Tag Archives: fiction

A little from column A, a little from column B

And then I wrote it and I had nowhere else to put it except here, so here it is. It doesn’t have a title yet. Though it might be “Ariel, altered”.


Looking up through the blue-green mirk, she could see sparkles on top of the water. The sun was shining up there, but down here it was chilly, dim, always. Whatever was up there didn’t concern her: her life was below. She had all day to do what needed to be done, but here she was rushing at the last minute. Her little boy would scold her, as only a serious four-year-old can, for not paying attention to her duties. He was off looking for shiny glass and pieces of metal dropped by those above, tossed away because they’re no longer needed, done with. Down here nothing is ever done with. It goes on. It stays until it’s nibbled or floated or rusted apart, but it’s still here, just in a different form.

Her heart was weighted, not bouyant like the little boy’s. He was the sort who would have bobbed up to the surface with sheer exuberance if biology had only let him. For her, meandering along the bottom was easy. She never said she was unhappy with her life, but she felt as if she’d come to the end of the new things, and she hadn’t done anything, and when would she ever?

Her long hair surged slowly around her head as she prepared the food, getting in her eyes. She didn’t have a spare hand to push it away, and it would only come back again anyway. No hair ties for mermaids. Even a braid was frowned upon, after a certain age. The man wouldn’t like it, though he didn’t like hairs floating around his dinner either. “You should have thought of that before you came down here and found me,” she said when he wrinkled his nose. So fastidious, she thought to herself. Men shouldn’t care that much about their food, they should just eat it and be grateful they didn’t have to catch it themselves.

She skewered the small fish with some sharp bones to keep them together, tied a wide ribbon of seaweed around the larger ones, and anchored the whole thing to the rock with a couple of round, white stones. “It’s ready,” she called out, but her words were whipped away by the current. She bobbed there peacefully, working at not minding. The food wouldn’t go cold. She flicked a hand at a curious catfish to keep him away. “Find your own, this is taken.” The small boy rushed down from the middle waters, grabbing a few mouthfuls and dashing off again. “Can’t you stay here a while and have a civilized meal with us?” she asked him. “What’s so urgent up there? Have you been snacking? You’ll ruin your appetite.” He was already gone.

She remembered playing with the shafts of sunlight at that age, watching the fry weave in and out, silver and black, silver and black. Flipping over and over with a friend, doubled up with giggles at the pure hilarity of life. He would take on the heaviness soon enough; let him have his fun now.

The man came, at last, neither fast nor slow. He asked about her day, he admired the dark greenness of the weed she’d found and the tiny sweet fish. He did all the right things, but her smile stuck in her throat. See me! she wanted to say. See me! Not the things I did, but the mermaid I am. See all the things I’m not doing because… because I can’t, because it’s too late or too far or too hard or because you won’t let me. He would be baffled. He would crease his forehead and ask what exactly he was stopping her from doing. He would ask how he could help, but she knew the fault wasn’t in him, it was somewhere else.

She ate the food. She listened to his story of work on the river delta. When he asked where the boy was, she motioned to the child tumbling happily in the warmer waters a little way off. They watched his lithe body, strong and fast, well proportioned and growing apace. They were pleased with him, in this moment.

She picked up one of the shiny pieces of metal the boy had collected. She knew it was sharp on one edge, because it had hurt his hand and they’d put it away in the cleft of a rock, carefully. She used it sometimes to cut seaweed, if they needed tough seaweed to bind something. She turned it this way and that, marveling at the rippling, ever-changing picture on the flat side that was some sort of a reflection of herself.

“Cut my hair,” she said suddenly to the man. She gathered her locks together at the nape of her neck, catching them with two hands spanned and then circling them securely in one thumb and forefinger, and gave him the knife. Do this thing for me, she thought, to show that you know who I am.

He took the blade and looked into her eyes. She nodded. “Do it. I want to be new.”

So he did.


The next draft

The first draft is like the first pancake. Have I said that before? The first pancake (and maybe this only applies to crêpe-like pancakes, not fat American ones) is made to be discarded. You have to make it, you can’t skip straight to the second, but it’s never any good. You know that from the start, so you don’t resent it. It’s just part of the process.

No matter how much I wanted the first draft of the book to be the book, it wasn’t the book. It wasn’t even the bones of the book. It was the canvas of the book, maybe, the background. I knew nothing in particular happened, but I thought a sequence of lots of little things happening would knit together into a book.

They didn’t, though. The agent was very nice, but she said that while she liked the characters and the setting and the writing, my story lacked a story. And I couldn’t argue and send it off to someone else who would see things differently because I knew that she was right.

It was the first pancake. It had to be done, but it wasn’t for public consumption.

Because I am a contrary sort, though, I didn’t just chuck it and start afresh on pancake number two. This was in large part because I’d already written most of pancake number two by the time I heard back from the agent, and pancake number two was a sequel to pancake number one. It couldn’t stand alone, and I felt that it was good enough that I didn’t want it to fall by the wayside.

So over the summer I hatched a plan to rescue pancake number one. I came up with a plot that could be applied to the book I had, once I’d thrown out all the parts that didn’t fit it. This is a bass-ackwards way to do anything and I don’t know yet if it’s going to work or if the pancake is just irredeemable.

I’ve been stitching the plot bits into the surrounding bits since the kids went back to school. It’s going … okay, I think. It’s hard for me to tell. When I think about the book as a whole, it feels like a sheet on a lumpy bed that I need to smooth over. I want to put a nice blurry filter over the whole thing so that it fits together neatly and the seams aren’t visible. I want it to flow, but I’m not sure if that’s possible when the plot has been retrofitted into the whole.

I’m not going to spend months and months more on this. I’m going to finish it up in the next couple of weeks, hopefully, and make it good enough to be proud of. And then I’ll send it back to that agent and maybe some others too.

And then I’ll start on pancake number three. The third pancake is usually a good one.

A little flight of fancy

My grandmother met George Bernard Shaw once. This is not how it happened, but this is what I imagined before I knew more of the story.
The young woman with the thick chestnut hair wore a long skirt and a high-necked blouse with big sleeves. It may have been fastened at the neck with a cameo brooch. She stood behind the long wooden counter of the bookshop, coming around the front from time to time to re-shelve a hardback or reorganize the display on the table. I don’t know what bookshops looked like then, so I may be taking some liberties here. There may have been a ladder on wheels attached to the shelves lining the walls, but perhaps her boss didn’t let her scale it. She was only 19 or 20, still unmarried. Perhaps she had already met her fiance, the handsome Tom Doran, also a Londoner of Irish descent.
She looked up as the bell on the door rang, smiling to see one of her regular customers enter. He was accompanied by a bearded gentleman who looked distinguished and carried a cane. It was raining; they were happy to come into the warm shop. Their heavy coats steamed a little and smelled of wet wool.
“Good afternoon, Mr Russell,” the shopgirl said. “Lovely weather for ducks.”
“Indeed, indeed, Miss Wall,” he replied. They were on second-name terms, though she wore no name badge. He was always happy to see her friendly smile and suspected she had a dry wit, though that was not an appropriate trait for a young lady to display.
“My friend, Mr Shaw, is looking for a particular volume, Miss Wall. I wonder would you be able to assist him?”
“Yes, of course,” she replied, looking at Mr Shaw and wondering if she’d seen him before somewhere. His impressive beard seemed more and more familiar, now that he’d taken off his top hat and unwound his thick scarf in the warmth of the room.
Mr Shaw, with a cultured accent that had more than a hint of Irish to it, began to describe the book he needed; he wasn’t quite sure of the title, or the author, but had a definite feeling for the content and was almost certain the binding had been red. Miss Wall did her best, looking at her shelves and mentally cataloguing their contents until she had its probable location narrowed down to one particular section. She made a suggestion; it was shot down. She tried again. Mr Shaw paused, reflected, laughed a short “Hah!” and agreed. The binding was blue, but the contents were as he had remembered. He was grateful.
“Miss Wall, you will go far,” he announced.