All good things must come to a better end

You’ve spent hours perfecting your narrative, finding the right words, weaving the intricate web of plotlines into the fabric of a clever, meaningful, insightful tale, and now, you’ve come to the final pages, the mad dash to the finish, and are completely and utterly lost.

I suppose every write has this moment. Sitting there in front of their story and just can not bring themselves to finish it out of some paralyzing fear of getting it wrong. It is far worse the better and more complex (or longer) your story gets. It’s hard to find the right payoff that settles everything that needs settling a a way that seems adequate.

This is, of course, partially caused by that nagging voice in an artist’s head that tells them “it isn’t good enough”, that they could do better; that whatever they’ve done does not capture the quintessence of what they had set out to accomplish and show. A part of it is also the difficulty (at least for me) to part from all the lovely (and villainous) characters you’ve created. After seeing them go through everything they’ve been through (well… making them go through it) it’s hard not to feel attached to them and wanted, on the one hand, to keep them around, and, on the other hand, give them a worthy send-off.

Another irritating reason for finding those last few paragraphs or pages to be a challenge is how far you’ve come. By this I mean not only the overall word count or how far along the plot, which also makes things harder, but also how far you might have come from the original plan for the ending. The ending should have been something you’ve had in mind since starting the story, since only by knowing where you were headed could you have written anything with a point, but along the way, you might have realized that what you had planned was, in one way or another, insufficient.

You might see your planned ending forced, no longer relevant to the way the rest of the story has developed (since writing is an organic process and changes all the time) or simply that what sounded awesome and poignant a few weeks ago now sounds rather flat and lackluster.

This has happened to me so many times I could right a story about it, only I don’t know how it will end (wink wink, nudge nudge). I sit in front of a short story or a novel and just become frustrated with how anything I write falls flat. I often find myself writing and re-writing endings four or five times before finally settling on something (which I still think is lacking). I believe other are experiencing this same problems, so I just wanted to point out some kinds of endings I found to be especially unworthy of finding their ways to MY stories (it doesn’t mean they are bad by definition, they might fit your story, and that is the point, I suppose; to find what fits):

  • Deus Ex Machina: Besides “carpe diem”, this is probably the most well-known Latin phrase in common language. Literally meaning “God from within the machine” and originally referring to the appearance of a god to resolve the problems of a Greek tragedy (often arriving onto the stage by means of some machine, such as a crane or a land-based mode of transportation). The plot device was popularized by Euripides and was soon after criticized, but somehow, it survived to this day. The problem is quite simple: the solution is too simple and seems to come out of nowhere, bringing very little satisfaction to the reader/viewer/listener. The long-lost twin suddenly coming home, the last will and testament revealing that he/she was the rightful son/daughter all along, a literal god coming from nowhere and simply fixing everything, they all just make the reader think “then why did I bother getting involved with all their problems?” Even worse, it shows a lack of originality and thought. Simply put: it makes a writer look bad. (One comment I feel is necessary: Sometimes a writer would be accused of having done this unjustly, especially in fantasy or science fiction. Sometimes the readers are simply not aware of the whole scope of the story, such as prequels, lore, etc., and would think that this magical item coming out of nowhere is very forced while in fact, this resolution was brewing all along; e.g. The eagles in the Lord of the Rings. They don’t just appear, they have been entrusted by the gods of Middle Earth, the Valar, in the Second Age to watch of Middle Earth and are just doing their job, though rather belatedly, all of this is mentioned in the Silmarillion).
  • Happy Ever After: Unless you are writing a fairytale (or a satire of one à la Into the Woods), a Happy Ever After seems just as forced as a Deus Ex Machina. This not only refers to actually using the phrase Happy Ever After, it is enough to forcibly go through every plot line and resolve it in a happy manner. Everyone is happy and gets what is coming to them, the villain is punished, all loving couples marry and get their dream jobs, and all is well. Does that sound realistic? Does it sound natural in a narrative to go and check all the boxes as if the narrator had some “All’s well that end’s well” clipboard? Of course there should be a resolution, and if you are writing a children’s story this may well be what you need, but most of the time, it will be far more natural to integrate the resolution of sideplots into the rest of the text rather than go through them in the end like some sort of seventh grade book report.
  • Or Did He? The other side of the Happy Ever After coin is just as bad. Resolving your story only to force some kind of doubt as to the finality would also leave your readers quite dissatisfied and irritated. This would also raise a question as to why they even bothered going along with all those twists and turns only for you to, and I am sorry for using this obnoxious semi-verb, Shyamalan it. It seems forced, like you are desperate to lure people into buying a sequel. Open endings are good, there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s only when you did resolve the main conflict in a satisfactory manner only to then say that the killer’s finger twitched right at the end, showing that he is still alive and will return for revenge that things sound more like a campy 1980’s horror flick than a serious mystery novel. This is only an example, of course. The same applies to all genres. If you want a cliffhanger ending, build up to it a bit, don’s just tell the readers that “suddenly” something is still wrong.

