In the summer I attended celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of my old school, Anthony Gell, in Wirksworth. As part of the celebrations, they aim to gather 50 short pieces of writing from people who worked or studied at Gell during its 50 years of community comprehensive education.

I was asked to contribute, and considered it an honour. But all the work it has taken to bring Kikimora to publication meant that I had not yet found the time. Last week I was gently reminded that the deadline is the end of November, and today I finally sat down to write my piece. It ended up going somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.

“Why bother to learn a dead language?” people typically ask after hearing I have a GCSE in Latin. “It’s useless.”

Everyone knows that you learn Latin by sitting in a classroom reciting en masse, “Amo amas amat…” – the conjugations of the verb to love. I’m afraid I didn’t do much of that in my class of one, sitting in the office of my Headmaster, Mr Pearce. Latin was not on the curriculum of this small, rural comprehensive, but Mr Pearce was more than happy to teach anyone who showed interest.

Why did I want to learn it? I’m not even sure. Something to do with a general interest in ancient history, with mythology and magic – those were the things I associated with Latin. Though if my interests had lain elsewhere I suppose I might have associated it with medicine, with biology or with the church.

What I didn’t realise I was signing up for was something which would alter the way I perceive language, the way I learn, and even the way I think.

Almost the first thing I was taught after amo amas amat, was to examine my existing vocabulary for associated words: amorous, paramour.

When I learnt puer (boy) I found: puerile.
Agricola (farmer): agriculture, agrarian.
Mare (sea): marine, maritime.
Nauta (sailor): nautical… and so on.

Latin words form the roots of countless other words, not just in English, but in many European languages (all of the so-called Romance languages – Romance as in Romans, not as in love).

Now whenever I encounter a word I don’t know I break it down into its constituent parts. What does it sound like? What root might it be formed from? It’s surprising how often this proves a useful technique – allowing you to at least get close to the word’s true meaning, even if not quite all the way.

What I learned in my Latin lessons was not a dead, useless language, but the ability to think around a problem, to analyse and dissect, to look past the unfamiliar and try and find something recognisable.

That is a valuable skill – particularly if you apply it to more than language. For instance, to culture, to creed, to lifestyle.

We live in dangerous times. There are many people who, for their own selfish reasons, want to foster a culture of us and them, to instil fear, distrust, suspicion, hatred. But most people – ordinary people who don’t have vested interests in arms, in land grabs, in oil, in religious fanaticism – aren’t so different from each other. Most people just want to feed their children, to love whomever they love, and go about their lives peacefully and without fear.

I’m writing this on Saturday 14 November 2015 as the world reels from the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, as the inevitable backlash against Islam rises again in the West, as the thousands of refugees remain mired in border camps throughout Europe, alternately vilified and beatified by a press pushed one way by public outcry and another way by their corporate paymasters.

I can’t help feeling that the world could be a better place if people everywhere learned to look beyond the unknown, the different, the perceived-to-be-threatening, and instead look for the familiar – people just like themselves, with the same desire to love, to nurture, to live in peace. Stop seeing them and see more kinds of us. After all, it is harder to gun down us, than to gun down them. Harder to blow up us than to blow up them. Harder to deny food and shelter to us, than to them.

Four years ago today my dad died after a brief struggle with chemotherapy. He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer a few months earlier, but wasn’t noticeably unwell before beginning treatment. After one chemotherapy session he went into hospital, and died within the week. But this is not a post about the pros, cons and issues surrounding cancer treatments. Perhaps I’ll return to that another time.

Dad had always wanted to write stories, but work and family commitments meant that he didn’t get very far. After retiring, he began to write up some anecdotes and reminiscences from his childhood. Like him, these little stories are characterised by humour and self-deprecation. One of these days I would like to publish something for him, though it is a task I find many reasons to put off. Working through it all will be hard and emotionally draining.

I had published Darklands, my first novel, just a couple of months earlier, and am grateful that he got to read it, and see that I had finally achieved something we had talked about so often.

I have dedicated Kikimora to him, although I hesitated over it – since it concerns some very poor parenting, and I didn’t want to imply any association with his own parenting skills!

All of these are strands I could explore in more detail, but all I really want to do today is read you a poem.

My family are not religious. I am an atheist. Other members of the family fall on a spectrum from atheist to agnostic. I have always felt uncomfortable about religious funerals for non-religious people. Bereavement is a tough time, and maybe organising the funeral doesn’t seem like the most important thing when there are so many other important, difficult, upsetting things to do. Maybe people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. But to me it did seem important that we get it right – and amongst all the sorting out of bank accounts, subscriptions, paperwork, and more paperwork, notifying people, crying each time we did – planning a fitting send off for my dad was the only uplifting and comforting part of the process.

My had a Humanist funeral, and it was just right. We listened to Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. The speaker read a eulogy my sisters and I had prepared, and this poem by RF Delderfield.

My sister remembered reading the poem in the novel, Diana. We searched for it online, and were surprised that it seemed very little known. At the time we couldn’t even find the poem online (although you can now, if you search). Instead we had to dig out the battered old paperback (no mean feat in a house filled with thousands of books!), and copy it out for the speaker.

We knew that my dad favoured cremation over burial, although some people struggle with the idea. I think perhaps reading this poem might change their minds. In its deep connectedness with nature, with ongoing life and the passing of time, it seemed then and still does now, a perfect tribute to him.

On Foxhayes edge go scatter my ashes
above the ground in sunlit splashes,
Where all about my powdered bones
the trefoil weaves between the stones.
Where what I was feeds foxglove roots
and robust April parsley shoots
Five miles or more from a churchyard drab
where underneath a lettered slab,
the body that has served me well
would bloat in clay, pathetic shell.
At Foxhayes edge atop the grass
I’ll sense successive seasons pass
I’ll see the beeches overhead
turn tangerine and rusty red
I’ll hear the sky-seen of their leaves
wind gossiping to younger trees.
Then, with the fall of blue-smoke dusk
I’ll settle in the rustling husk
of brittle, sun-dried bracken stalk
to hear the spruce and larches talk
And see the lovers come and go;
or later, when the New Years snow
builds up in drifts below the hedge
crisping the blades of dock and sedge
I’ll wait content, to stir in sleep
the hour the earliest violets peep
for with them all the wood will rustle
under the west wind’s old maid’s bustle
lifting perhaps a speck of me
and bearing it due south to sea

RF Delderfield

We found a peaceful spot on a wooded ridge overlooking the village where he had lived for 40 years, and we laid his ashes there.

Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to his memory. Good ‘ealth.

mum and dad, hiking

Mum and dad, quite a long time ago

Recently a friend of my mum’s asked me for some advice on self-publishing his book. Some time around bashing out the tenth paragraph of my email and suggesting we should perhaps meet up to discuss it all in more detail, I realised I have quite a lot to say on the matter.

I’m not going to tell you to run a spell-checker, or do a thorough proof-read. That’s pretty obvious, right? But here are some of the less obvious things I have learned through four years and two novels worth of self publishing.

1) Set Your Expectations

The first – and rather brutal – thing to acknowledge, is that no one cares about your book except you. I know, I know, you’ve spent the past ten years labouring over your magnum opus, and it’s precious and delicate and magical as a new born baby, and if you ever thought about it at all, you probably figured something along the lines of, “Build it and they will come,” right?

Unfortunately, that is not the case. In my experience, they will only come if you drag them kicking and screaming, and maybe leave them a breadcrumb trail of freebies, blog tours and guest posts.

Most of the books you sell – whether paperbacks or ebooks – are likely to be to people you know.

The paperbacks I’ve sold are mostly either to people I know or via stalls at fairs/festivals. Ie, in person rather than via shops (online or brick). Very few people are willing to take a punt on a self published book by someone they don’t know – even if the ebook is £1. Even if it’s free! They certainly won’t fork out £8 on a paperback without a lot of persuasion.

You may be thinking, “But paperbacks are cheap! I rarely pay more than £3.99 for a paperback from Amazon.”

Mass produced paperbacks are – or can be – cheap. Your self-published run of 50 or 100 is not. By the time you’ve recouped your manufacturing and handling fees and allowed yourself a couple of quid profit/remuneration for the years of hard work you’ve put into your book, you’re unlikely to be selling a paperback for less than £8 (though obviously this depends on the length of the book and what publishing package you use).

You may have more luck expanding your audience with ebooks. The major advantages are:

  • customers can try before they buy with a free sample
  • ebooks have no production costs, so can be sold far cheaper for the same – or greater – profit
  • there are no postage costs
  • they can even be returned if they turn out to be drivel, making people more likely to take a chance.

The disadvantage is that ebooks are very easy to forget about. I am a kindle owner. I read quite a lot of ebooks – but not half as many as I download samples of. Most of the samples I download I never even open. Why? Usually I forget all about it immediately. By the time I get around to noticing that new book on my shelf I’ve forgotten what it was or where it came from or why I thought it might be interesting. I’m also very busy. When I finally have time to sit down and read I often have a clear idea of what I want to read next, and don’t feel like giving some unknown thing of dubious provenance a chance.

Conclusion: do a print and ebook version, but be aware of their respective markets.

2) Have a Marketing Plan

I read this exact piece of advice prior to publishing Darklands. “A what??” I thought. I’m a web designer by day; novelist by night. At no point does marketing enter into my job description or skill set!

Reader, I did not have a marketing plan.

After publishing Darklands and rapidly realising the truth of point 1, I belatedly tried to scrabble some marketing efforts together. It was a bit pitiful.

I’m still pitiful when it comes to marketing. I squirm from self promotion. I’m embarrassed to impose myself on nice, busy people who have far better things to do than take any notice of me. It all just seems so… uncouth.

But it IS necessary so, like me, you’re going to have to knuckle down and do your best – however pitiful that may be. Since I am a self-confessed dunce when it comes to marketing, I won’t attempt to advise you how. Instead, check out the optimistically titled 89 book marketing ideas that will change your life or many other online resources.

3) Get Reviews

Reviews are vital, and objective reviews from people you don’t know are vitallerer ;-)

The best reviews to have are from organisations rather than individuals. ‘Organisation’ in this context might just mean a bored teenager with a book blog. But the important thing is that when quoting the lovely review you recieved, you get to attribute it to ‘Ace Books Weekly’ rather than to ‘Julie from Slough.’ I think you can see which sounds more impressive.

There is an excellent, thorough list on Indie View of book bloggers who accept self published books. It’s a hard slog sifting through them all for appropriate people to approach; and most of the time you will be rejected (by rejected I mean, ignored). But persevere. There likely are people who will give your book a chance, and every review helps your credibility massively.

For advice on how to approach reviewers, see this post on Empty Mirror.

If you’ve got a budget to throw at the problem, then check out this Alliance of Indepent Authors post (but also see point 5).

The really important thing about reviews is being able to quote them on your book jacket or inside cover as well as any online listings – you know, like a real book. But in order to do that you need to be getting those reviews prior to publication, which means querying reviewers months prior to publication.

4) Set a Release Date

When I had finally really definitely totally finished Darklands, and sweated over MS Word and checked all the formatting and corrected all the glitches, I couldn’t wait to finally get it out there. I hit publish, and the next morning it was available to buy. But… no one knew, because I hadn’t forewarned them. Of course, I posted about it as soon as it was out there. But guess what? Other people were busy doing their usual Saturday morning things: grocery shopping, taking the kids swimming, cleaning the car, walking the dogs. No doubt many of the people who saw my posts were very happy for me – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were going to drop everything and go check out my book!

