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Daffodils by Keith Knight

Featuring the accompanying post:

How To Be A Better Writer Than Me

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Introduction, by Chris Fielden

'Daffodils' is a short story by Keith Knight. It was published by New Fiction Magazine and Keith was paid £50. Sadly, the magazine is no longer running.

New Fiction Magazine

When Keith first approached me, I was dubious about publishing the post he'd written. This was for a few reasons:

  • It was written in a quirky style that I wasn't sure my readers would like
  • It wasn't written in the usual format I ask for/publish
  • I don't entirely agree with some of advice Keith gives in the post
  • New Fiction Magazine doesn't run anymore (I prefer posts about publications that still exist)

Despite all of this, I eventually decided to publish the post. Why? Because Keith and I developed an understanding by email, even if he insists on referring to me as Mr Fielden and I insist on calling him Keith:

  • Keith was persistent, but not pushy
  • He made many revisions to the post
  • He tolerated an unusually slow turnaround time my end, because I was moving house, editing the latest To Hull & Back Anthology, doing a lot of paid proofreading work and went on a motorbike holiday to Portugal
  • I'm not always right, so having other perspectives on the blog is a good thing for readers
  • We agreed to disagree

So. I'll be interested to see what everyone makes of the post. As always, your comments are most welcome.

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Daffodils

by Keith Knight

Imogen alights awkwardly from the back seat of Mrs Cowper's big car, waving goodbye to her friend Caroline as she walks slowly up the garden path, dragging her school satchel unceremoniously along the ground. Her jaded progress from gate to door is indicative of her mood since it was explained to her that seven-year-olds are not allowed to give up school simply because the nice Miss Redwood had departed to be replaced by the not-so-nice Mrs Smith. To Imogen, the scholarly life should be fun and games, as it was with Miss Redwood, not learning and practising as is with Mrs Smith.

Her mother is concerned by her daughter's slide into peevish brooding, especially the uncommunicative posturing, and has tried various ploys to enliven her morale: a trip to the circus; regular meals at McDonalds; a day at the beach; and although each treat raised her spirits for a short while, she had quickly reverted to sulky and unresponsive. It has crossed her mind to take Imogen to a child psychologist but friends have dissuaded her, insisting such an action could make matters worse. "It will be the shock of not having daddy around," they unite in advising her, their understanding of the situation a screen for their curiosity.

"Hi," she cheerily greets her daughter, opening the door and taking possession of the abused satchel as the silent child tramps lethargically by.

Daffodils

Tomorrow's school clothes ironed, her mother drops the sweet-smelling basket into a corner, folding up the ironing board and placing it with the iron in the cupboard under the stairs. Switching on the kettle, she observes her only child fastidiously creating her picture and is filled with maternal pride to see that in art, at least, Imogen takes after her, even if the infuriating silences are a reminder of the father who walked out on his responsibilities in the worst possible way.

"Wasn't it a very good poem?" she asks, taunting Imogen into a riposte.

"Yes," she spouts, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrows as if in search of a more defining answer.

"Yes it was a good poem, or yes it was not a good poem? Make yourself understood, Imogen," she lightly scolds, pouring hot water into the tea-pot.

"Mrs Smith said it was like someone else's poem," she finally divulges, suddenly wanting to explain, wanting to demonstrate to her mother the depths of annoyance Mrs Smith puts her through. "She said a man a long time ago had written a poem about daffodils and that my poem was no good."

"Surely not. You must have misunderstood. I know Mrs Smith can be quite silly at times, but I am sure she wouldn't say your poem was no good," her mother humours her, hoping that Imogen will voluntarily vacate the kitchen table.

"She did," Imogen assures her, ignoring her mother as she tactfully lingers at the tables with knives and forks. "Mrs Smith said so." To stress her artistic disgust at her teacher's unwarranted criticism of her finest poem to date, she drops her paint brush into the jam-jar of water, causing a multi-coloured splash to spread across the table-cloth, sighing loudly and meaningfully, tossing her pony-tail with devil-may-care from one shoulder to the other.

"'I wander lonely as a cloud'," her mother recites as she mops up the spillage with a tea-towel. "Did Mrs Smith say that line to you?"

"Don't know," Imogen replies, remaining wilful. "She said some bits like that but I wasn’t listening. Caroline and me were watching a dog in the playground chasing leaves. It was funny."

Her mother shakes her head. She would like to hear the poem but she knows Imogen will be unresponsive. So, as Imogen blows out her cheeks and poses indignantly once more, she quickly gathers-up the jam-jar to take it to the comparative safety of the draining board.

"Why did you decide to write about daffodils?" she asks, placing a plate of beans and chips in front of her. "After all, it is summer now."

Imogen puffs out her cheeks, spearing a long chip with her fork and inserting it sideways into her mouth, allowing the annoying question to dangle in mid-air, the look on her face suggesting she is in search of the most enlightening answer imaginable. Her mother waits, and waits some more, before sitting at the table with her green salad, resigned to being ignored.

They eat without the accompaniment of conversation, the silence overlaid with the ticking of the clock, the traffic in the street and Imogen's noisy mastication and intermittent sighs which escape from her necessary reticence.

The consensus amongst their relatives is that mother and daughter are alike. Both have brown eyes, a rounded face, auburn hair and dark skin, though the difference in their table etiquette is plain for all to see. Imogen eats with the gusto of a lorry driver; another reminder of her father.

"I'm sure Mrs Smith didn't mean to infer your poem was no good," she tries again. "I should think she was complimenting you on being clever enough to write a poem which reminded her of a more famous poem."

Imogen cannot be bought with flattery. She slips from her chair, wanting to flee the endless interrogation. As she skulks away to the living room, her shoulders slump as if disappointment weighs as heavy as potato sacks on her.

"If you like," her mother suggests, halting Imogen in her tracks even before she has made the door, "why don't you tell me about it while you help me clear away the plates?"

Affecting the stance of the martyr she sighs a sigh mined from somewhere near her toes, causing her small body to droop with the utter exhaustion of her life. Obligingly she picks up her plate from the table. "Miss Redwood," she explains, nostalgia ringing like a steeple bell in her tone, "wouldn’t have said it was like a poem written long ago." She proffers the plate to her mother, waiting until it is secured in the dishwasher before continuing. "Miss Redwood would have said 'that is very good, Imogen. I do like the bit about daffodils dancing with the breeze. That shows cleverness.' Mrs Smith never says nice things like that. Never. Not even to Judith Williamson and she is really, really clever."

"'Daffodils dancing with the breeze.' Did you write that?" her mother enquires, thoughtful, recollecting a family trip to the woods, the last images she has of the three of them, a complete family, gazing across a glade of daffodils swaying gently under a warm sun in the April breeze.

"I remembered it," Imogen answers, her chest swelling with pride, her face sliding with majestic ease from downtrodden to wistful self-esteem.

"We had a nice time, didn’t we, that day? We will go again."

For a moment their eyes meet and they both recognise the disruption of loss, knowing they can never replicate that day.

"Go and watch telly, love," she tells her in a sudden and concessionary tone, relieving Imogen of her nightly chore. "Your programme will be on in a few minutes."

With the dishwasher full and ready to be switched on, with her daughter engrossed by the television, she sits down at the kitchen table and allows the fragment of poetry – daffodils dancing with the breeze – free rein to pull dark memories from the corners of her mind. It is not the innocent voice of her daughter who recites the words, or the stentorian voice of Mrs Smith, but the treacherous accent of Imogen's father, a line of poetry he softly repeated the night he tucked his daughter in and kissed her goodnight before picking up his suitcase and C.D. collection and walking out of her life; the felony compounded the next day by Imogen skipping cheerfully off to school safe in the belief that her daddy was in his lorry on the way to the continent, only to discover that Miss Redwood was not in class to greet her and Mrs Smith was in her place.

Tears well in her eyes and, fearful that she will be discovered, she goes to the conservatory. Glancing down, ostensibly to re-direct her thoughts to the pot plants she is growing for the forthcoming fete, she sees Imogen’s picture. Picking it up, in need of assessing her daughter's artistic development, she must catch her breath as a monstrous anomaly rises from the paper.

It is clear that the house and daffodils are well-drawn for a seven-year-old, but it is the man and woman who are the main subjects of the painting. The man is obviously Imogen's father; she has painted him wearing his favourite cowboy shirt. But the woman has yellow hair like Miss Redwood. And Imogen has painted them holding hands.

