inasmuch as it concerns Building Character:
Protagonists. Antagonists. Second-string chorus members. Meeting them, getting to know them, telling them what I want them to do, and finding out they don't want to do it, the bastards.
Or I'll Put You in My Novel
- 26,601 wds. long
So I just did something rather unpleasant to my female lead. I'm sorry. It isn't even plot-related, not really. It's not that sort of rock. It's just... the world being the world. And me being exasperated with it.
Sabrina is Timothy's ex-girlfriend. She's an aspiring sculptor who is currently paying the bills by waiting tables at a diner. She met Timothy while in an art class at a vocational college in Taos; it's probably got a real-life counterpart, but I haven't done the research on that. Research is for December. But what little I've seen of Taos in person has given me the impression of a very artsy town. So, art. Yay! Also, Sabrina is of Mexican heritage, that being a rather important demographic in the U.S. southwest. In fact, it's rather an important demographic in the U.S. full stop, as a certain presidential candidate learned to his chagrin earlier this month.
(One of the problems with the first draft: Despite much of it being set in New Mexico, every single character was pasty white. This made me about as frowny-faced as realizing I had only one named female character. The second draft has Sabrina in the protagonist tier and her co-workers, Sonora and Rosa and Jazz, in the secondary character tier. It's a start. Rosa runs the diner where they all work.)
With me so far? OK good. Now, back in October, I had reason to drop my husband off at the airport. Having done this, I took myself off to the TravelCenters of America along I-270 and treated myself to brunch. Then I took home a hell of a lot of Popeye's fried chicken for eating over the rest of the week.
This may sound familiar. But what I didn't mention in that blog post was the conversation I overheard while taking revision notes and eating oatmeal.
It's a truck stop. Truckers go in and get fed. And while they sit at the counter and have second helpings of everything they order (at the Country Pride restaurant, every single menu item is all-you-can-eat; the waitress comes to take your plate and says, "You want seconds on that, hon?" whether you're a 250lb dude who just finished his steak and eggs or a 150lb writer gal who just had oatmeal), they talk about things that are relevant to the interest of truckers. Like, this one Denver-area loading dock guy who doesn't know the first thing about securing a load. Like, the recently approved increase on tolls on New York highways and its expected impact on long-haul freight. Everyone talks shop. Like you do.
But the bit that stood out for me was this one guy. I can't tell you what he looked like; guys who talk this way, you don't look at them, you don't want them seeing you listening in, because then they might talk to you. I can tell you kinda what he said, though, because I nearly snorted milk out my nose listening to him.
He was a genuine conspiracy theorist, I'll tell you what. He shared with his counter-mates his recent discovery, via this secret memo that "they" just released, this secret memo between President Obama and the president of Mexico (who will be hereafter referred to as Felipe Calderón because that is his name, a fact of which our conspiracy theorist appeared oddly ignorant for being so well informed on secret memos and the like) which revealed that Obama and Calderón we conspiring to flood the U.S. labor market with immigrants who would then "revert," that was the word he used, "revert" at a later time...
"What the hell are you talking about?" his conversation partners kept saying. "What memo? What do you mean?" In response, he would simply reiterate, which is to say repeat word for word everything he'd already said. He could not seem for the life of him to tell anyone where he read this, for instance, or who "they" were who uncovered this memo. Nor could he explain what he meant by "revert."
I am still befuddled to understand exactly what he thought was going to happen. Obama was going to relax immigration law specifically to allow cheap Mexican labor to flood the unskilled labor market, until at some point Calderón would give the signal and call all the workers to "revert" back to Mexico, leaving the U.S. economy to crumble in their wake? Or did I mishear him, and the word he repeated was actually "revolt," alluding to a future civil war in which good upstanding white workers will be forced at gunpoint to drop English for Spanish and replace their steak and eggs with huevos rancheros y bistec asado? I honestly do not know. This guy would not explain. He would only repeat.
Finally one of the other truckers turned to someone else and loudly revived the discussion about New York toll increases, and I heard no more from the conspiracy theorist for the rest of my stay.
What all this has to do with NaNoWriMo is this: Sabrina is on the road, half-unwillingly, with the Big Bad. She's helping him in some way to track down Timothy, mainly because the Big Bad has convinced her that Timothy needs their help. And so they have both stopped at a 24-hour diner modeled after that Country Pride Restaurant at the TravelCenters of America, only the one in Limon which I have not been to as opposed to the one in Commerce City that I have. And while she was there, I confess I made poor Sabrina, who absolutely did not deserve it, overhear this conversation.
Not that anyone deserves to get slapped in the face by random casual racism, mind. Or casual sexism, for that matter, which I have also run into at the TA. (Do not get me started on the guys ahead of me in line at the Popeye's who were relentlessly demanding that the woman behind the counter "smile, baby, come on! Smile for us!")
Forgive me. Sabrina totally did not deserve it. But it happens. Adding that conversaton to the scene not only helped ground the book in the real world (which has people in it and also racist people), but on top of that it did help to relieve my feelings about having been Racist Conspiracy Nutbar's captive audience. Though I'm sure if it had been Sabrina there rather than pasty white me, her feelings would have been a lot more intense and, frankly, more relevant than mine. And so, in the scene, they were.
The encounter added 600 words and three extra bit-part charecters to the scene, so I guess that's a win? Maybe I can have the Big Bad go back in there and eat them all.
High on Caffeine and Pseudofedrine
- 14,015 wds. long
This is apparently the only way to get anything done while in the grip of a cold. And even then I didn't really get upright until 7:00 PM tonight. Argh. Have I mentioned that this is extremely bad timing? Extremely.
Just now logged another 2000 words on the novel rewrite, though. I must be feeling better or something. Of course, it could just be the pseudofedrine talking.
The 2000 words all went into a scene I'd created blank and written "I don't know what goes here" in the description. It was going to be a driving scene, which is generally not the cleverest way to make time pass in the novel. But I couldn't see a way to get around it. When the last scene involving Timothy and Rocket involved the latter using his superpower to compel the former to get in the car and drive, the next scene involving them can legitimately take place in the car.
And so it did. It mostly comprised a lot of dialogue, a good bit of US 285 and State Highway 17, and a bunch of emotional reactions on Timothy's part. He has a lot to react to. There's Rocket's rather frightening ability to compel Timothy's actions; there's the idea that the person he thought was his ex-girlfriend was actually a really scary being disguised as her; and, last but very much not least, there's that peculiar embarrassment that comes from spending time, perforce, in the company of someone who inspired your lust-at-first-sight reaction and then kidnapped you. I'm sure you can sympathize, because this happens all the time, right?
A big difference between writing the first draft in 2010 and writing a new draft now is this: To a large extent, I know where it's going. In 2010, I stumbled across the sexual tension between the two male leads rather late in the story -- which is to say, rather early in the story I caught myself saying things like, "The slash just writes itself!" but it wasn't until quite late that I entertained the notion that the slash was canon. This year, I know the romance is coming so I can foreshadow it. Which means I can have a whole new layer of writerly insecurity about whether I'm laying it on too thick.
On the other hand, there's a lot about where the story's going that I don't know, mainly because I introduced an entirely new protagonist. In the first draft, there's a waitress they cross paths with who ends up getting pulled along in their wake. Mostly her role is A) to show how dangerous the coin Timothy found is, an B) to show how dangerous the Big Bad is. Somewhere between then and now, I realized that I was guilty of, more or less, fridging the poor woman. Oh, I tried to give her agency and let her play an active role in the way the story turned out, but there's only so much agency you can exert while essentially imprisoned, isolated, and assumed dead from about Chapter 3 onward. It didn't help that she was pretty much the only named female character in the book, either. I guess the combination of two male leads plus my tendency to underpopulate the story world led to almost total erasure of women from the novel.
For obvious reasons, this didn't sit well with me. So I've changed the character substantially and given her a bigger, more active role. She gets involved in the story for a different reason and she reacts to her involvement actively. She is no longer this random waitress that Timothy and Rocket run into on the road; Sabrina is actually Timothy's ex-girlfriend, who dumped him when it became clear they wanted incompatibly different things out of life. The story will throw them back together, create new conflict between them that has nothing to do with their previous relationship, and, because neither wants to see the other hurt, motivate them to protect each other.
So pretty much any scene to do with Sabrina is a brand new scene, a total departure from the first draft. Which means I'm still writing quite a bit of first draft. Argh. Still, it also means I get to keep being surprised by my novel. That's a plus.
With any luck, improving conditions or continued application of good drugs will mean I can get further progress logged tomorrow, both on this and on the WFH gig. Niki out, hitting the sack with fingers crossed.
Assembling Fiction and Other Stories (Also, Loons)
First off: A new review of Blood and Other Cravings has hit the internet this week. Reviewer Deirdre Murphy at Science Fiction and Other ODDysseys made me grin like a loon three paragraphs into the review. (Do loons, in fact, grin? They're birds. They have beaks. How do you grin with a beak?) LIKE A LOON, I SAID! DOWN WITH LOGIC! UP WITH GRINNING!
(There are many loons at this website. They are damn well grinning.)
Secondly: New story. Not the phone story. The other new story, the one I intend to submit to The First Line tomorrow. The due date is tomorrow, so I have to submit it tomorrow.
Is it done yet? Is even a single draft of it done yet? Well... no. Not unless you count the freewriting babble draft I did, using the appropriate first line as a prompt, at the laundromat back in mid-June.
But I have been assembling it. In my head.
So one of those beginning writer rules -- that is, the rules you're told to follow when you begin to write, which you continue to follow until you discover what your own personal rules are -- is "Thinking About Writing Isn't Writing." But staring at the word processor screen, moving a block of text from one place in the partial draft to another, editing the segue sentence yet again, then staring at the screen some more... that isn't writing either.
So I took a walk. Walks always help.
Walking the three miles home from downtown Boulder, I reexamined the pieces of scenes -- scenelets, if you will -- that make up this story. The story follows a structure that's sort of like this:
- Right now
- Teaser flashback
- Continue from right now
- More from the flashback
- Either back to present time, or else the rest of the flashback, I'm not sure
- Lather, rinse, repeat
- Finish up story in present time
You can probably figure out where I keep getting bogged down. And when I get bogged down in the structure, I start to wallow in details that don't really belong in the story. So the pacing gets bogged down too.
So during my walk I imagined writing each scenelet onto index cards. Not all of the text; just the first couple sentences and the last, in order to give myself an idea of where the segues are. This story is going to be all about the segues. Like, "This bit ends with the first mention of the umbrella. So the next bit begins with a flashback to the outerspace salesmen giving him the umbrella."
Yes, I said outerspace salesmen. Also, the umbrella is pink with silver letters that can only be read from very high up, and the silver letters say "KICK ME." The snow isn't really snow. It's outerspace gluey tar stuff that causes the end of the world as we know it. WHAT IS MY BRAIN.
(I suspect The First Line does not get a heck of a lot of science fantasy apocalyptic humor. But they do welcome all genres. Who knows? Maybe everyone is writing stories about space glue snow apocalypses.)
So now I'm home, and my feet hurt. In addition to new skating blisters from Sunday, I have sandal blisters. Blisters on top of blisters. Ow. (Next time I think "Oh, I'll only be walking a few blocks. I'll be busing home. Sandals are fine," it will trigger an autohypnotic safety mechanism that will not allow me out the house until I've wised up and put my running shoes on.) But I also have a story written on index cards in my head. The structure now makes sense. And in mulling over the structure on my walk home, I discovered that the protagonist is an entirely different character than I'd thought. The things I now know about him are the key to getting both structure and pacing deboggified. Hooray for deboggification!
And tomorrow morning early, I shall wake up and transfer the story from mental index cards to WP51 file to paper. And there shall be a proofreading and a "final" revision. And lo, it shall be good.
Or at least it shall be submitted.
Then I'll be free to revise the phone story.
But It Wasn't HER Responsibility
When the child started crying, I didn't turn around. That's what makes me a sorry specimen of humanity. I didn't bother to turn around.
Why didn't I turn around? I suppose I must have assumed the child was having the sort of tantrum children of that age do have, or that, at worst, he'd fallen down on his behind and startled himself. There were stairs behind me, but I hadn't heard any noise to indicate the child had fallen down the stairs. I remember that going through my head: "He didn't fall down the stairs. Oh good." So I assumed this was just toddler drama and nothing serious. And I didn't turn around to verify my assumption.
This was in the "Hangdog Lounge" at the Boulder Rock Club. When I go to the BRC on my own, I put myself through small sessions of bouldering interspersed with writing work or, more often, internet playtime. What with the free wi-fi and coffee, the temptation is to linger. So at the point when this happened, I had done my first bouldering session and was now scribbling through my Morning Pages. I was sitting at the single tall table across from the coffee machine. And I'd taken the chair that puts my back to the stairs. I don't usually, but when I came to sit down there was a small child under the table, and rather than shoo him away I'd chosen the chair he wasn't leaning against. Then I looked up and said to the man keeping an eye on him, "I promise to be extremely careful with this," meaning my coffee. If the kid was going to be under the table, I had best make sure he didn't get a hot waterfall on his head. The man nodded and chuckled, disavowing any suspicion that I'd do such a thing. But it was the kind of thing I'd be concerned about me accidentally doing, because I'm all aware and responsible like that.
Which is the long story of why, when this other child began crying some fifteen minutes later, I was sitting with my back toward him rather than facing him.
Also on the mezzanine with me were three women and at least one child, all of whom had shown up after the other man and kid had left. And the women were actually turned to face the crying child. I remember glancing up at them, thinking Is one of them the crying kid's mother? I remember that one of them actually looked up, craning as though to ascertain the crying child's situation. Then she returned her attention to her conversation.
I don't say this to excuse myself. There is no excuse for my not having turned around when the child began crying. But when I try to understand why I didn't bother to turn around, I keep coming back to this: I saw a woman look up to see why the child was crying and then look down again as though satisfied that her assistance was not required.
I finally did turn around when I heard several adults come onto the scene. And my heart just about stopped in place.
The child was crying -- screaming, really -- because his hand was caught in the door on the landing. He'd probably been trying to get into the kids' play area, and the door had closed on his hand. He had been screaming for a full minute. Hearing the new arrivals on the scene, I turned, and I saw, for a moment, the child's right hand trapped in the door. With his left, he was tugging uselessly at the door's side-grip style handle. He was far too small to be able to open it and free himself. His head barely came up to the top of the handle.
Then the gym staff member had opened the door and the man who was probably the child's father had swept the child up in his arms. By this time my hand was over my mouth and my eyes were wide -- I could feel my whole face straining to make itself large enough to encompass my shock and shame. "I'm so sorry," I said to the man holding the child. "I should have looked."
"You were all right here," he said.
There was nothing I could say to excuse myself or make it better. He was right. I was right here. I had done nothing. "I'm so sorry."
He left with his child in his arms, and I turned back to face the table, my coffee, my notebook and pen, the rest of the lounge. The women were all staring. The one who'd looked up and then looked away, she said, "His hand was stuck in the door?"
"Yes," I said, still processing the incident. I'm not sure whether I began shaking then or later. "His hand was stuck. He was in pain. And none of us did anything."
"Well, it's not like he was our kid," the woman said. "It wasn't our responsibility."
It wasn't her responsibility.
I had planned to do some more bouldering. I had planned to finish my Morning Pages. I had planned to walk across the street to Pekoe and do some of my day's writing with a pot of their tea, probably Imperial Pu Erh or Monkey-Picked Oolong. But instead I put my street shoes back on, packed up my bookbag, and left. And kept walking until I was home. I was just too ashamed to continue to be out in public. I didn't want the temptation to try to excuse myself to some random person. There was no excuse. I was right there. The child was in distress and pain. I had done nothing. I felt like too much of a worm to be out among decent people.
Besides, on my walk home I started crying and couldn't seem to stop. I was in no shape to face a barista and place an order for tea.
And besides that...
It wasn't HER responsibility. He wasn't HER child.
...I was also just too disgusted with humanity to want to be around other humans.
Times like this, I'm glad of my cats. Cats may be the epitome of selfishness, but at least they don't feel compelled to rationalize their selfishness by defining areas where they're allowed to not give a fuck about other beings' distress. They just do whatever it is they feel like doing. And, you know, they're a lot less selfish than we give them credit for. I've seen Uno nuzzle a crying person, or Null pull himself into their lap, as though specifically to comfort them.
I think I'll go hug my cats now.
Day 26: I Knew It, But I Didn't KNOW I Knew It
I've been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2002. How many times have I written a new novel draft? You do the math. Then add a conservative one or two for the trunk novels that I peck at from time to time on no particular schedule. This "don't bother getting it right; just get it down" thing, I have done it a lot.
So you'd think that by now I'd have learned all there was to know about "don't bother getting it right" and "just get it down." You'd think.
Apparently you'd be wrong.
This past week has involved a lot of uncertainty. Lia and Jet light out on the run after escaping Montrose Manor--then what happens? Then, apparently, we spend a lot of time changing motel rooms and arguing... until we finally stumble upon the next possible plot point. Both Jet and Lia spend time with no-good guys they've gotten involved with for dubious reasons, and this goes on for several nights... until something finally kicks loose and I know how the "everybody dies" scene comes together. After that, Jet spends a lot of time in Uberreality (only it's not "time," because time and space aren't real) keeping herself to herself and avoiding all contact with her colleagues and employers... until I finally realize exactly what Chender is up to and what their Employer's reaction to this is and how Jet's next assignment will lead to her own personal There Is No Spoon moment and...
And here's the thing. Sometimes you just have to send your characters out into the formless primordial stuff of story, not to live the plot they ought, but rather as your avatars in the fiction mines, trying to find the next piece of plot. Sometimes you just have to spend 5,000 words writing three nights of arguing and fighting in a motel room, knowing that not a single word of it will make it to the final draft but writing it anyway, because there is no other way to find out what happens next.
And I knew this. But I didn't really know it, not until today. This past week I've been coming back to the book with great reluctance, unwilling to write another non-plot-moving 2,000 words of "And then Lia went for another walk in the desert, and looked at the pretty cacti and the red sandstone rock formations, and nearly got bit by a snake, and 'Michael' met up with her again and they exchanged some witty banter and unresolved sexual tension, and then Lia went back to the motel room and had an argument with Jet, and then Jet went out and had another date with Mr. Totally Wrong Who Might Be Useful, and..." This sort of reluctance is new to me this year, because this year I am determined to finish not just 50,000 words but also the book by November 30. I don't reach "The End" in a timely manner if I'm constantly writing time-waster scenes on my way to the next brainstorm. But I've gotta.
Today it paid off. I opened a brand new blank scene, and, unwilling to start flailing around at Jet Grieving In Uberreality And Being Very Antisocial For, Lacking A Better Phrase, Several Days... I started jotting down the lines that Jet's Employer would say when Jet finally consented to listen. And then I started filling in Jet's thoughts between them. And before them. And suddenly I was writing an actual scene with pacing and movement and revelation and reaction.
And now I know what happens next.
See? It works! But I really need to spend the entire three hours of tomorrow's write-in writing down What Happens Next, because it feels like my characters sure spent a lot of November fishing in the primordial ooze.
But they didn't waste that time. It really was time well-spent. And now, I hope, I really understand that. In my 9th year of NaNoWriMo, it's really about time.
If this were Earth, I would say that days passed. But time is only fiction, and what passes is only me. The eternal now contracts around me to a point shaped like Lia's bedroom. I wrap myself in my human shape, so that I can bury my head beneath the crimson-gold-paisley quilt and breathe her scent where in lingers in the ivory sheets. A copper hair lies upon one of the pillows; I don't touch it, but lay beside it so that its breadth magnifies in my blurred vision. Each moment that passes is the same moment, and each breath I take is the same breath. And yet with each breath the scent fades, and my ability to furnish it from memory fades as well.
As I curl around the pillow, clutching it to my tightly, the voice of my Employer echoes about the room, bouncing off the fictitious walls that are my awareness and my being. Jetta. Speak to me, Jetta.
I hug the imaginary pillow tighter and say nothing.
Jetta. Please come back. You are needed.
Day 2: When Characters Decide To Be Real
- 3,457 wds. long
"So what are you writing about this year?" Common question. Probably the most-asked question between Boulder Wrimos last night. My answer? "It's an urban fantasy involving an interdimensional assassin and a woman who's unhealthily turned on by danger." And I haven't been very pleased with that answer, because it makes the assassin, Jet, sound like the only real character in the book. It turns Lia into a sort of mentally deranged caricature who is of course going to be attracted the first James Bond clone who comes along.
Today I wrote the scene where Lia has just picked a hitchhiking Jet on her way south out of town. Jet is bruised and bloody and has just stepped out in front of Lia's car. Now she's Lia's passenger, and she's getting interrogated about what she was up to just now.
Now, before I wrote this scene, while Lia was still an uncomfortably two-dimensional danger-addict, I imagined her losing control of the car as Jet described her most recent assignment. For no better reason than she found the story all exciting and arousing and stuff.
Stupid. Very stupid. But it was all I had.
Then I actually wrote the scene and realized Lia had a connection to Jet's victim, and what turned Lia on was knowing that the bastard was dead.
Miles roll by while I try to decide how far is far enough. They never say. Lia breaks the silence, all abrupt and suspicious: "Were you really trying to kill yourself?"And I'm thinking, that's a relief. Lia has some back story now, and she's starting to look potentially rounded as a character. You know. Rather than flat.
How much do I tell her? What harm can it do? But not much good, either. "Maybe for a moment there."
"Well, then, for a moment there, you were a fucking jerk." I watch her hands grip the wheel tighter. "You want to kill yourself, you can do it without dragging someone else into your drama. Fucking jerk." Silence again, for just a moment. Then she yanks at the volume knob. Old school punk music soars and batters my dream ears. For the briefest of moments I consider throwing myself out of the car. But no, this might not be far enough away from the scene of my assignment yet. I can't really be sure.
Ten miles I'm still not sure, but Lia turns down the volume again. "Why?"
I'm lost in thought by now, replaying my actions of the last two hours. My right shoulder feels wrenched: Ritchie, grabbing my wrist as I headed for the door. My mind's ear is faintly occupide with the noises Tresco made behind me as I escaped. A job well done is a joy to remember.
"Jet." The sound of my name brings me back to the here and now. I don't hear it often. "Why would you want to kill yourself?" Lia sounds oddly curious this time around, like one artist comparing techniques and preferences with another.
So I think about the question. I think about acceptable ways to answer it. It's never a good idea to get involved with non-involved characters in a dream, not even to the point of conversation. But it's not forbidden, either. What harm can it do? "I just killed a man," I tell her.
She jerks the wheel a little--surprise? Panic?--and punches the accellerator momentarily. When she eases off the pedal, her eyes stay wide. "It finally happened. Five years of picking up any hitchhiker I run across, I finally pick up a criminal." She sounds incongruously delighted. "Shit. An honest to God killer."
"Assassin." The correction is automatic, a reflex borne of long, intense training. "It's different. Well, to me anyway. It's all down to the reasoning."
She's silent awhile, smiling at the road. Outside, the desert is featureless, a far cry from Mapleton Ridge's depressing skyline. Yucca dot the ditch beyond the highway shoulder, and rock formations dominate the distance like the portfolio of an indifferent dilletante sculptor. "Who was he? The man you killed."
That's easy. Talking about other people is a lot easier than talking about myself. I don't have to be guarded. "Called himself Tresco. Leader of a gang calling themselves the Swifts."
Lia's putting on speed again. Just a little, but she's keeping it on this time. "Tresco."
She doesn't answer. Her knuckles whiten again. Then she laughs, hard and merciless, and I begin to wonder if I'll survive this ride. But that's OK. I'm far enough away now, I'm sure of it. "Tell me about it," Lia demands, sudden and decisive.
"I don't know much. He wasn't a very good gangster. I expected him to be more competent, but apparently he's--"
"Tell me how he died."
I glance at her, sidelong, and I see the set of her jaw. "What do you want to know?"
She grits her teeth--I hear them click and grind. "Make me see it. I want to be there."
Tomorrow: the car crash! A scene I'm pretty sure I know inside out, through and through. Which means I will probably get surprised again.
Epiphanies About Flash Fiction
- 500 wds. long
As I mentioned a few entries ago, "Sidewalks" is in rewrites. Which is an awesome thing, because without someone else to push me, I might have left the story alone, never knowing how much better it could be.
And it is better. It started out as a story about a guy whining generically about love lost after having witnessed an extraordinary event. And, well, it still is about that, but the whining is very specific, the love was lost in a particular way, and the extraordinary event is necessary and not easily replaceable by some other extraordinary event.
There are a lot more details in the story. Not necessarily spelled out--that was how I ruined earlier drafts--but they're concrete in my head. They weren't, before. The rewrite request forced me to think about these things, to do a little worldbuilding, for all that the world is our own and the story's only 500 words long.
If you'd asked me last year to tell you how I knew whether a story should be in "short" or "flash" form, I'd have told you, "Short stories are told via a single scene, or a series of scenes. Flash-length stories are implicit in a single moment." I'd still say that today, I think, but putting it that way leaves something important out.
The difference between short stories and flash fiction is in the word-length required to tell them. But a story's word-length is not the same as its size. Short stories and flash fiction stories are exactly the same size as each other, and as novel-length stories, trilogy-length stories, novena-length stories: as big as the world. The characters must be equally real, their worlds equally huge. Word length is simply the frame through which the reader views the story.
Which means there is worldbuilding to be done and characters to be developed, no matter how short the story form is. Developing them fully is necessary before the author can choose which words, which images and thoughts and dialogue, belong inside the picture frame.
Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, talks about the one-inch picture frame that sits on her desk and reminds her not to try to tackle the entire task at once. "Just take it bird by bird," she recalls her father telling her overwhelmed brother on the occasion of an overdue homework assignment; similarly, she tells herself to just take her own writing inch by square inch. But that square inch of story remains part of an entire world big enough to live in, big enough to encompass untold thousands of stories.
I've been writing flash fiction for years, but only now do I understood that the flash fiction form is hard.
"N.O. Woman Tells of 60 Years of Visions"
- 3,891 wds. long
Bares Her Life Secret To Members Of Dr. John Fletcher's Psychology Class. Says She Has Communicated With Spirits Of Other World Since She Was Five Years Old. Relates Her Shades Of Roosevelt, Gen. Grant, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll and Others Visited Her. Declares T. R. Urged Her To Inform World Of Her Experiences. She Was Once Governess To A Prince, She Says.The Williams Research Center is a quiet place of loveliness, from the front desk where the docent greets you and hands you the guest book to sign, to the beautfully-made lockers where things not allowed upstairs may stay securely for no extra charge, to the Acadian History exhibit with maps, paintings, and a glassed-in copy of Longfellow's Evangeline. And all of this is before you actually get into the records room.
The New Orleans Item-Tribune was a merging of the Morning Tribune and the Item, which I understand to have happened after my target date of January 19, 1930; but January 19 was a Sunday, and perhaps Sundays were different. In any case, once I had the JAN 1930 microfilm in the machine, I found that the heading on each page was indeed The Item-Tribune. I read, or skimmed, the January 19 edition from cover to cover.
It is very hard not to get distracted, browsing old newspapers of your home town. Everything is fascinating. Everything is recognizable. But the language of each story is almost fairy-tale alien, and I'm not just talking about the inevitable racist and xenophobic attitudes hard-wired into crime reports and population statistics. The details chosen to add color to a story, the adverbs and adjectives sprinkled over the top, the very choice of story material, these all reveal a very different world. I want to learn all about that world, because it gave birth by slow progressions to my world. I want to take the entire newspaper home with me and love it and hug it and give it cookies.
In any case, I thought I'd found something on the very first page, where a tenant's sudden death by, it is assumed, poison, is reported. The landlady heard him screaming in his room and called the ambulance. But the mention of this date in Gumbo Ya-Ya was supposed to be not another death, but "an account of this amazing instance of spectral assistance in making a financial success of a boarding house." So. Keep looking.
