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Monday, October 06, 2008


Literary Exquisite Corpse, or, It's Your Problem Now

My friend Claire introduced me to a game recently that I think is well worth sharing: a game we've called It's Your Problem Now, for reasons that will become obvious. It's a game for two to four players, ideally, though you can do it with more.

The rules are simple. Everyone has a piece of paper and a pen. Everyone comes up with the title for a book, then passes the paper along to the player on their left. You look at the title you've been given, then write a blurb for said imaginary book, then pass along again. Next, everyone writes the book's first paragraph or passage, then passes it on; finally, you write the imaginary book's final paragraph. Then you all read aloud.

Unlike traditional Exquisite Corpse, the challenge is to keep things reasonably consistent, while retaining the freedom to throw new things into the mix. There can be an element of mischievous snookering of the next player - coming up with a tricky title is fun, for instance - but it's mostly collaborative. It's also very good for your confidence: it's surprising what you can come up with when there's nothing at stake. As much as anything else, it's an object lesson in how inventive you can be when you relax.

So, for your amusement, I'm presenting the ones that we came up with, in case anyone wants to read them. There are six, so read as many as you like. Following on, shall we play it in the thread? Rules are as follows: everyone has to follow in sequence - so if one person puts up a title, the next person does the blurb, and so on. Let's play!

(Professional disclaimer, in case anyone spots an awkward sentence and decides never to buy one of that stupid Kit Whitfield's books on the strength of it: these passages are, of course, rough, given that they were written at speed.)

C: The Unanswered Garden


K: Lilian Helm was fresh out of college, with a mountain of student debt and her dead father's debts to pay beside, when the offer came: a six-month live-in placement at Michaelmas Hall, restoring the neglected building to its former glory.

At first, the offer seemed too good to be true. But then the dreams started. Who was the white-clad girl who sighed in the darkness? What was the secret of the sunken garden, with its dying roses and mysterious carved love-seat? And what was the truth behind her mysterious employer?


G: Michaelmas Hall, 1792

My dearest Jane,

I doubt that this letter will reach you. It seems impossible that his Grace, whose ministers and messengers keep him so well informed of all mankind's affairs, will neglect to intercept this - particularly as I make no effort to conceal it. But in the event that it does, one day, come into your hands, at least know this - that you were right and I have always loved you.

As for you, your Grace, if I guess right, by the time you read this I will be dead and you will only be beginning to understand how I have deceived you. A lesser man would be concerned about the money; we both know what troubles you - and I promise you, the book is not destroyed, nor shall it be. Ask your servants if they can help you - but unless I miss my guess, the diabolical intellect does not encompass horticulture. I will not say that I remain your 'honourable servant' or any similar such nonsense, for I have been about the worst servant it is possible to be - instead, I will merely conclude by wishing you frustration in life and damnation in death -

Raphael Vespucci


C: The scream had come from the garden. Lilian ran towards it, her breath sobbing in her throat. If she could be in time! If she could only be in time!

She was too late. Hector lay on the round lawn, his sightless eyes gazing up at the sky, the book still clutched in his stiffening hand.

He had used it, as she had begged him not to. The curse was lifted. She was safe.

And Hector was lost, for ever.

G: The Crown of Shadows


C: Mary was the love of Jed's life, the only thing that gave his existence meaning. Her death in a freak car accident almost destroyed him. Over her grave, he made her a promise: he woudl get her back, he would see her walk in the sunlight again. Whatever it took.

Even if it meant turning back to the old ways of his father and grandfather, the ways he'd spent a lifetime trying to escape from.


K: 'I don't think I can do this,' Jed said.

'What's the worst that can happen?' Mary laughed. Sunlight glinted as she tossed her blonde hair out of her eyes. She twirled around before him on her skates, graceful as a swallow, then turned back to him, smiling that warm, wide grin that always made his heart skip. 'I'll hold on to you. You'll be fine.'

Jed staggered to his feet. The boots were supposed to clamp his angkles firmly, but he didn't feel secure: no one with feet his size had ankles that skinny, he was sure. He was probably going to fall and break into a million pieces. For a moment he overbalanced, plunging towards the ice, and then Mary caught him firmly, her hands on his. 'That's it,' she said.

