Short stories have always been elusive to me. Despite the countless number that I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, I never finished writing even one of them. Although there wasn’t a name for it back then, I was basically writing flash fiction, though purely for my own enjoyment. Apparently, though, nothing I wrote interested me enough to finish it.
At age nineteen, I had 150 pages of a novel added to my repertoire of incomplete stories. Stories, novels—it didn’t matter: I was an equal opportunity non-finisher.
As I later learned through introspection, it was a combined fear of success and failure that kept me from finishing my work, coupled with the age-old issue of having no idea where I was going with my many WIPs. Eventually, I resolved the reasons for my unproductiveness, and with those fears no longer holding me back, I began to write. In the early days, I wrote four screenplays (still collecting dust somewhere) and two plays. Years later, my deep desire to be a novelist was liberated. I began writing books—and finishing those, too.
I first wrote three standalone novels in different genres (Crooked Moon; Squalor, New Mexico, & Molly Hacker Is Too Picky!), and then began a YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series. Mind you, I was still a short-story virgin. I never even thought about popping the short story cherry.
Short stories were alien beings to me. They really were.
The above quote, which is attributed to Mark Twain, has been attributed to others as well. I’m not sure who said it or even if Twain did. But what I do know is that it packs a whole lot of truth.
It’s usually much easier to ramble on than it is to take an idea and express it in few words. Plus, there are still so many novels in my head waiting to be written, and I couldn’t grasp the concept of having an idea that could be … dare I say it … a short story! (Rather ironic coming from someone has tweeted every day since 2009.)
So how did I lose my short-story virginity?
It was after I finished edits for the first book in my YA paranormal trilogy, Mystical High, and was writing book 2, Desert Star, that I found myself longing to write without any language restraints. It was time to release the pent-up literary fiction writer in me. I quietly did the deed, then gave birth to my first short story, and then to another. (I’m slowly putting together a collection for some time down the road.)
When fellow author Maria Savva asked me to write two short stories for the Triptychs, the third book in The Mind’s Eye series, I was eager to join my fellow authors in being a contributor for this fascinating anthology.
In the first two books of the series, Reflections and Perspectives, each author wrote a short story inspired by a unique photograph. In Triptychs, the same photo was given to three different writers who were asked to write a short story or poem inspired by the image. Authors were neither able to choose the photos nor given any information to jumpstart their imagination.
But when I was given these two photographs, although pretty, they’re not ones that I would have chosen to inspire me to write a story. I really had to think outside of “the box.” I had to find a flicker of something in these photos that resonated with me so that I could build a story I felt passionate about telling.
This exercise fascinated me because for years, I had considered writing stories centered around famous paintings, especially some by Edward Hopper. For example, this is Edward Hopper’s, A Room in New York, one of the many paintings I thought would be a great starting point for a story or a novel.
I have been imagining stories in my head for a lifetime, but I have always done so when looking at photos, paintings, people, cities, or just about anything that inspires me. Never before had I written stories based on what someone else felt passionate about. The challenge of writing these stories for Triptychs really stretched my imagination in new and extraordinary directions.
It’s interesting, too, that while viewing one of the photographs, it took me about a minute to conceive the story “I Wish…”
(Credit: Helle Gade)
When viewing the second photograph, however, my story, “May Twenty-Fourth,” took weeks. Creativity is endlessly fascinating, don’t you think?
(Credit: Martin David Porter)
Triptychs is now available at a pre-order price of .99 until the book is published on March 16, 2015.
An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy all his life, Michael Radcliffe published his first book The Guardian’s Apprentice in 2010. He lives in rural Kentucky with his family and their six feline companions. His writing is supervised by Idris, a temperamental dragon sculpture that sits in a place of honor next to his computer.
Time to chat with Michael!
What is your latest book?
My current work in process is tentatively titled Touch of Darkness, and takes place after the events in Rise of the Shadow. I had actually intended to end the Beyond the Veil series with the third book, but one of the main characters kept hanging about in my imagination. When I mentioned this to my friend and fellow writer, Maria Savva, she encouraged me to write the story. She also enlisted the aid of my dragon, Idris, which was decidedly not fair!
Without giving too much away, Touch of Darkness explores the story of a main character from Rise of the Shadow. At the end of Shadow, this character is on the run, having murdered two innocent people while possessed by an evil spirit. In Darkness, he struggles with the realization of what he did, and he will face a choice of redemption or temptation.
What else have you written?
Oddly enough, I thought I would only ever write one book, but the story kept evolving and the characters just won’t leave me alone!
To date I have written three books:
The Guardian’s Apprentice
Bloodstone – The Guardian’s Curse
Rise of the Shadow
And seven short stories:
Tears for Hesh
Scale of a Dragon
Legend of the Pumpkin King
Frostbite – The Dragon that Saved Christmas
The Amaranthine Flask
All of them except for Legend of the Pumpkin King are set in the same world and contribute to the overall series. I like to use short stories as a way to further develop the background of characters from the novels. I must admit, I enjoy writing short stories as I like the challenge of developing and telling a complete story in just one or two thousand words.
What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?
I absolutely love the world-building aspect of fantasy, where you can create a completely new setting populated with everything your imagination can conjure up. I also enjoy developing the backgrounds of my characters. For example, after writing The Guardian’s Apprentice, I went back and wrote the short story, Forsaken, which tells the story of Nisha, one of the supporting characters. Forsaken gives the reader insight about how she became the person she was in TGA, and it let me explore her character.
There are actually two things I strongly dislike about writing. The first and most frightful is writing a synopsis or a query letter. I hate, hate, HATE writing either one of those dreadful things. I would much rather face down a dragon than be forced to write a synopsis or a query letter. The second thing I dislike is editing, simply because it NEVER ends! Even today, I can go back and read my first book, which I published in 2010, and I will invariably find a typo that I missed, or a section I would word differently.
Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?
I will confess to being an oddball on this question. In Bloodstone – The Guardian’s Curse, I actually wrote the last two chapters first, then went back and wrote the rest. In book three, Rise of the Shadow, I wrote about five chapters, skipped ahead and wrote two middle chapters, then filled in the gaps and wrote the end. In contrast, with The Guardian’s Apprentice I wrote the story straight through, from beginning to end. I think my process depends largely on how the story is flowing in my mind – sometimes I’ll have a sudden insight and think “Oh, this would be the perfect way to end…” so I will write that particular scene or chapter while it is fresh.
Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?
Both. I edit as I write, and will often stop and re-read several chapters to make sure the story flows properly. Once I am finished, I read, re-read, and re-re-read, editing each time. With my last two books, I also sought beta-readers, which I found to be incredibly helpful.
How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?
Names, in my opinion, are almost as important as the plot. Sometimes I struggle with names, sometimes they just come to me in a flash of inspiration (sadly, struggling is much more common than those rare flashes…). I will also admit to keeping a file of names and words I have come across that I consider to be odd or just plain cool – that file has come in very handy when trying to name a character. I think the toughest time was in my first book, The Guardian’s Apprentice, when I renamed one of the characters three times before I found the right one.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
Write. Write a LOT. The more you write, the better you will become. I would also strongly urge a new writer to join a critique group such as critters.org. This allows you to interact with others, critiquing their work and having yours critiqued in return. You also need to keep an open mind about criticism. Use criticism, no matter how hard it may be to hear, to make your work better. Also, before you publish something, make certain it is polished and as error-free as possible! No matter how much you hated Freshman English in college, grammar counts, and nothing turns a reader off quicker than poor grammar.
Finally, join a writers group such as BestsellerBound.com where you can network and share experiences with other writers.
Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?
I have used Facebook and Twitter since 2010, and I am also on Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Klout. I am particularly fond of Twitter, as it keeps me connected to my Indie friends. Social media has been a wonderful tool for authors to connect with readers and other authors, and I shudder to think where we would be without it. Social media has allowed me to connect with so many wonderful people. Ironically some of my best friends are those I have never actually met in person!
That being said, I have frequently found myself sucked into a time warp thanks to social media. I will log into Facebook or Twitter, glance at the clock, and an hour has vanished – one that could have otherwise been spent writing! (for the record, I am NOT addicted to CandyCrush – I can stop any time I want…)
Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?
I am very fortunate in that my sister is a writer as well. She writes paranormal romances under the pen name Maeve Greyson, and we have on occasion each sought the opinion of the other, even though we inhabit different genres.
I especially like to seek the opinions of other writers if I am exploring new territory. For example in my current work in process, Touch of Darkness, a critical part of the story is the romance that blossoms between the two main characters. While there has been a little bit of romance in previous stories, it has never been so central to the theme. I was very concerned about setting the right tone, so I asked my friend, Maria Savva, if she would mind reading a sample. She was kind enough to read the first few chapters and give me her opinion, which reassured me I was on the right track. That type of feedback is invaluable when writing, in my opinion.
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
Sadly, they have complete control. When I am writing, I can almost hear the characters and their dialogue in my head (yes, I know I just admitted to hearing voices…). So far in each book I have written, the story has taken a twist, when the characters did something I did not expect. I certainly never thought I would write a fourth book, but one of the characters kept rattling about in my imagination and simply would not leave me alone until I told his story!
What music soothes your soul?
The music of Enya always helps me relax. Especially when I am writing, her music helps transport me to another world. I also enjoy listening to classical music while I write, preferably Vivaldi, Mozart, or Beethoven.
If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?
As I spend the majority of my time at work reading banking regulations, conducting audits, and answering legal questions, I prefer to watch comedies – to drag me back from the depths of seriousness. My favorites include Mike & Molly and The Big Bang Theory. I will confess however, I do love a good mystery. I particularly enjoy Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie’s Poirot performed by British actor David Suchet.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Sipping coffee on a Saturday morning, while sitting in the porch swing with my wife. A very close second is sitting in front of a warm fire in December, when everything is decorated for Christmas.
What are three things you think we can all do to make the world a better place?