Tag Archives: Writing

Prompt Writing – Pill to grant the powers of a god

Since I received such a positive response to my last prompt entry, I thought I would make a series of entries based on my old prompt responses. Enjoy!

Prompt

Give a story about a character who discovers that there is a pill to grant the powers of a god.

Response

“Hypothetically we therefore could postulate the existence of a pill that would grant such powers of said deity.” Professor Werner’s hair stood out from his forehead like a thin, grey halo. My eyelids were getting so heavy I had to hold my whole head up by propping it on my palm. Cryptopharmaceuticals was turning out to be even more dull and pointless than I had imagined, not that I had put much effort into imagining it when I had marked it as my second choice for freshman seminar. Chocolate factory studies had filled up, so I was here learning about hypothetical drugs.

Serene Peace’s hand shot up. She was one of those modern children whose parents had named her an adjective they hoped would describe her. It didn’t. Her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail so tight that I thought if someone bumped it the wrong way, it would all be torn out. She always looked like her mind was racing at roughly 100 meters per second, which in imperial units means she was crazy. Serene never waited to be called on before speaking. “Professor, do you mean that it already exists, or that it exists conceptually and could one day be manufactured?”

Professor Werner snorted at this. “Hphuf!” He then resumed his lecture. Serene’s eye twitched. Despite painstakingly cataloguing Professor Werner’s broad array of snorts, grunts, and huffs, she had only managed to conclude that not one of them was ever meant to answer her question. Serene shot her hand up again. Again she asked her question without being called on, although I don’t suspect she would be called if she did wait, so I couldn’t blame her. “Professor Werner, has anyone ever succeeded in making a deidryl tablet, or any of the medicines you’ve described in this course?”

“Fffuf!” Professor Werner admonished, “You, Miss Peace, might find you’re better suited to,” and he added an extra harrumph, “Hhhh-applied CccHemistry!”

I happened to know that chemistry was already Serene Peace’s planned major. That was twenty years ago. Now we all live under the benevolent hand of Serene Peace. It’s hard to say precisely what has changed about the world since she developed and consumed the first and only successful deidryl tablet, but its clear that it’s better. I wonder if she’s just changed all of us to have more positive perspectives. Sort of lame to have my free will so roundly and effortlessly disproven. I feel like I would have been grumpy about that once. Deidryl’s one heck of a drug.

 

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Worst prompt night

Once upon a time I organized a writing night based around bad prompts. Each participant was expected to bring the worst prompt he or she could think of on an index card, then we would trade index cards and write to the prompts. Today I’ll share my prompt, the prompts I wrote to, and what I wrote.

My prompt

You are an accountant managing the finances of a small chain of delicatessens in the southeastern United States. A shipment of roast beef is on a southbound train starting at one hundred meters per second and accelerating fifteen meters per second squared. One hundred miles to the south is a northbound train accelerating from 50 meters per second at a rate of 10 meters per second squared. When the trains collide and 150,000 lbs of roast beef valued at $5 per pound before North Carolina’s 7.5% tax is lost. If your manager charges you 10% of the losses, how much money do you lose?

This prompt received some consternation, but I was fortunate in that no one actually tried to solve the problem, which I myself had not troubled to solve. Mostly, they just wrote stories about grumpy deli accountants.

Ethan’s prompt

Ethan offered three prompts and exhorted us to pick one. I wrote a prompt incorporating all three.

Pick a card

You’re wearing a great hat, but can’t describe it.

You’re having lunch with your favorite author – describe the bread

My response

I have the loveliest hat. I cannot describe it because I am under a non-disclosure agreement. I can tell you that I am wearing it because it is so gosh darn lovely. “Good morning, sir!” I say to a fellow hat-wearer. I can describe his hat, but I will not. It is less lovely by a substantial margin. Later in the day, I find a three of hearts stuck between the branches of a tree. It is a good sign. A sign that my meeting with George R. R. Martin will go well.

While meeting with George, a stellar fellow, I can’t help but notice the bread. It’s a thick, sour rye so flavorful it does not even need butter. I apply butter anyway, as does George, although I wish he would take better care of himself at least until he’s finished with his books. The bread is sweet ambrosia on my tongue. What majesty! What stellar, divine triumph! Luckier than the three of hearts, more lovely than my – well, let’s not get carried away.

In any case, when all the bread is gone, I open my mouth to tell George how much I appreciate his stark yet compelling portrayal of violent conflict, ha ha, no pun intended, when a waiter comes by with another dish of bread. What is this restaurant!? A spectacular complete loaf of LaFarm signature sourdough easily covers our entire small table. Out of concern for poor George’s health, I snatch it away and begin to, carefully, slowly, eat it all myself.

Lest my chance to speak to my hero be lost, I endeavor to speak between bites. “What is your inspiration?” I ask as I reach the one-quarter mark on my LaFarm loaf. George raises a finger to explain his secret to success when an olive-herb loaf, a pane caesarica, and a french loaf you could pole vault with are all wheeled out. Once again I strive to protect my mentor from early cardiac failure.

George R. R. Martin left that restaurant alive. For that, I am grateful. We shall see if some day I will get to leave, too. Just me, endless bread, and the most beautiful hat never described.

Ilya’s prompt

You discover that your identity was stolen by underpants gnomes

My response

I am underpants. I must be underpants, or else how could my identity have been stolen by underpants gnomes? Yet, how could I still know that I am underpants if my identity is lost to me? What is the nature of the undergarment persona? I call my bank to try and cancel my credit card. Our conversation is brief, exchanging tough security questions and responses like a pair of duelling boxers. Soon a new one is in the mail. I take one last look at my old card, the little picture of me, or is it me? Perhaps it is some person wearing white woolen long-johns who are me. I take it to the shredder.

It wreaks havoc on your life, to have your identity stolen and to be underpants. Those goddamn gnomes. I am locked out of my Amazon account. Even my laundry card is maxed out. Pairs upon pairs of me begin to pile up. With no way to clean them, they are dirty. I am dirty. I am underpants. I travel to the coin laundromat. People are staring at the walking underclothes. I feel exposed. Ashamed. What am I doing wandering the streets!? I should be covered!

I get a letter from the gnomes. They are not cruel. They will return my identity if I wire them twenty thousand dollars. Underpants cannot wire money. I drape myself carelessly over the couch. Maybe someone will find me, and with a curled lip of distaste, toss me into the hamper where I belong. Without my identity I am worthless. I have nothing. I am underpants.

 

Opening Lines

The opening line for my novel, the one based on my blog serial of the same name is probably not yet what it should be.

My memory of that day becomes clearer as the events become stranger.

It’s not a bad hook, but I think it’s too vague to serve for the whole novel, which is meant to do more than simply hold a reader’s interest. This line tells the reader (a)  the narrator is remembering things and that her memory is sometimes fuzzy, and (b) the events in the book are strange. (b) is true and worth communicating in an opening line, but probably not sufficient. (a) is utterly worthless, perhaps even misleading. Placing it in the first line suggests that fuzzy memories are a key element of the novel, which they are not.

What is the main theme, though? Robots are becoming as smart as humans, and their motives are as difficult to understand as they are counterintuitively mundane. The protagonist Diane has a dead husband Benjamin of whom she often thinks and whose death is mysteriously intertwined with the world in which Diane now lives.

I should not reveal too much, though. An opening line should not be a spoiler.

How about this?

Despite what people might think to look at me, I personally wasn’t around to see the plains of North Carolina and Kentucky rise into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the wintry glaciers retreat from modern day Wisconsin, the once prolific Montana bison driven to near extinction by a foe it would never understand. It’s the sort of change no one expects to live long enough to witness firsthand.

It all started with a change I may rather have died than live to see. One involving the little library off Old Fayetteville Road.

It’s certainly more epic. It clearly tells the reader “this is about the United States of America,” and I can work in references to the events in this line throughout the book as Diane visits these locations in her journey. It also says “the protagonist is old” and “something big is going to change in the universe of this book.” Also, there’s a library. It is a little odd, though, just how epic it is. I intend my book to describe a historic paradigm shift, but are the behavior of ice sheets, tectonic plates, and large mammals an appropriate allegory?

Despite what people might think to look at me, I personally wasn’t around to see the mule give way to the tractor. I didn’t witness the horse and buggy be replaced by the car, nor did I watch John Henry kill himself in a desperate bid to prove he was better than a drilling machine. A drilling machine that has certainly become ten times more powerful, cheap and efficient since. What I did see starts at a place that I thought would be the end of my story.

This probably has the opposite problem. It may be too on the nose, so to speak. It says “Machines are replacing people.” I don’t want to bash anyone over the head. Let them get into the story, then I can work them towards the more important points.

Probably the best thing to do will be to revisit this several times, especially after I have a first draft written of the whole book. Then I’ll have a clearer sense of how my theme comes together, which will help me craft the opening couple sentences. I also should keep paying attention to opening lines of other books.

Before I Became a Bestseller

I heard that J.K. Rowling wrote her first copy of “The Sorcerer’s Stone” on a typewriter. I heard that Chuck Palahniuk wrote “Fight Club” between screwing bolts in an assembly line. Harper Lee had a rich friend just buy her a year off from work so she could write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It turns out there are a lot of stories about how people got their writing done before they were famous. Let me tell some stories about before I became (will become) famous.

Each line of code I would write I’d add a comment that was the next line of my story.

I fashioned crude tablets from North Carolina clay on which to write my ideas.

I would whisper my horror stories to my sleeping girlfriend at night and gauge how bad her nightmares were by how tired she was the next morning.

I was so poor I couldn’t afford paper, so I just told my stories to my dog. When I needed to remember what I’d said my dog would bark my stories back to me.

I drank and drank until I didn’t know who I was. I was drunk every day. I still drink like that. I’m drunk right now. What? A novel?

I made a rule for myself that every fifteen seconds I had to write a sentence of my story.

My wealthy uncle died and left me in his will a years’ wages. The next line in his will was that a sniper would have a gun trained at my head for the whole year and would kill me if I did not make sufficient daily progress on my novel. Thanks, Uncle!

I worked cleaning houses alongside sentient, box-headed robots for a month, inspiring me to write my story about sentient, box-headed robots who clean houses.

I listened to the stories I would hear from my Uber drivers, then passed them off as if they had happened to me.

My first novel was written entirely in Microsoft Word 2007. I was so breathtakingly impoverished I could not afford to upgrade to Microsoft Word 2010, which adds hundreds of productivity-enhancing new features.

I spent a year wandering the world, meeting people, taking in sights and having new, mind-expanding experiences. I didn’t get much writing done.

My father demanded a new novel every day before suppertime. I seldom had one ready, and he would calmly inform me what a worthless fool I was and that he didn’t love me. Now I write a bestselling novel every day and my father is dead.

I would have vivid fever dreams when my cat slept on my face, and would shave stories about them into my cat’s fur. I got my big break when I happened to bring my cat to the vet on the same day as Brandon Sanderson.

I lived among the destitute. I ate what they ate, slept where they slept. It wasn’t for a novel or anything, I just couldn’t find a job.

I would fashion stories about my psychiatry patients. The trick is to say you’ve changed the names.

When I was feeling down about my work, I would shout at my wife. When I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life, I would write an angry email to my congressperson. When I couldn’t think of how to finish a chapter, I would kick a cardboard cutout of my dog. My wife doesn’t let me kick our real dog. I’m going to shout at her again when I get home.

My visit to heaven after a near-fatal car accident inspired me to write my book “101 Health-Food Recipes on a Budget”

My Battlestar Galactica/Big Bang Theory slash-fiction just took off.

My homemade Dungeons and Dragons Campaign just took off.

I opened my phone one day and pressed the button to autocomplete the next word in the sentence over and over again until I had a novel.

This moron just pushed a button to let me write a novel for him and thought he would get the credit. What kind of phone could possibly win the Nobel prize for literature? This kind of phone.

I was writing a shopping list for my trip to Lowe’s Foods and it just took off.

Playing fast and loose with D&D

As a new dungeon master, one who has already complained about the tabletop role playing game’s restrictive mythology and overwhelmingly combat-oriented gameplay, I like to take an open-ended approach. Here are some examples of what I have already done and how my players have reacted.

Giant spiders in a dungeon are not part of the dungeon’s evil plan, but mere inhabitants.  In fact, in my dungeon they were serving a useful purpose – eating the massive supply of zombies that the dungeon was producing.  They were so pleased with the preponderance of food that they set up their egg sack in the dungeon, which fortunately they were able to move out before the adventurers caused the dungeon to sink back into the earth from which it came.

What made this especially fun with my party was that we had a druid. Being sometimes a spider herself, she is able to understand the clicks and hisses of the giant spiders.  At first I whispered in her player’s ear what the spiders were saying to her and to each other, but then I switched to text messages. Colleen, for reasons of her own, decided not to communicate the spiders’ messages to her party.  I may get all of my players’ phone numbers so that I can give player-specific information when necessary.

Also, rather than being helpless victims of monsters and passive spectators of heroic glory, townsfolk will often take action against the dungeons that plague them.  Thus far, the townsfolk have noted the predictable pattern in which the zombie invasion occurred and set up a bonfire to burn them up before they can get into town.

Not to say I didn’t have any challenges.

