I’m now only six rejections away from a century of literal pain. Almost one hundred minds have read and dismissed my novels as unworthy. A logical man might take this to heart and learn something from it. But I, being a computer programmer, am more artistic and will take it as a challenge.
However, I do remember writing a short story about a writer who wreaks revenge against some innocent magazine editors. I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but the hilarious naivety regarding electronic mail implies that it must have been the early ’90s at the latest. I sent it to Interzone who rather bravely rejected it, although Lee Montgomerie did joke in the reply that it had struck a nerve…
Carl O. Caine
The fire crackled merrily in the hearth as Richard slumped back into his favourite armchair. In one hand he held a cup of steaming tea, in the other, a crisp white manuscript. He placed the tea gently on a table by his elbow and stretched. This was the first manuscript of seven that he would have to wade through tonight. He had chosen to read it first because it was only a few sheets thick.
He looked casually at the clock on the mantelpiece. Seven o’clock. Time to start. He took a quick sip of his tea and began to read. His eyes scanned from left to right slowly at first, but then as he worked his way down the page he started to read faster. The clock on the mantelpiece kept time.
He turned the pages avidly. Occasionally he would mutter indistinguishable words or gasp and his eyes were filled with excitement.
And then suddenly he turned the last page over and there was no more. He examined the back of the paper feverishly, but the writing had come to an end. Slowly he smoothed the manuscript out and began to read it again.
The clock whirred and struck eight o’clock. Richard continued to read.
He read on and on with only the sounds of the clock to accompany the rustle of the pages. The moon replaced the sun, and he reached up absently to turn on the standard lamp behind him, but his eyes never left the page. His mind never left the story.
Sometimes he would stand and pace about to relieve the cramp affecting his legs, other times he would shift position on the chair, but always, always he read.
The phone started to ring during the next day, and Richard was oblivious to it; only the manuscript mattered.
But on the third evening his fatigue finally overcame him and he dropped into a feverish slumber.
His dreams were full and wondrous. Never had he dreamt so clearly or felt emotions so acutely as then. Sweat glistened on his brow and his eyes flickered beneath their lids, but eventually he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He was awoken by the sound of his phone in the study. Groggily he rose from his chair and stumbled to answer it. The irate voice on the end of it belonged to Paul Hughes, the editor of his magazine.
“Richard? What the hell’s going on? Where have you been?”
“What? I’ve been here.” He looked around at the clock and noticed the time. Crap! Ten past twelve. Late again. “I’m sorry I’m late Paul, but I’ve…”
“Late? Late? You’ve just redefined the word. Do you know what day it is?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s Tuesday.”
“Richard. It’s Friday. You are three hours late. And three whole days late.”
Richard switched the screen of his computer on. Jesus! It was Friday. What had he been doing? He hadn’t had anything to drink. He couldn’t have slept for three days. What had…
“Paul. I’m sorry about this. I’ll be in in an hour. I’ve got something rather interesting to show you.”
“It had better be good Richard.” The phone clicked dead.
It took him slightly more than an hour to get into work, but he was confident that what he had to show Paul would blow his socks off. He breezed into his editor’s office, nonchalantly tossed the tatty manuscript in front of his boss and sat down.
“Hello, Richard.” Paul said coolly. “Is this what you’ve got?” He looked at the title page.
GREAT DROWNING LILIPUT
CARL O. CAINE
Paul turned the page and started to read. The text was just a jumble of words, with a few phrases inserted apparently at random. It made no sense at all.
“What is this?”
“Keep reading. Just give it a moment to sink in.”
Paul read for a few more lines.
“Richard, this is crap. It just doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s not meant to mean anything. You just feel the moods. It…it stimulates your emotions.” His confident smile was wavering.
“Are you going to tell me that you read this rubbish for three days?”
“Well, yeah.” He smiled weakly. “I mean I didn’t actually realise that I had read it for that long. I just started and then… poof! … you rang me. I think that it’s the next generation of literature. The next step. Don’t reject this. If you do, history will remember you for that.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Do you actually think that you’re behaving normally. First you lose track of three days and now you try to convince me to publish gibberish. Richard take a look at yourself.”
It was Richard’s turn to look puzzled. “Do you really not see anything in this script?”
“No. I think that you’ve been working too hard. Take a couple of days off.”
“Hmmm. Maybe you’re right.” Richard said flicking through the offending manuscript. “But when I read it first it was incredible. Like a sunset. Reaching out across the sky and feeling it. I’m sorry. You’re right it is just a jumble of words. I will take a few days off. This is weird.”
“Yeah. Make sure that you reject that first though.”
Richard stood and left the office with a frown. What had happened to him. Paul must think that he’d gone nuts. There was no deep feeling in this writing, it was just rubbish. He must just have been tired.
He sat down at his desk and keyed a rejection note into the electronic mail to the author. He couldn’t help saying that it wasn’t him that had rejected it, that it was the editor who had found it unsuitable.
With that done he left the office and didn’t come back until the following Wednesday.
When Richard returned to the office Paul had disappeared; no one had seen him since Friday night. He had left the office at about six o’clock, got into his car and vanished. His wife had not seen him over the weekend and he had not contacted work. The police had been informed, but so far they had come up with no sign of him or his car.
That afternoon though, a policeman came to inform Richard that they had found Paul. He had been found dead in Hyde Park in the early hours of Monday morning.
“How did he die, officer?”
“A heart attack.”
“Why did it take so long to identify him?”
“He wasn’t carrying any identification.”
“Where was his briefcase? His wallet?”
“They must have been stolen. Now sir I need to ask a few questions. Did Mr Hughes often go to the Park?”
“Yes. He went most Friday nights during the summer. He liked to read in the open air. Weather permitting.”
“Any other nights?”
“Not really I don’t think. No. He was a man of habit you see. He would go on a Friday. It would be the start of his weekend. Are you treating his death as suspicious, officer?”
“No. Would you say that he was under a great deal of pressure at the moment?”
“Not particularly. The magazine is doing well.”
“How would you describe his temperament?”
“Stolid. Reliable.” Richard shrugged. “He’s not the type to stay away from home during a weekend. Officer, when did his wife inform you that he was missing?”
“Very early on Saturday morning, sir. It was… ” He consulted his pocket book, “four twenty five.”
“Surely she would have told you about his habits. That he liked to read in the park.”
“She did, sir. Normally we don’t send anybody to look for missing persons until forty eight hours have passed, but as we had someone in the park, we did have a quick look. He wasn’t there.” The policeman paused. “We assumed that he was perhaps with another…”
“Not Paul. I would have known, I’m sure.”
“How long had he been dead when you found him?”
“Only a few hours.”
“This is very strange don’t you think? He stays away from home for the weekend and then goes back into the park to die. That’s the action of a lunatic, not Paul.”
“People do strange things…”
“Yes, I know that.” Richard frowned. “Where was he found?”
“Now that part is quite strange. He was found hidden in a bush.”
“A bush?” Richard said rather loudly, “Someone hid him in a bush and you’re not…”
“Don’t upset yourself, sir. The Forensic lads say that no one put him in the bush. It was as if he had made himself a den, you know, like an animal.”
The policeman picked up his helmet and left Richard feeling rather confused. Paul wasn’t the type of person to do anything odd. He loved his wife, and she loved him. Why had he not gone home? And why had he been in the park on Sunday night? It didn’t make sense. His wallet had gone. Had he been murdered? No. It was much more likely that someone had found his body and taken his belongings. But a heart attack? Paul was a fit man, barely thirty.
Richard shook his head, rubbed his eyes and tried to concentrate. As deputy editor he now had twice as much work to do and this was compounded by the fact that he had been off for most of the last two weeks.
Paul’s death kept tugging at his concentration, so he sent copies of all the stories and articles that he had to read to his computer at home and left.
He was unable to look at the manuscripts until the following Sunday. He had closed the office for the remainder of the week, and it was only the knowledge that he absolutely had to read the scripts that he set to work.
He found nothing he read was even slightly interesting. He knew that he was not being objective, but still he could not bring himself to narrow the scripts down at all. Until he picked up one that had been addressed to Paul. He stared at the manuscript and his hands shook slightly.
CARL O. CAINE
Richard’s mind leapt back to his reading of Caine’s first manuscript. Dare he read this? With so much work still to do? Would it affect him in the same way?
He watched his hand turn the title page aside and flicked his eyes across the text. It was the same, seemingly random words interspersed with odd phrases. He noticed the difference between this script and the previous one immediately. This one was starkly morbid. Whereas the previous one had made him examine all his emotions, this one stabbed at his mortality.
But that didn’t mean to say that it wasn’t gibberish. Unlike the previous one Richard merely felt contempt for such a futile piece of work. What did the writer think he was doing?
So he tossed the wad of papers aside and decided that he could reject that one at least.
That night while mulling over Paul’s death before he went to sleep it dawned on him why Paul had not been home for the weekend. He must have spent the entire time reading in the park. Richard could picture him sitting on a park bench glued to a manuscript during the day, and avidly reading under a street lamp at night. Then making a nest for himself in a bush, where he wouldn’t be disturbed by kids or tramps. It shocked Richard to think of Paul reduced to such idiocy, but his theory explained so much.
Being out in the cold with no food or water would be bound to harm anybody’s metabolism. If the excitement of reading the text had been as great as when Richard had read his, then in his reduced physical state a heart attack could become a probability.
Had that killed his friend? Was that its purpose? Had it been deliberate?
Richard tried to dismiss these thoughts as merely tired imaginings, but it all pieced together so well. Tomorrow, he decided, he would contact this Carl Caine and find out the truth.
He fell into a queasy sleep.
The next day he nearly convinced himself that his thoughts of the night before that been bordering on the hysterical, but when he got into the office he found another story logged into his e-mail slot. It was from Carl O. Caine.
He erased it before he even read the title.
He tried to find an address for his antagonist but he only had the electronic mail number. He could try to find an address from that but it would be like trying to find an address in a telephone book from a phone number. The only people who could legally get access to the electronic mail company’s records were the police, and how would he convince them that he had a valid reason for calling them in? Hello officer I need to get a number for a vengeful author whom I suspect murdered my boss with a nasty story. Yeah, that would work.
Vengeful? Who would want to kill Paul? A rejected author. Perhaps he had sent in some real stories, before he started with the gibberish. If he could match this electronic mail number with a previous one on record in this office, surely that would prove his theory.
He programmed his terminal to search for a match and set it to work. Almost immediately it came up with a response. Bingo. Carl Myers. And an address. He had sent in seven stories, all had been rejected at the first reading. This was his man. The fact that he had used a pseudonym surely confirmed his guilt.
Carl Myers lived in Barnet and it was early evening before Richard found the house nestled in a neat suburban street. He stopped his car and walked uneasily up to the door. His plan was that he would pretend to want to publish some of Myers’ material.
Surely he had nothing to fear.
Nervously he rang the bell before his thoughts turned him away from the house and he stood for a couple of minutes. There was no answer. He rang the bell again, this time for slightly longer and backed away from the door searching the windows of the house for any lights or movement, but the door opened suddenly to reveal Carl Myers.
He was a tall, lean man in his early forties who looked used to physical exercise. Richard had prepared for a sort of manic dwarf, but there wasn’t anything odd about him at all.
“Hello,” he said. “Can I help you?”
“Er, yes. I think so. Are you Carl Myers?”
“I’m from Dread. The magazine. You sent us some manuscripts recently. I’d like to talk to you about them.” Richard had expected the man to shrink back and deny everything, but instead he just smiled warmly and said, “Of course, come in. Oh, at least now I know somebody reads my stories.”
Richard stepped into the house and Carl Myers closed the door behind him. His theories had now almost completely evaporated and he was more worried about hurting an aspiring writers feelings.
“Please, take a seat. Would you like some coffee. The kettle’s just boiled.” Richard felt ashamed, this man was not a murderer.
“Er, yes please. White, one sugar.”
“So did you like my stories?” Carl Myers called from the kitchen. “The latest ones took me ages. I think they should work.”
“Yes. I thought the most recent ones you sent in were very… original. How did you come across such an approach to writing?”
“Well, I thought that it should be possible to write something that affected the core of a man’s being. I thought perhaps if I knew enough about someone I could write the ideal script for them.” He walked into the lounge carrying two steaming mugs of coffee. “I thought that there might be a subjective approach to writing. Certain phrases will only trigger certain responses in certain people. To start with I could only experiment with my wife. But she was not very much of a reader and I had to give those up fairly quickly.” He pushed a button on a tape deck located in the corner and inserted a tape. “You see her brain was quite limited. Eventually she died.”
Richard spluttered coffee. All his thoughts tumbled feverishly back into his mind. “You killed her.” He stood and stepped away from the grinning man who just sat down calmly.
“How? By letting her read one of my stories. Let’s be reasonable Richard. How can a story kill anyone.”
Richard felt acid fear suddenly creep under his skin. “How do you know my name?”
“I know everything about you. Otherwise how could I have written this?” As he said the words he pressed a button on the tape recorder and his voice started to emerge from the speakers about the room.
Richard couldn’t move. The voice whispered unconnected words that somehow suggested that he should die. He had never heard anything as perfect.
Stop beating heart.
It seems obvious to me now, that writing Charlie’s Worries was akin to making the dread journey through the Mines of Moria – battling the goblins of procrastination, the cave-troll of doubt and then the ultimate enemy, the Balrog of pernickety editing. It’s almost as if JRR Tolkien wrote that section specifically to highlight the perils and torments of writing a novel.
So, after two years of scribbling and typing, I emerged from the fusty tunnels of imagination into the bright light of hope and Lothlórien. Galadriel took me to a clearing and showed me some things that have not yet come to pass. I expected to see money raining from the sky and awards and publishers prostrating themselves before me, yet strangely all I saw was fire and ruin.
“I know what it is you saw, for it is also in my mind.” Galadriel’s voice echoed in my head, somewhat smugly.
“I cannot do this alone.” I replied.
“You are a writer, Simon. To be a writer is to be alone.”
So I screwed up my courage and sent out missives to the Gatekeepers of Amon Hen (I think this is what most people call Literary Agents). Then I set out onto the river of rejection with only some biscuits for sustenance.
I could sense the Gatekeepers chasing me down the banks of the river. Somehow I knew they were there, just out of sight, but always in my thoughts. I imagined them reading my work, gasping at its audacious originality, crying at the pathos, laughing hysterically at the funny bits and then falling over themselves to send me an Email of Acceptance.
But this utterly failed to happen. Instead gnarly, black arrows of rejection thumped into my heart. Each one chipping away at my self belief, until now, two weeks after I sent the first email, I lie breathless against a tree with eleven slivers of despair protruding from my soul.
Then, once again, I hear Galadriel’s voice in my head. It says: “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail to the ruin of all.”
So, slightly heartened by these somewhat ambiguous words of encouragement, I determine not only to stagger to my feet and suffer the inevitable sting of bad news, but to write more. I’ve already written nearly 15,000 words of The Book of Lies and I shall use this as a shield against the depressing times ahead.
So bring on Sauron, what’s the worst that can happen?
Like Théoden standing atop the battlements of Helm’s Deep I have, once again, decided to test my courage and my resolve against a dark army of malignant evil. Unlike the King of Rohan I can do it indoors and without getting too wet.
King Théoden’s enemy was a host of orcs and Uruk Hai armed with jagged iron and armoured with a fanatical hatred for mankind. They were forged beneath Isengard, twisted from the mud with no concept of compassion or mercy. To them beauty is abhorrent. Something to be crushed beneath their dirty boots. The hopes and dreams of the men, women and children huddling in the caves behind Helm’s Deep mean naught to them. Indeed all human life is but a scourge upon their sight.
My opponents are the gatekeepers, a clandestine clan of shadowy powerbrokers known throughout this kingdom of ours for their ruthless willingness to destroy a dreamer’s dream with a cut and pasted paragraph of bitter truth. They are, of course, the Literary Agents.
They have been created in the bars and coffee houses of Bloomsbury, authored by cynicism and spite with no concept of compassion or mercy. To them hope is abhorrent. Yet it is that same hope that gives them their power. It is something to be enjoyed before squashing it from a middle-aged writer’s heart.
And yet against my better judgement I’ve gone and prodded the dragon.
I’ve chosen a handful of carefully selected agents and sent them a synopsis and the first x number of chapters of “Charlie’s Worries”.
And now I feel sick. The familiar feeling of needing to check my emails every few seconds has returned. And I still get that horrible lurching in my stomach when I see one that might be a response to one of my queries.
Just as a quick addendum to this post, if you are a literary agent and you’re reading this, please understand that I most certainly don’t include you in the aforementioned shadowy clan. No, I’m sure you’re lovely.
Friday is here, another #quickfic competition to not win…
“Come on. You’ve got to explain why.” Lucy said as she scribbled out some of her own reasons. “They’ve got to know.”
I skimmed over the next postcard.
“Dearest girls.” It said. “Sorry we couldn’t make your birthday, but the trains from La Rochelle are hardly reliable and your mother and I thought it best if we stayed away.”
