Monday, October 29, 2012


"Do you have any last words?"

The warden with his craggy face loomed above Earl, who was strapped to a gurney. Earl shook with a cold sweat and turned to the window and looked at his reflection and then the faces beyond. He thought he might see him, the man, the other, but all the faces were unfamiliar, except for the family members of the three men who he was accused of murdering. They'd shown up in court everyday of his trial and heard him plead repeatedly that he was innocent of the crimes. None of them cared; they only wanted what they thought was justice.

"It wasn't me." Earl croaked out the words, tears blooming at his eyes.

"Anything else?" asked the warden after a long sigh.

"I'll tell you, I'll tell you what really happened," said Earl.

"Oh? This again?" asked the warden with a smirk.

"I was embarrassed," said Earl. "It was years ago now. I was ravenous. Just hungry all the time. I put on a lot of weight and I felt ashamed of it. And after a few months I realized I wasn't growing fatter. I was...I was growing sideways."

The warden sighed deeply again and rolled his eyes.

"I know you won't believe me, but I have to tell the truth. You're going to kill me anyway, put down like a rabid dog. But I'm not a bad person."

"Uh huh." The warden looked at his watch.

Earl hurried to continue.

"It got noticeable, and my clothes wouldn't fit. People looked at me funny, and when I got stuck in a doorway I thought, 'that's enough, people will talk'. So I took some time off sick. I kept eating until all my food was gone. I didn't dare go to the grocery store. And when there was nothing left to eat, the pains set in. Oh the pains! All on my left side. The skin started stretching, and new bones started to poke out under my flesh. I stayed in bed, curled up under the covers. I must have been there for days. I'd take the odd call and tell people it was just the flu and not to worry, but I sure was worried! I was getting wider and wider and things were moving under there without my control. And then the pain got so bad that I passed out.

"And then I woke up, feeling dizzy but remarkably better. And there he was, sitting in the chair next to my bed."

The warden squinted in confusion.

"Who was?" he asked.

"The other me. The one that came out of me."

The warden laughed.

"It's true," said Earl. "He looked exactly like me and he was staring at me with those dead eyes, sitting in my chair, completely naked. I could just feel the bad thoughts swirling down deep in him. I knew he was a bad, bad thing the moment I saw him."

"And what did he do?" asked the warden, wiping tears of laughter from his cheeks with the back of his hand.

"He put his finger to his mouth and went 'shhh'. And I was so scared I couldn't move. I watched him dress in my clothes, and he took my wallet and then he went outside and took my car. And I never saw him again. I don't know what happened to him, but I know it was him that committed the crimes you think I did. That's why the DNA matches and why the witnesses identified me."

"Well that was a whopper. How convenient for you that you have an evil twin to do all your dirty work."

"You don't believe me warden, and I understand that. I've come to terms with the death you're about to hand me, but the true killer is still out there, and you need to know that."

"Are you finished?" asked the warden.

"Yes, sir, I am."

Earl stared up at the ceiling and let out a long, relieved sigh. The warden signalled to the doctor to begin. The first injection was put into the IV. Earl felt his limbs go numb and heavy. His tongue slackened in his mouth and his eyelids started to slide together. Then the doctor leaned over him, masked as he was, and shone a light into Earl's eyes. As he leaned in, the doctor winked at Earl, and Earl looked up only to recognize the eyes that were his. He tried to scream, to point, to flail, but was unable to. The doctor, Earl's other self, moved back and administered the second injection while the warden looked lazily on.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Submission for Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Girl Who Was a Giant Eyeball

The eye had grown like cancer, engorged her face, swallowed it up, wet and constantly weeping, and still she hung on, ever the addict, until she could no longer breath, the growth covering her nose and mouth completely, and then she expired.

"Why?" asked her mother, adjusting the dress she chose for her daughter to wear, a dress she would have never in her life worn, such an impractical garment it was for the looking of things, the finding out of things.

