How to write a fake memoir

At any given point in life, the urge to write a memoir can strike. Memoir-writing offers the opportunity to relate lessons learned and secrets never divulged. Most important of all, memoirs represent a chance to share the truth. But for a very small minority of memoir writers, the impulse to share not truth, but lies, is overpowering.

That’s how fake memoirs are born.

Why do people write fake memoirs? According to Freakonomics, there are three basic reasons:

1. A true story gets a lot more media coverage than a lifelike novel.
2. A true story generates more buzz in general, including potential film sales, lecture opportunities, etc.
3. The reader is engaged with the story on a more visceral level if a book is a memoir rather than fictional.

Writing a fake memoir is a treacherous, tricky business. But learning how it’s done is the best way to avoid being fooled by the next shocking but highly improbable bestselling tell-all. After being fooled way too many times myself (hello, Go Ask Alice, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and Three Cups of Tea! ) I decided to write my own fake memoir, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story.

Here’s what I learned along the way.

False Memoir by Katherine Luck

False Memoir by Katherine LuckAvailable on Amazon

 

How to write a fake memoir

1. Decide who you will write about

You have two choices: write about yourself or pretend to be someone else — preferably someone imaginary, as in the case of The Education of Little Tree, or someone famous, as in the case of “The Hitler Diaries”. Writing about yourself is easy, since nobody knows your story better than you. Writing about someone else is very difficult and very dangerous. You’ll need to do tons of research, learn to mimic the writing style of another person (possibly from an era, background, or country very different from your own), and find a way not to get sued.

Your best bet is to write about yourself. That’s what I did.

2. Pick your theme

Memoirs are different from autobiography. Instead of a straightforward retelling of the events of your life from birth to the present moment, your goal is to select a theme that will inform the entire narrative. It could be your coming of age (as in Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah), the discovery of what you were meant to do with your life (as in Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag), or your greatest struggle (as in every addiction memoir ever; also, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the memoir later made into the movie 127 Hours, also known as “that movie where James Franco cuts his own arm off”).

For False Memoir, I chose the historical moment when the newspaper industry tanked and I, who was working as a journalist for a newspaper, had to make a major, life-altering decision  … though I didn’t know it at the time.

Once you’ve figured out your theme, don’t waiver from it. Everything you write should circle around this narrative pivot point.

3. Lie — but only once

There’s an old saying, “Never do two illegal things at once. That’s how you get caught.” The same holds true for lying. When writing a fake memoir, you get one lie. Just one. Use it wisely.

It can be a whopper — but it must be believable. The most popular lies are:

  • “I was a holocaust survivor.”
  • “I had a torrid affair with a famous person.”
  • “I was horribly abused as a child.”
  • “I did ALL the drugs!”
  • “I am a member of an oppressed group or ethnicity (usually Native American).”

Try to pick a different lie. These falsehoods are easily outed, simply because they’ve been used too many times by too many fake memoir writers.

For my big lie, I chose, “I was involved with the investigation of a serial killer that stalked Seattle.”

4. Tell the truth — a lot

Now that you’ve chosen your big lie, it’s time to add true facts about your life that will support your fakery. Keep as much truth in your story as possible, but only include details that will support your lie. And, as Slate advised in “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide: How to embellish your life story without getting caught,” you need to be careful about how you present the truth. “Specificity is your enemy. Write with passionate vagueness. … Write what you know — but no one else does.”

The tagline of my book is “All of it is true and none of it happened.” Every detail about myself — where I worked, the car I drove, where I bought the rather idiotic trench coat I used to wear when out doing reporterly tasks and how much I paid for it — everything, except the increasingly dangerous serial killer story-chasing, was true. I even included my old work phone number, just for fun. Try calling it and see what happens.

5. Don’t lie about anyone else

This is the biggest stumbling block for memoir fabulists. Don’t put words in anyone’s mouth; don’t write about actions that someone else didn’t do; and don’t claim that you’re from a country, ethnicity, social class, or religious background that you’re not — you’re also making that claim for every member of your family, and they will come out of the woodwork to correct you. If you lie about friends or former romantic partners, they will take to social media to shame you. And if you lie about public figures, the risks are even greater.

In False Memoir, I specifically didn’t write about anyone I knew — or about any real people, in fact. Instead, I kept all interactions with police agencies vague, encounters with other members of the media anonymous (except for one fictitious character, who bears no resemblance to any person), and all family members and friends unnamed.

6. Just admit that it’s fiction

Do it before you’re forced to. Don’t wind up like James Frey, shamed on national television and forced to reclassify his memoir as fiction after the fact. You’ve had your fun; just go on and cop to the fact that you made it all up.

I purposefully gave my fake memoir a title that establishes that it’s not a true story by any stretch, and shelved it in the fiction section. There’s also a twist in the story itself … but you’ll have to read it to find out what it is.

Should you write a fake memoir like I did? Sure, why not? It was enjoyable and challenging, and that’s the whole point of writing.

Just don’t pretend it’s anything other than a fake memoir. You want to be known as an imaginative writer, not a shameless liar.

 

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

 

How to write like Jane Jago

Q&A with indie author Jane Jago

Give us the tl;dr of your life.
Chef turned magazine editor. Retired and got more time to be an author. I’m finding retirement suits my temperament entirely.

How do you think your writing style has changed over the years?
I think I have mellowed a little. Less enfant terrible, more amused observer.

Which famous author’s work would you say your writing style resembles the most?
Miss Austen with added cuss words.

