Enjoy this FREE funny short story! It’s a parody fantasy, whimsical and ridiculous… but it also might give you a rare glimpse into what it FEELS like to be a writer.
Read it while it’s here and free! I may not leave it here forever…
A few years back, I got accepted into a select writing workshop. It was basically several straight weeks of writing boot camp.
Not only did we have hours of class each day, we also had to write a new story almost every week. It was all amazing and impossible and wonderful. But the real mind-altering moments came in the afternoon critique circles.
I’d never done a critique circle before. The idea is simple: everyone reads a story, and then you all sit in a circle, and each person in turn gets two minutes to give their critique of the story.
Sound intimidating? Yes. Even worse than you think.
But also… incredibly helpful.
For the first time in my life, I learned to separate two very different experiences: how I myself see a story I write… and what the same words happen to trigger in an utterly different mind.
For a writer, that’s a life-changing paradigm shift.
But one bit kept nagging at me. We had a special assistant who was present for the workshop, but he wasn’t actually reading the stories.
And I couldn’t help wondering if he thought we were all demented.
All he ever heard were these insane story fragments getting slopped around like discarded organs during an open-heart surgery. I doubted whether even Shakespeare or Hemingway could survive that introduction, much less our struggling drafts.
And then I thought, what if there were a story that was so over-the-top, so long and convoluted and crazy… that it would actually sound BETTER if you overheard the pieces in a critique?
Could an innocent eavesdropper both be intrigued at the tale… and tremble at the horror of ever having to read it?
You’ll have to decide for yourself, as you enter the semi-demented world of…
The Mace, the Wizard, and the Robot Kitten
PHYLLIS: I really liked the premise of your story, how it starts in a tavern. Totally grabbed me. I’m not so sure about the robot kitten.
Because you know, Caddoc is sitting there, drinking his ale, thinking about his life, and you’re getting all this great backstory, and then this robot kitten crashes through the window and starts yelling at him to run. Totally disturbs his reverie.
And the bits of glass in the beer, that was gratuitous. You could just tell me, “the tavern was a horrible mess.”
And why does Caddoc jump up and start attacking the kitten with a mace? It’s a cute little kitten! I know it’s a robot, and I know it betrays him later, but still.
Also, the ending didn’t work for me. If you really had that many robots in one tower—
[The INSTRUCTOR’s timer BEEPS.]
PHYLLIS: Whoa. Was that two minutes?
INSTRUCTOR: [resetting the timer] Yes. Next. [A pause.] Clifford?
CLIFFORD: [who sits next in the critique circle] Me? Oh, we’re going clockwise! Right! Norman, got to say, I was absolutely blown away by the robot kitten.
See, Caddoc is thinking about his life because he has amnesia. He’s got a mace, and a wedding ring, and that’s pretty much it. All he can remember is the face of his wife. He doesn’t even know her name.
Without the kitten, Caddoc would just keep wandering the kingdom, asking everyone if they’ve seen a beautiful blonde with sad eyes.
I want to see more with the kitten.
Someone mentioned attacking the kitten. I think he attacks the kitten because he hates robots. When the kitten crashes in, on page seven, he says… where is it… “Robots! I hate robots! I don’t know why, but damn!”
And then the kitten says her name.
And when he hears her name, he remembers everything. He remembers seeing the robot elephants kidnap her and stampede away. He remembers why he hates robots. Except now he has to trust this robot kitten if he’s ever going to rescue his wife.
And the ending? Also awesome. Maybe do a little cutting. Like, you might not need every robot’s name. Although —
JANUARY: My turn? Great! I pretty much agree with everything that’s been said so far. I, too, thought you could probably cut the kitten, and I’d also like to see you explore the kitten more.
I also agree about the ending.
That’s it for me!
ALLISTER: [who is not next in the circle] Can I go next? Please??
INSTRUCTOR: No. Felicity?
FELICITY: I loved this story, Norman! Great premise, great characters, great details. I love Caddoc’s red hair and green cloak, how he carries the mace over his shoulder and drives the kitten crazy whistling “Scarborough Fair”. Awesome, awesome, awesome.
I love how he can’t let the kitten walk in front or else he gets blinded by the reflection of the sun. And then they use that glare, remember, against the horde of zombie farmers? When they sentence Caddoc to plant beans for a hundred years because he dared to say that their zombie leader has no head? No one remembers this? The kitten blinds them, and Caddoc mows them down.
And then Caddoc finally tries to pet the kitten. And it’s too cold, and he cuts his finger on the edge of the neck plate, and then when it jumps up into his lap, it’s so heavy it almost breaks his thigh.
