My First Visit to San Sibilia

The following is my first playthrough of A Visit to San Sibilia, lightly edited.

This is an account of the Brooding Cartographer and her time in the city.

Day 1

To seek San Sibilia is to be destined to never find it. For years I sought in vain. It was only when I gave up searching, gave up everything I cared about, that it found me.

It began as another night out with Raoul and his “artist” friends, and a night ride in the canals of Venice. We crossed under a bridge. For a moment, we were in utter darkness, no sound but the water against the boat. I came out the other side alone, to dock on a decidedly different shore.

I keep thinking about the old map-maker. How he would frown and grumble when I went on about San Sibilia.

“A stupid story,” he would say, “for children with no sense in their heads. If I had known what a stupid girl you were, you’d not be bound to prentice.”

Nevermind it was his stories that first piqued my interest, or rather the look in his eyes when he told them. He had lost a lover there, but his eyes shone brighter when he named that city than when he spoke the name of the man he had loved. The old man had come there by shipwreck and plied the sailor’s trade for a time, before he took to map-making.

I’d have words for the old man now, if he weren’t dead in the ground.

I managed to find a place over a tavern, the sort of place where sailors on leave and locals congregate in equal measure. Hardly a stick of furniture, but the proprietor, Paolo, was willing to let me stay for free. In exchange, I’m to make him some maps of distant cities to liven up his walls. I told him I can’t draw London or Seoul in perfect detail from memory, but he says none of his patrons are likely to know the difference.

I can’t afford to be picky. I have nothing but my clothes, and those have seen better days.

Day 4

There is a plaza just down the street from the Drowned Mermaid. Sometimes the merchants set up their stalls and carpets. Sometimes philosophers orate. Sometimes there are plays or performances. Today there was a juggler.

At first I thought him just a man out for a stroll, but he suddenly threw a ball high into the air, and kept producing them from some hidden pocket while keeping the rest afloat. In moments, he had eight or nine of them aloft, each with its own unique swirls of color.

When the juggler saw me, he gave a wink and smiled, and in that moment he looked familiar, though I could not think of where or when I might have met him.

One of the balls slipped from his grasp and bounced across the uneven cobbles toward me. I picked it up and found it a mesmerizing swirl of green, white and blue. It was a globe, somehow fashioned to move like clouds over land and sea.

It is fascinating. I find it hard to take my eyes away from it, even now.

When I looked up, the juggler had gone.

Day 5

I have been making maps again. It is a deeply engrossing activity, as it had always been for me before the old man died. But I also find myself near-overwhelmed by a manic energy.

Paolo found me an old fountain pen and a set of inks. In turn, I am providing him with his maps: neighborhoods in Paris and London, docks in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I hardly sleep anymore, but my pen has never been more precise.

A scarred old man saw us hanging the maps behind the bar.

He said, “If you like maps, deary, you should visit the Museum on the Blue Boulevard.”

He drew his own crude map on a scrap of paper to guide me. He seemed pleased with himself, but I sensed that Paolo was irritated.

The scrap guided me to a little limestone building only a few blocks away, fronted with weather-stained doric columns and tattered flags. Within, I found a dozen rooms, walls and even ceilings covered with maps of all sizes. Some were of places I recognized, while others were unlabeled, or marked with languages I did not understan. I wandered, fascinated, looking for an attendant, but the place was deserted.

When I returned to the tavern, Paolo waved me over, stone-faced.

“You have to go,” he said. “I need the room.”

I asked him if I had done something wrong. He shrugged and gestured to the wall. “Our business is concluded.”

He let me keep the leather case with pen and inks. Later, inside, I found a yellowed envelope of pastel bank notes.

Day 9

The money from Paolo was enough for a room at the Greenway Hotel, a hulking establishment full of tarnished chandeliers, cracked plaster scrollwork and threadbare velvet cushions. It is so named because of the green lawn across the street, hedged by wild rows of untrimmed trees.

I took a stroll, and found in a back corner of the park a sizable pile of rubble, and a shockingly ancient man puttering around it. He had a long, scraggly beard and wispy moustache, and even his eyebrows hung down, seemingly determined to hide his eyes from view.

“What is this place?” I asked him.

“It was once the ruin of an old temple,” he said, “but it was a bit too ruined. When the rainy season last swept through, the whole thing finally collapsed on itself.”

