I sent in my application to Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp this week.Â It will be a little over a month before I’ll know whether or not I’ve been accepted.
OSC makes his determination based on a single page of writing.Â Which seems sensible to me; you can tell an awful lot about a writer from just one page.
I’ve had my eye on the exact page I intended to send for quite some time.Â Here it was:
From Kingsville, Texas to Ciudad Victoria, Mexico is a distance of some two hundred forty-seven miles.Â That is a long trip to make with your father when he is an unemployed asshole who you know has a pharmacopoeia of pills in the glove box — but it is rendered somewhat bearable if you are able to ride in a silver Ferrari.
Alejandro Ortega, Jr. pounded the steering wheel with his fist, once, twice, three times.Â â€œThis is a car,â€ he shouted over the noise of the road.Â â€œYou donâ€™t get to ride in a car like this every day.â€Â His grin was blinding but false.Â His hair had grown longer than it was back when he lived with Alejandro Ortega IIIâ€”Alexâ€”and Alex’s mother in the house on Church Street, which had sold at a loss to a young, happy family who Alex sincerely wished would die.Â Now Alex and his mom lived in a one-bedroom unit with a perpetually clogged toilet, and his dad lived on a different couch each week.
â€œDid you hear what I said?â€ Alejandro roared.Â â€œI said, you donâ€™t get to ride in a car like this every day!â€
Alex doubted he would get to ride in a car like this ever again.Â Well, that was not true.Â He had hopes.Â He was a realist, Alex, and he knew that fortune did not favor those who grew up sleeping on a cot in a corner of the living room.Â Still, the hopes would not withdraw.Â They clung to him, like the scent of his girlfriendâ€™s shampoo.
This is a story I wrote years ago, and I’m still rather fond of it.Â In particular, I think it has nice first graf, which is why I was sure it would win me admittance to Boot Camp.
So this week I took it out, brushed it off, and took a good look at it.Â And discovered that it was Not Good Enough.
What was the problem with it?Â Where do I begin?Â Pharmacopoeia is a weird word.Â Too much backstory, not enough scene.Â And that whole girlfriend’s shampoo thing?Â Can’t say I care for that.
None of these problems is so big it can’t be polished away.Â But where this page really comes up short is that it just doesn’t represent me as a writer anymore.Â It’s a literary story.Â I’m no longer a literary writer.Â Also, there’s a sort of indefinable young-ness to this page.Â It feels distinctly like something I wrote before I found my voice, when I was still borrowing bits and pieces of other writer’s voices.
So I needed something else.Â I briefly considered sending in the first page of my novel, but quickly axed that.Â OSC asks for the first page of a short story, and I think there’s a better than even chance he’ll ask participants to send the whole story along eventually.Â He has to have something to provide early critique fodder for the group.Â So I might get caught.Â And even if I could get away with a bit of a cheat by sending the first page of a novel instead of a story, I truly wouldn’t want to.Â You can’t ask to go to a place called Boot Camp and then half ass it on the way in.
So, I needed something new.Â A mystery, ideally, because that best represents me as a writer today.Â Problem is, I don’t think short stories are well suited to the kind of mysteries I like, the twisty-twisty-twisty kind.Â With a short story you go twisty-twis… And then you’re at twelve thousand words and you have to wrap it up.
I did however have one idea for a story, and here’s my first stab at it.
When Harold Forbes heard that Marian Billford had died peacefully in her sleep, his first thought was that that was better than the way he was going:Â in pieces.
He thought it, but he didnâ€™t say it, and not just because it was rude.Â Harold had no way of expressing an idea that complex.Â Humor was lost to him after the stroke, as were banter, vocal tones, and wordplay.Â Speech itself was lost, except for a word here and there, which came out soft and slurred and occasionally completely unrelated to the word heâ€™d intended.Â Lost too was the ability to communicate without speech, with just a narrowed eye or a twitch of his lips.
Though really, that had died with Bertie.
He managed a sloppy â€œSorry.â€
â€œFor her, or for yourself?â€ asked Gina, his favorite therapist at Shady Grove Retirement Home.Â She arched an eyebrow, along with all the hardware attached to it.Â Harold knew the two rings through each brow were supposed to make Gina look tough.Â To him, they merely made her look young.
But Gina was perceptive, and that was why he liked her.Â Harold did envy his dead neighbor.Â Marian had been an Alzheimerâ€™s patient, lucid one day and lost the next, and Harold had sometimes found himself wondering which of them was worse off: the woman with the broken brain?Â Or the man with the broken body?Â Now that question had been answered rather conclusively.
Harold was worse off.
â€œYou know who I feel sorry for?â€ Gina asked.Â â€œMrs. Stone.Â She went to call Mrs. Billford to breakfast, and thatâ€™s when she found her.Â It canâ€™t be easy to see a friend like that.â€
And that was when Harold noticed something odd.
I felt pretty good when I finished it up and handed it to Mark.Â I knew it needed polish, yes, but I expected it to get a grin from him anyway.Â Instead the expression on his face told me that this, too, was Not Good Enough.
I was, I confess, a bit ticked.Â But after I read it over a few more times, I could see Mark’s point.Â There are a number of not-quite right things with this draft.Â For starters…
Harold’s first thought, that “going peacefully is better than going in pieces” is cute, I guess.Â But it’s not really the great, character-heavy hook I wanted it to be.Â “Piece” and “peace” are too far separated in the text for the relationship to be immediately obvious; making this connection demands a bit too much work from the reader.Â Also, the line does not completely gibe with what Harold later says about Marian’s Alzheimer’s.Â Evidently she was going in pieces too.
Second, too much summary again, and not enough scene!Â What is up with that?Â Thirdly, there could be more character here, and not just for Harold, but for Gina too.Â Eyebrow rings do not a character make.Â Lastly, there’s a certain trying-too-hard-ness about the prose in the second paragraph.Â “Speech itself was lost?”
So, here’s the final draft, the one that is winging its way to OSC:
Harold Forbes sat in the common room at Oaklawn Retirement Home and listened to his fellow residents hash over the death of Marian Billford.Â He had already decided to investigate.Â Even if he didnâ€™t succeed in solving the murder, Harold thought, at least he might succeed in getting himself killed.
He thought it, but he didnâ€™t say it, and not just because no one would understand.Â Harold had no way to express a thought even half that complex.Â Full sentences had been lost to him since the stroke, and with them so many things he had once taken for granted:Â humor, sarcasm, wordplay.Â For Harold speech had been reduced to a word here and there, which came out soft and slurred and occasionally unrelated to the word heâ€™d intended.Â Also gone was the ability to communicate without speech, with just a narrowing of his eyes or a twist of his lips.Â Though really, that had died with Rose.
He had learned of Marianâ€™s death from Gina, his favorite therapist, while she had him helpless on the exercise mat that morning.Â â€œIt seems she died in her sleep,â€ Gina told him.
Harold, lying on his back, managed a sloppy â€œSorry.â€
â€œFor her, or for yourself?â€Â Gina arched an eyebrow, along with all the hardware attached to it.Â Harold knew the two rings through each brow were meant to make Gina look tough.Â But to him, they merely made her look young.Â Still, Gina was perceptive, and she pulled no punches.Â That was why Harold liked her.
â€œFeel sorry for yourself if you want, Harold.Â I donâ€™t.â€Â Gina grinned and hoisted his right leg up to his waist.Â â€œPush,â€ she commanded.Â â€œYouâ€™ve got three squares a day and a pretty young girl to grope you.Â What more could you want?â€
Stronger pain killers, Harold thought.
I have to say, I feel darn good about this version.Â There’s a lot less talky-talky, and a lot more show.Â Gina’s got more spunk.Â And Harold’s suicidal feelings are expressed both more forcefully, and with a lot less repetition.
Some cosmetic changes were made, too: Shady Pines Retirement Home became the slightly less clichÃ©d Oaklawn.Â Harold’s late wife has been renamed Rose, because Bertie is androgynous, and the question of whether Harold might be gay is just too much of a distraction to hand the reader in the third graf.Â (Why did I start with Bertie?Â Because my grandmother was Alberta, my grandfather called her Bert, and I loved that.Â Not a good enough reason and, really, I knew it when I started.)
The one thing I regret about this version is that I wasn’t able to get Harold’s first clue onto the first page.Â It comes up in the next couple of paragraphs, and I considered trimming to get it in there.Â But ultimately I decided that it was better to write a good first page than a page that featured everything I could throw at it.
And anyway, I’m happy with the page ending on a joke.Â Because this is the feeling that stuck with me when I first imagined this characterâ€”the idea of listening to people’s conversation, of wanting to chime in with a joke or a comment or a query, and not being able to.
And it’s what the story’s about, tooâ€”how lonely and remote Harold’s interior world is, and whether, through solving the mystery and communicating its solution, he can find a way to make it less so.Â That is probably the best thing I learned while studying literary fictionâ€”to think about the story’s chronic issues as well as its acute issues, to think about not just what happens, but why it matters.Â (Not saying genre writers don’t do this.Â Just saying I learned it while studying literary, and I am grateful).
I feel very good about this submission, but I don’t honestly know what kind of competition I’m up against, or how much of it there is.Â In any event, I’ve got a story to finish.