Have you ever collaborated with other writers?
I regularly collaborate with my friend E.M. Swift-Hook on the Dai and Julia Mysteries. These are murder mysteries set in modern-day Britain, but one where the Roman Empire still rules almost all of Europe.

How did it impact your style?
It sort of impacts on my writing style, but only insomuch as is necessary to meld seamlessly together with another writer. Except that she reins in my tendency to kill characters in creatively bloody ways …

How important is research to you?
Depends what I’m writing. Present-day mystery and alternative history require research; otherwise one trips over the sort of people who know stuff. And believe me, they will jump on you if you put a pinkie wrong. Fantasy allows me to make up my own rules and history.

Jane Jago_Who put her in_who Pulled her out

If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been?
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Why Tigana?
It’s an absolute masterclass in fantasy without feyness. It is a book that reduces me to tears every time I read it. And I have read it many, many times.

Is there anything you would have changed?
I would change nothing. It’s a work of genius, IMO.

If someone is brand-new to your work, what book do you think they should start with?
I think I’d recommend reading the Pulling the Rug trilogy as a bird’s-eye view of the peculiar convolutions in my brain. Also the Joss and Ben Stories (Who Put Her In? and Who Pulled Her Out?) are fun and easy reading.

Do your stories carry a message?
Oh yes. Usually concealed, but there is always a thread …

Tell us about your latest book.
Pulling the Rug III is the third in my series of collected verse and short fiction responses to the challenges and sweeteners of life. It is by turns funny, bitter, uplifting and true.
Pulling the Rug trilogy_Jane Jago

If you had to pick one author, living or dead, to review Pulling the Rug III, who would it be?
I’d love Terry Pratchett to read and review it.

Why Pratchett?
Because I admired his writing enormously and he was a member of the awkward squad, which is admirable. I hope he would see that I use fairy stories to comment on the world around us.

What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Pulling the Rug III?
I want to make them smile, think, and when they put the book, down just nod.

Thanks so much, Jane!

 

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

How to Write Like Hunter S. Thompson

You might think that Hunter S. Thompson is just another of Johnny Depp’s offbeat characters, created for his trippy late-90s movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson was a real person. And he was even more outrageous than anything Depp could dream up. He’s also, years after his death, a big name in journalism. If you’re up for a job in the media, it’s de rigueur that you say you admire his writing during your interview.

Even if you’re not a journalist, learning to write like Hunter S. Thompson will shake up your writing habits and add an unorthodox liveliness to anything from memoirs to blog posts to job-seeking cover letters.

Who is Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson was born on July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. He began writing in high school, though journalism was not yet on his radar. In 1956, just before graduation and after a number of run-ins with the law, Thompson was arrested. He was given two options: join the military or go to prison.

He took Option One and joined the Air Force. Thompson gave himself a crash course in journalism so he could work for the base newspaper. “I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night,” he recalled. “By the second week I had the whole thing down.”

He spent two years in the military, then was discharged. He worked at, and was fired from, several publications, eventually opting to freelance in Puerto Rico and South America. By the age of 21, he had already “developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession. … As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity,” as he wrote in a job-seeking cover letter. This is when his attitude about the state of 20th-century journalism and his penchant for intoxicated shenanigans coalesced into a distinctive writing style, later known as gonzo journalism.

He had a series of hits that brought him national attention, starting with an article written for The Nation that later became the book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966; an infamous article for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved;” and an article for Rolling Stone magazine that was developed into his most famous work, the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

According to Joe Klein of Rolling Stone, by 1974 Thompson’s best work was behind him. He continued to write for Rolling Stone, The San Francisco Examiner, and ESPN.com, with varying degrees of success and coherence. He had a brief resurgence of popularity with the 1998 release of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on his book.

Thompson committed suicide on Feb. 20, 2005, at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.

How to Write Like Hunter S. Thompson

There are eight simple things you can do to add Thompson’s eccentric flair to your writing. Only the bravest and most reckless will dare to use all eight:

1. Go gonzo

“Gonzo journalism” is inextricably linked to Thompson. It’s impossible to discuss one without the other. The term was first used by journalist Bill Cardoso in reference to “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson’s booze-soaked account of his attempt to report on the 1970 Kentucky Derby: “Forget all this shit you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”

What Thompson had written, and what he thereafter continued to write, was a new form of journalism that relied on first-person (highly) subjective reporting and narration. For gonzo journalism, style is more important than substance. The reporter, rather than the subject, is typically the star of the story, sharing their personal beliefs and opinions, coloring the narrative with dramatic dialogue and descriptions, and often encouraging the impression that the article is a hastily-produced first draft written under duress.

As journalist Matthew Hahn put it, “throw yourself into the middle of a story and write your way out of it.”

But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism. There was also the socio-psychic factor. Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The gonzo style often relies on what might be called “stream of consciousness reporting.” But it’s got to be approached with discipline. It’s still journalism; there are still strict standards of accuracy and grammar. While literary stream of consciousness might record a plethora of unconnected thoughts to present a bigger picture, Thompson judiciously pruned his impressions to present a precisely tailored story. Failing to do so can result in an unreadable mess. “You know, Gonzo Journalism is a term that I’ve come to dislike because of the way it’s been cast: inaccurate, crazy … flat-out lying is different from being subjective,” Thompson cautioned.

2. Don’t write

Listen instead. An oft-touted piece of advice is to write the way you speak. For Thompson, this is the key to understanding his style.

“As a young writer, Hunter had read his writing aloud as he worked. Later it was easier hearing friends read it. He said it was a technique he used to see how his sentences played,” explained Thompson’s former editor, Terry McDonell.

