Flash fiction challenge: a world without guns

Last week, I happened to take a look at Chuck Wendig’s very useful writer website, Terribleminds, when I noticed a new flash fiction challenge. And a very relevant one, at that. Chuck has asked people to write a story in a world that doesn’t have guns. I was inspired almost instantly to write about a world where everyone has impenetrable skin, so nobody ever had a reason to invent guns in the first place.

I got halfway through when I was taken out by illness. So, I’ve missed the deadline, which was this Friday, but here’s the story anyway. Please comment and let me know what you think, I can always use some constructive feedback!

Alternatively, feel free to write your own short story using the same prompt (max. 1,500 words), post the link in the comments, and I’d be happy to offer my own feedback.



Emma adjusted the collar around her neck, grimacing as she once again felt it dig into her skin. She hated wearing it, but her parents insisted. They were always so unreasonable. There hadn’t been an incident in ages! She looked over to her crush, Jamie, as Mrs Farnsworth droned on about economic theory. Class seemed to be taking forever and the odd temperature in the room was starting to make her sweat.

As Jamie turned around to look back at her, she almost looked away, utterly embarrassed that he had caught her staring, but something in his expression kept her entranced. His handsome eyes were wider than usual, his skin an unattractive red. He opened his mouth to speak, then collapsed in slow motion towards her. His hand seemed to be reaching out to her as he smacked loudly face-first onto the floor.

Instinct took over as Emma tapped her collar to pull up her mask. The sounds of emerging chaos disappeared as the apparatus covered her head, and she gratefully breathed in the plastic air. All around her, kids were either putting masks on or collapsing. She looked over to the teacher, who strode over to the window and punched it. The glass didn’t stand a chance against the teacher’s unbreakable skin. Emma thought she could feel the fresh air rushing in and caressing her exposed arms.

She looked back at Jamie, kneeled down next to him and activated his mask. She hoped it wasn’t too late. Looking for his pulse to make sure he wasn’t already dead, she felt her own throat constrict. For a panicked second, she thought her mask wasn’t working. Then she realised she was crying and breathing too fast, and tried to calm herself down. Her mask only had enough air for 20 minutes or so, and she didn’t want to make it run out any faster. Or worse, drown in her own tears.

Thinking of her parents and for once loving them for their paranoia, she reached back into her bag to take out her phone. She briefly noticed that her teacher had finished punching all the windows open, and was now attending to another fallen student. She found her phone and texted her mom. ‘I’m safe, but the school’s under some sort of attack. Call the police. I love you and dad, I hope I’ll see you soon x’.

Emma looked to the door. A few people were already heading out, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted to risk it. A hand on her shoulder made her jump. It was her friend Danai. She was talking to her, but Emma couldn’t hear through her soundproof mask. Danai gestured for them to leave the room. Emma nodded. She looked down at Jamie, but knew there was nothing she could do for him. At least his heartbeat seemed steady enough.

She grabbed Danai’s hand and they walked to the door together. Emma briefly looked behind her, but Mrs Farnsworth was too busy with other students to notice them leaving. She hoped everyone she left behind would be ok. She knew there was a small chance she’d never see them again, but she tried not to think about it.

As soon as they stepped out into the hallway, they were overwhelmed by a stream of students running down the stairs, towards the main exit. Emma started to follow them, but Danai stopped her. Her fingers were digging deep into Emma’s skin, but she didn’t mind it. The pain kept her centred, and there was no way Danai could break the skin. After all, nothing could break human skin – though many had tried throughout history to build a weapon strong enough to do so. Nobody had succeeded yet, which left only the mouth, eyes, ears and other openings as humanity’s weakness.

Emma tried to tug at Danai, her heart racing as the feeling of panic renewed itself, but her friend stood her ground, talking to her with a serious frown on her obscured face. With her breathing mask the cheaper, not soundproof kind, she couldn’t help trying to communicate with words.

Emma was about to give up on her, when Danai mouthed a word that Emma understood.

“We can’t go find your sister, she could be anywhere!” The shout echoed uselessly in Emma’s own ears.

