gallon hat.

The boys so startled,
Mary shot a boot
and ran through
their screaming,
caught up by their cursing.

Out of breath
in an open desert,
Mary passed a cactus,
emptying both barrels
till the Hamishes
were halved.

Facing away,
Mary the Sioux,
felt and was felled
by a fraction of wrath.
Last glance at a second cactus.

Yes. The second cactus.
There is an end.
That should be it.
Still onward wagon
to a foregone conclusion
of a White man's devising.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Making the Shortlist at Comma Press (a.k.a. Proof that Competitions Are Worth Entering)


A rather marvellous thing has happened to me this week.

After months of sending out to writing competitions, I have finally heard back something heartening. From Comma Press!

Towards the end of last year I submitted a short story to them via their Dinesh Allirajah Prize. The theme was 'Artificial Intelligence', a subject I have written plenty for in the past. I am pleased to say that one of these stories has made their shortlist.

This is by no means the end of the process. A judging panel is currently reviewing all six stories before a winner is announced on Saturday 30th May as part of the Northern Short Story Festival in Leeds.

I wish the other shortlisters good luck and look forward to us all sharing space in an exclusive Comma Press ebook regardless of the final outcome.

In the meantime, I will do my best to distract myself with more themed posts on here and amusing word observations on Twitter.

For more information, here is the link to the official Comma Press shortlist announcement page...

https://commapress.co.uk/news/shortlist-announced-for-the-third-annual/

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

HONEY (a.k.a. A Tender Moment Between Stacks of Pancakes)



Each with a high stack of pancakes, we revealed our hands.
            “I wish this wasn’t our last meal,” she said. This came as quite a shock but I tried not to let it show on my face. I found that filling my cheeks with blueberries helped. Still she was waiting on my answer.
            “Honesty is good.” I took her chilly hand as it lay beside her untouched fork. “If only it could have been a little sweeter.”
            She pulled away to open out her serviette on her lap. “You leave something too long and what can you expect?” She wrinkled her nose at the bananas between her pancakes. Even I could see they were bruised. I held up some excess blueberries with my fork but she declined, instead tying back her greying hair as if she intended to throw herself face first into her meal. I chuckled at the thought. This raised an eyebrow.
            “Just occurred to me,” I replied, “don’t you normally have honey?”
            She sighed. “I do but it’s not really a honey day.”
            I followed her glance out of the café window beside our table. The wind buffeted the evergreens as it had done for the past month. A sandwich board skidded by.
“I must admit, we’re both being extraordinarily healthy today with our fruit choices.”
             “Mm,” she said teasing out a large browning banana slice and left it balanced precariously on the rim of her plate.
            It was getting harder and harder to maintain my cheeriness. This may well have been a bad day of definitive endings but it seemed a shame to waste the Shrove Tuesday treat on our personal mope. I raised a hand and got the attention of the barista wiping the hot water spout with a cloth.
            “Can we have some honey on these?” I asked.
            She turned to me. “But what about your tooth?”
            “I’ll just eat out of the left side of my mouth,” I said, grinning with a black molar somewhere in the back.
            She chuckled. “Good thing you’ve got your toothbrush packed.”
            I hadn’t expected her to say that but then, by the look of wide eyes, she hadn’t either. We let out nervous laughter so loud that it startled the barista coming up with her honey jug. Regaining her professionalism, she drizzled generously over both our pancake stacks. At last something sweet to sink our teeth into before walking out for good.

Monday, 10 February 2020

PUNCH LINE PARTY (a.k.a. A Bad Joke Story for UK Punday 2020)



The pirate sips a Bacardi Breezer. The Spanish footballer bites into a cube of chicken, sliding it off the kebab stick. Multicolour lights dance around them as they stand beside the party buffet.
The pirate takes the black hat from his head and wafts himself with it, causing the fake red beard to flutter. His other hand reaches for the steering wheel on his crotch but hesitates, remembering that it is there, that it can't be moved until after the party is over.
The footballer grins at this but itches the tight Astroturf skirt he is wearing. It goes right up to his crotch so at least he is in a more comfortable position than his friend. He starts to feel the heat himself, wafting his Real Madrid jersey.
"I'm going to kill Derek," the pirate says. "You just know he picked this venue to make the night even more impossible."
The footballer looks around. "Not so many people," he lisps.
"Don't do that."
"Why?"
"It's racist."
The footballer shrugs. "I'm just having a little fun."
"Well, there could actually be a real Spanish person coming tonight."
"You know something I don't?"
"No." The pirate finishes his drink. "Ah."
The footballer tilts his head and squints. "Was that argh?"
"What?"
"Sounds like the start of your punch line to me."
"No it wasn't."
"Admit it! You were so sick of waiting for someone to trip up that you were considering sabotaging yourself." The footballer turns round to peruse the buffet. "You know the rules."
The pirate joins. "Of course I do. Which is precisely why I wouldn't say anything like that."
"If you says so," the footballer says, winking.
The pirate sighs. "'Argh' isn't even a key part of my punch line."
"Oh really? How does it go?"
The pirate glares at him. "I don't know. How does yours go?"
The footballer laughs this off.
The pirate looks over his shoulder. He focuses on a couple at the other end of the room, a man and a woman with things on their head. A paper bag over his face and a small plastic cow wrapped in her hair.
"Who are they?"
The footballer follows his gaze. He breathes in. "Oh no. You won't get me like that."
"Are you seriously telling me their puns are their real names?"
"Yep. Ingenious, isn't it?"
"Annoying more like."
The footballer turns his attention to the door at the front of the room. "Oh shit."
"What?" the pirate asks, turning around.
They both groan as Quasimodo shuffles up to them. He has a bell glued to his left cheek.
"Hello, friends," he lisps.
"That's racist," the footballer remarks, glancing at the pirate.
He shakes his head. "In this case it's just offensive."
Quasimodo grins. "Go on then."
"Go on then what?"
"Say it."
The footballer and the pirate look at each other.
"No," they both answer.
Quasimodo stomps his foot. "Oh, come on! Where's the fun in that?"
"We'll lose if we say the punch line to your stupid little joke," the pirate says.
"Really?"
"You didn't know the rules?"
"I knew to dress up as a joke."
The footballer laughs. "That's only part of it. If someone says the punch line to any joke in here then you lose."
"I lose what?"
"The game."
Quasimodo frowns. "I thought it was a party."
"It is. And this is the big party game."
Quasimodo grumbles, grabbing a pig in a blanket. The eye beneath his plastic forehead bulge lands on a woman entering the party. She is dressed as a giant fish. Its eye has been cut out.
"Now that one is obvious," he says, turning back. "I mean, who would even say that punch line? Doesn't exactly fit into normal conversation."
"No disagreement there," the pirate mutters.
"And how about her friend?" the footballer asks.
Quasimodo watches another woman stumble in on all fours, both of her eyes covered up. She has light brown fur and is definitely meant to be a mammal but he is unsure precisely which one. One horn is far larger than the other on her head.
"Could it be mythical?" the pirate muses out loud.
"Maybe." The footballer flicks Quasimodo in the arm. "What do you think?"
"No idea."
Alarms blare. Confetti falls. Streamers fly. Both the footballer and the pirate grin at their fellow guest as he squeezes his eyes shut in embarrassment. He palms his disfigured face. Everyone at the party cheers.
"And that's the end of the game," the footballer says with a glint in his eye.
Quasimodo groans and looks up. "What do I have to do?"
The pirate rests a hand on his shoulder. "Buy everyone a round of drinks."
Quasimodo turns to the bar.
The footballer laughs. "Unfortunately the booze won't be quite as cheap as the laughs in here."