Selkie

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The door slammed open in the force of the storm. The fisherman shrank away from his new bride, his retreat blocked by the invading tempest. She sat, demure, fragile; big seal eyes staring out from under long lashes.

‘I didn’t know,’ he moaned. ‘God help me.’

He watched the fur coat slough off her body like shedded skin, revealing naked flesh beneath. She held out a plaintive hand and barked, a seal’s bark.

He trembled, caught like a fish in a net. Her kiss was colder than the sea. It turned his blood to salt on his tongue.

 


 

This is another short I wrote for the 2018 Southam Flash Fiction Competition, which required stories to be under 100 words and to contain the prase ‘the door slammed’ somewhere in the work. I set myself an informal ‘folklore’ theme to tie my stories together. They were a lot of fun to write.

A friend told me that she laughed out loud at the selkie’s ‘bark’ in this piece though. Not quite the effect I was going for…

Exultation

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Rain gushed over ancient tiles, overflowed from dilapidated gutters, and dripped off the end of a cold, stone nose. A church congregation filed in under the cross-eyed gaze of the gargoyle.

The people were drab, in both colour and spirit. The door slammed, locking them in with their sins. Guilt should not be tangible, but the gargoyle tasted it in the rain.

It tasted anticipation, too.

An organ gasped geriatrically to life.

One by one, lonely voices joined into a growing chorus. The music swelled, and took a stone heart soaring upwards to heaven.

 


 

It strikes me that it must be rather lonely to be a gargoyle.

I wrote this as an entry to the 2018 Southam Flash Fiction Competition, which required stories to be under 100 words and contain the phrase ‘the door slammed’ somewhere in the work. I had a lot of fun with the theme and will share some of my other entries here as well.

 

Happy 2019, by the way. It’s good to be back.  😉

 

Crowdfunding the Written Word: Author Interview with Erinna Mettler

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Everything is awesome? Writers and publishers harness the power of the crowd

When writers consider publishing options there are two main routes that spring to mind: you either go traditional, or you go it alone. But the world of publishing isn’t as firmly divided as you might think. Among the host of options available to authors, crowdfunding is now one of them – and prospective publishers are beginning to take notice.

Unbound is one such publisher, and they’ve got a great twist on the crowdfunding trend. Like a traditional publishing house, you must first submit your book proposal for approval. If you are accepted, then the fun begins: you launch your crowdfunding campaign.

If you’re familiar with Kickstarter (and it seems most people are, these days) then you already have a good idea of what this entails. You pitch your book idea to potential readers and do your utmost to persuade them to pledge funds towards your book in return for rewards. Rewards usually include a digital or physical copy of the book, and the more creative authors offer things like exclusive artwork, manuscript tutelage – and in some cases a date with the author themselves!

If you manage to hit your target, Unbound step in to provide all the services you’d expect from a traditional publisher. Editing, graphic design, printing, distribution, and marketing is all covered by the Unbound team.

To find out more about this process I spoke with Erinna Mettler, an Unbound author who successfully met the crowdfunding target for her short story collection Fifteen Minutes, and is now in the editorial phase. She gives us an insight into her experiences so far:

  1. Erinna, why did you choose to publish with Unbound?
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Erinna Mettler, author of Starlings and Fifteen Minutes

It’s extremely hard to find an agent or a publisher in the UK for short stories unless you are already a known writer. It’s a great shame really but agents simply won’t look at new collections and most publishers aren’t that keen either. ‘Come back when you’ve written a novel’ (preferably a crime thriller – with ‘girl’ in the title!) is the way most queries get answered.

I was sick of trying to get an agent. I think that short fiction writers have to work a lot harder than other writers to get published. We’ll try anything.

A fellow author told me about Unbound. I had a look at their website and was sold in minutes. They have a promo video explaining the way they work and it says something like ‘authors write the books they want to write and readers get to read real books that in a crowded, celebrity-obsessed marketplace wouldn’t normally get to see the light of day.’ I sent my manuscript in immediately.”

