QuickFic 29/01/16: The Winner

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Well. That was pretty special.

It was special because it was our very first first line prompt of the year. And, well, let’s hold our hands up here: it was a bit special because one of us here in the office wrote it. Yep, it’s the first line of Nicci’s new YA novel, which comes out next week, and so it was extra special to see what you all thought might have happened to Lizzie. (And also a tiny bit frustrating that some of those ideas were more exciting than the actual thing!).

And obviously it was special because you guys were mega-talented as always.

Anyway, let’s have a look at who’s going to be rehoming our books this week.

RUNNER-UP: Jane Bradley

Eclipsed

I don’t hear anything about Lizzie until the police knock on the door.

Then, after that fateful moment, she’s all I hear about.

Suddenly, all anyone talks about is Lizzie and Lizzie only. What about me? I want to scream. But no-one’s listening.

I’m the good one now, the one they don’t need to worry about. Funny that. I wasn’t the good one before. I was the average one. Not as smart as my older brother, not as pretty as my little sister.

But Lizzie? She was nowhere until that day.

She’d disappeared, walked out of our lives years ago, before I had the chance to really remember her.  I had a vague recollection of blonde hair, curly, floating about her head like an angel. Wild, angry eyes, nothing like an angel.

Then she was gone.

But now, she’s back. Not Lizzie herself, just a dark cloud of nightmares with the same name.

The police said it was definitely her, there was no doubt. She’d been found standing next to the body with a knife in her hand and a maniacal grin on her face.

I hitched my school bag onto my back and took a deep breath. I opened the door.

The flashing started immediately, a disco of strobe lights exploding over our front lawn. Black boxes hoisted onto their shoulders, tiny silver recorders. A few had pens and notebooks.
They were all shouting the same thing:
“Lizzie? Lizzie? Have you seen Lizzie?”

Yes, it’s all I hear now.

 

RUNNER-UP: Kirsten Riley

The Unsolved Case of Lizzie Meadows

I read everything there was to know about her; the colour of her hair (blonde), what perfume she wore (Daisy), what toothpaste she used (Colgate) and what time she died. 6:14 am. Today.

Lizzie Meadows was a girl who youth looked good on. She wore her 18 years well and men noticed. Sometimes the wrong ones. I thumbed through the file I was given at the door by PC Grace and Sergeant Wishaw; old-fashioned coppers who exhibited that collective contempt reserved for Detectives like me. Desk jockeys that didn’t get their hands dirty.

The file was no more than a few pages but I sensed it would grow, unwritten words filling blank pages as we found out more about Lizzie’s past life. So many questions were unanswered, facts unknown. When was she last seen, who was she with and where did they go?

She was found wearing a pink summer dress in an alley less than 30 metres from her flat. Ligature marks suggested strangulation. Her roommates said she often didn’t return so never raised the alarm. I’d start with this, and hope that the scarce threads of evidence could form some fabric of truth.

But Miss Meadow’s was only one of my cases and I knew she’d probably end up in the filing cabinet under ‘unsolved’, like so many others. My job taught me that life was fragile and sometimes unfair. It also taught me that you never start the day without a cup of tea.   

 

WINNER: Will Downes

An Exercise in Relaxation

I don’t hear about Lizzie until the police knock on the door. And even then. The snow is falling more gracefully now, settling briefly on the brickwork beneath our feet before fizzing away. Their faces are painted with a blank, silent mystery, and yet their presence screams.

We have not yet spent a day apart. It has not yet been a day since we spoke. She took a class on Tuesday nights. I would collect her on my way home from the office, sitting and waiting before watching as she crossed the car-park with a group of her friends. She spoke so highly of the two hours she spent inside the theatre each week.

I remember the occasion I went inside, taking a seat at the back of the auditorium and watching an exercise in relaxation. There she was, laid amongst her peers, a patchwork of bodies on the stage boards – their tutor treading carefully between the limbs. Such stillness; such silence; such commitment to both.

My wife comes down the hallway behind me, un-rushed in her ignorance, and places her hand on the small of my back. She is not yet trembling. Behind the police officers, a car passes slowly, lights ablaze through the night. The chill of the air has become softened across my face, a tacit connection between myself and what still remains unsaid.

When words are finally spoken, I do not hear them. I feel only a pain in my back.   

