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'Me, Robot' is a short story written by Mike Scott Thomson. It was first published by The Fiction Desk in their 'Crying Just Like Anybody' anthology after Mike sent his story to them as a general submission. At the time of writing, Fiction Desk pay £15 per 1,000 words if your story is accepted for publication.
Mike has written about the events that inspired the story, the importance of undertaking market research prior to submitting and his experiences with Fiction Desk in the accompanying post 'How to Research, Write & Publish a Short Story'. Ronseal would be proud of that title.
If you don't understand the 'Ronseal' reference, I recommend watching some 1980s adverts for fence paint on YouTube, paying special attention to a rather well-written strapline...
In the post, Mike has set a not-entirely-serious wantonly-rule-breaking adverb writing challenge. If you'd like to give it a go, send in your stories via the comments form.
Have you had a short story published? Do you want to write about your experiences for my blog? If so, please cast your eyes over my submission guidelines page and get in touch.
I feel ridiculous. I look like a pillock, sitting right here with you boys.
Yeah, I know, that’s the least of my worries right now. I’m in the shit. I get it.
Ever had a robot here before? I bet you’ve had all sorts. No? Not surprised, mate.
OK, let’s get on with it. From the start, then.
I guess you’ve already checked my records and know about my previous. I should come clean about that, first up.
Yeah that’s right pal, it was only the beginning of this month. Bakerloo Line. I’d taken the Sunday afternoon shift – quiet, no bother, a chance to get away from the grief I was getting at home – and had driven my train from Elephant & Castle to Lambeth North. Sure, I should have been concentrating. I should have known the doors failed to open at Lambeth North, but hardly no one ever gets on and off there, right? ‘Specially not on a Sunday afternoon. So at Waterloo, when I do remember to open the doors, some posh herbert in a tweed jacket and a gold tooth in his gob comes waddling up to the cab, raps on the window and calls me a lazy, incompetent, good-for-nothing waste-of-skin.
All because he went one stop too far? Please. Such disrespect. That’s what gets me: a lack of basic manners, ya know what I mean? And with everything going to shit with Sandra back home, the red mist descended. So I leap out of the cab and give him a right hook, thwack, smack on the kisser. Down he went like a rag doll onto the platform, and I climbed back in and carried on towards Embankment.
Anyway, he pressed charges, and yeah, I got the sack. After fifteen years. Charming. Never in trouble with the law before that. You boys know that, right?
But here’s the thing. Sandra still don’t know. About getting the sack, that is. She thought I just had my knuckles rapped. So I went in the next day, got fired, but stayed out drinking coffee in that depressing shopping centre in Elephant until it was the end of, supposedly, my shift. Went home like it was a normal day. Slept in on the Tuesday, left the house at noon for my afternoon, well, shift. Loitered around the mall again, drank crap coffee.
I couldn’t tell her. Just… couldn’t, mate. Not after everything we’d been through the past year. I really tried, I did man, I promise.
OK, so I made a mistake with the paint. Scarlet was for the hallway, sky blue for the bedroom. I know that now. ‘It’s like sleeping in a bloody slaughterhouse,’ she kept whining.
Then what? Oh yeah, the cheese and wine party with her book club. Yeah, it would have been better if I’d remembered to buy the cheese. Come on, allow me that, man.
And that god-awful weekend break we had in Moorgate. How was I to know she wanted to visit Margate? ‘Did the beach towels I packed not even give you the tiniest hint?’ she yammered, over and over again.
She accuses me of not listening, of not thinking, of not having a heart. Dude, that hurts. How can anyone react to that?
So me getting fired – me, the breadwinner – I couldn’t say nothing, you understand? So, I signed on. No shame in that: I paid my taxes before. May as well get some of them back now. Rainy day, right? But I needed more; something to top up my dole money so she wouldn’t notice. Until I found something better.
Then I remembered. Back when things were still good between Sandra and me, we’d had that day out on the London Eye and a stroll along the South Bank, and there were loads of these performers: breakdancers, magicians, jugglers, you know the sort, right? And they were raking it in. All these people crowding around, clapping, laughing, taking photos… and giving away their money. Well, it’s showbusiness, innit?
Now I can’t do any of those things – juggle and what-have-you – but there’s one thing I can do very well, as a result of doing pretty much the same thing in the driver’s cab over hundreds of Tube journeys down the years, and that is, well, stay really bloody still. That afternoon by the Thames, there was one guy, he’d sprayed himself head-to-toe in gold paint and was just stood there. Motionless, mainly. Occasionally he’d move, his limbs stiff like a robot, and summat or another would buzz at the same time, a whirr. Bzzz, bzzz. And Sandra and me, we laughed like a drain, and had our photo taken with him.
It’s probably the last photo of us both looking happy.
Anyway, I looked at this guy then, saw how much money was in his pot and thought to myself, how hard can it be?
So the next week, the week after I got the sack, I went shopping. Went to a party shop, got some tins of silver body paint. Went to some charity shops, got some old clothes no one wanted no more, they didn’t have to look cool ‘cos I was going to spray them anyway, right? Found a top hat, some old silver sunglasses, gloves, a Tupperware pot for the tips. An old pair of boots. A banana crate from the market to stand on. Called my mate Davey Boy, the sculptor, he did that wadjuma-call-it outside Ikea, ya know? He let me borrow his studio, told me I could deck myself out there whenever I needed to and shower myself off afterwards.
I’m sure he was suppressing a chuckle that first time. Cheeky sod. Anyway, who cares, I thought. I was earning a living again.
And ya know what? I’m really good at it. That first day I went to Croydon town centre, the pedestrianised bit outside the shopping arcade. Bright and early on the Friday — yeah, only yesterday, in fact. Went to Davey Boy’s, got myself dressed in my silver gear, spray painted my face, put my top hat on, took my crate, I was away. Yeah, I looked a pillock riding the tram from Addington Village, but I didn’t give a monkeys. I have a thick skin, ya know? And with a load of silver paint, it was now even thicker. I set the crate down on the paving stones, stepped on and stayed really bloody still.
I made fifty quid that day. Fifty smackers, my son. You wouldn’t have thought it, would ya? But the cash kept coming. The folks in Croydon, they have a bad rep, but they loved it. Good as gold, they were. They laughed when I suddenly made stiff movements, like the gold robot I’d seen way back when, buzzing through my lips. Bzzz, bzzz. Nothing to it. Kiddies and old grannies had a smile on their face as they passed by. Geezers wanted their photo taken. Punk kids heckled a bit, sure they did – I was called a wanker more than once – but I didn’t deck them. Those kids, they ain’t never worth it.
That’s not to say everything went swell. It was hot and the paint made me even hotter; I made a mental note not to wear so many layers. I also remembered to keep my wallet in my back rather than front pocket – more than once some punk kid tried to pick me until I bzzz’d myself to the side – and I realised quite soon I had to keep the tip bowl a few feet away, since most folks, the decent ones, they don’t like to get too close. But otherwise pukka, mate. I was in a new game.
I got home that evening, after showering and changing at Davey’s mind, and Sandra was none the wiser. So I thought, I’ll do some more of this. Let’s go for the big one.
I told her, I gotta do a Saturday shift, old Pete’s poorly again so I said I’d cover. And so this very morning, I silvered myself up at Davey’s, took the train to Elephant – me, this silver dude amongst all the weekend shoppers – and got on the Tube, the same train I’d once driven, up to Waterloo. By nine o’clock I was a few yards away from the London Eye, and I admit it, although I’m a geezer, a small tear did come to my eye as I remembered that happy day I’d spent with my darling on that wheel all those months ago. But I brushed it away, otherwise the silver paint would’ve run down my cheek see, and stood on my crate opposite Jubilee Gardens.