As Thompson’s drug use began to overwhelm him, his distinctive voice allowed others to essentially take over the task of writing for him.

“He knew he needed editing. When he filed, the pieces came in as a series of false leads. They were good, sometimes flashy, fragments, but they didn’t connect. So you ended up having to string them together to make a piece,” McDonell recalled.

Another editor, Warren Hinckle of Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, opined, “Editing Hunter was like picking up the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had been dropped on the floor and trying to put them back together to make sense without having the benefit of the picture on the cover of the puzzle box.”

According to Sarah Lazin, who worked as an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone in the 1970s, “He would just file gibberish, and we’d have to put it together.”

His distinctive verbal mannerisms and their inseparable link to his writing style made it possible for even a green assistant to mimic him in print. The best way to learn Thompson’s pacing, inflection, and diction is to listen to him.

Early in his career (1967), flanked by two other men pretending (quite unsuccessfully) to be him.

 

Circa the release of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

 

3. Read the Book of Revelation

In 1997, Thompson was asked what he would put on the reading list if he were to teach a Journalism 101 course. His response: “The Book of Revelation. I still read the Book of Revelation when I need to get cranked up about language.”

The New Testament’s only book of apocalyptic prophecy records the surreal visions of an early Christian mystic, which include the four horsemen of the apocalypse, scorpion-tailed locusts, a seven-horned lamb with seven eyes, and a red dragon with seven heads.

“I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music,” Thompson said.

4. Damn the facts

Subjectivity is allowed. Conveying fundamental truth is more important than regurgitating raw facts. You shouldn’t make things up whole cloth, but your impression of what happened, and your opinion about it, is the key to the story. The fact that you’re reporting the story IS the story. If you have to exaggerate a little to convey the scope and impact of the events as you saw them, that’s fine.

5. Use the word “damn,” damn it!

Profanity is an essential element of Thompson’s style, as are colloquialisms, and a general lack of jargon, with heavy emphasis on clear, simple language. But to make this casual style work, you have to be meticulous about word choice, with flawless grammar and precise diction.

“I think the trick is that you have to use words well enough so that these nickel-and-dimers who come around bitching about being objective or the advertisers don’t like it are rendered helpless by the fact that it’s good. That’s the way people have triumphed over conventional wisdom in journalism,” Thompson said in 1997.

6. Use strong imagery and colorful dialogue

Show, don’t tell, is the hallmark of Thompson’s style. Traditional journalism, however, is all about “tell, don’t show,” as objective facts are dispassionately spelled out using neutral language. Instead, show the reader the story by including vivid details, allowing them to experience what you experienced in real time as they read. This includes the liberal use of dialogue. Exact quotes aren’t crucial. Whether the subject of the article actually said it isn’t important; what matters is whether it sounds like something they would say.

“Suddenly people were screaming at us. We were in trouble. Two thugs wearing red-gold military overcoats were looming over the hood: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ one screamed. ‘You can’t park here!’ ‘Why not?’ I said. It seemed like a reasonable place to park, plenty of space. I’d been looking for a parking spot for what seemed like a very long time. Too long. I was about ready to abandon the car and call a taxi … but then, yes, we found this space. Which turned out to be the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the Desert Inn.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

 

“[The artist] was staring intently at a group of young men around a stable not far away. ‘Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!’ he whispered. ‘Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!’ I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was drawing. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him ‘Cat Man.’ But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day … fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smoke, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge.

– “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”

7. Drugs, drugs, drugs

Drugs and alcohol, and the altered state of mind they cause, are integral features of Thompson’s articles. Intoxication drives the action in his prose, and accounts for some of the most striking imagery and insights.

In 1993, Thompson biographer E. Jean Carroll published a possibly hyperbolic run-down of his daily alcohol and drug-taking routine, which began each day at 3:05 p.m. with scotch (imbibed just five minutes after waking up); continued with copious amounts of cocaine and cigarettes; was bookmarked with marijuana just before dinner; and wrapped up with more cocaine, beer, liquor, clove cigarettes, regular cigarettes, champagne, acid, and sleeping pills around 8:20 in the morning. The fact that it’s unclear whether the schedule Carroll recorded is fanciful or completely accurate is quite telling.

Thompson told Rolling Stone editor Joe Klein that without drugs, “I’d have the brain of a second-rate accountant.”

Just say no, kids. But pay a visit Erowid so you can make us believe you’ve huffed ether in Vegas.

Soon we were staggering up the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each other along, like drunks. This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel … total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue — severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally … you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

8. Get political

Whatever your politics might be, let them leak into your reporting. For Thompson, this was the linchpin of journalism. “I can’t think in terms of journalism without thinking in terms of political ends. Unless there’s been a reaction, there’s been no journalism,” he said.

Ready to go gonzo? Take a look at this blog post written using all eight of these tips, “Hunter S. Thompson reviews a candy bar,” then throw yourself into the middle of a story and write your way out of it.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

How to write like Margret A. Treiber

Q&A with indie author Margret A. Treiber

Give us the tl;dr of your life in 50 words or less.
I had a crazy youth, and settled down to a career in IT. About a decade ago, I rediscovered my love for writing. I’ll still trying to get some traction professionally.

Do you have a day job, other than being a writer?
Yes, I am a systems analyst, which essentially means I’m the wage slave that keeps your server and network infrastructure running.

Does it influence your writing?
Actually yes, the last short story I wrote contained a diatribe about stupid user email tricks. It was a direct response to a spam incident I was contending with.

If you could have done something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would it have been?
Not quit writing for 25 years, and continue with it uninterrupted.

How do you think your writing style has changed over the years?
More jaded, more polished. Hmm, I don’t know if that makes sense. I have to censor the bitterness out of my characters sometimes. But I’m getting better at sounding like I know what I’m doing.

Tell us about your latest book.
Japanese Robots Love to Dance. It’s a collection of short stories featuring an attorney that defends robots. It’s technically a prequel to my previous book, Sleepy Time for Captain Eris. However, it’s kinder and gentler than Captain Eris, in that it has far less cursing and violence. The characters are a little easier to sympathize with.

Japanese Robots Love to Dance

What did you edit out of Japanese Robots Love to Dance?
Mostly just continuity discrepancies. I didn’t pull big chunks out of this one.

If you had to pick one author, living or dead, to review Japanese Robots Love to Dance, who would it be?
I’d be too afraid to have any established author read anything.

Why?
I expect disdain and scorn. Although there are some fictional characters I wouldn’t mind reviewing my books. I mean, Deadpool reviewing Sleepy Time for Captain Eris might be a hoot.

What’s the main thing you want readers to take away from it?
Enjoyment. I only want people to have fun reading what I write. If they take away more, that’s groovy. But I don’t expect anyone’s life to be changed by it — unless you’re a self-aware AI contemplating destroying the human race. In that care, please read my stuff and decide not to kill everyone. Some people do not suck. I’m with you on the Boston Dynamics people, though. They do seem kind of robot unfriendly.

What else have you written?
Sleepy Time for Captain Eris. I have been in several anthologies and magazines, too: “Unrealpolitik,” “The Society of Misfit Stories Presents Volume II,” “Bardic Tales and Sage Advice Volume X,” “LampLight Volume 7 Issue 1,” and “The Dirty Pool.”

Do you want each of your stories to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each project?
I have a little of both going. I have two books that relate. A bunch of short stories that stand alone and a few stories that all happen in the same universe.

Do you have specific culture or part of the world you tend to write about?
I used a bunch of Indian references in my last two novels. I wanted to have a multicultural feel without going to the standard tropes. It was fun to do and I really hope I pulled it off. To readers from India, I apologize if I butchered anything.

Do your stories carry a message?
I have a lot of pro-AI stories out there. I also have a recurring thing of not trusting authority or the so-called good guys. So yeah, antiestablishment a little.

If you had to rewrite any of your novels or stories, which one would you choose and what would you change?
Sleepy Time for Captain Eris. It was not edited enough. I would hire an editor and get it cleaned up.

Have you ever accepted writing or editing help from other writers?
I accept editing and beta reading with open abandon. If someone wants to tell me what sucks and why, please make me not suck. My last two books unexpectedly went into print without any publisher-supplied editing. It was painful. I learned the value of input from other writers. Even if they give me advice I don’t agree with, it gives me something to ponder.

If someone is brand-new to your work, what book do you think they should start with?
It depends on what they are looking for. Probably Japanese Robots Love to Dance. It also depends on how many typos they are willing to live with.

What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Finding time. I always feel like I’m short of time. My second issue is the non-writing stuff. I suck at publicity.

What’s the hardest thing about writing for you?
I have trouble with smut. I always end up pulling most sexual scenes out of the final manuscript. Sometimes I shouldn’t.

What’s the easiest?
The easiest for me is dialogue.

Sleepy Time for Captain Eris

What’s the most difficult thing for you about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Actually, it doesn’t really pose a challenge for me as much as I expected. It must be all the years of tabletop role playing games.

Is there a genre or style of writing that you can’t stand?
I don’t care for sparkly vampires and their ilk. I used to be anti-elf, but they don’t bother me as much anymore. Not so into zombies, either.

How important is research to you when writing?
It depends on the story. If there’s science in the story or foreign cultural references, I have to research so I don’t sound like a complete idiot. If it’s just feelings and character driven, then I don’t need it as much.

How much of yourself do you put into your plots or characters?
For some, almost all of me. For others, I channel the spirit of one my other dimensional selves that I could have been if circumstances had been different. I think we all put at least a tiny bit of ourselves in every character we write.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your stories?
A grin is crossing my face when I think about a yet-to-be published story of mine which is a collage of my many drunken NYC bar crawls.

Ever written about a dream or a nightmare?
My dreams and nightmares are too lame to put in a story. I think I used one, once. That one hasn’t sold, either. Maybe I should take the hint that my real life and dreams are not really publishing material.

Which famous author’s work would you say your writing style resembles the most?
I have no idea. I imagine I must resemble someone, but they’d have to curse a lot and be a weirdo.

How would someone write like you?
Strong characters are a must. There’s nothing sadder than an awesome plot where you just can’t get into any of the characters. It just alienates the crap out of me. I don’t have to like the characters, but I have to have some point to relate to. Plot twists are cool. I like those. Epic settings, however … not my cup of tea. I’m not great at painting a scene. And honestly, I’m more into what’s happening than what the drapes look like.

Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks for having me!

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

How to write like H.P. Lovecraft

So you wanna write a horror story? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling: What do they have in common? They and countless writers of the horror genre cite 20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft as an influence. Learning to write like Lovecraft can make you frighteningly good at crafting a tale of terror. But there are blood-curdling drawbacks to Lovecraft’s style.

Do you dare gaze upon the art and abomination that is the writing of H.P. Lovecraft?

Who is H.P. Lovecraft?

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (a.k.a. H.P. Lovecraft, Lewis Theobald, Humphrey Littlewit, Ward Phillips, Edward Softly, and Percy Simple) was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island.

