Indie Review: Bodies of Evidence by Jefferson Smith

***Special note: I got this story as part of a Story Bundle, where you can get a selection of Indie Books for one low price. Check it out!

I think there are two kinds of short stories: the “novel in miniature,” and the “punchline.” The former, as you’d imagine, is everything you’d expect from a novel, just shorter–and most good short stories would fall under this category. The punchline is a story that exists for a specific end; the author wants to make a particular point (not always a joke, mind you), and the story serves as a sort of roadmap so the reader gets there. It’s a lot harder to pull off–but when you do, it’s wonderful. Asimov is a master at these kinds of stories, and in fact, they seem common in the science fiction genre. But I hadn’t really come across one from the Indie Writing community until I read Jefferson Smith’s Bodies of Evidence.

Now, I should make something clear: I like punchline short stories. When they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun: quick, entertaining, and relevant. Even when they’re not funny–Asimov’s The Last Question is the best example of this I can think of–they can be extremely thought provoking. Bodies of Evidence manages to hit both targets. It’s a darkly humorous tale that asks an interesting question: what about the middleman?

I’ll explain, but first an overview of the plot: Sid works for Corpus Corp., an outfit that cleans up the pesky mess left at a murder scene. He’s training a new kid–it’s a tough job, and he has to push the newbie to make sure he’s up to the task. The story follows Sid and the kid as they clean up a relatively simple job–though not less disconcerting for it.
Quick, entertaining, and relevant. These are normal guys just doing a job–a shady job, admittedly, but it has to be done. Sid and the kids are the middlemen–the cogs of darkness as our narrator puts it.

And this is what I like most about the story. One of the necessary failings of storytelling is that you’re always telling the story of something important or noteable. You want to read about the daring knight, not his follow-along squire; the mastermind mad scientist, not the butler who brings him supper. When telling a story, you should always ask “why today?” and “why these characters?” If they’re not important, why bother telling the story?
The result is that stories are always significant and grand–the way we like them. But I always wonder about the people who aren’t important. The ones who make it work behind the scenes. What’s their story?

Bodies of Evidence successfully addresses this question by showing us just another night at work for two people trying to make ends meet. There’s a larger story going on here–a criminal mastermind has just ordered some powerful directed energy weapons and plans to take over the world–but we don’t even care about that. Smith does an excellent job of setting this larger story aside so we can concentrate on the little guy, in turn making that the better story. And it works, very well.

I don’t know if this was the author’s intent, but it serves the story. Concentrating on these cogs of darkness fleshes out his world, giving us a look behind the curtain. This technique can be powerful when used correctly because it provides a foundation for the larger stories when they come along. If Smith were to write a novel set in the same world, he wouldn’t have to waste space on telling us what Corpus Corp does–it’s already here.
But this story is more than just a “behind the scenes look” at the criminal world. It’s funny and explores a couple of good characters. Even without the “cogs of darkness” aspect, it’s a well written and entertaining story.

The one thing I didn’t like about the story is how it’s presented to the reader. It’s introduced by a narrator, Louis Corelli, a go-to guy in the employ of the aforementioned mad scientist. He introduces us to Sid and the idea that the underworld is built on the shoulders of such working class folks, then lets the story tell itself. What’s disorienting about this is that Corelli’s scene is told in the first person. At first this works really well, because he addresses the reader directly, bringing the reader into the world in a personal way.
Once we meet Sid, however, the narrative switches to third person without any real transition beyond a line break and a hint that Sid told the story to Corelli. This makes it seem like part of Corelli’s narrative until you realize that it’s in the past tense.
The story is also framed with a narrative, by Corelli, in italics; he’s blatantly setting up the story for the reader. Normally this would work really well, but moving from that frame story to a first person narrative, then a third person story told by someone else, is a bit disorienting. This isn’t a fault in the writing so much as a stylistic or formatting choice; if, for example, the entierty of Corelli’s set up were confined to the frame story (which is what it really is), the story would flow smoothly.

I also want to know more about Corelli. He’s introduced to the reader as what we’d call a Watson: he’s there to explain things to us so we’re not bogged down by exposition. It’s a great technique, especially when that character has a personal connection to the reader, as Corelli does here. This connection can only grow stronger with further entries into the series. The World Smith has set up is intriguing as well; there are hints of a pseudo-sci-fi bent, with particle weapons and even a mention of time travel, though this isn’t explicitly a science fiction story. It would be very interesting to read about a world where such futuristic technology exists without it being the focus of the World.  As far as I’ve seen, this story is the only entry in a supposed series, but I hope more are forthcoming.

All in all, it’s a great read–you can pick it up at Amazon for $0.99, and I’d certainly recomend checking it out!

Jefferson Smith also has a novel available on Amazon, Strange Places. You can find him on Twitter, Goodreads, and his own blog, Creativity Hacker.

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Indie Review: Last Dance of a Black Widow

Every once in a while I come across a book that I think I’ve “figured out” in the first few pages. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good read–Michael Chrichton and Dan Brown, both good writers, have quite formulaic books that are nonetheless a lot of fun–but there is a lot of literature out there that is, frankly, predictable.

But the best of those manage to surprise you anyway.

Last Dance of a Black Widow gives away its premise in the title–it’s about a woman who’s spent her life murdering husbands, and is now made to atone for her sins–and if the story were left at that, this would be an unremarkable book. But the “black widow” trope isn’t the focus of the story at all, merely an icebreaker that opens up a delicate and thought provoking series of questions.

The greatest literature almost treats plot as a secondary consideration. It’s there, but it doesn’t matter much at all compared to the theme of the work. Think of Catcher in the Rye (one of my all time favourite novels); lots of stuff happens to Holden, but none of it really matters in the larger context of the work. It’s not about a young teenager’s adventures in New York City, it’s about how he copes with them. While I wouldn’t put Last Dance in the same category as that seminal work, it works in a similar way. The trope used to set up the story isn’t so much a plot point as it is an excuse to explore an important theme.

On the surface, the main question is what happens when we die?–but that’s not the focus either. The real questions are: how does one atone for or explain their actions in life? What happens when you run out of excuses? To whom do we answer? They’re questions that lie at the centre of the human condition–and more importantly, questions that don’t really have quantifiable answers. They’re open ended because each person will bring their own experiences and dogmas to the answer; they’re questions that are intensely personal. These are the questions good literature should ask.
I appreciate that despite the potential for some hardcore religious overtones, those are conspicuously absent. This makes the story more universal; and, as a person with complicated spiritual beliefs, I honestly probably would have stopped reading if it had gotten too preachy. With this story’s subject matter, it could easily have gone that way, and it’s just not my thing. I’ve read books that ask these same questions and try to answer them, but it always seems to leave a bad taste in my mouth; I’m not reading a book to be force-fed someone’s ideologies. Fortunately, Convissar makes no attempt to tell you what to think; he merely leads you through the story, and lets you make your own conclusions.

Inasmuch as that, I wish the story were longer. It’s a pretty quick, one sitting read, and I wanted it to keep going. And yet, there’s nothing missing. The main character–Abbey Whistler–is well explored, there’s some great pathos and development, and a satisfying conclusion. The writing itself is excellent. This is actually a good strategy for an Indie Writer, I think–grab the reader and leave them wanting more. I’m eager to read more of his work–this is another Indie I’ll keep my eye on.

One thing I didn’t like was the way the protagonist’s crimes are set up. From the title I assumed she had made a habit of murdering husbands, but Convissar found it necessary to provide a litany of her crimes. I’m a bit on the fence about this; from a narrative standpoint, it’s important to do this because it sets up what comes next. From the reader’s viewpoint though, I already knew she was a murderer—her crimes could have been summarized without losing much characterisation, and leaving behind a more concise story to boot.
But that’s a small complaint against a relatively strong story. The author makes some good choices here in making it approachable and universal. It’s even touching in places. This is an example of an antihero you love to hate. We’re intended to sympathize with her by virtue of her being the protagonist, but the author makes no excuses for her behaviour. We don’t sympathise because she’s been wronged, we do it because we see a bit of ourselves in the character—it’s only human to worry about how your sins will be judged. Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, I think all of us worry to a certain extent about what people think of our actions, good or bad. That’s what makes this story powerful for me—it’s a catharsis, as we live vicariously through a character who’s being judged so we don’t have to. That’s the highest purpose of literature, and I’ll recommend this book on that alone.

Special Mention: Blink.

I picked up Last Dance for free at Kobo, and saw another book by Convissar that looked intriguing: Blink. In a move that’s very rare for me, I didn’t even really read the blurb for the book, except for one line: “It’s amazing how quickly everything can change in the blink of an eye.” That, and the powerful cover, sold me immediately.
And it doesn’t dissapoint. Again, it’s a quick read, though this story has a more light-hearted feel, a very tongue-in-cheek tone (pun very much intended) to it. I thought of it as a nice jaunt.

The premise is simple. Brian is a dentist, a down to earth man who loves his job and cares for his patients. But then he stumbles across something…well, I can’t spoil it for you, so you’ll have to find out for yourself. I’m not going to write a full review of this because it’s really just something you should go and read. It’s just plain fun. Really, go read it.

You can find Bradley Convissar on Facebook and Twitter; he’s got a Goodreads profile as well, but the site appears to be down. You can pick up Last Dance of a Black Widow  and Blink on Amazon, or here and here on Kobo. Check them out!

On Wednesday, I’m getting back to my writing with an experiment–something may not end up working at all, but is going to be a lot of fun to try anyway!

Indie Review: Perilous Chance

Chance_cover_featureI’ve always been interested in mythology, and it’s influenced a lot of my writing. When I was a kid, I devoured stories about the gods and their monsters–and even today, I love reading about the psychological explanations for such myths, the archetypes of our collective unconscious. This is probably a big part of why I enjoy J. M. Ney-Grimm’s work as much as I do.

I’ve reviewed a book of hers before, and I’ll come back to her books again on this blog. Today, I want to look at her latest release, which came out just as the holidays were starting: Perilous Chance.

This is a wonderful (longer) short story with Ney-Grimm’s characteristic voice. It flows like a fairy tale and has an airy, almost fanciful feel to it, without losing any of its importance. It’s a tale of mistakes and redemption, and the power to do the right thing now, even if you can’t change the past. This has all the hallmarks of the fairy tales that seem to have inspired it (and her other works), and makes for a quick and very satisfying read.

