Waterboarded by an Angel

M’colleague and gen­er­ally excel­lent writer Aliya Whiteley is cel­eb­rat­ing the launch of her new short story col­lec­tion, Witchcraft in the Harem. How to describe it? Well, World Fantasy Award win­ner Lavie Tidhar says:

The exper­i­ence of read­ing this col­lec­tion is like being water­boarded by an angel. Shocking, heart­break­ing and laugh-out-loud funny, this is some of the best writ­ing I’ve ever seen. If you like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, you will love Witchcraft in the Harem.

I had a high old time on Monday night at the launch. Given that I’m talk­ing occa­sion­ally on this blog about the cre­at­ive pro­cess, I thought it would be nice to ask Aliya about how you get the full world feel in some­thing as small as a short story. Take it away, Aliya.

How do you make a short story feel full?

Thomas Hardy was an amaz­ing nov­el­ist. You only have to read the first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge to real­ise you’re enjoy­ing the powers of a mas­ter of descrip­tion. And there’s a lot of descrip­tion to get through. I mean enjoy. There are long para­graphs about the Wessex coun­tryside and the mean­ing­ful weath­er. However much you love Hardy, you have to admit that the mod­ern taste in prose has moved away from such lov­ing build-up. A book that starts with three thou­sand words describ­ing the land­scape is unlikely to meet with the approv­al of a big pub­lish­er nowadays.

Description gives depth, but if you’re work­ing on a short story, then you need to provide that roun­ded feel­ing in oth­er ways. And if you write flash fic­tion, then you need to cre­ate the entire world in under 1000 words and lose none of the real­ity. So how do you do it? Here’s some help­ful advice. Bearing in mind that I don’t give good advice and can­not be trus­ted.

Set your story at the bottom of the ocean.

Deep, see? No, okay, that’s not entirely ser­i­ous. But do set your short story in some place that will be evoc­at­ive with very little work from you. The Orient Express, for instance. Or choose one really good detail and describe that rather than going large-scale. Describing the swiv­el of the golfer’s hips as he hits his first shot is as mean­ing­ful as writ­ing about all eight­een holes.

Don’t bother to set it anywhere.

If you’ve got bril­liant char­ac­ters, amaz­ing dia­logue, and an excit­ing plot, then let them do all the work for you and for­get describ­ing the col­our of the car­pet. The set­ting doesn’t always mat­ter. Sometimes it’s more power­ful if we’re not provided with a frame­work.


The first story in my new col­lec­tion is called Galatea. It’s a piece of flash fic­tion about a lonely orphan boy who grows up to be obsessed with naked flesh. There’s no men­tion of the Pygmalion myth in the story but the title brings with it a whole myth­ic­al set of expect­a­tions that say more than an extra thou­sand words could man­age.

Avoid the natural world.

If you find your­self describ­ing the types of trees in the field behind the house the char­ac­ters live in (and they aren’t even look­ing out of the win­dow) then you’re not keep­ing the word count down. Unless you’re writ­ing a story about killer plants or the passing sea­sons or some­thing, obvi­ously.

Use default settings.

When it comes to describ­ing what people look like, there’s very little point unless it’s remark­able. We all assume people look a cer­tain way. Alas, Hollywood-style pleas­ant beauty has won over our ima­gin­a­tions in this regard, so instead of wast­ing time with hair and eye col­ours con­cen­trate on the way the char­ac­ters respond to each oth­er. If they’re attract­ive, don’t both­er describ­ing your idea of attract­ive. A read­er might hate muscled men or women with long legs. But what hap­pens when they enter the con­ver­sa­tion? That’s more inter­est­ing, and it tells us all we need to know. Then the read­er becomes the detect­ive of the story, solv­ing the clues you leave behind. Artfully arrange your bread­crumbs rather than sup­ply­ing a whole loaf of bread. It keeps them hungry and takes up less word­count too.

So that’s what I know about turn­ing a short story into a sat­is­fy­ing and roun­ded exper­i­ence. I’ve set stor­ies in the Canadian Rockies and in Viennese Concert Halls; I’ve used myth­ic­al fig­ures and fairy tales; I’ve pared back the weath­er reports and the nat­ur­al world. Except in the one story that’s set in a cab­bage patch, obvi­ously. And I’ve kept them all short and sweet. Even the one set in the Mariana Trench.

No, okay, I made that bit up. I told you I couldn’t be trus­ted.

Thirsty for Bytes?

It’s not easy being an inde­pend­ent author. By inde­pend­ent, I don’t mean ‘attached to an inde­pend­ent pub­lish­ing house’. I mean hir­ing a proofread­er, edit­or, cov­er design­er, and not being invited to pub­lish­ing shindigs. M’colleague Matt F Curran doesn’t think it’s easy either. He is the brains behind Thirst Editions, a new, vir­tu­al pub­lish­ing out­fit under whose aus­pices Matt, Aliya Whiteley, Roger Morris, Frances Garrod, and Tim Stretton will be put­ting out a title or two. These authors are not all inde­pend­ent by the above defin­i­tion, but they’ve all had work passed over on the grounds of mass mar­ket appeal rather than qual­ity — and with ebooks and the long tail, qual­ity can now count.

There is no ‘i’ in team. There are, how­ever, three in ‘Thirst Editions’.

I think you know what I mean.

If you don’t, take a look at this post, where Matt out­lines the eth­os behind Thirst Editions.

Monday, 23rd April is launch day. My nov­el Proper Job will be re-pub­lished as a Thirst Editions book (reserving Writer As A Stranger for the Saskia Brandt books) at the crazy price of 77p, along with Tim’s Dragonchaser and Aliya’s Mean Mode Median. These last two are also cheap-as-chips.

What are you wait­ing for? We’d appre­ci­ate your sup­port.

On Legerdemaine

Part two of my inter­view Aliya Whiteley is now up on her web­site. More mots bon from me.

A: When do you feel sat­is­fied that you’ve done enough research?

I: I don’t think I’ve ever felt sat­is­fied with research. There’s always some­thing that you’ve handled wrong. With spe­cif­ic regard to a nov­el, where you’re deal­ing with the rep­res­ent­a­tion of lived exper­i­ence, there’s no way everything is going to ring true. A phrase might be wrong; or a train line that you thought was there in 1904 wasn’t built until 1910, or some such. I’d go as far as to say that if I ever had that feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion, I’d be los­ing my grip on real­ity.