(Bad) Fiction Writing

Two months ago I died. I had been shot by a security guard when I had tried to steal $2.3 million out of a bank in southern Italy. But my unfinished business had left me a ghost. And I cannot rest until I heist those millions. I'd spent the past two months assembling the perfect team of ghosts for the second run. Ronny got us into the building. He had died when a mine collapsed and his unfinished business was to complete a tunnel. When he had dug a way into the bank's basement he vanished, his soul finally at peace. Next up was our hacker Nelly. She had lived in an old home and when she spotted a faulty wire she had gone into the basement with the intention to turn off the building's electricity. But on the stairs she had slipped and split her head. So when she had hacked and disabled all the electronics of the building her business had been finished as well. She vanished and we were down to two on the inside, plus the getaway driver. Now it was Glasses' turn. He had been killed in chemistry class. Fellow students had messed up an experiment and produced an uncontrolled explosion. He never got to complete his own controlled explosion—until now. When the dust had settled the part of the wall of the safe was gone, and so was Glasses. I filled my duffle bags with all the money and made my way back outside where Vincent was waiting. “Where's the car, Vincent?!” But Vincent started laughing maniacally. I heard the sirens of ghost police cars wailing in the distance. “Vincent, where's the car?” “I'm not a bus driver that died in a traffic accident. My unfinished business isn't to drive to a school. I'm actually an author. When my wife Delores tried to kill me we got into a struggle and we both fell out a third story window. I never got to introduce a twist to the heist story I was writing. But now I finally could complete this very specific unfinished business of mine! Suck it!” He raised his middle fingers in the air and poofed out of existence. Now I'm standing here. Completely alone, slowly being surrounded by ghost police. Is this the end? Why can't they let me complete my heist? I just want peace. “Hands up in the air. We got you surrounded.” As soon as these words have been uttered all but one of the police ghosts disappear. Only the chief remains. “I guess their unfinished business was just to catch and surround a criminal, but not me, pal.” He trains his revolver on me. I drop my duffle bags and raise my hands in surrender. “I'm sorry, pal. But my unfinished business is to wipe out a criminal. Say your pra—” Blam! A shot rings through the air. I shrink together in shock. I take a breath. I check myself. Nope, still alive. Or dead rather. But only once. Then the police chief collapses and a female ghost steps out of the shadows behind him, blowing the smoke off the barrel of her gun. “You're welcome. I'm Dolores, still needed to kill someone.” “Thanks,” I mutter, but she's gone already. When the corpse of the police chief disappears as well I am confused for a moment. Did that count as “wiping out a criminal?” Really? Post-posthumously being the cause for setting free the spirit of a criminal was enough for him? Well, I'll take it. I pick up my duffle bags of money and make my way down the street. As I feel my soul untether from the earth I smile to myself. The perfect heist. No loose ends.

The first paragraph suddenly came to me and I was completely taken with the idea. It was very difficult to find an ending for it though. Though I'm not religious, the Epicurean Paradox has been in the back of my mind for a long time (How can there be Evil if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and Good). I think it's an interesting problem and I especially like the explanation of an Oblivious God that has forgotten Their power and Godhood, but still carries them inside Themselves. Westworld season three had an excellent subplot in that vain. That was also my original idea for God to live it up in Vegas and the protagonist trying to get God to get Their shit together. But because I didn't have an actual plan I let my writing take me where it went. God pretty quickly revealed Herself (or acknowledged Her identity) and my original idea went out the window. Then I tried to force some metaphor between God's plan and Her card tricks. I don't think I really succeeded, especially with Her just vanishing at the end and leaving a dumb punchline on the card. But maybe She wasn't God, but just some con artist prick. I've done card tricks myself so that was easy enough to imagine, but I've never been to Vegas. Everything I know about Fermont Street I learned from this video which I skimmed for this story today.

I don't believe in God anymore. In the sense that She's not gonna do anything for us. I do believe in Her existence. I met her once, down on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, where She was doing card tricks. I had spent a week in Las Vegas on vacation. I had set aside some money to blow on casinos and as it was the last night I had gone big at the roulette table where it only took 40 minutes to get rid of it all. Not wanting to get to bed early on my last night I wandered around and enjoyed the night that was still young. I was pulled along by all the giant LED screens, the music and the crowds moving through. Above, people were flying down the street mounted on a zipline. I stopped at a stage to watch a band play for a while and then moved on to see what else this street had to offer. Then I saw Her. I have never been that religious. I have been to a church a couple of times. But when I saw Her I knew it was God. I was completely enthralled. I approached. She offered some guy a deck of cards. “Would you shuffle this deck for Me?” God was a woman of small stature with warm brown skin. Her hair was done up in two buns. She was wearing a black slash midi dress and black heels. She had a small tan suitcase next to Her and a speaker hooked up to the microphone She was wearing. She finished some trick or other and the bystanders had applauded and put a couple bills in a hat She'd passed around. The crowd dispersed and Her attention fell on me. “Can I interest you in a card trick?” “You're God.” “That I am. So how about it? Pick a card. Any card..” “What are— How are You in— Why are You here?” I couldn't find the right question, but this seemed like as good a start as any. “I'm doing card tricks, and where else to do them but here? Las Vegas, baby!” “But... You're GOD!?” I blurted out. Then I added “Why are You doing card tricks in Las Vegas?” “I'm just chilling! Enjoying life! Who are you to judge? You blew $13k in six nights! Come on, pick a card.” “But how can You be 'chilling' when the world is so fucked?! Oh sorry, can I swear in front of You?” “It's fine,” God laughed, “I've heard worse. Look, just take a card and all will be revealed.” She winked at me. I was getting a bit annoyed, but maybe this was one of these 'tests of faith' that you hear so much about. So I took a breath, trying to calm myself and picked a card from somewhere in the middle. It was the nine of hearts. “Hold onto that card. Sign it, but don't show Me.” “Aren't You omniscient?” She started shuffling the rest of the deck while I scribbled my name. “Oh, come on. Let's pretend. Replace the card.” She fanned the deck and I put the card back. “Look, it would be easy for Me to do the trick, so how about you shuffle the deck?” She handed me the deck and I began shuffling. “When I gave you humans free will I also gave up control over what you'll do. Flip over the deck and look at the cards.” I did as God told me. “It's pure chaos,” She continued, “I couldn't control the path you humans would take. Just like I can't control the order that you shuffle these cards in. Turn them over again and continue shuffling.” I again followed Her instruction. “What I know is that it will all turn out well in the end. What was your card?” “Nine of hearts.” “When you're done flip over the deck.” I flipped over the deck and found it to be in complete order: seven, eight, nine and the rest of diamonds, followed by hearts, clubs and spades. But one card was missing. “Looking for this?” She handed me a card face down. “I know that there's lots of stuff that's going completely wrong in the world. I didn't mean for that all to happen, but I can assure you that it will all turn out fine in the end. And in the meantime we can only do the best of it.” My head was racing with all the things wrong with this stupid explanation, but then in a blink She was gone. No trace of Her or Her suitcase. I was confused. Had I been hallucinating? Stranger things happened in Vegas. But then I felt the card in my hand. I flipped it over. It was the nine of hearts, with my signature. But next to it there now was some text in elegant calligraphy: “I met God and all I got was this lousy playing card.”

Another cheat day where the story is a day late. (High) Fantasy was the biggest gap in this month's collection, but I'm very sceptical of the genre's tropes (as should have become obvious in the story). Much of it is based on speciesist metaphors for racist assumptions. I'm not condemning anyone reading or even writing such stories, but I simply can't enjoy them. I know that the TTRPG space is addressing these problems. Of course, player groups have always done what they felt right, but even publishers and designers are doing away with “race bonuses” or “species constraints” in their games. I don't read any high fantasy to know whether similar changes are taking place there. That all is to say that I could only write a high fantasy short story if I could simultaneously critique it. In the end I think that the overall story suffers less from that than I originally assumed. My original idea just had the bracketing narrative of the theory and the rejection letters and I was surprised to find how much I had to say for the whole part in between. Also, the orcs were supposed to give a similar rejection to the elves, being stereotypically uninterested in science. But I did want someone inside the story to point out how Quartz was just sitting at home describing cultures he'd never seen. Giving that part to the elves felt undeserved as it would have muddled the racism with intellectual honesty and the stereotype of elves really needs to be taken down a peg. If it had been Opal to point it out to him at the end it would have elevated the two even more: Just two dwarves smarter than everyone else. Rational thinking and intellectualizing can get you only so far. It's fair if they want to be alone in their hut, but if they want to contribute to science and culture they have to live in it. That's also why there's no cultural shift at the end, no happy ending where all species come together. Change at such a scale requires time and the work of hundreds of people. And because the elves and Opal were out, I chose the orcs to criticise Quartz. I still wanted the orcs at least in part to fit the stereotype of being violent, impulsive, and dirty, which makes their letter read a bit like a parody (and it is funny for “Headsmash Bloodsplitter” to critique Quartz' scientific methods!) But in my head canon some of the tribes also recognize the problem with that and work towards accommodating other lifestyles within their tribe. Opal becoming a hunter is ironic, I know. Baby steps. Lastly, the title might imply a “second theory” which might be a second story? Probably not, but there's still a couple stories left this month.

Quartz Rockpolish was excited to see that he had received so many responses to the letters he had sent out. The middle-aged dwarf had used his free time to write up a “Theory Of The Effects Of Pressures Imposed By Societies Upon The Mind Of The Individuals Living Within Them: An Exploration Of Elven, Dwarven, And Orcish Stereotypes Through The Lens Of Environment, Upbringing, And Culture.” Quartz had, like most dwarfs, grown up in a mine. Here he had learned about mining, the different tools, the logistics of transport, the worth of minerals, how to find vines of gems, how to avoid cave ins, in short how to be a good dwarf. But, he had never really found joy in it. He had done the work, he had sung the songs, he had even had some great finds, but in the end it didn't really make him happy. When he had brought it up to his parents they had laughed at him, told him that he would learn to love it eventually, and had forbidden him from bringing the topic up again. Quartz had listened, he had swallowed down the feelings of unhappiness and tried to find joy and meaning in his work. Years passed, but the feelings just intensified until they one day overwhelmed him. He lost control and bashed in seven supporting pillars causing the vein to collapse. 27 dwarves were trapped and he was taken to the infirmary under suspicion of cave fever. After a week off work Quartz felt an inner peace that he had never felt before. The news that the 27 colleagues had all been saved was a huge weight off his shoulder, but more importantly not having to journey so deep into the earth was freeing. He started making friends with the other people stationed at the infirmary. Many just had minor mining injuries and left the infirmary again quickly, but he found a good friend in Opal. They bonded over their shared appreciation of the different life at the infirmary and soon Quartz felt he could trust her enough to tell her about his feelings towards mining and his dreams of doing something else with his life. “Duh,” Opal responded and laughed, “welcome to my life!” “What do you mean?” “Do you think that you're the only dwarf that hates mining and wants to do something else? Dwarves leave all the time. They want to build boats or write poetry or become bakers. I want to become a hunter.” Quartz's reality was dissolving around him. “What do you mean 'dwarves leave all the time'. And why do you want to be a hunter? Isn't that what the narcissistic elves do?” Opal laughed again, shaking her head. “Do you really think that living, thinking creatures like us dwarves—creatures able to make free choices no less—that we would all be the same? That we would all love the same thing, digging down into the earth? And don't talk like that about the elves! They are the same as us. They might look and live differently, but they are just as different amongst their kind as we are amongst ours.” “But what about our build?” “What about it?” “Well, we have this short stature and strong arms. Our bodies are practically built to mine the earth.” “And the child born with one eye? Is it 'built' to use the telescope? Does the boy born with strong legs find joy in jumping? They might or they might not.” “But why do we do it then?” “Maybe it's tradition? I haven't thought about that part much.”

That day Quartz had decided to leave the mine and to explore this topic further. Three days later when he came to Opal to say his goodbyes she had instead joined him. They had found a spot near a river where they had built a small hut for themselves. It was a difficult start, learning how to survive alone, but Opal soon got a grip on hunting and Quartz managed things around the house. When the day-to-day got easier he found some time to return to his idea of exploring why the dwarfs did what they did. He started writing down his theories and ideas. Then he would read them to Opal who would give feedback and he'd go on revising them. When his theories finally took a more coherent form another suspicion also rose back up from the back of his mind: These ideas seemed to apply not only to the way the dwarves were living but also to the lives of the orcs and elves. Quartz took another two months to expand on these areas and generalize his theory. He then wrote a neat ten-page article and sent it out to some elven colleges and orc camps, offering to come and give lectures laying out his theories in full. He did not send letters to any dwarven mines. He still remembered how sternly his parents had told him not to rock the boat and after years above ground he wasn't very fond of returning down into a mine, even if just for a lecture. And now he was holding all these responses in his hands! It must be fifteen letters from elves and even one from an orc tribe! He opened the first one. It was from Aspen College, a medium-sized elven institution.

Dear Mr. Rockpolish,

we're sorry to inform you that we do not admit non-elven lecturers on our campus. We nevertheless wish you good luck in your further endeavours.

Kind regards Zaranina Carving Director of Aspen College

Quartz' excitement took a hit. He hastily opened the letter of another elven college and found a similar rejection. He tore open the rest of them and found more of the same racist attitude. Hesitantly he moved on to the only letter he'd received from an orc tribe. The return address simply read “The Bloodsplitters”.


You use big words in this “theory” of yours. They do not hide your shoddy work. You talk of “initiation rituals.” You talk of “fear-based social control”. You talk of “socially constructed images of a proto-orc.” You talk of all this and more, but you do not give examples. And for anyone even remotely familiar with orc culture it would be easy to cite any number of rituals like “The Night of the Hunt”, “The Dragon Ride”, or “The Bloodbath.” Then again, you could not have supported your holistic theory if you had even the least bit of familiarity with orcish “Environment, Upbringing, And Culture” as you put it in the title of your work.

We are uninterested in you presenting your full theory as you laid it out now. We do see promise in you and your work though. That is why we want to invite you to immerse yourself in our culture, to live with our clan and to continue your work proper.

Gore and glory! Headsmash Bloodsplitter

Quartz sat in stunned silence and went over the letter twice more. “Whatcha readin'?” Opal had come back from her hunt and put down two rabbits on the table and began skinning them. Quartz' mind took a moment to come back to return from the letter to the here and now. “I think I want to live with the Bloodsplitters?”

Okay, here's part two to yesterday's story. What fascinates me about this part of the story (as it was told by Ovid) is the inevitability of it. When Daedalus instructs Icarus he already knows that Icarus will die. But, like Kassandra, he can't do anything about it. A small detail that is sometimes lost is that Daedalus instructs Icarus not only to not fly too high, but also not too low. It is the excess that becomes Icarus undoing, but the myth also warns us not to deprive ourselves either. Another detail I stole from Ovid is the tragedy of the fall. Icarus suddenly is in panic, the wings that but a moment ago were carrying him have forsaken him and he gets taken by the sea before he can even call out for his father. I had to leave out the perspective of the father, who (in Ovid again) notices that his son is missing and frantically looks in all directions hoping to find him somewhere until he notices the feathers floating on the waves. Lastly, what is it that causes Icarus to ignore his father's advice and fly too high? It's not stupidity or rebellion. There has to be an inherent allure in the act. And I believe that Icarus is right in a way. He comes to an early end, but he knew what he was doing. It was a conscious decision and maybe it was even the right one.

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight For the greatest tragedy of them all Is never to feel the burning light. —Oscar Wilde

“Icarus, we have to leave Crete,” Daedalus sighed looking at his boy, “We have to leave now.” “But what about my friends? What about your job with the king? When will we come back?” “Now.” Daedalus insisted. He didn't want to tell his son what danger they were in. That this wasn't a joy ride. That this was an escape from certain death. Icarus got most of that anyway just from observing his father's expression. There was a mix of sadness and anger, with a dash of fear sprinkled in. Icarus stopped protesting and let his father attach the wings to him. Leather straps fixated the apparatus to his back, and his elbows. His father instructed him to place his hands through some loops and grasp them tight. Icarus was amazed at the lightness of the whole material. It didn't amount to more than the weight of wearing a silk robe. He moved his arms and felt the power. Just this light flapping had almost lifted him off the ground. “Icarus!” his father reprimanded him. He himself was fastening his own wings on his back. Icarus jumped up into the air and assisted himself with a flap. He shot up two meters into the air and slowly glided back down. “Icarus, please,” his father placed a hand on his shoulder. He wasn't angry with him. There was pain in his eyes. As if he knew something terrible was about to happen. “I see you got the hang of these already. But don't get cocky now. We'll fly over the ocean to the mainland. If you fly too high the sun will melt the wax, the feathers will come lose and you will fall. If you fly too low water from the ocean will cling to the feathers and wear them down. You'll follow me exactly and we'll make it over the sea.” “Not too high, not too low. Follow you to the mainland,” Icarus summarized. Daedalus gave a nod with a smile, but there were tears in his eyes. Then he turned, took a running start and flung himself up into the air. The sudden speed of his old man had surprised Icarus, but he also took a running start and threw himself off the small rockface and dove straight down with his wings folded in. When he had built enough speed he opened his wings and made a hard turn upwards, catapulting himself dozens of meters high to find his place behind his father. He was gliding on the warm air enjoying a freedom he had never felt before. But the flying, the wings, it all felt so intuitive. Not like something new he had gained, but something lost that he had regained. Just like when he was seven years old and his father had crafted him his first set of spectacles. When he could for the first time see the individual leaves of the olive trees and the bugs scuttling about between the rocks. And now he could finally fly through the like he was always meant to, like his heart had always already done. An immense feeling of joy washed over Icarus. He needed to push the boundaries. He looked up and he saw that the orange clouds were hanging low. He folded his wings again and started another vertical descend to catapult himself up. He quickly gained so much speed that the wind was thrashing so aggressively about him that he had to close his eyes even with his spectacles. He counted in his head, three, four, five! and exploded his wings outward. The upwards turn was so extreme that a strong force was pulling upon his whole body. A tingling sensation went through his body. His momentum had been transformed and Icarus was now shooting straight into the sky. He flapped his arms and accelerated even more. He looked straight up at the clouds that were coming closer at an incredible speed. His eyes hurt from the wind, but he needed to witness this. His climb started to slow, but he knew that it would be enough to breach the clouds. As he braced for impact, but passing through the cloud was just like passing through a veil. And then he was on the other side. He had reached his apex and hung in the air. And though it was but a moment it felt like a lifetime. The clouds below reflected the golden sunlight and expanded endlessly in all directions. Turning his body upwards he saw the sun so bright and glorious like never before. He reached out a hand and felt like he could almost hold onto Apollo's carriage hurdling through the sky. All about him feathers hung in the air like little angels celebrating this triumph with him. In passing through the clouds Icarus had transcended into a realm of the gods. A transient space placed there for the gods to behold and admire. A place no mortal was meant to witness for the pure gold and white shine of it was like a kingdom that no king would ever be worthy of, the air he was breathing tasted like Gaia's tranquil breath of life, the warmth of the sun wrapped around him like the arms of a nurturing mother.

Icarus was overcome with feelings of awe and pure bliss.

He started to sink back down again. He was accelerating quickly and soon was barrelling down at incredible speeds. He agitated his arms, but he had lost most feathers and was not gaining grip on the air. Instead, he started spinning uncontrollably. He had already broken through the clouds again. Sometimes he would see the ocean, Crete, the clouds. The world was spinning fast around him and he couldn't fixate on any point. Then it came to him—Daedalus! His father must be here somewhere. He brought the name to his lips, but before it could exit he was taken in by the ocean waves and brought into its depths from whence he wouldn't return.

I had never given this story much thought until coming across it in Ovid's Metamorphosis. It's just a short couple of lines, but they left a deep impression on me.


“What are you making?” asked the son. “You'll see,” said the father. The son was fascinated by all the tools in his father's workshop. Normally he wasn't allowed in here. His father always made excuses. “You'll hurt yourself,” he'd say, “there's sharp edges and heavy tools.” If the son persisted and promised to be careful he'd say, “I have an important contraption to build for the king. I can't let myself be distracted by you.” “I'll stay out of your way and just watch,” the son would say, but the father wouldn't budge. “When you're older.” But today the son hadn't needed to plea and beg. “Come,” the father had said and left the workshop door open behind him. What was different about today? The son hadn't had a birthday. He was still thirteen. The father had come down hurried after some talk with the king, so it was safe to assume that it was another of his orders. The son walked around the shelves. He would stop every two or three steps and eye the curious tools and materials. Presently, he picked up a shiny rock of a kind he'd never seen before. He adjusted the spectacles his father had crafted him and inspected the rock more closely. “Don't touch that,” his father commented while drawing up some plans on a piece of paper. The son put the rock back and picked up a piece that looked like a couple of pencils put together in some zig-zag formation. When he unfolded the first angle all the other angles unfolded with it and the whole piece extended to an incredible length. “Give me that,” the father growled, taking the piece and using it to draw a big arced line on his plan. Now the father started actually building something he went around carrying candles and pots, pieces of wood, and bags of something soft. Often the son would be in the way through no fault of his own. The son had had an idea for an invention of his own and started collecting some string, pieces of wood and some tools, a file, a hammer, a saw. He tried to stay out of his father's way while working, but he still earned the occasional annoyed comment and twice his father took the tool he was just using because he needed it himself. But after a couple of hours the two both finished their projects simultaneously. “Look, father, it is an arm extender. You pull this trigger and at the other and these bolts shut and can grasp something for you.” He demonstrated with a rolled up piece of paper that he got from the top shelf. “Very good,” The expression of the father had softened somewhat, “though your system of string pulleys will have trouble producing enough torque to grasp something heavier.” “I had noticed that already. But I have an idea to fix it, maybe I can try tomorrow? What did you make for the king?” “The king? No, these are for us,” said the father and presented two sets of wings he'd built from feathers and wax, “Icarus, we have to leave Crete,” the father sighed looking at his boy, “We have to leave now.”

An amalgamation of my most terrifying nightmares and my worst experiences. I leave it to the reader to speculate on which is which. It really hurt to write, but in a good way, like tearing off a band aid. Maybe this process can dispel the nightmares and help me let go of these painful memories and fears. When I started out with this story I had only a couple plot points mapped out in my mind, but it was shockingly easy to find more and more. The most terrifying place on earth is inside a bus.