Fiction Workhorse Week Two 2780 Words

Well, here you go:

The Long Story About Nothing

Jury had a novel he started in undergrad. He’d used an excerpt for his application to two writing programs, was declined by both, and took a copy editor job in his college town. For three months, Jury was diligent. After work, he sat with his laptop open in a far corner of nonfiction at the public library. He ate a sandwich and apple, a repeat of lunch, and typed for two hours. He believed that showing up was the majority of a writer’s work. Sitting at a desk, file open, adding one word after another.

After neither program accepted him, Jury determined to accept the interval as a gift. How many writers had he heard of who quit writing after earning an MFA? He wouldn’t quit. He would write himself dead. And in spring, he’d have a better excerpt to send for consideration.

For three months, Jury wrote like that, to find the end of his first novel and an MFA spot. Both were there, waiting. When students arrived for fall semester, Jury got together with a few classmates in the creative writing program. They got together to workshop on a Saturday morning, taking over a corner booth at the Blueberry Muffin. You’re still working on this, one of them said, a little flat.

The novel was about a boy growing up. Then it was about a boy finding his place. It was also about a boy falling in love. There was a middle part about the loss of innocence on a hunting trip. Jury thought he was in the last quarter of the book, but wasn’t sure. So much happens to a boy.

A couple weeks later, Jury had another fifty pages to workshop but no one replied to his text. He emailed them an attachment. One of the girls called him and said she was really sorry, but her workload killed. He said it was cool. He hated himself for saying that and made a note. Maybe the boy could have that scene.

Work was okay. He was using his English degree, minimally, editing copy for a quarterly magazine called Priceless Porcelain, devoted to anything old and porcelain. It was printed on thick glossy paper and had circulation of seven thousand in the U.S., another five hundred or so abroad, mostly in Canada. The office was staffed by women his mother’s age who were always surprised Jury had a girlfriend. The best part about the office was the baked goods set out in the break room. The other best part, Jury discovered, was that no one expected a riveting five hundred word article about washstand basins. They expected a five hundred word article about washstand basins with commas in the right places. This left plenty of time to roam online and work on his novel. He quit closing his browser when a coworker walked by his desk.

Going to North Carolina? Teresa asked.

Jury swiveled around. No, he said, Just curious. I saw a Civil War era tea set was in the upcoming issue.

I thought that was in Virginia.

Maybe. Jury smiled until Teresa smiled back and walked away. His novel was set in North Carolina and he’d never been. Google street view helped.

Briana was in her last year. She read Jury’s latest pages with a neutral face. Early in their dating, she said she would be his cheerleader, not his editor, as she had no interest in any sort of creative conflict in a relationship. She danced ballet, had spent most of her life in rehearsal. He knew nothing about her art, only that it was good. She never said his was anything but, licking her finger and setting another page aside.

In late September, Briana cracked her ankle in two places. Surgery was unavoidable. Completing her senior thesis was impossible. For a month, Briana stayed in her apartment watching movies and daytime tv. Finally, she reread his entire novel and asked if he wanted an honest opinion.

Would you give me a dishonest one if I asked?

Yes.

Okay. I’ll take honest.

I don’t like it at all. Briana nudged the pile of paper with her good foot. Parts are good, she said, But when you read the whole thing at once, no.

It’s eighty-eight thousand words.

I know.

What am I supposed to do?

Briana shrugged. Start over, maybe. She pointed at her cast. Like this. I don’t know what I’m going to do either.

Have you hated it all along?

I didn’t say ‘hate.’

Disliked?

Briana shrugged. She pointed at her cast again. She took a pinch of fat at her waist. She said, I think I’m missing my endorphins. I’m sorry if I’m being mean.

No, Jury said, I mean, I’d rather you be honest. I had no idea.

I know. I’m sorry.

You still love me?

Yes. But you should start writing something better than this.

You think I can?

God, I hope so.

His head felt like a balloon. He asked if she need anything before he left and she said an ankle. He got her glass of ice water and a bowl of popcorn, kissed her cheek and let himself out. They’d been together for two years and it’d always seemed a kind of miracle. She was too gorgeous and he was too quiet. They tasted like white milk together. This was the first drop of vinegar.

At work the next day, Peggy from ad sales sat down across from Jury. She said, I heard you’re working on a book.

I was, he said. He’d stayed up all night skimming his pages tallying a stupid, awful, irredeemable story.

Well, I had an idea, soon as I heard you are a writer. Last year I did Nanowrimo. Hear of it? Jury nodded and Peggy continued. I got swamped. I’ve never written so much as a letter and I thought I could tell about my great-aunt in the laundries.

Laundries?

The nuns ran them. But the story, writing it, was a nightmare. But you write. I thought you and me could be writing buddies.

Like workshop?

No, buddies. You write your book – Peggy waved a hand a Jury’s laptop – and I’ll write mine. We’ll do word counts. I’ll show you a few sites that give inspiration.

Can I think about it? Peggy said sure and got up, smoothed her skirt. Just remember, she said, It all starts next week. I might cheat a little, get a few thousand words in now. She winked.

By lunch, Jury decided he was in. He called Briana to see how she was feeling. She was angry and apologetic at once. She did need her endorphins. He told her he had a new writing project, maybe she’d like to try it too since she – Briana interrupted, Since I have time? Is that what you were going to say? No, Jury said, but he meant yes.

Peggy, Briana and Jury decided to be writing buddies. They met on Halloween at Briana’s apartment. Peggy brought a bag of mini candy bars. They went online, signed up for daily emails, bookmarked a plot generator site called Need A Twist!!? Briana found a site composed entirely of links to blogs chronicling writers’ own Nanowrimos. Who has time to blog about writing a fifty thousand word book, Peggy wanted to know. The unemployed, Briana said, I could do that. Want me to blog about this? She gestured at the three of them bathed in laptop glow, candy wrappers at their feet. No, Jury and Peggy said.

The plan was to write at least two hours or two thousand words a day, whichever came first. What if I only write fifteen hundred words in two hours? Briana asked. Won’t happen, Jury said, You’ll do it if you keep typing. Trust me.

November 1

Ever since she was a young girl, Taylor wanted to dance.

Briana typed her entire childhood dance fantasy into Taylor. Three hours, twenty-six hundred words.

Bridget knew the risks when she went undercover.

Peggy hammered out two thousand words even and spent an hour googling CIA FBI Conspiracy Russia Cuba Mob Cartel, looking for her bad guy.

No one wants to die young.

He recognized his brother in the café but neither of them said hello.

It’d been ten years.

“I thought you were dead,” she said.

I am dead.

Jury deleted all of his terrible first sentences for zero words. He kept that same tally for days two and three. Zero, zero. Dozens of deleted first sentences. I thought you were supposed to just keep typing, Briana said. Jury had no story. He’d been writing about the boy for too long. Now he had to find a new character. The only ones that kept showing up were depressed and or suicidal and or maniacal and or desperate and or very, very unmotivated. And or dead.

On day four, Peggy stopped by his desk and said, I just had a breakthrough. I know why Bridget wants to kill Vlad. They were lovers. I can’t believe I didn’t already know that! He drove a wedge between Bridget and her sister. Of course she wants to kill him.

Jury finished editing ad copy and opened his laptop. He typed: Write a story. Not about the boy. Go. Now. Write something. Now. First sentence. Pull some teeth, man! Write! Write! Eight thousand words due tomorrow.

Could he count that as twenty-five of the eight thousand?

Jury got take away and went to Briana’s. She was on the couch, weeping and typing, her legs propped on the coffee table, a pint of ice cream sweating next to her. She waved dismissively and kept typing. Jury dished pad Thai in the kitchen and opened a beer. From the living room he heard Briana cry louder. He carried in their food. All he wanted was to watch tv.

It isn’t fair, Briana said, She almost got accepted. She should have been accepted!

New York School Ballet? Jury said. Briana nodded and blew her nose. Jury said, You can rewrite it so she gets in. Briana said, But what’s the story then? I know she can do it. She’s only fifteen. Jury picked up the remote. At a commercial, Briana said she wanted to keep writing, did he mind? Jury turned the tv off and went home. In his own apartment he opened his laptop and tried for the thousandth first sentence.

The next thing you type is your first sentence.

He wasn’t sure what came next.

Jury paused. It was as good as any at this point. Six of fifty thousand.

November 9

Peggy brought a lasagna to Briana’s. Jury made a tossed salad. They ate in the living room. Taylor got into the dance program. Bridget was closer to finding out Vlad’s true identity, with her sister’s help. What about you, Peggy asked Jury, How many words? Who’s your character?

I think his name is Ben.

You think?

I’m not really sure.

How not sure? Briana said.

I’ve got a thousand words, maybe.

Peggy laughed. Jury looked at his lasagna. You got three weeks, Peggy said, Get cracking. The three of them spent the evening typing. Jury managed another twenty-five hundred words and picked a title: The Long Story About Nothing. Too transparent, he thought. But right on. Now he had an answer for the women at Priceless Porcelain. My story is about nothing, he said. He wasn’t lying.

Writing about nothing turned out to be the most beautiful thing in the whole world. Jury had spent too many years obsessed with the boy. Writing Ben’s story of nothing felt like a game. Whatever scene came to mind, he wrote. Nothing connected. He felt drunk, adding longwinded paragraphs, scripting wandering dialogue. It was too easy to write absolutely nothing and he wished he’d tried it ages ago. Why had he ever been so earnest? What kind of writing did earnest yield? After three years of chronicling the boy, all Jury wanted to do was kill him. Writing Ben into a story of nothing was like – he didn’t care. He didn’t pause for the right metaphor. He typed on.

November 13

The way Alex looked at Taylor made her heart flip flop.

Vlad persuaded Bridget to drop the gun.

An abandoned house!

November 20

Jury’s mom called about Thanksgiving. He was right at twenty thousand words. I don’t know, Mom, he said, I’m thirty-five thousand short.

You could go hide in your dad’s office. I want to see Briana.

She’s beating me by ten thousand right now.

Please.

How about first weekend in December?

Fine. Bring Briana. His mom hung up and he felt only a little bad about skipping Thanksgiving. When he typed enough to get light-headed, Jury wondered if he was onto something. Maybe this book about nothing would turn into something. Maybe there were entire stories worth writing, hiding in endless scroll. Maybe. Briana was already looking up agents, sure that her book about a young dancer finding love in New York could be the next YA thing, even if it wasn’t about a vampire in a post-apocalyptic world. And Peggy mentioned the phrase “movie rights” at lunch one day. They were all on a tear, far enough in to see the end and dumb enough to be sure they’d make it.

The panic set in on Thanksgiving. Peggy was hosting her kids and grandkids at her house. She hid in her bedroom during the game and texted Jury: I may as well be watching porn. Everyone’s mad at me. He texted back: I didn’t go home. I’m getting coal for Christmas. Briana hadn’t gone home either and she and Jury typed with the Macy’s parade on mute. Word, Briana said and Jury answered his count. By midafternoon, Briana was at forty-seven thousand, but not near the end of the book. I have at least three more chapters, she said. Jury was hovering near forty thousand and needed a break. He put on his jacket and went out.

Down the street was a bar called Burt’s. A sad collection of old men sat hunched over their beers. Jury ordered a burger. It was a mess to eat. He ordered another to go, for Briana. She had his laptop on her lap.

Hey!

She looked up, reached for the paper bag. The month of sitting had softened her face, filled her thighs. I wanted to know, she said.

I didn’t say you could.

We’re going to get married aren’t we?

Probably.

Well, I should know these things, like what you write. I should be part of that.

Are you cheering?

Yes. This is better than the boy.

Good.

I don’t get it though.

Jury sighed and sat down. There is nothing to get, he said, That’s the whole point.

You mean, it’s literally about –

Yeah.

Briana closed her eyes. Are you happy?

Yes.

You don’t want to off yourself?

No.

Okay. Then. Well, you have another ten thousand to go. Good luck.

November 28

After the performance, Alex gave Taylor a dozen roses.

Bridget sighted her gun.

Ben ate a parmesan cheese sandwich because he’d always wondered what a parmesan cheese sandwich would taste like and now, after years of wondering, he would finally know.

The trick, Jury realized, was long, repetitive sentences. Those would add up to his missing five thousand words. He called in sick and got a text from Peggy: FAKER! He almost made Ben call in sick, but that was reminiscent of the boy, Jury’s own slouching shadow narrating a thinly fictionalized life. Ben would never call in sick. He would vomit in the board room before he called in sick. It would be better to write about the time Ben went cliff diving in Norway, Jury decided. The transatlantic flight alone might eat a thousand words.

On the last day of November, Briana got up from the couch. There was a permanent dent in the cushion. She hobbled to the bathroom and stepped on the scale. Taylor had danced her way through two years and sixty-one thousand words. Briana had typed and eaten her way to ten dimpled pounds. You love me like this? she said to Jury when he came by after work. You look great, he said. He was right at forty-nine thousand, seven hundred and two words. Everything looked great. He sat on the couch and started typing one last paragraph about nothing.

Peggy came by and the three of them ordered Chinese and opened a bottle of wine, toasted the end.

Alex lifted Taylor in his strong arms and she looked out into the audience.

Vlad was better than Bridget remembered.

Ben decided this would do, this time.

2 responses

  1. I hope I was supposed to laugh, because I did. Out loud with tears. That makes it a good piece. Did you have as much fun writing it as I did reading it? I love you.

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