Monday, September 24, 2012

Write to your audience's expectations.

OK, color coding:  Blue = updates, comments.  Yellow = stories.


I recently wrote a short story, "The Countdown," in which the National Debt clock was running backwards.  The national debt was somehow mysteriously vanishing, as throngs watched in expectation.  Well, when the debt clock reached $0, at midnight, everyone jumped up and down, and chanted "We're Free!  We're Freeeeeeeee!"

I presented the story in this original form to my readers group, Redmond Roaring Writers, so it could be critiqued by my fellow writers.  They faulted the story very heavily, on the basis that the debt clock could NOT reach $0, and that even if it could it would not do so at midnight but during regular banker's hours.

"No, you are missing the point," I complained.  "Is it really necessary to the story to explain how the debt clock reaches zero?  The point is to describe the consequences if it did."

"Yes," one of my readers said.  "We ABSOLUTELY need to know how the debt clock reaches zero."

"But this is like an FTL - Faster Than Light.  You hop in a spacecraft, you zoom off to another planet.  It isn't necessary to know how the engine works."

"Yes, it is!"  they insisted.  But this gave my readers another, better idea:  "What if this is not the debt clock in America, but a debt clock on another planet?  Yeah, that would make more sense.  The debt clock here could never reach zero, the debt would never be paid off.  Even if it was, we would still have to pay taxes."

I was wrong, all wrong in my approach.  I agreed with my readers - the National Debt could never be paid off, not in thirty of our lifetimes.  But that was not the POINT I was trying to make.  All of my readers - ALL of them - missed the subtle point in my story that the debt was NOT PAID OFF.  Only the clock was changed.

(Of interest:  The original National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue could not run backwards, but only forwards.  This clock was replaced with a clock that could run backwards in 2004.)

So, the point of my story, that someone was just using the clock to deceive a lot of people into thinking the debt was dissolved and that they were "free," which I thought to be so obvious, was completely lost on my audience.  The problem was I did not deal with my audience's expectations, which (in this case) seemed to be fueled by certain ideological and scientific principles and assumptions, such as:  The Federal Reserve system is a necessary evil; Debt is not servitude; we are not being deceived.

So my readers, raised in this sea of assumptions, would find both premises completely unpalatable, to the extent that they could only accept this story set on another planet:  The debt clock could never run backwards (we must always have debt), and our government (or the Feds) would never intentionally deceive us!  Either way, whether they got the point or not, the story was unpalatable.  They could not read it.

A story with no audience is a DEAD STORY.  It does not count if no one reads it.  I've since struggled with how I might fix this story so that "someone" might find it palatable, but I don't see an easy, clean solution which both accomplishes this and leaves the original concept intact.  I've since moved onto writing a less ideological story, about a Norselander fighting brutish Barbarians in a hopeless quest at the Edge of the World.  Blah blah blah, no real content, blah blah blah.

The point to be learned from this:  Know the expectations of your audience!  Write to them, at their level, dumbing it down where necessary (but not too much), and playing to their ideology and belief system, or you risk playing the game of solitaire.  Sad, but true.

More to follow.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Missing Link [Part One] - A short story

One of the original 92 elements was missing.  It was, unfortunately, incontrovertibly, completely undeniable.
“It’s ridiculous!” Sandafare said.  He was chewing on a chocolate stick and looking over the scrum-master’s desk at the display.  Sandafare was almost old enough to remember books in which there were only 92 elements.  Now, of course, there were many more – more than most people could count without a calculating machine.  The display was quite clear:  Natural elements occurring on Planet Earth:  91.
“How could such a thing happen?” he asked the scrum-master.  “Which one of the elements is missing?”
“That’s the thing, we don’t know.  How do you identify something which no longer exists?  How do you tell what part is missing if it had never been?”
Nervously, Mick started counting off elements on his fingers:  “Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium…”
“Shut up!” Sandafare insisted.  “How can the universe even keep going with only 91 elements?”
“Perhaps it’s a matter of classification.  Like, now there are eight planets, only a century ago there were nine.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Sandafare said.  “You can’t declassify an element.  It’s scientifically impossibly.”
“… boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen…”
“I said shut up!”  Sandafare snapped a pencil next to Mick’s ear for effect.  “I must take this up immediately with the Director.”
Mick and Paula followed after Sandafare, like two lost, wandering puppies looking for a meal.  The scrum-master could not follow, because he was interlinked with his desk station.  Paula did not speak, and possibly could not speak, being too distracted by some substance which was clinging to her fingers in long, gluey strands.
Their way took them past the animal cages, and the infrared lizards which looked quite ferocious.  One lizard snapped as the group approached.  “Warm your coffee?” it said invitingly.
“Shut up!” Sandafare said to the beast.  “We have no coffee.  We are on our way to see the Director on a very important matter.”
“I see,” the lizard said, its bright red tongue slithering out and in its mouth for effect.  “Does this matter exist, or does it not exist?”
“Glue,” Sandra said.  “It’s glue, I think.”
“No, it is not glue!  And the matter does exist, otherwise why would we be on our way to see the director?”
“You could be mistaken.  You could have taken up a false cause out of some noble but misguided altruism, but fallen in with unfortunate duplicity.”
“Shut up!” Sanadafare said, but Mick added with a tone of sadness:  “One of the elements no longer exists.”
“Oh?” the lizard said.  “Then your matter does not exist.  You do not need to see the Director.”
“No,” Sandafare said, seething with derision.  “The matter does exist.  The matter is the fact that an element does not exist.”
“Which one?”
“We don’t know.” Mick offered.
“I wish it had been glue,” Sandra said.
“A quandary, then,” the lizard said.  “How do you name that which has no name?  How do you signify that which does not say ‘I Am.’  But, you have satisfied me.  Your matter is the matter of the matter which does not exist.  You may see the director.”
“… fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium…”
“Shut…. UP!”
The trio passed the animal cages.  From there they followed a helical course, with gravity welding their footsteps to a metal catwalk.  Beneath this – in whatever direction “down” was, fake lava bubbled and hissed, looking like red soda drink with floating black froth here and there.  The steam rose from this to the catwalk and made the soles of their shoes sticky.
“Halt!” a voice said.
“What now?” Sandafare demanded.
“Just halt,” the voice said, sadly.  I’ve waited ages to say that.  No one ever comes this way anymore.”
Beyond the bridge, the three had to jump a small stream filled with fish.  A satyr playing a lute on the other side stopped, looked at them and laughed.  Some of the fish blew some tiny bubbles.  Sandafare and Mick stepped easily across, but Sandra balked.
“I can’t!” she said.
“It’s only three feet across.  Come on!”
“No!  I’m no longer human.  I can’t cross running water.  I’ll disintegrate!”
“You won’t disintegrate,” Mick said.  “And don’t say you aren’t human.  I love you too much for that to be true.  I couldn’t stand it.”
Somewhere behind them, the satyr chuckled.
“I love you, too,” Sandra said.  “I only just realized it.  I would embrace you, but you’re on the wrong side of the stream.  And I have all this glue on my hands.”
“It doesn’t matter!  I would let you embrace me, even with the glue.”
“You would?”  Tears began to well up in Sandra’s eyes.
“But, the stream – “
With determination, Mick took a step over the stream, and Sandra took him joyously in her gluey arms.  They embraced and kissed for a long time.
“Oh, Mick - !”
Finally, the two faced Sandafare.  “Well, I suppose that’s it then,” he said.
“Yes,” Mick said, smiling.  “Sandra and I have a new life now.  We can’t go on with you anymore.  I can’t take the risk that Sandra won’t disintegrate trying to cross the stream.  It may be vampirism, or maybe she just has a delusion.  But destruction of the mind is no less thorough than destruction of the body.  I’m certain you understand.”
“Yes, I understand,” Sandafare said.  And he held his hand across the stream to shake Mick’s hand.  Only Mick refused to take it.  “You don’t even trust me that much?”
“No,” Mick answered.  “I know you that well.  You would pull us across the stream, or try to.  Most likely, we’d all fall in.  And those fish look carnivorous.”
“Responsibility is loneliness,” Sandafare said bitterly.  “But you are wise not to trust me.  You now have something of inestimable value.”
So, Mick and Sandra walked away, arm in arm.  They turned and tried to wave, but their hands were stuck on each others' torsos.  So they just smiled and walked away.  Sandafare watched until they were out of sight, in the mists and steam pouring up through the helical catwalk.
“Idiots,” Sandafare said.
“I agree,” the satyr said, startling him.  The creature laughed to see him jump.
“Now, leave me alone, you!  I have an important mission.”
“Which is?”
“I’m not telling you,” Sandafare said.  But a second later he added, “It has something to do with something missing.”
“Ah, the missing link.  You want to know how you got here?”  The satyr strummed his lyre discordantly.
“Look, I’m not here to harm you,” the creature said, setting his lyre down and producing a harmonica.  He blew into the instrument, and produced a short cacophony, even worse than the notes on the lyre.  The satyr sighed.  “I was just making a casual observation about that disgusting display.”
“Yes, love.”  The satyr spat the word out like it was something distasteful.  “Two innocent people, going off like that to destroy their whole lives.  Monstrous.”
“Now, wait a minute, I didn’t mean…”
“Love,” the satyr said, almost in a shout.  “Love.  It is the greatest lie concocted since the world woke up with a bad hangover after creation was finished.  Love.  You want to know what it really is?  Nothing but sex.  Sex, like what we deny ourselves from when we stop crawling and start to walk.  Sex, which is the greatest motivating force in the world.  You want proof?  Take a dying man, show him a picture of a woman in her panties, and he’ll still smile.  But tell him you love him – well, imagine you are some baggy old lady in your eighties, and you have smelly dentures, and say you love him – and he’ll just drop into a coma.”
Sandafare was uncharacteristically speechless.
“Now, you take that young couple there – “ Sandra and Mick had long since vanished in the distance, but their memory was still present, like some lingering glue.  “You know what they have in store for them?  They’ve both been waiting for something absolutely wonderful to happen.  They’ve imagined that someone is going to come into their lives, some angel in a white gown, or a knight in shining armor.  And this magical person is going to make all the rest of their poor, broken lives suddenly perfect.  It will all make sense, and they won’t grow old, but they’ll do nothing but eat grapes and pomegranates, and sing songs and write loves poems until one day they grow so happy that they die simultaneously and go to heaven together, where they will be perfectly happy forever.
“But, you know what is really happening?  What they’ve really been waiting for is nothing but sex.  Their lower halves are attracted to each other, because all their lives until now they’ve denied their baser selves.  And this has made their lives miserable.  But, you think that actually having a sex partner after so many decades of denial will actually satisfy their fantasies?  Well, maybe for a day, or a week.  Maybe a month.  But eventually, she’ll wake up one morning and discover that his breath smells bad.  And he’ll get irritated by her snoring.  And worse, there will be a gap, on both sides, of what they thought living the rest of their lives with someone would be like, versus the real thing.  And that gap will be large, and it always gets larger, especially as they get older.  Reality always falls short of fantasy.  Imagine being able to eat only when you’re not hungry.”  He laughed a very wicked laugh.
“Perhaps you are right,” Sandafare said.
“Of course I’m right!  So, if you’re smart, you’ll do as I suggest:  Never get married!  Instead, just go about having as much sex as you can with as many willing, like-minded women.  Oh, take precautions so you don’t catch anything – you don’t want your Johnson falling off.  Have fun!  And if you ever think you’ve found that ‘special one,’ then run my friend.  Run away!  Because there is no ‘special one.’  It’s all just a lie, formulated in the gap between your brain and your tail.”
Sandafare began walking slowly up the path, leaving the satyr by the stream, his head down.  The creature laughed, produced a ukulele, which he strummed for a few seconds, quite badly.  “Never get married, that’s what I think you should do!” he called.
Sandafare stopped.
“And you know what I think you should do?”  He began to take steps back towards the creature.  “I think you should SHUT… UP!”  He broke into a full run, aiming himself right the satyr, who had a wild look in its eyes.
Sandafare threw himself at the beast, only the satyr suddenly wasn’t there.  He had side-stepped a couple of feet to Sandafare’s right, and one leg came out.  Sandafare tripped on it, stumbled and fell headlong.  The next moment he splashed into the stream.
He came up spluttering, swallowing water, trying to get his breath in the icy stream.  Through water-blurred eyes, he saw the satyr literally dancing in mirth, hopping around like a jackrabbit.  Sandafare felt sharp little nibbles, from the carnivorous fish.  Desperately, he started thrashing and splashing about.  He could see over two dozen goldfish, darting in and out like miniature piranhas, each leaving a tiny red mark on his exposed flesh, on his wrists, his ankles.  One even leapt from the water and latched momentarily to his nose before he flicked it away with his hand.
“Gaaah!” Sandafare said.
All the thrashing about to eliminate being eaten by the fish left little energy for any real swimming.   So Sandafare just bobbed about in the water for a half minute looking most tragically comical.  Then, a strong current grasped him from underneath, and he started going downstream at an alarming rate.  In seconds, he was far away from the crossing, and the stream had expanded to a rushing river.  The fish were gone, but now he could not swim across the current to grasp the edge.  It was all slick, there were no handy rocks.
“I’m either being born now, or I’m going to die,” Sandafare thought.
In seconds, he came upon a huge roar.  Ahead, the horizon of the stream fell away before a great abyss.  It was a waterfall.
“Oh,” Sandafare said.  “Dying it seems.”
With no thought at all, he was hurtled over the edge of the falls.  He fell and fell and fell, and it grew black.

[[[More to come]]]