I love it! Love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it—
BURT: Hi, Norman. You’ve got a really adequate story here. I did find a few style gotchas.
Watch out for the “as you know, Bob”—you know, when two people tell each other something they both already know. There’s one on page 12, with the kitten—
ALLISTER: The kitten’s name is Bob.
INSTRUCTOR: Ssh! Don’t interrupt!
BURT: I like the scene where they’re planting the pole beans. But I think you should add vampires. That would “raise the stakes”.
INSTRUCTOR: Please don’t use air quotes.
BURT: I didn’t like that conversation when they were climbing around on the giant’s face. Way too “on the nose.”
INSTRUCTOR: I mean it, Burt.
BURT: Oh, and in the tower at the end. They’re running up those stairs. Suddenly, the stairs turn robotic, moving them back down. It’s good, but what it really needs—
BURT: —is some escalation.
BURT: What? That wasn’t two minutes!
INSTRUCTOR: This has to stop. Next.
TEDDY S.: Norman! One thing. I noticed that when your characters talk to each other, Norman, they tend to overuse the first name. Seriously, Herman, that sounds stilted and artificial.
Another thing. I couldn’t get into the “Norman” character on page 68. He felt like kind of an author puppet.
ALLISTER: He is a puppet. A robot puppet.
INSTRUCTOR: SHH! I’m going to tape your mouth!
TEDDY S.: I’ve got more. How does the kitten blind the zombie leader if he has no head? Without a head, he has no eyes. Anatomy 101. Plus, zombies only come out at night. I think you can fix that, though. Like Burt said, make them vampires.
What else… on page one, in a flashback, Caddoc is sleeping, but then on page seven, he seems to be awake. Just want to point that out, not sure how you’d fix that. I can’t get into Haddock if he isn’t consistent.
Oh, this. I don’t find it believable that Caddoc would slaughter his way across an entire kingdom and never once clean his mace. After a day or two, it would totally smell like—
MARGARET: Hi Norman. This is Margaret. I want to tell you first that I really liked your use of periods. Periods are very important in a story, and also in nonfiction, and I think you have mastered this aspect of the craft.
Other than that—dude, what the hell?
HANS: Okay, first off, I should say that this isn’t the kind of story I normally read. I’m more into fantasy, especially fairy tales.
So I get how Caddoc and the robot kitten have all these adventures, with the farmer zombies and the allergic giant and the Unicorn Witches Who Never Abstain From Pointed Remarks. All that stuff makes sense. A bit cliche, but I can follow it.
But all this time, the kitten is leading Caddoc to the tower, right? To his imprisoned wife? And he fights his way up the stairs, through robotic lions and robotic gorillas and robotic robots, and at the top, she’s in the cage, watering the rose with her tears.
But didn’t the kitten know it was a trap? I thought he was Caddoc’s friend—
ALLISTER: My turn? Finally?
INSTRUCTOR: Yes, Allister.
ALLISTER: Hooray! It’s finally my turn! Wow! Cha cha cha!
INSTRUCTOR: I believe we’ve discussed dancing in your chair.
ALLISTER: Okay, so, I can’t believe no one else has mentioned this, but isn’t it so freaking cool how the name of the evil wizard nemesis is “Caddoc” spelled backwards?
INSTRUCTOR: [A pause.] That’s it? You’re done?
Hello Norman. CRITIQUE COMMENCING. This "short story" has 2,182 syntax errors. It was noticed that the passive voice is overused. Also, there are many examples of weak "to be" verbs. These are now inside circles. Also, what is a "robotic robot"? Here are the scores for this story: Plot rating: 34% Character rating: 11% Would Read This Willingly rating: 0.04% CRITIQUE COMPLETE.
VICTORIA: I want to talk about theme.
Caddoc is a strong protagonist, who struggles against many obstacles to achieve his goal of rescuing his wife from a tower guarded by robots. He fights an epic battle on the stairway against over forty separate robotic creatures. This battle has many exciting moments, but I think the scene would be stronger if you cut some of the details, such as the robot names.
At the top, he reaches through the cage bars and clasps the hand of his beloved Rashmika. This scene is very powerful, and you do a good job showing Caddoc’s emotions as he first beats the bars with his mace, then drops the mace to kiss her through the bars.
Then metal bonds snap out from the floor and lock around Caddoc’s ankles. The floor tile drops, and Caddoc free falls into darkness, then jerks back and whips upside down, held by the chains on his feet. He hangs by his heels above the hollow core of the tower.