I think I struck gold on almost the last page of the January 19 edition, which was devoted in the main to the story whose headline I've titled this blog entry with. The woman in the story is "a 69-year-old French woman, who has lived in New Orleans for the past 10 years," and lives at 1429 St. Charles Avenue. Her name is Madame Marie Teresa Guizonnier. She "feels she is ready to tell about ... a strange double existence that she has kept secret for seven decades."
"Theodore Roosevelt has come and spoken to me. He has appeared in my room as I sat at my sewing; he has looked over my shoulder at the newspaper clippings and read them with me. He has told me things about the universe beyond that I think will startle the world," she says.Madame Guizonnier, a college-educated native of Alsace-Lorraine, first encountered spirits at the age of five. The description of her first visitation is reminiscent of Coraline's time behind the Other Mother's mirror. Seems she was punished for some transgression by being locked in a "chamber under the stairs."
"Houdini has stepped down to tell me of the unhappy time he is having adjusting himself in the spirit government. General Grant, always on his horse, has come riding from the clouds to encourage me in my messages with the spirits...."
"Suddenly I saw little girls sitting around me and holding dolls in their arms.Trying to link this up to the ghost story related in Gumbo Ya-Ya, however, is problematic. Here is the story's sole mention of Mark Twain:
I spoke to them and they answered. Soon I was able to carry on connected conversations with them, and I began to welcome the 'punishment' of being sent into the dark room. Later I could see the same children walking about the halls--even in daylight, and I talked with them too.
Mark Twain appears to her from time to time in a bed in which he continues to write, she says. He lies on his side and as he talks of his spiritual existence, he makes notes on paper placed on a little table beside his resting place.And as for "making a financial success of a boarding house," there is no mention in the story at all. In fact, her occupations are listed as "a nurse, a teacher, a governess to a Rumanian prince, a business woman, and a dressmaker." The occupation of landlady is mentioned not at all, though "business woman" might cover it. "Dressmaker" appears to be the current profession she practices at the time of the newspaper story, an occupation taken up to help her through a financial decline during her time in New York.
She moved to New Orleans in 1919 following the death of her husband, and was compelled to stay by her ghostly visitors.
"I did not intend to stay here when I first arrived. I have no further interest in the city. But whenever I attempt to leave, I find they will not let me. They demand that I continue to communicate with them."It's probable that the authors of Gumbo Ya-Ya conflated Madam Guizonnier's story with that of someone else, creating one narrative from a patchwork of dubious historical accounts. But I have time to read through a year and some of the newspaper every morning for the next week. And whatever I do find, there's story in it.
Hey, at least now my character has a name!
Congratulations! You Win A Day Off! (Just one, though.)
- 50,202 wds. long
So, yes, as of about 9:30 PM last night I completed the eking out of my 7th NaNoWriMo win. (7th? Good Gods--quickly assembles mental list of NaNoWriMo novel drafts of yore--Yes, that's right, I've done this every year since 2002!) "Eking out" because, once yWriter told me I had more than 50K words, I used its handy "Export obfuscated NaNoWriMo text" command, opened the resulting text file, Selected All (CTRL-A), Copied (CTRL-C), and Pasted (CTRL-V) this into the NaNoWriMo Word Count Validator, and was rewarded with a word count downsizing to about 49380. I think it's the usual deal where the em-dash formation I'm in the habit of using (word!--'nother word!) causes two words to count as one in more conservative word count algorithms. Whatever. So I went back to the scene I was working on, did another few paragraphs, tried again, and so forth until the word count you see here. And the purple "Winner!" bar and the proud happy Viking Longship image and the web page icons and all that.
So I took today off. Well, not off off; I had to tackle the household finances, which had sort of languished for a month and a half. Dug out all the bills from the pile of Stuff To Be Dealt With, some of them past due; paid them; pulled up the checking and saving accounts online and made sure my balances matched theirs; y'know. The stuff you ignore when you're frantically trying to meet a deadline. I got that done. But otherwise, today was a play day. I went to the gym and rocked out in the bouldering cave, and I went to IHOP with friends and played Puzzle Pirates until I was completing carpentry puzzles in my brain on the bike ride home.
Tomorrow, however, I write again. For one thing, the novel still isn't really done. I haven't really gotten my characters from point A to point B, where point A is "at each other's throats" and B is "angrily declaring love for each other". I still haven't entirely disentangled my idea of how the bad guy functions and how the main character plans to fight him/her/it, although I do understand how the main character actually ends up defeating it. And, as usual, I haven't figured out a useful denouement. A novel-length story will often exist in my head with a total Hannah-Barbera laugh-track ending ("Quick, someone say something goofy so we can all laugh and go home!") for months before I finally figure out how to tie the bow on that package.
Also, there are other stories than the Demonic Sweater Story that could be finished and sent out to meet the nice people.
So. Today was playtime. Tomorrow is back-to-work time. To be precise, tomorrow at 11:30 when some NaNoWriMo buddies and I will meet up for coffee and writing time. Just because the calendar's ticked over from November to December doesn't mean the write-ins have to stop.
In Which I Entertain Myself, or "Writing: Ur Doin It Rite"
- 32,691 wds. long
Writing is an occupation with very few instances of external positive feedback. At least, for the beginning/amateur/unpublished writer. You're functioning in a vacuum most of the time. Sometimes you send out a story, and most of the time it comes back with a rejection letter attached. If you're lucky, the rejection letter says something like, "Sorry we couldn't use your story this time. It's really well-written and we hope you will continue to think of us." But most of the time the writer has to look inside for confirmation.
This, by the way, is one reason that peer critique groups might be popular. It isn't just the pragmatic necessity of getting comments from someone who doesn't already have the story living in their brain; it's also the chance to get someone in the real world to say, "Hey, this is good stuff. It has some flaws you need to fix, but you know what? You really are a writer."
That's my theory, anyway. A theory. The one I'm working on today.
Internal positive feedback comes in several flavors, most of which a writer has to discover herself. The most common one, I've found, is the simple enjoyment of the process. Writing is quite definitely work, but it is often fun too, especially in the rough draft phase. Which is something NaNoWriMo has going for it. NaNoWriMo is all about rough draft and having fun. And the fun comes in a bunch of flavors itself: the fun of telling a story no one else has heard yet because you made it up; the fun of knowing you can tell a story, that you are capable of inventing stuff whole cloth out of your head; the fun of being surprised when characters do something unexpected, or, if you prefer to sound less insane than that, the fun of suddenly having an unexpected idea about what your characters should do.
Me, I think the insane-sounding stuff is fun precisely because it sounds insane. Hell, I believe in magic. With or without a k at the end. I converted to Wicca partly out of a rebellion against the mundanity of the world: "The Goddess is too alive and magic is too afoot, so there!" I will cheerfully tell you that I expected yesterday's portion of the story to go one way, but that my characters had another plan, and if you tell me that my characters cannot have a plan because they are not real, I will blow a raspberry at you because they are too real, so there, thththbbbp!
For instance, here's what happened yesterday. Here was my plan. I expected Rocket to throw a tantrum and storm out when he couldn't convince Timothy not to get himself killed taking on the bad guy. I had his speech all thought out in my mind: "Fine. Fine! But if you think I'm going to stick around and watch you die, you can just keep thinking." Then he'd stomp out the door and not show up again until later on that night when he would try one desperate last time to change Timothy's mind.
That's what I expected to happen. But when I got to that point, Rocket did something else. He tossed aside ethical considerations and attractive melodrama, and instead brought the full power of his "What I say is true" supernatural ability to bear on Timothy, forcing him instantaneously to teleport them both the hell away from the bad guy. Then, to prevent him simply teleporting back once his magical influence had faded, he punched him out. And then a dragon nearly fried them both to a crisp, because, being given no time or free will to choose one location over another, Timothy had teleported them to somewhere that didn't actually exist. Or, rather, that existed in the same way that I think Timothy and Rocket exist. Which is to say, it was fictional. And the dragon was the one which Beowulf was going to kill himself slaying shortly afterward.
I was watching the New Orleans Saints pound the crap out of the Kansas City Chiefs at the time, and sitting next to a good friend who was doing her thesis on Beowulf. These circumstances may have influenced the punching-out part and the dragon part. Hard to say.
So that's part of the fun: being surprised by your characters. But later that evening I was surprised by another sort of writer enjoyment: realizing that my own half-written novel was living in my head the way a published novel does. You know that feeling? You get halfway through reading that book, you have to set it aside so you can get to work on time or whatever, and the story stays in your head, niggling at you: What happens next? You can't wait to get home, to read the next page, to be in the company of the characters you've been following...
Well, I was feeling that way about my novel yesterday. Even after I reached 30,000--ten thousand words in a weekend! go me!--and I was taking a well-deserved break with Puzzle Pirates and blogs, that niggling thing was happening. The part of my brain that gets addicted to experiences easily--the part that imagines me playing more Puzzle Pirates when I ought to be writing--that part of my brain was imagining the story even while I was trying to take a break from writing it.
The scene I'd stopped in the middle of, not knowing what comes next? It kept resurfacing in the back of my addled little brain. I wanted to know what happened next. And it wasn't that I wanted to figure out what happened next, being the writer and all. I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next, like a reader.
And that's cool. Cool and fun.
Which is all I really wanted to say today.