Monday, August 31, 2009

Don't Feed the Trolls

“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
(Robert Heinlen)

So, my most recent story in the Piker Press is one of my favorites so far. I tried a couple of new things, and for the most part I belive I succeeded.
The story is called "On The Wagon", and is told from the point of view of Karl, a recovering alchoholic. Karl is speaking to his Alcoholics Anonymous group, and telling of the experience that drove him to get "On The Wagon". (Hat tip to Sand for the title - I suck at titles...)

I won't give up the ending, you have to read the story to get that. But the two new things I tried were:

1. To write the story completely in the voice of the main character. No other characters speak, and there is no narrative voice.
2. To have a character who uses a specific dialect to more clearly portray his background and personality.

The first part went well. Even without a narrative voice or any formal exposition at all, the story is clearly portrayed. That part wasn't too hard, and it was good exercise for my "Show Don't Tell" muscles. (They tend to be weak and flabby. This is good during NaNoWriMo when taking three pages to explain a coming of age ceremony is a good thing. Bad when people actually begin to try and read your work!)
But the dialect... Dialects are hard for me. I tend to be obsessive about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, so having a character who uses a different dialect gives me a headache. Especially with Karl. I wanted Karl to be a redneck. It may have had something to do with watching old episodes of "My Name is Earl" while writing, but I think it had more to do with basing Karl on a character from the play "Greater Tuna".
I had to keep on reminding myself to misspell things, and to insert double-negatives and all kinds of redundant filler. It took a couple of re-writes before I sent it to the editor of the Piker Press for consideration.
Even then, Sand (the aforementioned editor) kicked it back with the advice that a few of my phrases were "out of character with Karl's vernacular" and that I ought to take a look at them. She also agreed with me that the ending left much to be desired. (The first ending was an attempt to weasel out of coming up with an ending at all - which is no way to end a story...)

So, a couple more re-writes later I felt much better about Karl's vernacular and Sand agreed. The story was published as part of the special "Alien Issue" of the Press, and I felt pretty good about how it came out.

Then, the Anonymous poster showed up. First of all, let me say that I normally avoid feeding trolls. I usually assume that the kind of people who get their jollies by anonymously posting inflammatory remarks around the 'Net are not worth my time. And I hate to encourage them. You can't win. However...

This comment appeared in the comments section after my story:

05:09:26 PM

Very cute tale. A few thoughts. First, this character would not use the words “bizarre,” “espresso,” “rhythm,” “emanatin’,” “skeptical,” or “ridicule.” Instead, it could be “crazy,” “thet fancy Starbrothers coffee,” “music beat,” “shootin’ out of it,” “think I’m touched in the head,” “makin’ fun o’ me.” Also, you have to capitalize Kleenex because it’s a brand name. tissue would be lowercase. Well-done dialect too.

At first glance, I was simply baffled. What? Did I write Karl so badly that I went right past "My Name is Earl" and landed smack dab in the middle of "Deliverance"? Had this person ever spoken to a redneck? Was he REALLY saying I should have used the phrase: "thet fancy Starbrothers coffee" instead of the word: "espresso"?

And if indeed, Karl was backwoods enough not to use the word "rhythm" then why in the heck would he care if his kleenex was capitalized or not? Karl just wanted something to blow his nose on. In fact, I suppose, given Anonymous' opinion of Karl, I should have had him just blow a snot rocket on the podium. The heck with facial tissue!

I responded rather snarkily I suppose, although I forced myself to not compose the entire epistle I had in mind. (I have saved that for you, Dear Faithful Reader!) Mostly due to my sneaking suspicion that this was a troll who was simply looking to start a fight, I simply asked if he was serious about the "Starbrother's" thing, and if he had not heard of the concept of a "Genericized Trademark". (I suppose I saw those two as the most egregiously patronizing of his suggestions.)

I was most bothered by the fact that he seemed to think that he knew Karl so much better than I. After spending all of one evening with him at the AA meeting, he was ready to judge Karl and relegate him the the unwashed hillbillies of backwoods Arkansas. And the fact that he would actually feel that an uncapitalized word was important enough to even bring up.

Don't get me wrong. I love feedback on my writing. Notice earlier in this very account, when I so gladly took the advice of my editor and made revisions to my story. So why did this Anonymous poster give me such pause?

I waited all weekend long before responding again. During this time, several of my fellow Pikers came to my defense and tried to point out to Anonymous how obnoxious and grating his critique was. This should have been further evidence of the fact that he was either a troll or a real-life literary snob. He shrugged off any suggestion that his suggestions were off, and instead accused his detractors of personal attacks. Never giving an inch, he finally made a statement that made me understand his entire motivation:

"re-read the story and replace certain words with my suggestions. if you can't see an improvement, then you're not reading carefully."

Anonymous had no intention of helping me improve my story. He wanted to remake it in his own image. He was utterly convinced that all my story needed to be better was to let him re-write it. Then, it would be so much better.


So, my commitment to let the troll starve went out the window. I foolishly took the bait and responded yet again. This time I clearly identified myself as the author; I was not sure if he recognized me as such, since I had earlier posted under a pseudonym. (I thought he would recognize me as the author despite the pseudonym due to some earlier comments I had responded to under that monniker. But I guess his talent lies more along the lines of spotting words that rednecks don't use and un-capitalized trademarks.)

I composed what I felt to be a well-thought out statement of why his comments had been taken so badly by myself and other readers. I conceded that perhaps I had not been entirely successful in portraying Karl's background through his dialect, but that his suggestions for change were nothing more than his opinion that he could do the character better than me. Also, I pointed out that he had misspelled my name. (Just to show that I can point out ticky-tacky mistakes too.)

Well, I won't bore you with the details of his response. You probably have already guessed how it went. Instead of accepting that he might have been mistaken just a tiny bit, I got a long lecture on how I should take criticism better. And how I should be glad that he was willing to re-write my story for me, since then it would be so much better.

So, lesson learned. Not that I will be looking for Anonymous' advice before I submit my next story. Not that I am going to go back and re-write Karl as some sort of brain-damaged inbred hill-billy. Or even that I will begin capitalizing the word 'kleenex'.

I learned the lesson that I knew from the beginning:

Don't Feed the Trolls. Sorry Anonymous - no more free chicken for you.

© 2009 Tyler Willson. All rights reserved

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the Wagon - In the Press

Remember that story a few weeks ago about Karl and his alien encounter? Well, it has been polished up and published in the Piker Press.

And as promised, I have re-written the ending so that it is... well, an ending.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I have Traits! Rare, Hidden Traits!

"Tyler, please forgive us, but we have just taken a closer look at your profile. It turns out you're more special than any of us imagined! Did you know that you possess some very rare, hidden traits?"

So, it turns out that my Mom was right. There IS something special about me! And I have a letter to prove it! I even share some of these rare, hidden traits with a Famous Person (someone you would instantly recognize, he's on TV every night...). Can you believe it?

Only problem is, that I am not quite sure who wrote me the letter. They can't tell me any more than that they are "an exclusive association, a secret society". So I guess I can't really find out what they are all about, and why they have found me to be so special, can I? I mean, the only choice I have is to just fill out the "Free-Membership Invitation Form" and fax it back by Friday. (Holy Cow! That is just Two Days Away!) Then I can finally discover (absolutely FREE!) what my rare, hidden traits are and the "Greatest Kept Secrets" that will teach me how to use my rare, hidden traits to:
-Learn EXACTLY what to do to make $5,000, $10,000 even $100,000 CASH!
-Prosper in EVERY area of my life: emotionally, personally, physically, romantically, and financially!
-Learn how to control ANYONE and make any man or woman like me, admire me, or love me!
-All the money, power, and romantic love I've ever wanted can come to me Easily, Effortlessly, and Automatically!

