“All My Babies are Dead”

This story is swiped from something that happened to a friend of my mother’s, though I’ve changed it quite a bit.

Abigail is a woman in her late sixties. She has two children, Betty and Bob: the girl was average in most respects and the boy was severely autistic. Abigail spent heroic amounts of time and energy to turn Bob into one of those really high-functioning autistic types, and it worked: Bob is now a highly-paid and -valued member of some IT firm. He’s still socially clueless, though actually rather handsome. Abigail spent so much time on Bob that she neglected Betty, who turned into a lesbian separatist or someone similarly unlikely to ever breed. What Abigail wants is a grandchild, because she knows autism isn’t heritable, really, and because she wants a “normal” baby to love and hug. Bob likes sex but couldn’t care less about relationships, or rather actively avoids them.

So Abigail, who lives a few hours from Atlanta, decides to find Bob a mate. She hits upon this dreamy girl who works some really low-level job, but who has childbearing hips. She brings the girl, Carol, to Atlanta and introduces her to Bob. Carol figures it’s a good trade: she won’t have to work, Bob rarely bothers her because he’s focused on his work, and she can do her art, which is something kind of crappy that involves layers: marbling paper or something impractical like that.

It works great, but Abigail keeps bugging them about kids. Carol is an utter narcissist, so she wants a kid because it will be the planet that orbits herself as the sun. Bob couldn’t care less, but wants to make his mom happy. So they try. And try. And try. Bob discovers he quite likes sex, and wants to do it more. Carol is lazy and narcissistic, so she mostly lies there. It takes her forever to get pregnant, and then she miscarries. This happens again, and again, and again. Both of them are ready to throw in the towel but for Abigail, who bugs them to do in vitro, which doesn’t work, either. Finally, donor eggs and Bob’s sperm find place on the rocky surface of Carol’s womb. Carol is beyond caring at this point: it’s all about her, and this other woman’s eggs don’t make her happy. But she knows very well where her meal ticket lies, and Carol doesn’t want to have to work.

Once the baby, Edgar, is born, Carol completely refuses to nurture him. “All my babies are dead,” is her tagline. But Bob turns out to just love the shit out of him: this is like an emotional breakthrough for him. Yet his work schedule prevents him from doing all the parenting, so since his wife is useless, he hires a nanny, Doris, to do the heavy lifting while Carol stays upstairs marbling paper. Doris figures out how lazy Carol is, Carol (who’s not stupid at all) doesn’t like it, and fires her. Before Bob can find another nanny, in steps Abigail, the hypercompetent martyr, who’s going to take care of Edgar. Since Abigail was the one who found Carol in the first place, she’s kind of blind to Carol’s manifest flaws. What she figures is that Carol has postpartum depression; Abigail busies herself trying to get Carol to get treatment.

Meanwhile, now that Bob has leveled up in emotions, he finally clocks that his coworker Fiona has the hots for him. Since Carol has refused to even touch his penis since the third or fourth miscarriage, Bob is thrilled with this turn of events. They start an affair.

Carol is being driven mad by Abigail, who just will not leave her the fuck alone, constantly bringing little Edgar by when Carol wants nothing to do with him. Finally, in a fit of desperation–Carol’s main motivation is that she doesn’t want to leave her comfortable little nest–she goes with Bob to some work function, where she meets Fiona. Since Bob is guileless, Carol clocks Fiona as Bob’s girlfriend right away, while Fiona, who’s extra sensitive to nuance (she has to be, to date Bob) quickly figures out what Bob can’t and Abigail won’t see, which is that Carol is a worthless mooch. She opens a discussion with Bob/Abigail about what if Bob divorced Carol, kept Edgar (who isn’t biologically Carol’s) and let Fiona move in?

Carol figures this out, or overhears it, and realizes she’s threatened. So she cooks up a plan: remember, she has layers. She murders Abigail in such a way as to frame Fiona for it: she plants evidence to indicate that Fiona knows she can never have Bob fully to herself with his mother around. The twist is that there’s a double-frame, in that it appears initially that Fiona was trying to frame Carol for the crime.

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Clown Phone

Here’s how I sometimes get story ideas. Take this post and this one: each by itself makes for an interesting enough story, but together, it’s even stronger.

We start with the friend of the woman who punched the robber who took her phone. Our narrator is out with her pals, and she’s hoping to meet a decent guy. But in her world, that of chick-lit and thugs, there really are no decent men. Her friend, the puncher, is an ex-Marine and a lesbian. A second friend is kind of techy.

So the cops show up, take reports, walk away. Not important enough to make a fuss about, in an underpoliced city like Atlanta. This pisses them all off. The Marine wants revenge. She has a gun; so does the other friend. The friend figures out the phone track option, they activate it, they go to Southwest Atlanta, bust in, guns drawn. One of the thugs stands up with a gun, Friend 2 shoots him dead. Our narrator realizes that maybe her ex-Marine friend is what she’s really looking for.

NOW the cops are interested. Diana and Mustapha are called in to sort it out: they have to arrest Friend 2, but is she really going to get prosecuted? They turn the others over to lesser cops and walk away.

But then, they’re called back. The remaining thug knows he’s busted, and wants to deal. He’s pretty sure he knows the clown robber, based on the guy’s mannerisms. For a walk on the robbery charge, he’ll tell.

So what makes the story work is that the clown guy’s motivations need to parallel those of the narrator of the first part of the story. Why is he dressing up as a clown and shooting up convenience stores? D/M don’t give a shit, but the reader will. It’s got to be something along the lines of he can’t find a good woman–or good women aren’t interested in him because despite what he feels is his sterling character, he has a crap job and nobody wants to date a broke guy.

Sad Clown is Angry

Here’s the sort of true crime story that you’d think would make it easy to be a writer:

Police are searching for a robber wearing a clown mask while targeting stores along the Cleveland Avenue corridor in southwest Atlanta…

Police said the masked robber strikes area businesses from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Police said even though the victims do what the robber says, he still gets violent.

In one incident, surveillance video shows the robber firing his gun at a wall and hitting a clerk in the head with a gun and demanding money. When the victim doesn’t move quickly enough, the robber shoots a chair.

“He’s coming in with the gun. He’s immediately demanding the money right away. If the clerk is not acting right away, he’s doing warning shots at least for the last two incidents, he’s fired warning rounds,” said Atlanta police Sgt. Prenzina Span.

On the one hand, robber with clown mask = comedy. Really irrationally angry clown robber = comedy gold. If you’re a sick bastard like me, that is. But the thing is, it’s hard to get beyond the comedy of the initial setup. What’s driving this man? Was it just that there was a clown mask lying around, so he used that instead of something else? Or is he some kind of Juggalo living the philosophy? But the thing about Juggalos is that they’re supposed to be some kind of creative chaos, not just destruction for its own sake. Well, insofar as Juggalos have the faintest idea what they’re talking about. Maybe the key is to get in his head and wonder whether he thinks he’s being funny.

But here’s the real key to the story:

Although police do not have a physical description, they hope viewers can identify him through his mannerisms or movements caught on camera.

What’s unusual about the guy’s movements, and what does this have to do with his choosing a clown mask rather than something else? Here’s where the story comes to life.

A New Classic (Level of Stupidity)

Many classic thrillers rely on missed connections between characters to drive their plots, or the inability of characters to connect–technologically, that is, though the other sort is common as well. Most of these classic plotlines just don’t work in modern thrillers, because people have mobile phones now. So there’s a lot of really crappy modern thrillers that rely on implausible coincidences to power classic plotlines: sudden dead zones in coverage, phone battery dead, etc.

But this story is an example of a modern thriller plot that couldn’t have been written ten years ago, or at least wouldn’t have seemed plausible:

Five women were robbed at gunpoint in the driveway of the Biltmore Hotel on West Peachtree Street late Thursday, but a stolen smartphone with tracking capability led to the suspects’ arrest, Atlanta police said Friday.

The women told police they were in the driveway of the Midtown hotel at around 11 p.m. when they were approached from behind by two men who pointed guns at them and demanded their belongings.

“At some point while being robbed, one of the victims punched one of the suspects in the face,” police spokeswoman Kim Jones said in a release. She said the suspects then fled with several purses and electronic devices.

One of the stolen devices was an iPhone, which was later tracked to an apartment complex on Stanton Drive in southwest Atlanta. Police said two suspects were taken into custody after the robbery victims positively identified them.

I almost pity these poor thugs, from blighted Southwest Atlanta, far, far out of their depth in Midtown, thinking they got away with crimes against rich people (the best kind), kicking back in their crappy apartment, smoking a little weed, laughing at the dumb kid pictures on the phone’s camera, and then the cops kick in the door. And then their chagrin once they find out just how stupid they really were. But it might be more interesting to write from the perspective of the victim, who’s simultaneously traumatized and eye-rollingly contemptuous. After all, she managed to punch a guy in the face without getting shot: what’s she all about?

Why Evil Doesn’t Work

Too many mystery-thrillers bore me by having unambiguously evil villains. As in, not just people who are willing to do bad things, but outright Evil. My least favorite trope is the pseudo-godlike serial killer who’s just now decided to spread his (always his) message across the city by murdering young girls in some way only decipherable by the cop who’s figured out which library book the killer is using.

Usually, evil is way better when there’s someone with a mission to obtain money or fame or love and is willing to cut a lot of corners to get there: evil is more plausible from a literary standpoint if there’s some kind of rationale behind it. Or better yet, when the evil person has managed to delude themself into thinking they’re doing the right thing.

But here’s another kind of evil:

ATLANTA — Two members of Da M.O.B. gang appeared in federal court today for two recently-indicted sex trafficking cases that happened in Atlanta.

The indictments, returned on Aug. 28, charge the men with pimping three 14-year-old and one 16-year-old girls in Atlanta hotels. According to the indictment, the gang members rape the girls and force them to perform commercial sex acts. They allegedly beat the girls daily in one case. The two cases are separated, with different victims and different gang members who also allegedly were involved in the trafficking.

Charged with both indictments is Fabian Terran Murray, “Shooter,” 24, of Smyrna. The first indictment charges Joshua Thomas Hill, “Cash,” 24, of Atlanta, and Clinton Saintvil, 24 of Miami, Fla.

The only thing worthwhile about a story like this from my perspective is the pimps’ nicknames: “Shooter and Cash” could be a really bad ’80s cop buddy show. These guys are just outright evil: there’s no way to work them into a story as the central antagonists because they’re the epitome of the “banality of evil”. Now, telling the story from one of the victim’s points of view might actually work, though it would be challenging to write someone so damaged that they perceived either of these thugs as being on her side.

Musical Notation

Here’s a link to a very cursory news article:

ATLANTA — Officials at Grady Memorial Hospital are asking for the public’s helping in identifying a critically ill patient.

The man was brought to Grady at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, after first being dropped off near the emergency room at DeKalb Medical Center, according to Grady spokeswoman Denise Simpson. He had been shot and had no identification on him.

Simpson described the patient as a black man in his early 20s, about 6 feet tall and 190 pounds. The man has short hair and a goatee, and has a tattoo of six letters with musical notes above them on his upper right side of his chest.

Anyone who can identify the patient is asked to call Grady Social Services at 404-616-5331.

This is one of those gems that could lead in nearly any direction. Who dropped him off “near” the emergency room? Clearly, someone who themselves didn’t want to be identified. So now there’s two layers of anonymity. We don’t know who this guy is, and we don’t know who dropped him off, so behind that there’s probably a third layer: who shot him? And then we have the tattoo, which sounds like something from some dreadful serial killer novel in its sheer symbolic weirdness. In a really crappy novel, the musical sequence would somehow unlock something: imagine the detective playing the notes on a recorder and the man sitting up and speaking in tongues.

Or we could go still weirder and imagine that this poor fellow was held captive for long enough for some sadist to tattoo him and for the tattoo to heal sufficiently for the Grady personnel not to be able to figure out that the tattoo is quite that recent. Then of course the question would be what non-batshit motive would there be for tattooing the man, and how is the tattoo the key to something else? Imagine some other guy reading this and taking a careful look in the mirror at the dumb musical-note tattoo he’d got while blacked-out drunk a few years ago. What’s it all mean?

“Drink Pixie” Second Draft of Beginning

The new title is “The Art of Dressage,” which will make more sense once you read the whole story. Titles are the hardest part in a lot of ways; I often don’t come up with the title until I’m doing the final edits. Here’s an updated version of the first part of the citation two posts below:

The girl stopped to make a note on her order pad as she walked away from the table full of businessmen. She had her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she wrote; this only made her look even cuter. The men weren’t even trying to be subtle about staring at her butt.

She finished, looked up at them, then her perfect eyebrows went up in surprise. “Why, Mr. Jenkins! Haven’t seen you in forever! Where have you been?”

Jen stifled a smile as she watched Frank’s chest puff up. “Hey there, Claire! Jennifer here has been introducing me to all this crazy Asian cuisine up and down Buford Highway. Real good; but I tell you, all that spicy food gives me strange dreams.”

She actually put a hand up to cover her mouth when she giggled. “But it’s all so delicious.” She turned to Jen. “Welcome to Indigo. I’m Claire; it’s nice to meet you.”

“Jennifer Welch.” Up close, Claire was a little too old for pigtails: maybe thirty-two instead of the twenty-four she aspired to.

“What’s new in the wine cellar?” asked Frank. He and Claire launched into an animated discussion of of various wines’ attributes.

Claire noticed the glaze in Jennifer’s eyes first. “Not much of a wine snob? Really, it’s a point in your favor.”

“I’m a schoolteacher. Most of the wine I drink comes out of a box.”

“I’m sorry, babe,” said Frank. “I forget not everyone’s as crazy as me.”

“I don’t mind; order whatever you want.” And the wine was delicious, all buttery and not sour at all. Jennifer threw her wavering commitment to vegetarianism to the wind and ordered a steak. Good thing Indigo was the kind of place so classy it had a girlfriend menu, without prices, or she’d probably have to pretend to feel guilty.

While Frank was in the bathroom, Claire came by to pick up their salad plates. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”

“It’s fun to see Frank in his element.”

“Well, I’m happy for you. It’s nice to see Frank starting to get serious.” At Jennifer’s confusion, “I mean, you’re actually age-appropriate. Late thirties?”

“Just turned forty.”

“Most of the women—well, girls—Frank’s brought in here are about twenty-five, and wear about half as much clothing as you. He’s very handsome for an older guy, but come on.” Jennifer toyed with her wine glass for a minute or so after Claire walked away, before deciding to decide that Claire wasn’t trying to put her down.

So this is partway there: the first paragraph isn’t as clumsy, and the rest of it is a tiny bit tighter. It still needs work, especially the first paragraph: Claire needs to be shown to be aware that she’s being observed even when her back is turned. Because as we’ll discover, Claire plans, and doesn’t make mistakes–or so she believes.

“Drink Pixie” First Draft of Beginning

Six months ago, I sketched out a quick outline of this story. Here’s the first draft of the first few paragraphs:

The girl stopped to make a note on her order pad before she walked away from the table full of businessmen. She had her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she wrote; this only accentuated the cuteness of the rest of her. All the men weren’t even bothering to hide that they were staring at her butt.

She finished, looked up at them, then her perfect eyebrows went up in surprise. “Why, Mr. Jenkins! Haven’t seen you in forever! Where have you been?”

Jennifer stifled a smile as she watched Frank’s chest puff up. “Hey there, Claire. Jennifer here has been introducing me to all this crazy Asian cuisine up and down Buford Highway. Real good; but I tell you, all that spicy food gives me strange dreams.”

She actually put a hand up to cover her mouth when she giggled. “But it’s all so delicious.” She turned to Jennifer. “Welcome to Indigo. I’m Claire; it’s nice to meet you.”

“Jennifer Welch.” Up close, Claire was a little too old for pigtails; maybe thirty-two instead of the twenty-four she aspired to.

“What’s new in the wine cellar?” asked Frank. He and Claire launched into a long discussion of of various wines’ attributes, each person more animated than the other.

Claire noticed the glaze on Jennifer’s eyes first. “Not much of a wine snob? Really, it’s a point in your favor.”

“I’m a schoolteacher. Most of the wine I drink comes out of a box.” She got the giggle and the covered mouth again.

“I’m sorry, babe,” said Frank. “I forget not everyone’s as crazy as me.”

“I don’t mind; order whatever you want.” And it was delicious, all buttery and not sour at all. Jennifer threw her wavering commitment to vegetarianism to the wind and ordered a steak. Good thing Indigo was the kind of place so classy it had a girlfriend menu, without prices, or she’d probably feel guilty.

While Frank was in the bathroom, Claire came by to pick up their salad plates. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”

“It’s fun to see Frank in his element.”

“Well, I’m happy for you. It’s nice to see Frank starting to get serious.” At Jennifer’s confusion, “I mean, you’re actually age-appropriate. You’re what, late thirties?”

“Just turned forty.”

“Most of the women—well, girls—Frank’s brought in here are about twenty-five, and wear about half as much clothing as you. He’s very handsome for an older guy, but come on.” Jennifer toyed with her wine glass for a minute or so after Claire walked away, before deciding that Claire was genuine and not trying to put her down.

So the point here is to show rather than tell that Claire isn’t just a perfect little pixie–or rather, that Claire appears to be both a perfect little pixie and something a little deeper. The first half of the citation gives us the perfect pixie, and the second half the (apparent?) depth. So far, it’s clumsy: the first paragraph especially needs work. But that’s just part of the process.