Short Story

Need For Read

As of today, I’m on holiday. I’m off to sunny, sunny Scotland. A holiday for me means warm food, cold drinks, and plenty of time for me to catch up on my reading.

“Do lots of reading” has got to be one of the most common pieces of writing advice. Reading should be a basic staple of any writers day, but I have a suspicion it’s often one of the first things that fall by the wayside when time gets tight­­­­. I’m guilty of it, and I know plenty of other writers who are too.

I ran the numbers, and so far this year I’ve definitely read less than ten books, some of those audio-books. Screw you, yes they still count.

I’ve been slacking, and that’s bad.

books 2

I am totally judging these by their covers

One of my favourite Tyrion Lannister quotes from George R.R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (better known as Game of Thrones):

‘A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much.’

Reading improves your vocabulary, your sentence structure, your pacing, your dialogue. Basically every part of your writing. Reading helps you spot what works and more importantly what doesn’t. The more you read the more refined your own writing “voice” becomes, the end result is something of an unconscious amalgamation of all your favourite subtleties, and that’s pretty cool.

Reading also helps me a lot when I get stuck with writer’s block. When I get trapped too much in my own head reading a book helps ground the writing process and once again make it an attainable thing. I think, this seems easy enough, maybe I can do this.

Hell, there are reading benefits that non-writers need to get in on too. Studies show reading helps your memory and fights against diseases like Alzheimer’s.

More than that, reading is fun. You get the same pleasure as you would from watching TV, but with the added bonus of it being vaguely intellectual, meaning you can lord it over people.

book man

I’ll have you know Sir, I read books

More seriously, it’s been suggested reading increases analytical thinking ability and a person’s empathy, improving a person’s ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. My God does the world seem to need a bit more of both of those things lately.

I know it sounds dramatic but I really do feel like reading is slowly becoming a lost medium. Literary fiction is in decline, and naturally, that scares the hell out of writers. Movies, TV shows, even big video game releases have become these big cultural events. It doesn’t seem to happen for books anymore, not since the Harry Potter frenzy years ago.

I have faith that it’s a temporary blip, despite the decline there are also reports that millennials are reading more than ever—so maybe the next generation is going to help with a resurgence.

I know I need to start getting more consistent with my own reading. In 2019 I’m setting myself the modest goal of reading at least 50 books, which roughly means reading a book a week. I’m going to set some time aside to read before bed, spending less time on my phone, and hopefully benefit from a better nights sleep as well.

How many books have you read this year? Are you on top or could you stand to do better? Why are people reading less and how can we fix that? Maybe you’re freaking out about all this and want to something to read RIGHT NOW.

– H. L.

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#2: The Ladder to Inferna

‘Tales From Inferna’ is an ongoing web serial. Part writing exercise, part homage to the pulp-fiction genre. Click here if you’re interested in learning more about the scope and goals of the project. Below you’ll find Issue #2, but be sure to start at the beginning with Issue #1 

ladder

Yura couldn’t climb the ladder any further.

‘Guys,’ he croaked, his arms shaking.

His companions pace quickened.

‘Guys!’ Yura repeated, louder this time.

‘Quiet!’ said the man furthest ahead, climbing ever faster.

They were leaving him. Leaving him to die. He could feel the miles of nothingness below, prickling his back, willing him to fall. He glanced downwards, wondering if he might have enough strength to climb back down. But that path was madness.

‘Mikki, please! I need help!’

The man furthest ahead continued to climb, but there was another behind him who paused.

‘We can’t help you, Yura,’ said Mikki.

‘I can’t climb anymore, Mikki,’ begged Yura. ‘Please don’t leave me behind. You’ve got to–’

‘Shut up!’ shouted the man farthest ahead. He was now out of sight, hidden by the darkness of the tunnel.

‘What our charming leader means is, any energy spent talking is energy not spent climbing. So unless you want to decorate the floor a nice shade of Yura, I suggest you get moving.’ With that, Mikki started climbing again.