Writing intelligent stories while not losing the ability to be a complete and utter idiot

Even if you do not have a background in literary theory, you must have heard of different literary movements and periods. One such period is the dark, lugubrious, and all-round depressing period known as Modernism. One of its most striking characteristics is of this literary period is the overly intellectual nature of the writing. The layers of complexity interwoven into an intertextual mess may be one of the main reasons that modernism, as a movement, quickly sank in the public eye into disrepute as snooty and condescending to its readers (to truly “get” The Waste Land, which is one of the more recognizable results of the “age of disillusionment”, you need to have read the majority of the Graeco-Roman canon).

These grim looking fellows (sorry feminists, the movement was unfortunately dominated by men) even look stern and overbearing in their pictures. They are the very image(s) of taking one’s self too seriously. Despite their bad reputation, there is no way around it, those stories, poems, and plays are, in a word, brilliant, which is probably why literary critics, and literati in general, drool over them.

But why do stories need to be so serious and complex in order to be good? Even if we ignore the possibility that those critics and literature enthusiasts like modernist writers BECAUSE they are complex and intertextual, surely stories of such insight and grand scope would still get the same level of esteem without all this depressing droll.

Myself, I feel a lot more respect for those writers who give the same level of insight into the world and its people through much lighter means. Means of sharp, Wilde-like wit and on-point satire. I mean writers such as Adams, Pratchett, Gaiman, and their likes. This is much harder than it seems, of course. Not only is it hard to zero in on the deepest problems of our world, but doing so with any degree of levity is a stretch of human faculties.

I’ve made my first foray into this manner of writing with a Douglas Adams-like piece which I still hope to get published, but the inspiration for this post is a little different. I wrote a play, solely for my fiance, in which two turtles take the place of Vladimir and Estragon, while another, absent turtle took the role of the famous Godot.

It was far more satisfying to hear her laugh then to cause her any kind of depression and loss of hope for humanity. I saw something far more noble in making someone both happy and making them think about something. True, it wasn’t ground-breaking stuff, just a couple of turtles talking, but the very idea of making light while using the same literary devices as those used to cut through to humanities most exposed nerves made me think about those grim writers, locked up in their rooms, smoking cigarette after cigarette while pouring over endless tomes of the great classics. Why not give people a laugh instead? you can still think while laughing…

What happens when you leave me alone with a pen, part 2

No one seems very perturbed by the news; they all sort of slip into some role ingrained into the fabric of their current existence. The hostages whimper and sob about having children and not deserving this, Poh pretends to have very important things to check and Piglet distributes copies of the Communist Manifesto. I think I start to like Piglet. I have no idea if she is my type physically, but the sheer absurdity of distributing the Communist Manifesto in a bank she is robbing is very endearing. She is clad very mannishly so that I cannot see any semblance of a feminine figure, and having her father close at hand with an SMG isn’t doing much to encourage me to getting overly friendly with her, but I am getting curious.

Poh eventually gets bored and comes to join me at in the tellers’ rec-room. From where we can more or less still see the lobby. He puts a cigarette to his little plastic maw and offers me one too. I decline, with those same after school specials’ slogans about cigarettes running through my head as I did in basic training, where everyone smoked, either to look cool or pass the time.

“You served?” He finally says between two drags.

“Yep.” The jarhead response. It often makes people think you’re the strong, silent type when in fact you’re just antisocial and don’t know what to say.

“My folks wanted me to join for the Gulf War, spent three years in Canada instead, then Uncle Sam forgot about me and it was safe to come back.” He had that look of remembering old lovers and great pot; a sort of dumb grin that you instantly hate because you are envious of their reason for having it.

“Well, I didn’t.” As I often do, I feel that I have very little to contribute to this conversation, so I keep any and all statement as vague and uncommitted as possible.

“It was great.” I suppose he is trying to find some sort of common denominator with me. People often do when they are thrown together with complete strangers and are forced put their lives in those peoples’ hands.

“How’d you know I served?” I decide to join in the conversation.

“Oh, just the way you talked more about their guns than who they are. The cops, I mean.”

“You’re little girl doesn’t seem to like them very much.” We both share an unseen smile beneath our masks as we see Piglet given any and all outwards facing windows the finger and pointing at her pig shaped mask for the cops to make some point; I suppose the irony is lost on her that right now, she’s the pig.

He ignores my comment and we look at each other through cheap Halloween masks. I am pretty sure only drunk college kids and bank robbers in movies ever buy these kinds of masks, which makes me wonder who makes them, and why. Is it still a profitable business? Is it a dead industry and toy stores are still trying to dump all the stock they bought in the seventies? So I decide to ground it in reality with a question.

“Why a bear and a pig?”

“Oh, I got those for Halloween ten years ago, when my daughter was just a little girl, she loved them. She wore the pig mask to school for a month. Her teacher, I forgot her name, called me every day to ‘express his concern’ at her behavior.” He nods and I imagine him smiling underneath those painted on fangs and ursine teeth. “Why Nixon?”

