CSFF Blog Tour – Residential Aliens, Day 3

Part 1 of Jeff Chapman's story in Residential Aliens

In my last post, I mentioned my plans, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour of the zine Residential Aliens, to do a review, but left the subject of such, up in the air. For a moment I was tempted to turn the table and review the blog participants! 😀 Now that could have resulted in some interesting discussion, don’t you think?

I also considered doing a review of one of the stories, but Bruce Hennigan, Jeff Chapman, and our newest member, Dean Hardy, among others, gave excellent reviews in their posts.

I considered giving a review of editor extraordinaire Lyn Perry himself, but Fred Warren beat me to that one and did a much better job than I could have, by far.

Well, there’s the obvious — a review Residential Aliens as a whole. Yep, you guessed it: on Monday Sarah Sawyer posted an article taking a critical look at the site.

So here’s what I decided after reading Shannon McDermott‘s post giving a thorough overview of Residential Aliens: I’m going to review the short story. Not a short story — the genre, short story.

Early in my writing career, I read that learning to write the short story was so unique and different from writing a novel that it required its own set of skills. That was enough to scare me off. I had my hands full trying to learn what I needed for my novel.

Then along came a little short story contest held by World Magazine. They wanted stories written from a Christian worldview, and they posted the submissions on line, allowing others to comment or critique.

Well, that was interesting. The upshot was, I decided writing short stories looked like a lot more fun than I’d imagined. And doable.

Not long after, Bethany House editor Dave Long began to hold short story contests which I entered. And I had the bug.

I’m not sure if it was the short story bug or the contest bug (probably the latter), but one thing I discovered — short stories afforded me the opportunity to experiment with voice, point of view, story structure, and whatever else I wanted to play with. In short, I discovered that short stories are a great boon to a writer.

Not only did they help me learn my craft, I actually sold a couple stories and had some modest success in a couple contests. That feedback was encouraging.

Now I’d recommend to any writer starting out to begin with short stories.

But what about for readers? I rarely read short stories these days. And yet, I find myself eighty pages into an anthology of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and I love them.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I don’t shy away from short stories as much as they shy away from me. Magazines don’t carry them any more (even Writer’s Digest which used to publish the winner of their Short, Short Story Competition, now puts it online, not in their magazine). I don’t get a Sunday school paper as I used to — those were always good for a story or two. And I’m no longer subscribed to the one or two magazines that may still carry short stories.

I have to say, I’m not fond of reading stories on the computer. I tend to think of reading as a chance to settle back and enjoy, not sit at a desk. Consequently free ezines hold less appeal to me than novels.

But then I see that Residential Aliens has multiple formats available, and I think, here’s an editor/publisher who understands the transitional world in which we live. One day, I suspect, everyone except the rare book collector will be reading from eReaders of some sort. But today we are in flux, and the more formats offered, the better the chance that readers of one stripe or another will find the stories.

May that be true of those Residential Aliens has published.

Writing Inspirational Stories

I decided to try it. Writer’s Digest holds semi-annual writing competition, and one of the categories is Inspirational. For years I’ve received the promo material for this contest and never entered this category. I wrote a couple stories for the Genre Fiction category, but Inspirational had me stumped.

A friend of mine even told me a few years ago that she finished in the top 100, I think it was. What exactly was the “Inspirational” category, I asked her. Oh, anything, she said. Stories? Yes, she said, her entry was a story.

So last year, I decided to try it. Except, what exactly was an Inspirational story? I didn’t have a clue, and wasn’t sure I really wanted to figure it out.

Here it is, a year later, and there was that Inspirational category staring me in the face again.

So what is an Inspirational story?

Too late, I saw this year that Writer’s Digest did a good job answering that question. These stories have explicit religious messages. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

Inspirational: An article, essay or story with an explicitly religious, spiritual or otherwise inspirational focus. An article that’s suitable for Guideposts or St. Anthony Messenger, for example, would be inspirational. An essay on how the power of Christ, (or Buddha, or Allah or Vashti) touched your life would be inspirational. A story about the power of religion, the power of prayer, or the power of the universe would be inspirational.

That would have helped, but I don’t think I was too far off. I figured an Inspirational story should be one that showed change, inspirational change.

OK, I was struggling. Was it like a Hallmark feel-good story that brought you to tears or gave you a warm feeling or a heavy sigh?

This was definitely a challenge, one I didn’t know if I was able to figure out.

For that matter, I’m not sure I’ve got short stories figured out.

A few years ago, Writer’s Digest carried an article about writing the shorter kinds of stories. This came out some time before their Short, Short Story Competition. Anyway, the gist of the article was that voice was the all-important component for the shortest of stories. So that’s what I worked on.

But this year, in one of the recent issues of the magazine there were a couple articles about crafting short stories. One was “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative.” (Oh, it’s not all about voice, then, at least if the short story isn’t of the 1500 word kind. I wonder about the 2500 word Inspirational kind). The other was “Broadening Your Story’s Scope” (in 2500 words? In the Inspirational category?)

OK, I concluded, this is definitely harder than it looks. But try, I decided to do. And did. Turned it in this afternoon, just before the deadline (midnight tonight) before the deadline (May 20, if you pay a late fee).

Now I’m wondering how inspirational Inspirational stories need to be. 🙄

– – –

Time still to vote in the CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award Poll and in the What do you read poll. Also, have you passed the links along to others in your circle asking them to vote? If you do, you’ll win … my undying gratitude. But maybe I need to hold a book drawing. Hmmm, now that might just happen.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 7:49 pm  Comments (4)  
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Are Stories Getting Shorter?

In this day of the Tweet and the Facebook status update, of texting and email, are we programming ourselves for “short”?

On one hand there seems to be some evidence that this might be the case. Short Youtube videos are as popular as TV shows. In the written media, I’ve seen more novellas in the last five years than perhaps the previous ten combined.

These intermediate stories — either a very long short story, or a very short novel — once were the stuff of collections. Now they have begun to appear as digital offerings, a way, perhaps, for an author to test the water of self-publishing without risking a more time-consuming project.

Is this a trend or an anomaly?

Perhaps it’s a replacement.

None have been seen since 1959

Short stories seem to be going the way of the Pallid beach mouse. Once populating Florida, the little creature hasn’t been seen in more than half a century.

Certainly short story collections have a hard time finding a publishing home. And magazines that carry short stories are a dying breed.

Yes, there is hope for short stories on the Internet. Online webzines continue to crop up from time to time, but fewer of these are paying markets, which means writers may as well publish their short stories on their own site, as I have from time to time, where their regular readers are more apt to find them.

Could it be, however, that short stories, rather than disappearing, are expanding? That the novella trend is not a replacement of the novel at all but a void filler for the absent short stories?

Publishing, the new Wild West

I suppose there’s no way to know. As one industry professional recently describe publishing, it’s currently the wild, Wild West.

Self-reliance was the most important ingredient for survivors in the days of land-grabs and cattle rustlers.

Or was it?

When there was no lawman in town, no doctor, and often no preacher or teacher, people learned to rely on themselves or to bond together and rely on their community. Guess which ones thrived the most.

So in the structural vacuum of publishing, with its fenceless expanses and ever increasing numbers of charlatans offering a helping hand to the wannabe writer hoping for a bargain price on choice publishing real estate, who’s to say if short will win out or die out?

Some believe the reader will finally get the say. So, what do you like to read — short stories, novellas, or novels? (Is it time for another poll, before the previous one is not even half way to completion? 🙄 )

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm  Comments (6)  
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Short Story – The Stones Cry Out, Part 3

Summary: Because of Kor’s ability to hear stones prophesy, the governor of Cepea appoints him to become a watchman. After years of training, Kor finally takes his place on the wall. That first night he learns the other watchmen are lax about their job, presumably because they feel no enemy would consider attacking a berg protected by watchmen at one with the stones.

A week later, however, Kor hears the sounds of a great force marching toward the city. He signals the alarm for defensive measures. When the governor questions him, he admits he saw nothing. The governor then brings in the other watchmen. He is in the process of questioning Pran, a watchman who returned to his station drunk.

And now the conclusion:

Straightening, Pran wiped a hand over his mouth. “I saw the captain astride a white charger.”

Kor spun toward Pran. What was the drunken watchman saying? Surely, if there had been a white charger, its hooves would have clanged on the stony road—a sound Kor couldn’t have missed, even if somehow he overlooked a white warhorse prancing toward the city!

The governor slid next to Pran and latched onto the wall with both hands. “A single horse, then?”

“At the head of a column. I could not see how far reaching it was.”

Governor Hadan motioned to his page. “To Commander Jart. Tell him to prepare level five defenses.”

The governor strutted to the ladder, but turned back to the three watchmen. “You’ve done well. Your city is in your debt. Especially to you, Watchman Pran.”

Rays of light brightened the sky, and soon after, the sun climbed above the edge of the world. Commander Jart sent his scouts out to ascertain the accuracy of the information the watchmen provided. Upon returning, each patrol reported they saw no evidence of an approaching army, no evidence of an entrenched force, and no evidence one had retreated. In fact, there was no evidence of an army of any kind.

Kor swallowed his shame. You’ve done well, the governor had said, but the words clanked in his mind like a cracked signal bell. Most likely Marshal Tong had been asleep and didn’t really hear the marching. Watchman Pran, certainly drunk at the time, imagined or invented his white charger, and undoubtedly heard nothing.

By midmorning, the rest of the city knew who rang the first warning bell and forgot who the governor had especially praised. The newest watchman panicked, the soldiers said. He thought he heard marching, but it was only the hammering of his fearful heart. The jeers, intermingling with surly scowls, continued for days, all aimed at Kor, as if he alone bore the responsibility for the false signal.

Except, the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp had not been false.

On the night of the Second Approach, when the sound again reverberated through the darkness, Kor knew with certainty the marching was real.

As before, he had just finished his final pass along the city wall and settled in his chair to fill out the log. The distant tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp spurred him from his seat. His heart thudded against his rib cage in time with the quick-stepping march.

Again? But how could he strike the warning signal after his recent humiliation?

He sprang to the parapet and peered toward the River Road. Nothing. Yet the thud of boots on stone grew louder. And nearer. He strained to see even the faint outline of an enemy soldier, but darkness canvassed the road weaving down the gradual incline separating Cepae from the river.

Pressing his ear to the wall, Kor waited. The stones would tell him what to do. He just had to be patient. That was the problem last time. He acted in haste, maybe in fear.

But the stones remained silent. The cadenced tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp grew louder, accompanied now by a low-pitched hum.

Kor clambered up the ladder to the top of the battlement. More rhythmic stamping. From how many soldiers? A squad? A platoon? A division? If only he could see them. He squinted into the darkness. Nothing.

Were they invisible? Cepae’s enemies would seek any advantage, any means of conquering the city protected by her stones.

Kor leaped down the ladder and sprinted to his alcove. His hand shook as he clutched the bell cord and clanged out the warning signal.

At once the marching died away. Silence. Then the answering clatter from the other watchmen and from the gatekeepers. More slowly, the armed soldiers stumbled from the garrison and milled around the square.

No signal fire appeared in the citadel tower, and Master Iba instead of Governor Hadan climbed to the rampart.

“What did you see, Watchman?”

“I heard marching, Master. A large force.”

“Did Marshal Tong confirm this?”

“He only signaled a response.”

“So on this occasion, you alone heard this supposed enemy army.”

“I think I understand now, Master. The enemy has learned some manner of shrouding their presence, but they can’t hide the sound of their approach.”

“I don’t hear anything, Watchman.”

“It … it has stopped now, Master.”

“So, this invisible army that can’t cover the sound of its approach is silent in its retreat?”

“I know it doesn’t make sense, Master, but I heard the marching.”

“Though none of the others on the River Wall heard a thing?”

Kor swallowed his desire to tell his master how incompetent Marshal Tong was as a watchman, how drunk Pran was night after night. Such accusations would appear to be feeble efforts to justify his own ineptitude. He pushed aside a pebble with his foot and gave a half shrug.

“What did the stones tell you, Watchman?”

“They were silent.”

“Then why didn’t you listen?” Master Iba spun away from Kor and ordered Commander Jart to cancel the alert.

Kor sagged against the wall. Why hadn’t he listened to the stones? That, after all, was why he was a watchman. He’d bent to hear what the stones had to say but stopped listening so he could look for the unseen army when the wall remained silent. As it was now. As it always was when Cepae was safe.

Had he imagined the marching then? Or had he neglected to explore the last possibility for its cause?

The Third Approach came a week later. As before, Kor left his alcove and positioned himself on the battlement, but instead of staring down the road, he pressed his ear against the stones and waited. The tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp resounded against the wall. Louder and louder. He held his ear firmly in place.

And then he heard the low hum, a melodious counterpoint to the steady beat of the approaching force. The stones vibrated, tickling his lobe, and he drew back. No matter. The melody was clear now, without his head resting against the wall.

Answering music floated to him from the River Road. The tune pierced his heart. It was promise, and fulfillment; anticipation, and satisfaction; hope, and completion. He wanted to laugh and weep, together. The beauty of the song required celebration, yet he mourned its inevitable loss.

“Not loss.” The stone beneath Kor’s hand shouted the words. The watchman yanked his hand away. From out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Song crest the hill toward Cepae.

In actuality, he saw a man dressed in the simple garments of a traveling minstrel. But from the wall, the stones sang a welcome, an announcement, a celebration of the Song. In return, the minstrel sang in pleasure and oneness with the stones he ruled.

That’s when Kor knew for certain. The marching had never been from an invading army. He bounded down the ladder and raced to his alcove. Seizing the bell cord, he clanged the special welcoming signal. Loudly his bell clattered into the night, a lone percussion from within the city, the required answer to the Song.

Kor straightened. Where were the bells responding to his signal? The squads of soldiers to escort the champion into the citadel?

Master Iba poked his head into Kor’s alcove. “What is it this time, Watchman?”

“You were right, Master. All I needed to do was listen.”

“And what did you think you heard?”

“The Song, Master. I hear the Song.”

But as he spoke, the music of the stones died away. The tramping ceased. The melody from the minstrel lingered a moment, then it too faded into the fading night.

“He’s gone.”

“No one was ever there, Kor. And clearly we made a mistake putting you in this position. You’re a danger to the city. We can’t have you pretending to hear armies that aren’t there.”

“I was wrong about the armies.”

“And you’re wrong now. There is no music, no song.”

“It died away.”

“It didn’t exist.” Master Iba beckoned him toward the ladder. “Come with me.”

“I haven’t finished my report.”

“Only watchmen make reports, Kor, and you are no longer a watchman.”

Master Iba prodded Kor off the rampart and across the square toward the citadel. Soldiers poked their heads from the garrison, growling curses. As Master Iba shoved Kor through the entrance, Governor Hadan appeared holding a cudgel.

He thrust his face near Kor’s and jammed the stick against his neck. “What kind of a scheme are you up to?”

Master Iba slammed the door.

As he did, the stones cried out, in imitation of the welcoming signal, and once again the tramp-tramp-a-tramp-tramp reverberated against the walls.


Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 10:51 am  Comments (12)  

Fantasy Friday – The Fifth (or And Speaking of Sub-genres)

Well, I’m excited. The April 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article about the hot genres of pop fiction, and science fiction/fantasy is on the list! In a graphic of subgenres, twenty varieties appear. Mind you, “horror” is listed as a separate genre with seventeen of its own subdivisions.

In comparison, mystery/crime has three subdivisions (although police procedural has fourteen sub-subgenres listed). Romance has a mere seven subgenres, with “Christian” being one.

So what, you might ask, is exciting about all this? Is Christian fantasy one of the subdivisions? No, but epic fantasy is, and that’s what I write, from a Christian worldview. Not urban fantasy or dark fantasy, SF thriller, new age, cyberpunk, steampunk, science fantasy, Arthurian, or fantastic alternate history. Those subgenres, and others on the list, seem to appeal to a select group, a niche, whereas epic fantasy has an appeal that spans age groups and reading preferences.

And here’s what the Writer’s Digest article said:

[Crawford] Kilian [author of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy] also sees a return to eic fantasy, spurred by The Lord of the Rings movies. He cites a new series, Queen of the Orcs, derived from one of Tolkien’s fanciful species. The return of the epic style is welcome to [Harper Collins Voyager Publishing Director Jane] Johnson who wrote a companion piece for The Two Towers, and is currently working on an epic children’s fantasy series, the Eidolon Chronicles.

“It’s hard to beat the rush of finding a tale with huge scope and a cast of brilliant characters,” she says. “For me, there’s nothing more absorbing.”

For reader and writer alike, I might add. How else can anyone explain the huge love affair our culture has with Lord of the Rings, which spills out to include nearly everything Tolkien.

So there you have it. I’m finally writing what’s “in,” at least according to this general market writing periodical. 😀

One other reason I’m excited. Recently I received news that a story I entered in the Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest placed. No, not in the money, but I do get free books, my name in the magazine, and my story included in the collection of winners. That’s cool in itself, but here’s the part I’m excited about. The story is Christian fantasy, the way I write it—like a parable. And this contest was not genre specific. In other words, this story was judged along with contemporary stories, literary stories, you name it.

As I see it, that confirms my belief that Christian fantasy can “cross over.” It does not have to be a story only for Christians. Of course, those who don’t have the eyes to see may not discover the meaning of the parable. They will, however, enjoy a good story, and it may be a story that will plant a seed or become a tool in the hands of a believer to illustrate what they’ve been telling their non-Christian friends about the gospel. At least that’s my prayer.

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