Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

5802082637_eb0177496a_zThe pain from the flayer’s knife is like a flower of razor blade petals unfurling in my mind. A searing agony whose beautiful results will make me weep with joy as well as pain. At last he sets the blade aside and hangs the skin ever so carefully across a willow rack.

“Another insightful chapter.” He wraps soothing bandages around my arm. “But you are running out of skin.”

I look at the rack, at the words I so carefully tattooed on the skin, accompanied by precise diagrams of the peonies I have made the subject of my studies. Blood seeps into the bandages and my body shivers with shock.

It will be worth it.

“How many are left?” I whisper, looking at the work of other scholars hanging on the flayer’s racks.

“Two.” With delicate fingers he ties the bandage. “You and Jong. Bey dropped out this morning. He had no gift for succinctness, and ran out of skin.”

I nod in understanding. Only the pristine skin of a scholar’s first work can go into the Imperial Library, to be preserved down eternity. Anything else would not last, even with the Library’s charms. Either my study of the heredity of peonies or Jong’s work on the feeding of roses will be this year’s entry to the botanical section.

I intend to ensure that it is mine.

*

My quill trembles over a scrap of paper. I look across my desk and see the beauty of the flower unfurling in the window, a reminder of why I must win – to preserve not just my name but all I have learned.

But I cannot get the words right. The wealth of details refuses to be condensed. The more I write, the more skin I must sacrifice. Though I tell myself over and over that I do not fear the pain of the flaying knife, still I shake at the thought of it.

The words will not come.

All my life I have worked for a place in the Imperial Library. What else could a scholar want if not to see their work endure? But perhaps I cannot do that. Jong has a gift for brevity. Having come this far, if he is finished before me the place will be his. I lack the time to shorten my words, or the skin to write them all down.

A tear runs down my face, and I wipe it away with my bandaged arm.

*

Both flayers are on duty today. With the end so close, they must make time for both Jong and I.

My eyes are closed, my whole face screwed up in pain. Still I can hear Jong’s grunts and whimpers. Knowing that he suffers too is not the reassurance I had hoped for. It only adds to my pain.

“We should stop,” one of the flayers says.

“No,” Jong whispers. “Keep going.”

“You have lost much blood.”

“Keep. Going.”

Jong’s screams are not enough to blot out my pain, but when he falls silent it brings me no peace. As the knife comes again, and the salt scent of blood fills my nostrils, I finally pass out.

*

Three days after the funeral I am well enough to attend Jong’s grave. I light incense and place a jar of peonies by the headstone. Already their pink petals are wilting.

“Your place in the Library is secure.” One of the flayers stands beside me, the woman who tended to Jong on that last day. The one under whose knife he died. “Your wisdom will endure forever.”

She sounds resigned. How many scholars’ graves has she stood by?

A petal falls from the peony onto Jong’s grave. I remember his face, and the incredible insights of his mind.

“Nothing endures forever.” I turn away.

*

After leaving the school, I find a place teaching botany in the provinces. One day the bandage slips from my arm, revealing the last chapter of my thesis still half-written on pale skin.

“Why do you have that?” one of my students asks.

“Because all things must pass,” I reply. “Now tell me, how will you ensure the hardiness of your peonies?”

* * *

This story was inspired by several things – a conversation with Marios Richards, Writing Excuses exercise, and some comments from Ben Moxon following that exercise. Thank you all for the inspiration.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it with friends and consider signing up to my mailing list, which will send these stories straight to your inbox each week as well as giving you a free copy of my anthology Riding the Mainspring. Another of my anthologies, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on Amazon from Monday to Friday next week, so keep an eye out for that.

You can read more of my flash stories here.

Picture by LadyDragonflyCC via Flickr Creative Commons

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

A few weeks ago I named a character in a story after my friend Mantaj. To me it wasn’t a big deal – she’d given me some incredibly good feedback on a novella I’m working on, and it was an easy way to say thank you.

It turns out I under-estimated the power of a name.

Connecting Through A Name

Here’s how Mantaj responded to that story:

“I think the first thing that I realised when I started reading is that I am not use to seeing my name in any context that doesn’t relate directly to me. I think that it comes from having a very unusual name. My guess is that you’ve read a lot of stories about people called Andy, and met a lot of other people called Andy. But for me Mantaj always means me!

“This meant that when I was reading the story I felt even more connected to the character, when I visualised the story play out in my mind the protagonist had my face. Even though she wasn’t me, didn’t act like me, didn’t think like me she I felt like she was me. It was disconcerting in a very interesting way. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered before, and how the associations we have with a name, especially our own are made.”

Representing

It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but what Mantaj wrote makes perfect sense. I don’t feel a particular thrill when a character is named Andy or Andrew, because I’ve seen characters like that half my life. Heck, there was another Andrew in my first primary school class, so the novelty of namesakes wore off pretty quickly.

I was thrilled to see that using my friend’s name had created a new experience for her. It also made me think about the use of names in a wider sense.

If you come from a fairly conventional white British or American background, as I do, then you’re in the privileged position of seeing yourself represented all the time, and that extends to names. We see ourselves in many stories, including many of those regarded as both the literary and the SFF canon. But this is less true for other groups, as Chimamanda Adichie explains in this TED talk.

Without opening up the whole can of worms that is identity politics, I think there’s something here we should be aware of as readers and can use as writers. When you’re a reader, think about how names of characters affect you. Do they feel familiar and comfortable or strange and alien? Why? And when you’re writing, consider what group you’re trying to reach through character names. Perhaps an unusual name choice will earn you a dedicated following among people who feel left out, or maybe you’ll catch yourself giving all your characters safe middle class names, leaving out the Kierons, Chantelles and even Mantajs of this world.

Names are powerful in fiction, and not just when they’re used for magic.

IMG_0780[1]Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.

That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.

It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.

It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.

Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.

He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.

Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.

The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.

The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.

Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.

The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.

Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.

‘Just play to win,’ he said.

But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.

A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.

But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.

Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.

The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.

Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.

Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.

Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.

Maybe this was his chance.

It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?

He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.

‘All in,’ he declared.

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘I’m sure.’

She matched his bid and revealed her cards.

No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.

Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.

The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.

Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.

The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.

‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’

Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.

‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’

 

*

Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.

Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.

I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

“I don’t get it.” Fred dipped his pen in the inkwell, made a note of the jewel-encrusted sword. It glowed even in the shadows, one more magical trinket in Europe’s strangest treasure trove. “Why didn’t Napoleon take all this with him? Or hide it and send someone back later? I know he’s a prisoner, but he’s got a whole island to keep it in.”

“Simple, mon ami.” Jean-Luc set the sword back on its shelf and picked up the next item, a simple jar covered in Arabic writing. He blew dust from the top and then frowned as it settled on his tailcoat. “The Emperor expected to win. Who could have foreseen Waterloo, eh?”

Fred set aside his pen, shook out the cramp from his wrist. Logging all the treasures in this isolated hunting lodge was tedious work. He’d rather be outside taking in the fine weather and the French countryside.

Jean-Luc twisted the lid from the pot. There was a crack of breaking wax seals, previously hidden by the dust. The two clerks glanced at one another nervously. Even the lowliest item here was worth a fortune. That was why there were soldiers outside, and why an inventory was needed – so that the heads of Europe could share out the emperor’s magical hoard. If he and Jean-Luc broke something they’d be in a world of trouble.

“It’s alright,” Fred said. “No-one need ever-“

The lid shot off the pot and a stream of fire burst out, coalescing into a glowing figure half the height of a man.

Jean-Luc yelped in pain as the pot glowed red hot. He dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

The creature giggled and dashed off down the room, leaving a trail of smoking footprints on the floorboards.

“A djinn!” Jean-Luc exclaimed in pain and wonder.

“Quick, catch it!” Fred rushed after the creature. He grabbed it as it made for the door, then jerked back in pain as flaming flesh seared his hands. As he stumbled back he knocked a head-shaped mirror and it crashed to the floor, ghostly figures of noblemen emerging from the shattered remains.

“We need something to trap it,” Jean-Luc said as he emerged from between the shelves, catching the djinn between them in a corner.

Fred glanced around. To his right was a crate, its side branded in French and Russian.

“Here.” He grabbed it, relieved to find it much lighter than expected. It must already be empty. “I’ll just open-“

“No!” Jean-Luc’s eyes went wide as he saw the writing.

