New short story ‘Just Doing My Job’

Like There’s Always A Choice, the short story I put out a few weeks ago, this new story began life as part of a novel. In this case, I wanted to see if I could write a kind-of sequel to my Shadows series, and while the book didn’t really work out as another Shadows book (it was too different in tone), the story has potential. But, as with many first drafts, there were unrequired scenes.

This new story (Just Doing My Job) came from one such scene. It shows Deva (who previously appeared in Stowaway) once more showing how she copes when others look down on her‌—‌and that was the problem. We already know this, and so there was no need to spend time in the novel reiterating her tough spirit. But as a short story, I think it works.

You can read Just Doing My Job here, and, as always, I’d love to know what you think.

Mid-year round-up, and the benefits of struggling with writing

It’s July. That means half of 2019 is gone, and I thought I’d take a look at how the year’s going for my writing.

My first thoughts on this aren’t good. I’ve found writing increasingly difficult, and don’t feel I’ve been very productive. But to be more objective about this, I’ll recap the 2019 goals I set back in January (for more details, that original post can be found here). These were:

  • To release a new edition of Dark Glass, the first book in my Dominions series
  • To release another two Dominions books
  • To take my Shadows series out of Kindle Unlimited and go wide
  • To release paperbacks of at least some of my books
  • To start a new project or series

So, how am I doing?

Dom1CoverSmallI published the rewritten version of Dark Glass in January, and followed it with a box-set of the first three novels. I’m far happier with this new version of the series starter, and a couple of recent (negative) reviews on the following books bring this back to me‌—‌Dark Glass is now a far stronger book, and so more likely to encourage readers to download other books in the series.

I’ll be getting new covers for the Shadows books from next month (the designers I’m using, Deranged Doctor Design, are usually booked up about six months in advance, which is why I didn’t use them for the original Shadows covers‌—‌a mistake on my part, I admit), so I’m waiting for these before re-releasing the series and putting it wide (Kobo, iBook and so on). I’m also getting paperback covers done, and I’ve already formatted the interiors, so this should be another goal ticked off by the end of the year.

So, one goal achieved, two on target. Now we come onto the ones that aren’t going so well.

I started Dominions V back in January, working from a rough outline I’ve been kicking around for some time (well over a year). But I wasn’t pleased with the first draft, and did some intensive planning before starting another draft. This one ended up far too long, and again I wasn’t happy with the story. There were moments I thought worked well, but overall it felt strained, and there were too many sections that plodded. The whole resolution felt forced, and it wasn’t a satisfying read.

It was now the middle of May, and I knew I needed a break. So I put this novel to one side and started something else.

Shadows was always intended as a trilogy, but I left some loops open (I’ve never been a fan of stories that close everything off too neatly). I’d been intrigued by a possible follow-on series, and so I planned and wrote a novel that could be start of this series, and managed to complete the first draft by the middle of June.

This was an improvement on the Dominions V drafts, in that the story worked. But it didn’t sit well with the rest of the Shadows books. The original trilogy was sci-fi infused with horror, whereas this new one was more action/adventure. It felt like a story being crammed into an already-existing universe.

So, six months and drafts of two novels that didn’t work. I started to wonder if I’d wasted half the year, as well as trying to figure out why writing had suddenly become so much harder. And as I thought on this, I realised two things:

Progress means aiming higher

In retrospect, writing isn’t getting any harder. What has got trickier is writing scenes and stories that satisfy my inner critic. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m constantly resetting the bar for myself higher and higher.

If I wanted proof of this, I only had to look at Dark Glass. When I released the original version, I was really pleased with it. I believed the story worked, and that the writing was good‌—‌not exceptional, but better than I expected. But a few years later I was able to see so many issues with that book that I decided to re-write it.

No writing is ever wasted

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Edison, when he was asked about his failure to produce (I believe) a working lightbulb‌—‌‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ This can apply to anything, including writing.

To get better at something requires two things‌—‌knowing what to do, and practising. With writing, I can read books on craft, listen to podcasts, learn in so many different ways‌—‌but this will have no effect if I don’t put this learning into practice by actually writing.

So I can look back on these ‘failed’ drafts as practice. I can see passages that work, and I can also learn from what didn’t. Through writing, I’ve improved, and that means my next draft should be better, maybe even something I can use.

But there’s another way of using this writing. Stories are made of scenes, and each scene should work on its own. From these drafts, I’ve managed to extract scenes and mould them into short stories (you can read one of these, There’s Always A Choice, here). Additionally, the draft of the post-Shadows book might be usable. I could re-mould it into the start of a brand new series, unconnected to Shadows.


Where does this leave me for the remainder of 2019? I’ve started another draft of the next Dominions novel, after a more in-depth planning process, and I feel it works far better than the previous ones. I’m confident I’ll have this book out by the end of the year, but I doubt the one after will be ready‌—‌especially as I want to spend some time concentrating on the re-release of the Shadows series.

So I won’t achieve all of my goals for this year. But that doesn’t matter‌—‌I’ve kept on working towards them, and I’ve learnt along the way.

As long as I keep on writing, I’m doing well.

New short story – ‘Do You See?’

PowerOfWordsCoverJust under a year ago, I had a (fairly long) story, Ghost Stream, included in The Power Of Words anthology (along with other great stories by MLS Weech, Heidi Angell and Richard Drake). To tie in with the release of this, I wrote a couple of short stories. One was Rumours, and you can still read this here. The other, however, I decided not to publish. Although I liked the story, I felt the ending was too similar to parts of Ghost Story itself.

But after almost a year, it’s time for this story to appear. It’s called Do You See?, and you can read it here. And if this piques your interest, Ghost Story is still available in The Power Of Words (as ebook, paperback and audiobook)‌—‌click here for more information.

How Disney use story, even in their park entrances

Stories are everywhere. In fiction, obviously, but non-fiction uses story forms too. Stories are used in marketing and politics. If you keep your eyes open, you can see stories everywhere. Even in design.

We had a family holiday to Disneyland Paris recently, and the amount of story on display was immense. This isn’t too surprising‌—‌Disney made their name with films and animations‌—‌but look a little deeper, and there is more to their use of story than this. They understand that stories are journeys, and if you want a potential customer and fan to follow that journey to the end, you need to engage their emotions.

The place is split into different areas, each with their own theme (Fantasyland, Discoveryland and so on), with distinctive buildings and music. The queues are their own ministories, with twists and turns that reveal props connected to the rides, or animated characters, or screens giving instructions in a manner suited to each ride.

And the staff are a part of the stories, too. It’s no accident that Disney refer to them as ‘cast’ or ‘crew’. They wear costumes appropriate to each area of the park or specific ride, and many perform roles in the manner they interact with the visitors. Even those cleaning the streets are in costume, and wouldn’t look out of place dancing with the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins.

So objects and personnel are part of the story, but the physical design of the place plays a big role, too. Nowhere is this most obvious than in the entrance to the main park.

Once through the security checks, visitors walk toward a large, impressive-looking building that houses the entrance to the park itself. But there is no straightforward route. Paths twist and turn around flower beds and water features, yet the journey eventually brings the visitor to the entrance.

disney1-e1561187814653.jpgThis is beneath the building, and on a bright day it is dark under there. It’s classic storytelling‌—‌the hero must first pass from the everyday world into the new, and that often means travelling somewhere uncomfortable, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. In classic hero’s journey tales, there’s a threshold guardian to thwart the hero’s attempt to progress, and in Disnelyand that role is played by the greeters and ticket-checkers.

But we pass these guardians, and emerge from the dimness into the new world of the park itself. But the journey is still not complete. In story, the hero must work through many trials, and the goal is never discovered round the first corner.

Disney2Ahead, blocking the path, is another building, this one a train station. The track runs overhead, and to progress the brave adventurer must step though the dark arches underneath. Emerging from these, the space opens up, and the adventurer is met by buildings from some idealised perfect past‌—‌clearly fake, but this is a magical story, so we can expect nothing else.

Yet this isn’t the promised end of the journey. We’ve all seen the Disney castle (at the start of every one of their films and on so many logos), and we know this lies at the centre of the kingdom. As in so many fairy tales, the castle is the ultimate goal. And now, on the far side of the train station, we can see fleeting glimpses‌—‌a pink turret, a flag‌—‌but not the whole thing. A bandstand blocks out view.

So, one more obstacle. We walk around this, and only then does the view open up‌—‌Main Street, with music and sounds and lights and life, and just beyond the wide space at the end, framed perfectly by the buildings of the street, is the castle, just as it appears in all the pictures. Now that we have seen the castle, we know we’ve arrived in Disneyland.

It’s easy to be cynical about this. Disney understand how stories can be used to persuade, and how a captive audience can be parted from their money. By that shouldn’t detract from the attention to detail here, and to the way that story is used so effectively. It’s also worth remembering that one of the primary functions of story is to entertain. In a place like Disneyland, the rides and attractions are the main focus, but by adding entertainment to the walks and queues Disney aim to turn a day out into a journey of adventure. Love it or loathe it, they know how to use story effectively.

New short story

It’s often said that editing involves cutting at least ten percent of the words, and while this isn’t strictly true, may words written in a first draft never reach the final product. Sometimes, whole chapters get discarded.

That is how this new short story, There’s Always A Choice, came about. It was originally part of an early draft for Dominions V, but I decided to cut it fairly early on. I liked it too much to let it be ignored, though, so I reworked it. Maybe it’s a deleted scene from an as-yet unpublished book, or maybe it’s a short story in its own right.

You can read There’s Always A Choice here. And if you like this one, you might like to compare it to A Lesson In Death, a far earlier story focusing on Rodin. I think they mirror each other fairly well.

And, as always, I’d love to know what you think of the story.

The sentence that pulled me out of ‘Dune’

I suppose it’s inevitable that the way I read is changing as I learn more about storytelling and the craft of writing. Reading’s still one of my favourite things to do, but when something doesn’t feel right in a book or story, I’ll try to analyse the perceived problem. I’m also more likely to reflect on a book in a more analytical way. I’ll attempt to figure out how a writer has impressed me, and also imagine how I’d approach those little things that didn’t work for me.

I thought I’d share one of these moments. It happened when I re-read Dune recently.

Dune_FrankHerbertBefore I dive in, there’s a couple of things to bear in mind here. Dune was published over ten years after Frank Herbert’s first novel came out, and he’d had years of publishing short stories in magazines before that, so this is a book by an experienced writer. I’m still near the start of my writing life, so I’m in no way holding myself up to be ‘better’ than Herbert (or the numerous editors who would have been involved in the book’s journey).

Dune was written over fifty years ago, and fashions change in writing, just as in everything else. The thing that tripped me up might not have been considered an issue when Herbert was writing it.

But trip me up it did. One sentence pulled me right out of the story.

It happened in the fifth section (they’re not labelled as chapters, but they might as well be), where we finally get to meet Dr Yeuh. We already know that he will betray Duke Leto Atreides, under orders or instruction from the Barron Harkonnen. Such a thing should be impossible, as Dr Yeuh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, but Harkonnen in a previous scene hinted that there are ways around this. So our first scene with Dr Yeah himself is keenly anticipated.

The scene starts with Dr Yeuh entering the room of Paul, the Duke’s son, and we get to hear a number of Yeah’s internal thoughts (a technique Herbert uses often throughout the book.) But almost on the first page we get this thought from the man.

What I do is done to be certain my Wanna no longer can be hurt by the Harkonnen beast.

When I read this, I immediately saw it as an info-dump. The wording sounded clumsy in comparison to Dr Yeuh’s previous thoughts, and it felt that the information‌—‌that Harkonnen was breaking the man’s Imperial Conditioning by holding someone Dr Yeuh cared deeply about‌—‌had been shoe-horned in.

It does allow us to feel some sympathy for the man‌—‌yes, he will betray the Atreides family, but it is not through choice. Rather, he is being forced into this action by the real villain, Harkonnen. But the man comes across as fairly sympathetic over the rest of the scene anyway, in the way he talks to and acts around Paul. So couldn’t this nugget of information be saved until later? Would it not be better to let us, the reader, see the man before learning his secret?

Later in this scene, Dr Yeuh gifts Paul a book, and asks him to turn to a marked page. Paul feels two marks on the pages, and opens at the smaller‌—‌but when he starts to read, Dr Yeah yells for him to stop.

“I’m sorry,” Yeuh said. “That was … my … dead wife’s favourite passage.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the first mention of Wanna. The way Yeuh hesitated, then calls her ‘my‌…‌dead wife’ is quite dramatic, and should be enough to start connections in the reader’s mind‌—‌maybe this is something to do with his expected betrayal. And if we heard some thought from him here, it could confirm this impression.

So maybe that first info-dump thought should have just hinted at some hold Harkonnen had over the man. I do what I must to keep her safe, or something similar. It gives us enough to know that Yeuh is being forced to betray Duke Leto, and then more details arise naturally.

At least, that’s how I would have written this scene. But maybe I’m missing something, and there’s a reason Herbert did what I saw as an info-dump. Maybe this is my inexperience showing.

In some ways, this doesn’t really matter. It might have pulled me out of the story for a moment, but I still enjoyed the book overall (enough that I’ve made a start on the sequels). And in forcing me to think about ways of handling the imparting of information in a story, it should improve my own writing.

 

New short story – ‘Stronger Than Death’

I’m going to warn you up-front that this is another dark story.

In the fourth Dominions novel (Riled Dogs), there’s a particularly nasty character called Garrick‌—‌the type of villain who enjoys torture, and who uses pain to get what he wants. He’s ruthless, and any who go up against him must have a certain kind of strength‌—‌not physical, but deeper. They would need their own kind of ruthlessness, or brutal practicality.

This story, Stronger Than Death, is based around this idea, and you can read it here. But don’t expect a pleasant ending.