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Sci-Fi London Flash Competition

April 18, 2017

At the end of March 2017 I signed up for a short story competition. It was a competition that involved two of my favourite things in writing: Flash and Science Fiction.

The premise was relatively straight forward: At 10am on April 8th, the Sci-Fi London guys would send me a title, a line of dialogue and a scientific premise to weave into a story. The story could be no longer than 2000 words long and would need to be submitted by 10am on Monday, 10th.

Brilliant, thought I, two days to write 2000 words? Not a problem.

On April 6th, my boiler blew up and threw the house and my plans for the weekend into total chaos. It was not looking good for my entry to the competition.

April 8th duly came round and my Title and other details became available. The title was, in my mind, utterly uninspiring, indeed, it made no sense. ‘Flow Me All’ was the title I’d been given. Throw in a truly awful line of dialogue and I was pretty much done with the whole sorry idea. In frustration, I went outside to dig my garden up for the next four hours (having promised the guys coming to fit the new boiler that I would clear it sufficiently of brambles, ivy and jasmine so that they could lay a new gas pipe).

Turns out four hours of digging, scraping, cursing, being cut and jabbed gives the subconscious mind a chance to muse on the writing challenge it had been presented with. I came in from the garden, cleaned my aching hands and dumped a short story into my computer. 1800 words in less than 2hrs. I went about the rest of my day, came back to it later that evening and edited it as best I could. It crept up to 1850 words and, knowing I didn’t really have time to fiddle, and fearing more boiler frustrations would make me forget to send it, I packaged it up and emailed it.

Sci-Fi London received over 400 short story entries and, at the time of writing, have not yet presented their short-list. I’m really not expecting to be on it. I was just really pleased that I managed to come up with something in response to an uninspiring title. I’m pleased with the story, especially given all the constraints imposed by life and the competition itself.

So here it is, ‘Flow me All’.

(I’ll let you guess, what the line of dialogue was that I had to include)


FLOW ME ALL

 

Dan waited patiently in the Reception of Unit 4. He stood with his arms behind his back staring at the name that glistened in the Hologlass:

Nicola Jefferies – Head of Sanitation.

He wondered how long she would make him wait today. Four minutes was her average. He turned his head slightly, catching the eye of the girl behind her desk. She dipped her head immediately, refocusing her vision on the data filling her eyepiece.

“You are distracting my trainee,” said the wall mounted ‘Bot, swinging its sensor in his direction. “Can you desist please?”

“Desist from being male?”

The door slid open before the ‘Bot could respond.

Four minutes. She was getting predictable.

He stepped inside and the door slid shut behind him. He was not offered a chair. He wouldn’t have taken it even if it had been.

“You know why you’re here of course?” she said as Dan stood to attention.

Dan nodded. The question was rhetorical. He noted the modulation to her voice, she’d taken another enhancement perhaps? Sub-vocal transmitter? To go with her cybernetic eye from last year? Perhaps she was worried about an up-and-coming junior? Or a new ‘Bot? He’d heard the Series 7 was pretty special.

The air between them lit up in response to a tiny click she made in her throat, confirming his suspicions about the enhancement. The image was a 3D map of the city. It panned and zoomed, bringing them down to street level. Street and ‘Bot sensor feeds of the incident were overlaid on the scene, before the view plunged underground, into the old drain and sewer system, where the only useful sensor overlay became that of Dan’s own visor.

In response to another click, time accelerated.

“How long did the chase last?”

Another rhetorical question, but Dan answered it anyway. “One hour and six minutes.”

It was for the six minutes that he was here.

“Getting sloppy in your old age?”

“No. There were more bugs than normal and they’ve changed tactics.”

“Nothing in our studies of them has given us any indication that they have sufficient mental capacity to have ‘tactics’, despite your repeated claims.”

“I’m sure that’s true, and yet, tactics they have, and those tactics have changed.”

She tutted, partially masking another throat click.

They watched the closing scene of the chase. There were minimal additional sensor overlays now. There was little need to have sensors actually in the Flow Me district, at least not official ones. Nobody worried about male-on-male crimes and their sub-dermals tracked and updated their positions to the authorities.

Except in the sewers of course.

The visor feed showed Dan emerging from a drain and running towards a nearby building. The view became unstable as he raced up a fire escape and in through a window on the fourth floor. A bug was still pulling itself out of the toilet bowl when Dan hit it with the containment field. The bug writhed furiously, managing to break free where the field was struggling to mesh with the ceramic of the toilet bowl. Dan had immediately cranked the field up to max and it had collapsed, crushing the bug, squeezing it out through the collapsing mesh like pushing jelly through a colander. Dan’s visor was covered in a sticky innards and the view was killed, both then and in the office now.

