Three Tips For Writing (Cyberpunk) “Flash Fiction” Stories

2017-artwork-writing-really-short-cyberpunk-stories

Well, for the next article in my series about writing cyberpunk fiction, I’ll be looking at how to write “flash fiction” stories in this genre.

Opinion varies about how short a story has to be to be considered flash fiction. Personally, from a writing perspective, I’d say “under 1200 words” but many defintions include things like “under 750 words” or “under 500 words”.

Like with any “unrealistic” genre, writing flash fiction in the cyberpunk genre might seem fairly challenging for the simple reason that you have to create a fictional world and include a story within a tiny number of words. But it isn’t quite as difficult to write as you might think.

1) Dialogue: One of the easiest ways to write a very short cyberpunk story is to make sure that it mostly consists of dialogue between two characters. Not only does a dialogue-heavy story allow you to include subtle characterisation (eg: the way your characters speak etc..) but it also allows you to cram a lot more storytelling into a small space too.

Why? Because, when people talk, they often tell stories. And, like in real conversation, these stories tend to be short and unvarnished. They’re usually summaries of larger stories, with enough clues hidden in them so that the listener can figure out what’s going on.

For example, here’s a piece of dialogue from this short cyberpunk story of mine. It’s about 32 words long, split into three sentences: ‘You were right, the security routines wouldn’t even detect this old clunker. But, the processor almost burnt out when I tried to run a cutter algorithm. It’s the frigging paradox of obsolescence.

These 32 words describe a series of events that probably took hours. They could easily be stretched out into an entire chapter of detailed descriptions. But, since it’s relayed through dialogue, it can be compressed into just 32 words. Because that’s probably about the number of words someone would use to describe something like that in real life.

2) Basics: One approach to take when writing cyberpunk flash fiction is to take things back to basics. In other words, your readers are probably going to expect your story to take place in a futuristic mega-city and to feature immersive virtual reality worlds. So, you don’t have to spend too long describing these things.

Likewise, if you want to appeal to a wider audience, then just tell a story about virtual reality, the internet, cyborgs etc… that mostly uses a ‘normal’ narrative voice. If it’s done well, it’ll have all the atmosphere of a cyberpunk story but it’ll be the sort of thing that anyone can jump into right away.

For example, this slightly long “flash fiction” cyberpunk story of mine takes place entirely in a virtual reality world. This is indicated by both the events of the story itself, and a few lines of dialogue which contain terminology that anyone who is familiar with computer games will recognise (eg: ‘Yeah, but the early access upgraded VIP version of the “1980s Americana” DLC. I thought that it was still in beta.’ ). However, the narrative style used in most of the story is a fairly “normal” one.

3) Traditions: Traditional-style cyberpunk narration is a thing of beauty. It often relies on “information overload” (eg: lots of quick descriptions and futuristic jargon) to make the reader feel like they’re immersed in a futuristic world.

Because of this, you can learn a lot about cramming lots of storytelling, characterisation and description into a very small space just by reading some traditional cyberpunk fiction.

For example, here’s the opening paragraph of “Count Zero” by William Gibson: “They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Dehli, slotted it to his pheremones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. It’s core was a kilogramme of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.

This paragraph is just sixty words long. Sixty. Yet, in those sixty words, we get a very clear mental image of the location (eg: a bustling street in India), of the fact that it’s set in the future (eg: the descriptions of the robotic dog, the scientific terminology etc..), of the fact that the main character is on the run from someone (eg: which gives us a tantalising hint that he has a rather eventful past) and the fact that something dramatic is going to happen in the next paragraph. All of this is compressed into just sixty words.

So, yes, read some traditional style cyberpunk fiction (eg: William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy) if you want to learn more about compact storytelling in the cyberpunk genre.

———–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Present Day And The Cyberpunk Genre -A Ramble

2017-artwork-cyberpunk-in-the-present-day

Well, since I was still busy with writing this old collection of cyberpunk stories at the time of writing these articles, I thought that I’d take a very brief look at how the present day can affect any cyberpunk fiction that you might write.

After all, the central attraction of the cyberpunk genre isn’t really as “futuristic” as it used to be in the heyday of the genre. We live in a world where the internet is a mundane thing, where many people carry smartphones, where virtual reality is an actual thing and where, far from being “futuristic rebel anti-heroes”, computer hackers are rightly seen as being just another type of common criminal.

Even some of the other relatively recent parts of the cyberpunk genre, like nefarious government conspiracies, aren’t really as “dystopian” or “futuristic” as they once were. I mean, after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the idea that everyone could be spied on for no justifiable reason has almost become normal. Likewise, the 2016 US election was riddled with fake news articles on social media, alleged interference from Russia etc… and the election result was upheld anyway.

Likewise, the whole “mega corporation” thing that is a huge part of the genre is almost an everyday part of life. A few major tech companies already wield gigantic amounts of influence these days (eg: just look at all of the squabbling about Facebook’s news algorithms over the past few years. If Facebook wasn’t extremely influential, no-one would care about it’s algorithms), so it doesn’t seem quite like the “futuristic” thing that it might have been in the 1980s.

So, what is a modern cyberpunk writer to do?

Simply put, all of the “classic” elements of the genre are just too interesting to get rid of entirely. These things add flavour and drama to the genre, even if they can’t be relied upon entirely these days.

So, in addition to this, you need to look at either current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns about technology. For example, the cyberpunk stories that I posted online last year mostly revolve around almost everyone spending Christmas inside a virtual reality world called “Winter Wonderland”. This allowed me to look at a few current issues.

The first was the proliferation of things like smartphones and other portable technologies. The idea that people can be on the internet literally anywhere is a relatively recent one and you only have to look at things like the “Pokemon Go” craze from last year to see that the idea of people living large parts of their lives in constructed virtual worlds isn’t exactly an impossible thing. It might be a good thing, it might be a bad thing, but it’s a thing nonetheless.

The second issue was, of course, freedom of speech. Although the internet was touted as something that could give a voice to everyone, speech on the internet has become an ever more contentious subject over the past decade.

So, setting a couple of stories in a virtual world run by a large company seemed like an interesting thing to include. Because, on many websites, people only have as many free speech rights as the website decides to give them. As the internet becomes more prominent, so will this kind of thing.

Thirdly, there’s the subject of net neutrality. This is the idea that all websites are equal and that no website should be prioritised over any other. It’s one of the central pillars of what makes the internet what it is. Without net neutrality, ISPs could make certain websites load faster than others. It would effectively put control of the internet firmly in the hands of companies with the money to pay for preferential treatment.

So, naturally, one of the major themes in my short story collection was what a futuristic “cyberpunk” version of the internet would look like without net neutrality (eg: at peak times, a limited number of wealthy sites run quickly, whilst everything else runs at a snail’s pace).

The fourth issue was, of course, the idea of technological exclusion. Thankfully, we haven’t quite reached a point where smartphone ownership is legally mandatory, or where people are issued with a social media profile at birth or anything like that.

But, the world seems to be heading in a direction where you are supposed to have the latest, shiniest technology (even though the older stuff is usually better). This was best summed up by the fact that, last year, Google’s Chrome browser refused to issue updates to anyone who wasn’t running a modern operating system. If it wasn’t for the existence of other, better, browsers then a lot of people would have been left behind. Myself included.

So, by focusing most of my stories on characters who aren’t visiting the virtual reality world that the series revolves around, I was able to look at the other side of the flashy futurism of the cyberpunk genre. Because, as technology becomes more integrated into our lives, people without the latest technology might start becoming obsolete.

So, yes, it’s still possible to write cyberpunk fiction in the modern day – however, you have to find ways to incorporate current concerns about technology and/or your own concerns into your stories.

————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Ways To Add Other Genres To Cyberpunk Stories

2017-artwork-other-genres-in-the-cyberpunk-genre

Well, for the next article in my series of articles about writing cyberpunk fiction (which were written at the same time I was writing this old series of short stories), I thought that I’d talk very briefly about how to add elements from other genres to your cyberpunk stories.

After all, whilst the cyberpunk genre might have a reputation for only containing grim, gritty “edgy” stories – it’s a genre that is surprisingly easy to mix with other genres.

1) Virtual reality: Just like how traditional science fiction often included fantasy elements by having the characters land on a planet that was still in the middle ages, cyberpunk fiction can do something similar.

After all, most classic-style cyberpunk stories revolve around the characters venturing into a futuristic virtual reality world of some kind. And, just like the holodeck in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, you can use virtual reality settings to add other genres to your cyberpunk story. Just come up with a fictional game or program that includes the other genre that you want to add to your story.

2) Components:
Simply put, one easy way to add another genre to your cyberpunk story is to look at what makes that other genre so distinctive and then try to find a way to add that to your cyberpunk story.

For example, the classic cyberpunk movie “Blade Runner” is probably more vintage film noir than it is cyberpunk. Yet, these two genres go together really well for the simple reason that, although the story is set in a futuristic cyberpunk city, many of the character’s outfits are based on 1940s fashions, many of the locations also feature old buildings and many of the characters’ personalities could have easily come from an old pulp novel.

So, break down both genres into their essential themes etc… and then try to create something new that includes elements from both. Doing it this way will also help you to avoid having elements from each genre clash with each other, or look silly.

3) Look for commonality: Although I ridiculed the fantasy genre in this cyberpunk story, the truth is that it isn’t actually that different from the cyberpunk genre.

Both genres often rely on the main characters having a mastery of uncommon and arcane skills. In the fantasy genre, this is called magic, sorcery, necromancy etc…. In the cyberpunk genre, it’s called hacking.

Likewise, both the fantasy and the cyberpunk genres also rely on suddenly immersing the audience in a fascinatingly confusing imagined world. In the fantasy genre, this world is stuck at some unknown point in the distant past. In the cyberpunk genre, this world is stuck at some unknown point in the distant future.

This was just one example, but if you can find what the cyberpunk genre has in common with the genre you want to mix it with then you’ll probably be able to mix the two genres in a much more seamless way.

—————-

Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

What Makes A Story Cyberpunk? – A Ramble

2017-artwork-what-is-cyberpunk

Well, continuing my series of articles about writing cyberpunk fiction (which were originally written when I was writing these stories), I thought that I’d look at what makes a story cyberpunk.

Like all genres, “cyberpunk” has a few common traits but no real fixed boundaries. For every rule someone can come up with about the cyberpunk genre, there will be an exception.

For example, if you think that things in the cyberpunk genre should revolve around computers or the internet, then what about “Blade Runner” ? It’s the film that pretty much defined the look of the entire cyberpunk genre, but you’d be hard-pressed to find more than the most basic computers in it. The internet isn’t even mentioned once.

Jeff Noon’s “Vurt” is a strange and surreal novel about people who use hallucinogenic feathers in order to explore alien dream-worlds. It sounds more like some kind of hippie fantasy novel from the 1960s, but it actually comes from the early-mid 1990s and the writing style, the characters and the premise of the story are about as cyberpunk as you can get! Seriously, if you aren’t easily shocked, just take a look at this partial webcomic adaptation [NSFW] of it by Lee O’Connor if you don’t believe me.

On the other hand, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” ticks all of the boxes for a cyberpunk story. Rebellious protagonist? Check. Dystopian future? Check. Omnipresent technology? Check. But, that novel was published in 1949, long before personal computers were even a thing and at least a decade or two before the earliest beginnings of the internet began to form. It is not generally considered to be a cyberpunk novel, despite having a lot in common with cyberpunk fiction.

But, then there are Eric Brown’s excellent “Bengal Station” novels. These are novels that are set on a giant space station, and they follow a hardboiled detective who sometimes uses cybernetic implants to read minds. It sounds very cyberpunk, but the actual stories are more like classic sci-fi and/or ordinary harboiled detective fiction. They’re more like something you’d expect to see in a Hollywood movie than in anything in the cyberpunk genre.

So, there are no fixed rules or boundaries. But, you can still often tell whether or not something is cyberpunk. But, why?

Well, it has to do with the attitudes, inspirations and/or style of a creative work. The first clue is in the name, cyberpunk. Things in the cyberpunk genre often have a very distinctive rebellious attitude. Whether it’s done in a fairly subtle way (eg: through moral ambiguity) or whether it’s exaggerated for comedy value (like in the old “Judge Dredd” comics), it’s usually there. Cyberpunk stories often either tend to have a playful sense of cynicism, or they express outright nihilism.

The main characters are usually “outsiders” of one kind or another. Often, they’re morally-ambiguous magician-like computer hackers, bounty hunters, assassins, private investigators etc…. But, then you have a TV series like “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” where the main characters are official government agents who are very clearly “the good guys”. Yet, this show is also pretty much the textbook definition of “cyberpunk”.

I suppose you could say that, if something is inspired by a lot of other cyberpunk things, then there’s a good chance that it’s probably going to be cyberpunk too. Then again, the cyberpunk genre was in it’s infancy when many of it’s defining works (eg: “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, “Blade Runner” etc..) were released. They couldn’t have been inspired by too many, if any, other cyberpunk things.

So, that just leaves style. There’s a very “traditional” cyberpunk writing style, invented by William Gibson in the 1980s, that moves along at a mile a minute – dazzling the reader with vivid descriptions and futuristic jargon. It’s like hardboiled pulp fiction turned up to eleven and pumped full of amphetamines. It is sublime.

But, people were writing cyberpunk fiction before Gibson was and they used slightly different narrative styles, like in this earlier short story by Bruce Bethke. So, “does it sound like William Gibson did in the 80s?” is hardly a way to judge whether a narrative is cyberpunk or not.

So, I guess that if you’re writing a vaguely cynical sci-fi story which includes some kind of focus on technology, then it’s possibly cyberpunk. If you’re writing a slightly gothic sci-fi story with “outsider” main characters, it’s possibly cyberpunk. If the humour in your story is of the cynical dystopian variety, it might be cyberpunk. But, like the shifting ever-changing mass of the internet, nothing is ever fixed in the cyberpunk genre.

—————-

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Basic Ways To Connect A Group Of Cyberpunk Short Stories

2017-artwork-connecting-cyberpunk-short-stories

Well, for this article in my series of articles about writing cyberpunk fiction (which were written at the same time I was writing this old series of short stories), I thought that I’d talk about a general writing technique that can work especially well in the cyberpunk genre.

I am, of course, talking about connecting a group of (otherwise self-contained) short stories. The main advantage of doing this is that it allows you to tell a larger story, whilst only writing several shorter stories. And, if like me, you find longer fiction projects considerably more difficult to write than shorter ones, then it can be invaluable.

1) Settings: The easiest way to connect a group of short stories is to have them take place in the same location. The main advantage of this is that it gives you a chance to develop the “world” of your stories and give them all a greater sense of place with only a relatively small amount of description in each story.

This is especially true if you set your stories somewhere fairly large, like a cyberpunk mega-city. By showing a plethora of different locations within the city in your short story collection, you can maintain the limited number of settings that allow each story to be focused (eg: really short stories should only contain 1-3 locations) whilst still giving the audience a tantalising glimpse at the larger city as a whole.

Plus, of course, the other advantage of doing this in the cyberpunk genre is that the place doesn’t actually have to be a physical place. It can be a virtual reality program or some other intriguing corner of cyberspace. For example, most or all of the cyberpunk short stories I wrote last year refer to a virtual reality program/website called “Winter Wonderland”, even though it’s only actually seen a couple of times in the collection.

2) Technology: Another easy way to connect a group of cyberpunk stories is to use the same futuristic technology in each short story. Since cyberpunk fiction often revolves around futuristic versions of the internet, this is something that you can do even if you don’t try that hard.

However, unless you’re basing your short story collection around the effects that one piece of futuristic technology has on the world, then different stories might require your characters to use different types of futuristic technology.

Still, if you set yourself a few basic rules about the technology in your story, then you can give the impression that all of your characters are using the same type of technology even if they use radically different gadgets in each of your stories.

3) Time: Another basic connection technique that can work quite well in the cyberpunk genre is simply to set all of your stories at the same time. For example, my old cyberpunk short story collection was originally posted online in the days before Christmas 2016. So, all of the stories were either set during the winter or featured references to Christmas.

But, even if you just do something simple like setting all of your stories at night or adding rainy weather to all of your stories, then they will still have a weak connection to each other.

Still, if you want to do something a bit more advanced, then come up with a major event that happens in the “world” of your story and then reference it in each of your short stories.

To go back to my earlier example, many of the short cyberpunk stories I wrote last year focused on the few people who didn’t spend Christmas inside the “Winter Wonderland” virtual reality world where most of the people in the city spend their holidays.

—————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Do You Need To Be Tech-Savvy To Write Cyberpunk Fiction?

2017-artwork-tech-savvy-cyberpunk-article-sketch

As regular readers of this site probably know, these recent articles about writing cyberpunk fiction were originally written when I was busy writing a series of cyberpunk stories that I posted online last year. So, for today, I thought that I’d look briefly at one of the main questions about writing cyberpunk fiction.

Do you have to be tech-savvy in order to write cyberpunk fiction?

The answer, simply put, is “not as much as you might think”. Whilst having some experience with using computers, using the internet and/or playing computer games will help you write cyberpunk fiction, you don’t exactly need to be the kind of person who actually knows how to use a programming language or anything like that. In other words, knowing a few things about computers is recommended, but being a literal expert isn’t necessary.

I mean, I’m the kind of person who feels like some kind of elite super-geek when I do something as basic as replacing a DVD drive or burning and running a Linux Live DVD. But, if you were to ask me to write a computer program that contained much more than “ 10 PRINT “Hello World”/ 20 GOTO 10“, I wouldn’t have a clue about it (however, I was able to use one of the few other things I know about programming languages in the formatting for this story). So, a bit of knowledge can be useful, but you don’t have to be an expert.

Think about it this way – the first major cyberpunk novel (but not the first piece of cyberpunk fiction) was William Gibson’s “Neuromancer“, which was published in 1984. It’s a massively influential novel, but it was written at a time when computers and the internet were considerably more primitive than they are today. The bulk of “Neuromancer” is just pure imagination – very well thought out and very well-written imagination, but imagination nonetheless.

Yes, it helps to know or have met a few people who are more tech-savvy than you, since you can pick up a lot of interesting ideas and terms that you can add to your cyberpunk stories but, you don’t have to be ultra tech-savvy yourself.

Likewise, if you don’t know anyone who is an expert with computers, then even a bit of basic research will give you the grounding you need to write cyberpunk fiction. So, look at the “tech” pages of reputable news sites. Watch technology-based TV shows like the BBC’s “Click” program (which is broadcast both within the UK and internationally). Likewise, be sure to watch Youtube videos about computer game design etc…. too.

But, more importantly than researching basic technology, research the cyberpunk genre itself. Knowing how to tell stories that make technology seem like magic is something you mostly learn from reading, watching or playing things that tell those kinds of stories. In other words, you can tell a convincingly good cyberpunk story if you get the “storytelling” parts right and just make up all of the technology.

Yes, knowing a bit about technolgy will help you to give your cyberpunk fiction a slightly more “realistic” flavour. It might even help you to come up with story ideas or story concepts, but it matters less than being a fan of the genre and/or studying the storytelling techniques used in cyberpunk novels/games/comics/films etc…

In other words, being savvy about storytelling matters more than being tech-savvy.

————

Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Coming Up With Cyberpunk Stories

2017-artwork-three-tips-for-cyberpunk-stories

Well, since I was busy with last year’s cyberpunk short stories at the time of writing (I finished this one just before writing this article), I thought that I’d talk some more about writing cyberpunk fiction.

In particular, I thought that I’d look at some of the techniques that you can use to come up with interesting cyberpunk storylines. This article will be about writing shorter stories, but you can probably use these techniques for longer stories too.

1) The unseen: One of the best ways to come up with an interesting cyberpunk storyline is to look at the types of locations that often go unseen in the cyberpunk genre. In other words, it can be interesting to set some or all of your story somewhere like outside of cyberspace (like in “Blade Runner), or possibly even in a rural area (like in “eXistenZ“). The only limit is your imagination.

Of course, when you’ve found your rarely-used setting, then you’ve got to work out how to use it in a story. Generally speaking, one easy way to get a short story out of an unusual location is to use it as a backdrop for part of a larger story (which is only hinted at during your story).

For example, the short story I linked to earlier takes place in an abandoned shopping centre. Whilst this location is an important part of the story, a few descriptions imply that the story is merely a few moments from a larger story (eg: the story mentions why the characters are in the shopping centre, and it’s hinted that they are trying to find somewhere better to stay).

2) Research: One of the best ways to learn how to tell cyberpunk stories is to read, watch and/or play as many of them as you can. Seeing all of the different types of stories that people can tell within the cyberpunk genre will open your mind to the possibilites that the genre has to offer. For example, not every cyberpunk storyline has to be about computer hackers or even about cyberspace. There’s more to the cyberpunk genre than just three novels by William Gibson.

For example, the films “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell (1995)” are about robotics, and about what makes us human. Computer games like “Deus Ex” and “Technobablyon” look at subjects such as political conspiracies and the role technology has in politics. Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics look at the role of the press in society (and what a Hunter S. Thompson -style journalist would be like if he lived in the future).

A film like Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” adds dream-like surrealism to the cyberpunk genre (and is worth watching for the opening credits montage alone). The anime series “Cowboy Bebop” focuses on a group of space-travelling bounty hunters living in a cyberpunk future. The classic computer game “System Shock” takes place entirely on an abandoned space station that has been taken over by an evil Artificial Intelligence.

Computer games like “The Longest Journey”, “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” and “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” blend elements of the fantasy genre with the cyberpunk genre. A short computer game like “The Last Night” or a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Captain Estar Goes To Heaven” follow the grim lives of hired assassins in lawless cyberpunk-style futures.

So, do some research, and it’ll show you that the cyberpunk genre is about more than just nihilistic computer hackers talking in technobabble (although this is fun to write though).

3) Technology effects: This is one of the classic pieces of advice for writing science fiction, and it’s just as relavent to the cyberpunk genre as anything else. In order to come up with an interesting story, just look at a “futuristic” piece of developing technology and ask what effect it would have on the world if it’s use was more widespread.

In fact, the entire cyberpunk genre itself was invented because the idea of the internet took hold of people’s imaginations. The very first cyberpunk story (“Cyberpunk” by Bruce Bethke) was written in the very early 1980s, when the internet was known about – but nowhere near as widespread or popular as it was today.

So, one way to come up with interesting cyberpunk storylines is to look at pieces of technology that are being developed today (eg: 3D printing, drone technology, AI-driven cars, Virtual Reality, augmented reality, wearable tech etc….) and to ask yourself how it might affect everyday life in the future. Let your imagination go wild.

————–

Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