Friday, 30 December 2011

Friday Flash - A Different New Year's Eve

My New Year themed Friday Flash can be found over at my Fowlis Westerby blog - simply click here to read A Different New Year's Eve!

In the event you'd like to read a more vintage Icy New Year flash, then New Year's Dance, my story from last year, starring Captain Scarlight and Methuselah, can be found here.

Happy reading, and Happy New Year!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

National Novel Reading Month

John Wiswell has been discussing National Novel Reading Month over on his blog. January is the designated month, with the intention being that participants will finally dust over one of those classic novels they've had lurking on their shelves, and delve into literature the way it used to be. I suppose the definition of 'classic' is possibly somewhat flexible, but no, I don't think Bridget Jones' Diary or The Da Vinci Code count. I have to confess a particular fondness for Wilkie Collins having read The Moonstone a couple of years ago, and having just finished Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, I began his short story collection, The Haunted Hotel & Other Stories, just before Christmas. I'm probably two thirds of the way through the eponymous story, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Sadly, it doesn't count as a classic novel, so I'll just have to hope that I get it finished before long, so I can break open the 'proper' classic I shall be reading in January.

So what will that be? Well, I've had the intention to read it for some time, but providing I've finished reading the Collins collection, then I'm going to give The Time Machine a whirl. I've read War of the Worlds (naturally also by HG Wells - give yourself a slap if you didn't know that) and I enjoyed it, and I felt like it's about time I read some of his other work. After all, it's a science fiction classic, and I've seen various film adaptations, but I've never read the source work. I might not write sci fi but I certainly enjoy reading it, and I find it somewhat remiss of me not to have read it! If I finish it in time, then I'll finally get around to Jane Eyre. I've meant to read it for some time but I've always found something else I'd rather read, but after the many glowing reviews given it by my mother, I feel I should probably read it sooner rather than later.

What about you? Will you be joining in?

Monday, 26 December 2011

Photo Prompt 65

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 65th prompt is Tunnel of Light.

Light Tunnel

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Friday Flash - A Christmas Ghost in the Old West

There can’t be many things more welcoming than a roaring fire in the middle of winter. Snow lay heaped in piles outside, but we warmed ourselves in front of the small parlour’s hearth. A grandfather clock in the corner ticked away the minutes, and dull chatter floated through from the main bar of the saloon next door.

“My momma always brought a fir tree into the house for Christmas,” said Billy. His eyes shone with whisky’s fire, and he smiled. “My daddy thought it was dumb but my momma insisted. Said if it was good enough for Queen Victoria, it was good enough for her.”

“Mine too. Said that’s what everyone did back in the old country,” I replied. My mother was mighty keen on keeping that English tradition going, even in the middle of Arizona. I spent hours trekking through the woods up in the hills looking for the right tree.

“Christmas was the only time the whole family got together. Christmas, and funerals,” said Billy. “My uncle used to get us round the fire, and tell ghost stories. Say, do you know any?”

“I’m not sure I do,” I replied.

“You must know one! Come on, boss, it’d be just like my ol’ family Christmas.”

Billy stared at me with that wide-eyed smile of his, and what can I say? I couldn’t refuse.

“I can’t tell you stories, but I sure could tell you somethin’ strange as happened to me one year.”

“You seen a ghost?”

“I do believe I did. See, my grandma came over to America with my folks, and she always used to tell me stories. I never knew what was real and what she made up, but she always said the dead carry lanterns. Big ol’ heavy lanterns, with a flickering green light inside, so they can light their way to the other side.”

“That’s creepy.” Billy’s smile faltered, and he swirled the dregs of his coffee around his mug.

“That’s what she said. I never paid it no mind, she said all kinds of crazy things, y’know? Anyway. A few years back, I must’ve been about fifteen, I went up to the Apache lands to do some tradin’ for the town. I did my business, and headed back to town just after it got dark.”

I knocked back the last of my own coffee, feeling the warm gritty liquid slide down my throat. Billy stared at me, those whisky fire eyes eager for more of the story.

“I remember ridin’ back, the snow reflectin’ the moonlight so it was clear as day, when I saw someone by the side of the trail. When I got up close, it was a young woman, just standin’ there in the snow. Pretty little gal, though not a real beauty like Peggy Marsden. The little lady was just a shade too pale, her big eyes dark in that white face of hers.”

“What was she doin’ out there?”

“I asked her. She didn’t hear me at first, just looked at me like she’d never seen a man before. I asked her if she needed help, and eventually she said she was lost. She didn’t know her name or where she lived, so I offered to take her into town. She wouldn’t get on the horse, but just walked alongside, holdin’ on to the bridle.”

I shivered. I hadn’t thought about this in thirteen years, and come to think of it, Billy was the first person I’d told.

“We got down the trail, right to where it forks in two, and she just stopped. One road went to town, the other led to the river. A few folks had farms along the river road, and when she pointed to the signpost, I figured maybe she belonged to one of them, and she’d realised where she was.

“It took me a couple of minutes to realise she was pointing at the bottom of the signpost. Somethin’ lay in a heap, covered in snow. She kept starin’ at me, and jabbin’ her finger, so I got off the horse and looked. I think my heart stopped for a minute when I brushed the snow off a cold, dead face. The same face that belonged to the girl I found by the side of the trail.”

Billy gasped. I nodded, staring into the fire. The warmth of those flames did nothing to banish the chill I felt just thinking about that poor little lady.

“I turned to look at her, and she just stood there, starin’ down at me. She was finally lookin’ at me, instead of through me, and my heart just broke to see her lookin’ so sad. But afore I could say anythin’ she brought an old lantern from behind her back. A green flame flickered behind the glass, and she walked away from me. I kept watchin’ that flame until it disappeared into the night.”

“What did you do?” asked Billy.

“I dug her body out of the snow and rode into town. Told the marshall I came across her as I was ridin’ home. Turns out she’d been out lookin’ for a Christmas tree for her momma when a passin’ gang came across her. They dumped her body after they killed her.”

“That’s awful, boss,” said Billy. He stared into the fire. “Do you think she ever got to the other side?”

“I hope she did, otherwise that poor little gal’s still wanderin’ around out there.”

“I guess at least someone found her.”

“True. If I hadn’t found her then, she might’ve been there ‘til spring. As it was, a posse caught up with the gang. Some hung, some went to Yuma.”

Billy picked up his whisky.

“Little miss, if you’re listenin’, merry Christmas.” He raised a glass to the lost soul of Retribution. We toasted her journey to the other side, and drank in silence. I thought of her, and Peggy, and everyone else I’d known, and wished them all a merry Christmas too.

* * *

Merry Christmas from me and my bounty hunter, Grey O'Donnell! If you enjoyed this story, then his book, The Guns of Retribution, is available in Kindle format from Amazon US and Amazon UK, as well as in paperback.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Photo Prompt 64

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 64th prompt is Christmas Fairground.

LeicesterSquare2

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Beauty of the Barter

I've often lamented that I find it somewhat difficult to patronise actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops, something I'd dearly love to do if only it were possible. Newcastle City Centre boasts only two bookshops nowadays, both of which belong to chains and neither of which stock the books I require for my PhD, so I have little choice but to head to Amazon and buy online.

Of course, as much as I think it's important to spend money in actual shops, sometimes it's nice just to find somewhere to go to discover new books. Sure, libraries offer a vast array of books and it costs nothing to borrow, but what about those times when you don't want to have time constraints put on your reading, for fear of incurring overdue fines? Enter the second-hand bookshop.

