A Trick For Story Plotting That I Figured Out: Stepwise Refinement

Until recently, when I would start writing a story, I would get partway through and get a writer’s block that would completely panic me. Eventually I discovered that the way to prevent writer’s block was to plan the story out in full, ahead of time, by making an outline.

By outline, I don’t mean what I did in sixth grade, with Roman numeral I, followed by capital letter A, followed by Arabic numeral 1, etc. By outline, I mean a list of scenes and plot points, in order, of the entire story. But even making an outline can be daunting, because there are different main characters and they each are doing lots of different things, and after a while I just get lost (if the story is long and complicated).

That same problem, organizing a big and complicated project, exists in computing. Let’s say you’re going to write a program to prepare U.S. tax returns—such a program could easily wind up being a million lines of source code. Where to begin?

What the computer people do is stepwise refinement: You summarize the entire program into a few very general modules, then in each module, you get a little more specific (but still general when you need to be), on down and on down till the bottom level of each module contains source code and calls to reoccurring modules.

For example, that aforementioned million-line tax-preparation program can be summarized at the top level with these three general modules:
A) Enter in the taxpayer’s identifying information.
B) Ask the taxpayer questions about his earnings, expenses, and other financial transactions of interest, then get his responses.
C) Print out pages containing the taxpayer’s replies, formatted to IRS standards.

The advantage of writing a program this way is that not only can you always understand the program, but it’s modular: No matter how you write (or change) the getting-taxpayer-identifying-information module A, it will not affect how modules B or C work.

So stepwise refinement is a nice trick for a programmer to know. So it would be great if that trick could be brought to novel-writing plotting, but how?

Well, I figured out how. The secret is to fully figure out the ending of your story (disregarding epilogue). Yes, it’s fun to imagine a great story-start and then write from the start to wherever the story takes you, but that won’t work here. (Besides, it sooner or later gets me into a writer’s-block crisis.)

For Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, that ending would be:

SPOILER: Katniss and Peeta are declared joint Victors of the 74th Hunger Games.

Once I have my ending fully imagined, then I ask myself, “What needs to happen to make the ending happen?” Then for each of those plot points, I ask, “What has to happen first for this to happen?” I continue this process till I have plot points that go back to each character’s introduction to the story. When I’m done, I have several lists of plot points; I then shuffle the plot points from the different lists together.

Example: my Work In Progress, Cinderella, Zombie Queen. I won’t tell you the entire ending, but I’ll give you some spoilers.

SPOILER: At the end of the story, Ella (the heroine) becomes queen of the kingdom of Lionbear.

For that ending (Ella becoming queen of Lionbear) to happen, these events must happen first:
A. Prince Cabolus becomes king.
B. Cabolus and Ella marry.

But for Cabolus to become king, these events must happen first (listed from end of story to beginning of story):
A1. King Mitchell (Cabolus’s father) dies.
A2. King Thane dies.
A3. King Garwin dies.
A4. King Allard dies.
A5. King Allard is king of Lionbear; Prince Cabolus is fifth in line for the throne.

For Cabolus and Ella to marry, these events have to happen first (listed from end of story to beginning of story):
B1. Cabolus discovers that the glass slipper fits Ella’s foot.
B2. Cabolus and his entourage arrive at Ella’s home village of Burbury.
B3. Cabolus announces that he will marry the owner of the glass slipper.
B4. Cabolus forms an entourage (which includes a priest) that will travel all throughout Lionbear, looking for the owner of the glass slipper.
B5. Ella loses a glass slipper at the end of the third ball; Cabolus finds the slipper.
B6. Ella attends all three balls; Ella and Cabolus hit it off.
B7. With fairy-godmother Pinecone’s help, Ella can attend all three balls.
B8. Cabolus announces that he will host three balls; Ella is forbidden to attend any ball by her wicked stepmother.
B9. Cabolus decides to host three balls, hoping that Ella will attend one of them.
B10.
B11.
B12.
B13.
etc.

This listing is modular, please note: No matter how I write A2 (King Thane dies), it will not affect the ending, or the other modules.

A final note: I haven’t outlined the entire story in one fell swoop (confusing and intimidating), just parts of the story at a time (doable). Whether plot point A2 (King Thane dies) is inserted into the master outline before or after plot point B11, the ending will be the same. Similarly, plot point A1 (Cabolus’s father, King Mitchell, dies) can be inserted anywhere between plot points B1 and B9 (plot points in the end of the story that lead up to Cabolus and Ella marrying), and the ending will be the same. This gives me a lot of flexibility when I’m trying to work out a master-list of plot points that has all the A-list plot points, all the B-list plot points, all the C-list plot points, etc.

Another final note: I recently wrote the chapter of King Thane dying (plot point A2); and because I had already outlined the entire story, when it actually came to writing the scene, I knew what had to happen in the scene and I knew what setting-up the scene had to do for later in the story. I have found that I am able to write a scene more imaginatively when I give a scene some “specifications.”

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Cinderella Soon Will Be Having A Ball—Or Rather, Three Balls

CINDERELLA front cover

I’m still writing Cinderella, Zombie Queen, and I am having great fun writing disgusting zombies committing disgusting violence, as well as the good guys saving the citizenry by bashing zombies’ heads in. (Hey, I’m a guy.) Male readers of the story, when it goes up for sale, will enjoy the read.

But Cinderella, Zombie Queen is not only a zombie story, it’s a Cinderella story, which means that sooner or later Our Heroine has to dress up in the nice clothes. I’ve decided that I’m going to follow the Brothers Grimm version of the story and have Ella attend three balls, not just one ball.

