Short story month

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I saw somewhere on the web that May is short story month.  So I thought, oh that would be a good opportunity to share some stuff.  And then I wandered into the bibliography section of this site and discovered a wilderness of horrors.  It’s like the garden in that creepy house down the street, where everything is overgrown and tangled, and is probably just hiding the bodies.

Like this, but SO MUCH worse

Anyway, I stumbled through it, cursing at the brambles and nettles, and recovered what I could.

  1. The Mathematics of Faith – a long one, but still probably the best received of my short stories.  It Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ Best of Year One anthology, so that was nice.
  2. Preservation – also up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. One of my creepier ones and by bizarre coincidence the one story that most of my wife’s family has read.
  3. Debut-de-siecle – one of my early attempts at the postmodern detective story. I’m unconvinced if it really works as a whole, but I think it still has its moments.
  4. Between The Lines – an early and slightly experimental one.  Possibly the second or third story I published.  This was a lot of fun to write.
  5. Ephemera – And this was, I think, the last short story I wrote.  Plus the most aggressively postmodern.  It will probably annoy people who have only read No Hero.  And they will probably be right to be annoyed.  Not a user-friendly tale.  But it was fun to push boundaries.

There are also all the flash pieces up The Daily Cabal.  All of them 400 words or less.  For the dedicated reader, the whole list is here, but honestly the quality varies a lot.  If you are committed to reading some flash fiction that I wrote, here are my suggestions:

  1. A Fantasy of Hope
  2. Beauty and the Beast
  3. Kid Things
  4. Original Sin
  5. Scary Monsters
  6. The Beak-Faced Girl
  7. The Gun Overheats

And that’s it.  Which is actually more than I thought.  Sad to see the internet has laid somethings down by the wayside.  Though I still have the original documents.  I’ll have to check contracts and see if I can get anything else up here.

Anyway, hope there’s something in there for some people, and that more folk see more short stories this month.


The hero dies in this one

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

The other day I said something in passing, which I intended mostly as just a rhetorical turn of phrase, but which I have been thinking about more and more.  Specifically, I said that money makes the world go round, but love makes people go round.  It turns out that’s a (slightly flippant) way of expressing a pretty basic assumption I have about how the world works.

I always think of human society trying to balance two basic forces.  The need of the self and the need of the other.  We are born totally egocentric, only focusing on our own needs.  As we grow up we learn to empathize with others, to see things from their perspective.  We become increasingly exocentric.  Whether that’s nurture or nature I couldn’t say, though, as with most things, I imagine it’s a mix of the two.

Still, to put it another way, I picture the world, and people, as being balanced between selfishness and selflessness.

There is an argument that runs something like this: selfishness is actually better for society as a whole.  I’m not sure that’s the exact terminology that argument uses, but basically the idea is that if everyone just takes care of themselves then the whole of society will benefit.  I’m tipping my hand in this argument a little, but Gordon Gecko’s infamous “greed is good” seems a nice way to encapsulate this philosophy.

I think this argument is all well and good as long as you assume people are completely isolated islands.  But we’re not.  Our personal good is often interdependent on other people’s well-being.  As sometimes when others benefit, so do we.  But we also sometimes benefit from other people’s misfortune.  That’s just  basic fact.  And that’s the downfall, for me, of the selfishness argument.  Not everyone benefits.  The system is stacked so that some people have to fail.  Money is a handy way of keeping track of that.  The winners have more.  The losers have less.  Proselytizers speak of everyone becoming rich, but “rich” is a relative term.  You can only be rich if someone else is poor.

To tie this a little into writing, which is what this blog is ostensibly about – in our stories, we usually have heroes.  The most fundamental definition of a hero is someone who sacrifices himself for others (thanks Joseph Campbell for doing the research on that one).  So the people we hold up and say we should emulate are those who behave in a selfless manner.  All our years of culture, of history, of telling ourselves how to behave as societies, all that collected cultural wisdom is saying that the important people, the people we should be more like are those who sacrifice personal need for the need of others.

It’s hard to be selfless.  Especially in a world that seems to encourage selfishness.  It is easier to grab more for ourselves and not worry about the other man.  To focus on the short term over the long term.  This might sound in opposition to my essentially hedonistic argument yesterday for taking more pleasure in the moment, for less focus on what is around the corner, but as with everything, I think life is a balance.  We must look to now and the future.  We must be selfish and selfless.  But all within reason.

