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Wednesday 30 September 2015

Writing - H.E. Bates short story competition

You have two months to enter this short story competition!

Open to all writers.

Length – 2,000 words.

Deadline – 30 November, 2015

Any subject.

First - £500
Second - £100
Third - £50

Entry fee: £6 (£10 for two entries; any more than two, £5 each)

Entries should not have been previously published.

Judged by members of the Northampton Writers Group.

For details how to enter (by post or email) see the website:

Good luck!

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Writing - Flash 500 Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis Competition

This is the third year of this Novel Opening Chapter & Synopsis Competition.

Have you started, or completed, a novel with strong, credible characters and a page turning plot?

Have you honed the first chapter?

Can you put together a compelling one page synopsis of the balance of the story?

If so, then enter the Novel Opening Chapter competition and have your work judged by the senior editors at Crooked Cat Publishing!

They welcome published, self-published and unpublished novelists.

The only stipulation is that the entry must be unpublished.

They’re looking for an opening chapter up to 3,000 words, plus a one page synopsis outlining the balance of the story.

If your opening chapter is longer than 3,000 words, don’t submit a longer manuscript. Simply close the entry within the 3,000 word limit and make a note at the end (which will not be included in the word count) stating the chapter continues beyond this point. Or of course you can find a suitable dramatic point to close the sample, even if it is less than 3,000 words!

This is an annual competition: Deadline is 31st October.

Entry fee: £10

Optional Critique of Chapter and Synopsis: £25


First: £500

Runner up: £200

Full details in the website:


Good luck!



Saturday 26 September 2015

'With Malice Aforethought' - 2 of 2

Wikipedia commons


(part 2 of 2)


Nik Morton

Morgan came to, opened his eyes, and realised he could see stars, stars in the firmament... The deja vu feeling overwhelmed him. He jerked his head in its awkward helmet.

Thank God, she was all right! Floating beside him, Naomi offered a brave smile. They were both lucky to be alive; their suits had escaped intact. He glanced over his shoulder as the rescue shuttle encroached. The space station's outer lab spoke was askew.

Once inboard, the station patrolman stepped forward as they clambered out of their suits.

‘You're both under arrest.’

Naomi paled. She didn't understand, looked at Morgan in bewilderment. Even Morgan was a little confused. One advantage with the Temporal Module was that you didn't lose your own sense of time; the brain impressions were indelible. The old concept of time-travel would not have worked: once you travelled into the past, your future and the brain-patterns of that future would cease to exist; you would exist in the now... So, thanks to the mnemonic head-phones in the Booth, he was fully cognisant of his criminal act; he was aware that he had illegally time-travelled. What Morgan could not understand, however, was how the authorities knew that he had done it.

For, in this present, there could be no record of Naomi's death, of his use of the Module. He had no intention of going back in the Booth. He’d planned to live in this particular continuum. His other-self - whom he had so recently seen - would now be suffering the trauma of losing a wife.

So, how did they know?

‘...charged with crimes against the Universal Code.’ An awed look came over the assembled shuttle crew.

Morgan shrugged his broad shoulders, intent on bluffing his way out.

‘I don't know what this is all about, patrolman. That's a very serious charge - I only hope you know what you're doing.’


The Twenty Eight Intergalactic Jurists from every accessible galaxy studied him with variegated intentness.

Morgan had initially been daunted by the sheer presence the Jurists exerted on him.            The Universal Code was a just one, he knew; they would desist from any form of extra-terrestrial interrogation such as telepathy or the tapping of prescient imagery. He would be tried as if in a court of law on his native planet, Earth.

Floating voice-boxes filled the auditorium; each one a microphone link and translator for the hundreds of worlds listening and watching. The entire auditorium itself was an image-purveyor, a circular camera. Apart from the Jurists arrayed in a heart-shape on shimmering cerise-coloured plinths, the place was seething with representatives from the planets: ambassadors, Justice Societies, Earth-reporters and the Somnolent Sentries colloquially known as The Recorders who constantly scanned the Time-vortex.

Morgan found the courage to smile reassuringly at the woebegone Naomi, though inwardly knowing he was doomed.

There appeared to be something wrong with the concept of time as he was given to understand it. Even though he’d triggered the camera's spy-eye on entering the Booth - as he had only now learned from the Prosecution - he still could not comprehend how the film existed in this particular continuum. Perhaps there was another, negative law for films. Did that explain the apparitions and ‘shadows’ on some photographs? Instead of being ghosts, were they in fact images from the future? He didn’t know. The only irrefutable fact was that they had him dead to rights, on videotape, breaking the Universal Code.

His sentence would be very harsh indeed. He had put everyone's future at risk.

            The Prosecution was coming to his summing-up: ‘The Earthman in the Dock has already signed an affidavit confessing to his most heinous crime.

‘The decision required of this Court is not regarding his culpability; that has been defined in accord with our Code. No, your verdict is on his sentence.’

The mountainous tetrahedron-shaped Prosecutor faced the Jurists. ‘Here is a man who warped back in time to look upon his wife, knowing of her incipient death, and with malice aforethought spared her life! I believe that for this kind of selfish action there is only one solution to adopt. The risk of our present or future being altered - hitherto unbeknown to our Esteemed Recorders - is too great.

‘Therefore, I must call for a verdict not of mercy or retribution, but essentially of practical expedience.

‘I implore you, Revered Wise Ones, revert the Accused into the past, to kill his wife and thus set the finely balanced temporal scales right again.’

Stunned, Morgan's chin dropped, mouth wide in abject horror. The alarmed eyes of Naomi sought his own, momentarily pleading; then they softened, as if saying she understood that he was helpless, that she would go back to be murdered by him, that at least he had tried...

His eyes smarted as a banana-shaped warder laid an invisible feeler on his shoulder, about to escort him into the subterranean cells whilst the verdict was considered.

He had no doubt that the Prosecutor's suggestion would be adopted; Defence had rested on the Court's mercy. There didn't seem to be any alternative. Schemes for outwitting the sentence flitted through his giddy brain but were as instantly dismissed. The Jurists would make sure he carried out the murder, of that he could be certain. He tried convincing himself: it wouldn't be killing Naomi, she was already dead. He remained unconvinced.

If he hadn't gone back, if he hadn't fought with Gregory, there might never have been an explosion, he berated himself, reluctantly stepping down.

He halted, thunderstruck.

‘Wait, please!’ he called, mind reeling. He had to get it right. The whole idea was mind-boggling, but it was a chance. He must get it right.

‘Oh, Wise Ones, please hear me!’

The warder tried restraining him, struck him dumb with lancing thoughts.

‘Desist, warder!’ a Jurist commanded.

‘It is his prerogative - let him be heard!’ roared twenty-eight ‘voices’ in unison, all simultaneously translated, clamorous.

‘If you consult the videotape recovered from the damaged lab, you'll learn that the explosion was caused by me and Assistant Gregory fighting. He was molesting my wife Naomi. I stopped him...’

The Jurists switched their attention to the Orb suspended high from the cavernous roof of the auditorium. Within the globe the video-film reeled off in split-seconds. The ephemeral scene sent a grim chill through Morgan, detachedly seeing himself struggling with Gregory.

‘Now that I've established that, Wise Ones, let me state my case.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘If I hadn't gone back in time, there would not have been an explosion.’ He eyed them all. As one, the Jurists concurred. ‘But if there hadn't been an explosion - thereby killing Naomi - I wouldn't have gone back.’

Frowns circumnavigated the miscellaneous features of the Jurists.

He had stated two truths, each contradictory to the other. ‘We come to the vicious circle, the Time Paradox,’ he said.

The Jurists agreed simultaneously.

‘My case is - you cannot condemn my wife to death, for she shouldn't have died in the explosion I caused because I shouldn't have gone back in time as there wasn't an explosion until I caused one!’

Viewers around the universe were stupefied; people and creatures rose, ‘gaped’. It was difficult to follow and yet it made complete sense. They could not quite grasp it, yet understood.

Completely in accord, the Jurists announced: ‘You have proven Sufficient Doubt, Morgan Bland. We must therefore acquit you...’


‘Morgan, I still don't see how you were acquitted.’

‘We became part of a paradox,’ he smiled. ‘The point is - have I changed things? By my selfish love for you, have I altered the future? And what of my other self, in that other time-continuum where you died?’

Naomi shuddered. ‘Don't talk like that, Morgan, please.’

‘We'll just have to wait and see. But if and when the change occurs, will we know?’


They had a child. He became the most murderous space pirate in the history of the known galaxy.


Previously published in Dream, 1986.
Copyright Nik Morton 2015

 Note: This story evolved from a 250-word competition for The Writer.

If you enjoyed this short story, you’re invited to read others to be found on this blog; search for ‘Saturday Story’.

My anthology of crime stories Spanish Eye featuring Leon Cazador, half-English half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’ can be found in paperback and e-book.

Saturday Story - 'With Malice Aforethought' - 1 of 2

Wikipedia commons

(part 1 of 2)

Nik Morton

The Temporal Module suspended in space on the rim of the Andromeda Spiral two million light years away from Earth required continuous maintenance and Morgan Bland was one of the ninety-nine mechanics detailed for this purpose.

