Measure Twice, Cut Once

Last summer I focused on writing for the first time in a long time. I finished off a half-dozen or so first drafts of stories. It was exhilarating, but only after I had the realization that—or admitted to myself—that there was no reasonable way to create a finished story on the first draft.

I know, that sounds so obvious when you say it. When you let yourself think it. I don’t think I wanted to admit how much work I was going to have to put into writing. But the moment I gave myself permission to say, “This is a first draft. It’s pretty dreadful. Plan on writing a few more drafts before this thing is ready to share with people.” And it was more than wanting to be able to create first drafts of stories that could be sent out on submission; it was getting the story into the form I wanted to spend time editing and revising.

Despite several decades in publishing I am, for all intents and purposes, a new writer. I had to come to this epiphany at some point, right? I have several first drafts of stories—some of them stories that I’ve been poking at for more than a decade—waiting for a rewrite. In most cases these first drafts are straightforward narratives telling the story in chronological order.

They’re pretty boring.

The first story this happened with I almost trunked before I got to the end. I was so disgusted with what I was putting on the page I just didn’t want to look at it anymore. I didn’t let myself stop. I pushed through to the end. I may have literally said out loud, “Just finish the damn thing and then you never have to think about it again.” Because I knew that if I didn’t finish it it would sit in the back of my mind waiting for me. Once I got the story done I sat and looked at it on my computer and I had a second epiphany.

I know how to edit. And this author won’t fight me on changes. I could already see how to adjust the story to make it the tale I wanted to write instead of the one I had written. I’ve decided that the best thing for the story was to treat the first draft as something that was finished and when it was time to revise the story to begin with a blank document. There was no sense trying to mix and match the bits that were in the story that I wanted with the new content it needed.

Better to start over.

Recently I was reading a post on Rob Hart’s website about creating a bulletproof novel outline and it was essentially the same idea. Rather than trying to patch up an existing outline, re-write it from scratch.

I think that works great for short fiction or for outlines. Neither is so long that you’re looking at throwing out hundreds of thousands of words. And the first draft is great practice for yourself as a writer and for where you want your story to go.

It’s like the old renovation maxim: “Measure twice, cut once.” Create several rough drafts before you get your story in the form you want to edit and revise.

Life’s Simple Pleasures

This is a short story of mine that was published in the defunct magazine Diet Soap (their podcast lives on!) in 2008 that was inspired by a dream. Given it’s . . . tenuous . . . connection to Victoria’s Secret (that will make sense when you read the story) who this week had their annual fashion show, I thought I would post it on my site since it’s not available anywhere else.

That is, except in an extremely limited hand-made chapbook I printed and assembled in one afternoon’s flurry of creativity (I stamped all the cover with coffee rings in an attempt to make the chapbook look like an old cafe menu; you can see this in the image on the left).

I read the story at a Tuesday Funk show in 2011. Thankfully the reading was captured on video so you can watch me read a slightly edited version of the story.

Without further ado, here is the story:


 

I step into the café. My glance settles upon the display case of fabulously unhealthy cookies and treats sitting beneath the neon sign that reads ‘COFFEE INSIDE,’ like it’s an imperative, telling the coffee where to go.

Jason Smith, small-press publisher, chats with his girl of the moment, Adriana. I am late. Adriana will not be joining us for coffee; she is getting a new tattoo and has already stayed longer than she should. Jay, as I am prone to call him, wants to speak to me about a story I submitted to him.

My family sits further back in the café. Brother, sister, mother, father, all crammed around one tiny café table. My father keeps jostling my mother’s cup and sending coffee splatters onto her new tafetta coat while he listlessly stirs his cappuccino. I can tell from his face it’s not what he expected.

Jay must not have good news for me; we’re not getting a table. Jay wants to talk in the doorway of the café. I wish we would sit down. If we did, I could order a cookie. And, then he would have to discuss the story with me, not just give an answer and jet.

Of course, that’s the point.

The table nearest us is populated with almost a half-dozen Victoria’s Secret models. They are dressed in their catalog lingerie, eating cigarettes and smoking biscotti. Now, I could be wrong, but I thought smoking had been banned in restaurants. They get up one by one and plant a kiss on a smirking Jay’s cheek and return to their table, doing their catwalk strut both ways.

Even though cappuccino is not what he expected, my father is unexpectedly pleased with this new show of thrusting hips and stroking legs. My mother dabs meekly at the darkening stains on her taffeta.

The thing is, I’m trying to listen to what Jay has to say. Even without a table, there certainly is a lot of discussion coming out of his mouth. But there’s this toffee cookie that’s been shaped into a butterfly that has my attention in an unhealthy manner. They’re $10 a piece, but I just know they’re worth it.

Jay makes some affirmative noises and chucks me on the shoulder. He walks out, leaving me to wonder what his decision was. Laughter erupts from the model’s table and my mother stalks out in disgust because my father has spilled her coffee, again.

##

I step into the café. My eye is drawn to the empty display case sitting beneath a dead neon sign that reads ‘COFFEE INSIDE,’ like it’s an imperative, telling the coffee where to go. I’m sure there are treats to be had at this café; they must be restocking exactly at the same moment I’m hungry.

Jason Smith, independent publisher, is discussing cover stock with his business partner, Alessandra. Smith, as he likes to be called, has an office around the corner from the café. He often holds informal business meetings here since it’s larger–and therefore more comfortable–than his office. Alessandra has an axe to grind about the new prices their paper supplier is quoting them. She has paper samples from all over the country, each marked with a price, each price cheaper than what they currently pay.

Alessandra leaves, bolstered by Smith’s confidence in her, and angered by the injustice done to their customer loyalty. Her igloo eyes freeze people out of her way as she disappears around the corner, her voice sure to stream razor blades at the delicate throat of an unsuspecting paper supplier customer service worker once she arrives at the office.

Smith wants to talk about my novel proposal. My odd story, after many edits, put his small press on the map, and allowed him to burgeon into a touted independent publisher. I’ve expanded the story’s concept into a novel, although at this moment it seems unreal to me that I wrote either.

My family sits further back in the café. Brother, sister, mother, and father are clustered around a tiny table, picking up cookie crumbs one at a time with their index fingers. My father is fastest and gets the most crumbs. His gloating smile irks my sister, which then flusters her to the point where she cannot get any crumbs.

Smith doesn’t want to sit; he thinks better on his feet. He is telling me something. Certainly, it has to do with how my novel will fail, or succeed, that it’s some sort of literary egg that will hatch numerous writers who expand and improve on my theme, as well as those who do nothing more than just copy me and gorge themselves from my success. Or perhaps it’s like the egg that’s sat on a sunny counter for too long and now you’re afraid to touch it, doing so will get its indefinable stink on you, and that’s a stink you can never truly be rid of.

The table nearest us is populated with almost a half-dozen Victoria’s Secret models, dressed in filthy potato sacks, and eating a raw chicken. They get up one at a time and head towards the bathroom looking nervous and nauseous. They always appear satiated and relieved when they return.

I learn from a nearby conversation that the maker died recently with the secret of their creation locked in his bitter heart and someone has eaten all the remaining toffee butterfly cookies. The cookies are, once again, all I can think of while Smith chatters in my ear. The fact that I never got to try one is a burden. I tilt towards Smith and nod my head vigorously so he feels like I’m listening.

But I’m really somewhere else.

My sister storms into the café’s kitchen to demand more cookie crumbs because my father has eaten them all, but there is no one there to help her. Every baker who comes in to replace the dead, butterfly-cookie maker has been chased away violently by desperate, loyal customers longing for their lost treat. The café places a small, hand-written sign on the counter that it regrets no longer being able to sell baked goods and that people are now welcome to bring their own.

##

I step into the café. My eye is drawn to the display case of intergalactic cookies and treats sitting beneath the holographic neon sign that reads ‘COFFEE INSIDE,’ in English and more than a dozen non-human languages like it was an imperative, telling the coffee where to go, no matter its planet of origin.

Jason Smith, publishing tycoon, is yelling at Gisele, his current assistant. She has forgotten to polish the rooks in Mr. Smith’s ivory chess set. There’s a rumor that the pieces are not made of ivory, but rather from the femurs of previous assistants. Mr. Smith, as he demands to be addressed, was so angry that he followed Gisele on her daily duty to get his coffee so he didn’t have to stop berating her. I followed them in here and I’ve been waiting here for an hour. I’m unsure how long it will be before Mr. Smith sees me.

Gisele is fired, and Mr. Smith takes her only pen to use as a swizzle stick to blend absinthe into his coffee. He confides to no one in particular that it’s the only way he makes it through his days.

When Gisele arrives at unemployment, they tell her she is ineligible for benefits because she has no pen to fill out the paperwork. They take her information to ensure that she will receive no benefits even if she comes back with a pen and wearing a disguise.

Mr. Smith motions me to him and I tremble like a leech.

My family sits further back in the café. Brother, sister, mother, and father are clustered around a tiny table, reading pamphlets about other worlds to visit. They all look much older than I think they should. My father doesn’t appear well at all, but it’s because he wants to go to Pennsylvania and everyone else wants to go to the moon.

Mr. Smith wants to talk to me about my publishing imprint. It’s apparently doing quite well, but he might have to let me go. Or maybe he’s giving me his job since I would be better at it. His voice is loud and cleaves through my saturnine-coffee throbbing brain like a Viking’s axe. I have nothing but this conversation to focus on, but Mr. Smith is so loud I couldn’t hope to hear him anyway.

The table nearest us is populated with almost a half-dozen Victoria’s Secret models. They are naked, perhaps, and definitely not Earth born. They are eating newspapers—actual paper newspapers—that must cost $250,000 apiece. They are all nearly seven feet tall, and literally rail thin. No human has been able to wear Victoria’s Secret lingerie for ten years now. They get up one by one and lick the side of my face. Most men I know would give their left ventricle to be licked by a lingerie model; it just makes me feel sticky.

There is talk from Mr. Smith of a need for aliens to be on the publishing house staff since the Earth’s population is now more than three-quarters alien. I can’t remember if I saw this fact on a piece of newspaper sliding into the gullet of a Victoria’s Secret model, or if Mr. Smith shouted it at me. It could refer to the café or to my imprint. My imprint is read by 95% of humanity and 0% of the aliens, but in the end, aliens are where it’s at. It’s clear there is no longer a need for my imprint and I’m out of a job.

But that could just be a bad dream I’m going to have.

It is at this moment in Mr. Smith’s conversation to me that I note the toffee butterfly cookies are back. At least something that looks like a toffee cookie and also like a butterfly. Its delicate wings flap languorously under the glass. I suspect it might be an alien artifact of some sort or perhaps an alien creature. The café became acclimated to alien clientele quicker than other nearby businesses. I feel in my pocket to see if I have enough change for the $1850 treat.

I’m not going to miss out this time.

My father rushes toward the front of the café in his wheelchair, angry that he cannot travel to Pennsylvania, and refuses to go to the moon, no matter how good the hunting and fishing might be there.

At last, I find a stray $2000 Bushie coin in my pocket and walk to the counter, leaving Mr. Smith in my wake. These might not be quite the toffee cookies I wanted so many decades ago, but I don’t have the decades left to wait for them to come back should they disappear again.

Mr. Smith walks out, pushing people out of his way and knocking my father out of his wheelchair. He is confident I got whatever message he had to tell. He’s always been that way, and I’ve yet to get it.

Not that it matters; I finally have my cookie, cradled in my hands.

The lingerie models motion me over to their table.

We laugh a lot.

I eat my cookie.

It is wonderful.

end

Writing and the Magic Spreadsheet

The short version is that I’m writing with some fair consistency.

I haven’t done this since 1996 or so. Writing got put on hold once I moved out East to work in publishing in 1997 and it had some fits and starts over the past two or three years, but nothing consistent. I’ve tried a bunch of different things to motivate me* but nothing has worked well.

The long version is that author Christian Klaver put out an open call for people to be a part of a new Magic Spreadsheet that he was starting in August. I wrote to him asking to be a part of it. I’d been on panels with Christian in the past and found him an intelligent, creative guy.

Plus my writing needed a boost and I’d heard tons of raves about the Magic Spreadsheet.

The Magic Spreadsheet gamifies writing. If you hit your daily word count (250 words) you get a point (there’s a scale for when you write more than that, but let’s start simple). Then you get a point for every day of the chain you’re in up to 30 points.

That means on day one you’d get two points for hitting your goal and starting a chain. Day two, you’d get one point for your writing but two for your chain. That means after two days you’ve got three points. The points add up quickly (see image at the top of this post). If you keep an unbroken chain, you’ll max out at 30 (so you’d get 31 each day for your word count and chain length) but if you miss a day, you start over at one again.

I first heard about the Magic Spreadsheet via Mur Lafferty’s podcast “I Should be Writing” some time last year and was intrigued. I looked into a live one online (they tend to live in Google Drive) and thought it was cool but wasn’t ready to dive in.

The time needed to be right, you know?

Well, in that respect writing can be like children: there is no right/correct time to start. You just make the decision and go for it.

So rather than think about it, I just dove in and got started.

I ‘won’ August for word count but got beat in point total (although I could’ve won that with better planning at the end of the month). It was just more than 9300 words, but it felt great to write and be motivated to write. I’m finishing off a bunch of short stories that had false starts. I’m going to write some posts about them over the coming weeks.

For now, I’m just getting first drafts done. I’m not worrying about the quality of the content I just want to get it on the page. As I’ve discovered, no matter how my first draft looks, I know that I have strong editorial skills to make the draft better.

* Two things come to mind almost instantly: the Storymatic and my two sets of Story Cubes. I’ll be writing posts about those, too. It’ll be nice to actually use them rather than have them gather dust in my closet.