Category Archives: Writing

In Ars Dolor: Depressing Stories by an 8-Year-Old

Last week, I introduced you to Diary of My Demented Kid Brother, a repository of my baby brother’s elementary school journal entries that I set up back in 2008.

You’ll be pleased to learn that, in addition to writing spot-on surrealist book reviews, the kid was also a genius at depressing prose. Not a single one of his fourth-grade stories has anything resembling a happy ending. Indeed, most of them end on a note of abject futility. No wonder my parents got called in for a conference with his teacher.

Here are some of my favorites (in order from least to most depressing).

The pencil that smells.

The pencil that smells
Once upon a time there was a pencil named Vern. One day he was playing with his friend they were having a rotten egg war. Vern got hit five thousand times he smelled like rotten eggs. He snuck in his house but his mom could smell him peeeeeyou you smell like rotten eggs. Your gonna hafto take a shower but I hate taking it’s so dark and WET!!! But it’s the only way you’ll get clean. Oh all right so he took a shower and he didn’t smell anymore. So he went back to his friend’s house this time they had a toxic waste and he got hit ten million times he went home but this time it wouldn’t come OFF

Your fourth grade pencil.

pretend your fourth grade pencil talk about your life.
Vern my owner keeps on sharpening so I keep on getting shorter I used to be seven point five now I’m three point five talk about short. Every day he uses me I get so tired of arrrrgh! But when they go home I just sit in his pencil box and sleep but he wakes me up nine 0’clock in the morning. Now I’m lost I don’t know where I am but I think the janitor threw me away if so I’m probably crushed right now let me rest in peace.

The giant baby that went down the Mississippi.

The Baby that went down the MIssippi River
One day a women called Mrs. Johnson had and she called him Baby Bob but the baby weighed so much they couldn’t carry him so they. Asked if the nurse could get some help but unfortunately. They couldn’t get him out the door so they sat down and thinked. But no one thought of anything so they had to get a canoe and put. Him in it and he would hafto go down the Missipi river. So they did and waved good bye till he disapeard into the Fog. Now since baby bob all alone he was hungry so he picked. Some berries along the way and then he was tired so he took a nap for. About five hours and woke up and he was at the mouth but the boat couldn’t hold his weight.

The Bee Keeper.

The Bee Keeper
once there was man that had a lot pride in his bees but one. Day he put his hand in it but he forgot to put on his safety gear. So he got stinged very badly so he had to go to the hospital. When he woke up they asked what happen? Well I pinched my nose to long and passed out. He felt really bad that he lied and he really wanted to get out. Of the hospital so he tried opening a window but that didn’t work so he asked. The guard if he could go and the gaurd said no then he felt something right. Where his heart was so he just layed down and died.

The end

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Kid Critic: Book Reviews by an 8-Year-Old

Many, many moons ago, I discovered my little brother’s old school journals in a box in my basement. The entries contained therein were so surreal that I cataloged my favorites at my very first blog, Diary of My Demented Kid Brother. Now that my brother has passed, I’m thankful I made the effort.

It wouldn’t do to forget how stunningly strange he was.

For a taste of his second-grade literary stylings, feast your eyes on these book reviews. The last one is my favorite–I think most of my readers will agree that it has a certain eerie appeal.

Open Wide, Look Inside
Open WIDE, by Robin Mitchell

Open wide, look inside.
How many there? None.
Open wide. Look inside.
How many. Two crazy pigs.

A Goofy Movie
A Goofy Movie, by Francine Hughes

“Whoah!” Inside Goofy and Max tumbled all about. Suddenly, Bigfoot stopped. He leaped off the car. He began to nose around their camping gear.
A few days later Max and Goofy drove back to their hometown. First stop: Roxanne’s house. Max! Roxanne cried running to the door. I Saw you on tv. I think why someone should read this book is because it’s good and funny

Cam Jansen and the Triceratops Pop Mystery
Cam Jansen and the Triceratops Pop Mystery, by David A. Adler

Chapter one who would steel triceratops pops?
Honk! Honk! a clown sitting on a huge tricycle honked his horn. then he handed Eric Shelton a flyer. “thank you,” Eric said. Someone dressed in a large frog costume handed him another flyer. I think why some one should read this book is they have good mysteries

Charlotte's Web
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White

don’t hear song
don’t see birds
don’t hear a rainbow
don’t hear about wibur’s birthday
don’t hear papa
there’s a ghost in my bed
don’t hear about scarecrow
doesn’t the duck go’s in there but they take him out

Shameless Self-Promotion: Free Stories!

One of the skills a writer must learn is self-promotion.  It doesn’t always come naturally.  (For example, writing this post was worse than scratching my corneas with one hand while giving a prostate massage to a grizzly bear with the other.)  Nevertheless, it is an invaluable ability, and one I shall endeavor to exercise now.

I have not one, not two, but three stories currently available online.  The first, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, is a weekly science fiction/murder mystery serial that can be read for free in weekly installments at the Mid-Michigan Prose and Writing Group Blog.  The first installment is here!

I also have two pieces of short fiction available on Smashwords.  I plan to put them up on Amazon eventually, but that involves reformatting, and I am lazier than you mortals can even comprehend.  The first of these two is called “Rumble at the Robot,” and it’s also available for free!

Rumble at the Robot

Of three-story robots and childhood turf wars. A short memoir about children misbehaving.

The second, “Dear Asenath,” is a mere 99 cents–a bargain if you enjoy Lovecraft or Lovecraft parodies, or if you’re the kind of person who scoffs at denominations smaller than a dollar!

Dear Asenath: An Eldritch Romance

For most, the town of Dunwich, Massachusetts, offers terrors outside the realm of human understanding. But when intrepid Tracy Pickman opens a used bookstore in central Dunwich, her new neighbor–a mysterious young man named Wilbur Whatley–offers her something quite different: a chance at love. A Lovecraft parody of romantic proportions!

And thus do we reach the end of the shameless self-promotion post.  Thanks for muscling your way through it, friends!

Five Grammar Rules (for You to Poop on)

Ah, there can be no more promising start to an article than a reference to the Insult Comic Dog.  This blog is both hilarious and timely!

Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog“Joanna has a great grasp of current pop culture…FOR ME TO etc. etc.”

Anyway, to business.

If there’s one thing my years as an SAT/ACT grammar tutor taught me, it’s that the English language has a lot of rules.  If there’s a second thing it taught me, it’s that I knew precisely none of them.  Thanks to a nifty phenomenon called Universal Grammar, I had been able to understand and use proper English without ever explicitly learning how.  Consequently, my first day teaching was spent alternately mumbling: “So that’s what a participle is!” and refusing repeated requests for refunds.

Violent studentKid, if your parents are rich enough to pay for a private tutor, they’re rich enough to pay me to fart around on grammar.com for forty-five minutes.

I know English grammar inside and out now, of course.  Four years spent drilling kids in preparation for a bullsh*t standardized test will do that to a person.  But as I picked up the rules, I happened to pick up something else: the realization that some of what we’re taught in English class is absolute crap that can and should be ignored.  For example…

1. “Don’t end a sentence in a preposition.”
We can blame Latin for this one.  Once upon a time, English had a perfectly functional native grammar that allowed speakers to use terminal prepositions with impunity.  Then a bunch of jumped-up Classicists got a hold of it, furrowed their brows and declared: “Nah, bruh.  Latin.

Roman bath houseYou love the Classical period so much, why don’t you, uh…do whatever the hell it is they’re doing in this picture? (from english-heritage.org.uk)

But Latin is not English and never will be.  For starters, English is a Germanic language, not a Latin/Romance one.  Furthermore, the practice of grafting Latin rules onto an English framework was based in the misguided belief that Latin was pure–at least, purer than whatever mouth-farts the Anglo-Saxons had been lobbing at each other.  You can see why that’s an arbitrary and chauvinistic justification.

2. “Don’t split your infinitives.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, "Don't split your infinitives."Darling, I love you, but I will throw down over this one. (from uproxx.com)

This one also comes to us courtesy of the Classicists, who never met a Latin rule they wouldn’t take to bed and press against their clammy loins.  The most famous example of a split infinitive occurs in the opening narration of Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

“Actually,” the fussy prescriptive grammarian pipes up, “it should be: ‘Boldly to go,’ or ‘To go boldly!'”  To which I respond: “Boldly go on this!” while extending my middle finger.  Everybody laughs and high-fives me.  I am finally popular.

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“What the Hell Did I Just Write?”: When Authors Hate Their Creations

I spent all of yesterday writing a horror story that I just might hate.  It’s partly the subject matter (a bereaved young woman finds herself rotting alive after wishing she could trade places with her dead brother), partly its basis in personal experience (a death in my family), and partly the fact that I hate just about everything I write.

Though there exist certain weirdos who wax rhapsodic about the jewels that flow ceaselessly from the nib, the bulk of writers feel at least some dissatisfaction with their work.  Indeed, there’s some consensus that you haven’t “made it” until everything you write makes you want to barf.  If you’re at that point, you’re in good company.  Welcome to the hallowed ranks of…

1. Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Stephen King, Pet Semetary

Even horror writers have a sticking point.  Stephen King’s was apparently reanimated toddlers.

During a teaching stint in Maine, King lived with his family along a busy highway where many household pets met their end.  So many animals had gone squish, in fact, that the neighborhood kids had taken it upon themselves to establish a burial ground for the furry departed.  From this kernel grew Pet Sematary, the tale of a man who resurrects first his cat and then his son by burying them in an ancient Indian graveyard.

The completed story badly upset its creator, who hid it in a drawer for five years before reluctantly submitting it to a publisher.  King believed he had pushed the subject beyond the limits of reasonable good taste and still cites Pet Sematary as the most troubling entry in his body of work.

2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes portrait

If your patience for Holmes has been worn thin by his rabid following on Tumblr, spare a thought for poor Mr. Conan Doyle.  His antipathy for Sherlock Holmes ran deeper than that of Moriarty and Moran combined, yet try as he might, he couldn’t escape the guy.

“I think of slaying Holmes…” he wrote to his mother in 1891, “and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”  Those better things, incidentally, were his more serious historical novels, which few people now remember.  Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, the Sherlockians of the world shat a collective brick, and the ensuing uproar caused the author to bring Holmes back ten years later.

“Lol jk not dead!” Holmes declared, mumbling something about Japanese wrestling.  Meanwhile, Sir Arthur sobbed softly in the distance.

3. Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me

Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me

“Man,” said Ian Fleming. “Everyone thinks James Bond is soooo cool.  Let’s see how they like a James Bond book with hardly any James Bond!”

They didn’t.  The Spy Who Loved Me, which centers on the romantic travails and near-rape of one Vivienne Michel, went down like a cement laxative.  Fleming’s apparent intention was to expose Bond as a misogynist and dispel some of the cool mystique surrounding the fictional spy.  It didn’t quite come off, and critics tore the thing to shreds. 

Fleming later sought to bury the book.  No one tried to stop him.  The film version of the novel uses exactly zero plot points from the original, which is pretty damning when you consider how many silly elements made it into those movies.

4. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ story of ultra-violence and the old in-out in-out, has always been more than a malenky bit controversial.  Its graphic depictions of delinquency, rape, and wanton destruction fascinate some and repel others.  Thanks largely to the movie version, the book’s author can be counted among the latter.

At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, our wayward protagonist, Alex, is cured of chemically-induced aversion to violence and given a job to compensate him for his suffering.  He gleefully contemplates the acts of physical and sexual violence he will perpetrate now that he’s back to normal.  This stands in marked contrast to the original ending of Burgess’ novel, which depicts Alex outgrowing his violent ways and longing for fatherhood.

Burgess considered the movie little more than a glorification of violence and lamented his unavoidable association with it.  Tough luck, droog.

5. Kafka, More or Less Everything He Ever Wrote

Franz Kafka

As he stood on death’s doorstep, Franz Kafka looked back at his body of work and decided he just wasn’t feeling it.  He wrote a letter to a close friend, read posthumously, that asked him to burn virtually all of his writing.  His friend responded with a curt: “Dude, no,” and got it all published instead.

What we have of Kafka’s work comes to us courtesy of that one traitorous guy.  Thank you, sir, for being such a divine frenemy.

Mysterious Stranger Danger: The Troubling Case of the YA Love Interest

A boy in a horse mask

Pictured: Google image search’s definition of a “mysterious stranger.” (from channel4.com)

EDIT: Because there has been some confusion on this point, I want to clarify that this post is not meant as an attack on individual authors.  Rather, it’s a criticism of the social milieu that allows “aloof, mysterious boy” to be a major selling point in literature aimed at teenaged girls.  Within the context of the stories themselves, these boys may or may not be as distant or scary as the marketing claims.  The marketing may, indeed, run completely counter to the author’s intention.  That’s a given.  However, I believe the way literature is marketed says at least as much about our society as the literature itself.  I’ve edited the post to make that point less ambiguous.

I finally got a library card last weekend!

I know what you’re going to say: it’s more than a little shameful for an alleged writer to have traipsed about for nearly a year without a library card.  In my defense, I was working through a massive backlog of Kindle purchases, and there was no room on the docket for additional books from the library.  Also in my defense, the library’s like, a whole ten minutes away.  Who has the time, am I right?

At any rate, one of the first things I did when I got my card was comb through the electronic catalog in search of Young Adult fantasy novels.  I’ve been writing one for a few months now, and a familiarity with the field never hurt anyone.  As I went through the listings, though, I began to notice something.

Check out these blurbs for popular YA fantasy novels:

Shocked by the brutality of her new life, Tris can trust no one. And yet she is drawn to a boy who seems to both threaten and protect her. The hardest choices may yet lie ahead….” –Amazon summary for Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Hmmm.  I’ve yet to read Divergent–from what was shown in the movie trailer, I gather it involves a totalitarian society, a boy with tattoos up his back, and teens getting classified by the worst substitute for the sorting hat this side of an unexploded bazooka shell–but I’m willing to take the blurb writer at their word when they say that Tris’ life is “brutal.”  One wonders, of course, how a child fighting for her life in a brutal police state would have time to feel “drawn” to a boy.  Ah, but that’s YA, isn’t it?  You need a little romance to hook the teen and pre-teen girls who make up the bulk of your audience.

But wait…what’s this about the boy seeming to threaten her?  That doesn’t sound like fruitful soil in which to plant puppy love.  The last time I associated with a boy who both “threatened” and “protected” me, he suggested I stop seeing my friends and told my parents I was too emotionally unstable to survive without him.  Maybe that’s just the marketing, though.  I doubt Ms. Roth was aiming for anything so sinister.

Ever since her sixteenth birthday, strange things keep happening to Seraphina Parrish.  The Lady in Black burns Sera’s memories.  Unexplainable Premonitions catapult her to other cities.  The Grungy Gang wants to kill her.  And a beautiful, mysterious boy stalks her.” –Amazon summary for Wander Dust, by Michelle Warren

Hang on: a mysterious boy stalks her?  That’s not a recipe for romantic tension; it’s a recipe for winding up locked in a rotting attic with a maniac who rubs doll clothes on his nipples.  I know people who have been stalked, and there was nothing exciting or fantastical about it.  If, instead of being “beautiful,” said mysterious boy weighed three hundred pounds and was constantly whittling tiny swords while staring Seraphina directly in the face, I guarantee the story would end with a call to the police instead of a grand adventure.  Hey, marketing team: maybe reconsider using the “beautiful stalker” angle to drum up interest in a novel.

When Emariya Warren learns enemy forces have captured her father, she’ll do anything to save him. Anything. Even marry a mysterious prince she knows nothing about in order to rally the strength to arrange a rescue.” –Amazon summary for Cornerstone, by Kelly Walker

Again with the “mysterious.”  I don’t know of Emariya and the prince end up together, but I rather hope they don’t.  Young women need to understand that “mysterious” doesn’t always mean “fascinating, with a greater depth of feeling than the shallow boys at my middle school.”  At best, “mysterious” means “shy,” or “in the witness protection program.”  At worst, it means “I have exhaustively cataloged more than seventy ways to make your skin into an infinity scarf.”

Kara needs an ally, or she might not survive Ourea’s monsters. She drops her guard when Braeden, a native soldier with a dark secret, vows to keep her safe.” –Amazon summary for Lichgates by S.M. Boyce

All right, I’m getting annoyed now.  I understand that a love interest sells novels, but does it always have to be the same love interest?  And does the love interest have to be so instrumental in the female protagonist’s personal journey?  Society has already convinced many young women that they cannot be complete without glomming on to the closest be-penised thing they see.  Why use marketing to play into that dysfunctional world view?

Well…because it sells books, of course.  But I like to think we humans are capable of taking the high road every once in a while.  Surely it would be preferable to offer an antidote to all the boy-craziness, to lure intelligent girls with the promise of an equally intelligent protagonist who succeeds or fails on her own merits without worrying about what some dumb (potentially unbalanced?) boy thinks.

Because here’s the thing: when a male protagonist has a love interest, she’s usually treated as an added bonus, something he gets as a reward for facing his demons and blowing up the secret jungle base or whatever the heck.  When a female protagonist has a love interest, he is usually presented (by the marketing team if not by the author) as a necessity, someone she needs in order to complete her mission.  Pepper in the wildly incorrect notion that boys show their interest by stalking or remaining aloof and mysterious, and you’ve got the ingredients for a pretty pathological view on love and what role love should play in a young woman’s life.

I apologize for this heated scree.  If it caused you any undue distress, you know who to blame…

…the Farmington Public Library.

Rebel Without a Clause: Let’s Break Some Writing Rules!

For four years, I taught SAT/ACT essay writing.  It was ball-achingly dull.  Standardized tests, you see, require a very specific, very rigidly-formatted style, the type of writing you’ve had tattooed on your cortex since sixth grade.  The hook.  The thesis.  Three body paragraphs offering supporting evidence.  The conclusion. The arrival of a team of paramedics who attempt to resuscitate you after you shoot yourself in the face to avoid ever again having to write something so boring.  I didn’t love teaching it, and the kids didn’t love learning it, in part because it bears so little resemblance to any of the writing you see in the real world.

Think about it: when was the last time you read an op-ed piece that went like this?

Recent scandals within the VA health system have shocked American sensibilities.  Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, should step down.  He should do so for the following reasons: he is incompetent at his job, he needs to give someone else a chance to lead, and he has dumb taste in shoes.  I will now expand upon these points with concrete supporting evidence.

Or a novel that began like this?

Margaret had grown weary of her quotidian existence.  She was weary for the following reasons: her boyfriend had dumped her, she had too many student loans, her IBS was acting up…

Et cetera, et cetera.  I understand why we all learn this style growing up.  It’s tight, cogent, and easy to understand.  It emphasizes the need for concrete supporting evidence (a need that loads of adults and the entire Fox News team have yet to internalize.)  It prevents our nation’s middle school students from trying to argue in favor of euthanasia by writing about the time they ramped their BMX bike off a sick jump (that’s a thing middle schoolers do, right?)  In short, it’s effective, if desperately, desperately boring.  Fortunately, as we grow older, we learn how to bend the rules to make our writing more engaging.

But just how far will the rules bend?  Surely some writing rules are sacrosanct–never to be broken under any circumstances?  After all, professional writers are always rattling off lists of definitely-dos and absolutely-don’ts.  Those lists must mean something.

Well, no.  Not really.  Your writing needs to make sense and keep the reader interested, but everything else is surprisingly flexible.  Here are some of the rules that popular authors have broken, are breaking, and will continue to break for the foreseeable future.

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