Round Robin: Four Tales

June 13th, 2007

Foreword to Four Tales

Kevin Murphy and I are in a writers’ group together, and, time permitting, we like to start the workshop with a writing exercise. It can be any number of things: write a scene from the point of view of a piece of furniture; write five opening sentences, choose the one you like best and write as much of a story as you can in the time allotted; choose three cards from a Tarot deck and see what sort of story they inspire in you. The writing exercise takes fifteen minutes–maybe twenty if we’re all really involved. And sometimes we decide to do a round robin writing exercise, which provides all sorts of good writerly nutritive benefit. Doing a round robin story makes you think about the threads of story and how they knit together; it makes you look at voice (even if you decide to ignore the voice you’ve been given); it forces you to make some decisions about someone else’s work. And when the final product is read aloud, there is often hilarity, and sometimes awe, at what has been wrought. To give you an idea of how this works, Kevin and I thought we would (with the permission of Christine Lorang and Jax Reid, who were also attending on the day this exercise was done) upload the four round robin stories that came out of the workshop this week, with the authors of each section of each story noted in brackets. See what you get from it.

Flavia’s Solution

[MR] Flavia adjusted the diadem on her brow. It was heavy; why had no one told her so? As the maids fluttered around her, twitching the lace at her throat and adjusting the fall of her skirt, Flavia wondered why they bothered. Why had anyone bothered, ever? To raise her, destined as she was; to feed and clothe and educate her, to make sure she could dance and write a sonnet and speak three languages flawlessly? Why bother now to dress her as if she were to be married, to curl her hair and nestle jewels in her ears? But there was a thing the maids, and the King, and her father (the second minister for ritual) did not know. There were three things, in fact. The first: that under the gown, instead of the dainty slippers that had been put out for her, Flavia wore stout boots, suitable for running and kicking. The second: that in her hand, in the curve of her clenched fist, there was a folding knife, wickedly sharp. The last: that Flavia had no intention of dying in the princess’s stead.
[CL] Flavia allowed the maids to lead her down the many hallways of the second-best palace, from high galleries with sweeping views, down past the great hall and the many stuffy antechambers where her father and the first minister did the king’s work for him. One maid took her hand and six more were needed to carry the train of her heavy wedding gown. She heard them stumbling and grumbling behind her as they spiraled down the dusty back stair. In the hallway below, her father and the first minister were waiting on either side of a heavy stone door, improbably decorated with dancing animals and flowers.
[JR] “You are doing a great service for your land, Lady Egress,” said the first minister, his cap billowing in the wind, his leggings so tight that the matted hair on his legs was plainly evident.
Flavia had always hated the first minister. If it weren’t for him she would not be in the spot she was now: waiting to be publicly sacrificed to satisfy some sort of ridiculous superstition about the eldest daughter of the second minister being fairer than the princess and therefore bringing a pox upon the land of Ingress and the wrath of Elmot the Ogre.
If only Minister Parvit knew how impotent Elmot’s wrath was and how strong was his love.
[KAM] Lady Egress heard the door shut behind her, the unctuous click of the lock, and for the first time beheld Elmot the Ogre.
He wasn’t tall as ogres went, and more handsome than most. In a dim light he could pass for a huge, brutish man. But the light was not dim: a thousand candles lit the hall.
Elmot regarded her. “So, a fighter, is it? That seems to be the fashion for princesses these days.” He fell to the floor, lengthened and greened, and a gigantic crocodile now gazed at her. “Care to try your luck with this instead?”
“Why do you curse the land?” asked Flavia.
The crocodile swished its tail. “Tradition, perhaps?”
“I break with tradition,” Flavia said.
The crocodile grinned. “Truly? There’s a long tradition of princesses who fight back.” He grinned more. “But I am not your enemy, my sweet. Bring me the heart of Minister Parvit and you may go free.”
“I heard you loved eating the hearts of dainty maidens!”
“I do,” said the crocodile. “But you hardly seem dainty. But the heart of a cowardly minister? That would be tender and rather juicy.”
“That it would,” said Flavia, taking out the key she’d lifted from Minister Parvit…

Missing Hardware

[CL]Brian liked to spend as much time as possible polishing the robot. His father didn’t bother him when he was in the machine shop, Trina would leave him alone for the most part (she didn’t like to get grease on her uniform), and he could pretend that he was doing something useful. For the most part, however, he spent his time polishing the cherry-red enameled exterior. He liked the outside to be as beautiful to the rest of the world as the gears and wires inside were to him.
Today he spent an extra half-hour in the shop because [JR] something very strange had happened that morning:
The lifeless robot that Brian had spent countless hours cleaning and pruning and programming suddenly lit up and began to move its mechanical limbs, limbs that had never moved on their own–except that one time when there was an earthquake and the whole thing jumped three feet in the air before falling gracelessly to pieces.
“Brian,” the robot said to him that morning. (It was news to Brian that the thing could speak.) “Yo, Brian! Trina–she’s hot, dude. You should totally tap that [KAM] little momma!”
“You can speak,” Brian said. He had to state the obvious to comprehend it.
“Yes,” the robot said, inspecting its limbs. “Ooh, I’m shiny! The lady bots are gonna flip!”
“Um…” said Brian. “There aren’t any lady bots.” He paused. “There aren’t any guy bots either.”
“Dude,” drawled the robot, “that is so–Omigod! Where’s my dick?” The robot’s claws clanked against the smooth painted metal at the front of his torso. “How can you build a guy robot without a dick?”
Brian stood aghast. He hadn’t thought he could produce an AI with sentience, let alone gender identity, but here was proof of both.
The robot was freaking out. “What sort of fucked-up Geppetto are you, dude?”
[MR]“One that didn’t think he was making Pino–No, I mean, making a real boy.” Brian was stung. Somehow he’d given the robot life, and all he was getting were complaints. “No lady robots–so why do you need a dick?”
“Why do you, seeing as you ain’t using yours. I mean, that Trina, she seriously–”
“Stop it!” Brian put his hands over his ears. This–the shop, the robot–was the one place in his life that had been uncomplicated. No Dad asking about his grades and when was he taking the SATs; no Trina whining about going out for a change; none of the guys from gym class slamming him up against lockers. He hadn’t built the robot to get at any of them–just to have a place to be, away from them all. And now–
“Dude, gimme a dick. Then you’re gonna make me a lady friend.”
“I can’t–” Brian started.
The robot stepped close, its cherry-red chassis pressing against Brian’s chest. Why had he made it so big? “Never say can’t.” The robot admonished. It sounded like a threat. “Start with the dick. Hey–” the hollow mechanical voice rose with enthusiasm. “You could make it retractable–so I don’t have to wear pants.”
“Yeah, Dude. I don’t want my hardware swinging in the breeze. Retractable cojones. Man, I am one smart bot.”
Brian thought. “Okay, but I’ll have to turn you off to do it.”
The robot, lost in visions of his future sex life, agreed. “Where do you want me, dude?”
“Over here, on the work table.”
The robot stretched out obediently on the table. Brian reached behind its neck. “Ready?”
“Yeah man. Do it. Ladies, here I come.”
Brian flicked the switch.
The robot lay, beautiful, shiny and red, the way Brian had made him: inert and insensate. That off-on switch had been a good idea. Brian turned off the light and went upstairs for a Coke. If only there was a way to install a switch for Dad and Trina.

The Sands of Saerus

[JR] The suns had set on Saerus; only delphis away would the sand winds begin their bitter assault. Chamik folded her proto-sheath around her shoulders and began the nightly task of burrowing deep within the sands. But tonight was different from the rest. Tonight she would only burrow to the third plane. Tonight she would rise up and face her enemy.
[KAM] The Kengine Worms had come to Saerus, killed her family and enslaved her people. All except those who they’d instead infected, plunging their ovipositors deep into the flesh, leaving an alien egg which hatched, eventually melding with and destroying the old form but horribly retaining its mind and personality. Her brother was one such, Mikto’s chosen because he was loremaster(1) of her tribe, and though the monster now slithered across the sand with a rattlesnake’s undulation, it still hissed the word, “sister” in Mikto’s sweet [MR] tones.
Chamik’s flesh crawled at the sound, the hiss echoed by the sand winds above. She had not yet reached the first plane — was nearly visible to the worm that owned Mikto’s body.
“Siss-ter.” The familiar voice again. “Chamik? I’m cold. I’m frightened.”
Chamik stayed quiet. She knew the Worm was only using her brother to lure her out, and she wasn’t ready to fight yet. On the third plane she would find the weapon she needed to destroy the Worm and give her brother peace.
Above Chamik’s head there was movement, the slick presence of a worm sliding across the sand. The foul winds didn’t disturb the Worms; they had no need to hide.
I could reach up, Chamik thought. If I had a weapon now I could gut the worm from where I am now. [CL] But to find that weapon she had to let the opportunity pass. She was already well buried in the sand, hopefully it would be protection enough. She could not go deeper without rousing the Worm so close above. Fortunately, to get to the next plane she would not be burrowing through sand, but into her own mind.
She thought of her brother’s favorite tune and held the melody in her head. He was always fond of lively dances, the ones that left him sweating and grinning and surrounded by girls. It would be better if she could hum the words aloud, but danger lurked above. It took longer than usual, but she was able to follow the tune inward until she found herself on the shore of the Inner Sea, dressed in rags.
Five rowboats were rolled up onto the beach. The two largest would have been father’s and mother’s, but they were beyond needing them now. The bottom planks were already rotted out and colonized by anemones and crabs. The next two boats had belonged to her brothers. The paint was still bright, but soon they would be in ruins, too. Hers was the smallest, barely large enough for two passengers–and then only if one was a child. She pushed the boat into the water and hopped in.
Chamik pulled the oars once and the ocean sped past faster than gull-flight. Another stroke and she was in a half-flooded city. She heard crying to her left and steered the boat over to a sagging dock. As soon as she saw the little boy crouched there, she knew who it must be.
“Come,” she said, putting out her hand. As soon as they touched, she was under the sand once again, but the boy was with her. So was the Worm.
With a scream, the boy lunged up and plunged deep into the Worm’s body. Chamik laughed.

The Venefice’s Business

[KAM] “I’m sorry, madam, but His Imperial Majesty is not issuing any attorages this year,” the clerk explained, politely if not precisely patiently. “I can take your name for the waiting list….”
“But I was the Venefice to the Duke of Vimes!” Lady Mirabelle protested.
“His Imperial Majesty is still not issuing any additional licenses to produce or dispense poisons.” The clerk dipped his pen. “I might, however, know of a shop with an existing license who might have use for a woman of your skill.”
“A shop?” Lady Mirabelle [MR] was dismayed. She had not been raised to be an employee; if anything she had hoped to use her skills as Venefice to establish a business of her own. She had been particularly skilled at formulations which yielded a tasteless, odorless, fast-acting poison, excellent for hiding in food, drink, or even facial cream.
“If you go left upon leaving this office,” the clerk said, clearly uninterested in the silent ruminations of the minor nobility, “and follow the canal for three streets, you will see a shop under the sign of a rising serpent. Ask for Sienna Attrocus.”
Lady Mirabelle gathered up her letters of recommendation from the Duke and his heir and, leaving the Licensure Office, turned left at the canal.
[CL] Three streets later, the canal road began to crumble. Cobbles turned beneath her ladylike shoes, and shaky tenements leaned over the street menacingly. She found the sign of the rising serpent over a poorly hung door, but was not entirely certain she wanted to enter. No matter how poor her family’s estate might be at the moment, surely even marrying a nincompoop like Baron Kirkton would be preferable to employment in such a hovel?
Startled by a meow and a splash behind her, she spun around. She caught a glimpse of the cat dashing off, but was more worried about the burly man approaching her. He already had a sharp knife out. She dashed back to the serpent sign and [JR] rapped loudly on the rickety wooden board which passed for a door.
“G’Away,” said an old woman’s voice, her accent a cross between the peasants of Vimes and the easterners across the canal.
Lady Mirabelle turned sharply to see the burly man inches away from the train of her dress. Oh why had she worn such senseless attire?
“Gimme what’s all in tha’ bag,” the man said, knife pointing menacingly toward her sample -sack.
Lady Mirabelle banged on the door again. “Please,” she cried. “Let me in! I’m just a poor defenseless maiden with naught but my youth-rejuvenating facial cream that’s worth a pretty piece of silver!” Lady Mirabelle tried ever so hard to sound convincing.
“Facial Cream?” the man with the knife said, suddenly interested. “Gimme what’s in the bag. I need that cream fer me wife.”
Lady Mirabelle reached in her bag and pulled out the cream, careful not to touch the edges where the oil had seeped through.
“How do I know it’s the real thing?” the man asked.
Lady Mirabelle made pains to look at the man’s face and gnarled hands. “Try some. On your hands,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, you are free to kill me.”
“Some guarantee,” the man said, dipping his fingers into the cream.
Thirty seconds later the man with the knife was twitching uncontrollably in the gutter and Lady Mirabelle had her first job as assistant alchemist.

Afterword for Four Tales

Madeleine mentioned the hilarity that often ensues in such things, and often it springs from a word, or even the misreading of a word. My handwriting has been charitably described as “very boy” so when it came time for Jax to read the conclusion I’d written for her story, and when I’d hastily scrawled loremaster, well, I’ll use her own words to describe what she read to the group:

Some of us read this as “lovemaster,” which could have significantly changed some characterization, but oddly it works, too.

There were a lot of questions about my own beginning as well, when folk stumbled across attorage, a word and definition I’d bounced across last month and realized it would work well with venefice, another specialized old word I’d collected and been looking for an excuse to use.

Anyway, once the stories were done and each of the original authors read them, we were all sent home with our original to type and title, the results what you are reading here.

–Kevin Andrew Murphy

2 Responses to “Round Robin: Four Tales”

  1. ehjoneson 16 Jun 2007 at 12:55 pm

    I love round robin writing!

    Back in the early days of online computing, before public Internet access became the norm, I participated in a round robin writing forum on Prodigy that we called Sanctuary Dark. (Very different arrangement than what you’re describing here.) It can be very stimulating to the brain cells to have to look at what someone else wrote, and come up with the next chapter, or even the next ten or twenty lines. The same storyline was kept going for, oh, I don’t know, over two years… it grew and grew, with subplots growing and shrinking all over the place. It was an amazing exercise, and my first exposure to the kind of round robin writing that can really help a person grow as a writer.

    I’ve actually tried to get something like what you guys do started with my online writer friends. I miss that kind of collaborative feeling, where you have to give up control of your words to someone else and see what they do with them.

  2. Daniel Woodson 20 Jun 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Highly pointless comment: I like Flavia’s solution best :p.

    Other than that, though, I’ve never had the chance to participate in some round robin writing, but it must produce some really interesting stories, and it sounds like fun. I almost wish that MR (in this case) had written a full version of Flavia’s Solution him/herself, so we could compare and see where other peoples’ ideas had taken the story. Purely curiosity, but still.

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