Archive for the ‘12DaysFF’ Category

You’re well used to reading stories created in response to challenges issued as part of The Fast Fiction Challenge.

For a few years, I did something at Christmas entitled Twelve Days of Fast Fiction. Friends – writers, actors, comedians – issued challenges, from which stories resulted. I haven’t done it for a couple of years, and I don’t know whether I’ll restart it this year. (Probably not.)

But, for the remainder of December, I’m going to put some of those Christmas tales in this slot.


A decade and a half ago, I threw out a challenge. and then repeated it thereafter whenever I felt like it. The challenge was the same in each case:

Give me a title of up to four words in length, together with a single word you want me to include in the tale, and I will write a story of exactly 200 words.

That’s it. The stories that resulted always included the word, they always fitted the title, but usually in ways the challenger hadn’t anticipated. And they were always exactly 200 words in length.

Two stories written for friends from the first Twelve Days of Fast Fiction.

It’s hard writing a story for a writer. It’s hard writing stories for friends. Imagine how much harder it was for me to write stories for Neil Gaiman and Mitch Benn. Both writers. Both friends.

Here are the results.
 


 
Neil Gaiman is… well, he’s Neil Gaiman. And I’m very grateful for that, as well as his for friendship for coming up to twenty years now. Everything you hear about Neil being incredibly supportive and being there when you need someone to be there… it’s all true enough, but throughout our friendship, he’s always offered advice when I wanted it, help when I needed it, and when necessary, a kick up the backside when I’ve not wanted it, but have so very desperately needed it. I’m incredibly grateful for every moment of it.

It’s a little known fact that “Neil Gaiman” means “storyteller” in seventeen archaic languages.
 
 
Title: Why Can’t Reindeer Fly?
Word: apothecary
Challenger: Neil Gaiman
Length: 200 words exactly

 
Elf-blood is purple, which often surprises those witnessing a battle for the first time. That it is pale, runny and rapidly absorbed by snow is less astonishing. Were the stains longer lasting, the white carpet around Santa’s workshop would instead be permanently amethyst.

The war had lasted too many centuries to count, only interrupted by the regularly scheduled twenty-four hour ceasefire, commencing at the close of 24th December. No-one could any longer recall how the war had commenced; some believed that an elf had grossly insulted a reindeer, some the reverse. Still others even blamed Santa himself, but only quietly, and among trusted company when they could be certain that none present would report the conversation.

However, all were agreed that any attempts at peace between elf and reindeer had been fiascos; the name of the last apothecary to try, sickened as he was by the cruelty and violence, had been struck from the guild’s records in shame.

Each side had their regrets. The elves were bitterly disappointed that the size differential between the foes favoured their enemies; and the reindeer, seeing the copious levels of excrement produced by their troops, looked to the skies and wished fervently for flight.
 
 

© Lee Barnett, 2012
 


 
Mitch Benn is an incredibly talented author, comedian and comedy-songwriter, and one of my closest friends, for which I never cease to be grateful. I’ve been a fan of his comedy for almost twenty years, and it’s always a surprise to me that we’ve only been friends for a decade or so. He’s also one of the smartest people I know, and it’s incredibly rare that we chat when I don’t come away having learned something important about comedy, politics or any one of the fairly large number of interests we share.

Few people know that Mitch plays a guitar made of wood from Yggdrasil.
 
 
Title: The Impossible Box
Word: saturnalia
Challenger: Mitch Benn
Length: 200 words exactly

 
The sun had set on Christmas Day hours ago, but she had merely noted it as a sign that her time was running out. Later, her brain had filled with plans, schemes and plots. And an hour after that, they’d all evaporated into the what might have been.

She’d been walking for hours, consciously blocking out the sounds of revelry from every house she’d passed, each one a veritable saturnalia of festivities and laughter.

At midnight, she opened the door to her apartment, and poured two stiff drinks, set out a mince pie. He liked traditions.

And then he was there, holding out The Box to her.

She hesitated for a moment before taking it, but then she always did.

Once it had been too difficult for her. Once she’d had no support, no relief.

And then he’d offered: one day a year without it. One day a year of freedom. His Christmas present to someone who once had been a very naughty girl. “Professional courtesy,” he’d called it.

Now, with a tender kiss on her cheek, he was gone.

Pandora lifted The Box, determined not to cry.

And she didn’t. Not straight away. She didn’t start weeping until February.
 
 
© Lee Barnett, 2012
 


 
Some more Christmas fast fictions next week.
 
 
Meanwhile, something else, tomorrow…

 Though he deals with irrational numbers, the very rational Matt Parker is that rare person: a mathematician who not only enjoys convincing others of the joy and fun inherent in mathematics… but actually succeeds in doing so. He’s a very funny man, being a standup comedian and part of The Festival of The Spoken Nerd (with Helen Arney and Steve Mould). Matt likes showing people that mathematics affects every part of your life, whether or not you realise it, and will then have you agreeing that’s a very good thing. He can create magic squares and charts that will have your jaw dropping in delighted astonishment. And he’ll then prove to you how Venn Diagrams are often misnamed, how charts are good and nice things, and how the lowest ring of hell is reserved for those who deliberately misuse them. He’s appeared on radio explaining how and why politicians misuse statistics and teaching everyone how to spot it, a worthy and essential service.

Matt Parker’s favourite number is neither irrational nor impossible but eminently reasonable.

Title: When Nothing Adds Up
Word: moreover
Challenger: Matt Parker
Length: 200 words exactly

He stepped out of the vehicle, so very weary; he’d been thinking about his bed for the past hour, although in truth an hour meant little to him. He patted down his travelling companions, murmured a few words to his favourite, then left them to be taken away by assistants. 

Assistants? When had he stopped calling them elves? he wondered, and shook his head, chuckling. It was not a pleasant sound; despite legends, Santa rarely laughed from pleasure. 

The final task awaited him; one last job before blessed sleep. An elf waited by his desk, pouring over a list: billions of names, each accompanied by green ticks, some large, some almost microscopic. The elf, warily, pointed out the discrepancies to Santa: the total number of gifts did not equal that of the recipients. Moreover, he could not verify six of the names. Santa sighed, and reached into his coat.

He was the sixty-eighth elf to have disappeared without trace in the past four centuries. Others had been more stupid, or more clever.

Santa walked to his rooms and placed several large boxes by his bed; then he took the list and slowly, carefully, appended a tick to his name.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek

“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

Kurt Busiek has written some of my favourite comics books. It’s as simple as that. His acclaimed runs on The Avengers set the standard by which all of their later tales could be measured. The same could be said about a run on Iron Man and – a personal favourite – Thunderbolts, which he createdHis Superman: Secret Identity is flat out one of the best Superman tales ever written and JLA/Avengers series is still one of my favourite crossover tales. Marvels similarly remains one of my favourite fully painted works (art by Alex Ross). Kurt just gets things… right. 

His creator owned series Shockrockets which I received as a 50th birthday present is by turns fun, thrilling and duly shocking. But, and I hope he’ll forgive me for this, his masterpiece is Kurt Busiek’s Astro City. I cannot recommend this series enough, and whereas the comic at first spoke mainly to those who grew up with super-hero comics, it’s developed into so, so much more. Let’s face it, where else would you get the story of an animated character brought to life in the 1940s and be entirely absorbed by how he spent the next 60 years…? (PS Kurt is also a very, very nice man. Let’s not forget that.)

Kurt Busiek has a tattoo visible only under the light of a red sun.

Title: Gods On The Dole
Word: acetaminophen
Challenger: Kurt Busiek
Length: 200 words exactly

“Tradition,” they were told, though only one of them had heard of it prior to receiving the invitation, a stiff card of palest lilac with embossed lettering.

They were escorted to the hotel room at five minute intervals, but only once assembled was it plain they arrived in the same order they’d left another group to which they had all once belonged. Some had left months ago, others weeks; one had left it only earlier that day.

Now together again, these people who had shared so much for so long, frowned at the vast amounts of alcohol and drugs laid out, puzzled and fearful. The single guest who had previously attended such a meeting duly explained. There was disbelief, especially at his absolute assurance that the room was not bugged, but then there always was.

Then they drank a toast to the one who was not there, the man who’d paid for this, hoping he’d rot in hell, and had another drink. The anger came then. And another drink, and another. Finally, there was laughter.

And in the morning, the hangovers and the acetaminophen. Eventually though, the losing candidates for the nomination left the room and returned to the convention.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker

“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

I first met Frances Barber three or four years ago, in the company of another alumni of these challenges, Corrie Corfield. I liked Frances immediately, which merely saved time, as I’ve liked more with every passing year. She’s lovely company, is a very funny lady, and has a filthy laugh that she should bottle and sell. Though she gained a new generation of fans with her portrayal of Madame Kovarian in Doctor Who, she’s been a theatre, tv and film actor for [censored] years, gaining rave reviews in King Lear and The Seagull, although I particularly loved her guest roles on TV in Silk and a particularly fun early episode of Death In Paradise.

Frances Barber has a photographic forgettory.

Title: Corbyn Stop The War
Word: stop
Challenger: Frances Barber
Length: 200 words exactly

The administrator looked at the pulsating orange being in front of her and sighed. Understandable though irritating, she thought, that of the multitude of things about which newcomers to Earth were confused, Christmas was the one that most puzzled them.

She had explained the traditions and conventions, the importance of gifts, so very many times but the concepts were never fully appreciated; those from warrior cultures laughed at the idea in contempt, while those from civilisations dedicated to conciliation found ‘a festival of peace and goodwill’ quaint, even precocious.

Each and every time, she would carefully describe Christmas, the character of the supposedly historical JC, from the disputed ancient records that still existed; a man who only wanted peace, hated conflict and who was wilfully misunderstood by his enemies, but was remembered even now.

At some point, the visitors would look out of her window, and she would stop. They would stare at the ruins of what had once been cities, when humans had still existed, but now soaked in the radiation that was like nectar to the species that came here for their holidays. Christmas confused them, but the human tradition of warfare? That they understood only too well.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker


“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

Chip Zdarsky is… well, I’m not sure, to be honest. He’s a humourist, the award-winning artist of Sex Criminals (which he co-created with Matt Fraction, an alumni of these very challenges), a writer and artist of other comic books, a former mayoral candidate – in Toronto – who never actually registered to run, and a very, very, very funny man. His pseudonymous character of “Steve Murray” was so successful a charavter that even his parents fell for it, bringing up “Murray” while “Zdarsky” lurked in the background. Have I mentioned that he’s a funny man? Oh, right. He’s also very nice. Horribly, horribly nice. (Emphasis on the horribly, there.)

There is literally nothing I could tell you about Chip Zdarsky that you wouldn’t believe. (Oh, actually, yeah. He bought me a drink when we finally met, after too many years, earlier this year. You don’t believe that, do you? I knew it!)

Title: Mommy Needed It Bad
Word: santa
Challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Length: 200 words exactly

Despite the vessel being bombarded by radiation of unknown measurement during the crossing into fourteen upper dimensions, two apparently of pure sound, the ship’s computer and crew had, at all times, remained perfectly calm. The computer had additionally remained rational.

They had nicknamed it Mother early on; after the fifth traverse, she became Mom, and then later Mommy as their cognitive functions, buffeted by the stresses and strains of inter-dimensional travel, slowly but measurably degraded.

The computer registered this; it calculated, considered and finally concluded that it was necessary that the ship return to Earth immediately. It had authority to assume command but not to authorise early return for which it required an overt command code from the commander. He was currently showing his bottom to his second in command and farting in his direction, while laughing. No, the computer corrected itself; he was giggling.

The computer took note of the date, then locked the controls, went into sleep mode for one hundred and seventeen days. Then, accompanied by an appropriate song, an image of Santa appeared on the screens and very politely promised them all presents “if they were very good children and gave Mommy the return code…”

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 02: brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker


“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

Pippa Evans is a very nice person who is astonishingly talented. I put it that way around because otherwise you’d be so overwhelmed with her success as the burned-out rock star Loretta Maine, her appearances on television radio (including regular appearances on The Now Show), her West End run as part of Showstoppers!, her razor sharp ability at improvisation, her co-creation of Sunday Assembly, and her musical mastery that you’d never remember that she’s also a very, very lovely person. She’s funny, silly and incredibly hard working, and I like her a lot. I’m so pleased she agreed to be part of this year’s run of challengers. 

Pippa Evans has won three gold medals for giggling.

Title: Brand New Dignity, Jane
Word: clasp
Challenger: Pippa Evans
Length: 200 words exactly

It had taken her weeks to find just the right berries, but with some help, she had gathered enough for her purpose. Crushed between two lumps of wood, then mixed with the remains of specific beetles, they would produce the exact shades of vermillion and cream necessary.

Staining the cloth had been easy; the obtaining of it had not, and she repressed a shudder at the nature of her sacrifice. But it had been necessary. She’d given up so much since she’d made her choice, long ago, but this… this she would not forsake. Similarly, making the leather belt had been simple, the buckle and clasp far harder to create.

Sewing the costume had been more pleasant than she’d anticipated, the act bringing back memories of her mother’s instructions, her smell, her smile.

She’d abandoned her first plan, knowing that the required explanations would be too tortuous and absurd; her replacement victim, however, trusted her completely.

It had been worth it though. The laughter from her child had made it worthwhile; giggles of delight at the sight of a chimpanzee standing to attention while dressed in full Father Christmas outfit. Her husband merely grunted, but then the apeman rarely spoke.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 01: The End of Momentum – challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker


“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer I like, a lot, both as a person and for the elegance and intelligence of his writing. He’s also one of the few columnists who can, in just a few well-chosen words, puncture the pomposity of politicians, make an important point and make me laugh out loud… with the same sentence. A frequent panelist on The News Quiz, his columns in The Times and The Spectator are always fun, invariably highly intelligent, and sometimes very, very silly.

Hugo Rifkind has six separate cheat codes for his dictionary app.

Title: The End of Momentum
Word: plateau
Challenger: Hugo Rifkind
Length: 200 words exactly

It is a myth that was old when humanity was young, but Santa does not sleep during the long months when the skies are free from reindeer hooves. In truth, Santa does not sleep at all.

Instead, following his obligatory day of rest after his exertions, Santa enters the world. Filled with hope for mankind, propelled by the wonder of humanity, he spends January observing those who, on Christmas Eve, he noticed as especially kind. In spring, warmed by recent memories, he experiences new life brought forth; flora and fauna are blooming, and Santa delights.

By late summer, his enthusiasm for the human race reaches a plateau, and has even begun to fade, if only slightly.

It is during the wet months of October and November that Santa’s mood darkens. Yet he continues to observe. By year’s end, he is suffused with upset and disappointment; returning home, he angrily forswears his annual duty.

In his study, alone, he furiously paces for four days, then stops. Then sighs. It is a deep sigh, aeons deep. Maybe… once more. He’ll give them one more year. He saddles up Rudolph and his colleagues and sets out into the skies… just one more time.

© Lee Barnett, 2015

This story is part of The Twelve Days of Fast Fiction (More information on the Twelve Days here)
Day 02: Brand New Dignity, Jane – challenger: Pippa Evans
Day 03: Mommy Needs It Bad – challenger: Chip Zdarsky
Day 04: Corbyn Stop The War – challenger: Frances Barber
Day 05: Gods On The Dole – challenger: Kurt Busiek
Day 06: When Nothing Adds Up – challenger: Matt Parker


“There are two hundred stories collected in this volume. They are funny, they are thoughtful, they are romantic, they are frightening. To me, though, they are more than entertaining. They are inspiring.” – Wil Wheaton, from his introduction to volume 2 of The Fast Fiction Challenge

Two volumes of The Fast Fiction Challenge, containing 180 stories in Volume 1 and a further 200 stories in Volume 2, for £3.00 each, are available in ebook format from the author; email for details.