Set a release date. Build anticipation. Allow people to pre-order. That way when the book becomes available you will get a number of sales right away – and that means your Amazon ranking is going to be as good as it possibly can be right away – and that means you are going to appear higher up any relevant search results – which *may* boost sales, and will certainly help your credibility.

I’m not actually certain whether the option to pre-order was available when I published Darklands. If it was I disregarded it in my giddy excitement to get my first book published. Or maybe I thought, “I can’t set a release date. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to sort out all these goddamn formatting wierdnesses…”

However long you think it’s going to take – it’s probably going to take twice that long (see point 7). If you want to be really thorough, get your book all ready first. Do the formatting. Check the preview copies. Iron out the errors. Only when you’re happy that it’s all ready to go do you set the publication date.

Then start drumming up interest.

5) Spend your Money Wisely

So you’re self-publishing your book. A lot of people want your money. A LOT. They are hungry vultures circling tasty, meaty you.

You absolutely do not need to spend £1000s or even £100s on expert help, guidance, services or materials. You don’t need to order 1000 copies of your book and have boxes of it sitting in your garage like a stubborn toothache for the rest of your life. You don’t need to buy a professional sounding publication package that actually doesn’t give you anything you couldn’t have done yourself anyway.

Don’t spend anything without researching who you’re giving your money to, exactly what you’re getting in return – and most importantly, what the rest of the internet says about their services. There are many excellent online resources who keep an eye on the scams and schemes that exist purely to profit from your naivety. Check out Writer Beware or David Gaughran for starters.

Print on Demand may be a far better option than buying 1000 copies of your book up front. I use UK based company, Feed A Read. In all honesty, their website is glitchy and often frustrating, but any queries I raise get replied to within a day or two, and if I can’t do what I need to via the website, then they’ll allow me to email any necessary files direct. The resulting books are good quality, they don’t charge for unnecessary fluff services,* they’re supported by the Arts Council of England, and just generally don’t seem especially evil. That’s as glowing a recommendation as you’re likely to get.

* Well, you could count the distribution package as unnecessary fluff. I paid £80 for Darklands to be available to proper bookshops through normal distribution channels as well as to Amazon. Of course, that’s only useful if you’ve persuaded any bookshops to stock your book – and for some reason can’t supply them with copies yourself.

I know you want the distribution package, cuz that makes your book proper! But I’ve decided to forego it for Kikimora. I really didn’t feel the benefit. And Feed A Read have introduced a new, more economical service now whereby they can sell the book through Amazon Marketplace. This seems a much more worthwhile deal – though I’ll know more once I’m actually using it.

6) Get the Formatting Right

It’s vital to create as good an impression as possible with your self published book – whether ebook or paperback. Take care with your formatting. Don’t rely on changing fonts and sizes manually; use styles. Styles allow you to name a particular kind of text within your document (ie, basic text, chapter heading, first paragraph) and apply rules to it, including font, size, margins, line-spacing, etc. It is then easy to change any of those rules as it becomes necessary – and believe me, you will try various changes before you settle on the best for your book.

For example, your ebook will most likely want to use a basic sans-serif font (though most e-readers allow readers to change this themselves), but your print book would more likely use a serif font (such as Times New Roman). When you see the production costs for your print book, you might start thinking, “Damn, do I really need it to be double spaced? How big does that text look once I’ve resized the document to the exact dimensions specified by the printer? Maybe it’s too big, maybe it’s too small. How about those chapter headings? They look better not bold, after all…”

Using styles, these changes are easy to make and undo to trial different looks and layouts until you get it right.

But there is a caveat! One I fell foul of with Darklands, and I could not understand until I noticed the same thing happening with Kikimora.

If your writing process is anything like mine, by the time you have a completed manuscript some areas of its text will have been copied and pasted from different documents many times. The document format may have changed from say Open Office to Word. This leaves you in danger of formatting glitches.

Say during the writing process your basic text was set to 12pt Verdana. You copied a section from another document (a previous version of your manuscript, perhaps) and pasted it in to the master copy. The other document was also using 12pt Verdana, so all is good, right?

Maybe not. Make sure that any passages you copy in get your ‘basic text’ style applied, and don’t rely on manual styling. Otherwise, you might find when you change it all to Times New Roman those random pasted passages are still Verdana – and the only people who’ll notice are your first readers. Eek.

Word processing packages can be ever so ‘helpful’ when it comes to retaining text formating from one document to another. Get in the habit of manually stripping formatting any time you paste text in, and then ensuring your custom styles are applied. If your word processing package doesn’t make it easy, then a simple way round it is to copy any text into notepad and from there into your master document. Any formating rules will be lost, and it will take on the rules in your master document, as you want it to.

7) Take your Time

None of this stuff is difficult, but it is astonishingly time consuming. Factor this in when thinking about release dates. If your writing activities are time-limited (cuz you also have a full-time job, family commitments, some kind of life), then I wouldn’t even set a release date until you have already done ALL of this.

For example, I work *almost* full time. The only time I have for writing and writerly activities is Thursday and Friday afternoons – and occasional Saturdays if I can be let off family commitments. I finished the final edit of Kikimora in August. Since then my writing afternoons have been spent:

  • querying reviewers
  • researching publication requirements for my various platforms
  • formatting the manuscript
  • proofing the cover design

That’s it. Three months has passed. Kikimora the ebook is released tomorrow. I submitted, proofed and accepted the final files for my print book today – so it still won’t be available for some weeks (In retrospect I should have been more organised and got both out together. This is something I’ve learnt very recently as I’m going through the process. I would have pushed it all back, but didn’t want to risk ending up the wrong side of Christmas!)

So those are some of the things I wish I’d known when I set out. What things have you learned the hard way whilst publishing your own books? I hope my experiences help, and wish you all the very best of luck.

I’m thrilled to reveal Kikimora’s cover design, courtesy of Uncut ID, and to announce the ebook is now available for pre-order.

Kikimora by Emma Woodcock

As mentioned previously, it’s an ebook-first soft launch, to be followed by paperback in a few weeks (hopefully before Christmas!)

The first reviews are also in.

I’m really pleased with the cover design. It’s just what I had in mind: a cold, blue, snow-laden forest, and something mysterious lurking within…

This post from two years ago shows that I already then knew exactly what I wanted!

I hope you like it too. Let me know your thoughts in the comments?

For the past few months I’ve been hard at work completing a final edit of Kikimora. I’ve now made the last checks for continuity, spelling, grammar, formatting, etc…

Guys, it’s done.

In true difficult-second-album stylee, this one’s been a bit of a slog. I thought it would be easier the second time around! I thought: I know what I’m doing now. I know the pitfalls to avoid. I know how to motivate myself. I know how stories veer off track, and how to steer them back. And I’m doing something much simpler and shorter!*

Yeah well, apparently I don’t know Jack…

There have been setbacks aplenty; some personal, some professional (as in the job that actually pays me…) and some writing related. But finally the Is are all dotted; the Ts are crossed, and Kikimora is ready to go out into the world and seek her fortune. You can read the final, expanded version of the opening chapter here.

sunlight on water

A shady pool, as beloved by Rusalkas

I expect to publish Kikimora at the end of October. As with Darklands I’ll do a soft-launch first of ebook only, followed by a paperback within a month or so (before Christmas!) Currently I’m putting together some review copies, and my design consultant is working on the cover design – check back soon for a sneak peak!

To all those who’ve stuck with me, thanks for your patience. I hope you’ll enjoy the results.

* Kikimora has actually turned out exactly the same length as Darklands :-/

How it begins

Anatoly took a card from the pile, sighed, and laid it back down on the table. “They have trampled a road all the way across the lower slopes and up to their infernal workings,” he said. “Once the river ran cold and clear. Now it is bitter with sulphur. The Rusalkas have been driven from their home. It is bad, my friends, bad indeed.”

“But what’s to be done?” asked Leshy, picking fretfully at the dried leaves caught in his beard.

The North Wind puffed out his ruddy cheeks, and roared, “They need teaching a lesson! They’re getting too big for their boots.”

“Another dozen trees felled today. That makes-” Leshy paused, bringing short, hairy toes up to the table to assist his counting. Finding himself still far short of the necessary digits, he threw his hands up in the air. “Too many. Too many of my trees hacked down and burned. And not a single token or sacrifice left in exchange. My time is done. I may as well lie down and die right now.”

Leshy’s gloom made the North Wind chuckle, his wheezy gusts scattering playing cards onto the floor. Leshy complained that he’d just built a good hand, but it was now lost – as all his endeavours seemed doomed to failure and insignificance.

Anatoly drummed his long fingers on the table top. It was dark with grease, and splashed with tallow drips from countless candles. The squalor of it irked him all of a sudden. He found himself imagining Yevgenia’s pretty nose wrinkling in distaste, and he determined that tomorrow he would take the time to clean the kitchen – perhaps the entire cottage. And then he fell to thinking about all the other parts of Yevgenia, just as pretty as her nose. For a time he forgot all about the problem of the mine, and the men and the road and the town.

“Life is too easy,” said the North Wind. “That’s the problem. They have no real hardships, and so they’re free to poke and meddle and delve and steal. In the olden times-” Anatoly rolled his eyes, and Leshy gave a discreet little sigh. “In the olden times, they had no time for such nonsense. They were too busy fending off lions, finding bison to hunt, discovering which berries were good to eat and which would turn their guts to slop – all the time fearing the sky might fall on their heads. I had only to whip up a little thunderstorm, and they ran whimpering to their caves. Now many of them are idle. That’s the nub of it. They’re bored, and so they breed mischief.”

“You’re saying they need a distraction? If some calamity were to befall them, they might be too busy to come plundering the forest?” Anatoly drained his glass thoughtfully, only grimacing a little at the harsh taste of the vodka. He distilled it himself from turnip peelings and bog myrtle, and the flavour was highly distinctive.

“But I have set traps. I have raised fires. I have confounded and befuddled them. Still they come back – more and more of them, like ants from a woodpile.” He glanced at the North Wind, a little fearfully, a little hopefully. “Perhaps if you were to-?”

The North Wind’s sigh rattled the pans hanging in the pantry. “I would love to help, of course. But my time is barely my own. You know how hard it is for me to even find the leisure for our card game each month. There is not a town in the world I don’t visit. Not an hour of the day I can rest. My duties are endless.”

“Then it is over,” said Leshy. “Before long we’ll be driven from our homes, just like the poor Rusalkas.”

“You are not without talents, though?” The North Wind’s voice was soft now, but still it sent a cold breeze down the back of Anatoly’s neck.

“I have studied the moon, the sun and the stars,” said Anatoly. “I have studied the movements of beasts, and the flights of birds. I have learned the language of flowing water and what the trees whisper to one another through the hard, frozen winters.”

“Tell me, when the men come to fell your trees, what do they use?”

“An axe,” said Leshy unhappily.

“And when you want to turn a field, ready for planting, what do you use?”

“An iron plough,” said Anatoly.

“And when you distil your vodka, what do you use then?”

Anatoly gestured to the large brass kettle hanging from the rafters.

“You use a tool appropriate to the task. So, finding yourselves unequal to the task of driving the men from your mountain, what tool do you suppose might assist you?”

Anatoly thought for a moment. A brightness flared in his eyes, and he met the North Wind’s gaze. “A monster. We need a monster to do what we cannot.”

The North Wind nodded thoughtfully. “I expect someone of your learning could create a monster the like of which had never before been seen or imagined.” His voice dropped lower, but it whistled around the eaves of the house, quick and cold as a knife. “Cold, unforgiving, incorruptible. Such a monster could drive these men far from your mountain, and from Leshy’s forest. The Rusalkas could return to their pools, and you could resume your studies, undisturbed by their endless hammering, blasting and grinding.”

Anatoly glanced at Leshy, who nodded encouragingly.

When his guests had departed, he shut himself in his study with a samovar of tea, and didn’t come out until morning. He studied the treatise of a Persian necromancer. He read an incomplete fragment of ancient Arabic concerning the nature of evil. He cross referenced works by monks and astronomers, alchemists and scholars. He scribbled notes, drew diagrams, and performed complex calculations. He consulted nine different almanacs, and identified an auspicious day to set his plans in motion.

In the dead of night he climbed through a blizzard to the lair of an ice wyvern. Silently, so as not to wake the slumbering creature, he captured its breath in a bell jar. Hoar frost formed on his fingers, cracking and falling to the cave floor in tinkling, diamond drops. The wyvern stirred and groaned; it might have woken, but Anatoly conjured a lullaby of howling winds and scouring hail, and it sighed and rolled over, returning to its decades-long sleep.

As the sun rose he flew from town to town until he heard a certain distinctive sound. To an untrained ear the inconsolable cries might seem those of any other grieving parent. But Anatoly heard the edge of drama, of extravagance, and knew the cries to be insincere. It was no trouble at all for him to collect the child-killer’s discarded handkerchief and harvest her crocodile tears.

As evening fell, he tracked an ill-omened comet across the sky. Debris from its wake fell screaming to earth, crashing into a vast, uninhabited desert. From its steaming surface he gathered fragments of rocks and metals unknown to man.

With these ingredients Anatoly returned to his forest home. There he collected the final piece he needed, and he worked through the night, spinning his baleful creation. When at last it was done, and the creature lay on his table, kicking its thin legs and gazing at him from large, solemn eyes, he invited Leshy and the North Wind to witness it.

“I thought it would be… bigger,” said the North Wind after a moment.

Anatoly explained that it would grow. He’d created an infant, so that he could teach it everything it needed to know to perform its duty.

“How long will that take?”

Anatoly wasn’t sure. “It will grow faster than a human, but it may take a year or two.”

The North Wind nodded. A year was nothing to him, who had been roaring around the earth since the first mountains rose from the sea.

Anatoly glanced at Leshy. He was less patient than the North Wind, and likely to object to such a long term plan. But Leshy gazed at the creature with an odd, foolish look on his face. “It’s a girl,” he said, and gently tickled the creature’s tummy. The infant kicked its legs more fiercely, and gave a little gurgle.

“Look at her fingers,” Leshy said. “Thin as a piece of straw, but each one perfect.” As he spoke, the creature closed its fist over his huge, hairy thumb, holding on with surprising force.

“How will you raise it?”

Anatoly said he would teach it terror and cruelty; he would teach it to show no mercy, to be single-minded, incorruptible…

The infant whooped as Leshy swung it up in the air and onto his chest. It burrowed into his warm fur, falling instantly asleep, a thumb stuck in its tiny mouth. “What will you call her?” he asked, gently rocking from side to side.

Anatoly hadn’t yet considered a name for the creature. He searched his memory for something suitably baleful. “Medusa? Lilith? Agrippina?”

“What about Kikimora?” The infant mumbled in her sleep, and gave a little sigh. “There, she likes that. You’re going to frighten the men, and drive them far away,” Leshy whispered to her. “Then the forest will grow again, and the streams will run clear. The Rusalkas will come home, and everything will be as it was before. You’re going to save us all, Kikimora.”

After Leshy had returned to the forest, and the still sleeping monster was tucked into a makeshift cot in a kitchen drawer, the North Wind took Anatoly to one side. “Are you sure you have the stomach for this?”

“Of course. The difficulty with any kind of monster is always controlling it. This method, though a little more long term, ensures it will truly be our monster – biddable, obedient…”

“As well as cruel, heartless, incorruptible, etc?”

Full of excitement for his creation, Anatoly didn’t hear the irony in the North Wind’s tone. “It will be whatever we raise it to be. That is the beauty of it.”

“Indeed it will. You have experience with infants, I suppose?” He supposed nothing of the sort.

“Every creature on earth manages to raise young,” said Anatoly lightly. “I would like to think I too am equal to the challenge. How hard can it be?”

The North Wind only smiled. His travels took him to many homes in many lands. He had some idea of how hard it could be. “And when do you propose to begin its instruction in cruelty?”

“It is only hours old! I think we must first master the basics of walking, speaking, reading and writing-”

“Your monster will write?”

Anatoly was astonished by the question. “What kind of education would neglect writing?”

“Your monster requires an education?”

“Of course! It will be no crude, simple beast. She will be subtle, intelligent, able to wield her cruelty as a sharpened blade.”

“I see. So this cruelty will begin to manifest some time after she perfects a fair copyist’s hand and once she has completed rudimentary deportment? Or will she need courtly dancing first?”

Anatoly frowned, realising his achievement was not garnering the praise it deserved, and wondering why not.

Seeing his friend’s hurt and confusion, the North Wind spoke more gently, “Just how do you suppose cruelty is taught?”

“Well,” said Anatoly, picking a book from the shelf. “There are conflicting treatises-”

“I have circled the world almost as many times as the moon,” interrupted the North Wind. “I have watched men live and fight and bleed and die. I have seen civilisations grow, break apart and fall back into dust. Do you allow that I might have a certain amount of experience in this matter?”

Anatoly nodded cautiously.

“Cruelty is taught by example.” The North Wind allowed a moment for that to sink in. “I ask again, do you have the stomach for this? Does Leshy? You saw how taken he already is with your creature.”

“It is in his nature to comfort and cherish-”

“Quite so.”

Anatoly’s frown deepened. “But it could be an advantage? We build up the creature’s love and obedience to us-”

“While instilling its hatred of everything else?”

“Not everything-”

“Well, I see you have it all worked out. I shall watch with interest as these events unfold over the coming year or two.” With a last smile, the North Wind took to the air, roaring his way through the night sky.

The draught from the open door caused the infant to stir and utter a thin cry. Anatoly crossed to the kitchen drawer, gazing down at her. His pride stung; he had anticipated awe and praise for his creation. Instead, the North Wind’s doubts troubled him, stirring up his own.

“Hush now,” he told her. But the creature began to thrash, beating her tiny fists. Her mouth drew open in an ominous dark square.

“Hush, I say.”

Kikimora began to howl.

Kikimora will be published at the end of October 2015

Emma Woodcock with SFX

Holding the wining entry

We still haven’t recieved our subscription copy of SFX (containing my winning short story entry, The Big Guy), but found a copy in the shop this afternoon. I did my customary startled-bunny-in-car-headlights pose while trying not to look too smug. Really, given my usual form, we’re just lucky my eyes are open.

Whatever my face says, I really am chuffed to bits. In the side column on the right are some very kind words from judge Darren Shan:

“All of the stories were well written, but this one tugged at my heartstrings. It masterfully pulled me in, intriguing me with its mysterious opening, before gradually revealing what is truly happening, and leaving me with a sense of great pity for the main character by the end. It’s very difficult to do all that in such a short story, to pack in true surprise and emotion, so as strong as the other entries were, this was the clear stand-out for me. I’ll never think of the Big Guy in quite the same way again…”

Coming from such a successful and well respected author, that really means a lot. Did I mention I was chuffed? I’m really quite chuffed.

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition, The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition, The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock