Dark stories are told, but time passes so fast you’ll find that precautions are not built to last.
Watch out little children, you better take care
when those who know better tell you to beware,
when those with long memories shudder and sigh
be sure something fearsome will come by and by.
You might love your fairy tales, sugar and spice
without realising such tales are made twice.
The first is to make trembling humans afraid
of glowering monsters that creep in the shade.
The second, to gloss over, sweeten and soothe
for those without courage, the unvarnished truth.
Just call me Cassandra, who did try to tell
there are many roads to the portals of hell.
Through study and practice I long ago learned
to master the hunger that endlessly burned
in flesh bone and marrow, secreted within
my heart and my essence, the voice of my kin.
Dark, difficult magic. This had to be done
to shackle the devil. There was only one
small gap in my armour, for try as I might
no lore can delay the day’s turn into night,
or heavenly bodies that spin on their track
and one day align. Then the beast will attack.
I swear that I told them they must stay inside.
I hopelessly begged all the children to hide.
No prayer, incantation or druid’s wise rune
will silence the call of a super blood moon.
My wolf broke its bonds, howling vengeance. And here
came answering cries of my clan far and near,
my brothers and sisters all hungry to feast
on flesh of the great, and the bones of the least.
Unfettered by reason and drunk on our might
the slaughter proceeded beneath the red light.
I woke to regret, utter carnage around.
We cannot leave anything here to be found.
There is no escape, chained to life by this curse.
But I would exchange all the gold in my purse
to be once again a mere mortal — to die
and pay for my sins as blood drips from my eye in sad imitation of genuine tears.
I mourn for my victims across countless years.
We buried the last of the bodies this morning.
The foolish and brave, who did not heed my warning.
Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!
There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.
That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?
The Tyranny of Choice
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. Igor Stravinsky
Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.
But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.
Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.
Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.
Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.
Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.
My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.
Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?
Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity. Martin Villeneuve
Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.
Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count
Try these practical ways to get started.
Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.
Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.
These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.
Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
People watching kept me entertained while I sipped fragrant apple and elderflower tea. I always preferred observing real life to endless scrolling or playing pointless games on my phone. Most likely I’d finish before Karen turned up and bought me something sweet to make up for her perennial lateness. Carrot cake would make a delicious apology.
The loud slam of a car door startled me as the coffee shop doors opened wide. Outside a dark haired woman strode along the footpath, her frown obvious as she approached the window where I sat.
Her companion caught up in a few long strides and grabbed her wrist. She spun around and shook her hand free. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, fists clenched at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of crisis.
He opened his palms in a placatory gesture while she slumped, eyes downcast. I took another sip of tea. Only a pane of glass separated me from the drama unfolding almost within touching distance. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she was losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms.
She walked away. But when he called out, she hesitated and stopped. This was it; I held my breath, ready to cheer for the triumph of love and a happy ending.
She turned around and went back to him. The wind tugged at his hair as she cupped his face between her hands. He relaxed into her kiss and reached for her at the exact moment she let go. She gave him a small, sad smile before walking away, out of sight.
The man stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her final message. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving away.
I wondered about them even after Karen rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel that could easily be repaired. My carrot cake was too sweet, a consolation prize that left a bitter aftertaste.
Love is no fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.
Are you tired of giving away your best work and seeing no return?
You’ve taken the advice of experts who say they’ve cracked the code.
It’s simple. People don’t buy from strangers, so you need to build a following. Show up consistently with great content at no cost and earn the right to offer a paid product. Frame it as service, sharing your gifts with the world, or whatever else. The expert’s smiling profile picture beckons you. It can be done and they’re the living proof.
So you work and put your words out there, and you start to see results. You get more reads and votes. Then the excitement of those early gains fades. You’re still working, but not breaking through. You work harder to produce better stuff but it doesn’t translate into bigger returns.
You’re shouting into the void.
You begin to question yourself.
How far are you along the road to success?
How much more effort do you have to put in before it bears real fruit?
Are you on the edge of a breakthrough, or should you cut your losses?
You Don’t Know How To Think About Art
Most professions have a defined path. You study certain subjects at school, get a degree, then pass further qualifications. That’s how I became a doctor. Attaining defined milestones guaranteed success. I proved myself and the world recognised my achievement.
The artist’s way is different. Each creative person brings a unique set of skills and desires to their career and there is no one true way to achieve their goals. There is no map. There is no prescribed skill set or summative assessment. There is no definitive endpoint to say you’ve made it.
How can you continue to work under those conditions?
The issue is not lack of commitment. It’s a lack of certainty. The artist must commit to the work knowing that the outcome is uncertain. Progress in art is not measured by simple metrics.
Progress is hard to measure in any creative endeavor, I think. It’s often a matter of instinct, of feeling your way through what works and what doesn’t. Kate DiCamillo
A professional attains a required standard and then uses their skills to make a difference. An artist makes a difference by practising their art and sharing it. There may be different notions of what makes good art, but the artist must create and share in any case.
Embracing the essential uncertainty of the path and committing to making a difference despite the uncertaintyis the keystone of the artist’s mindset. Without that acceptance, you will falter and fail. Creating something new entails taking risks and leaving the known behind. You must be willing to sacrifice some security in exchange for novelty.
Even though the artist’s path is variable, undefined and badly lit, many people have walked their own version. I believe it’s possible to find a way through.
Do Just One Thing To Guarantee Failure
You’ve already done so much, and you’re sick of it. A hundred posts, a hundred rejections, ten thousand hours, you’ve done it all.
But remember that everyone, no matter how successful now, started at zero. Zero followers, reads or votes. Zero book sales and earnings. If you are past zero on any measure then you are already succeeding at some level. Give yourself some credit, and keep going.
When you look at the successful people in your field, remember survivorship bias. Their results look better because the failures have left the field. You don’t know what combination of hard work, talent, and blind luck got them to their current position.
What you should know is that by continuing to show up, you increase your chances of being in that group of survivors. When others give in to their doubts, put your head down and keep going.
Success lies along an exponential curve. If you put in the work and practise deliberately, you’ll move along that curve until you reach the tipping point.
You have to do the work and there is no shortcut. That means writing while implementing all the advice you’ve read, not just continuing to write the same way without implementing new techniques. That’s not real practice and doesn’t count toward the tipping point at all. Many writers don’t understand this. Act on advice so that you improve, and keep going.
If you stop before the tipping point, the rock rolls back down the hill. You’ll be crushed by the process and much less likely to try again. Go on without stopping until it starts to feel easier, and then keep going.
Every industry and creative endeavour has its rock stars. They are the titans whose success dwarfs all others. Each has such a massive audience that acclaim is almost guaranteed, whatever they produce.
You might notice that their later output isn’t actually stellar quality. No matter. They’re at the far end of the curve, and now receive high rewards for less effort. Their situation is the reverse of yours.
None of that matters to you.
They struggled in the beginning and stayed the course to make it. And the environment in which they succeeded is not like yours, because time has passed and everything changes. Their past success has nothing to do with your future success and does not prevent you from seeking it.
Stop reading them and indulging in self-flagellation or angry rants about their content. This is the embodiment of drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It hurts you and only you.
Compare yourself only to past you. Are you moving in the right direction? Don’t chase unicorns, chase your future.
Serve Your People Better
“I haven’t got an audience,” you say. But you’re here and I guess you have a few followers or readers. The number isn’t big enough for you yet, but it’s not zero.
So what are you doing for those people? Are you like those annoying corporations who woo new customers with all their best offers and leave their existing customers in the cold? You’re so focused on the people who don’t know you that you turned your back on those who do.
Some people are watching. Some people have shown interest and faith in your work. Think of them as individuals, which is what they are. What are their needs, fears, and dreams?
Then ask yourself how you can meet their needs, nurture their dreams, inform and support and entertain. You’re here to serve in some way, so dive deeper. Give your fans 100% of your effort and knowledge and insight.
Discover the problems your actual audience has right now, and offer solutions.
An Inconvenient Truth
When you’re used to putting in the work and seeing direct results, this is a particularly hard pill to swallow. The action ⇢ result switch appears to be broken because you acted but nothing happened.
This is true — but only in the short term. If you continue and keep faith in the process, you’ll find that what you’re seeing is not failure, but delayed success. Keep going.
Time For A Reality Check
I know you want to give up because I want to stop too. The things I want seem too far away, and my efforts are too small to make a difference. I’m tired.
At this point, you need to remind yourself of your effectiveness. When you feel useless, it bleeds out into a generalised despair. But you’re not a total failure. You’ve succeeded at many things already both large and small. You’ve survived life so far.
I had a professional mentor once who I found almost impossible to work with. I needed the six-month placement to complete my training. Most of my days were spent just surviving because you can tolerate any job for six months, right?
I barely made it.
Almost nothing of what he tried to teach me remains, except this. He advised me to keep a compliments file. Since it was inevitable that someone would complain about my work, and I would feel bad about myself, the compliments file provided a reality check.
You feel like you’re useless and everybody hates you. But other people enjoy and are grateful for your work. Print out those comments and emails. Keep them in an actual file that you can see and feel. Person A felt your words helped them. Person B found your advice useful. Person C loved your way with words.
Recall your life successes, whether it’s a diploma awarded or a joke well told. Balance your negative with all the positive you can muster. Go find your nice comment, print it out so it’s tangible, and look at it to remind yourself you’ve won before, and you can win again.
You Can Conquer The Swamp of Suck On Your Path To Greatness
You’ll always have good and bad days. Know yourself and your triggers to navigate your downswings more easily. When you feel better again, think about how you got there and what you need to avoid or mitigate the trigger.
Cherish positive comments and hoard them for encouragement in difficult times.
Every win is a treasure. Track them, acknowledge them, be grateful for them.
Celebrate when you reach a milestone. Don’t just shrug it off and look at the next goal. Attach a treat to each milestone because the top of the mountain is a long way off. Even those who conquer Everest make camp along the way.
List your goals and write a reward next to each one. The only rules are
the reward must be within your power to give and
the reward must make you smile.
Do it now.
Your Engine Is Inside The Car
We quickly adjust to new situations, whether it’s more money, a bigger car, or the next thousand followers. These things lose their ability to motivate us and we say familiarity breeds contempt.
Extrinsic motivators like metrics and fame work for a while to pull you along. But if you don’t have them yet — and even when you do — you needintrinsic motivation. This is your engine. The small voice that won’t be silenced, that says after all this struggle you are still gonna write anyway and be damned because not writing is even worse than writing without immediate reward.
It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success. Martin Seligman
So go forward, and write anyway. What else are you going to do? Take what you have, and keep going. I’ll see you there.
Have a comment or question? Drop it below and start the conversation.
Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.
Listen to this story:
She has a long way to go, she knows that. She must go alone, difficult and dangerous though the journey is, inadequate as her weapons may be. They are all she has, those and the fire she carries within. There will be dragons of one kind or another. Some might be slain with care, and luck, but others are best avoided. And she must tell them apart before it is too late.
She seems ordinary, mousy perhaps, meek. The meek do not inherit the earth; it is a lie to keep them from questioning, from overturning the old order. Know your place girl, under the yoke, under the lash, under the patriarchal boot. This girl goes about her business, eyes lowered. She plots rebellion silently in her heart.
She gathers things that might be useful. She is invisible, mouth zipped, both ears open. People spill scraps of information upon the ground and she carries them away for safekeeping. Things that she is not meant to know, yet she does know. A weakness, a shortcut, a place to hide or rest, all may be useful on her quest.
She lies awake, wondering if it would be better to stay. And she goes to sleep knowing that she cannot.
The day comes. She laces her boots and checks her equipment and looks around one last time. This quest is hers and no-one else decreed it. To win or lose is her responsibility and though no person waves a tearful goodbye or cheers her on, yet she will go. There is a new world out there, and someone must be first to blaze the trail with new footsteps.
They may not sing songs of her exploits nor raise a statue to her. But when she conquers the peak, then her light will burn in the world to give hope to the next adventurer. They will add their footsteps to the faint path she has left. See, they will say. Change is not impossible. One walked this way before. I see the distant beacon.
She shakes off expectation of what she should be. She faces her fear of what will happen if she does not comply. Here, she says. I will show you what I can be, whether any watch me or not.
She closes the door behind her, and she does not look back.
(A video uploaded to YouTube shows a woman, her face in shadow, speaking directly to camera. A soundtrack of wave sounds accompanies her words.)
Curfew has been in effect for some time. We didn’t think it could happen here and many people openly flouted the rules. Until James Beck vanished and never came back. He was the first. We were all more careful after that.
The news is always cheerful, telling us things are getting better and our leaders are making great progress with diplomatic approaches. Just carry on with your lives. Be sure to be indoors by ten o’clock. Everything will be just fine.
The dream came occasionally at first. I thought I was just pining for old times, wind in my hair, sand in my shoes, melting ice-cream licked from my fingers. Nostalgia for a rose tinted past in a grey present and uncertain future. It was always summer, warm but not too hot, the sea rippling deep blue under azure sky. There were no clouds.
Upbeat news fills monotonous days, yet my night world sparkles with sunbeams on gentle waves and the drowsy heat of midday. They tell us not to worry. We don’t worry; we lie alone in bed staring at the dark and hope it hides the monsters.
I must go down to the sea again. My sister used to recite that poem over and over until the words lost all meaning. It comes back to me now, the soundtrack for my wide-eyed nights and my eventual dreams of summer. They are long in coming, but now they come most nights.
I asked Daniel to come with me, but he said he was too busy and anyway, we’d risk being out after curfew. It’s just one time, I said. I won’t ask you to go again. He said he’d think about it.
Once I upload this message, I’m going back to the beach. I know what I will find.
The sky will be a hard, pitiless blue. The sea will darken, and pause for a moment before a brilliant flash. And the sky will flower with a thousand suns, and the last cloud will rise.
If anything remains of us, know that some remembered summer.
These entries were made by Bard Loren, and discovered after her disappearance. In addition to the journal, she uploaded over 15 dozettabytes of data, which will greatly offset her tragic loss on this unsuccessful mission. This is her legacy. May she walk with two shadows.
Journal entry: 147.15.1
This is a place more wondrous than I ever thought to see with my own eyes. Everywhere is green.
Bright colours flash and call above me, I think they are called ‘birds’. All around are things I cannot name. But I must try to name them, for that is why I was chosen. I am the foremost Bard of Novaterra, and I swear on the twin suns this is no idle boast. I store the images in my digicodex for later analysis back on board. All those nights in the archives, imprinting lost languages and reading the history of the Founders have come to this.
I have my epicsongs composed and ready, to share with the good people here. This is the greatest honour, to see our origin planet, and save any who wish to leave it.
I confess I hardly recognised this place from the files. The Founders recorded how their home stagnated, torn apart by war that followed desperation when the skies turned grey, the waters rose and land became scarce. That is why they turned to space. We have made the journey of these few light years much quicker than they.
But I did not say it was easy. It is cold in the space between stars, and no place for humankind. We were relieved when the planetary beacon guided us safely to the docking station. Although it was entirely unmanned, this did not surprise us. It is hardly necessary to waste human toil on such a routine task.
I must rest. Solar days are shorter here, and there is only 0.2095 oxygen in the air. No doubt a good 18 hours of true sleep will help wash away the lingering effects of hypersleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.2
This place is magical. Despite the warnings of the cyberdoc, I removed my helmet today. The air is quite breathable although I am gasping and sweating as I press on through green vegetation, towards the last recorded location of a sizeable humankind settlement. I am both excited and apprehensive. Will they understand me, and I them? Do they have their own, ancient culture to share with me? Will they understand the concept of a Bard?
I carry our history, our thoughts and ideas coded in organic memory storage. Perhaps they do not have the necessary interface and holo-display, but we carry these on the ship. The rest of the crew have stayed on board, broadcasting on all frequencies, but I wanted to experience this world first hand. Darkness caught me unawares and I had to return to the ship. More tomorrow.
Journal entry: 147.15.3
I asked the cyberdoc to enhance my performance, and grudgingly it performed a small gene splice. Now my oxycytes are more suited to the stronger, bluer sunlight here. Sol is much closer to Earth than our twins Novasol 1+2, and we have adapted over the generations. Oxygen is abundant at 0.2547 on Novaterra, and I really feel the difference. It was predicted of course, but to actually feel it- that is another thing altogether.
Captain Marish does not like my wandering. She only tolerates it because I am a Bard, and therefore expendable. But I am bringing back valuable data, and I upload my digicodex each night before sleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.9
I discovered today that my blood is dark red now. Maybe this is unwise, but I have discarded my Exosuit. I found liquid water running on the surface! This I know is a key characteristic of Earth, but to see it, feel it, taste it. I walked into the water to understand it better, but slipped and fell. I cut my hand on a mineral formation beside the water, and watched in wonder as dark drops welled from the cut and dispersed into the liquid water. I keep saying this, but you have to see it to believe it. No mining, people can actually live on the surface here! Amazing.
Journal entry: 147.16.3
I have not encountered any humans, but have recorded many types of lower animals. Marish tells me that all is in the archives, but what does she know? The Academy does not encourage questioning, and after all I am the one who has spent more than fifteen twin-sols studying Earth.
I find myself out of step with the crew. They refuse to come out of the ship, and my sleep cycle seems to be related to Sol’s movements.
But the things that are not in the archives are marvellous. Where the trees thin out, Sol’s yellow rays are warm on my skin. My breathing is easier now, and I carry skinbond for minor injuries. At night, I see unfamiliar stars that do not appear on my maps, and there is a single moon.
How could the Founders have considered this place so terrible that they journeyed across the stars to find Novaterra? It seems utterly beautiful to me. Oh, the epicsongs I will compose when I return! They will be the stuff of legend.
Journal entry: Sol 16
I have decided to use solar dates from now on. It makes more sense, and when I stay out overnight in a pod I get a little disoriented keeping to Standard Time. I came across the strangest thing today. (Image attached). I will research these metallic structures in the database.
Journal entry: Sol 21
There has been no response to broadcast and the Captain wants to move on. The metallic structures are manmade, and they were some kind of primitive transportation. They all point away from the settlement co-ordinates in a long, unbroken procession. There are no humans, anywhere. Are they hiding? Did they flee, and if so from what?
Journal entry: Sol 35
I have uploaded all my data. I cannot find the settlement; it is as though the earth has swallowed it in green. But I have Sol warm on my skin, rich scents as yet unnamed and the taste of liquid water on my lips. My skin grows pinker each day, and the only grey is beneath my unisuit. I feel strong and I am happy. I cannot convey to you the joy I feel when I hear the birds sing, and I leave that to another, better Bard than I.
Meantime, I have taken the interface and holodisplay, and some supplies. When I succeed I will activate my beacon. I am sure that no one would willingly leave a place like this, that the Founders would surely have called “Eden”. My search for humans goes on, for I must find them.
She tried to forget about the box. Really she kept herself so very busy, that she almost truly forgot about it. But it was always there, catching her step when she walked past, whispering into her ears when she wasn’t listening.
A box could contain everything and nothing. But she didn’t look because she didn’t care to find out.
She found it one warm summer afternoon, long after the funeral. She had been stiff and dignified, accepting the mourners’ murmured words of condolence. But she felt nothing. Those words rang hollow after all the sniping and criticism. Her mother had ground her down for years until there was nothing left. Or so she thought.
It was so unfair that there was nobody else to help. Her beloved father had gone years before. She imagined him apologising to the paramedic.
“Sorry to cause all this fuss,” he would have said as they bundled him off to the hospital. There, he had held her hand as she wept real tears.
“Really, Theresa, you’re making an exhibition of yourself.” Her mother’s scold bit deep.
She tried not to cry at his funeral. At her mother’s funeral, she didn’t. They all said how well she was doing.
Clearing out the house alone, she found the little dusty blue box, tied with navy ribbon. Eventually she gave in. It rattled.
Inside it she found the baby shoe she had once worn. Finally she cried, that her mother had remembered a softer, better time.
*written longhand in ten minutes, from a random word prompt: box
I thought I was over you. It’s been a while now, and they say time heals.
They don’t say how much time.
I got a new phone. It was a good opportunity for a clear out, you know, out with the old, all that. Anyway. I should just have hit delete all, but I’m always careful, don’t want to discard something important. So I listened to all the messages, clicking through, delete delete.
Your voice caught me by surprise. Your tone was sad, asking me to call back. I didn’t remember ever getting the message. Listening again, it sounded like you really needed to speak to me. Whatever you had wanted, obviously it could never happen. I’d sat in the front pew, blinded by tears. Grief swallowed my voice and I couldn’t sing for you one last time. That broke me even more.
I deleted that message.
Then the messages started, from an unknown number. They were crackly and unclear, but your voice was always there.
I deleted them all. They kept coming, though I changed my phone again. One day I heard you on the landline answerphone, and my heart stopped, for a panicked moment. I threw out the answerphone.
It felt like going mad.
After a while, I started to wonder. Were you really trying to contact me? Nobody has ever proved communication from the dead, and I certainly didn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. But. What if it was you, trying to pierce the veil from the other side?
The idea took root in my mind, and I stopped deleting the messages that popped up on my voicemail. I listened to them over and over, your almost-words teasing me.
I ran them through voice analysis software, trying to make out your words. Sometimes I thought it was just you breathing, but with distant singing and static. Waiting for me to reply.
I have so many things to say to you.
I have a brilliant idea about the source so I bought a ham radio and I’m combing the frequencies. I’m certain that if I tune in right, we can talk again. There’s a lot of wavebands to cover, but nothing is more important than this.
I will devote all the time we didn’t have to finding you. No matter how long it takes. I already know what song I will sing.