‘Red’ by F.C. Malby in Roi Fainéant Press

Shirley checked her bag twice to see if she’d put tissues inside. The kitchen windows needed cleaning. She could do that when she returned home later. The visit would be quick. She went into the downstairs bathroom, applied some lip gloss, post box red, bared her teeth like a lioness, rubbed them with her index finger, added a liberal smattering of perfume, and left the house, double-checking the front door before getting into the car. Charles had only been in the hospital for two days, but how she looked would matter. She couldn’t work out whether she missed him or the idea of him. It was easier at home without him there; she could hide her need for life to be ordered, along with her penchant for a glass of Pinot Grigio. It was never more than a glass or two, but the way he curled his lips to one side said enough. The cat would have to find something wild to eat tonight, she thought, as the lights turned red at the end of the street.

Roxanne blasted out of the car radio, seeping out through the open windows. Summer nights like these felt hot and sticky. She glanced at the man in the Mondeo next to her, assessing her, and she turned down the dial. Dialing down was something she had become skilled at, she’d spent her whole life doing it. The Mondeo man had a gray beard and round glasses. He wouldn’t approve of red lights or selling your body to the night. He wouldn’t approve of her lip gloss, either. She had wanted to make the effort for Charles, whatever state he was in. She’d been taught to keep herself free of makeup or wild impulses, in keeping with her Mormon upbringing, but it went against her nature. Now she would take it out on the bathroom, scrubbing and cleansing, bleaching every inch of the surfaces. Her own body, though, would no longer be subjected to the same disciplines.

I know my mind is made up, So put away your makeup, Told you once I won’t tell you again. It’s a bad way. The street thrummed with music; sounds from the fairground in the park up the road threatened to drown out her own. She could hear the screams. That much fear is bad for your heart, her father had told her. It’s the thrill, she had said at the time, but he’d already walked away. Charles had walked away when she talked about the cat or the children. The only thing that interested him these days was classic cars or some current news item, as long as it didn’t involve global warming, because it didn’t exist. She had learned to stick to frivolous subjects that did not involve the non-existent warming of the planet, the cat or the children. The latter had already left home. It made her heart feel weak. He never talked about them, as though they didn’t exist, either.

The lights went green and a young boy, about the same age as her Brian, floored it down the street towards the edge of the city, hair all slicked back, music louder than hers. He wouldn’t have heard of The Police. What she wouldn’t give to go back to those days with her whole life ahead of her. The hospital was a street away. The sun lowered over the tower blocks. Children lined the pavements with chalks and footballs; carefree. The scent of charred red meat rose up between the houses in bellows of smoke. The hospital car park created the usual fiasco of digging around for the right change, Or you’ll be towed, M’am, the parking attendant had told her when she’d gone in to visit Jan, from her book group, who was Just in for a small procedure. Shirley had never found out exactly what it involved.

Inside, staff swirled around like the beginnings of a storm with the swooshing and circling of currents, picking up things as they gathered speed. Patients were being pushed about on beds and in wheelchairs. Doctors moved swiftly and without looking up. A lady at reception was telling someone to Please come in to see a doctor. She hated the accident and emergency department. It reminded her of her brother, Ronnie, breaking his ankle in football at school. The smell of disinfectant made her queasy.

“Can you tell me where the cardiology ward is, please? I haven’t been before,” she said, as a nurse passed her with a tray of meds.

“Take the lift up to the fourth floor and it’s on your right.”

Shirley nodded, but the nurse had already gone, talking as she moved, her voice disappearing off down the corridor. The lift was empty. It stopped on the second floor. A lone man got in and stood away from her on the other side, didn’t look up, checked his watch. She always felt safer when people didn’t look directly at her, although she felt ridiculous thinking this as a grown woman. The lift juddered to a halt on the third floor. He got out. An elderly lady was waiting with a nurse, and holding a walking frame with a crocheted bag hanging from the top. They stepped in gently. Shirley pressed the button to hold the lift. The nurse nodded, put her arm on the back of the lady, rearranged the drip that was attached to a stand. Moving all of this metal between a fixed floor and a moving floor looked precarious, but she suspected that they were used to it. She had probably seen too many horror films, expected something to be severed. These were the kinds of thoughts that she couldn’t share, not with Charles, not with anyone. She turned to look in the mirror behind her, pulled out the red lip gloss, and reapplied it liberally. She pursed her lips together, got out on the fourth floor, and turned right.

The corridor was long and stark, with insipid green walls and a fire extinguisher with a ‘break glass press here’ sign on a red box on the wall just above. Charles did not appear to be in any of the rooms, which were mostly filled with older men, much older than him. In one room, a whole family had gathered and machines were beeping. She wondered whether he was, perhaps, nearing the end of his life, partly because she had seen a priest hovering in the corridor. In another, a lady sat knitting, watching a man sleep. She stopped to look at Shirley as she passed. It was a soulless place, not somewhere you would choose to be. Where was Charles? Had he left? Continue reading in Roi Fainéant Press.

FC Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her short fiction won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster Fiction Competition. She was shortlisted by Ad Hoc Fiction, Lunate Fiction and TSS Publishing, and her work has been nominated for Non Poetry Publication of the Year in the Spillwords Press 2021 Awards. Her work is forthcoming in the Reflex Press Anthology, Vol. 5.

Twitter/Instagram @fcmalby

National Flash Fiction Day 2022

My flash fiction piece, Wild Swimming, was published in The South Short Review, Issue 6, for National Flash Fiction Day 2022.

Sundown rippled across the waves as Laurie slipped into the water; the cold, slapping against her thighs as she edged further out to sea, leaving the laughter of children behind, their form, a string of Lowry dots strewn across a hot shoreline. Her muscles tightened as more of her flesh was touched by the cold of the ocean, tensed as blood rushed away and up to her core, where it was warmer, less hostile.

As her shoulders slid under, until her head was fully submerged and her flesh engulfed, silence was the thing she relished most. If anything happened on the shore, she would not hear, her ears only taking in echos of gentle ocean currents and of boat engines far out in the distance; here, in the water, it was cold and quiet. The temperature drop focused her mind on the movement of her body, as she kicked and swung each arm out to sea, towards the sun as it began to hide behind the line of the horizon. She could only see the light under the water, the colour of the sea removing the orange glow of the skyline, the way a childhood storybook removed an image with a single sheet of coloured acetate, wiping it out completely and showing you a different picture through a different coloured lens. Above and below the water line were two different scenes, the image below the water, darker, mysterious, expansive. She found the vastness of the ocean liberating, freeing her mind. Laurie had seen the Ice Man, Wim Hof, explaining the Ayurvedic effects of cold water on the immune system, as well as the mind, hormones, blood flow, skin and hair. Her hair floated freely in wet strands, her skin felt the tingle of the North Sea salt water, cleansing her flesh and renewing her mind. Friends talked about wild swimming, but it had not made sense, not until she had felt the cold on her own flesh and submerged her body into the silence of the sea. It had become addictive, a way of numbing the thoughts that shouted at her as the day drew to a close, clamouring for her attention. As her body temperature dropped, so did life’s pressures. What had begun as a sponsored open water swim, had now become part of her daily ritual, a way of letting her thoughts slip into the ocean, carried off to some far flung shore, where no one knew her name…

Continue reading in The South Shore Review.

Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals and Magazines

I had the privilege of being invited by Reflex Press to be a reader for their Autumn International Flash Fiction Competition. I hugely admire them as a publisher of, ‘long, short and very short fiction,’ and have been fortunate enough to have had work published with them previously.

What I gleaned from the many entries sent my way, was inevitably going to find it’s way into a blog post. There were several things that struck me, which I think might be helpful for writers in submitting work to journals. Every reader or editor will have a different take, but this is mine:

  1. Think about your title

Writing short fiction requires that you grab the reader’s attention fairly swiftly, and the title needs to do some of the work for you. It should do the heavy lifting of piquing and reader’s interest, before they begin to read the contents. The Association for Psychological Science says that a series of experiments by Princeton psychologists, Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, reveal that, “all it takes is a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face, and that longer exposures don’t significantly alter those impressions.” (Their research is presented in their article “First Impressions,” in the July issue of Psychological Science, if you want to find out more.) I would say that the title of your story will have a similar effect. You may have a great story, but if the title is weak, or even irrelevant to the story, the rest will fall flat. The title is key to a good story and can be the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. Make sure you take time to think about what you want the reader to know. What is the point of your story? What’s the context? And, what do you want the reader to find out? In short fiction every words counts, and this very much applies to the words in your title.

2. Read the guidelines

It’s an easy thing to skip past, but don’t. The guidelines are there for a reason, and you absolutely have to stick to them in order for your story to even get past first reader. Reflex Press has two readers for each story – this is quite common. Those that reached me had followed the guidelines, but there will be many that didn’t reach any of us, because they were too long, in the wrong genre, or highly offensive. If a journal states in the guidelines that they do not accept racist or homophobic content, don’t send it, although I’d question why it’s been written in the first place. If they say, do not send in work over 1,000 words, you may have a gem of a story that is 1,003 words, but it will not get past the first reading, because it’s too long. Cut it or find another place to send it. Have a look at the font and size required. Editors really dislike fancy fonts or multicoloured submissions. You wouldn’t sent a CV off like this, so don’t send in a story that looks like a poster. The most common requirements are Times New Roman 12, but check. I can’t stress this enough. Most journals will tell you they only want one submission at a time and whether or not they will accept simultaneous submissions. Follow these guidelines. It’s important. Find out whether it’s an email submission or an online submission, which format is required, a Word or PDF document, or pasting the story into the body of an email, and take the time to find out the name of the editor. Don’t misgender or mislabel. Do not be tempted to just fire out a load of submissions to different journals in the same format. It’s generic and editors can see that it’s not specific to their journal. At the very least, begin with, Dear *insert journal name* Editor. Make it personal, but keep it professional.

3. Read stories that have already been published

Familiarising yourself with their work, and with the kinds of stories that they publish, will increase the chances of your work being accepted. Don’t send in a love story, if they like dark, twisty stories. There may also be a request to add trigger warnings for certain content, so again, back to the previous point, read the guidelines. Does your work fit what they are looking for? Do you know what style of work they publish? If not, read some of their publications. It really shows when a writer sends in work that clearly doesn’t fit either theme, if there is one, or the type of work that the journal publishes. Some journals will give you ideas of what they are looking for, like SmokeLong:

4. Consider your narrative mode: Tense, person and point of view

We’re highly influenced by what we read, so be careful not to just plump for the familiar. Do experiment, but make sure you’ve got a handle on it before writing and submitting your work. Choosing the right narrative mode for your story determines the perspective and the way that your reader experiences the story. It establishes the relationship between the narrator, reader, and main character, if you have one. This may need a separate blog post at some point.

  • tense (past, present, or future). There are six different tenses in the English language, but only three are generally used in fiction. Past and present tense are the most commonly used. Future tense is rare and difficult to sustain, but as with any rule, there are exceptions.
  • person (I – first person, You – second person, or They – third). Third person narrative is the most commonly used, followed by first person. As with the future tense, a second person narrative is rare, but I’ve used it for some of my favourite stories to create tension.
  • point of view (omniscient or limited). This really comes down to who is narrating the story. Take The Book Thief as an example: Death is the omniscient narrator who switches between first person and a third person point of view, describing all the characters’ thoughts as well as his own. It’s powerful and works in this context, but won’t work with every story.

The best advice I can give is, don’t keep jumping about. Find your tense, person and POV, and stick to it. So many stories begin well and start to flounder because there’s a lot of jumping about and the story unravels. Unless there is a clear reason to keep changing, stick to what you’ve chosen. Changing tense can be one of the most frustrating things for a reader, unless it’s needed and expertly done. The Book Thief is written in the past tense, with flashbacks and occasional flash forwards, but unless you’re Markus Zusak, leave it alone.

4. Don’t underestimate your reader and don’t attempt difficult themes unless you feel confident you can handle them

There is a tendency for many, and particularly new, writers to tackle either assault or suicide. These are important subjects, but they are often badly handled and over described, with heavy writing and a blow by blow account. Assume your reader is intelligent, because most of them are. Don’t give them every detail and keep the sorded details out of it. Some of the most powerful stories I have read on these issues are the ones where what has happened is only hinted at. Don’t hit the reader over the head with a sledgehammer. They’ll pass out. Even journalists won’t give you all of the details in an article, so don’t do this in fiction. It will really kill a story and make the reader wince.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is, find the space between the words. Some of the power of what you write will be in what you don’t say. Toni Morrison explains this brilliantly in an interview in The Paris Review on ‘The Art of Fiction’ (no.134):

“The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”