The Choice of Stone - 1031 Story Challenge.

Happy Halloween! For the past few weeks I've been inviting writers to take part in a challenge to write a short story of 1031 words or fewer. There are some fantastic pieces - read them all here - and they're still coming in, which is amazing. Below is my own, inspired by the fascinating carvings of the Soul Effigy, Father Time, and Death on some of the oldest graves in Boston, MA. To learn more about that, see here and here). Enjoy.

The Choice of Stone
by Simon P. Clark

The grave was fresh, and the air was cold. Three figures stepped from the shadows. They looked at the empty headstone.

'He's young,' said one, an old man with grey eyes. He sniffed and looked up at the sky.

'No good for you,' said another, a young boy with pale white skin. 'No babies for you. This is mine, easily.'

Father Time raised an eyebrow. 'Easily? Come, now. I still have a claim. Time takes many, you know.'

Soul snorted and rustled his wings.

'Not this again,' he said. 'Not this. You don't get all of them just because they grew. This one's young and innocent. He's mine.'

They looked down at the grave again. Its bare, smooth stone was shining in the damp.

The third figure coughed and took off his spectacles, wiping them slowly on a black handkerchief.

'He was sick,' said Grim. 'Taken before his time. I think my claim is strong.'

Soul shifted uneasily. The wind blew leaves against the dark grey stone.

'No one's letting go, then?' said Time. The other two were silent. Soul flapped his wings. Grim watched them both, a thin smile on his lips.

'Fine,' said Time. He leaned upon his stick. 'We'll ask. It's the only way.'

'It has been a while since we all laid claim,' said Grim.

'They don't use this ground as much,' said Soul. 'It's being forgotten. The graves, the people.'

'And us,' said Time with a dry laugh.

'I think not,' said Grim. He waved his hand through the air. 'I cannot be forgotten. I haunt them all. They fear me.'

A dark cane, of oily smoke, appeared in his hand, and he tapped it sharply on the ground.

'Wake,' he said. 'And choose.'

Father Time sighed. 'They don't fear you more than me,' he said. Grim looked at him and said nothing.

'They fear age,' said Time, 'more than death.'

Soul laughed. 'Where they go is what matters,' he said. 'Up or down. That's the biggest thing. I'm the biggest question.'

'We will ask,' said Grim again. He tapped the headstone. 'Come,' he said.

'Getting impatient?' said Time. Grim scowled.

'Patience has no meaning for me,' he said.

'And death none for me!' said Time, raising his voice. 'Honestly - '

He stopped, catching himself.

'I think I shall reap even you, in the end, Time,' said Grim. A silver blade appeared in his hand. Time smiled and tutted.

'Everything rusts if you wait long enough.'

'Shush,' said Soul. 'He's here.'

A pale figure the colour of moonlight had risen from the grave and was standing before them, scared and timid, still clothed in his grave suit.

Grim raised himself up. 'Boy,' he said. 'Do you know where you are?'

The figure looked around, a pained expression on its face. It looked down and read the name on the stone. It swallowed. Then, 'The Old Yard,' it said. Grim nodded.

'Good. Your grave, however, is unclaimed. It has no marker. No skull. No clock. No angel. It must have one.'


Time stepped forward, a smile on his ancient face. 'You see these graves?' he said. 'They're all claimed. By me, or him, or him. It's an old game. It's an old law. And now it's your turn. Who will have you? Which mark will you take for your stone?'

The boy's eyes watered with tears as pale as shadows. 'Please -' he said, but Grim raised a hand.

'You have no choice,' he said, 'but this one, and this alone. Choose, and choose well. Time, Soul, or Grim. Which will you be? Which will mark your life?'

Soul, always the youngest, smiled a little. Time frowned. Grim was blank, as still as the stone itself. The boy looked at them, and down again at the earth, and up to the stars that shone through the clouds.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t know.’

‘You’ll work it out,’ said Soul. ‘Everyone does, in the end. Take your time. But make your choice. Your grave belongs to one of us. We just have to work out who.’

‘It’s not fair,’ said the boy.

‘No, I don’t suppose it is.’

‘I’m scared.’

‘Oh? Choose.’

‘I want to go home.’

‘No. Choose.’

‘What happens next?’

‘You choose.’

The boy looked down at his grave again, at the blank space on the stone. He looked at the figures, the boy, the man, and ... he swallowed ... and the other one. Grim nodded.

'You fear me most, don't you?' he said. Shadows pooled in his eyes. The boy whimpered and nodded.

'Good,' said Grim. 'Then you're mine.'

'Pff,' said Time.

'He was too young to be yours,' said Soul. 'Look at him. He doesn't care about aging.'

'Nor about his future!' said Time.

Soul stuck out a tongue. 'Either way,' he said.

'Another grave for me,' said Grim. 'Another stone to wear the skull. I think that puts me in the lead.'