 

Congratulations, Jane, Kirsten and Will! And well done everyone. Excellent Friday-ing.

See you next week!

 

QuickFic 29/01/16

Hi there. A very happy Friday to you!

We’ve got our third QuickFic prompt of 2016 coming up for you in a second (and it’s our very first first line of the year too!) – but before that, let’s just have a reminder about how this thing works.

At 9:50 on a Friday morning (now!), we give you a prompt (it’s at the bottom of this page). You have a look at that prompt, and then go away and write a teeny piece of fiction (250 words or less) inspired by it. Send us that teeny piece of fiction to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50 this afternoon and not a second later.

You might win this lovely selection of Faber paperbacks!

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Right then. Let’s check out that prompt, shall we?

Here it is:

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Well now.

*gazes into the middle distance, whistling innocently*

See you back here with the winners at 3:30!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of our Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, basically.

For more creative writing exercises, click here.

Querying a Literary Agent

Last year Charlie Campbell gave us his top tips on how to get the attention of an agent. To get a perspective from a writer’s point of view, we asked debut novelist Tim Baker, whose highly anticipated thriller Fever City hit shelves this week, to share his querying experiences with us

In a challenging climate of mergers, redundancies and cutbacks, publishing houses have come to rely on agents to handle the vetting of submissions, particularly from debut authors, thereby freeing up their own resources and cutting costs. Not having an agent puts you outside this process and that’s a place you just can’t afford to be these days.

The good news is that it has never been easier to query an agent or to find up to date information about what particular agents are looking for.

The bad news is that the number of queries agents are receiving has never been higher. But with a mixture of common sense and care, you can at least make your query stand out from the rest.

In order to begin the process you need three things.

The first is a completed manuscript that you honestly feel is ready for submission.

The second is a killer query letter.

And the third is a solid notion of the kind of agent who might be receptive to your query and who would best represent your work.

26168.books.origjpgI personally began my search for a literary agent by visiting a website called querytracker.net. This site lists both agents and agencies. If you really don’t know where to start, the site also has a list of hundreds of authors and the agents who represent them. Just look up a couple of authors whose work is similar in tone or genre to yours and note down their agents.

A feature of the site that helped me a lot was the comments section about the agents. It gives you a good idea of the timeframes you’re looking at in getting a response, and the kind of books that agents are requesting at any given time. It will let you know the agents who never respond to a query, thus saving you the hassle of following up with them. On the comments pages, you can also sometimes find mention of the names of the PAs who vet the queries for the bigger agents, allowing you to query directly to them, which always makes a good impression and shows you’ve done your homework and are therefore professional.

But beware when going through the comments: some of them can read as cries of despair from writers who have been querying for ages and getting nowhere. It underlines two particular qualities you’re going to need on this voyage: tenacity and courage.

Although there are many UK agents listed, Query Tracker does have a bias towards North American agents. Don’t be fooled into thinking you must land a New York Agent. Yes, it is the world capital of the publishing industry, but thanks to annual events such as the Frankfurt and London book fairs, as well as the changing face of the industry, location is not nearly as important as it once was. As you’ll want to develop a good working relationship with your agent, it also makes sense to try to find an agent in the country you live in. However, if your book’s setting is particular to the United States, or you have an introduction to an agent there, do reach out.

Another tremendous resource for writers trying to identify the right agents to query is Twitter. Just start following a couple of agents, and Twitter will suggest dozens more. When I was querying, I discovered several agencies I had never heard of through Twitter. Even better, most agents’ Twitter accounts link to their agency’s website, where you can find additional information such as querying instructions and agent preferences.

Twitter also hosts helpful advice via #askanagent, as well as all types of pitching events. By all means enter them, but remember you should never pitch an agent on Twitter outside of these events. The same goes for Facebook.

Twitter can be useful in raising red flags for writers. As Chris Parris-Lamb, the agent who landed a $2 million advance for City on Fire pointed out, if an agent spends a massive amount of time on Twitter, the chances are they’re not doing their job. The one thing a good agent never has enough of is time. Equally, agents who go off on tirades about colleagues or clients may not be the best people to build a relationship with. I had a full with an agent who let loose with an astonishing, obscenity-filled rant directed at a woman. It felt misogynistic, and it was certainly juvenile and unprofessional. My guess is that the agent thought he was texting when he was Tweeting – which indicates a problem with technological fluency. How many ways can you say No? I scratched him from my list immediately.

