Being a ‘Real’ Writer

Originally published 03/09/2017

There seems to be a notion in a lot of folks’ minds that while lots of people may wish to be authors, and may even actually sit down and try to thrash out an original work of fiction, not all of these are real writers. If you look around the internet or other public forums where writers gather, you’ll see what I mean. People will say things like ‘if you don’t write something every day, you’re not a real writer,’ or ‘real writers read at least twenty books a year– oh and newspapers as well!’

These are just examples but you get the idea. Many try to be writers, but only those who do this-this-and-that are real writers. But wait just a minute. What does it even mean to be a ‘real writer’?

Oxford Dictionaries has a rather lengthy definition of ‘real’ you can view here, but let me draw your attention to the important bits:

Adjective

2. (of a thing) not imitation or artificial; genuine.

2.2 [attributive] Rightly so called; proper.
‘he’s my idea of a real man’

I would suggest that when people talk about being a ‘real’ writer, they are referring to something akin to this: ‘[attributive] Rightly so called; proper’. So, a ‘real writer’ is someone who displays certain key attributes we might expect a writer to possess, and is therefore justly called a writer. In other words, ‘real writers’ are people who do a certain thing, behave a certain way, drink a certain brand of coffee or write in a particular genre (or who spit out the word ‘genre’ are if it were an insult); something which separates them from other unreal/pretend/bogus/inferior/impostor writers.

Well I think you can see where I’m going with this. I’m here to set the record straight. And I’m going to do it with a parable.

The Parable of the Real and Pretend Writers

by A. Ferguson

In a certain town there lived an Aspiring Author. This Aspiring Author religiously attended the local coffee shop every day with his laptop. He would arrive early in the morning and drink their most expensive coffee and diligently study blogs about how to be a writer (he was a particular fan of Penstricken.com). His mug said ‘WRITER AT WORK’, and his table was always littered with notepads (with snazzy writer slogans on the front) and pens. He had even scribbled out a few character profiles and he had a strong idea for a plot in his mind. He got to know the staff there and told them all about the novel he was writing and promised to give them all signed copies when it got published. He also had a Twitter page which he used to communicate with other Aspiring Authors, tell the world about the novel he was writing and to share inspirational quotes about writing.

This Aspiring Author also had a five year old daughter. She spent most of her time in her bedroom scribbling out stories in crayon (complete with illustrations) which she then sellotaped together into a book and sold to her long-suffering relatives. To date she has “published” seventeen such books and is now working on her eighteenth: The Day Mummy Took Me To The Zoo (We Saw Lions!).

So… the question is, who was the real writer: Aspiring Author or the daughter?

The answer is the one who displayed the attributes of a real writer. Specifically, the one who actually wrote stuff: the daughter!

Dear friends, writing stuff is the only truly defining attribute of a writer that I know of. If you’re writing stuff, you’re a writer. If you’re not writing stuff, you’re not a writer. If you publish ten thousand best sellers, all of which get made into films, then stop writing, you’re no longer a writer. You may be the author of Such-and-Such a Work but you’re no longer a writer. Similarly, if you are writing with any kind of regularity, you are a real writer. You might be a professional or only an amateur, but you are a writer. Really.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only manage to write five days a week!’

That doesn’t invalidate the fact you write. I agree that you should write as often as possible, and certainly if you intend to become a professional writer you might want to do it as close to daily as possible, but I’ve found that writing regularly is far more beneficial than writing constantly. In any event, how often you write does not define you as a writer, as long as you write often.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I care about my husband/wife and kids more than I care about writing. Why, I even missed a deadline to attend my husband/wife while s/he was in hospital!’

That proves nothing except that you prioritise your family above your writing (a perfectly right and healthy thing, if you ask me). Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard it suggested that ‘real writers’ put their writing before their families, but I for one profoundly disagree. In any event, how you prioritise your life does not define you as a writer. When my daughter was born, I took the day off my day-job as a clerical officer to attend her birth. When I returned to work, no one questioned whether or not I was a ‘real clerical officer’, just because I had other things that mattered more to me. In the same way, whether writing is your life, your day-job or just a hobby: real writers are people who write.

‘But you don’t understand…’ I hear you lament. ‘I only seem to be able to write YA space operas!’

So what? You still wrote it, didn’t you? If you write, you’re a writer. Don’t let snobs get you down. No genre is any more valid than any other so write what you’re going to write. People that like your writing will read it and people that don’t, won’t, but the same is also true of people who write so-called ‘serious literature’.

There seems to be a strange mysticism surrounding writers, as if being a writer is something otherworldly; an awesome gift bestowed upon only the Chosen Few. Worst of all, I fear it has perhaps gone to some of our heads; that we may be tempted to believe we really are somehow supernatural or unusually gifted. But we’re not. Writers are people who write. Excellent writers practice their craft, yes, but ultimately they’re still just people who write. If you are in any way committed to writing, then I hereby acknowledge and publicly confess (for better or worse) that you are a real writer.

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100 Word Story: The Monster

Originally published 27/02/2017

I recently entered a couple of stories into the National Association of Writers’ Groups 100 Word Mini-Tales competition. Suffice it to say I didn’t win, but since I believed in the potential of every one of the stories I entered, it seemed only fitting to try to publish them elsewhere. I selected this one to publish here on Penstricken after the winners of the competition were announced. I’ve made a few small improvements so it’s probably not exactly 100 words anymore but hey… At least it’s a better story now. The rest, I’ve since submitted to other places.

As ever, what follows here is entirely my own work and has not been published anywhere else in the world, whether on print or online, nor do I expect it to be since the competition winners have already been announced. So, without further ado, I give you…

THE MONSTER

by. A Ferguson

Captain Harold of Earth’s Space Navy had met his share of bizarre alien cultures, but nothing like these. These were monsters.

One of the Creatures stood over Harold, injecting him with chemicals and mutilating him with ferocious tools. The Creature had cold blue hands, shining black eyes and no mouth (yet it spoke). A human female observed nearby, desensitised to the atrocity she was witnessing.

The Creature stepped back.

‘There, that wasn’t so bad,’ it smiled.

‘What do you say to the dentist, Harry?’ the human (code name: MUM) goaded.

They had practiced this before they left the house. Thank you Mr. Riley. Harold’s mouth was still numb but he had to try…

‘Yeour a monsther!’ he screamed.

THE END

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6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th (vol. II)

Originally published 06/08/2017

Those of you who have been following this site for a while (God bless you, patient and forbearing people) will know that I have taken to posting 6 ‘six word stories’ whenever the 6th of a month happens to fall on a Sunday. Well it just so happens that today is Sunday 6th August, and so it’s time for another exciting instalment of 6 ‘Six Word Stories’ for the 6th.

You probably know the rules by now. I roll six Story Dice and I write a six word story loosely based upon whatever image is displayed on each die, starting from the top left (you can check out my previous efforts here, here and here). As ever, the following stories are entirely my own work.

So here we go.

Screenshot_2017-08-02-12-20-27

Alea iacta est.

  1. Remembered and avenged every unicycle “performance”.
  2. Defecated. Swam. ‘Oh look, a morsel… ‘
  3. Murdered thousands for the “common good”.
  4. Money. Sex. Power. Three wasted wishes.
  5. Ignored camel’s nose. Tent crashed down.
  6. He prayed for me, His killer.

Phew. That was a tough one. I hope you enjoyed my modest efforts, but no doubt you can do much better. Why not try come up with your own six word stories based on the above stimuli and post them in the comments section below so we can all see how it’s done? And we’ll do it all over again on Sunday 6th May 2018!

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Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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My Thoughts on FocusWriter

Originally published 11/07/2017

There’s an old saying I tend to adhere to: you need to use the right tool for the right job. For me as a writer, that means I have lots of different writing tools depending on the kind of writing I’m doing and what stage of the writing process I’m at. For instance, I use Scrivener to write my novel and other large projects; Hemingway Editor for times of editing; Jotterpad to scribble notes and song lyrics on the go (you didn’t know I wrote music too, did you?) and FocusWriter for short and flash fiction, which is the subject for today’s little review.

There are, of course, plenty of “distraction free writing environments” out there. In fact, even the other apps I mentioned at the start of this post boast distraction free modes which hide most or all of the toolbars to allow you to focus exclusively on your words. What sets apart FocusWriter from these, however, is how highly customisable that environment is and how many features of a typical word processor are still available without being intrusive. Personally, I sometimes find that even the best distraction free interfaces can be a little too sterile when it’s just you and the blinking cursor on a blank screen, daring you to write a word. With FocusWriter, that’s not a problem. You can make the interface as pretty or as sterile as you see fit.

