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<   No. 3455   2016-01-10   >

Comic #3455

1 Dwalin: Speakin' o' taverns, we shoold at list have woon fer tha road. {translation: Speaking of taverns, we should at least have a drink before we begin our journey.}
2 Mordekai: He's right, you know. It's bad luck to set out on a journey without a farewell drink. Well known fact.
3 Alvissa: Do you really want to be marching 20 miles before sunset under the influence of alcohol?
4 Dwalin: Wull I certainly doon't want tae be dooin' it sober! {translation: Well I certainly don't want to be doing it sober!}

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A man walks into a bar with a roll of asphalt under his arm.

"Barman, give me a beer! And one for the road!"

By the way, you can make anything that you assert more convincing just by adding the statement "Well known fact" after it. It's a well known fact.
I want to talk a bit about stories today, and in particular short stories as a form of fiction and my experiences with them.

When I was younger I was an avid reader. There was so much to learn and so many stories to experience. But where I grew up I had no exposure to many of the sorts of stories you might expect from a modern-day science/Internet geek. I stumbled into science fiction quite early, and discovered I liked it. But throughout my school years "science fiction" to me meant basically one thing: Jules Verne. I read his novels, and I thought, "I wish there were more authors who wrote stuff like this." Journey to the Centre of the Earth was my favourite book for many years, and I reread it many times.

I don't recall even hearing about 20th century science fiction writing until I went to university and broadened my pool of friends and experiences. On the fantasy side, I had, by my last year of high school, heard about The Lord of the Rings[1], and I requested a copy of the trilogy as my prize for attaining the highest marks in one of my school subjects in my leaving year. I tried to read it, but couldn't get into it, and got stuck for a couple of years a few chapters into The Two Towers. In the meantime, I was suddenly exposed to authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Clifford Simak, Larry Niven, Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, C.J. Cherryh, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson, Douglas Adams, and some other names I don't remember. I missed some of the other big names you might expect, mostly because Asimov was so prolific and I found it difficult to find the time to devote to uncovering more diverse authors.

While there were novels, much of this fiction was in the form of short story collections. I liked these, as they required less time investment and I could get through more different stories more quickly. One classic definition of "short story" is, according to Edgar Allan Poe, a story short enough to read in one sitting. This depends, of course, on how long you sit reading a story at a time. During my university days, most of my reading was done on the train, commuting back and forth between home and the university - a 40-minute ride each way (and usually standing the entire way). I don't know how many words this period would allow me to read, or what amount of a short story I could get through on a trip, but added up over years I got through a fair few - as well as some novels (including, eventually, The Lord of the Rings).

The Internet started to take off when I was at university. Before the World Wide Web and its numerous websites were a thing, there were other ways to send messages and interact with people in remote corners of the globe. One of them was Usenet newsgroups[2]. Using my university account (I had no way to access the Internet at home), I began reading a few newsgroups dedicated to topics that interested me. Then at some point, a friend suggested a group to me which was more of a social group, although it was loosely based on a series of short science fiction stories.

The stories in question were the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon stories by Canadian author Spider Robinson. The setting of the stories is a bar, operated by overt Irishman Mike Callahan. The patrons of the bar are a bit unusual, and span both the fantastical and the science fictional, including aliens and supernatural beings among other things, though there are several normal humans too. The stories typically involve patrons sharing news, both good and bad, and receiving the support of their comrades.

At some point, someone (I don't know who) decided that this fictional setting would be a fun thing to emulate online. Thus was created the Usenet group alt.callahans, and it was this that my friend recommended to me. As with many Usenet groups back then, this one maintained a slightly fictional veneer, in that when you posted, you pretended to be in Callahan's bar, and framed your post within setting and story elements that would maintain the illusion when other people read them. Within this framework, though, it was possible to get to know people and become friends. And so I made contact with many people who lived in other countries and formed several lasting friendships, some of which I maintain to this day.

This chain of events leads directly to where we are now, with you reading this here in Irregular Webcomic!, because one of the friends I made way back then started drawing a comic and posting it on the newfangled World Wide Web that appeared around that time. Seeing someone I knew personally posting a comic on the web was the direct inspiration for me to begin Irregular Webcomic!. There were already some other webcomics around at that time (Bob the Angry Flower was my favourite), but it took the fact that a friend of mine starting making one to make me realise that I could do it too. Long story short: The comic that inspired me was Casey & Andy, and my author friend was Andy Weir (who has since gone on to some other small projects).

But before all of that I spent a good deal of time interacting with people in the alt.callahans newsgroup. It was generally amiable and friendly, though like most newsgroups there was an occasional flamewar or two caused by personality clashes. Over time the group grew as it attracted more people, and to some of the participants it started to feel unwieldy and too large and less friendly. Someone proposed splitting the group into two or more separate Usenet groups, to distribute the volume and allow people to interact with smaller, more familiar groups of people. This could be achieved by subdividing the group into, for example: alt.callahans.room1, alt.callahans.room2, alt.callahans.partyzone, alt.callahans.cushionroom, or whatever - the actual names are not so important, but could indicate the flavour of the socialisation within each fragment. This proposition caused one of the bigger flamewars, as many people argued against the idea of sundering the group in twain (or more), while others argued strongly in favour of a smaller group dynamic.

In the end, alt.callahans was not split. But some of the people who wanted a smaller and more intimate group of friends decided to start a new, separate group, to which people could subscribe. (In some ways this was essentially a de facto splitting of the group of people, just by a different mechanism than the contentious subdivision of the newsgroup alt.callahans.) Without beating around the bush, I was amongst this small group of people - who were mostly people who had been in alt.callahans for a relatively long time, and looked back fondly on the days when the group's size was considerably smaller.

We could have started any old group we liked. But someone - again I forget who - suggested that perhaps rather than a group based around a virtual bar, we could have a group based on a virtual cafe or coffeehouse. Somewhere that felt a bit quieter and more relaxed. And given that alt.callahans was based on a series of short stories, we had the idea of writing our own short stories to establish our new virtual setting. We discussed the setting and decided on some characters. In hindsight, it was a bit derivative, but we decided to include an element of the fantastic and have the owner of the coffeehouse be Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein), and her assistant be Galileo (yes, the Galileo), though with no explanation ever given for how they happened to end up running a modern day coffeehouse. And we dubbed the establishment The Amethyst Coffeehouse.

Given this brief, I went away and wrote the first story. I don't claim it's great - in fact it even feels a bit embarrassing now - but it's available on my website. The original idea was that anyone could write stories and add them to a collective canon which would grow the atmosphere of the Amethyst Coffeehouse over time. I was hoping others would take up the challenge, but alas nobody ever did. I ended up writing five Amethyst Coffeehouse stories.

These stories are at the shorter end of the range for short stories, running about 1500 to 2000 words each. This was the sort of length I felt comfortable with, being roughly the same as what I would write in creative writing assignments at high school. Those were probably the bit of English lessons that I most enjoyed, and I usually achieved good marks with my creative writing assignments.

I have tried writing longer fiction a few times. There were some serialised stories that were printed in the Physics Society journal of my university. These were comedic science fantasy and, in all honesty, owed a lot to the style of Douglas Adams. I don't have copies of them any more. At one point my mother obtained a cheap second hand typewriter, and I used this to pound out chapters of what I intended at the time to be a novel, again borrowing heavily from the style of Douglas Adams. These too are lost to the mists of time - I can't remember how many chapters I wrote, but the novel was certainly never more than about 20% completed. And I've been sitting on an idea for a novel for a decade or more now, but as I always say, the ideas are easy, it's doing the work that is hard. So I've never really started work on that.

NaNoWriMo is an annual Internet event which encourages people to actually sit down and write that novel they've been dreaming of. It has run every November since 1999. The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month, emphasising the process of creating quantity, rather than quality. (As I've said before, in creative endeavours, quantity should come first - quality will follow as long as you keep at it.) The idea of NaNoWriMo appeals to me, but as I've mentioned before, November is pretty much the worst month of the year for me to dedicate to a time-intensive hobby project, because of end-of-year work commitments. If it weren't, maybe I'd have given it a go and got that idea out of my head and into actual words by now.

But besides long-form fiction there is also fiction even shorter than short stories. Wikipedia says that commonly a story of less than 1000 words is considered too short to be a short story, but qualifies instead as a "short short story" or "flash fiction". Stories of around 100 words are called drabbles, while even shorter forms are known as microfiction or nanofiction, which can be as short as a 6 or 7 words. There are sites dedicated to stories of length 50 words, and just 6 words. But before these became a thing, a friend of mine shared with me the idea of making 7-word stories, which were also allowed to include a title of up to 5 words to provide more context. (So really, they are kind of 12-word stories.) Being so short, I wrote several of them.

Writing is hard work, like any creative endeavour. To be prolific and do well at it, you need to enjoy it and have both the time to devote to it and the discipline to do so. I enjoy it, and I spend some of my time writing various things such as comic scripts and these annotations, but I haven't done much purely text-based fiction for a long time. Actually, I do a fair bit of writing in my job too, and often find it one of the more pleasurable work tasks I do, even if it is technical reports and patent drafts.

Maybe if you enjoy any writing aspects of your current life, be it for work, school, or whatever, give a thought to dedicating a bit of time to jotting down any story ideas in your head. You don't have to leap straight to a novel that will take months to complete. Try a short story, or maybe even a few microfictions. The latter are short enough to tweet. Write one on the train or bus today. Hashtag: #microfiction or #nanofiction.

Who knows where it might lead you?


Note: This annotation was inspired by reader Peter G., who requested an essay on the topic of short stories as part of his Patreon supporter reward. If you'd like me to write an extended annotation on any topic you care to name, or if you just want to show some support for the comics and other creative work I share, please consider becoming a patron.
[1] From the bibliography list at the back of the rulebook for the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, if I recall correctly.

[2] Which still exist, by the way. Nowadays Usenet newsgroups are easily accessed through the Google Groups web interface.

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