gavrusik

Creator of worlds, writer of words. Humbler than I sound…

Category: publishing

The Shaded Mountain (Fantasy/Horror.)

Chapter 1

She was falling. The darkness clung like syrup, growing ever thicker as she tumbled downwards. The charnel smell reached her first, far worse than a battlefield in the heat of summer. Next came the screams, distant but growing louder.
Lacita clutched at her chest, but found no dagger hilt protruding there, nor cloth to cover her modesty. She’d entered the afterlife without possessions, without even the dignity of clothing. Anger and disbelief rose inside her, but were annulled in moments when the screams, once a distant affair, grew with a speed she could never have believed. The voices of others tumbling downwards added to the cacophony, and only clenched teeth prevented her from joining them in their terrified lament.
Next was the shock of impact as she struck a fleshy mattress, which writhed and screamed. Disorientated, she felt about her, the near perfect darkness adding to the confusion. Hands grasped at her, voices pleaded with her, but she could do nothing for them. Her reward for securing her people’s future was not to stand beside the Gods, but to rot alongside countless others. It hardly seemed fitting.
Was this to be her eternity?
Before Lacita could become accustomed to such a poor payment for a lifetime of sacrifice, something struck her, driving her beneath the surface. With horror, she realised further bodies were piling on top. She became one with the struggling mass, now pressed tight all around as she struggled towards the surface.
But more bodies fell, and she sank deeper. The last air was forced from her lungs as, like a grape in a press, she was squeezed tighter. The screams around her ceased, the writhing becoming twitches as bones snapped and innards spilled from ruptured bodies. There was no way back upwards, for the dead continued to rain downwards, so Lacita tried to force her way sideways. Although no one offered her resistance, those around her were packed too tight, forming an impenetrable wall of spasming cadavers. Downwards she was pulled, the press of the dead and dying constricting her yet further.
Her life, starting as a farmer’s daughter and ending as Queen of a united people, taught her surrender never brought reward. She could not go up, she could not move sideways, but below her was a bloody stew of torn flesh and bone. Intuitively she realised the morass was still aware, screaming in silence as tortured souls, their bodies destroyed, drifted in a sea of blood. While her body was still whole, she forced herself deeper, and those clinging to life offered her free passage for they still sought to clamber towards a surface they could never reach.
Breaking through the underside was like smashing ice atop a fast-flowing river. The current wanted to drag her into the depths, but she felt certain that only oblivion waited her deeper down. Although her lungs no longer needed to hold air, the all-consuming sense of suffocating filled her mind, making rational thought difficult.
She had to move, had to fight, and that meant struggling against the irresistible current. Gaining what little leverage she could on the underside of the mat of fractured bone, Lacita pulled herself along, blind and with little hope of a positive outcome. She sensed a few others around her doing the same, and wondered if they were the fools for not accepting the inevitable. The desire to breathe screamed in her mind, but she was sure to do so would invite her destruction, for there was nothing other than the blood of the dead with which to fill her lungs.
How long she struggled, she could not say, but she did not pause. At one point, a body bounced off her, carried by the current, and she grasped hold of an arm in the hope of lending aid, but their combined mass threatened to drag her away, so she was forced to let go. Why was she here? Why had she been forsaken in the afterlife?
And then she struck something solid. Certain she’d lost her mind, she clung to a rock wall, fearful it would disappear if she let go. She reached a cautious hand upwards, but found no barrier blocking her progress. Lacita moved towards the surface, the rough wall making the climb simple, all the while concerned as to what she would find above. Whatever awaited her could be as nothing compared to what she’d endured since entering this accursed place.
Caution gave her pause when a sliver of light reached her through the ocean of blood, for shapes moved above. A loud splash sounded nearby, and she froze, feeling as she would before battle during her mortal life. When a body landed just beside her, she tensed and edged a few feet to one side, peering upwards in an attempt to see what it was that awaited her beyond the Blood Lake.
Now inches beneath the surface, she could make out a rim to the charnel pit, just a foot above. A shadow fell across her, and she pushed herself flat, aware that whoever was there would be able to see little, if anything, beneath the surface. Someone stood on the edge, peering downwards. To her side, she sensed someone moving back towards the surface. Whoever had just fallen or, more likely, been pushed in, was attempting to clamber out again. She focussed on the hazy outline of the figure overhead and saw a leg thrust outwards at the one trying to escape, knocking them back in.
With no time for consideration, Lacita reached upwards, grabbed the rim and leapt out, dropping into a crouch as she tried to focus on the figure two yards to her side, her eyes now a little better adjusted to the darkness. A man. He took a step towards her, and she kicked at him, catching him on the knee with the ball of her foot. His leg buckled and, too close to the edge of the pit, he tumbled in and was dragged away from the edge where he disappeared beneath the surface.
Off to the side, another man, as dark skinned as her, edged closer. “Don’t even think about it,” Lacita hissed.
The man stopped in his tracks, although murder danced in his eyes. He held up his hands, backed away a few steps and resumed his vigil on the rim of the bloody lake.
What sort of a crazy nightmare had she stumbled into? Fury built inside her when the man kicked a poor soul back into the lake. Ready to confront the foul creature, splashing at her feet caught her attention. A slender woman fought to pull herself out, terror leaving her thrashing with renewed vigour when Lacita turned towards her. “Take my hand,” she said, crouching by the rim. “Quick, before these animals try to push us both back in.” She looked both left and right where further figures ringed the edge of the huge lake that, curving gently, ran for many miles in both directions. When the woman at her feet did nothing but stare, Lacita grasped both of her wrists and dragged her out. “Did you not hear me?”
The woman, awash with blood, stared at Lacita. “Why?” She wrenched her hands free and backed away.
The woman turned and fled before Lacita could even comprehend her question. “What is this place?” She turned back towards the lake and moaned in horror as she beheld what it was. Spared the true understanding of it by the darkness, she could still make out the formless mound of the dead. It stretched upwards towards a maelstrom of blood-red thunderclouds, from which a steady stream of bodies rained. “Where am I?” she shrieked. Lacita dropped to her knees and grasped her head, slick with congealing blood.
As soon as she was prone, the tall dark-skinned man, possibly even a countryman, rushed towards her, his intent obvious. She leapt to her feet and, just as he thought to use his weight to barrel her back into the lake, leaned backwards, planting her foot to his chest. Her attacker’s momentum sent him flying over her head and into the lake, where he disappeared beneath the surface, never to reappear again. “Are you next?” she asked of another man who strode towards her. He was, she noticed, clothed and had not been amongst those stood lakeside.
“This is what you have earned,” the man said, stopping a few yards from her.
“I’ve earned?” Lacita repeated.
“You asked what this place is, and now you have your answer,” the man said. “You’ll serve your tenure here, stirring the broth that feeds our Master and, if you’re lucky, you may earn a place on the Shaded Mountain.”
“I serve no man,” Lacita snapped. “I was a queen in life, and will bow to no one but the gods.” She looked about her at the barren wasteland that stretched to the horizon in all directions. “Whatever this Shaded Mountain is you speak of, I wish no part of it.”
“You serve him, or your flesh and soul are ground down to feed him.” The man nodded at the lake of blood. “There are no other choices.” He pointed over his shoulder. “There lies the Shaded Mountain, and he resides at its zenith. The most favoured amongst us may rest at his feet on the highest tier.”
The Shaded Mountain loomed large behind the man, a red glow surrounding its summit. Lacita was certain it had not been there a moment before. “I do not wish to be the favoured of one who feeds off the blood of others, like a bloated leech. I reject him, and I reject this vile place.” Choosing a direction that put the Shaded Mountain at her back, she walked away, eyes fixed ahead.
“You may have been a queen in life,” the man shouted after her, “but here you are as nothing. You have earned his wrath, so be on your guard, for he is your God and Master.”

