Buying Fake Book Reviews: Are you a respectable writer or a con-artist?

FakeReviewsFiverrI have ZERO respect for authors who purchase fake reviews to boost their popularity and sales. It’s pathetic. Cheating. Undeserving of any respect. You trick consumers. It’s dishonest. You buy fake book reviews to trick consumers into buying your books? Frankly, you’re a con artist!

Secretly purchasing glowing reviews should be a crime. I mean, if the reviewer doesn’t disclose that the review was written for pay, it’s fraudulent. Why do it secretly if it isn’t? If these undeserving, manufactured bestselling authors were asked, “Do you or have you ever purchased reviews for any of your books?” do you think they would answer honestly? I don’t.

And you know what, I think technically it IS a crime!

The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines stating that all online endorsements need to make clear when there is a financial relationship, but enforcement has been minimal and there has been a lot of confusion in the blogosphere over how this affects traditional book reviews. [source]

Here are some relevant points from the FTC Guidelines:

Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser.

If you didn’t read the book, anything you write about it would be dishonest. Also to have an experience, one must consume the product. If you don’t read the book, you haven’t experienced it, therefor cannot write a review!

and:

Advertisers are subject to liability for false or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements, or for failing to disclose material connections between themselves and their endorsers

This is a huge one. Most of the paid reviews on Amazon and elsewhere obviously do not state that the review was paid for and that there is any relationship between the reviewer and the author!

When the advertisement represents that the endorser uses the endorsed product, the endorser must have been a bona fide user of it at the time the endorsement was given.

Did you catch that? The reviewer has to have been a “bona fide user” !!

I wish Anonymous would out these authors and publicly shame them. The writers bask in their undeserved public adulation and popularity, making loads of cash while doing it, so why not? Where are the whistleblowers? I’m almost considering posing as a Reviewer on Fiverr just to see who bites.

I want to make a documentary. A sting operation. Like To Catch A Predator. But it would be called To Catch a Lying, Conniving Author… I know. It’s a mouthful. When the writer falls into the trap of hiring me to write a fake review, I’d play the part of Chris Hansen and walk out from behind a folding screen with my camera crew and ask the writer to put his clothes back on and “have a seat.” The writer will zip up his fly and sit down on the stool, stunned. I’d offer him a cookie because for some odd reason there’s always a platter of cookies. While the wrongdoer nibbles on a cookie with a deer-in-headlights expression on his face, I’d ask him, “What possessed you to do this? Did it not cross your mind that you’d get caught?” He’d claim that he didn’t know he was hurting anyone. (Bull.) That he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. (Bull.) Only when the writer walks out this house, he won’t be tackled to the ground by police officers. (Unfortunately.) He’ll probably disappear just long enough to make a new pen name before continuing with his scamming.

None of this will actually happen but I had a good laugh seeing it play out in my mind…

All this makes me wonder where these hot sellers would be if they’d done it like the rest of us. You know, the honest way? Probably toiling away in obscurity like the rest of us. Oh wait. No they wouldn’t. These people are lazy. They take the easy way, a shortcut. If they don’t succeed immediately, they’d probably give up and find a new get-rich-quick scheme.

What can be done? Here are some of my ideas:

