Iron Hack

It probably says something about modern life that the last two conventions I’ve attended have included panels focused around encouraging would-be writers to examine how much writing can be done in a very short period of time.

Twenty Minutes Tick Down!

The panel I was on at MileHiCon took its inspiration from the “Iron Chef” cooking show.  In this case, the three secret ingredients were supplied by the audience moments before the writing started.  They were asked to give us a profession, an item, and a setting, all of which should be included in the story.  Our audience gave us a chef, a ray gun (specifically a toy ray gun), and a lunar colony.

Stace Johnson, the moderator, announced that we would have twenty minutes to write.  So the audience wouldn’t get bored watching us scribble and grimace, they were encouraged to take part as well.  Three of the panelists had some electronic writing device – a laptop or a tablet with keyboard.  I had a notebook and pen.  The fellow to my left did his writing on an unlined hotel notepad with a hotel pen.

Unlike most panels I’ve been on, the format of this one didn’t give me a chance to firmly set in my mind which names went with which panelists, but I want to assure you all four all dove into the challenge with enthusiasm.

Stace Johnson set his timer and we were off!  For your amusement, I’ll transcribe what I wrote in those twenty minutes.  (I’ll leave out the cross-outs and creative spelling.)

Gran Prix was scrambling eggs when Gordon Garb, the sheriff of Lunar West, came racing in, ray guns drawn.

 “Did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Ostrich Al!  He just swiped a load of diamonds from the shipping dock and headed this way.”

“Nope.  Sorry.  What would he have been doing here?

“No idea.  We figure he probably was meeting a confederate.  Anyone here but you?”

“No one.”  Gran Prix placidly pulled his mixer attachment out of the egg froth and extruded his griddle.  Then he poured the eggs onto the surface and started gently turning them with his whisk.

“Sorry for bothering you, Gran,” Sherriff Garb said.  “May I go out back?  Al might have circled around to the loading dock.”

“Sure.  Watch out for the chickens.”

Gran Prix slid the scrambled eggs onto a serving tray, activated the anti-grav boost, and sent it out into the dining room.  Out back he could hear that Gordon Garb hadn’t paid any attention to his warning about the chickens.

On the Moon, chickens ceased being the squat, slightly ridiculous creatures they were on Earth, and became the ferocious aerial warriors they had always imagined themselves as being.  When Sherriff Garb returned, he looked as if the sky – well, at least as if something – had been falling.

Grab Prix was now busy stir-frying chunks of fresh meat.

“Smells good, Gran,” Gordon Garb said as he availed himself of the spray mist washer attachment more usually used for cleaning veggies from the hydroponic gardens.

That’s where time was called, but if I’d had another twenty or thirty minutes, I could have finished the story.  I still might.  I’m happy to say the audience seemed to like my venture, although (and I completely agree) the “win” went to the fellow on my right who had written the tale of an alien chef and his very difficult to please client.  Unlike my piece, he managed to come up with more of an ending.

What was interesting was what the writers chose to seize on.  For me, setting combined with chef were the inspiration.  The ray gun (and an interesting chat I’d had with Eric Flint, Dave Boop, and Jim) gave me the “Wild West” note.  For Stace Johnson “toy ray gun” was the inspiration around which he centered his story.  The fellow to my left completely forgot the ray gun in his original draft, but worked it in at the last minute as he was reading his piece aloud.

So, what did I get out of this other than 250 words of prose?  Well, if I finish this, I’ll have a short story – possibly only a bit of “flash fiction,” but still, better than staring at the wall and brooding.

I also got a window into how the same topic can create wildly different stories.  At least four people from the audience read their selections, and not a single one of the nine pieces read aloud were the same.

I think this activity could be a great way of getting out of a dry spell.  Even if a writer doesn’t have an audience to supply the three ingredients, items like Rory’s Story Cubes which I wrote about a while back, or decks of image cards (which Artist GOH Carrie Ann Baade said she uses in some of her classes) would supply the prompt.  SnackWrites provides free writing exercises that might provide the seeds from which a story could grow.

I also learned how what’s going on in my day-to-day life fills in the gaps.  If I hadn’t had that discussion about Westerns, would I have made my setting Lunar West?  If I hadn’t been on a panel the day before in which chickens came up for discussion, would I have included the chickens?  This exercise was a good reminder that writers need to keep stimulating their imaginations by doing more than just staring at the screen.

On that note, I’m off to do some more stimulating things…  And definitely to do more writing!

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2 Responses to “Iron Hack”

  1. JM Says:

    I attended an event like that at a Boston convention some years ago (not sure which one). They didn’t ask the audience to participate but had a comedic guest at the con looking over the writers’ shoulders and providing commentary, providing a bit of the writers’ histories both real and imaginary, making wisecracks (like, “You can tell the REAL hack writers; they have the cliches on macros.”) and generally keeping us entertained while the writing was going on.

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