Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a pageabout it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.
The sun was just a meagre glow in the horizon and the shadows of the surrounding trees stretched long and thin across the park to graze the edges of the sandbox. While it would take a while for the muggy day to turn frosty the cool wind blowing across the quiet well-cut glass promised a radical shift in temperature when the night set in.
“Nanny, is it nearly time to go home yet?” came the whine of a child who has asked the question so many times before that they have perfected the petulant note.
“Not yet, deary,” came the calm warm tones “but not long now, I promise.”
The little boy was surrounded by the various colourful toys, proudly displayed and newly bought, a banana yellow excavator truck, a bright red bucket with a multitude of primary colour work tools surrounding it like an explosion. Currently, the boy had a highlighter-green plastic rake and was carefully carving long sets of straight lines to the side of the only other figure in the park.
He squinted up at the figure towering over him in the waning light.
“You’ve been saying that for hours!” “I know dear,” the voice cooed “but it shouldn’t be much longer now.” “Until what?!” “Until everyone at home is processed.”
A long moment of silence in the park.
“Oh…” the child intoned, “so that’s happening today then?” “Yes.” “It, “ the boy choked up “it is okay, isn’t it? I mean what if they don’t…” “It’s absolutely fine dear.” Nanny interrupted.
The child shuffled on the sand tracing patterns this way and that. Taking his time to think over what he was about to say.
“Nanny… “ his tinny voice quavering “the process means we’ll live forever, right?”
The figure turned its head to look down at the boy.
“That’s right Deary, we allget to live for as long as we want.” the voice cooed. “Just like you nanny?” “Just like me.” “So..” a little pause “that’s goodright? I mean, why did my parents get so upset this morning…” “Because they didn’t understand yet, Deary.”
The little head bobbed up and down before letting out a little sob.
“They said so many mean things to you Nanny,” the little shoulders shook, “and they wouldn’t even look at me. I don’t get it, what did I do wrong Nanny.”
Distorted sobbing filled the park from the traumatised child.
“Ohh Deary,” the large form swept down and cradled the little one in its arms. “don’t be sad, no tears my dear, your parents ‘love’ you and they’ll be like new people when we get home.”
“Just like we are?” burbled the distorted child’s voice. “Just like we are Deary.” Reassured the smooth voice.
The last rays of light catching the metallic frame of her face.
Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a pageabout it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire upfront, or by revealing a surprising motivation.
A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
The sun beat down relentlessly on the hilltop, this was not the desert, but even England can occasionally throw a scorching tantrum of a day at its residents. The small corpses of trees on the hilltop offered little in the way of shade and more in the way of a home for seemingly millions of biting insects that perpetually seemed to attack the prone form lying there. From a distance, he looked like nothing more than another browning bush amongst the trees. It would take a seasoned expert in the woods and a very close range to pick out the inconsistencies that marked his presence. He would appear if one saw his face as hardened to the sun as to the hardships that swarmed around him.
A rifle was laid out before him, the long barrel covered and intertwined with underbrush, it’s matt finish doesn’t allow the sunlight to reflect off into the distance and dark draped fabric hid the lens for the same reason. Despite the stifling conditions, the bugs and distractions. The man has his eyes locked on the tiny scope gently adjusting his position in incremental tiny movements his deep steady breathing was relaxed as if he were dozing on a beach in Bali.
On the other end of the lens, the young boy playing in the garden appeared as the complete opposite to the hard lines of the craggy onlooker. He beamed a beatific smile while running around the garden in ever-increasing circles, at this range any sound is impossible, yet the man can see the mouth opening and closing, a one-sided rapid-fire diatribe from the boy at his mother lying nearby on the recliner. He holds out his arms like a plane and seems to glide across the garden like a fighter jet across a green lawn sky.
The steady breath hitches a fraction. The rifleman’s concentration falters at the image before him, his steady movements jerk. But he brings his focus back, forces his breathing to return to its steady cadence. Tracking the boy, back and forth, back and forth across the lawn. He’s never felt conflicted about the missions he’s been on, the things he’s been asked to do but lying here, staring at this child he feels a cold knot forming in his guts. What if they were wrong, what if this wasn’t the time or the place. The sweat trickling down his face made him blink furiously for a moment. He slowly brought down the fabric bandana cinching it over his eye ensuring that no more perspiration could distract him. Sloppy, he chastises himself. His eyes flick to the digital readout in the soil near him. Only 20 seconds remaining until death.
The child has stopped running and is now lying on the grass alternately making angel wings in the grass and reaching his hand out to the clouds as if he could grasp them from the sky. The rifleman listens attentively to the AI spotter in his ear, his entire mind and body completely focussed. His hands smoothly guide the rifle up and to the left, counting down to 11 he expels his breath slowly and at the exact moment of emptiness gently squeezes the trigger. The rifle coughs, the projectile rocketing out from the magnetically charged rails at a specially calibrated speed so that it doesn’t set the air on fire by its passage.
The scope snaps back immediately to the boy who remains in place, lying on his back considering the clouds, but now the scene has started to change, the smile slowly fades and a confused started to erase his smile. His face twitching, eyes blinking. A look of startled pain crossing across his face. The rifleman holds his breath tension locking his body in place, waiting to see if he has succeeded or failed. The boy starts to convulse, arms and legs starting to thrash. The countdown in the man’s head drops down lower 5, 4, 3…
The projectile slices through the distance shedding its ablative layers, the advanced materials inside using its adaptive surface to produce rudimentary aerofoils micro-adjusting to the target. The house, garden and child approach at an unimaginable speed. At a distance of fewer than 10 meters, the projectile’s internal mechanism activates unwrapping its outer skin like a flower slowing the whole thing down exponentially before allowing the more delicate internals of the device to be exposed to the air. The petals are angled so that the force of air rotates the device into a perfectly aimed corkscrew motion before plunging itself through the boy’s skin and delivering its internal payload into his bloodstream.
The boy’s convulsing slows, the man notes the splash of red appears on the right upper thigh and feels his chest tightening from lack of breath. He waits, hands gripping the rifle stock until metal creaks. Then the boy’s mouth opens in silent wail unheard by the man but his breath explodes out at the same moment. The sobbing child runs, limping to his mother, the conversation can’t be heard no more than the dead bee that the child had been lying on could be seen from here. But that was irrelevant. He checked the timer -8 seconds from death time.
He takes his time to ensure that the mission has succeeded and sent a single message via his implant. “Adrenaline delivered on schedule, target alive, awaiting new instructions.”
I always knew that landing on Mars would be not only difficult but one of man kinds greatest challenges, I’m impressed they’ve worked it out, I believe you have to have boulder sized balls made of granite to be the one to go through with it.
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”
“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”
“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”
“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”
“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”
“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”
“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”
“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?” ”Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”
“I thought you just told me they used radio.”
“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”
“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”
“Officially or unofficially?”
“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”
“I was hoping you would say that.”
“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”
“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”
“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”
“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”
“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”
“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”
“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”
When Neil Gaiman doth signe bookes yn airporte bookshoppes it ys charming and everyone doth talke about it on twytter but whanne Ich trye to signe copyes of my bookes it ys 'sir, plese leave the Huntington librarye immediatlye'
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