Hinting at an Age Long Gone

By Ian Hutson

[Ian Hutson]I was incarcerated in a dozen very different schools as a child, and one of them was run by hippies. We attended the classes we felt like attending, generally did whatever we pleased and were encouraged to loosen our orange and purple Paisley pattern bandanas and expand our own minds. Ye gods, it was awful. Forget spelling they said, forget grammar and punctuation, just get those precious ideas and stories down in green crayon on recycled hand-laid ninety-percent hemp paper.

It didn’t seem to matter that thereafter no-one could decipher a word of it. I once dipped the school Tarantula into an inkwell and then set him free in the stationery cupboard. By the time the caretaker had recaptured him Mr. Creepy-Crawley had garnered two gold merit stars and a favourable mention in the school’s creative-writing hall of fame.

Language is a code and codes, like recipes for soufflé, have structure and format for a reason. The reason that they have structure and format is so that someone who has never met you or been in the same elementary spliff-rolling class on the rubber mats in the library building can understand what it is that you were trying to say.

The word “bring” is not the same as the word “take,” “couple” is not a rational number and quite frankly, without a properly formed phrase or adverb you might as well just Eat Fresh from a tin or Drive Safe in Ralph Nader’s Chevrolet Corvair.

It pains me to say it, and I do love my sitar and my quilted evening “smoking” kaftan, but the hippies were entirely wrong in these matters.

A commercial editor recently told me that his first action on any manuscript is to remove any and all italics from the text. When I asked what he used instead to change the inflection of the little voice in the readers’ heads, his eyes remained lifeless and his lips remained silent. He simply didn’t understand the question.

Had I not remembered an urgent need to go home and shampoo my parakeet I might have pressed him on other items of apparently non-essential punctuation and grammar. Question marks perhaps. or capital letters indicating the beginning of a sentence. Perhaps this “professional” editor also held prejudices against full stops and commas and paragraphs in particular parakeets’ bottoms require careful use of a proprietary medicated conditioner so one should always wear rubber gloves to avoid undue avian familiarity.

Statistical analysis might indicate that the spaces used between words constitute a veryinefficientuseofpreciousasciicodeandinternetbandwith, but I’d rather we retained that luxury.

What, I hear you ask wearily, has prompted this tirade? Nothing in particular. I’ve always been a boring old stickler for correct as possible language, make it as can we. I border on the 0CD (ouch, did someone just substitute a zero for a letter “O” there cozzit duzzunt mattah?). As rants go it’s very probably linked to just how comfortable I feel in my current work-in-progress, an anthology by the name of The Cat Wore Electric Goggles.

See? Even we duddy-fuddies sometimes slavishly follow new-fangled modern trends by putting capital letters where they really shouldn’t be.

This anthology, due out in springtime 2014, is a collection of science-fiction stories with a dated, nineteen-fifties flavour to them. All references to “nuclear” become “atomic” and “space ships” become “rockets,” and the construction itself includes sentences much, much longer than a tweet. The paragraphs run to more than a couple of lines and the plots hail from an age predating Hollywooden’s unhealthy preoccupation with prepo$terou$ LPG-fuelled explo$ion$, a blazing gun in every hand and an unspecified terrorist threat to the unquestioned establishment status quo around every box office corner. The individual titles in the anthology range from “The Maharaja of Mars” to “The Curse of The Mandarin,” and that should give you some inkling as to the contents. My goodness me, do I ever feel at home in this anthology, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in my Father’s Far-Eastern Cold-War diary during the first nine years of the nineteen-fifties, let alone born. Incidentally, it was a difficult birth because I refused to leave my typewriter behind or go easy on the carriage-returns during labour.

Is there a point to this blathering, I hear you cry as you reach for your computing mouse. Well the first point is to ask you to insert your own question mark into the previous sentence, should you think it needs one. There are plenty of spare question marks lying around, some folk sprinkle them everywhere? The main thrust, however, is as I said earlier—that the hippies were wrong. All of the characters in my anthology would have known so at a glance. The chaps and memsahibas adventuring within these stories may have possessed the imagination of a tapeworm, but they could tell you so on paper without forcing you into the clutches of Google Translate, Google Best Guess or Google Beats Me, and they had measurable attention spans.

Language isn’t the enemy and imagination is in no way constrained by it. There is, as yet, no charge for or tax upon the use of words or punctuation so why not go wild? Stroll around the museum of English (be that original English, US English or Global English), pick a few priceless words from the dusty displays and throw them into your work.

Be a rotter, be a bounder, be a cad. Be brave, be bold, be uggered.

Sharpen your chisels once in a while.

Be a writer, not a sound-biter.

Oh dear—those all read like sound-bites. What I mean to say is; you’re not in a maths class, you don’t always have to pare your language down to the lowest common denominator. Love the tools of your trade, relish diversity and carve the occasional Hollywooden script editor-annoying flourish. Language is a living, evolving beast—but there’s really no need to kill it stone dead and bury the remains before you move on to the next generational fad.

End of rant.

Chin-chin.

P.S. While I do the best that I can, I offer no guarantees or apologies in re my own grammar and punctuation and, accordingly, I hereby offer my throat to the wolves.

[The Cat Wore Electric Goggles Cover]

About the Author
Ian Hutson was born in England and has lived in peculiar places as diverse as Hong Kong and The Outer Hebrides in Scotland. He stands in awe of folk who write heavy, complicated plots since all of his writing is intended, mostly, for giggles. His favorite hats are the “smoking” cap, the tweed cap and the pith helmet, but he only wears one at a time.

Ian was thrown out of the British Civil Service, thrown out of several multinational corporations, and now works as an Edwardian photographer by day and a scribbler by night. His latest anthology, The Cat Wore Electric Goggles, is due to be published in the spring.

You can find Ian at dieselelectricelephant.wordpress.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.

The Iron Writer Challenge

By B.Y. Rogers

[TIW Logo]The Iron Writer Challenge was created in February 2013 as a way to have fun while improving one’s writing skills. The concept is simple yet can be confounding. Every Thursday four authors are invited to compete in a writing challenge. Each author writes a five hundred word story utilizing four elements. The elements are not announced until the challenge begins. Their stories are due four days later. The following Thursday, the same day the next challenge is posted, the stories for the previous challenge are posted on the website and available for voting. Voting remains open for one week.

The winners of each challenge are invited to compete in a quarterly tournament; Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox, Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. There are sixteen writers per tournaments, comprising the challenge winners and second place finishers to round out the field.

The sixteen writers are ranked and placed into four brackets. The challenge rules apply: five hundred words, four elements, four-day deadline.

The winners of the four brackets then compete in a final round, where one champion is declared.

Every May, the quarterly winners are invited to compete in an annual tournament where a champion is crowned.

Additionally, The Iron Writer offers two other non-competitive ‘challenges’. The Weekend Quickie is meant to be a practice challenge. Every Saturday a Weekend Quickie is posted, comprising of an image prompt, an object and an emotion. Submissions are posted in the comment section. The Iron Writer Rely is a collaborative effort, where a short story is written by several authors, with a single theme.

Other programs are in the works, particularly an Apprentice program for high school and college age writers.

The objective is this. When an author writes a scene for their novel, every word in every sentence, in every paragraph, in every scene, in every chapter is important. As Faulkner said, we must be willing to kill the little babies. When you have to write a five hundred word story, utilizing four elements, every word must be carefully chosen. Taking an Iron Writer challenge focuses on achieving and making concise writing a habit. Your writing will get better, but only if you are serious.

A Feedback area is available on the website. If a writer desires and craves feedback, take the challenge (weekly or the weekend quickie) and add it to the comments in that section. But expect harsh, honest, objective criticism.

The Iron Writer is not for the faint hearted. We take writing seriously.

You can find B.Y. Rogers on Twitter, and you can learn more about the Iron Writers Challenge on his website at theironwriter.com.

Coins in the Fountain

By Judith Works

[Judith Works]One evening after I finished the last of the Italian expat stories stacked up on my bedside table I said to myself: “No one has had my experiences. They all write about vineyards and old farmhouses. I lived in Rome.” So the next morning after I poured a second cup of coffee I sat down in front of my laptop. The screen was blank and so was my mind until I thought back to that first day in our Roman apartment when I could hear my husband screaming “Stop that!” I had rushed into an empty room to see him hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns who were dumping garbage behind our apartment. Well… yes, it seemed that there was a story to tell. No rural idyll, but the story of life in Rome and a job working for the United Nations. A story with plenty of weird adventures (like falling in the subway and getting arrested by the carabinieri) and wonderful times eating, drinking and laughing with new friends. A story of traveling around Italy and even travel to some of the places the UN works to provide humanitarian assistance. A story of running away in middle age to join the circus (the Circus Maximus in Rome, that is).

As a lawyer I spent my career writing in dull passive legalese. To tell a story I had to change my thought process entirely – become a story-teller instead of an arguer trying to prove some arcane point. That was a challenge. Another challenge was to shape the story. My husband and I had two stays in Rome, the first for four years and the second for over six. Should I deal with one or throw them both in; did my husband mind having stories told about him; how should I depict some of our more exotic friends and acquaintances? Should I talk about the difficult times or only write about the best? Should I begin at the beginning or at the end and look backward?

It took well over a year to get the stories down and more time to get rid of the ones that were uninteresting. Then I had to overcome the trepidation attendant with showing the work to anyone. So I started with my husband. As he read along he would say, “No, that’s not the way it was – it happened like…” Discussion followed. Who was right? Each problem was settled until I showed it to my daughter who knows Rome well. She would say, “But you forgot…” More revisions!

Now it was time for a critique group. Every other Monday we went at it. “I don’t understand this?” “What do you mean by that?” Or, best, “Yes, that’s exactly the Rome I saw.”

Finally I had a completed manuscript. It told the story of an important period in my life and marked the exciting finale of my working career – a summing up one might say. I had clarified some events and contemplated the meaning of others to reflect on the meaning of it all.

Being an unknown author, I decided to take a chance and just put the book on Amazon for e-readers, a decision I have not regretted. Readers and travelers love Italy for good reason. With the ability to price the book at a modest level I have attracted many more readers than I could have hoped for, earned many new friends who have written me about their own Italian dreams and adventures.

About Coins in the Fountain
Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Coins in the Fountain:

“Hey! What are you doing? STOP that!!”

I sprang up from the floor where I was lounging on a deflated air mattress and rushed into what was supposed to be our dining room in the echoing, still-empty apartment. Why was Glenn shouting? I found the answer when I saw my normally mild mannered husband hanging out the window yelling at a group of nuns in their crisp black and white habits as they dumped wheelbarrows filled with garbage onto the open space behind our building. They looked up briefly. Then, paying no further attention to the outraged foreigner, they finished their work and swished off toward an unseen convent.

It was Saturday morning. To our great surprise, I had gone to work for a branch of the United Nations a month earlier. We stayed in a hotel on the Aventine Hill for the first two weeks after our arrival in Rome and then in a new colleague’s apartment for another two weeks while he was back in California. Now, at the unsettled beginning of the second month of a planned four-year stay we were tired and cranky from sleeping on the living room floor on a bed of flattened cardboard cartons that originally held an air mattress, a few dishes, pots and pans, two folding chairs, an old card table and some clothes. These items comprised our air shipment, meant to tide us over until the shipping container arrived by sea a couple of months later. The air mattress we hoped to use over the cardboard had slowly and irreparably deflated, paralleling our naïve enthusiasm for the whole adventure of a move to romantic Italy.

We had been desperate to find a home. The hotel was expensive and my settlement allowance was running out. The American Embassy located apartments for its staff, but my new office offered no assistance. The rental agents we contacted from newspaper ads had nothing satisfactory to offer, nor did the few ads on an office bulletin board. Word of mouth eventually led us to another agent, a disagreeable American who made her living finding apartments for greenhorns like us with minimum effort on her part. She insisted that we take the bus to the apartments she suggested, leaving us scrambling to find buildings in unfamiliar locations and waiting until she drove up at her leisure and parked her car on the sidewalk. Worse, after she signed us up we began to hear stories that circulated in the gossipy expatriate community that was welcoming us. One story in particular made us especially cautious about the woman: Several years before our arrival Marge invited a client for lunch at her own apartment that was filled with cats and their untended litter boxes. After a microwaved meal of Fettuccine Alfredo, she announced that she had an appointment and left, locking him inside. He was trapped with the cats. After waiting an hour, he managed to signal a neighbor on an adjoining balcony who reluctantly let him climb over the railings to escape an unknown fate.

We weren’t subjected to such dramatic events but then Marge hadn’t shown us anything livable either with her numerous dark and dilapidated suggestions. At the point when we were getting agitated she finally produced an attractive solution that we later heard was yet another apartment where she had resided. Our proposed new home had large windows on both long sides of one wing of a small building…. Best of all, there were two balconies on one side and a sunny terrace opening off the master bedroom and living room on the other. The outdoor spaces were the real attraction for migrants from our cloudy home near Portland, Oregon…

Early fall, it was still hot. I tried to focus on a remark by the ancient Roman orator Seneca: “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Well, I always wanted to have a change of place, and now my wish came true. But sometimes mental exhaustion was a more common sensation than new vigor as my brain tried to get organized to meet the dramatic change in my life.

Our nights were spent lying awake on the floor contemplating my job, the antics of the nuns and the difficulties of getting settled. Packs of incessantly barking dogs left behind when their owners went on vacation provided a background to our thoughts. Adding to the noise, eerie sirens like those in World War II movies split the night air. We squirmed on the flat, sweaty air mattress while considering our decision-making skills – deciding to leave secure jobs for a flight into fantasy. Mamma mia! What had we done to ourselves?

[Coins in the Fountain Cover]

eBook
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About the Author
Life was routine until mid-life when the author decided to get a law degree. After graduation a chance meeting led her to run away to the Circus (Maximus) – actually to the United Nations office next door – where she worked as an attorney and entered the world of expat life in Rome. Now retired, she continues to travel, having fitted in over 100 countries in between many journeys to Italy where she always tosses a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure another visit. While her suitcase is cooling off she writes for several on-line magazines, blogs, and volunteers for arts and literary organizations. She has just completed a novel about expatriates set in Rome.

You can find Judith at www.coinsinthefountain.com, at alittlelightexercise.blogspot.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Agency Rules—Never an Easy Day at the Office

By Khalid Muhammad

[Khalid Muhammad]He had always hated these pretenders to Islam. Becoming a Hafiz at a young age and because some unknown seminary in Pakistan had ‘educated’ them, these fools called themselves maulanas, mullahs and imams. Their entire knowledge of Islam came from the mouths of those who also couldn’t understand Arabic beyond what was written in the Holy Quran. They make good cannon fodder for our wars, too stupid to know what jihad really means.

When the world hears Pakistan mentioned in the media, the first thought is terrorism, which sadly has become part of our national narrative since 9/11. But Pakistan is so much more than the narrative that is presented around the world – it is home to a wonderful, talented people that want nothing more than peace in their country, with their neighbors and respect in the international community of nations, but are deceived by its own “leaders,” whether political or religious.

Agency Rules—Never an Easy Day at the Office takes you behind the headlines into the events that created today’s Pakistan. It is a tough look at a nation in conflict from the eyes of a young man, Kamal Khan, who is looking for his own identity and place in society. Kamal is raised in privilege, but leaves it all behind as a man to serve his nation. Once in that environment, finds himself embroiled in a complex narrative that shifts with the fiery speeches of their anointed political and religious leaders.

There are a number of motivations behind my story. First, and probably the most important motivation, was to share the Pakistan that I know with the world. The narrative that has become commonplace about my country is that it is a failed state with many players in the power corridor, but that is not all that Pakistan is. My Pakistan is a country that struggles with inept governments more interested in themselves rather than the people who elected them. It is a country whose people are extremely talented and patriotic but unable to take advantage of any opportunities because the country is run like a fiefdom rather than a nation. It is a country in search of its identity, much like Kamal, that is trapped amidst power plays from internal and external forces.

Secondly, I grew up reading spy thrillers filled with the exploits of CIA, MI6 and KGB agents. While reading all of these stories, I always wondered why no one had ever written about Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, and the challenges they face every day. Geopolitically, Pakistan is host to numerous intelligence agencies working within its borders, a public secret here and the ISI holds its own against all of them. It’s routinely demonized by foreign nations, and much of that is because it is so good at what it does.

The backdrop of terrorism does make telling the story easier, but to paint the mosaic of the complexities I had to move backwards to the 1990s so that the reader could understand what happened to create the image of the country as it is today. It’s also a little bit of what I wish had happened rather than what really has happened. In my story, as in real life in fact, the people of Pakistan are the underdog against so many powerful forces, it’s a miracle we still exist. That we do is testament to our resilience as a nation, no matter what you read in the international press.

About Agency Rules
Agency Rules—Never an Easy Day at the Office is a fast-paced, action packed story that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. I hope that, as a reader, you will experience that Pakistan that I fell in love with when I moved home from the United States after 25 years. You will feel your heart wrench with Kamal’s when he is stationed in Karachi, Peshawar and buried deep inside the terrorist camps. And, hopefully, you will cheer him on, because he is the Pakistani that you don’t see in the media – smart, driven and motivated to do good for his family, fellow citizens and country.

A comparison to works by LeCarre has been made by a fellow reader and while I would hate to imply that there are obvious similarities I will say that the two authors have certainly the same admirable competence in strong plotting, vivid characterisation and atmospheric style.

Pakistan and its people are often misrepresented in the Western world and I loved how the author managed to bring in a whole spectrum of characters, showing again a complex picture instead of resorting to simple stereotypes or clique; all the while also highlighting outside interests in the country and the internal struggles. While the story moves at a fast pace with compelling writing the author also raises many points about the country’s current state of affairs. It shows a writer with a sharp and thoughtful mind who knows also about diplomacy and international politics – just like any good spy thriller writer should in my opinion.

A good thriller with substance. Very recommendable.

– CHRISTOPH FISCHER, AUTHOR OF THE THREE NATIONS TRILOGY

I thought that this was going to be quite a difficult read for me because on top of the plot complexity of a spy novel there would be the unfamiliar names and places because it was set in Pakistan. So I started off with my laptop beside me open to Google Maps and Wikipedia only to discover that the story was delivered in such an easily digestible way that I hardly had to refer to either. There were a lot of unfamiliar names of people and places at first but they started to sort themselves out as the plot advanced, leading in to a fascinating world of secrets, lies, subterfuge and scandal, not to mention gangs and bribery and corruption reaching right to the top of the government.

– KAREN PRINCE, AUTHOR OF LOST KINGDOMS OF KARIBU

[Agency Rules Cover]

eBook
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About the Author
Khalid Muhammad is the author of Agency Rules—Never an Easy Day at the Office. You can find more information about him and his novel at agencyrules.com, on Facebook and on Twitter.