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Sorry, guys, but I’m just not up to posting this morning. Real life has hit me for a loop this month, including the fact that I’m about to head out the door to let a doctor muck about in my knee — again. Then there’s the fact I have had no coffee. Eeeeep! Anyway, I’m throwing the doors open and asking you guys to talk about what you’ve been seeing happen in publishing. If there is anything you’d like us to discuss in future posts, note it in the comments. I’ll be back later today and, if I’m up to it, I’ll post something then. Until then, someone have a cup of coffee for me.


I wouldn’t be dead for quids!

Look I’ve been busy as a one handed paper-hanger in Woollamaloo, flat out like a lizard drinking. I mean all a cockie wants is a fair crack of the whip, but at this writing lark, yer get the rough end of a pineapple shoved up yer jacksey, and not a skerrick of a motza for it. I tell yer, they think I’m a bleeding magic pudding. It’s left me stonkered, I was feeling so crook I went to see the quack and he said unless I want to kark it I’d better chill. Too right, it’s been yonks since I took the tinny out. So I put on me thongs, and me budgie smugglers. Man I looked as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, except I got a bloody veranda bum, and a Bondi chest from driving a desk. So I said to the ball-and-chain I was going walkabout. Man the cliner went spare. Told me I was a two bob watch and I’d have to get me own tucker then. And I was hungry enough to eat the crutch out of a low flying duck. So I got a slab of the green and a maggot-bag, and went out for a seven course meal, with a snot-block for afters.

Man, I don’t make the big bickies, but I wouldn’t be dead for quids!

“”I said it in Hebrew–I said it in Dutch–
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!”

The Hunting of the Snark, fit the fourth. Lewis Carrol

Well, it is English, of a highly advanced sort (No really. I’m a Vandemonian. Trust me. You can, they say two heads are better than one.) And it is colorful and funny. But unless it’s your local lingo… it may be confusing as hell too, especially overdosed like that.

One of the big problems, of course, is that when it is your local form of English, you may not realize that it’s not really intelligible to the non-cognoscenti… And the same things mean different things in different places – do not describe that handy belt-on-purse as a fanny-bag in Australia, or if you’re a stray South African here, ask what route (pronounced in South Africa as ‘root’ ) is best. I gather South Africans are also the only English speakers to swim in dams (what in my old country they called the water in a man-made lake.) And my English daughter-in-law struggles with our ‘pants’ (which somehow bizarrely means ladies underwear, and is frequently used as an exclamation of irritation, as in: “Oh pants! I forgot mum’s birthday.” rather than meaning ‘trousers’, as it does to me.

They’re a trap for the unwary, but in small doses a source of ‘feel exotic’ and of added value.

So how about a few I wouldn’t know?

And what on earth does “Well tie my face to the side of a pig and roll me in the mud!” imply? Bacon makers (yes, I made 40 pounds of bacon this week) wish to know.

And as for what is wrong with our ability to get children to read – this is the answer.

So, I’m Still Working on Through Fire

Which makes it hard to continue Elf Blood, because I haven’t had a chance to edit.  More about it here.

Part of what is there is about the novella coming out in a collection from Wordfire Press.

This is what I said at ATH:

And Not To Yield, a novella (around 30k words, if I recall precisely) set in the world of A Few Good Men, ten years later is in the process of being processed and it will come out in the next Wordfire Five by Five (an anthology of mil novellas.)  While it’s about ten years from Through Fire (which has Zen Sienna, not Nat and Luce.  Well, Luce appears once and it was quite interesting, because I have never thought of him as a son of a b*tch.  I guess we’re all different viewed from outside?) it’s part of the continuum.  It is in Luce’s head, and it sets up for what will be book six of the Earth Revolution.  It starts with Luce facing a court Martial.  So…

Ya’ll get an excerpt.  NOT a copyedited excerpt, because I can’t find the file I sent (shut up you.  I’m mid novel.  I have no brain) but an excerpt.)