It was too late. Fred had cracked open the lid, which now burst off. An icy wind blasted forth, frost forming on everything it touched. It rushed up the chimney and blew open the window shutters as it kept coming, an endless stream of cold.

Fred dropped the box as ice started to cover his hands.

“Russian winter!” Jean-Luc shouted over the howling wind. “Napoleon’s sorcerers must have captured it, a souvenir of his greatest failure.”

Outside the windows the sky was darkening, snow fluttering out of what had been a beautiful spring day.

“We are in so much trouble,” Fred said, staring dumbfounded as winter fell both indoors and out.

“I can help,” a tiny voice said.

They turned to see the djinn looking at them from its corner.

“Let me go and I’ll burn this place down,” it said.

“How’s that helping?” Fred snapped in frustration.

“You think you’ll be in trouble for breaking a few treasures?” the djinn said. “Think how much worse it will be if they find out you broke summer for everyone.”  It kicked at the fallen box. “I can burn all the evidence faster than anyone can put the flames out. You say some coals fell from the fire, the place burnt down, everything was lost – mirrors, boxes, the lot. Not your fault.”

Fred looked at Jean-Luc, could see his colleague making the same calculation. Could they get away with this? Could it get any worse?

Probably not.

Two minutes later they ran out of the building, smoke trailing behind them.

“Fire!” Fred screamed at the red-coated sentries huddling against the sudden cold.

“Fire!” Jean-Luc echoed, as the roof creaked and fell inward in a shower of sparks.

Just for a moment, a tiny figured danced in the flames, then disappeared on the freezing wind.

The djinn was gone, along with the evidence of their failure. Fred could only hope people believed it was an accident.

The soldiers grabbed buckets of water in a futile attempt to quench the magically-powered flames. Fred turned to Jean-Luc.

“Was this a good idea?” he asked.

Jean-Luc shrugged.

“Did you have a better one?”

Fred shook his head and pulled his collar up around his ears, as around him the snow fell.

 

*

This story was suggested by Russell Phillips after I told him about the Year Without a Summer. I hope I’ve done it justice.

If you liked this then you might also want to check out my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, and you can also read my other flash Friday stories here. Fell free to come back next week for more of the same, and to leave ideas for stories in the comments below.

 

Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr creative commons.

Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

Working with my usual colleague His Majesty King Glove Puppet is not as rewarding as working with real people

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m currently working pretty much full time on a work-for-hire fiction project, ghost writing science fiction. The process involved is an interesting one, and having got permission from the guy running the show I’m going to share a little about it here, and about why I think it’s so good.

How it works

There are five people working on this project – there’s me as the writer and the last addition to the team. B is the mastermind behind the process, the guy who brought us all together, he manages the virtual team, works out schedules and marketing and all that business side of things. C seems to mostly do developmental editing work, helping work out story, setting, etc. D wrote the plot for the books, and as part of that did a lot of work developing the characters and setting, together with B, C and E. E mostly does line editing.

From my point of view, I’ve been given a plot and extensive briefings on characters and setting. I’m the one turning this into prose, adding my own ideas and flourishes to fill gaps and flesh things out. For example I took some characters from book two and brought them into book one, to save me inventing extras and set them up for later.

C’s provided a few editorial comments on my work, but most of that comes from E. Once she’s read through my work I go back and accept or respond to her changes. I have the most contact with B, who’s doing a good job of dealing with any practical issues I stumble across and keeping me in the loop.

What I like so far

I love working with a team in this way, especially because they seem like a nice, lively, creative bunch. While I like writing my own stories, collaborating with others makes creativity even more fun, and I’m enjoying taking D’s plot and fleshing it out. Getting to work with editors is also good.

What I particularly like about the process, which B has developed and is continuing to adapt, is that it seems less wasteful than the traditional publishing approach. Instead of a writer providing a completed story, only to have to re-write large chunks when a developmental editor points out problems with character and plot, those problems have mostly been smoothed out beforehand. To put it in terms of my old process improvement job, we are avoiding the waste of re-work.

The end-to-end story production process is also being speeded up by working together via Google docs.  So even before I finished writing book one, E was reading and making editorial comments on the early chapters. It’s a good thing I naturally write in chronological order, or this could get messy.