“A failed containment and six minutes over our Guaranteed Service Delivery maximum process time.”

“Indeed. I’ve had better days. One small consolation is that the apartment resident, Phil 16, is a former Sanitation Specialist. He seemed to take things rather well.”

“Yes, quite. We have an audio only transcript of his reaction ‘Geez, what the hell did you do to my bathroom, it looks like you exploded the Dulux dog in there.’ Somewhat of an understatement considering we had to send in a level five decontamination team to remove all traces of bug contamination. The City will, of course, be extracting the cost of this from your Awards and Privileges.”

Dan nodded. He performed a quick mental calculation of his current Awards given he’d moved back to Flow Me rather than keep his entitlement of a Main City apartment. He winced internally when he subtracted the value of a level five team from it. Things were going to be tight for a little while. The important thing was, he’d still have enough to keep his boys at their academy, he didn’t want them coming to him in Flow Me until they’d finished their training next year. A partial trained Sanitation Specialist was an expensive nobody.

He let out a slow calming breath as Nicola continued to talk at him.

“You’ve had your medical clearance I see. No additional signs of infection or mutations other than those previously logged it would seem. Phil 16, also given the all clear.” His results and DNA profile flashed up above the desk in the space between Dan and his superior. “His mutations are at acceptable levels too. You do realise that the cost of that will also be deducted from your Awards?”

Dan didn’t, but nodded and smiled anyway.

“Very well. Dismissed.”

*

Dan reached ground level and headed for a transport hub before he remembered his Award situation. He’d have to walk back to Flow Me. If there was an incident, they’d send a Sanitation Unit to his location and pick him up.

He kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked. He ignored the stares and the gasps. “A man here? Outrageous!” he heard one female say to her companion. The companion seemed less outraged. He knew that look. Curiosity with a small side order of lustfulness. He was forbidden fruit and the attention made him uncomfortable. Give him a bug any day.

The smell of bugs was strong here. He knew that’s what his mutation was. He knew that’s how he tracked them. That was another reason he’d moved back to Flow Me, no bug smell. The bugs did not live under Flow Me. That made him curious. He’d asked the question several times but they just smiled, as if his little male brain might not be able to cope with the answer, or that he’d asked a question that was so silly in nature that even its very utterance was the source of amusement.

He was grateful for the rain which started as he walked. It emptied the streets, and pulled the smell out of the air and down into the gutters. Down into Bugland.

He preferred it down there. Fewer sensors watching his every move. Down there he wasn’t the inferior. Down there he was untracked and free.

It was growing dark as he crossed the park that separated Flow Me from the rest of the city and, as the tree canopy thinned, there was the ‘FLOW ME ALL’ sign, glowing red in the darkness.

Home.

The spacing between the letters and words was jarring. He guessed that was a deliberate choice now. He remembered when it used to say ‘THE FOLLOWING OF MEN IS NOT ALLOWED’

It had fallen into disrepair, only ‘F L OW      ME       ALL’ remained illuminated. It had become a tourist attraction, ‘I got me some Flow me’ street slang for a female who had dared to visit a man for pleasuring in the traditional, biological way, rather than the recommended cerebral stimulation followed by synthetic womb pregnancy if so desired.

Dan had tried that, just the once, despite the woman’s best efforts she’d fallen pregnant, with twins. A month’s worth of illicit Awards as payment had quickly paled into insignificance compared to the costs of keeping two boys at a training academy. He’d had to pay for it of course, the pregnancy had been his fault after all. He had seduced a sweet and innocent young woman the court had declared. That’s not how he remembered it, but his opinion didn’t count for much, then, or now.

He entered his apartment, dumping his wet clothes in the cleaning and drying unit on the way to his small office. He slid back a panel in the wall and removed some cabling, hooking up a small terminal to a socket that looked crudely attached to the cable.

The terminal began to bypass the minimal security on the Dataflow. While his actions were illegal, so was the cable itself. He was grateful that his neighbour in the apartment above was so popular with the ladies. Happy to do their bidding via illicit streaming for the sake of a few Awards and Privileges.

Piggybacking the signal, he jumped across feeds, back-tracing towards Unit 4’s Medical Section. He logged in via a test account he’d found left on the system months ago and began to dig.

