Aeryn’s Archives: At the Seams

Today’s installment of Aeryn’s Archives features my very first flash fiction publication back in August of 2014, a weird little number called “At the Seams.” It was published by the good folks at The Molotov Cocktail, who have gone on to publish me another dozen times. Let’s have a look.

So how did this publication happen. Well, that part’s simple. I submitted a story, the editors liked it, and they published it. What’s more interesting, though, is how I started writing flash fiction in the first place. That actually took some convincing. I was working at Privateer Press at the time, and a number of the writers and editors there were participating in a bi-weekly one-hour flash fiction competition over on the Shock Totem. (Shock Totem is a horror magazine that sponsored the contest on their forums). Well, my colleagues said I should give this flash fiction thing a try. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something like, “Fiction in a thousand words? How ridiculous!” (I know; joke’s on me, right?) They twisted my arm a bit more, and finally I took the plunge. After that first sweat-soaked, anxiety-wracked hour of trying to throw together a cohesive story, I was hooked. I started doing the flash fiction contest every other week, and I even ran it for a while. Hell, I still do it with my current writing group, and a good portion of my published fiction began life as a one-hour scribble.

Anyway, one of the best things about the one-hour contest is that it pushes you to write outside your comfort zone, and for me, weird is definitely outside my comfort zone. “At the Seams” is decidedly weird, and I think that’s what The Molotov Cocktail dug about it. I’m so glad I started writing flash fiction and that I discovered the wonderful folks over at The Molotov, who have graciously continued to publish me fairly regularly over the last six years.

You can read “At the Seams” by clicking the big ol cover illustration above or the link below.

READ “At the Seams”

NYCM Round 2: The Dread Scotsman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago in NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge at the urging of some of my writer pals. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

I didn’t do particularly well in the contest, and I did not make the semi-finals. What are you gonna do? Anyway, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts and the stories I wrote with them.

Round 2

  • Genre: Action/Adventure
  • Location: A ship’s cabin
  • Object: A black and white photo

Like “No Guns, No Knives,” the story for “The Dread Scotsman” came pretty quick, maybe too quick. You can read it below.


The Dread Scotsman

“There she is, sir,” Sergeant Pennyworth said and lowered his spyglass.

Lieutenant Nigel Armstrong peered over the gunwales of The Eagle at the ship speeding toward them. The HMS Saber flew the Union Jack but was no longer part of the British Navy, nor was its captain, formerly Commander Angus MacLeod, now known as The Dread Scotsman.

“Ready the men,” Nigel said.

Pennyworth turned and signaled to the Royal Marines hidden among the crew of The Eagle. Nigel’s unit had been loaned out to the whaling vessel after The Dread Scotsman had murdered the crews of three others and the Crown had finally chosen to intercede.

The marines took their positions while The Eagle’s crew, many of them casting terrified glances at the approaching pirate vessel, went about their business. Nigel had assured The Eagle’s captain, Arthur Hayes, two dozen marines were more than a match for MacLeod’s crew, now composed primarily of criminals from Barbados and St. Lucia.

Watching The Saber barrel in, Nigel hoped his promise to Captain Hayes hadn’t been bravado, and his hands slipped to the hilt of his cutlass and the butt of his pistol. He longed for a rifle, but long guns would reveal their presence too soon.

The Saber carried cannons, but Macleod wouldn’t use them. A whaling ship like The Eagle was too fat a prize. No, this would be a boarding action, up close and brutal.

The Saber came alongside The Eagle, its gunwales swarming with men clutching knives, sabers, and pistols. MacLeod was among them, towering over the tallest of his men, his red hair and beard like a bloody wreath around his head. He clenched an archaic Scottish backsword in one massive fist and a double-barreled pistol in the other. Around his neck hung a string of silver plates, daguerreotypes portraying his many victims in their final moments. The ghoulish trophies were courtesy of one Alistair Coke, a naturalist and photographer who’d had the profound misfortune to be aboard the first whaling vessel MacLeod had taken.

The battle began with smoke and thunder as the pirates unleashed a fusillade of pistol fire. Nigel threw himself to the deck, as did the marines behind him. They had orders to wait until the pirates were on board to reveal their presence. MacLeod might turn tail if he knew he faced experienced soldiers and not a ship full of terrified whalers.

At the thud of boots on The Eagle’s deck Nigel sprang to his feet, weapons in hand. He shot the nearest pirate through the throat, parried a saber thrust from another, then split the man’s skull with his cutlass.

The rest of his marines joined the fray. All were skilled combatants, and they slashed and blasted their way through the pirates with grim efficiency. Smoke and screams filled the air, and a dozen of MacLeod’s men lay dead in moments. None of this deterred the Dread Scotsman. He wielded his backsword like a barbarian warlord, smashing aside his opponents’ blades, then running them through or cracking their skulls with the butt of his pistol. As he fought, the daguerreotypes around his neck made a terrible staccato clatter, like metal teeth gnashing together.

Nigel needed to get MacLeod’s attention. He cut down a pirate, grabbed the man’s pistol, and fired. From thirty feet away his chances of hitting the Scotsman were slim, but luck was with him, and the ball grazed MacLeod’s cheek. With a bellow of surprise and outrage, the Scotsman whirled toward Nigel.

Good, Nigel thought and moved toward the nearest hatch. It led down to the captain’s cabin. Across the deck, MacLeod surged in Nigel’s direction, smashing marines out of his way with blows from his pistol butt or whirling cuts from his sword.

Nigel fled down the stairs, his heart hammering in his chest. He was a skilled swordsman, but MacLeod’s strength and size were advantages not easily overcome, at least not where the Scotsman had room to swing his larger blade.

The captain’s cabin was small, ten feet by ten feet, an ideal battleground for a man armed with a shorter cutlass . . .

MacLeod thundered down the steps behind Nigel. His eyes blazed with wrath, and he threw a wide sweeping cut, his blade humming through the air like a swarm of angry bees. Nigel stopped the backsword with a stiff parry, but the shock of the brute’s attack nearly ripped the cutlass from his hand. He wouldn’t last long trading blows with MacLeod.

The Scotsman, sensing his victory, grinned, exposing a mouthful of crooked yellowed teeth. “Are ye ready for your portrait, Lieutenant,” he said, his brogue thick and menacing.

“Only if you’ll comb my hair, you overstuffed haggis,” Nigel replied.

MacLeod roared and launched an overhand strike that would have split his foe from nose to navel had it landed. Instead, the tip of the Scotsman’s sword plowed into the low ceiling and stuck. It was what Nigel had been waiting for. He lunged, a thrust his fencing master at the academy would have lauded, and drove a foot of steel through MacLeod’s right eye. The tip of Nigel’s blade burst from the back of the Scotsman’s skull, and MacLeod toppled over backward and crashed to the floor, his daguerreotypes clattering like a death rattle.

Sergeant Pennyworth came down the steps a heartbeat later. When he saw MacLeod’s corpse he breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the lord, sir. I was sure that beastly Scotsman had done for you.”

Nigel offered the sergeant a shaky smile. “Not today. How’d we fare?” The gunfire and sounds of battle had faded from above.

“Six dead on our side, but we killed thirty of theirs at least. The rest have laid down their arms.”

Nigel nodded and considered the Dread Scotsman’s corpse at his feet. “Sergeant, find that Alistair Coke fellow if he’s still alive, the naturalist and photographer MacLeod had aboard. I think there’s one last image he might like to capture.”


The toughest part of the prompt for me was the black and white photo because action/adventure immediately took my mind to pirates, and I just couldn’t shake the idea in the limited time I had to write. I also made it harder on myself by essentially writing historical fiction, which requires a level of research that’s hard to pull off in this kind of timeframe. My biggest hurdle was simply that photos and most folks’ idea of pirates are usually separated by at least a century, so I had a real challenge. I fudged a little (okay, a lot) and used an early form of photography (daguerreotypes) and set the story in the 1840s where sailing vessels were still a thing. The story won’t hold up to any kind of real historical scrutiny, of course, but I had fun with it.

I think “The Dread Scotsman” is a better story than “No Guns, No Knives,” though it still has issues (historical accuracy notwithstanding). The reviewers mostly liked it, but they pointed out what is likely the story’s biggest weakness. The stakes for Nigel and his marines aren’t clearly defined. They need to feel and express more peril, and their fate, should they fail to defeat the Dread Scotsman, needs to be explored a bit more. Now, there’s likely room to do that with this story and still keep it at flash length, and I might even consider submitting it somewhere IF there were a market for action/adventure stories. I scoured Duotrope and found exactly one that would take a story like this. So “The Dread Scotsman” becomes blog fodder, and I’m okay with that.

NYCM Round 1: No Guns, No Knives

Recently, at the urging of some folks in my writing group, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:

The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge.  When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group.  Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here).  After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge.  In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment.  The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.  

Pretty straightforward, right? Well, I didn’t make it past the second round, and both my stories came in 13th place (out of like 30, if I remember correctly) in my various heats and did not score enough points to put me into the semi-finals. Despite my lackluster showing, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts I recieved AND the stories I threw together with them. So let’s do that.

Round 1

  • Genre: Thriller
  • Location: A commuter train
  • Object: An ethernet cable

Not the toughest assignment, and the idea for “No Guns, No Knives” came pretty quick. You can read it below.


No Guns, No Knives

Kissinger’s target walked past his seat carrying a black laptop bag. Andrei Volkov was short, solidly built, and his heavy limbs and black beard gave him an almost bear-like appearance.

Outside the commuter train, the Pacific Northwest sped past. The Sounder ran from Tacoma to Seattle, and the few people on board were absorbed in books or smart phones. None of them noticed Kissinger reaching beneath his coat to touch the cool steel butt of his Beretta. The handgun was uncomfortable to carry with the suppressor attached, but it and the subsonic ammunition made the weapon no louder than a sharp clap, easily obscured by the noise of the moving train.

As Kissinger rose from his seat to follow Volkov his phone buzzed. Frowning, he pulled the cheap burner from his pocket and sat down again. It was Frank. “Jesus, I’m about to go to work.”

“I know,” Frank said. “But there’s a problem. The client has, uh, changed his mind on the details.”

“What?” Kissinger said, alarmed. “This guy is twenty minutes from the Federal Building. If he gets there, our client is fucked.” Volkov was an accountant who’d been cooking the books for Ivan Kuznetzov, a local Russian mob boss. Word on the street was he’d been indicted for tax fraud and was eager to make a deal with the Feds. The considerable information he had on Kuzentzov would be irresistible to the FBI.

“Turns out Volkov is Kuznetzov’s cousin,” Frank said. “He wants him . . . intact for the funeral.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Kissinger hissed into the phone.

“No guns, no knives.”

“Goddamn it, Frank. I didn’t bring tools for that kind of work.”

“I know; I’m sorry, really.”

Kissinger considered his options. They were few and unappealing. “What if I didn’t get this message?”

Frank was silent for a moment, then, “You want to fuck around with Kuznetzov? I like you, Kissinger. You’re precise and professional. But if you shoot or stab Volkov, there is an excellent chance the next contract across my desk will have your name on it.”

Kissinger sighed. Frank was right. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He snapped the phone closed.

During Kissinger’s phone conversation, Volkov had moved to the next car. Kissinger got up and walked slowly toward it. By the landmarks whizzing by outside the window, he estimated he had about ten minutes before they reached Seattle.

The gun under his jacket and the knife in his right boot were useless weight at best, dangerous temptations at worst. He’d killed men with his hands before, but it was slow, loud, and likely to draw attention. His preferred method was a single gunshot to the head. Quick, painless, certain. Unfortunately, a hollow-point 9mm slug often did not leave a pretty corpse.

Volkov rose from his seat when Kissinger entered the next car. He froze, wondering if his target had spotted him for who and what he was. Instead, the Russian ambled slowly to the tiny bathroom cubicle at the other end of the car.

Kissinger looked around and realized the car was empty except for him and his target. Hit men did not ignore good fortune when it smiled on them, and he raced forward, slamming into Volkov as the Russian opened the door to the bathroom. He ended up in a three-foot-by-three-foot cubicle, pressed up against the back of the man he was supposed to kill.

Volkov’s right hand shot to his left pants pocket, scrabbling at what had to be a concealed pistol. There was no room to aim it, but if he fired the weapon, the whole train would hear the shot.

Kissinger threw a short, sharp punch into Volkov’s kidneys, keeping him from pulling his pistol, and desperately searched for something to fight with. Volkov’s bag was open, and Kissinger pushed his left hand inside while he held Volkov in place with the right. The Russian grunted and struggled, but didn’t cry out. That wouldn’t last.

Kissinger’s hand became entangled in something in Volkov’s bag. It felt like thin, plastic rope. His eyes widened, and he yanked out a coiled length of blue Ethernet cable. Kissinger pulled away from Volkov’s body as much as the small space allowed. The Russian used the tiny bit of freedom to go for his gun again and managed to get it out of his pocket. Kissinger used the space to bring both hands up and wrap the Ethernet cable around Volkov’s throat. He spun around, bent forward, his forehead brushing the bathroom door, and lifted Volkov off his feet, drawing the cable tight around the Russian’s throat.

Volkov made a terrified gagging noise, and his pistol clattered to the floor. Kissinger hung on, the cable digging furrows into his hands. Volkov’s feet drummed against the sink, and he jerked and writhed. Finally, his struggles weakened, then stopped. Kissinger held on for another thirty seconds to make sure.

A sudden latrine stench told Kissinger the hit has been a success. He sat Volkov’s body on the toilet, pocketed the ethernet cable, and checked his handiwork.

Volkov’s eyes were open, bulging and red, and his tongue protruded from his mouth. A livid red line encircled his neck. It would turn into an ugly purple bruise in a few minutes.

Kissinger slipped out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. The car beyond was still blessedly empty, and he made his way to the next one, praying no one would need the toilet.

He spent a tense few minutes waiting for the next stop. When The Sounder pulled into downtown Seattle he was through the doors and walking away from the station in less than a minute.

He called Frank when he was far enough away to avoid suspicion.

“Is it done?” Frank asked.

“It is.”

“Were you able to meet the client’s request?”

Kissinger snorted irritably. “As best I could, but they’re gonna want a high collar and a necktie for the funeral.”


As you can see, all the prompts added up (for me anyway) to an assassination or hit on a commuter train with the ethernet cable as the weapon. Since it was a thriller, I needed the story to move quickly and have a fair amount of action. I also needed some kind of wrinkle that would force my hitman to use such an unorthodox weapon without stretching belief too far. I think the story accomplishes what I needed it to. It is clearly a thriller and the object and location are strongly incorporated and integral to the plot. It’s failing, I think, is that it’s not particularly memorable. I like some of the dialog between Kissinger and his handler, Frank, and the bathroom scene was fun to write, but at the end of the day there’s probably not much that makes this story stand out. It gets the job done, but not much more, hence it’s relatively low score.

Well, that was round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Check back next week and I’ll show you my round two story 🙂

A Week of Writing: 7/22/19 to 7/28/19

Yeesh, have I fallen behind on these things. Okay, here we go.

Words to Write By

This week’s quote comes from Truman Capote.

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

― Truman Capote

You ever seen someone smother their french fries in ketchup to the point where you can’t even see the fries? Or maybe someone dumps so much cream in their coffee you say something stupid like, “Hey, you want some coffee with that cream?” Anyway, that’s how I’ve been feeling about my writing lately. I swear I’m not posting this to elicit sympathy. Nope, it all about the importance and hard truth in Truman Capote’s quote. Essentially, if you are going to pursue writing, you are going to fail or at least feel like your failing a lot, and I think Mr. Capote’s right. Every time I’ve had some success at this gig it’s been more meaningful because I know how hard I’ve worked for it, and how much harder I’ll work still.

So, even when you’re feeling like you’re failing miserably, and the rejections are piling up, and the revision just keeps going and going and going, remember how fucking great those fries taste with a little ketchup.

The Novel

Still working on the novel, still revising, but getting closer. Progress on the novel for the last couple of week was slowed by a vacation and then a story I needed to write for another project. I’m back on on it this week and what I hope is the final two weeks before a completed revision and the novel is back in my agents hands. (My lips to gods ears and all that.)

Short Stories

Uh, not great.

  • Submissions Sent: 0
  • Rejections: 1
  • Acceptances: 1
  • Publications: 1
  • Shortlist: 0

I have fallen of the wagon with submission in a serious way. The one bright spot here is an acceptance and a publication. There’s a submission window closing today for a market I do not want to miss, so I can guarantee at least one submission this week. Of course, I’m also off my pace for 100 submissions for the year, but I still have time to make that up.

The Blog

Fell down a little here too. Sensing a theme yet? 🙂

7/17/19: The Post-Acceptance Process

In this post I discuss what I do after an acceptance (a much less-used set of procedures).

Goals

The main goal is to get a story or two out to a market a very much like whose submission window close TODAY. Beyond that, it’s working on the novel (like a broken record).

Curious Fictions

I’ve published a couple more flash pieces over at Curious Fictions. They’re free to read, so head on out, give ’em a look, and throw me a like or two if you’re so inclined.

The first story is called “A Man of Many Hats,” and it’s one of the weirder things I’ve written. It was originally published by The Molotov Cocktail. The second story is an old, unpublished work called “A Friend for Abby.” .

“A Man of Many Hats”

Photo by James Bak on Unsplash

“A Friend for Abby”

Photo by SvedOliver on Shutterstock


That was my week. How was yours?

One-Hour Flash – Blood Sport

Got another one-hour flash fiction for you folks. Again, this is another story I wrote in an hour based on a visual prompt. Many of these prompted one-hour stories go on to publication, and others, like this one, uh, don’t. So instead of letting the piece collect dust on my hard drive, I’m gonna inflict it on all of you. You’re welcome. 🙂

Here’s “Blood Sport.”


Blood Sport

“Who am I fighting?” Hector said as Manuel worked the kinks out of his shoulders.

He felt Manuel shrug. “You know how these things go. We won’t know until you step into the ring.”

Hector shook his head. Since the UFC had banned him for steroid use, he took whatever fights he could get. Many times these were unsanctioned bouts in the filthy basement of a bar or an abandoned warehouse. They paid okay, and since he’d been a pro; the losers that fought him rarely stood a chance. Still, the promoters of these bouts promised to use UFC rules, but they rarely did, and the fights were little more than blood sport.

“I fucking hate this shit,” Hector said.

“Calm down,” Manuel replied. “You can’t get tense before a fight.”

“I am Hector Villanueva, goddamn it. I was the fucking UFC welterweight champion. Now look at me.”

“Yes, look at you,” Manuel said, and stepped around to stare at the man he’d been training to fight for twenty years. “You are still fighting. You are still making money. This fight will pay you twenty-five thousand dollars. Soon we will have enough to hire the attorneys you need to get back into the UFC.”

Hector drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I know but this feels so low. Beneath me.”

Manuel nodded. “Sometimes we have to dig ourselves out from the bottom to get to the top.”

A knock sounded at the door to the makeshift training room–the employee’s locker room in an old meat-packing warehouse. Manuel went to answer it. He opened the door, and one of the fight promoters stood. He was a weird looking guy: tall, shaved head, with squiggly tattoos on his skull. They might have been writing, but Hector couldn’t tell what language they were.

“Is your man ready,” the promotor said. His voice was low and flat, like a computer. It gave Hector the creeps.

“He’s ready,” Manuel said. “What about yours?”

“Nearly,” the fight promoter said. “I need one more thing before we begin.” The man pulled a short jagged knife from his pocket.

Hector hopped off the training table and slid into a classic Muay Thai stance. “What the fuck, man?”

The man stopped and smiled. “I mean you no harm,” he said. “I only need a drop of blood.”

“Fuck you,” Hector said. “I’m not giving you my blood.”

Manuel came up behind the man, ready to spring to Hector’s defense. Though nearly sixty, Manuel held a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu.

“I know this seems odd,” the man said. “But it is necessary.” He reached into his other pocket and pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills. A fat roll. “I can offer you another five thousand up front.” He tossed the bills to Manuel.

“On top of what we’re already getting, right?” Manuel said, and looked back at Hector with a what-do-you-think expression on his face.

The man nodded.

“Not my hands,” Hector said. It was hard to turn down another five K. “Cut my arm or leg.”

The man smiled, showing a lot of straight white teeth. “Of course. We need you in top form tonight.”

#

The ring was in the middle of the abandoned meat-packing plant. It was sorry attempt at an octagon with chicken-wire fences and a dingy mat within. There was a small crowd, all dressed in black. Hector’s opponent stood inside the octagon, his face hidden by the hood of a black silk boxing robe.

“Jesus, this is weird,” Hector said to Miguel as the approached the octagon.

“No shit,” Manuel said. “Fuck this dude up and we’re out of here, thirty grand richer.”

Hector made his way to the gate where the fight promoter waited. The man opened the gate and allowed Hector inside, following after him.

Hector went to the other side of octagon, across from his opponent, and begin throwing punches into the air, shifting from foot to foot, anything to get the blood flowing.

His opponent stood still, arms at his side. He looked to be the same height as Hector and of similar build: muscular and lean.

Maybe this asshole will give me a real fight, Hector thought. It would be a first in these unsanctioned bouts where he usually won in the first round with a knockout or submission.

The fight promoter stepped to the center of the octagon and cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “This is what we have gathered for.” A soft murmur of appreciation rose form the small crowd. “A man comes to us to fight his demon.”

What the fuck is this? Hector thought and looked to Manuel standing outside the octagon. His trainer was staring at the fight promotor and listening.

Something was very wrong. “Manuel, what’s going on?”

His trainer smiled sadly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They paid me a lot more than thirty grand to get you here.”

Movement from across the octagon drew Hector’s attention away from Manuel. His opponent had removed his hood, and Hector’s breath caught in his throat. The man he was fighting could be his identical twin save for the flat black eyes and shark-like teeth crowding his open mouth.

“We give thanks for this vessel,” the fight promoter said. “We honor you with this sacrifice, Abbadon, destroyer of men.” He exited the octagon, and the crowd pressed close, blocking the gate.

Hector’s doppelganger slid into a perfect Muay Thai stance, one with which Hector was intimately familiar.


As with many of these failed flash stories, I like the set-up and the characters, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It sets up what could be an interesting conflict but then just fizzles out because we don’t see that conflict resolved. If we were to see Hector fight for his life against the demon, change and grow because of it (even if he doesn’t survive), there might be something to this. As it stands, I think I have a solid premise and setup, but that’s about it. The ending is definitely rushed as I ran out of time and word count.

Want to see more failed flash? Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

One-Hour Flash – End of the Line

Hey, folks, here’s another bit of flash fiction from my vault of almosts, not quites, and something’s missings. Like a lot of these flash pieces, this one came about in a one-hour flash fiction writing exercise. Sometimes those exercises result in publishable fiction and sometimes they result in, well, something else. This is one of the latter. As usual, this is essentially a first draft.

Here’s “End of the Line.”


End of the Line

Arnold awoke to the rumble and vibration of a moving train. He opened his eyes and found himself face-down on cracked filthy boards that smelled of rot and old blood—sour and coppery. Above him the wind howled, and he rolled over onto his back to see that he was lying in an open-topped rail car. The car was walled with bare boards—newer than those that made up the floor—nailed together to form a kind of fence or pen. It was desperately cold, and he could see the ghostly white shapes of snow-topped trees flash by overhead as the train sped along.