Having other people literally leaning over my shoulder as I write freaks me out and stops me working – Laura can attest to this. But having collaborators perusing my work in a virtual environment, providing both critique and enthusiastic positive feedback as we go along, is really helpful. It’s sharpening the writing and keeping my spirits up, if occasionally stressing me out too – let’s face it, being edited always has its stresses, whether from disagreeing with the editor or agreeing and seeing what was wrong with your own beautiful words. Of course the reality is that I’m facing both.

This kind of collaboration is akin to what I imagine modern TV writers’ rooms to be like, allowing people to share and refine ideas, then go away and specialise in what they do best.

And because of this efficient, collaborative process, together with the joys of digital publishing, the first book will have been through editors, beta readers, refinement and publication, all within maybe four months of them developing the plot, and maybe two months after I started writing book one. That is staggeringly efficient. I approve.

Letting go of the artistic ego

I know that there are people who will view this as somehow detracting from the art of writing, from the purity of the author working away at their own ideas and craft. But I don’t agree with that view. Writing is already a collaborative process, involving editors and publishers. This is making that collaboration more effective and enjoyable. It’s not what we expect, and that will create a negative reaction in some people, but I like it.

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts you guys have on this, or similar experiences you’ve been through. You know where the comments go, please feel free to leave one.

NaNoWriMo update

I’m only writing this a few hours after yesterday’s post, and I’ve been busy with the freelance work so nothing’s changed. I think I’ll get around to NaNo this evening. Fingers crossed. Just blogging a day ahead now will relieve some pressure and make it easier to juggle tasks tomorrow.

I notice that JH Mae and Everwalker are tearing ahead at 21k and 15k respectively, while I haven’t quite reached 12k. And I also have to mention Russell Phillips, who’s normally a non-fiction writer and went into this knowing he didn’t have time to manage 50k, but is still getting plenty of words down.

How are you guys doing?

The funeral left Steve feeling hollow. Not grief stricken and lonely like his father. Not laughing at happy memories like his mother had wanted. Just empty, like his heart had been eaten away by her cancer. He longed to cry or laugh or do anything that made this feel real, that made it seem like this moment would pass. But there was nothing.

As soon as he could he ducked out of the church hall, past the trays of limp sandwiches and his cousins smoking by the door. He nodded acceptance of their condolences, climbed into his four-by-four and drove.

He travelled in silence. No radio. No CDs. Just the rumble of the engine. He wasn’t going to the office – his mother had always said he spent too much time there. And he couldn’t face his own house, still half-empty a year after Jen left.

Instead he found himself in front of his parents’ house. He parked and walked inside on autopilot, found himself standing in the kitchen, kettle in hand, halfway through making a cup of tea he didn’t want. His eyes were caught by the cookery books beneath the window. The largest and most battered was an old hardback notebook, the one his mother had inherited from his grandmother and that she had kept adding to over the years. The one she had said should be passed down to him.

He pulled out the notebook, fingered its brown-edged pages that smelled of flour and spices, hoping it might stir up his feelings. The recipes were full of his mother’s little jokes.

‘Add a teaspoon of joy.’

‘Mix with two measures of love.’

‘Just a pinch of sorrow.’

But though every recipe contained an emotion, still nothing stirred in Steve’s heart.

He stopped at a fruit cake, one she had made every Easter. She only went to church at Christmas, but something about Easter had mattered to her. When he left home Steve had copied out that recipe so that he wouldn’t miss his mother’s Easter cake. Though it never tasted quite right it was a reminder of her love.

He needed that reminder now.

7128243591_c9ec9bb338_zHe rummaged through the cupboards for sultanas and flour, beat eggs, stirred it all together.

But the dough still didn’t taste right.

He ran down the ingredients again. One line caught his eye.

‘A pinch of sorrow.’

She had always treated those parts so seriously, and he had always ignored them as a strange little joke. But today of all days he wanted to respect her. So he felt inside himself, found the small pinch of sorrow that was all he could feel, and imagined adding it to the mix as he stirred.

Still nothing. He knew it even before he dipped his finger in the thick batter. The whole thing was just another hollow gesture, like the party at the church, like watching her coffin go into the ground.

He suddenly felt foolish, stood here with a bowl of cake mix when he should be mourning. Why couldn’t he even cry?

Filled with frustration he flung the bowl at the wall. It shattered, spattering the paintwork with sticky blobs, shards of glass tumbling to the floor. He sank down onto cold tiles, staring at the mess.

As if released from the ruins of the bowl, a memory came back to him. Squatting on this same floor when he was young, made to sit quietly after fighting with his sister, he had watched every movement his mother made. As his own anger passed he somehow knew that, even when she told him off, his mother still loved him. He watched her as she made that cake. Weighing out sugar, sifting flour, adding raisins. Even the gesture she had made when she came to the pinch of sorrow, like twisting a dial in the air. The same sign his grandma made for good luck or to curse the neighbour’s cat.

He hadn’t thought of that movement in years, but something stirred inside him. Perhaps it was the memory of his mother’s smile. Perhaps it was the way that cat had disappeared, or his grandma’s runs of luck on the bingo. It might just be superstition and desperation, but today the little things mattered.

Steve took a fresh bowl from the cupboard, set to making the cake once more. Weighing, sifting, stirring.

When he came to that instruction, ‘Add a pinch of sorrow’, he twisted the air in that old gesture and thought of what he had lost. Of his mother growing frail in a hospice bed, her flesh fading with her spirit, but the light still bright in her eyes.

Sorrow sprinkled from his fingers, glittering as it fell through a shaft of sunlight and settled in the bowl. With a sense of wonder Steve stirred it in, then dipped his finger and tasted the mix.

He trembled at the perfection of its flavour. Tears poured down his cheeks as grief shook him, grief and gratitude for the woman who had brought him into the world, who had raised him for all those years, and who had left one last lesson in her parting.

Steve tasted sorrow, and knew it would pass.

* * *

 

For more Flash Friday fiction, as instigated by Lisa Walker England, check out the #FlashFriday hashtag over on Twitter, or read some of my previous efforts.

If you liked this story then you might also enjoy my collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available now on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99c until the end of this weekend.

 

Picture by Michelle Schrank via Flickr Creative Commons.

Today marks the first in what will hopefully become a regular fixture on this blog – Flash Fiction Friday.

Last Friday, Lisa Walker England declared her intention to post a piece of flash fiction on her blog each Friday, because it seems odd for fiction writers not to put fiction on their blogs. That made a lot of sense to me, and I’ve decided to join in.

So here, hastily written but hopefully still entertaining, is my first Flash Friday piece. Enjoy!

A Flash of Power

The factory rushed up and down the Lancashire hillsides, a vast mass of red bricks and frantically clattering looms, its wheels gouging up fields, ripping chunks from roads, smashing aside drystone walls. Dirk Dynamo clung to the roof like a trooper to his gun as the building continued in its unstoppable course, straight ahead, no distraction or diversion.

‘Tell me again,’ he bellowed over the roar of the engine and the rumble of constant thunder. ‘Why was this a good idea?’

Timothy Blaze-Simms had braced himself against the base of the lightning conductor. With one hand he held his top hat in place, while the other hand held up a rod covered in glass tubes, strange dials and long curling wires.

‘Mobility allows it to travel to the best power source,’ he said. ‘And there’s been some splendid work in Europe on tapping into the power of storms.’

‘But adding the lightning generator?’ Dirk jerked an angry finger upwards. Above the copper globes and sparking wires with which much of the factory was topped, black clouds filled the otherwise clear sky. Every couple of seconds a lightning bolt burst out of the roiling mass, usually hitting the conductor but occasionally lashing the rooftop around them.

‘How else would I know how they worked together?’ Blaze-Simms said.

‘I’m telling you now,’ Dirk said. ‘They work together badly.’

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He pointed past the conductor and down the latest hill. The outer slums of Manchester sprawled before them, a teeming mass of humanity about to be hit with a crushing weight of bricks.

‘Ah.’ Blaze-Simms looked almost as alarmed as Dirk felt. ‘But I’m almost there. The transverse static sensor says-‘

A flicker of electricity leapt off the conductor and hit the device in Blaze-Simms’s hand. The glass tubes exploded. The dials smoked. The wires burst into flames. He flung the whole thing aside as it started to melt his thick rubber glove.

‘Bother.’

‘Guess we’ll do this the old-fashioned way.’ Dirk scrambled across the rooftop to where long cables ran from the lightning conductor down into the factory and its engines. He pulled the bowie knife from his boot and glanced up at the clouds. Metal knife, metal wires, lightning. This could go very wrong.

