Shadows: A Free Short Story

I wrote Shadows over a year before I made it freely available. Much of that time was spent adjusting small details that no-one will ever notice.

I liked this story very much, and I think that’s part of the reason why it was so hard to let go. The audience are a collective Medusa. Once they set their eyes on a piece of your work, it turns to stone, and can never be changed. With some stories, that can be a hard step to take.

Shadows is exclusive to members of my free mailing list. If you are not yet a member, you can join it by clicking here.

Synopsis: Amber’s husband returns from the war without his shadow. She soon discovers that this is not the only thing he has lost, and must come to terms with the man he has become.

I’m interested in how readers would describe what William lost with his shadow. Let me know below.

Review: Sisyphus

Sisyphus is a Korean science fiction drama exclusively available on Netflix. It follows a successful tech entrepreneur called Han Tae-Sul and Gang Seo-Hae, a woman who travels back from the future to save him from assassination, and by extension, save South Korea from a nuclear attack.

How and why this is all supposed to work is a little hazy for most of the series, because the protagonists themselves, while convinced that their actions have the potential to save millions, do not entirely understand the mechanism by which this is going to happen. This is because they’re trying to change a future that they have only limited knowledge about.

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Vaccinations and Expectations

I live in the UK, and as a resident of this Northern Isle, I have the stupendous privilege, for reasons that are a source of great international discontent, of having access to the Coronavirus vaccine now, rather than later.

I took advantage of this privilege yesterday morning, visiting a slick yet friendly operation in Central London to receive my “jab”, as the Prime Minister insists on calling it.

My Covid Vaccination Card

I walked away on a cloud, my mood lifted by the thought that I had, today, taken a meaningful and irrevocable step towards being free of the collective waking dream that we’ve all been living for the past 15 months.

I felt strong, fit, and healthy. At the school gate, I told other parents that I’d had the vaccine. Refusing to use the word “jab” is a satisfying little act of rebellion that has far more importance in the echo chamber of my mind than outside it.

That evening, around six, I felt a little more tired than usual. Perhaps a little out of sorts. A little later, around eight perhaps, during a phone call with a relative, I started to shake uncontrollably. Shivering is what it’s called, but the movements my body insisted on making were far wilder than the word suggests. I suddenly, abruptly, felt profoundly unwell. (spot the explosion of adverbs, I’m clearly not myself).

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The Making of “Shadows” – From Story Prompt to Finished Product

Back at the beginning of lockdown – that’s over a year ago now – I went to the countryside for a few months with my family, accompanied by a writing prompt I’d come up with.

This prompt had been kicking around in my head for a while now. I had an idea of how to tackle it.

The Emancipation of Shadows

Story prompt

One afternoon, I isolated myself in a room and ploughed through the first couple of thousand words of what I thought was a pretty good idea.

Then I struggled with it for 24 hours.

Then I threw it away and started again.

What went wrong?

This is the story of a story, that took far too long , and took far too much effort to write, but which turned out fairly well in the end. I guess that’s what they’re all like in the rear-view.

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Review: Alice in Borderland

Netflix been a blessing during the pandemic. It’s brought us a huge variety of entertainment. When it ran out of Western shows to feed our ever-present need for distraction, there was an entire realm of foreign-language fiction to discover.

Among the more recently-released series was Alice in Borderland, a parallel-reality science fiction series of Japanese origin, set in a dystopian Tokyo in which everyone’s a contestant in games designed to bring about their rapid demise.

Based on a Japanese manga that dates back to 2010, the series is a mind-bending nightmare with lots of triggering scenes for the more sensitive among us – be aware.

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Review: The Mask of Mirrors by M.A.Carrick

Cover for "The Mask of Mirrors"

The Mask of Mirrors is a rich and thickly-embroidered story of intrigue, conspiracy and magic woven throughout a Venetian city where religion and magic are as much a part of the city as the cobblestones themselves.

Into this society divided by class, privilege and heritage, drops Ren. A girl seeking to mend the unmendable ties of a broken family. But that’s not true at all, and it’s only the surface frosting of subterfuge on a layer-cake so deep at times you feel you may have lost sight of what the truth ever was.

