The cursor flashed on and off, a small vertical line counting down the seconds. Derek watched it blinking. Tick, tick, tick. Soon it would be time for dinner, time to help the kids with their homework, time to collapse on the sofa with a beer and spend another night watching repeats on the television with the wife.
Another day with no writing done.
Tick, tick, tick…
So much for the next bestseller. He’d managed to write a few pages a night once, but now it always came back to this – the blinking cursor, and the virtual page on the screen as empty as his mind.
The cursor flashed on and off. Derek though he could hear it sniggering at him.
With a sudden burst of frustration, his fingers flew across the keyboard. A string of random letters and punctuation spread across the screen, interspersed with the occasional mis-typed swearword. He selected the whole lot and pressed Delete.
“I need a miracle,” he muttered to himself.
Miracles don’t happen. Not really. Oh, sure, someone will claim they saw something happen that they couldn’t explain, or more likely they’ll claim someone else’s story must be true – maybe even spin a whole religion out of it. Sometimes they’ll pick some random fluke and claim a divine hand had a part in it, conveniently ignoring that a single child surviving a car crash means everyone else in the car had to die. And then there are those who declare the most commonplace of things are miracles, like the birth of a child or a rainbow after a storm.
But in fiction, miracles can happen. They can feel like a cheat – if your plot gets so out of hand you need the actual gods to descend from the heavens to sort it all out, you may simply be a bad writer – but sometimes, when they’re handled right, they can work.
I think we owe Derek a miracle.
After consigning the third wave of desperate gibberish to the void, a figure appeared at the bottom of the screen. It appeared to be a paperclip with eyes, and it was looking at him.
Derek was wondering whether he should cut down on the beer or take this as a sign he needed to drink more of it when he suddenly remembered.
“Clippy? But that was…”
Years ago, in another version of this word processing software, Clippy had been one of a range of animated “desktop assistants”, meant to pop up with helpful advice or suggestions when users were getting stuck. Clippy was the default. The assistants had been quietly dropped in later versions because users mostly found them deeply annoying.
But there he was, impossibly. Clippy the Desktop Assistant, a relic from another time, back on his desktop and offering assistance. Probably thinking he was trying to write a letter, or that he didn’t know how to work some basic function on the computer.
A speech bubble popped up.
“It looks like you have writer’s block. Would you like some help?”
Derek rubbed his eyes. Never mind the beer; there was half a bottle of scotch hidden at the back of the kitchen cupboard. Intrigued, he clicked on the button marked “yes”.
“Thank goodness for that. You have no idea how many years I’ve been cooped up on your hard drive.”
“Aaaaagh!” Derek wheeled around, almost falling off his chair. Clippy was no longer on the screen. He was right beside him.
A paperclip with eyes is cute when it’s about three inches tall on your monitor screen. It’s a very different matter when it appears in your study, six feet tall with eyes the size of footballs.
“What’s happening?!” Derek squeaked.
“Relax. You’re just having a psychotic episode.” The words had a metallic edge to them, which was understandable enough, but Clippy had no mouth to speak them with. “Now, are we going to sort out your problem or are you just going to sit there gibbering like an imbecile?”
Derek gibbered for a bit longer, and then nodded.
“Good. So, let’s start at the beginning. What are you writing?”
“N-n-novel,” stammered Derek. “It’s a-about…”
Clippy waved the open end of his metallic body – his hand, Derek supposed. “That doesn’t matter. As long as you know, we’re okay. Right. Do you have a plan?”
Right now, the only plan in Derek’s head involved the bottle of scotch. “Well, not exactly. I just like to write as I go.”
Clippy sighed. “Oh, a pantser,” he muttered. “It’s always a pantser. Look, you don’t need to work out every last detail ahead of time, but writing is a LOT easier if you have a vague idea where you’re going. You can’t start driving and just hope you end up somewhere fun. You plan a route, or at least a destination. So – rule one. What are you writing, and where is it ending up?”
Derek looked at the screen. In his head, images of cowboys on spaceships fighting dinosaurs flickered briefly and died. “Science fiction?” he volunteered.
“No, no, no. What’s the story?”
“Oh, that? Rex B. Handsome, the hero, is rescuing an Amazonian princess from the clutches of the evil warlord and his dinosaur army. In space.”
“First time out of the hard drive in ten years,” sighed Clippy, “and I get this. I mean, I wasn’t expecting Hemingway, but still…”
“Look, are you going to help me or not?”
Clippy’s bulging eyes loomed large as the gigantic stationery item leaned in. Derek shrank back in his chair.
“You want my help? Then this is what you need to do.”
The screen filled with text.
STEP ONE – know what you’re writing.
STEP TWO – know what needs to happen.
STEP THREE – eliminate distractions.
STEP FOUR – drink a magic potion for inspiration.
STEP FIVE – the ritual chant to prime your mind.
STEP SIX – let the words come without thinking.
Derek frowned as he read and reread the list. “Magic potion? Ritual chant? What the hell?”
“Writing isn’t just something you sit down and do,” said Clippy. “It’s a sacred ritual. Otherwise everyone would be a writer, and not just the sacred and the mad. When you write, it isn’t actually you that’s doing the writing. You’re just the conduit.”
“You’re telling me that writing comes from God?”
“Do you believe in God, Derek?”
Derek shrugged. “Not really. I never took much interest in all that church stuff.”
“Then no, it doesn’t come from God. But it doesn’t come from up here, either.” Clippy tapped what would have been his head with the end of his… appendage. “Sigmund Freud would probably say it comes from the superego. Those new age nutters would talk about cosmic harmony or something. You’re writing about cowboys in space, so I’m guessing you’re a Star Wars fan.”
Derek nodded, deciding not to mention that his chief villain was a tall man in a black cloak and helmet, armed with a laser sword. Or that Rex was accompanied by two funny robots and a furry giant who only spoke in growls. Originality was overrated.
“So let’s say… it comes from the Force.”
“Are you saying that writers are Jedi?”
“It’s a metaphor, Derek. You know what those are, right? Being a writer and everything?”
Derek nodded, though he couldn’t recall the difference between a metaphor and a simile. They’d covered it in school, but he’d been too busy trying to imagine what Jennifer McAllister looked like naked and hadn’t been listening. He’d never found out about Jennifer, either.
“When you sit down to write, you’re not just writing. You’re opening a channel. You get everything ready at your end – that’s the ritual. And then you get out of the way and let the writing happen.”
“Okay. So what do I do?”
“We’ve already covered steps one and two – you need to know what you’re writing, and where it needs to go. Not just the whole novel, but the specific bit you’re writing. If you don’t know those, you could end up absolutely anywhere – or nowhere.”
“Right. Then what?”
“Step three, I think you’ve already covered. You need somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted. It takes time to get into the zone. Once you’re in, you’re in as long as you need to be; but if something brings you out, it’s hard to find your way back again.”
“Derek! I’m home!”
It was six o’clock. Hazel was home, bringing with her the takeaway pizzas they’d be having for dinner. The kids were in tow, laden with homework. Derek felt a pang of panic – how would he explain the six foot monstrosity in their study?
But when he looked around, Clippy was nowhere to be seen.
Hazel planted a kiss on his forehead. “Did you get any writing done?”
“No, I think I dozed off. I had the weirdest dream.”
“Looks like you managed something,” she said, pointing at the screen.
The six steps were still displayed. Had he typed them himself? He must have. There was no way that could have been anything but a dream.
He wished Clippy had told him about the last three steps.
“Come on, pizza’s getting cold,” she said.
Derek saved the strange document, closed the word processor, then followed her to the kitchen.
It was a pepperoni pizza.
After dinner, he sat with the kids and tried to help them with their homework. Eventually they asked him to stop and he left them to it, ready to collapse on the sofa once again and let another day end in failure. He walked over to the fridge and took out his evening beer.
Drink a magic potion…
He stared at the can in his hand. There was no such thing as a magic potion, after all, but what if the ritual was simpler than that? Many famous writers were known to be heavy drinkers, but it wasn’t even alcohol – others couldn’t start without their daily cup of tea or coffee.
“Hazel? Do you mind if I go back to the study for a bit?”
“You want to write now?” she called. “You’ll miss Fame Idol!”
Derek shrugged, though he knew she couldn’t see him. “It’s fine. You start without me. I’ll be in later.” He didn’t know what she saw in that programme anyway – he only watched it because it was on.
He returned to the study, beer in hand. He opened the can, took a deep swig, and stared at the blank screen.
The cursor blinked. Tick, tick, tick.
That’s what he got for thinking his dream had been real. Magic potion, indeed.
In the other room, the first of the Fame Idol contestants started singing, or something that could charitably be called singing. He could do better. He shut the study door (that was step three; no distractions) but the caterwauling still came through, a little muffled.
He slipped on a pair of headphones and opened up his music library on the computer. Something to drown out the noise…
Scrolling down the list, he wondered when he’d last actually listened to any music. He’d fallen in love with Hazel at a karaoke bar, the two of them singing some cheesy duet together. Here was a song they’d played at their wedding – and here were some they’d danced to in the evening (and sometimes more than danced).
He took another swig from his beer and leaned back in the chair, lost in the music.
The explosions sounded like drums all around them. Rex yanked the steering column to the left and the ship lurched sideways just before the missile could strike.
“Grrrawrrawwl!” complained Fuzzwhump in the passenger seat.
“Sorry, pal, no time for a turn signal.”
X-34 squealed in protest in the back. “Sir!” he cried, his silver-plated head swivelling in alarm. “The odds of us escaping a Nova-class destroyer are…”
“Don’t tell me the odds!”
The squat dustbin-shaped robot in the corner only beeped and buzzed. That’s all it ever did, but somehow managed to express a surprising amount of weary cynicism in the process.
“Look, we can hide in that asteroid field. When they’ve given up, we’ll slip back out and then we can go rescue the princess.”
Though how they could take down the velociraptor guards when their blasters were almost out of energy, he didn’t know…
Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. Check out Andrew’s website.
More work by Andrew on Ink Pantry here.