Writing

Grumpy Monkey Fiction: A Short Story About Conversation

Robin came in to the coffee shop while I was sitting in the back booth, sipping on an iced coffee and scribbling in my notebook.

“What are you doing?” she asked, slipping into the seat across from me and tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear.

“Writing a short story with lots of dialogue,” I said. “All my stories have tons of exposition and lots of description, but they’re always short on dialogue. So for this story I am trying to make it all about dialogue.”

Robin crinkled her nose. “Talking, eh? So what’s the story about?”

I sighed. “I’m not sure yet. I just know that it has to have a lot of dialogue.”

The waitress came by and Robin ordered an ice coffee. Then she refocused her attention on me. “So you decided that you wanted to write a story with lots of dialogue, but you have no idea what the story is about?”

“Correct” I said.

“You do realize that’s not how most people write stories, don’t you?”

“Yep,” I said. “But I want to make this work. You don’t grow unless you push yourself in new directions.”

Robin grinned. She had a way of grinning that cut through you like a katana blade. “Very profound, Confucius. Put that in your story somewhere: ‘You don’t grow unless you push yourself in new directions.’ Maybe you can have your protagonist say that before he starts off on his journey.”

The waitress returned with Robin’s iced coffee and she took a sip without taking her eyes off me. I felt like I was being cross-examined at a murder trial.

“So who is your protagonist, anyway?” she asked, that familiar glass-cutting grin creeping up at the corners of her mouth. “Let me guess…he’s a guy about your age, about your height, about your build, who maybe sets overly ambitious goals for himself?”

I flushed deep red. Could she see directly into my brain? Or was I really that transparent? It was time for a counterattack. “Maybe it’s about a know-it-all brunette girl who always puts her iced coffee on my tab.”

She grinned and took a long lingering sip, batting her eyelashes at me like a 1950s movie star. “Thanks for the iced coffee, dah-ling.”

One more sip and she continued. “Look, Mr. Touchy-Pants. All I am saying is that you can’t just set out to write a story with lots of dialogue unless you know that you have a story that calls for a lot of dialogue. Otherwise it is just going to sound forced.”

I groaned. “I know. It’s not really working for me.” I snapped my notebook shut. “Why is dialogue so hard? People talk all the time! I’ve been talking for longer than I’ve been writing. I’ve been talking for longer than I’ve been walking. This should be easy. But it’s not. My characters never have anything to say.”

Robin leaned across the table and smiled. This wasn’t another of her saber-toothed grins, thankfully. This smile had genuine warmth.

“My advice is to start slow,” she said. “Pick a realistic situation where two characters would be talking…like, say a coffee shop. Then introduce a protagonist who is desperately trying to achieve a goal, say you trying to write this story. Then add conflict, maybe by introducing an antagonist in the form of a beautiful girl who knows far too much about far too many things.” She beamed. “And then have them start talking and see what happens.”

I shrugged. “Sounds easy when you say it that way. But it will never work.”

Writing

Not So Fast Fiction: Odd Couple, Arctic, Zoo (or at long last, The Penguin Story)

{Your humble Monkey has been struggling with this Penguin story for a long time now, and since this week is marking a fresh start for him, he thought it was time to polish it up as best he can and send it out. This was based on the prompt above but took numerous revisions and one day of brutal frustration to bring to realization. Thanks in advance for your kind indulgences. P.S. No animals were hurt during the making of this story, though one Monkey did get very stressed out.}

It was feeding time at noon on Monday, and Claude was once again being an asshole to the penguins.

“You look so stupid with your black and white tuxedos and your big floppy feet,” he sneered as he dumped the bucket full of salty fish into their holding pen.

Claude had the most ridiculously thick French Canadian accent I had ever heard. It matched perfectly with his slick black hair and pencil-thin mustache. He seemed so stereotypically French, in fact, that I sometimes wondered if the whole thing was an act. Like maybe he was a theater student from Wisconsin who had come up north to train for an acting role.

“Don’t say that kind of stuff to the penguins,” I said, watching as the birds waddled over to the pile of fish and started gobbling up their lunch. “They’re sensitive creatures.”

Claude sniffed and gestured towards the pen, where two penguins were flapping their flippers in an apparent argument over a particularly juicy mackerel. “They are not sensitive,” he said. “They are stupid. Haw!”

Claude dropped the empty bucket to the ground and it clanged against the cement. He shuffled off in the direction of the polar bear house.

I reached down and retrieved the bucket, then smiled in at the birds.

“Don’t listen to him,” I said, putting on my best faux French accent. “He is the one who is, how you say, stup-eeed.” I smiled my big smile at them, but they continued munching on their fish and did not seem too interested in me and my empty bucket.

That was OK, I thought. They probably felt safe in my presence and were happy to eat without interruption.

As anyone who has worked at the zoo, visited the zoo, or read my penguin blog on the zoo’s website could tell you, I love penguins. I love love love penguins. I care about those black and white birds like the children I never had.

I’m not sure if I could say that the penguins loved me, too.

Thus far, my attempts to move my tent into their pen and commune with them one-on-one had been met with gentle rebuffs in the form of them headbutting me in the knees and pooping in my sleeping bag.

But now that Claude was here, I reasoned, the penguins would come understand what a true friend I was to them. And they respect me and welcome me in. That was the one upside to having him around.

Getting on good terms with the birds was all part of my plan to be the world’s foremost penguin researcher, the first man to live among them and be accepted as one of their own.

I fell in love with penguins after reading a book about them as a child and had studied them all through elementary school and high school, even going as far as dressing in black and white every day during my senior year.

Went I couldn’t find a college that would let me major in penguinology, or a college that even offered penguinology as a major, I decided to join the staff of Cole’s Arctic Zoo in Winnipeg.

Sure, the pay was lousy. Sure, I lived in a small trailer with a gas-powered heater that never seemed to work quite right. And sure, the zoo might have been a few decades past its glory days.

But the zoo had penguins. Lots and lots of penguins.

I thought Claude might have been impressed, or at least charmed, by the majestic black and white birds with their graceful waddles. but he hated them from the moment he arrived.

“Hi,” I had greeted him when he first came roaring up to the gates of the zoo in his Peugeot a few months back. “You’re going to love it here. There are lots of penguins.”

The Peugeot belched a cloud of black smoke and Claude rolled his eyes. He flicked his cigarette out the open window. “I do not like birds,” he said.

“How can you not like birds?” I asked.

“Bears I like,” he said. “Polar bears. Grizzly bears. Kodiaks. Those are creatures. They have grace. They have majesty. These birds, they are nothing to me.”

“But penguins mate with each other for life,” I said. “And when they mate, the male penguin finds a pebble and presents it to the female penguin as a sign of affection. How cute is that?”

“Bah!” Claude spat. “Your penguins would make a great lunch for the bears. That is all.”

Ever since that first exchange, I had made it my habit to trail behind Claude when he did the noon feeding.

I was there to make sure the penguins got the attention they needed, and to pick up the bucket that he inevitably tossed aside after dumping their fish into the pen.

Our work styles could not have been more different, and I hoped the penguins appreciated how much care I took–and how much contempt he showed.

When it was my turn to do the noon feeding, I handed out the fish one by one, speaking to each penguin in turn and trying not to wince as their eager beaks clamped down on my fingers.

Handling salty fish with fingers that were rubbed raw by penguin teeth was not fun, but it was all part of the bonding experience between me and these transcendent birds.

Most days, the noon feeding with Claude went without incident, aside from the dropped bucket and his general indifference to the birds that were my heart and soul.

But today, something didn’t seem right.

The penguins were all eating OK, but…what was it?

I did a quick mental head count and my heart leaped into my chest. A bird was missing!

“Claude!” I shouted, hoping to get a second set of eyes to confirm my count. But he was too far away to hear me. As I stared at his disappearing figure, my alarm bells went off. There was something too quick, too eager in his step.

Sure, he liked the bears. But Claude never hustled for no one.

I broke  away from my penguin friends and sprinted after Claude, yelling his name all the while.

But he either didn’t hear me, or was trying to ignore me.

I finally caught up with him just inside the overlook to the polar bear enclosure. And I could see from the gleam in his eye that something was afoot.

The missing penguin was waddling around in the pen with the polar bears.

“You bastard!” I wheezed, still trying to catch my breath from the sprint. “You put him in there!”

“Haw!” Claude jeered as I joined him at the edge of the overlook. “I did nothing of the sort. I told you these birds were stupid. This one is going to be an easy meal for my bears.”

I watched in horror as the penguin tottered around the pen, apparently oblivious to two sleeping bears on either side of him.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout. I wanted to choke Claude out.

But my heart and my hands were stunned into silence. All I could do was watch.

Male penguins are beautiful, majestic and handsome birds. But they are not graceful, and they are not quiet. This bird was tottering all over the pen, making penguin sounds and generally looking lost and confused.

I looked over at Claude, saw his eager smile, and my blood ran hot.

“What are you waiting for?” I snapped. “Get the bears their lunch. Toss it in and they’ll all come walking over towards us. Then I’ll jump in and grab the penguin.”

But Claude only grinned and leered. “Watch this,” he said. Then he put his fingers up to his lips and let out a shrill whistle. I jumped. The penguin jumped.

But most importantly, the two polar bears stirred. They were a male and a female, brought in for breeding purposes. Both were massive creatures with yellow-white fur and dark stains around their mouths.

Both had become fat and lazy on the cheap zoo food, but both were still polar bears. When they stirred and saw the penguin, I feared the worst. Then the male bear got to his feet and lumbered in the direction of the bird, and I knew the worst was inevitable.

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m going in after him.” I put one foot up on the fence, and Claude grabbed me and pulled me back.

“You are not really that stupid, eh?” he said. “They will eat you instead. Watch and learn, my friend.”

In the wild, polar bears live in the Arctic and Penguins live in the Antarctic. Same type of environment, but opposite ends of the earth.

So polar bears don’t get many chances to eat penguins, though many biologists believe that they would if they got the chance.

I was panicking. “How did he get in there?” I cried. I glared over at Claude. “You must have put him there.”

“I did not,” he returned evenly. “I told you, penguins are stupid. He must have walked over on his own.”

The polar bear and the penguin made contact moments later.

I will spare you the brutal details of what happened next, but let’s just say that a penguin is no match for a polar bear.

I watched with sickened eyes and clenched teeth as the penguin went from one of my close, personal friends to a pre-lunch polar bear snack. This was too much for me to take.

I turned to Claude, and his satisfied smile made my blood boil. “You–you murderer!”

I grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and shook him. He smirked. “My friend, I assure you that I did nothing wrong.”

But behind the protestations of innocence, there was a gleam in his eye. I lost all control. “I’m not your friend! I hate your accent. And I think you’re stupid, too. Let’s see how well you do in with your precious bears!”

I pushed him towards the edge of the overlook fence.  The low rise fence had been built during a simpler time, when safety regulations were routinely ignored. It offered little in the way of resistance as I pushed Claude up and over and dropped him into the pen.

He fell to the ground with a thud and looked up at me with stunned silence. For the first time, I could see fear in his eyes. “So you do have another expression besides smug,” I said.

Both polar bears were awake now, and even though the male had just eaten, they both looked hungry. They ambled over in Claude’s direction.

Two thoughts went through my head at the same time.

The first was,”If this goes the way I think it’s going, I’m going to be a murderer.”

The second was, “Man, I wish the penguins could come and see this.”

Shameless self indulgence, Writing

The Implications of Failing to Write Successfully About Penguins

INT. APARTMENT. DAY

A slightly disheveled MONKEY sits at his desk in a darkened apartment. Outside the world is gray and slicked with moisture. Soft electronic music plays through speakers in the room. A dog naps on the floor next to him.

The MONKEY types a few words into his computer, then stops and sighs. He furrows his brow. He clicks open another screen and reads about the upcoming Super Bowl. He looks out the window. Then he reluctantly clicks back over and types a few more sentences.

He leans in and examines the words on the computer. He frowns and furrows again.

The MONKEY is trying to write a short story about penguins, but he does not know a lot about penguins. And he is having a hard time with the structure of the story. Is he in the present tense or the past tense? How can he weave in exposition without it jarring the reader from the story? Does anyone really want to read a story about penguins ? And what the hell is going to happen in this story anyway?

The MONKEY shrugs. The astute observer may wonder why a MONKEY is torturing himself by trying to write about penguins in the first place. The answer is that the monkey is trying to follow a creative writing prompt, but it is not working out. The prompts haven’t been working out well recently. In fact, not much has been working out recently.

The MONKEY shrugs. Speaking of working out, he has not been to the gym in months, and it seems like his muscles are finally starting to fade. Either that or his increasing age is starting to catch up with him. He should really stop writing and do some pushups or some work with the kettlebells.

But if he does not finish the penguin story it will eat at him all day.

Penguin
The penguin is mightier than the pen (Wikimedia commons photo)

The MONKEY casts his eyes toward heaven and wonders why the Gods have made writing such a relentless challenge. Why is it so hard to structure a story with a beginning, middle and an end? It should be simple. Lonely Man meets Penguins, Man falls in Love with Penguins and tries to make up for emptiness in his life by convincing himself that Penguins want him and need him. Man encounters another Man who has no appreciation for Penguins, and many comic misunderstandings ensue en route to a satisfying solution.

There, it is not so hard, is it? Then why won’t it get on the f–king page already?

2014 was supposed to be the year that the MONKEY stopped thinking that he could be a writer and started actually being a WRITER. Started to take the craft of fiction seriously. Started to drill the basics of storytelling into his head. Started to quiet the voices of self-doubt and insecurity that plagued him every time he sat down to write in the past.

But on this quiet gray afternoon in his quiet gray apartment, the voices are creep creep creeping back into his head. This penguin story is no good at all, and he knows it. He will have to scrap the whole thing and start over again.

But what if it still doesn’t work? What if he spends the rest of the afternoon on it and it never works? What if the weekend ends and the work week begins and he cannot point to the penguin story as a visible marker of PROGRESS MADE?

What kind of a writer can’t write a simple story about a bunch of flightless birds and a lonely zoo operator and a snooty Frenchman?

Here is the question, though. If the MONKEY was not meant to be a writer, then why does the MONKEY constantly feel the burning need to be a writer? Why can’t the MONKEY just accept that he is not going to be a writer, and get on with his life as a non-writer?

Why not get drunk and watch the Super Bowl? Why not go running? Or play guitar? Why does it always have to be him and his computer and this huge ball of frustration?

Why?