One thing that surprised me when I was trying to make my own scenario was how well-versed some of the players were in D&D mythology. They gave me a lot of trouble for having a non-metallic dragon be the supposedly benevolent ruler of a small country, as it is well known that dragons of solid colors are evil and hate humanoids.  I was not surprised that they were curious, but even so they were good at getting information out of me. One of my non-player characters ended up being much more knowledgeable than he probably should’ve been, given his apparent disinterest in anything to do with the main quest.  One of the players was intent on laying bare the nonsense at the heart of what I was asking them to do, pointing out that if they were helping a pair of colossal dragons it was difficult to imagine what task they could solve that the dragons could not. At first my retired, cynical wizard character, who had actually been encouraging the party not to get involved just shrugged. Unfortunately, I then lost my cool and he suddenly launched into a pep talk about how overwhelming the odds seemed when he and his party saved the multiverse from the great necromancer thirty years ago. Not in character. Bad dungeon mastering.

When my characters were following the road to the main city, they found the bridge was out.  I had some spiders follow the river north to another crossing, and even had one of the friendly NPCs suggest north was the way to go, but my party is delightfully stubborn.  They felled a tree and we role played all the skill checks that each of them would need to make their way across.  Almost all of them fell in the water, but they had concocted a clever rope system that would prevent them from being washed away.  This is the kind of thing that I love to do in any game – find easy solutions to ostensibly tough problems. They are skipping a significant chunk of the content in that forest, but not the plot-important stuff, so it’s fine.

Cover image from: http://sandara.deviantart.com/art/White-Dragon-391820143

Freewrite: Human Garbage Can Vs. The Cookie Fairy

Here is a prompt I found on a writing website:

One day you come into work and find a cookie mysteriously placed on your desk. Grateful to whoever left this anonymous cookie, you eat it. The next morning you come in and find another cookie. This continues for months until one day a different object is left–and this time there’s a note.

So, here is my story.

They call him the human garbage can. This is not to be confused with human garbage, in fact, he considers it a compliment. His mother, for whom the noble impulse not to waste food was more of a compulsion and his father, a man famous for his iron stomach and a holder of t-shirts from close to a hundred restaurant eating challenges saw their son’s plastic bag-lined aluminum stomach as nothing short of a dream come true.

His parents never had trouble getting him to eat his vegetables. Rather, they had to make sure that one or the other of them was at the table at all times until everyone’s plates were spotless, or they would be. At three he had to be taught not to eat the bones of the chicken, even though he had already figured out how to leverage them against the sides of tables until they snapped into small enough pieces that they could be swallowed. At five years old he began to cry when burnt beans stuck to the bottom of the pan were scraped out into the garbage and won the right to have these mixed into his own supper instead. At ten he was memorizing recipes for orange peels, cherry pits, sour milk, and the grease from cooking chicken along with detailed analyses of the real expiration dates on food, which were oftentimes much further in the future than the packaging claimed. By eleven and a half, his leftover casseroles had halved the family’s food budget, although he was the only one who ate them. His doting parents no longer fed him, they simply gave him access to the kitchen after they and his older sisters had finished eating. In college, he amazed his dorm-mates with his ability to deconstruct a milk jug with a pocket knife and use a rubber spatula to scrape out an entire tablespoon of extra milk.

At 25, an office-worker at a waste-management facility, Bryan Clax seemed to have adjusted to society. He kept his true passion for making the most out of food at home. Until the cookie. The cookie, a wide, thin sugar cookie with big chocolate chunks, was perfectly edible. From childhood, Bryan had trained his nose to be acutely tuned to any signs of rot or danger, and this cookie was none of those things. But where had it come from? It was just sitting there on his desk, as if a cookie fairy had come to place it there as part of some arcane trial. He didn’t even like chocolate chip cookies.

Bryan tried to offer it to his co-workers, but they had heard about his habits and no one trusted his expert opinion that it was safe. Finally, just to be rid of it, he wolfed the pastry down and sat to work.

The next day there was another cookie. Thick, moist peanut butter. Bryan did like peanut butter cookies. He ate this one without thinking. When the following day a mint cookie with a dot of raspberry jam was there, however, he panicked. He looked at Paul working silently on his computer, his bald head and long beard bobbing to a beat on his headphones. Mary was chewing gum and paying no attention either. Or maybe it was an elaborate trick. He had already made a fool of himself demanding that someone in the office eat the cookie for him on Monday. He ate the cookie.

This continued for a month. Bryan watched his weight assiduously and was horrified to see his body’s response to daily cookies, but they were there. No one else would eat them, so it fell to him. Another month passed and Bryan could see a distinct paunch forming underneath his shirt. Still the cookies kept coming. He could not let them be wasted.

It was three months later on an chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookie that Bryan snapped. He would not tell you this. He would say he casually and politely asked each person in the room by name to please stop sending him cookies. The story is different from the perspective of the people he named. No one stepped forward, and he ate the cookie.

