Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Lady and The Unicorn

Consider the handiwork of God;
who can straighten what He has made crooked?
Ecclesiastes 7:13

The Lady and The Unicorn

Blood has a range of taste, as scent has a range of aroma. Blood has a high level taste and an under taste. It is a blending of elements like music. This is also the way of scent. The under aroma will show you there is a trail and betrays to you the direction. If the scent becomes fresher you are following the creature that produced it, so you must use the under scent to know which direction is older and which is newer. It is as though the air is filled with singing voices and you are picking out a single voice. The high scent will tell you about the individual, the condition of the individual, if it is injured or sick, horny or filled with fear. It will tell you how to catch him, where he is likely to run to. To acquire the high scent the animal, or myself, must pause to commune with the air and pay attention. Close the eyes. Hold the nose still and just so. Let the night air speak. It is the same with the deep taste of blood, except that scent is on the move, and if you are tasting the blood – well. It is no longer on the move.

(Opening Paragraph “The Lady and the Unicorn”)

My wife gets off work at Macy’s in the afternoon, and I try to get there early so I can hunker-do in the back of the Starbucks in the mall and sound out the final working draft of “Lady and the Unicorn”. The barristas are mostly college kids about that age where if I had three wishes one of them would be to be that age and start over. They’ve seen me and my beat up IBM 560e thinkpad here many times, with my notebooks self consciously spread out on the tiny table and a writerly scowl through my beard and have twigged that I write stuff. They ask me about it but I’ve never really explained. Today when I go up to the register I’m carrying a thin three ring binder and a library book of Angela Carter’s short stories. A new girl I haven’t seen before says “Hey! You’re that guy. So, you written a new book yet?”

This is probably as close as I’m likely to get to experiencing fame and it gives my geezer vanity a thrill. She sees I’m happy and it makes her happy. “Well, you caught me on a good day, I have a story here.” I flip open the binder and show her my print out. Her eyes get a little big. A mysterious process has been brought down to earth for her. A writer. A notebook. An actual story in the works. This is how stories get done before they turn into books in a bookstore. I confess I’m doing this for another reason too. I’m always coming in here pecking away, drinking over priced coffee and frowning wisely. I don’t want them to think I’m just a poser. Here it is kids – the real thing. Just so you know. A short story in the process. This is how they look. The stodgy old classics they shove down your throat in your college courses – they started out looking just like this too.

She sees the title and asks if its a fantasy story. “No, “ I say, “It’s actually a vampire story. The title has a hidden meaning you find out about later. Unicorn refers to something in the Bible.” Turns out she loves vampire stories. I order a tall decaf but they don’t have any made up and she asks if I can wait while she makes a pot. “Sure,” I say, and then on impulse, “You can read this while you’re making it if you want.” What should a middle aged old fart do but try to impress young ladies if he can?

I leave the notebook with her and go off to my little corner with my Angela Carter book. I worship Angela Carter the way the young Rolling Stones worshipped Muddy Waters. She is my muse, this gorgeous poet of the short story. I’m not sure its possible to write like she does without cheating. I think you have to conjure the Devil and sign something first. After a while she calls me back and hands me my coffee and my notebook. She didn’t make it past the first page when the coffee was ready but I ask her and she says its “vivid”. She wishes she could read more to see what happens next. Good sign. She points out a sentence that doesn’t quite work and I mark it with a highlighter and go back to my table.

This story, like most of my stories, was conceived at a military parade ground. The building on the Army base where I work, is across the street from the two mile track the soldiers exercise on every morning. I love this track, and weather permitting I walk it every day after getting off work. I like it because I can crawl way inside my head and dream without worrying about traffic or crossing streets. I can forget everything. Characters speak. Trains of thought lead into “What if…?” which becomes the germ of a story. “Lady and the Unicorn” began with me walking on this two mile track. It is an intermediate story between two other stories and has to accomplish certain things. There has to be a sex scene, because the story before and after do not have sex scenes. And the main character, Nixie has to have a catastrophic breakdown that leaves her spiritually broken. “Kill your darlings” is the writer’s creed. This opens the way for the next story in the series, called "The Dying Light". These goals forced me to throw out a lot of ideas and it drove me nuts. I was listening to the radio one afternoon and stumbled across a Pentecostal church service. What if . . . a vampire showed up at a tent revival? What would happen?

The next step was the writing of a stub. As I walked the track my tent revival played out into a vague story. I write terrible first drafts, and over time I’ve learned to accept it. Story ideas don’t come to me well formed. They come in fragments, what Stephen King compares to digging up a fossil and trying to unearth it intact. After walking the idea around, I camped out in Burger King with a yellow pad and a wood pencil and wrote out about ten pages of something only a little more detailed than a synopsis, a kind of embryonic story. Writing a first draft is a race against time, to try to get the idea formed into something you can work with before the whole thing turns stale. So I was frantic to develop the stub before the whole thing lost momentum. This is done with clotheslines.

A clothes line is my own invention, though I’m sure other people use something similar. You draw a straight line down a sheet of paper. On this line you hang your scenes in the order they ought to appear. This is a lot like arranging tarot cards. You make patterns of events and are able to look down and see the logic of how they progress or fail to progress and where the gaps are. At this point I pick the most interesting scene and write that first, to seduce myself. I want to be excited, so I start at the most exciting or interesting part and work my way down to the duller parts. So I have a clothesline of crudely written scenes, which arranged in order make a story more or less. Then I put them aside, and write my first draft from beginning to end. The first draft is invariably as clumsy, self conscious and embarrassing as a young man’s first experience of sex. I don’t care. The time will come. This is the stage of the macro-revision where I’m trying to understand the story. The characters are hopping up and down, waving their arms. They know I’m doing an awful job of it and they have better ideas than mine to tell me. I put the first draft aside and keep it as a reference. But I begin the first of a series of overhauls. Overhaul doesn’t mean tinkering. Overhaul is running it through the keyboard right from scratch – because I’m treasure hunting at this stage. My monster is still a cadaver on the laboratory table, stitched together from the dead bodies of all the ideas and speculations I’ve had until now, but it doesn’t have life. I need to find the soul of the story. The second overhaul, if I’m lucky, is when a character will do something unexpected, an unforeseen event will happen as in a dream and it will occur to me like a revelation what this story is REALLY about. More often than not it’s not what I thought it was about. That’s when I know I’m on the right track. There’s no fixed end to this process. You overhaul it from the bottom until you discover what it is you actually came here to say.

When “The Color of the Moon” is printed out, on single sided pages, it’s about a quarter of an inch stack. The original overhauls, before I threw them out – I measured them – formed a stack of printed paper roughly a little over eight inches high. Eight inches to get a quarter inch of story. That’s what overhaul means to me.

After I’ve overhauled it half to death and I’ve understood the story’s soul, I ‘ve reached the micro-revision stage. This is the stage I find myself at sitting in the Starbucks. I’ve got a pocket full of pens and highlighters. I read the story out loud behind my hand, just loud enough for only me to hear. But I must hear it. There is no substititue for the sound of your voice reading words. Anything that sounds stupid whispered out loud behind my hand – blue penciled. Simple typos red penciled. The passages where I’m showing off and drawing attention away from the story (“Look how good I’m writing!”) – blue penciled. After I’ve gone through the micro-revision stage, comes the most important stage. The First Reader.

When I showed up on ERWA my stories proved too long for most people. But one absolutely indispensible and precious thing that happened to me was my friendship with Lisabet and Remittance Girl. On those occasions when I write something I really care about I shine my shoes and come calling with flowers and chocolates, a shabby suitor, begging for a piece of their time. They've always been generous with me, and they're usually right. And I just like hanging with them.

Stephen King’s first reader is his wife Tabby, a novelist also. She sees all of his stuff before anybody else does. He makes the case, which I think is true, that every writer writes for one person. Mark Twain claimed he wrote stories for his sister, even after she died. King writes stories to impress – or not – his wife Tabby, his biggest fan and toughest critic. When he finished the first polished draft of the novel “From a Buick 8” he gave her the print out to read while they were driving cross country through Pennsylvania. He was driving and kept looking over at her while she read, watching anxiously, hungrily for her every frown and chuckle. Finally she looked up and yelled at him “Watch the road before you get us all killed! Stop being so goddamned needy!”

Well, we wanna-bes are a needy bunch. After sending it to my First Reader I spend a lot of time squirming around feeling needy. Is she going to like it? Does it hang together? Oh – look at this part here, the dialogue between Nixie and Daniel – damn, it’s so good! There’s this . . . aw shit.

Aw shit! There’s a hole! There’s a goddamned hole! . . . aw shit.

I can’t believe it. Nixie had this fit (well, you’d have to read it) in the tent revival and then she meets Daniel, but Daniel doesn’t say a thing about it. That doesn’t make sense. How did that get by me?

Holes are my private term for logical inconsistencies in the narrative arc, character arc or plot line. They are usually the result of sloppy craftsmanship and/or sloppy editing. More often, at least in the movies, they are logical inconsistencies that are convenient to the movie budget. In horror movies like “Christine” when the car is chasing the victim, the victim stupidly runs right down the middle of a deserted well paved road. In the real world it would be tactically smarter to jump off the road and run into the trees, forcing the killers in the car to pull over and chase him on foot. This never happens. That’s a hole. In the movie “The X Files” Mulder and Scully battle aliens in the Antarctic. After a lot of this and that the aliens are defeated and a battered Mulder and Scully are lying on the frozen tundra, gasping in the Antartic weather with no cold weather gear, communications or transportation equipment, and smiling ironically. Scene fades out and fades in to the FBI headquarters two days later and they’re walking briskly down the hall to defend themselves against the bureaucrats. Say what? How the hell did they get THERE? They got there because the story writer decided they should be there. That’s a hole.

I hate holes. I hate holes like the saints hated sin.

Holes make me howl.

So I wonder if my First Reader will beat me up on this, but when her feed back arrives it’s positive. The story works. My monster on the slab wiggles his fingers. But there are other problems, she tells me. Daniel is not well developed. The vengeful ghost thing is kind of hokey. I struggle with that idea, but I kind of see it, which changes my train of thought completely on that scene. Soul! Soul emerges! Suddenly I understand the soul of this story – its isn’t just Nixie’s moral struggle and fall. It’s Daniel’s too. She's corrupting him. I never knew this before. Suddenly the whole story looks different and I need to rethink some big things in it. I read carefully her remarks and think about that hole and about Daniel and it occurs to me I have to tear out some chunks of the middle section and rewrite them from the bottom and see what it looks like. In the process I'm going to make some discoveries.

This is why it takes me eight inches sometimes to get a quarter inch. This is why I am not prolific.

But that’s also what gives me hope. When you sit down and read their interviews or biographies, what you find is that great writers aren’t all that smart. They just work their asses off. They tear stuff up and start over as many times as it takes, and if there’s any secret they have to pass on to us lesser mortals its probably that one. Hemingway averaged about thirty drafts handwritten with a pencil to form a presentable short story. Dostoyevsky rewote his great novel the “The Idiot” right from scratch (no word processors in 19th century Russia) no less than five times. That was a whole novel. The fifth version had almost no resemblance to the first version. That’s how it’s done. There’s no magic, only commitment.

That's good. Because I don't do magic.

Fiction By C. Sanchez-Garcia


  1. I beg to differ with you, Garce. You _DO_ do magic, of a very remarkable sort. You take all the scattered pieces of the paper you've torn up, throw them into the hat, and presto, the paper is whole again, and with a powerful message written on it, too.

    I must say that your creative process, to me, sounds both alien and painful. I'm a linear writer. I write from the beginning to the end of a story. I've never - never! - written a story or a novel in asynchronous chunks the way you describe (though I've heard that lots of other writers do). Occasionally I'll go back and insert a scene or chapter after the first or second draft, but I've never done what you do, take the jigsaw puzzle pieces and try to fit them together.

    Anyway, every writer is different, and if this process works for you (and if the final result is any indication, it does), stick with it.

    And I'm always happy to read your work - you take criticism so well!!


  2. Holy cow, even reading about your creative process makes me tired. I suspect you'd be an interesting person to know in real life, Chris. LOL That was a compliment, BTW,

    Nice post!


  3. This story, like most of my stories, was conceived at a military parade ground.

    Oh wow. I was fascinated reading your creative process since most of mine takes place at the grocery store on line for the deli and driving in the car (think street signs). But yours is so incredible and really so organic that I can see number one, why it developed the way it did and why it works so well for you.

    Great, thorough, highly enjoyable post.

  4. Garce,

    You don't know yourself if you think you don't do magic. Ask a non-writer what they think about when they sit and watch a pretty girl on a beach. Chances are it won't be anything like the story you dream up.

    I once talked to a very good friend, who is a non-writer about this. It shocked me when I realized how differently we spent down time. I mean, I'd sit in the car at a stop light daydreaming the next scene in a WIP. Not so the non-writer. His daydreaming was more along the lines of, 'what's for dinner, hurry up light. Wonder if I should get wife the flowers she wanted.' A lot of stuff that didn't have a thing to do with...creating a story.

    Dream on

  5. I loved reading about your process and picturing you in my mind's eye through it all. Very consistent with what my gut has always told me about you...solid and steady, sexy and imaginitive, salt of the earth, Garce

  6. Lisabet!

    I always take good criticism well. When people don;t read well, it bothers me. But if people understand what I'm trying to do and I know they're trying to help me get there I value their ideas. Especially you and RG. In particular my stories have been hugely improved by your ideas. "Dying Light" and "Unicorn" were strongly influenced by you, and the new version (overhaul 4) of Unicorn is much better now I think because I trusted your insights.

    I write asynchronously because at the beginning I don;t really know what I'm doing, I'm just fumbling around most of the time. Writing in pieces gives me a way to be flexible - like if someone says "the ghost thing doesn't work" okay, we'll try this another way. If I wrote synchronous from beginning to end this would hard to do.

    As ever - thanks always for your help!


  7. Hi Jamie!

    Yeah, I go about this in a pretty torturous way.

    In real life I'm not that interesting. I'm such a quiet person, sometimes people literally forget I'm in the room and talk about me in front of my back. It's happened. I'm more interesting inside my head. I think you;re interesting too.

    Thanks for reading my stuff!


  8. Hi Rebecca!

    I relate to what you say about the grocery line. I do this thing Hemingway did, where I always carry a pocket notebook with me everywhere I go, whose sole purpose is to write stuff down related to a story or a blog idea. If something hits me in the grocery line, or I hear someone talking, I write it down. So that's thedifferencebetween you and me and non-writers.


  9. Hey Jude

    That's what Rebecca was saying, you live with a story in your head all the time. I guess its what its like being pregnant. You always have stewing around in there somewhere. Do you listen to NPR radio? I've gotten so much mental nutrition and story stuff from NPR.


  10. Hi Renee!

    Salt of the earth, just like your dad,right? Tell me how you all are doing sometime. Say hi to Tim, another struggling artist.

    Anything you need me to read for you, let me know. Give the girls my best.


  11. What I really love reading about is your need to impress, both your first readers and the girl at the Starbucks counter ;)

    I think we all have that need to impress, and that's what drives the process. I wonder if the people who actually complete their stories and novels simply feel that need more sharply than those who quit and just let their stories fade away.

  12. Wow, Garce! It's fascinating to read your description of your process, complete with graphics.
    From what I've seen, the results are worth it.

    - Jean Roberta


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