Posted by: trisigmatic | September 7, 2017

Getting through the slushpile

So, you’ve submitted your story! Congratulations – you’re already 2000% more awesome than the average writer. It takes tenacity and guts to complete those damn things at times, and you’ve got the confidence not to self-reject. That’s worth a lot.  And if you haven’t submitted something yet, and want to someday… please read on, and please also send us your stories.  We genuinely want to read them!

So. The thing is, most stories get sent back with a heartbreaking ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ response. But I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of rejection here, because most of the time the reasons are either way too specific, or bleedingly obvious, or just one of those utterly random things that no-one can do anything about. What I’m here for right now is to tell you what I do look for.

This is where the hard work starts.

First and foremost: story. It needs to engage me as a reader. It needs to hold my attention. It needs to be a complete story, even for a flash piece of 500 words. “Insufficient story” is a shorthand phrase I use a lot.  Is it more than a single, central conceit? Is it more than a punchline? Does it go somewhere, drive some change, make me go ‘wow’? Don’t, for the love of misplaced apostrophes, write something that leaves me with an apathetic sense of ‘meh’. Make it memorable! (Just don’t send a YA market your Nazi Necrophilia. Yes, that one was memorable. No, that’s not something you want to be remembered for.)

Clarity. This is another aspect of the prose that matters to me. I want the story to know what it is. That doesn’t mean it should be obvious, because obvious is dull. And it doesn’t mean it can’t be straightforward, because there’s beauty in those Japanese stone gardens and that taut Scandinavian home decor, and whatever the prose equivalent of those things is, I find it beautiful too. It also doesn’t rule out subtlety either (oh god I love subtlety in prose), or complexity – but these things should work with the story, to heighten the immersion and the mood and all the other ineffable things the story is trying to achieve. But chaotically complex or unerringly smooth, done consciously or not, we can tell when the writer has done it with skill.  It’s the sweet spot that makes us take a deep breath in, and exhale ‘oh, wow!’

Characters. Is the story theirs? Could it exist without them? Do I care about them? Am I invested in their fates? Answer yes to all these things, and you’re onto a winner.

Characters are really an easy place for things to go awry. They’re one half of the life and voice of the story, and the interweaving of character, narrative and the author’s intent can often make things interesting. We very much respect that a character’s opinions are not necessarily those of the author, but they do carry the weight of the narrative on their shoulders, on the author’s behalf. Flawed characters are awesome. But flawed narrative decisions? That’s where we’ll call you out, and (if you’re lucky) ask for clarity. (If you’re unlucky, your rejection email may well be with you shortly.)

So how do you make me care? I have to believe in the character. I don’t necessarily have to like them, but I do want to empathise with them, and the choices that made them who they are.  Make them utter arses, or make them saints, but make their lives theirs. They’re characters, not cardboard cut-outs.

To a lesser extent, all of this should also be true of your side characters. I don’t want to see the dull minutiae of their lives, but I want them to occupy their own space in your world, and not vanish the instant Hero Protagonist walks off set. I don’t want to see any particular character type any more than others – and there’s no mythical filter that precludes stories without female characters – but lazy tropes and cliches will put me off fast, as will the unexcused absence of a diverse cast. If your story only includes female characters as set dressing, or if their sole purpose is to be a fridged love-interest, or if your story propagates some other weird, monolithic view of women (or any other under-represented group) as interchangeable Smurfettes… then the problem is not that I have a filter that weeds out stories without women. The problem is that your worldbuilding is irretrievably fucked.

I guess that’s as good a segue onto worldbuilding as any? If you know me at all, you’ll know I have a thing for worldbuilding. If you know me a bit better, you’ll also know I love randomness and whimsy. You build your worlds how you want to, and I’ll cheer you on! All I ask… and this is really a very small thing… is that you keep it consistent to whatever rules you’re working with. Is your world presented as the real world with minor knobs and twiddles of the fantastic added? Then that’s what I expect to see. Are you messing with the rules of physics? Then kill that science, but don’t move the goalposts midway (and for heaven’s sake, don’t make a full moon rise due east at midnight or anything like that). Are you going full-out GRRM-style magic-has-no-rules? Great! Just don’t write crucial plot points on how your magic system works, or on generally-accepted-in-the-real world reality. I love the full range of weirdness and logic and randomosity out there… but if you hang your plot on broken science or inconsistent magic or shoddy rules that would be far better handwaved away? Yep, it’s Big Red Button time.