“They’ll know why.” I said.
“No they won’t. They’ll just think we’re too immature to deal with it. You need to write a proper letter.” Lucy had written almost a whole page, full of crossings out and confused sentences.
“We only need one. Yours will be enough.”
The next postcard was from London. A picture of Big Ben thrusting into a grey sky.
“Dearest girls. We’re staying at the Dorchester for the next few weeks. If you need anything ask Jarvis and he’ll sort something out.”
I snorted. “Dearest girls” was at the beginning of every postcard.
“I feel woozy.” Lucy said.
“Me too.” I lied.
Lucy’s head dropped onto her letter and some drool leaked from her mouth.
I watched as her breath slowed and then finally stopped. Then I collected the pills up from under the bed, the ones I’d pretended to take, and flushed them down the toilet.
Hopefully this would get his attention.
Hopefully he’d realise that I was his dearest girl.
The winners are here: Pre Cards and The Getaway
So, another Friday, another #quickfic competition to enter… This one inspired by the dusty handshake in the picture above.
“Good morning, gentlemen. I am the Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Let me assure you that you have been selected because of your reputations as honest businessmen.”
I smiled at that. Miriam would be surprised that I had any reputation at all.
I looked around the sumptuous room at my five competitors. They were all relaxed and seemed infinitely confident. I, on the other hand, could not stop fidgeting.
“Do you all have your sealed bids prepared?” The Director-General looked at each one of us in turn.
Each look was answered by a curt nod.
My mouth was dry and it took every gram of strength to raise my hand. The Director-General raised an eyebrow.
“May I have a private word with you, Director?”
He looked surprised, perhaps for a moment even frightened. He looked at the others and then gave his own curt nod.
We adjourned to the bedroom of the hotel suite and I drew the thick envelope out of my breast pocket. It was far too thick to hold only a bid.
His eyes widened and he smiled. This smile was the most natural expression I’d ever seen. It made the rest of his face look false.
“I understand how difficult it is to survive on a government salary.” I said. “Perhaps this will help.”
We shook hands.
A day later I received the title-deeds to the Eiffel Tower.
The day after that I realised the truth. I didn’t tell the police.
The winners can be found here
I’m a natural at walking. I can stride, stroll and saunter or tramp, tread and traipse without even thinking about it. My agile mind detects upcoming obstacles and adjusts my gait to stop me from tripping over kerbs or falling down wells.
Sometimes though, when I’m out perambulating it occurs to me how complex the act of walking is. I’ve seen videos of sophisticated robots utterly confounded by a rudimentry set of steps, confused to the extent where one of them smashes its face into the floor.
And once I start thinking about what I’m doing, it becomes much more difficult. It usually starts with my arms. They start swinging too much. A moment before, when my subconscious was controlling everything, they were swinging just enough to provide me with perfect balance. Now, I have no idea how much to swing them to keep me upright so, just to be sure, I overcompensate.
This, I suddenly realise, looks ridiculous, so I stop swinging them completely and walk with my arms rigid at my sides. But this can’t be right… How do I do this normally? I have no idea.
Then working my legs becomes a problem. Should I lift my knees this high? Or kick out more with my foot? Should I be leaning further forwards? Or back?
And before I know it I’ve almost completely forgotten how to walk. Obviously I can still get to where I’m going, but now I might be walking like a gorilla or a scuba diver still wearing his flippers.
I can also speak quite fluently. In almost any conversation I find myself involved with, words flow from me in the correct sequence and my avid listener is enriched with the knowledge of almost exactly what I mean. I don’t have to think about it.
So, why, why in the name of all that is literally holy, is it so hard to write anything sensible?
I believe that it’s the walking problem. As soon as I analyse what I’m doing, as soon as I worry that my meaning might be misunderstood, I’m doomed. An easy sentence to say becomes an impossible one to write. There are too many choices, too many wrong ways of expressing myself.
A brilliant writer is like an amazing one-man-band strolling down the street, drum beating, cymbals crashing, ukelele strumming and mouth organ humming, all in perfect harmony. It looks easy and part of the audience’s delight comes from the fact that the music produced is not forced, it’s a natural product of the lithe skill of the artist.
Oh how I wish I could write like that.
So Faber Academy run a #quickfic competition every Friday. They’ve been doing it for a few weeks now, but I’ve only just found out about it.
This week, the challenge was to write a story in 250 words or less inspired by the canine idiot in the picture.
I called mine “A Man’s Best Friend” and it’s an ironic insight into the human male’s disregard for relationships in the face of his single minded pursuit of more pointless projects.
I thought it was quite clever in its meta qualities as I was obviously procrastinating by writing it.
It didn’t win, but here it is…
A Man’s Best Friend
It took many, many hours spread over years to train him, but I finally did it.
Jasper could smell an item of clothing inside his little, blue suitcase and determine who it belonged to in a room full of strangers.
It was our party trick. He’d hold the suitcase in his mouth, sit on his haunches and take a few moments to stare at everyone before him, considering. Then, with a confident flick of his tail he would take the suitcase to the owner of the item.
He was always right. It was like magic.
I loved showing him off at parties. I’d get him to do it ten times over the course of the night, and all our guests would be delighted.
Yesterday I was surprised to see Jasper sitting on the cobbles opposite the cafe I’d stopped at for lunch. He was staring at me, with his suitcase hanging daintily from his mouth.
As if triggered by my attention, he jumped up, trotted towards me and dropped the suitcase at my feet.
I looked around to see if I could spot my wife grinning from some hidden vantage point, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere to hide.
I lifted the suitcase onto my table and opened it.
Inside there was a pair my socks with a note pinned to them.
“I’m leaving you.” The note said. “You can keep the dog.”
I scratched Jasper’s head and wondered how he’d managed to find me.
The winners are here: QuickFic Winners 17th April 2015
I sold an e-book last night. For actual money. Someone, possibly someone I have never met, actually paid hard earned cash for one of my novels. I have now sold a grand total of 1 book. It is currently ranked at 59,298 in the Paid Kindle Store rankings.
According to Wikipedia J. K. Rowling has sold an estimated 450 million copies of her books. If you assume an average thickness of two inches for each book and you stacked them on top of each other you could make 4752 columns each the height of Mont Blanc (the tallest mountain in the Alps)
Obviously this means you could then construct a staircase out of these books to reach the summit of the mountain. The height of each step would be 1.66 feet which is quite large, especially considering that it would only be 4 inches deep and 6 inches wide. I also tend to think the taller columns might be a bit wobbly, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the best way to conquer the mountain.
However it would look quite striking and it’s certainly a testament to the gigantic amount of books Jo has sold.
The other side of this statistical illustration is that my virtual sale would be of absolutely no use to anyone. I am, however, terrifically pleased and would like to thank this nameless somebody for brightening my day.
Never wanting to shy away from a challenge I have drawn two useful diagrams highlighting the difference between our sales figures.
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E.L. Doctorow
With that in mind, I started this year’s NaNoWriMo. I had a quick look at a map, decided on a destination and set off.
To begin with I was trundling along a wide dual-carriageway. I kept to the inside lane as there were a lot of NaNoWriMo drivers speeding past me, some of them churning out word counts that led me to believe their cars were powered by rockets rather than an internal combustion engine. But I was not worried, I had a good idea of where I was going.
After the intial fuel of optimism had begun to run out, I turned off the main road and found a service station where I filled up with determination. I set off into the night again and joined a nice country road, easily wide enough for two juggernauts to pass. I drove on, perhaps even faster than before, and a real belief began to swell up inside me.
Then, as I approached a critical juncture, it began to rain and the range of my headlights reduced to barely more than a few metres. They began to pick out plot-holes in the road and I felt isolated by the darkness. I took a few turns and ended up bouncing along a single lane track with no idea where I was.
I crawled onwards, barely moving, sensing that if I went too far in the wrong direction I’d ruin the journey so far.
I pulled the map out of the glove compartment and tried to work out where I’d gone wrong. I traced my finger along the dual carriageway and found the fuel station where I’d filled up. But from there it was difficult to make out. Huge blobs of concept seemed to be obscuring the details, making it almost impossible to work out how to proceed.
I pulled out a set of pens and neatly, perhaps over dramatically, highlighted the route I’d taken so far. Taking out any slight wobbles there might have been on the original journey and adding a couple of detours which hopefully will improve it.
Unfortunately, I’m still there. Stuck in this field of despondency. In front of me the road, such as it is, disappears into a quagmire. To either side are thick hedgerows which seem to offer no way through. The only way to continue seems to be to retrace my steps, but that’s not in keeping with the ideology of NaNoWriMo.
