On a two week road trip recently, I listened to Steven King’s On Writing–twice. It revolutionized the way I approach my craft. This post is about his advice on revision. “Kill your Darlings!
I wanted to write a short story based on my experience in the 80s of working for MCI, the telecommunications company that broke up AT&T, and the Baby Bells. In the five years I spent with the company in outside sales, I learned a lot about how the phone system works–getting my voice to come out on the other end of the line to a person I care about far away–and was terrifically excited about the technology. I was using intra-office email before email was a thing. I was using an IBM computer with floppy discs before most ordinary people had access to such a thing as a personal computer. There were courses at a local community college in such things. I took them.
Putting this into my short story bored my critique group readers. No one cares. What happens to the protagonist when she gets into this technology?
Many mini-stories, encounters with customers and prospects, fellow sales people, my family made for good material, or so I thought. Stringing them all together made my readers laugh, but in the end, they were episodic and did not further the development of my main character. And she always triumphed. How does the reader root for a person who so easily overcomes problems and never gets knocked on her toosh?
The final version is not a memoir at all. I threw out many Little Darlings. I hate for them to lie on the cutting room floor (to mix metaphors) never to see the light. Isn’t giving a platform for these scenes I enjoyed writing a place to land what this blog is for? I think so.
Local color vignettes:
I had my Pee Chee folder with ten sales orders in one pocket, pens, and fliers in the other and we were off. Libby crosses the West Seattle bridge to an area of town I had never visited. We headed for 35th, a north-south arterial, and stopped a the first business, a Volvo specialty mechanic. I watched her launch herself forward, her open hand thrust out.
We spent another hour and a half going business to business, one-story establishments clustered around major cross streets—Morgan Junction, Admiral Junction, Alaska Junction.
The Westin and Issaquah
Thai Airways was one of my accounts. I enjoyed my monthly meeting with my contact, a German-born man about my age who lived in Issaquah. We met at Trader Vik’s in the Westin Hotel. We would order Stoli’s on the rocks and settle in for a gossip session about the Thai government and how every branch of the nationalized utilities and businesses and of course, the airline, were all headed by some Royal playboy who knew nothing of the operations. All of Thailand, my contact assured me, was managed by a web of foreign nationals, or educated military who operated beneath the public eye and kept things profitable and free of family quarrels. My goal was to trouble shoot any connectivity issues and to get the airlines to use the vanity 800 number I had secured. 1-800-THAIAIR. I described what the billboard in downtown Seattle would look like with the number emblazoned just below the sultry smile of the most beautiful Thai stewardess in the Kingdom. No luck. Mr. Germany turned the conversation to a lament about Issaquah losing its airport to development. Gone were the pleasant evening cocktails on his deck overlooking the grass landing strip. No more balloon rides. No more small planes lifting gliders into the atmosphere. No more skydivers whose chutes always opened as they screamed through the upper reaches and then bobbed like seed pods floating with the wind.
In my real life as a sales person with MCI, I won several Winner’s Circle trips. They were stellar experiences. On one ….. here’s the scene, none of which ends up in the final version. All it furthers in the story is one more example of a wife becoming independent, fun but unnecessary.
Despite my failure at golf, I landed the regional award weekend, making the Winner’s Circle with one point above the next in the pecking order. Winners could bring their spouses. My husband was thrilled. Don had never been to Tucson. We bounced along dirt tracks to an Anasazi site, ate a bar-be-Que in a sage-dotted dessert, and witnessed a tribal dance performed by local indigenous people. We strolled the grounds of the luxurious resort tucked into the hills outside of town.
Early the next morning, I left our unit before sunrise to take a run on the golf course. Following the track along the edge of the fairway, I came around a curve and was stopped in my tracks by a smallish orange balloon. The crew worked the bellows. When it lifted above the basket, I could read MCI, black letters on the orange background. I jogged over and asked if I could go.
“Are you a winner,” they asked.
“Yes.” I displayed my winner t-shirt.
“Can I call my husband?”
“No time. The couple who won this ride is late. You might as well take their place. We have to get airborne now.”
I climbed in next to another MCI salesperson, feeling self-conscious about my appearance in a running outfit, no make-up or hairdo. We hardly spoke. There was plenty of noise as the balloon gained altitude, then silence as we floated low over the resort. Worried about Don and how long I would be gone, I called down to a man in an MCI t-shirt standing on his balcony.
“Call my husband in room C-29 and tell him where I am.” The guy nodded. With that detail taken care of, I relaxed into the magic of floating silently with the wind. I heard a jack rabbit thump the ground. I looked down into saguaro flowers impossible to see from below. The orange MCI sag-wagon sped along the dirt road beneath us. Images of around the World in 80 Days went through my mind. Such freedom from all things mechanized. The balloonist brought us down in a cactus-filled field. On the drive back to the resort, I started to worry about my husband. He, I discovered upon arrival, had not gotten the message, and had called the resort personnel frantic that something terrible had happened to me.
I was proud of this one and wanted to include it. It ended up on the floor, another Little Darling to jettison. It did not move the story to transformation. Just another pat on the back, memorable ego-enhancing scene no one really wants to read.
With the math and tech savvy I learned at Highline, I did increase the volume of business from several major corporations, including Allstate. I was grateful to Allstate’s IT guy, a teddy bear of a man with a grizzled beard and rounded paunch. He signed an order for the massive switch to MCI I had proposed. It was December 31st. The sale saved my status on the sales force. At nine o’clock on New Year’s Eve I drove to his house in SeaTac with a bottle of Mumm champaign. He welcomed me with Yuletide joy. Ma Bell made the inner circle once again.
Personal Shopper? Unbelievable.
Sometimes real life is unbelievable. I did engage a personal shopper at the Bon Marche to help me get a suitable wardrobe. My clothes worked for a Church Lady, not a young sales woman. My readers couldn’t believe such a thing existed. In the 80s, fine department stores still employed women who specialized in helping dress their insecure customers. Where are these women today? They neither exist nor are believable.
“I think I can do this, but I have nothing to wear beyond two suits and one pair of pumps. I can’t imagine dressing the way those two twenty-somethings do. I hate shopping.”
“Here. This is the card of a friend who is a personal shopper at the Bon. She will fix you up. And she is good with a tight budget.” I dialed the Bon Marche’s number from my cubical after handing in my sales contracts to the administrative side of the house. Terry Allen was available. Two hours later, I went home to show my husband, Don, my outside-sales-woman wardrobe, a brilliant mix and match of blouses, skirts, jackets, scarfs designed to soften my strong chin and imposing presence while looking professional.
It you want to read the final version, let me know. It is running about 4000 words, out there in the world of Submittable, waiting to be accepted.
I would love your comments. Please write. Betsy