Sunday, 29 May 2011

In Defence Of Short Stories #3: Todd Russell

Mental Shrillness by Todd Russell

Slightly late, but worth waiting for - it's the third guest blog In Defence Of Short Stories...

I had meant to do at least a modicum of research on each blog author, but because I've been away I know next to nothing about today's guest Todd Russell. So he'll have to stand or fall based purely on his contribution... which fortunately is great; it certainly makes me want to check out Todd's short stories. How about you?

Take it away Todd...

And So We Bleed by Todd Russell

Ever had a paper cut that smarts for a long time? Strange that they don't bleed proportionately to the pain. I've had head injuries that hurt less and never seem to stop bleeding. 

But they do. 

Just like a novel runs out of its blood supply, so does the novella, novelette, short story, flash fiction and every other format. Us writer-types, and some readers, classify the type of a story by the number of words. We classify the amount of literary bleeding by volume. 

The tiny bleeders, the superficial cuts, might be something as minuscule as 140 character Twitter fiction. Even though I've been writing over 30 years now, I recently wrote my first piece of Twitter fiction -- and loved the process. Also tackled my first ever drabble, which is a piece of fiction that bleeds not at 99 or 101 words but exactly 100 words. Another good time. 

How much blood is in the human body? A 160 pound male, about my weight if I do the Subway diet, has about five quarts of blood. Now the next time you haul two gallons of milk to the checkout line remember that you are carrying more milk by volume than the person next to you has in equivalent blood. 

I saw James Everington was running a series of guest blog posts called In Defense of Short Stories; on Mr. Everington's quest I'm donating a bit of blood to my friend, Mr. Short Story, even though he doesn't need any. He is the kind of cut that bleeds fast and then stops. He has the potential staying power of a paper cut. He doesn't need to bleed all night long to make his point. He isn't greedy when it comes to hogging blood supply. 

Or time. 

Mr. Short Story won't rob much of our time, arguably the most valuable thing any of us have on this fine earth. Yes, your wound will heal fast and if he was in a good mood, Mr. Short Story will stay with you. 

There is an art and beauty to brevity. Writers who have read Professor Strunk and E.B White in The Elements of Style (and if you haven't, Dear Fellow Writer, put it in your TBR list) can relate to the expression: "Omit needless words!" 

I took less than 500 words to write this guest post, does that make it less worthy than a post with 5,000 or more important than one with 50? And (gasp) what if I'd have taken 50,000 to tell you that it's OK sometimes to bleed a little. 

The nice thing about digital writing is you don't get paper cuts as much but that shouldn't stop writers from telling the story while the blood is flowing. 

My cut has stopped bleeding. When will my passion for writing short stories stop? Only when my heart stops pumping blood. Bleed on!

Elastoplast 40 Fabric Assorted 2589851Todd Russell started literary bleeding at age eight. Mental Shrillness (UK | US), a collection of six twist ending bloody horror stories, is his first book.  An Amazon reviewer writes: “I was appalled … the stories are horrifying, disturbing and nauseating at times. I recommend Mental Shrillness to adult readers to challenge themselves on how strange a story they can handle.” You can follow Todd’s work at

Friday, 20 May 2011

In Defence Of Short Stories #2: Neil Schiller

Well, I think it's safe to say that last weeks inaugural 'In Defence of Short Stories' was a success - it attracted way more views than I've had on this blog before (admittedly, not a hard record to break) and I've had lots of interest from other authors wanting to pitch in since then, which is great. Although I deliberately started with Alain and Neil (of whom more in a minute) as I knew they'd write something good to kick things off, I knew that after that I wanted to find some writers who were new to me.

Product DetailsBut onto this week's contributor, the fabulous Neil Schiller. Regular readers of this blog [insert your own 'both of them' joke here] will know Neil's name - his book of short stories 'Oblivious' was the first indie ebook I bought, and boy did it set the bar high. Put it this way, in his blurb Neil compared himself to Raymond Carver, and after I'd finished his book I didn't think he was a twat for doing so. High praise. 

Oblivious is available on Kindle (UK & US) as well as paperback. Please give it a whirl, particularly as it looks like Neil will be sleeping on the sofa for the next few days...