He was proud of his Personnel papers and of the fact that he had been selected for the job. It was one of the most sought-after posts in the Space Federation. Naturally, a lot of applicants thought it would involve free trips in the Module...

They couldn't have been more mistaken.

There was a Universal Code for such an eventuality as a time machine. The concept that time could be conquered had been accepted for centuries, but overcoming the inherent problems, both physical and moral, had only made time travel possible towards the end of the twentieth century - four hundred years ago.

By interfering with the past, by simply existing in the past, the future was in some way altered, fundamentally changed.

So the Universal Code covered it.

The Temporal Module was used strictly for observation. In its present form it was only capable of transporting a traveller into the past and returning him. Time-travel into the future was forbidden, excepting for the Recorders.

Nobody knew the kind of punishment the Twenty-Eight Intergalactic Jurists would mete out to any transgressor of the Code, for no-one had yet dared to time-travel without express permission and under constant surveillance.

Apart from the technicians concerned with the Module's rudimentary workings - simply a few buttons and levers - and authorised travellers, only the mechanics were allowed anywhere near the machine.

Not a soul beyond the Inner Sanctum of Jurists knew the whereabouts of the blueprints for the Module and the space station in which it operated. Somewhere, rumoured to be on the very edge of the outermost galaxy, the plans were sequestered.

But that was none of his business, Morgan reflected. He had to check the manifold in Section 14G 3Y of the Module. Even with gallium arsenide chip technology it was a gigantic brute of a machine, each riveted panel requiring location code-numbers.

Morgan eyed his watch as he descended the steep ladder into the Module itself. Almost Breaktime; he wondered how Naomi, his wife, was getting on in the experimental lab which abutted onto the Module House.

The Temporal Module was held within a half-mile wide hollow metal case, a mile tall, sealed top and bottom. Adjoining this outer shell were several cylindrical spokes, each an access tunnel. These tunnels led to living quarters, canteens, amusement areas, recreation centres and various separate laboratories, mostly associated with the information gleaned from time-travelling into the past.

One lab was studying the rock formations of the Jurassic age; another the gases of the Earth’s creation; and another was concerned with the beginnings of Uranus. In yet another lab Naomi, as chief chemist, worked on the chemicals that generated the Module itself. These substances were highly dangerous in their raw state, prior to being fused with stabilising agents equally necessary for the Module to function properly.

When the Module operated, only the Booth, nine feet by four, within the Module’s core, actually time-travelled. Meteorites, atomic rays, nothing could affect the Booth; it was impervious to every known element and force. Only through the joint application of many varied forces was it built at all. The Booth was self-propelled and could travel round any chosen planet unseen and undetected by sensors due to a special shielding process.

Observations, mainly using sensors and remote collecting robots, were made from this Booth. Nobody had ventured outside the Booth’s confines; outside was the unknown, the great mystery.

There was no way of discovering how the time-travelling process might affect the body or molecular structure if you actually stepped outside the Booth’s protection. You might cease to exist – or the body’s inbuilt clocks might simply dysfunction.

Damage-control alarm sirens froze Morgan's blood. Other tech­nicians on catwalks around the Module Booth looked up at the bulkhead chart. A red blip of light - indicating an atmosphere leak - flashed in Section K3.

Naomi's lab!

The tannoy, her voice calm, unmistakable: ‘Chemical reaction - isolate - decontamination team close up - Prime One!’

The life-support systems had a leak; the air would be sucked out.

Morgan climbed the ladder and barged his way towards the linking corridor, K. Stopping at a decontam cabinet, he broke the seals and withdrew two suits. Panting now in one of the suits, he raced down the catwalk, jolting as he went, lumbered with the spare suit for Naomi in case she couldn't get to hers.

Then the explosion hit him.

No sound. Just an impenetrable, invisible force. Blasted back down the tunnel, he was concussed and bowled over and over, bashing bulk­heads and deck as he rode the shock waves.

He came to, opened his eyes and realised he could see stars, stars in the deep firmament... He peered round. The space station was a distant speck, slightly buckled it seemed at one of the outer radials... Still gripping the spare suit, he was travelling through space, carried by the explosion.

The rescue shuttle was alongside him as he remembered why he was carrying a spare suit. ‘My - my wife, Naomi - ?’ he demanded on his helmet radio.

His rescuer hauled him inboard, slammed shut the hatch. ‘Sorry, she's dead - didn't have a chance.’

Morgan sank to his knees, eyes wet and red-rimmed; he was trembling and shivering - until the onboard doctor administered a sedative.

In the space station's sick-bay he went through a bad period, suffering repetitious nightmares, undergoing the violent explosion night after night.

As he nervously fidgeted in his waking hours, a scheme formulated in his mind. But in order to put it into effect he must first pass his medical check-up.

From that moment he concentrated on getting his riddled nerves back into shape. Finally, the Doc passed him fit enough to return to work.

Whilst going about his maintenance tasks, he began making a mental note of timing, causation; in his bunk, he jotted down these notes, in a private code. In the quiet periods he slipped down to the Inquiry Library and consulted the reports on the accident.

Surreptitiously, he observed various technicians operating the Module Booth on routine journeys. It was easier than piloting a spacer! He decided. He would do it. He would project himself back in time - about half an hour prior to the explosion. He would save Naomi: Morgan knew the risk. He was violating the Code's Fundamental Commandment: Thou shalt not meddle with time, merely observe and learn. With the utmost caution, he prepared himself. There was plenty of time! During most free periods he busied himself getting fit, dieting and losing weight. He wanted to be in peak condition for the trip; it was reportedly quite an ordeal until you got used to it.

The moment arrived. He’d planned to enter the Booth during a Breaktime. Only Technician Rawlings was left in the core-room's entranceway to the Booth.

Morgan greeted him and explained that the Head Technician wanted a word with him. ‘Go on, I'll stop here while you're away.’

Rawlings didn't question him; they were both security- and stability-cleared as high as possible. Anyway, he knew Morgan very well: he could be trusted.

Alone now, Morgan entered the Booth, adjusted the various levers and gauge dials on the console. He set the place he wanted to arrive in - the core-room - and estimated the time, thirty minutes before the explosion hit corridor K. He had cut it as fine as he thought possible so he wouldn't unbalance the time-scales more than he could help.

He switched the Module on from the core console and then leapt inside the Booth, shut the entrance, sealed it, clipped the head-phones in place and flipped the switches. He strapped himself in with seconds to spare.

The sensation was bizarre, as though he were sitting in a centrifuge. The transparency of the Booth grew opaque; console lights changed colour rapidly; some colours he couldn't identify: the natural laws of light were turned upside down in the time vacuum.

At least he could think, he could register what was happening, though the blood swam in his head, made him nauseous. His stomach squirmed uncomfortably.

The process reversed, slowed and then stopped. He could not detect at which precise moment the Module Booth halted; one instant it was moving, the next, stationary. Now, it just didn't seem possible that he had travelled through time. It was more like being in a space-fair­ground's whirligig.

He opened the entranceway, stepped out gingerly, a little unsteady. He eyed the bulkhead clock in the core-room. A minute later than he had planned. That left him twenty-nine minutes - if in fact he had time-travelled!

Climbing the ladder, Morgan left the Module House and sped down the tunnel corridors; he would have to hurry! On his way, he was brought up to an abrupt halt, looking at himself collecting tools together and placing them in a bag. His other self was quite unaware that he was being watched, oblivious of the drama soon to erupt. A feeling of pity filled Morgan's gullet: he was going to lose his beloved wife... It was an eerie feeling, overpowering himself. It took ten precious minutes to drag his alter-ego back into the Module. He set it in motion, to travel fifteen minutes hence... That should give his other self time to get out of the Booth, hear the alarms, rush to his wife and relive the past he himself had been through. He ran on.

Breathless, he burst into Laboratory K3.

Naomi was struggling with the corpulent assistant, Gregory. The man's lips curled in a travesty of passion.

‘Hey!’ Morgan leapt.

As Gregory released Naomi, Morgan clamped onto his neck and they pitched against the workbench, spilling dozens of chemicals that sent up a nauseating mixture of fumes on shattering. Naomi stumbled into some experimental apparatus, sobbing.

In staggering succession, Gregory elbow-jabbed Morgan's stomach, karate-chopped his face, barely missed the bridge of nose. Winded now, aching, Morgan scuffled back, catching his breath. Gregory charged him again but slipped on the fallen chemicals. His foot glanced off Morgan's thigh, sent him sprawling too. They both upset yet another rack, containing highly unstable phials which instantly burned a hole in the pressure hull!

The ominous hissing alerted Morgan and Naomi at once. She shouted the alarm over the tannoy.

Gregory must have realised too, judging by the aghast look on his face. But he had nothing to grab onto and was suddenly sucked head-first shrieking piercingly, into the rent. Swiftly losing consciousness, his large bulk temporarily blocked the hole; the hissing sound diminished. Air-pressure dials continued to drop.

Morgan snatched his wife's space suit, threw it to her and then stepped into Gregory's - he wouldn't be needing it.

