When I was a little kid I fell in love with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The iteration that hooked me first was the original radio-play (and is to this day still my favourite version of this classic). It was a revelation to me—the sound effects, the cast—as though I were watching a TV show inside my head. The words floating through the speakers created a visual marvel in my brain, a fantastical universe complete with sound that nothing on TV could emulate. Since then I’ve mourned the loss the radio-play as a form. More recently I have been delighted by the rise of the audiobook and the podcast (having developed a serious addiction to both). Then Steal the Stars snuck up on me.
It’s a performance podcast, and I am hooked. Steal the Stars is a straight-out sci-fi story, complete with aliens and an evil military corporation. If you aren’t a fan of this genre then this might not be the story for you but, sci-fi fan or not, you would be hard-pressed to criticise the impressive production and immersive experience of this podcast. Tor-labs’ excellent production treats you to all the pleasure of the long-form novel, with the added sensory experience of a live performance. Be warned, it is seriously addictive.
The story, by Mac Rogers, is set on a secret, privatised military base which houses an alien spacecraft inside of which is the warm, unresponsive body of “Moss”—the proverbial big-eyed, grey-skinned man from outer space. The base is manned by ex-US military personnel who understand the harsh and indelible safety and fraternisation protocols of their employer, Quill Marine. Told from the perspective of the facilities chief security offer, “Dak” (Dakota Prentiss), we are pulled into the intrigue of the secret base and the mystery of “Moss” and the “harp” that appears to power the space craft. When “Matt Salem” starts working at the facility Dak’s previously unwavering allegiance to Quill Marine is questioned as she begins an illicit relationship (the consequences for which are potentially catastrophic). This story rolls together, thriller, sci-fi, romance and a healthy dose of social commentary into one.
I don’t want to say anything more for risk of spoilers, so let me get back to gushing about how much fun I have had binge-listening to this story. I started this on Tuesday afternoon and finished on Wednesday morning. I would have finished quicker but I had to, you know, live (feed my kids, pick them up from school, talk to them). The acting in this podcast is impeccable and Tor labs have created a universe that is completely believable, from the hollow, echoing sounds in the hanger where Moss is kept, to the creaking of the bed when Dak and Salem are whispering to each other in the night (spoiler), as well as other more horrifying elements of Quill Marine’s operations.
And the ending? Did I pick it? Sort of, almost, not really, which is the sign of good writing. At some point you have to let your reader/listener figure it out at least some of the big finale. If they don’t, if your ending is a complete, out of the blue shock, then you’ve let them down somewhere. You’ve led them up the garden path and deliberately left them lost in a paddock. Writing is a delicate balance between delivering the reader that sense of satisfaction—when they say “Huh! I knew it!”—and carefully misdirecting and obscuring the ending in a way that feels organic but doesn’t confound and anger them. In other words, the twist at the end needs to be twisty, but not random or disconnected from all the work you have made the reader do over the many hours they have invested in your story. Steal the Stars nailed it.
If you aren’t already loving everything the podcast and audiobook world has to offer, all I can say is you are missing out. Whether you’re driving in your car, folding the laundry (groan), cooking, walking, watching your kids at sport, on the train, or buying groceries, podcasts and audiobooks bring stories into previously inaccessible parts of your day. And we all need more stories in our day. I’m excited about productions like Steal the Stars (and am on the hunt for more), and hope this signals a renaissance of radio-plays across all genres.
This podcast had been adapted into a novel of the same name by Nat Cassidy.
I have recently discovered the joy, excitement and frustration of flash fiction. Having come of the back of the long and exhausting process of writing a novella it is refreshing and gratifying to turn my hand to something spontaneous and fun, like lighting a sparkler at a party. Turns out, I’m actually quite terrible at it but somehow that doesn’t bother me. Something I learned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is to let myself enjoy that act of writing, regardless of the outcome.
I read a writing prompt about six months ago that simply said “snow not snow”. It was a concept that niggled at me, instantly conjuring images of a pastoral scene: a secluded valley painted white, two trees black and leafless in the distance and a young girl coming down for breakfast to find that the world had changed forever. Yet, as connected as I felt to this story—and as I said, it materialised almost immediately in my mind, vivid, tangible and complete—I struggled to it bring to life on the page. Perhaps this is because it felt more like a screenplay than a short story or a novel, something that was meant to be seen rather than read. So I gave up on it. I put it aside and dismissed it, comforting myself with the thought that it was a story that, in reality, had been written many times before (I mean, we’ve all known stories of children surviving, from Tomorrow When the War Began and the Book’s of Ember, to The Lord of the Flies). But still it niggled. I dreamt about it.
Eventually I sat down and read David’s Gaffney’s six rules for flash fiction, and wondered: could flash fiction exorcise this story from my thoughts? So I made a cup of tea (always a must), set a timer for twenty minutes and poured that story onto the page. I forced it to be done in only a few hundred words:
Snow not snow
The steak sizzled in the pan, forced to change its molecular structure under the power of the flickering blue ring. It smelt wrong, through Alex knew how to drain and dress a carcass. No matter, no one would know. Dad sat stiff and blue behind the milking shed, staring at something far away, forever trying to solve the puzzle. Alex sliced the lump of flesh, formerly Milly. It would do. It would have to.
“I’m going into town. We need to find help. I’ll take Daniel with me.”
“Shouldn’t I come too? Shouldn’t we stay together?”
“You need to stay here. In case your father comes back.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“What if you don’t?”
Her mother cupped Alex’s face, “I will.”
Thump. The mallet fell. The gun cabinet was stubbornly locked. Thump, it fell again. Alex wasn’t strong enough. Tissue bruised, skin split. The cow groaned but did not fall. She had to end this. Thump. Swing. Thump. Swing. Sickening. Eventually it was done, though Alex wasn’t hungry anymore.
A gust of wind lifted the fine white dust eddying into the air. It tested the window as if trying to find a way inside through microscopic pores. Alex flinched, as though the sudden onslaught had touched her rather than the glass. Then it stopped and she was alone again.
Alex ate the last of Milly, chewing slow and round—in homage? The meat sate like mud in her stomach. The radio crackled but no voices came.
And just like that, it was gone. It was enough. What I had been struggling with was the need to write this story and the conflicting sense that there was so little about it that I wanted to write. I merely wanted to touch it, to inhabit it for the briefest moment and then let it go.
I’m hoping to explore the pleasures of flash fiction more in the future. If you are interested in doing a little writing training, a few minutes a day even, here are some links to writing prompts that will get you started:
100 Flash Fiction Prompts from eadeverell.com
50 Flash Fiction Prompts from thejohnfox.com
Wacky Writing Prompts from flashfictionmagazine.com
One of my favourite bloggers Chuck Wendig puts out a flash fiction challenge and encourages his readers to post links to their efforts and it is well worth a look at terribleminds.com
Or just google “flash fiction prompts”.
I begin this post with a disclaimer. I am a stupid person. I want to talk about how my stupidity (the kind of poor decision-making that has your friends posting GIF’s of drooling cartoon characters or dumbfounded people slapping their foreheads on your Facebook feed) led me to double-up my dance with imposter syndrome.
We’ve all felt it, right? That niggling feeling at the back of your mind that someone, any minute now, someone is going to call you out as a fraud no matter how experienced, educated or qualified you are. It is that internal monologue that whispers, “Who am I to speak?” But what happens if you combine two major causes of imposter syndrome—motherhood and postgraduate study—into your daily reality? I’ll tell you. The competent version of yourself, the one that convinced you to undertake everything at once, runs for the hills leaving you, quite literally in my case, holding the baby.
Enter imposter number one: the mother.
Becoming a mother dismantled my confidence. Not in my ability to care for my children, but in my place in the wider world. Gone was the slick, articulate and educated woman ready to take on any challenge. That woman slunk into the corner, turned her face away, flinched and shrank from the sight of my loose, heavy, leaking body, recoiling from the stitches, the undulating, unruly stomach, but most of all from the tears. THAT woman—the one I was—could not stand to look at the woman I had become. So she abandoned me just when I needed her the most. She left behind the pulp. A jelly-body struggling to hold form. She swanned off in her neat clothes, her tidy hair, her make-up and left me with the pink, squealing body of another human being, raw and formless, to care for all on my own.
Inundated as they are with the ‘best’ way to do this or the ‘worst’ way to do that, mothers live with the burden of knowing that every minute detail of their new role is open to public scrutiny. Stripped of their usual public persona, mothers suffer (at least I did) that pitying, dismissive ‘oh’ when asked what it is they ‘do’. Over time, over the many, many hours of caring for children this new figure replaced my old self. No longer a bear, but a mouse. An imposter, pretending to live my old life.
I lost it completely.
So here comes the stupid part. On top of waving sadly goodbye to my old, confident (if I’m totally honest, arrogant) self I decided to take on the task of doctoral study. I mean, who could have predicted that writing a PhD thesis and gestating, birthing and raising two children at the same time would be hard? Only everyone who has had children, or undertaken a PhD ever. But not me. My former self sniggered all the way to whatever cave she is hiding in at the enormous joke she had pulled on me.
Enter imposter number two: the student.
Who am I to speak? As I sifted my way through centuries of academic thought (because I chose to write about time… something philosophers had in the bag ages ago) I struggled with the ever-growing fear that I had no right to stand up and speak. I had no right to demand anyone listen. My training as a mother had already made it clear to me that I was floundering alone in the unknown. Postgraduate study banished the last filaments of my old self. Vets (the public face of my former self), a little like doctors, are inherently arrogant (even if they don’t know it, or don’t mean to be). It’s inevitable, because you have spent a life being told you are smart, you are successful, you are respected. Until you’re not.
A bit like a mother who is dismissed with a bored ‘oh’, when I disclosed to people that I was a PhD student, it was hard not to feel bruised by the slight (or often open) eye-rolling and inevitable How long have you been doing that? or Aren’t your finished yet? As though producing 100, 000 words of considered, researched and hopefully academically enriching writing is something you should have whipped up while the baby was napping, much like a pavlova (thanks so much Women’s Weekly for that extra pressure). These eye-rolls, groans, often hostile you’re the reason the system is struggling responses do little to assuage your own misgivings about the value of your research, how you are going to make a living if you ever finish, the guilt inherent in pursuing something as mentally, emotionally and time-consuming as postgraduate study while also being beholden to a family, let alone that mummy voice of “Who am I to speak?” that you started out with.
So do you see now? I am a stupid person. I naively believed that my former self (that confident, arrogant professional) would rally behind me and sweep away the timid mother I had become, but she is gone forever. In her place I fight against the imposter in me, an alter-ego that I am slowly learning to overcome. The light at the end of this rather morose and self-pitying tunnel? I did finish that PhD. Eventually. Though not until my children had started their orthodontic treatment. Bearing in mind that I began when I was pregnant with my first child you can make an educated guess as to how long that took. I don’t care if people know my age, instead, I undertook a PhD of a ‘certain duration’, and still feel slightly ashamed.
What I have learned? The imposter is never going to leave me, but neither will I let her run the show anymore. We stare at each other across the ring. She smirks, fists tensing, but I have trained, I have survived and I have reformed. Someone new. A hybrid. A chameleon, scarred and wiry.