Written in Spring 2020
© Susan Browne 2020
Tiny stories are fun for writers, both beginners and experienced, to enjoy the buzz of creating a whole project with a start, middle and end quickly. I highly recommend them. This month I decided to set myself a challenge of one very short story per day for a week, following the hashtag and daily prompt on twitter found at #vss365. VSS365 stands for “very short story,” and 365 because a new prompt is given every day of the year. To search for the prompt, I type the #vss365 hashtag and search ‘latest,’ and there is typically a cluster of new tweets that are using the same word.
At the time of writing, you have just 280 characters to write a tweet. So your story must be just a few lines long – unless you are writing very short lines, which some writers do.
Having finished the week, I thought I’d share my week’s pickings with you here. As well as some another micro fiction story I wrote this Spring. If you do the challenge for yourself, or even just have a go at one, why not share in the comments below? I’d love to see them.
The 7 Day #vss365 Challenge, June 2020
Some Tiny Stories:
It was you that brought him there. A door opened to kismet. I stood in trees with velleity, seeking strength. It didn’t matter.
After days and nights deep in the forest, I met tellurian spirit folk. The Königin said I could stay in the Festung if I agreed to tell their stories.
I promised – wondering how I might fit – explaining that only children would believe.
‘Good,’ she said.
Once, I found the Fly Agaric, generous and baroque under oak in the national park. After a day searching with dripping camera among trees and the rubiginous graves of Autumn.
A bite was taken from its cap.
What creature eats this and lives?
Boggy island is a circular swamp where once a bomb was dropped. A place of newts, frogspawn and lost shoes. A place, in the minds of the verdant, you might just disappear. Rapidly sucked down under the silt and mud. Becoming fodder for red worms.
It was expensive, so I slathered it on my arms, face, and legs, without reserve. Essential oils enveloped me as I drifted into a world aeons from the glossy shop floor.
‘Can I help you, Maam?’ The crackle of a walky-talky.
‘That would be highly unlikely.’
Summer’s viridity formed hiding places for children, and for other things deeper inside. Far from carved paths, climbing trees, illegal tents and big walking boots.
1 am; a coruscate within a tiny clearing beam right up to the fat moon.
The second bravest of our escapades was the peanuts in a cage over swarming feline beasts – adjacent to transparent human shield. Easier than hunting, yet saturated with adrenaline.
One stormy day the cage got blown to the ground. That was the first.
And Finally, this is a micro-fiction story of just 100 words for the NYC Midnight Micro-Fiction Competition, using the prompts:
Action: making a cup of tea
I See Them
My new life began the day I disappeared. I was twelve.
The TV was left on, the front door open. Mom began the search by calling me – and later asking Google where my phone was. It had been dropped into the centre of our neighbour’s cornfield. Police found it cracked.
I get it now. I am assigned to improve the world through the tasks they set me. They require people with my capabilities.
I can watch my family today. I see them, but they don’t see me. My mom makes tea and stares at a spot on the counter.
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From Procrastination to Celebration
I’ve been trying to write a novel since childhood. For some reason, it was much easier to write my first book (non-fiction) than it has been to complete my debut novel. But I’m done – whoop!!! And I’m celebrating today with a blog on my fave tips for finishing your novel. Among other ways, of course.
1) Know that Nobody Cares
The cruel truth is that the world is not waiting for your book – and if you’re like almost all first-time novel writers – nobody cares if you write it or not.
Really. They don’t.
Except you, that is. So you have to fight for it. Yes, I know, it sounds a little cold. And I’m sure you have loved ones and friends who encourage you and want to see you happy. I know I do. But in the harsh light of day, it’s only you that cares about this. So this brings me onto tip #2:
2) Become Pigheaded
There are a hundred other things you should be doing today, rather than advancing your novel. I read The One Thing, and this helped me a lot in this department. Each month I began printing out a calendar for that month. I would place a golden X for each day I worked on my novel, for a minimum of 25 minutes. My inner nerd was thrilled to see X’s building up. Twenty-five minutes is not very long – this meant that every day this would be possible no matter what. Even on days when I hated my book and my writing and felt like giving up entirely.