  • The FTC should get serious about this and do a crackdown. They need to go through Fiverr and other sites and confiscate lists of all customers who used paid reviewers and check to see which of these reviews state that the review was for pay. I’m guessing less than 1% of the reviews state that.
  • Fiverr should BAN fake review writing services! Just get rid of that category all together! Seriously. But I guess it makes them money so we probably won’t see that happening… even though 1,114 Fiver users were sued by Amazon this year (!!) for writing fake product reviews. Definitely a step in the right direction!
  • Whistleblowers need to come out. It seems that if money is exchanged, it needs to be disclosed. If the authors aren’t doing it, the reviewers need to! Come out of the phony-review closet!
  • Authors who do not and will not use fake reviews should band together. Tell readers about the problem. Write about it.
  • A petition, maybe? But I don’t know who to show the petition and what will come of it. Just something to think about.
  • End lazy consumerism. People need to stop riding trend waves and being told what’s “hot” and what they should or need to be reading right now because seemingly everyone else is! Have your own interests. Don’t let others form your interests (thus, personality!)
  • The readers/consumers of these writers need to take responsibility. Do they carefully consider the reviews? That maybe a lot of them are not honest reviews? That the reviewer didn’t actually read the book!? Look at the bestselling books and make sure to read the low reviews (1-2 star reviews.) And compare what the low raters are saying to the glowing 5-star reviews. If the 5-star review doesn’t mention anything specific from the book, it’s probably a fake.
  • Amazon.com should implement a box that reviewers tick stating that this review was not paid for by the author (or anyone)… and another tick box for paid reviews. And consumers have a choice, a button they can click, that will disregard all paid reviews and adjust the rating accordingly. This is also useful in case of any lawsuits. If a reviewer lies about not being a paid reviewer, their ticking the not-paid box can be used as evidence. It’s essentially a contract. (I think I will write a separate post on this.)
  • Amazon.com can also cross-reference IP addresses of authors and reviewers to see if authors are reviewing their own books using sock puppet accounts. Of course this won’t work it using proxies, but I bet you’d be able to catch at least a few fraudulent authors this way.
  • Amazon.com should internally flag accounts that have made multiple book reviews within a single day and then proceed to investigate the reviews for authenticity. Sure, multiple reviews in a single day alone does not necessarily point to fraud but a lot of fake reviewers post multiple reviews in rapid fire succession. It’s a red flag for sure. Especially if they do it over and over and over again!
  • Boycott Fiverr if they refuse to do away wit their Review category. I also find buying social media followers to be unbelievably dishonest, shameless and despicable.

Seriously, what’s next? Buying fake negative reviews for your competition and people you don’t like? Sounds shady doesn’t it? That’s because it is. (After writing this I found out people actually do this. Seriously… what is wrong with people!?)

Interesting, related articles and blog posts:

New York Times: Book Reviewers for Hire Meet a Demand for Online Raves

The Atlantic: Will Paid Reviews Bite Amazon Back?

Buying Book Reviews – Still Admire John Locke?

The Guardian: Sock Puppetry and Fake Reviews: Publish and be Damned

Review Cheats- Shameful Author Behaviour

Why Paying For Bogus Reviews Makes You an Idiot

Huffington Post: Fake Reviews Are Worse Than Bad Ones

FTC Guidelines for Endorsements and Testimonials (pdf)

Amazon Files Suit Against a Thousand Fiverr Users for Selling Fake Reviews

Are Fiverrs Running Scared From Amazon Fake Reviews Lawsuit?

Readers Beware: The New Wave Of Amazon Review Fraud Is “Within Posted Guidelines”

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Do you have to cheat to be successful on the social web?

Amazon Studios Update – no option

Quick backstory: I posted my script to Amazon Studios (AS) on 11/2/15 when they still had the 45-day option. Meaning, my 45 days would be up 12/16/15. On 11/19/15, AS announced they would no longer require a 45 day option and once your project went to COMPLETE status you’d hear from them within 48 hours. On the day of the switchover, my project went to complete and I waited to hear from them. 48 hours came and went. I waited the full original 45 days (not wanting to appear to be a desperate eager-beaver or a nag.) So the night of 12/16 (last night) I contacted AS customer service with the following:

Today was the original 45–day option end date. I haven’t gotten an email and there’s no REMOVE button for my script.
It went to COMPLETE on the day of the switch to the new  no-45-day-option version of the site.

This morning I got this reply (my bolding for emphasis):

Hello,

Amazon Studios submission policy changed on November 19, 2015 to a more open submission process. The email that you received informing you of the change promised a notification when our evaluation is complete. I am sorry you had to wait longer than expected for an e-mail with our decision.

I can confirm that our professional script readers have reviewed “Max the Knife” and we are not moving forward to option your project at this time.

We encourage you to make or keep your project available for public review on the website to seek feedback from the community. If you upload a significant revision of your script, it will be considered again for the Development Slate.

If you would like to have the script removed, please reply and let us know.