Emma tried to convey her meaning through gestures, but only managed to vaguely wave at the mess that surrounded them. Danai, still holding Emma’s hand, pulled both of their hands up and made a praying gesture. “Please,” her eyes, her hands and even her mute mouth were telling Emma.

Emma sighed. Then she nodded. She worried about Danai as they fought through the streams of kids going the other way. Danai wouldn’t be protected against a noise canon. She could die. And yet, so could her sister.

When they reached the classroom, Emma pulled at Danai’s hand to stop her marching in, and gestured for her to announce herself. The door was closed, and who knows what the people inside were thinking. Danai shouted and went in, letting go of Emma at last. After a moment’s hesitation, she followed. Inside, she found the teacher huddled in the far corner, hugging those kids who were still awake. More than half the class was out cold on the floor, including Danai’s little sister. Emma shuddered. She knew these kids were still alive, at least for now, but it still looked like a macabre mass murder scene. This was not like the images she sometimes saw on the news of faraway places. This was real.

As Danai rushed to her sister, the teacher mimed for Emma to take the children. She nodded, gulping away her fear. The kids crawled over to her, heedless of the broken glass that could not penetrate their skins. She took the first girl by the hand, then the teacher arranged the rest of them in a line. Meanwhile, Danai had picked up her sister and started walking out. Emma followed, then the kids, leaving the teacher to close the door behind them and protect those who could not protect themselves.

By this time, the stream of students had slowed down to a trickle. She noticed a few students laid out in the hallway, whether taken out by the gas or caught in the stampede she could not tell. She focused on the task at hand, on navigating the kids outside, where it would be safer. She hoped.

They were nearly at the entrance when the light coming from outside blinded her and she stumbled over something. Danai, not looking back, went through the door, while the kids stopped and fell against her and each other, screaming and crying wordlessly. Emma looked down. She had fallen over a canister of some sort. It had the same label on it as her gas mask, the same supplier. She wasn’t sure what it was, and she didn’t have time to think about it. She got up, helped the kids back on their feet, and pushed them towards the sunlight, where safety awaited them.


Lessons learned from failing NaNoWriMo – the 2017 edition

So, I took part in NaNoWriMo again this year. And unlike the first few years when I took part, I did not win (winning being defined as writing 50,000 words in November). To be fair, I did not make it easy for myself.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with National Novel Writing Month the last few years, wondering if it’s actually helping me write or just write badly, which is part of the reason why I’ve taken a few years off (alongside life reasons, naturally). I even have a draft blog post about the subject, which I may finish someday.

This year, to see if I could improve while writing wildly, I set myself the impulsive task, thought of a few days before November while in the shower, to try and write a short story a day. I’ve been trying for a while to improve my short story writing, so I can start submitting stories to magazines and websites, and actually get paid to write fiction. But it’s a different beast from novel writing, so I thought some deadline-delineated practice would do me good.

I thought of a few story ideas, and then when November came around, I started writing. It all went downhill from there. While I had some vague ideas, the same kind of vague ideas that have led to whole novels in previous years’ NaNoWriMo attempts, trying to condense a story into 1,700 words (= one a day) and give it a satisfying start, middle and ending is a lot harder, at least for me.

By the third story, I realised most of my words were coming from dialogue, and I wasn’t filling in the story, giving anything a background, or indeed doing anything that would be required for a decent story. So, I started writing a story about someone locked in the trunk of a car with duct-tape over their mouth. And then I stopped.

NaNoWriMo is good for a lot of things – for getting you out of your comfort zone, for letting you make mistakes, and for helping you finally get that (part of a) first draft down on paper. It’s not very good if you are trying to level up your writing, at least in my experience. That said, it did bring home what it is I need to be working on. I may not have won, but I’ve learned a lot anyway.

So, if you want to improve your writing, try writing a short story (could be about a minor character in your novel), figure out what you’re doing too much of or not enough, and then try to write another story that does the exact opposite. And, crucially, don’t give up, as I did.

