the making of …tales.
how (and why) i write short fiction
It seems to me that any writing, once published, sinks pretty quickly down past the photic zone into the trench of forgetting. So before my 6 tiny anthologies of flash-fiction sink out of sight, I thought I’d write a brief piece on what they are, why I wrote them, and why I write more generally.
It’s a truism that writing is a skill that requires regular practice, and regular training — but I am one of the writers who believes it also requires a certain amount of respectful timidity. While I strive every day for mastery over an ever-changing language, I’m fully aware that I have a relationship with language, and if I’m too “controlling,” then it becomes an abusive relationship. I try to sustain a willingness to discover and rediscover language, to treat it like the ocean — never the same, never static, never simple, never mine, always complex in its ecology.
I’m also aware that, as a white man, my language is the issue of a history of supremacy, misogyny, and colonisation. White language is an ill-gotten gain, it has an abhorrent historical context. So much of my schooling was about expunging my lexicon of creolisations, and training me to be polysyllabic, rule-bound and quick to correct others. They took me in as Caliban and tried to teach me to be more like Prospero; it takes a long time to unlearn this.
So my daily practice of writing has a tension between mastery and discovery, between an urge to “succeed” and a need to change the very definition of success. I try to take writing lightly.
I started writing flash fiction — very short stories — not as a way to cater to short attention spans, but as a way to limber up for longer work. It was also a way to reaffirm my identity as a working writer, since not many people really believe that writing is work at all. Sometimes I have trouble believing this, which is incredibly self-defeating.
The biggest thing I’ve learned through this process has been about the everyday ingredients of good writing. Just as a chef has a certain number of ingredients and techniques that they use over and again (butter, flour, sugar, a skillet, a pot, a baking dish, olive oil) so there are words and phrases and punctuation marks that I use over and again (“said,” “went”, “and”, “as”, “so”, “not only…but also”). So far from being boring, simple language, used well, provides a matrix into which complex language and complex ideas can be added.
If I could encourage a writer who was starting out, or an experienced writer who had become dispirited, I would urge them to write things that are simple, no matter how meaningless they thought they were. Write about your bedspread. Write about the weather. Write about your favourite school teacher. Write about anything, but do it simply. Keep a second tab open on your browser with Thesaurus.com to see if you can find a simpler word. I do not believe this practice leads to austere writing, but rather leads to precise writing.
I would also say, to the starter or the stopper, that your voice is interesting and valuable, no matter whether anyone reads your work, and no matter what people say about it. We cannot let the digital revolution, with its endless reproductions, fool us into thinking that we are not special, not unique. We cannot agree with supremacist forms of censorship that deride marginalised people as “snowflakes.” When a supremacist (white, straight, male, able, beautiful) calls you a “snowflake” what they mean is that you are replaceable, surplus, redundant, value-less. Don’t agree with them. Be as snowflakey as you can — that is, as unique and sensitive to the world as you can be. If you need proof that it’s important to tell your story, just take a look at how much effort the social elite puts into telling you that your story doesn’t count. Why do they want to silence you? Because they want to control the flow of language.
I can’t really apologise for being political here because I think that all art is political. And I’ve encoded a lot of my politics into the short fiction I’ve written.
So without further ado, here’s the heads up on my tales:
summertales: 7 x overheated eeries
Australia has just been through one of the longest and harshest heatwaves of living memory. I wrote 7 short “twilight zone” type stories of absurd horror and whimsy as a way of coping with the heat. Even though absurdity is the key to my favourite humour, it’s also the key to the most effective horror. So I wrote summertales as a fever dream of lapsed realities and sensual details. In Australia we have the slang term “going troppo.” To “go troppo” describes the ways that white colonists failed to cope with the heat when they stole tropical land. Those colonists went insane. Everything about summertales is “troppo” — is about privilege gone crazy. Sexual arousal turns violent. A woman turns invisible. And cats fly to the moon.
vespertales: 5 x twilight profanations
In vespertales, I researched and wrote 5 stories less absurd, and far more sexual than I had ever tried before on the theme of dusk. A short story about a Roman Slave, and another about a woman metamorphosed in a moment of passion both betray my love of Ovid. The language of passion demands excess, and I not only relished the chance to talk about chest hair, leaking precum, about the heat of an aroused vulva, but I flat out overdid unnecessary details about smells, sights and sounds. I wanted to write something as rococo and cheeky as a Fragonard or Watteau.
caramel tales: 7 x butterscotch torments
carameltales is the most gothic of my selections. Because it was so heavily and repeatedly edited, I wanted to make sure I changed gear every few paragraphs, treating it like a mixtape of stories. I started with the initial intention of writing some vindictive and erotic horror, and to be sure, it contains four deeply vindictive and sexualised stories — one of manipulation, one of stalking, one of murder, and one of bodily mutilation. And yet, embedded between these mean cellmates is a personal favourite: the tender story “uninterrupting daniel” about falling deeply in love, and wondering whether to put that love into words. It’s not based on real people, but I found myself crying after writing it. carameltales is dark work, aiming for dark arousal and dark happiness.
himtales: 7 erotic gay glimmers
himtales was deliberately written in the hopes of being accepted in MyErotica, and when it was, I celebrated. I’ve been quite anxious for acceptance by other gay men, but rather than try to hide that anxiety, I wrote 7 short erotic stories that tried to communicate the admixture of anxiety and arousal that is my experience of gayness. The 7 stories in himtales are based on the 7 subjects of the medieval Liberal Arts education: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. I’m noticing in my own culture that a lot of people don’t know that gays have always existed, so I was being deliberately mischievous using a medieval taxonomy. I edited the words in this anthology so heavily and so repeatedly that I started to hate it; I didn’t so much finish it as abandon it. And yet I’m proud of it now. I’m especially proud that it tells the story of my own sexual politics: that beauty is ineffable, and desire is disruptive of identity.
To write horror, I try to scare myself, but to write erotica, I write until I am aroused. I’m so proud that vespertales, carameltales and himtales are all published in the resplendent, and affirming MyErotica edited by Rose MyErotica, Jaiden MyErotica and Krogman, which I would recommend to all sex positive — or even sex ambivalent — readers. Subscribe to it, even for a while, and it will change your ideas about what erotica is, and can be.
marinetales: 7 x cuttlebone fables
marinetales is the unloved “strange child” of my work. It’s my “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” or my “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” — something prickly, hard to love, a misfit piece. I wrote this with no other intention than to communicate my love and fear of the sea. Though it contains an erotic encounter between a salesman and a lonely islander, the real erotic moment for me comes in a story about an orca dragging someone down to a deep death. I’ve always been impressed by orcas, but it wasn’t until I visited Te Papa in Wellington, where they have a lifesize statue of an orca swimming above you, that I realised just what majestic killing machines they are. marinetales yields strange moments and strange details, just as the sea washes up unexpected souvenirs: elasmosaurus, calliope, glioblastoma, auks, and a dark retelling of the myth of Ilmatar.
cinematales: 5 x spliced derangements
The main aim of cinematales was to be as disturbing as possible in as few words as possible. The average length of each story is about 120 words. Short form disturbance is, in many ways, easier than long form disturbance; when flash fiction exploits horror, it’s the “ring and run” version of literature. So there’s something a little prankish about these tales. I set all of them in a cinema because we are in the dying days of movie theatres; I wish it weren’t so, but every time I see a movie, no matter whether it be a blockbuster or an indie, the theatres seem to be getting emptier and emptier every time. While I think cinematales is my worst work, I do hope that other writers choose the movie theatre as the locus of horror writing in future work. Our anxieties about our dark future, and our even darker pasts, are symbolised in the dimmed lights of that space.
If you’ve read this far, thankyou. I’m happy to take a break from short story writing for a while, although I will surely continue my daily practice and discipline of writing. For now, I’m happy to let these stories sink into the aphotic zone, down to the dark and deafening depths that swallow up all art, no matter how successful, no matter how failed it may be.