Monthly Archives: April 2014

How Many Times Do I Have to Rewrite This %$^&# Thing?! The “Yellow Wagon” Saga

My flash fiction story “Yellow Wagon” has been published in Every Day Fiction:

http://www.everydayfiction.com/yellow-wagon-by-lori-schafer/

What a journey this story has taken! The final published version of this piece at the link above ended up being twice the length of the original (reproduced following this essay). The editors at Every Day Fiction were possibly interested in publishing it, except that they didn’t like the idea of “misleading” the reader about the wagon, which is precisely what the original version did. In fact, that was the essence of the story. In addition, they thought the premise itself was unbelievable because I had made Debra a first-grader and the argument was that no parent would permit a child that young to walk to school by herself.

Naturally, this threw me for a loop, because, of course, the child in the story was me, and I was not a first-grader but a kindergartner when it happened. Where I grew up in small-town New England, lots of kids walked to school by themselves. There was no such thing as blue-collar flex time so you could drive your kids to school – and many parents took the bus to work because they didn’t have a car, anyway. However, I was certainly willing to grant that we live in a different time, and that perhaps the premise would seem implausible to modern readers, so I re-wrote it to include details that would make it obvious that the story took place in an earlier era.

They still didn’t like it. The issue remained of Debra not appearing to recognize the wagon, which naturally made little sense in their interpretation of the story. I frankly had no idea what to do about this, because my intention for the piece was entirely at odds with their reading of it. I had been attempting to convey the thoughts and emotions of a little girl who has been given a great new responsibility and is trying very hard to behave herself as her mother would wish. It’s not that she doesn’t recognize the wagon – she merely pretends not to because she doesn’t want her mother to think she’s only being careful because she knows she’s being watched. The whole story development – where she keeps looking anxiously over her shoulder to see if the wagon is still following, how she exaggerates her caution in crossing the street, even her final sprint at the end when the pressure becomes too much for her – centers around this concept. What I thought was clever about it was not the fact that it draws the reader down a false path, but that if you reach the end and look back on it, it turns out that the story details were true and accurate all along. The tension was real – except its source was not the wagon, but the feelings of the little girl.

Anyway, they asked for another rewrite, and suggested that I make the story more about Debra and her mother. I’ll admit that this caused me considerable consternation. On the one hand, it was a challenge, and I’m certainly not one to run from a battle. On the other hand, I had no particular interest in writing the story that way. It just didn’t feel like me. It took me longer to transform this simple vignette into heartwarming family fiction than the original story took to write! I’m not disappointed in the way it turned out, although it is a bit on the sentimental side. But I do still believe the original version has its charms – although I’m willing to concede that I may be the only one who thinks so!

It was, however, an interesting lesson. First, because sometimes it’s easy to forget that what I think is obvious as a writer doesn’t necessarily come across to a reader the way I intended it. Editors are usually right, and if these ones weren’t getting it, chances are pretty good lots of other people would have misread my original story, too. And second, because it was my first real experience writing to someone else’s specifications. I mean, sure, I’ve had to write papers on topics that haven’t particularly interested me – but no one has ever told me how to write them. And ultimately, I feel that this is something I should be able to do, even if I don’t enjoy it very much. As wonderful as it is to exercise total control over my fiction, a writer who knows their craft should have the capacity to create work that someone else defines. So I suppose you might say that I, too, took a journey of transformation – and it’s to be hoped that I came out a better writer at the end of it.

YELLOW WAGON (Original Version)

“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” Debra repeated to herself for the dozenth time, kicking away the crisp dead leaves that snapped at her feet like so many untrained puppies. First grade wasn’t like kindergarten; the teachers got mad if you were late. Her mom would be mad, too, if she got lost along the way.

She reached the end of her street and hung a hard right, ignoring the noise of the engine she heard revving behind her. It was only a block more to the light, and when she reached it she stopped dead, waiting cautiously for the green, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, not even touching the curb. When her turn came she looked both ways, repeating and exaggerating the motion, and catching in consequence a glimpse of a yellow station wagon with wood paneling that had drawn to a seemingly casual halt on the side of the road behind her.

She crossed hurriedly, shifting the schoolbag in her left hand while gripping the lunchbox more tightly in her right, swinging both in steady rhythm as she walked. Halfway down the block she knelt suddenly and fiddled with her shoelaces. Peeking over her shoulder as she bent forward, she spotted it again, the yellow wagon, which had rounded the corner after her and was still following at a respectful distance.

With grim determination she pressed on, on towards the schoolyard, now only a few blocks away. She could hear the cries of the kids on the playground, see the bright orange sash of the crossing-guard directing traffic, smell the exhaust of the ancient school buses that brought the children who lived on the far side of town. And then suddenly she was on the last block and she was running, running towards the final intersection, the one guarded by the gentle white-haired man with the threatening crimson sign, and then she had flown across it and was vanishing safely into the thick crowd of students and teachers. She turned, breathless, and witnessed the yellow wagon retreating cautiously down the street, crawling silently away as if at last losing interest in the subject of its persistent pursuit.

She remained alert that afternoon; negotiated the crosswalks with care and kept watch for the stealthy wagon, but discerned no sign of it. She sighed with relief as she at last climbed the steps of the porch on which her mother stood happily waving her home.

“How was your day, sweetheart?” she inquired cheerfully. “Were you scared walking to school by yourself?”

“Nope,” Debra replied without hesitation.

“Did you remember to look both ways and cross with the light?”

“Yes, Mom,” she said, smiling, confident that her mother already knew the answer to that question.

“So you’ll be all right walking, then, if I take the car to my new job tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Debra answered. She glanced appreciatively at it, the familiar yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, parked, as always, comfortably in front of their house.

* * *

“Yellow Wagon” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past. To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Autumn Leaves on Sidewalk

My Feedback Forum on Medium.com

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View collection at Medium.com

I’ve started a collection on Medium.com called “Novel & Non-Fiction Excerpts: A Place to Share and Receive Feedback on Your Works-in-Progress.” I got the idea for this from a post on Write to Done several weeks ago in which readers were invited to share segments of their current projects. The response was enormous – writers not only posted their own work; they were also incredibly forthcoming with critiques on other people’s posts.

Now I know there are plenty of writer’s forums out there, and lots of places online where you can go to participate in discussions and critiques of your own work and that of others. However, this experience made me think that aspiring authors might also appreciate a less formal forum for obtaining feedback from other writers and readers. It takes some guts, after all, to put your work out there, particularly if you’re not sure if it’s any good, and maybe not everyone is ready to subject themselves to the often daunting criticism of an official group.

Anyway, I had recently discovered Medium, which, quite accurately, in my opinion, designates itself as a site for “Everyone’s Stories and Ideas.” Even if you’re not interested in my collection, if you’re a writer, this is a great place to post your work. The design is simple enough – you publish whatever you want, be it essays, short stories, poems, what have you – and then you submit those to various “collections” that people have started based on a variety of self-chosen themes. If the editor of a collection likes it or thinks it’s appropriate for their set, they’ll include it, which means a lot more exposure for your work. And, of course, you can also start your own collections, on any theme you want – hence the subject of this post! This also makes it a fun site for readers as well, because you can choose to follow collections focused on specific themes – everything from “Best of Science” to “Romance Shorts” to “Italian Football.”

The only thing I found confusing about Medium at first is that although you can choose “recommend” for a published work if you liked it, there’s no space for comments at the end of a piece, which seemed odd. I did some digging around and finally discovered that their setup is entirely different. Instead of sticking your remarks down at the bottom, it actually allows you to make “notes” right in the margin, next to individual paragraphs. This, of course, is an ideal setup for feedback on writing, because you can actually comment on specific words and phrases and even point out grammatical errors with a minimum of effort.

The other issue I should address is that Medium, like many other newer websites, does not seem to work well with Internet Explorer. I initially had some trouble navigating the site, and, since I’ve had similar issues in the past, it finally occurred to me that it might be my browser. I switched over to Firefox and voila! I could find my way around just fine.

I do hope that I’ll get the word out to enough people who are interested in participating to make the collection worthwhile, because if it goes over well, I think it might be helpful to start similar collections for, say, unpublished flash fiction, half-completed research papers, and the like. But of course that all depends on the audience.

“Novel and NonFiction Excerpts” is now accepting submissions. I can’t wait to see yours!

The Layperson’s Bible: In Which God Prohibits Spandex

“Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together.” (Deuteronomy 22:11)

That’s right. Blended fabrics are prohibited. God must have foreseen the invention of polyester, and tried to head it off, but thou art a stiff-necked people. Don’t feel too bad, though, because apparently only some Native American Indian tribes (and perhaps some cowboys) were getting it right, anyhow:

“Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself.” (Deuteronomy 22:12)

In honor of Easter.

OpenBible

April Holiday: The Story That Failed

http://www.everydayfiction.com/april-holiday-by-lori-schafer/

I’m resurrecting this story in honor of Tax Day. The truth, however, is that it’s a perfect example of a story that failed.

This was only my third online publication, and only my fifth publishing credit overall, my first two having taken place way back in the twentieth century. “Baby and Me,” my first story for Every Day Fiction (published in February 2013) had gone over quite well in spite of its cynical subject matter, receiving nothing but glowing reviews and an average rating of 3.9. In addition, at the beginning of April I received a series of acceptance letters that would have swelled the head of any aspiring writer – seven acceptances in seven days. I’ll probably never have a week like that again!

Anyway, so I guess I was feeling pretty good about myself and my skills as a writer – and then “April Holiday” came out. It’s the story of the aftermath of Tax Day at an accounting firm, written as if it takes place at the scene of a disaster. The language was heavy and overdone; I wanted it to read dramatically, even though it’s clearly kind of a silly piece. I thought I succeeded, and maybe I did. There was only one problem. People hated it.

Here was the first comment:

“After struggling through a jungle of adverbs and adjectives, I didn’t really get the point.”

This from one of EDF’s top commenters and a respected writer in his own right; I knew when I read that that the rest of the day wasn’t going to go well.

At least I was right about that.

The story wasn’t rated well, and most of the rest of the comments were critical, particularly of my use of modifiers. Worse, I feared, people must think it was stupid; pointless, according to Mr. F. That hurt.

What was even more irritating was reading other comments later on, and finding remarks like this:

“As I read it I thought it was well-written but must admit to re-reading it after Mr. F’s comment, and then agreeing with the overuse of adverbs and adjectives.”

Now I’m not saying that I didn’t jam this piece chock full of adverbs and adjectives. I definitely did. Across the board, people agreed that it was too much, and I’ve kept that painfully in mind throughout every bit of work I’ve written since. But I also couldn’t help but feel that the story would have fared much better if the first person who reviewed it hadn’t hated it. His remark demonstrably skewed the opinions of the other readers, and to me, this was the most important lesson I learned from this experience. People are influenced by what other people say and think. One bad review can garner more. And if you’re going to put your work out there for people to read and review, there’s simply no way around that.

Depressing, isn’t it? Even now, a year later, I haven’t forgotten how painful that particular publication experience was. I don’t even like to look at the story I thought was so amusing when I wrote it. I did learn something that made me feel better on one score, though. Mr. F, the unwitting spoiler of my April Holiday, isn’t American or even Canadian. In fact, he resides in a country which likely doesn’t even have a Tax Day, which may mean that my story may have been completely outside the realm of his experience. It’s easy to see how that might make one miss the “point” of a story like this, just as I would be unlikely to comprehend a story he wrote spoofing his own local government.

It’s hard not to take other people’s harsh words to heart. Sometimes we need the criticism, even if we don’t like the way it’s thrown at us. But we also shouldn’t try to make it worse or more insulting than it is. Reading and writing are subjective. And so, too, are our emotional responses to other people’s remarks. At the time it felt as if the fragile little writing world I’d built was about to crumble down around me. My foundation is much more solid now, and maybe my walls are sturdy enough to withstand most of the slings and arrows that will be flung my way. They still sting, though, particularly when they’re sharp and oh-so-accurately aimed. But a good fortress grows stronger every time it’s assaulted. And maybe the best way to defend what you’ve built is not to strike back, but to give people fewer reasons to attack you, by creating a strong body of work of which you – and your readers – will always be proud.

Image