Monday, 30 April 2007

Where Are the Flash Prompts?

Took a short break from posting prompts as Tuesday Night and Wednesday Night we are running two FLASH BLASTS posting prompts at 18:00; 19:30; 21:00 and 22:30 so the Boot Campers can restock on flash material.

If you want to join us for either or both of these nights email AK or post at BC in the public area


A Flurry of Hits

A story at Southern Ocean Review, poetry hits for CLT (2) and Cally (1) and jenny Jackson gets $100 2nd at JBWB

That takes us to 64 hits for the year, $3,163 in Prizes

Back in the saddle

Tom C writing:

Had a fallow period as I've been moving house - a protracted affair involving three moves over two weekends, which has meant not much writing has gone on.

Nothing new tonight either, but six BC stories have been critted yesterday and today, and I've subbed to four comps tonight, so I'm feeling as though I'm back at it again.

And some flash sessions tomorrow to get me writing afresh. Just what I needed.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Limping Along

So glad I wrote ahead this month.

Nothing yesterday, 400 words today, 30,946 in April

Beat the 30K a month target, and a day to go.

Next month will be seriously tough with lots of interruptions.

Think I need some BC Hits to cheer me up and get me firing again

Crit Update

Seven Stories Friday Night

Crits-Comments so far

(10:47 Sunday)


Saturday, 28 April 2007

Saturday's Prompts

Remember, brother soul, that day spent cleaving?

Above the tree-line and below the fog

The day we woke up face to face, like lovers

Donkeys, stumbling like refugees

Jamie made his landing in this world

The shonky side of town, less pretty

All afternoon we stood watch on the wharf

On Mondays red cars enter town

Dear sons, for I am not as you believed, your uncle

By chance, I have come to rest, in my attic

The first time I came to you wandering attention

Widows make love differently

Welcome Children! First to those rare birds

A young man wrote a poem about a bucket

I am, demonstrably, I guess, in Heaven

Good of them, all told, to leave me locked inside

The deftest leave no trace: type, send, delete

The room above the bar was the cheapest we could find

He said he'd hurt himself on a wall, or had fallen

It's not the lover that we love, but love itself

What lovers we were, what lovers, even when it was over

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Firday's Prompts

Strawberries being bubbled in great vats

4-3 in the last minute

We knew those adult rumours just weren't true

A sergeant found him gutted like a fish

The first rain slaps the leaves like slow applause

It's time for tea and biscuits, no-one comes

Mother and daughter, German refugees

Hotel towels, stolen spoons

The fate of a failed ballerina

Comrade, with your finger on the switch

In haste they tossed the bodies in the wells

Some bastard's trying to cure my paranoia

Newcastle Brown

The parrot at the top of the class

His home address was inked inside his cap

The ambulance, the hearse, the auctioneers

I thought it made me look more working class

My writing desk, two photos, Mum & Dad

All day till it grows dark I sit and stare

Death is in the house but I'm out here

The plumber glues some lengths of PVC

More Good News

A Boot Camper is on another short-list and this comp has four very nice prizes.

Results TBA

What is it About Pain?

Inside my head they are doing a remake of Zulu. I feel like I have the worst hang-over ever (but I haven't been drinking) and yet out pops another poem.

30,546 words, 546 words beyond monthly target.

Demolished by monthly subs target, also (doubled it)

which is just as well as shortly I will be exploding.

Glad I Got Ahead

Visual Migraine, blind in one eye, sick as a dog

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)
0,357 Words Sunday (poem)
3,088 Words Tuesday (Article)
1,077 Words Tuesday Flash & Poem
0,723 Words Wednesday (Long Poem)
0,245 Words Thursday (Two Poems)

30,445 Words Total April 26th 12:09

00,445 words ahead of monthly target

Thursday's Prompts

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring

I had been looking forward to divorce

One of my wishes is that those dark trees

I'll go to the garage for your fucking fags

I dwell in a lonely house, I know

The room sizzles in the morning sun

My sorrow, when she's here with me

They are French, so they know about eating

I left you in the morning

Absent fathers wait in parks

He vaults the barrier, runs

We make ourselves a place apart

drunken yobs in Ben Shermans kicking the shit out of each other

I never shagged a Hollywood siren

A penguin, a donkey, a piano

The mountain held the town as in a shadow

Once my grandfather ate a tree

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs

Wednesday, 25 April 2007


A LONG poem tonight, from an unsold story, 723 words, so

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)
0,357 Words Sunday (poem)
3,088 Words Tuesday (Article)
1,077 Words Tuesday Flash & Poem
0,723 Words Tuesday (Long Poem)

30,200 Words Total April 25th 23:59

5,200 Words ahead of schedule

Still Writing, Still Subbing

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)
0,357 Words Sunday (poem)
3,088 Words Tuesday (Article)
1,077 Words Wednesday Flash & Poem
0,450 Words Wednesday (Finish Story)

29,927 Words Total April 25th 12:57

4,927 Words ahead of schedule... 73 to month's target

Beaten to it Again

Another Boot Camper managed to beat me to the prompts this morning.

Mind you, I think six minutes past midnight is not playing fair


Homage to Fromage

Nailing a Smile on Your Face

Vacationing with yacht-weillers

Bring me the head of Cristiano Ronaldo (or any other part will do)

Rude Cocktails

She wore long, black leather boots that stroked her in places where a man had never touched

A Cat in Hell

How much do you love me, Adolph?

The rhythm method

Real men don't write poetry

Missing Bonzo

Insecurity Guards

Wine, Women and Bong

I was the Chipping Sodbury Carnival Queen

Riding the Nightmare

A were-chameleon story beginning "It was a dark and stormy night ..."

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


In Boot Camp someone posts a set of 10-30 prompts every day, their purpose to spark a story where otherwise there might be no story. Sometimes, after doing so I write a story that uses one prompt word-for-word, or a few prompts, or I write a story which has been triggered by one or more prompts but merely by the idea, not the words themselves.

In late 2005, at least three times, "for fun" or as a challenge, I tried to use ALL the prompts, forcing my writer psyche into some dark alleyway where my conscious and unconscious would do battle. Surely, though, this could not possibly produce art? Surely I could not write a coherent story that was publishable?

I know I did this three times, because three of those stories won first prizes in short-story competitions. How can it be that such an unpromising set of conditions, such "ridiculous" constraints, can produce worthwhile writing?

The stories were: The Point-Two; An Old Man Watching Football After Sunday Lunch;A for Orses. They could hardly have been more different. The first was about four war-disabled men running in the London Marathon (and flash-backs about a dirty African war), the second was about a grandfather watching his grandson play football for a useless coach, running on, stealing the ball, and scoring. The third was about a man, a serial cuckold who thinks this time maybe he has found Mrs Right.

I can't find those old prompt-lists but this week, again I had a long, lost list of prompts…

In this case, I didn't set out to deliberately use the lot (and in fact I missed one by accident) but the story has received the best set of marks I've had in BC in the last twelve months. The question is WHY?

These were the prompts. Read them, read them again, savour them, play around with them. Now, before continuing, ask which prompt or prompts "tweaked" you. Why do you think that might be?

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
Cat, Microwave...
For I have known them already, known them all
This was Mr Bleaney's room
He was a pederast, but discreet
After the novels, after the tea-cups, after the skirts that trail along the floor
Fond of bananas
She kept her songs, they took so little space
These with a thousand small deliberations
The acidity of milk
Slowly the women file to where he stands
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
The note you hold, narrowing and rising
My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad! Stay with me.
Home is so sad, it stays as it was left
And the night fires going out, the lack of shelters
All afternoon, through the tall heat
And I was traveling lightly, barefoot
And the money he gets from wasting his life on work
Hard to believe him when he trundles in, scrubbed up and squeaky-clean
The large cool store selling cheap clothes
They set about him with a knife and fork
Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Anyone here had a go at themselves, for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists with a blade in the bath?
The leaves fall in ones and twos
Blessed are dogs, for they shall run over buses
On the third night, footsteps in the attic-space
When it comes to nailing down the lid
I rate myself as a happy, contented person
The minute in the phone box with the coin
Prompts come from a wide variety of places. I use titles, news items, I even used an electricity bill one time. Here most of the prompts are from famous poems, (Larkin, Armitage with inserted "break-up" words to change the response.

So from where came my inspiration? WHY did it come? What touched me? WHY was I touched?


I liked the prompts (after all I'd culled them from poetry books so maybe I had somehow pre-selected them, choosing me-tweakers)

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
Cat, Microwave...
For I have known them already, known them all
This was Mr Bleaney's room
He was a pederast, but discreet

Cat Microwave had arisen recently in some forum, or over a glass of wine. Scrawl is a very sick on-line group. Lines 1-3-5 are from poems. Line six just popped up.

I know I was "tempted" by line 1 ("swerving") but almost instantly I was drawn to Mr Bleaney. (I had not read the Philip Larkin poem, then, just the opening line. It "felt right" and had an ache. It reminded me slightly of an old story of mine that appeared in The New Welsh Review: Blood Red Walls, Gleaming White Dado.

This was once Miss Honeybone's bedroom, a cheap fawn carpet, walls cream but dirty, smeared with age.

Without any conscious thought I wrote:

Mrs Thomas tells me, "This was Mr Bleaney's room. He was a pederast, but discreet. Never one of those, here, excepting Mr Bleaney, himself."
I tell her I'll take it.

I simply KNEW that the next line was going to be the swerving east quote, but why had I put 'Mrs Thomas' there and combined with pederast but discreet? How did I know it was Wales, and, for that matter "up the valleys?" I just did. Something in the voices of the various parts, the sensibilities of those authors, something there "sang" to me, connected to me, a part of me that could easily go and hide in some small terrace in AberNoTuesday.

