Watson likely stories

Fic Postmortem for "Dust on His Hands From the Sky"

Postmortem time! This is when I figure out what I learned from the process of writing a particular story, what I did well, and what I could have done better. And since the word has an extra meaning when associated with this story, I stick the whole thing behind a cut.

Origins

Plot ideas, free to good home. Xander arriving in Heathrow, middle of season 6. Angst leading to smut. No smut in my version, but I crank the angst to 11.

I knew right away that I wasn't setting it after "Hell's Belles". I was setting it earlier, in winter, and I was making it worse. I wanted Xander to be seriously screwed up when he arrives. I saw the arrival at Heathrow, the meeting, and a dreary train ride. I didn't see what happened after that so clearly. I suppose I had a generic slash plot in mind. It got more serious when I started working out the details of what Xander's situation was, and exactly what a mess he was when he got there.

I wanted a Giles arc that mirrored Xander's in some ways. In particular, I wanted them in a role reversal at the end.

I knew somebody else had to die, somebody important to Giles, to give Xander a chance to step up. For a while I thought that would be Ethan, but I admitted I was just wimping out on making things hard on Giles. Buffy would be far more painful for him. And then I realized that choosing Buffy gave me a number of plot opportunities that made some other thematic stuff all snick into place. Because, let's face it, the overall plot arc of season 6 is problematic. Canon commits character assassination while dodging some big issues.

Canon vs me

Canon, from 6th and 7th season: Giles is in England. Willow has an addiction problem that endangers others. Willow uses magic to manipulate Tara. Buffy is deeply troubled, and in a mutually abusive relationship with Spike. Anya is rejected by Xander, and goes demon again in response. Buffy's resurrection upsets the balance and eventually allows the First Evil a way in. Anya dies.

All of those things are in this story, but rearranged.

I started with a vague notion that the Hellmouth twists magic. So does Giles. He starts trying to find out exactly how. Ethan is assisting, because I wanted Giles trapped in England. My explanation for that is a bit weaksauce, but I find it better than canon's. Why the hell is Giles in England when his Slayer is so messed up? "Breathing" offers one answer (Giles is broken), and this story offers another (the Council yanked his visa for his own protection).

I don't ever explain exactly what it was that happened that resulted in Anya's death, but I think the basics are clear. Willow travels down her destructive path more quickly than in canon, and Tara reacts more healthily. And so does Spike. (I also like the idea of examining the story of the two of them becoming friends and escaping to LA.)

Xander

Xander is my protagonist, because he's the one who has the big character change. It's that moment when he gets the letter from Willow. From then on, he's capable of being his own human being, independent and improving. Which is good, because Giles is about to be told the worst.

I imagine he didn't set out to stay in the closet. He got there by accident, by panicking and keeping his mouth shut at some decision point, back when he was 15 or something. And then it just kept happening, as he began to feel embarrassed that he hadn't told his friend Willow yet. And then it was habit, and then he was trapped. And he genuinely loves Anya; she's probably his best friend at that point, especially given how Willow has changed.

Giles

Not entirely healthy: note the implications of how he chose to drag himself up from his suicidal period post-Eyghon. And how easily he slid back down into it when he lost Jenny. Note also how he cannot express certain emotions easily, even with somebody there to hold him. Violence as outlet. But he has achieved some amount of wisdom and balance over the years, and he will survive losing Buffy.

Note some hints of a Powers-connected-to-religion setting. This Giles is a believing, sporadically-practicing Christian.

I have written paternal Giles twice: here and in my remix of nwhepcat's "Soft Place to Land". In both cases he has an easier time expressing those emotions with Dawn than with Buffy, with whom it's all a bit tangled. But he loves her deeply, possibly more than he loves himself.

Ethan

Poking, poking, always attempting to destabilize what he perceives as his overly-rigid friend, to tweak any stable structure he sees. But here it's all out of affection for Ripper. Several reasons for the change in the relationship: Ethan's response when Giles showed up after Buffy's fall in "The Gift"; Ethan's new lover, which takes some of the desperation out of his interactions with Giles; and Giles' own changes as a person. The key is in what Giles says to Xander, about finally forgiving Ethan for the same reason that Xander is able to forgive Willow and Buffy. (C.f. Giles to Buffy in the otherwise nauseating "I Only Have Eyes For You".)

Things that go clunk in the fic

Really, that personal-demons-made-literal thing was not so successful. But I wanted a concrete demonstration of the curse, and a specific ending point. And then to make the point that this does not magically fix things: Xander must still work. Damage must still be repaired.

I needed a clearer idea in my own head of what was going on with Buffy. How was she broken, exactly? Just to make sure the details I gave of her actions could hold together logically. I sort of envisioned her as being burnt away, reduced to essence of Slayer, with the human Buffy appearing less and less frequently. But she holds it together enough to achieve a human act at the end, to control her outbursts.

I probably should have cut the sex scene entirely and just let it be implicit. The fact that it's in there at all is because of my original prompt.

I needed more time with this one. A week to let it sit and cool a bit in my head, then I could see what was important and what wasn't. Part 5 in particular is pretty ragged, because I wrote it last, pretty much the morning I posted the story. So it didn't get the benefit of think-time and revision-time. (I'm looking at it again now, and thinking, woah, very bare. Needs more: connective tissue, physical cues, everything. Sigh. I think this is going to be the flaw that forever bothers me about this story.) But...

Raw

I think it's interesting that this and "Breathing" are my two most popular stories. At least, as measured by feedback, which is the only way I have to judge reader response. I think they both resonate with readers because they're both raw and unpolished. I didn't give myself time to submerge the emotion and edit it away and tone it down and make it all acceptable. Instead it just kinda screams out.

I think that does something for readers. If I can manage to avoid sentimentality and maudlin tear-jerking, that is. I tried to keep the emotion out of my writing and in the characters, if that makes sense. To depict them feeling things in language as plain and unheated as possible, so that if the reader felt something, it wasn't because I was unfairly pushing buttons. I'm still not sure I succeeded.

I think I'm doomed to be a very in-your-face writer.

Less allusive than usual

Allusive writing is one of those things I can't help but do. If it's in my brain, it will come out somehow. And I like reading allusive writing and getting the little bursts of satisfaction that recognizing something gives. This story has less than the usual dollop, however. No obvious big things, like Ethan spouting Marvell lines all throughout (as he did in "Gas-ring Alchemy").

James Joyce, of course: snow softly falling, falling softly. (General over Ireland.) And this allusion is handy because some aspects of Gabriel's epiphany in "The Dead" will be shared by Giles later. Though I don't linger on it, because Gabriel is kinda annoying.

Two references to Dylan Thomas, both from Giles, who thinks about the famous poem in reference to Buffy. This is more important to me. Thomas' entire worldview, in fact.

The central image of the kite is not particularly original, but it's not in reference to anything specific. Xander takes what is initially an escapist fantasy and turns it into something healthy, and eventually uses it to help them both find healing. At the end he chooses to give away something that was important to him.

The title "dust on his hands from the sky" is from a song that references J D Salinger. In "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters", Zooey Glass is described as a child saying that she knew how to fly. And the proof was that when she came down, she had dust on her hands from the lightbulbs. I have mixed feelings about Salinger overall (seems a bit stuck in adolescence) but Glass family stories are about the huge thing that Seymour's suicide was. Buddy Glass spends his life attempting to grapple with it. Giles might, I thought, consider Salinger accessible to Xander, and the message important. (If you want to send a message, use Western Union. Not fiction. However, I point to Salinger in an earlier story about suicide as well, "Reconnection". Apparently I have a thing.)

But in the end, I'm lowbrow. The specific version of the reference I used is filtered via Ride, a late-80s shoegaze band of the Extremely Loud Guitars variety. The song is "Polar Bear", and I listened to it over and over while writing this. Lyrics here.

Grief vs me

Twenty years ago this spring, I graduated from college. On the day of my commencement, my undergraduate mentor was found dead in the closet of his apartment. He'd picked up a stranger at a bar in the Boston Fens the night before, taken him home, and been knifed to death. It was bad. His lover, who was away on a trip at the time, came home and pretty much went to pieces.

This guy was my adviser as an undergraduate, and he took an interest in me at a time when I needed somebody to, for various reasons that are irrelevant to this story. We became friends, though he (possibly because I was an ignorant mouthy kid, oh God, Dennis, I'm sorry for that mouth) never came out of the closet with me while he was alive. Death blew the doors off that one.

He was a little older than I am now. I don't think they ever figured out who did it. (I would be curious to know if such things can be looked up in police records.)

When I started writing this story, I had a dream about him. He was sitting in his office, gently rocking in his battered chair. In the dream, his lover had just been killed, in the same way that he had died in real life. And I was offering him comfort, telling him that things would eventually feel better.

Like Giles in the story, I'm grateful when I dream about my friend and mentor, because it's the only way I can talk to him any more. But this dream was such a reversal: I'm now his age. I am in such a different place in my life, and I've learned so much since I last talked with him. I think I could in fact tell him some things he didn't know, and offer him advice. Maybe. I don't know everything. Maybe we'd just have a nice chat about Mozart, like we used to. That would make me happy.

And the strange thing is, I think that dream was my unconscious mind telling me that I'm over my more recent grief issues too. And yeah, I think I am. Just like that.

Now's when I start hating the story and wincing every time I think about mistakes in it, by the way. This phase lasts six months, at least.
  • Current Mood: thoughtful
  • Current Music: Polar Bear : Ride : Nowhere
The whole time I was reading this story, I was thinking about what it said about you and your own experiences with grief. Nobody could have that kind of insight into it without having had the experience. I dream about my lost loved ones, and it feels like I've just visited with them. I guess I'm not the only one. Thanks for the story breakdown. It helps with my own.
I don't think I could have written this at age 20 right after it happened, though. I'd have written something else, something more ferocious and bitter. Which would have been worthwhile, perhaps. I dunno.
*sigh* I rarely dream about people I've lost. Almost never, actually. And it makes me sad.

You writing that made me think about my undergrad thesis advisor, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in December. I should email her. She and I were friends too, and I can't imagine what it would have been like to lose her like that. God.
I disagree about your assessment that the physical demons made literal doesn't wok-- I thought it did quite well.

If you think the story needs more work, what's to prevent you from issuing revisions over time? Give people a thrill on rereading, or let a new reader months hench have an experience more like the one you intended? (I just had the unusual joy of getting a comment from a now reader on part 7 of Summer last night. It was a nice surprise. But it does show that these tales are not "finished" when we post them-- there's always the potential that new readers will stumble across it much later. Which is why it's cool they're all still out there.)

Your story about your mentor, and your dream, and the passage of time really struck a chord with me. I, too, am grateful that you have such dreams. And for the light it casts on your other recent griefs. Hugs to you.

I hope your hatred of the story does not last a whole six months. I think it's one of your best so far, myself.

Thanks as always for these.

Hob
I'm always in despair immediately after writing these. Which, I suppose, might be a sign that I shouldn't. So I was feeling a bit on the unresourceful hopeless side.

You're right. I can edit and quietly update my site and the posts here.