The story starts out with a sense of impending doom–a dangerous and magnificent creature is coming. You don’t know what it is or what’s at stake, and before you learn either answer the story is thrust into a quiet domestic setting set some time before. It’s a very effective beginning–tantalizing, intriguing, and mysterious. It drew me in right away, eager to figure out what was coming, and that tension stayed with me for the rest of the book.

As the narrative begins, we’re introduced to Clary, a young girl who’s stuck taking care of her entire family. Her father’s a drunkard, her mother is apathetic and listless, and her baby brother is colicky. Her younger sister wants to help out, but the two of them are young enough that they don’t know how to take care of a house, and have to figure it out as they go. This sets up the inciting incident really well, as it shows that Clary is a much stronger person than she thinks she is–this ends up being a nice reflection of another main character (I would argue the main character), Jennifry.

Jennifry is of indeterminate age, but much older than the girls. When she was younger, she experimented with patterning–Ney-Grimm’s system of magic–and went a bit too far. Now, she’s infected with Troll Magic, and is forced into a life of seclusion. Her story is slowly revealed through the book, using Clary’s story as a framing device–which, because of the comparison noted above, is very effective. One gets the impression that Clary is a reflection of who Jennifry was when she was young, before her unfortunate mistake. This gives some excellent pathos to Jennifry’s character, as well as a sort of urgency to Clary, who must make careful choices to avoid a similar fate.

Jennifry’s story occurs in flashback, so there is some jumping around in the book; this is the only real issue I had for the story, as it caused a bit of confusion for me. I can see why this choice was made—there are certain ‘secrets’ (another theme of the work) that can’t be revealed until later in the narrative. In this sense, the jumping around in time works; unfortunately, I found myself confused here and there as to why we were jumping, and parts of it felt disjointed. It was only after finishing the book entirely that everything fit together nicely; as I was reading, there were times I thought I had missed something. That said, everything does fit together in the end, so this really wasn’t an issue.

In fact, looking back on the story, it suits the tone well. Interjected throughout the story are short snippets from the creature’s POV; these are set apart from the rest of the story by using a distinctly different voice, which feels almost alien compared to the rest of the story–which is exactly the intent, I think. Because of the jumping around in the timeline, one isn’t always sure when these POV scenes take place, but that’s revealed gradually over the course of the story. As that plot line becomes clearer, it informs the rest of the plot, until everything comes together at the end, like ripples in a pond clearing away the silt at the bottom. I’m not sure if this technique was intentional, but it adds a unique flair to the story, and although I did find it confusing initially, it grows on me the more I think about it, and I wouldn’t want to do without it.

In my review of Ney-Grimm’s Star Drake, I mentioned that I couldn’t figure out how magic worked in her World. This story clears some of that up, and it was delightful to read about it. I suspect that her other work expounds on this even more. Since I’ve been following her writing, I’ve been reading mostly her more recent books and working backward; if I’d have started at the beginning, I think those questions–and other posed in my review above–would have been answered. At any rate, I found a certain clarity in Perilous Chance that I didn’t see in Star Drake, although I think the latter would be a bit clearer now if I were to revisit it (which I’m sure I will soon).

One thing I really liked about this book was the exploration of the creature. The revelation of just what the creature is, how it came to be, what it will do–and, importantly, what the other characters believe in regards to all of those questions–is spread nicely over the course of the book. It almost sets up a sort of sub-plot, though the creature’s actions directly affect the rest of the story. Because information is given in carefully doled out portions, the reader is left feeling that there’s something mysterious lurking beneath the whole story, something that has more significance than we’re originally led to believe. This further creates a wonderful release of tension at the end of the book, and a very satisfying ending. This thread is expertly written, and subtle enough that I found myself pleasantly surprised at the resolution of the plot.

And that leads me to something I find in all of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s work I’ve read so far. She has an ethereal sort of quality to her writing which is extremely effective–all the more so because I can’t pin down exactly why. It’s almost mystical. This ephemeral tone is what sets her work apart from anything else I’ve read–it’s absolutely unique, and absolutely engaging. Perilous Chance is no exception, and it’s my favourite story of Ney-Grimm’s so far.

J. M. Ney-Grimm can be found on Twitter, and on her Blog. You can find Perilous Chance on Kobo and Amazon, where you’ll also find the rest of her work. Highly recommended!

Indie Review: Leah Cutter

As I mentioned yesterday, over the holiday I used a gift certificate to pick up a book I’ve been wanting to read for some time: Clockwork Angels, by Kevin J Anderson. I went to the Kobo store and searched for the book–but mistyped something and instead came across a book called Clockwork Kingdom by Leah Cutter. The story (about a brewing war between the fairies and their human oppressors) looked intriguing, so I picked it up–and because I’m always on the lookout for new (to me) indie authors, I got a few of her short stories as well. Cutter has a very interesting way with words–she’s one to keep an eye on, and I’ll likely be reviewing more of her work here. For today, I’ll look at two of her short stories.

The Tortoise and the Maiden

by Leah Cutter

This quick literary jaunt was my introduction to Cutter, and it was…interesting, to say the least. Cutter has written some historical fiction set in various locales, including Ancient China, where this is placed. I’ve always been interested in Chinese philosophy/culture, so I was excited to read this. And in most areas, it didn’t disappoint.