In their cumbersome suits, gasping for oxygen after their strenuous fighting, they both drunkenly bundled through the emergency exit hatch at the precise moment that the lab's mixture of spilt chemicals erupted. The wind was knocked from him; blindly he grabbed Naomi's hand, held tight and blacked out.

To be concluded tomorrow…

Thursday 24 September 2015

FFB - Blood Lines

Originally published in 1995, Blood Lines by Ruth Rendell is sub-titled ‘Long and Short Stories’. It contains eleven stories, the title tale being a novella concerning her famous sleuth Inspector Wexford.

There is no previous publishing history for any of the tales, so presumably the stories were new for this collection.

‘Blood Lines’ is about a bloody murder of ‘an ideal husband’ with its fair share of suspects. The pleasure is in Rendell’s description, and her handling of Wexford: ‘A sheet of the corrugated iron that roofed it had come loose and clanged up and down rhythmically in the increasing wind. It was a dreary place. No visitor would have difficulty in believing a man had been clubbed to death there. Wexford remembered, with distaste, the little crowd which had gathered outside this gate during the previous week… hoping for happenings.’(p4)

We can forgive the switch of viewpoint to Burden at times, perhaps because we know these characters so well, they’re in our head. It’s more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ but that’s typical of this kind of crime story. An interesting tale in 39 pages.

Much shorter and quite slight are ‘Lizzie’s Lover’ – a dark underdeveloped psychological piece, ‘Shreds and Slivers’ – insanity with a play on words, and ‘The Carer’ – a nosy-parker who got more than she bargained expected.

‘Unacceptable Levels’ – is too short, mostly dialogue, a gem of an idea for murder involving nicotine.

‘In All Honesty’ is a clever treatment showing how even honest people can be destroyed by unfounded suspicion.

‘Burning End’ lays bare the put-upon daughter-in-law who looks after her husband’s mother while he and his brother don’t lift a finger. Tragic, but believable, with an ironic twist.

‘The Man Who Was the God of Love’ concerns Henry, who pretends to be something he is not; if he is found out, then the consequences could be dire. Another similar character is George in ‘Expectations’ who married for money, not love.

‘Clothes’ is about an obsession. Alison was driven to buy clothes. The rush of adrenalin only lasted as long as the actual purchase. Afterwards, she hated herself for giving in to the temptation. [You know, a similar urge regarding the purchase of books? Are they bought to read or just to possess, to fill up shelves? The former, I’m sure.] Sadly, for Alison, she rarely wore her new clothes. Rendell really gets under the skin of poor Alison.

The novella ‘The Strawberry Tree’ is about 82 pages and is for the most part a retrospective by Petra, reliving again her childhood on Majorca forty years ago. This is a cleverly set up intrigue. It would be unfair to reveal too much. There is a brooding menace about the tale, and the descriptive passages put the reader there. And of course her characterisation is excellent; at thirteen, Petra is lacking in confidence while her brother Piers ‘had all the gifts, looks, intellect, charm, simple niceness and, added to these, the generosity of spirit that should come from being favoured by the gods but often does not’(p143).  The story was filmed for TV in the Ruth Rendell Mysteries series starring Lisa Harrow and Simon Ward (1995, the year of publication!).  
A mixed bag, then – but worth reading for the Wexford, ‘Clothes’ and the novella.

PS - Considering that 'The Strawberry Tree' must have been under production at the time of publication or just before, it's quite possible that the least satisfying tales were included in order to get the book out, and indeed before they'd had a decent gestation period to evolve. Pure supposition, of course.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Writing - Welcome Wednesday

Every week, multi-genre author Nancy Jardine features a 'Welcome Wednesday' slot in her blog, where she invites guest writers to chat about various writing subjects.

Today, Nancy very kindly invited me, and I'm discussing that perennial subject 'plot versus character'.

Many thanks for the invitation, Nancy!

... and Nancy...

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Writing – the short story

For many years I’ve added to my home library collections of short stories. Until the advent of the e-reader, received wisdom in publishing was that short story collections ‘don’t sell’. What they meant, perhaps, was that they don’t sell in vast numbers so are not worthwhile expending effort on them. However, now any form of writing can be obtained on an e-reader, and enjoyed, and the collected works of many classic authors can be downloaded for very little financial outlay (check out the Delphi Complete Works).

A short story in its literary form is supposed to be a brief fictional prose narrative, often involving one connected episode, a concentrated form, dependent for its success on feeling and suggestion. The writer must attempt to succinctly create a fictional world in the moment. Stories attempt to reflect the life that is lived by all of us, and the short form has to do it without benefit of the depth and breadth of a novel.

And, as with the novel, a short story has the potential to invoke any number of aspects of writing.

·       The plot – the sequence of related events that shape the narrative.

·       The characters – the people who play their parts in the narrative.

·       Setting – the place and time where the story’s action unfolds.

·       Point of view - a consistent perspective on the characters and their actions.

·       Style – how the author chooses to relate the story.

·       Theme – often the submerged back-bone of the story, a unifying idea that provides insight into the human condition.

The length of the short story will be dictated by a number of factors:

·       Complexity of the plot

·       Number of characters

·       Duration of the tale

·       Intended audience

·       It doesn’t have enough content to be a longer piece

That intended audience might be a publisher, an editor, a competition, a magazine, or simply personal preference.

A short story can cover the events of a brief episode or encompass action that takes years to conclude.

The author needs to use a scalpel to excise anything that is not pertinent to the original intention.

If a short story has to fit into 2,000 words then there is little scope for detailed exposition and rising action, and so on.

The nub of the conflict – the problem to be resolved by the protagonist – must be introduced very early.

If the story is allowed more words, say 6,000, then a more leisurely pace can be adopted, though again every word has to do its job – creating the world, the atmosphere, the characterisation and the emotional journey of the protagonist.

Usually, the so-called literary short stories have more words while genre fiction writers are quite content to settle for less to do the job.
Regardless of length, the writer of short stories must show the reader what is important through the dramatic action of the plot and the other elements of the story, and not just explicitly tell the reader what to think.
The illusion of reality should always be sustained by the plot right up to the end. This reality is enhanced by character creation. Dialogue is a useful tool here, conveying mood and emotion. With the wordage permitted, the writer must suggest enough complexity in the individual to affect the reader’s emotions. Mood can be affected by time and place, and setting is important, though ideally this will be achieved with a few deft sketches rather than a full-blown travelogue. Creating a visual place enables the reader to ‘see’ the action more definitively, in effect to be part of the scene, involved in the drama.
Drama is perceived through the eyes of the protagonist. In short stories, it is preferable to limit the number of characters and viewpoints. The first-person narrator could be a major character or a minor character who is a good observer. The third-person narrator can be omniscient, seeing into all characters’ hearts and minds, or limited omniscient, seeing into one or, possibly, two characters.

Some novelists are not comfortable with the short story; in their case, there is not enough scope to create the world the writer perceives; only a novel will do. And the same goes for some readers: they can’t seem to get lost in a short piece while they can easily become immersed in a thick novel. To each their own.
Writing short fiction can help to hone your writing. You have to convey scene, character, plot, setting, and emotion within a concise form, so every word should be selected to that end. There is little room for extraneous padding or ‘fluff’. In some ways, certain short story writers are similar to poets – selecting the right word to convey the precise feeling or moment.
Just browsing along my bookshelves, these are some of the short story collections I can see:

Collected Stories by John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Ruth Rendell, Eudora Welty, E M Forster, O Henry, D H Lawrence, W Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Saki, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, Elizabeth Spencer; Truman Capote – A Reader; Stanley Ellin – The Speciality of the House; Leslie Charteris – SeƱor Saint; Willa Catha – Great short works; Frederick Forsyth – The Veteran; Ring Lardner – Best Short Stories; James Joyce – Dubliners; Hugh Garner – Best Stories; Hermann Hesse – Stories from Five Decades; Elizabeth Spencer – Stories; August Derleth – The Return of Solar Pons; Arthur Conan Doyle – The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories; Jeffery Deaver – Twisted; Joseph Conrad – Typhoon and other stories; Doris Lessing – This was the Old Chief’s Country, Stephen King – Everything’s Eventual, and G K Chesterton - Father Brown.  

This limited list doesn’t touch upon the horror, fantasy and science fiction shelves; these genres have spawned many hundreds of short stories.
If you haven’t tackled short story writing – read a collection or two and see what can be achieved by the masters such as those mentioned above, or Margaret Atwood, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson to name a few more.
Even today, short stories definitely have a story to tell.

Monday 21 September 2015

Writing - beginnings change

Recently I was tagged by a FaceBook friend to produce 7 lines from page 7 of my Work In Progress, To Be King.  I managed that, but it set me to thinking, as you do.

The original beginning of the WIP is actually now Chapter 2! The point of this post is to highlight that while writing a novel you do not have to feel that you must stick with the beginning you created. There may not be anything wrong with it, but it is always possible a better alternative may present itself as the story evolves. And of course it’s all subjective anyway. Be flexible.

Here is a snippet from the original beginning.