Thank you for your interest and participation in Amazon Studios.

We’d appreciate your feedback. Please use the links below to tell us about your experience today.

Best regards,
Jasmine H.

To which I replied:

Please, remove my project (Max the Knife).
Thanks.

I mean, looking at what (little) they’ve shown interest in, I don’t think my script is what their looking for, movie-wise. I knew it was a long shot (as with trying to sell any script anywhere.) Not to say I won’t try again. I will complete my drama series pilots and try them there, since they’re accepting them now.

Now a suggestion for AS: FIX THE GLITCH! Seriously. After the switchover to no-45-day-options-necessary, people (like myself) have been waiting beyond the 48-hours promised for a reply. I waited the full 45-days! I know people wait much longer than that hearing from producers, but my point is, AS shouldn’t make promises they wont keep.

And I also know it technically doesn’t matter since there’s no automatic option anymore and we can still try to sell our scripts elsewhere. And probably more importantly, if AS was interested they would no doubt contact you immediately and not leave you hanging. And yeah, I know about producers requesting to read scripts and never replying with a yay or nay. But still! AS is essentially an automated system. Once someone clicks COMPLETE, that means a decision has been made. Option or no option. So why is it that people aren’t automatically being sent a rejection or option email? You get one once you upload a project. It’s like anything else on the site. So it really makes no sense.

The switchover to AS3.0 (or whatever version they’re on now) was not a smooth one. And since November 19th, I have not seen any improvements. Instead of placing REMOVE buttons back on our project pages, we have to do it via Customer Service emails. (NOTE: I don’t have any complaints against Customer Service. They’ve been very helpful to me and everyone else… so I’ve read on the forums. So kudos to them at least. And it sounds like sometimes they aren’t being told what’s going on from the higer ups. So they’re really not the ones we should be mad at when things aren’t going the way they should be.)

Advice to writers using AS: At this point, set it and forget it…. until the status of your project goes to COMPLETE. When it goes to complete and you don’t hear from AS within 48-hours, contact Customer Service and tell them. Also, if you want your project removed, mention that clearly in the same email so you don’t waste time with a back and forth.

My Experience with Inktip – a review

I spent a total of $100 on Inktip for my screenplay MAX THE KNIFE. $60 for listing my script on Inktip (for 4 months, so $25/mo.) and $40 for a logline listing in their magazine. This was the first time I used Inktip. Was it worth it? I’m leaning towards a NO.

Why NO?

Not a single person actually downloaded my script!

Logline views doesn’t mean that the “pro” user actually read your logline. I knew this going in, but I thought at least I’d get a few downloads (ie. script reads or at least interest enough to download my script.) I’ve tweaked my logline and still… no downloads or contact.

Let’s look at a screencap of my script viewings (taken 12/14/15):

InktipLoglineViews

I’ve gotten 60 logline “views” and 1 resume view. The resume view (not shown, it’s on 2nd page) at least shows someone clicked on something of mine. I guess he wasn’t impressed because I don’t have anything produced and have no awards. We all start somewhere.  I only recently started trying to sell my scripts.

And you know what the sad thing is? I researched the production company and from the synopsis and movie poster of their ONE film… it looked like a good fit for my movie. And this production company did show up SO MANY times (not shown, on 2nd page) as logline views. Too bad they never downloaded my script.

I also noted with the RED ARROWS huge date gaps where there was absolutely no viewing activity. I always bring my listing to the top when allowed (every 6 weeks) just so my script doesn’t get buried under all the new scripts. I think it should be allowed more often. Maybe every 3 weeks.

Another suggestion: if a screenplay doesn’t get a single (legitimate) script download after 4 months, you get your money back. Hey, now that’s an idea! I don’t think that’ll happen though. Because it could be that your logline isn’t intriguing enough. Or maybe you’re the only one who thinks your title is brilliant. (I’m actually changing mine after this.)

Also, these aren’t big production companies. Most of them don’t even have websites and aren’t listed on IMDB. I believe they mostly do low budget stuff, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, my script is a thriller/drama based mostly in Brooklyn and I’m guessing it could be shot on a low budget. There aren’t any major special effects. No explosions. No jumping out of planes or anything crazy like that. It’s a pretty realistic story.

I’m not complaining about the cost. $25/mo is the same as listing on The Blacklist, which I have yet to try. But for $25/mo I would like to get some reads. Frankly, I feel like I’ve taken $100 and flushed it down the toilet.

Some have had some success on Inktip. They’ve gotten their films produced, they’ve hooked up with reps, etc. That didn’t happen with me. I know the odds aren’t that great in the film industry. It’s getting harder and harder to sell spec scripts. I wasn’t exactly expecting the to sell my script , but I was expecting more of an active interest (download of script of synopsis.) In four months, that has not happened.

I think there are two problems: (1) your script gets lost in a sea of scripts and (2) low activity on the other end (perhaps not too many people seriously looking for scripts on the site. I don’t have specific daily usage numbers but I wrote a THRILLER which is one of the most popular genres purchased!)

Now, before you say my script probably sucks. I know it doesn’t. I wrote it in college under an Emmy-award winning filmmaker. He said my script was probably the hardest one in class to write but it was very good and I got an A grading! I put it away for SEVEN years and then made improvements on it. It’s MUCH better than it was in college. I’ve done countless drafts. It’s not something sloppy and just thrown together. But how will anyone (these pro users on Inktip) know if they don’t bother to even download it?

Well, my listing expired December 22nd (in 8 days.) If anything major happens between now and then, I’ll definitely update on here. But at this rate, it’s not looking good.

So yeah, I’m disappointed. Will I use Inktip again? I’ll use it to list some shorts. (Shorts are free to list, but loglines are publicly viewable, as in not kept private.) I do actually have one listed on there. But I’ll have to think long and hard before listing another feature. Although, I am intrigued by some of their Preferred List leads. I think I’d have a better chance querying someone looking for a script that mine actually fits into than letting it sit on Inktip going unnoticed. I’m just not sure if I have to have the fitting script listed to use the Preferred leads.

I’m looking forward to trying some other screenplay hosting/selling services. I think I’ll try The BlackList next.

So until then, I’ll keep plugging away. (Just finished another script a few days ago.)

2015 – 2016 Screenplay Contests and Competitions

The year’s coming to an end and I have plans to enter some screenplay contests/competitions. I’ve already entered POSTCARDS FROM SHERIDAN (a short supernatural horror script) into Bluecat 2016 competition. I got reader’s notes already. Maybe I’ll post it in another post with my commentary.

I plan on entering (one or more) feature length scripts into Nicholl’s Fellowship, Script Pipeline and Page Awards.

I just completed my first draft of my second feature length thriller, called KNEES AND TOES.

I’m changing the title of MAX THE KNIFE and fixing it up a bit more. And here I thought it was the final… FINAL draft!

I’m also working on my first feature length (spoof) comedy. Won’t talk about it just yet. I want it completed and copyrighted first. It’s pretty unique… at least I haven’t seen it done. I laugh so hard while I’m writing it. But then, I do have a quirky sense of humour. Think: Tim & Eric, Strangers with Candy, League of Gentlemen, Woody Allen, Louis CK.

I think I may try out The Blacklist (blcklst.com) and see if I can do well there. My Inktip script listing is going to expire this month on the 27th. I’ll do a review of it.

Amazon Studios – Still No Word After Nixing 45-day Option

So, I uploaded MAX THE KNIFE (my feature length screenplay) to Amazon Studios (AS) on November 2nd. There used to be a 45 day option, meaning the option for my screenplay ends December 16th. On November 19th, Amazon Studios did away with the 45-day option and I got an email from them stating the following:

Dear Terri,

You’re receiving this notification because we have expanded our open-door submission policy and you have submitted work to Amazon Studios for your project, Max the Knife, within the last 45 days.

Amazon will no longer require an unpaid 45-day option for you to submit your work and will instead review your work with no strings attached. If we’re interested, we will reach out to you directly with a paid option that meets or exceeds any applicable guild minimums. As a result of this change in policy, Amazon is releasing any unpaid option currently in effect on work you’ve submitted for Max the Knife. You can continue to track where your work is in our evaluation process by visiting your project page. We are continuing to evaluate any material that is not yet marked “Complete.” You’ll receive a notification either way when our evaluation is complete.

Thank you again for the opportunity to consider your work, and we hope to see you at Amazon Studios again soon.

Sincerely,

Amazon Studios Cast and Crew

The DAY I received this email, my project status went straight to COMPLETE. I have not heard a word from AS. If they wanted it, I’m sure they would’ve e-mailed me right away. So I’m guessing I will have to wait until December 16th (day after tomorrow) to hear from them. But then again, if you look through the AS Forums, it seems some people aren’t hearing from AS even when the original option end date comes and goes.

Also, I’ve noted that some have commented on how their projects go from COMPLETE to DECIDING or some other status. I guess they still have some glitches to work out. Oh well. Hopefully, they’ll work out the kinks soon. If there are any updates, I’ll post about it here.

Anthony Miller — an original short story

Anthony Miller
by T. K. Jones

“I’m going to kill myself… today!” the man atop the tall building declared into the megaphone at no one in particular. This was everyone’s cue to do something to show that they were caring and compassionate. That they were, in fact, human. But they did nothing. They just stood on the street below and watched this little man, way up there. And they waited. The people gathered together forming a crowd.

The distressed man, Anthony Miller, was a 47-year-old divorced father of two self-absorbed, apathetic teenagers. So, essentially, two normal American teenagers. His ex-wife, Gladys, was squeezing him for all he had. Gladys got the house so he had to move back in with his elderly parents and the kids, understandably, didn’t want to stay with him or their grandparents. So she got to keep the kids. Well, they were supposed to be with their father on the weekends but they never wanted to stay over. So they never did. Gladys even took the dog, which she didn’t even like, just to spite him. Just to win. The wife always wins. That’s what he learned from this whole mess. The wife, no matter how wrong or evil, always wins.

Anthony Miller has had it! When the news chopper circled around him, the camera zoomed in for a clearer shot of his frantic face. Yes, that was Anthony Miller, alright.

His boss, Roxy Lee, a no-nonsense, middle-aged woman, rang up the local police department to ID him. “His name is Anthony Miller and he works for IntelliGroup but, uh, don’t let that get out in the media. We don’t want to be associated with this…” her voice trailed off. This thing. This fiasco. This humiliating farce.

She was watching the local news in her office when she saw the breaking news footage of her most unassuming, longtime employee. After which she first jumped up and ran out of her office, racing between the endless clusters of cubicles. She finally reached Anthony’s cubicle to find his seat unoccupied and his desk neatly organized. His screensaver was active. He wasn’t scheduled to get off work for another hour. “If you think I’m paying you to do this–!” she muttered under her breath.

Carol, a young new intern was staring out the large window. “Oh my God!” she gasped loudly, like someone who had just won a sweepstake, and spun around to see if she got anyone’s attention. She hoped that all eyes were on her.

“What?” Roxy asked as she rushed towards the large window.

“Look at the crowd down there! What’s going on? Are they looking at us?” Carol asked. She waved down to the crowd enthusiastically, her large breasts jiggled back and forth under her silky red blouse. Her flesh clapping back and forth like a Newton’s cradle. She giggled like the stupid little girl she still was inside.

“Get back to work!” Roxy barked at her in her typical ear-shattering way, just as other employees were beginning to make their way towards the window. Everyone flinched and scurried back to their seats. Carol jumped. Instead of heading to her cubicle, she ran out of the large office space, her face burning red with prickly tears spilling from her heavily made up eyes.

It was just then that Roxy realized that Anthony was on top of that very building. Now IntelliGroup would be entangled in this pathetic story, no matter what she demanded. She strained her brain to recall if she even saw Anthony that day. If she even noticed him. Maybe in the elevator? Or in the break room, perhaps?