He watched the pattern of the lightning strikes, waited for a lull and heaved with his knife at the thick cable. Muscles bulged so hard the seams popped in his shirt. Lightning lashed down again. Just as it hit the tower the cable split and Dirk went flying backwards.

‘Yes!’ he yelled in triumph.

‘No!’ he shouted in frustration as the lightning jumped the gap between cables.

‘We could try earthing it.’ Blaze-Simms’s tailcoat flapped behind him as he stared shamefaced towards the fast approaching city.

‘How?’ Dirk asked.

‘There’s some spare cable in the upper parts room.’ Blaze-Simms pointed down the side of the building to a balcony with a winch and double doors flapping in the storm wind. ‘We can run it from here down to the ground and then-‘

‘On it.’

A drainpipe ran from the roof down past the balcony. Dirk swung himself over the edge and clambered down the cold metal of the pipe.

He’d barely gone six feet down when a flash of lightning struck the top of the drainpipe. Sudden juddering pain ran through his whole body and he was flung from the pipe, hurtling into the empty air.

He shot out his hand, just managed to grab the balcony as he flew past. He gripped as tight as he could with fingers jolted by lightning and the impact of the steel rail.

Thirty feet below, sharply tracked wheels tore the grassy green skin from the countryside.

Dirk swung his other arm up, desperately trying to get a grip as lightning lashed down, now joined by rain.

‘Goddamit Tim,’ he bellowed as the factory smashed into the first slum dwellings, ‘do something!’

‘I am.’ Blaze-Simms appeared grinning above him, the severed end of the conductor cable in his hand. ‘The drainpipe runs all the way down you see, and-‘

He stuck the end of the cable into the steel opening of the drainpipe. A flash lit him up like the New York skyline and he tumbled back onto the rooftop.

Along the wall from Dirk, the drainpipe hummed with power. The factory’s wheels were coated in a bright blaze of electricity as the lightning ran down the pipe, across the wheel-rims and down into the ground.

Robbed of power the wheels slowed and ground to a halt. Inside the factory looms clattered to a standstill. Lightning still lashed around their heads, but it now ran safely away into the ground. Bewildered Mancunians emerged from their houses to stare at the new building in their midst.

Dirk heaved himself up onto the balcony and climbed up the building as fast as his aching body would allow, avoiding metal along the way. Reaching the rooftop he rushed over to Blaze-Simms’s smoking body.

‘Tim? Tim, you alive?’ He grabbed the Englishman by his lapels and shook him hard.

Blaze-Simms’s eyes fluttered open.

‘No more moving factories,’ he mumbled.

‘No more factories,’ Dirk agreed, grinning with relief.

‘Maybe a museum,’ Blaze-Simms said.

 

* * *

If you enjoyed this then you can read other adventures from Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, of the ever-adventurous Epiphany Club, in my collection Riding the Mainspring, available as an e-book through Amazon and Smashwords.

 

Picture by Dustin Ginetz via Flickr creative commons.

I love to see and hear about the process of creating art. Whether it’s writing, painting, acting, sculpting or any of the other limitless expressions of human creativity, understanding how it is achieved fascinates me.

During our recent trip to Cornwall, Laura and I got to see inside an artist’s studio. We saw paintings in progress, tools of the trade, learned a little about how she developed her work. I was enraptured.

That feeling of living inside art, of seeing how it works and how it moves people, is something that Guy Gavriel Kay has captured beautifully in Sailing to Sarantium.

Sailing to Sarantium

 

Art and artisans

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispus, an expert mosaic maker. He lives in a world based on the eastern Mediterranean in the period a century or so after the fall of Rome. Following his artistic partner’s summons to go east and decorate the great dome of a temple being built in Sarantium, Crispin travels a rough road to a city of wonder and intrigue.

I loved how much we got into Crispin’s head as an artist. He sees the colours and contrasts in the world around him. He is overwhelmed by art when it is beautiful and he is thoughtful about its potential and flaws. He is an expert artisan, and the details of his knowledge and world view make him completely convincing in that role. They also helped me, as a reader, to understand the world as he saw it and to be drawn into his emotional world.

Other characters demonstrate similar levels of expertise – a grey-haired alchemist who has created unique wonders; a ruthless and wily political schemer turned emperor; the finest dancer in the city of Sarantium. Characters are often judged for their expertise and dedication to their field, and that dedication seems to be held up by the book as a good thing. But it is Crispin who carries us through the story.

Religion as construct

As with The Lions of Al-Rassan, Kay explores religion as a social construct. We are given little clear indication as to the truth of the characters’ beliefs, but those beliefs are central to the story. From the forced converts continuing pagan sacrifices in the woods to the religious schisms restricting and enabling art, religion is a complicated matter, one that people shape.

Religion does not just happen to people in this book. There are moments of startling emotion that could be considered divine revelation, but it is up to the characters how to respond and what to believe. Religion is a choice, and this human, social representation of religion is one that I really enjoyed.

The sublime

For all that he peers behind the scenes of art and shows the human side of religious experience, Kay stills creates a sense of wonder. That wonder lies in how we are moved by art, by passion, by moments of human contact. That feeling left me utterly enthralled.

And though Kay lets us peer into the workings of the mosaic maker’s craft, he still left me bewildered and in awe at his own craft. This is a big book, and a slow paced one. Yet I remained passionately engaged throughout, fascinated by every moment, rushing towards each new page.

And I don’t know why.

Seriously, I spend hours every week listening to podcasts about writing, reading about writing, practising my own craft. And I still don’t know how, in technical detail and technique, he kept me so engaged in a book whose size and pacing would normally put me off.

As I read more of his books – next up is the sequel, Lord of Emperors – I hope to work at least some of this out. But for now I have experienced the pleasure both of learning a little more about an artist’s craft and of remaining in awe at the wonders that art can achieve.

That is some damn fine reading.

Other opinions are available

So, who else has read this? I know some of you have. What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Why? Or why not? What were your favourite elements? There’s space here for comments and discussion, please feel free to use it.

Immersion is vital to enjoying a story on its own terms. That sense of surrendering to the imaginary world, living within its confines, accepting its rules, buying into what’s at stake. And one concept that’s crucial to this is the magic circle.

The magic of immersion

The magic circle is the idea of a special space, a set of circumstances that supports an audience in setting aside the real world and immersing themselves in a story. It’s the pool of light around a campfire, the darkness of the cinema, the moment when the curtains are pulled back revealing the stage. Here’s the folks at Extra Credits explaining it in more detail:


The magic of writing

Readers may have their own space to help with their immersion, whether it’s curled up on a corner of the sofa, sitting with headphones on in a crowded tube train, or lying in bed with just the light a small lamp.

But as writers we have no control over that space. We have to create the magic circle through the words that we set down on the page. Any time we break the flow of the story, that we remind readers that they’re reading a story rather than living it, we break the circle. And the loss of immersion that creates can lead to dissatisfied readers.

But its not just about avoiding breaking the circle – it’s about building it in the first place. We have to create a virtual space that draws the reader in, that replaces their thoughts with story thoughts, their emotions with story emotions. We have to make a circle so compelling that they won’t drift out of it and back to the ordinary world.

Too clever by half

I think this is part of why I’ve not been immersed in some of the books I’ve read recently, ones that relied on particular intellectual conceits. Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery is a prime example of this, being as it was a stitching together of fragmented history. But Samuel R. Delaney’s The Einstein Intersection also suffered from it. For readers already immersed in the mythology Delaney was using, the work tapped right into their thoughts, making it all the more immersive. They filled in gaps and connections that Delaney didn’t make, and the fact that they were doing some of the work for themselves added to the immersion. This wasn’t somebody trying to lure them into the circle – it was them stepping forwards to create their own.

But I had to step back to make those connections, and that disrupted my immersion in the story just as surely as the fragments from Delaney’s journal did. This wasn’t my sort of circle, and I wasn’t immersed.

Yes, but…

My thoughts on this are still half formed. After all, I found some of Pratchett’s early work compelling despite the flow-breaking footnotes, and I love the intellectual playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s plays even when they break out of the traditional circle. How does such fourth wall breaking work fit into the model of the magic circle? Is it making a different sort of circle, or embracing audiences in another way?

Odds are I’ll be coming back to this one in a week or two. In the meantime I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the subject – just leave a comment below.