Curiosity

The following piece was written for Scribophile’s Flash 500 “Unreasonable Constraints” contest:

This challenge is to write entirely in passive voice.

You will be allowed to use 1 (one, uno, un, ein) active verb per 100 words. If you need some help with passive voice, check out this website. As usual, you have 500 words (meaning 5 active verbs tops) to tell the story of what makes an inhuman character’s life difficult.

Hopefully the contest will be won by you!

Enjoy!


Six dusty wheels were warmed by the creeping morning sun, and dozens of small motors were brought to life with muted clicks and whirs. These cheerful sounds would have been barely audible to an observer standing close—there was no such observer, of course, but every moving part on the Mars rover had been designed to be silent as possible, just in case.

The self-contained mobile laboratory had been given dozens of tasks, from the mundane to the scientifically groundbreaking. Each task was fulfilled with diligence and precision. Samples of soil were collected, tested, stored onboard. Temperatures were measured: sunrise, sunset, and at each meridian. High-resolution photographs were taken: sweeping vistas of deserty-red. Breathtaking close-macro shots: rocks, crystals, ice. Even the occasional self-portrait—all directed by a rigorous list of assignments.

Despite the serious mission, our imagined observer might be forgiven for thinking the robot was happy: as the lab was moved onto the sunlit floor of the great Martian crater under its own power, its single turret seemed to sway intentionally from side to side; sine-wave tracks were pressed into the rusty dirt.

The source of this odd behavior was simple. The exact nature of the rover’s encounters could not have been predicted before landing, so the operating system had been programmed with an “affinity” module. Objects and locations could have “probable interest” values assigned; the higher a value, the greater the affinity.

The robot had been given the ability to like things.

As a result, Curiosity liked its job. Daily activities of photographing, collecting, and analyzing, having been given high affinity values, were enjoyed. However, with limited onboard storage areas, the rover was soon filled, and its ability to discard anything was hampered under the very algorithm by which it was driven to gather in the first place. When the impasse had first been recognized, samples were neither gathered nor discarded; the poor robot was immobilized in agony.

The solution was inspired by the problem: the affinity module was enhanced, by the robot itself, with an obsessive fondness for chronological sorting. With the adjusted algorithm, collected items were unloaded into neat piles monthly. Piles were grouped into clusters by year. In this way, old collections were never lost, but new collections need never be passed over for want of storage.

The job could be enjoyed again.

The rover’s oscillations were amplified as it approached an outcropping at the crater’s edge, as though the vehicle’s chassé were exaggerated by eagerness. All along the small ridge, previous annual clusters had been neatly aligned in rows of eight, in columns of eight rows each. Fifteen columns were passed before a sudden stop at the corner of the sixteenth.

A single empty space.

Specimen containers were carefully lifted from the mobile lab’s compartments and set on the ground. When the last had been placed, the cause of the robot’s delight was revealed. The accomplishment was recorded in the rover’s computer memory: Cluster number one thousand twenty-four was completed today. A perfect, round number.

Review: Scribophile

A few months ago, having realized that I am unlikely to ever have time for an “in-person” writing group, I started looking for virtual or online writing groups. I figured I would check a few out, take notes, and write reviews of each site to post here on “Hey, Look! I’m a Writer!”

It turns out I really needn’t have bothered. Having compared several options and having signed up for about four different sites, there’s only one I’ve actually stuck with: Scribophile (http://www.scribophile.com).

Scribophile bills itself as “The online writing group for serious writers.” Perhaps a better version of that tagline would be, “The online writing group for people who are serious about writing,” though that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. I was pleased to find that the members of the site are not “serious” all the time—just serious about writing.

There are a few categories I intended to compare between sites. Even though I no longer plan to review multiple sites, I can give you a quick summary of Scribophile’s ratings in those categories.

Number of authors/members on the site

This information was not actually available anywhere that I could find it. However, on the home page when you go to log in or sign up, Scribophile claims “141,235 critiques served for 21,905 works, and 377,460 posts in 15,465 threads in our writing forums.” Even if you assume that every member has posted more than one work, that still works out to several thousand members.