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Harvester I

Really could do with some feedback as to whether you’re left confused by the opening. It’s a fantasy, an ‘epic journey,’ and this was originally book 2 in a long series. (Over half a million words written, and many more still to go.)

Please, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

 

Chapter 1

He’d been murdered, that much he remembered. Once familiar surroundings felt sinister and unwelcoming, made worse for the cloying sense of death and violence all around. He didn’t belong here anymore, and yet here he remained.
Conflicting urges threatened to tear him in two. The desire to pursue his killer, bring him to justice, fought with the growing sense of something familiar from a life he’d so recently left behind, faint and yet too overpowering to deny. He drifted through dense forest, drawn onwards, and into a circular clearing scoured clean of leaf and branch.
The one who’d murdered him was moving further away. He should follow, but a whispered memory stopped him. He tried to focus on it, but it grew more indistinct, like childhood viewed through the frosted eyes of old age.
He moved towards the centre of the clearing, where so many had died. Their final agonised shrieks echoed in his mind, but something far more compelling consumed him. An eldritch doorway coalesced from the ether a pace in front of him. Beyond it lay someone he knew, someone who’d been taken through it three years previously.
He stepped inside.
And a sense of all he was, all he had been, emptied over him. Much like a bucket of iced water rousing him from deep sleep, he gasped, struggling to make sense of where he was, and what had happened. He knew this place, had feared it, and spent the last three years plotting against it. Now all he felt was a sense of belonging. Spart, his name was Spart, and this was Hell.
He was in a passageway, twenty yards long, which opened out into a huge cavern from where the sound of laughter sat comfortably alongside the sound of steel striking steel. A silhouetted figure, far too tall to be human, walked past the opening, and yet he felt no fear. Somewhere ahead was his brother, Hatharan, harvested by the demoness Jalikra three years ago.
With one hand trailing along the wall, Spart shuffled down the corridor, stopping when he reached the end. The chamber beyond was vast, easily a hundred yards across and vaulting to a height of twenty yards at its centre. Demons stood in small groups here and there, deep in conversation, not one of them less than seven feet tall. In one of several sparring pits on the far side of the chamber, a thickset demon wielded a huge sword against a lithe demoness whose twin longswords were a blur as she drove her opponent backwards.
A few paces away, a demon was relating a misadventure that had befallen one of his companions in the mortal realm, and they all joined in the laughter, with the one suffering the misadventure laughing loudest of all. One of the group, easily eight feet tall, spotted him and grinned, displaying daggerlike teeth, and Spart was powerless other than to grin back.
The sense of his brother nearby was maddening, and he was about to ask for help when he spotted a young woman seated at a long table, her face hidden by a book. Oddly incongruous with the demons around her, Spart was sure she was the most senior. He made his way towards her, noticing she had nails rather than claws. She was a mortal?
Then she lowered her book, and he stumbled. Blue eyes set within a deeply tanned face seemed to bore into his soul. With a start, he realised they probably did. She was a mortal, likely from the Plains of Trenar by her appearance, and just three or four years older than his seventeen years.
“I’m not really sure you should be here.” She marked her place in the book, placed it on the table and stood. “You do understand where here is, don’t you?”
“Yeh, I know where I am. I’ve come to see my brother, and you ain’t gonna stop me.” He pointed at an opening ringed by flames on the far side of the chamber. “He’s through there.”
She lifted an eyebrow, a smile tugging at her lips. “I see. And might I have your name? I’m Saya.”
“Umm, I’m Spart, and my brother is called Hatharan.” Spart wasn’t sure what to do. She was just stood there, arms folded, with just a table separating them. “Umm, so will you take me to him?”
Saya grinned. “Well, I suppose I should be pleased you asked this time rather than demanded. I should really ask permission, but you’d likely just argue.” She leapt over the table and grasped his hand. “Come on then.”
Spart’s legs buckled, and he would have fallen if not for a steadying hand from Saya. As soon as she’d touched him, he felt the immense cauldron of power within her. “Y… you’re a goddess,” he whimpered.
“Well, no, I’m Gatekeeper, but let’s go and see Hatharan before someone tells my father.” Saya led Spart towards the flame-ringed opening. “And when we’re done, you can tell me how you come to be in Hell.”
“I… I died,” Spart said, more than a little overwhelmed. The Gatekeeper was subordinate only to the God of Hell.
“Well, yes, I gathered that but… Never mind, we can talk after you’ve seen Hatharan.” She smiled at Spart. “You look very much like him.”
“You know him? You’ve met Hatharan?” Spart asked. He glanced at her and blushed. A few inches shorter than his six feet two, blonde hair, almost white, framed a face far too pretty to be mortal.
“I know all those who’ve been brought to Hell, Hatharan included. He’s due for release shortly.” She pulled Spart forwards “Anyhow, we best be quick, because I’m sure Jasal has just gone to tell my father.”
“Your father?” Spart questioned, his mind focussed on Hatharan’s imminent release from Hell. They could buy a boat and go fishing, just like they’d talked about before he’d been harvested by Jalikra.
“Yes, Satalyin, but we can talk about my family later…” For a second time, she saved him from hitting the floor hard. “Hatharan’s nearby. This’ll be quite a shock for him,” she added, hoping to focus his addled mind.
Spart nodded. Saya was the God of Hell’s daughter. “Yeh, I…” He let her lead him along a vaulted stone corridor, floor worn smooth by countless feet over the millennia, and up two flights of stairs. “I reckon he’ll hardlies recognise me, cos I’m about a foot taller than last time he saw me.” That last time had been when Jalikra had taken Hatharan’s soul, and Spart had watched the life leave his brother’s eyes. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember just what he looked like.”
“Well, you’re about to get a reminder.” Hand still clutching Spart’s, Saya led him from the stairs and onto a short corridor with a door at either end. She nodded towards one, and it opened of its own accord. “Beyond the door are cells. Your brother is in the third one along on the left side. I’ll wait here.”
It was three steps to the open door, and Spart felt like he was wading through treacle. He reached it, clutched hold of the frame and peered into the short dark corridor beyond. On each wall were five stone doors, each set with a thick iron pull ring. He could sense Hatharan so clearly now, and yet he couldn’t move. The door to his cell was just a dozen paces away, but unwelcome memories surfaced of his brother returning to their camp late at night covered in blood and clutching a stolen coin purse.
“He’ll have changed from the Hatharan you remember,” Saya said, sensing Spart’s indecision. “Three years confronting the… the mistakes you made during your mortal years will do that to you.”
“Mortal years?” Spart repeated, a little confused. “I just dunno what I’m gonna say to him. It’s…”
“Just open the door, and the words will come, I promise. Plenty of others have visited relatives during my tenure, and most hesitate just as you do now.” She nodded in encouragement. “Go on, there’s nothing to fear.”
Feeling a little easier, Spart shuffled through the doorway until he was outside his brother’s cell. He wrapped his hand around the solid iron handle, and pulled.
The stone cell beyond was dark, granite walls smooth, and he could just make out a small table with pen and paper on it, a simple stool beside it. His brother was pushed up flat against the wall, staring at him. He looked unchanged in three years, even wearing the same clothes. “Hello brother,” Spart said, his voice thick with emotion. He couldn’t remember crossing the room, couldn’t remember clutching hold of Hatharan, but now he clung to him as if his life depended on it.
“I’m so sorry,” Hatharan whispered. “It’s not your fault you ended up here. You just followed down a path I led you, but I promise I’ll stay after I’m released and help you.”
“I ain’t been harvested,” Spart replied. “I was murdered nearby, and so came to see you…”
Hatharan laughed, took a step back and clutched hold of his brother’s shoulders. “I should have known it. So, you’re to be a demon. You brought the soul of your murdered here for justice.”
“No, I ain’t gonna be a demon either. I saw Jalikra, and she said she was gonna bring me here to see you, but then something bad happened and the other demon was killed by the necromancer who took my soul, and…”
And then he was being dragged out of the cell by Saya.
“Why didn’t you say something earlier,” Saya cried as she dragged him away with such speed Spart couldn’t keep his feet. “We have to see my father, and you must tell him all that happened.”
“I… I thought you would already know. I… I am sorry.” Spart felt dizzy as they tore down the stairs, everywhere a blur. She dragged him across the main chamber, demon’s leaping out of their way, and down a long well-lit vaulted stone corridor, towards a ten feet high obsidian door with two massive warrior demons stood outside. He called out on realising Saya had no intention of slowing down as she dragged him onwards.

====

Mystery or Misery.

Exposition never feels like an enjoyable read to me and, if there’s too much of it, I conclude the author started the tale in the wrong place. Thing is, I’m not sure some writers trust their readers enough to reveal the plot in an organic way. Perhaps they just don’t trust themselves enough to keep the reader in suspense.

 

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Suspense, chasing the rabbit, is a great way of keeping a reader turning the pages. But there’s a thin line between intrigue and confusion, and a bewildered reader is one who is very likely to surrender. As long as you leave them with something to cling onto, and lead them down a self-illuminating path, all is well. But leave them in a dark cave with no discernible exits, and they’ll make their way back to the real world, leaving your words unread.

 

Every reader is different and, as the primary reader of your own words, you’re a very poor judge. One thing I’ve taken to doing of recent is to try the opening chapter or two on a handful of new betas, the ones who’ve never read my work, and so have no reason to trust me. – Sifting through the feedback can be very painful as, particularly when using social media, many of the virgin betas are writers themselves, and a few of those will feel the urge to point out you don’t write like them. But it’s for you as the writer to make it clear what you want from these new readers. Were they confused? Did they feel the urge to read on, or was it more they lost the will to live? How would they see it improved?

 

Those opening pages are the ones that determine whether the reader is prepared to give you a chance. You can’t take liberties later, but you just may be cut a bit of slack if you dip a little for a chapter or two. But the opening salvo? – Get that wrong, and only your mother, your cat and your partner will read your words.

 

The Shaded Mountain

Opening to a novel I’d written in 2015, and have let gather dust since. Looking to improve it prior to submission, and your thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks in anticipation.

——–

Chapter 1

 

The day belonged to blood and death. Campfires bled smoky trails into the dawn sky where clouds drifted over the fertile flood plains of Mesopotamia. Across the Euphrates, the city of Dimal hid behind earthen walls that offered its inhabitants scant protection from the thirty thousand strong army camped half a mile away.

Queen Lacita pulled her cloak tighter, the sliver of sun clambering over the horizon yet to deliver on its promise of warmth. Dimal was a ripe fruit ready for the picking. Its people were soft, their comfortable existence built on the backs of those who lived outside the walls. Lacita beat a fist against her thigh as anger, a constant companion for a decade, surfaced once more. Dimal grew fat on the toils of those too weak to defend themselves, and offered them little in return.

Yet still Lacita struggled. Liberating towns and villages from marauders and bandits had marked her two thousand mile journey from the deserts of Eastern Africa, and precious few enemies now remained. Was she creating new foes just to fit her narrative? Were those cowering within the city guilty of anything beyond earning her disapproval?

Atop Dimal’s walls, guards paced nervously, their breath steaming in the chill morning air. They’d die this day, as would any who lifted knife or spear against her army. And yet the ones who should be held responsible, the rulers, would be spared. Yes, they’d be forced to denounce their heathen gods, but their comfort in this world would be assured. It was wrong.

A young king was Dimal’s token leader, but no one had ever seen him outside his palace. Priests were the city’s true rulers, and the king was as much a slave as those who scratched an existence outside the walls.

She wished she’d worn her heavy furs, wondering if her shudders were from more than just the cold. Years of constant warring had taken their toll and, although still young, her heart felt heavy and her soul weary. How many more would die today? How many of those would be children and the infirm?

Lacita smiled when she spotted General Hagas making his way up the sandy hill towards her. Sweat glistened off his dark skin as it always did before a battle, no matter how cold the day. He’d been her adviser in matters both military and beyond since she’d been a girl, appointing himself as a father figure long before she’d named him general. Had that really been eight years ago?

And she laughed on spotting her High Priestess, Mephalis, emerge from the camp and race after General Hagas. The pair were like an old married couple, always fearful Lacita would take the counsel of one without the other being present. She clapped when the General spotted Mephalis following and broke into a jog, a glint in his eye, and she considered whether to shout encouragement to one or both. Yes, the pair were her surrogate parents, although none could replace the real ones, whose slaughter had inspired her to rid the lands of both despot and bandit.

“Dear Hagas, you’re like a naughty child,” Lacita said when the General gained the hilltop, hands on knees as he sucked in air. “You realise Mephalis will be impossible all day now, don’t you?”

“The woman is always impossible, so I doubt I’ll notice,” General Hagas said, his words punctuated by deep breaths. He recovered enough to stand upright. “Anyhow, I’d thought it best to admonish you before she arrived.”

“Oh what’ve I done now?” Lacita asked.

“You’re stood atop a hill without guards in the heart of enemy territory when there’s enough scrub and brush around to conceal a dozen assassins,” Hagas replied. “One arrow, one spear, and the empire you’ve built these last few years would be undone in an instant.”

“Our victories have not been built on my shoulders alone,” Lacita insisted. “Should I fall, you would take my place.”