DAN 33 SANITATION SPECIALIST

The phrase ‘Sanitation Specialist’ still made Dan smile. He was a specialist in sanitation in the same way an outlawed, old-fashioned butcher had been an animal welfare specialist.

PHIL 16 SANITATION SPECIALIST (RETIRED)

The terminal was struggling with the datafeeds. It was not designed to handle the multi-dimensional datastack, but Dan was getting good at down-selecting data even when he couldn’t see all the menus due to their failure to render in 2D.

He looked at the two DNA profiles, his own and Phil’s. He saw now what he had seen, briefly, in the office. He asked Unit 4’s Medical AI to confirm his suspicions. The Medical AI was happy to oblige.

The chance of Phil 16 not being Dan’s paternal grandfather were so remote, they were effectively zero.

This explained a lot about grandma and the attitude of the family towards her, towards Dan’s father and, when he was old enough to notice, towards Dan himself. Not only had she dared to get pregnant ‘the old fashioned way’ but it would seem Dan’s grandfather, her companion at the time, wasn’t actually his grandfather.

How many Awards, how much power, had his family had to relinquish to keep that one quiet Dan wondered. It would certainly explain their meteoric descent from the upper echelons of the new post-Man world order.

He looked at the DNA data again on the terminal which was trying its best to render it. However poorly that rendering was, the mutation was as obvious as it was identical. Dan had not acquired his bug mutation through an early, on-the-job, scratch or a bite, it had come to him via his grandfather, and that grandfather had been Phil 16. Not a carefully selected synthetic sperm.

Dan wondered if this is why his bloodline was cursed and still producing males.

Bug sniffer and Male-Maker.

He disconnected, hiding the terminal before sliding the panel back over the data cable.

He put his clean and dried suit back on. He was heading back to the sewers under Flow Me. There were rats, not bugs, in the sewers here. He was hungry and had a sudden appetite for real meat.

He would manage without his Awards just fine.

Tomorrow, bug incursion notwithstanding, he would pay a visit to Phil 16. They had a lot to catch up on.


John Hoggard

John Hoggard

Not a blog!

February 16, 2017

Nope, this definitely isn’t a blog, because I don’t have time to write a blog, because I’m supposed to be editing my novel, and if I’m writing a blog, then I can’t be editing the novel can I?

OK, maybe this is a blog, but just a little one.

So, why am I here? Well, on Facebook, yesterday, it reminded me that, six years ago I promised, on Facebook, that I would finish my novel on the day of my 40th birthday.

I even produced an Excel Spreadsheet, showing the wiggly line of my daily word count against my projected, estimated end point of 120,000 words.

 

EP_Novel_progression_from_2011

So, here I am, 2017, six years on. I didn’t finish the novel before my 40th birthday, or my 41st, or 42nd. I got stuck at 95,000 words and sat on my hands for over a year before working my way, painfully, to a massively overwritten 145,000 word total. Then, faced with a monumental edit, I panicked and ran away from the novel for another year, despite having fantastically useful feedback from my fellow WordWatchers and a small select clique of trusted Beta Readers.

I am however, finally, editing the novel. I promised my family at the beginning of January (it was not a New Year’s Resolution as I don’t believe in such things) that I would finish the edit of the novel and then, no matter what, I would ‘do something with it’. So, each weekday morning the alarm goes off at 5am and I drag myself from my warm comfortable bed and sit at the laptop and carry on the edit. In the last five weeks I’ve managed to get to the end of the novel, cutting it down from 145,000 to 117,000 words as I went. Two days ago, I went back to the beginning and started again, implementing changes at the beginning of the story that I didn’t decided I needed until I got half way through the last edit. It’s getting harder now, I’m not just cutting fat now, now I’m looking at some of my favourite scenes and ask them the hard question ‘Are you progressing the story?’ Sometimes the answer is ‘no’ and that scene has to go. Highlight, Ctrl+X, Ctrl+V – and it’s gone (but pasted into another document (just in case)). I’m now removing one of my favourite characters, because this is not her story and she’s not helping. I feel for her, we’ve spent many years together, but she has to go. I hope she understands.

I have no idea what the final word count will be, I’m trying not to fixate on it (ignoring the evidence that first time novels that are over 100,000 words struggle to find agents and publishers). I also have no how long this will take or how many times I will go round this buoy before I decide enough is enough. At least once more I suspect.

