What prompts a short story?

Do you write short stories? If so, why? and when?

I love them but I only write short stories when I am forced – or at least persuaded – to do so. Rebellion (previous blog post) was written for an Anthology on the theme of “Childhood”. I figured quite a few people would write childhood memories or cute poems about their own children so I was determined not slide into that. I’ve discovered I LOVE prompts that irritate me, prompts that make me wince, make me kick: they energise me. The other inspiration for Rebellion was that MWC had a couple of chaps who wrote gleefully about guns, bloodshed and destruction. I decided to try to “out-Kalashnikov” them without glorifying violence: another challenge.

I wrote a couple more short stories after that, one of which was shortlisted for the SlingInk Prize. That led me to their website where I found “Eurofiction”: ten stories, one every two weeks. I entered with the aim of (a) writing 10 new stories and (b) experimenting as much as possible with story structure and voice. To my surprise I also did much better than I’d expected in the competition: a bonus. I entered the following year and enjoyed it all again. The year after that I tried the Whittaker Prize which is a similar long-distance format.

I’ve just signed up for that again; it starts soon: 9 stories and/or poems over 18 weeks with feedback from the judges on every entry. Eeek!

The only thing I am not so keen on is that there is a CHOICE of prompts for each round (c’mon, what’s to fight against? one of them is bound to be ok: zzzzz) and, if needs be, you don’t even have to use the prompt … you can even enter a previously written story *boo! hiss!*

I did do that for one round when I entered last time because, for some reason, I had no chance to write (was that when step mum’s hip was replaced? I can’t remember but I know it was something major). So I entered a story that I liked (well, maybe “liked” isn’t the right word – a story that I thought “had something”) from my first Eurofiction (where it had scored pretty much null points). I thought it was original, if hardly pleasant reading, so I hoped to get some useful feedback from the judge’s comments by re-subbing it. Judges have different ideas about what works or doesn’t; it won that round. So if something “feels right” don’t give up on it.

That story is below. Meanwhile, novel is now with a couple of beta-readers, checking for the inevitable errors that sneak in where one character has been partly erased and partly converted into another when her actions were material to the plot. Exhumed the shorter version synopsis (250 words) and scrubbed it: looking ok. Longer versions next, then cover letter. Purchased latest ed of The Red Book. Hopefully writing short stories (and poems, perhaps) for the Whittaker will, I hope, stop me fretting as I sub the novel. And I’ll have another batch of stories, at least one or two worth polishing and pursuing, by the summer holidays.

Now, here’s that cheery, fluffy little story – loathe it or like it.
(And please note that “write what you know” in no way applies to the actual actions of stories!)

Mating for Life

Something old,
Something new,
Something borrowed,
Something blue.
Wedding ryme (trad.)

Something Old

Lust rose in primeval slimy stews. Even without sex does an amoeba feel a climactic satisfaction as it splits? A relief; a petit mort?

Tapping at his keyboard, Tony felt a chill draft skim his nape, a memory of Cynthia breathing down his neck, scorning him. Before he could drag his mind back to the screen he heard her voice in his mind, knowing exactly what she would have said: ‘That’s stupid. Ammeebies can’t feel: they don’t have brains.’

Ammeebies, to rhyme with heebeejeebies. Some childish diminutive, belittling him. ‘This is Tony, my ammeebie.’

His fingers caressed the keys. Coral polyps are rooted to their reef. They co-ordinate sexual behaviour, releasing sperm en masse – so much that the water becomes opaque. Mobile creatures began to maximise fertilization by …

By getting it together? Torrid crustraceal thrashings in scummy, sperm-filled rock pools?

‘You grew up in the sixties, Cyn,’ he said. ‘How’d you miss out on sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock ’n’ roll?’

Eventually nature decided the most efficient way of delivering seed to egg was direct body-within-body implantation. Hermaphrodite snails pair by each piercing the other with a harpoon-like penis to deliver sperm simultaneously.

‘Tony, you’re gross.’ She would have pinched him, her bony fingers digging sharp-nailed into his bicep.

‘I can’t feel it, Cynthia,’ he said. ‘No brain, no pain.’

Something New

The bruise on his arm ached. His head ached worse. He swallowed a handful of tablets, gagged; gulped neat vodka to slough them from his tonsils.

‘The headaches should be less severe with time,’ the doctor had said. ‘But you may have problems with blackouts for a while. I’ll sign you off work. You’re a zoologist, aren’t you? Can you remember your last paper?’

Tony pressed his hands against his eyes, desperately searching for something from before. It was like a wall in his mind; organic; growing; arteries like tree roots feeding confusion; fleshy tendrils ensnaring him, clogging his thoughts. ‘No….’

‘With your blackouts and memory loss you mustn’t drive and you will have problems concentrating. You need rest.’

‘I can remember,’ Cynthia’s echo said. ‘Sex. All you think about but you couldn’t do it.’

‘You never wanted me,’ he retorted. ‘It was always my selfish urges, my fault; defiling your purity.’

In higher animals, lust ensures sperm and egg meet. Some species pair for life; prolonged relationships ensuring optimum DNA continuance.



Something Borrowed

The wasteland of a forgotten car factory. Warm honey scent of buddleia over a tangle of brambles, a jungle of willow herb; pink spikes already shrivelling to downy filaments; seeds set floating as he crept past, watching a grass snake. Unexpected wildlife: a kestrel perched on a rotting telegraph pole; deer slots in mud by a puddle; a naked girl sunbathing by a burnt-out Fiesta. She was unfazed by his appearance. ‘Come ’ere often?’ Knowing giggle, predatory glance, smudged mascara. She lay on a plaid lilac picnic rug, a half-empty cider bottle beside her.

‘Er … no.’

‘Wotcha doin’ ’ere, then?’

‘Shouldn’t you be at school?’

She looked at him blankly for a moment, school being so distant in her memory it meant nothing, if she had mind to register anything. Then she laughed, rolling onto her back. Her breasts were buds of desire. ‘Nah, I’m sixteen. Y’ want some? Fifty quid.’

Something Blue

Police lights strobing necrotic flesh. Whose bruises? His? Hers? Cynthia’s clouded eyes staring blankly at the ceiling? Repeating flashes slicing painfully into memories.

‘You fucking monster!’

‘Paedo! Paedo!’ A chant that shook the walls. ‘We’ll get you!’

The respite of a police interview room. ‘I didn’t kill her.’

‘Your wife says you were out all evening.’

‘I’m always out then. I walk.’

‘We’re doing DNA analyses on semen samples taken from the victim. Did you meet her?’

With renewed revulsion Tony stumbled through his encounter. ‘She said she was sixteen.’

‘I’m sure she did,’ said the Inspector.

Cynthia had changed the locks overnight. ‘All these years you couldn’t get it up for me, then you fucked a fifteen-year-old!’

A crowd gathered. Cameras flashed. Voices rose against him; a stampede of self-righteous indignation.

‘Cynthia, for fuck’s sake let me in.’ Tony rattled the handle, heaving against the door. ‘I didn’t hurt her!’ he shouted at the crowd.

The first stone missed Tony, smashing a window; the next bricks were on target. Cynthia screamed, her voice drowned in the mob’s savagely vocal pleasure. Tony remembered nothing then until waking in hospital after they had pinned his skull; repaired jaw, ribs and hand. ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’ said a doctor with unconscious irony.

Cynthia collected him. ‘They caught the killer.’

So he’s safe in prison, thought Tony. Does he want to die, too?

‘Your research grant’s terminated,’ Cynthia said as he switched on his cold computer. ‘The Department committee decided it’s too embarrassing to pay a paedophile to research sexual behaviour.’ She spat the words with salacious delight.

‘But I’m not interested in people …’

‘Who are you interested in? Ammeebies? Just your level.’

Anger surged, dimming vision as pain followed, exploding through his head. Momentarily back in darkness, he was surrounded by gloating maniacs. He screamed, lashing out.

‘Blackouts can strike any time,’ said the doctor, ‘but stress may make trigger an attack.’

Tapping at his keyboard Tony tried to ignore the unpleasant sweet-sick smell oozing heavily through the house. A pair of glossy blow flies paired on his desk. He squashed them as they fucked.

Sirens heralded blue lights; inside, his head throbbed to their rhythmic pulse

This entry was posted in non-fiction, short story. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What prompts a short story?

  1. Gale says:

    That was a great read, Myfawny. You have a sophisticated and unsentimental way of looking at the world revealed in this that I admire but am not sure I could emulate. You’re doing Whittaker again? You should do well.

  2. Myfanwy Fox says:

    Thanks, Gale. (I have a thoroughly warped view, LOL.) Yes, I am having a go again, else I hardly ever take time to write short stories and I do enjoy them so much – it’s a guilty pleasure. Looking forward to seeing your Whittaker entries, too.

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