4356425222_4b5180ffe0_zThe Australian Outback drifted past below the airship, a vast wilderness that glowed with an amber warmth between patches of tenacious scrub. Bolted into the airship’s console was a part of that ancient world, a twisted branch painted in bright colours.

“Only you would do this.” Dirk Dynamo shook his head. “Cross a continent for an artefact, then stick it in your latest machine.”

“But look!” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms’s top hat almost fell off as he leaned across a row of dials. “It’s like the stories said. The Dreaming Branch can see futures unfolding around it, telling us the most efficient course.”

Suddenly there was a hiss and the airship began to sink.

“I say!” Blaze-Simms yanked a lever and the hissing stopped. “The upper inflation valve must have slipped.”

Another hiss made him whirl around, stopping the sound by grabbing another lever. Then the hissing appeared again, and this time Dirk caught a brief flash of someone pulling a lever before they disappeared and Blaze-Simms turned to set things right.

“Stop that.” Dirk looked around the control room.

“When you give me the Branch.” A little woman with wrinkled brown skin, dressed only in a loin cloth, faced him from the corner. He could have sworn she hadn’t been there before.

“I don’t think so.” He strode across the room, but just as he reached her she waved a hand across her body, took a side-step and disappeared.

“Got you!” Blaze-Simms lunged at the woman as she appeared by the console, but she pulled a lever and disappeared once more, leaving him frantically trying to set things right.

“This is an outrage!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. “Vandalism. Piracy, even.”

The airship was losing altitude now, heading fast toward the ground.

“All I want is the Branch.” The woman was by the window, smiling at them both.

“Well you can’t have it.” Blaze-Simms folded his arms indignantly. “I bought it fair and square from a man named Jeffrey Two Trees.”

The woman snorted.

“The Dream Branch is of the alcheringa, the eternal dream beyond our waking world.” An angry expression crumpled her face. “It wasn’t Jeffo’s to sell.”

Dirk had been slowly approaching her from one side, and now he leaped, hands outstretched. But again she waved her hand and reappeared across the room.

“I can do this all day.” She turned a wheel and the tone of the engines changed, the airship accelerating in its downward path.

“I can pay you for it.” Blaze-Simms pulled a wallet from his tailcoat pocket. “Cash or cheque.”

“No.” She pulled another lever, disappeared as Dirk grabbed at her, and reappeared to flick a switch. “I don’t know what any of these do, but I bet I’m breaking something.”

An ominous clang somewhere to the aft made Blaze-Simms grimace.

“Perhaps a share of the profits?” he asked. “With a navigation device like this-“

“Ground’s getting close,” the woman said. “I can dream walk away before we crash. Can you?”

“Tim, give her the stick.” Tension knotted Dirk’s guts. He’d escaped crashes before, but they were falling fast and a long way from help.

“Dream walk.” A distant expression crossed Blaze-Simms’s face.

“Tim!” Dirk shouted. “The branch!”

“Oh, yes.” Blaze-Simms pulled a spanner from his tailcoat, hurriedly unfastened the branch and threw it to the woman.

“Nice meeting you.” With one more wave she vanished.

The ground hurtling ever closer, Blaze-Simms rushed between levers and dials, turning, twisting and yanking until the airship levelled out. Dirk breathed a sigh of relief as they drifted a few feet above the outback.

“Sorry about your invention.” He looked over at the navigation panel, with its dead dials and the empty space where the branch had been.

“Hmm?” Blaze-Simms looked up from a notebook. “Oh, never mind that. Didn’t you hear what she said? She was dream walking, stepping from place to place through another realm. Imagine if I could make a whole airship do that!”

Dirk stared out the window at the little old lady waving up at them. He couldn’t see her teaching Blaze-Simms her secrets, no matter how big the cheque.

* * *

Today’s story isn’t the only one in which Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms deal with airship piracy. You can find them fighting to control a pirate airship over the Atlantic in ‘A Wind Will Rise’, my contribution to the Avast, Ye Airships! anthology, out now. And if you would like to see them fight giant rats or the preserved head of Leonardo da Vinci, why not read Riding the Mainspring, free to anyone who signs up to my mailing list.

And if you’d like to read more free flash stories from me, you can find a list at this link, or have them delivered to your inbox via the mailing list.

