3.01.2010

How Life Changes One Story into Another


I'm engaging in some cross-blogging action. Sorry about the redundancies for those who read both this blog and my personal one over on Livejournal (see my sidebar for "Confabulous Allie"). The following is a reflection on my story "Dust," which was just accepted for publication on the heels of "Under the Scotch Broom." Both stories will be available to read soon at the Absent Willow Review ("Under the Scotch Broom" on April 16th and "Dust" on May 16th). Two stories could not have taken more different paths to publication. "USB" was written in January of this year, went through about three drafts, submitted, and accepted a month later. It was about as easy as things can possibly get for a short story writer. "Dust" was written over a year ago. And rewritten. Then rejected five or six times. And rewritten. Then rejected five or six times again. And then rewritten some more. Below is the story of how it finally came to be that Absent Willow accepted it. If you have already read it on Livejournal, you know the rest.
I had considered trying to submit "Dust" to another publication first. Perhaps even to a higher paying market like Fantasy and Science Fiction or maybe even Analog, but in actuality I just wanted to relinquish myself of it altogether. I was about 95% certain that with its latest round of revisions and with them having already accepted another of my stories, Absent Willow would accept it. I'm glad I was right.

I have more stories left in me for the larger markets. It took about a dozen submissions before "Dust" finally found a home. I had a lot of hope for it in the beginning, but it began to fade a little more with every "thanks but no thanks" I received. I know the common wisdom for most writers is to stand by your finished work. At some point, you have to stop editing and revising otherwise you'll never truly be done and you'll never be as confident as you need to be to sell your stories. Well, I decided to chuck that wisdom out the window. Clearly something wasn't quite right or whole about the story, and the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that it needed further development.

Brief background: "Dust" depicts a man waiting out his fate in a panic room as the world ends outside by the onslaught of a sentient dust from the moon that consumes all organic matter and multiplies rapidly. But I didn't want it to be about that specifically. It was more about the main character, Clyde. I wanted to tell the story of the end of the world through the eyes of someone who had been through it all. He was a Vietnam vet and a loner. He'd lost his wife to divorce and his daughter in 9/11. He was used to living life by his own terms. With the travesty unfolding outside, Clyde was hunkered down in his special room (which he called The Foxhole), telling us everything he knew about what happened, content to sit tight for as long as it took for the end to come. The original ending was very ambiguous and probably didn't leave a very lasting impression. I thought it would be good to depict a flawed but decent man who knew himself so well that he was ready to die alone, so long as he had enough booze and Creedence to keep him company.

Then something happened in my own life that caused me to take a second look at that story on its final round of revisions: my grandmother passed away. I got to thinking about how the original theme--comfort with solitude (which is a theme that has always played a role in my life)--doesn't really hold much water. Not in fiction or in reality. I was never very close with my grandmother, but I can say that through her and those she raised, I witnessed how easy it is to go through life erecting walls, hurting and alienating people, and thinking you don't need anybody but yourself, and how at the end of your life all that turns out to be complete and total bullshit. The truth is, we all need somebody, and those people who most think they don't need anybody are the ones who usually need somebody the most. And that's what I realized about Clyde. I rewrote the story with that theme (and my Nanny) in mind and I think that's what ended up giving it the emotional depth it needed. That and it gave the story more meat in general, which it was lacking before.

I'm happy to see "Dust" finally leave my hands and go off into the world. It was starting to be like the 37-year-old man-child living in his mother's basement. It was high time for it to leave the nest. I just needed to prepare it a little more. I think of all the short stories I have written and submitted for publication, that one was the biggest challenge. If it taught me anything, it's that sometimes (even if it takes a lot of tries) you have to fiddle with a story until you get it just right. You have to really ask yourself if you've done everything you could possibly do to tell the best story you know how to tell. Personally, I always know there is more in me and I have to learn to stop pulling my punches. I don't know if I would have had that insight about Clyde if it hadn't been for the recent events in my life. If I could dedicate "Dust" to anyone, it would be to my Nanny. You can read "Dust" in the Absent Willow Review on May 16th.

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