Anthony was wearing a backpack, out of which he pulled a roll of bright blue duct tape he stole from the supply room before making his way up to the roof. No one took notice of him then. No one ever did. With the blue tape, he marked a box around him, the fourth side being the edge of the roof. No one was allowed to cross the blue line. The negotiator was the first person to get up to the roof. As he began to speak, Anthony interrupted him. Forgetting his megaphone, he shouted so he could be heard. It was windy up there and he had to compete with the rapid whooshing and flapping sounds. “Don’t go past the blue line!”

“OK!” the negotiator gave him two thumbs up. He kept his hands raised. “I’m unarmed! My name is Dale Marr. What’s your name?”

Anthony’s face twisted in a state of vexation. “You idiot! I know you know my name!”

“That’s fine, Anthony. So what’s goin’ on? What are your demands?” Dale mouthed every syllable in an exaggerated way. How one might speak to a mentally retarded child. Anthony couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being mocked, even though logically he knew that was nonsense.

“I’m – not – re – tar- ded! O – K?” Anthony mimicked Dale nervously. The tips of Anthony’s ears burned with frustration. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet which were perspiring like never before. “I want my kids and my ex-wife to come up here RIGHT NOW!”

Someone below was holding a radio tuned in to a simulcast of a local news station broadcast so the crowd could listen to the breaking news report. Another anonymous spectator in the audience ordered a few pizzas and the boxes were passed around. By then, the mood had become quite festive and many seemed to forget the reason all these strangers had gathered there in the first place. “If only we had some popcorn and soda!” Everyone laughed. Jolly good fun.

“What you’re looking at is not a party, though it may appear that way, on the street below where one Anthony Miller is threatening to jump off that very building,” the announcer explained. “He has on a backpack that some suspect might be a bomb.”

The wave of laughter rose up into the air and reached Anthony’s ear. Quite unexpected, this jovial laughter. He saw the activity down below and asked Dale what the hell was going on down there. Dale didn’t have the faintest idea what was transpiring down below and gave no satisfactory response. Anthony was uneasy. Sweat rolled down his temples. This was not what he was hoping for.

Gladys and his two kids arrived, trudging up to the negotiator who gestured at them, as if to say, “Look Anthony! Your family’s here to see you.” They looked bored and lazy. Looking like they’d rather be somewhere else. Doing something else. With someone else. Arms crossed. Eyes rolling. Hateful glances and glares. None of them had anything to say to him. He waited long enough. They had their chance. And missed it.

“OK, that’s it! I’m really gonna do it now. I’m gonna jump!” Anthony stepped right up to the ledge, still facing Dale and his family.

“It appears that Anthony Miller is about to take a leap off the building. It seems negotiations have not gone well. If you have children in the room, we advise they leave immediately. This does not look good,” the announcer’s voice crackled from the small, black battery-powered radio.

The crowd below fell silent.

A tall, burly teenage boy with a mass of curly brown ringlets started to chant through a mouthful of half-chewed pizza, “Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!” Others soon joined in. First in a low, apprehensive whisper. Then in a thunderous chorus. “JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!”

Anthony looked over his shoulder down at the crowd. They want me to jump? Is that what they really want? He turned back to see how his two children reacted. He was hoping for some sympathy. Some empathy. The bored non-expressions on their faces hadn’t changed. Gladys smirked, her hateful eyes glittering with hope for a new tomorrow. A tomorrow with no Anthony Miller. Dale stared at him intensely, a look of straining constipation on his shiny face. Is Dale really the only one who cares about me? This negotiator who’s never encountered me until today?

Anthony spun around, stretched out his hands like Jesus on the cross, exposing large, wet pit stains on his powder-blue collared shirt under the straps of his backpack. He leapt off as dramatically as he could muster.

“Anthony Miller has jumped! There’s just no way he can survive this!” the newscaster announced excitedly. “That’s a twelve-story building!”

Anthony immediately realized what he had done and that he could not take it back. He reached back and pulled on the cord of what turned out to be, not a bomb strapped to his back, but a parachute.

“Amazing! He’s wearing a parachute, folks. I’ve never seen anything like this!” the newscaster spoke rapidly. “What is he thinking?”

“Maybe it’s a stunt,” Sunshine Carter, the other newscaster mused. “You know? I think they call it viral marketing. I wonder what he’s selling. Maybe parachutes?” She was not very bright. She started her career as a swim suit model. One wonders how she landed this job.

As Anthony slowly wafted down towards the street below, he spun around slowly and came face to face with his boss, Roxy, who was still standing at the large window facing the street.

“You’re fired!” she screamed out the window. “FIRED!”

Anthony flipped her the bird and grinned stupidly.

The crowd below did not get what they expected: a good, gory ending. Anthony Miller would land safely enough, but the crowd below rushed him. He laughed hysterically. Some threw pizza at him. Some ripped at his backpack and his clothes. Clumps of hair were ripped out at the roots. His uncontrollable laughter continued.

Others stomped him. Stomped him.

And stomped him.

Until the laughter finally stopped.

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones

Empty Pockets and Desperation – an original short story

This is a short story submitted to the 2015 One Throne Magazine contest. The first and last sentence (italicized) were provided by the magazine. You were given 24 hours to write a story of up to 1000 words.


Empty Pockets and Desperation

by T. K. Jones

They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. You couldn’t even tell your family or friends you’d be back in a few days. Would you? How could you know? Or that’s what I heard anyway. But I thought it was some new and ridiculous urban legend. The news wasn’t talking about people that hopped on the train and went missing. If this was the case, why weren’t people avoiding the trains? Many still rode them and didn’t appear the least bit apprehensive. I soon forgot the stories. Lost in my own work of fiction.

A year later, after I heard the rumors about space bending trains and oddly placed tracks, I hopped on a train in Boston to get to New York for an important meeting with Tom, my new literary agent. All those people are in fancy pants New York City with their angular haircuts and shiny skyscrapers. I had a manuscript to sell and a desperate need for money. Meaning I couldn’t afford a plane ticket plus cab fare, let alone round trip, in case the deal fell through. And I couldn’t drive there because my car was in such bad shape that it wouldn’t last the five hour drive to New York.

This was my first time on the trains heading out-of-state. I had a whole seating area to myself. There were only three others in my train car. As the train sped forward on the tracks, I saw the cityscape of Boston turn into a glittering rainbow blur. I couldn’t make a thing out. We must have been travelling very fast. And in just a short time, the train slowed down in a snowy landscape. It wasn’t New York.

The dreary train station had signs in Cyrillic. It might as well have been Chinese. I couldn’t read any of it. I ended up in Vladivostok according to the Russian-accented voice over the intercom. Impossible! But apparently true. I saw the weary, snow-slapped Eurasian faces all around me. Staring at me in my insufficient suit. I ran for a phone and managed after many failed attempts to call Tom in Manhattan.

“Tom, I’m in Siberia! I don’t know how I got here,” I practically whimpered into the phone. I really didn’t have a way to get back home. I had no significant amount of money on me. Not even a credit card. I left home with it but it must have been stolen by a pickpocket, somewhere en route.

“How could you not know?” Tom was upset. I could hear the editor curtly excuse herself from his office. She had other engagements and didn’t appreciate having her time wasted.

“Please, explain this to her!” I begged him.

“Explain what? Were you gonna fly here or drive or what?” Tom asked.

“No,” I closed my eyes to picture what happened. “I went on the train to New York. But somehow I ended up in Siberia!”

“Did you get off the train and end up on an airplane?” Tom sounded skeptical.

“No! I’m on the platform. The train’s still sitting right here.”

Tom sighed and shook his head. “Okay, well that deal fell through but there are other publishers out there. So tell me again what your stories about.” Tom represented many clients and hadn’t the vaguest memory of my story.

On the phone I described to him the premise of the story. It was about a man who hopped a train to get to another city, only he ended up in a completely different country!

Just then, I wondered why I couldn’t simply call Tom the way I was doing right now, only from home. He said the publishers and editors wanted to see and interact with the writer to see if they could sell them to the public. I told him I didn’t think that was a very fair way to do business, prejudicial in fact. He told me to save it. He wasn’t in the mood. And that’s just the way publishing is.

After a brief pause, Tom let out a strange sound that jarred me. I nearly dropped the receiver. “Do you realize what powers you have?”

“Powers? No, I’m feeling pretty powerless actually.” A crushing wave of fatigue momentarily drowned out the fear and anxiety I was suffering.

“Your story came true. Do you know what that means?”

I’d never heard Tom sound so excited. It perked me up right away. “Tell me!”

“You can write yourself back here!” Tom laughed hysterically. He was laughing at the absurdity of it all. His cackling made it sound as if he’d lost his mind. After catching his breath he added, “Write another story where you get your crazy butt over here.” Tom burst out into an uncontrollable laughter again.

I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not but it seemed to make sense. Why not? I had nothing else I could do. On the back of my manuscript pages I wrote a new story in pencil. Scribbling frantically. Only I didn’t write the character into New York. I wrote him back to Boston. Back where he began. There was no way I could sit still in Tom’s office and sell my story after a day like this.

I marked the last sentence with a bold period. And with that I found myself stepping off the train, not remembering that I had stepped back onto it in the first place. The sky was a charcoal gray and the air sagged with rain. A loud clap of thunder made me jump. I turned to face the train. The strange, impossible train. Or maybe it was the tracks that were strange. I looked down. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones. All Rights Reserved.

A Sheltered Life – an original poem

A Sheltered Life
by T. K. Jones

“She needs friends,” the mother says.
“But I don’t think she wants friends.”
She takes another long drag from her Virginia Slims
Not realizing it was largely her own fault
that her daughter had no friends.
No, not a single one
Always caged up in the apartment
Overprotected
A sheltered childhood
Preteen years of dwindling invitations
To the beach or to the mall
Not that anyone ever had any money to spend
“I can’t.”
“I’m not allowed to.”
She’d sigh, half whimpering, into the phone.
“She won’t let me go.”

The girl becomes strange.
Stranger than before.
A stranger now
A stranger stranger.
Some days not responding, or even acknowledging
Anyone or anything
A catatonic state.
Other days speaking in riddles and rhymes
In a low, ethereal voice much like a weeping cello

“She doesn’t have any friends,” her mother would tell everyone
as a matter-of-factly at family gatherings,
Leaving out the part about when her daughter was just a child
and asked if she would ever get married
The mother’s reply was, “No.
I’m the only friend you’ve got in this world.”
Destined for spinsterhood
An Emily Dickinson life.
An Emily Dickinson death.

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones

Becoming Nick Drake

Here’s a piece I wrote that I actually really like. It was rejected by Indiana Review, though. I will share it here:

Becoming Nick Drake
by T. K. Jones

She played Nick Drake’s “Day is Done” on her outdated laptop. On loop. Mouthing the parts she knew. Even after all this time, she didn’t know all the lyrics. Her fingers jumped on the fast guitar licks which were sparsely sprinkled throughout the song.

As she mouthed the words that came through her clunky Sony headphones, single syllables occasionally escaped from her throat, sounding like a deaf person speaking. Half muted. A moan. It embarrassed her. She was alone in her room but always looked over her shoulders. She would shake her head. Chuckle at herself. No one there.

Sometimes she got so caught up in the song, she became Nick Drake. In a music video or performing on stage. This was even more dangerous, as she would make faces so full of emotion. Going for long stretches of time losing touch with reality. She didn’t want people to see her lip-synching and making melodramatic  faces as she sat at an intersection so she switched to talk radio for drives. Angry, shouting conservatives. Rude lawyers hanging up on nervous callers. Financial analysts quoting Bible verses.

How could she drive safely if she had to make such fast transitions from air-guitar to air-cello and back to air-guitar? How could she listen to her mother in the passenger seat? Her mother had a habit of starting her nostalgic storytelling at the most inopportune times. While someone else was in the middle of a sentence. As an interesting bit of news came on TV.

She needed only to look in the mirror to remind herself that she wasn’t a long-deceased, broody Englishman with a soulful voice. Such a shame.

Driving alone one day, she purposefully crashed her car. A suicide labeled an accident. Leaving her mother one more story to interrupt people with.

(300 words)

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones