Working Review: Little Sister Troubles

Sometimes life dumps useful things in your lap. Over on Shousetsu Bang*Bang, for which I was furiously writing a story last week, an announcement went up about the new moderator over at Petitte Soeur, which specializes in timed challenges for slash (gay) original fiction, who had revived the languishing community. I had not heard of the community prior to that and the low submission numbers they get suggest that some publicity would not be refused. With new challenges going up each Sunday, I thought it would be a great subject for a Working Review.

I’m a big believer in the value of a judiciously applied timer to one’s writing. I live by Write or Die, in which the surprisingly compelling threat of a red screen and an obnoxious noise keeps me typing until I hit a time or word count goal. But I’m usually looking at a single scene averaging 600 words written over twenty minutes. Petitte Soeur raises the bar rather higher than that. The time limits vary, though there have been a number of 60 to 90 minute challenges lately, but the majority of the submissions are small but complete stories. When the challenge time gets down to twenty minutes, as it is this week, some on-the-run brilliance is called for to write something coherent, let alone satisfying.

This week’s challenge is twenty minutes on the subject of “culture shock.” Culture shock is a great issue to have in fiction because, no matter how agreeable the characters want to be, conflict will have to arise. It can be the inner conflict of someone who is trying to blend in and act natural in an unfamiliar setting. It can be the conflict between the native character and the outsider, who may seem like a disrespectful bungler in a solemn situation or an awkward wet towel in a joyous one. It can even be conflict of a higher order, in which the newcomer faces the possibility of censure or even harm from a cultural authority if he does the wrong thing at the wrong time.

We’re All Family Here

Charlie tightened his grip on the box of chocolates as Indigo turned the doorknob. It will be fine, he told himself again. The rumors were just lies about an eccentric family. He braced himself, however. After all, you did not date someone named Indigo and expect to be introduced to June Cleaver the first time you met the family.

Indigo grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him in. A good thing, because Charlie could feel himself starting to backpedal. “Mom, I’m home,” Indigo called, as though he had just been out buying a carton of milk, not in another state for school. The house thronged with people, all of them talking at top volume.

The woman who emerged from the crowd had paint smears on her face and hands. She wrapped her arms around Indigo without using her hands. “I’m in the middle of a project,” she said as she neatly pivoted to embrace Charlie as well. The box of chocolates crunched in his hands.

“Where’s everyone else?” Indigo asked. Charlie could not imagine how there could be more people in the house.

“In the den, but don’t go in there,” she said with a fondly embarrassed shake of her head. “They’ve had a spell go off on them. It’s a disaster.”

Charlie could not help but crane his head in the direction she nodded. Though a doorway, he could see men and women scrambling around a circle gone hazy with incense smoke. The rumors were true. They really were–

“Witches,” he said.

Indigo’s mother smiled. “Every last one of us. Well, except Aunt Margaret, but she’s an odd one anyway.”

Charlie stood staring for so long, Indigo finally took the slightly battered box of chocolate from his hands, tossed it on the nearest piece of furniture, and steered Charlie down a hallway to his bedroom.

“Is it always like that?” Charlie asked when the door shut behind them.

“Oh, no,” Indigo said with that wicked tilt to his mouth. “This is a quiet day.”

Charlie groaned. “I would have died if I had to grow up here.”

Indigo pulled him in close with a hand on either wrist. “Because it’s so much healthier to live in that funeral parlor you called home.” The press of his lips to Charlie’s was a welcome reminder of the peaceful life Charlie was used to. Maybe it had been a mistake to spend the holidays with Indigo’s clan.

“I think there was at least one naked woman in that room,” Charlie insisted. He could feel his heartbeat slow as he relaxed into Indigo’s loose hold on his waist. “I’m never going to make it through a week here.”

“I can get you a hotel room if it’s too much,” Indigo said and Charlie had to kiss him again because he had that kicked puppy look on his face. Because he had begged Charlie to meet his family, pride and affection obvious in his face, but he would ruin his own holidays if it meant keeping Charlie happy. Because Indigo loved him and compared to that, it really didn’t matter what the ladies in their hometown said about the family.

Indigo met the kiss with enthusiasm and snuck a hand under Charlie’s shirt. Charlie had barely noticed the room, curiosity about Indigo’s life forgotten in the weirdness, but he was fairly certain there was a bed somewhere at his back. He took one step back before something exploded over by the door.

It was, he realized though the burst of sour panic, a girl’s voice, the loudest he had ever heard. “IT’S TIME FOR DINNER,” she bellowed from the doorway.

Charlie sprang away from Indigo. Oh, god, what had she seen? Would she tell? Could they bully or bribe her into silence? He slowly realized Indigo was calling his name with increasing force. He blinked and got his eyes to focus on Indigo, who smiled weakly.

Indigo stroked a hand down his arm and went to the door, pushing his giggling sister out of the way. “Ma, Phoenix won’t leave me alone so I can make out with Charlie,” he shouted down the hall. “Make her go away.”

His mother’s voice drifted back up the hall. “Phoenix, don’t bother your brother. You boys have fun. Your dinner will be in the oven when you feel like it.”

Charlie let out a gust of held breath when Indigo closed the door again. Indigo pulled him to the bed before he could collapse, all his muscles going limp with relief at once. Indigo curled around him. “See? I told you, everything is okay here. Just trust me.”

Charlie nodded and if he shook a little in Indigo’s arms, that was okay here too

I will cop to needing a few extra minutes to round out the ending, but I was at least close to the limit. The scene flew once I finally got up the courage to start writing. I found the prospect of this exercise terribly intimidating the longer I thought about it. It seemed so easy to fail. I was convinced that, despite having a strong sense of how much work I can get done in a given amount of time, I would blow through my twenty minutes and have three sentences to show for it.

I ended up condensing what had been three scenes into two. I was trying to stretch the incident to get a sense of story out of such a little scrap, but it collapsed back on itself. Even so, I got the emotional flips that I wanted, from tentative optimism to shock and from even worse shock to comfort.

More than anything, I had trouble monitoring how many words and minutes I had gone through and judging when I needed to move on to the next section. I took much longer on the setup than I intended, which meant I had only a few lines in which to create a sense of what Charlie found so out of the ordinary. And with the clock already over the limit, I had to pitch myself over the ending and get the hell out of there.

I think there is something great for both writers who excel at improvisation and those who, like me, keep a rather tighter hold on the reins. It is, of course, aimed at those who can or want to write on the fly. But I think for the obsessive planners among us, it’s a great test of how well you know your system. If you know how many words you’re likely to put into a scene and how long it takes you, you can plan out a story that should fall into place as soon as you start that clock. I came close and it felt good to hit those marks and get the immediate feedback of yes, I know what I’m doing.

As an aside, Indigo’s family is inspired by one I encountered while traveling by train several years ago. The names have not been changed to protect the unsuspecting, because the names were what stuck with me all this time. I had been waiting for a chance to use that loud and unusual family, though I have no reason to believe they had any inclination toward the occult. Nor do I have reason to believe they would approve of my take on them, but I’ll just have to take my chances.

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About Joyce

Joyce Sully lives in Southern California. She graduated from UC Irvine. She likes to knit and cook and play video games. But mostly she writes. Joyce writes short stories and novels, songs and poems, scripts and instructions to feed the cat if she stays out late. She has been spotted as far afield as Seattle, but travel makes her nervous. She believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real.
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