I recently had the pleasure of reading Kistishi Island, by Jordan Elizabeth. This YA novel was a well-written story, with a plot that comes full circle. Although the names are a bit difficult to pronounce, the characters are interesting and likable, especially Corvo (goddess of crows, and Krieg, goddess of war). The main character, Serena, is portrayed to be a teenager with depth, but still a teen, and you won’t be able to help but like her.
When Serena talks to her imaginary friends, they just don’t feel imaginary. The kids at school taunt her and she winds up in trouble all the time. Her aunt thinks she’s crazy and wants to send her to an asylum, her mom is off on archaeological digs all the time and is never around, and her imaginary friends are the only friends she has.
What will happen if she learns her imaginary friends are really goddesses watching over her? We’re about to find out, when she runs away to the Island of Kistishi to find her mom, where the walls of the ruins suck you into underground dwellings and other people see her friends, too. Besides learning that her friends aren’t imaginary, Serena also learns that she is capable of depending on herself, and that she’s capable of having real friends.
This story is well-crafted and perfect for YA readers, (or older readers who secretly love YA stories but don’t want to admit it). It is a fun and exciting read. I give Kistishi Island four quills.
I have a story appearing in the newly released science fiction anthology from Zombie Pirate Publishing, The Collapsar Directive. It’s a dystopian tale titled, If You’re Happy and You Know It, set in a world where you’re only allowed to be happy on the weekends. I must give kudos to the editors, Sam Phillips and Adam Bennett for their selections for this anthology. The other stories featured in this anthology are all top rate, and my fellow authors are a talented bunch. I feel proud to be counted among them.
Zombie Pirate Publishing is pretty smart really, because they get their authors involved in the process – not really the actual publishing process, but with the final editing and, certainly in the marketing process. And having been involved in the process with this great group of writers, reading the stories of the others, which are all well written pieces, got me to thinking about what elements make up a high quality short story.
When I review a short story, I look for the same things I’d look for in a novel length work, with a few exceptions. I’d down my rating for the same type of things though: if it doesn’t read smoothly, if there are logic problems (which occur less in short fiction, but they do occur), excessive use of adjectives and unnecessary words, or if there are a lot of typos or spelling errors which bring my editors mind right out of the story.
Just as in a longer story, I want to see a well-written story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. But, this is where short stories often fall short. In a novel, it may take the author several chapters to wrap up all the loose ends and tie their story neatly into a bow. Short stories don’t have that luxury. Although, there is no set length as to how long a short story should be, other than word count limits set by those you are submitting to, it is even more important with short fiction to eliminate any unnecessary words and get to the point of the story. If you don’t, your story may end up becoming a novel. So, in short fiction, I look for stories that tell the tale without drawing it out unduly.
However, it can be difficult to get in a full story arc, without drawing out the tale, so I’ve come to expect this to be the case with short fiction. That way, instead of being sadly disappointed when a short story falls short (pun intended), I am pleasantly surprised when I come across short fiction which feels complete at the end of the story. It is even harder with flash fiction. The shorter the story, the less space you have to accomplish the task. I recently reviewed an anthology in which almost every story had a full arc, leaving me with a very satisfied feeling. (Catch my review of Darkscapes.)
All of the stories in The Collapsar Directive accomplish this feat, as well. All the stories featured seem to arc nicely, the beginning, middle and end are usually easy to identify in each one, and they all hold my attention to the end. That, of course, is the most important element in any story, long or short. It has to pull you in and hold you there from the first page to the last, regardless of the length of the story.
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Darkscapes is a top quality anthology of short stories put out by Curiosity Quills Press. I must say, this anthology delivers on the promise of the premise. The title says that the stories within may be on the darker side of things, where danger lays hidden beneath the layers of the mind’s eye. The cover image tells me I’m in for some rather unusual stories, ones that go to places which may defy logic. And, having read many books produced by Curiosity Quills Press, the fact that they published this book says it’s a collection of good quality, well-written stories. And that my friends, is exactly what I got – all of the above.
There are twenty-one stories contained in this collection, too many to be able to discuss all of them here. So, I will give you a brief overview of the six, yes six, stories which I deemed to deserve a five quill rating, meaning the authors of these stories have done an exemplary job of storytelling. Keep in mind that these stories are the best of the best in this collection, but all of them are good reading.
The first story in the anthology, Exley Avenue, is an extremely well-written ghost story of sorts, with a surprise ending. Going between the 1920’s and the twenty-first century, storytellers Jordan Elizabeth and W.K. Pomeroy unravel the unsavory history of the stone castle on Exley Avenue, when several bodies are uncovered on the premises.
