Stephen Leigh & S.L. Farrell

Roaming at the intersection of fiction and reality

Fish Tape -- or, How To Write

Let me give you an anecdote about my writing process. We'd been having some electrical work done at the house. One item on the list was to put in a doorbell -- the house had none, and Denise and I picked up an interesting brass gargoyle-head doorbell at a convention (you stuck your finger in its mouth to press the button) and wanted to use it. The electrician wired it up and stuck a cheap bell on it that he happened to have, telling us to pick up some better chimes and he'd replace them later.

Denise found a chime she liked. I looked over the instructions, glanced up at the bell the electrician had put up in the hallway, scratched my chin and thought "Hell, how hard can it be?"

The gods of fate erupted into laughter, at least three of them nearly herniating themselves as they rolled around the celestial floor clutching their stomachs. I mistook the sound for gas, and went downstairs to get a screwdriver. "Maybe ten, fifteen minutes," I thought as I gathered up two small wire nuts. The greater deity Murphy was giggling so hard he nearly blacked out from lack of oxygen.

Back upstairs, I stood on a chair and pulled the cover from the electrician's bell. The electrician had run a double wire up from the basement and up the inside of the wall, which emerged from a small hole a foot or so down from the ceiling, and then through the back of the bell assembly. The wires were attached to screws on the bell. I unscrewed the first wire and put a wire nut on it. I unscrewed the second wire.

Whoosh! As soon as I released the pressure on the second wire, both wires went rattling away, the wire nut clattering as it hit first the bell housing and then the wall, and then -- zip -- the wires were through the wall. Vanished. I heard a faint scraping at floor level inside the wall, and then nothing. The fate deities howled; Murphy sounded like he was about to have a heart attack from apoplexy. I stood there on the chair staring at the bell and the wall like a rube who'd just been taken in his first shell game, the screwdriver still on the screwhead. "Damn," I muttered, almost inaudibly. Then: "Damn!" I pounded the wall once with my fist. I went through Steve's Litany of Anglo-Saxonisms at increasing volume. The gods damned near peed themselves. The wall simply looked at me.

"I don't believe this $#%()*!" I said gently. Okay, okay... I shouted. I heard Denise's cautious voice from the second floor. "What's the matter?"

"The wires... they just... into the wall... couldn't..." I took several huge breaths. I could still visualize the wires as I undid the last screw, slithering away like a startled snake just under my fingertips. "Ah, man..." I took another breath, and then unscrewed the bell housing from the wall. Now there was just a hole in the wall the size of a half dollar. An open mouth. An open, mocking mouth.

"Call the electrician and leave it alone," Denise said from upstairs. "He'll come over tomorrow and fix it."

The male ego-translator repeated that statement into my ear as: You're too much of a total idiot to do even a simple job like this without totally fouling it up, so why don't you call someone competent and admit you screwed up, you loser? "Hell, no," I answered.

I went and got string. I took a hinge rod from the doorway leading into the kitchen (there used to be a door there at one time) and tied the string around it. I lowered the hinge rod; about a foot down, it stuck. Tight. I pulled on the string; it refused to budge. I jiggled, I tugged this way and that -- finally the string broke. Denise had come downstairs to see what was going on. I glanced at her. She didn't say anything.

Rummaging in one of the kitchen drawers which inevitably seem to collect everything, I found a small metal washer and used it as a weight, jiggling it so it would go all the way down. When I figured the washer should have reached the basement, I stopped. Went to the basement. No string. No weight. At the foot of the stairs, the thin doorbell wires were laying on the floor; above, with one of the ceiling tiles pulled back, I could see the hole the electrician had drilled to access the wall. It was maybe a quarter inch in diameter -- there was no way I was going to get the washer to hit that little hole this side of the next millennium, even if it fit through, which I doubted.

I went back upstairs. "Call the electrician," Denise said again.

"No," I repeated. "I'll get it."

A long pause. "Uh huh," Denise answered.

I stomped my way down to the basement. I picked up the doorbell wire, which drooped sadly in my hand. Okay, so simply sticking the wire back up through the hole wasn't going to work, since the wire was so... limp. (I'll leave the obvious sexual metaphor to the reader...) Lacking wire-Viagra, I needed something about ten feet long, no larger around than my little finger, somewhat flexible but yet rigid enough to climb the inner wall once I inserted it. (Stop it. I know what you're thinking, so just stop!). I prowled around the basement... and saw a coil of thick electrical wire. Clad in white vinyl -- easy to see in the dark wall.

Now, just so you get the image, here's what I was seeing: first, there's the drop ceiling in the basement, a few feet above my head -- you know the type: white acoustic tile that drops a white flaky dandruff when you move it. The tile above was removed, revealing the original plaster ceiling of the basement. The electrician had punched a hole just about as big around as my fist through that. An inch of so above the plaster coating was a wooden sub floor maybe a half inch thick, with a hole the size of a half-dollar drilled through it. Another inch or so above that was another hole the size of my little finger, drilled through what must have been a four-inch joist. Beyond that was the inside wall; somewhere another eight or nine or ten feet up there was my hole in the wall.

I started feeding electrical cord through -- a tight fit, but it seemed to go through easily enough. I fed the hole wire. I fed the hole some more wire. I fed the hole what seemed to be at least a mile or wire. It kept placidly eating it. Okay, I thought. It must be up there by now. All I have to do is snag the wire, attached a string to it, pulled it back down, then attach the doorbell wires to the string and pull it back up. Voila!

The fate deities giggled at my French mispronunciation and nodded their heads in mocking agreement with me, rolling their eyes at each other. I went upstairs, stood on the chair, and applied my eye to the hole. I saw... darkness; I went and fetched the flashlight and applied the eyeball again.

Nothing. I sighed. I muttered the Litany once more. "Call-" Denise began. "No," I snarled. I went back downstairs, pulled out enough wire to reach from the roof of the Empire State Building to the ground floor, and tried again, this time using the Sears Tower as my gauge. Went back upstairs. Checked the hole. Nothing. Either the wire wasn't as rigid as I'd thought and was simply coiling up somewhere at the bottom of the wall, or there was a black hole inside the wall that led to another dimension, where beings were peering curiously at the several miles of wire now sticking out into their world. Being a good science fiction writer familiar with the concept of Occam's Razor, I put my money on the black hole.

"Steve," Denise said. "Leave it for tonight. You've already been at it two hours. Drop it." I stared at the hole; it stared back. "All right," I said, grudgingly admitting -- temporarily -- defeat. "And in the morning," Denise continued, "call the electrician."

"No," I answered.

Over the course of the next few days, I tried something different every night after work. (I would, of course, have totally forgotten about the problem during the day at work... that way, I couldn't call the electrician and admit my failure.) I ran a eight-foot-long steel rod I found in the basement up the hole -- too short. I tried making the hole in the basement ceiling larger with my drill and a one-inch bit so that I could try the string thing again -- the bit wasn't long enough to go all the way through. I put a small magnet on the end of the doorbell wires, shoved them up into the hole, and then tried fishing for them with a string and magnet from above. I tried the electrical wire again. I taped a straightened-out coat hanger on the end of the eight-foot long steel rod (it bent and nearly got jammed). I contemplated taking out the whole damn wall and just putting new plasterboard up, but that seemed a trifle excessive. Nothing worked. Nothing. I could imagine a hundred different ways to do this if I had or could make the right tool. I was a regular da Vinci of electrical technology: why, a telescoping rod, maybe a foot or two long when fully collapsed but about twelve feet fully extended and about the thickness of a car antennae, or a mechanical spider-like thing that could walk up the inside of the walls with a string attached to it; a really, really long fencing foil... I knew there was an easy way to do this. There must be.

Of course, finding out would require asking someone, which is a corollary law to "Thou shalt not ask directions when lost, lest thou be laughed at."

"I'll bet the electrician could do it ten minutes," Denise said. "Call him."

"No." After all, now he'd see all the mess I'd made trying to get the wires back through, and he'd stand there shaking his head, thinking 'What an idiot! Why, I could have done this in ten minutes, and now he's totally screwed it up.'

What does all this have to do with writing? Well -- this is my writing process!. I have an idea of what I need to do, and I keep trying different things and see if they work. Often, they don't. I start to imagine a dozen different ways through the plot, and then discard them for one reason or another. I brood a lot. I think about it. And I know that serendipity will eventually come into play...

It was now a week after the mysterious Disappearance Of The Wires. I was at one of the branch offices and on my way back to the district, and hit a red light. There was an HQ sitting on the corner ahead of me. The fate gods, riding in the back seat, grabbed my head and turned it to the side. "Look!" they hollered. "It's a divine sign!" I sighed, pulled the car into the lot, and went in. As I walked in the door, there was a stand of Do-It-Yourself books: BASIC WIRING, one screamed. The fate gods tugged at my coat hem. I picked up the book and scanned the section on running wires. "Drill a hole. Then, using your fish tape..."

Fish tape. What you fish around in the walls with. Duh.

I bought a fish tape roll: a winder containing a coil of spring metal about the thickness of a fencing foil blade. That night, I ran it up the hole. Went upstairs. Saw it. Attached a string. Pulled it back down. Attached the doorbell wires to the string. Pulled the string back up.

Ten minutes. And a week. But I did do it myself. And it works.

Okay, I do need to work on the doorbell itself, because for these chimes I had to put a diode on the front door bell, and now it only works every other time you press the buzzer, but I think it's just a connection thing and I'll fix it. Tomorrow. It'll only take a few minutes.

I'm sure of it.