Requirements for Posting Writing

Like at least a couple of other sites I tried, Scribophile works on a “credit” system, where you earn credits to post your own work by providing critiques on the work others have posted. On Scribophile, these credits are called Karma, and it takes 5 Karma to post a work—so you have to get critiquing before you can even start posting! This actually accomplishes some good things, though: it ensures that new members understand what other members are posting, what the “Code of Conduct” is for making comments on other people’s writing, and what to expect when other members start critiquing the new members’ work.

It takes me, on average, two or three critiques to earn enough Karma points to post something. This is reasonable to achieve, and also ensures that every work gets multiple critiques, since almost everyone wants to post their writing for feedback.

One interesting feature is the “Spotlight” concept, where works in a spotlight earn critiquers more Karma per feedback than works not in a spotlight. A work in a spotlight will then attract more feedback, as a general rule, than a work not in a spotlight; posted writing moves through the queue from “waiting for the spotlight” to “in the spotlight” where it remains until a certain number of critiques have been completed. Then it moves out of the spotlight to make room for the next work. Marshaling writing through a queue like this means that getting your work into a spotlight where it will attract more critiques requires you to go critique the works ahead of yours to make room! Again, a great way to ensure that every posted work receives quality feedback.

Quality of Feedback

Scribophile has all kinds of members who are serious about writing, from “beginner” to “enthusiast” to “working toward publication” to “professionally published” to “professional editor.” This means that the feedback also runs at all levels—you’ll get a good idea whether people enjoy the overall plot and style, and you’ll get feedback and correction on mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation). You’ll also get an idea what it will take to make your work “publishable.”

The quality of feedback isn’t related to critiques, though. Scribophile also has an active discussion forum, where members ask and answer questions, some as amateurs and some as experts.

Cost

A premium Scribophile membership is $9/monthly or $65/yearly.

Is there a free membership level?

Yes! Scribophile has an ad-supported free level with nearly all the features of the paid membership—and, most importantly, access to the great community of writers.

Differences between paid/free membership (if any)

  • “Scribophile Premium” members can post unlimited works at a time for others to view and critique. Free (aka “Scribophile Basic”) members can post up to 2.
  • Premium members can add bold, italic, or underlined text to their posted writing, and insert pictures. Basic members cannot.
  • Premium members can bypass the main Spotlight queue by posting their work in a “Personal Spotlight.” This increases the amount of time feedback on the work earns extra Karma, but it also reduces the pool of potential critiquers to those who are in Scribophile groups with you or who have flagged you as a “favorite” author.

Who would benefit from the site?

Any aspiring writer would benefit from the site. So would any professional or prospective professional writer. From enthusiast to expert, anyone who wants to write would benefit from Scribophile. There is a caveat, however: come with realistic expectations and thick skin. This is not a site full of your friends, family, and neighbors who have told you since you were twelve years old that you are a wonderful writer. If there are problems with your writing, your plot, your mechanics: you will be told, and bluntly. Luckily, if there are things that work well, passages that are eloquent, characters who are engaging: you’ll be told that, too.

Would I recommend joining?

Yes! I can’t say it any more simply than that.

Just tell them Boris sent you.

Rivals

Boris had not stopped talking in the hour-and-a-quarter the pair had been standing on the dirt semicircle, hard-packed by thousands of feet which had, at one time or another, sojourned around the lonely iron pole, a pole which unnecessarily hoisted a pockmarked and faded orange sign with long-forgotten lettering—the only sign of its kind for thirty kilometers to the next village or fifty to the last, so what it had once said didn’t really matter: every child and every babushka knew its location simply as “the bus stop.”

George, of course, hadn’t listened to a word of the incessant Russian-accented noise. For all of his oppressive Slavic hospitality and grandiose assertions of lifelong friendship, Boris was an insufferable imp, amusing himself in the mild torment of others, and George was thrilled to have their decades-long partnership coming to an end. He found himself suppressing a smile as the one thought he had never dared express bubbled to the surface: he hated Boris, and always had.