Now, here is where being a guy works against me. If it were up to me, I’d write—

[For the first ball,] Ella wore a fancy dress that was sort of greenish.


Well, for my story’s female readers, that won’t begin to cut it. They’ll want to know garment names, fabrics, and colors. And accessories—heaven help me. Is the glass in the glass slippers tinted? If so, what color?

So what am I doing to give my female readers what they want? Four things—

• One of my two alpha-readers, Debi Binder, besides having the XX chromosome pair, is an artist. She can visualize how things should look, and so can give me good suggestions.

• I have swallowed my pride and have asked all my female Facebook friends for help and advice.

• I’ve read reference books at the library about the history of fashion.

• I’ve bought three books on the history of fashion, for a total cost of sixty-five dollars.

CINDERELLA, ZOMBIE QUEEN Now Has Final Cover Art

My CZQ mockup

Here is the mockup for the cover that I was trying to hire an artist for. The ovals represent the handsome prince (blue), Cinderella (pink), and two zombies of unspecified gender (gray). On the pink oval, the thing that looks like a rotated and reversed yellow L is supposed to be a necklace. The main part of the necklace is an Egyptian ankh plus a letter Z. Part of the artist’s commission was that not only would the artist design the cover as a whole, but he would design the necklace.

CINDERELLA, ZOMBIE QUEEN front cover

I hired Kitt Lapeña (DeviantArt handle: Scarypet) to make the cover picture. “I’m pleased” is putting it mildly; I am blown away.

After he sent me the final art, I did some minor photoshopping, than ran the picture through Scribus (an open-source desk-top-publishing program) to create the final version of the front cover.

CINDERELLA, ZOMBIE QUEEN Now Has A Cover Artist

I just signed Kitt Lapeña, a.k.a. Scarypet, as my cover artist. He does great work, as you can see—

http://scarypet.deviantart.com

Best of all, he already has experience drawing zombies—

http://scarypet.deviantart.com/art/Bisection-555773845

http://scarypet.deviantart.com/art/Kolehiyala-475950731

http://scarypet.deviantart.com/art/Julie-Walker-Zombie-Princess-181704523

http://scarypet.deviantart.com/art/zombies-484768372

Based on Lapeña’s earlier pictures, I’m sure that Cinderella will be gorgeous, the Handsome Prince will be handsome, and the zombies will be disgusting—which is what I want.

I Just Started Writing CINDERELLA, ZOMBIE QUEEN

Cinderella, birds, and zombie

This is a quick-and-dirty photoshop that I made. The actual book will have a cover drawn by a professional artist.

Poor Ella. Zombies kill her mother, then zombies kill her father, then her wicked stepmother steals her inheritance while her stepsisters steal her fine clothes. Then, while her stepmother and stepsisters are having fun at the ball that Ella was cheated out of going to, zombies try to break into the manor and eat Ella. But right when things are blackest and bleakest for Ella, she finds out that she has a fairy godmother. PineCone, the fairy godmother, not only offers a way for Ella to go to the ball, PineCone has an idea how to fix that nasty zombie problem.

****

Recently I was at a Redbox kiosk, and I saw a mini-poster for the 2015 version of Cinderella (Disney’s live-action version). Somehow, looking at that mini-kiosk, I was reminded that there are two versions of the Cinderella story. The French version is sugar-sweet; the German version—in which Cindy is called Aschenputtel and her story was written down by the Brothers Grimm—is really gory. How gory? One stepsister chops off a heel of her foot to get it to fit into the glass slipper; the other stepsister chops off the toes of one foot. And if that was not gory enough, at the end of the story, doves from heaven fly down and peck the stepsisters’ eyes out.

Anyway, while I was looking at the mini-poster for the 2015 Cinderella movie, I got the thought, If they’d had zombie stories when the Brothers Grimm had written Cinderella, the Grimm Brothers would have written the stepsisters as getting eaten by zombies. So that’s where I got the idea, of combining the Cinderella story with zombies.

Will the wicked stepsisters get eaten by zombies in my story? Maybe, maybe not.

Now it’s just a matter of me sitting down and writing the story. But to do this, I’ll have to use my…

BRA-A-A-AINS!!!

Travel To My High-School Reunion By Greyhound

Last week I went to my high-school reunion, the first time I’ve attended such a reunion in thirty-five years.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I graduated from Johnson High School, a high school in Japan for U.S. Air Force dependents. A year after I graduated, the high school, as well as the military base that the school was a part of, were given back to Japan. Johnson Family Housing Annex became part of Iruma Air Self-Defense Force Base.

This created a challenge in holding high-school reunions. After all, traveling to Japan to attend a reunion was not affordable, and traveling into Iruma Air Self-Defense Force Base was not permitted. So how could we hold reunions? What we finally wound up doing was to hold a reunion every three years; if a reunion was held in city W, then at the end of the reunion, we’d vote on whether to hold the next reunion in cities X, Y, or Z.

This year, the reunion was in San Diego, California. I live in Texas. Thirty-five years ago, I was stationed in San Diego, so of course I wanted to attend the 2015 San Diego reunion! The only question was, How do I get there?

The no-brainer answer would have been to fly out there. But if I flew there, I couldn’t see the scenery. Folks, there is some beautiful scenery between El Paso and San Diego, and it would have been a shame not to see it (again).

Okay, fine, so why didn’t I drive to San Diego? The brutally honest answer is that I was not sure my car would hold up to a thousands-of-miles drive without repairs. But also, how much could I enjoy the scenery if my clear legal obligation was to keep my eyes on the road? My insurance company would have been unforgiving if I’d rear-ended a car in Arizona while I was staring at cactus.

