Grinding

The revision of The Land Without Mosquitos is not going as well as I’d hoped. In the fall, I submitted the first three chapters for review by the local writers group I’ve joined, yet after nearly three months of work on chapter four I don’t feel I’m any closer to being finished. I’d hoped to submit for this month’s meeting (we meet the second Saturday of each month), but by the end of January I knew I wasn’t ready.

Part of the problem is that I’m introducing a character who didn’t appear in any of the earlier drafts, and that character will be the catalyst for a subplot that’s also new to the narrative. For those reasons, I don’t want to give in and submit what I have in its current state; this character and his story are important, and demand a proper introduction. No sense in creating a mess that I’ll have to salvage later.

I’ll play the role of reviewer this Saturday (there’s some good work done by this group), then push on with chapter four. Submissions are due two weeks before the meeting, so that gives me three weekends, with one being extended for the Presidents Day holiday. Think I should get out of the house, escape from domestic distractions; go to a coffeehouse, perhaps, or a library. Spend three, four hours just writing; repeat if necessary. Whatever it takes to grind out that chapter, craft something I’m proud to have critiqued by my peers.

Meetups and Mosquitos

Back in spring, I began attending the monthly meetings of a local writer’s Meetup, and since that time have submitted the first three chapters of The Land Without Mosquitos for review. The response so far has been, shall we say, interesting — my fellow writers find the story a bit bizarre (which they should), but they find the characters interesting, appreciate my style, and have stayed invested in the story. A few critiques will likely influence my next revision of the novel:

  • After reading the first chapter (where Jane “discovers” the mysterious object in her apartment), my readers didn’t know what to make of Jane’s confusion; they understood she was looking at an iPhone, but couldn’t understand her lack of recognition. In discussing this response, we agreed that identifying the novel’s genre could be helpful; if readers know the novel is about an alternate reality, they would be more likely to accept Jane’s confusion. Up to that point I hadn’t known how to classify my work — it had both science fiction and fantasy elements, but I didn’t feel it fit neatly into either category — but when I said it was “Alternate Reality Fiction” (is that really a genre?), my reviewers seemed a bit more at ease with Jane’s behavior.
  • Jane’s friends and co-workers respond far too calmly to her wild story. Her boss, Gary, is particularly far too conciliatory; in the words of one reviewer, “this guy needs a backbone.” Gary will play a central role in chapter four, and I’m eager to experiment with making him less patient with Jane.
  • There’s too many passages that describe Jane’s confusion over an object that is familiar to the reader. One suggestion that I’m eager to follow through with is to transform those passages into dialogue — have Jane point to an object, ask “What’s that?”, and then reply with amazement at the response.

That’s just a sample of the response I’ve received so far. I’m actually quite pleased with the feedback I’ve received, and plan to submit the entire novel for the group’s review.

An Update on “The Land Without Mosquitos”

This past weekend, I had the second chapter of “The Land Without Mosquitos” (drafted and revised on this blog as a short story, but now being expanded into a novel) reviewed by a peer group of aspiring writers. Couldn’t have asked for a better response; my readers found the story confusing, but felt invested in Jane, the central character.

That’s exactly the response I was hoping to elicit, as the story has a bizzare premise, and I wanted the reader to share in Jane’s confusion as she gradually realizes she’s been suddenly transported into an alternate reality, very similar to the one she remembers but with some significant technological differences.

It’s dangerous, of course, to confuse your readers, as they could easily respond with annoyance (what the hell is going on?) and decide to stop reading. Jane has to capture my readers’ interest, and they have to care about her struggle to make sense out of what’s happened to her. My readers this weekend wanted to know what happens to Jane next; those were very gratifying words to hear, and I intend to submit future chapters to this group (which also, I might add, features a number of writers whose work I admire).

The chapter wasn’t perfect — a frequent observation was that Gary, Jane’s boss and one of the key supporting characters, was too much of a pushover (“he needs a spine,” according to one reviewer; I have my team of fictional surgeons working on him as I type these words). But I am far more encouraged than discouraged by the responses I received over the weekend.

Going Big

Made a decision this week about The Land Without Mosquitos, a story I’ve drafted and revised on this blog. Rather than shrinking it down to the size of a short story, I’m expanding it to novel length, around 50K words. It’s kind of a “go big or go home” decision; there’s a lot I want to accomplish with this story, and I’m choosing to feed my ambition.

I’ll also be taking a more active approach in soliciting feedback; rather than posting revisions here, I’ll be submitting a chapter a month to a local writers’ group. Gray Metal Faces will continue to be my focus on this blog, at least through November of this year, along with the occasional self-indulgent metawriting post such as this.

Meds, “Mosquitos,” and the Importance of Honesty

The Manic Years began as a therapeutic exercise, but its author, Megan, has continued blogging “to reach out and help people to open up about their own experiences.” Her latest post chronicles her successful battle against medical bureaucracy and indifference, resulting in a welcomed change in her medication.

Megan’s comments inspired me to write about thoughts I’ve been having about the ending of my story “The Land Without Mosquitos”. Summary: the central character, Jane, believes she is from another dimension, similar to ours but with significant differences in technology; among the many people she meets in the story is a psychiatrist, who offers to write her a prescription to help with her delusion. Right now, I have Jane declining the prescription, and deciding to embrace this strange world she’s found herself in; my intention was to demonstrate Jane’s strength and bravery.

That demonstration, though, is manifested by her refusal to take psychiatric medication. And lately, I’ve realized it would be easy for a reader to see in Jane’s decision a message I don’t believe, one that’s false and potentially damaging: not taking meds is better than taking meds.

I write about my writing in this blog a good deal, but rarely do I convey information about myself. Today, such information is relevant, so here goes: I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression, and have been taking medication to combat my illness for close to a decade. Seeking professional help wasn’t easy for me, as I believed the message which my story’s current ending unfortunately conveys — only weak people need meds, and I ain’t no weakling. I’d been prone to mood swings,  wild on occassion, throughout my adult life, but was convinced I could not only control my emotions on my own, but also had an obligation to rely on my own strength; it was only when it became all too obvious that my wife and children were suffering from my condition that I chose to seek help. Medication, combined with therapy and meditation and support from my family, has provided me a degree of control over my depression that I had clearly lost. I’m not “cured”; I like to compare my depression to diabetes, a condition that cannot be eliminated but, with proper attention, can be controlled enough to allow a person to live a “normal” life (whatever that means).

People like myself, and Megan, aren’t weak, or abnormal — we have a disease, and we take medications because we have chosen to fight that disease. Jane thinks she’s from another dimension, for crying out loud, and for her to be as honest and brave as I want her to be, she has to acknowledge at least the possibility that she’s delusional. But her refusal of medication is actually a dismissal of that possibility; her decision speaks with a voice from my past, a voice that I now know to be dangerously misguided.

I’m revising “The Land Without Mosquitos” for a writer’s group I’ve joined recently. And one of my principal goals is to change that ending.

Megan writes:

honesty is a valuable tool that can be used to reach out and help people to open up about their own experiences

“The Land Without Mosquitos” suffers from a dishonest ending at the moment. But fortunately, this is a condition that can be cured.

Correction

Accomplished my primary goal for “The Land Without Mosquitos,” a complete revision of the story (originally titled “Summers”) I had drafted several years ago. Also completed exactly on the schedule I set for myself, and reduced the word count by over a third (Henry James would be proud). Setting goals and deadlines for my blogging projects works well — keeps me focused, prevents meandering.

One thing I haven’t enjoyed about this last month and a half — relapsing into the bad habit of focusing solely on my own writing. Didn’t make an effort to read, comment on, or even visit other blogs. Worst thing a blogger can do is ignore the inherently social aspect of this craft; still trying to find that balance between self-expression and engagement.

As my fencing coach would say, “Show me the correction, not the apology.”  I’m taking a break from fiction, of an unknown duration. Time to visit some other blogging worlds, search for new and interesting ideas, send out homing beacons for work that’s worthy of wider attention. There will be a time when I return to my novel, “Gray Metal Faces,” and begin drafting Chapter 7 (March); may that return come after a successful voyage. 

Dark Embrace – The Land Without Mosquitos, Conclusion

Laughter from inside the apartment. Jane felt the music, the voices pulling her back in. Needed another beer, in any case. She reached down to the plastic table where she had laid her empty bottle, then stood back up and laughed on remembering Wings had already taken it inside.

She turned towards the screen door leading to the kitchen, BANG! The sudden eruption of sound caught Jane’s attention, but did not startle her, years of living in Chicago having trained her to immediately distinguish between gunshots and a truck engine backfire. But as her eyes scanned over the dark alleyway again, she found her body gliding back to the handrail, her eyes tracing the alley’s darkness as it evaporated into the bright lights of the Chicago street.

Struck by a sudden impulse she didn’t understand, Jane leaned forward, her stomach pressing firmly yet securely on the wooden handrail, and spread her arms wide, her head tilting back as she closed her eyes and focused on the sounds around her — the music and laughter in the apartment, the scuffling of feet in the alley beneath, the traffic from the street, even the distant sound of jet engines high above. A few months earlier she might have looked down and seen an abyss, dark and foreboding, and yes, considered leaping down into that void; opening her eyes now and looking down, she saw that darkness was just as thick, just as her adopted city was no less dangerous. Yet with a contented smile, she realized the frightening menace of those early days was long gone.

