Liner Notes: The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…

4.3.12 | | 10 comments

Liner notes for The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…, published Feb. 2012 on Mormon Artist as part of the Mormon Lit Blitz contest.

This story was born out of frustration and anger. It was early June 2009. I was upset with myself because I hadn’t managed to pull anything together in time to enter the Irreantum fiction contest. In fact, I was depressed about my fiction writing in general. But after wallowing a bit I decided to buck up and see what else I could do and ran across Sunstone’s short short fiction contest. The deadline was fast approaching, but I figured if I could come up with an idea for a story, I could finish it in time. But what?

I was on the commuter bus one morning. My thoughts were on my frustrations. I had recently acquired Metric’s album Fantasies because it had been on sale on Amazon for $5. I put my headphones in and fired it up. I needed some music to get me out of my head. The first song “Help I’m Alive” came on. It has a strong drumbeat, which I love. I started drumming with my fingers. And then Emily Haines sang “Can you hear my heart beating like a hammer? / Beating like a hammer? / Help, I’m alive, my heart keeps beating like a hammer.” I pulled out my mini yellow legal pad and wrote “Elder Russell’s greenie wouldn’t stop drumming.” I jotted down a few more notes.

Later — either that evening or the next — I sat at my computer with “Help I’m Alive” on repeat and listened to the song over and over again while I wrote the first draft (a similar process to what I took with my story based on Postal Service album Give Up minus the thematic inspiration). Later I revised it and then did another revision all the while listening to that same Metric song over and over as I wrote. The rhythms of the prose aren’t the same rhythms as the song, but the song helped me focus on what I was trying to do, and especially kept me disciplined, kept me paring and tinkering because I knew it was important to get the poetry of the prose right.

I submitted the story to the contest. It was 1,322 words (I believe the limit was 1,500).

I didn’t find out the contest results until January 2010. It was not a winner. So I did a revision, which brought it down to 1,011 words, and submitted it to the Irreantum fiction contest in May 2010. The revision pared down some of the flabbiness of the Sunstone entry. I also got my act together and finished an experimental speculative fiction story to submit, which made me happy. Neither entry placed, but I was very confident about both and pleased with how they turned out. Because of its length, I thought about just posting The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop… here at AMV, but decided to just hold onto it for awhile. I’m very glad I did because when James and Scott announced the Mormon Lit Blitz in November 2011, I knew I already had one entry that I could submit.

But for all that, to be honest, I wasn’t super enthused with the piece. I was more interested in the new one I was working on (The Shattered Backboard). But in late December, I did another revision (according to my notes it was the fifth draft) and brought it down to 994 words. In January, I wrote Pass Along and submitted it. It seemed to me to be more in line with the potential audience for the contest. So of the three submission, I must admit that I was the least interested in The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop… It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was a strong story; quite the opposite. It’s just that I had lived with it for so long.

Then it became a semifinalist. And then a finalist. Which made sense to me — it was the best written of the three. But I still wasn’t 100% fully on board with the story.

When I got Nicole Goldberg’s editor’s notes I went through my normal stages of writerly reaction to editing: denial (They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do here), anger (What do they know? I have no idea how to fix this. This is stupid!), acceptance (Well, you know, I can kind of see how this part could be a bit better), excitement (Oh, yeah, I could totally do this and this. That’s gonna be much better). But when it came to actually make the fixes, I struggled. I had a sense of what needed to be done, but couldn’t get the words quite right. And then suddenly I realized what was missing. I grabbed my headphones, put “Help I’m Alive” on repeat and went to work. Everything clicked into place rather quickly. I reread the entire piece and was very pleased with the end result. In fact, I derived more satisfaction out of the final version than I had ever thought I would.

This was a long, boring explanation of the journey this story took. But I tell it to illustrate three things:

1. Adding venues for the publication of Mormon-themed short stories is very important to the field. If you strike out with Irreantum, then your only other hope is that Dialogue or Sunstone takes it (and that’s only if you feel comfortable publishing with one or both). This story would not have found a reading public without the Mormon Lit Blitz. I can’t wait for it to find a permanent home on Everyday Mormon Writer (as well as write more stories for that venue).

2. With flash fiction, it’s the polishing that makes a difference. A few changes here and there can take a piece from fairly smooth to shiny and lustrous (or at least shiny and lustrous in my eyes).

3. And related to the prior point: editing helps. It’s a lesson I have to re-learn with every piece of mine that gets published. But so far it has held true.

10 comments: “Liner Notes: The Elder Who Wouldn’t Stop…

  1. Th.

    .

    That’s when and why I bought Fantasies as well. And one of the problems with my current project is its lack of soundtrack. And it’s a great story. It had my #2 vote. Even though I didn’t want you to win a redundant Kindle.

  2. Wm

    Thanks.

    And: I don’t generally need a consistent soundtrack for much of the writing I do — anything I like that’s at the right tempo will work. But it was startling to discover how much my brain had been effected by the conditions of the original creation of the piece.

  3. Th.

    .

    I’ve noticed this as well. For instance, I often have to keep to pen color, paper type, etc, if I’m writing longhand.

  4. Sarah Dunster

    Amen, amen and amen. And thank you for writing a post about striking out…the fact that you have makes me feel OK. Like, really, really good writing doesn’t always win, so I don’t neef to feel crappy that not a single one of my entries was even a semi-finalist :D

  5. annegb

    Segullah offers an alternative. I don’t know very much about this sort of writing–or any, really. But I wish, I WISH there’d be a way to get published by mainstream media outlets. Jewish writers write about Judaism and Catholics write things taking for granted the Catholicism and they get printed.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing

    The Elder who Couldn’t Stop may not have placed at Irreantum, but I happen to know it was in the finalist pool. I always liked this story and voted for it in the litz blitz. I don’t think most people understand how difficult it is to write successful short shorts. I’ve never done it. The short short I’ve tried writing, well, I’ve had to fluff them up into longer stories. Never have I been able to cut an attempt at a short short, as you did, and make it better. I admire writers with the guts to try the short short and really admire it when they succeed. And your story really did succeed.

  7. Wm Morris

    Thanks, Lisa. I’m very pleased you like it and think that it succeeds. Like other writers, I do often live with doubt about my writing. Which is why more venues for publishing Mormon literature is a good thing — you can’t get any reactions at all if the stories remain stuck on your hard drive.

    Sarah:

    Contests are tough. Certainly writers need to show some craft, but beyond a certain threshold, much of the selection comes down to the preferences of the judges. And I think that’s as it should be. Contest selections, editorial decisions to accept/reject — none of those judgments are wholly objective. There’s no way they could be. It’s taken me awhile to realize that that’s fine — that the authors job is to find the editor (and ultimately the audience) and that the editor’s job is to make the hard decisions.

    I don’t know if I’m making much sense, but what I’m trying to say that neither of my my base instincts — to either uphold the validation of editorial choices and think them sacrosanct (which, of course, means that if I’m in the running and didn’t make it, it means my stuff is rubbish) or dismiss it (man, it’s totally rigged. my stuff is way better than what they chose.) — are correct. Rather, editors and authors are here to work collaboratively to produce projects that reflect craftsmanship and creativity and have a decent chance of finding an audience, and sometimes a story is a good fit and sometimes it isn’t, and a rejection doesn’t mean that a story is rubbish, but it also may mean that it needs more work done on it to be effective in finding the right it.

  8. Sarah Dunster

    great advice. I think in my case it’s a good dose of both. I’m a pretty young writer (young in years but also writing experience) and so I know my stuff needs a lot of work. Even my pieces that won segullah last year were very heavily edited by people who are good at that sort of thing… and it was probably one of the biggest writing boot-camps I have had up to this point.

    And a funny: So I entered several poems into WHR’s Utah Writers’ contest this year, because it is the last year I can claim Utah as my state and why not go for the gold, right?

    The other day I got an envelope from them in the mail–no letter, no explanation, nothing except a copy of this issue of WHR… which none of my stuff is in. Is that normal? At any rate, it’s the best rejection letter I’ve ever gotten! :D Devouring it, and loving lessons learned from the writing in that publication (as well as others… fire in the pasture, for instance. sometimes the best lesson is just reading good writing.)

  9. Sarah Dunster

    My phone’s being buggy. If you get a million duplicate comments in your filter, I apologize. But WHR is western humanities review… or at least they’ve been styling themselves that way lately :)

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