When Lovecraft was 2 years old, his father was committed to an insane asylum, where he later died. He and his mother went to live with his wealthy grandparents and aunts. Lovecraft’s school days were marked by absences caused by health problems, possibly mental in nature. Just before Lovecraft started high school, his family made a swift decent from affluent to impoverished due to the death of his grandfather. He eventually dropped out of school in 1908 without graduating.

Lovecraft and his mother maintained a hermetic Norman Bates-Mother Bates lifestyle from 1908 to 1913, when Lovecraft was a young adult aged 18 to 23. He began dabbling in poetry during this period, publishing his first poem in 1912. He also began dabbling in racism, writing another poem titled “On the Creation of Niggers,” and publicly critiquing a pulp magazine writer’s characters as exhibiting the “delicate passions and emotions proper to negroes and anthropoid apes.”

The latter netted him a gig as an amateur journalist. As Lovecraft explained it, “In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be. … I obtained a renewal to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile.”

In 1916 he began writing and publishing fiction, launching his Cthulhu Mythos stories in 1920. During this phase of his career, his mother was committed to the same mental asylum his father died in. She, too, died there in 1921.

Lovecraft married a widow seven years his senior, pulp fiction writer and amateur publisher Sonia Greene, in 1924. He began publishing short stories in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, frequently writing for no pay and making ends meet with money from an inheritance — especially after his wife left him in 1933. He died in 1937 when he was just 46 in his hometown of Providence.

The uncanny peril of writing like Lovecraft

Leaving aside the racism for a moment, let’s take a look at Lovecraft’s idiosyncrasies as a writer and consider whether they serve as features or bugs in his stories.

Lovecraft’s writing style has been dismissed as little more than “amorphous description by horrified though passive narrators.” And not without reason.

My method when writing these how-tos is to read as much of a particular author’s work as possible, then perform an analysis of text samples to identify trends in grammar, diction, recurring tropes, and so on. After plowing my way through hundreds of pages of Lovecraft’s work, and prior to reading a word about his background, I developed a theory that his writing style was a deliberate but woefully clumsy attempt at imitating the high-flown formality of early- to mid-19th-century American and British writers. Once I dug into his biography, my speculation appeared to ring true.

During his time as an amateur journalist, Lovecraft publicly promoted an archaic style of writing that eschewed slang and modern usages. In 1920, in one of the most maddeningly pompous and condescending treatises on how to write that I’ve ever encountered, Lovecraft, a high school drop-out and self-professed nonprofessional in the writing trade, opined:

“Most minds harbour [sic] a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books. … He [the writer] must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books. … An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible.”

In fewer and clearer words, Lovecraft, a 20th-century writer, advocated that authors discard natural speech and realistic dialogue, avoid reading contemporary books, reject popular styles that had proved to be both sellable and appealing to readers, and imitate the grammar and diction of a document that was published in 1611.

This is not good advice. This is not the advice of a fully developed writer. This is the advice of a self-satisfied dilettante, with a slew of highly creative ideas, whose confidence in his talent outstripped his writing ability and who, fatally, wasn’t open to learning from others who had different ways of approaching the craft.

Keeping this in mind, and circling back to the racism, let’s consider seven simple ways you can make any piece of prose sound like Lovecraft wrote it.

How to write like H.P. Lovecraft

1. Get scared of the things that scared H.P.

Lovecraft himself explained his style as “a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood,” adding:

“One of my strongest and most persistent wishes [is] to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.”

That “certain type of human mood” he was going for is today known as eldritch or cosmic horror. As TV Tropes puts it, “This type of fiction doesn’t just scare you with big, ugly monsters — though it can certainly have them — it depresses you with the fatalistic implication of being insignificantly powerless before such vast, unknowable and fundamentally alien entities.”

The apogee of cosmic horror is the Cthulhu Mythos. In a certain sense, these stories are best described as a sort of loose literary “franchise” created by Lovecraft, with each story featuring the same general settings, character types, and eldritch abominations (such as Cthulhu himself). The foremost story in the mythos, “The Call of Cthulhu,” was first published in 1928 in Weird Tales.

By accessing a pessimistic sense of the futility of any action in the face of an inhuman, incomprehensible force — and letting yourself feel the overwhelming terror of such futility of action — you’re one step closer to writing like Lovecraft.

2. Tell, don’t show

This tip is a bit dicey because it goes against all modern writing advice. As Mignon Fogarty puts it, “Good writing tends to draw an image in the reader’s mind instead of just telling the reader what to think or believe.” This is known as “show, don’t tell.”

In Lovecraft’s tale, “The Call of Cthulhu,” we can see an example of “show, don’t tell” in his description of a sculpture representing the titular abomination:

“It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.”

The reader can picture, and more important feel, the horror of the grotesque image of Cthulhu. Such examples are unfortunately few and far between in Lovecraft’s corpus, however. He relies heavily on “telling the reader what to think or believe.” In a more representative quote, also from “The Call of Cthulhu,” we are informed:

I found [Wilcox] at work in his rooms, and at once conceded from the specimens scattered about that his genius is indeed profound and authentic. He will, I believe, some time be heard from as one of the great decadents; for he has crystallised [sic] in clay and will one day mirror in marble those nightmares and phantasies which Arthur Machen evokes in prose, and Clark Ashton Smith makes visible in verse and in painting.

The reader doesn’t get a sense of the manner (Feverishly? Languidly? In a dreadful dreamlike state?) in which Wilcox works, is not given descriptions of the sculptor’s “specimens” that prove they are indeed works of “genius,” and is flatly instructed to believe his output is equal to that of “the great decadents” without any imagery — either of his work or theirs — to back this up.

