Peter John McLean

writing stories about inflatable cows (Writing)

About a year ago, I started writing a story about a misanthropic loner with a dead end job who comes home to discover an inflatable cow in his living room. This, as far as I was concerned, was the most brilliant premise any writer could ever dream up. When I first started brainstorming and thinking it up, I had a really simple idea. He comes home and there is a cow in his living room and he cannot figure out how the fuck it got there. This, by itself, without any other characters or action, seemed like a strong central premise. There wasn’t a story arch yet (who needs those anyway), but there was a character who was interesting (at least to me) and a challenge that he would have to overcome (sort of).

At the time, the story was entirely based around the protagonist thinking through how this inflatable intruder managed to invade the house and how it would get out. I jotted down long lists of questions where did the cow come from? did someone break in and stash the cow? if so, why? did they take anything? nope, so why just break in to leave a cow? can i get rid of this cow? how? should i just dump it out back? seems kind of inhumane? but its a cow. 


Of course, a year ago, I was a hack fiction writer. I didn’t really know anything about writing fiction and since I was coming out of the phase where I gave up on being a writer, I was rusty and all that. It felt good to have one of those Peter John McLean premises, absurd enough that I would have fun writing about it, but with the potential to stay muted, deadpan, and pitch black funny. Still, I was a hack, which is a problem when you’re suddenly trying to put together a story that you know, deep down where your heart should be, is supposed to be absurdly funny, hysterical, dark. I was hit with that feeling – you know the one – where you’re trying to draw a picture of car accident, but you only have crayons, and – oh shit – your hands are now bleeding stumps.

From what I hear this is a common problem for writers. In fact, it is probably a good sign for any writer, because it means that the story you are working on has real quality to it. Any idiot can write a bad story badly. When you are struggling to write a story – because you know the story is there – but finding and carving out the right words is challenging, well then I think you are on the right track. This has been my challenge with the inflatable cow story. Unfortunately, it has been a problem with Dustheads, my newest story as well.

The problem with the story has always been that the cow isn’t enough. Early on I figured, oh cool a fucking inflatable cow, how many stories have that? Alright, done. We’ll just add an inflatable cow and then that will be a story. Then, having ignorantly made this the priority, I ignored any sense that the cow wasn’t enough conflict.

Enter now. Or, at least yesterday.

I’m sitting at my kitchen island, listening to Lil Durk’s Signed to the Streets and drinking a Diet Coke, and thinking about this inflatable cow story that has been through a dozen or so rewrites. People I respect tell me that the last version was garbage. In their defense, I did rewrite it with a very new (and absurd) narrative style, which involved giving away the end (in the end the protagonist kills someone) (see what I did there?).

So, sitting at the island, sipping my soda, listening to my drill music, I decided that it was time to start rewriting the story. Again.

So what do I do differently, what do I do to make the story work. First, let’s see what the real problems with the story are: there is only one character who has any real value to the story, so it consists heavily of his weird, antisocial dialogue, the only other character of significance to the story is the inflatable cow who doesn’t have any dialogue. There has never been proper tension around the protagonist, because the story doesn’t explain decently what he is about, where he is from, where he wants to go. He is as flat as Sasha Grey’s chest, which doesn’t give him any opportunity to actually grow as a character.

In my developments as a fiction writer over the last year, this last point seems to be the most crucial: the protagonist is flat, making his struggle boring, and his climax and denouement boring, regardless of how many people he kills (just one).

And so I will rewrite it. I will ignore the cow, which will not be easy, and I will focus on the protagonist. I will find out about his life, his interests, hobbies, his struggle. I will get to know him. And then, when he and I really know each other deeply, I will stick an inflatable cow in his apartment and see what happens.