The story is about a young woman, Bing Yu, who finds herself and her family in dire straits. Her father has embarrassed the family, her mother has been overcome by a strange illness, and she’s left to tend the family store and take care of anyone. She can’t see a way out of the situation–until she discovers the tortoise. This magical (and sly) creature offers her an answer: he’ll solve all her problems if she gives him her maidenhead.

The story has a delightful “fairy tale” quality to it, and Cutter does a good job of writing it in the voice of a traditional Chinese folk story. It feels genuine, and it’s obvious that Cutter has done the research necessary to pull it off. The whole story has a magical tone about it, giving it a certain intangible quality I can’t quite put my finger on, but which serves it very well. It’s quite well written, and without knowing how much editing was done to accomplish the tone, I’d say Cutter is a natural at spinning this kind of yarn.

On the other hand, some of the subject matter felt a bit out of place. The revelation that the tortoise is a lecher came as a surprise to me, as up until that point the story seemed like something you could read to kids before bedtime. Like the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, this is certainly not meant for children. But once that’s accepted, the subject matter is less jarring. That’s not to say that there’s anything inappropriate in this story; the tortoise is simply treated as a magical animal. In Ancient China, animals had their own personalities and motives, and in that context, the story works well.

The only real criticism I have about this story is the rather abrupt ending. I won’t spoil it–but suffice it to say that a plan is put into motion and resolved in the space of a few paragraphs. This is followed by a short paragraph explaining the consequence of that plan, and that’s it. It felt very sudden, perhaps even a tad rushed, and I don’t think it served the rest of the story as well as it could have. That said, it didn’t leave any loose ends and everything is resolved; perhaps it didn’t need to be longer.

The Secrets of 9s

This short story is found separately on the Kobo store (and others), and is included in the collection Baker’s Dozen. Baker’s Dozen was born out

by Leah Cutter

of an intriguing idea: to write 13 stories in 13 weeks. It’s a great challenge for a writer (one that I’m tempted to try myself) and I’ll look forward to reading the result of Cutter’s task–but for now, we’ll concentrate on this one story.

A lot of Cutter’s work involves fairies in one way or another. I don’t know much about fairies, but the folklore around them in interesting–I’ve always loved myths and cultural folk stories. I thought this would be a good introduction to what Cutter, at least, thinks of the creature.

I found the result intriguing, to say the least. I have to admit that at points I was a bit lost–while the story is interjected with little snippets describing what the Secrets of 9s are, just what 9s are is never really explained. Neither, for that mater, are 8s, 4s, or 1s, all mentioned in the story. This might simply be a lack of knowledge of the lore on my part, but it made the story a bit lose for me. I wasn’t sure why the events in the plot were happening–until the end, where everything is tied up a bit.

That’s not to say it’s not a good story. I quite enjoyed it, actually, and this is one I’ll re-read. It’s written in a wonderfully poetic way, very evocative and somehow ornate. Though I’ve read only a couple of Cutter’s stories so far, I can say that she’s got style, and a wonderful voice in her writing. What’s more, this story is in a very different tone than the one above–one of the signs of a good writer is the ability to transcend genre and write in many different voices. Cutter seems to have that quality, and that alone puts her on my “to read” list.

But back to the story. If you look past the question of what 9s are, you’re left with a sort of mystery. Someone is setting fires and bombs, and their motive isn’t clear–if there even is one. For me, the story was an exploration of someone who causes destruction for the sake of destruction, and that makes for some interesting exploration of Bridget, the main character. This is mostly done through the POV of others (in an author’s note, Cutter explains that she wanted to experiment with technique, and it works well), giving what amounts to a series of profiles of our main character, outside Bridget’s own view. This causes her character to gradually unfold as the story progresses, and I thought it was quite effective; there’s an air of mystery around her that lingers even after the story finishes, and that’s part of what will draw me back to it.

I liked this story better than Tortoise and the Maiden, if only because it’s so interesting. There’s a few things that are left unexplained, but–apart from just what 9s are–that’s okay; it leaves the reader with questions, the types of questions one should be asking when one finishes a good book. It’s definitely worth a read.

Leah Cutter can be found on Twitter, and she keeps her own blog. She’s got an impressive body of work available online, so I won’t post all the links–but you can find The Tortoise and the Maiden and Baker’s Dozen both on Kobo and Amazon.

Tomorrow, a new release by J. M. Ney-Grimm!

Indie Review: Star Drake

Star Drake, by J. M. Ney-Grimm

As per my new schedule, I won’t always be posting on Fridays any longer–but when I do, it’ll be for a review of an indie work, or an interview with an indie author. Today I’m reviewing a great little story (or pair of stories) by fellow Indie J. M. Ney-Grimm: Star Drake.

J. M. Ney-Grimm writes in a unique–or at least uncommon–genre: Nordic mythology. I’ve enjoyed Norse myths since I was a child, and although these stories don’t involve the familiar Germanic gods and themes, they have a similar feel. When you’re immersed in this world, you’re thinking of trolls, giants, hairy dwarves and buxom women. Okay, maybe not that last part–no Wagner here–but you get the idea. It’s a very particular brand of fantasy, but a refreshing one. Your main elements are present–magic, monsters, and heroism–but it’s somehow more down to earth. I’d say it’s almost “Tolkienesque” in that the stories feel like they’re happening on the Earth we know, but long before our recorded history.