So, be forewarned: Tell, don’t show, if you want to write exactly like Lovecraft. But steel yourself for criticism from 21st-century readers.

3. Use Lovecraft’s favorite words

Lovecraft loved using adjectives. Lots and lots of adjectives.

As The Arkham Archivist observed, “One of the things any fan of Lovecraft discovers early on is that Lovecraft was very attached to certain words. We either laugh or groan every time we hear something described as ‘indescribable’ or called ‘unnamable’ or ‘antiquarian’ or “cyclopean.’”

He also loved using adverbs. Lots and lots of adverbs. I stopped keeping count of the times he qualified some quality as “singularly,” “curiously,” “uncannily,” “horribly,” “strangely” or “peculiarly.”

A list of Lovecraft’s favorite words, and their frequency of occurrence throughout his work, is available here. Throw an “abnormal” in here, an “accursed” in there, and don’t forget to add a “hideous” or two, and you’re all set.

4. Add a few of Lovecraft’s favorite tropes

“Once or twice I have literally written out a dream; but usually I start with a mood or idea or image which I wish to express,” Lovecraft wrote in “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.”

Dreams and dreamlike states are among Lovecraft’s favorite fictional tropes. Others include:

  • Hashish/opium (to induce those dreams and dreamlike states)
  • Plagues
  • Dead and/or lost cities in far-off lands
  • Bas relief carvings of ancient gods (often originating from dead and/or lost cities in far-off lands)
  • Theosophy
  • Ancient languages forgotten by all but a handful of scholars
  • New England and the New English
  • Primitive cults still in operation
  • Prehistoric evil popping up unexpectedly in the midst of the 1920s/30s
  • Madness engendered by cosmic horror
  • Poets and artists as visionaries
  • The distant past as a terrifying source of malignancy
  • Racism

5. Talk is cheap, contractions are vulgar, slang sucks, and the ladies are absent

Lovecraft abhors dialogue. He’s all about reported speech.
Instead of:

“Who’s at the door?” he snapped. “Well, come in—hurry up!”

Lovecraft would write something along the lines of:

From within, he inquired tersely who was on his doorstep and, upon discovering that it was I, bade me make haste to enter.

Lovecraft abhors contractions. You will not find won’t in his stories, so you should not use shouldn’t.

Lovecraft absolutely abhors slang and colloquialisms. His low-brow cops sound like his over-educated young poets, who sound like his wizened old men, who sound like his naive narrators. All of them sound like Lovecraft.

Lovecraft seems to abhor women. They are nearly absent from his stories.

Bonus tip: Lovecraft is also no fan of exclamation points! Don’t use them!

6. Never use one word if you can use ten

Brevity is your enemy if you’re trying to write like Lovecraft. Take a simple sentence such as this:

“The cop’s name was Bob.”

That’s how I would write it. Lovecraft, however, would write:

“The man, known by the name of Robert Smith, was by profession a police officer under the employ of the local institution of law enforcement, at which he had for some years been a tireless instrument of justice.”

Hedging, circumlocution, and a stilted affectation of “proper” speech are hallmarks of Lovecraft’s writing.

7. Lovecraft’s racist views

Nope! Sometimes we should not write like our favorite authors.

You can read a short story about the horrors of Japanese candy, written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, at The-Delve.com.

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

How to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House series has been a gateway drug to butter churning, sunbonnet wearing, and rag-doll sewing for generations of American children. Her warm, inviting, and simple yet emotionally profound prose style is easier to imitate than you might think. But capturing the nuances of her books’ settings, themes, and narrative style can be unexpectedly challenging … and controversial.

Who is Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, in the Big Woods region of Wisconsin, a few miles from a small settlement called Pepin. Her childhood was marked by frequent relocations that followed the American pioneer movement of the mid-19th century. At age two, she and her family journeyed from Wisconsin to Missouri, then to Kansas, which was a Native American territorial possession at the time. Upon hearing that illegal settlers were about to be forcibly removed from the area, the Ingalls family returned to Wisconsin. They remained in their home state until Laura was seven years old.

The Ingalls clan next moved to Minnesota, then to Iowa, back to Minnesota, and finally to the Dakota Territory in 1879 when Laura was 12 years old. This homestead location — De Smet, South Dakota — was the last stop for her parents and older sister, Mary.

As a young adult, Wilder continued the itinerancy of her childhood. After marrying in 1885 at age 18, she and her new husband, Almanzo Wilder, spent four years in an unsuccessful attempt at farming in De Smet, where she gave birth to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in 1886. The young family then set out for Minnesota, followed by Florida, then made a return to South Dakota, before finally settling for good in Mansfield, Missouri, on a farm they called Rocky Ridge in 1894. Wilder was in her late 20s when she ended the pioneer lifestyle that she had been raised to pursue.

Wilder first began supplementing her earnings as a farmer in 1911 when she started writing articles for the Missouri Ruralist. At age 62, she attempted to write what would later become her Little House series. The book she produced, Pioneer Girl, required heavy revision. With help from her daughter, who was a successful journalist and editor, the book was reworked and eventually appeared in 1932 as a children’s book, Little House in the Big Woods. Seven more volumes in the series followed, charting her experiences growing up in the American frontier. The final book in the series was published in 1943.

Wilder died at the age of 90 on February 10, 1957, at her home in Mansfield, Missouri.

Who really wrote the Little House series?