No, the other sort of serial.

No, the other sort of serial.

Today sees the release of Avast, Ye Airships!, featuring the latest adventure from my recurring Victorian heroes Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms. So what better way to celebrate than a nice cup of tea? No, wait, I mean a blog post on writing serial fiction.

Origins of a List

A fellow writer and I recently discussed what makes good serial fiction. Not a slowly unfolding plot like Game of Thrones, but something like The Dresden Files, where readers can dip into and enjoy any episode that comes to hand, but fans who follow the series can get a little more out of it. From this discussion I’ve assembled a list below of key points that I think make this fiction work well. It’s not meant as a definitive list, more a work in progress. Like any template, its usefulness would come as much in carefully ignoring points sometimes as in following them all. Still, I think that following these points could help to structure an accessible series that keeps people coming back.

The trick with this sort of series is working out how to make it exciting without anything much changing, and the list is built around that. Have a read, see what you think.

Protagonist

Unchanging character.

Fully formed at start – probably save origin story for later, as it’s the sort of story you’re never likely to top.

If start with origin story, make sure to wrap it in one go.

A decent person just trying to make their way in the world.

Honourable.

Sidekick

Friendly sidekick.

More likeable than the character.

More moral.

Less competent.

Can be the point of view character, especially if the protagonist has skills or thought patterns that are hard for the writer to portray in detail, eg. genius or expert in an obscure field of study. Think Holmes and Watson.

Setting

Unchanging environment.

Rich and varied – plenty of variety to explore.

Romance

String of short romantic entanglements

and/or

Ongoing sexual tension with secondary character (a book and a half into The Dresden Files, I’m thinking of Murphy, though James Bond’s Moneypenny also deserves a mention).

Arch-rival

A nasty but charming antagonist.

Sympathy for the antagonist.

Individual antagonists can be defeated, but the arch-rival remains present in the background throughout, often setting up other problems.

Individual Story Structure

(A lot of this came from the other writer, and is apparently taken from James Scott Bell, whose Write Your Novel from the Middle is now waiting for me on my Kindle)

98% closure on each story.

Invite readers to continue, don’t make them obliged by cliffhangers.

Trouble starts on page one.

Unpredictability.

A spiral of trouble.

A love triangle.

A fluid, no-speedbumps writing style.

A ticking clock.

A resonant ending.

Overall Structure

Subtle hooks – set up characters and details in background of earlier stories to use in later stories – adds interest and substance.

Potential Uber-Structure

(This is where I got over-excited and went off on one…)

Say you’re writing a sci-fi crime drama, and the main villain is Mr Z. You don’t want him in every time, but you want him to be behind everything. You can’t have the hero permanently beat him, but if he only ever beats a villain of the week type it’s less satisfying.

So structure the series in groups of three or four books. You have one or two in which the hero faces and defeats villains just for that book, while a henchman of Mr Z is built up because of his connections to them.

Then you have a book in which, after building this henchman up, you let the protagonist beat him, permanently getting rid of that henchman. By then it’s become clear that these two or three stories have led up to a bigger plan by Mr Z.

In the last book of that particular cycle the hero thwarts said plan, significantly setting back Mr Z, but still leaving him around. Maybe Mr Z gets sent to prison and is busted out during the next cycle. Maybe he just loses out in some big way. The important thing is, the villain’s still in play.

What’s Missing

So, fellow readers and writers, what do you make of that? What have your experiences with serial fiction been – what works for you and what doesn’t? What have I missed or miss-judged?

And if you ever feel like using this list, please let me know how you get on.

Picture by frankieleon via Flickr Creative Commons.

AvastYeAirshipsIn a daring history that never was, pirates roam the skies instead of the seas. Fantastical airships sail the clouds on both sides of the law. Within these pages, you will find stories of pirates and their prey with a few more pragmatic airships thrown in. With stories ranging from Victorian skies to an alien invasion, there is something for everyone in these eighteen tales of derring-do!

Tomorrow sees the launch of Avast, Ye Airships!, a collection of stories themed around airship pirates, edited by Rie Sheridan Rose. It features ‘A Wind Will Rise’, my latest story to feature Dirk Dynamo and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club, as they battle a slaving pirate airship over the Atlantic.