Shocked by the imagery which confronts her like an adversary, she drops the picture and slumps on to the sun-lounger. As her nerves begin to settle and her heart stops wanting to exit her chest, she decides it would perhaps benefit Imogen if she were to see a psychologist, if only to determine whether she is being a satisfactory mother. And whether it is in her best interests to visit her daddy now that he has set up home with the so-very-nice Miss Redwood?

THE END

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Keith Knight's Biography

Keith Knight

K. D. Knight is a much over-rated writer of short stories and novels. His blogs are, though, competent.

He lives in North Devon where he is slave to eight cats and a woman.

He is not a full-time writer as that would be silly.

His published work can be found quite easily by historians and those who think gems can found in the self-published shelfs of internet booksellers.

On occasion readers have been known to praise his work. As a writer who routinely suffers rejection, these pats on the back baffle him to a greater extent than normal.

If his study caught fire, the three items he would risk life and limb to rescue would be his thesaurus, dictionary and annotated version of Three Men In A Boat.

His literary ambition is to write something truly funny, deliberately so.

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How To Be A Better Writer Than Me

Let me make myself clear. I know best. This is a controversial way to begin, I admit, especially as I have no hard evidence to back up my claim. But Mr Fielden has encouraged me to pen this article and you, dear fellow writer, on this occasion, are the reader. Let me reiterate. I know best.

My first splodge of sound advice is this: nobody is ever right all the time when it comes to literature. No one. Not even our esteemed host Mr Christopher Fielden. Remember all those so-called experts who turned down J. K. Rowling when she presented Harry Potter to them. 18, was it? This is all the inspiration the aspiring writer should ever need to keep trying, to keep writing, to never stop believing. Hackneyed advice, maybe, but then so is ‘pinch the bridge of the nose and lean forward’ and that still works. Of course, nose-bleeds are not really the same thing, though both involve leaning forward. Hard knocks are also associated with both.

The best advice I’ve ever heard about writing is, “The first draft does not need to be good, it just needs to be written.”

I presented to Christopher, to adjudicate on whether it would be suitable for his website, a short story I wrote (clever-ass that I am) to promote the last eBook I self-published. He declined it. He oh so politely said it was okay, really. He could, given the nod, make it better. But really it is okay. Publishable. But not by him. I get this a lot. How about you?

Was I downhearted? Bet your sweet bibby I was. But I thought, I’ll show him ‘Less is More’. It’s published, so he’ll feel more warmth for it. I wanted to send him ‘Daffodils’. I’m rather proud of ‘Daffodils’, but like the flower it cannot be found in high summer on my computer. So here’s lesson number three. Number one, remember, is I know best. Number two is keep writing on to the end of the road. Number three is keep your housekeeping in order. I’ve also lost my copy of a collection of short stories I self-published – Seldon Village Stories. So now I need a secretary as well as an editor.

To Be Different Or Not To Be

Now, I know Christopher disagrees with me on this next splodge of advice. But at the risk of ‘artistic differences’ I maintain that my scepticism on this matter is justified. ‘Be different’ is the clarion call penned by experts in the field, especially literary agents bored with having to wade through an excess of same-old, same-old. Incidentally, another splodge of, in this case, really good advice is – I have written short stories in the past using literary agents as characters and somehow I cannot have them come out well. I either have them killed, kidnapped or have them as the killer, killing off clients he or she wished were not clients. Don’t follow my lead. It doesn’t pay. In fact, it may have got me black-balled from all the best agencies in town.

Which Way?

Every story is different, even those that come about through plagiarism. And so far in the history of story-telling, 93-million stories have been told and written. It might be 93-million and 17 by now, so don’t hold me to exact figures as I am a words person, if not exactly a wordsmith. What chance is there of you, or me, or even Mr Fielden, coming up with something truly unique?

My advice on this subject is to write about what makes you happy, write it as well as you can and do not rely 100% on spell and grammar check. That, by the way, can lead to serious differences of opinion between you and your computer and, let me tell you, the computer will never admit to being in the wrong. Not even if you hover a meat cleaver over the keyboard. Believe me, I know. But most of all, believe in what you write. J. K. Rowling believed and she now has more money than Donald Trump has critics. If you are not 100% happy do not present your manuscript to someone who will reject it because he or she will find the 1% you couldn’t find and chuck it back in your face with just the formality of a ‘thank-you but no thank-you’ note that always, always, cuts like a knife.