'Don't gloat,' said Time. 'It's ugly.'

'Ugly? said Grim, and the wind whipped his cloak high in the air, and the moonlight shone among the graves. 'Ugly? Of course. How could this game be anything other?'

The graveyard was empty, silent and cold. The grave, still fresh, stood apart from the others. The stone was new, not touched by moss or snow. The name was clear, sharp and newly carved, and above it was a skull - a grinning, staring reaper.


Eren is Finished

I sent an email yesterday. That's not much of a story, is it? Add a few details, though, and it becomes something quite different: I sent an email yesterday to my publisher, along with the final manuscript of Eren, the book I've been working on for four years.

Actually, even that's a simplification. The first few sparks of Eren came when I was a teenager. That book never came to light, but the idea stuck and fermented without me even knowing it, and when 2009 came it was there, still waiting.

England, Japan, America. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. Places I've lived and the time it's taken to write, rewrite, edit, re-edit, and do all the things it takes to get the book finished. Well, finished enough. I have a sneaky suspicion that all I'm doing is letting it go rather than polishing it up.

Appropriately Halloween-y 

Quite honestly, it's a strange, empty feeling to be done. To be done done. Like getting on a plane to a new country and finally realising - well, crap. It really is too late now. This is happening. Eren is finished. The writing is done and the reading will begin soon enough.

So the book's not mine anymore. Not mine mine, mine alone. Soon it will be everyone's. That's another journey I have to take - another panicked moment when I can't decide to stop. That's a good thing, by the way. What's life without a little panicked doubt?

So! More stories to write. More worlds to explore. Right now I'm still riding high on the thrill of seeing Eren the book (rather than Eren the story) take shape. What more is there to say? That story is told, and in time you'll get to read it. For now, I'm going to celebrate, with good friends, good times, and a healthy break from the computer*.

To all who've helped me so far - thank you.

*This is a lie.


NaNoWriMo With Writers' & Artists' Yearbook

It's a chilly October morning here in New Jersey, which can only mean one thing - National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner.

NaNoWriMo is a month of 'literary abandon' when many thousands of people try to write a novel - 50,000 words - between November 1st and November 30th. Sound impossible? It's not - though it is hard. If you're still trying to get that amazing idea down and turn it into something more than just thoughts, NaNoWriMo could be the collective kick up the keyboard you need.

The good folk over at Writers' & Artists' are following along this year, profiling five writers and encouraging you to follow, support, and take part. A full guide to their coverage is here - and I wrote a piece for them about my own experiences with NaNoWriMo in a blog post here. Have a look, be inspired, and get writing.

ALSO - there's still time to take part in the 1031 Story Challenge I'm hosting. Can you write a short story in time for Halloween? There are already some fantastic short stories for you to read - just click the link above or go to this page to dive in. For more information on the Challenge, read the post below (also found by clicking here).

Phew, that was a lot of clicking. 

Have fun1


The 1031 Story Challenge

UPDATE: The first stories are coming, so be sure to check them out on the page above, or by clicking HERE.

Friends, writers, sundry:

Halloween is almost here, and whether you celebrate / party / believe or not, there's no denying that it's a great time for writers. Tales of ghosts, ghouls, other worlds and all things scary have always been a big part of our world - and there's something special about a good horror story.


To have some fun this year, I'm proposing The 1031 Story Challenge. What does that mean? Simple - those who want to take part just have to stretch their imaginations, be brave enough to get scared, and pen a new story that's under 1031 words. Those of you who are clever will have worked out already that 10 / 31 is the date (in U.S. order, yes) of Halloween itself.

If you want to be extra clever, how about trying to hit the number on the head? Now that WOULD be scary.

To take part in The 1031 Story Challenge just comment below, follow along on Twitter using #1031Story (you can find me as @sipclark) and get cracking - there's a good two weeks to go. You can host the stories on your own blog or, if you wish, I'll happily put them up here. All work, whatever genre, remains your own, of course.


What's the 10310 Story Challenge?

It's a tradition I just made up of getting people to tell stories for Halloween that are shorter than 1031 words.


Because it's fun, and people are amazing.

What's a 'story'? 

Whatever you want. Fiction, poetry, art, essays...

Who are you?

I'm a writer. I have stories here and there, and a novel.

Who can take part?

Anyone. Everyone. I really want to see some fun and creative stuff happen.

Are there prizes? I love prizes.

Maybe. Maybe.

So if I want to take part...?

Just do. When your story is up, let me know, and we can spread the word. Publish it yourself and send me a link, or send it to me and I can put it up. The choice is entirely yours. If you want to contact me, feel free at any time.

The 1031 Story Challenge - Good Luck!

Photo: Carole Pasquier

An Insight Into Editing - Eren

Editing is one of those things that new (and old) writers find frustrating and readers find fascinating. Maybe it's because it lays bare the bones of a story, or because it's often what separates bad writing from good, but the whole thing - the whole process of writing and rewriting and going over things - seems to have developed a mythology of its own.

I'm in the middle (or, towards the end, I hope) of editing Eren. While every book is different, the process has been eye-opening and helped me understand why publishing sometimes seems like a painfully slow industry. Friends, excited by the news of a book deal, continue to ask when publication day is, and hearing that it's still a year away raises understandable questions: Why? Was there a problem?  

Well, no. It's just that all the work has been behind the scenes.

Taken with instagram

The editing process for Eren so far has looked like this:

I write Eren. This was a hazy process that took multiple years of thinking and a couple of years of working on and off. Let's say, for argument, that Eren took a year to write.

I edit Eren. Knowing I wanted to get agent representation, I finished writing the book, left it for a bit, and then edited it again. Distance gives you perspective, after all. The wait and the rewrite took, say, four months.

Potential agent edits Eren. My particular path to publication included a 'revise and resubmit' from Molly (The Bent Agency). In this case, a phone call where she suggested some changes to the book and offered to read it again.

I edit Eren. Following written guidance from Molly, I edited Eren and sent it back. Two months all in all.

Agent and I edit Eren. Molly, now representing Eren, suggests some final edits to prepare the book for submission to publishers. Not very big changes - maybe one more month.

Eren is sent to publishers, and a deal is signed with Constable & Robinson. Hooray!

Now, watch closely, because this is the bit that I'm finding most interesting...

Editor sends editorial letter. In my case, several pages long - detailing certain plot points that might need adjusting, asking questions about the world, and highlighting certain characters who the editor felt could be better portrayed. A big overhaul, designed to make Eren a better story overall. Two months of work, on and off.

Editor sends line edits. Line edits, as opposed to the letter, are more detailed, highlighting specific words, specific scenes, and suggesting alternatives or changes that don't affect the plot as much as the writing. Depending on the size of the manuscript, these can take weeks or months to get done. They involve a lot of close reading and a lot of paying attention, and are probably some of the less glamorous edits (if you can ever imagine editing as glamorous).

What comes next? We'll see, won't we. Further checks, tweaks, and improvements - and all to make Eren as good as it can be, as good a story as readers deserve.

I can't wait for you guys to read it. I think you're going to like it.


Short Stories Are A Good Thing

I feel like I should open this post with a confession; I haven't read Alice Munro. Nevertheless, her just-announced Nobel Prize has got a lot of people talking, and one thing in particular seems to be coming up again and again - the fact she wrote short stories.

Lots of writers write short stories, of course (or short fiction, or stories, or whatever you wish to call them). Munro simply wrote more short pieces than anything else. She has one novel, but ten collections. That's hard to do in a world that equates length with quality.

Why, though? Some of the best writers I know have put out short story collections. Some did so at the beginning of their careers. Others had to rely on success to convince publishers to 'risk' such a venture. So many collections are such fun, but the genre / form sometimes fails to attract enough attention or support. The Internet and changes in publishing may well see the short story rise again, as the cost of paper and printing becomes less of an important factor, but there's still an attitude change that needs to happen.

Either way, congratulations are due to Munro for a lifetime behind the pen, and it's the perfect time to share some of my own favourite collections. They're a mixed bunch, but they all made an impression on me.

The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios - Yann Martel

I found this is a library after Lifer of Pi brought Martel to much wider fame. It's an odd mixture of realism, magic and genre-bending experimental pieces, but it's well worth a read, and the title piece has stayed with me for years - what greater praise can I give?

Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman

Gaiman collected together a range of pieces published elsewhere and wrote a thoughtful and eye=opening introduction, along with a few other surprises. It's a good display of his talents. Not all the pieces wowed me, but style-wise there's a lot that I stole from this, in all honesty.

Dubliners - James Joyce

My first exposure to Joyce as part of my undergraduate studies. I was hesitant - we'd all hear the rumours about Ulysses - but his writing, harsh and generous at the same time, made the stories leap out, and his insight into people's lives in all their complexity is hard to beat.

Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

Bought on a whim while I was in Tokyo - the English language selection being a bit limited - this was my first time reading Lahiri, and the fact I left this book behind is a constant annoyance. Hopefully someone else will find it, read it, and love it just as I did. Colorful and moving.

Vintage Murakami - Haruki Murakami

Not technically a collection of short stories, fine. It's a sampler, really - extracts from longer novels that can act as shorter pieces to give you a taste of his style. Bleak, sure, and spare at times, but there's something uniquely magical and relaxing in Murakami's worlds, even when horrifying things happen (which they do, believe me).

Have any favourite collections of your own? You can find some of my pieces under the 'Short Stories' tab at the top of this page.