Man, it was way busier than Croydon. I was going to make a mint. There were tourists… hundreds of them. French, Spanish, Japanese, Americans, all filing past, crowding round, smiling, taking photos – and giving me their cash. Every so often I bzzz’d my arms and twisted my body round, and the folks would laugh and throw money in the pot. I was competing for their attentions with the body poppers a bit further down, and the old magic man with the cups and balls, and the fire eater on the unicycle, but I was holding my own. One hour gone and I must’ve made twenty big ones already.
Then I saw her. Or rather, I saw them.
Sandra. And some dude, the same one I’d decked in Lambeth North. That tall, chubby herbert in a tweed jacket. I knew it was him ‘cos he was grinning like the Cheshire Cat and I could see his gold tooth, and he had his arm round her, coming out of the crowd by the London Eye. Chance had it, at that moment I was turned in their direction, both my arms pointing robot-like towards the wheel, and my line of vision was level with them.
And no, I couldn’t do nothing. If anything I stayed stiller than I had been previously, but my heart, the heart that Sandra was saying I didn’t have, I felt it, man, I felt it burst into a million little bits. No, I thought to myself, me, the silver man, the robot, not my Sandra. Not her. Not him.
And what made it worse? They got to me, my eyes turned as far back as possible in my head to watch them, and they laughed. Both of them. ‘Wow,’ said Sandra to this fella who was now touching her arse, ‘a silver man. C’mon. Let’s get a photo.’ And they grabbed this Japanese tourist, and there they stood, either side of me, and I had to bzzz round to face the camera, my arms sticking up either side. And the Japanese guy took the photo with the camera I’d bought for her birthday and grinned and bowed, and my darling bowed to him by way of thanks, and her and the posh herbert turned back to me, chuckled again, gave me a wave and off they went, arm in fucking arm, and didn’t even tip me neither.
I stood there for a while longer, my brain cloudy, sick to my stomach. I couldn’t think; I couldn’t even act like a robot no more. I just stood there, a statue, two tiny tears in both eyes, hidden behind my sunglasses, and I couldn’t even wipe them.
So it was a bad time for the gold robot to make an appearance and give it the big I-am.
‘Oi,’ he said, appearing out of nowhere. ‘That’s my spot. Who are you?’
Now, my heart may have been smashed to pieces, but I stayed in character, see; that was already force of habit. I bzzz’d my left arm up – bzzz – and shook my head – bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. My middle finger extended from my silver fist. Bzzz. Up yours, golden boy.
He didn’t like that much. ‘Wise guy, eh?’ he snapped, this gold fella having beef with a silver one. We must’ve looked quite a picture. ‘Well then,’ he carried on, ‘tell me this, sunshine. Where’s your busker’s licence?’ And then, just to rub salt into the wound, ‘And ya call that a robot? That’s a good-for-nothing waste of paint.’
Busker’s licence? I had no idea, honest. But that small matter barely crossed my mind as I buzzed my right arm up and back – bzzz, bzzz – clenched my fist – bzzz – and gave him a right hook – BZZZ – smack in the kisser. He fell to the floor, clump, his top hat sent flying, and it was just as he clambered back to his feet and about to clout me one back that you boys arrived and dragged me away.
So there ya have it.
Oh, you’re granting me bail? Who’s putting it up?
Oh no, please. Not her. Not now. Not like this.
Mike Scott Thomson started writing fiction in 2011, having written various music and travel-related things before that. He now enjoys the luxury of being able to make up his stories.
So far his short fiction has been published by a number of venues, including Litro, Prole, Bridge House, Haverthorn, 'Stories for Homes' (in aid of the housing charity Shelter), and the National Flash Fiction Day anthology 'Landmarks'. His stories have also been featured in the anthology series The Fiction Desk, the first of which was the above-mentioned 'Me, Robot' in their fourth volume, and the latest, 'Beat the Brainbox', to appear in their forthcoming tenth volume.
He also enjoys the occasional competition success, one of which was to win Chris Fielden's inaugural To Hull & Back story competition. (His avatar on the front cover of the resulting anthology depicts, he insists, a typical night out for him in his native Mitcham.)
When not writing, Mike works in broadcasting.
A common trope in science fiction is the idea that robots, machines, AI, whatever you want to call it, will eventually take over the Earth. However, I’m fairly sure nobody saw this coming.
It was round about 2003 I first saw statue performers. The first I came across was on a street corner in Copenhagen. I thought: that’s quirky. The next year I saw two more, in Zurich, then a few months later, a whole cluster in the old towns of Vienna and Bratislava.
I couldn’t go anywhere in Europe without coming across yet more specimens of this new, weird man/machine hybrid. ‘Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines’ had just been released, and I thought, uh-oh.
They finally crossed the English Channel and proliferated in the UK (at least, to my knowledge – maybe I’d just been blind to them beforehand, or there hadn’t been so many) around 2006 or so. Every time I visited a shopping centre, or took a walk along London’s South Bank, I would see at least one buzzing and whirring amidst the dancers, jugglers, and so on.
What motivated these guys? As I first started to write fiction in 2011, I knew this was a story I needed to tell.
Of course, writers are always told to ‘write what you know.’ But you’ve got to be kidding if you think I’m going to coat myself silver, stroll nonchalantly into a high street, stand on a crate, stick a bottle down my boxer shorts and stand stock still for seven hours on the trot.
If my story were to come to life as a movie - which writer hasn’t fantasised this, at some stage? - and, say, Daniel Day-Lewis were to play the titular character, he’d have prepared. He’d have taken the Tube to Jubilee Gardens reeking of Ronseal, stood on a box, and sweated it out until small silver rivulets ran down his neck. Maybe he would have perfected a decent ‘Bzzz’, too. Method school of acting, and all.
This is why I much prefer to stay rooted behind the keyboard.
Hilary Mantel, when writing her multi-award winning historical epics, famously spends years of intense research, poring over old books and letters, to get her interpretation of events as accurate as she possibly can.
Then there are writers of crime fiction who meticulously investigate the proper course of police procedurals by hanging out in police stations, questioning top coppers, even ‘job shadowing’ by going out on patrol as observers.
As for me? My truth is somewhat more humdrum, I’m afraid. I used Google.
Many tips and articles about writing declare, often as rule number one, ‘For the love of all humanity - keep away from the Internet.’ I maintain that so long as it’s not used as some ghastly time-eating-slash-procrastination-enabler, what the World Wide Web has to offer can be very useful when adding authenticity to your writing. (However, goodness only knows what my Internet history looked like during those edits. A not uncommon occurrence, I suspect, for many writers.)
But what if it is simply not practical to drill deep enough into the detail required without going all Daniel Day-Lewis school of Method Writing?
Well, it is only fiction. Writers are supposed to make things up, after all. (I’m sure there was a beautifully poetic and succinct quote to this effect, but darned if I can find it now. Was it by Stephen King? It’s usually Stephen King.)
During mid-2012 I wrote a handful of ‘Me, Robot’-style monologues. Or to be more specific, only-one-side-of-a-conversation-is-heard-type-monologues. (Someone do let me know if there is a literary term for this sort of story; I’m sure there is one, but for once Google is yielding nothing.)
It’s only in hindsight I remember why I chose to experiment with this particular form: a combination of having previously read ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid (which uses a similar technique), and the residual memories of ‘George, Don’t Do That’ by Joyce Grenfell, which I frequently read from cover-to-cover in my childhood. (Grenfell’s voice is that of a primary school teacher addressing her class; the chaos unleashed by a roomful of unruly infants is best left to the imagination.)