Can you believe it?

Neither can I... (And I better not quote anymore of the letter; besides the ominous warning that these words are meant for me only, the whole thing is Copyrighted... You know, just in case I want to reproduce it somewhere...)

Well, fortunately for me, I have a friend. His name is Google, and he has tons of information on many different topics. Tonight, I asked him if he knew anything about the fax number at the end of this letter. Wow. The things he said! Let me just share a few of the more interesting ones...

The very first hit on the search is a site called "The Ripoff Report". Not an auspicious beginning for my new friends. But here I learn two things:
A. I am not the only person to have ever received this letter. So much for my "Rare" traits...
B. The mysterious "association" also goes by the name "Nouveau Society Neo Tech".
The rest of the information at this site is mostly opinion (including one posting by a supporter! Who is Not Paid at all for his/her Support!)

The rest of the results for searching just the Fax number are very similar. Lots of sites where folks list phone numbers of bill collectors, pushy salesmen, and fraudulent auto warranty firms. And, apparently, secret societies... So I moved on to search for the name of the (not so secret) association: "Nouveau Society Neo Tech".

First hit is a website called: "". This site seems to review a few dozen common scams and MLM schemes. Kind of slim on real info, but at least it claims that the association is operated by a single family headed by one Wallace Ward (among other pseudonyms...). Mr. Ward has apparently written a series of books containing the "Greatest Kept Secrets" and membership in the association will allow you to purchase the entire series. (That's right... there is an entire series.)

Not satisfied with such a slim report, I checked out a few more of the results from sites like: - Key quote: "Do we really need to warn you to avoid this one?" - Still pretty slim on real info, heavy on sarcasm. I did learn that this letter has been going out since at least 2005. - A discussion board with plenty of supporters of the program. However, I honestly had some trouble following the logic of many of the "supporters" Key Quote: "They are selling they materials what about I bought the material even before I bought the material, I was being harrassed jobs after jobs coworkers telling me how talented I was, and I was just puzzled because I didnt tell anything, I have a video of Mark hamilton I guess" - Not too sure what poor Mark has to do with anything, but this was one of the more cogent sentences... - Finally, that ubiquitous fount of internet knowledge. Finally some somewhat useful information, such as other names for the association, and some clarification on poor Mark. (Apparently he is a marketing official and has authorized his apprentices to drop the $350 initiation fee so that they only have to make a $100 sell to their initial contacts... Go figure. I thought it was free...)

So what have we learned? Not much more than I had already deduced when I pulled the colorful envelope out of the mailbox. (You know the ones, they are made to look like an airmail envelope.) A bunch of crap from someone trying to make their envelope look more important. And as I read the entire 8-page letter my stomach repeatedly churned with disgust. The entire sales pitch is aimed with laserlike precision at people who are despondent with life, lonely, depressed, and looking for a way out. They purposely word their pitch to sound like it has been personalized for the recipient, and that they genuinely care to help because "You are special!" And, in a hallmark move for any scam, they isolate and hurry their victims. "This is Confidential! For Your Eyes Only!" and a deadline only five days after the date on the letter. (Which was only two days after I pulled it out of the mailbox. Who wants to bet I could mail it back in four and they would make an exception for me?)

The saddest part for me is thinking of all the poor souls out there who will see this as their own personal light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be some response, for this scam to have continued for four years. Even scammers get tired of running a scam that gets no suckers. Why do people fall for stuff like this? As I learned a while ago, people fall for stuff like this because it hits them at precisely the right time. (Or wrong, depending on your perspective.) A man receives this letter on the day his unemployment runs out and the car breaks down again. A woman receives this letter the week after her teenage son takes his own life. A retiree gets this letter instead of the one he was expecting from his son - and has been waiting for for six months.