I’m hoping to get back to my weird non-dialoguey short story after the holidays, but as you can see from the 18 days after November it’s taken me to write just this short blog post, I’ve clearly got some mental blocks I need to push through first. Hopefully I’ll be able to get through them and report back to you how I did it.


Reach for the stars! Try not to think about the long drop down!

Meanwhile, happy holidays, everyone! Wishing you lots of writing and life success in 2018, and hopefully some return to general sanity after these last two years.

My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

The Age of yet another creepy stalker portrayed on screen as the good guy

Today has been full of rage. I woke up to the news that some terrorist shithead ran over people coming from church (actually muslims leaving their mosque, but certain people’s empathy knobs have been twisted so they can only emphasise with people like them nowadays, so maybe this way everyone can relate), and somehow resisted the urge to tweetstorm about the UK media’s responsibility and lack of public outrage and condemnation. Luckily, JK Rowling, who has a somewhat bigger profile than me, stepped into the fray. Then, I heard the news from the US that a pregnant woman had been shot dead in front of her children after calling the police about a burglary, by said police! I mean, what the actual fuck, right?

Anyway, since I can’t change these facts or the state of the world, much as I would like, I decided to watch a silly movie tonight, to take my mind off things and calm down. Reader, this did not work. The movie I chose was The Age of Adaline, which started off interesting enough (a woman who never ages because of wavy-hand science reasons spends her life reinventing herself, complicated relationship with her daughter who is now older than her, lonely existence, what’s not to love?).


The Age of Not this again..

Then, enter, the MAN. Now I love a good romance as much as the next person, but I’m sick and tired of the movie tropes that tell guys they just need to hound women and those women will eventually relent and even APOLOGISE for being freaked out about the man’s stalker behaviour. Like, way to teach men not to respect women as people, respect their choices, and respect when they say NO, movies.

Anyway, in this movie, the MAN sees Blake Lively, aka Adaline, at a new year’s event, storms after her when she leaves, pushes his way into an elevator with her, then stops her cab from leaving trying to get her to agree to go out with him. She says no. The next day, she’s at work, and guess who comes by, it’s only Stalky McStalkface, who has seen her there before (could’ve said hello, man) and refuses to donate some precious book (she works at the library) unless she agrees to go out with him. Eventually, she relents. They go out, he manages to convince her to go out to dinner with him at his place, they spend the night, she tell him the next morning that was all he’s going to get. Then naturally, he hunts down her address, which she never shares with anyone (hello, secretive ageless person) and shows up outside her building. I mean, red flags, right? Then, and this is the stupidest part, Adaline’s daughter talks her into giving him another shot, and she goes to his place and apologises for freaking out about him showing up unannounced at her doorstep!

If you don’t see what’s wrong with this, ask a female friend, because hoo boy! Anyway, this got me thinking, with so many movies doing this stalker-turned-happily-ever-after bullshit (the worst offender, of course, being the Shades of Grey horror-show), how can this be written differently? Now, while I’m no Wonder Woman writer/director (go see it if you want to see a healthy relationship develop on-screen), I thought I’d give it a shot. So, here is an abridged rewrite:

Adaline sees cute dude enter the room. Eyes meet. She turns back to friend. Later, she is alone, calling her daughter to wish her a happy new year.

Cute guy: “Mind if I join you? The view here’s something else, isn’t it?”

Guy actually looking out the window, not at her.

A: “Sure.” [recites obscure poem about view]

G: “Wow, that’s [obscure artist], I love her work.”

A: “Wow, I don’t know anyone else who knows her (cause I’m secretly hella old).”

Some talk about shared interests follows, then Adaline excuses herself and goes home. Man watches her, sad that she didn’t give him her contact details, but he accepts it.

A few days later, Adaline is at work, when Guy shows up.

A: “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

G: “Wow there, I’m just here to drop off some priceless old books because I’m totally a secret millionaire philanthropist. It’s totally cool that you work at the library though, I love books.”

A: “Me too. I’m glad you brought books. They are good.”

