Physician, heal thyself

I am not a fiction writer, except for that one time in grad school when in a course on adolescent fiction I was given the choice of either reading and reviewing 70 YA novels or writing one myself. Pfft, I thought, if S.E. Hinton could do it, I can do it.

And so I did: outlined a chapter every Sunday, then pounded out the thing on my trusty Macintosh SE/30 (in ClarisWorks!) and printed it out on my dot matrix printer. Even back then I was high-tech. It was called Twelfth Night, New Day, and it was about a bunch of high schoolers involved in a production of 12N at the local community theatre (run of course by a beloved adult). Go figure.

Since that ABORTIVE ATTEMPT, though, I have never tried — or wanted — to create a fictional world. I’ve never been very good at reading humans and their emotions, mostly because unless they tell me what they’re thinking or feeling I don’t know; I have a hard and fast rule of never attributing thoughts and emotion or motives to other people.

So it was with some surprise that one day around a decade ago (!) that I was raking leaves out in my back yard and I found a cigarette butt, and a short story fell into my head.

“There had been a break-in,” the story began, and soon the broad outline shimmered into soft focus, where it has remained for ten years.

It has been a Lichtenbergian Proposed Effort several times: Write one perfect short story. But alas, I am not a fiction writer, and so it has remained unwritten.

Twice a week I volunteer at Backstreet Arts, a free art studio for anyone who walks in, although our mission is to serve the underserved. I’m the “writing guy,” and I’ll work with anyone who has a story to tell. Recently it became my pleasure to work with a young man who had a story he was writing that he wanted to be illustrated as a graphic novel.

The first thing we worked on was turning his short story into a script, since a graphic novel is essentially a storyboard for a film. We also talked about exposition, introduction of characters, etc. The next session, I was stunned to see that he had completely revamped his opening and was well on his way to a cromulent script.

A couple of sessions ago, I asked if he had his story arc planned, or was he winging it? Planned, he said, so I introduced him to the concept of parallel timelines. I recounted how J.R.R. Tolkien had to go back and rejigger much of the action in The Lord of the Rings because he had not kept track of the cycles of the moon vs. where all the characters were on a given day. My young writer returned with exactly that.


Back to my short story. Often at Backstreet there’s no one who wants to write, and so I work on my own work. It occurred to me to take one of the dozens of blank WASTE BOOKS hanging about my study and start scribbling ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS at this short story, which basically was about a man struggling with his wife’s emotional reaction to a break-in at their home.

It was a disaster. There were fuzzy, conflicting motivations and, as I worked, a glaring plot hole that I could not wrap my head around. Last week, finally, I realized that I needed to follow my own advice and create a parallel timeline to map out the events of the short story versus the emotional impulses of my main characters.

Well. You won’t believe what happened next, as the internet says.

First I tried writing out the chain of events, which served only to make clear to me how bad I was at this. It raised more questions than it answered.

[Pro tip: If a strategy raises more questions than it answers, that’s a good thing. It means you are finding doors that you didn’t know existed before.]

And so I created an actual grid for a parallel timeline. I began mapping 3rd person events, the main character, and the man who installed the new security system, just as I had advised my young writer to do.

Actual wordage blurred out because see right.

Actual wordage blurred out because see right.

As I worked, the issues of what happened when, the main character’s change in attitude about the break-in, and the final scene all began to come into focus. And then, click!, the main plot hole was resolved, and I knew how it all went down.

All this sounds vague, and that’s on purpose. As I work on my music, I don’t mind sharing the ABORTIVE ATTEMPTS, but with my writing there’s no advantage and a lot of danger to overshare. Just trust me that in creating this parallel timeline I broke a 10-year logjam on this idea that had been nothing more than a first sentence, a general plot, and a killer final scene.

Go ye and do likewise.