Posted on February 10, 2019
The third assignment for our workbook is to take a fairy tale and turn around the roles of protagonist and antagonist. The idea for a reversed Snow White came to me so quickly and so fully that I thought I would have it done in a single sitting.
Eight thousand words later, I finally return to my blog to post the results. Well, not the full results, I feel like the story needs another draft and would then be ready for submission, so I’m just putting up the first 500 words here to mark my completion of the task so I can move on to lesson 4.
What amazed me about writing this story was how fully I understood the characters before beginning the first line. Listening to Neil Gaiman talk about craft has a way of opening up your creative sinuses. Once I began writing, I knew this was going to be a longish first draft, but I never doubted where I was going with it.
Without further ado, here is the beginning to “Beauty Queen”:
Three hours before her daily appointment, a line of ladies in waiting streamed through the ornate doors into Queen Baelful’s bedroom to begin the long, careful process of waking her. Some were tasked with gradually opening the curtains while others began singing in a voice that was nearly a whisper. Still others sprayed perfume into the air over the bed, their scents concocted with traits from spring grasses and oleander petals to slowly enliven the senses.
Once the queen had awakened without shock and had been gently welcomed to the daylight world, the ladies removed the leather mittens from her hands and then carefully wiped away the pitera grease that kept her skin moist and free of wrinkles. While some of the ladies were taking care of her hands, others were in the process of tenderly removing the tea leaves and lavender mask from her face. Only then could her majesty open her eyes and take in the beehive of activity around her.
Being still an hour from leaving her mattress, they brought her a bedpan so she could relieve herself without getting up. It was the first humiliation of the day, but not the worst. She closed her eyes while two of her ladies carefully wiped the grease from her eyelids, imagined she was a girl again, back on her father’s farm, squatting behind the barn in the dew covered grass of a spring morning, and allowed her bladder to empty itself. Then they wiped her and removed the pan.
No one said a word. The only sound was the swishing of petticoats and the last verse of the waking song as the youngest of the ladies headed toward the final chorus, their voices full throated now. The air smelled of flowers as they dragged the silk sheets away from her and carried them out of the room, never to be seen again lest the oils they took from her body be reintroduced on following nights.
More than an hour after waking, she stood in the middle of the room as the ladies worked on her hair and sewed her undergarments in place on her body. She made no sound when the needles caught her skin, nor would she cry out when they bound her with the corset. All of this had become so routine over the years it was no longer worth remarking upon.
Two ladies brought out the day’s dress, only completed the night before by the seamstresses whose job it was to produce one fine garment every day of the year. Its back cracked open like a shellfish, they slipped it over her arms and the ladies in back began sewing it shut. The dress was then covered with a crude white sheet, essentially a giant napkin, as they brought her breakfast to her.
She was hungry. She was always hungry. It was difficult to get enough to eat when her internal organs were compressed by the corset. She also had to be careful how much liquid she consumed. The process of relieving herself once she was in the dress was so complicated it required half an hour and help from most of the ladies.
They finished their handiwork ten minutes before the appointed meeting time and, now free of their nibbling fingers, the queen fled from them into the corridor outside her room and made her way from the west wing to the throne room.
A workbook or journal is part of the Neil Gaiman Master Class I’m taking so I’ve decided to put mine here in the blog.
Lesson 2 is about honesty in writing and how being honest can add a sense of verisimilitude to your story.
But that’s more difficult than it sounds. We tend to gloss over the most important memories, the ones that would most help in our writing, because they thrum with uncomfortable emotions we’re loathe to revisit.
I don’t need a memory of a perfectly happy picnic to help me describe a sunny, carefree day. I need to remember what it was like to be afraid or ashamed or embarrassed or hesitant.
The assignment for this lesson is to write an essay about a memory from when I was:
- Deeply embarrassed.
- Regretful of something I did.
- Extremely sad.
- Afraid to talk about something.
I have a honey of a story for each of these, but the one that stands out strongly in my memory now that I’ve recovered it from its shallow grave is really packed with all four of them.
So here we go:
Right before I started 5th grade, IBM transferred us from Texas to central New Jersey. My father, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, had chafed against the straitened, crowded life in the suburbs back in Houston so when we got to New Jersey he bought us a house in the sparsely populated country.
I was very lonely. There were few children my age within range and, truth told, I didn’t like them very much. I was a hyperactive wild hare of boy, completely and utterly guileless, likely to believe anything I was told and often irrationally angry.
I spent a lot of time by myself reading. I’ve often thought that my desire to become a writer is rooted in this time when I spent so many hours with books from my father’s paperback science fiction library. For those three years, I was an obsessive reader and a relentless student of human nature as I reveled in the adventures spun by Robert Heinlein and studied my peers like a scientist trying discover the nature of friendship.
We lived on an acre of land that backed to a pine grove, beyond which was the stream that led to the mill pond where we skated in winter. Beyond teh stream was a hill that the locals referred to as a mountain. It was all very green and the air was fresh and free of the heavy humidity we had known in Houston.
One day at the late end of the spring thaw when everything was wet and smelled of damp hay and the grass was just greening and the trees beginning to leaf out, I came across a downed bird’s nest with its five tiny eggs intact.
Being a ten year old boy, it took no time for me to decide to pick it up and take it to my bedroom in the basement. When you’re a boy with two sisters, they put your room as far away from everyone else as possible, an arrangement that provided the privacy I needed to sit and stare at the nest and the eggs and wonder.
I had very little furniture in my room; a bed, a dresser, and a desk, no closet. On my desk was a study lamp with an incandescent bulb that got so hot it had burned me several times. So I put the nest on my desk and bent the lamp’s articulated arm until the bulb was just above the eggs. Not too close, I reasoned, because I didn’t want to cook them.
What did I want? I wanted to know. That was pretty much my motive in everything I did at that age. I read books because I wanted to know what the future was going to be like. I watched the other kids because their ease with one another was a mystery to me. I watched my mother cook and my father build an elaborate rose garden because I wanted to know.
The wind must have blown that nest out of the tree just moments before the chicks were ready to hatch because when I came down after dinner the shells were already cracking open. I stood there affixed to the spot by a sense of wonder and horror commingled into a mixture we wouldn’t even be able to name for another five years: Fear and loathing.
With the dread fascination of someone watching a train plow into a station wagon full of screaming children, I looked on as five monstrous heads burst through the shells and opened Lovecraftian beaks that seemed bigger than their little, squirming bodies and cried to be fed.
That was when the foolishness of my decision finally occurred to me. I had been dawdling with no mind for consequences when I initiated the action that ended with five hungry baby birds in my basement room and me with no way to feed them.
I panicked, because that’s what I do. I’m not good under stress, not as a child and not as a man, and my first instinct is often the most terribly incorrect one. Given a moment to calm down, I can usually do the right thing, but I was too young and there was no time.
Sweeping up the nest as I bolted my room, I charged up the stairs and out of the house and… put it under the back porch. Why? I don’t know. To get it out of sight, I think. To be done with it. Though I wouldn’t be done with that nest or those chicks for years.
I returned to my bed, wrapped my arms around my knees, and shuddered with the rage of shame, the embarrassment of being the stupid boy again, and vowed to keep the whole incident a forever secret. After that, I lived in fear that my father would hear the birds and find them and want to know what happened and then terrible punishments would be rained down on me.
And I felt I deserved all of them. For years, that nest of horrors appeared over and over in my nightmares. I carried the secret with me wrapped in a quilt of shame. I never told anyone. But I also never forgot I did it.
Now, of course, I realize an unsupervised ten-year-old is bound to make such bad decisions and those birds were going to die anyway what with their nest being on the ground, but the world is a much bigger place when you’re a child and everything seems of enormous importance. The impact that simple mistake had on me shows up even today in the pitiless way I treat myself when I do something stupid. It’s the reenactment of what I thought I deserved on that day way back in lonely New Jersey.
And that is the story of the birds.
For Episode 2 we took on Farscape, something I found a little daunting because of the muppets involved, but overall we had fun.
Still having technical difficulties, though. I’m not sure anyone has figured out how to inexpensively record a conversation over the internet. So next week we’re skipping the podcast to work out the technical bugs and try some new products/approaches.
Starting up a podcast is a lot of fun, but people aren’t kidding when they talk about all the technical difficulties. We’re still having audio problems (with Mike in Austin and me in San Diego we have to use Zencastr over the internet), we’ve had machine crashes 45 minutes into a recording and, worst of all, our original episode #1 was about TNG but the pilot was so dull we ended up with a boring podcast that got thrown away.
Anyway, come listen to us say “uh” a lot and talk about the pilot of Star Trek: Enterprise!
TL;DR: Just tell me a story already.
Netflix released the revolutionary new Black Mirror episode called “Bandersnatch” recently and it’s going to change the way we tell stories forever. This exciting new technology that’s only been around for five decades, will upend everything we know about fiction. Even at this moment, libraries are torching their old style “books” to make room for more televisions. I, myself, am currently performing a bit-level erase of all my works in progress.
Spoilers for Bandersnatch follow.
I’m a bit of a monomaniac when it comes to writing. When I go into writing mode, I go all the way in and don’t really have a mind to do anything else. Once the draft is done, I come up for air and find I have to mend all the fences damaged due to my neglect.
By the way, until I looked it up just now, I always believed “monomaniac” was the word for an obsessive masturbator, but it turns out it’s just someone who focuses on one thing to the exclusion of all else. I suppose I could have said Otaku instead.
Normally, I will only drop off for three or four weeks, but I have two manuscripts in the last stages of their final drafts right now and I basically went from one to the other without taking a break. My podcast, “Arriving Late”, all about 1990s TV SciFi from the POV of someone who’s never seen it, will start up again on January 10th. And posts here on my lonely blog will also start coming again at the usual irregular intervals.
Things I’m looking forward to in the new year:
- Future Man Season 2
- Killing Eve Season 1
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 1
- Into the Spiderverse
- Mission Impossible: Guy On A Plane or Cliff or Something
Yes, I am behind on my genre consumption because, as I mentioned before, I was TRAPPED IN A WELL FOR SIX WEEKS.
Love to you all and wishes for a better year.
John Carpenter is one of the top three people in horror who most influenced the genre for me. The other two would be Stephen King and Peter Straub. Other people out there rang the bell once or twice, but Carpenter just hammered it for a solid twenty years.
What better way to cheapen the impact of his work on me than to rank his (horror) movies by how they affected me when I first saw them? All kinds of spoilers follow.