G: “Yes, they are. How wonderful that we have so much in common. Hey, I was going to go to [obscure poet]’s exhibition, want to come?”

A: “Oh, I hadn’t heard about that. That would be fun, but…”

Adaline is obviously struggling because Guy is hot and she’s attracted to him, but she’s moving in seven weeks and also basically a secret immortal being.

G: “I get it, this is weird, but let me ask you, would you go if I wasn’t going?”

Adaline hesitates, then agrees to go. They spend a lovely evening talking about all the things they have in common, then Guy convinces her to go somewhere secret with her for lunch. In return, she shows him a secret place in the city that nobody knows about. They end up at his place, smooching, and eventually sleep together, because come on, did you really think an ageless Blake Lively would be celibate all those years?

The next morning, Adaline tries to leave, tells him it was just the one night, explains about her leaving. Guy (gently!) convinces her to go out again because they still have a few more weeks, and so they have time to have fun before she goes, nothing too serious. I mean, who wouldn’t pick a few weeks with a brainy Blake Lively over no time with her at all?

The last weekend before she’s set to go, Guy convinces her to go to his parents’ place for the weekend, to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor stuff. There, she meets her former lover aka his father, the whole thing comes out, she runs away, changes her mind, doesn’t get into a car accident and stays a badass eternal lady. He welcomes her back, they share their feelings (after weeks together, rather than a few dates, which is no solid basis for love), and he learns to cope with her eternalness and her elderly daughter because he loves her. The End.

(Yes, she gets wishy-washy science’d into becoming mortal again near the end, and I do not agree with that either. Sorry if this abridged version doesn’t make much sense to people who haven’t seen the movie. My point is, if I can come up with this in an hour, professional screenwriters should be able to come up with something less macho-bullshit, toxic masculinity, cliche-central, right? Right?)

Let me know in the comments if you agree/disagree/have a better alternative. Hopefully I will calm down enough at some point to finish an actually researched blog post again, particularly on dealing with failure in publishing, which has been sitting in my drafts for far too long.

MST3K: At least my writing isn’t that bad

I have recently started watching the new series of Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 (MST3K) on Netflix and I’m enjoying it. It’s funny and aware, I love Felicia Day, they have some great guests, and the robots are adorable. I would like to make clear that I am in no way suggesting that I could be even half as funny as the writers for that show.


That said, the whole premise of the show is to watch really bad old movies, and boy are they bad. The acting is bad, the ‘monsters’ are bad, and the writing… I have no idea how they got away with so much crap back in the day! Sure, the amusing banter from Jonah and the robots is a good distraction, but not enough to make me forget just how badly made these old movies are, even disregarding all the limitations of the time-periods.

For one, there’s a whole lot of sexism and either casual racism or simply the whole erasure of race (such as the whole ‘only white people go to space’ yuckiness that has pervaded scifi for far too long!) going on. And in general, all characters tend to be paper-thin, with no backstory or deeper motivation or anything. The bad acting doesn’t help either (even Christopher Plummer manages to look bad! Though I blame the writing for that one – episode 6 Starcrash if you want to see for yourself).

Then there’s the plot. I get it, budgets were tight and monsters are expensive, so you can’t show them for very long. And yes, people were more used to a slower pace back then. But oh my gods things move so slow! Nothing happens for minutes, except people walking, or random scenery, or SPACE (which I guess was an impressive thing to film back then, even as fake as it possibly could be). They often blatantly reuse footage to stretch things out even further. There’s no sense of continuity whatsoever, with the plot either dwelling on something too long or skipping something altogether, with no apparent in-between. In short, nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I could go on like this for quite some time, but you’re better off just checking out an episode or ten for yourself. My main take-away from watching is not, as you might think: “Oh my gods there is so much bad writing out there!” – although the thought did cross my mind. No, it’s that people believed in this shitty content enough to invest lots of time and money into it. These things got made, and released, and people might have even watched them in a non-mocking way.

Surely we can do one better? If we believe, and put the time and effort in, we can surely make a story better than these guys got away with back in the day. And if they could get other people to invest in it too, there’s hope for everyone. So, I would suggest that if you’re feeling down about your creative efforts, go look at a terrible movie (with or without amusing MST3K commentary) or read a terrible story. Not only might you gain some tips on what not to do, but it will hopefully give you renewed vigour and confidence in your own work. Just don’t use MST3K and other suchlike things as procrastination, because really you (and I) should be writing!

Writing podcasts: The good, the also good, and the different good

As I stated in my previous blog post, I haven’t been writing lately (though I did write a short story on a whim not too long ago, inspired by a submission theme, and naturally it got rejected because I didn’t start writing until four days before the deadline), but I have been listening.

To be a writer, you have to write (obviously) and read, but also to listen and observe human interaction. Sure, fiction shouldn’t be exactly like real life (in fact, fiction needs to make more sense than real life does at the moment), but getting a sense of real human interaction, and how to describe it, can add an important layer of authenticity to your work.

Another thing to listen to is advice. Yes, all advice is subjective, and every writer has to find what works for them, and you should never follow any professional writer’s advice without question, even if it is J.K. Rowling or whoever your literary god may be. In fact, a good writer will tell you to take their advice with a grain of salt precisely because it is all so subjective and everyone has their own process. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth saying. And if you’re lucky, they’ll share their wisdoms on a podcast. Here are a few I’ve listened to that I think are helpful, entertaining, or a good wake-up call. They’re all available to listen to for free on iTunes and via the handy-dandy links I’ve included.

The Writers Panel

Admittedly, Ben Blacker talks more to screen/TV writers and even comic writers than he does to novel writers, and you might be able to learn more about the actual craft of writing simply by listening to the superb Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he co-wrote with Ben Acker, but this podcast offers a lot of insight into the ways in which people get into writing, their different processes, writing with other people, and how the things you love get made. Seriously, just look through the long list of podcasts and find the writers/producers/directors of the shows that you love, and see what they have to say for themselves. Guaranteed inspiration.

This is also a good podcast if you want to get into screen/TV writing and are happy/able to move to sunny California to pursue your dreams. It has lots of hopefully helpful advice about writers rooms, etc. An alternative to this would be the Scriptnotes podcast, which talks more about the technicalities of screenplay writing.

I should be writing

Well, the name really says it all. Mur Lafferty is not only an excellent writer (I can highly recommend the Shambling Guides series for you fantasy/Buffy/mystery fans out there), but she’s also a well-seasoned podcast host, yet she still manages to keep her advice fresh. She usually does a special NaNoWriMo podcast (or series of podcasts) and generally just talks about the craft of writing, her own insecurities and problems, and she does some great, insightful interviews with writers in various career stages that may make you think, “Hey, I could be like that”. And of course, she always reminds you that you should be writing!

Ditch diggers

Another podcast by Mur Lafferty, but this time she’s joined by Matt Effin’ Wallace (yes, it’s a sweary podcast, so beware). Together, they are the ditch diggers, coming to you live from various rooms in Morgan Freeman’s expansive estate (allegedly). Unlike ‘I should be writing’, this podcast covers the practicalities of writing as a job. So, if you see writing as a hobby, stick to the previous podcast, but if you’re serious about making writing into a career, whether fulltime or not, then this is the podcast for you. Together, they offer lots of tough-love advice and again some amazing interviews with other writers from various different backgrounds.

There are many other podcasts on writing out there, for example Print Run if you want to hear about publishing from the perspective of agents/authors, and I would also recommend listening to fiction podcasts to get a sense of a good story in another medium – you might discover something new about writing that you wouldn’t have picked up from reading a book. My personal favourites are the above mentioned Thrilling Adventure Hour, as well as Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown and Within the Wires. There’s also Escape Artists and its various podcasts, which are open to submissions if you would like the chance to see your story audio-fied.

In short, there are many different podcasts out there to inspire, advise and otherwise give you fresh perspectives on this wacky endeavour called writing. So if you run, or commute, or have some other 30-minute/1-hour time window every once in a while that could do to be filled with some random people talking at you, why not give one of these podcasts a shot?