I used to be a big fan of the Book and Comic Exchange in Notting Hill when I lived in London. You'd take in your old books, get 50p cash (or £1 credit, although that seemed to go down to 50p) and find new books. Obviously it's a bit far to go there these days, but living in the North East has a distinct advantage - the famous Barter Books is in Alnwick, home of Alnwick Castle (which stood in for Hogwarts' exterior in the first two Harry Potter movies).

Barter Books began way back in 1991 when Mary Manley opened a secondhand bookshop in the front room of Alnwick's old Victorian railway station. These days it occupies the whole building, and offers a range of books, both fiction and non-fiction alike, while a growing CD and DVD section has been added to meet demand. Some of the books are extremely old, some outdated, and others almost brand new, but the whole system works upon the idea of the "barter" - you take in a pile of your old books, and the shop issues you with a valuation receipt, which can be redeemed against new purchases. Anything they don't want they'll return to you. So today, I took in two huge carrier bags of books and got almost £20 of credit, which I spent immediately on books about film theory.

I can't actually recommend a visit enough. The fact it's in an old Victorian railway station is cool enough, and the trading principle is even better, but the choice available is by far its biggest selling point. The fiction covers most genres, sporting both well-known names and unknowns, and the non-fiction variety is brilliant. Sure, a lot of the books are massively out-of-date (don't expect any recent photography texts) and some of them are so old they probably need restoration, but you can find some real gems among the titles on offer. Indeed, the two film books I bought were cheaper to buy second-hand in Barter Books than they would be to buy second-hand through Amazon - and that was before I even cashed in the credit from the books I put in to barter.

Barter Books is a beautiful building, and it's got a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere, and I feel rather lucky to live in the same county as a shop dedicated to sharing books.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday Flash - Incommunicado

This is the last in my superhero series - for the time being, at least. I know everyone's been enjoying them but if I'm honest, I'm getting bored writing them, and you have to love what you write. Don't worry though, I'm sure I'll go back to the saga at some point. In the meantime, I give you...

Incommunicado

From: Icy Von Doom
To: Dr Online
Subject: CA
I note CA took the bait. Expect a postcard from Vegas soon.

From: Dr Online
To: Icy Von Doom
Subject: RE: CA
CA touched base yesterday with Miranda Sparkles. Has announced intention to switch his crime-fighting efforts to Monaco. News breaks tomorrow. Suggest WIN?

From: Icy Von Doom
To: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
Subject: Crime prevention
Good morning Barry,
We have received a communication that Captain Astounding is safe and well, but has decided that the Mediterranean community of Monaco could better use his expertise than our fair city. In the wake of his absence, please consider my Armed Response Division as being entirely at your disposal, should the need arise.
Ever your servant,
Icy

From: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
To: Mayor Parker
Subject: CA's disappearance
Had an email from Von Doom. Has offered us her armed response people now CA has gone. Suggest we take her up on her offer - better to have her on side.
BB

From: Mayor Parker
To: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
Subject: RE: CA's disappearance
Agreed.
P

From: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
To: Icy Von Doom
Subject: RE: Crime prevention
Icy,
Many thanks for your offer, have spoken to Mayor and he agrees with me, we would like to accept. Look forward to working with you.
All the best,
BB

From: Icy Von Doom
To: Dr Online
Subject: RE: CA
Stupid fools took the bait. Espionage team to be briefed and re-fitted as Armed Response Division asap.
Also, grant bonuses to PR team. Genius.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Guest Story - Cause for Complaint

I've got a bit of a treat for you today - instead of some insane rambling from me, I've got a very special guest story by Emma Newman! She's on a mission to release a year and a day of weekly short stories set in her Split Worlds universe, and this is the seventh story.

If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, you can find it here, and you can find links to all the other stories as they are released here. Or do what I did and sign up to the newsletter! You can contact Emma through the Split Worlds site or in the comments section if you'd like to host a story too.

Cause for Complaint

The clock mounted above the door chimed four, indicating an impending customer from the city of Oxenford.

"At least it's not one of the Londinium lot," the shopkeeper muttered, slipping his bookmark into place as the clock hands returned to marking one minute after nine o'clock.

The bell jangled as the door was thrust open. "Good morning sir," he smiled at the young man who strode up to the counter, face pink with anger. It happened to match the dandy's waistcoat beautifully, but the shopkeeper didn't remark upon it.

"I wish to make a complaint!" The young man punctuated his statement with a slap on the counter top.

The Shopkeeper removed his glasses to better peer down his nose. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me shopkeeper, I want to complain about that potion. It didn't work."

"That's impossible," the shopkeeper replied. "You must be mistaken."

The young man's rage made his sideburns quiver. "Mistaken! Don't you know who I am?"

"Of course I do sir. You are Xavier Rubiginosa-Rosa, third and youngest son of the esteemed Oxenford family, recognised by the Collegiate and held in high regard by the Chancellor. I've had the pleasure of serving your family and the residents of the Great Cities for several hundred years and I can assure you, in all that time I have never once had a complaint."

The Rosa spluttered. As a member of the Great Families he had superior status, but it was hard to recall when faced with the age and confidence of the owner of the Emporium of Things in Between and Besides.

The shopkeeper remained calm. "Perhaps you could explain why you perceive a problem, and I will endeavour to resolve the issue."

"So you admit there may be cause for complaint? Ha!"

"Not at all sir. Since the founding of this establishment, there have been five occasions upon which a customer came with the intention of complaining. Every time, the problem lay with either the interpretation or execution of instructions, or simply a poor choice of product for a certain set of circumstances, stemming from a lack of sufficient information at the point of sale. I can and will assure you, once again, the potion will have worked perfectly."

The Rosa blinked as he struggled to process the monologue. Over the centuries, the shopkeeper had perfected his delivery; providing just enough detail to make sense to the customer and delivered in just the right tone to lull them into a state of mild confusion. It usually resulted in a sale as the customer avoided the embarrassment of having to ask for something to be repeated. There had only ever been one person it hadn't worked on. The shopkeeper forced the thought of her to the back of his mind and listened to the young man.

"I followed the instructions perfectly and the girl it was intended for drank it all. It was mixed with orange juice, nothing else, as you said."

"I see. Go on."

The customer lowered his voice even though there wasn't another soul in the shop. "And it did the opposite to what I wanted. She started questioning my motives… realised I wanted to…" he cleared his throat, moving on, "and then she listed, with remarkable eloquence, all the reasons she would never want to spend another moment in my company. She said she'd never had such clarity and then she left."

Towards the end of the account the shopkeeper plucked out a spotless white handkerchief and polished his glasses. It was impossible for dust to land on the enchanted lenses, he simply wanted something to do as he realised something had gone horribly wrong.

"Does that sound like pliability to you?" The Rosa demanded, the memory of failure reigniting his anger.

The shopkeeper had no doubt the expensive potion would work. Either the Rosa had used it incorrectly, or had not used the correct potion. Then he remembered the other order he'd sent out yesterday afternoon. "Did you personally take delivery?"

"Yes, and I checked your delivery boy's marque. When will you admit you're at fault?"

"When there is no doubt," the shopkeeper replied. "Would you give me a moment to double-check the properties of the potion?"

