‘Unspoken’ – new short story

I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 recently (can’t believe I’ve only just got round to reading this book), and it got me thinking‌—‌how would book-burning work today, when so many books are digital? That knocked around in my head for a while, and this short story, Unspoken, was the result. You can read the story here.

This is the fortieth short story I’ve posted (you can reach all the others by clicking here). The first twenty are available in a free e-book download, Millenary (click here), and with Unspoken now out there, the next anthology (imaginatively titled Millenary 2) will be out in a few weeks‌—‌again, totally free.

The Last Jedi from a story perspective

star_wars_episode_8_the_last_jedi_logo_720.0I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan. I saw (and enjoyed) the original films when they came out, and had the trilogy on both DVD (ask your parents) and video (ask your grandparents). I watched Phantom Menace when that came out, but haven’t watched any others.

Until now. Kids are a great excuse sometimes, and as they both wanted to watch the new film (at different times), I’ve been to see The Last Jedi twice. And I really wanted to enjoy it.

But I was underwhelmed. First time, it just felt like it didn’t deliver on its promises, so I paid closer attention when I saw it again, trying to work out why the film didn’t totally work for me.

Not being immersed in the whole Star Wars universe, I can’t comment on how it fits in with the other films, or the extended stories in books. I’m not qualified to comment on how it treated the mythology, or how it complemented or contradicted other stuff. Instead, I want to focus on the film as its own thing, especially the story (or stories) it contained.

I should state a couple of things before I go into details. First, these are my thoughts. You may disagree, and I’m fine with that‌—‌and my thoughts may well change over time (in fact, I found the film more enjoyable second time round, but maybe that was because I wasn’t approaching it with the same sense of expectation). And secondly, what I write below will contain spoilers. If you haven’t watched the film, and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now (although please come back when you have watched it).
I’ll start with the largest story problem.

The story-line that doesn’t go anywhere

In well-structured, satisfying stories, everything has a place. Apparent digressions ultimately serve a purpose, either filling in details of the story or providing a better understanding of the characters and their particular arcs.

In The Last Jedi, I felt that there was a whole sub-plot that didn’t do either of these things. It was a diversion that went nowhere, and it took up a great deal of the middle of the film. The part I’m on about? Finn and Rose’s attempt to disable the First Order’s tracker.

This storyline starts off well. Rose and Finn figure out how the First Order is able to track the rebels through hyper-space, and they bring Poe in on their plan. They need to disable the power to the tracker by breaking in to a particular part of the First Order’s lead craft, and for that they need a master code breaker. Apparently, only one person is capable of such a feat.

Finn and Rose head down to Canto Bight, where they spot this person in a casino, but they are arrested and imprisoned before they can approach him. So far so good storywise‌—‌plans going awry adds tension, after all.

FinnRoseDJ

And they wind up in a cell with DJ, who might be another master code breaker. Bit of a handy coincidence, but I’ll let that go for the moment. (I’ll also ignore the fairly heavy-handed stuff about people profiting from war). Of course, Finn and Rose escape, with help from DJ (so he appears to be a good guy), and they get on board the First Order’s vessel.

They get to the power supply, but are stopped. Meanwhile, Poe has taken over command of the Rebel fleet, preparing to jump to light-speed when the tracker is disabled, when he is stopped by Leia.

The plan is in ruins. It’s a good middle-build crisis moment. How are the Rebels going to escape now?

Turns out, Leia and the others in charge of the Rebels already had a plan, which they were working on all along. They didn’t need to jump to light-speed again, because they were aiming for an old base where they could hide out. So there was no need for Finn and Rose to disappear off to the casino, and Poe’s mutiny was also pointless.

So they failed, but it had no impact on the story. The whole episode was of no consequence. It might have given the viewer some action scenes (Finn’s fight with Phasma‌—‌more on that later‌—‌and the faither stampede through the city), and introduced one of the more interesting characters in the film in DJ (or maybe I think that because I enjoy watching morally ambiguous characters), but as far as the story was concerned, it was nothing.

Yes, DJ saves himself by exposing the Rebels’ plan, but surely there could have been another way to weave this into the story (like, maybe, the First Order plot the possible path of the Rebel fleet and see that they are heading to an apparently abandoned planet). And yes, there were character moments, especially between Finn and Rose, but these could have been included elsewhere.

This was, for me, the biggest problem with the story, because it added too much wasted time to the film. But it wasn’t the only issue.

