The Short Story: A Way for a Writer to Experiment?

Creative Writing with the Crimson League

test-tubes-1256556-mEarlier this week, to commemorate my mom’s birthday, I wrote about a fun memory: how she taught the value of branching out and trying new things. This is no less applicable to writing fiction: all authors need to stretch themselves and leave their comfort zone to develop new skills.

What are some ways to do that, though?

Well, of course, there’s always reading. Find an example of a great novel that exhibits the qualities you want to try out, to see what makes the technique work.

When it comes to giving that technique a shot on your end, though, the short story is GREAT for experimentation!

I realize none of those observations are particularly deep or earth-shatteringly brilliant. Still, I’m sure I’m not the only novelist out there who avoids writing short stories, and I think that’s not good for me.

I don’t think it’s good for any writer to…

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A sneak peek at “Sympathy for the Devil”

Since April I’ve been writing a novel which I’ve heretofore called a “secret project”, simply because I had no title for it.

Around early August I hit upon a title: Sympathy for the Devil. And at the same time I finished the first draft of the novel. It was a quick turnaround for a first draft: about 4 months, writing in my spare time outside work.

During August I rested the material and started writing some new material for Sympathy, with the intention of matching it up when I started editing. I find this an important exercise when writing – it gives me an opportunity to ‘brain dump’ material that never quite made it into the first rush through the narrative, or which might give clues for editing or character or plot development.

Longer-time readers will know that I occasionally publish rejected material for my books, and I’m repeating that habit here. Pasted in below is a rejected Chapter One for Sympathy. There’s nothing wrong per se with the writing, except for one thing: the tone and voice of the material, and the narrative perspective, doesn’t fit the rest of the book. This rejected Chapter One is written from a 3rd person omniscient point of view, whereas the rest is from a 1st person. And this text includes a confused amount of the unique voice of the main character. On which note, a warning: the main character’s voice is in poor grammar, so you’ll see wrong words in places. These are deliberate, not typos. Spelling mistakes are typos, but poor grammar isn’t.

I owe a debt of thanks to my writing circle for convincing me to reject this material.

If you’re still reading by this point, and want a sneak peek at Sympathy for the Devil, then here you go. This is the real background to the novel, but the material won’t make it into the final edit.

Enjoy,

astro x

Sympathy for the Devil:

[REJECTED & UNEDITED]

Chapter One – 1984 CE, 1945 CE, 61 CE

It started in many places. Three, if you want to focus. But who’s to say they was more important than another three? Let me pick one for you, though, my love. Because you’re new to this and you want to know what’s going on, ain’t I right?

Now how do I know where it started, you’re wondering? Me and all. Well, there’s some things what you just know. Know what I mean?

It started up north in Yorkshire in 1984CE, when Little Ruthie put up her hand and said, “My dad says there’s no such thing as G-d. He says there’s no need for G-d in nineteen eighty four.”

Mr. Sowerby, who was her teacher, held his hand behind his back. Between thumb and forefinger he squeezed the stick of compressed skeletons what he wrote confused facts with about people long since dead. “Does he now? I know your dad. Taught him in this very classroom, Miss Willoughby.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“He,”

“But he does say that Margaret Thatcher is the devil.”

“Really?” Squeeze. “And who is the Saviour, then?” A smile full of pride on his face.

“Mr. Scargill, dad says.”

“That donkey jacketed,” squeeze, but she interrupted again.

“Sir, my dad says Manvers will never be closed. That’s why Mr. Scargill’s got them to walk out. To keep it open.”

“So he’s a picket, is he? Always was a trouble maker. You listen to me. Your dad could have had a proper job, rather than being buried underground ten hours a day hitting rocks. Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t need uneducated oafs. It needs people with O levels and ambition. Britain needs strivers, not miners.”

You can imagine him thinking, There, that shut her up. Ten years old and full of herself.

“Sir?”

“Miss. Willoughby.”

“My dad says Mrs. Thatcher is a complete,”

“We’ve all heard quite enough from you, Miss Willoughby. Let’s return to your religious,”

“When I’m Prime Minister I’ll re-open Manvers.”

Little Ruthie ducked as the chalk flew over her head and shattered on the wall behind her. It made a high pitched chink when it struck the tiled floor, where it rolled from side to side to side to side. Children looked every which way.

