Failed so hard

Bess is a mess. I tinkered, I deconstructed, then school got away from me and I ran out of everything even resembling free time, and now I have nothing left even resembling a story.

I also didn’t win NaNoWriMo for the first time in a few years. I blame school. It has, however, been fun to watch other people win, and even though I’m not the best cheerleader in the group I’m still trying to encourage and congratulate those who finish.

But this isn’t really about NaNoWrimo. I’ve got to get something else off my chest:

While I was watching the new Gilmore Girls over the weekend (yeah, yeah – instead of writing – so maybe school isn’t entirely to blame) I got this twisty-tangled feeling about the writing. Some of it was bad. It’s possible that a lot of it was bad, but I was too sentimental to realize it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved going back to Stars Hollow and checking in with some of my favorite characters in fiction, I definitely cried a couple times, and that one scene with Luke in the kitchen was probably some of the best character-driven writing I’ve ever seen. All of those things can still be true and the writing can overall be terrible.

I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but the phrase “full circle” was used about half a dozen times, two characters had a really awkward conversation for the sake of nothing else except what I’m about to write next, and then we got those infamous “last four words” that made me think all seven hours of TV had been written solely for the sake of getting those four words on screen. This wasn’t good theme work, hell it wasn’t even “telegraphing” – it was Three Stooges-style bashing-the-audience-over-the-head. That doesn’t respect the audience—even in such low-brow media as an early-2000s television show that featured more pop culture references than actual plot developments—and that should be enough to satisfy the definition of bad writing.

The show did fix some things, if only in the way that wistfully imagined conversations with former lovers can put a neat bow on a once-broken heart. We got to see people say the things we never get to say in real life, and that let the writers retcon several relationships from the original series into foils for preceding (and, in one instance, “current”) relationships. It’s better to have had these conversations than none at all, but throwing almost every character from such a large ensemble cast back in the mix made several of the interactions seemed forced, which made them more than a little bittersweet.

And in trying to figure out why all of this was so frustrating, because—again—I really did enjoy the revival and it was in almost every way all that I could possibly have hoped for, I couldn’t decide if I was wishing I could have edited it, or thinking about writing a fanfix (is that word? it should be), or if I was just despondent because my subconscious mind was tired of my conscious mind being all holier-than-thou when it was also utterly abandoning its obligation to just fucking write.

Which is all to say, I failed. Hard. And in critiquing the Palladinos’ efforts to bring Gilmore Girls back to the screen—which, let’s be honest, should earn them some sort of prize or medal or giant parade in addition to however many buckets of money Netflix has already given them—I found something I’d lost without realizing it. School isn’t to blame at all. My heart just wasn’t in NaNoWriMo this year. And my heart isn’t in Bess or Charlie or Daniella or any of the characters I sketched out when this project started. But my heart is in the game. And I’ll keep writing.

#TeamLogan

Help!

No, I’m not stuck at the bottom of a collapsed well with only one bar of service and 5% battery. But I am still in desperate need of help. Prepare yourself, then read the following sentence:

Bess scowled at her teacher’s besweatered backside.

Does using that word convey a particular image or is it too confusing in its novelty? Bespectacled is a thing, but it sounds better out loud than it looks on the page. I’m worried besweatered is too weird to make sense in print: Bee-sweet-erred. Swee-at-erred. What the heck?

Am I right, or can I keep it? (I secretly love it. I want to keep it. But I hate words that make your eyes hurt, so…)

(PS, I can finally publish Bess once I figure this out!)

Checking in…

am writing. I promise.

Today was a fantastic day of writing and editing. Grigory is ready for a second round of beta readers, and I made good headway resetting Charlie. Daniella is still technically “done,” but I’m not happy with her story. I think I’ll edit her down while waiting on my beta readers – like Grigory, I think her story should just be a few short scenes instead of the winding rumination I ended up with.

I have outlines up through Kevin, and I’m doing better at making a habit of sitting down to write every night. I should be able to get through Willard before my year is up! But even if I only get through Rachael (or even if I don’t get past Charlie and Bess), I am glad to have written outside of November and NaNoWriMo.

Week Eleven: Tovarishch O’Sullivan

The cold winter wind whipped through Grigory O’Sullivan’s thick red beard as he darted from the tramway. He wouldn’t be out at this hour or in this weather on a normal evening. But duty called; the Party came first.

The city center was mostly dark; a café ahead on the right was still inhabited, casting a pale warm wedge of light in futile resistance to the bitter night. A man behind the counter stared back at Grigory as he passed; his eyes were black and dull.

Grigory pulled his fur-lined collar closer about his neck as he turned the corner onto Tenth Avenue, no—onto Brezhnev Avenue—and the wind caught him square in the face. If only it had been snowing, he might have been able to call someone at the Committee and beg the evening off. But he was expected to show that he was made of tougher stuff.

He cut the corner at Holliday Avenue; if there had been traffic—or even passersby—he might not have been so brave. The rules were closely followed in Lewellingrad. And besides, he loved seeing the People’s House from this angle; the limestone columns and sharp rooflines tugged at each other like dancers.

He let himself in through a ground-floor entrance; and up to his office through the back stairs. He sat at his desk, in the dark, for just a moment. He loved this view. His office was in the attic, and he knew that was the second-worst place to have been assigned (besides the basement), but it didn’t feel like it; not with that view. Across the street, the Justice Center rose from the center of the People’s Plaza, a strong Brutalist structure that unintentionally presaged the arrival of the Party. The narrow pillars of its façade seemed too small to carry the weight of its cantilevered floors, much as the proletariat once seemed too small to carry the weight of the capitalist’s yoke. But the building endured; and the proletariat triumphed.

Grigory turned on his small desk lamp and got to work.

 

Morning found him still hunched over his small desk in his small office. The plaza was beginning to fill with workers, dressed in long coats and thick hats, on their way to work before the sun rose above the housing blocs on the east side of the city center. Grigory watched them, a dull ache having settled in the middle of his back, half asleep.

A knock on his door woke him. “Come.”

The door opened with a creak. “Comrade O’Sullivan, come to breakfast.” His friend Pyotr stood in the doorway, his cheeks red from the walk to work. “There are duck eggs.” Pyotr knew Grigory loved duck eggs.

“Yes, alright, Comrade. I could use some coffee, too.”

“Burning the midnight oil again?”

“It’s just the farm bill.” Grigory tried to stretch out his back as he stood.

“They need something to debate today, then.” Pyotr gave him a knowing grin.

Grigory sighed as he raised his arm to show Pyotr out of his office. There was always something for the Party members to debate; there just wasn’t always a bill to ground their debate in reality. As a legislative draftsman, it was Grigory’s job to make sure that didn’t happen very often.

“Yes, Comrade. Today and every day.” Grigory closed his office door behind him. He didn’t bother to lock it.

 

Breakfast was pleasant enough. Many of the Konza Oblast Party Committee members were in attendance, making a show of greeting each other and the Committee staffers. Grigory tried not to be disdainful of their fine suits and clear eyes.

Pyotr regaled him with the latest rumors on each one as he walked by. This one had a new mistress; that one’s youngest son received permission to go to university abroad; this other one was mounting a campaign to run for the Central Committee; that other one had secretly celebrated Christmas (can’t you see his new pocketwatch?, Pyotr asked, pointing at the man’s waistcoat.)

But for all the pomp, the Party-sponsored breakfast was a little meager. There had been duck eggs, as Pyotr had promised, and bacon, and griddle-cakes, and some strawberries that must have come from Mexico or somewhere. But the thin and gray-skinned kitchen staff ensured no one—not even the Oblast Secretary who came downstairs for a few minutes towards the end—received more than a modestly-sized portion.

Pyotr ate quickly and excused himself; as a Liaison Officer for the Security Committee, he had several things to finish up before the Party Committee began its first meeting. “Just reports and things,” he said with a wry smile.

Grigory walked back to his office alone. The People’s House was over a hundred years old, but the former occupants had obscured its mural-covered hallways and built offices out into the open spaces. The Party had been restoring the building almost since taking up residence; but there was still a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of room in the Oblast budget to complete the work. A carpenter avoided Grigory’s glance as he walked by.

The sun had risen high enough to cast Grigory’s office in a bath of orange light. He was about to step into that pool of sunbeams, though it promised no warmth, when he realized the draft bill was missing from his desk.

He quickly closed his door and took stock of his office. Everything was where it was supposed to be; everything except the bill.

Not that bill. Not that one. Not today.

It was a joke. He hadn’t meant anything by it. He still had plenty of time to fix it. It was just that in the early hours of the morning, when the bill was close enough to completion that his sleepless-ly fuzzy brain couldn’t choose between orneriness and celebration, he’d changed some of the words. A lot of the words.

It hadn’t been a bill sitting in his typewriter when he left for breakfast. It had been a manifesto. An indictment. A rumination and a prescription. A scathing review and a heartfelt sermon. It was everything he knew he shouldn’t say, most of the things he knew he couldn’t say, and quite a few of the things he knew wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t been called in so late on such a cold night.

It wasn’t a bill. It was a confession.

Changing his name had been easy; Pyotr had done it, too. Changing his beliefs had been harder.

He wasn’t a communist. He wasn’t a socialist. He had never cared for the populists who once controlled the state, either—although they’d been smart to invoke the battle cries of Mary Elizabeth Lease and her contemporaries when they came in with their new “People’s Party.” In truth, he hadn’t ever been much of anything. He’d always simply voted for the person who made the most sense.

But now they would know. They would know that he was not reformed. That he was not truly loyal. That he didn’t care for the Party Committee members or their hypocritical fancy suits. That he didn’t care what crops made the approval list for spring planting. That he thought the whole system was a sham.

He doubted they would find his cleverness very clever, but there was a great section in there building up a three-pages-long metaphor comparing the Central Committee to a certain local wizard.

Whoever had that sheaf of papers, whatever they intended to do with it, Grigory’s career was likely over. He turned for the door—running wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan.

But the glazed window had the figure of a man behind it. A man reaching his hand back to rap on the glass in a rude knock.

Grigory saved him the effort and opened the door.

 

Grigory couldn’t remember if he’d ever been in the Secretary’s office before. He’d worked in the People’s House long enough he surely must have entered the room for something or other at some point. But its smallness surprised him. Maybe he hadn’t been in there before.

The Secretary sat cross-legged behind his desk, leafing through the papers that had been left in an office that should have been locked. Now that he was only a few feet from the man, Grigory could see that his suit was well-made but not new; his glasses were chipped in a few places along the rim; his eyes were puffy with redness and lack of sleep. He looked around the office again; the bookcases were plain, the carpet a little worn, the paintings on the wall were poster prints. He briefly entertained the thought that this man, the most powerful in the Konza Oblast, was a true believer. He wasn’t sure if that should worry him.

The Secretary finished reading, put the papers on his desk and worked a phlegmy cough as politely as possible. He took off his glasses with his left hand and rubbed his temples with his right. He put his glasses back on and stared at Grigory. His tired eyes were blue and sharp.

“Tell me Tovarishch O’Sullivan,” he started, using the formal Russian term as if to remind Grigory that although he had lost most of his accent he had not lost his ties to the Motherland, “why does the Party Committee debate a farm bill every spring?”

Grigory contemplated his response. Giving the Secretary the same answer he’d just read in the stolen papers was obviously not an option, but he was hard pressed to come up with a better one.

“Do you think it is to make a show? To fill the radio waves with sound bites and catchphrases? To quell the people, to convince them the merits of growing crops that receive almost no subsidy from the Central Committee? To trick them? Into mere obedience?”

Grigory chose not to answer.

The Secretary grew tired of waiting.

“It’s because we have quotas. Our Republic stands in unity with other soviet republics across the globe. There are radicals who would shatter the bonds that tie us together with so-called ‘decentralization’ efforts. The only way to stop them is to protect the system of mutual cooperation we have so carefully established.

“And so we must choose. Maize, or wheat? Beans, or barley? Sorghum, or rye? Do we stay at five million cattle, or should we replace some with sheep or goats? And on top of it all, we must choose where these things will go. Do we plow more fields in the east, or do we let fields lay fallow for a season? Do we build more pumps in the west, or do we turn fields over to ranching?

“These are the questions the Party Committee was supposed to debate today. We must have a proposal for the Central Committee to review, as must the other Oblasts. We must play our part. Do you understand?”

Of course he did. Grigory was from a farm town. Surely the Secretary knew that; he could see his personnel file there on the corner of his desk. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he offered.

“Neither did I.” The Secretary’s response was almost kind.

“I only meant—”

“I know exactly what you meant, Comrade. You were frustrated. You had every right to be. But your work is serious. You must be serious about it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Very well then.” The Secretary pushed the papers back across the desk. “I’ll need a finished draft before noon. You did good work on the bridges bill last fall. Let’s get a little mor of that out of you, shall we?” He smiled in a way that told Grigory the discussion of his transgression had come to an end.

Was that it? A half-lecture and a pat on the back? He stood, and offered a feeble smile in return. An aide showed him out.

He had to admit, he had done good work on the bridges bill last fall.

Wait—was that all it took? A pat on the back? To put him in his place, to turn him back into a good little soldier?

Of course the bill debate was just a show. Of course it was designed as a source of sound bites to distract the dirt-poor farmers whose standard of living had actually decreased since the so-called “People’s Party” had swept them up in its fervor. The Central Committee had already decided who would grow what, and where.

But maybe there was another truth buried in what the Secretary had told him. Maybe the system was fragile enough they needed him—yes, him—to write another bridges bill, the kind with lofty language that would inspire the kind of debate that would get endless replay on the evening news. Maybe the Party would crumble under the weight of its central planning, or maybe it was more likely that it would crumble without it.

Either way, Grigory feared what would happen if there wasn’t at least a debate before the Central Committee issued its planting maps. He felt sick to his stomach.

He knew he would feel better when he fixed his draft.

Duty called; the Party came first.

Meta

Bess turned into an experimental piece playing with what Rick DiMarinis (and Albert Einstein, probably) called “Time’s Arrow.” I’m still tinkering, but I love it.

Charlie‘s not dead anymore. At least I think not. Mainly because he didn’t think he was dead. At first he seemed to think he was just “in between worlds,” but his descriptions reminded me of The Twilight Princess and that turned into some Ready Player One fanfiction. I plan, to continue the theme, to hit Reset on his story. If I don’t like it, I’ll publish the fanfic.

Daniella needs to be edited, but otherwise she’s ready.

Eb turned into a chapter for last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. I’m not sure what to do with that.

I have no story for F.

Gregory O’Sullivan is a low-level bureaucrat in an alternate-reality version of Kansas where (this is not in there, it’s just backstory) America doesn’t leave Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and the USSR, having watched America fail spectacularly in southeast Asia, plays a better ground game in Afghanistan, reunites Pakistan and India, and backs a Chinese invasion of the West Coast. They buy off UK peacekeepers with cheap oil and establish a puppet/satellite People’s Republic of America in the American Midwest (China gets the West Coast and what’s left of the US becomes the American Union, mostly relegated to territory between New York and North Carolina, reaching no further west than Pennsylvania; Cuba gets Florida and Mexico gets most of the South–drawing the map was almost as fun as writing the story!). He snaps in a moment of weakness, and questions his allegiance to the Party. There’s a bit of a metaphor in there, but due to my work situation I didn’t want it to be too sharp. TSCPL will eventually own the copyright, since this is my submission for the Community Novel, but if I publish the first draft here they’ll get a derivative work and I should be okay. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I try not to remember that adage about lawyers and fools and being your own client. Look for Tovarishch O’Sullivan later tonight or early tomorrow. (That’s the Russian word for Comrade. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Where are the stories?!

I’m behind. I know.

I think I’m going to skip Bess and Charlie, at least for a while, because Daniella is almost ready. I have an outline for Eb, which is a start at least, but I should have had all of those done and an F story out this week if I was keeping on schedule. But I’m not.

The long and short of it is, writing is hard. One short story per week was a ridiculous idea. I know I’m holding myself to a high standard with my writing, and I also know I’m not setting aside enough time to write, but writing isn’t just writing – it’s also coming up with a new idea each week, outlining, writing, revising, and editing, then revising and editing all over again. It’s a lot of work.

I’m not giving up. I would love to have fifty-two short stories under my belt by next February.

But if I’m being realistic, it’s probably not going to be more than thirty.

Which would still be thirty more short stories than I’d ever written, and thirty more than I would have if I hadn’t started this project. And that’s something for me to look forward to.

Week Four: Meta (Or, What’s In A Draft?)

Yes, I know I’m now three stories behind. And I should be publishing another story, not another “meta” post. But on Tuesday night I went to a short fiction “how-to” event with Thomas Fox Averill, an O. Henry award-winning author and professor at Washburn University, hosted by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. And now I’m ready to get back on track.

I’ve been reading some short fiction “how-to” books, but sitting in a room and being able to make eye contact with someone who knows what he’s talking about is different somehow. I figured out why Bess’s story has been so hard to write, came up with some ideas on how to re-write a second draft from a slightly different perspective, and participated in a writing exercise that gave me a huge jump-start on my fourth short story, Daniella.

Professor Averill’s lecture, at about an hour long, was truly a crash course in short-fiction writing. (I italicized that in part because my assignment at the end was to write a story involving the collapse of the Topeka Avenue bridge.) To cover such a huge amount of territory in such a short time, he framed his lecture around several words all starting with the letter P:

  • Person – who is your main character, and what are their strongest/deepest traits?
  • Place – where is the story taking place, and does that give your story a narrative frame?
  • Problem – “Trouble [is] the backbone of literature.” – Eudora Welty. Testing your character’s character, for example by trying their strongest traits, makes for the most interesting story. (This is essentially the core of Ayn Rand’s theory of the plot-theme.)
  • Point-of-view – who is telling the story, and how does that affect the story itself? For example, first-person POV is traditionally the “survivor’s” POV; I don’t think it’s an accident that I selected first-person POV for the first two sections of Adam.
  • Plot – in addition to the generic “what structure does this story take?” we also talked about plotting, for example is a story based on a traditional narrative (like “the hero’s journey”), or are you starting with the end (or the beginning) and making up the rest as you go?
  • Parameter – I didn’t write anything down next to this while taking notes, but I remember thinking about plot-theme again. If I had to guess, I’d say this one means: what are the bounds of your story (number of characters, place, time elapsed) and does each one test your characters and reveal something meaningful about them?
  • Practice – this one is obvious: “writer’s write.” How can you be a writer if you don’t sit down and write?

The only thing we didn’t really cover was outlining; Professor Averill seems to be the type of author who starts writing and then lets the characters give him the story. Here’s what that looks like for me:

draft

I don’t really like writing like that, because it leads to what I call reiterative editing. That is to say, I keep going around and around making little nips and tucks and tiny changes and improvements to the point where nothing ever actually gets written. (For example, in the first paragraph, two consecutive clauses use the word “problem” – yes, homework problems are called “problems,” but I would find another word or find another way to describe the action; like “rewriting the equation using the arctangent formula” or “transforming it into the arctangent formula.”)

That works well enough, but it doesn’t help me fill in the blanks (helpfully set off in brackets in the image above). I like to outline. I’m a planner. If I had outlined Bess, I could have taken each bracketed idea, compared it to my goals for each character, and put something in there that would have moved the story forward.

I don’t have to hew too closely to my outline, but I find that constraints promote creativity and that I work better when I have a sense of where I am going with a story.  Adam started out with four scenes that mirrored the first four stages of grief, with a planned denouement that implied acceptance not only of losing his father-figure but also his acceptance of the android version of “the human condition” at the very end.

About halfway through, I realized that the first two scenes had a lot of thematic overlap, the third and fourth scenes were a little slow, and the fifth scene wasn’t going to have the right tone if the reader got too far into Adam’s head. So I rewrote it as three scenes, with a change of POV in the third scene that looped back around into the narrative so the first two scenes, told in the first person, could be read as Adam telling his story to the technician; the third-person POV in the final scene pulls the reader out of Adam’s head so they can experience his final narrative section in the form of a confession and come to their own conclusions about what happens next. Is the final line hopeful? I think so. But it’s not unreasonable to think that line is tragic, that Adam will never be able to feel anything but only continue parroting human emotions.

I’m going to try outlining more, starting with Daniella. I already have an outline for her and the beginnings of one for Eb, so if I can catch up with Bess and Charlie next week, I should be able to stay more-or-less on schedule from now on. Keep your fingers crossed!