How do we combat it? The best way is knowledge. Spread the word to everyone you know. The three cardinal rules of scam recognition:
1. If it seems too good to be true, it is.
2. If they want you to hurry up and keep it to yourself, then put it down for a week, and talk to everyone you can get to listen to you.
3. If it seems too good to be true, it is.

Spread the word. Don't let someone you love be victimized.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hi, my name is Karl...

This piece was written specifically for submission to the Piker Press for the Alien-themed issue on August 24th. As usual, this is the rough draft exactly as it flowed from my brain so expect some, well, roughness. The ending especially. I am going on record right now saying that a re-write of the ending is more than a little likely. Suggestions are welcome! Other than that, a pretty fun piece.

Have Fun!

Hello. My name is Karl, and I’m an alcoholic. I have been dry for three weeks now, though I did have a close call the other day with a half-empty I found under my bed. Thank heaven I made it to the bathroom and dumped it in the toilet before I lost the strength. I decided to come up here tonight and tell you all how I finally gave up the bottle.

It’s hard for me to say, because a lot of people laugh at me when I tell ‘em this story but I have come to love you guys like the family I ain’t never had, and I feel like I can tell you guys.

See, I was down by the creek watchin’ the fish jump... and I was spending some quality time with my buddy Mogen David (if y’all know what I mean...) I liked watchin’ the fish jump. It makes me feel good knowin’ that they are still alive after that horrible spill at the plant. Also, the cops hardly ever come down there for the smell. So I could sit there and get bombed out of my skull, and nobody would hassle me about public drunkenness or nudity or anything. (I did tell you guys about how being drunk also made my skin real sensitive?)

Well, I was well into my third bottle of Mad Dog when the lake got real quiet. The fish stopped jumpin’ and everything. I felt a little chill, which was weird cause I was still wearing my shirt at this point, and I was wearing my good boxers which are made of real heavy cotton so they normally keep me warm. I looked out over the creek, and even the water in the creek seemed to have stopped. I know it’s kinda hard to tell whether it’s flowin or not under that foamy stuff, but I couldn’t hear the normal gurgles and splashes of the creek sliding over the old car bodies anymore.

The sudden quiet and chill made me so nervous that I killed that bottle right then and there, and realized that it was my last. I was normally pretty good at timing my drinking so that I passed out before the booze was gone, but here I was conscious and nothing more to drink. And it was three more days before food stamp day, at least two of which I had planned to sleep through here by the creek. I started thinking of who I could bum some money off of to get just one more bottle and I stood up and started walking back up the trail towards the road. Before I got far, I heard the sound.

Now, before I go any further, I need to warn you – this next part get’s kind of bizarre. I know y’all have been here before and you will understand. But even so, in all my years of being a drunk, I never had anything like this happen to me. It was just so real! Most of the hallucinations I had while drunk were the normal kind, six-foot rabbits in bikinis trying to seduce me, the fire hydrant outside the bar telling my fortune. The kind of thing you laugh about when you sober up you know? But there ain’t nothing funny about what happened that night. I am getting some goose bumps just thinking about it.

Someone got a smoke I can bum? I just need something to calm my nerves enough to finish my story. Thanks brother, I will get you back next week when I get my paycheck.

That’s much better. I know, I’m just transferrin’ my addiction, but a man’s gotta have a crutch while his broken bone is mending right? There’s no way I can go back to drinking now anyway. Not after what happened after I stood up and started heading back to town.

That’s when I heard the sound. It was kindly like a cross between a whine and a rattle, like a car with squeaky brakes and worn out shocks going over the railroad tracks. Only it kept rising and falling, getting louder then quieter. I stopped to listen, and whether I was paralyzed by fear or hypnotized by the rhythm I can’t tell you now. All I know was that I froze like a statue. My back was to the creek, and I was about ten feet from the treeline. It was long past sundown, and the moon wasn’t up yet so it was pretty dark. But all of a sudden, I could make out every leaf on every tree. It was a strange light, just like the sound. You know how a spotlight looks? Like you can tell where it’s coming from? Even if you are scrunched way down on the floorboards of your car you know the light is coming from the cop car? This wasn’t like that at all. Everything was light as day, but there were no shadows, no way of telling where the source of the light was. And it had an odd purple tint to it, not enough to paint everything purple, just enough to be noticeable. Then the sound got real loud, like it was real close. I realized that it was coming from right behind me and I got the strength to turn around and look.

Give me a second brothers and sisters. I got to take a minute. This is the worst part. My hands are shaking so bad right now I can barely drink my coffee. Did they replace the coffee with espresso or something? Huh? Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood a bit. This next bit is the hardest to remember, let alone tell. Bear with me. I got to tell it, cause it’s been eatin’ me up inside and if I don’t get it out it’s gonna drive me back to drink.

So I turn around to look, and I see it. I know lots of folks call ‘em flying saucers, but this thing didn’t look like no saucer to me. Mebbe a hubcap off of some fancy car with all the chrome spokes and spinny things like kids have nowadays, but with some other weird stuff hanging off all over it. Whatever you want to call it, it was just hoverin’ there over the creek. Makin’ it’s weird noise and that weird light kind of, what you call it? Emanatin’ from it. Like I said, there dint seem to be any one source for the light, it just kind of... yeah, emanated from it. I wanted to run, wanted to run bad but my legs was paralyzed again. I just stood there, watchin it rotate slowly and kind of bobble up and down a bit.

I ain’t ashamed to tell you folks right now, that the only thing on my mind at that moment was another bottle of Mad Dog. I mean, I needed something to calm my nerves quick, and I wasn’t even really sure that my buddy Mogen had what I needed right then, mebbe something stronger even. Some of that expensive stuff that I don’t normally get to drink. Just when I thought I couldn’t get any scareder, just when I thought I was going to pass out from holdin’ my breath while my heart was poundin’ a thousand beats a minute, a door opened in the side of the thing.

I see a couple of you out there are looking a bit skeptical. Henry, if you want to laugh, you ain’t gotta hide it behind your hand. I can hear just fine. That bad batch of moonshine messed with my vision not my hearing. Like you ain’t never had a bad time before you got on the wagon. I heard some stories about you, so you can just knock it off right now. I got to tell this story before it drives me insane, so if you can’t control yourself, just go take a smoke break outside or somethin’. Cause I’m gonna tell my story and I don’t give a hoot who believes it.

I said the door opened up, but that ain’t exactly the way to describe it. You know, in our world doors open up and swing out, or in, or even up or down sometimes like a doggy door. Or they’ll slide off to one side like them automatical doors down to the Krogers. But this door just kindly... umm, well it just kindly opened up. I can’t really describe it too good. One second there was a smooth spot on the side of the... umm... the thing and the next there was big square hole in the side with more of that weird purple light streaming out. That’s when... that’s when...

Whyn’cha just leave Henry! Get out, and take that floozy Tara with you! I thought you guys were my friends, that we could share our stories with each other without judgement and without ridicule. Ain’t that the rules? Marsha? Dint you tell me those was the rules here? We sat here for hours last week listening to Henry whine and whine about how he misses going to the racetrack and I didn’t say a single word. I din’t complain when Tara whined about how she can’t hardly find a date now that she can’t go into the bars anymore. Who wants to date you anyway you used up old...

Sorry Marsha. I just got a bit worked up. You are right. I just been havin a hard time this week. You always say that the third week is the worst, that I jus gotta hang on for one more day. When I decided to tell this story to y’all tonight, while I was dumping that half-empty bottle down the toilet that was what I looked forward to to get me the strength finish. So you can understand if’n I get a bit touchy about that big mouth... no, sorry Henry. I won’t call you anymore names. You been a good friend to me. Until tonight anyway. Mebbe you are having some trouble of your own.

OK Marsha, I will finish my story. Whether Henry and Tara laugh or not, cause I need to get this out and I don’t care what they think about it.

So that’s when it happened. I don’t know for sure how I got on board, I don’t remember moving or walking or anything, but just like the door – one second I’m standing there in the purplish light on the bank of the creek, and the next I’m standin on a smooth floor in a round room. I know how crazy it sounds, but it was just like being in an elevator, only instead of square it was round. I was still paralyzed, whether with fear or with some kind of brain control ray or somethin’ I can’t tell. But I stood there staring at the wall in front of me and feeling that feeling in the pit of my stomach like you get in an elevator. These lights on the wall in front of me even looked like the buttons in an elevator, flashing on and off one at a time from bottom to top.

I just stood there paralyzed and trembling. I had heard stories like this before, but just like you Henry, I laughed them off. I could never believe that little green men in flying saucers came to earth and kidnapped folks. I mean, what for? But here I am, and for all I know it’s happenin’ to me. I tried to remember all of the stories I had heard, about people getting stuff poked into ‘em, having experiments done on ‘em and stuff but pretty soon I realized that was just makin’ me more scared. So I tried to calm myself down. It must have worked pretty good, cause in a minute I could start to move again. I turned in a circle, lookin around me and tryin to figger out what was happenin. Then I saw them.

Henry, I forgive you for being an arrogant arse. No, really. Were I in your seat I would be laughing just as hard as you. Don’t worry about it. I understand.

The little guys were only about three feet tall, and their skin was the same purple color of the light that filled the ship. The were’nt wearin anything as far as I could tell, but mebbe their spacesuits were just really tight or somethin’ like that. Anyway, they was just standin’ there watchin’ me. We stood there like that for what seemed like hours, just starin’ at each other. I must have really been feeling calmer now, cause all of a sudden I got the urge to just stick out my hand to ‘em like Grandma taught me. “Karl” she used to say, “if’n you’re feelin shy, just reach out your hand and say: Howdy” So that’s what I did. I said “Howdy” and stuck out my hand. I must have scared the little buggers though, cause they all jumped and started running around like crazy little ants. Openin’ little doors in the walls and pulling weird lookin’ tools out and wavin’ ‘em at me. Not in a threatenin’ way, but kind of like the bailiff waves the metal detector wand thingy at ya’ when ya’ have to go in the courthouse. Then, while I was watchin’ one aim a camera-lookin thing at me, another one snuck up behind me and poked me with a needle or something. I never did get a look at what he stuck me with, but I’ve had plenty of shots down to the free clinic in town, and I know what it feels like!

After that, I don’t remember anything else. I woke up on the bank of the creek and the sun was shinin’ and the birds were singing and the fish were jumpin again. It was like none of it happened at all.

Now, I know what y’all are thinking. That good ole Karl just had another bender, and that he passed out and slept it off on the banks of the creek and had a bad dream.

And you know, for a few hours, that was what I told myself too. That it was all a dream. That I just needed some “hair of the dog” to make it all disappear again. I thought that so much that I decided that I would wander down to the Krogers and see if I could steal a bottle or two and do just that. I did manage to lift a couple of bottles of Boones, not really as what I needed, but the idea was to get drunk again, and if I slammed them fast enough they just might do it. That was when I discovered what those nasty little purple men had done to me!

Henry, one day you are going to be having a crisis. You will be staring down a bottle of booze and considerin’ whether to stay on the wagon or not. And you are gonna need a friend to call. Well, don’t worry bout callin me, cause I won’t answer. If I do, I’ll go ahead and tell you to drink it. Cause you got no sympathy whatsoever. No Marsha, I ain’t gonna back off this time. Henry has made one too many smartass comments while I been up here bearin my soul to you guys. I ain’t takin it no more. I’m leavin.


You can’t talk me out of it. I’m outta here. I’ll take my chances with the bottle on my own. Y'all can call me when Henry and that wilted flower with him aren’t here and I’ll think about coming back. The rest of you...

Good night.

© 2009 Tyler Willson. All rights reserved