And Not To Yield


Sarah A. Hoyt


The trial starts with a sad-eyed major sitting behind a desk. My desk. My office has been commandeered for my own martial court . We’re almost alone. The new laws require trial by jury – trial by twelve as the people call it – but that rule is for civil trials, not for military trials, where autocratic rule prevails. It’s not as bad as it was under the regime we overthrew, the regime of the Good Men, mind. You won’t get condemned and killed because one man, the sole, undisputed hereditary ruler of the Seacity, is having a bad day. No. Though there are two privates by the door, both fully armed, ready to shoot me down if I should make a run for it, I’m not treated like a criminal.

Instead, I’m presumed innocent until proven guilty, and I stand in my full uniform, with the colonel insignia at shoulder and sleeve, above the patch showing the legendary mountain from which my land gets its name. And I have a defense council, a judge advocate. He’s not a lawyer but an old friend, Royce Allard, looking hot under the collar and a little afraid.

He should be afraid. The procedures might be impromptu, the courtroom an office, but the results of this trial are full and binding and final. I stand accused of going AWOL in time of war, of disobeying the direct orders of my superiors, of unlawful kidnaping and assault and of “conduct unbecoming” which covered everything else of note. I guess military lingo didn’t have a term for going crazy and hurting important people. Then comes the bagful of minor sins, including theft, kidnapping, breaking and entering into a secure facility, menacing, risking important information falling in the hands of the enemy and risking being taken hostage, and a few other things, possibly including, but not limited to, using bad language and being seen in a ragged uniform. All together those are worth little. A few days in jail, a reduction in pay.

It doesn’t matter, because the major charges, if proven, will see me hanged by the neck till dead.

And they will be proven, because, you see, I am guilty.


War for me began ten years after revolution had freed Olympus Seacity; five years after I’d been made a colonel and head of our propaganda machine.

It is not war to pilot a desk. It’s not war to think up clever hollo-casts and sneaky methods to subvert the enemy’s carefully planted idea that their regime has given the Earth three hundred years of “peace and security”. It is not war to wait, to hope, to search the casualty lists every night, to pray to a God I wasn’t sure of believing in that his name wouldn’t be among the dead and missing.

Though we were both technically believers in the long forbidden Usaian religion, he was the believer, and I believed in him. And though both of us had been instrumental in the revolution that set the Seacity on the path to restoring the ancient principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the truth was that Nat – Nathaniel Green Remy – fought. I stayed home and planned and waited.

Home had been reduced to a small part of what had been my ancestral palace.

My name is Lucius Dante Maximillian Keeva. I was born to one of the fifty men who between them ruled all the Earth – the Good Men, as they were called — and raised as heir to Olympus Seacity and its subject territories. Or not quite. It turned out the intolerable rule of the man whom I have to call Father had other dimensions, other implications. Some of which led me to solitary confinement for fifteen years and to the raw edge of what I must for lack of a better word call sanity.

Nat – and his family – had hauled me back to life and humanity, and if what it cost me was surrendering power and position I never wanted and helping them install their government based on the principles of the long vanished United States of America, I could do that.

Two rooms in the house and the use of an office were all that would have been truly mine, anyway, had I ascended to rule as the Good Man of Olympus. The absolute ruler of that kind of vast empire is no more free than a slave. Oh, his particular whims and his odder tastes might be catered to, but like a slave he is the prisoner of his role, occupied with it from morning to night, his every minute poured into that role.

So, I wasn’t any the worse off for my change in roles, from would-be heir to the territory to officer in the revolutionary army of Olympus Seacity, which, with its allied territories and seacities comprised what we called The Freedom Army. And other people were happier. Probably. Almost certainly.

Only the Good Men had not let things go lightly. Authority and power are not surrendered willingly, unless it is meaningless and the rule of the Good Men was very meaningful indeed.

For ten years we’d been involved in a war; we’d lost countless people. Young people had been killed in the army, and people of all ages had been killed as the Good Men resorted to terror tactics on the territories; released bio-engineered viruses; destroyed crops and generally made the life of the citizens of Olympus and our allies hell. Against this Nat fought. Against this I composed a war of words, a concatenation of holograms to make it clear to the people under Good Men Rule that we were the better choice; that they should rebel and come to our side.

It worked. Sometimes. Entire cities and seacities had come to our side. But not enough to end the war.

