Novel extract – the rats

scary-rat

In the absence of anything interesting happening in my life at the moment – Lockdown Rules and all that – here’s an extract from my latest WIP for your delectation. It marks the start of the climax and is – and I can’t stress this enough – a first draft. I already know things that are wrong with it (too much detail in the descriptions, slowing down the narrative; a too-long break in the action to describe the gunfighters; too much (and too bad) French) and it might change dramatically before it’s finally ready for publication, should it ever be so.

The WIP in question is still unnamed, though Our Kind of Bastard is getting a good examination, as is the simple Claws. Suggestions always appreciated. It’ll be a long time before it sees the light of day – the first draft isn’t finished yet, and I’ve two novels before it in the work queue.

This piece is set in Brittany and is a rurban fantasy (an urban fantasy set in rural areas). As the extract title suggests, this section features rats. Consider this a content warning if you have particularly strong feelings about the wee beasties.

Relentless Rats

‘Relentless Rats’; Johann Bordin

Saira came back to the centre of the Devil’s Mouth after having a pee in the nearest ditch. There by the portal dolmen she found Cartwright standing with Eloise, barely talking. Indeed, through all the long watch, all that long day, Cartwright had said barely a word. A damaged man, Saira reflected. But then, weren’t they all damaged in one way or another? She thought of Alex, that aching hole in her heart where she still resided.

“Hi, Eloise,” she said. “Not performing?”

“I’ve finished for the night. We’re past the point where alcohol is under control – the crowds get a bit too rowdy for my liking past eight o’clock at an event like this. Mark’s back asleep in the caravan so I thought I’d come and join you here.”

“Well, thank you. Though I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.”

Eloise frowned, the newly-risen moon casting shadows almost as deep as midday. “I thought the bombers–”

“Oh yes, I know that. I just mean… Well, we don’t know when they’re coming, or from what direction, or whether they’ll be armed–”

“That’s why we’re keeping watch,” Cartwright said. “If we knew all that we wouldn’t have to wait, would we? As for them being armed, I think we have to assume the worst.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Eloise asked. “How can we hope to stop them?”

“We have to do something,” he said simply. “It shouldn’t have been like this. We should have had Jazz, and Mark, and – and Dashwood. A proper team. Now thrre’s just us – but still, we have to try.”

“Besides,” Saira said with a confidence that she didn’t feel, “we’ve got me.”

“What do you mean?”

Saira opened a hand and let a little ball of amber particles coalesce into something akin to a crystal ball. Then she blew on it and let the thing dissolve. It was so easy here, as if the Devil’s Mouth was a sort of sink for dark matter – or if it produced the stuff itself. She wished Twitch was here. There was so much Saira didn’t understand.

“To absent friends,” she muttered.

Pardon?”

“Nothing. Ne rien.”

“Hey, who’s that?”

Saira turned to see two figures bending under the police crime-scene cordon that had been extended in the aftermath of George’s death. The whole monument had been taped around – pointlessly, as no officers had been assigned to patrol it so anyone could simple shimmy under it, as they had.

“That’s Caron,” Cartwright said.

“Who?”

“The sergeant in the Gendarmes I’ve been dealing with. I don’t know the man with her, though.”

Saira felt Eloise stiffen beside her; the carny’s wariness of the police, she assumed. Then the two gendarmes were marching over to them, the man leading the way, bearing an aura of impatience with him.

Tu ne devrais pas être ici,” he snapped.

Monsieur, c’est M Cartwright, la personne dont je tu ai parlé. He says you shouldn’t be here.”

“Evening, Caron. Who is he? What are you doing here?”

“This is Commander Felix, my boss. I – I told him about the murders and the possibilities of the bombing–”

Qu’est-ce que tu dis? Tu as mentionné la bombe? Où est-il alors? Je ne vois rien de dérangé, juste ces gens qui se cachent ici.”

Monsieur, je viens de vous présenter et d’expliquer pourquoi nous sommes ici.” Caron spoke with deference but, Saira thought, there was a little exasperation in her tone, or perhaps a tiredness.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de nous expliquer, Caron. Pourquoi ces gens ici?”

“He wants to know why you’re here,” she said.

“We’re waiting for the bombers,” Cartwright said.

“To stop them?” Caron asked.

“Of course.”

Ils disent qu’ils sont là pour arrêter les bombardiers, monsieur.”

C’est juste une perte de temps–”

“What’s that?” Cartwright asked suddenly.

“What?” Caron asked.

“That – over there.”

Saira followed his outstretched arm but she couldn’t see anything – just the deep greens of the twilit grass lined against the deep blues of the sky; pools of black shadow in the lee of the bank and movement – what was that?

Something was moving through down the bank, something low to the ground, flowing like a whispering river through the dusty grass. Its leading edge disappeared into shadow and then re-emerged only thirty paces from where that were standing.

“What–” Cartwright began.

“Rats,” Eloise said.

And they were. Rats – hundreds, thousands of them, charging through the grass.

Each one had a tiny rider upon its back.

“C‘est quoi ce bordel?” Felix said.

It was hard to make out details in the shifting twilight, in the ever-moving flow. But the riders seemed to be armed with miniature lances and were topless but for leather straps and harnesses and for expressions of mad war-lust.

Saira just had time to gape for a moment before the tide was upon her. She heard Cartwright yell in pain and then felt a prick, a dozen pricks in her feet – pricks that became stabbing pains and she too was gasping as the lances bit into her shoes, dug through the light fabric of her summer wear and pierced the flesh beneath.

Instinctively she hopped, then jumped. She felt blood running from her feet – and then she landed and the ground had become a floor of vermin. She felt bones breaking and lances snapping beneath her; she was vaguely aware of an amber haze as dead rats and riders dissolved under her feet but there were more, more more – her feet were being cut to ribbons and she could tell from the sounds that her comrades that they were in no position to help.

Saira desperately tried to think of something she could conjure to rid the Devil’s Mouth of this vermintide but her mind was trapped in glue. She could only imagine a sword – but what use would that be? She just kept hopping, jumping, kicking – and desperately trying to keep her feet because falling into that mat of rats was unthinkable.

Somewhere, close at hand, a wolf howled.

And then she became aware of the prick and scratch and dig of tiny feet running up her ankles, of teeth and sword-blades cutting up her shins and calves and crawling up over her knee onto her thigh and the blood ran down her flesh as the vermin crawled over itself, a great mass eating her alive, threatening to strip the flesh from her bones.

She screamed.

Carl Frank

A desperate act, she conjured up a sickle and held it tight in her right hand, as the rats and their riders ran up over her waist, teeth, claws and blades digging into her pubis and her bum as they went, her whole lower half a mess of blood and dirty, dirty wounds; she slashed down and cut away a handful of the vicious creatures, saw them turn to their component molecules as they fell away.

But by swiping down she’d allowed the survivors to make the leap onto her hand; now the tiny claws were scratching at her fingers, the lances burning into her wrist, sword-blades slashing at tendons. She shook her hand desperately, felt some riders fall away, before her muscles gave way and she dropped her weapon into the carpet of monsters.

Skipping, dancing, shaking like a victim of St Vitus’ Dance, she saw Eloise and Cartwright and the gendarmes were doing the same, and they were all screaming in pain and fear, and they were all going to be dragged into the mire and consumed. It was just a matter of time – of moments… and there were people there who hadn’t been there before – two of them, a man and a woman, on the edge of the pool of vermin. But no time for them.

Glue. It was all Saira could think of. Glue. Gum. Ooze. She concentrated, tried to push the bites, the injuries from her mind, kept her body moving as the rats scratched their way up past her navel, up to her breasts – she concentrated; forget all that. Conjure. Call a haze of amber particles around her, absorb the energy of this place, of all the dead rats and riders. Thicken the cloud until it’s almost solid, an accretion disc around her head like she was a star. Try for liquid, though that doesn’t come naturally. Glue. And drop the mass down her body, let it cling to her and trap the rats, suffocate the riders (and don’t imagine that they’re human-shaped and may have thoughts, feelings and desires of their own; this is pure survival).

Take the energy of the dead and increase the mass. Feel it hardening on her skin; use it, wear it like a suit, sealing her wounds and pushing away the vermin; a suit made of dead rats – better, easier to form than the fluid.

Saira breathed. She was calm, now. The suit she wore kept the vermin at bay. She stopped her desperate dance, let the rats crawl up her legs; they could do no harm.

There was a crack and a whistle and something flew past her head – she felt the wind of it. She spun round, turning away from her friends who were still desperately fighting not to be dragged down by the vermintide.

There she saw the man and the woman – Paul Girin and Erica Henry, Saira guessed. The woman was holding a shoebox-sized wooden object with a glistening golden lozenge set in its front. They both wore heavy-looking backpacks, but only hers looked big enough to contain a bomb.

In front of them stood a posse of four gunfighters; they looked as if they’d come straight from the set of a Western, complete with black bowler hats and six-shooters; two held rifles and all wore ruffled-up suits, jackets open to reveal pocket-watches and waistcoats.

Time to worry about them later; first she had to save her friends from the rats. She lurched into the closest figure – Eloise, it was, and fell on her in some kind of excuse for a hug. As she touched the rats that were struggling to get into the Frenchwoman’s mouth they became stuck in the glue of Saira’s verminsuit, their struggles soon subsiding as they became part of the energy shield she wore. Soon Eloise was free of rats, gasping and bleeding, and Saira had enough death-energy to start seeping her glue-trap across the floor–

There was another crack and a man’s yell – Felix. Saira turned to see him fall to one knee – she thought it was him, the others were so covered in rats that it was hard to see who was who. Another crack and Felix fell to the ground. With the rats crawling over him it was impossible to see if he was still moving or not.

Saira looked up to see the gunfighters had raised their rifles, their pistols, and were aiming right at her.

 

Sledge-Lit 2018

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

Sledge-Lit

So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

  • It’s great. Okay, this is definitely not advice, but I had a great time and am already planning my trip to Edge-Lit in the summer
  • Plan ahead. I made a big mistake in not properly scoping out the programme beforehand. I hadn’t realised all the information was available ahead of the day – which I guess shows my naivety – and this meant that I was immediately confronted by hard choices. The sign-ups for various workshops had to be completed straight through the door and I panicked and signed up for pretty much everything. This was not necessarily a mistake, but…
  • I found some workshops a bit basic
  • However, the workshops are still worth doing, if only to have a better chance of chatting with new people. Lectures, panels and talks aren’t so connective
  • I didn’t have the best morning because I failed to make the most of this, mostly because…
  • I’m a bit shy. I mean, you might not believe this because I work hard to appear outgoing. But come lunchtime I’m feeling all down because I’d not learnt much and because I was sitting alone whilst all around me everyone else (it seems) was having fun with friends
  • It follows that if you can find someone to drag along, do. It makes everything easier
  • HOWEVER I didn’t meet anyone – not a single person – who wasn’t happy to talk and wasn’t really nice. The people are what makes an event a success. If you are one of those lucky people who can talk to strangers as if you’ve known them all your life you’ll have an absolute blast
  • I was lucky because I had an ‘in’. I’m a Twitter-friend of Rod Duncan – we’ve met once previously in person – and I got chatting to him after a panel he was chairing. I managed inveigle myself into the company of himself and his colleagues Siobhan Logan and Penny Reeve. I had a great time chatting with them. Almost like I was a real human being
  • Remember a lot of people will want to talk to your hero. Talk don’t stalk
  • Sarah Pinsborough hosted the sweariest raffle in the history of conventions. Or swearing. Or raffles

20181203_155649

At this point I will step out of list mode momentarily because I’m kind of doing this chronologically and here I left the convention to go and check into my room. I’d booked an AirBnB near the station, about ten minutes’ walk away.

All my ‘friends’ had left. I’d eaten only a sausage roll and a slice of tiffin all days. I was seriously contemplating calling it a moderately-successful night (the chat with Rod and Penny was lovely; the only negative was sitting with Dave Hutchinson in absolute silence for ten minutes because I could think of not a single thing to say to him. I mean, I’d love to read his books – they’re on my mental TBR-shelf – but you can hardly start a conversation with ‘hey, I haven’t got round to you yet; what’s it all about, then?’ can you?), getting a curry and having an early bed.

20181203_155713

I checked in then strolled back to the venue just because it was a nice night and just on the off-chance that someone might approach me to chat. I got a beer and sat on my own; there were maybe a dozen people from the convention still hanging around.

After a drink and maybe another twenty minutes’ silence I finally found a way to sneak into a conversation. And so back to bullet-points:

  • Be patient. Don’t be in a rush to do things
  • Eat more regularly than I did
  • Be prepared to spend a little money. I know, this isn’t easy for everyone. But try and treat yourself to at least one drink – it doesn’t have to be alcoholic; no-one will judge you. Buy books. Enter the raffle. Come ready to have fun and hang your worries on the shelf for a little while
  • You will meet interesting people if you stick around long enough
  • There is no better place to network than the bar/pub…
  • …to which we thence repaired
  • …and it was at this point that the business cards I’d prepared in a last-minute panic came in most handy. See, I’d expected to be handing them out to indie publishers and lost-looking writers and all that. I did give out the odd couple like that, but I found them most useful in the bar afterwards. For although I’d managed to send the printers the draft without my blog or Twitter-handle on it, they proved really useful in getting my name across. We’d chat a bit, do introductions, and I’d whip it out – so to speak – so next morning they’d be able to link to me
  • Don’t stay longer than you feel comfortable. Don’t make yourself ill; if crowds aren’t your thing, don’t feel like you have to drag yourself to the dirty club. You’re not going to make a good impression if you’re asleep on your feet. Most publishers don’t take too kindly to being vomited on
  • Follow up on any contacts you’ve made. If you’ve got an email address just send a quick hello. I’m chronically shy and fearful of this sort of thing; social media makes it all so much easier. Connect on Twitter or Facebook or whatever the cool kids are on nowadays
  • It’s all about making friends. And girls just wanna have fun

And that’s it. I reckon I spent approximately £130 on the entrance fee, accommodation, train-fares, books, and sustenance. Was it worth it? Financially, probably not; maybe some of the people I met will offer me work in the future. I can’t count on that.

But I had a great time. I met a lot of fun, interesting people that I otherwise would have missed. And yes, there are other ways of having fun and other ways of meeting people (and yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white). I don’t want you to leave this post with the impression that you must go to Sledge-Lit, or any of the other conventions that are sprinkled through the calendar. There are other ways to do it.

But I had a great time. I’m already starting to plan my trip to Edge-Lit 2019.

Edge-Lit

A touch too much

purpletest.jpg

Image stolen from this article, which you might also find useful

This is what I find most difficult: knowing how much is too much.

Description is simple: you just need to find the few details that let the reader fill in the rest themselves. Okay, I’ve got that. But when you’re writing lurid, emotion-laden sections like the post I hastily threw up a few weeks ago, how far can you go?

I’ve recently been working on a new passage for Oneiromancer to replace The Nasty Scene. The aim is to keep the horror but lose the distastefulness of the original. It must contain abomination and terror and make my character wish for death without the readers doing the same.

Horror is in the little things. It’s in the burst of the pimple or the sudden spurt as the eyeball ruptures. It’s in the smell of wet fur, the clacking of claws on tiles or the tearing of cloth. It’s in the changing pressure as the trapdoor rises. It’s in small. It’s in intimate. And it’s easy to go too far.

The trick is not in saying all these things but in making the audience experience them regardless. I’m not sure I know how to do it. It’s not just horror, of course – the same applies to any emotionally-charged scene. When do you lay it on? When do you take a step out of the action to describe what a bullet (or knife, or claw, or particularly devastating put-down) actually does? This sort of interruption can be terribly effective – a catch in the throat before momentum reasserts.

I just wish I knew how to use it.

I have a tendency towards purple prose. I enjoy the florid and ridiculous. I try to keep these urges well repressed, but there are times to go all organic and to burst out all exuberant and to push the poetic. It’s fun. It reaches directly out to the senses. And when it works it works wonderfully.

But a little goes a long way. Editing is a constant flow of addition and subtraction, trying to find the sweet spot, the perfect pitch, the golden mean. Too little is prosaic, too much parodic. Unfortunately, no-one seems to know just where the scales tip.

The nasty scene

Mr Punch

I’m at The Nasty Scene.

I’ve been dreading this. The most controversial scene in my novel; never have I written something I’m so uncertain about. It’s grown to occupy a special place in my canon – a watershed, a step forwards in maturity, confidence and self-assertion. But also sadistic, according to one beta-reader, and a moment that more than one person said would make them stop reading any further.

So what’s a boy to do? I’ve already chopped and changed and dragged it from its original home – about a third of the way through the novel to just past the half. In doing so I’ve had to seriously rewrite adjacent scenes and – with great reluctance – sacrifice a scene I rather liked. I’m also engaged with making the nasty scene better in itself: tackling errors of point-of-view and language.

But is it fundamentally unsaveable? Surely it’s possible to rewrite it so the outcome, story-wise, is the same without the vicious extremes. Of course it is; just because it’s become an idée fixe doesn’t mean I can’t shift my paradigm and dig a way round the obstacle.

But I wrote the scene like this for a reason. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be upsetting, to be a moment of visceral horror. It’s meant to be nasty. A key moment in the plot (although, being truly honest to myself, right now it’s hard to remember quite why it’s so important). It happens because of Reasons and causes Consequences. That’s what plot’s all about, right?

Mr Punch Temple of Fame

I guess the question I’m asking is this: how far is too far?

I know the answer to this: you’ve gone too far when the scene you’ve written detracts from the novel as a whole; when it’s out-of-step, a lurch to the side, pornography-in-Beatrix-Potter-style unsettlement.

But this is not the only unpleasant scene in Oneiromancer. It’s not a children’s novel. It has death and blood and pain (and hope too; it’s not relentlessly grim, I promise) and to pull punches would be to write a different story. I can’t take out a scene just because it offends the sensibilities of a few.

It’s a question of balance. Unfortunately I don’t have the experience (yet) to know where my pivot is.

You can read a bit more about this here, if you’re in any way interested.