We follow Ren and become familiar with her goals, and the game she plays to achieve them. As soon as those objectives have some sort of clarity, the focus is gradually but relentlessly drawn to the multifaceted objectives of every other group in the city, from the crimelords to the cultural extremists, the noble houses to the smugglers to the city guards (called the Vigil), and most interestingly of all, to the characters who straddle several camps, cultures or families, and seek always to retain their precarious balance.

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Film poster of "Shadow in the Cloud"

Review: Shadow in the Cloud

Tricky, Tricky.

There’s a lot to like about Shadow in the Cloud, including a great performance by Chloe Grace Moretz. There are also some ballsy special effects that took a historical war setting and injected some almost-Marvel-like magic, however unrealistic it appeared on the screen at the time.

That said, none of that takes away from the fact that the film fails at it’s basic premise. It doesn’t make you care very much for the characters or the outcome. The misdirection used to keep you from guessing what’s really going on makes you care about the wrong things. When I finally understood what was happening, I wasn’t emotionally invested in that outcome.

The film doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a weird mish-mash of different genres. Is it a war movie? Is it a horror movie? A movie about a female hero or an air crew? It’s all of these things, but none of them completely. They’re not intertwined effectively. As a consequence, it doesn’t quite succeed at any of the things it sets out to do.

Is it worth watching? If you’re looking for a 90-minute distraction and your expectations are medium-to-low, then there’s enough fun stuff on the screen for you to enjoy it with a bag of chips. If you’re looking for Christopher Nolan-style storytelling and narrative complexity and coherence you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

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A Few Lessons Learned Over The Course Of A Year

I’ve been writing short stories for a long time, and scratching out story ideas for even longer. Long before I started writing the things you’ve read. Given that experience, you might think that I knew a lot about writing.

In some ways I did, but in others I’d been sheltering from some harsh realities that have become clear over time.

None of these ‘lessons’ are particularly unexpected, but experience isn’t the discovery of new information, it’s the calibration of the information you already have, as you discover what really matters.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned in about a year of writing and trying to publish my work.

There’s a reason things are done a certain way.

I’ve given my current work (the Emily Voss series), an unorthodox structure.

Novels are traditionally over 40k words long, and typically a lot longer than that. The market evolved that way because that’s what people like to read. It’s long enough for full immersion, provides value in return for the cost and effort of choosing a story, and it’s short enough that you’re not committing to a month of struggle if it doesn’t work for you.

I love the structure I’ve given my Emily Voss stories. Episodic, with bite-sized chunks of 10k words each that you can purchase in sets of three. It makes it easy and convenient to give the first episode away for free. It’s like a TV series, fits a shortened attention span, and gives me the satisfaction of seeing the story proceed in discrete, publishable sections.

However: I would definitely not do it this way a second time. For a whole host of reasons.

  • It’s not perceived as a full-length novel by people who buy it, even though it’s much longer than a short story and 3 episodes (30k words) is long even for a novella. Each volume of 3 stories sits uncomfortably between novella and novel length.
  • It will be longer than an average novel when it’s finished, but each bit is individually shorter than a traditional novel, so it misses the target on both the short and the long end.
  • It made investing in cover design a difficult decision. Do I need one, four or twelve covers for 12 episodes published in 4 volumes? That can add up to a lot of money. Reusing the same cover damages the marketing.
  • I get the piecemeal satisfaction of publishing regularly, but I’ve diluted the satisfaction of finishing a novel.

Writing is work.

“Duh!”

You know this when you start writing, because everyone tells you as much. But it gets lost in the enthusiasm you have for the newness of your story idea. “Sure,” you say, “it’s work”. But doesn’t feel like work at the beginning because you’re having too much fun writing the unconstrained first pages of your new novel idea.

The real struggle begins somewhere after your first 10k words, when you need to pick up the characters and move them, and the story, on from there. Gradually, certain aspects of the writing exercise begin to feel like going to the gym on a cold day. You don’t want to do it. You have to force yourself.