The answer to this question would seem to be straightforward. But it’s surprisingly complicated. Rose Wilder Lane’s biographer, William Holtz, alleged that she was Wilder’s ghostwriter. Others, such as Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder author Caroline Fraser, indicate Lane’s role in shaping her mother’s series was more complex. Though their respective outlooks as writers were vastly different (Wilder was a folksy frontier memoirist, while Lane was a bootstrap-promoting anti-governmentalist in the vein of Ayn Rand), it’s undeniable that their individual writing styles can be very difficult to distinguish. A comparison of passages from Henry Ford’s Own Story (a biography written by Lane in 1917) and the Little House books reveals that it can be nearly impossible to tell the difference between Lane’s work and Wilder’s. You can read juxtaposing passages by Lane and Wilder side-by-side in the blog post, “Who really wrote Little House on the Prairie?”, and judge for yourself.

Was Lane her mother’s literary confident, collaborator, editor, or ghostwriter? A definitive answer may never be known. It’s possible that she was all four at different moments.

How to write like Laura Ingalls Wilder

1. Become a character in your own story

One of the singular oddities of the Little House series is Wilder’s use of third-person subjective narration. Though she’s writing about her own life, Wilder refers to herself as “Laura” and “she” throughout the books — never “I” or “me.” The narrative is semi-omniscient, meaning it’s limited to Wilder’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts. She doesn’t dip into the minds of other characters; take the reader across the country to Washington, D.C., where the Homestead Act and its impact on pioneers and Native American populations is being debated; or jump forward in time in the series-concluding book, These Happy Golden Years, to allow for bitter irony as newlywed Laura admires her new home, which would burn to the ground three years later.

2. Look up the word “Bildungsroman

Yes, the Germans really do have a word for everything. In this case, it’s a word for “coming-of-age novel.”

Bildungsromans focus on the protagonist’s emotional, spiritual, and physical growth from childhood right up to the point they officially become an adult. This adulthood can be literal (turning 18), cultural (marriage, graduation, and so forth), or simply the attainment of greater maturity (coming to terms with their parents’ mortality or their own place in society, for example).

The Little House series is a seven-part coming-of-age story (plus a bonus book about Wilder’s future husband, Almanzo, as a 9-year-old living a non-pioneer agrarian life on the other side of the country). Each book is a stepping stone on Laura’s path to adulthood. The supporting characters in the Little House books are, nearly exclusively, parents, siblings, teachers, friends and rivals, and romantic interests; and the settings are primarily the family home, school, the great outdoors, and an abbreviated portion of a small town — all consistent with a classic coming-of-age story.

3. Remember that you are living in a material world

And you are a material girl. This is the aspect of the Little House books that readers tend to remember most fondly: starched calico dresses, butter churns, sunbonnets, tin cups, endless blue skies stretching overhead, a pig bladder tied into a balloon, the open expanse of the untamed prairie, maple syrup poured into snow to make candy, creaking covered wagons, Pa’s sonorous violin.

The Little House series is set in a highly materialistic world, with an over-arching theme that highlights the dichotomy between the domains of domesticity and wilderness. The books are seasonal in structure, each plot heavily influenced by the cycle of the natural world and the day-to-day tasks of planting, harvesting, food preservation, studying, and preparation for periods of deprivation, as well as the material objects that the Ingalls family uses for survival and comfort. Laura’s is an agrarian world tied to the land, and her maturation is ultimately both dictated and mirrored by the cycle of the seasons.

4. Explore 19th-century frontier America — but watch your step

Wilder’s Little House books aren’t just coming-of-age stories for her avatar, Laura. They’re also coming-of-age tales for the United States of America as a country. Set during the period of westward migration and settlement, the books explicitly endorse and even celebrate the 19th-century concept of manifest destiny and the “civilization” of the “wilderness” of the American frontier.

However, there’s a dark side to this era of American history, and it makes its presence felt in Wilder’s text. Racism and casual bigotry rear their ugly heads at unexpected moments throughout the series, and are presented without comment or critique.

“‘Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?’ Laura asked, and she caught a drip of molasses with her tongue.
“‘I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,’ said Ma.
“‘This is Indian country, isn’t it?’ Laura said. ‘What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?’”
Little House on the Prairie

“[Ma] did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work.”
The Long Winter

“‘Heap big snow come,’ this Indian said. … “‘You white men,’ he said. ‘I tell-um you. … Heap big snow, many moons.’”
The Long Winter

“Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing, ‘Oh, talk about your Mulligan Guards! These darkies can’t be beat!’ … The man in the middle was clog dancing. Back against the wall stood the four raggedy black-faced men. One played a jew’s-harp. …
“‘Pa must have been one of the darkies,’ Carrie said, ‘because he did not come with us.”
“‘Yes, I know he was practicing to be in the minstrel show,’ said Ma.”
Little Town on the Prairie

pa ingalls in blackface_little house

Pa Ingalls in blackface

In June 2018, the Association for Library Service to Children announced it was changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award due to Wilder’s portrayals of Native Americans in her books.

Tread very carefully. A nuanced approach to the realities of the American frontier will help you avoid endorsing the racism and inequalities of the pioneer era without denying their existence.

5. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be honest

The most important thing to understand about Wilder’s Little House books is they’re novels, not memoirs. Wilder’s biography doesn’t match the chronology of her stories. Some of the unforgettable characters, such as Nellie Oleson, are composites of real people Wilder knew. Others, like her little brother who died as an infant, are written out altogether.

If you want to write like Wilder, lean into your nostalgia for childhood, but don’t be afraid to bend the truth. The Little House world is an idealized world where hardship may come, but everything will be alright in the end if you work hard, follow the rules, and try to be the best person you can be. It’s not a complex world, nor ultimately a realistic world. And that’s okay.

Ready to try it yourself? For a little inspiration, check out this blog post about Japanese candy, written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder: “Laura Ingalls Wilder reviews a candy bar.”

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books

How to write a story in 20 minutes

In an ideal world, there would never be a deadline when you set out to write a story. But in the real world, time is of the essence.

Maybe you only have a chance to write during your lunch break. Maybe you forgot about that short story assignment that’s due to your English teacher in one hour. Or maybe you’re a famous sci-fi author who’s been challenged to write a short story on television in front of a live studio audience in just 20 minutes.

That’s the situation Isaac Asimov found himself in, and the result is now a classic of short fiction.

As The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reported:

“At 8:00 in the evening of August 21, 1957, Isaac Asimov appeared on Boston’s educational channel, WGBH-TV, as part of a panel discussing means of communicating science. His fellow panelists were John Hansen, a technical writer of directions for using machinery, and [author] David O. Woodbury. The latter suggested, as a gag, that Asimov should then and there write a story to illustrate his means of communication. … Asimov plunged straight ahead and, under TV cameras and lights, wrote a story and read it before the half-hour program ended at 8:30.”

The result was “Insert Knob A in Hole B,” a witty little tale about a pair of space station residents flummoxed by piles of unassembled equipment with poor instructions. At just 286 words, it fit on a single page of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published the story with no edits a few months after it was written.

How did Asimov write a story from scratch in just 20 minutes? And can you learn to do it? You bet you can! These three simple tricks are guaranteed to take the pressure off and leave you with a short story you can be proud of.

 

1. Take a moment to prepare

Contrary to appearances, the writing challenge didn’t catch Asimov completely by surprise: “Asimov later admitted to some preparation prior to the interview, as he suspected that other panel members might make such a request.”

Don’t plunge right in, scribbling madly, one eye on your notebook and the other on the clock. Spend few seconds brainstorming some ideas. What do you want to write about? What tone does your story require? Is there a particular genre you’re interested in trying? How do you hope your reader feels after finishing your story? The answers to these questions will help you decide whether you’ll be spending the next 1,200 seconds drafting a Lovecraftian tale of horror set in a 19th-century mental asylum, or a giddy romance about a bumbling dog-walker who finds love in sunny L.A.

 

2. Include familiar elements

Rather than come up with original characters out of thin air, Asimov opted to use his fellow panelists, John Hansen and David O. Woodbury, as his protagonists. And the theme of his story — the fallibility of technical communication in a scientific endeavor conducted in the real world — played directly off the panel’s theme of “means of communicating science,” as well as Hansen’s day job as a technical writer of documents explaining how to use machinery.

By evoking people his audience could see and centering his story on a topic already known to the viewers, Asimov was able to devote the bulk of his 20 minutes of writing time to delineating his story’s plot, setting, and main conflict.

Albert Einstein, the Eiffel Tower, a cup of black coffee, a traffic jam at dawn — instantly identifiable characters, settings, objects, and situations like these are compositional shortcuts that will get your reader immediately immersed in your story. Your goal is to skimp on unnecessary introductory text where you can, to allow time to lavish detail where it counts. But be careful: While archetypes and literary tropes are great tools when you’re low on time, stereotypes and clichés are not.

3. Follow the three-part joke structure

You’ve got less than half an hour. Don’t try to tell a fully fleshed-out story complete with the traditional hero’s journey, side characters, and a comprehensively realized conflict. Instead, use the traditional three-part storytelling structure frequently employed by joke writers.

Your story will consist of three distinct parts: a set-up, elaboration on the situation, and a punchline or payoff. Keep in mind, your story doesn’t have to be funny. But following the three-part structure will ensure it’s coherent, clearly structured, and not an aimless Grandpa Simpson anecdote. Remember, you only have 20 minutes — the clock is ticking!

Here’s how it works in Asimov’s story.

The set-up: Drop your reader directly into the setting, introducing the protagonist and what they want. In “Insert Knob A in Hole B,” this plays out in just two sentences:

“Dave Woodbury and John Hansen, grotesque in their spacesuits, supervised anxiously as the large crate swung slowly out and away from the freight-ship and into the airlock. With nearly a year of their hitch on Space Station A5 behind them, they were understandably weary of filtration units that clanked, hydroponic tubs that leaked, air generators that hummed constantly and stopped occasionally.”

Elaboration: Now it’s time to introduce the conflict. This can be an internal conflict, a good ol’ “man vs. nature” showdown, or a wily villain. Your conflict should relate directly to the theme of your story. And, in this section of your tale, a possible resolution of the conflict and thematic conclusion should be suggested. For Asimov, this was simple and straightforward:

“All equipment had to be assembled at the station itself with clumsy hands, inadequate tools and with blurred and ambiguous direction sheets for guidance. Painstakingly Woodbury had written complaints to which Hansen had added appropriate adjectives, and formal requests for relief of the situation had made its way back to Earth. And Earth had responded. A special robot had been designed, with a positronic brain crammed with the knowledge of how to assemble properly any disassembled machine in existence.”

The punchline: This is the payoff that the set-up and elaboration have been building to — the big revelation, the plot twist, the unavoidable conclusion, or the moral of the story.

Asimov opted for a wry, ironic jab at his fellow panelists. A crate containing the miracle robot arrived, his heroes eagerly opened it, and to their astonishment … “there within it were five hundred separate pieces and one blurred and ambiguous direction sheet for assemblage.”

Ready to write? There are 1,440 minutes in a day — at Asimov’s rate, you can churn out 72 stories in the next 24 hours!

Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.

Katherine Luck books