“Oh… promise not to tell anyone?” I smile conspiratorially without realizing he can’t see it. “Because I love that movie… Point Break.” He laughs so hard the hostages are all looking at us, probably wonder if we are working on some plan and that was our effort at a proper evil laugh. Piglet is also looking, but her body language speaks more of bemusement. I think she likes hearing her father laugh.

“I’m gonna go do a round, don’t want the hostages thinking we got complacent.” He pats me on the shoulder before leaving.

I return to looking at Piglet energetically distributing little gray leaflets with a large picture of Karl Marx on it and his famous, world-changing manifesto printed in microscopic letters. I try to guess her age by water Poh told me. I assume she is in her late teens of really early twenties, and her behavior certainly supports that theory. I am convinced that she would display the same sense of bravado even without the mask and the gun and the hostages. She would stare down the “Man” and stick out her tongue in an adolescent gusto of defiance.

In that age of youth, everything takes on epic proportions. Nothing is just a nuisance or a snag in your daily routine. Every single thing that happens becomes an indication of the beauty or ills or humanity. I was the same when I was that age, wanting to change a world I never bothered to understand. Regardless of her actual age, that is how I see her; besides, I do firmly believe that all punks and anarchists stop maturing somewhere around the age of fifteen.

From imagining her age, I start imagining what she looks like. The only part of her skin I have seen are her ears and her neck; everything else is covered in dark, baggy clothing that looks like something an old lady donated to charity after her husband died, or left for a younger woman. I also saw her eyes for a second, which are a very rich green. There was nothing truly deep about them besides their color, which was in no way porcine, but there was no hidden intelligence, no latent brilliance, just pent up belligerence and a desire to do something great with the convenience of not having to do anything at all.

I haven’t even noticed, but she’s in the tellers’ rec room with me now, eating a granola bar and drinking something that smells like rotten plums. Her little mouth-hole is still dripping that weird-smelling purple fluid when she turns to me and throws me a granola bar.

“I made them myself; all organic ingredients and eco-friendly baking process. I suppose you think it’s dumb, but screw you.” She keeps chewing and I join her.

“Richard Nixon and a Pig walk into a bank…” I start, but I’m not sure how to continue the joke, so I let it hang there and decide to assume an air of poignant solemnity, as if I was making the cleverest point ever made. The granola bar really is very good.

“Technically, a Bear and a Pig walk into a bank with an awesome plan and guns and stuff, and Nixon just shows up and confuses everyone, very presidential. Did you know that Nixon not only led America into an unjust, unjustifiable, senseless war, he was also a cheat and a scoundrel?” She doesn’t sound like she is speaking to the, for her at least, ever present ghost of evil politicians and commonly hated public figures, her accusatory tone feels to center on me.

“Did you know Marx was just an overly articulate unemployed sick dude?” I retort, not really knowing why I am being dragged into this childish game, unsure of why I need to defend myself against her accusations. Aren’t we both committing literally the same crime here? “Well, Dickey may have been tricky, but he makes a good mask.” I try to soften the impact of my previous statement.

“Whatever. Take this. Some overly articulate, unemployed, sick dude wrote it, and it changed the world.” She hands me a leaflet that, if memory serve, is urging me to take arms against the bourgeoisie and build up a new nation led by the working class, or something like that. I suppose robbing a few thousand dollars from the local bank can be seen as a start.

“Do you know what’s the take?”

“Not really, dad said it ain’t much. I’m not in it for the money.” That is something I would expect a struggling artist to say, or a passionate athlete, not a bank robber. “I do it so I could liberate these people from their money. They are its prisoners.” I can see her teeth through the small mouth-hole of the mask and assume she is grinning.

“Well, I am doing it because I am broke and I know how to shoot a gun.”

“Everyone knows how to shoot a gun, this is America. It’s a wonder more people don’t think like you, since a lot of people are also broke.”

“Isn’t being broke a virtue to you? Aren’t they free of their money?” I try very hard not to sound mocking, but I can see it didn’t go so well.

“There’s a difference between being broke and not being a slave to money. Money is there and is unavoidable, I mean, we can’t go back to a society that trades in chickens or whatever, I mean, how many potatoes does a visit to school cost? Or how many slabs of cheese do I give my gynecologist after a routine check-up? It’s stupid. We need money as a central monetary system, but it shouldn’t define us.” I am surprised at the burst of eloquence, but oddly enough, the mention of a gynecologist reminds me she is a girl and my mind returns to wondering what she looks like, not only naked.

“So, I have to ask, what’s your name?”

“Like I’d tell you.”

“You can call me…” I am very unimaginative, so I just give her a variation of my name. “John.”

“So, John. Do you vote?” That was definitely not the question I was expecting. The last time I voted was in Afghanistan, for good ol’ Obama, hoping that he would do some magic with the practically non-existent welfare system.

“Not for a while. I did during a tour.”

“Cool, you’re in a band or something?” She takes another big sip of that purple fluid that smells of plums.

