I Had a Brain Once: 2013 365 Challenge #211

The notebook page for my Life Writing

The notebook page for my Life Writing

I was recently invited to read a collection of short stories by author Pat Elliott. Another blogger that I follow, Sally Jenkins, also has a collection of short stories that I read and reviewed earlier in the year.

I’ve never been a short-story writer. Followers of this blog will know that I tend to the verbose, and so keeping a story to 1000 or 2000 words is almost impossible. Only once did a story come fully-formed in my mind in short format. I wrote it to see if I could break into the impenetrable womags market and, when it failed to do so, I abandoned the idea (much as I did with my attempts to write Mills & Boon).*

However, reading these collections of short stories made me wonder if I had any stories from my time studying Creative Writing at the Open University that could be worked on, partly for editing practice, and partly as a project to slot in between publishing Baby Blues and Class Act. (Have I mentioned before my short attention span? Or how addictive publishing books can be?)

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

Sally Jenkins Short Story Collection

So I had a gander through my assignments and did find one or two stories that I was proud of. There’s a piece of life writing, too, although I recall that I gave it to my students, when I taught Creative Writing for a couple of terms, and they tore it to shreds, so I’m guessing that needs some work (I wish I’d thought to take notes on their critique!).

There’s also an issue with the life writing in that it talks about people I know, and not always in a positive way. I have to decide whether to cut those bits out, hope those people never read my stuff, or rewrite it as fiction.

I found a collection of five poems I wrote as my final assignment in my work folder – again life writing, but this time addressed to my father after his death. Does poetry sell? Could I include them in a collection of short stories? Should I scrap the whole idea as too commercial, and stick to novels, or is it good to show your versatility as a writer? Who knows.

The other thing I discovered, going through my old study notes, is how much I actually knew (or sounded like I knew) about writing. The notes that went with the poems for my final assignment said things like this:

I believe poetry should ‘happen between tongue and teeth’ [Dunn, CD2], and I write to that end.  I like to include alliteration and enjambment to move the poem forward.  When I read these poems out loud, some of the enjambment seemed to jar the rhythm.  However I decided I liked the effect, as it mimicked the suddenness of death and how it jolts the familiar. For example ‘Like hands they wave goodbye.’ and ‘Already they are dying’ (May, lines 8 and 16).

Pat Elliott's New Collection

Pat Elliott’s New Collection

And this –

Feedback highlighted some trochees that disturbed the rhythm, so I reworked those lines. It was also suggested that I change the many 11-beat lines, but I like feminine endings [Herbert, ‘Form’, 2006, p.240] and so left these in place.


Oh my, I used to know stuff. I had a brain, once, before it turned to fromage frais through lack of sleep. I enjoyed writing poetry, too, yet I never write it now. I doubt I would have the vocabulary for it, as the first thing that disappears when I haven’t slept is my command of the English Language. Still, it was a fun trip through memory lane, and add another line to my very long list of projects to do ‘one day’.

*Please don’t take from this that I’m a quitter: I know my forte is full-length novels, but there are bills to pay, so I have tried to find enthusiasm for the more commercial routes. I failed.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 


Sky skipped alongside Claire as they walked from the car to the theatre. Dark clouds gathered in Claire’s mind, the closer they got, despite the clear twilight sky. Claire looked up at the deep blue overhead. Thank God for small mercies. Even though the seats were covered, she knew the stage was in the open, and it wasn’t likely to improve Kim’s mood if she got drenched during the performance.

Eyes darting left and right, Claire followed the throng of people, trying not to be irritated by jostling picnic baskets and raucous laughter. The intention had been to bring a picnic and come early with Sky, but Jenny hadn’t returned her until six o’clock, by which time it was too late.

As it was, they’d only managed to find a parking space by grace of the Skoda’s narrow width, squeezing in between a Range Rover and a Lexus. The car looked ill at ease, as if intimidated by its neighbours. Claire had given it a pat, and vowed to be either the first or last to leave.

“Auntie Claire?”

Looking down, Claire realised her niece had been talking to her. “Sorry, darling, I didn’t catch that.”

“Will we see Jeff? You said your friend Kim is in the play, so will Jeff be here? I liked him, he was funny.”

Claire’s stomach plummeted to her feet. Crap. It hadn’t occurred to her that she might bump into anyone she knew, never mind Kim’s husband. She shivered. The word husband raised unwelcome images of the last time she had seen her friend.

“I guess so, poppet. We’ll keep an eye out for him.” And duck behind the nearest tree if we see him.

They took their seats and Claire arranged a blanket across Sky’s knees. The girl sat wide-eyed in the dark, taking in all the details of the stage beneath them, where painted scenery nestled amid real trees.

The performance began and Claire forgot to be anxious, as the unfolding story pulled her in. Glancing sideways at Sky, she wondered if her niece would manage to follow all the complicated language or if she would be bored. The girl sat forward in her chair, one hand on her chin, the other cupping her elbow in support. With her long golden hair around her shoulders she wouldn’t have looked out of place flitting between the trees with the Queen of the Fairies.

As Act I ended, Claire felt the tension tighten beneath her ribcage. It was a long time since she’d seen or read the play, but she was certain Puck came on in the second act. Her breathing shallow, she turned her face back to the stage in time to see a red-haired puck swing down from a tree to accost a fairy.

“How now, spirit! Whither wander you?”

The voice cut through Claire, and she realised for the first time that she hadn’t been sure Kim would be on the stage. Her friend’s words from what felt like eons ago came back to her. If the director finds out I’m pregnant, he’ll give the role to the understudy. Glad that Michael’s outburst hadn’t cost Kim her job, Claire settled back to enjoy her performance.

Their seats were about twenty rows from the stage. Far enough away that Claire felt able to watch without fearing that Kim would see her in the audience. She sensed a movement next to her, and felt Sky turn to face her.

“Look, Auntie Claire, there’s Kim!”

The girl’s whisper penetrated the auditorium, and was greeted with chuckles and a few whispered demands for silence. Claire’s heart thumped loudly as she added her request to her niece to be quiet. Returning her attention to the stage, she realised that Kim was looking directly at her, and the expression on her face was unmistakeable. Her eyes burned with a fury that stopped Claire’s heart.


21 thoughts on “I Had a Brain Once: 2013 365 Challenge #211

  1. I can’t write short stories either. My ‘shortest’ piece is 10k. 🙂 as for brains, apparently writing when tired is good for keeping the internal editor quiet. 🙂

  2. Short stories are difficult. I’m convinced it’s because we don’t see many examples of them in popular culture, so we don’t know how they work. Movies run for two hours. Television shows can run for years. Novels are hunky monsters. No story that we are easily exposed to can fit into the thimble-sized package of a short story. (I can’t write them either.)

    Also, you DID know your stuff. Your comments on your poetry were fun to read! I’d love to see what the poetry actually looked like.

    • That’s a really good point. I read dozens of children’s stories and the good ones stand out a mile. It’s hard to have beginning, middle, end, conlict, character development and all that in 200 words.
      Thanks RE the poetry, I always was good at academia! Maybe I’ll blog a poem or two from my course, be interesting to see how they’re received.

  3. I love short stories but I understood that they’re not marketable unless you are already a name or you subscribe to a format suitable for given magazines. I will now think again.
    I am enjoying your serialisation and feeling very fond of my daughter’s namesake.:)x

    • I don’t think there’s a fortune to be made writing short stories, any more than for novels, but there is a whole womag market, plus lots of competitions. One of the blogs I follow – http://blogaboutwriting.wordpress.com – writes about writing opportunities, competitions etc.
      I hope Claire doesn’t mind that her namesake is having a tough time at the moment!

      • I’ll check that out.
        If she’s anything like my Claire, she’ll face it like a lion, no prevarication. Or she’ll laugh about it and have everyone laughing with her.x

      • Fantastic traits to have! Nothing like me or my little girl (who I left sobbing at preschool this morning). I try to write strong characters or ones who can laugh and make the world laugh with them, but that’s so far from who I am I can’t seem to sustain it for long (see today’s post!). Luckily my son is that person. I just have to try not to crush him as I seem to have managed to do to my little girl…

      • I had PND so mine are used to seeing Mummy cry. I worry that’s why my little girl is so fragile. Here’s a question – told my daughter she could have ice cream if she went into preschool without crying, but she didn’t manage it. Do I still let her have ice cream? She’s 4.

      • I’m a sucker for making ‘promises’ that my kids hold me to. Even when I’ve only said ‘might’ they construe that as a promise. And it’s just not always possible to keep to the mights. I’m still making the same mistake, constantly. I think the thought out loud. That’s it. It’s a promise as far as they are concerned.

        Ice cream and 4 year olds and promises. Well. I would probably pick her up and say something like,
        ‘ Now listen, pet, you didn’t manage not to cry going into preschool today. I know it’s hard but I do want you to try. You are doing so well with other things/ tidying away toys/ listening to instructions/etc. So, as a special treat for all those things you have been really good at, I’m still taking you for ice cream. And maybe tomorrow you could try really hard again to be just as good at going into pre-school. You’re getting so good at so many things.’
        See? A sucker. And a loquacious one at that.
        Have an ice cream with her. You’ll feel so much better.x

      • Haha that’s me exactly. I always find ‘reasons’ to give in and go back on threats or allow myself to fulfil rash promises. There’s always a long-winded explanation which I convince myself means I’m not a pushover parent. Who am I kidding, right? Thank you for the advice!

      • The only problem with that is that they start thinking no never means no. And then I put them right. Just for the hell of it. Hardly fair, I know, but I never said I was an expert. It also has the distinct side advantage of honing their debating skills, while they attempt to change my mind. There’s a positive for you. :)x

      • Ironically it was little man who decided to test the No means no today. He went to bed hungry and I’m about to finish my wine and go to bed exhausted. My post will have to be written in the morning!

    • She won’t be so bad tomorrow, as nursery is much more familiar (and friendly): she’s only been going to preschool to help my son settle, because he starts in September. The irony being that he’s fine and she hates it!
      I think you deserve an ice cream for listening to my woes all day! 🙂

  4. Hi Writer/Mummy – just catching up on blogs after my holiday. I wanted to thank you for the ‘shout out’ and mention of my e-book. Personally, I find short stories more manageable than longer works. When I try to work towards a novel I run out of steam after about 20,000 words – but it’s probably due to a lack of planning!

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