It is winter. Christmas Eve 2011, and Writer Guy rides the train to Arles. Second class. The South of France trundles by outside, salt flats and olive trees, the mountainside and harbor towns of the Mediterranean coast. I sip my Coca-Cola Lite and return to my laptop.
For in France the writing flows, as fast as the sweeping wind is vicious. I plan a collection, short stories set in different French locales, and the first idea has begun to spill out.
It is about a guy in Provence. On a train. In winter.
Such is my premise. Six words nearly bring the Coca-Cola Lite out my nose: “France Is Running Out of Sandwiches!”
Travel in France and you’ll discover that the sandwich is no longer a humble snack but a lunchtime and cultural staple. High streets are awash in boulangeries, charcuteries, bodegas, sandwich counters. That next ham and cheese on crusty bread is never more than a few steps away.
But what if it wasn’t?
The train chugs along, cutting inland, though farmland and salt marshes. If the French countryside approves, it grants me no signal.
First, Short Story Guy must ignore easy disaster spoof ideas and find the land of theme. The characters and words start and stop and redirect, but more and more I see a thematic channel. What if the sandwich, civilization at its handheld pinnacle, represented the whole big set of compromises and institutions and general everyday that make up civilized living? What if my absurdist, minor disaster—a mysterious shortage of bread and sandwich fillers—questioned how thin the veneer of civilization can be?
Yes. Short Story Guy would skewer the essence and contradictions of civilization in 2,500 words. Or less.
The train approaches Arles. I have 1,344 words, a weird old man and a major problem: clarity. My thematic goal is somewhat ambitious. I see that now. Worse, as happens too often, the midpoint comes, goes and fizzles. My story is stuck and sinking as surely as Short Story Guy would lost in the marshland out my window. I console myself with wine and sandwiches. Arles is bright and sunny, but so very, very windy.
I put “Sandwiches” aside. On the train to Paris, Short Story Guy writes about, well, Paris.
THE INGLORIOUS RETURN
It is May in Tennessee. The trees have the vibrant green of young leaves. A creative bolt jars Short Story Guy from his sleep—how to finish the sandwich story. The crisis must escalate to its zenith of absurdity: the rise of mob government, a la French Revolution, and an assault on the last bastions of the elite.
I write it.
Hours and Diet Cokes later, it’s not bad. Dan is lunkheadedly funny, with Bree as his straight person. The story weaves the old man and the Mistral in better now, and it’s weirdly effective.
O, Short Story Guy, you magnificent bastard. Civilization skewered in 2,300 words. Well within my “or less” criteria.
I submit “Sandwiches!” for an On The Premises contest.
THE LEAN MONTHS
It is August. Summer presses its humidity on the broad leaves. Short Story Guy stares at the computer screen, at the sandwiches idea. The OTP critique calls it well-crafted, but believes the story takes its premise too seriously. “Funny weird,” they call it. “But not bleak enough for bleak comedy.” A comedy missing the punch lines.
Short Story Guy sighs and slugs back a Diet Coke. “But it’s about sandwiches,” I say to thin air.
Having a well-crafted but weird story, I submit it two more places open to the weirdly well-crafted.
It is November. Approaching winter strips leaves from the trees. Short Story Guy sits in the writing chair, ruing the sandwiches idea and its epic freeze.
I take the story to my critique group. The stakes are high; it is my first offering. “Well,” they say nicely, “here’s your problem…” And they list out the problems, nicely:
1) The narration doesn’t ring true. Dan sounds too omniscient, too knowledgeable. Where is the tourist of moderate intelligence?
2) Dan wanders too much and too passively. He needs to pursue a mission in Carcassonne. A raison d’etre, s’il vous plait. It wasn’t missing punch lines; “Sandwiches” was a premise and setting waiting for Dan and Bree to step forward.
Short Story Guy is inspired.
THE CREATURE THAT ATE MY STORY
It is December, Christmas again. Amid barren trees doze the evergreens, some festooned in lighting. In a burst of raw creativity, in one day I transform the story:
- Dan gets a quest: to fulfill his desire for an authentic Carcassonne sandwich, a mission that rises in stakes with the plot.
- Dan is dumbed down, way down; he never understands French speakers, makes a string of questionable decisions, and succumbs to the mass hysteria that the stronger Bree resists.
- The Ministry of Sandwiches comes in to heighten the absurdity.
- Side characters are shuffled to help Dan see himself as an instrument of fate.
A new purpose demands a new title: “The Carcassonne Dream.”
Short Story Guy sits back, glowing with creative satisfaction.
Then wrought with dissatisfaction. The 2,300 word weirdness has expanded into a bloated 5,500 word monster.
It is February. Outside the barren trees show hints of buds. Short Story Guy has shifted brain sides, to the exacting pencil of the left. I whittle and refine, whittle and refine, whittle and refine. The 5,500-word creature becomes 5,300, 5100, then through the magic 5,000 barrier. I keep cutting and, to help, develop new tools and a short-story control sheet.
A new angle emerges from the sculpting. One there all along: Bree. The story must put into play Dan’s love of his life Bree. He must come to the brink of giving her up. Fourteen months after that train ride, the real stakes have emerged.
Short Story Guy says “better late than never.” I play this up.
I submit it to Swamp Biscuits & Tea.
THE HAPPY ENDING
It is March. Spring returns to dot the Tennessee hills. Short Story Guy checks email and finds a reply on “Carcassonne.”
Short Story Guy breathes. I pop open a Diet Coke. There’s this idea about spiders…
I can’t thank my critique group enough. They engaged on my bland sandwiches idea and helped me find its message and–I can’t help myself–its seasoning. Much of any grins or absurdist message “Carcassonne” has came from their ideas and encouragement.
Critique is essential to writing growth. Anyone still wondering what a good group can do, please re-read this post. Don’t be afraid to seek out feedback. It just might bring out your dreams.
Check out critique group member Avery Oslo’s blog and links to her fiction at http://averyoslo.wordpress.com/. And her recent big story sale!