So that left my choices being Greyhound or Amtrak. If I’d been traveling only to San Diego, the decision would have been a coin-flip. But after traveling to San Diego, I also planned to visit Vallejo, California—and Amtrak doesn’t go there.

So, long story short, at 2:55 a.m. on Wednesday, September 16th, I got on a Greyhound bus; a day later, I arrived in San Diego. After the high-school reunion ended, I got on a bus in San Diego, eventually arriving in Vallejo, California. Two days after I arrived in Vallejo, I left on another Greyhound bus. Yesterday I arrived home.

****

Greyhound seats are made for women and children. The seats are narrow, and there is only about nine inches of legroom between the front of one seat and the back of the next seat forward. If two men must sit next to each other, both are miserable.

That’s not as bad as it sounds. I discovered that if the bus were not completely full, so that nobody was sitting in the window seat when I was sitting in the aisle seat, then I could get comfortable enough to sleep if I sat with my legs spread wide. One bus driver insisted that we not put our feet in the aisle, but to me it was the only way to be even partway comfortable.

Alas, the Los Angeles-to-Oakland bus-ride and the Los Angeles-to-Dallas bus-ride were completely full, and so I got no sleep then.

Baggage-handling was done differently on Greyhound than on an airplane. When I transferred buses in El Paso, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Dallas, my one checked bag didn’t automatically get loaded onto the next bus. Instead, I had to claim my checked bag from the old bus, carry it into the bus station, and give it to the baggage-loader when I boarded my new bus.

Flying still has a little bit of glamor to it; but there was nothing glamorous about traveling by bus. The other bus-trip passengers were young people and poor people. On each trip, there were also two or three young foreign tourists, since the best way to see the USA if you don’t live in the USA, is by bus.

There are all kinds of choices you have if you want to pay someone to take you to or from the airport. But only taxis will take you to or from the bus station.

Greyhound likes to over-AC their buses. I’m glad I brought my windbreaker with me; those buses often were cold.

Greyhound windows: There are lots of them on the sides of the bus, and they’re huge. Traveling in a bus is almost like being in a traveling greenhouse. During the hours when the sun is up, viewing scenery is a pleasure, because of all the big windows. The windows are tinted, which means that the bus doesn’t get hot during the day, and looking at scenery in daylight doesn’t give you eyestrain. But at night, those same tinted windows mean you can see nothing out the side windows of the bus, unless the bus is traveling through a city with its bright lights. The thing is, a Greyhound bus doesn’t spend any more time in a city than it has to.

Say what you will about Greyhound travel, but their ticket prices are wonderful.

****

Memories of my triangular round trip—

• Looking out the window in El Paso, Texas and in Calexico, California, and realizing that my bus was only a few tens of yards from the Mexican border.

• I was late arriving in Vallejo because I missed my connection in Oakland. The reason our bus was late getting into Oakland was because, somewhere on I-5 north between San Diego and Oakland, the bus got caught in a traffic jam at four in the frigging morning. What the hell?

• The next time I was in the Oakland Greyhound station, the security guard was checking the carry-on bag of a soon-to-be passenger, and the security guard pulled out a black plastic cornet. Once Security finished with the cornetist, he played several songs in the bus-station waiting room.

• Traveling on I-10 eastbound in west Texas, ten or twenty miles west of Van Horn, we hit a hailstorm. This hailstorm was nasty, with hailstones the size of half-dollars. The noise of hailstones hitting the roof was deafening. I thought we passengers were going to die, or at least would be cut up by hail-broken glass. But the glass didn’t break, the bus didn’t slide into anybody, nobody slid into us, and the bus didn’t lose traction. I haven’t been this scared since 1964 (when I watched a tornado head straight toward my mother, sister, and me)—but nothing bad happened as our bus inched its way through the hailstorm. Bus driver Felipe Garcia was a champion.

DNA Tests Make It Official: “The President’s Daughter” (Elizabeth Ann Blaesing) Is Harding’s Child

THE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER ebook

Nan Britton self-published The President’s Daughter in 1927. In that book, she claimed that her daughter, Elizabeth Ann Britton, born 1919, was sired by then-Senator Warren G. Harding. Britton was able to offer no documentary proof, and DNA testing didn’t exist in 1927. However, the president’s sister, Abigail “Daisy” Harding, once wrote in a letter to Nan Britton that she saw a resemblance between Elizabeth Ann and herself.

Nobody else believed Nan Britton. In the 1920s and 1930s, Nan Britton was called every nasty name in the book. More recently, John W. Dean argued in his book Warren G. Harding that, at the very least, Nan Britton’s claim to have had sex with President Harding in the White House could not be true, because no sitting U.S. president would act so foolishly.

Well, it turns out that Nan Britton was right (at least about Elizabeth Ann’s paternity), and her critics were wrong.

How do we know this? Because Elizabeth Ann’s son, James Blaesing, recently took a DNA test. So did Peter Harding, grandnephew of Warren G. Harding.

According to The New York Times, DNA tests have confirmed that James Blaesing is the second cousin of Peter Harding.

 

The President’s Daughter by Nan Britton—buy the book!
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THE DESSERT GAMES: A HUNGER GAMES PARODY Is Now For Sale

THE DESSERT GAMES front cover

Primmytwoshoes Ebergrimm wants yellow cake with chocolate frosting in her school lunches. Right now, this is not allowed. Alas, Primmy has been given only one shot at earning Dessert Privilege—and she knows that if she tries, she will fail. Primmy’s older sister Karen volunteers to take Primmy’s place in the Pie-Throwing Elimination; Karen pledges to sign over Dessert Privilege to her younger sister when Karen wins.

