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Good News for a Change: The Short Story is Reborn!

2017 was a remarkably challenging year. However, despite the challenges of difficult socio-economic circumstances, political warmongering and the continual disintegration of values in our society, the artistic and beautiful still managed to triumph and blossom. I don’t maintain utopian ideals. I do not believe humans are perfectible or that government or law can fix the issues that stem from our human condition, but I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is what we must hold onto in 2018.

I believe one of the greatest of these glimmers in 2017 was revitalisation of the short story form in the UK. The short story has long been neglected by writers and publishers here, whereas it is still held in high esteem in the US, often viewed as a kind of ‘rite of passage’ by which authors can win accolades and critical acclaim before they go for the big novel pitch. There are far more markets in the US for the short story form as well as anthologies collating the best of specific genres. The ‘Best American’ literary series epitomises this outlook, treating the short story much in the same reverence as the sonnet of Elizabethan England, whereby a writer could not really claim to be a poet unless they had written one.

But even in the US, the short story has been in danger for a while now. More and more markets are starting to close and many newer markets are not able to offer professional paying rates. Publishers put out fewer single-author short story collections each year. Extremely long-standing and well-reputed markets remain open, of course, such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Shimmer, and Analog. However, this creates issues in and of itself, because these markets are so prestigious many new writers feel they represent pipe-dream ambition. With diminishing opportunities, a greater number of authors feel there is no point in writing short stories, as no one will publish them and no one will read them. It’s not the publishers’ fault by any means, but a result of economic, societal and philosophical changes, and these changes are far from over if the current political climate in the West is anything to go by.

But all is not lost, because there has been a miraculous recovery of the short story.

Firstly though, why is the short story so important? Well, I believe it is its very concision that makes it valuable. Writing is healing. We’ve known this for millennia. Writing is both therapy for the writer and reader, especially when it achieves the pre-eminent quality of inducing catharsis. Catharsis often comes at the end of a story, and the power of short stories is that they are endings and nothing else. Sure, there are structures and formulas and ways to de-construct them, but I honestly believe that the greatest short stories are the ones that feel like walking into the end of a movie, where everything is rich with meaning but you do not have the full context. A good friend of mine once told me to watch the third season of Twin Peaks: The Return without first watching the original seasons 1 & 2. ‘It’ll add to the weirdness,’ he said. ‘And make it even better.’ Boy, was he right. Piecing together the missing history of the series in the implied dialogue and imagery was one of the most joyous aspects to watching that momentous television event of 2017.

So, the same is true of good short stories. You come into the movie with ten minutes left, and while you wonder what the hell it’s all about, you feel this cataclysmic swell of emotion that defies logic-driven attempts to fill in the gaps and create ‘plot’. With a short story, a good one, as with poetry, you get straight to the healing part without having to wade through plot and narrative mechanics. Of course, good novels and long-form narrative make the plot and narrative enhance the emotional experience, but that’s an essay for another time. I think this can be summed up best in the words of Dan Coxon, the editor of The Shadow Booth (more on this anon), in a recent interview with LitReactor: ‘There’s nothing better than a short story that evokes a strong emotional response in the reader but defies all attempts to pin it down.’

The tradition of short stories dates way back, as far and if not farther than Ovid, with his eclectic and electric collection of tales Metamorphoses, one of the books that most greatly influenced Shakespeare. The first time I personally realised the incredible potential of the short story was when I read a piece by Raymond Carver called ‘Are These Actual Miles?’. I would later learn Carver contributed to the revitalisation of the short story in the 80s. In this story, the state of a disintegrating marriage is symbolically represented by the condition of a car. This tale made apparent the power of the image to tell a story, without the need explain it with clunky narrative exposition. The naturalistic dialogue, and the way it created such a rich sense of character, was also a wake-up call to me, as hitherto I’d hardly used dialogue in my storytelling. After that, I was inspired by the ‘daughters of decadence’ – the astonishing female writers of the 19th century whose short stories are shining examples of stylistic excellence and emotional power. In particular, the works of Olive Custance (the featured image of this article in case you were wondering), Olive Schreiner, Victoria Cross and Charlotte Perkins Gillman. The often fantastic and phantasmagorical ideas of these writers were always nuanced and subtle, and deeply influenced my own approach to how Fantasy should be written. I later discovered Thomas Mann, Stephen King, and a sea of other phenomenal writers employing the short form.

Now we come to the present day, where many consider the short story redundant. Recently, a close friend of mine, having read one of my short works, smiled and said: ‘This is why I don’t read short stories. They frustrate me.’ He was annoyed, perhaps understandably, that I didn’t specify exactly what happened at the end. Did the characters live? Get blown up? I could see where he was coming from, but it also made me realise how little attuned we are as a culture to this form. Once, it was a mainstay, but somehow we’ve lost the beat of it. He somewhat admitted it himself, perceptively observing that the form had always ‘frustrated’ him. I wonder if schools put more emphasis on this form whether we would change things. But that is also a topic for another time. So much good work is being done in the short story field. For anyone new to the scene, or looking to fall in love with short stories, I would highly recommend the collection The New Black, published by Dark House Press; it represents a triumph of the short story form and this should come as no surprise given that the collection was collated by none other than Richard Thomas, whose own single-author short story collection Tribulations was a master-stroke. I’ve praised this collection in numerous places, so I won’t re-iterate it here, but suffice to say Richard Thomas is one of the best advocates for the short story precisely because he wields it with such efficacy. Another collection for lovers of the Fantastic is Songs of the Dying Earth, which has stories from a number of prestigious authors including George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. These stories, written in styles creatively imitating Jack Vance’s original ‘baroque’ prose, are inventive, zany and profoundly weird, some of the best speculative fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Gamut magazine, another Richard Thomas innovation, spearheaded an incredible movement to create a quality neo-noir zine. And though, tragically, it will not be going forward into a second year (the take up was not significant enough), the quality of stories it offered, and the number of new voices it discovered, has set the bar exceedingly high for all time. You might think it strange I’m spending time in my ‘hopeful’ essay with an example of a short story market that is no longer running, but Gamut demonstrated that with a clear vision for quality, and aesthetic taste, it was possible to create something unique and beautiful. Whilst it did not gain enough of a following to continue, it set an example, reinvigorating the literary community, particularly in the realms of Speculative and Horror fiction, with a thirst for quality short fiction. I certainly found myself feverishly logging in to the Gamut website during my lunch-breaks at work in order to read the latest article or story. I find it hard to remember the last time I had such a hunger for literary content.

In the UK, we are beginning to cotton on, and new short story markets have emerged. My own effort, 13Dark, clawed its way into existence, introducing three new voices in fiction. What’s unique about 13Dark is that it focuses on longer short stories, those tricky pieces of fiction that fall between the arbitrary boundaries of 5,000 words or less, or 20,000 or more. These longer forms achieve tremendous power and impact precisely because of their added depth and complexity (but they still retain the poetic concision of the short form). I’ve always been a fan of the ‘long short story’ – and it was a delight to showcase such shining examples of it. There will be more from 13Dark in the future, so watch this space.

Perhaps more significantly, STORGY and The Shadow Booth released their début publications last year. STORGY’S epic 24 story collection Exit Earth is a tour de force, treading a dividing line between literary and genre, writing both timelessly about issues of power and humanity whilst also screaming into the present with commentary on the state of technology and contemporary socio-political issues. The Shadow Booth Vol. 1 is a profound exploration of Weird fiction and like 13Dark explored longer story forms. There were many incredible contributions to this collection, notably Daniel Carpenter’s ‘Flotsam’ and Richard Thomas’ ‘White Picket Fences’. I had the incredible fortune to have stories in both volumes, and attended both launch-events in London (they were on consecutive days!). The energy at these events was awe-inspiring (you can check out pictures of the STORGY event here), and there was a real feeling that the short story was once again attaining capturing interest. The fact so many upcoming writers are contributing to the form, alongside more established names, shows that people still thinks there is value in it, and that new ideas can still be expressed within its constraints.

Theodore Dalrymple once said in his seminal work Our Culture, What’s Left of It: ‘Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcend, his own limitations and flaws’. While it might sound lofty, I think it’s most probably true. The short story is a particularly effective way to do this because it is not onerous to write – it can be completed in a few sittings, and refined and refined at leisure. I would argue that in our increasingly time-restricted culture, where we are asked to work more and more with less personal development time, the resurgence of the short story is not just timely and convenient, but a complete necessity for literature to continue to thrive, and therefore, for people to continue to thrive, because good writing heals us, good writing imparts understanding and empathy, good writing is the antidote to total corporate anaesthetisation.

So what are you waiting for? Go write.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to follow @josephwordsmith on Twitter, or alternatively discover more about 13Dark on their Facebook page. To discover his writing, you can check out his work at Amazon.

To celebrate the re-emergence of the short story, I’m offering 15% off 13Dark’s first issue: DEAD VOICES. Follow this link, and use the code JAN15 to at checkout.

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Good Writers Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

So often we talk about what good writers do well. Or what bad writers do badly. Or to perhaps be more even-handed: what makes good or bad pieces of writing what they are. We rarely talk about the sometimes chronic weaknesses even the greatest writers exhibit or how they turn these seemingly inhibitive habits or traits into some of the strongest aspects of their work. I think this is one of the most fascinating topics, and examining it can help us less well-known writers improve dramatically. Half of becoming good at anything, after all, is learning how to play to your strengths, and fight the battle on your terms. If you were facing off against someone in a boxing match, and they had an incredibly swift jab, it would be a mistake to try and punch faster than them. Rather, you might find another way around, perhaps maintaining a good distance so their jabs are useless, or else waiting for the jab to come before making any kind of offensive manoeuvre so you can catch it with a parry. The same applies to writing. Whilst we can always work on and improve our weaknesses, sometimes it is also pertinent to steer the writing away from areas we might struggle with.

Let’s start with the one-and-only Stephen King.

Stephen King, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last thirty years, is perhaps the greatest Horror writer alive today, and one of the most successful novelists of all time. His trademark is his compulsive un-put-downable prose style that drags you into its undercurrent like a vindictive ocean. However, despite King’s penchant for thrilling narrative and terrifying scenes, he is surprisingly indirect when it comes to unfolding his story. In fact, he loves to meander, sometimes going into literally hundreds of pages of sidebar for the sake of setting up his characters. For example, in 11.22.63, it is almost 250 pages, a third of the book, before we get to the main thrust of the narrative, in which our time-travelling protagonist meets the beautiful school-teacher Sadie back in the 60s. Imagine any other romantic novel in which the love interest was introduced so late… In The Stand, similarly, it is something like 600 pages before we even have all the heroes gathered in Boulder in order to prepare for the confrontation with Randall Flagg. Part of this is King’s self-professed discovery writing, feeling his way into the story by remaining emotionally true to his characters rather than planning his narrative arcs out at length. Another part of this, at least in my opinion, is that he is simply in love with his characters and cares more about their everyday humdrum than you might expect from a writer of fantasy.

You’d think that this tendency to get sidetracked, especially for a writer of genre fiction that necessitates a degree of plot and pace, would be career-crippling, but on the contrary, King has made it into a strength in many ways. Firstly, he uses these sidebars to build tension, which is essential for any Horror writer. He plants a seed of something sinister in our minds, then meanders off onto another topic: perhaps a mechanic fixing a car, or a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain, leaving us with this slowly growing dread as we sense something brooding out of the corner of our eye, something the ‘camera lens’ of the narrative refuses to focus on. Secondly, he uses it to deepen his characters so that we care. King said that horror is “rooted in sympathy” and so by taking his time to set up the people in his story and drawing us into their worlds, he makes the Horror, the tragedy, the tension all so much realer when we get to it. All good Horror movies, in fact almost any movie with real high-stakes storytelling, has to have that set up, that golden period before everything goes wrong. The Lord of the Rings is one of the best examples of this. Think how much time we spend in the Shire at the start of the book and films, how disproportionate it might seem in comparison with all the other important stuff that comes later and is so key to the narrative. But, without that time in the Shire and all the details of Bilbo’s birthday and this ludicrously pleasant and peaceful way of life, we cannot understand what is at stake, and even deeper, what Frodo must lose at the end.

Awareness is key. King is aware of what his genre requires and aware of his own style and his preferred way of writing it. What he’s done is found a way to draw the two together. He has made discovery writing and a habit of fleshing out seemingly mundane scenes into the perfect tool for creating intense horror.

Let’s look at another writer with a very different kind of weakness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth and its many languages, acclaimed Oxford scholar, author of The Lord of the Rings and numerous other best-selling works, has been accused time and again of simplistic storytelling. Michael Moorcook wrote a devastating essay on the topic in which he accused The Lord of the Rings as being no more stylistically worthy than Winnie the Pooh. It is perhaps for this reason that The Lord of the Rings has never been academically acclaimed, despite its enduring popularity, its mythological dimensions, and its undeniable power. Only now is The Lord of the Rings being studied at Universities in the UK but I would argue it is the very simplicity of Tolkien’s language that proves the driving strength of his narrative, and that gives it the incredible emotional payoff. Tolkien, it must be remembered, was an extraordinarily academic person, an expert in languages. He had an immense vocabulary at his disposal, however, he chose deliberately to write in a childlike, innocent way, forgoing long Latinate words that many of his Modernist contemporaries favoured and instead using the humbler Anglo-Saxon words as his foundation. What emerges is a prose-style that is unlike any other, and quite simply heartbreaking in its innocence.

Naivety is something publishers often reject upcoming writers about (I’ve been rejected for it myself) and the success of gritty stories such as Martin’s Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire as the book series is called) reinforces this view that we want more violence, more sex, more horror, more realism. Tolkien, however, defies the idea that readers/viewers want gratuity, turning what might appear to be naivety into an astonishing purity, something so intertwined with the narrative that the story would literally have been impossible to tell without it. Think, for a moment, what The Lord of the Rings might have been like if halfway through we were treated to a graphic sexual scene between Aragorn and Arwen because “that’s what couples do”? Actually, it’s probably not wise for me to ask this question of the internet; invariably this has already been pictured at great length in some dark corner of the web… but you see what I’m saying about how that kind of grittiness would destroy the beauty and myth of their relationship?

The final scene at the Grey Havens is so moving because of the elegiac simplicity of the prose, as well as the simplicity of the story itself. Frodo and Sam’s relationship is heartwarmingly true, truer than almost any other friendship in the history of fiction, and so to see it ended, when seemingly nothing should now stand in the way of them growing old together, is almost unbearably sad. But then there is also hope, hope that Frodo might finally find rest. The Christian message at the end is pretty unmissable – and is another reason The Lord of the Rings comes under fire from the likes of Moorcock – but Tolkien here exposes, at least to my mind, a profound truth: regardless of what our rational beliefs are, any sane person desires that catharsis, that hope for something beyond death, beyond parting with loved ones, beyond the sorrow of the world, beyond pain and grief. People of extraordinarly widely ranging beliefs are still moved by what George R. R. Martin called the “bittersweet” ending of LOTR, and I think its because Tolkien taps in to how desperately we crave this better world, even if we think it’s fantasy.

Tolkien was no stranger to grittiness. He fought in World War I and returned home with trench-fever and shellshock, taking nearly a year to recover. He lived through World War II also. He was one of the last British soldiers ever to ride a horse into battle (and now you see why those cavalry scenes are so well done). He knew about grittiness, and there are moments where we get hints of it, such as when Frodo and Sam sit on the “blasted heath”, within view of Mordor, listening to the sound of fatal drumming in the distance. Does this sound like a soldier waiting on the hill, listening to bombs dropping in the distance? Less can be more, and Tolkien certainly makes it so. Tolkien’s prose has far broader appeal in some ways because it is less graphic. We populate the battle scenes with our own sense of what fighting looks like (although with the advent of the films we now most likely visualise these scenes). We populate the romance with our own degree of intimacy. And we feel the story at the deep level of a childhood fable, one that sticks with us and shapes us for all time.

Whereas King uses his “weakness” to enhance the effects he’s trying to achieve and work within his genre, Tolkien used his “weakness” to resonate on a deeper emotional level.

I’m now going to go back even further back in time and talk about the legendary poet John Milton.

This weakness, I believe, did not so much derive from the writing itself but from his personal circumstances.

Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost published in 1667, depicting the war in heaven and the fall of human kind at the hands of Satan, who is, bizarrely, the hero of the narrative (or one of them). Milton is sort of going out of vogue at the moment. His writing could be described as a polar opposite to Tolkien: Latinate, extravagant, borderline bombastic. His language is difficult to access for those who have not read Greek and Roman literature, and he re-tells a Christian story in a very explicitly Christian way. Or so it seems. I actually believe the perception of Milton as a “stuffy academic” is completely false, because Paradise Lost ripples with sensual subversion, scenes of haunting sexual and violent intensity, and problematic morality. For one thing, Satan is a figure of empathy in the story, one who heroically defies the tyrannical God, using every ounce of his cunning to subvert the natural course of the universe and bring humanity to its knees. Is this the work of someone enamored of the status-quo? Methinks not.