And that’s an important thing to remember. Although you desperately want to hear yes from agents, you also always have the power to say no. A bad agent is much worse than no agent.

On writing forums you often see questions concerning agency guidelines for queries, wondering how strictly they should be followed. Rules are made to be broken, but not here. Be thankful for guidelines, which are acts of kindness that give writers a general idea about what will and won’t interest a given agent. By ignoring guidelines, you undermine the entire system and make it more likely that agencies will stop considering unsolicited queries all together. Are there exceptions? Always, but what makes you think it applies to you?

Once you start the process of querying, you’re also starting the process of rejection. Rejection is an integral part of the process simply because it’s always easier to say no than yes. The most important thing is never to take it personally. An agent may be more inclined to pass because she just got a parking ticket or has a cold. She may be more inclined to request a full because she’s been newly promoted or is just back from holiday.

I had several examples where I queried an agent who passed, and then re-queried (with a different title) and received a request for a full. The letters were basically the same. The one variable was the mood of the agent. It stands to reason. Every choice we make in life is subjective, so why should a query be any different?

If you continue to get a lot of passes though, it could be time to revisit your query letter and try a different approach. I trialed a query letter with five agents and received five passes. I reworked it completely and got five requests for fulls from seven queries.

Sometimes agents or whole agencies will state in their guidelines that they only accept hard copies. My advice is not to bother querying them. Either they only accept hard copies because they are trying to dissuade as many writers as possible from submitting to them, or else they are hopelessly out of date with the changing realities of the industry and probably think ebooks are a passing fad.

Either way, you’re better off focusing on the vast majority of agencies that accept electronic queries. In the larger agencies, it’s normally the Personal Assistants and Interns who vet the electronic submissions. They are vital people, taking on enormous workloads and building knowledge and relations with fellow workers and the publishing industry. Never look down on them. More often than not, they are the first ones who will offer to help you.

They can be great but they can also be bad. Great because they have a passion for reading and part of their job is to devour manuscripts. If they are ambitious, they can act as effective champions with an eye on developing their own list. They are bad simply because turnover is high. I had two instances where PAs for star agents championed my work only to move on and be replaced by new interns who, understandably, were not crazy about pursuing someone else’s pick, and wanted to make their own choices and find their own gems.

If you meet a PA or Intern at a literary event, by all means ask if you can query them. Many will move on to other jobs in the industry but a few of them will be offered jobs at the end of their internship. But in the end, you’re probably better off dealing directly with agents and that means associate agents and younger, rising stars, not established mega-agents, who don’t really have the time to take on new clients anyway.  It took me a while to figure that out, but when I finally did, I received a sudden rush of interest in my manuscript.

When I received an offer of representation, I let everyone who had requested my full know. All of the younger agents asked that I give them more time before making a decision. But all of the more established agents simply congratulated me and stepped aside. Truth be told, the more established agents already had enough clients. Younger agents are always hungry for new clients, and ready to take a risk for something they believe in. And you should be prepared to consider taking a risk with them.

Beyond the normal route of query letters, Pitch an Agent events have grown in popularity and importance over the last few years, and many writing festivals have incorporated them as festival events. Whether you wish to sign up for one probably depends on how confident you feel about pitching in person – something that’s an art in itself. If you do decide to go for it, don’t forget to rehearse the pitch to perfection in front of various people. If you’re nervous about the prospect of doing a spiel in public to an audience of one, it might be better to stick to the traditional query letter.

Whether pitching in person or by letter, if you start getting lots of requests for fulls, but no subsequent offers it could mean that your manuscript is still not ready or that your query was promising something that the manuscript isn’t delivering. Some agents will give you a generic pass, but others will offer comments. Are the comments valid? If there really are problems, can you fix them? The process of writing is about continually asking hard questions of yourself, but your resources as a writer are always tested not by your questions but by your answers. Moving on to another project is not an end, it’s a continuation of a process. If you’re a writer, you’ll instinctively know that.

Practical Matters

  • Luck plays a part. Talent and tenacity another. But politeness and common curtesy is always vitally important. It works both ways: no one wants to work with a jerk.
  • In the movie industry there is one rule: never be desperate. In querying there are two: never be aggressive after a pass and never feel personally aggrieved. If your work is good, someone will recognize it. If no one does, it means it’s time to move on to the next book.
  • Using a clear subject line will help the agent identify your email. Guidelines will often address this issue, but if not, when querying, always insert the word query followed by the title of your novel in the subject line.
  • If you receive a request for a full or a partial, always insert requested material at the beginning of the subject line to ensure your manuscript doesn’t get lost. And if you are lucky enough to receive an offer of representation, always include offer of representation followed by the name of your manuscript when notifying other agents of the offer.
  • Many agencies now request a one-page synopsis. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to write after just finishing a 100,000 word opus, but if never hurts to have one ready, even if it’s only for your own use, as an exercise in clearly identifying the major themes and characters of your work. Can you really condense your novel into one page? The answer’s always yes. And that’s what you want to hear from the agent you just queried…

FEVER CITY: A Thriller (Faber & Faber) by Tim Baker is out now. Follow Tim on Twitter here.

QuickFic 22/01/16: The Winner

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Hello from the other side… of the bridge. Yes, we’ve safely landed at the end of this week’s QuickFic, and it was a hair-raising journey indeed. Although, actually, in the face of mortal peril – instead of, say, a lovely photo of a dog or a merry-go-round – you lot turned pretty damn chipper. Well, some of you, anyway…

As usual, a ton of brilliant stories. We had a great time.

Let’s have a read of the winners.

RUNNER-UP: Liz Hedgecock

The Gap

He’d gone to a different secondary school, but I still remembered the day he jumped the bridge. 

He was grumbling about carrying his bike up the railway bridge. ‘I could just ride across the old one.’ That was fifty yards down the road, closed a month before the middle splintered away.

‘You still could, if you went fast enough,’ said Darren. ‘Dare yer.’

Darren went with him so he didn’t chicken out. We gathered on the new bridge and stared at the gap. A shout, and he shot into view.

My memory’s in black and white; he hangs in the air like the ET kid, the train hoots, it fast-forwards to the landing. In reality there was no train and the gap was about a foot. But the image is stronger.

***

I sipped my sour wine and wondered how long I should give him. I was the only woman in the sports bar, and overdressed.

Perhaps it was fate that he’d popped up in my ‘people you may know’ list when I was feeling particularly stale. His profile was sparse. Mystery man, I thought.

‘Hey!’ Shaggy-haired, arm in a sling, wearing a surfer tee and cargo pants. ‘I’ll go get a beer.’

‘What happened to your arm?’ 

‘Bust it skateboarding.’ The cast was a multicolour scrawl.

‘You skateboard?’ 

‘Yeah.’ He leaned back, legs wide. ‘Adrenalin junkie. Remember when I jumped the bridge?’ 

‘Yes,’ I said, and calculated how long it would take to finish my wine.

 

WINNER: Alexis J Reed

The Angel

The angel fell from the sky on fish finger Friday. We’d all known he was coming, all morning we were like crazed hyenas, caged behind colourful tables, looking skywards through misted classroom windows. The Angel on the Triumph Bonneville. We knew he would show us that ‘death,’ the thing adults all spoke of in hushed tones, was nothing but a myth, that we could transcend it, could stare it down, and look damn cool doing it.

We’d filed into the plastic dining hall and inhaled our fish fingers, leaving inert bits of breadcrumb and pallid, chip insides all over our plates. And we’d run through the corridors, heedless to the shouts of teachers. I’d run with the pack, the fresh air hitting me as we blasted through the doors onto the playground. And we’d run to the edge of the playing field, which backed onto the railway lines. It felt like the edge of the world. Every day at 12.33, the train would sweep past and we’d all scream ‘choo choo, choo choo.’ Today, we waited in silence, our noses poking through the chain link fence; I can still taste that metallic tang.

We heard the train, moving towards us like some asthmatic juggernaut and we all looked to the broken bridge, like meercats sensing a predator. The train rounded the bend and we all jiggled on the spot, waiting, always waiting. And then we heard the low rumble of the bike, the flap of an angel’s wings.

Congratulations, Liz and Alexis! And thanks to everyone who entered. See you all next week!

Happy writing, happy weekends.

 

QuickFic 22/01/16

Hello, flash fiction fans. Ready for another round of QuickFic?

Us too!