Wait, what? What is going on?

Verylongnameus Ice, the Superintendent of Schools for the Panem (Colorado) Independent School District, decreed in 1982 that desserts would not be sold as school lunches, nor were kids permitted to bring desserts from home. Soon after making this decree, Ice was persuaded to grant a small exception—

Each year, one boy and one girl would be randomly selected from each school zone (Panem ISD has twelve). The boy and girl would be bussed across town to the school-district football stadium. There the twenty-four students would form a circle, then try to throw pies in each other’s faces. When only one kid had a face not-pieed, that kid would be the winner of the Pie-Throwing Elimination. He or she would then get Dessert Privilege for as long as he attended Panem schools.

This year, Primmytwoshoes Ebergrimm, a School Zone Twelve seventh-grader, is Selected to be in the Pie-Throwing Elimination. How delightful! Except that Primmy broke an arm and a leg rescuing a kitten from a tree; body parts in a cast means that Primmy has zero chance of winning the Elimination; and Primmy being Selected this year means that Primmy will never be Selected again. How awful! Older sister Karen does not want Primmy to feel sad, so Karen volunteers to take Primmy’s place.

Karen thinks that what she has volunteered for is a simple, five-minute contest—but there are some things Karen does not know. Karen is especially uninformed this year, because Superintendent Ice just changed the rules. This year the Elimination takes place in an “arena.”

Karen does know about one complication to her plan: The male selectee from School Zone Twelve is Poofa Meadowlark, and he is in love with Karen. “You go your way, and I’ll go mine” will not work with this boy.

MAY THE ICE CREAM BE EVER IN YOUR FLAVOR.

Note: This book is written for middle-school readers.

Please also note: This book contains mild profanity—because it is written for middle-school readers.

Tags: action, coming of age, female protagonist, humor, love triangle, parody, romance, teen, virtue rewarded, YA, young adult

The story is 53,200 words.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: All ebooks by this publisher are free of DRM (Digital Rights Meddling).

 

The Dessert Games: A Hunger Games Parody—buy the book!

THE DESSERT GAMES—first three chapters are FREE
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THE DESSERT GAMES—First Three Chapters

THE DESSERT GAMES front cover

Chapter 0
A History Of The Pie-Throwing Elimination

Panem, Colorado was founded in 1952 by Dirk Capitol, an airplane mechanic who had retired from Pan American World Airways (Pan Am). By all reports, Mr. Capitol was an excellent mechanic, but he couldn’t spell worth beans.

Panem, Colorado swiftly grew, so that by 1982, it had twelve high schools. (For a while, Panem had a thirteenth high school, but that school is never discussed in polite society.) Because nobody could agree on what to name the high schools, they were given numbers: Public High School One, PHS Two, . . . on up through PHS Twelve. The middle schools were similarly numbered: Public Middle School 5-A and PMS 5-B fed into Public High School Five, for instance.

In 1962, the Panem school system hired a new school superintendent, Verylongnameus Ice. President Kennedy was preaching the value of physical education for schoolchildren, and Superintendent Ice took up this cause. Superintendent Ice believed that the schoolchildren of Panem should be physically fit, no excuses accepted.

So Ice believed in 1962. So he still believed during “the Pork Days” (1982), when a U.S. government paper reported that Panem, Colorado had the most-overweight children in the entire U.S.A.

Superintendent Ice responded to this report with a decree: The schools of Panem would henceforth not sell dessert as part of school lunches, nor were the schoolchildren allowed to bring desserts from home.

Needless to say, this went over like spinach-and-liver casserole (which was on every Friday’s menu for lunch, in all Panem schools).

Students responded by singing a protest song in front of the superintendent’s office—

Will you, will you
Eat some cake with me,
And choc’late éclairs,
Fudge brownies two or three?
Ice cream on top of pie,
How tasty would it be,
If we both pigged out
On cake, pie, and candy?

The students’ protests were ignored.

Parents called for Ice’s resignation. He refused to resign. The school board went behind Ice’s back, and hired a replacement school superintendent, Bob Smith. Verylongnameus Ice accepted his firing graciously, even inviting Smith to his house for cold beers.

During that drinking session, Smith had a heart attack. The school board was forced to rehire Ice as superintendent.

Three more times, this happened: The school board hired a replacement school superintendent, Ice invited the man over to his house for celebratory beers, the new-hire superintendent had a heart attack, and the school board had to give Ice his job back.

After this happened four times, the school board told complaining parents, “Your child doesn’t need home-made pie for lunch, right?”

****

But not everything went Ice’s way. The school board exempted all of Panem’s elementary schools from his no-desserts rule.

Superintendent Ice went before the school board and threw a fit. They told him, “You need to be flexible.”

Then he said something totally unexpected: “I’m willing to let one middle-school or high-school student earn exemption from the dessert
ban each year.”

They asked him, “How will you choose that one student?”

Superintendent Ice smiled coldly. “You leave the details to me.”

****

Thus in 1982, the Panem Independent School District Annual Pie-Throwing Elimination was born.

Which the students dubbed The Dessert Games.

Nowadays, Verylongnameus Ice is an old man with a trimmed white beard. He is still Panem’s Superintendent of Schools, which means that the no-dessert ban is still in effect, and the annual Dessert Games will happen soon.

Chapter 1
My Day Started Normally

Morning, the last Saturday in June
A three-bedroom house within School Zone Twelve
Panem, Colorado
Twenty miles north of Fort Collins

My sister’s reflection looked at me and asked, “Karen, was I wrong to try to rescue that kitten from that tree?” Primmy didn’t say, but she clearly meant, Because look what happened when I climbed that ladder.

