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Foundation (A Short Story) January 6, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Other, writing.
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I submitted this last night to a contest at The Write Stuff.  They want bloggers to post the stories on their sites and then send them the link.  So, here it is.  This is the first time I ever entered a short story contest, so wish me luck.

Foundation


 

When Doug went to the bathroom—often, in those beer-sodden grad-school days—we turned his bass amp down lower.  He never noticed, but April said, “it’s still overwhelming the drums and the vocals.” 

“It’s a small house, and I guess it doesn’t have enough insulation to deaden the sound,” she continued.  I nodded vigorously and shrugged so she wouldn’t feel compelled to continue.

Fact was, though, none of us could find the real beat if we heard him.  He always found those spaces in between the beats, but not predictably.  Sometimes, randomly, he hit the beat, but the note would be wrong because he would get nervous and race ahead, finishing long before us.

Then he would stand there and try to figure where he went wrong, thinking he must have skipped a section.  The more nervous he got about where he was in the tune, the faster he’d play.  We wouldn’t look at him, tried not to look like we were avoiding looking at him. 

Steve had the worst of it, counting “1, 2, 3, 4,” relentlessly, at the top of his voice, but April was more impatient.  “Isn’t ‘bass,’” she said before Doug showed up one day, “Latin for ‘foundation’?  It’s supposed to be a rhythm instrument, you know?”  We nodded, but what could we do?

We had needed a bassist who would be compatible with the group, someone who we could con into buying a bass and an amp, and chip in for the vocal amp, too. 

We thought that Doug was teachable.  He had good taste in music, some of the same albums.  He liked punk.  He liked the songs we were writing.

Plus, after endless hours watching other professors wheeze over their lecterns, we now taught our own sections.  Still green, we knew we could teach anything.  We didn’t yet know that some people can’t be taught.

I imagine that there was a time, maybe as a toddler, when I couldn’t keep a beat, couldn’t tap my finger in time to a song.  Was there an epiphany?  Or did it take time to develop?  I suspect the latter, but I couldn’t prove it with Doug as evidence.  I figured he was so focused on the notes that he couldn’t pay attention to the timing, but he’d soon learn the notes and free up attention for other tasks.  Like keeping to the beat, or near it.  Not so.

That winter we finally had enough original material for a gig.

“There are bands with no bass at all,” April pointed out.

“What, like the Kingston Trio?”

“No, they had a bassist. I mean like Sleater-Kinney.” 

I borrowed her album, The Hot Rock, and I thought I worked out how they did it. 

Monday, in the Darwin Bennetson Memorial Teaching-Assistant Cube Annex, I told her about my theory.

“Guitar sounds, short little midrange wave forms, double up to produce long bass-like waves.”  I started drawing on a chalkboard.  “See, you take this wave and this, and you add them together, vertically, like this.  You get this longer wave from them, but because the wavelength is twice the length of these, it’s like an octave lower, or something.”  I should have realized that I was out of my league here, but humanities majors think they know everything.

“So the sum of all the waves coursing through the air produces these long, warm, bass-like hums.  And the bass drum just punctuates it on the beat.” I said.

She narrowed her eyes. “Well, let’s give it a try.  We can’t turn him down any lower.”

“True.” I had wired Doug’s amp to a floor switch.  Once a song started, I shut it down.  I forgot to restart it a couple of times.  But Doug was too disciplined to noodle around after a tune.  He hadn’t caught me, yet.

So we experimented, practiced, ignored our studies.  We set a date for playing a gig and we practiced much more, almost every day towards the end, with or without Doug.  And we really thought we had hit on some cool new sound. 

We got excited, and the songs seemed to take on a life of their own. 

We frantically re-wrote the tunes incorporating the new method.  Some got much worse before they got better, but even Doug started to feel good about the sound.  That might have been our downfall, come to think of it.

Doug had heard “himself” on tape and he decided he felt confident enough to promote the gig.  Two-hundred posters advertised the new bass sound to a campus crammed with hormone-addled 19-year-olds reared on the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, and Rage Against the Machine.

And why not?  We had something new. 

The night of the gig coincided with the spring break exodus.  Three hundred frat boys clogged the Brown Cow and doubled the town’s population.

As soon as we started we knew that the waves we created were as unpredictable as Doug.  The differently shaped room altered the sound.  Our first song sounded like a punch-drunk ABBA playing on a distant AM radio.  Angry frat boys rushed the stage and tipped over the drum kit.  They knocked Doug cold, since he had been concentrating so hard on his playing.  April, and I grabbed our guitars by the neck and started flailing at whoever came close.  That broke the connection to my amp, but April had a radio link to hers.  Soon there were two widening circles, and all you could hear above the shouting was feedback and a loud woooshing noise, sometimes punctuated with a thump when April brought one down.  Drummers don’t carry anything heavy enough to use as a weapon, so Steve stood behind me while they wrecked his kit.  Things looked really bad for about ten seconds, but then the crowd, grooving on the whoosh and whump of April’s axe, started to clap along.

The next week April, Steve and I started a new band.  I bought a bass.

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Comments»

1. SilverTiger - January 6, 2007

Good luck with it.

The story has a nice tension to it and a plot that holds the reader’s interest.

Email SilverTiger

2. sparrow52 - January 6, 2007

Good luck with the story! And thanks for stopping by my blog.

3. strugglingwriter - January 19, 2007

I liked this story, and it ended strong, particularly the last sentence. I will give you my feedback here, just remember I am just some guy with a computer science degree who likes to write in his spare time.

My initial comment is that this is a very solid first draft that could use a little polish. One example is “The differently shaped room altered the sound.” This gets the message across, but a word other than differently might be more descriptive.

Another is “We wouldn’t look at him, tried not to look like we were avoiding looking at him.” This line was a little hard to follow.

Maybe there could be less of a setup for how bad Doug is with the Bass (just a little less) and a little more about the battle during the concert.

Again, I enjoyed this story and upon reading it a second time I liked it more. These are just a few suggestions. Good work and good luck with the next project.

4. caveblogem - January 19, 2007

Thanks, SilverTiger and sparrow52, for your comments.

Strugglingwriter, thanks for your input. It always amazes me how fresh eyes can help find stuff like that. Your first suggestion is well-taken, but the second is especially so. That sentence is part of a much earlier draft that I’m not sure belongs in this one at all. Had I seen that before I entered the contest I would have dumped it, probably, and that would have freed up quite a few words to put in more about the concert itself (as would your third suggestion.)

I understand how you feel about being “just some guy with a computer science degree who likes to write in his spare time.” I have an economics degree. Sometimes I’m surprised I can function in society at all, much less write coherent sentences.

Thanks again for your valuable comments, everyone.

5. Cavan - January 19, 2007

I like your writing style, but it feels to me as if this piece lacks a focus.

For most of it, you’re playing up the band’s friction with Doug, so that seemed to me to be the heart of the story. But the battle during the concert doesn’t seem to concern Doug it all, so it felt to me as if you were writing the end to a completely different story.

My two cents – hope they’re helpful.

6. caveblogem - January 20, 2007

Cavan,
Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate the help. It may be that the story needed a lot more than 1000 words to carry off. It was the second short story I have ever written, and that is one of the things that confuses me. If you have an idea, how do you know whether it is flash fiction, a short story, or a novel, and what length within these broad categories. I’m new at this, so I was thinking of it as a story, a bunch of things that happened sequentially. I’ll have to think about this focus thing more, I guess.

7. Cavan - January 21, 2007

As far as what a work is classified as, here’s what the SFWA sets out as the rule.

Flash Fiction: Less than 1000 words
Short Story: 1000-7500 words
Novelette: 7500-17500 words
Novella: 17500-40000 words
Novel: 40000+ words

Flash fiction isn’t specially defined by the SFWA, but that’s the limit I see at most places publishing flash. The rest are from the guidelines set out for the Nebula Awards.

8. caveblogem - January 22, 2007

Cavan,

Thanks for the list. What I meant, though, was that I don’t have a sense for whether a story idea would work best as, say, flash fiction, or whether it is too large, in a sense, for that, and would be better developed as a novel. Had I had more space to develop this story, I could have made the dramatic center more clearly focused, and the tension with Doug would have appeared as the background, which I think is what I intended. I would have had to enter a different story in that contest, of course, because it was supposed to be under 1000 words.

9. maht - January 23, 2007

caveblogem: I agree with the comment above about the ending feeling a little strange given the set up. The story is entirely about the struggle with the bass player and is a very engaging first draft. Since there is no follow-up to the main crux, though, it feels a little odd. There is no consequence to the ruse with the floor switch, and Doug is simply knocked unconscious and then fired.

Still, there’s a lot of nice detail here, and as a musician who has played with friends who don’t always rise to the level of the others, I can certainly relate to the story.

I think you should certainly polish this story, adding the elements you would have explored if you had room for them.

As to finding the length before writing, think about what you want to say and how long it would take to tell the essentials to someone. If you can get it done easily in a couple of minutes, you probably aren’t looking at a novel. You can tell an awful lot of story in 7500 words.

Either that, or just write it out the way it feels, and worry about the length later. My guess is that if you’d written this one out completely, you could have pared it down to the 1,000 word cap pretty easily without feeling the need to sacrifice your story line.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I hope they are helpful in some way.


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