Hello everyone. I’ve been working on a top-secret project that actually doesn’t have anything to do with creative writing. So I haven’t had much to write about. This morning, however, inspiration hit. I had my class do a five-minute free write and, to model the activity, I joined in. Below is what I came up with. I can’t take credit for the first sentence and the first sentence of the last paragraph. Those are from a “three-sentence story” I read years ago. I can’t remember the book it was from or who the author is; if anyone does, please let me know. Enjoy!
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I am the last person on earth. Years have passed since everything collapsed. At first, no one noticed that things were coming apart. But they were.
Now I sit in this crumbling house. I wish I could say that I share it with a squirrel or a bird, but even they are gone. It is overgrown with vines and trees and grass. I am now too old to do anything about it.
It must be around Halloween, but I can’t say for sure. However, I do know for certain winter is coming. The leaves changed from green to yellow, orange, and red. And then they turned brown and are now falling. I doubt I’ll make it through the coming cold and snow. So I sit composing some sort of last will and testament.
Wait, what was that? I think someone just knocked on the front door. Yes, yes someone – or something did. Ha! Maybe it’s some trick-or-treaters. I guess I’ll go and see.
Here’s another piece of beautiful writing from another one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler. As in my post on Neil Gaiman, I’ll give a plain, stripped-down rendering of the passage followed by the original. This one is from The Long Goodbye:
The white-haired man told the girl he had sold his convertible. He explained he needed the money to eat. He didn’t sound drunk. The girl moved away from him and grew distant. Then she became as cold as ice toward him.
And now the Chandler:
The white-haired lad said politely: “Awfully sorry, but I don’t have it any more. I was compelled to sell it.” From his voice and articulation you wouldn’t have known he had anything stronger than orange juice to drink.
“Sold it, darling? How do you mean?” She slid away from him along the seat but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.
“I mean I had to,” he said. “For eating money.”
“Oh, I see.” A slice of spumoni wouldn’t have melted on her now.
Wow. This is something. Chandler packs a lot into a few sentences. It tells us what is happening: A date just hit a speed bump. It reveals something about each character: He is drunk and broke, and she is a lot more interested in his convertible (and his money) than she is in him. Chandler does this using very few adjectives. But that doesn’t mean the writing is drab. Indeed, Chandler includes two very beautiful metaphors that are not hackneyed or well-worn. He takes the cliches “she became distant,” and “she was as cold as ice,” and makes them fresh. These metaphors make the passage lyrical without taking away from its hard-boiled, staccato rhythm. And that is why this bit of writing pops.
Do you have a favorite passage or line from Chandler (or a top five)? Do you have a favorite fresh metaphor or piece of figurative language from another author?
I’ve been working my way through Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath and came across a very nice bit of description:
The ship was about to pass over the weedy walls and broken columns of a sunken city too old for memory.
It made me think of all the sunken cities in literature and myth. In addition to the sunken city Randolf Carter sails over in Unknown Kadath, Lovecraft also created R’lyeh, an alien city submerged in the South Pacific, which is home of an ancient malevolent being. R’lyeh will someday rise to the surface and humanity will be doomed. Tolkien, inspired by the story of Atlantis, created the story of Numenor. The Numenorians were not satisfied with what they had; they wanted immortality too. The Valar punished them by drowning the island.
Recently, I stumbled across another sunken city story: The Legend of Ys. It is a part of Breton folklore, and tells the tale of a sinful city swallowed by the sea. The king’s daughter, Dahut, had engaged in orgies and murder. Lucifer appeared in the guise of a Red Knight and tricked Dahut into opening the dikes that held back the sea. Doesn’t make much sense to me. Wouldn’t Lucifer want the orgies and murder to continue? The legend we have today is probably a jumble of a pagan myth that was rewritten with an added Christian moral by some medieval monk. Since Ys is below sea level, Dahut may represents a chthonic goddess. I think the story needs a retelling to sort things out.
Indeed, while I haven’t read any of them, the legend has inspired stories by Robert W. Chambers, Poul Anderson, and Jack Vance. It even inspired Claude Debussy to write some music for piano (listen below).
If you were to rewrite the Legend of Ys (or a new sunken city story), why did Ys really fall? Perhaps Dahut was really a hero. Would you write it from the perspective of someone who witnessed the city’s fall, or would you write it from the perspective of someone finding the ruins years or ages after the fall?
After I created my “about” page for this new website, I decided to add my most polished stories. As I did so, I stopped and reread parts of them. Generally, I still love them as much as I did when I first posted them. However, some rough patches jumped out at me. I’ll have to go back over them again to smooth them out.
This, I think brings home the greatest challenge in editing: Namely, being patient enough to set aside a story which you think is done and very clean. And then, after not looking at it for several weeks or months, to come back to it with fresh eyes. It may seem counter-intuitive to let a story collect dust as it were before sharing it. Moreover, simply handing it over to an editor is not the answer for me. Before I have someone edit one of my stories, I want it to be as perfect as I can make it. This is not mere pride. I find the story as I write it. If I give someone something that is not fully cooked, so to speak, the editor will give me their critique, and in the jumble of the partially-form story and the critique, I will lose (and actually have lost) the story.
So, the moral is, let your stories collect a little dust, and then come back to them. They will thank you for it.