Stories I Don’t Finish

Paul Ford
5 min readNov 25, 2020

I know the title seems evocative but it’s literal. I have a lot of dumb ideas for stories I’ll never finish. I’d rather just write them down, hit publish, and go looking for some new stories instead of keeping these rattling in my head.

For example: Two kids get decoder rings for Christmas. One kid moves away. Never writes again, they fall out of touch. Lots of sadness, etc. Later the codes start appearing all over the place, as out-of-order addresses, things like that. The unvanished kid (now in their 30s) thinks they’re losing it. Shrink says, you’ve got unprocessed thoughts from childhood. The codes start revealing places to go, things to see, thoughts to think. Eventually it becomes clear that the kid who left was the one running the simulation; they miss their toy/pet. “I had a bet you could figure it out.” Of course you can never leave the simulation.

When David Bowie died the great teenage transitional figure went out of the world and people wrote about the moment they discovered him; it was typically somewhere in adolescence and suddenly they had succor for their weirdness. It’s an oral history: Make someone up who is an incredibly cool pop star and have people write about how they discovered him and discovered something fundamental about themselves, until it’s clear he’s basically the worst person who ever existed and that every fan is basically a horrible murderer.

About 7 years ago I wrote like 20k words on what it will be like when people can live in any decade they want using augmented reality, and how a future NYC would work when all the years blurred together and everyone had to pick a decade of NYC to live in, as all other kinds of culture basically disappeared. The story starts right before midnight in 2029, 2019, 2009, 1999, 1989, 1979, etc, and no one knows if their decade is going to start over or if they’re going to have to grow into the next year. We came to New York together after college and here we are in 1979. She works in an art museum. I work at a bank. Our small apartment is sunburst clocks and round abstract shapes. But when the switch comes to the 1980s what will she be? We talk about it. The clock is ticking. She would like to start over again. She despises the 1980s. “Shoulder pads,” she says. “Hairspray. Diet Coke. Computers overtaking every desk.” But if some of us move forward and some move backwards, what will we become? I still want to come back to this one but I remember writing like 2,000 words about how the big shared clock service was run out of Carnegie Mellon on a tamperproof web server. Dreadful.

This dumb thing I would wake up to which was about how lost dogs slept in the entrances of libraries all around the city and it turns out the dogs all know each other and have some sort of silent language. He follows one to the waterfront and sees that all the library dogs like to get together and look at boats. But the protagonist never figures it out. However, he just starts taking care of and feeding the dogs, and paying for them to see the vet. (This was a story about how we take care of things even though we have no idea what they are or will become.)

This noir thing called The Dictionary Killer, another 5k words written, which was about a guy getting out of the army after WWII and going to a halfway house, and since a dictionary from the early 30s is the only book left on the shelves he reads it and starts finding secret messages in the dictionary, which are pretty obviously about doing some murders. It turns out there was a serial killer who worked at the printshop, and he dropped his confessions into certain definitions. The protag. goes and asks after the people who typeset the dictionary and finds out that the person of interest had prior worked as a typesetter of playbills, and before that had been in a traveling Vaudeville act in the 1910s. Protagonist now starts to trace back the act and figures out that said act, which was a sort of comedy/musical revue, had done a particularly vile murder spree across America. This act is famous because the star of the act is now a famous radio comedian. Protagonist finds the dictionary-typesetting guy who tells him he was forced to participate by the now-famous radio comedian. Ends in bloodshed and confession.

Bug reports on U.S. politics. What I expected to happen, what happened, steps to reproduce the problem (usually just “racism” or “9/11”). Electoral college, Homeland Security. Bug report: Florida. The bugs don’t get fixed so it becomes crash reports. QA team increasingly frustrated. “We’ll never beat our competition if we let Facebook take this part over.” Cuts off in the middle of a civil war.

It’s 2007 and about to be 2008. There has been a standing weekly conference call for the last five years for the developers of an operating system for a specific kind of mobile phone. They work inside a particularly vast global company. But the iPhone is out now, and the project, despite the little animated bear that squeaks, the cool address book, the fun games, the easy keypad, is absolutely doomed. It was living on fumes before, and the team has already been cut three times. An expected deal with a major telecom vanished. So the forces above finally shut it down. Everyone is just cleaning up their respective offices in three or four time zones, turning in badges, putting code and assets on the Z drive, complaining. This is the last conference call before the team disperses. At first no one shows up then everyone does. People chatter, share local news, talk about who’s turning the lights off. Some have likely jobs, others don’t. It’s done as a script, with different voices identified by job title and office location. Some admit that the iPhone won the race. Some curse out Steve Jobs as a fraud and believe that the lack of a phone keyboard will doom Apple. Eventually it comes down to a hardware guy in San Francisco, the person who did the cool icons in Atlanta, and the middle manager in New York (their big boss is of course already gone to the next thing). They’ve been on this project for four of its five years together and know each other’s children. They say sweet things for a minute and then say their goodbyes; they’d like to work together again; etc. “I mean, I know it never happens, but even so, it would be great if we could keep in touch.” Finally people hang up, and the middle manager has his moment alone, sitting there in the silence. The automated lights in the office turn off on him and so he’s there in dark. He drops his prototype phone, never released, into a fake-wood-colored box and hangs up his black desk phone, and the five-year-call is over.