Further into the collection is a cute noirish story, with an unlikely P.I. for a protagonist, which is sure to keep you chuckling until the end is Skeleton Jim, by J.R. Rain. Noir with humor is the only way to describe this bizarre tale. But, rest assured, Skeleton Jim always gets his man, (and the girl, for some reason). Things are no different when the client, Lucy Newman, hires him to find out if she killed her abusive husband, and who is blackmailing her, Jim may have his work cut out for him. No bones about it. (Skeleton humor. Har, har, har.)
Then, there is The Giovanni Effect, by Robert J. Defendi, an extremely well-crafted story with excellent world building. Readers will live this one. On a desert outpost planet where sand and wind are constants, Allred and his wife and child are the planets only occupants. They’ve always known others might come, but when a ship lands on the planet Allred is forced to put their emergency plans to the test. The planet’s harsh atmosphere may be the death of him, or it might just be his savior.
The forth story, Landing a Job in the Private Sector, by Rena Rocford, kept the pages turning with the best of them. Furies are conditioned assassins, but when Boxy, an enslaved fury acquires an organic ship that is loyal to her, and becomes a rogue mercenary, she learns that everything is negotiable, even under pressure.
The fifth five quill story is Out of Sight, by Mathew S. Cox. Sima is a street kid, who wakes up to find she’s been relocated to another planet and her pod crashed. She all alone, with no supplies, no clothes and no idea where she is. But then she discovers three other children who were sent here, as well, and she has more to worry about than just her own survival.
The One You Feed, by Katie Young was the last story in this collection to fall into my best of the best list. This was a well-written werewolf story, which left me wanting more. Dupree is haunted by more than just werewolves. As he spins his tale for the cowboy he just hired on with at the last rodeo, we learn more about the ghosts who haunt his past, and the curse that controls his future.
The above mentioned stories are, in my opinion, the best stories in this collection. However, they are all entertaining tales. I wouldn’t rate any of the stories in this collection with less than three quills. They really are that good. The smashing cast of talented authors whose work appears in this anthology also includes: Richard Roberts, Ann M. Noser, Randy Attwood, Nathan Croft, Tegan Wren, James Wymore, J.P. Sloan, Andrew Buckley, Darin Kennedy, J.E. Anckorn, Piers Anthony, B.C. Johnson, S.E. Bennett, Mark W. Woodring, and Benjamin Sperduto.
Overall, I give Darkscapes four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
Video Games and the Lost Art of Storytelling
by Jeff Bowles
I’m an avid gamer. I’ve played everything from Pac-Man and Halo to Zelda and God of War. As a child, I spent countless hours on the first home console my family ever bought, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and I’ve owned just about every major gaming platform released since.
I’m also a storyteller, which means I take keen interest in certain gaming industry trends. I’ve heard it suggested video games represent a great opportunity for writers today. Even in an industry dominated by online arena action shooters that feature little plot and the use of impersonal avatars instead of fully developed characters, writers are said to be very much in demand.
Independent job and project posting sites such as Upwork feature by-contract work for games from time to time, and small indy video game developers, which have flourished in recent years, are often much more receptive to unknown or burgeoning writers. If you’ve been stuck hawking short stories and one failed novel after another, it can be a great place to ply your talents.
Landing that kind of gig may be harder than it seems, however. The big developers like Bethesda Softworks, EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo tend to retain and reuse writers, so unless you’re a well-established author looking to diversify, you may be out of luck. It’s kind of a niche profession anyway, writing for video games, especially since more and more developers have eschewed classic storytelling techniques in favor of more style, more flash, and way more explosions.
Should this surprise us? Like Hollywood, the gaming industry seems to have recognized the public’s slackening attention span. Many of the most popular games released in 2016 featured incredibly robust multiplayer and not much else.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1, the top sellers of the year, both have single player campaigns that are more or less afterthoughts. Another top seller, Blizzard Entertainment’s highly popular Overwatch, exists entirely online, so if you’ve got a poor internet connection or you just don’t want to play against other people, the message seems to be man up or look elsewhere. Overwatch, by the way, is a hell of a lot of fun. Too bad I didn’t care about any of its characters or situations.
Not so long ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. Before high speed internet made online gaming feasible for the broader market, game developers rarely ever shipped titles designed just for multiplayer. Home consoles had at most four controller ports back then, which meant you either played a deep, engrossing single-player campaign or you challenged a few of your friends to combat right there on the couch. Gaming was a much more personal, sociable experience then. Lord, how I pine for the good old days of just ten years ago!
