For the Clarion Write-a-Thon, I am revising the six drafts I wrote during Clarion 2010. My first week story is titled “The Last Cup”. I came up with the idea Saturday while driving down to San Diego with Clarion-mates Jennifer Hsyu and Dallas Taylor, and wrote it up over the next two days for my first critique that Tuesday.
Because Delia Sherman and special guest Ellen Kushner were the first week instructors, I went with a fantasy: just my second attempt at the genre up to that point. And for reasons that surely made sense at the time, e.g. delerium, I decided to go for comedy, which was entirely new for me. But the real test wasn’t the genre, it was the deadline: I had only written six stories ever up to that point, and each one had taken many weeks to complete. I got myself in a bit of a panic, and started just typing wildly; as it turned out, both the panic and the wild typing would continue for the next six weeks…!
The critique was (arguably) not quite as painful than having my intestines removed with a butter knife and no anesthetic. Folks in general thought the funny bits were funny—a relief, as nothing stinks like failed funny—and the supporting characters were entertaining, but everyone agreed that the story lacked, um, a story. It was a series of vaguely related scenes in an unclear setting without real motivation or stakes.
I should add that this is not a matter of plot, per se. Plot and story are different things; plot is constructed from a sequence of described events, whereas story is a pattern of tensions—conflict and resolution—created by the characters’ motivations colliding with the setting and the other characters.
So, this week’s reWrite-a-Thon efforts have focused on clarifying the motivations of the character, Jack: he wants a great story to tell his nephews. His unexpected trip to the Land Beneath the Hill gives him his opportunity, but at the risk of being trapped there forever. The characters he meets are, conversely, trying to trap him there by getting him to doubt that what is happening is real: their magic works through doubt and dream.
Here’s an excerpt, in which Jack and the Horse (a Pooka trying to get a promotion to Night Mare) encounter a strange creature who is trying to convince Jack that he has gone mad:
“It’s madness, I tell you. Madness!” The thing’s cry echoed off the shadowed stones.
Jack and the Horse looked at each other, and back at the thing. It lay sprawled on the great rune-engrave altar, its stubby tentacles twitching with its agitation.
“It’s is, now, is it?” Jack asked.
“Rank madness!” the thing shouted. Its lush red mouth gaped, needle teeth glittering in the starlight.
“And what would ‘it’ be, then?”
“All this! This horrid ring of rough hewn rock, the cold uncaring glitter of the stars above, the dank and dangerous Kelpie beside you—”
“I’m a Poo— pool-dwelling Night, uh…”
“—and my own incomprehensible shape,” it roared on, “that hints of things Man is Not Meant to Know, all this is your madness, the unreal delusions of a madman in a quiet cell…”
“Not all that quiet, now, really,” Jack said.
“Even this voice, that shatters echoes like a thousand gibbering fears against the stony ruin of your sanity, is but emblematic of that Lurking Darkness in all men that in your case, ah, has crashed into the…”
The thing blinked its one eye, apple-sized and shot with green, and waved its fringe of tentacles vaguely down the hill. Jack and the Horse looked behind them.
“Path,” Jack guessed. “Tree. Meadow of murky madness.”
“Icy creek of cold, burbling darkness,” the Horse suggested.
“He already used ‘darkness’ in that sentence.”
“To be sure.”
“Flimsycurtainoffleetreality,” the creature blurted out in one breath.
There was an awkward pause. The Horse whistled quietly through the gap in its teeth, which gleamed in the starlight.
“So what you’re saying,” Jack said.
“Bellowing,” the Horse said, looking off down the hill again.
“Is that all this is not real, but rather the product of my deluded, and no doubt drink-addled mind.”
“INDEED,” the thing replied, and with a glance at the Horse, continued at a more conversational level. “Indeed, these are but the terrible shards of a brain that has wandered past the borders of What Must Not Be.”
Jack nodded, and looked around. “Because, I’m thinking, it’s not all that terrible, really. Present company excepted, of course.”
The thing waved a tentacle in acknowledgement.
“But apart from yourself, it’s pretty much a hill, you know. With a bit of a lawn there, and some wildflowers, and a rabbit or two.”
“The Standing Stones…” the beast began.
“Are a copper a dozen in my part of the world,” Jack finished, somewhat apologetically.
“Your mind reaches out in its terror for Things Familiar!”
“A talking Horse?”
“Poo–h…” the Horse left off, and whistled another bar or two.
“A dark demon of desire! A Mare of the Night!”
The Horse grunted, and tore off a mouthful of the flowers.
“The thing is, you see, I am pretty confident that this is all real. Or real enough for the likes of me, who believed every word of my uncles on the one hand and of my sainted mother on the other. Relative to the discussion round the supper table on a long Sunday night, all this is not really a stretch.”
“Does not my very form, arcane and uncouth, sunder you from your petty reality?”
“You’ve never met my uncle Pat. Though, now that I think of it, there is somewhat of a resemblance. You’re never a Carter out of County Dunn, are you?”
“I am called Dreae-Iltws, the Wound That Gapes Like An Endless Scream,” the thing replied.
“Nuts,” said the Horse.
“Nuts,” Jack agreed.
This coming week, I’ll be working on Goner, a science fiction story with, I think, a good story but a weak plot. I have some ideas for a major restructuring, which will either simplify things or muddle them beyond all hope…