The Rosa nodded, taking to pacing as the shopkeeper hurried to his back office. He pulled the cord that struck the hammer against the lamp, the clang waking the sleeping sprites trapped inside the glass globe. The tiny creatures flitted in panic, emitting their pure white light once more. The ledger confirmed the new delivery boy had been given two packages, one containing a pliability potion, the other an elixir of eloquence. As both orders were considered sensitive, the bottles had not been labelled, as requested.

"Bloody fool!" he hissed into the pages. He'd asked the Agency if he was fully trained, how could they let such an idiot enter his employ? He could feel a stern letter brewing.

The shopkeeper slammed the ledger shut, he'd have to placate not only the angry youth, but also the Lilium who'd received the pliability potion in error. Hopefully he hadn't needed that eloquence for anything important.

He went back into the shop, considering all he knew about the Rubiginosa-Rosa family and how best to exploit it. "I believe I have an explanation sir. I recall you describing the young lady as having red hair."

"Yes," he said. "Is that important?"

"And that she is of mundane descent, and indeed the potion was used in Mundanus?"

"Yes."

"Ahhh," the shopkeeper nodded. "I see what's happened. One of the reagents used in the potion is very sensitive, and can have extraordinary side-effects in a particular set of circumstances. The young lady must have dyed her hair, I understand it's very common in Mundanus these days, and should she be a natural blonde or brunette, well, the effects of the potion can be quite unexpected."

"Why didn't you make that clear when I ordered it?" The Rosa shouted.

"How could I do anything but assume you knew her hair colour sir, would you not have been offended if I'd asked?"

"I suppose so… gosh… you're telling me she isn't a natural redhead?"

The shopkeeper put on a mask of sympathy and appropriate embarrassment. "A most unfortunate way to discover such a thing sir, but yes, that's the only explanation. The side-effect may have inadvertently saved you from investing too much time in one unworthy of your attention."

"Gosh," he repeated, tugging at his cravat as he considered the horror.

"Perhaps a soothing bath in restorative salts would be in order. I'm happy to sell you these," he lifted a box down from the shelf near the counter, "at half price, as a gesture of goodwill so we can put this unpleasantness behind us. These are infused with delicate new hope and a soup├žon of optimism. Just the ticket I feel. Yours for the reduced price of a sigh of disappointment."

The Rosa nodded, no doubt he had plenty of them. The shopkeeper caught the sigh in a silk bag insulated with eider down and apple tree shavings, tying it quickly.

"Thank you shopkeeper," he said, watching him wrap the box in brown paper and tie it with string. "I'm terribly sorry about the shouting earlier."

"All forgotten," the shopkeeper smiled. "Do come again."

Shortly after the Rosa left, the clock chimed four. He wondered if it was an angry Lilium with the expected complaint, but a lady entered instead. Upon seeing the empty shop, she rushed to the counter, tears streaming down her cheeks. He recognised her as the Lilium's betrothed.

"Shopkeeper," she sniffed. "I need something for a broken heart."

"Oh?"

"My love has been sent to India for twenty years! He was certain he'd be able to talk his father round but… but the words failed him, he said."

"Oh dear," he said as sympathetically as he could whilst filled with relief. Even if he'd realised what happened, the Lilium was unable to do anything about it. "I'm sure I have something that will help. And please, do stop crying. Time and reasonably priced magic heal all wounds."

Monday, 12 December 2011

Photo Prompt 63

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 63rd prompt is Christmas Tree.

Tree

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Why I Suck At Marketing

I've been posting regularly to my Blunt Pencil for a while now, and after much thought, I've decided I don't want my blog to be nothing but flash fiction or posts about writing. I'd like to start sharing more about my experiences as a writer - you never know, maybe you'll be feeling the same way and we can all offer each other support. Plus, I think it's about time I starting admitting to a little vulnerability, don't you?

Well, I was at an event on Saturday night where I had an opportunity to try and sell a few copies of my pulp Western, The Guns of Retribution. A grand total of two were sold, and it's really made me examine just why I'm so appalling at self-promotion. I mean, who better to sell my story than me? The only person who knows it better than I do is the main character, and unless I get a ouija board out, Grey isn't going to be talking to anyone any time soon. I should be able to walk up to someone and start talking about my book...but it's not that easy, is it?

The first stumbling block is the fact that I'm abysmal at engaging strangers in conversation. I was never the most gregarious of folk to start with but seven years of living in London have conditioned me not to speak to those I don't know. I don't find myself to be in the best position to recommend myself, and the idea of randomly walking up to someone fills me with a small degree of alarm. Of course, it's all about context. Were I to be walk into a knitting group, and find myself among a group of film scholars, things would be different, but to walk up to someone with the intention of trying to sell something? Well, that just brings us onto the second stumbling block.

I'm not the type of person who likes to harrass people about what I do. I see some people in my Twitter stream who seemingly post nothing but tweets reminding us of the availability of their book, and after a while it becomes white noise. Sure, I'll post occasional links to my own stuff but I don't want my Twitter account to become the cyber equivalent of the incessant TV ads that go from "mildly annoying" to "downright abhorrent" due to the frequency with which they are aired. I like to talk to new people on Twitter because I like the conversational side of it, and if they happen to buy a book after chatting to me, then great. But to start talking to someone with the sole intention of selling something? Eek.

The problem is, I know it has to be done. The Guns of Retribution won't sell itself. I can tell you that it's a story about a young man named Grey O'Donnell, who flees his native Arizona after a run-in with the local heavies, only to return six years later as a fully-fledged bounty hunter on the trail of a murderer. His path crosses that of Jasper Roberts, his former adversary, who is now the crooked sheriff of his hometown, Retribution. Roberts has no intention of letting Grey get away from him for a second time, and a collision course is set between the two. I can tell you that it's got train robberies, shoot outs, hangings, fist fights and a femme fatale. I can ask you not to be put off by the fact it's a Western, and rather to view it as an action tale set in the Old West.

Or I can point you towards what others have said. Paul D Brazill described it as "a joy, containing all the action and adventure of an old school western", while Heath Lowrance called it "a strong Western full of action, honor, betrayal, and fast guns". Old West maestro Edward A. Grainger even said "If you buy one book today, make it The Guns of Retribution". Pulp Serenade gave me this wonderful review, the highlight being "The Guns of Retribution is at its best when the excitement runs high. There’s a visceral, tangible element to Sedgwick’s writing that gives the story added punch."

So why can't I market my own book? Obviously it's something I'll be working on in the New Year, particularly as I work on the sequel, but how about the rest of you? Anyone got any hints or tricks they use when promoting their work?

Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday Flash - Where is Captain Astounding?

City superhero, Captain Astounding, has gone missing just days after we published his opinion piece, beseeching the good people of this City not to fall for Icy Von Doom's recent recruitment drive. The alarm was raised yesterday evening after two separate incidents saw the use of the A Signal, with no response from the Captain. Police were forced to contain an armed robbery at the City Bank and a riot at the City Prison with no assistance from Captain Astounding. Two scheduled appearances, at the City Library and City General Hospital, were also cancelled after the Captain failed to arrive.

"It is a matter of some concern, yes. We had the signal lit on two separate occasions and there was no sign of him. We have no other way of contacting him. We didn't even want to make it public knowledge due to the security risks involved but we hope that someone may have information," said Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers. "If anyone has seen anything, or knows anything, then we ask they come forward."

Gossip columnist Miranda Sparkles has suggested that Icy Von Doom may have had a hand to play in Captain Astounding's disappearance, describing the villain's alarming animal squads as being "the perfect disposal method". However, the supervillain has been away from the city on a research trip in the south Pacific for several days, and her Corporation strenuously deny her involvement.

