Announcement – A Hand of Knaves TOC

The table of contents for CSFG’s upcoming anthology A Hand of Knaves has just been released. I am pleased to announced that my story “A Moment’s Peace” is in the mix. (It’s a fantasy-world burglary featuring a point man with an unusual condition).

You can see the full list of authors and titles here.

A special tip of the hat to my fellow CSFG’ers who made the cut – Louise Pieper, Robert Porteous, Simon Petrie (with his writing partner Edwina Harvey), David Coleman, CH Pearce and Angus Yeates – and also to my Facebook writing group pals Tom Dullemond, Rebecca Fraser and Helen Stubbs.

I’m looking forward to working with the editors and I can’t wait to see the final product. The book should be out later in the year; I expect there will be some kind of launch at Conflux.

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Friday Flash Fiction – Slipjack Junction

It struck me as an unusual business, burying Jeremiah Bench in a salt-packed grave with a silver dollar under his tongue and cherrywood stakes through his hands and feet. Reckon something about Bench’s hideout must’ve spooked Sheriff Gunderson into his right irregular precautions. Whether it was the red ink drying on stretched out pale pink hides, or the books with pictures that seemed to move when you looked away from them, or the wet sack he strung up from a tree what never ceased its shrieking, I couldn’t say.

https://pixabay.com/en/gleise-old-railroad-tracks-seemed-1555348/

I’ll allow I was glad to ride back to Slipjack Junction and turn in my spade and my deputy’s badge. A manhunt’s a sorry business, no matter how righteous the cause.

Whatever Sheriff Gunderson thought he was accomplishing didn’t amount to a lick of good. Come the morning, there was Jeremiah Bench strolling on main street, proud and tall as you please. That no-good son of a dog walked right by my workshop, and you may be assured he was showing no ill effects of his recent bloody demise. No sign of the six cylinders of trusty Montana lead as perforated that shiny forehead of his, nor the neckbone-deep canyon the Sheriff’s silver knife cut from one ear to the other.

“Guess you didn’t bury him deep enough,” said my eldest, Earl.

I told him to mind his affairs and get back to work. Bullmer and Sons had a consignment of rail spikes to fill, and the Alabama Rail Company weren’t paying to wait on our convenience. He and Bob Junior got back to their chores, but I figured it best I pass word onto the Sheriff concerning Jeremiah.

It happened my destination was on the same route Jeremiah was following, so it weren’t no surprise when I encountered him again, engaged in a close embrace with Miss Olga Tarkovsky. Her professional affairs come with some expectation of rough handling, so I’ll confess I didn’t think too much of their side-alley embracing. But on second glance, their encounter was producing a mite more blood and screaming than I recollect from my past intimacies.

I ain’t never gonna be accused of courtly behaviour, but this weren’t bearable. I drew my Peacemaker and made to intervene, only both man and woman dropped dead as rocks right there in the dust. I gave ‘em both a prodding with the decisive end of my pistol. Not so much as a hoot. Weren’t nothin’ to be done about it but pay my respects to Doc McGillicutty and have his nephew Maurice cart them cadavers to his premises.

“That ain’t something you see too regular, Doc,” I said when he had them both laid out on his inspecting benches. “Reckon it’s some kind of ailment?”

“The breadth of my medical experience may have a hole or two,” replied Doc McGillicutty, dry as a desert breeze, “but I sure ain’t familiar with any ailment that makes a man bite throats out.”

I left him to his surgical observations and finished my mission to furnish Sheriff Gunderson with all the particulars of the affair. He agreed it was best left in the hands of medical science. “God damn that Jeremiah Bench. Bullmer, I can’t abide a man who won’t respect a cut throat and a rite of suppression.”

“Amen,” I said to that. He made the right hospitable offer of a glass of whiskey, then the screaming commenced from the direction of McGillicutty’s surgery. As he’d not yet retrieved me of my badge of office, Sheriff Gunderson re-deputised me and handed me a shotgun.

I hear them Italian painters like to imagine what hell looks like, with flames and devils and what-you-may. I reckon it’s got a touch more in common with a little shack splattered with blood and the howls of the dead. The very deceased Jeremiah and the late lamented Ms Olga were breaking their fasts on the gristly necks of the Junction’s only medical man and his sister’s boy. I’ve seen coyotes with better table manners.

By mutual accord, Gunderson and I rolled a horse trough in front of the doors to hold them fast. He covered the exits with a shotgun and a scowl of consternation. Way I figured it, this was shaping up as a civic matter, outside the parameters of day to day law enforcement, so I fetched Mayor Bilford for a consultation.

Bilford, being a few years since retired from a nautical career, claimed some familiarity with tropical diseases, and declared a medical emergency. Apparently Slipjack Junction has an alarm bell to the effect, because it was ringing like a stampede of milk cows one hot minute later.

“There’s only one way to contain a plague ship,” he declared with some authority, and not a soul in earshot raised a contradictory sentiment. “We got to burn it to the water line.”

Allowing for a degree of interpretation, we took his meaning as arsonous in intent. By way of confirmation he sent his assistant to fetch buckets of grease from the rail supply yard. We painted the surgery walls with the stuff and lit it up. It was soon crackling like a winter hearth and pumping oily smoke into every lung in the vicinity. I fancy I saw a figure or two moving about in the flames, but nothing lives through a burn like that.

Half the town sat in a circle, guns at the ready, and watched until there weren’t nothing left but soot and embers. Reckon our lungs were black as tar from that smoke. Maybe that’s why not a-one of us drew breath when them four dead folks found their feet and went in search of fresh throats.

Maybe the black on our innards makes patterns. Words or pictures, I bet. I ain’t looking but I can feel them moving.

I hear them too. They’re saying there’s a town full of throats down at the end of the Alabama Line.

They’re saying I got a train to catch.


I like Westerns, but I don’t think I could write a straight one if you paid me.
(If you paid me, though, I’d try. Just saying).

 

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Friday Flash Fiction – The Last Nine Drum Beats

Boom!

The drum pounds again, far below Bruck. He hooks onto a cross-rope and hauls himself up to a platform set near the top of the southern midfield mast. He gulps air as he takes stock of the field. The two Bulls down in the Ground Zone, Grease and LaForce, circle out to reclaim the egg. Their earthbound opponents won’t possess it for long. The Algerand Bulls are faster, stronger, ruthless hardheads.

https://pixabay.com/en/hook-hoist-crane-equipment-2309593/

 

He raises his eyes to the Sky Zone, a maze of ropes, nets, short bridges and beams suspended between a small forest of poles and raised platforms. To his left, Villus is hanging by one hand from a taut ladder, trading kicks with the rake-thin Redlake Sweeper. Below and ahead, Cindra clambers like a monkey from one platform to another, pursued by the Redlake Rover, who swings his scoop ineffectually at her heels, to the appreciative roars of the crowd.

Boom!

Bruck shakes the sweat from his head and spits muddy dust. Gantler, Redlake’s Striker, is closing fast, positioning to cut off Bruck’s line of attack on the scoring funnel. The big Striker favours dive attacks, dropping from the high ropes to pummel or bounce his victims off their lines, and he has the weight and the balance to make it work.

Bruck’s crossed paths with him before – years ago, before the fall that cost Bruck his hand and his first career. With any luck Gantler hasn’t seen him play since he came out of retirement.

The crowd’s foot-stomping applause announces a conclusion to Villus’ skirmish. The Redlake Sweeper falls badly, hitting a jutting spar. He tumbles end over end into the Ground Zone dirt. He tries to rise. A passing LaForce puts him down with the heavy leather scoop strapped to her arm.

Boom!

Each drumbeat is separated by a recitation of the titles and honorifics of Princess Besheba the Tempestuous, She Who Carries the Storm in her Lungs, the Searing Fire of the Principalities, the…and so on. Bruck can’t hear the herald’s sonorous repetitions. He hears the drums.

Six strikes left, and the arrayed score flags – bloody crimson for Redlake, pretentious indigo for the Algerand visitors – are evenly matched.

Bruck reaches out with his hook hand and traverses to a thicket of knots where several ropes converge. Overhead, Gantler swears, a little out of breath, and changes direction.

Cindra sweeps past, still leading her pursuer. She gives Bruck a hard look, as thick with meaning as a slap to the face. He blinks back at her like they don’t both know what’s what. As she clambers past, he tugs a guy rope with his hook. A shiver spreads through the rope network. The chasing Rover misses a handhold. But his momentum is gone, and Cindra is free to claim what spot she may.

