Perfection short story

The following is a 2750-word Western short story that I wrote for a creative writing module at university six or seven years ago. At the time I’d just watched Lonesome Dove and a whole bunch of re-runs of Rawhide, and was quite into W. Somerset Maugham, hence the description-heavy opening and dialogue-heavy development. I tried to get this published in a number of general and Western-themed fiction magazines and e-zines, but without success. I tried to capture the language and inflection of nineteenth-century cowboys, but being a Brit, I’m not sure I managed to successfully pull it off. As always, let me know what you think in the comments.

Perfection by Gillan Drew

Colonel Horrigan reined in at the mouth of the valley, running his eyes down the gentle western slope, past the river, and up the steeper eastern rise. In the evening light, the forest lining the ridge to the left cast long shadows down a lush meadow that drank at the banks of the river. To the north, beyond where the valley curled out of sight, snow-capped mountains climbed up into the sky.

            He glanced over his shoulder to where, far across the landscape, the dark blur of the herd grazed their evening’s fill. Already a plume of smoke was rising into the sky, the wagons circling for protection and comfort, his boys climbing down wearily from their saddles to catch some precious sleep around the campfire.

A single dot broke from the blur and approached across the grassland, a dot that soon resolved into a stocky, one-armed man riding a palomino, his black hair streaked with grey. The rider pulled his horse short alongside the Colonel and whistled through his teeth.

‘That’s a sight to behold,’ he said.

The Colonel said nothing. He stared transfixed at the mountains.

‘You know, when you passed up on them other places, some of them, well, they wondered why that was, but now –’ The rider whistled again. ‘Perfection Valley.’

‘This ain’t Perfection, Captain,’ said the Colonel. ‘Bright and early, we gotta get up and get movin’. Same as every day.’

The stocky Captain licked his lips and spat into the dirt. ‘Colonel, them boys are gettin’ a might edgy, wonderin’ why we keep passin’ up such prime grazin’ land.’

‘Them boys’ll do as I tell ‘em,’ said the Colonel. ‘That’s what they get paid for. Any of ‘em wants to dispute it, he can come collect his wages. I got no truck with any man wants to leave, but he works for me then he follows my orders.’ He turned in his saddle to face the Captain. ‘Besides, Jack, you’re supposed to be keepin’ ‘em calm.’

‘I’m doin’ that, Bill,’ said Jack, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. ‘But it ain’t easy when we been on the trail so long and ain’t showin’ no signs of stoppin’. And I ain’t got no authority with them townsfolk. Them’s the one’s kickin’ up most of the fuss.’

‘Townsfolk,’ snarled the Colonel. ‘Shouldn’t have brought ‘em along.’

Jack stood in his stirrups, eased himself back onto the hard saddle. ‘When are we goin’ to stop, Bill? To be honest, it’s gettin’ so’s I’m startin’ to agree with ‘em.’

The Colonel looked ahead again, towards the darkening sky. ‘We’ll stop when we find Perfection, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

‘I’ve seen that valley, Jack,’ said the cowboy, the light from the fire dancing in his eyes. ‘Beautiful-est lookin’ thing I’ve ever seen. Grazin’ land aplenty, wood for homes, enough water for all of us and more. Mountains nearby for miners and prospectors and whomever else. What’s his excuse this time?’

The Captain spat into the fire and took another swig of the whisky from out his tin mug. ‘Colonel don’t need to explain himself to the likes of you, Al Davies,’ he said. ‘He’s the man what owns this herd and he’s the one what decides where it’s gonna end up.’

‘You owns some of it,’ said another cowboy. ‘You could stop here.’

‘Me and the Colonel, we go way back –’

‘Yeah, we know,’ said Al. ‘Right to the Alamo.’

The cowboys laughed, and even Jack managed a smile.

‘Where he goes, I go,’ he said. ‘He’s never steered me wrong.’

‘Got half of his column tore up by them Injuns, though, didn’t he?’ said another cowboy. ‘Ain’t that how you lost your arm?’

‘You don’t talk about that what wasn’t there,’ snapped Jack. ‘Now you boys got a problem with what the Colonel’s doin’, you go talk to him about it. But I doubt he’d take too kindly to two of his hands askin’ him outright.’

‘I heard tell he shot a bunch of his own men in the war. That true?’

‘I ain’t saying as it’s true,’ said Jack. ‘I ain’t saying as it ain’t. It’s whether you wants to take the risk. But I wouldn’t. He can’t abide bad manners in nobody, specially not –’

‘– the likes of us,’ said Al.

‘Right,’ said Jack. He looked into the fire and took another large swig of the alcohol, feeling it burn down into his belly. Over at the other end of the campsite, the settlers were making one hell of a racket.

‘Way I sees it, only way we’re gonna stop is if you talk to him,’ said the other cowboy suddenly. ‘You got a right to ask, at least. He ain’t gonna shoot you for askin’, what with you goin’ way back, and all.’

Jack shook his head. ‘You boys want to be careful.’

‘He can’t shoot us,’ said Al. ‘Ain’t lawful.’

‘Way out here, he is the law,’ said Jack. ‘You’d best not be forgettin’ that.’

‘Oh, I ain’t forgettin’ it,’ said Al. ‘I just ain’t likin’ it, is all. And I’m not the only one.’

‘Is that a threat, Al Davies?’ asked Jack.

‘S’not a threat,’ said Al, holding Jack’s stare. ‘It’s a warning, is all. He’s gonna drive that herd till it’s just skeletons, and all of us dead with it. Only way he’s ever gonna stop is with a bullet. Now you’d best not be forgettin’ that.’ He looked around at the other cowboys. ‘We boys had better be gettin’ some sleep. Sounds like it’s another long day tomorrow.’

Together, the cowboys walked into the surrounding darkness, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts.

*          *          *          *

Lifting himself stiffly up from his chair, Dr. Waterstone raised his hands for silence. Seeing it was not working, the doctor loudly cleared his throat and the hubbub fell and then rose again like a wave on the shore. ‘People, people, please,’ he said in a clear baritone, his voice rising above the clamour. He studied their faces in the glow, the anger, the fear and frustration. ‘I must urge you to remain calm. I assure you that the Colonel knows what he is doing.’

The population of Perfection, or rather, the people that would comprise the population of Perfection when it was built, were gathered around a fire that spat into the night like an animal. They were a rag-tag bunch, some dressed in dirty smocks and tatty dresses while others were bedecked in smarter clothes, albeit dusty and starting to wear thin. In the darkness they were barely distinguishable, a writhing mass of shadowy figures tinged with the touch of the flames. Many were on their feet, standing in clumps; some were pacing endlessly back and forth, kicking at the ground, while others simply stared despondently out into the night.

To one side of the fire, John Anderson thrust a finger in the doctor’s direction. ‘We don’t start building, ground is gonna be too hard to dig and we’re gonna be spendin’ the winter in our wagons. And winter comes awful quick in these parts. How you gonna reassure us about that, doc?’

‘Yeah,’ said a woman standing close by. ‘We got three little ‘uns, you know that, and Alice ain’t gonna survive the winter if we don’t start gettin’ firewood together.’

The voices of the townsfolk rose once more and the doctor again lifted his hands. ‘The Colonel is aware of our concerns,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sure he’s aware,’ said Anderson. ‘But he ain’t doin’ nothin’ about it, is he?’

‘What would you have us do, John?’ asked the doctor, his manner bred from years of experience at the bedside. ‘Where would you have us go?’

‘We don’t need to go nowhere,’ said another man. ‘We build our town here.’

‘And I suppose we don’t need the Colonel’s herd,’ said the doctor, using the rhetorical devices he had practised at school back East. ‘I’m sure we can gather together enough food to see us through this late in the year.’

‘Of course we can’t,’ said Anderson.

‘Then I ask the question again. What would you have us do?’

The company fell silent a moment, before a woman called out, ‘I say we build our town and to hell with the Colonel. He knows we need his beef, he wouldn’t leave us here to die.’

There was a general murmur of agreement, an eruption of ‘yeah’ and ‘to hell with the Colonel’. They fell silent as a voice called out of the night.

‘You’re wrong if you think the Colonel won’t leave you here,’ said the one-armed Captain, striding into the dim circle of light. The settlers backed away from him as though he were a snake. He gazed around at the people, daring them to meet his eyes. ‘You people remember, you asked to come with us, not th’other way ‘round. And if the Colonel says we ain’t stoppin’ here, then we ain’t stoppin’ here. No arguments.’

‘We’ll starve if he leaves us,’ said Anderson.

‘Then you’ll starve,’ said Jack.

There was total silence around the fire. And then a woman said, ‘Your Colonel’s a bloody tyrant, Captain.’

Jack turned on her, a woman in a pretty blue dress and wrapped in a blanket against the cold. She stood nobly erect, held his eyes by the fire. A child clutched at her legs, looking up at her with tears on its cheeks.

‘That he is,’ the Captain replied. ‘So he wouldn’t think twice ‘bout leavin’ you behind.’

‘With his one-armed lapdog riding shotgun in his saddlebag,’ the woman spat. ‘You ain’t a man. You’re as bad as he is.’

Clearing his throat once more, Dr. Waterstone took a step closer to the fire so that they could all see him. ‘Captain, I think we would all feel a little happier if you explained to us why Colonel Horrigan finds this valley unsuitable for his purposes?’

‘Colonel don’t need to explain things,’ said Jack.

‘He needs to explain to me,’ cried John Anderson, and the Captain spun to face him. The settler lifted a young boy in his arms. ‘He needs to explain to me why he’s riskin’ my son, my wife. Yes, we agreed to come with him. We didn’t agree to riskin’ our families.’

‘There ain’t no guarantees in this life.’

‘Then be it on your head if anythin’ happens to my family,’ said Anderson, lowering the boy to the ground and advancing on the Captain. ‘And be it on your damned Colonel’s head.’