Yes, the future was uncertain. Given what had happened that incredible morning last fall, Jane knew there would always be a chance she’d wake up tomorrow morning, or the next, and find herself back in the world she remembered, making this world she’d lived in the past several months, with its Jetsonian computers and phones but Flinstonian transportation, seem like an unpleasant dream. Or maybe that day would never come, and she’d remain in this world that was so familiar, yet so strange. But as she closed her eyes again, spread her arms wide, leaned her body safely over the handrail . . . she realized she no longer cared what happened. She felt strong enough to face whatever bizarre twist fate would throw at her next.

Jane Summers laughed, a tear of gratitude falling from her right eye, as she symbolically embraced the darkness around her, inviting it to take her wherever it may, even if it lead her to a land without mosquitos.

End of “The Land Without Mosquitos”

Abyss – TLWM 11C

The sound of metal on concrete — Jane placed her hands on a wooden rail, looked down, saw a man pulling a garbage can away from a door. The door opened, a woman’s head emerged. By the tone of her voice Jane could tell that she was asking a question. The man swore loudly, angrily, then slammed a cover on top of the aluminum can before rushing back to the door.Jane suddenly realized how far above the alley she was. Wings’ apartment was on the fourth floor of a complex with no elevator; Jane had been out of breath that evening after finishing the climb up the stairs. She remembered horrible stories from years past, of children falling to their deaths while playing on balconies similar to the one Jane was standing on now. She looked down at the handrail on which her arms rested; on the outside of the wooden guard rails (spaced wide enough for even a slim adult to fit through) she saw a thin honeycomb of metal fencing. A guard against future tragedies. She reached down, pulled at an edge of the fencing; two staples immediately flew out of the wood as if being released from captivity. “Jesus.” She watched them disappear into the blackness of the alley, then looked down at the six inch hole she had just created in the fence.

Jane could barely see the concrete of the alley beneath her. In the dark, the space under the wooden balcony seemed like an abyss.

Abyss. She remembered a conversation she had with Dr. Patel, not during her first or second session with him but certainly early, perhaps the third. He had asked where she saw herself going in the next five years. “No idea. Maybe I’ll Be at my current job, maybe not. May not even be at Crasob, for all I know. When I think about the future, all I see is darkness. Like staring into an abyss.”

Dr. Patel’s response was quick. “An interesting word, Jane. Most people look down at abysses — literally.” His right index finger was pointing down, the tip planted on his desk. “The word has many other negative associations.” She had replied that she hadn’t meant to sound so negative. She was uncertain, not pessimistic.

It was one of the few times she had withheld the truth from Dr. Patel. Because that truth had scared her.

In those first few weeks after her world had suddenly changed, she couldn’t avoid asking herself disturbing questions — If my life could change so dramatically, so instantly, and for no apparent reason, how certain can I be of anything? How can I continue acting as normal in this new world, when I have no idea how I got here in the first place? What if tomorrow I’m back to my old normal, or wake up to yet another abnormality? Legitimate questions, given what had happened since her kitchen table started playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. But she had no answers, had no idea what additional changes to expect in her life or how she’d react when they came. There was only one answer that provided absolute certainty — a descent into the darkest abyss.

She hadn’t been surprised when Dr. Patel returned to that word at the start of their next visit. “Do you still feel that you’re staring into an abyss?”

“To be honest, that word choice last time worried me.” Dr. Patel had nodded knowingly. “It bothered me the moment I said it, and since then, I’ve been doing my best to avoid thinking about it.” When Dr. Patel asked for the details of her avoidance strategy, she’d replied that she’d focused on (re-)learning how to do her job at Crasob, had worked with Wings to figure out how to use the technology which was suddenly available to her, identified adjustments she’d need to make in this world lacking the transportation options with which she had been so familiar.

“Ah!” Dr. Patel clapped his hands victoriously, and she saw a smile bloom on the face of the man who asked her to call him Sumeet, or Sam. “That is not avoidance, Jane — that is acceptance!”

Jane hadn’t been sure about Dr. Patel’s analysis at the time, but she’d noticed her anxiety begin to lessen that day. The future remained dark and uncertain, but as the weeks and then months progressed, she felt she could stumble around in the dark as well as anybody else. She had even learned to attend parties, like this one this evening at Wings’ apartment, without feeling like a visitor from a strange land.

One or the Other – TLWM 11B

“But that’s what people do.” Jane turned her attention back to Wings, but this time saw the face not of a hesitant young girl from Mississippi, but rather a woman full confident of her words. “Any relationship you’re in, that changes you, even if just a little.” Wings now rose from her chair. “Brad weren’t trying to force nothing on you. He was going to change, just as much as you.”

Jane smiled weakly. “Don’t think Brad’s changed a bit in the three years I’ve known him. Have a feeling he weren’t about to change, if we’d gotten married.”

There was a sadness to Wings’ sigh, almost a resignation. Wings had liked Brad, thought he was good for her. “How’s work?” Jane was glad to hear her friend change the subject. “You going for that promotion?”

“It’s not a promotion.” Jane raised the bottle to her lips again, before remembering that she had just emptied it. “It’d be a job change, from CAD to engineer.” She ran her hand back over her scalp, her thin hair parting from her face. “There’s these classes Gary keeps wanting me to take, on drainage. Always told him that my days of sitting in a classroom were done, listening to some professor who doesn’t know anything about how the world really works try to tell me how to do my job.” She put the bottle down on a plastic table. “But now that I can do my course work online — I don’t know, been thinking about it more.”

“See?” Wings had turned to her, a smile on her face as broad and bright as a crescent moon on a cloudless night. “This world we got, with our computers and the Internet and everything, it ain’t so bad after all, is it?”

Jane rose from her chair. “Never said this was a bad world, just different.” She swept her right arm across the balcony, her reach extending out past the alleway onto the bright lights of the Chicago skyline. “The world I remember, it weren’t no bad world neither. You could get around easier than we do here. Streets were cleaner, so was the air.” She turned back to Wings, pulled her smart phone out of her pocket. “But no, we didn’t have these things. And they are pretty cool. Anything you want to know — like how to sign up for that class Gary wants me take — using this, I can find that out in a couple minutes.” She put her phone back into her pocket. “But what I don’t understand is, why can’t there be both? If we can be all space-age with telecom, why can’t we get all sci-fi with our transportation too? And in the world I remember — guess I should say used to remember, or think I remembered — just because we had stuff like Unirail, that shouldn’t mean we had to be stuck with rotary phones. I mean we didn’t think about stuff like that, but now that I’m here — I just don’t see why it has to be one or the other.”

Wings rose, taking Jane’s empty beer bottle from the plastic table as she stood next to her older yet shorter friend. She held the bottle up to Jane. “Need another?”

Jane waved her off. “I’ll be in, in a minute.” A moment later Wings had walked through the screen and kitchen doors, back into her apartment, leaving Jane alone again on the wooden balcony above the building’s back alley.

A Welcome Chill – The Land Without Mosquitos 11A

A cold April breeze swept up the alley, causing Jane to tighten the jacket across her body. She was sitting on the wooden balcony outside the kitchen of Wings’ apartment. Were it a month or two later the evening’s chill would have driven Jane inside, but several months of Chicago winter had inspired her to enjoy the feel of outside air.

She turned at the sound of the kitchen door opening. Wings appeared behind the screen door, the sound of the younger girl’s stereo emanating from within. Wings tilted her head, a curious look on her face. “You OK, girl?”

Jane looked up, smiled. “Just needed some air. Be back in a minute.”

Wings pushed the screen door open, walked onto the balcony, the door spring tightening and closing the door behind her, tlling tok-tok. She sat in the empty plastic chair next to Jane’s. “How long’s it been?”

Jane shrugged. “Since when?”

“Since you — you know, thought we all changed the world on you?”

“Ah.” Jane took a quick drink from the beer bottle in her hand. “Couple months. Maybe three. Lost track a while ago.” She turned to Wings. “Why do you ask?”

“Just — I don’t know. You been acting kinda quiet tonight, like you were those first few weeks. But when you started seeing that doctor, you got to being your old self again.” She half-turned to Jane, placed a hand on her shoulder. “But I know you still believe that story you told me that first day. And you still haven’t taken that medicine the doctor said you should take.” Wings blinked. “And Brad . . . ” Her voice trailed off.

Jane drank again from her beer bottle, stared ahead of her. “Brad and I weren’t going to work out. I’d known that for a while — just hadn’t admitted it. To Brad, or myself.” Another drink. “So I gave him back the ring.”

“So, this . . . thing that happened to you.” This was typically how Wings referred to that morning now several months ago, the Kafka-esque moment she heard Mozart playing from her kitchen table. “Did that have anything to do with you pushing Brad away?”

Jane rose swiftly, her momentum temporarily lifting her plastic chair off the wooden balcony landing. “I wasn’t the one doing the pushing.” She drank quickly from her bottle, began pacing in front of Wings. “The thing I couldn’t admit was that the two of us couldn’t go on like we were. It was either take the next step, or call it off. Brad knew it too, but at least he had the guts to make us face up to that fact.” She lifted the bottle to her lips again, and when she realized the bottle was empty tilted her head back and upended the bottle anyway. “But for us to take the next step would mean becoming something I’m not ready to be, a person Brad wants me to become. And I just couldn’t do that.”