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)

 

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV) now available to pre-order

The next story in the Dominions series, Riled Dogs, is now available to pre-order for only 99p/99c.

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.

Click here to pre-order now‌—‌the price will rise a few days after the book is released on 27th March.

Is reading fiction useful?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the use of story in relating real-world events, and how this engages us on an emotional level (and you can read that post here). But what about fiction?

Fiction obviously uses story to engage us, but using imagined events. We might become wrapped up in the plight of the protagonist, but we know it’s all make-believe. It’s entertainment, with an emotional pull to keep us reading/listening.

But there’s more to it that that.

Think, for a moment, what children do when they play. They make up worlds and characters, and seem to exist in a make-believe world. But this play is important, because it enables the child to learn. Through pretending to be an intrepid explorer, or a doctor, or a teacher, the child is learning how they might cope indifferent situations. They are developing an understanding of the way the world works.

Fiction works in a similar way, by allowing us to explore settings and situations that are unfamiliar to us. And there’s a quote from Stephen King that encapsulates this‌—‌’We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’

Cope with Horrors

Obviously, that doesn’t mean we read a book like Salem’s Lot to learn how to deal with a town overrun by vampires, and The Shining isn’t a manual on how to cope with a deranged writer when cut off in a creepy old hotel. But these books do deal with characters facing situations that they never even considered could happen. They deal with characters who have to make difficult decisions, often requiring them to go against what they would normally do. In The Shining, Jack’s wife doesn’t want to leave him, but she had to think the well-being of both herself and her son. In Salem’s Lot, as more members of the town become vampires, characters are forced to confront their own feelings towards friends who are now turning on them.

But the characters don’t always make the best decisions. King says the horrors help us cope‌—‌they don’t simply give us a list of actions to follow. The best stories don’t tell us what to think, even though they might nudge us in a certain direction. Sometimes, the lesson in the book (the ‘coping strategy’) is not obvious. Of course it isn’t. Nobody likes being told what to do, and if our fiction did just that, how many of us would continue reading?

Sometimes (most of the time?) what we learn from a work of fiction will depend on us at that particular time. The same work can have different meanings, all equally valid, for different people. Take Lord Of The Rings‌—‌is this a simple tale of good overcoming evil, or is there more to it? Frodo cannot let go of the ring at the end, so what does that tell you about either the power behind the ring or Frodo’s character? Maybe Sam is the real hero‌—‌the one with no real power, who doesn’t want to be there except that he is loyal to his friend, but who ends up carrying Frodo for so much of the story‌—‌and the lesson here is that we can look past our own fears and limitations. And what of Golum‌—‌is he villain or victim, and what does his plight tell us about ourselves? There is clearly a warning about greed, but is there also a fatalistic lesson in how our desires can control us no matter how hard we try to fight? And what does the way we view him tell us about ourselves, and how we see others who are ‘evil’? Does our attitude to Golum change as we realise how he has been manipulated?

It’s a vast book, and there’s clearly more that can be drawn out‌—‌but only when we start to question. We put ourselves in the characters’ positions, and ask what we might do (or what we’d like to imagine we’d do, if we didn’t freeze with fear the moment an orc appeared).

Purpose of Storytellers

Brandon Sanderson put it this way‌—‌’The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ And a good storyteller will often leave the answers open. A well-crafted story will force questions into our minds, where they will ruminate for days. Think of the character of Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ books (such as The Silence Of The Lambs), and ask why we are drawn to an unrepentant cannibal?

America Psycho is another book that provokes questions. On the face of it, the book is a nasty tale of a sociopathic killer. But it’s also about money and wealth. It’s about power, and the lack of it. Why is Patrick Batemen such a despicable creature? Is he simply evil, or has something pushed him to this point? Is he, like Golum, corrupted by a power that he never saw coming? And what of the revelation (spoiler alert) that the killings are all in his head? Does this make him less of a monster, or does the way his mind convinces him that he has killed make him more evil?

Are there definite answers to these questions? I’d say no. Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for not explaining his book, and that is good. The reader needs to pull whatever they can from his stories. And that means one person’s answers will be different to another’s. Because we are all different. We all have different questions, and seek different answers.
But surely this is all academic. We’re discussing fiction, and characters who don’t exist in real life. What difference can this make to our day-to-day lives? So what if we analyse‌—‌it’s all make-believe.

Hopefully you’re ahead of me here.

We think, and we question. The answers we arrive at affect the way we think, and that alters the way we see the world. And, when so many books are, at their heart, about humanity, and about the way people respond to others, this alters the way we see those around us. It alters our whole world-view.

We could make these changes through other means‌—‌philosophical discussion, or ‘education’ (whatever that means). If we want people to think a certain way, we could simply tell them. We could come up with a set of rules, or instructions. But stories speak to us in a way facts and data cannot. Stories reach deep inside and force us to step outside ourselves. Stories show us a world far wider than anything we can imagine.

And that is why, throughout history, fictional stories have been used for the advancement of mankind. From camp-fire tales, to religious parables, to morality tales, stories have always been at the forefront of guiding us in our journey through life.

Yes, fiction can change us. Think of the anti-war sentiment in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, or the challenge to prejudiced ideas in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Think of the chilling vision of the future in George Orwell’s 1984. And then think of the books you’ve read, the books that have stayed with you. Maybe the ones you re-read, the ones that are still opening up their secrets. The stories that are still making you think.

I’ll finish with another quote, this time form Neil Gaiman. His stories are larger-than-life, with fantastical elements, and I don’t think it is any surprise that he writes for both adults and children. He understands how those age-old primal stories can be a force for good, and he knows that we should never lose that child inside, the one that play-acts as a way of solving difficult problems before they even appear. He understands the power in stories. And that is why he said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

Dragons Can Be Beaten