Friday, 30 May 2014

NYC Midnight short story challenge 2014



So it's all over - and how did I do? I got an honourable mention. I'm happy with that, maybe next year I can make my way onto the Top Ten?

I'll present my musings on the experience and then post my three stories below warts and all, as they were sent to the competition - typos, missing punctuation and all....



http://www.nycmidnight.com/competitions/ssc/challenge.htm

The 8th Annual Short Story Challenge is a creative writing competition open to writers around the world. There are 3 rounds of competition. In the 1st Round (February 7-15, 2014), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment. Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 27-30, 2014) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story. Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word(maximum) story in just 24 hours (May 2-3, 2014). A panel of judges review the final round stories and overall winners are selected. 

My thoughts?

I never had enough time to write but did manage to hit all 3 deadlines, the last one by the skin of my teeth. First round I got comedy, that was a bit depressing because I don't really do comedy (should a writer should be able to turn their hand to anything?). Also in the NYC Flash Fiction challenge I went out on the round that asked me to write comedy. Also, as it's mostly folk from the States that take part would my humour translate? Anyway wasn't totally happy with the first round story and thought it would get nowhere, so was pleasently surprised when I got through to the second round. I came 5th in my group, so barely scraped in.

Then the second round was also comedy, what a nightmare, and I had less time to do it too. We had friends staying that weekend and it was the Airship Ball at which I was doing a reading, so that one was written in a bit of a rush. I was happier with it though and that showed in being 2nd in my Group I guess.

The third round I had even less time and had to be out most of the day at a birthday celebration so I got up early, wrote for a couple of hours, went to the birthday celebration, got back late and wrote for a couple of hours and just about hit the deadline. Unlike the previous round I didn't try anything clever with the prompt, which I guess is what they're looking for. Anyway I'm very happy that I got an honourable mention.

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Round One Story -

Genre - Comedy
Subject - A bakery
Character - A newly divorced woman


Almond and bitter tears


“You know that bit in the Gerard Depardieu’s  Cyrano De Bergerac film where the bakery starts wrapping cakes in poetry?”

I looked at Steve and wondered what sort of tangent he’d gone off on now.

“I think so” I said, knowing it was best to let him come back from wherever his daydreams had taken him this time.

“We can do that” he smiles and looks eagerly at me, like a puppy expecting a treat.

“Wrap cakes in poetry?” I ask, wondering if it wasn’t better to head this off after all.

“Open a bakery for poets”

“Didn’t they go bankrupt in the film?”

“Did they? I think it’s a great idea” he smiles again, his ‘I’m going to convince you to do something against your better nature’ smile, “we could call it Claire’s Éclairs”

“Well that is a good name” I admitted reluctantly.

“OK so what did you want to talk about” he said in that quick leap to a new subject way he had. I wasn’t fooled though, I knew the bakery idea was going to resurface again.

#

Ten years later I had three daughters by Steve and we were running the bakery, although we never really did the poetry part. He was always a dreamer and schemer, not very good at practical things so it was a mystery when he started going to plumbing lessons. Little did I know that he was having ‘thoughts’ about another one of the attendees until it all blew up in my face. Turns out he had always had a thing for burly men, not that I had any clue of that. Queue messy divorce and waving Steve off as he embarked on his new life with Bruce on a cruise ship.

Turns out though that running a bakery, although it is a lot of hard work, is fun and something I’m actually good at. It was tricky juggling the work with the three little ones but I hired an assistant and made a go of it. For a while after the divorce my almond and bitter tear cakes and rueful rye bread didn’t do so well but my loyal customer base rallied round and eventually I got on with my life.

#

Wednesday started normally, I opened the bakery at the crack of dawn and started the ovens. The boy who helped out was late, as usual, and lazy, as usual so I ended up doing most of the work, as usual. Since the divorce I had taken to wearing “day Jammies” for comfort. My usual outfit now was a shapeless but comfortable and warm top and jogging bottoms. My hair I generally just tied back and now wore no makeup. So not expecting company I was in comfortable mode. When the blinds went up at the front of the shop I wasn’t expecting to see the small crowd that had gathered. They were all looking in the opposite direction though. Intrigued I opened the door, the tinkling of the small brass bell causing a few of the nearest in the crowd glance round. It was a grey and miserable day but there seemed to be a glow from the opposite row of shops. Intrigued I pushed through the crowd to be confronted with a new shop, all lights blazing with large letters in gold and neon: “The Magical Sweet Emporium”. Outside were a band of chimps in butler uniforms holding silver platters holding a variety of patisserie. At the door, waving people in and out, was a jolly looking fellow in a costume that looked like the wrapper of a particularly expensive chocolate.

I pushed my way to the front, to the annoyance and mutters of some of the crowd.

“What’s all this?” I asked, in a bit of a screechy tone, I cleared my throat as the jolly man turned to look at me.

“This? This is my shop, it has just opened, would you like a piece of baklava? Gerald? Gerald, give this lady a piece of baklava” This last command was barked at one of the chimps who walked over with a surprising amount of dignity and proffered the tray.

I found myself taking a piece and popping it into my mouth, well you wouldn’t want to offend a chimp would you?

“Can I look inside?” I asked innocently and the man that would soon become my bitterest nemesis waved me inside as my nose came alive to the warm enticement of sugar, butter, chocolate and almond that wafted under it as the latest customer walked out.

Inside I knew I was in trouble as the shelves groaned under the tons of cakes of all shapes, sizes and compositions from angel cake to Yokan. How was I going to compete with this? This was all shiny and new, and he had chimps, in butler uniforms. People love butlers and chimps. The majority of my sales were from cakes, although this shop didn’t do bread so I would still get some trade I supposed. Feeling glum I slinked out of the shop, barely grunting in reply to the Jolly Man, whose “have a nice day” whilst sounding sincere also seemed like a stab in the back to me. As I trudged through the door to Claire’s Éclairs I was too dispirited to wake the boy who was supposed to helping out but who was dozing in the only chair in the shop.

#

Our battle lines were drawn, we took to standing outside our respective shops and haranguing passers-by. I started to take care of my appearance again and was surprised to be wooed by a customer or two. I tried to keep my loyal customers by doing deals but I had started to lose money anyway, much of the passing trade was drawn in by the chimps, did I mention they were dressed like butlers? The jolly bastard opposite never seemed to be in trouble though. I wondered how much he paid the chimps, peanuts no doubt. On  Mondays he did a special on madeira so I did one on marble cake. On Tuesdays he put tiramisu on the chimps silver platters so I got the boy to hand out teacakes. On Wednesday, well you see where this is going I’m sure. It was a patisserie stand-off. When he paid someone to come in and hang around my shop subtly putting off my customers I knew that  nice guys were going to finish last in this cake war. When I got the boy to substitute salt for sugar in the emporium’s stores the war stepped up a notch. When the police were called after we had a shouting match that silenced the dawn chorus things came to a head.

#

I know what you’re thinking. Eventually there is going to be a food fight. But we don’t all live in a Bugsy Malone film. Although if I could splurge that jolly fucker I really would. Nope I got the animal welfare people out. He retaliated with child protection services, seems the youngster I’d been employing was under age.  People preferred his shop for cakes, mine for pastries, his for sweets, mine for bread, his for confection mine for wheaty comestibles.  Bills were starting to hurt, unexpected costs, like springing a leak in rainy weather started to really smart and without the boy the job started getting on top of me. Seems he was actually useful after all.

It was a postcard from Steve that changed things, a card from somewhere exotic like Cuba or Mauritius turned up occasionally with him invariably apologising for not phoning or missing one of the girl’s birthdays or similar. This particular one was from Monaco and written in faux French which reminded me of his dream and why we opened a bakery in the first place. The bakery for poets. I started advertising and offered the bakery free for poetry reading events with free cakes to the poets. Soon my ‘Victoria sponge and verse’ evening was causing a buzz. When I spotted a chimp in the crowd I feared the worse but it appears that they were off duty, dressed in stripy shirts with berets and hungry for rhythm and rum baba. The evening was a great success and I was set up for a series of sonnets and soufflés when I received the bombshell. The Magical Sweet Emporium was holding a closing down sale. Turns out Mr Oh So Jolly had also been losing money and cutting corners, not paying some of his creditors, some of his bills had been overdue and eventually he had to admit that he didn’t have what it takes to run a shop.  I took the chimps on out of a sense of responsibility, seems you can pay them peanuts as long as they’re allowed the nights of the poetry readings off.
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Yeah, just re-read it. Hilarious! Still surprised it scraped through ... Mixed feedback from the judges too, points knocked off for missing punctuation around dialogue (my bugbear - happens a lot when I write, usually pick it up on one of the editing sweeps, missed it on this one)
Second Round Story
Genre: Comedy
Subject: Learning to drive
Character: A Butcher
Vehicular Education
The car whooshes down the country lane. At the wheel, a boy barely old enough to be in charge of such a vehicle. It is on automatic, following a pre-determined route, controlled via satellite.
            The young lady passenger takes two glasses and pours the champagne. They are celebrating end of term. They are young, in love, in transit and indefatigable.
            Neither, in the grip of hormones and alcohol, see the chimpanzee. It rushes onto the road in front of the car. It has spent its entire life in a cage, in a laboratory, a subject of nanotechnology research into uplifting intelligence. It is scared, it has run a long way, it can hear the dogs. It has never seen a car, or even a road before. It really hasn’t got the slightest idea what hits it.
            The couple barely pause when they feel the bump. Probably just a pot hole they assume. The car’s self-repair unit will fix the damage before they get to their destination. The red flashing collision light will puzzle the boy later. But it will be easily dismissed as a glitch.
#
            The chimp lies in a shallow, sluggishly moving brook. Its blood, with a payload of nanobots, seeps slowly and steadily into the stream. When the dogs, with their hard-faced masters, turn up, the chimp is dead and going cold. The two men look at each other and shrug. At least no-one found it. They heft the carcass between them and start the long walk back to the bio-research laboratory.
            Downstream, a family of badgers are taking a drink. The Alpha male is grizzled and going grey. It has survived many a battle and there is a great pink patch on one flank where scars criss-cross it after a very close shave with a car. The nanobots proliferate and patch the small animals’ brains. The badgers chitter to each other as another car zooms by on the nearby road. The Alpha stands briefly on its hind legs and its head follows the direction the car has gone as new thoughts blossom. The other badgers stop and watch it with a new gleam of intelligence in their eyes.
#
            “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”  the small grey man, in the smart grey suit, says in his sad grey voice. “Remember what we discussed last time? Put it in gear, let out the clutch slowly, find the bite.” The driving instructor’s name is Smith. A dull, safe name.
            Sandy is a big man, easily dwarfing the driving instructor. His powerful upper body has been obtained from years of carrying hogs and sides of beef and chopping through carcasses. His well-developed muscles bunch as his hands, which are the size of grapefruits, with fingers the size of sausages, grip the wheel like a strangler grips his victims. His face is an intense study of concentration. He is a little scared of the grey driving instructor if truth be told. Desperate for the small man’s approval. During the first lesson he had offered to give the instructor free meat. Smith, who reads a lot of science fiction, had commented “If this were a story I’d find that the meat came from road kill, or human, or aliens!” Sandy, who didn’t read much at all, was nonplussed, the conversation petered out and the two men had been awkward with each other since.
            “Today, we’ll go out of town again. Until your clutch control is better, we’d do well to avoid other vehicles. Hmmm?”        
Sandy nods eagerly, silently voicing thanks that he has another lesson to get used to the car before he has to brave city roads. He is already sweating profusely, his face is bright red, ready for embarrassment as anxiety takes him in a death grip. He puts the car in first gear, with difficulty. There is a crunch, Smith winces, Sandy goes a more intense red. He lets out the clutch and kangaroos down the road for a short distance before smoothing out.
            “Gently. Gently!” Smith says as Sandy finds second and stomps on the gas hard so that the car jerks forward throwing both men back in their seats.
            Sandy is only learning how to drive a manual as his wife insists that a butcher marketing himself as ‘traditional’ really should not turn up for a delivery in a modern car. He’d purchased a small white half van. Emblazoned the name of his business on the side. Then realised that although he had a license, he had absolutely no idea how to drive one of these last century monstrosities.
#
As promised Smith’s directions take them out into the countryside. As they turn onto a narrow country lane neither man notices that the large neon sign, indicating winding roads ahead, is blinking. The light goes off as they go past.
The badger, at the bottom of the pole holding the sign, has chewed through the power cable. As the light cuts off, smoke and an unpleasant burnt fur smell drift on the wind.
            The Alpha silently salutes the sacrifice its kin has just made. It chitters commands at the others who start running to their apportioned tasks. They would pay, oh they would pay dearly, it thinks. Whilst Sandy and Smith are oblivious to the furious activity on just the other side of the hedge to them.
            Long grass, bits of  hedgerow, ancient abandoned cables, broken bottles, discarded Bar-B-Q detritus, old rusty cans, and the other flotsam and jetsam that collects on the side of roads, was slowly being woven by clever paws and cunning mouths.
#
            The car is returning the way it came. “Well I’d say that as far as hill starts go that could have been better. It’s a good job there was nothing behind us. For a long way.”
            Sandy grinds his teeth whilst his hands move on the steering wheel as if they are trying to wring out a wet rag. He is concentrating so hard he feels he will burst a blood vessel in his head. It takes him a second of thinking ‘what the’ as he sees the pyramid of badgers at the side of the road, with one holding a cable in its mouth and leaping from the top. As the car slams over the improvised stinger all four tyres are explosively shredded and the car immediately becomes unmanageable. Sandy panics. He flails at the steering wheel counter-productively, the car slides sideways and flips once, flips again and then flips for a final time coming to rest upon its roof, with much squealing and grinding. The road is strewn with glass and other debris as the scene is lit by one remaining working headlight and one of the indicators patiently signalling a right turn that will never be taken.
#
            The badgers set up an excited noise, cheering their victory in this, their first successful hunt. They rush forward to within feet of the car, then slow and eventually stop. The creature is obviously injured but may not yet be slain. The Alpha, needing to prove his bravery above all others, goes and climbs upon it, standing upon the belly of the beast and letting out a great, full throated roar of badger victory. They will daub pictures of this victory in the set this night. They will teach their cubs of this. This was history in the making.
            Inside, Smith is out cold, a great gash across his forehead bleeding copiously. Sandy groans and moves against the restraint of the seat belt feebly. He is beginning to regain consciousness. A couple of the younger, braver badgers are at the smashed in windscreen and give voice to questioning cheeps and squeaks as the man starts making noise. When he starts moving they exchange glances. What could it mean, was the Two-legs food? A hostage? A Symbiote? Small sharp teeth chew through the seat belt, small furry bodies pull the semi-conscious Sandy out of the car and slowly, patiently, drag him off the road, through the hedge backwards and lay him finally, gently, on the grass.
            Sandy tries to open his eyes, the world is fuzzy, one eye only partially opens, being already hugely swollen. Why was he surrounded by badgers? Is this a dream? What is happening? The Alpha steps close to him and makes a noise like a dolphin with laryngitis. Sandy says “Huh?” His brain can’t process this information.
            The badger is frustrated. Why can’t the Two-legs understand? It must be because of a singular lack of intelligence. Like the huge black and white creature with large udders it had encountered earlier, there was a communication issue. It wanted to convey ‘We saved you, you are now free, we go to liberate more creatures now.’ But the Two-legs was hurt, confused, didn’t seem to understand plain language. Perhaps if it is left for others of its kind to find then in the future they could open a conversation, once it is better. On the road another car flashes past and as one the badgers turn to look. They must reset their trap!
            Twenty minutes later an angry piercing noise and a strange blue flashing come closer as the badgers prepare to do battle. The leader can see that it is a much bigger creature this time. The badgers make ready. They are surprised when Sandy bursts out onto the road waving his arms about causing the emergency vehicle to screech to a halt before it can enter the badgers’ trap. A quick command sees the badgers melt into the darkness, their trap rapidly pulled out of sight behind the hedge. The Alpha watches the Two-legs and, as Sandy calls out to the men in the car and they come out to catch his stumbling form, it wonders if their unintelligible grunting could possibly be some form of rudimentary language. What they need is information, to learn more about the Two-legs and their relationship to the fast creatures that kill.
            Sandy is bundled into the car. They call it in. One of the uniformed men walks over to the abandoned wreck to see if Smith is still alive. The badgers watch, and wait, and plan.
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Still not really comedy, but a better story I think. Again mixed feedback from the judges with the usual "perhaps tries to do too much" that I seem to get a lot.
Third Round story
 Genre - Open
Subject - Jealousy
Character - A Fisherman
The Hungry Spear
We are fishing, Abu and I. The sea is calm, the sun makes diamonds on the water. We are in the usual spot. Bobbing gently up and down in time with the swell. Opposite is the river, from which all things of the land eventually wash out into the open, ever-hungry, maw of the sea. We are not the only fishermen, but the sea is wide and we rarely see the others. I am keeping the canoe still. Abu is perfectly balanced, his strong golden toes gripping, relaxing, gripping. He stares into the sea, a study of anatomy, the spear-thrower. He is the better fisherman, more athletic than I,  tall where I am short, graceful where I am clumsy, still where I am animated.
            The canoe rises, and falls. There is a silence here I crave, all sea and birds and wide open sky. Unlike the raucous village. I live apart, seeking the quiet solitude of remoteness. A foible the village tolerates. Abu accepts my difference, has always done so, I hope for tacit approval. He lives in the village but is one of the few who will bother to visit my remote haven. Recently Abu has started to talk about proud, subtle, lithe Femi. He has always been the one to draw the admiring glances. Until now he has never returned them. Now he, and Femi, draw envious looks.
Abu’s whole body tenses and fast as a striking snake his hips pivot, muscles bunch and his arm comes down with swift inevitability. The spear is the shark’s razor jaw, the seagull’s stabbing beak, the cat’s pouncing claw. A hungry predator, yearning for blood with cruel necessity. Abu flips the large fish into the boat where it makes shapes - c, l, c, l. It takes me several blows to finally kill it, I have introduced inefficiency into Abu’s beautiful equation. Abu grins at me, boyishly delighted with his catch. “Your turn”. We swap places, shuffling and holding on to each other in a ritual dance. My turn to stand sentinel, strive to become still, to investigate the water with my gaze.
            Later, as we paddle back, a decent enough catch aboard making us mellow companions, Abu casually shatters my world. “I am going to ask Femi’s father for her hand.” I mumble some mealy-mouthed congratulation. He doesn’t notice, lost as he is in some reverie of Femi. Our daily routine is broken. Usually we talk about the catch, or the village. Sometimes, he lets me tell him tales of the bronze heroes of the early legends. I have never confessed that my imagination paints him into those stories, a hero. Today he becomes loquacious, expanding on the many, oh so many, wonders and delights of Femi.
#
            In the following days and weeks his fishing suffers, his thoughts always with her, spending his hours in the village mooning over her. I spend more and more time alone, in my hut, away from the village. Gradually we drift apart. I cannot help but resent her and it is obvious, when we are together, that my dislike is reciprocated. We hide it from Abu, for his sake.
            I try to turn it into a problem of arithmetic, rather than emotion. Two plus one, one plus two, four minus one. It doesn’t work. I have to spend ever more time alone. We still fish most days, sometimes lately I catch more than him. We seldom talk after a day’s fishing now. I tell him no more tales of the early heroes. The joy has been stolen from them, as he has been stolen from me.
#
            Today we caught little, as I walk back to my hut I am thinking of asking one of the others to come fishing with me. I am rehearsing what to say to Abu when Femi steps out onto the sandy path. I groan a little, I am tired, I smell of the sea, I carry my spear limply. “What do you want Femi?”
“What do you talk about when you are fishing?”
“The usual.”
“Women?”
“We don’t talk that much about you.”
“Other women?”
“No.”
“Don’t deny it Keva, there is someone else, you must tell me.”
“There is no-one else Femi, Abu loves you. Now I am tired and I wish to go to my hut.”
“I should have known that you’d hide things for him. He tells me he is spending time with you. If you weren’t here he’d have to tell me the truth.”
I am about to ask her what she means when she moves her arm and I belatedly spot the knife. My knife, she has been in my hut! I leap back and her slash goes wide. “Stop this madness Femi!” I shout. She thrusts again, catches my arm with a stinging slash. We circle warily. I gesture with my spear “Don’t make me…” She rushes forward, leaping onto the blade, a fish desperate to be caught. There is a sickening crunch, the shock of which knocks the spear from my hand. I try to catch her, I will always be trying to catch her. Her dead weight drags me down with her. Blood runs down my arm and mingles with hers as the sand thirstily sucks it up. Her eyes are shockingly, accusingly wide. I am undone.
            In the following hours, as darkness conceals the forest, I hide her. Staccato flashes haunt my waking nightmare. Rocks, twine, river, cleansing, digging, crying. Did anyone see? Should I run? I am numb, cannot think. In the morning I don’t know what to do. I sleepwalk into routine. I meet Abu at the canoe as normal. He is distracted, he doesn’t mention Femi, but then he hasn’t done for a while. I think I should say something but cannot bring myself to start. We mutter rote greetings, worn smooth by our time together upon the sea. Has he been with another woman? Does he even know Femi is missing?
            We paddle out in silence. This is usual, but today I imagine there is a tension. I watch the river mouth. Avid with secret dread. My guilt like a beacon I must hide. I watch Abu stare with a peculiar intensity at the water and speculate on what he sees. Is it her hair, like silky seaweed, combed by the waves? Her hands perhaps, inexpertly lashed to the rock, now come loose, beckoning, come close my love, come close. Her eyes wide with the secret she cannot help but tell him.
            Eyes the colour of the sea turn to look at me. “I know.” He says. My guilt is as clear as the water he has been contemplating.
“Abu, wait.”
“There has always been something between you. You were always awkward together when I was around. Then I saw her go to your hut. I have been stupid. It should have been obvious.” Salt water streaks his face.
“What? No, it’s not that, it’s not what you think!” But he doesn’t wait. He doesn’t want explanation. He has all the information and details he requires to tell himself a story about our lives. His is the knowledge of painful veracity. Although it is not the truth. The spear is a hungry predator. He is economic in form. I am caught. Eternal silence rushes to greet me.
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This is more my normal style I think, although there is no speculative element. It also hinges on the fact that after accidently killing someone our narrator would still go fishing, which is a bit implausible, maybe if I had some more time I could have fixed that. Still happy it got an honourable mention. I await the judges' feedback with interest....
 





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