Star Drake features three stories woven together. Gefnen the troll warden searches for a meal for his master; Laidir the zephyr searches for his dear friend Geal, the rainbow; and the sea-lord Emrys and company protect a young boy. It seems complicated at first as the stories ebb and flow, and sometimes each thread only gets a few paragraph’s attention. But before you get twenty pages in, the threads begin to coalesce–or at least hint at doing so–and you see how they’re all inter-related. And this is where the magic of the story comes alive; this isn’t a case where you have a main plot and two subplots. Each thread is dependent upon the others, and they support each other nicely. To explain more would give away too much, so I’ll leave it at that.

The thing that struck me most about this story was the tone. After having read another of Ney-Grimm’s stories, Troll Magic, I was expecting a fairy tale like story with a lighthearted feel. Not so for Star Drake: this one has a deep sense of importance to it, of destiny. It’s still written very much in a storyteller’s fashion, and you can easily imagine it being told around a campfire somewhere in the snows of the North, but it has a satisfying sort of weight to it. At the same time, it has a very dreamy feel to it. The style of writing is hard to describe–I’ve been trying to do so since I read it last week, and still can’t find the right words. The closest I can get is ephemeral. It has an extremely poetic cadence to it, and the words drift across the page like a layer of gauze draped over someone’s shoulder. You get the impression that, while the words are poetic and lilting, the tone belies extraordinarily high stakes.

And that’s not to say that the stakes aren’t explored; there’s a good deal of action in the book’s 60 pages. The way Ney-Grimm’s characters use magic is certainly interesting, and a scene between Emrys and his friends fighting Gefnen is particularly satisfying. I’d like to have seen it explained a bit more, though; it seems to be elemental in nature, but it’s hinted that there are different levels of magic. I got the feeling that there was an underlying structure to it, but one that wasn’t shared with the reader.

And this is the only real criticism I have for this story. The world it’s set in is vibrant and unique, but it seems taken for granted that the reader will relate to it. I don’t know a lot of the mythology of the Nordic region, and while it’s similar enough to the Norse myths I’m familiar with that I can make educated guesses, it’s different enough that I was sometimes left wondering. Things like the relationship between Laidir and Geal are not explained, and I was confused at to who Gefnen’s master was, and why he was hunting at his command. I’m still unsure as to the significance of the titular creature. Ney-Grimm included a helpful guide to characters in her novel Troll Magic; something similar would be useful here.

Fortunately, many of my questions were answered by the accompanying story, Rainbow’s Lodestone, which follows at the end of the book. I would actually recommend readers look at this story before Star Drake, as it helps set up that story, and serves as some excellent background. On the other hand, it does reveal certain plot points that could be considered spoilers for Star Drake, so I’m a bit on the fence as to which one should be read first. At the very least, I’d tell readers to read them both in one sitting, in whatever order. They compliment each other very well.

Rainbow’s Lodestone concerns…well, I don’t want to give away the spoilers I mentioned, so I’ll just say it could almost be a prequel to Star Drake. It has a different tone entirely than the preceeding story, and it’s a testament to Ney-Grimm’s talent that she makes the transition so smoothly. This story is more lighthearted–much closer in tone to Troll’s Belt–and has an almost “childhood bed time story” feel to it. Despite the fact that it deals with a grim act of mischief, it’s a delightful read. This reminded me a bit more of the Germanic myths I know, so it was easier for me to relate to this story. The enchanting thing about it is the personification of the Rainbow, and the general attitude she has towards her fate in the story. There’s a nice underlying moral here.

All in all, these are wonderful stories and definitely worth a read. Ney-Grimm’s unique blend of Nordic fantasy and fairy tale mentality is a refreshing take on the genre, and the poetic style of writing (whichever tone she uses) adds a special sheen to the work. I read a lot of fiction, and I can honestly say I’ve not come across anything quite like this. Fortunately, Ney-Grimm has a respectable body of work, so there’s more to explore!

You can find Star Drake at Kobo and Amazon; if you’re interested in Rainbow’s Lodestone separately, it’s available in both stores as well. You can find the author J. M. Ney-Grimm at Goodreads and on twitter. Finally, if you’ve been following my blog you may remember a couple posts I did on cover design–much of what I learned there was thanks to a post of J. M. Ney-Grimm’s own blog.

Indie Interview: Ryan Casey

Something in the Cellar

Something in the Cellar, by Ryan Casey

 

Yesterday I did a review of an indie writer, part of an ongoing habit I’m trying to form. Today, I’m going to post a brief interview. I did this with Yesenia Vargas a while back, and would like to interview other indie writers in the future–if you’re writing and would like to be featured on the blog, get in touch at jparsonswrites@gmail.com!

Anyway, to the point.

Ryan Casey is a writer who specializes in horror/suspense/tension–which happens to be one of my favourite genres. So I wanted to pick his brain a bit on that topic. As usual, my questions in bold, his answers in regular text.