Dad would laugh if he could see me now, Jed thought. God, I don't even want to picture what he'd say. 'Okay, I'm up,' he said. 'I'm doing this!'

'Terrific.' Mary grinned again. 'Now all you have to do is move.'

'Ah. That's, um...'

'Come on.' Mary started gliding backwards, her legs scissoring in and out in a smooth rhythm. The movement of her thighs distracted Jed for a moment, and she shook his arms gently. 'Don't look at your feet,' she said. 'It's easier to stay up if you don't look down.'

Jed found himself being pulled forward. Mary wasn't moving fast, but the world seemed to be slipping under his feet. He risked a grin himself, hoping for another laugh from her. 'I think you're going to get me killed,' he said.

Mary laughed, shrugged, as if nothing in the world would ever trouble her. 'Who wants to live for ever?' she said.


G: As suddenly as it had begun, the storm died away. The shape in the doorway, so like Mary, so unlike her, slipped backwards with its dying wasp gait and turned away from him, covering its face as if ashamed. Then it, too, was gone.

'That is why you will always be weak,' said Ebeneezer. Jed noticed that his father was still bleeding from the side of his head. 'To open that door and not see what lies on the other side of it - to not even look...'

Jed twisted the bootlace in his hands. He remembered the chill, the sound of a blade cutting into ice at a short, sharp stop.

'Maybe it's for the best,' he said, and shut the door. 'She was always so graceful...'

K: Anchorite City


G: In the cities of the future, everyone is permanently plugged into their rosary - a tiny collection of beads with enough computer memory to store an entire lifetime with music and subliminal instructions. It's almost like nobody ever listens to anybody else at all.

But when Peter's rosary breaks in a freak accident, he is forced to the margins of society, unsure how to think or feel without the music that everyone around him hears.

There, he discovers the Trappists, who have taken a vow of silence - and they reveal to him the true secret behind the all embracing music of the spheres...


C: In the cavern under the city, there was no music. No sound but the soft rustling of robes as they gathered. Their hoods were pulled forwards, hiding their faces. If one was caught, they would not be able to identify the others.

The leader held out his hand. In it lay something that glittered slightly in the dim light.

'It is time now,' he said.


K: The three of them stood, arm in arm. Rachel rasied her eyes to the top of the ruined tower, adn her hand slipped down, clasped around Peter's in a warm, comforting grip. No one moved to break the silence. Just in this moment, there was nothing they needed to say.

C: When The Clouds Left


K: Sally never saw the problem. Why shouldn't she be friends with Jessie Cloud next door? Sure, Jessie and her family were black in an otherwise white town, but Sally didn't understand why the adults got so worked up about that - or why they wouldn't explain to her what they were so worried about. Funny Jessie and her kind, anxious-eyed parents became a nest for Sally, a place of fun and refuge from the colder world outside. But then one morning Sally woke up to see a moving van pulling down the road and her best friend gone. No explanation, no letters, no reason anyone could tell her. And Sally found herself alone in a tight-lipped community, with a gap in her life - a gap filled with questions she needed answers to.


G: In retrospect, it was obvious - but then, these things always are - 'twenty twenty hindsight', her mother used to say. Context changed everything.

Still, Sally thought, you had to hand it to the universe. It had style.

She had kept that Coke bottle - the old fashioned, thick bottomed kind - that exact same Coke bottle - on her shelf for years. Refused every attempt by her mother to get her to throw it out.

All that time, she had thought it was her last link to her friend, one tiny, tacky thing she could rely on. Would she have kept it if she had known? Of course. If anything, she would have been more likely to keep it.

But she would have felt very differently about it, and that would have mattered.

Context changed everything.


C: After a moment, Jessie reached her hand across the table. And after a moment, Sally took it. They looked at each other in silence.

'What now?' Sally asked at last.

'I don't know,' Jessie said. 'I don't know.'

But she didn't pull her hand away.

G: The Unbearable Likeness of Beings


C: This is the world through Hamburg's eyes. A six-foot dog catcher from Brooklyn, Hamburg drifts through his days, watching incuriously as the life of the city plays itself out in front of his dull brown eyes. 'They're all the same,' Hamburg grunts into his mid-day sandwich. But the time is coming when Hamburg will find that very similarity too much to bear...