3) Reach out to other writers – but don’t join the procrastination club.
When I first started this website, I came across lots of writer hashtags, and “met” other writers like me. It was a lot of fun to know there were others, all over the world, struggling too. And it’s not just struggling. The last two and a half years have been a joy. I’ve been so happy to be writing this book.
An excellent way to focus yourself is to set goals – and a time limit – when hopping on to social media to network.
Q: How much time do I want to spend doing this today?
Q: What do I want to achieve from it?
Check back later to see if you honoured/achieved these. Other writers can be very cool people with immensely helpful tips. I’ve learned a lot from my peers. Sometimes though, you might find yourself on social media chatting to other writers when you should be tap, tap, tapping away at your book instead.
You might be lucky enough to find an accountability partner who you can check in with each week as to your writing goals and challenges. I did, and it’s super helpful.
4) Keep Making Goals
Goals are what keeps us stretching ourself to the next stage. Writing the first novel is a mammoth task. Break it down into chunks. Goal examples include:
- Word count goals, e.g. get to 40,000 words by the end of this month.
- Editing goals, e.g. run chapters 1-10 through Grammarly and/or ProWrtingAid by Friday.
- Research Guatemalan priests by the end of this week and answer the questions I have for my book about this.
- Finish chapter 22 by the end of this week.
You get the idea. I often stuck my monthly goals up on a notice board so I could see a hard copy of them regularly. There’s something about paper as opposed to digital for me. If you didn’t achieve your goal, the next time set a more achievable one. If you always set the bar too high, you will become used to never achieving your goals – and use this to beat yourself up. You won’t finish your novel that way.
I found that by making my goals a little too easy, I often ended up achieving even more. When I set the bar too high, I got annoyed with myself and disheartened.
Not sure what goals to choose from? Take a look at my blog on Powerful Questions.
Your goals might not all be about writing the novel. They might be connected to the bigger picture, such as building your author platform or networking with potential agents or publishers or other people who will help you on your journey. Always come back to the book, though. Without your novel being finished, all the other stuff doesn’t matter.
5 ) Use BiteSize Sessions when Writing Feels Intimidating
Whatever you choose to do – it has to be do-able.
I am not Stephen King – and I used the Pomodoro method for writing a lot for writing my latest book. It involves 25-minute sessions of writing (or editing) using a timer. You can just stick to 25 mins or put the timer on again as many times as you like. It’s totally do-able and the time usually flies – even if you were in knots of frustration and trepidation beforehand.
6) Learn from People in the Know
Those who have had success in writing or that know the publishing business have much wisdom to share. I have learned so much over the past three years about writing a novel. You could say, I overdid it at times. Spending more time learning about it than actually doing it. But, well, here I am at the end of a novel. So who cares? I’m going to share some resources I have found helpful:
Did I just contradict myself? I said get pigheaded; make your novel your ONE THING. Huh?? Yes, but life still goes on around you. As a coach, I like to use The Wheel of Life to look at how things are balancing. To enjoy writing your novel, other areas of your life need to work okay too.
To be present for family members, I mostly do my writing early in the morning. And because it’s quiet and free from distractions. Last year I wrote a blog on Mindfulness for Writers. Personally, my writing goes better if I make time to meditate and exercise regularly.
I also love entering short story competitions. The short story can feel very refreshing when you’re working on a novel.
I have a confession to make:
Your novel won’t be finished. Not ever. The most finished it gets is when it’s in print, and there’s not much you can do, besides launching a revised edition, to change it. However, I like to look at finishing a novel as being like a pyramid. In the beginning, you are at the bottom—lots of space there. Don’t know the whole plot yet. Lots of choices and unanswered questions.
Moving up the pyramid space gets smaller, but there’s still loads to do, and you might still feel lost. Towards the top of the pyramid you are polishing, editing, tweaking, and perhaps even still ironing out kinks in the plot.
I love this blog by Julian Gough that tells me it’s okay to not know the end of your novel right until the end, as that was true for me, and it used to stress me out no end apart from when I remembered that.
It feels good at the top of the pyramid. There’s a fantastic view here. Keep going. And tell me in the comments where you are in your book and what challenges you at the moment.
PS) Here’s a blog I wrote two years ago today on where I was at back then – 19th of May 2018. Take a peek.
© Susan Browne 2019
Shortlisted for Words by Water short story competition in October 2019. The judge’s comment was: “A gripping read, the reader is taken on an undulating wave of emotions with the main character.”
The cat is missing. It’s not here waiting for its breakfast. Bella does love that wretched cat. Just five minutes left until the school run. I step outside, and the frosty air hits me, and I squint in the sunlight. I rattle her bowl and call her name. Inspect the road both ways. No cat. I don’t mention it, and we walk out to the car.
When I get home, I find it curled up in a ball at the edge of the field. ‘Come on, you. Breakfast.’ She doesn’t budge so I take her in my arms to the front door where her food sits. She slumps down, ignoring it. She is listless. Floppy. ‘You can’t be sick, cat.’ I go inside and dial the vet, and the secretary asks if I’d like to bring her in right away. There goes my morning.
‘What’s the cat’s name?’ she asks in a green reception that smells of bleach and bones.
‘Sadness,’ I say.
Fingers hover over a keyboard.
The vet shows me Sadness’ ghostly eye rims and white gums.
‘Severely anaemic. She’s only hanging in there. The kindest thing is to put her down right now,’ she says, matter-of-factly. It’s just a cat, after all.
‘I can’t put her down.’ I feel my head filling up with water as I picture my little girl, getting home from school only to find out her best friend in the world is dead. No warning. No time to prepare.
‘It’s a hard decision. Take your time,’ the vet says. A large dog barks busily out in the waiting room, and Sadness looks at me.
‘I’m going to take her with me. She can die with us at home.’
‘Sure. That’s your choice.’
‘And there’s really nothing more to be done?’
‘We could try some iron and antibiotics, but there really is very little point.’
‘Well, we’ll try anyway. Please.’
I pay and walk out with my severely anaemic cat and useless tablets to my crookedly parked car and drive home.
I allow her into the house, and she heads right under the stairs. I tidy it for her and get out some spare bedding. She’s just a pair of green eyes in the darkness, watching me as I carefully move things around. I get her food and water — an old litter box. Stairs get brushed even though it is only Thursday. I wipe marks off the paintwork.
I collect Bella, feeling wretched.
‘I have some upsetting news for you.’
‘No go-go’s left again?’
‘No. We have go-go’s. It’s Sadness. She is very, very sick.’
I adjust my rear-view mirror. My little girls head has shrunken in like a turtle, back into her body. School uniform all crumpled up around her shoulders — a tense, straight line for a mouth.
When we arrive home, she’s immediately under the stairs. They share a silent commune.
The next thing Bella’s disappeared down to her bedroom and returns after ten minutes with a picture. It has Sadness, hearts, leaves, sunshine, clouds, grass and says in the sky on one of the clouds’ eid ot ecalp ecin a.’ A Nice Place to Die. She sticks the picture up over Sadness’ little sickbay.
‘That’s amazing. Sadness will love it.’ When I check again, some white plastic rosary beads have manifested and are dangling down the bannister over Sadness. Bella is sitting close to her, and they are both very still. My hand rests over my mouth. In that pocket of silence, across the airwaves flows the very purest of love, and I think it might break me open.
I wake myself up in the night, sneezing, and feel the vaporous presence of both a cat and my estranged husband. But in truth I am alone.
It is morning and Sadness lives. She even trots out to the kitchen after me, so I fix her some breakfast and tidy up. Brushing the little spills of cat litter away and giving her fresh water. I imagine that she might survive and something inside me dances.
Hugging a mug of tea, I think about Paudie.
‘Still pushing the important things away and clinging onto deadwood,’ said my father before he died of a massive heart attack on his favourite seat overlooking the marshes.
People say he’s gay, my deadwood-Paudie. I don’t think so. I didn’t hear it from him. Bella tells me that he lives with another man and that she’s met him a few times and that his name is Colm. She told me more things, but my brain removes them like there’s no space for that information.
I did all I could, in the beginning, to prevent the divorce from going through. I was sure he was making a mistake. It was for him, I told myself, not just Bella and me. In the end, even my solicitor seemed to give up on me.
‘You’re scaring him, Claire. I think you’re actually scaring him.’ I think I may have been scaring her too. If she was honest about it.
I am glad that Bella is at school when I try to give the cat those tablets. The whole ordeal almost kills her. She won’t swallow, and I let her go with the fright of those bared fangs. She darts behind the sofa. Writhing and making hideous sounds. I watch, frozen. A puddle of urine seeps out from under her.
‘Oh my God, Sadness. Please don’t die yet,’ I’m crying and sneezing.
Bella is home again, and she can’t find Sadness who was on the blanket under the stairs earlier. Where I lifted her flimsy frame with very little life force left in it. My daughter’s eyes are wild, her hands flapping. She covers her ears and hums, and I get up and hum too and wrap myself around her, making myself into a humming human blanket.
We find a rhythm and rock gently. I kiss her chamomile no-tears hair, and her taut body starts to relax a little.
‘It’s okay. We’ll find her.’
I am worse than worried, though. I switch the torch on my phone and shine it around. Eventually, I discover that Sadness has crawled right inside the bottom step. I gingerly stretch out my hand and make contact with fur. Her body feels quite still.
‘Sadness? Are you alive in there?’
‘Of course she is alive. I can feel her. Let me look.’
‘Wait. Sadness?’ My heart is stopped. Then suddenly a grey tail flicks at us, and I breathe again. ‘She’s alive.’
‘Told you,’ says Bella, her chest puffed out and arms long and skinny at her sides.
‘Come on, homework time. Let’s give her some space.’
Bella sulkily empties her schoolbag. Books, pencils flowing out of their case and some smelly lunch remnants.
Each night I can’t sleep. He is gone seven years now. It’s not as though it’s a new thing. But how can you leave just as your first baby is born? He never answered that for me. It remains one of those mind-benders that goes off like the eternal boomerang into space and never turns around.
I walk down at three to see those green eyes. She blinks. I curl up on the cold tiles and rest my head down on the blanket, exhausted. Sadness walks over to me and places her forehead against the crown of my head. I bathe in an unexpected rush of affection.
Upstairs again I’m on my phone looking up how to help a cat that is dying. I discover a world of things, such as music for cats. I download some and put it playing softly under the stairs. It is a haunting, whirling sound with background purring noises on it. I am very glad I can’t hear it from my bed.
Sunday morning, Bella asks me to go to Mass. She is as still and quiet as ever she has been in there. At the end, she asks to light three candles. I watch her praying. Father Matt comes over, and I find myself telling him about the cat. He is old and sympathetic, which makes me feel a mixture of sorrow and mortification.
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ I say.
We drive home, and she checks Sadness, who is asleep. She looks peaceful. ‘Thank you,’ I whisper again. To saints and angels. To the cat. Anyone at all.
After a snack, Bella runs outside. I see her spinning on the grass, arms outstretched, looking up at the vast white sky. A small, blonde sorceress whipping up a spell.
It’s just gone eleven at night when I hear strange yowling coming from below. I take myself down to the bottom of the stairs where a cat called Sadness is truly dying. I am terrified. She thrashes around, claws outstretched. Then stops breathing, and I think that’s it.
After some time, there is another gasp. Her tail stands on end. She hurtles blindly into the wall. Death ravages her.
