Evolutionary Weirdness

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The story I’m writing now is a clear window on how far I’ve come since Clarion, because I can view it so vividly and yet I’m spending all this time trying to figure out how to write it.
The story’s simple, and it’s set in a New England seashore tourist town… In other words, where I spent every summer as a kid.  So I have a great deal of familiarity with the location.  I know the ending, which is unusual for me, so there’s no plotting issues.
So what I have here is a tale where I know everything that happens in it, and can close my eyes and literally see the map of where it’s set… And I’m still trying to find the best way to tell the story.
The story is about a girl who goes insane and takes the sea as her lover, and it’s tricky because it’s actually several substories wrapped in one arc – the first 750 words are where she meets her only “real” boyfriend, the next 500 are where she has the fallout with her mother, the next 400 are where she loses the baby and finally snaps, and so forth.  It’s a madness tale.
And in past days, I would have written this opening (as a first draft) and been entirely happy:

Not many talked to Ella, ungainly as she was, so it was left to her mother to lecture her on what the rest of the town already knew: tourists were like the tides. They swept in with the good weather, party-giddy once they’d slipped loose the bonds of their fatcat jobs in New York, forking over $20s for conch-shell necklaces and flimsy T-shirts (“IT’S NOT A BALD SPOT, IT’S A SOLAR PANEL FOR A SEX MACHINE”), guzzling Anchor Steam down at the seaside docks and clumsily steering their oversized, electronics-packed yachts all over the damn harbor.
They flooded into Port Waukanamee in a drunken frenzy, filling it with enough money to make it through New England’s harsh winters, when the shrimp fry-stands shuttered up and a handful of loyal Waukanamites kept the city just warm enough to start up again in spring. Tourists were useful. Tourists were necessary.
Yet you’d have to be as stupid as a tourist to fall in love with one. But Ella had never been much of a girl for lessons….

Thing is, while that’s a decent opening for other stories, it’s a terrible opening for this story. This is a tale about spiraling madness, and what we have in the opening is a distant voice that doesn’t rub up close and personal against the character. It’s the voice of someone who’s not in the town, but a far-distant observer voice… And this story needs to be in lockstep with Ella’s descent, walking right with her into the abyss.
So then I tried starting at the point of maximum impact:

Ella kneels in the salt muck, hermit crabs scuttling away from her screams, jagged oyster shells slashing her feet. Between the contractions, she hears Mama’s words: never fall in love with a tourist, never fall in love with a tourist, never fall in love with a tourist.
She’s been a fool. She hugs her belly tight, hoping to keep the baby pent inside by force of will alone, not sure what’s happening, knowing no one she could ask. The only person left in this world who might love her is now dribbling down her thighs.
She howls, her anguish echoing across the cold September bay.

That’s got everything I would have killed for before: a strong start, a good hook, some strong raw prose. But that’s not the story; the story is the arc of her madness, seeing her start from dumb teenager to old crazy lady, and by starting in the middle you get a stronger start but no middle. You’re seeing this intense moment happen at a time when you know the least about our lead, and as such you take a potentially climax moment and turn it into a “What’s going on?” moment… Which can work for certain stories, but not in a story where the story is the journey is the descent.
I eventually traded in for a not-quite-as-dramatic opening, one where she’s going to meet her boyfriend that she met at the Shrimp Shack, and as such you get to see her at the beginning so the full slide as she becomes loonier and loonier is (hopefully) more unsettling.
The interesting thing is that this story may never gell, because there’s all of these other elements about it that become tricky – it’s the story of about two decades’ worth of crazy, told in flashfic segments, and when you take on something like that then you have this twinned problem in that every flashfic segment has to be entertaining and compelling on its own (so effectively, this one story is about seven separate stories), and it has to pull you through with a linked nature so that there’s a narrative thread that pulls you through the individual segments, like the string on a necklace.
Regardless, it’s just a show of how much damn craft I’ve accomplished.  What I’ve written for beginnings are decent beginnings for the wrong story.  And now that I know enough, I keep turning my tales over and over again, analyzing them with an increasingly experienced mind, to recognize not just works for this sentence but what serves the story as a whole.

1 Comment

  1. Dana
    Nov 18, 2011

    While you don’t exactly need it from me, having grown in leaps and bounds far more than I can claim to– I’m so proud of you.

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