If you can afford an editor, employ an editor. J. K. Rowling will have an editor. Evelyn Waugh no doubt had an editor. I know for a fact Daphne Du Maurier had an editor. Novels need editors. I fantasise all the time about having an editor. At my age, beautiful women of easy virtue would be plain indulgence. Give me a nameless, shapeless editor any day of the week.

You see, you could write a 50,000 word novel or a 5,000 word short story using your toy teddy bear collection as characters, perhaps parodying Eastenders or a debate in the House of Commons, and even though it’s brilliantly created, and as stylish as haute couture, with cracking characterisation and as believable as the rabbits on Watership Down, you might have it dismissed time after time on the grounds of ‘teddy bears are not real’. I don’t know who first said, “Life is not fair,” though I suspect it was a literary agent or publisher. Watership Down, by the way, was rejected innumerable times before it was finally accepted. It seems people did, after all, want to read about rabbits.

Of course if you have written a thriller using teddy bears as characters, a good move would be to research the literary agencies to see if anyone at the agency has a teddy bear collection or who has represented a writer who has a teddy bear collection. Which may not help as literary agents employ readers who recommend the more marketable, if not always the best written submissions. Yes, life, at least for writers who just want an even break, is decidedly not fair.

In my experience, and I am old, believe me (even if look 20 years younger than my age), unless you are a celebrity, when the rules do not apply, there is no substitute for competence if not excellence when it comes to being published.

Always Research For Pearls

Research is the next splodge of advice I offer. Do it, get it right and don’t do as I used to do and assume you already know. In writing, ignorance is never bliss. If you are writing about Napoleon 1 (old boney) don’t guess that he must have been the eldest son when in fact, and I looked this up twice (I’m no fool), he was the second son of Charles Bonaparte, a Corsican lawyer [not the third son of Louis, as I originally penned – I did look it up, though seemingly I looked it up poorly – thank you, Mr Fielden, for saving me from the humiliation of being a smart-ass caught-out].

My other sound advice on the subject of research is not to make it obvious to the reader that the brilliance before them is due to research or your superior intellect. You are a fiction writer, not a historian or journalist. Pearls are what you look for when conducting research, not jewel-bedecked columns of trivia.

I suggest no writer can do without Chambers Biographical Dictionary, the Bible and a small reference library. Intellect and a functioning brain also help.

An Object Lesson On Thinking Markets

On the subject of writing different. I wrote a whole series of stories about horse-racing. In fact, I self-published them as an eBook. Going To The Last, it’s called, if you’re interested. Why would you be? No one else is. A popular sport, it can’t be denied.

No other, or very few, at least, other collections of racing related short stories are on the market. How more different would you want a book to be? A publisher would get their investment back just selling the book from stalls around British racecourses. Not one literary agency, I tell you, not one, saw any merit in the idea – and remember it is the idea you are selling, not the actual words on the manuscript. You see, it is decided by some body or other that racing stories can only be thrillers. Dick Francis, and others I will not bore you with. Even my hero, A.P. McCoy, has tried his hand at the genre.

An Object Lesson In Misjudgement

A misjudgement of mine was with a short story called ‘Less Is More’. It is only 800 words, yet it is probably the best I’ve so far written. It was accepted by a small magazine called Crystal and, in a later edition, someone described it as ‘brilliant’. Yet all I received financially was £2.

I have just lately submitted it to someone putting together an anthology. So fingers crossed I get another £2. My advice is this: if you write a story you think to be ‘special’, treat it like it’s special and find it a rewarding home. Or suffer years and years of torment.

Oh f***. Now I’ve offered it to Fielden and he’s made no mention of payment.

So learn from your mistakes. As I should have by now.

Hackneyed Advice Is Not Always Bad Advice

But the best splodge (I really like the word ‘splodge’, you might have noticed) of advice I can give is this: BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

Hope or Despair - Believe

If you don’t believe in yourself who else will? Believe in what you produce and commit 100% to the art. And re-read the stuff you wrote five, four and three years ago. From the perspective of now, I bet you any small amount of money you will soon understand why that story or that article was rejected time after time.

Let me tell you a sad but true story. I had a short story accepted for a cat anthology by an American publisher. We exchanged contracts and everything. All very professional. Royalties promised, publication dates. Then it all went quiet. Very quiet. Until it was discovered – this isn’t the sad part, by the way; my disappointment is the sad part – that the editor/publisher had suffered a nervous breakdown but because of the contractual obligations, or at least to get out of the contractual obligations, she had another magazine take on her anthology. As far as I am aware that is where the saga ended as it went very quiet again, and remains quiet to this day.

That was four years ago. Only last week I re-read that story, a story accepted for publication, so you cannot argue it did not have merit, and was appalled by how poorly written it was. Of course I may be a more competent writer today but I believe the reason that story read so poorly is because today I am a more competent editor. I’ve had the brashness knocked from me. I no longer believe the idea will carry the story, will override the misplaced comma, the repetition of a plot development, the needless fourth clause in a sentence. That sort of thing. It is the insight only experience can give you.

So when you are suffering from writer’s block, whatever that is, go back in your writing history and draw out those stories crammed at the back of the drawer or hidden away in a computer file, and give them a dusting. You’ll be surprised, if nothing else, by the memories that will accompany the words on the page. Of course, if you started to write to get out of yourself the anger, the betrayal, the thoughts of retribution on the break-up of a relationship, with your characters echoing the despair you felt at the time, the blind anger, the blood-lust of revenge, then leave the manuscript where it is. Forget about it. That is the soundest advice I can give. That fiction has served its purpose.

Never Stray From The Point

But to get back to me. Do not be me. Be professional. Learn to ignore bad advice as you learn to accept good advice that is personal to you. Don’t pay £300 to have an ‘expert’ suggest nothing more insightful than changing the title of the novel you have shed blood and tears over for a year (Linda Versus God, eBook). She might just as well have suggested I should change my name. Oh, and it was also suggested it could do with being a little less different. Ironic, that. And don’t take the ‘be different’ advice too much to heart. Researching your market is a better bet. Don’t send a love story to a fantasy magazine. Or a science fiction story to Peoples Friend. They don’t like it. They will think you stupid or weird.

But most of all, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. Or you will end up a critic, advising others how to do the job better than you ever managed yourself.

I will succeed. I will overcome my lack of intelligence, intellect and education and my innate ability to write as if English is a second language to me. I believe in me, in my quirkiness.

As you should. Every damn one of you. All you need is to be aware of markets, have a competent style of writing, never miss an opportunity to promote your work and produce good stories that are insightful and entertaining. The rest is down to fate and the cussedness of your belief in yourself as a writer.

Addendum

Since penning the above, and the wait for Christopher to remember me, I have found ‘Daffodils’ and offer it to him instead of ‘Less Is More’, which can be found in a collection of the same name.

Also – and this is truly thrilling, flattery always is – the horse-racing collection I referred to earlier, Going To The Last, has now found a reviewer in Gina McKnight, a truly excellent American poet and blogger, determining the collection to be ‘a stunning collection of horse-related stories'. These stories were written so long ago, I was wearing, if I’m not mistaken, a drainpipe hat and had a poster of Disraeli on my bedroom wall.

For proof – not about the drainpipe hat, the review – please visit Gina's blog.

So my final splodge of advice is this: PERSEVERE.

Do Not Give Up

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Big Thanks To Keith

I'd like to say a big thank you to Keith for writing this post for my blog and hounding me and working on revisions until I eventually agreed to publish it. I guess this gives the reader one last piece of valuable writing advice:

Persistence can pay off...

If you have had a short story published and would like to share your experiences with my readers, please review my submission guidelines and then get in touch.

How to Write a Short Story book ad

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Comments:

Your comments:

Christian M
Keith Knight. Loved your story about daffodils... silver star! I'll upgrade it to a gold star when you write nice things about mine...

Keith K
Dear Mr M, 'Gold Star', that is the sort of stuff dreams are made of. I suspect anything I see of yours I am going to like.

Maggie M
Dear Chris, thank you for the latest info. Very amusing and informative.

Chris Fielden
Thanks Maggie :-)

Keith K
The reasons why Mr Fielden published my blog are the very reasons why everyone should support his endeavours. He is a good man working in shark-infested waters.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Keith :-) Hope all is good with you.

Keith K
Dear Mr Fielden, if I was younger, richer, more attractive to women, talented, had more spare time, luckier, thinner, fitter, with  health issues that afforded me sympathy and not ridicule, if I could have immunity for shooting all those remainers who do not share my vision for a better Britain outside of the EU, if I could achieve at least one of my personal ambitions...

But other than that I am perfectly at peace with the world and myself. Hope it is the same with you.

Chris Fielden

It is indeed, Keith, it is indeed :-)