As the gaming industry advanced into the current generation of home consoles (the Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch, respectively), an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among consumers became evident. Players were demanding new experiences, expanded horizons, creative and interesting mechanics they’d never seen before. The result, I take it, is that the major developers decided en masse the premium they’d placed on storytelling would no longer serve them going forward.
I found some of the biggest games of the last five years nearly unplayable, simply because competition, blood and guts, and fierce rivalries tend to turn me off. Let’s be honest, in the new millennium fewer and fewer people appreciate good stories. The point for most gamers is not the dialogue or plot so much as the bullets and blood.
I think that’s unfortunate. Good developers recognize their medium is unique. The games that work best allow players to inhabit strange worlds and the skins of other people. Long-standing series such as the Deus Ex franchise, for instance, let players explore innumerable options and solutions to any given scenario or character interaction, thereby assuring a unique experience for everyone. As a point of reference, the latest Deus Ex game was a commercial failure, as were other similar titles. A lot of players feel they don’t have time to invest in long, drawn-out narratives anymore. They just want to drop in, shoot their friends a few times, and drop out.
Classic American gaming, by the way, has not gotten any less violent or offensive in light of this new direction. In fact, divorced from good storytelling, many modern games feel like slaughterhouses, inducing the kind of fight-or-flight panic usually reserved for life and death emergencies. Recently, after playing a frenzied bout of For Honor, a game that simulates medieval sword-based combat in full gory detail, I told my wife I didn’t know if I could take it anymore. A round of that game is like squeezing your heart through a meat grinder fifteen minutes at a time. The experience is intense, but is it particularly fun?
Congress of course has railed against the gaming industry for decades. Too violent, too distracting, and far too addictive. I admit it, I’m hooked. I’m a grown man who hasn’t gone a week without video games since I was five years old, and for the amount of money I’ve spent on all those discs, cartridges, and controllers, you’d think they’d chip in for a limited-edition headset for me or something. When it comes to it, I suppose good storytelling never did anything to offset the more depraved aspects of the medium. They did, however, induce in us the feeling we were part of something exciting and creative.
Now every time I pop a new game into my PlayStation, I have to consider the odds of actually enjoying it. Will I spend the whole time hunting other human beings? Will it contain anything resembling a story? Perhaps the indy movement has opened new doors for the creative potential of the industry—doors which may have otherwise remained closed, especially to writers—but the dominant trends today have adhered very closely to a pretty simple principle.
Like all forms of entertainment intended for mass consumption, the real test of a game is in how it makes us feel. A well-told story feels like nothing else on earth. Unfortunately, so does an hour of mayhem, death, and bare-knuckled survival. Hey gaming industry, bring back the good old days! I guess I don’t mind killing my friends needlessly, but do I have to kill my sense of story, too?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
Short stories carry the burden of telling the tale in few words, so they often sacrifice many of the qualities one finds in a novel length work, including details that fill in our mental picture for us, making readers work harder to gain a clear vision for the story. Another common complaint that I often voice is the fact that they are a brief glimpse into the character’s lives and don’t always have a complete story arc, making them feel incomplete, like there should be more. Such is the nature of the beast we call the short story. I have had to learn to expect these things when I’m reviewing short fiction, and not mark against the story for these faults alone. So, while I may comment on some of these qualities when reviewing anthologies or short story collections, they will not be the basis for lower ratings. Those will be based on the quality of the writing and how well the stories are crafted, just as they are with a longer work.
That being said, I found Gnarled Bones and Other Stories by Tam May to be a collection of highly crafted stories, with brief descriptions that skillfully put readers in the scene and allow them a clear vision of each story being told. Each story in this collection has heavy literary qualities and each carries the theme of empowerment, or the lack of it, in some way. Although most of them felt unfinished to me, they were none-the-less captivating, capturing my full attention during the brief snapshots I was allowed.
Along with Gnarled Bones, the story which sticks out most in my mind is The First Saturday Outing, which I enjoyed at first, but was later disappointed in, when the woman’s inability to empower herself and embrace her freedom became apparent, making the character, whom I’d been routing for, appear weak and inept.
Also to be found in this collection is Mother of Mischief, where Marie is driven by her need to look after and care for someone, drawn to mischievous men who need to be kept in line. Bracelets, where Isabelle, a circus acrobat is drawn to her circus family through the tragedy of a lion attack on a child. And, Broken Bows where, for Anne, a train ride becomes an act of defiance and two very different souls find one another briefly.
Along with theme, the stories in Gnarled Bones and Other Stories have other things in common, as well. Each has a female protagonist, each has literary qualities and feel, and each is well crafted to tell the story with skill and ability. I give it four quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.