How to Write a StoryBy Bud Smith
July 18, 2019
Good Luck: Episode Thirty-Six
Before I called it the first draft, I changed it.
The screen door slashed open, a woman stabbed the man through his belly with a katana. She let go of the handle, he fell sideways on the kitchen floor, sword stuck in. He groaned. She stepped forward, yanked out the sword, his guts spilled across the tiles. She started a fire in the bedroom. This was my final draft of the first draft.
In the second draft, the story went on, all the way to ‘the end.’ The man crawled out of the house as it was burning down, ending up in a glass atrium, where he listened to rain slap on the roof. The last of his blood oozed out. Black smoke filled the atrium. As he was about to die, he thought of how squids hide themselves on the ocean floor, how they make a dark plume and disappear.
Later, in draft twelve, the squid ink thought was edited out, and I was satisfied. The story was stronger when it ended abruptly. Now I had the penultimate ending, and it stayed that way until the actual final draft.
I called the story “The Squid.”
Then I called it “Whatever Forever.”
Then I called it “Young Turks.”
Then I called it “No Cats.”
Then I called it “Love Birds.”
Then I called it “Beauty and the Beast II.”
Then I called it “The Raft of the Medusa.”
When it was published the editor didn’t like the title “The Raft of Medusa.” They asked what else I had, I said I didn’t have any other ideas for titles, so it ran that way.
My back hurt. I stood up from the chair and stretched. I’d thrown it out so bad. I’d thrown it out exercising. So I’d stopped exercising. But then my back hurt worse because I’d stopped exercising. I needed to exercise to get my back stronger so it didn’t hurt but I’d hurt it exercising. I sat back down in my chair.
In the third draft of “The Raft of Medusa,” he was cooking hamburgers on the stove. Big juicy hamburgers. The grease was spitting. In this draft, he sang along to the radio, flipping the meat patties. In this draft, he was just an ordinary guy, so I had him like Creedence Clearwater Revival and gave him this thought, “Whenever Creedence Clearwater comes on I always look over my shoulder to make sure I’m not fighting in Vietnam in some badass movie.” In draft six, I made him a little more ironic, and funny, but also still a regular guy (I pictured he worked as a mechanic) so the thought became, “Whenever Creedence Clearwater comes on I always look over my shoulder to make sure I’m not fighting in Vietnam in some lame movie.” In later drafts, I changed him, made him a little more like a used car salesman, so the thought changed to, “I do all my seduction while playing ‘Run Through the Jungle’.” In whatever draft, she charged in and cut him apart during whatever that thought was. Briefly, in drafts five, six, and seven he wasn’t thinking anything, was just whistling “Behind Blue Eyes,” mind blank.
Fourth draft, her name became Belle, and he became Durak. I’d named another character Durak recently, but thought this could be that Durak, or this could be some other Durak. Could be Durak’s brother, or cousin, could be anyone. Belle? Like Beauty and the Beast?
Fifth draft, middle of the story, I added a part where it became ambiguous whether or not Durak did something terrible to Belle. I also made it ambiguous whether or not Belle did something terrible to Durak even earlier, which might have prompted him acting horrible to her to begin with. I also made it ambiguous that people since the dawn of time had been unforgivable and thus unforgiven and always forgot the pain they caused others. I was trying to win a prize for this story. It didn’t work.
Draft eight, Belle now had fluffy yellow hair like scrambled eggs. Durak was bald for a sentence, and then sported a mullet, which became, and stayed, a Brooklyn fade.
In the sixth draft, some things were added about the katana. How the binding looked on the handle: gold and green, how the blade had a rainbow sheen. That draft had one of her fondest memories of their relationship. They were on the beach at sunset, on their way home from sword school, and Belle tossed a pebble up and said, “Think fast.” Durak chopped the pebble in half, she kept half and he kept half. That was the draft where the katana was first referenced as being mounted above their big brass bed.
I was hungry, I went into the kitchen and made a tuna fish sandwich on a sesame seed bun, lettuce, tomato. I poured a glass of water but there was no ice in the freezer. I drank the water without ice and then I had a moment of doubt. Was this story any good? Why would anyone need to read it?
