New project, new feeling

So, instead of a boring post about god know what, I decided to put up a chapter of a new story I am working on. I hope you enjoy it:

“Name?” The clerk spits out at me from behind a tiny desk and equally tiny glasses.

“Heim, Jakob Heim.”

“And how do you spell that, sir?”

“H-E-I-M. Heim.”

“Okay, origin?”

“Germany.” Now he looks at me suspiciously. As if it were a quiz and I gave the worst possible answer. The war has left scars not only on Europe. For the first time, America had to save Europe from itself, and now this young nation has no one to look up to; there are no longer any responsible adults in the world.

“Do you have family here in America?”

“Yes, a cousin, Eliza Smith, in Ohio.”

“Do you speak good English?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

“Okay, please proceed to the health inspection. Here you go.” He gives me a slip of paper with “Jacob Heim” written on it along with the date and the stamp of the Ellis Island immigration inspection.

The health inspection is by far more intrusive than the simple collection of data done at the desk. We are stripped in groups and washed in case we bring something from the old world to infect the new, and then we get inspected. The doctor looks me up and down, and when he reaches down he asks me if I am Jewish, I answer that I am and he gives me what can only be called a conspiratorial look. Of course that despite what many in my homeland now want to think, Jews conspire nothing, but it is a constant to see Jews exchanging conspiratorial looks for some reason. As if our continued existence is the conspiracy the gentiles accuse us of.

finally get my papers cleared, for which I am sure that I have the doctor to thank, and leave Ellis Island in the direction of Ohio. I get placed in the train and set off, hoping to never see a uniformed man again.

The journey is going to be a long one, several days, and it allows me time to think. I wonder about what I have come to call my “self-imposed exile.” It is the third exile in total, I suppose, that I was subjected to. The first was before I was born, before Germany was born. It was when the Jews were exiled from their homeland. Technically, there were two of those, once by the Babylonians, and once again by the romans a few hundred years later, but they are both ancient history, so I count that as one. The second exile was from about five years ago, when my father tossed me out of the house. He said I didn’t fight hard enough, and that if all true German soldier would have fought to the death, as they should have, Germany would have won the Great War. I just told him I was hungry. He gave me a loaf of bread and told me to leave and never come back.

The third exile seemed like the next logical step. It was not brought by life in poverty-stricken Hamburg that I couldn’t take, it was the people. Everyone agreed that losing the war was disastrous for Germany, and they were right. We lost our holding the east, we lost our Kaiser, and we lost our pride. Voices started sprouting up, vehement, loud noises who claimed that it was us, the Jews, who conspired to humiliate Germany by having it lose the war. They claim that is why Jews did not answer the Kaiser’s call to arms, even though we did, most promptly, or they claimed that if any Jew did join the ranks of the Imperial Army, he did so only to sabotage the war-effort, and deliver Germany to the enemy.

I told everyone I knew how ridiculous it all was. I asked why on Earth would I have joined, and fought, were wounded, captured, escaped, starved alongside my fellow Germans only to sabotage the war. They said they didn’t know.

Eventually, I decided that Germany can no longer be my home, so I came here to America with what amounted to three hundred dollars to my name and a small suitcase that contained everything I owned. And with those, on February twentieth, 1923, I rang the doorbell of the Smith family, in the aptly named city of Columbus, Ohio, hoping they have gotten all my letters.

Chapter one:

I start feeling rather stupid for not having called ahead. Eliza is my Aunt Dagmar’s daughter. She is three years younger than me and we were very close as children, which is why I thought she could help me, but in all the time between my first letter eight months ago, no reply came.

Dagmar came to America right after the war. She was heartbroken when she found out my uncle Reinhardt had died in France just a month before the end of the war. Nothing could console her but the idea of starting fresh, away from the country that took away her precious Reinhardt. Of course she took her daughter and son to America with her, and the next we heard of her was a letter from Eliza telling us her mother and brother died in a train accident. We did not attend the funeral.

