Maria Romasco Moore: When it comes to writing, the idea of talking about “form” can sound oddly, well, formal. But one thing I think the three of us have in common is a strong interest in playing with form and trying to push it in weird and interesting directions.
Nino, your recent story “Which Super Little Dead Girl Are You?” is written in the form of an online quiz, and Karin, your novel Amatka is to some degree a lipogram – intentionally devoid of metaphors, synonyms, and homonyms. My upcoming book is told in the form of interconnected flash fiction stories, each paired with a vintage photograph. The stories are short – most under 300 words- so I’m forced to be quite concise.
From sonnets to creepypastas (brief horror stories shared on internet forums), I think “constrained” and specific forms can be oddly freeing, creatively. So my question is, when you start a piece, which comes first? The idea of the form or the idea of the story?
Nino Cipri: It’s interesting that you mention creepypasta — I’m teaching a literature class on horror this fall, and we just wrapped up a unit looking at creepypasta as a distinct genre, with its own rules and conventions. My students had to write their own after we discussed what made creepypasta “good” or effective. We found that most of the best creepypasta don’t strain the belief of their readers, have really strong imagery, and are relatively concise. They’ve got little to no characterization, for the most part, but work really hard at raising tension. They’ve stripped horror conventions down to their metaphorical bones: a horrifying premise that has to be executed fairly precisely, or else it falls flat.
I write in a lot of different forms and genres, and I agree that constraints are freeing. They twist my imagination and creativity into new shapes. I will usually start with an idea rather than the form. For Super Little Dead Girls, I had the idea for a super group of dead girls floating around in my head for years before I wrote the story, because I couldn’t think of a plot or even a premise for a story. The personality-quiz-as-origin-story gimmick worked well given the pieces of the story that I was missing. (It’s also led to me deciding to write an entire novel based on the characters — experimenting with a stripped down form gave me the impetus and permission to explore the world that was only hinted at.)
With writing in forms, the precision I mentioned with regard to creepypasta is doubly important. It takes me a lot more revising to stick the landing in form stories.
Karin Tidbeck: I agree that constraints can be freeing (and I love creepypasta, by the way) – and challenging, also. I have written a lot of stuff to order within constraints, such as interactive fiction and content for various types of roleplaying games. Seeing how far you can stretch the format is a lot of fun, as is shaping your story to fit the format. It’s also a great way of discovering new abilities. I teach creative writing every now and then, and I spend a lot of time making my students explore different formats and write within constraints just to see what it does.
With Amatka, I went through several such challenges. It actually started out as a poetry collection based on dream notes. I realized that the best way to describe this particular kind of weirdness was to condense it into as compact a form as possible. I also discovered that I’m not a bad poet. The collection didn’t sell, however, so I experimented with different formats: short prose, short stories, and eventually I wrote it as a novel. It still retains the sparse, compact prose of the poetry collection. As for the language, I decided to root out all synonyms, homonyms and metaphors because they are forbidden in the characters’ daily speech, and I wanted the prose to reflect that. It was a difficult and rewarding exercise (and hell to translate).
MRM: The form for my book did actually come first! For years I’d wanted to write something inspired by the photographs I’d collected. Flash vignettes made the most sense, since each picture already seemed to me like a small window into a self-contained world. The story-lines and themes flowed from there.
Since Karin brought up games, I’d love to ask more about that. I play a lot of board games, and it’s fascinating to see how many of the newer games are incorporating narrative into the gameplay. So I’ll ask: how have games influenced your writing? Do you ever approach writing as a kind of game?
KT: I first got into writing through games! I’ve played video games and roleplaying games since I was a kid, and it has probably been a huge influence on how I write – maybe not the subject matter, but the way in which I approach fiction. I have always made up stories, but back in the late 90’s I was part of a writing team for a LARP. We were tasked with writing character descriptions of 10 pages each, which was a monstrous job, but it made me discover that this was what I wanted to do. So I came to writing as a gamer. As a result, I have been very character- and world-oriented rather than concerned with plot. The characters and world have almost always appeared before the story itself. I still write for LARP on and off just for fun. What mainly interests me is the loss of creative control: whatever material I produce will be spirited off and re-shaped as the player improvises. Seeing what they make of it teaches me a lot. It has also taught me to let go of my work: once it has left my hands, it no longer belongs to me, but to the reader. I am delighted whenever I see readers interpret my stories in creative ways. This is also a reason why I am hesitant to explain anything about my stories; what I think no longer matters.
MRM: That’s fantastic. I suspect most of my writing is just a slightly more austere iteration of the games I often played as child – sitting alone for hours with little modeling-clay people, acting out epic, tragicomic sagas.
To relate this back to the first question, when I was nineteen I learned about this French writing movement called the Oulipo. Their whole jam was coming up with modes of constrained writing which were halfway between mathematical algorithm and schoolyard game. The founder of the group described them as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape,” which I still think is an oddly fun way to approach a writing project.
I mean, also I played a lot of Sims when I was younger. And in that game, your sims can just sit down at a computer for a few days, and then BAM, they’re a bestselling author. So the creators of that game probably owe me an apology or something!
NC: I might be the odd one out here, since I’ve only recently gotten more into games and gaming as a medium for writing. The one game that I did love when I was younger and that had a probable influence on me was Final Fantasy VII. It was the first game I’d ever seen where the narrative was central to playing — before that I was mostly playing things like Sonic the Hedgehog. The idea of having a long narrative — longer than any novel or movie that I’d seen before — that was also interactive? Blew my mind at the tender age of twelve, and still does. I don’t currently have the time in my life to sink into epic narratives like in Dragon Age, but I really enjoy visual novel games and walking simulators. Night In the Woods was probably one of the best games I played last year, and it was more daring than a lot of contemporary novels and short stories in its scope. I also have been getting more into interactive theater, which I see as deeply connected to both of those genres, as well as large-scale installation art. I think I talk about House of Eternal Return, a permanent installation by the Meow Wolf art collective in Santa Fe, NM, at literally every panel I’m on. I’ll never be done yelling about it.
MRM: I really want to go see that! Along those lines, I’d like to ask how other forms of storytelling media outside the strict scope of “literature” have influenced your writing. For instance, Nino, I know your story “Dead Air” owes a lot to audio dramas, and Karin, you and I have discussed our mutual love of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and our desire to emulate the uncanny atmosphere of that film in our prose. What techniques or forms have you borrowed or stolen from those other worlds?
KT: That is such a good but very difficult question. I mean, roleplaying games and interactive fiction have shaped how I write, but I’ve already mentioned that. I do eavesdrop a lot in real life and when watching films just to figure out a) how people talk in real life and b) how people talk in “real life” on screen – which is two different things. A lot of the time, writing down what people actually say would be a confusing mess. I worked on a screenplay together with a filmmaker friend (it never made it to the studio, sadly), and I found myself writing scenes without spending time on long textual transitions, which was very liberating. I never could stand writing transitions. I have totally stolen that, which is to say I spend even less time on writing transitions now. Something I would like to experiment more with is borrowing from music, specifically writing a story with a musical structure just to see what happens.
NC: The first writing classes I ever took were in screen- and playwriting, and I owe any skills I have in dialogue to those early teachers. The structures of play acts are something that I still rely on while outlining. I’ve just started dipping my toes back into screenwriting, and I agree with Karin, those transitions are so much easier (and so much shorter!). I’ve also adapted my own work across different genres, similar to how I did with Dead Air (which was originally going to be an audio drama). Screenplay dead in the water? Turn it into a novella! It’s still an exercise in twisting my brain in new directions, though. With plays and screenplays, so much of the story has to be carried by the physical presence of the actor and the stage space. Comics are primarily visual storytelling. Writing in those formats feels a little like an exercise in decentering myself as The Author, since they’re far more collaborative media.
I will say that those same walking simulator games and large-scale narrative have helped me understand how stories can be assembled from disparate pieces rather than a cohesive narrative, and that that can be its own reward. We don’t do that in fiction, not outside of experimental or interactive stories so much. I really want to experiment with it more, though.
MRM: Yes! I identify a lot with that last bit. I have a series of these collage-stories, where I would combine photographs I’d taken with old medical illustrations and then paint text over top. It’s hard to say this without sounding pretentious, perhaps, but with these pieces, and often with the found photos I used in my new book, I am aiming for the image and text to resonate in interesting ways, rather than just go together on a literal level. I have so many ideas for more pieces like that, I just need the time, because you hand me photoshop and I will start messing with transparencies and then suddenly I look up and a full day has gone by.
I work a lot with photography, and I think the artistic mindsets are similar. Choosing where to point your camera, what details to focus on, framing the shot. It’s not unlike choosing what to include in a scene as a writer, except of course your camera might be pointed at aliens instead of trees.
When teaching, I often describe things in cinematic terms for my students. Really, all the techniques – zooming in or out, montages, quick cuts, dissolves, slow motion – can be recreated with words alone. Silent films were an obsession of mine as a teenager, and I’ve taken a lot from those. I love to dissect narrative techniques in all forms. I’m obsessed with synthesis, with finding connections. I technically majored in creative writing and genetic science, but I also snuck into a bunch of art classes. Screenwriting, playwriting, poetry, improv, filmmaking, photography – I want to steal it all!
Maria Romasco Moore’s first book, Ghostographs, an interconnected collection of flash fiction inspired by vintage photographs, is available from Rose Metal Press. Her first novel, Some Kind of Animal, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press in 2020. Her stories have appeared in DIAGRAM , Hobart, Interfictions, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the Lightspeed anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction. She is an instructor at Columbus College of Art and Design.
Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and researcher currently enrolled in the University of Kansas’s MFA in fiction. They are also a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a backstage theater tech.
Karin Tidbeck is originally from Stockholm, Sweden. She lives and works in Malmö as a freelance writer, translator and creative writing teacher, and writes fiction in Swedish and English. She debuted in 2010 with the Swedish short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? Her English debut, the 2012 collection Jagannath, was awarded the Crawford Award 2013 and shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award as well as honor listed for the Tiptree Award. Her novel debut, Amatka, was shortlisted for the Locus Award and Prix Utopiales 2018. A new novel is forthcoming in 2020.