And "pederast" a near-archaic word? I'm not sure, but I remember, ever so vaguely, the word coming from an official when I was 12 or so. The idea of homosexuality was very "distant" then (in my childhood a gay male was called a "Benson", I presume after a locally-notorious man?) Note how my childhood (hidden) memories are suddenly spiked, hooked and brought to the surface.

Mrs Thomas, in an instant gave me a place, a voice, a situation, a back-story, an attitude, (semi-posh, bigoted, "chapel" and she absolutely must have permed hair, a piano in the parlour…)

Frankly, the story will be easy now. I don't know it, I don't know where it will go, but I know its sense its music, its ache, and, because I've started:

Mrs Thomas tells me, "This was Mr Bleaney's room. He was a pederast, but discreet. Never one of those, here, excepting Mr Bleaney, himself."
I tell her I'll take it.

I know that the main is running away and that the whole will relate to memories, maybe death, the slightly seedier side of things. I simply KNOW this.

That nearly-opening part now slots straight in:

I have arrived, swerving east, from rich industrial shadows, traveling lightly, as if barefoot, the faceless Booker man, lost like Christie, hiding, after the novels, after the tea-cups, after the skirts that trailed along the floor, after the wrong woman died.

Without effort or thinking, without planning or control other prompts just gravitate. I just instinctively make the main a faceless writer of a Booker prize-winner (there are many) and by spontaneously 'remembering" when Agatha Christie disappeared I open up other connections. At the same time yet another poetry prompt gives me his womanising nature, but one which is clearly slightly sad.

And so it goes.

I am still feeling my way into the story but look how much I know. A man, a writer, a womaniser, messed up, has run away to South Wales. There will be women there of course.

The women in the valley, I won't mind, won't bother, for I have known them already, I have known them all. These pale women, each with their thousand small deliberations, living in the shadows of Druids and the echo of the thundering deacon. They'll be no trouble to Evan, back, down from London, isn't it, had a breakdown they say.

Here I was just "following the voice" with the proviso that I was going to use some of the prompt-lines (there are two in this paragraph). The paragraph "writes itself". I take a breath, so where "am I" exactly?

Not exactly "home" so where?

I am a valley away from my home, an awkward drive, down and across, or a wet-boot walk over the top, but it's not for going there, home, so sad it stays where it was, left, abandoned for fame and glory (let them think I don't care, it's easier.)

The paragraph placed "me" close to home but avoiding it (and gives "me" another dimension. The story feels so obvious now, just sitting there waiting to be mined.

And there are prompts about not finding the safe haven you hoped for… So I write a paragraph about the false or romantic images of Wales:

I thought this country was something once, but what was it after all? Bright red at the Arms Park, Eisteddfodai, Male Voices? Was there ever anything else or was it all made up, by the half-English and Americans?

That's just instinct, but maybe a current writing competition about how Wales has changed has made me think like this.

and then:

This is where I thought I would find succour. Instead I find the night fires gone out, the shelters empty and stinking of teenagers piss. But it doesn't matter. I have a case full of books, pen, paper, half-bottles, and there is a pub two doors up, an off-license two doors down. Full breakfasts thank-you, I have told Mrs Thomas, then I will be out from under her feet all day (and in The White Hart until closing.)

Now, if you recall earlier, the "I" character is here because a woman died. What's more natural now than to think of her? And there was that prompt about she kept her songs inside…

She was a singer if only she would sing, a poet if only she would write. But she kept her songs inside, they took so little space, and her poems were written in invisible ink. For she had me, she said, and she doted, suffocated, until I was no longer a writer. Me.

And I've talked about a doomed relationship, and already indicated "womanizer" so why wouldn't the main reflect on himself ironically?

Oh, it is so unfair! To give him the looks and the voice of Burton, dark and brooding, a Thomas turn of phrase (but not a drunk) and slowly the women file to where he stands. The more he shrugs his shoulders, the more they throw themselves before him. They set about him with a knife and fork, gobble him up, which is fine so long as it is transient, fine as long as it's celebrity sex, a fair exchange – dunnit with him, I did, and for him the sad sinking, the heat, the quietly closing hotel door.

Two more prompts just ease themselves in, but note that the story has used the reader's memories/emotions of Agatha Christie, the actor Richard Burton (and by association, Elizabeth Taylor, Shakespeare and maybe Tennessee Williams), and Dylan Thomas, alcoholism and death, the sounds of Wales, Male Voice Choirs and Eistedfoddai, and there's a sly reference to two of the most famous "advertisers" for Wales, Cordell & Llewellyn, neither of whom were Welsh!

Of course, artificiality, loss, the darker side, all come from the opening feel.

But we are here now, so why not talk about here, the time, the weather, what the main character is doing?

It's summer now, valleys apologetic, where the sun seems only to show up the seediness and make everyone want to leave for the Gower. He (me) goes out into the dust, all afternoon through the tall heat. He drinks too much at lunchtime then walks it off, scrambling over the top to where he can look down at the house. Up top he scribbles in his notebook, scrawls his rubbish (he never was a poet), sketches (he never was an artist) then creaks upright and takes the long walk back down. His pint of dark is pulled as he walks into The White Hart.

As well as using two more prompts and pegged the season I've set up a daily pattern for the main, slowed time, put him back in that pub…

After Summer?

In Cardiff parks, the leaves fall in ones and twos, then the trees are bare and the top way is too exposed, too cold, too changeable-wet. He (me) goes up even earlier, gets muddy, cold, comes back to Mrs Thomas's, takes off his boots and raincoat then has a hot bath.

I can sense now, a year will pass on the pages.

He tells them, yes, up top, four-five hours, but they say it's hard to believe when he trundles in to The White Hart scrubbed up and squeaky-clean every late afternoon so smart he might be English. When December whips in and he has to leave the B&B under the brown fog of a winter dawn, be up there when the other valley is blind-hid under weather, he wonders if he is finally mad, not merely grief-struck and ashamed.

Two more prompts, another season passes!

When the women start to seek him out – the teacher, the woman who ran a large store selling cheap clothes, the solicitor, the mature English student who knows his work but not his face – he would always tell them the same story: I rate myself as a happy, contented person. When it comes to nailing down the lid they'll say, "Not a trouble in the world, lucky sod!"
And two more… It all just flows off the pen now…

And he tells them, I tell them, as far as love goes, he's completely bad news, he loves, leaves and will be cold, he simply doesn't want…
And they hear him but don't believe him. He is sexier for it. One by one they try him on for size and he uses them like a medicine which alleviates but does not cure, always their place of course (one night in a Swansea hotel) as Mrs Thomas has a thing about sheets.

I mentioned the seasons, time passing… (and two more prompts)
The time passes, grey and wet and dull until we begin to forget. Strange to know nothing, never to be sure, and as it fades, the guilt, we begin to need the women more than they need us. We resort to his stories: My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad! Stay with me. I need body-unto-body. It's not the sex. I just need the warmth.
I've arrived, had summer, autumn, winter, so…

It has been a year, though he knows it not, or we pretend it's not. The women have run out long since and now the dreams. He cooks a cat in a microwave, records its last scream, narrow, rising, and the cat's milk, unlapped, turns to acid, then some kind of cheese. The tin-scraped liver is eaten by rats who turn and stare. Footsteps creak in the attic, huge dogs run buses down in the High Street. He is in a phone-box, and she is on the other end of the line: Hello? Hello? But he has forgotten to press Button A and it all fades to black.

For me this is interesting. This paragraph could be called "a cheat" because I've written the equivalent of a dream sequence and squeezed in seven prompts. (Incidentally, in the process of thinking I remembered a drama from at least forty years ago where the foreign person is in a British telephone box, hears the people at the other end but doesn't know he has to press button A…
But I'd argue that the paragraph comes at the right time and place, follows the emotional unfolding and "fits".

My story feels like it's coming to an end. I see it now. He has escaped, been away the best part of a year, slept in Bleaney's bed for a year, been with various valleys women, but without love or hope. And of course he's been living cheaply, so when he checks to see what state his bank account is in, he's better off than he was a year ago, the crap is calling him back:

He makes a telephone call. He is richer than he was when he came here. The money he has made, wasting his life writing faux journeys of the soul is swelling up faster than he can drink it down. He needs to make it all go away but can't without blowing his cover.

I just know that "something has to give" and I have enough characters:

The Friday night he gets legless. He wants the literature student, but she cries when they do it to each other, so she doesn't do it for a few months each time. Now he's desperate but she goes home without him. He's badly pissed, and stands up in The White Hart, slurring:

And so I finish, with a moment that threatens violence, a moment that shows "his time is up" and an utterance which reveals the past, exposes his soul, and really does 'finish him off'

"Anyone here had a go at themselves, for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists with a blade in the bath?"
They look away.
"Well?" he says, "Ave yer? Ave yer fucking ad a go?"

This is what she did, she who kept it all inside.

I would argue that the feeling in those poems gave me a lot of the voice, a lot of the musicality and tone. My choices were Brits, and the poems sad and between us we found this man, the guilty widow.

I keep thinking now of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Though there was no intent in the writing of this to "illustrate" their lives and Sylvia's death it is interesting that I feel this is one understanding. If another reader senses various resonances, thinks of those other people alluded to semi-obliquely, grand, that's how life is, how thought is. It doesn't have to be absolute.

But in the writing I can sense my love of my country (but it's very mixed feelings) my admiration for some of its artists, my love of the world of words (and of women) and my possibly slightly unhealthy predisposition to write around death sex and dying.

In other words, my soul is all over this. I connected to it by choosing to look at accidents, the scatterings from the souls of others.

3,090 words

The Requisite Number of Cylinders

Busy times away from the computer and TWO school-runs before ten o'clock this morning, but the words are forced out, nevertheless.

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)
0,357 Words Sunday (poem)
3,088 Words Tuesday (Article)
0,843 Words Tuesday (story-part)

29,243 Words Total April 24th 15:28

5,243 Words ahead of schedule (and loads of subs this month)

Monday, 23 April 2007

Tuesday's Prompts

The noiseless opening and closing of a downstairs door

A Mattress

The second happiest moment of his life


I should like to master the dials, the discs

Telling it so simple, so far away


Time passing, and the memories of love


It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined


These names were your name, and the cliffs, the breaking

The burning of paper instead of children


A poem, a coffee-break, a white bed, crabs


I'm just a red nigger who love the sea


A pair of sandals, old black coat, and leather jacket


Undesirable you may have been, untouchable, not.

The Wall

The traffic in George Street is backed up half a mile

11PM Job Done!

They made me sweat but once again the Boot Campers came through, despite half-a-dozen being away.

All stories got their minimum of eight crits by 11PM Monday (one hour spare), that's all stories fully discussed, eight detailed crits., and crits compared to crits, in 73 hours

Tuesday Prompts to follow shortly.

Writers WORK at their craft. They don't chat.


April! Another Monday!



Friday Night's stories now up to:

(Crits-Discussion Posts)

8-23 Minimum Target Reached
8-18 Minimum Target Reached

136 Subs in April



I grow old under an intensity of questioning


He was no longer my father


Some mornings I wake up kicking like a frog


I was not allowed to live my life so pretended I was dead


It was as if she could't know hereself


I can't get him out of my mind, out of my mind


With the mistake your life goes in reverse


Every day God pats me on the head and calls me angel


Elvis the Performing Octopus


God save the queen


I cup the bird gently in my hand, like water


Two-and-a-half soft-boiled eggs


I am not unhappy. I have learned to drift


The small fine rain kept washing over


Sometimes at night when the heart stumbles

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Hey, Heckler!

Two family days and a few enjoyable distractions
seeing off anonymous cowardly idiot-hecklers

(this should be banned as it's so unfair
beating up people with no brain)...

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)
0,357 Words Sunday (poem)

25,312 Words Total April 22nd 19:40

3,312 ahead of schedule


There was another set of prompts posted this morning in BC

Not sure if 30-40 prompts is enough.

Of course you could use them all...

Maybe you could look at each set separately, see how it rings (or doesn't) in your ears. or combine the sets, sort them alphabetically then choose alternative lines, or simply read and read until 1-2 jump out and give you an opening voice

Knickerbocker Glory

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Dead men tell plenty of tales

Wine and red roses, roses and red wine

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Environmental handprint

Ash on an old man's sleeve

They also serve who only stand and wait

Valley sheep are fatter

The trouble with Esther Honeycheeks

Going to Paradise by way of Kensal Green

No one left and no one came on the bare platform

Ringing the bell backward

Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking over thick carpets

She's gone, and I can't find her

Choosing a Name

Dogging the Walk

A Critting Frenzy

Prompts and Stats

First thing Sunday morning the crit-count for
this minor deadline week's five stories was -



That's him in the green, cotton journey

The mountains are tinder dry, the man said, so only set fire to them if you're bored.

You may have read that we are vicious hunters

Holly, there's something wrong with yer dog

I'm standing here inside my skin


Where I'd press fur and feathers if I could

Twenty-four hour care

Oblique light on the trie, on brick and tile

Blink twice for "I hate Cardiff City!"

When all this is over, I will learn to paint


I am an old dog afraid of bones


When Shadows were better than outside

She does not know me anymore

There are worse jobs

Blackpool or Paris? Another close decision.

There are grass stains on their white stockings

Wind-surfing to the Moon

Just one of those things that city folk don't notice

The future tense is partly underwater

There's a lot of good stuff chucked out

I'd always found him innoffensive

The Condiments trickster

The Cave Man Who Woke up Talking

Back in my fifties, fatter

Boy in a wet red t-shirt

How to hide a river, steal a lake

Fresh Apples, Occasional Drugs, Poor sex

Saturday, 21 April 2007

That's the Way to Do It!

Five stories in for 10 PM Friday.

21 posts discussing, 14 crits already (10:28 Friday)

7 submissions today and one hit

Saturday, 7.23am

Tom C reporting in. Completed phase one of a two part house move yesterday. My partner and I are consolidating into one house, which necessitates her moving out of our main house and moving into my rented pad until we move into our new house next Friday.

So I'm surrounded by chaos, boxes, clothes everywhere (partner has brought four bags and a case full of clothes to see her through the next seven days), my back is killing me and I've got legal mess to deal with later. But first, I've got four stories to crit over in BC, so I've a cup of tea ready and I'm off...

Friday, 20 April 2007

Saturday Prompts

Those bastards in their mansions

What's on, ny dear Ellie Menterry?

So here it is, the walled-up door


If I move my mouth, it's mostly to smile


Spindly in a heat-haze, almost out of sight


People talk nonsense and I put them straight

Yes, but what about the spiders?

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin

So the holiday proceeds, a series of snapshots

I'm dreaming of that work "Man seated reading"

They sit as far apart as you can in a small compartment

My dear, my skeleton will set like biscuit overnight

On a late bruised-looking roadside weed, a butterfly

Ignite the flares, connect the phones, wind all the clocks...

They walk too far, out in the sticking mud

Behind the spreading butter comes the knife

Her they come, books, skin, lattes

The milk and the post arrive with a baby

All over town, cracks in pavements, patios, walls

No convictions, that's my one major fault

He toyed with a naked razor

You are near again and have been there

When did I ever see you wear a hat?

Instructions, under plain brown covers

with just a toothbrush and the good earth for a bed

your man is long gone, and I have loitered

The autumn, when the convicts took their leave

Questions, Answers 4

Maybe you are saying that by using rhythm, ‘high oratorical mode’ etc, the writer deepens the story so that, once the reader learns what the writer is doing, the story reaches into him even more. I can see that, I think.

That's ONE aspect.

But the pace/pacing, the colour of the words, Anglo-Saxon versus Latinate, all accumulate.

Think of sexual seduction. It's the words, the pace, the timing, the atmosphere….

But I read ‘The Ledge’ and it made my legs wobble as I was reading. I may be wrong, but it didn’t feel like it was the rhythm or symbolism that kept me hooked.

But had it been written by a sixteen year old klutz with no command of language and delivery (same ideas?)

It was the tension, the humanity, and I think it was the insight.

Psst, where do you think the fucking humanity WAS? It's not just THERE. It's CREATED by the author's word-choice, characterization, pace, pacing, weight, weighting, waiting. CRAFT

In comedy it's not just the joke is it? It's also "the way you tell 'em…"

Should I ever aspire to anything, I’d like my stories to make people’s legs wobble.

Amen to that.

Are simile, metaphor, incantation the keys, or can it be done by mining my soul, letting it all out onto the page in simple words and sentences?

That can't be answered in minutes. Carver did it in APPARENTLY simple sentences. He wrote his stories in a day but worked them for a month or more.

Who was it said there is nothing more powerful than a perfectly paced period?

Mere "mining the soul" promises nothing.

First that soul needs something universal (and interesting) to say, second, the owner of that soul needs CRAFT to express it well.

Questions, Answers 3

But, your group of critters can’t be stupid or unfeeling.


So can I.

I cringe when I think of the stuff that once went over my head.

If a story hasn’t made them weep, rage, jump and down, whatever, then can it really be THAT good?

Of course it can. We don't have to have major, excessive emotional reactions to "prove" something is spectacular.

Have you never read a simple aphorism, a little saying, or heard a quote that cuts you to the bone, that "UNDERSTANDS" you? You don't have to bleed or faint for the quote to be great.

Strong responses can be slow, deep, bubbling under. More often they are this way. The massive responses are often to melodrama, big-deal but brief and ultimately forgettable.

Surely a story has to accessible, at least to reasonably literate people, to be classed as a classic.

MY preference is for stories that are enjoyable "first pass" but that we sense there is more, and each read there IS more, and more and more… but that doesn't mean "difficult" is necessarily inferior.

Great concepts? Perhaps they can't be got over in easily digestible chunks. Have you read Stephen Hawking?

I’m not going to argue that just because “Harry Potter’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ are hugely popular they are therefore good writing.

They are both total, utter shit. Popularity has NOTHING to do with quality. Is the SUN better than The Independent? It sells more so must be.

And The Spice Girls must be "great" right?

Questions, Answers 2

I feel that the trouble with ‘high-art’ literature is that it can easily become too much about symbolism, metaphor, repetition etc and not enough about reaching the reader’s heart.

There are plenty of wankers out there producing symbolism and whatnot that DOESN'T matter, and there are many great GREAT stories that don't rely on symbols, metaphor, lyricism etc

(The Ledge is 99% "straight" is it not?)

Yes, I’ve a copy of Ulysses. No, I’ve not finished it (like so many others).

Ok, you say, what if it touches your soul AND has great symbolism? It then HAS to be a better piece of fiction. I’d agree with that.

Never ignore "taste". I can appreciate that Joyce wrote well, extremely intelligently, but maybe, MAYBE, what he wrote about doesn't grab me enough?

Ignore "symbolism" (as in don't get hung up about it). Great stories can be written "straight" without high language, without metaphor, without complex literary allusions (try Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing" or "Cathedral" as two examples.

I (personally) don't care for "placed" symbolism, but if I read a romance and the protagonist's job is a wonderful analogy for what's not working in his life I get (a) a good romantic story (b) a good insight into an unusual job (c) an aesthetic pleasure from realizing that the two reflect each other.
The reflection/parallelism isn't NECESSARY but when it's there, seemingly unforced, it can greatly increase resonance and weight.

Questions, Answers - 1

I read a story like ‘The Ledge’ and I love; I think I can see why it’s one of the best American stories of the century, and I decide it’s what I would like to aim towards. I show ‘The Ledge’ to my girlfriend (not the world’s biggest reader) and she likes it, she gets it. 

If it’s great art or literature, does the reader need to be shown that it’s great?

OF COURSE the reader (I mean the writer/reader who is trying to learn) needs to be told, needs to understand the MECHANISM, the specifics.

It isn't that the writer/reader is TOLD it's great. Instead it's,

"Did you like this?"
"Did it move you?"
"But WHAT moved you? Why did it move you? Where and when were you moved? HOW did the author seduce you? How did s/he persuade you that these words were PEOPLE, PAIN, SEX, ANGUISH?

It isn't "accidental" it's manipulation of your psyche through symbols on a page. Some writers can do it, some can't. The question is, why do some convince and some fail?

What I mean is, if the critiquers in your group don’t recognise that a ‘great’ story is, indeed, great and the greatness has to be pointed out to them, then could it be that the problem lies in the story?"


Once upon a time I thought Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" was a pile of tosh. I could not undertand the fuss. This WANKER got a Nobel Prize? Yer kiddin me, right?

Years later, re-reading that same book I cried, wishing I had a tenth of the man's writing skill.

Most reader/writers don't READ. Many wouldn't know a great story if it bit them on the arse!

(I was like that, I still am for some stories)

I'm like it with poetry. I read "great" poems and think "What the FUCK is that all about?"

But the funny thing is, the more poetry I read, the more I read about the theory, the more I read about the art, the more I read poets talking about poetry, the more poems suddenly become clear to me.

LOOK, when you enter a large short-story competition, maybe the judge is brilliant, eminent. You just KNOW that judge will understand your writing.

Trouble is you have to get past THE READERS, and then the short-listers.

If it's a poem you are subbing, you might get ME as your reader (that's you fucked).

You have heard of "pearls before swine"? Well any great literature takes EFFORT in understanding, it takes a degree of education, empathy, experience.

That's NOT a fault in the writing.

It's easy to appeal to the masses but the level of language, insight is low. Mass appeal deals in clichés that appeal quickly and easily. It uses stock characters and stereotypes, crude, obvious trickery.

Most people don't want to LEARN. They want to be spoon-fed

Nuclear Physics. Big deal, right. Why can’t them high-falutin' scientists make it EASY?

If Joe Soap doan geddit, it must be crap, right?

Reading Like a Writer

A few years ago I wrote an article Writing & Bridge: How to become a Grandmaster. It was full of fine thoughts, theory. But reality and theory do not always match: for ought and is leave maybe far behind.

Last Saturday my bridge partner and I played in a tournament that was way above us, the clichéd and literal "out of our league". There were seven rounds, and sure enough, we started with an 18-2 defeat.

In the next round, our opponents were in "Four Clubs" meaning they needed ten tricks with clubs as trumps. I had the Ace and King of Diamonds, the Ace of Clubs (a guaranteed trick) and a single low Spade. If I led the spade, and partner had the Ace, and she led back a spade, I could ruff the trick. Then we had four tricks, possibly five, and the contract would be off, a good result for us.

I led my little Spade and dummy went down (one of the opposition's hands [dummy] is shown and the opponent plays both hands). My AK of diamonds now didn't look so good as dummy had just one diamond, and once partner doesn't play the Ace of Spades things look bleak.

Our opponents win with the Ace of Spades and return a small club. Now comes my point. I can play a low club, rather than my Ace (the usual rule is second man plays low) in case my partner has a bare King of Clubs. But then what? We might make the Ace of Clubs, the Ace of Diamonds. It was just possible that partner had the King of Clubs but highly unlikely.

But I choose to go up with the Ace of Clubs. I now have a tiddly little club but I'm out of spades) and I want my partner to lead spades so I can ruff. There is only one hope, one possibility. I have to pray that my partner has the Queen of diamonds, wins the trick when I play a low diamond, then remembers I led a spade to start, so leads one back. If partner doesn't have the QD we get a very bad result indeed.

But I'm committed now. I win with the AC lead the small diamond. Partner plays the Jack and my heart is in my mouth. But it wins, back comes a spade, I get my ruff. The opps, miles better than us, say "well-defended" we win that board and eventually draw the round 10-10.

We had got the good board because had stopped to think "outside the box" to consider "is there any holding my partner has that could give us a result?" That is not a beginner thought. It comes from good players doing it to you, and from reading about the principle, understanding it, and then applying it. That is, it doesn't happen unless you work at it.

Going into the last round we are 11th of 150 (we needed oxygen we had never been that high before) and then reality hits like a thunderbolt, we lose the last round 19-1 (forgetting all our discipline) and end up 22nd.

Now why do I tell you all this in a writing article? Well, back then in that other article I explained how just playing bridge (or just writing) is not enough. We can reach levels that make us feel OK and then stay within our comfort zones and never push on. Pushing on might mean no publications, being misunderstood, rejection after rejection. The comfort zone might mean we do what we are good at but also display a limited repertoire. Instead of going to speak with grandmasters or reading bridge books, we "settle". Instead of seeking out experienced writing teachers or reading more serious craft books, reading the greats, reading carefully we just "muddle along' publish in small presses, zines, pick up final placings or the occasional prize. Is this enough? Aren't we better than this?

In the week immediately after our relative success in the tournament where we both qualified as Regional Masters (a mid-lowly rank) we had three horrible nights at the bridge club, playing like hopeless newbies.

Where were the solid rules, the carefully practised system, the signals we normally employed? Frankly, I was seriously pissed and pard and I met in the pub to discuss the fact that we had settled for OK. I don't like "OK".

Many of you know I teach creative writing on line in Alex Keegan's Boot Camp. (That's not vain BTW. There's another Boot Camp out there!)

Was the same thing happening there? Oh, we were racking up "hits" and had just had our sixteenth first prize of the year, but what about the texts, what about the stories? Weren't so many of the stories appearing written in a nice, safe, bland "Boot Camp" voice, with non-layered, well-written easy-to-place stories, or "laddish" tales of first-time sex or adultery?

When was the last time I was shocked, or intrigued or shaken or horrified by a Boot Camp story? When was the last time I needed to read a BC story a second, third, fourth time to get its subtle nuances? They really all did look and feel similar. In fact it one moment of frustration I cut and pasted sections from at least half-a-dozen stories (from a single session) and showed that the voice(s) were virtually identical.

That is one problem, the work becomes unambitious, safe-ish, OK, "Well, it'll probably place in a decent zine" – but did we start writing to achieve that?

The second problem was critiquing. If Boot Campers (or any writing group) see story after story in the same mental range, with the same lack of challenge, with similar language and subject matter, the same lack of layering or nuance, the same failure of ambition, then this (a) becomes what's seen as "normal" and "decent writing" but worse (b) the writers begin to critique automatically and are simply not attuned to reading more complex, more ambitious stuff.

So when I wrote some more difficult material and posted it as "a ringer", when I got stories from top writers and posted those as if they were by Boot Campers, they got mostly poor or middling marks!

The critiquers had got so used to straightforward, unambitious stories that as soon as one landed with subtlety, metaphor, or linguistic trickery they were stumped. Suddenly Boot Campers and the Boot Camp Grid appeared to be undiscerning, incapable of spotting the classier story.

How could that be? Well, if you eat burgers every day (large fries please) or your idea of a whiz meal is the local Chinese, maybe anything fancier will be "too much". If you glug loads of cheap wine, will your palate for the better stuff be ruined or at least damaged?

It took four sessions of ringers and lots of argument: "Are you BLIND!?" before the Boot Campers started to rouse from their torpor, open their eyes and see. Now, a story from Aimee Bender might actually get a round of applause, rather than a group, "HUH?"

There is a superb book out just now by Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In it Francine takes us, sometimes word-by-word through the writing of the great writers. We have to see exactly what they did so we might, one day, write a sentence that's nearly good enough to be in one of their stories. If the best stories in the world score 200 and we are writing 100-110 we cannot keep reading 100-110 even if we can spot what's wrong and how to improve it.

We have to be exposed to better work, the great, the very good and the good, see a range of brilliances, the use of rhythm, the use of repetition, the careful choice of words, the exactness of description, the clarity, the specificity, or if it's deliberate, the double meanings the two-way shots, the subtle hints, innuendo, metaphor, symbol.

We need also to see that many great stories are layered or have stories within stories or if they don't, at least allude to a bigger, richer world. There is more to fiction than an adulterer losing his family, or the three wicked sisters at the funeral. Why don't we at least sometimes try for brilliance of language, or the insights of Saul Bellow? How high we finish is not the point. How hard we try, how hard we push ourselves is.

There is a very serious danger in writing groups, even ones like Boot Camp that simply refuse to workshop* that they learn to be bland and forget that out there is a world full of incredible richness.

* the work-shopped story is a rancid camel masquerading as a horse.

Every year BC reads Best American Short Stories even if its constituents may be a little staid compared to "Best Non-Required Reading", or "Best New American Voices", The O'Henry Prize Collection or The Pushcart Prize Collection. The point is, at least for a while we read better stuff. But that's still wrong because they are separate.

