50 Drafts Project #5

Today I’m going to work on what Antonya Nelson calls the “clock” of the story. This is basically the amount of time in which the story takes place, a time-frame that’s frequently built into the conceit of the story itself. I find that this can be a difficult concept to execute successfully. I can’t count how many stories I’ve read—including those from other new writers and those I’ve written myself—that don’t know where to start and where to end. Novice writers frequently come into the action far too early and leave way too later.

In order to help make the concept of a clock a little easier to work with, I’ll look at a couple of examples from other media.

My all-time favorite movie is the original, 1939 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film begins with a flying saucer appearing above Earth and landing in Washington D.C. The story follows an extra-terrestrial on his mission to impart an important message to the human race and the the story arc finds its’ natural conclusion with the delivering of that message and the departure of the flying saucer. This one feels pretty intuitive, this alien story begins with his arrival and ends with his departure.

What about something a little more complicated? Let’s take To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that follows the main character—Scout—through her coming of age and the maturation of her sense of morality. It begins with her playing childish games with her friend and brother, harassing and dehumanizing the mysterious Boo Radley. But in the end, she learns empathy. She’s not playing games, she has grown and learned to be kind to someone as ostracized as Boo. So her clock can be described and taking place between childhood and adulthood, apathy to empathy. Instead of being determined by events, the clock of To Kill a Mockingbird traces the emotional and psychological time-line of its’ narrator.

Let’s try one more. The anime TV show Cowboy Bebob revolves around an ex-gangster named Spike. His is a journey of redemption and we meet him traveling with his partner as a bounty hunter. He is, for all intents a purposes, alone, running from his past and from meaningful connection. The series ends with him having developed a kind of familial relationship with the people on his ship and, in order to protect them, facing the gangsters of his past. This is a redemption story, going from avoidance to facing the things that caused him fear.

With these examples in mind, it’s easier to think of potential clocks for Gloria’s arc. She opens the story stressed and resentful of the path her life has taken. She regrets leaving school, she resents the place she lives, and she’s unsatisfied with her lot in life. This can go one of two ways. Either she learns to love and accept her life or she leaves her family behind. Since I’m not writing Aesop’s Fables over here, I’m not feeling the first ending. So this week I’m going to try writing the final scene for a story in which my protagonist decides to change her life and has to cope with that decision.

The bench was far too hot for sitting, Gloria had tried. Then she’d tried pulling her poncho out of her suitcase and putting it down, but it was still scalding. Whoever decided to make metal bus benches in the desert deserved to be fired. And so she stood, the sun set her skin on fire, her feet ached in her sandals. The Greyhound would be there any minute. It would take her up to Palm Springs and then down to L.A. where she could stay with her mom while enrolling in Santa Monica College. She could find a job at a coffee shop or restaurant. She could apply to transfer to UCLA, take those last few classes, go to grad school. She could spend her nights watching a telescope and tracking the speed with which the star’s lights reached her. She could measure stellar parallax, calculate the motion and discover something wonderful. A new asteroid, a new galaxy, and new process with her name attached to it. All she had to do was catch that bus. Easy.

There was still time Still time to follow the dream she’d had since she was a kid. To have a career, to be strong and independent and respected. Still time to be happy.

And there was still time for Ash to stop her. To come running down the road in those ratty sneakers stained red from dirt and the overalls that Gloria had longed to throw away for years. To kiss her and take her hand and lead her home to her baby girl. To make promises to pay more attention to her and encourage Gloria to take classes online instead. There was still time for Ash to prove she couldn’t live without her.

There was still time and Gloria waited.

50 Drafts Project #4

Let’s continue with the fifth exercise that Antonya Nelson gave to her writing course–figuring out the character’s age. Why the fifth? Because I’m a firm believer in character driving story and I believe that learning more about where Gloria is in her can be a great way to piece out more of the plot and thematic elements of this story.

Nelson spends some time discussing transitional ages and the idea there are many stories in which someone can “come of age.” What we usually know as coming of age stories are those that involve children becoming teenagers or teenagers transitioning into adulthood. But what about the transition of a twenty-three year old out of college? Or that of the forty-five year old empty nester or the seventy-year-old coming to terms with physical limitations.

With that in mind, what is Gloria’s coming of age story? She is married with a primary-school-aged child. She’s living in a small town in the middle of a desert that she doesn’t seem too fond of at the moment. I’m thinking that she’s at around the stage in her life where she’s asking “what if?” A point where she is left questioning her major decisions and feeling like she’s getting to a point where she won’t be able to turn back. She feels stuck and she is afraid of that feeling.

I think that would put her in her mid-thirties. Old enough to have lived some life and had her family, old enough that she does not see herself represented in stories about change. Like many in our society, she is led to believe that one figures out their life in their twenties and that leaves her feeling like she missed so many opportunities. Maybe she dropped out of school and abandoned a dream that she had for much of her young life.

Since I’ve already rehashed that first scene a couple of times, let’s move on to the next one and figure out what happens after the events on the beach. And let’s use this new information about Gloria to drive those events forward and reveal some of her back-story.

Gloria dragged the crying child home by the collar, careful not cut off airflow or move too quickly as Dreah wheezed between sobs. She’d already gotten Ash on the phone and asked her to run to the grocery store down in Niland to get some sandwich fixings. Gloria had lost the energy to cook.

Back home, she held the inhaler to Dreah’s lips and helped the girl inhale before putting her on time out in the master bedroom. Gloria collapsed on the couch. She felt her heartbeat start to steady, she hadn’t realized it had been racing for the last half-hour. Orange of late afternoon crept through the windows. This town, Gloria thought as she picked her laptop up off the dining room table.

The screen woke up to the same webpage that had sat unchanging on the browser for the last week-and-a-half: the application page for the UCLA school of physics and astronomy. She’d gotten stuck on the line asking about previous education. It seemed like a lifetime ago that that bad bout of depression left her to take a hiatus during her fifth semester to chase the romantic notion of an artistic commune planted on land in the middle of the desert that nobody–not even the government–could lay claim to. A scrap of land where she’d met a young sculptor, a baby dyke fresh out of high school, who Gloria had married in a rush of passion and revelation and the illusion of freedom. Her PhD advisor had urged her to come back the next semester. Gloria had spent years second-guessing her decision.

She heard Ash pull into the driveway. She hadn’t noticed it getting dark and the brightness of the computer screen made her eyes burn. She shut it off and switched on the light. She could always finish the application tomorrow when Ash would be in the yard welding scrap metal or maybe Monday while Dreah was in school.

50 Drafts Project: #3

This week I’d like to take one of the first steps in Antonya Nelson’s essay. In her original class, she had students follow up their first draft with one that occupied the point-of-view of a different character. “In this way,” Nelson says, “the material is approached from a new angle.”

For the purpose of this story, I decided to occupy the POV of the story’s only other character so far: the angry lady with the fish scaler. By starting this draft a little before the original scene, I hoped to find some context for the events and force myself to answer some questions about what is happening. Where did the tilapia come from? Who is the woman looking for Dreah? Why was Dreah trying to liberate the dead fish?

This change allowed me to play with the tone of the story as well as the characterization. In this way, I can work to see the different priorities of my characters and explore alternate possibilities for this narrative.

This is a change that I found particularly interesting, mainly because my first instinct is to resist it. I wrote about the character that I wanted to write about, I was attached to her and her tone and I didn’t want to leave her point-of-view! But I can already see more strength in the narrative and in my understanding of it. And I have to remember, when working on drafts nothing is permanent!

Next week we’ll dive deeper into our characters and talk about the effects of age!

Gloria snapped the ends off of green beans and stirred the rice that swirled in the boiling water. It had been one of those days. Dreah had been sent home with a letter from the principal; something about a fight with one of the boys in her grade. Gloria didn't even finish reading it, she didn't have the emotional energy for yet another talking to.

Dreah--God bless that child-- had a knack for getting herself into situations. When she'd gotten home, she'd been crying about a ladybug or some such thing as Ash tried to reprimand her. The time before, Dreah hit the lunch lady square in the face with a lambchop, screaming that she was a murderer. Then there was the time she “liberated” the class’s gerbil while reportedly yelling “Run Mr. Whiskers! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” Seriously, where the hell did that kid learn to quote Karl Marx?

And now she was sulking in her room. Gloria would have a hell of a time getting her out for dinner.

She picked up the fish scaler and turned towards the tilapia that she had been marinating. It was from the grocery store, unlike the fish that the older locals fished out of the Salton Sea. There was no way that Gloria would feed her family anything from that poison wat…

It was gone. The fish was gone.

“What the fuck?” She stomped out of the kitchen and down the hall to Dreah’s room. It was empty. She hurried into the garage.

“Ash!” Gloria's wife was under the car, fixing the carburetor or the gas line or whatever the hell she did down there.

“Ow!” Ash said as she rammed her head into the undercarriage. She rubbed her forehead. “Gloria, what the he…”

“Your child,” Gloria said, ignoring her wife's frustration--she always referred to Dreah as Ash’s when she was angry, nevermind that Gloria was the one to give birth to her-- “where is she?”

“She isn't in her room?”

“Nope, and our entree seems to be missing as well.”

“Ah geez, not again.” Ash stood up and threw her gloves on the workbench. “I'll check the south shore.”

“You do that.”

The two women left the house, rushing through the town of Bombay Beach towards the sea. Gloria was already halfway there when she realized that she still had the fish scaler in her hand. In her anger, she waved it in the air as she called.

“Dreah! Dreah get back here!”

She rushed past the houses and art installations. The giant pinhole camera. The fake drive through packed with derelict cars. She struggled up the small, sandy hill that led to the beach. Her flip-flops made the climb that much harder.

She crested the hill to see the sea. She never quite understood the awe that her spouse held towards this place. The water was dark and around this time of year salty enough from farm runoff to kill almost every fish in it. They would wash to the shore and the smell of their rot permeated the town. Gloria spent hours every week filling the house with scented candles and incense and potpourri in her battle against the stench that no one else every seemed to notice.

“Dreah, I know you’re around here somewhere!” She tramped towards the old boat on wood blocks. She knew that the child had a fondness for such things. Suddenly, she saw the shape of her daughter dash from behind the boat towards sea.

Shit, she thought. Dreah shouldn’t have been running like that. Not without her inhaler and, heaven knows, she never remembered to bring it without her mothers nagging her. Gloria moved quickly as she watched Dreah gently lower their dinner into the water.

Ridiculous child, if anything could bring that thing back to life, it certainly wasn't that salty waste. Gloria say Dreah's chest heaving, her feet awash in the tide. She really should have brought the inhaler.

50 Drafts Project: #2

All right, we have the skeleton of idea, now let’s work with it. I’m here to write fiction, so how about starting with a scene?

Most writing advice will describe scene as a story in miniature. I could go into Freytag’s pyramid or John Truby’s steps for creating story, but it’s still early and there will be time for all of that later. For now, let’s start with a simplified version of Robert McKee’s definition: action through conflict.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s toss some character in there. My notes from the previous post put a lot of focus on the older residents of Bombay Beach and I happen to love the interplay between elderly folks and children, so I think it would be interesting to start from a child’s point-of-view.

So, the next task is figuring out what the action and conflict will be. One of the more striking images in my notes is the miles of dead fish along the shore, so I’ll put my young protagonist there. As for conflict, I’ll start will something fairly common, like having her run away from someone. That can go in many directions.

Finally, I’d like to give this character a voice. I really like the image of her alone on the beach, so I think I’ll give her something inanimate to talk to. A stuffed animal seems a little too cliche, especially for such a strange setting, so why not lean into the oddness and have her chatting with a dead fish?

And there we have it, this story’s first scene! Next post, I’ll push it further by playing with point-of-view.

The child ran towards the water, the tilapia clenched firmly in her hands. The scales were slippery and covered in lemon juice and she struggled to keep her grip on it. She crested the sandbank at the edge of town and the sea’s murky brown water came into view. It foamed white at the shore, where the tide glided over the rotting corpses of hundreds upon hundreds of dead, rotting fish.

“Dreah!” a voice called from behind, “Dreah get back here!”

The girl ignored the calls. Her little legs sunk into the sand as she struggled to propel herself forward. She ran behind the old boat, the one that sat on cement blocks and that tourists liked to draw on during the festival. She plopped down, panting, her breath wheezing a little. But just a little. Not bad enough for the inhaler, she thought.

“What do you think Atticus?” she said, turning the fish’s shining eyes to face her, “do I need to go back?”

Atticus stared. His lemony smell did little to overpower the rot in the air.

“Yeah, I don’t think so either.” She set Atticus in her lap and played with his mouth, gently opening and closing it. She wiggled his tail and imagined him zipping through the water.

It was not long before the girl heard hard breathing and the swish of footsteps in the sand. She looked around the boat to see Mom trudging towards her. She still wore her apron and was waving the fish scaler in one hand as she struggled to catch her breath.

“Dreah, I know you’re around here somewhere!”

The girl jumped up and ran the last few yards to the shore. Her feet sunk into the mounds of fish carcasses. She stepped into the foam and placed Atticus in the water. The tide carried him away as he bobbed at its’ surface.

“See you later, Atticus,” the girl said, waving, her shoes soaking through.

50 Drafts Project: #1

Here I present to you the writer’s worst nightmare: publicly posted unrevised work *shiver*.

So in Antonya Nelson’s original exercise, she had her students begin their stories by writing out an anecdote from their own lives. It’s a valid start, many of us write from our own lives and personal experiences. However, I feel like I have to acknowledge that this is a limited start. Stories come from so many places. Matt Weinkam puts it well in his blog post discussing Nelson’s essay:

“Some of us start from real-life experience, it’s true. But some of us begin from a craft experiment, some from language or style, some from character or conflict, some from an abstract idea, some from a single sentence, some from a constraint, some from thought experiment, some from overheard dialogue, some from image, some from music.”

With this in mind, I have decided to start this project with a setting that I’ve been wanting to write about. A couple years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Salton Sea and Slab City over in the Coachella valley. As a former resort destination—one that failed miserably as a result of flooding and the poisoning of the fish in the sea—and a current haven for found-object art, the whole area has a kind of an eccentric melancholy to it.
I spent my time here scribbling frantic notes in my journal and I will be using these notes as my first draft.

You’ll notice the lack of sentence structure, the constant non-sequiturs, the needless repetition, the inconsistent POV, and the kind of half-baked description that only serves to jog the memory of the note-taker. In short: it’s a mess. But that’s okay! This kind writing was never meant to be shared and, though it is fairly meaningless to a reader, it sparks all kinds of ideas for me, the writer.

And with this, I can start the work of turning this mess into some kind of narrative.

The Salton Sea.

The sky indifferent shades of sharp blue, fading to a lighter color as it tilts towards the mountains. Lenticular clouds stretch across the sky. High wind speeds aloft. One cloud blocks the sun, the wind having twisted it into a cyclone shape.

The indigenous palm trees with the dead leaves hanging like a coat around the trunk. The oasis.

The smell of dead fish.

“Video Rentals DJ Premier”. Sun faded, the west wall down to a skeleton. Graffiti spattered across the side of what used to be Felix Auto, 24 hr. Tire Repair. Doors missing from the buildings. Boarded windows behind rusting bars. Surprisingly intact liquor store sign.

The sea stretches to the horizon. From the bank, it looks like an ocean. It’s hard to believe that this was man-made. Sustained and disallowed from evaporating away by the runoff from nearby palm tree farms. Caribbean palm trees.

Mountains run along the bank on the closer end.

The train tracks run alongside the massive lake. Eastbound trains fully loaded, westbound, the cars empty of cargo containers.
Almost looks like the docks at Long Beach, shore on two sides and ocean stretching out ahead.

Mountains alongside the opposite shore. Unreal. One end fading into the heat haze; to invisibility.

Looks like the ocean. Looks like the beach alongside the ocean. Up-close, the water is brown.

Smell the rot in the air and see the fish and bird carcasses that line the shore.

Dried up little gulches from old streams and runoff. Extending out all along the lake like empty veins feeding into a still heart.

Unused wood stacked by the railroad. The tracks up on a small, man-made hill of gravel.

“Flash flood area, next 5 miles.”

Flies all over the place. They get in the car every time we open the door.

Abandoned, graffitied, boat with snapchat stickers on boarded up windows.

Twin scrap-metal giants guarding the skeleton of a shack.

The whole house is a camera, a pinhole cut into one of the windows. It’s the side of a sheet of printer paper.

Locals will charge you down and talk about the art, the building, the petitions.

Two local guys chased us down in their pickup truck. One old, one young. They told us about the town, the art, the festival. Bombay beach. The young one says that his mom rides around on a three-wheeled bicycle.

Broken glass and drywall litter the round around buildings.
One broken-down building held host to a grand piano and bass players during the festival. There are massive holes in every wall. No doors, no windows. Graffiti inside the empty doorways. It was packed with spectators for the music. Trash litters the floor inside.

The king/mayor/fire chief of Bombay.

They drove away, then chased us down again. Disappearing and reappearing like fairy godmothers. We follow them.

In the middle of a story: “They’re lesbians, okay?” Painted over bigotry on wall. Flag with “Dyke Ranch” written on it. “We’re next to the dyke (body of water) over here.” Tolerance.

Famous artists buying up property and creating exhibitions of “found things” art.

The Animal House. $25 per night, per person.

Black preacher names Johnny. Star of David flag in his yard.

Mayor owns 14 properties. Rents them out. Derelict on the outside, beautiful and funny on the inside.

$3 for 3 drinks. “What kind of soft drinks do you have? “ “Well, uh, we have coke, diet coke, pepsi, diet pepsi, sprite, diet sprite…”

Three old men at one corner of the bar, joining in, listening in on every conversation. Old bartender in aviator-style eyeglasses. Wendel. His name is Wendel.

Dollar bills plastered on the wall. About 7 thousand of them. “I started counting one day, went from that door to this one and got sick of it. I sure wouldn’t take ‘em down when I sell and I sure wouldn’t take ‘em to the bank.”

Beer served in mason jars.

Sun-stained, wrinkled faces.

Cans of “Fish Assholes.” Profits go to the fire department. One year, they donated $1,200.

Dish and body soap in the bar bathroom.

Border patrol. Close to the Mexican border.

Farms in the middle of the desert. Dandelions.

Rotting roadkill.

Mayor’s 83-year-old mother has been in three movies that were filmed in the area. She met Robert Plant when Led Zep drove through town during a tour.

Fence made of tires around property. Empty glass bottles balanced on top. Ground antennae.

Salvation mountain. You can smell the acrylic paint. It’s not quite overpowering. It’s like Oz. The yellow-brick-road is soft under your feet. It’s made up of layers and layers of paint. Bits held together by the paint itself. The dried acrylic paint squeaks under sneakers.

Beautiful East-Asian girl in a flower crown and flowing white dress. She’s doing a photoshoot in front of Salvation Mountain. What a contrast.

You can get a ticket for going too fast in a wheelchair.

Places defined by smells as much as anything else.

There’s a state prison somewhere out here. Just past Niland.

Hay field with green bails of hay spread out periodically. Desert farmland.

Grape farm, grape vines. Coachella Valley Wine?

Palm tree farms of non-native trees. Bags over the wilting branches.

Power lines running along the highway.

Water vapor coming off the shop awnings create a fog. You can’t see more than half a block ahead.