Composing a Story: Part 1 of X

Recently I have been writing a new story. Fantasy-horror, I suppose, though much more fantasy and not much horror. This is my first completed genre story in a while. I edited one in January, and have written some smaller things here and there, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to “THE END” of a story on my “potential topics” list in a while.

I won’t say much about it, but I will use a few posts here and in the next couple of months to chronicle how I’m going about crafting this story, how I’ll revise it, how I’ll plan to submit it. So: since I just completed the first draft and now plan to let it sit, I’ll just give a few thoughts right now.

Working title: Death at the Door

This will certainly be changed. “Death at the Door” was just a way for me to name it so I’d have something other than just a story number to remember it by.

Word count: About 11,400

So this is “long short story” or “short novella” length. But I like what has gone into it so far. My plan will be to cut at least 10% of the words for my next draft, then get some feedback, then rewrite as necessary. Sometimes this adds words, sometimes cuts. My expected final word count is somewhere between 9,500 and 13,000.

Writing days: 16

Started January 29, finished February 18. Skipped 6 days in the middle. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t writing. Most days I was working on something else.

Writing sessions: 17

I was aiming for 500+ words each day. Got that on Feb 13 with 2 sessions. Two days, on Feb 15 and 16, were 330 and 220 words. I was dealing with some other crap those days and didn’t make quota. All the rest were pretty solid. Today I made a big push for the end and got 1,900 words to finish it out.

Next Steps

I’ll let this sit for a while. I think in the rest of February I’m going to do a lot of writing practice (exercises, free writing, etc.) and also look back through some of my older, unsubmitted stories and see if I can pick out one to edit and finalize. Probably won’t come back to this until the end of March. After my revisions I’ll throw it out to a couple of review groups – maybe my Odyssey friends, maybe an online forum. Maybe by then I’ll have a local writers group who can critique for me.

After revision, I’ll start submitting. Because I would be thrilled to win, I’ve found myself submitting to Writers of the Future first for most of my stories recently. This one is no exception. But since I don’t expect to win, I’ll then send this on to Fantasy & Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, etc. Watch for updates later on this process.

Writing Practice – 2/1/2018

I’ve said before that I sometimes take a line from another story and see where it goes. Today is from a story called In the Zoo, by Jean Stanford.

She walks quickly along beside the train. “Watch out for pickpockets!” she calls. [Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, page 1325]
And I wonder exactly why she would tell me that. Don’t I have enough experience being robbed that I already know to be aware, to attend to my surroundings? I feel myself frown, then, and that is not the last memory I wish to leave with her, so I force a smile onto my face. I lean out the window. I wave, she is waving, we are waving across an expanding gulf, one of space, yes, but also of experience, she remains on the platform and in the small town and confined by the vagaries and vulgarities and smallness of life. While I am heading off to the world, to richer experience for myself, to become something, some thing, I know not what, but I plan to explore and to see and to delve into the variety of all this world offers.

Platte Butte falls away behind, as the trail pulls eastward, and I lean back in the seat satisfied, and yet scared, too.

I am satisfied that I have achieved this taking-off, this breaking free of the shackles of small town, I have stepped out into the world with its bright lights, fancy technology, and people from all over.

And yet I am scared, too. Scared for my sister, all alone now, and staying with a friend until she is married in another three months. Couldn’t I have stayed just a little longer to help her get settled? Wouldn’t it be fun, two sisters, greatest friends in the world, to live in a small apartment above the Woolworth’s on Sixth, sharing meals, gossiping about all of the untoward actions those unseemly men have put forth in our days recently past, planning for and executing her marriage and eventual moving out for her to live with him in a two-bedroom apartment on the east side? Wouldn’t it have been better for me to stay to complete that single life of hers with her, to support her and transition her and be there with her as she grew up and out and happy?

Perhaps.

Perhaps it would have been [illegible]. But each time I considered it, each time I imagined myself in this world, each time I thought of staying in Platte, all I imagined was another chain wrapped round my ankle, day after day, after day, another loop, another clasp, another link, longer and stronger with each sunrise, deeper with each sunset.

I knew, a year ago, that if I were to ever live, I would need to disappear from here. I would need to drop off of everyone’s radar for a time, a year, two, five, and only reappear for a visit once my roots were firmly established somewhere else. Anything but that – any delay, any hesitation, any romantic or career (ha!) involvement here would be enough to seal my fate. It would bind me to this tiny, nothing town forever, and there my heart would slowly wither and die, like the leaves in autumn, crumbling to dust too soon.

So I set my mind to departure, immediately after graduation. As that happened three days ago, I bought my train ticket out of town the next day. “How far can I go for seventeen dollars?” was my exact question. “All the way to Chicago,” was the reply, and so after a day of packing, here I am, on the first leg of what may eventually be an around-the-world journey but has begun with this six-hundred-and-forty-mile train ride.

Chicago. The Windy City.

My heart flutters.

It skips. It dances. It threatens to break through my ribs and launch itself to the top of the trees. It thumps and pounds, and I calm it with a steady palm to my breast. I have many miles to go before I sleep, and this journey shall be quite long. Rest, dear heart.

Rest.

Short Story Published!

A short story I wrote a couple of years ago has been published at Every Day Fiction. Hooray me!

This was written to include 3 prompts given by a friend:

  • blended families
  • Mexican soccer players
  • video games

What would you have done with those? Here’s how I started:

Route 160 out of Durango runs crooked and dusty past Mesa Verde National Park, and that’s where the first fight of the day erupts. Asher is apparently on his sister’s side. “Mo-om!” Ellie pleads. “Make him move!”

Justine, from her own front seat, can feel the tensions rising. Her new husband Mason and her new stepdaughter Cora inhabit the left side of the too-small car. This first joint trip is quickly wearing off the freshness of their marriage, now only nine months in, and she’s wondering if it was a good idea after all. This is only the third day, but it feels like the thirtieth fight. She looks over her shoulder, gives a half-smile. “Ellie, it’ll be okay. Just keep your hands to yourself. Asher, you too.” …

Read the rest here:

https://everydayfiction.com/adventures-of-the-joyner-palsey-family-by-stephan-james/

 

The Deepest Cuts are the Worst

I entered a contest run by the Barefoot Writer (a monthly publication for copywriters). The assignment was to respond to the following prompt: “If a holiday were to take place in your honor, what would it be called and why?”

I first answered with about 975 words in this essay:

The following was discovered in 16-year-old Zane’s journal, by his snooping sister and posted on Instagram:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” My dad shouted. It’s his holiday. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” My mom shouted back. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

He muttered something under his breath. “What?” I asked.

“I said, ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, it is, you said so yourself last year,” Mom replied. “Now you have to take the Ceremonial First Drink!”

He shook his head. “Fine.” He held out a hand. By this time there were at least a dozen of us crowded around in the small kitchen. You never celebrate Nick Name Night with just a few people – always a big group.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – one had egg nog, my little brother dumped in orange juice. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine. Nowadays it’s a penalty for anyone who swears twice in the night.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Everyone laughed. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up onto the counter and she giggled.

“No, daddy, I can’t go first. I went first last year. You said we have to do things different each time.”

“When will I ever learn not to take my rules from Calvinball?” He smiled. “Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.” So we stomped outside in the 2 inches of snow for a quick run.

I lost. Sort of on purpose, but also so Katie would feel good. Making others happy is what this night is about. Back inside I hopped up on the counter for my “Naming Ceremony”.

Dad said he got this idea because he’d had so many nicknames in his life. Like, 10 before he got out of college. And he liked that. Because it reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better. I suggested “Baldy” last year, but he used his veto.

Anyway – everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname that might be yours for the year. Last year mine was “Specs”, because I got new glasses. That wasn’t so bad, but I was looking forward to a new one.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” She said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I just shook my head and held my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten really into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie, which was so obviously bad that I didn’t have to worry about it. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because you’re becoming a real man.” I liked that.

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. When the final vote was counted my family finally came through. Z-man it would be, and I would have a whole month to decide whether I liked it or not.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other potential new nicknames. Dad ended up actually getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Speedy”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”, and so on.

Anyway, we finished it off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages, and a lot of laughter. I can’t wait for next year. I plan to have a job and be saving up for my own car. I wonder if I can convince Katie to suggest “Moneybags” for me?

***

Unfortunately, that was waaaaaay over the contest’s 500-word limit. So I had to start cutting. I got down to 800 words, then 700. Finally, after taking out a bunch of stuff I really liked, I ended up at 498. See for yourself how it just loses the character it had before.

Zane’s snooping sister discovered the following in his journal:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” my dad shouted. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” Mom said. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

“Ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, last year you said it is!” she replied. “Now you have to Suffer the Double Swear Penalty!”

“Fine.” By this time there were at least a dozen of us crammed in the small kitchen. You always celebrate Nick Name Night with a crowd.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – egg nog, orange juice, beer. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up on the counter and she giggled.

“No, Daddy, I can’t go first. That was last year. You said we have to do things different, like Calvinball.”

“Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.”

I lost. On purpose, so Katie would feel good.

Dad said he invented this holiday because he’d had 10 nicknames before he got out of college. And he liked that. It reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better.

Everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname, then we all vote.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” she said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I bit my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because a driver’s license makes you a real man.”

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. In the vote my family finally came through. Z-man it would be.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other new nicknames. Dad ended up getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Jeff Gordon”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”. See?

We finished off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages. I can’t wait for next year.

***

This version, while meeting the maximum word requirement, feels rather stilted and tense. It’s as if someone is just reading the story to us, rather than experiencing, which was the feel I got when writing it the first time.

I would really like to align these in 2 columns, to be able to have you visually see what I mean, but WordPress isn’t playing nice. If I could, you’d see just how much has to be cut in order to meet the limit.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is Write the story however long it needs to be. After this, I’ll probably not try the same thing again. If I have to meet a word guideline, I’ll try to pick something that has less in it to make sure I don’t have to cut so deep. This one ended up sacrificing too much.

Writing Practice 11/26/2017

Found grey hairs in my beard today…



“This just in… Grey hairs were found in the beard of one Stephan J. Mathys this morning. While not yet being declared a crime, authorities have begun an investigation into the matter.”

“I don’t know what else I can tell you,” Mr. Mathys said in a statement early this morning. “Every year, I grow out my beard. Nothing like this has ever happened before.” He paused, and then began gesturing with his hands. “I mean, I know it happens, but I always thought it would happen to other people…” Mr. Mathys broke down, not completely uncontrolled, but visibly shaken at the thought of growing older.

Experts say this is a natural phenomenon. But still, an event like this can rock the community.

Mr. Mathys’s relationship parter (quote-unquote) spoke on conditions that we do not reveal her or his identity. [Blurred picture, computer-synthesized voice-over]. [sihouette before a brown-speckled screen] “Yes, Stephan I have been dating for a while now. And, no, I never suspected something like this. I mean… He’s always been such a great guy. I kind of love him too much. Do you think maybe I drove him to this?”

Authorities have denied that there are any other persons of interest in this case. They say it will be a matter of time until they can sort out all of the stories. The timeline is especially troubling to Detective Adams, who was called in as an expert to consult.

“Well, I’m quite confused,” Mr. Adams said in his opening remarks. “Mr. Mathys has given clear indication that, for the last month, he has not been shaving. Don’t you think something like a grey hair would have been noticed well before now? It’s quite suspicious to me that he’s only come forward today, with this, rather than when he must have noticed it first, probably about three weeks ago.” Mr. Adams then turns and looks directly at the camera. “What is Mr. Mathys hiding? Or covering up for? I intend to get to the bottom of this.”

Mr. Mathys refused to provide any further statement. His lawyer has said that he will comply fully with all police requests for investigation and that his client has done nothing wrong.

Authorities say this could be a matter of months before this is resolved. They urge the public to remain vigilant and  to report any suspicious behavior in this manner as soon as possible.

***

Commentary: this was fun. The idea of a grey hair in my beard being breaking news was a break from the norm. I decided to write it as if it was a press release, but then I didn’t take the time (because it’s writing practice, you don’t go back and cross out or edit while you do it) to clean it up. So it sort of became a blend of “murder/mystery investigation” and “natural disaster”. I think it would be good practice to try to write one of each, in a more careful, polished way. 

Writing Practice – Prompted Fiction

From time to time I will find a piece of fiction and use a line within as a starting prompt to write. Usually when this happens I don’t get a whole story, because I’m not intending to. Occasionally this will produce an interesting character, or perhaps a tone or voice that I enjoy, or a phrase that really intrigues me, or even the start of something that I will come back to later.

Today I picked up the book Myths of Origin; Four Short Novels by Catherine M.Valente, and opened to a random page. There were no page numbers, but the title was “Heaven and Earth Stood Still”. The first line is the first line of that page. Everything after is my own writing practice (don’t think, don’t get logical, keep your hand moving, lose control, go for the jugular):


When I was a child and Ayako only, the village had a great number of silkworms, and the women wove with radiance.

They created tapestries of artwork, beautiful to behold, intricate and delicate and precious, and displayed these draped across their own shoulders, or the arms and legs of their husbands or children. The silks were the finest in the land, or so the rumor went, for three generations.

The women prided themselves on their abilities. We children, myself, my playmates Tokira and Sakai, felt that there must be something magical in the air. We would wait at the edge of the village, playing “step-one-two”, our only game, in the dust at the edge of the path leading in and out and to the next location. We would watch as caravans of five, ten, twenty people would drag themselves along the route through the far-away forest and emerge, looking tired, and, somehow, lonely as they walked. Then, as they would look up from their feet and see that they were approaching the village finally, they would begin to transform.

Smiles would form on their faces. Their shoulders straightened, their steps lengthened. They chattered with each other. And they would gesture to one another, and point towards us, towards the huts behind us in the village, and as they approached we could hear their voices become stronger and more excited.

When they would pass us, on their way in to the village to purchase silks made by the women, to trade for other rice or paper or material goods made by the people of their village, they would smile at us and throw tiny candies to us, in appreciation of how blessed we were to live in the village of Kan, where the silks were the finest in the land. We appreciated this and would shout our congratulations back to them, wish them good trades, happy buying, invite them to  the soup brothel that stood at the opposite end of the village, where Sukai’s parents kept the tables clean and the patrons always left satisfied, invited them to stay at Tokina’s guest room, which was always filled with warmth and pleasantly, suggested that they also visit the wishing well in the center of town to toss a coin in for good luck, for happy futures, for much love and success wherever the road would deliver them next.

At times I wished I, too, had something to offer those weary souls. I wished my parents would be the cobblers in the village, perhaps run the animal stable, ensuring that the beasts were as well-cared-for as the people. Or that, perhaps, my mother was one of those celebrated weavers who knew how not only to make cloth but somehow infuse it with the magic that seemed to fill the village with its peace, and happiness, and warmth.

Alas, I could not, for my parents had died, two nights apart, years ago, from a coughing sickness that took hold on the thumb-day and took my mother’s life on the pointer-day, and my father’s life on the next-to-last day. They were buried together on the next thumb-day, once the rest of the villagers were certain that all of the sickness had left their bodies. I had cried, then, but at only four years old I knew not much about life, or death, only that I would wonder where I would find my soups and my bed from then on.

It was then that I started to climb down into the wishing well to scrounge for the coins left there by hopeful travelers. It was then that I began to sleep alone in the hut I had previously slept with my mother and father in. It was then that I began to wake in the middle of the night, shaking and sweating, unable to console myself, unable to sleep, unable to do anything but listen to the crickets outside as they chirped the night into the morning. It was then that I began to dream during the day. It was then that my nightmares became reality.

***

Commentary:

So, what was that? Well, it began with the name “Ayako”, and the image of silkworms. These automatically make me think of China, a rural village, a small, simple place. So I began to draw on what I know of weaving (very little), and of merchant travels (still little), and of children (about as much) and making up stuff (a little bit more). But by the time I had the idea for an orphan (yes, it’s been done much), I was enjoying the tone of the story. A bit nostalgic, a bit like an old woman telling a story to her grandchildren. She is not angry, or bitter. She is simply relating what happened, and with a lifetime of experience afterwards, can see that many of the things that she found difficult while young prepared her for much greater struggles later on.

One thing that stuck out – I was trying, in the moment, to have a time cycle that wasn’t our standard 7 days. Because various cultures develop in different ways. I’ve read of cultures that separate time by the fingers of a hand, so I latched on to that. If I were to write this into a story (which, by now, is kind of intriguing), I woudl develop this more fully. That would be part of world-building: what do each of the days of the cycle mean? What is special or taboo on each day? How would those days intersect with the plot and character? I like the idea of the thumb-day being the most important. So is that the first or last day of the week? Do we use both hands? Do we go right-to-left or left-to-right? One hand cycles (5 days) or two (10)?

All of these could be investigated, thought through, accepted and rejected, and integrated with the story that comes out. If I ever were to come back to this story, I think it would be a fantasy where Ayako must learn to battle the nightmares that come out in the day, and she must fight them with different people throughout her life – her friends at first, then her family (husband and children), and finally at the end of her life the whole village must believe the things that she sees but they do not and she must convince them to fight with her.

Oooh – many demon/monster stories revolve around everyone finally believing the heroine when the monster reveals itself and they see it with their own eyes. But what if – what if she is the ONLY one who can see them? That is, the villagers will see terrible things happening, like death of their animals and destruction of their silkworms, but they suspect her of witchcraft or magic or bending the will of the spirits  because she is claiming that invisible beasts are really the culprit. That would be interesting.