Writing the Apocalypse

Last week I spent quite a lot of time wondering whether you could get petrol out of petrol station tanks without using electricity. Also, how long it would take foxes to move into Asda if Asda was deserted and the power was down, and how many months a small group of people could live off the dry goods contained within one supermarket, and how far one woman could carry a dead body cross-country.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a new genre to me, and it’s tricky. Short fiction, especially modern short fiction, is full of shorthand. It’s impressionist. From the swift daubs that you lay down on the page, the reader’s brain lifts a whole person, a whole world. It mirrors the neural work of reading itself, in which the brain reads the word rather than the individual letters. The olny iprmotent tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer is in the rghit pclae.

Shorthand is much easier when most things are given. It is tricky to use it when the world in which your story takes place is our world turned upside down. The structure, the social and cultural order which surrounds and supports your characters, is no longer given. The physical environment which encloses them is alien. There’s a balance to be struck between explaining nothing and leaving your reader asking where your characters are and how they can possibly be alive, and dogmatically laying down the technicalities of every part of your world in a way that’s tedious and overwhelming. The aim is to illuminate the new world so that it’s exciting and real, but without giving it centre stage over your characters. The process is one of deciding which questions to answer.

The added difficulty is that as a writer, you’re excited by your new world too. You want to gambol off to obscure corners of it, exploring them and then metaphorically peeing on them to mark your territory.  ‘Ooh,’ you think, ‘they’re living on a farm and they’re cooking stuff, and obviously they can’t use gas because the apocalypse, so I’d better specify that this is a wood-burning stove and also, hang on, that the farm is surrounded by trees and they cut those down to use for fuel.’ You have to curb those instincts, because no-one cares how your characters are cooking potatoes. On the flip side, a little bit of exploration can come up with really interesting directions for your story to go in.

I found that this P-A story, my first, took a lot more head-processing and drafting than my work set in the present world. It had to be written piecemeal and then returned to my brain for further processing. It was in my brain that most of the technical questions were asked and answered, questions like ‘If you took spice seeds out of a cook shop packet and sowed them, would they be viable?’ and ‘Do zombies tidy up after themselves?’ With the world built in my head, it was then possible to factor back down to the shorthand which told the reader what they really needed to know and left the rest to their imagination.

I could have spent a novel in my new world, but I spent 4000 words there. There are unanswered questions. There are an awful lot of unanswered questions. But these are questions that intrigue, rather than annoy. They are not questions which I can’t answer or would have to have ridiculous answers for the story to work.

Part of achieving this involved leaving huge chunks of the world completely alone. A small amount of elaboration breeds three times as many questions and actually makes the world feel less real, more fake, than the world that was only hinted at. Obsessive detailing would have undermined the story by highlighting my presence on the page: hi, it’s me, I think you’re wondering how that little bit there works and look I’ve worked it out right here, kthxbai! The scenery becomes cloth and paint, the characters become marionettes in silly costumes. I’m exposed, the little wizened person behind the Wizard of Oz mask.

The story had to feel perfectly natural, as natural and easily accepted as a story set in your home town, today. I hope I have achieved this, and if I have, it’s by seeing the world through my characters’ eyes. They live there, after all. It’s not an ordinary world to them, but it’s totally real. They refer a little to what happened in the past and how they eke out a living, but they’re also preoccupied by love, and clothes, and the future; still human, just under extraordinary circumstances.

 

 

 

 

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Cheltenham Writers’ Retreats

A couple of years ago, in severe need of time and space to write, I travelled halfway across the country to Brighton to go to an affordable writers’ retreat run by Writers’ HQ. Writers’ HQ is two writers, Sarah and Jo, who know exactly what it’s like trying to write at the same time as raising a family and paying the bills. Difficult.

At many stages of our lives, writers find that we don’t have enough time to write, or that we feel guilty about carving out the time to write, or that it’s doing our heads in trying to work at home. Sometimes we need to get some time out to pull ourselves out of a rut and kickstart whatever project we’re working on, or sometimes we’re just desperate to get away from it all for a few hours. That’s what writers’ retreats are for.

Personally, before this my idea of a writers’ retreat was the one described in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, in which Adrian flies to Greece and skinny-dips in the Aegean with poets. This is the standard, ‘fancy’ writers’ retreat. They may not involve Greece, but you’ll be looking at a stay in a lovely country house, talks by professional writers, a few days away, and a price tag many of us can’t afford. Plus it’s hard to take that amount of time off if you’ve got children, other care commitments, or a demanding job. That’s where Writers’ HQ comes in. The retreats are affordable (£35 for the day, or £30-ish if you bag a first-timer’s discount code/10%-off flyer) and they’re on one weekend day, 10-4. They are not in country piles, and skinny-dipping is positively frowned upon. There’s just a chance to meet other writers, talk about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and then get your head down and get some work done. With plenty of caffeine and food.

I liked the retreat I went on so much that when WHQ announced they’d like to expand the retreats across the southern UK, I was one of the people who put themselves forward to host them. There are five of us, in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Hastings. We’re all early-career writers, and we’ll all be running one retreat a month for writers in our local areas.

Cheltenham’s retreats will be on the third Saturday of every month, starting in August. If you’re interested in finding out more about retreats here or elsewhere across the country, check out the Writers’ HQ website; or go straight to the Cheltenham booking page here, and get £5 off with the code ‘itsmyfirsttimebegentlewithme’. They’ll be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me.