Story Time Part 1

At the end of 2017, before I had my publishing contract and when I had a bit of time on my hands, I submitted a couple of stories to competitions in Writing Magazine.  Writing competitions are a good exercise in disciplined writing, a tight word count does wonders for eliminating waffle. They can also provide inspiration during periods of writers’ block and the opportunity to diversify into different genres.  I’d entered Writing Magazine competitions before without success, but persistence pays off because to my great surprise this time, in both cases, I was shortlisted. Shortlisted stories don’t get published, or featured on the magazine’s website, they just fade into obscurity. So I thought why not give them the light of day.

This first entry had to include the words ‘without that it all falls apart‘ mid-story, and the second, which I’ll post up in a few weeks’ time is a science fiction piece (yes really!)

Today of All Days

The boy was back again.

Simon’s heart fell as he stepped through the front door and heard the soft murmur of voices from the kitchen. Not today. Not today, of all days.

Julia looked up. He’d got used to seeing the shadow of sadness in her eyes but her mouth smiled, as welcoming as always. She rose from the table, kissed his cheek, slipped across the room to refill the kettle.

‘I’ll make us all another tea,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it good of Zak to come today, today of all days.’

The boy turned. Simon was glad to see the flush of embarrassment on his face. The boy had wormed his way into Julia’s heart but Simon was not fooled by that mask of civility.

‘Hello, Mr Crouch.’

They’d never been on first name terms and they never would be. Some acts were unforgiveable, despite Julia’s insistence to the contrary. The counselling had given Julia a sense of stoic resignation Simon totally failed to comprehend. Thinking about what might have been doesn’t help, Julia had told him. Negativity solved nothing. We can’t spend the rest of our lives thinking about what ifs.

Simon could.

What if they hadn’t given in to Hayley’s demands to transfer to the local sixth form college? What if he’d had his own way and Hayley had stayed at private school to take her A levels?  Because then Hayley would have never met the boy. She’d never have started dating.

What if they’d said no when she’d asked about the trip to the festival? At least she asked, Julia had pointed out. Some kids would just go. How could they have said no?

What if she’d never got into the boy’s car?

She’d still be here. That’s what if.

‘Biscuit?’ Julia said, breaking open a packet of shortbread. They were Simon’s favourites, a deliberate ploy to force him to be sociable.

The boy’s once handsome face was pitted with scars. Simon was glad the boy would bear permanent evidence of his crime. Simon and Julia’s scars went unseen. Souls destroyed by grief. No visible signs. You just carried on, you had to.

Come to counselling with me, Julia had said. But he couldn’t because he didn’t want to sit in a circle with other bereaved parents and confess to a psychologist that he didn’t know how to come to terms with the death of his only child; how to re-assess, re-build, move-on. He didn’t want to talk about the hurt, and the hate, that consumed him. He found solace in work. Accounts, investments and taxation schemes still made sense when nothing else did. His clients needed him. He couldn’t just close up shop.

Everybody coped differently, Julia soothed, as if she understood, as if she didn’t mind his absence from the sessions. He immersed himself in his job while Julia poured out her heart and made friends with the enemy.

It was the ultimate betrayal. He couldn’t think of it in any other terms. The boy had killed their daughter and Julia had invited him into their house.

‘I could hardly leave him on the doorstep, could I?’ she said, the first time Simon came home to find the boy in their kitchen. ‘That’s not what Hayley would have wanted. I couldn’t turn him away.’

‘Yes you could,’ Simon argued. ‘He had no business to come here, upsetting you.’

‘He was far more upset than me,’ Julia insisted. ‘He was distraught. I didn’t know what else to do. He’s lost someone too, remember.’

The boy’s loss would never be as great as theirs. He’d barely known Hayley. What was a year, eighteen months, compared to a lifetime?

‘Don’t you see how important it is for him to maintain contact with people who knew her?’ Julia was on a crusade, almost as if she’d found solace in the boy’s visit. ‘We’re that link, however tenuous. We represent some part of Hayley, something tangible. Without that, it all falls apart.’

Let it all fall apart, Simon thought, let the boy suffer and shatter into fragments as they had done. Why should Julia become the boy’s conscience saver?

‘Hayley had lots of friends,’ Simon pointed out. ‘Why can’t he go and have cosy chats with them instead?’

Julia had an answer for everything. ‘You of all people should understand how difficult it is to find someone you can open up to, someone you can trust.’

He didn’t like the inference that he and the boy shared anything in common. Simon had chosen not to open up. He didn’t want to delve into the chasm, because once he started, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop. One of them had to stay strong.

‘He thinks he’s to blame,’ Julia said. ‘He holds himself responsible.’

‘But he is responsible,’ Simon replied. Back to all those what ifs again.

‘No,’ Julia said. ‘The van driver was entirely at fault. Zak did everything he could to avoid the crash. Didn’t you listen to a word at the inquest?’

Julia was too generous, too kind. Too forgiving.

‘I don’t want him here again,’ he’d said.

Yet here he was. Again.

Simon noticed the flowers in the sink, the type of cheap bouquet picked up at a service station or corner shop. Now he felt guilty. Guilty he hadn’t thought to buy flowers on the way home from work. Guilty that he’d dismissed his doubts that really he should have taken the day off.

She’d said she didn’t want to do anything that made the date significant. She’d insisted it would make matters worse, not better.  Sometimes Julia spoke in unfathomable riddles. How was he supposed to know what was the right thing to do?

The house phone rang. It had probably been ringing all day; Julia’s mother; his mother, friends, the bereavement group, that closed-circle who gave Julia her strength and from whom Simon felt so alienated. Whoever was ringing now would be offering sympathy and platitudes, talking of time being a great healer, the old clichés about the first anniversaries always being the worse, and how everything would get better from now on.

‘I’ll get it,’ Julia said.

The boy shuffled on his seat.

‘You’re not to come here again,’ Simon said as soon as Julia was out of the room. ‘It upsets my wife.’

‘I only came to bring the flowers,’ the boy muttered. ‘I couldn’t not do anything, not today.’

‘My wife is very gullible. This has gone on long enough. You coming here just makes everything ten times worse.’

‘I’m sorry.’ The boy kept his eyes downcast. ‘I never meant any harm. She should have said if she didn’t want to see me.’

‘Well, I’m saying it now.’

He thought the boy would get up, make a swift exit while Julia was still on the phone, but instead of making a move to leave the boy slumped further into his chair. He hung his head, ran his fingers through his shaggy hair, revealing more scar tissue. Simon recoiled at the intensity of the criss-cross of lines, seeing them close-up for the first time. He reminded himself the boy had walked away from the wreckage of his car, walked away, while Hayley had to be cut free. His attempt to stem the flow of blood from Hayley’s wounds had been admirable but amateurish, the coroner had said. If the ambulance had arrived five minutes earlier, if the van driver hadn’t stopped for a second drink, hadn’t been on medication…

What ifs.

‘I think about her all the time,’ the boy said. ‘Hayley was the best thing that ever happened me. I’d never met anyone like her. She was full of fun, so beautiful, generous, and I find it so hard to remember that, because all I see now when I think about Hayley are the headlights of the van coming towards us. I slam my foot on the brake but it’s all too late.  I hear her screams.  It’s a nightmare that won’t go away, that recurs day after day, and sometimes I wake up, and I think that’s all it is, just a nightmare, I’ll see Hayley at college today, and then I look in the mirror, and I can’t escape. I’ll never escape. It’s all my fault. I killed her.’

The boy sobbed as if his heart was breaking, sobs that came from somewhere deep within the pit of his thin, lanky frame, sobs that reverberated around the kitchen. The boy sobbed as Simon had wanted to sob when Hayley’s life-support was switched off.

‘Julia, your wife, Mrs Crouch, she understands,’ the boy mumbled on through his tears. ‘She listens to me. That’s why I come. Nobody else wants to know. They tell me it’s a year now, and I should be moving on, go back to college. Julia says I should go back to college too, it’s what Hayley would have wanted, but she doesn’t say it like they say it. She understands.’

Envy was an irrational reaction, yet it stabbed at Simon like a knife, gauging into his shame.  He wanted to tell the boy to get a grip, to pull himself together, because that was the advice he gave himself, but that advice hadn’t worked. This boy provided Julia with the comfort and the empathy he could not. They had consoled each other and he had remained deliberately aloof.

