Friday, May 29, 2009

The Jab

Short stories work very well if the opening jabs the reader. Often called “the hook,” this is when the first paragraph or two draws the reader further into the story (some argue that the jab should happen within the first sentence or two). Without such a device, your story may not see the light of publication or may be skipped over by readers even if it is published.

I used to think that jabs were unnecessary. Why must my story start out with a bang? I preferred to build the story slowly and eventually get into some more interesting plot later on. The problem with such thinking is that it isn’t what people want to read. This again goes back to my motto that if you’re writing for yourself, you should never be upset when you can’t get published because you’ve already reached your target audience.

I remember one of the first times I tried to come up with an effective jab in a story. I was thinking about the movie “Fight Club” and how it unfolds. For those who haven’t seen it, it begins with a climactic scene that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The narrator then decides to back up the story to an earlier point and begin again, and by that time, we’re already engaged in the movie. So keeping “Fight Club” in mind, I wrote the opening for what turned out to be my first sale. Here it is:

Before the final war with Uthov, I became one with the elves. It was the elves who gave me the name I now use. Beloved, they called me years later, further demonstrating their compassion rather than the more sinister attributes that were supposed to go along with elves (according to my mother).

But though I was beloved among the elves, this was not the life I wanted. It is what Onarre willed for me, I know now, but I had only one desire when I came to the elves. “Uthov has them now,” an elf told me, and the sound of that name has made my hands clench ever since. But the tale begins before this, so I must start anew.

(For those interested, the full story is still available here:

My tricks, if you will, are rather simple: I want to frame the story in general but leave readers with questions. My original opening started with the protagonist waking up and going about his business, but without a jab, there wasn’t much to keep readers interested.

Here’s a simple suggestion for those who wonder if their opening jabs readers: think in terms of Beethoven’s Fifth. Trust me, you’ve heard part of this symphony, even if you didn’t know what it was called (I found a clip of it on YouTube if you’re still not sure: It opens with four notes that can’t be ignored and leave the listener unsettled. Open your story in a similar manner: don’t leave things in a nice, neat package; force the reader to go on because it would be uncomfortable not to. Stories I stick with are stories that start out well. Stories I set aside are ones that haven’t made me care after the first few paragraphs (yes, I stick it out a little longer than some readers).

One word of caution, however: don’t overdo it. If you start by blowing readers out of the water, the rest of the story will be boring. Likewise, the entire story can’t be extremely heart-pounding from one sentence to the next, or it loses all flavor. If I shout at you for twenty minutes, my raised voice loses its significance. By contrast, if I speak in mixed tones for a while, you’ll especially notice when I shout.

Start jabbing.

This article is part of the Top Five Writing Improvement Articles:
1. Writing To Your Strengths Or Weaknesses – Should you write to your strengths or weaknesses? The answer varies depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
2. Writing Tools – As writers, we need to consider which tools will help us the most with our craft and have them at the ready.
3. The Callous Editor – To edit our own works well, we must divorce emotions from the process and make hard choices.
4. Writing Exercises – When thoughts seem locked up tight, try some exercises to get the sludge moving again.
5. The Jab – We need good openings to our stories, and this article shares some advice and an example from my own writing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Staffs & Starships #3

In the world of fantasy and science-fiction publications, there are numerous markets for short fiction, many of which seem to pass unnoticed by the general public. I would like to draw attention to one of the smaller markets that I came across about a year ago. A promising, quarterly magazine dedicated to “traditionally-inspired speculative fiction,” Staffs & Starships is one that I hope readers and writers take notice of.

Issue #3 is a mix of science-fiction and fantasy short stories, as expected. I liked the majority of the stories; the ones I didn’t care for might be more due to preferences than anything else, but I will elaborate further as I review each story in order of appearance. Certainly this magazine was well worth the cost of the issue (a paltry three dollars), so if you’re looking for some extra short fiction to read, try an issue of Staffs & Starships.

“In These Shoes” by Lindsey Duncan – The assassin Rosh returns to Tentril, a city she escaped from thirteen years ago. She struggles with her emotions when she confronts her former lover, Lord Sathren, and her hesitation to complete the job forces her into an undesired encounter with Sathren’s young sorceress.

This was one of the better stories in the issue. The narrative flowed well, and the plot fit together nicely without revealing anything early.

“Devolution of Life” by Tamara Wilhite – Mekah draws near to a world far beyond its home systems in order to establish life forms that its kind desires. Overcoming the obstacles of existing life forms proves to be a difficult task for Mekah and requires much more time than originally planned.

This story seemed to drag for quite a while and then blossomed into something I would either label as expected or clichéd. Mekah wasn’t enough of a character for me to react to in any way, so I grew apathetic towards its struggles.

“H +” by K. E. Spires – Unlike the other transhumans created from the genetic construct, Toymaker has a unique mind, one that allows it to reason and even disagree with the genetic construct. It desires to search for the reason of its uniqueness, but rather than travel alone, it injects a clone of itself into the construct in hopes that one day, the transhuman created from the clone will find its way to Toymaker so that they can begin the search together.

I was unable to grasp this science-fiction world. I could follow the plot, but there were so many strange concepts that I never felt rooted in what I was reading. It was like being unable to participate in a sport because the rules don’t make sense.

“The Kite” by James Bloomer – Over time, Fernando adds length to the string of his kite, allowing it fly to incredible heights. When his sister discovers him with it, he begs her not to reveal the secret to anyone, especially when a message descends to them along the kite’s string.

This was a compelling tale with an endearing protagonist. I enjoyed it.

“The Leftover” by James Hartley – An astronomer detects alien ships and seeks advice from Mentor Bartlo. Bartlo tries to delicately handle their first contact with aliens without upsetting the rest of the cluster, especially Priest Zezno, who reminds him that the very notion of aliens is blasphemous unless they have actual proof of their existence.

There is perhaps a bit too much foreshadowing at points and a hint of cliché, but the humor in the story more than makes up for those flaws. This was a fun read.

“Balesat’s Silence” by Betsy Dornbusch – Cursed or blessed by the god Balesat, depending upon whom is asked, Braedon carries the god’s fire within him and is able to unleash it upon anyone he chooses. Though titled the king’s Lord Virtue, Braedon only desires to stop the Armidian soldiers from inflicting sorrows upon their own country by their lawless deeds. The king desires peace as well and suggests that Braedon reconnect with Balesat, which only upsets Braedon further, for the god no longer speaks to him.

This was my favorite story of the issue. Well-written and engaging, with an interesting protagonist. I’d like to read more stories about Braedon.

“B is for Boy” by David Loel – Colum and his father live on the dirty world of Clarins where his father works in the shipyard, scrapping retired ships. As he approaches his sixteenth birthday, Colum tells his teacher and mentor that he’s ready to leave the planet, even if the best option is to enlist in the Space Corps for a ten year tour of duty.

I really liked this up until the end, where I couldn’t relate to what I was reading. It’s not that there was necessarily anything wrong with the ending; it just didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the tale from my perspective.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Blood of Ambrose

I recently finished reading “Blood of Ambrose” by James Enge, a novel I had been anticipating for quite some time. Like many readers of Black Gate, I’m always eager for another tale featuring Morlock the Maker. Even though Morlock is not the protagonist of Enge’s novel, I think Morlock fans will be pleased with his role.

Young Lathmar, a descendent of Morlock’s sister, Ambrosia Viviana, becomes the rightful heir of the Ontilian Empire after his parents die under mysterious causes. Too young (and perhaps unwilling) to take the throne, Lathmar finds himself with few supporters as his uncle, Lord Protector Urdhven, brings more soldiers under his own banner.

When Lord Urdhven arrests Ambrosia, her only hope is that someone will defend her through a trial by combat. Her brother Morlock becomes her champion, and so begins his involvement in supporting Lathmar as they attempt to overturn the Lord Protector’s reign. Yet things are not as simple as they first appear, for there is a darker power at work that aids Urdhven, an unknown entity they refer to as the Protector’s Shadow.

I enjoyed the characters of this novel. Morlock is a given, but Enge adds to the dynamics with other strong stand-outs: Ambrosia (whose centuries-old love for her brother allows for very pointed conversations and references to Morlock’s past), Wyrth (the humorous and wise dwarf who is Morlock’s apprentice), and Lathmar (the inexperienced protagonist we get to grow up with). Morlock’s character emerged more than I’ve seen in short stories, especially his internal struggles, adding to the complexities of an already enigmatic character.

The plot moves pretty quickly, and just when it seems to resolve into a simple package, everything becomes turned on its head, causing you to rethink everything. Well written, highly addictive and edgy. I’m really looking forward to the next novel coming later this year.

Incidentally, if any of the Morlock novels become movies, I think I would go in one of two directions for casting the role of Morlock. I’d either choose Hugh Laurie (best known for his role as Dr. House) or Brent Spiner (best known for his role as Star Trek’s Data).