I wrote this for some friends about the Clarion West experience. It rips off “How Music Begins” James Van Pelt, which ran in Asimov’s and I highly recommend, particularly the “perfectionists” thing, but… well, you’ll see
It works out to a thousand words a day to stay alive. Michalko missed his slot three days ago, and that was it for him. I have to walk past his room every day on my way down for breakfast. The only sign he was ever there is the terminal on the desk. Michalko was a considerate neat freak: didn’t leave any food behind in his room for us to clean up, barely had any clothes, a light scent of his favorite citrus cleaner. James had been the other way: before he’d disappeared, he’s gone absolute packrat on us, had to crawl in and out through a little tunnel. Might have been trying to barricade himself in, knowing he’d punched out with miss number three. Didn’t matter, he was gone and they turned the room around for a newbie same as always.
Morning sun came hazy and yellow through the dining room’s southern windows on the sparse crowd. As a group, there were maybe ten percent early risers, so at this early hour, it was people who’d been up all night or the super-peppy morning people who kept the other ninety requesting a wood chipper.
Usually, they gave us what we wanted. Robert and I spent a couple minutes each day figuring out what the most expensive coffees we could order, and they’d show up in the cabinet two to three days later. I ground my beans and ran the espresso machine, a free-standing stainless steel thing suitable for running a stand on a space station. Our last pick was a Nicaraguan small lot that won the Cup of Excellence. Our two bags likely composed 5% of the farm’s production.
I needed two and a half thousand words to make my slot in two days. The coffee was clean, sweet, and featured light, elusive fruit flavors.
“How’s the story going?” Calvin asked, looking over his Economist. Calvin must have turned in his early again.
“Fuck you,” I said.
He smiled and turned his hand over to flip me off, displaying his missing left middle finger. “Good luck!”
No wood chippers for murdering of early birds. They want to be the ones in control of who dies and when.
On my way back to my room, I saw they’d swapped someone in for Michalko.
“Hi!” she said. She put her hand out and gave me a winning smile. “I’m-”
“No,” I said. “No.” I walked on into my room, set my coffee mug down.
She followed me in, knocking twice on the door frame as she entered. New fish, I swear.
“Go write,” I said. “And here, some beginner’s advice. Don’t write about how you got here. Take some notes and save them. Use it when you’re sick for a week, or you’re blocked. Same with autobiographical shit. Save the thinly-veiled tales of growing up in whatever rural shithole you crawled out of for an emergency. It’ll wait.”
I sat in front of my hated terminal.
“Thanks,” she said quietly. “Um, how long have you been here?”
“Sixteen years,” I said, and paused. “Go downstairs and meet the people who just turned in their stuff. Hate them. The only ones you should even talk to have the same day as you. They’re the people who understand what you’re going through. What’s your date?”
“I go today next week.”
“Oh, an opening short week. I remember the opening short week. I was so full of ideas then. I thought they’d let me out if I turned in something really great.” I sipped at my coffee. “Forget what I said. Go talk to the people downstairs. They’re your best friends in the world, and the finest bunch of people I want killed.”
“I’ll talk to you later?”
I shook my head. “Ask Calvin about his fingers.”
“What about his fingers?”
“Ask Calvin,” I said.
She stood in the doorway for a minute, watching me start to type, and I didn’t notice her leave.
When I paused, my coffee was cold and the sobs of Marazzi floated softly down the hall. I checked the word count, swore at myself, left the room and walked two doors down. Marazzi cried freely, head down on the keyboard, cursor moving left to right repeating one character, the tears streaming off his nose onto the wrist wrest to pool on the desk.
“Hey, Marazzi, keep it down, would you?”
“I’m not going to make it!”
“I know,” I said. “Don’t take me with you.”
“I can’t type!”
“Should have made your count,” I said. “If you’re going to cry, do it somewhere else or do it quietly.”
“Help yourself.” I closed his door behind me.
The newbie stood in the hallway, and I couldn’t read her expression. “My name’s Orchard,” she said.
“Really? Outside they’re naming kids after – no. I have to write,” I said, walking past her to my room. “I don’t want to know.”