He wasn’t aware of Julia coming to stand in the doorway, phone in her hand. He was just aware of the boy at the table who had been injured in the car crash that had taken his daughter’s life, a boy who shared his nightmares, his fears, his grief, his loss.

He tried to think of something he could say that would make it better, something Julia might say when the boy came here, seeking refuge. Really, there was nothing.

He reached out and put his hand on the boy’s shaking shoulder.

‘We don’t blame you. It wasn’t your fault.’

Perhaps it was the right thing, the only thing to say, today of all days.

 

The End

© Rosie Travers

 

You can check out some of my flash fiction here

Support Your Local Writer

I was recently asked what was the best piece of advice I could give to anyone thinking of writing a novel. Obviously, the answer was ‘get on and write it’- but I quickly followed that up with ‘join a writing group’.

I took up writing when I moved abroad. Blogging about my experiences as we forged a new life in an alien land was cathartic and a lot cheaper than therapy.  When I returned to the UK I joined a creative writing class with the aim of turning my blog into some sort of book – either a self-help guide for other ex-pats or a work of fiction – an idea still on the back burner.

I’ve always been one of those people who’ve sort of meandered through life, as opposed to trail-blazing.  I’ve never been particularly good at sport, and I’m definitely not musical, or particularly artistic.  But when I first joined my creative writing class it was like – wow, I’ve found my forte.  It really was a revelation; to fit in and find something I was actually quite good at. Six years on from that first class and another two house moves later, I still regularly meet up with a small group of my fellow students – not in a classroom situation but socially. Occasionally we convince ourselves we’re having some sort of creative workshop, but most of the time we just chat and eat.

And it’s because writing is such an isolating occupation – yes you can sit in a cafe sipping coffee while you write, but you certainly don’t want to interact with the other customers –  a  support network of like-minded souls is vital.  When I’m in full-on writing mode I want an empty house with no interruptions.  But every now and then I have to come out of my cave. I still need people to bounce ideas off, to pick me up and push me on when I feel like giving up. People who understand the foibles of the creative process, who know how writing becomes a compulsion, a habit which has you leaping out of bed at midnight to scribble down a plot twist. People who know you don’t just put words into your book, you put your heart and soul.

So I just want to give a little shout out to my group of like-minded souls, affectionately known as the Harem – one guy, several women.  We don’t all write in the same genre, in fact Tania and Julia no longer write much at all, but Sally, Avril and Linda like their poetry, Anne and Ant write children’s books and Gill forges ahead into science fiction.  The important point is that we’ve all been there for each other, through the trials and tribulations, the agonies of rejections to the joys of publication.

Anne Wan and Gill who writes as B Random  have self-published, while Ant has a local publisher for his children’s stories about a magical wheelchair.

This is Ant at the book launch of his second ‘Whizzy’ book. And if you think the gentleman reading an extract from Ant’s  book bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Belgium detective – you’re right! Some people have friends in very high places.  Check out how Anthony writes his amazing books here.

Writers really do support each other; there doesn’t seem to be a competition to do ‘better’ than anyone else – even though of course we all want our books to be bestsellers.  It’s a bit like the Great British Bake-Off when the icing hasn’t set or the biscuits fall on the floor.  Everyone rallies round and helps out.

The fellow authors I have met through the Romantic Novelists Association and my publisher Crooked Cat  have provided no end of useful advice and information. I feel I’ve made new friends, even though I’ve only ever met a handful of them in person. When I was an ex-pat I clung to other ex-pats because we had a common bond. I’ve discovered the same is true for writers. It doesn’t take one to know one – but it does take one to understand.

 

 

Flying By The Seat of My Pants

I’ve just typed The End on a first draft of a new novel.

When it comes to writing, I’m  a ‘panster’. I fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t start with a plan – or at least not a rigid, set in stone plan, or even set in a notebook or on a whiteboard plan. I don’t even have post-it notes, although they do come into play later on.

A panster starts off with an idea with in their head, and inevitably finishes up with something completely different on paper.

It could be characters, or just one scene, that ignites the spark.  Once I’ve got my characters, or at least the main protagonist and antagonist, I always know how the story is going to end – it’s just how the characters get there that needs working out.  It’s not until I’m several chapters in that I stop to take stock (or run out of steam).  Then I have to think – is this going anywhere? I might go back at this point, have a bit of a tidy up before deciding whether it’s worth continuing.  The best part of being a panster is when I hit the point where the characters I’ve created start talking to me, telling their own stories. That’s when I know it’s going somewhere – although not necessarily where I would like it go.

The trouble with being a panster is that it involves a lot of  jumping backwards and forwards. As a character takes shape, or a new sub-plot forms, I have to flit back to an earlier part of the manuscript and drop in a few clues. If I were a plotter I’d have dropped the clues in as I was going along in a orderly, organised fashion.  That’s when the post-its come in, by the side of my keyboard. I jot down new ideas as the story evolves, or scribble reminders to go back and insert a reference to a now vital scene.  Add to the chapter-hopping chaos, several mugs of tea, and the occasional glass of wine (I work in the evenings when home alone) and I end a with very cluttered work-space.  That wonderful quote ‘Creative minds are rarely tidy’ could be the family motto.

If I wrote novels that required detailed research, basically I’d come unstuck. I research as a go along. Setting stories in a contemporary time frame in locations I’m familiar with may seem like a cop-out, but the mythical ‘they’ always advise you to write what you know and it does make sense.

I’d like to be able to write every day but inspiration is not always forthcoming and sometimes life just gets in the way.

Having typed those magical words ‘The End’ writers are advised to sit on a first draft for at least a couple of weeks before picking it up again.  A second draft always requires detailed refining, and then there’s the third and the fourth…

First thing this morning I woke up with a brand new scene in my head, yesterday I decided another would work so much better if character A did this, instead of character B. Of course, if I were a plotter I would have known all this right from the start.

Hey ho, back to the keyboard.

500 Words

I’m not totally convinced hopping on the social media bandwagon is a good thing. Apart from the fact that I am by nature a reserved, private person who hates talking about herself – hardly a recipe for a prolific on-line presence – I’m now overwhelmed by a daily barrage of book reviews, success stories and literary advice.  
There is a lot to be said for peer pressure; I feel inadequate; I can’t keep up. I don’t do all the things a ‘proper’ writer should.
Write every day – this little gem of advice pops up on a regular basis. Of course I want to write 500 words every day, but sometimes real life gets in the way. I know it’s a lame excuse – I should make time; why not scribble away when sat on the loo? Why waste my life watching Pointless when I could be penning best sellers. I only have myself to blame.  Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who can only write when the spirit moves them. I also need an empty house, silence, and a frenzy of creative inspiration – none of which has recently been very forthcoming.
Be true to yourself –  another little gem currently getting me nowhere. Every writer has their own style; writing gurus always urge you to find your voice and stick to it. But what if that voice isn’t quite ‘commercial’ enough? Do I change? I know people like my style. I’ve won competitions writing in ‘my style’ so it must be good, yes? I recently turned down a publishing contract – it was nothing to do with money, I am definitely not holding out for big bucks, it was more about the binding longevity. Commitment-phobe? Quite possibly.  I’m a Virgo. I want everything to be perfect. Was I being too picky? Surely I could adjust my style to fit the format of that particular publishing house? The publisher obviously thought I could. But then my novels wouldn’t be the novels I’d written, I’d be losing control, I’d be losing my voice….
Everybody gets rejections – do they? Not according to my Twitter feed they don’t. It’s just one book launch after another. It’s hardly a morale booster, especially after my recent endeavours. I’d hate to be a teenager today.  At least I’m of the age where my phone isn’t permanently attached to my hand. I can switch it off. I can go for a day (or maybe even two) without touching base with social media to see who’s doing the equivalent of partying in Ibiza while I’m sat at home with tea and biscuits.
No! What am I doing? Sat at home drinking tea and eating biscuits? Off the sofa and onto the keyboard. Time to write those 500 words.

See! It works. I’ve just done them.
My kind of sofa – built out of books at the Keukenhof Gardens, The Netherlands