Tag Archives: Trouble in the Wind

Rob’s Ramblings: Only *This* Story

This week I’ve been pleased to receive a whole slew of short stories for the FantaSci anthology. All told, we received 37 entrants, which seems like a good number to me. Chris and I are still discussing the ones we’re going to choose, so I’m not going to talk about results just yet.

However, since it’s fresh on my mind, I thought I’d go over some of the things I saw in this process. At this point, I’ve read a bunch of short stories over the years, written a dozen or so, and am in the process of editing my second anthology. There are many out there with more experience than I,  but this contest really helped coalesce my thoughts on short stories to something more concrete, so I’m going to post on this as much for me to remember as to help you all.

Let me lay down one overarching principle: “Only *this* story matters.” There’s your TL:DR of this post. Only this story matters and anything that’s extraneous drags it down.

First, let’s talk about exposition. The vast majority of stories that got put straight to the bottom of our list explained too much. There’s little that’ll bring a story to a screeching halt like a sizable infodump near the start.

Yes, readers need to know stuff. They’ll get frustrated when something isn’t explained. However, you want to only explain what you have to explain for *this* story, even if you have plans for that story being a part of a larger setting.

If you plan to compile a collection of connected short stories into a novel, you can come back and add exposition later if needed. But that’s part of that process, not this story.

Readers don’t always need to know technical details or the physics/metaphysics underlying a universe. They need to know only if the plot twist turns on it. Most of Asimov’s robot stories turn on the Three Laws, so the reader has to know them. But details how robots work? Not as much.

It’s really easy to throw in details the author thinks the reader needs to know. It’s rare, especially without more experience, for an author to limit that exposition to actually what is needed for *this* story. Believe me, I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and it’s a major part of my editing process to cut that sort of thing out of my own stuff.

For Songs of Valor, authors had 7-10,000 words to strike with. And I mean strike! Short stories work best with action, in my mind, not explanations of this and that. That especially includes a bunch of stuff about what the character is thinking. Show, don’t tell, the character as much as possible.

Now I don’t mind a character parsing through tactical choices a bit. “I did this to learn this and then did that to get this reaction.” This is, I think, especially useful in first person noir style stuff.

But even that’s a balance. For None Call Me Mother, a novel which needed more tactical discussion than a short story, my editor told me I’d gone overboard and I cut back on them dramatically to get a faster, sharper story. Editors are nice like that and the 148k original draft that seemed bloated ended up as a 124k sleek creature I’m pretty pleased with.

Tell us what we need to know and nothing else. And whenever possible, weave it into conversations and side notes in the story and avoid a major infodump.

But that brings up an obvious question, how do you know what the reader needs to know?

For me, short stories have a soul. This is true of all stories, long or short, but I think it’s more important with shorter stories because you have to focus on that soul and nothing else. With novels, you want to have some misdirection, extra plants, and some additional frippery. There’s simply not enough time for much of that in shorts.

The problem is that “soul” is such an amorphous term. I’m a pantser, especially with short stories. It is extremely rare that I know the soul of the story when I start it. It’s happened once, with my story “Far Better to Dare” from Those in Peril, but that’s it.

Most of the time I write at least 4-6,000 words before I realize what the soul of the story really is. Then I realize that much, if not most, of what I’ve written so far is not actually relevant to the soul of *this* story. Maybe I had to write it out to know the character well enough, or the events underlying the story, or whatever, but all that stuff is just background and I have to cut some, if not nearly all, of what I’ve written.

This is hard. You have to be ruthless with your own writing and take extra stuff out. Don’t delete it, of course, you may use it later elsewhere, but not here.

Of the stories we received that I thought had potential but weren’t in our top 4 and thus a part of the anthology, I would say nearly all of them suffered from too much exposition that didn’t matter to that story’s soul. In some cases, this exposition was the kernel of the story, and hence the author thought it had to be in the story. However, that’s not always the case, and took away space for action without adding as much as the author realized. That chunk mattered, because it drove the character, but the reader didn’t need to see all of it, just hints of it.