Then, a bit later, you realize that you’ve written something you really like despite the difficulty of the process, and your enthusiasm comes rushing back, after a period in which you put one word in front of the next absent that sense of wonder that accompanied the first few chapters.

Treating it like work helps defuse this difficulty, by managing expectations. But since I actually have a job, it’s very difficult to turn to my writing in my spare time when it feels like more of the same. I write partly as an escape from my job, not an extension of it.

Pick a process. Stick with it.

There are two ways you can write fiction. You can imagine your characters and an inciting incident, and then see where the events take them as you progress. Alternatively, you can plan your novel out with all the beats and acts prepared in advance, and a clear sense of how you get from milestone to milestone, then join the dots.

Both approaches work. One is not superior to the other.

What doesn’t work is when you move from one to the other and back again, breaking the structure you set out because you’ve had a ‘better idea’, only to realize you’ve now written things that make it impossible to return to the original storyline. It is for this reason that I’ve had to tear up episode 5 twice, and start again.

You’re in it for the long haul. Your dreams of quick wins are exactly that: Dreams.

Like most things in life, momentum is built up incrementally. You can’t expect to start something today and compete with the best in your industry in six months. Nobody hits racing pace two steps into their journey.

Unfortunately, society keeps showing us examples of people who did just that. Overnight successes. That’s because we’re inspired by outliers, not people like us, and we all see ourselves as outliers. Our expectations can get a little distorted. The truth: that overnight success was several years in the making, and most of the greatest success stories got there after years of effort.

You write a book one chapter at a time, and it takes a lot of chapters to make a book. You make money in publishing one book at a time, and it’s only when you have several published books that readers can go buy more of your work when they enjoyed something you wrote. My commercial portfolio is all short stories and novellas, which doesn’t really attract that kind of following, and doesn’t have much potential for cross-selling as it stands today. I need to complete longer novels, and more than one of them.

It’s also easy to get distracted by the marketing. I have a website, this newsletter, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Patreon page. These are not frivolous luxuries I do for fun, they’re essential to the effort of getting your book(s) in front of readers. That all takes time to monitor, update, refresh and maintain. The better you get at doing that efficiently, the more time you can dedicate to the heart of the job: writing.

Unfortunately, you get a more reliable dopamine rush from interations with your readers on social media than you do from a day spent at the coal face, so your brain’s reward circuit works against you. You have to be aware of this and counteract it consciously.

Becoming aware of all the above has been key to restoring my own productivity after an initial burst of enthusiasm that produced Episode 1 of Emily Voss. The key lesson is ‘just keep going’, because even a book is built one word, one page, one chapter and one rewrite at a time. It’s all progress, even the phrases and chapters you discard later on, because it’s all part of the process of getting to a finished product.

Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, Christopher Paolini

Cover of "To Sleep in a Sea of Stars" by Christopher Paolini.

To Sleep is a Sea of Stars is the science fiction debut of Christopher Paolini, formerly better known for his fantasy works, entitled “The Inheritance Cycle”: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance.

Paolini’s original four works were started when he was fifteen years old, and the reviews from these (I have not read the books) indicate readers were split between those who enjoyed the story, and those who couldn’t quite compensate for so young a writer’s voice.

Paolini has taken a significant, professional and well-researched step into the science fiction arena, and I would be surprised if there were not more from him in this genre in the coming years.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars came to my attention because I was collating various different lists of the “best science fiction of 2020” for my holiday reading, and Paolini’s new work came up in more than one of these. The book won the ‘Best Science Fiction’ Goodreads Choice 2020 Awards, voted on by readers, and has gathered generally positive reviews.

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Cover of Stormblood

Review: Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

After the fumbling, fraught and frustrating exercise of launching my own book, I really wanted to immerse myself in someone else’s work.

To find something to read, I did what I often do and turned to the Guardian Newspaper’s ‘Best Recent Science Fiction’ column. Flicking through the various months, I came upon Stormblood by Jeremy Szal.

I didn’t want anything too cerebral, and I wanted something with a bit of pace. I got what I asked for, but perhaps misjudged slightly what I actually wanted.

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