“There’ll be no presumption in this class, you hear me? This is a religious education lesson. I am in control.”

O’d faces all around the class. No one had ever seen Sowerby mad.

Little Ruthie looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.

“Enough!” he shouted.

“I’m telling my dad on you.”

“Tell him all you like. If you can get him off the picket line. These strikers care more about coal than they do their families. Now, anyone else wish to discuss the politics of Communists? No? Good. Then please open your bibles to the Book of Job.”

Little Ruthie flicked through the pages. Her eyes was out the window, on the distant colliery where the wheel no longer turned. No fun fairs went to Wath, not any more. The only spinning lights came from the riot vans at the coal plant.

One day, she thought, one day I’ll prove my dad’s right.

And it started in London in 1945CE, where it carried on decades later. And sometimes for startings, names ain’t so important, not now and not after.

“Let’s see,” said the girl. “Is it really Mr. Churchill?”

“He’s with someone. Who is it?”

“Shh, shh, he’s gonna speak.” The girl craned her neck.

“He’s done us ever so proud,” said someone nearby.

“It’s his victory what’s freed us,” said a woman close to the girl.

“We should all say that, eh?” said the girl. “Shout at him, ‘It’s your victory!’”

“’It’s your victory.’ I like that. Here, mate, you hear what she said?”

And so on through the crowd.

Winston Churchill took the balcony of the Ministry of Health, abet by two colleagues. The skies were finally clear. That nice Mr. Hitler’s bombs and doodlebugs and V2 rockets were silent, his scientists fled to America to dream of space and rocket ships.

“Here he goes, shh shh,” said the girl.

On different sides of the throng of people, two men dressed almost identically started pushing their way in. They thought very similar thoughts and were headed for the same point in the crowd. Each was in a smart wool suit, fedora, Mackintosh coat. Even in the crowds they cut a dash, while their eyes and elbows cut a swathe. One was tall, the other short. From a distance that was the only difference.

“G-d bless you all. This is your victory!” said Winston Churchill from the balcony.

“No, it is yours!” shouted the crowd. People looked around at each other. They’d done it, said the thing all together. There was that spirit, still working together, singing the same message. They all cheered. It was a new dawn, a new day. Britain was a community, working together to defeat National Socialism. Now Britain was victorious, triumphant.

Churchill looked down at the crowds of people: nurses, labourers, soldiers, children.

“It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land,” he continued. “In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

In the crowd, the two men pushed, separately, through hugging friends and wormed through strangers bonded over that singular moment of triumph.

“Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. G-d bless you all.”

Applause. Cheers. Hats thrown in the air in that way what don’t happen no more. London in celebration, a nation glued to its valve-radios and memories of steamer ships and Victorian colonies. Flags flipped back and forth, hearts swelled with pride, relief and grief and loss.

In the crowd there was a surge, and it pushed a gentleman against the girl.

Further back, another gentleman looked on, eyes flat. He tipped his hat and turned: it was too late. He would have to wait. He disappeared into the crowd, melted away into London and the world and future plans.

She, the girl, looked round, briefly, at the contact. People pushing didn’t bother her. It was a crowd. Besides, she thought, it was gentle and felt nice. Sort of cosy, like. And she knew the cues, the signals, how her profession worked.

Churchill carried on talking, but the girl had places to go. There was money to earn, bread to put on a table. She turned and looked up into a smile and a twinkle.

“Quite the speaker, isn’t he?” said the man behind her. Nice hat, she thought. Nice suit.

“Did you hear what he said?” she smiled back. “We all done our best. No one ever said that before. Least not to me.”

The man looked into her eyes, “I wonder if a victory gin would be appropriate?”

“For you or for me?”

“For us both.”

“Sauce. Don’t even know you.”

“Perhaps,” and he leaned until his breath stroked the fine hair on her earlobe, “today demands the spirit of triumph, rather than the spirit of propriety.”

She looked at him, her hands fiddling with a purse, irises never quite settling in one place. “Where was you stationed?” she asked. “Gotta know you’re respectable, ain’t I?”

“North Africa, originally,” he said, and pulled back, adjusting his hat.

“Rommel and Montgomery?” she weren’t quite sure who they were. Surviving the Blitz and keeping up with what was happening over in France had taken all her time. But everyone knew the names, and it had always been enough to strike up a conversation with other clients.

“Something like that,” the man smiled. “What’s your name?”

She tugged his tie, gently, gently smiling, “No names today, Mr. Desert Fox. Gin and triumph only. Alright?”

He offered his arm, and they fought their way out of a cheering crowd.

They drank in a little place he knew, and then went to a quiet back street hotel where they saw in the dawn.

By the morning he was gone. Despite her insistence that the night was a celebration, there was still a pile of money on the dresser. “Bloody men,” she whispered.

A knock on the door, “You’ve had your fun. Ten minutes, then I call the police. Back to normal, missy. This is a respectable place.”

The girl pulled her clothes on and picked up the money. “Bloody Nora,” and she looked to the window, even though she knew he wouldn’t be outside, standing by a lamp-post, looking up at the window, waiting for a reaction. “Gin and triumph,” she whispered. She left behind the stained and crumpled bed sheets, and entered that new world with a swing in her step and a seed in her belly.

And it started somewhere above Watford, in Northamptonshire, long before it were called that in 64CE. It were somewhere along the Fosse Way, after the sacking of Londinium and Camulodonum and Verulamium. Bodies of Romans strew the land. And the warriors of the Iceni and Trinovantes and the other tribes lay with them, their blood seeping into the mystical land of northern Europe, that land what the Greeks called Albion. Cos sometimes stories don’t start all together. Sometimes you gotta go way back to the roots, ain’t ya?

“We are defeated.”

“My Queen, the Romans are too many and too strong. It’s impossible. Their ships arrive every day with more soldiers.”

“Send word Corslan. Despatch a rider to the Fair Folk. Then tell the tribal chieftans. Those who want to remain may do so. But we will take our armies and those who will come with us, and retreat.”

“My lady?”

“We retreat to Tír inna n-Óc until the time is right.”

“Retreat? But the Romans will spread and take Britain.”

“We will abide. The Fair Folk will provide a champion. When the time is right we will win back Ierne and Albion from the foreign invaders.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Albion will endure.”

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, ten year old Yorkshire lass. Hair pulled back under an Alice-band. School bag decorated with pins for Bananarama and Adam and the Ants.

The streets of Wath-upon-Dearne was decorated with banners, “SUPPORT THE MINERS”.

Policemen walked around in pairs or sat in riot vans, bored, waiting for something to happen. Pissy little mining towns with their upstart miners. Why couldn’t they just get other jobs?

Men in donkey jackets stood at braziers, watching pathetic flames lick at the cold air. The great chimney at the colliery was quiet, its usual belch settled in its belly. The men grumbled about the lack of jobs, and talked about the families what had moved south, to the factories of the Midlands. One family had even moved to the south coast to open a bed and breakfast. Not one of the men could bring themselves to call those who’d gone traitors. But still the word floated in the air between them, missing its lightning rod. Traitors. Traitors. Traitors.

“It’s John’s girl,” one of the men nodded his head at Little Ruthie. “John! Your lass is here.”

John Willoughby was stood in a group of miners, a confabulation.

“Ruthie, come ‘ere love,” suddenly all smiles for his daughter.

Over their shoulders, the coal ramps were still. The site was asleep, the workers was outside and above ground, and the coal slumbered in its bed.

“Bring her along, John. She should see,” said one of the other men.

“You want to come to Orgreaves, Ruthie? We’re going on a demo up Rotherham way.”

“OK.”

“It might be a bit scary. Lots of pigs around.”

Little Ruthie held her dad’s hand. The callouses and ground-in coal dust were home, her tiny hand was soft and clean, now smudged with that solid fuel that burns so well. She could smell her dad a mile away, the pit was in his lungs and his bones.

“Will Margaret Thatcher be there?”

“Trained her well, John!” shouted the men behind him. They laughed and turned away.

“No, she won’t come up here. Them politicians don’t care, Ruthie. We have to care instead. Listen, don’t tell your mam we’re away to Orgreaves, you know how she is.”

“I’ll say I’m at Nanny and Granda’s, don’t worry.”

“There’s my girl.”

A coach pulled up. Men moved and shared cigarettes, small roll-ups which drooped and went flat between their fingers.

Little Ruthie climbed onto the bus, the only girl amongst those grown-up men, strikers, pit workers.

Little Ruthie went on the bus to Orgreaves, her first demonstration.

Ten year old Little Ruthie darted between the legs of policemen and strikers alike, avoiding the truncheons and flung stones.

Little Ruthie hid behind a police car, hating its protection, and watched her dad struck, fall to the floor, blood on the tarmac and flow between its cracks where grass pushed up, ever hopeful.

Ten year old Little Ruthie hated Margaret Thatcher.

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, cradled her dad, John Willoughby, while he held his cut head and looked at his blood on the soil of his country. “Never forget, Ruthie,” he said, all the way to the hospital, and all the way home. “Never forget.”

The girl quit her old job. Not that there was a boss to tell. She just stopped turning up at the regular places.

The man had left her more money than she earned in three years. Five. She bought a house, decorated, bought plants. Started a small allotment. Dig for victory! still rang in her mind.

She took up sewing work.

Well, she had to. She knew almost immediately that the gin and triumph of victory in Europe had become motherhood and hope. The other girls told her about back street doctors, about women who had gin and coat hangers and hot baths and towels.

“No. It’s a new start,” she told them.

And forty weeks later, she gave birth in that small house, and as the midwife was tidying her room, the man walked in and sat down. Bold as brass. Nary a word nor letter in between before and then.

“Mr. Desert Fox,” she said, hair slick to her forehead. The baby was clamped to her nipple, gumming it, blind, a maggot squirming in swaddling. “Had a feeling you’d be back.”

“Wild horses and all that. So, boy or girl?” He took a seat from the opposite side of the room and put it next to the bed. No other introduction or by your leave. No explanation. Straight in, treated the place like it was his. Which.

“Girl,” said the girl. Woman now. Mother.

“She’s perfect,” said the midwife. “Don’t mind me, I’ll be on my way. I’ll pop in tomorrow, see how you are. Good day,” a professional nod to the man. She saw similar things every day. A baby boom, she called it. The Victory Effect, others said.

“You left me alone at that hotel,” said the woman, mother. She stared at her daughter’s face, the gummy eyes.

“Duty called.”

“It’s OK. Thank you for,” she looked at the walls of the house and around. “What shall we call her?”

Straight away, “Lucy. The light bearer. The morning star.”

“Morning star, I like that. Here, Lucy, meet your father.”

The man held his daughter and looked into her face, “Lucy. You’re going to run this country one day.”

“You can hold her a bit longer,” said the woman, “I need my sleep. Do you mind?”

“Of course not.” The man walked away with the baby and left the mother to sleep.

When the midwife returned the following day, she found the woman still in bed, propped up on pillows. Her face was serene. Possibly the most beautiful face the midwife had ever seen. Not for her natural beauty; she was plain at best. But for the look of deep contentment and peace which had settled over her.

Shame, thought the midwife. The bed sheets was already turning black, the blood dried to a resin.

“Haemorrhage,” the midwife shook her head. “Where’s little miss? She’ll need a wet nurse.”

But the baby weren’t anywhere to be seen.

“My lady. We have what villagers will come. Some of our warriors have chosen to stay.”

“Very well. And the Romans?”

“Sending heralds to the other tribes. They will soon know of our defeat.”

“Queen Boudicca is never defeated.”

“No, my lady.”

Queen Boudicca looked over a stone fence at the rolling green of Albion. “I have a final mission for you. This is your life’s work.”

“My lady?”

“My son. I’m appointing you as his protector, Corslan.”

“I’m honoured. But,”

“I am not going with you. I am the last of the Iceni. Britain goes under Roman rule. But promise me one thing, Corslan, Steward of Britain.”

He said nothing, instead standing straighter and looking to the horizon.

“These islands, Albion and Ierne, will soon be over-run with Romans and their gods. The Fair Folk have agreed to grant you the power of Tír inna n-Óc. We will absorb the Romans, they will become British, and we will win the slow victory. But others will come behind them. New people, new gods. Defend our lands, Corslan, defend Britain against the darkness, against chaos, against anyone who does not hold our values.”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“And when the time is right, put my son on the throne of this land.”

“And what about you?”

She reached out, a muddy hand in a misty field on a young captain’s shoulder. He became a Queen’s knight, “I will become myth. Legend. We shall not meet again. But my spirit will be in this land evermore.”

Corslan kept his gaze on the horizon, “The morning star is risen.”

“Sunrise approaches. Take our people. Protect my son.”

“He shall take the throne, Queen Boudicca. For Albion.”

“For Albion.”

[end]