Composing a Story – Part 3 of ?

Part 1

Part 2

After my own first and second drafts, I sent my story to my writing peers for commentary. I also sent it to a loyal reader (Thanks, E!) who volunteered to comment. I received valuable feedback from them and incorporated it.

Sometimes commentary can be good. Sometimes not. I once submitted a story to an online critique group and got about 500 words of “you need a comma here, you need a comma there, you need a comma over in that other place”. Dude, that was a style. It was intended to be run-on, because my character didn’t really think in logical structure that we’re all used to. So that critique didn’t do me any good. Had he said, once, “I don’t understand it without commas,” and then also gone on to give me 200 words explaining that he didn’t get why the character chose to eat his own shoe, I would have gotten at least something out of it. As it was, repeating over and over his insistence on proper grammar achieved nothing.

For this story, though, I was fortunate that my reviewers provided valuable feedback. Such as, “I can’t tell if this story is intended to be omniscient or close third-person.” This kind of thing I appreciate and can use when revising. And “as a reader, I would have liked a little more connection between Marcus’s decision at the end and the two major problems:”. These comments allow me, as an author, to understand where my readers are confused, or bored, or annoyed, or simply tired of reading about something. These are the places where I need to decide, as an author, if I want to make a change or leave it as it is.

Because I, as the author, may want you to be bored in a scene. I may need you to feel the impatience my characters feel, as they wait for the coming storm. I may be leading you towards greater tension later, and a more emotionally satisfying resolution of that tension, because you’re feeling uninspired now and I’m going to use that to escalate the experience for the reader as the story progresses.

One of my more successful story edits based on feedback was to add a whole scene at the start, and when I did it clearly became a better experience. But sometimes, I’m just going to read all those comments and say, “Hell, I like it as it is!” and move on. I’ve done it both ways.

Back to the point at hand. This story had a style that, I thought, kept the reader distant from the main character Marcus. And while that worked to make him somewhat unlikable, it also slowed the pace of the story. Here’s the opening paragraph. I’ve highlighted where words will change:

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.

And here it is, re-written.

Had he been paying attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky might be transforming into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and could have aided his resistance.

These may be small changes. But they make the scene more active: “been able to pay attention” is simply “been paying attention”, and actually gives Marcus more authority in the moment. We know a sky is “overhead”, this word is redundant. The sky wasn’t “attempting” anything, it actually was transforming, and so making it more active brings more immediacy to the scene. The final phrase is clunky, too. Why use 5 words, “attempt to fight back”, when one, “resistance”, does the same thing?

A second example, from later in the story

He looked up to see her standing tall above him. She held her scythe in one hand, and an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said.

She thrust the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor. Like rotten fruit and rotten milk, it made him want to gag.

Re-written:

She stood tall above him. Scythe in one hand, an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said, thrusting the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor of rotting fruit and milk. He gagged.

And that’s how a lot of this editing went this round. Making action stronger. Making dialogue more tightly bound to the action it complements. Ensuring Marcus has action, like gagging, rather than a lot of desires, like wanting to gag.

Version 2 was 10,200 words. I liked the plot and the characters. The action was not active enough, though, and overall it was bloated and wordy. Critiques helped that.

Version 3, as a result, was 9,700 words. Kept all the same plot points and characters and backstory and eliminated a lot of the fluff. The good thing about that is, too, it’s now under a 10,000 word limit that some markets have. So there may be more opportunities to publish this than before.

I finished all the re-writes and edits about 8:30 pm on a Saturday night and formatted it according to the Writers of the Future guidelines. Submitted before the midnight deadline, and now I wait.

But not passively. While waiting for the result (expectation: no award), I’ll also build a list of next markets for submission. I hope to get at least 15, so that when a rejection comes in I can turn it around quickly and have it back out. And if I get all 15 of those rejections, it’s probably time to re-consider the story.

I, Too, Must Apologize For Eating at Chick-Fil-A

It was Tuesday, around 1 pm. I had a morning networking meeting and then I worked at the library for a couple of hours. And I had a call scheduled for 2 pm, so I didn’t want to get distracted and miss it. How unprofessional would that be?

So, I walked over to the Chick-Fil-A next to the library. Not a bad walk. Yeah, it was hot, but not unbearable for the 2 minutes I was outside. Actually, I rather liked it. Got me a bit of a sweat which then felt great when I opened the door and re-entered modernity.

I stood at the counter and contemplated my options. Sandwich? Tenders? Nuggets? And then it hit me:

Cool Wrap.

Like, duh, could I have done anything different? The Ranch Cool Wraps are, in my memory, like the second-best thing ever made for fast food. #1 was Wendy’s pitas from the late 90’s, but since those have gone the way of the Dodo, I console myself with the fresh, multi-faceted goodness combination that is a Chick-Fil-A wrap.

“Cool Ranch combo, please”. Aww, yeah, deliciousness hitting my mouth soon.

I grab my drink and by the time I’m ready to sit at a booth, there’s a smiling, “My pleasure”-spouting employee with my tray. Score! I slide in, sip a bit of root beer, sample a few waffle fries, and then dig in, unwrapping one half of the log so I don’t accidentally-on-purpose ingest some wax paper.

I’ve ordered the Avocado Lime dressing. Not a bad choice. It adds some nuanced flavors to the creaminess, and as I dip I get the full effect: wheat wrap, lettuce, carrots, chicken, dressing. Not a bad way to spend a half-hour, if I do say so myself.

All too soon, though, I’m finished with the first half. Huh? That’s it? I wonder if, by some chance, my wrap was mis-cut, leading me to pick up the substantially smaller portion first. But, no, I look at the other and it’s just as paltry.

What the hell happened? It used to be that a Cool Ranch wrap was a full serving. Now it looks like it’s been cut down to 80% of its former size. Like Jim Carrey in Me, Myself, and Irene, you appreciate it for what it used to be, but these days it’s just not delivering like it’s supposed to.

So, I finished my wrap, waffle fries, and drink, gathered my trash, and left, my still-not-full stomach unsatisfied. And for that, I apologize.

I’m sorry, belly. I got your hopes up. I did not realize that the situation around me had changed so dramatically since the last time I partook of what used to be a delicious luncheon session. I won’t make the same mistake again. Next time – Waffle House.

This Is Terrible Writing. Not This Post Itself, But This Article I’m Writing About … You Know What I Mean

Yesterday I was browsing around the web and clicked on one of my bookmarks. It’s an article from Metro, titled “The 11 Essential Documentaries of 2017.” Now, I haven’t seen any of these. I haven’t even read the article fully. But at some point, earlier this year, I saw that headline and probably thought, You know what? I should watch more documentaries, rather than Hollywood big-budget experiences leaving me empty inside afterwards. Maybe I’ll come back to this someday. [Click] – bookmarked.

So, here it is, the end of May, and I clicked back on that to see what I was supposed to remind myself of. Scanned it. Eh, probably some stuff I’ll eventually watch. Then I scrolled down a bit, to see what other things Metro has to offer. Fluff articles like “The Best NBA Basketball Players of All Time” and “If You Pay For Amazon Prime – Here’s How To Make It Even Better”. Not my thing, but not doing any harm either.

Then I saw one that might actually be something of interest.

Who is Dimitrious Pagourtzis, the Santa Fe Texas school shooter?

Now, being a father of a high school student, and three more to come in future years, this is an area of interest to me. What do we know about this kid? It’s been a couple of days. In the same amount of time after Parkland in February we were embroiled in a nationwide argument that, somehow, has been rather absent in this case. So, I wanted to know a little more about the young man. Might there be insights I could take away to use in discussions with my daughter? Might there be suggestions for how to watch for tendencies in my own kids (or their friends) that would indicate we need to intervene before they do something stupid?

Here’s a link if you wish to read the article for yourself. It won’t take long, it’s only 24 sentences, 418 words. Metro: Who is Demetrious Pagourtzis?

I won’t repeat it here. I will just make my commentary that this is in the top 3 worst pieces of writing I’ve ever seen.

Now, there are no typos here. No grammatical errors. No factual fallacies. No unjustified speculation. Taken all together, that might seem a fairly weak case for “top 3 worst pieces of writing I’ve ever seen”.

My reasons are as follows. First, Metro did absolutely nothing to create this story. They simply regurgitated facts from the Associated Press and a USA Today story. They did no investigation, no interviews, sent no representative to a press conference, or anything similar that should be expected of a journalistic enterprise. This piece was clearly written simply to have something to address the issue of the moment, to keep up with the overwhelming tidal wave of attention-grabbing that apparently passes for “news” these days. Disgusting.

Second, for a story entitled “Who is Demetrious Pagourtzis?”, I would have expected background. I would have expected an interview with his friends or classmates. Perhaps a talk with his parents, if they could be found, or a statement that such parents were not willing to talk with Metro. I’m pretty sure I’m not far off here.

However, of the article’s 24 sentences, only 6 deal with personality, background, interests, potential motive, and the like. They read as follows:

Pagourtzis was a high school football player at Santa Fe High School, USA Today reported. He played defensive tackle on the junior varsity football team. Pagourtzis was also a dancer with a local Greek Orthodox church group, according to the report.

However, Pagourtzis’s online persona wasn’t nearly as wholesome as his extracurricular activities. Social media accounts, which have since been removed, reportedly showed Pagourtzis’ fascination with firearms, a knife and a custom-made T-shirt that had the words “Born to Kill” written on it. One photo allegedly showed a coat that depicted a Nazi insignia, USA Today reported.

Two facts: football player and dancer with the Greek Orthodox church group. The other elements there are speculation, based on “alleged” social media accounts.

Everything else in this article is about the facts of the day: where he was when arrested, the suspicion of an accomplice, Donald Trump’s Twitter response, quotes from other students in the high school. These do nothing to bring to light who Pagourtzis was or why he might have done this. Not a whole lot I, or any other parent or concerned community member, can go on in creating meaningful conversations around the issue. In fact, it is completely useless to me or to anyone else reading it. [Other than as fodder for this rant, obviously.]

Finally, my last problem with this article: At the end it says “Reuters contributed to this report.” I can only imagine that’s pure bullshit. If Reuters, an international news agency with a high-class reputation, knew that their name was on this filth, they’d likely sue for defamation.

It was a waste of Metro‘s time to create this article (they probably paid some content freelancer like $8 to pump out this in under an hour), and a waste of my time to read it. But, apparently there’s some kind of market for such things, for Metro is still going strong, with enough worldwide market share that they keep up appearances. According to them, “Metro is published in more than 100 major cities across Europe, North & South America and Asia . Metro has a unique global reach — attracting a young, active, well-educated Metropolitan audience of more than 18 million daily readers.”

So who’s worse? The audience who pretends to demand such imbecilic pablum in order to soothe their own infantile attention span just one more minute, or the money-grubbing marketers and internet bandwidth prostitutes who profit from their naivete and simplicity every step of the way? I can’t tell.

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 – 4/11/2018 – Why I Write

A commentor asked me, “Is that not why you write?”

So, why do I write? The perpetual question. I ask this of myself ten times a year, at least. I never been able to answer it to my own satisfaction.

 

I write because I love the feeling of a pen in my hand – I love the feeling of creating, of bringing something out of nothing. I love the idea that my pen is a pregnancy, and my moving it along the page is a birthing, a resurrection, an excavation discovering hidden treasures beneath the surface.

See that blank page down there? Below these lines? That is opportunity. That is promise. That is fear, and hope together in one. That is a myriad of possibilities waiting to be explored, and as I cover the surface, as I bleed out ink onto crushed tree pulp, as I hesitate and start up again, as I continue to seek for the letting go, all of those possibilities that weren’t realized disappear – they break off and float out into the ether, waiting perhaps to be captured by some other stroke of another pen some other time. But – more likely, to continue to drift into the infinity, to expand and fall away, not down, but “away”, for they are further and further from each other.

Farther and farther from everything else, out beyond the reach, out into the solitude, out into the expanse, out into the void, where nothing is, where nothing was, where nothing came and nothing is going. Out there, it is alone, and it is forever alone. Even darkness abandons such places, not to be replaced with light, but taking with it the idea of light, the memory of light, the conception that there could be something other than darkness, not even so much that it is gone but that it never was, never could be, never would have been, never even existed as a potentiality in the minds of the greatest theoreticians this world has ever known.

So – I write to save. I write to redeem at least one idea, one experience, from the cold, pointless, suffering exhaustive death of obscurity, the drifted-away-forever experience. I allow all the other potentialities to suffer. I cannot save them all.

I cannot even save two. But I can save one. I can bring it to the surface. I can expose and create and birth it once, and for myself, and for others, and as a result, I can make the slightest recompense, the single absolution of regret for all those other ideas which I abandoned, with my tiny, insincere, insecure “Sorry, but I just couldn’t,” and they will drift away, they will expand and wave goodbye, resigned to their fates, and I will cradle my idea to my chest. I will love and cherish my actuality, and I will mourn those potentialities, for a moment, for a day, until they are so unceremoniously replaced, once again, with the next –

blank –

sheet.

What Should I Write About?

So, usually my writing practice topics are just made up on the spot. Occasionally I’ll do a series – See “Love Is…” (1) through (10).

Sometimes I’ll take a line from another piece of work and go with that. This is a good example: [from “In The Zoo” by Jean Stanford]

Other times I’ll just start with “I feel…” or “I smell…” and write about what’s immediately around me.

And then there are the lists of writing topics. Usually pretty soon after I start a new notebook I’ll have a day where my writing practice is just “write a list of writing topics”, and when I don’t have something in mind I can come to this page, close my eyes, point a finger somewhere, and see what happens. When I’m writing those lists, they might look like this: (these are all from 3/11/2018)

  • Write about a tree.
  • Write about family trees.
  • Write about family obligations.
  • Write about family reunions.
  • Write about class reunions.
  • Write about low-class reunions.
  • Write about high-class reunions.
  • Write about “putting on airs.”
  • Write about “putting on heirs.”
  • Write about “putting on hairs.”
  • Write about artificiality.
  • Write about superficiality.
  • Write about boob jobs.
  • Why haven’t penis enlargement surgeries received the same kind of market saturation as boob jobs?
  • How far would you go to achieve your happiness?
  • How much of yourself are you willing to change for someone you love?
  • etcetera etcetera …

Obviously I’m not going to write about all of these topics. I probably won’t write about more than 4 or 5 before this notebook is filled and I move to the next one. But the process helps me think of connections, helps to identify associations that might not have been readily present for most people.

So … I want to ask you, readers … What do you think I should write about? Leave a comment, and I’ll use those as prompts in the next couple of weeks. What greatness might we cultivate together?