Stand By for Your Assignment (full-length)
2784 words long
a good time was had by all the story-like objects
OK! So. We got Friday Fictionette catch-up and short story revision. We got a good day.
The Fictionette Freebie for April, as it turns out, is "Reviving the Legends." (Click for the full text as HTML as a page on this blog or a post on Patreon, as a PDF ebook, or as an MP3 read and recorded by me. I am all about providing options.) I have some trepidations about releasing this fictionette into the wild, though. Generally I am very good about cover art; either it's my own photography, or it's something released under a Creative Commons Attribution license and I attribute like woah. In this case, I'm afraid, I was less than punctilious. So. Featured at right is a possible alternate cover art model. His name is Velvet. He is ready to step in should his services be required.
Bonus fact about me you didn't really need but that I will tell you anyway: My brain is a free-association jukebox. ("Gee, Fleur, tell us something we didn't know," says my entire roller derby league.) The whole time I was converting "Reviving the Legends" from Patron-only to Freebie, I had Neil Diamond's song "Suriving the Life" stuck in my head on infinite loop. Eventually I gave in and just queued up the Beautiful Morn album and sang along very loudly.
Anyhoo. Short story revision! Got "Stand By for Your Assignment" to a place where I could print it out again and consider it as a whole. This draft was spent removing all the things I wasn't 100% sure it needed, so that I could front load the creepy bits rather than the exposition. The next draft will be spent putting some of what I cut back in, but with intention. Like painting over the painting-so-far with a thin wash of Protagonist's Family, stuff like that. I'll start on that tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I seem to have just joined a local critique group. Maybe. They're having their initial meeting this Saturday, just to see if it's going to work, and I'm going to bring "Stand By" or another of the short stories I'm editing to it, see what they think about it. For those of y'all who are my Local Writer Friends who are women and are interested, this is the "Small Circle Women Writers" on Meetup.com, located in/around Longmont. It's public in the sense that any woman can apply, but it's private in the sense that applications must be approved by the organizer.
Anyway, I'm excited about going, and a little nervous, and also I am feeling the pressure of Short Story Revision MUST Be Done By Saturday!!! Which, ultimately is a good thing. A little fire under my butt is useful for cooking up fiction.
in which the author has temporary favorites among her progeny
- 2,266 wds. long
- 2,691 wds. long
Today's topic is The Short Story Development Queue Workflow, also known as "I said I'd work on the new story, but there was this other story screaming for attention..."
This is also about the unintended consequences of holding myself to a daily half-hour Submissions Procedures session.
It's very simple. During Tuesday's session, I decided which market I wanted to submit a story to next. That's usually the only real question. The question of which story is typically very easy to determine. I look at which stories have been submitted before and are A) still not published, and B) not currently in somebody's slush pile. I pick the one of these that is C) the best fit for the market, and I submit it.
The problem is when the story that satisfies all three requirements also D) needs a lot of work before it gets submitted anywhere new. This is what I figured out during Wednesday's session.
So, "Stand By for Your Assignment" last went out to visit with the editors of the late, lamented Crossed Genres Magazine for their themed issue, "Anticipation." Themed issues come with submission deadlines; submission deadlines inevitably correlate with me finishing things in a big goddamn hurry and, as a result, probably sending them a smidge before they're really ready for prime time.
Which is to say, despite having seen the inside of a slush pile before, this story needs a lot of work before it may be allowed to see the inside of another one.
And I'm not talking about a line-level edit. No. Although that's one of the things it needs. No, what it also needs is cohesiveness of theme. It's got two elements in it that could work really well together: the female protagonist is bearing up under the double-barreled assault of familial expectations and corporate microagressions, and she is undergoing increasingly frequent experiences of a disturbing nature that may be hallucinations or may be genuine invasions of her world by the weird. But the story as it stands doesn't actually tie them together. They're just both in there, the latter as plot and the former as background. And in narrative, as in science, correlation does not equal causation. Narrative can go a long way on correlation alone, but in this story, I think, not far enough. So I need to rearrange some things to make them work together deliberately rather than by accident. And then there are the line-by-line infelicities that need to be cleared up...
And that's why, during today's Submissions Proceedures and Fiction Development sessions, I didn't do my assigned homework (the one about Ellen and the man who was a tree). It's because I did other homework (beginning to revise "Stand By..."). I hope I get credit for the other homework, at least.
In other news! That vaguely parental-like guilt that a writer might feel, where all the attention you spend on one of your "babies" is attention you're not spending on the other "baby" and oh my Gods I am a bad "mother" because I am failing to love all my "babies" equally...? Yeah, that's a thing.
buyin' my lottery tickets
- 3,330 wds. long
- 3,100 wds. long
Which is not, admittedly, the best analogy for submitting fiction to paying markets. It's not purely a numbers game. But it's partially a numbers game. Given a story that's publishable, as you continue sending it out to markets that are a reasonably good fit, the probability of its achieving publication approaches 1. No guarantees it'll reach 1, but it gets closer every time.
(Actually, if you want to be precise, the asymptote graph never reaches 1, but only gets infinitely closer and closer to 1. But forget that, I'm trying to sort of reference Godwin's Law and any number of internet memes that riff on it, and no one worries in that context that "approaching 1" isn't the same as "reaching 1," so shut up.)
But by far the strongest point of similarity between fiction submissions and lotteries is, you can't win if you don't play. Thus "submissions procedures" is one of the gotta-dos in my morning shift. Thus the stories go back out in the mail.
It does me no favors that most of the acceptance letters I've received have been in response to a story's first time in the mail. No one should consider that to be the norm. It's got me badly calibrated. It primes me to think that if a story accumulates two, five, fifteen rejections, then clearly it's not ready for prime time and I shouldn't even be sending it out. Which is bullshit, as any number of rejectomancy anecdotes will attest, but that's the writerly version of weasel-brain for you. It's such a seductive utterance of the weasel-brain, too, especially when the rejection letters come back so very quickly. I start getting self-conscious about particular stories--I start thinking, "Do I seriously believe an editor will want to pay me money for the opportunity to consume one of their precious story slots with this? NO ONE wants this." And also, "Why do I keep sending this story out, instead of writing new ones? Am I trying to rest on my laurels? Before they are even grown?"
That last one's a special grade of bovine feces, because I have sent new stories out. In fact, the story I've been trying to query status on is sitting in its very first slush pile as we speak. Unfortunately, the market that slush pile belongs to uses SPF filtering on their email, and apparently something's borked in my SPF record. I've got a support ticket to my domain host about it.
Weird thing is, though, the weasel-brain only has its say before I send the story out. Once I actually send the story, weasel-brain shuts up and lets me enjoy the fresh glow of "I submitted a story! Professionally! To a paying market! Just like real writers do!" Which only goes to show you that yet again, the only way out is through.
Anyway, I bought a lottery ticket today, and I bought one Thursday too. Metaphorically speaking.
three reports on the three major components of my life at present
First item to report: Writing. (This is a blog about writing.) I submitted that story, I did, and what's more, it didn't suck. It might well benefit from the careful eye of a critique group, but we'll cross that bridge when/if the story comes back with a rejection letter. For now, it's on its way as it is.
Now that it's done (or at least submittable), I'm finding all my worries have turned out largely to be mere borrowed trouble. For one thing, in a fully fleshed-out story grounded in worldly details, the speculative element sells itself as itself a lot better. Worldbuilding FTW! For another thing, the 3rd person POV does seem to be having that reassuringly authoritative effect I was hoping for. And for a third thing, which I had not actually thought about before, why can't the answer to "is the heart beating or is the main character just unstable" be--both? Normal life plus the uncanny incursions are pushing the protagonist toward paranoia and a nervous breakdown, but the pending nervous breakdown doesn't mean the uncanny incursions aren't happening. As they say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't all out to get you.
Anyway, the story has been submitted. Also, it has been submitted in standard manuscript format but in Times New Roman rather than Courier New, because this market's submission guidelines state that Courier is evil. I mention this because it's an easy detail to overlook, especially when you're of a generation that reads "Standard manuscript format" and automatically translates that to "double-space, 1" margins, monospace font, size 12."
Always reread the submission guidelines sentence by sentence before hitting the big red button. It might just save your manuscript.
Second thing to report: Minor injury. So I have this perpetually sprained left wrist. That is, I sprained it years ago, and ever since then it's been ridiculously easy to re-injure. The damn thing flared up this week, probably because I tweaked it helping to move heavy equipment on Sunday when the BCB Carnival was over. I didn't really notice it until yesterday, but then, hoo boy, did I notice it.
(Brief tangent on gender and idiom: Why are these interjections always male words? "Oh, boy! Pizza!" "Man-oh-man, am I tired!" I can't even easily think of gender neutral phrases to replace them with, let alone feminized ones. I have a sudden urge to replace such idioms with things like like "lady-oh did that hurt" or "A circus? Woo-girl, I love the circus!" Only everyone would look at me funny and genuinely not understand what I was saying.)
So the wrist was pretty bad yesterday. When I went to pull on my roller derby gear, I just about cried trying to tug on my right elbow pad. That's already a difficult task after getting hot and sweaty and a little swollen (literally swollen, not this "GET SWOL" business) doing off-skates exercises. But with a sprained wrist it's near impossible. Once the gear was on, everything was fine and I had a lovely practice--although I might have yiped if I'd had to give or take a whip--but taking the gear off again was a whole 'nother thing.
Then today I got seriously alarming levels of pain just handling pots and pans while making dinner (about which, see below) or while tugging the seat of my chair to scoot closer to the desk. It was while doing the dishes after dinner and discovering that I can't even pump the pump-action soap dispenser without pain that I decided I'd better stay home from scrimmage tonight. (Which decision had nothing to do with needing more time to prepare my story for submission, understand--but it didn't hurt.)
I'm icing my wrist aggressively (but safely!) and trying to remember what not to do with it. (I can't even scratch my head left-handedly. That's effed up.)
Third thing: Crawfish report! Because I'm obsessed, apparently. I took my cheesecloth-wrapped lumps of tofu bait down to the creek and proceeded to begin my writing day there, while only checking the lines and the wire basket thing at regular and strict intervals. Like, during Morning Pages, I was only allowed to check when I got to the end of a page. That sort of thing.
Which didn't hurt the day's catch at all. As we approach even higher summer temperatures, the water warms up and the mudbugs get even more active. And when the bait's been sitting on the creek floor for about 15 minutes, like as not there'll be three crawfish clinging to it when I pull it out. Whether they all hang on long enough for me to get them to the bank is another question, of course. (I was going to use another tier of the 3-tier wire basket as a net, tie it onto a stick and hold it under the line as it comes out the water, but I didn't think my left wrist was up for it. GOOD CHOICE.)
Anyway, between yesterday afternoon and today, the catch came to 34 crawfish from sizes medium to monstrous. They weighed in live at just under two pounds and yielded about five and a half ounces tail and claw meat. (A surprising number of claws were big enough to be worth cracking open. Miniature lobsters, y'all.)
And I made crawfish etouffee, as the pictures above will attest.
There are tons of recipes on the internet. I wanted a recipe that was roux-based and involved no tomato products, just like Mom used to make. Apparently there are battle lines drawn over things like this. I am firmly of the opinion that adding tomato paste to your holy trinity vegetables results in a creole, not an etouffee. Also, cornstarch is just cheating.
I also wanted a recipe that included the crawfish "fat," since my research yesterday indicated this was something people used it for. The recipe linked above met all of my criteria.
I cut all quantities down by roughly half, to kind of sort of match the available quantity of crawfish meat. I marveled that the recipe didn't call for celery, speaking of the holy trinity; I added three ribs. But I omitted the green pepper. I was going for "like Mom used to make" and Mom never cooked with green pepper.
Speaking of "just like Mom used to make," I'm pretty sure Mom never cooked with crawfish fat. She didn't like crawfish. Her etouffee was aways shrimp, and she started with a heavier roux than what this recipe calls for, one that was equal parts flour to oil. And yet, the moment I added the crawfish fat to the roux-vegetable mixture, everything turned recognizably into etouffee. I mean, the color and consistency were perfect. It was kind of amazing.
At the point where the recipe says "Optionally, add a little more water to thin the mixture," I added about half a cup of the crawfish boil water and a good few ounces of dry sherry. I bought the sherry for the crawfish Monica on Tuesday, so it was conveniently there and tempting.
Yield: Two bowls of etouffee and rice, all of which a single customer will inhale without apparent effort.
I'm including photos firstly to make y'all jealous but more importantly because I still can't get over having made such an amazing dish using crawfish that I caught five minutes away from my doorstep.
Random weird note: Crawfish boil water seems to cure warts, at least in my case here and now. The small collection of warts between my right index finger and middle finger are GONE. Like, between one day and the next. They came into being about... eight months ago? Annoyed the crap out of me, too. I couldn't stop picking at them and fidgeting with them. That's how I know they were still there Tuesday. Wednesday morning, they were GONE. I suspect that the crawfish boil seasonings may have had an effect similar to that of salicylic acid, and that dipping my hands in the pot to grab crawfish after crawfish for processing made the dosage sufficiently intense. But I have no certainty. All I know is, the skin where the warts had been is now smooth and healing over. Weird, huh?
This time I'm really not going back for more crawfish tomorrow. Really! Not even tempted. Not only do I need to rest my wrist, but I'm actually sort of all cooked out. I'm ready to eat simple dishes for a few days. (I'm also ready to take a break from keeping dormant crawfish overnight in the refrigerator. My crawfish casualty record remains goose-egg pure, but the endeavor remains slightly stressful.
I might still take my writing out to the creek, though. Turns out I really enjoy writing by the creek.
(Still need to order a new laptop battery.)
productive ways to give in to temptation
- 1,156 wds. long
Good couple of sessions on the short story today. I revised the first scene until it was actually a scene, you know? Which is awesome, because until today it was more of a "see Spot run" sketch. Rough drafts are rough, but that was really rough.
I'm much happier with it now. Instead of panicking because the story resembled a page in a coloring book that can only hope for the attentions of a two-year-old with a box of My First Crayola, I get to panic because at this rate there's no possible way I'll have time to get the rest of the scenes anywhere as complete as the first scene is now. But I'll submit it anyway, because I can sleep better at night with embarrassment than with regret, which is usually the right choice except in this case the editors will read it and say to each other, "Who is this person who thinks she can write? Insta-reject her forever." And the story will languish on my hard drive, because I'll never revise it, because when I think about it I'll just die of shame for having sent such an inadequate version of it out for real people to waste their time reading.
That's a much more interesting flavor of panic than the first kind.
(Don't worry. Panicking is normal. None of the above is actually a prophecy. Editors don't insta-reject over a single sub-par submission, and I will revise if I think the version that gets submitted tomorrow is indeed sub-par. This is just the usual Impostor Syndrome acting out. Look, we'll give it a ten-minute time out, maybe it'll learn to behave.)
One of those short story sessions, I must admit, happened out by the creek, because my laptop appears able to hold an hour's charge after all, and I gave in to temptation and went crawfishing again. I know, I know, I said I wouldn't have time, but--look, I actually got the writing done. It worked out. Turns out, the longer you put off checking the line, the more crawfish crawl on over to check out the bait. So I'd work hard until the next few paragraphs were done to my satisfaction, then I'd go pull up two or three medium-to-huge mudbugs, then I'd go back to the story for another few paragraphs, and so on.
Today's bait was chunks of week-old leftover sesame tofu. Our usual order-out restaurant either had a substitute cook that night or has changed their recipe, so that when we checked "medium" like always, we got food so spicy as to be near inedible. I soldiered through my leftover twice-roasted pork with the help of a beer to mitigate the heat, but John wasn't at all tempted to revisit the tofu. I tried it out on the crawfish by staking out a piece, free to all comers, in a shallow stretch of the creek. Within five minutes, a crawfish marched on up and made off with it. It wandered along the bottom of the bank until it found a suitable hole. Then it backed in and settled down to eat, safe in the knowledge that it could keep an eye on its surroundings but no predator could come up behind it. I had a bit of fellow feeling for it. It reminded me of myself, sitting down to breakfast on my front patio, semi-secluded but enjoying the view.
Since tofu is too soft to tie on the line direct, I enclosed the lumps inside pieces of plastic from a produce bag, which I perforated. Then all I had to do was tie the twine around the knotted plastic end and leave some twine dangling for the crawfish to grab. But when I use up the rest of the tofu I'll wrap it in cotton cheesecloth instead, so that if any of it gets away from me into the water I'll be comforted by its superior biodegradability.
In an hour, I got about 15 crawfish (from a shallow spot about about fifteen yards downstream of the bridge), and I fleshed out my main character's flashback, cleaned up the text to make character voices more consistent, and made the creepy encounter on the bus decidedly creepier.
I have become yet another cliche, y'all. I'm now the writer who takes her work fishing. That's a thing, isn't it? That's fine. If it means I get to have fresh-boiled crawfish all summer long, I'm cool with it. I just need to order a new battery for this laptop, that's all.
And I'm thinking etouffee for lunch tomorrow.
rough drafts are rough. don't like it? tough.
- 756 wds. long
The expansion on the drabble is coming along, but it's coming along rough. I have to continuously remind myself that it's OK, because this really is more of a first draft than a revision. I mean, yes, I'm building off of an already-written 100-word version of the story, but this new version is, for all intents and purposes, all new. The character now has a name, an age, a sister, a mother, a geographical location, a job. The story will have at least five scenes, including the one that got vaguely nodded at by the original drabble. The pacing is different, and the climax will be better developed. It's a whole new story. Of course its first draft will be rough.
At least it is coming along. Getting to spend some time on it every work day feels like getting away with something.
Today also involved some Fictionette work, as usual. The one for this weekend is shaping up to be something like E. Nesbit fanfic from two generations' remove. I'm trying to keep a Nesbit-like voice while firmly setting the story in the era of email. I've also taken some time to begin typing up one of the June fictionettes for my appropriately-tiered Patron (didn't get to it as quickly after the May edition as I'd hoped, but oh well, I'm getting to it now), and I discovered that the task gets ever so much easier when the typewriter ribbon is wound correctly. Who knew? Also, the instructions are not lying when they say that the supply spool goes on the right-hand side; however, it does not mention the existence of a manual ribbon reverse switch, and I had it switched to the reverse direction, so. At this point I'll probably have to retype the first page. It's OK if it's a little messy, but all that fighting with the ribbon resulted in a silly amount of mess.
It is probably time to order a new ribbon, if a ribbon fitting a Sears Tower "Quiet Tabulator" portable can be found. I have a spare "universal" in my desk drawer, but I also have a memory of discovering it to be the wrong width or something. I found a site that sells typewriter ribbon by model number, and discovered that my typewriter's model number is partially hidden under the platen assembly. You can just make it out if you open up the rear enclosure as though to access the tabulator stops, and tilt the hinged bit at just the right angle: 871.600, which seems to match these products. The price for a black-and-white ribbon seems reasonable enough.
I had a lot of fun watercoloring on the typewritten fictionette for May, all the more for doing it outside on the patio. But once again I forgot to take a picture. Maybe I'll remember when I'm illustrating the June artifact.
Not on the patio today, alas. Power-wash operations were underway, in preparation for a new coat of paint on our building. Everything on the balcony out back and the patio out front had to come in. Our entryway looks like a jungle, all crowded with lush spath leaves, and you can barely reach the blinds over the sliding glass door what with all of the containers of tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers getting in the way. It's totally a nightshade paradise over there. All we need are eggplants. And then there are the herbs.
Meanwhile, the birds are so confused. The bird feeders had to come inside, too. There's a young female grackle who keeps perching on the balcony rail and eying the place where the feeder's supposed to hang, as though to say, "Mama told me this is where food comes from! Where did the food go? There is supposed to be food! If I wait here, maybe food will appear?" A couple of sparrows actually flew up there as though under the impression that the feeder had simply turned invisible. I feel sort of bad for them.
Just wait 'til the end of the week, little buddies! 'Til then I'm sure you're capable of finding your own grub. Your mama must have taught you about more than just suet cakes!
no, seriously, pull up the floorboards, i mean it
Today's Submission Procedures session was extremely productive. I logged a new rejection letter--"It's For You" came back after only 6 days out. I logged it in my own database, and at the Submission Grinder, and I posted about it to a forum where people post about such things. Scrolling up through other people's posts, I saw mention of another pro-paying market I have never submitted to. So I began preparing another story for submission to it. (I didn't quite finish because I ran out of time before derby. I'll send the submission out tomorrow.) Meanwhile, I tweaked my database so that I could use it to note submissions that I plan to make, and it could remind me so I don't lose track. All that, and I still haven't sent "It's For You" back out. Tomorrow!
Rejection letters aren't so terrible. They're the industry's way of confirming that yes, you've been playing the game, and, by the way, it's your turn again.
So, this other submission I'm planning to make. It's an expansion of an existing and unpublished drabble. And it gave me fits today. It's not that I don't know the shape I want it to be. It's that I'm realizing the story lives in that weird borderland between magic realism and psychological suspense-and-dread. It's "The Telltale Heart," that's what the problem is. The speculative element could be easily written off as the protagonist having a nervous breakdown and imagining things. Now, I was that kid in class who insisted that the hideous heart really was beating under the floorboards. But apparently the rest of the literary world agrees that Poe's murderous protagonist is hallucinating, the spoilsports.
So I'm trying to come up with anti-spoilsport ideas. Here's what I've got so far.
Put it in 3rd person to give the protagonist's perspective a sense, however illusive, of authority. Like, look, you don't have to just take the protagonist's word on this; here's a totally reliable narrator voice confirming it for you. It's not a promise on a factual level; obviously you can write an unreliable narrator in 3rd person point-of-view. But it's an attempt to create a particular emotional experience for the reader, encourage them to trust more. It's like painting an oncology waiting room sky blue to induce a sense of calm and comfort in the patients. You're not telling them that everything's going to be all right; you're just trying to help them feel like everything's all right. All right? Right. See also titles like "The facts in the case of..." or "An account of events witnessed at..."
Create internal consistency in the speculative element so that it looks more like an actual coherent thing that's happening and not a series of random weird events. Though it'll never wind up on the page, I need to decide on the complete reality behind these glimpses of the uncanny, and then have every manifestation conform to that. Basically, we're talking about worldbuilding.
Highlight the theme at every opportunity. The story will be submitted to a themed submission call; the theme is "anticipation." The theme of the issue is already present in this story, of course, but it can be underscored, made to do double, triple duty in every scene. Not just waiting, dreading, and anticipating in the context of the spec element itself, but in every incidental detail. In each scene's setting, in each situation, in the protagonist's interactions with other characters, there should be an element of are we there yet? is it over yet? how long to my bus stop? why aren't we done with this meeting? will the person in line before me please hurry up? when will I find out what's going on? what are you waiting for, just tell me! Done right, this will make the story more of a seamless whole, and a claustrophobic one, sort of compressing the reader into identifying with the protagonist. I hope.
Actually, having written them out, they look like pretty decent ideas. For now, anyway. Enough to go on until I think of better ones.