Having had one story accepted for a South African Horrorfest Anthology, I decided to enter once more. I'm delighted to say that another story of mine, 'Widows Walk' has been accepted and the book itself is now available! When I write I often create 'inspiration' covers for my books and I also sometimes do the same for short stories.
So here's my story image and the cover of the final anthology in which my story appeared!
Widows Walk - A guilty conscience, and someone who will stop at nothing for another chance of love.
If you have a taste for the macabre, the spooky, the ghostly, and the downright horror-filled then the Bloody Parchment anthologies will be your particular cup of poison! If you don't pick up a copy on Amazon now, you'll never forgive yourself!
This post was originally loaded in September 2017! But life... it has a habit of making one reassess things. My website was one of them, and the original page was deleted.
Second Chances - it's good to know that you don't only get one chance at love. If one chance was all we ever got, the world be eating a lot more chocolate. On its own. In front of the tele, watching a soppy romance, or reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, curled up with the cat. We've probably all had a break-up at some time and even if it wasn't Rhett Butler walking off into the mist, it still felt as desperate. But then there's that last scene, and if you can get through the appalling acting, what Scarlett said was true, "After all, tomorrow is another day."
The most amazing thing is how often we DO get second chances. Not just at love, but at life. There is definitely a place for chocolate and cuddling the cat - in lieu of Mr Darcy or Mr Butler - but as a lifestyle? Not so much. And sitting around waiting for them to come knocking is probably not going to bring that Second Chance along. Very often it doesn't even encourage the First Chance to spring for flowers, polish its spats and tootle round to your front door with tickets for the theatre tucked into its jacket pocket and a scrumptious dinner in the offing.
Something, clearly, must be done. But what?
I've recently read 'The Outliers' by Malcolm Gladwell. On the romance scale of sweet to hot - let's just say that it doesn't feature. In fact, all of the usual requirements for a good romance book are completely missing. Except two - plot and character. But, I hear you ask, probably with a puzzled frown, aren't they the two most important aspects of any book, let alone a romance novel?
Well, yes. But...
Let me explain. Mr Gladwell's book's subtitle is The Story of Success. It does a masterful job of explaining that there's no such thing as a self-made man. There are a number of factors that go into building one's success, including Chance and Opportunity. I found, after closing the book with a thoughtful twist to the eyebrows, that I probably didn't match most of the criteria Gladwell had mentioned. Apart from the aforementioned Chance and Opportunity, which always seem to be lurking around if one learns to differentiate them from the loungers on the corner all going by the names Chancer and Con.
There were, I realised, thank goodness, others he hadn't mentioned which I could put into action. Namely, waking up, smelling the coffee, or roses depending on my inclination on the day - but certainly smelling something with an attractive aroma, paying attention and - taking chances. It's the old Carpe Diem adage packaged with a delightful beverage and perfumed foliage.
Plot - otherwise known as Life. Life can be a bully. It tends to throw things at one that one wasn't expecting and aren't exactly high on anyone's list of 'Things to Experiencing Before I Pop My Clogs'. But this is where Character comes in - that's you, my sweet petunia. The choices we make every day either open or close the doors to those chances, be they First or Second ones. If Life has poked you in the snoot and you're staggering around dazed, confused and pain, wondering where your copy of Pride and Prejudice is lying and if the cat has finished all the chocolate, then it's time to remember that now is the perfect opportunity for a Second Chance.
Plot and character will always play a large part in one's success - whether it be selling popsicles or finding true love. Carpe that diem by the throat and shake it 'til something good falls out its pockets is what I say!
Some people believe writing fiction isn't 'important'. That it's merely 'escapism' for readers. That it's not a real job. There's a number of things wrong with this assumption.
Stories are how we pass on our history - as individuals, families, tribes and nations. They are what bind us together. Story is what we find scratched or painted on cave walls. Story is what happened as far back as man existed, it's in our DNA. Story happens all the time, even if you're not an author, you tell stories. It is the retelling of our individual or collective past, our traditions, our culture, by framing it in a 'once upon a time' setting, which gives us purpose and hope for the present and the future.
