April Update: It’s Still Winter

My garden. This is no April Fool’s joke.

I know I’m not alone when I say 2020 isn’t exactly working out the way I planned. Somehow I neglected to account for a global pandemic, massive economic shut down, suddenly having to home-school my three kids, and being temporarily laid off in my World Domination Schematics. Also, we appear to be trapped in an eternal winter.

I’d ask for help, but we’re not allowed to actually do that in person any more. Please send warm thoughts, if nothing else. My seedlings could use a little pep talk.

Among other things, the turmoil caused by COVID-19 has also disrupted the attention of my beta readers and I have only received feedback from one person. My husband. He pretty much has to do these things for me, though. Even when the rest of the world falls apart, I demand support for my pipe-dreams.

The good news is, he hasn’t found any major plot issues. Other than fixing a few detail inconsistencies, I am ready to package it up for my publisher more or less on schedule. I would have like to have more eyes on it, but I trust my editors to help me with the final polish. Hopefully the upcoming recession isn’t going to delay publication too much. If so, I may have to look at other options to get Book Two out to the world.

One other exciting thing I’m working on is some character art! I’ve commissioned two artists with very different styles to illustrate some scenes from both The Timekeepers’ War and Ghostlights. As soon as they are complete I will be sharing them here and on my Instagram feed. So stay tuned for that! I’d love to see some other artists try their hand at these characters, too, so if that is something you’d be interested in let me know.

I have started an online Permaculture Design Course to help stave off the stir-crazies and ease the transition to my new garden site once the snow finally melts. Gardening has become one of the things I look forward to the most right now, and which helps to ease the anxiety of our current situation. I hope you are staying safe, keeping sane, and reaching out in the midst of all this madness.

Tell me, what are you most looking forward to these days? How are you staying present? Let’s share our ideas!

2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Final Round Results

The results are in! Well, they’ve been in for a while, but I’m slow to update. As you probably know, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story and Flash Fiction Challenges for the past 2.5 years. I highly recommend them to any writer who wants to shake things up in their writing routine. The thrill of getting your assignment, having a tight deadline to complete it in, and receiving judges feedback on each round is well worth the entry fee.

I began the first round of the Short Story Challenge this January. It was my second attempt at the SSC. The first time, I didn’t make it past the first round. It’s pretty steep competition with the first round having more than 4500 participants and only the top 750 making it into round two.

This year, I not only made it into round two, I made it to the third and final round! From the original 4500+ writers, I made it into the top 90. That feat in itself was enough to put stars in my eyes. In April, we were given our final assignments. We had 24 hours to write a 1500 word story, open genre, subject: side effect(s), and character: a gravedigger. It was a whirlwind of writing and revisions, but I did it and I was pretty happy with my submission. I tried not to think about the final results too much over the next few months…

I am exceedingly proud to announce that my story “The Caulbearer” placed 12th overall in the final round! It wasn’t quite high enough to receive a cash prize (top 10 received anywhere from $5000 to $125 USD… that’s next years goal, haha). But I did score a new writing program, and the massive honour of being in the top 20 stories out of so many talented writers from around the world. The results are posted here if you are interested in checking it out. I will be posting my story with the judges feedback in the Story Laboratory for the benefit of other writers out there who want to see what NYC Midnight is all about, or who want to see what professional critique in a contest setting looks like. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!

I just completed round one of this years Flash Fiction contest last weekend. My assignment was Genre: Drama, Location: a submarine, Object: a dozen eggs. This is my third year participating in the FFC. I have made it to the third round the past two years, but never the forth and final round for flash fiction. So this year, that is my stretch goal! I’ll keep you updated when I receive my score and feedback on round one.

Thanks for reading!

NYC Midnight Update: Round Three!! 2019 Short Story Challenge

May is more than halfways gone and I haven’t done a single post! Sorry about that. I’ve started coaching soccer and t-ball, and I was away up north for an education outreach thing and somehow the month has slipped away from me.

I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on here. I found out last week that I placed 2nd in my heat for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with the dreaded “Romantic Comedy” genre. I complained about it HERE.

I’m incredibly excited to even be in the third and final round. The first round had over 4500 competitors, round two we were narrowed down to about 750, and now we’re down to only 90 people in round three. Before this year I hadn’t even made it to round two in the short story competition.

So I have 24 hours to complete a 1500 word story. The genre is open, the subject is “a side-effect”, and the character is “a grave digger.”

I decided to go with a ghost story. I’m done the first draft and am awaiting feedback from my faithful readers, those who are available at the very last minute, haha. There are just under 8 hours left now. So I hope I don’t have to make any major changes.

I will keep you update, and hopefully will be a little less busy after this and be able to post more frequently. Thanks for reading!

NYC Midnight Update: 2019 Short Story Challenge

Woohoo! Oh, wait… WHAT?!?

Well, this has been a great week for me in writing news! I just found out that my story “Cheese-Head” (Genre: Fairy Tale, Theme: Superhuman, Character: A Cheese Maker) placed second over all in the first heat for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, and I’m moving on to round two! Which means I’ll be glued to my computer for the better part of this weekend.

I have three days to complete my next challenge. The prompt is Genre: Romantic Comedy, Theme: Anxiety, Charcter: A Brewer.

Now, Rom-Com is pretty close to as far from my comfort zone as I can get aside from full on Romance. I’m not super comfortable with Comedy, either, but my comedy flash fiction piece “Pi in the Sky” placed third in its heat last year, and “Cheese-Head” is as much comedy as a fairy tale, so I think that part might go okay. Romance though… ugh.

Wish me luck!

I have to submit this piece by midnight on Sunday. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, if you head over to the Story Laboratory and read the above-linked comedy piece, you can let me know what works and doesn’t work with my previous attempts at humour. I need all the help I can get!

Blood, Sweat, Tears… and Success!

I take it all back. You’re pretty cool.

So last week, I had a bit of a vent after a particularly horrendous bout of drafting, editing, and rewriting. In my mentally and emotionally exhausted state, I said some pretty terrible things about my friend, Fantasy.

So I’m a little embarrassed to share this next piece of news with you.

That horrible, no good, very bad story I was writing? Well, all of the figurative blood, sweat, and literal tears paid off. I won second place in The Arcanist’s Magical Short Story Contest! You can see the announcement HERE.

This is all extremely exciting to me. I’ve never won a real writing contest before. I have yet to sell one of my short stories in a semi-pro or pro market (but I’m working on that!).

And second place came with a $250 USD cash prize which, I’m pretty sure, is more than my book made in the first year. This is officially my most successful piece of fiction writing!

Better yet, the winning stories and the runners up, will be published in a collection called Magic, Mayhem & Monsters coming out later this week!

Stay tuned!

I’ll post a link as soon as I have one.

The absolute best thing about this whole experience, though, is how validating it is to be recognized after I worked so hard on this story. I say it all the time: if you keep working, keep failing, and keep trying again, eventually you will succeed. That is all you have to do. And sometimes it sucks (just see my rant). Sometimes I feel like I’m just telling myself this fairy tale to drive off the swirling void of depression. But it’s proven true once again.

Fail. Learn from it. Fail again. Keep trying. Your next attempt will be a little bit better. Eventually you’ll get it right!

I’m newly motivated to keep working on my short story submissions this year. And as my editor friend has assured me, it won’t always be this hard. The more you fall down, the easier it gets to pick yourself up again. You start to notice those cracks in the sidewalk before you catch your toe. Practice makes progress.

Now I need to send a huge shout out to my readers during this whole process. Some of these benevolent spirits read every single draft! That’s a lot of work in a very short time. And even those who were only able to read one version all gave me valuable insight into what was working and what wasn’t. I couldn’t have done it without you guys! I should get them to write the next installment of Critique Mystique.

Thank you to everyone who reads this, and comments, and offers support on my bad days. I’m so glad you’re here to celebrate my successes with, too!

“Tooth Fairy” by S.C. Jensen

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Gram slipped his tongue into the empty socket and winced. The pain tasted like the jolt of a D-cell battery. Maybe he shouldn’t have pulled so hard to get his last baby tooth out. But Mom had promised cold hard cash and the illustrated Strange Stories anthology had been calling his name for months. Yesterday, with blood pooling in his mouth, he had texted Jeremy: Kazam!Comics @ 9AM!!?! Mom was working but he’d ride his bike.

Gram flipped onto his stomach and ran his hand underneath his pillow. The sheet on the other side was cool and smooth. No tooth.

No cash either. “Mom!”

He dodged a pile of magazines and nearly tripped on a dusty box of knickknacks in his race to the kitchen. Mom sat at the breakfast table in her waitressing uniform, reading on her phone and drinking a liter of coffee. She didn’t look up. “You’re up early.”

Gram poured himself a glass of orange juice. “Money?” he prompted.

Mom she held up the palm of her hand by her ear like she was holding a tray of drinks. “Tooth?”

“I don’t have it!”

“No tooth, no twenty.” She sipped her coffee, still not looking at him.

He said, “I put it under my pillow.”

Mom’s shoulders stiffened. She gazed at him over the rim of her enormous coffee mug like he was telling a bad joke. “Under your pillow?”

“I always…”

“Look, I’ve got twenty bucks with your name on it if you kill some boxes in the basement while I’m at work.”

Blood and OJ swirled in Gram’s mouth like bile. “But I’m meeting Jeremy in an hour!”

Mom’s eyes shot to the clock blinking on the microwave. “I’m late.”

“I hate this house!”

“At least you didn’t have to grow up here.” Mom clenched her jaw and for a second Gram though she was going to yell. But her face softened and she said, “It’s only for the summer. Once we sort it out, we can sell the damned place and get something of our own.”

“Why’d grandma have so much junk anyway?”

Mom sighed. “Your grandmother was very ill. She hoarded stuff to fill a hole inside herself.”

She looked so sad then that Gram forgot all about his tooth.

“I’ll help when I get back.” Mom rifled through her purse for her car keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

She paused, lost in though. Then she crossed the kitchen quickly and kissed Gram on top of the head. She squeezed his shoulder and said, “The tooth fairy never visited me in this house either. I’m sorry.”

After she had peeled out of the driveway Gram texted Jeremey again: cancel that. there is no tooth fairy.

Gram crept down the basement stairs like he was slipping into someone else’s dirty bathwater. Unpleasantly tepid air slid against his skin and gummed up his clothes. This was no way to spend summer holidays. But Mom would be home after lunch and then he’d be biking to Jeremey’s with Strange Stories in his hot little hands. How bad could it be?

At the bottom of the stairs, though, any thoughts of material possessions fled, evaporating into the decades of accumulated stuff towering around him. The rest of the house was a cluttered mess. This was something else. He tongued at the empty socket again. How much stuff must Mom must have gotten rid of already while he stayed with Dad? Gram opened the first box, surprised to find that he actually wanted to help.

He worked methodically, opening boxes, sorting out the trash from things they might actually be able to sell. There wasn’t much of the latter. The deeper he got into the stacks the fewer salable items he found. Most of the junk was much older than his grandmother. Was hoarding hereditary? Gram imagined his mother burrowing into all this junk like a dragon with its gold. The image creeped up on him as he dug, rising unbidden, as if from the boxes themselves. He made endless trips up and down the stairs. Every box he set on the curb felt like a scab picked off an old wound.

Gram had never been close to his grandma. But the basement was thick with her presence. She lurked behind towers of mouldy newspapers and peered out of boxes stuffed with disintegrating yellowed lace, urging him ever deeper into the stacks. Cold sweat oozed out of every pore but he pressed on, Strange Stories completely forgotten. Every box he opened was one Mom didn’t have to deal with.

Like an archaeologist excavating an ancient burial mound, Gram dug in. At the centre, in the deepest reaches of the hoard, he found his prize. A wooden chest, ancient but curiously well cared for. The layers of dust that hung like a shroud over everything down here didn’t touch it. Grandma’s special place. The thought came out of his brain as if he were possessed. His mouth filled with the sour battery taste again and his jaw ached.

He opened the box.

A swarm of smiling faces stared up at him. Dolls, with strange misshapen buttons for eyes and crooked grins. Each had a little heart shaped necklace with a name printed in spidery letters: Anna, Beth, Susan—his aunts. Mary, Mom. Older dolls with names he didn’t recognize peered up at him. Gram reached into the box and took out a doll with short, dark hair like his own. This one wasn’t smiling. It wore a shocked expression, its tiny mouth a lumpy “O” of surprise. His own mouth fell open. The cold damp air made his socket ache.

Stuffed into the doll’s mouth was a molar. Fresh blood blossomed on the fabric like lips parting around the tooth. Smaller teeth made tiny, unblinking eyes. The buttons on its little jacket were made of teeth. And there was a little heart, just like the others.

Except it was his mother’s clean, sharp lettering that spelled the name.

Gram.

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This piece was written for the #BlogBattle Stories flash fiction challenge. February’s theme was “Loss” at 1000 words or less. This piece is 999 words. Check out the other submissions HERE! And, as always, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

“Queen of the Castle” by S.C. Jensen

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Construction equipment lurked along the gravel road, heavy metal appendages folded in on themselves, like an invading army of robotic insects. A man in a white hardhat wandered between them, yelling something into his cell phone. Most of the crew pickups had taken off, and the machines were silent. Missy drove her van past the foreman, up the two-track driveway, and through the property gate, where an old farm house patiently awaited its fate.

Periwinkle flax and alfalfa flourished at the edges of the property in a tranquil sea of blossoms, barely stirring in the heavy midsummer heat. The villa stood, queen-like, before the surrounding fields where colourful bee-boxes peeked through here and there like bashful ladies in waiting. A delicate lacework peeled away from her yellow gown and her shoulders slumped slightly, but she held her crown of terraces high. Tired, not defeated.

Missy parked her van next to another, identical vehicle, in a patch of flattened weeds and cracked earth that may once have been a garden.

“Rise and shine, boss.” She elbowed her passenger awake. “Looks like Ben is still here.”

Keith Weiland stretched and peered blearily through the window at the other Ace Pest Control van. “That bastard.”

They got out. Heat enveloped Missy’s air-conditioned flesh like liquid honey, leaving her instantly sticky. The scent of burnt oil and dead bugs wafted up from the grill and the engine ticked as it cooled. Wasps droned around the front of the van, drawn to the carnage.

“Suit up,” Keith said and flung open the van’s service door. Then he cursed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fuckers are stinging already.”

Missy rummaged through the gear and found her uniform. Keith twitched and swatted beside her, drawing the attention of the bugs. A red welt had erupted on the skin above his collar. He swore again. Boss, maybe, but Keith wasn’t made for fieldwork.

Missy donned the equipment unhurriedly, almost reverently. She felt as if she were a priestess preparing to perform an ancient sacrificial rite. A curious insect buzzed around her, landing briefly on her forearm. She kept still. It tickled, but didn’t sting, then flew off to deliver news of its discovery to the rest of the colony. Missy finished dressing.

A truck tore up the driveway and came to a gravel-grinding stop next to the vans. The foreman rolled down his window a crack and shouted, “It’s about goddamned time you got here!”

Keith zipped his mesh helmet closed and sauntered toward the pickup. “Has the van been here all weekend?”

“It was here on Friday,” the foreman said. “It’s still here today. So are the fucking bugs. No sign of your guy.”

“He’s not answering his phone,” Keith said. “Did anyone check inside the house?”

“Are you kidding?” The man’s eyes bugged out until he looked insect-like himself. “We can’t get anywhere near the place. We stirred up a whole shit-storm of the things when we started clearing.”

The regal structure seemed to stare down at them with wide, unblinking eyes. Something flickered in the upstairs window like a draft had stirred the curtains. “Why are you tearing it down?” Missy asked.

A wasp crawled up the driver’s side window and the foreman eyed it warily. He quickly rolled it up just as the wasp slipped an exploratory antennae over the edge. The insect struggled, trapped against the weather-stripping.

“Just get rid of them,” the foreman shouted through the glass. He sped off down the driveway and back toward town. Missy stared after him. Fury crawled up from her belly and into her throat. It struggled there, and died. Inside the suit her skin felt cool and clammy. She wanted to tear it off.

“After you,” Keith said. Wasps crawled all over his white safety-suit, burrowing at the seams and zippers. He swatted at them fruitlessly. “Are they always like this?”

Missy led the boss up the sunken steps and through the front door. She breathed in the dusty air of the old house. The tang of mouse piss and something else, sweet and a little bit gamey, wafted toward her. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her spine. The insects left her alone, but her skin rippled as if they were crawling on her, too. She placed a tentative foot on the staircase.

“Shouldn’t we check around down here, first?”

“The main nest will be upstairs, on the south side of the house,” she explained patiently. “Wasps love sunlight.”

“I mean shouldn’t we check for Ben?”

“Ben knows about wasps.” She climbed upwards, rising like the heat of the day into the dust speckled beams of light coming from the second floor windows. “He’ll have gone upstairs.”

Keith trailed after her, slapping at his arms and legs. The insects hummed around both of them, thicker now. To Missy, the noise was like the susurrus of tiny voices all speaking at once. They didn’t land on her, but they seemed to whisper, “This way.”

She followed.

The noise was much louder on the landing, as if the entire building was vibrating with winged creatures. It almost seemed to come from inside her head, buzzing her vision and making the walls shake. Missy’s eyes locked onto a door at the far end of the corridor. Wasps swarmed out from the cracks on all sides and a grey, papery film seemed to grow from the door jamb.

“Holy shit.” Keith exhaled in a staccato burst. “Is that normal?”

Keith hovered near her elbow as she reached for the doorknob, as if she could protect him from the millions of creatures that inhabited the house. The door moaned. Missy pushed it open and stepped inside, and Keith tumbled in after her.

“Oh god,” he said.

Ben’s white safety-suit lay, discarded, next to a mound of pale, hairless flesh. Tiny larvae wriggled contentedly at the raw edges where something big had burst out. The rest of it disappeared into the papery layers of a hive that filled the room. An itching need to take off her own suit pulsed through Missy’s body. She closed the door.

“Yes.” The wasps droned in her ears and she began to disrobe. “Yes. He said she would come.”

“Oh god,” Keith said.

Missy’s skin writhed and twitched as she peeled off layer after layer. She dug her fingernails into her convulsing chest, tearing, desperate to be free of the pupal shell she had been trapped in all summer. A sound like the ripping of wet fabric rent the air. Missy burst free of her prison and shook the thick red fluid from her newly formed wings. A beam of sunshine pierced through the cloud of insects. She stretched into it to dry off.

“Yes.” The colony trilled in excitement. “A new queen.”

Wasps swarmed out of the walls, floor and ceiling. Keith Weiland, proud owner of Ace Pest Control, fell to his knees and screamed.

“And a feast,” she hummed, looking up at the fractured, prismatic image of her erstwhile employer, “fit for a queen.”

And before long all that could be heard in the regal house among the flax and alfalfa, was the lazy buzzing of insects.

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This is what I’m working on for the February’s 12 Short Stories Challenge. The prompt was “New Me” at 1200 words. Let me know what you think! I have the rest of the month to make changes before I submit it to the forum.