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.
In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)
A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.
Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:
This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.
Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:
This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.
Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:
Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.
Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.
This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.
Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)
When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.
Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:
When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.
Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2
When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.
Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:
This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.
The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.
Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)
This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Distinguishing Between the Two:
Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening? To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.
If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.
Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.
One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.
Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:
There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.
A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.
Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.
Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.
While Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle is spending time with my alpha reader, I’ve been busy working on Book 2: In the Beginning. Now I know it seems strange name for a second book, but for this series, it’s actually quite fitting.
You see, Book 1 covers the time just before and after the Atlans arrival on Earth in prehistoric times, which result in a great battle between the Atlans and the monstrous creatures created by the angry Tiamat, Oldest of Old Ones. It is the story of how the Atlans came to be on Earth.
Book 2, on the other hand, takes place during Earth’s earliest civilizations. It explores Biblical times and even before, as well as visiting ancient Egypt and Minoan cultures. It looks at the beginning of time, hence the title, In the Beginning.
That said, I’ve finished the first draft for Book 2, and started on revisions. I guess maybe my writing process is a little weird. At Western, while earning my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, we talked a lot about our writing processes, and while everyone’s processes were different, I never found anyone whose process was like mine.
My first drafts are pretty rough, consisting mostly of the basic plotline. The basics of what happens in each chapter, so the way the story moves forward can be seen. Once, I have that down, I can go back and revise, adding description and action that helps the story move in each chapter, sharpening the image, hopefully, for readers. That’s where I am in the revision process now.
Before I send it off to my alpha readers, I’ll do another run through to check for repetition, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and eliminate unnecessary words. This is the pass that tightens up my writing to make it the best it can be before going to the alpha readers have a go at it.
Once I have it back with their comments, I may do up to three or four more passes, before I feel it’s ready to submit to publishers or agents. If all goes well, I will get Book 1 back from my alpha reader, which in this case may be a beta reader since I made revisions to the completed work after sending it out without raising any interest, about the time I have the final draft of Book 2 ready to send out for her scrutiny.
I think the main problem, possibly with both books right now, is a lack of emotion from my characters, which could result in a lack of emotional investment from readers. Identifying it as such is good, because if readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t continue reading. The challenge will be finding a way to fix it, so my readers will keep turning the pages. Fortunately, I found some great ideas for showing my characters’ emotions in a post titled Emotion vs. Feeling by David Cobett on Writer Unboxed.
The story is there. Now I just need to breathe life into it. That’s what writers do.
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