Something heavy scrapes his cheek as it plummets past—his mace, flipping end over end as it drops into the dark.
At the bottom of the pit, a seething pile of robots claw at each other, trying to climb each other to the top.
A robot alligator snaps the mace in two. Every metal head is upturned, every jaw open wide. Like birds in the nest, they are all mouth.
On the floor above, at the hole through which he fell, a wizard chuckles. One hand wields a staff, the other strokes a braided beard with a robotic claw.
Caddoc realizes he remembers this wizard, this place. It’s all happened before.
The wizard crouches, leans through the hole, and reaches the red orb of his staff to touch Caddoc at the exposed skin of his calf. The touch burns. Fire-pain rips down his legs and explodes in his skull.
“Feed them,” the wizard says. “Feed my children. Love and fear to me. Anger to my enemies.”
Sweat is squeezing through Caddoc’s skin, dripping down from chin to cheek to forehead. But it’s not sweat. It’s too viscous, too burning hot.
The first drops fall. Below him, the robots screech and scrabble to be the one to swallow.
Above him, the kitten creeps to the edge of the hole. “I’m sorry,” it says. “He promised I’d be able to feel.”
“Promise kept,” the wizard says, and kicks the kitten through the hole. The hole closes. Chains creak, and Caddoc begins to drop slowly down the pit.
The not-sweat pours slick from his face and neck into the open mouths. Tongues scrape. Throats flush. When Caddoc imagines their teeth in his chest, the robots shriek the wizard’s name in terror. When he rails against the kitten’s betrayal, the robots roar with rage.
If all this happened before, he thinks, how did he escape? Did it happen before? He can’t be sure. But he knows he saw her in the cage—her name—what is her name—
And when he knows that he has again forgotten her name, he looks down on the robots with pure hatred. Somewhere down there, in one of those monsters, his rush of love at recovering his wife has been transmuted into worship of the wizard.
But then he thinks, at least he knew her. They’ll never know anything good, even to forget.
And he feels pity.
These squabbling, desperate orphans—
EDGAR: Hey, so…hasn’t it been two minutes yet?
INSTRUCTOR: You’re right. Sorry. Beeper breakage.
VICTORIA: That’s it? I was just summarizing! That’s like twenty pages! Plus the flashbacks! I wanted to talk about theme!
INSTRUCTOR: Next. Edgar?
VICTORIA: Can I use his time?
INSTRUCTOR: No. Not your turn.
VICTORIA: Yes, but—
INSTRUCTOR: No. Moreover, it’s my turn.
So, Norman. I see a lot of improvements here over your previous stories, and that’s very exciting.
I think you might consider making this story a haiku. I went through and circled the seventeen syllables that really seem to work. And that’s me.
GUEST AUTHOR: Norman! I liked this story! Okay, I know authors don’t usually do this, but I’d actually like to talk about one of my own stories. I think it relates. In my story, a horde of supermutant gerbils are battling a kickass unit of male ballet ninjas, and the protagonist is a gerbil whose one secret dream is to dance Swan Lake. His name is Chewer…
[twenty-seven minutes later]
… and so that’s kind of the setup. And just as my hero, Chewer, has to overcome his fear of public speaking, and his Napoleonic complex, and his worsening gingivitis, your hero, I forget his name, has to beat that bastard wizard before he sucks out everyone’s emotions and memories and injects them into his robot army.
Does he do it? Of course! I’m not clear on the mechanics, but if I’m reading this right, the wizard designed the robots to process love, fear, and anger, but he forgot about pity, because he never had any. Without a designed response, the robots behave unpredictably—they pity the hero.
Just as the hero is lowered down into the swarm, they set him free. In a completely surprising and non-gimmicky move, they choose him as their new leader, and work together to escape back up the tower.
I think you could make a more interesting choice here—say, ballet robots. What if the hero had to dance his way out? Ballet is huge right now. Especially if you shortened this into a middle-grade novel.
I’d cut the scene where the hero frees his wife from the cage. We know they get together. We don’t need to see them rush out into the sunlight and plant the rose and watch it bloom into a rainbow arch of seven blossoms.
I did like how the wizard expected to keep sucking the hero’s emotions and recharging them through bizarre quests, but instead, the robots crush him in a huge group hug. Literally crush him.
And since they all have emotions now, they’re totally traumatized. Especially the kitten.
I hate cats.
INSTRUCTOR: Norman? Would you like to respond to anything that’s been said? Any questions?
Whoa! Where did you get that mace?
Want more like this? Check out my full collection of strangely satisfying stories, The Punctuality Machine (And Other Tales of Time Dysfunction).