Stories also change us. By being in a 'once upon a time' framework they allow readers to be challenged in ways factual, or even self-help books, can fail. And that's because a story develops empathy in the reader for the characters about whom they've come to care. Research shows that readers of fiction are more empathetic, more open to other cultures, traditions and ways of thinking than non-readers. And empathy, in today's world, is a character trait of which we could use a lot more.
Oh, please, I hear you say, what could an historical romance set in 1867 in British Columbia have to contribute to a 2019 South African reader's life? Let him tell you (Yes, 'him'!).
"I am not someone who typically reads romance novels and very often I shy away from stories set in the 1800s. This story though had an intriguing concept of a Bride Ship. I wanted to read more about it from an interest point of view. I was not prepared for how the story would suck me in and hold me from the first page until I fell out at the last a changed person." - Mark Patterson, reviewing 'Harcourt's Mountain'.
Why are stories important? - 'I fell out a changed person." And that's why I am a storyteller.
2021 Update: The book is now published but under a different title as you can see. It's now called L.E.T.H.A.L.
I have decided to publish a number of my short stories in an anthology entitled, 'XLP#304'. It's named after one of my favourite characters. To sharpen my skills, I began writing short stories, using as a deadline the length of time it took for the bathwater to run. I have a very slow bath. They became known, unimaginatively as, the Running the Water Stories.
I then discovered the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge. I have been enjoying that for two years now. It's where XLP#304 made his first appearance. Not to mention his second and his third!
So, if you are wondering why there are so few short stories on the website, despite the rather OTT title on the Short Story page header pic, that's why! They're all about to go into a book! It will be my first short story anthology and my first foray into self-publishing - not something I've ever been a fan of but... life is short and exists for us to have adventures and try new things, so why not?
When I moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe, a friend said how lucky he thought I was - no one knew me in South Africa, I could re-invent myself, I could become someone I never could back home. This week, I've had a chance to think about that a lot. My novel, 'Harcourt's Mountain' has had a re-invention of its own. The cover is, as they say, exactly the same, but different.
(2021 Update: The cover has changed since this blog was written and amazingly, it's still 'the same but different'. It now has the added element of a human figure, as you can see.)
The first cover had a mountain, a lake, a forest, a wolf and some flowers. This cover has a mountain, a lake, a forest, and a wolf - no flowers. Yet the interpretation of those elements, by two different designers, is as different as strawberries are to onions. And it's not just the lack of flowers. The old cover was a bit chocolate boxy, attractive, fruity even, but not real. The new cover is as rugged as the land the book is set in. With nary a strawberry in sight. And while the first cover wasn't wrong in its depiction of elements found in the book, the second cover shows you the book's heart.
We can change ourselves to a certain extent. Especially the outside - a new haircut, go to the gym, a new diet, a new city, country, marital status, job, a new profession even. Occasionally, we're brave enough to make changes internally that we never could when surrounded, as intensely as we are at home, by our past and our families.
It's human nature to dream about being someone else. That's the appeal of stories, no matter what form they come in. Stories touch a deep part of us. They allow us to become someone else for a while. And that's important. Call it escapism if you want, but it's been proved that people who read are more empathetic to others, more able to image what someone's life might be like and do it with far less judgement than non-readers.
Storytelling is important. But here's the question, what story are you telling yourself about yourself? Are you telling the story of the you deep inside, the you, you want to be, the you, you could be? It may just take a slight shift in the story to ignite the re-invention.
Re-inventing ourselves, as with 'Harcourt's Mountain', doesn't necessarily mean becoming someone completely different. I think it means becoming more the selves we were meant to be all along. Making the changes that let the truth and the beauty shine through.
What story are you telling?
Did I ever tell you the bear story? It’s a story that has plagued my life. Shame really as I like bears.
It all began, as so many things that have a profound effect on one’s life does, at high school. We were given an assignment by our science teacher: Pick any animal and write on the sex-life of that creature.
Needless to say, I wrote on bears. I laboured long and hard on the project. When it was finished it filled so many exercise books that when stacked together were an inch thick. The project had in it a number of those wonderful pull-out maps you get in the National Geographic magazine. Photos from the same magazine, from the Reader’s Digest and hand-drawn illustrations and charts adorned the work. I had articles and bear tales from round the globe all beautifully annotated in as well. I had never been prouder of a project in my life. I positively glowed with pride when I handed it in.