Which meant Nat continued fighting, and I continued to check the casualty and missing list, every night, after a full day of work, and just before turning in.

This brings me to that August night. It was hot, and I was asleep, uncovered, in my too-large bed. My room was at the top of what used to be the palace, and the door opened to a terrace which in turn looked down all the way to the sea. That door was open, to a smell of salt air, and at first I thought what I heard was the cry of seagulls.


“How do you plead?” the sad eyed major asks, after the litany of charges against me is read. “On the charges leveled against you?”

“Guil—” I start. And my judge advocate is there. Royce’s hand clasps around my upper arm so hard that he will leave bruises. Which takes effort, since I’m six seven and built like the proverbial brick shithouse, and though Royce is not a small man, his hand doesn’t even fully go around my arm.

“Sir,” he says, and I am not sure if it’s to me or the major. “Sir,” he says, and this time he looks fully at the major. “Sir, Colonel Keeva pleads not guilty due to extenuating circumstances.”

The Major opens his mouth. For a moment I think he’s going to say I’d pleaded guilty, but of course he doesn’t. Instead, he closes his mouth and looks at me, eyebrows raised. Royce’s hand is like an iron band around my forearm. “Yes,” I stammer. “Not guilty due to extenuating circumstances.”

The Major nods. “Very well,” he says. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”


The judge gestures, and one of the privates by the door, a young man who looks too young to grow a beard and too innocent to be in any military, comes forward with a small, dark box, which he opens. Inside the box is my piece of flag. Not the flag of Olympus, which is a blue flag with the representation of the mythical mountain, but THE flag, the one sacred to every Usaian. At some time in the twenty first century, after the fall of the United States of America, and after the founding of the religion based on the founding documents of that lost country, someone had put all the flags they could find that had once flown over American territory before the fall into a climate-controlled room. Since then every member of the religion got a little piece of the flag. Some were inherited within families. Mine had three stars, and a blood stain. The stain had been acquired when a past owner had been martyred to the faith. Another past owner, martyred to the faith, was my only friend growing up, and Nat’s uncle, Benjamin Franklin Remy. Ben has been dead for twenty five years. Which is good because he might very well think I’d disgraced him and our shared scrap of flag.

The young man hands me the flag. I know what to do. Usaians have sealed all their oaths with a kiss on their piece of the flag, that visible symbol of their allegiance, for centuries.

I press my lips against the flag, and then it is set on the desk in front of me. I look at it and mentally I ask Ben’s forgiveness. “I never meant to sully the flag or the Usaians by association,” I tell him. “But you see, I had to save Nat.”


The crying of a seagull resolved itself to the scream of a woman, and before I was fully awake, I thought I’d fallen asleep naked with the covers thrown away from me and some cleaning woman must have come in. I reached for the covers, pulled them over me, but the woman was yelling “Luce,” and shaking me.

I opened my eyes. The woman was Martha Remy. She’s a Lieutenant in the propaganda department, and my subordinate. But she’s also somewhere between my best friend and my sister. She is Nat’s twin, though she looks nothing like him. While Nat is tall and lanky and one of those rare brown-eyed pale blonds, Martha is short, softly rounded despite continuous exercise, and has mouse-colored hair. Only her eyes are the same as Nat’s, dark brown and deeply set, giving the impression of unexplored depths and something like an abiding and unshakeable sadness. They were filled with alarm now.

“Luce,” she said. “Did he contact you? Was there a change in plans?”

“Who?” I asked, sleep stupid, my voice slow, my tongue stumbling. And then, as my wits caught up with my wakening, “Nat?”

She nodded. “He’s five hours late,” she said. “I thought he’d come in. I thought he’d be– Did he tell you about changing plans?”

“I didn’t even know he was coming home,” I told her, and noted her surprise. It was hard to explain to her that our relationship didn’t work like that. He did what he had to do, and I was glad to see him when I saw him.

“He was,” she said at last. “He was flying back with … with something. Some mission. I’m not sure what it was, but he was bringing something from Field Marshall Herrera, I think to General Cranston, but he never arrived. They called me to see if I heard from him and I hadn’t, but I thought you might have.”

By then I was fully awake. I said, “If something happened to him, then his chip would have reported his status to headquarters, and he’d be on the casualty list. He wasn’t. I checked before going to bed. Unless his chip was deactivated because he was on some sort of secret run?”

“Not that I know,” she said. “But it wouldn’t show on the casualty list, anyway, not by last night, because I talked to him at twenty three hundred, and he hadn’t left yet.”

“Oh,” I said. “Have you checked now?”

She shook her head. “And it’s weird,” she said, babbling. “Why is Field Marshall Herrerra using Nat as an errand boy to someone of a lower rank, too? It makes no sense at all.”

I rose from the bed, taking care to drag the sheet with me, though as I said, Martha was like a sister to me, and she’d probably not have batted an eye if I’d got out of bed in my birthday suit. But I’d spent fifteen years in a cell, under constant observation by cameras. Had to have been, because all the times I’d tried to commit suicide they’d come and rescued me before I died. Now I relished my modesty, such as it was. I pulled the sheet around my waist, and dragged it behind me, as I got to my desk, and pushed the accustomed buttons to bring up the hologram of the latest casualty list. Early on, these had been compiled by the week, but now every one of our fighting men and women had a chip implanted in their body which transmitted on an encrypted frequency. If the transmission were interrupted, we knew what had happened. Or at least we could presume it, even if we’d been wrong a few times.

Knowing at all times that your relative or loved one wasn’t on that list and therefore must be presumed to be well made the war bearable.

As the hologram of names solidified in the air, in front of me, I closed my eyes and did what passed for prayer for me, “If he’s not on the list, if he’s well—” I didn’t finish the promise because it wasn’t needed. If there was a God he knew what I was willing to do for such a boon. Anything. Anything at all.

I opened my eyes. I paged down through the As and on through the Ps and Qs. To the Rs.

I blinked. There, midair, was the line I’d dreaded seeing for ten years. Gen. Nathaniel Green Remy, Missing, presumed dead.

From behind me Martha made that sound like a seagull again, and her hand rested on my shoulder. Warm and far too moist. “No,” she said. “No.”

“No,” I said, more firmly. “No. Look, he’s not dead. And the chip is not sending the distress signal indicating he’s wounded. He’s just missing. That means the chip malfunctioned.”

“Or he was captured and someone is blocking transmission. Someone is holding him hostage.”

“Let’s not scare ourselves with worst case scenarios,” I said. “Do you know where he was coming from? What transport he was using? It’s likely just a deviation in course taking him through an area where transmission is blocked. He’ll probably get back into range soon enough.” I didn’t believe a word I was saying, and there was a reason I didn’t believe it. If Nat had said he’d be here, he would have been here. No two ways about it. So something had happened to Nat. But what? And where was he? And was he alive or dead?

Loose Ends

Life is all about uncertainties. Fiction, on the other hand, is required to make sense, or your readers throw things (like your book) at you. I was contemplating this as I was driving today, loose ends, and the raveling up of said threads, taking the untidy things and tucking them neatly into the tapestry of the story.

My problem is, as I’m getting ready to write the third book in a series, that I need to make a ‘bible’ for the series, which is going to include things like physical descriptions and setting notes for the world. It will also include a list of dangling plot threads. Some of them will become the central plots of the final book, as minor incidents come back to bite my protagonists on the butts. But I don’t want to wrap all of them up. I’d just as soon leave a few.

In real life, there are a lot of loose ends and untidy things. You might meet someone while traveling, hit it off, and when you both separate at your destination, never speak again. I have fond memories of folks who were dear friends of the family when I was a kid – Jim taught me how to ride, and my Dad how to bust broncs – but they dropped off the face of the earth twenty years ago. I think about them from time to time, and wonder. Life has loose ends, so why can’t my stories have a few?

I know that readers don’t like to be left hanging. If you introduce a character, they expect that person to play a role in the story. And this is so, most of the time. Especially in a short story. But if life is a stage, there are an awful lot of bit characters who merely walk across the stage from time to time. Of course, sometimes one will linger and insist they need a speaking role, but that just richens the story.

On the other hand, by leaving some loose ends, I let the reader have room for their imagination to stroll down the garden path with me, making up possibilities of what might be there, in the uncharted waters off the page. (Good grief, my metaphors are out of control today). So I am trying to strike a balance between too much, and just enough. I don’t want to tie them all up neatly, what if I want to come back to the world I’ve built again? A whole world is full of possibilities. You can’t bundle it up and present it with a bow, there are always messy parts to clean up.

Right now I don’t even have time to re-read and make notes. This is just going onto the list of what needs to be done, as I am working on writing two other projects, alternating. I got really blocked on the SF, and have been stressing over whether pandemic stories are overdone, and should I even bother? So I’m working on something completely different, which will come out under an open penname, as I don’t want readers to pick it up expecting Fantasy and get the mundane. Or vice versa.

So here’s the question, how many loose ends can I get away with? Do you, as readers, prefer there to be no dangling bits to distract you at the end of the tale wondering what happened?

Why Do You Write?

Al Grauniad doesn’t only serve up steaming platters of complete filth, despite the taint of noted monger-of-same Damien “I can’t be arsed to quote real people” Walter. I know, I know: I was stunned, too. But it’s true, at least for a given value thereof (it’s an excerpt from a forward of a larger work. Apparently, the Guardian just has trouble getting original work worked up just for them.) At the above link, Gentleman-Resembling-Dreams and noted Speaker to Nerds Neil Gaiman remembers an episode in which he and his friend and fellow writer Sir Pterry Pratchett made a choice in their manner of transportation between two locations of their book tour (I did mention these two are generally considered superstars when it comes to the relatively small pond of literary (meaning here the written word, not the genre thereof (Ed. Note: Get OFF the nested parentheses! That way lies madness and a direct portal to the Dungeon Dimensions!)) achievement) for Good Omens. A simple choice that should have had them arrive at the next stop refreshed and invigorated. Instead, they were late. Very late. The upshot was that MorpheusNeil Gaiman learned just a bit about what motivates Sir Pterry, and how most people never see it.

I’ve been pondering motivation for, well, most of my natural life, really. So it’s not that the above link showed its face in my feed in anything like timeliness (except that I did need something to spark today’s post), so much as it churned the salty, sticky chum of my thoughts such that some choice chunks rose to the surface in time for you to share in. Aren’t you pleased? I know I am. The confluence of multiple trains of thought (if I’m not careful, I’ll end up with a mess, trains being what they are) arrives at a time when I’m trying very hard to figure out how to go on being a writer, at least in the short term. Like the next couple of decades.

You see, I’m the primary sitter on of my young heir-apparent, Wee Dave. Mrs. Dave is on active duty with the military, and her obligations require she spend a goodly portion of the day not with Wee Dave. It is my privilege (he says with teeth clenched) to take on the mantle of Baby Wrangler, the hat of the Feeder of the Bottomless Maw, and the mask of the Bringer of Fun. These new positions bring with them a goodly bit of honor, prestige and no-pay, and have an interesting and curious manner of DEVOURING ALL MY WRITING TIME (*pant, pant*). Now, our spawnling is a usually delightful specimen of larval humanity, and we have high hopes of unleashing him upon the unsuspecting masses sometime in the future. For now, however, he requires ever-increasing levels of supervision.

Digression: Wee Dave is rolling over now. Front to back, and back to front. He’s nearly to the point where he’ll roll over and over. The trouble, at least from his perspective, is that he dearly wants – nay, Daddy, he NEEDS – to then achieve a respectable degree of forward progress upon presenting his dorsal surface to the heavens. And he can’t. The dear mite hasn’t yet the coordination or muscular strength to convey himself from this place to that by the motion of his own limbs. And this is WRONG and it is EVIL, Daddy, and it’s an Abomination Unto Nuggan, and he’d like you to share in his pain. Or at least so I surmise from the shrill wails he produces. You know the ones I mean: the ones that bypass the ears and go straight for the panic centers of Daddy’s brain. End Digression.

Even when Wee Dave takes his afternoon siesta (by no means a clock-setting evolution, though such occurs at least once a day, thank Ghu) I am not guaranteed to get time to write. Strangely enough, there are other things to do. Washing, it seems, happens a lot. Of dishes, clothes, and my filthy corporeality, among other things. Bills require payment, carpets need cleaning, and the mountains of stuff that seem to occur by spontaneous generation desperately want cutting back, whether that happens with a machete or a flamethrower.

And, as seems to be customary among those young to parenting, I’ve been questioning my reality. Do I really want to write? Is telling silly stories dragged kicking and screaming (if you do it right, they just whimper and feebly bat at the chains) out of my imagination really that important to me? It turns out that, yeah, it kinda is. Or at least, I get unlivable with when I don’t write, which is kind of the same thing. Mrs. Dave says I’m not allowed to stop, so I guess that’s a good thing?

For me, at least, though I won’t begin to speculate about you, dear reader, I still need to have my motivations securely in place, otherwise nothing gets done. I am doing this for the money, the green, the filthy lucre, but I’m early on enough that I can barely buy beer and skittles with the proceeds. So there’s motivation. But profit is a long, long way off yet, and in order to keep doing this thing I think I love and know I need to keep doing to stay me, I’ve needed to work out a driving force. For Sir Pterry it is the deep well of his boundless anger. I’m not sure what mine is, yet.

And so I find myself arises well before the crack of dawn each day, and wending my way down to my office (no, really, I’ve got a room Just For Writing. And storing Even More Stuff, natch) where I attempt to put words on page. It’s too early to tell if writing before the Boy-Creature awakens in his awful glory will suffice. Today, I’m writing this post. Who can tell if I’ll get time to do fiction, which is the “important” writing. But that’s why – and now how – I’m writing. What drives your writing? What for, do you do that voodoo for, that you do so well?

Addendum: there’s an interesting series of strips going down over at Least I Could Do (that starts here) that I’m following with some interest. It occurs that many of my fellow Mad Ones might share said interest.

When Teh Stoopid and Teh Bad English Attacks

Something most of the better writers know about is the matter of having the correct word rather than one that’s close but not quite there.

Then there’s what you see in the wilder parts of the Internets. Like, say, the vagina cookies reddit. No I am not joking. The thread starts here and while the original post has more than a little scary to it, the email screenshots  (if this is a true story) are a lesson in why it helps to know what the words you’re using actually mean. Also why paragraphs are nice.

So. Without further ado (actual quotes from the email are in italics)…

express my feeling of todays incident I have to admit when a phrase has me wondering just what it’s a euphemism for, there isn’t going to be much sensible discussion happening. Sorry. So, does this mean that the incident was felt up? How many todays were involved? The sad thing is this could be perfectly sensible English with the addition of one letter, replacing a word, and adding one apostrophe. You good folk don’t even need me to tell you where.

Depriving them for that. I think that one should have been OF that.

Then she complains about the lack of disrespect. If I was being shown a lack of disrespect I’d be delighted.

Of course, I also wouldn’t bring cookies meant to represent vaginas (which really should be vulvas, but we won’t go there – at least not while we’re trying to keep the discussion more or less PG – especially since the writer also talks about informing people about the vagina and how to please it) and I think she meant appreciate it, but I’m not prepared to put money on that. Just saying.

The comments thread includes some brilliant snark – including the set of comments on the implications of that comment about informing people about the vagina and how to please it… Just imagine what would happen if you substituted “penis” there. (Oh, yes, this little incident involved a second grade class. You know. 8 year olds.)

I do have to wonder about the commenter who said the best part of the story was that the poster used “bemused” correctly. I know this is reddit, which is not exactly a source of literature (in the good sense, not the wannabe literary types idea of it), but still… When using “bemused” correctly outweighs some of the truly bizarre imagery and the seriously terrifying final observation?

And all of this could have been avoided with a little intelligence on the part of the woman who thought that it was appropriate to bring genital cookies to her 8 year old’s classroom (as in, “if you did the same thing with penises, would you be arrested?” When the answer to that question is “yes”, you probably shouldn’t do it with vaginas. Or vulvas. Or testes. Or… well. You get the idea.). If said female had been capable of basic English, her email would still be a prime example of Teh Stoopid, but it would be grammatically correct Stoopid.