As you will observe, it is fantasy, set in mythical Floreskand, being the second chronicle after Wings of the Overlord:

CHAPTER 2: Contenders

“To see what is right and not to do it is to want of courage.”
Dialogues of Meshanel
Lord Tanellor draped his once-magnificent scarlet cloak on top of the overseer’s bloodied mutilated body, and then raised himself into an upright position. He glanced to the crest of the steep, striated Oxor Rift. Through a thin miasma of blue dust, the sun flared dazzlingly, casting various shades of mauve and purple for a brief instant, and then it dropped out of sight behind the jagged rock ridge. He ran the back of a hairy hand across his creased brow, tired and sickened by the senseless death that surrounded him. Death in war he could understand, and even condone, but this, this made his blood boil. Negligence killed these men. And, by his insistence that the miners worked longer shifts during the Kcarran carnival, Saurosen had murdered them as surely as if he’d struck them down himself.

            A few marks away, the towering broad-shouldered Aurelan Crossis busied himself counting corpses. Beyond, Bayuan Aco, the sergeant of the palace guard and ten of his men hauled bodies from the gaping maw of the mine. At the entrance shrine, the Daughter of Arqitor prayed intermittently and also offered a pitcher of water to the men.

            “What’s the tally now?” he asked in a weary voice.

            Aurelan did not raise his flinty grey eyes from his grisly task. He jotted figures in his dog-eared tally book. His voice boomed, a deep bass: “Seventy-four.”

            “So many?” he whispered, in despair. “I fear there are more to be recovered yet.”

            Aurelan shut his book. “Sadly, these are not just numbers in a tally book. I know these men. Two of them even have brothers in my palace guard.” He eyed Tanellor. “Lord, we do not have the time to dig out any more.” Aurelan then stepped over the corpses and moved to Lord Tanellor’s side. His hair was short, cropped, and coppery, the lobe was missing from his right ear, the mouth a cruel line in a pitted face. An old scar ran along the left side of his neck, one of many tokens from his fighting days, Tanellor surmised.

And so on…

As a beginning, I think it worked, thrusting the reader into a situation that raised a number of questions. I haven’t shown Tanellor arriving with his men, or the actual explosion. It is colourful, intense with imagery, and reveals tragedy and character. But I felt that here was a missed opportunity; I wanted to study the miners before the tragedy; and I perceived that by doing so there would ultimately prove to be a link to the arcane Underpeople my co-author alluded to frequently… So, the new added beginning starts thus:

Chapter 1: Dust

“Everything in the past died yesterday;
everything in the future was born today.”
- The Tanlin, 204.10

Caged purblind birds sang, their high-pitched tones echoing through the maze of the Oxor cobalt mine tunnels. A mixture of tree trunk and hartwood props groaned as they supported the rocky ceilings.

            “The king can’t deny us our festival,” growled Rujon Sos. His words echoed in this small underground amphitheatre that joined several tunnels. His bare muscular torso gleamed with a sweaty sheen. Though this section only accommodated twelve miners, all of whom now stopped hammering at the rock walls, there were six other dark shadowy entrances to tunnels where more men hacked at the rock and sweated, their implements echoing along the passageways.

            “Like the rest of us, you’re just a miner, a vassal of King Saurosen,” snapped Dasse Wenn, his rat’s nest of a beard dust-covered. His beefy features twisted in distaste, grey eyes full of hate. Sos suspected that Dasse was a weasel – albeit a short brawny weasel – and regularly reported to the king’s minister anything that might earn him a few base coins.

            Saurosen IV had persistently deprived his people of their little pleasures; and now he had banned their annual Carnival. Considering these festivities had taken place without fail annually for 1062 years, commemorating the crowning of Lornwater’s first King, Kcarran, Sos thought the people had taken the edict commendably well, though he doubted if they’d abide by it, merely paying lip-service. He couldn’t comprehend why Dasse was so passive about the king’s contempt for his people.

            “We must withdraw our labour, teach Saurosen a lesson!” Sos’s strident voice echoed through the smalt mine. The tunnel to his left went quiet, save for the chirping of songbirds.

            “The king doesn’t take lessons from minions like us!” Dasse said in a guttural tone.

            Everywhere glimmered with a blue-tinged buttery glow as the candles flickered. Most candles were placed on rock ledges, but a handful of miners wore cloth caps with wax candles fastened to their brims. Each man simply wore a breach-cloth and thick, boiled leather boots, as the temperature deep in the mine was so intense that any clothing would become sopping wet and prove cumbersome and heavy.

            “You miss the point, Dasse,” snapped Sos. “Hear that silence? Most of our shift has downed tools already.”

