Tag Archives: Writing Journey

Neko and Kiy

I’ve met several talented people through my local writing group, The Writing Journey. We’ve enjoyed putting story anthologies together, doing informal readers’ theater versions of Shakespeare plays, and going to see some of our members perform.

Neko Zujihan is someone I know from the group (mostly online) and he’s created something remarkable that I wanted to share:

His book is now available on severable platforms, and I hope you get a chance to experience the rich world he’s given us. Look for Kiy: Jumoku No Musuko (Son of the Forest) on his publisher’s web site, or on Amazon.

Voices from the Dark

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The original release date for the latest Writing Journey anthology (I have a story in it!) was going to be today. It actually came out a couple of days ago, but either way, it’s available! In time for the holidays! Woohoo!

Here’s a little information about our anthology, Voices from the Dark:

Within each of us lies a darkness. A deep, unnerving essence that lurks at the fringes of our consciousness.

Eleven members of the Writing Journey set out to explore the darkness that lies in all of us. The Writing Journey beckons you to experience their darkness.

You can order the print book directly from CreateSpace here or from Amazon here.

There should eventually be an e-book available as well. If you’re waiting for that to happen, please let me know (comments below would be great!) so I can poke and prod the powers-that-be to make it happen.

Writing Excuses – 10.9 – Reverse-Engineer a Story

Reverse engineering “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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Writing Excuses 10.9 had us figuring out how an author puts a story together. The assignment was to dissect a piece of media—novel, story, comic, movie, or TV show—to see what promises the author made and how (s)he fulfilled them. We needed to determine the story type (a la Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient) and what the story’s tone and genre were.

I chose “The Lottery” because it is short, famous, and easy to find. If you have never read “The Lottery” or would like a refresher on this short (about 3400 words) story, it can be found online here. If you’re not already familiar, I highly recommend reading it before continuing, because this post is positively rife with spoilers.

Here’s a presentation I put together for my writing peeps at the Journey:

More thoughts:

I argued that “The Lottery” was an Idea story. Given the title, we know a lottery will be held, but we don’t know what the “winner” receives. The story will be over when we know what the prize (or in this case the consequence) is. The story question—what is this lottery and what will it mean to the characters?—is what keeps the reader reading.

Genre: in keeping with the idea of reverse engineering, I looked at the end first. It’s horrifying, so while it doesn’t start with the typical horror details, at heart it’s a horror story. Whoever draws the marked paper is stoned to death. In the case of this particular story, it was important for the tone in the beginning to contrast sharply with the tone of the ending to increase the horror.

The story begins with the description of a particularly beautiful summer day. The people of this small village gather for a timeless ritual. The mood seems one of anticipation, both nervous and somewhat solemn. Folks are friendly to one another, and everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s some joking and smiling, though the men seem less enthusiastic about it than the boys or very young children do.

The foreshadowing in the beginning is almost throwaway: the middle-grade boys piling up stones. There’s no mention of what the stones are for, and only the boys seem to pay much attention to them at first, though the grown men do stand away from the pile. It’s easy for a reader to think this is some kids’ game and it may not mean anything at all.

The story is told all in one continuous scene, but it can be divided by several events or entrances.

1

It’s a beautiful summer day in a small village. The scene is set as young boys seem to play some kind of game with piles of stones, the girls also gather, and the men stand around chatting. The women soon arrive and the villagers sort themselves into family groups. The children are still lighthearted, while there’s some tension from at least one of the adults, Mr. Martin, who sharply calls his son Bobby back to his family and away from the pile of stones.

  • Revealed: Where and when are we? 20th century America.
  • Conflict: the tension of waiting for the event to start; making the children behave properly.
  • Remaining questions: what is the lottery? Who will win it, and what might they win?

2

Mr. Summers arrives with the lottery box. People hold themselves away from the box, hesitating when Mr. Summers asks for help. Some history of the box is shared, including the villager’s attachment to it. There’s also allusion to the antiquity of the lottery, and how the town and the ritual itself have changed over the years.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is usually conducted, that it’s a special event, but it’s also very traditional, and who’s in charge.
  • Conflict: implied conflicts around people wanting to retain all the traditions even though some details have necessarily changed over the years.
  • Remaining questions: What happens next? How will Mr. Summers proceed?

3

Mrs. Hutchinson arrives, having almost forgotten it was lottery day. She’s cheerful about her lateness and there’s some good-natured teasing and back-and-forth between Mrs. Hutchinson and Mr. Summers. Then everyone settles back into place. I find this authorial choice particularly masterful: Mrs. Hutchinson almost seems like an afterthought. Though she ends up being the pivotal character, she seems no more important than any other character. She enters late, which helps the reader focus on her, but at first (since everyone has a name when referred to individually) she doesn’t seem any more important than anyone else. Then she gets a first name, so that adds more weight to her appearance, but not a hell of a lot. It’s introduced very naturally, as Summers teases her. It makes sense in context. On first reading it doesn’t come across as if the author is saying: “Here. Pay attention to this character.”

  • Revealed: All the forms have been observed: now we can begin.
  • Conflict: Mild commentary about Mrs. Hutchinson’s lateness; it’s treated as if it wasn’t a big deal, but clearly her husband wondered where she was and Mr. Summers wasn’t going to start until he was sure everyone had arrived, so people have had to wait.
  • Remaining questions: Still…what’s going to happen with this lottery?!

4

When the first man comes up to draw, he and Summers greet each other “humorlessly and nervously.” The reader gets another inkling that this village may not be as bucolic as it seems. Each family representative takes a folded paper and holds it until every family has drawn before looking at it. People wait quietly, wetting their lips, not looking around. As the drawing continues, people mention that not all the towns around here still hold the lottery. Conflict in the form of Old Man Warner, who mocks that notion and introduces the saying (and the lottery’s rationale), “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The reader understands the pull of tradition that people are feeling, despite the fact that some of the characters are growing nervous, saying they wish it were all over. Mrs. Hutchinson, however, jovially prods her husband to “Get on up there, Bill” when it’s his turn.

  • Revealed: How the lottery is conducted
  • Conflict: People are suddenly serious, concerned about the result.
  • Remaining questions: Who’s going to draw the “winning” paper?


5

THE STORY TURNS HERE! When it becomes that Bill Hutchinson drew the “winning” paper, panic sets in, at least for Mrs. Hutchinson. The reader is left in no doubt:  winning this lottery is not a good thing, despite social pressure from the other villagers to continue. It’s not even a question that this ritual will go on until the end.

  • Revealed: The Hutchinson family draws the marked paper.
  • Conflict: Despite the outside influence of other towns giving up the lottery, this village wants to keep it to ensure a good harvest. Tess Hutchinson is not happy about the result. The rest of the village exerts pressure on her to “be a good sport.”
  • Remaining questions: What does this mean for the Hutchinsons? Why does Tess resist and start to complain?

6

The conflict then becomes focused between Mrs. Hutchinson and the rest of the village. The author seems to slow time at this point; there’s a surprising amount of detail packed into few words as each member of the Hutchinson family comes up to take their papers. The smallest child’s paper is open first, and the whole crowd breathes a sigh of relief when it’s shown to be blank. As each of the other kids open their papers, more relief is expressed. Mr. Hutchinson’s paper is also blank. We know, at this point, that Mrs. Hutchinson (who was cheerful about the proceedings until she started to look like the winner/victim) is about to get it.

  • Revealed: Mrs. Hutchinson is the one chosen via the lottery.
  • Conflict: Mrs. Hutchinson doesn’t want to be chosen, but she has no choice.
  • Remaining questions: Why is Mrs. Hutchinson freaking out?

7

Perhaps the most chilling part of the story comes when someone gives little Davy Hutchinson a handful of pebbles to throw at his mother. This moment really drives home Shirley Jackson’s point about mindless conformity: teach children at a young age to do this, no matter what the ramifications.

  • Revealed: the person chosen by the lottery is stoned to death.
  • Conflict: Everyone must do the stoning, even the victim’s family.
  • Remaining questions: Geeze, Grandpa, why did you make me read this? But seriously: what was Shirley Jackson trying to say with this story? Did she succeed?

Still More Thoughts:

I thought it clever of Shirley Jackson to have the main character arrive with, perhaps, some premonition of her own fate. Is some unconscious dread why Mrs. Hutchinson was late to the drawing? Was her seemingly flippant “get on up there, Bill” a way to conceal her own uneasiness? Jackson was also clever to make Mrs. H. progressively less likable. As soon as the lottery hones in on her family, she gets whiny and shows herself to be, as one of the villagers says, “not a good sport.” Because she grows less likable/conformist, you get the sense that perhaps this village has held onto the lottery tradition (while others have abandoned it) because the victims start to stir a kind of bloodlust. Maybe most or all of the victims begin to make themselves unlikable, and thus, easier to kill.

Setting: One of the elements of tone that I think makes this story so interesting is that, while there’s a concerted effort to be nonspecific in terms of place, and the ritual itself seems quite archaic—maybe something out of druid times—the setting is very American. It was also a contemporary setting at the time it was published (1948). Everyone pays taxes; the kids all go to school; there are tractors. There’s also a mix of last names. In addition to the English-sounding ones, there are names like Delacroix and Zanini. Then there’s the casualness of the whole affair. In the past there was apparently chant and a ritual salute the lottery official offered to those who drew from the box. Now the whole affair is handled so efficiently everyone can get home in time for lunch. The exhortations not to fuss, to be a good sport, all seem very American as well. In any case, it’s the contrast of peaceful, apparently civilized setting and the horrible event that makes this story unforgettable.

Writing Excuses 10.7 — another character

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Showing my work again…thanks Austin Kleon!

Aaand the Writing Excuses assignments keep on coming! In this exercise we were supposed to take one of the characters from Exercise 10.5, find a secondary character in that character’s scene, and rewrite the same scene from the secondary character’s point of view. I chose the musician who appeared during Angela’s dead drop mission.

As Leif scrolled to the next song on his iPad, he glanced at the top of the screen. Already 12:48. If the courier was going to appear today, it better be soon. The next busker was supposed to start playing at 1. He could put his guitar away last, leaving its case open for a last-minute delivery, but that would be unnatural. A pain in the ass, really. He’d wait a bit longer. He mopped his sweating forehead, shoved his bandana into his back pocket, and strummed the opening to “Margaritaville.”

The majority of Saturday shoppers paid him no attention at all. He played on one side of the market’s central aisle. Folding chairs for listeners were arranged on the opposite side. It was a shitty setup. The only people in the audience area were those who really needed to sit—old people, some using walkers or canes, the occasional heavily pregnant woman. That was his audience, pretending to listen because it was polite.

They were loving the Jimmy Buffett, though. Since most of the audience seemed to be at least 50, he played a lot of oldies. It was the least he could do. None of his original stuff, of course. This suburban French market just wasn’t the place for it. Besides, what if they hated it, started walking away, pushing their walkers as fast as they could? He got enough rejection from the serious venues he tried to book; he didn’t need it from people who were only killing time.

Some of the more able-bodied market-goers looked apologetic as they interrupted the sight lines between him and his “audience,” but that didn’t stop them from passing.

“Margaritaville” was over. He should pack up, but he couldn’t leave until he was sure he’d given the courier every opportunity to make the drop. He started shilling, surveying the crowd as he did so. That’s when he saw a small Latina. Her left arm was scrolled in shades of pink, gold, and green from wrist to shoulder. The intricate leaf-and-branch design incorporated rosebuds and butterflies. The right side of her neck sported a beautiful pink lotus blossom.

Karen had said the courier would easily spot him because of his long-regretted, self-inflicted tattoo. She hadn’t given a reason, but it was obvious. The arriving woman knew ink.

What she didn’t seem to know was that his guitar case was her intended target. Her eyes were red and she wore a dazed look, due either to drugs or a lot of crying. Now that he got a good look at her, she seemed barely functional. Her steps dragged, as if she had to remind herself to walk. If only he could ask her for the package, but Karen had been clear. He couldn’t talk to the courier at all.

He could play, though, and sing. Let her know she was in the right place. If he knew her favorite song, he’d play that. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a mind-reader. He only had one shot, an old Mexican standard. “Bésame Mucho.” He hadn’t played it for a while, but he used to do a kick-ass version of it. It might confuse the pasty-white market patrons, but it was just one song. They’d get over it. He plucked the intro.

The tattooed Latina stopped in her tracks and looked straight at him. Karen might flip, but he winked—the smallest wink he could manage. She took it the wrong way, shrinking even further into her own skin. Had he blown it? Oh, well, he was committed now. He pushed her apparent revulsion from his thoughts and began to sing.

As always, the music filled him. His eyes drifted closed. He felt a presence and opened his eyes in time to see her drop a folded bill into his open guitar case. He tried to give the nod every busker knew, the subtle thanks for a donation, but she was already retreating the way she had come.

He skipped the instrumental bridge and repeat, fading out to create a quick ending. It was 12:55, anyway. Time to stop before his replacement complained to the market manager.

He scooped coins and bills out of the guitar case, cramming them into his front hip pockets. Damn, his jeans were tight. His belly flapped over his belt. He looked like hell. No wonder the woman had flinched at his song choice. Any decent-looking female would be creeped out if someone like him seemed to be coming on to her.

Screw it. If she’d brought what Karen promised, Leif would soon be swimming in women. He trundled his guitar, CDs, and extra mic stand to his truck and loaded up. Before climbing in, he emptied his pockets onto the driver seat and found the dollar bill he was looking for, the only one that was taped closed. Using the small blade of his Swiss army knife, he cut the tape. Inside, he found a long yellow post-it note covered with grouped letters that formed no recognizable words, interrupted in a few spots by numbers. The numbers would let him know which pages of The Magic Mountain would unlock his coded message to reveal its actual meaning.

Writing Excuses 10.5 — Part 3

As in the two previous posts, a character I created is walking through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. This character is different from the characters in the last 2 posts. See if you can figure out the job, hobby, and emotional state.

Angela stepped off the bus and held her hand up to her forehead, surveying the French market through watery eyes. She blinked to clear her vision. A gray-haired woman jostled her as she exited the bus and  strode to the far end of the stalls. Angela would have shrugged had she possessed the energy. She could do worse than to follow.

Throngs filled the aisle that ran between the market stalls. In the noon sunlight the patrons’ casual clothing, the piles of produce, the stands of flowers—everything seemed too bright. Amid the murmur and chatter of voices she could make out the amplified sound of a man singing and strumming a guitar. She suffered the sweaty mass of cheery humans until she located him.

Past a display of leather goods, a blond walrus of a man sat on a tall stool. His guitar rested against his great belly, held in place by a diamond-patterned strap in neon yellow and green. He played some insipid old song which she’d heard before but couldn’t quite place, then swung into a patter about his CDs. The crowd started drifting off. He cut his spiel short and began to pluck the syncopated introduction to “Bésame Mucho.”

His playing was nearly as good as some she’d heard in the clubs. Despite herself, Angela felt her hips want to sway and her dragging steps to morph into the moves of a dance. She stopped, really looking at him for the first time, noting his faded jeans and ancient Eagles t-shirt. He was already watching her; his wink was barely discernible through the pouches of flesh sagging below his blue-green eyes. If she’d felt more like herself she would have either laughed at the man’s impudence, or glared. Had he thought it funny to launch into a Spanish song just because he’d noticed her deeply tanned skin, her dark eyes and hair? And Bésame Mucho? Kiss him a lot? No lo creo!

He half-closed his eyes and began singing. His accent was better than she would have expected. She looked at the CD racks on either side of his open guitar case, its deeper side scattered with bills and coins. Karen had said to leave her packet where “pájaro herido” played. The musicians in this market changed every couple of hours. Karen said she couldn’t confirm their exact schedule, so Angela didn’t even know if this man was the one she needed to find. Nothing about him suggested a broken bird. With his eyes closed, though, he seemed less threatening.

She moved closer. The muscles of the musician’s right forearm bunched and loosened as he played. A dark discoloration moved along with his muscles, and Angela tried to make sense of it. It was too dark and thin-edged to be a bruise. As she studied it, it resolved itself into a kind of design, and she realized what it must be. It looked like most of a bird, its wings spread.

Someone had inked this man, but done a poor job of it. What had they used, a sewing needle? There was a gap in the tail section, as if the artist—if the tattooer deserved that title—had pulled the skin taut rather than letting it lie naturally as he inked. Idiot. But it told Angela one thing. She had found her broken bird. She felt inside her purse for a folded, taped dollar bill. Inside this dollar was a post-it note with a combination of letters and numbers which meant nothing to Angela. She dropped the taped bill into the player’s open guitar case and looked for the quickest way out of the market.

Writing Excuses Assignment 10.5 — Part Deux

As in the previous post, a character I created is walking through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. This character is different from the character in my last post, but see if you can figure out the job, hobby, and emotional state.

Canvas-shaded stalls faced each other across an asphalt central aisle. Varied items, from baked goods and produce to jewelry and cutlery were on display. Mary Patrick strolled into this pedestrian thoroughfare, trying to look like any other Saturday shopper, with limited success. She drew many second glances and some smiles and nods. There were even a few guilty looks, with some people drawing aside as she passed. At least no one was openly disrespectful. That might have earned them what the kids called, “The Look.” She would resist that impulse. She mentally recited a “Glory Be” on one long breath.

A display of handmade paper drew her attention. Seeds and tiny dried shreds of petals flecked pebbled sheets or pale grey or ivory. She would have loved to dream up a project to use the paper on, but that wasn’t why she came.

She finally saw it—the stall Karen mentioned. Purses, pouches, eyeglass cases, and checkbook covers in light brown leather covered a display table or hung from racks. All were tooled in curling scrollwork. She discovered the wallets and flipped through them, bypassing bird, flower, and leaf designs. Finally she found the one she wanted. Less attractive than the others, it was covered mostly in a design of crudely drawn flames, except for the one corner that held a curling capital B.

An elderly man approached the leather dealer and began reminiscing about the leather work his father used to do. There would be no better time.

Mary Patrick opened the monogrammed wallet and took the sealed silvery plastic sleeve from her pocket. A tube, flattened, and with a rolled edge, sat inside the plastic. It insinuated itself against her too-sensitive fingers and she shoved the packet into the wallet’s credit card section as fast as she could. She buried the wallet under a few others and turned away, walking fast. She passed at least three vendors before she  remembered she was supposed to be shopping, not chasing down someone to punish. She slowed to pass the last few stalls, but still nothing registered past the reddish haze that limned her vision.

Writing Excuses Assignment 10.5

In a previous post, I mentioned that Whitey, Tim, and a few other of my writing comrades from The Writing Journey had decided to take advantage of the fiction-writing master class that Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells are offering (for free!) via their Writing Excuses podcasts. Our group is a couple of months behind, so we’re just now getting to the second set of assignments, on creating characters. The idea was to use three of the characters we’d generated and have them walk through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. Apparently this is a common spy novel trope. While you write this scene for each character, you need to convey the character’s job, hobby, and emotional state without explicitly stating any of these things. I probably won’t subject you to all my assignments, but I found this one a lot of fun to do. Here’s one of my characters performing his dead drop:

Roscoe Lee spun the numbers on the lock and went towards the noise of the market. His bike was out of the way now, behind the train station. No one he knew would see it, especially not on a Saturday. Billy Czerwinski might get ideas if he saw Roscoe lock his bike, and Roscoe didn’t need that. Once he pulled off his next feat, Billy would finally recognize his superiority, but Roscoe didn’t want to deal with any noise from him before that happened.

First he had to do what that old black lady said. “Just put this handkerchief in a leather purse you’ll find at the French market. It will be decorated with hummingbirds and hydrangeas.”

She wouldn’t say any more than that. He had to go on the Internet to see what hydrangeas looked like. He just hoped no one spotted him putting a gay-looking lace handkerchief into a purse. Imagine what Billy Czerwinski would make of that.

He didn’t see used consoles or games anywhere, so the food was the only good thing about this market. There was kettle corn and…score! The bacon he smelled was from some stand that was giving out free samples. He snagged a handful, ignoring the glare from the girl behind the table and walked on, munching. He was wiping the grease off on his jeans when he saw Sister Mary Patrick. Christ! He ducked behind a booth that sold some kind of cloth stuff—scarves and like that—and craned his neck to watch her from his hiding spot.

She was at a stand full of leather purses. Just where he needed to go. What did she need with a purse anyway? He pulled back, considering.

“Young man!” said a fat woman. She wore glasses with a chain dangling from them, “Would you mind not touching my merchandise?”

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

She stared over the tops of her glasses until he backed away from her booth.

He wet his lips and snuck another peek at the purse stall. Thank God. Mary Puke-trick wasn’t there. Then he thought of something else, and turned his head back the way he’d come. Not there either. Was she really gone? He hoped so. He looked in every direction and didn’t spot her. Could she know he was coming, somehow? She might be hiding, even now. He moved slowly towards the leather stall swiveling his head as he went. His mouth felt like paper. No matter. As long as Mary Patrick didn’t catch him—and no one else he knew saw him either—he could drink after he finished the job.

Leather purses lay on a table or hung from hooks near it, seeming to mock him with their curlicued flowers, fruits, and birds. He was rifling through the purses when a voice startled him. “Robert! What a surprise! Are your parents here?

Crap.

“Hello Mrs. Yao. No, just me.”

“Really? What a big boy you’re getting to be, here all by yourself.”

She didn’t sound like she thought it was a good idea. That was all he needed, someone asking his parents what he was doing a mile from home without supervision. Inspiration struck.

“It’s kind of a secret, Mrs. Yao. Do you think my mother would like a purse?”

It worked. She got that “awww” look that women and girls sometimes got when they thought something was cute. “I’m sure she would. Well, you be careful. Head straight home after this.”

“I will.”

She left, pushing her granddaughter’s stroller. Roscoe turned back to the purses. He finally found the one the old lady had described. When no one was looking, he pulled the crumpled lace handkerchief from his back jeans pocket and crammed it into the purse. Then he took off for the water fountain and drank as much as he could before hopping back on his bike to ride home.

Of the three scenes I wrote, I think this is the one that best fulfills the assignment, though I won’t know for sure unless readers share their guesses about Roscoe’s job, hobby, and emotional state. Feel free to comment below!

Anyone else out there following along with these Writing Excuses podcasts? Posting your work? I’d love to see it…