As I explained in my 13/13/2 blog post, I was super happy to get a 2nd place finish for my first microfiction story, Deal of a Lifetime. A better title would have been "Jalopy Joe", but I digress.
Because of that placement I moved onto the 2nd round where I'm hoping to place in the top 5 so that I can move onto the finals.
Action: Burning a finger
So I immediately get this idea of wanting to just describe something super ordinary in just epic detail. 250 words isn't a lot, so I really started from a hook that I thought would stick out in a sea of comedy:
Life is a never ending war, and I am preparing for battle.
This, I imagined, is how many people think of cooking. Personally, I love cooking, but in an act of solidarity with my generation I played devil's advocate.
This was my first draft:
Life is a never ending war, and I am preparing for battle. Beams of twilight shine through the slats of my Balinese ashwood blinds. I draw my damascus blade against my whetstone in short, perpendicular cuts. Jets of flame spring to life in front of me in four neat circles. I don my armor, embroidered with my family’s creed. “Kiss the Cook.” Today is the day that I ascend to the throne of my ancestors. The mighty warriors that tamed the forces of nature and stole ambrosia. Today I become a Pasta Maker. With effort, I heft a steel vessel of water and salt, big as my torso, onto one of the burning rings. I singe my finger checking the temperature of the flame. I coat two bags of dry penne in a bowl of olive oil. I toss them into a cast iron pan and set a timer for twenty minutes, like the bag says. I stab at a pair of tomatoes and onions sitting on my African coalwood cutting board. My blade slips against the onions, and crushes the tomatoes. In a fugue of inspiration I toss them into the water along with a cup of oil. The oil rises to the lip of the vessel and I smile at my luck. It’s in God’s hands now. And so I slip into the shower, scraping away my sweat with powdered charcoal. I hear a familiar blaring and I sigh. I towel off and dial a familiar number. “Baltimore fire department.” “Hey Frank…” An audible groan, then the line clicked to mute for a handful of seconds. “Hey Emma. Pasta? Again?” “Pasta. Again.” The line clicked to mute again. I slipped out the fire escape. “Come on then, I ordered takeout when I heard the call come in.”
Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of confused ideas in here. I thought it would be funny to write about a really awful cook starting fires. I thought that having constant kitchen fires would be interesting, but I still wanted to play with the epic portrayal of cooking.
I did some self-effacing humor mixed with foreshadowing by dropping all of these references to fancy woods.
Astute readers may also note that I did not even manage to accomplish the one target action of burning a finger. Also, it was too long.
In hindsight there's only one line in this draft that I really like:
A fugue of inspiration
Which I think is a really excellent way of describing that moment before a big mistake when you tell yourself: 'This is a great idea'.
So, I asked myself: What is the essence of what makes this funny?
My first hypothesis was that it was the war analogy. My next draft dove into that notion in a really deep kind of way:
Life is a never ending war, and I am preparing for battle. Beams of twilight shine through the slats of my home. I sharpen my damascus blade against my mother’s whetstone. Jets of flame spring to life in front of me in a neat circle. I don my armor, embroidered with my family’s creed. “Kiss the Cook.” Today I pay homage to my ancestors. I call back to the ancient rites, and trace the paths that my family has for generations. I pray for guidance from those warriors that came before me. Hanger Marauders pound against the walls of my kingdom, threatening to overrun it like they have so many times before. I pull supplies from my war chest. Reinforcements, weapons from the House of Kraft. I build a ring of steel and water and salt. I singe my finger as I join the ring of steel with the ring of flame. The Hanger Marauders splinter the doors to my kingdom. Forgotten slights from the day start to seep back into my mind. My phone felt hot in my pocket. I grit my teeth, remembering my commitment to the war effort. I turn toward my allies from Solanum and Allium. I cut them to pieces, and red Solanum innards coated my hands. I blinked back hot Allium tears. After eight minutes of roiling preparation, training was done. The water and salt were replaced with the strongest weapons known to man - butter and cheese. The whole regiment marched straight from the steel training ring to the front in an unending slurry. It wasn’t glamorous, but they made it, and they won. And I collapsed on the couch, gathering my strength for the next battle.
I tossed the poorly thought-out satire. I tossed the fire. I tossed the horrible cooking, and I really made the whole thing read like satire.
Interesting to be sure. The Hanger Marauders got some chuckles from folks, but no deep belly laughs. Personally, I also have a lot of trouble understanding hanger. It's not something that I personally experience, and so I think while the descriptions might have been funny, they weren't funny in the way I wanted. They were funny ideas, not strange admissions of truth that gave us relief. B comedy.
I waffled here on the Solanum and Allium passage. 'Is this too weird? Nobody knows these words. Can they figure it out?'
Also, there was a newfound lack of conflict. While it was a funny idea to slurp down a bowl of mac and cheese and then pass out on the couch it was that same kind of B comedy surface chuckle I was trying to avoid. Also it was gross. Not in a productive way either.
At this point it was about 2pm, which a submission deadline comfortably far away. After reading this draft and getting some thoughts from Steph I realized that it really wasn't the war analogy that made things funny.
It was the life-and-death stakes in the banal.
This post is getting a bit long though, so I'll follow up with the last two drafts in the next part.