            “The overseer and his men won’t stand for it. He’ll send for Lord Tanellor, who will bring troops, and they will force those fools back into the mine. We should have no part in that!” Dasse coughed on fetid air that was tainted a faint blue. “The vent shafts are next to useless!” His thin lips curled back in a sneer, revealing buck teeth. “I don’t fancy my head on a spike, Rujon Sos.”

            “That’s often the fate of Saurosen’s spies!” Sos riposted, rubbing a hand over the stubble on his square jaw.

            The others audibly gasped.

            “You’ll regret those words, Rujon Sos!

            “I have witnesses, Dasse. If you’re threatening me…”

            Dasse laughed, arms gesturing. “I’d rather work down here than die. Saurosen can have all the smaltglass goblets he wants, so long as I have a full pewter one in the Pick and Shovel when our shift’s done!”

            “That’s defeatist talk.” Sos ground his teeth together, turned and, gripping his hammer and chisel, scanned the ten other miners. “What say you all?”

            Only murmurs reached him, the whites of the fearful eyes of his fellow miners gleaming. He knew the majority agreed with him; but they also knew that Dasse wasn’t to be trusted.

            He jabbed his chisel at the nearest wooden prop. “Look, at this cankered wood, it’s not fit. We’re working in a death-trap. Lord Tanellor’s begged and pleaded for new material, but Saurosen won’t countenance it!”

            “He’s always been mean with his money, that one,” said a miner on Sos’s right.

            “Aye, and with his favours, as well,” said another.

            “What favours?” another demanded, derisively.

            Sos nodded, and persisted. “Despots like Saurosen can’t be allowed–”

            Allowed?” Abruptly, he was barged by Dasse, shoved to the rock-strewn floor. He felt a stinging sensation across his cheek and brow and stared up into the hate-filled visage of Dasse. His hand came away covered in blood. Dasse brandished his chisel, sitting astride him.

            Sos twisted and heaved before Dasse could deliver another blow, thrusting Dasse off him. Most of the others shouted encouragement to Sos, though not all, he noticed.

            He scrambled to his feet, gripping his hammer; his chisel was discarded somewhere.

Now he felt his back starting to sting: his left shoulder-blade, which broke his fall.

            The pair circled one another. The first heavy impact had loosened Dasse’s long jet-black hair and it now trailed over his massive shoulders.

            “Sweet Arqitor, stop!” called one man.

            “Stop it before someone gets hurt!” another shouted, but neither Sos nor Dasse listened.

            Suddenly, Dasse rushed him, shrieking unintelligibly, wielding his chisel.

            Sos side-stepped smartly, and then slammed his hammer into the side of Dasse’s shoulder as he passed, and swiftly leaped onto the man’s back as he tumbled against a pit-prop.

            The wooden post groaned and the rock above crumbled, small pebbles skittering to the ground.

            “Stop it, both of you!” a man shrieked. “You’ll bring the whole mine down on us! Daughters of Arqitor preserve us!”

            Snatching, grasping, clawing, the pair rolled, hands slipping on sweaty skin, slicing with hammer and chisel, crying out in shrill tones as the tools sank into flesh. Then, within seconds, they both rolled against a small open conduit that collapsed at their pressure and it created a wide entrance that sloped down into blackness.

And so on…

One of a variety of hooks a writer can employ for the reader is conflict. In this case I created conflict between Sos and Dasse, which will worsen until they become trapped after the explosion. The scene also contains action, to move the story faster. I touched upon affairs pertaining to Lornwater, its citizens and their ruler, King Saurosen IV. Here, too, a little further in, I could introduce Tanellor and hint at other happenings and intrigues. All before Tanellor walks among the dead (now Chapter 2).

Significantly, these events begin on the same day as the beginning of Wings of the Overlord. It is a parallel separate storyline (as Wings is a self-contained tale that has links and threads to be developed later, some in To Be King, others in subsequent books).

Writers spend a lot of time on the beginning of their novels. It makes sense, to draw in the reader. Beginnings are fretted over more than any other part of a novel – more than the ending, even; because that beginning has been there to tinker with for the duration of the book.

My advice is: ‘…beginnings and endings are very important. But don’t fret over them too much – at least until the book is written. Then you can decide how you want to shape the beginning and ending.’ – Write a Western in 30 Days (p142).
As you can see here, an original beginning was eventually replaced (but not discarded). Now that I have the shape of the book planned and I’m 68,000 words into it, it is unlikely that I will alter it again; but it’s always a possibility.

Wings of the Overlord – by Morton Faulkner, hardback (paperback due in December)

Amazon COM here

Amazon UK here

Write a Western in 30 Days – by Nik Morton, paperback and e-book

Amazon COM here

Amazon UK here

Some other posts on writing beginnings: