Advice from Siblings – A Review

Jennifer Vandenberg’s Advice from Siblings is light but not simple, textured but not harsh, and neither is it predictably literal. However, it is refreshingly infused with selfishness and a moral ambiguity that belies the honest humor inherent in this tale of emotional conundrums. Advice is a charming little gem that played out perfectly with SFWG’s Evil Christmas Holiday Flash Fiction Contest, taking first place as the unanimous favorite.

At its heart, the story illustrates that evil, although most often associated with horror and overt acts of malevolence, is a slippery notion at best, often born of good intentions, but maligned by manipulation and baseless fear. And for Jon, our protagonist, Christmas Eve is just another day of dealing with his controlling girlfriend and her ever changing list of acceptable behavior. Jennifer shows us that evil can wear many masks and go by many names, even ones masquerading under the guise of altruism.

Flash fiction, by its very nature, cuts to the chase, omitting the breadth in favor of depth. Jennifer Vandenberg reaffirms in Advice from Siblings that the richness of the tale need not depend upon anything as pedestrian as word count.

“Advice from Siblings” was the first place story in SFWG’s 2014 Flash Fiction Contest.

Advertisements

Short Story Autopsy

How does a short story work?

Let’s dissect one and find out, (it’s only 381 words long).  This is a story I wrote and posted in a forum to demonstrate how short stories don’t necessarily have to conform to traditional notions of conflict, structure, resolution and completeness – or do they?  Writers and readers are invited to participate.

The Story:

Gone Fishing

By C.C. Kelly

He rested his cane against the wooden post and gingerly lowered himself onto the hay bale. The barn creaked and moaned as the corrugated roof expanded in the summer heat. He smiled as he wiped the sweat from his brow and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.  After all of these years, the smell of the horses, the leather works, the feed and the oil and grease from the welding machine had evaporated, only the scent of hay and weeds remained.

He stared out beyond the feed pens at the unused land and his gaze drifted unbidden to the copse of trees that marked the unchanging river.  The steady current whispering out of the golden dawn and then, once around the bend where the copse stood, it would widen and slow as the sunset sparkled off the exposed skipping stones of the riverbed.

When he was older, they went fly-fishing.

The work bench stood along the far side of the barn, unused and bare. But the vice was still attached to one end, just large enough to hold flies. As a boy, he would stand there in wide-eyed wonder staring up as his grandfather methodically and thoughtfully wound the thread, a kind, yet grim smile of determination etching his weathered face.

He stood, leaning heavily on his cane and shuffled over to the bench.  He reached out and ran his fingers across the surface, a faint oily residue clinging to his fingertips.  The tears from that last day were gone now, along with the horses, a ghostly memoir. That was the only time he had ever seen his grandfather cry.

He had been ten and looking forward to the warming weather and returning to the river. His grandfather had ruffled his hair and just said, “Soon.”  His grandfather knew that day, what he knew now.

He rested his back against the bench. His children and grandchildren gathered around the back of the collapsing farm house staring with concern toward the barn, but his attention was drawn beyond them, back to the copse of trees. He squinted and tried to focus across the sea of waving weeds. On the slight rise that faced the house, he could just make out his grandfather’s marker.

Neither of them had ever gone fishing again.

End

Now let’s get out the scalpel and open this thing up.  Please don’t hold back, this is a learning exercise and discussion.  Honest brutality is encouraged and you won’t hurt my feelings – honest, this isn’t a beta study.  We want to get to the heart of why short stories work and don’t, theme, metaphor, social commentary, drama, sympathy – all of it.

Any and all comments are welcome.  Let the Autopsy begin.

What We’ve Learned: Conversation between SFWG Founders Alain Gomez, C.c. Kelly and Jason Varrone

Alain Gomez: So I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t help but laugh at myself when I think about the things I did when I first started publishing compared to the things I’m doing right now.

I found out about self-publishing when I got an e-mail ad from Barnes & Noble that promised me a surefire path to success. At the time I had one completed novella that I had been writing off and on since high school and one short story. I had never even considered publishing them because I knew they were both too short.

The ad made everything sound so easy. It said something like, “Just upload your work and let our website do the rest.” How easy is that? So I uploaded my work with no cover art and only to the Barnes and Noble website. (I thought to myself about the cover art, “If the story was truly as great as I thought it was, people would buy it no matter what”). I found out about Amazon’s self-publishing a week later but I stupidly refused to upload there for almost a month because I was “team B&N.”

C.c. Kelly: And now?

Alain Gomez: It’s incredible to me how much of a learning curve I had to go through. Like how to distribute to a wider audience, social media, the importance of editing, how to make cover art, how to FIND cover art…the list goes on.

In retrospect, I’m not sure if I even would have published that first story if I had known what I was getting myself into.

What about you guys?

C.c. Kelly: I came about this a little differently. I got my Nook and started reading Indies without even knowing it at first, and then, once I learned what was happening, decided to explore providing cover art for writers. Then I discovered Konrath’s blog and, well, now I’m almost a year into my own learning curve.

Jason Varrone: I’ve always wanted to write, and did so from the time I was about 6 until middle school, creating cheesy little fantasy stories. Then I stopped, lost confidence in myself. Life then got in the way: college, marriage, kids, house, the suburban nightmare, or dream, depending on your viewpoint.

Finally, when I was 39, I just decided I was wasting my time dreaming of doing it, and sat my booty down and wrote a short non-fiction book about taking back control of your time. I self-published it on Amazon and the indie author craze took hold and refuses to let go.

Alain Gomez: Are you guys going about things differently now that you’ve had some experience under your belts?

Jason Varrone: Absolutely. It is easy to get caught up in all the other aspects of being an indie: cover design, Twitter, Facebook, other marketing platforms, e-book formatting, etc. Then the actual writing time dwindles and dwindles, and the next thing you know, you barely have time to get out 1,000 words.

A writer writes. I know that’s a cheesy line from age-old writing manuals, but it is the foundation of our passion.

Farm out the services you can, and just write.

C.c. Kelly: I’ve always written, mostly short stories. I had no idea self-publishing was even an option until last year. I had my stack of rejection letters, like many Indies, and once I realized this was possible, I jumped in with both feet.

I have a background in marketing, but I still spent the better part of six months establishing a brand in my cover art and design and refining my genre. Each genre has its own customer expectations regarding covers. And that is just one small part of the process.

I’ve tried to build on each new element I’ve learned. And there are so many, from the craft of writing to covers, blurbs, distribution and marketing in general. And the industry changes almost monthly, so I’m constantly researching the business side and remaining open to oppotunuties.

Jason Varrone: I think we can also get caught up in the perfect being the enemy of the good: the search for the perfect blurb, the perfect cover, the perfect opening line…it’s all unnecessary. Obviously you don’t want to embarrass yourself. But if the cover is professional looking, your blurb is attractive, and you continually learn new writing skills, it’s all good.

Alain Gomez: I think the biggest difference for me is how much time I spend promoting my work. I agree, Jason, writers write. But it took me a long time to “get that.” I used to obsess over staying up-to-date with Twitter/Facebook/Blogs/Goodreads. And it honestly burned me out.

I think this is a trap a lot of new authors (as in, published) fall into. They expect instant results and blow all of their energy on the wrong things.

Jason Varrone: I hear you, Alain. I spent more time trying to design covers and learn e-book formatting and my writing suffered tremendously as a consequence.

C.c. Kelly: I was mostly worried about the writing when I started. I quickly realized that the actual book was only a small part of the  business of self-publishing, the most important part, but still. I agree though, the pursuit of perfection can be a waste of time, which is not the same thing as a “good enough” mentality.

I was just blown away by how much there was to learn. I’m just happy I heard the mantra “Indie publishing is a marathon” early on and based my goals accordingly.

Jason Varrone: It is most definitely a marathon. And a heavy dose of luck can come in handy as well. It’s a shame we don’t hear more often about short fiction taking off, like Wool and some others, but it is rare, and there is a fair bit of luck involved.

Alain Gomez: I feel like short fiction is really more of a numbers game than it is for novels.

Jason Varrone: That’s the cool thing about short fiction: instant gratification and sense of accomplishment by publishing short stories quickly.

C.c. Kelly: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Who has the next cliché?

I’m not sure about the numbers game as an absolute. I think satisfying a particular audience is very important, specifically your own. Which doesn’t mean writing for the market, but writing within your genre, within your reader’s expectations.  I think it’s possible to do well with fewer titles.

Alain Gomez: Right. But I’ve seen so many authors write/publish 10 short stories, the stories don’t sell, and then they give up on them. A single short story has no hope of survival. In order to appeal to that niche, you need 50+ stories.  100 stories to 1 reader rather than 1 story to 100 readers.

C.c. Kelly: I’ve found that short stories take a fair amount of time, because everything matters so much more than in a novel. They must be much more precise. Although, less time to write than a typical novel.

I think people pick up on the exceptions, like Wool. But yes, to establish a brand as a short story writer, your odds improve by publishing lots of shorts and fairly quickly.

Jason Varrone: Right, other than the occasional lightning-struck story that sells in massive quantities, a major key is volume. Let’s face it, short fiction is a niche product. It does not appeal to the masses, to our detriment, so constantly filling the market and bumping your chances of some success is vital.

C.c. Kelly: But, shorts do seem to be gaining popularity. Especially with short novella length series.

Alain Gomez: So what future adjustments are you guys going to make to your publishing strategy?

I’ve been aiming more for the novelette-length work. It takes me a few extra weeks to write but it seems to be worth it. That length sells better and you can charge more for it.

C.c. Kelly: Besides write more?

Alain Gomez: Haha. Seriously, that’s not a bad strategy.

C.c. Kelly: I’m planning on two collections, more shorts, two novels this summer, and I’ll be starting a new pen name for a new YA-ish drama. And I plan to get more involved with Goodreads, not so much as an author, but it’s just a cool place to hang out.

Jason Varrone: Well, right now I am branching into novel-length work. I am probably going to intersperse some short stories within the same series during that time.

I wish I had time to “hang out.” 🙂

C.c. Kelly: Ah, you have to make time. I find the whole indie thing fun and exciting, inspirational even.

My works have been getting longer, but in an organic way. It’s just taking longer to tell the story.

I do think there is a length that readers enjoy and serves e-books well, the short novella. Apart from the novels already in editing, I’ll probably try to work in this length, assuming my characters cooperate.

Jason Varrone: The bottom line with short fiction, to me, anyway, is that it is just a fun format to both read and write, a nice bite-sized nugget filled with crunchy goodness.

Indies, Goodreads and Rating Books

Some of you may or may not be aware that authors are limited in their ability to review books over at Amazon (and I understand why and don’t necessarily disagree).  While this is fairly irrelevant for the Steven King’s of the literary world, it does impact Indie writers, because Indies are readers too and many of us read a fair number of Indie books.  Many readers, myself included, don’t shop for books, we shop for authors, which means the reviews and ratings of these books can be critical for the future success of not only a specific book, but of the author as well.

Because we are mostly locked out of the Amazon review system, one of the best reader communities around and our best option for leaving reviews is Goodreads.  I highly recommend checking it out.  The site takes some getting used to, but it is informative and entertaining.

Even though I love the new voices coming out of Indie publishing, some of them do have their issues in terms of writing quality.  To be fair, some of them are completely unreadable (I don’t finish these), while others are fantastically written original stories.

In between those extremes, I’ve read some pretty good books.  But often, even these have issues, sometimes on every other page, whether it is character consistency or development, narrative pacing or underdeveloped emotional sympathy.  By all rights a book like this should probably get a 2 star rating.   I usually give it either a 3 or a 4.  Why?

Even with these shortcomings, I usually enjoy the book; otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it and certainly wouldn’t be rating it.  I’m an Indie writer and support other Indies as much as possible.  I won’t slam a book (probably from a beginning writer) with an albatross of a low rating.  Again, why?  Perhaps I wasn’t the intended audience, or just didn’t ‘get it’.  Either way, hanging a one star on their work doesn’t help them or even other readers in the end.  A one star rating could mean anything from “not my genre so I hated it” to “too much swearing or violence” to “falling short of reader expectations”.  This is like dining out for me.  Even if the location is inconvenient, the atmosphere questionable and the plating unappetizing – if the food is good, then it’s good.  And that is what matters to me.

On the other hand, if the book is so badly put together, be it basic grammar, formatting or sentence structure, it’s usually obvious from the sample (the ‘Look Inside’ feature at Amazon), so posting a review to point it out is redundant.

The other thing I take into account is genre, which is why I often give a 4 star rating, (assuming the hiccups are minor and don’t significantly affect the story). I gave Silence of the Lambs 5 stars.  I also gave A Princess of Mars 5 stars.  While I think that Silence is a much better book, (a bucket list book if you will), Princess deserves the 5 stars in part due to its historical significance and secondly, because it’s an amazing example of the genre (considering it practically invented it).  Genre matters.

So with that said, here is my philosophy for reviewing books at Goodreads:

First, do no harm – I see no point in going out of my way to hurt another Indie writer with a low rating or a bad review.

Consider the genre – An average book in general, might be an amazing genre book.

Focus on the story – Were the core components or the tale itself enjoyable?  I tend to look at this as pass / fail.  If it’s a fail, I probably didn’t finish the book (or make it much beyond the first few pages).

So my baseline review is a 3 star, “Liked it and was entertained”.  In the end, I’d rather read a fun or interesting story with some minor writing hiccups, than be deprived of the new voices I’ve had the good fortune of reading.  I’ve also noticed that with each new book the writer publishes, those hiccups slowly begin to disappear.

So I’m curious, what is your philosophy for rating books, be it a review or how and why you recommend books to friends?  The above is my philosophy only, there are no wrong answers.

As a side note, I strongly encourage readers to rate and review the books they read, especially the Indie books.  Our future bestsellers depend on you.

On Short Stories, Reading and Other Ramblings

The Children’s books of my youth were filled with short stories, many of them surrounding the tumultuous conflicts of chicks, puppies and other farm animals, often unfolding in and around parks, ponds and barns.  At least this is my recall.  I remember a fair amount of discussion regarding kites as well, the importance of which was never adequately explained.  The little readers of elementary school were especially trying for me.  Even then, I thought they were dreadful and warranted an Amnesty International investigation.

Though the scars were still fresh, I had not given up on the written word entirely.  But I did not pick up a book with any measure of what passes for literary enthusiasm in the average kid until I found Encyclopedia Brown and other similar books, which are at best novellas.  (There is a reoccurring theme here, so turn off your Facebook chat and stop looking at LoLcats and pay attention.)

I loved those stories and after running through the selections on the book shelf of my sixth grade English classroom, I did the nearly unthinkable.  Without any homework requirements or class work assignments to force my hand, I asked for a hall pass to go to the – wait for it – the school library.  Our library was smaller than a bedroom, shelved and paneled in dark wood (my memory holds on to mahogany, but I’m confident it was oak from a high school shop project gone wrong).

And there, just to the right of the door, sitting on their own dark stained ‘oak’ cutting board of a shelf, all dressed in yellow spined hardcovers – they waited.  They were all there (actually it was the second set that was there, but I digress from my emotional childhood moment), in sequence, beckoning.  Tom Swift and his Flying Lab called to me.  I picked it up, studied the fabulous art on the cover and opened it to page one.  I’ve been reading ever since.

Now these were also novellas, each title was a little over hundred pages with larger fonts.  Some of you may have been bushwhacked by the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but for me it was Tom Swift.  And then one day a year or so later, I was in B. Dalton’s (remember them?) and in a perfect and seamless transition picked up A Princess of Mars and left the short story and novella behind, or so I thought.

By the end of Junior High I had run through every Burroughs book I could find and had discovered Moorcock, Delany, Piers Anthony, Lin Carter, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, Feist, Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Heinlein and numerous books from the 60’s and 70’s, scrounged from the musty back shelves of my local used book store.  The “classics” from school were at best lame and at worst, well, still lame, but also a waste of time.  Jane who?  Charles who?  (To be fair, I have matured since then and now appreciate the classics to a measured degree, especially the ones with zombies.)

But, Elric and Stormbringer?  That was magic.  And little did I realize that many of these books were compilations of short stories.  I was being schooled and didn’t even know it.

Now it bears mentioning that I started watching Star Trek reruns as a young kid, about the same time we were landing on the moon (also on TV) and a really cool show called UFO.  I had the usual obsession with Frankenstein and the old school horror movies, as well as, the 50’s science-fiction films, Forbidden Planet anyone?  Star Wars came out when I was in Junior High.  So it should come as no surprise that I was stoked when I picked up Dune, I believe I was what they call the target demographic.  (Highlight that, there’s going to be a test.)

By the time I graduated college I had run through so much sword and sorcery, fantasy and sci-fi that I didn’t know what colors were left for the alien sky to be, (Magrathea was shut down for the galactic recession).  I felt the same stories were being told over and over and I began to lose my joy of reading.  I had already discovered Cussler and read them all, and Fredric Brown (more of a mystery sci-fi writer), but more on him later, so what was there to read?

I was in a Walden Books one day, (remember them?), and I asked a sales guy, “What can you recommend?”

“Dude,” (he said ‘dude’), “Dude, everyone is reading this new book, it’s so creepy!  You have to read it.”

I read Silence of the Lambs straight through that night.  Then I picked up King and Clancy and a new vista shown itself.  Most of my childhood authors were long gone or no longer writing new works.  But now, I was reading authors who were actually still alive and writing.  In fact, new authors were even being published, new books I tell you – go figure.

The importance of this transition in genres is relevant because it opened up the concept of character, metaphor, layers and complexity like never before.  Sure, even the evil demons of my adolescent books had motivations and emotional conflict, but these new genres were different, less black and white.  They were revealing the inner character, the emotional character, the psyche that reminds me of, well, me – character sympathy, you can’t beat it with a stick, seriously – try, you can’t.

I had to go back and read the old guys again, yep, Elric is a fantastic anti-hero.  I knew it before, but understood it better now.  To be sure, this new understanding was significantly due to my maturity and education, but I’m confident that reading horror, crime drama, mainstream fiction and discovering new sci-fi writers like Orson Scott Card to name one author specifically (and Ender’s Game, to be even more specific – based on one of his short stories I hear tell), gave me a new perspective on how character and story develops.

I had always written, but never finished anything, never edited, never submitted anything anywhere, but I wrote.  It was crap.  Oh sure, some clever ideas here and there, but no story to go with them, no character to understand or sympathize with.  Enter stage right and then on through the center of your head like an exit wound – Fredric Brown.

As far as I am concerned he is one of the greats at short stories.  He taught me that a short story, at its best, will turn the reader on their head, psychologically, emotionally or logically.  Short fiction needs punch, immediate and challenging.  Novels have the luxury to meander; in short fiction every word matters.  Brown taught me how to get from A to Z (the reveal).  And he taught me that every idea isn’t a novel.  Some very cool stories lose their narrative if they go too long, (stop shaking your head at this post).

In a novel, we learn about the character through interactions and conflicts (the “don’t tell – show” concept), and then when the boyfriend dies or, “… you are in love with a werehampster, how traumatized and heart broken you must be, yadda yadda yadda,” we tear up because we care, and all of this by about page 106, page 406 for King.  A great short story on the other hand, can reach inside you and grab your heart, forcing uncontrollable sobs by the second page.  To me, that is simply astounding.  Stop and think for a moment about how difficult that is to do.  The writer has touched on a universal truth and exposed it like the nerve of a tooth, usually by revealing and expressing their deeply personal vulnerabilities, (good short story authors can be some of the most honest writers out there).  And this is one reason why novelists don’t always make for good short fiction writers and vice versa, not from lack of honesty, but from being unable to master the proper flow for each.

A novel must age like a fine wine; a short story is a shot of tequila.

I am sure that there are many types of short story formats, with a variety of official sounding categories and I would know this had I majored on English, but I didn’t take the easy way out – I majored in Business (doing my best Barty Crouch Jr. impersonation right now).  With that said, short stories seem to fall into three categories, from my experience.  The narrative, often serialized (such as the stories of Conan the Barbarian), is a simple story usually including a quest or obstacle to overcome.  Our heroes then triumph over evil and cliffhanger dangers to rescue the princess, retrieve the amulet or find the clue that identifies the killer.  They are usually straight forward and follow the typical Three Act pattern.

The second form of the short story is the slice of life or the depth of emotion piece.  These types of stories are usually characterized by experiencing something that releases a deep emotion, often grounded in a memory.  An example would be exploring the emotion a young man feels when visiting the family farm and holding one of his long dead grandfather’s hand made fishing lures.  These stories are often more artistic; the style of prose often establishes mood and they are typically esoteric in flow, allowing the reader’s own emotions (memories) to rise to the fore.  Often, they lack structure and an antagonist, even conflict isn’t essential.

The last category is the twist ending, shocker or mind bending story.  These often follow a mystery story pattern, something is off center, not quite right and then we reach the twisted reveal that wraps the story up and ties everything together.  These stories are often much darker and usually lack any sort of ending that could remotely be called happy (though they are occasionally humorous).  And it is not unusual for all three styles to exist in a single work, overlapping.  These are often some of the best short stories written.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the story is one of anguish, a momentary slice of emotion or observation, psychological roller-coaster or magic revealed, the story must connect quickly and resonate – regardless of the fantastical scenarios, it must be real.

And then we have the literary side of short fiction which can be embedded underneath any of these story types, the flowing prose and the layers.  I’m a super fan of layers.  Don’t get me wrong, I love escapism, but if the author has me by the emotional gonads, well, that’s not only special, but it’s also probably a discussion better suited to a different sort of blog.  The point being, if it’s real, if you care about the characters as though they were real people with real emotions, if you feel like calling them to tell them everything is going to work out – you’ve probably got a bestseller in your hands.

Another literary theme is foreshadowing and metaphors, love them.  This is one of the most difficult aspects to do well in twist ending short fiction, think Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, if you are unfamiliar with the style.  If you don’t know those references, take a break and google them, otherwise I’m not going to make any sense and there is that test to think about.

The twist ending short must never appear vague or intentionally leave out important information, this drives me nuts whenever I see it and I see it all the time (books and television) – it’s not necessarily bad writing, but it is lazy writing.  A good twist reveal story should appear to explain everything (foreshadowing thy name be as sweet as a number 2 pencil), which is why the twist works.  Of course, you can’t give away the ending either, it is, as they say, a slippery slope.

Lastly there is the social commentary aspect – the basement layers.  Sure, the story is there sitting on top, entertaining and accessible, but underneath is meat, a juicy, rare filet wrapped in maple bacon, (for you vegans underneath is egg plant or possibly tofu with a nice sprout vinaigrette).  The second layer might be the emotional conflict the characters are experiencing, making connections between events in the human experience (and the reader’s) outside of the story itself.  The third layer might be the story’s metaphoric umbrella.  The next layers are usually specific points within that concept, making connections to disparate ideas and thoughts.  All of which combine to make pointed criticism on society and the human condition or educate the reader about the same.

The best shorts will affect the reader emotionally and make one question their faith, beliefs, political perspectives and relationships.  The point isn’t to necessarily change the reader’s mind, but rather to make them think and emotionally react.  Novels can do all of this as well, but all that story and narrative gets in the way.  Shorts are more like sucker punches.  Where a novel delivers melancholy, a short story should come with a suicide prevention hotline number.

Personally, while I do write some escapism, most of my shorts are working on many levels and hopefully working on a deep emotional level as well.  I try, regardless of what Yoda preaches, I do try.

I write what I love to read, the characterization of what one would expect from a full length novel and the get-to-the-point-already flow of the short format.   This is why shorts are so hard to write.  For me it is always about the story, and stories are made up of the people that populate them with all of their fears, joys, phobias, quirks, loves, hates and life experiences made flesh – and frequently in under 7,500 words.

And all of the authors I read growing up gave me an education in the short story form, pacing, the reveal, exposition, characterization and conflict.  Much of that education came from novels as well.  Novels that made me question my understanding of the short and forced me to revisit them, the result being that the simple narratives of my youth opened up like spring roses, so many layers, so much beauty that had been hidden right outside my window.

And now, dear reader if you are still with me, it is time for that test:

So, kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many were going to Saint Ives?

The answer is important, because that is who we writers work so hard to please, our demographic of one – you the reader.  The relationship between writer and reader is a personal one, direct and singular.  The important truth to remember about us is that we always were and continue to be readers first.