Okay, let’s get on with it then. Remember: 250 words, inspired by the photo at the bottom of this page, by 2:50pm. Include a title and your word count! We’re at academy@faber.co.uk.

These are the books up for grabs this week:

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A lovely bunch.

And here’s this week’s prompt:

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Ooo-er. What’s he doing up there?

See you back here at 3:30!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of our Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, basically.

For more creative writing exercises, click here

QuickFic 15/01/16: The Winner

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What a wonderful return to QuickFic that was. Beautiful, eerie and downright creepy stories, all inspired by the photo above (which might have itself been inspired by some very sad news yesterday; if you know, you know). We loved them all; we’re very happy to be back.

So let’s have a look at our first winners of the year.

 

RUNNER-UP: Anastasia Gammon

Deer in the Mist

“Approach them slowly,” Ben says, like I have any interest whatsoever in approaching them.

When Ben invited me to spend the weekend at his family’s cabin, I had expected hot chocolate near the fireplace, warm blankets, and maybe even a smattering of snow. I had not expected patchy central heating and persistent wet fog. Or deer. They’re everywhere, staring at you through the fog like creepy little children in some old horror film. Ben thinks they’re his best friends.

He’s crouched down in some weird kind of almost squat, walking crablike through the fog towards one of them. “Come on,” he beckons. I pull the mothball-smelling blanket I found this morning tighter around me and dig my heels into the wet ground. I wish I were back in the cabin with Chester, Ben’s weird little spaniel, banned from this particular excursion. Lucky thing.

“Honestly,” Ben says, close to the deer now. “It won’t hurt you.” Just as he reaches out a hand to touch the deer’s head, I hear a high woof from somewhere. Ben’s eyes widen as Chester leaps out of the bushes to our right, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as per usual. The deer scatter, panicked. Ben just has time to dive out of the way of the one nearest him, straight into a slick of wet mud.

Chester, satisfied with his work, trots straight over to me. I scratch him behind his ears, the way I’ve seen Ben do a million times.

“Good dog.”

 

RUNNER-UP: Sharon Telfer

Hide

Nothing stirs.

He doesn’t stop to wash the sweat from his body. His bag is packed, ready, by the door. He pauses only outside his daughter’s room to check her soft breathing. It is still some time until dawn.

They chose this house because of the forest closing round it. Like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, he tells his daughter. Except he doesn’t sleep. The nightmares stalk him down the path to the hide. Images flash across the screen of trees, white starbursts, blood-red sand. He hears the scream of jets, of shells, of children.

Deep in the hide, he waits for the cold, the damp, the green to do their work. As dark melts to light, the images flicker, then fade. He breathes deep. It is the smell he loves most, a slow, ripe decay.

They appear slowly, as if developing from the mist. The hinds first, then the stag, antlers branching into the trees behind. They turn towards him.

It is the shot of a lifetime. He focuses, prepares to shoot, then lowers his camera. Once the shutter clicks, they will be gone. This one he will cache in his mind’s eye, his own secret talisman.

He will return to the desert soon. Last night, his wife asked why he must always go back, why risk so much. Someone must be there to see, he says. But he’s not sure that is the real reason.

The deer dissolve from the glade.

Time lapses.

Nothing stirs.

 

WINNER: Rose McGinty

The Clearing

The darkness lifts.  Only now I see what a misfit I look, with one striped glove and one dotted, in my mothy coat. Luckily the blue, grey morning drains their colour, and who but me will be out walking in this cold, damp air?  Only ghosts.

In summer, when we walked here you picked me lily of the valley.  Even now, if I close my eyes, I can just catch the scent, most potent of all the woodland.  We walked and walked that day, the hours drifted away, like dandelion seed.  We didn’t feel hungry, nothing human.  We came to the lake, and you kicked off your sandals.  Jesus sandals, I called them.  Your T shirt and shorts pulled off next.  You were lilac, dappled with star spots in the dusk.  I looked up, saw Sirius blink.  You ran along the jetty, stretched, leapt, arced like a deer in flight.  The still water bladed emerald as you slipped beneath.

Ten years, and that image still slides through my mind like the most perfect raindrop on a window pane.  Perfect, until touched.

The wood thins just here; I push through the dripping ferns.  Bending down, amongst the knotty curled up fronds, waiting to hatch; I see the fresh tips of the lily of the valley.  Beyond is the clearing, where we lay as you dried off, after the lake.  My hand, cool, across your throat.  Movement in the shadows; longing.   A fawn tiptoes towards me.

