Another one. Ss: Six Short Stories. The whole project was initiated when Sonya Mann commissioned Stateless. After it was done, I realised two things. First, writing shorts was fun. Second, I wanted more shorts in the tank in case Sonya or anyone else came a’knockin’. So I wrote five more. Like Barker, they can be had on Amazon (US and UK). Here’s the description for Ss as a whole:
A teenager torn between here and there; an orphaned gnome seeking revenge; a dead man asked to help the still-living; a tree longing for its love; the old playing the young’s game; a drug compradore that wants out. ‘Ss’ is a collection of speculative short stories that explores the violence of life.
Sonya was also kind enough to provide a blurb. She said:
“Matthew Sweet creates characters that leap off the page and muck about inside your brain. ‘Ss’ will surprise you, and you’ll still be thinking about it weeks later.”
Now, onwards… In a similar vein to Barker, this is a post-project review. It’ll follow the same structure:
- PART ONE will evaluate the writing process involved in making Ss a reality. The respective phases I’ll look into are: preparation, research / ideation, outlining, drafting, macro-editing, micro-editing, and shipping.
- PART TWO will evaluate Ss as a finished product in accordance with the elements of its story: authorial intent, characters, world, events and narration.
- PART THREE will take a simpler form. I first came across it in reference to how military forces assess recent operations. It’s three simple questions: What was supposed to happen?, What actually happened? and What did I learn?
PART ONE – THE WRITING PROCESS
There was the smallest of gaps between the end of Barker and the start of Ss. In fact, I’m fairly certain I was working on Stateless whilst in the process of rolling out Barker. The preparation for Ss mostly consisted of the experience and skill gained whilst creating Barker. The other major component was permission. When I finished Barker, it felt like a bottle had been uncorked. Finishing the novel made writing any other story a possibility, not just a dream.
- Research / Ideation
With Stateless drafted and Ss a possibility, I began to snatch and wonder at more stories. I knew I wanted a novella-length collection, so 20-30,000 words. I also knew that Stateless’ length (3,000 words) was a good benchmark for a short. Thus, I reasoned that six to eight stories was reasonable.
Another thing I knew was that, after being confined to Barker‘s style, setting and genre, I wanted to explore. I wanted to do realist, sci-fi and fantasy. I wanted to write using different perspectives. I wanted to write different characters. I wanted to span time and to focus on a moment. To be brash, I knew that I wanted to show off, explore my ability to tread water in different formats and with different ideas. I also knew that I did not want to be shy or meek in the telling. Violence was in my mind and it emerged as the theme of the collection, as I explained in Ss afterword.
Funnily enough, doing the above was easier than I thought. I had my newfound confidence and this was a small but conscious attempt to move past my own often-constraining inhibitions. As Liminal Warmth summarised it:
My approach to outlining was varied. Some, I outlined in advanced. For others, I had nothing more than an image or a scribbled note in my notebook to go with. I wanted to toy with the approach of the gardener and the architect. Overall, I think I enjoyed the “gardener” approach–just taking an image or scene or character and running (sprinting, really) proved exciting and satisfying.
I drafted sequentially. I worked one story at a time, only moving to the next when I considered the previous mostly done. A few outstanding points. First, I wrote each story to a different song:
– Stateless – Chip, 0420,
– Sever – Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky
– Sufferer – Opening Image, Arve Henriksen
– Siluan – The Birth of a Dugout Canoe, Northmen / Sparrow (Piano Tapes), Tom Odell
– Shift – All My Life, Foo Fighters
– Stay – Both of Us, B.o.B.
I mention this because I think the songs only had an impact in fifty percent of cases. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain really helped me get the tone of Sever right. I wanted to capture a feeling of creepiness, of viciously repressed revenge, of menace. Tom Odell’s Sparrow (especially the Piano Tapes version) heavily influenced why it is that Nael sings instead of speaks. It helped me drop into that fey, fairytale-wondrous mood. And Chip’s 0420 aided me, too. Stateless is set in a north London borough where prospects are bleak, in a world rich with possibilities but poor with hope.
Another thing worth noting is that, the night before I first drafted Siluan, I went to the beach. Spending thirty minutes swimming in the surf, feeling the push and pull of the sea, was a tremendous aide when it came time to decide on Nael and Siluan’s fate.
Finally, from the off I intended to do an afterword concerning the collection’s theme. I wanted it to be long, to be a rollercoaster exploration of the reality of violence that then segued into a discussion of the violence of reality. It didn’t turn out that way. After a re-read of Malcolm Ocean’s Questions Are Not Just For Asking, I ended up circling back to the question of suffering in life. Not its presence, but what to do about it. For what seems an age I’ve sought an adequate answer, and I think I managed one via the afterword. Finally. It’s not so much an answer as the deliberate adoption of a stance. I continue to hold the question, to ask myself about it, but there’s less urgency associated with it. Without being overdramatic, I now find there’s less anguish adjacent to it.
