Prompts, prompts everywhere, and not a chance to think

As you might’ve noticed, many of my posts are responses to challenges posted by Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds. Why’s that? Short answer is, the challenges are good mental exercise and keep me writing when I’m not feeling terribly creative.

The long answer is because I’ve yet to find another site that has decent challenges. I’ve found some pretty bad ones lately…like comparing the Channel Four version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” to the Drew Carey/ABC version.

The original Whose Line used a lot of games that did not need extra players, soundtracks or greenscreens. It was just four guys and maybe some props, along with audience suggestions. Suggestions tended to be vague and short. This forced the performers to fill in the blanks themselves. It meant some scenes fell apart, but others were stellar.

Nowadays, the format is so hemmed-in that it virtually guarantees an identical show each time. Wayne Brady will always get a song challenge. At least one of the song challenges will require him to serenade a woman from the audience. Colin Mochrie always get the disgusting green-screen challenge. The group scene games take 5 minutes to explain and set up because of all the “suggestions” that are now requirements.

It’s almost scripted, these days, which defeats the purpose of improv.

And when I see a challenge that goes like this:

“You are 6-years-old and at your best friend’s birthday party. The kids from your class are donned in party hats and on a sugar high from the cake. It’s your turn at the piñata, but things go horribly awry and your best friend ends up in tears. From a child’s first-person point of view, write this scene, the dialogue or actions that cause the dilemma, the reactions from the children and parents in attendance and the fallout. Be sure to include details, such as location, party decor and background music, to set the scene.”

I don’t even know what to say. This isn’t a prompt, this is a plot-by-numbers.

How am I supposed to gauge my progress with this? How is anyone? It’s like using your foosball skills to predict how you’ll do in the World Cup. (Spoiler alert: You’re gonna die.)

So I will stick with Chuck’s challenges, because they actually are challenging.

 

 

The Why Of It

So this week’s challenge over at Terrible Minds has been to answer the question, “Why do you write?”

I actually hate this question, because I feel like there’s no way to answer it honestly without coming off as some kind of pretentious asshat. “Who do you think you are, talking about Writing? You haven’t published anything yet, and your stories are only slightly better than fan fiction at this point, and only ‘better’ in the sense that they’re not wish-fulfillment jackoff material about that time Deadpool and Twilight Sparkle had hot twisted interspecies nookie in a barn in Wyoming and then the power of Equestria turned Deadpool into a cute red pony and he totally didn’t want to kill people ever again, the end.”

There’s a scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that sums it up pretty well, I think.

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… death is not. Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no… what you’ve been is not on boats.

I tried being not a writer, and it went about as well as that time I tried being not gay*. Words follow me around. I have always been prone to nightmares and a subconscious that regurgitates odd scenarios that beg analysis. I collect words for later use, and I absolutely worship writers. They’re the ones throwing coal into the cultural engines non-stop. We’re surrounded by words – and writing – every day.

I’ve slung bagels and pizza. I’ve been an artist-for-hire. I’ve been a political canvasser. I’ve been a tech support drone. I’ve worked a cash register. Flying Spaghetti Monster help me, I’ve even done collections**. I’ve gone on countless interviews in shoes that didn’t fit, to companies I didn’t know, in industries I wasn’t interested in, just so I could make money. I’ve failed those interviews, and the one time I succeeded I honestly wish I hadn’t, because by the time the first week was over I was ready to jump in front of a bus.

I have always tried to be practical, sensible, logical and other Supertramp lyrics. But as I get older, my definition of what makes sense has shifted. It no longer makes sense to do what I’m not good at and what I don’t love. I only get one shot at life, as far as I know, and even if reincarnation or regeneration is real, so what? I’ll be someone else by then.

So now I’m on the path to Becoming a Writer, as one might say, but it doesn’t feel like a massive deviation from some other journey, nor does it feel like I’m starting out after breakfast to throw a ring into a volcano. It feels more like a course correction after the last of the
mutineers have passed out from a night of drinking and playing Captain.

This is my ship. Time for me to drive.

*Don’t do that. No, really.

