Tone Deaf Fiction

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So, I’ve been reading slush. I’ve been reading slush because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in want of improving their skills must at some point in their career, read slush. The most heart-breaking stories are the ones that were ALMOST there… but just not quite. However, I don’t want to talk about the good things… today, I want to talk about tone deaf fiction.

Tone Deaf Fiction is fiction involving characters, situations, and places completely discordant with reality in a way that is grating to a reader. Tone deaf fiction is not so much rewriting reality as overlaying a chartreuse plaid wallpaper over everything making it useless to everyone. It isn’t a few wrong notes, it is ALL the notes wrong. It doesn’t matter if you get the rhythm of the song right if you’re not hitting any of the notes.

So, in thinking about writing about this I decided to try my hand at writing a character to the point of tone deafness. I am only excerpting from a longer piece because I got tired and started relating the character to my own personal experiences (doing yoga) and it stopped being a good example of what I mean. I hope this is still illustrative:

Seth finished shaking off his penis and pulled up his sweat pants. His yoga class was about to begin and he wanted to make sure he got there early enough to get a spot up front. If he got there late and had to look through a forest of pert female asses he tended to get distracted instead of getting the best workout possible. He paused in front of the bathroom mirror to judge if he’d need to shave again before his movie date with Teresa. His fair skin was the color of antique white house paint speckled with the hint of wheaten hair along his jaw.

He adjusted himself in his pants as he picked up his yoga mat and headed out into the hall. His mat was a plain dark gray, the manliest color he’d been able to find at Target. His sleeveless t-shirt clung to his lean physique, and for $40 it also wicked away the moisture he was about to start exuding from his skin

Usually tone deaf fiction comes out of writing things well beyond your own experience. Clearly as a genre writer I don’t believe you can only write things you know well, however… don’t pick ALL the things you don’t know in one story. That’s a good way to write tone deaf fiction. I suggest training wheels. Pick a memory from your own life, and change one major truth about the situation. If you were a very young child in the memory, figure out how to rewrite everything from an adult perspective, possibly from outside yourself, but keep every single other part of the event the same. Make sure you think, “How does this change things?”  and follow each of those ripples out to their end as they change how you tell the event. Repeat this exercise until you feel very comfortable with how to chase down all those ripples and imagine out all of their changing powers. Then, change two things using the same memories, and find where the two sets of ripples overlap and create new ripples.

You can never 100% replace your own perspective and experiences from the story. You can have enough ripples that the parts of you inside the story are unrecognizable, but still, you take a part of your truth and experiences as  reference for how ripples move through a story, through a character, through a setting. There are authors who use very few sets of ripples in their fiction and some that throw handfuls of gravel into a windy pond. It’s not going to be the same for every story, and it’s not going to be the same for you throughout your career. If you don’t relate to your characters and their situations no one else will either… so, write what you know about the truth of life, the universe, and everything.

Museum Mishap Monday: Arsenic to Zimmerman

Minerva let Chekhov’s gun fall to the floor. Her creator unraveled to text, which itself fell to dust.

She took nothing, did not glance at the moose head above her desk as she left. Hundreds of staring doll eyes met her gaze on the other side of the door, but Minerva ignored them. More taxidermy watched her flight down the steps.

“Are you–”

“Story’s Over.” Minerva replied, cutting off the front desk volunteer. She didn’t slow down, swept through the gallery and pushed open both sets of doors, batting away a buzzing fly that flew at her face.

Her car chirped as she unlocked the doors. She didn’t know where she was going, only that it was away. No more museums. No more mishaps.

Minerva narrowly missed pulling out in front of the bus painted to look like a cow. That was not how this ended. Her creator would have ended it there. Thought only of how it was an amusing and embarrassing way to die. This Minerva didn’t want to die.

She pulled out on to the highway and headed east. No driving into the sunset. No heading off of a cliff. Minerva Zimmerman’s story wasn’t over.

Not A Drop To Drink

“So, there’s some water downstairs,” said Les. “Should I just mop it up or is there some kind of procedure?”

“Like, seepage?” asked Minerva.

Les looked ponderous. “More like, leakage. I think it’s coming from the ceiling.”

“I’ll be right down.” Minerva sighed and drank as much of her caffeinated energy water as possible in a few gulps and headed to the basement exhibit space.

At the bottom of the steps, water was everywhere; it pooled under objects and rust-tinted water dripped from dozens of points in the ceiling. Minerva did the mental geography to make sure the bathroom wasn’t above this part of the building. It wasn’t, just a drainage pipe. It was going to be a very long day.

Soon Minerva was on hands and knees sopping up dirty water with rags and towels. Les mopped at the larger pools but it was hard to tell if he was making any sort of positive changes or just spreading the water around. Minerva worked her way backwards toward the outside wall trying desperately to get water away from objects and displays.

“I’m going to go empty the bucket,” said Les. “It is getting kind of dirty.”

Minerva nodded, even though she was internally rolling her eyes. It wasn’t like the water they were mopping up was going to get any cleaner. Neither was she. Her khaki pants were already smeared with grime from the floor and she could tell her hair had already frizzed out in an impressive halo from her ponytail.

It had been raining a lot recently and apparently a drainage pipe from the roof had backed up and run water back into the building. At least that was the theory and the plumbers were going to blow out the drainage pipes. Minerva had her doubts. There seemed to be a lot of water.

A drop of rusty water hit her on the nose, then another. She moved as the drips became a steady stream and then the floor above gave way in a torrent of water from the broken pipe.

Museum Mishap Monday: Vectors of Virus

Seventeen pairs of tiny hands dragged along the railing into the museum. Four pairs were attached to sniffly noses. Two sniffly noses were just allergies. One pair of hands carried H1N1 and their nose showed no symptoms at all. Quiet voices argued over who got to hold the door. A child with brown hair in pigtails eventually became the designated door holder.

Inside, Minerva waited to greet the class field trip. “Hi, I”m Minerva and I’m the Curator here at the museum. How many of you have been to the museum before?”

Nearly every hand went up.

“Awesome. I want to welcome each and every one of you to our museum today. Does anyone have any questions?”

The children looked suddenly shy.

“Well, we’d love to answer any of your questions and please don’t hesitate to ask us if you think of one while you’re here.”

Mrs. Walker reminded the students about using their inside voices and split them into groups between the adult chaperones.

Minerva smiled as seventeen pairs of hands held the railing as they descended into the basement.

Self-study Project: Short Stories

Rating System


I absolutely devoured media in my youth. I read hundreds of books a year and saw several movies a week. I was an avid gamer and once shipped a 130lb steamer trunk full of comics rather than leave them behind in a move. (I later learned that it is way cheaper to send books via Media Mail if you don’t care when they get there. However, if you send 13 different ~60lb boxes media mail ahead of an interstate move and then show up to collect them explaining you’re an anthropologist you will end up with the post office assuming you have been shipping dinosaur bones. This will greatly annoy you especially when years later they still ask you if you’ve heard about recent dinosaur finds and you’ve never found a polite way to explain anthropologists don’t know the ass end of a dinosaur from a mammoth behind.)

I recently realized that I’ve let my reading fall too far behind. There’s always a balancing act with writing and reading. I’ve basically stopped playing immersive video games. There are no current TV shows I’m following (though I am looking forward to season 3 of Korra). I still play puzzle games, and watch streaming shows, but those are things that happen on my terms. Reading has to be balanced with writing time, and it’s hard not to feel guilty about one or the other. If I’m not reading, my writing can’t advance. I know that. There are some things you can only learn by reading and some things only by writing. I’m holding myself back by not reading enough.

I decided to start rebuilding my reading habit by working primarily on reading short stories. To give myself a Master Class in genre short storytelling both present and classical. To do this, I need to also analyze the short stories in some form. I dislike doing in-depth fiction reviews, especially when there are intangible things like emotional impact and voice involved. Since I’m doing this for my own benefit I decided to go with a 1-5 star rating.


  • * = has potential but has technical, cultural, or voice problems.
  • ** = Good story that didn’t quite live up to potential or could have used light revisions
  • *** = Good story, I see it as publishable quality even if it didn’t work for me.
  • **** = Great story, does some really neat things
  • ***** = I would nominate/vote for this story. Excellent quality, builds a full world, drags you into it for the full duration of the story and leaves fingernail marks on your soul.


Since March 1st I’ve read 76 short stories which break down on the ratings as such:


  • one star = 4
  • two stars = 12
  • three stars = 29
  • four stars = 31
  • five stars = 2


I think this will be an ongoing thing for a while, and in a few months I will go back and do more analysis of the 5 star stories. I’m at the point right now with my writing that I pretty much know what NOT to do, I just don’t always succeed with what I was trying to do. So it makes more sense for me to focus on the top-tier of stories and figure out why stuff knocked it out of the park.

I was a little surprised to realize there wasn’t really a correlation to how much I enjoyed reading the story and if I gave it 3 or 4 stars. There were 4 star stories I did not enjoy at all and 3 star stories I greatly enjoyed. There were even a couple 2 star stories I really liked and enjoyed. The difference between two and three stars in some cases was asking myself, “If my name was on the cover as editor and I had a slot this story would fit, would I have published it as is?” The ones I said, “Yes” got 3, the others got 2. I’m only reading published stories for this, so my opinions might be different if I was finding some of these stories in slush. There were a lot of stories that didn’t work for me that still rated 4 stars.

As a result of this, I of course had to rate my own published works on this scale. Most of them were in the 2 to 3 range, with one maybe 4. I have not written a 5 star story yet. Not by my own scale anyway. That’s a very motivating thought. Anything that makes me want to get better and write more is something I need to keep doing.

I think I’ll periodically put up a post with this same breakdown in it, and any thoughts I’ve dredged up in the process. What do you think?

Failure is a path to success

Book One

Many years ago I decided to spend the summer rereading through 100 of my favorite childhood books. One of the things I noticed on my re-read is that authors’ first books or the first book of a series didn’t live up to my memory of them. That my memory conflated the character development from all of the books in a series and overlayed it on the events of the first book.

This was particularly illuminating for me because for my first “SRS RITR BZNS” project I’d decided to write a big fat epic fantasy cycle… and it wasn’t going well. You see, I couldn’t fit everything in. First I wrote a draft of Book 1, but then I discovered that left too much out, so I wrote a prequel. There were two side stories I wanted to explore so I wrote two novellas, then there were the short stories… and each one was a little better than the last, but my best work was also the least useful as it required everything else for context. So I had ~  700K words and nothing to submit.

After my re-read I realized all of my favorite authors had been learning as they went too. When I thought long and hard about it, I realized I was not a good enough writer to currently write the big fat epic fantasy cycle (I’m still not). And I could either continue to plink away at that world in bits and drabs until I was, or I could shift my focus to things I WAS good enough to write NOW and work to get them published as I continued to improve. It was going to take the same amount of time and writing either way.

I’d like to say that everything turned around immediately and I started publishing stuff right away, but that didn’t quite happen. I wrote another novel first, one I’m still revising for submission (novels take a long time to fix all the fiddly bits). What changed was I saw a call for stories from an editor I knew well enough that when I came up with a off-beat story, I knew it was the sort of stuff he’d dig. So I wrote it. And it was. And it was published. And I just keep building on that. It still feels like I’m pushing a boulder, but it isn’t uphill both ways in the snow anymore.

Walking away from the big fat fantasy cycle and writing something else gave me the confidence to try other things and start submitting. So that’s how I learned to give up and start succeeding.

Unexpected Uranium

Minerva stared in horror at the box of rocks and tried to calculate exactly where her desk was in relation to where the box had been sitting. Had she really been sitting under a pile of uranium for the entire time she’d been working at the museum?

“You know that can’t really hurt you, right?”

Minerva looked up. “Who said that?”

“I did.”

“Who are you?” Minerva frowned.

“Your author, Minerva. You’re me, but you do dumb things that get you injured or killed. Things I’d never actually do, most of the time.”

Minerva clutched at her head. “Oh god, I’ve finally lost it. Now I’m hearing authorial voices.”

“Oh come on, admit it, you’ve always suspected. All the dying and the lack of any appreciable supporting cast… it was pretty obvious.”

Minerva pointed at the box of rocks. “Uranium? Am I dying in alphabetical order or something?”

“Pretty much. Though it turns out it’s pretty hard to die from uranium samples. There’s a reason they have to enrich the stuff to turn it into fuel. The radiation doesn’t travel very far and it’s effectively blocked by the box, let alone the floor and tin ceiling between you and it. Though, in my reality there is a box of uranium I’m not actually sure exactly where it is being stored.”

Minerva sat down on a folding chair. “So I’m safe?”

“I wouldn’t say that. You are fictional.”

Minerva shrugged. “But I’m you.”

“Well, yeah. It didn’t feel right to kill off friends and loved ones in flash fiction. Killing or injuring myself with
museum hazards has proven kind of therapeutic. I’ve had to research all of the things that I’ve assumed could kill me, and several of them are actually much less deadly than I thought. Though I really should get that tetanus shot…”

Minerva dusted off her hands and squinted up at the disembodied authorial voice. “Like the uranium?”

“I’m pretty disappointed about it.”

Minerva turned over her hands. “Guess I’ll just have to live this time.” She looked up and scrambled back out of the chair, crab-walking backward across the attic floor. “What’s that cursor doing here?!”

“Unexpected authorial interference.” The Author repeatedly backspaced until Minerva was erased entirely.

Oops… suddenly, the museum collapses

The average typewriter weighs around fifteen point six pounds. I don’t know how many typewriters the average museum has, but this one had 863. They were all stacked in neat rows on shelving units in one area of the attic (minus the 36 on display) over approximately 25 square feet. The floor beneath the units had always been a little creaky, but no one had given much thought to the load limit of the floor joists beneath the units.

Minerva certainly hadn’t. When she moved five typewriters from a shelf unit near the wall to one closer to the center of the room, it was the furthest thing from her mind. She was too busy thinking about how her back was going to be aching later and what she should make for dinner later. Sure the floor had complained under her weight, but it always did that. The building was nearly 100 years old.

At her desk on the floor below, Minerva didn’t hear the warning groans of snapping wood over the sound of her headphones. She noticed when the first piece of tin ceiling hit her desk, but by then it was too late.

Typewriters fell, Minerva died.

Always On The Top Shelf

It was cold in the attic. Minerva stepped around the plastic-draped and possibly animatronic Santa and looked up on the top shelf. There was, in fact, a moose up there. Only in museum work could you lose one taxidermied moose, and when you went looking for it– find three, none the one you were looking for. She reached up and turned over the artifact tag on the moose antlers.

Make that four meese, and one still missing. Damn things were breeding somehow.

Minerva backed up against the opposite shelving unit and peered up at the top shelf. It looked like there might be another pair of antlers up there, maybe two? She looked around for the step stool, but remembered it was downstairs.

She set down her clipboard on an antique saltines tin, and placed her left foot on the opposite shelf. She pushed off and got a foot on the second shelf of the moose shelving unit, her fingers hooked over the top shelf, the plastic dust sheeting over the moose antlers brushed the back of her hands. Minerva pulled herself up and stepped up to the next shelf.

There were four more sets of elk antlers and one very small set of moose. She reached across the shelving unit and started dragging the second set of antlers closer. As the antlers got close enough for her to almost read the tag, the shelving unit started to tip toward her. Antlers tumbled toward her and things on the lower shelves started to slide.

Minerva tried to shift her weight toward the shelving unit to stabilize it, but it’d tipped too far. She felt a disorienting rush of blood in her head as she and the unit fell into the other shelving unit with a crash. There was pain, then the second unit started to fall in a chain reaction.

Nibble nibble

The bottom of the cardboard box fell out and landed at Minerva’s feet with a putrid wet slap.
“Oh god,” she groaned, and then regretted the inhale of breath required for speaking.
The contents of the box were, to use a technical term–Beyond Reasonable Conservation. A layperson would probably say something like, “Auuugh it stinks!”
The plastic bags wrapping whatever had been in the box originally had been gnawed up into bedding. There were rat droppings throughout the contents. The whole thing would probably glow under blacklight like a horrible rave grab bag. In the middle of ruined artifacts and shredded wrapping, was a very large and mostly decomposed rat.
Minerva dropped the empty top half of the box and opened the large roll-door. The fresh air from outside was still tinged with the scent of excrement and rot. She looked down and realized the sleeves of her jacket were damp with filth.
This was how a quick trip out to move things in the shed building turned into a trip home for a full change of clothes and a scalding hot shower.
Minerva used a shovel to pick up the pile of wet trash. The rat corpse fell into two pieces releasing a new, stronger smell.
Maybe two showers.
She dumped everything on the trash pile outside, and went back in. The sooner she got this done, the faster she could get that shower. Minerva used a broom to smack the side of the next box on the stack. It was dirty and stained too, but mostly on the top, though there was some indication of gnawing by the handle holes.
Nothing moved in the box. Minerva hit it again. She heard scurrying over on the other side of the building and jumped back. She went to run hands over her hair, and stopped before she made the contamination worse.
She picked up the box and jogged a few steps, swinging the box back to fling it toward the trash pile.
Something shifted inside the box. A soft weight slammed into her hand. She let go, but not before something sharp bit into her hand.
The box fell to the concrete floor and a rat went drunkenly scurrying under a pallet. Minerva ran outside, heart pounding in her chest, and breathing in terrified gasps. Blood welled up in a series wounds across her fingers.