Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Story Ideas & Plot Outlines

Works In Egress

Notes for a non-novel about not writing a novel

Title: Works In Egress

Description: A book-length collage (rhapsody?) of sentences, paragraphs, pages on the theme of failing to write a book. Include different drafts of various sentences, paragraphs, scenes. Include biographical anecdotes/sketches that represent intrusions of life upon art (insofar as there is any useful distinction to be made between the two). Include clips, scenes, false starts.

Examples . . .

Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to write a new kind of novel, nor is it meant to be groundbreaking or innovative. The result, whatever it proves to be, is simply the only book I can write.

Opening sentence: [Insert well-crafted, engaging opening line here.]

After trying to write a novel and failing, I’m writing about the failure. Is the result a novel? I don’t think so. Maybe. (I second guess myself a lot).

He never metafiction he didn’t like.

One problem with writing a novel is that you’re not the same writer — the same person — as you try to tell the story over the course of many weeks, months, years.

Every work in progress has slipped away, becoming a work in egress. Even completed stories are works in egress. Paul Valery, a French poet I haven’t really read, once wrote that “Poems are never finished, only abandoned.” Wikipedia tells me that after the death of his mentor, the poet Stephen Mallarme, Valery did not write for twenty years. (Digressions like this will help give Works In Egress length and, perhaps, depth.)

Ending: All our works are nothing but works in egress. They slip away: incomplete, abandoned. They slip away: forgotten, chronically neglected. They slip away: completed but falling well short of what we envisioned. All of it, everything, slips away. For what is life itself, dear Reader, but a work in egress?

It would be dishonest to end with the paragraph above. Chekhov (A Russian writer I have read regularly for years, albeit it only in translation) once said that it is in the beginning and endings of their stories that writers lie the most (should I use the actual quotation, as translated, or is this pararphrase close enough?). The paragraph above is true but to give it the weight of finality, the quality of crescendo and coda (too clever?) would be a lie. Life, people, even stories should limp along for awhile at the end, like a wounded dog: carrying on, oblivious that all the aesthetically pleasing moments have come and gone. Or maybe they should end abruptly. Or both. Yes, maybe

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Real Characters

Idea for a reality show: Real Characters follows a group of friends who only watch shows and movies about characters they find likable. Catch phrase: “I couldn’t get into that show: I just didn’t like any of the characters.” Projected series run-time: 3 weeks.

Cutting Remarks

The most important rule for any writer is this: cut anything that is not essential. Which brings me to an idea I have for the story of a writer whose entire process is devoted to this principle. After settling on an idea, this writer dashes out an uninhibited first-draft of several hundred thousand words. Then the process of shaping this lump of raw material begins: passages are cut, sections moved, words altered (and frequently changed back) until finally the result is a tighter, more cohesive second draft that is two-thirds or even one-half the size of the original. Then the writer whittles this down some more, focusing on the various pieces of the story and how they interact (like the parts of an engine). Once the pieces are all there the writer focuses on character, creating amalgamations where characters are repetitious, sometimes even removing a character altogether, until what was once the length of a novel or novella has become a short story. Then the underlying theme of the story begins to emerge. With this new focus in mind, the writer tries to serve the initial impulse that gave rise to the story by expressing the theme through vivid imagery and concentrated word-choice until what remains is a poem. Then that poem is further reduced to a single sentence as the writer states as clearly as possible — with utmost attention to the order of each word and phrase, the placement of each piece of punctuation. Then the writer removes the articles and prepositions from the sentence, then the adjectives and adverbs, until all that is left are a few verbs and nouns. From these the writer chooses the word that best captures the spirit of all that has come before, leaving only a single, solitary word. Finally, after long and careful deliberation, the writer picks up a pen and draws a line through that final word, crossing it out.

Story Idea (Short Story, Movie, Whatever)

Story about someone who wakes up one morning to find that, for no apparent reason, whenever s/he goes into a shop (etc) s/he is mistaken for an employee. Customers constantly approach him or her in need of help and even become irritated and combative when she claims not to be an employee. Should begin with easily dismissed examples (bookstore, cafe, etc) and grow increasingly outrageous.
Possible Titles: “Do You Work Here?” or “On the Job”

Movie Idea

Following a bout of tantric sex William Shatner experiences an epiphany: a revelation so elegant in its simplicity, so sweeping in its potential that, if he could express clearly to a large number of people, it would have the potential to benefit all of humanity and alter the course of civilization for the better. Beginning with a series of already scheduled talk show appearances, Shatner tries to explain his epiphany to a wider audience only to find that his attempts are treated as campy humor by hosts, co-hosts, and in-studio audiences alike. Even during one-on-one interactions Shatner finds that friends and acquaintances only nod politely as their eyes glaze over. Eventually, to keep things lively, a second character — a non-celebrity, ordinary person who “gets it” — could be introduced: an acolyte who does more harm than good because he seems crazy. I’m picturing David Cross.

If Shatner is unavailable other actors might work: Tim Allen, Lindsey Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Sally Struthers, Carrot Top . . . any actor who is not taken seriously will do. Ideally, though, the lead should be someone who was once a legitimate star but is now reduced to self-mockery and late-night informercials. Whoever it is, the film should be played straight and earnest — not mocking the actor in question but satirizing the notion of trying to use mass media to communicate an important idea.

Director: Spike Jonze

Essay/Story Idea

My parents seriously considered naming me Django (after the great French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt). What sort of person would I be if I were named Django? How much does a person’s name shape who they become? Try to imagine this other me who never happened . . .

Short Story Idea

Here’s an idea I came up with circa 1997-1998 that never went anywhere . . .

A short story about a couple who break up but continue to live together for two or three weeks because the lease is nearly up and neither of them can afford to break it or pay the other person’s half of the rent.
First sentence: “Love had ended early.”
Possible titles: “Apartment,” “Together,” or “Alone Together”

Digression – Idea for a Movie

Movie about a detective working a homicide investigation who becomes increasingly distracted by a series of fascinating conversations with a hot dog vendor in front of the police station. Gradually the investigation becomes peripheral, squeezed into the margins by the detective’s sprawling chats with the vendor. Think Se7en or the first half of a Law & Order episode meets My Dinner With Andre.

Backstory for a Sci-Fi Novel/Film

The future. It has been decades since the human race solved its waste problem by transporting sewage, garbage, etc to a parallel universe (or another dimension). The authorities always claimed that this universe/dimension was far larger than our own and completely empty. In fact, this other universe/dimension is densely populated by beings we can only dimly understand — beings who have finally figured out how to strike back.

Idea For A Science Fiction Story/Book/Movie

Set in a future where private education lenders are able to “repossess” a person’s education if they default on paying their student loans. If a long-form piece the A-plot would center on a scientist or a doctor who, through no fault of her own, has fallen behind on her loan payments and must try to continue performing her job while her technical knowledge is slowly erased. B-plot could be a comical spin on same premise: protagonist’s spouse or sibling, a former English major, defaults on loans and feels no ill effects when his education is repossessed since he has already forgotten much of what he learned and never uses the rest.