We read and critique new stories, presumably from Boot Campers, not expecting anything that will blow our socks off. That is we "know" (most of the time) that we are going to get the same old burgers, more or less. Oh, sure once in a blue moon, Alex might slip in a ringer, but…

I've realised that every session should have a top-class story, a very good story, something at BASS level perhaps, or a competition winner, and something truly awful dregged up from some internet swamp.

That way I won't see marks from 90 to102 crit, after crit, after crit, and group apoplexy the moment something even half-special comes along.

We must not separate our daily work and critiquing from the work and critiques of those writers who are allegedly much better. If I feed the troops Saul Bellow but they know he's a Nobel Prize winner, how likely is it that someone will stand up and say, "Sorry this just isn't very good!"?

Being wrong is the quickest route to success.

We post all stories anonymously. Sometimes one of mine is "spotted" and the marks mysteriously jump about twenty points. Well, Alex wrote it…

So I've taken to sometimes putting in two stories, once I put in four, or I'll throw in an old failure, see if they spot what's wrong.

And along with my own stuff I'll put in an old BC big-Prize winner or a great hopefully not-too-famous story off the web. What has been remarkable is the extra energy, the greater diversification of language used in critiques, the animation and what is also noticeable is that marks for the ordinary solid BC story have begun to spread more. Instead of safe stories with safe crits, the stories are now more challenged.

The Disease of Critiquing is close cousin to The Disease of Competence and reading Francine Prose's book I've realised that my own input was slowly getting lazier. It takes time to write deeply about how this story lacks weight, that one is badly paced, especially when an improved story is only going to move a few points along the continuum, from "not quite OK" to "it'll probably place".

I have written (some would say "pontificated") on stories or passages from stories, but lately I've taken many short-cuts. What I should be doing, and might do more if Boot Campers broke out from their lethargy is to write about writing like this, from Francine Prose:

A similar powerful use of rhythm, in this case to achieve an effect that's a cross between an incantation, a lamentation and a sort of sermon that might have been delivered by the narrator's Puritan ancestors appears at the end of John Cheever's "Goodbye My Brother".

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How do you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand: how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming – Diana and Helen – and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked woman walk out of the sea.

I have read that story more than once, and "liked" it, but I have I unpicked it, examined it, savoured it, as Francine Prose does?

We are struck by the energy, the grace, and the variety of the sentences, to say nothing of the high oratorical mode in which the passage begins, with the series of questions asking (Who? The reader? The deity?) what is to be done with a man like that?"

They are, of course, rhetorical question. Nothing can be done, and the queries are a literary form of throwing up one's hands. The questions vary in length. The shortest, a mere four words, repeats and emphasizes the first. The longest requires fifty-eight words, and a cascading succession of dependent clauses.

Francine Prose's analysis continues for two pages, every word worth reading and reading again. It's when we read as closely as that, define and dissect so meticulously, that we learn. Then we write another story, put it through the mill, and hope, every time that one per cent of one per cent has got through, stuck, and made us better.

I have yet to telephone the Bridge Club chairman and ask, "How can I get seriously better?" but I have started that same long road in my writing and this book is a pretty handy guide.

Oh, dear, "pretty" handy? That's not a very strong adjective….

2,346 words

Found This

In the ongoing Boot Camp discussion I mentioned earlier today, someone raised the fact that "exotic" stories seem to be doing well in New Yorker etc. Then another Boot Camper said I'd made a comment some time back in an article "The Disease of Competence".

While I was looking for said comment, I came across this, the judge's report I wrote after reading all 275 stories for The Philip Good Memorial Prize ( a few years back).

When I was asked to judge the Phillip Good Memorial Prize I said, Sure then had the choice of reading a short-list or all the stories. I chose to read the lot, and I have to tell you that was a mistake from which it will take me a long time to recover.

In the end I picked two stories as joint-winners but what was surprising to me was that the 3rd and 4th stories were humorous and another of the top ten was “genre”. I’m surprised because I so much prefer serious fiction these days (life’s too short to waste), so why did I not pick the ten best literary pieces?

As I’ve said, I chose to read all the stories, and reading almost three hundred me-too pieces, many with the same tone, same phrasing, same voice (a kind of mid-Atlantic thinned-literate creative writing exercise voice), the stories began to blur and no matter how hard I tried I began to see only words.

Instead of reading and assimilating, I found myself swallowing words and waiting to be hit between the eyes. I think I have found (for me) the best two stories, but after that, those stories from 3rd through to 30th (and indeed some which missed the long list are so similar, all competent but lacking that extra spark or ambition, that it’s quite possible I’ve missed decent work.

For this I’m sorry, but the writers, that’s you folk, bear some of the blame.


This, despite being a winner, is far from perfect, but what it does have is scope and ambition – it isn’t the minor, close focus parochial of so many stories, the cuckolded husband, the betrayed wife, the abused child.

So many stories, so few large canvasses, so little courage.

To begin at the beginning (beginnings matter a great deal, even more so with a sad, depressed and very jaded competition judge) here I scored the opening 14 “Very Good. Something in the language or manner made me expectant of a good read”. It’s a rare story which scores under 13 and goes on to blossom. If a writer can’t stamp authority in a few lines, if s/he can’t make it clear s/he’s a professional, then my spirits drop and what comes afterwards is filtered through an extra veil of depression.

Here, the tense is going forward, it’s back there and talking about a winter to come. A little bravery. I was to go on and be concerned about the time-line but not enough to give up. That is, the braver opening, its direct-ness, clean language told me I was in better hands and to look harder at what followed, give it a bit more leeway.

Then the second paragraph quickly “made” the reverend, and the next, the setting. It was the economy, not a big bang which attracted me.

In truth, I don’t see the necessity for the letter at the bottom of page one. Had the opening been flat and ordinary I might have written off the whole at this point. Indeed, the reminiscences weren’t “easy” but the story survived on the momentum earned from the feel-good of the opening.

What then carried this story for me was the sense of crumbling England, the way a drug was the vehicle of dissolution, how wars had made and unmade men, how one (even with his history) was the engine of destruction. So here we have a straight, straightforward story (Peter’s) and if that was all we had then the story would have drifted down to marks in the 110-120 range, the better of the near-misses.

What lifts this is the bigger picture revealed, the macro, while we discuss the smaller, more specific, the micro. This is what I mean by ambition, canvas, a thing to say (and worth listening to). So many of the competing stories were “just” Peter’s story, competent, mildly interesting, but ultimately forgettable.

Here the difference was that I was made to wonder how we changed from a non-drug culture to the one where Ecstasy, Pot, Cocaine, Heroin undermine the basic fibre of this island.

I have no idea if the writer had it right, if “ice” is real, but what matters is he told a story and also made me think. The story remains memorable.

XXXXXXXXXXX (Joint Winner)

Competition entrants should understand what it’s like to be a judge. If they did they would work harder, be braver, redraft their stories, would print perfectly on good paper, would make their manuscripts crisp and inviting.

XXXXX was the last story I read, what chance did it have? By this time I hated reading competent, so-what short-stories about the same old tired subjects. I read this one at one a.m. knowing it would be nothing-story #275 but luckily (for the author) it was direct, crisp and uncluttered, at least enough for me to take a breath and give this last one a chance.

Like its co-first, this opener woke me up. It’s by no means brilliant but it doesn’t make me groan; I’m not expecting another funeral story and I know (Oh Thank-you, God) it’s not My Life as a Cat.

Paragraph two, quite long, “works”, it’s OK, it’s passable, but it hardly needs to be there. Had it followed a weak opener, this story might have been still-born (to this judge, that is).

What follows is a mix of nicely understated love-story and African detail which, in truth might not be needed or should be tightened. (Here the author is lucky in that the extraneous detail is exotic and therefore of more interest – I took this in to consideration when deciding, despite it squeaking home on marks, to award it joint first place).

I confess this story has many weaknesses (but then all the stories in this competition have some weaknesses) but it wins for one simple reason, the last page aches, it makes me empathise, it lingers, it resonates.

The penultimate paragraph was superb.

I found this judging very hard. I apologise to some good writers I may have missed, but blame yourselves too. Read your first pages and ask, “Is there true promise here? Would the reader expect something special?

Other judges I’ve read talk about the pleasure of reading “so many good stories”. Not me. So many similar stories, so many unambitious, narrow, and hackneyed stories, and almost all lacking guts, ambition or any deep sense of truth or honesty (not quite the same thing).

Before you send out your next competition entry, ask this of yourself: “I may be competent, even a good writer, but what I write about, would anyone care?”

That's SO Much Better

I usually watch "Neighbours" as I grab my lunch but today I was way later and there was a one-off drama on about donor-parents.

I've watched too many crappy "Afternoon Plays" (they make Chick-Lit look heavy) so I didn't expect much of this one.


Just want to say, what a lovely little play. For once they didn't feel the need to spell out every damn emotion (fuck me a producer who understands show-not-tell) or surround every glitzy, shallow moment with a pop song.

Well done the writer and the actors/producer/director.

I can only compare this very good production (and some sweet acting) with a recent much-vaunted "one-off" which i thought was utter tripe.

So all is NOT (quite) lost.


PS two stories in for tonight's deadline, two crits already!

And not a recipe in sight.

is Lit-Fic Insular?

There's a discussion going on in Boot Camp about whether serious-fiction writers are limited in their subject matter.

I answered with this list of stories/subjects (about a quarter of my ouvre)

1939, four sisters, a rogue screwing them all.

An old soldier on the train to London has a heart attack.

A wide boy with money meets a classy PA for sex.

A once-international grandfather with heart trouble has the chance to see three grandsons play at The Arms Park

A man reflects on pornography v love both as metaphors for literature

A baker and his supervisor vie for a widow's heart in wartime London

A bitter divorcee drives across America, a lump growing in his hand.

A mental patient, once abused, talks to her dead mother.

A man is posessed every day for a week by a different writer

A man inherits impossible riches and starts a company to search for the end of the rainbow

An uptight accountant who always wears grey starts to crack...

A man, on his 50th goes in search of his first love (a bitch) and meets her daughter

A strange man discovers a wall with sticks protruding, messages...

A pizza delivery boy mercy-kills a ballerina who has a tumour

A man and his son on a mountain top, below a dark fog obliterates

A woman discovers she has an illness, seduces a lighthouse keeper

Some children make crossbows to murder a tramp

Briefly, the inhabitants of a street become weightless

The last but one living member of the 1966 World Cup team writes...

A writer meets his great grandfather's bastard son

A boy starts carrying schoolmates, 1, 2, 3, 4, more, then...

A man believes someone is living in his garage

A young man, desperate for first sex, the day Kennedy died.

A prostitute falls for Custer, a few days before Little Big Horn

A boy writes to the girls who do his laundry

A cow becomes a sentient being as it walks to the slaughterhouse

A wife has taken pills, her husband sleeps next to her...

A fading writer meets an old pupil

A possessed (or?) mexican falls in love in the asylum, she dies, he runs.

A business man is trapped underground with the terrorist who set the bomb

A man goes back home to try and understand why he keeps fucking up

A man on a bus meets the dead Denis Potter

A woman leaves her husband and six children, finds herself, returns.

An "aesthete" falls down a well. his spirit guide is coarse...

A man at lunch mishears a woman, thinks it's a sexual advance

After a shooting, one man starts a crusade to get rid of guns

A crazy group of idiots try new things with fatal results

Two brothers agree to fight to the death for insurance money

A baby, just before it's born, sees how far it can crawl...

A woman meets a martian, now THIS is sex

A crash survivor is jealous of another's press

William Shakespeare 2006 speaks to his agent

A White guy and a pakistani become friends

A private investigator in Hell...

A philosphical question, what are we after we are ut back together?

A woman is raped, and "ruined"

A writer has a stroke. Should the reader save him?

A hostage taker in the local gym.

A man follows the route decided by his dead brother

A man is stalked by a killer. Or is he?

An almost-rape and then a murder. Hypocrisy.

A bar-maid is courted over ten years by a customer

An archeologist gets the ultimate revenge when he is cuckolded.

The women in the office conspire for payback...

A man is seduced by America, then killed by it.

A man surfs souls at night...

A terminally ill man talks to a barmaid

A football match, the crowd starts chanting seig heil!

A man in mid-life travels to an island to die, almost saved by love

A Nobel prize-winner remembers his awkward teens, his first wife

A woman begins to morph into a giant hamster

A man in a Persistent Vegetative State dreams or time-travels?

A pissed off sentient cat writes to an editor...

A yuppie befriends an odd-job man, changes

The devil spams Frank, because he wants to apologise

A man with post-traumatic stress buries his mother in law...

An assisted suicide in a Montreaux Clinic, reflections on being alive

A man thinks his father abused his sister, maybe.

A boy hero, but the reward is cruel

An accountant working for the Devil...

A child KNOWS Santa is real...

Four widowers go fishing in Brighton, and...

The diary of the last survivor in Antarctica...

The servant, the Lord of the manor, the children...

A man obsesses over a cat, loses a woman

A Russian-American brings his wayward son to granddad...

Two double glazing men, one is being seduced by his daughter

A negotiator works the blurred edges between humans and ghouls

A woman finally released from jail, can she rebuild her life?

An Iraqui boy, a photographer, lots of dead Americans...

An Englishman is conned via the internet, murders...

Wales 2050 and the annual sacrifice of a singer...

A writer recalls when he set fire to a woman's dress...

An old man, a young one, some workers, play football in the sun

A depressed man tries to teach his son to fly a kite

Two runners, betrayal, one dies

A man reflects on how little he cares about his sister dying

A crazy story about a manic writing group in Halifax, a gas-leak...

A missionary loses his wife and child to crocodile attack

Lady Diana's murder...

A toilet inhabited by a malevolent ghost

A world where people want dogs, children are substitutes for the real thing

A writer pisses on a stack of J K Rowling books

A city broker has a secret room.

A letter from the dead husband...

A traditionalist wants REAL measurements back

A man comes home, senses his wife's lover has just left.

A wedding goes gloriously wrong

A very strange roomance at a motorway service station

The devil offers women a way...

The US governent starts kidnapping midgets.

Two hostages try to keep their pecker up thinking of British things

How a tsunami survivor survied

An old man reflects on his mentor, a mining disaster...

A soldier writes to his wife, he's been a coward and...

A granddad watching kids' soccer, rushes on to the pitch...

A fireman returns from holiday. Only his children are alive...

Four disabled soldiers run a marathon

A man reflects on underwear and life

A woman has a magic credit card.

A woman gets lost in the jungle and discovers chocolate

A waster, on the road, but she's pregnant...

A woman is discovered by the "age police"

A man-hunting woman reflects on her bad luck

A man who lost his wife and child sets out round the world.

Marilyn Monroe went into hiding, now she really Is dying.

An inarticulate man reflects on his bad love-luck

A story about the woman who couldn't say no

A wild story about a Latvian woman and her lovers

An allegory, prairie dog life

A questionaire, but really about love.

A black guy almost makes it

Her husband has a heart attack watching grandstand, she lets him die, it's better.

A man falls into an open grave...

A child is walking towards a paedophile's open door

A boy falls into a ditch full of thorns, and...

A guy meets Marilyn the day she decides to aim for the big time

A British family at home, the daughter's husband has been sentenced to fifty years in an African jail...

Heaven, and Judas is one of the good guys...?

A man cannot understand why he doesn't have strong feelings for...

He's running away, finds a wrecked car on a mountain road...

Soldiers reflect on small blessings

Funny Week

Strange week, lots of domestic crap, rewriting, subbing
but then a good day today to get back on track.

0,564 Words Flash Sunday
0,480 Words Flash Monday
0,403 Words Poem Monday
1,064 Words Article Monday
0,492 Words Poem Tuesday
0,362 Words Poem Tuesday/Wednesday
3,200 Words Article Thursday
1,596 Words Story Thursday
1,006 Words Story extended Friday & Flash
0,000 Words Saturday
0,682 Words Sunday (Two Poems)
1,914 Words Monday (Article)
6,797 Words Thursday (Stories, Article, Story)
0,200 Words Friday (Poem)
0,300 Words Saturday (Poem)
0,563 Words Sunday
4,437 Words Thursday (two stories)

23,955 Words Total April 19th 23:59

4,955 Ahead of schedule (and 50 subs)

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Prompts for Friday 20th April

Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows

Cat, Microwave...

For I have known them already, known them all


This was Mr Bleaney's room

He was a pederast, but discreet

After the novels, after the tea-cups, after the skirts that trail along the floor

Fond of bananas

She kept her songs, they took so little space


These with a thousand small deliberations

The acidity of milk

Slowly the women file to where he stands


Under the brown fog of a winter dawn

The note you hold, narrowing and rising

My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad! Stay with me.

Home is so sad, it stays as it was left

And the night fires going out, the lack of shelters

All afternoon, through the tall heat

And I was travelling lightly, barefoot

And the money he gets from wasting his life on work

Hard to believe him when he trundles in, scrubbed up and squeaky-clean

The large cool store selling cheap clothes

They set about him with a knife and fork

Strange to know nothing, never to be sure

Anyone here had a go at themselves, for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists with a blade in the bath?

The leaves fall in ones and twos

Blessed are dogs, for they shall run over busses

On the third night, footsteps in the attic-space

When it comes to nailing down the lid

I rate myself as a happy, contented person

The minute in the phone box with the coin

Sheesh! 10-11 YEARS!

I just looked at the copyright date and that old story and it was written late 1996 early 1997. The events were Oct-Nov 1996.

That's SCARY.

It's interesting how I've changed as a writer. I thought I was writing "hypnotically" to parallel the main coming under a spell, but looking now it seems baggy and long-winded. I could cut 20% at least.

A few years back we had the chance of a long holiday in Orlando, Florida.

I was writing well at the time, so "tuned-in" seeing loads. Like anyone else I read the papers, listened to the news, saw faces, heard about shootings, etc.

But in the time I was there, just in Orlando, it seemed like carnage. There were drive-by shootings, an escaped tiger (really), suicide-murders, it seemed like every day.

But for me, taking the kids round Disney or Universal or Sea World, sunny, sanitised, while at the same time realising that "out there" (even though we were out there already) was all this killing, madness... it really highlighted for me (a Brit) that something was wrong, off, crazy.

Personally I was attracted to all this, excited by the bright-lights and danger. I wrote this.

PS i inadvertently double-subbed this one and it was accepted by two journals hours apart and I had to eat crow...

BTW, except for the protag's death, all the incidents ACTUALLY happened in a 19 day spell. I had almost broken into Atlantic Monthly at this time and had developed a very good relationship with an editor there. When she read and rejected this one she said, "Oh Alex, it's really NOT as bad as that you know."


It's a last-minute booking. Susan White is about to start a new job and she needs the break, some sun, some rest. She fancies Greece, one of the islands, but her husband thinks that Florida would be better for the children. Susan agrees, but she isn't convinced that Orlando is for her.

"It's brash," she says, "too American, all glitter and superficiality."

"Oh, come on, "Ray says, "you need to feel the sun on your back, and you know the children would love to see Mickey."

Susan can't argue with this so she has given in, but only after trying the danger angle. "It may be pretty, Ray, but people get killed there every day."

Ray says Susan is exaggerating things, they could get killed crossing the road. But the level of danger obviously worries her so he agrees to book them into a more expensive hotel, one with perimeter guards and electronic locks. But he has only booked their room for a night. After that he thinks they should cruise round and see the effects of market forces. It's mid-season the travel agent says and there are bargains to be had. The children light up when they see the pictures, so Susan puts her small anxieties away, settling for the fact that she will at least get some sun.

A taxi takes the family the forty miles from their Surrey home to Gatwick Airport. Susan has been a little edgy but the children are excited. Ray is quiet. When they arrive at the airport they have time for a breakfast in Macdonald's before they go through passport control. They chat quietly now that things are settled, and Susan feels a little better. After their meal they make their way to Gate fifty-seven. Through the glass walls they see the aeroplane that will take them to America, a Boeing 747-400, huge, red and white, silver.

The aircraft amazes Ray and he tries to take in its size, its power. Susan thinks it's bloody big too and she points to a painting below the cockpit, a glamorous blonde wrapped in a red cape, the scrawled word Virgin, and the word Tinkerbelle. Susan's daughter is enchanted by the name, but her son is with his father now, by the windows, pointing at the engines. When Ray looks at the painted woman he thinks of World War II and Enola Gay, and he thinks, a woman as pretty as that and a virgin, no way! "No way a virgin," he says when he comes back.

On board the aircraft, Susan is tense again, but only because she has to fly. The children play and crayon. Ray is quiet, but then he becomes fascinated by his personal video screen. He chooses one of eight films to watch, Mars Attacks. Soon he is laughing outrageously and Susan has to tap his leg. He lifts one ear-piece, "What?"

"You're laughing like a drain," she says.

"So is everyone else," Ray says. "Try it."

Susan gives in and watches the same film. It's so funny that after lunch she watches it again. They eat and then they are landing in Orlando. Susan feels tired but Ray is in a good mood. He says this technology amazes him.

Their children are called Clem and Bridget, from Ray's Irish side. They love the late afternoon warmth of Orlando and the glass and plastic shine of the terminal building. Ray was persuaded to upgrade the rental car in the UK, but when they get to Alamo he is persuaded by the hire clerk to make another upgrade, a two-for-one.

Susan shakes her head but the kids are thrilled by the big red car and Ray is excited with the four-litre engine and automatic drive. Susan is unhappy.

"Please," she says.

It's getting dark and she wants to get the children into their beds.

Ray shrugs and says OK. They load the car. The trip to International Drive is smooth - he loves this - and they read as many of the advertising boards as they can take in. The children fall asleep.


In the hotel, Ray undresses his children as they lay ragged in a cool bed. With a little help from the air conditioning the evening warmth is easing. He should be tired but he's not. Susan begins to unpack, but he reminds her they may move tomorrow, so she takes out underwear and fresh light clothes for the morning. Ray flicks on the TV and browses the channels. He stops on a local news report. Two boys, thirteen, one is dead. One teen says the other wanted to play Russian roulette and when he tried to stop him, the gun went off. Investigations continue. Ray can't sleep. He says should he nip out and get some wine, maybe a pizza? Susan doesn't want him to go but she says OK. When he is gone she double locks the door and puts the chain on.


The car is gorgeous, the radio is playing soft rock and Ray drives easily, looking at neon signs, the palm trees, dark green against a lit, oozing, brass-red sky. He feels smooth and warm, and when he finds a 24-hour grocery store, he drops in there, gets a bottle of cold Chablis, potato chips, and a newspaper. Then he goes next door, browses through books and magazines.


The next day, the children wake very early and when Susan is up, they have a quick swim, pack their cases, and leave the hotel before eight o'clock. Last night Ray saw rooms as low as $35 and he is pumped up. Clem and Bridget catch his excitement and he laughs and jokes with them about Disney, Mickey Mouse, about ET and Barney, and about Shamu, the killer whale that Clem thinks is called Free Willy and Bridget calls Frilly Willy. Even though Susan wants to be low, she catches it too, and ends up smiling. They cruise around and find a Comfort Inn for peanuts. Ray has calculated they have an extra $600 spending money. Susan is a little nervous but Ray points to the security guards on the road and the open car-parks, well-lit.

They drive to breakfast and in her newspaper, Susan reads, Medina Must Die: Justices reject idea he has severe mental illness. When they get to Denny's, Ray borrows the paper, orders hash browns and explains how he wants his eggs. The waitress is uncertain and says, "Easy over?" and Ray says, "Sure," almost matching her accent. He drinks coffee, reads about this black guy, mentally ill, but rational enough to know he's been convicted of murder and that carrying out sentence will kill him. He reads that Medina has been eating his own feces and communing with Einstein. But the Supreme Court thinks he's an actor and he dies next week. When the eggs arrive they are perfect and he says, "Let's go to Sea World as it's near the hotel."

It's hot already, but the Shamu display is truly magnificent. Ray, Susan, the children, sit centrally on the rear edge of the splash zone, and the power, the excitement, affects them all. Clem, just four, is plucked from the crowd and a huge TV screen shows him signalling the killer whale. Susan is proud. Ray says allowing ordinary people, kids, to see these magnificent creatures justifies their imprisonment. Susan doesn't comment. Bridget likes the baby Shamu, the baby Frilly Willy.

Now it's too hot. They go back to the hotel. It doesn't feel quite as safe as the first hotel but it's cheap. They change, go for a swim, and Clem learns to jump in. Then they go back to the room to dodge the worst of the afternoon sun. On the TV local news a boy, fourteen has been shot by a man, seventy-six because he trespassed in his yard. An addendum says the man owes the state three million dollars in fines for storing junk without a permit.

Susan and the children are asleep but Ray is wide awake, and buzzing. He remembers the tremendous killer-whale display, and the scarlet-rubbered handlers in the water and above it. He fidgets and picks up the paper. When he opens it he reads about Ronnie Ray Brown a suspected serial rapist. A series of rapes stopped when Brown went to prison for possessing cocaine, restarted when he was released. His bail is $15,000.

Ray flicks on the television and Susan moves, groans in her sleep. There is nothing much on and Ray turns back to the newspaper. He reads about Rose Matos, a grandmother accused of aggravated assault and child abuse by wilful torture. Her attorney has said that his client has done nothing wrong.

Ray gets up, lets himself out, leaves the door ajar briefly, and goes along a balcony to a central point where there is an ice machine, a drinks dispenser. He gets a diet Sprite and a bucket full of ice-cubes. When he comes back he opens the drink and sips at it while planning the holiday. Tonight, for dinner, they will try a Red Lobster, tomorrow they'll go to Universal, Bridget wants to see Barney. Then he picks up the Sentinel again.

He finds, tucked away on page B-6, a report of a meticulously planned murder-suicide in West Palm Beach. After leaving gift-notes on toys and furniture, the mother climbed into bed with her sleeping eight-year old son and allowed the father to shoot them. He then sat in a chair and shot himself.

Ray still can't sleep. He goes out to the balcony and stares down at the I-4. Traffic is steady and far off he hears the wail of sirens. The edge has gone off the heat but it's still hot for an Englishman, hot and a little muggy. He goes inside and turns the aircon onto max. When Clem wakes up he says to him, "Wanna go for a swim, little guy?" Clem does. Now that he's not scared of going under the water Clem likes to jump in. "Live a little dangerously!" Ray says and they leave, lock the women in, and go down to the pool. The water is warm, they cruise, the sun is fat in the sky and things are, well, cool man. Now Clem wants to learn to dive.

That night they go to The Red Lobster. They don't have to wait in line for long and the waiters are friendly. Susan has cut out a piece of The Sentinel marked "Ticked off". Orlando folk can e-mail or telephone their gripes about what's wrong with life. They complain about the smell of smoke on smokers' clothing, waiters with body odor, the slobs who leave fast food bags in their neighbours' drive-ways, Wendy's, MacDonald's, last night a Burger King.

But her favourite "Ticked-off" is about "baby-boomers who take their kids to art festivals." The complainant says that if they can't afford a baby-sitter, they can't afford the art, and they should leave their dogs at home, too, dogs don't appreciate art.

If she knew of them all, Susan would say something about the three dead children, the dead mother, the dead father. Was no-one ticked off with that? But she doesn't. Ray has started hiding the worst stuff because he knows what Susan is like.

The meal is excellent, if a little large; lobsters, scallops, shrimp. They take it with a nice Chardonnay and the children eat chicken strips and fries. When they leave, Susan glances left and right before they hurry to the car, but Ray makes a joke of it as if he's chasing the children. When he gets in to the car, Susan says please centrally lock the doors. They drive back to the hotel, carry their sleeping kids to the room, leave the TV off and crash.


They swim before breakfast and are at Universal early. By ten o'clock Clem and Ray have been on the ET ride three times and only now are the wait lines getting long. The first Barney and Friends show is at 10:30 and they go there. Even after three times round on the ride, the boys were still impressed. Ray thinks Bridget would have been frightened, but she will love Barney.

A man called Mr Peekaboo does a holding job at the doors and the crowd seems to enjoy him, but for some reason he makes Susan feel uncomfortable. Inside, after they have imagined the doors open and imagined Barney's Park, they sit down and Mr Peekaboo reappears. On orders, the children imagine, imagine, again, their fingers pressed to their temples. The lights dim and then dark, and ceiling stars twinkle, until, with an explosion of music Barney appears, purple, and toothless, in a shower of silver petals. Ray can't decide if he came up through a hatch or slid silently up the ramp while little eyes scanned the stars.