She sneers at Bruck. He shrugs. “He should’ve brought a hook,” he says.

Boom!

LaForce and Grease separate the Redlake Bulls from the egg and each other. As LaForce hip-checks one off his balance beam into a mud puddle, Grease scoops up the egg. The speckled red dodecahedron, stolen from some irate kajako bird’s nest, rests in his curved arm scoop. Grease to lock eyes on Bruck.

Grease flashes the same warning look. “Do it right,” says the look. “Or else.”

Grease launches the egg at Bruck. It’s a clean throw, right where it needs to be. Not a hint of a fumble. Nothing to say afterwards that the fix was in. This is all on Bruck.

Bruck feels the egg slap into his palm through an inch of leather.

Bruck could drop it. He could let Gantler’s coming attack rattle him, force a wild pass to Cindra or Villus. Hell, he could take his shot and just plain miss.

Boom!

That’s what Harph wants, the thick-browed Algerand owner. He’s brought Bruck back from broken obscurity. He’s invested in him. He custom-built a hook to fit over the ruins of Bruck’s left hand. Made a spectacle of him.

And the crowds love him again. Nobody else used to be Bruck the Unbested. Now he’s Bruck the Hook, better on the ropes than ever before.

Two hands. One hand. No hands. Bruck’s too good to lose.

Harph wants him to lose. Harph’s invested the entire team’s winnings on an improbable tie.

Boom!

Gantler makes a move. He springs from a rope, grabs a vertical pole with his free hand and swings around it, scissoring his legs to build momentum. He flings himself across the field, back and away to a patch of net close by the scoring funnel.

Bruck admires the elegance of the manoeuvre but he doesn’t stand to watch it. He sprints a short tightrope for the central mast. Finding knots and notches with his hook, he climbs.

Villus cuts off the Redlake Rover with a midsection tackle that sends them both down to the mud. Cindra bounds down the right flank, charging Gantler’s stronghold. If she flushes him out of position, Bruck has a clear throw at the funnel.

Bruck shakes his head. These kids are great players. Why throw that away on one fixed match?

Boom!

Gantler sees Cindra coming. He changes tactics. He abandons the nest and heads up to the mainstay, the rope bisecting the arena at the tip of the central mast.

Bruck could let Gantler win the race to the mast’ peak. His pride decides for him. He’s a kajaka champion, once and always.

Bruck hooks to the mainstay a breath ahead of Gantler. The Redlake player wraps both legs around Bruck’s waist. They both hang by Bruck’s hook.

“Let us win, you idiot!” he hisses. “Harph’s money is good for us all!”

Boom!

They slide on Bruck’s hook, gathering speed. The scoring funnel is ahead. Bruck raises the scoop out of reach of Gantler’s snatching fingers, readying his shot .

He decides. “I only play to win.”

The buckles anchoring the hook to his arm give way.

Gantler snaps, “So does Harph.”

Boom!


I quite like sports dramas, but as the only real sport I can write about with any authority is cricket, I thought on the whole it might be a better idea to invent a new one. By which I mean slightly reinvent lacrosse to include such necessary improvements as rope nets, hook hands and the constant threat of falling injuries.

 

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Friday Flash Fiction – The Turn of the Tide

The moon’s silver ripples and shatters into a thousand glints in the wake of the lone fisherman crossing the mud flat. Its dim dappling is the only light in the long dark before the dawn. The muddy shallows settle, erasing the fisherman’s boot prints. Crabs sift the disturbed mud without reward. Nothing else moves.

https://pixabay.com/en/fisherman-seaside-sea-fishing-1149682/

The fisherman yawns as he sets his bucket on the rocks of the promontory. It’s as empty now as when the night began. He casts his line into the listless waters, more by habit than optimism. The fish won’t begin biting until the turn of the tide at dawn.

How long has he been coming out here? Longer than he can remember. Since childhood, and the old fisherman can’t even remember a time when he could remember being a kid. After dawn arrives, the kids will come, with their footballs and their boards and their noisy music, and the fish will find somewhere else to be. The old fisherman will pack up his bucket and line and trudge around the point. He doesn’t begrudge the kids. They have to live their lives, don’t they?

The old fisherman feels in the pockets of his jacket for a cigarette, his fingers hunting of their own volition through all the old patterns. They won’t find anything but holes and lint. It’s been so long since he had a smoke he isn’t even sure what it was like any more. Only his fingers remember their part.

He tugs the tip of his fishing rod up, two gentle jerks to entice some phantom fish. Nothing bites.

He looks across the wide expanse of the moonlit beach. The water line, the mud flat broken here and there by the indistinct scurry of some shelled creature, the beach of gritty sand, the shrubs and grasses holding the dunes to their swollen shapes, and the rising slope of the forested range beyond. In the distance, across the curve of the bay, a faint gap in the tree line marked the dirt carpark at the end of a twisting dirt road. It’s a quiet spot. A beaten track off the beaten track.

In a short while, the first battered cars of the morning will arrive, just ahead of the dawn. They will disgorge tanned bodies and fresh-waxed boards. As the sun brings colour from the darkness, the others will follow. Headphone-clad joggers looking for a peaceful stretch of sand. Retirees hobbling behind little dogs stretching cable leashes to the limits. The oyster hunter with his wet sack and his wickedly sharp dirks. And as the morning stretches forth, families will arrive to roll out towels, set coolers at the foot of umbrellas, and shout at each other about sunscreen.

By then the old fisherman will be long gone. The scene has played out in every possible combination over the years. There’s nothing left to surprise him.

His bucket is empty. The bites will come at the turning of the tide.

The day belongs to those others. The old fisherman has the night to himself, and if that’s not quite a comfort, it’s at least familiar. Sometimes he thinks he misses it, being with other people. But after all this time, who would he talk to? He doesn’t remember the last time he talked to anybody, but he knows it didn’t go well. The memories all drained out of him like a receding tide, and isn’t it better that way? Better just to fish, forget, and wait. The tide will come back in its own time.

A hungry gull calls, the first of the morning. The fisherman tries to spot it breaking the pattern of the stars but there’s nothing above him. From the deepest pits of him comes the echo of the bird’s hunting call.

When was the last time he ate? Hunger stimulates his memory. He recalls the meal.

Oysters, shucked fresh from the shell. Before the first salty mass slithers past his tongue, the oyster hunter has offered another, and the old fisherman takes it, stretching out his wrist. His father’s watch casts a dull yellow glint of reflected moonlight, catching the oyster hunter’s eye. He nods appreciatively. The fisherman takes the shell from the oyster hunter’s fingers and raises it to his mouth.

Nothing ever tasted so good as those oysters. The best meal he ever had. He wonders where the oyster hunter is now. He hasn’t come back to the beach.

The fish aren’t biting yet. The fisherman looks to the sky again, where his searching eyes find a few less stars than a moment ago. Dawn is on its way, and with it will come the turning of the tide. Then they’ll take his bait and his patience will pay off.

The old fisherman wonders about his bait. Maybe it’s not to their taste any more. Do fish learn new habits? Folklore would say no, they just repeat their old patterns endlessly, unable to change ingrained behaviour. But he thinks about silver schools banking around alien shapes in the water, about darkened waves churning through rocky crevices, and about a thousand thousand tentative nibbles polishing bones bare. Maybe the old bait won’t do any more, not for fish with new appetites.

He glances down at his bare wrist. More force of habit. He’s not sure of the time, but he can taste change on the wind. The horizon is clawing shape from the darkness. Sunrise isn’t far away now.

And this morning, like every morning, low tide is at dawn. The beginning of another day heralds its return.

The old fisherman stands at the rocky promontory next to his empty bucket, and waits, and waits, for the rising of the sun and the turning of the tide.

Any time now.


Happy new year, folks. I don’t think I remembered to say that last week.
So this week in my post about my 2018 goals, I teased my upcoming book. I’m planning to make a proper announcement about it soon. In the meantime, I’m spilling more of the details to the folks on my mailing list. Anyone who has signed up to the newsletter not only gets advance notice about the book, they’ll get the ebook free. Sign up below.

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More Mountains for the Climbing – My goals for 2018

Every year around this time I set out my goals for the year in a blog post. In theory I’m doing it for the personal accountability – if I make a public declaration of intent, I’m much more likely to see it through, right?

Right?

People standing on a jutting mountain peak

Image source: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/users/sasint-3639875/

Well, no, not if my track record is anything to go by. Normally I miss most of my targets by somewhere between a sliver and a yawing gulf. If this were photography, all I’d have to show for myself are a portfolio of blurry shots of Bigfoot-like hikers, clumps of flotsam passingly resembling Nessie, and a series I’d call UFOs or Overexposed Clouds – You Decide.

It doesn’t matter to me much if I don’t hit the specific targets I set out to hunt. As long as I accomplish something in the vicinity, I’m usually happy.

So, with the year’s broadest caveat out of the way, let’s have a look at what I want to get done this year.

Publishing a book

Very soon now, I’ll announce details of my book project. Subscribers to the newsletter (are you one?) have already had a sneak peek of my upcoming release, and I’ll go into it more on the blog soon. Until I get a few more loose ends screwed down, though I’ll stick to vague hints.

What I will say is this is a self-training process. I’m learning how to publish a book – or more specifically, how I will publish books, since there’s a million ways to skin that cat. I may or may not ever use those skills again (I probably will) but I find value in knowing how it’s done.

So. New book. Soonish.

Writing targets

I track my word counts. Which means, at the end of every day, I record how many new words I wrote, and in roughly what form. Last year my totals were a bit over 110,000 words, which included fiction – aborted novels, short stories and flash fiction- and non-fiction – blog posts, newsletters and various other tidbits that I decided counted towards a productive writing life.

That’s actually not much writing: it breaks down to about 300 words a day. Which if you include blog posts like this one in the stats, makes my fiction output look pretty scant. Which it was, if I’m honest.

This year I’ve tweaked my word count spreadsheets. (Yeah, sorry, this is super-nerdy, but useful for me). My daily stats will separate fiction (and very limited forms of creative non-fiction) from more prosaic blogging, critiquing and various administrative wordage.

For the fiction, I have a target in mind – 100,000 words for the year. That means a lot more story writing than I managed in 2017, but I’m pretty sure I can do it. For one thing, the weekly flash fiction project has a word count in the vicinity of 1000 words a week, which means I’ll hit half my target by not breaking my weekly streak.

As for the rest of it, I have plans for another novel project, I have an ongoing serial and I have a couple of half-finished stories to work on. And if previous years are anything to go by, new opportunities will come up all the time.

Flash fiction

My plan is to carry on publishing a new story on the blog every Friday morning. Some of them will be good, some of them will be written at 11 pm the previous night and may not withstand close scrutiny under the light of a new day. Nevertheless, I’m shooting for the appearance of reliability, if nothing else.

Short stories

Building on the flash fiction muscles I’m working out, I plan to write more in the 2000 – 4000 word range. It’s not an easy space for me to work in – short enough to not get bogged down with details, but long enough to introduce more characters and complexity than is possible in a flash piece.

I could use the practice. Most of my non-flash work over the last couple of years has tended to be in the 8 to 12K novelette range. If I don’t have a hard word limit to work within, I tend to sprinkle in secondary characters and subplots like I’m on a bombing run. There’s almost certainly a fruitful middle ground I’ve not explored in depth.

Novels

Well, I wrote one over the last eighteen months, but I’m not happy with it. Apart from the usual issues of first drafts – plodding sections, redundant characters, subplots that explode like a dropped bomb etc – I realised that I’d committed an even worse sin: I wrote the wrong book. To be clear, I wrote the first novel in a series, in a genre I don’t enjoy enough to want to commit to in the long term. Bad idea, setting myself up for burnout and worse.

I do have a couple of novel projects in mind, either of which would be exactly in my wheelhouse. I’ll take my time and develop both ideas, and I won’t start writing them until I’m sure they’ve had time to percolate. So I *may* start on a new novel this year, but I can’t say when.

Marketing

I’ll probably have to learn how to do this. Worse, I’ll probably have to learn how to enjoy it.

The horror.

Seriously though, part and parcel of producing the book will be tinkering with various options for getting the book in front of people who might enjoy reading it. Finding an audience for their work is the number one frustration I hear cited by writers, and I have no reason to doubt that I’ll have the same issue. So I’m also going to learn the basics of marketing and promotion.

That is a phrase I doubt I have used any time in my life before this point.

So that’s what I’ve got line up for 2018 – a few exciting new things, and a lot more of what was already working.

 

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