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.