"We can categorically state that Ms Von Doom has had no involvement with the disappearance of Captain Astounding, and she wishes his speedy and safe return along with the rest of the City's population," said Von Doom's righthand woman, Dr Online. "Though personally, I think it's a shame that Captain Astounding is incommunicado. After all, the winner of the £136million lottery jackpot has also disappeared and the City needs the Captain's expertise in locating the missing man."

We will bring you more on this story as it develops, but any citizens with any information on the disappearance of the Captain are to contact the police immediately.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

12 Days of Christmas

Illustration - Copyright Icy Sedgwick
I'm a big fan of Writer's Digest, and I got an email yesterday summing up their latest posts. This one in particular caught my eye - a 12 day plan of simple writing exercises! A kind of "Twelve Days of Christmas" for writers, if you will.

I'll post them in full below if you don't want to follow the link, but I think I'm going to try doing each one. The Twelve Days of Christmas actually begin on Christmas Day, and lead to 5 January (also known as Twelfth Night, the day on which your decorations should come down) but I'm going to work the other day, and start on December 13, with an exercise per day to end on Christmas Eve! I might post them, I might not, but at least it should get me writing.

Who's with me?!

The 12-Day Plan of Simple Writing Exercises

Day 1: Write 10 potential book titles of books you’d like to write.

Day 2: Create a character with personality traits of someone you love, but the physical characteristics of someone you don’t care for.

Day 3: Write a setting based on the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen.

Day 4: Write a letter to an agent telling her how wonderful you are.

Day 5: Write a 20-line poem about a memorable moment in your life.

Day 6: Select a book on your shelf and pick two chapters at random. Take the first line of one chapter and the last line of the other chapter and write a short story (no more than 1000 words) using those as bookends to your story.

Day 7: Write a letter to yourself telling you what you need to improve in the coming 6 months.

Day 8: Rewrite a fairy tale from the bad guy’s point of view.

Day 9: Turn on your TV. Write down the first line that you hear and write a story based on it.

Day 10: Go sit in a public place and eavesdrop on a conversation. Turn what you hear into a short love story (no matter how much you have to twist what they say).

Day 11: Write the acknowledgments page that will be placed in your first (next?) published book, thanking all the people who have helped you along the way.

Day 12: Gather everything you’ve written over the previous 11 days. Pick your favorite. Edit it, polish it and either try to get it published or post it on the Web to share with the world. Be proud of yourself and your work.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Photo Prompt 62

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 62nd prompt is Sunrise.


All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Friday Flash - Opinion Piece

In recent years, the streets of our fair city have been a battleground in the ongoing fight between Captain Astounding and Icy Von Doom. Last week we ran a feature detailing a Day in the Life of a Henchman after Von Doom granted us access to one of her newest employees, hired following a recent recruitment drive. In the interests of equality, today we hand over the reins of our Opinion Piece column to Captain Astounding, to let our favourite hero have his say about the growing influence of the Von Doom Corporation.

Dear Citizens,

I have battled evil in this city for a little over a decade, fulfilling my sworn duty to fight the good fight on behalf of the decent people who make this place their home. I work tirelessly to combat the malice and mayhem caused by Icy Von Doom, and I will not rest until she has left this city for good. Unlike Von Doom, I do not rely on an army of henchmen, minions and disposable assistants to run my operation. I work solo, confident in my own abilities, and both capable and willing to lay my life on the line for the greater good.

I have read her lies propagated throughout the media, and I read the recent "Day in the Life of" piece with alarm. How easy would it be for the unemployed of this city to fall for the allure of a job, even one with so high a risk, and for such a morally dubious character? To the jobless, or out of luck, please, resist the temptation. Yes, she promises a good salary, a respectable holiday allowance, and career progression. Yes, she offers a range of employment opportunities, tailored to the skills of the individual. But she also offers an early and often painful death, or serious injury. Do you think she will continue to support you as an employer when her hydra tears off your arm, leaving you unable to work?

Can you really look into your soul and tell yourself that you have no qualms about working for the woman responsible for the Great Komodo Dragon Invasion of '09, a terrifying period that saw the deaths of 12,438 people? Need I remind you of the Siren Song Contest, sponsored by the Von Doom Corporation, which saw 813 men leap to their deaths from the City Bridge? Surely you all remember the Army of Furies she unleashed upon the city last year? Parts of the city have never recovered, and it breaks my heart to see the damage caused at the centre of our community.

Icy Von Doom claims that she stands against big business, and that she seeks to further the research goals of technology and science through her Corporation. Yet her Corporation has become big business, pulling in millions through research funds. How can we guarantee that her scientific or technological advances will not be used to bring the entire city under her control, turning us all into mindless minions? I for one will not allow that to happen.

Yet I cannot do this alone. I need to know that you, the hard-working and fair-minded citizens of our metropolis, will not fall, buckle or sway, will not believe the lies and hype, and will not turn themselves over to Icy Von Doom, the greatest threat to our population since cholera.

Stand with me, and good will prevail.

Always your servant,
Captain Astounding

Thursday, 1 December 2011

[Book Review] The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles

If you see a book on Amazon with 50 5* reviews, you're expecting a good read. Thankfully, Edward A Grainger knows how to deliver. The first volume of the Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles is described as "western noir", and features seven short stories about two deputy U.S. Marshals working in 1880s Wyoming Territory. Cash Laramie is the rebel with a cause, the marshal raised by Arapahos and eager to see justice done, while Gideon Miles is one of the first African American marshals, handy with both blades and firearms.

The stories are extremely well-written, with Melanie and The Bone Orchard Mystery as two of the stand out tales in the collection. As with Under the Sun, Grainger is unafraid to keep his marshals in the sidelines to let other characters take centre stage, and its credit to the strength of his character-building that this even works. Cash is gruff but fair, while Miles is warm and likeable. They're hardly good cop/bad cop, but rather just two partners out to make their world a better place. His world-building is also impeccable, with 1880s Cheyenne leaping from the electronic page with all its sights and sounds.

I know some people will probably pass over these stories saying "I don't like Westerns" but please, put your preconceptions about John Wayne or Clint Eastwood to one side and give them a go anyway. Think of them as short crime stories set in the Old West, or historical noir, but just give them a try before you decide against Westerns!

Five blunt pencils out of five!

You can buy The Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles Vol. 1 from Amazon US for a paltry $1.38 or from Amazon UK for 86p!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

End of NaNoWriMo

Hooray, it's now the 30th November, and the official last day of NaNoWriMo. How many words did you write? Did you even compete? If you didn't, so what? It's not compulsory and for many writers, EVERY month is NaNoWriMo. If you did take part, then huzzah! You've now entered a club full of people who are mad enough to devote an entire month to word counts, mad writing scrambles, and a Devil-may-care attitude to writing. It's liberating, in a way, to know that you're just getting the words down, and that the editing won't begin until December.

How many words did I manage? Well as we all know, I started work on my Parrots and Piracy collection to give me something to do since I found myself eager to take part on 31 October. Trouble was, I was in completely the wrong mindset to write the stories, and I gave up after 2000 words. You see, my bounty hunter, Grey O'Donnell, has been tugging at my attention. On Monday night, I did some more work on the outline for my next book, and yesterday I actually started writing one of the early scenes (nope, not the first scene, I'm not writing the initial scenes in order and no, I don't know why that seems like a good idea). I'm really pleased with the reception my pulp Western, The Guns of Retribution, had, and judging by the feedback on Twitter, it seems like there is interest in a sequel. As I've said before, things will take a more supernatural twist in this one, which is making this somewhat more fun to write. Grey is currently taking great delight in making plot suggestions, too.

