Writing fiction is a kind of magic act. We employ our own kinds of linguistic sleight of hand to accomplish wonders on the page. Sometimes, though, vanishing an elephant seems like chump change compared to crafting a story. Case in point: "Right Before Your Very Eyes."
It started with my online writing group. We have an annual Halloween story contest, competing for fun and motivation. Each participant gives another a story seed. It can be an image, an idea, a character--just about anything, really. From this, you're supposed to write a story with some kind of Halloween element.
My story seed involved a magician who could perform real magic, and an assistant who was none too pleased about being actually sawn in half, etc.
Now, I confess that magic acts hold a certain fascination for me. Even so, inspiration for this story was a long time coming. The Illusionist and The Prestige had been in theaters recently, and I wasn't sure I could bring anything fresh to such well-trodden ground.
For whatever reason, I found myself interested in the magician's assistant. You know, of course, that they're usually young, beautiful, scantily clad women. Many people don't seem to realize, though, that there is a reason for this. Misdirection and distraction are, after all, the magician's stock in trade, and the lovely assistant draws the attention of at least half the audience.
It's a thankless job, when you think about it. Demeaning, even. An idea for a role reversal occurred to me: what if the assistant was the one pulling the strings? What if she was actually in charge of the act?
That was enough to get the ball rolling. I banged out the first 500 words . . . and ran into a brick wall.
I realized I didn't like those 500 words. I wasn't even sure I liked the story. It bored me, quite frankly. It felt less like a fun challenge and more like homework. I began to wonder if it was even worth pursuing.
Understand, this is very unlike me. I've had doubts about stories I've written, of course--but once I start something, I usually finish it. So for me to get 500 words in and then think of abandoning it--something had to be seriously off-kilter.
It occurred to me that I had the wrong opening for the story. That wouldn't exactly be unprecedented. So I scrapped those 500 words and started over.
The going wasn't much easier the second time around. Although the opening was better, the middle section of the story was a bit murky to me--if by "murky," you mean "total mystery." Then I got an idea I simultaneously loved and balked at. It was outrageous. It was horrifying. It came out of nowhere. But it seemed to fit, so I went with it. I wound up with one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever written. It literally nauseated me. I can't remember ever having such a reaction to my own work before. I took that as a good sign.
I finished the story and submitted it to the contest. Lo and behold, it finished in third place, garnering much more praise than any of my previous entries. I'm convinced it was the shocker in act two that put the story over the top. Without it, I doubt the story would have been anywhere near as successful. (If you've read "Right Before Your Very Eyes," you know the scene I mean.)
But I wasn't done with it yet.
I sent it to Edmund. He wrote back, saying that he loved the piece . . . right up to the last few pages, which left him a little puzzled.
Naturally. I'd already struggled with the opening and the second act. Seemed only fitting that the ending needed some extra work, too. So I rewrote it again and shipped it back to Edmund. The result appears in issue 19 of Intergalactic Medicine Show.
Like magic, right?
Yeah. Not so much. "Right Before Your Very Eyes" kicked and screamed all the way through the process. Some stories are like that.
And now, for my next trick, watch me vanish this elephant . . .