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My first attempt at serious fiction. Some comments and questions after the story.

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Musings

As he pushed the lawn mower back and forth over eighteen-inch grass, Georges Gilbert Celeste Latourette, George to his friends, was glad he had torn himself from the computer. He invested most of his waking hours in front of it, engaging in constructive pursuits like editing Wikipedia articles, writing impassioned political Facebook essays—read by others with similar points of view, and reading stories at his favorite internet site. Stories about well-adjusted, athletic, clear-skinned teenagers with full heads of hair, who stood up to bullies and found romance with other teens like themselves. He spent countless additional hours secretly playing mindless games and viewing online porn after everyone else had gone to bed, making himself more depressed as he tried to ignore a sense of impending doom regarding the consequences of his procrastinations.

George was enjoying the physical activity. Maybe it would keep him from having another heart attack, though that seemed unlikely, given the ice cream binges at his brother’s house, where he had been crashing for a year now, and the desserts and extra portions of somewhat nutritious food at the Lake County Senior Center, three days a week. Extrapolating from his grandfather’s fatal heart attack at age 46, and his father’s at 65, he thought there might be some hope. On the other hand, both of his parents had gotten type 2 diabetes and George had recently graduated into prediabetes. It was hard to stay motivated, and he sometimes thought that an early death would save him from Alzheimer’s and provide some money for his relatives and causes that he supported.

The grass surrounded one of his rental houses, currently empty. Much of the grass was somewhat shorter, but the yard was large, like many yards in Lakeview and unlike the meager weed patch surrounding his house in San Jose. This job would end up taking a few hours and two refills of gasoline.

George used the time to think about his plans for the yard. There would be a passive solar greenhouse, partially buried and containing enough thermal mass to avoid spending nonrenewable energy and money on heat during the winter, when temperatures sometimes dropped below zero, Fahrenheit. And vegetables, enough to eat healthy salads all year. He was currently making do with overpriced organic produce from Lakeview’s only supermarket and, occasionally, that same produce after it expired and found its way onto the Senior Center freebie bench. He also wanted to set up a workshop in the building behind the house where he was mowing. It would have a woodworking section—George could begin to use the joinery tools that he had purchased over the years—and an electronics section where he could learn how to program Arduino and Raspberry computers to set up a home security system and automation for the greenhouse. The Arduino and electronic components that he had purchased a couple of years ago were still in their boxes, so he might need to buy another nanocomputer to take advantage of the latest technology.

Of course he would never do any of those things, just as he would never free himself from his possessions. His house in San Jose was a badly organized warehouse, filled with four dead people’s stuff. Uncomfortable Victorian chairs and fine display cabinets filled with beautiful things that George and Héctor had bought together. The entire contents—paintings, furniture, and junk—of Richard’s parents’ house. And all of Richard’s things. Richard had been a shopaholic, acquiring arguably useful items for twelve years before hanging himself in the hallway, leaving George to deal with it all. George knew that if only he could haul everything to the dump and fix up the house, he would get enough rent money to buy things he liked better, sufficient to fill another house. But, like most of his other plans, that would never happen: it was too hard to let go. He would do to his relatives what Richard had done to him, except for the hanging part. All he needed to do was eat as he had been eating, sleep as he had been sleeping, and take his medicines as consistently as he had been taking them.

His name had been a gift, sixty-eight years earlier, from his father, Dr. John Francois Latourette, Junior. It had created problems for him as a child, especially when the principal read it at his eighth-grade graduation. Celeste? Celeste! And badly pronounced, as if he were two Georges. The names were a tribute to his Huguenot ancestor Georges de la Tourette and Georges’s brother Gilbert-Celeste, and to his famous distant relative, Dr. Georges Gilles de la Tourette. The brothers’ great-grandparents had fled from France to Switzerland after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, eventually reaching England. Seeking more freedom and opportunity, Georges and Gilbert-Celeste crossed the Atlantic in 1700 and settled in Manakin Town, Virginia, where they built a house, bought some slaves, and became Americans.

The story was a source of family pride—except the part about the slaves, of whom George learned only as an adult. But to George the child, his name had been one more example of how his father wanted their family to be different, better than families that had televisions, drank alcohol, smoked cigarettes, cussed, and had extramarital sex. Families whose dads let their sons use bad grammar, who played catch with them and took them to baseball games. John had wanted George to be better than his less intelligent classmates. When other kids made fun of his name, George told them about his illustrious relatives, which alienated him from them even more.

Well, George thought, Dad got his wish. John was an accomplished but pathetic man who passed his lack of emotional intelligence onto his son. He’d gotten his other wish, too. Having heard, “When will you ever amount to anything?” many times as a child, George had fulfilled the implied prediction. But John’s biggest sin was that he never taught George how to have fun or experience joy. How could he have?

As he pushed the lawn mower, George pursued his favorite fantasy: going on a one-way trip to when he was a kid, but with the knowledge he had as an adult. This time, he wouldn’t waste his life. He had spent a lot of time in libraries and on the internet to prepare himself. Smarter than everyone else, he would become a visionary teenager, warning the world about carbon dioxide and HIV and standing up for civil liberties and racial justice. He could prevent the AIDS epidemic before it happened and get a Nobel Prize for that. He would get to have sex and romance with guys like the ones in the stories. Put that asshole algebra teacher in his place. Have a perfect put-down for the guy who gave him grief over a sweater that his grandmother had bought for him at a rummage sale. Best of all, after his father used a coat hanger on his bare buttocks, he would say, “Asimov was right: violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Of course this would earn him another spanking, but he would take the pain without crying. His experience as a BDSM bottom would help with that. He would goad his father into beating him until the police hauled him off for child abuse.

Maybe almost seven decades is enough, he mused. People didn’t live much longer than that, anyway. But first he had to straighten out his affairs.

He finished the mowing. A good afternoon’s work, but not really progress: the grass would only grow back. He noticed he still had some time to work on his current carpentry project, constructing a pair of garage doors. Attached to the workshop, the “garage” was more like a carport, with a sloping roof and a trapezoidal opening in the in the front. Doors would allow the tenants to store their stuff, as he was keeping the workshop for himself. The work went slowly: George had many nice tools but meager skill. Still, he enjoyed using his creativity to solve problems like putting a door into a non-rectangular opening adjacent to the main building’s eaves.

Using a spirit level and protractor to measure the roof slope—not very accurately, it turned out—George tried to visualize exactly how he would need to cut the 10 foot piece of 2 by 10 lumber. The board had to be wide enough to attach just behind the front rafter, but not so wide as to hit the transverse slats supporting the sheet metal. His mind wandering, he looked up at the sky, now a deep gray though sunset was not due for another three hours. He saw a lone goose gliding below the clouds, barely moving except for an occasional wing flap to regain a bit of altitude. Those wings, along with its long neck and extended feet, defined a shape that reminded George of a kite. Very slowly, it drifted north and over the horizon. The dark goose, dark green tree leaves fluttering in an increasing wind, and brownish green of the Warner Mountains contrasted with the clouds in understated elegance.

The temperature had gone unusually low for June, but the inside of the truck would still be warm. George climbed down the ladder and blew into his hands to warm them as he basked in the wonder of what he had just seen. Looking toward the garage, he noticed something on the roof. Could it be his brother’s favorite framing hammer? Yes! Having misplaced it two days earlier, he’d imagined it waiting to become a lawn-mowing casualty. He retrieved it and noticed the lack of any new rust.

Life was good.

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My first draft of this started with George coming off the ladder and seeing the goose. But that seemed too short, even for flash fiction, and I wanted to explain the significance of "life was good." Eventually, I came to see it as the opening episode of a story, tentatively called Lakeview Chronicles, about a gay senior citizen moving to a small town, finding that he had brought his demons with him (and sometimes fighting them), and finding some moments of happiness. There will be realistic descriptions of the problems and satisfactions of old age, a lot of old people and probably numerous younger characters, hopefully, if I somehow learn how to write credibly about teenagers along the way. Not much action, but less introspection than in this introduction to George's character. No dramatic ending or happy-ever-after, unless I can find a way to make that believable. The story could be open-ended, but episodes will build on previous ones.

So, here are my questions:

  • Did the story hold your attention? Would it hold the attention of the kinds of people who read the tales in Awesome Dude?
  • Would this be viable as a stand-alone short story? 

Any suggestions or other comments—even those like "this was so boring I couldn't finish it"  or "I never got to the point where I cared about the protagonist"—will be gratefully received.

Thank you!

peter

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Two questions, with answers—well, three, disguised as two:

 

  • Did the story hold your attention? Would it hold the attention of the kinds of people who read the tales in Awesome Dude?

  People who visit AD tend to be discerning and educated.  What they like is well-written tales that aren't cliches, that don't simply turn over already well-used ground, and are entertaining.  If a story fits in those parameters, they'll read it.

    In my opinion, this is a very credible start.  It has a unique voice, if a bit rambling, but the protagonist is an old codger and old codgers ramble, so it makes sense and isn't a bit bothersome.  It deals with something most stories don't, and the grammar and spelling are fine.  So yes, an excellent start and we'll be waiting for the next installment.

  • Would this be viable as a stand-alone short story? 

   I'm not sure what you mean.  If you mean, can you stop right here and write Fini, I'd say sure you can if you want to, but it's obvious there's much more to say here, and, if you enjoy writing, why not keep going?  

 

C

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Peter, I’ll second what Cole said above, and add my bit.  As an ‘old codger’ I’ve been there and done that, and have experienced all the various angsty moments you’ve described so well.  But as with most brooders, I’ve come to wince at stories that dwell on the dark side, since my own particular brand of escapism demands hopeful moments and small fulfillments throughout to hold my attention.  I’d like to experience your protagonist succeeding pretty soon at something besides an aesthetic moment, and I’d like your story to be involved, also pretty soon, with another, contrasting, character.  Maybe even a teen.

Not too much to hope for, I trust? (BTW, with 18-inch grass, I’d hire some kid in a heartbeat to hack at it).

James

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Cole and James, thanks so much for your encouraging words and guidance. My admiration for what both of you have written makes that all the more meaningful to me. 

Cole, the short-story thing was a bad idea, but even proposing it and seeing your response helped me to clarify that. To make it work as a short story, I would have to trim (by a lot) the negative musings and then beef up the turn-around and ending to make it sufficiently long and, as James suggested, provide more than just a moment of transcendent beauty. Perhaps if I had the protagonist about to take his own life, and then the transcendent moment—or something else—prompted him to remember some ways he has made a difference in the life of someone who was similarly discouraged, it would work, but that would be a different story.

My reason for including such extensive musings in Chapter 1 was that I wanted to put as much of George's background as possible out there, before focusing on the thrust of the story—how a socially and politically conservative small town changes a rather bitter liberal old guy who moves there from a big city. (As I have stated in other forums here, my favorite stories involve redemption in one form or another.) I'm still working out how to do that.

James, I like your suggestion of getting other characters involved soon. I have already been working on a couple of them. I think The Americanization of Alex S. is a great example how an old person and a youngster can touch each other's lives.

So, thank you both, and anyone else who has been kind enough to read what I wrote. My take-away from this is that I have a lot of work ahead of me. With your indulgence, I will post some of my (hopefully better) intermediate efforts here.

peter

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Great of you to mention The Americanization of Alex S.  In my view, it's one of the best stories I've read on the net.  

Peter, the work you have to do is writing more.  What you've already written is very good.

C

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Thank you indeed for the suggestion of The Americanization of Alex S. Despite moments of drama (trauma?), it is one of the simply sweetest stories it has been my pleasure to read here. (And thanks to the author, Merkin, too!)

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Hi Peter,

I agree with the other comments here. This is a good start. I don't think you need to introduce any new characters in person in this beginning chapter. It holds together to make George a well-rounded character with foibles and faults.

There is one thing I'd like to expand on a bit. The end of this chapter, "Life was good", didn't grab me and make me wonder what's going to happen next. Since you're planning this as either a series or interrelated stories or a serial novel, I'd suggest a bit of mystery, a mild cliff-hanger, at the close. Perhaps something like, "Life seemed to be good."

Colin  :icon_geek:

 

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5 hours ago, colinian said:

Hi Peter,

I agree with the other comments here. This is a good start. I don't think you need to introduce any new characters in person in this beginning chapter. I hold together to make George a well-rounded character with foibles and faults.

There is one thing I'd like to expand on a bit. The end of this chapter, "Life was good", didn't grab me and make me wonder what's going to happen next. Since you're planning this as either a series or interrelated stories or a serial novel, I'd suggest a bit of mystery, a mild cliff-hanger, at the close. Perhaps something like, "Life seemed to be good."

Colin  :icon_geek:

 

Colin, thanks for your helpful comments. Yes, I agree that "Life was good" is not very interesting, now that you pointed that out. "Life seemed to be good" seems to promise that it is about to take a turn for the worse. I'm thinking something like, "This is good, thought George. I think my life is going to get better," which should raise the reader's skepticism, given George's capacity for self-deception and mood swings.

Re-reading this chapter, I am liking the exposition of George's history a lot less than I did when I wrote it. Too much narrative: it reminds me of what I imagine a psychiatrist's notepad might look like at an intake interview. So, I don't know how much of this chapter will survive, though the lawn mowing and goose watching will, somewhere. Someone, perhaps in an AD forum, wrote that a writer should show, rather than tell, so I think  I'll want to reveal things about George more incidentally, e.g., with something like " 'Dammit!' He pounded his fist on the table, knocking the glass of milk into his lap. The asshole was right again. George was a total screw-up."

Or... "Inside the box he had packed the previous year he saw, unopened, two nanocomputers and a large bag of electronic components."

Again, thanks!

peter

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Hi Peter,

I think your suggested revisions to the story are excellent. I've found that I like to let a story "sit on the shelf" for a while, then reread it. It lets me rethink what I wrote.

I'm interested in Musings and where you take George and what new characters you add in future chapters.

Colin  :icon_geek:

 

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Peter:

A piece of unsolicited advice: don't overthink the thing.

You've written a sound first chapter.  Now the tendency is to go back the look at it from all angles, tweak this and fix that and change the other, and that isn't the best use of your time and creativity.  What you might do instead is move on.  You have many ideas for what comes next, and bogging yourself down making unnecessary changes to what's already written isn't terribly productive.

Move forward, young man!  That's where this story need to go.

And Colin's right: waiting is an essential part of self-editing.  Your first chapter will still there while you write more, and will always be available for tinkering.  But it really should't be your focus right now.

C

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Peter, I agree with Cole. Now is the time to move forward!

Colin  :icon_geek:

 

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19 hours ago, Cole Parker said:

A piece of unsolicited advice: don't overthink the thing.

You've written a sound first chapter.  Now the tendency is to go back the look at it from all angles, tweak this and fix that and change the other, and that isn't the best use of your time and creativity.  What you might do instead is move on.  You have many ideas for what comes next, and bogging yourself down making unnecessary changes to what's already written isn't terribly productive.

Cole, that may be the most useful piece of advice I have received here. I suspect Chapter 1 won't survive in its present form: it was mostly a character study, and now I have other characters that I am beginning to develop and some ideas about how their paths will cross. As you suggest, pursuing those is more productive than continuing to dwell on the one character who will probably be my primary protagonist.

To all of you who have helped me so much, these past few days, thank you. I'll be back.

peter

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On 2017-6-15 at 7:05 AM, Merkin said:

(BTW, with 18-inch grass, I’d hire some kid in a heartbeat to hack at it).

Pushing his lawn mower the 3 blocks to his large vacant lot, George wondered how tall the grass had gotten. It had been two years since its last cutting. The person who was supposed to do it last year—this was a somewhat desperate attempt to salvage some value from what the guy owed him—was currently in prison. George had avoided even looking at the lot, but guilt and the prospect of a citation from the fire marshall were motivating him.

As he walked through what some people called the “low-rent district” he wondered whether the owner of one property had changed the signs. No, there it was, just the same. Two frayed black “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. A sign showing a handgun with the caption, “This home is protected by the Second Amendment” and another asking, “Are you feeling lucky?”

The lot came into view, still verdant. The grass would soon turn brown, as summer progressed. For now, George enjoyed the view, so peaceful. He had bought the lot a few years earlier at the Lake County’s delinquent-tax auction with the intention of building something, but inertia, the size of the project, and the fact that the place wasn’t really suitable for passive solar heating had put those plans on hold.

George started the mower but soon realized that he would need to pick up branches. Some were large, 4 inches thick at one end and extending 12 feet or more. Ron, the neighbor on the south, came out to greet him. “I have a riding mower here. Wanna use it?”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” George replied, “but there’s so much buried junk, I’d be afraid of messing up your machine. Maybe next time, if you’re still willing.” George knew he wouldn’t accept the kind offer the next time, either. Riding mowers were for wimps. Or old people, which Ron certainly was, probably even older than George, and Ron had respiratory problems.

George removed his shirt. It was early evening—no risk of sunburn. Wearing only shoes and shorts, luxuriated in the freedom of being almost naked. It made him more aware of his body, not the unattractive or weakened parts, but everything that still worked. He propelled the mower against the tall grass by thrusting his body forward, backing up to bend the grass the other way, and pushing again. It felt good to be alive.

The thick rose “fence” was in full yellow bloom. It had once run along most of the long north edge of the lot, but the owner of the adjacent property had asked permission to remove part of it. George had granted that, but now he vowed that no more of the portion on his property would be removed. That rose patch, older than George, had slowly spread, over the years. As he proceeded to mow closer to it, George again admired the roses and knew that it was well worth the $162 annual property tax to be owned by them.

The sun had disappeared behind the Cascade Range, and George paused for a moment to take in the sunset. He would not be able to finish before nightfall, but there was still plenty of light. He pushed on, noting that he had no problem seeing the grass as the sky grew darker.

George was alone with his work. Ron was in for the night. People rarely used the alley behind the property, and the lot beyond that was empty. George could see people going into their houses across the street from that, but they probably didn’t even hear the mower or see the person pushing it. George stopped the mower and removed his shorts and underpants. The night was deliciously warm and the air felt good as it bathed his skin. In the unlikely event that one of Lakeview’s finest should patrol the alley, George knew that he could hide everything by sitting in the grass. That carried its own risks: the officer might want to investigate the old man’s well-being. That sliver of danger only added to George’s enjoyment.

By 10:13 PM, George knew that it was time to quit for the night. Glad he had stashed his dark shorts by a recognizable part of Ron’s fence, he found them easily and reluctantly put them on. As he wheeled his machine past Don’t Tread On Me, George wished he could do all his mowing in the dark.

 

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...and with that, having extracted everything of value from the episode that I called "Musings," I am placing it in the trash can. It's served its purpose.

p

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Hi Peter...

Um... unfortunately, the two "roses" links don't work. The "verdant" one does. Now, "verdant" should certainly be "quoted" because that field needs some truly major tough love! Where I live the fire department sends out people when they find out about a "verdant" field or yard or side-yard. It's one of those "You have 48 hours to clear all of this or we'll send someone to do it and bill you on your property taxes." Sometimes it pays to just let the fire department go ahead and have it done (right) and get billed – which means the cost will be split over the two annual property tax bills (November and April).

Anyway, I like the story. I sent the link to my granddad so he can read it. He's 78 and doesn't use a hand mower. He uses a gardening service.

Colin  :icon_geek:

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Colin, thanks for the heads-up on the links. I'm just barely learning Google Photos, or whatever they call it. I'll definitely fix the links, but I need to go mow some grass. :)

p

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OK, do these links work? (Kind of hard to tell from my computer—I think the URLs I copied were just for my access.):

https://goo.gl/photos/AY5PKcZ5TBAHhMCFA
https://goo.gl/photos/QyqsRym7You99SYi9

The original rose "wall" used to go all the way from the front of the lot to the back alley. I'm not sure when they were planted but am assuming they have been around longer than I have.

p

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Both links work. I'm sure glad that I never had to mow that field in the first link!

Colin :icon_geek:

 

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C'mon Colin - you just need to have the right flamethrower handy!

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