“No, a tour in Afghanistan, with the army.” I doubt she takes words like ‘army’ in her stride, words she associates with it are probably inspired by Germany, Spain, and Italy in the thirties and forties. She doesn’t say anything, though.

“I voted Obama.” It’s a feeble attempt, but she takes the bait and relaxes a bit.

“Good, slightly let fascist.”

“Aren’t the cops supposed to call us or something?” I ask when I notice the rec room has a small, black, cordless phone in the corner, right next to the toaster.

“They don’t do that, that’s just in the movies. They let you sweat and hope you’d just surrender.” She says with a surprisingly restrained level of contempt.

“Oh, is that your edge? You know that if you just wait long enough they’d just give up?”

“She sticks out her tongue at me. “No, my dad was a cop.” She gets up and leaves. I follow her, pretending to take a look at the hostages, but focus on her as she rearranges one of the barricades and adds stacks of financial reports with very elaborate pie-charts on them.

“Please, let me go, I have kids at home, and my husband must be worried sick, he, he’s a lawyer, if you let me go he’d help you, I can see you are not like the other two, I’m not stupid, I was a paralegal for seven years, I know about law enforcement, I…” The verbal ambush came from a well-dressed and overly accessorized woman in her forties who found herself a place to hunker down right between a water cooler and a disfigured looking houseplant; I suppose she was naturally attracted to the better neighborhood of the bank to settle down in a place befitting her social status.

I kneel down to be more or less at eye level with her. “Or, I take you hostage and get out of here, leaving your body somewhere for hubby, attorney at law, to find.” I don’t know why I said that. I was actually kind of counting on the hostages testifying that I was the nice one. Now that hope is shattered. Women like her, even in circumstances like this, have an uncanny ability to spread rumors and opinions like it was gospel.

I move away from Mrs. Hubby, attorney at law, and see an elderly couple in an embrace. I see someone looking incredibly confused as to what is happening. I see a young woman crying onto the shoulder of a guy who is either a stranger or a poor woman’s sugar daddy. The Tellers are mostly bunched up together with Mr. Schweinhofer against the counter, still in their nice suits, although I find it funny that some of the women are wearing sneakers, taking advantage that customers can’t see their feet and the mismatch between general attire and footwear. There is a teenager reading Piglet’s leaflet with interest and Mrs. Shaw close to him, taking some pill.

I go over to Piglet again and point out Mrs. Shaw. “That was my teacher in school.”

“Mine too, science, right? Or maybe math… No, science.” Piglet confirms to me that she and Poh are from town, which might mean I know them.

“So your dad’s a cop gone bad? That’s kind of badass.” I sit on a desk, throwing occasional, random nasty looks to the hostages.

“No, he just had a change of career. Hold these.” She drops a stack of papers into my hands and goes to the front door only to come back a few seconds later. “So, they’re just standing around, and people are taking selfies with them.” I assume she means the cops.

“Come on, I have to know.”

“He was a cop, he stopped being a cop, and now he robs banks wearing a bear mask with his little girl wearing a pig mask, what’s the big mystery? Give me.” She takes the stack away from me and distributes them among the hostages. I start wondering where has Poh gone to.

“Read those carefully!” Piglet screams at our hostages and their faces lock onto the sheets. I look at one too, out of curiosity. It’s an info sheet from the Church of Scientology.

“Are you guys Scientologists?” I ask, rather disappointed.

“Oh, hell no. I am just curious to see whether they take it seriously. Besides, it’s good to offset the intelligent stuff I give them with Marx with some bullshit by Hubbard.” I think I am seriously starting to like her. She is immature and odd, but the freest spirit I have ever met.

“Where is daddy?” I ask her.

“Beats me.” She shrugs. “Why? Do you miss him? You want to be my second daddy?”

“Well, I would like to know where all persons holding guns are.”

“I think I saw him go into the men’s room. Go look for him there, I can’t go in, I’m a lady.” She turns away more regally than I would have believed and starts taking random files and mixing their contents.

I do go into the men’s room and look for Poh, trying very hard not to make a pun out of it in my head. I don’t really need to work very hard on avoiding the pun. Poh has gone the way Elvis did. He is sitting on the toilet, dead as dead can be. More for ritual than medical reasons, I check for a pulse. I find none. What I do find are some heart pills in his hands and his MAC 10 on the floor. I guess he had a heart attack and croaked. I can’t help it and take off his mask. I’ve seen him around town, sure, but he doesn’t strike me as overly familiar or important to the fabric of my life until about forty five minutes ago. I put the mask back on him and exit the restroom.

Piglet has moved on to actually counting the money in the bag. She is doing it slowly, showing personal contempt for every dead president she sees, no matter how many times she sees the face of the same man, for her, each and every piece is an individual manifestation of evil.

I have no idea what to tell her. I am sure she and her father knew that what they do might get them killed, maybe they even reveled in the thought of going in a hail of bullets, but I doubt either of them imagined going by means of some ultimate bowel movement.

“Did you find him?”