“I liked your word choices,” I said. “You used some very colorful language.” My randomized crit-generator bored even me that day. “I felt like you could have tightened it up a little and heightened the impact.”
I glanced around. No one paid any attention to my crits any more, and why should they? I made it clear that I didn’t ever read any of the three stories or less on our plate every morning.
“Oh, and I liked your title.” The Professor’s head bobbed as he fought sleep. He paid as little attention to the process as I did.
Orchard, next to me, shook her head and made a low tutting noise. “I have to disagree, and I wonder if you even read the story,” she started.
“Crit the story not the critter,” I said.
She let that sit out for a second and then went on to offer a pointed, short explanation of why the story fell apart in the middle, with solutions.
“But overall,” she finished, “I really liked it.”
“Who didn’t read the story?” I muttered. She glared.
Afterwards, she confronted me at the espresso machine.
“What is your problem?”
“Save your energy,” I said. “We’re here for the long term. Three stories a day, seven days a week, forever.”
“That’s not an excuse.”
“A minute spent reading is a minute you’re not making your word count. Now while you’re mad, go write a story about a cynical old guy who doesn’t help anyone and gets his comeuppance. Keep it in your pocket for the future.”
“Maybe I will,” she said.
“And then I won’t read it,” I said.
“Fuck you,” Orchard said, and stuck me an angry middle finger right in front of my nose.
“Use it while you have it.”
Orchard cut it close each week. When I was secure enough to sleep the day before my own deadline, I’d lie in bed and listen to her type. It remind me of home in Calgary, falling asleep to a hailstorm sweeping across the prairies, her strikes in that crazed, off-kilter rhythm like the constant, blanketing thudding of stones on the roof above.
She became the star of Mondays, for years the acknowledged weakest of groups, long filled with the lazy pseudo-plagiarists, chapter-bookers, writers abusing hard drugs, people with Robert’s attitude and none of his two-day work ethic, talent, or time management, rookies who came and went unrecognized.
Her stories increasingly displayed ragged edges. If she drew the Professor for that day, he’d list them out from the broken paragraphs, typos, and dropped sentences down to use of the apostrophe, and Orchard would sit and twitch in rage.
I’d seen this before, too. Ars was the last. It was unfortunate he’d gone when he did: a few months longer and Orchard could have seen the back of his downward arc. It probably wouldn’t have made any difference. I tried to tell her, and she rolled her eyes at me.
“Why the fingers?” Orchard asked me after Gary lost his right ring for missing slot for the first time. They make a production out of it. The three people who turned in get their critiques. then they bring out the cigar cutter, set it in front of the misser, and call out their name.
Every night in the common area on the top floor we’d have beers. Traditionally it was a rotation event, where the people who’d turned in that day would drink and smile at each other in relief, express sympathy for those who’d lost digits, or mourn (or celebrate) as appropriate for the people who didn’t show up that day after missing their submission deadline.
Everyone on that day’s rotation showed up for at least one drink, alcoholic or not, and if they were exhausted or sick or in shock from blood loss they’d excuse themselves. Then there were the extras – the blocked, the bored, the finished-early, and the social.
On Tuesdays, Orchard had taken to stopping by late, after things had settled down, for bonding with my group. Orchard wanted to know everyone, so her critiques would seem to come from love and compassion.
“Why care?” I asked, waving at Gary as he left. He looked pale but at peace with his fate. Gary was two weeks from not coming down for breakfast, having mined his flying elephants theme out a week before after years of productive if uninteresting stories and since not written a word. Next week we would drink in consolation for the right ring, and then the next we would laugh sadly about how long he’d extracted stories from what initially seemed such a thin vein.
Or he might refuse the finger, and take his disappearance there. He had that look.
“As long as we’re here, we should try to do well,” she said. “This is an opportunity.”
“Ahhhh,” I said. “You’re a Perfectionist. I had wondered.”
She frowned. “A what?”
“You believe this is all in pursuit of something. That they’re not here because they want to run a workshop program for the damned, but they’re putting us monkeys on typewriters and then checking once a week to see if we’ve written Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
“I think it’s supposed to be MacBeth,” Robert stage-whispered.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost is by far the better play.”
“Hamlet,” Orchard said.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, trying to be patient. “If they want a perfect short story, why this way? How can this help? If Ernest Hemingway couldn’t write it, look around – do you think we will?”
“I might,” Robert said.
“Yeah, why is a hack like Robert here if they want quality?”
“I’m at peace with my approach.”
“Why the punishment? Do you think terror and mutilation helps us write?”
“I don’t know,” Orchard said. ”
“It’s a writer’s punishment,” I said. “A thousand words a day means you have to type. Left middle is e-d-c and they take that first. Then you’re screwed. Right ring, who cares, l-o isn’t nearly as bad.”
“Why not the indexes?”
I shrugged. “Frequency-wise, it makes sense, but I think they want us to be able to hold forks and knives so we can eat. Left middle, right ring, that’s pure writer punishment.
Drinking on the balcony, late at night, sometime later. Robert, Orchard, and I worked our way through an ice chest of Paupa New Guinea bottled beer, throwing each emptied bottle off onto the street below, where they turned into cones of green sparkles lit by the floodlights. Orchard held her beer by the neck with her left hand, curling her three remaining fingers defiantly: index over, ring in, pinky over.
“I like to imagine there are other shops,” I said. “That somewhere out there there’s a Russian literature shop, and a romance short shop, and a western shop.”
“I like to imagine there’s a poetry shop,” Robert said. “It warms my heart to think of poets losing their fingers.”
Orchard snorted smoke from her nose like an angry bull. “That would be so easy,” she said. “Maybe if it had to obey verse form…”
“No one would make it to week four,” I said.
“Good,” Robert said. “Serves them right.”
“What do they do with the stories?” Orchard asked, flipping the burnt end of her roach off into the darkness.
“I have a theory on this,” Robert said.
I make a needless delay of loudly fishing another beer from the cooler.
“Go on,” Orchard says, glaring.
“They publish them. The small-line zines in other metro markets, if you read them you see hints of what we’re going through. And they’re published on similar cycles, similar production numbers.”
Robert wrote his pieces in a day or two every week and then spent the next five reading and making a pain of himself, cultivating a long-standing hatred from the Thurs-Fri-Sat-Sun-Mon rotations. He carefully left his own people alone, as was just.
“I wish I had time to spend reading everything published in the country,” Orchard said, her face souring. Orchard tore Robert’s crappy stories up every week with a vehemence and tone of disappointment I found difficult to muster. Especially considering Orchard’s Monday slotting, it was a relief they got along well enough to drink together Tuesday nights without smashing the bottle ends on the rail and slicing each other open.
“No, no, that’s the thing,” Robert said, waving his hands excitedly. “They’re all over. Hundreds of the things, sometimes not even coming out of big cities. There’s a Hungarian one, I’m sure it’s the exact same setup as us except it’s a four-a-day rotation.”
“Wait,” Orchard said. “Are you sure we’re even still in the US?”
“I don’t know! That’s the other thing!”
“We’re up near the 49th parallel,” I said. “And it’s clearly not the northeast or mid-west, so… yeah.” They both looked at me quizzically. “I worked it out early on, from the sun and…” I shook my head. “Never mind.”
“What’s the point?” Orchard asked. “Why publish at all?”
“What’s the point.” I sighed. “What is the point?”
Robert started to laugh.
“What’s your story this week, Robert?” I asked.
“I don’t know…” Robert uncapped another beer and swigged it. “Lady Luck personified in Vegas. PoMo mashup of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado and I forget what else. Very clever. A harrowing and hilarious tale of sunburns.” He waggled the beer, spilling a little. “Whatever.”
I smiled at Orchard. “You find me the point in that.”
Orchard sank back into the canvas lawn chair, arms crossed, beer tucked into the crook of one elbow, and said nothing.
“I loved ‘Bargain Back’ though,” I said. “That was a nice piece of work.”
“Whatever,” she said, and looked off into the night.
Orchard came to me at oh-one-hundred Monday morning, an hour ahead of her deadline and twenty five ahead of mine. She knocked twice and entered without waiting for a response. She sat on the bed and I pulled the headphones off.
“I need to trade slots,” Orchard said.
“Please. I’m asking.”
“Go talk to Robert. He’s got a backlog, he has slots.”
“His price is too high.”
“How can his price possibly be too high if you don’t have something to turn in?”
“Just let me turn yours in today, and tomorrow I’ll give you mine.”
I looked over at her. “I’ve been here sixteen years and I have ten fingers,” I said. “That’s why. I’m not going to trust my left middle to your ability to finish something that’s already taken you seven plus one.”
“It’s great,” she said. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever written. It’s just not done.”
“Cut it down and turn it in,” I said.
“Slap an ending on it and finish it the right way later.”
“Look at this as motivation to finally improve your time management skills.”
“Still on that, huh?”
“It’s a lesson learned.”
“Didn’t take before. Help me.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Switch with me,” she said.
“I don’t switch, ever,” I said. I held up both hands, fingers spread. “Ten. Ten fingers.”
Orchard leaned way forward on the bed to put her small, smooth, cool hands against mine. “Eight,” she said. “It’s not so bad.”
An hour later, I heard her stop typing. I stood up and walked into the hallway.
Orchid leaned back from the desk, hands behind head, satisfied.
“You make it?”
“No,” she said. “When do I go?”
“It’s usually pretty quick.”
“You don’t know?”
“I make it a point not to pay attention,” I said. “I don’t want to know.”
“I’m going to keep on,” she said. “Maybe they’re giving me an extension because they read the draft and they know how good it is.”
I didn’t dispute this. She knew it was as impossible as I did. I sat down on the bed, cross-legged as she liked to do when in my room, and waited.
“You have to finish this if I don’t,” she said, not pausing.
Robert looked in. I shook my head and put a finger to my lips for quiet. Robert looked both directions down the hall and came in to sit on her windowsill. Orchard kept typing. The other Mondays came to check in and share their relief, then found places on the floor.
“Getting crowded!” Orel chirped. Orel used old TV plots, forcing them into new genres, and was looking forward to celebrating a year of survival.
Neal, the occasionally brilliant, came by wearing a heavy bathrobe, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, a full pint glass of Goldschlager in one hand.
“Morfning,” he said, and came to a stop. “Whaffhuff?”
“She missed,” Ben said.
“Phit.” Neal leaned against the doorframe and didn’t move.
“What if we all clear out and have Orel here sit at the desk?” Robert asked.
“Too late,” I said.
“Please?” Orchard asked, pausing, wiping sweat off her forehead with the back of one hand.
A green canister bounced off the center of the floor, neatly avoiding the tangle of legs.
“Huh,” I said, looking up. “I wonder-”
It was the best short story I’d ever read. I should know. I have them all in a paper ledger, kept hopefully secret from our masters. Over six thousand entries: title, author, date, logline, score, thoughts. While I could recall all of them in almost perfect detail, I knew I’d want the complete reckoning someday. I could tell you about Musgrave, who two years into my stay showed up, wrote one absolutely brilliant alien detective story every two weeks for six weeks, never shaving, taking his finger losses without any visible reaction, and then was gone. Or that Garner, who now took an item from the day’s science news, fictionalized it using two of five stock characters and expanded it to four thousand words through excessive description of setting, once had a run of two months where he could have passed for Faulkner. I could tell you that the title of my previous favorite story was ‘Zenith Plus City’ written by Ruhlman, who turned it in and was killed trying to escape. I could go back through Robert’s massive toss-off repertoire and pick out the flashes of brilliance in concept or execution, and the three stories where it was clear he’d secretly spent vast amounts of time crafting something quite nearly perfect.
None of them approached Orchard’s unfinished, and reading it I saw that even its flaws were fixable. It needed only three substantial tweaks: the two twists should resolve each other for the ending, it needed more foreboding earlier instead of a breezy third page, and it was too long by 10%. And there were, perhaps, four or five corrections on the black hole science.
I spent six days on it and turned it in under my own name. That Tuesday for workshop, we didn’t get the Professor or the Teamaster, but one of the robot avatars of our masters, small, boxy, machined entirely without seams of some shiny alloy we’d never get to sample.
“We have determined that ‘Sufficiently Small Region of Space’ is the perfect short story of its genre,” it said.
“No,” I said.
“You are all free to go.”