Footnotes to a Rock Story

Some stories creep slowly into your subconscious. Others arrive there fully formed. In the case of 'A Rock Story', however - published this week on The Fiction Shelf - it took a lot more sweat and toil to get there.

The initial spark was nothing special, just a vague idea that I should use my experiences as a music journalist to provide the background for a piece of fiction. It's a world that few people get to see, and one that has a certain glamor attached to it - a glamor that often couldn't be further from the truth. I'd recently read Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists too, and the idea of a journalistic tale appealed. Quite where I was going with it was slightly less clear.

It will be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever written a work of fiction that my first draft was a disaster. Aimless, plotless, characterless - the only thing it had going for it was that it at least vaguely resembled my experience of the rock world. It was also very, very long - far too long for most literary journals - and even a couple of frenzied cuts couldn't slash it down to size.

So I did what most writers would do under these circumstances: I shelved it. Indefinitely.

Then, in November of last year, I signed up for a one-day workshop on short story writing at Seattle's Richard Hugo House. The class was held by acclaimed thriller writer Robert Ferrigno, and he asked us to bring the first three pages of a short story along on the day, for critique. I considered taking a story I'd just finished writing, but I knew deep down that the work on it was almost done. While on my shelf there sat some unfinished business...

The class quite rightly tore 'A Rock Story' to shreds. It opened poorly, meandered for a couple of pages, then flopped in a flabby, self-indulgent heap. They managed to pull out a few phrases and characters that struck a chord, but most of it was buried under furiously cross-hatched lines of red ink.

And yet something stuck with me. I cut the parts that didn't work, juggled the parts that did, kept trying to narrow in on what I was really trying to say. And gradually, paragraph by paragraph, it started to fall into place. It was a much shorter story now, but punchier, and with a slight twist at the end that - I hoped - gave it an extra layer of meaning. It was still the story I'd vaguely imagined months earlier, but it had grown up. It was time for it to head out into the world.

Of course, it's even more poignant that 'A Rock Story' should reach publication this week, as I prepare to cover Seattle's Bumbershoot festival throughout the long Labor Day weekend. It's the one time of year that I become a music journalist again to the exclusion of everything else, and for three days I live the life that - sort of, eventually - made it into print as 'A Rock Story'. I guess maybe it was just biding its time.

You can read 'A Rock Story' - and download it in all major electronic formats - at The Fiction Shelf.

(Photo: The Jim Jones Revue at Bumbershoot, Seattle; copyright Dan Coxon)