Flash Fiction Friday

In a fit of angst about how frickin long it’s taking to finish my novel, I decided (with encouragement) to try a flash fiction challenge so I could finish SOMETHING.

The challenge: Write a short story in 90 minutes or less based on a prompt (in this case, the prompt was: Swing). You’re supposed to do it on Sunday afternoon, but I’m impatient so I went ahead and did last week’s challenge last night. And I’m insane so I did it in 35 minutes.

This is what I wrote.

Swing

Long hair and twisted ropes don’t mix well.  I was seven when I found this out, screaming for my mom my dad my grandma anyone.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. What country kid could resist? Sure, we lived on three acres set in the midst of another hundred acres of wild California high desert. Giant climbing boulder right there in the front yard. But I had never had a swing before, not outside the school playground.

So when Dad carried that sanded board out to the hitching post in front of Indian Joe’s Trading Depot, and hung it with two pieces of thick, frayed nylon, I figured rope burn was a small price to pay for the glory of twisting up in that thing as high as I wanted and letting it spin spin spin spin to the bottom and back up again.

Did you know that hair is even more magical than usual when it’s flying out around your head like that?

For Samson it was strength. For me, I could hear. That time we found the bird, stunned silly by a run-in with the picture glass windows on the front of Ye Olde Country Store. Mom made a little box for it and it talked to me as it died, not in words so much but I felt the joy of the wind, the rush of the dive, the call of a beloved mate, the sorrow, oh the sorrow, of goodbye world.

Gnats spoke to me too. That’s why I had to rescue them out of the fresh paint on the door Grandpa was fixing for our ugly little house. They didn’t say much, it’s true. Just mating and water and mating and blood. And flight. Oh, how they missed flight, lying there on their backs in the paint, the smell of it like death. So I washed them, even though they screamed how the water was all wrong, stuck in it like that, in and out, and then I placed them in the sun and most of them died anyway but I had to try. Goodbye world.

There was the baby deer. She didn’t really talk to me at first, except that little baby bleating sound they make out loud, because at first she was fine. It was later her internal organs shut down, said the vet, because she didn’t get the colostrum (when your mom raises livestock you know big words like “colostrum” even when you’re just a little girl). Because her mother died too soon. But we didn’t know that and so she slept by my bed, I fed her every few hours out of that bottle. When she was hungry, while I warmed the bottle of goat’s milk, she’d suck on my fingers. Her mom died so soon, that little deer—Kara, I named her—she thought I was her mama.

How she cried, that last day, on her way to the vet. I watched Mom close the door on her, she standing there on the pickup truck floor, and I heard her, not just the bleating—that was loud enough too—but the other talking. I felt what it is to fly over a fence, even though she had never felt it herself. Maybe it was her mother. Straight up in the air and over, soaring. And love, oh the love, the aching aching love—for me—for ME. And goodbye goodbye oh goodbye as she drove away.

Later, Mom told me how in her panic and her fear, she forgot to take a bottle of goat’s milk with her and little Kara was so scared and she was so hungry and Mom had nothing to give her as she lay there dying on the vet’s table. But I knew that already. Kara told me. Goodbye, oh goodbye world.

So you see I couldn’t ever cut my hair. Because when my hair flew out around me like that, I could hear them all. Not just the dying ones. I could hear the crow overhead, feel the flight and the joy without the sorrow, not yet sorrow. And the rattlesnakes, did you know how much rattlesnakes love the sun? Ladybugs, ladybugs, the beautiful hum of the ladybug song flying, mating, flying, eating. The horse and the beetles and the goats and the duck and the dog all of them all of them.

My hair flying out, like it does when you wind up the swing and let it go again, how could I resist that?

But old rope and long hair don’t mix, it turns out. Especially twisted old rope. Mom, dad, grandma, anyone, brother even, grandpa come come oh come. I don’t know who came, found me hanging there by my hair, twisted up in the rope so far so tight I couldn’t hear anything but my own screaming. I just know that was the last time the last time the last time… It had to be cut and they didn’t understand of course, they couldn’t, they didn’t know. They didn’t know my hair was magic.

Goodbye, birds, gnats, snakes, crows. Goodbye, oh goodbye. Goodbye.

P.S. Visit Absolute Write and join the challenge. You have to sign in & there’s a password–someone will give it to you once you’re a member. You can pm me for it. Or just do it on your blog and link to it from here, please. So I can read it.

 

Timelines and Climaxes

Yesterday I took the keys to Mom’s Cruiser, a box of snack bars, two kids–Eli, age 9; Everett, age 5–and headed down the rutted, twisting road to the bottom of the 9500-foot-elevation “hill” atop which my parents live. We drove into Florissant with $40 in cash and a thirst for adventure.

We came back with one (1) smoky quartz piece, and twenty-seven (27) or so flakes of paper shale bearing the impressions of insects, flower buds, seeds, and leaves that lived and died 35 million years ago.

Fossil Hunting

None of this has anything to do with my novel or progress thereon right now, and neither do any of the six other entries I’ve started and abandoned in the past day here. It’s just too hard. The work is hard, writing about the work is hard. But here we go. Here is what I’m doing:

  • Working on a detailed timeline. In Excel. So help me.
  • Trying to get two characters to reunite with each other in the same place at the same time, instead of three months apart as their current timelines show them doing.
  • Trying to get seven (7) POV characters to meet at the same time in the same place for the climax without ruining any of their individual timelines.
  • Trying to figure out why each of those seven (7) POV characters even wants to be there for goodness sake.
  • And what each of them is doing during the climax.
  • And what each of them is thinking during the climax.
  • And then, finally, from whose point of view the climax will actually be told.
  • And also exactly how I feel about the fact that today, one of the search engine phrases that led to my blog was “sobbing after climax.”
  • And wondering whether I really want to keep writing about climaxes or not.
  • And definitely wondering whether I really want to keep writing climaxes or not.

But of course I have to. Writing them because I have to finish my book. Writing about them because reaching climax is hard for me. (I’ll let you know when Google searches for “Why is reaching climax hard for me” start leading to my blog. It will be a proud moment, surely. (I apologize to anyone who has arrived via that search. This is not the place to get that kind of help. But if you’re writing a book, now, come on in. We can help with that. Or at least empathize with how hard it is.))

So I just keep getting up an hour early and plugging. I thought I’d be done with my second draft next week, but now it looks more like next month or next year or maybe next decade.

Possibly by the time I’m done, the mosquito that ended up smashed between two pages of my first draft will be as old as the fossils in our paper shale fragments.

If anyone has tips, ideas, or inspiration for getting through this last part of the second draft… please. Share. I’d like to finish sometime this millennium.

Leaf fossil

Novel Update

A few of you have asked for updates on how the novel is coming. Here’s a little visual:

2013-08-18 book

Revised portions on left, unrevised portions on right

Same stacks, from the side (revised, left. Unrevised, right):

2013-08-18 book2

So, yeah. That’s where I am. Now, mind you, there are several chapters still to be written to finish it out–the original climax was cloudy and the denouement nearly non-existent. Good thing I’ve managed to cut over 10,000 words from my original draft. We’re currently somewhere just north of 79k.

Once this round of revisions is done, it goes back to my alpha reader–Carey–for honing. Then out to my betas for a round of feedback followed by revisions. Then tightening & editing. Then proofing.

So, how’s it going? Well. It’s a long plod, but it’s going well. Heck, just for fun. Here’s a screen shot of my tracking document.

Word Tracking Screen Shot

It’s About the Trance

The setting: Okefenokee Swamp, January, 1994. The occasion: Mid-term trip with the head of the biology department (Dr. McGinty), an English professor (Dr. Anderson), and an assemblage of hard-core biology students who tolerated my misfit presence among them. The protags: Alligators, pitcher plants, and the blessed heater in the bathroom, where I dragged my bedding one night because somehow my parents thought an egg crate cushion would be enough to keep the mid-winter chill from creeping out of the earth and into my sleeping bag with me.

Chickadees and raccoons put in an appearance that week too. But that day it was just me and the tree.

We had canoed here to Billy’s Island. Deeper in, there are burial mounds even older than the 600-year-old tree under which I sat, cozied up between two giant roots, my back against the trunk, gazing into the ponderous branches above, completely unconscious of the cramps that had been my excuse for stopping here. The others had hiked in toward the burial grounds. Dead people held no glamour for me that day. I wanted to talk to the live oak.

It told me things, too, things that ultimately earned me an “A” grade for the class even though I was late that first morning by almost an hour. Everyone had been gathered in the just-before-dawn gloom, hugging pillows in the glow of the streetlamp, when I arrived, groggy and unbrushed. Once we were rolling down the road at last, a girl leaned over to me in the van and said, “I’m glad I’m not you. Dr. McGinty hates when people are late.”

Maybe that’s why he was fine with leaving me there under that tree alone. I don’t think so, though. I think he understood what I’m just beginning to understand myself. It’s the trance, you see.

Fast forward 19 years. I’m walking the dog down by the brown lake. There’s a light drizzle and you can hear the raindrops plinking on the surface of the water. See them, too, a thousand tiny pinpricks rippling outward. I stop and look, remembering as I usually do now, how much I love the rain. And then there it is: My mind turns. I wonder what it would be like to be under the surface of the water, looking up.

I imagine skimming just under the surface, my face turned up, effortlessly floating, watching the pricks of rain hit the upper limit of my world. The water is dark and the bottom of the lake is mud. There are large things in there. Giant snapping turtles as big around as a kid’s wading pool, grass carp so massive and scaly they look like prehistoric reptiles when they half-beach themselves down by the dam. I imagine skimming through that murky underworld, that dangerous muddy place, and it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a horror story, in fact, but it feels good. Really good.

Back at the house, I rush past Carey to my computer, and I write this in a feverish flurry:

The Summer I Met Mercy

Nobody knew where she came from. I didn’t know where she came from. She was just there one day, down by the community lake, picking at the mud between her toes. Why she would do that when she was covered in mud from head to foot is anybody’s guess, and I didn’t ask. Just stood there gawking at her. Her hair was so caked it looked like it was made of mud, just long gobby strands of filth tangled with pond algae, and her arms were too long, her fingers too long, but the most notable thing about her was that she was naked.

She looked up at me and smiled, an ordinary, girl-next-door smile, and she was quite pretty, for a stringy 14-year-old, even if her teeth were rather large and white and pointy. Even if she was quite, quite naked. Not that I could see anything, not with her bent over her legs like that.

We became good friends, Mercy and I, that summer that my parents were separating, that my world was crumbling.

More than friends, actually. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was clean the day I kissed her, and clothed. I never did see her naked again, in fact, not that day and not any day after. But I did kiss her. My first kiss.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Weirder. Much weirder. She drew the tip of my tongue into her mouth with a sucking sensation, and then bit it, sucking continuously, her teeth scraping along every inch as my tongue went deeper. It hurt but not enough to make me want to stop. Not even as much as the throbbing in my groin hurt at that moment, and I didn’t want that to stop either.

**

I decide it’s the start of my next novel, maybe, when this one is done. The main character ends up under the water, skimming along like I imagined myself doing, looking up at the rain falling onto the surface above. But I had to figure out how to get the character there, and this is the start of that.

Or maybe the scene will join the moldering ranks of opening-paragraphs-for-books-I’ll-never-finish in a folder in Dropbox.

It doesn’t matter really. It does but it doesn’t. Because I realized for the first time today that it’s really about the trance. It’s this thing that happens, this altered state of consciousness that I always, as far back as I can remember, slip into so easily I never realized that it was special. I seek it, hungrily. It feels good. It’s why I crave un-interrupted swaths of alone time, because I cannot sink into a deep trance when besieged by the emotions of others.

I told Carey about this, and he said he thinks everyone craves a trance-like state. Which makes sense. It’s why we do drugs, isn’t it? Meditation, running, extreme experiences, and sex are all pathways to the sublime as well. Maybe some people get there easier one way or another–maybe that’s why some people run the AC 100 and some people write novels.

Maybe it’s why some people sink into addiction and never come back. Maybe it’s why some people come back scrabbling, hanging onto art, spewing out songs or poems or paintings as if their life depends upon it which, in fact, it does.

Books are my drug of choice. Neatly packaged, easy-to-swallow nuggets of pure meditative trance. But they’re not the only way I get there.

The tree and I spoke for hours. I felt the peat-filtered moisture coursing up through its roots, a constant, never-ending flow like the pulse of blood through my veins but steadier. The sunlight on leaves, warm energy generated in those green powerhouses spreading through an endless network of vessels, fueling root growth and slow slow slow branching.

The tree was breathing, respirating carbon dioxide and returning it as oxygen, when the Timucua Indians sought refuge here in 1750. Already hundreds of years old, it watched impassively as the Timucua were followed by Spanish missionaries in fretful urgency to bring Truth to the wild. The tree watched for a hundred years as slaves and Seminoles and refugees of all descriptions passed into the swampy refuge from the violence unfolding outside its borders.

The tree was there when giant dredging machines began building a canal to drain the swamp and divest it of its lumber, and there when the canal project succumbed to the wild. There when Charles Hebard laid a railroad track 35 miles directly to the island, and built a church, a movie theater, and a school for the children of the workers who were stripping the swamp. And there when the village faded into a ghost town.

I didn’t know all of that then, and the tree didn’t tell me in so many words. But I felt it, felt the history, the ancient knowingness of that old being. The trunk felt warm against my back, though the air was chill. I never knew before that day that trees generate heat. Most people will tell you that they don’t, in fact. Heck, maybe even the scientists who study trees will tell you that they don’t. Maybe they don’t. But that tree did, that day.

When the humans returned, flushed with triumph–they had stumbled upon a cemetery and the ghost of an old town–I returned also, reluctantly, from my trance. We paddled back to camp, I rowing in front, Dr. Anderson steering in rear, the others paddling their own vessels in pairs. It was the boys’s turn to cook that night, so I pulled out my journal and wrote about my tree, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I earned an A, and why Dr. McGinty started smiling at me, even though I had been late.

Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Regardless, that trance, or rather my ability to sink into it so easily, is why I’m a writer. And that matters.

How do you reach sublimity? Does it make you who you are?

This is not my tree. I don't know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy "nonweasel" at DeviantArt: http://nonweasel.deviantart.com/art/Live-Oak-Wallpaper-601007

This is not my tree. It is a live oak, probably as old as the one I sat under. I don’t know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy “nonweasel” at DeviantArt: http://nonweasel.deviantart.com/art/Live-Oak-Wallpaper-601007

Who or What Made You a Writer

I’ve been rather out of it this week. Some sort of stomach bug or something and today the Headache. I’m so far behind at work I can’t even remember what it’s like to be caught up. That’s pretty normal though. Somehow everything seems to get done despite me.

Meanwhile, I’m doing what I always do when I’m overwhelmed. Procrastinating. Wait, no. I’m building my network. It’s important that I engage with the writing community. It’s part of my job. Yes. So I’ve been over at Absolute Write, reading threads and “engaging with the writing community”–you know, working. Working hard. (Look me up, I’m there under my real name. It’s Heather Head).

Anyway, today someone asked “Who or what made you a writer?” I expect it will become a popular thread. It’s a great question, and I wanted to share my answer here. Oh, by the way, I’m more than halfway through first-round revisions on my book. Yippee. Is that a light at the end of the tunnel? Probably not, but even a mirage can be motivating. Here we go.

***

Who or What Made You a Writer?

Maybe it was Grandma, Grandma shouting out that motor-home window. Probably not, though. Even if I had died, even if I had walked straight out into the road that blistery sunny morning in California, across Hwy 49 and in front of that family on their way to Yosemite driving way too fast, my nose in a book for one-more-chapter-before-school–even if I had, as I say, died that day, I still would have been a writer.

I don’t remember learning to write. Or spell. Words just always made sense to me. I remember acing my older brother’s spelling quizzes right there in front of him, my mom reading off the questions, she hushing me with that sideways frown as he stumbled over the simple words that appeared so clearly in my mind. No wonder he hated me. Maybe he made me a writer, torturing my pet ants in front of me just for fun, luring me into dangerous games with the promise of friendship that never materialized, taunting me in his quiet voice, “You don’t even know how to spell the F word, do you?” until I did, loudly, right there in the back of the car so that my parents had no choice but to punish me.

But probably not. Certainly not. Not him.

Mom or Dad, too cliched. Mom kept all my scraps, my childish attempts, in a brown paper bag now ripped and spilling its contents across my basement floor, “They’ll be important when you’re famous.” She chronicled me, but didn’t make me–not in that sense, anyway.

Maybe it was Mr. McGuiness, first grade teacher, who patiently woke me from my reading trance by touching my shoulder when it was time to move on, un-annoyed by the difficulty of gaining my attention once I was down the rabbit hole of a book. Maybe it was Mrs. McDougal, 2nd year (6th grade) teacher at St. Felix Middle School, Newmarket, England who assigned us a novel to write, and awarded mine first place against my protestations that it wasn’t fair. I was practically a professional, I thought, where was the sportsmanship in that, against a bunch of school children? It was her fault that I spent so many afternoons curled in a corner honing my story, adding chapter after chapter, drawing maps and illustrations. Or it could have been Mrs. Dodd, JD High School (won’t name it here fully for fear any piece of respect attached to me might rub off on it but Mrs. Dodd she was worth a few days in that hell anyway), who taught me to write in paragraphs, or Dr. Deal’s cigarettes and greasy hair, those creakily opening doors in my mind, the shoes thrown out the window, Paradise Lost and my first-ever C on an essay. Wine stains on white dress shirts, he laughing up into my startled face, “I really did that, I am so badass,” Jungian symbolism and drooping plants in a dusty English department lounge and me, draped across a second-hand couch with sagging springs.

Maybe it was Dr. Deal. Huntingdon College, Montgomery Alabama of all the gosh-forsaken places to open one’s mind. If it was any of them, it was him.

But probably not. I was already a writer.

Or maybe it was Grandma. The genes had to come from somewhere.

***

P.S. Who or what made you a writer? Do share.

Sunday Morning (Today Is Tuesday)

Sunday morning, Carey and I woke up before the kids. He made coffee. Our kitchen was clean. We sat at the white tiled table and sipped.

Dreams, ideas, and books. These are the things we talk of when we are alone together. The things that matter.

It was beautiful.

Then, despite all my pleading, the day refused to get longer for us. It took that hour in the kitchen and it made me pay for it.

I am human. I am mortal. I am going to die (eventually) and there are only so many hours in a day. I want to spend more of them with my husband. Something else must give.

Not my novel because it is my life’s work, and not my business because it is our life’s sustenance. What I am giving up is my manic obsession with keeping up keeping up keeping up keeping ahead. My crazy obsession with being freakin awesome, as though good enough weren’t good enough. Good enough is good enough. For now.

And that is why you will see me here only sometimes for a while. Not every day any more. The book will still see me every day. I hit page 97 in revisions today, nearly halfway through. It will continue apace.

And when you feel the urge to read this blog, when you’re missing me here, if that happens for you (I know that I miss my blogger friends when they take breaks), think of me in the kitchen with the morning light angling hopefully through the cobwebbed panes and lighting on our faces as we talk of many things of shoes and ships and sealing-wax. And sip your coffee, dream your dreams, and meet me here when time stretches out enough. See you then.

Love.

Carey and Coffee

Thirty-three Percent

2013-8-1 Manuscript

 

The top pile is the revised portion of my manuscript, with the un-revised (but correctly ordered) portion below. It’s almost exactly 33% of the way (through this round).

What does this feel like. It feels like when I turned ten and a family friend asked, “What does it feel like to be 10?” About the same.

The break, though, that made a difference. I feel fresher. More patient. I realize now how the frenzy that had overtaken me was working against me. I’m back to being okay with this thing taking me another year or however long to finish, which is a healthier approach, both for me and for the manuscript.

I’m okay with no feedback on it for a while.

I’m okay with just slogging.

While I do that, please entertain yourself with yesterday’s New York Times. No, really. Seriously, read that link. It’s about how much I love Stephen King how I want to be Stephen King’s child how much Stephen King rocks how Stephen King screwed his kids up royally but at least they’re good writers now. I’ve started making the kids tell me bedtime stories.