When you first download the app (for free, I might add, though you can give a “tip”), you will find it is already preloaded with a selection of themes. Some, such as the ‘old school’ theme are very plain featuring nothing but plain text on a plain background. Others include background images and coloured pages for your text to appear on (as you can see from the screenshots below). If none of these themes are to your liking, you can customise them by changing the font; margins; line-spacing; text background colour and opacity and much more besides. You can also create, save and export your own themes using (or not, if you prefer) images from your own library.

There is a traditional toolbar and a selection of menus at the top of the screen which includes all the basic features you would expect from a word processor; however, this is all invisible except when you hover the cursor over it, thus giving you easy access to all the basic features without getting in the way while you are trying to write.

There is also an option to grey out all text save the sentence, sentences or paragraph you are working on. Personally, I have not found much use for this feature but I suppose I can see why it might help you to focus on a particularly troublesome few sentences, especially if you decide to edit your work with FocusWriter. And of course, there is also the option to make FocusWriter full screen.

For those of us who like to keep careful track of our progress or who find it helpful to time ourselves as we write, FocusWriter also includes features for setting yourself daily word count or minutes-spent-writing goals. Again, this is not visible on the screen unless you hover your cursor over the very bottom of the window, where a tiny little bar will appear and tell you your exact word count and how close you are to achieving your daily goal. If you wish, you can also record your progress so you can see how often you are reaching or exceeding your goals over a longer period of time.

If you wanted to, you could probably easily use this application to write almost anything, including novels and other long and complicated works. However, I personally find it most useful for writing shorter works, such as short stories or flash fiction. It’s easy to create a different theme for every day and every mood so that your productivity is never hindered by niggling distractions or the pure white horror of a completely blank screen, no matter what kind of person you are and no matter how you feel. The main reason I don’t use it to write novels is because, unlike Scrivener, it is not so easy to gather together your notes and story bible all in the one place. In general, you will be focusing on one document at a time, but sometimes, that’s all you need. Personally, I don’t really like using Scrivener for short stories or microfiction because I find it can be a bit too cluttered, when all I really need is space to write.

Other features include (but are not necessarily limited to) a spell checker, ‘smart quotes’ which manages how you use quotation marks throughout the document (personally I’m yet to find a use for that) and ‘sessions’; an interesting little feature which remembers which document(s) you had opened and which theme you were using so that they’re already opened and waiting for you the next time you open FocusWriter.

All in all, I think it’s a fantastic app and well worth a look for anyone who’s serious about writing. It’s a real favourite of mine which I use often; far more often than some of the other apps I’ve given written positive reviews about in the past. And did I mention it’s free?

Well it is. So go have a look. I think you’ll be pleased.

Until next time!

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The Church Mouse

Originally published 07/05/2017

My original plan for today had been to blog about works of fiction that are nevertheless based on true events but I also had a niggling feeling that it’s been ages since I’ve put any of my own stories on Penstricken.

I know what I’ll do! I thought. I’ll write a story based on true events! I just need to decide what true story to base it on…

At about the same time as I was thinking all this, I found evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in my house and that gave me just the idea I was looking for. So without further ado, I give you…

The Church Mouse

by. A Ferguson

Based on a true story

[1]

The Landlord and Landlady were busy today, pulling out the furniture and hoovering behind every nook and cranny where I’d been, or even might’ve been. They even shoved their infernal vacuum nozzle into my room. I wasn’t in at the time, praise God. I was out scavenging, but they’ve definitely been here. They’ve cleaned up all my business, sure, the bits they could reach anyhow. They’ve settled down now. Their telly’s been on for hours.

Ah, that’s it off now. Finally. They’ll be going to bed soon, I can hear them moving about. He’s washing the dishes, like he usually does just before bed. She’ll be upstairs already then. I’ll give them an hour, once I’m sure they’re asleep and then I’ll–

Wait. Snifffffffff. What’s that?!

Sniff, sniff?

Chocolate and.. sniff?… raisins and caramel by goodness! Ohh, mamma mia… sniffffffffff! Oh yes! A Cadbury’s Picnic if I’m not very much mistaken! Ohh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m eating well tonight! 

No! No… no, no, I mustn’t yet, he’s still out there… gotta wait… gaagh! Hurry up and leave, already!

