This is part III of Bookmarks and Writing Prompts, where I’m adding two vignettes every week over four weeks from a first draft that came via a self-assigned writing prompt. If you missed part II, check it out here.
This week, I’ve put Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft on my reading list, which looks spectacular and useful to a writer of any genre. A wealth of knowledge and skill coming from an author of this caliber hardly needs any further explanation. I hope you add it to your list also.
Now for the next two vignettes and developmental questions and thoughts, which are below.
Coins and other hard things:
Unyielding and suspect of their new function as page saver, they refuse to stay put, especially when she’s on the subway and the doors open and she resumes moving, holding to the side of her pleated navy-colored uniform skirt that has gotten too small; although she likes it that way.
The coins and other hard things would rather be rolling out into oblivion and doing a fast paced spiral down behind her, onto unclean sidewalks, but instead they fall through the pages and into the bottom of her oversized bag she bought one day on a whim while out shopping with a friend. It was an act of revenge, of getting back at her father by maxing out the credit card he gave her all at once on a stupid bag she didn’t need and didn’t even want. He thought he could buy her, but what would he think now with a zero available balance and still no phone call?
Later she’ll mutter to herself, “What the f*ck is all this sh*t doing in the bottom of my bag?” while she clears it out to drop it off at a secondhand store. At 15, she doesn’t curse loud enough so adults can hear yet, and if she had to actually answer that question in front of a friend, then they would find out how much she reads, how much her whole family reads, which would be a problem – all her time spent kissing up to the braindead shallow so she could have more friends and get into more parties and not spend her time depressed and sulking over her parents’ divorce like a privileged spoiled kid she isn’t, all of it would have been for nothing. And with knowing how well read they are, she can’t figure out her father’s idiocy, not to want her beautiful mother or to be with them as a family. What a waste – it was the kind of thing her mother taught her not to be.
How many had consecrated the pages of his books, especially on his first read through of The Lord of Flies in all those restaurants his father takes him to since neither of them like to cook? The books open and close between meals of Pad Thai and then pancakes at IHOP for breakfast, and he thrusts napkins around like the unskilled teenager he is during one of his mother’s and stepfather’s parties, where he’s learning where to touch and put things, and that he’s a long way off from mastering how to harness the control of when the act is over.
Think of the party itself: How many napkins are wet ringed with pale ale, or wine drippings, coffee or tea, or encrusted with cookie and spinach roll crumbs? How many muffle the idle chatter of the recovering alcoholic who used his invite as an opportunity to try his hand at reintegrating into social spheres where alcohol might be served? How many hide smirks and judgments passed from a tenured professor to his clueless, doting student, or smear lipstick and the bad breath of the nosy neighbor who just showed up, or cover that girl’s herpes sore she hopes no one says anything about?
And what about the clogged toilet once the party turns up and they run out of tissue in the guest bathroom, because the teenager who’s now reaching for a napkin to wipe himself and some spot on the floor (a win, at least he managed to pull out) while apologizing relentlessly for finishing so quickly, for not knowing how to take his time, because he thinks maybe if he apologizes to the girl he fawned over most of the school year, then she won’t talk about him to her friends in the hallways in between periods and he won’t have to cower and feel ashamed, and maybe she’ll want to do it again. He’s at his mother’s house almost every weekend now and the house is big, so she could sneak in and out without a problem. And he’s running the I-love-you over his tongue because he thinks maybe he does love her. Besides, he’s heard girls like to hear it often, especially during moments like these when everything feels all uneasy, when he’s only a sophomore and she’s a junior, and she let him chase her for a whole five months and he couldn’t even get her off, and his mother is downstairs drunk and talking loud over lyrics to some ancient song and probably looking stupid with a heap of flowers in her hair, dancing in front of everyone. And while he hurries into his pants, his stepfather is calling his name. They’re running out of napkins downstairs, and that was the deal wasn’t it?: If they let his girlfriend, who’s not really his girlfriend, although they don’t know that, come over, then he would keep everything stocked.
Pressing questions and thoughts:
1. Multiple perspectives. To figure out who should tell a story, sometimes it’s necessary to write it from different points of view. Since that’s the way these vignettes presented themselves to me, I now have four characters wanting to tell the story.
In a novel or even in a longer short story with a continuous arc, multiple perspectives could work just fine. But given that this story is short and episodic, there’s a good chance I’d be doing the characters, themes, and reader a disservice telling it this way beyond the first draft; I feel there’s too much competition between the elements.
Since I like the idea of decentralizing the parents’ perspectives, whom, in general, we consider to have more important views and thoughts on serious topics and situations because they’re adults, I’d like one of the kids to tell the story, especially as a teenager. Giving that authority to an angry or horny teenager could really promise the story a consistent edge and spontaneity.
2. Show or Tell. In “Coins and other hard things,” there’s an opportunity to build a scene that might be more impactful to the story. Showing, instead of briefly telling in the second paragraph, how the daughter navigates her circle of friends could amp the tension tremendously – especially if she doesn’t consider herself to truly fit in with that group but chooses to interact with them because of their popularity and her need for distraction. I could place her in conversation with a friend at one of the parties she mentions, just to see how her recklessness and daughter-daddy dramas play out in the next draft.
I like the scene in “Paper napkins,” but I’m not sure yet if it moves the story forward enough. We see that the boy has matured – he’s now a teenager – and there’s a brief mention that his mother has remarried. But we don’t know what he thinks or feels about it at all. Clearly, his thoughts are on the girl and having sex, but there’s one line I could drum up with his reaction to make his thoughts and feelings clearer to reader: “And while he hurries into his pants, his stepfather is calling his name.” Maybe he becomes crazy annoyed at the situation and at the fact that this man is telling him what to do. Or maybe he respects him and feels good about his presence. We’ll have to see.
If I choose to write the story from the daughter’s perspective, then I could also place her at the party. Maybe she hears the stepfather calling him or sees the boy running out the room and imagines what he might be thinking or feeling.
3. Weaving in details. I have much of this to do in my next draft. For example, last week in “Feather,” I mentioned the father was fearful of his daughter growing up too fast. In “Coins and other hard things,” we see her at 15 years old, one of those shifty years of adolescence her father’s most likely, deeply concerned with, but we don’t get a sense of how he’s dealing with it. All we know is that he gave her a credit card because he might feel guilty or responsible for their damaged relationship, according to the daughter. But given how freaked out he was with her in “Feather,” there could be tons more angst between them. I suspect that unwritten scene I mentioned in number 2 could be critical to bringing the dynamics of their relationship to the light.
For the last two vignettes along with questions and thoughts, check back next week. If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so below.