I pull out another, smaller map and begin to plan another journey. This one is more of a ramble that I can walk all the way round in a morning. Yes. I can see the route of this one much more clearly.
Now I’ve finished my wander, hopefully I’ll put the keys back into the ignition and the car will burst into life. Perhaps a bridge has been built over the swamp, or a tractor has made a hole in the hedge, or…
There is a beautiful valley nestling in the foothills of some faraway mountains. Waterfalls cascade down from the alpine forests that overlook the spectacular crags. The silver river meanders past orchards and lush green meadows, leading eventually to a tiny, picturesque village called, let’s say, Rimbleflimpleton.
The villagers are a happy bunch. None of them are rich, but no one wants for anything because there is enough of everything to go around and each family has a specific job to do. The Smiths do all the blacksmithing, the Bakers do all the baking, the Coopers do something or other, and the Shepherds look after all the sheep.
They were a nice family, but nobody really liked Mr Shepherd. At the village meetings he would always want to talk about things that nobody else was bothered about. They might want to organise the summer festival, while he would argue that the festival money should be spent on a higher wall around the fountain. If they wanted to upgrade the Christmas lights for the enormous tree they had every year, he would try to convince them to improve the electrical wiring. And so on.
It was the same at home. All the children in the village had huge climbing frames in their back gardens. All except young Peter Shepherd. The only toy he was allowed to play with was a woollen blanket and that was taken off him when his father found him trying to make a swing with it.
“It’s just too dangerous, Peter. You could end up strangling yourself.” His father had said.
The only time Peter was allowed to do anything unsupervised was when he was carrying out his duties looking after the sheep. Out in the Lower Pasture he was far enough away from the village for his father not to know what he was doing. Sometimes his friends would come out and they’d play football. Other times he’d just run around blindly, enjoying the mindless danger of not looking where he was going. He’d often fall over and roll down the hillside. He couldn’t help laughing when he did that.
“Dad? Can I take the sheep into the Middle Pasture tomorrow? The sheep haven’t got much fresh grass left on the Lower Pasture. I think…”
Mr Shepherd’s face turned an ashen white. “No! You must never go into the Middle Pasture. It’s dangerous there because that’s where the Badgerwocky lives. And it’ll hear the sheep and come and eat you.”
“Oh. Right. OK.” Peter said.
The next day when Peter was supposed to be watching the sheep, his friends came out to play football. And while they were playing three of the fattest sheep wandered out of the Lower Pasture.
A while after his friends had gone home, he noticed the missing sheep. They had left an easy trail to follow because they were so fat. Peter realised immediately that they’d escaped to the Middle Pasture where the Badgerwocky lived.
Peter was frightened. He didn’t know what to do. He would be in serious trouble if he went back to the village without the three fattest sheep but, on the other hand, he didn’t want to be eaten by a monster.
After a few minutes he decided to climb the tallest tree where he’d be able to see into the Middle Pasture. He clambered up, hauling himself from branch to branch. He’d never been allowed to climb a tree before because his father had told him it was very, very dangerous.
When he got to near the top, he looked to the north and saw the Middle Pasture. He had expected to see burned bushes where the Badgerwocky had breathed its fiery breath and huge gouges in the ground where it had raked its terrible claws.
But it was not like that. It looked beautiful. Lovely long grass swayed beneath some little apple trees. A stream trickled down from the Upper Pasture, babbling through the meadowsweet and daisies. And three sheep grazed in the centre, untroubled and peaceful.
Peter watched. He expected a tornado of whirling claws and gnashing teeth to hurtle across the meadow and devour the sheep, but nothing happened. Peter waited for a while. Still nothing happened.
Eventually he climbed down the tree and crept into the Middle Pasture. The sun was beginning to touch the high mountains surrounding the valley, and the shadows were lengthening. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps the Badgerwocky only came out at night.
Each of his footsteps seemed to echo around the valley, ricocheting off the high cliffs like a gunshot. Surely, if the Badgerwocky was anywhere near by it would come swooping down and gobble him up.
But still nothing came.
When he reached the stupid sheep they greeted him with loud bleats of happiness. He tried to quieten them down and herd them back to the Lower Pasture. Reluctantly, noisily and slowly the sheep made their way back.
Peter was dripping with sweat when they finally set foot back onto the short grass of the Lower Pasture even though the night was turning cool. He rounded the rest of the flock up and hurried back to the village.
It was almost fully dark by the time he got back. His friends saw him first and ran up to meet him.
“Where have you been?”
Peter was so relieved to be back he could barely speak.
“Three of the sheep wandered up onto the Middle Pasture and I had to rescue them.”
“Rescue them?” Gregory said. “Rescue them from what?”
“From the Badgerwocky! It lives there and it eats people.”
There was a moment’s silence and then his friends burst out laughing.
“There’s no such thing as a Badgerwocky. It’s just an old wives’ tale.”
Peter was glad it was dark because his face flushed bright red. He felt so stupid. Now he was safe within the village the idea that a flaming eyed monster prowled the Middle Pasture seemed utter mimsy.
That evening, Peter and his father had a row.
“Why did you tell me that I’d get eaten by the stupid Badgerwocky?”
“It was for your own good, Peter. The Middle Pasture is too far from the village. If something bad did happen you wouldn’t be able to get back.”
“Yes, I would. It’s not that far.”
It took a while, but Peter forgave his father for telling fibs and over the next few weeks he took the sheep regularly up onto the Middle Pasture to graze. They loved the greener grass and buttercups and clover, and got bigger and fatter than ever.
“Dad?” He asked. “Can I take the sheep onto the Upper Pasture tomorrow? There’s loads of clover and forbs in there.”
“No! You must never go into the Upper Pasture. It’s dangerous because that’s where the Fruggalo lives. And it’ll hear the sheep and come and eat you.”
Mr Shepherd nodded solemnly. “Yes.”
So, a few more weeks went by until Peter fell asleep on a sunny afternoon and the three fat sheep wandered out of the Middle Pasture, up the rocky path and into the Upper Pasture. When he woke up, Peter realised what had happened and climbed the tallest tree to see if he could spot the errant sheep.
Sure enough, they were munching their peaceful way through mounds of the most succulent looking grass and forbs Peter had ever seen. He watched for a while, waiting for the Fruggalo to bound across the field and rend the animals apart with its terrible tusks, claws, teeth and jaws, but nothing happened. He waited for a while. Still nothing happened.
Once again Peter clambered down the tree and crept into the Upper Pasture. His footsteps seemed to make even more noise this time and he had to creep further. The three fat sheep carried on eating when he got to them and it took all his shepherding powers to convince them to come back down with him. He was shaking with unspent adrenaline when they reached the flock and he wasted no time hurrying them all back to the village.
His friends met him on the main street.
“Peter! You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Oh, I think I have.” He panted. He was exhausted from rushing home. “I had to rescue the three fattest sheep from the Upper Pasture where the Fruggalo lives.”
“The Fruggalo?” Gregory said.
“Peter, don’t you know? There’s no such thing as a Fruggalo.”
That evening, Peter and his father had another row.
“Why did you tell me that I’d get eaten by the stupid Fruggalo?”
“It was for your own good, Peter. The Upper Pasture is too far from the village. If something bad did happen you wouldn’t be able to get back.”
“Yes, I would. It’s not that far.”
Peter forgave his father after a while and before long he was herding the sheep between all three Pastures. They’d have breakfast in the Lower, lunch in the Middle and then dinner in the Upper. And they all got really fat.
In the Upper Pasture there was a trail that led into the Deeping Woods and although it was quite dark beneath the canopy of trees Peter could see the most beautiful cowslip growing there.
“Dad?” He asked that evening. “Can I take the sheep into the Deeping Woods tomorrow? There’s…”
“No!” Mr Shepherd roared, his face livid. “You must promise me that you will never go into that accursed wood.”
“Promise me, son. Please. Never go in there. There are Wolves.”
Peter nodded. “OK, Dad. You know best.”
The very next day Peter went straight past the Lower Pasture where the sheep wanted to eat their breakfast, and then straight past the Middle Pasture where the sheep wanted to have their lunch, and then straight past the Upper Pasture and into the Deeping Woods.
“There!” He said to his sheep. “Eat all the cowslips and clover and forbs that you like. This surely must be the tastiest breakfast you’ve ever had!”
“It certainly is!” The King of the Wolves said, as his pack tore into the sheep. “And you look like the tastiest morsel of them all.”
This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo effort “The Book of Lies”. I’m currently on 8387 words and I should have written about 16,666 by now.
Any thoughts, encouragements or comments are always welcome.