Prose style. Honestly? Pretty much anything goes. We’ve taken stories that were in dire need of a good line edit, and we’ve rejected some beautifully lyrical stuff. (And vice versa, of course.) We’re not a market that looks for some elusive literary apex, and we’re just fine with simple, workmanlike prose. The more fluid it is, the better (of course!) but what we’re really looking for is prose that feels invisible, prose that adds to the mood and propels the story to wherever it’s going. There are no rules here but one. It needs to tell the story.

One story. Well told.

That’s the bottom line.


Posted by: trisigmatic | July 26, 2017

the ghost with eyes of flesh

the ghost with eyes of flesh says nothing as she enters the room


her mouth is a neutral smile

muscles shifting appropriately with the contours of the conversation


tea is brewed

cupped between warm hands

sipped through stillness and slowly drained


she stares into the middle distance.


she listens the same way


everything is heard

nothing meaningfully comprehended


the ghost with eyes of flesh does not need to ponder her other senses


high above gravity’s web

dissociated fingers unpick the seams of thought

searching for a deeper silence still


somewhere it might be cold enough to


Posted by: trisigmatic | April 26, 2017

April is the month

April is the month
when you expect the unexpected
when showers fall haphazard through
the fissures in normality

April is the month
when the trees are thick with blossom
when the hedgehogs wake from torpor
and feast on sluggish piskies

April is the month
when you know to carry sunblock
a sturdy sword and buckler
warm gloves and sprite-repellent

April is the month
when the dragonbane’s in season
beside the meadow primose
so much cheaper than from Tesco’s.

April is the month
when you don’t make hard predictions
when you reel off words of weather-lore
as talismans to chaos



Posted by: trisigmatic | April 22, 2017

One week, two stories

Well, this HAS been a busy week – I had two flash stories published!  If you fancy a read, you can find Snails (a formative experience for a young child) at The Flash Fiction Press, and The Morning After (you CAN consume too much celebrity gossip…) at 101 words.

Interestingly, I’ve also realised that there’s a big difference between posting fanfic and posting actual stories when it comes to how the writer engages with the reader.  At AO3 and the Pit of Voles, I’m used to a community environment. I’m open to concrit and discussion, and enjoy engaging with other fans. Stories are written to be shared, and the stories themselves are part of the conversation. I share my interpretation of the world and the characters, and sometimes it’s cracky and sometimes it’s canon-consistent… but it’s still not canon. I expect the reader to have their own interpretation, and so do they. We’re all exploring someone else’s world, and if it’s not on quite the same footing, it’s at least equivalent. But with original fic, it’s different. The presence of an author in a conversation can be hugely counterproductive – can the story belong to the reader in the same way as it did without the author chiming in willy-nilly?

So. Consider this a Note To Self. This is my space. That is not.


Posted by: trisigmatic | April 11, 2017


So, this is a poem I wrote in an attempt to come up with something SFnal on the theme of garbage. I started out with the idea of telomeres, and the repeating pattern of base pairs – TTAGGG // AATCCC – and how that might become corrupted over time. It seemed to fit with the idea of intertwining lives, with the pattern breaking down and things generally falling apart.

What I got was this nasty little piece on growing up weird, and failed friendships. No prizes for spotting the autobiographical elements.  I think it’s got bite, but it’s moved so far from the seed idea that that’s the weakest part of it. So here you go: a very broken poem, that I don’t want to touch again with a ten foot pole…




Oh. Hey.

Do I… know you?

Don’t you remember?  That summer. Up in the hills, in the valley we found? The gritstone quarry with the birches and oak, the heather and gorse, and the world below.  

The trees at gorse green grove, that was what we called it.
And after that cautious, clouded climb….

That was you?
God, the things I got up to back then.

Do you miss it?

Those days?

Those. Between seasons and schools-

-the top-40 singles and shithead games?

Lipstick samples and rolled-down socks-

-shared albums-

-and dreams. Sketches-

-of horses? Or in your case, flying unicorns wasn’t it?
What was it you called them again?

Sketches of horses and promises kept.
We climbed the trees at gorse green grove-

-and we practised kissing.
Just in case, I suppose.

We climbed the trees at gorse green grove-

-and threw acorns at stupid crows, didn’t we?

That was later.


And it was me. Or rather… you weren’t just throwing them at crows.
Don’t you remember us at all? That first summer we met?

You were a strange thing then.
So oddly obsessed.

So were-

You’re still strange now.
Weirder, maybe.

I remember the night-

-when you wanted to meet at midnight
to watch shooting stars? And we crept out?
Did we actually do that? It’s all a bit of a blur now.

We used to spend the whole weekend up there. Up in the trees at gorse green grove…

I honestly can’t believe we did that. You saddo.

Posted by: trisigmatic | November 9, 2016



I saw the spiral sweep

of planets born from dust

the snow-borne chill

of falling dreams

and rivers dried to rust

The grief, the pain, the shock, the fall

my child’s hand warm in mine

and footsteps, paired,

and hearts, and souls,

a robin’s song

a gentle word

unsilenced, still

and steadfast

while this winter grips our world.

Posted by: trisigmatic | October 24, 2016

The Red Box

The Red Box

There’s a box in the classroom:
repurposed cardboard, pillar-box red,
emptied of tissues, refilled with words.
And the words are our values.
Our very British values
which are obviously owned by us
alone, as if we alone matter.
And in most minds, that’s probably
all that needs to be said.

I stare at the box
and I wish I could burn it.
(Or at least what its emptiness means.)
It means empathy discarded.
It means comfort disowned.
It means cheering and smiling
and telling the world
how much better, and greater.
How much less, and less, and less.

But at least we have our values.
Our very British values.
Stiff upper lips, and unseeing eyes.
Not cried out, just dried out
and blind.

Posted by: trisigmatic | September 24, 2016

Conic Sections

You look at those words and see hyperbole,

a meaning not meant,

and your eyes slide past.


And maybe you’re more right that you know,

because the shape of my life is a lesson in shallow cuts,

a locus slanted against the normal plane.


And if once I was born and bound like you

don’t overlook

the derivative slide away,

or that we only meet, and speak

in the bright blaze of perihelion.


I won’t be there long.

I’m going hyperbolic.

Don’t expect me to stop.

And don’t expect to see me back.

Posted by: trisigmatic | September 2, 2016


Today I found my god
in an ill-used corner of the world
spitting in the wind

and he was small, and squalid
and I wondered how I never noticed
when I had younger eyes
when to reach was to be lifted
not dragged down
when home eternal was a promise
I believed.

Dragging my heels
I walked away,
a man who’d lost
not a god,
merely the last refuge
of a child.

Posted by: trisigmatic | August 7, 2016

When everything is just as awful as it seems

Queen’s Lane at night is quiet, dim, and almost deserted.   If you’re looking for somewhere to imagine yourself in the Nether, or any other fictional version of Oxford, it’s probably as good a place as any.  The glare of the busier streets is masked by the high walls of the buildings, and the old-fashioned street lamps glow a warm gold.   It’s really very easy to see Oxenford in this place, suspended disbelief maintaining the illusion beneath the faint and familiar stars.

I’m here tonight–and by ‘here’, I really mean a pub a few minutes walk further down the road–to celebrate the launch of Emma Newman’s latest installment in her Split Worlds series. A Little Knowledge is the fourth book in the series, following on from the brilliant Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, and All is Fair.  If you’ve not read this series, follow the links and BUY IT NOW. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes strongly drawn characters with wit, flaws and passion, thrilling mysteries, cracking good world-building, political intrigue, magic, feminism, evil fae, genuine humour, costume dramas, obnoxious relatives and awkward social events, and all the usual generic tropes turned inside out, on their heads and made to dance the fandango.  (Or, any subset of the above – delete as personally applicable.)  

So why am I here, in Ox(en)ford? Besides liking the series immensely, it’s also the occasion for a birthday celebration and a Split Worlds LARP reunion.  And what an amazing event THAT was!  I’d never LARPed before, but it’s one of those experiences that will stay with me forever. A full day in Regency costume, in one of the most amazing locations the UK has to offer, pretending to be part of a shiny, stagnant, stifling and generally all-round shitty dystopian society.  The Split Worlds setting may have all the gloss of fantasy fiction, but it’s nowhere near as different from our own world as we like to pretend.   And that’s the kind of resonance that grabs me as a reader – when a novel starts at the level of ‘gripping read’, and just keeps on leveling up. This series has a depth to it that you don’t often find.

So. There we all were, celebrating merrily with friends old and new, but the upper floor of a pub on a hot day can get a bit much after a while.  Not long after nine, my husband and I escaped the building for a short walk and a bit of a breather.  Oxford being Oxford, and Friday night being Friday night, we made for the quieter streets at first, enjoying the cooling evening air and reflecting on the many different works of fiction that call this place home. Eventually, our path brought us back round to the bustle and noise of Cornmarket Street, and the High Street.  

That was where we first became aware of the dumb bitch.

Dumb bitch isn’t my name for her, obviously. And it’s certainly not her own, but it’s the only one I’ve got. Why? Because it was used frequently, and at volume, by the man she was with. You see couples like this in every town, every weekend, and most of us learn to look away, or unsee, or ignore. Easy enough when both parties are drunk, or obnoxious, or both.

This time, it was different.

We noticed the voices first, which in his case was raised that little bit too high. And then we noticed what was missing. There was no obvious insobriety here. So I kept looking, as surreptitiously as I dared–in the manner of a harried waitress in a busy room, plausibly deniable, doing something far more pressing than seeing what was right in front of her–while more and more details sank their claws into my skin.

He is loud. She is not.

She shifts her feet, sidles away, stands her ground in well-lit places. She doesn’t want to make a scene. She doesn’t want to go unseen. Her voice is low, and measured, but he’s not listening to what she says, doesn’t care about the evidence of the call-history on her phone, doesn’t care for anything she has to say, or anything she is.  Her body language is closed and tight, and his spite and his hands are inches from her eyes.

And we were right there, in the same street, keeping our distance, not daring to get too close. We passed them as they paused, walking at a pace that felt uncomfortably slow. Felt relief as she walked away and he decided not to follow, then despair as he changed his mind and hurried after her once again. We played Lost Tourist outside a pub, faces directed at phones, heart in mouth as we listened.

You’re scaring me, she says. More than once.

Dumb bitch, he calls her.  Often.

We didn’t make eye contact. We kept a low profile. We shared the kind of looks and words that couples share in situations like this, ready to back each other up, careful not to put the other in harm’s way. Sure, there was an unspoken line in the sand, an act of aggression that would push us from observation to action ourselves… and what felt like all the inertia in the world holding us back.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And we tell ourselves that’s enough.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

And this is the weight of the world we live in. We can deny it or ignore it as much as we want, but sometimes it really is exactly as awful as it seems. This is a world where the male ego can treat a woman like a thing, in public and at volume, with no concern at all.  Where the intervention of a woman would be ignored, where the intervention of a man would be a dangerous escalation. Where, time and time again, the concerned bystander is rebuffed, disdained, taught not to interfere.

Where a woman can say with chilling, quiet clarity that she is scared, and no-one does a thing.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

I’m sorry, I say, almost as much to myself as to her. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to do.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And it wasn’t anything fucking like enough.

I hated myself for staying silent. And I hated myself for being just as concerned by what I saw in the mirror of my mind than what was happening right there and then. For being passive, and weak, and a girl. Because she didn’t know we were there for her. She was alone. She was alone, and abused, with the kind of violence that leaves no visible marks, no evidence of assault, no proof you can hold up to the world that says that this is wrong and it is not my fault.

And he was loud, and unafraid, and people saw and witnessed and did nothing at all.

And maybe it all blew over. Maybe they made up, and he apologised profusely, and it never happened again. And maybe, just maybe, she went home and slowly convinced herself that the balance of fault lay that little bit closer to her, that his behaviour was something she deserved, that our collective, complicit silence saw nothing wrong with it at all.

My money’s on the latter.

She left.

He followed.

We went back inside.


Is feminism important in the 21st century? Is its inclusion important in fiction?  My answer to both questions is a resounding Fuck, yes. Because yes-it-fucking-IS, along with a whole range of other intersecting angles on how we engage with our fellow humans and the wider world.

In A Little Knowledge, Cathy, Sam and Will are all in positions where it’s easy to assume they have more agency than ever before. They have choices to make regarding their individual goals, and lives are still in the balance. But do you fight for your life, the lives of those you love, or the ideals that define who you are and whether you can bear to live with yourself at all?  It’s a tense and immensely entertaining read, and I found myself immediately wanting to re-read the series again right from the start, reassessing everything I thought I understood about these characters and their disparate motivations, which are just as complex as you’d expect from an author of Newman’s calibre.  Everyone’s on their own personal road to hell, and nothing’s going to work out easily just because the readers and the author herself are fundamentally on the side of the good guys.  Because life isn’t like that. Life is inherently unfair, even before you add all of our unintentional fuck-ups to the equation.

But as Lucy Rhoeas-Papaver says at one point in the story, You can be better than this.

I found some small forgiveness reading this book. Growth of character doesn’t necessarily come hand in hand with a happy resolution, nor does it magic away one’s human flaws. You can’t save everyone. You can’t always save yourself. But you can learn from it for next time, and keep bloody trying.

You need to. Because for too many people, everything really is as awful as it seems.

We can all be better than this.

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