1. What made you want to write in the horror/suspense genre?
Horror/suspense has always been my genre, to be honest. It’s the genre I’ve always been fascinated by, whether it be in books, TV, films, or whatever. Something in the Cellar was my first ‘serious’ release, so it just felt right to write in my comfort zone. I asked myself the hypothetical question, ‘what would a woman do if she’d murdered her husband and locked him in the cellar?’ and it just kind of went from there, really.
The Runaway (the accompanying short story) is a much more recent piece of mine. I wrote the title story around 18 months ago in its original incarnation, so it’s quite ‘old’ in that respect. With The Runaway, it was kind of nice to write because I’ve been busy working on a sort of mystery/coming-of-age novel for the past year, so it was great to just go crazy. I think The Runaway is my favourite of the two, to be honest.
2. Do you have favourite techniques for creating tension?
Well, there are of course the technical tricks you can use, but I think one thing I’d emphasize is characterization. If you don’t invest in the character, then it goes without saying that the ‘tension’ won’t be relatable. That’s what I had to try and do with Something in the Cellar: present this woman who has obviously committed a terrible crime, but gradually reveal little things and clues about her life that almost ‘rationalize’ the behaviour.
I like a good twist, too. Without wanting to spoil anything, I like twists that pull the rug from under people’s feet and force a complete reassessment, particularly in short stories. If I’ve come anywhere near achieving that in Something in the Cellar/The Runaway, then I’m delighted.
3. What the most genuinely scary book you’ve read?
The scariest book I’ve ever read was actually a Horowitz short story collection when I was around ten years old. It was called ‘More Horowitz Horror’ I think. Of course, the stuff is probably pretty tame now, but I always remember there being a little short story added on the end by a supposed maniac who had intercepted the publication of the book and personally delivered it to me, complete with a ‘I’m going to kill you’ death threat. Rest assured, I didn’t sleep for weeks.
Non-fiction really scares me today, though. Stuff about serial killers, and real life atrocities. I’ve probably become a little desensitized to conventional horror movies, so documentaries and things like that really get to me.
And there we have it. I’d certainly reccomend that you check out Casey’s book, which you can find here. You can find Ryan at ryancaseybooks.com, and on Goodreads.
Finally, I also found the book Ryan mentioned–More Horowitz Horror. You can get it on Amazon or the Kobo store. Sweet dreams!

Indie Review: Something in the Cellar by Ryan Casey

We’re going to try something different today.

Something in the Cellar

Something in the Cellar by Ryan Casey

As a burgeoning indie writer, one of the first things I learned is that the community is awesome. There are a lot of people in the same position as me–or those who’ve been there before–and they’re willing to help out. So I’m going to start a new segment on this blog to do my part: reviewing works by indie writers. This will be ongoing, but I can’t promise a regular weekly column (I don’t have that much time to read!). I’ll try to do at least one review every couple weeks.

For our first review, we have Ryan Casey’s Something in the Cellar, which you can find on Amazon here. This is a collection of two horror/suspense stories and an except from What We Saw, Casey’s upcoming novel.

Something in the Cellar opens the book, and it’s got a great premise: a woman has killed her husband and locked the body in the cellar. She spends the story wracked with guilt, rationalizing her actions–all while trying to keep her dog and young son from discovering the crime.

This story could have gone a lot of different ways. After I read the first paragraphs, I expected the protagonist to be a hands-rubbing-together villain, and the story to centre on her vile crime. Thankfully, that’s not the case; Sandra ends up being a layered figure, and nothing is as it seems. The reader quickly gets on her side, not because of her motives (which are revealed gradually) but out of empathy. She’s a genuinely likeable character, despite what she’s done.

Likewise, I expected something different from the tension and its resolution. I don’t want to spoil the story, so suffice it to say that what you think is causing the tension is resolved, only to reveal a new source in the last pages. The end of the story comes at the reader very quickly, and Casey’s use of short sentences and tense language creates a creepy atmosphere. This is one of those stories where, after reading the last sentence, you set it down just to catch your breath. I honestly didn’t see it coming, and wanted to read more–but the “hang” is perfectly effective as it is, and resolving it would have lessened the work.

Next is The Runaway. It opens at breakneck speed, and the reader is left feeling like they’re chasing the protagonist. All the while, questions are being asked; the protagonist doesn’t know who or where she is, or even why she’s running. But she knows she must keep going.

This story is tense for a different reason than the first. It’s not frightening, really, but there’s an underlying ‘creepiness’ to it. Because the reader knows just as little as the protagonist, they are left in the dark, grasping every clue in an attempt to figure it out. Casey is good at giving those clues bit by bit, just slowly enough to keep you interested without being vague. This means a loss of power for the reader; when we read a story, we want to be in control, to be able to figure things out at our own pace and revel in the deduction. Casey takes that away from the reader, and the result is unsettling, in a good way.

However, I felt that the resolution for this story wasn’t as satisfying as Something in the Cellar. I was a bit confused by the end; although I got the gist of what Casey was saying, certain details were lacking. Instead of creating subtle questions for the reader that they could answer on their own–which I think was the writer’s intent–it left me wondering about the motives of the characters. I still think it’s a great story, but it could have used some clarification in the final pages.
All in all, this is a great collection, and it’s a steal at $0.99. In my short time as an indie writer, I’ve read a good amount of other indie fiction, and Casey definitely stands apart from the crowd. He has a talent for creating tension, and seems to understand that true horror writing isn’t about scaring your readers–it’s about leaving them unsettled enough that they scare themselves.

Ryan Casey has another short story–Silhouette–which is also available at Amazon here. His first full length novel, What We Saw–is set for release in January 2013. You can find Ryan online at ryancaseybooks.com.

And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where we’ll be talking to the man himself!

