Kill Your Darlings

Earlier this year, I finalized a short story that I really adored. Quite often the process of drafting a story can be painful, but this one was a joy from beginning to end. I hand-wrote the first draft, and it had a lyrical quality to it. I loved the main character. I felt passionate about the themes explored. The story had a deliberately slow pace, an unfolding and unveiling. It was a quiet story with a good emotional payoff.

IMG_0302

Unfortunately, this all meant it was looooong. Which, in itself—not a problem! If the reader is willing to go with you on that journey, awesome. But from a practical standpoint, a long word count can be a challenge. Most literary magazines have a word-count range they’ll accept. For a lot of them, the max is 6,000. Your options for submission dwindle as the word count rises.

But there are options, and I loved this story, so off it went on its submission rounds.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ran out of places that would accept that many words. I had to make a choice: retire the story, or hack off over 2,000 words.

2,000 may not sound like a lot. But that’s anywhere from a third to one half of most short stories. The task seemed impossible—or if not impossible, unpalatable. Taking away that much would ruin the deliberate pace I had set. It would alter the methodical voice. It wouldn’t be the same story.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a short story she wrote that was accepted by a major magazine. It was a story she loved, one she’d polished and tightened to perfection, and she was ecstatic it was going to be published. Then, prior to publication, she got a phone call. There wasn’t as much space in the magazine as originally planned. She had two options: drop the story from that month’s issue and hope it got picked up for a future one, or edit it down.

Gilbert chose to edit. She wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but she started hacking away until it was done. And to her surprise, the story was ultimately better for it—and yes, it was published.

So I printed up my story and grabbed my red pen and I started editing. It took about a week (and a final edit from Byron) but I was able to cut out close to 3,000 words.

And it is a different story. It has a totally different pace. It leaves you with a different feeling. I had to kill so many darlings, sentences and entire sections that I loved and desperately wanted to keep. But the heart of it is still there, still beating.

While it’s true that stories are art, that writers have a vision and they should stay true to it, there’s never anything so precious that it can’t be revised. My story now starts its second round of submissions—a different story, yes, but one I’m still proud of. It wouldn’t have had that chance if I decided it was perfect as it was.

Advertisements

Jesus Is My Driver

While cleaning out files on the computer the other day, I stumbled across an image that made me laugh and laugh.

Background: I attended Catholic school for seven years. The thing about attending Catholic schools is you get assigned some pretty weird projects. In 8th grade, I had to make a “Love Book”: a fancy scrapbook filled with pictures, inspirational quotes, and letters from people I loved (and presumably loved me back). We were required to include a section on God. To spruce up those pages, I went to the card-making program on my parents’ home computer and printed up all the pictures that came up when you entered “God” in the search field.

My sister attended the same Catholic high school, four years behind me, so I assumed I would know all the projects she was expected to complete. She would have to find a poem that had a good message about love (I used “The Owl and the Pussy Cat”); she would have to write a song based on a Bible passage; she would have to interview a Mormon.

There was one project, though, that I hadn’t encountered. Ms. Gripp—the new Ecclesiology teacher whose name clearly told me her previous employment had been as Villainess in a children’s chapter book—told the class to make a timeline of the Church’s history as their final project. Points, Ms. Gripp said, would be awarded for creativity.

Apparently, my sister wasn’t feeling particularly inspired by the project. She turned to my mom and me for input. I suggested she make a mobile; Carrie informed me that Ms. Gripp specified the project must be in poster form.

“Draw a map of the world and pinpoint where major events happened,” I said one afternoon, as deadline time for my sister quickly approached.

“It has to be linear.”

Apparently creativity has its limits in Catholic school.

“Why don’t you draw a road as your line,” Mom suggested.

“Yeah…yeah!” I said. “And along the way can be pitstops in the Church’s history. Like Rome, and Constantinople…it can be Jesus’s road trip! And up near the title you can have a picture of Jesus driving! I’ll even make the picture for you.”

Carrie didn’t seem to entirely trust me with this undertaking, but after some cajoling, she conceded that I could create the picture of Jesus’s road-trip vehicle.

This was the result:

jesusvan

To my credit, I spent a good deal of time on this. Photoshop did not exist in the universe of my parents’ home computer—all my work had to be done using Microsoft Paint. I spent a long time ensuring Jesus’s elbow rested just-so on the windowsill of his Volkswagen van, that he was accurately positioned behind the driving wheel and windshield wiper. I wanted it to look like he really was driving this bright orange savior-mobile, meandering along the path of Church history, opening the back doors at rest stops to let it hitchhikers and like-minded travelers.

I presented the finished copy to my sister along with a proposed title for the project: “Jesus Is My Driver.” She rejected both picture and title, saying she preferred not to be expelled during finals week.

“Flight”: A Short Story

July’s always been a magical month–the high days of summer, berries galore, twilights that last until 10pm–and this year it’s kicking off with a pretty great start: a short story of mine published in Bards and Sages Quarterly.

BardsandSagesJuly2017

This is my first piece in print, which is pretty exciting. It’s about a little girl and her little brother and some troublesome powers he’s developing. Here’s a short excerpt:

The bell on the corner store door rang as we walked in, holding hands. I am always supposed to hold Mateo’s hand when we go to the corner store and can’t let go until we are inside. Mrs. Oberlin smiled at us and Mateo let go and ran up to her counter.

“How are we today?” Mrs. Oberlin said. She stood up slowly from her stool and reached to the shelves above where the caramel sits. Mateo stuck out his hand, his other arm clutching Pepita.

“No, Mateo,” I said. “No caramel today.” If he had a caramel Lucia would smell it on his breath, feel it on his sticky fingers, and she would know we had left without permission.

Mrs. Oberlin smiled at Mateo. “Another time then.”

Mateo didn’t say anything but didn’t put his hand down either.

“You’d better listen to your sister, young man,” Mrs. Oberlin said, putting the jar back on the shelf.

Mateo kept his hand out.

“Mateo, no,” I said.

He lowered his hand but I could tell something was wrong. The pout on his face turned to a frown. I watched to see if his chest was rising and falling but it wasn’t. His cheeks turned red as he held his breath.

I grabbed his hand.

“Mateo, let’s go.”

“No comic books today then?” Mrs. Oberlin said.

I didn’t answer because I was pulling at Mateo, trying to get him to move. “Mateo, come on.”

Mateo ripped his hand away and stomped on the floor. As his foot came down, the jar of caramels came whizzing off the shelf, just past Mrs. Oberlin’s head. She cried out, which frightened Mateo. He cried, too, and five more jars came flying off the shelves and crashed on the floor.

Mrs. Oberlin was screaming now. I wanted to tell her it was alright, to please be quiet, but I heard a rattling noise and looked up and saw all the jars shaking on their shelves. Mrs. Oberlin was pointing at Mateo and clutching her chest. I grabbed his hand and we ran out the door. Behind us, the rumbling stopped.

I usually have a terrible time writing endings, but for this story, the ending came first. I saw a picture of the last scene in my mind’s eye and developed the rest of the story around it. (What is that scene? Sorry, you’ll have to read the story to find out.)

It must be said—my writing group was absolutely instrumental in shaping this piece. It’s a much better story for their edits and advice. Folks, don’t write in a vacuum. Go find some like-minded people and share your work.

“Flight” is featured in the July 2017 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. The print version is available on Amazon, and you can get the digital version (in multiple formats) at Smashwords.

The Chair

I’ve been working from home lately, which basically translates to writing brilliant copy while wearing sweatpants.

We’ve always had a dedicated office space—in theory for both of us, but in reality for my own use. We’ve finally gotten it to the point where I’m pretty happy with the setup: organized bookshelves, art on the walls, a comfy chair for reading, a beautiful teak desk inherited from Byron’s aunt. All in all, it feels like a “real” office space. Official, intelligent. Important Work Done Here.

The only problem: the chair. We’ve always used a dining-room chair at whatever desk we’ve currently had. It’s moderately comfortable, it fits the space, and—it’s biggest perk!—it’s free. For the most part, it works fine.

That is, it works fine until you find yourself actually sitting in it for eight hours a day, and your body slowly but steadily develops a curved shape from slouching in it.

But still—mostly fine. It served its purpose. Do you know how much office chairs are? It seemed extravagant, and honestly not necessary. I don’t know how long I’ll be working from home; why invest in something that may not get much use? The dining chair worked. It was worth the discomfort to save that money.

(Never mind the fact that a new chair WOULD get use. For writing. Never mind that fact.)

Finally one day I was trying to rub a knot out of my shoulders and thought, “Ok. Enough is enough. I need to buy a damn chair.”

So Byron and I braved IKEA and bought a damn office chair.

And ooooooh. You guys. THE DIFFERENCE IS INCREDIBLE. The moment I sank down into that cushioned, lumbar-supported bliss, I kicked myself for not buying it sooner. This isn’t even a fancy chair. It’s an IKEA office chair. But an IKEA office chair beats a crappy not-an-office chair any day.

Look, whatever makes-your-life-better item you’ve been holding out on, for whatever reason—just go buy it. Order it off Amazon, go to a store. Just do it, now. This is my gift to you. Permission to buy Your Chair, whatever that may be.

Toby

This week we had to say good-bye to Toby, our cat of nine years.

We adopted Toby from the local humane society when he was about six months old. A tiny cat with a Maine Coon ruff and a bright-pink nose. We’d later learn that his nose acted as a sort of warning device. When he was stressed or excited, it was so pink it was almost red. When he was happy and calm, his nose turned so pale it almost blended in with his white fur.

IMG_6411

He was meowing a lot at the shelter. We thought, well, he’s stressed out, he won’t do that at home. We were wrong. Toby was probably the most vocal cat I’ve ever met. He had a whole range of meows, going from a tiny little noise we called a “murple”, to a shrieking, ear-burning witch yeowl. It could be…challenging, to say the least.

To match his meow, he had the loudest, most melodic purr in the whole world. Some days you’d hear him at the opposite end of the house, all by himself, purring.

IMG_2834

When we brought Toby home, he hid behind the shower curtain for three days. We thought, ok, he’s not going to be a lap cat. That’s alright. Then one night he was up on the couch with us. The next, briefly on a lap. Before long, Toby was a nothing-but-a-lap cat. He absolutely loved to snuggle, and if it wasn’t convenient for you, tough.

In the mornings, I sit on the couch and journal with a blanket over my knees. He demanded to crawl under the blanket. (Which I’d have to lift up for him—his method of getting under a blanket involved hitting it repeatedly with his paw. Super effective.) He’d sit in his little fort, purring. When I worked at the computer, he’d sit up in my lap with his paws draped over my arm. When I’d curl up for a nap, he’d curl up against my stomach. His favorite? If you had your legs stretched out with a blanket over them. The space created a hammock that was perfectly Toby-sized. He’d stretch out long, sticking out his front legs until they almost reached your face.

IMG_1190

He taught us that he liked to play fetch. One day he carried a toy over in his mouth—one of those plastic “fur”-coated mice that rattles a bit when you shake it—and dropped it on the couch. We didn’t want to play, so we tossed it away. Seconds later, there was Toby again, with the toy. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on. You could throw a mouse across the house, and he’d bring it back at a run.

We quickly realized that Toby had a lot of anxiety when left alone all day, so we got him a kitten. Cecilia was probably three months old when we brought her home. It took Toby about a week to warm up to her, but the two quickly became inseparable. Almost every afternoon, you could find them napping together, wrapped up around one another.

IMG_5055_2

Every once in a while they’d have “silent cat battles”—the most epic fights, but totally devoid of any hissing or meowing. The only way you’d know they were happening was when their tumbling bodies crashed into furniture.

Toby loved to groom. He groomed Cici all the time (sometimes against her will), and the dog also came under his line of fire. His humans, too. He’d sometimes lick your arm until it hurt.

I have a friend who works in special education who jokingly diagnosed Toby with autism. Semi-jokingly. There may have been some truth there. He did respond really well to her deep-pressure calming techniques.

IMG_0279

We weren’t sure how he would handle the dog. Any dog that visited in the past, he’d run and hide in my closet. And he was nervous about Louie at first. But the two quickly became friends, batting at one another and playing. If Louie got too rough, Toby fought back. It wasn’t uncommon to see the eight-pound cat chasing the 25-pound dog through the house. They liked sleeping near each other, usually just barely touching—a paw extended, booties bumping.

IMG_5110

We usually had to lock him up at dinner time because he was always interested in the food on our plates. Cheese—he’d lose his little mind over cheese. Tuna, of course. If I wasn’t paying attention, he’d steal shelled pistachios out of the bowl. Oh, and peanut butter toast. Every morning he begged for my peanut butter toast and tried to steal the scraps. (Sometimes successfully.)

Toby made me laugh. Always.

IMG_3357

He got sick about two months ago. The medicines helped for a little while. But when he stopped purring, we knew it was time.

There won’t ever be another cat quite like Toby. He was a total weirdo, our special little guy. All the hours I’ve spent writing, Toby was there, sitting on my lap, curled up on the desk. Just happy to be near me. My friend.

IMG_1567

“Home”: A Short Story

Oh hey! My first published piece came out this morning in Allegory eZine.

Here’s a little taste:

The Jeep rumbles through humid backlands and I count the mosquito bites on my right hand: four, just that I can see. Goddamn Louisiana. Why anyone would voluntarily live in this armpit is beyond me. I hate when the missions take us out to Hicksville, USA–but that hate is wasted, since that’s where we almost always go. The kind of people who have the kind of things we’re after, they live in places like this, where minding your own business is the law of the land.

Three of us out today. Me in the backseat, Jim and Rambo up front. Rambo isn’t his real name, of course, but that’s what he calls himself. Stupid as shit, but good at his job and a good driver, too. He’s driving now. Jim’s in the passenger seat with a walkie-talkie, waiting for more directions. The land flying past has been getting less swampy, more forested for the past couple miles. We’re close, but until we get details from Command, this is just a bug-ridden joy ride. And we don’t get paid unless the mission is a success.

Read the rest online (for free!).

This was a fun one to write. I woke up one morning after having a super intense dream… and then immediately went to the computer and started writing. The story was already about 60% complete—all I had to do was figure out the ending. Which is NOT how I usually come up with story ideas, so all in all it was a weird experience. But I’ll take it.

The pile of rejection slips is paying off. Just gotta keep pluggin’ away.

Oh thank sweet baby jesus the 2nd draft is done

I finished. It’s done. 33 chapters. 84,681 words. I ended up rewriting the entire last third of the book. It took me far too long (three years OMG IT TOOK ME THREE YEARS) and it induced all the rage but it is done.

I’ve gotta say, based on this experience? Second draft = WAY harder than the first.

Is it any good? I’m not sure yet. My eyeballs are spent, I need a new pair.

But it’s done. The 2nd draft is done. After a long nap and several drinks… it’s onto the next step.