I got a ‘D’. A fail. Not an ‘E’ for ‘We acknowledge you expended energy but you have almost no clue’, not an ‘F’ for ‘Complete fail’ but a ‘Nope, you didn’t pass D’.
My father, bless him, outraged that I was given a ‘D’ when clearly, based on the amount of work, the late nights endured and the sheer beauty of the project I deserved an ‘A+++++’, laurel wreaths and parades complete with brass bands and elephants, put on his shining armour, mounted his white charger and rode off to defend my honour.
According to him the conversation with the science teacher went something like this – bear in mind that my dad has a forceful chin and rather piercing eyes, so even slight annoyance looks like the wrath of a minor deity.
Dad: I’d like you to explain why my daughter failed. Please.
Mr Darwin (I kid you not), possibly quailing at the thunderstorm that had erupted in his lab: Mr Dodge, The assignment was “Write on the sex-life of any animal of your choice.”
Mr Darwin: If you can find me one sentence in this entire project that even suggests the sex-life of bears, I’ll give Elaine an ‘A+’. (No proposal of parades and elephants though.)
Dad: Are you saying she didn’t even mention it?
Mr Darwin: Not once. In fact, it’s so lacking in any discussion of the sex-life of bears that anyone reading this project would be forced to conclude that bears miraculously and spontaneously appear out of nowhere.
Ever after, “READ THE QUESTION!” became the mantra I had to endure for every test and every exam I ever took at school, university and college!
Ya think I’d have learnt my lesson, right?
Well, if I had there would be no point to this story. I recently proclaimed with much enthusiasm to the world at large that I was entering the Jameson First Shot Competition this year…I believe I may have said, “If it killed me”. I wrote two scripts. The first one was such rubbish I don’t even remember what it was about. The second one, I thought, had great merit. It was original, witty and clever. I finished it just in time to meet the deadline. Then the mantra began its slow but inexorable chant in my brain. “Read the question, read the question, read the question!” I dutifully went back to the competition website and read the question. This time I wouldn’t get a ‘D’. This time it would be a well-deserved and resounding ‘F’. Possibly followed by trampling of said elephants.
There was, however, light at the end of the tunnel. They had extended the deadline for one day due to technical difficulties! It meant a late night and some hard graft today. I had to come up with a brand new story immediately. It was lunchtime today before inspiration hit. Four hours to write the script that had the potential to change my life!
The echo of the mantra was still drifting lazily somewhere around the ceiling, so before writing my epic I went back and checked the website one more time.
The competition is closed. No more extension. In fact, the statement about the extension has completely disappeared. Vanished. Erased as if devoured by starving Krackens.
I am left disconsolate. Weeping tears of despair. Well, no but you get the drift. Still, there’s always next year. In the meantime I can practise READING THE &^^#%$%#@*QUESTION!!!!
For now, I, like my father and others before him, exit stage left – pursued by a bear!
Pic credit: Amy Sullivan www.amysullivanillustration.com
I was at dinner at a friend's the other day and the discussion touched on the plight of the Syrian refugees and the opportunities they were being offered in other countries in terms of university bursaries. One of the diners mentioned that the refugees were only being taught science related subjects - things, she said quite adamantly, that mattered, that would be of value to Syria when it came time for the refugees to return home and set about rebuilding the nation. They weren't being taught things that had no value, things like art, storytelling and music. I was so stunned that anybody could seriously consider art, storytelling and music to have no value, especially in a country that had been devastated, I just sat there, speechless.
How else does one discover one's roots, one's purpose and one's future if not through storytelling? How does one pass on a people's culture if not through art and what else can express that which is inexpressible, whether it be love, pain, despair, peace, desire and hope, when one has run out of political rhetoric and the heart's emotion is too great to bear, except through music?
