Tag Archives: short story

A Gordian Knot

Today I finished a short story that I started maybe two years ago and which I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off occasionally ever since. I had reached a sticking point, and I feel I may have solved the problem today.

When I write a short story it often starts with a character, or a scene. I have plenty of scratchings and notes of this sort which may never become short stories of their own. Some of them might be chiseled and shaped, or molded into new things and added to or inserted within another project or a different story.   Many of them remain as notes or scenes or character descriptions for characters who will never be given a story. Hopefully I’ll come back to some occasionally and expand on them.

This short story started out with two characters, young boys, our protagonist and his only friend. As I wrote it I reached a point where the two characters were, I feel, well developed and the relationship between them was well-defined with a few nuances. The lesser characters with whom they interacted were shallow, as is often required in a short story where an economy of words is essential, but I was overall happy with the characterisation.

The setting was part of the world I created for my novel “Exile”, so it was well developed. If anything it was perhaps over-developed for the needs of the short story. As with “The Green Monkeys” and “A Choice of Kings”, also set in this fictional world (“The Green Monkeys” also set in ‘Talamh’), there was a challenge in leaving out some of the irrelevant detail I had developed. This is sometimes a problem for Fantasy writers and authors. Once someone has created a highly-detailed alternative world there is a compulsion to tell your readership all about it. In detail. Too much detail. George RR Martin has spoken of how important it is to use only the details of the setting that are relevant to the plot, and invented only a few words of Valyrian or Dothraki (only those that the text required to demonstrate how the languages were different and foreign). Joe Abercrombie has spoken of his distaste for maps and his novels always reference their setting with a deliberately lack of specificity. Tolkein on the other hand created a meticulous history and several languages for Middle Earth. In truth the stories of Middle Earth, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were by-products. Tolkein was a professional philologist and his central concern was to develop languages, from these he created Middle Earth so that people could speak his languages; the narratives that resulted were never his intended goal, and while in many instances the detail of Tolkein’s setting is what set him apart and spawned his legion imitators really few people complained when the film adaptation cut whole chapters of Tom Bombadil out. It didn’t detract from the narrative at all.

The plot I also had mapped out. I don’t usually map a plot too early in my process. As I said the story will start as a scene or a character, I’ll build on that, hopefully develop a conflict and some complications and at that point sit down to map them out. In this instance I had an initiating circumstance, a conflict, rising complications, a conclusion, and a resolution. I knew what would happen, how each event would lead to the next, and how the story would end.

In short I had everything I needed: characters, setting, plot. And yet one scene was holding me up. I knew what needed to happen in the scene. I knew who was involved. I knew where in the narrative the scene belonged. I knew what brought the characters together at that point. I knew where they had to go after that scene… I just couldn’t write it. I tried. Several times. It always sounded naff. Not terrible. Kinda ‘passable’ but just… not good enough.

It was frustrating.

So today I took a different path. No more chiseling at the edges, no more gentle molding, no more sanding back or polishing, no more pulling at threads hoping the knot would unravel. I took the sword to it. I cut it right back, made the dialogue do a lot more of the heavy lifting, took out some unnecessary details and…

And I think it’s worked. Maybe I wake up in the morning and post a retraction. Maybe it was horrible and needs to be re-written, but for the first time I am confident that at least structurally it’s right. The drafting and revising process isn’t finished, but it’s close, and the story actually looks like a story now. There’s not a great big chunk missing out of the middle like there had been.

It’s called “To the Iron Hills”, and it’ll be between 7,500 and 8,000 words complete. I’ll post a couple of thousand words as an excerpt here soon, but I’m keeping most of this one up my sleeve for now and I’ll definitely be submitting it to some publication markets when it’s ready. I reckon this one’s a good one.

My first publication

I’ve just had my short story “A Choice of Kings” accepted by “Dark Edifice”, a new Australian Speculative Fiction magazine. It’s a non-professional market, but it’s a publication!

Their website is http://darkedifice.webs.com/magazine. Edition #1 is available for free now. My story will be appearing in edition #2 in July or August.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog already but I’ve removed it from there and put a link to Dark Edifice instead.

It’d be great if you could support this new magazine, and in turn support emerging and established Australian writers. They’re also on FB: http://www.facebook.com/DarkEdificeMagazine.

I’m going to to pop some proverbial champagne.


…is an inevitable part of the aspiring author’s life. I recognise this. Rationally I acknowledge it. In a sense I am glad that it is as common as it is; it means that when (not if) I am successful in a submission I will know its worth.

Often when the rejection comes through it is a cursory note, or a proforma e-mail, or some other sort of standard ‘thank you but unfortunately…’ kind of response. That’s fair enough too. I imagine that the slush-pile of any publication accepting unsolicited submission doesn’t really allow for a detailed analysis of the story’s strengths and weaknesses. There are other support services for that after all.

One of my submissions, to an Australian Fantasy / Spec-fic magazine (now gone digital) was an exception.

I submitted my short story “The Green Monkeys” and was unsuccessful. The reader’s response I got was:

“While this story is competently written and has a cute title there is little new going on in what is essentially short fantasy adventure story. I was constantly nagged by the lack of explanation as to why a young man in a medieval-esque Ireland would call a goblin a monkey. This is “classic” story telling without a good zing in the tail to grab attention.”

My initial reaction was, of course, disappointment. That’s natural. If I wasn’t disappointed I might as well give up I reckon. With a bit of distance though I can’t really argue too much with the comments.

  • “competently written” … well could be worse I suppose. ‘competent’ still seems workmanlike and uninspired, but it’s better than incompetent.
  • “cute title”… I’m not sure what is meant by “cute”, but if the title has attracted attention then its served its purpose, so not too unhappy with this.
  • “nagged by lack of explanation”… I think it’s always a difficult balance to strike with Fantasy (or invented worlds generally) between plotting and exposition. In other forms of fiction I might say “1943 in France…”, or “she was an African-American living in the deep south…” and the reader will bring so much knowledge that it’s unnecessary to explain the connotations of those settings / characters. This is not true of Fantasy. Often the reader will bring very little knowledge to the author’s world, especially in a short story. The flip-side of this is that the reader doesn’t want to get bogged down in characters telling each other what they already know for the sake of the reader. The “as you know…” conversation might pass muster on CSI, but I doubt it’s my path to publication.
  • “classic” story telling … that sounds really nice, except for the tone imparted by the quote marks over ‘classic’
  • “without a good zing” … and that sums it up really I reckon.

So that’s what I’m taking away from this rejection: got to make it zing, got to grab attention.

It’s not enough to be competent, cute, or a classic story. It’s got to have something which sets it apart for the reader from all the other competent classic story-telling in the slush-pile.

Now all I need to do is figure out how to make my stories ‘zing’.

Easy as that huh?