I have reason to suspect that I have recently been hacked. I’ve taken necessary steps to secure my computer and accounts. If you get any strange messages or emails, let me know please.
I have reason to suspect that I have recently been hacked. I’ve taken necessary steps to secure my computer and accounts. If you get any strange messages or emails, let me know please.
I’m pleased to announce my new role as Executive Editor for Dark Recesses Press, owned and run by publisher Bailey Hunter.
DRP has brought me on board to help with a little bit of everything, and I’m looking forward to the challenge. There are some upcoming projects at DRP that I’m very excited about, and which I plan to be up to my elbows in. Keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming DRP news!
I just sent this to Books of the Dead Press via email and will be sending it to their last-known mailing address via registered mail. I have also decided to post this here to ensure that the message is recieved.
I’m writing to you to express my sheer frustration and bewilderment at the lack of communication over the last few months. I’ve tried contacting you several times and have not received any response to my attempts at contact since October 1.
In addition to the failure of Suspended in Dusk 2, each royalty payment I’ve received from Books of the Dead for Suspended in Dusk has been progressively closer to the “no later than 160 days from the end of the period” stipulated in my contract. It has now been 168 days since the end of Q2 and I still have not received payment, as per the aforementioned paragraph of the contract.
I have lost faith in Books of the Dead Press to adhere to and fulfil the contract for Suspended in Dusk 1 and the contract for Suspended in Dusk 2 has been made completely redundant by the lack of communication and action from yourself which has resulted in the lapse of all the author contracts and the sale of their fiction to other markets. The virtual disappearance of your presence in social media, the disappearance of your website and the disappearance of royalty payments within the contractually agreed time period leaves me no choice as to my actions. I regret to say that I am—without delay and on the basis of there being no “notice of default and right to cure” clause in the contract requiring me to grant you time to correct this—reclaiming my rights to both Suspended in Dusk 1 and 2. I will be requesting that Amazon remove Suspended in Dusk from their site and I will send you this as a letter via registered mail to the one address that ANY of the books of the dead authors have for you:
Books of the Dead
c/o James Roy Daley
742 Pascoe Crt.,
Canada, L1K 1S9
I will also put the contents of this letter of this letter on my blog, in the hope that you have received this message.
I don’t know why you’ve disappeared. Maybe you’ve had some life or health problem that you needed to take care of. It happens to all of us and I genuinely hope you’re well—but I can’t do business with you and I need to take my work to someone who is visible, communicative, is paying as per my contract and who actually has their hand on the tiller.
Sorry it had to be this way,
I’m walking to work, freezing my ass off in the morning chill, flicking through Facebook on my phone and thinking “Why horror?”. Ahead of me, pedestrians gather at the crossing—pre-morning-coffee men standing sullen in their suits and long trench coats; Women, slightly more composed in their lacquered nails and corporate war paint, leather knee-high boots and long, quilted coats.
This is not exactly unusual; I examine the “Why Horror” question on a semi-regular basis, despite thinking I have my answers down. This morning is a little different, however. I don’t pull out the usual trite “We read/write horror because it helps us to deal with the horrors of the real world” bollocks, which, although true enough, seems played out and tired. I don’t roll with the “We just like to scare ourselves. Us human beings get a real kick out of it” business, despite rightly enjoying the cheap thrill of controlled frisson as much as (or more than) the next person. It’s the loss of warmth in my phone hand as the circa 0-degree Celsius weather saps what little warmth is left from my poorly-circulated arthritic claw that causes my epiphany.
Horror fiction is not only about loss; ultimately, it’s about love.
Whut? I know, I know—allow me to join my nonsense-dots for you.
Let’s assume literature (or all art really), is—on some level—an attempt by humankind to explain, rationalise or comment on the world around us, or to an attempt to evoke or recreate emotion. We see this struggle for realisation and understanding it in the basic mythologies and creation myths. We see it in religious texts. We see it in the the works of philosophers and the socio-political commentary of books like 1984, Animal Farm, and Catch 22. We see it manifest in the commentary (feminist literary criticism, formalism, moral criticism, etc) and analysis of literature (What did the author mean when they said such and such? And even the legacy authors has left the world today…see: Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Rumi, et al). We see our emotions evoked via rousing tales of comedy, valour, drama, terror and love. Through this w of this we, as readers, come to know ourselves, our fellow humans and the world around us.