My twelve-year-old sister, Primmytwoshoes Ebergrimm, had her right arm and her left leg in a cast. The moral of this story was: If you climb a ladder to rescue a kitten, don’t fall off the ladder.

Or else rescue kittens from only short trees.

My sister and I had very different attitudes toward kittens. Primmy liked to rescue kittens; I had tried to drown her kitten Pollen some years ago. But Primmy had never found out about that, so my sister still loved me. Pollen? Not so much.

Anyway, Primmy was now waiting for my answer. I shrugged and said, “At least you didn’t run into a burning orphanage, like that time two years ago. You burned half your hair off then.”

Primmy reached over to self-consciously stroke one of her blond braids that were hanging down her back. Or at least, she tried to stroke the braid. With her right arm in a cast, she couldn’t reach it.

After several seconds of waving her plaster-covered right arm around without achieving her goal, Primmy said, “You know how I love yellow cake with chocolate frosting? I really want to win this. But this year, if I’m picked, no way can I win, and then I won’t get picked again.That’s the rule.”

I replied, “If you say that you are unable to participate, then the Selector can ask for volunteers. The first person to touch your shoulder becomes the volunteer. If he or she wins, the rules say that the winner can sign over Dessert Privilege to another student.”

Primmy rolled her eyes. “Karen, whoever wins is going to eat dessert themselves, not sign it over to me. Look at the Gluttons, they don’t sign over Dessert Privilege.”

We both giggled at that. The Gluttons were volunteers from School Zones One, Two, and Four, and the Gluttons were fat.

But then my face lost its smile. “Primmy, there will be many names in the Selection Bowl besides yours. This problem won’t come up, so relax.”

****

Then I said, “But speaking of gluttony, I want to grab something to eat before I go over to Soozin’s house. He’s got some invention he has to show me before the Selection.” I rolled my eyes.

I gestured to Primmy, and she hobbled out of her bedroom as I walked beside her.

When we walked into the living room, there was Mom, sitting at the left end of the couch and staring out the window. Mom was always sitting on the couch and staring out the window; she had done that ever since Dad had died in the automobile accident.

“Hold on,” I said to Primmy. A spider was using Mom’s arm to anchor a cobweb with. I picked up the broom that was leaning against the wall by the couch, swept Mom off again, put the broom back, then Primmy and I resumed our trip to the kitchen.

****

A half-hour later
At Soozin Hawtbod’s house

Soozin opened his front door, and grinned when he saw me on his doorstep.

“Come in, Karen, you have to see this! You will be so amazed!”

Soon we were down in his basement. Whatever he had invented, it filled up that basement.

As tactfully as I could, I said, “I can’t tell what your invention does.”

Soozin grinned again. “You watch. You’ll call me a genius.”

Soozin pressed “Play” on a boombox (A), which made him tap the musical beat on a spring-resistant foot pedal (B), which pulled down the handle of a bicycle-tire pump (C), which caused the steady inflation of a toy balloon (D). When the balloon burst, the bang startled a sleeping cat (E), which leaped up into the air, slamming its head against a fireplace bellows (F), from which came a puff of air that made the flame of a burning candle (G) momentarily burn hotter and bigger, which burned a string (H) in two . . .

The end result of all this activity was that a hemispherical wire strainer (M), with its handle sawed off, dropped six feet to a place on the concrete floor that was chalk-marked Mouse.

I said to Soozin, “I still don’t get it.”

“Duh, Karen, it’s a humane mousetrap. You put cheese there, you start the music, and the mice get captured without killing them.”

Hoo boy. I recalled then that Soozin’s father, a dentist-inventor, had been killed when his prototype dentures-making machine had exploded. Now, it seemed, son Soozin was traveling down that same path.

Worse than that was, Soozin reminded me of the rumors about School Zone Thirteen.

****

These days, nobody from PHS Twelve travelled to School Zone Thirteen—not for an away game, and not for Speech Festival, Drama Festival, Academic Decathlon, or Science Fair. Likewise, nobody from PHS Thirteen had set foot in School Zone Twelve in a long, long time.

There were three different rumors about why School Zone Thirteen seemed to have vanished. One rumor said that vampires had come to School Zone Thirteen, after some PHS Thirteen kids had held a supposedly-fake séance. Eventually the vampires had been killed off, but not before they had killed everyone in the school zone. A second rumor said pretty much the same as the first, except that the trouble supposedly had started when a PHS Thirteen kid had created a zombie virus in biology class. No, said the third rumor, what had destroyed School Zone Thirteen was that a kid in PHS Thirteen’s computer-science class had invented a new video game, and had given it to everyone in School Zone Thirteen to test. Alas, the game had been so easy and uninteresting that everyone in Thirteen had died of boredom.

All this was why Soozin inventing stuff that he was not in control of, frightened me so much. I did not want everyone in Twelve to die like kids in Thirteen had died.

Actually, there was a fourth explanation for why the rest of Panem heard nothing from School Zone Thirteen, but this rumor, I did not believe at all. Two girls from PHS Eight had sworn up and down to me that Thirteen was alive and intact—Thirteen had just formed its own school district.

Just how stupid do you think I am? had been my reaction. There was simply no way that Superintendent Ice would have let Thirteen leave.

****

Anyway, Soozin now was traveling down a dangerous path, and I did not want him to get hurt.

But what I said aloud was, “Your rig is too noisy. By the time the strainer lands where the cheese is, the mice will have run away.”

Soozin looked his contraption over, then he sighed. “Gosh, Karen, you invent stuff all the time, and it all works, and it’s all successful. Look at you, a millionaire at sixteen!”

I shrugged. “I invent stuff because I have to. Mom has held only one job since Dad died, and she got fired after two weeks. So at age eleven, I had to step up. But who’s going to hire an eleven-year-old for anything?”

I didn’t mention to Soozin that it took a while for the invention-royalties to roll in. There had been that awful day when I had been eleven years old and I had been sure that Primmy, Mom, and I all would soon starve to death.

Now Soozin said, “I just want to invent something good like you keep doing, so Mom doesn’t have to keep working two jobs. But I’m a total flop as an inventor.”

“You’re not a failure. Didn’t you sell one of your inventions to Acme Novelty Company?”

“Yes, I did—which reminds me. My invention is in production now, and since I as inventor get a 70 percent discount from Acme Novelty, I ordered one. I paid for them to next-day it to your house; you should get it in today’s mail.”

“That is sweet of you,” I replied. “Remind me again what you invented.”

Soozin smiled mysteriously. “Let’s say that I took a classic gag gift and I improved upon it.”

“Now you have me curious,” I replied. Then I pulled out my smartphone and checked the time. “I have to pick up Primmy. She will not want to be late for her first Selection.”

“You don’t have to, Karen,” Soozin said. “Go to the Selection, I mean. Attendance isn’t mandatory, plus sweets rot your teeth.”

I thought then, Soozin, you truly are the son of a dentist. But aloud I said, “That’s not a plan. Primmy is eager to go. She’s going and I’m going with her, end of discussion.”

Soozin thrust his chest out. “Then if you’re going, I’m going with both of you.”

I did not try to talk him out of it. Soozin was an inept inventor, but he was also the handsomest boy at Public High School Twelve.

****

Mom spoke for the first time in almost five years: “If you want, I can drive you two to the school, since it’s Primmy’s first Selection.”

No way, I thought—just the thought of Mom behind the wheel, in the mental state she was in, would give me nightmares for a week.

Fortunately, it had been long enough since Mom’s car had been driven that it had four flat tires. I never thought that seeing flat tires would give me such a sense of relief.

Plan B: Have Soozin drive the three of us to Selection. For some reason, Soozin sighed when Mom got into his car.

Soozin, Primmy, and I (and Mom) arrived at the parking lot of PHS Twelve at ten minutes till ten. We had to check in, which involved each of us showing student IDs.

As soon as we were past Check-In, Soozin took off his sunglasses. A blond senior girl stared at him.

“Hey, Linda,” Soozin said. The girl fainted.

I saw teen girls act like that all the time, whenever I went someplace public with Soozin. Probably because Soozin was the handsomest boy at PHS Twelve.

“Hey, you! Kantkiss Evergrim!” an angry female voice now called out. “Thanks a lot for showing up and hurting the odds for everyone else.”

I looked over; it was Midget Underwater who was yelling at me.

Primmy murmured, “Why does she call you Kantkiss?

I murmured back, “Because I hang out with Soozin but we don’t date. Obviously something is wrong with me.”

Soozin must have overheard me, because now he said to Midget, “Would it bother you if I started dating Karen?”

Midget stared at him. “It . . . it . . .” Then she fainted.

I said to Soozin, “Thanks.”

“For what?” Soozin asked, puzzled.

Then I heard the amplified sound of a finger tapping on a microphone, followed by Principal Underwater’s voice: “Boys and girls, the Selection for contestants in this year’s Pie-Throwing Elimination is about to begin.”

****

The first thing that happened was that we had to watch a propaganda video that was narrated by Superintendent Ice. It claimed to explain the Pork Days and why we were having annual Dessert Games—

“Obesity, terrible obesity,” Ice said. “Groaning furniture, ripped seams, a belt grown too small. This was the health crisis that rocked our city. Panem’s children were fat; they were chubby, flabby, massive, overweight, piggish, plump, porky, portly, pudgy, roly-poly, tubby, beefy bloated blimps, blubbery butterballs, each as big as a house and as heavy as a mountain. . . .”

Soozin muttered, “I really hate having to watch this.”

I shrugged. After I had been forced to watch How Your Body Makes Babies in sixth grade, this video was nothing. What is a shot of fat teenagers walking down a school hallway in 1982, next to a ruthlessly frank lecture on menstruation?

“. . . children looked into the eyes of their parents who had loved them, protected them, fed them—and said ‘Give me seconds, give me thirds, what’s for dessert?’ Brother ate brother’s food till nothing remained. Then came the school exercise program—hard-worked, muscles sored. Panem’s young people emerged from the lard, and a new and slimmer generation was formed. But slimness has a cost, and in Panem schools, that cost is dessert. When the obesity was removed, we swore as a city we would never know fat children again—but we would allow one exception. And so it was decreed that, each year, the various school zones of Panem would offer up one young man and woman to pie-fight for Dessert Privilege. The lone victor, bathed in sweets, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our flexibility. This is how we safeguard our children’s future health.”

****

When the video ended, Principal Underwater said, “Now here’s Bimbie B—oh hello, Sumbitch, glad you could make it.”

Up on stage were three chairs, one of which had been vacant up till now. But Sumbitch Evertipsy managed to stumble up the stairs to the stage.

It was rumored that Sumbitch Evertipsy slept in an alley in a cardboard box. Rumor also said that the drunk had achieved only one honor in his entire life: winning an earlier year’s Dessert Games. Supposedly Sumbitch had achieved this by acting clever. I could not imagine him being clever about anything, except at scoring free booze.

But now, once Sumbitch was on stage, he did not take his seat. He stumbled over to Bimbie Bauble, put an arm around her shoulders, and tried to kiss her on the cheek.

Bimbie mouthed something to him—it looked like Later—then pushed Sumbitch away. He landed on his butt.

Nobody laughed; we all were bored stiff. Sumbitch Evertipsy acting like a drunk was old news.

As Sumbitch managed to crawl over to his chair and sit in it without falling over, Bimbie Bauble walked to the microphone.

Cheerfully she said, “Good morning, everyone, isn’t it a wonderful day? I’m Bimbie Bauble, and I’m normally a secretary at the Dirk Capitol Administration Building.”

I thought, The Capitol Building hires pink-haired secretaries? Girlfriend, I hope for your sake I’m seeing a wig. That way, on evenings and weekends you can look normal.

Bimbie was still speaking: “. . . today I’ll be choosing one lucky girl and one lucky boy to be contestants in the Pie-Throwing Elimination. Maybe one of you kids here today will be the one to win Dessert Privilege.”

Nobody replied. The last student from School Zone Twelve to win Dessert Privilege was Sumbitch Evertipsy. The odds were not in our favor.

Bimbie then extended her left hand. “Ladies first.” She reached into the Girls’ Selection Bowl and pulled out a slip.

Let it be me, let it be me, I thought. Soozin might be a dentist’s kid, but I wasn’t.

Principal Underwater read the slip of paper with a bar-code reader, then shook his head. Bimbie dropped the slip of paper onto the stage.

This meant that some School Zone Twelve girl had not bothered to show up for Selection today, but her name had been picked. Too bad, now she would forever miss out on Dessert Privilege.

Bimbie reached into the bowl again. I hoped, Let it be me, let it be me.

Again Bimbie withdrew a slip of paper, again Principal Underwater bar-coded it, again he shook his head, and again Bimbie let the slip of paper fall from her fingers.

The same routine happened a third time. But this time Principal Underwater nodded.

Let it be me, let it be me, let it —

Bimbie Bauble was smiling like a beauty queen. “Please come forward, Primmytwoshoes Ebergrimm.”

Chapter 2
I Know That Boy!

My hand was resting on Primmy’s shoulder then. I felt her stiffen.

She groaned. “This is my nightmare, come to life.”

“Remember what we talked about?” I asked.

She did indeed remember. She called out, “I AM PRIMMYTWOSHOES EBERGRIMM, AND I AM UNFIT TO BE A CONTESTANT.”

There was a collective gasp from every female throat. I glanced around; every girl’s eyes were shining with hope.

Bimbie said, “Um, I think we need to let a volunteer run up to her—”

Fat chance of that. For an instant I lifted my hand off Primmy’s shoulder, then I slammed my hand back down. I yelled, “I VOLUNTEER! I VOLUNTEER AS PIE-THROWER!”

A moment of silence passed. Then my ears were blasted by a chorus of soprano and alto voices: “BITCH!

****

I yanked my purse off my shoulder and shoved it at Primmy. “Hold on to this till I get back home.”

After I climbed the stairs to the stage, pink-haired Bimbie gave me a beauty-queen smile and said, “Well, bravo! That is the spirit of the Pie-Throwing Elimination! What is your name, dear?”

“Karen Ebergrimm.”

“I bet my buttons that was your sister. Don’t want her to steal all the cake and pie, do we? Come on, everybody, let’s give a big round of applause to our newest contestant!”

There was complete silence. Then Midget Underwater yelled, “SHE PULLED A GLUTTON TRICK!”

After Midget yelled this, she raised both hands, palms turned away from me, and then pulled in all the fingers of each hand except for the middle finger. She was the first girl to do it, but then every other girl except Primmy copied the gesture. Even some boys joined in.

It was an old and rarely used gesture in School Zone Twelve (at least, when adults were around). It meant Get lost, it meant disrespect. I wanted to cry then, seeing all those kids giving me that gesture.

Just as my lip started trembling, I felt an arm around my shoulder. Sumbitch Evertipsy stood beside me, looking at the kids. He said, “I like her! She’s got—she’s got. . .”

“Language, Sumbitch,” I heard Bimbie murmur.

“I forget the word”—and as pickled as Sumbitch was, I completely believed this—“but Karen has more of whatever-it-is than all of you together! But besides that—”

I’ll never know what else he was going to say, because Sumbitch fell off the stage and knocked himself out.

At the edge of the crowd was an ambulance, with two bored-looking EMTs standing there. One of them rolled his eyes, put his smartphone in his pocket, and walked (not ran) toward fallen Sumbitch.

Meanwhile, Bimbie patted her pink hair and said, “What an exciting day! But more excitement to come. Now it’s time to choose School Zone Twelve’s boy contestant.”

There was no drama with the bar code this time; the first slip of paper that Bimbie pulled from the Boys’ Selection Bowl, Principal Underwater nodded at.

Bimbie read the name: “Poofa Meadowlark.”

****

At once I recognized the name; I had known for five years who Poofa Meadowlark was, though he probably did not know this.

He was a muscular boy, the same sixteen as me, with curly blond hair and sky-blue eyes. Now he was trying to keep his face emotionless; but for a second, I saw him smile.

And why not? Imagine what desserts a baker’s son could bring to school if only he were allowed to!

Poofa climbed the stairs to the stage, then stopped in front of me, his hand out.

As I shook his hand, I noticed that he smelled like fresh-baked bread. I also noticed that his lipstick was a very subtle shade; it almost looked natural.

Poofa murmured something to me. It sounded like Karen, you are the only girl I have ever loved, but I was sure I misheard him.