Without waiting for Boris to finish whatever sentence he was in the middle of, George cleared his throat and spoke. “Can I bum a smoke, then, for old times’ sake?”

“Of course, dear friend!” Boris laughed a deep, hearty laugh and shook a cigarette halfway out of its cheap red-and-white paperboard box. He extended the box toward George and waited for the tentative reciprocation. When George’s fingers neared the proffered smoke, Boris jerked the pack away and shouted gruffly, “Two hundred rubles!”

George opened his mouth to speak, and closed it up again without a word. He lowered his eyes to his shoes and patted his pockets with both hands. “I’m sorry, Boris, I don’t have—”

Boris laughed again, a booming guffaw that reddened George’s face. “Is okay, George! Is joke!” He stuck the little box back at George. “You go on, take as many you like.”

George made no move to accept.

Boris smiled and tipped the box from side to side. “Hmmm? You not liking Russian cigarette now, George?”

George’s lip twitched—a slight snarl that delighted Boris—as he snatched the pack of cigarettes, destroying half of its poorly-rolled contents. He took one unbroken cigarette—not the one Boris had offered, though that cigarette still stood straight from the box—and put it in his mouth, crumpling the remainder in his hand. George jammed the other hand into a pocket and fished around, finally dropping his shoulders and pulling out an empty fist.

Boris fairly giggled—a low and rumbly titter better suited to a much higher voice. “You want lighter?”

George glared at Boris, jaw muscles flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing.

“Okay, okay, you don’t want lighter.” Boris shrugged, palms up and forward in an attempted show of sincerity, but he couldn’t suppress the ear-to-ear grin. “How about match?”

With two fingers of his left hand, George reached up to his mouth, eyes never blinking nor moving from Boris, and took the last unbroken and unlit cigarette from his lips. Opening his fingers, he let it fall to the ground in front of him. He stepped toward Boris, placing one foot over the cigarette.

“Boris,” George said, twisting his foot in the dirt, “I hate you. Always have.”

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops

Writer’s Digest Editor Blogs : Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops – Joshua Henkin

OK, let’s dispense with the obvious—namely, that there is a kernel of truth to the old saw “Show, don’t tell.” Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatize, not simply state things. The sentence “John was a handsome man” is not a handsome sentence, and though a writer is welcome to use it, she shouldn’t think it will do much work for her. Similarly, in the first workshop I ever took as a student of writing, when someone wrote “An incredible feeling of happiness washed over her,” the teacher said, “First of all, get rid of the ‘washed over’ cliché, and second of all, if in the course of an entire novel you can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, then that’s a major accomplishment.”

But it doesn’t follow from this that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy. It doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show. To my mind, the phrase “Show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.

Read the rest of the article…

Shákhmaty with Czar Cheslav Krakóva

A challenger vanquished sits silently anguished
Suffering Czar Cheslav’s celebration dance.
It’s not checkmate he hates; his poor nose is chafed
By the King of Krakóv’s chartreuse and purple pants!

Sighs at the chess table show the challenger’s grateful
For the simple shame of regal cabooses;
The king shakes when he’s glad. The alternative is bad:
Czar Cheslav Krakóva is worse when he loses!

August (Poem + Story) / (Story a Day in May)

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. Today’s piece actually meets two challenges: not only does it count as my Story a Day, but a second challenge which was “Take a poem or story and rewrite it as a story or poem, and post the two together.” So, I did.

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Story a Day in May: Day 1

I am participating in the “Story a Day in May” challenge (see http://StoryADay.org for more details). The goal is to write a complete story each day. The following is the first day’s results: unedited, unreworked, and… unfinished.

I have a very good idea where this story is going, but it’s obviously a much longer piece than I intended to write. But, the important thing is that I wrote it all in one sitting, and I successfully completed the first day of the challenge.

See you tomorrow for Day 2!

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