The taxidermist bowed his head and left the room quietly. Her mother stood slowly, forcing her back to uncurve and fit its corset. The room smelled, tasted, of chemicals still, as the layers of shellac over the the vast expanse of open eye continued to dry.

"Why did you keep looking?" Her mother closed her own eyes, almost willing them to disappear into their sockets, the jelly sucked back into her brain to soothe the sadness that lived there. "You knew this could happen. Science is not for a woman to pursue. There is a curse for us to ask questions. I can't understand..."

"Why?" she asked again after a moment, asking against the pressure building in her skull. "Why?!" Her vision distorted then dissolved to spots. "Why?!"  Her fingers and toes and face went numb; her breath was quick and shallow. "WHY!!!"

The pain struck her, an iron pendulum to the face. She fell to the floor, still conscious, but now blind. Blood poured into her hair and she smiled, glad for her pain and glad to be free from the curse.

"I will complete your work, my darling. I will seek for you, and I will tell you all the things learn. I will be your eyes now, darling."

See all the stories for this prompt at io9.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Finding Form: Cloud Atlas

So...I have a bit of an obsession with the trailer for the upcoming movie Cloud Atlas. Every couple of days I'll watch it at least three times in a row, and this business is getting a bit embarrassing now. I think  my fondness for it is partly because the trailer different from everything else out there; it's made up of these diverse and reverberating parts and is just a puzzle. I really hope the actual movie can live up to the trailer! Anyway, the movie is based on the book by the same name by David Mitchell. I can't get my hands on a copy just yet, but I read up on the book and it turns out it has an interesting structure and I thought it was worth covering in this series of blog posts. There are three things of note in the structure:

  • there are six nested stories
  • the first five are cut off halfway and each are finished in reverse sequence after the sixth story (which is presented whole)
  • each previous story is presented *as a story* in the story that succeeds it (you can see how this might function in the bit of the trailer about the Pacific journal)

That's just the skeleton of it. From what I can glean from the free Kindle sample, each story is written significantly differently. The first story is set in the nineteenth century and is written in the elaborately literate language often used in that era. One of the later stories is evidently presented in the mystery genre. My takeaway is that this is like six interwoven short stories that are a bit meta about each other, which has been done by other writers before, but I think this is the first time nesting has been used (if you know of other examples, let me know).

Incidentally there is a lot of controversy surrounding the movie and how it uses the same actors to portray different ethnicities and even genders. Hollywood has a long history with whitewashing, which is tragic, but I don't think the movie is actually engaging in whitewashing since the actors are being used to portray the same character (or soul) as present in different embodiments through various times (and non-white actors are portraying white characters...though I don't know if that in itself is a defense against whitewashing). The point is, the story examines the same characters in different time periods, as different people, and I think that is also relevant to the story's form. This examination dictates the story's structure, so even though the structure is weird, it would be awkward or impossible to look at the characters and their development in a more linear fashion.

I hope to get my hands on a library copy soon rather than breaking down and getting the Kindle version, because this looks like a fascinating read. If I can, I'll report back on the blog.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Playlist Project and the Bechdel Test

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? It's a very basic litmus test of gender bias in stories. In order to pass, three criteria must be met: 1) there is more than one female character, 2) they talk to each other 3) about something other than men. There are variations, but that's the most basic one. Films and comics are particularly bad at failing this test (think about recent films you've seen...try Avengers for instance--and that was written by Joss Whedon who has actually written lots of stuff in the past that does pass the test).

I thought it would be interesting, since I have so many stories and also consider myself a feminist, to see how the playlist project does with the Bechdel test. Am I free of gender bias? So far I've gone through the first 72 stories in the project and analysed them to see if they passed (yep, I'll go through the rest too because I know I was more aware of the character gender as I went). 19 of the stories, or 26% completely pass the Bechdel test. I'm not sure what to make of this at this point. Many of the stories contained only two characters, so if the gender was randomly distributed among characters, 25% is what I should end up with, at least to meet the first criterion. Some of the stories also had characters of unidentified or no gender (yep). Some of the stories didn't have any dialog (failing the second criterion automatically). Only twice in those 72 stories did I have two female characters talking exclusively about a male character (failing the third criterion).

So I think I'm actually gender unbiased in my writing, on the whole, since the gender of my characters align with random distribution. Since my stories are almost always speculative, the female characters are naturally unlikely to solely discuss a male character (as opposed to say, the romance genre), which may affect the pass rate compared to the output of other writers. Would you agree that I am unbiased or disagree?

When I'm done with the analysis I'll post a list of the passing stories (and maybe someone can use them as an example--it would interesting to see if male readers find the stories that pass boring compared to those that don't, or don't notice anything at all).

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Finding Form: Analysis of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Okay so a while back I promised to write on the topic of finding form, which is a seldom covered topic in writing (as say compared to style and plot). What I call form is basically the format of a story. It has a little bit to do with length and voice and style, but more importantly structure--how a story is folded up and unfurled to the reader. In the process of writing my story-a-day-for-a-year, I struggled with finding new and different forms and there really isn't much out there written down that's meta about form. So I set out to study it myself by just going through books and figuring it out (and I have a lot of antsy time on my hands what with the underemployment and the lack of an intense writing project. Anywho).

The first book I randomly picked from the local library (Vancouver Island library system, holla!) was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This book was in my peripheral vision a while back so it undoubtedly made some splash on the bestseller lists (it's 3:30am, and I'm very not bothered to check my facts) but it's not something that would appeal to me if I weren't randomly selecting books from the library. The cover, the title, the words "potato peel" all scream twee and girlie to me. Not my thing. However, upon cracking the book open I was pleasantly surprised to find it written as a series of letters between characters, which is an epistolary novel, the low hanging fruit of fictional form (on my first pluck!) I was also pleased, as I began to read, to find out that the book is about World War II, and England (two things I love...well I don't technically love war, no fan, but I love learning about all the facts about WWII. It is an epic chapter in human history).

I hoovered through the first fifty pages than began to tire. Why? All the characters (save the most villainous one, if she can be called that) really sounded the same. The authors of the book used the epistolary format to lay out great facts about the war, and described vividly the sorts of things people would have gone through on the island of Guernsey under Nazi occupation, but it was ultimately undermined by the narrative sameness. Every character was so damn polite (it's sort of a British thing mind you, but still), and so interested in classical literature, and so against modernism, and sort of shallow about the crap that happened to them and blah blah blah. I feel like I know the authors and their personal picadillos through these characters, because the same voice keeps coming through. I couldn't make it past one hundred and twenty pages or so, but it's not a shame because I'm not the intended audience for this sort of book. There wasn't enough shiny stuff to attract my particular flitting brain.

So, here's the takeaway. The authors kept all the letters to a reasonable few pages or less, with many just a few lines, short missives between some of the characters. This made for speedy reading, which is always good. You always want to keep the reader moving through the pages, and at best, devouring the words as they fly by, and that part of the form was successful. Where the form seemed to sag was in a subplot of the main character being wooed by some wealthy guy that was completely unrelated (at least 120 pages in) to the main narrative going on in Guernsey. Maybe there was a payoff later on, but for me it really dragged the story down and felt unnecessary (even the main character felt dragged down by it). The letter format needs to be kept tight, with clear characters (since it is all first person), and lean (sure, to keep it realistic, there will be some mimicking of what real people do in letters which is to introduce tangents...but don't go overboard).

The other interesting aspects to note is that this format potentially eliminates the need for chapters, and this is very freeing--you're not obligated to set up a series of grouped scenes of a particular average length, it's more free flowing. Also you get to play with first person narrative with *all* your characters, and this would be really clunky in another format (say, heaven forbid, alternating chapters with different narrators). You can hide things from certain characters, show different alliances between characters, and show subterfuge and lying pretty effectively. I'd like to read other books in the epistolary format to compare to this one because I can see it as being really powerful.