100th short story up now!

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.

See what you think. You can read Canvas here. And don’t forget the other 99 stories (click here for the complete list).

Thank you.

Works well on screen, but not in print

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.

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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.


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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.

New short story – ‘A Lesson In Life’

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.

New paperbacks available

It’s only taken a few years, but I finally have paperback versions of my Dominions books available from Amazon.

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Hitting ‘publish’ on an ebook and seeing it appear in various stores is a great feeling, but there’s something even more satisfying in actually holding a physical copy of that book. I’m really pleased with how these books turned out, and from now on I’ll aim to have both physical and digital versions of new books available at the same time.

And if you’re interested in the paperback Dominions books, the links to these books are as follows:

Dark Glass (Dominions I)

Dead Flesh (Dominions II)

Deep Water (Dominions III)

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)

Rogue Wolf (Dominions V)

Rebel Rout (Dominions VI)

New short story – ‘Always A Reason’

Back when I was teaching, I’d always look for some purpose behind the work, something that would make the learning relevant to the students. Sometimes the only thing I could come up with was that this was part of the syllabus.

But even that was relevant‌—‌no matter how wonderful our jobs, no matter how ideal out home lives, there will always be things we need to do that we’re not enthused about. Sometimes, we have to do things simply because they need to be done.

And that’s where this story comes from.

It’s called Always A Reason, and you can read it here.

Why we shouldn’t shy away from reading the past

Socially acceptable attitudes and actions change over time. The changes build under the surface, and every so often there’s what seems to be a large shift (there’s one happening now with Black Lives Matter, and there was the whole MeToo thing a few years ago). When these large shifts in culture happen, it’s natural to reassess not only what is around at the moment, but also what happened in the past.

Many of the books read today were written many years ago, by writers who lived at different times. So how should we react when their sensibilities differ from our own?

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First, I think it’s important to separate the book from the writer. Most stories are written primarily to entertain, so does it matter what the writer was like as a person? Should we discard works created by those we disagree with, or those whose views sit uncomfortably against our modern sensibilities?

I think this is a personal decision. If your feelings about the writer are so strong that it’s impossible for you to dissociate their work from their personality, then why put yourself through the discomfort? But if you can separate the story from the person behind it, is there any problem with still reading it?

But what if the content of the story is problematic? What if there is racism or sexism or any other prejudice in the words?

One thing to note here is that attitudes expressed (or shown) through characters’ words and actions are not necessarily those shared by the writer. Any story needs its protagonist, so there are always going to be characters we don’t like, those we want the hero to overcome. And then there are those books that actively explore prejudice, that display a variety of attitudes in order to encourage the reader to think about their own beliefs. There’s racism in To Kill A Mockingbird, but that doesn’t make the book itself racist.

So the words should be read in context.

This still leaves problems. Some (especially older) books have their heroes displaying attitudes we no longer find acceptable. There are books with throwaway lines that are, by today’s standard, deemed offensive.

I’ve heard some people suggest editing older books to suit modern audiences‌—‌but I don’t agree with this. There’s a line by philosopher George Santayana (often wrongly attributed to Churchill):

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

There’s a danger of erasing or amending the past‌—‌it gives us a false view of history. We risk losing context for where we are now.

And there’s that word again‌—‌context. This, I believe, is key to the whole issue.

The attitudes displayed in these books might be wrong by today’s standards, but they weren’t necessarily seen that way when the writer was working on the story. The attitudes and beliefs of a writer will creep into even the most escapist of fiction, even if unconsciously‌—‌in the use of certain words, or the portrayal of characters who are ‘different’ to the author (race, culture, gender, sexuality, age, whatever). Is this the ‘fault’ of the writer, or their society?

When we read books, especially ones written decades (or centuries) ago, we need to remember they come from a different place, a different time.

Doing this not only gives us permission to enjoy the book for its merits, but it also educates us. The taboo words bandied around without a care, the prejudice on display‌—‌these things show us how we’ve changed.

And that leads to something else‌—‌the realisation that things aren’t perfect today, that change is still happening. The past shouldn’t be airbrushed and forgotten, but should serve as encouragement to keep improving.

New short story – ‘The Hangman’

Writing is a constant learning process.

I recently took part in J Thorn’s Supercharge Your Scene 5-day challenge. Along with the instruction from J, this challenge involved writing a scene (or short story). He presented us with a number of prompts and suggested we pick one in a genre we don’t normally write or read (because stepping outside comfort zones is a great way to learn).

The one that drew my attention was the Western prompt, and the end result is The Hangman. I’m not sure how well it ‘works’ (according to J’s teaching), with much of the ‘action’ left to the imagination, but overall I’m pleased with it. For something that could have become very dark, I think there’s a lot of hope in this story.

You can read The Hangman here.

And, in case you’re interested, this is the prompt, which I used word for word as the opening to the story:

The hangman took down the body from the gallows. It was the third execution Sheriff Sands had ordered this week‌—‌three more than all of last year.