“And what are you doing?”

“Cleanup,” he said. “I’m the groundskeeper.”

I spent the afternoon helping him. I worried he’d break himself, he was so scant. It felt good to do some proper labor.

Day 14

The hotel basement is used from time to time as a theater. If the hotel itself is genially shabby, the theater space is downright dank. Still, it put me in mind of some of my bohemian friends.

The show I saw didn’t suit me. It was a too-dark stage and a vague story about occult rituals and the summoning of foul demons. I suspect the obelisk they used for their set was a piece of that ruined temple, hauled over from the park.

Day 19

The groundskeeper and I strolled along the river today, although “stroll” is perhaps too generous for his doddering. I told him about my idea for a rock garden in the park, and he said it sounded like a fine idea.

As soon as I returned to my room, I began to draw up plans.

Day 25

The hotel lobby is used as an art gallery, and there was apparently a show going on today when I went down. Nothing but paintings of sailboats.

I tried to shove through the crowd, but I managed to ram myself head-first into a rather exceptionally muscled young man. Not the sort I would normally be interested in, but when he spoke in apology, his voice caught hold of me.

His name is Siegfried, and I found myself roaming the gallery with him and even explaining my plans for the park. He immediately offered to help move the stones.

We made plans to meet again tomorrow.

Day 28

I received a letter today from the governor of the city’s parks. The groundskeeper is dead. How they knew of me or my address, I do not know. Even more perplexing, I was offered the old man’s position. The pay is a pittance, but it comes with a permanent room at the hotel. And I must admit, now that my project is underway, I would be loath to give it up.

I will post my acceptance in the morning.

Day 30

They’ve sent tools! I am now the proud owner of a rake, shovel, two sizes of hammer, and a wheelbarrow. Siegfried and I work during the day, and he takes me to a new café every evening. There is no end to the secret corners and back alleys of the city, and it seems that every one has some hole in the wall where you can get a coffee or a bite.

Soon, our space in the park will be cleared. Then we will begin building.

Day 36

I went to the bookstore today, looking for maps of the city. When I asked the shopkeeper, he seemed incapable of understanding. I’m afraid I may have no choice but to map the city myself.

Day 39

A package came today. An old, heavy tome wrapped in brown paper. It is filled with maps of San Sibilia. There was no note with it, but who else knows of my work? It must be the parks governor. A patron I have never met nor spoken to.

Day 40

The book is perplexing. The maps are from different time periods, in wildly different styles, apparently drawn by different hands. They often disagree with one another, and one or two appear to be completely fabricated.

Yet the biggest shock was the last page. It is blank, except for the faded stamp of the man who compiled it.

It bears the old map-maker’s stamp. My master, long past.

How could one of his books come to be here? How could he have made this book and never told me?

Day 41

Now they’ve taken it all away from me! The governor sent a letter relieving me of my position, my tools, my park. Our rock garden, our living map, has come so far. We’ve measured out many of the roads, but the buildings are so much work. Siegfried managed a fantastic likeness of the Greenway Hotel as the centerpiece, with nothing but a hammer and a chisel and an old piece of temple stonework.

The governor claims I have “stolen illicit materials from the city archives.” What could it possibly be but the old map-maker’s book? If it belongs to anyone, it ought to be mine.

It makes no difference. They cannot stop me from finishing my work.

Day 44

The old man must have compiled the book when he was here, in San Sibilia.

Why did he hate it when I dreamed of the city? What happened to him here?

The one time he sounded honest about it, he was deep in his drink. He said the city existed beyond any maps. He said everyone leaves San Sibilia eventually, and whatever the city gives you of itself, it takes back before you go. It took his lover from him, and I suppose he never forgave it for that.

Day 48

We were so close. Our garden, our tiny city among the rocks. We had nearly filled it to the edges of the map.

This morning, my threadbare sheets had become fine silk. The once worn carpets were thick and soft. The room was no longer faded.

I went down to the dining room, and ate the finest breakfast I have ever had. The silver is spotless; the china, pristine. My fellow bohemians and shabby travelers are all gone, replaced by ladies with jewels and corsets, and men with kid gloves and pocket watches. The hotel is in its prime again, and only I am out of place.

Siegfried is gone. The book is gone. The park is gone. It is now stately rows of graves. In the far corner, lording over this city of the dead, is a single grand mausoleum.