And here’s the final rub – the thought that this novel is actually picked up and published is actually terrifying. I’ve had six luxurious years to play with this novel. I’ve watched many of my fellow WordWatchers get a publishing deal and then immediately turn into book producing machines. Editing one novel, while writing another, while promoting another with the clock ticking in the background all the time, a constant reminder that they now have to produce one book a year…

I shall make the most of the time I have, because I may never have it again.

John Hoggard

John Hoggard

When is a story, not a story?

January 31, 2017

 

The answer is simple….. When it is not the right one to be told.

I only discovered this at the weekend, when staying at the fabulous Gladstone Library in Howarden. As usual our writing group had arranged a weekend away for us to have some time and space to focus on our writing; as individuals and as a group. Sadly, we were a depleted group, as life sometimes just gets in the way, and some of our members were unable to attend. Normally, non attendance is my forte, as I can be a bit ‘flaky’; but not this time.

Last year had been a tough one for me, and as such, my writing had really taken a back seat. So much so, I was becoming embarrassed to call myself a children’s author.

I had ‘blagged’ my way through various meetings promising to write xx amount of words, but in reality I had done very little. In 6 months, I had probably written about 2,000 words; 4 chapters. That’s it. There is only one word for my attempt. Shabby.

Then came Gladstone, and as I sat in the beautiful room, surrounded by books, an open fire and looking out over the frosty gardens, I had my ‘Aha’ moment!

The real reason for the struggle to write the story, is because it was the wrong story! I had no idea how it was going to work, or where it was going. I like to begin with the end in mind, (thank you Steven Covey for that nugget), and quite frankly, had no clue; I was blindly writing and hoping things would fall into place.

Once I realised this, I felt the pressure of having to write, fall away. It’s strange, once I had given myself ‘permission’ to accept it was going nowhere, a new plot with new characters came to me within minutes.

I now have my plot outline, characters and first chapter written, but more importantly, I have rediscovered my mojo.

Writing is like anything in life. If it doesn’t feel right and you’re dragging your heels; it probably isn’t right.

I now have a better story, and I can’t wait to write it.

Debbie1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debbie

Get on with it

January 1, 2017

This year’s New Year Resolution

 

This year’s New Year resolution is the same one that I have made for (maybe) the last ten years. Nope, it’s not the one about eating healthily or giving up smoking or building a new back gate or even painting the study. It’s so much simpler than that. It’s this:

 

Get on with it.

 

Just that. Get on with it. Crack on, saddle up, let’s roll, strap yourself in, move right along the bus, let’s light this candle, keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times, let’s rock, just Do It, kick yourself and get going.

 

I’m talking about writing, of course. Because like all genuinely lazy people (and when it comes to lazy, I like to think that I’m as genuine as you can get) I need to prod myself into action. I need to type that next sentence, prune it, delete half of it, write the next one, then the next, then throw away the first sentence, and keep adding until I have a nice round paragraph, then a second, a third, chuck out the middle one, reward myself with a cup of tea or a quick game of Chess Titans (lose) then back at it until I achieve the mystical moments of flow and then I can feel good about the words on the page, the ideas, the process and, ultimately, myself.

 

Because, in the end, writing is writing, not dallying and dilly-ing and it’s just the hardest thing and application is more significant than inspiration and if you have to write it badly before you can later write it well, hell, then you had best get on with writing it badly, because one thing is for sure: nobody else is going to do it for you.

 

And from stuttering process of idleness and effort, interrupted by dog-walks and day-dreaming of the glory in the future (“Firstly, I’d like to thank the Nobel Committee”) I have so far managed two novels and 65% (and counting) of a third.

 

So I’d like to thank everyone in the wonderful Word Watchers of Newbury for all their help in 2016, which has played no small part of the 65% and counting, and hope for more of the same in 2017.

September 11th

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago I was driving back into work when I heard, on the radio, that a light aircraft had flown into one of the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. By the time I’d passed through security at the gate and pulled into a car parking space, a second plane had hit the second tower. I went icy cold. That couldn’t have been a coincident.

I went into reception and it was packed. Dozens of my fellow scientists and engineers were staring, transfixed, on the live pictures coming from the BBC. Smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, violent gashes ripped into them…

I went to my office. I rang home. Spoke to my wife, Vee, a few days overdue with our first child, oblivious to the moment that changed the world. We had the ‘What kind of world are we bringing a child into?’ conversation.

Milly was born three days later and I did what I always planned to do. I bought an armful of newspapers and put a four hour tape in the video recorder (remember those?) and selected BBC News 24. Those papers still make for a heartbreaking, tear inducing read.

Today, Facebook, is naturally, filled with untold numbers of images from that dark day, however, I have to thank Facebook for giving me one little glimmer of light. Six years ago, WordWatchers had one of its last in-house short story competitions, the theme was ‘Stranded’. I won, with a Science Fiction story called ‘We are The Stranded’. It was the only time I won, and given we don’t do short story competitions any more (we talk about resurrecting the format again, but so far, it’s just that, talk), it is likely to be the only one I ever win.

Happy John

 

That story went into our first short story anthology, ‘Out of Time’ (which I also designed the cover for*).

Out Of Time

OK, I say first, but I mean ‘only’ because, although we had plans to do more, including one based around our first visit to Symondsbury Manor, we never did. The short story competitions and the anthologies, ironically, fell foul of the group’s success. As key members moved on, others became agented or got publishing deals and the hamster wheels began to squeak, there was only time for writing that publishers wanted, the short story competition withered on the vine.

So today is a strange day. I look at my beautiful eldest daughter, sitting just across from me now as I write this, writing herself, a monologue for English homework, and I think of what a world she’s being brought up in – that the 3,000 souls who perished on 9/11 are but the tiny tip of a huge iceberg, of the millions who have died in, or fled from, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Her monologue is going to be about 9/11, so we have come full circle in that respect.

I think about the WordWatchers of six years ago, think about the success Katherine Webb, Charlotte Betts and Abbie Rushton have achieved since and I am immensely proud of what this tiny little group has achieved. Then I think about our summer and Christmas parties, the buzz of the competition results and I miss those things and I think the group is missing them too…

John

* The background wood effect was added by committee – I remain unconvinced that it adds anything (fully accepting that I was, and still am, quite precious over my original, plain white background design).

When is The End The End?

July 14, 2016

image001

Editing. Hmm, the Marmite of writing tasks. But no matter how you feel about it, editing must be done. But how do you know when you’re done? When your work is really finished? How do you know when you can down your tools, sit back and breathe out? When ‘The End’ is well… most definitely ‘The End’?

image002

Needless to say, I am editing my novel currently, but not for the first time, nor, I suspect, for the last, because folks, I am an Eternal Editor. There, I’ve said it. I stood up tall, in the circle, my back nice and straight, and said the words out loud. You heard them. Yes, I acknowledged the truth. In so doing, have I taken the first step towards recovery? No! Alas, there is no twelve-step programme for this compulsion, because I suffer from a wholly debilitating and I fear, potentially incurable condition, called Obsessive Compulsive Editing Disorder. Yes, it’s a thing. And I have it.
It’s an affliction, a literary tick, borne I fear, from the fact that I am also a perfectionist. Either way, it’s encumbering and almost fatal to anything I write.
“You’ll never finish,” my friends and family cry.
“This book will never see the light of day!”
In my darkest moments, I suspect they might be right. But don’t they understand? I can’t let it go out yet. It’s simply not ready.
“It’ll never be ready!”
It will. I just… well, I don’t know quite yet when, but it will. I promise. One day.

Case in point – Despite finishing this novel several times over already, I’ve spent the last two weeks tweaking a single page. Yes, one page. But perhaps the most important page. Page One. I’ve worked on it every day of those two weeks, okay, not all day, but even so… I kept going, until I got it right.
Of course, I thought I had it right the first several times I finished it, but then the Eternal Editor saw the error of my ways. I got there in the end. I am finally pleased with it. But how many times have I written that page? Well, I’d rather not say. The point is, it’s there. Now. Finally. I think.
And yes, I know it’s probably not normal, but did I mention I’m an Eternal Editor? I know you can over work a piece but tell the EE that. You see, I can’t leave it alone, not until it’s right, not until I’ve… well, nailed it. But then again, that’s only in my opinion. And let’s be honest, this writing lark is so darn fickle, so darn subjective. Who knows if I’ve really nailed it? Who knows? But it’s so tough out there, especially for debut writers. With the stats so clearly against us, is it really so wrong to want to strive for perfection?
“Put it to one side! Move on and write something else!” they say. Are they crazy? I’m sorry. I really am. I can’t.
Editing, as an Eternal Editor, is a serious affair. Because, I don’t edit, I redraft, and rewrite – new scenes, new characters, new storylines, until essentially what emerges is arguably a new novel on some level, but it’s always so much better than the last. So, am I really so foolish to do so? In the lighter moments, I kid myself that this is healthy, that I’m learning my craft, but I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and even I am beginning to think that it may finally be time to let it go.
This, must surely signify progress.
And the good news is – I am nearly there. I can feel it. And with that comes a sense of excitement, a huge and overwhelming anticipation. But alongside the elation, there is also consternation. The Eternal Editor whispers in my ear, “Really? Have you truly done all that you can? Are you absolutely sure that this is the very best that you can produce? How can you be so certain? Maybe one more fly past…”

‘At what point do you give up – decide enough is enough? There is only one answer really – Never.’

