Composing a Story – Part 2 of (?)

It’s been enough time since the first draft of a story I wrote, and now it’s time to start refining. This week I read through again, made some notes about things I’d like to see different or changed, and made some revisions.

A couple of times I’ve seen this (Stephen King comes to mind):

2nd Draft = First Draft (minus) 10%

So I often target at least cutting out 10% of the words. This usually makes the prose tighter, removes a scene or two, and generally moves things a long a little faster.

Here’s an example paragraph.

Before

It stood silently in the hallway, apparently staring at the number 17 screwed tightly to the frame. As Marcus watched, it raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and what looked like actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward, then, poised, and grasped the handle of the — what –-sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

After

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

A bit tighter, a bit smoother. Most of the words remain, just the fluff taken out. And I did remove a few whole paragraphs, because they just didn’t make sense.

Overall, first draft: 11,420 words. Second draft: 10,200 words (10.7% cut) So I managed to meet that baseline.

There are some markets where 10,000 words would be the limit. Should I wish to submit to those, I’d have to cut just a bit more. Which, at this point, would be a scene or some action, rather than just words here and there. But I don’t think I’ll have to do that. I’m now going to ask for some feedback from readers and writers. Based on those comments, I may change again. This might be cutting a few scenes, or adding something necessary. So the fact that I’m close to an arbitrary limit doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. We’re still in development.

Okay, here it is, the first scene. If anyone would be interested in reading the whole thing and making a critique (which is, by the way, not just saying, “I like it,” or “I hated it,”), then please let me know.

Oh, by the way – I don’t have a title yet. So we’re working with “Untitled” for now

Untitled

by Stephan James

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

But he was preoccupied, and could not take the moments to look up, look around, and notice the gloom slowly settling over his environment as he walked home from his office, late, on a Tuesday evening.

It was only seven blocks. Not really worth the time and money to go out of his way a block to the subway, then backtrack two more. So a nothing man walked home from a nothing job in a nothing city to a nothing apartment, listening to his now-grown-up brother whining about said brother’s wife and daughter spending too much of said brother’s money on spa trips, and all Marcus could think was At least you have someone.

As soon as he thought it, he was reminded of his counselor, a mid-fifties woman who’d been divorced and remarried, who tried to tell him that he wasn’t washed up at forty-seven, who continued to push him to see the good in his life, who would have said, “Well, Marcus, why do you continue to berate yourself like that? It’s been fifteen years. You have to let her go.”

He found the door handle and pulled, automatic, thoughts swirling through his head as they always did, overwhelming, overpowering, a tidal wave of the past and all that had been taken from him. His feet moved of their own accord, his hand pressing his cell phone to his ear, into and out of the elevator, eighteenth floor, well-trod floorboards and empty picture hangers on the wall, down the hall and turn left, voice droning on and on. He couldn’t stop thinking that maybe he’d –-

There was someone at his door.

No, something.

Some thing.

It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the long handle and ridiculously curved blade slung over its shoulder?

Was that Death at the door to his apartment?

Waiting?

Waiting for him?

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

It put two hands on the scythe and stood waiting. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.

But today that phone call had distracted him, had made him stop in his office building lobby instead of heading out into the night so he could concentrate before the traffic sounds overwhelmed the conversation, had slowed his walk on the way home, had kept him from his usual routine enough so that he was now on the outside when he would have normally been on the inside, on the outside here where he could take a look at this ridiculously stereotypical picture of Death waiting to claim him, Marcus Jeffries, for the underworld or the afterlife or Heaven or Valhalla, he was outside the door and not inside and his brother’s voice came again through the phone and it startled him, startled him into movement, startled him into action, startled him into saying “I’ll call you back,” sliding the phone into his jacket pocket and taking two steps towards the monstrosity.

At the sound Death turned and pointed its hood towards him, four apartment doors away. He couldn’t see a face buried under there. The hands were veined, strong. Useful hands. Hands that did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He admired that. His “career” had been spent updating electronic spreadsheets to meet another’s goals. Hardly anything to be proud of, other than that he had no debts outstanding and he’d never really hurt anyone, never really done anything wrong.

Death stepped towards him and spoke. “Marcus,” and the voice was female, surprising him. Deep, and raspy like a smoker, but definitely female. “You’re late. It’s time to go.”

Marcus held up his hands in front of him. “Uh, seriously? Do you know how ridiculous this seems?”

She moved even closer and now he could see the outline of a chin in the shadows of the hood. It moved up and down. “I have little time to play, Marcus. You’re on my list, let us be done.” She was now just a few feet away. She raised the scythe above her head.

“Wait, what?” He retreated, hands still in front, and felt his pulse spike. Adrenaline flooded his system. “I’m too young to die!”

“That’s not my issue,” she said, and swung the scythe at his neck. As it moved, the blade screamed into the hallway, the sounds echoing off the corridor walls with a banshee wail. He ducked and felt the whoosh of air as the blade swooped through the space where he’d recently been. The hairs on his arms stood out, at the sound, and at his proximity to his own demise.

“Holy hell!” he shouted, surprised at the emotion. He felt so alive! He hadn’t felt like this in twenty years or more. She cocked her weapon again and approached even closer. Two more steps and he could have grabbed her robe.

She swung again, the blade howling, and this time he dropped to the floor. The point passed within inches of his face and buried itself deep into the plaster wall of the hallway, scattering white dust into the stale air. Marcus scrambled back, crablike, and around the corner, while she struggled to release the blade from its new sheath. He got to his feet and sprinted to the elevator. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, and all those fight-or-flight chemicals had him hyped up so much he thought he might levitate.

He glanced back the way he’d been, but saw nothing, heard nothing. When the door finally opened he threw himself inside, landing against a handful of people, and grasped his jacket tight to his chest. Finding his breath coming hard, he stabbed the lobby button.

And prayed for the first time in a decade.

#

Writing Practice – 3/20/18 – Bad News

Write about bad news…

It’s worse when the delivery is poor, too. It’s easy to hear when it comes from someone who loves you, who cares about you, who will be there to hold you after the revelations sink in and your heart has disintegrated into the void in your chest at the announcement. Because then you have someone to be there while you stumble through the next few moments, the next days, as you struggle to understand, to experience; as you fight to perform the monumental task of keeping on, keeping going, when all you want to do in the face of such insurmountable odds is to walk away.

Bad news is not the opposite of good news. Good news makes you happy. It’s on a spectrum, an axis, a dimension. Sad on one end, happy on the other. So good news drives you along the happy-sad line from less happy to more happy. It’s maybe linear, maybe exponential, maybe logarithmic, maybe discontinuous. But at least it’s on that path, that pattern, a graphable subset of the whole.

Bad news, though, that shit is a different breed. It doesn’t do the opposite as good news. It doesn’t drive us down that axis, doesn’t make us sad, doesn’t make us less happy. Bad news is an altogether different bitch.

Bad news incites feelings of revolution, of betrayal, of hatred, of incompetence. It is not on the happy/sad spectrum – it is not on any axis at all.

Not perpendicular – not even a dimension at all. Bad news brings feelings completely uncorrelated to the news itself. It brings inspires installs turbulence within the spirit.

It enlightens destructive tendencies, destruction to self, destruction to environment, destruction to imagination, destruction to hope. Bad news irradiates the possibilities of future happiness with ultraviolet, emotion-destroying, logically-consistent-and-yet-absolutely-incomprehensible emotionless arguments.

Bad news fucks you up. And not in ways that can be protected against. There is no “bad news life preserver.” No “this is gonna fuck up your head, so grab an emotional prophylactic” condom. It is not random, not linear, not predictable, and yet also not incomprehensible.

Bad news is bad – not for the outcome, but for the period in between, that space, that time, those days or weeks or months from the time when you first hear it and the last acts are complete. “Oh, he’ll die in 2 months.” Well, then, my life is a shitshow for 2 months and for twenty years after, as the echoes of that bad news reverberate through the empty chambers of my heart forever.

Bad news. It’s bad news, man. It’s the torture that just keeps giving, long after it should have stopped, long after the events unfolded. Long after the “healing” is done. Long after the heart has moved along, the society has moved along, long after your counselor says “I think you’re good here,” long after the surface scars have healed. Bad news is a poison waiting, slowly working, beneath the surface, eating out the insides in a perpetual, relentless destruction of the body from the soul outward.

Writing Practice – 2/17/2018 – Bad Date

Write about a bad date – on the calendar:

You see it coming from far away. The anticipation begins to build well before. It’s like it is hunting you, stalking you, lying in wait to ambush you as you creep along the forest path. It is a panther, large, sleek, terrifying, destructive, waiting for you, and you are helpless to stop it.

You see the beast ahead – you recognize the telltale signs of its lair, or its path, or its spoor, mocking you, teasing you, berating you for days, weeks, a month ahead. “Ha, ha,” it says, “You’ll be here soon enough! Can’t avoid me!”

And as much as you hate it, it is right. You cannot avoid its presence. You cannot avoid the memories it contains. Whatever happened, way back when, will continue, through our collective conscience, to surface, time and again, every year, like clockwork. April 7? March 24? January 30? These happpen. All. The Fucking. Time.

You cannot ignore them. You cannot go out of your way to ensure they don’t happen again. We don’t get the option to jump from May to July and totally skip June, forever avoiding that date on the 24th that reminds us of when dad died, when mom left, when our heart was broken, when we broke another’s heart.

We don’t have that luxury. Our path through the forest is one way, and there is no deviation from it. We see our enemy, our predator, our anti-joy lying in wait for us, and it fills our hearts with dread, with desire to turn, to run, to flee, to scream “No! Not this time!” And take to our heels, crashing through the undergrowth and breaking free of its inevitability. We long to separate, to dissolve whatever unimaginable bond it has over us; to rid ourselves of the mental & emotional shackles it somehow still holds – but we cannot. This is an impermeable chain. The metal binding us is of our own making – we have forged these bonds in the fires of our own emotional turmoils, and so they come with the strongest tempers of all – those of the heart. As much as we may wish to break free, we know we cannot, and we resign ourselves to press forward, one day more, one day again, one more day, creeping towards that midnight maw waiting, waiting, waiting to devour us. We go. We go. We go.

Love Is (1 of 10)

A while ago she asked me what love means to me. I have done some free writing on that topic. 10 sessions on that, to be frank. I’d like to share them.
Love is…

Love is unreal. It defies nature and nature’s god. It is an emotion and a state of being and a mountaintop of hope. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things? No. That is devotion, which is not love. devotion is single-minded. Devotion is “yes Ma’am” and “no Sir” and “right away boss.” That is not love.

Love is “I will, because you ask.” Love is “I will not, even though you beg.” Love is light in the brightest day. Light in the night is easy. it doesn’t mean anything. It has no setting up that tells it how to live, how to be. How to breathe. But light in the day, when it must be blinding, glaring, overwhelming just to be noticed, is love.

Love is patient and kind. Nope again. That is obedience. That is duty. Love is not to allow those under your care to have their innocence ripped away along with their hymens. Love is not to turn the other cheek – [illegible]. Oh, those may be love, but not love for another. No, that is love for the self, that is love to secure one’s place in the Heavens. That is, perhaps, a love of God, but it is not a love of another. Love for another is when you are willing to take the bad to get to the good. Nope. Love is when you demand the bad in order to balance out the impossibly good. Love is determined, love is not boastful or rude. Nope. Love makes the loudest screech the world knows. Love makes the world hear.

Love makes the world go round? Wrong again, boyo. Love is a fancy chemical by-product of an evolutionary process that has resulted in these meatbags being able to comprehend a higher order experience, something somehow greater than simply existence and replication and to identify that not only in oneself but in another, not only to recognize that in the other but inexplicably draw out words to describe it, words that cannot begin to contain it, this emotion, this experience, this chemical reaction that cascades from the [ilegible] to the hypothalamus across the limbic cortex into the frontal lobe and finally to the spleen or the liver or the gall bladder or something, some receptacle where the excess serotonin and dopamine and Igbo-whatever-it all cascades from the highest point and waterfalls down to those river depths triggering reactions all along the way. 

They are there and they are here, and we, we, inexplicably, understandably (because we learned over time) have need to explain the inner workings of the body, like we have a need to explain the outer workings of the cosmos) we lead them to think of this as something we have decided on, something we control, something we need and desire and this is because of when we [illegible] it all is nothing more than a chemical reaction designed, or rather, evolved, to help ensure the production of our DNA inside these meatbags.

Congratulations, Stephan. You just fucked up love. Way to go. Hope you’re happy with yourself. Well done, asshole.

Writing Practice – 6/8/2017

Not all of my writing practice turns out great. This one wasn’t so hot. I’m sharing it because, well, that’s a much more real picture of what goes into writing than just showing you the refined, selected parts that “looks good”.

tell about putting your mother in a home

On an otherwise beautiful day we approach the shelter. Not so much a castle as a fortress. A virtually impenetrable waste of space that, instead of making a place for caring, for help, for hope, for nurture, has become in my mind, in her mind, a burden. It has transformed from the unlikely to the inevitable, and with the change there is no reason to think that it will be welcoming and comforting when we take mother there and move in. She would rather stay with us, I know. Even more, she would like to stay at her own place. But, realistically, she is not safe there. And while her physical health is somewhat deteriorating (it wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t, obviously), but the greater issue is my own, and my wife’s mental health. We spend far too much time and effort thinking of what she’s doing, and how she’s being, and whether she has had lunch or fallen or perhaps forgotten to take her diabetes medication after all those reminders you put up on the post-it notes all over anywhere.

So, what else is there? Hatred, distrust; fear of the staff. Disappointment at me, true; but she hasn’t said that. She probably won’t say it  – she’s a mom, after all, and moms generally don’t like to harm their sons, so I expect she’ll keep it bottled up and not say anything at all. She’ll just sit in her chair, shoulders slumping, hand shakily waving in the way she has had in the last year or so, and she’ll tell me “oh, no, it’s all right, I understand. Besides, it’s been hard with Jim gone, I barely know what to do with myself during the days anyway. This could be good for me, and I can learn how to play a couple of board games. You know, I think they’ve even got a trip planned to the Chicago Pier next month. I think I’ll see if I can sign up for that.” She’s putting on a reasonable show, but I know it hurts her.

It hurts that she’s getting old. It hurts that she’s forgetting. and it hurts that she doesn’t see the impact she has on us. She says she sees it – but because she doesn’t see those quiet moments, when my wife cries in the shower, or I go and punch the beanbag in the closet, or when the kids start to beg off going to visit grandma because they think her house stinks, I just can’t bring myself to tell her the truth. That it’s okay for her to go live there. That even more, even more morbid I would be okay for her to just die. Wow, that sounds harsh. “Die”. Pass away, move on, depart. Those are all softer, gentler. Aren’t they also deceptive? Aren’t they also ignoring the reality of what death is?

Aren’t they papering over the harshness, the suddenness of death? Die – a barking syllable – so quiet, so abrupt, like the act itself. Die.

So, you see it?

————————————
Commentary: why didn’t I like this writing exercise? I guess, looking back, I never felt in a flow. I felt like I was trying. Like I was working at it, rather than letting it happen. I had some images in my mind, about the abruptness of death and how we contrast that with the soft words we use to describe it, about the cognitive dissonance we actively create by using such pretty language to describe the dying process. But I didn’t get there. I didn’t lose control. I didn’t go for the jugular. I simply stopped, not even when I was satisfied, but I just…Stopped. So I think the dissatisfaction of the exercise was that I never really felt like it completed. Like sex that approaches orgasm, but never quite gets to the top of the mountain, so to speak. I could see the end: I had a bit of a vision in sight. I just gave up.

So that’s why it wasn’t a great experience. But it’s real to tell you that not all writing is great. More often than not it’s not great. It’s not polished. It doesn’t flow.

But that’s why I write. I write the bad days to get to the good days. I write the shit work to get to the gravy wall [ask my dad about that one]. I haul hundred-pound loads nine-tenths of the way up a mountain, with the end in sight, just to give up and turn around more often than I complete the journey. But when I do– Damn, nothing feels quite like that.