Why Read Short Stories?

“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick—a couple thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” –Neil Gaiman.

Many people have said things to me such as, “I don’t like reading short stories. I need the depth and the character development that happens in a novel.” Although I can certainly appreciate that, my response is usually something like, “Although I really enjoy a filet mignon Oscar or seared Ahi tuna entrée, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the canapés! Munching a bit of caviar on a dollop of crème fraiche, with a bit of hard-boiled egg and green onion, is a marvelous way to sip champagne!”

So it’s more a matter of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Each form of writing brings its own special pleasures. Who can argue against falling headlong into another world in a novel that simply transports us countries or planets or galaxies away? How can we not revel in getting to know a character so thoroughly that he or she becomes a living, breathing person who haunts our sleeping and waking moments?

But what about that fine painting or photograph hanging on your wall—the one that captures the light or the emotion or the mind-set of that special day you’ll never forget? A good short story is like that. It gives us a tantalizing glimpse into that other world, seizing a moment in time to which we may return again and again. The mysterious stranger with whom we locked eyes at a party, the extraordinary sunrise that redeemed a sleepless night, the brief but sweet kiss that lingers on the lips—such is the short story.

As a writer, the short story is a way to “cleanse my palate” between forays into novel-writing. It’s my attempt at legerdemain—not a cheap parlor trick but true sleight-of-hand. Can I convince you of the reality of these protagonists and their struggles in ten pages? Can I startle you with an ending you didn’t see coming? Can I provoke a laugh or a tear in the time it takes you to brew your morning coffee?

I found writing my new collection of short stories to be immensely rewarding. I hope reading them will be equally pleasurable for you.

You can pre-order the Kindle version here. It will be released on September 30. The paperback edition will also be published soon.

A New Book Review

Joe Kilgore of The US Review of Books has just reviewed my soon-to-be-published collection, Before Our House Fell into the Ocean: Stories of Love and Death. The review is so positive and I’m so blown away by it that I just had to post the whole thing here!

Before Our House Fell into the Ocean: Stories of Love and Death
by William J. Cook

book review by Joe Kilgore
“You never recover from grief, you make an uneasy truce with it. You find a shelf to put it on so it doesn’t bleed into every thought or conversation.”

This collection, as the subtitle states, is constructed around love and death. Hemingway reminds us that “all stories, if continued far enough, eventually end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” Author Cook is a “true-story teller,” even though his tales are fiction, and death is not necessarily the end of his stories but the fulcrum on which they often turn. Cook’s stories also remind us that while death can certainly wound love, it can never truly erase it.

The differences in the collection’s stories are many. A house does fall into the sea, but the memories inside it are not lost. A boy with a tragically disfigured face is empowered by a girl who sees more than his scars. A romance blooms in a carnival midway, where the tawdry glitter hides unimaginable pain. A man suffering a horribly debilitating disease discovers he’s not as alone as he thinks he is. A priest grapples with questions not only of loss, grief, and death but perhaps with the hardest questions of all, those about life.

Cook is a writer who is able to convey pathos without wallowing in sentimentality. He wields his pen like a scalpel, intricately cutting to the heart of remorse without opening veins of self-pity. There is a sturdy sense of acceptance in the way his characters look sorrow in the eye and deal with it. Humor is never completely absent, even in tales where one doesn’t necessarily expect it. There are a dozen stories within the covers of this book, all imminently readable. What stands out the most, however, is the author’s commitment to understanding and compassion. They are the foundational pillars on which this literate and life-affirming collection stands.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

OK, gang. With an endorsement like that, I think you should pre-order a copy! Just click on the image above and it will be delivered to your Kindle bright and early on the morning of September 30.

The New Book Cover

Here’s the new book cover, designed and created by Roslyn McFarland. Each image in the broken panes of glass is an icon from one of the stories. The pawn is from The Chess Player; the steaming mug from Coffee; the shooting star from Starfall; the falling house from Widowmaker; the oak tree from The Arborist; and the young lovers from Gargoyle. I’m still aiming for a late September or early October release. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to my newsletter to stay current with the latest updates and to learn about other indie authors whose books should be in your queue! Subscribe here.

An Interview With Indie Author Shawna Reppert

Shawna Reppert, an award-winning author of fantasy and steampunk, is proud of keeping readers up all night and making them miss work deadlines. In addition to the Ravensblood series and the Werewolves and Gaslight series, she has written several stand-alone novels.

