Four short stories and what I learnt writing them

19.02, Thursday 31 May 2018

So I’ve now written FOUR whole stories for my short fiction writing group, Upsideclown. ICYMI in August last year, we started publishing again after a 14 year hiatus.

I wanted to collect links to my four stories in one place. = this blog post.

I wouldn’t say I’m great at writing fiction. I find it tough. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to pick holes in what I’ve written. So instead, as an exercise–and as some personal positive reinforcement–I want to remind myself what I learnt writing each one, and also what I like.

Moving House (August 2017)

We sat atop Parliament Hill as the sun went down, London lapping at our feet, glass of wine in hand, a hard red line on the horizon fading not to black but the glow of LED streetlamps diffused through the humid breath of our ten million neighbours.

I love the way scenes ping pong between two different time periods, immediate and past, and I love the punchiness of last two lines.

But goodness is it dense like a compacted shit. You can tell that I hadn’t written for years, and had been attempting to peristaltically emit this particular story for most of that time. The ideas are given zero room to breathe. When I read it back, there are concepts in shorthand that flower in my head–but there are no clues available for anyone else.

One thing I like:

  • In this story I managed to write dialogue for the first time ever. My way in was to reduce reporting to “said”. I also (again for the first time) started thinking consciously about point of view: the POV character has no insight into what K– is thinking (or doing while she is out of sight), and so neither does the reader.

The search for another intelligence (December 2017)

Bruno had been approached to do background colour for “3,114 B.C. and All That,” an upcoming TV series on the conspiracy theories centred on that year. The dawn of the Mayan calendar; the mysterious construction of Stonehenge. Docu-entertainment. ‘Docu-bullshit,’ he had replied but he took the work. The chance to get closer to TV producers again, that had been why he did it.

Oh gosh I like this one. The best of the four.

This marks the first time I have ever written fiction in a conscious and deliberate fashion: I had an idea; realised it needed to cross over with an emotional journey so added that; sketched it out in a series of lines; blocked those lines out into scenes; wrote each scene properly; and then revised. It was also the first time I ever managed to write a story over approx. 1,000 words.

Previously all my writing has been automatic: wait for the muse, then type until my mind goes too fast for my hands or I need to pee. Great when it works, but a local maximum in terms of quality. My goal in writing with this group is to learn the craft.

I’m pleased at how the scenes work: I don’t spend excess time getting into them (you know the Wadsworth Constant where you can no-fear skip the first 30% of any YouTube video? I tried to internalise that). And I tried to finish each on something that would provide impulse to read the following.

I spent time working on the characters for this one. I have an idea about who Bruno and Hope are, with character notes too. I was brutal with myself about making sure I understood their motivation at every point-and then being rigorous to ensure that every other action was true to that required motivation.

The ending is poignant, although maybe a little cheap.

It’s also exposition heavy. The story doesn’t work without a ton of explaining. And given that the emotional journey leans heavily on human fundamentals… well, I perhaps should be stretching myself more. Pop songs are always love songs. But there are maybe more interesting anchors.

Still, it works, and if I would change anything it would be to make it slightly less abrupt in places, and to ease up on the background. As yet I lack the skill to revise (I can tweak words but I haven’t figured out how to have the distance to re-write scenes) but this is one I’ll come back to.

The Ursa Major Moving Group (March 2018)

It happened regularly, thought Ant, this premonition of the end of living, the Grim Reaper’s breath every six months or so, and every time it left Ant untethered and terrified, driven to his studio to use his eyes and use his hands. Twice a year or more he was picked off his feet by who-knows-what and swept up the beach, left gasping when the wave retreated, shivering and exposed.

As his own death had become a familiar acquaintance, at some point in the last decade, layered underneath as the swell is beneath the waves, Ant had met something slower and longer, tidal and from beyond the horizon, something entirely deadlier and more final, the echo from the deep future of the end of humanity itself.

Good grief I hated writing this story.

I had something written in my notes–a pun on an astronomical feature, the Ursa Major Moving Group–and it lodged in me to the point that literally nothing else could get out of my fingers. So this took a month to force out.

Building on the previous stories, I used outlines and characters… but really Ant is the only one I understand. Even he doesn’t have much depth.

Is it any good? Who the hell knows. I like the first half. The second half–which bounds forward I’m not kidding 10,000 years in nine short scenes-is far, far too dense. This second half is framed almost entirely in a dream, and this was a solution to a particular conundrum. But it doesn’t feel nearly hallucinatory enough to be believable, or have enough story for you to get engaged in it for its own sake.

The conundrum was how to reach a particular concluding feeling that Ant has of betrayal, envy, and acceptance. You know, I think it works for that. I’ve been fascinated for a while by the story of Augustus and Caesarion and how it might have actually felt–I’m not quite there, but it’s a rich seam.

So what I liked here? There was a certain complicated feeling I wanted to arrive at. Tick.

Volume Five (May 2018)

At 3am he woke up with the heavy taste of whisky still in his mouth, cheek stuck to the pillow. Sophie was in the other room, in their bedroom. The flat was quiet. The streetlamp outside shone through the naked window onto the diary left open on the spare room bed.

It was the fifth volume. He didn’t remember looking at that. It was open to the page for June 5th, one week from today’s date.

Leo blinked gummy sleep from his eyes. Where the page should have been blank, there was a single sentence: Leo gets a job.

This story went up a couple days back so maybe I don’t have the distance… but I’m kinda not a fan, and kinda totally am. It mundane; the characters are one-dimensional; there’s nothing clever about how the narrative works; I wrote it in a rush.

But. But there’s an actual story here. It’s not a story that relies on my usual cheap go-tos: huge epiphany; lengthy exposition; plumbing the depths of human agony and/or ecstasy. That was the challenge I set myself-to tell a good old fashioned story with zero frilly bits-and it’s the first time I’ve managed to do that. (Well, actually I wanted to write a ghost story, avoiding sci-fi, and while it’s not quite a ghost story it is in the right direction.)

Technically I enjoy the way the scenes move. My sketched outline had more detail, but the final story hides and reveals, hides and reveals, in a way that propels it along. That’s a little bit of craft I’ve picked up from the previous three stories, and it felt easier this time.

What don’t I like? The characters and their motivations could be better understood. The situations could have more texture. Structurally something more exotic could be going on. The emotional journey could wrestle a little with the narrative.

In particular, the words could use poetry. My self-set personal challenge has been to steer clear of fancy words. Abandon any and all crutches to force me to concentrate on story and dialogue. I think, over the last year and these four stories, I’ve done that enough… but now I find myself wondering where my voice is and how to reintroduce it. It’s one thing writing blog posts, like this, but I’d love to find the same fluency and style in fiction over which I deliberate.

Enough with the self congratulatory introspection.

TL;DR: I’m enjoying writing again enormously. I feel like I’m learning some lego bricks that with a bunch more practice might one day evolve into actual craft. Hopefully a few people are enjoying reading these stories too.

Hey and let me not take away from the other authors! There are SEVEN of us in the writing group, six who are writing regularly. Check out the whole archive since the reboot. It is legit good shit.

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