The next day, Bryan’s desk was covered in cookies. A paper-thin wafer in a light coat of purple grape flavor powder rested precariously on his pencil holder. A still hot tray of macadamia nut cookies had left burn marks on his reports. A row of decorative cookies in shapes and colors for every conceivable holiday outlined his desk making a sugary rainbow. Oblong biscuits dipped in chocolate rested neatly on the keys of his keyboard. On his inbound papers holder sat an exquisite gingerbread house glued together with peppermint cream cheese frosting and featuring a full front yard complete with multicolored macaron stepping stones and a lady finger lamppost. A tiny gingerbread man smiled a huge frosting smile and reached an arm out in a gingerbread wave of greeting. In front of the picture of Bryan and his wife was a colossal chocolate chocolate chip cookie cake with “For Bryan” spelled out on it in white chocolate frosting. A graham cracker stand held the cookie upright so it could display its message to all.

Instead of no one looking, now everyone was. Bryan, still in his coat and carrying his laptop bag, was shaking, his mouth working in useless silence. Keeping watery eyes on his desk, he reached down to place his bag and struggle to remove his coat, which was now too tight after three months of cookies. When he was done, Bryan stepped towards the display. He reached out one tremulous hand toward the macarons and stopped. Then he took a breath, smiled at all his onlookers, and peeled off a sticky note. After writing something down and sticking the note to his desk, he picked up his coat and bag, and left.

“What does it say, Paul?” shouted Mary over her gum as Paul rushed forward to look at the note.

“All it says is ‘Free cookies.'”

In a few moments, an  email came in from Bryan to the whole staff, “I am working from home today. Someone has been very kind to leave me an elaborate cookie display, which I very much appreciate, but I have already eaten my fill of cookies. Please everyone help yourself to the cookies on my desk. Interns especially.”

Mary and Paul watched for the rest of the day as people they had never met throughout the office arrived and consumed each last bit of the cookie display until only the big cookie cake was left. Paul’s eyes stayed on that cookie for the next few hours while more people filtered in and left disappointed. The one huge cookie was not something people were ready to eat on a whim. Finally, as Paul looked on, Mary sighed and stood. “I suppose this has gone on long enough.”

She walked to the huge cookie, laid it on its side and cut it into eight pieces, spitting her gum into the garbage can and picking out the white chocolate “Brian” piece for herself. In an hour it and its graham cracker stand were gone. “I didn’t know you were a baker,” said Paul.

Mary swallowed her slice of cookie, “Who said I was?” she asked.

When Paul said nothing, Mary continued. “My friend is, though.”

When Bryan returned to the office the next day, he was overjoyed to find nothing but crumbs left on his desk. They were still perfectly good crumbs, and actually quite flavorful.

Writing Group

I recently tried to co-lead a writing group. The one I went to was getting so popular that it routinely had a waiting list almost as long as the roster of the event itself. The organizer was thrilled when I offered to help by splitting the group in two and letting the waitlist participate. When the library we met at closed for renovations we moved to a coffeeshop, noisy and with an implied expectation to buy expensive sugar and caffeine. I suggested my school library, which is huge and open to the public.

My group in the school library was a tremendous success. We found a place easily and it was quiet and undisturbed. A woman from India shared a poem using a ship metaphor to describe her life. Next we listened to a prologue of a post-apocalyptic medieval story. After the devastation, royalism returned, so it’s a story of futuristic princes and court politics.

Then I got a notification that the official organizer was moving the event back to the coffeeshop. As it turned out, her group got kicked out of their room. Understandable how that might upset someone. Shortly after we decided to split our groups. I would run one on the Tuesdays that hers did not meet.

This time I found out that I could reserve rooms at the library as a former student. So, we now had a guaranteed location where we would be the ones kicking people out if it came to it. Futuristic royalism again and another man maybe a little older than me came to share excellent, insightful writing advice along with the most metal short story ever written, about a noise band who play so hard their fingers fall off and they fuse with their instruments to become horrifying monsters. I read from my revised Cleaners novel, which is shaping up to be radically different from the online version.

The next week, I continued the successful reservation strategy and got the metal man and the poem-writing woman again. They both agreed that when one of my characters is thrilled that her house is so clean “It’s like my kids never existed” she is committing a crime against motherhood so ghastly that no real parent could possibly find her believable. The metal man read a supernatural heist / horror story about glowing blue rodents and the poem-writing woman asked for advice for a relative writing college admissions essays.

The metal man told me that I can’t use “giggled” as a synonym for “said.” He explained that this was simply a rule because you can’t giggle and talk at the same time. I see the concern, but I tried giggling and talking at the same time a few times, and I believe it is possible. This may be a rule I’ll have to break.