The problem I see now, is that there is too much of an argument for selfishness over selflessness.  Maybe that’s part of living in America, where the myth of the individual still beats at the heart of the American Dream.  But as a society, I think our main hope lies in increasing the focus on selflessness.

To put this in more concrete terms… taxes are a form of selflessness.  We sacrifice our money for our society.  Money that pays for our immediate needs becomes money that pays for something everyone benefits from.  (At least it does if the money is spent right, but that’s another rant entirely).  The personal good we see may be less from the sacrifice, but that’s the nature of living in a society, of being part of a community.  It’s about loving others more than money.  It’s about letting love make the world go round a little more than it does right now.  Financially poorer, but maybe our lives are richer all the same.  Or perhaps nobody is rich at all.  But nobody is poor.

It’s an impossible dream, of course, but that’s kind of the point of dreams.  To be impractical and too big for this world.  But even if we can’t achieve them, if we can just move towards them, then the world just might be a better place.



Dazed and confused about Dazed and Confused

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I just wrapped up watching Dazed and Confused, and it’s 1 am, and I’m a little dazed and confused feeling, but I thought I’d try and get some thoughts down before I pass out for the night.

Whenever I watch a film I enjoy, my first instinct is to check its wikipedia article. Which is a lousy instinct really, as there’s usually very little in the way of analysis up there. But the scraps of old reviews scattered in the article (and I don’t mean to be down on Wikipedia, I love me some wikipedia, it’s a great thing, I’m just not using it right) talked about Dazed and Confused as if it were a distanced observation. The writer and director, Richard Linklater, was described as an anthropologist. As if he has no investment in the time.

To me, it seemed a much more personal movie. It seemed to be a movie very specifically about nostalgia. It was made in the early 90s. Linklater was born in 1960, so he was about my age. Early 30s anyway. And it is very specifically set in 1976 (When Linklater would have been 16). It’s a movie about high school, about graduation, about moving onto the next stage of life.

If the film is preoccupied with nostalgia, then the characters are preoccupied with the present. And that struck me as the most honest part of the film. Looking back on my own teenage years, my tendency is to imagine it as a time when I was trying to work out who to be, what I would grow up to be. But I wasn’t. I think that’s very much my obsession now. Trying to chart the path to a better tomorrow. When I was a teenager there was the innocent assumption that everything would work out just fine.

I tend to like teenagers, at least seen from a distance. There is a purity to their self-obsession, to their self-confidence. They are utterly unaware of it in a way I find slightly charming. In adults, that level of narcissism would drive me insane, but it seems like its the right of teenagers to be utterly short-sighted. And the reason, I think I like it, is because I’m kind of jealous of it. I would like to have the blinders put back on.

Once the twenties are gone, and life is moving on, the chance to screw up is increasingly behind you. Mistakes have greater consequences. And the crazy thing is, early 30s isn’t really that old. There is far more life ahead than there is left behind. But those moments of teenage innocence, those moments of being purely in the now, are harder to grab.
So, I suppose, if I think Dazed and Confused is about anything, I think it’s about that. It’s about the need to sometimes just be in the moment, to make the most of the moment.

Near the end of the movie the character Don has as close to what I think of as a manifesto for the film:

Well all I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did it the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could when I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could when I was stuck in this place. Dobbed as many chicks as I could when I was stuck in this place.

I like that refrain “stuck in this place.” We’re all stuck in this place. This now. This is it. This is what we have. And I want to be able to look back and say that I did the best I could while I was stuck in this place. It’s hard, when you’re more aware of the consequences. But I think its something worth trying for.

Sleep now.


It’s all you need

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I’ve never been good at synopsizing stories.  When asked to describe No Hero, I have invariably described it as “a story about explosions.”  When people who can navigate the myriad labyrinth of subgenres ask, I may throw in that its an urban fantasy.  Which sets up a slight contradiction.  Books about explosions are primarily seen as being for boys.  And despite slow change, I think urban fantasy is seen as firstly being a genre for girls (yes there are a thousand notable exceptions, but they would interrupt my sweeping generalizations).

In an ideal world, of course, No Hero would be a book that appealed to everyone .  It’s not.  I’ve read the reviews.  Typically I think overall the male gender has preferred it.  The explosions, for the most part, may have won through.

There is one part of No Hero, though, which I think people have thought I threw in for cross-gender appeal, or as a concession to the subgenre, which is actually there because I think it’s important.  I think one review put it like this (and I’m paraphrasing) “and because it’s urban fantasy, there’s even a love story.”

Now, I certainly don’t want to be seen to be complaining about reviews.  If the romantic aspects of No Hero don’t come across as important, there’s at least a fair chance I should have spent more time developing them.  I think I allowed myself to be too constrained by the action movie vibe I was going for, rather than rising above it.  (That’s something I’ve tried to address with Yesterday’s Hero.) But I want to state that the love story is not there because of a concession to the genre, or from some desire to get folk with cooties to love it.

Every morning I ride the train to work.  (Bear with me – this will make sense in a moment).  Integral to riding the train is waiting for the train.  It is not the most exciting time in the world.  But there is one event that can make my usual wait more tolerable.  It is watching a young man and young girl who stand further down the platform.  I don’t know their relationship, to be honest.  I don’t think they’re together in any way.  But when he approaches her, or she approaches him, I get to watch them light up like a city at night.  They transform from morose commuters, into lively, laughing, animated people.  And it looks a lot like love.  It’s one of the best parts of my commute.

I think love is important.  I think it is, in fact, the most important part of life.  It is at life’s heart.  It is the most fundamental driver of what I do as a person.  Life with love has more color, more laughter, more joy.  It is deeper, and richer.  And maybe I’m a cheesy bastard, but that is why there’s a love story in No Hero.  Because it felt dishonest to write a story without a romantic aspect.  Because it felt like otherwise I’d be telling a story that didn’t light up like those people on the train station.  I wrote No Hero with a love story, honestly, because I didn’t feel like I had any other choice.

Money may make the world go round, but love makes people go round.  We get it right; we screw it up; we muddle about in between; but we do it.  We love.  And I’m never going to be able to write a story where people don’t.  So, yes, there will be explosions in Yesterday’s Hero but there will be squishy emotional, cootie-loving parts as well, and I am not ashamed.



The greatest game

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I wasn’t very successful with girls as a teenager…  Sorry, what I meant to say was that I played roleplaying games a lot as a teenager.

I obviously dabbled a little bit with AD&D, because you sort of have to.  It is the nerd’s gateway drug.  But my real poison of choice was Shadowrun.  Magic and cybernetics in 2020 Seattle.  It was perfect for a bunch of William Gibson obsessed teens living in rural England.  Trust me on this.

Roleplaying is a great collaborative storytelling medium.  I GM’d a lot, and that’s where I really got my first taste of being a storyteller.  We didn’t use officially published games a lot.  Mostly because they cost money.  And then, later on, as I got better as a GM, because it allowed me to craft stories specifically to the group of characters I was playing with.

However, from time to time, we did splurge on an official adventure.  But now, more than ten years later, only one really lives on in my memory.

Despite the cover art, this is a work of staggering genius

The set up for the adventure was pretty simple – the adventurers travel from Seattle to Denver and kidnap a kid to use as leverage in a corporate war.  Pretty standard for a Shadowrun game.  But from there the game starts to differentiate itself.

For starters it offered the players unprecedented freedom in how to carry out the kidnapping.  There were no forced situations.  There was just information.  Reams and reams of it.  Whatever the players wanted to know to help them plan things out, I could find it in the book.  I’ve never seen anything else like it.  It was like the games we wrote ourselves, fast, loose, adaptable.

So that was great, but the real difference came after the kidnapping.  That’s when the players settled in, hunkered down, and prepared for the inevitable firefight that concluded EVERY,  SINGLE Shadowrun game ever.  In fact almost every roleplaying game ever.  That’s how they end, dammit.  In combat.

Except Divided Assets didn’t end that way.  There was the constant slow burn of waiting for it to happen.  But all that happened was that the players had to interact with this kid they had kidnapped.  On and on.  And at first it was weird and a little annoying.  And then the kid became a character, a person.  He, through this forced interaction, became someone they cared about.

And then the players are told to get rid of him.

The kid isn’t needed any more.  The corporate war has moved on and past this point.  Nobody wants this kid.  So what do the players do?

And that’s it.  That’s the end of the module.  It doesn’t end in a hail of bullets and spells.  It ends with a choice.  And, most importantly, a moral choice.  And that’s why it stands out so clearly in my memory. The players were genuinely conflicted over what to do.

And I think there’s a lesson in there about what’s really powerful in fiction and narratives.  I love action scenes as much as the next man.  Possibly more.  Possibly slightly too much.  (I’ve seen Death Race 2, and I didn’t entirely loathe it).  But those scenes are never going to be the most powerful, the most moving.  If readers are invested in a character, then the moment of moral choice is going to be the most powerful.  The most memorable.

They always are for me.


Tentacle fiction (or number 1 for no reason)

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

I recently installed some web stat tracking stuff on this site – because I’ve had it for about 3 years, and it felt like time I should get round to it.  But I noticed that about once a day I get a hit for “tentacle fiction.”  So I checked that out, and apparently this site gives you the number 1 result when you google “tentacle fiction.”  (Now that shit is going on my resume).  However, the page it gives you gives a link to a dead page on the daily cabal site.  Which makes me feel bad for all the lovers of tentacle fiction that this site is screwing over.  So, for those people, and for anyone else – this is the story you should have seen:


The Ballad of Octavia and Mr Head

It’s a beautiful thing.

Some people have a hole in themselves. Mr Head had a hole in himself. It was in his face. People found it off-putting. Women found it off-putting. They could not stare lovingly into his eyes. He had no eyes. He had a hole. They could not stare lovingly into a hole. Rather they tended to scream and run away.

This made Mr Head lonely. Loneliness made him cruel. He was especially cruel to cats. Cats tended to try and crawl up his leg and go to sleep in his hole.

Octavia had a hole in herself. It was in her soul. She had no soul. She had a vacant parking lot where her soul should be. She was cruel to many things. Cats included.

One day Mr Head met Octavia.

Octavia did not scream. She did not run away. Instead she reached out a hand and plucked the cat that was sleeping peacefully in the hole in Mr Head. She opened her mouth and vast tentacles reached out from between lipstick-stained teeth and wrapped around the cat. The tentacles were purple. With a screech the cat was sucked inside.

Suddenly Mr Head felt full. Tentatively, heart quivering, he reached out his hand. Octavia reached out with hers. Barely daring to believe, Mr Head took Octavia’s hand.

Then she ate him.

And she felt full.

It’s a beautiful thing.


What should we be counting?

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

Something I see a lot on the interwebs, is people talking about word count.  They’re either going to achieve a certain wordcount, or want to achieve it, or have achieved it, or are going to beat someone around the head and neck with it.  Well, I am here to overthrow the tyranny of the wordcount.  We as one need to rise up and throw off it’s oppressive shackles.

“Why?” asks a rather convenient straw man.

The thing about word count is that it’s dependent on writing speed, and that’s a very individual thing.  But it becomes a sort of measuring post of how dedicated a writer you are.  If you cranked out 900 words, then somehow you’re superior to someone who only got 500.  I used to be pretty happy with my writing speed and then I found out that Cat Valente can write an entire novel in the something like the time I need to take an average sized dump.  So that was a bit of a blow to the confidence.

And there’s no need.  You’re not going to do much to make yourself a faster writer.  And if you turn off the internet you’re not going to make yourself much slower.

So rather, I’d advocate we, as a community of writers, talk about the number that word count is really standing in for – the amount of time we spend writing.  Don’t spend your time killing yourself trying to get to 1000 words in a day if you need an hour to write 300 words.  Just try to maximize that writing time.  Because you will get there in the end.  If you just keep sitting down, keep cranking away, the thing will be written.  It’s inevitable.  And this isn’t a race.  Just taking part really does count.

So down with the wordcount.  Up with the “hours of bum in seat.”  The revolution has begun.

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Terrible beauty

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

As a side note, I am posting this from a free wireless connection on AmTrak, which in many ways is kind of miraculous, and not the sort of thing one should complain about. So if at some point this thing breaks down into me just frothing at the mouth about shitty connectivity, I apologize.

A while back the Metropolitan Museum in NYC had a retrospective of Alexander McQueen’s work. I was fortunate enough to go and see it (one of the advantages of being an Englishman in New York, as I’m sure Sting could tell you). It was just after McQueen’s suicide and became quite a big thing. Being the snappy social commentator that I am, I’m finally getting around to waxing lyrical about it.

The Horn of Plenty

I should preface this by saying I know both diddly and shit about fashion. And I don’t know much about art, either, though I tend to be of the opinion that art means to you exactly what you get out of it. I happen to dislike, for example, the Impressionists (insipid bastards) but I like to think that’s not a failing of either me or the artists. It’s just what they bring to the party, I don’t like. Other stuff I do. And that’s how I’m approaching McQueen’s fashion. I can’t have overly informed opinions, but I still have opinions. And this is my blog, so I get to inflict them upon you.

You are still reading, right?

The Girl Who Lived in the Tree

My personal aesthetic (which I say because I want to sound like a pretentious ass) tends toward something which I find both beautiful and repelling (this is an art only thing, just in case my wife is reading…) and McQueen’s work sits very squarely in that space for me. There’s a garishness, and angular uncomfortable-ness to his work. It is in some ways deeply unpleasant clothing that seems to have been designed for deeply unpleasant people. And yet there’s something lush, and opulent, and fantastically wonderful about it to. It catches the eye and glitters there for a while.


I also enjoy the total disregard McQueen seems to have for the world around him. High fashion has always seemed an exercise in impracticality to me, (philistine that I am) but McQueen’s clothes seem to take impracticality as a strength, embrace it, and run off screaming into the hills with it to make sweet, sweet, creepy love. These are clothes that almost seem like imports from another world. And such is there power that they start to create that world around them. When I look at his creations I see glimpses of another place, somewhere dark, and austere, and magnificent. Not necessarily some place I’d like to visit, but definitely one I’d like to write about.


The Metropolitan Museum web site still has the McQueen exhibit site up, and it’s well worth taking a look.

Have fun out there. Play safe.



The pull list [Comic book reviews]

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

Being a nerd, Wednesday is a pretty important day for me.  Because it’s new comic book day.  Recently I’ve been largely staying away from the Big 2, especially Marvel, who I’ve found relatively disatisfying.  I think there’s 2 titles from DC I’m still grabbing each month. WhatI’ve found myself doing is gravitating towards the titles Image has been putting out.  There’s WAY too much good stuff coming from those guys.

Anyway, this is what I grabbed this week.

Batman. Of the three main new Batman titles that came with DC’s New 52 initiative, the only one I’ve stuck with has been this one.  Scott Snyder has been writing Batman in a fantastically dark way.  Really just totally screwing him over, and I’ve been loving every minute of it.  This month’s issue is a quiet one, a little introspective, and seems to a certain extent to be designed to pull in Red Robin readers.  That said, the art is still beautiful, the character work tight, and the set up for next month’s shenanigans pretty damn cool.  Not the best on this run but still a solid entry.

Red Hood and the Outlaws. Having said I only pull two DC titles, they do both come out on the same week.  This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure.  It’s totally trashy, low-brow, shit-blowing-up, one-liner fun. Occasionally there’s a stab at character development, but it’s very much a secondary concern.  It’s not good, but it is fun.

Supercrooks. I’m always up for a first issue in a run, especially if it’s written by the same guy who scribed Kick Ass.  That said, I’m not sure I’m going to pick up issue #2.  Everything is competently done.  Leinil Yu’s art always looks great.  But, to be honest, not that much happened.  There were some cool flashy moments, but not much to really hook me into the story.  It all just felt like preamble to anything interesting happening.  Good perhaps, but not fun.

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode. Technically this is from last week, but I missed it, and read it this week.  I have genuinely loved this series, and was sad to see it go.  Good and fun, for sure.  And terribly, terribly violent. Oh my God, the violence.  The pretty, pretty ultraviolence.  This is very similar to Kick Ass in some ways, but… no, you should read it.  The action is insane, and the ending has genuine balls.  Totally worth grabbing the whole series if you can.

And there’s a few others, but I’m running out of time.  Maybe more later.

Anyway, have fun out there.


A series by any other name [poll time!]

Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.

Two things.

One: Yesterday’s Hero has a preliminary cover with the title and my name and cool stuff like that on it.  Check it:

I don’t know about you, but I kind of like that.

Two: One of the reasons this is just a preliminary cover, is that now I have a book two, I need a series name.  Or something similar.  I got a few suggestions from folk on facebook, and then I messed around with my own ideas.  And then I ran everything by The Arbiter of Taste (otherwise known as Mrs Wood).  So based on that conversation there is now a shortlist.

Coming up with names is always a horrible ordeal for me, and I’m never sure if I’ve picked the right thing, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to crowd-source some good taste.  Therefore I officially announce the first Help-Me-Pick-A-Name-For-My-Series Poll:

Take Our Poll

Thanks for the help!