Until 4th January, the Dominions box-set is down to 99c (or your local equivalent) on all the usual ebook retailers. For such a low price, you get the first three books in the Dominions series (Dark Glass, Dead Flesh and Deep Water) along with the prologue short story Gatekeeper and a few bonuses at the end.
One of the great things about publishing independently is having control over pricing. I’ve run promotions for books before, and have experimented with free (all my short stories and novellas in my Dominions series are still free—click here to check them out). And now, until the end of the year, I’m trying something else.
I’m offering the first novel in each of my two series for only 99c (or your local equivalent). Both books are available from all the usual ebook retailers (if you can’t find it on your favourite, contact me and I’ll see what I can sort out). So if you want to start a new series for a bargain price, take a look at these two.
The start of a dark Dystopian thriller series.
A professional killer forced to take a contract in a perfect society—and becomes his own worst enemy.
The start of a sci-fi/horror trilogy.
The company trained Brice for many things. But nothing can prepare him for what he must face when the shadows fall.
As it’s Halloween, I thought I’d let you know about loads of free anthologies of scary/horror stories, all compiled by Samie Sands. She’s been releasing these collections for ages now, and she’s currently got loads of them set to free.
You can find all of them by searching for her name in Amazon (most, if not all, are Amazon exclusive—apologies to those of you who prefer other platforms). I’d like to draw your attention to a couple that contain short stories I wrote:
Electromagnetism is filled with tales exploring the troubling side of technology, and contains my vaguely voodoo-based story Touch.
It’s Behind You deals with fear. My story in this anthology is The Reason We Run.
…and for a couple of days you can get it for only 99c (or your local equivalent).
Shadows: The Complete Trilogy
What hides in the shadows?
It started with a routine mission, but when faulty tech and a worsening storm force Brice and the rest of the crew to abandon their craft, they have no idea they’ll become the prey for a group of blood-hungry beasts.
And this is only the start of their problems. These creatures have a terrible secret, one the company will do anything to keep in the dark—even if it means the deaths of Brice and his colleagues.
This set contains the complete trilogy of Shadowfall, Shadowsiege and Shadowstrike, horror-infused science fiction where the stakes grow as the nightmare deepens.
I’ve recently finished reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and one of the things that impressed me was how, over three separate books, the story changes. The second and third books don’t only move the story on, but also peel back multiple layers from what is already known, leading the reader to continually reassess what they already know. On finishing Acceptance (book 2), I had a strong urge to start the series again, to see how much of the ‘truth’ was already there.
The writer part of me can’t help wondering how VanderMeer wrote these books. Did he have the whole trilogy mapped out, or did the layers of the story reveal themselves as he worked on each book? Did he start Annihilation (book 1) with the idea of writing a single book and maybe seeing how things went after that, or was it a complete trilogy in his mind from the outset?
I’m thinking a lot about series at the moment as I’m currently working on the final three books in a nine-book series.
Normally, I work on books sequentially, only starting a book when the previous one is (almost) complete. I’ll have ideas for the whole series, and as I write one book I’ll be noting more detailed ideas for subsequent ones, but plans don’t always pan out—problems will become apparent as I write, or characters will do and say things that take the story in unexpected ways. While it’s possible to change a book in the process of writing it, changing previous books to fit in with these new developments is far more awkward.
I’m trying something different with this trilogy. The books need to work as stories on their own, but also be a satisfying close to the whole series story. I need to close all (or most) of the loops already opened, answering hanging question. But I also need to ensure that everything that happens in the concluding scenes has been adequately set up.
So I’m working on these new books simultaneously. I planned then all, and I’ve just had a very intense few months writing the first drafts for all three (385k words, well over 1000 pages). And already, I’ve stumbled on issues that I can now correct.
An example—I found a solution to a particular problem in the final act of the last book, but it relied on a character using a specific skill. This was something that fitted the character, but not something I’d mentioned in other books. If I used this skill with no set-up, it would feel like a deus-ex-machina, a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But now, I can seed this skill earlier, so its use at the end doesn’t come out of the blue.
Another example—there was a whole sequence of scenes I wrote in the third book that, on reflection, added too much confusion in that book, and were far more suited to being included in the book before. Not a problem—drag those scenes into the second book’s file, and insert them wherever appropriate.
Of course, there are problems with this way of working. If I’d concentrated on the first book, it would probably be getting close to completion by now, ready for release by the end of the year. But I won’t be able to release any of these books until well into 2021.
There’s compromise in everything, though, and on balance this new method seems to be working better for me—I’m crafting better stories, both individually and as a series, which is my primary concern here. It’s allowing me to more fully immerse myself in the overall story too. In fact, I fully intend to work in this way with the next series I start.
Writing’s never static—there’s always more to learn, different strategies and tactics to explore—so I’m sure my process will change again.
There are vampires and mysterious alien invaders. There are mobsters and shut-ins. There are those struggling to come to terms with loss, those nearing the end of their lives, those eager to make their mark on the world. There are conflicting realities and future nightmares. There are bitter lies and painful truths.
Some escape the darkness, others are consumed by it.
Millenary 5, the final (for now) collection of my 1000-word short stories, is now available for free download (click here). And if you want more short stories, the previous four volumes are also still available (and, yes, they’re free too)—click here for more information.
Last week I put up my hundredth short story, and it feels like an ideal moment to pause and take stock.
I started this site/blog back in 2016, a few months before publishing my first book (Dark Glass). From what I understood at the time, regular content was vital. So I planned to add something each week, alternating between short stories and posts on various aspects of books and reading. At the same time, I continued working on novels and other stories, while also learning (constantly learning!) about various aspects of marketing and advertising.
With a family and a full-time job, it was a lot to take on. But I persevered. I’ve added new content every week while also completing nine novels (and a few other books).
It’s been getting harder, though. Over the first couple of years, I’d have a few posts and stories in hand, but recently I’ve found myself working on them at the last minute, sometimes only starting the post or story a few days before my self-imposed deadline. That might show some kind of work ethic, but it doesn’t always give time for sufficient editing. Nor is that kind of pressure sustainable.
So it’s decision time.
Writing books is far more than tapping away on a keyboard. There’s planning, then writing, followed by many rounds of editing. After this, there’s marketing—cover, product description and back cover copy, advertising and so on. To do this effectively requires both time and money. The whole publishing/writing industry is in constant flux, so I also need to keep up to date (I do this mainly through a number of podcasts.)
As I’m not a full-time writer, I need to find a way to make it self-sustaining without risking burn-out. To do this, I need to focus on two areas—producing stories and finding readers who will appreciate them.
The first of these areas—producing stories—is the ‘writing’ stuff (including planning and editing). I’m currently working on a trilogy of books, with the aim to publish them in the spring of 2021. Work’s going well, but I need to be focused, and use my time effectively. I can’t afford to be side-tracked (too often).
The second area—finding readers—involves some ‘book production’ (cover and product description) along with all the marketing stuff. This is huge, and I know I can’t do everything. But producing books isn’t free, and I need to cover these costs somehow—so I have to market. At the moment I’m spending a lot of time understanding Amazon Ads, and I don’t want to lose momentum in this.
While my website/blog could come under marketing, I don’t feel that the time spent is adequately compensated by the benefits (getting my name out there, finding new readers and so on). So it’s no longer a priority, and I’m scaling it back.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to add anything new. I’ll still write short stories (they’re fun to work on, ideal as a break between longer projects, and a great way to improve my writing), but I won’t tie myself to one every fortnight. Nor will I limit myself to 1000 words. And I’ll still add posts, but only when I feel I have something to write about.
This might not be too infrequently, though. I’m constantly learning, and one of the best ways to consolidate learning is to summarise it—which, for me, means writing it down. If I have this stuff already written, then why not run it through a couple of editing passes and post it?
So I’m not going away, just shifting priorities.
I started this series of short stories way back in 2016, and I’ve finally reached number 100.
This story has been bubbling away for some time. It started, like many stories, from an image that popped into my head—a man covered into tattoos, each one related to an important part of his life. I wasn’t sure what to do with this image, played about with it for a while, and over the last month it became more coherent.
As the 100th story, this is a suitable point to draw a line under this 1000-word story project, and this story feels like a good one to close on.
It’s a classic shot in horror films—the main character walks away, and the camera pans over to the figure hiding in the shadows. Then there’s the mirror the next victim doesn’t look in, and so they miss the face in the glass. There’s a storm outside, but our heroes never see the hideous face at the window in the next flash of lightning. Or the monitor system that shows nothing untoward—until the main character looks away.
I’m sure you’ve seen other variations, in many films and TV shows. The observer unseen by the hero, the monster only we, the viewer, are aware of. It heightens the tension, gets us screaming at the screen, increases our pulse.
It’s a classic visual storytelling technique.
Note that I say visual technique. Like many film techniques, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the written word.
This has been brought to my attention in a couple of horror books I’ve read recently. One had a supposedly dead crew-member move in the image on a monitor—but only when two other characters had looked away. And the other had many scenes where characters were unable to see the ghosts following them, or even the ones standing right in front of them.
Both these books had engaging stories, and I enjoyed them—except for these moments that pulled me out of the books. Rather than increasing the sensation of fear they were supposed to evoke, they had me rolling my eyes.
But why? If the technique can be effective in film, why doesn’t it translate well to the page?
I can think of two main reasons.
The first involves point-of-view.
Most books stick to a single point-of-view throughout. Some go with first person, where everything is described as if being narrated by the protagonist (I spun around as something screeched outside, but all I could see in the glass was my own startled reflection.) Others use third person (He spun around to stare at his reflection.)
It gets more involved, of course. There are different degrees of third person pov (point-of-view). There’s the ‘god-like’ style, where the narrator knows everything, and doesn’t shy away from telling the reader. (When he spun around, he saw only his reflection, not the creature on the other side of the glass, the same one that had already tasted blood and wanted more of it.) This takes particular skill to pull off, because it automatically distances the reader from the characters.
An alternative, somewhere between this wide-angle third person pov and the intimate first person pov, is close (or limited) third person, where the narrator/writer describes what is happening, but limits that to the experiences of a particular character. This is probably the most popular point-of-view in modern books. The example of third-person above would fit here, but could be extended to include the character’s thoughts and feelings (He spun around to stare at his reflection, and the hollow pit in his stomach grew. For a moment he didn’t recognise his own features.)
Those examples aren’t brilliant writing, but you get the idea.
So what does this have to do with the ‘unseen observer’ film technique?
If a book is written in close third, then the only things that can be described are what the point of view character experiences (sees, hears, and so on). If something happens that they’re not aware of, it can’t be described. So if they close a door as they leave a room, unaware of the dark creature lurking in the door’s shadow, then the reader can’t know about this either.
So in close third, the reader shouldn’t see the face in the shadows, or the ghosts that are invisible to the point-of-view character. And when these things are described, it breaks point-of-view.
Does this matter? Isn’t this just a technicality? Maybe. But even if readers don’t know about point-of-view, they may well feel that something’s not quite right. The book just doesn’t hit home for them, although there’s nothing they can put their finger on.
There’s certain implied contracts between writer and reader. This includes promises the writer makes at the start of a story, but it also includes the style of story-telling. Changing point-of-view, unless done with great skill, breaks this contract—and so breaks the ‘reality’ of the story.
I said there were two reasons these ‘unseen observer’ passages didn’t work for me, and the second is harder to explain. Please bear with me.
Many (maybe most) writers think visually. We’re used to seeing the world around us, and are so accustomed to visual storytelling (in films and TV) that this should come as no surprise. So when we create stories, we often see them as mini-movies playing out in our imaginations. Even the dialogue is accompanied by facial expressions and other movements (which is why a straight transcription of imagined dialogue often fails to live up to the ‘reality’ in our heads.)
I’m pretty sure the writers of those two books (the ones with the passages that pulled me from the story) imagined these reveals in visual terms—the camera slowly zooming in to the monitor once the characters turned away, or maybe a slow dissolve to reveal the ghosts the characters couldn’t see. And then, they put words down to describe this scene, as accurately as they could.
I’m sure, when they read their words, they felt the same excited dread that they’d experienced when imagining these scenes—but how much of that was because of the words they’d put down, and how much was a trigger of that initial sensation?
It’s tricky, writing well. A line of dialogue can sound wonderfully sarcastic in our minds, but without the drawling voice it can come across as merely bitter on the page. An intense fight scene can become a series of abrupt sentences that don’t quite gel. That wonderful jump scare from our imaginations can become over-laboured, or over too fast to have the right impact.
When I read these problematic passages, I could imagine the writer working at them—when I should have been feeling scared for the characters. And imagining how the books were written naturally pulled me out of the stories.
I’m not saying either book was bad. I’m pretty sure I’ll read more by both writers—they can construct decent stories, and can write well. Both books have many great reviews, too.
But no writing is perfect. There are always things that could have been improved. And that’s why I wanted to spend time thinking about these moments of distraction—the more I discover and analyse problems in books, the better my own writing should be.
Of course, I also need to figure out what works well in stories. This is harder, because excellent writing is invisible—I’m so engrossed in the story that I barely register that there’s words on the page. With the best writing, I’m there with the characters, in their heads, feeling what they feel. And when something scared them, it will scare me too.
One of the first short stories I wrote for this website, way back in 2016, was called A Lesson In Death. That story told of a child witnessing an assassination, not realising the danger to himself as he started asking questions.
I always wondered how this incident impacted on that child as he grew up, and wanted to write a follow-up story. Finally (as we approach a hundred of these stories) I’ve got round to it.
And here it is—after A Lesson In Death we have A Lesson In Life. It also features the main character from The Job, the first story I published on this site.
You can read A Lesson In Life here.