All the Best Stories Are Endings

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

“Closing Time,” Semisonic

“There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”

The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Sometimes, someone articulates an idea that has been rattling around in your brain with such simple clarity, that it unlocks a new way of looking at familiar things. That’s what Darren Mooney did in The Escapist Magazine when he said that all of The Lord of the Rings is one big ending.

There is an apocalyptic, or at least fin de siècle, mood I find in my favorite fantasy and science fiction stories. There was a time before the story–an age of legends, of miracles–suffused with an air of wonder and long-lost magic. Much of that era is lost. The time period of the current story is one in decline, and even under threat. But heroism and sacrifice can change the trajectory toward a new Golden Age. To extend on Mooney’s claim, perhaps all stories are endings. And all stories are beginnings, too.

The Lord of the Rings referenced the bygone glories for elves, dwarves, men, and Ents, and subsequent (and posthumous) texts elaborated on this history. When the original Star Wars trilogy came out, the Jedi of the Republic and the Clone Wars were only tantalizing references. The Wheel of Time teased readers with a prologue set millennia in the past, and littered the landscape with artifacts of history-that-became-myth. A Song of Ice and Fire referenced a past age of heroes, magic, fae folk, and dragons, when magic was strong. In all these stories, there is a hope that by bringing the current, moribund Age to an end, there will be new possibilities for wonder in the future–even if the main characters won’t be there to see it. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but it was for Joshua to bring them into Canaan. Frodo boarded a ship in the Grey Havens to sail into the West, but baby Eleanor inherited the new pastoral paradise of the Shire.

In an article for the fan site Dragonmount, I wrote about how various stories used prologues and epilogues–the stories around the main story–to enrich the world and give the readers and viewers a place to imagine around the periphery, to collaborate on the world-building.

Most of the past and future glories of these stories exist in the audience’s imagination alone. (Or they did, before franchise expansion filled every gap.) These contextual stories were crafted as “head canon” (as opposed to written canon) through just enough detail for the engaged mind to fill in the gaps. The story never really ends so long as there is opportunity for headcanon. And, as The Wheel of Time contends, there is no one beginning either. Stories are only windows into a world, and the worlds we love convince us that there is more to see beyond the borders of the window pane. (My biggest gripe with Star Wars VII-IX was that it overturned The Return of the Jedi’s ostensible end-of-an-era. The First Order was no different from the Empire in any way that mattered. Luke’s victory and Vader’s redemption didn’t matter at all.)

I wrote an experimental short story, “Epilogue to a Lost Epic,” around the notion that a story–in its entirety–can be but an ending. It is written as an epilogue. Its preceding epic is unwritten, but the story drops enough tropes and details to let its readers construct a headcanon, and provides hints of the future epic. In this way, it’s also a prologue. The story itself is a liminal stretch–but to its protagonist, this is the story that’s important. It’s his closure, even if the world goes on. I wrote another story, “The Old Ones, Great and Small” published in Diabolical Plots, where the backstory was a war against Lovecraftian monsters–a war that humanity won. Now, the monsters are in a zoo, and the protagonist is an old man who remembers what it was like when there was terror–and the flip-side of that coin, wonder–in the world. Another epilogue to an unwritten epic.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Every story is ultimately a decision about boundaries on a boundless timeline. How we view the same story can change as we grow older, and assume responsibilities for the next generation. Are we Frodo or Bilbo? Or Gandalf? Luke, or Obi-Wan, or Rey? Rand or Moiraine (or Tam)? Neo or Morpheus? The best stories reward multiple perspectives, and grow with us. Beginnings. Endings. It all depends on which way you look next.

Butterfly (Do You Remember Being the Worm?) (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy-tinged fiction, 3,500 words)

Before we stopped talking, my best friend Davis saved my life three times from the Sirynz. It’s funny that I still call him that. “Best friend” is a concept I put away with other childish things when I left Marysville, but the obligation it carries lingers like a photograph standing in for a memory, a thing twice removed from the original. Still, it’s an idea that has pull. At least I owe him a call. But I keep coming up with excuses.

The first time Davis saved, they weren’t Sirynz yet. Tina, Jacqui, and Kayla had just started playing as a band called The Mantics. That afternoon at the Peony Park pool, they were three girls wearing two-piece bathing suits during a summer of great hormonal awakening. It was one of those summer days between fifth and sixth grade that you remember like a postcard picture: blue-skied, perfectly framed, hot only by implication–without the sweat, sunburn, bug bites, or grit at the bottom of the pool lacerating your bare feet. Idealized memory. 

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Epilogue to a Lost Epic (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fantasy, 3,600 words)

Sajun drew rein at the foot of a hillock, where a footpath switched back and forth up to an unexpectedly ordinary whitewashed cottage. He could imagine Tankrit already standing at the top, her night-black hair and robes waving in an unfelt breeze, expecting him through some arcane prescience. But her kind of magic disappeared from the world, and if the one-time necromancer did live here, he would have to knock on her door. As if she were an ordinary woman.

Sajun knew better. He hadn’t steeled his nerves and ridden these leagues seeking ordinary.

Years after writing his history of the War for the Light, Sajun still felt himself living out a tale, if no longer one that any would care to read. The compelling part was over. Sajun was neither poet nor harper, but he had written the story as he and his remaining companions remembered it, and granted himself liberties only where none alive could say otherwise. He’d tried to be honest about his own small role, with neither false heroism nor modesty. The story had an ending. In the way of tales, the grander movements came full circle. Yet–with heartbreaking exceptions–life went on. The last twenty years felt like a story told too long.

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Scared of Bees (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Fiction, 3,400 words)

Aryeh Levin picked up the newspaper from his driveway to see how the world would disappoint him today. “Rockets Break Cease-Fire.” Well what else would they do? When your only tool is a sword, every problem looks like a neck. Sarah saw vindication in the headlines, never a sign we ought to do better. But on this side of the world, the morning street was quiet. The big houses lining it were variations of his own, with tidy lawns, shady trees, and gardens dappling the green with a Crayola box of blooms. A summer breeze carried their scents. Here, there was enough room to live and let live. He had resisted moving here. Places like this were walled gardens in a complicated world. He encouraged his students to start their adult lives and careers outside such walls. But Aryeh came to agree with Sarah that this was where Dina should grow up. In this neighborhood, on this block, Dina could learn what civilization could be, before her generation had to rescue it.

Aryeh returned a wave from a neighbor, the father of Dina’s friend, the bossy little one with pigtails. He started climbing the stairs to the porch when something strafed in front of his nose. He jerked back, stumble-hopping down a step. It was a bee. The porch was swarming with them.

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Every Day Is a Miracle (full text)

by Rajiv Moté (Flash fantasy, 500 words)

Palms slide on palms, knuckles bump. Tail lights turn the corner. The stereo’s thump fades into the city. Bayard stands at the mouth of the dark alley. His smile dies.

The English accented voiceover says the gazelles know there are lions nearby. See how they keep watch. Tense.

Predators hunt here. Shapeshifters: Adze. But after a night of swagger, your friends don’t walk you to your door. “You can’t live in fear,” they say. But they do. Every damn day. The mayor wants more police, but police can’t tell Adze from human beings. Everyone’s a predator. Everyone’s prey.

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I’m Done Selling Stories

As a kid, I loved writing short stories. Of course, I also loved sharing them with anyone who’d read them, and basking in their praise. That dual thrill never went away, but as an adult, they started to conflate. Yes, I still loved writing stories, and wished I could do it all the time. But I started to crave real validation. Publication. Praise is cheap; if someone were willing to pay me money for my stories, that would be a level up from family and friends. I got serious. I read books and blogs about craft. I listened to podcasts. I completed two 2-year certificate programs in creative writing at local universities’ night school. I wrote and revised and workshopped. I worked like I had something to prove.

I submitted my first story for publication in 2012. It was rejected. I didn’t try again until 2016 (at the age of 45), with a story I wrote specifically for a themed call. I still remember getting the email that Unlikely Story had accepted my story “Old Customs” at a pro payment rate. Such a rush. I was giddy. I was a paid, published writer. Other publications followed. I learned about The Submission Grinder and started tracking my submissions, searching for new publications, and generally feeling like a “real, working writer.”

I was also refreshing the Submission Grinder page constantly, obsessively watching the response progress of all my submissions, and speculatively searching for the next publication where my stories could fit. I spent a lot of mental energy on that. Eventually, more energy than I spent writing. It got emotional, and not in a good way.

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Plot Structure Lessons From WXR/SiWC 2020

I’m a long-time listener to the Writing Excuses podcast, and the pandemic this year forced their annual retreat (WXR) from a cruise ship to online, in conjunction with the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC). That made it both accessible and more affordable, so I attended. I was glad I did. I learned a lot about story structure in lectures from Elizabeth Boyle, Mary Robinette Kowal, Liz Palmer, and Dan Wells, and some new ways at looking at the emotional character of scenes from Tetsuro Shigematsu. This blog post is an attempt to distill some of the lessons into a framework for outlining.

As the instructors repeat (and perhaps belabor), these lessons are not the answer to how to structure a story. They’re at best an answer, and more realistically, a diagnostic tool. If a manuscript feels like it isn’t working, analyzing it per these structures can reveal where something is missing or weak.

In this post, I’ll show you how I’m using the structural tools in my process. I will typically free-write a First Lousy Draft that captures as much of the raw story idea as I have. I then start an outline template that unifies the Three Act Structure, the DREAM framework, and the 7 Point Structure. I slot my First Lousy Draft scenes into the outline, and look where I need to flesh out the plot. I’ll then use the completed outline to write a Second Less Lousy Draft that feels more like a complete story. Then comes the development and revision, which is beyond the scope of this post.

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“The Old Ones, Great and Small”

UPDATE: “The Old Ones, Great and Small” can now be read, for free, at Diabolical Plots!

With great pride and pleasure, I can now announce that my story “The Old Ones, Great and Small” is now available in the Diabolical Plots Year Five collection! It will also be available to read for free on the Diabolical Plots website in March 2020.

Charles Payseur wrote a lovely QuickSip Review in his long-running short fiction review column.

Tara Grimravn also wrote a lovely review for Tangent.

Jeff Xilon had kind things to say in his Short Fiction Roundup.

A.C. Wise included this story in her “My Favorite Short Fiction of 2020” list.

Author’s Notes

Writing this story started, as is so common with a fledgling SFF writer, with being inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s a burning desire to use “squamous,” “cyclopean,” or “non-Euclidean geometry” in a sentence. Maybe it’s a desire to describe the indescribable. Maybe it’s a need to respond to the xenophobia and gynophobia underpinning Lovecraft’s stories. Or maybe it’s curiosity about why and how those stories endure and continue to spawn a thousand young.

I’m not immune. To me, the horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones is the Fear of the Other to the ultimate degree. Not only are his horrors shadowy and inscrutable, they are so alien as to defy understanding; the sane human mind is incapable of comprehending them. Merely knowing of them, of their scale and cosmic indifference, moves us far from the center and threatens our sense of significance. How existentially angsty!

So, what if we beat them? What if humanity did what it always does in the face of an imminent, adversarial threat: girded ourselves, developed weapons and defenses, and subdued or annihilated our foe? “The Old Ones, Great and Small” takes place in the after-times. Humanity has gone into the shadows and dragged what lurked there out into the light. We’ve caged them, studied them, and even forced them to perform for us. Now, once we’ve gotten past our fear, how do we see the Ultimate Other? Is it much different from how we’ve evolved on all the other Others we feared?

I read that the original concept pitch for the movie Jurassic World described a scene where a bored teenager takes a selfie with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I love that notion. I’ll never forget the sense of wonder from the original movie, when they first see the Brachiosaurus stand on it’s hind legs to reach a treetop. But years later… Ho hum. Kids these days, right?

Of course the protagonist of my story would be an old man. Not the sort to take selfies. A brooder, a park bench philosopher. And in a short story, I didn’t have to make a Lovecraftian Jurassic Park in three acts, complete with escaping, rampaging monsters (as fun as that could be) and a cautionary message. The story could focus on a smaller, quieter concern. Like where the sense of terror (and wonder) had gone–and whether it could ever be rediscovered.

“Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?”

Every time I looked at Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” I noticed something new. The detail is incredible. The imagery is gleefully bizarre. It’s utterly bonkers, and I love it. So I couldn’t pass up writing a story in that world when I saw the call for submissions for the Honey & Sulfur anthology.

This one’s a love story. (Then again, aren’t they all?) But it’s a love story set in Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell, which has its own set of unique challenges. Most importantly, you have to watch out for those Birds.

Please enjoy “Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?” in the Honey & Sulfur anthology, available at Amazon.

It is also reprinted in Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5.

I’m now providing it free to read on this very blog.

For inspiration, I stared at the painting even more, zooming in on the details. There’s a magnificent online tour of the triptych, with a haunting ambient soundtrack as you move from scene to scene. There are hundreds of stories hidden in the three panels. Once you get past the most obvious and famous ones, you start to notice the quieter, less salient parts, and when you’re looking with an eye for narrative, they become full of mystery. In the middle of Hell, for example, amidst the demons and torture, there’s a dark courtyard by a garden wall. There’s an open gateway arch in that wall, and through it pours a golden radiance. The pale figures in the courtyard stand just at the edge of the light, afraid, yet drawn to it. What else could such a light be in Hell, but a promise of salvation? And why would sinners cluster in the shadows if not out of fear that they were perhaps unworthy? Clearly this was a Hell that had emotional drama, not just the dull routine of bizarre torments–for on the scale of eternity, any torment becomes a dull routine. Drama in eternal torment required some kind of hope, and the ability to exercise agency on behalf of that hope. That meant that Hell had rules of its own, even if they were only there to prolong the suffering. What were they?

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear - Courtyard

When writing this story, I had just quit a job that was a sort of Hell for me, and I didn’t have anything to immediately replace it. The best I could hope for was to find just another flavor of Hell. But in between, I took some time to write, to think, to regain my strength. This liminal space between Hells was wonderful, even joyful. But I knew it couldn’t last. Anxiety circled, ready to swoop. It started eating away at that joy. I needed to find a way to hold on to that joy, to insulate and nurture it from the grind of the obligations to which I needed to return. There must be a way to endure what was demanded, while in my heart of hearts living in my hidden sanctuary of joy. There must be a way.

At that point, the story wrote itself.

“Matchstick Reveries”

It is with great pleasure that I can now announce the publication of my third-ever short story sale, “Matchstick Reveries,” in issue 5 of the online magazine Truancy! Please read the story over at Truancy, and the come back here for some behind-the-scenes notes, if you’re curious.

Click here to read “Matchstick Reveries” in Truancy issue 5.

(The story, as originally posted in Truancy, omitted some paragraphs due to a publishing SNAFU. The editor has restored the full text.)

Truancy_5_cover

As with a lot of my stories, it started as a joke. The title I’d given it was “Marvel Comics Presents: The Little Match Girl” and it was a mash-up between X-Men comics and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” It had mutant psychics, a freezing little girl, and a cosmic force of fiery death and resurrection. It got some yuks from my Facebook friends, which is usually as far as these ideas go. But something about it stuck in my craw. There was a reason I took that troubling little H.C.A. tale in a different direction. I kept fiddling with it.

Matchstick Reveries - Phoenix 2

The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Match Girl” horrified me as a child, a horror that only deepened as I revisited it over the years, in its various incarnations. It wasn’t just that a young child, cold, alone, and overlooked, lights match after match on a winter street, has visions of simple comforts she can never have, and then freezes to death on a street corner. It was also that the narration beatifies this senseless result of societal negligence. The dead little girl is better off now, in heaven, because nothing could save or comfort her in the temporal world. Maybe Andersen meant to stir societal shame through pity, but it looked like nihilism in my eyes. Then I heard of an African proverb that brought the theme into focus: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” So yes, I wanted to write a story where the Little Match Girl takes them all down with her, and instead of her world ending in ice, she sets her world on fire. That was the ending I needed to make peace with Hans Christian Andersen.

I entered a version of the story in PodCastle‘s flash fiction competition, but the feedback was that it was too brutal, too unjust. That was, of course, the point, but the 1,000-word limit didn’t allow me to dig deeper into the moral framework I imagined for the story. And in truth, the story still leaned too heavily into the X-Men Dark Phoenix joke to stand on its own and have something to say.

So I did some research, and went off on different tangents. I learned that selling matches was, historically, used as a thin cover for begging in the streets. I read about the different incarnations of safety matches through the years, and how they were called “Lucifers.” I had a “her parents were French Revolutionaries stirring up trouble across the Channel” angle that I soon scrapped. I read about the Great Fire of London (inconveniently 200 years before the setting of this story), and how the original monument was supposed to have–no joke!–a phoenix on the top. And the suicides, from jumping off the monument and getting impaled on the iron fence posts below? That was historical too. And yes, children froze to death in the streets, and were carted away to paupers’ graves, and the Church tried to put it all into a context of divine meaning.

So Jeanne, this version of The Little Match Girl, is the eventual and inevitable reckoning that comes when the village doesn’t take care of its own. When the phoenix immolates, something new will always rise from the ashes. It’s brutal, terrible, but it sets the stage for a second chance. How will we do the next go-round?