If you’re wondering what writers do on their time off, the answer is usually: read. We are currently waiting for our graphics and formatting guru, Miguel, to finish packaging and polishing Wasteland Renegades, which means Josh and I have free time to play. Of course, by “play” I mean “work on the third book”, but I’d also like to spend this warp bubble of extra time to tell you about some of the spec fiction I’ve consumed lately.
First up: Chimerascope by Douglas Smith
I must preface this review by shouting my love for short stories from the rooftops. Well, the rooftops are metaphorical, I’m actually shouting from my couch. Short stories are an art unto themselves and when I find an author who masters that art, particularly in speculative fiction, I pounce. Douglas Smith can consider himself pounced.
Chimerascope, a collection of speculative fiction short stories, enchants, horrifies, enlightens, and mesmerizes. Through each tale, no matter the tone or subject, Smith connects the reader instantly with his characters and they are as unforgettable as they are diverse. From the broken and twisted (Jason Trelayne of “Scream Angel”, John Bishop of “Memories of the Dead Man”) to the ethereal and innocent (Asai of “The Red Bird, Big G of “Going Harvey in the Big House”), these characters step off the pages and become real.
Another of Smith’s strengths is structure. I’m in awe of his ability to choose just the right voice, POV, and timelines for his stories. He includes enough details to show the reader the depth of each world without bogging down the story in description. No matter how short the story, their worlds feel fully formed. Best of all, Smith’s stories have endings! I realize how funny that might sound but there seems to be this disturbing trend now of short stories that have no real conclusion. The last page arrives and the reader is left with …no resolution, good or bad. This drives me batty and, in my opinion, is a mark of lazy storytelling. Smith’s stories may not always end happily but there is always a resolution.
It’s difficult for me to choose a single favourite out of the collection but because I like dark protagonists “Scream Angel” and “Memories of the Dead Man” probably top my list. “State of Disorder” ranks a close third for its deliciously nasty villain, complex plot, and lovely twist.
Many of these stories were award winners and rightfully so. If you love speculative fiction, short stories, and masterful storytelling, Chimerascope needs to be on your bookshelf.
In fact, I loved these stories and Smith’s writing so much, I pestered him to share some of his thoughts on crafting short stories with me. (Being a member of SF Canada has its perks!). He graciously obliged and has given me permission to share his responses here.
Smith says that his stories always arrive as an idea, an image, or a character, but he can’t begin writing the tale until he has the characters that will tell it.
I then tend to think in character arcs. Where is this character (in their life) when the story starts, how do they fit into this story idea, and how will they have changed by the story end? The old “what’s their problem and are they going to resolve it?” If so, how? If not, how and why will they fail?
Choosing POV (point of view) characters, Smith considers to be one of the most important decisions when deciding how to tell a story. Something most, if not all, writers would agree with. He breaks with convention, however, when it comes to multiple POV’s—supposedly a no-no in short fiction.
I tend to like interleaved POV’s for a story structure. This was essential for making “Scream Angel” work. My hero, Trelayne, is a drug-addicted xenocide. Kind of hard to make him sympathetic without some help. So I used Faran as a POV character, an alien child who has been saved by Trelayne and who idolizes him. Trelayne sees only his bad side in himself, while Faran shows us the hero he already is.
The two POV’s work perfectly in “Scream Angel”, as do the flashbacks (another short fiction no-no). Several of the stories in Chimerascope move back and forth in time to great effect. About choosing a non-sequential timeline, Smith says it’s difficult to say how he decides.
Part of it is when you want the reader to know certain info. Sometimes, it’s to start “in media res” and save the backstory for later once you have them hooked (hopefully). Sometimes, flipping time for scenes absolutely screams out as the right way to do it—”State of Disorder” is about time travel, so jumping around in time seemed to fit. That story, by the way, probably has my most complex plot structure. Even the scenes with Mackaby and Harnish that appear to be sequential are actually years apart.
Smith also tends not to write his stories sequentially.
I love stories where the ending comes clearly to me early on. I often write the last scene in a story before any other (“Spirit Dance” in Impossibilia is the one I recall the clearest when I was writing that story). That way I have a clear target to aim at for the rest of the story, both plot and character arc.
Hm, Impossibilia, I’ll have to pounce on that one next. I asked Smith about pacing because that’s something I feel is critical to a good story and something else at which he excels.
You can’t separate plot from pacing, so that’s another consideration in sequencing scenes. It also ties in to how much you tell a reader and when. Reviewers frequently mention that I’m good at implying a larger universe behind my story and my characters than I actually show in the story, just by revealing some small key details. Not sure I can give any tips on that other than I have the larger picture in my head and I only tell what I need to tell when I need to tell it to keep the story moving.
Thanks so much for the fantastic stories and words of wisdom, Doug!
You can find Chimerascope and more of Douglas Smith’s work on his website : smithwriter.com
If you’re a writer and interested in selling your short fiction, Doug has also put together a helpful series on the Amazing Stories website: Playing the Short Game: How to Sell Your Short Fiction
And you can follow Doug on Twitter @smithwritr