Tapestry–A New Project, and a Sample

All Sizes

Image by shutterhacks

While I’m in the midst of planning the marketing and production of my upcoming collection–The Astrologers and Other Stories–I’m also continuing to write. I have a file on the memo app on my phone that teems with story ideas, and one of them is particularly exciting for me.

Those of you who read The Astrologers (which you can find here, here, and here), will have an idea about the World of this project. The setting is one I created many years ago, but my planned novel never got finished. The Astrologers is a stand alone story I wrote partly in the hopes of rejuvenating that world–and it worked. The ideas started flooding in, and now I’ve pencilled out an outline for a large project.

It starts two hundred years before the time of my planned novel–which I still plan to write one day–and The Astrologers. I wanted to explore the backstory of my World, and in the process, help build it. I’m also planning on featuring a favourite character of mine, the Prophet Osir–a character that never appears in the aforementioned novel, but is a significant figure in its mythology. Now, I get to tell his story.

The project–tentatively titles Tapestry–will be written in three phases. Phase one is a collection of sixteen short stories, each working as character studies; they will be released in four sets, each between 8000 and 10,000 words long

Phase two will consist of four novellas, each following the story revealed through the earlier character studies. These stories are interrelated, and some scenes from Phase one will be revisited from other viewpoints, or otherwise expanded upon.

Phase three will be a longer novel that concentrates on Tobias Osir, a young soldier in the army who is caught in the middle of a religious and political war. Osir is forced to question his faith and his place in the world. It will follow him from his naive beginnings to…well, you’ll just have to read it.

In the end, we’ll have nine separate stories, each interrelated and connected to each other: a true literary tapestry. There’s a specific structure behind this–but we’ll talk about that another time. In the meantime, here’s a sample: the opening of the series. Let me know what you think in the comments!

 

Garden

Lamplight flickered, and shadows danced on the wall. Verdant silence filled the halls, and the only movement was the opening of the door to the Empress’s chambers. A dark form slipped out and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Alkut stopped for a moment, listening; content that he was alone, he sneaked quietly away. He did not notice her son, Ohmelus, General  of the Court, watching him.

****

Metedre fell upon the door as it closed, resting her forehead on the rough wood. A heavy sigh shook her shoulders, and yet she wore a faint smile; these encounters were always bittersweet. She bit a lip. More sweet than bitter tonight.
But the guilt would come. It haunted the dark, sang refrains in her mind as she held court with her Emperor. She never ceased to marvel that he didn’t know—or if he did know, that he didn’t care. She would be naïve to think that it was as well a kept secret as she wished, and that thought kept her continually on edge.
And yet she would not deny herself. Tauri was cold, distant—he had an empire to rule, and had no time for her. She had known that even before they were married. She had but one role as Empress: continue the line. That she had, with Ohmelus, and though more heirs would be welcome, her function had been served. Tauri had little to do with her, nor should he. His eyes were on the governance of the realm.
When Alkut’s footsteps receded out of earshot, she stepped away from the door and padded her way, barefoot, to the window overlooking her garden. A small marble bench sat by the sill, and she wrapped her robe more tightly around herself as she sat. For once, the breeze was cool tonight. The soft caress was welcome.
She did not love him, and he had as much as admitted that he had no love for her. Their…arrangement was mutually beneficial, and that was all. Occasionally, she revelled in the thought that all she need do was give the word, and he—and his temptations—would be removed. She need not expend any further thought on the matter, and no one would dare ask questions, even tell the Emperor if she bade them not to. Her quandary would be erased. But then, Alkut served not only to warm her bed. He was critical to the Empire’s survival.
The breeze wafted through the window and brought with it a scent of jasmine. They had been imported from Tornum at her request—and no little expense—and had become one of her greatest pleasures. It was a slave for an overwrought mind, and always served to bring her back down to earth.
Tauri had acted interested when she asked for the flowers, and the Court did as they always did, applauding his decision despite the cost. In the end, it had been to him little more than an opportunity; he’d had the flowers planted all through Ais for the populace to enjoy, and spoke at length about the benefits of bringing such beauty to the normally hot and dry city. Indeed, the white blooms had infested the city, and everyone praised the wisdom of the Emperor for bringing such life to their veritable desert. Not a word was spoken about her own involvement, but that was immaterial. She relished in the people’s enjoyment, and was happy that her own request had benefited them.
Still, she was the only one in Ais with a full garden. Many of the richer caste had flowers in their yard, even grass and fountains—but not a real garden like hers. It was a great indulgence in a realm with more sands than people, and the resources it took to cultivate and maintain the plants was considerable, but nobody begrudged her. Occasionally she held lavish public parties in her garden, welcoming everyone, regardless of caste or wealth. The people often called her The Jasmine Empress because of it, and celebrated her generosity. No regent of the Empire had ever done this for the people, and she knew she would be remembered for it long after she turned to dust. It was a legacy that gave her more pleasure than that of the Tauri line ever could.
The parties were becoming more frequent, and more necessary. Her people had fallen on difficult times; populations grew while resources grew thin, and there seemed to be more problems than pleasures. Her garden had become a bastion of peace, a refuge where people could forget their cares, if even for a short time. Something about the verdant growth entrances the Ozym; they felt grounded in her garden, rooted. She liked to think that being connected to the land gave them a new perspective of their problems—that they were fleeting, however taxing, that these blossoms, properly tended, would outlast all of their problems. She wanted this garden to become a symbol for her people, a sign that the problems of their material world mattered much less than the wonders of the world around them. This garden, she hoped, would continue thriving long after all of them had turned to dust.
She smiled at the thought, her indiscretions of the evening almost forgotten. Then, gazing dreamily out the window, she caught a flutter of movement in her garden, and a small gnomish figure stepped out of a copse of trees. Metedre stood at once, and fled to the door. The Crone had news.