– From Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, YA Author

So when is it time to let go?

The bad news is that there is no definitive answer, but I did find this very useful article on writersrelief.com. It offers sage advice on how to make it over that elusive Finish Line. So this is for you, and Eternal Editors everywhere.

Reprinted with the permission of Writer’s Relief, an American submission service for authors.

5 Steps To Stop Stalling And Start Making Submissions:

1. Let time pass. Finally! You’ve written the last word. Now, set your work aside. Turn your attention elsewhere—spend time outdoors, work on your hobbies, begin something new. After enough time has passed (whether it’s hours, days, or weeks) read your manuscript with fresh eyes. How do you feel about it now? Does the piece still ring true, or do you see where some revision will improve it?

2. Focus first on the big picture. When you’re ready to take that first fresh look, read the piece from beginning to end—without making any revisions! See the complete arc of the story you are trying to tell, and don’t get bogged down in nitty-gritty editing. Once you’ve seen the piece as a whole, you can go back section-by-section to make more-informed rewrites.

3. Proofread? Yes! Overly tinker with? No. Of course, your work should be meticulously proofread and formatted. After all your time and effort carefully writing and rewriting a piece, you don’t want to have a literary agent or editor reject it because of sloppy margins or blatant grammar gaffes. However, it’s also important not to overdo your editing. What started out as a great story or poem can be spoiled when you add or take away too much. When in doubt, let it be.

4. Get feedback. Still can’t decide if your manuscript is submission-worthy? Call in reinforcements. Ask the opinions of your writing group or critique group, friends, and mentor (if you have one). If the general consensus is that your writing is ready to be submitted—go for it!

5. Don’t flinch! Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci said it best: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” You may not feel 100% certain, but if all indications are that your work is ready to send out, don’t let “what ifs” hold you back. Take a deep breath, be brave, and make your submissions.

Every writer experiences that irresistible urge to edit and improve his or her work. This is a vital part of becoming a better writer! Just make sure you don’t fall into the trap of insisting on absolute perfection and over-revising. Perfection is unattainable; chasing it will only leave you frustrated and unhappy. Instead, focus on creating the very best piece you can. After following these steps and making your revisions, you’ll develop a sense that your writing is done. And that’s how you’ll know—it’s time.

So there it is folks, and there’s no denying it’s good advice.
Cue sigh. Heavy sigh. Now, if only I could follow it…

The End… maybe, probably. No! Definitely. The End. Ta Dah!

Helen

Diary of an Accidental Naturalist

April 10, 2016

Something people always seem to do on the way home from holiday is to work out what was the best bit.  I won’t bore you with my holiday reminiscences— except for the one memory turned out to be the ‘signature’ moment.  It was an unscheduled animal encounter.

We did all the tourist bits.  We had to visit Kruger Park; one of the few unsullied and un-repopulated wild animal domains that at least approximated the original habitat and animal populations.  The animals mostly carried off their roles competently:  the solitary bull elephants were irritable old men, who barely acknowledged our presence in Land Rovers two hundred meters away; the white rhinos peered at us myopically from between the scrubby bushes and baobab trees; the giraffe affected the unconcern of elegant old ladies waiting for their turn at a tea-dance.

What happened to us on the morning of the last day was undoubtedly the high-spot and the keynote of our ‘extended family’ holiday.  One automatically reaches for superlatives when trying to describe what it’s like to come into close contact with whales, but I’ll attempt to resist the temptation.

We were lucky to be given hotel accommodation right on the shoreline of Table Bay, between Sea Point and Bantry Bay, for those who know the area. The emerald expanse of the South Atlantic stretched from almost below our balcony to a crystal sharp horizon several miles distant.

Earlier that morning

Earlier that morning

Patches of giant kelp carpet the sea floor and the white sand beneath is visible to depths of forty meters and more. So, we were packing up to return to England, yesterday morning, and something caught my eye just twenty or thirty meters off-shore. A glistening jet of water was propelled into the air by something just below the surface.  Then I saw the great dark shape outlined around it, silhouetted in the clear, sparkling water.  Then I saw another, then another.  I shouted to my family in the apartment: ‘Whales here! Now!’  The family cascaded onto the balcony area, tripping over the ankle- level recliners.  I focussed my camera on the nearest one: a large male, over twenty meters long and with a nose encrusted with orange barnacles.

Whales engender the strangest emotions.  A kind of fusion of sadness and joy.  A feeling of a spiritual connection that perhaps has its origins in a shared primal ancestry and common purpose: to stay alive in spite of everything. The whales, Southern Right-Whales, shouldn’t have been there. They are supposed to be viewable in the bay during mating season, from October onwards.  But then, thanks to our elevated location, we saw something that several other casual onlookers on the shore may not have noticed.  A long black, wavering ribbon wove a path parallel to the shoreline, about a hundred meters out.  At first, I thought it was kelp.  Then I noticed it was moving almost imperceptibly slowly from left to right across the shoreline.  It was a large pod of those massive creatures, apparently migrating, before our eyes.  Nose to tail, line astern, big and small they followed one another in what must have been a seasonal migration.  A large shadow at the front of the ribbon indicated the head of the procession and then smaller black shadows followed, many only a meter or so long in the middle of the order.

Part of the pod

Part of the pod

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of our luxury and comfort alongside an ancient and timeworn ritual.  We were awe-struck in the face of these many giant creatures enacting a rite that evolution commanded them to fulfil, and felt uniquely privileged that only we of all the residents of Cape Town seemed to have noticed the stately progress of the giant black ribbon up the coast.  We, as a species, have a presumed arrogance.  Whether it is benign, as in the case of environmentalist concerns, where we try to wind-back the depredations of civilisation and restore a life and dignity to the creatures we share the planet with, or, the unthinking and ill-considered policy edicts of a president that puts populist short-term financial issues above all else; these creatures will keep on doing what they have done for millions of years.

I took photographs of course, just to prove to myself that I was not imagining it. But photographs are the reflection of a memory, and the experience itself buoyed us up as we regretfully left our holiday accommodation behind.

The watchman

The watchman

 

The Airbus that flew us out of Cape Town that morning flew over the sunlit bay and there, below us, were two distinct dark shapes, presumably still shepherding their brood past the Great Whites that ring Robben Island hunting for seal.  Sometimes holiday memories fade quite quickly, but we won’t be forgetting this one in a hurry.

 

Oliver

WordWatchers: Priceless

February 14, 2016

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Working hard at Symondsbury

As I write this, I’m nestled in a corner sofa in a rambling and eclectic house in deepest Dorset. The fire is crackling, I can hear the tap of keys, the hum of voices as two authors sit in the kitchen bouncing plot ideas around. The atmosphere is peaceful, relaxed, yet focused.

 

This is Symondsbury, the yearly writing retreat of WordWatchers, and the lovely folks who surround me are some of the most important people who have accompanied me on my writing journey.

 

I joined WordWatchers in 2008. I’d just moved to the area, was keen to meet new people and had an idea for a novel that I really wanted to write. One dark November night, I drove to a cottage in the woods and began the chain of events that led to the publication of my first book in February 2015.

 

What blew me away about WordWatchers was how dedicated everyone was, how invested they all were in their craft, how seriously they took it. I was shocked that they minuted their meetings – as if we were at work! Every meeting, each person made promises of what they intended to do that month, and those promises were revisited during the updates the following month.

 

I wondered if this was for me. It all seemed so formal. It was, after all, just a hobby – not a job. But as I got to know the group members, I realised how many of them had completed novels … yes, actually finished them! Katherine Webb, WordWatchers’ most successful member, had written six novels. When I joined, her seventh, The Legacy, was being considered by a major UK publisher. And then I realised something. Whatever it was this group had, it worked.

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Some WordWatchers at Katherine’s book launch

 

The first promise I made was to write 10,000 words. I’m a conscientious person and found the fact that I’d have to account for myself the next month very motivating. Of course, no one would’ve minded if I’d rocked up and said that I’d only managed 2,000 words, but I so wanted to hit that target.

 

Six months later, I had a first draft. Six months after that, an extract from my novel won a competition and was circulated in an anthology to agents and editors. The following year, I had signed with an agent.

 

WordWatchers provided the most nurturing, encouraging and supportive atmosphere in which to grow as a writer. Thanks to their careful critiquing, gentle guidance and advice, I have improved more than I did during my degree in English Literature with Creative Writing. And it has been considerably cheaper!