Bill: Shawna, please tell us how and why you became a writer and how your creative process works.

Shawna: I became a writer because I couldn’t imagine not being a writer. As soon as I realized that someone wrote the stories in my Little Golden picture books, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. One of my earliest memories before I could even block-print my name was insisting that my mother write down a story I was telling her.

As far as process, I started out as a pantser, as I think a lot of us do. I had some idea of story arcs and character arcs and how to put a story together. I knew the character I wanted to write about and generally how the book or story would end, and off I went. But repeatedly writing yourself into corners isn’t fun.

Then I took a seminar with the amazing teacher, Eric M Witchy. Eric insisted he didn’t make me write an outline. (He kinda did.) But in the process of writing the outline, I realized that if I had pantsed that novel, I would’ve ended up in a world of hurt when I reached the last chapter. I would’ve had to do a substantial rewrite of the entire book to weave in a character that made the resolution possible. I took to outlining with the fervor of a convert.

I tend to use the hero’s journey as outlined in Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey as the outline to my outline, if you will. I feel the universal archetypes and story patterns slip past the conscious mind to speak to the soul of the reader.

For a while, I had a complex system of index cards, color-coded for POV and labeled with the part of the journey that each scene represented. I’m now 10 novels in and I’ve internalized the structure of story and character enough that I no longer need quite such a formal process. But if I find myself bogging down in a chapter, I’ll outline the section to get a better idea of what needs to happen and in what order to make the novel work.

A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, think that outlines are dull and that outlining takes the joy of discovery out of the creative process. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s like stepping back from the painting to see the whole picture more clearly. When I outline, I can make connections between characters, events, back-story, etc. that I didn’t see before. I can then strengthen those connections for a deeper and more powerful story. Maybe because I’m a story geek, I find the whole thing very exciting.

Bill: I’m a big fan of “walking the streets and alleyways of Alternative Portland” in your Ravensblood series. Can you tell us about the books and what gave you the inspiration for them?

Shawna: Ravensblood is a dark urban fantasy with a strong redemption arc. My protagonist is a powerful dark mage seeking redemption by becoming essentially a double agent for the Guardians (The division of the police to handle magic crimes in my alternate universe). He is spying on his master William, whose ambition to rule threatens the Three Communities, perhaps even the world. To keep his cover, he has to commit acts that threaten to pull him even further down into darkness.

In later books Raven, having won his pardon, has to learn to accept his dark past, redefining himself and reintegrating into a society that isn’t always ready to accept a reformed dark mage into its midst, all while helping the Guardians with new (and old) threats.

I lived in Portland for a little over a decade and still live just under an hour away. I love the Pacific Northwest, and so wanted to use it as a background. Some of the places mentioned exist in the real world, some are purely fictional. Some are a little of both—for example, in Ravensblood, OMSI has an extra ‘M’. (It’s the Oregon Museum of Magic, Science, and Industry.) The bullet-nosed Stude that makes a cameo in the first book of the series actually was parked for years in a SE Portland neighborhood very similar to the one in which that particular ambush took place. I particularly like putting in those quirky little spots that make Portland so…Portland.

My late editor said that various McMenamins pubs show up so much that the company should give me free beer for life (I prefer hard cider, if anyone has a connection…)

I think it makes it fun for readers. I’ve been putting little notes in the front or back matter about some of the places of interest that are real-world so readers can do their own exploring.

Bill: When I started reading your Werewolves and Gaslight series, I thought “Sherlock Holmes and werewolves—cool!” But then the lightbulb went on, and I realized there was a deeper meaning there. Can you tell us about that?

Shawna: For me, it’s not enough to write a gripping whodunit without a rich, vivid backdrop to help it come to life. And while it’s lovely to read about (and to write about) splendid balls and fine dresses, and all of the beautiful things the Victorian era had to offer, it’s dishonest to do that without facing the dark underbelly of that time. There were a lot of people living in abject poverty in conditions you can barely imagine, and this is a dichotomy we are starting to see more and more in our own times, with an economy that seems designed to channel resources ever upward, so that more and more of the wealth is in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

Among other things, what drew me to writing steampunk were the parallels between the Victorian times and our own. The stereotype of Victorian times as being very frozen and set in their very strict morals and social code overlooks that it was actually a time of great flux.

Women, at least those of means, were able to accomplish a lot more than they ever had before. They were able to travel to Egypt and ride camels to pyramids. Women were even able to get higher education at Oxford. (Of course, they couldn’t actually earn a degree because, you know, let’s not go crazy.) They were starting to do things that were making the male establishment pretty uneasy. The whole image of woman as domestic goddess, unable to comprehend things like finance and politics and too delicate to be troubled by anything going on in the outside world, fit only to make the home a lovely sanctuary for their hard-working men, that was a pushback against the advances women were making towards being something other than helpmeet to men.

Social mobility was becoming a possibility. Not a probability, mind you, but the very notion that one could rise above the station one was born to was pretty revolutionary. It challenged the notion that one’s place in the world was decreed by God.

In Victorian times, people of the working class could get an education. Benevolent religious organizations were holding free schools, where even an absolutely dirt-poor beggar kid could learn to read and write. There was a lot of concern among the upper classes that working people would start “getting above themselves.” They were feeling threatened and pushed back by trying to make certain the rigid social lines that protected their privilege were kept in place.

We see the same sort of dynamic in our own times. There have been great strides toward justice and equality. We had a black President. We have a marriage equality act. These are all things I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and I am very, very glad to have been wrong. And now we are facing rapidly escalating push-back by people who are vested in preserving the former status-quo.

The London of my steampunk world faces the social inequalities of the real Victorian London, plus it has werewolves, the very bottom rung of the social ladder. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about hot-button issues by moving the discussion into another time and (slightly fantastical) place.

Bill: You’ve written several other books besides these series. Would you care to highlight some of them?

Shawna: I’ve published three stand-alone novels with a more traditional fantasy feel. The most recent of my stand-alones, Brother to the Wolf, is sort of a passion-project. I didn’t want to do another version of Robin Hood. There’s plenty of those out there already, some good, some great, some that…er, don’t add a lot of merit to the subgenre. But since I love the Robin Hood legend, and especially the older, more pagan versions of the tale, I created an alternate world with similar history and conflicts and wrote an original tale with similar themes.

Where Light Meets Shadow is a male/male fantasy romance with elves, healers, and bardic magic. I definitely wanted a plot that encompassed more than just a romance. There are two races of elves in an uneasy détente following a bloody war in which neither side was entirely right or wrong. The two lovers will either help heal the divide between their two peoples, or be torn apart in a second war. Because the main protagonist is a harper, I also got to geek out over Celtic music and ask my Irish musician friends a ton of questions.

The Stolen Luck was my debut novel, another male/male fantasy romance. I actually didn’t set out to write it as a romance. I was interested in exploring what would make a good man go against his own beliefs and values, and I wanted to make that reason compelling enough that the reader could feel like, in the same set of circumstances, they might make that same choice. The romance came up as I followed that age-old advice to writers: put your protagonist in a tough situation, and then make it harder.

Bill: Shawna, thank you so much for your time. I think I can speak for all of your fans in wishing you every success with your latest project.

Would you like to learn more about Shawna and her books? Please visit her at https://www.shawna-reppert.com/. Sign up for her newsletter and get a free gift!

Also check out the Northwest Independent Writers Association at https://www.niwawriters.com/.

Just a Bit of Fun

While walking in San Diego last weekend, we saw this gold Bentley parked on India Street. A white-haired Italian gentleman was sitting on the front porch of the yellow house in the photo. My wife introduced herself, and he said his name was Nick. When she asked him if he owned the car, he responded, “Anything gold must be mine.”

Later, we Googled the car and found an interesting story about Nick Pecoraro, who came to this country from Sicily in 1947 to make a better life for himself. Now, he is a famous fixture in the community, where he is sometimes referred to as “The Mayor of Little Italy,” or “The Godfather.”

We saw him again the next day. I commented that the police had not towed his car away yet, and he said, “I made them an offer they can’t refuse.”

An Interview with James M. McCracken, President of the Northwest Independent Writers Association

—How did you get started writing?

I guess you could say I was intimidated into writing. I’ll explain.

During a high school basketball game, I sat in the bleachers drawing a picture. The older sister of a schoolmate sat down beside me and asked me what I was drawing. I showed her and she wanted to know the story behind the picture. I told her there wasn’t a story. It’s just a picture. She said there had to be a story otherwise I couldn’t draw it. So, to get her to leave me alone, I made up a story and told her. She said, write it down. The next time I come to visit my brother, I want to read it. I said I would but had no intention of actually doing it.

A month later, I heard she was back and looking for me! I stayed in the dorm and didn’t leave until I heard she was gone. As I walked out of the building a van stopped in front of me. It was HER. She motioned me over and asked to see the story. I told her I hadn’t finished it yet. She said I had a month and she’d be back. She was bigger and stronger than me and a bit intimidating.

Once she left, I bought a ream of typing paper and 450 pages later, I still wasn’t finished with the story. I had figured out the ending and couldn’t finish it. My schoolmate’s sister never did read the story, but I was hooked.

I continued to write shorter stories but never let anyone read them because I was afraid they would think the story was dumb.

I love disaster movies and in 1975 I wrote a story about a 747 that crashed into the ocean and managed to stay intact, but sank. The story followed the typical disaster storyline – survivors trying to escape. I tucked it away with the rest of my stories and forgot about it.

Two years later, in 1977, I was walking past the bulletin board and noticed the movie ads. My jaw dropped when I saw the ad for Airport ’77. I thought if someone else could come up with the same premise as me, maybe my stories aren’t so dumb after all.

So, I began to take my writing more seriously. But I still wouldn’t let anyone read any.

—Tell us a bit about your craft. How do you begin a new book? 

I am what some people have described as a pantster, I don’t use an outline.

Most of my stories start out as a dream. When I wake up, I begin writing down the dream. Depending on the story, in order to keep the characters straight, I search the internet for pictures of people and use the pictures to keep my descriptions consistent.

I research the details in the story as they come up.

I try not to think too far in advance because I know myself and once I figure out the ending, it becomes more difficult if not impossible for me to finish. So, I am sometimes as surprised by the ending as you, the reader, are.  

—What would you most like your readers to take away from your writing?

Many of my stories deal with family and life, I would want people to take away that in life there is no such thing as “happily ever after.”  Life is a complex timeline filled with moments, some good, some not-so-great, some we cause by the choices we make and some that are unexpected. It’s those moments that collectively shape us into the people we are.     

—Can you give us a sneak peek at your latest work-in-progress?

I’m currently working on a new series tentatively titled, In My Mother’s House. It’s a soap opera inspired by a true-life family. The series covers eight years in the lives of the Holts beginning with an unexpected death and ending when the last of the Holt children moves out of her parents’ house.

The synopsis:

Life is finally starting to turn around for
Robert and Abigail Holt and their seven children.
Robert is working a steady job.
Abigail’s business is thriving.
The family is settling into their new home.
The future is looking bright.
Then one phone call sends them on a roller coaster ride
no one could have predicted. . .
or did he?

MURDER – HEARTBREAK – HOPE – JOY – LOVE – DREAMS

—Thank you so much for you time, Jamie. And for my readers, here’s the link to his website, where you can check out all of his books and more! James M. McCracken

Book Review: West of Sin by Wesley Lewis

Not long after I started reading this book, I found myself wondering if it should come with a warning, something like, “Caution: reading this novel may cause unacceptable spikes in heart rate and blood pressure. Taking a valium or a good strong drink beforehand is recommended.” By midway through, I felt as though I were careening down a twisty, narrow mountain road with no guardrails and no brakes!

I loved the quote attributed to Robin Williams at the beginning: “[Las Vegas] may not be the end of the world per se, but you can certainly see it from there.”

Realtor Jennifer Williams is having the worst day of her life. At a real estate convention in Las Vegas, she is hoping to deepen a budding relationship with her recently divorced boss. Alas, it is not to be. In a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she walks in on a robbery-in-progress at a convenience mart, and her life is forever changed. All hell breaks loose—again and again and again!

To call this simply “a thriller,” as noted in the subtitle, is like calling the Indie 500 “just another car race.” This is a page-turning, breathlessly-paced, action-packed tour de force of a debut novel. Lewis shows a mastery of dialogue, humor, character development, suspense, and plot twists that we might expect from a seasoned author who has already written a dozen novels. I can’t begin to imagine how he will follow up with his next book, but I can imagine his making a big splash in the literary world and, hopefully, beyond. (Amazon Prime Video, are you listening?) As a Texas Hold ’em player on the Vegas strip might say, Lewis’s book is “the nuts.”