 

Congratulations Anastasia, Sharon and Rose! And thanks to all who submitted stories.

See you here same time next week?

QuickFic 15/01/16

Good morning.

Are we ready to get our QuickFic year kicked off?

WE SURE ARE.

Shall we have a quick reminder of the rules, just in case we’ve got a bit dusty over the break?

We’re about to show you a prompt. You should:

  • Look at the prompt for a bit
  • Be struck by inspiration; a bolt from the blue with a story that must be told!
  • Write that story (250 words or less)
  • Give that story a title (don’t let us be in charge of that, we’re rubbish)
  • Send that story to academy@faber.co.uk, in the body of an email and including your wordcount, by 2:50 this very afternoon

At 3:30, we’ll announce our winner, who’ll win these wonderful books:

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Okay. Ready for that prompt?

Here it is:

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See you back here at 3:30…

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of our Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, basically.

For more creative writing exercises, click here

The Best Of QuickFic 2015

Hello there, flash-fiction fans – and a very happy 2016 to you!

QuickFic returns tomorrow and we are pretty excited, let us tell you. But in the meantime, we’ve been having a look back over 2015 in order to decide our champion of champions. And we got pretty emosh about it to be honest. You lot are very talented.

As some of you know, QuickFic is a weekly writing competition. Each time, we give you a prompt and just five short hours in which to write us a 250 word story, and then we publish the winners on this here site. Last year we were sent an unbelievable amount of clever, funny, sinister and downright terrifying stuff. It was brilliant.

So here’s our 2015 highlights reel. It could easily be book-length, but we’ve managed to narrow it down to just a few of our favourites. Here they are, with their respective prompts.

Begin your montage music now.

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Escape

Rox Nicholl (March)

2AM Tuesday morning. New moon and clouds obliterate any starlight. I don’t believe in new starts. I can’t.  And yet …

Mara sleeps next to me. Her dream-kicks woke me again. The only time she ever cries is in her sleep. None of us tell her, because she’s not the only one.

I remember the little party my parents gave the night before I left. We laughed, and told stories, and they let me drink a little. For strength, my father said. Like he knew. But no father would send his daughter into this life. Not willingly. My mother gave me a small bag of food for the journey, hugged me, hope lighting her eyes.

“This is your one chance for freedom,” she said. I nodded, kissed her cold cheek.

Some freedom. I climb across the sleeping bodies to the ladder. I stand on a hand, but dare not whisper an apology. They know my voice. Sofia is at the ladder, holding her teddy bear. She’s too young to know to hide her tears. Some men like her better for that.

She reminds me of my sister.

Don’t think, just act.

I push her upwards, step by step. Below, bodies sprawl across the floor like corpses. It may not be much, but we understand each other. It’s still a home, of sorts. But the lady at the clinic slipped me a card yesterday. And Sofia deserves better. We stop at the door.

No more delays.

“Go!”

And we run.

 

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April is the cruellest month

Petrina Hartland (April)

And when the dead come back, I hate this place more.

“But we will see Mama again? And Annie?” Davey asks of me, but what he asks ain’t what he means and so I can’t bring myself to tell him, yes.

Yes, we will see Mama with her hair all brushed back, the way I did for her, the way she liked it, ’cause a lady oughta be known by the way she keeps herself up, no matter what the good Lord sends by way of trial and tribulation.

Annie too, although her golden curls went before her, sacrificed to the fire and despair of the fever.

Davey’s too little to remember Michael in his blue sweater, that Mama knitted on the boat, ’cause didn’t they tell us winter would be cold here; cold enough to freeze the breath right out of your mouth, your words falling away like snowflakes to the bitter, iron dirt.

The first winter, with Michael, Mama said it was ungodly. Said the thought of him, out there in the woodshed was more than a person could expect to stand.

“Should I leave him out for the wolves, instead?” Pa’s snowflakes, etched from broken glass.

This last winter, with Annie, Mama made no complaint.

When Pa stands in the door of the cabin, all the snowflakes are gone from him and I see the treacherous earth that coats the edge of his shovel and I know that the thaw has come. 

 

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Emergency Rations

Stephen Quincey-Jones (May)

I’d like to say a few words.

