Galatea of the Spheres by Salvador Dali

Three Things I Learnt While Writing Chaos Prison

My mind is like an old shed. There’s plenty of useful stuff in there, but it’s hidden under heaps of old bicycles and electric heaters, inflatable beds and an old chest of drawers. Unless I keep using things, they tend to naturally fall to the bottom and get lost among the flotsam and jetsam. I’ve been trying very hard recently to make sure I bring some of this useful stuff back to the fore, and an exercise for this is to write down the things I’ve learnt again. This isn’t new and you’re probably thinking to yourself er, yeah, duh, that’s called learning you tit. Well, good for you.I wrote a bit of flash fiction yesterday called Chaos Prison. I learnt a few things while I was doing it, and after I read it through when it was done. Here they are:

Pacing is Tricky

In short fiction, pacing is really difficult. With only 1,000 words to play with, getting in the classic Greek tragedy (hubris, nemesis, catharsis) into play was a little ambitious. As was creating a real arc for any characters within. The story had to escalate and very quickly, and there was very little room for resolution at the end.

In the end, I think the story was a little bit bottom heavy. The first 80% I reckon was setting up for the punchline, which was literally over in a few lines, probably only 100 words. I think if I were to do this again, I’d have the peak come a little early so I could fit in a more satisfying ending.

Short Fiction Ask More Questions Than It Answers

As I previously said, there was no time or space in the brief to tie up any loose ends really. I think the best short stories don’t answer any questions. The medium tends to want to be mysterious and make the reader do almost all of the work. A fine example, I have linked to once before is Scattered Along the River of Heaven by Aliette de Bodard, which answers almost no questions and leaves me almost demanding of more knowledge of the world.

I think I managed to achieve most of what I wanted in this respect with Chaos Prison. Is Davik just arriving to be processed? Is he already a prisoner that’s been allowed out? Is this exercise some way of stimulating the prisoners mentally? Has Sentinel gone rogue? Has she been tampered with, despite her insistence otherwise? Has a prisoner actually escaped and Davik has been imprisoned by Sentinel to cover up her own mistake? That was what was going through my mind as I wrote it.

Writing Short Fiction is Really Hard

I’ve been writing three novels recently. One is quite dystopian, near-future and political, one is going to be a several novel epic cycle and one is a spin-off of that epic cycle with a character I really liked in a mediaeval heist. In a novel format, there is plenty of elbow-room for me to go wild with description if it’s needed, to spend time developing characters and their interactions, hopes and fears. In short fiction, there’s no time for that crap. It’s a sprint to the resolution. Especially in 1,000 words. You have to cram a whole story into those few words. Every line is precious.

That’s the useful thing about it though. It’s a very practical demonstration that every line is precious. Every line is important. Regardless of the medium, I think that’s an important mantra to keep repeating. Even in a 7,00 page epic fantasy novel, every line should be important. If it doesn’t add to the whole in some way, it shouldn’t be there.


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