Tag Archives: short stories

I have a story in GdM Issue #11

I just found out I’m sharing an issue of Grimdark Magazine with Brent Weeks.

This is a bit of a special moment for me.

When I was studying sword in rural China, I got sick. Coughing-blood sick. The only way to get medicine was through an IV, and I was set to go home in a few weeks, so I tried to tough it out.

Sifu took me aside one night and said if I didn’t go to the hospital and get the medicine, I’d die. At the time, it felt like a choice between dying now, or dying in ten years from something on a dirty needle.

I stayed up most of the night trying to decide, and struggling to breathe.

I did wind up going to the hospital, and was on an IV for three days. The Night Angel trilogy kept me company while I recovered, and took my mind off whatever consequences I’d have to face for my decision*.
When I got back to the US, my little brother mailed me a copy of his new favorite book, The Way of Shadows.

Everything turned out fine.

*(and my ignorant notions about country hospitals)

gdm11

GdM Issue #11 is up for pre-order, dropping on April 1.

FICTION
– Cry Wolf by Deborah A. Wolf
– Devouring the Dead by Laura Davy
– The First Kill by C.T. Phipps
– For Honour, For Waste by Setsu Uzume (reprint)

NON-FICTION
– The Odd Hopefulness of Grimdark by Matthew Cropley
– An Interview with Anna Smith-Spark
– Review: Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister
– An Interview with Brent Weeks
– Review: Sam McPheeters’ Exploded View

Pre-order now on:
Amazon.com: https://goo.gl/Gl3SsX
Amazon.co.uk: https://goo.gl/GCi3YA
Amazon.com.au: https://goo.gl/yyqhYl
Amazon.ca: https://goo.gl/9P2sBB

Or, sign up for your subscription now over on their Patreon page. You’ll get the issue delivered a few days earlier through here, too: https://goo.gl/jJUm2r

Add this issue on your Goodreads feed here: https://goo.gl/F0YjfM

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Behind the Scenes: For Honor, For Waste

My story, “For Honor, For Waste,” went live today at Podcastle, elegantly read by the fierce Nadia Niaz.

When the call went out for the Women in Practical Armor anthology, nearly everyone I know sent me the link and told me to submit a story. I realized that I didn’t have any stories that fit the theme, so I thought about women who were defined by their armor. By their equipment. The world has a dire lack of stories about the power of older women, much less older WOC women — so I knew I wanted to write a story about sexy, badass, post-menopausal veterans.

I read about a festival celebrating a goddess’s menstrual cycle, which had me thinking about purity, and how religions pick different standards of virtue. Then I came across a documentary about early engineering in Moorish Cordoba, and the setting started to take shape.

What if these three women — these seasoned veterans — were asked to sacrifice themselves to a goddess. They’ve been through a lot. They’ve been failed by the bureaucracy, but were good enough at their jobs to both stay alive and rise to power.

In my head, these three looked at each other, looked at the sacrifice orders, and said, “…this is bullshit. Why don’t we kill her instead?”

And the story began.

In the beginning, the animosity between Kejra, Nouli, and Rohnaq was much more reserved. Rohnaq collected Kejra from a bar, and Nouli didn’t show until much later. You could tell that they loved each other, and their banter was closer to ribbing than cutting. You can see, through their body language, and the way they finish each other’s sentences, how close they are.

Once Rohnaq revealed the things she’d done in the name of her principles and career, the rift between the three went deeper. The tension ramped up. 

In my experience, friendship forged between martial artists, (and possibly between veterans) is defined by the fact that we play rough. We push each other hard. We’ve suffered together, and taken pride in it. My little brother and I met as pre-teens and absolutely hated each other. He’s made me bleed, and I’ve broken his nose — but I wouldn’t want anyone else at my back in a crisis, because I know what he’s capable of. I was there. I put him through it. We are better because we were rough on each other. We trust each other’s strength because we’ve witnessed it. Whatever happens, we’ll handle it. We won’t crumble. We won’t disappear.

To outsiders this looks like abuse, but it’s not. Because of our context, it is respect, love, and trust. Rohnaq hits hard; but Kejra and Nouli know her, and know why she did what she did. Their history begs the question of whether or not such a bond can be repaired — and that’s when the story went beyond its action-adventure inception. This story didn’t make it into Women in Practical Armor, but after a few more revisions it found a home.

This is the first scene I wrote of the first draft, which I call the story’s “baby photo.” I was very sad to cut the bit with the mirrored dish, but ultimately it didn’t fit. 

 

For Honor, For Waste
(1st scene, 1st draft)

Hannot, Johannes; Still Life: Fruit and Oysters on a Table; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/still-life-fruit-and-oysters-on-a-table-205166

Hannot, Johannes; Still Life: Fruit and Oysters on a Table

Kejra tossed her walking stick at an attendant and collapsed onto a cushioned chair. She pushed the stopper from the bottle with her thumb and it dropped to the table, bounced, and rolled off while she took a swig. “A fine honor, to be sent to our death as a gift for Manaph!” She leaned forward on the table, stabbing it with her index finger. “When we took the Lejine Span, we made an effort to learn their language so that the tax laws could be enforced with compassion. Those barbarians would sacrificed the most beautiful, most talented girl and boy to the river to prevent it from flooding. The custom of shared ways enriches and stains in equal measure.”

Nouli made a beckoning gesture and Kejra passed her the bottle. She sat gracefully and without a sound, taking the time to pour a measure into a glass. “And if we are not to fight each other for this honor, what shall it be instead?  Poetry?”

“Oh we’ll fight,” said Rohnaq. “But… not each other.”

Kejra arched a brow at the city commander. “The oligarchs won’t put up with that sort of thing. If we don’t fight, our provinces will be punished. Our families will lose their holdings.”

“That’s their aim in the first place. Don’t you see? Between the three of us we run the military. General Vesher had her day when he united the peninsula fifteen years ago and since then she’s been sitting on her wealth. The oligarchs still pay her prettily but she’s left the day to day running of the city in my hands. It’s the same with you and the archers, isn’t it, Nouli? And you Kejra? When was the last time you received more than perfunctory orders regarding the infantry? Problem in Lejine, take care of Tarjine, rebels in Affojine. That’s not leadership. We haven’t been chosen by Manaph, we’ve been offered up by a threatened general.”

“Perhaps you seek insults where none exist,” said Nouli. “We perform our duties as ordered. Lack of specificity indicates Vesher’s faith in our ability. I never liked being loomed over while I work.”

“Then you plan to take the honor according to the proper performance of Manaph’s rite?” Kejra asked.

Nouli faced Rohnaq with her shoulders back and her chin held at an imperious level. Despite her challenging stance, her voice remained soft. “I have sons and daughters to carry on my clan and they have been well-educated to maintain our holdings for their children. If I am to be offered to Manaph, then I accept the honor.”

Kejra shook her head with a chuckle, taking her wine bottle back. Rohnaq pressed her palm on the mouth of the bottle, preventing Kejra from taking a drink.

“She’ll come to us at the offering ground,” said Rohnaq. “Between us three, we could drive her back.”

Kejra’s barking laugh caused the other two to wince. “You cannot drive back a goddess of love; never mind a blood-frenzied creature like Manaph. Managing a city takes intelligence, Rohnaq. It is a pity that your imagination has not been tempered by it.”

Rohnaq’s eyes slid to Nouli’s. “Surely you are not eager to die. Not when you could best fulfill your duty by remaining a marklord.”

“Sacrifice is–“

“Wasteful,” Rohnaq said, correcting her.

“Ah yes, wasteful,” said Kejra. “We can’t abide waste in the service, can we?”

“All war is waste,” said Nouli. “Wasted lives, wasted lands, wasted silver in poorly managed supply chains.”

“We can stop it. The three of us.” Rohnaq kept her eyes locked on Nouli. “You, Kejra and I. If we agree to take the honor as sisters-in-arms, out of respect for each other’s accomplishments, the oligarchs will be forced to send us all to Manaph. Then we can strike together. That is excellence.”

“They will think we have something planned. I will not have my husband and children threatened because you are afraid to die,” said Nouli. “Or have you forgotten what’s at stake for the rest of us? You foreswore family, property, and lineage when you became City Commander. You have nothing else.”

“Then you see why I cannot allow you to die.”

Kejra sniffed. Nouli averted her eyes. Rohnaq looked at the floor for a moment, and swallowed. Perhaps they were afraid. Rohnaq had thought she had become inured to the anxiety that frayed her resolve on the eve of battle; but this was something more. The admission of need, of family, of something to lose felt like a blood-letting; and yet it was the truth. It was accurate, and accuracy had saved them more than once. “The three of us have been together since we began. Even you, Kejra. You stuck with us even though you outranked us in the beginning. I am not afraid to die, but I prefer to live.”

“The warrior’s road leads to oblivion,” Kejra quoted, “to face each dawn in full knowledge that it will be the last; and feel no fear in certainty.”

“And you will be better able to protect your lands, your holdings, and your grandchildren if you return to them. You have fought so hard for so long to reach this point, my friend. You are too good to throw yourself away like this.”

Nouli fingered one of her iron-grey braids, still thick despite her years.

“Perhaps we have all grown sentimental in old age,” said Kejra, “But I think I would rather fight alongside you and Rohnaq than try to edge either of you out in competition; even if the prize is to be eaten by a goddess.”

“Then we’re agreed?” said Rohnaq.

“I was nearly twenty years old at the end of the Seeding Cycle and I remember her well. She’s as big as a house,” said Kejra. “And covered in armor.”

“Yes, I was seven when she last appeared. Her armor was segmented, and she had a face. Those sound like weaknesses to me.”

Nouli considered Rohnaq for a moment. “I will hear your strategy,” she said, folding her arms as her cloak draped back over her and nearly closed, like a priest’s. “Then I will decide.”

Rohnaq turned to Kejra, suddenly animated. “Remember the siege when Forlinnet came through the tunnel under the southwestern wall? Nouli, you weren’t there for this.”

Kejra straightened and knitted her brow to remember. “In Subaipo or…?”

“No, this was earlier. Remember? They filed in just between the two archers’ towers at the second wall?”

Kejra glanced at Nouli. “We don’t have enough archers to put Manaph in a pincer like that.”

Rohnaq shook her head. “We don’t need to. There’s only one Manaph. The point is, we’ll direct her toward one path, Nouli shoots her from above, and then you run in sideways and open her up to stab her heart. Surprise flank.”

“It won’t work,” said Nouli. “Manaph’s cave drops into the sea and she’s armored like a crushclaw. Crushclaws are solid on top so that the sea birds can’t attack them directly, my arrows would bounce right off. If her form even remains that way.”

Kejra upended a mirrored dish and fruit rolled from the table onto the floor.  She breathed on it, and then started drawing their positions on the fogged surface. “Then you’ll need to be in front of her. Especially if she rears. She’s got armor underneath also.”

“There’s no cover!” Nouli objected.

“How far can you shoot, a hundred strides?” asked Rohnaq. “Age must have taken your sight or your strength from you.”

Nouli scoffed. “I have lost neither. It doesn’t matter if she thrashes, I could hit her with thumbnail accuracy at two-hundred; but that’s not the question.” Nouli pointed to Kejra’s mirror. “The span of her offering ground is less than one hundred strides. The question is whether or not my arrows will be heavy enough to penetrate. It doesn’t make sense to bring a longbow to fight at middle-range. The oligarchs will expect me to have a smaller weapon if we giving the appearance of fighting one another. I don’t know if a smaller poundage would even harm her.”

“If she hungers, she can be killed,” said Rohnaq, grimly.

“So that leaves you and I to open her armor,” said Kejra.

Rohnaq picked up a grape, an almond, and a broken square of hardcake, placing each one on the mirror. “Nouli, this is you.” She placed one finger on the purple grape, rolling it back and forth at the far perimeter of the span. “I will be here,” she placed the almond in front of the smudge indicating Manaph’s cave, with the sharp tip pointing toward it. “Then Kejra, here, at her flank. Your spear will be able to prize her open.”

“Mighty Rohnaq, controlling the funnel.” Kejra laughed. “I hope age has taught you more grace. I still remember your face when tried to free your sword from Forlinnet’s spine. Messiest beheading I’ve ever seen.”

Nouli stared down in silence, offering no argument.

“It’s settled, then.” Rohnaq picked up the almond in one gloved fist and swept the mirror clean, spilling the grape and cake-crumb to the floor. She popped the almond into her mouth and chewed. “Try not to get in each other’s way.”

I narrated a story! Spirit Forms of the Sea

Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who wrote a story about archers, shamans, and questionable pacts with Cthulu-like monsters. It was exciting to learn the Hungarian words.

If you would like to hear me narrate this tale, please proceed to the castle.

Spirit Forms of the Sea, by Bogi Takács.

Narrated by Setsu Uzume.
Produced by Podcastle.

Stack of Rejections: How to Know When You’re Done

Say you’re writing a novel. Say you send it off to agents, indie publishers, friends, your neighbor, and no one wants to give you dollars for it.

How do you know you’re done?

If you’re a novelist, and you hate writing short stories, or “don’t” write short stories, I have words for you. They’re not idle words either, as I also dislike writing shorts. I feel you, I do. 

What we do is as much about craft as it is about expression. There are certain tools we need classes to use, certain skills we need to hone, and we need to develop the instincts to say when something is good — and when it won’t work where it is.

This is why writing short fiction is helpful.

Short fiction is an exercise that helps you learn those tools much faster, because you’re applying your skills in new situations one after the other. Like Arley said (while schooling me on structure) some people are born with good instincts, and while that’s awesome, that’s not enough. If you’re able to recognize how and why it’s good — you’re more likely to apply that technique intentionally and mindfully next time.

Isolate one event, one turning point, one moment, and focus on just that. Don’t worry about a long build-up and denouement. Every time you write a short, you’re not just learning about beginning-middle-end story structure, you’re learning narration. Scene-setting. Character development AND characterization. Decorative word-choice. Tone. Mood. The texture of language as it rolls off your tongue and how that informs all the other bits.

Even if they’re totally mundane stories, even if you would never submit them (try anyway) keep pumping them out. Practice the revision stage. Learn to identify your own strengths and areas for learning — and exploit them…

KatanaPen… Right… Here’s the martial metaphor. Short stories are individual forms. A combination of stances, strikes, and finite patterns. Your practice over the course of years is like your novel. Drilling the hell out of the small stuff will improve your ability long term. 

Because once you’ve done that five, 10, 30 times (and you’ll also take the opportunity to learn how to EDIT YOUR OWN WORK, an often overlooked skill in an editor-rich environment)… You’ll be able to take all of that practice and knowledge and apply it to the story you REALLY want to tell.

So, no. You’re never done. Not with that piece. Not until your ability catches up with your taste.

Now toss the pile into a drawer or sub-folder, and get back to work. You’ve got honing to do.

How to Research for a Story

Sometimes accuracy matters, sometimes it really doesn’t. Ultimately you need to serve the needs of your story before, say, physics.

That said, as the world gets smaller and information becomes easer to access, writers find their work under more scrutiny than ever before. Poking holes in fiction is a common pastime not only for trolls but for professionals in that field, and people who are genuinely interested in the topic. It’s easy to reach for a TV show, a documentary, or a quick fact in isolation from a textbook; but in doing so there’s a good chance that you’ll miss some important details and context, thus alienating those with whom this experience could resonate the most.

For example, you can’t hit someone with a Taser while touching them, or you’ll feel the effects yourself. I’m looking at you, directors of The Machine. So if you can’t go for documentaries, and you can’t rely on the veracity of blogs, academic articles are another great resource. The story I’m working on right now is a secondary world in which a talented and accomplished healer, Hrisa, quits working to save people and instead transitions to post-mortem cleanup. It’s been interesting to consider medicine in terms of a battlefield. No matter how good a healer you are, no matter the technology and access one has; the battle with death is always a losing one. You can save someone for a while, but eventually you will both lose. I wanted to see if this premise holds up to real nurses’ experience. Here are some of the articles I found. Post-traumatic stress disorder in military nurses who served in Vietnam during the war years 1965–1973, by Elizabeth M. Norman Results indicate that the number of nurses suffering from this disorder has decreased since the initial postwar years. Two variables (the intensity of the wartime experience and supportive social networks after the war) influenced the level of PTSD.

The prevalence and impact of post traumatic stress disorder and burnout syndrome in nurses, by Meredith Mealer et al This paper discusses whether post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and burnout syndrome (BOS) are common in nurses, and whether the co-existence of PTSD and BOS is associated with altered perceptions of work and nonwork-related activities.

Increased Prevalence of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in Critical Care Nurses, by Meredith L. Mealer, Et Al Intensive care unit (ICU) nurses work in a demanding environment where they are repetitively exposed to traumatic situations and stressful events. The aim of this research is to determine whether there is an increased prevalence of psychological symptoms in ICU nurses when compared with general nurses. Another option, if I’m looking for something more specific or esoteric, is to seek out the paper’s author. Meredith L. Mealer’s coming up frequently, so in this case she’d be a good choice. Be prepared to hear ‘no,’ though. It’s a jungle out there long before you hit submission time.

“Most of the Island Trauma team’s work involves the bereaved or people going through emotional upheaval, which is the most difficult part of the job, explains Baruchin. “Some people will be in shock, some will break down, some people will get in there with you and clean because it was somebody they knew. That’s probably the hardest thing, but if we’ve done it right, it’s a hug-fest by the end of the job.”  — Saira Kahn, “Smelling Death: On the Job With New York’s Crime-Scene Cleaners”

death

Medicine Vs. Death: Department of Health & Wellness in Fulton County, Georgia

Burying the Coin on Podcastle!

My short story, Burying the Coin, is now available as a podcast!

Steampunk is about costumes and intricacy, alternate histories, inventions and boundless exploration that characterized the Victorian era. The costumes lead to gatherings, gatherings to shops and music, and finally to conventions and a revival in literature. Learning to write for this subgenre has been a fascinating challenge. I’ve learned about airships, 19th and early 20th century artillery, and a bit about how modern empires rise and fall.

This last part, the cracking apart of empire, resonated with me much more than the gorgeous clothes and sumptuous feasts. As lovely as those aesthetics are, it begs the question: who made this?  What kind of world produced this, and at what cost? I’ve always been fascinated by the why of things, and what lies beneath the mask — how did a person come to be the way they are, and what are they hiding?

Enter Karelia Nayar.

If this story’s world could be said to have a swath of people similar to the variety found in southern India, Karelia would be one of them. The world Karelia lives in is a kind of earth after the fall and rebirth of humanity — a far future, rather than a recent past. This might preclude the story’s classification as steampunk, but I’ll leave that up to you guys. Racism and sexism pop up occasionally; but they are absolutely dwarfed by the classism which is the beating heart of empire. There are other problems as well, but we’ll save those for the novel. That said, keep an eye out for the First Family of the Skies. They’ll be back in a big way.

I spoke a little about Karelia here, and in an interview with Fiona Skye. I wanted to write a swashbuckling, womanizing captain, who was also a woman. When I asked Karelia (or Kar to her friends) why she was so carefree, she told me it was because she never wanted to feel anything ever again. That led to this short story, Burying the Coin, where we learn how Kar earned her own ship, who taught her to fight and sail, and the events that made her close her heart forever.

My infinite thanks to Dave Thompson of Podcastle, and Amanda Fitzwater whose voice brought this story to life.

This short story is available in Podcast form, which you can either stream online or download from iTunes. Head over to Podcastle.org to hear it and the work of many other brilliant and insightful authors.

 

“You can’t truly hate a man without loving him first, and there’s always a trace of that love left over.”
— Joe Abercrombie

 

locket

Excellent podcasts and other resources for Audio Books

I love podcasts. They’re fascinating, entertaining, inexpensive, and at an average length of 45 minutes, perfect for the daily commute. As a novelist, I find them immeasurably helpful as self-guided lessons on how to write short stories. The format is such that I can study, practice and be thoroughly entertained while I’m cooking, doing push-ups, or heading to a friend’s house.

Even within the scope of one subscription, you’ll hear a wide variety of styles and dozens of authors, so you can get a feel for craft as well as structure and pacing. It’s amazing how many laughs, tears, and terror these writers can fit into such a small space.

Once you feel confident enough to start earning ‘cred,’ write your own! Many of these podcasts are also open to submissions.

I listen to several of these regularly, and others have been recommended to me by colleagues outside my genre. I have linked their web-sites, and you can also find them in the iTunes store. Many of these are free, and if you can’t donate, please boost the signal.

Science Fiction & Fantasy
Podcastle : Fantasy, hosted by the wonderful and charming Dave Thompson
Escape Pod : Escape Artists’ science fiction branch, edited by Norm Sherman
Beneath Ceaseless Skies : other worlds and other times, SF&F, including Weird West and Steampunk. I’ve discovered new favorites here, including Seth J. Dickinson
Tor.com Story Podcast : Great science fiction & fantasy from one of the industry’s most well-known magazines

Horror
Pseudopod :  Horror, hosted by the hilarious and insightful Alasdair Stuart
Nick Gisburne’s YouTube Channel : Includes original poetry & prose, as well as readings of HP Lovecraft’s work. (His voice. I’m telling you. You won’t regret it.)

General Fiction
Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine:  General Genre, specializing in innovative stories and commentary. I have a friend who reads slush for these guys
The Classic Tales Podcast: Great reading of classic novels and short stories
The New Yorker Short Story Podcast : Great general fiction

Free Full-Length Audio Books
Podiobooks

Did I miss any? Leave a note in the comments.

**Addendum:  Thanks to Twitter, a few other resources have popped up!

Apex Magazine: Hugo-award nominated F/SF magazine’s podcast, edited by Sigrid Ellis

Synthetic Voices: A speculative fiction podcast featuring short F/SF stories, recommended by BCS staff