I might count myself as lucky. I was dreading many things before setting out to rob this bank, getting arrested, getting shot, making a fool of myself by somehow doing it wrong, but I didn’t think I would have to tell a young woman her father has died in probably the most inglorious way. Instead, luckily for me, the cops burst in. Four of them, yelling for everyone to put their guns down, to put our hands up, turn around, put our hands behind our backs, do the hokey pokey. I get confused, my arms shoot up, but still with my pistol and Poh’s MAC 10, I see the Piglet has already lain down her weapon and is being put in handcuffs. My arms go up so fast that my finger is inadvertently pushed against the trigger. A salve of 9 mm rounds hits the ceiling, the front door, and Sheriff Crane. The other cops, except the one leading Piglet away, maskless now, all start shooting me. Mostly, I get hit with 0.45s, I also see one 9 mm, but slowly, a 12 gauge is aimed at me, and I decide, screw it, too late to surrender. I shoot at the 12 gauge, he goes down after a hit in the chest. I doubt it would be lethal with vests and all, but it would leave him with a nice bruise for a while so he could tell everyone in the gym that he was shot on duty so they’d buy him drinks later at the bar.

I get shot twice more until the 0.45s need to reload, but it’s over and we all know it. I see Piglet lowered into a squad car. I was right, she isn’t pretty. She has way too many piercings and her eyes are too small for her face, but it’s nice to see a face that doesn’t want to kill me before I fall. The last thing I hear is Crane.

“Son of a bitch.”

What happens when you leave me alone with a pen

I don’t really have any amazing insights to share with you today, I was too busy writing. So I thought, why not share that with you? Here’ a part of a nice little short story for you, next part coming soon:

 

There are two other robbers besides me, and I am sure that underneath those animal masks, they are just as confused as I am. I suppose all three of us had the same idea at the same time, only that in their case, two people had the one idea. By the coordination of the style of the mask, it is easy to see that they are working together while I came here alone, but the unfailing nature of the human brain groups the threat into one homogeneous group and assume we are all a part of one gang. For the sake of not breaking the spell, our eyes meet and broker a truce.

After a few theatrical nods at one another, the small one, the voice of whom identifies him to be a woman breaks the relative silence.

“No one fucking move!” There is a renewal of the screams and the panicked sobs from all over the bank. “I want you all to shut the fuck up, I don’t want to even have to remember you are here until I decide I want you to do something else, got it?!” Her voice is commanding, but so young that I feel comfortable referring to her in my head as a girl rather than a woman.

She is also very good at this. She lets her voice do the threatening, letting her shotgun rest idly yet menacingly on her shoulder.

The other one, the one built like a refrigerator with arms and legs, comes over to me and looks me in the eye.

“What the fuck?”

“Well, I suppose we all thought this will be a good idea.” I say apologetically, as if I am the only one doing something wrong.

“This is our job, beat it!”

“Can’t really walk out now and tell the cops ‘oh, they threw me out, so I’m as innocent as a baby lamb,’ can I?” He considers this for no more than a nano-second.

“Fine, follow our lead, play your cards right, and you might get… twenty five percent.”

“Twenty five? I’d be doing a third of the work, fuck that shit.” Everyone is looking at our little huddle, still enchanted by being screamed at by the girl, still too afraid to move and displease their new mistress.

“It’s our damn plan!” The voice behind the bear mask is beginning to sound unnerved, like his finger is going to stop asking his brain for permission for anything… trigger related.

“I had a plan too, not my fault you guys had a similar one.”

“Are you in, or do I have to take your gun away?” The bear asks. It’s not so bad, I start thinking. I’m good at following orders, and having someone else in charge always makes it easier to deal with the ethical ramifications of what might come.

“What do I do?”

“Come with me, my daughter is going to watch the front.” He must be so proud.

We walk around the bank’s lobby, my ursine friend shooting his glance in every direction until he locks in on an older lady and grabs her by the arms and pulls her to her feet. She looks well-to-do, tasteful jewelry, a nice lady’s business suit, a fancy leather bag, and even a jacket despite the afternoon heat.

It’s a small town and I recognize her immediately. It’s Mrs. Shaw, my eighth grade science teacher. She seems to be doing well in retirement. I wonder if Poh, as I began to call my new partner in crime, picked her because she was particularly nasty to him when he was her pupil, though he might be too old.

“This one is yours, I’ll be back in a second.” He says as he runs to grab the bank manager, Mr. Schweinhofer. We escort our hostages to the back of the bank, Poh on point and me following at the rear after the hostages, who are trapped between us. At the back is, of course, the vault. I was going to ignore it. It seemed like too much trouble and leaving the lobby with unattended hostages seemed ridiculous. I was going to grab anything and everything in the tills before making good my escape, but Poh and Piglet obviously had a different plan.

I can still hear Piglet shout at the hostages; she seems to have found a particularly annoying hostage to abuse and make an example of, using degradation instead of that Remington she has over her shoulder.

Poh pushs Mr. Schweinhofer against the vault door, which isn’t at all as impressive as they show in the movies. It’s just a big steel door with a few keyholes and some rotary handles. Mr. Schweinhofer looks on the verge of hysteria and Poh slaps him.

“Open it!” He points at the vault with his MAC-10. I feel rather inadequate with my machete and Glock. I look like some confused hillbilly who decided at the last minute that it would be a gun fight and had the presence of mind to go prepared. My own Nixon mask feels more comic than threatening now. Buying it was more of an impulse than a plan. I saw it in a movie, and I suppose anyone can guess which movie I mean.

Mr. Schweinhofer, after some more prompting does open the vault and reveals a small room with several well organized chromed cabinets, supposedly containing Poh and Piglet’s target.

“Okay, you’re up.” Poh gestures me into the room after throwing a duffle bag at me and taking hold of Mrs. Shaw. “Grab everything, don’t worry about those movie clichés about sequential bills and crap.” He winks behind the ursine eyeholes.

I walk in and start shoving money into the bag. The stacks are neat and smell good, but there is alarmingly few of them. It’s a small town and a small bank in a small state in the biggest economic power on the planet. I don’t let that stop me. I mechanically thrust my arms forward, grab the stacks and extract them and deliver them into the brown bag on the floor.

I can hear Mr. Schweinhofer behind me trying to reason with Poh, get him to surrender, though he includes me in this appeal, I still think of me and the two cartoonish animals as two separate entities. I hear another slap and Mr. Schweinhofer falls silent.

When I can’t find anymore stacks in the cabinets, I do a final sweep of the room to make sure I took everything I could and I head back to join Poh. He looks giddy, somehow. The tangibility of the money got him excited.

We take the two ragdoll-like hostages back to the lobby, where Piglet is hunched over a hostage and explaining to him that somehow, this is all the government’s fault, not hers. I agree to some degree, I gave my country my all, the very least they could do is let a few thousand buck come my way.

But no. The government may be lax about a great deal many things, but not about its money. They can’t have people just get up and take money, because then everyone would do it. Outside, a few police cruisers are parked with very serious looking cops aiming slightly less serious looking guns at us. They are small town cops, using hunting rifles and revolvers made in the seventies. Once you’ve had several very angry men with AK 47s aiming at you, ten cops with a beer gut and revolvers no longer seem like the mighty arm of the law, more like a caricature by the New Yorker.

Piglet comes over to us with a gait that makes me doubt once again that she is a girl, but when she speaks there are those fine nuances of a repressed femininity.

“They’ve been parked there for a few minutes. I didn’t want to let on that this was not a part of the plan. What are we going to do, dad?” She sounds lost, close to scared, but deathly defiant to admit that. “Any bright ideas, Tricky Dicky?” I can just tell she is scowling under that mask.

I take Mrs. Shaw to the front door, cutting her off when she starts to say something with a look that says I’m not the bad guy, but I could be. I place her in front of me as we stand against the glass double doors, putting the gun to her head. I am not one hundred percent sure what I am trying to accomplish other than to make it clear we have hostages.

The most authoritative looking cops signals to the others to stand down. He approaches the door with his hands up and yells to Mrs. Shaw to remain calm. I think I almost admire him for that. There’s nothing he could do if I decide to shoot her, nothing she could do either, so why have what could possibly be her last moments spent  thinking no one can help her?

He is almost at the door and I signal to him to stop. I make my assessment of him in practically no time. It’s Crane, the town’s sheriff. He is old, about fifty, and looks like he was a very mean bastard twenty years ago, but years of seeing his little corner in small town Americana turn to drugs, alcoholism and racism that even someone from his generation wouldn’t put up with has worn him down into an almost timid man who tries to please everyone. His grey hair is cut in marine fashion, and his tan uniform is loos around his slowly decaying body. The aviator shades, however, make him look uncaring and in command.

“You in charge?” I try to take a lesson from Bruce Wayne’s book of tricks and mask my voice as best I can.

“Yes, sir. Sheriff Crane. Now, I don’t want anyone in there hurt, you hear? Let’s just make this quick and you surrender, and I’ll see what I could do for you from my end, what do you say?”

“I say fuck you pig.” I aim the gun at him and see him slowly retreat, knowing that this is going to be a long ass Tuesday.

Back in the lobby, Poh and Piglet have been busy. They’ve constructed amateurish barricades and blocked all the entrances except the front door, which I have to admit is pretty clever and badass.

I push Mrs. Shaw onto the floor as gently as I could without it being obvious it was meant to be gentle. She sits Indian style and breaths deeply with her eyes closed. Piglet is throwing random stacks of papers on one of the barricades, which is mostly comprised of chairs, and compresses the precarious construct with her boots.

“Well, if you want to know… There are ten cops out there, at least four of them look like they did an all-nighter and are barely awake, eight of them, including the sheriff, are armed with pistols, mostly revolvers, and two are armed with old looking shotguns. That, at the very least, is the situation at the front. I didn’t see any command vehicle or tactical teams, it actually looks like a bit of a mess out there, very little organization.” Poh and Piglet look over and shrug at each other, possibly surprised by the details of the report, but you learn to notice those things when you are out there in the world. “We are officially under siege.” I add.

The 9 characters you are going to want to write, but shouldn’t

Since people have been telling stories, they have been using certain tricks to get their listeners/readers to grasp what is happening and the essential message of the story. One such trick is the use of certain character kinds.

We’ve all read/watched these characters. Those characters whom we feel we know by getting one little fact about them. I don’t even necessarily mean the famous stock characters of fairy tales or folk stories. Some kinds of character have been so often used that they pretty much played themselves out.

  1. The half-asses tragic hero: They often say that no matter what will be written, Shakespeare did it better. Well, that might just be the case here. There are countless examples of so called tragic heroes who are supposed to incite sympathy with their tragic flaws, but just end up being ridiculous and trying too hard to be liked despite their rotten attitude. I dare you to compare one moody vampire to Hamlet and not laugh at how far apart they are.
  2. The girl no one notice, but is just so darn lovely: Another often used character type, so often used, that actual lovely girls whom no one notices have become rather annoying in real life for being who they really are. This kind of character is often a major character in YA novels, for understandable reasons, but an author can do a little more and put some meat on those fictional bones and give her some personality beside being… lovely.
  3. The architect: No, I am not talking about a person who designs buildings. Everyone, by now, knows the movie cliche created by the Wachowski brothers. It doesn’t even have to be as bad as a person sitting in a chair and telling your readers everything you could find a better way to explain by showing, it’s enough that you push an “exposition” spewing character into your book to cheapen the reading experience. Readers want to find things out slowly, they want to see how an imaginative writer would tackle the challenge of explaining complex things (plot related or otherwise), and having some character come at the right time and say the right thing just ruins that.
  4. A token character: I’m going to make this clear and simple: If the sole purpose of the character is to be black/Asian/homosexual/transsexual/Muslim/etc. for your story to seem more inclusive, than don’t bother. It isn’t respectful, it’s cheapening. Don’t. If you want to show your respect towards any group, don’t make their difference an issue. Having one character around that is supposed to represent an entire segment of the population is reductionist and insulting. I am not by any means saying don’t have a character that is black/Asian/Hispanic/homosexual/transsexual/Muslim/etc. there just to be there. Give them a personality, make them an integral part of the story.
  5. Your friends and loved ones: We are, as writers, obviously inspired by the things that happen to us and the world around us, which includes the people close to us. It may sound like a great thing to do for someone, to immortalize them in a book/short story, but that could cause a few problems. It might distract you from your story as a whole. You’d work so hard to make a nice, wonderful, as true to life as possible representation of your friend/significant other/mother/father/sibling/etc. an that might cause you to neglect the intrinsic realism of the world you created. A further problem might arise from them being displeased by your representation of them. On the other hand, we are all human and might do something like this, I admit I did in my book, but if you do go down this path, try to keep things vague. Capture that friend or loved one with their abstract traits rather putting a literary simulacrum of them in your writing. That will help you maintain a certain detachment.
  6. A cross between Sauron and Bill Lumbergh: Every story needs a villain, and we often want to make sure that our villain is perceived as a villain, which would encourage our readers to root for our hero. Often, writers tend to create forms of ultimate evil as their villains, all in their respective fields; whether it’s the ultimate fantasy villain in Sauron (or his boss Melkor) down to the everyday villain in Bill Lumbergh and everything in between. (Un)Fortunately, people are beyond the concept of ultimate evil. Readers today want to know what makes evil tick. Is there true evil? What makes evil evil? Can evil be redeemed? Is evil born or made? Is evil a good bowler? Readers want to know the answers to these questions. Books and films from the last thirty years have given us increasingly complex villains that are sometimes more likable than the heroes, which is in itself an important point.
  7. Damsels in distress: I’m just going to put it out there, those stopped being relevant in the 1950’s. Women today, besides being a huge readership, know that they are capable of anything. The image of a lady who needs a big, strong man to come and rescue her is a thing of the past. It worked fine in a time when women were subjected to social regulations that deprived them of agency, but today, that is no longer relevant. Even most men would find this image of women dated and dull. There’s only so many times you can save a girl before you just decide to teach her self-defense.
  8. Mr. Randy “Macho Man” Savage: The polar opposite of point 7, the macho man is the epitome of manhood. He is Ron Swanson wrapped in Hulk Hogan and dipped in Chuck Norris. He has hair everywhere. He wrestles bears. He shaves with a cleaver and hunts deer with a flamethrower. He is utterly ridiculous and quite sad. He is a manifestation of someone’s sad nostalgia for a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger spewed out oneliners and flexed pretty much everything for the camera. This outdated vision of masculinity is no longer relevant and should only be integrated into a story as a caricature or a part of a satire. Even if you are trying to write about some hero super-soldier or a gruff gunslinger in the old west, or a centurion battling the barbaric hoards, show him to be a human being rather than some male fantasy of an unattainable masculinity, it would make him much more likable.

I can’t (obviously) force you to implement my advice, but I ask you to think about it. It would enhance the immersion in your story, and thus its quality.

The similarity between losing weight and writing a great novel

I suppose the first thing that comes to mind by the purposed comparison in the title is “nothing”, and on the surface, that is correct. But look deeper, and you will find a few things in common between the two:

First of all, I am trying to do both. No, just kidding. While that is true, that is not really the first point I will be making. My emphasis here is on the word trying. Both of them are long term goals that are hard to accomplish, and, for me, it is sometimes astounding to see how something that hinders progress in one, can hinder it for the other, or vice versa.

Both topic have a plethora of self-help books and little guidelines and even fads. Every now and then some celebrity will come along and write a book about his/her favorite pasta dishes, or some writer or another will believe he/she is revolutionizing the way books are written with his/her secret tips of only writing naked under the full moon or some insane thing or another.

Both things require a lot of motivation to even get started, and just because you did well last week staying away from ice cream does not mean that this week is going to be as good; every day is a new struggle. Even when the larger goal of losing 15 kg (about 33 lbs) can be broken down into smaller weekly goals, there is no guarantee that the every day efforts are going to be up to par. The same goes for writing. Writing your 600 words a day, or weekly plot milestones are very easy to miss if you get distracted, busy, or just feel tapped out.

I know myself that finding excuses is easy, why I deserve to eat that thing, why it’s okay not to exercise today, why my book can wait to tomorrow. Just like with a lot of things, but more so for weight loss and writing than anything, the word “later” is a death-sentence to success.

You can pick up any of the thousands of those self-help books about writing with very well thought through tips on how to get on your backside and write, which often work for about a week before you are back to binge watching whatever’s new on Netflix instead. The same also applies to weight loss. A week of healthy broccoli and fruit smoothies, and then another week of chili chicken wings dipped in something that would make your doctor cry.

But do not worry, there is a solution. Read a self-help book, by all means, but be ready to make the necessary adjustments to whatever advice you got there so it would fit your life and your personality! At the end of the day, everyone needs to find what works for them and where temptation lies that could get in the way of success. As I mentioned in previous posts, I try to make an evening, or even a whole day, out of writing, making some nice snacks, getting a bottle of wine (or several bottles of beer) and really let things flow. I also like to read quotes by my favorite authors, or maybe even just excerpts from my favorite books for inspiration. Another little trick of mine is to find music that, in some way, is relevant to what I am writing, either in the lyrics or the style.

 

My connection between Van Gogh and Hemingway: Images of the (self) tormented artist

Me and my girlfriend have a term we often use, “Hemingwaying”. The term basically means writing while drinking a lot of alcohol. This is, as can be expected, taken from Ernest Hemingway’s credo. I do feel that I get better ideas with those irritating inhibitions at bay. Unfortunately, I suffer from a condition of which I reported when I started this blog, which causes me a great deal of pain and discomfort in the chest and abdomen when I drink alcohol or eat fried food (which often follow alcohol), and yet, I persist in doing it, because I believe it helps me write.

I am not an idiot, I know it is unhealthy and obviously not in my best interest to inflict pain on myself for the sake of writing. So why do I torment myself (or why am I so melodramatic so as to use the word torment to describe what I am doing)? The answer came to me in a rather strange fashion:

I am a HUGE fan of the long-running British sci-fi show Dr. Who (don’t worry, this isn’t a rant about the BBC having cast Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor, I’m actually very excited to see how she does). One episode in the 5th season shows the Doctor and his companion Amy Pond (my favorite companion ever, along with Rory, of course) meeting tormented artist Vincent Van Gogh. The episode show Vincent as a depressed drinker, slightly mad, and having the self-esteem of the average amoeba. I found myself taken with him immediately. His depression and fits of melancholy, his drinking, his feeling of being RIGHTFULLY unappreciated as an artist (may I also at this point congratulate Tony Curran on his outstanding performance as Vincent Van Gogh). And that got me thinking, why do I automatically like him and identify with him?

There have been many who said that true art is born of pain, and indeed some of the greatest artists of all times suffered greatly during their lives, and this, of course, includes writers. This has made a sort of cultural image of artists needing to go through a sort of “rite of passage” of poverty, dejection, alcoholism, loneliness and so on. And we, as artists ourselves, might feel “incomplete” if our journey into writing lacked any of those (not to mention all of them together like the tragic life of Mr. Van Gogh).

I then understood that that is why I Hemingway (as a verb) and drink as I write, only to inevitably feel intense pain later. I create pain for myself to complete this romanticized image of how I believe I should be as an artist, and that makes it ridiculous, unhealthy, and rather counterproductive.

There is nothing wrong with having an image of how we think things should be, in fact, it is natural and everyone has it for something (multiple things, actually, the most common ones are ideas of masculinity or femininity), but we need to be aware that that is all they are. I don’t need to be in pain to write, I don’t need to know how to fix stuff to be a man, I don’t really need to wear glasses to be smart (I need them to see, not be smart). These are just social constructs that have become embedded in our common consciousness and while they could be fun to watch or read about, they don’t have to hold power in the real world!