New short story ‘The Illusion Of Control’

Another short story for you.

The Illusion Of Control started of as an attempt to write in second person (because one of the great things about writing short stories is the opportunity to explore different things). However, it soon changed, and became something else (read it to find out what).

The ending kind of echoes the thoughts in Calum Chace’s book Surviving AI: The promise and peril of Artificial Intelligence (well worth checking out if you’re at all interested in where AI might be taking us), although I wrote the first draft of this story before reading Chace’s book.

Anyway, you can read The Illusion Of Control here. And, as usual, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Why Amazon bookstores are not traditional bookstores

It seems like every month another retail outlet closes down. The big one recently has been Toys R Us, but there have been so many over the past few years. Initially, people blamed out-of-town shopping centres for the demise of the high street, but now even those places are no longer secure.

Things change. It is more convenient to buy over the internet, in the comfort of our own homes. With mobile devices, we can now shop wherever we are, and get things delivered to our doors, or even elsewhere. If we want to buy a gift for someone, we can have it sent directly to them. And on-line stores have limitless shelf-space, so there’s far less chance of hearing ‘sorry, we don’t have that at the moment’.

The major player in this is, of course, Amazon. Love them or loathe them, they have changed our shopping behavious, and in doing so have changed both high streets and out-of-town shopping areas.

And yet, back in 2015, Amazon opened a physical bookstore, with more following over the next couple of years. On the face of it, this makes no sense‌—‌the bricks-and-mortar stores of their competitors have been struggling (Barnes & Noble), or have gone under (Borders).

Yet Amazon doesn’t do anything unless the company is likely to gain. And I believe their intention with these physical bookstores is different to their competitors. I don’t believe they see the primary goal of these stores to be selling physical books.

A book store that doesn’t want to shift its stock? That appears to make even less sense‌—‌until you take a step back and look at things in a different light.


Consider, to start with, how the books are displayed in these Amazon stores.

bookstore-1315560_1280Your average bookstore will have tables filled with displays of books on promotion, or new titles. These are to tempt potential customers in. There will probably be a chart rack somewhere, clearly displaying which books are popular‌—‌because people like to read what others are reading. And then there are the other shelves, the ones further back that are only browsed by the die-hard readers, or those seeking something particular. Here, most of the books are presented spine-out, with only the occasional book face-out. Why? Because more different titles can be shown that way. The only problem is, covers catch the eye far better than book spines.

Amazon stores have the display tables, and popular titles are clearly displayed. There are also racks of other books, only no book is spine-out. Every single book shows its cover.

This means that an Amazon store will probably have less stock on the shop floor than a traditional bookstore of the same size. And from Amazon’s perspective, there is a very good reason for this.

The main purpose of an Amazon bookstore is to display books.

It wants to draw in browsers. The Amazon bookstores are less interested in someone seeking a particular book, and more interested in pulling in new potential customers. In effect, the whole of an Amazon bookstore is a store-front.


So does this mean that Amazon are losing those bookworms who scour the shelves for something different, or those who have already read the popular titles, and are looking for more by the same authors?

In the physical world, yes. But think again about people’s shopping habits.

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You’ve probably heard about this behaviour, even if you don’t do it yourself. A reader goes into a book stores and browses the displays and the shelves. A title catches their eye, and they look further‌—‌read the back cover, maybe flick through a few pages. They check out the price. Then they pull out their phone and see if it’s cheaper elsewhere. Maybe, even while they’re in one store, they order the book from somewhere else, to be delivered.

It’s not good for the store they’re in, but it’s understandable. They get the book they want, for the best price they can find, and they don’t have to carry it home.

Of course, if they want the book there and then, they would have to buy it. Or get a digital copy, and start reading on their phone.

Chances are, these behaviours will involve Amazon, at least in the UK and USA.

Buying books on-line, both physical and digital copies, has become the norm for a lot of people. So Amazon’s bookstores don’t need to cater to people who read a lot. Instead, these stores are advertising, a marketing strategy to tempt more customers to join Amazon. Even if their physical stores don’t make any profit, the company overall makes enough sales to cover this loss.

If the whole store is advertising, the staff have to play a part in this, and everything has to work together. And, from what I understand (living in the UK, I have not been inside an Amazon store yet), Amazon have this cracked. The store staff all have tablets, and can call up information on any book in Amazon’s catalogue (which is close to any book available). They can assist customers in making choices, and if the title is not in the store itself, the staff can order it, even set it up to be delivered to the customer, and all without the customer having to wait at a till. So the customer gets great service, which tempts them back to Amazon the next time they want a book. They might go to the store, or they might go on-line, but Amazon wins either way.

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There’s one more thing that needs noting about Amazon’s book stores, and that’s to do with Amazon Prime.

For those of you who are not familiar with Prime, it’s a subscription service that gives loads of benefits to the customer‌—‌video and music streaming, unlimited access to various books through Prime Reading, free two-day delivery on items ordered, and more. Amazon are constantly expanding the benefits, and one benefit is cheaper prices in their physical bookstores.

Maybe that seems unfair to non-Prime members, but look at it from Amazon’s perspective. Prime members generally spend more on Amazon than non-Prime members. They’re Amazon’s super-customers. They make more money for the company, and so Amazon want to encourage more people to join the scheme — through better deals. If a reader learns about cheaper prices through Amazon Prime, maybe they will sign up in the store.

It also encourages loyalty. Imagine you’re a Prime member, and you want a particular book. You could get it at any other book store, but you know you can get a discount at the Amazon store. Where are you going to shop? The answer’s obvious.

This is why Amazon’s move into physical bookstores is not a straight competition with existing stores. Their stores are giant displays, with helpful staff, and are designed to make money for the business as a whole rather than as a single store. And they are designed to increase customers’ loyalty and reliance on Amazon.


So where does this leave existing stores? We’ve seen Borders disappear, and Barnes & Noble are struggling. Supermarkets in the UK now stock chart titles at low prices in an attempt to have a slice of the pie for themselves, but Amazon are the largest book-seller in the world. How can others compete with that? Is there any space for the independent high-street bookstore?

I’ve got a few thoughts on this, but I’ll save them for next time.

New short story

This time, I’ve got a horror tale for you, called It’s Not Murder If They’re Not Human.  You can read it here.

This is one of those stories that came about through writing whatever was in my mind, without any clear idea where it was going. I was tired at the time, and I had the image of someone staggering into a room, unsure of what was happening, but bleeding. Or they had blood on them. Only as I wrote did I start to figure out what was in the room they’d left.

It needed editing of course, and as the story became clearer I rewrote a lot of it. I think only a few lines of the original writing remain. But that’s okay‌—‌sometimes the story only emerges when all the wrong words are out of the way.

Anyway, I hope you like It’s Not Murder If They’re Not Human. And as always, I’d love to know what you think of it.

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV) now live

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV) is now released, through all major e-book stores. If you missed the pre-order special price, don’t worry, because I’m keeping the book at 99p/99c until after the weekend.

And if you haven’t read any of the other Dominions books, the first novel, Dark Glass, should be free everywhere (if it isn’t, get in contact with me and I’ll see what I can sort out). Or you could jump straight in with Riled Dogs (it’s a new chapter in the series, so you don’t necessarily need to have read the others to know what’s going on, but you might miss out on some of the references to previous books).

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)The only certainty in life is death.

Genna can’t let her guard down, even for a moment. Running a district is hard work, and there are always those determined to undermine her. And now she has a fugitive from the Dome to protect, someone who is still seen as a threat to be neutralised.

Then there is her old enemy to the east, an enemy who appears to have new, worryingly powerful weapons. Already, the dog is snapping at her heels. Genna knows that is it only a matter of time before he attacks.

And if he wins, she could lose everything.

Get Riled Dogs by clicking here, and check out Dark Glass here.

Good things come in small packages – reasons for short stories

 

Years ago, back when I was a teenager, I read Stephen King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew. While I can vaguely recall some of the stories, the things that sticks in my mind to this day is something from his introduction:

‘Reading a long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair‌…‌a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.’

Whenever I think about short stories, these lines come to mind. While I prefer novels, I still enjoy short stories (both reading and writing them), and King’s quote seems to sum up much of the attraction‌—‌that brief moment of enjoyment, a few minutes of escapism stolen from the business of the day.

But I feel it’s worth exploring the pull of short stories in more detail. As both a reader and a writer, why is short fiction important?

The Rush

Sometimes, in our busy lives, it is hard to find the time a novel demands. After a long day, maybe we don’t have the mental energy to delve into complex fictional worlds. We need something shorter‌—‌a quick fix. And here, short stories come into their own.

Shorts are different to novels, and not only in length. Often, they focus on one, maybe two characters, so we do not have to keep track of all those (often very interesting) side-characters who appear in novels. Due to their brevity, they start right in the action, and there is none of the detailed world-building and stage-setting that appears in novels. Although a well-written short will contain world-building, it will happen in a couple of sentences rather than a couple of chapters.

Then there are the endings. Some shorts are all about the twist at the end, the few thousand words a set-up for the dark punch-line. Others leave things unexplained, planting the seeds for our own minds to complete the story at our leisure. And others provide the ‘complete’ story experience‌—‌there are questions, but all is resolved at the end. The Sherlock Holmes stories are fine example of this, where Holmes patiently explains to Watson exactly what’s been going on.

These kind of stories are like puzzles, with the solution at the end. They provide us not only entertainment, but also a brief period of mental exercise as we attempt to solve the mystery before the master detective does.

From a writer’s perspective, short stories can be like puzzles too‌—‌attempting to provide a satisfying story experience with limited words is in many ways harder than allowing ideas to expand to novel length. But they can also be a respite from the long slog of producing a novel. When we start to flag on our latest long-form project, we can break off and work on a short story. Maybe we see that short through to completion‌—‌planning, writing and editing the story‌—‌and this can reinvigorating our enthusiasm. After writing our short story, we can dive back into that novel.

That Little Bit More

Sometimes there are even events in novels that are brushed over, maybe hinted at but never fully explained. There are usually perfectly legitimate reasons for this‌—‌taking a detour would derail the momentum of the main story, or delving into backstory might lead to a longer novel than we wished for. But as writers it is useful to know these missing details. We want our characters to be real, and that means they should have lives beyond the pages. Short stories are great for exploring different aspects of the characters we, as writers, invent.

Gilden-Fire_StephenDonaldsonAnd sometimes, readers want to know this extra information as well. We want to read more about a favourite character, or we want to experience the story world in greater depth.

Tolkien is a great example of this. There is The Hobbit, and there is The Lord Of The Rings. They are complete in themselves, and can be enjoyed just as they are. But Tolkien’s world-building is incredibly detailed, and there are a plethora of extra writings (Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion and so on) that allow the reader to delve even further into the myths an history of Middle Earth.

But it doesn’t have to be this involved. Stephen Donaldson, when he was writing his first Thomas Covenant trilogy, initially had a whole chapter from another character’s point of view. It didn’t work with the rest of the book, but Donaldson didn’t want it to disappear totally, so he released it as a separate story, Gilden-Fire.

A Chance To Explore

ufo-2144977_1280And this leads on to another aspect of short stories‌—‌they give us a chance to explore.

This can come in many forms. As a reader, it can mean trying new authors, maybe with stories in an anthology or with free (or at least cheap) stories available to download. Maybe you’ve enjoyed one book by a particular author, but aren’t yet convinced their other books will be for you‌—‌so you try a short story, to see if that first book was a one-off or if their writing does resonate with you. Or maybe you’re unsure about a whole genre, but you want to give it a go. You could dive straight in with a novel, but that costs hours of time. Far safer to try something shorter, and then move on to a novel if you get on with the short.

As a writer, short fiction can be used as training, or working on craft. Short stories provide the writer with a space in which to experiment. This might mean writing with a different viewpoint, for instance trying first person (‘I did this’) instead of third person (‘she did this’). Or maybe you experiment with tenses (‘they did this’ becomes ‘they do this’).

I’ve used short stories to experiment in other ways. I’ve done a couple that are pure dialogue (and I’ll probably try one that is a monologue at some point). I’ve tried writing a story in the style of a report. I’ve also played with other genres, like fantasy and espionage.

And if these experiments don’t work, and the short story is not good enough to be released, then that need not be seen as a failure. It’s not time wasted. It’s all learning, even if the only thing the writer learns is that they cannot (yet) work in that particular style. It’s no different to a musician trying a different instrument or alternative styles of music.

Think of a musician like Prince. He continually worked on songs, and his vaults contain thousands of unreleased songs. I’m sure their quality varies, from ‘classic’ material to tracks that would push the patience of many fans. But all of them are important, not for how they worked out, but for what Price learnt in the process of producing them.

Brandon Sanderson wrote something like six novels before he started trying to find an agent and a publisher, and I believe he sees those novels as a kind of training‌—‌he had to write that much before he was good enough to write something worthy of release. For most writers, there are one or two ‘trunk novels’‌—‌those books we write that we know should never see the light of day. But we have to learn. We have to develop.

And that development is on-going. Short stories provide a way to do that without taking large swathes of time away from writing novels.

Maybe, for some fans and analysts, these unpublished short stories do provide value. Maybe, for someone who wants to not only enjoy stories but also to understand their development, experimental shorts provide an insight into the mind and the workings of authors. Maybe they contain seeds that later bore fruit.

The Birth Of Ideas

And that leads to the final thing I want to say about short fiction‌—‌they are a breeding ground for ideas. Sometimes, my shorts start with a rough idea, and I just write whatever comes into my head. This is usually pretty messy, but when I go back over it, ideas start to develop. Maybe ninety percent of the words are cut, but that remaining ten percent provides the basis for something far better. It’s as if the idea that will work is hidden away, and the only way to release it is to let the words flow.

StainlessSteelRat_HarryHarrisonAnd sometimes, a short story can provide an idea for a novel, maybe a whole series. Harry Harrison is an example of this. Way back in 1957, his story The Stainless Steel Rat appeared in a magazine. Three years later, another story based on the same character came out. Then Harrison reworked these stories, with new material, into the novel The Stainless Steel Rat. But the character of Slippery Jim demanded more, and Harrison wrote more novels. And it all started from a short story.

Short stories‌—‌those kisses in the dark‌—‌can be sweet and thrilling for what they are. But they can also develop. They can lead to relationships with new authors, or grow into stories that envelop us. They can be of the moment, or the moment when things start.

But you never know what will happen until you start. And that is why I’ll continue to both write and read short stories.

And I’ll finish with another quote, this time from Neil Gaiman, someone who continues to produce imaginative fiction of different lengths:

A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick‌—‌a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.

New short story – ‘Blood Bind’

Another new short story for you.

Blood Bind gives a bit of an insight into Shorack, a character from my upcoming Riled Dogs (Dominions IV) (currently on pre-order at a low price, released on 27th March). Like some of my previous stories based on characters from my novels (Rodin in A Lesson In Death and Genna in Influential Friends), this shows him in a normal day‌—‌although ‘normal- is always relative.

I hope you enjoy it. You can read Blood Bind here. And, as usual, I’d love to know what you think of it.

New short story in ‘It’s Behind You’ anthology

This has been out for a few days now, so apologies if you already know about it, but I have a new short story in an anthology, available on Amazon as both an e-book and a paperback.

It's Behind YouThe anthology is called It’s Behind You, and is a collection of stories based around fear (and yes, a couple of the stories do feature clowns). My story is The Reason We Run, a post-apocalyptic thing that might be a twisted love story (don’t want to give too much away, but you can probably guess it’s going to be dark).

The e-book is currently 99p / 99c (a bargain for seventeen stories and one poem), and you can find it at the links below:

E-book (UK/USA)

Paperback (UK/USA)