Let me give you an example from my story from this anthology. Its POV character is Katarina, the chaotic evil crime boss from Achrida who Edward has to deal with far too often. I initially started with a thread of her comparing people around her to those she’s murdered in the past. Number twelve, number two, number 47, etc. It’s a fun thread for this character and I had to have it in mind as I was writing from Katarina’s point of view as the most unlikely/reluctant hero I could think of, but those words were wasted in this story.

Don’t worry, I have all those murders saved and listed.

But what’s the soul of the story? That’s hard to determine and it could be really far afield from where you started.

When I started writing “Here Must We Hold,” my story about the Battle of Maldon in Trouble in the Wind, I wanted to write a version where Byrhtnoth’s decisions weren’t because of “ofermod,” or hubris, but rather from smart strategic thinking that gave up a tactical advantage. That’s there, of course, but in the end, it became about something else, a pure redemption arc I won’t spoil by describing here. That forced me to change the entire structure of the story, remove some particulars, and add others.

My story in We Dare, “The Chaos of Well-Seeming Forms,” is a version of the Finnsburh Episode & Fragment, or Romeo & Juliet if you prefer, set on Mars. That was all, but in the end, it became more of a story about the hero in the Wanderer or the Seafarer, two of my favorite Old English poems. That, too, forced a series of changes, cuts, and tweaks. I didn’t realize that until I reached the absolute end of the story and needed the extra gut punch.

I could describe the journey of each story I’ve written, but I think you get the point. Be open to finding a soul of the story after you’ve written it, then shaping the story around it.

Whatever I’m writing, I constantly think about Raghunath Rao. He’s a character from the Belisarius series by Eric Flint and David Drake. He is fond of saying, “Only the soul matters in the end.” Not a bad thing to remember when writing short stories.

Returning to “The Chaos of Well-Seeming Forms,” I mentioned I thought it needed an extra gut punch and that’s because I think short stories need a twist. Something at the end that forces the reader to think and want more. I get this philosophy from one writer in particular, my favorite writer of short stories ever, Randall Garrett.

He was about as flawed a man as he could be, which is why many of you have never heard of him. He wrote only when he needed drinking money. However, he was so good he could go to John Campbell and ask for an advance on a story and get it! What a crazy thing, especially in the era of the pulp magazines of the 50s and 60s.

If you ever see a copy of The Best of Randall Garrett paperback in a used book store, get it. Even if you already have a copy so you can gift it to someone. There’s an e-book on Amazon with the same title, but it’s not the same as the paperback, though the two are linked. Here’s the link for the paperback on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Best-Randall-Garrett-1982-01-01/dp/B01K3JZWX2. Again, the e-book version is not the same.

That paperback has the single best collection of SF/F short stories I’ve ever found. Every story in here is absolutely amazing and powerful. And they all have a twist at the end, some which have never stopped resonating with me since the first time I read this collection in the early 80s. I would never suggest anyone emulate Garrett’s life, but his skills as a writer of short stories are hard to match.

So I try to have all my stories have some sort of twist at the end. It could be just a subtle thing like the last word in “Far Better to Dare.” It could be big like the gut punch at the end of “The Chaos of Well-Seeming Forms.” The twist in “What’s in a Name” is the word “Deor,” which is an odd word in Old English, but which added a neat addition to the redemption of Edward, provided the title, and shaped the soul slightly.

Doesn’t really matter what the twist is, nor is it necessarily a requirement. However, I think we can all understand that a story that hits you at the end with something extra is likely to be more memorable than without. In an anthology where you’re surrounded by great stories, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. And if you’re in a muddle of 37 stories for a competition, it’s even more important.

Finally, I’m going to touch on something that’s important, but which *can* be overcome, and that’s the use of language.

This is a fantasy anthology. We got a variety of definitions of fantasy, which was great, but of course some of it was medieval fantasy. There were a few of these submissions that suffered because the language was too modern for the setting. Imagine, if you will, Gandalf saying, “Well, hindsight is 20/20.” Wait. What? That totally throws me out of the story.  So does “OK.”

Likewise, if you’re writing an urban fantasy or SF and the characters speak in a Shakespearean style, the readers are going to wonder what the heck is going on. It might work, like David Weber’s Jiltanith character from his Mutineer’s Moon series, but it has to be explained.

It may seem cool, but that exposition might take the place of action later on or confusing the soul of the story. In other words, getting in the way of the story’s power.

Now, sure, an editor can go through and edit all of the modernisms out of a medieval fantasy story, or whatever other oddnesses might be there, but in a contest, it’s a factor from the editor’s point of view. It means your story has to be clearly one of the winners. In a tie or close race between two stories, it will matter more. It’s quite literally part of the discussion Chris and I are having right now.

So to sum up, here you go.

  1. Only *this* story matters right now.
  2. Exposition only as needed for *this* story.
  3. Only the soul of *this* story really matters, in the end.
  4. Find a twist to give *this* story extra punch if you can.
  5. Use only the language that makes *this* story work.

Yeah, sure, these targets are amorphous and difficult to hit. I’m also not perfect at hitting them. However, I know that when I have these principles in mind, I write better stories. I also know that those stories submitted for this anthology that matched these principles got noticed more.

Again, you’ll find others out there with more experience than me, and also more success. You should absolutely pay attention to them. Also, there’s one true way of writing, and it’s whatever works for *you.* Still, I would say you wouldn’t go wrong at least considering these five things as you write short stories.

 

Rob’s Update: The Week After

Week 50 of 2019

Greetings all

Not my most productive week, but it was to be expected. Saturday, of course, was Kris Kinder. Sunday was Kris Kinder recovery. The week after this event is always a down week as I sort of plan for those days to be off.

However, I got a bit of a head cold earlier in the week, and that slowed me. The worst was yesterday, as I basically did nothing.

Nevertheless, I got quite a bit done on the other days. I’ve been going through None Call Me Mother, cleaning it up as I get ready to write the final chapters. I’m at page 219 of the clean-up, which is about half of what I think the final total will be.

Part of the reason I do it right now is that I sort of lose track of the story in this range. I tend to work in threads and this allows me to weave the threads into place.

Plus it lets me judge the overall story. I’m liking what I’m reading.

I also worked on a couple of other projects. One of these mailing list subscribers will see on Christmas. I’m sending them all a present. The second I’ll announce at the beginning of the year.

For now, it’s time to get back to work.

What I’m Listening To

The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express with that awesome cast. Love this movie.

Quote of the Week

December 21st has a number of anniversaries. I’m going to use one to honor another.

Gen. Patton died today in 1945. Today’s quote is from him in honor of…

In 1861, Lincoln signed the bill including the original version of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Actually, at the time, it applied only to the US Navy, but they added the Army in July of 1862. It took some time after that, however, to include the Air Force.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
– Gen. George S. Patton

News and Works in Progress

  • None Call Me Mother (89,410)
  • CB (8,418)
  • SK (7,084)

Recent Blog Posts and Wiki Additions

  • Been focusing on other things this week.

Upcoming Events

Spotlight

This week’s spotlight is still on Trouble in the Wind, which still holds the Amazon orange tag as the number 1 new release in Science Fiction Anthologies. Thanks to all of our readers.

Today’s Weight: 390.2

Updated Word Count: 224,096

Shijuren Wiki: 874 entries

Let me know if you have any suggestions on the website, this email, or cool story ideas at rob@robhowell.org. Especially let me know of suggestions you have for the Spotlight section.

Have a great week, everyone.

Rob Howell

Currently Available Works
Shijuren
Four Horsemen Universe
The Phases of Mars
Short Stories

If you think you received this email incorrectly or wish to be unsubscribed, please send an email to shijuren-owner@robhowell.org

Rob’s Update: Trouble in the Wind

Week 49 of 2019

Greetings all

Trouble in the Wind is live! Sixteen stories of ground warfare that might have been. My story is “Here Must We Hold” about the Battle of Maldon.

You can find an excerpt of my story here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?p=1899.

Trouble in the Wind
Trouble in the Wind

I’m quite pleased with the story. I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to contribute. I’m absolutely stoked I get to be in a book with David Weber, Kevin J. Anderson, and S.M. Stirling, among others.