But am I sad I didn't finish NaNoWriMo? No, not really. I "won" in 2008 and 2010, with my Cavalier ghost story and superhero noir story respectively, so it seems that odd-numbered years just aren't my year when it comes to writing 50,000 words in a month. I always knew it was a long shot so I'm not going to beat myself up about it, especially since I've been spending this month settling into a new job, working on my teaching qualification, and really gearing up to do my PhD (which is coming along swimmingly, by the way). I know a lot of writers always say "Oh but no one REALLY has time to do NaNoWriMo but we MAKE time to do it", and in that case, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day, and when your heart's not in it, then there's no use in trying to force something to happen.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Photo Prompt 61

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 61st prompt is Dolls.

Matryoshka doll

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday Flash - A Day in the Life of a Henchman

Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted a peculiar job advertisement among our employment pages several weeks ago. Supervillain Icy Von Doom is currently on a recruitment drive following her recent epic clash with our homegrown hero, Captain Astounding. Despite the heavy casualties sustained by her legion of henchmen, the self-styled Mistress of the Macabre has allowed us access to one of her newest recruits to explain the benefits of a career move into Henchmannery. Philip Thompson, 27, is a former stock broker from Surrey, and is now a trainee Handler in Von Doom’s Creatures Division.

“I’d worked in the City on the trading floor but after a company restructure, I was made redundant. I’d been out of work for six months when I saw the ad. I don’t know what made me apply, but after sending out ten to fifteen applications a day, I thought it was worth a shot. They had me in for an interview the same day, and I was interviewed by Ms Von Doom’s right hand woman, Dr Online. She was really nice. She asked how my work experience made me ideal for a job as a henchman and the minute I said I'd worked for a major hedge fund, she went to fetch Ms Von Doom.

“I had to undergo various fitness tests but they’re nothing strenuous. The mental aptitude tests were fairly easy, though I was a little uneasy when I had to do the swimming exam in a shark tank. Luckily they’d just been fed so they were fairly docile. Ms Von Doom has a real menagerie of animals and I’ve always been pretty good with pets, so they’ve put me on a training program within the Creatures Division.

“My day starts at 7am when I get up, and head to the gym. We all have to train for a minimum of forty minutes before we do anything else. It really gets you pumped up for the day ahead. After training, I go for breakfast with all the other new recruits. The food’s not bad, which is ironic since the poor quality of service station food was one of Ms Von Doom’s first diabolical schemes.

“After breakfast, we all go our separate ways and head to our separate Divisions. Some of the guys in my dorm work in Inventions, and others work in Research and Development. There are a lot of opportunities for progression if anyone notices that you’re any good. Your salary goes up every time you’re promoted, and an extra day’s holiday per year is also added.

“My usual day starts at around 9am, and I muck out the animals first. The Komodo Dragons are a pain – they’re quite friendly but they like to nip, and their bite is poisonous, so you have to remember the Kevlar overalls.  The griffin chicks are my favourite, they’re like balls of golden fluff at the moment, but they’ll be huge when they grow up.

“I spend the day helping the experienced handlers, feeding the creatures and learning how to handle them. Ms Von Doom currently has around twenty species already known to man, but there are five experimental breeds. I’ve already mentioned the griffins, but I’m not keen on the Hydra. The handlers say it’ll behave in time but it seems incapable of following orders. I think the different heads can’t agree with each other.

“The day finishes at 5pm and we all gather in the cinema to watch inspirational films. The current one is Mystery Men – Ms Von Doom is a big fan of Casanova Frankenstein. We usually have our evening meal at around 7pm, and we always start with a two minute silence to honour our fallen comrades. Ms Von Doom knows all of our names and she adds them to the Memorial Wall in the central hall. I don’t think she does it personally but she does order it done.

“We go back to our dorms after the evening meal and we’re expected to study before lights out. Obviously the trainees in the Brute Force Division don’t have much studying to do but they’re not all that bright to start with. We don’t mix with them much so I don’t know what they actually do other than behave like thugs. It’s weird that Ms Von Doom would employ people like that when she’s got such a range of scientific Divisions but it’s not my place to question her methods.

“I’ve been with the Company now for five weeks, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. The other trainees are all great, and the experienced Henchmen are tough, but fair. It’s always sad when a mission goes wrong and one of your friends doesn’t come back, or you get the news that something they’ve tested has backfired, but we all know the risks when we sign the contract. That’s why no one has stopped to question why the benefits package doesn’t include a pension plan.

“Sure, it’s dangerous, and there’s a good chance I won’t reach 30, but I’ve never had so much fun, or felt so valued by an employer. We’re still recruiting, so give it a shot. You never know, you could end up on Ms Von Doom’s personal staff.”

If you’re interested in joining Icy Von Doom’s Company, send your letter of application outlining your experience and salary expectations to icy_von_doom@supervillain.com.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

NaNoWriMo update

It's November 22 and after today, NaNoWriMo participants have just eight days to hit the 50,000 word mark before the 2011 competition comes to a close. Judging by the word counts I've seen on Twitter, a lot of people are cracking along nicely.

Now, I posted a while back about how I was intending to write short stories for my Parrots & Piracy project. I got about 1600 words into the first story, in which Captain Scarlight and Methuselah encounter the dastardly highwaywoman Lizzie Quinn, and then I totally lost interest in what I was doing. Unfortunately, I need to be in the right frame of mind to write my Parrots & Piracy stories and right now, I'm not. Too much has surfaced in the dreaded Real Life and I just haven't been able to fit it in. I know people will cite the importance of a structured writing plan or schedule but sadly things aren't always so cut and dry. So I'm putting the stories to one side until I'm in a better state of mind to work on them.

More importantly though, I've been more concerned with working on the sequel to The Guns of Retribution - I'm more excited about writing that, so my priority has been to get the outline finished. While the first book was a pulp Western about revenge and comeuppance, the second one is more of a supernatural tale that pits Grey O'Donnell against forces more savage than a cruel sheriff. I don't have a title yet but I'll keep you posted as to my progress.

I did a post over on Write Anything about NaNoWriMo and how to defeat the detractors, but what I'm interested in is how is everyone else getting on with their novels?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Photo Prompt 60

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 60th prompt is Nero.

Let sleeping lions lie

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday Flash - Situation Vacant

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Public Domain Characters

I came across this rather fascinating post over on Fuel Your Writing about using public domain characters in your work. These are characters whose copyright has passed into the public domain, and are moreorless "up for grabs". Think of the novels of Jasper Fforde, or the retold fairytales that Gregory Maguire made popular (and whose novel, Wicked, spawned a musical). We couldn't have those endless literary remixes without them (though the jury is still out on whether or not that's a bad thing).

I understand the reasons for using them (built in audience, pre-existing mythology) as much as I understand the reasons for not using them (risk of upsetting existing fans, difficult to use them without it seeming gimmicky). Heck, I've even enjoyed reading them - I love the novels of Jasper Fforde, and I grudgingly admire what Alan Moore did with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I've only written such a story once - my Deathmatch escapade, in which I pitted Dracula against Edward Cullen. I did it for a giggle, but I'd never want to write a full-length novel using someone else's characters.