Beta Readers

One of the steps of editing a new piece of writing is Substantive Editing. This is where you concentrate on the general scope of your work and identify things like plot holes, inconsistencies, and character development. In short, it’s kind of like a professional critique. It’s a service some editors provide–but I think that Beta Readers would fill this role just as well.

This kind of editing is important, because if your story or novel doesn’t make narrative sense or the characters are uninteresting, it’s not going to sell. A story has to be compelling and imaginative, yes; but if the plot is hard to follow, people won’t want to read it. Reading should be entertainment, not work, and a piece that hasn’t gone through this process runs the risk of taking the reader “out of the world of the book” as they pick apart all the problems or try to figure out what just happened.

These are the kinds of things writers (should) know to avoid; if you’ve taken workshops, classes, or read enough literature to understand how narratives work, you should be able to avoid these problems. But a writer is often too close to their own work. These are things that are easy for a writer to miss, and easy for a fresh pair of eyes to pick up on. And this is where Beta Readers come in.

What’s a Beta Reader? Glad you asked.

In the software world, programmers will distribute their work to beta testers, who will play with it to find bugs, discover issues, and generally give input. These contributions are then considered for the product, which is tweaked as needed before final release. The result is software that’s “tried and true.”

Fiction can work the same way. If you’d like to sign up as a Beta Reader for me, send me an email at jparsonswrites@gmail.com. I’ll send you a copy of my collection, The Astrologers and Other Stories, and ask for feedback. You don’t need any special skills for this, and I’m not asking for a detailed 120 page report; all you need to do is read it, and let me know what you think from a constructive standpoint.  I want to know how the characters work, how the plot flows, and if it makes sense. (For further reading, here’s a post by Jami Gold that talks about beta readers.)

Now, I should stress that I’m not asking beta readers to do any editing for me–I just want opinions. It doesn’t have to be in detail, just constructive enough that it’s useful. And what will you get in return? You’ll be the first to receive a free copy of the collection when it goes to print, as well as acknowledgement in the front matter (and if your input is constructive rather than generic, I’ll provide a link to your blog or website). Just for reading a story. I’ll also offer my own services as a beta reader if you have a story you’re ready to publish. Not a bad deal, eh?

On Monday, I have a special treat: an interview with Yesenia Vargas, an indie writer who’s just started offering editing services. She can be found at YeseniaVargas.com. Stay tuned after the weekend for a great talk about the other side of writing!

Swooping and Bashing

I haven’t had a whole lot of time (or energy) this week to put up a blog post, so apologies for the delay! This one is going to be short and sweet, but I wanted to get something out there. My intent for this week was to get out a few related articles on the process of editing, but that’ll have to be pushed into next week, so stay tuned.

In the meantime: Swoopers and Bashers.

In the wonderfully quirky Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that there are two types of writers: swoopers and bashers. Swoopers are those who write everything all at once, just get it on the page, then spend an arduous amount of effort editing the work until it’s “right.” Bashers–Vonnegut identifies himself as one–prefer to labour over each and every sentence, getting it right the first time until it’s done.

I used to think I was a basher too. I’m the kind of person who will stare at a blank page, not because I don’t know what to write, but because I don’t know how I want to write it. I’ll have the scene or dialog all planned out in my head (or, occasionally, in an outline), but won’t put pen to paper until I know exactly how I want to say it. That way, in the words of Vonnegut, “when it’s done, it’s done.”

This is all very well and good, but what I’m finding out now is that it doesn’t work that way. Maybe for an accomplished wordsmith like Vonnegut it’s okay, but not for me. In looking over my existing work this past few weeks and deciding what I want to publish, I’ve been discouraged to see that the pieces I thought were ready for ‘print’ are far from it. Much of it looks immature, if you will. In fact, it looks very much like a (gasp!) First Draft. Which, of course, is all it is, because I thought I was the kind of guy to get it right the first time and never bothered to go back.

Lesson learned. Now that I’ve finished my first collection of short stories–which I hope to have published online in about a month or so, pending setbacks–I’m starting to learn how much work actually goes into writing. And more importantly, how much of the writing process isn’t “creating” at all, not in the sense once like to think of how a writer crafts their work. Most of writing is actually editing, revising, and frankly cutting stuff that doesn’t work. It hurts, it’s dull, and it will drive you crazy–but it’s necessary. I don’t know what kind of magic pen Kurt Vonnegut had that let him bash out the perfect novel on the first try…but I’m inclined to think even he had it harder than he let on.

 

Case in point: a wonderful blog post on editing from Mike Nappa on the Writer’s Digest website. I couldn’t put it better myself, so take a read after the jump: How to Edit Your Book in 4 Steps.

Now, about that collection I mentioned above: I’m in the process of getting an editor, and will be sending it off to be pored over very soon. This is my first experience with a professional editor, so I’m interested to see how my work pans out. And of course, I’ll let you all in on it as we go…watch for that coming soon!