Exploring the art of prose


Author: Matt Zandstra

Author’s Note

This story began for me, as it begins for the reader, with the opening image. A car veers and takes out the wing mirrors of a row of parked vehicles prompting a secret sense of liberation in the story’s protagonist.

I meandered into Julia’s day and her life without much of an initial plan. I knew that the story would unfold if not in real time then compressed over a limited period. And I knew that the world would fall apart around her, resonating with something broken and unresolved in her past. The anachronic aspect—the story told in Julia’s memory—evolved then as discovery. I needed to uncover what was broken in her and to understand the resonance.

Of course, analepsis is commonplace in novel-length fiction. The short story form, though, does not typically allow enough room for more than one rich narrative thread. For this reason, and for fear of slowing or crowding the story, I usually either cut a past narrative back or, if it is compelling enough, switch my primary focus. But for this story, I became interested in showing the interplay between past and present, not least because time and how one negotiates it developed as a theme of the story. That meant I wrote long and deferred any issues that might create for the edit.

At heart, I’m both a literary and a speculative writer. I worry about the tensions between characters’ pasts and their present, how characters understand themselves in the world. And yet the world that my characters negotiate is often a twist away from the deceptive familiarities of realist setting. This twist, Darko Suvin’s novum or new thing, plays an intrinsic role. Remove it from a narrative and the story collapses. The novum, in this case, a supercharged commercial augmented reality, provided me with a medium through which my main characters could meet—albeit ambiguously. In other words, it performed a functional role in the story (in addition, arguably, to what Suvin calls cognitive estrangement—defamiliarization at the level of plot and setting).

As I completed my first draft, then, I had set myself some challenges. The backstory elements pushed the word count higher than I wanted it and slowed the action. In addition, speculative fiction often incurs a considerable expositional debt. There are conventional approaches to this. Many stories place the nature of the world as a central story question—making a virtue of the reader’s initial disorientation. This was not the approach I wanted here. Neither did I want to hold up the narrative flow with great blocks of telling. Subsequent drafts felt a little like sculpture. I repeatedly shaved away material, balancing effect and comprehensibility until eventually, I arrived at something that worked for me.

A couple of structural elements arrived relatively late in the process. Where possible, I like to find a midpoint in a story—so that the narrative does not flag at the heart but revolves instead around a significant shift (see Into the Woods by John Yorke for more on this). I located this in the moment at which the shop glitches seem irrevocable and Julia decides she will not return to work. In the flashback story, Philip’s rebirth occurs at about this point. So in every aspect, the world is altered here. The key revelation at the end of the story, and the choice Julia is offered, I also “discovered” in the edit. Because it provided a reversal of meaning—forcing the reader to reevaluate the text—it was the final piece for me, ending the deep work of writing and more or less wrapping up the narrative.


MATT ZANDSTRA’s speculative fiction has appeared in Perihelion, AbTerra, Free Radicals Quarterly, and others. He won the Curtis Brown Prize for his novel in progress at the UEA Creative Writing MA. He lives in Brighton, UK, and can be found online @inflatableink.