The Day the Sidewalks Melted
566 words long
but questions only lead to more questions and also a higher wordcount
Hi. I'm in a hotel in Loveland right now. I'm doing the derby thing this weekend. It is a tournament called Mayhem; details here. (Sorry, it's a Facebook event page, I don't think they have a regular web page about it.) We play at 2:15 PM tomorrow against the team from Colorado Springs. Our schedule for the rest of the weekend depends on whether we win or lose that first game. The latest bracket and schedule is... hard to find, actually, but it's in a Google Drive pdf that's viewable by anyone who has the link, so, here's the link.
So as you might expect, this complicates my Friday. My whole week has been complicated. But I have been good! I have been prioritizing the ongoing revision of "Survival, After" rather than doing just "the easy stuff" and sticking a fork in the rest of the day. So I actually have progress to report.
Progress has been... rather daunting.
As I've said before, I'm already daunted, disappointed, alarmed, something like that, by the story's refusal to remain a flash fiction story, and by its insistence on needing more than just a quick polish before sending it off to potential publishers. But I had become somewhat resigned to it. I gave in. I began indicating section breaks and expanding the resulting sections into full-blown individual scenes. I watched the word count rise and I shrugged and said, "So be it." I even got excited that I might have a brand new full-length story by the end of this process!
Then I took a look at the world-building and things really started blowing up.
Heh. That's almost literal, given how the story starts. As of last week, the draft began, "Within an hour of the bombs falling..." The original prompt had to do with immigrants and refugees, so my character was a refugee fleeing a war zone. Thus, bombs. Only bombs and war means territories and nations and policies and I just can't. Whatever it takes to arrange fictional wartime politics, I just don't got. I'm sorry. So, no. No one is dropping bombs on the protagonist's city.
So what does that mean? It means unexplained uncanny phenomena, of course! Again. I mean, it's basically "The Day the Sidewalks Melted" except survivable (and not flash fiction). Because that's what I do. Apparently I write stories about the real world turning quite suddenly into a science-fantasy world, and how everyday people cope with that. It's OK. If I'm a one-trick pony, there are worse tricks to have.
And so but anyway the point is, the story's beginning just keeps getting longer. Look, if you say "bombs," the reader can kind of imagine what that's like. Things go boom. Stuff gets smashed. People get smashed too. The fallout effects may be fantastical, but the initial concussive impact is can pretty much go without saying. Right? Well, delete the bombs and nothing goes without saying. How does the surreal effect happen? What does it look and sound and smell like? What do we know, what don't we know, and what can we hope to find out? QUESTIONS.
I also decided the protagonist can't just be a bystander when the cars at the traffic light go feral. The protagonist is in one of those cars. Which means the protagonist has no idea how widespread this is until they run home to reassure their family: hey, the thing you are no doubt staring horrified at on the morning news? I survived that. So I have to actually write the scene where the protagonist discovers what happened to their family's house. And I have to decide what happened to their family's house, because since it's not bombs I can't just refer to "the rubble that was my parents' garage" and leave it at that. And, damn, did I actually originally have the protagonist just fleeing the area without finding out for sure whether their family is OK? That's cold, y'all. That's super cold. The protagonist has to dig through the rubble. They have to go back to their brother's school and try to find him. They can't just leave without making sure.
So now I'm writing even more new material. For a story that started out 750 words long.
I'm in this weird back-and-forth between feeling really awesome about watching this story take shape, and getting all white-knuckled anxious WHEN WILL THIS BE DONE PLEASE?! Like, I would like to write other things in my life. Other short stories. Maybe even a novel! Could I not spend the entire rest of my career on this one used-to-be-flash story? Because right now it feels like this is my life now.
Anyway. Today I did not prioritize short story revision because tomorrow is Friday, and, having prioritized the short story revision all week, I had not made even a little bit of progress on this week's Friday Fictionette offering until today. And that sucker needs a lot of revision between today, because the hot mess I have babbled out isn't presentable. Also it is too long. It is almost 3000 words of not even a little bit presentable. So... I am hoping to be on time with it tomorrow, but tomorrow is Bout Day 1 of 3. Adjust your expectations accordingly and I shall try to do the same.
don't you hate it when that happens?
So, here's the situation.
You've just discovered the existence of a literary magazine, Riddled with Arrows, that pays semi-pro rates for flash meta-fiction and meta-poems. Writing about writing. Which is totally up your alley. Seriously, that arguably describes most of what you wrote in college. So you go rifling through your manuscripts--or, rather, you do the MySQL database version of rifling through your manuscripts, which is to say,
SELECT * FROM `manuscripts` WHERE `wordcount` <= 1500
and you scan the titles until you find something suitable. To wit: a bit of light erotica involving a guy whose lover uses him as her muse. It only needs a little bit of touch-up--there are some sentences that strike you as laughable, but for the most part, it's actually a pretty good 560-word piece.
So you spend the next hour giving it that touch-up, formatting it for submission, and getting ready to send it...
...and then you realize the current submission window, with a deadline of December 10, is actually only for submissions that fit the Winter Solstice theme, "Feasts and Families." Which this story emphatically does not.
Don't you hate it when that happens?
Or is it just me?
...It's just me, isn't it?
Oh well. It's not a total loss. The story is ready to send somewhere; I just have to figure out where. And tomorrow I may just discover a manuscript in my archives that does fit the theme. Or I'll write something brand new. I can do that! A new flash piece in five days? That's demonstrably one of my superpowers!
Meanwhile, I submitted "Sidewalks" to a market that's reprint-friendly, and I spent another half-hour noodling on the new short story. Today was not, by and large, an unsuccessful day, is what I'm saying.
the delays you get are not the expected delays
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So lunch was indeed delicious. The crawfish count included in it was 37 (live weight 2 lb 4 oz; yield 6 oz), about a third of which were caught in the DIY trap I will talk about at some later point. Also, it wasn't so much lunch as dinner, because I started it late and it took forever.
Started it late: Because I exercised self-restraint (for once) and finished my morning shift first. Some of it I did out by the creek, but some of it required wifi and so had to wait until I came home and plugged the laptop in. Until the new battery arrives, I can't have wifi on battery alone; the poor laptop goes from 98% remaining, to 86%, to 66% barely minutes later, then shuts itself down hard, over the space of fifteen minutes.
"Also it wouldn't be right to just use some random private residence's unencrypted signal."
Right, what she said. Who was that, anyway? My conscience? Right.
Anyway, the bits that required wifi, I came home and did them. Well, first I put the morning's catch in the refrigerator and tidied away my fishing supplies, but then I did the rest of my morning writing shift.
Notably, this included submitting "Keeping Time," a story that has been out into the world twice already, to a brand new likely suspect. Or, if not as likely as I like to think, then at the very least to a market I'd be very pleased to see publish it. "Keeping Time," like "Stand By for Your Assignment," is a story whose first incarnation was A) much shorter, and B) in second person point of view. Unlike "Stand By," which needed to be changed to 3rd person POV, "Keeping Time" remained in 2nd person. I seem to default to 2nd person when I write very short pieces. I worry that it's a sign of laziness. Except, when pieces like that go to workshop, they occasionally get encouraging critiques along the lines of "Normally I hate 2nd person POV but you seem to pull it off," so maybe it's OK.
(This should not be confused with stories like "The Day the Sidewalks Melted" or "Other Theories of Relativity," which, despite including a whole bunch of sentences starting with the word "you," are actually in first person POV. The perspective character is an "I" who is addressing the "you." If it were second person POV, the perspective character would be the "you." But the mere presence of many sentences starting with "you" does not by itself indicate 2nd person POV, no more than the presence of "to be" by itself indicates passive voice. This is a minor sore spot with me, since while shopping "Sidewalks" around for reprints, I got a rejection letter that said "Sorry, I just don't enjoy 2nd person POV," and I kind of wanted to write back, "OK, fine, I accept that you don't care for the story, but did you somehow miss the bit where the narrator refers to himself as 'I'? The narrative is epistolary! Only instead of writing a letter, he's leaving a message on someone's cell phone voice mail! Gahhhh!")
(I didn't, of course. Never write back to argue with a rejection letter! Write blog posts instead. If you must.)
Anyway, so, off it goes.
Took forever: There is nothing about jambalaya itself that takes forever. Ditto etouffee. What takes forever is crawfish prep.
OK, no, boiling crawfish takes no time at all. You bring the water up to a boil, tossing in your seasonings while you wait; you dump in the bugs and let them go for 3 to 5 minutes; you dump in ice and leave them to soak up the spices for 15 to 30 minutes according to your tastes. No big deal. Most of that's just waiting around. But shelling them, and shelling them thoroughly--deveining tails, scooping out the fat, picking out some of the claw meat--that took a little while. (As opposed to eating them right out the shell, which would take no time at all. My friends have to remind me at the Nono's Cafe crawfish boils that I have to slow down to give other people at the table a chance. In this I am very much my father's daughter.) It took a while, and it was a continuous working while.
I have a system for claw meat, by the way. You take a butter knife, and you split the claw vertically. Then you for each half of the claw you use the other half's claw tine to dig the meat out. Quick and easy.
Anyway, lunch prep began around 1:15 with a trip to the grocery and didn't end until I was scooping jambalaya into my bowl around 6:00. And then of course it was time to eat. Leisurely. While reading blogs and online articles. And forgetting, what with my tummy being all full and happy, that time was continuing to pass.
The actual catching of the crawfish coexisted with my writing day quite well, especially since adding the DIY trap to my process. But if you catch them and bring them home, you gotta cook them, and, tasty as the results are, I'm not taking the time to do that again until at least the weekend. Maybe crawfish will turn into a Monday thing. That would work.
So I'll be off to work on the rest of my "afternoon shift" now, shall I? Got a YPP Examiner post I want to write, and a short story whose revision is seriously overdue. Guess which order I'll be doing those in. Go on, guess.
everyone gets something to read today (that means you)
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September's "Fictionette Freebie" is out and available to the public, Patron and non-Patron alike. It's "What Dreams May Hatch," which you may download as a lovely PDF from Patreon, read in one of Wattpad's versatile formats, or simply click to read it here on the actually writing blog.
September 30 also means it's deadline day for the call for submissions to An Alphabet of Embers. How did I do in that whole "improving my relationship with deadlines" thing? Well... I wasn't up until 2 AM, how's that?
I woke up this morning feeling like I'd already lost. Like, I drafted it with two weeks to go, right, but then I didn't touch it all last week and I didn't touch it over the weekend and I didn't get to it yesterday either which meant... yup, once again I'm pulling the bulk of the work during the last 24 hours of the reading period. Defeat.
Except, here's the thing: I did draft it two weeks before deadline. And I didn't end up submitting it in the wee hours. So, y'know, improvement. I think I'm entitled to feel at least a little happy about that.
Not to forget: I did, in fact, submit the story. And it went from vague brainstormy concept to submitted story in something like three weeks. Yay, right? Yay. And look! It has a real title now! A title with a terrible pun.
Anyway, it's in. And in rereading the guidelines I saw that 1. they allow two submissions per author, and 2. they appear to be open to reprints. So I sent "Sidewalks" along, because why not? I may not be personally 100% sure it's right for Embers, but that's properly the editor's decision, not mine. So off it goes.
Today has been a mix of happy and hopeful news. Tomorrow will feature more of that stuff. Stay tuned.
prompts from poughkeepsie for an all-night road trip
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I've been playing with a new source of writing prompts this week: "News from Poughkeepsie," as presented by Mur Lafferty. This is, or at least originated as, a series of writing prompts from the brain of Jared Axelrod. I suspect--though I haven't got a citation for this--that its title comes from Harlan Ellison's famous smart-ass answer to the perennial question, "Where do you get your ideas?" At one point I think Mur was reading one at the end of each episode of her I Should Be Writing podcast. In any case, I'm currently receiving them in her weekly email that you can get if you support ISBW on Patreon. Chuck a buck Mur's way each month and you can get her weekly email too! All while knowing that you're helping to keep the podcast's metaphorical lights on!
Anyway, I've been a supporter for two weeks now, so I've received two of these emails. This week I dug up the writing prompts and used them in my freewriting. Both of them, the one from this week and the one from last, had to do with your antagonist: exercises to help you get to know your story's villain as a three-dimensional character with agency and motives of their own. And I was stuck for a moment, because I don't know who the heck is "my villain." The last few stories I've been working on haven't had villains, not exactly.
Well, "Caroline's Wake" has Caroline's murderer; I guess he's an antagonist, of sorts. But, for one thing, I don't feel like he brings the true central conflict in the story. For another, that story is out in the slush now, so there's limited use in noodling over its antagonist's human moments.
OK, so, what am I working on now? The new story, the one with the feathers. The one that I still haven't come up with a good title for. It doesn't have an antagonist. What it has is a semi-random act of the supernatural and a handful of satellite characters affected by it. Those characters aren't pitted against villains or even banal antagonists. They just have the small day-to-day conflicts that we all do. It's rather like "The Day the Sidewalks Melted" in that way. Hell, it's almost written to the same formula, if "Sidewalks" can be said to have a formula.
In the end I gave up on trying to find a way to make the prompt work for any work in progress. I just made up a new character, decided she was a villain in a story I don't know yet, and let the writing prompt help me ease my way into that story. And that was fun. I had no idea where I was going, but I kept stumbling across signposts as I fumbled my way forward through the 25 minutes. It was E. L. Doctorow's "driving a car at night" style of writing, where "You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
That's the best kind of writing, when there's a surprise at the end of every sentence that tells you how to write the next sentence. It's what I love about first drafts.
assembly lines in no particular hurry
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With recent deadlines behind me and unstructured fiction time ahead, I'm working on "The Impact of Snowflakes." This is another story that has been through the critique mill several times; most recently it received the attentions of my current neighborhood group.
I'm developing a process for this. It's a gradual process, an unhurried process, a process involving itty-bitty bites at a time, a process above all involving very little pressure upon myself. Revision is not a task I approach gleefully. Any strategy I can use to Not Scare Myself Off is a good strategy.
Anyway, it's how "It's For You" got revised and ready to submit, so I'm doing it again. It goes like this:
First, the scribbled-upon hard copies get three-hole-punched and popped into a three-ring-binder. Yesterday I made this process More Fun by acquiring color tab dividers (to separate story from story) along with sticky tabs in fun quilt-print patterns (to separate copy from copy).
Next, the story finds a home in a new Scrivener project using the short story template. An RTF copy of the story gets pulled in under the "Critiques" folder.
Then, I annotate this critiqued draft by entering each critic's feedback as linked comments. Linked comments can be created in any color; I assign one color to each critic. If the critic left me any general comments, I'll type that into a new file that lives folder-wise inside the critiqued draft.
(Here is where I complain a little about Scrivener for Windows. The manual claims that Scrivener remembers which color you used last in a linked comment, such that it will automatically create the next linked comment in that color. LIES. Every single one comes up in default yellow. So it's Highlight text, hit Shift-F4, hope like heck I didn't hit CTRL-F4 instead, type in the comment, right-click on the comment, select "Purple"... and repeat.)
Lastly, I begin typing in the new draft. I use a horizontal split-screen layout so I can reference the critiqued copy and its comments below the split while I type in the new draft above. The new draft, of course, goes in the "Draft" folder, either as one file or many depending on whether I work the scenes out of order.
Right now, I'm in the annotation stage. I'm giving myself permission to go through a single critiqued copy per day. This means that the work goes very slowly. But it also means a certain amount of composting--that background-level "thinking about things" process--happens too. Each person's feedback gets a day and a night of subconscious chewing-over. Hopefully that means that by the time I begin working on the new draft, possible solutions to the problems raised in the workshop are beginning to bubble into consciousness.
And oh boy are there problems in this story. The main thing I'm wibbling about is the isolation of the main character. I mean, yes, you get somewhat isolated when you live alone and the Snowpocalypse is shutting down the world little by little, but there's phones and internet and TV and stuff, and emergency personnel with their vehicles with their flashing lights and sirens. This is not an intimate two-person story like "It's For You." This is a worldwide crisis story. Which means I have to populate the world in which it occurs.
When wibbling, it's so very helpful to focus in on small, bite-sized tasks. Nibble-sized tasks. Tomorrow, I don't have to worry about populating the whole world. All I have to do is annotate the critiqued draft with the feedback scribbled on the next copy in my binder. I cannot begin to tell you what a relief that is.
In other news, Lightspeed has already declined "Other Theories of Relativity" for their Women Destroy Science Fiction issue. Which means that story is free to go knock on another editor's door. And because it's always easier to knock on a stranger's door if you've got a buddy, I sent along "The Day the Sidewalks Melted," who's seeking a first reprint home, to keep it company.
The two stories are oddly similar. I'm trying to consider this a plus. It's not "oh, dear, not one but two stories about broken relationships and loss and disaster written in a sort of Second Person of Direct Address point of view, hasn't this author any other tricks?" No. It's "My, what a lovely diptych of microfiction this is." Yes. That's exactly what it is.
Old Story Now In Print. New Story Now On Typewriter.
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Big news: "The Day the Sidewalks Melted" is now live for you to read in Ideomancer volume 9, issue 1. Read it here. And since it won't take you all that much time to read, go read the rest of the free, online magazine while you're at it. The other stories are breathtaking, the poetry likewise, and the reviews illuminating.
And consider donating, since that's how the staff of Ideomancer keep the magazine going and the contributors paid year after year.
Meanwhile, I'm working on a new story, which is news and really oughtn't to be. That is, I ought to be doing it often enough--writing new stories--that it's not newsworthy. But I finally realized, considering the woefully slow progress I've been making on finishing the NaNoWriMo 2009 draft of Melissa's Ghost (I'm afraid John's getting the proof copy for an anniversary present; it wasn't done in time for his birthday), that putting off everything else until I'm done with that job is a recipe for unhappiness.
Recipe for happiness:
- One story idea that won't let you go.
- A portable Smith-Corona that's gathering dust.
- Five minutes reviewing the typewriter's instruction manual.
- About two and a half hours.
It's not actually a new story, but it's such a revision over the first time it showed up that it might as well be. What's it about? Well, in one sense, it's about succubi and how they reproduce. In another, it's about lives of ennui, lives of substance, and profound transformation. It's probably only going to be about 1500 words by the end of the day.
The end of the day will not be later than this weekend. I have promised it to the twice-monthly critique group. No, not the original typewritten draft. It'll get retyped into WordPerfect and revised first. Then emailed.
See, I'm not entirely a luddite here. (I mean, look! Blog post! On the internet!) It's just that sometimes, to recover from a stall, I have to switch from my daily laptop to something a little more "me plus words minus everything else". Sometimes I need to dust off the Ancient Decrepit DOS 6.2 Compaq, hide away from the wifi and from all my fancy editing tools. And sometimes I need to escape the bureaucracy of file names and directory trees and run away to where the paper shows up before the words rather than after, to where each letter has weight and the price of going too fast is a key-jam or the whiteout ribbon.
And sometimes I just need that immediate reward of a bell going "ding!" every time I invent a new ten-word sequence or so. "Go you! Now come up with another ten. Good job! Again!"
Seriously. You should try it. It's refreshing.
I Have The Pleasure Of Reporting a Sale of Fiction
It was actually only four rewrites; I estimated and slightly exaggerated on Twitter. Four requested rewrites, and now an acceptance. "The Day The Sidewalks Melted" will be published in Ideomancer Speculative Fiction. Possibly in March.
I don't really have much to say beyond that, except that I'm really happy, and, despite how weary I may sound of rewrites, really grateful to editor Leah Bobet for seeing the potential in this story and pushing me to make that potential reality. Her attention, patience, and persistence were vital.
Now I must write a bio. Hooray, a new assignment to affix my dread upon! I'm off to procrastinate now, which we shall call "reading back-issues of Ideomancer to get an idea of what kind of bios the authors therein do write."
Epiphanies About Magic Realism
Another revision on "Sidewalks" today. My office away from home was The Barking Dog Cafe in Lyons, because I started the day in Longmont and it seemed convenient to go west.
I should report that Highway 66 is all over construction. Ick.
Anyway... magic realism. Epiphanies. The one about the other. Let's see... It's not an easy genre to talk about. I'm not sure I can claim to write it, not being a Latin American author writing in the '60s. I'm not sure I can safely navigate the difference between "the magical" and "the fantastic". I'm not sure I can adequately rebut the accusation that it's just a fancy code phrase meaning "My fantasy writing is literary."
I'm going to keep using the phrase anyway. It seems the best way to label that which I aspire to write.
If you asked me a year ago to define the term, what it means to me, I'd have said, "Fantasy in which the fantastic element is presented as unremarkable, beside the point, or otherwise just a matter-of-fact part of daily life." Today I think that, as far as descriptions go, that works, but as a prescriptive it's not really enough. So here's what I'd say today--heck, here is what I am saying today.:
Magic realism is fantasy in which the fantastic element is not plot, but setting. When it really succeeds, the fantastic element serves to highlight the magical in the mundane. And the particular fantastic element should be of unique necessity to the story.
I'm not sure I've succeeded yet with "Sidewalks," but with each revision, the story has become more about the characters than the unexplained event; and the event has, I hope, stopped being just an SF/F stand-in for an earthquake or a 9/11. I'm starting to see parallels between the precise effects of that event and the dynamics of the main characters' relationship.
I mean, I think so, anyway. I could be wrong. And maybe I'm just overthinking things? Goodness knows the last thing a story needs is its author doing lit-crit analysis on it in public before it's even published. So... that's probably more than enough from me on this topic at this time. OKTHXBAI
Epiphanies About Flash Fiction
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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.