Jonesy will be missed. I’ll never forget what he taught me the first day I arrived. We were in a dugout near Mametz Wood. There was a break in the shelling. He swung his drawstring haversack off his back and emptied its contents out onto the patch of dirt between us.

“What do you see?” he said,

“A few things,” I said, “Bayonet. Waterbottle. Groundsheet. Pack of fags. Hip flask. Wash kit. About eighty rounds of ammunition. Then there’s the haversack itself.”

“Right,” he said. “Now, which are the most important?”

“It’s got to be the bayonet and ammunition, hasn’t it?” I said.

“Nope,” he said. “Think more imaginative.”

I pondered for a minute. “Waterbottle and groundsheet?”

Jonesy shook his head. “I’ll tell you. Fags; soap; hip flask; and this,” he said, pulling the drawstring out of the neck of the bag.

“Could have fooled me,” I said. “Fags, soap and scotch are luxuries.”

Jonesy smiled, entertained by my innocence. “All them other things don’t mean nothing when you’re in a tight spot,” he said. “Look here. Fag ash purifies water for drinking. Soap’s good for lubricating a jammed rifle mechanism.”

“Drawstring?” I said.

“Strangulation,” he said. “Quick and quiet.”

I raised my eyebrows. “And the hipflask?”

“Most important of all,” he said.

“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Disinfecting wounds. Making a poor man’s grenade.”

“No,” he said. “Not that.”

I frowned. “What then?” I said.

“Easy,” he said. “To forget.”

 

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The Umbrella

Jemima Warren (June)

He said that I’d need the umbrella for the rain. Instead, in that tucked in part of the coast where we spent the week, I carried it as a parasol. I wished I had a white cotton dress, and a dangling string of pearls. I wished I had a small leather-bound book too. I wanted to sit on the beach, sun-browned, content and idle, turning its gilt-edged pages.

The sun shone all day, as high and proud as his sureness about the weather had been, and as each day passed I found it harder to believe in the cold. Just as I shook out sand from the umbrella’s folds, I was expanding. I had been a closed in, spokey sort of a thing. In the sunshine I could be another thing altogether. I knew that if I said this out loud he would tell me – again – that metaphors suited people who couldn’t name the truth, who were too meek to say it aloud. 

I laid the umbrella against my knees on the train home. It had probably come to me second-hand, like all knowledge tends to do. But now it stood for the things – all the other things – he’d told me that were wrong.

 

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Sleeping Under The Stars

Anstey Spraggan (August)

“Can we live here forever, Daddy?” Nadya asks me. My fingers are curled round her tiny hand.

I pull the sleeping bag up under her chin. “We can stay a while.”

Across the room, I see her mother’s face in shafts of light and candle shadow; she stopped crying months ago but she would now – if she still could – just from relief. It has taken our every last penny to get to this place but we have chosen wisely or – at least – with luck. We would never have found this marooned desert palace without help.

My wife and I sit next to each other, on the floor, and watch the children sleep.

The smashed patterned tiles are covered with tendrils of succulent plants and crumbling statues look coquettishly at the floor where beetles and spiders have claimed dominion. There is no electricity and the taps are dry but there are no men with guns, no roadside bombs.

“It feels like Heaven,” she says into the dark and a moth moves his brown wings across the night.

I check the vivid stitches in her leg. It is hard in the half light but my work is as neat as it was in the hospital, in our other life. “It’s another life,” she says sometimes and smiles, “better than no life.”

We are safe for now; a doctor, his architect wife, and their two frightened children sleeping in the dust.

It is another 4,000 kilometres to Calais.

 

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The Good Neighbour

Thom Willis (September)

Seething-black snake-serpent in MY HOUSE keep your distance creature I know you I know where you slither-crawled from where you’ll get yourself back in to curled sleepless round your nest of rotted chalk eggshells hatching only dead cells.

Out from here meet me again on the road between our houses you have walked it on your belly so many times and I saw you saw you from the dew-drip hedge as you made for my door under my door through my door without me unlocking for you like you own my house my house is not your house but I pay you to live here in this torment here with you STARING from those broken splinter-starred windows every night every morning.

Tonight I will be in your house snake tonight I walk from tree to tree unfurling like the shadow tongue tasting your absence insisting on your presence as I in turn slip through that broken window pooling in the starlight listening to each hesitant creak of board and whistle-in of dream-breath.