Take it away Neil:

My other half doesn’t like short stories. She tells me they end too abruptly, just as she’s getting into them. Don’t tell her, because it’s more hassle than it’s worth, but I completely disagree. My favourite books all share one thing in common: an economy of style. Very rarely do I read anything that looks like it will be over five hundred pages, because I immediately think “oh no, another Umberto Eco”, the writer who by his own admission just can’t help himself and has to follow every single tangent that his mind suggests to him.

Short stories, to me, are often more powerful than novels. Because they have a focus that can really deliver. To take an analogy (probably a lame one), it’s great to wander about in the sunshine, of course, but it’s only if I concentrate that light via a magnifying glass that I can set fire to shit. That’s obviously my inner pyromaniac talking. I’ve just spent the best part of a decade writing short stories because I was experimenting with the idea of looking at things intensely. It didn’t matter that I was representing only moments in a character’s life because I could (hopefully) make those moments resonate without having to worry about narrative continuity and plot twists. And you have to give the reader some credit. He or she is not a moron. If you do it right they’re already filling in the gaps for you, the backstory, the future, mopping up the bits that you’ve left spilling off the page.

As a reader, I love doing just that. One of my favourite short stories is by Richard Brautigan. It’s two sentences long. I won’t quote it because I don’t want to breach copyright, but it is essentially one image – that of a woman being led away by the police because she just couldn’t stand anymore living in a small apartment, in the middle of summer, with a man learning to play the violin. I know the rest, Brautigan doesn’t have to tell me.

The best short stories are evocative and demand more of you as a reader than an epic that spells out every single idea on your behalf. Not everybody likes those demands, and that’s fair enough. But I do. They make me feel like more of a participant in the process. The writer is letting me forge my own meanings, and I think that’s a satisfying mental exercise.

To switch to poetry for a second, the classic poem covered in the first year on just about every literature degree course is ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ by William Carlos Williams. I’m sure it’s in the syllabus to deliberately challenge young students. What does it mean? Is it poetry? Nothing is resolved. We’re told a wheelbarrow and some chickens are all that matters. What is it all about? It always divides opinion. Personally, I love the poem. I love Haiku, I love single images or hypothetical snatches of hyperbole that challenge you to make of them what you will. Don’t give me an answer, I don’t want your answers, they will most likely be subjective nonsense anyway. Give me a pinprick instead, a trigger to my subconscious that can then lead me off on a path of my own.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? You’re not there to receive wisdom, you’re there to think about things for yourself. A great short story writer like Raymond Carver, like Chekhov, like Brautigan, always reminds me that this is the case. I’ll keep coming back to them again and again because without them my imagination would probably just shrivel up and die.

Going back to my missus – sorry love, you’re entitled to your opinion, of course you are, but it’s a shame you’re wrong. (Seriously, don’t tell her I just said that, I don’t like sleeping on the couch…)

Oh, and just to show that two can play at this guest blogging game, please check out this piece I've done for the fabulous and infamous Andre Jute's blog. It's about DH Lawrence and his poem The Mosquito.  It's kind of about me too, but since nearly all of DH Lawrence's literary criticism was as much about himself as who he was writing about I don't feel too guilty. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

A Scattershot Posting #2...

I have to admit (although I didn't at the time) I was apprehensive about releasing The Other Room earlier this month, far more so than when Feed The Enemy came out. With FTE I had a lot of internal excuses I could say to myself if it didn't sell well:

"Well it's just a standalone short story, and not many people buy those"
"It's not like the normal stuff I write, so it doesn't matter if it doesn't get good reviews"
"To be honest, I never liked the cover art..."

None of these applied to The Other Room. It's my first full collection of fiction, and with the cheap initial price, the great cover photo by Neil Schiller I used for the art work, and the lessons I learnt promoting FTE, there were no excuses any more. Not that I'm expecting instant mega sales, I know enough to think that my fiction has cult appeal at best. Which is fine, some of the writers I like best are cults [insert your own pun here, if you're that way inclined]. But even cults have to start somewhere...

Fortunately, my nerves appear to have been misplaced (I spend half my life worrying about things that never happen). The Other Room has sold pretty well, on my terms, easily doubling Feed The Enemy's monthly best already. And the first reviews have been positive, including this one on Barry Skelhorn's blog. Obviously I have a lot of work to keep doing to promote it, but now I can stop worrying about it being a total disaster, and move on to worrying about something else...

Nevertheless, Feed The Enemy continues to live a life of its own out there on the internet, and I was recently interviewed about it as part of Dan Holloway's 'How Long is a Piece of Rope?' series on his blog. The concept is, Dan asks the same, somewhat unconventional, questions to all authors taking part. Take a look, and while you're over there do check out the rest of Dan's site because a) he's a great writer, and b) it's a great site, full of interviews, bits about Oxford, recipes & puzzles relating to his book.

Finally, a shout out to some good books by other indie authors I've been reading (links are to Amazon UK):

The Poison of a Smile - Steven Jenson - interesting cross between period history and a Peter Straub style horror novel.

Product DetailsThe Haiku Diary - Neil Schiller - It's that man again. I was sure I'd mentioned this on here before, but apparently I've only mentioned Oblivious. This is Neil's diary, in Haiku form. Insightful stuff huh?

The Little Girl In My Room - Clare Farrell - uneven collection of horror short stories. Some I really liked, others really needed something a bit extra. Worth the price for the good ones though.

When Cthulhu Met Atlach Nacha - Alan Ryker - what to say? A one-act play, which is a romantic comedy set around Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos... This was always going to be awful or great. Fortunately, it's the latter. Kudos!

Flashes Of Humor, Glimpses Of Life - Alain Gomez - you know about this from the previous blog posting. If not, go read.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

In Defence Of Short Stories #1: Alain Gomez

I never realised, until I started publishing short stories, how much some people dislike the form. I mean normal, reader-type people, who read novels, but won't sully their minds with anything with a word count under 20k. Where do these people come from? How are they created (for surely they're not natural)?

In all seriousness, I know short stories don't sell as well as novels. And I don't care. They are an art-form in themselves, with their own rules, their own highs and lows. They are not truncated novels, or promotional material for novels. 

Hence the idea of 'In Defence of Short Stories' - a series of semi-regular guest blogs by short story authors. And I can't think of a better person to start with than Alain Gomez. No matter how much you think you like short stories, Alain likes them more. See the excellent blog Book Brouhaha for evidence. Or make any kind of disparaging comment about short stories on Kindleboards, and see how long it is before Alain arrives to argue you into submission... In short, Alain's someone who fights the good fight.

Take it away, Alain....

Short Stories are a Complete Waste of Money. Here are 7 better uses for your $1.

Thanks to the floodgate ebooks have opened up, we are now bombarded with new book length possibilities. The genre that seems to rub the most salt in the wound is the short story. Authors are attempting to get us to pay as much as $0.99 for a story that could be as short as 1,000 words.

This is just about as rock bottom as spending can get. Imagine spending an entire dollar on a story one author spent time putting together. In case you may be tempted to try one of these things, I have compiled a list of much more mainstream (not to mention, socially acceptable) uses for your dollar.

1. N’Sync’s “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” on iTunes. Their dulcet tones will go down in music history. I would recommend getting the much more famous “Bye Bye Bye,” but it sells at $1.29 which is slightly out of our budget.

2. A Taco Bell bean burrito. With all the nutritional value of wallpaper and created from just-add-water beans, this is a life investment you should not pass up. Extremely satisfying to eat at 2am.

3. Betty Crocker scented candle in a glass case. These beauties can be found at your local 99 cent store. Set the mood by lighting one and making your home smell like cheap fruit.

4. A small coffee at McDonald’s. Smells alarmingly like melted tires.

5. Two bags of Top Ramen. A college student’s gourmet cuisine. One serving will fulfill your salt allotment for the month. Slightly less nutritional value than a Taco Bell burrito.

6. A tip for a bartender so they don’t poison your drink next time you frequent their establishment. If you fold the bill just right it can look like a lot more

7. Angry Birds on your iPhone. This game is mind improving, right? It teaches us about angles and, you know, stuff.

Product Details

And be sure to check out Alain's great new collection of flash fiction 'Flashes of Humour, Glimpses of Life' (UKUS). A collection that shows how great even the shortest of short stories can be.

Music vs. Books

I love music - songs are almost as good as stories, and if I had an atom of musical ability in my body I might even have gone further... but I haven't. If you think my writing is ham-fisted, you should have seen my teenage attempts to learn the guitar.

Songs, and the ideas and words from them, have always informed my writing - not in a conscious way necessarily, but just in the way that certain songs have sunk down deep into me, and will obviously bubble up now and again.

These are some of the obvious connections to songs in my writing, but I'm sure there's many buried in there. Click the links for youtubes...

Feed The Enemy - a great song by the under-valued Magazine (post-punk Manchester band, like a more sarcastic and witty Joy Division). Like all the best music, it sounds profound, but I've no idea what it's actually about. "No room to move, no room to doubt" - well quite. Source of the title for my stand-alone short story Feed The Enemy.

When The Walls Bend - a line from The Gloaming, by Radiohead. Amazing, but you already knew that. What you may not have known is that it's also the title for a story in my collection The Other Room available from all good booksellers. Well, Amazon.

Wilder - achingly beautiful song from The Boo Radleys. "Beautiful" is an over-used word when writing about music, but go and listen to this and tell me what else I could have said? I used a line from this ("maybe it's brighter down there, maybe it's wilder") as a heading for my as yet unpublished story 'Long Distance Relationships'.

Trying To Be So Quiet - "Aint it just like the night, to play tricks when we're trying to be so quiet..."  C'mon, you know which song opens like that don't you? Surely you don't have to click the link to find out...? Title of yet unpublished ghost story; didn't make the grade for The Other Room.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Other Room - Out Now!

The Other Room 

I'm not one to use exclamation marks in post titles excessively (and multiple exclamation marks are a real no-no) but I feel justified here. (!) Because 'The Other Room' is out - a collection of twelve short stories for your e-reading pleasure.  Here's the same cover image I've been posting a lot, along with some links:

Kindle (UK)
Kindle (US)
Kindle (Germany)

And here's the official blurb:

The Other Room is a collection of weird horror fiction, containing twelve stories of the uncanny and the surreal. 

A naive student finds that his crumbling bedsit can be as haunted as any Gothic mansion.

A man stumbles across another world which is the mirror image of his own.

A young woman who everyone thinks is beautiful wonders why, given what she sees in the mirror each morning.

Influenced by writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Aickman these tales, like all good horror stories, are as much about the psychology of the protagonist as the fate that awaits them.

The Other Room contains both new and previously published stories that will challenge your conceptions of horror and literary fiction.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Other Room - Author's Notes Part 3

... Continued From Previous Post

The Final Wish

This is an odd one. I wrote this at university - one winter I got sick with some kind of flu, and barely left my room for days. I took the kind of flu medicine that knocks you out for a bit rather than cures you, and then when awake drank either coffee or whisky depending on whether it looked light or dark outside my window.

Obviously whatever assignment or other writing I had on at that point was halted, but when I recovered this was scrawled on my notepad. I vaguely remember writing it. but those memories are tinted by the fever-like quality of my illness.

All I've ever done to alter it is give it a title; the whole story is mysterious to me and reading it back I get no sense of having written it myself. Despite that, I've always found it the one story of mine I can't form any objective opinion on. I'd be genuinely interested in hearing what readers think of it.

I suppose a Freudian reading through this would have a field day - I'd like to point out that my relationships with my parents and brother are completely normal...

A Writer's Words

Yes, yes, I know the title is bad - awful, pretentious, and trite. But I've never been able to think of a better one. (I often struggle with titles - I can get all the way to the end of a third draft of a story and still have no idea what the damn thing should be called.)

Like The Other Room the inspiration for this one came from another minor incident which I then took to its extreme. Like the main character I was on a train when I became concerned it was the wrong one, and there was a note with back-to-front writing stuck to the window. From that brief spasm of anxiety (and it's always slightly nerve-wracking, using public transport for long journeys) came this story.

Red Route

These Lincolnshire roads, with signs showing the number of fatalities, are real. I guess this complements the previous story, but this time it's about personal not public transport. Do any of us stop to think as we get in the car that it's most likely the riskiest thing we'll do all day?

When The Walls Bend

I've a tendency to over-think when I'm writing, to believe that a story needs some kind of intellectual underpinning before I can begin it. To compensate, I often force myself to write something based on a simple, archetypal idea. Here I just wanted to write a haunted house story.

I had to have some way in though, and the idea for this story came when I wondered why so many haunted houses in fiction were big, sprawling mansions owned by screwy upper-class people. Do the rich really have a monopoly on the afterlife as well? I wanted my haunted house to be small, cramped, and squalid. I also love ghosts stories which are as much about the person being haunted as the ghost.

This was another story for which I struggled finding a title; I was playing Radiohead's Hail To The Thief album constantly at the time, and eventually I 'borrowed' the title from a lyric from a track called The Gloaming.

I've always liked the last line of this story, and it seemed an appropriate way to end the collection as a whole.