Around the fire, the settlers roared their approval. The one-armed Captain, glaring around into their angered faces, pointedly rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. The meaning was not lost on the settlers, but it was several moments before they were ready to listen once again.

‘You people had courage comin’ out here,’ he said. ‘All I ask is you keep that courage just a bit longer. Now go to bed, all of you. We got an early start in the mornin’. Go on, be off with you. You ain’t got no choice in this.’

As they grudgingly spilled back to their wagons, the doctor looked at him. ‘They have no choice,’ he said. ‘But you do, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

Colonel Horrigan spun as he heard the footsteps rustling through the grass behind him, whipped out his gun and clicked back the hammer before he saw that it was Jack. ‘You know better than to sneak up on a man, Captain,’ he said.

‘Weren’t sneakin’,’ replied the Captain, holding his arm out to the side to show his hand was empty. He stared at the Colonel’s weapon, still aimed at his chest. ‘What, Bill, you don’t trust me no more?’

‘Should I trust you?’

Jack smiled on one side of his face. ‘Surprised you even have to ask that.’

‘Ask myself all the time,’ said the Colonel, re-holstering the pistol. He slid back around on the rock he had taken for a perch, raised his pipe and placed it between his teeth.

Slowly, deliberately, the Captain eased himself onto the rock alongside him. He took out his tobacco and pipe, stared out into the dark as he tamped it down into the bowl. Overhead there was a break in the clouds, and a vast array of stars pierced the gloom like pinpicks in a sheet of satin. Out in the valley he could just make out the river, a shade of deeper darkness flowing into the night.

Lighting his pipe, he shook out the match and flicked it into the long grass. They smoked in amiable silence, the only sounds the wind soughing through the grass and the gentle fizz of the smouldering tobacco.

The Captain sighed out a mouthful of smoke. ‘Why ain’t we stoppin’ here, Bill?’ he eventually asked. ‘It’s everythin’ you said you wanted. Makes no sense to keep goin’.’

The Colonel sucked on his pipe. ‘It ain’t Perfection.’

‘We got to stop, Bill. People gonna start dyin’ if we don’t.’

‘Not my problem.’

‘They got kids, Bill.’

The Colonel looked at him. ‘You turnin’ on me too, Jack?’

‘I ain’t turnin’ on you,’ said Jack. ‘But I ridden with you through thick and thin. I think I deserve to know why this ain’t Perfection.’

It seemed the Colonel would not answer, but looking out at the distant valley, he said suddenly, ‘You ‘member back before the war, Jack, when we was garrisoned in that town in Iowa? That little farm with the pastureland, where Jenny lived?’

Jack frowned a moment before he recalled. ‘Jenny Ramsdale’s place? Jeez, I ain’t thought of there in years.’

‘You ‘member the way the grass smelled in the mornin’? Way the sky looked, so big you could get lost in it?’

‘I ‘member the way Jenny looked,’ Jack chuckled nervously. ‘‘Member the way you looked at her, too. She was a fine woman.’

‘She was.’

‘Shame them days are gone.’

The Colonel continued to stare out into the night, as still as a statue. ‘I loved them days, Jack. Best time of my life. You still had your arm. I was young and Jenny was the sweetest kisser in the world.’

The Captain smirked. ‘‘Memberin’ how you was with the ladies, you would know.’

‘I hadn’t yet seen the things I’ve seen, or done the things I’ve done. I loved them days, Jack.’

‘They was good days.’

‘They was perfection.’

Something sank in Jack’s belly as he sat on the rock beside his friend, puffed silently on his pipe as the truth washed over him. He finally understood what the Colonel was looking for.

‘Bill,’ he said cautiously. ‘You know them days are gone, right? You know we can’t never get ‘em back?’

‘Perfection is out there, Jack,’ said the Colonel, his eyes on the dark stain of the mountains jutting up into the night. ‘We just need to find it.’

‘We can’t never wash our hands clean of what we’ve done.’

‘We go on in the morning.’

‘Even if all them people die?’

‘I don’t care about them people,’ the Colonel snapped. ‘They can go to hell. I don’t care how long it takes, we’re gonna find Perfection.’

‘You ain’t never gonna stop, are you?’ said Jack.

‘Not till I find it,’ said the Colonel, putting his hand to his pistol and staring into Jack’s face. ‘And I’ll shoot down any man tries to stop me. Even you.’

Taking a deep breath, the Captain slowly stood up beside his friend. ‘There ain’t no such thing as perfection,’ he said.

*          *          *          *

The horses whinnied and tugged at their reins when the gunshot rang out in the darkness.

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, like a stream suddenly bursting its banks, the travellers emerged from their many wagons. Here and there, men clutched rifles and pointed them about with worried eyes; women clutched their children to their breasts, and somewhere a baby whimpered in fright. But there was only one shot.

The Captain told them it was self-inflicted, though few believed that. For the first time since losing his arm, Jack wept, screamed out his rage into the night sky.

In the morning, the settlers buried the Colonel, and in the afternoon they began to build Perfection around his bones.

The End

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2018

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Writers in Movies and TV Shows

They say to write what you know, and since writers tend to know about writing, it’s no surprise that many of them write about writers. Stephen King, for example, made the main character of his second book, ‘Salem’s Lot, a writer, and was so taken by the idea he repeated it in The Shining. And It. And Misery. And The Tommyknockers. And The Dark Half. And Desperation. And The Regulators. And Bag of Bones.*

So it seems strange, given that writers know about writing, how often their fictional counterparts in movies and TV shows seem to bear little resemblance to real writers. Below are the ten worst myths about writers promoted by writers themselves.

1. Writers write about their own lives under a thin veil of fictionality. As seen in Castle, Her Alibi, Shakespeare In Love, Secret Window, Wonder Boys, Sideways, The Night Listener, Back to the Future.

What’s that? You can’t come up with a story? You have writer’s block, you say? Well then, shamelessly plumb your life and relationships for whatever dramatic payoffs they can provide. Because there’s no such thing as fiction: there is only real life with the names changed.

The grain of truth: If the roman-a-clef or autobiographical novel wasn’t an accepted form of literature, Armistead Maupin wouldn’t have a career – Gabriel Noone in The Night Listener is the author in all but name (Noone – no one – mind blown!).

The reality: All writers plunder their lives for ideas – a mannerism here, a turn-of-phrase there – but writers of fiction tend to write, well, fiction. If they didn’t, there’d be no Animal Farm, no Harry Potter, no Lord of the Rings, unless I missed the class at school that dealt with Middle Earth, Hogwarts and talking pigs. I once heard someone say that if your first novel is autobiographical, you’re probably going to struggle writing a second, and I tend to agree. You can’t make a successful career writing about writers all the time. You can? Oh. My bad.

2. Writers do one draft, and then they’re done. As seen in Murder, She Wrote, Romancing the Stone, Misery.

How do you write a novel? Straight through, of course. You start at the first page and keep going until you reach the last. That’s all it takes. As soon as you’ve typed The End, you hand it to your publisher and bang! Another bestseller.

The grain of truth: Anne Rice, the author of those vampire novels your girlfriend loved as a teenager (joke), once said that the worst advice she ever received was that writers should expect to write and rewrite and change every sentence between the first draft and the finished product. I guess sometimes, for some people, it just clicks.

The reality: Expect to write and rewrite and change every sentence between the first draft and the finished product. Even if you edit as you go, the first draft is never a fait accompli. Your agent might suggest revisions. Your editor definitely will. The proofreader will undermine all your assumptions about your grammatical abilities. And then you’ll have to change the ending. A lot of the time, you’ll want to change it yourself. I have no idea how people used to write out novels by hand – I can’t write for thirty seconds without hacking up all my sentences and reorganising my chapters. I would be utterly lost without a computer. Speaking of which…

3. Writers use typewriters, even after WordStar 4.0 made them obsolete in the late 80s (that’s a George RR Martin reference, y’all). As seen in Wonder Boys, Love Actually, Stranger Than Fiction, Ruby Sparks, the ‘Crazy Train’ episode of Modern Family.

You want to be a writer? Then you’d better bust out an old typewriter that takes non-standard sized paper and ink-ribbons they don’t make anymore. It’s not writing unless you’re clacking away like the guy in the studio logo at the end of The A-Team. (The pipe, sideburns and roll-neck are optional.)

The grain of truth: Writers can be a superstitious lot who cling to the past. They can also be pretentious as hell. I’m not saying writers like Tom Wolfe and Danielle Steele, who use typewriters, and Neil Gaiman and Amy Tam, who write by hand, are in that category. But in the words of the latter, ‘Writing by hand helps me remain open to all those particular circumstances, all those little details that add up to the truth.’ Draw your own conclusions.

The reality: Even Jessica Fletcher upgraded from a typewriter to a computer during Murder, She Wrote, and Cabot Cove was hardly a forward-looking place. Computers are just easier to use and provide greater functionality for authors – you can’t run spellchecker on a typewriter, or Find and Replace, and how are you going to email it to your agent? Sure, there’s something romantic about typewriters, but it’s the story, not what you write it on, that’s important. EL James wrote Fifty Shades on a Blackberry, for crying out loud. Hmm. Maybe that’s not such a great example. But if you write hard copy, you’re setting yourself up for so many unnecessary difficulties. Like…

4. Writers keep losing their work. As seen in Wonder Boys, Misery, Love Actually, Little Women, DOA.

Oh no, the maid moved my paperweight/my agent crashed the car/that psycho woman has brought me a barbecue and a match, and now my novel has blown into the lake/blown into the river/burnt to a crisp! Why didn’t I make a copy? Oh woe is me.

The grain of truth: None. At least, not these days when we all have access to computers, scanners, photocopiers. Seriously, who does this?

The reality:  Any writer with half an ounce of sense makes multiple copies of their work. It was 1922 when Ernest Hemingway lost a suitcase containing all his Juvenalia, and if people haven’t learned their lesson from that example, maybe they should rethink whether they have the brainpower for writing. Or walking. Or breathing. Jees.

5. Writers are rich and famous. As seen in Castle, Murder, She Wrote, Basic Instinct, Her Alibi, The Royal Tenenbaums, Californication, Romancing the Stone.

Want a quiet life of anonymity? Don’t become a writer. Once you hit the big time, you won’t be able to travel to the local shops without being recognised, mobbed by fans, and/or accosted by adoring members of the opposite sex, even if they’re not the kind of people who read your genre, or books in general, or in fact anything. But it has its up sides, what with all the groupies, Ferraris, gala events, society parties, award shows and second homes in the Hamptons. Oh, and it can even help you out of a sticky situation when your sister gets kidnapped in South America (looking at you, Jean Wilder).

The grain of truth: Stephen King gets his face about, and Terry Pratchett was hardly low-key in that hat. And James Patterson, the highest-paid author today, makes around £90 million a year, which buys shedloads of Ferraris, I imagine.

The reality: I have read dozens of books by Jeffery Deaver. Dozens by Simon Scarrow. Dozens by Douglas Reeman and his alter ego, Alexander Kent. But you could put those authors in a line-up and I wouldn’t be able to pick them out. And I’m actually into books. The reality is that unless you’re a TV personality in addition to being a writer, the only place you’ll get mobbed by adoring fans is a pre-arranged book signing. And the various estimates of average fiction author earnings are around $60,000/£45,000 a year, which, considering the top authors are pulling in tens of millions each year, means most authors don’t earn enough to buy a new sofa, let alone give up their day jobs and go to exotic locations to write their novels. On that note…

6. Writers go to exotic locations to write their novels. As seen in Misery, Secret Window, The Shining, Love Actually, The Jewel of the Nile.

Do you write at home? Do you have a desk? Well, you’re doing it wrong. Writers don’t write at home – they go off to some picturesque log cabin or abandoned hotel or expensive yacht and they write their novel in a burst of isolated activity. Because writing is an adventure, right? And it is always, always glamorous.

The grain of truth: Some writers probably do this. Libby Page quit her job and moved to Paris for six months to write her debut novel, The Lido. And some people convert their sheds into writing studios, which are kind of like cabins, though less likely to have their own jetty.

The reality: Writing is a hard, laborious, and often thankless job, but it is a job. Most full-time writers treat it as a job, working office hours in the home study. Those who aren’t yet able to give up the day job (see Point 5, above) have to squeeze it in wherever they can, JK Rowling famously working on Harry Potter in a cafe while her kids were at school. I mean, this post has been written over the space of a week on a Kindle, mostly late at night in bed after the kids have gone to sleep, but also in a doctor’s waiting room, in the bath, and on the toilet. It’s not glamorous, it just is. Next.

7. Writers write heavy-going purple prose. As seen in Wonder Boys, The Night Listener, Stranger Than Fiction, Atonement, Ruby Sparks, Finding Forrester.

(In James Earl Jones’s voice): Fiction writing is never light. Fiction writing is dark, heavy; painfully self-aware and profoundly intellectual. It is read in a deep, solemn tone in a room with too little lighting, a fitting backdrop to the seriousness of its subject and the gravitas of the author’s literary pretensions. It always tells, never shows, as it grapples with the tortured soul of the artist, delving into the inner reaches of man’s psyche until, without so much as a ‘how’s ya father’, it disappears up its own arse quicker than a Saturn V leaves the launch pad.

The grain of truth: Yeah. We’ve all read books written in an overly ponderous style that screams ‘I’m important!’ from the very first page. They tend to win awards, appear on Top 50 lists, and I normally only manage about 100 pages before throwing them into the corner because I’m sick of waiting for the story to start.

The reality: There are as many types of writers as there are colours on a sunny autumn afternoon in the country. Writing isn’t all about probing the nature of the human condition – it’s about whatever people like to write and what others like to read. My wife’s favourite books are about women who open cupcake shops or bed and breakfasts; I like books about giant space ships getting torn apart by hell-lances and null-field projectors (Jack Campbell, sir, I salute you). The movie writers might think that privileging literary over commercial fiction makes them look clever and sophisticated, but it actually makes their  characters seem really pretentious and boring, whereas if they were science-fiction writers…

8. Writers straddle the line between genius and insanity. As seen in Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Forrester, The Shining, Secret Window, Wonder Boys.

If you want to be an amazing writer, you had better hope that you’re also amazingly crazy. Great works of literature are not written, they are forged in the fires of psychosis, substance abuse, mental illness and emotional breakdown. Strangers will think you a little bit odd, but the true believers will understand – you are at your most creative when your hold on reality is crumbling like a rather dry fruitcake.

The grain of truth: Some writers are nuttier than a nut in a nut roast, and their literary genius is inseparable from their insanity. Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Philip K. Dick are names that spring to mind.

The reality: For every Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, there’s a workaday wordsmith churning out reliable romantic action adventure thrillers. And your level of sanity has no bearing on the success or otherwise of your creative endeavours. You can be insanely good like John Steinbeck, without being actually insane – as far as I’m aware – or you can be insanely bad like Barbara Cartland while being…well, let’s just say the wrong side of normal, shall we? I mean, writing 723 novels is pretty darned special, but when you consider that’s one book a month, every month, for sixty freaking years, you have to wonder where that kind of drive comes from.

9. Writers don’t actually write. As seen in everything featuring a writer ever.

Damn, writing is an easy gig. You hang out with friends, police officers, celebrities, criminals; go to parties, award ceremonies, cruises, holidays; solve crimes, fall in love, reconnect with your kids, murder your family. You have so much free time, you don’t know what to do with it. In fact, the only time you ever sit down to write is when you’re just finishing something, or when you’re completely blocked and staring at a blank sheet of paper with a wistful expression on your face. You never actually have to write.

The grain of truth: None, unless you’re rich and successful enough to contract out your writing to ghost writers who do all the hard work for you. And if you suffer from writer’s block, get over it, there’s no such thing.

The reality: I wrote a post called Real writers write because, well, real writers write. If a movie is about a firefighter, I expect to see him fight a fire; if it’s about a serial killer, I expect to see him kill serially. Is it too much to ask to see a writer actually write? Now, I know what you’re going to say – in a visual medium it’d be boring seeing someone sitting at a desk writing for half an hour – but can they at least acknowledge that writing takes place? There’s never a ‘Hey, do you want to come for a drink?’/’No, I’m busy writing,’ or, ‘Haven’t seen you for a few days.’/’No, I’ve been chained to my desk trying to hammer out my Act Two climax.’ They could even do it in one of those turgid voiceovers: ‘I’d been writing for weeks, ten hours a day, and hadn’t seen a soul in all that time. I’d started to doubt my story, doubt myself. I wondered if I would ever finish, or if the novel would consume me.’ But no – writing is either a party or you’re blocked. That’s it.

10. Wannabe writers are just awful. As seen in Wonder Boys, Sideways, Sliding Doors, Henry Fool, Atonement, Becoming Jane, Ten Things I Hate About You, Family Guy.

I’m a writer, don’t you know, yes, a writer. Do you want to read my novel? Read my novel! Have you read my novel? What did you think? What did you think!? How about the new ending? Did you really read it? Why does nobody read my stuff? My work is genius. Genius! You just don’t understand it. The world isn’t ready to appreciate my greatness. God I’m terrible. I’m a complete loser; a fraud; nobody understands me. Get a job? No, you keep paying the bills, I’m far too special to get my hands dirty. I’m a writer, damn it, a writer! I’m as good as James Joyce if you’d only give me a chance. Oh why won’t you give me a chance? I’m a writer! Love me! Love me!

The grain of truth: Actually, this one’s pretty accurate.

The reality: Yep. We really are that awful.

* * *

So, what do you think? Are there any realistic writers in movies and TV shows?

All joking aside, I think Wonder Boys has a lot of good things to say and I can definitely see some of myself in the struggling protagonists of Sideways and Henry Fool (excepting the alcoholism and sexual deviance)I just hope I’m not too much like Brian Griffin.

See you in the comments. (Read me! Validate me! Tell me I matter!)

 

*And Lisey’s Story. And Secret Window, Secret Garden. And The Body. And The Breathing Method. And 1408. And The Road Virus Heads North. And Word Processor of the Gods. And Umney’s Last Case. Did I miss any? Probably.

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

‘An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The distinction between high-brow and low-brow – between obscure and popular, or unprofitable and lucrative – is a source of tension and insecurity in all fields of the arts. Among writers, however – people who tend to be sensitive and pretentious at the best of times – thinking too much about this distinction can cripple your creative output and tie your mind in knots. The impact it’s had on my writing career has been profound.

When I was eighteen, I proclaimed to all and sundry that I would not be going to university, as expected, and instead would become a writer.

‘You won’t be able to support yourself,’ snapped my A-level English Literature teacher in front of the whole class. ‘I know many writers – they all have other jobs. The only way to make money is to write pulp.

She practically spat the last word, the implication being that dusty high-brow literature is somehow more worthy and honourable than low-brow, yet popular, commercial fiction. It is better to be Marcel Proust, writing a ginormous book that next to no one has ever read, than churn out formulaic hit after formulaic hit like Clive Cussler.

‘Well I’m going to write quality fiction,’ I replied, in my arrogance believing myself to be the next Ian McEwan or Sebastian Faulks. To my teenage self, that was the compromise, the dividing line, between my literary pretensions and my pecuniary ambitions – something that would keep my English teacher happy but would be successful enough to buy me a little apartment in Richmond.

And so I spent years trying to write ‘quality’ fiction. I fell in love with the idea of the sophisticated literary intellectual, and started wearing trendy scarves and sewing elbow patches onto my suit jackets. I was adamant that writing was an art form, an expression of the intangible essence of the heart. And that was why everything I wrote was plotless, navel-gazing, self-indulgent pap that was so boring, even I didn’t want to read it.

When people suggested that I study the craft of writing, I scoffed – art can’t be taught, I said. I saw the distinction between literary and commercial fiction the way a sculptor sees that between a statue and a chair. One is created by an act of will, the artist wrestling an image from out the marble as he pours himself into a work that will stand before others as a testament to the divine in man; the other is created by a craftsman in a workshop for people to sit on. And fart on. And use for firewood if he gets cold.

In truth, I wanted to be special. Our society has elevated the artist to the position of mythical genius, and denigrated the craftsman to a manual labourer. Learning the craft of writing seemed to imply that anyone could do it, and if that was the case, there was nothing special about me at all.

I gradually came to realise that such a view of writing – dividing fiction between literary and commercial, worthy and worthless – between art and craft – is not only the result of ego and insecurity, it’s also utterly wrong.

Writing is both an art and a craft. In the same way that painters, no matter how ‘artistic’, have to learn the basic techniques of holding a brush, applying paint with different strokes, understanding perspective and creating balance, so writers have to learn the fundamentals of the craft. Character, setting, structure, pace – inciting incidents, pinch points, climaxes – these are not things that block our intuitive connection with the Muse, they are the fundamental building blocks of writing. And how you use these tools is down to you as an individual.

I also realised that the literary/commercial distinction is pretty arbitrary anyway. Whenever I go into a bookshop that has a literature section separate from the general fiction section, I’m always amazed by the titles the staff have deemed to be ‘literature’. And who is to say that literature has the monopoly on big ideas? I’ve found profound, life-changing notions in books of all genres, from horror and science-fiction to fantasy and crime. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write it well.

My advice to all aspiring writers out there is to forget about whether you’re writing literary fiction or commercial fiction and just write what feels right for you. I spent far too long writing as somebody else instead of writing as me. I like writing stories with a high body count, lots of explosions, and enough guns to start World War Three. It took me forever to realise that there’s nothing wrong with that.

A Moment of History short story

I wrote this 1500-word piece in a single sitting for a sci-fi short story competition. While this was unplaced, one of the other stories I entered, Out of Time, won. I much prefer this story, with its military-SF setting and desperate, apocalyptic theme. Let me know what you think in the comments.

A Moment of History by Gillan Drew

He stared out the window at the grey sky, urging the clouds to coalesce into rain. The vapid high-altitude mist mocked those in the city below, teasing them with the promise of a salvation that never came.

‘Come in,’ he said in response to a knock at the door and his Executive Officer walked into the room, saluting as she stood to attention. ‘At ease, XO. Take a seat.’

‘Sir,’ she replied as Commander Collard lowered himself into his chair, trying to hide his weakness. Her uniform was crisp and neatly pressed, as usual. He wondered how she managed to get it laundered given their problems. In fact, he didn’t want to know.

‘Have my latest orders been broadcast?’ he asked.

‘That’s what I wanted to see you about,’ she said, her face betraying nothing.

Sighing, Collard rubbed his forehead and leaned back. He knew he wasn’t going to like this one bit.

‘What’s on your mind, Pullin?’

She hesitated just a second before she said the single word he knew had to come sooner or later. ‘Mutiny.’

‘The outlying forces?’ he asked, and fixed her with a pointed stare. ‘Or everyone?’

Pullin let the words hang in the air a few moments before replying. ‘You can’t decrease the ration any further, sir.’

‘Can’t?’ said Collard, trying to project anger through his weariness. ‘The last time I checked, Commander Collard gave the orders, Lieutenant-Commander.’

‘We’re dying of thirst, sir. I can barely see straight as it is. You can’t reduce the ration any further. We’re at the limit of what the human body can handle.’

‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ Collard cried.

His executive officer leaned forward almost conspiratorially. ‘If you give the order, sir, I don’t believe it will be followed. And I think it would place you in danger.’

‘Bring them on,’ Collard snapped. Standing in annoyance, he turned to stare out over the city. ‘I’d rather have an enemy to face, a thousand enemies, than this. I wasn’t prepared for this.’

‘Nobody was,’ said Pullin.

The settlement was on a small moon in the Plantari System, a two year transit from the nearest inhabited world. The topography was principally a rocky, dry tundra, suitable for mining operations and agricultural transformation, for those prepared to work hard at it. And plenty had – there were more than a million people in the city and the satellite towns, and all were looking to him for leadership now.

The problem had been caused by the civil administration. They had been warned, after excessive irrigation work, that they were draining the aquifer faster than it could be refilled. But it was an election year, and votes were more important than introducing unpopular measures that might have averted the drought. So they made speeches and downplayed the problems and banked on rain refilling the wells before disaster. Nature wasn’t obliging.

When the scale of the problem leaked out, the council folded and Collard’s small military force imposed martial law. A million people planetside and help two years distant. Collard had dragged them on for several months by halting mining, reducing farming to subsistence levels and rationing drinking water, but the figures were inescapable – there was only enough water for a fifth of the population. The rest would die.

‘Sir?’ said Pullin, recalling him to the present.

‘Mutiny,’ said Collard. ‘It’s an ugly word.’

‘It’s an ugly situation. We’ve already had a number of incidents.’

‘I’m well aware of the incidents,’ said Collard. There were reports that troops had been stealing water rations, but all attempts to get to the bottom of them had failed – his soldiers had closed ranks, a clear sign that their sense of duty was failing. And the reports had been coming in for weeks.

He looked at the Lieutenant-Commander. ‘What would you advise I do?’

She shifted in her chair. ‘We’re the only ones with weapons,’ she said. ‘And we control the rations, sir. If we took enough water for ourselves, we could try and suppress the worst of the disorder until rescue came.’

‘You mean we should look after ourselves and watch as the rest of them fight it out.’

‘The strong would survive. And nobody could blame us. There are just too many of them.’

Collard shook his head. ‘And how would history judge us?’

‘The people who’ll read that history aren’t here dying, sir. We all respect what you’ve tried to do, but you’ve taken it as far as it can go. You can’t save them all.’ She cleared her throat. ‘What are your orders, sir?’

She put special emphasis on the final word. It was his decision and his alone.

He knew she was right. If he kept going as he was, if his troops stopped following orders, then the planet would tear itself apart. Even if his troops didn’t mutiny, none of them could survive on so low a ration. There were too many people, too few resources – whatever decision he made, hundreds of thousands would die.

‘Okay,’ said Collard. He spoke slowly, trying his best to avoid the horrible conclusion he’d come to – once he’d said it, there would be no turning back. ‘The best prediction is that we can only save two-hundred thousand. If we allow the planet to fall into anarchy, a lot fewer than two-hundred thousand will be here when the rescue ships arrive.’

‘So what are you proposing?’ his executive officer pressed.

Gazing out over the city again under the tantalising grey clouds, Collard prayed for more time, a distraction, something – but nothing came. ‘We pick a section of the city. Two-hundred thousand people. We barricade it, we reinforce it, and we save it. The rest won’t last more than a few weeks. We save the maximum number of people possible.’

Pullin thought on it a moment before she nodded. ‘It’s the right decision.’

‘Don’t patronise me,’ Collard snapped. ‘I’m condemning eight-hundred thousand people to a horrible death. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to each other before the end?’

The officer swallowed and looked away. ‘Which section of the city?’ she asked.

Shaking his head, Collard pressed a button on his desk and a holographic representation of the city was projected into the air between them. ‘Here,’ he said, indicating where the city tapered along a ridge, creating a natural bottleneck at either end. ‘We’re outnumbered but we can hold this position. Barricades across these roads here, here and here, a company of men on each. Make sure there are two-hundred thousand inside. No more, no less. And nobody through until it’s over.’

Now the decision was made, it seemed so much easier giving orders. Collard hated himself for that.

‘I don’t want any of the politicians who got us into this mess inside the safe zone,’ he added. ‘If they’re in there, relocate them.’

‘What about their families?’ Pullin asked. ‘Shall we relocate them too?’

Relocate – as good a euphemism as any for condemning them to die. Collard closed his eyes. ‘Forget that last order. Someone has to be held accountable. Not just us.’

‘We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, sir.’

‘I’m not sure everyone will see it that way,’ Collard replied. He turned away, not wanting to look at her. ‘Get it done, XO.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Pullin replied.

He heard her chair scrape across the floor as she stood, saluted and made to leave. But she stopped before the door.

‘Something I’ve missed?’ he asked, with equal dread and hope.

‘The troops on the barricades, sir,’ Pullin replied. ‘Once the population figures out what we’re doing, it’ll erupt. If warning shots don’t keep them back…’

She trailed off as she didn’t need to complete the sentence.

‘They are authorised to open fire on unarmed civilians, should the need arise,’ said Collard.

‘And we’ll have that order in writing?’ Pullin asked.

Collard’s stomach knotted. ‘You’ll have the order within the hour,’ he replied. An order that would remain in the records till the end of human civilisation. An order with his name on it authorising a breach of every rule and regulation he believed in. How would future historians regard it? A crime against humanity? Or a necessary expedient?

But as Pullin had said, they weren’t here.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said and left.

Collard turned to look out over the city again, his legs weak. The sky continued to taunt him with its unfulfilled promise of rain. And down below, the people had no idea of the storm he was about to unleash upon them.

Sinking into his chair, he put his head in his hands. He hoped that future generations would take what happened here in Plantari as a lesson: too many people, too few resources. But there was little hope of that. It was the reason humanity had taken to the stars in the first place. It was a shame they hadn’t learned from their history.

The End

Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015

A Moment of History

Welcome to The Struggling Writer

Welcome to The Struggling Writer. As the name and tagline suggests, this is a site about a struggling writer, namely me, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew. Almost forty, writing fiction all my life and increasingly fed up at getting nowhere, I figured that here would be a great place to share some of my work, discuss some ideas, and go off on frustrated rants about anything to do with writing, publishing and the wider world around me.

Come for the blog, stay for some stories, and hopefully be moved, entertained and provoked in equal measure. Click on the menu above to access my fiction and feel free to comment.

I look forward to engaging with my fellow writers.

Gillan