Kill the minions, then the big boss — not the other way round

In stories, battles and problems have to increase. The enemy has to grow harder to defeat in each conflict. It works the same in video games‌—‌kill the little guys and work your way up to the big boss. It keeps the tension high. And when the final bad guy is defeated, that’s a major resolution, maybe the ending payoff of the whole film or game (at least, until the next round).

But The Last Jedi kind of does away with this. We have the Supreme Leader, Snoke, who is this film’s equivalent of the Emperor in the original films. About half-way through the film, Kylo Ren takes the captured Rey to Snoke. Yes, we know that Ren is conflicted, with light and dark battling within, but this feels like a moment when dark wins.

snokeYet it doesn’t. He kills Snoke with a cheap trick (and for someone who seems to be inside both Ren and Rey’s heads, it’s surprising that Snoke doesn’t see this coming). The Supreme Leader is dead, killed by his protege. It should be a high-point of the film, a major resolution.

But then, Snoke’s guards attack, and we have the fight scene where the heroes battle through increasing odds. Only, the final battle is already behind them.

Yes, we get to see Rey and Ren battling side-by-side (although, personally, much of the fight choreography felt like it was trying too hard to please the audience, rather than showing us the characters’ true selves), and it sets the scene for their conflict afterwards, but it all feels a bit anticlimactic.

So, the big fight scene at the end wasn’t real?

And on the subject of big fight scenes, I have to comment on the one at the end, between Luke and Ren. This has been building throughout the film, seeded by the memories of what happened when Luke was training Ren as well as being the supposed Last Jedi’s final stand, and this film’s true battle between good and evil.

luke-skywalker-star-wars-last-jedi-hrYet there are major problems with this encounter. I could forgive the slowing down of the pace when Luke appears, as we have been waiting for him and Leia to have their moment together on screen‌—‌it doesn’t particularly work with the story’s flow, but it’s an audience-pleaser. And the shot where Luke heads out to face the First Order single-handed is visually arresting.

It’s after that things go awry. First, we have Luke being bombarded by everything the First Order has, and surviving.

But that’s cool, right? He’s stronger than ever. He’s what the Rebels have been waiting for. He’s going to save the day. How can this be a problem?

Heroes, to work effectively in a story, need to be flawed. The perfect character is ultimately boring, and we soon lose sympathy. If a hero has a flaw, an Achilles Heel, nothing is set in stone. Even though we know the hero will win the day (because, especially with films like Star Wars, that’s what we’ve come to see), we still need that slight uncertainty, because it keeps the tension high. If the hero is invincible, the big fight becomes little more than a formality.

By giving us an invincible Luke, The Last Jedi’s final scenes become routine.

And what of the fight between Luke and Ren itself? It’s been building, and we expect something jaw-dropping. We want a classic battle, with twists and turns as two masters go head-to-head. We want that moment when it looks like evil has triumphed, just before good rallies its strength and tears evil apart.

So what do we get in The Last Jedi? A bit of posturing, some verbal sparring, and a couple of parries.

Then Ren cuts through Luke with his light sabre.

This could have been fantastic. It has echoes of the fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film, where Obi-Wan basically sacrifices himself because he knows this will strengthen Luke. This could have been a glorious death, where good triumphs even as evil seems to have won.

Instead, the impervious Luke survives. Even when Ren sticks the light sabre through his chest, Luke is unaffected.

Because he’s not there. It’s some kind of projection, or ghost-self. In reality, he’s back on his island.

That might have been a cool concept to play with, but it left me feeling cheated. Not only is Luke invincible, but he’s also not really there. The whole fight, at that moment, became a sham. It wasn’t the big battle the film had promised. If Luke was facing the First Order to distract them from the Rebels’ escape, it also served to cheapen the story.

And a few other things

There were other things that didn’t sit right with me from a story-telling standpoint:

  • In Finn’s fight with Phasma, we see Finn fall off an edge. But what we don’t see is the moving platform just beneath him, until he reappears and kills Phasma. This felt like a bit of a deus-ex-machina, with luck saving the hero rather than the hero saving himself. Yet this problem could have been rectified so easily. If we’d seen, for example, Finn and Rose being brought up on the platform as prisoners, we would have the foreshadowing that would have made Finn’s reappearance after falling a cool ‘of course!’ moment.
  • Holdo’s sacrifice, when she sets a light-speed path through the First Order craft. Yes, it’s a good moment (and the lack of sound works well), but we haven’t had enough time with Holdo to care about her. She starts off as an antagonist to Poe, getting in the way of him saving the Rebels, and her sacrifice is consistent with a redemption plot. But as a small part of the larger story, it isn’t enough. It feels like a handy way to get rid of an unsympathetic character. I can’t help feeling that having someone like Leia making this sacrifice would have made a far greater impact (and, if Luke had physically died in his battle with Ren, while the Rebels escaped, Leia’s sacrifice would have provided foreshadowing for this, as well as being a great passing-the-baton moment, from the old characters to the new).
  • Poe gets chewed out (and demoted) for going against orders and leading the attack that resulted in the destruction of a First Order destroyer along with all the Rebel bombers. But whose orders were the bombers following? If they all went against Leia, isn’t that poor leadership on her part? And if (as seems to be hinted at) the plan was to bomb the destroyer anyway (otherwise why would the fighters and bombers be ready), surely Poe was simply following pre-arranged instructions. Why did the Rebels plan the mission if they weren’t prepared to follow it through?

Things it got right

It’s easy to be critical, and to focus on the problems. But that’s never the whole story, and there were many things in The Last Jedi that worked on a story level. They kept the tension high with a ‘ticking time bomb’ (the First Order chasing the Rebels as their fuel depleted, and the understanding that destruction is only a matter of time). And as messy as the whole Rose and Finn storyline was, the mentor/trainer storyline with Luke and Rey was well done.

Having a reluctant mentor is a classic trope, and The Last Jedi uses this effectively, giving us enough to understand and sympathise with Luke’s bitter attitude. It also shows Rey’s persistence, although maybe some failure from her along the way might have helped (but it would also have added time to an already long film). And Rey saving the Jedi writings was a nice touch, including Yoda’s line about there being nothing in the tree that Rey did not already have access to‌—‌foreshadowing that only becomes apparent in hindsight.

I also enjoyed how the story worked in Kylo Ren’s conflicted inner being, and this brought back memories of Darth Vader, and his eventual turning against the Emperor (maybe hinted at by Snoke’s line about seeing a new Vader in Ren.) I know I said I would only comment on this film, but his conflict does set things up well for Episode IX. This is also mirrored in Rey’s apparent willingness to look into the dark side (although she’s a bit of a cipher for ultimate good, so I’m doubtful that this will be developed.)

There’s also potential in DJ, even if the storyline he surfaced in was a mess. He reminds me in many ways of Han Solo‌—‌out for himself, and willing to bend what morals he has to look after number one, but with the potential to be one of the good guys.


So, what do I think of the film overall? It has its problems, and I think there were many missed opportunities to make something far stronger, but it isn’t a bad film. And maybe it was never meant to be a clear story. The main Star Wars films work in trilogies, so maybe it is better to view The Last Jedi not as a complete film, but as the middle build of a larger story. Maybe the problems in the story will, in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be important building-blocks, foreshadowing events in Episode IX.

Although that doesn’t make The Last Jedi a better film as its own thing.

Feel free to disagree with me. As I said earlier, these are my own thoughts, nothing more. If you think I’m way off the mark with any of this, let me know‌—‌I’ll listen to other points of view, and I’m willing to change my mind if your arguments convince me.

And I suppose that’s one way in which The Last Jedi has worked well. It’s got people talking about Star Wars again (just like The Force Awakens did). It’s once more increased the visibility of the brand. And it’s built more anticipation for Episode IX, for those who want to see an improvement and for those who want more of the same.

I just hope they come up with a good story.

New short story – ‘Fire’

My first short story of 2018, and it almost ties in to the new year, with a theme of escaping from the past. The story’s called Fire, and you can read it here. Love to know what you think of it.

Don’t forget my other short stories, free to read here. There’s also Millenary, the e-book anthology of the first twenty, downloadable from here. Fire is my thirty-ninth story, which means that the next anthology (imaginatively titles Millenary 2) will be available soon.

The Power Of Words anthology

I’m excited to be part of an upcoming anthology called The Power Of Words, organised by M.L.S Weech. All the stories are either based on the First Amendment, or on the title of the anthology. There are a few more stories to come in, but four are so far confirmed, including one of mine, Ghost Stream.

You can read more about it in Matt’s latest update on his site here.

My Reading Year 2017

Another year over. Where does the time go (and all those usual cliches)? But this is a good opportunity to reflect and to look forward, and in that spirit I thought I’d look back at some of my reading highlights of 2017.

I started keeping a log of all the books I read at the start of the year, and that tells me I read roughly 25 non-fiction books (mainly about writing and publishing), 25 novellas and 80 novels (and quite a few short stories, either on their own or in anthologies). They have been both traditionally published and independently published (with the latter probably in the majority, simply because I started using Instafreebie earlier in the year), and span a range of genres (some of which are not what I would normally read).
So, some highlights.

The new-to-me author who has been around for ages

It’s often said that even an old book is new to someone who has not yet read it, and I’ve read quite a few older books for the first time this year. This includes Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (which I enjoyed, although it felt a little rushed), A Falcon Flies by Wilbur Smith (not the kind of thing I’d normally read, but I’m definitely interested in reading more) and Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell (which was a great read, even though I don’t often go for historical war novels. I think it worked for me because it focused on the character of Sharpe rather than the historical details). But the one that impressed me the most was Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn novel, The Final Empire.

FinalEmpireMistborn1_BrandonSandersonI’ve heard Sanderson talk on the Writing Excuses podcast, so I expected something well written, and I was not disappointed. It’s long (pushing a thousand pages if I remember correctly), but never felt long-winded. Often, by the time I’m three-quarters through a book (of any length), I’m already thinking of what I want to read next, but I never reached that point with Mistborn.

I loved the magic system, and the way it worked almost like a science, with a clear set of rules. Again, I’ve heard Sanderson mention how he believes all magic systems need rules, and reading this novel showed me exactly what he means.

I already have more in this series on my to-be-read list, and can see Sanderson becoming one of my favourite authors.

The sci-fi/comedy that continues to work

Most combinations that include comedy fail. The humour might be annoying or puerile, and often the story takes a back-seat in the set-up to the next joke. Even something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series (which I love, despite what I am about to say) often feels like a series of cool, funny moments shoe-horned into a story-arc (possibly because this was how Douglas Adams wrote it, having no idea where it was headed).

But it can be done. Terry Pratchett did it expertly in many of the Discworld books, and Harry Harrison did a good job with his Bill The Galactic Hero books. And now, Barry Hutchison has written a series that strike just the right balance between humour and story.

SpaceTeam_BarryJHutchinsonHe released the first Space Team book back in 2016, but is now up to number seven (and has a spin-off with another couple of novels), and I don’t know how he puts out consistently good books so fast. The stories stand up on their own, with the humour based around the characters and the situations, but the stories stand up on their own too. The characters have also grown over the series, with ‘throw-away’ back-story helping to develop the characters even more.

If you like Douglas Adams, I’d recommend Space Team (and the first book is only 99p/99c, so what have you got to lose?)

The story-studio that continues to impress

I’ve been following the books (and writing careers) of the Sterling And Stone team for a few years now. They continually push the boundaries of independent publishing, and are unafraid to try new (or old) ideas. They started their author careers with serialised fiction, and have written sci-fi, horror, thriller, literary (and, under pen-names, children’s fiction and romance). They will write an unashamedly commercial series like Invasion, but also write books simply because they want to, like Crash.

DevilMayCare_PlattTruantThe three authors on the team usually write in pairs, so you either get a Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant book, or a Sean Platt/David Wright book. So far, I’ve enjoyed the ideas more in the former, but get a kick out of the darker writing of the latter.

This year, they’ve produced three things that have impressed me. First, the Platt/Truant literary book Devil May Care. It’s a kind of road trip book, with two story-lines that are related (and I won’t spoil things by saying how they connect, although I think I figured it out a good while before the authors intended). It doesn’t quite work for me, but I admire how Platt and Truant constantly push their writing in different directions‌—‌and there are moments, especially nearer the beginning, that contain some of the finest writing they have produced to date.

TomorrowGene_PlattTruantThey also published The Tomorrow Gene trilogy of sci-fi/thrillers, based around cloning. They billed this as the spiritual follow-up to their Invasion series, and it is clear that they were aiming for something commercial. But the ideas are definitely not dumbed-down, and these are intelligent reads. Also, each book has a different feel. The first begins fairly languidly, which suits the story perfectly, and the unsettling elements are allowed to creep in at their own pace. The second is incredibly fast-moving, with loads of action. The third deals more with conspiracies and lies, and is a more psychological book. Yet all three work well together.

NoJustice_PlattWrightAnd finally, there is the Platt/Wright book No Justice. It is a very dark book, very unsettling, but this is a strength of their writing. The protagonist, the guy we’re supposed to be rooting for, is a vigilante, and he does some things that push the reader’s empathy. Yet this adds to the tension‌—‌you’re never sure if he’s going to go too far and become a full-on villain. Also, giving point-of-view scenes from the antagonist (a paedophile who kidnaps and later kills children) is a brave move, with disturbing moments where he justifies his abhorrent actions.

These books aren’t for everyone, but if you like to be challenged by what you read, and are not afraid of being unsettled, I’d recommend them.

The Dystopian series that taught me how to do it

TubeRiders_ChrisWardAlong with Barry Hutchison, I’ve found another new favourite author this year in Chris Ward. He wrote the Tube Rider trilogy, and I loved the books. They are based in a future UK that is separated from the rest of Europe (these books were written before the Brexit vote, but now they feel worryingly possible), and the main characters are youngsters who ‘tube ride’ for kicks (grabbing hold of moving underground trains and hanging off the side). Of course, they see things they aren’t supposed to, and the story soon has them fleeing for their lives.

I love how Ward deals with the characters. None of them are perfect, and sometimes even the good characters do the wrong thing, occasionally for purely selfish reasons. He sets up the notion of ‘nobody is guaranteed to be a hero’ early on by having one of the gang betray the rest and then die‌—‌which also sets up the expectation that nobody is guaranteed to survive. The villains are very believable, with clear, logical reasons for their actions, and all have the possibility of redemption (whether that happens or not is a different matter, and I’m not going to give any spoilers). And the world Ward creates is frighteningly realistic and plausible.

For more of my thoughts on the Tube Riders series, click here.

I intend to read more of Ward’s books over 2018, including his new YA series, Endinfinium (starting with Benjamin Forrest And The School At The End Of The World).

Revisiting old books‌—‌not always a good move

I’ll re-read old books every now and then, but some of the ones I’ve returned to this year have left me questioning how I rated them so highly. I suppose I was more impressionable as a teenager when I first read James Herbert’s The Rats and the sequel, Lair, but now the prose feels somewhat clunky, and the stories don’t interest me as much. Robert R McCammon’s Baal read like a series of separate but connected stories, and Dean Koontz’s Watchers had story arcs that I felt could have been ignored for much of the time. I can’t help wondering how much of this ‘padding’ was at the request of the publisher, to make the book a certain length.

It_StephenKingI also re-read Stephen King’s It. I can’t recall what I thought of it when I read it when it first came out, but I’m in two minds now. There are parts I love, but overall it felt too long and repetitive. Some of the creepy horror is excellent, though, and King is a master writer. One of those books where the parts are more impressive than the whole, and it hasn’t put me off re-visiting more of King’s books (or reading his newer novels).

The novelisation of the original Star Wars film was a disappointment (I’ve written about this in a previous post, which you can read here), but I did enjoy listening to the audio-book of the ET novelisation (and you can read more of my thoughts on this here). I read this years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t get a lot of the subtext when I was younger, especially the mother’s thoughts.

A perfect shorter story

AllQuietOnTheWesternFold_JamieBrindleI’ll finish with a shorter work I really enjoyed — All Quiet In The Western Fold by Jamie Brindle. Imagine stories exist as living, breathing characters, in a wild west kind of setting. Stories are becoming sick, though, and the new sheriff has to investigate.

If that sound a bit strange, it is. But it is so well written, and manages to be serious and playful at the same time. For example, take this description:

High Sheriff Grok was a huge fat story, with thick wads of excess characterisation around his jowls and a pair of ugly similes that hung like ammo belts around his chest.

It’s a joy to read stuff like this, but the story itself is also intriguing, and makes me want to read more by Brindle. In fact, I have some of his books on my to-be-read list.


I have a lot of books on this list — far too many. Next year I need to stop downloading so much and get through more of the list (hard to do‌—‌I’ve already added a few more books over the holidays).

So, what else for next year? I’ve already mentioned wanting to read more from the authors above, but I also want to get back into some of the classics. A couple of years back I set myself the challenge of getting through all of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine (something like a hundred titles ranging from shorts to 500-page novels), and I don’t think I read any in 2017.

I’m also wanting to discover more new (to me) authors, so if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them. I prefer darker, more thoughtful stuff, but I’m open to just about anything (I’ve even read Fifty Shades, although I’m sure I shouldn’t have been laughing quite so much).

So, here’s to a good year of reading in 2018.