So this past weekend (7 and 8 April), I’ve been taking part in Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2018. On the Saturday morning, I was given the title for the story I would write (Fully Immersed), along with a line of dialogue that must be included (“Think of the good times, when we thought it was never going to end.”) and an optional scientific idea (Earth starts receiving transmissions from the multiverse) to use if I so desire. I then needed to write and submit my story, between 1000 and 2000 words, by Monday morning.
It was interesting ride. As I write this, back during that weekend, the story is done, barring one last pass for proofreading, and what I find most entertaining is that the finished story bears little resemblance to my first musings of Saturday morning.
There are a lot of things I don’t know about the event, such as whether each person entering gets a separate title and a separate line of dialogue, or whether they are reused, because I’d be curious to see what other people would do, or would have done, with the same title and line of dialogue. Or the same line of dialogue and a different scientific idea.
But that’s idle speculation. Where might some non-idle speculation take me? It’s tempting to speculate about the difference between internal and external deadlines, as I’m much better, almost infinitely better perhaps, at honouring one than the other. It’s tempting to speculate about trying to put together a story in just a couple of days, but this is something that other people have much more experience of than I do.
But let’s speculate differently. I’m starting to think about writing in the same way I think about cooking. Each story has its own set of ingredients, but I’ve watched enough Master Chef to know that a talented chef can take the same seemingly unenviable ingredients and make something spectacular, whereas I might make something that’s merely edible. And this is the thing I want to understand: how to write the Michelin star quality stories.
And this gets me to the main realization I’ve had this weekend. I’m happy with the story I wrote. It’s not perfect but it is beyond merely edible, I think. But I could keep tinkering with it until the end of time.
When I’m doing my writing for work, mathematics papers or policy documents, I sometimes find myself in cycles where I’m changing the order of presentation, making changes to notation and terminology, but I’m making no essential changes to the story I’m telling. There, I find it easy for me to let it go, because what matters more is the content. Once I know the theorem is true and the proof is correct and complete, the finer details of readability don’t matter quite so much.
And that’s the lesson I need to bring into my fiction writing. Stories are never finished; they are merely submitted. Having to take a story from nascent beginning to submitted finish in 48 hours is a good reminder of this, and so roll on the next deadline!
Jim Anderson (available on-line at http://www.multijimbo.com) is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.