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the unbearable urge to write.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020 (A bonus Christmas story for 'Hairy on the Inside' fans)

The highlight of my writing year for 2021 was the publication of ‘Hairy on the Inside’, my debut novella-in-flash (published by the wonderful Ad Hoc Fiction). It has some lovely reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and, hopefully has been making readers laugh. If you read and enjoyed the novella then here is a bonus Christmas story featuring all the ‘Hairy’ gang. And if you haven’t yet read it then this is your Christmas taster …

The Great Monster Pie Off of 2020

It was Frank’s idea. With news that we were moving into Tier 4 and tighter restrictions from Boxing Day, then why not try something new for our two household gathering. Frank is a committed fan of Bake Off, hasn’t missed a single episode since it began, and has proposed we undertake a Showstopper challenge instead of cooking the usual festive feast. He’s calling it a Pie Off. Everyone is keen to join in, even our blood-sucking live-in landlord, Julien, whose culinary skills are confined to heating up left-overs in the microwave, not a sight for the squeamish. We can create a pie of our own design, using whatever pastry crust and fillings we fancy. I’m drooling at the thought. Thankfully, my time of the lunar month isn’t till next week; paws would have been a baking handicap. A Cold Moon will sap my strength, meaning I have every excuse to stuff myself silly beforehand. A selection of pies, washed down with pints of Prosecco, sounds a perfect day to me.

“I can hear your tummy growling already, Chloe,” says Frank, winking at me.

“Do they have to be savoury?” asks Marlene. She has a sweet tooth (the others rotted long ago) and loves desserts. 

“There are no rules. Make your dream pie.” Frank tips his head right back with excitement, straining the fraying stitches around his neck to breaking point. He’s recently been banned from our local supermarket after his head toppled into the frozen peas. 

I’ve invited Gemma, my support bubble girlfriend, to join us. We met between lockdowns and this will be our first Christmas. I’m a little twitchy about how she feels, really feels about me, or even if we have a future together. She arrives mid-morning with bags of gifts and all the ingredients for her pie. She’s not like me, nor the rest of my housemates. Gemma has a pulse and doesn’t shed hair on the sofa, but she’s been invited in and accepted by all. She’s kept teaching all year, a key worker, and Julien calls her a hero for our times. I think he secretly has a crush on Gemma, since he’s abstained from drinking in her presence. Or rather he’s abstained from drinking her.

Gemma selects an appropriately festive play-list on her phone, then Frank declares it’s time to “BAKE.”

Short, puff or filo. Pastry choices sound more like dog breeds to me. Frank is a traditionalist and opted for a hot-water crust, with turkey, stuffing and cranberry layers inside. He’s even fashioned a home-made pie mould using his melted down spare set of neck bolts. “No chance of a soggy bottom with this,” he says. 

Marlene cheerily calls out “Bingo!” She’s just won the soggy bottom sweepstake for guessing Frank would say it before the Queen’s speech. There’s no prize, but she helps herself to a celebratory sherry, filling her schooner glass to the brim. Marlene is petite and still shrinking post-mortem, so it goes straight to what’s left of her head and she’s soon singing the original lyrics to A Fairy Tale of New York, which makes Gemma get the giggles.

“That’s cheating, Chloe.” Frank sniffs as I pull out the ready-made sheets of puff pastry from the fridge.

“If it’s good enough for Mary Berry,” I retort, then spoon in my filling. In deference to Gemma’s veggie tastes I’m using chestnuts, spinach and mushrooms. Technically, it’s a Wellington not a pie, as Frank is keen to point out, but it’s made with love (not lard) for the one I adore. 

My housemates snigger, and I realise I’ve just said that last bit out loud. I’ve never told her this before and Gemma blushes under the flour dusting her cheeks. She’s chosen a shortcrust recipe packed with all my favourite species. Holding her nose, Gemma tips out the innards into the dish and my heart swells as I watch her trying not to gag. In true Bake Off fashion, Frank loudly announces we have two hours left. I have no idea if that’s a short or long time, I rarely cook anything from scratch and often eat alfresco.

Marlene’s baking her pastry case blind. It takes both Frank and me to pop her eyes back in. Her entry is a mulled wine apple pie (her own concoction). She may have gone overboard with the Rioja, but the kitchen smells divine, a heady scent of cinnamon, cloves and pure alcohol. Now we’re all singing along with Wizzard.

A tuneless whining accompanies us from under the table. “Who let the dog in?” says Gemma, as she bends to scratch behind the spaniel’s crinkly ears.

“That’s not a real dog,” I tell her. “This is Malcolm, from Julien’s Book Club. He’s monstrous, don’t let him look up your dress.”

She steps back, as Malcolm, in spaniel form, rolls over to offer his belly for a tickle. I’m not sure when he snuck in, but his presence contravenes the two-household rule and I wouldn’t like to be in his fur if Julien catches him here. When I open the back door to shoo him out, he’s shifted into a posh pink poodle, lips puckered as he poses under the mistletoe. 

“No chance, Malcolm.” I drag him outside by his satin white bow and scold him for being a “bad dog.” That was cruel of me, but he’s been shifting his shape and trying it on all year, never getting the message.

Gemma smiles at me, the way that makes me want to dance. She knows not to sing Last Christmas by Wham! – it brings back painful memories for Frank – but mimes the words to me, then leans in close to whisper, “This year I have found someone special. I baked my pie with love too.” Now I know exactly how she feels and I can’t stop grinning like a love-sick Labrador.

At sunset Julien flies in for the climax of the competition. True to form, he slips his pie (“one I made earlier”) into the microwave. Julien is simple in his tastes, O positive usually. I warn Gemma not to try his entry. 

With all five pies steaming on the kitchen table, it occurs to Frank that we haven’t got a judge. As competition bakers none of us can pick a winner, so we call up our friend Dottie for a video chat on WhatsApp. Dottie is our neighbour, the same age as the Queen (and Sir David), currently shielding until she gets her second vaccination. Unable to sample any of the entries, she unhelpfully decrees they are all winners, which puts Frank into a sulk. Julien saves the day, and Frank’s mood, by unveiling his surprise gift to the household. He’s downloaded every series of Bake Off, a virtual box-set we can enjoy all year round.

Against my better judgement, and with Julien’s permission, I whistle Malcolm back into the kitchen to name the Star Baker for our first Pie Off. He’s now a sleek grey wolf with golden eyes. Okay, he’s getting closer, but I wouldn’t fancy him if he were the last canine on earth. I take Gemma’s hand and she squeezes mine back. Leaping onto the table Malcolm tentatively sniffs and licks each entry, then snatches up Frank’s “turkey with all the trimmings” pie and scarpers.

Gemma climbs onto a chair to crown Frank as the winner. The yellow paper hat, salvaged from a cracker, sits unevenly on his odd-shaped head. “Shame your ears don’t match,” she says, suppressing a laugh.  

Frank beams proudly. “Did I tell you that I once met Mary Shelley? Though she was known as Wollstonecraft Godwin at the time.”

In unison we shout: YES. Then pelt him with cranberries.

Later, we all cram into the lounge to begin a Bake Off binge. Frank brings out a plate of warmed mince pies. “This year I made my own mincemeat,” he boasts.

I notice how several of his fingertips are missing and advise Gemma that the pies may not be suitable for vegetarians. We also share the last chocolate orange, Gemma brought one for each of us but the others have mysteriously disappeared. Marlene refuses to confess when I quiz her about the four empty boxes in the recycling bin, it’s a good job she’s already dead as right now I could kill her. 

Everyone agrees the Pie Off has been a success. We may have begun a new annual tradition. Julien makes a round of snowballs, with a glacĂ© cherry hidden at the bottom as a final treat. Gemma and I exchange a shy smile that reassures me we have a future. Clinking our glasses together, our two households toast what is to come. Old habits aren’t necessarily good ones, it could be the perfect time for change. 

If you enjoyed this story then why not treat yourself to the original novella-in-flash ‘Hairy on the Inside’ featuring these characters. Available from Ad Hoc Fiction and Amazon

Thank you to all my readers and followers. LitPig and I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a creative, healthy and happy 2022!

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Hairy On The Inside launch!

I can't tell you how much it means to hold a book with just my name on the cover, and I am delighted with Hairy On The Inside published by Ad Hoc Fiction. I love the cover, which totally fulfilled the brief I gave John at Ad Hoc, and now LitPig has his very own mug to match. 

The launch for my debut novella-in-flash will be hosted by Jude Higgins on Wednesday 15th September 7.30 - 9pm BST. It's a double launch with Jupiter Jones and there will be readings from both of us, along with some chat, Q&A and raffle to win copies of the two novellas. If you'd like to come along (and it would be wonderful to see some of you there) then you can request the link by following the instructions here or if you're on Twitter then DM @AdHocFiction or @BathFlashAward.

For publication day my best writing chum Wendy Clarke gave me this beautiful patio rose to mark the occasion. I'm not sure I'd keep writing without her support and our monthly goal setting (not to mention all the coffee and cake... ). 

This novella-in-flash may not have been written without the encouragement and feedback of my workshop Dream Team: Richard Buxton, Bee Mitchell-Turner and Zoe Mitchell. I owe a big thank you to Michelle Elvy, who judged the 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and shortlisted Hairy On The Inside, and much thanks to early reviewers: Vanessa Gebbie, Amanda Huggins and Tim Craig, for all their lovely cover quotes. 

If you want to hold your own copy of Hairy On The Inside then they are available to buy from Ad Hoc Fiction or Amazon. If you enjoy the read then please think about posting a review online (Amazon, Goodreads, Ad Hoc Fiction). Or just Tweet about it, all and any pics of Hairy out in the wild (perhaps with a hairy/furry friend) are welcomed and much loved!

Monday, 2 August 2021

Celebrating Writing Milestones

Today I'm celebrating two milestones in my writing career.  My short fiction has featured in many anthologies but finally there is a book coming out with just my name on the cover! That's a big deal for me. Here is the cover reveal for my debut novella-in-flash Hairy on the Inside, to be published by Ad Hoc Fiction on 27th August. You can now pre-order the novella with a 25% discount until publication day from Ad Hoc Fiction here.

Hairy on the Inside was shortlisted for the 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, for which it needed to comprise individual flashes (or chapters) of not more than 1000 words long. Note: A novella-in-flash should have a distinct narrative arc (tell a complete story) and is not simply a collection of unrelated flash stories. 

If you do pre-order then THANK YOU,  and if possible after reading please leave a review on Ad Hoc Fiction, Goodreads etc. It is intended to be a comic novella with the simple intention of making people smile (and hopefully chuckle).

Some advance praise for Hairy on the Inside:

Michelle Elvy, author of the everrumble and judge for 2021 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award - 

A group of flatmates try to hold onto their compassion and civilising tendencies in the face of pestilence and plague - mostly. Their new lockdown lives include all the typical things, from counselling sessions to book clubs. But this is no ordinary tale: you will howl when the moon is full and grimace when there's a hunger for blood. A funny and irreverent monster mash-up, with love in the mix, too, and a serious message about how to be the real you. Carefully written with excellent pacing but also: it's clear how much fun the writer had writing this!

Vanessa Gebbie -

Friends house-share during the pandemic - but that's where the real world fades out. These friends are the undead. Shapeshifters, zombies and werewolves have to endure the ups and downs, the privations and boxed sets of the pandemic just like the rest of us. Nothing escapes Tracy Fells's boundless creativity and wit.

Amanda Huggins, author of All our Squandered Beauty - 

In this original, witty and irreverent novella-in-flash, Tracy Fells sprinkles her skilful writing magic over a group of extraordinary housemates. The monstrous friends grapple with lockdown while pursuing love and doing battle with their unnatural urges, always remaining true to their real selves in the way only the undead can!

Tim Craig, Winner of the Brigport Prize for Flash Fiction - 

Hairy on the Inside shows what can be achieved by a novella-in-flash when it's in the hands of a real master of the form. I laughed. I cried. I checked under the bed...

And my second milestone... reaching 100 publications with a flash story on National Flash Fiction Day's FlashFlood Journal. You can read Brittle here

Brittle is very different in tone and themes from Hairy on the Inside, hopefully demonstrating the versatility of Flash Fiction!

Monday, 21 June 2021

Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash

My guest on the blog today is the multi-talented writer Mona Dash. Let Us Look Elsewhere (published by Dahlia Books) is her terrific new short story collection and she’s come along to talk about the stories and her writing. 

My own review of Let Us Look Elsewhere is at the end of the post…

Mona Dash
is the author of  A Roll of the Dice : a story of loss, love and genetics (Linen Press, 2019) winner of the Eyelands International Book Awards for memoir, and very recently, Let Us Look Elsewhere (Dahlia Books, June ’21).Her other published books are A Certain Way, Untamed Heart, and Dawn-drops. Her work has been listed in leading competitions such as Novel London 20, SI Leeds Literary award, Fish, Bath, Bristol, Leicester Writes and Asian Writer, and widely published in international journals and more than twenty anthologies. A graduate in Telecoms Engineering, she holds an MBA, and also a Masters in Creative Writing (with distinction). She works in a global tech company and lives in London.

Mona's Wesbsite 

About Let Us Look Elsewhere:

A young boy refuses to ferry his boat. A woman orders a British

accent to fit in. A lover sends messages into the void. Disconnection and desire go hand in hand in this powerful collection. From the bustling streets of Mumbai to the glitz and glamour of Vegas, and the everyday streets of London, these beautifully observed stories explore human frailties and triumph.

Praise for Let Us Look Elsewhere

A wonderful, richly rendered and triumphant collection. Highly recommended

~ Irenosen Okojie, Author, MBE

Mona Dash has produced an unflinching collection of short stories, demonstrating that she is a fearless writer, unafraid to reveal her characters flaws and extremes as they search for a sense of identity and belonging. 

~ Joe Melia, Bristol Short Story Prize Co-ordinator

These atmospheric stories travel across continents and time, offering surprising and intriguing incursions into the disparate moments of solitary lives.

 ~ Amanthi Harris, Author

Mona tells us:

This is a collection of stories written over the past five or six years. Several of these were listed in competitions or published in a journal. It was only when an older and different version of this collection was shortlisted in the SI Leeds Literary Award in 2018. It was the only short story collection to make the final shortlist of six books, so that is when I realised I had a potential book!

I wrote each story as it ‘arrived’ in my head, so the influences and inspirations are varied. There are two threads through the heart of the collection, firstly human frailty and disconnect, since the characters are not complete or content. They are each on a quest, whether it is to find love or self-fulfilment. The second is a sense of place, and how our surroundings often influence and make a difference to our own ideologies and personality constructs. 

Then there are two themes stitching the stories. Multiple, diverse identity is very important to me as a person, and as a writer. The travesty of belonging and feeling like an outsider, can happen to anyone. Many of the stories explore situational belonging and identity, such as Natural Accents, Golems of Prague, Temple Cleaner, The Sense of Skin, Boatboy. Though Boatboy is a bit different as it is the only one based on a real incident in history.

Desire, passion, sensuality, especially of women, is the second theme throughout the collection. The women in my stories are trying to find themselves, often through love, intimacy, they are often rebelling against the spaces they have been forced into.  This exploration into the complexity of a woman’s mind and her often ambiguous secret world, is explored through the stories like Lovers in a Room, Secrets, Watching the Aurora, Inside the City, Formations, Fitted Lids, That which is unreal, Why does the cricket sing?

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing these stories!

... and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them! Thank you, Mona.

Most Importantly: 

Let Us Look Elsewhere is available from Dahlia Books with free postage in the UK

My review of Let Us Look Elsewhere: 

Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash is a collection of short stories that will make you look elsewhere with eager eyes. Every time I opened this collection I looked forward to reading a new story. I never knew where the author would take me next, to different times and places all across the world where I could learn about so many different lives and settings. 

Short story collections can often be a chore, the pages filled with admirable prose yet dull plot-lines, whereas Let Us Look Elsewhere is refreshingly packed with compelling and thrilling stories. Realist and speculative fiction happily sit together, which makes for exciting reading. Each story intrigued and fascinated me, I was totally immersed in the characters’ lives and eager to learn their fates. In this collection you will discover multiple worlds, novels played out in miniature leaving you hungry for more yet very satisfied with the story’s closure. Dash’s talent is for creating believable characters who you care about. I particularly loved the more complex and morally dubious characters in this collection. You may question their motives and methods but their voices fascinate and intrigue, and you can’t stop reading.

Imaginative, risk-taking and always surprising, this collection of short stories is a joy to read.