  1. What was the toughest part of the process?

Getting the pledges was definitely the hardest part. It took four months in all and it was a full-time job – or at least every spare minute was spent in the pursuit of pledges. At the same time you have to be mindful of bugging people too much. It’s a fine balance. You spend a lot of time explaining what crowdfunding is and why you can’t just publish the book without it.

Family and friends are your first point of contact and for the most part they were very accommodating. The generosity is astounding, you get pledges from people you don’t expect – but then you also get no response from people you think will be right behind you. Some people say they’ll pledge and don’t.

You have to learn not to take it personally. I only had one very rude reply from someone who was on a professional mailing list, telling me off for begging and hoping the project failed; needless to say it just made me more determined to succeed. One of out a few hundred isn’t so bad.”

  1. How did you approach the challenge of reaching your funding target?

I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I have a lot of social media followers. I co-run The Brighton Prize for short stories and a spoken word group called Rattle Tales and we have a considerable mailing list. I’m also in a professional group in Brighton called The Beach Hut Writers. I’ve got a lot of contacts but after the second round of emails I was no-where near even half way, so I had to go all out.

I sent out press-releases and got on local radio and had a short film made about the project by Latest TV. I wrote articles for craft magazines and websites, did blog interviews, got short stories placed in literary journals. I called in any favour I could think of.

For me though, Twitter was the key. I’m a writing mentor and my biggest pledge options were for manuscript appraisals. A Twitter friend mentioned that I should be pushing these rather than the short story angle I’d been going for and after a day of constant tweeting I’d sold about £800 worth of mentoring. I carried on with what I’d been doing, but those big pledges are the ones that make the real difference to your percentages.”

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Middle tier rewards for Fifteen Minutes
  1. Does a writer need to already have a strong fan base in order to be successful with Unbound?

I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary but it helps. I had quite a good fan base but I still struggled, so if you are starting out from scratch it could be very soul destroying. My advice would be to start as soon as you can building a social media following, blog regularly, comment and converse, go to events, be bold.

  1. Fifteen Minutes is now in the editorial stage as Unbound prepares it for sale. What has it been like to work with Unbound through this process?

It has been an incredible editorial experience. They give you a lot of encouragement if you ask for it at the early stages of the funding but don’t expect them to do the work for you, this is about you being able to raise the funds. Once the funding target was met I had a couple of weeks to submit because the manuscript was as ready as I could make it.

It’s been edited 3 times now, each one more in depth than the other. I’ve had two editors look at it. I agreed with most of the suggestions but not all. It’s a collaboration and the book is a million times better than it was before the edit. We have cut whole stories and changed POVs and the order is completely different. The book is at proof reading stage now but I haven’t seen any cover designs and I don’t know when it will be released yet.”

  1. Your first book Starlings was produced by indie publisher Revenge Ink. Crowdfunding aside, how has your experience of publishing with Unbound differed, if at all?
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Starlings was published in paperback by small press Revenge Ink (image credit)

There’s not that much difference: both are indie publishers and both had a subversive take on publishing, their aims being to push boundaries and publish books that otherwise wouldn’t be.

In both cases things moved very fast. With big companies it takes over two years to get the book out, whereas both of mine will have taken less than a year. You need to be prepared – one minute you’re waiting for emails and the next your book is coming out next week.

The edit was less stringent for Starlings and Revenge Ink had very little money for publicity. I was so new to it all then: now I know that to make it work I’ll have to be responsible for my own marketing. Unless you are already a big name, most authors have to undertake their own marketing as budgets for new authors are almost non-existent.

I had a strong relationship with Amita, the MD of Revenge Ink, and she was nothing but supportive. The Unbound team are all very enthusiastic and really help you move forward with the project. I’m hoping the book will get a little bit more publicity this time.”

  1. In the race to gain pledges, you’ve essentially done all of the sales work so far. How will Unbound help sell your book after publishing?

Fifteen Minutes is an e-book so I’m currently teaching myself how to market an e-book. I have to wait until there’s a review copy available to send out to reviewers, journals, radio stations. It’s the usual dive-in strategy. There will be paperback copies available for events and signings. I’m hoping Unbound can help with contacts that might get the book seen.”

  1. Is there a community of loyal Unbound readers? People who look out specifically for new and interesting Unbound projects, in the same way Kickstarter has a strong base of funders who are very attached to the platform itself?

I went to the Unbound birthday party in November and they had invited their top pledgers to come along and meet their authors. It was great talking to them; they are completely committed to this kind of publishing. If you look in the back of the books the same names do keep coming up. Some people will only be drawn to the author they know, but I think more and more are going to be drawn to the crowdfunding concept and to the idea that this will be the place where interesting books are distributed from.

If you mention Unbound to anyone in publishing the praise is almost universal. The company is only five years old so it’s early days, but their sales are increasing year on year.”


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Fifteen Minutes by Erinna Mettler is a collection of short stories about fame and how it affects ordinary people.

Often the famous have only a bit part in the tale of an ordinary individual, existing just outside the action but still influencing the outcome. From the story of a tramp in New York on the day John Lennon was shot, to a doctor remembering a childhood visit to a Muhammad Ali fight, and a woman’s obsession with Harry Potter following the death of a child. The collection is experimental, cinematic, moving and always thought provoking. You can support Erinna’s book by making a pledge through her Unbound page.

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Sepia (Flash Fiction)

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Sepia

From the yellowed pages of a leather bound journal, I stare outwards with unbridled, ugly jealousy. On a cold November day I was captured, unwilling; immortalised in the shutter click of a camera. Frozen between pages, between seconds, and left to gather dust.

Now, fifty years on, she is still living my life outside the photo album, while I, in my sepia prison, must endure the grubby caress of her grandchildren.


If you enjoy writing prompts, post your own story on the theme of Photographs in the comments! 100 words or less 😉

The Nip-Slip (Flash Fiction)

The shame was the worst of it. The tangible odour of disgrace. As if the searing, spiky, red-hot rod of embarrassment lancing through my chest wasn’t enough.
It’s downright scandalous. The whole world saw, I just know. They all saw me in my moment of weakness, bare, uncovered, like a primitive. No doubt they’re talking about it now; I can feel their little barbed words piercing the air around me.
“How could anyone be so careless?” they’ll say. “Clearly an attention-whore,” they’d conclude. “Absolutely disgusting.”
They’d be right. It was disgusting. Lewd. The lowest point of depravity. And what’s worse, it happened at the seaside. Where children could see it.
I could have prevented it. If only I hadn’t left the top buttons of my shirt undone, if only the air hadn’t been so humid, if only it hadn’t been such perfect holiday sunshine weather – this whole ghastly affair could have been avoided!
But no. All it takes is for the fabric to catch on one unfortunately placed nail, to tear, to rip, to reveal to the entire beach of innocent holiday-makers the monstrosity that lies beneath.
A nipple.
My nipple.
Exposed, defiant, and without justification. Resplendent in its pink aereolic glory. Alas, the light dusting of sand did nothing to hide my shame.
I covered it as quick as I could, of course. We all would. My hand slapped straight to my chest. I swear I felt the blood drain from my cheeks in pure horror, while simultaneously rushing to them in abject humiliation.
The damage was done. No one would ever look at me the same way again.
You’d think that a nipple shouldn’t be something to write home about. I mean, we all have them. We all know what they look like. They are pink little protruding bobbles in our skin. They don’t smell, they don’t make a noise: in many ways they are really quite innocuous. But seeing a foreign one always causes us to stare.
To say, ‘I know what your nipples look like,’ is somehow incredibly, inexplicably invasive.
I take a long, deep breath. I can get over this. It was just a minor slip. I don’t have to let it ruin my life; I don’t have to let people judge me like that.
As I carefully fix my shirt, my wife turns to me.
“Stop worrying, Dave,” she says with exasperation, and shakes the water from her hair. “No one’s looking at you.”
She sighs a small, private sigh, and then self-consciously tugs the towel tighter around her bikini-clad body.

Sieg oder Tod: Victory or Death

The world is full of thunder, though there isn’t a rain cloud in sight. You see the cannons before you hear them: a silent plume of fire and smoke, followed by the booming shock wave that sweeps across the battlefield, travels up my legs and rattles the shako on my head.
Behind us, our own guns return fire.
Boom.
One of the Korporals has delighted in telling me, over and over, “Y’don’t see a battle. Y’hear it.” A sentiment which I understand to have originated from an officer of the 95th. And now I understand what it means. The white smoke drifts across the field like a thick fog. It passes in font of our battalion and for solid minutes we cannot see more than six feet ahead, let alone the French soldiers lined up on their ridge.
“Here comes Nosey!” shouts our Feldwebel. We turn smartly and stand to attention as Wellington rides by. Rumour has it that Bony was sighted holding afternoon tea on the other side of the field. Will we catch a glimpse of him before the day is out? He’s out there somewhere, hiding in those lines of French. Over two thousand of them, all lined up on their ridge, and us on ours, and all the while our guns are firing.
When the smoke thins there is no longer a line, but a column of French, at least ten ranks deep and advancing towards us in marching step.
Our boys ready their muskets and the order to fire is given. The sound is a crack through the air, and it cascades down the line in a rolling surge of smoke and flame. Another volley is called. Crack. Another, and another, and still the cannons boom behind us, and still the French advance.
The smoke thickens again – I am surprised to find it smells heavily of eggs. It clings to my throat, makes the very air feel heavy and grey. High above, fantastic smoke rings curl lazily against the sky, while on the ground the clouds crawl sluggishly around us.
And out of the clouds come the French.
“Fix bayonets!” comes the desperate call.
The lines clash in a riot of colour and noise and metal. French blue against the black of the Brunswickers to the right, and against the reds and greens of the Highlanders holding firm on the left.
We hang back with the supply wagon, distanced from the fray but hardly out of it. I risk a glance to my right. The same scenes are being played out as the battlefield stretches on, blocks of red fending off blocks of blue, cavalry diving in and out of the melee. The farms of La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont are surrounded; my prayers go to the boys inside.
A shout and sudden chaos: a French horseman has broken through the line and advances towards us, alone. Is he insane?
I dive behind the cart – I am unarmed, but what French would care? Our bodyguard hastily draw their swords and surround us. The horseman isn’t mad after all; perhaps he’s just now realised he’s left his company behind. He turns tail and breaks back through to his own men.
The lines have separated now, the French retreat. Our volleys go into their backs. It’s time to advance.
I’m in position by one of the limbs of the cart, braced and ready. “Auf!” is the command I’m waiting for. We hoist up the cart and drag it forwards, ploughing through the waist-deep grass. It is like wading through prickly mud. Ahead, the army leaves a trampled void of flattened stalks where it passes. It will be easier through there.
At least, it is easier until we reach the bottom of our hill; now we start the climb up the next ridge.
“Halt!” shouts the Feldwebel. He is panting, and so are we. The black uniforms are hot and heavy, and the cloying smoke is still in my lungs. It’s nauseating. As I take a swig from my canteen, I spy the surgeon running towards us. His apron is bloody, and he holds an armful of empty canteens.
We can barely hear him over the roar of the guns, but his mouth frames the word: “Water.” We work as fast as we can, hauling the great jugs off the cart and refilling canteens as fast as possible. Any moment now we’ll be called to advance again, and we can’t afford to be left behind.
There is an almighty crack right beside us, and for just a second the world goes eerily silent save for the ringing tone in my left ear. As sound filters back I spy the culprit, a rifleman dealing with a misfire behind the lines. My muscles relax where they had tensed for flight.
As the surgeon withdraws, he is replaced by a lanky Brunswick Jäger. He doesn’t bother to salute, just opens his cartridge pouch and says with a grin, “Ammo please!” This is a job for the Quartermaster General – even with all that gold braid weighing him down, he’s a practical man to have on the field – the strongbox is unlocked, the black powder cartridges rapidly unloaded, and the Jäger sent on his way.
No sooner has he disappeared into the smoke another officer approaches. We have orders to resupply the Gordon Highlanders to our front and the 42nd to our left. Our relatively quiet corner of the battlefield is suddenly a squall of activity: we can’t pour water fast enough nor assign cartridges with enough speed. We hear that some of the men are completely out of ammunition. We can’t keep up!
And suddenly we are advancing again. With aching muscles we haul ourselves and our cargo up the slope, manoeuvring around bodies of French dead. It is chilling to think that I am walking across a graveyard. The sky overhead has turned an ugly grey.
Peering ahead, I can see a column of French backing away, huddled in on itself, harassed by cavalry and gradually being swallowed by the Highlanders. The Brunswickers advance on, over the ridge and to victory. The French are fleeing.
Our Brunswick motto rings in my ears: Nunquam Retrorsum. Sieg oder Tod.
Never Retreat. Victory or Death.
I look back, and see that we have walked a quarter of a mile from where we began. La Haye Saint lies in ruins; Hougoumont a burning wreck.
I cast my eye over the assembled dead. One of the bodies sits up, and takes a photograph.
The smoke is clearing, the booms and cracks have died away, save for the occasional puff of smoke as someone rids their gun of its last charge. We are approached by a group of weary French soldiers – Imperial Guard, I think – they wear ecstatic grins where terrified faces should be. We offer them some water: it is a long march back to camp, after all.
Bonaparte himself walks by us.
“They’ve left me behind!” he says, comically.
The night is drawing in by the time we leave the battlefield. I won’t reach my tent until midnight, and when I do I shall hit my pillow and sleep like the dead until dawn.
And then tomorrow night, we shall do this all over again.


And that, folks, is how I spent my holiday in Belgium – the reason I postponed the next Hansard episode. If you missed the news, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, portrayed with around 5000 re-enactors – I’m telling you, it was huge. I didn’t even have to exaggerate most of what is written above. The only real embellishments are the burning of Hougoumont (which happened in real life, but not during this re-enactment) and the order that some of the stuff happens in. It was loud, it was at times terrifying, and it was also awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Photo reproduced with kind permission of Moritz Brehmer
Impressive and intimidating volleys. I’m one of the small blobs of black next to the bright blue cart on the far right, just behind the line. Photo reproduced with kind permission of Moritz Brehmer.

The sheer sense of chaos is what I will treasure most. There were moments when my commanding officers were practically screaming at us to run into the middle of a square of Allied soldiers because French cavalry appeared to be flanking – because if there’s anything that a small, undefended unit dragging a cart don’t want to face, it’s any kind of cavalry. It was genuinely hard work, but it’s an experience I want to keep logged in my brain in as much detail as possible for future reference. As I was breathing in that strangely egg-flavoured black powder smoke, there was a big portion of my mind thinking, ‘I’ve got to remember how this feels so that if I ever want to write about a big battle with guns I know how to write it . . .

In the thick of it. French advance on the Highlanders while we guard the supply cart just behind. Photo reproduced with kind permission of Jim Moore.
In the thick of it. French advance on the Highlanders while we guard the supply cart just behind. Photo reproduced with kind permission of Jim Moore.

But although that’s the closest I will ever come to experiencing what a real battle might feel like, I am very aware of how vanilla our experiences were – we were spared the gore and the shrieks of pain and the wreckage of a landscape. Most people were wearing a great big grin, like they couldn’t believe they were really there. I couldn’t believe I was really there.

And I couldn’t believe how many people died here, two hundred years ago. I looked out at the massed ranks of both Allied and French soldiers spread out before me, and knocked sections of them down in my head. Boom. You’re dead. Boom. You’re dead.

And at one point I realised: there are only about 5000 of us here. The historic battle suffered over 40,000 dead. I looked at this field filled with people and saw them all littering the ground; every one of us would be dead men. I’m not a praying kind of gal, but I gave my own private homage to the fallen. And of course there was the laying of wreaths and singing of hymns and other little rituals done by each regiment. I’m sure every individual had some little ritual of their own.

I don’t know what those soldiers would have thought of us here in the future, play-acting at what was probably the worst event in their lives. Grim thoughts like that can spoil this hobby, if you let them. The important thing is to temper our fun with respect, and to temper the spectacle with compassion.

Nunquam Retrorsum.

Sieg oder Tod.

Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Pauline Wilmotte.
Brunswick shako hanging on the surgeon’s tent. Photo reproduced with the kind permission of Pauline Wilmotte.