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rdsfwm (revise deranged short fic with me)
revising “Laura Lau Will Drain You Dry”, trying experimental story structures, “fuck the patriarchy!”, and Amanda Lee Koe’s “Chick”
My Jennifers-Body-but-with-mosquitoes short story "Laura Lau Will Drain You Dry" recently appeared in Nightmare Magazine! I love love love the form it's in now, but it was a struggle to get the story there.
I'd been trying to crack it for years. It started with a few inspirations: high school chauvinism, that time my school corridor was literally blanketed with insects for a couple of days, the belated want to bestow the teenage selves of me and my friends some delicious feral agency. I had this thing about this girl being labelled crazy or parasitic in the wake of her breakup, and her embracing that like the hot monster girl she is.
The first version of this story was 5000 words and much more traditionally structured: going through Laura's boyfriend dumping her, her slowly realising her affinity with the mosquitoes, her draining a boy while hooking up with him in a park, and ending with her gaslighting him in school about it. Roughly the same beats are there in the published version, but in a very different form. I’ll expose the beginning of the first draft:
The day before the insects arrived, Laura Lau the Mosquito Queen got dumped.
Jackson Quek wasn’t even a good boyfriend. He preened over himself and never asked what she thought. His main redeeming quality was the size of his bank account. She had mainly gotten together with him because they were both hot and popular and everyone had expected it.
“Babe,” he’d said, almost chagrined, which was a depth of emotion usually reserved for his football team losing. This had been by the field, right after practice. Between his sentences he lifted his sopping shirt to dab at his face, and not even his abs could make up for the stink that rolled off him. “I don’t think this is working.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, because she had about twenty-three reasons why they weren’t working and she was curious to find out which had finally penetrated his skull.
It’s got some of the voice I wanted—mean, campy, Jennifer-Check-Olivia-Rodrigo-in-Good-4-U. It had a sprinkling of that humour, but at this pace, the story wasn’t quite working as a whole. I knew the idea worked. I desperately wanted to write the mean bloodsucker girl story. I wanted to write about the way teenage girls are perceived and the armour of just embracing it and being absolutely insane. I also knew it needed to be punchy, and its 5000-word form was not letting me do that the way I knew it could be, but I didn't know how to distill it. So I let it sit in my folders.
hail the hive mind
Then summer 2022, I spent six weeks at Clarion West, holed up in a dorm-turned-sorority house with nothing to do but write feverishly, surrounded by sixteen other people all doing the same thing. It was incredible. It was exhausting (I burnt out for months after). I’ve always said the thing about Clarion for me was really the sheer immersion in a creative environment and community. We churned out almost half a million words in six weeks (we counted). An interesting side effect of that proximity and shared delirium, though, was the hive mind. Suddenly everyone started doing epistolary and second person. One week there were three social media vampire pieces, completely independently of each other. There was fungus. There were beaches. There was smut. Everyone was trying new things inspired by each other.
“Laura Lau” actually wasn’t one of my official weekly stories, but on the second last day of the whole thing, after I’d workshopped my last story, I took myself to the Sharetea near where we were staying in Seattle. By that point in July it was hot as hell, the house was suffocating, and we were all escaping to various air-conditioned spots. At that point I hadn’t burned out and I was still high on creative adrenaline; there was a submission call for telepathy-related stories closing July 31st, and I had the wild idea of trying to whip this mosquito telepathy story into shape, since I was fuelled up.
I ordered a large tea and started out trying to just hone the original—cutting words, condensing segments, trying to make it a leaner version of itself for the magazine’s word count. I got it down, but the story still wasn’t working. It still felt limp.
Then I remembered this text that my friend’s delightful ex had replied to her (completely unrelated) Instagram story once. It went a little like this:
And once I thought about that, all those hive mind currents of second persons and epistolaries and general experimentation started setting off sirens. In the previous draft, I’d taken up a lot of space trying to narrate the social environment. But as they say, I could just show most of it instead. Once I’d gotten that idea, I started to dismantle the whole story in my head. Reducing words wasn’t the solution; I needed a different structure entirely. I needed to cut the expository descriptive fat and lean all the way into Laura’s voice. It needed to be angrier. I threw out everything and started on a blank page. Over the next two or three hours, I wrote a new version that was half the length of the original.
So now, the story starts like this:
The day after the picture of your boobs gets sent around the school, a mosquito lands on your tongue and bursts like a ripe cherry.
You are crying in the disabled stall of the girls’ bathroom where you took the photo to begin with. You hate that you’re back here, but it’s where you were that day four months ago because it’s the only private mirror in the whole school. It’s exactly the same. Paint-stained, clogged-up sink, graffiti all over the door that you’ve contributed to, no toilet paper on the roll. You are crying because you didn’t know until your friend Maya texted you that morning—did you know?—and when you got to school, all the boys were looking at you with a gleam in their eyes, and one of them looked at your chest, looked up at you, and said, so you’re stuffing them, or what?
You grip the edge of the broken sink and try to girlboss yourself into stopping the tears. You don’t fucking cry in school. You are the It Girl. Captain of the netball team, valedictorian-to-be, one half of the hottest couple in school. Or at least you were. Until you yelled at Del too long and he dumped you. You forgot about sending him that picture, or at least you never thought he’d do anything like this. Everyone knows it came from him, even though it was anonymously uploaded, but who the fuck cares enough to do anything about it?
There’s a whine in your ear that sounds almost understandable. At first you think you’re hallucinating and it’s just the broken lights—why does this school have so much money to throw at useless merchandise, and not enough to fix the lights?—but then the mosquito darts across your reflection.
Between the first version and this one I think I did figure out how to wield prose more effectively—how to slip in context and backstory, start in media res, condense the distance between ideas, spice up voice with singular words (“girlboss”, verb), fold in environmental descriptions, how to pick words that match the tone and themes (“ripe cherry”). But also, I just needed the clean cut of starting the story from scratch. Sometimes the original execution doesn’t work at all, and that’s okay. It’s much stronger now, and I like that the second person both speaks to the universal and the way gossip can construct a version of someone independent of their own agency (my intention with the title, incidentally! the original title was “laura lau is a bloodsucker”, but I switched to this for the double entendre).
Laura is one of my favourite pieces now. It's part catharsis, part alternate universe. I always think about being 16 in the first few days of school where an icebreaker had a guy announcing he’d pick me as the girl in a threesome. Or the guy telling me feminism was great because women showed off their tits, or the other guy who said they were all sad about girls from my school taking up spots in their school because girls from the other place were hotter, and how each of them was my friend. I think a lot about the confusion that is the simultaneous safety/pleasure and danger/precarity of being desirable. I think a lot about the guillotine of being crazy constantly hanging over your head, and the catharsis the deranged girl genre of media brings as a result. I think about “and they tell you that you’re lucky but you’re so confused/’cause you don’t feel pretty, you just feel used” from Taylor Swift’s “The Lucky One”, and how I didn’t get it at 13 when Red dropped, but I really do understand it now.
coming back to chick
I talk about it in the author interview I did for the piece (link at the end) but when I trace the braintree of this story, I end up at a story called “Chick”, in the debut collection Ministry of Moral Panic by queer Singaporean writer Amanda Lee Koe, which overall changed my brain chemistry and my perception of what local literature could be at the age of 17.
“Chick” is one of the deeper cuts, but it’s about a local schoolgirl who gets the attention of all the boys and men around her, and she leverages her sexuality to manipulative, often cruel ends. The story is bookended by an anecdote of accidentally squeezing a chick to its death, just because you wanted to see how far you could take it. Like the collection title suggests, it’s transgressive—there’s a scene where the narrator imagines her classmate giving her father a handjob—but it really stuck with 17-year-old me, experiencing a lot of complicated feelings about the gender dynamics in school and my own agency that I wouldn’t be able to start articulating until later. It had this unabashed feminine monstrosity but also three-dimensional introspection and this… narrative kindness toward this awful girl. I’d never read a teenage girl, especially a local one, anything like that.
ALK has written a bit about the story:
I have a story, “Chick,” which explores the young female psyche. There was an editor in Singapore who seemed to really dislike this piece, though I think she was too polite to say so. And I feel that it wasn’t because it was poorly written, but because it was being looked at as being too personal, too emotional—and therefore it was automatically seen as having no larger social relevance or literary value. Perhaps writing being written off as “emo” is even more condescending than what went before—writing being written off as “hysteria”. For in hysteria there is still a kind of hushed, fearful awe, that this woman is dangerous, that she ought be locked away. But with modern science and feminist theory, the taint of abnormal psychology has worn off, leaving us with a deadened sense of “oh she’s just being emotional”.
Just because something is personal does not mean it is insular. Just because something is sexual does not mean it is not textual. Just because something is feminine does not mean it is weak.
And so she is still my favourite Singaporean author! I thrifted a pair of pants from her once and I can only hope some of the energy osmoses into me.
You can read “Laura Lau Will Drain You Dry” and my author interview here. This one’s for me at 17 <3
I’m on a horror/paranormal kick as I revise THE DARK WE KNOW, so stuff I’m currently on are:
Chlorine by Jade Song (also in the deranged teenage girl genre)
Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud (audio) - I keep seeing and comparing to the adaptation in my head, but they’re fun books that I put on while doing other things and are tiding me over while we wait for renewal news
The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas