anatomy of a story ~ “Velvet Elvis”

Consider this a companion post to the one I did last week about my story “The Respite Room.” In that post I dared to venture into the dark, cobwebby labyrinth of my creative process to attempt to understand how that story evolved. I’m trying to do that same with this post, dealing with the bits and pieces of my memory of writing “Velvet Elvis,” which is now up at Bartleby Snopes.

I had the kernel of “Velvet Elvis” around for a long time. At least a decade. Somewhere in the 20+ paper journals I’ve kept over the years I have a few entries exploring the original idea. I have thought about going back to find those entries, but it would be a gargantuan search with little to no payoff. The story is what it has become; it is not what it might have originally been. Still, should I ever be randomly flipping through the pages of one of those journals and happen upon the notes I made for the story then, I will be interested to see what I was thinking in those days.

In “Velvet Elvis” I have an artist who infuses her paints with scented oils. Thus her rose paintings smell like roses. Her pine forest paintings smell like pine forests. And so on. Her innovation is popular at the art fairs where she exhibits and she’s the de facto queen among the other exhibitors, and she is my antagonist. In the story I try to portray this innovation as no more than a gimmick, one that will lose its lustre quickly, though she doesn’t realize this. However, in my original conception of the story, this was the innovation of my protagonist. I had thought that my protagonist (a woman originally) was struggling, weary of the drudge of constantly exhibiting and looking for a way out, only to come up with the scented paintings innovation and become the queen. (That story would have been told by her nephew — for some reason that I don’t recall.) The innovation was to be so spectacular that other painters were trying to learn her secret, even attempting to bribe the nephew so that he would chip some paint from one of her works so it could be “analyzed” and have its secrets revealed.

I think that’s where the story idea began to falter for me all those years ago. The process of “analyzing” paint chips it far too technical for my skill (or my will to research), and I began to think that such an “innovation” was probably not even all that innovative in that group. If one painter could figure out how to do it, other painters of equal technical skill could likely do the same. They wouldn’t need to steal the secret; they could figure it out on their own. For all I know, artists are doing this very thing now.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the kind of art fair I depict in my story. I’m not talking about the “starving artist” exhibits that pop up at hotels and convention centers, selling mass produced, “one-of-a-kind” paintings made in China. Rather, I’m talking about street fairs where there is an eclectic collection of artists working in all kinds of media. There is a festival feel to these things, with live music and food tents and throngs of people and a subculture all its own. We have a number of these in Kansas City throughout the year. My story is set in the lower tier of these kinds of festivals. My characters are struggling, attempting to become worthy of getting exhibited in the major fairs. (The “best” art fair we have in Kansas City supposedly has an 11-year waiting list for a booth.) What I’ve noticed at these fairs is that, at least in some cases, when one artist comes out with some innovation, some fresh idea that gets a lot of attention, that same idea begins to appear among other artists’ works at subsequent fairs. The idea gets copied and milked for as long as it can.

But the story was still stuck because I didn’t really have a problem for a sympathetic character to overcome. I’ve said several times in this humble blog that the art gene that makes occasional appearances in my family skipped me. I cannot make physical art. I cannot carve. I cannot sculpt. I cannot draw or paint. Late in his life, my father took up painting and drawing and found he had a real talent for it. Mostly he painted copies of other works or photos, but I have several of his pieces. (Skip a generation and stop at my daughter. She also has the painting and design talent. I have several of her works as well.) My father painted little that could be called original, which is fine. He didn’t exhibit or sell his work; he painted for his own enjoyment. But I sometimes wondered if he ever tired of just copying and felt frustrated that he couldn’t create something out of whole cloth. And that gave me the idea for a new protagonist in my story, a man this time, but a man who had run out of ideas and was just hanging on, trying to make the rent with his work at these fairs but seeing the end coming.

I imagined myself having a conversation with this man, listening to his laments about being left behind, about being creatively bankrupt. And that mysterious creative part of me supplied my fictional painter with a solution to his problem. I actually saw myself telling my fictional painter how he could reignite his work. This is not how the problem is resolved in my story, not in process but it is in outcome. (Read the story and you’ll understand what I’m babbling about here.)

Once I had the bit of plot worked out, the story wrote itself. I don’t think I even went though very many drafts. Actions and reactions just blossomed in my head. The foreshadowing I needed became apparent to me, the parallel structures suggested themselves readily. The bit I relate in the story about a painting being stolen was actually told to me by a painter many years ago; the memory of it popped into my head when I needed it. I did do a bit of research to give the story some substance: I visited every local art fair I could and even found a discussion forum online for this subculture that helped me understand how things there work. And I sent the “final” draft of the story to my daughter for her technical input, specifically about making scented paint. The stars aligned for me with this story and I had a working plot and development.

Then came the hard part: finding a home for it. I began submitting it a year ago. I sent it to five different magazines before it was accepted by Bartleby Snopes this last September. My first rejection came from Johnny America, but it was a personal rejection with positive things to say about the piece. The second was from Rose and Thorn Journal and it was a form rejection. (In retrospect, I’m not sure I made a very good effort at matching the story to the magazine’s interests.) I submitted it to The Foghorn, and when I didn’t hear from them long after their average response time, I withdrew the submission and got it into circulation again. My next rejection came from Jersey Devil Press, but it, too, came with encouraging words. I was certain I had a good story that just needed to find the right editor. And then I submitted it to Bartleby Snopes where it got a welcome acceptance. (This submission also seemed like a miss-fit. My story is longer than the usual things I’ve seen published there.)

Some random points:

I use the word “fistfuls” in the story. I think some purist would assert that the correct plural of that word is “fistsful” but that sounds dreadful; I would refuse to use it. If I’ve just coined a new word, the world is welcome to use it.

I still employ my grammar violation of choice: sentence fragments. I don’t use as many as in “The Respite Room,” but there are enough. And, by golly, not a single editor pointed them out as a problem.

That very last sentence of the story is one suggested by the editor. It certainly delivers the payoff, and I’m glad he requested I use it.

Brian Keaney pointed out in the comments to my last post that the developments in my art fair story could easily apply to the publishing world. This was intentional on my part. (Really, it was!) If one were to read my art gimmick story and see parallels with the (fading) trend of vampire stories, say, I think that would be a valid reading. There are just as many gimmicks and trends in our business as in others.

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