Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lucius and Lulu -- part 1

Today, Lucius; tomorrow, Lulu.

LUCIUS

Today's subject matter, such as it is, divides into two parts. First, a discussion of differing approaches to the business of writing fiction; and then a discussion of the origin of ideas for stories.

Approaches

There are, it seems to me, certain analogies between flower arranging and writing fiction.

By flower arranging, I mean something much more elaborate than just sticking a few daffodils in a vase. I'm talking about floral displays which may vary in size from a few inches across to ten feet tall, but which in either case require a great deal of thought, planning, and may involve more than one person to actually carry them out.

In England, and, I gather, in many other parts of the world, flower arranging is a much favoured hobby, pastime, interest -- call it what you will. Even small towns tend to have a flower-arranging club, which meets regularly to watch demonstrations, undertake practice classes, and so forth.

What may well have escaped your notice is that flower arranging is a highly competitive activity, with regular competitions held at local, regional, and national level. (This year's national show is in Harrogate, in June.)

This competitive side to flower arranging may, I think, be compared with professional, trade publishing. It is a filtering process in which, theoretically at any rate, only the best practitioners rise to the top and achieve recognition.

But there is a much more relaxed side to flower arranging. For instance, every once in a while Mrs GOB does a flower arrangement which stands on a table by the front door. Why does she do this?

There are, I think, two reasons. First, she enjoys the actual process of designing the arrangement, handling the flowers, and putting it all together. And second, she likes to look at it as she goes up and down the stairs. Occasionally a visitor (invariably female) will comment on the arrangement. But that's not why it's there: it's there strictly for Mrs GOB's personal satisfaction.

Rather late in life, I have come to the conclusion that it is possible to approach the writing of fiction in precisely the same spirit. That is to say, I have decided that it is possible for me (and other people) to write a story without bothering too much (or at all) whether anyone will read it, but just for the satisfaction of doing it.

I was slow, and somewhat reluctant, to come to this conclusion. But I have considered it possible, in theory, for some time. (See, for instance, the final section of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.) And now, at least once, I've done it.

The title of the story which I have recently written on arrangement-by-the-front-door lines is Lucius the Club.

As is my wont, these days, I have made the story available as a free pdf file, and you can download it and read it if you wish. But before you do so, please be aware that the story is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons licence, details of which are given at the end of the story. What this means is that you can do more or less anything that you like with it -- print it out, copy it, send it to a friend, and so forth. I'd prefer that you didn't make a film out of it (ha ha ha; little joke) without asking me, but apart from that, feel free.

'Feel free' includes, of course, feeling free not to bother reading the thing at all. Because, as I said earlier, that wasn't really why I wrote it.

Which leads me on to my second topic for discussion: namely, where stories come from.

The origins of stories

I am not a great Stephen King admirer, but I read his book On Writing with some interest, and I have also read some of his short stories. It is, I believe, in the introduction to his most recent short-story collection that he makes some observations about the source of fictional ideas.

As I recall, King describes becoming aware one day of a vision in his head. What he could see was a scene in which a man was pouring gold coins down a drain. Who this man was, and why he was pouring gold coins down a drain, he had no idea; and he couldn't even guess why the image had entered his head (though I dare say the Freudians could give him an explanation).

King goes on to argue that short stories exist independently of the writer. They exist entire, and complete in themselves. What happens when a writer gets an idea is that the writer is seeing, so to speak, one small part of an object sticking out of the ground. What the writer has to do is dig the story out, and expose it in full. It may turn out to be a dead body, or an abandoned motor car, or an old saucepan, or whatever; but it's there, waiting to be uncovered.

This is a rather different concept, and much more fanciful, I may say, from the more usual one, which has the writer taking an incident from life and developing it, by a conscious act of will, into a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end.

And what of Lucius the Club? Where did that story come from? Did I have to dig it up, or did I have to shape it from a pile of clay?

Both, I think is the answer.

In the first place, I had in the back of my mind, for several years, the idea of writing a story about a woman in a wheelchair. I don't know precisely why I had that idea, but it may well have been because I once knew a young female student who was confined to a wheelchair.

My original story idea was that Clarrie, as she was called, would a woman of about sixty, and, far from being a pathetic, handicapped creature, she would be a woman with a very powerful personality and willpower by the bucketful. I imagined her as having run a brothel, or some illegal gambling club perhaps, and she would be telling her story, in the first person, to a corrupt policeman who had just entered the district and, like his predecessors, would be doing a deal with Clarrie to enable her to continue her illegal activities.

Above all, Clarrie would relate the story of how, as a young woman, someone tried to push her around, and make her take her place in the natural order of things, that place being, since she was young, female, and handicapped, at the bottom. But Clarrie wasn't having any of that, so she murdered the man with a shotgun. After which she was respected, and no one gave her any serious trouble. And she was never, of course, convicted of the crime.

This idea was in the back of my head, and indeed in my files, bits of it written out, for several years. But then, eventually, it kind of came to the surface and demanded, as stories occasionally do, to be written.

Before writing it, however, I had to do a bit more thinking, to flesh the story out. At least once in my life I have written a short story with nothing further to go on than the first line. I just sat down, typed the first line, and went on from there until it was finished, in one session. But that is not the way I prefer to work.

My normal method of working is to plan a story, or a book, in great detail -- perhaps excessive detail. So I didn't rush to start work on Clarrie. Instead, for some months, I thought about it while I was shaving, or washing up. And gradually, for reasons best known to herself, Clarrie changed sexes. She became a man. A man who was also crippled, but not in a wheelchair, and his name was Lucius.

Lucius was also a man who had committed a murder when young, and got away with it. He used a shotgun too. And, although he was a highly respectable member of the community, his family background would be more than a little dubious.

One thing led to another, and, being a more commercial than literary writer by instinct, I found it necessary to introduce certain twists and turns in the plot. Yes, this is all very immature and juvenile, I know. Persons of taste and distinction rather look down on plots and surprises and revelations, and all like that. But this story was written for me, and I like my stories to be more than just snapshots.

Even when it was done, I found that the damn thing still gave me trouble. It required a lot of tweaking. But now it's as finished as it is ever going to be.

What I have ended up with is a story which is neither fish nor fowl. It isn't really a short story, because it's about 10,500 words in length. Neither is it really a novella, which is normally reckoned, depending on who you believe, to be between 15,000 and 30,000 words. So it is, in any case, pretty well unpublishable through orthodox channels.

If you're really clued up on the crime-fiction market, however, you will know that there ar two crime magazines in the world which might publish a story of that length: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. So why didn't I submit it to them?

Well, because I couldn't be arsed, basically. For one thing, it is statistically extremely improbable that either magazine would accept the story (see my comments of 20 September 2004); and for another, even if they accepted it, I would probably have to wait a year to see it in print. And in any case, both the magazines mentioned are rarely available in the UK; you certainly never see them in Wiltshire. So why would I bother?

No, I thought. Just do it, stick it on the web, and leave it at that. And here's the link again, just in case you want it.

I did, however, do one further thing with the story. I have for some time been watching with interest the number of people who have published their work through Lulu.com. So I decided that I would publish Lucius the Club as a chapbook, through Lulu, just to see how easy or difficult it is to use Lulu, and what the snags and advantages are.

I do not, not even in my wildest dreams, imagine that more than 3 people, in any given year, are going to browse through Lulu, think Oh! that looks interesting, and buy it. But I did want to see how Lulu works.

But for comments on that, come back tomorrow.

9 comments:

Daddy said...

Michael,

That was a wonderful story about the birth of your story. I can hardly wait for tomorrow's chapter, the one about Lulu.

Anne Weale said...

After reading Lucius the Club, I wondered what Mrs GOB made of it.

Anne

GC said...

Both the post and the story itself were interesting.

Thanks GOB.

Greg

Maria said...

Next time, try submitting it as an Amazon short. You know where people pay 49 cents to get a short story. Then you can tell us how that works out and what you think of it.
Although this works out better for readers because it's free.

Andrew O'Hara said...

I sat back and enjoyed your story tremendously. One of the best I've read. You have a wry humor and style that's unbeatable and makes for delightful reading--although Mama's approach might make Dr. Spock twist in his grave.

Thank you for making this available to us--I shall pass it on!

I also enjoyed your 2004 post on the statistically lunatic numbers touted by such lit-ah-rary mags as Paris Review. Lights and mirrors and nothing's real.

Maybe flower arranging.

Eric Mayer said...

To me writing is mostly a game whereby I am trying to use words in a way that will communicate what I'm trying to express to readers. With no readers then, the game seems rather pointless. My game doesn't require many readers, however. For years I mailed out a zine to 50 or 60 readers which was more than enough to make me feel there was a point to me writing. I enjoy writing blog entries because I know a few people read my blog.

I no longer bother to write short stories, except when my wife and I are asked to contribute to an anthology, because my experience has been that the chance of placing a story written "on speculation." is slim -- so slim that while I'm writing I know that I am most likely writing for no one, which isn't any fun at all.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I can't help imagining that people will read what I write. Even if I never show it anyone I imagine people reading it so strongly that surely I'm not wrong!

Of course I also hit the bump where I mutter to myself about how nobody ever reads my stuff. On my book blog, after months of the only comments being from my brother (& very occasionally one or two friends) I found two comments by strangers. It was so weird. Like some burglar had stopped in the foyer and wrote a note complimenting my flower arranging then left without stealing anything.

Nurse Fusion said...

Thank you for sharing your technique and resulting story.

Scribbler said...

I've been using lulu to see what my book covers will look like. I'll be publishing (still POD) through Lightning Source (who Lulu use for some printing), but for about £6 (including postage) I can have a book printed with some of my work in it so that I can test cover layouts, ideas, and also see what my work reads like in print (actually book form I mean).

So lulu has other uses, anyone hear the words Galleys? Review Copies?