So, I had an idea for a story, and the format in which I wished to write it. But initially, I slipped up - slightly - with the voice. My first drafts had the titular ‘robot’ speaking his monologue in a saarf-Landan accent: droppin’ ‘is g’s an’ aiches wiv’ all tha gusto ov an ‘ard geeza from a Guy Ritchie flick, know wha’ I mean?
Although by no means impossible, it wasn’t exactly easy to read; all those apostrophes and deliberate misspellings interrupted the flow. Once again, certain influences were seeping through: the ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’ segment from David Mitchell’s ‘Cloud Atlas’; one or two Irvine Welsh novels, written in a raw Scots dialect; probably a few others besides. But folks like Mitchell and Welsh are literary grandmasters who know how to break the ‘rules’ of writing, yet still keep the reader engaged.
On the whole, I am no great fan of the myriad variations of general, somewhat non-specific writing ‘rules’ out there; I often take them with the buckets of salt many of them deserve. But at the same time, I do - grudgingly, and even if I don’t always feel like sticking to them - have to accept them as being the quite-good ideas they usually are. (I should see my doctor. All this salt can’t be good for the blood.)
Possibly ‘rules’ is the wrong word to use. It makes it sound like all this stuff about cutting down on adverbs and adjectives, or, in my case, going easy on regional accents, are constituent elements of some dry list drawn up by a starchy-shirted committee, a secret cabal of writing ‘gatekeepers’ who primly declare the way things ‘must be done’ and all else is null, void, and destined for the memory hole. A kill for creativity, if ever there was one.
Moreover, I see these so-called ‘rules’ as helpful guidelines: a set of common precedents, lessons learned from over hundreds of years about what makes great storytelling.
A good analogy may be to look at one of the oldest inventions that exists: the wheel. The ‘rule’ dictates that a wheel must be round. Build a car with a set of square wheels, and you’ll be in for a bumpy ride. But for an engineer or mechanic who has years of experience constructing round-wheeled vehicles, and is totally familiar with how all the nuts, bolts, cogs, axles and what-have-you fit together? Well, they could probably construct a square-wheeled car; they’d be aware of the best way to break that ‘rule’, keep the contraption moving forward, going from A to B, as smoothly as possible. (Of course, it would still be a tad bumpy, but that would just make it ‘challenging’.)
Sorry. I skidded off for a moment there. Where was I…?
Right, yes. When it comes to writing, whilst you can - and probably should - be as free and as deliriously rule-breaking as you like when writing a first draft (you could even write a story in which the majority of words are an adverb - now, there’s a challenge - go on, I dare you [if you want to take Mike up on this challenge, see how to below - CF]), the game changes, for better or for worse, when you send it out to the big wide literary world.
Ultimately, there’s only one set of writing rules which really are indispensable and not-to-be-broken: and that is whatever set of rules a competition T&Cs has stipulated, or whatever it is an editor requires for their publication. It’s therefore crucial to send the right work to the right place. Therein lies a further challenge.
There is hardly a literary journal or anthology series out there who hasn’t pleaded, at some point in time: please, make sure you read us before submitting your work.
Whilst it may seem obvious, there are a couple of good reasons for this. Firstly, that really is the only possible way to know whether or not your own work would be a good fit for them. Secondly, if you want them to support you by publishing you, it’s probably polite by showing some support in return. Often this means buying a book or magazine of theirs, but it need not; many places offer tasters, or whole issues, of their work for free online. Libraries may also stock them.
However, for me personally, I couldn’t imagine wanting to be published by a place with whom I am unfamiliar; I’d need to know whether I am engaged enough with them to want them to engage with me. There are oodles of literary journals out there, many of which have pride of place on my bookshelves; but of these, there are several to whom I couldn’t imagine submitting my own work. To use the above-mentioned analogy again: round wheel arch, square wheel.
Likewise, there are many publishers with whom I am engaged, and know the kind of works they publish are right up my street. So, occasionally I will indeed submit to those places...
... with the inevitable varying degrees of success. Even a piece sent to a magazine with high hopes and the best of intentions, may fall short with the editorial board due to taste reasons alone. Other times, they may have published something similar in a previous issue. Often there’s no way of knowing. But understanding what makes a publication tick, even a little bit, at least gives you a better shot.
I chose to send ‘Me, Robot’ to The Fiction Desk, partly because I’d read their previous three volumes and had been struck by their quality; and partly it was the vague feeling I had that if my story was to the taste of their editor, it could be a good fit. Some of the stories in the first three volumes which particularly stood out for me were ‘Rex’ by Jon Wallace, ‘Jaggers and Crown’ by James Benmore, and ‘Swimming with the Fishes’ by Jennifer Moore. Each of these stories had strong plots and characters, offered something different that only those authors could have written, and had real heart and humour; I wondered if my own attempt, if it was deemed good enough, could find a similar slot. I remember thinking, at least I would learn from the rejection, when it came.
I subbed, forgot about it, and went on holiday. Next thing I knew, I’d arrived back in the South Korean capital Seoul from an excursion to the Demilitarised Zone on the border with the North, bleary-eyed and somewhat disorientated, only to receive a very nice email from Rob Redman, editor of The Fiction Desk, accepting my story for publication in their next anthology. I nearly slid off my bed.
If I learned anything from this particular episode, I would say, a) if a six foot seven Korean soldier in mirrored sunglasses and posing in the most threatening of Tae Kwon Do stances commands you to put your camera away, then oh boy, you’d better put it away, and b) the knack to getting a story accepted in a literary publication, such as it may be a knack and not sheer fluke, seems to be to send a piece of work suitable for the publication, but not so similar, predictable, pandering, or clichéd that whoever ends up reading it will endure a head-meets-desk moment.
(Visiting war zones, thankfully, is merely an option.)
Rob did an excellent job of editing my story. The apostrophes were pruned away, the contractions de-contracted; it became a lot easier to read. It was perhaps my first experience of how the help of a good editor can vastly improve a story.
Then it was published, alongside nine fabulous other stories in the fourth Fiction Desk anthology, ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’, and it was fascinating to see people’s responses.
Some readers loved it, and very kindly messaged me to tell me so; others didn’t so much, if one or two reviews were to be believed. One reader thought it was too much of a coincidence that the character with the gold tooth should suddenly show up again at the end of the story; to my mind, it was anything but. In any event, the fate of my story, as happens to all creative works when unleashed upon the discerning public, had fallen out of my hands.
Then, a few months after the release of the book, the Berko Speakeasy, a ‘short story cabaret’ based in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, performed ‘Me, Robot’ with a professional actor who - top work, that man - sprayed himself with silver paint, stood on a box, and read the story out loud to a large and appreciative audience.
Proof, if any were needed, that when a story is published, it really can take on a life of its own.
Mike Scott Thomson, April 2016
Mike and I started this challenge after discussing the 'rules' (or widely regarded best practices) of writing short fiction that are mentioned in the post above.
When we first launched the Adverb Challenge, we had 2 milestones. They were:
The Adverb Challenge received its 20th submission on 24th June 2016. The 100th submission was received on 3rd August 2016. The first anthology was released on 18th November 2016. So all milestones have been reached.
Mike and I would like to thank all the authors who have submitted their stories and supported this rather crazy but fun idea. Any proceeds we make will be donated to First Story, a charity that changes children's lives through writing.
A dedicated page has now been created for the adverb challenge. You can learn all about the challenge, read all the entries and find out about the charity we are supporting on the Adverb Challenge page.
A huge thank you to Mike for sharing his experiences on my blog. This type of post helps readers research potential markets to submit to, with the added bonus of learning from other writers' direct experiences.
There will be many more posts like this appearing on my site in the future.
If you have been published through a short story competition or magazine and would like to write about your experiences for my readers, please review my submission guidelines.