General Hagas glanced back down at Mephalis who was just starting the hill’s ascent, heavy robes hitched up round her knees and an anxious look on her face. “You’re wrong, my Queen.” He nodded at their camp where thirty thousand warriors prepared themselves for the coming battle. “They see me as a soldier, just like them. Yes, when we’re spilling blood it’s I who leads them. Yes, when we’re thanking the gods for granting us victory it’s Mephalis who leads them in prayer.” He rested a hand on Lacita’s young shoulder. “But it is you they fight for, not I. It is your name they whisper to the gods when they give praise for surviving the day. A general’s leadership will win you a battle, but only the love of a queen will hold an empire together.”

Mephalis stumbled onto the hilltop, and shuddered as Hagas whispered words into Lacita’s ear. “What crazy advice did this old fool offer you this time?” she asked, as she shuffled towards them, leaning heavily on her stick.

General Hagas shrugged. “By far the worst yet, dear Mephalis; I told her she should listen to her High Priestess more.”

Mephalis cracked him on the ankle with her stick, cackling when he yelped. “You’re an old fool Hagas, and should have been put out to pasture long since.” She patted his overlarge belly. “But perhaps not. You’d leave precious little grazing for the rest of the livestock.”

Something Hidden

2014

 

August 7th, 22:45 Atlanta Georgia

 

Heavy rain driven by strong wind did little to purge the alleyway of the smell of piss and decay. Perfect. She stepped through the doorway set near its entrance just as the middle-aged business man raced past, deeper into the alley, a briefcase clutched in one hand and bloodied knife in the other. A policeman followed moments later. Yes, just perfect.

The Sergeant looked in her direction and, just for a moment, she thought he might speak, but he shouldn’t have seen her. Couldn’t have. She followed a few paces behind, soft-soled boots noiseless on the cobbles as the Sergeant moved deeper into the alley. The one he pursued had rounded a corner now, but beyond it was a dead end.

In no hurry, she followed and, once again, he looked back over his shoulder, this time directly at her. She took a step back into the shadows and he turned away, back towards the murderer. He’d drawn his weapon. It wouldn’t be long now.

 

Sergeant Burnett shifted his gun to one hand, pulled out a torch and pointed it at a dumpster pushed up against the wall at the alley’s end. The man crouched beside it, briefcase held across his chest and carving knife still gripped in one hand. “Toss the weapon towards me, move into the open and lie face down on the ground.”

“Just kill him and get it over with,” the woman whispered from the darkness. Again the Sergeant looked around. There was no way he could have heard her.

“Drop the knife or I will fire!” Sergeant Burnett shouted. “Do it now!” He backed away as the businessman stumbled to his feet, sidestepping when he hurled the briefcase. Applying an ounce more pressure to the trigger, he said, “nobody needs to die today.”

“Oh yes they do,” the woman whispered.

“Who’s there?” Burnett shouted, swinging gun and torch towards the voice, illuminating blank wall.

The businessman surged forwards, treadless brogues finding little purchase on the slick cobbles. He slipped and stabbed at the air, five yards shy of the Sergeant.

Wary, and sure there was someone else in the alley, Burnett backed against the wall. “Last chance. Drop the weapon and lie face down.” One look in the man’s eye told he’d never surrender. He’d be justified in firing, but this wasn’t some punk dealing death without reason but a respected businessman. Or he had been until twenty minutes ago.

Burnett hopped backwards when the man scrambled towards him with murder in his eyes, and fury distorting his face. Bundling gun and torch into one hand, he pulled out his Taser and fired, praying it would disable the suspect. The man crumpled, bloodied weapon dropping from his hand.

“Oh you bloody idiot,” she hissed as the Sergeant kicked the knife away from the prone murderer. “Just bloody well kill him for both our sakes!”

Burnett looked up as he drove his knee into the murderer’s back, sending another high voltage surge through him. This time, he was sure he’d heard someone speak. “Who the fuck’s there?” Wary, he grabbed one of the man’s arms, slid a cuff over his wrist and then repeated the procedure with the second.

“You fool! You stupid bloody fool.” Lights illuminated the alleyway behind her while the Sergeant sought her out with his torch. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She backed into the shadows, feeling a small twinge of guilt. Well, almost.

“Warn me?” Burnett repeated, not sure he’d heard it or not. The cuffed man now bucked like a wild mustang beneath him, but at least backup had arrived.

And then somehow the suspect was free of his cuffs, his knife back in his hands and facing upwards. Impossible. Burnett fired twice and the man rattled out a final sigh as his lungs emptied. Damn. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the light off his colleagues’ torches. “I… I thought I had him, but he slipped his cuffs.”

“Drop your weapon, and step away from the body,” someone shouted.

Confused, Sergeant Burnett looked down at the huge hole in the back of the businessman’s head, fragments of bone shining bright in the morass of brain matter. He was still cuffed and his knife lay five yards away. How? Someone called his name. Someone shrieking for him to drop his gun. “There was a woman… She saw what happened. He slipped his cuffs… He was going to stab me.” He placed his gun beside the body and held his hands up. “You must have seen her…” And then he was dragged to one side, his face pushed into the cobbles, a knee on his neck.

“You executed him, you mad fucker,” someone said.

“Ain’t no one gonna speak for you this time, Burnett,” another voice said. “You’re going down.”

He was pulled to his feet and marched out of the alley, struggling against his restraints when he reached the corner. “Ask her. She saw everything. She’ll tell you what happened,” Burnett shouted, nodding at the shadows.

 

She stepped backwards, shuddering as Sergeant Burnett looked straight at her. Still, he was a problem she may never have to deal with, but the dead man was another matter. In minutes, the alley would be flooded with people, but she already knew all she needed. “This isn’t good,” she said. “Not good at all.” No one looked up. No one heard her, but she’d be taking a risk by staying longer. She walked back to the small metal door she’d entered by and, resting her hand on it, took a moment to watch the cuffed Sergeant being bundled into the back of a police cruiser. He was screaming now as the enormity of all that had happened sunk in. Then, just in the moment before he was pushed into the car, his eyes locked on hers. “Well, I did warn you,” she whispered.

Taking a final look around her, she tightened her grip on the door handle, hoping she’d never have to visit this shithole again. She pulled, but the door didn’t budge. An icy shiver slid down her back as she tugged harder but it still didn’t open. She was trapped here. They all were.

August 8th, 02:20

 

Burnett had stared through the bars a thousand times, but never from this side. Normally the duty sergeant would be the only one who’d walk the twenty pace corridor that paralleled the six cells. Normally. Then again, they didn’t often contain one of their own. There’d been a dozen sightseers in the last hour alone, and he could put a name to every one of them. After all, Captain Jeffries had insisted he be driven back to his own precinct. Bastard.

No matter how many times he went over events, they just wouldn’t make sense. The suspect had slipped his cuffs and would have stabbed him if he’d not fired. – He didn’t doubt this had happened. A moment later the cuffs had been back on and he’d been staring into a two-inch hole he’d blown in the back of the man’s head. – He was certain of that too. How he squared one certainty against the other was another matter.

So now he sat on a bunk in a cell. In a few hours he’d be taken before a judge, and he had no idea what he would say to him. What could he say?

But there’d been the woman. If only the bloody idiots had listened to him, they could have brought her in as a witness and he’d not be sat in a cell waiting for the next pair of colleagues to walk past. He could describe her to a tee if anyone had cared to listen. She’d come through the door at the head of the alley. He’d even had to step around it as he raced after the suspect. When he was being bundled into the back of the squad car, she’d been there again, staring at him with one hand on the door handle. All they had to do was fingerprint it and they’d ID her. She hadn’t been wearing gloves.

More footsteps sounded outside, and he lay back on his bunk, feigning sleep. They grew louder, falling silent right outside his cell. Through closed eyelids he pictured one of his colleagues with their phone pushed between the bars taking a little souvenir picture.

“If you’re really sleeping, then you’ve either ice in your veins or you’re guilty as charged.”

Burnett’s eyes flew open, and he even managed a half smile. “Fuck you Taylor. I’m just not gonna put on a show for the goons that come for a look-see.” He twisted around on his bed and faced the bars. “So, what’s the news?”

Sergeant Taylor ran a hand over his bald head. “Here, I brought you a coffee. I’d have slipped something stronger in it if I could.” He held his friend’s eye. “You’re not gonna like this…”

“Like what?” Burnett was on his feet, across the cell and grabbing hold of the bars with both hands, knuckles whitening. “What’s happened?”

“Well, forensics are still going over the crime scene, but there’s footage of you and the suspect entering the alley caught on a traffic cam. It’s clear as you like, but there ain’t no woman.”

“I told you, she came out of a doorway at the head of the alley,” Burnett said, voice strained. “No camera would have seen her unless it was looking straight down it. You’ll lift prints off the handle. Shit, I could describe her as good as I could my own mother, if anyone bothered to ask.”

“Yeh, well, forensics know to check out the door too, and the sketch artist will be coming in around nine. Captain never saw fit to wake them in the middle of the night. Thing is, Jeffries is one of those who thinks you just snapped. That door hadn’t been opened in a decade and more…”

“It was stood wide open when I chased the suspect into the alley,” Burnett interrupted. “I had to sidestep around it.”

“Bro, it was welded shut and…”

“This is B.S., all of it. Someone is fitting me up.” Burnett punched the only thing he could, an iron bar, and instantly regretted it.

“You need to listen up,” Taylor said, a note of urgency in his voice. “They got the door opened with crowbars, and the entrance was bricked over behind it.” He glanced down the corridor. “Jesus, I could get suspended just for telling you, but if you keep on claiming there was a woman who came through a welded door with a brick wall behind it, you’re gonna end up wearing a straitjacket with your own personal name tag on the back.” He leaned closer. “What happened tonight? I don’t buy it that you just snapped, but something happened. Something must have.”

Burnett stumbled back to his bed and sat down heavily. “This cannot be real. This is not happening.” He focussed on a stain on the concrete floor where a prisoner had attempted suicide just a week back by biting his own wrists. “I swear to God there was a woman. Tall, with shoulder length light brown hair and green eyes, perhaps one-ten maybe one-fifteen pounds. She was mid-twenties, covered in freckles and with a mouth that looked like she was puckering for a kiss. I…”

Taylor put the coffee down on the floor inside Burnett’s cell, held his hands up and backed towards the far wall of the corridor. “Bro, we got to end it here.” He glanced up at the security camera. “I dunno what happened tonight, but you’re in a shitpile, and it’s just growing deeper with every word you speak. I’m out.” Without a backward glance, he walked away.

Burnett ran back to the bars, heedless of the coffee he kicked over. “You know who she is, don’t you? You fucking well know,” he shouted. “Ask her. Ask her what happened tonight and look her in the eye when you do. She’ll tell you he slipped his cuffs. Listen Taylor, she spoke to me.”

Taylor, paused at the door that led from the cellblock. He didn’t look back, couldn’t look back. “She was the suspect’s secretary, the one he murdered. Stabbed her through both eyes and then carved someone’s initials into her stomach.” He lowered his voice, dropping it to the faintest of whispers. “Were you in on that too?” he asked.

August 8th, 07:15

 

“Wakey wakey,” Lieutenant O’Connor barked, running his truncheon along the cell bars. “Your brief’s here, but she’s just gonna have to wait until I’m done with you.” He shook his head, blue eyes staring in disbelief from behind thick-lensed glasses at Sergeant Burnett. “What happened last night Mark?”

It took Burnett a moment to claw his way out of dark dreams filled with spattered brains and dead women lurking in alleyways. He slid his legs off the bunk and did his best to focus on the Lieutenant. “I’m still trying to work that one out myself.” He scrubbed at his face, willing the lurid afterimages from his nightmare away. “How am I supposed to tell the judge a cuffed and unarmed man tried to stab me, and the only witness to it turns out to be the woman he’d already murdered.” He held the Lieutenant’s eye. “But I swear to God that’s exactly what happened. Either that, or the murder victim had a twin sister who can tear open a welded shut door and walk through a brick wall.”

“And a man, hands cuffed behind his back and lying on his face, trying to stab you?”

“There was a woman, that I don’t doubt, but…” Burnett leaned forwards and rested his palms on his forehead. “The suspect couldn’t have slipped his cuffs, and the knife was well out of reach. I had to have imagined it, but it seemed so real…” He nodded, replaying last night’s events over in his mind for the thousandth time. “She warned me. The woman said something about warning me. She wasn’t local, her accent I mean.”

“Well, that rules out the secretary then as she was born and bred in the city,” Lieutenant O’Connor said. “And since her next of kin is a male cousin, I’d say she was an only child.” He unlocked the cell door, walked in and sat beside Burnett. “Mark, I promised your mother I’d look out for you on the day you enrolled, but I just don’t know how I can help. Your second shot was captured on one of the lad’s bodycams and the suspect was cuffed, prone and unarmed. Tox on you came back clean too, and I kinda wish it hadn’t.”

“So you think I’m guilty?”

“Of course I bloody don’t, at least not of murder,” O’Connor snapped. “There has to be something you’re holding back because I don’t believe you’re insane either.”

“Just run the prints on the door handle,” Burnett said, calm voice belying the shrieks of despair rattling in his head. “I’m sane as the next man, but what I said happened did happen. What else can I tell the judge other than the truth?”

“There were no prints.”

“That’s not possible. She wasn’t wearing gloves…”

“Mark, there was no woman, there can’t have been,” O’Connor answered. “Think! There were twenty police officers in the alleyway when you were led out, and not one of them saw her. It’s less than three yards wide with no other exits and everyone had a flashlight. Most had bodycams too. You’ve got to give your brief something to work with because at the minute you’re either going down for first degree murder or life in a secure mental facility. Did the suspect say anything to you? Did he goad you?”

“Not you too, Lieutenant…”

“Now listen up, we’re both cops and we gotta deal with what’s in front of us,” O’Connor said, a note of urgency entering his ever calm voice. “I know you shot the guy in the back of the head while he was cuffed, so it’s safe to say you killed him. ‘The non-existent woman will confirm this,’ is not a valid defence. He didn’t slip his cuffs and there was no woman. These things are not in doubt…”

“But…’

“We’ve got seconds here before the Duty Sergeant comes in and, Lieutenant or otherwise, he’ll chew my ear off at the very least for being sat here talking with you. You’re meeting your brief next, and she’s gonna say the same thing. Give the judge a reason not to charge you with murder or you’re looking at life.”

“You’re telling me to lie?”

“I’m telling you to do yourself a favour.” O’Connor stood. “Now I’m supposed to be taking you to meet your lawyer, so just think hard on all I’ve said.”

Burnett nodded, but his mouth was filled with bile. “You’d best cuff me before you lead me out.” He said it far more harshly than he had meant. The lieutenant was telling him to lie.

 

Karen Ellis was stood in the corner of the interview room, back to the door, when he walked in. She was small and slender, but high heels and a wide shouldered jacket mitigated both. She glanced over her shoulder when Lieutenant O’Connor sat him down, but turned back away, phone pressed to her ear. After removing one cuff and securing it to a heavy steel loop set in the table, the Lieutenant withdrew, shutting the door behind him.

Burnett watched her rear much as he’d done when they’d been at high school together, although she’d been two years above him. Damn, that made her thirty now. She’d swapped ten-dollar Costcutter jeans for a two-thousand-dollar business suit. A state bursary for a quarter million annual salary, much of it paid by the Police Union. She turned back towards him and offered him a mechanical smile, green-grey eyes not really seeing him. There was still no ring on her wedding finger, although word around the station was she was dating some hot-shot who worked for the President.

“It’s a good job you didn’t sign this.”

It took Burnett a moment to realise she’d ended her call and was talking to him. In her hand she clutched the statement he’d made when they’d first brought him in last night. “Yeh, that’s not what happened,” his voice rose half an octave midway through speaking. Her eyebrows rose even further than that.

“Speak that way in front of the judge, and he’ll think you’re lying.” She pulled the chair out opposite him, this time her full focus on his face. “Are you?”

“Just shocked to be in this position. Numb, I guess.” He shifted in his chair as she continued to stare. “A lot of the detail came back to me while I was sleeping. It’s said an electric shock messes with your short-term memory.” Those eyebrows went up further, and one corner of her mouth went up too, just like it used to at school.

“Tasered yourself, did you?”

He dropped his eyes, wondering if she ever blinked. She sounded amused. “Yeh, I think I grabbed hold of the contacts when I was giving him another shot.”

She leaned back in her chair, apologising when her foot caught his. “So then you accidentally discharged your weapon into the back of his head. Twice.”

“Yes, no. I… I was confused, disorientated. It was raining and the wind was blowing shit about all over the place. Backup was arriving, and they were shining their torches all over and there were shadows everywhere. I thought one shadow was a woman, and then…” Burnett closed his eyes. He was lying, and she must know it. “…And then I thought he was free of his cuffs. The shadows… Anyhow I fired, thinking my life was in danger.”

“Good. That’s good.” Her smile was that of a teacher offering praise to a dumb student who’d solved the simplest of equations. “So how is it you described the woman the suspect is alleged to have murdered, claiming she was in the alley and spoke to you?”

Her foot hit his again and he flinched. “I… I said my memory was full of holes. I guess I must have heard someone back at the precinct describe her, and just kinda added it to the mess that was all I remembered of what happened.” She just sat there looking dubious. “Look, if I’d wanted to murder him, I could have gotten away with it as soon as I walked in the alley. He had a knife and he lunged for me, but I Tasered him instead. I’d have to be a fool to execute him the way it looks like.”

“And are you a fool?” Karen asked. “Did he say something while you had him in cuffs and you snapped? He was a bright guy, successful and likely a good manipulator of people. Did he goad you?”

Burnett gripped the steel loop which secured him to the table and leaned forwards. “Three years ago I apprehended the man who’d slit my mother’s throat. I was alone, he was armed and yet I took him into custody. He pushed me as far as any man can be pushed and I never considered breaking the law for even one second.” His hand cramped with how hard he gripped the steel bar. “I believe in justice, and it’s the reason I wear the uniform I do. Did. Sure as hell didn’t choose to be a cop for thirty k a year.”

She smiled. “You plead not guilty. With any luck you’ll walk free today and there’ll be no trial. You’ll be back in that uniform and earning your thirty k a year before my Aunty Grace can down a pint of bourbon.”

The shift in Karen’s attitude was so dramatic that Burnett just stared at her as if she were a different person. She even talked differently “So you believe me? You think the judge will?”

“They’re two very different questions. The judge will believe you, that’s for sure.”

“But you believe me, yes?” Burnett pressed.

She leaned forward, resting her chin on one hand. “No. You’re lying through your teeth, but you didn’t murder him, so all we’re doing is going about proving that in the best way we can. You good with that, yes?”

No, he was far from good with that. “Yes,” he said. “So what happens now?”

“You should know as well as me. We see the judge, and you enter your plea. Add nothing. I intend to argue that the case should be dismissed at the arraignment, and there’s a good chance that’ll be the end of it. Well, there will still be IA to deal with. If probed, just rephrase what you’ve already said. Add even one bit that we’ve not talked over here and the prosecution will be on you like a crowbar on a treasure chest.” She stood, reached across the table and patted his cheek. “I’ll be there, and more likely than not you’ll get some pretty easy bail conditions if the charges aren’t dropped there and then. You’ll do great so relax.” Without speaking further, she stood, banged on the door and walked out, the drum of her heels fading to silence in the long, tiled corridor.

August 8th, 10:27

 

With a little arm twisting by the Lieutenant, even the Captain had conceded it wouldn’t be good practice to send Burnett to court in a van with the other prisoners. Still, he was handcuffed and sat in the back of a police cruiser while looking out on a public he’d sworn to protect and serve almost six years ago.

He’d signed his statement and the prosecutors had decided there was enough direct evidence to charge him with murder even though they’d had less than two hours to consider the case. There wasn’t a cop at the precinct who hadn’t read a copy, and the atmosphere had thawed noticeably since last night. He wasn’t popular, he knew that, but if all but the most vocal of his opponents were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, the judge would too. He just wished he knew what had really happened last night.

“A bit more press than usually outside,” Officer Gideon said as he pulled the cruiser up outside the law courts. “I’d take you around the back, but the Captain said that would look bad on us all.”

Burnett peered out of the window and shuddered. He’d been to many arraignments over the years, and only in the high profile cases were there quite so many reporters and news crews with their video cameras. From the looks of it, every major network stood between him and the courthouse. “Reckon there must be someone else up before the magistrate they’re after seeing.”

Officer O’Malley, sat in the passenger seat beside Officer Gideon, shook his head. “Nah, it looks like they’re here for you,” he said as the press surged towards the car. “Should have brought a bit more backup. They’ve got us outnumbered. Shit, I hate the damned press.”

Burnett hardly heard. He’d spotted his lawyer atop the steps in front of the courthouse. The look on her face was about as far removed as could be from the confident one he’d seen just three hours ago. He lost sight of her as she fought her way towards the car with the help of two court security guards. In the front, both Officers were struggling to get their doors open, such was the throng surrounding the cruiser.

By the time the two officers had managed to get out of the car and around to Burnett’s door, Karen Ellis had her face pushed close to the glass. She grabbed the handle and struggled to pull it open as the court security guards, now four in number, made a little space around her with the aid of O’Malley and Gideon. She shoved her head inside the car. “Say nothing, keep your expression neutral and I’ll explain inside.”

Burnett nodded. But his stomach roiled like he’d swallowed a winter storm. With the aid of Gideon, he managed to scramble out of the car, his hands cuffed behind him. Cameras were shoved in his face, flashes all but blinding him as he half jogged towards the court building, ringed by his six minders, or seven if you included Karen who was shoving reporters out of the way every bit as hard as the rest of them. Although the shrieked questions overlapped, he heard the mayor’s name mentioned several times. Something had gone wrong, badly wrong, and he had the feeling he would be the one paying the price.

Once inside the court, things calmed a little. Karen led him towards an interview room, but her tight grip on his arm did nothing to ease his anxiety. “What’s happening?” he asked as she dragged him into the room and pushed the door shut in one of the security guards faces.

“I need two minutes alone with my client,” she shouted through the glazed door.

“It’s gone tits up, hasn’t it? I’ve not said a word to anyone since I signed the statement…”

“Shut up and listen,” she interrupted. “The man you shot was called Eric Sanderson, the mayor’s nephew. His only nephew. Word is he’ll settle for nothing less than the death penalty, but there’s no way that’s going to happen.”

“You said I’d walk free.”

“And I’ll do everything I can to make that happen. You are not a murderer.”

She gripped his arms so hard he wouldn’t have been surprised to find marks there later. “But you don’t think that’s gonna happen, do you?”

“The prosecution know that they’d fall flat on their faces if they pushed for the death penalty. This is only an arraignment, but I’m still going to push to have the case discharged.” She took a step backwards and slumped against the room’s single table. “The judge is the mayor’s golf buddy and has been dragged in from a day off, so there’s little chance he’ll dismiss it today, but I still have to try.”

“I’ll still get bail, won’t I, even if they force this to go to trial?” He couldn’t believe any of this was happening.

“The prosecution will object, and they’ll have the judges ear, but I will do what I can.”

“And your gut reaction?” He didn’t want to know it, and all the less when she flinched on being asked.

“You won’t make bail, but you’ll be on trial within the month.”

“But they’ll find me not guilty though, yes? I mean, the jury are the ones who’ll still decide.” Again she flinched. “What? What is it you’re not telling me?”

“The mayor wants your blood, all of it, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.” She ran a hand through her hair. “This is what I do, and I’m bloody good at it. Let’s just get today over with and take stock afterwards.” There was a knock on the door and a court official peered through the glazed panel, holding up his wrist and tapping the watch there. “Remember, say nothing outside of what we talked about.”

August 10th 06:07

 

“It was three days ago, on the seventh.” Sister Alina stared up at her tall blonde haired companion.  His clear blue eyes were set in a frown, but it did nothing to mar a face that was as beautiful as she’d ever seen.

“Now why would she be interested in a simple murder?” He pulled his heavy mac tighter around him, offering a smile to the young woman. Her face lit up in response. “And you’re certain she’s still here in the city?”

“Absolutely certain,” the nun replied. “What does it mean?”

“Well, I’m not sure and, even if I were, I doubt it’s any of my business,” he answered. “We tend not to tread on each other’s toes.” He walked deeper into the alley, the faint smell of blood and spattered brain still evident to his sensitive nostrils. “And the man who shot the murderer was called Mark Burnett, a policeman who, from all accounts, was one of the best they had.”

“Yes, the Mayor is trying to have him charged with murdering his nephew,” Alina said. “The judge on the case is a friend of his.”

“Did you see what happened, the shooting, I mean?”

“No, I was nearby, and heard the shots when I was about fifty yards away. There were lots of police then. I saw them leading Mark Burnett to one of the squad cars. He was shrieking to ‘ask her’ what had happened, but I never saw who he was talking about.” She clutched her hands in front of her. “Am I in danger?”

“From her?” He laughed, resting a hand on Alina’s shoulder and squeezing it gently. “You’d be in more danger from an elderly nun running amok at evening prayer. Now, on that note, I suggest you return before you get into trouble with Reverend Mother. Or should I say more trouble.”

“I have a good excuse,” Alina replied, backing away a step, but unwilling to take her eyes off him.

“Watch Mark Burnett, and I will contact you if necessary.” She made no move to leave. “Go,” he said, making a shooing motion with his hands. He shook his head when, with a final overfamiliar grin, she turned around and walked away, even daring a coy look over her shoulder before rounding the corner. Not really the kind of behaviour one expected of a nun.

Once she was out of sight, his smile slipped. Echoes of violence hung thick in the air, and that had nothing to do with the policeman’s recent actions. Something was changing and a storm loitered just beyond the horizon. Perhaps it would be best if he too were to stay for a while, and find out just why she had taken an interest in Mark Burnett.

Pulling his collar up and shoving his hands deep into his pockets, he shuddered despite the promised warmth of the approaching sunrise. What was she up to this time?

Self Taught Troubles.

A little while ago I tweeted about how first novels were invariably subpar, and yet the author would remain convinced it would leave the world in awe of their talent. A couple of people responded, pointing out that many writers have an objective eye from the off, aware of their work’s shortcomings.

And now, just perhaps, I understand a little better why.

When I first started writing, my biggest frustration was Word highlighting sections of prose, and I had no idea what to do about it. You see, I’d had a quarter century hiatus from formal education and all but the most basic of grammar knowledge had abandoned me. More than that, I didn’t understand the concepts of flabby prose or the more technical elements of pacing, speed of reveal and a myriad other devices that help authors relate a story in a benign fashion. I’d been convinced a ‘great story’ was all it took. How wrong I was…

So I’m not surprised how many people throw their first books at Amazon, and then spam social media to urge us all to buy a copy. Many are so awash with self-belief that they must feel they’re on a righteous crusade to browbeat us all into agreeing. This isn’t just an observation, it’s personal experience as I too was convinced I had a novel the world should read.

I was wrong. Yeh, I still believe my first story was fantastic, but it was so well hidden behind clunky sentences, bad grammar and bloated prose that it didn’t come across quite the way I imagined.

But a trained eye, someone with a formal education in literary matters, will be far less likely to experience the delusion the self-taught can face. Their first novels may not be good enough for publication, but they will be far better positioned to understand that. They won’t have to wrestle clunky sentences with their hands tied behind their backs and nor will they bat an eye over which grammar rules to break. What they will do is work a novel with a full toolbox, and the final result will be a lot ‘cleaner’ than the likes of I could ever have hoped to produce in those early days.

I’d give anything to have someone with such knowledge poke at my prose and, luckily, there are plenty out there who do just that.

They’re called literary agents.

That first novel…

Damn, what a feeling it was when I finished it. Months of early mornings, pouring my soul into a word processor. Watching the characters appear, forming lines, pages, chapters.

A novel.

I don’t think anything I’ve ever done gave the same sense of achievement and pride as when I wrote that final line and deemed my work complete. There was no talk of drafts or edits. There were no doubts: I’d written a best seller and, by the end of the year, I’d be doing chat shows and book signings.

Can you even begin to imagine my sense of shock when I sent it to an agent, and they rejected it? I was caught midway between fury and desolation. I mean, how could they fail to recognise just what a talent I was?

In the ‘old days’ there were no other options other than woo an agent or pay a fortune to a publisher to ‘vanity’ print copies of your novel and, being the old fashioned type, I’d chosen an agent. Chosen. Damn, there’s arrogance for you.

And then they said no.

I think it took about another year of writing several hours every day before I realised why they’d rejected me. – My novel was crap, and my prose immature. THANK GOD I didn’t self publish. I mean, it’s bad enough confronting your own ineptness in private. Just imagine how bad it would have been if I’d thrown it on Amazon and shown the entire world…

It’s the better part of five and half years since I first started writing, and I think I’m just starting to get the hang of it. I can laugh at the festering guff I used to create, and remember how pleased I was with myself at the time. Back in early 2011 I was checking the price of local stately homes, imagining I’d be putting a deposit down on one from my advance cheque.

Yeh, thank God I didn’t take my own counsel and self publish.

It was only recently I realised that the first ten novels I’d written were now consigned to the hazmat bin, and perhaps one or two of my most recent six may join them too. – I don’t lament saying farewell to a substandard novel, but I do make sure I understand just why it fell short, and hope I’ve learned enough to make the next one a little better.

It’s hard to learn from other people’s mistakes, as you don’t get to feel the pain they felt. I wish you could. How I wish I could take people five years from their first novel and let them look at it through more experienced eyes. I remember back in those early days of writing when I’d look down my nose at other wannabe novelists, sure I was floating on a cloud so far above them that they’d not see me. The truth is we all tend to feel that way in the early days. Ignorance is such bliss, but it’s a bubble each of us has to pop if we’re to find out just where we stand on the literary ladder. Without that knowledge, how do can we plan the route to real awesome rather than the imaginary one we teleport ourselves to?

I’ll be up tomorrow morning at 4:45am writing a couple of thousand more words that, perhaps, no one will ever get to read. Still, it’ll be a day closer to when I can write words that others will read and enjoy.

Yeh, it would have been the death of me if I’d self published five years ago. – I could see myself now still ringing social media’s bell and begging people to read it, but I’d make it feel more respectable by calling it marketing.

Instead I’m just writing and waiting for the day I’ve exorcised the last of the substandard words.

The Tallest Hurdle.

How do you react when someone offers up their thoughts on how you could write better? Do you feel the rush of adrenalin as the urge to defend the purity of your work consumes you? Do you feel the need to explain why you’re right, and they are wrong. If this strikes a chord with you, the chances are your prose is far less than it could be.

Some writers, from personal observation, are plagued by insecurity. Such as they tend to gather around them people prepared to praise and, with the help of such sycophancy, ward off any critique. Their insecurity condemns them to loiter at the bottom of the literary pile, finding excuses other than within their prose as to why their book sales are poor or why agents reject them. Oh, there are plenty of exceptional authors who also suffer the same issues, but they’re more considering and introspective in their reasoning. They listen to advice, and try to grow from it, understanding that the world of knowledge and wisdom does not begin and end with them.

And that’s why you need to listen to the ones who criticise and find fault. Such as they are the ones who will lead you to the tallest hurdle that every writer of merit must face: criticism. With their help, you will learn to clear it.

I speak from experience as, until four years ago, I’d growl at anyone who dared to grimace at my lumpy, misshapen prose. I still grimace when people shriek in pain at my words, but I’ve a pen and paper at hand too, jotting down everything they say.

Agent Bothering…

Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a trick with my paucity of submissions to agents. Although I’ve six novels completed, I’ve only sent three submissions for one of those six in the last year, while the others five gather dust. I see several people on my Twitter timeline who mention how many times they’ve submitted that day, totalling hundreds per year, and perhaps they’re the ones with the right idea.

But what happens if you exhaust every avenue before you’ve even reached an acceptable standard? I defy any unpublished writer to accurately gauge his or her own worth and, should they feel they are able, I think it is more likely that they would overestimate it. – I remember the heady days when I was surrounded by people telling me I was a literary god. In reality, my prose made Vogon poetry look appetising…

Do agents accept the same novel coming back at them, year after year, each version a little better than the prior one? I’m guessing they don’t have the time, and I’d worry about the machine-gun method anyhow. – Yes, I accept I’m likely being too reserved, perhaps too patient, but I also feel confident with my preferred approach. I can say ‘perhaps I don’t produce prose of a standard yet, but I know one day I will.’

So I’ll just keep on building a portfolio, periodically harassing some poor unsuspecting agent’s slush pile. I’ll accept the rejection as just another step towards what I hope will be a positive outcome. And, if the day ever comes when I am accepted, I promise I’ll be every bit as vocal as other writers who proclaim their own worth to anyone willing to listen.

I just struggle to shout about what I do until someone of note is willing to shout alongside me.

What a Difference a Year Makes…

A year ago, I wrote a synopsis for a novel and I remember just how overcome with pride I was on finishing it. It was the distilled essence of awesome, kissed by angels and blessed by the almighty. So who stole that little monument to literary excellence and replaced it with a dribble of puke?

I think it just underlines how, as a writer, I’m still improving. What a relief I’ve never published anything out of hubris, as the passage of time would have revealed it for what it truly was. Trash.

Our terms of reference as writers stop at the here and now. We can look at what we did a year or more ago and say ‘thank god I don’t write that kind of tripe anymore’, but will we say the same thing of our current writing, a year hence? I’ve no answers, for I’m still evolving, and perhaps always will be. Somewhere out there is a magical bar labelled ‘good enough’ and I’m just not sure how close I am to it. – I’ve betas aplenty who think I hurdled it long since, but I’m far more cautious.

Oh, I’ll send a couple of speculative sends to agents in the coming months, but I’ll just keep on writing. I’ve six novels written in the last couple of years that are somewhere in the ballpark, and around a dozen in the preceding years that would have readers clawing at their eyes.

So, please, take a moment if you’re considering self-publishing. Have a few people scan it who are prepared to tell you what you need to hear rather than just what you want to hear. – There’s little more restricting than people claiming you’re good when you are something far less. Writing well, like anything, comes with practice, and I very much doubt the first novel or two you create will be fit for public consumption.

I’ll leave this with an open invite for anyone who would like me to read the first few pages of their recently finished novel. – I swear I’ll be honest, but that’s not something every writer is ready for just yet. When you are, you’ll have taken a massive step along the literary road we all must walk if we wish for success.