If you’re anything like me, you probably love stories about both pirates and airships, which makes bringing them together doubly awesome.

So what are you waiting for, me hearties? Hop on over to the publishers’ website to buy a copy. There be gold in them there clouds.

The full contents of the collection:

Beneath the Brass by Stephen Blake
Maiden Voyage by Jeffrey Cook & Katherine Perkins
Colonel Gurthwait and the Black Hydra by Robert McGough
Captain Wexford’s Dilemma by Ogarita
Her Majesty’s Service by Lauren Marrero
A Wind Will Rise by Andrew Knighton
Hooked by Rie Sheridan Rose
Go Green by Ross Baxter
Lost Sky by Amy Braun
Miss Warlyss Meets the Black Buzzard by Diana Parparita
Plunder in the Valley by Libby A. Smith
The Clockwork Dragon by Steve Cook
Adventures of a Would-Be Gentleman of the Skies by Jim Reader
A Clouded Affair by Steven Southard
The Climbers by D Chang
The Steampunk Garden by Wynelda Ann Deaver
Lotus of Albion by Steve Ruskin
And a Bottle of Rum… by K.C. Shaw

Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.

This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:

Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.

Before the Dead-Drop

Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.

To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.

So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.

Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.

Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.

After the Dead-Drop

Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.

Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.

But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.

Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.

On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.

Reflecting on the Exercise

A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.

Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.

Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.

Some great stories leap out at you from the first page, grabbing you by the heart and screaming for your attention. Others grow on you slowly, creeping into your brain word by word until you realise that the thing you were once vaguely enjoying has become so rich, so compelling that you can’t let it go.

Locke & Key, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s comic book series of magic, mystery and dark deeds, is one of the latter.

That Growing On You Feeling

I wasn’t completely taken by Locke & Key when I read the first volume. It was perfectly decent, in the way of many other comics that have combined strange fantasy with a modern setting since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. But it didn’t seem like much more than that.

Still, I’d heard great things about this book, and I found the second volume in my local library. I read some more, and somewhere in my own hidden depths something clicked. This was a dark, fascinating puzzle of a story, with compelling characters and beautiful art. This was a thing I really wanted to read.

Wonder and Horror

Locke & Key is the story of the Locke children – teenagers Tyler and Kinsey Locke, and their younger brother Bode. After their father’s brutal murder, they move with their mother to an old New England house. There they find something strange – a series of keys with magical powers, that can open the mind and free the spirit, but that can also bring great darkness.

Because while the Lockes are good people, they aren’t the only ones seeking out the keys. A darker force is at work, one that brings horror and betrayal in its wake. As the Locke children try to come to terms with their loss, while also exploring the wonder of the keys, terrible events start to unfold around them.

OK, I know that all sounds vague, but I’m doing it on purpose. Part of the joy of these books is watching events play out in surprising and compelling ways. I really don’t want to give anything away.

Everything at a Price

One of the central themes of Locke & Key is the consequence of actions, the price paid not just by the people who make choices but by those around them. The children’s mother has coped with her husband’s death by drinking away her sorrows, but this is destroying her remaining relationships. The exploration of magic brings wonder, but also unleashes darkness. And as the background of the story creeps into the light, it becomes clear that everything that is happening happens for a reason, a consequence of other decisions in the key house’s past.

Locke & Key is a beautiful thing. The characters and deep, nuanced and complex. The art is both dynamic and characterful. The plot is full of mystery and suspense. Sure, it’s no Sandman, but neither is it another Sandman wannabe. It’s a dark, brooding tale in its own right. Something unsettling and yet uplifting.

I’m on the fifth volume out of six now. Whether things end well or badly for Lockes, I expect to be gripped right through to the end.

Wait, Now Who’s Mightier?

Posted: February 21, 2015 in enthusing!
Tags: , , , ,

pen swordMy trusty blade – a souvenir from Stabcon, my local board games convention. It seemed particularly apt, given my work.

Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons

Picture by Jan Bommes via Flickr Creative Commons

Strange, rusted shapes crunched beneath Mantaj’s feet as she approached the ruins, holy book clasped in her hand. When she was young, she and the other children had come here often, rummaging through the rubble in search of these ancient artefacts from before the dark time. This place of excitement was now one of terror, for her even more than for the other villagers. But they were not priests, and so the exorcism fell to her.

With trembling steps she walked through the high doorway, the flames of her torch making shadows dance around the hall within. A fresh pile of rubble lay ahead of her, a dark stain at its edge. The stain of her mother’s blood.

As she approached the rubble, a ghostly figure appeared in the air further down the hall. Terrible, wrenching loss at the sight of her mother’s face was replaced by fear for her life. This was the unnatural thing that had sent others running, a spirit from the beyond. It was said that the walking dead could devour your soul, and the fear of the beyond that had led Mantaj to become a priest now made her feet falter.

“It’s all so beautiful.” The ghost smiled, then looked up in alarm. Some invisible force struck it to the ground, head caved in just as her mother’s had been. A moment later it was upright again. “It’s all so beautiful.”

As she watched her mother die over and over, Mantaj’s fear was replaced by guilt. She had been fearing for herself, not mourning her mother’s loss. The feelings twisted up together, freezing her in place.

“I shall make shadows out of loss,” she said, reciting her favourite scripture for reassurance.  “Angels shall become demons at my hand, and demons shall become angels.”

She walked with trembling steps across the hall, forcing herself not to flee as the invisible rubble crushed her mother and the roof creaked overhead. Her duty was to keep the village safe, and to help her mother move on.

A hiss came from the side of the hall, a feral cat prowling through the ruins. For a moment it seemed to glow, and the ghostly image was broken by the animal’s silhouette. Behind the cat, something glowed.

She turned and walked toward that point of light. One foot sank into a hole in the floor. Yelping, she fell to the ground.

As she pulled herself back to her feet, her mother’s voice was replaced by an echo of that yelp.

Mantaj looked back. The ghost no longer took her mother’s form. Now it looked like Mantaj herself, caught over and over in the act of tripping at that hole, crying out again and again in alarm.

She trembled with fear. If that was her ghost, then what had happened to her body? Had she fallen and cracked her head open? Was she now just a remnant waiting to pass on, her mortal flesh lying dead on the ground? She forced herself to look down, to face the terrible reality of her fate.

There was no body. Only the hole, the ground, and Mantaj standing on it.

Relief lifted her spirits, and she walked more confidently toward the glowing light.

“Demons shall become angels,” she said, holding the book out in front of her like a talisman. No-one trained village priests to perform exorcisms, but she knew that holy words could drive out unholy spirits. “Demons shall become angels.”

“Demons shall become angels.” The ghost echoed her voice, and as she glanced back she saw that it too walked confidently forward, though without moving from its spot.

Approaching the wall, she saw that the light was coming from an ancient device embedded in the base of the wall. It was dirty and rusted, and a lump of rock had recently fallen against it, pressing on two protrusions that glowed like fine gemstones, one blue and one red. Was it some sort of trap, confining the spirits that haunted this place? A blue gem to display benevolent spirits and a red one to trap demons, as she had heard of in legends?

She lifted away the rock at its base. Both gems ceased their glowing, and the light went out. Behind her, the ghost fell silent.

Mantaj was surprised to feel a surge of sadness. She had lost so much with her mother’s death, and the transformation of that spirit from an image of death to a message of scripture had given her hope. For a moment she had believed that death was not the end, not for good things.

She stroked the blue gemstone, and the lighted flashed again. Leaning the rock against the gem, she saw it resume its soft glow and heard her own voice coming from behind her.

“Demons shall become angels,” the ghost said again.

“Thank you.” Mantaj bowed her head to the spirit trap, and turned to leave.

“Demons shall become angels.” The voice followed her out through the hall. “Demons shall become angels.”

* * *

This story is a return to the world I set up in ‘Pale Wings’, one where advanced technology has come to be seen as magic. That original idea came from Ben Moxon, while this story came about because Steve Hartline said he would like to see more of this world. Mantaj is named after a friend of mine, who this week gave me some of the best writing feedback I’ve ever had – I wanted to provide some sort of tribute.

If you enjoyed this story then you can find links to many more of my flash fiction pieces here, read more in my books, and even get a free copy of my short story collection Riding the Mainspring by signing up to my mailing list.

And as always, if you’d like to leave any feedback or an idea for a future story then please leave a comment below.