I walked the perimeter of neatly trimmed trees. Did the names on the graves match the names of the city? Thoroughfares and boulevards, markets and mansions? Or did I imagine it?

In any case I came upon a pair of graves, and the names were ones I recognized. One was Gustav the map-maker, my old master. Beside it, one named Paolo.

Day 49

He was right. San Sibilia only loans out happiness, purpose, love. Now it has taken them back.

It is time for me to go. If I am lucky, perhaps, I will return some day and live out what time I have left in this city that has made me love it, and then spurned my love and turned me away.

It is sunset, and my little boat follows the slow currents of the canal. In the shadows beneath one of these bridges I will find that black portal that brought me here, and I will return to the place I came from.

There is one thing I take with me, if the city wills it: a ball that swirls with white cloud, green land, and blue seas.

From the Blogroll: Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Aeryn Rudel is a sometimes-editor, sometimes-RPG-designer, and writer of stories. In fact, he is an unstoppable story writing machine.

On his Rejectomancy blog, he talks about various writing topics, but what I find most interesting is his thorough documentation of the sheer quantity of short stories and flash fiction he writes, along with his submission, acceptance, and rejection numbers.

There’s plenty of advice out there about writing and submitting short stories to publications, but I haven’t found another person who is so thorough in documenting their own personal experience. He really embodies the idea that writers should embrace rejection as a natural part of the publishing process and build up a thick skin.

Earlier this month, he compiled some interesting information and advice to commemorate his 500th rejection, a feat that took him almost ten years of submissions.

Check it out over at Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy.

I’ve Been Reading Drabbles…Lots of Drabbles

In my pursuit of the form, I’ve now read something like 100 to 150 drabbles. Luckily, hundred-word stories don’t take that long to read.

In addition to the Martian Magazine, which I’ve mentioned previously, I discovered The Drabble (which does include poetry and fiction less than 100 words, rather than exactly 100 words). I also found Speck Lit, which stopped updating a few years ago, but has a large archive still available. I’ve found drabbles of the exactly-100-words definition in a handful of other places. I’m sure there are plenty more out there, especially in flash fiction publications that would accept very short fiction, but typically have max lengths of 1000 or 1500 words. They’re just a pain to find.

One of the nice things about drabbles is that you can read quite a lot of them in a short amount of time. It’s relatively easy to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, because everything has to be laid out in a couple of paragraphs. They lend themselves to quick analysis.

My Favorites

These are my favorite (freely accessible) drabble stories so far. They surprised me, or made me laugh, or made me feel something. As usual, I skew toward speculative fiction. You can read the whole lot in less time than it would take to read a typical short story.

  1. Nicholas Was — Neil Gaiman
  2. Orbital Views — Gretchen Tessmer
  3. Todd — Jason P. Burnham
  4. The Reluctant Time Traveler Wears Two Watches — Wendy Nikel
  5. The Weave — M. Yzmore
  6. Double Trouble — R. Daniel Lester
  7. The Forest of Memory — Anna Salonen
  8. A Cabin to Die In — Anna Salonen
  9. Of Artistic Temperament — Sophie Flynn
  10. Redemption — Belinda Saville

Styles of Drabble

Having now observed quite a few drabbles in the wild, I tried to classify some of the common styles that are used to make a story interesting in one hundred words. It’s interesting to see that the limited word count really does force a wide variety of forms.

Haunted (A Drabble)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading and writing drabbles recently. If you’re not aware, drabbles are just short stories with exactly 100 words — no more, no less. It has been both interesting and frustrating. Where microfiction stories feel like little toys, drabbles feel closer to “real” stories.

Closer, but not quite.

The Challenges

Drabbles invite experimentation and strange forms, like a story-as-a-list, story-as-app-review, or story entirely in dialogue with no context. They require odd tricks, unusual style, or very clever wording to be engaging.

Dialogue is hard in a drabble. Even the vanilla “he said, she said” tags use up precious words. It’s tempting, because dialogue can do so many things at once, but I’ve found it very difficult to write drabble dialogue in practice. It needs to be tight without becoming artificial, stilted, or confusing.

What Makes A Good Drabble?

Drabbles love little twist endings. A twist ending is one of the easiest ways to make a drabble interesting. I’m not convinced that it’s the best way though. I can’t help but think that it’s a bit of a crutch, which may be silly considering how challenging it is to write a good drabble without any additional restrictions beyond word count.