I think… yes, he’s gone. I can hear him on the stairs. I should wait but… oooh, I have to have that Picnic! Maybe, I’ll just have a peak… he won’t be back now till morning anyway… and that smell, it’s so strong… it must be…

Yes! There it is, right outside my door! That idiot’s left a whole chunk of the stuff just lying around in this little plastic box for me. I’ll just pop in, grab the choccie and…

Ow! The door just fell on me! It’s not very heavy, though, that’s something. If I just back-peddle like this I can pull out the choccie and… yes! I’m free! Haha! Oooh, my precious little Picnic, I can’t wait to get you back to my room… ! Hehehe!

[2]

Ooh! Another day, another Picnic! Maybe I’ve got the Landlord and Landlady all wrong. Maybe they really like me and want me to stay? Eh? Nah, don’t be silly. I’ve had all night to think about this and I don’t think that door closed on me accidentally last night! It’s just dumb luck, really, that my bum was still hanging out the back or who knows what might’ve happened…

I should leave it, I know. I’ve still got plenty left over from last night but… ooooooh, that smell just drives me wild! I got out okay last night, I’ll probably be okay again just as long as I’m careful. I know it can be done and… oh mercy, I won’t be able to think straight with that sitting outside my front door all night long.

Just need to watch. Make sure, take care, always beware. Don’t let them outsmart you. You can do this, just… take care. Beware. Don’t let carnal passions cloud your judgement. Use your brain, take your time, claim the prize.

Good… good, it’s the same kind of trap as before. Nothing that’s gonna snap my back or open my skull. I’ll just do what I did last night, leave my bum in the doorway and… gagh, the choccie’s a bit smaller tonight though… tucked right away up at the back it is, I can’t quite reach… ooooh, but it’s right there, I can almost taste it! Just another half inch…

Woosh! Rats, rats, ratty-rats! The door’s closed! Ohh, no, no, no, no, no, no, please God, let me out! Let me out! Ooh, God forgive me, I know it’s my fault, I… I got greedy and I’m sorry! Please, God, let me out! Please… I’m sorry, I’m sorry… please!

[3]

Ngh! What? I must’ve fallen asleep. But it wasn’t a dream. I’m still here, in the stupid box with the stupid choccie. I don’t fancy it quite the same anymore. I feel sick. I can’t move. They’re here. The Landlady, she sees me. She’s calling to her husband. They’re so… big! 

Aaaagh! He’s picking up the box! What’s he doing with me? Where’s he taking me? To eat me? I hear humans burn up smaller animals before they eat them! Maybe he’ll leave me if I just sit very still but… oh no, it’s a forlorn hope! What else can I do?

Please, please, please, please, Lord God Almighty, rescue me from the hand of this monster! I know it’s my fault, I promise I won’t ever be greedy again I’ll… oh, Lord, please have mercy on me a sinner!

Agh! The light! He’s taking me outdoors, into their car… where are we going?

I wish I could move. I’m so afraid, every part of my body feels like it’s turned to stone. All except my bowels; they’re working overtime. Whatever he’s doing, oh Lord, let it be over soon. To die in terror, trapped in this dungeon, tiny even by my standards and drowning in my own business…

He’s stopped the car.

Oh… rats.

This is it.

Here it comes. He’s picking me up and taking me outside and opening the box… he’s shaking it at the ground. In one sudden motion my petrified body and the choccie fall to the ground and land among the long grass on the roadside. I’m out! I’m free! I’m out of here! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, God! Thank you kind Landlord! I’m free!

* * *

Mr. Mouse fled through the grass and the bushes for hours. He swore never to succumb to gluttony again.

In the winter of 2017 he became a church mouse. He devoted his life to the ministry and service of the church and was ordained as a minister in 2018.

He died peacefully at the age of three in 2019 and was buried on the grounds of his parish along with the piece of Picnic which he had preserved as a memento of the day his life was spared.

THE END

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Flash Fiction! Aah!

Originally published 26/03/2017

Many years ago, when I first came across the concept of flash fiction, I thought it sounded like a fashionable waste of time, without literary value of any kind. These days, I realise how totally wrong I was. I have seen the light. In fact, I am a fully converted reader and writer of 500 word, 100 word, 50 word and even 6 word stories, though today I want to focus on stories that fall somewhere in the region of 50-500 words (I find the discipline of writing a 6 word story is somewhat different, though many of the same rules apply).

One of the obvious perks to flash fiction is that you can have it written in a relatively short period of time. After all, flash fiction is usually defined as a story which is written in fewer than 1,000 words – the length of an average Penstricken post (in fact, the posts on this website often go a little over 1,000 words). Well, I manage to write these posts in a single morning most weeks so… how hard can it be to write a story of half that length, or even less?

Harder than you think. Remember, we’re not writing a poem or an essay here but a story. That involves the same basic elements common to all stories such as characters, plot and so forth.

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how long your story is, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning, where everything is normal for your protagonist until that fateful day; a middle, where your protagonist faces the conflict or problem the story focuses on; and an ending, where your character’s problem has been resolved one way or another and life goes on (though it may never be the same again). I do apologise if this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, but it’s a point worth labouring.

You see, one of the traps writers of flash fiction (myself included) often fall into is missing out one or more of these vital parts because their word count is so limited. Usually (for me anyway), the temptation will be to skip straight to the ending. So the first line of your story might look something like this:

Michael stood with his father’s blooded sword in hand, glaring at Kar across the volcano’s fiery chasm…

Woah, woah, hold the bus a minute! Who’s Michael? What happened to his father? Whose blood is it on the sword? What’s his beef with Kar? What are they doing on top of a volcano? This is the kind of line you might expect to find at the climax of a story, not at the beginning! You’re starting at the end!

I know, I know… you’ve only got a couple of hundred words to play with, if that much. But the way to deal with that limitation isn’t by chopping off vital parts. Instead, try to include all the parts using as few words as possible. It might be tempting to do this by dividing your word count in three and allotting so many words to each section (so in a 100 word story, each part would be about 33 words long). I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best approach however. In most stories, the middle section is usually the longest part and I would argue that the same is true in flash fiction. Aim, therefore, for a very snappy beginning and ending. For instance, in the last 100 word story I wrote, my beginning was only 17 words long and my ending was 14 words. That gave me 69 words to play with in the middle in which my character faced and dealt with his problem.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of characters. Characters are the beating heart of every good story. Because your word count is so limited, you need to give yourself as much room as possible to develop your characters. The sensible thing to do, therefore, is try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Any more than three is probably pushing it and I wouldn’t even go that high if your story is fewer than 100 words long.

Introduce your characters at the very beginning. We don’t have time for detailed backstories, so my advice would be to keep it simple. Tell us who they are and what their situation is:

Simon thought about boarding a different bus today and escaping forever. He hated Mondays.

Boom, job done. He’s called Simon, he is toying with running away and he hates his job (we can glean that from the fact he is planning on running away from a place he regularly commutes to and the fact he hates Mondays; after all, why else do people hate Mondays?). That’s a slice of the everyday for Simon. This beginning also works because his fantasy of escape foreshadows the possibility that he maybe will escape. It forces the reader to wonder whether or not Simon will ever be free from his monotonous life. Obviously if we were writing a novel we would need a lot more than this, but it’s plenty for flash fiction.

Now comes the middle, where we turn Simon’s life upside down.

‘Simon Brown, I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ Someone said in his ear. ‘Follow me.’

Well, I’m not going to write the rest of the story for you but I’m sure you get the idea. Does he go with the mysterious stranger or not? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no, I would generally recommend centring your middle around this one key event. If we’re going to develop a satisfactory character arc, we need something that will change Simon for better or worse, but we need to do it in only a few sentences.  Therefore keep the action simple but loaded with significance.

I recently read an excellent 100 word story by one Jeanne Waddington entitled The Accident (available here – round 1, runner-up) in which a teacher “accidentally” spills a cup of water on a pupil who has wet himself. That’s the central event. Simple, right? And quick – it’s easy to describe this event in a few words. However, the result of this seemingly minor event is that the protagonist goes from being afraid and ashamed to being confident and happy. So:

Beginning: Percy is sitting in school having just wet himself. This is a slice of his normal life.
Middle: Suddenly, the problem strikes! It’s playtime! Everyone will know he wet himself! Fortunately, along comes Mrs Gently to spill water on him.
Ending: Percy’s problem is solved. He can enjoy playtime without shame.

That, I believe, is what makes flash fiction uniquely valuable as a form of story telling. By writing with such a tight word count, a skilled author can turn even the most small and seemingly insignificant events into something meaningful and even exciting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be imaginative or even include a bit of magic or fantasy in your flash fiction (my most recent 100 word story involves time travel!); just be realistic with how much you can squeeze in and don’t let the length of your story compromise the quality of the story.

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Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Penstricken: Collected Stories by Andrew Ferguson – Out Now!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own making it easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Christmas Eve: A Short Story

Originally published 22/12/2019

Christmas Eve

by A. Ferguson

Karen inhaled a sharp drag on her cigarette, holding the burning toxic fumes in her chest for as long as she could before letting them out in one shuddering breath on the snowy rooftops below.

It was freezing. Karen had sworn she’d never do another Christmas Eve again but that man… that stupid idiot man.

‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke, dear. What if someone sees?’

‘It’s your fault I’m here at all.’

‘The little children, dearest, they look up to me; to us.’

She chanced a glance at Santa. His brilliant red jacket was now a patchwork of soot stains and there was a fresh tear in the shoulder.

‘Yeah.’ Karen grunted, stealing one last drag before stamping the cigarette underfoot. ‘Well. Can I go now?’

‘Ah, well, I wonder…’

‘What?’ Karen grunted.

‘It’s just the old knee, my dear. Dr. Jones said I should rest it but when you pulled me out–‘

‘I told you not to use the chimneys this year!’ Karen snapped. ‘I don’t know why I waste my breath talking to you.’

‘I’ve only got Glasgow and Falkirk to go, you’ll be home in an hour.’

‘Am I just free labour to you, is that why you married me? Dragging me out of bed on Christmas Eve–‘

‘Please Karen, it’s for the children. They’ll be so disappointed on Christmas morning if Santa hasn’t been.’ He implored.

‘Like I’ve been every Christmas I’ve had since I met you.’ She muttered, trying to seem indifferent to what the children wanted.

Santa didn’t say anything, but she could see he was hurt.

‘Fine, whatever.’ She huffed, climbing into his sleigh and taking the reins. ‘Are you able to get home in my sleigh okay?’

‘I’ll manage.’ He said. 

‘Well mind and call if you can’t–’

‘I’ll be fine. See you when you get back.’

‘Please yourself.’ Karen snapped and with a sharp crack on the reigns she took off into the snowy night sky.

🎅 🎅 🎅

Karen muttered profanities to herself as she stuffed yet another oversized stocking (this one belonging to someone called Adam Forrester) with gifts and chocolates.

That man! This was what her life had become. Stockings, presents, Christmas trees and clambering up and down chimneys. It was all he cared about.

Exhausted from her work, she sat down on a nearby armchair. A plastic, cartoon portrait of her good-for-nothing husband grinned back at her from the opposite wall. On the coffee table, a small plate of mince pies sat beside a raw carrot and a glass of milk. Karen shuddered. How long had it been sitting there?

She looked at the clock on the mantle. Half past four. Enough time for a quick one.

Rummaging around in her pocket, she pulled out her cigarettes and lit one, trying to relax on the unfamiliar armchair, taking the mince pies off the plate and lifting the plate onto her lap to use as an ashtray.

Seventeen years of her life she’d wasted, married to a man who cared more about other people’s children than about her and about their children, not that they had any. He’d swept her off her feet that fateful morning seventeen years ago, when she interrupted him filling her stocking. He whisked her away for a midnight journey around the world in his sleigh and she helped deliver presents to all the children in the world. Afterward they returned to her place and shared a mince pie before he suddenly announced the sun was rising and he had to leave.

She couldn’t let him. She was young, starstruck and there was such an obvious and irresistible chemistry between them that she went with him. She married him and, for a while, life was one big festive adventure but now… now she was trapped in the dwindling hours of an everlasting Christmas evening, when the presents are all unwrapped and the turkey is all gone and the tree doesn’t seem to sparkle quite as brightly as it did a few hours before. That was her life, all year round with him locked up in his workshop most of the year then expecting everyone to jump to his command come December. The sleigh was just a mode of transport now. Giving gifts to other people’s children was nice but it wasn’t quite enough and whenever she tried to talk about starting their own family, he would find some excuse to change the subject or–

‘Who are you?’ 

Karen nearly fell off the armchair as she smashed the cigarette furiously into the plate. There was a man in the doorway, presumably Adam Forrester. He was a little younger than Karen, perhaps, but not by much, maybe early thirties. He didn’t look particularly bothered to find a stranger in his living room.

Of course not. He was expecting one.

‘The first openly female Santa.’ Karen grunted.

‘Are you Mrs. Claus?’ 

‘Karen.’ She grunted. ‘Karen Claus. You’re supposed to be sleeping.’

‘Couldn’t sleep.’ Adam said, matter-of-factly. ‘Too excited. I love Christmas.’

Karen snorted. ‘You’re worse than my husband.’

‘Don’t you like Christmas?’

‘Every day is Christmas with us.’ Karen snorted. ‘This is just work. His work. Only reason I’m here is he got stuck in a chimney earlier and hurt himself.’

‘Oh, so you get lumbered with it whenever he’s not well?’

‘I don’t mind doing it.’ Karen said. ‘It’s great giving gifts to all the children and everything, it’s just…’ Karen paused, hunting for the right word.

‘Christmas isn’t Christmas anymore.’ Adam finished for her. ‘Like you said, it’s work. His work.’

‘Yeah. Exactly.’

‘You wanna talk about it? I know we don’t know each other but if you want to let off steam or…’

Karen sighed. ‘That’s very kind but there’s nothing to tell. I’ll tell you this though, one day you’re gonna meet someone and you’ll think to yourself, “that’s it, this is the One for me!”, ‘cause there’s so much chemistry between you and you think he’ll make all your wildest dreams come true. But you can’t live like that…’ Karen looked in her cigarette box. It was empty. ‘You marry someone like that and you realise what’s really important to you. Not the sleigh rides or the presents or the fact he can do magic. Boring stuff, like raising a family and knowing he cares about you more than all that other stuff; Christmas, or whatever it is makes him feel good about himself.’

‘I guess being married to Santa must be a bit like being married to a celebrity.’ Adam mused. ‘Christmas is what he is and everyone loves him for it, expects it from him. And you just get absorbed into all that whether you like it or not.’

‘Yeah.’ Karen said. ‘Yeah, exactly. So now it’s all just Christmas this, Christmas that, all year round. It’s not magical anymore, but it’s not quite a proper life either. And that’s what I want, a proper life. I love Santa but I want a normal life too. I want to get excited about Christmas like a normal person and and see my own children getting excited about it every year instead of just standing in the background making Christmas fun for strangers

‘You know, we had this big fight last Christmas. Something that was important to me but he didn’t want to know. After that he spent all year locked up in his workshop, hardly came out at all, just says he’s gotta get ready for Christmas.’

Karen exhaled sharply through her nose. She looked down at her hands and tugged at the fingers of her gloves.

‘You know what? No, I don’t like Christmas, not any more.’

Adam didn’t say anything. She looked up to see him, focusing intently on her with genuine concern on his face. He seemed like a kind man.

‘Look, never mind about me.’ Karen said, rising to her feet slightly embarrassed by her own catharsis. ‘Tell you what, since you love Christmas so much, why don’t I give you a quick ride in the sleigh? Just to say thank you.’

Adam’s eyes lit up. ‘Really? Well… yes! Oh, I’d love that.’

Karen smiled, feeling a whole lot lighter than she did half an hour ago. ‘Get your coat. It’s chilly out.’

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sleigh ride did not last long. It was too close to daybreak to take Adam beyond his own city. There was a tiny chink of light on the farthest point of the horizon when Karen and Adam landed back on Adam’s rooftop and Karen couldn’t help feeling disappointed it was over.

‘Well,’ Adam said without rising up from the sleigh. ‘Thanks for a wonderful night.’

‘No, thank you for listening to me. For understanding.’ Karen said.

Adam smiled and Karen felt her heart skip a beat.

‘Well,’ She said, business-like. ‘You’d better get to bed or Santa won’t come.’

Adam took a long time to clamber out of the sleigh. When he finally did get out, he walked around the sleigh to be as close to her as possible.

‘You want to come in for a coffee or something?’ He asked.

Yes. Yes, I do.

‘I can’t, Adam.’ She said, feeling sick. ‘The sun’s coming up, I have to get back.’

‘Before you turn into a pumpkin?’

‘Something like that.’ She grimaced.

‘Alright.’ He said, taking a single, very small step back from the sleigh.

‘Goodnight, Adam.’ She said, cracking the reigns hard to return to Santa.

🎅 🎅 🎅

The sun was just beginning to rise over the snowy Korvatunturian landscape when Karen landed the sleigh in front of the quaint log cabin which was their private residence. Smoke puffed happily from the chimney and a warm glow from the windows gently illumined the snowy ground but she felt more miserable than ever. Two serious faced elves met the sleigh as soon as she arrived, taking charge of the reindeer, allowing her to go immediately to the house.

Inside it was quiet, though the hallway was warm. He was up, but she just wanted to go to bed and forget about the last twenty-four hours.

‘Is that you dearest?’ 

Karen swore under he breath.

‘I’m going to bed.’ She called back. 

‘But it’s Christmas!’ He called back. Karen heard his heavy footfalls coming towards the hall. A moment later, he appeared in the living room door, wearing those ridiculous red and white pyjamas. ‘Maybe Santa’s been!’

‘I live with Santa. It’s nothing new.’ She grunted, walking past him to the stairs but he gently took her hand and stopped her.

‘Karen, please.’ He said in a softer voice. ‘Come and see.’

‘Can I have a fag?’

Santa winced.

‘Fine.’ Karen sighed. ‘But then I’m going to bed.’

Santa stepped back from the living room door, making a grand gesture of inviting her into the room. ‘Of course.’ He said solemnly.

Karen entered the living room, a little surprised and even a touch disappointed to find it unchanged. Warm, cozy, with a fire blazing in the hearth and the same small bundle of presents under the oversized Christmas tree. Instead of going to the presents, however, Santa crossed the living room towards his workshop and stood beside the door.

‘In here.’ He said, gesturing to the closed door. ‘Merry Christmas.’

Karen regarded him suspiciously and felt an unwanted smile begin to force itself upon the corners of her mouth. ‘What is it?’ She asked, as disdainfully as she could.

‘Your main present,’ he said. ‘From your husband.’

Karen approached the workshop and pushed the door open. She seldom ventured here herself. It was always full of mess and business as Santa and his elves worked furiously preparing all the toys and gifts for the following Christmas. Something she had lost all interest in.

She could hardly believe her eyes when she opened the door. All of the workbenches, machinery and magical paraphernalia were gone. There were no elves and no mess. The entire room had been redecorated from top to bottom in soft pastel shades. On one side of the room, there was a white chest of drawers with soft edges and bulbous, rubbery handles. A similarly styled wardrobe stood directly beside it. There was a large selection of soft toys populating the top of the drawers. The windows were covered with pastel blue blackout curtains which prevented any sunlight from getting into the room. There was a white lampshade with tiny little reindeers dangling from the light, casting reindeer shaped shadows all around the room. On the far side of the room, there was a simple white wooden cot and a baby changing station. Karen was speechless.

‘Like it?’

‘Where’s the workshop?’ Karen gasped.

‘Dismantled.’ Santa said. ‘I’ve decided to advertise for someone else to take over. They can have it all. I thought about what you said last Christmas and you were right.’

Karen looked up at her husband, his face uncharacteristically serious though not stern.

‘I’ve been too absorbed in my work. I’ve just been doing it so long, it’s become my life. So it’s time to retire. To focus on our family.’ He nodded into the workshop-turned-nursery. ‘I know this doesn’t make up for everything but-’

‘But it’s a start.’ Karen said, nodding. ‘And I’m sorry. For everything.’

‘So…’ Santa said. ‘Not a disappointing Christmas this year, then?’

‘No.’ She said. ‘I think this is going to be the best Christmas ever.’

THE END

Follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Unfortunately, I am unable to take on any more author interviews or solicited book reviews at this time.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

PENSTRICKEN: COLLECTED STORIES – OUT NOW!

‘Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.’

There are short stories, there are very short stories and then there is flash fiction: the delicate and often tricky art of telling a story in as few words as possible.

The stories in this tiny little book (all originally published between 2015 and 2020 on the fiction blog, Penstricken) are deliberate exercises in brevity. In total, this book contains twelve flash fictions ranging from fifty to 2,000 words apiece, plus six collections of six word stories.

While these stories vary in mood and genre, you will find in many that the author’s tongue was firmly entrenched in his cheek; whether it be in the brief tale of a Martian liberating his ‘kin’ from the deep fat fryer of a Glasgow chip shop or the nightmarish tragedy of Santa Claus’ true genesis, Penstricken: Collected Stories is a brief snapshot of one writer’s meandering imagination.

When I stopped writing new posts for Penstricken, I promised I was going to release a short book on KDP of all the flash fictions I had ever published on this blog. Now it’s finally here in Kindle or paperback format, containing all the stories previously published on this blog in the last five years including Popping Off, The Fireplace Coppers and Christmas Eve.

At a mere 51 pages this is probably the skinniest anthology of short stories you’re ever likely to own, making it a nice little stocking filler and easy to read in a single sitting.

Click here to buy Penstricken: Collected Stories on Amazon.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Looking for a gift for the author or fiction lover in your life?
Check out the Penstricken Zazzle store!

A scrivener using Scrivener

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: