Upon my wall I have a one of my more prized possessions, the judgement of a short story I wrote that later became the basis of my first novel. At the time of writing, that novel is yet unpublished, but I have the manuscript back from the editor and a cover, so it is all but done.
The contest was the San Antonio Writer’s Guild short story competition back in 2014 (I think). Joe McKinney judged the horror entries. A handwritten note at the bottom of the page states, “Joe, Yours went to the finals but did not place.” I cannot say that I did not wish to win. I can say that I did not expect to win, or even place. I had only been doing this writing thing for less than a year by that point. Well … I had only been doing it for a year for the first time in near 30 years, but I wasn’t very good back then. I cannot pretend that I really, really hoped I would win though or at least place. How cool would that have been?
Super cool. Don’t lie to me.
Anyway, here’s what Joe wrote about my piece…
Notes on “Charlotte”
This piece manages to create an environment of creeping dread that has the reader cringing in anticipation of the conclusion. I especially enjoyed the description of the gluttonous aristocrats. Nicely done there. The choice of first person narration here is problematic, though. There is nothing wrong with the “main character has been dead all along” storyline. A number of successful books, stories and films have used it. But the trick is to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t fall into the trap of straining credulity while still making us really care for the fate of the person involved. I think what’s needed here, especially as the opening paragraph tells us that this is only the first half of the story to come, is for the author to establish up front some reason why a dead person is telling us her tale. That isn’t clear in this version. If you get the fact that she’s dead out of the way up front, you open yourself open to all sorts of storylines. As it is, with the death of the protagonist coming right at the midway point, you pretty much lock yourself into some version of the revenge tale, and that will be telegraphed to your readers. A story like this needs to upset the reader’s expectations, and the author of this piece clearly has the skill to do that.
Now, I don’t know about you, but to me that’s a pretty amazing critique for someone who’s struggled with reading problems, ADHD, and language in general for much if not most of his (then) forty-three years alive. When I received my judgement all I could think was, “Wow. Just wow.”
And then my ego struck.
OK, so maybe I did not go full on Stewie, but I disagreed with Mr. McKinney. Revenge was not the obvious route for the story to go, at least not for me. So I decided to write the rest of the story which I hadn’t to that point. I hadn’t finished the tale because I imagined it being a bit of ‘found footage’ style story. You see Charlotte dies in the story. Yes. But she does not stay dead. I wasn’t rewriting The Lovely Bones. I was doing my own thing, but therein lay the real flaw of my story. The ending was too obscure.
The Origin of the Origin
To explain how my ending became to obscure, I have to go even further back, to Gen Con 2014. It was my first Gen Con, and I was super excited. I was even more excited to learn that they had a sort of writer’s workshop going on at the same time, and I had JUST started thinking about giving my writing an honest attempt. One of the events that I purchased a ticket for was a “Critique: Read & Critique”. Basically each person attending would read a piece they have written and have a panel of editors give their opinions. I’ve always been the kind of person to do first and learn second, so I figured, “why not?” Well for one, I needed something written.
At this point I began trying to come up with a story to write. Now at any given moment, I can drum up a story idea from the ether without a problem, but this time I had an inspiring vision. Yes, a literal vision. No, I’m not the kind of insane that sees things that aren’t there. I am the kind of person that sometimes gets an image in mind so strongly that I experience it just like I might if I were there. And yes I am or was awake when this happens. OK. Maybe I’m a *little* bit of that kind of crazy, but just a little mind you.
Anyway, I saw clearly a dungeon door in front of me. The stone was an old grey that was almost black except the highest edges where wind and God knows what brushed the stones clean. I could almost see the humid air clinging to the stones despite the almost nonexistent light. The door itself was wood almost as dark as the stones, and it stood ajar. I knew that above my head and to the right, just out of sight of my snapshot vision was a hook in the ceiling. I also knew, somehow, that just outside of the door there was a girl and a large man. The girl was in a poor maid’s dress and the man looked like a combination of Lurch from the Adam’s Family and Solomon Grundy. I also knew the girl’s fate. She was destined to be clubled over the head, hung upside down from the hook, and bled to death.
I have only had a handful of these “visions” in my adult life, but they are profound. I figured, “That’s a good starting point.” And began thinking about my story. Why was the girl coming down into the dungeon? Who was that man that escorts her and kills her? Why is she killed? Well for me the answer was obvious.
Now I know many people have a rather distinct idea of what ghouls are and how they look, but I kind of have an odd opinion about ghouls. I once read Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” I took the story to be a man who’s lived and died and risen as undead. I assumed that since he resided with ghouls at the end of the tale that he himself was a ghoul, but I don’t believe that was never stated. Still the thought struck me as interesting, “What if ghouls did not know they were ghouls? Or what if they didn’t see anything unusual despite the drastic change in their ‘lives?’
For years I ran my ghouls in DnD as thinking creatures … that just happened to love eating human (or demi-human) flesh. Fresh was preferable to decayed, but decayed was still really, really good. So these were my bad guys, and this was the core of my short story’s plot. One ghoul, the butler was set to find more food while the two other ghouls, a count and countess maybe, feasted on their previous capture.
My first incarnation had the two ghouls talking to each other over a meal. The reader would not initially know that there was anything unusual about these two. Then as the story was to unfold, the two would say more and more disturbing things letting the reader in on the secret. Then eventually their butler would bring in a new victim, she’d be killed, and they’d tear into the new meat like the monsters they are.
I liked the idea of the story, but I hated my version of it. I honestly did not have the skills (or maybe the patience) to work that version of the story into one that wasn’t silly. So for version two, I changed the point of view to that of the girl. She’s homeless and being led to a “new job” underground … in the catacombs so I guess it’s in Paris, yeah, because she’s hungry. There were hungry people in Paris at some point wasn’t there? I seem to remember a movie or two with that kind of theme. Hunger … ghouls … WIN! So yeah, the girl is led to the room with the aristocrat ghouls and then she’s killed.
Then one of my readers said, “So she’s led to where some ghouls are and she dies. That’s pretty much to be expected. Otherwise not bad.”
OK. So I changed it up. She’s led down into the catacombs, is killed, and then turns into a ghoul! And the same reader came back and said, “Yeah, OK. She’s killed and becomes a ghoul. Right. That’s about the second most likely thing I’d expect.”
So I changed the ending again. This time I lean hard into the imagery. I ramp up the dread. The girl is writing this herself, and in my mind the pages are written in blood. She has two supernatural beings in her head Hunger and Reason. Reason is trying to get her to run for her life, but Hunger tells her lies of all the things she’ll be able to get if she keeps with the ‘grey man’ leading her to work. She asks herself, why do they live underground? Well maybe they went into hiding during the Revolution and don’t know it is over. At this point, she’s cast aside Reason and under full sway of Hunger who she now calls her Mistress. She meets the count and countess, but blows the interview when she starts screaming at their horrid visages. So she’s killed, hung from a hook, and bled to death. I end the story with…
I assumed my hunger would disappear once I died, but as I drifted toward oblivion my Mistress was there with me whispering in my ear, “I will never let you go.”
And she did not.
Now to me this suggests many things. Many, many things. To the “glorious and judgemental” Mr. McKinney, it screamed “revenge plot!” Well sir, I would have you know that I wrote the ending that way just to make you wonder what might happen in the second half of that diary. Ha! Check and mate.
Except that’s not how writing works.
If the reader is confused by what they think is happening and what the author intended them to think when they wrote it, the writer failed to do his or her job. I wanted to leave the reader with wonder. Instead I left the reader thinking, “I know where this is going.”
Yeah, That’s great. So what?
Well I told you all of that just so I could tell you this. I started writing my first novel with a teenaged female protagonist set in Paris around 1820 just because I wanted to prove Joe McKinney wrong. My story is about a girl who … umm … gets killed and turned into a ghoul … and then tries to live a normal life? It’s a slice of (un) life story.
OK to be fair I originally had no idea where I was going to go with the first novel, and my first draft showed it, but once I figured out the end I set upon the last revision which – I think – is much better. The reader who I talked about earlier said he liked it, and as you’ve seen, he’s the kind of ass that would tell me if he didn’t.
Also let me say, I realize the written word conveys sarcasm and kidding poorly at best. I admire and respect Joe McKinney for his body of work and how he judged my first ever contest entry. Again, I have the write up hanging on the wall where I write. It inspires me, and I’ll always be grateful for it.
© 2019, Joseph K Little. All rights reserved.