I made some progress on None Call Me Mother. Much of it wasn’t in words written, but rather cleaning up. I’m at that stage where I need to go back through it all to firm up the earlier chapters, fill in some connections, and make sure I’m ready for the final chapters.

What I mostly did was write another short story. I’ll tell you all about it when it’s about to go out the door. I also made progress on another project. All in all, a good week, even if it doesn’t show up in the raw numbers.

I also spent a goodly amount of time cleaning house. This is Kris Kinder Weekend, which means I have a big sales event then host everyone after the event.

It’s one of my favorite weekends of the year, but I’ll be exhausted on Sunday. It’s a fair trade.

What I’m Listening To

La Villa Strangiato by Rush. Such a great song.

Quote of the Week

This week’s quote is the inspiration for my story’s title. Thanks to Rosalind Jehanne for granting me permission to use it.

Here must we hold     So hearken to my counsel
Felled is our lord     Slain by foemen on the field
Now we must honor     The oaths we made in mead-hall
Now we must shoulder     The burden of his shield
– Rosalind Jehanne

It’s one of my favorite songs. You can find the complete lyrics to her song here: http://www.calonsong.org/CalontirSongs/battleofmaldon.htm

News and Works in Progress

  • None Call Me Mother (86,645)
  • CB (8,418)
  • SK (6,874)

Recent Blog Posts and Wiki Additions

Upcoming Events

Spotlight

This week’s spotlight is on all of the great authors who participated in Trouble in the Wind. Again, you can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082K73QPD. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Today’s Weight: 396.4

Updated Word Count: 216,398

Shijuren Wiki: 874 entries

Let me know if you have any suggestions on the website, this email, or cool story ideas at rob@robhowell.org. Especially let me know of suggestions you have for the Spotlight section.

Have a great week, everyone.

Rob Howell

Currently Available Works
Shijuren
Four Horsemen Universe
The Phases of Mars
Other Short Stories

If you think you received this email incorrectly or wish to be unsubscribed, please send an email to shijuren-owner@robhowell.org

Interview: Monalisa Foster

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Trouble in the Wind gets released on 13 December, a week from tomorrow. I’ll be running a number of extra interviews this week from authors who joined James Young and I in the anthology. This one is Monalisa Foster, who is as interesting as her name suggests, in part because she emigrated to the US from Romania in 1978.

Interview: Monalisa Foster
Monalisa Foster
Monalisa Foster

What is your quest?

My goal is to write science fiction with heart. That means I concentrate on human drives rather than hyperdrives. No matter the genre (and I’ve written not just alt history, but hard SF, mil SF, and space opera), my goal is put the reader inside the story so they can experience the emotions of the characters I’ve created and the wonder and delight of the world I built for them. It’s a kind of magic and I particularly enjoy practicing this part of my craft.

Since I learned English by translating Heinlein’s juveniles (not as a job, but as a way to teach myself when I was nine), I was heavily influenced by his ideas. It took me about two years to attain fluency and I remember reading about a novel a day every summer. It wouldn’t be untrue to say that my body was merely life-support for my eyes and my brain because it was pretty much all I did every summer. I devoured everything the library had, both in the juvenile and adult sections. I wish I’d have kept a list of everything I’d read, because it would be a wonderful resource for answering questions like this. Most of it was science fiction. Very little of it was fantasy, although I did read some.

Over the decades, my reading tastes have changed substantially. I discovered Bujold and fell in love with her Vorkosigan Saga. In fact, I used to read the entire series from beginning to end every year. And I love stories heavy on romance, but not necessarily the Romance genre itself. One of the reasons I wrote Ravages of Honor was because I couldn’t find what I wanted to read.

I remember the first time I put something up for someone else to read. I posted it on a critique site and then rushed to the bathroom to throw up. It was horrible. The writing, to be clear.

So, it became apparent, very quickly, that reading all my life had not prepared me to write well. And I’d done it professionally before, but that was non-fiction and technical/scientific writing, both of which are altogether different beasts.

Think of it this way. You’ve been watching your parents drive for sixteen years. That doesn’t mean you can just get into a car and drive, unless you’re a very unique individual. I was not that individual.

The first thing I had to accept was that I had a lot to learn, both about the craft and the business of writing. And being me, I threw myself at learning both my craft and the business before I unleashed my writing on the world. And I wouldn’t have had the freedom to do what I’m doing now if it hadn’t been for my husband’s support.

What is the average flying speed of an unladen paint brush?

One of the most frustrating things about the craft is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I thought that I could study what others had written (see above) and emulate it. But the truth is that what worked 10 or 30 or 50 years ago, doesn’t mean it’ll sell today. You’d need a time machine to go back and sell that stuff. Or you’d have to already have a made name.

I think in some ways, we’ve all experienced this. You buy a book because it’s on the best-seller list or because your friend loved it, and you either can’t finish it or you force yourself to, and you go, “Wait? This is a best-seller?” No thank you.

So, you have to figure out some things. Is it taste? Is it the target audience? Is it marketing? It is something you have no clue about? This is the most frustrating aspect of the business for me, in addition to marketing, because there are no right or wrong answers. There are just the answers that work or don’t, for you. What may work for one author will not work for you. What works for one audience won’t work for another. You have to figure out who you are writing for and why. And then you have to figure out how to reach those people. And sometimes that is far more work than what’s involved in your craft, your creative process, and the actual stuff you end up writing.

Fortunately, I’m a vicarious learner. This is a very good thing because it means I learn from other peoples’ mistakes, not just my own. And the number one thing I’ve learned, is that if it doesn’t pull me in and hold me, it’s not worth studying. It can be the best-selling novel of all time. It can have sold millions. If it’s not my cup of tea, it will teach me nothing. On the other hand, if it draws me in and holds me, I will pull it apart and figure out why and then I will incorporate that into my own writing. Doing that can be its own challenge, and the execution takes time, but it’s worth it.

What are the powers of your personal Holy Hand Grenade?

My go-to techniques, the two absolute things I will fight every editor on (Wyatt’s Torch, as in I will burn it down rather than give in), are depth and viewpoint. Now, that means different things to writers, so let me explain what it means to me. I write inside-out, rather than outside-in, about 90% of the time. It can’t be 100% because there are some scenes where you can’t do that, but 90% of the time I absolutely can and will.

Imagine you are a camera. There are five characters in a room. When you are floating outside all of those characters, moving anywhere you want, you are writing outside-in. Some people do this very well. But when it’s not done well, the writing is dry and thin because the camera can’t put the reader inside the character’s head.

Now imagine that the “camera” is inside a character, right behind his eyes. You can only see what he sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels. Your viewpoint is limited. It is filtered through one person at a time. When it’s well done, you’re inside the character’s head and you stay there throughout one scene. The reader only knows what that character knows, when he knows it. That is inside-out writing. I work very hard at putting the reader inside one character at a time so they can experience the world through that one character.

The depth part has to do with the richness and thickness of the details. It has to do with evoking emotions without having to tell the reader that the character is sad or happy or angry.

I know I have successfully done my job when readers tell me that I touched their heart with something.

For example, when I wrote Cooper, a reader sent me a PM thanking me for the story. I had made him cry because the story was about him and his step-dad. When I wrote another story (which I’m not going to name because, spoiler incoming), I got a similar PM (gotta love FB, right?) which sounded rather angry at first. It was along the lines of “How dare you make me care for this character and then kill him/her?” And nothing topped getting a PM from one of my publishers going “That’s a helluva story” when I thought for sure he’d find it too un-military and too touchy-feely.

I’m not former military. I have no credentials to speak of. So I do my research and I work on making my characters real to the reader. I work on the emotional draws and the emotional beats. I do it knowing that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. But if it is your cup of tea, I make an awesome cup of what you do like.

Lightning Round

  • Favorite Muppet? No clue. Didn’t grow up here. Sorry. (Rob’s Note: We have got to get you some of the Muppet Show DVDs)
  • Best Thing From the 80s? The music and the movies.
  • Your Wrestler Name? She-who-uses-metal.
  • And Signature Wrestling Move? Package check.
  • Favorite Weird Color? Slaughter-red; iron-enriched of course.
  • How Will You Conquer the World? If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
  • What Cartoon Character Are You? Queen Tyr’ahnee of Mars
  • Best Present You’ve Ever Received? American citizenship.
  • What Do You Secretly Plot? The end of communism. Forever. Okay, not so secret, but there it is.
  • Brought to you by the letter ___? This is a cultural reference I don’t get. I say that a lot. Ask my friends.
  • Favorite Sports Team? Any and all of the BASEketball teams.
  • Cake or Pie? Dobos Torte.
  • Lime or Lemon? Oranges, because I will not be limited by your lack of vision.
  • Favorite Chip Dip? Whipped cream.
  • Favorite Musical Performer We’ve Never Heard Of? Mark Seibert. I’m not kidding. Oh, and he’s mine. Hands off.
  • Whisky or Whiskey? Whatever my friends will force upon me as long as I get to sip it.
  • Favorite Superhero? Count von Krolock (Tanz der Vampire).
  • Favorite 1970s TV show? Before my time.
  • Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall? Summer. In Texas. Or Arizona.
  • Favorite Pet? German Shepherds, Pibbles, Great Danes. Standard Poodles.
  • Best Game Ever? I opt to exercise my Fifth Amendment rights on the grounds that my answer might incriminate me.
  • Coffee or Tea? Coffee as long as I can’t taste the coffee part. Jasmine tea.
  • Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Seeing as my favorite level of tech is “science indistinguishable from magic” I’m going to deny the false dichotomy of your question.

What question(s) would you like to ask me? 

How many languages do you speak? Is one of them German?

Rob’s Answer: I would say I can’t actually *speak* any language but English fluently. Mostly that’s because I don’t get much opportunity to practice. I took a goodly amount of German, Latin, and Old English. Old English is the one I use the most, but it’s less about talking and more about reading.

My best spoken language is probably Old English. I have performed stuff in Old English, like chunks of Beowulf and the Wanderer. Nevertheless, I don’t do that enough to prevent having a wretched accent. It’s better than my horrible French accent, which I butcher whenever I have need.

I have a moderate level of reading ability in those three languages as well as French. The ability to read them is more what I need than the ability to speak as I’m reading through historical sources. I’m also discovering that I can muddle my way through some Spanish because of the Latin and French providing cognates and the grammar being Latin that got lazier and lazier over the years.

In general, if I can separate the words spoken to me, I can generally grasp the structure of the sentence, but my practical vocabulary is minimal because I routinely have references handy.

Tell me again where we can find your stuff? 

And where can we find you?

  • My favorite con is LibertyCon.
  • I also go to DragonCon. These are the two I strive to be at every year.
  • Locally, I attend FenCon.
  • I did LTUE and SpikeCon in 2019, but probably won’t be doing so regularly.

Do you have a creator biography?

Monalisa won life’s lottery when she escaped communism and became an unhyphenated American citizen. Her works tend to explore themes of freedom, liberty, and personal responsibility. Despite her degree in physics, she’s worked in several fields including engineering and medicine, but she enjoys being a trophy wife and kept woman the most. She and her husband are living their happily ever after in Texas.

Final question for you: What should I have asked but did not? 

You should have asked me why milk chocolate is better than dark chocolate? That way I could answer because it contains a higher amount of fat and fat is flavor. Also, bacon makes everything better when milk chocolate is not available. (Rob’s Note: So right!)


Thanks to Monalisa for taking the time to answer my questions.

If you have any suggestions or comments about this interview format, let me know so I can keep tweaking it.

Also, thanks to you for reading. If you’re interested in any of the other interviews I’ve done, you can find them all here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?cat=326. If you are a creator, especially an independent creator, and you want to be spotlighted in a future interview, email me at rob@robhowell.org.

Finally, if you want to join my mailing list, where I’ll announce every interview, as well as what’s going on in my life, go to www.robhowell.org and fill out the form (Name and Email Address) or drop me an email and I’ll add you.

Have a great day.

Rob Howell