To be honest, on this frigid morning, hundreds of bleak Soviet-seeming metres away from my heated office, I’m a pretty selfish guy. I couldn’t care less how literature has performed that function historically, or how it does it today. Remember—It’s Monday morning, pre-9am. I’m pre-coffee, and I’m freezing my balls off in the fog by the traffic lights; this is all about me, mate. So “how does literature ‘do it’ for me?” I wonder as my bony blue-ing claw clamps rheumatically around my Motorola.
While there’s no hard and fast rules in the world of writing (indeed, perhaps the very best literature smashes, or at least subverts, the rules), it’s always seemed to me that certain genres of literature seemed to be purpose-built for certain things. Where literary fiction might be best suited to answering (or at least asking) timeless questions of life, and the human condition—science fiction seems geared to dealing with issues of morality, ethics surrounding societies and their development and implementation of technologies. And how it may all fit together (or fall apart!) sometime into the future. Fantasy, on the other hand, gives us the ‘Hero’s Journey’, riffs on good versus evil, allows us to imagine changing of the world for the better, and perhaps even allows us to indulge our complex modern thinking in a simple pre-modern setting (credit to Nick Mamatas for that last poignant observation). These are all important genres that often ask important questions or deal with important issues. Exciting and fun genres, even. But there’s something about them that, to me personally, seems so separate from my condition. At a basic level, something about them fails to speak to me-as-human-being, in a particularly profound way.
It’s 2016. Maybe it’s the Prozac. Maybe it’s because I deal with complex technology all day in my day job and secretly harbour an Anarcho-Luddite fantasy of the nuclear bombs going off and a return to much simpler times. Maybe it’s because I’m locked into the same 24/7 news cycle hamster wheel we all are and am heartily repulsed and disillusioned by all aspects of the greater human condition. Maybe it’s simply because I’m older now and have slipped so far into nihilistic cynicism that I can’t appreciate the wide-eyed wonder of fantasy anymore, and disbelieve in the possibility of individuals creating profound change. Frankly, as often as I do, I don’t really connect with this subject matter and find the themes tedious. I don’t care to ask l questions about the fundamental truths of the human condition. I couldn’t care less about the imaginings of future technology and how it may impact society. Who cares if the hero has a journey, or if he even arrives at his destination? Most of the time, I just want to feel something. Anything.
Back at the pedestrian crossing, the little green man signal springs to life. There is a brief moment where there my fellow pedestrians remain frozen in hesitation, not trusting their eyes that it’s truly safe to step onto the asphalt. I shove the icicle on the end of my arm into my coat pocket. I don’t need the phone anymore, I have the bit in my teeth. I’m onto something here. I step onto the road.
Jack Ketchum once related that a fan thought his writing was really all about loss. Having read most of Jack’s work, I think that reader was right. Having said that, I’d go a step further and say it’s not only true of Jack’s work, it’s true of all horror fiction. So how have I made that leap? Well, to understand that we need to discuss fear. After all, horror fiction is that which deals with the emotion fear in its various forms.
Fear (and its most extreme form, terror) is the oldest emotion. With fear comes that animalistic fight-or-flight defence mechanism, an aspect of our existence that’s survived countless aeons, the selection and mutations of evolution, and man’s descent from the canopies and ascent into consciousness. As the oldest emotion (and probably most important, I think), we as humans are ruled by it. It’s central to our existence and who we are. It governs all our most important decisions and actions. And fear? Fear thrives on loss. I’d go so far as to say that if you think about it the right way, almost everything we fear is actually a fear of losing something.
Let’s take your employment, as a case study and we’ll ‘what if’ it to the nth degree. None of us want to lose our job, even the mere thought of it causes most of us anxiety or true panic. What happens if you lose your job? In the worst case scenario, you lose your financial stability. You lose your ability to buy food. You lose your ability to pay your rent or mortgage. You lose your ability to provide for your dependents. You might lose your spouse and your kids. You lose your ability to sustain your hygiene and health. Hells bells, my pulse quickens a little just entertaining the thought of any of that stuff.
Now let me refer you back to that initial bizarre comment about horror being somehow about love. If we fear to lose something—if the thought of its loss or its destruction, is so horrifying to us— it’s usually because we actually love that thing. We love the challenge and the reward of gainful employment. We love the stability and security it brings. We love full bellies and the warmth and comfort clothes over our back and a roof over our head. We love our spouses and children and our ability to provide for them. We love our vitality, good health and happiness. This is all as true for me in 2016 as it would’ve been for a me in 3000BC. Or 10,000BC.
At this point, I’m halfway across that road, breath steaming in the morning air. I’m beginning to feel some tingles of life in my phone hand again, but you heard me say ‘Horror is Love’ and I can hear y’all revving your engines, ready to run me over, little green man be damned!
Upon reflection, this might just be the truest, most-distilled reason why I read and write horror fiction. By the mere virtue of what it is, it’s just so damn emotionally honest. It’s the literature of love and loss. It speaks to me, like no other fiction does, on a truly animalistic level and in a wholly intuitive way that I don’t need to overly rationalise. My inner fucking caveman understands what’s going on here! Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate and enjoy the over-arching tale the author is telling, even the cautionary tale or social criticism they’re exploring—but beyond and deeper than that, on a fundamentally primordial level, as a motherfucking biological being, I can relate to horror fiction. No other genre gives me this visceral response, which harkens back to my most basic involuntary reptilian psychological and physiological functions. No other form of literature seems such an honest expression of what it means to be human or to be alive. No other genre understands me as a biological being that is trying to survive this inexorable series of harrowing moments between birth and death. I’m not even joking when I say—truly understanding fear, understanding horror, is in my (all of ours, really) DNA.
The little green man becomes a little red man as I step onto the kerb. The sullen men and well-manicured and composed women hurry away to their workplaces like good corporate denizens, anticipatory frowns creasing their brows. I smile because I understand now, and I appreciate the honesty.
Love and loss—that’s horror.
One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short: At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.
Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:
Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.
Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:
There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”
I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)
Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of: the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire. (Note: Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)
“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”
And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)
“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:
My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.
The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.
Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!
You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”
Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)
The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:
The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.
The dead man’s daughter opens the door.
She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.
“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.
In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:
Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!
Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.
You think you know about pain?
Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.
She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.
My second wife says that’s pain.
She doesn’t know shit, that woman.
Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain. I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??
When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).
Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:
When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.
When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:
Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.
I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.
Don’t front-load your exposition.
Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.
Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.
Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.
Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.
For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.
In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:
“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”
In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally, in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is: “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.
Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:
“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.
Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.
Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.
I was super chuffed to beta-read this collection. I am so happy this is going live.
Karen is the future of horror. Her work pulls at your heart strings while making the bile rise in the back of your throat. Buy this book.
If you don’t believe me, here’s Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones, two of the best horror writers we’ve got right now, telling you to do the same:
“I want to read this book all over again, just to see how Karen Runge does it – how she uses her prose like a razor, her insight like a probe. The story collection of the year.”
– Stephen Graham Jones
“The desire and despair of her characters is intelligently and compassionately rendered, and you’re made to feel every drop of spilled blood. A stunning debut collection.”
– Paul Tremblay
Just do it:
I’ve read a few short stories in my time. How many hundred, it’d be hard to say. Having written my own short stories and having read so many written by other people, it is pretty clear to me that the hardest aspect of short story writing is nailing the beginning. If I had to make a wild-ass guess, I’d say maybe 3% of writers know how to start a short story.
This is going to be a lengthy post because, frankly, it’s something I’m super passionate about. What I cover here is probably the number one issue that makes me, as an editor, want to stop reading a submission.
Invariably, authors fall into three categories:
I’ll get back to these categories a bit later on.
So what, or when, is the start of the story?
I’ve often heard people say “Start the story as close to the end as possible”. This was certainly one of the 8 pieces of advice the great Kurt Vonnegut has given. I guess this makes a kind of sense, but, personally, it never seemed particularly actionable advice to me as I always found it to be interminably vague. How does someone really know where the end of the story is when they’re just starting to write the dang thing? Hell, if you believe that guff about “Pansters and Plotters”, then probably 50% of people don’t even know what the end of their story will be when they start writing.
One might, of course, argue that this is a form of editing advice, more than it is writing advice. I.e the author should write the story and then return to the beginning and pare things back until they reach the true start of the story. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose—but for the newer writer who still has no idea how to determine the true start of the story, of what value is it to them?
Over time, mostly because I’ve always found it comparatively easier to determine, I’ve started to consider the true beginning of the story to be the “Inciting Incident”.
An explanation of the Inciting Incident excerpted from NarrativeFirst.com:
The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory (emphasis mine); everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.
I guess if I think about it I always start a short story from the very first incident of that story. So for instance, in my story The Name Game, which is set entirely at a dinner party in which my protagonists, a husband and wife, are meeting their new neighbours for the first time, I started the story with the couple knocking on the door of their hosts’ house – and then any background stuff which is relevant (e.g. they’ve just moved in to their new house) will become apparent through dialogue or short, explanatory sentences attached to either an action or a piece of dialogue which pushes the story forward.
I recently had a great chat with Anthony Rivera, publisher and editor at Grey Matter Press, and after prefacing his comments with the statement that there is no one right way to start a story, he said:
It’s possible to write an effective short story in a number of ways and how it “starts” depends on the piece itself — slow burn or whatever. But, if one is looking to grab the reader’s attention quickly, I would agree with your Inciting Incident approach. I might even go one step beyond and say, if possible (which of course it’s not always, nor does the strategy lend itself to every short story), start in the middle of said “incident”.
The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: In the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it is one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning if you let it.
That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene.
This is where the story begins. It is your narrative hook, the tip of the iceberg, early hints at theme, character, setting—and if done right, the conflict. This is where your Inciting Incident happens, that moment in time where the story really begins, that tipping point beyond which things will never be the same. Whether your story is a straight line, a circle coming round, or some other structure, you have to start someplace. As mentioned in previous columns, starting in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things,” is a great way to grab your audience’s attention. You are setting the stage here, so paint a picture, give us the backdrop, and start the thread (or threads) that will run through your narrative. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stopped reading a story because the opening paragraph was random, boring, or confusing.
Personally, I often think of the Inciting Incident not necessarily as a problem or necessarily a direct challenge that protagonist is faced with, but more of an “event”. The Event (as I like to think of it) may be immediately problematic or challenging to the protagonist, or the challenge/problem/change that it sparks may be less obvious and not immediately apparent. This is where I believe the quote from NarrativeFirst.com is actually so brilliant. If you view “exciting” with the meaning “to arouse, to stir up” rather than “to make happy and eager” then this quote makes perfect sense. The Inciting Incident is like someone (or some thing!) plunging into a body of water, stirring the sediment off the pond floor. Until that Event occurred, the water was calm, still and clear. Thus the purpose of the The Event is to create movement, or as I call it elsewhere, Locomotion.
For me, thinking of the Inciting Incident as The Event is extremely useful. When I think of an “incident” (or incitement, for that matter!) I immediately think of something that has gone wrong, something terrible, an emergency, overt conflict. The start of your story is not necessarily terrible; is not necessarily something going wrong; is not necessarily over conflict. There start of your story, however, is an event of one kind or another though. Thinking of it in this way widens the scope so that the starts of the story is no longer only about the explosion or gun going off, but rather the start may be any event of true plot importance. This then opens wide the possibilities for slow-burn stories as well as tales that grip you by the short and curlies form the first line.
What is the result of completely missing The Event—or worse, having no Event at all?
When the beginning of a story strays too far from the Inciting Incident, stories tend to fall into either Category 1 or 2 mentioned earlier.
For Category 1 beginnings, the authors have begun writing before their story has actually begun. In this case, everything before that incident is backstory, a form of prologue, which in the short story world can be a kiss of death for the reader (especially the editor you’re submitting your story to). I somewhat snarkily refer to this as “The Pre-Incident Waffle”. Quite often those authors guilty of Pre-incident Waffle are also offenders of the crime of The Post-Incident Waffle, as well.
Generally speaking, starting close to, or at, The Event will also ensure the story is a memorable one for casual readers and fans. It will be an interesting story that is immediately going places and will encourage readers to continue reading and keep turning those pages.
In another piece, I talk about “Locomotion” and use a freight train as analogy for a story. Backstory is just that, back story. Back story is missing the train. It may be interesting information but doesn’t advance the plot of the actual story you’re trying to tell at all. Think about it—you jump in a train expecting to go forward to your destination, not backwards for a few stops before it starts moving forward once more!
For Category 2 beginnings, as mentioned previously, the author has begun writing AFTER their story has begun. This is actually the more disastrous of the two categories, in my opinion.
When a story has no Inciting Incident, when that initial event that is meant to upset the humours of your protagonist, or present them with a challenge, or push them into action, or cause to step out into the wide world, doesn’t exist—it risks becoming a sequence of events that happen for no reason; or a series of events that just unfold (see: slice of life or vignette). We live in a world of cause and effect. When something happens to us, we respond to it. Our circumstances change. Our story begins to evolve and write itself. Whether we consciously know this or not, we know it at a subconscious level. When you come across a story where that conflict was merely alluded to, or worse still, absent… there is no cause and effect. There is no conflict or incident, no response by the protagonist, no push that propels your story train forward along the tracks.
Category 3 beginnings have the author starting close to, at, or during the Inciting Incident. This means that from virtually the moment the reader begins with the tale, that plot is moving forward. From here on in, your story might be a slow burn to the heavens (or hells), or it might be a rollercoaster ride, but either way, your reader is locked in from the get-go.
To conclude, by way of cautionary advice, I’d like to share some advice from Nick Mamatas. For those who don’t know him, Nick is a former editor of the speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld; is the editor of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Haikasoru; and is an author of various short stories and collections, and novels such as the forthcoming I Am Providence (pre-order it here). The following advice from is his collection of essays Starve Better. I’ll interject here and there in bold where I think he’s touching on something I’ve talked about:
The cult of advice has misled many a short story writer. Here’s an insidious piece of advice you’ve surely heard before: Your short story has to start strong, with a hook.
On one level, it isn’t even bad advice. Often, writers do just sit down and start writing. They have no idea how to begin a story, so they often begin at the beginning—with their protagonist waking up. Or perhaps with a lengthy bit of scene-setting, or the weather (Simon: literally the two most common bad starts to a story, in my opinion) or a snippet from a historical artifact or newspaper article. Pages and pages of background information, or the results of research, or tooling around with breakfast foods, keep the reader from getting to the story for pages and pages(Simon: I think this what I call the “Pre-Incident Waffle”). The most common variations are especially deadly—I once had a streak of five stories in a row that featured a protagonist awaking confused in a strange room. Even if the fifth story was actually very good and absolutely required such an opening, I was already poisoned by its competitors. (Don’t fret, though; I walked my dog and came back to the fifth story after a short break. It was terrible.)
The flaw of the “Gotta have a hook!” advice is that it leads to a secondary error on the part of many writers. Having heard that new writers tend to have a few pages of nonsense up front and that stories have to be engaging from the get-go, they often create an energetic first paragraph full of gun fights, monsters, characters cursing (“Fuuuuck!” or “Oh SHIT!” are very common story openings these days), and various other “hooks.” Then, almost invariably, the author reveals that the gunfights are on TV, the monsters from a dream, the cursing character has woken up with a back spasm or is simply stuck in traffic (indeed, “stuck in traffic” might be the new “just woken up”) and then we have the several pages of nonsense before the story actually begins (Simon: I think this is what I refer to elsewhere as the “Post-Incident Waffle”). Rather than correcting the error of a boring beginning by eliminating the boring beginning or by changing the story’s structure so that it is interesting from beginning to end, they simply added some “action” up top.
I believe this advice from Nick is cogent and gels pretty well with my own beliefs on the matter, in that it advises the writer to eliminate the boring beginning and move to the start of the story and once that start is found, to eliminate the following pages of garble that are so common afterwards. Nick also makes a great point that the opening of the story need not be a string of explosions or curse words; rather, as I’ve stated previously, it should be The Event.
I am very pleased to say I’ve sold my story “Music Box” to the forthcoming Creepy Campfire Quarterly Issue #6 from EMP Publishing. The anthology is edited by Jennifer Word and issue #6 is due April 2017.
A new market, CCQ seems to be doing some interesting things, and they seem quite open minded about the kind of horror they enjoy and accept, which provides some opportunity for writers of more ‘extreme’ fiction. I approve!
My story “Music Box” features naughty kids, misunderstood teachers, Indian Mynah birds, heavy metal music, and Mariah Carey.
And I promise you, it’s true.
To celebrate the impending release of Suspended in Dusk 2, Books of the Dead Press have decided to give a free ebook copy of Suspended in Dusk 2 – upon release – to anyone who writes an Amazon.com review of Suspended in Dusk between October 29 2015 and the time of the SiD 2 release. All readers need to do is email Books of the Dead Press (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let us know which review is yours.
Suspended in Dusk 2 is in final stages of editing and should be released in the next couple of months.
You can find it here on Amazon:
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