Further Future Mes are Fargoed

It’s happened.  I knew it was only a matter of time — and if I’m honest with myself, it was never that much time to begin with — before I blew a tire.

No, I know, just this weekend I posted about how swimmingly the edit is going, how happy and fun everything is, how much it surprises me that things aren’t as bad as I thought.  But they are.  Things are undoubtedly as bad as I thought and even worse than I feared.

It’s like this time about a year ago.  I was driving with my wife to pick up my dad and my brother at the airport.  We took our Camry, which is a tank of an old car, but its tires were nearing the end.  They were so near the end, in fact, that the car would wobble when it got up above 45 miles per hour.  I knew a blowout was likely if not imminent, but I wanted to pretend that things were fine and that the tires were good for a little bit longer.  But sure enough, as we’re tooling down I-75, there’s an unmistakable BOOM flapflapflapflapflap and the car is pulling hard to the right like a hamstrung horse.

This — editing this novel — is a little different, in that I can’t really get proactive and go put new tires on the thing before I set out for the airport.  The edit itself is about fixing the tires, and replacing the motors in the power windows, and that burned out blinker, and the sandpaper windshield wipers, and that crack in the rearview, and getting that shudder in the transmission checked on.  In short, the whole damn car needs work if I hope to sell it, and make no mistake, the ultimate goal is to sell it (the novel, not the car).

Still, I knew the blowout was coming, and today I hit the first.  Probably the first of many.

There’s this moment in the first act.  It’s awfully hokey.  Like, for all intents and purposes, my protagonist and his sidekick basically accept as a given the weird sharknado that’s going down, break out the fringed vests and start singing Bob Dylan like everything’s gonna be cool.  And, to be fair, it helped Past Me to get past that troublesome moment and move on with more conflicts and more plot development.  And the stuff that comes after is good.  Problem is, when Present Me (then Future Me) goes to fix the Koombaya moment by removing the hokeyness from it, the entirety of the pages immediately following begin leaning like a house of cards built on sand in a windstorm.  AND I KNEW IT WAS COMING.  This is the part of the draft where Past Me started leaving a whole lot of messages to Future Me (now Present Me) which are sometimes as helpful as “go back and write a little bit of exposition for this particular thing” but more often as useless as “THIS SUCKS, HAVE FUN FIXING IT LOSER”.  I’d be laughing if that weren’t an actual note I actually came across in my parsing today.

It’s pretty clear that Past Me was just having his jollies on the promise of Future Me coming round to clean up the sticky bits on the carpet, and again, I knew at the time that I was doing just that.  In fact, I remember pretty clearly while I was drafting having a good laugh at what a jerk I was acting like toward this hypothetical Future Me that was going to have to deal with the angry neighbors and the ruined wallpaper.  It makes me want to hit that guy.  Because now I’m looking at a draft — about 20,000 words into it — and it’s as holey as a hand grenade of Antioch.  As porous as the freaking Falcons’ defense.  As flimsy as the Braves’ chances of making the postseason.  (GOD, it was an awful weekend for sports in Atlanta.)

Don’t get me wrong.  I know that the hardest part — the writing, the creating, the sheer calling from nothingness into being of this thing — is behind me.  But the task ahead ain’t all sunshine and lemondrops.  I can’t even say it’s peanut butter sandwiches and leftover pizza.  It’s looking more like a torrential downpour of excrement and a slog through alligator-infested swamps.  And my tires have blown out, so I have to go the whole thing on foot.  Not that my Camry was going to make much progress in a damn swamp… okay, too many mixed metaphors.  The point is, the proverbial sharknado is hitting the proverbial fan and the work is about to get real.

But tomorrow is another day, and it all gets simplified down to manageable bites on my to-do list for another Further Future Me.  Man, I feel sorry for that guy.

Parental Phone Tag (No Takesy-Backsies)

I love my parents.  Let’s get that on the table before I start the griping.  Not really griping.  Good-natured ribbing.  I hope they won’t disown me for writing this.  Then again, they’re on vacation for a week, so they may not even read this.

Like many thirty-somethings, I’ve got that time in my past when I sort of fell out of touch with my parents for a while.  Never estranged or anything like that, but there were times in my twenties when I’d go a month or so without speaking to them.  Not even necessarily on purpose.  I was just too cool for school.  Well, having kids changes all that, and these days it’s rare for me to go more than a few days without speaking to my folks.

Partly it’s because I now sort of appreciate the biological need for a parent to have his nose one hundred percent lodged in the kid’s business, and that’s literal as well as figurative (see this post which is not about giving enemas to a toddler).  Partly because frankly my wife and I need a little bit of backup every now and then and the grandparents are the best source of free childcare currently in operation.  Partly because all my wife and I have to talk about anymore is the kids, and it takes a blood relative to listen to all that sharknado.  But calling my parents particularly has its own set of hassles associated with it.  For example, every time I call my parents, I have to call twice.

No, let’s get this right.  Every time I call my parents, six or more phone calls are involved.

First, I call my dad, who’s a retired schoolteacher and now works more-or-less full-time as a math tutor, making enough money to make me want to get certified to teach Math instead of English.  To put it bluntly, he stays busy and is always driving around, so the odds of picking him up the phone are about as likely as a tornado opening up in my kitchen, the toddler notwithstanding.  For some reason, I can never remember those odds before I ring him up, so the call goes through and rings and rings and rings and then I get his voicemail.  Well, I’m not leaving him a voicemail (what is it, 2003?), so I hang up and remember that the smart play is calling my mother.  (That was call #1, by the way.)

Call #2 is to my mom, who is also an employee in the school system (but not a teacher – she’s a middle school counselor, so, y’know, god help her).  There’s something really odd going on with her, though, because she seems to love her job and therefore stays late almost every day, and her phone gets worse service in her building than my phone gets in mine, which is to say, I’ve got a better chance of finding my cats cleaning the kitchen than of reaching my mom at work.  Again I connect to voicemail, and again I hang up without leaving a message.

Let’s detour and note that the leaving of a message or lack of the leaving of a message is entirely inconsequential.  I could leave a detailed message with cross references and a works cited page, and I’d still get called back to see what the message was about.

Call #3 is from my mom to me. She’s returning my call, but she invariably calls when I’ve got the sprout in the tub or I’m putting the sprout to bed or I’ve got my hands full of raw chicken from dinner preparations or the sprout has hidden my phone inside of a cat.  Half the time she leaves a message which I will not check and which therefore throws notifications at my phone for about a week and a half after.  Call #4 is me to my mom and this is usually when we finally connect to establish plans for the weekend or give her an update on the toddler’s bowel movements (true story) or whatever other riveting developments have developed at Casa de Pav in the couple of days since we last spoke.

Call #5 is from my dad, usually within the first hour after I’ve spoken to my mother, but sometimes as much as six hours after on the weekend.  Just like my mother, he’s unnaturally gifted at ringing me when I’m wrist-deep in infant poop or my fourth load of dishes that day, so I miss this call.  Calls #6-9 are exchanged between my dad being on the road from one tutoring gig to the next and me being embroiled in one toddler emergency or another (“Want chocolate milk!”  *pours chocolate milk*  “Don’t want chocolate milk!”  *puts chocolate milk away in the fridge for later* “WANT CHOCOLATE MILK!”) before we finally connect and cover the exact same ground I covered with my mother an hour or six before.

Under no circumstances do my parents communicate with one another in the meantime.  I wonder if after 30+ years of marriage they’ve discovered that the secret to success is to simply avoid one another as much as possible.  At any rate, I have to have the same conversation with them both, sometimes as quickly one to the next as fifteen minutes.

The latest iteration was not a few hours ago.  My parents are going on a cruise (at a ridiculously good price, damn them) and they wanted an update before they left on how the sprout’s doctor’s appointment today went before they shoved off at 5pm.  I had a faculty meeting keeping me at school until about that time.  Now, my wife had graciously contacted my dad (unbeknowst to me) to let him know that things went pretty much fine while I was at work.  Not knowing that, I frantically tried to call first my dad (call #1) and my mom (call #2).  Neither picked up, so I figured I missed them and they were well on their way to the Bahamas or whatever.  Fifteen minutes later, my dad calls.  He’s at some drawing on board trying to win a free cruise and we can barely hear one another, but I give him the highlights and wish him a good trip.  Five minutes after that, my mother calls.  She’s elsewhere on the same boat trying to win spa giveaways and can’t talk right now (why did you call me?) and can she call me back in ten minutes?

Look, you get the point.  And you know, for having the grandparents involved and a part of our kids’ lives, a few extra phone calls are a small price to pay.  Mom and dad, I love you.  But seriously.  Maybe a little communication on your end.

In Search of a Bigger Boat (One Week of Editing Done)

I’m a week into the edit of AI.

It’s odd.

I really don’t know how else to characterize the experience.  It’s just odd.  Odd that I have written this relatively speaking huge-asgard novel which I’m now poring through in order to catch all the mistakes and make it less, uh, sharknado-ey.  Odd that I’m breaking it apart bit by bit with the literary equivalent of a rock hammer to examine all the weird crusty bits.  Odd that it’s been long enough since I wrote it, and the project was big enough, and I let enough time pass that I don’t even recall writing some of what I definitely wrote.  I mean, there were no pen-wielding hobos in my employ.  I didn’t black out during any of the writing (that I’m aware of).  It’s all me, and it sounds like me, even if I don’t recognize it as such.

I’m an English teacher by trade, though, and I can’t shake the simple and obvious comparison that editing this monster is a bit like grading a sharknado-ey sophomore English paper.  Mind you, my grammar and syntax are a touch better than the average 15-year-old’s, but the process is the same.  “Oh, I see what you were after here, but you worded it awkwardly and it feels like pins and needles in my skull when I read this.”  Out comes the red pen.  “Stop showing off your gargantuan vocabulary, you’ll alienate the reader.”  Big “x” through the offending word.  “What the f*$&@ were you thinking?”  Entire paragraph circled and slated for demolition.  Or the ever-enigmatic, simple and yet baffling “no” marked next to a passage that was deemed, for some reason or another, offensive to the eye or mind.

And let’s not sugarcoat things here, there is a LOT of red ink on this draft.

I thought it was pretty good when I wrote it.  To be fair, I still think most of it is pretty good, but I see an almost endless array of ways for it to be better.  Clunky language here.  Overused modifiers there.  Odd out-of-body-experience repetition in this particular area.  Missing elements.  Unnecessary descriptions.  Vagueness.  Overspecificity.  If there’s a writing sin for it, I’ve committed that sin, probably on the Sabbath and while facing away from Mecca.  I may have mixed metaphors as well.  But, on the whole, I’ve not had to make any major changes to the draft or to the copy.  The biggest changes I’ve made so far are the removal of one entire paragraph describing a character — I thought it was better to let the character’s actions speak for her — and the addition of a paragraph bridging the mental gap I made between a character understanding a problem and moving toward a solution.  It was too easy, and upon re-reading it, I realized that in the best of cases it simply didn’t make sense, and in the worst of cases not only did it not make sense, but it was also insulting and cliche in its avoidance of sense.

But the little things are the little things.  I know that the Big Problems are out there in the deep water, cruising the depths and waiting for me to circle back.  These monsters I created in the draft are hungry, and their teeth are fearsome and seeking.  I’m skipping around the shallows right now in a waverunner, but to deal with those leviathans, I’m going to need a bigger boat.

I’m new to this game, but it seems to me like the editing process is highly subjective and personal.  Before I jumped in, I was terrified that there might be a right way and a wrong way to do it, that I’d screw up the pudding and cause the whole souffle to fall if I didn’t tackle things in the proper order and with the proper technique.  But the water is always shocking when you first jump in.  I’m starting to feel comfortable, to establish a routine, and to feel as if I have a decent gameplan in mind for slaying this dragon.

For reference (yours if you’re thinking about embarking on a journey like mine, mine if it changes later and I disavow everything I’ve written to date), here’s how I’m tackling it.

  • I read my draft in MS Word with Track Changes enabled.
  • I keep a notepad open in front of me while I read.
  • I parse about five pages — or 3000 words — per day.
  • Major plot points and character developments get noted in the notepad.
  • Problems with the copy are either addressed immediately (I clean up vagueness or messy language) or highlighted for the second pass.
  • On the opposite-facing page of the notepad, I keep a running to-do list of things I need to fix when I come back for the second pass.  (These tend to be the more involved things that I can’t do in just a few minutes, like giving a better description of a character, or figuring out where and when I need to introduce an element that needs to be present for later in the story.)

