The South Downs Way: A Ten Year Writing Project

I’m currently putting together the final few stories for a zine called Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove. It’s a collection of microfictions about the town where I lived most of my life so far. It also functions as the sixth volume in my larger series of zines about the South Downs Way.

Earlier this year, I pulled together the work I’d been doing on this series, and it looks as if it will be 20 books written across the 2020s. I’ve got about 80,000 words in notes and sketches for the remaining 14 books, so this is a very achievable aim. (I’m not sure where the idea of the South Downs Way project lasting ten years came from, but it feels right.)

Coming up to a third of the way through the project, I’m starting to realise some of the complexities of such a large project. For a start, there’s the issue of managing all the different threads that are in play. Characters who lead some stories turn up in the background of others; events play out from different points of view. I’ve mostly avoided huge errors, but I have had to quietly rename one character. I also had to change some character’s clothes, when they were wearing Slipknot T-shirts six months before anyone in the UK would have heard of the band.

The Devil, who was the focus of the second zine, has also taken over a little. There is another zine to come (probably around 2025) about his relationship with Jesus. But given how much people seem to like this character I need to make sure his arc has a satisfying conclusion, preferably tied together with some of the other major characters. Is this huge collection of short stories actually a set of short stories about the Devil’s interactions with the South Downs landscape and the people who live there?

Another challenge is working out how best to show the links between the stories. I’m releasing them initially as small A5-size zines, but they will need to be collected at some point. Are the stories easier to follow through time order, or through the location they occur on the South Downs Way? Or a more arbitrary order that makes the connections clear?

At the moment the stories are printed with their location and the name of the main character, but maybe I should have been adding a timestamp so that anyone who wants to can check what order certain events occurred in. That also makes it easier for readers to see where things happened in relation to the weirdness of 2020.

I started writing this series shortly before the pandemic. As I’ve written the first few zines, I’ve avoided mentioning covid. I’d no interest in writing about it, and all the stories I’ve written so far have taken me up to 2019. The most recent volume, A Foolish Journey, looks at one person’s story, but does not follow her into the pandemic. But as time goes on, the stories set in 2019 become further from the present day. Ignoring the pandemic seems less feasible – having all the stories ending just before it seems to beg for an explanation in the text.

I have two zines planned for 2023. The first has a working title of A Haunted (Acid) House Story and is relatively self contained, following Tony from the second summer of love into the 2020s. The other, Stories of Sussex Folklore is about Dr Sally Jones, who walked out of her life as a doctor in Volume 3’s story Dromomania. This one is going to connect to several other characters, and I will need to make some decisions about the larger structure of the series before that one is published.

My biggest surprise is that I’m so excited about seeing this project through to the end. I’ve often been flaky about writing projects in the past, and I think this demonstrates a new focus and determination.

Planning the South Downs Way zines

The South Downs Way is a series of zines containing short stories that I’ve been publishing since March 2020. The individual stories combine into longer narratives about the lives of their characters. I released the fourth volume in January 2022, Weird Tales of the South Downs Way, and the fifth (A Foolish Journey) comes out in July.

I always loved the idea of telling a huge story from a set of smaller stories. One of the inspirations for this is Geoff Ryman’s 1998 novel 253 which is made up of the interconnected stories of passengers on a tube train. Another inspiration is comic books, and the way that huge stories might be hinted at in brief references.

The South Downs Way contains a load of different characters who sometimes encounter each other including a tarot reader, a physicist, and a guidebook writer with a broken leg. There are also ghosts, giants, and the Devil himself, who tangles himself in the lives of the people he encounters on the Downs.

For some reason I had the figure of 200 short stories in my head, of which I’ve published 56, with the fifth volume just about to be published. I’m over a quarter of the way through my arbitrary target, and I recently stopped to take stock and see where I am going.

Things have definitely sprawled a bit with the writing I did in 2021. When I counted things up early in 2022, I had sketches for 146 stories and about 23 different booklets. Not all of these will be viable, but I easily have enough material to produce my 200 stories. In fact, it looked as if I might produce something longer than I had planned.

All these stories need to combine with the other pieces to produce a coherent whole. I’ve been doing a lot of work since on shaping and linking the sketches I have – and I’ve already introduced a lot of elements and characters that need resolving. I also decided to make the upcoming zines more clearly themed so they stand more independently.

The biggest change to the project since starting was selling issues on etsy. I was excited by the fact people were buying copies, and it got me thinking about how to make the future volumes work better. How do I make the stories easier to sell/promote? (Which is not to say I’m changing anything about how I write, more thinking about how I make what I do as appealing as possible).

This project will continue over some years – I don’t want to focus solely on this. . I’ve got one volume with the printers (A Foolish Journey) and two more nearly finished (Stories of Sussex Folklore and Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove) so I can take a more leisurely pace for a time. I’m going to try to get one more volume out this year, with the others coming out every six months after that.