‘Rest now. Easy girl,’ I tell her. She stills again. I hold my breath. After some minutes, I want to reach out and touch her. But I’m frightened she will suddenly lunge at me, thinking I am Death. My hand floats in mid-air, idiotically.
I consider the large shoebox and wonder how I might fit her in there if she is left lying long and straight as she is. I need to curl her up. After half an hour of pacing and checking, I get her in there. One step ahead of rigor mortis.
He hasn’t come this close for seven years. As far as his feet have gone are about five paces onto the driveway. In all that time. My mother’s people’s land. He answered the text in less than a minute: ‘I’ll be there soon.’
He’s in the garden, digging a grave for Sadness. It’s where I found her a few days ago, her sunspot. He makes easy work of it. He is powerful and muscular, and I resent that he looks better than ever before. Deadwood clinger.
Bella and I watch. She has the shoebox coffin in her hands, with pictures drawn onto it and Sadness in big ornate writing. She doesn’t want to put her cat down there into that damp, dark hole. He helps her to lower it into the earth.
I look from one to the other, voraciously finding him in her and her in him. We take turns throwing soil onto the box and then he fills it in using the shovel.
Then we stand, three of us beside Sadness’s resting place. From afar, you’d think we were all together — husband, wife, daughter. Six shoes in the morning dew, burying our beloved cat. I wish someone could take a photo or paint us this way. I want to keep it even if it’s just a lie.
A little girl folds into my body, her back facing me. I lean forward over her, and we merge for a few moments. Like seven years ago, she is a part of me.
My gaze turns over the land and to the car parked on the road, and I see a bearded man’s profile in the passenger seat. I look at Paudie’s shoes and the way he carries himself. Then a boomerang in outer space crashes into something hard and breaks into tiny pieces.
Sun comes out from behind a cloud. It’s over.
‘Will ye have breakfast? Tea?’ I pause, my mouth opening and closing.
‘We’re good, thanks. Better be off. Bye so, Bella. Bye.’
I hoped he would refuse. I’m not ready yet.
A pile of earth sits on top of the grave. Ready to sink down over time.
The Mindful Age
There has been an explosion of mindfulness in recent years. Everyone has heard of it. It’s the first time anything of its kind has been embraced by the medical field in western society and it’s helping people of all walks of life.
To me, mindfulness is being in the present moment, deliberately, and accepting without judging my experience.
It’s Not Always Easy to be Present
You know when you are thinking about your writing, maybe you think about how badly or well it went yesterday or last week (the past). Or how it’s going to stink if you can’t get it published – or how wonderful if you do and it becomes a Booker prize winner (the future). That’s NOT being in the present moment.
Being in the moment is allowing yourself to be here. Right now. Just where you are at. So if you are working on something, that’s where you are. Notice how it feels and then attempt to let go of judgements. Good. Bad. Mediocre. We are always labelling things.
How Does the ‘Without Judgement’ Part Work?
If you feel anxious about writing you just notice that. Don’t try to change it or criticise yourself because of it. Simply notice. How do you know that you are anxious? Is it a physical feeling? Is it a thought? Where do you feel anxiety in the body? If you feel excited about your writing, observe that.
When You Notice Stress, Start With the Breath.
Being aware of your breath is a key step in becoming mindful. You take a lot of breaths. Most of the time you don’t notice you are doing it. While you write, you take lots of breaths too.
If you do nothing else in mindfulness only develop an awareness of your breathing, then that is enough. Here are some ways of practising mindful breathing:
- Focus on your abdomen. When you breathe in, deliberately push out your belly. If you find this hard, lie on your bed with a book on your tummy. Make the book go up and down with your breathing.
- Breathe in for seven and out for eleven. Counting in this way while breathing makes it easy to stay mindful of the breath, as you are busy counting and focusing on your breathing at the same time.
- Yet another technique is to simply focus on your breath for a minute. Set a timer if you want, so you know when the minute is up. This time, don’t try to change the breath in any way. Just watch the rise and fall, the way the in breath turns into the out breath, and back into an in breath and so on. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.
The more distracted you are, the more the mind will wander. It’s alright. You get better the more you practise and it’s okay to have a bad day even if you’ve done it loads of times.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves about our Writing
What do you tell yourself about your writing? Practise being the watcher. If you get rejected, do you get an onslaught of thoughts interpreting why this might have happened? The judges must not like me. Those things are only won/published by people who have an MA in Creative Writing or have been writing consistently all of their lives. My writing is too meh. I don’t have time to be really good.
And what about winning or being published? Do they have the opposite judgements and if so what comes of those in the long run?
Thoughts as Leaves on a Stream
Ever stopped to notice your thoughts? One after the other. Where one finishes and the next one pops up. Experts estimate that we have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts every day. That’s a lot. Many of these are repeated too. A lot of times.
We are very good at thinking while we do things. Such as driving. Ever wondered ‘how on earth did I get here? I don’t even remember passing through such a place.’ You didn’t notice, because your mind was so busy churning out thoughts that were not related to your surroundings or the experience of driving.
I like the process of imagining that my thoughts are written on leaves that are floating down a stream. On the first leaf it might say ‘hey, this is weird. I wonder if I’m doing this right,’ and the second one ‘I wonder what I’ll cook for dinner.’ Or in your writing ‘how come I’m finding this so challenging?’
Check out this link to see a more detailed guide to this technique, called ‘Cognitive Defusion.’ There are different ways to practise cognitive defusion. Other ways including imagining your thoughts are written on placards of a marching band, or on clouds passing in the sky.
What if you were to radically accept yourself just as you are and your writing just the way it is? Even if it’s not going well today. Ideas are coming like sludge (as in, not coming). The critic is gone amok. You think your writing is the worst lot of drivel in the world and that you are wasting your time. What if you could accept that all of those things might be true.
So what if my writing is not good. Today. Ever. Who cares if I never win competitions. If I never finish anything. If my spouse hates it. If my book can’t get a publisher. So…… what?!
Imagine if you were doing your writing for the very first time. There wouldn’t be all those stories about your writing, about this piece. Forget what you know.
‘…Beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.’
– Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Mindful of your Posture
Similarly to your breathing, take a moment now and again to be aware of how you are sitting. Again, this is not to judge yourself for slouching, rather bring a sense of awareness and, thus, space into the body. Better still, go for a mindful walk.
Mindfulness for Writers in Action
Struggling to write a scene in my work in progress one day, I wondered if these techniques could help me get through it.
I was feeling stressed. There was a deadline. The scene I was writing was pivotally important and I’d been running from it long enough. Writing anything but that scene. It was time to bite the bullet and just write it. My monkey mind was hopping around squawking about this and that. You’re not good enough to write this. People will hate it. It won’t come across how you want it. Who do you think you are? You don’t have enough knowledge. And so on.
First I tried breathing. I noticed that my breathing was high up in my chest and more rapid than I would have liked. The 7/11 breathing, as described above, helped me to slow it down, and I imagined bringing it down into the abdomen.
This calmed me down a little. So then I tried to accept that yes, maybe I am a terrible writer but I’m going to show up anyway. Yes, I might be unable to make this scene as good as I want it to be today but that’s okay, I’m still here. True, some people might hate it, even if I’ve edited it five hundred times to the best of my ability, but there’s not much I can do about other people.
I was radically accepting my writing and myself in that space trying to write that hard scene. And guess what? It got easier. I stopped fighting with myself. And after some further edits, I became not just pleased with but super pleased with the scene. Which is, of course, a judgement again but hey, you can’t win all of the time.
If you enjoyed this blog for writers, you might also like:
The Hero’s Journey by Siofra O’Donovan – Plotting
Ask the Right Question – powerful questions for writers
About the Author
Susan Browne is a Wellness Coach and Author of the mind, body, spirit book Angel EFT, and is working on her first novel. Enjoy the author blog and some of her short stories here on this website.