As it stands, I do not believe that Milton’s taste for high-styling and complex writing was his weakness at all, though some would argue this was the case. Instead, I would argue it was something simpler and more overt: Milton was blind. Partway through writing Paradise Lost, he lost his sight. At the key moment, when he most needed vision, he was unable to see. For most writers, this would have proved a fatal blow. How could you compose poetry without the ability to see the text in front of you, or, to look out into the natural world and draw inspiration? But Milton found the strength to go on, and, helped by his daughter who transcribed his spoken composition, he finished the work. In the below extract from Book III of Paradise Lost, we see how Milton breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader about the absence of his sight and calling on God and the angels to give him a different kind of sight, an inner vision. Effectively, he kindles his own imagination, knowing that he can no longer draw on the world around him in the same way:

Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

In this astonishingly moving extract we see quite clearly how Milton turned his disadvantage into an advantage. He dispensed with the real and conjured pure imaginative thought. I think it’s fairly safe to say, like it or not, that he succeeded. Paradise Lost is one of the most richly vivid, visual, image-laden pieces of writing ever produced.

So, there you have it. Three writers who, in very different ways, turned their very weaknesses into astonishing triumphs of power and imagination.

Let’s open it up! What weaknesses do you think certain writers have and how do they overcome them? Let’s keep it respectful, peaceful and interesting; looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Au revoir,

Like what you read here? Why not follow @josephwordsmith for more updates and content. You can check out The Mindflayer’s publishing venture 13Dark on Facebook or Twitter. For his books, go to Amazon.

 

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NEKYIA Nominated for Guardian’s “Not The Booker Prize”

Hello everyone,

It’s been a while.

Life, or rather, “the things we do to survive so we can do the things we love”, gets in the way.

But, we keep on fighting, keep on creating, because at a fundamental level we are called and it is what we were always meant to do. And though it’s hard, and months and years can go by without it ever seeming there will be a break for us, once in a while, there is. Patience really is a virtue, and even though it has its own special colloquialism, it’s still underrated.

Recently, I got a break. It’s more symbolic than anything else, but it meant a lot to me. The wonderful editors at Storgy Magazine have nominated my novel NEKYIA for the Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize“, an award that runs in part parody and part tribute to the Man Booker, accepting weird, wacky and wonderful recommendations via “online democracy”. It’s a really exciting thing to be a part of, even if there are legions of keyboard warriors also participating and jockeying through the crowds to tear down young writers’ confidence levels. I highly recommend you chip in your suggestions before Friday the 28th. It’s always good to support the work you love. Who knows, an unknown author you love might actually get through. That’s the beauty of democracy.

To celebrate this nomination – I’m offering 30% off the price of the NEKYIA paperback. You can get it now for just under £15 quid. Considering it’s a 700 page tome, 170,000 words, the culmination of 5 years work, and printed on that super-duper parchment paper you know you love, I’d say that’s pretty good value. It also makes a handy doorstep when you’re done reading it. So, if you feel up to it, go and give it a read. It’s been nominated for a Guardian prize after all!

To round off, I’d like to direct your attention to a couple of other awesome things.

Firstly, Storgy are running a kickstarter campaign for their Exit Earth short story anthology. They’re already 50% funded after only a few days, and have raised £3,000. It’s no wonder, their theme is so timely, so pertinent to what’s going on, but also timeless. There are some incredible rewards on offer, including T-shirts, tote-bags, notebooks and of course copies of the anthology itself, which looks like it’s going to be a sheer, bloody masterpiece. Not one to miss.

Secondly, you can check out a whole bunch of FREE short stories by me at Storgy. In June, they published “Night Drive”, a tense horror-noir thriller, and you can read it online HERE. For the video-game lovers amongst you, I recently published my thoughts of the ending of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls series, with in-depth analysis of what the last secret interpretation of the series is. Check it out at GameSpew HERE.

Lastly, 13Dark is growing and growing. Our IndieGoGo campaign continues to be InDemand, meaning we’ve still got backs coming in even after the campaign has finished. You can get your hands on the first issue, which includes BEAUTIFUL artwork by Shawn Langley and three incredible stories by Samuel Parr, Tice Cin and Ross Jeffery. Right now, a competition is running too, which means anyone who backs before 29th July gets entered into a competition to win FREE writing coaching with me, including a 1-hour Skype. This is normally worth £80.00, so it’s really an amazing opportunity.

Okay, that’s me done on the updates! I hope you’re all well. Let me know what beautiful work you’ve discovered in the comments and what books you’d nominate for the “Not The Booker” prize!

Peace and love,

@josephwordsmith