For Want of an Acerbic Metaphor


(3dom [CC / Flickr])

This morning’s breakfast was buttered toast, coffee with milk and three sugars and sour grapes. The coffee and toast came from my kitchen. The sour grapes came from skimming the arts pages of the Telegraph on my tablet.

They splashed on his installation. I scrolled through three whole screens of the review before going back to the top to read it word by jagged word.

An empty exercise in vacuous grotesquerie was what their reviewer called my rival’s work. A couple of paragraphs later, it was the most pointless use of a traffic cone since a heavily bevvied student planted one on a litter bin thinking it was a statue of some unlamented benefactor.

I had to wipe the toast crumbs off my screen at that one. I couldn’t fault the reviewer’s perceptiveness; she’d seen straight through his attempts to make a pile of bric-a-brac look like a profound statement. Where I can and do fault her is in her grasp of what was worth the effort of reviewing. I swiped through all of the pages but once again, there was not a word on the installation I’d spent the last six months assembling.

I would forego sugar in my coffee for a week if it would earn one acerbic metaphor, but the reviewer who expended hundreds of words on misplaced traffic cones hasn’t even bothered to visit my lemonade bottles and light bulbs.

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Six O’Clock Shuffle


(luisfraguada [CC / Flickr])

The train doors slid open, inviting Zack to his first mistake.  He tried to get on the train.  What else was he supposed to do when a train opened its doors?

A torrent of humanity poured out.  He’d thought he’d seen a crowded subway when he visited Toronto, but it couldn’t compare to this.

A shoulder caught him in the ribs.  “Sorry.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied.

A briefcase knocked his shin.  “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry.”

Zack couldn’t see the individuals he was apologising to in the swarm of people.  It was like swimming against a river in spate.  Five apologies later and he was backed up against the Bank Station sign.  It was only then that he realised the tone of the sorrys he was hearing was far less apologetic than the sorrys he’d been giving.

When he’d told his friends he was visiting London for a week, they challenged him to find an answer to the age old question of who says the most sorrys, British or Canadians.  Less than six hours in London and he had his answer.  The British won because while Canadians said sorry to apologise, the British used it to mean ‘get out of my way’.

The doors rumbled shut and the train swept away.  Commuters drained beneath the yellow ‘Way Out’ sign, expanding empty platform around him.

It had never occurred to Zack that there might be more to getting on a train than stepping through a door, but he’d just seen five hundred people change places between train and platform in half a minute.  They couldn’t have done it without some sort of technique.

He’d only got off the flight from Moose Jaw this morning, but he’d already noticed London bristling with signs pointing a disorientated tourist to every possible destination.  There were so many map boards that all he’d had to do was look around to find one.  On the escalator down to the platform, an announcement had warned him not to slip because stairs got wet during ‘inclement weather’.

If London Transport didn’t trust people to navigate a staircase, they must realise someone would need to be guided through the far more complex problem of boarding a crowded train.

As the next train stirred the air, he concluded there were no signs because everyone knew the technique.  You didn’t get to go home until you learned the steps of the six o’clock shuffle.  From the voices Zack had heard, commuters from Albania through the alphabet to Zimbabwe all knew the dance.  If they had learned it without instruction, so could he.

There must have been a couple of hundred people on the platform by now, all standing equidistant from one another.  They reminded Zack of a shoal of fish holding position against a current, perfectly maintaining their separation without looking at each other.

It came to Zack that it was the second time he’d thought of rivers in a few minutes.  He’d been in London for less than a day, so it was too soon to be pining for the rivers and plains of Saskatoon.  Perhaps the tunnel was making him claustrophobic.

Or perhaps Londoners reminded him of fish.

The train screeched to a halt.  People clustered on either side of the doors as though the flow pattern of the river had changed.  Now Zack was looking for it, the choreography was extraordinary.  Zack was so proud at having followed the footwork that he beamed at a man wearing a suit even he recognised as cheap.

The cheap suited man looked away.  In the midst of several hundred jostling people, Zack had intruded on one man’s solitude.

The doors slid open and expelled a knot of people.  More trickled out in ones and twos.  People inside the car were moving around to let each other to the doors.  When was the appropriate moment to get on? Would Zack be left on the platform again if he missed it?

A general lunge for the train answered Zack’s question.  He staggered to keep his feet and almost put his foot in the gap between train and platform.  A vision of the train grinding his ankle in two played in his mind like an amateur horror film.  Perhaps it distracted him because he was jostled to the middle of the standing space between the doors before he knew what was happening.  The crush made Zack envy a sardine in a tin.  His feet were pressed so close that he’d lose his balance as soon as the train moved.  Too late, he realised it was no coincidence that the novice had ended up furthest from anything to hold on to.

The rail over the doors was within arm’s length, but the man in the cheap suit was bent forward, moulded to the curved roof.  If a smile was an intrusion, how would he react to Zack touching his head?

Zack would be thrown against a young woman who had slotted herself between bodies like a piece in a badly cut jigsaw.  She wore plastic buds in her ears and a serene expression better suited to a deserted beach than a tangle of limbs under Bank.

Calamity was inevitable.

The train lurched forward.  Zack knocked the woman out of her musical reverie.  She lost her grip on a vertical rail and with it, her serene expression.  She fell against the people behind her.  Zack tried to flail for something to hold on to but if the passengers were no longer vertical, they were no less tightly packed.  For a horrible moment, Zack thought he’d started a cascade of human dominoes.  He tried to tell her he hadn’t meant to land on top of her, he was just a bewildered Canadian tourist, but his words were lost in the echo of machinery in a tunnel.

The mass of people dissipated his weight.  Deathgrips on overhead rails kept anyone from tilting past the point of no return.  Passengers pulled themselves upright, echoing Zack’s bodyweight back to him and setting him back on his feet.

The woman glared.

“I’m so sorry,” said Zack.

“Sorry,” she said.

Zack had never heard an apology sound like an obscenity before.

Her anger cut deeper than the cheap-suited man’s indifference.  Zack steeled himself and reached for the rail.  His hand brushed the man’s head.  The man moved aside without looking at Zack.  It was the same motion he’d made to duck under the doorway to get on the train.

Zack scanned the heads around him.  Every pair of eyes was focused on a far horizon shared with no one else.  With time to think, he began to see how it worked.  People surrendered their physical space but defended their psychological space by pretending no one else existed.  If he became a ghost among ghosts, perhaps no one else would bark ‘sorry’ at him.

The crush eased as the train moved away from central London.  Zack breathed a sigh of relief when the man in the cheap suit got off, removing a key witness to his breaches of protocol.  The music-loving woman found an empty seat.  He faded into a comfortable invisibility.

As the music lover sat down, her phone fell out of her bag.  The train’s vibration edged it across the floor while the woman closed her eyes and followed her music to a better place.

Zack had once seen a film of the Coronation, but the etiquette followed by Northern Line commuters made lords and archbishops before their queen look like toddlers at a birthday party.  If there was a protocol for boarding a train and a protocol for staying upright on it, there must be a protocol for absconding phones.  One more gaffe risked uniting everyone in the car to fling him off at the next stop.

The phone was seeking sanctuary under a folding seat, or rather under the sari of the grandmotherly woman sitting in it.  In a few moments, it would be impossible to retrieve the phone without disturbing her, which would add another layer of etiquette to negotiate.

Zack looked for a cue but no one else was reacting.  Was that because nobody had noticed or because it was polite to pretend they hadn’t?

Zack’s weight shifted from his feet to the rail her was clinging to.  The train was slowing down.  The woman edged forward on her seat, returning from an ethereal palace of her own construction.  Only one thing could entice her back to a rattling steel tube haunted by a clumsy Canadian.

This must be her stop.

If nobody else had noticed, it was up to Zack to save her from leaving her phone on the train.  If the done thing was to ignore it, a flying visit to anywhere called Golders Green couldn’t be all bad.  Anything he said was bound to be wrong, so he kept his mouth shut as he picked up the phone and handed it to her.

Her gaze snapped out of her imaginary refuge and landed on his face.  Zack held his breath, waiting for the worst.

She smiled.  “Thank you so much.”

Zack considered her tone.  No subtext that he could detect.  Her thanks were sincere.

By the time he dared believe it, she was off the train and gone.

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Life by Screen and Microwave


(Sigfrid Lundberg [CC / Flickr])

You see a bus full of heads bent over tiny screens, each one stamped with a different logo that came from the same Foxconn factory. Tops of heads tell you nothing of use, which is why you need me to skip among the microwaves to glean the stories they’re hiding.

Take that girl by the window. You see her as a seriously dressed girl in her early twenties with a few strands of loose hair hanging on either side of her Samsung. I see a young woman – you did program me to use more respectful terms than you use yourself – who will turn twenty-eight next week. What’s got my attention is that she’s been staring at the same screen for two minutes and forty-seven seconds without scrolling or switching apps, which tells me something very significant indeed has happened. I focus my attention and I see her life has just fallen apart.

That text she’s reading and re-reading is telling her, I’ve packed my stuff and I’ll be gone before you get home. Have a nice life.

It’s followed by, I drank the last tea while I was packing so you’ll need to pick some up on the way home. I know you won’t survive an evening without Earl Grey. Lol.

What he hasn’t told her was that their Netflix account was in his name and he’s changed the password, so you’ll want to load her feed with discounts for a new subscription, and throw in a few bulk discounts for red wine for when she realises she needs more than tea. I’ll keep an eye on what she’s binge watching and let you know when she starts watching romcoms again so you’ll know when it’s time to push the dating apps at her.

Now look a couple of seats behind her. The boy with the floppy hair. Yes, I’m calling him a boy. He’ll be eighteen for another three months. If you want me to call him a young man before that, change my settings. He’s only been on that screen for twenty-eight seconds but that’s three times his average time between touching his iPhone and it’s getting longer as we watch him.

That’s because he’s looking at an email telling him he hasn’t been accepted into medical school. He may be wondering what he’s going to do with the rest of his life now his dreams have been crushed, or he may be wondering what to post next after three weeks of incessantly tweeting about how his exams were a breeze. He’ll think of something in a minute, so make sure there are some adverts for universities taking students through clearing waiting for him.

Across the aisle from him is a man on a full five minutes of one screen, though he’s over forty so it’s taken him longer to triple his average single screen time than it’s taken the other two. His wife has just Whatsapped him that her pregnancy test’s come up positive and added a lulz. That will be their fourth child and by the shaking hand I can detect through his Huawei’s accelerometer, it’s not planned.

Hold the usual baby bonanza. They’ll know where to get their nappies from by now and they’ll have a push chair tucked away somewhere. What he’ll need, as soon as he’s had five minutes with a pen and paper to work it out, is a bank offering a really good overdraft facility.

That’s the first three. Would you call this a successful test so far? Taking a look at the smile I can see through the camera you didn’t mean to give me access to, you might want to put some discount champagne on your own feed.

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Your Mood in the Sea


(Kai C. Schwarzer [CC / Flickr])

When I want to know whether it’s one of your happy days or one of your sad days, I stand at the window and watch the sea. It’s safer than watching you.

With my back to our home, the sea interprets the sound of you moving around the house.

Last time you were happy, the slate-grey sky hurled spray against the cliffs with hurricane-force cheerfulness, blowing away the weight that pressed on my shoulders.

I remember that day as I hear the muttered curse from the next room. Perhaps your phone is taking an extra couple of seconds to switch apps or perhaps I you had to look for your tea mug because I’ve yet to unload the dishwasher since I ran it last night.

I see your mood the brooding rage of the lone white cloud in the azure sky, glowering down at the yachts prowling the ominously flat sea. I feel it in the clench of my stomach muscles as I rack my brains for something I might say or do to divert the storm the sea is warning me will come but I know I may as well try to alter the mood of the ocean itself.

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Lady Aethelflaed in Paddington


(Maciek M [CC / Flickr])

I saw Aethelflaed in Paddington Station.

I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t like that time I thought the red-haired woman in the Starbucks queue was Guinevere. That was silly, Guinevere’s just a story. Never really existed.

Now Aethelflaed on the other hand, she definitely lived. And I saw her getting off the train from Worcester, which was the capital of Mercia in her time. That proves it, doesn’t it?

No, of course she wasn’t a ghost. There’s no such thing as ghosts. She’s a spirit anchored to a place and Aethelflaed’s place was half of England when you add Wessex and Mercia together. She must have been delighted when trains were invented. Imagine a thousand years with nothing faster than a horse-drawn carriage to get around in.

Don’t roll your eyes. This isn’t like the time I asked that woman sunbathing in Hyde Park if she was Queen Mab. I was thinking about something else and when I saw that long red hair of hers… well, I apologised and she was very gracious about it.

I’m talking about Aethelflaed. She was wearing this purple dress that set off her pale skin. Couldn’t have looked more regal if she’d been wearing her torque. And did I mention her flaming red hair?

No one else noticed her. That was the clincher. No one who had actually seen her could have thought for a moment that she was just one more woman getting off a train, but they were all bustling past her like she wasn’t there. Spirits are like that. They see us all the time, but it’s only once in a while that one of us is lucky enough to see them.

If she was looking for someone who keeps our heritage in our hearts, she’d found him. I waited for her to come through the gates and got down on one knee before her. My lady of Mercia, I said to her, your servant.

She stopped and her blue eyes widened. Not a lot of people who have heard of her, and most who have think she must have been a queen given that she effectively ruled Mercia and Wessex.

She looked amazed to be addressed by her proper title, but she didn’t say anything. She stayed as composed as any true queen ever could. I told her I was hers to command in case she was so used to not being seen that she wasn’t sure what I was getting at.

I meant it, too. There was a bunch of blonde teenagers looking Scandinavian by the Café Nero kiosk and at one word from her, I’d have put and end to their Viking and driven them back across the Watling where they belong. I know we can’t be sure where exactly the Watling was, but I’m sure it was east of Paddington Station.

She didn’t looked like she’d noticed them. Her attention was all on me.

She took a couple of steps back, which made me very conscious of what I don’t know about Saxon etiquette. I was probably too close for a commoner. She’s the daughter of King Alfred the Great himself after all, and blood doesn’t get any more royal than that.

I said I was hers unto death, in case she still hadn’t got my point.

She didn’t say a word. Just turned around and strode into the Lush shop with her long red hair dancing over her shoulders. I guess the novelty of bath bombs might take another century or two to wear off.

I could see I’d failed to convince her of my fealty. Perhaps she expects full prostration from a true servant. All I can do is spend every spare moment in Paddington Station until I see her again and when I do, I’ll fall on my face in front of her. I hope that will get a different reaction from her.

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Green in my Desert


(Michael Gwyther-Jones [CC / Flickr])

I lay where I fell on the desert sands until the figure shimmered out of the ochre dust. Its hazy outline resolved into limbs, a torso and a head that were the green of seedlings given life by rain.

“What’s your name?” My dry mouth reduced my voice to a croak.

The figure did neither slowed not turned in my direction. “You know my name.”

I touched my forehead to the sand at the truth of its words.

“Have you come for me?” I asked.

I dragged myself forward to intercept the figure, but it passed me before I could crawl into its path. Its shadow brushed over my hands, bringing them a moment of blessed cool that I might have imagined.

It spoke to me without looking over its shoulder. “If you know my name, you know I come for no one who waits for me.”

The truth of its words only hit me when it was no more than a shimmer of green in the dust. I hauled myself upright and forced one foot in front of the other. Trudging after it was so much harder than simply lying down and awaiting my fate, but I dared not lose sight of it because I would become one with the desert without ever seeing the colour green again.

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Arctic Adagio sets sail

Arctic Adagio coverHow do you catch a murderer when your suspects own the law?

Superintendent Rex Harme’s job is to protect the super-rich from pirates and anarchists. It’s not his job to investigate them. If they cared to be investigated, they wouldn’t be living on a luxury cruise ship that accepts no national jurisdiction

But when one of the super-rich is thrown into the Arctic Ocean, Harme will need to remember the detective he used to be because someone is going to pay for that murder.

Whether or not it’s the right person depends on whether Harme can beat the clock he isn’t supposed to know is ticking.

If any or all of that catches your attention, you might like to see whether Harme can beat that clock or not in my latest novelette, Arctic Adagio which is available as an ebook from Amazon.

There’s a preview and some author notes on this site, and it’s open to messages of love and hate on Goodreads.

With many thanks to Melanie Nelson of Annorlunda Books for taking it on and sending it out in the world, and to Nerine Dorman whose editing saved me from showing my embarrassing mistakes in public and also for designing the cover.

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Posted in Publishing news

Actaeon’s Landlady


O banho de Diana by François Clouet (1560) (Sailko [Wikimedia Commons])

Brian had been lodging with Diana for three weeks when he walked in on her posing in the nude. Her back was to him when he walked into the living room, so his first instinct was to try to slip out before she noticed him but his body insisted on standing frozen to the spot until she spun around.

“Brian,” she said.

Brian locked his eyes to hers, which absorbed so much of his effort that he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“What are you doing home?” asked Diana. “I thought you were at work.”

“I am. I was. I mean… I left early today. Finished a report, sent it to my boss and, um, you’re not really interested in a report on quarterly sales of printer ink, are you?”

Diana looked down, breaking their eye contact. “I’m sorry. You weren’t to know. I guess I haven’t got used to not living on my own and I shouldn’t be using shared space for… this.”

Diana waved a hand that pulled Brian’s gaze down the length of her body with an irresistible force, collapsing three weeks of resolute failure to notice how attractive his landlady was. It was going to take Brian three months of reminding himself why it was a bad idea to fancy his landlady to make up the lost ground.

“I really am sorry. I’ll go and put something on.”


Diana walked toward the door Brian was standing in front of without trying to cover herself. She was more contrite about being caught posing in the living room than bothered about Brian seeing her naked.

He scuttled sideways to avoid her having to brush past him.

A clatter of paws on floorboards announced that Diana’s Alsatian, Herne, had woken up and was galloping down the hallway. He must have been mortified at having slept through Brian coming into the house because he delivered his tail-wagging, tongue-lolling welcome with twice his usual enthusiasm.

“He’s really taken to you,” Diana said over her shoulder.

Which made it impossible for Brian not to watch her mounting the first step toward her bedroom.

Brian let out his breath and put a hand on Herne’s head. “She’s not making this easy, is she?”

Herne jumped up so his paws reached Brian’s rib cage. Brian held him under his doggy armpits for a moment, placing them almost nose to nose. “What was all that about anyway?”

Brian let Herne slide to the floor. He noticed Diana’s tablet propped up so the webcam faced where she’d been standing. The last image she’d taken pouted at him from the screen.

“Definitely not easy.” Brian crossed the room to it and closed the webcam app. “There’s only so much full frontal a man can take.”

Herne nuzzled his leg.

A bank statement had appeared on the screen. Diana must have had it open before she opened the webcam. Brian’s gaze went straight to the figure of £5,876 in bold red type.

“Ouch.” Brian stroked Herne’s back. “That’s not good. No wonder she took on a lodger.”

The two apps told the story of Diana’s anxiety over her finances driving her to try taking nude pictures to sell. “Not good at all.”

“What are you doing?”

Brian spun around to see Diana in a bathrobe, glaring at him. It occurred to him that they were each standing exactly where the other had stood when he’d walked in on her.


“Are you looking at my bank statement? That’s private.”

“I didn’t mean -”

“Are you snooping on my tablet? What kind of pervert are you?”

Herne picked up on the change of mood and bounded across the room to stand beside Diana.

“How dare you invade my personal… to think I was about to apologise to you!”

Brian tried to adopt a placatory tone. “You’ve already apologised.”

Which weren’t the placatory words he was groping for.

He opened his mouth to try again but a growl from Herne cut him off.

“Get out,” said Diana.

Herne stalked toward Brian, ears back and teeth bared.

“Good boy,” said Diana.

Brain sidestepped to put his back to the wall. He sidled toward the door, keeping his eyes on Herne. Herne growled again, making Brian very aware that Herne’s very sharp teeth were level with his crotch.

Brian made it to the living room door and bolted down the hallway to the front door.

“Go on, Herne, get him,” said Diana.

Brian already had his hand on the latch when he heard Herne clattering across the floorboards toward him. He yanked the door open, shot through and slammed it shut. Herne thudded into it behind him.

“And don’t come back,” Diana shouted through the letterbox. “Pervert!”

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Diminuendo in Three Letters

Constellatory Tales Issue 3I thrill to music I’ve never heard before.

That’s the beginning of this week’s hooptedoodle. The rest of it is over on the website of Constellatory Tales, who have published Diminuendo in Three letters in full.

Many thanks are due to Brian Hirt for accepting and editing it, and I have the honour of sharing space in Issue 3 with three other stories by very accomplished authors:

Parsley, Pennyroyal, Paracetamol by JL George

Under the Hat by Forrest Brazeal

Roads That Ain’t by Buzz Dixon

Have a look and enjoy them all!

If you’re interested in the thinking behind Diminuendo in Three Letters, I’ve left some author notes lying around.

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Tough Old Game


(marcokalmann [CC / Flickr])

Meeting a writers’ group was always like sticking her hand in a lucky dip. The commissioning editor never knew what to expect. She cast her eye around the table of earnest faces of which only a couple looked over thirty and decided this lot would need to hear the facts of life.

“Writing’s a tough old game. I wish everyone who submits to us would understand that up front.”

She paused to see how that had landed. Most were drinking it in wide eyes so wide that she wondered if she’s be asked to sign an autograph. One of them was scribbling notes with his head down. She watched his mouth form the words, tough old game.

No point in pulling punches with this lot. “I meet groups like yours because I think it helps you to know what to expect. As we’re one of the last imprints left who take submissions from writers who don’t have agents, we often find we’re the first to explain how tough it is to…”

She broke off at the ripple of movement precipitated by her mentioning that her publishing house didn’t need an agent. Everyone was sitting up a little straighter, which meant she’d just provoked a dozen submissions over the next week. She suppressed a sigh. “To writers like you.”

Time to double down. “I’m not going to sugar coat this. We publish a fraction of a percent of the subs we receive. You’re likely to spend years writing your first novel and even then, it won’t be any good unless you get as much feedback as you can. That means proper critique, not encouragement from your mum or your best friend. It means getting your heart broken and then rewriting it all over again half a dozen times.

“When you’ve done all that, the odds against getting it published are still stacked against you and even if you do get into print, that novel won’t make you enough money to give up your day job while you do it all over again with the next one. I’m afraid that’s what being a novelist means today.”

The writer who raised her hand looked like she had the widest eyes of the lot. Or perhaps it was her spectacles. The editor nodded to her.

“Is there anything we can do to improve our chances?” she asked.

“Yes, there is. Write a really good book. So good I can’t put it down.” She smiled with the sympathy of the doctor saying that no, the test results aren’t what we hoped for but don’t despair, you could have as much as a year left. “All right, the truth is that your brilliant novel will still come to us in the middle of a pile of slush so we can’t promise we’ll see the wheat for the chaff even if the wheat is solid gold.

“That’s why I’d always look for ways to make personal connections with whoever you’re sending your novel to. Writers’ festivals are good. Take a few days off work for a long weekend. There are courses and retreats that are good for making contacts as well.”

The writer with the glasses raised her hand again. Poor girl, thought the editor as she nodded. She looked like she’d spent her schooldays happy to be called the class swot as long as she was at the top of that class, and spent the years since trying to claim that position in the wider world.

“Festivals, courses and retreats,” said the girl, “these things aren’t cheap, are they?”

“Oh, most of them are only a few hundred pounds. Or a thousand or two for some of the better courses.” The editor couldn’t imagine this girl turning out anything worth reading past the first page, but it cost nothing to be kind. “I’m not here to pretend any of this is easy.”

A glance around the table told her that everyone around it was still giving her their full attention. The note-taker was mouthing, not here to pretend it’s easy, while his pen flew across his moleskin.

“What sort of thing are you looking for,” asked the girl whom the editor knew she’d always think of as the class swot.

“I’ll start by telling you what we don’t want. No more stories of twenty-somethings living with their parents in Hampstead, going on disappointing Tinder dates while trying to decide what to do with their lives. No more novels of stalking the wrong boy or girl across the campus in between tutorials on Camus or Colette. Our slush is full of quarter-life crises and middle-class angst already, and one more of them isn’t going to stand out.”

She threw another look around the table. Several of the writers looked down to avoid her gaze. The class swot was going red. The editor wondered if she’d taken the measure of this group a little too well.

“In fairness, those stories do reflect most of the people who write novels that end up in our slush.” It didn’t hurt to pull the occasional punch, and this group deserved some sincerity after she’d landed a blow like that. “I must admit to being both of those characters myself. But what we need is something more… real. You know, I can never understand why we never get any working class writers submitting to us.”

It was a thought that often occurred to the editor when she contemplated the slush. She stopped to give it yet another moment’s thought that brought no answers.

The note-taker was mouthing the words, ‘working class writers’.

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