Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sometimes you just WONDER

Sometimes if you look up self-published titles on Amazon you may well see 5-Star reviews

I looked at one title today and it had received 4 reviews

For one random title, a sort of 50-Shades kinda thing, I found:

DC gave 5 Stars. His/Her only review ever

Liz McO'Quin gave 5 stars. 2 reviews ever, both 5 stars

Tanya gave 5 stars. Ten reviews given, all 5 stars

Celtic Minx gave 3 stars. Her only review ever

Now it's not that I'm suspicious or anything...

Go Ahead, Self-Publish

Amazon has millions of digital titles and self-published digital titles, but we should distinguish these between the various types.

I have been asked more than once (since I bought the rights back) why I don't put my five crime novels on Kindle, the iPad etc

A number of authors are publishing their back-lists. You can call that "self-publishing" if you like, but the kind of self-publishing I'm referring to from now on is Joe or Jenny who bangs out a manuscript, doesn't bother with that "elitist" traditional publishing market. and does it "herself".

I use Amazon's "Look Inside" feature every day to see the standards of randomly spotted SP titles.

Almost invariably they are poor. Most are ABYSMAL. Maybe 5% are "possibles" but need a good edit and a lot of work.

My estimate of half-decent NEWBIE SP work is 1% or less.

I actually think it's a tenth or a hundredth of that.

But this post isn't about whether or not there's good fiction on Kindle Direct Publishing.

It isn't about whether there are POTENTIALLY good stories out there.

Instead I want to talk a few basics.


Most reporters lament the quality of the average SP'd Kindle title. The characters are 2D or wooden, the language is trite and cliche-ridden, the plots weak, dialogue silly, horrible speech tags etc.

Now, via the traditional route a tremendously high percentage of those manuscripts are rejected. Yes, some shit gets through, but IN GENERAL a trad-pubbed book is better.


It was vetted. Read by a first-line reader or an agent.

It was then vetted by a prospective editor (really the book's producer.)

Edits are then made under instruction.

The MS is re-submitted.

The book then gets a second, often a third edit.

The book is COPY-edited.

The book is checked by the lawyers

The publisher designs a cover using professionals and using their market knowledge

Now this means that the finished product will be far, far better than that first submission.

NOW. Self-Publishing

Either you do it as professionally or your work will be inferior.

That is a guaranteed FACT

So, "out there" loads of people are lined up to take your money. The chances that they are as good as seasoned pros in trad publishing are small, but, just for the moment, let's pretend they are.

Let's use the list above and put some costs alongside.

I went on the web this morning and tried a few sites. What I'm posting are middle-order figures based on 100,000 words.

£0,368 It was vetted. Read by a first-line reader or an agent.

£0,000 It was then vetted by a prospective editor (really the book's producer.)

£0,963 Edits are then made under instruction.

£0,000 The MS is re-submitted.

£0,811 The book then gets a second, often a third edit.

£1,500 The book is COPY-edited.

£0,500 The book is checked by the lawyers

£0,500 The publisher designs a cover using professionals and using their market knowledge

£4,641 Total

This is by no means the most expensive and you will note that I took OUT some trad-pub stages.

Suffice to say, using slightly suspect "editors" you can very easily spend FIVE GRAND (£) to only get two-thirds of the way to the trad-pubbed norm.

I'm sure you can find cheaper, but there's a reason they are cheap!!


Now, remember, when I "only" got paid £3,500 for my first three books, that was real money in my hand. I didn't have to pay OUT a bean.

I also had (you would have) the services of the company who spend THEIR money sending out review copies to the press (who won't look at KDP)

They also talk to foreign subsidiaries.

So my publisher got me a US deal for Cuckoo. $4,000 dollar bonus
Then a deal in China, another $4,000

Remember this is a "small" book, a newbie, not even mid-list.

So I would have SPENT £5,000. 

Instead I RECEIVED £10,000

I got reviews.
I got TV and Radio.
There were publisher's parties, parties in book-stores, interviews in the press.
I made overseas contacts.
My book was put up for a prize and made the last six.
I got to talk at conferences

THEY organised this.

They paid the postage, made the calls, used their contacts.

And they had someone scouring every newspaper for mentions of the book or reviews.

Public Lending Right

And my books (almost a thousand hardbacks) went into public libraries and people borrowed them, and every time they did I got 6p or 7p.

A pittance? In 20 years that has earned me more than £10,000, probably nearer £15-20,000.

It peaked at £1,500 a year and gradually dropped.

I still get, long after the books went out of print, something like £100 or £50.

Many authors get £6,000 p.a. (the current maximum)

I repeat, I'm a low-end mid-list author.

Let's be conservative and ignore TV rights which have added to my income.

Let's say I "ONLY" earned £13,000 per book.

Now remember, to make a poor copy of a traditionally-pubbed book will cost you £5,000, so you need to make £18,000 to catch up (and there are almost certainly no TV deals)

If you give away your books, if you sell your SP title for £1 and earn 30% or sell for £3 and earn 70% you have to sell 9,000 at best to 54,000 at worst to reach the lowly standard of income I achieved.

Pick a middle figure of 30,000

The average SP Kindle title sells 150.

Let me repeat that  - ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY copies.

Of course you can skimp on the assessment, the first edit, the second edit, the third edit, the copy-edit, the legal checks. You can cobble together an appalling cover for ten quid. You can do the type-setting yourself...

Which is why there is so much absolute JUNK out there.

Bloody Show Not Bleeding Tell!

Elsewhere on the web I have been locked in an interminable argument which began when someone (a classic not-yet-been-published-writer decided to argue that the advice Show-not-Tell was an overused "trope", a "rule" and "rules-were-made-to-be-broken, blah-blah-blah.

My God, the number of failed students
(these types virtually always fail)
who want to break rules when they don't even understand them...

First, it ISN'T a rule.

It's the condensing of good advice from thousands of excellent practitioners, unfortunately into a trotted-out, oft-misunderstood, sound-byte.

The trouble is, for every person who says, "Show-Don't-Tell" I think no more than a third actually, really, truly, understand what it is

That's why I term the dichotomy "Seduction not Instruction"

It's a DIFFICULT subject, as is Theme or Premise.

Why do people think a teacher can blurt out in a minute. "Here, do this," and suddenly all her students will have "got it"?


It's subtle. It's not always obvious.

Exciting challenge?

Your cottage one day with a marvellous view?

Or just a dump, a symbol of rural decay?

Unfortunately, there are a few simplistic explanations of show-tell around, delivered by X, regurgitated by Y without thought. "Don't SAY, He was angry, SHOW ME he's angry. Show me the clenched fist, the red face, the raised voice blah-de-blah-de-blah.

In fact the classic angry-show, so cliched, calls attention like the worst of tell. It just looks amateurish. It's become stock and obvious and the mark, very often of a raw beginner.

X & Y mentioned above? I don't think they understand the problem.

I know, when starting out, I didn't REALLY get Show-Tell for YEARS. I kinda thought I did (that damn show-me-he's-angry thing again) but beyond that I just didn't internalise it.

So I wrote turgid, telly work.

I remember reading James Frey (not the million pieces James Frey but an earlier one) and in his book

How to Write a Damn Good Novel (Volume 1)

He wrote about one scene, mentioned in my "Seduction" article where, rather than TELL the reader that the Korean War Sergeant was callous he had him say, when asked what he was doing

"Jest eating chocolate and killing gooks."

I think that was the first time I even had a GLIMMER of the concept, and I'd started writing 30 years earlier, got serious two years earlier. (My apologies to anyone who had to suffer my early stuff!)

So, before I forget - if you are reading this, why not post to me what you think this means. Don't mention anger or angry. Don't mention sad or upset. Find some other hidden meaning or revealed emotion, and if you can show the same scene done badly, then the scene which EVOKES EMOTION through what is IMPLIED.

Over there, where the skin of my forehead is on many a brick wall, I've suggested reading Hemingway's "Hills With White Elephants" for a masterful exercise in the way not-telling causes a story to swell up with power, to resonate.

I also recommend Ernie's story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"  It's ostensibly about cowardice and refound guts but is much deeper, about sexual politics, sexual power.

Hemmers famously used his ICEBERG analogy, arguing that the writer needs to know about the iceberg but only talk about a couple of per-cent, the bit above the water.

The power, the weight, the "thing-ness" that-which-resonates comes from the awesome-underneath, the unsaid, the unseen.


Here is an exercise I give students. Remember this one, Sylvia? The Caravan?

A teacher can use a photograph or we can just say "imagine a yard outside the ranch-house". The specifics aren't important as long as we all have the same basic scene.

A photograph is best as everybody has the same starting point.

Students have to write a narrative, a man, or a woman coming out of the house, seeing the barn, chickens whatever, walking around, picking up a bucket, blah-blah.

From the perspective of NOW, without the extra I'm about to give you, the various things the man or woman does are "nothings". They are just butt-scratching, mundane, not-the-point-of-the-story.


They would be pointless, wasteful, distracting if there wasn't a hidden message

The extra I am now going to give you is that the person walking round the yard has just received a communication, a telegram, a phone call, seen a news-flash, whatever.

Each student has been given a DIFFERENT message and the message is SECRET.

Student A's message is that the man's son has been killed in action

Student B's message is that his kidnapped daughter has been found safe and well.

Student' C's message is that he DOESN'T have Cancer

Student D's message is the opposite. It's cancer, 3 months to live.

Student E? It's a man but his WIFE has cancer

Student F? It's a man and his wife has been given the all clear.

Student G. Has just heard his "dead" GI son is alive and well and coming home.

These are a bit similar, but you can design your own "secret".

It's cool to actually create telegrams and have the students draw one from a hat.

Now THINK. Think of the PATHETIC FALLACY, the idea that when your partner has just left you it RAINS and RAINS. (Well of course it does, God is out to get you.)

If you have just received terrible news, chances are you will see the dull, the bad, the poor, as you step outside. Your walk will ache, maybe you'll be slower, feel the bad knee. You'll see the DECAY, the dust. The chickens will annoy you. You'll wonder why the fuck did you ever think it was a good idea to build a farm?

But if you have received GREAT news, your step will be stronger, the light will be lighter, the old farm buildings will exude warmth, solidity, the wholesome aura of family and so on.

OK, so here is the deal. WITHOUT any reference to the contents of the telegram, can you, SOLELY from the way Tom sees his yard MAKE ME SENSE that the telegram is bad (or good)?

Can you maybe make me sense, not just the goodness or badness but something of the telegram's specifics?

Is she lonely? Is she happy or sad? Is she meeting a lover?

Now remember that the above is an exercise in, first off, "creating the ambience of"

Loss. Re-found Hope. Pride. Unbearable Pain. Wonder.

One of these.

A good writer, without ever slipping up or sneaking in words like "death", "decay", "loss" etc can just make us FEEL that something is wrong.

The farmer is just picking up buckets or fixing a fence. We are NOT describing the telegram, and yet what is in the telegram somehow PERVADES the scene, PERVADES the descriptions.

Now THAT is show.

Now imagine that we - the writers - now DO leak the contents of the telegram.

The reader has been steered, seduced, set up to believe the contents.

The bare words merely confirm what we already guessed. We might not know we have been manipulated but we were, and when "we read" the telegram we believe its contents, UTTERLY.

When everyone has written their piece (their knowledge colours the writing)...

but BEFORE they get to the bit that reveals the telegram's content, we all have to say whether the telegram is terrible news, joyous, or whatever.

This post covers maybe 1% of this difficult subject. Please consider responding and giving your views, exercise, etc. Please not I delete anonymous posts as I get a lot of spam.

Prompts for Today

Three weeks later it was still there

Someone told me he was a local mobster

I was as near forty as makes no difference; and terrified

Don't Tell mama!

She felt alone, utterly and completely alone.

He was screaming at a woman - hi sister

Who should he condemn? Why?

The towers, the dark of metal

How mary glowed in the dark, beneath the sheets

I need BRIGHT, pinks, yellows, outrageousness

Attitude is an attitude

How much for two penny buns?

Then I was drafted

The smell of cabbage and faint other things

The reasons for sweat, the reasons for desire

39 years of waiting. For what?

Sitting there trying to follow a single wave

Happy as Larry, but Larry is dying.

They sometimes called him Sonny but that wasn't his name.

Very few rats here.

You couldn't throw a stone without hitting an aunt or a cousin

From Ireland, lasted twenty-six months

The meal lasted hours, the arguments days

Peaches in syrup, ice cream dark as sunset

He felt burning

Looking at a picture of Jesus

Monday, April 29, 2013

Second Flash

Just to say, completed my second flash of the day
= 664 words to add to the 503 words in the middle of the night.

Blue Penny Quarterly

Blue Penny Quarterly

I had Googled in to Blue Moon Review where two of my stories got a very early home (Pontius was at Pilot Training School) and found Jack Hancock's War (see previous blog-post.)

The other story was Tanner Hop, Coyotes Interrupt us, a very special take on pulling it out just in time.

Anyway, I back-spaced to look for Tanner Hop and ended up on this site:


The newish blog/magazine run by Doug Lawson who once ran an incarnation of BPQ, then Blue Moon Review and Cafe Blue

Doug now again produces Blue Penny Quarterly which is optimised for the iPad, comes free and may be distributed. 

(It can be read on anything that reads PDFs)

If you write serious fiction and like reading it, check it out.

Jack Hancock's War

My, times change. This one first appeared in Blue Moon Review about the time Noah was thinking of building a boat. I like it, still, but it is SO different from how I write today. It even contains a "whispered" and a "snapped".

Jack Hancock's War

January and February 1942 had been tough for London's East End, with the German bombers over every night dropping their high-explosives and incendiaries, but so far Camper's bakery hadn't even suffered a near-miss. There had been casualties all over, Whitechapel, Millwall, Stretford, but the baker Jack Hancock never let the bombs worry him. If he was asked, he'd speak quietly and say, "If it's got yer name on it, matey, it's got yer name on it, nowt yer c'n do owtit, anyways."

When the raids came, Jack would disappear for just as long as it took for his supervisor to give up and presume he was already down the shelter. Then Jack would get back to work, alone, oblivious, whistling, sniffing the deep smell of rising bread, the black-cat warmth of the ovens, ignoring the distant droning, the puk-puk-puk of the AA batteries at Greenwich, the occasional scream of a close one, the crump of H.E., the muted far-off clangle of the fire engines. And every time, after the all-clear, Jack would grin as the supervisor led the girls back into the bakery. Jack would tell them their loaves and cobs were all doing fine, wink at the oldest woman, smile at the youngest and carry on regardless. And it drove the supervisor mad.

The supervisor was a short man, thin, with small eyes and a sharp way of standing. He moved in jerks and his head nodded or clicked slightly back, depending on his mood. The supervisor's nickname no doubt would have been "chicken", had his first name not been Adolph, but his first name was Adolph, very unfortunately Adolph, (after a German cousin), and now that Europe reeled from the ambitions and actions of that other, more famous Adolph, not only was the supervisor unloved but he knew he was ridiculed too. And it drove him mad.

It drove the supervisor mad too, that his hair insisted on being like Hitler's, that no matter what he did with brush or comb or brilliantine, he would end up with the black slap of the Führer's coif across his forehead like an insult. It was Neville Fowler's crown of thorns.

In 1937, seeing what was coming, the supervisor had changed his name by deed poll, from Adolph to Neville Fowler, after Mr Chamberlain the Prime Minister. Then, when the PM came back from Munich waving a piece of paper to tell a waiting Britain that he had secured peace in their time, the supervisor started wearing a name badge with NEVILLE written large upon it. He had announced also that "Any disrespect to management in the form of using long-discarded names will NOT be tolerated, and any bakery worker found using insubordinate language will be summarily dismissed."

Long before the annexation of Austria, Neville had shaved off his Chaplin moustache and it was a distant memory by the time Poland fell. Now Neville was clean-shaven, and he had considered having his hair close-cropped too, even wearing a hairpiece. In one particularly long depressed period he had travelled in secret to Harley Street, to a firm which specialised in them, only to leave there flushed and angry when the proprietor mentioned, unable to suppress a grin, how much Mr Fowler resembled Mr Hitler.

All this was Neville Fowler's cross to bear but he would not bend. Instead, the supervisor strengthened his backbone with the steel struts of bitterness, spoke to his workers in sharp, tiny barks, was ruthless in his application of the rules, utterly unforgiving of lateness or carelessness. At the start of every night shift Mr Fowler would insist on a roll-call, insist on making managerial announcements and insist on reminding his workers, men, boys, girls, "Bread is the staff of life, we fill the bellies of London!"

Jack Hancock had been a baker in Yorkshire when the war started. He had lost an eye as a child and though he was fit as a fiddle and wanted to do his bit he had been told he could do more feeding the munitions workers, the dockers, the people making tanks and planes, the land-girls digging for victory. "We'd like you to go down to London, Jack. There's a big bakery down there and they could do with another pair of hands to help out." They mentioned the bombs and Jack just smiled.

Jack Hancock wasn't a bad bloke. He wasn't even the type to bear a grudge or carry on an argument. Jack didn't make a song and dance about it, but quietly he liked to help people, and though he knew that making bread was important for the war effort, really he wanted to be in khaki or blue and doing his bit directly, like other blokes.

But Angry Adolph Fowler at the bakery, now he was something else. When Jack had arrived down from Pontefract he had immediately clashed with the old git. At first he'd tried to make it into a lark, a bit of a joke, but there was no way the supervisor would bend, and gradually their secret war had become entrenched. Jack thought that Fowler's problem was he lived alone and cut himself off from everybody, the way he spoke, the way he locked himself away upstairs. Jack thought the supervisor should get out a bit and one week into their little war he had suggested a pint some time, only to be told that "Management does not fraternise with either the women or the men." After that, Jack ran the ovens and kept his head down, chatted with the girls, went for a drink with one or two, no strings attached. He hadn't set out to be the thorn in the supervisor's side but as far as he was concerned, Fowler had had his chance and now he was fair game.

Jack knew he had to be careful. He was conscientious, did more than his fair shift, and was helpful when anyone new came into the bakery. He kept himself out of Fowler's way as much as he could, learned to be polite and move along when he couldn't, and was quick to put a stop to any Adolph joke whenever he walked in on one, in the canteen or in the yard when, in the last half-hour before the bread was ready, some of the girls went out for a walk and an early morning fag. Jack was a happy bloke, a great favourite with the girls, always ready with a joke, a wink, a smile, but sometimes he would wonder, sometimes he'd feel eyes somewhere, and he would look up and see Neville Fowler at his high office window. And much as he didn't like the old bastard, seeing the supervisor in the half-darkness made Jack sad.

By that February, Jack Hancock and Neville Fowler had reached a stand-off, a bit like what was happening in the war, as if both sides were testing each other, building up their arsenals for one final conflict.

But then, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a new bakery assistant arrived. Her name was Alice Morgan, and she was twenty-seven, a widow since Dunkirk where her husband, a sapper, had bought it on the beach.

And Alice Morgan changed everything.

She was a sweet, soft woman, nothing too much to look at, mid-brown hair when she wasn't wearing her white baker's cap, and, without being startling, a nice round face, pleasant, and gentle brown eyes. Neville Fowler had fallen in love with Alice before she had finished saying her name and handing over her cards. Jack Hancock took longer but only because he was doughing up and trying not to take notice of the supervisor. But when Fowler said, "Say hello to Mrs Morgan, Jack," and Jack turned round, his hands and front covered in flour, he had fallen head over heels in love too.
Alice Morgan didn't notice, but Neville Fowler did and when red puffed in the supervisor's face, Jack knew that war was finally declared.

"Anyway, Hancock, a few complaints yesterday, a thousand loaves that went to Clapham. We had a telephone call. Mr Bickerstaffe there says the lot was overcooked, crusts burned and the loaves too hard."

Jack grimaced. "Did they return them, Mr Fowler?"

"No," Fowler said, his head jerking and inching backwards. "But I had to let them have them half-price. I'm going to have to talk to Mr Camper."

Jack Hancock looked at Neville Fowler, and then, just obviously enough so Fowler could have no doubt he had done it, he looked at Alice Morgan.

The red blushed further in Neville Fowler's cheeks and his jerkiness increased. He brushed a hand to push back his Hitler slick.

Jack smiled. "Understood, Mr Fowler, Sir."

"G-good," the supervisor said, gathering his composure, then to Alice Morgan he said, with a softness which surprised his rival, "Alice, I have no choice but to leave you with Jack, but you make sure he stays in line. Any problems at all, my office door is always open."

Mrs Morgan smiled.

"That'll be a first," Jack said as soon as his manager had gone. "We call the super's office Fort Knox. The only reason anyone gets called in there is to get their cards."

"Well he seems quite nice to me," Alice Morgan said, and Jack Hancock's stomach lurched with anxiety.

That night, Jack taught Alice, and all through the night he wanted to touch her, all through the night his talk of burgeoning bread, of rising, of hot ovens and growing strength, all the long yeasted night, whatever he said, he only thought of Alice, of Alice falling slowly backwards, with soft promise in her brown-bread eyes.

And in the half-hour before the bread was ready, when they walked out into the yard, Jack took Alice a little aside, down to the silver canal, and under a sky spangled with starlight she talked of her husband and he talked of bread, and then, when they knew the bread must be ready, they put out their cigarettes and walked back to the bakery, a little closer than they were before, and Jack made a little joke of it when he asked if he could walk her home and Alice said that would be nice, no, that would have been nice but Mister Fowler had said he would drive her home in his little Austin and she couldn't really say no, he was so kind, and desperately Jack threshed around and said, "Hampstead, I was hoping to go to Hampstead on Saturday and I'd like it if you - " and Alice Morgan said she would love to and Jack was so giddy, so full of air that he thought he might faint, and they went in and drew off ten thousand loaves and the bread smelt wonderful, like children.

When the bread lorries had left Camper's bakery that morning, with their racks upon racks of loaves, for Whitechapel, for Millwall, for Stretford and beyond, their doors shut tight on a smell so gorgeous it could turn heads, Neville Fowler walked Alice Morgan to his little Austin, opened the rear-hinged door and swept her in. Alice Morgan had only been in a car twice before, once to get married at Brompton Oratory, once before then - the memory still made her stiffen - when she had made a mistake, and taken a lift home with a car-sales chap from Epping.

But there was no fear in Alice Morgan now, and when they puttered from the baker's yard, and when they passed the other workers, she was excited, and when Mr Fowler peeped his horn to get a man pushing a bike to move aside, and when the man glanced back and it was Jack, she felt a tiny flutter move through her and she smiled at him, suddenly thrilled with life.

But for Jack, Alice's smile was painful, for it looked to Jack like a grin of pride or one-upmanship, and beside her grin, Neville Fowler, the supervisor, smirked, and before Jack quite knew what was happening, his right arm had risen in a Heil Hitler salute and Neville Fowler's face had changed, and Jack had turned away from them, his ears on fire and the hairs on his neck fizzing with anger. And Jack Hancock stared down at the cobbled lane he walked along, the handlebars of his Raleigh, it's tiny silver bell, and though he ached he seethed too with something close to murder in his heart.

The Austin moved on, the angry baker in its wake. Alice Morgan had seen only an odd wave from Jack, a bit like a Seig Heil! she might have thought, but she did not see it as that, for she did not know that the man beside her was really called Adolph or know he saw the gesture differently, or know that whatever his name, public or private, he bristled, and that he planned, knowing he had all the advantages, and that but for his vision and dreams of Alice Morgan, widow, he might there and then have turned the car round and run Jack Hancock down like a dog.

Instead, Alice Morgan smiled, thinking how lucky she was, as if maybe, an angel now, Harry Morgan was watching over her. For apart from that time with the car-sales chap, Alice still had a quiet innocence, the innocence of a war-widow blighted by chance on the beaches in France, but lifted again by a war job, flour, fat, the smell of bread rising.

Alice Morgan had the basement of a big terraced house near Pudding Lane. It wasn't much, but she survived, and except for the lack of light, she thought her little flat was pretty cheerful, and when the supervisor dropped her off, popping round to her side like a real gent to open the door, she said, "It's just there, Mr Fowler. It's not much, but I like it, maybe I'll show you some time."

Then Alice Morgan floated away and down her steps, eager to put on the gas and make a nice cup of tea before getting forty winks, and she was gone and Neville Fowler sat in his car, rolling her words round, like echoes of bird-song, time and again, delicious, delirious, "show you some time, some time, some time. I'll show you some time, some time soon."

Only the carping horn of an exasperated omnibus (dock workers going down to Tilbury) brought Neville Fowler to his senses and he drove away. As he did so, heading for his little house in Stretford, Alice Morgan, sweet, brown-eyed, not much to look at, was undressing while the tea mashed.

That night Jack Hancock was unsure in his actions and his thoughts. At first he was determined to remain aloof, but he fell again, deep into that ordinary, round face, and by the time the ovens were ready, the black cast doors hot and swelling, he had laughed at something Alice Morgan had said, grinned once in triumph at the high-up window and the man there, called his love, "luv" for the first time and touched her arm once, leaving a white floured fingerprint on her forearm so perfect, that Alice stopped to see. It was like a moth, a cabbage-butterfly, and when she showed Jack he touched her again.

That Saturday Jack and Alice went to Hampstead Heath, and walked high above the city, Alice's arm hooked inside Jack's, the pair pulling together for warmth and weight against the wind. And that Saturday night Alice Morgan kissed Jack before slipping away from him, down into her dim but cheerful flat. Jack had wanted to kiss Alice back but Alice had already fluttered and said, "Thanks for a lovely time, Jack. See you tomorrow for the shift."

On Sunday morning, Alice went with the supervisor to Richmond Park and they sat still in his car, quietly waiting for the red deer to drift from the trees and graze. Alice thought the deer were beautiful, one stag magnificent, and she thanked the supervisor profusely for being so kind. The shift that night was quiet and Jack a little unhappy, but in the half hour before the loaves came out, Alice said something to him about going up town for a Lyons tea one afternoon and would Jack come? Jack said yes, a moment before he heard the supervisor's door open and Neville Fowler bark down, "Jack, a word, if you'd be so kind," before stepping back inside.

"Is there something wrong?" Alice asked.

"No," Jack said, "but Mr Fowler and I have some things to sort out."

Jack took off his apron, removed his hat and hung both on a hook. Then he went upstairs to face Fowler. He hadn't called in any of the older women to assist when the bread was ready, so that left the supervisor with no more than five minutes to do his dirty work. When he got to the top of the open stairs, he went in without knocking, grunted a hello to Betty Wilkins in accounts and went straight through to the supervisor's office.

"You wanted me?"

"Yes, Jack."

"Only the bread is almost due."

"This won't take long, Jack. We'll be letting you go."

Jack smiled. "A bit sudden, isn't it Mr Fowler? Do you think the women can manage without me, then?"

Fowler sneered. "You mean you're looking after more than one, Jack?"

"No, Mr Fowler, I mean when we're traying up and traying out, that's allus bin a man's job. It's hot and heavy work."

"The women get stronger every day, Jack, they're tougher than you think. It wouldn't surprise me if after the war we find they're not so keen to just stay home and look after their kids."

"Even so -- "

"Easter," the supervisor said, "and we are bringing a man in. He's a chap called King, a fighter pilot. Was a baker before the war and got himself shot down, face-burned last summer. But they say he's ready to do something useful on the home front now. They called me and I said you'd not mind going back up North, especially to make way for a fighting man. I said unless they could get you in uniform. That's right isn't it, Jack?"

"Is that your final word, sir?"

"It is."

"Then I'll go back downstairs and sort out today's batch."

"You do that, Jack," the supervisor said.

On the way out Betty said something cheerful and was Jack hunky-dorey?

"Well, Betty," Jack said, "If you think that getting your cards is the bee's knees, then I'm in the pink."

"Oh, Jack!" Betty said.

That shift, Jack managed not to say anything. The next week he took Alice up town, told her she was pretty, told her that in a few weeks he was finished at Camper's and might have to go back up North.

"Oh, Jack!" Alice said.

"I bloody well wish people would say summat a bit more than 'Oh, Jack!' " Jack snapped. He put his cup down and reached for Alice's hand. "I've asked to join the ARP so I can stay in London."

"Oh, Jack -" Alice said, and then she said, "I'm pleased."

On February the twenty-seventh, Alice finally let Jack kiss her properly, on March the seventh she first wondered about throwing off the dryness of widowhood. On March the seventeenth, after a few drinks, Alice didn't stop Jack fondling her breasts while they stood in the basement well, and early in the morning on the twenty-ninth of March, at work in the last half hour before the loaves were due, she giggled softly to Jack and said, "Oh, God it was so nice, it had been a while."

But on February the twenty-eighth, Alice had gone up the West End with the supervisor, on the ninth of March he had taken her out to the Romney Marshes and asked her had she ever considered remarrying? and on the twenty-sixth he had brought up the subject again and said, "Because if you do -- Alice -- ever consider marriage, I mean, then Alice, I would be honoured to look after you, honoured."

And then Alice Morgan, widow, smiled, even flushed slightly, and she said, "Oh, Neville!" and in his little Austin, the supervisor found his thin hand lifted and laid gently, quietly, on Alice Morgan's cardiganned chest.

But on April the second, Maundy Thursday, just before her night shift, Alice Morgan went to Neville Fowler's office and explained to him, the door closed behind them, that affection was one thing, but marriage, marriage, Neville, was a big step, and perhaps it was too early after Harry's death for her to consider letting go.

The supervisor sagged slightly and his hair fell across his face making him look like -- like -- and Alice went to speak but the supervisor barked at her, "Hitler! Hitler! You think that's funny, do you, Mrs Morgan?" and Alice, shocked, almost ready to cry whimpered, "Oh, no! No, Neville, I thought Charlie Chaplin, and really," she raised a hand and pushed back his hair, "really, Neville, it just needs a good cut, here and here."

And suddenly, feeling the gentleness of Alice Morgan, the supervisor felt wretched, and he thought, not of himself, but of Jack Hancock down on the bakery floor, and he lifted his hand to take her hand, pressed it to his cheek and said, "Off you go now, we've got ten thousand hot cross buns to bake."
Alice Morgan went downstairs in time for the start of shift and she was at the bottom of the stairs as Jack walked in. She nodded, but her smile was awkward, and Jack's was thin, and she walked quickly off to the ladies' toilets to freshen up and dab her eyes. "At fag-break," she thought. She could tell him later. "In the half-hour before the bread comes out, then we'll talk."

Neville Fowler picked up the telephone, and after a few crackly moments got through to Jeremy Camper. He had a letter in his hand, a letter he had intended to burn, but had kept for one long day.

"Mr Camper, it's Neville Fowler."

"What can I do for you, Fowler?"

"Mr Camper. I have a letter from the Ministry of Defence. They need senior men in Army Catering."

"You're in a reserved occupation, Fowler."

"Yes, sir, but there are others who could do my job, like Jack Hancock, for instance. He's a good man."

"Hancock. I thought you were letting him go?"

"Sacrifice, sir. This is wartime. We do what's right. This Raff chap, King, he needs a job to give him back his dignity. I thought Hancock would cope."

"So what are you saying, Fowler?"

"Sir, I'd like to offer Hancock the chance to take over here and if that's all right with you, then I think I'll contact the MOD and make myself available."

"You're sure, Fowler?"

The supervisor was not. "Yes, sir. Do the right thing, sir."

"He can do the job?"

"I'm sure of it, sir."

"What time does the shift finish tonight?"

"The work load is higher tonight, sir. It's Good Friday and we're producing hot-cross buns. I'd say seven o'clock, sir."

"I'll be there. If Hancock comes up to scratch, I'll let you go."

"Thank-you, sir."

Neville Fowler put down the telephone and sighed. He imagined he could still feel Alice Morgan's hand upon his face and he raised his cold fingers there and touched his mouth, his cheek. Then he stood and walked to his dark window and looked down at the bakery floor.

Jack Hancock was preparing dough. The supervisor knew that the bread would go in earlier than usual tonight, followed around four o'clock by about two hundred trays of hot-cross buns. He watched the busy, steady skills of Jack Hancock. Whatever else, Jack had always worked hard and as he watched, the supervisor felt a quiet smile of admiration come to him.

Jack was still doughing up when he sensed the supervisor's eyes on him. He looked above him and saw the dim-lit face, the smile, imagined him, Adolph, smirking, thinking himself victorious. He felt angry and impotent. Fowler had all the big guns, all the power, and Jack was just a bloke, a baker, with fifteen thousand loaves and ten thousand buns to make. He stared back and saw Fowler smile again. Tonight, he thought, these buns, tomorrow and Sunday off, Monday his cards. Tuesday he'd start training with the ARP. Jack thought of that. Soon he'd be away from the Führer and out there in the action, at least he'd feel more involved, maybe even save a life or two instead of feeding God knows how many. He glanced up again. Fowler still smiling. Oh, how he wanted one last chance to pay the old bastard back.

Alice had forgotten that tonight, Good Friday, was the only night of the year they wouldn't get their ciggie break. Jack wasn't unfriendly but he wasn't friendly either and she was desperate to explain to him that maybe she wasn't ready to remarry, but she was ready for more, and more with Jack. She had decided she was a modern woman and this was wartime. Heck, it was time to jump the brush and get Jack Hancock into her bed.

But there was no break. While the bread was finishing they had to start on the buns and though she was frustrated, there was nothing that Alice could do. But then the sirens started and Mr Fowler came out, barking his orders, "Shelter! Shelter! Straight away, the lot of you!"

Alice turned round and, as if by magic, Jack had disappeared.

"Shelter! Shelter! Straight away, the lot of you! Where's Jack?"

"I don't know, Mr Fowler. He must've gone to the shelter already."

"Hancock? Hancock!"

The others were filing through.

"Come on! Hurry along," Fowler said. "Has anyone seen Jack Hancock?"

Neville Fowler followed his staff down to the shelter and sure enough Jack Hancock wasn't there. He watched everyone go inside, everyone, plus Betty Wilkins and finally Alice Morgan, but then Alice cried out "Jack isn't here," and he said, "I'm going back up to find him, he's playing silly buggers again."

The mill was quiet, and far off, maybe as far down as Kent, Fowler could just hear the tiny puk-pukking of the ack-acks. He knew once the sound changed that another batch of bombers was heading for the docks. And he called out, "Jack Hancock, you silly sod!"

But there was no answer, only himself echoing back, and the growing drone of the bombers, puk-puk-puk.

"Jack Hancock, you dozy bugger. Don't get yourself blown up. Not tonight of all nights. I've got some good news!" But still just the drone, puk-puk-puk.

He found him in the main furnace-room, row upon row of Good Friday's buns on the big tables, racks of them already finished, about to go in.


"Well, well, the Führer's getting brave!"

They heard a loud one.

"Jack, come down the shelter, this is a big one."

Jack continued working. "Just finishing the buns, Mr Fowler. And you know. If it's got yer name on it, it's got yer name on it, nowt yer c'n do."


"Jack, Mr Camper's coming to see you at seven o'clock. If you want it you can have my job."

The noise was rising.


Neville Fowler was right by him now, shouting. A close one whistled and there was the roll of crumps, some windows went. Jack worked on, fixing his hot-cross buns.

"I'm off, Jack, off to work for the Army. Mr Camper says if you're up to it, he'll give you a crack at my job!"


"My job! I'm leaving!"

"But Alice!"

Another salvo rolled close, certainly on the jacket if not the button.

"She'll be staying. I think she wants a bloke called Hancock!"

"Oh, Mother Mary!" Jack Hancock said.

He looked down at his handiwork.

The supervisor looked.


Row upon row of swastikas.


"My good-bye present," Jack shouted. Then they heard the screamer, a stick meant for them and they dove together under the metal tables.

The blast took out all of the west wall, most of the south, every window in the bakery, plus most of the next two streets, but the Camper & Knight ovens, cast-iron and twenty-two inches of brick, remained impervious, and though there had been a substantial roof-fall, the shelter was cleared and everyone inside released in good health by the ARP.

The women climbed out and looked at the rubble. Alice Morgan could not speak but Mrs Wilkins explained.

"Mr Fowler, Jack Hancock, they -- "

Jack Hancock and the supervisor were found almost untouched, both deaf as posts, the supervisor without his hair. They were under a metal table close against the Camper & Knight ovens, surrounded by the smell of toast and laughing like drains.

Both men were shot through with flour and cement, white as ghosts, and when the scalped man emerged he was eating what appeared to be a hot-cross bun, the cross strangely deformed by the blast.

Monday: More prompts and a bit of chat.

Before I post these prompts, thought I'd make a point.

I started writing flashes again about ten days ago. I mean i write flashes "all the time" but I started writing them at least one-a-day.

I've been posting them, but suddenly they are far richer, better, to the extent that I think I sjould start subbing again.

My point is, something happens when you get on a roll and write-write-write. Each day you start a little bit better, further up the mountain.

Here are today's prompts. It's the second batch cos I have already 
written a 503-word flash (before 0500)

We need to talk about something. Sit down

The dogs, snuffling, scratching in their bed

If she calls you Ronald, it's serious

What can be done with a razor

Or on the other hand, headline news

367 days

Our House in the deepest part of night

When the books are three deep and there's nowhere to go

One very hot day

A rumour of compassion breaking out

A piece of my heart

The 27th Valley

It's only a suggestion, but you could just die?

Love Soup

Forest, Trees, River, Sky

Towards the falls

Being Irish isn't always a handicap

The Things My Boys Carried With Them

Meditations in Green

The Old in Modern Art

Symphony of Wire

The Unassuming Death of Hermione Parker-Smythe

Why it isn't working

Somewhere in the hotel grounds

When hate just its there, fallow, swallowing


A web magazine surveyed my submissions and hits and worked out that I had a hit-rate of 1 in 3.5. 

I have had 450 hits 

That means I have had to submit 1,575 times 

That means I have had 1,125 rejections 

THAT is what working means.

Here, have a flower

One Book Deep

A long time ago when the shelves were only one-book deep.


Dragons at Wembley

May 5th, 2013. With two Welsh clubs in next season's Premier League, Welsh clubs Newport and Wrexham meet at Wembley Stadium, London to fight for the dizzy achievement of getting back into the Football League.

From Newport, I would love my team to make it back, bach, but my very best mate is from Wrexham so I can't lose.

The picture by the way is from Capel Cader Idris, Llwyngwril, Gwynedd, North Wales, our converted chapel, where I also run writing courses.

Caroline (Kitty) Jones, Ernie the Egg, Books

That was one eighth of where I wrote when I sort-of still had a marriage.

Behind me (out of shot) were eight bookcases all filled two-books deep.

Second shelf down to the right of the CDs are MY books (some of 'em, anyway) the five novels, Ballistics, a few of the better anthologies I cheated my way into: Alsop Review, Eclectica and so on

The brown picture above the computer screen is FANTASTIC. Bottom left is my kids' great-grandmother with her mother and father and siblings, one of which was Ernie the Egg.

Packing for divorce and all this is in crates. My HEART is in crates.

My Favourite Short Stories

I love short fiction and a great short can go in so deep in a way that, for me, is rarely accomplished by a novel. I may read a short and really rate it at the time, and the short may stay with me for a while (or its memory triggered) but even great ones fade away

These are a few of the ones that REALLY impacted me.

1. The Twenty-Seventh Man Nathan Englander.

Stalin arranges a purge of 26 writers, the greats, and somehow, a wannabe who has never been published ends up as the 27th. Heart-breaking and absolutely superb on the difference between being a mere published author and an actual WRITER.

2. A Silver Dish Saul Bellow

Fabulous language, superb characters, good story but an ending that ripped my heart out.

3. The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber (Hemingway)

Masterful, quite brilliant and SO good on sexual politics. Technically a master class.

4. The Ledge (Lawrence Sargeant Hall)

Another heart-breaker. I end up crying when I talk to students about this one. Plain language, but that somehow enhances the poignancy of "A man;s gotta do what a man's gotta do."

5. A Small Good Thing (Raymond Carver)

A woman orders a cake for her son's birthday but he's killed. The baker telephones the woman and they argue both not realising that this fact has never been stated. Breaks your heart and an absolutely beautiful ending. A great story to study for its craft

6. Cathedral (Carver)

A man is jealous when his wife's blind friend comes to stay. But then carver inverts everything. Really disturbed me, this one.

How about yours? It would be great to genuinely discuss some very good shorts
Where I live, if what this is is living.

Right now I am in that room downstairs left. Can you see me?

Can you hear my heart, hear the too-thick blood sluicing through me?

05:07 and I've answered all my emails, beaten my head against the mindless wall of self-pubbing wannabes (yes, already) and written a 503-word flash.

And you know what I want, really?

Just a cool hand on my face.

Insomnia is a Bitch

Add caption

 was posting my Flash a Day but they're getting gooder so I can't.

Yes, I did say gooder.

And yes, fucking YES I am aware it's 05:00 and YES I've written Monday's which means I have to post another fucking set of prompts.

I can't decide whether to just blog-post every flash and stuff sending them out. 

Aren't I sending them out anyway?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday-Monday Prompts

He goes outside, finds an excuse, takes his phone

We live with animals, insects, germs

Walk. Feel the birds staring

He needs to see her. So badly he cannot breathe

The tree is rotten. It all stinks

The little man in the boat

In her sleep she sounds like a dog

That moment, when the first kiss doesn’t happen

A small piece of you

The day gives up and leaves us

There is your blood and there is my blood

Given how it is with you and all you’ve said


Suddenly the room is smaller, heat rises

I would like to love a dangerous girl


Blackberries swollen with autumn

Barbed wire, lovers, whispered dismissal

We can fight if you like. Or make love. It’s all the same.

The little death, yes; but so is a sneeze

My body begs, but I am disgusted with him

Once more, once more please

My skin and your skin but the feel of someone else

I would just like you to remember my title: man.

Goose Feathers