Finding the Angle in Short Fiction

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I’ve been making a concerted effort to write more—and better—short fiction and send it out to markets. This is partly because I want to be a better writer and because I would love to see my name on the covers of magazines I adore reading. I can’t subscribe to every magazine but I do read LightspeedUncanny and BCS religiously (thank you Kickstarter credits, regularly updated websites of free fiction goodness and Weightless Books).

I’ve spent the last couple of days devouring an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of my friend Kim’s Mosaics: Volume 1 and it’s a beautiful tome, not just physically but compositionally. That’s what struck me, the positioning of the stories, poems and essays was particularly well done and I’ve not yet found one entry in the anthology I don’t like whereas I normally find anthologies are very much like albums; you love a couple of songs and the rest are kinda meh. That book has a soul which is a very hard thing to do and is seldom ever seen in magazines, no matter how well they’re curated.

I suppose a lot of that is down to the fact the anthology was curated with chosen pieces rather than a compendium of on-spec stories (which is how the anthologies I write for normally seem to be done). It makes for a nice change but it also got me thinking about my short stories, the ones I’m sending out to magazines, those are all on-spec (meaning I’m writing and sending them out without being asked for them). This makes it much harder as you’re basically writing stories in the hope that one of the slush editors/the EiC are going to like them enough to buy them.

But these on-spec stories, they’re also me; my ideas and composition. I have four stories out right now, with one more to follow after my crit group later today. Each story has focused on different ideas, styles and tenses. One is urban fantasy, another sci fi with notes of magical realism and fantasy, the third is historical, alternate fiction and the fourth an origin story. The latest story is epic fantasy with a secondary world based on ancient China which is just about ready to go out into the world for a round of rejectomancy. The last is a second person sci fi story about an author whose stint in a mental hospital activates psychic abilities which allow her see other worlds and dimensions, eventually evolving to a point where she is almost able to alter reality.

Each story is stand-alone and unique, part of the act of selling stuff is knowing which markets to try and that, in my opinion, is the problem or, at least, the challenge of submitting to market. You’re basically sending stuff out with no idea how it will be received, though if you’re lucky then you get rejections (called personals) with a note on what the editor liked or didn’t which can help guide future submissions, albeit to other markets.

Of course then you have that great question: to re-edit or not re-edit. A single editor doesn’t speak for the whole collective and one change might turn another editor off a story entirely. Being a slush editor for is one of those things which should help, except I did it for two issues and never had one of the stories I sent up go anywhere. Plus, with new magazines, it’s much harder to find a soul than with once that have been going for years. It’s almost like a brand and those, regardless of whether it’s a person or a magazine, take time to form. But, boy, is it fun to watch.

Every time I get a personal, I want to re-edit. This is my character flaw: I’m impatient and I latch onto what people say as if it’s gospel. It’s also why I’m in a crit group, surrounded by people whose opinions I trust, especially when it comes to my attempts at short fiction. Like journalism, it’s all about the angle except it’s this amorphous thing which changes depending on the editor.

I started a file last night, a folder on my browser called ‘Short Stories I Love’, mostly composed of entries from Lightspeed and Uncanny of short fiction which has really moved me. It delights me when I see the authors of my favourite stories with new ones in magazines I wait for with baited breath each month. I’d love to be able to to subscribe to every magazine but I can’t so I rely on the biweekly updates where fiction unlocks for free on publishers’ sites. Doing this, it’s helped me with my own writing but has also helped me, with my short attention span, to find a medium I really do love to read.

And if I read it, one day, I’ll sell just the right story.

Until then I’m going to play the probability game.

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The Liner Notes: “Le Cirque de la Nuit”

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Circuses are not my normal subject matter but “Le Cirque de la Nuit” came to me in their weird dream about a person who was seeing a woman named Medea in the mirror. I knew Dea was able to take control of the (male) person whose story I was watching and that she was a member of a strange, supernatural circus.

Then I found this song and everything fell into place. This was no mundane troupe but something existing on the edge of a much-changed world where people fled the cities and tried to reinvent lives that had, prior to the Apocalypse, been so very different.

As the story was drafted the week after we lost David Bowie, I knew he had to appear in this story, specifically in his guise of Jareth, the Goblin King. And so the mysterious Ringmaster wears furs and feathers and plays with glass spheres, delighting the children in the audience. He’s a force of nature but cares for those accepted into his troupe, animals and humans both. Sometimes the troupe takes people will skills and, other times, they are all that’s left for the broken souls, like my main character, Jessie.

Death was an important part of the plot, as was this sort-of future world where the barriers between life and death aren’t as solid as they were originally. Something bad happened to the world vaguely connected to cities and technology, and now people exist in hamlets as far from civilisation’s heart as possible. I could see people living in make-shift homes with no heating or lights, with candles and furs and even seeing things like hoodies, the remnants of a dead and cursed world, as being something to be avoided just because they came from a dangerous place.

Except the world, with bandits and unnatural seasons, is even more dangerous than it ever was before our world came to an end.

I didn’t want this to be a straight sci fi story so we have the Night Circus of the title, which appears and moves from place to place pretty much on it’s own whims. They have a menagerie of fantastical creatures, from a mermaid to a unicorn; the centerpiece is a beautiful lion called Le Roi (French for “The King”, named in honour of a Facebook acquaintance’s cat who is named in honour of the Sun King himself). Sometimes new creatures appear, seemingly willed into existence by the imagination of children, like a phoenix egg waiting to hatch.

The point is, this isn’t our world. The only semblance of normality can be found in the Midway where there are food and games and sellers who will trade items or scrap. Jessie is haunted by her son and husband, who wander the area almost on a loop that is based on the last night she was with them.

Except she’s not there.

Jessie is now a marionette, a Puppet in the circus’ troupe of acrobats and Dea is her Puppeteer, the true dancer but who is also disembodied and so needs Jessie to perform. At the same time Jessie just wants to get back to her family, despite Dea’s protestations that her family will come to her if she’s patient. Jessie, of course, she wants to fight for her family and to return to her old life.

But of course, where’s the story in old lives?

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New Short Story: “Le Cirque de la Nuit”

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Part of my goals for this year is to write more/better short stories. This is a relatively new medium for me and much harder than novels. This was also my first short story written as Asha Bardon. I know it’s cliched but I had a dream a week or so ago which spawned the idea for this story, started formulating it on the bus into Norwich, sat down with my first coffee of the morning and sketched out the storyline as per Mary’s class then began to write.

I finished it late last Tuesday night, after going to Zumba (which really helps me as it distracts my brain enough to untangle plot holes).

Today I revised the draft, added stuff, dotted the is and added a sneaky Bowie reference. Now I’ve sent it out into the wilds to a market which might like it (my first and second choices being closed to submissions :(). That said, I’m not expecting a first time sale but it feels great to have stories out there, in some editor’s pile waiting to be read.

But, mainly because I planned out the story from it’s entirely from the post-apocalyptic setting to the Night Circus, when I wrote “Le Cirque de la Nuit” I felt I didn’t have to hurry to get it all down before I forget and so could enjoy the process of actually writing a first draft which is a new experience for me. I like it. I had a roadmap and didn’t once feel lost, in fact I think this story inherently tighter just because of the plotting.

So now things can get interesting.

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