Yura found himself all alone.

When Yura was young, he and his friends would play in the tunnels pretending to be hunters. Sometimes they would dare each other to climb the ladder. Yura was the only one who ever made it to the top. Back then the top of the ladder hadn’t been very far; a padlock and a metal grill stopped anyone who shouldn’t be there from climbing too high. To a gang of children though, it was as if Yura had touched Inferna itself.

But this was no longer pretend.

‘Yura!’ came a voice from above. ‘We’ve found the last hatch,’ said the voice again. It came from the leader of the expedition, Koko. ‘Get your arse up here now.’

Yura began to climb, each movement a trial. His body protested in agony, any moment now it would fail and he would plummet to his death.

As his grasp started to waver, two pairs of hands seized him and hoisted him upwards through a narrow opening.

He collapsed. He heard his pulse thumping in his ears, and faintly, the sound of a hatch being closed.

They were so close.

He wished his old friends could see him now: Yura the hunter. It still hadn’t sunk in. He was going to have the adventures they had all imagined, live the life they had dreamed of once upon a time.

‘You still with us, kid?’

Yura opened his eye to see Mikki and Koko standing over him. In the dark, with their identical suits and masks, it was impossible to tell them apart.

‘I’m ok,’ said Yura smiling, holding up a thumbs-up. ‘I am ok.’

Koko shook his head. ‘This isn’t playtime. We’re here to do a serious job.

Yura saw Mikki roll his eyes. ‘I know the circumstances aren’t ideal, but it’s the kids first day. Let him have a little fun.’

‘We’ve got hundreds of miles to walk,’ Koko started. ‘Rough sleeping. Nothing but disgusting liquid nutrients to keep us going. All to find a needle in a haystack. Not my idea of fun.’

‘Come on,’ said Yura, smiling. ‘Any day walking on the surface has got to be better than a day down below.’

Koko was silent, for a moment. It was only now Yura realised how thick the mood had been.

‘Let’s not forget why we’ve been sent up here. Amorak is dead. A man I once considered a very good friend. For some reason it just had to be me they sent to find his remains.’ said Koko. ‘So no, to answer your stupid question. The days up here are not “better”. I, for one, want to get this done and go home. Shape up and take this seriously, or maybe you’ll die up here too.’

All day Yura had worn an excited smirk, only now did he realise how it had been grating on Koko’s patience. The verbal walloping caused his face to yo-yo from a deep shade of red to a sickly pale white.

Koko stormed ahead to the next room, muttering.  

‘He’s moodier than usual today,’ said Mikki, offering a hand to help Yura up.

‘I didn’t mean to upset him.’

‘You haven’t done anything. You’re excited to see the surface, no shame in it. The dead bloke we’re looking for, Amorak, is a sore subject with Koko.’

‘Why?’ asked Yura.

‘It’s a whole thing, let’s just leave it at that. Come on, before he explodes again.’

The followed Koko into the next room. One much larger than the tight tunnels and shafts the three had been navigating for most of the day. At the far end of the room, Yura eyed a giant metal door and did his best not to smile.

Koko was kneeling on the floor, spreading open a map. He patted the edges down as they bounced free and let out a frustrated sigh.

‘This is us,’ Koko said, pointing to a section of the map. ‘We’ll hang about here for a bit. It’ll get cooler when the sun starts to set, meaning the suits don’t have to work quite so hard—meaning we’ll save some fuel.’

‘Are you writing this down?’ said Mikki.

‘I… I didn’t bring a pen.’ said Yura.

‘He’s joking.’ muttered Koko stone-faced. ‘He does that.’

‘Oh crack a smile you moody old git,’ said Mikki.

Koko ignored him. His finger slid across the map, resting on a series of crudely drawn houses. He then traced it back an inch and tapped the spot. ‘This is as far as I’m hoping Amorak got. If he made it any further I doubt we’ll ever find him.’

‘We’ll find him,’ said Yura. ‘His family is counting on us.’

Koko and Mikki exchanged a look.

‘What’s that?’ asked Koko.

‘His family? We’re bringing the body back for them surely?’

‘Oh Yura,’ said Mikki chuckling. ‘You sweet innocent babe.’

Yura frowned, confused.

‘We’ve been sent to get his suit. Not the body.’ said Koko. ‘One of these suits are worth a hundred of me or you. The ugly truth of it is…by this point, with nothing powering the suit…there’s not going to be much left of him. You’ll need to prepare yourself.’

Yura didn’t understand. He’d seen a dead body before. Life below in the Empyrean was cramped and people died all the time. How fragile did Koko think he was?

‘I can cope with a stiff.’

Mikki and Koko exchanged a look which filled Yura with unease.

‘He won’t be stiff.’ said Mikki quietly,

‘Huh?’

Look,’ started Mikki uncomfortably. ‘Sitting out there in that ungodly heat. By now there’s a good chance he would have…liquefied.’

‘Seriously?’

‘Yeah,’ nodded Mikki. ‘What’s more, if we find him we’re going to have to open his suit and, err, tip out what’s left of him…’

‘It won’t look pretty,’ Koko continued, ‘it’ll smell something fierce as well, that filter in your mask isn’t going to do a thing about the stench. I tell you this because if upon seeing the remains you throw up inside your own mask—you will not get an opportunity to take off that mask until we return. That is going to be one shitty walk home for you, lad.’

Yura’s stomach churned. He felt like he was going to throw up right now. Was he even allowed to take his mask off now? He’d been told to put it on before they’d started climbing. Yura swallowed hard and tasted bile slide back down his throat.

‘Paints a picture, doesn’t he?” smiled Mikki.

Koko carried on, explaining the finer details of the journey they were about to embark on, but Yura’s attention was gone. He could hear the surface calling him.

He’d waited so long to see what was left of the earth.

‘Turn your suit on.’ said Koko finally. He approached a control panel on the wall, and the hum of a huge motor roared into action. ‘It’s time.’

Yura’s heart thumped hard. He did his best to feign a grim look of determination.

The doors opened, slowly at first, then suddenly all at once. The dark, grimy room became illuminated.

There was a terrible light, and Yura found himself blind.

Issue #3 due out in October

How it Feels to Finally Finish Something

Last night I finally finished the final draft of my entry for the writing contest I mentioned a few weeks ago. A short story a little less than 2000 words might not sound like much, but it’s the first creative project I’ve completed in five years and I could not be more chuffed.

celebrate

My mind right now

I won’t hear any more about the contest until October, but rest assured I don’t intend to take it easy until then.

I’m writing my first novel! The project is still in its infancy so I’ve not got any specific details to share at this point, apart from the fact that I am very excited.

I finished the first chapter over half a year ago, and I found myself baffled by how easy it was to write, and how pleased I was with my own writing, two things I don’t get to experience often.

Despite this, I didn’t pick the project back up after that first chapter. But, now that I’m making more of an effort to make time for my writing, it’s full steam ahead. As I said, still very early days—but at least the train has left the station.

When it’s finished I intend to shop it around, and then possibly go down the self-publishing route if I get no takers.

My long-term goal is now getting this book to completion, but I have lots of other things I am working on in the meantime, all of which revolve around this blog.

Tales from Inferna is an ongoing web serial; part writing exercise, part homage to the pulp fiction genre. You can read more about the project at the link.

Formally launched this month, Issue #1 is available to read now, with Issue #2 on its way at some point in September. A must read for any science fiction, horror or dystopia fans.

inferna

How did the world end up like this? How did we survive? Most importantly, what’s hiding in the sands?

I am also putting the finishing touches on a flash fiction which I’m keen on hosting on a different writing blog for some cross promotion. I’ve got my eye on a place, but if you’re reading this interested and you have your own blog feel free to contact me and maybe we can get something set up. The easiest way to reach me is on my Twitter @Handsomelies

I need to give a warm thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read and get involved with the blog this past month—the likes, comments, and new followers have all been incredibly encouraging, and have kept me going whereas other times I’ve quit.

Let me know the content you’re enjoying, the stuff you don’t, and anything new you’d like to see. I am determined to make something of this place and this is the time to help shape its future. Do you want articles like this writing tutorial or more feature pieces such as when I blogged about my notebook addiction? Maybe you like the mix.

This month is the most I’ve written in years, touch wood, I’d like to say I’ve finally got my groove back.

How has your month been? Let’s celebrate some successes and bury some failures. Hit me up in the comments below.

– H. L

 

How Not to World Build in Your Opening

Wularz was the youngest son of the prominent Backth family. They lived on Knaphi, and like many others made a good living trading in Abilia, in the warmer seasons at least. Life seemed good, but Wularz’s family were oblivious to his dark secret…for three months he had been a card-carrying member of the Scisac-Clan. Today he was set to be half-blooded.

This is not the opening to my next project. These are the prototypical first three sentences I read in many a novice writers efforts at writing science fiction or fantasy.

I get it. I really do.

The Backth family has a vast and interesting history which spans for generations, and the lore of Knaphi is so incredible you could fill a companion bible with its culture.

But I’m never going to read that bible. I’m not going to hang around long enough to find out that an Abilia is a sort of cow, and that the Scisac-Clan is a street gang, and to be half-blooded means committing assault on their behalf for the first time. And it’s a damn shame I’m not going to hang on, because that all sounds like it has the potential to be a good story.

But you’ve already lost me:

  • Dropping five jargon words in the first paragraph is a red flag.

  • Naming jargon, and then writing about it in a way which sounds like I should already know what it is, is a red flag.

  • Giving supplementary information about jargon, before I even know what the original jargon even is, is a red flag.

I only need one red flag and I’m putting down the book and considering if I’ve made a bad choice. If I get hit with three flags that quick; bang, bang bang – you’re either getting deleted from my Kindle or you’re going in the bin.

magic girl

You’ve put a lot of thought into your magic-system? Think maybe we can talk about that later? Pretty please?

Maybe you think the main problem with that opening is that it was telling all that information, rather than showing. Well, let’s see how showing the same quantity of gobbledygook is just a big a turn off:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

Drospe, a full-blooded, tutted.

‘Why are you even here Wularz, you’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy Backth?’

This elicited chuckles from the other Scisac-Clan members. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years tending Abiilia have given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, and if he passed, he’d finally be half-blooded.

This is a much better opening, but it’s still got too much jargon for my liking.

As a reader, I’m frustrated this blooded thing keeps getting mentioned and I’m still in the dark, it feels like I’m the last one to a party.

The sentence about tending Abiilia giving the character a fine right hook makes perfect sense to the author, but no sense to the reader.

We’re only seven paragraphs in and we’ve managed to overwhelm, exclude, and also confuse the reader.

tap

Your jargon is water coming from a tap. It needs to drip, any faster and the sink overflows, and then you then slip and die.

Let’s fix it. Cut the mention of the family name and establish it later. Cut the mention the blooded system, and establish it later. I might even cut mention of the Scisac-Clan, and establish it later. We have got a whole book to get this stuff in after all.

Let’s see how the scene looks now:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

‘Why are you even here Wularz,’ tutted Drospe. ‘You’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy?’

This elicited chuckles from the other men. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years working on his Daddy’s farm has given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, it would take a better man than Drospe to make him slip up today.

Now we’re rolling. Our jargon count has gone from nine words to three, but we’ve still got the exact same scene.

Of the three jargon words that are left; two are character names. Names are pretty important in prose, duh. If your reader is only going to remember one piece of jargon by the end of your opening, it better be your weird-ass character’s name.

Anyway, that’s the end of today’s lecture. If you liked the small taste of my writing why not check out Inferna – a  web serial/writing exercise hosted for free on this blog.

Have you got any pet peeves that bother you in the first couple pages of a story? Do you have any books to recommend which ease you into the world, rather than throwing you in the deep-end? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L

My First Writing Contest in Almost Ten Years

One of my friends linked me to a creative writing competition that a charity called The Children’s Society is hosting as a part of their Seriously Awkward campaign.

The last writing contest I entered was about ten years ago, all the way back in high school. My entry probably wasn’t very good (mercifully I don’t own a copy) and I never heard back from them – I had just received my first rejection.

First rejection for writing, at any rate.

slap

Her smile said yes, but her hand very clearly said no

I didn’t take the loss well; truth be told it actually put my writing ambitions on hold for a few years – mistake. I’m playing catch up for it now, if I could I’d reach back in time and give that young twerp a smack round the ear. Friggin’ Millennial.

I’m older now, and I’d like to think I’m more mature, well equipped to not only accept my failures but to learn from them. Or, maybe my ego hasn’t changed a bit and the only thing I have to show for my age is deteriorating vision and an expensive mortgage. We’ll soon find out.

The theme of this contest is anything at all to do with 16 and 17-year-olds. Entering the contest means I won’t be able to post the story here (for the time being at least) but there’s no reason I can’t give you a sneak peek at the thought process for my entry.

One of the most awkward first experiences I ever had at sixteen was my first job interview. Job interviews suck, especially your first one. They’re awkward, unnatural social interactions where one side holds all the power. You’re in an unfamiliar environment, you’re most likely wearing unfamiliar clothes, and to top it all off, there’s an unfamiliar person demanding you prove your worth to them.

handshake

Touch it

Seriously, if you’re one of the few people who actually enjoy job interviews – you’re almost definitely demented.

So that was my launching pad. Take the nerves and uncertainty that come with your first job interview, and for a bit of drama let’s multiply the stakes and make it all a billion times worse.

How?

I’m picturing a world, not that far from now, but one where we as a collective have had some terrible hardships, made some terrible decisions. It’s uncannily similar to the world you know now, at first glance at least, but it’s one where its stability is not taken for granted, in fact, it comes at a terrible price. With resources scarce, the United Kingdom has implemented a policy known as The First or Final Interview.

For on the day of their seventeenth birthday, each person must attend their local town hall and have an interview to prove their worth to society. Scholastic achievements, sports, what you’ve done in your spare time; it’s all measured, and it all must be justified. The result is a binary one, you can either pass or fail.

And if you fail – you are put to death. Euthanised, for the good of the state.

Wish me best of luck with the contest – I’ll be sure to share the finished result with you just as soon as I’m able. In the meantime, if you want to help give me some inspiration – leave a comment with your worst job interview horror stories.

– H. L

A Moment In Inferna

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Everything had gone to hell.

That was the only thing that had gone through Amarok’s head for the last hour. He’d stopped walking, stopped planning, stopped trying to find a way out of this whole mess. He stared into the distance. And something stared back.

In a gloved hand Amarok held a small canister, his last one. It was a lifeline. A last flicker of hope that he’d hold out long enough for some reprieve or rescue, but he had long since given up. He was going to die.

All around in every direction lay a wasteland of sand. Desert dunes stretched for miles upon miles. Empty. No vegetation, no noise; not a trace of what had once been here. Just sand and Amarok. And the things staring back.

If I dug here, miles down I would find a city, he thought. A city buried in sand, littered with corpses. Would the remains still be there though? It had all happened so long ago; who knew what the heat had done to them. Amarok pictured petrified bodies, mouths wide open in fear. Maybe they had been reduced to ashes, a sterile but final end. He feared his final theory was correct; they were mulch. Dripping and stagnating; nasty piles of oozing mush.

Amarok could very much feel the heat of the sun. It worked its way towards him, penetrating through his thick suit, drenching him with sweat. Breathing was becoming difficult, when he coughed his visor was sprayed with spittle, clouding his limited view.

He sighed and squeezed his last canister a little tighter.

What good would a few more days do me? He was lost. The great Amarok, lost two days into a fucking hunt. He’d got turned around, took a left somewhere instead of a right. Such a small mistake. Monstrous sandstorms would ravage the land on occasion, shifting mountains of sand and flattening others, meaning Inferna was never quite how you’d left it. The best hunters however had always been able to spot the subtleties, and Amarok was meant to have been the best of the best.

Far away in the distance, at the top of the furthest visible dune, Amarok could just about make out three figures, unmoving. Amarok knew they were watching him.

They were jet black against the horizon. For a while Amarok thought them to be an apparition of the heat, a mirage, brought on by his failing equipment. He had walked for days and they were always there, a half-a-dozen leagues away, but always there. Amarok never saw them move. The heat shimmered all around them, making them look like ghosts.

They were real. Amarok had suffered through more than a few risky hunts in his time, none anywhere close to this one, but he wasn’t a stranger to the odd mirage now and again. This was different. Whatever the figures were, they were real.

Other hunters, prodded a quiet voice in the back of his mind, not for the first time.

“No.”

Amarok cursed at his own idea. He could see the figures and they could see him. If they were other hunters, they would hail him on his radio, or, failing that, they’d surely give some sort of signal. But the radio was dead, and no matter how long he waited, or prayed, or eventually even cried; the radio had remained dead.

He stood, dropping the canister to the sand.

“What do you want!” he screamed, fists clenched at either side, knuckles white. “What do you want from me! What do you—”

He began to cough, began to choke; to die. Amarok fell to his knees and tried to breathe. Nothing. He tried again and the whole world started to fade away.

Finally a breath came. It was weak and made an unpleasant rattling noise; Amarok was sure it was his last.

It wasn’t. A second came, and eventually even a third.

Slowly, Amarok rose to his feet gripping the top of his mask. 

“I know what you want.” he whispered, eyes wide. 

Amarok ripped off his mask, and he began to scream.

The intensity of the sun was unimaginable. In an instant every inch of skin on Amarok’s head began to blister. His nose began to bleed and his eyeballs bulged horrifically as if they were about to burst. A smell of burnt hair invaded his senses as a crippling pain at the back of his skull brought him to his knees. Huge white spots blinded his vision; his hands scrambled for the discarded mask.

As soon as it was secured the sheer intensity of the heat faded, but the searing pain remained. He could feel the meat of his body, cooking. He vomited, plastering his visor. A loud ringing in his ears disturbed him most of all.

Amarok knelt like that for a while as a ruin; as broken as the city that lay buried beneath him. The pain did not stop, but eventually began to dull.

His mind was made up. He patted the sand, caressing it here and there until his hands found what he was searching for.

Amarok stood to his feet, his body shaking in fury and pain. At the back of his suit was a thick, technical panel with a canister protruding slightly from a fitted slot. Carefully, Amarok removed the now empty canister and replaced it with the one he’d found on the floor. His last one.

The suit hummed to life, cool air surrounded Amarok and offered him some small relief from his agony.

As best he could Amarok squinted into the distance through his soiled visor. The vomit smelled foul and turned his stomach, but he dared not remove the mask again.

The dark figures were right where he’d left them, not having moved an inch during the display of madness.

Amorak took a tentative step without incident, surprising himself. So far so good. 

He’d been pushing forward for days, hoping in vain for some sign of home. Now he pushed backwards, in the opposite direction, retracing his steps. Home was no longer the objective. 

An hour passed; Amorak found himself pleased with his results. He’d closed the gap between him and his stalkers considerably. Were they moving towards him too? He hadn’t seen the bastards move, but it sure seemed that way to what was left of his melted senses. Shadowy vultures, coming to claim the rewards of their careful patience.  

“You’re not coming for me,” he panted, still moving. “I’m coming for you.”