So, my first short story, Disfigured, is now available exclusively on Amazon. Feedback so far has been tremendous, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who has bought it, reviewed it, contacted me about it and shared it – even those freeloaders who got the pre-edit copies for nothing. You’re all great, and if you haven’t bought it yet, what are you waiting for? It costs 99p. If you can’t afford that get off the internet and get yourself a job. Then, in a month’s time, come back here and buy Disfigured.
Still, rather than just let the thing sit around while I continuously plug the link for a couple of weeks (which I’ll be doing, I assure you), I figured I’d do something a bit different. I suppose this is partially inspired by Kieron Gillen’s sharp, insightful breakdowns of the writing process behind The Wicked + The Divine, which are well-worth reading even if you’re not familiar with the book (although that is also, in turn, well-worth reading). It occurred to me that it’s rare you see this kind of behind-the-curtain analysis, in comics or, perhaps even less so, in literature. So that’s what I want to do here. Disfigured isn’t long, isn’t particularly complex and isn’t part of an on-going series, but I feel there’s enough meat on the bones of the writing that it would be beneficial to take a look at the process and share it with other folks who may or may not find such things interesting.
Needless to say, massive spoilers follow.
A while ago (almost a year now) I resolved to release a short story every month, and I wanted to solicit ideas from people I knew. I saw it as a writing exercise, I suppose, and thought it would be fun to try and build a story around someone else’s core concept. Disfigured is, in a way, the first of those concepts, but there’s more to it than that.
When I first start writing the story it was supposed to be for my girlfriend at the time, whose name is Olivia and who, in typical Liv fashion, wanted me to write something primarily about her. The character in the story is and always has been based on her, and the physical description is pretty accurate (green eyes, good looking, etc.) Her background as a dance teacher is also true, and we do have a child together, a little girl of 14 months, but her name is not Gabriella (even to me that felt too much like tempting fate). I couldn’t get this initial version of the story off the ground because nothing about it felt interesting to me; it was descending into the territory of an unreasonably lengthy love letter, which nobody would want to read, and I didn’t want to visit anything drastic upon her character for fear of having to sleep on the couch. Luckily, though, we had a falling out, moved out of our house, and I felt more than comfortable making her horrifically disfigured.
I’m aware of how petty that sounds, but you’ve got to understand that the fact we’ve got a daughter to take care of means we see each other all the time, we’re on great terms and there’s no malice between us whatsoever. It was less an act of petty revenge and more of a joke at her expense, which naturally backfired on me when it turned out she really liked the idea. But taking that step away from being mawkish and respectful allowed me to take the story to a darker, weirder place. I’m explaining this because the relationship between the two main characters in Disfigured is heavily based on my personal relationship with Olivia, and I wanted to bring that familiarity across.
The opening scene at the funeral, and the whole build-up to the crash, thrives on the understanding that this is a couple who love each other, understand each other and get along very well. It’s easy to write that kind of stuff when you’re living it – not so much in retrospect. I sat down to write that scene at the very beginning of our time apart, just a week after I’d attended the funeral of a relative, so it’s very personal to me. Some of the observations (extended family clustering together and talking among themselves, for example) were things I’d seen just a few days before. I wanted to highlight what everybody notices at funerals – that a lot of the people there are present out of obligation. I wanted a sense of detachment between the narrator and everybody else besides his wife. The hand squeezes, the little periods of knowing silence, the pregnancy routines, these are all things I shared with her in my real life, and with them the story itself feels real – to me, anyway. The real Olivia is also religious (Church of England, not Catholic) and I’m quite openly an atheist, so the brief sentence about the priest’s recitations is also rooted in our real lives.
I don’t know why I wanted this scene to be snowy. The crash isn’t anything to do with the weather, really, and it’s briefly mentioned later that the driver of the truck who hits the car was asleep. It just felt significant to me. Ominous, maybe, I don’t know. But I liked the snow globe analogy at the end, and the post-apocalyptic simile at the beginning, so I kept the weather cold.
There’s a time lapse of almost a year between the first scene and the second. Initially I had an italicised note to make that clear: “One year later…” but it just felt silly. I decided to work it into the story more organically, but part of me thinks maybe it isn’t clear enough. Let me know.
Anyway, as you can probably tell I don’t know anything about prosthetics. I didn’t do too much research on the subject either, which I perhaps should have, but I knew I didn’t want the narrator bounding around on high-tech robo-legs. Having the prosthesis be primitive and simplistic just worked for me, not necessarily as a metaphor, but as one more shitty thing in a whole litany of others.
The narrator isn’t an alcoholic. He certainly drinks too much, and that’s probably the cause of his weird dreams, the further breakdown of his marriage and his lack of productivity, but he’s very much on the precipice rather than already barrelling down the slope. Tossing the morning’s coffee down the sink is part of that; it’s rebellion against the idea of drinking bourbon for breakfast, and him throwing it away is slightly more significant than him pouring it in the first place.
Olivia’s facial disfigurement is intended to be symbolic of the family’s breakdown, rather than shocking in and of itself. That’s why I didn’t waste too much time describing it in extreme detail; I didn’t want this to feel like body-horror, and in initial drafts I went pretty extreme with the description. It was overkill, so I got rid of it. Gabriella is also introduced in this scene (a name the real Olivia picked, by the way), albeit briefly. Again, though, that’s the point. I wanted to be blasé about some of these things so that they didn’t stick out in the reader’s mind as being particularly significant, and every time Gabby crops up in the story you’ll notice me doing that. Even this early, my intention was to allow the reader to interpret things as they see them, which is, I imagine, what has led to so many contrasting opinions about what’s really going on.
The rather lengthy scene following these introductions is partially a leftover from when this was quite overtly a supernatural horror story. I eventually abandoned that in favour of something more rooted in the warped psychology of actual people, which just seemed like a better fit, but I think you can see those elements quite clearly in this sequence. What’s particularly fun is that some of the things which would have been tell-tales of ghostly involvement (the screaming and crying through the monitors, the swaying ring in the narrator’s office) just turn out to be red herrings. The screaming was literally from the television, and the narrator’s rapid rise from his desk was what set the ring moving. Of course you can only know that in retrospect, though, which again led to a lot of people drawing pleasantly incorrect conclusions before the truth actually presented itself.
The dream sequence is another chunk of the story I wrote when it was still intended to be something quite different from what it turned out to be. A few people who’ve read it told me this scene made them assume that everyone was dead, which I wasn’t quite anticipating.
There’s always a part of me that worries about these varied interpretations, that they’re symptoms of muddled writing or ill thought-out plotting. I’m less inclined towards that opinion in this case, though, primarily because so much of what I wanted to evoke with Disfigured was a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. Even I don’t know, concretely, what the “correct” read of the story is, and I think that’s cool. I wouldn’t want to read that kind of narrative all the time, and I certainly wouldn’t want to write it all the time, but there’s something quite powerful about a reader being able to draw their own conclusions and feel satisfied in an ending that they’re partially complicit in – even if another person saw it completely differently. That’s why I eventually chose to include the final line (which we’ll get to): I wanted the reader to have the final say.
The whole Valentine’s Day sequence initially began with Olivia’s attack on the narrator – the opening line of the scene was “Get the fuck away from me!” I believe. From there it went into the positive, alcohol-free morning, the drive to the florist and the return home, before eventually catching back up to the attack as the narrator carries the roses through the door. I eventually abandoned that structure and made it chronological – even though I liked, and still like, that harsh line as an introduction to a scene – because it felt unnecessarily complex for what’s in reality a very straightforward chain of events. It probably worked out better this way, as it’s arguably more shocking for the attack to come after such an uncharacteristically upbeat stretch of prose. The juxtaposition is key, I think, and that would have been missing in the jumbled Nolan-esque first draft.
This was the toughest scene to write, and I was stumped by it for a quite a while. The structure was the first hurdle, but towards the end I realized there was no way I could write around the fact that Gabby was in the living room. Throughout the whole story I struggled with how to portray Gabby; I needed readers to believe she was alive, but I couldn’t have her actually do anything which gave that impression. No crying, no moving around, nothing which would have been dishonest to the reader. My approach in most cases, as I’ve noted, was to be quite cavalier about it, never really drawing too much attention to her and just treating her being alive as an unambiguous reality. But that was very tricky in this scene, because she had to be doing something. So I strapped her in the high chair (which answers the question of why she isn’t moving) and made a specific reference to toast being in front of her, the implication being that she’s eating it even though I never state that explicitly. I also made a reference to her not having much hair, which is one of several minor clues scattered around that maybe she isn’t quite what she seems. Again, I didn’t want to lie to the reader, but I had to mislead them for the “twist”, so to speak, to actually work. This is the kind of thing I hope a reader would go back and notice as a “kick yourself” moment.
The narrator’s flashback to his dying father’s bedside wasn’t something I initially planned on including, and I’m still not entirely sure why I did. I do like the stuff about Hell, though, particularly the quiet implication that the narrator in some way expects retribution for things he’s done, or failed to do, even though until this point we haven’t seen anything which would suggest he’d need to. Lying to his father is significant, because it implies he would break his own moral code in the interest of protecting the people he cares about, and ultimately there’s lot of that in the final scene.
On the subject of the final scene, here’s a confession: The first draft didn’t include the last line. The swerve was that Gabby had been dead all along, and that in her grief Olivia had convinced herself that a doll was her real child. That was the ending. I can’t say I’d have necessarily been unhappy with that, but I felt like something was missing. When I wrote the final four words, I realized myself that I didn’t really know which of the two were really insane, or whether they both were, and that felt really invigorating. In essence, Gabby is Schrodinger’s Baby. She’s both real and not, alive and dead, depending on who you are and how you interpreted the story until that point. Everything about that appeals to me, and based on feedback so far, it appeals to other people too. What’s most exciting (and interesting) is that almost everyone I asked had a completely different take, which is entirely the point. But my favourite thing about Disfigured is that it really doesn’t matter. As long as you’re thinking about the story after it’s over, trying to rationalize what you’ve read, then I feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to do, or at least done a reasonable enough job that I don’t regret writing the story the way I did.
There will be many, many more of these stories, and they will be very different to this one. But there’s so much of me and my personal life here that it will probably always appeal to me on that level, regardless of the fact that, like everything I write, in a few months’ time I’ll come to despise it. But there you have the writer’s curse. My hope, more than anything, is that the story will resonate for other people, and that those people will be interested in the next one. Because really, me enjoying my own work doesn’t keep the lights on. Hopefully you all will.