As I promised (or threatened?) a few weeks ago, I’m starting a new section where I’m going to attempt to serialize a short story every month. Or thereabouts.
I’m constantly annoyed at my own laziness when it comes to my writing, so these serials are going to be something of an experiment. I’ve never had the patience or focus for long-form writing, and yet it seems I’m bedeviled by ideas and characters who are just begging for a big old doorstopper novel. At least, they are in my head. When I sit down and make an attempt to get that sort of wheel rolling, I usually don’t survive two pages before I give up. That’s because writing is hard, no matter how it may appear otherwise. In fact, it fucking sucks, and I have no idea why anyone does it if they can help it.
My hideous apocalypse novel Judgment Day is about the only instance where I managed to break the 30 page mark and keep going…and, if you’ve been reading, you’ve realized that I didn’t keep going in the right ways.
The hope with the serials section is to see if I can teach myself some patience and focus. Instead of dashing off a rambling one-off for the front page, I’ll sit down and try to put together a more cohesive story. But I won’t lock myself into the unending, months-long cycle of novel writing.
The middle ground, I’ve found, is ten to twenty thousand words. Just long enough to allow some space for the story, and short enough to keep it fun (and simple).
I’m not planning out the stories, either. That’s part of the experiment. I’m approaching them with the barest of outlines — usually just the chapter titles — and letting the story spin out in the way it wants. Part of the lesson is to try and keep it from spinning out of control, and I suspect that I won’t always be successful.
Writing, as I said, is hard work. It’s always hard work, even when you get into the groove. The ideas may come from some strange, diseased back-of-the-mind place, but the mechanics of putting them together and crafting the story is pure back-breaking labor. That’s why so many of us can’t put a proper novel together or, when we do, it’s pure shit.
Since I feel like there are no standards for Greatsociety, and since I would be betraying this first phase of the experiment if I gave up on a story, I’ll be posting the short stories regardless of quality. If you’ve put up with The Boble and the Sunday Archives and my novel, I don’t think you’ll mind.
First up is “Finzel.”
Finzel is a wide spot in the road in western Maryland. I’ve passed by it hundreds of times over the last couple of decades. It’s a road sign and not much else along Interstate 68, my path to college in West Virginia, and now for vacations to visit my beer-swilling and overly embarrassing Appalachian family. I stopped once in Finzel around 1995, sometime in the early AM, to take a piss in the church parking lot. Besides that, the town has never been on my radar.
A couple miles past Finzel is a hand-painted, home-made billboard mounted in the woods. You can’t see it until you’re ripping past at 70 MPH, but it’s always been there advertising the “Hen House Restaurant”. The interstate, up and down that section, is lonely wilderness, parallel to US 40, the old National Highway, which meanders drunkenly through the valleys. In some places, 40 has been destroyed by I-68, in others it runs along as frontage road, crossing back and forth over I-68 with little sense of direction. US 40 along I-70 and I-68 behaves with the eccentricity of old Route 66 through New Mexico and Arizona. It follows the road that killed it and, occasionally, peels off into the woods where it still serves as main street for countless little bumfuck towns. In terms of a nice summer drive, that stretch of 40 from Frederick and up into western Maryland is well worth the time, and often gets my creative juices flowing. Going to and from college, I would tend to favor 40, chattering mindlessly into a tape recorder the whole way.
Having always been a fan of post-apocalypse fiction, I’ve daydreamed along that long rural drive about fleeing to western Maryland myself if the end ever came. Zombies, plague, asteroid… Everything would be okay in the mountains! Right? At the very least, hiding from bandits and war parties seemed possible in western Maryland. Make that drive along 68 at night and you’ll see how many lonely farmhouses are set back in the hills, apparently inaccessible by car. Hide back there, farm the land, and live out the apocalypse under cover of the tangled forest, and the weather, and the emptiness. That’s the way to do it.
The first draft of Judgment Day entertained this fantasy, but I quickly found that the story pretty much ended when our heroes made it to western Maryland. Why bother continuing? So the most rural they get is the climax at Sugar Loaf Mountain, about an hour outside of DC.
Finzel incorporates a few of those discarded Judgment Day ideas, and also recycles a couple of characters you may recognize (if only by name) from the Sunday Archive stories. There are four sections: “Parker’s People” is based on a “false-start” to a novel I recently found myself entertaining. An idea where the hero, Parker (now greatly reduced as a character), led a band of survivors from the ruins of DC out to Finzel. From there, it would become my agrarian apocalypse fantasy. Think the 70’s-era Survivors.
The final section, “Always Coming Home,” is from an unrelated false start where the protagonist, having abandoned a party of survivors, takes a post-apocalypse walk through the suburbs of Silver Spring, MD, heading to his long-empty apartment in White Oak. A story I play-acted many mornings going to work, returning from a bar, or just taking the air at 4am on a Sunday. Which is, yes, what crazy people do.
The two middle chapters are wholly original and, more or less, feature me trying out different styles with characters. Overall, it’s just terrible. But… Well, it’s free. And I know you’re bored.
Finzel is eight parts, starting next Tuesday.