I visit you tonight as a neighbour as a tenant as a spirit as a plaintiff as an ending to keep silent our agreement as the stairs drift in the night’s breeze I climb through feelings you will never have and bring you never-will-bes as your coils slacken round your end-night thoughts.

 

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Primigravida

Ruth Goldsmith (October)

My son arrived before his time.

The nurse finishes hooking up the feeding tube, slender white fingers touching reddened skin. She looks down at my son. My tiny, fragile son. 

“He’s got an old soul, this one,” she says. I nod, smile back, though I don’t know why. Words stopped meaning much a few days ago.   

She rests her hand lightly on my shoulder before walking to the next incubator. I watch her move in rhythm with the beeps and sighs of the plastic and metal and electricity that keep him breathing, in and out. In and out. Keep breathing, in and out. 

I go back to stroking his head with my thumb, willing him to feel me here, loving him. 

My phone says it’s Thursday; 3.17am. My son’s been in the world for 219 hours and 43 minutes. There wasn’t much warning; a backache. Not unusual for six months gone. And then… And then. 

They keep saying I should go home and sleep. How could I leave him alone in this box? What if he needed me? I doze in the chair. When Pete comes back in the mornings, I take a shower. It’s only round the corner, the shower. I’ll not go far away. 

220 hours, 4 minutes.

The only words that mean anything now are the doctor’s words. 

When he says, good prognosis. Healthy. Strong.

When he says, your son arrived before his time, but these days, he says, we can make that time back.

 

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Bright Christmas

Alex James (December)

“A beauty, isn’t it? All the way from Lapland, apparently.” Her boss says, his tone suggesting that this was an extravagance too far even for the town council. He keeps talking even as she ascends out of his eye-line, then above the squat buildings of the town centre. The cherry picker trembles slightly as it lifts her up, like she is a stunned bird cradled in the things palm, a creature of hollow bones, infinitely fragile. Next to her, the star lies cradled in sackcloth, glinting on a pile of bricks.

A transplant, severed from the dark, close forests of home, where the only sound was the flutter of wings and the padded footsteps of miniature predators. Traffic blares below as a cyclist limps onto the pavement, dragging the warped skeleton of his bike behind him. Black, oily smoke congeals around the green mountain of the tree, tugging at the hairs in her throat.

She brushes her hand over the spindles, already drying out in the winter sun. You and me both, pal. Green needles tumble like dandruff to the tarmac below.

“Will you hurry up?” he shouts. “We’ve still got to string the lights after this.”

With exaggerated care, she places the star onto the iron spike driven into the tree’s crown. It slides into place, grinds and catches against some internal mechanism.

“Alright, all done. Get me down from here.” She yells, turning away. It’s so bright she can hardly bear to look at it. 

 

All absolutely incredible stories. Reading through them again has made us feel a bit wibbly inside. WELL DONE, TEAM.

But here it is. The story that is our champion of champions. We loved it then and we love it now: BRAVO.

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Joshua

Henry Peplow (August)

After the rain, the desert smelled clean again. The scent of the Creosote bushes rolled down the track and swept over Francine. She let the honey-thick air embrace her.

She supposed people would find the station wagon, beached at the track’s edge, and wonder. No keys – she had flung them far into the scrub in case she’d changed her mind – an open door, plenty of fuel, a sat-nav set to nowhere. An empty baby seat.

The number plate would take them to an empty house on the sad side of Phoenix, with a back yard already yielding to the desert.

She left the comfort of the track, kicked off her trainers and walked barefoot, past the Saguaros and Agaves until she reached a clump of Joshua trees.

The empty house would take them to an abandoned job and to a small tragedy.

Francine laid a bundle in the shade.

The small tragedy would take them to a hospital and a missing woman. A grainy ghost on the security camera.

She scraped the ground with her hands, finding it cool beneath the desert’s skin. The sand crusted her hands where they bled.

The security footage would take them to a hospital car park, a woman with a bundle, running.

When the hole was deep enough, she rested the bundle in it. As she eased the sand back over she smoothed it flat, healing the scar.

 

Congratulations Henry, and well done everyone – it was a stellar year, and we cannot wait to see what you and your Muses come up with tomorrow morning.

Meet us back here at 9:50!