 

It’s not just about writing, though. I was delighted to have two ‘WordWatchers’ tables at my wedding. I’ve been to summer BBQs, Christmas meals and weekend retreats. I’ve roped some of them into moving furniture around my house. When I was stuck at home with no power and unable to access the copy edits on my latest novel, a WordWatcher (John) was the first person I called.

Playing hard!

Playing hard at Symondsbury

 

As you can probably tell, this is so much more than a writing group. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that WordWatchers is like a family. I won’t name names but I know who I think of as the matriarch and patriarch, everyone’s favourite aunts and uncles, the squabbling cousins (yeah, I’d be one of them!), the naughty children. And – in the same way a family does – WordWatchers listens, sympathises and supports when ‘life stuff’ gets in the way of writing.

 

As I sit in this fabulous house where we’ve shared food, drinks, games, ideas and laughter over the last few days, I think about how comfortable we all are in each other’s presence, how easy it is to sit in silence while we’re working, but equally how easy it is to look up, ask someone’s advice on a particular word, phrase or scene.

 

I am taking a break from writing, and therefore from the group. I’m not allowed to say I’m leaving – I’ve been told it’s a sabbatical. I shall miss these warm, funny, creative, intelligent and generous people very much, and am just glad that I will still be able to see them at socials.

 

I was talking to Julian yesterday about some plot problems he’s been wrestling with. At the end of the conversation, I could see from his face how much better he felt, how – just from talking – we’d raked back some of the brambles and he could see a clearer path ahead of him. He told me, ‘That conversation was priceless.’ I replied, ‘WordWatchers is priceless.’

 

A Christmas 75-worder #27

December 31, 2015

Photograph by John Hoggard

Photograph by John Hoggard

Well this is it my last 75-worder of this Christmas period, and, just like the double doors on the Advent calendar, I’m going for a big finish and I’m going to offer you two 75-worders today.

The first was written way back in September and actually appeared on the Paragraph Planet website on September 29th. Using the first few words of the story as the Paragraph Planet site does it is not inappropriately entitled, Autumn returns to the valley.

So, why am I sharing with you a story about autumn? Well, it was my fellow WordWatchers member, Charlotte Betts, who suggested that she’d like to see a complete series of these, one for each season. As this was never my intention, but an obvious thing to do once it was pointed out, so I decided to take her up on her suggestion.

While I have been unable, so far, to complete the series, lacking suitable inspiration for Spring and Summer, it was inevitable that during my musings over the Christmas period that a follow up to my Autumnal story would make itself known. So, here they are my two seasonal 75-worders back-to-back:

Autumn returns to the valley for the anniversary of my birth, as she does every year. I tip my hat to her, the first morning my breath blossoms as a cloud from my chest. I watch as she dances between the branches, igniting them in flickering flames of red, orange and gold. As the days shorten, she shakes the proud oaks, warning them of the coming of Winter and they shed their crowns in fear.

*

Winter comes to the valley and, tapping gently on the ground, he turns water to diamonds, a gift to those who slumber below. But they do not answer his call and in his frustration he rages at them, turns the earth to stone, entombing them. But anger turns to sorrow. He does not like the sad, grey world he has created, so he covers the world in a blanket of white and waits for her…

I am hoping I can write about her when real Spring arrives and not this strange pseudo-Spring that many of us seem to be in at the moment.

Thank you for all your comments, shares and likes on this series of stories, here on the blog, on Twitter and on Facebook. They are all very much appreciated and I have tried to follow up on each – so I hope I have not missed anybody out.

Until 2016!

John Hoggard

John Hoggard

A Christmas 75-worder #26

December 30, 2015

Christmas Sparkle by Yvie Hoggard

Christmas Sparkle by Yvie Hoggard

If there was a hint of sentience about wrapping paper then perhaps this is the tale it would tell…

Only a few days ago it had encased a Christmas gift, adding sparkle to otherwise bland packaging. Then it was laid amongst others, nestling down beneath an ornamental tree to await the morning light. Then it was ripped asunder and cast aside, its purpose fulfilled. Now it sits, poking from the top of an overstuffed bin, twitching in the breeze like the death-throes of a silvery carp, but such is the life of wrapping paper.

We have recycled as much as we can, but the recyclers will not take foil/metallic wrapping paper and so, despite our best efforts, our bins, which won’t be emptied for another 10 days due to the seasonal bank holidays, are approaching critical mass.

Until tomorrow…

John Hoggard

John Hoggard

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