Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Now that Kikimora is finally published, and the day job is still as hectic as ever, I’m thinking I might concentrate on short stories for a little while, rather than immediately embarking on another novel. I know I got lucky with the first one, and am unlikely to repeat that success right away, but I’m going to give it a try.

This weekend I have submitted my entry to the Guardian Short Horror Story Competition – to be judged by Stephen King, no less! I know there’s going to be stiff competition for this one, so I’m not holding my breath. If you fancy giving it a go (UK only), you have just a couple more days until the deadline.

My entry is a sort of companion piece to Kikimora, since it concerns a woman’s confession to a Rusalka – though much darker in tone than anything in Kikimora.

This line in the Ts & Cs amused me: “(it) must not show inappropriate or dangerous behaviour…”

Er… but a horror story, right?

Needless to say, I have smashed that rule into a thousand glittering pieces and danced on the shards until they are ground to dust.

As a special Christmas treat I will be reading The Big Guy on Radio Free Smedley Street this wednesday. If you miss the program – don’t panic! They have all manner of new-fangled listening methods on their website.

If I don’t check in again before the holidays, I do hope you all have a far merrier christmas than the Big Guy…

Since Christmas is almost upon us, and in case you missed my prize winning christmas zombie story in SFX magazine earlier this year, here’s something to get you feeling festive.

Or not.

The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition

The Big Guy

The sound of bolts snapping back. Hushed voices. A crack of light, thin as a hair, but blinding. It’s been months, I suppose. Time ceases to exist in the darkness.

The first latch flicks back, then the second. The door eases a little, as though drawing a breath. There’s a pause before it’s thrown open, and the light floods in, unbearably bright. I recoil – as far as the restraints allow – seeing nothing but formless, liquid shapes.

“He’s frightened.”

Mila. She’s still here then.

“Nonsense. He always does this. Come on. Wakey wakey.”

And Gustav. Of course. It’s always Gustav. “Up and at ’em, big guy.”

“Should I do the-?”

Gustav makes an impatient gesture, and Mila picks something up from the table, weaving back and forth in front of the light. My eyes are adjusting now, making sense of the figures. More are crowded behind these two, peering forward fearfully.

A small voice from the back, “Is he dangerous?”

Mila presses her lips together, as though to prevent any answer escaping.

“Not if handled correctly,” says Gustav. “Observe the double restraints. They must remain in place until the inhibitor is administered. Mila, if you would?”

She leans closer, touches my arm. Her fingers are warm with sweat. After so long without sensation of any kind, the touch is startling, revelatory.

Please, I want to say, but it comes out an incoherent croak.

She recoils, almost dropping the syringe.

Gustav rolls his eyes. “Shall I do it?”

“Sorry, Sir. No, I can manage. But, are you sure? I mean-”

“We’ve been over this.”

“I know, but seeing him like this-”

“And over.”

“It just doesn’t-”

“And over.”

“Seem right.”

“Objection noted. Please continue.”

She swallows. “Yes, Sir.”

No doubt she tries to be gentle, but to my heightened senses the scratch of the syringe is monstrous.

A heaviness comes to my still bound limbs. But it is an odd effect of the drugs that even as they dull my senses and inhibit my actions, my brain becomes more alert, memories sharper. To Gustav it is a year since we last began this game. To me, no time at all. My thought processes pick up where they left off when he closed the box, 11 months, 30 days ago.

Mila unfastens one strap, and then another. I droop forward, almost collapsing without their support.

“Come on out, then,” says Gustav. “My team have outdone themselves this year. We have Minecraft plushies. We have remote control quad bikes. We have robot dinosaurs that pee their pants. I’m not even kidding. That’s what kids want.”

I curl a hand around the box, steadying myself before I lurch forward with rusty, awkward steps. Gustav stands his ground as the younger ones shrink back.

“No,” I tell him.

“Don’t be like that. We all agreed, this is for the best. Would you leave the poor kiddies disappointed?”

I glance at Mila. She drops her gaze, murmurs, “There are other ways, Sir.”

“Don’t start on about online shops!” he says, anger flaring. “Transactions. Paypal. Postage and Packing! It is not the elf way. We create for the joy of it. We give freely of our skills. I will not sully our traditions with financial exchanges!

Her cheeks flush. “Come and see the team,” she says to me. “That always cheers you up.”

I let her lead me past the cowering others, down a narrow corridor where strings of coloured lights twinkle on the walls. She opens a heavy door, and animal smells surround me: hay and fur and rotting meat. Even here, flashing lights are strung across the stalls.

Reluctantly, I draw closer. “Vixen, old girl.” I lay a stiff hand on the creature’s head. Her ears are cold, ragged. She glances at me, as bone weary as I am. How long has it been now? Since age and ill health claimed me – and the elves, my immortal helpers, my makers, claimed me back again.

“Blitzen.” I move to the next stall. He is in a sorrier state than Vixen. Ribs show through the parchment skin. His eyes droop, seeing nothing. I move on, greeting each of them in turn, looking for some spark of recognition, some remaining spirit.

I reach the final stall. “Rudolph?”

He raises his head just a little. One eye swivels towards me, and the ears come forward. He still knows me, and it breaks what remains of my heart. A beast’s suffering is always nobler than a man’s. A man knows why he is punished, or can guess. He can blame himself for a thousand small mistakes and wrongs – whether they have any bearing on the issue or not. A beast understands nothing but that it is in pain, and it cannot fathom why – or why those it loves do not help.

“It’s almost time,” says Mila. “I’ll fetch your jacket.”

I don’t respond. My fingers stroke Rudolph’s cold, dribbling nose. He shivers, gives a wheezy bark.

“I know, old friend. I want it to end as much as you do.”

I glance at the coloured lights, winking on and off endlessly in preordained patterns.

She has left me alone. She is not supposed to do that. He will be angry with her.

I snatch down the lights, swiftly winding the cable around Rudolph’s scrawny neck. The little bulbs shatter, jagged edges piercing his desiccated hide, and my own. He still has a bit of fight left in him; kicks at the stall, shakes his big head from side to side, working the wire deeper into his flesh.

The commotion brings the others. A twitter of high, anxious voices, and then Gustav barking orders. A syringe is found, and another dose administered. The sense of purpose drains from me, and I allow the little hands to subdue me, steering me away from the thrashing reindeer.

A sudden silence signals Mila’s return. “It was only for a moment!” she says, before he has chance to accuse her. “I thought it would be alright. He seemed so quiet.”

“Just get the jacket on him.”

I allow them to dress me, pulling the huge red coat over my sagging body, fastening the buttons and buckling the belt.

“He doesn’t fill it like he used to.”

They stand guard over me as the skeletal reindeer are led out and harnessed to the sleigh. Last comes Rudolph, staggering, his big head drooping. My swollen hands are ringed with blood where wire and crushed glass has dug in. The little finger is almost severed, hanging at an odd, helpless angle.

“What were you thinking?” Gustav’s voice is soft, like that of a concerned friend. “Strangulation wouldn’t end him. You know that. Don’t you remember when you tried to hang yourself?”

I was aiming to decapitate him, but there is no need to tell him what I know and what I remember. There is always next year. There is always another attempt.

I look up at my team of undead reindeer, my sleigh filled with presents for children who don’t know what it takes to bring them this joy each year.

Mila cranks the handle, and the gramophone starts up. Tinny sleigh bells jingle. I sit up at once, tense, alert. I have tried to fight it. As often as I have tried to end my unendurable existence, and that of the reindeer. But it is impossible. Whatever they have done to me, they have done it well.

Reanimation. Mind control. These things do not contradict the Elf Way.

The piano comes in. Next year, I promise myself. Next year I will escape.

The scratchy voices begin: Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…

And I am gone. Only Father Christmas remains. He climbs into the sleigh, he takes up the reins, as he is programmed. He waves to the elves as they load the last presents onto the back. He launches into the sky with a hollow, “Ho Ho Ho!”

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

The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition

I’ve never been able to write short stories. No doubt part of the problem is that I don’t often read short stories. With a few notable exceptions (Saki, Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link), I don’t particularly like short stories. I’m generally of the opinion that if something is worth telling, it’s worth settling down, getting comfy and spending a good few hours with.

But people are forever telling aspiring writers they should enter competitions – and most writing competitions are for short stories. So occasionally I find myself knuckling down and giving it a try. Most of the time what I end up producing is a story fragment: the beginning of what obviously ought to be a much longer work, or a snapshot of a moment, that er doesn’t actually tell a story at all.

Back in January I learnt of a zombie short story competition being run by SFX magazine, to be judged by Zom-B and Cirque du Freak author, Darren Shan. The criteria were that it had to feature a santa outfit and christmas lights, and be no more than 1500 words.

1500 words! That’s nothing. What on earth can you say that’s worth saying in 1500 words??

Nevertheless I determined to try. One night, instead of sleeping, I had an idea for the story, and I crept out of bed in the small hours to jot down some notes. I expected that, as is often the way with insomnia inspired notes, they would turn out to be nonsensical gibberings. But in the morning the notes still seemed to show promise, and I set about writing the story.

I finished the draft that afternoon, and set it aside to mature. The next problem I have with short story competitions is that my writing process moves at a glacial pace. Those who have been waiting 2+ years for Kikimora to be released know this to be true.

I generally rewrite every scene several times before I’m done, and I don’t trust anything I’ve written to be any good until it has sat untouched for a good few months and I can come back and read it with fresh eyes.

Obviously you do not get that luxury when entering a competition. I began my story, The Big Guy, just a week before the closing date. The next day I decided it was utter nonsense, and I had better write something else.

I came up with a completely different idea, a more conventional survivors-of-the-zombie-apocalypse scenario – though still, I hoped, with some entertaining quirks to the trope.

I wrote a couple of opening scenes I was pleased with (I’m particularly proud of the scene where the hungover protagonist has to fight her zombie co-workers in the toilets (after passing out during the office christmas party), with only a bottle of bleach and bog brush as weapons) – and then I ran out of word count. I pared down those two opening scenes until nothing I liked remained, wrote in the next couple of scenes, again ran out of word count.

I stripped it back still further, I reached an end point, of sorts. I read it back. It was useless. The set up had promise, but a 1500 word short story was not the platform for this particular story. It read like the opening of a TV series, a British Walking Dead with added goofiness and ill-advised drunken sex.

I still wasn’t sure about The Big Guy (I’d only had chance to rewrite it three times). Was the tone right? Was it too silly? Too depressing? An awkward mixture of both those things? I very much suspected it was.

But on the plus side it was the first short story I’ve ever written which had a beginning, middle and end; that told an actual story, and did it all in less than 1500 words. That in itself seemed an achievement. And so I submitted it.

Almost two months later the editor of SFX emailed to say I’d won the competition, that Darren Shan and the other judges loved The Big Guy. To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement.

I went back to reread my story, and of course wanted to take a red pen to it. How did I let that line stay in it? What’s with that woeful description? Was I drunk when I wrote it? But apparently it was good enough. And perhaps the lesson to be learnt here (as well as to keep on trying) is that structure might be more important than fine prose? Get the shape of the story right (and I do feel confident that The Big Guy’s story structure is sound and solid), and the fine detail of precisely which words you use – although clearly still important – might not be quite as vital as the story itself (readers of Dan Brown surely realised this a long time ago. I am late to the party).

So will I give up my many months gestation on new writing? Allow it to pass the gate rough and ready? Not a chance. What I will do though is try to concentrate more on the shape, the load-bearing pillars of my stories. I’m pretty sure that will stand me in good stead.

You can read my winning entry in this month’s SFX (out today allegedly, though not yet in my local Tescos). Pics to follow!

A huge thanks to the SFX team and to Darren Shan for providing me with a much needed boost when I needed it most. Cheers guys.