The Power of Parody

Hello! I’m Sam, and this is my first post for The Art of Writing. I’ve loved writing in many forms (stories, poems, or whatever I’m in the mood for) ever since I was little, and I still try to practice it pretty regularly to this day. When I’m not writing, I’m taking classes toward an M.A. in English, reading a whole lot, and secretly fighting crime in dark alleyways at night (but don’t tell anyone). If you like what you see here and want to read more from me, you can find my personal blog and more info here.

But now that I’ve introduced myself, I’m afraid I have a confession to make.

I’ve got to admit, I haven’t actually been writing much fiction lately.

It’s not because I don’t love writing fiction. I truly do enjoy it when I get to do it. I have several story ideas and novels in my head that I hope to finish writing and/or editing one day. But, for a variety of reasons, it seems that I’ve gravitated away from fiction in recent years to focus more on articles, blog posts, and other forms of shorter creative non-fiction (such as the one you’re reading right now). So when I was asked to contribute to a blog about writing fiction, I didn’t really know at first what I would write about.

“I don’t have much recent experience to draw from,” I said to myself. “I really haven’t been writing much fiction lately except for…except…”

This poster was created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt's monologue from Parks and Recreation.

Poster created by Jef Castro of Entertainment Weekly, based on Patton Oswalt’s monologue from Parks and Recreation

And then I remembered the one fictional work that I have been working on sporadically: a parody mash-up co-written with two friends, in which we basically decided to see just how many different fandoms and references we could combine and simultaneously poke fun at in the span of one epic tale (or trilogy). It’s a quirky, over-the-top, very tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Super Mario Bros., Batman, Doctor Who, classic literature, and much, much more.

Now, being a blatant rip-off of quite a few other works, this story of course is not what most of us would call “serious” fiction, and it’s hardly “literary” by anyone’s standards. This supposed subpar quality is inherent to works of parody, or at least to people’s common connotations about them. But that’s no reason for either readers or authors to completely write off parodies as insignificant or juvenile. After all, any story, even a parody, still has to be good by a certain standard of judgment; it still has to conform more or less to certain criteria, adhere to common conventions of fiction, and accomplish what it sets out to do as a story.

For someone who hopes to write more serious or original fiction, writing a parody can be a good way to gain some easy practice. Here are a few reasons why:

  •  Tropes and conventions are exaggerated. Parody is a good way to explore and play with common tropes or conventions in fiction, since they’re intentionally exaggerated and ridiculed in parody. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some parodies to include metahumor and directly announce the plot points they’re following or the sort of work they’re poking fun at. If you’re writing a parody, you don’t have to be subtle; you can go over the top and be painfully obvious with plot points and character development. If you’re in the experimental stage of writing fiction, this overt use of story components may help you to more concretely map out the narrative elements that make up a legitimately good story.
  •  Parodies are fun, not serious. As mentioned above, nobody expects parodies to be brilliant, profound works of fiction that will endure in the canon of literature for generations. They’re inherently meant to be lighthearted and fun in tone and by nature do not take themselves as seriously as other works might. These qualities take a lot of pressure off of you as the writer! You don’t have to come up with something original or groundbreaking when you’re writing a parody; you can rearrange existing elements of a story, or combine those elements with your own ideas that may or may not be fully fleshed out yet. Overall, you can let loose and relax just a bit. You can write something just to write, or to get into the habit of writing, without caring overmuch about how good or literary it is. You have the freedom to try different things out and see what works and what doesn’t. You can just play around and have fun!
  • An illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Illustration of Mark Twain, printed by the Washington Times in 1907, reprinting the Philadelphia Inquirer

    Parodies still carry some weight. Even though parodies are for fun and not “serious,” don’t make the mistake of thinking that they’re less important or worthwhile pieces of fiction, or that you can make a good one with just a halfhearted effort. An enjoyable parody isn’t just haphazard elements strewn together; it still has familiar characters and a functioning story with a beginning, middle, and end. It should also have a good amount of humor and wit, cleverly satirizing certain conventions with varying degrees of subtlety. Even classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain relied heavily on satire, on pointing out and exaggerating the flaws in institutions or certain types of literature. Well-made, entertaining parodies must do this to some extent as well. To use another example, I also wrote another parody in recent memory, a Christmastime poem blatantly imitating Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I largely filled it up with jokes, laughs, and cultural references, but I also based it on my own real-life experiences and tried to at least touch on a legitimate moral about the importance of family and fellowship. Even though it was lighthearted and fun, it wasn’t completely meaningless or devoid of serious significance. If you’re truly dedicated to writing fiction and serious about wanting to hone your craft and skills as a writer, then you’ll still put your best thought and effort and personal feeling into it at all times, even if you’re just practicing with a parody.

So, if you have the misfortune to be visited by writer’s block in the near future, or if you’re like me and you haven’t been able to find the opportunities for “serious” fiction lately, then I encourage you to try writing a parody of your favorite book, movie, or TV show. Figure out what sort of plot and character formula makes that story work, and play that up a lot in your parody. But also look for the flaws or ridiculous aspects in the work you’re imitating and be sure to exaggerate those for comedic effect. Consider what messages your use of satire will send, overtly or subtly, about the work or genre you’re imitating, or about life and the world as a whole. Don’t be afraid to play around and see what works for you, and as you continue to write, try to notice how your own storytelling style begins to develop and differ from that of the original author. Use this time and this opportunity to hone your skill and your own unique voice. And in the midst of it all, don’t forget to have some fun!

Scene Challenge of the Week

wp_the_blood_gospel_640Well, it’s officially the middle of the week, and that means that it’s time for a scene challenge! I hope that you all are having a wonderful week thus far, and that you’ve been thoroughly productive. I’ve managed to get a lot of reading done so far. I’m still working on Van Nordens Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, but I finished the other books I was reading and started C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and soon I’ll be starting Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. I have to admit, I’m a little excited about it. I’ve also had a few more thoughts about the story I was writing about last Thursday, but I haven’t really settled on anything concrete yet (I probably should soon though). Anyway, you all should know the rules, but just in case: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your challenge: Choose one of your favorite scenes from a novel. After reading the scene a couple of times, rewrite it in your own style and voice. The characters and basic elements of the scene should remain the same, but the way it is written should reflect your voice and style of writing, rather than the original author’s. This can be very challenging, so don’t be too disappointed if you need a few tries to go it well.

Writer’s Block 5: Fortune Telling

This is the final card I have to play on defeating writer’s block, and it’s literally a card. Sometimes, when stuck, bored, or creating too much in a short period of time, I’ll turn to tarot, runes, plot dice, or any number of other divining tools to help influence the direction of my story.

I am Christian and I have received a wide array of responses to using this method from I’m practicing witchcraft to I’m not revering the cards as one should. Ultimately, it’s just a method to spike creativity, like an epic movie, good soundtrack, or beautiful woman. I put no higher stock in the tarot deck than I do my plot dice. This is the perspective I have when using runes and tarot cards.

Runes and tarot are very similar methods, though tarot will give a far clearer direction, where runes are broader. Either way, it takes a great deal of interpretation and creativity. While plot dice, and the like, suggest you keep a more open mind, they are far more suited at giving you a direct pathway to take, instead of creating one from a concept or word.

For each character I need or want help with, usually support, I draw three cards or stones. The first is background. This will explain what the character has been through. The second draw is for who they are. It is their current personality and goals. The final draw is for their future. What will be their role in the story as it unfolds and will they find success or ruin. If you only draw from major arcana, you can come up with overall archetypes as well.

When trying to construct a plot, draw as many as you require. Base this on major plot points. Most will have three (beginning, middle, and end), though some will have more. Use each one to just give a loose direction. It’s a great way to get out of your norm and force your mind to break out of your personal cliches.

You will need a book for interpretation, though the internet can be pretty helpful. You can even find kits for free online which will draw the runes or cards for you, without having to buy your own. I like the feel of the real thing. Remember this is a guide. It is not set in stone. For your main characters, I highly suggest you come up with most of their information on your own. However, as a writing challenge, this can be a fun way to flex your creative muscles.

Finally, plot dice (or character, motivation, etc., dice). These are very straight forward, generally very cheap, and give decent direction. The only negative is they only have six sides. While straight forward, and I personally find harder to break into a creative groove, they can still be used to stimulate you in the right direction. As with the cards and stones, you don’t need to use them the way they rolled. If it gets you thinking and moving, go with the motion.

Because sometimes even plot dice require a great deal of interpretation. This is called Story Dice and you can get it on the iPod store. http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=134792

Because sometimes even plot dice require a great deal of interpretation. This is called Story Dice and you can get it on the iPod store.
http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=134792

For a super challenge, you can do this while driving. Check out road signs, buildings signs, watch people in that creepy way which makes them keep the porch light on at night. Maybe a car triggers it. It is not hard to find the stories surrounding us each and every day. All you need to do is open up your mind to the creative possibilities, and it will naturally cling onto whatever is inspirational. I even do this at work. You might not see it on Monday, but it’s Tuesday. Open your eyes to the events and people surrounding you at your job. What quirks do your coworkers have? How do they react to personal and professional stimulus that is different than you? How can you make them a character? What happens at your work that an average person does not know about, and how can you include it in your novel? Every day is a great day for inspiration.

Good luck in your writing and with your writer’s block! While I have other methods, none of them truly warrant their own post, so this is the last post on the subject. What will I do next time? That’s an excellent question. I seem to be blocked on ideas.

Story Challenge of the Week

mine_fantasy_art_crystals_digital_artwork_blink_s13014Well, I hope that everyone is having a wonderful life! I’m doing fairly well, though I have to admit that I’m kind of exhausted. Still, I finished three books this weekend, and I got to spend some fun time with my wonderful girlfriend. She’s starting a new job as a nurse tomorrow and I have to say that I am extremely proud of her! Anyway, today is your story challenge and I’m going to connect this post to the Plot Challenges I’ve been having you do to build your world. I want you to set this story in a nation that you developed recently or are currently developing . One of the best ways to develop a world to write in, amazingly enough, is to write in that world. The more you write, the more your understanding of the world will solidify. The key here is to remember what you’ve written before and keep your world consistent (this is where world bibles come in handy). So, pick your nation and then write a story based off of these questions:

Your Challenge: What character archetype did you develop this nation around? Who was the ruler? Now that you have that in mind, consider: what is this particular ruler’s philosophy of governance and authority? How does he rule? Why does he rule that way? What does he believe is good about his reign? Write a story characterizing this ruler and his particular ideology. If you like the exercise, do it for all of the rulers/ruling bodies that you created. As always, have fun with this exercise. If you don’t enjoy it (at least to some degree) then you’re doing it wrong.

Sunday Picture Post

Well, as you all know, we take Sunday’s off here at the Art of Writing. I certainly hope that you’re all having a wonderful day, and I trust that you’ve had excellent weeks. So, while we take a much needed day of rest, I’ve found something fun for you:

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Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

IMFP78Well, as I’ve been saying all week I am currently reading When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Actually, if I manage to stay on schedule, I should be finishing the book either today or Monday. It’s been an easy and enlightening read that I thoroughly suggest everyone pick up. However, today’s challenge I want to keep very simple. You all know the rules: I give you a philosophical question and you write me a 1000 word story that illustrates and defends your answer to that question. So, your question for today: What is poverty?

In considering your answer to the question consider that middle and upper class 1st world citizens (generally those who have the interest and means to do something about poverty) generally define it in terms of material wealth. They respond by saying things like poverty is not having enough, making under ‘$blank’ per year, needing food and clothing, or even generally ‘having unmet needs’. However, when poor people who daily experience poverty are asked to describe it their responses generally focus on the emotional. They respond by saying things like poverty is shame, fear for one’s life, daily anxiety, hopelessness, inferiority, always looking up at others, being stepped on, being voiceless, and not having any choices. Consider also that there are many different causes of poverty: we tend to focus on poverty as unmet material needs, and so we assume that throwing money at the problem will fix it. However, poverty can be caused by ignorance concerning how to effectively use what material goods are available, it can be caused by outside oppression (i.e. the forceful stripping from a people of what they do have), personal choices of the poor (i.e. I know what I should do, but I buy whiskey instead), a general lack of material goods (i.e. the economy sucks and there just isn’t enough to go around), or the lack of ability to acquire material goods (i.e. I have no useful skills so no one will hire me). If we attempt to provide material goods when the problem is actually ignorance or oppression, then we don’t actually do anything to effectively solve the problem.

Plot Challenge of the Week

I started reading When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett today. It’s a fairly easy read after Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr and Norbet, but it’s also very good. I’d suggest it to anyone who’s interested in poverty issues and especially in charitable work. The primary focus of the book is a discussion on the fact that how we seek to aid the poor is as important as working to aid the poor. So, some of these issues will probably being showing up in the Philosophical Challenge tomorrow :). Also, I’m thinking about focusing the story I was talking about yesterday on a long-term poor orphan who is used to begging for his income being taken in by a knight of Fa’ar and taught to work for his living. Not sure yet, but it’s an idea that I think can high-light some of the issues that Fikkert and Corbett are discussing and give me a chance to discuss some of the opportunity issues I want to explore. We’ll see what happens. Anyway, for today’s exercise I’m going to give you a picture and I want you to use it as inspiration to design one part of the world you’ve started. This could be fleshing out one of the nations that you’ve already come up with or it could be creating an all new nation or continent for your world. Here’s your picture:

This piece was done by Ben Wotten, a New Zealand artist. You can find more of his work here.

This piece was done by Ben Wotten, a New Zealand artist. You can find more of his work here.

The Kingdom of Merethal

Well, I had my first ‘Ethics of Wealth and Poverty’ class today, which was actually really good. One of the cool things is that we have to put together a project for one of the grades in the class, and I got permission to write a short story dealing the the comparison of the redistribution of wealth with the redistribution of opportunity (something I’ve written about here before). So, needless to say, I’m excited about this, and I thought it might be a good idea to use some of my posts to 1) plan out parts of my world and story, and 2) show all of you some of the techniques I use when planning something. So, first things first, this story is going to be between 2000 and 2500 words (I have to be able to present it within fifteen minutes). I’m going to set it in the world of Kalagrosh (again, I’ve written about this before), in the nation of Mathal. I’d been planning on making Merethal a mercantile nation anyway, and now I’m leaning towards making it a mercantile oligarchy. The Mediere are a small group of powerful merchant families that rule the nation, but the term ‘Mediere’ can be equally used either of the ruling body or, more generally, of the upper class (which is entirely made up of merchants and is based on wealth, not power, honor, etc).

Mathal sits on a large lake (I haven’t named it yet… perhaps Kath, or Suina… or Krana… not sure) that serves as a border between the nations of Merethal, Azan, and Fa’ar. the cities of Sa’a (in Fa’ar) and Hazim (in Azan). Fa’ar is a beneficent theocracy ruled by a powerful priest-king, however the fact that it is bordered by the Eight Cities of Hag (…not friendly people), the Mountains of Mourning (in which exist the Twilight Gates to Ezgarl… really not a nice place), and by wildlands, Fa’ar is also a heavily militarized society. Azan is a place that I need to work on more, hoever, much of Azan has recently been conquered by the nation of Agnasci, and so it is a nation in flux with a large number of refugees and needy individuals.

Merethal is a nation that has only two real classes: the merchants (who are extremely wealthy and powerful), and everyone else. Poverty is rampant in the nation, and there is little opportunity for those who aren’t in a favored group. The Mediere does provide certain positions, but there is a large population of extreme poor who are have no real opportunity to improve themselves. The Mediere do have many charity projects, but these generally give limited amounts of money and property (food, etc) to the poor, rather than creating opportunities for them to improve themselves.

Further, the city of Mathal is inundated with two further issues: 1) refugees fleeing the warfare in Azan, and aid (in the form of food, clothing, etc) from Fa’ar. Again, most of this aid is in the form of gifts, not in the form of opportunities, and many people of Fa’ar consider the poor of Merethal and Azan to be ‘beneath them’ or ‘unclean’. So, here’s a little data on the city of Mathal:

Name: Mathal

Population: 35,000 (mostly human)

Mediere: under 500

Military: 2300

Highly Ranked Servants: around 1000

Craftsmen, Laborers, Farmers (etc): around 15000

Refugees: around 7000

Poor: Everyone else

Primary Exports: Fish, Flax

Primary Imports: Food, Basic Building Material (i.e. wood, stone, etc), Clothing

Ok, that’s what I’ve got thus far off the top of my head. If anyone has ideas, I’m open to them :).

Scene Challenge of the Week

This is the book I'd use. Love this book.

This is the book I’d use. Love this book.

So, I have to admit that I’m really enjoying being in school again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure I failed my first paper (think I said that already), I’m overworked, have no money, and I just spent all day reading philosophy books, but… I just spent all day reading philosophy books. Seriously, exhausting but so much fun! Right now I’m working on Bryan Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, Robert Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self, and C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (I’m hoping to have the last two finished by Friday). It’s fascinating reading, though the first is definitely my favorite of this set. Anyway, you’re here for a writing exercise, and today’s exercise is a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about absolute submission. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie about struggle and find a moment of absolute submission in the middle of it. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.

Poetry: In Preparation for Surgery

Ssurgeryo, it’s the first week of school, and I’m insanely busy with starting my last year of graduate classes, writing my thesis, and facilitating two classes of College Composition.I’m sure you know by now that super busy weeks for me mean creative writing posts on the blog! Today, you get to read a piece of poetry I wrote during an in-class exercise during my poetry seminar in January. This poem is a depiction of an experience I had during one of my multiple brain surgeries. Enjoy!

In Preparation for Surgery

Scream.

Morphine pulses through surface veins

clenching the heart in a vise.

Fight.

Green masks float beneath a dingy halo

above beeping machines emitting demonic shrieks.

Drugs yell a Hallelujah Chorus as they shred the brain.

Fade.

A pink rabbit pushes a swerving wheelchair

the windows strangle the sunlight

and encroaching oblivion drapes the room with a corpse’s shroud.

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