He had no memory of how he’d gotten here. He had gone to bed last night, safe in his apartment. He remembered closing his eyes, looking up at the ceiling in his room as sleep stole over him. Then he’d awoken here.

He sat up slowly, his limbs heavy and aching in the cold. He vision swam and a spike of exquisite pain lanced through his skull. He moaned and rocked forward onto his knees, trying not to vomit, trying not to pass out.

“Sorry about that, friend.”

The sudden realization he was not alone cut through Arnold’s pain like a white-hot knife. He pushed himself away from the floor and onto his backside and scanned the rail car from end to end. It was little more than a bare box some twenty feet long by ten feet wide. The moon overhead offered some illumination, but thick shadows pooled in every corner—they could be hiding anything.

The shadows farthest from Arnold shifted, and their tenebrous mass took on a man-like shape. It slithered forward, and Arnold caught a glimpse of black cloth and the suggestion of a face, round and pale like the moon above. He couldn’t see much else; the shadows seem to gather protectively around the figure, obscuring all but a vague outline.

“I had to tap you on the head to keep you quiet,” the shadow man said. His voice was barely a whisper, but it reached Arnold’s ears unobstructed by the shrieking wind or the noise from the moving train.

“I don’t—,” Arnold croaked, his mouth was bone dry and his tongue felt like it was made of cotton batting. He tried again. “Where am I?”

“On your way,” the thing in the shadows said. Arnold heard a smile in its voice, or maybe he saw a flash of teeth—long, yellow, and sharp—in the flickering moonlight.

The answer meant nothing to Arnold, but it filled him with such horror he could scarcely breathe. He moved away from the voice, until his back brushed up against the far wall of the rail car. “Why?” he whispered.

Again the shadow man smiled, but this time he saw—with certainty—a pair of eyes, lantern-like above that ghastly grin. “He keeps me very busy,” it said and laughed—the sound sent tiny spiders of terror down Arnold’s back. It was like hearing breaking glass or splintering wood, a fractured, unnatural sound. “He is hungry, always hungry. I bring him the choicest morsels, the most delectable sweets, and that keeps him quiet.”

“I don’t understand,” Arnold moaned. “I was asleep in my apartment. How can I be here?”

“I know you don’t understand,” the shadow man said. “You don’t need to. I came for you because you have certain qualities he will enjoy, certain qualities that will keep him quiescent for a few more weeks and save many from his hunger.”

“Please don’t kill me,” Arnold moaned, terror robbing him of hope and dignity.

“I won’t kill you,” the shadow man said. “Not I. But why should you care? You have nothing; you are loved by nothing. I snatched you from your bed because your life is barely worth living. You are hopeless and pointless, Arnold Graves. He will give you purpose so those who deserve life can keep it a little longer.”

“But I don’t want to die!” Arnold howled. “I don’t—“

The shadows surged forward. A hand shot from the darkness and grasped Arnold by the throat, cutting off his scream with a choked gurgle. The shadow man lifted him bodily from the ground, turned him about, and slammed him into the wall of the rail car. He could see over the top of the barricade, where a black engine belched smoke into the night as it hurdled down rusting tracks through a nameless forest.

“End of the line, Arnold,” the shadow man whispered, his breath cold in Arnold’s ear. “Can you see him where the tracks end?”

Arnold tried to close his eyes, but long fingers reached over the top of his head and pried them open . . . and he saw what was waiting. It rose up from the forest, trees splintering in its wake, blocking out the moon and the stars with its enormity. The wind howled louder, and Arnold heard its voice carried in the screaming torrent. He felt its hunger, felt its mind, immense and alien, reaching out to gather his soul as its vast claws reached out to gather his flesh.

The shadow man released him. Arnold had time for one long, lingering scream before the dark and the cold swallowed him whole.


Okay, so this is another one I actually like, and I think it’s effectively creepy in places. The problem with it is my main character is just kind of blah. He doesn’t have much personality or anything, and he’s really there just so the monsters can do bad shit to him. If I were to expand this story, he’s the first thing I’d focus on, especially the part about his life being pointless and all that. That’s something the reader needs to see, to experience, rather than have a shadow monster mention it off-hand.

Check out the previous installments in the One-Hour Flash series.

Off the Hook: More Fun with First Lines

For the past couple of years I’ve written blog posts examining the first lines of my short stories. All of this is based on an essay by Stephen King called “Great Hookers I Have Known” from his collection Secret Windows. In the essay, he examines first lines (from his works and others) looking for “hookers,” which are (in old-timey publishing lingo) first lines that grab a reader’s attention. It’s a great essay if you can find it, and I do believe a great first line can help you land a publication, but how important is it?

Let’s once again try to answer that question by looking at my own work. We’ll focus on some of the stories I published last year, those that are free to read online, and see how I did. You can check out the first line here, and it it grabs you, follow the link to read the rest of the story. I’ll score each opening line with a letter grade and tell you why I think it’s a good one or not.

1. “The Food Bank” published by The Arcanist

A beetle the size of a battleship came out of the afternoon sky, its gargantuan wings buzzing like the drone of a thousand helicopters.

I think this a pretty good sentence. It’s definitely weird, and I think it does what a good first line should do – get the reader asking questions. Grade: A-

2. “Simulacra” published by EllipsisZine

Ice and a snow weren’t the best material for the task, but Jason didn’t have much else to work with.

Not terrible, but certainly not grab-you-by-the-throat good. I think it works a little because it might get the reader wondering what Jason is working on here. Still, not fantastic. Grade: C+

3. “Two Legs” published by The Molotov Cocktail 

There had been no meat for too long.

Though it’s short, I think this one is solid. There’s something kind of icky and ominous about the word meat, and I think this sentence does enough to get the reader on to the next one. Grade: B

4. “The Inside People” published by EllipsisZine

Victor wiped the spittle from his mouth after another coughing fit and stared up at the tower.

Well, this one is definitely descriptive, and it does pretty well as an establishing shot. Grade: B-

5. “Do Me a Favor” published by The Arcanist

“I need you to shoot me in the head.” Howard tapped his temple.

This one gets your attention, doesn’t it? One of the better first lines I’ve written, I think. Grade: A

6. “The Last Scar” published by Trembling with Fear

The morphine is starting to kick in when Sergeant Freeman raps his nightstick against my door.

Like number four, this one falls into that establishing shot category. It’s descriptive and gives you a fair bit of information. It’s not knock-your-sock-off good, but it’s not bad either. Grade: B-

7. “What Kind of Hero?” published by EllipsisZine

“Look what I made.” Alyssa held up a black jumpsuit.

Yeah, not great. I think I got away with this one mostly because the story opens with some rapid-fire dialog, and the lines after are better and, well, you get to them quickly. Grade: D+

8. “Bear Necessity” published by The Molotov Cocktail

The knock on Jerry’s door startled him. 

This is a first line saved by a much better second line. In this case, that’s – He nearly jerked the shotgun’s trigger and blew his TV to atoms. Those two together is maybe a B+. Alone, this is not much to look at. Grade: C-

9. “When the Lights Go On” published by The Arcanist

We don’t turn on the lights in Moore, Idaho.

I think this is the best of the bunch, edging out number five by a hair. It’s short, subtle, and I think it sets the tone of the story right away. Grade: A


Of course, these grades are entirely subjective, and you might disagree with my ratings. The question remains, though, does that first line help you get published? Let’s look at the two best (in my opinion). I sold “Do Me a Favor” on the first try, and, yeah, I do think that first line might have helped me a bit. On the other hand, I sent “When the Lights Go On” everywhere, and though it garnered a lot of short lists and personal rejections, it took me 10 tries to sell it. I honestly think “When the Lights Go On” is the better story, but the best first line in the world is just one piece of the publishing puzzle. You still need that winning combo of right story + right editor/market + right time.

Thoughts on first lines? Tell me about it in the comments and/or share some of yours.