At this rate I’m going to transform into a grammar nazi. It’s a horrible way to go.

The Part of the First Part – Short story workshop installment (I’m almost sure) 12

So, you planned your story in advance. Or if you’re like me, you just sort of had it pour out of you, which is all fine and dandy except for the parts where it isn’t.

Look, being a pantser is fine, and I’ve gone through period sof plotting and periods of pantsing and I’m the last person to tell you to do one or the other, but his is the trajectory I’ve seen with sort stories, and which I’m now in the middle of for novels.


  • Eager and doomed – You don’t plot because you don’t know there is anything to plot, and in fact, you wouldn’t know a plot if it hit you in the fleshy part of the back. You just write and the usual results are “Oh, no.”
  • More clue than a bear – You have some clue of what parts should, at least theoretically, be in a story, and you try to make sure they’re in a story by plotting it all exquisitely in advance. Depending on your internalizing of what should be in a story and what the parts actually do, this might be okay. It still usually starts out rough, though.
  • You’ve got this -You’ve mastered the short story but you’re still exquisitely plotting in great detail. If you’re a control freak, you might do this the rest of your life. If you’re not a control freak, you might at some point find the story escapes you, and the actual narration doesn’t follow the outline. This is a sign that
  • The subconscious drives – At some point you don’t outline. The story just appears fully formed in your head, and you ride along with it sometimes not sure what comes around the bend. I’m in the process of having that happen for novels, and it’s a harrowing experience. OTOH Pratchett and Agatha Christie wrote this way, so chill. All the same, it’s important to do a check when the story is done, in case you’re not as proficient as you thought you were.


So, what functional parts should be in your story?


1 An attention catching opening.


No, I don’t care how often you tell me this is unfair and that your story gets better in the 5th page. Look, every magazine reader reads the first paragraph only, if that. Even more important, if someone downloads your story from Amazon, they’d best be caught by that first paragraph, or they’re not going to read.

And before you protest the injustice of this: I’ve read a lot of slush in my day. If your story gets better on page five, it’s the only story that does so. When I was young and inexperienced and confused slush reading with being a teacher, I made a point to read every story to the end. This is what I found: if you can’t capture me with the first paragraph or if your first paragraph confuses corpulent and copulate (True story) it will ONLY get worse.

So now that you have the story down, test it. Does that first paragraph really catch the reader, or are you giving backstory?

If you’re giving backstory, does it even need to be there? (I used to have forty pages at the beginning of DST that gave the history of Earth from now to Athena’s time. What I found on thinking about it is that the reader didn’t need to know any of it to actually enjoy the story, or follow along. Oh, we needed to know little things, like when the story takes place, what the regime is, and what Athena’s position is, but you can get that from a sentence here and a sentence there.) I’m not going to tell you you don’t need an infodump somewhere, but you more than likely don’t need it in the beginning of the story.

The other common defect of beginnings of stories, and one that’s more high rent, in the sense that it’s something people do who have a little bit more clue is what I call “party of strangers.”

Your first page has a bunch of people doing a bunch of things that we don’t understand and therefore we couldn’t care less. Sometimes this is because you’ve lived in the world so long that you know all these characters personally. So to you it’s like reporting on a party of your friends. They’re hanging out, making inside jokes. To them it’s very exciting. Did you see that jibe Morgwin just made to Vlar? Oh, boy, he’s in trouble now.

To the reader it’s like attending a Martian mating ritual. It might be fascinating to the exobiologist, but you’re not one. You don’t know who is doing what to whom or what the consequences will be, and your eyes glaze over and you go to your happy place.

In the beginning of a story, try to keep the number of characters simple, and make sure the situation is something that your reader can sort of follow even if he doesn’t get every detail.

Also, it would be better if something is happening, though of course, I can see a situation where, as say, in the regency, you start with dialogue and it’s a challenge to a duel, say.

Something else to make sure… well, throughout your story, but here is the most important place for it: You’re using descriptive words, not generic words.

By this I don’t mean your characters should snigger, susurrate or even ejaculate (unless it’s that kind of story, of course or the use of these words is a stylistic point.) What I mean is that you need to make sure you’re not giving the reader a lot of empty words.