I think a good drabble uses one, maybe two, storytelling structures. Drabbles are too short to include a setting, characters, a real character arc, a conflict, a resolution, dialogue, strong voice, and all of the other scaffolding that we typically use to hold up a story. A good drabble has only one or two of these things that it does really well. It might glance sidelong at one or two more, but that’s pushing it.

So far, I only have one hard and fast rule for a good drabble. A good drabble makes you think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.”

My First Drabble

Haunted

It sounds fun to rent a house haunted by a sexy ghost. I guess it was, at first. The dreams were amazing, until she got stabby.

It took a while for her to stop shrieking and talk, but she eventually told me about the adultery, the murder-suicide, and the whole “vengeance against all men” thing. She says she’ll be free if I burn the bones buried in the cellar. Free to leave, and kill as she pleases.

It wouldn’t be right to unleash a murder-ghost on the world. But if she keeps breaking things, I’ll never get my deposit back.

This is my very first drabble, a little parody of horror tropes. The idea came from a Story Engine prompt.

You’ll notice it has no dialogue. I summarized the conversation, because dialogue is hard in a drabble. It has two characters and approximately three words of setting. No arc. A conflict, but no resolution. It does have a twist, although the twist comes in the form of a joke. I’m happy with it, for a first attempt, even if it doesn’t make me think, “There’s no way that was only one hundred words.” On the other hand, I had to carefully whittle it down to those one hundred words, so maybe that rule just doesn’t apply when I’m the one writing it.

Drabbles

I recently went on a foray into Twitter-size microfiction, a story format so short that it’s challenging to even fit the basic elements of a story. It was a fun exercise in minimalism and editing down to the bare bones, and gave me something to do with a bunch of ideas that I had never found a home for. I wrote 21 of these little gems and I was rather pleased with myself.

Well, that was then, and this is now. I’ve really grown as a creator in the last…uh, month or so. My stories need to grow with me. I simply cannot be contained within the narrow confines of 280 characters. No, I need more.

I’m moving up, friends. Moving up to drabbles. “What are drabbles?” you ask. Drabbles are short stories of exactly 100 words. Yes, that’s an astonishing two or three times the length of an average tweet.

On the one hand, a drabble might be harder to write. In terms of pure labor, it has more words. On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of microfiction is making a structurally sound, interesting story, within the size limit. So the extra space may make the editing that much easier. More likely, I’ll just be tempted to cram more into that luxurious extra space.

How to Drabble

I’ll admit, I haven’t read very many drabbles, so I thought I had better educate myself. There are some examples by well-known authors (and a bit of history) at meades.org. I also found the site Drablr, where authors have freely published thousands of drabbles. They have section on drabble history and suggestions on how to go about writing one (namely, write a short short story, then edit it until it’s exactly 100 words).

When it comes to Drabble construction advice, I think Connie J. Jasperson has the best take I’ve seen. She says to limit yourself to a setting, one or two characters, a conflict, and a resolution. No subplots, and minimal background. She also suggests a dedicating about 25 words to the opening, 50-60 for the middle, and the remainder for the conclusion (and resolution). Check out the whole post over on her blog.

More to Come

My first attempts at this format will probably be expanded versions of my microfiction. There were several that left a lot on the cutting room floor. I’d like to see if they benefit or suffer when given twice as much breathing room. I plan to write some “fresh” ones as well, to get the full experience of writing drabbles from scratch.

It’s worth mentioning a notable benefit to writing drabbles instead of tweet-sized microfiction: drabbles are more practical to sell to online and print magazines and journals. In fact, there are markets like The Martian magazine that only publish drabbles. If there are markets for tweet-stories, I haven’t seen them.

I’m guessing drabbles are going to be a bit harder to write than my microfiction stories, but I’ll have a follow-up post once I’ve finished a few, to describe the experience.

The Final Week of Microfiction

This is the last installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can find stories from previous weeks here and here.

If you enjoy this sort of thing, you should check out another Twitter account, @DailyMicroFic, who has been doing this a lot longer than I have. Through them, I discovered the the #vss365 hashtag, where you can find lots of people writing very short stories on Twitter, 365 days a year. See vss365today.com for more info and daily prompts.

I enjoyed writing these. They were a fun exercise in writing under severe limitations, and the format gave some life to lots of little ideas I’ve been kicking around for ages, but I hadn’t been inspired enough to expand into longer formats. I think I’ll have to do it again sometime.

The Furies

The Vine

Desert Bones

Moon and Sea

Politically Correct

Jungles of Minnesota

“No More Kings”

Another Week of Microfiction

I’m back, for the second installment of the experiment where I write tiny stories and post them daily on Twitter at @DeferredWords. You can read the first week of stories here.

Our Time Together

The Last Game of Go

The Warp

Black Clouds

Starfall

*(Yes, it should be “pens.” Thanks Twitter.)

Knight, Forsaken

A Concern

There’s one more week of stories left. I’ll post the final installment next Wednesday. See you then.

Weekly Microfiction

Last week, I talked about a little experiment I’m doing — a very little experiment! As a slightly silly way to get back into writing short stories, I started putting out microfiction on Twitter, @DeferredWords. Every morning for the past week, I’ve been posting a story in a single tweet, and I’m going to keep doing it for a couple more weeks.

Here are this week’s stories:

Gary Left

Princess, Under the Moon

Carlos and Esteban

Angela’s Enlightenment

Space Wizards

Dana Asks

The First Time

See you next week for seven more micro-stories!

Writing Microfiction

I’ve been feeling the itch to write short fiction lately. It’s something I haven’t done much in the last couple years. I don’t really have the bandwidth to work on another novel alongside Razor Mountain, so something shorter was really appealing.

I came up with a little project: an anthology of micro-fiction. Not just flash fiction (usually 1500 words or less). Not even a drabble (exactly 100 words).

It’s obvious what short-form writing actually defines our modern age: Twitter. Since 2018, each tweet provides a whopping 280 characters to work with. In my experience, that’s about 45 words, depending on your punctuation, white space and trendy hashtags. Is it even possible to write a coherent or interesting story in that tiny space?

Well, I tried the experiment. I wrote twenty-one micro-stories. I’ll let you judge whether the experiment was a success or failure. Every day for the next couple weeks, I’m going to tweet a new micro-story on @DeferredWords. I’ll also collect them into mid-week posts here on the blog.

What’s the Point?

Why bother doing this? The simple answer is “for fun, to see if I could.” It helped rev up my short story brain after a bit of a hiatus. But I was also hoping to learn something in the process. In fact, I learned a few things.

Don’t Be Precious

When you’ve written a story that’s barely a story and you need to trim ten more letters to get below your limit, you are forced to trim things that feel essential. That adjective or adverb feels so good, but is it really needed? What about those commas? Do you really need any articles, ever? Maybe that seven-letter name should be a three-letter name.

The limit is harsh, and it demands harsh sacrifices. I went through this exercise over and over again, and it turned out that the story was often better when I rewrote it around that one or two word edit. It made me think harder about the cuts I should be making in longer projects.

The Barest Bones of a Story

I keep long lists of little brainstorming ideas, which gave me lots of fodder for micro-fiction. When you actually try to write an idea out as the smallest possible story, it becomes apparent very quickly whether an idea has “good bones,” or just a setting or character without arc or resolution. This is a really good exercise to go through for a short story or novel idea, to prove that the concept is solid and to nail down the core of the story.

Form Follows Function

When I started writing these micro-stories, I assumed that any authorial voice would fly right out the window. In some ways, it does. I definitely had stories with phrases that I really liked but had to throw away, because they wouldn’t work in these tight constraints. However, as I wrote and revised more stories, I discovered that even in 45 words, there is space for humor, weirdness, and sometimes even an extra word here or there to achieve a particular effect. Voice is the sum of the choices you make within your chosen constraints.

Variety is Valuable

I’m a firm believer that every story, every book, every writing project teaches you something. As authors, everything we write is influenced by what we wrote before it, and what we learned along the way.

Granted, you can only learn so much from a tweet-length story, but I was able to write a lot of these in the amount of time it would have taken to write one “proper” short story. Each little story with its own fun. Each with its own challenges.

Join In

You can get in on the fun too. Try writing a micro-story in 280 characters. All you need is a little idea. No outline. Put it out on Twitter, possibly with #microfiction. Ping me or send me a DM. Let me know if you learned anything interesting.