Then I thought, but how do I even write a story? I don’t know how to write a story. I guess there’s no way to write a story. Here’s how to write a poem: 1) Find a puddle 2) Look for yourself in it for the rest of your life.
How to write a novel: Go to jail in your own life, serve your sentence, if you’re good you might get out early.
How to write a memoir: Take everything you love and throw it into a blender, add everything you hate, four ice cubes, 1/2 a banana, 9 almonds.
But I had no ice cubes, that’s okay, I was writing a short story. Short stories don’t need ice cubes, but they are usually cold as fuck.
Oh wait, I thought, throwing the last bite of the sandwich in the trash, I remember how to write a short story: WE ARE OUT OF TIME GET TO THE POINT, YESTERDAY.
There’s another way to do it, too, I thought, while filling the ice cube trays. How to write a short story: Climb this dry-rotted shaky wooden ladder, and very carefully pull yourself up onto the icy ass roof.
I put coffee on. You slip and you die. Yeah.
How to write a poem: Don’t write a story.
How to write a story: write some poems.
How to write a short story: 1) Find a giraffe out there wandering in your neighborhood 2) Get the giraffe to help you build your treehouse. 3) Tell the giraffe if it wants some privacy it can always stick its head in the treehouse and hide, can always be alone, just like how squids disappear in their ink on the bottom of the ocean.
I drank the coffee, got the mail, moved my car because the street sweeper was coming. I sat back down at my bamboo desk in the pink room. I copied the story into a new file and began a new draft. I had a new idea about how to write a serious short story. I put a metal ladder down my own throat and climbed down it to take photographs of my own heart. I had to use the flash, it was very dark inside my own body. Happy with the photos. I climbed up the metal ladder, pulled it out of my mouth, leaned it against the pink wall, and began typing. When I was done with this draft, I read it aloud and decided it was no good, I deleted my heart
In all the drafts, Belle had the shakes, and felt remorse, sometimes even so much that she at least thought about turning herself in to the police. In all the drafts, Durak reached down and picked his own intestines off the floor and screamed and began to crawl. In every draft, the fire was a huge blaze, sometimes it led to over a hundred other houses being lost. After draft three, Belle was shot by the police, first just outside the police station, and then at a mini mall, and then finally at Josephine Johnson’s house. Josephine was Durak’s secret girlfriend. In the second to last draft, I gave Josephine her own agency, and she shot Belle herself, then the cops came. For half a draft, Josephine was the hero, but then I had the police come shoot her too, but I guess that has nothing to do with her being a hero or not. Bittersweet tragedy. All the stops pulled out.
The doorbell rang. My back hurt again. I got up from the desk. Did full walking lunges with my arms over my head to stretch my back out, headed down the hallway, the door bell ringing again.
The super of my building was outside my door. He wanted to coordinate a convenient date and time for him to paint the iron sprinkler pipe that ran into my apartment. The whole building was getting the pipes painted white, floor by floor, apartment by apartment. I asked him if he still had my car key. He said he’d never had my car key. I told him I was out of work and I could paint the sprinkler pipe for him if he left the paint, but then could he please forget the twenty dollars I owed him for moving my car back when I’d been on vacation and had left the car. He said, “What twenty dollars? I didn’t move your car.” So I just told him to forget about me offering to paint the sprinkler pipe, he could do it Tuesday, and I guessed in my personal ticker tape of thought that I’d have to go and get spare copies of my car key made, again. I’d owed him forty dollars anyway, I was just saying the twenty to make him think it was twenty and then he’d negotiated it down to zero all on his own.
“Come Tuesday if you like, I’ll be here working at my desk, you won’t bother me.” He said goodbye.
It was three o’clock, I was supposed to go into my spare room and set up my weights, but I didn’t feel like it. The day before I’d had a premonition of severe injury, and had stopped between sets to put on a back brace. I then proceeded extremely carefully while doing squats and deadlifts as I watched Act 1 of a production of Waiting for Godot on Youtube. I had been extra careful, always, remembering what had happened to me (and my back) the year before, while doing squats and deadlifts and watching My Dinner with Andre.
Instead of exercising, I sat down at the computer and checked my account. Just as I thought. I picked up the phone and called the unemployment office. The digital prompts eventually got me through to a human. She said my claim had run out and there was no way to get an extension. I told her that was fine and thank you for your help, but also, there was some mistake, because I was looking at my account on the computer now, and it was showing me I still had seventeen more checks coming my way. The operator had me hold on. “Young Turks” by Rod Stewart played, followed by three quarters of “Shout” by Tears for Fears. She came back on the line apologizing and said there had been some kind of glitch, Smith is a common name, my money would be deposited today. I said thank you, and confessed I was an out of work construction worker, but getting unemployment checks was kind of like getting a National Endowment for the Arts because in between jobs I was writing a novel called Good Luck and now she was in it. She said, “You’re a writer? Are you making money from that?” I told her yes I was, I was getting this National Endowment for the Arts from her unemployment office and we laughed together, she told me she just worked in a call center, it wasn’t her anything. And actually, she was writing a novel too. “About what?” She said she was sorry but she couldn’t tell me, but maybe one day I’d be at the bookstore and I’d get some kind of spooky feeling and the hair on the back of my neck would rise and I’d open up the book and see it was dedicated to me. The line went dead. Later that day, my money showed up. I worked on another draft as the sun ducked behind the buildings.
In the seventh draft of the story, Belle put Durak’s cat in a cat box before she left and this made her more likable. Also in this draft, Durak yells, “Fuck that cat! What about me! You’ll just leave me here to burn alive?” which makes him less likable. In the seventh draft, I made the cat into a bird. It was more symbolic to have her save a caged bird, and plus the bird was already in the cage so that saved me the trouble of having her have to catch the cat and put it into a cage, and plus let’s face it, some readers just don’t relate to cats, no matter what happens to cats, they just tune out when there is a cat in a story. You can never go wrong with a bird.
Later on in that draft, when the police shoot Belle in the mini mall, the bird cage falls on the ground and there’s a cool scene of the door to the cage bursting open and the bird flying away to freedom. In draft eight, I had the cops shoot the bird out of the sky. When the secret girlfriend, Josephine Johnson, shoots Belle, the bird flies away, and Josephine Johnson doesn’t shoot at the bird. The cops come and kill her in the next paragraph but the bird is long gone.
Also in the eighth draft, Durak thinks about trying to call the fire department but he can’t get off the floor. In this draft, I batch searched ‘Belle’ and made her ‘Monique’ and then ‘Ophelia’ and then finally settled for real on Monique. So, not to do some gymnastics on you here, but when I referred to Belle as Belle in later drafts, you’ll have to imagine her as Monique.
In the ninth draft, Durak sees her car parked on the dirt road as he crawls into the atrium, where the phone is. He thinks he can yank it down by its dangling cord. Monique is in the car laughing and waving, holding the bird cage, and the bird is flapping around wildly, flames jumping behind the curtains of the bungalow.
In the tenth draft, Durak stares at her topaz car parked out on the dirt road. He crawls off the back deck, leaving a smear of red, heads into the atrium. She is laughing and waving, but then she blows him a kiss and he thinks he sees a tear. The bird is crying too. Now the flames are described as dancing demons. Corny. I deleted that. She drives away. I kept the tears all the way to the end. Tears get asses in the seats.
In the thirteenth draft, I describe the atrium, where Durak will die, as a jungle of convenient regret. That’s dumb. I put the Creedence Clearwater thoughts there, because the atrium reminds him of the jungle (he wasn’t a soldier but likes movies about Vietnam), “Whenever CCR comes on I always look over my shoulder to make sure I’m not fighting in Vietnam in some lame movie.” And then after that I had him think this recycled thought too, “I do all my seduction while playing ‘Run Through the Jungle,’ even when I’m dying.”
That draft had the paragraph, “Durak wondered if the fire trucks would come at all. Maybe once the fire had spread across the back porch and caught the fir trees. Those trees that would change colors soon, from dull green to orange and blue and red. They’d look like what they really were, sentinels of his death. When the fire trucks got here, tonight, tomorrow, the glass would be shattered, and the frame of the atrium gone. He’d be gone with it. His ash piled in the ash of everything else, all of it floating off in the breeze when the breeze came.” But I cut it.
I got up from my desk, put ice cubes in a big glass of water, went down the hall, stretched, warmed up, exercised for forty-five minutes. It was a hot day, ninety-two degrees and almost a hundred percent humidity, but I was thinking about my winter coat. I’d gotten too fat for my coat three years before, actually, going on four years now. It was the height of summer, but I knew I had to do something about my body, because all winter I’d shivered, refusing to buy a new coat. And still, I refused to buy another coat. I wouldn’t. It was lose the weight during this heat wave or freeze in the coming blizzard future. That coat was supposed to last the rest of my life. That had been the deal. I put on Act Two of Waiting for Godot and I carefully got under the sagging bar, the floorboards creaking, my knees popping, the discs in my back threatening to explode. Whatever forever, thought Estragon, Whatever forever, thought Vladimir, Whatever forever, thought Samuel Beckett. Whatever forever, thought Bud Smith. I wondered if I should start studying karate instead, slicing the air with a staff, and then later get good enough to do it with a sword.
I sat down at my desk, sweaty and hoping Estragon and Vladimir didn’t hang themselves tomorrow. Fourteenth draft, I deleted any sentence with a question mark. Question marks ruin stories.
Fifteenth draft, Durak catches on fire as he is thinking about the bottom of the ocean and the squid ink again. Haha, that’s pretty funny but I took it out.
Sixteenth draft, the man still dies but I thought I wouldn’t call him Durak anymore, he became nameless again. But he thinks a good thought about Monique. He thinks back to a time when they were happy. Before he’d done that terrible thing I’d hinted at, whatever it was, forever. In this draft, too, the man becomes a painter. A professional portrait artist. That’s how he made all this money. In this story, nobody knows how to operate a camera. They’re still getting their portraits painted like they are King Louise III. This draft I establish a location and a date. Idaho, 2018. The happy thought is Monique buying Durak the sword as a birthday present. They workout at a dojo together. They plan on traveling to Japan for their honeymoon, but never get to.
The doorbell rang, the super had my car key in his hand. He said, “I just found this. And you owe me forty bucks, I just remembered.”
“Yeah, I owe you forty. Tell you what, leave the paint and I’ll paint the sprinkler. I don’t have the money.”
“Paint the sprinkler and pay me twenty.”
“I don’t have twenty. Sure I got a National Endowment for the Arts, that’s no secret, but I don’t have twenty.”
“Then you take the paint and you paint Apartment 1C, and 1D, and the pipe running down the hallway.”
“For forty dollars? That’s a lot of work. I’ll do all that if you pay me twenty.”
“No. You do all that painting and you don’t make a mess, you do a good clean job and then if you do a good job I’ll move your car for free the next time you go on vacation.”
“I’m not going on vacation. I’m staying right here and doing nothing.”
“So you’re already on vacation.” He smiled wide at me.
“Vacation all the time, Sergei.” I dug my wallet out. I handed him his money and he handed me back my spare car key. Rae called, she was on her way home, she hoped I’d had a great day, what was for dinner?
Seventeenth draft, the man is “saved” and the story ends:
“His vision gone, black smoke filled the atrium. The fir trees wrapped in jackets of flame. He felt the heat. His heart slowed. The man picked up his guts with his sticky hands, and he pushed them back inside, and they stayed there.
And then seeing that success, he put these things back inside himself too: The thought, Everything is very calm here. I am in the lotus position and have no attachments to anything in this material world. It’s so rad. The thought, Nobody is successful don’t listen to them; a piece of sheet music, Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat major; a new pigment of blue, just discovered; an oil painting, stuffed into his closing wound, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa; a belief: Impermanence is not doom; another belief: Every artist who keeps breathing gets a reinvention with each breath; and finally, a recollection, something he’d seen that’d given him hope—The look of defeat of someone sprinting through a downpour and how it had turned into a look of joy as they surrendered and begin to walk.
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