Finally, the door opens. It’s Eliza’s husband. He’s a good looking man of about my age, with blonde hair and harsh cheekbones. He looks like a Bavarian, or maybe Austrian. This is the first time in my life that I am seeing him. Eliza wrote that Smith is an assumed name, not the name he was born with. He assumed the name out of the assumption that a good, Christian name was good for business, even if its holder is a Jew, so the name Feuerwarth was abandoned.

 He looks at me and smiles in this open, American way, and when he sees the suitcase his smile changes and becomes more artificial.

“Sorry, friend, I am not interested in buying anything right now. It’s my wife who buys everything for the household anyway, I just pay for it, you know who it is.” He smiles again, and starts to politely close the door.

I almost panic, but gather myself, and, politely as I can, I reach for the door to stop it from closing. The husband looks at me with a surprised gaze.

“No, sorry, it’s me, Eliza’s cousin from Germany. Jakob. I wrote you that I am coming, I did, asking if I could stay a while. I know this is a terrible imposition, but I have no other choice.” I always considered my English to be very good. I learned English in school for four years, I have read English novels, I learned English from the British guards when I was captured, but when I hear how easy, smooth, and melodic this man’s English is, I become ashamed of every syllable that leaves my mouth.

He looks at me for a moment, rather surprised, but not at all bitter, and slides aside to allow me entry to the house.

“Oh, of course! You never wrote when you will be coming, so we didn’t expect you today. Come in, make yourself at home.” He leads me to a nice living room, where I sit down on a nice sofa and he sits in front of me on a fine-looking settee. There is a long silence that follows as neither of us know how to start this interaction. I only got as far as the introduction in my head. I assumed Eliza would be here to drive any conversation, and remove any awkwardness with stories of our antics as children.

“Oh, that’s rude of me, would you like something to drink? Something cold, perhaps?” I simply nod and he leaves the room, giving me an opportunity to better look at it.

It is quite large, around thirty square meters, I suppose I will need to start learning what that is in feet. The center of the room is occupied by a very cozy sitting arrangement comprised of the sofa, on which I am sitting, the settee the husband just left, and two small chairs. In the center of that arrangement is a large table on which books, magazines, and glasses are arranged. Behind the two small chairs in a large radio set, atop which sits a gramophone. All the walls, besides the one blocked by the sofa, are hidden by large, oak bookshelves, which are in turn filled with books in both English and German, a few are in French.

Mr. Smith comes back with a bottle of black, bubbly liquid, which I think is Schwarzbier, and am eager to taste. My disappointment must be readable on my face, since Mr. Smith grimaces at my expression. The liquid is sweet beyond belief and is definitely not any kind of beer.

“So how was the journey? From Germany, I mean.”

“Oh, alright. Long. I left Hamburg about two months ago, you know, stops and such.” Our conversation is in danger of becoming more polite than cordial.

“And from New York? You must have come from New York, everyone does.”

“Yes, I did. The men on Ellis Island were nice enough, but I think the clerk might have been illiterate, spelled my name wrong.” I show him my provisional papers, where the German K in Jakob was replaced by a C.

“Well, that’s how it’s spelled in English.” I knew that, I was trying to make a joke, but telling him that might be too pathetic.

“And what do you plan on doing here?” He asks.

“Oh, well, I was told America is the Land of Opportunities, I suppose I will look for mine.” I smile, hopefully cordially.

“Good, yes, in what? Do you have a profession?”

“I fought in the war.” I tell him, like it explains everything there is to say. I fought in the war, so I couldn’t really find work later because I couldn’t really do anything but fight. I fought in the war, so the only way I could survive was by hoping an employer would take pity on me and hire me on the back of my service to the Fatherland. I fought in the war so I can’t make sense of my life.

“And besides that?”

“Well, I thought about opening a business.” I say.

“Good! That is a wonderful idea, that’s what I did. Keep the wheels of industry turning, America loves that.” America is said to love lots of things. Freedom, immigrants, money, itself.

“I was thinking less of industry, more of something else.”

“Like what?”

“Food, a restaurant. I read that many immigrants open restaurants.” Mr. Smith looks doubtful.

“Yes, Italians, Spaniards, the French have their bistros… Even the Polaks have their bakeries… but… Is German food really that enticing? As delicious as Bockwurst and Schweinebraten are, would they sell here?” It was a good question and I don’t know how to answer it. America is the Land of Opportunities, but not necessarily the land of successes.

“I suppose.” I said, and I probably look a bit dejected because I can see some guilt on his face for so quickly stomping out my idea.

“Where is Eliza?” Mr. Smith perks up as his wife’s name is mentioned. Finally, common ground for us.

“She’s with our oldest daughter, gone looking for a new dress. She’s four, and growing very fast. If she plays or moves too wildly, she rips her old dresses.” He smiles as he thinks of his precious daughter, which endears him greatly to me.

“It must be wonderful seeing your child grow up before you. You have another child, a son, am I right?” Eliza wrote me when her children were born. She never sent pictures, claiming that by the time they would reach me the children would be so far grown that I would not be able recognize them anyway, so I must come and look for myself.

“Yes, want to meet him? He’s asleep, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind.” We get up silently and move to a corridor, at the end of which there is a door painted in a bright green with a train painted in red and grey. Mr. Smith opens the door and we peer inside onto a small toddler of about three years sleeping soundly in the knowledge that he is safe and loved by his parents. He is the most beautiful child I have ever seen. He is perfect. He is here, in America, and he can be anything.

Literary fidelity, is it really a thing?

First, let me start by clearing something up: What on Earth do I mean with literary fidelity? I suppose there are several ways of understanding this phrase:

a) It could refer to that age old discussion on whether art should imitate life, i.e. represent life as it is, you know… realism. Wiser men (and women, of course) with much more impressive beards than my own (I suppose some of those women too…) tried to answer questions on whether art, and literature and an artistic form of expression, should strive to imitate life or to show what reality COULD/SHOULD be. I am not going to get into that (though I support the second view).

b) Literary fidelity could also refer to loyalty to a certain genre or style. From a reader’s point of view that might sound boring (imagine reading only one genre your entire life… oy vey…), but from an author’s perspective, it just… feels natural. A writer writes what a writer writes, right? Well, sort of. It is inevitable to develop a certain style and staying true to it through your career, it’s like talking, everyone develops their own idiosyncrasies, it’s unavoidable. It is possible, however, to develop that style over time and improve it, adapt it to your narrative and overall message; even when you are writing int he same genre. Of course, many writers, especially the really good ones, also “jump genres” or play with genre conventions. Take Stephen King, he didn’t only write IT and the Shinning, horror novels, but also the Green Mile and the Dark Tower series (according to many, his Magnum Opus). Other writers stick to something they know, which is fine, and play with it a little. Terry Pratchett, about whom I talk rather a lot here, started out with science fiction, moved to fantasy (both of which are in the fantastical literature umbrella genre) and even went as far as contemporary fantasy (like New Omens, which is getting a series staring David Tennant! How exciting). My own opinion is that writers should be free to jump genre, change style (hopefully for the better, as this will keep them fresh and relevant) as a way to express themselves. But frankly, that isn’t my business what they do in this department and this is not what I mean.

So what do I mean with literary fidelity here? Well, very simple, staying loyal to your story; is that a thing? I set out last November to write my first ever historical novel, and I am at around 120,000 words and almost done, but it took forever. My original plan was to finish it by June, so… six months ago. I kept getting distracted by things. Besides other, more personal things, it was also other stories. Short stories, a new novel idea, stuff in general kept distracting me, and my historical novel starting looking a bit neglected. I abandoned my own rules about how to get back to it and simply left it for younger, more attractive projects, and that was bad. Now I find it rather hard to resume where I left off and I wonder if I should have shown more loyalty to my story, i.e. fidelity.

So that is the question of the day, should I have abandoned those new ideas and kept my head down and written this novel? Or was it a good thing to branch out and pursue different ideas? In the long run, who knows. All I know is that when a new idea comes to me, I get an irresistible urge to fill it with words. A new idea and inspiration comes in the form of not only an outline, but as what it could mean, as wording (mostly clever) and that excites me. I get distracted by the potential of that new idea.

I believe that might be a weakness every creative person faces. Creativity is something that sparks your mind and enables you to see things differently, and sometimes you need to give into it and let it guide you. It may sound silly and a bit like a cliche, but there is a lot to it. I really believe in every thing I put to paper, which motivates me to pursue every idea and every new direction my mind comes up with, in part, out of fear of it disappearing before I could get to writing it. Of course, one thing that does get lost is the original thing, even to the point that I thought about giving up on it (but after 100,000 words… it would be easier to just push through).

If you are like me and do get distracted, I just want to remind you of my points from a few months ago:

  • Set a daily, or weekly, goal. This could also be overall goals (before September, up to June…). You should also write them down, even in the form of a step-wise plan (first this has to happen, after that, in the next chapter…). This would make long pauses between writing sessions less of a hindrance.
  • Moderate your distractions. Yes, this includes other stories. If you have eight different ideas all at once, maybe start writing one (the best one) and just jot down the other seven in a notebook somewhere and get back to them when you are done with other things.
  • Start your writing session by rereading the last bit of your writing.  When the distraction is over, you need to get back to it, and this will certainly help you get back to where you left off.
  • Take notes. The human brain has a limited storage capacity for stuff. This is seven times more true for really cool stuff. So if you get ideas about your current, long story, write them down, because you might find that this story will be in hiatus at some point and that cool plot point you thought of three months ago is all but gone from your head.

Also look at what I wrote in June about “Getting back in the metaphorical saddle”.

 

The etymological Frankenstein’s monster that is the English language

If Latin is the esteemed matriarch of many of Europe’s language, English is that too friendly daughter who constantly looses herself in the woods with one companion or another. A slightly less romantic metaphor is the one brought up in the title to this odd post; the image of the patchwork creature known as Frankenstein’s monster, Adam.

English, like Adam, is a construct of many components coming from different sources, all of which had some role in shaping the language into what we know today. Latin, old Norse, Norman French, even Celtic, all gave English this or that, words, grammar rules, or what have you. This is one of the reasons English, as a whole (not any one standard of English) probably has at least twice as many lexemes in its lexicon than less… inclusive languages, such as German or French.

For English, this created a rather interesting and useful phenomenon: stratification. To give an example of stratification, consider the words “ask”, “question”, and “interrogate” (this was my linguistics professor’s favorite example). They all basically mean the same thing if you think about it, present a question or a series of questions to someone, but they don’t, do they? “Ask”, a word of Germanic, old English origin, is the most basic one, you can ask someone the time, or ask them to leave, or ask for a cup of sugar. The theory is that because it was of Germanic origin, it was the most immediate word for simple people in the middle ages (when Norman French began influencing English after the Norman conquest) and simple people (uneducated farmers) would discuss simple things. “Question”, a word originating in French, is a bit more complicated (as a verb). You can question conventions, you can question authority, you can question a witness, you can’t question for a cup of tea. This, theoretically, is because, as the Normans brought the word with them to the aristocracy, it was a word almost exclusively used in government, academia, religion (which at the time WAS academia), or philosophy, which led for the word being reserved for more sophisticated, higher matters. Last but not least, “interrogate”, which comes from Latin, is highly official, as can be seen by its use predominantly in legal matters. Latin was a language spoken only by the educated elites, who had higher functions in government, law, religion, and finances. This led to the word, and many other words stemming from Latin, to be highly “regulated” in its use.

Now, what does this mean for writing, you ask (assuming you haven’t fallen asleep from my ranting)? Simple, we are spoiled for choice. I recently had a lively conversation with my sister on the topic (she writes fan-fiction for anime shows, good ones, not the dirty kind) and she asked me about choosing words. She herself chooses her words in the moment, moving fluently through her writing, while I painstakingly stop and think about the precise meaning of the word and its connotations for up to several hours (not literally, I would continue writing and get back to that pesky word later). Of course I don’t mean every word, “the” is simply “the”, but sometimes I can’t help but think that there is a better word out there, something that expresses exactly what I mean without needing to elaborate on it or needing to waste a whole sentence on something that can be expressed with a single word.

My own example from my writing would be my use the word “atavistic” to describe fear as opposed to “primal” (look it up). I suppose this is also a bit of a way to show off one’s impressive vocabulary, but more than that, it’s economy in words and creating the right impression in the reader’s mind.

It doesn’t have to be obscure words that have fallen into disuse in the mid 1800’s, knowing which word to choose not just for its bare, lexical definition, but for its social, cultural, and historical significance is a tool any writer should be able to use, especially those writing more condensed genres such as poems, flash fiction or short stories.

The only real way to acquire this skill is to read, a lot, and the right things. Read the classics, read writers of more literary novels or short stories. A little shortcut can be the use of a good thesaurus or an urban dictionary (depending on what you’re writing). But a thesaurus only gives you synonyms, not their exact meaning. It is your job to find the one that you need. Don’t be ashamed of looking stuff up, that is how you better yourself. One thing a friend of mine used to do (she is my age, her 30’s) is a “word of the day” type thing, or write down words she’d read somewhere and needed to look up, so that she could add them to her vocabulary.

Deconstructing criticism

If you are anything like me, which, for your sake, I sincerely hope you are not, you are/were terrified of feedback about your writing. I was writing for over 6 years before the first human being saw anything I had written (it was a collection of poems and nonsensical rants given to her as a farewell gift), and I was terrified showing it. There is something incredibly intimate about showing someone your writing, like stepping naked onto a stage. You are afraid of a cold, objective eye dissecting all those things that are, in fact, a part of your innermost core because that will essentially be saying “something is very wrong with you.”

This is much more true to beginning writers, those who have not yet gathered any experience in dealing with that cold, scrutinizing glare of someone else. That is very natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Beginning writers tend to not cover their personal truths in their writing with layers and layers of fiction (A.K.A bullshit) which makes them feel all the more exposed.

It hardly gets easier the more experience you gather, and rejection, critique, even praise can get you down in the dumps for a week or so. Following a few rejection letters from magazines and such for two short stories, I felt like talking about the topic of feedback.

Anyone who has been in any kind of situation where they were being evaluated (yes, school counts) knows about constructive and nonconstructive criticism, but those are not the only types of feedback. Those are overarching categories, maybe, but not an exact and all-encompassing categorization of feedback. And every writer who has ever workshopped their writing knows that what really counts is how you approach said feedback; that is what determine if it will hurt your writing or hurt it.

Here are some forms of feedback that I put together along with tips on how to handle them to help improve your writing and confidence.

  • “I liked it but…” – Feedback that starts with this sentence may seem like a good reason to roll your eyes at the forced and feigned politeness, but I believe they are rather sincere. Whoever says this is trying not to hurt your feelings, but feels that your writing can be improved, which implies that they gave it due consideration and thought. Best thing to do is to listen and ask that person to expand on those flaws they believe they found. Don’t try to explain those flaws away, maybe it makes sense to you since you constructed the story, but may need to be explained better for all those people who can’t read your mind.
  • “Oh my God, it’s all so good.” – Ironically, that is one form of feedback I have a problem with, sort of. Yes, it’s nice to hear I am awesome, but I need a little more than this, and I don’t mean praise, information. No book is really “all good”. Every story has plotholes, inconsistencies, pitfalls etc. This is the sort of feedback a child might get from their mother (which is good, children need encouragement), but as an adult (who does still wear Batman pajamas) I need to know more. The impression I am left with from this sort of feedback is that the story was not given any real thought. Now, since the giver of such feedback is obviously trying to complement you, don’t be rude and demand more specific criticism. Ask them questions about what they liked, maybe ask about certain flaws in the story you know about or parts you are not comfortable with, encourage them to say more. It may be that they do start pointing out segments they found problematic, or that they tell you what they liked in more detail, which is just as helpful.
  • “Please understand that this is not a critique on your writing(, but it is, though).” – A sentence that is often adjoined to the end of rejection letters, this is supposed to make you feel better, despite being rather sterile and impersonal. Well, it doesn’t. I don’t blame those publishers or magazines that use this ubiquitous sentence, it’s probably in their email template, but it is rather irritating. So, first thing first: the actual feedback here is the rejection by the publisher/magazine, which is okay. The rejection could be the result of any number of reasons, but the publisher/magazine doesn’t have the time (or the people) to give a personalized response to every submitter, which is fair enough. Never expect more from a publisher before you locked them down in a contract. It isn’t their job to give you detailed feedback (assuming they respond at all). The real thing to do here is not to be discouraged, and as a preemptive measure, don’t send anything to the publisher before it was read by a friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy down the street; they could give you much more detailed feedback.
  • “It just didn’t do it for me.” – This one is a tough cookie. You can’t please everyone, and it is possible that the person you gave your work simply isn’t a part of your target group (giving your WWII veteran granddad a love story about a teenage girl and a sparkly vampire might not be the best idea). It is, however, fair of you to expect them to at least give any sort of honest comment on the logic, language, or structure of the story. They may not have been swept off their feet by the plot, but they can at least tell you if you overuse metaphors, rash the pacing, or forget plotlines. The best thing for you to do is, once again, ask questions and get them talking, primarily about more structural and formal aspect. You could also use their their “outsider view” to the genre or premise and ask about the characters and how believable or likable they are.
  • “Don’t quit your dayjob.” – That’s just being mean. Ignore this person as he/she doesn’t respect you enough to even try and give you constructive criticism.
  • “But is that what would really happen?” – Personally, I think that is a moot point, but for many readers, it isn’t. They need the story to make sense, even within the framework of having elves, orcs, and dragons around. They are talking about a logical chain of events and believable characters and character behavior. It could very well be that you are making your characters or event irrational on purpose, in which case you can say so and gauge your interlocutor’s response, but be aware that you are thus making your story a niche story for those who are looking for more literary fiction, which is, once again, your prerogative. Consider changing a few, small things about the story to accommodate those mortals who do not constantly dwell on the metaphysical aspects of whatever, though; there’s a reason your friend/partner/coworker/that homeless guy was confused.
  • “I found it rather trite” (in a fake British accent). – That is another tough cookie, but one that might be worth cracking (though, who cracks a cookie?). This will always come across as condescending, and it is often meant as condescending. This often comes from the mouth of someone who is indeed well-read, often a classicist who would rant at length some panegyric for Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy and talk about how terrible modern society is (you may roll your eyes). This person would be well-educated and they’d want to assert this position buy flaunting their literary knowledge (whether actual or imagined by the force of their education, which may also be in mechanical engineering, but they would still claim to know everything about the life of William Shakespeare or Wordsworth… roll eyes again). It might be tempting to tell them to shove it, but listening carefully (you may imagine telling them to shove it) and gleaning out those details, about which they will go on at length, that are actually constructive could provide you with some useful tips. Try to remember that if this kind of person was your target audience, you’d be talking and acting like them, i.e. like a condescending @sshole, so don’t expect them to praise you too much.

One last comment before I leave you. Feedback, any feedback, could both be a challenge and a blessing. Even if the only thing it does is show you who isn’t your audience. The most important thing is to remember that art, whether visual or written, is a subjective experience, and different people will see it in different light. Don’t let one bad review get you down.

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.”