The future of publishing and book-selling, post-Covid

 

The world is constantly changing, and any business that doesn’t adapt is liable to fail. Change is often gradual, or is sudden in one particular area, so there’s a cushion of normalcy within which to plan.

The current pandemic has thrown that on its head. The changes brought about by lockdowns have been both sudden and far-reaching, and businesses are struggling. Many have already gone under. And even those businesses that are doing well are struggling to cope with increased workload or increased demand‌—‌supermarkets have run low on stock, and have had to employ more staff to cope with demand, for example.

One industry that has so far weathered current events well is independent publishing. These businesses are usually run by a single person (the writer of the books they publish), and make the majority of their sales on-line in digital format. In fact, many indie publishers have reported a rise in sales over the last few months.

But over publishing and bookselling overall, the picture is different. Production of physical books has been delayed by the slow-down in manufacturing, and there have not been high-street stores open to sell the books anyway. Even as bookstores open up in the UK, people are reticent about using them like they once did‌—‌how does someone browse books when there’s the risk of passing on infection through touching the books themselves?

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So what does the future look like for publishers and bookstores for the rest of the year? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but for each company or business I see four possibilities.

(I’m ignoring libraries in this because they are about so much more than books‌—‌maybe that’s a subject for another day)

Some will fall

This, sadly, is inevitable. Some stores and publishers will close their doors for good, and others will be bought out. This will, of course, impact staff, as well as contractors and clients.

Some will manage to carry on as if nothing has happened

Through extensive financial backing or incredibly loyal customers, a handful of stores and publishers might weather the storm relatively unscathed, and continue as they have done previously. But this will be a very small minority, and I don’t think any store or publisher should bank on this happening to them‌—‌they probably have more chance of winning the lottery.

Some will adapt

I hope this will be true of the majority of publishing-related businesses. Those who are relatively new won’t be set in their ways, and so will be more agile, more flexible in their approach to the difficulties Covid-19 has thrown up. Older companies will have been through other periods of change, and so have experience to work with. They may also have deeper pockets and more resources.

But how will they adapt?

Independent bookstores have been adapting for years‌—‌offering more personal services (like events, or providing social activities around the books they sell) and becoming specialists in particular niches. Interestingly, Waterstones did something similar when James Daunt took over‌—‌he gave each store greater independence, encouraging staff to order in the stock they believed those in their area would want. Instead of each store becoming carbon-copies of one another, they became more local, encouraging greater customer loyalty as the stores provided what their customers most wanted. And as consumers return to physical stores, many are going to want to help those stores they have an attachment to‌—‌local stores, or ones that offer exactly what the customer wants.

And then there’s the whole digital sphere. Daunt has recently taken over Barnes & Noble, and he’s spoken of reviving the Nook (the B&N e-reader and e-book store). I wouldn’t be surprised if other stores (and publishers?) entered deals with e-book stores, similar to the deal between Walmart and Kobo. Also, I’d expect them to focus more on their own on-line platforms for physical sales.

Amazon showed how this could work, in their physical stores. I’ve written before how their stores work not so much as somewhere to buy but somewhere to browse, with staff ready to help customers make online purchases, either physical copies shipped to their doors or digital copies they can read on their Kindles or mobiles. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine other places doing something similar, even if it’s only through encouraging customers to order physical copies. They might even stress the benefits of this‌—‌a sealed copy that hasn’t been touched by countless other browsers, home-delivered.

Then there are audio-books. They’ve come a long way from bulky tapes or CDs, and mobile technology (and smart speakers) makes listening to audiobooks so easy. Audiobook sales have risen drastically over the last few years, and I’d imagine publishers pushing more of this content. If bookstores work in conjunction with on-line providers, they could move into this field too.

Some will introduce radically new ways of working.

Restrictions have always given the possibility of innovation. Many artists prefer restrictions to having an ‘anything goes’ approach. Similarly, tough times often result in huge leaps forward.

While many will seek ways to mould their old ways of working to fit the new normal, others will take this time as an opportunity to try wild new ideas. It’s likely that not many of these ideas will work out in the long term, but those that do could be game-changing.

I can’t give firm examples, of course, but I can throw out a few possibilities. As virtual reality technology improves, maybe we’ll soon be shopping in virtual stores, ‘walking’ around the shelves and ‘picking up’ those books that interest us. Subscription services for TV, film and music are expanding, so maybe we’ll see more book-based subscription services. Then there’s print-on-demand‌—‌the Espresso Book Machine already allows in-store printing, but what if this technology improved, with both cost and size coming down? Or how about the trend in high-quality print editions‌—‌will we see an increase in books as art-works of themselves, secondary to the words inside?

Who knows what will happen? But something will. It’s likely that a few radically new ideas will develop and eventually take hold. Just think of e-books. Their history stretches back to the 70s, and the first dedicated e-reader only came out at the end of the 90s, but their importance in publishing today is undeniable.

And, like e-books, these new ideas will inevitably disrupt the status quo. They will throw up huge challenges for publishing and book-selling.

But that’s fine. In fact, it’s good. Change is inevitable. It’s through change that industry, business and art grow and develop. Without change there is only stagnation.