‘Goons’– An Introduction

Last year I wrote a 16.5K word sci-fi story called Goons. It turns out that there are a limited number of paying markets for 16.5K word sci-fi stories, so I’ve decided to publish it on my blog. I’ll post a chapter a day, starting on 1st February. Some of the chapters are teensy little things, while others are proper chapter-sized chapters.

The story

Behind every great supervillain is a great big bloke with sunglasses, a scowl, and a knack for letting his fists do the talking. Goons is written from the perspective of Jay – a bodyguard/driver/lab assistant who works with his best mate, Em. Together, they help their mad scientist boss with his plans to take over the world.

The characters

Jay

  • Occasionally gentle giant
  • Chronically curious. A teacher once told him he had the soul of a scientist “but, sadly, not the brains of one”.
  • Likes watching combat sports and 1950s romcoms
  • Underestimates himself
  • Just wants to see what happens next

Em

  • Horse girl at heart
  • Allergic to dresses
  • Has a blackbelt in Brazilian ju-jitsu
  • Cynical bitch. Happy with this.
  • Wants to earn enough money so she can retire to the countryside with her girlfriend and lots of horses

Bossman

  • Has decided that the world needs fixing and the easiest way to fix it is to rule it
  • IQ of 224 but doesn’t know how to put a duvet cover on a duvet
  • Has a lot of opinions. Doesn’t care about yours.
  • Really ought to get more sleep
  • Wants everything, right now

I’m very excited to share this story because it was a blast to write. If you’ve read Other People’s Butterflies you might notice similarities, such as a first-person perspective, some dubious ethics, and a protagonist whose primary motivation is curiosity.

I’m tempted to call Goons a found-family story, since the relationships between the main characters are so central. But I’m a little concerned that makes it sound sweet and wholesome whereas this family might end up literally killing each other. Anyways, it’s sci-fi, it’s weird, and it’s coming soon!

2021 Wrap-up

Hi friends, welcome to 2022! I hope your hangovers aren’t too bad and your new year’s resolutions aren’t broken yet.

To be honest, 2021 was a more challenging year for me than 2020. During 2020 I was mostly a smug introvert, making the most of lockdown by reading a lot, learning coin tricks and getting worryingly obsessed with MMA. But 2021 has been a rollercoaster, with some high points (publications, a new baby niece) and some low points (a break-up, a bereavement).

Here’s a sum-up of my 2021 writing and reading adventures:

Publishing

After publishing absolutely nothing last year, I managed to publish two books this year! The first was my debut novel, Other People’s Butterflies, published by Art Over Chaos. It’s a YA contemporary about identity, friendship, and trying to understand the world around you. Also 1940s spy shenanigans.

I got my first reviews, my first royalties, signed a few copies (one of them was actually for a fan rather than a family member!) and generally felt very much like a Proper Writer. I hope people continue to read it through 2022 but in order for that to happen I’ll have to get my arse in gear and actually do some marketing.

My second publication was a poetry chapbook called Monster Hunting for Girls Ages 8-14, published by Dancing Girl Press. It’s about the monsters that plague us during childhood and early adolescence, and the slow process of befriending them, defeating them, or learning to live with them.

Writing

Fiction-wise, I recently finished a 16,000 word sci-fi story called Goons. It’s weird, character-based, and contains the most dysfunctional found family I could dream up. It turns out that 16,000 word sci-fi stories are difficult to find a home for, so I’m thinking of publishing this on my blog.

Poetry-wise, I finished another chapbook called 16 Flavours of Ghost. It’s a bunch of character poems, each one from the perspective of a ghost. They’re a spirited bunch, with a lot to say about life despite being dead. I’m hoping to get some interest from chapbook publishers and I’m waiting to hear back from two of them, so wish me luck!

Reading

I read 21 books in 2021, which is pretty poor by my standards. I’ll aim for at least 24 this year, since 2 per month is usually do-able for me. I’ll also aim to keep reading plenty of fabulous indie and self-published books. As for 2021, my Book of the Year Award* goes to…

HMS Expedient by Peter Smalley. I couldn’t quite believe I was reading a nautical adventure and not wishing it was a Patrick O’Brian. I will definitely be following the careers of Captain Rennie and Lieutenant Hayter in future.

Thanks for reading my lovelies. Roll on 2022!

*Not an actual award. Book chosen was not published in 2021. Purely a reflection of what Cora likes best rather than objective quality.

Hyping Every Indie Book I’ve Read This Year

This year I’ve made an effort to read more indie-published and self-published books, and there have been some absolute gems. If you’re book shopping for Christmas, do consider adding one (or more) of these to your basket.

This entire list is very queer, particularly in terms of asexual and aromantic representation, but also other LGBT+ identities. If that’s your cup of tea, read on!

Common Bonds by Various authors

I’m being cheeky by including this, as one of the stories in this anthology (Spacegirl and the Martian) is mine. This Kickstarter-funded anthology is full of SFF stories focusing on aromantic protagonists and platonic relationships.

There are honestly some real treasures in here, with my personal favourite being Cinder – a witty, empowering fairytale re-telling that captures the joy and excitement of new friendship. There’s also an astronaut bonding with her dad in space, and two werewolf stories because aro people evidently love werewolves!

Create My Own Perfection by E.H. Timms

This short story is a re-telling of the Medusa myth, set at a university full of mythological beings. It uses the ancient tale to explore the ever-current issue of sexual harassment, and also shows the sharper edges of female friendship. Emma isn’t just kind and supportive to her friends – she’s also willing to do whatever it takes to defend them.

The Murder Next Door by Sarah Bell

Want to read about a sapphic couple solving a murder mystery in 1912? Of course you do! Sarah Bell’s debut is full of rich historical detail, and the central pairing of Ada and Louisa are brought vividly to life.

Despite the period setting, don’t expect a traditional “whodunnit”. The emphasis is less on who did the deed, and more on the meaty, nuanced issue of whether or not they deserve to be punished for it.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter by Heidi James

Good lord, the writing in this one is extraordinary! An unreliable, but highly observant narrator tells the story of a child whose mother is a wolf. Not literally. But maybe literally? Full of magic, but the kind of magic you get in horror movies rather than fairytales.

Streetlamps and Shepherd Moons by Katherine Highland

Streetlamps and Shepherd Moons is a slice-of-life novel that focuses on Diane – an autistic woman – and her attempts to navigate a confusing and sometimes hostile world. It’s an authentic, unfiltered take on autistic life that’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

This certainly isn’t a comfort read. Diane has an awful lot to deal with (often neurotypicals being clueless) but her difficulties and dramas are counterbalanced by the warmth of everyday comforts and human connection. The book is ultimately a celebration of creating the life you want and finding the people who matter.

The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen

Now this one is a comfort read. It’s a short and sweet story of a knight, a dragon, and a baker’s wife teaming up to search for the missing baker, and finding adventure and friendship along the way. It’s like those books about dragons you used to read as a kid, but with added LGBTQIA rep!

Any of these sparking your interest? And have you read any awesome indie books this year? Feel free to rave about them in the comments!

How to Write Bad LGBT+ Representation

There are plenty of articles about how to include good LGBT+ representation in your stories. Authors are drowning in lists of do’s and don’ts, and yet we still seem to be getting it wrong. After all, read the reviews for any book with queer characters or themes, and it’s only a matter of time before you come across the phrase “bad rep”.

I’m not denying there are problems with how LGBT+ people are portrayed in fiction. But the constant nit-picking can be disheartening to queer authors, especially when you never hear accusations of “bad heterosexual representation” or “bad cisgender representation”.

So here are my top tips for writing bad LGBT+ representation, based entirely on negative reviews and people whining on Twitter. (Please note this is intended as a light-hearted article. I’m a queer author who wants to see more queer characters in fiction!)

Tips for writing bad LGBT+ rep

  1. Write a queer character who doesn’t represent the reader’s personal experiences.
  2. Write a flawed queer character.
  3. Write sweet, heart-warming stories with happily-ever-afters for everyone. That’s unrealistic!
  4. Write dark, gritty stories where problems aren’t easily resolved. That’s depressing!
  5. Write a story about a friendship group where everyone is LGBT+ (straight people think this is statistically unlikely).
  6. Write a romance without sex scenes. You’re sanitizing queer relationships!
  7. Write a romance with sex scenes. You’re over-sexualising queer relationships!
  8. Be a straight woman writing m/m romance. This is an easy way to get accused of fetishizing queer relationships.
  9. Write a butch lesbian, a flirty or promiscuous bisexual, or a gay guy who loves musical theatre. Stereotypes are bad, which means all these characters are bad!
  10. Write a character who confuses people. It’s really not difficult. Try an asexual character who gets horny sometimes, or a trans character who doesn’t want surgery.
  11. Write a bisexual female character who ends up with a man.
  12. Write a bisexual male character who ends up with a woman.
  13. Write LGBT+ characters, but don’t write about them making out with each other. This way you can write openly queer characters and still get accused of queerbaiting, woop woop!

In all seriousness – if you want to write stories with LGBT+ representation, just go for it. Write the books you want to read. Write the books you needed when you were growing up. If you’re not LGBT+ yourself, find LGBT+ beta readers and listen carefully to their feedback. Put your passion on the page and try not to worry too much.

If you fancy reading a YA contemporary with #ownvoices asexual/aromantic rep that undoubtedly ticks some of the above boxes, try my debut novel Other People’s Butterflies.

And if you’re feeling brave, post your recommendations for books with “bad” LGBT+ rep in the comments. Gimme stories that are too sad, too sexy, not sexy enough, too confusing, or that break any of the bullshit rules that queer authors are expected to follow.

Top Ten Tuesday – Characters I’d Love an Update On

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Top Ten Characters I’d Love an Update On

Occasional SPOILERS for these books! While writing this, I realised that almost all the characters I want an update on are female. Maybe I get more emotionally invested in female characters, or maybe it’s because women’s stories have a habit of ending with “and then she got married and lived happily ever after”, which doesn’t tell the reader much!

Rose Red from What Katy Did at School

Well-behaved women seldom make history, which bodes well for the future of Katy’s mischievous friend Rose Red.

Fanny Price from Mansfield Park

The ending of Fanny’s story always felt rushed to me, and I had a sneaking suspicion that Edmund hadn’t quite got over Mary Crawford when he married Fanny. I’d like to check in on them in ten years and see if their marriage is a happy one.

Chiyo/Sayuri from Memoirs of a Geisha

Bound by the secrecy of her profession, Sayuri only hints at a how her own story ends, which makes it all the more intriguing.

Charlie Nancy from Anansi Boys

When your dad is a trickster god, there’s simply no chance of a normal life.

Bathsheba Everdene from Far from the Madding Crowd

Did Gabriel Oak tame Bathsheba’s unruly heart? I’m not so sure…

Louise/Lulu from Mountains of the Moon

Louise’s eventful, ambiguous story ends with “I can hardly wait for what comes next.” Me neither – gimme more!

Sara Crewe and her new family from A Little Princess

The book doesn’t quite have the film’s fairytale ending, where Sara’s father turns out to be alive. Instead, she gains a new family in Carrisford, Ram Dass, and Becky. With all the complexities of class and race that existed at the time, it would be interesting to see if they were happy together.

Tanya from Bad Girls

At fourteen, Tanya is a petty thief who’s always in trouble. She’s also brave, ballsy and a loyal friend. I’d like to see what kind of adult she turns into.

The narrator from Rebecca

I just want to check up on her. It’s never a good idea to marry a man who murdered his first wife.

Jane Eyre from Jane Eyre

It’s also never a good idea to marry a man who locked his first wife in the attic!

Who’s on your list? And if you’re familiar with any of these characters – care to venture a guess at how things turned out for them?

Two Poems

Here are a couple of poems about fairy magic and mischief. They didn’t make it into Monster Hunting for Girls Ages 8-14 because fairies aren’t (usually) spooky enough to be considered monsters.

Thistledown

Weight-wise, we are somewhere between

feather and smoke.

Smallest, roundest, floatiest bird.

Flightiest spider.

We rip free, rise up, whip away and out of reach.

But don’t think we tease –

we have our own wishes to grant.

If you must, hold us lightly.

Nothing vicious, the kind of pinch

you’d give to pepper or salt.

Wish quickly

Wish us well

Be patient

__________________________________________

Promises, Promises

We will clean your kitchen.

We will eat your sugar.

We will hide behind lampposts

to sprinkle starshine on your dancing shoes

on a Friday night.

We will start bar fights.

We will mend your socks.

We will break every clock in the house.

We will lead you astray like a good whisky,

wrap you up in the mist

like a gift

for the queen.

We will grant your wishes

in the most inconvenient way possible.

We will make such sport of you

that you’ll wake laughing,

hair tangled

and every inch of skin singing.

Gwen vs Goblin Girl – Part 2

I strain my ears, trying to hear whatever it is that Vrenega can hear. At first, I can’t detect anything but the rustling of leaves in the trees. But then there’s a sudden shout, and two warriors are charging towards us – a big dude and an equally big girl, with broad blue stripes across their faces and broadswords held aloft. I panic, leap off the bench and throw my “Uzi” at them. It sails harmlessly between them.

Luckily, Vrenega is less useless. She swings her battle axe like a pro, fighting the female warrior while I stand there and dither. The male warrior approaches me with a friendly grin on his blue-painted face. He points his sword at me and, very gently, boops me in the belly with it.

“Am I dead?” I ask, aghast.

Presumably he takes pity on me, because he says “Nah, just injured. That means you’re out for fifteen minutes.”

“Oh. OK.”

I glance over at Vrenega and the other warrior, who have stopped fighting and are now doing rock-paper-scissors to decide who won. Apparently Vrenega won (scissors beats paper) and the warriors retreat. Vrenega turns back to me, all covered in glory, and I do my best to look defiant.

“I’m injured,” I say. “I can’t play for fifteen minutes, so I guess you just carry on without me, right?”

Vrenega purses her lips, looking like she’s weighing up the pros and cons of ditching me. Wanting to know exactly how shitty Ethan’s new girlfriend is, I decide to make things easy for her.

“I know the way back, so don’t feel like you have to stick around. And I found your fucking spell scroll too.” I take it out of my bag and literally throw it at her. “Go enchant the dragon, get the jewel, find Ethan and have a laugh at how rubbish I am at LARPing. Seriously, have fun.”

Weirdly, I do feel like I’ve been injured. I think of Ethan and Vrenega, cozied up together and laughing at me, and there’s an actual pain in my chest. 

She doesn’t leave. Instead, she rummages in her pack and pulls out a roll of bandages.

“Where are you wounded?” she asks, brisk as a boarding school matron.

“In the gut.”

“OK. I’m guessing you don’t want to mess your dress up, so we’ll say it’s your arm instead. Roll your sleeve up.”

I’m reluctant to do as she says because I have firmly decided that I hate her. I’d also quite like to be alone so I can have a quick cry. But she’s not going anywhere, so I figure I may as well play along and just wait for this to be over. I sit down on the nearest bench and bunch up the floaty material of my left sleeve.

It turns out that Vrenega is some kind of healer. She doesn’t just bandage the imaginary wound – she cleans it with a soft cloth and something from a black bottle, which I strongly suspect is water. Then she takes cotton wool from a paper bag labelled “moon moss” and places a wad of it in the crook of my elbow (“to soak up the blood” she says), before bandaging it in place. The whole time, she has a look of intense concentration on her face, like I might actually bleed out if she doesn’t do this properly. By the time she’s almost finished with the bandages, I’m starting to suspect that something’s up. She keeps sniffing, and her eyes have gone all glossy. I could ignore it, I guess, but I’m bad at ignoring things.

“What’s the matter with you? I’m the one who’s injured here.”

“When you said Ethan likes any girl who’s nice to him, did you mean it?”

“Yeah. So what? That’s just the way he is.”

I watch, mildly horrified, as a tear spills from Vrenega’s eye and rolls down her cheek, leaving a trail in her green face paint.

“Fan-bloody-tastic,” she says. “The only guy I’ve ever been with, the only guy I’ve ever wanted to be with, and to him I’m just … I could’ve been anyone! Anyone who smiled and said hi.”

The only guy she ever wanted to be with … huh. I get the sense of something clicking into place.

“It was you, wasn’t it? Your friend who thought she was asexual but then met the right guy and realised she wasn’t.”

Vrenega nods. Despite the crying, she’s still tending my imaginary wound – fastening the bandage in place with a safety pin. I’m a little concerned she’s going to get distracted and stick me with it.

“I’m sorry I said all that stuff. I know ace people and aro people exist. And for all I know, you’re one of them-”

“I am.”

“And I’m being a total cliché, telling you it’s a phase. And being a scary, jealous girlfriend as well.”

“You are scary. Especially with the axe.”

“Ugh. I swear, I’m not usually like this with boys. I knew Ethan for like a year before I even thought about him that way.”

Hm. Something else clicks into place.

“You know, if you don’t get sexually attracted to people without, like, an emotional connection … err, some people call that demisexual.”

“Yeah, I heard of that. But people on the internet say it’s just a bunch of straight girls trying to be special snowflakes.”

“People on the internet also say Bill Gates puts microchips in Covid vaccines.” This startles a watery laugh out of her. “I mean, obviously you don’t have to use the label if you don’t want to, but why would you care what some judgemental randoms think of it? You’re a fucking goblin warrior queen.”

“Some warrior queen. Sat here boo-hooing over … I don’t even know what.”

She swipes a tear off her cheek and pulls a compact mirror out of her pack to check her make-up.

“We can talk about this stuff, if you want,” I offer. I may be still a teenager and pretty clueless and surely not her favourite person, but who else has she got? A boyfriend who’s built differently, and an internet full of trolls.

“Yeah, that’d be cool.” She stands up and swings her axe over her shoulder. “Not right now though. We’ve got a dragon to deal with.”

***

The dragon is a twelve-year-old boy. He is dressed all in green, with a pretty impressive tail and wings, but he is still a twelve-year-old boy. He sits at the base of an oak tree, with treasure spread out in front of him. Most of the treasure looks like scrunched up tin foil, but somewhere in that shiny hoard is the sacred jewel of Snakeshire.

“Where are his parents?” I whisper to Vrenega, as we hide behind a thick tree trunk.

“Slaughtered,” Vrenega whispers back. “He’s the last dragon left, or so the legend says.”

I’m starting to like how seriously she takes this. Ethan says it’s one of the things he loves about her – that she throws her whole heart into everything she does. I hope he tells her stuff like that. He might have started liking her because she was girl-shaped and nice to him, but if he loves her (and I’m pretty sure he does) it’s because of everything she is.

“Do you have the spell scroll?”

Vrenega pulls it out of her pack and hands it to me. “Here, you can do it.”

“You sure? What if I mess it up?”

“You won’t.”

The steel in her voice cuts off any argument I might have made. At the same moment, we both step out from behind the tree and stride towards the dragon. I hastily unfurl the scroll and read aloud,

“Dragon leave your treasure

To the waking world

And fall into a slumber

With your great wings furled”

Lowering the scroll, I see the kid on his feet, claws raised. But then he yawns hugely, sinks down to the forest floor, and curls up like a big green cat. I put a hand to my heart and gesture frantically at Vrenega, wanting her to appreciate how adorable this dragon is. But she’s all business, already on her knees and sifting through the huge puddle of treasure. I join her.

There’s plenty of other stuff amongst the tin foil. Big, plastic jewels the size of my palm. A cardboard crown. But no sign of the sacred jewel of Snakeshire, which – according to legend – looks like a small, purple egg.

The dragon stirs. Shit, I didn’t know sleeping spells wore off so quickly. I dig frantically through the treasure, scattering tin foil everywhere. But it’s no good. The dragon rises with a roar. And though the dragon’s voice hasn’t broken yet and it’s quite a high-pitched roar, it’s still clear that Vrenega and I are in serious trouble.

“Err … Dragonleaveyourtreasure” I begin, but Vrenega cuts me off.

“I’ve got the jewel! Run!”

I scramble to my feet, turn and run, with Vrenega beside me and the dragon behind me, roaring for all he’s worth.

“We’re close to camp,” Vrenega pants. “Don’t stop running!”

I don’t. I didn’t come this far to be eaten by such a tiny dragon. I can’t even slow down, because he’s right behind us the whole time. Why doesn’t his tail slow him down?

The footpath veers off to the left and suddenly our team’s camp (a small, blue gazebo) is in view. Our bard is standing beside it, having a vape. Under the gazebo, Ethan – aka Alazar Birch – is sitting, looking sorry for himself. His head is bandaged, and the bandages are generously decorated with fake blood. Good to know I’m not the only one who got injured.    

Behind us, the dragon gives another roar. He’s getting hoarse now, and sounds a tiny bit scary. I shriek, because he’s earned it, and grab Vrenega by the arm. We hurtle towards camp and basically crash into Alazar, knocking him onto his back and falling together in a tangle. The dragon finally stops roaring.

The three of us disentangle ourselves. “We’ve returned, my love,” says Vrenega, when there’s enough breath in her lungs for speaking.

“I noticed,” says Alazar, with a grin. “And you brought me a pet dragon too. How thoughtful.”

“But where’s the jewel?” I say, noticing that Vrenega is only holding the cardboard crown.

Her little bud of a mouth blooms into a wide smile as she plucks a small, purple, egg-shaped jewel from the crown. With one hand, she tosses the jewel to Alazar. With the other, she puts the crown on my head. Damn, she’s actually kind of cool.

The bard congratulates us but gets distracted by the dragon, who is demanding a snack. I think the dragon is the bard’s son.

Maybe a victorious quest resets things, or maybe it’s the sight of a dragon eating a cereal bar that does it. But our other identities seem to fall away for a moment, and we are Gwen and Ethan and Fliss. It’s something new, but screw it – I can handle new. So can Ethan. So can Fliss.

***

Thanks for reading my lovelies! I hope you enjoyed catching up with Gwen and her (mis)adventures. Happy Ace Week and Happy Halloween for tomorrow!

Gwen vs Goblin Girl – Part 1

Me: “I should write some bonus content for Other People’s Butterflies.”

Also me: “But I’m an obscure indie author. I’d just be writing self-indulgent fanfiction of my own book.”

Also me: “I’m gonna write self-indulgent fanfiction of my own book!”

If you haven’t read Other People’s Butterflies but still fancy reading this short story, here’s what you need to know:

  • Gwen and Ethan are best friends, but things haven’t always been simple.
  • Ethan is an experienced LARPer (Live Action RolePlayer). Gwen isn’t.
  • The story focuses on Gwen’s first meeting with a romantic interest of Ethan’s, briefly introduced in Other People’s Butterflies.

Ace Week (24th – 30th October) seems like the right time to post this, so here is part one and I’ll be posting part two on the 30th. A quick content note – this story contains a negative reaction to someone coming out, so take care if that’s something you’re sensitive about.

***

Everything itches. I am wearing a dark blue dress that goes right down to my ankles, with floaty, hippy-ish sleeves. I have pointy ears to show that I am an elf, not a hippy, and my newly purple hair is full of fiddly little braids. At least I’m not wearing a corset like Goblin Girl.

I should stop thinking of her as Goblin Girl. Ethan’s girlfriend goes by the name Fliss in real life and Vrenega the Bloodthirsty at LARP events. She is short and plump and round-faced, and her face is currently painted emerald green. She has a little red rosebud of a mouth in amongst the greenery, and long, dark-brown hair.

The Game Master – a grey-bearded, sixty-ish guy who is wearing black jeans and a plain tee-shirt, yet somehow managing to look more like a wizard than any of the dudes in robes – asks everyone if they have their weapons ready. A variety of foam weapons are held aloft in response, and I look around at the array of swords, axes, spears and daggers in dismay.

Shit on a stick. I remembered to bring water, snacks, pencils, a notebook, a miniature first aid kit and a bottle of fake blood. I forgot to bring a weapon. Ethan – currently going by the name Alazar Birch and looking like a cross between a 70s glam rock star and a tree – spots my predicament quickly. He asks if anyone has a spare weapon, but nothing turns up. I can feel my cheeks starting to burn as everyone starts rummaging through their faux-leather packs, trying to find something for the weaponless noob.

“It’s okay,” I say breezily, bending down and picking a twig off the forest floor. “I’ll have a wand.”  

“No wands,” says Vrenega the Bloodthirsty, in a surprisingly stern voice. “You can only use magic with spell scrolls.”

“Fine then, it’s not a wand,” I say, and there’s something in the way she’s looking at me that makes me want to piss her off. “It’s an Uzi.”

“No machine guns either,” says Vrenega.

Before I can point out that an Uzi is a submachine gun, the Game Master says “Not to worry, you two can figure it out on your mission,” and hands me a small piece of paper with instructions scribbled on it. I look up at Vrenega, and there is undisguised disappointment on her face. I guess she’d rather be paired up with Ethan for two-person missions. So would I.

Vrenega and I shoulder our packs and say our goodbyes to the rest of our team, which is made up of us, Ethan/Alazar Birch, a wizard with hipster glasses, a six-foot-four warrior who does look pretty badass apart from the cat ears, and a guy who calls himself a bard but doesn’t look anything like Shakespeare. He has a twirly moustache and is wearing a lot of purple and orange.

Watching Alazar and Vrenega say goodbye is weird, because it’s all in-character and intense. Vrenega reaches up to put a green hand on Alazar’s face and says “Be strong, my beloved.” Then she gives him a big, juicy kiss that leaves traces of her red lipstick on his mouth. I don’t know how I’m supposed to follow that, so I just wave at him and say “Bye, mate.” He waves back, grinning sheepishly. “Farewell, friend.”

We set off towards the campfire circle, which is in the centre of the forest and is apparently the best place to find spell scrolls. We have to find one to use against a dragon, which sounds like a fun mission, but Vrenega is sour-faced the whole time. Every time I try to talk to her, she gives a little scrap of an answer that makes proper conversation impossible. I ask how she got into LARPing and she says “I just fell into it, I guess.” I ask how her first year of uni is going and she says “It’s OK.” When we get to the campfire circle, and Vrenega starts checking the benches for hidden spell scrolls, I make one last attempt.

“Hey, Ethan was telling me about this movie-”

“Keep your voice down!” she hisses. “D’you want the whole forest to know we’re here and looking for scrolls?”

She bends down to look underneath a bench and I have a sudden urge to quite literally kick her arse. Instead, I say “Are all Goblins like you?”

“Like what?” she snaps, straightening up hastily.

“Like … rude. I can’t figure out if you’re in character as some battle-hardened warrior woman, or if you don’t like me for some reason. Or maybe you’re just jealous of my Uzi.” I wave my stick, wanting some kind of reaction from her. Anger, laughter, anything. A flicker of grim humour crosses her face.

“I’m not jealous of your stick, Gwendolyn. Though you ought to know a machine gun’s not a genre-appropriate weapon. People do this to escape from everyday life, and every anachronism makes the world a little bit less real.”

“An Uzi’s a submachine gun,” I mumble, chastened.

Vrenega sits on one of the benches and slings her pack onto her lap. She fishes around in it, brings out a water bottle and takes a drink. Then, without looking at me, she says “I don’t have a problem with you. I just don’t see why you have to be here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Me and Ethan see each other like once a month. You two live in the same village, you can see him any time you want.”

Oh wow. I think I’m about to have a fight over a boy. How ridiculous.

“This was his idea, you know. He invited me.”

Vrenega scoffs, and finally turns to face me. “I’m not clueless, okay? I know you’re like, the girl next door and the one who got away and all that shit. And as soon as me and him have any problems he’s going to go running back to you.”

Now it’s my turn to scoff. “You’ve been reading too many romance novels.”

“I don’t even read romance, I read fantasy.”

“Bet you write shippy fanfiction where all the elves hook up with each other.”

I’m cheating now, because I know for a fact she writes shippy fanfiction where all the elves hook up with each other. I know this because Ethan told me. He literally never shuts up about her.

“Whatever. Act as innocent as you want but I know how the world works.”

Sitting down on the bench (a good distance away from Vrenega), I steel myself. I’ve come out to people before, but never in such a hostile situation.

“Okay, not that it’s any of your business but me and Ethan are never gonna get together because I’m aro-ace. That’s short for aromantic-asexual, which means-”

“I know what it means,” she spits. “It means you’re seventeen and you’re nervous about sex and you’re not ready for a relationship. Give it a year and you’ll have hair-coloured hair again” she gestures towards my purple hair “and you’ll be as straight as anyone else.”

I’m gobsmacked. Literally, I feel like she just smacked me in the gob. I was all set to give her a fucking PowerPoint presentation about being aromantic and asexual because no-one seems to know what that is. It turns out she does know about it, she just doesn’t believe it exists. She doesn’t believe I exist.

“I’m eighteen, not seventeen,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “And you don’t know anything.”

“Don’t I? I had a friend who thought she was asexual, but then she met the right guy and to cut a long story short, she isn’t!”

“Well, I used to think I was straight but it turns out I’m not. So I guess straight people don’t exist according to your logic. And you’re talking absolute bollocks about me and Ethan. We’re like family.”

“Sure, sure. So you didn’t go out with him?”

“It was one date! I was confused because I didn’t know people like me were allowed to exist. And Ethan just fancies any girl who’s nice to him. I’m not special and neither are you.”

I might have gone too far with that last bit. But seriously, who does this bitch think she is? She stands up, and I think she’s about to storm off in a huff. But instead she stands very still, scanning the trees beyond the campfire circle. I’m breathing heavily, and I grip the front of the bench, trying to calm down. My fingertips brush against paper.

A spell scroll, sellotaped to the underside of the bench. I stuff it into my bag as Vrenega takes a few steps forward, holding her battle axe aloft.

“Get up,” she barks. “We’ve got company.”

***

Oh dear, things are not going well! Gwen vs Goblin Girl will continue on the 30th.

‘Monster Hunting for Girls Ages 8-14’ – A Taster

My poetry chapbook Monster Hunting for Girls Ages 8-14 is now available to buy from Dancing Girl Press. If you’d like a taster of the kind of poetry it contains, here is one of the poems. It’s about the Wulver, which is a wolf-ish, human-ish creature from Scottish folklore.

The Wulver

There’s fish on the windowsills this morning.
Tins of tuna, cans of salmon,
fresh and cold in the dawn chill.
Nan says it used to be
whole fish, straight from the net,
shining like silver and glass.
She says half the town is broke now.
Covid cutbacks, withered businesses,
universal bloody credit.

On telly, there’s American towns with werewolves.
Nice towns, big houses,
beautiful bedrooms for the girls,
beautiful cars for the boys.
Vicious werewolves that bite very sexily
the bit between a boy’s ribs and hip.
Mysteries that grip like jaws,
murders that don’t feel permanent.

Us, we’ve got the Wulver.
A man’s body, buck-naked,
beer gut and hairy chest.
Three crappy tattoos, arms full of fish.
A wolf’s head, teeth soppily smiling.
Wet nose, soft ears, always here
to help out
and to howl for us
when we’re too busy or tired to howl.

I was wondering how many different monsters and mythical figures there are in the chapbook, so I made a list. It contains:

  • Witches
  • Changelings
  • Spring-heeled Jack
  • Leprechauns
  • A whole bunch of ancient Greek gods and monsters
  • Zombies
  • Ghosts
  • Mermaids

So, if you’re looking for poetry to read this Spooky Season…

Top Ten Tuesday – Bookish Pet Peeves

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Bookish Pet Peeves

I’m usually an over-enthusiastic fangirl when it comes to books. I’m much more inclined to rave about the stuff I love than rant about the stuff I hate, but here’s the perfect excuse to have a good old bitch. My pet peeves are pretty varied, but a lot of them can be lumped into the two categories of “annoying romance stuff” and “annoying sexist stuff”.

  1. Mary Sue characters

To clarify, I’m not using “Mary Sue” the way dude-bros on the internet use it, i.e. to describe a female character who is very powerful, succeeds where male characters fail, or just gets shit done.

I mean a female character who is completely perfect in an unrealistic and unsatisfying way. She has no flaws and no depth. She gets everything she wants despite never thinking of herself because of course she’s utterly selfless. Give me female characters who are relatable, real, and complex.

2. “Love interest” characters

Characters that exist purely to be a romantic fantasy always have me rolling my eyes. If a character has no personality beyond being charming, and no motivation beyond fulfilling the protagonist’s every desire, they might as well be a sexy robot.

3. The word “chuckle”

OK, maybe this one is just me, but I find it grating when characters chuckle. I feel like a chuckle is a very specific type of laugh, belonging mainly to elderly men. But so many writers seem to rely on it as the only way of conveying mild amusement.

4. Zero conflict

You know when a book has zero conflict and everyone is thoroughly decent and communicates properly at all times and the world is safe and peaceful and the book is basically like a big warm hug? I don’t like it.

Don’t get me wrong – I can absolutely see the value of these books. But I tend to find them a bit bland and cloying. A book like a warm hug is all very well, but I want a book that will hug me and also punch me in the stomach. Yep, I’m a weirdo.

5. Only one (1) female character

I like to think this trend is dying out, but it used to be common in SFF. Despite women making up half the population, it apparently made sense to have just the one female character. And she would do female things like being alluring, sleeping with the protagonist, and wearing sexy armour.

6. Everyone must be coupled up at the end

Readers like romance, right? So you should have as much of it as possible, right? So every character should end up in a long-term relationship, thereby implying that romantic partnership is the only “happily ever after” that exists, right? Bleurgh. Let some characters stay single.

7. Baddie does bad things because he’s bad

Cartoonish villains who are evil because they like being evil have their place, but that place is generally in pantomimes and Disney films. Antagonists are an ideal vessel for exploring the darker side of human nature, and it always feel like a missed opportunity when a writer fails to address their motivation.

8. Flowery descriptions of eyes

We’ve all seen the jokes about male writers being obsessed with their female characters’ tits (“She breasted boobily down the stairs”) but I feel like a lot of female writers have an equally weird obsession with eyes.

An attractive character’s eyes will never just be “blue” or “dark”- they have to be “cerulean” or “obsidian”. And they’re always doing stuff like flashing, or smouldering, or turning the colour of storm clouds, or being windows to the soul. Calm down love, they’re just blobs of jelly.

9. Women in refrigerators/Bury your gays

“Women in refrigerators” is a term from comic book fandom to describe how female characters are frequently murdered in order to motivate the male protagonist and move the story forward. “Bury your gays” is a similar trope that treats LGBT+ characters as disposable. Both leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

10. Human characters growling

I get it. It’s supposed to be erotic and intense. It’s supposed to hint at untamed emotions and animalistic power roiling beneath a character’s surface. But it just seems kind of … silly.

Do any of these make your list of pet peeves? Am I on my own regarding the word “chuckle”?