- Macro-Editing / Micro-Editing
Unlike with Barker, there were no beta-readers for these stories and I didn’t make use of software like Autocrit. Stateless was the only one to benefit from outside input as it was edited by Sonya. I suspect this will show in the end result. I have made my peace with that. Velocity was primary to me and I know that it comes with visible tradeoffs. But as I said above, the whole point of this project was for me to do something different, not to do something perfectly. There will be time for the latter in the future. That doesn’t mean I deliberately shipped bullshit. I did my best, but it’s never the same as outside and/or professional assistance.
This went quickly. Packaging the stories was a quick process, especially having done it once before. Again, that doesn’t mean I captured perfection but I think I managed something satisfactory. A lot of the time, that can be quite enough.
PART TWO – THE ELEMENTS
There are five elements to a story:
– Authorial Intent: Potency and purity of vision.
– Character: The cast of beings.
– World: The universe the cast inhabits.
– Events: What happens to the cast.
– Narration: How the above is described.
We’ll take them in the listed order…
- Authorial Intent
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says that “self-consciousness is the enemy of art”. There was little self-conscious in the conception and production of Ss and I think it shows. In concert with the length constraint that a short story imposes, I think I managed to capture potency and intensity. There wasn’t much mission creep between the stories as first imagined and as they were finished. Of the six, I think Sever most effectively demonstrates the intensity and tone I was striving for.
There are six stories in total, and I won’t go through each character. I will, however, say that I took the opposite approach to Barker. No detailed character profiles, no exploratory exercises. In most cases, I improvised, needing only a name, some distinctive physical characteristics (that didn’t always get mentioned) and the character’s relative status compared to their world and others within it.
Perhaps the biggest thing I took from this is both the difficulty and the ease of thinking like someone else, imagining how someone else would act, envisioning how someone else would think and see the world around them. Like Montaigne, I believe that to know other people it is enough to know ourselves; we are all human, after all. However, it will also never be enough. There are things–experiences, perceptions, thoughts etc.–that I can never be authentically privy to. It doesn’t matter how many books I read, how many conversations I have, how good the vicariousness of my experience is, I can only be others through the prism of me.
Being a collection of shorts, explicit, detailed world-building was off the table. For myself and for the reader, I had to paint with broad brushstrokes. As Brandon Sanderson puts it, I had to create a (very rough, very rude) hollow iceberg. I think I managed that. The story in which I felt I least accomplished this was Stay. I think I captured the affluent tone of high society and the ruthlessness of the drug game, but I’m not entirely familiar with its inner workings. Thus Javi’s role and the risks he runs are implicit, vague, a shadow sitting outside of mine and the reader’s peripheral vision.
As a novel, Barker wasn’t exactly event-heavy. Only the ending contained what could be called real action. I wanted to correct for that with Ss. This is most obvious in Shift. The whole premise of the story–a group of older men borrowing their nephew’s VR rigs for a session, led by a “Shifter” (basically, a Dungeon Master)–was a cheat for me to write action. After writing Stateless (but before starting the other stories) I was wondering how I could write a story that was pure action. I was speculating about the discovery of a magical artefact that would whip characters from the middle of an action-packed scene to another action-packed scene to another, with no let-up or pause. This is what Shift turned out to be, and it was immense fun to write. Especially the end scenario.
Continuing with the theme, I experimented a little here. Whilst still maintaining my somewhat overt, descriptive style, I played with different tenses and with different viewpoints. However, I didn’t want narrative hi-jinks to override the stories themselves. The narration, in this project, was meant to enhance the other elements. It was not meant to be the central element. I think I managed that–the tone changes enough to provoke and maintain interest, but not enough to jar and ruin the reader’s experience.
PART THREE – THREE QUESTIONS
- What was supposed to happen?
I was supposed to use a collection of short stories to explore my ability to tell stories in different genres, from different perspectives.
- What actually happened?
The above, actually. The shortness of the timescale helped prevent the divergence of outcome from intent.
- What did I learn?
Aside from a gain in writing experience and skill, I think the biggest learning is the importance of outside input. The beta-readers for Barker made huge contributions, literally multiplying the original quality because of their questions, answers and suggestions. I think the same gains could’ve been made with these stories, if I had been willing to compromise on the velocity of release.
Additionally, I think I am now starting to realise how much further I could go with professional help. With an editor to discuss the story’s elements and my intent, with a writing group to help me outline and prune and revise, with a copy-editor to help me catch errors and personal ticks, with a designer to produce a gorgeous interior and exterior, with some guidance on the sales and marketing front I think I could give mid-list authors a run for their money.
The solution to this is simple; investment. Either I put my own money into hiring the necessary help whilst indie-publishing, or I persuade an agent to pick me up and together we persuade a publisher to be in my corner. Both are significant undertakings and I think that before I start my next project I’ll have to decide on one or the other. But that, like many other things, is a question for a later date.