Take this opening, for instance: Mgld got to the high place and looked down on the verdant expanse.

You can picture that scene in your mind, right? Mgld climbed or walked, or used a rope to the top of the tower, skyscraper or mountain, and looked down on green. Okay, if we want to be more charitable, looked down on something green and growing. And Mgld is… animal vegetable or mineral?

All of these would be valid ways to unpack it:

The young woman walked to the top of the hill and looked down on the grassy plane.

The young man climbed hand over hand to the top of the skyscraper and from above looked down at the canopy of trees in the park below.

The child climbed on the stool and looked at the table top, covered in lychen.

Mgld, moving its eight legs slowly, got to the top of the gods mound and looked down at its world. What was this green thing the aliens had brought g-rass they called it.


Here is the thing: your contract with the reader is not “I’ll make you work insanely hard for every little bit of information possible.” Your contract is “I’ll tell you a story.” So make it easy for the reader to visualize the story going in – and really at all steps – instead of playing kep-away with it. People who have to think really hard about what your words mean aren’t experiencing the story. They’re experiencing etymologic hangover.

2 A plot

Yes, believe it or not, it’s possible to forget one of these. Your characters are just there, and doing fascinating things, and by page ten they haven’t really done anything that matters.

Everyone tells you a plot is “things happen” which is true. But there’s more than that. It’s things happen starting from a defined point to attain another defined point and there is some logic to them.

So, just having your characters go shopping and have breakfast is not a plot. It might be interesting – though most of the time this sort of thing is only interesting to you – but it’s not a plot as other people can follow. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t have your characters do this in the middle of a story or the middle of a book. I’m saying your story or book shouldn’t be constituted of “down time.”)

Make sure at the beginning of a story your characters have a problem. This could be “I lost my hanky” or (if you’re Inigo Montoya) “someone killed my father. I must get revenge.” The stories will have different weight depending on the problem, but there’s a time and place for everything and you might want a light or heavy one depending.

Make sure their actions proceed from the problem and have a reasonable expectation of solving it, based on what your characters know. For instance, if you lost your hanky rubbing yourself all over with goose grease and setting yourself on fire is not a reasonable means of solving the problem. Unless of course your magical system tells you so.

3 – the plot unfolds.

As your character acts, things happen in reaction. No, things can’t just happen because, a method that Kate Paulk calls “dropping walls on characters” but they should happen in reaction to his actions. Now in a novel you can have him do something, and we don’t see the consequences till the very end. In a short story you usually have to be more direct. Though you can still have the character do something offhandedly, say, throw out an orange while chasing the bad guy, and then bring it around at the very end of the story, where he’s approached by a group of people who want to crown him king and/or kill him because of that orange and a prophecy.

4- Everything in proportion.

I don’t care how great your opening scene is, or if you really enjoy it because you created this entire alien sport you want to show us. Things have to happen and fairly soon and we should have a hint of a problem, if not the real problem by the first/second paragraph.

The parts you should give most weight – i.e. text space – to are the ones that bring the greater emotional response. So, I don’t care how much you love going shopping for shoes, stop telling me about the pumps on the shop window, in the second row from the left, and start with the something happening.

5- Your action/reaction should rise towards a climax. In a short story this usually means two try-fail attempts or, sometimes, for variety four, or only one. If only one make it dang good.

But if it’s two or three or three each attempt should be, for lack of a better word, epic. The climax should be the most epic of all. Are you going to get your hanky? Or will there be no hankies, ever? For ANYONE?

6-Make sure there’s an end. This depends on your audience. Some audiences love inconclusive endings, and in fact I just wrote one myself (it’s a horror story. Its scarier if you imagine it.) BUT even then, you have to end the story, if only by setting out what is at stake and what might be the variations you can expect.

Or you can tie all the loose ends, and leave the reader feeling that they know how everything ended. “And they lived happily ever after.” Or “and he died a wretched death.”

The ending, in terms of pages taken in relation to the rest, is usually not very long. It is still necessary.

I call it “return the reader to its upright and locked position.”

Questions or issues you want further explained? If not the next installment will be “Now what do you do with it?”