Then Poofa walked across the stage to stand on Bimbie’s other side, and she briefly interviewed him.

Does Poofa even remember that awful day? I wondered. Probably not.

****

Dad had died in the auto accident when I had been eleven. Insurance had paid a little money, but soon we had been broke.

Meanwhile, Mom had not been taking Dad’s death well at all. She started sitting all day on the couch, staring out the window. She neither worked nor cooked dinner for us.

I had to make dinner for Primmy and me (Mom would not eat). I got really tired of eating macaroni and cheese!

While I was fixing breakfast one morning, I yelled at Mom: “What don’t you get a job as a store-display mannequin? You’re perfectly qualified to do that!”

Mom nodded slightly, got her car keys, and drove off. Without even saying goodbye.

She got the job, working at Macy’s. She sat or stood in the window five days a week, and did not move a muscle. But she got fired after two weeks, when customers complained to Macy’s about “the window mannequin with the dead stare.”

So it fell to me to provide for the three of us, before we all starved to death. I was eleven and Primmy was seven.

One day, I went around with a box of kittens that Primmy had rescued, trying to sell them, but nobody would buy them.

I never have figured out why. Do people hate cute kittens?

Even more frustrating, the kittens kept climbing out of the box. Chasing them was exhausting.

Eventually I wound up by the back door of Meadowlark Bakery, though I did not notice this at the time. A black kitten climbed out of the box and jumped into an open trash can. I suppose the kitten smelled food.

I was reaching into the trash can, trying to capture the kitten, when I heard a woman’s voice: “You! Brat girl! Get away from our trash cans! Go steal food somewhere else.”

I turned around. Waving a rolling pin at me was Mrs. Meadowlark. Standing behind her, watching me, was a blond boy, my age, whom I had seen at school. His eyes were big as saucers—though maybe that was because of the mascara he was wearing.

The good news was, Mrs. Meadowlark never hit me. The bad news was, I had to leave without getting the kitten back.

To make life worse, just as I was backing away from Mrs. Meadowlark and her rolling pin, it started to rain. Within a minute, the rain was blasting down on me.

Somehow I wound up under an apple tree that was across the street from Meadowlark’s Bakery. I was weak from hunger then; I let the kitten-box drop to the ground and I collapsed to the ground next to that box.

RRAOW!” The kittens did not like the hard bump they had just received. Within seconds, they climbed out of the box and scattered. I did not have the energy to chase them.

In fact, I was sure I would die under that apple tree.

That was when Poofa came out the back door of the bakery. He started to go toward the trash cans, but then he stopped and looked around.

Eleven-year-old Poofa was pushing a wheelbarrow. On the wheelbarrow was a four-tier wedding cake. That cake was almost as tall as seven-year-old Primmy.

Poofa and the wheelbarrow started to move toward me, but Poofa never once looked at me. He looked to his left, to his right, up, down—but never at me.

One detail of that day that I will always remember: The pouring rain made Poofa’s mascara run.

When Poofa was one foot from me, but still not looking at me, he dumped the wedding cake out of the wheelbarrow—

Boik! Splat!

Wedding cake got into my hair; crumbly white cake and gooey white frosting covered my face and all my clothes. Cake and frosting got into my mouth, not in a way I had ever wanted. (It tasted good, though.) Frosting went up my nose!

Some of the wedding cake fell into the kittens’ box—

MEOW!

A white-frosting-covered kitten climbed out of the box, glared at Poofa and me, then ran off.

The top tier of the wedding cake had landed at my feet; somehow it remained intact. I read the inscription: Hapinness and Lung Lief Tugethir, Jhon and Mayr.

I wondered, Do these misspelling have anything to do with Poofa trashing such an expensive wedding cake?

Poofa leveled the wheelbarrow, backed it up, turned it around, and pushed it toward the back door of the bakery. He never once looked at me or spoke to me.

Meanwhile, I was stuffing as much of the wedding cake as I could pack in, into the kittens’ box.

After the wedding cake got dumped on me, life got better for Primmy, me, and Mom.

But not for Poofa, it seemed. The next morning at school, I passed him in the hallway. He had a black eye (which his concealer did not manage to cover up). He did not say anything to me, and I did not say anything to him.

Later that morning at recess, I saw Poofa staring at me. As soon as our eyes met, he looked away, and I looked down. My eyes then saw a dandelion, the first dandelion of spring.

That was when I got the idea of an improved dandelion-digger that I could invent. That dandelion-digger patent was the start of my becoming an inventor-millionaire.

(The Apple iPhone slide-to-unlock patent? That was mine. I “invented” it during a beer commercial, because I was bored; and I submitted the patent paperwork to the USPTO as a joke. But that one patent earned me oodles.)

****

I had never once thanked the kid with the cake, but I had never forgotten what he had done for me.

In my mind, there always would be a connection between Poofa Meadowlark, the life-restoring wedding cake that he had dumped on me, and the spring dandelion that had started me on the road to riches. I owed him so much, but I had never thanked him. Sometimes my conscience had bothered me about this.

And now Poofa and I were competitors; it was me or him; only one of us could win Dessert Privilege. Bleep.

 

The Dessert Games: A Hunger Games Parody—buy the book!

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The First Draft Of THE DESSERT GAMES, My Hunger Games Parody, Is Done

DESSERT front cover

The first draft clocks in at 208 pages (6-in.-by-9-in. size), or 53,000 words. The ebook version should go up for sale on Amazon within a week, priced at $4.99. The paperback version should go up within a month; I can’t tell you its price.

The last line of the story is “You have no idea, the effect you can have.”