Governments and ideologies that demote the arts do so for a very good reason. Not because medicine, agriculture, maths or science is more important but because the arts keep people human. They are the expression of our souls. The danger of the arts is that when people express their souls, when they imagine life beyond the confines of the regime's ideology, they will begin to think for themselves, to imagine and create a life without the regime or the ideology. They will yearn for, strive for and eventually bring into being a better life. A life of freedom. A government or ideology which doesn't allow creative thought and expression is one built on hatred and fear. And the only natural outcome of that is death. Someone once said, "Governments that burn books, will soon be burning people."
There was a moment when I was growing up that I will never forget. We were at my Granny Campbell's house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I was in trouble for something, I forget what. I always seemed to be in trouble. I think we were late for a ‘do’ and I wasn’t ready. My mother was haranguing me about it. I was paying very little attention. I had something far more important on my mind. I said, because I very genuinely wanted to know, not because I was being sarcastic, “What’s it like to be inside your skin, Mom?”
It didn’t go down well.
It was the wrong question, at the wrong time. But, I’m serious; I really wanted to know what being inside her skin would be like. Yes, I am well aware that sounds a little creepy – very Silence of the Lambs type stuff – which was not even remotely where I was going with it at the time, or now I hasten to add.
Looking back, I can see that was one of those moments which hinted at my future. After all, what is a writer but someone who can get into the skin, into the mind of their characters and then see with their eyes, speak with their voices, feel with their toes? If we do it well enough, our readers will come crashing up against the characters and we, as writers, disappear completely.
The skin question was just one of the thoughts that rattled around my brain…I was going to say as a child, but it’s never stopped. Now, I rattle them with delight because they’re the questions that make me who and what I am. They are what send me on rabbit trails of delightful investigation to bring both reality and imagination to my work. They are what, hopefully, makes me a good writer.
Nearly all my life, my mind has run on very different paths to others around me. The things that captivate others hold little, if any interest for me. It probably explains why I didn’t have many friends growing up and why my parents didn’t get me at all. My father, poor man, still struggles with the fact that I’ve never had a ‘real’ job. But then he was a banker. Bankers aren’t known for their imagination. The very word is enough to set his false teeth rattling.
That’s why, when I see pictures like this, I feel an inordinate sense of relief. Someone, somewhere gets me. They can see inside my head and it delights them. And that makes me smile because knowing that, means imagination, more specifically my imagination, is a good place to live.
Terry Pratchett has died. He died yesterday. He was only 66. He had Alzheimer's. I don't know which is worse. I do know that I loved his books. I will miss him because of his books. I will miss his amused and tongue-in-cheek playing with cliches. I will miss the hat. And selfishly, as if I wasn't being selfish enough already, I will miss Sam Vines.
I first discovered him, Sir Terry that is, when I read The Carpet People, lying on the carpet in the living room, in our family home in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was the perfect vantage point to read the book. In fact, it should be a law. You are only allowed to read the book lying on your back on the carpet.
I was mesmerized by the story and the characters, and yet it's such a simple book. Years later I read The Night Watch. I fell in love with Sam Vines. He has since become one of my small group of fictional heroes.
Some people have called Sir Terry's writing style eccentric. I call it creative, unusual and inspired. His lack of chapters for example. The first time I encountered their lack I thought the publishers had made a mistake. For someone who suffers from what I call the squirrel syndrome (I'll put the light out at the end of this chapter - oooh look, another chapter!) this lack of chapters is responsible for many all-night reading sessions.
Those of us who have an imagination and aren't afraid to use it will have encountered those without and will have experienced that 'upsetness' first hand. I know I have. Bizarrely, one person was the last you'd expect - my high school English teacher. There's also been the odd banker who thought a particular book should be burned because it had a dragon in it! Well, I did say he was odd. It relieves and encourages me to know that Sir Terry encountered similar non-imaginaries, even though he also sold over 70 million books and was translated into 30 languages! I'm encouraged to know I'm not the only one out there battling the non-imaginaries while trying to make a living using mine.
Thank you Sir Terry for Discworld. Thank you that somewhere the earth is flat, that heroes don't marry Disney princesses, that someone sells rat-ona-stick, that vampires can fall off the wagon and that the Librarian is an orangutan. Every Library should have one.
Stand back! I have an imagination and I'm not afraid to use it!