For my Creative Writing class we'll be writing three stories this semester, and workshopping our fourth. The rules for Story One are as follows (stolen directly from my teacher's Writing Prompt): STORY ONE: Narration & Scene-Writing Your story should be an original work of fiction that: • employs free indirect style as the primary narrative mode. • constructs a scene (or sequence of scenes), keeping summary and commentary to a minimum, as a supplement to the scene(s). • is a new story that you have not worked on before the beginning of this semester. • is well-developed and substantial, at least 1500 words. (Please note that this is a minimum. I expect that many of you will write 2000 or more words). • is honed, polished, and proofread. Not a rough draft.
I discovered that my interpretation of "Third Person Perspective" was much closer to "Free Indirect Style," and that worked to my advantage. Since I primarily write long-form fiction, I was already accustomed to writing scenes--they are, in fact, my favorite to write. This is a new story with characters I'd never dealt with before. I was highly influenced by author Flannery O'Connor this semester and so I knew I wanted to play with that concept. I was also still upset about the death of both David Bowie and Alan Rickman. I remember getting really upset and thinking, "There has to be a Medium somewhere that is just as pissed off about this as I am." And that's where the story concept began. I can also feel the influence of watching Jessica Jones (even the character's name is Kansas Jones, and she's an alcoholic) while writing this.
I thought about the stories we'd read from Flannery O'Conner, how much my English teacher dislikes Ayn Rand, our mutual dislike for Stephanie Meyer and her "Twilight" series (I mean no disrespect--no, wait, yes. Yes I do). How O'Connor died before the Civil Rights act, how thrilled she'd have been to witness a black man in the White House (and smirk at the irony), and how pissed off she'd be to be brought back to life. You'll see in my notes that I wanted to allude to all of these but didn't quite make it in Draft 1.
I can remember lying in bed laughing as I quickly jotted down notes:
Below the full story -- I've included an audio recording, a transcript and screen shots from my Creative Writing teacher. It's not meant to be constructive, he knows it is a first draft, but mostly meant to point out some changes going forward and to reinforce the strengths of the work. He's not here to crush my literary dreams: that's English 102!
by Michelle Brumley
Kansas stared into the depths of her coffee cup: vodka and half black coffee. Just enough coffee to mask the smell of alcohol. Her stomach burned. The small detail that she couldn't raise the spirits of the dead unless she was slightly intoxicated—she'd left that out of her grant applications. And online dating profiles. Most of them.
“Miss Jones,” a young woman's voice at her office door said, “the next volunteer has arrived.”
Kansas blinked back a haze and tried to focus on the application in front of her. She couldn't quite read the words. She may have put too much vodka in. Or maybe she had started with decaf.
“Cat, Catherine, uh—” She turned in her desk to look up at her assistant, whose name she kept forgetting. She just had that kind of face. That blurred-around-the-edges kind of face. I hope she doesn't notice. Kansas thought with a tight smile. “I spilled coffee on my application, I can't read the subject. Who am I bringing back from the dead today?”
Kansas finished her coffee in one long swallow. She was going to need all the help she could get.
Thankfully the rest of the process was usually a blur so Kansas didn't notice it if was blurrier than average. She sat across from a volunteer: male, Caucasian, his application said he was a Business Major who took additional classes in Creative Writing. Certainly he would appreciate the opportunity to donate the use of his body to a deceased author more than a Physical Sciences major. There was one tiny detail wrong, however. Kansas pulled her assistant aside.
“There's a problem,” Kansas focused on each word so she didn't slur.
Catherine's brows raised and she looked from Kansas to the Business Major.
“His application was perfect, he's willing to accept the least amount of money. What's the problem?”
“Flannery O'Connor was a woman. How do you think she's going to feel being resurrected in a man's body?”
Catherine's mouth shut and formed a hard line of skepticism. Another reason Kansas couldn't remember her assistant's name is because Catherine was the third assistant she'd had in a month. They usually left the program believing Kansas was little more than a crazy drunk with grant money and a private office on campus.
Catherine shrugged. “There isn't much she can really do, is there?”
“Not unless she writes another book and puts us both in it.” Kansas added, smiling at the thought.
The Business Major looked back and forth between the two. His hand raised to the arm of the chair as if he was attempting to leave. Kansas had seen this before and cut him off at the pass. She slid an official looking document across the table.
“This is standard procedure. A waiver of liability. You're a Business Major, I'm sure you read it while you were waiting in the lobby.”
The Business Major smiled with a short nod. His hand went to the pen in his dress shirt pocket. A wrinkled dress shirt: Kansas had noticed. She didn't like her volunteers too efficient. She just needed someone nice to look at and who didn't ask too many questions.
“The short version: you agree to take on the consciousness of Flannery O'Connor and waive all your legal rights to sue. Besides, if you sue—it won't technically be you anyways. Sign here.”
Kansas was bluffing, of course. No one had ever been inhabited by a spirit for longer than an hour and no spirit had ever refused to leave. It was a bit confusing, the whole process of being dead-and-the-suddenly-not. She hadn't argued with too many of them about leaving. Except Hunter S. Thompson; the English Department had to pay her overtime to convince him to leave. And even then, he'd drank her coffee-vodka and her spare bottle before he had left.
To his credit the Business Major did take the time to read the contract before signing. Once he had scribbled his signature—and only then—was Kansas finally able to begin. She took his hand in hers and sat across from him at the desk. Catherine closed the door behind her and left the two alone in the room that resembled an interrogation room. White, sterile walls with a cool metal table. One empty coffee cup and one soon-to-be-very-confused volunteer.
“I'm certain this must be confusing.” Kansas said, trying not to laugh at the man's expression.
“Confusing.” Flannery stated awkwardly through the man's mouth. She looked around, taking in the details of the room as if she was already forming a plot outline in her head. The Business Major's eyes sharpened. “Somehow, darlin', that doesn't begin to describe my situation.”
Kansas spent the next four hours communing with the dead. Well, the “rudely awakened dead,” as Flannery had corrected her. She was sober by the time she finished—and a lot more enlightened about Southern Gothic literature than when she started. The English Department had a set of very specific questions for her, mostly regarding unresolved story endings. Kansas didn't understand half of it, but was happy to get the answers.
Flannery's spirit felt different than the ones she had summoned before. Somehow, the Business Major's eyes were brighter and lighter, brimming with a sort of internal vigor she could only blame the author for. That confidence gave Kansas an idea, and after she had finished with her set of questions—she decided to ask.
“Call me Mary.” The Business Major smiled.
“Mary, while you're here, you should write a manuscript.”
The light inside the Business Major's eyes flared—and Flannery O'Connor herself borrowed a pen and began to write.
“It's two o'clock in the afternoon, are you drunk?” James asked as he craned his neck through her office door.
“You try resurrecting Flannery O'Connor, in a man's body, explaining the Civil Rights Act and President O'bama—and see how many questions you get to ask in return. I had no choice but to finish that bottle of vodka.” Kansas answered without lifting her head from her desk. Her cheeks felt heavy against the glass. She laughed by accident and tried to lift her head.
“I made progress,” she added.
“You made a mess.” James' nose wrinkled and he inspected the trash can next to her desk.
She took a deep breath to stop her desk from spinning.
“O'Connor stayed for four hours. Four hours! No one has ever stayed that long before. She stayed long enough for me to get to the questions list from the English Department and long enough for me to ask her to write a manuscript.”
“You asked Flannery O'Connor. To write a manuscript.”
“And she did, well, she started to. But all I had was a napkin. She was resourceful.” Kansas held out a napkin with delicate, spider-like etchings complete with a sketch of a peacock. She paused, making sure she wouldn't, in fact, vomit again if she continued to talk.
James sat at the edge of her desk as if the strength from his legs had gone out.
“Let me just clarify. Until today, all you could do was raise the spirits of the dead. By force. In someone else's body.”
“A volunteer. Poorly paid, but yes. And mostly authors. They're the only ones who seem to be listening.” Kansas corrected.
“And up until the moment you thought to ask them to do something—all they could ever do was talk and make slight use of the body's motor skills. And by some maddening happenstance, you're now able to compel the dead to do things—using all the features of the body of another, living, breathing person.” His eyebrows rose higher with each word.
“It sounds super creepy when you say it like that.”
Kansas and James occupied the darkened office in silence for a few moments. Kansas wondered if she was about to lose the only friend she had left on the grounds of insanity. She had nothing left to lose and everything to gain, so she continued. She motioned for James to shut the door.
“More importantly—I believe I have a chance to prove it. It's now or never. 2016 has been an awful year for people to die. Bowie, Rickman, I just can't handle the thought of someone else good dying. I thought, maybe, we could add someone awful to the list to test my theory.”
“You do realize that normal, sober fieldwork typically does not include murder, yeah?”
Kansas shrugged. She was just thankful he hadn't walked out the door yet.
“Since that's more truthful than not, I'm going to ignore the fact that you just suggested murder, as that would make me an accessory.” James paused just long enough. “Humor me.”
Kansas fumbled for a second piece of paper on her desk—a piece of florescent paper, the color as obnoxious as the contents. James unfolded it, wiping a hand off with a grimace as he did. She may have blown her nose before she threw it away.
“Is this a book signing for Miss Sparkle's new book Dusk? The Miss Sparkles?” He waited for her to nod. “I thought you hated her.”
“I do. Doesn't everyone?”
“That explains why the flier is conveniently in the garbage can. What does a book signing have to do with Flannery O'Connor?”
Kansas pushed herself up from her desk.
“Let's say, theoretically speaking, there was this author. Someone who wrote books so terrible and misleading to young women and their perceptions of love, that it's seriously harmful. That Stockholm Syndrome was glorified and the storyline—you get my point.” She steadied herself on her desk and lowered her voice. “Let's say you had the power to change that. To end the suffering of thousands of young readers.”
Kansas moved to her filing cabinet and removed her second bottle of vodka. She closed the blinds on her office windows as an afterthought. She set it on her desk and sat back down.
“What would Flannery O'Connor do?” James asked with a slight smile.
“You know what she'd do. She'd kill Miss Sparkles. She'd write her straight in to a stroke.”
“We can't risk that she might still write books after a stroke.”
“They might improve—” Kansas caught her breath after stifling her laughter. The thought of Miss Sparkles writing better novels after a stroke—oh, she was evil.
“I thought, if I could get a volunteer to take on the spirit of an author, it would be easy to get them motivated. Sit them down with a copy of Dusk, tell them it's the height of literature these days, and watch them squirm. I dare say it would send any writer in to a murderous fit.”
James nodded as he paced the office. He paused to pick up an empty vodka glass resting in a darkened corner.
“I can think of a dozen authors that would kill for the opportunity to murder Miss Sparkles. Don't even get me started. Can you imagine an argument between Mary Shelley and Miss Sparkles over the monsters in their books? Bram Stoker? Or we could wait until Anne Rice dies, or Stephen King. I bet King would do it and still have time to write a manuscript before he left. Or a poem by Emily Dickinson about vampires, real vampires? That'd be the best slam poet match ever.”
“I'm being serious, James.”
James set the glass down next to hers on the desk.
“The trouble is, how am I going to get a volunteer to take on the spirit of a dead author and kill Miss Sparkles?”
James poured a second glass of vodka.
“I have someone in mind.”
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“Hey Michelle, ah, there's some very nice work here. I like your Flannery O'Connor references, and the way that you're building them. Um, and, I like a lot of the moves that you're making here. As far as your work with Free Indirect Style goes, here, I think it's nice, it's very effective. It's giving you the opportunity to bring in a lot of humor and to bring in a lot of, the sort of peripheral material that fills out the story really nicely and makes it feel full. So that's one of the things that Free Indirect Style gives you access to, because you're in this character's head and you can sort of bounce around a little bit, even as the scene is going on and I think you're doing that really nicely. The scenes work well, overall. There's, you know, there's a little bit of lag time in the last scene, as you're trying to—it seems like you're trying to figure out which direction you're going to go—and you know, that's typical in a first draft, trying to sort of sort out the move, the moves that you're going to be making as the story moves forward, and so it gets a little bit suck in that last scene with James, although I like James, and I like the sort of interaction between um, between James and the protagonist, Kansas, I was spacing the name, um, and so I like that they work together, and I like the sort of intimacy in their exchange, although I do wonder a little bit about who James is and what's keeping him here, and so it seems like there's some more playing to be done with him as a character, but overall a lot of that material is going really well.
One of the pieces that feels, ah, a little bit missing, though, is the actual scene of the interview with O'Connor—that seems like that would be, especially as she describes it to, ah, to James, it makes it seem like that something that would work well on the page here and would help to kind of situate us and ground us. Ah, but as far as pace goes, it feels like you're building something much larger than a short story, which is why, you know, you end with this ending that feels much more like a chapter ending than a story ending, and that has to do with pace and that has to do with the level of um, the level of detail that you're setting up in this world, and you know, you're opening up these potential plot points and these potential lines of tension, and those are just kind of getting rolling here in this first draft. And so, you know one of the things you might think about, going forward, is how to effectively shape stories that are self-enclosed, that do find a complete movement in-and-amongst themselves, within the space of the story, um, that's something that could be a good exercise for you to try and try and work short, try and find how, how to make one operate, in kind of a smaller span, but there's a lot of great work going on here, a lot of good use of humor and nice writing just across the board so, overall, really good work here. Nicely done.”
And then attached as little comments through the story:
To conclude: my goal will be to take this first draft and revise it as neccessary. My teacher was correct that I was building a story larger than appeared on the page. I have found it difficult to transition to short story format and short story thinking. I have ideas to take this and make it more of a supernatural abuse-of-power-murder-mystery if I have my way. However, for now, I'll see what I can do to tighten it up into one small package that way, if I never do anything else with it, it can still be complete.
Thank you for following this literary journey with me, and when I revise -- I'll post the follow up story.