K: Dogs, you could tell apart. There were scraggly mutts, stinking to high heaven, with their abandoned whines and broken paws. There were overbred Afghans, their silky coats dreadlocking in the rain, picking their way across pavements they never thought they'd see except through the windows of their owners BMWs. There were short-legged Daschunds trying for dignity and scrabbling off the kerbsides, snarling Poms like lost, vindictive teddy bears, Goldens tarnished with pollution and dust. But that was dogs. People, as far as Hamburg could see, were all the same.


G: Behind him, all the children began to dance, and as they danced, they too, like the dogs, began to rise into the air. And so Hamburg watched as they danced into the transforming light and disappeared. He munched a pretzel, sour with meditation, and turned to the Lord Mayor. 'That,' he said, 'is why you ought to pay your civil servants.' And although many other things would be said in the months and years to come throughout the newly depopulated and canine-free island of Manhattan, in tones of fear, exasperation - or, amongst those who had oftened been irritated by the depradations of small children and dogs in public spaces, tones of mild relief - nothing truer or wiser would be uttered, and nothing more needed to be said.

(Gareth gets the Lord of Misrule Prize for that ending, we reckon.)

K: Legs and the Men I Sing
(This was me winding up my fiance, who had to go next; you see what I mean about snookering. Though as you can see, it didn't phase him a jot.)


G: Anita de Vere is bored with everything - her job in PR, her socialite friends and, most of all, her boring boyfriend Derek.

But a chance reunion with an old friend sends her life in new and interesting directions - to the French Riviera and into the path of an impossibly infuriating and improbably seductive Professor of Ancient Greek.


C: 'Anita!' roared Mr Edwards.

She leapt up from her chair, narrowly missed tripping herself on a computer cable, and dashed into his office. 'What is it?' she asked breathlessly.

He skimmed a piece of paper across the desk at her. 'Look at that! Call that a press release?'


K: Spiros grinned, his tanned body gleaming against the white of the boat, and pushed his glasses back up his nose. 'This is a trip to the temple of Aphrodite,' he said. 'I'm sure you'll like learning about her.'

Okay, I'll play...

Kalina is resigned to a life of sweeping up after her goofy brother. All the men in her family are martial artists, heirs to a great tradition - even if their much-vaunted 'discipline' doesn't extent to picking their socks up off the floor. The Way of the Vital Sword is the family tradition ... and entirely closed to girls like her.

It's only when Kalina climbs a tree to rescue Susu, the egregious cat of old Mag - village crone, sometime spinner and hurler of pots at trespassing children - that she learns something new. Another way ... and one that might just change her life.

With taxes rising and Bad Prince Jon threatening the impoverished village, can Kalina learn to forsake the old ways in time? And if she can, will anyone accept her newfound wisdom?
Two weeks late to the party, but I'll give it a try!


There were only nine socks.

Kalina had searched the house from the rafters down, underneath and behind everything. She had emptied the coals from the fireplace, just in case, and felt around the bottom of the washing tub. She had scoured the outhouse and checked the herb garden. Kalina had even climbed the old apple tree by the front gate to see if she could see the missing sock, but to no avail.

There were still only nine socks. Once they were washed and dried, someone would have to go without one, and Kalina knew exactly who that would be.
Well, if no-one ever did come up with a final paragraph, I'll try:

"But you can't leave!" Kalina grabbed Mag's arm, as if to hold her back by force. "I need you."

Gently, Mag disengaged herself. "No," she said, in the same soft voice as always. "Not any more." She leant forwards and planted a dry, old woman's kiss on Kalina's cheek.

"But we haven't even got a ruling council in place, or - or anything. There's so much to do, still!"

"And you'll do it. You'll find a way, my dear. That much I'm sure of." With that, she swung the pack onto her back, took up her walking stick, and strode away down the road.

Kalina stood and watched her go. For a moment, all she could feel was dispair. She'd relied on Mag so much.

Then, slowly, she felt something else seep into her. A different emotion. A new one.

It took her a while to realise it was joy.

Just then, at the top of the hill, Mag turned and waved.

Kalina waved back.

Then Mag was gone.
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