Whatever, Bridget is not yet three, Clem still four, and they know Barney is real. The performance is slick and when Barney is joined by his friends, BJ and Baby-Bop, they are transported. They sing, "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands," and "Grandpa's Farm" and by imagining hard they make real snow fall from above, real raindrops sprinkle down. Finally, they sing, "I Love You, You Love Me" the dinosaurs hugging each other before they slip away. There's no doubt the kids love it, but coldly Susan says, "Fast Food". Ray responds, "But you must have been impressed by the snow, that was something else."

"The kids enjoyed it," Susan says.

On the TV local news that night, before they go out to try a Japanese Kobe restaurant, a drive-by shooting. There is some argument about whether the victim, black, eighteen, was or was not involved in the drug scene.

In the paper next day there is a commentary but the headline news shouts, Loose Tiger Surprises Worker, Mauls His Leg During Feeding Time. On the television later they show video footage; a creature as magnificent and as beautiful as Shamu, tranquillised and shot dead by sheriffs within seconds. They listen to radio as they drive to Universal for a second day. The protests are heartfelt and encouraged by the radio jock. So why, he says, tranquillise the poor tiger and then open fire less than two seconds later? Someone phones in and says, "Man that Tiger was so damn beautiful, it ain't right."

The kids love Barney. Clem and Ray go on ET again. It gets hot so they go back to the hotel, swim and doze the afternoon before going back. They watch Barney again go on ET again. Ray says, "Hey, I didn't realise, these characters don't speak, it's pre-recorded. They simply dance to the music."

Susan says, "And you're surprised?"

It's evening. When they exit they hear music, follow it, and stumble into a Mardi Gras. People are screaming, screeching, waving, and the men and women on the floats are throwing out bead-necklaces for them to catch. The crowd is competitive and after ten minutes trying, Ray, with Bridget on his shoulders, has failed to intercept one. Around him, huge men are festooned with fifteen, twenty, thirty necklaces. He wants to put his girl down, go fight for some jewellery, but Bridget is crying now.

Susan almost catches a pink dayglo necklace, but a large fat man wearing a Goofy hat has his hands on it too and they tussle. They lock eyes and Susan hangs on for a second, then lets go. Now Clem begins to cry and the family decide to leave carrying a slow, silent frustration. Ray feels angry, but then as they walk beside an artificial lake where the water has been dyed green, a group of teenagers passes and two of the teens break away from their group, smile to Susan, and offer the bare-necked kids two necklaces each. Susan and Ray are touched, and briefly they forget the large-fisted men in hats.

But they are tired and can't be bothered with a restaurant. They grab a take-away pizza and eat it in their room, the kids wasted, lying above the sheets, their necklaces precious beneath their pillows.

In the morning, breakfast at Denny's, (hash browns, bacon, two eggs easy-over). Over coffee they read, "Doctors Operate on Tiger Victim" and to the right, "Medina Still Fights to Save His Life." At the bottom of the page it says "Lake Student, 13, Found With Gun at Tavares Middle." And at the end of the article it says, "When officers pointed out the gun wasn't loaded, Hugo said he planned to 'hit someone upside the head with it.' "

Today they are going to Disney, The Magic Kingdom, Mickey Mouse.

Susan decides that Walter's World has taken surface to the ultimate. When they arrive, they travel on a fake paddle-steamer across an artificial lake, and look out at a man-made beach. She is almost surprised when the squawking seabirds turn out to have beating hearts. But Ray and the kids, love it. When they disembark, they walk a path of octagonal tiles all etched with families, Joe, Mary, Clint & Michelle, Chicago; Harry & Diane, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Susan suspects the tiles are reconstituted, maybe even some kind of plastic.

But Ray doesn't care. He has decided he likes this, the shine, the neatness, the efficiency. The order impresses him, he sees no litter, and when they get inside the Magic Kingdom and stumble on Minnie Mouse dancing, Bridget is in raptures and Clem's eyes widen. Ray's seduction is complete, and Susan distracted. Despite herself, she forgets what's real, what cruel.

Susan tells herself the day, the morning, is for their children. They fly with Peter Pan, sail "It's a Small World", ride a horsed carousel, float between pirates and defensive castles, soar high over the magic Magic Kingdom in an aerial car, drive and bump throbbing racing cars, buy hats and balloons.

When it gets too hot, they pick up their children, carry them to the gates of the Kingdom, leave, find their car, and slip efficiently away.

That night's news doesn't contain a murder, just a grandmother mown down by a hit and run driver while she waited for a bus, two men drowned in Lake Orlando, trapped in their car, and news that three-hundred and fifty violent offenders, rapists and murderers are to be released from prison early. And a memorial service is announced, for an eighteen-year-old Canadian boy, held tomorrow at Daytona Beach. It's a year since he was shot, on the first day of his vacation. He had stopped to ring home.

Susan no longer quite hears these things. She feels not exactly a numbness but a kind of disbelief, as if she has stumbled into a badly written movie. But Ray has adapted. Now fascinated, he swallows the deaths, the gun-shots, the sirens. Now he sees the news as one step up in excitement from Miami Vice. Susan asks him to turn off the TV. She insists they watch no news while the children are awake.

They shop the next morning. Susan and Ray can't believe how cheap cars are, how cheap the petrol is. Ray calls it gas now. They browse stores selling sports kit at a quarter the price of home, and with variety, colour, so much choice that Ray is dizzy. They buy Star Wars toys for Clem, and Barbie dolls for Bridget, a small radio they will smuggle back into England, cases, books.

For lunch, another Red Lobster meal, wine, beer, chicken again for the kids. Susan is quiet but Ray swigs at his Bud and says, "When you get used to things, it's OK, isn't it? I could live here." Susan looks up at him. He is red with sunburn. Then she looks down at her meal. She doesn't answer. They go back to the hotel, down to the pool, and Ray tries again to teach his son to dive. He fails, but Clem is young and there's time, Susan says. The sun beats, the blue water shimmers, and three of the family are laughing. Whenever anyone looks at her Susan manages to smile.

They have five-day tickets for Universal Studios and in the evening Ray says why don't they go to the Mardi Gras again? He could get plenty of necklaces now, he says, now he knows the score. Susan says it's too hot, but he could take Clem maybe, or maybe go on his own? Ray is disappointed. He says that's not what holidays are about, they should be together.

"I'm tired," Susan says. Ray softens and says OK, they'll crash early. Later, when the children heavily sleep, he turns on the television and he hears of a child taken and eaten by an alligator while playing.

"Jesus Christ!" he says, "I thought they didn't attack people." Susan, her body turned to the wall, pretends to sleep.

"I'm hungry," Ray says, "You hungry?"

Susan grunts.

"How about a pizza?" Ray says.

He leaves her, goes out for a while.


In the car, cruising, oozing, the night black, the signs red and sharp, Ray plays the radio loud. He hears "Eye of the Tiger" and thinks of Rocky Balboa in sweats running through the market, loping up the steps. America suits him and he imagines anything is possible, starting with a cheap pepperoni pizza. He pulls in between a 7-11 and a Pizza Hut. There are maybe a dozen cars, people walking along the sidewalk. There's a low, friendly, amber light.

Susan sleeps. When Ray does not come home there is no click of the key in the lock. She does not hear him moving in the room. She does not roll over and say, "Hey, you were quick, love, did you get any garlic bread?" But then, sometime deep in the night she wakes, and suddenly she is full of fear.

When it is all finished, days, uniforms, an identification later, Susan White and her children are flown home by Virgin Airways. They are put upstairs in first-class, a management decision to protect them from intrusion. As they board the plane people are hushed but look and whisper. One or two women, mothers, feel tears coming. One man, in a Jaws T-shirt, swallows, clenches his fist at his side, and walks away quickly, towards the toilets. They all saw it on the news. Most have kept a copy of the Sentinel, packed flat in their suitcases.


In the hush before take-off the stewardesses flutter around the family and speak softly, kindly. The mother is very quiet, but that's to be expected. The stewardesses smile at Clem and smile at Bridget and as the jet taxis, they sit close by. The children sleep on the night flight back. They are wrapped in soft woollen blankets, and rest on tiny white pillows.

Tinkerbelle lands at Gatwick in the cool of an English spring morning. The family steps down - their luggage will be dealt with - and they are led away to somewhere private. Shortly they will be taken home in a luxury car, but then a soft-spoken man thinks of the children. Perhaps Mrs White would like something, perhaps Bridget and Clem might like a MacDonalds?

Susan White is wearing the darkest thing she could find but it is nowhere near black. The man is not unpleasant but when he speaks, his words cut deep into her and she sees him as suddenly ugly. She breathes, then speaks.

"No, she says, "no, not a MacDonald's. Please just take us home."


It takes thirty miles before the first tear comes. It swells, and when Susan blinks, it rolls down her cheek as she looks out at the passing fields, at little, ordinary England, at beech trees, elms, a village green. Susan had thought she would be stronger, but somewhere thirty miles from Gatwick she has heard Ray again, that last night. He was a little too excited, his voice pitched a fraction too high. He couldn't sleep he said, and he was hungry. He wanted to nip out and get something.

"How about a pizza?" Ray said. Susan was facing away from him. That afternoon she had noticed that his forehead and his nose were red where he had caught a little too much sun. He would need to be careful. She tried to remember, when she had told him, how she had raised her hand and touched his cheek.

She tried, but now, though she tried, she couldn't quite picture his face.

4,103 words.