Posted tagged ‘Brian Keaney’

anatomy of a story ~ “Velvet Elvis”

December 12, 2011

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.

Unlike the others

January 19, 2009

I’ve written five novels. None is published, but that’s probably mostly due to my own inertia than to their possible worthiness (or maybe not).

My first two were young adult novels, the first and third parts of a planned trilogy involving interwoven plots and characters. I haven’t looked at these in more than a decade, so I can’t say whether they are embarrassing but necessary apprentice works or if they might be salvageable. (I was told at the time that the kernel of the story in each was worthy.) I’ve consigned those to my distant past.

I’ve now written three Finnegan novels. The first, the one that had me so on fire for so long, is probably not worth trying to get published. I was finding my way with my two protagonists and how I would devise the murderless mysteries they would solve. (I still think there is an untapped market for mysteries that don’t involve the brutality and mayhem of murder to keep readers interested!)

I like my second Finnegan’s novel. I think the mystery in it is clever, and the resolution flows naturally from the characters and situations. It’s been a couple of years since I finished that novel, and I did shop it around a bit at the time — getting a few nibbles but no bites. There are a few minor enhancements I want to make to the story, and then I intend to begin submitting it again (after I get the first draft of The Sleep of Reason finished).

My third Finnegans novel, Finnegans Afoot, is still in the raw, first draft state. It has the benefit of fully understood characters, but I’m letting it lie fallow for now, in part to finish Reason and in part to get some creative distance from it. When I look past the mists of self delusion, I think I see a novel there that is worthy.

The point of this post however — and thank you if you’ve read this far — is that the novel I am currently working on, The Sleep of Reason, feels altogether different from what I have written thus far. The feeling is hard to describe, but I’d say it feels more whole. It seems like a more complete story, one that could only be told in the way it is unfolding. The Finnegan novels (and most commercial mysteries that I read) seem like pleasant contrivances, like stories that are assembled from component parts and sufficient for what they try to be. The Sleep of Reason, on the other hand, feels like something that is beyond my creation. It feels like a story that has existed in the ether, waiting for some hapless writer acolyte to tap into it and release it to the world.

That sounds silly, I realize, but as I said, the way it feels different is hard to describe. It seems more like a collaboration than a creation. I created the Finnegan novels, but this novel almost seems like I am just one participant in its creation.

Now, I don’t attribute creativity to any supernatural source or influence. Probably the copious amounts of iced tea I drink have more outside influence on my creativity than any muse ever could. Even so, there are times with this story when I feel I have to race to keep up with it as it is revealed to me.

I’ve found that there are many parallels in the story, parallels that I never foresaw when I first understood the plot yet parallels that fit perfectly into the story. Events presage other events. Actions (and actions within actions) are repeated in important ways. Foreshadowing seems to occur on every page. There is so much of it, in fact, that I worry that my ending will be telegraphed to the reader by the third chapter. I also know so well where the story must go that it allows me to select each word with the purpose of serving the rest of the story (rather than merely selecting the words to tell the story with color and punch). This is, I think, what Poe was talking about in his essay “The Poetic Principle” where, he insists, every single word must be at work in the story.

I’m not sure I’m attaining such a lofty standard, but I feel that I’m writing something that is far better than what I have done so far.

How do I account for this? Maybe I really do have in my grasp a “whole” story. Certainly I’ve never understood my Finnegan novels so thoroughly; no “revelations” came to me as I wrote them. I suspect, however, that what I’m really seeing is more confidence and skill as a writer. The five novels (and many short stories) I’ve written have gotten me to this point. I am benefiting from all of that practice, reflection, and sweat.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I’m here, and The Sleep of Reason benefits from it. I still see months of work before I have a first draft though.

Update: For what I think is another take on this, have a look at Brian Keaney’s post from last year about Eureka Moments.