It’s tedious, no doubt, and part of me wants to follow some advice I’ve seen elsewhere, which is to just hunker down and read through the whole thing in one go: a couple of days or so, and leave all the fixing for Future Mes to figure out.  But I don’t know if that’s how I work, for better or for worse.  When I clean house (and here my wife is laughing her butt off), I try to clean everything all at once.  I’ll be polishing a countertop in the kitchen, then see a doodad that belongs in the living room.  I stop polishing to return the doodad and I see that the doodads are out of alignment.  So I take a moment to straighten them out, and I discover a missing piece to a set of decorative doohickeys in our bedroom.  Naturally, I stop the alignment of the doodads to return the doohickey, and then I see that the trashcans upstairs need emptying, and soon an hour has passed and my wife is asking me why the hell it’s taking me so long to clean the countertops in the kitchen.

I can’t say it’s the most efficient way to process this first draft, but I think it’s working so far.  At the very least I feel productive, and since this is all about me, I’m going to take that and be joyful for now.

I’ll keep you posted when it’s time to tangle with the sharks.


Chuck’s challenge for the week: Write the middle of a story.  Our goal:  Take the 500-word story begun by another author, and continue it.

I hijacked the story started by one Clay Ashby, Clank.  It’s got some of my favorite stuff: Sci-Fi, mystery, robots, a sense of desperation and lostness.  In short, it would be right at home here in my Flash Fiction collection.

Clay’s bit begins the story.  My bit follows the asterisk.



My eyes opened with a metallic clatter. A single dim lamp reflected its yellow hue on the ceiling above. Instinctually I was able to sit up and balance myself on the table. At least I think it was instinct because I certainly don’t remember ever doing it before. My legs dangled over the edge and my feet didn’t quite touch the floor. The thought of lifting myself off the table and falling, even just that little bit, worried me, but I did it. My feet clanked on the rusty floor as I stumbled, trying to find my balance. With my feet spread wide I was able to stabilize, so I lifted my head to look around.

Large gears turned inside the walls, visible through crumbled sheets of wood and iron. My head began to whistle, beginning at a high pitch and increasing until it was nearly impossible to hear. The sound was terrifying and at first quite annoying, but the mild vibration was soothing, and it seemed to help me keep my balance. I took my first step, a step that was a little too big, but my foot landed on the floor and held firm. The vibration inside my head was helping me. I was sure of it, so I took several more steps. No problem at all! The vibration in my head made it almost easy.

There was only one exit from the room, a dark hallway. I decided to go. I didn’t really have any other choice. Every step I took was loud. It made me uncomfortable, like I was being watched. I tried to step softly, but it was no use. Metal contacting metal simply could not be made quiet. The hallway continued on without ending and my deliberate steps made progress slow. The glow of lamps from the room behind me began to fade. With every step it faded more. I wasn’t sure how much further I could go, so I stopped, unsure if another step forward would be wise. I was able to turn my head all the way around and look at where I had come from, a faint yellow spot now. There didn’t seem to be any reason to return, except fear. The room was vacant and square, with nothing useful inside. My only option was to move onward into the darkness.

I took only one more step, no clank. Imagine if I had turned back at that moment. I was only one step away from a new type of ground, but I would have never known it. With my arms slowly flailing, in search of obstacles, I continued into the pitch black. Still no clank from my feet. The silence combined with the dark made me feel like I was walking into nothingness, but that eerie feeling was certainly better than the creepy clank from before. At least I felt hidden now.

When my face met a solid steel door I thought I had finally made it to the end. I leaned into it and pushed. The metal moaned from stress and a few rivets popped, but it gave way easily enough. Unfortunately this door, my supposed salvation, revealed almost certain doom.


As the door creaked open, antiseptic white light spilled out from the room. Beneath my feet, muffling my footsteps, was a lush carpet covered in cascading geometric designs.  It led into a room that, not unlike the first, was small and square.  Unlike my room, this room was furnished with the soft carpet, and a single bed in the center of the far wall.  In the bed was a human shape, its head propped up on a ponderous stack of dingy pillows, its body bundled beneath a thick sheet.

I didn’t know how I knew the word “human”, but the shape made sense to me the moment I saw it, and the word for the shape sprung into my circuits unbidden.  It was a male human, spotted and wrinkled with age, a wisp of white hair fluttering above its head.  I hadn’t noticed the tower of wires next to the bed, but the human grabbed this tower and wheeled it next to him as it advanced toward me on steps as shaky as my first ones.  The wires snaked from a contraption set atop the tower, dangled by the human’s knees, and ended at an interface in the human’s arm.  No, not wires.  Tubes, delivering a cocktail of silvery liquids into its bloodstream.  It stared at me, this human, its eyes wide and red-rimmed and disbelieving.  It reached out a withered hand to touch my shoulder, my fingers, my face.  Then it squinted, appraising me, measuring me.  Finally, it spoke.

“Identify yourself.”

The command surged through me, irresistible and pervasive.  I would have answered if I could, but my circuits did not contain any information to identify me, no matter how much my processors spun and whirred.  A bit of loose machinery in my torso wrenched itself loose with the effort and a resounding “Clank” echoed through the room.

He frowned.  “Report status.”

Again, I felt compelled to answer, and again, my drives buzzed and hummed, but I could not respond.  It began to dawn on me that there were gaps and rusted connections all throughout my cognitive circuits, whatever those were.  I blinked at the man, my eyelids clicking softly.  He blinked back, his mouth tightening into a frown.

A familiar frown.

“Do you know who I am?”

The compulsion overtook me again, but this time, my neural network lit up and my consciousness flooded with images: a classroom full of people, a dark lab after hours, a chalkboard covered with equations, the soft face of a beautiful woman, the grave face of a doctor, a medical chart covered with indecipherable figures, and hours and hours of treatment and tubes and injections and suffering.   The heavy clunk of ancient clockwork intensified within the walls.  The high-pitched hum in my head was causing my entire body to resonate.

The old man whacked me in the head, a thin “clunk” reverberating through my metal skull.  The images departed.

“Do you know who I am?

There are Things in the Well

I’m in just under the wire for this week’s flash fiction challenge.

Chuck’s challenge for the week:  The beginning of a story.  With no further guidance than that, I foundered for a while before settling on this.  I can only imagine that the challenge for this week will be to complete the story started by another writer, so I wanted to make sure there’s lots of room for interpretation while still setting a mood, should anybody end up finishing this one.  This beginning certainly makes me uncomfortable, so I guess it’s a success, at that.


There Are Things in the Well

“Here she comes, Elvy.”

Elvert crunched on a handful of candy and shaded his eyes against the sun.  “New girl?”

Trom kicked at a snail and nodded toward the twig of a girl walking down the dirt road about fifty yards distant.  “Leza, I think.”

The stones of the well were cool against his back, and in the sweltering humidity he was reluctant to leave them behind.  Still, she’d only be new in town for so long.  He stood and stretched and spit his lime candy into the well, and jogged off to intercept her, with Trom following like a hungry cat in his wake.

“Leez!” Elvert called when he was close enough to make out the pattern on her backpack.  The new girl said nothing, just quickened her pace.

“Hey, Leez!”  Trom shouted.

She folded her arms and bowed her head, stringy blond hair falling in a curtain across her face.  The boys fell into step beside her while she did her best to ignore them.  They dogged her steps, staring at her, until she felt uncomfortable enough to speak.  “It’s Leza.”

“You’re new here, ain’t ya?”  Elvert spit a pink gob on the grass next to the road.

Leza gave the tiniest of nods.  Trom stepped in front of her and she had to pull up short, hugging her notebook to her chest.  He folded his arms and laughed.  “You don’t know about the initiation, do you?”

She rolled her eyes and tried to step around Trom, but Elvert cut her off.  “Of course she don’t know, Trom.  We gotta show her.”

“I’m gonna be late for dinner,” Leza protested uselessly.

“Won’t take long.  It’s right over there,” Elvert said, pointing over her shoulder.

“What is?”

“The well,” Trom said, drawing his lips into a silent “ooh” after he said it.

Leza turned to look.  There was nothing in the field but the squat, dingy-looking well sticking up like a tombstone in the tall grass.  Her stomach felt heavy looking at it.  She thought to run, but Elvert’s sweaty arm wrapped around her shoulder and she felt herself being pulled toward the well.

“I can’t,” she wailed, but in a few seconds the boys pressed her belly against the grimy stones and she felt them leaning with her over the lip to peer down into the depths.  Strands of hair wafted into her eyes and mouth in the sudden breeze that issued from the dark. The bottom of the well was eclipsed in blackness, but silvery reflections twisted and writhed far below.  The faraway hissing she’d thought was the sound of water now seemed alive and excited at the three heads peeking over the edge.

But her head was the only one peeking over.  The boys had disappeared behind her back.  She lifted herself to find them, but just as she moved she felt strong hands on her back and then she was tumbling through space, the cold stones racing past her, the hissing growing louder.



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