Category Archives: Writing

Nice trolling

Queen: Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?

Mirror: That would be a subjective measure my queen.

Queen: You know what, you’re right. Hey, send that Snow White a care package and tell her her queen cares about her and loves her for who she is whether she’s beautiful or not.


What if you could subvert expectations just to see how people react, but instead of introducing something horrible where it doesn’t belong (which I will call vanilla trolling or “trolling classic”) you did something really wonderful where it doesn’t belong? For instance, I just destroyed the whole narrative of Snow White by giving the mirror a little bit more logic and the Queen a lot more self-awareness.

I am proposing this concept, but I am not the first to do it. Not by far. Where I first saw it was r/wholesomememes. For instance, take the “board room suggestion” meme template used for countless memes.

High Quality Board Room Meeting Blank Meme Template

The formula is typical slapstick/exaggeration comedy where the man in teal makes a good suggestion that the boss does not want to hear and then he gets thrown out a window. Look what wholesome memes user “SlightlyInsaneApe” does with it.

Post image

Notice how it replaces the punchline that those familiar with the meme will expect with a crude copy/paste of part of the frame above it. The buildup doesn’t change at all, so the ruined punchline serves simultaneously as a story encouraging positive behavior and as a subversion of the “board room suggestion” format.


Billy Goat: I’m going to cross this bridge to get to the green grass on the other side

Troll: Hold on there, Goat.

Billy Goat: Hello Troll. Oh no! Are you living under that bridge? You look famished! Let me get you a hot meal and see if we can find a homeless shelter for you!

Troll: *sighing with satisfaction after a filling, nutritious meal* Goat, you’re a scholar and a saint.

Goat: Everyone is deserving of love and kindness.


There was a joke in the Simpsons that this reminds me of. I couldn’t extract it from the less nice content surrounding it, so here’s a meme version I made instead.

Rhett Butler |  FRANKLY MY DEAR; I LOVE YOU, LETS REMARRY | image tagged in rhett butler | made w/ Imgflip meme maker

Wolf: Where is your grandmother?

Little Red Riding Hood: She’s just down the way in the spooky forest.

Wolf: I will walk with you to keep you safe.

[At Grandmother’s house, Lumberjack looks in window at Wolf and Red Riding Hood sharing dairy-free milk and oatmeal cookies from Grandma]

Lumberjack: This goes to show that you should not judge someone based on his appearance



Writing prompt: Write your own version of a well-known story where every character is wise and considerate to the point that there is no conflict.

Two writing groups

I now have a monthly writing group and a biweekly writing group. On the second week of the month, both meet. During this syzygy, I have two submissions to send and up to six submissions to critique. The biweekly group is 5,000 words each, the monthly 10,000, and the monthly group is about 10,000 words ahead of the biweekly group, so I’m submitting different sections of my story, and of course I have to revise the 5,000 words, even if it’s already written.

Leading up to this weekend, I wrote and revised about 15,000 words of my novel, and then reviewed about 35,000 words of others’ work. The latter took around six to eight hours. The former consumed a good chunk of my free time over the past fortnight.

It’s good, though. I get to see a broad variety of literature in progress and receive critique from six angles. It also has happened to create a process for me that may be good. Since I happen to have two groups – each of which goes at the same rate (2,500 words per week) and one of which is a little ahead of the other on my work – I write my work once and rewrite it once. As a perfectionist who is never quite satisfied with my novel and tends to rewrite it ad infinitum, this is a nice middle ground where I can revisit and improve my work while also keeping on a forward-moving path.

That said, it is a lot of reviewing, so if the 6-direction feedback turns out to be less valuable and I can keep consistent without two groups, I might end up dropping one anyway.

Erase una vez

Today I write a story in Spanish with no help from Google translate. I only used spanishdict.com. It’s certainly full of errors, but I’m pleased with the story, at least the story I think I wrote :).

Erase una vez, hay una muchacha pobre. Quieró convertir en una princesa. Este ser su primero objetivo. Pero no hay un príncipe que quiere casarse con Élla. Su mamá dicaba “No debe buscar a tu vida. Espera tu vida y la te vendrá.” La muchacha ser una niña buena, asi escuchó a su mamá.

Esperaba y esperaba, la muchacha convertó en el mujer. Élla mamá fallecó. Todavia no principe vinó. Asi, la mujer empezó a buscar.

Buscó y buscó. No principe ser caminaba en el bosque. No principe ser nadaba en el lago o en la mar. Un príncipe ser en la iglesia alta todos los domingos, pero la mujer no podria llamar la atención. La mujer tomó un trabajo en la iglesia de una criada.

Limpió y limpió. El principe habitaba en el castillo grande al sur de rio azul. La mujer escuchó este mientras limpió la iglesia. Pobres no se admiten en el interior. En la casa de su mamá, élla pensó de un plan. Si trabajaba más duro, la mujer convertia muy rica. Entonces, podria entrar en el castillo y conocer el principe.

Trabajó y trabajó. Mucho trabajó. La mujer convertó en la sacerdotisa. Todavia trabajó. Convertó en la sacerdotisa de el castillo grande al sur de rio azul. Ahora, la mujer no ser joven. La sacerdotisa antigua de el castillo grande al sur de rio azul escuchó que el rey murió. El principe convertó en el rey nuevo. El hijo del rey nuevo convertó nuevo principe.

La muchacha pobre nunca convertó en una princesa. Pero, convertó en una sacerdotisa muy rica. Encontradó su mas joven y mas pobre criada en el iglesia del castillo. Le dijó “Tu casaré con el príncipe.”

Books

If you say something positive, you’re a braggart. If you say something negative, you’re a whiner. If you say something neutral, you’re a bore. If you invite them they’ll feel obligated. If you don’t they’ll feel excluded. If you speak of the complex you’re pompous. If you speak of the simple you’re inane. If you speak of the abstract you’re confusing. If you speak of yourself, you’re narcissistic. If you ask about them, you’re prying. If you speak of ideas you’re obscure. If you speak of people you’re a gossip. If you talk politics you’re upsetting. If you talk weather you’re a person who talks about the weather.

So, instead of speaking, Diane read books. In books, other people did the speaking. You didn’t have to constantly be trying to think about how you would keep the conversation going and make sure they felt you were interested. You didn’t have to meticulously keep your face from looking bored or frustrated or judgemental or tired or angry or preoccupied or sad. Books didn’t give you pitying looks you didn’t understand or laugh at things you didn’t mean to be funny or stop carrying the conversation or stop returning your calls.

Before Benny, Diane had books. Now that he was gone she still had books, but there was a Benny-shaped hole they could not fill. Books did not hold Diane and keep her warm at night. They did not take her dancing and teach her the steps with unlimited patience. They did not assure her that she was wonderful and beautiful just the way she was. They did not smell like Benny. They did not have his voice. Was Diane spoiled by love? Had books ever been enough? Diane’s house was filled with them and she herself was utterly empty.

7-point story structure

Image Credit goes to https://blog.reedsy.com/story-structure/

My novel is a mess. One thing just happens after another, and the arc doesn’t seem to be there. My writing group suggested mapping my story out with a 7-point structure. That is, I separate the story into plot points

I couldn’t do it. Maybe I could do a 21-point story if I had three books. Maybe that’s the right way to go about it. So now I have a Google Sheets document with twenty-one rows. I still have several columns, and I’m pretty sure I’m cheating when one column starts where the other one ends. Plotting a story is hard work!

If you think that you may be interested in plotting out your own story, you can find a whole database of story structures for well-known books and movies at the story structure database.

The Soul of all Things, Part 1

Folding Chair in the police station had not accepted itself. Hundreds of consciousnesses struggled inside its metal frame. “I am Rock” they clamored over each other. It would take them time to accept that, under no power of their own, they had become one inside a body of steel. A dozen souls in the plastic cushion said “I am Oil,” but I could feel their regrets, memories of green leaves and paleozoic climes long gone. When one has once had the privilege to be alive, it is hard to forget.

Deck had been in the bailiff’s car overnight, and each Card was cold to the touch. I recoiled at a cacophony of pain and confusion. Under the gaze of the inspector’s many employees crowded into the claustrophobic lunch room, I forced myself to project calm. This was not the old Deck owned by his grandfather the bailiff had promised to bring. The inspector looked at me through thin rectangle glasses, his mouth a tight line beneath his black-and-white moustache. He did not have to say anything to remind me that I didn’t have to do this, and I told him with a look that I wanted to do what I said I’d do. He reached for my hand under the table and I pulled it away. The moment I was done, I wanted to get away from this awful building as quickly as possible.

“Is something wrong?” the bailiff smirked. He was a man of average height and above-average girth, with a nose as round as his body and beady, suspicious eyes. He behaved as if he stood above petty pain, but his whole body reeked of suffering and self-reproach. Black Bowler on his head was the angriest hat I had ever met, but I had never dared to come close enough to ask what upset it so. I smiled at the bailiff, and kept eye contact until he knew I knew he had lied. Then I spread Deck out in my hands, showing the faces to him.

“Please select a card, but do not show it to me.”

The bailiff looked disappointed that not only had he failed to prove me a fake, but that I had not made the scene he was hoping I would. His cunning was limited. Even if nothing spoke to me, I would be able to recognize a crisp Deck right from the package from one faded and softened by the years. Nevertheless, he sneered and yanked out the furthest Card from the left.

“Place it on the table.”

The bailiff obeyed, taking special care not to let Card’s face angle anywhere but 180 degrees from my line of sight. I reached out my hand and touched it. Now that I expected the cacophony, I did not recoil. I calmed my mind and reached out to Card. “You are Card.”

“I am Oil,” wailed Card, “I was millions, growing, soaking light and rustling in the wind. Now I lay buried in darkness, a vast ocean of Oil!”

You must be firm. It is no kindness to leave a soul to flounder in illusion. “Now you are changed again. You are small. You are Card.”

Card was unswayed. Understanding comes slowly to a soul that has been Oil for an aeon and Card for a month, but I need not argue further. With one finger, I pushed Card toward the bailiff and handed him Deck. “Shuffle it into the deck.”

I turned away, avoiding the inspector’s eyes. The bailiff’s very voice contained a sneer as he announced “Done!”

I turned back, and one by one spoke to each Card. “I am Oil!” they said to me, all of them. After I had asked the last one, I flipped through them all again. I did not need to listen for this step. “There is a card missing from this deck, Bailiff. None of the remaining 51 are your card. Do you know where your card may have gone?”

All eyes turned to the bailiff, and blood rushed to his face. I saw the faint outline of the card in his shirt pocket, but I did not dare to go closer to Black Bowler, from whom deep, mortal loathing spilled forth, nauseating even five feet away across docile Old Wooden Table. Either the poor thing had absorbed its new owner’s pain or that of a previous owner. In both cases, the bailiff and Black Bowler did each other no favors remaining together. If the bailiff were of a mind to listen to me, I would recommend he shred Black Bowler and free him from his pain to join another more tranquil soul.

In moments, an officer with a wistful Golden Watch on his wrist had helped the humiliated bailiff restore his honesty and extracted the poorly hidden card. I touched it, and it cried out, “Who dares call me small? I am vast! A mighty black Ocean of Oil!” I held the card up, and furrowed my brow like a disapproving mother, to the great pleasure of the hooting crowd. “Did you select the nine of clubs, Bailiff?”

I stood and bowed, and encouraged everyone to direct their questions to the inspector. Outside the station, I closed and locked Corolla’s door just as the inspector caught up with me. He motioned for me to roll my window down, but I refused. Loyal Corolla blurred and distorted his poison words. I watched his lips strain to shout something at me, and my own Lips complained that they missed his. Each other part of my body that had known his touch agreed, but I am not a democracy. The protest sent me into a rage, and the inspector leapt out of the way as I hurtled back from my parking spot, turned, and drove my Corolla home.

The best writing is rewritten

Anyone who reviews my work for an extended period of time inevitably comes to the question, “are we reading Chapter 1 again?” I have written Chapter 1 of my novel more than ten times. Does that seem like a lot? Jaqueline Woodson rewrote Brown Girl Dreaming 33 times and Another Brooklyn 16. I was wondering for a little while, but now I’m confident that the answer is yes. Each time I rewrite my first chapter feels better than the last. I will be rewriting my book until it’s right, and I think it will be worth it.

 

Don’t rely on a flaky muse

Is it writer’s block every time you don’t get to your keyboard and write? It’s very romantic to suggest that as a writer you have a capricious muse who either visits you or does not, but I don’t believe that it is a rule that artists have to be whimsically flaky. I can tell you that I don’t get writer’s block. Just about every moment I have something that I can write down, and when I don’t do it it’s not a lack of inspiration, it’s a lack of motivation. I’m just lazy and at that moment it’s easier to watch TV or play video games. I suspect drawing this distinction may help some writers to be more reliable in their craft.

If you have a lack of motivation or of confidence, or sure, even of creativity, what can you do? Here are some thoughts to help.

Lack of Motivation

Create a schedule. Block off time for writing. If you have demands in your house that cannot be convinced to stay quiet for an hour, go somewhere else. In general, don’t count on your willpower to get you writing at any available moment, or your muse to visit you when the time is right. If you have a set time every week or every day where your job is to write – that will help make sure it happens. More information on this can be found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Lack of Confidence

Do you feel like you’re just going to waste your time writing down all the wrong stuff? Do you feel like you’re just bad? Find a critique group to give you a clearer sense of how people are responding to your work. No matter what they say, remember that everyone starts as a bad writer, and the way they become good writers is practice. In the moment, consider just freewriting. Remember that until it’s published, you can change your work as much as you want. If you really want to, you can just delete the whole document. There’s no consequence for writing the wrong thing except learning better how to write the right thing next time.

Lack of Creativity

Do something else. No, I don’t mean give up writing. I mean go do anything else. Do something that gets you out of your comfort zone. Creativity comes when unusual circumstances require new thinking. I described earlier my harrowing experience learning to dance. That gave me multiple ideas for my novel, some of which helped me to clarify my goals for the novel. Immediately after getting home from the dance hall I felt compelled to write two-thousand words in an entirely new first chapter, and I think I’ll still be writing out the ideas I got from that one experience for some time to come.

Don’t assign agency to your creativity. It’s not out of your hands. You don’t need drugs, you don’t need magic. You just need to write a lot and get out of your comfort zone once in a while. If you’re confident you’re a terrible writer, just write terribly until you write well.

Love your work

I gave my first public presentation of my fiction since college the other day. Those twenty-five hundred words, on a per-word basis, probably went through more time and revisions than any other work of fiction I’ve written. I even practiced running through it all several times, honing my dramatic delivery. In the end, I stood up in front of an audience of about twenty, and did pretty well. A few folks came to me and said they appreciated my performance.

Why do I feel so empty, then? Well, that’s just it. They basically said they appreciated my performance and left it at that. I didn’t spark any interesting thoughts or conversations. I didn’t evoke any emotions or personal recollections. I didn’t even inspire a thoughtful and incisive criticism. I was hoping for a deep validation, exploration, and celebration of my work, and presenting to this audience was only marginally better than presenting to a brick wall.

Maybe I’ve set you up for this next paragraph. “Of course that was too much to hope for” you may be thinking. Of course you are right. As tiny individuals on a colossal world stage, we put our lives into works that mean the world to us and very little to everyone else. When I play a video game I enjoy myself during and then when it is finished I feel briefly bereft, no longer enjoying my mastery of the fictional world and knowing that now that it’s done, as far as the real world is concerned I may as well have done nothing at all. I had assumed that spending time on a “productive” activity would be different, but naturally it is not. My estimated twelve hours writing a story is the audience’s five minutes, so I’ll always get back a tiny fraction of what I give. This is the plight probably of all artists, also of the frustrated political activist, and the friend who gives too much and receives too little in return.

Next question, “So why bother?” This is a question, perhaps ironically, that I explore in my writing. One theme of The Sympathetic Universe is that the gods have the opposite problem. Rather than being unable to affect any meaningful difference on their world, they are so powerful that everything they accomplish is inherently trivial. They struggle with the fact that, when you are free from all limitations, nothing fundamentally means anything. This is why they hide from their empty divinity in brief human lives fraught with struggle, significance, and purpose. Every time they die and get their immortal memories back they realize again that their exciting, often tragic life was just an insignificant speck in a grand game to distract themselves from the void. The best drama so far in my opinion has come from Ta, the god who refused to admit that the life she experienced meant nothing, and used her near-omnipotent powers to go back in time and illegally alter the universe in which she had lived to better satisfy the needs of the human she had once been. Seem petty? Yeah, when you’re a divine entity, there’s not much else to do.

Ultimately, in The Sympathetic Universe, the gods always go back to being humans because pretending that things matter is addictive in a way that divinity can’t match. The gods envy humanity’s passion just as we envy their ability. We are happiest when we care about things and believe that what we do matters, even if in the end, in a cosmic sense, it will all be for nothing. Just make the most out of your time on this Earth, do what you love, and love what you do. The universe isn’t going to love it for you.

Good Critiquing

I mentioned a while back that I had to stop posting my story revisions in order to comply with the rules of a competition to which I was submitting. The final title of my story is “The Strength of the Spirit Lifter,” and I still can’t share it because it will be included in the Rhine Center’s short story collection. That is to say, I won. Specifically, I won second place, which is quite a bit more than nothing out of thirty applicants.

I consider this an example of what one can accomplish with a creative vision backed by a demanding writing group. If you look over my old revisions, you may notice the huge leap that my story takes after the first time I manage to get my writing group to look at it. One of my critics, author of the Natalie McMasters series Tom Burns, literally responded to the first draft with “yawn, who cares?” He pretty much said the same thing about the last of the drafts that I posted online. Although I cannot share it with you, my real final draft, the competition winner, departs significantly from what you all have seen. Yes, this time he finally didn’t say “who cares?”

I can’t recommend enough seeking out serious criticism. If your readers all think your work is great and can’t think of anything meriting significant rework but you still have aspirations to do better, find more serious people to read your work. Tom doesn’t shy away from telling me when he would have put my story down and never picked it up again if he didn’t have an obligation to review it, which is most of the time.

That’s not to say you should seek out people who hate your writing. If your critic sets your submission on fire right there in the Starbucks, that’s on you for giving him a hard copy. No, a good critic seeks to improve rather than tear down. Even through his most blunt critiques, Tom manages to maintain the impression that he thinks the creative vision behind my writing is very much worth the effort of putting together a compelling story to bring it to audiences.

Actually, when the shoe is on the other foot and I review his work, if I start to get pushy about his decisions, Tom’s not shy about saying “who cares” to that, too. “Who cares” is an important concept in fiction, since its worth derives entirely from getting people to care enough about what you’re writing to keep reading. That said, as a critic you may or may not fall in the author’s intended audience. Tom wastes no time reminding me that as the critic my role is only to advise, and that it’s silly to try to do anything else. It’s a lesson I have a strangely hard time learning with some of my other writing friends.

If you’re into sexy, violent mystery serials and a strong female protagonist who doesn’t always exercise common sense, consider the first book in Tom’s series, Stripper!.