Rites of Passage

I’ve always enjoyed writing long short stories – that is, tales longer than around eight thousand words and shorter than novella length, around sixteen thousand words. There’s more scope the develop characters, ideas and often setting in longer stories, more space and time to allow myself to get into the story. I’ve often started what I thought was going to be a short story only to find, in the writing, that it demands greater length, that either the characters tale off and want more space to grow, or the initial idea flourishes and spawns further ideas.

The odd thing is, when I get the idea for a novella over sixteen thousand words, I somehow know that it will be that length or longer before I start. The mysteries of writing…

So when Keith Brooke asked if I had four or five long stories that I might gather into a collection for his Infinity Plus paperback and e-book imprint, I looked through my ‘uncollected’ file and selected three stories; he suggested that it might be nice to include a never before published tale – so I decided to write one specially for the collection. I wanted to tackle something I’d never done before, and as I like reading about the far future, but have written little in that milieu, I decided to try my hand at something set in the far, far future when the seas have dried up and the remnants of humanity scrabble for existence in deep valleys in what was once the bottom of the sea.

It wasn’t long after my first hazy idea that I began writing, with little notion of where the tale would take me. (Usually I have a pretty good idea where a story is going, and a very good idea of how it will end.) The characters took off in this one and dictated their arduous trek beneath the ancient, swollen sun. “Beneath the Ancient Sun” (16,000 words) is a rites of passage tale and a story of conceptual breakthrough, as Par and Nohma embark on an initiation quest and along the way learn a lot about the past greatness of their race and their place in the world. On finishing the story, I realised that I’d like to write more about Par, Nohma, and the brave troupe of cavern dwellers battling inimical conditions beneath a vastly swollen sun.

The lead tale in the collection is “Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders” (10,000 words) – my very first attempt at steampunk (in the very loosest sense of the word). It’s the only story in the collection in which the setting did not become a character in its own right. It features the enigmatic Bartholomew Burns – saviour of the Earth on many previous occasions – and his young sidekick Tommy Newton, who together thwart an evil alien invasion. While in all the other stories collected here it is the central characters that undergo the titular ‘rite of passage’, in this story it’s Tommy Newton who learns much from his travails. The story saw light of day in the online serial magazine, Aethernet, edited by Tony and Barbara Ballantyne.

“The Guardians of the Phoenix” (13,000 words) began as a short story – I thought it would come in at around six thousand words – but expanded in the telling. I rarely write post-apocalyptic tales, but I was gripped by the idea of a bunch of good people travelling across an inimical desert in search of water. Even after I finished the story, it kept on growing in my imagination, and a year later I expanded the story by some eighty-seven thousand words and it became the novel of the same title, published by Solaris in 2010. The story appeared in Mike Ashley’s anthology Apocalyptic SF (End of the World in the US).

“Sunworld” (11,000 words) is not only a rites of passage tale but one of conceptual breakthrough, to which the genre of science fiction is admirably suited. I enjoy writing stories in which the central character undergoes a journey the events of which, by the end, will subvert everything he or she thinks they know about themselves and their world. This tale is another which begs to be expanded, and some day I would like to write Sunworld, the novel. The story was first published in George Mann’s anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

I enjoyed the process of writing “Beneath the Ancient Sun” so much that, a few weeks later, I thought I’d try my hand at another topic I don’t write much about: time travel. Last week I finished the second draft of a tale influenced by Oscar Wilde’s epithet, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past…”

“Buying Time” is a little over eleven thousand words long and, once I’ve attempted to sell it somewhere, might find its way into another collection.

Rites of Passage is out now from Infinity Plus Books.

This piece originally appeared on Upcoming4me.

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