**Or that.

The Trees

Oliver wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting the End Of All Things to look like, but in the coming years he’d have plenty of time to reflect on it, and he was sure it wasn’t supposed to be so tiny.

“I was told you’re the best carpenter in the System,” the tall man said as he entered the shop. He was pale, with callused hands that spoke of manual labor, and he was covered from neck to knee in a coat made of some unknown animal hide. He spoke in a soft baritone, with rolling r’s that reminded Oliver of his old moggy’s purring. Not a local, then.

“Sure, once,” Oliver said, setting the nutcracker he’d been repairing aside, “But that was years ago. I just do small work now. What do you want?”

“Something to contain this.” There was a rustling, then the tiniest clink as the tall man set something on the workbench.

It was a glass bottle, perhaps an inch tall, containing what looks like a perfectly round seed. Oliver scoffed. “You’ll want Madama Tara across the square. She does all the magic stuff.”

“Oh, this is much worse than magic, Oliver.”

“Why, has someone invented a faster way to extract money from idiots?” Oliver asked. “Well, go on, either tell me or get out, I can’t have you brooding all dark and mysterious-like in my store, you’ll frighten the tourists.”

“Fine,” the tall man says, grabbing the jar and shaking it hard. The seed inside glowed for a moment, then grew. Just a tiny fraction. Too little to see, and yet – Oliver saw.

Oliver leapt backwards. kicking his chair over in the process. “You brought me a Starkiller? Are you insane?”

“I need your help, Oliver.”

“No. Just…no. I can’t do anything against this! Nobody can!”

“I know about the Red Mirror, Oliver,” the stranger said.

Oliver stepped backwards, his heart hammering in his chest. “Who are you?” he asked. You’re not from the System, are you?”

The stranger sighed. “My name is Ioan,” he said, “And the stories of the King’s Carpenter have travelled well beyond the edges of the System.”

Oliver stared at Ioan. “I figured that,” he said. “But I’m not the King’s Carpenter anymore.”

“I don’t need the King’s Carpenter. I need the man who made the Red Mirror for the Queen. I need an abortive carpenter.”

“I’m sorry, what? Can you explain in less ridiculous words, sir?”

Ioan ran his hands through his ginger hair and sighed. “All right. But it’ll take a while.”

Oliver picked up the chair he’d toppled, noticing as he did that he’d trampled the half-finished nutcracker. Oh well, he thought, and began clearing the workbench.

Over beer and cheeses, Ioan explained everything, while Oliver sketched and scribbled furiously. He was unusually excited. If he was honest with himself, making the Red Mirror had been the peak of his career, and making trinkets for tourists just didn’t compare. But the old King had died, and the new King was enamored with the new modern materials, so he’d cut Oliver and his woodshop loose.

The task was simple enough on its face. Build a casket to hold a tiny seed, to keep it from ever growing into the terrifying plant it was meant to become. The problem was friction. There couldn’t be any. Friction meant heat, heat meant germination, and germination meant the end of the world or worlds.

“So this has to be as smooth as the Mirror, if not smoother,” Ioan said around a mouthful of something firm and vaguely goatish, “You’ll need Austrinian Ebony.”

Oliver dropped his quill. “We’re done for,” he whispered.

“How so?”

“I can’t get that. We’ll have to use something else. But nothing else will work.”

“Where did you get it before?”

“The King brought it to me.”

“Well, where did he get it?” Ioan asked.

“I don’t know.”

Ioan reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a small cloth-wrapped bundle.

“Will this be enough?”

“Where…”

“The less you know, the better,” Ioan cautioned. “But if this works…”

“I won’t have armed men beating down my door demanding their property back, will I?”

Ioan looked genuinely offended. “I was going to say – you’d never have to build another nutcracker again in your life. Well, if you didn’t want to, I mean. I mean, you might want to. I don’t know.”

Oliver sighed and picked a sliver of nutcracker out of his thumb. “Not a chance.”

Nine months later, Ioan and Oliver were standing in the workshop again. The finished container was resting on the workbench, waiting for its occupant.

There was no indication of where the container opened or closed. No hinge, no trapdoor, no corners. It was so highly polished it threw off little wisps of diffuse light caught from the oil lamp. It looked more like a knot than a box.

“Ready?” Ioan asked, holding the bottle.

“Yes,” Oliver said. His voice trembled but his hands were steady.

The knot slid open. The tiny seed tipped in. The knot slipped closed.

“Now,” Ioan said. “The final test.”

He dropped it.

It hit the workbench, rolled to a stop. Ioan scooped it up, repeated the drop. Thunk. Nothing.

“Is it growing?” Thunk.

“I don’t think so.”  Thunk.

Twenty minutes later, the case was still firmly closed.

Oliver let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.

“It worked,” he said.

Ioan grinned. He took the knot from Oliver’s workbench and set it on the mantelpiece. “I suggest you find a secure place for this, or tell people it’s cursed or sacred or whatever will make them not want to touch it. And then…I want you to take this,” Ioan said, dropping a seed into Oliver’s palm. This one was different. Soft and black, with a yellow stripe down its middle. “And this.” A pouch of coins.

“What is this?” Oliver asked.

“Payment,” Ioan said. “Goodbye, Oliver. And thank you.”  With that, he was gone.

The Dark Rainbow

(Author’s Note: This is another TerribleMinds challenge! This time it’s grab a random title and build a story off it. This story contains a fair amount of irreverance towards evangelical Christianity, as well as poop and swearing. It is also exactly 666 words long, hurr hurr. Enjoy!)

————
“The power of Christ Jesus compels you, unholy spirit! Leave this body and show your true form!”

The peacock tipped its head to one side, as if listening, then took an unholy dump on the manicured lawn. I left it there. There wasn’t a retainer big enough to cover demon-poop bags.
From here I could hear the client sobbing inside her house, convinced beyond reason that her idiotic vanity pet had been possessed by a demon. Specifically one called Adramelech. High Chancellor of Hell. President of the High Council of Devils. Snappy dresser. Mean
motherfucker.

Of course, it could also just be a plain old peacock. The easiest way to tell for sure would be to offer it a sacrifice, but for some reason the wasp queen wasn’t keen to give up one of her oversized crotch-dumplings.

Time for Plan B. I pull out the Super Soaker and get that cock absolutely soaking wet. It starts making the most horrendous noise. Could still be a regular peacock. Then it glows red-hot like a Chinese firework, and explodes, leaving a smokey skull hanging in the air for a moment.

I told you this guy was classy.

The client creeps out of the house. She’s not crying anymore. Too scared to cry. “Well, you were right,” I said. “That was definitely an Adramelech avatar. Good thing you called me when you did.”

I holster the soaker. “Now, about our fee,” I said. “Let’s see that sweet Mammon of yours.”
She glares at me. Folds her arms over her chest. “What the shit!? I meant money, not your tits. Seriously, how do you not know who Mammon is? You reading Demonpedia? Ugh.
Self-diagnosis is a rabbit hole, lady.”

She silently opens her wallet and pulls out several bills. They’re crispy. Nice. I pocket them and walk away.

I suppose I should rewind a bit and get you up to speed. The name’s Harold Iball, and I’m a demon hunter. I’ve travelled the world looking for demons. Sometimes they’re kids playing pranks in the hopes of YouTube fame. Sometimes they’re legit. But I always get paid.

“But Harold,” you’re saying, “How can you possibly kill a demon that’s older than civilisation itself? I mean, these are dark forces incarnate.”

Oh, really?  I can’t kill the demons forever? Well thanks for reminding me of that critical flaw in my plan. Douche.

What I can do is punch them back out of meatspace for a while, and really, that’s enough. The thing is, they’re not very good at being corporeal. They used to just rely on word-of-mouth to get the people afraid of ’em and keep the sacrifices coming. Now that people don’t fall for that so much, they have to work. That makes ’em visible.

Which is where I come in.

I wasn’t always this total badass. I used to be the geeky kid who sat in the back row at church and made up rude words to the hymns. But then I saw my first demon.

I still make up rude words to the hymns, but now I do the church the occasional solid to make up for my blaspheming. They say I’ve got a gift. They even tried to rope me into their way of demon-whacking, but it was all barf and glossolalia and generally humiliating the
person into a stupor so they’d mistake the relief of the ceremony being over with some kinda deliverance. And if there’s a real demon hanging around that person, well, they just get a
giant boner from all that suffering.

Demon boners. Not a happy thought. Then again, thinking of boners in general is kinda iffy since it reminds me of the one demon I haven’t caught yet. The one that started it all. The one they call the Dark Rainbow. His real name’s Bapoby, and he turned my best friend gay. And even though my friend says he’s fine, I’m gonna take that demon out if it’s the last thing I do…

Better Not Wake The Baby

They say depression killed you, but I think it had a lot of help.

They say you took all the sleeping pills in the house and washed ’em down with Chardonnay. I suppose if I was going to die, I would drink the cheapest, nastiest Scotch I could find. No sweetness on the tongue to lure me back to life, just a fucking smoking peat bog, a liquid harbinger of the grave.

They say you picked a fight with your husband and chased him out. The suicidal mind does things like that. Makes sure nobody’s around to stop The Plan.

But they never said why you suddenly went made The Plan. They just said “depression,” as if it were code for “defective, do not salvage.” They turned their backs on you and left you in the crypt.

I know you were overworked, exhausted, lonely. I know you were going to the doctor
because you told me about the T-cells, and the vaccine that wasn’t working anymore.

I grew up during the epidemic. I remember the condom ads and the quilt. I remember
Freddie Mercury telling the world he was sick and dying a day later. I remember Ryan White and the moment America realised that AIDS didn’t give a shit who you were.

You remembered too. So did he. He’d buried more friends than either of us, but I know you never told him, because he didn’t act like someone who knew that there was a loaded gun to your head.

I saw him that night, when you tried to comfort and he pushed you away, calling you needy.

I know he cheated on you more than once and gave the politician’s apology.

I know your family abused you and fucked with your head and sometimes he took advantage of that to fuck with your head in new and exciting ways. I know they immediately pounced on your estate like vultures because they thought you were the rich boy who’d gotten out of white-trash-ville and Made It. I hope that pound of flesh gave them indigestion.

I’m angry that he’s still alive and you’re not.

It should have been him. I know that’s an evil thing to say but I mean it.
And when he occasionally tries to connect with me – it’s all I can do not to say so – to say, where the fuck were you that night, when he pushed, you just left him – you knew he was going to die and you just walked away and let him do it –

I don’t say a word.

Because I know if I get started I won’t ever be able to stop.

I’m angry that he’s alive and you’re not. I never had a big brother growing up. Then you came along.

And I’m angry that you’re not here anymore.  I do believe you’ll come back the world one day, and I hope I will find you again then.

But meanwhile he perches, smug like a fat bluejay on the wreckage of your life, and I want to load the pistol and knock him up with bb’s till he falls off that high horse, throw rocks till he hits the ground with a fuzzy thump.

I want to let it all out. I want to trample the fields of your shared memories, burn them to the ground. He didn’t treasure them then, what’s the point now? He hoards the tokens of his grief and cashes them in when it’s convenient, but he couldn’t even love you properly while you were alive. He acts like losing you makes him somehow untouchable, better than everyone else. “Death has visited my home,” he says, “and so I am instantly wiser.”

Bullshit.

Your death has torn me open and sewed something horrible up inside.

Hurts to touch it. Hurts not to touch it. Can’t. Shouldn’t. Mustn’t. But then someone else comes along and pokes it and it flares, and I lose myself in it all over again.

Don’t come near me, humans.

Just don’t.

(Author’s note:

This was the Random Song Title Jamboree challenge from TerribleMinds. This went in a completely different direction than I planned. It’s also still really short. I’m not good at the wordy yet. I tend to prune the shit out of things. Good for bonsai, not so good for storytelling. Title is from “Better Not Wake The Baby” by the Decemberists.)