I've got two reasons, really. First of all, I know these characters are all well outside of their copyright and their creators are long gone. As much as I imagine Mr Darcy, Vampyre had Jane Austen spinning in her grave, realistically speaking, the author can't get cross about what I've done as they're not around to complain. Having said that, I'd be really uncomfortable with the idea of someone inserting Grey O'Donnell, Liss Hunt, Fowlis Westerby, or any of my other characters into their work. I guess it's a little possessive but my characters are either facets of myself, or characters who choose to work with me. So I guess I don't use other people's characters because I wouldn't want people to use mine.

But secondly, I like inventing my own characters. I can enjoy reading the stories of Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Elizabeth Bennett, but they're not my characters. I can get to know them but I'll never know them inside out the same way that their creators do. So no matter what I might have these characters do, they'll only be refractions of the originals, viewed through my own particular matrix of experiences, prejudices and beliefs. With my own characters, I have all the fun of getting to know them, and even if I don't like them, at least I understand them. Besides, inventing backstory is one of the most entertaining things a writer can do (even if most of what they create never makes it into the book)

What about you? Would you use public domain characters in your work?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Story Structure - Pulp

If you follow me on Twitter, among the copious tweets about who I would hire to provide the voice for my supervillain car (John Hurt and Mark Strong are the front-runners thus far but I'm sure I could accommodate Nathan Fillion) or my constant pleas to Hollywood to just GIVE THE SHAKY CAM A BLOODY REST, then you might have noticed a recent "wobble" in my normally impeccable self confidence [sic].

I realised that if I'm not posting writing prompts or Friday flash stories, then the rest of my blog posts are either book reviews or "writing advice". Now, I'll be honest with you. I do suffer from crippling self-esteem problems. I do get rattled by negative reviews. I do tie myself up in knots over whether or not people will be entertained by what I've written. So when I tried to think about what to dispense in the way of writing advice, I suddenly thought "Hang on, who the hell are you to tell people how to write?" It really bothered me. I mean, it's not like I'm Stephen King, is it? Still, as various valued tweeters pointed out, I have put out two books on my own that received good reviews, and I had my beloved Guns of Retribution published by the ever-awesome Pulp Press, so while I may not be anyone special, perhaps I can share something I've learned along the way.

One of the things I have learned is that story structure is probably the single most important thing that you can master. Dialogue, character, theme - these are all vital to the success of your story, but without a strong structure in which to place them, it's all just dust in the wind, dude. Normally I would cite Larry Brooks' Story Engineering or James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure at this point - they're both excellent books and I highly recommend them both for really getting your head around why successful stories work, and how you can give your own stories a fighting chance. Yes, there is a reason that books that may seem to be badly-written, predictable or full of crap characters still succeed, and it all comes down to how the story unfolds.

The reason I said "normally" is because there are other ways. Bell reduces structure to three acts; the first act sets up the plot, introducing us to the protagonist, and establishing their world. Act two begins when some sort of defining incident occurs, pushing the protagonist forward. Bell describes this point as being a doorway of no return - something happens to prevent the protagonist from returning to their previous way of life. Act two is the main bulk of the action, but there's still the possibility they could walk away. Finally, we reach another propelling incident pushes them into act three, an incident which forces them to put into action any plans they've made, or do whatever it is they have to do. It's a solid structure, and it works. Brooks breaks it down even further into hooks, plot points, midpoints, and Lord knows what else - I won't sport with your intelligence by breaking it down further, but the book really does explain a lot.

But there is another way. In 1904, Lester Dent was born in Missouri. In 1929, he sold his first story to Top Notch magazine. He became a hugely successful pulp author throughout the 1930s and 40s, writing all but twenty of the 181 Doc Savage novels about an adventure character who attained near-superhero status. Dent's Master Fiction Plot, also known as the Lester Dent Formula, is often given as an alternative plot for pulp stories of around 6000 stories. In it, Dent splits the plot into four, not the traditional three.

In the first quarter, we are introduced to the hero, along with his mystery (or whatever suits the genre). He has an initial attempt at sorting things out - and fails. Somewhere near the end of the first quarter, he ends up in trouble (usually physical conflict) and there is a twist in the plot. In the second quarter, more grief is heaped onto the hero - he struggles on, leading to another conflict, and another plot twist. The third quarter sees more grief for the hero, although he manages to make some kind of headway before he ends up in yet more conflict, and has to cope with another twist. The final quarter sees the hero really neck deep in the brown stuff, although he manages to free himself either through skill or strength. He heads off to solve the mystery and navigate the final plot twist.

Naturally that all seems a little formulaic but hey, he was writing pulp fiction. If you're interested, check the actual article out. The Master Plot is supposed to apply to 6000 word stories, but I used it when I wrote One Woman Cure for the forthcoming For Books' Sake anthology, Short Stack, and I even applied it (albeit loosely) to The Guns of Retribution. Why? Well, as much as The Guns of Retribution might be a Western, it is also a pulp Western, and as such subscribes to the conventions of the pulp genre (e.g. the femme fatale). I won't be using the pulp plot for the as-yet-unnamed sequel, but that's because I'm going down a supernatural route with this one, and I think that demands a more traditional structure. But I want to write more pulp in future, so I won't rule out using it again.

All I'm trying to say is that structure is important, but it's also something to be explored. Whether you use three acts, three acts and a crapload of points in between, or quartiles, find a structure that works for your story and stick to it. Your readers will thank you.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Photo Prompt 59

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 59th prompt is Living Statue.

Living Statue

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Friday Flash - Remembrance

"Gran? Gran, are you up here?" Sara poked her head around the door.

"Yes, dear. By the window."

Sara pushed the door open and stepped into the attic. Dust motes swirled in the pale sunlight cutting across the floor from the small window in the sloped roof. Her grandmother sat hunched in a battered old armchair, a mug of tea in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other.

"What are you doing up here by yourself?" asked Sara. Moving between the teetering piles of junk, she spotted an open shoebox beside the chair. Old photographs and scraps of paper, yellow with age, spilled onto the floor.

"The same thing I do every year on 11 November. Say, do you remember when your granddad died, and I had to move in here? I brought all of those old boxes?" asked her grandmother.

"Yeah – Dad wanted to chuck them but you wouldn't let him."

"No, I wouldn't. These are very special, Sara. I got these from my mother just before she died in '73. They belonged to your great-great-grandmother." Sara's grandmother held out the square of paper. Sara took it and turned it over. Spidery handwriting in faded ink covered the paper. She held it up to the light and squinted.

"I can't read it properly."

"Of course you can't. I'm surprised you kids even know how to do proper handwriting any more." Sara's grandmother pursed her lips.

"We use computers now.”

“Yes, and what will you have to show for it? You can’t keep emails in a box, or treasure your tweet thingies forever.”

“So who was she writing to?" asked Sara, keen to avoid another of her grandmother’s Luddite lectures. To make a point, she peered down at the handwriting. She thought she could make out the date. Nineteen-something?

"That one's actually by your great-great-grandfather, Harry Robson. He wrote that one on 8 November 1917. Two days after the end of the Battle of Passchendaele."

"Where's that?"

"Good God, girl, what do they teach you in school these days? It was also known as the Third Battle of Ypres."

"He was in the army? Wow, that's the First World War, isn't it? I didn't know we had any soldiers in the family." Sara stared at the letter, her mouth hanging open with awe.

"We don't. Harry was a stretcher bearer. Poor man had to run out into No Man's Land to collect the wounded. I don't like to even imagine the horrors he saw. He certainly didn't tell my grandmother about them."

"Have you got a photo of him?"

Sara's grandmother flicked through the photographs in her hand. She held out a small snapshot, the scratched sepia and torn edges trembling between her fingers. Sara looked at the proud young man in the photo, his arm around a smiling young woman. A small boy played with a ball at their feet. The young man had the same eyes as her grandmother.

“The little boy is your great-grandfather, Jack. That was taken just before Harry left for the front in 1917 so Jack must have been about six.”

“Why do you look at these every year?”

Sara’s grandmother held up a crumpled letter. She smoothed the paper against her knee and cleared her throat.

11 September 1918. My dearest Florence, I do not have long, but I could not rest another day without writing a reply to your last letter. Not a day goes by when I do not think about you, and how you are coping without me. At least you have little Jack for company until I return. 

As to the men and myself, we have had many successes this week, but also many losses. I fear each day that I shall lose my humanity, and cease to be moved by the plight of those I bear on my stretcher, but each day I remember to thank them for their sacrifice. I do not envy them their task, although I am sure they do not envy me mine. Can you believe that I have done this for a year?

"However, I have extra reason to thank them, for it is their bravery that keeps our dear little England free. Free for you, and for Jack. It is thoughts of you both that keeps me going, and I am sure it will not be long before I am back with you both. Until then, my love to you both, as always. Yours eternally, H.”

“That’s really nice,” said Sara. She thought of the boys in her class at school, and the crude graffiti that covered their notebooks. She couldn’t imagine any of them penning such a letter.

“It is. This is why I look at these every year. Everyone remembers the fallen, and pays their respects, but I like to remember who and what we lost in my own way.”

“Who we lost?”

“Harry wrote that in a rare break during the Allied Hundred Days Offensive. A week later, he was killed by shrapnel. He, like so many others, never came home,” replied her grandmother. The old woman fixed Sara with a stare. “So just you remember that.”

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

[Review] Shadow of a Dead Star

I first encountered Michael Shean on Twitter, and after several jolly conversations, decided that I'd check out his blog. I did so, to discover he had a book for sale (this is why you should engage me in conversation - it makes me much more interested in what you're actually working on). Shadow of a Dead Star is the first book in his Wonderland cycle, in a genre I can only describe as cyberpunk sci-fi noir.

Set in Seattle in 2078, Shadow of a Dead Star follows Industrial Security Bureau agent Thomas Walken. Walken is the grizzled, cynical hero who fights to keep black-market technology from making its way into the mainstream. When he intercepts a smuggled shipment of little girls hardwired as sex toys, he finds himself tumbling down the rabbit hole into a nightmarish world of synthetic humans, hard-talking hackers and the kind of technology you thought only existed in Blade Runner.

Surrounded by conspiracies and caught on the run between three sectors of Seattle, each as brutal as the other but in completely different ways, Walken's resolve, abilities and strength are severely tested. He's not entirely on his own as his world crumbles around him - fate sends him Bobbi, a sparky young hacker with a sharp tongue and impressive tech skills. Question is, can Walken and Bobbi get to the bottom of the madness before a termination order is put on the Agent?

Science fiction is a genre I enjoy watching at the cinema but it's not usually a genre that I'd read. Luckily for me, Shadow of a Dead Star reads more like a gritty noir that just happens to feature cool technology and sci-fi ideas. It's testament to Shean's skill that everything seems completely plausible - and that I stayed up way too late to finish it, deciding I couldn't possibly put it down and pick it up the following day. It's an engaging read, full of complex characters, and bursting with invention. Whether you like sci fi, noir or cyberpunk, I'd highly recommend it.

NOTE: I've removed the Buy links since the book will be re-published later in the year by Michael's new publisher! In the meantime, Michael is also running a new serial over on Curiosity Quills. The first instalment is here!

Monday, 7 November 2011

Photo Prompt 58

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 58th prompt is Robin.

Robin

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Friday Flash - He's Odd

Jeff Peterson across the road is as deaf as a post. He misses listening to his classical LPs but I bet he doesn't miss the wife's nagging. Then there's that dumb kid years ago at school, Margie Fields. No, not dumb, mute. Really bright lass but quiet as a mouse. Our Louise's little lad lost an arm to septicaemia and Keith Simpson goes to the hospital so often I'm surprised he doesn't just move in - something about dialysis, if memory serves.

They’re just the most obvious ones I can think of. Bad things happen, but people get by, they cope. They learn how to make the most of it and they just get on with things. No, the worst part is the bloody doctors, always hanging around like uninvited ghouls, always inventing new names for old problems, as if giving something initials makes it something else. Half the time I think the acronyms are just so they can win at Scrabble.

I can’t see. I accept this. The world out there has been nothing but a combination of sounds, smells and textures since 1984. I'm fine with that - you would be too if you saw the decorating decisions my wife makes. But the doctors?

They tell me I'm not blind. I just have Ocular Dysfunctional Disorder.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Why I just had to delete a post on my blog

Earlier today I posted a blog post about an io9 piece about Stephen King. After having a little rant about it, I had it pointed out to me that the piece had been cribbed from another interview, and basically made Stephen King look like he was making up rules for time travel. It turns out the rules are simply for his new book, 11/22/63, and that the rules are valid within the context of said book.

I felt a bit silly for having a rant about something that turned out to not be valid, so I did actually rewrite my post to reflect this new change, by referring to io9's words and not Stephen King's. Unfortunately, I did it on my phone and for some reason the new post screwed up my blog layout. I had to delete the old post to get my sidebar back. (Don't you love Internet coding?) However, I didn't want anyone to think I'd taken it down for any other reason, hence this post.

So I fully apologise to Stephen King, though I doubt he'd have read my random little rant and I DID actually agree with one of his points, but unfortunately I can't edit blog posts from my phone without things going wrong. And I WILL be reading 11/22/63 because despite my misgivings, it does sound quite good.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

NaNoooooooo!

I know, I know, I said I wasn't doing NaNoWriMo this year. But you know what? I caved. Sort of.

See, NaNo is pretty fun, and I do really enjoy doing it. Sure, I wasn't happy with the noir superhero novel I wrote last year, but in the process of writing it, I learned a lot about one of the lead characters in my Vertigo City steampunk universe. Win!

Problem is, I'm not sure I have the time this year to devote to a full project. So, I've proposed something of a solution to myself. Instead of blazing ahead with the paranormal/horror novel I've had bubbling away in my brain for a while, I'm going to work on the short stories I promised months ago for the Parrots & Piracy collection. I've already got the ideas for at least six stories, and ideally I'd like to hit the 50,000 word mark with what I write in November. Yes, I'm well aware that NaNoWriMo stands for National NOVEL Writing Month, but considering it's no longer simply national, I think I can be forgiven for bending the rules a teeny bit.

If you're at all intrigued, you can find links to all my existing Parrots & Piracy stories over on my website, and hopefully they'll whet your appetite for the new stories. With any luck, I'll get the collection written by Christmas. Of course, if you have anything you'd like to see in future stories, leave me a comment and I'll see what I can do!

Monday, 31 October 2011

Photo Prompt 57

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 57th prompt is Priory.

Finchale Priory

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Friday Flash - Trick or Treat


I walk along the street towards the next house. Fake cobwebs drape across the porch, and several grinning pumpkins light my way up the path. Further down the street, giggling children run from house to house. They stop to compare candy collections on the sidewalk. I chuckle to myself, a deep rumble inside my hood.

I ring the doorbell. Moments later, an elderly woman with rollers in her hair comes to the door – Mrs Phelps, if memory serves. Horror crosses her face as she takes in the black cloak and scythe.

"Trick or treat!"

Mrs Phelps spots my candy bag, an upturned skull on a leather thong, and a glorious smile appears among the wrinkles of her face. She picks up the dish of candy beside the door and offers it to me. I reach out and dip my bony fingers into the bowl, selecting a miniature Mars bar. I can't resist Mars bars, and this is the one time of year I can get them.

"Happy Halloween, dear!"

"Thank you. Likewise, I'm sure." I dip my head in greeting since she can't see my face inside my hood.

I turn to leave. Before she closes the door, I hear her tell her husband how lifelike some of the costumes have been this year. A smile erupts on my hidden face.

I visit more houses, collecting candy from smiling grandmothers and truculent fathers. The old man in the rickety old house on Claymore Street can't afford candy so he gives me an apple instead. I make a mental note to postpone my next visit to him.

I reach Winchester Street and head for the first house. Two small children stand on the porch. The girl is dressed as Princess Fiona from Shrek and the boy is dressed as a werewolf. This house bears no Halloween decorations, and a couple watch TV in an upstairs room. They ignore the children ringing the doorbell.

I head up the path to tell the children to try another house. Before I reach them, the front door flies open and a woman stands framed in the doorway. Fury burns in her eyes. Ms Wakefield.

"Trick or-" begin the children.

"Go away! Every year it's the same, you all descend on the neighbourhood like locusts, demanding we hand over whatever you want or you'll play some kind of vicious prank! It’s nothing but begging, so no, I won’t give you candy! Now get off my porch!"

The little girl bursts into tears. The little boy stares at the woman, frozen halfway between leaving and staying.

"Oh stop your whining and piss off. Go and beg from someone else!"

She catches sight of me hidden in the shadows at the bottom of the path.

"You can f**k off as well! Aren't you a little old to be trick or treating, or do you just do it for the kids?"

She slams the door so hard one of her insipid plaques falls off the wall. The crash prompts a fresh wave of tears from the little girl.

The little boy leads her down the path. I hunker down and hold out my skull of sweets. They stop a few feet away, the girl hiding behind the boy. The boy stares at my skeletal hand. His name is Greg, but I forget his surname.

"I'm sorry she was so mean."

"She made Bethany cry," says Greg.

"I know, and that was horrible of her. Take a couple of my sweets, and head on home."

"Mom says we shouldn't take candy from strangers," says Greg.

"Mom is quite right but just think of this as the candy the nasty lady could have given you."

Greg still hesitates but Bethany darts forward. She grabs the apple and disappears behind the boy again. She mumbles something about not wanting to rob me of candy.

"Are you sure?" asks Greg.

"Yes."

Greg chooses the smallest piece of candy in the skull. They nod their thanks and run away down the street. I turn back to the house and stalk up the path. The moonlight glints on the blade of my scythe.

Looks like the lady of the house chose a trick after all.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Five Year Plan

Indie author Kait Nolan was talking about Five Year Plans over on her blog the other day, and it got me thinking. You see, I've never been big on five year plans. I'm the type of person who'd go to an interview, and when asked where I saw myself in five years time, would say "I don't really mind as long as I enjoy what I'm doing." It sounds like I'm not ambitious, like I don't really care about my future, but I am and I do. I wouldn't be trying to carve out a career as a writer if I had no real interest in where I end up - nor would I be studying for a PhD in Film Studies with the eventual intention to be lecturing. But when it comes to long term goals, I'm far less specific. So long as I'm happy, or enjoying what I'm doing, or doing something that contributes towards my success in those fields about which I DO care, then I consider that to be successful.

Why am I so vague about something I should probably put some thought into? Well, this time five years ago, I was still a receptionist at an architectural practice in south London, I was single, and I was just pratting about writing the occasional short story for submission to magazines - and failing at it. I've come so far since then, but I don't think I would have seen myself where I am now if I'd thought about it back then. Would I have ended up somewhere different if I'd HAD a Five Year Plan? Most probably. Would I have an actual published book, and be studying for a PhD? Maybe, maybe not. Would I spend some of my weekends running around haunted buildings with my boyfriend, investigating the boundaries of the paranormal? I doubt it. Either way, that's where I am now, and I'm happy with it.

So do I have a Five Year Plan now? Yes and no. Yes because most of those five years will heavily revolve around my PhD, but no, because you never know what curveballs life will throw at you. I prefer to stay flexible, since what's right for me now might not be what's right for me in two or three years, let alone five. I think I'll stick to my current methodology - I'll set my goals, I'll work for the things I want, and I'll see how things go...

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

[Review] Beginnings, Middles and Ends

At first glance, writing a book specifically about beginnings, middles and ends might seem a bit odd. After all, a story contains all three, so surely that's just a book about, well, books? Well yes, and no. Despite the fact I was familiar with the three act structure from my academic work in film studies, I hadn't really stopped to consider beginnings, middles and ends as separate entities in fiction until I read James Scott Bell's book, Plot & Structure (highly recommended, by the way). I wrote my own series on beginnings, middles and ends over on Fuel Your Writing, so I couldn't help but be curious about how a whole book on the subject might actually work.

Nancy Kress is no stranger to creative writing books, having also written Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated and Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint. My edition of Beginnings, Middles and Ends was published in 1999 (although a newer version is available), and in some ways, the text has dated. The book places more emphasis on writing short stories that will be "mailed" to various magazines, while novels are intended to be submitted to agents. Still, don't let that put you off - after all, there's a lot to be said for submitting shorter works to magazines or journals (although most are now online) and despite what certain people say, agents can still be very useful people in your writing career. But I digress.

While at first it seems odd to focus on the three parts of a story separately, it's actually a very logical approach. After all, most writers struggle with one of the three. They may write stellar beginnings, but run out of steam, or they may write lacklustre material that is entirely redeemed by a spectacular ending. Personally, I find the beginning and ending exciting, but I worry about how to maintain pace in the middle. Considering the majority of the book seems to be given over to beginnings, I'd wager that's the area with which Kress herself has the most problems.

It is a very interesting book, and its particular emphasis on developing a through-line for the novel/story to keep you on track and on theme is a valuable one. The book also highlights the importance of coherence, and keeping each segment of your book closely aligned with those preceding and following, in order to prevent any of those annoying "What the hell is that?" moments. Kress uses a fictional example story involving a problem family to demonstrate ways in which the plot can be developed, and ways in which it probably shouldn't, as a way of showing writers how endings should grow organically out of beginnings. Each section is broken down into chapters aimed at specific problem areas, including exactly where to begin, how to get past a block when you get stuck, and how to nail that stellar ending. In addition, Kress provides exercises at the end of each chapter, aimed at getting you to work on the specific area of your work that you've just covered in the book.

My biggest problem with the book is that it does feel slightly dated, and the information in both Plot & Structure and the recent Story Engineering by Larry Brooks seems more useful. Perhaps the book would be more useful if you're very new to writing and you'd like things to be more clearly broken down, but if you've been writing for a while and you want to better investigate story structure, then either of the titles I've just mentioned will probably be better for you. Of course, if you're solely a short story writer, then I highly recommend Beginnings, Middles and Ends as both Plot & Structure and Story Engineering are more aimed at novelists. Even then, as a novelist, you may find something useful in the book...but try to borrow it from a library instead.

Three blunt pencils out of five