The Read/Write Report

These past two weeks I’ve been reading a wide variety of things and doing more thinking about writing than actually writing.

Finishing Dune

First up, I finished reading Dune with my twelve-year-old at bedtime. His reaction to the conclusion was something like, “Wait, that’s the end?” It’s a fair reaction. The book does wrap up the plot quite nicely, destroying or subjugating all the villains while the heroes essentially take over the galaxy in a massive gambit. But this is also a book that is constantly looking into the future. Paul has his visions. The Bene Gesserit have their centuries-long plans. And nearly every chapter begins with quotations from a character who is only introduced near the very end of the book. It sets you up to want more.

Dune remains one of my favorite science fiction books. Its feudalism-in-space style gives it a timeless quality, and it addresses certain themes that still feel pretty fresh today.

Guards! Guards!

Moving on from Dune, we’re now reading “Guards! Guards!” at bedtime. This is one of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books. There are 41 of them total, and I think I’ve read about half of those over the years. This happens to be one that I haven’t read, and I was excited to discover that it seems to be the first book to focus on the Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The books tend to follow a few different groups of characters, such as The Witches, The Wizards of Unseen University, and the Night Watch. I’m looking forward to reading the origin stories of a number of characters who show up in many of the later books.

Pratchett is truly a treasure, simultaneously creating an amazing fantasy world and also infusing it with brilliant British humor. My closest comparison is Douglas Adams, although he wrote science-fiction comedy. I always find it sad how few books we got from Adams, and I take solace in the huge number that Pratchett was able to write before his death (which still felt too soon).

Reading a new Pratchett book is comfort food. The only sad part is that someday I will have read them all, and I won’t get to have that experience again.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

Weeks ago, while cruising around writing Twitter I saw some recommendations for wuxia-inspired novellas. I bought the e-books on a whim, and now I’m working through them.

The first one I finished was The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Although it’s a book that includes several fights and a little bit of magic, it is mostly a story that focuses on the tribulations and relationships among the members of a group of outcasts in the Tang Dynasty. It’s lighthearted and even funny in places without being straight comedy. It’s a fun read.

The author, Zen Cho, uses a fantastic trick that I plan to steal. Whenever the tension rises to a peak—an illegal sale goes awry or the group gets attacked by bandits, for example—Cho reveals one of the characters’ closely guarded secrets or a bit of their back-story, to the reader and to the characters. Not only are the characters in trouble, but their relationship is thrown into flux by this sudden addition of new information.

I think this is tricky to do in an organic way, but when it’s done well (like it is here) it takes an exciting scene and kicks it into an even higher gear. It also ensures that the characters have some new problems to work out as soon as they manage to resolve the mess they’re currently in.

I was a little disappointed by the end of the book; not because it was bad, but because it was short and it felt like it was only just getting going. The stakes never felt very high for the characters, and they never seemed to be in very much danger for very long. I was left wanting more of these characters and this setting, driven by a bit more danger and excitement.

What I’ve Been Writing

Not that much, if I’m being honest. I took a mini-writing-break, both from the blog and from my fiction.

I’ve got two short stories percolating in my head: one about using time travel for performance art, and one about the annoyances of reincarnation. I’m planning to work on at least one of those by the end of this week.

Of course, I also need to keep working on Razor Mountain, which remains my highest writing priority. Maybe I’ll try switching back and forth to stay fresh and motivated.

The Read/Write/Watch Report

No storytelling class this week, so I’m here with the low-down on what I read and wrote, with a bonus of what I watched.

What I Read

I’m still reading through Dune, out loud, with my oldest child. We’ve finished part two, and moved into the last third of the book. While “feudalism in space” can sometimes seem a little silly, it does lend the book a timeless feel. I think you could change the setting to the middle ages (or a fantasy world based on the middle ages) and very little about the plot would have to change. And there’s no retro-futuristic technology that makes it obvious that the book was written half a century ago.

Of course, that is a pretty good indicator that Dune isn’t very “hard” sci-fi, but that doesn’t bother me. I appreciate sci-fi that really incorporates the scientific elements and futurism into the plot, but I don’t mind a little space fantasy. And sometimes, I think the fetishization of hard sci-fi by a certain readership just results in books that are full of exquisitely detailed technology and populated by dull cardboard characters.

Keeping up the comic book kick I’ve been on lately, I also started rereading Scott Pilgrim. It’s such a weird mix of nerd culture and awkward young people and goofy fourth-wall breaking fun. It surprises you with the semi-serious arc of the titular main character thinking he’s a pretty great guy, only to slowly realize that he’s poisoned every romantic relationship he’s ever been in. Plus, it has a movie adaptation that actually works in spite of all that weirdness, thanks to the genius of Edgar Wright and his close collaboration with the author, Bryan Lee O’Malley. I might just watch that again once I’m done with the books.

What I Wrote

I finished the first draft of a short story, “The Incident at Pleasant Hills.” It’s about rich teens trying to rebel in an over-populated and under-resourced future, and the moral complications of pursuing your own happiness instead of actively sacrificing to make the world better.

It’s been a while since I wrote any short stories, and this one just flowed right out. As soon as I finished, I started thinking about some cleanup that needed to be done, including the removal of a couple side-characters that ended up not really having much purpose. I’m going to let it sit for a few days though, so I can come at it with fresh eyes for the edit.

What I Watched

I’ve really cut back on watching TV and films over the course of the pandemic, and I honestly didn’t have much to cut back on in the first place. However, my wife and I had a date night, and we went out to see an actual movie in an actual theater. It’s quite the thing. All of the theaters in our area seem to have converted into the kind that are a fancy, big-chaired, liquor-and-food-serving extravaganza. Which is a big improvement over the cheap, sticky and uncomfortable theaters of my youth.

We saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it was the strangest and most enjoyable thing I’ve allowed into my eyeballs in quite some time. I wish we could cut 50% of the superhero movies, sequels and reboots and just fund deeply weird, lovingly-made things like this.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but the basic premise involves a middle-aged woman who is not having a great time in life, who finds out that she has the ability to connect her brain to other versions of herself across infinite universes. This lets her tap into her alternate-selves’ life experiences and skills, which is pretty necessary because she also finds herself in a fight against a big bad evil that’s rampaging across all these universes.

A lot of the fun of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the “anything is possible” aspect of infinite universes. You are going to see. some. things. The story also does a great job of tying the really big story of war across infinite universes with the small and personal story of this woman and her family relationships. It’s a fantastic illustration of one of the principles Chuck Wendig talked about in Damn Fine Story: the stakes can be incredibly huge, but it doesn’t matter unless they are also something personal to the characters, something we can all relate to in our own lives.

From the Blogroll: Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Aeryn Rudel is a sometimes-editor, sometimes-RPG-designer, and writer of stories. In fact, he is an unstoppable story writing machine.

On his Rejectomancy blog, he talks about various writing topics, but what I find most interesting is his thorough documentation of the sheer quantity of short stories and flash fiction he writes, along with his submission, acceptance, and rejection numbers.

There’s plenty of advice out there about writing and submitting short stories to publications, but I haven’t found another person who is so thorough in documenting their own personal experience. He really embodies the idea that writers should embrace rejection as a natural part of the publishing process and build up a thick skin.

Earlier this month, he compiled some interesting information and advice to commemorate his 500th rejection, a feat that took him almost ten years of submissions.

Check it out over at Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy.

I’ve Been Reading Drabbles…Lots of Drabbles

In my pursuit of the form, I’ve now read something like 100 to 150 drabbles. Luckily, hundred-word stories don’t take that long to read.

In addition to the Martian Magazine, which I’ve mentioned previously, I discovered The Drabble (which does include poetry and fiction less than 100 words, rather than exactly 100 words). I also found Speck Lit, which stopped updating a few years ago, but has a large archive still available. I’ve found drabbles of the exactly-100-words definition in a handful of other places. I’m sure there are plenty more out there, especially in flash fiction publications that would accept very short fiction, but typically have max lengths of 1000 or 1500 words. They’re just a pain to find.

One of the nice things about drabbles is that you can read quite a lot of them in a short amount of time. It’s relatively easy to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, because everything has to be laid out in a couple of paragraphs. They lend themselves to quick analysis.

My Favorites

These are my favorite (freely accessible) drabble stories so far. They surprised me, or made me laugh, or made me feel something. As usual, I skew toward speculative fiction. You can read the whole lot in less time than it would take to read a typical short story.

  1. Nicholas Was — Neil Gaiman
  2. Orbital Views — Gretchen Tessmer
  3. Todd — Jason P. Burnham
  4. The Reluctant Time Traveler Wears Two Watches — Wendy Nikel
  5. The Weave — M. Yzmore
  6. Double Trouble — R. Daniel Lester
  7. The Forest of Memory — Anna Salonen
  8. A Cabin to Die In — Anna Salonen
  9. Of Artistic Temperament — Sophie Flynn
  10. Redemption — Belinda Saville

Styles of Drabble

Having now observed quite a few drabbles in the wild, I tried to classify some of the common styles that are used to make a story interesting in one hundred words. It’s interesting to see that the limited word count really does force a wide variety of forms.

Haunted (A Drabble)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading and writing drabbles recently. If you’re not aware, drabbles are just short stories with exactly 100 words — no more, no less. It has been both interesting and frustrating. Where microfiction stories feel like little toys, drabbles feel closer to “real” stories.

Closer, but not quite.

The Challenges

Drabbles invite experimentation and strange forms, like a story-as-a-list, story-as-app-review, or story entirely in dialogue with no context. They require odd tricks, unusual style, or very clever wording to be engaging.

Dialogue is hard in a drabble. Even the vanilla “he said, she said” tags use up precious words. It’s tempting, because dialogue can do so many things at once, but I’ve found it very difficult to write drabble dialogue in practice. It needs to be tight without becoming artificial, stilted, or confusing.

What Makes A Good Drabble?

Drabbles love little twist endings. A twist ending is one of the easiest ways to make a drabble interesting. I’m not convinced that it’s the best way though. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit of a crutch, which may be silly considering how challenging it is to write a good drabble without any additional restrictions beyond word count.

I think a good drabble uses one, maybe two, storytelling structures. Drabbles are too short to include a setting, characters, a real character arc, a conflict, a resolution, dialogue, strong voice, and all of the other scaffolding that we typically use to hold up a story. A good drabble has only one or two of these things that it does really well. It might glance sidelong at one or two more, but that’s pushing it.

So far, I only have one hard and fast rule for a good drabble. A good drabble makes you think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.”

My First Drabble

Haunted

It sounds fun to rent a house haunted by a sexy ghost. I guess it was, at first. The dreams were amazing, until she got stabby.

It took a while for her to stop shrieking and talk, but she eventually told me about the adultery, the murder-suicide, and the whole “vengeance against all men” thing. She says she’ll be free if I burn the bones buried in the cellar. Free to leave, and kill as she pleases.

It wouldn’t be right to unleash a murder-ghost on the world. But if she keeps breaking things, I’ll never get my deposit back.

This is my very first drabble, a little parody of horror tropes. The idea came from a Story Engine prompt.

You’ll notice it has no dialogue. I summarized the conversation, because dialogue is hard in a drabble. It has two characters and approximately three words of setting. No arc. A conflict, but no resolution. It does have a twist, although the twist comes in the form of a joke. I’m happy with it, for a first attempt, even if it doesn’t make me think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.” On the other hand, I had to carefully whittle it down to those one hundred words, so maybe that rule just doesn’t apply when I’m the one writing it.

Drabbles

I recently went on a foray into Twitter-size microfiction, a story format so short that it’s challenging to even fit the basic elements of a story. It was a fun exercise in minimalism and editing down to the bare bones, and gave me something to do with a bunch of ideas that I had never found a home for. I wrote 21 of these little gems and I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, that was then, and this is now. I’ve really grown as a creator in the last…uh, month or so. My stories need to grow with me. I simply cannot be contained within the narrow confines of 280 characters. No, I need more.

I’m moving up, friends. Moving up to drabbles. “What are drabbles?” you ask. Drabbles are short stories of exactly 100 words. Yes, that’s an astonishing two or three times the length of an average tweet.

On the one hand, a drabble might be harder to write. In terms of pure labor, it has more words. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of microfiction is making a structurally sound, interesting story, within the size limit. So the extra space may make the editing that much easier. More likely, I’ll just be tempted to cram more into that luxurious extra space.

How to Drabble

I’ll admit, I haven’t read very many drabbles, so I thought I had better educate myself. There are some examples by well-known authors (and a bit of history) at meades.org. I also found the site Drablr, where authors have freely published thousands of drabbles. They have section on drabble history and suggestions on how to go about writing one (namely, write a short short story, then edit it until it’s exactly 100 words).

When it comes to Drabble construction advice, I think Connie J. Jasperson has the best take I’ve seen. She says to limit yourself to a setting, one or two characters, a conflict, and a resolution. No subplots, and minimal background. She also suggests a dedicating about 25 words to the opening, 50-60 for the middle, and the remainder for the conclusion (and resolution). Check out the whole post over on her blog.

More to Come

My first attempts at this format will probably be expanded versions of my microfiction. There were several that left a lot on the cutting room floor. I’d like to see if they benefit or suffer when given twice as much breathing room. I plan to write some “fresh” ones as well, to get the full experience of writing drabbles from scratch.

It’s worth mentioning a notable benefit to writing drabbles instead of tweet-sized microfiction: drabbles are more practical to sell to online and print magazines and journals. In fact, there are markets like The Martian magazine that only publish drabbles. If there are markets for tweet-stories, I haven’t seen them.

I’m guessing drabbles are going to be a bit harder to write than my microfiction stories, but I’ll have a follow-up post once I’ve finished a few, to describe the experience.

Kindle Vella is Now Live!

This is an interesting new market for serial fiction. It’s unfortunate (although not particularly surprising) that Amazon is demanding to be the sole distributor of any stories you put on the platform. That’s the main reason I’m not excited to start using it immediately.

It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon can leverage their existing writer and reader ecosystems to make headway against the existing services, especially companies from Asia, where short, serial fiction for mobile has been a thing for a while…

Originally posted on chrismcmullen: KINDLE VELLA Amazon just launched the new Kindle Vella. What is Vella? Stories that are told one episode at a …

Kindle Vella is Now Live!

The Final Week of Microfiction

This is the last installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can find stories from previous weeks here and here.

If you enjoy this sort of thing, you should check out another Twitter account, @DailyMicroFic, who has been doing this a lot longer than I have. Through them, I discovered the the #vss365 hashtag, where you can find lots of people writing very short stories on Twitter, 365 days a year. See vss365today.com for more info and daily prompts.

I enjoyed writing these. They were a fun exercise in writing under severe limitations, and the format gave some life to lots of little ideas I’ve been kicking around for ages, but I hadn’t been inspired enough to expand into longer formats. I think I’ll have to do it again sometime.

The Furies

The Vine

Desert Bones

Moon and Sea

Politically Correct

Jungles of Minnesota

“No More Kings”

Another Week of Microfiction

I’m back, for the second installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can read the first week of stories here.

Our Time Together

The Last Game of Go

The Warp

Black Clouds

Starfall

*(Yes, it should be “pens.” Thanks Twitter.)

Knight, Forsaken

A Concern

There’s one more week of stories left. I’ll post the final installment next Wednesday. See you then.

Weekly Microfiction

Last week, I talked about a little experiment I’m doing — a very little experiment! As a slightly silly way to get back into writing short stories, I started putting out microfiction on Twitter, @DeferredWords. Every morning for the past week, I’ve been posting a story in a single tweet, and I’m going to keep doing it for a couple more weeks.

Here are this week’s stories:

Gary Left

Princess, Under the Moon

Carlos and Esteban

Angela’s Enlightenment

Space Wizards

Dana Asks

The First Time

See you next week for seven more micro-stories!