Writing “Curtain of Frost”
    Thomas Bolt  

Ring Lardner, that master of deadpan humor, once told the New Yorker's founding editor that he composed short stories by jotting down a few isolated words or phrases, then filling in the gaps between them. I really do that.

Not always: my first published story came to me in a instant, ready to write down; I finished it in an hour or two. With that particular story ("A Cluster of Sunsets," Southwest Review), I sat down to work hearing the narrator's voice and knowing all about her family, their campsite, the quarry down the road, the shock she and the reader were about to have. When a writer is lucky, the process is simply to get the right words down while the idea is still vivid, before the people from Porlock come calling.

I work on many stories at once, with manuscripts in every stage of development, from a title and a few widely spaced words to stories that need only a haircut and new shoes before being introduced to strangers. Most stories don't come to me intact, but begin with a series of smaller flashes and flares, some good, some awful, which I write down indiscriminately by hand or type into my phone, tablet, computer, or what have you (never a typewriter, though I do own two). I've been doing this for a long time, and have hundreds of pages of notes. They include dialogue, descriptions, phrases, situations, plot ideas, names, places, beginnings, endings. At the end of the file I paste whatever I cut that might be reused.

When an idea seems to want to be a story, I add it to one of my word processing files that represent future story collections. I give it a title (or title placeholder) and add in a few phrases, sentences, paragraphs— whatever I've got. Then I jump around in my notes, usually very quickly. I begin to cut and paste; the story I'm working on begins to grow. I introduce random elements. I juxtapose contradictory notes and fragments, intending to make them work together later.

When we leave home, we carry our expectations out into a world that has no interest in satisfying them. It's a strange world, made less strange at times by competing overlays of convention. Anyone paying serious attention is likely to notice contradictory, counterintuitive things—things those conventions can't make room for or acknowledge. I want my writing to close in on this sense of things, and the cut-and-paste approach, a kind of bricolage, is an important stimulus and discipline for me.



"Curtain of Frost" took fourteen years from conception to publication. I have before me an obsolete computer running an obsolete word processing program (for technology archaeologists, Word 5.1a) showing a series of early drafts. Here's how the story grew:

1997 idea, from notes: 0 words; 14 years to go
The story begins with a title and two unrelated elements:

spacer1. A description of the moon ("the moon was red and creased, as if it had been folded, kept in a forgotten pocket, and replaced in the cold blueblack sky"). This part seems to belong near the beginning: maybe there's a night journey through wilderness.

2. A dream in which a young girl cries out to the wakening dreamer: "Come back! You're not done with things! Come back!" This I take to be the ending. Though it might prove too melodramatic to use, I want to see if it'll work. (And, by the way, I actually had that dream.)

The title, which suggests a frost-covered windowpane, has an embedded metaphor: a sense of being sealed inside a room, not ready to come out. Between the metaphorical title, the folded moon, the dreamer, and the potential daughter, anxious about her chance to exist, these widely spaced words and phrases are more than enough to begin with.

June 4, 1998 draft: 345 words; 13 years to go
The first line here is not far from the published draft: "I kept moving." The opening scene is similar, and contains the same transition from the mediaeval errand in the darkness and snow to a writer's spare apartment. The break in writing—on a typewriter—and the trip outside for groceries are also here. After the six opening paragraphs come a stretch of white space, a couple of sentences too awful to quote (eliminated later, but developmentally important), and still more white space. The last line, used verbatim in the published story (though not at the end) is still "Come back! You're not done with things! Come back!"

July 20, 1999 draft: 446 words; 11 years, 10 months to go
The middle grows: only one new phrase here, "enjoying her inevitable decline," survives in the published version. White space still abounds. The first-draft title is "A Curtain of Frost"; in this version I drop the "A."

January 10, 2000 draft: 856 words; 11 years, 4 months to go
The story has doubled in size since the first draft. Fragments of stories by the writer-narrator character begin to appear. Some of these segments will remain intact at publication.

February 18, 2001 draft: 935 words; 10 years, 3 months to go
The girl from the dream is now clearly the (potential) daughter of the childless writer-narrator, but the man who walks through the snow in the dark is not yet looking for his own daughter. In fact, no one seems to have any idea what he's doing out there, least of all the writer of the story—yet he does seem to belong. Already present are the walk on cracking ice, the too-vivid dream, the unfinished novel, "a pause in the game," the father and daughter bending down to look at a stream behind the house—many features of the finished story.

August 18, 2002 draft: 2,385 words; 8 years, 9 months to go
Again the story has more than doubled in size. Making an appearance are the "nightmare through which a subway runs," the room crammed with antlers, the interest in perception, the book of fairy tales, the writer- narrator's low-key girlfriend ("a character from my real life"). Brahms and Kafka are invoked (or their names dropped). The modernistic chair, with us since the first draft, is now also a boulder. Still no Brazil, no abducted daughter, no date with the editor, no Ana—in fact, other than the childless writer, no onstage characters at all. The manuscript still has many, many gaps. Between long narrative sections, fragments, phrases, and notes, there is more white space than ever.

February 13, 2003 draft: 8,096 words; 8 years, 3 months to go
The manuscript more than triples in size as the characters move in at last: various editors, Susan Nochman (already wearing blue), and Ana—bringing Brazil and a small dog with her. Even with a story that takes time to write, whole sections may arrive in a instant, intact: this happened with Susan, Ana, and Brazil. After more than five years, this is almost, but not quite, a complete draft, in the sense that nearly everything in the finished story is here in some form. The theme of the writer's stubborn poverty, always there, is made more pronounced by the obsolescences that happen as the story is being written: typewriter, answering machine, land line, are all becoming antiques. White space is closing up. A map of Belém is embedded in the text for temporary reference. The man in the writer-narrator's story now has a reason to risk his life in the woods—he's searching for his daughter. The theme of success after many, many failed attempts (or resistances) emerges. The story still ends as it did in the first draft, with the dreamed daughter's outcry. I want to keep the scene, but know it is not the place to end the story.

May 10, 2004 draft: 11,743 words; 7 years to go
The first truly complete draft: all of those widely spaced words and phrases have been connected. The typewriter theme leads to a new ending that balances obsolescence with continuity, in a form more or less identical to the version published.

February 22, 2005 draft: 12,004 words; 6 years, 3 months to go
This is the longest draft—but without the additive impulse there would be no Lambretta scooter, no cardboard box of parts, no Only Girl Story. Now that all of the elements are here at last, the challenge is to make them work together as concisely as possible.

May 8, 2006 draft: 11,741 words; 5 years to go
Time for elimination rather than elaboration—until a cascade of transitions fails to work. Where rewriting doesn't help, a section needs to be reimagined, restated, the emphasis shifted, a single detail taking the place of dense description (or, worse, of explanation).... That or just cut.

June 6, 2007 draft: 11,398 words; 4 years to go
Certain moments seem right, but the language doesn't. The writernarrator's argument with Susan does not need to take place in real time. 2008: 3 years to go Catastrophic hard drive failure. No backup from this year.

May 10, 2009 draft: 11,279 words; 2 years to go
Still cutting and adding, cutting and adding, trying to get the flow of a few scenes to work. Very little is new; cutting and rewriting keep me busy.

September 24, 2009 draft: 11,923 words; 1 year, 8 months to go
Reimagining flawed scenes brings the manuscript back to within a few sentences of its greatest length.

August 22, 2010 draft: 11,164 words; 9 months to go
Cutting, checking logic and continuity. Now I want a manuscript I can read without making marks.

January 10, 2011 draft: 10,679 words; 4 months to go
Last few rounds of cutting and cleaning up.

January 20, 2011 draft: 10,610 words; 4 months to go
Submit finished story to Epiphany.

March 3, 2011 draft: 10,610 words; 3 months to go
After consulting a better map, I change one word: Belém is on an estuary, not the sea.

June 2011: 10,610 words; Publication
Story published.


Not long before I finished "Curtain of Frost," my wife gave birth to our first child, a daughter.



"Writing 'Curtain of Frost'"
first appeared in Epiphany.

So did the story.

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"Writing 'Curtain of Frost'"
copyright (c) 2011
by Thomas Bolt.
All rights reserved.