Ants Go Marching Latte-ward, Hurrah
1312 words long
Inside the Story Factory
Remember yesterday's overwrought, overstretched metaphor? "So it's like a seedling nursery, right? Only it's in suspended animation." It's exactly like that, actually.
So I do the Twitter thing. My blog posts broadcast there via RSS, and I get downright tweet-headed when I'm on a train or at a convention. And sometimes I tweet the "Story Idea du Jour"--for example, this.
The Story Idea du Jour comes directly out of this daily routine I'm working on, where I sit down with the task of writing something new, something so brand-new that I don't even know what it's going to be until it's done. It is very self-reassuring to come up with a shiny new story idea daily. It reaffirms the known but hard-to-keep-hold-of fact that story ideas don't run out. Truly they don't. Ideas are not only a dime a dozen, they're growing on trees. And the more I force myself to come up with new ones, the easier it is to come up with new ones.
"Coming up with ideas" isn't quite right. I'm coming up with ideas all the time without even trying. I'd wager tomorrow's breakfast that we all do. The trick is recognizing them as ideas and not reflexively rejecting them. Morning Pages are also good for fomenting the habit of recognition and breaking the habit of rejection: Keep the pen moving. Don't stop for three pages. Recognize each thought and transcribe it. Don't audition your thoughts against some "worth writing about" yardstick. Write them all down. So with story ideas. What's in your head right now this second? That right there, yes, that, that's a story idea. Pay it some attention. Play with it.
When I started my 25-minute timer, I was also timing some cupcakes in the oven. (We had a cupcake-designing party for April Fool's Day. We had some icing left over. How do you use up leftover icing? You make more cupcakes.) 25 minutes to freewrite on some idea or other; 25 minutes to bake cupcakes. Isn't it great how these things work out? But in any case, after beating together flour and sugar and milk and shortening and so on, after pouring out batter into little paper cups inside the six spaces on a muffin tin, my head was full of cupcake. In fact, what my head kept saying was, "The little cupcake that could."
Isn't that awesome? "The Little Cupcake That Could." That's awesome. But--what the crap is it about?
Twenty-five minutes later, it was about some esoteric ingredient masquerading as extra flour, bought at a questionable shop that happened to be convenient on the way home from a particularly hassled day at work, that got baked into cupcakes, that got served at a ten-year-old's birthday party, that changed the lives of the birthday party attendants forever. Years later, something terrible happens to one of them, and this brings the whole group together, and they have to find out what has been done to them and what it means in their lives now and what choices it puts before them all too soon.
Those little cupcakes? They could.
And then, after 25 minutes, I click "Save and Exit." I forget all about it (except maybe to tweet it, or blog about it briefly) and I move on to another task. I've done my job for the day, as far as the cupcakes are concerned. I've planted a seed in the nursery. You don't sit there watching the ground covering a seed, waiting for it to sprout. You water it and put it somewhere warm and sunny and then you leave it alone.
One day I will look through my file full of Story Ideas du Jour, and the cupcake one will go ping! I'll print it up, make notes, and type a brand new draft about those nefarious cupcakes and those hapless ten-year-olds (and the hapless 20-somethings they became). It'll become the novel or screenplay it was meant to be.
But not today. Today, I'm still working on a story that got planted back in June of last year, that I selected out of the nursery late last week. The one about giant sentient Ants and a rather progressive barista learning how to talk to each other and turn a profit at the same time.
Or something like that.
It's a work in progress.
How To Eat French Onion Soup
- 2,847 words (if poetry, lines) long
- 6,000 words (if poetry, lines) long
Writing metaphors! They're not just for breakfast anymore! In fact, they're what's for dinner. Also lunch for the next three days, because we cook in quantity.
So on Wednesday John and I had our first Cooking Date of the year. We made French onion soup and insalata caprese. It was all a spectacular success, and, as implied above, I've had leftovers to eat every day since then.
Today at lunch I sat down with a freshly broiled toast-and-cheese top on a rewarmed crock of our awesome soup, and, apropos of nothing extraordinary, I finally figured out how to eat the dang stuff.
Pause. Rewind. Replay a Wednesday night in Metairie, Louisiana circa 1988. Maybe it was a Sunday, I don't know. Once a week, or maybe just once a month--memory is hazy here--a group of neighborhood ladies got together to sing barbershop harmony. They had hopes of founding a brand-new Sweet Adelines chapter. Mom met with them and brought me along, and this was when I first got pegged as a baritone. (Yes: I was a Type A at the age of 12.) But where I'm going with this trip down memory lane is down the road from the neighborhood home in which we rehearsed to the local Ruby Tuesdays for late night appetizers. Where I always, always, always ordered the French onion soup.
And I always made a mess trying to get through that toast-and-cheese lid. And Mom and all the other grown-ups enjoyed great and gentle amusement at my exasperated expense.
It's not simple! A spoon isn't sharp enough to get through that thick swiss cheese. And even if it was, the toast is floating; you can't very well slice it with a knife and fork. There's no leverage. Best I managed to do was poke at the edges of the cheese until I had a hole through which to sip the broth down to a less perilous surface level, such that mangling the toast and cheese no longer caused catastrophic overflow.
Even John asked the question when we sat down to dinner: "Now how do I eat this?" "I have no idea," I told him. "You just muddle through and make a mess. It's why I put the soup crocks on plates."
But today at lunch, I got it. If you just let the soup crock sit, all patient-like, until all components are cool enough to eat without burning your mouth, the soup will have soaked into the toast and softened it up. Then you can push... not too hard... very very gently... at the cheese-topped toast with the edge of your spoon, until it gives way. The cheese will try to glue it together, but once the bread breaks, the cheese will stretch thin and you can bite through it when you eat the broken-off bite of bread.
After that, everything's much easier.
So this was my discovery. And I thought, "That's another metaphor for writing, isn't it?" (Yes. I know. Everything's a metaphor for writing. Shut up, I'm making a point, it's an effin' marvelous point, it's bloody brilliant. Because I say so. Hush.) Of course I thought that. I was in the middle of my writing day, and I was trying to figure out how to get my mental spoon through the thick cheese topping that was keeping me from going deeper than babble draft into anything.
The plan was to spend a good hour moving an unfinished short story closer to submission-ready. Only I didn't know which one. "First Breath" was done and out the door (though it may yet see further revisions pending an ongoing conversation a colleague and I are having about its worldbuilding details). "Lambing Season" also hit the slush again yesterday. A number of stories are in the post-critique "almost perfect, but not quite" stage, but none felt... permeable, if you know what I mean. None felt accessible. I spent half an hour going through my files, looking for some half-baked idea from a freewriting exercise that might spark itself into a full-blown story. Nothing went ping.
Finally I latched onto a "scene" from the Daily Story Idea yWriter file. It had to do with sentient, human-sized Ants coexisting with humans. One of them goes into a coffee shop and orders a cappuccino. As story ideas go, this one was light and fluffy and funny and nothing at all like "First Breath," and it amused me to read it. I had no idea what to do with it, though. I didn't even know what to call it. ("The Ants Go Marching Latte-ward, Hurrah" is very much not a working title. It's an "I have to call this something and I mustn't take it too seriously this early in the game" sort of for-now title.) I set the timer for another half hour and attempted to figure it out where this thing was going.
I pasted that ridiculous excuse for a working title at the top and printed out the not-yet-a-story. Then I read it again, letting its broth soak in and soften things up. Then I got out a pen and began making notes as tentative as the spoon's assault on the toast-and-cheese. "Barista shouldn't be too enlightened; anti-Ant prejudice shouldn't all be big bad boss's." "Would Ant use mandibles for speech? How would Ants speak?" "What barista thinks but doesn't say parallels what Ant doesn't say but telegraphs with her antennae." Several of those notes put together became a solid story development idea, like a nice big bite of toast that lets you finally get your spoon into the soup. And after that, everything becomes much simpler.
Really, everything about writing that looks scary and impossible tends to seem less so once you take that first nibble. But then, isn't that the case for most scary and impossible tasks?