It’s been a while since I’ve faced down the blank page, at least with the intention of doing something other than journaling.
The last time I had a story in progress was a few months before Covid. I’ve revisited the funky tale about a magical refrigerator and a canyon full of mountain lions but have yet to find the cadence and traction I need to be truly working on it.
A similar thing happened with reading during the pandemic. Isolation ought to have been prime time for readers, but I struggled to get through a single book and shamelessly tuned out in front of the television.
Reading came back to me faster than writing did. And just last week, under some spell of inspiration, I woke up a few mornings in a row and actually wanted to struggle with the blank page. Not having a story in the works, and not wanting the momentum to go to waste, I pulled a small navy blue book from my shelf.
The 3AM Epiphany
This is a book of writing exercises. I don’t recall when or where from I originally bought it, but it is super useful in the kind of moment I found myself in last week: wanting to write, but not having a story in mind. Not knowing what to write isn’t a unique scenario. It’s actually sort of par for the course.
Last week’s headspace was particular in that I was inspired not just to write, but to pursue writing. To write just to try and get a little bit better at writing. So I put the pen to the paper and let it ride.
Brian Kitely, the author of the exercise book, provides pretty awesome craft explanations and then creates an exercise around what he’s discussing. It like targeting a specific storytelling muscle.
I’ll share my responses to the three exercises I did last week. I didn’t bother to pay attention to word count, as I was handwriting. It’s impossible for me not to clean up the entries a little bit as I transcribe them into the digital realm, but I’ll try keep their raw structure intact and preserve as much of the single-take nature of them as I can.
This is the second exercise in the chapter focused on Time. How do authors compress time to make it manageable in a narrative? How do they draw out single moments to and pack them full of detail and minutia? What ends do compression and extension achieve. Here’s the prompt:
Write a third person story that takes place over an arbitrarily long period of time, not a lifetime, but several years, so you have to pick and choose important details or summarize lyrically or choose a consistent set of events that adheres to a them or a structure. 500 words.
Sal was fifty-five by the time they came for him. His trombone sat on its stand, polished as always, when the sun rose that morning. Car horns blared casually in the same way they always had in the New Jersey neighborhood he’d never really left. He’d been squatting in this rundown for at least three years. A good stretch these days.
Newspaper littered the floors and if you kicked a can a rat might have rolled out of it, evicted. Sal wasn’t much for calendars. So it could have been thirteen years. He wasn’t much for counting, besides keeping time with his toe. He’d splayed every night across town since he was thirteen. Might have had it all, but the junk caught him.
Sal managed to hide it for a decade, or so he thought. Soon enough, everyone at rehearsal could hear he was off-key. And some nights he couldn’t find his way to the bandstand. Worst of all, before he knew it, the music itself had left him behind. Nobody needed trombonists anymore, especially ones who could only hear the notes, but not read them.
Sal got clean three or four times. he’d polish his horn to stay busy in the early mornings because he didn’t sleep without the junk and the itch was always the worst right before the sun came up. He didn’t mind being the only one awake at 3AM—spending his late teens and all of his twenties in club accustomed him to that—but Sal couldn’t stand being awake with everyone else for the rest of the day. It just broke his heart.
He’d had a good run in the little boarded up, abandoned unit on the street with a name nobody really remembered in the neighborhood that, like Sal, used to sing, one of those days, way back when. He even grew to enjoy the sounds blasted out of boomboxes, circling up to his window, trickling in to his ear. He could hear the horn parts he used to play beneath all those pop melodies. He polished his trombone, fired up a spoon, and gave the world one last blow.
It took them a few days to find him, from the looks of the body. He was fifty-five when they finally came for him.
How did I do?
I think this exercise is about choosing what to compress, when to compress, and how to do it, while traveling with the reader over a long period of time. It appears that I, on the other hand, tried to compress an entire life into a big old paragraph.
I really enjoyed this one. I’ve had a hankering to write a musician character for a while now, so Sal scratched the itch.
#94: Life Story
This next exercise is from the same chapter on Time. It’s similar to 95 in that it is focused on a long period of time–an entire life–and the decisions and techniques to frame and cover that distance in a compelling way. Here’s the prompt (amended for brevity):
Write a short first person story of someone’s entire life. Make the sentences islands of themselves, the scene of action, and detail. Don’t worry about making “sense” from sentence to sentence (which is good advice for any kind of writing). But also don’t forget that a reader has to follow a thread…Imagine a frame device that makes this kind of story possible–a guy in a bar; a grown woman magically transported back to third grade who is asked to tell what she did last summer, except she confuses this with what did you do with your life? 300 words.
Most of us were in line for hours. The amber light at the porthole slowly lost its grainy texture. The planet was behind us. Or above us. Or beside us. No real directions. Wherever it was, it was too far to make the nothing look like something anymore. Dead planets stay still. The station moves on, looking for one that isn’t completely shot.
“Relax,” the engine spoke. It wouldn’t be accurate to call the engine’s exterior a face, at least in the humanistic sense. The engines were something between images and physical object. A hybrid of holographically charged pixels and semi-solid electrons. You could cradle it’s cheek in your palm if it lever let you so close. You’d feel the touch, but not the weight of it, just the weigh of the chip and the impossibly charged metal object that hummed and housed its self-generation patterns.
I let the magnet pull my head back to meet all of the chair. I moved to fix my braid, unpin from the wall and my shoulder blades.
I placed my hands back on the arm rests.
“You are moving stations. This is intake. Tell me about your prior station.”
“I was in the docking domain of Qhijra449.”
“Was that your only prior assignment.”
“No. I’ve had many.”
“Tell me about all of them, starting with the earliest.”
“Before the docking domain of Qhijra449–”
“Begin with your domain of origin and proceed from there.”
“I’m of planet origin.”
The engine did not react. I thought it might, because other people were always surprised but he fact. This, of course, was an engine. There was a slight change to the hue of its hybrid pixel aura. Or maybe the speed of the holo slowed down. There were all sorts of recommendations for improving relations between engines and people like me. The ones not born in space.
“Earth or Jupiter Moon?”
“For what duration?”
“I was born only to my father. My mother was part of the repopulation effort. She might have had three, four, fourteen…Who knows–”
“Preclude speculation. This is intake.”
“My father worked on the telescopes. We lived int eh desert. I was outside for nine years before the sky turned. The were given domains at the Hawthorne Station. I sorted parts, he moved to rotational physics. He was a good man. I don’t know if he volunteered for fatherhood or lost a bet or was assigned me, but he did as best he could in the times we had. He was killed in a launch exercise when I was ten. Since then it’s been one station to the next. Sorting parts, touching up lenses, docking commuter craft, and soldering anti-gravity sickness inhibitors.”
“Begin with your domain of origin and proceed from there. Refrain from embellishment. A list of stations will suffice.”
The magnetic pull increased. I felt my head jerk back against the headrest. I figured I’d better get to the point. It was black outside the porthole now. Just the empty flicker of starlight. It would be years before I saw another planet pass; until I saw sky again.
How did I do?
I really enjoyed where I took this one. I think the exercises in this book give a specific starting point, and then things take off from there and in my mind, it doesn’t really matter where you end up. Sure, I could edit this chunk of storytelling to more accurately address the challenge in the prompt, but its more fun to lean into the spark and see where the story goes.
#24: Ways of Seeing
The last one I’ll share with you is from an earlier chapter on Characters. Here's the prompt:
Imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world (for instance, an occasional drug dealer who, because of his amateur status, is more than usually prone to seeing danger where there is none; an entomologist who tends to categorize the world dryly…a world-class athlete in top shape whose clarity of vision is almost hallucinogenic). Have this character witness a traumatic even that does not directly involve her. Narrate the event from the first-person POV, making sure that the perspective is carefully built around the idiosyncrasies of this personality. 600 words.
Cringe. I realize that I didn’t do this one in the stated POV. Whatever. I’ll live. I had fun.
The distance between the subjects involved is about five and a half feet. Sensitive distance, Karla recalls from the training manual. At roughly ten feet away, her own distance from the event is medium soft. Soft is bad. Soft is dangerous. Malleable. Penetrate. The context is high risk with over 60% loss of life potential were one of the subjects to brandish a firearm. Karla inventories six other people in the line in front of her at Subway.
If Subject A, the pimple faced teenage boy who just fumbled a scoop of tuna onto what was supposed to be a BLT, were to pull a weapon, perspective risk is high for Karla and the six others waiting for subs. Subject B, the man who’s probably inexcusable outrage over his order having to be restarted from scratch has his back tot heresy of the shop, so presumably someone in line behind him could give him a quick bonk on the head to put him down if he were to reveal a firearm.
Karla notes the exits as the argument escalates.
“How fucking hard can it be to make a sandwich?”
This is the second time Subject B has cursed at Subject A.
“You know what man,” Subject B looks up from the counter and says, “how hard can it be to be a decent fucking human being. Get the fuck out of here! I’m not serving you.”
“Who’s the manager here?”
Before anyone answers, Subject A takes another scoop of tuna and hurls across the glass partition. It lands squarely on Subject B’s shirt.
First physical escalation, Karla notes. She shifts her stance, hungry, and not particularly intrigued. Am I hoping one of them pulls a gun? Karla wonders. It would make things more interesting…
“You little piece of shit!” Subject B lunges against the glass partition, grabbing at the kid. Three people head for the left exit. Subject A reaches for a big sandwich knife. Holds it pointedly.
“Get the fuck out of here!” He screams. It’s a child’s scream in a teenager’s body with adult words. The confidence he had telling off Subject A evaporates when the violence emerges. Subject A has reached an emotional threshold. This is when Karla decides to really start watching. Tears form in the corner of his eyes. His zits blend with the crimson flooding his cheeks and forehead. the knife has more power than he does over it. His hand quivers, the weight of the big sandwich nearly too much for it.
“Are you serious?” Subject B recoils. Gaslighting to commence, Karla presumes. “You point a knife at me you little fuck!” B tries to turn the tables. Transform A’s reaction to his lunge into an initial act of aggression, not a response.
The people who didn’t leave earlier have all taken steps back. A few of them shout at the kid.
Another sandwich artist, the manager Karla imagines, steps toward Subject A. “This man is going to leave and you’re going to put that down,” he says. Karla admires the manager’s level voice.
“You’re going to fire him and make me my fucking sandwich!” Subject B shouts back.
“Sir, you need to leave now.” The manager tells him.
“So this is my fault now? Your employee is pointing a knife at me.”
“Leave asshole!” The kid shouts. Might as well get in as many punches as he can, Karla figures. The kid is toast once this ends.
“You fucking twerp!” Subject B shouts. He moves toward the counter a second time.
Karla can’t stop herself. She’s not even sure how she gets past the people in line too paralyzed to leave. She’s over the banister and pressing Subject B’s face into the glass for a close up view of the cold-cuts in seconds. She twists one of his arms behind his back.
“They asked you leave,” she says, then spins him towards the exit. Subject B’s face hits another pane of glass as Karla uses it to push open the door, then throws him to the curb. “Get lost.”
“Fucking cunt!” The man screeches, scrambling to his feet, dusting off his pants, and rediscovering the lump of tuna on his button-down.
The manager gives Karla a card loaded with free sandwiches for this particular Subway location. He says it’s only good at his location because the shops are all franchises and the other ones probably wouldn’t honor it.
It’s a bittersweet gift. Karla probably won’t be in this neighborhood again. She’d just lost her spot in the hostage negotiation training program she was attending in the windowless building across the street. A fascination with escalation, they noted on the discharge document.
How did I do?
I couldn't really tell you why I set this scene in Subway. It just sort of happened.
I briefly mentioned my pandemic reading hiatus. One way I rebuilt my reading habit was by not overthinking what I wanted to read. I could spend hours walking through Powells and not end up buying anything for lack of really knowing what I wanted to read. So when warmer weather rolled around here in the PNW, I bought a book from one of the stands at the grocery store checkout. It was a mystery thriller. The first of series focused on a single protagonist solving various crimes. I've been a bit of a literary snob in my life, so I was mind blown when this grocery store fiction had me up late. It was just the kind of brain candy I needed to get me back into the swing of things.
Also, as a persistent amateur author, I came to grips with the fact that writing any kind of fiction is hard work, let alone a series of stories that keep people coming back for sequel after sequel.
This is all to say that I've had the idea of a trying to write my own thriller/mystery/grocery store series and I think a young woman who is booted out of a hostage negotiation program and finds herself resolving a conflict in the Subway might be my first crack at it.
I wanted to get this post out immediately following the three mornings where I got the actual creative work done. Alas, the lakes of the Mt. Hood Wilderness were calling my name. I spent last weekend in the sunshine on the water, coaxing my dog Bird to join me out on the paddle board.
And then this past week I failed to write at all in the mornings. Not a single scribble. I barely woke up early enough to do much of anything before logging onto my computer for work.
So the struggle continues. I'll start again on Monday morning.
Maybe I'll explore Sal's memory of better days on the bandstand in the Big Apple. Or discover why the unnamed narrator in #94 is moving from one space station to another and why none of her peers seem to notice the sky like she does. Who knows—maybe Karla will find herself in another dust up in a different fast food chain.
The possibilities are endless. Which is of course both the wonder and the burden of the craft.
Be well and thanks for reading.