How do you see yourself? Someone who creates other worlds or who reveals things about the one you’re in?
What is the job of the writer … probably both? Right?
I asked myself this question when I was writing the first short story for my MA. I had written a short story called Living By Numbers that later went on to be published in a collection in the US as it happens. The premise of the story was very simple. A girl is sat next to her mother, trapped in a car she has driven into a barrier. Her mother might be dead. But the girl has a serious aversion to odd numbers and especially odd multiples of odd numbers. What does this mean in real terms? She can’t press 999 or I guess 911 is equally applicable. Why? Because she thinks then the world will end … but maybe it already has?
It’s one of those stories where everything happens inside the mind of the narrator over a short space of time. Where we see how her illness progressed, how her father leaving that she blames herself on being because of her messy bedroom, develops this psychosis almost that keeping everything in order, and clean and numbered keeps her safe. She creates rules to live by. But to save her mother she now has to break those down.
This story was a challenge to my thinking about what makes a fictional reality or ‘unreality’ and most rules and ideas about creating the fictional universe come from the depths of Sci Fi which is apt after the interview with Daniel yesterday. If you didn’t real it — I urge you to.
The most misinterpreted idea that we write what we know comes to mind as well — where would we be if that was ‘literally’ the case? It’s fun creating these alternative worlds and what we really mean by the expression is — draw upon what we know of our own world and our own lives as human beings, and use those elements to create a believable fictional reality. Or that’s how I see it. We might not know what it feels like to be a green alien with two heads (well most of us anyway! He he …) but if our alien is lost and missing home (think ET) we will empathise because as humans we can only express ourselves using human emotion. And why wouldn’t aliens, or animals, even not go through the same emotions?
The thing about the girl in the Living By Numbers story is she isn’t the alien with two heads — or is she? Maybe that is exactly who she is initially to the reader.
At first the reader will be annoyed at her — it’s simple — just press 999. Right? And I wanted the reader to think that. But pretty soon the intention is for the reader to see how hard an act that is. In the same way the alien with the evil stares (on both faces!) and the laser gun is really only missing home.
So while in this case I was taking ‘reality’ rather than basing the story in a fictional world light years from our own, I was still using the same ideas as that — i.e. creating an alternative universe where odd numbers mean danger.
What I learned in my research for the piece was that what’s fundamental to creating fictional worlds in Sci Fi is in establishing the rules. In fact there are very distinct rules for example about using time travel (a subject that fascinates me endlessly I have to say!) — and these rules need to be followed for credibility. Really. There are books on the subject like this one — Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel. LINK Not sure which book it was but I know Audrey Niffenegger used something like this when she wrote Time Traveler’s Wife (love that book!)
And there are certainly rules for Sci Fi worlds — you need only Google that as I just did and you’ll see these. Take this first Blog I came across for example about ‘word building’ BLOG
Now you might think my story or some of your stories are not Sci Fi and therefore this isn’t applicable? Well maybe not the specifics but world building — yes. Of course it is. And what is fundamental to all of these is ‘establishing the rules’ and I scrolled down as saw the same thing in this Blog and interestingly a comparison with many genres of writing as well so it fits with what I’m talking about.
Take our OCD character whose life is governed by numbers. How she sees the world may be very different from how we do. But this is the same world so what’s changed?
The girl’s perception of it — right? It’s the rules she lives by. So the real purpose of the story and why I wrote it, was to give insight. To show that what seems ridiculous in the cold light of day, making a call that could save her mother’s life, is the most difficult thing in the world for Anna. But once I allowed the reader to invade her back story and see why this happened and how she created the rules to keep safe, my hope is an increasing sympathy and understanding of what in essence is another world.
So the rules are key to creating any fictional reality — regardless of genre. And these rules are anything from the rain falling upwards on the planet Zog to a girl who ‘doesn’t do odd numbers or multiples of odd numbers and certainly not odd multiples of odd numbers’ as I say in the story.
Create the rules and the world and the readers are with you — but be consistent, don’t confuse them. As readers we can be made to believe anything so long as it’s well written, well constructed and created in a way that has credibility.
So how does my story end? Well it can only end one way. The climax has to be the decision to call or not to call. And for the sake of being satisfactory there has to be a moment when she conquers her fears for the sake of the story. It has to feel like the insights we, as readers, gain from the story about the narrator, put us right with her in the end, rooting for her and knowing, really knowing what this means to press these numbers. We will have changed our thinking about her by understanding her world. The question that remains however, is is she too late?
I will (unusually for me!) leave you with the opening of that story and a link to the book but it is only available in the US.
Have a great writing day everyone as you build those worlds and then the fun part of the writer’s job is …
Creating chaos and conflict within them … right. And there, no matter what the genre, lays the real essence of story.
Living By Numbers
I don’t do odd numbers, numbers in multiples of odd numbers and definitely not odd numbers in multiples of odd numbers.
All I have to do is press three numbers. But I can’t.
Mum is dying.
This is what happens when The System breaks down. Everything needs order otherwise we plummet into a state called chaos (the second law of thermodynamics.) Chaos is what happens if you step on the cracks in the pavement; if you turn around in a clockwise direction without spinning back the other way. And it’s what happens if you press three odd numbers on a push button phone.
“Damn it!” I rattle the door, sleeve pulled over fingers. STUCK. I press my shoulder against it. PUSH. PUSH HARDER. No budge. I sit back, look down at my hands, scrutinise the skin; no mark, no blemish. YET TAINTED. The belt still pins me against the seat, straps me to the moment while the word still falls into chaos. HURTS. It presses against my shoulder. I want to reach down and unbuckle it I can’t touch. DIRTY.
Beside me Mum is slumped forwards. Her hair falls across her cheek. Red, matted. The window is broken, the rain seeps in, COLD, RELENTLESS. There’s a TV advert playing in my head, the one where the driver is pushed right through the windscreen. Splashes of red, windscreen pizza. She should have been wearing a seat belt. She should have moved by now. SHOULD HAVE.
I look down at my lap where the phone sits like a silent reminder.
“It’s about choices, Anna” Dad’s voice in my head like a conscience “Choose,” he says, “Do it Anna, make the call. BUT – what about the odd numbers?
Dad is right, it is about choice. Mum chose Dad. Dad chose to leave. I choose to follow The System.
“Do the right thing, Anna,” Dad says. I close my eyes. I want him to understand that some things stop being a choice. That I am doing the right thing.
I press my fingers to the window and at first I not seeing the blood splattered there. Now it coats my fingertips. DIRTY. I rub them frantically across my jeans leaving a trail. Fingertips burn. NO USE. CONTAMINATED.
I placate myself by counting the dots on the window. It’s like a flick painting; the kind of thing I used to do with Mum. I was just a kid. Of course, Mum still thinks I am a kid. But at seventeen, there are many things I can do that prove I’m not. If I want to.
I control my own life. I control it better than Mum does.
“Damn it Mum, move will you.”
I close my eyes and count the things that float in the blackness. Globular masses that live behind closed eyes. I count to keep order. I count to restore the equilibrium. I count because it is the second part of The System. The part that says the world is protected by perfect numbers, straight lines and symmetry. Even my name has symmetry.
“It’s just bad luck,” I hear Dad say in my head. I tell him I don’t believe in luck. Luck means something that happens beyond our control. Makes us all victims of random circumstance, like it raining today, like driving too fast, like skidding off the road.
There is a reason for everything.
I look for a reason why it’s Mum’s blood sprayed across the glass and not mine. Why she wasn’t wearing her seat belt when she usually does. And why we were fighting.
“Wake up, Mum.”
She always knows best. Or she thinks she does. It’s not the same thing. When I was seven she tried to tell me it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t the reason Dad left. She sends me to a psychologist. He also pretends to know best.
“Tell me how you felt when your Dad left, Anna?” They’ve been asking me that for years. How do they think I bloody felt?
“I didn’t feel anything,” I said.
I look at the phone, now it’s a silent intruder. The word still spins into chaos. Press three numbers. JUST DO IT.
“Don’t worry Mum,” I say. “Someone will come.”
I rattle the door. I do it eight times. It’s raining harder now and where it hits the glass its forms pink smears on the windscreen. I want to wipe it clean. I look out at the road it will be dark soon. It was dark at 4.08 yesterday. There no lights on this section of road. DARK. My eyes wander to the line of conifers leading into the forest. I concentrate on one of them, I see it bend over in the wind. I wait for it to do it again. I count. One, two, three…SAFE. Order keeps you safe.
“Make it even,” I whisper. I hear my pulse in my head like the march of hollow footsteps. I stare at the trees and ask for a sign. I want to look away.
I stop watching when the tree has bent over eight times like a humble servant bending for me. I nod, give gratitude when it complies. Then I press my eyes shut and seal the deal. Eight is safe. SAFE.
The world stopped being safe on a Wednesday. The day Dad left. He left because I forgot to tidy my bedroom. When I think about it he was angry about everything. When he left it was the first time I realised a person could disappear gradually, the way ink fades on the page…
© Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, published in Rattlesnake Valley Sampler; An Anthology of Regional Writing
You might ask why I am in a collection by regional writers from Wisconsin — in fact I have a 911 story in there too called Stepping Into Silence. I once had this mad idea to twin with a writing group from another Bangor. Bangor in Maine didn’t have one (odd I know, home of Stephen King!) so we found La Crosse in Wisconsin close to another Bangor. The collection welcomed subs from their writers but by association Bangor Writing Group Wales were also invited and the rest as they say is history. I am still in touch with the group as it happens and some have made it into Bridge House books. In fact it was when they critted While No One Was Watching the short story, they said they thought it should be a novel. So I have to thank them for planting that seed!
Anyway … really going now. Honest.