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No Prompt! Have Fun! · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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#1 · 2

The story's not a page-turner, but it doesn't need to be and knows it..

Overall, excellent character work. Dina hits just the right note of pugnacity and fragility in an Enid Coleslaw sort of way. The structure is so subtle you might miss it, but quietly does its job, and does it well. And the ending did actually manage to surprise me while being perfectly earned. (I was expecting something rather more soppy and sentimental, and was pleasantly surprised.)

I don't know enough of U.S. university culture to comment on the veracity of the world, but it worked fine for me.

Criticisms? I didn't much care for the psychiatrist. It seemed like he uncomfortably close to being an exposition piece near the end. Other than that, though, good job.
#2 · 1
This… is really, really, really not my type of story.

I want ray guns, and magic, and dragons, and destined heroes, and… well, suffice to say, I don't think I can give you anything really useful here, but let me try.

So, a few scenes stuck out to me.

The bit with the boy and the shoes; that seemed pretty visceral, quite well done. Especially the searching for change at the end, and the implied consequences for her mother.

The shower in the dish room made me more than a little uncomfortable, the way Dina nearly coerced Heidi into it. Perhaps that's what you were going for.

On the bit with Heidi's mom dying and the car, I was convinced that her mom had died in a car crash from the description, making the ending comment there seem horrifically flippant.

There were clearly some other undertones you were working with here. I'm not even going to try to comment on them; as I said in the chat, I don't think I even really know what the word 'racism' is properly supposed to mean. (That's a comment on my own understanding, not on anything about the concept of racism.)

In the end, I guess this is a tragedy? Well, that's a decent ending, and well earned.

That's all I'll say. Any more, I'm afraid, will come off as silly and pointless, if not mean and mis-aimed. Suffice to say, this really isn't my type of story. I hope something I've said here is useful to you.
#3 · 1
#4 · 8
· · >>Aragon >>Bradel
This story:

Seems to be largely plagiarized from Z.Z. Packer's short story "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere."

The opening sounded familiar, so I Googled the first line and found this match in Google books.

So I think this makes this our third disqualified entry this round...

#5 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny
>>Baal Bunny

Holy shit. Nice one catching this, dude.

I feel so cheated right now. I was happy for this author, but fuck, man.
#6 · 1
· · >>Dubs_Rewatcher
come on! the prompt was "No Prompt Have Fun" not "No Rules Be Unethical"
#7 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny >>horizon >>RogerDodger
>>Baal Bunny
Y'know, it's semi-implicit in the rules but technically we don't actually have a rule explicitly stating that what you submit needs to be your own work...

That might be an oversight we want to correct?
#8 · 1


Is another terrific story in that same collection. Your local library might have a copy--it came out in 2003 and is called Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.



Since this story was published in the New Yorker more than a dozen years ago, I'd say it violates the rule about being written before the prompt was selected. Oh, and since it was published, it must've been submitted, and the rules say, "Submitted works may not be submitted elsewhere until the event's conclusion." So even if Z.Z. Packer herself submitted this, it would still violate those rules.

But yeah, something about submissions being the work of the submitting author wouldn't hurt...

#9 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny >>horizon
Oh dammit. D: Come on, Writeoff. We're better than this.

Even if there was no specific rule against plagiarism, and even if we ignored that plagiarism is against the spirit of the Writeoff, it does explicitly violate an existing rule: it was written before the start of the writing period.

… That said …

After a little bit of thought, I'm going to assume good faith here. While it's possible that we have someone here trying to score Internet points with a stolen story, it seems at least as likely that someone wanted to see what sort of critique we would offer on a professional-quality story, and had planned to self-disqualify after the experiment but before scoring. I really hope that that's the case.

And "how would we critique a professional-quality story?" is in fact an interesting question!

As it so happens, this was on my slate, and I read it last night, and I would have started writing a review if it I hadn't fallen asleep on the couch. I actually had a bit of trouble figuring out my critique, and ended up gnawing on it overnight. Because I think that the question above is relevant regardless of the intentions of the author, and we can learn things from good stories as well as bad ones, I'm going to mentally rewind a bit, and write another post to summarize what I would have said.

Along with that, I'd like to emphasize that I'm primarily doing this because I've already processed it so much, and I can speak up knowing that this is what I was going to say before learning of the authorship. I don't know if anyone else is in that position, and as interesting as the question is, giving feedback to authors who legitimately worked on an entry is important too. Almost certainly more important.
#10 · 3
· · >>RogerDodger
Has anyone noticed that any time a story gets over 10 comments this round, it gets disqualified?

#11 ·
· · >>bats >>Dubs_Rewatcher
Also, upon following the link to the source story: what was submitted is clearly plagiarized, but not identical to the original fiction. Example:

In the next game, all I had to do was wait in a circle until it was my turn to say what inanimate object I wanted to be. One guy said he'd like to be a gadfly, like Socrates. “Stop me if I wax Platonic,” he said. The girl next to him was eating a rice cake. She wanted to be the Earth, she said. Earth with a capital “E.”

ZZ Packer's original paragraph follows:

In the next game, all I had to do was wait in a circle until it was my turn to say what inanimate object I wanted to be. One guy said he'd like to be a gadfly, like Socrates. “Stop me if I wax Platonic,” he said. I didn't bother mentioning that gad-flies weren't inanimate—it didn't seem to make a difference. The girl next to him was eating a rice cake. She wanted to be the Earth, she said. Earth with a capital E.

I mention this specifically because my reaction to that paragraph was "But gadflies aren't inanimate." :V

Given that the Writeoff submission was a bit over 7500 words, I suspect it was cut for space, although changes like the added quotes around the "E" suggest a further level of editing that I don't understand.
#12 · 1

Might have been transcribed by hand out of a book or magazine, rather than copy/pasted. That'd result in some typographical changes just as a matter of course that don't have much meaning.
#13 · 3
Horizon's Review As If This Were A Legitimate Writeoff Entry
(Written in my head last night and this morning, and recreated from my mental notes)

Alright, author: I have to start with a warning. This is very clearly literary fiction, and very clearly aiming for literary fiction, and I am very much not the target audience for literary fiction. I'm going to be falling back a lot on "wise reading" here, giving you my raw reactions to the text, but I don't expect a lot of this to be useful. For example, it's got a certain elusiveness of meaning that rubbed me the wrong way, and I think this would be a better story if that were addressed, but that would probably make it objectively worse as literary fiction. If you are planning to polish this and submit to those markets, find a prereader in that target audience, and if you take any of this advice, make certain you have a firm idea of your goals for the story so that you can weigh the utility of my feedback against them.

The overall effect of this story was powerful, and left me uncomfortable on a lot of levels that I'm having difficulty deciding if they were intentional. Part of that is there's a weird thing going on here structurally. The prose here is great — lines like "That is correct." are razor-sharp and kept me reading. This has got some powerful themes that it develops throughout the story and that tie neatly into each other making the story feel like a unified whole — e.g. Dina's misanthropy and the conversation with the psychiatrist about how she's using it as a survival mechanism. The forest is great and the trees are great. But there's some middle level between them at which this story feels to me like a hot mess. We get a series of disconnected or loosely connected scenes that don't narratively tie together even though it's trying to tell a coherent narrative. And the most frustrating part is that that works even as it doesn't work — this feels like a story from a misanthropic narrator, making no effort to compromise or reach out, doing the equivalent of sitting naked in front of its door every time we come around.

The main problem with that is that, Dina's misanthropy or no, this is a story centrally about a romance and a romantic relationship. It explores Dina's side of that pretty strongly, and the way she feels about Heidi, but I never got a sense anywhere in the story of what Heidi's getting out of this, especially how it was that Heidi kept putting up with Dina's abuse right at the beginning when she was legitimately vulnerable and needed a friend. As clever as the line was from our outside perspective, why did she stick around after being told "That is correct"? The majority of the scenes we see them together, she's enduring behavior like having feet stuck in her face at a sleepover, or being shown how to murder a mouse she's holding, or having her fears about her mother's cancer blown off. The overall effect feels like we're being shown an overtly abusive relationship, and while that's great for characterization, it also means that your protagonist is an unpleasant person who is unpleasant to read about.

There was another issue that made me uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I should open the can of worms, but I'm trying to react honestly to the story. Right in the very first scene, the first thing we see is the main character's blackness being a central point of contention. I think it's pretty much impossible in 2016 in America (in which this story is set) to write a story with major racial themes without the story becoming about race, and … well, I don't even know how I can react. Honestly, the racialized encounters in the story feel false to me; e.g.:

“It's all cool, it's all cool,” the counsellor said. Her hair was a shade of blond I'd seen only on Playboy covers, and she raised her hands as though backing away from a growling dog. “Sister,” she said, in an I'm-down-with-the-struggle voice, “you don't have to play this game. As a person of color, you shouldn't have to fit into any white, patriarchal system.”

Spoken by the counselor who literally proposed the game of Trust to the group, knowing that a black woman was in it.

Because this is anonymous, I can't rule out that encounter being drawn from real-life experience — and I've gotta own my white privilege here; if that anecdote is a retelling of real life, my reaction says a hell of a lot more about me than about this story, and challenging me with it is important. But if this was written by a white author and made up to give character to their black protagonist, the way that the protagonist continually abuses the system along racial lines (with the implicit or sometimes explicit support of authorities) gets into weird problematic territory. Well, in general, the racial aspects here are, given that the protagonist is presented in a pretty unflattering light. This may be a case where the Writeoff is simply a poor forum for this sort of writing — because when dealing with racial issues, context is extremely important; and without knowing that context I am simply incapable of judging whether the portrayal is strong or problematic, which makes it impossible to fairly judge the story on those merits.

[Context note: ZZ Packer is a black female author. -h]

Setting that aside, this is a pretty textbook example of a Solid tier — easily within striking distance of Top Contender, but I can't ignore the weird fundamental disconnect of the relationship portrayed here, along with the scattershot nature of the scenes, and I have to shove a lot of this story into my blind spots in order to judge it independent of its racial context. Again, I'll note, unless this is a story that's specifically supposed to start conversations about race, in today's environment you'd be better off trimming that content from the story entirely, because otherwise it would be very easy for those elements to dominate the conversation.
#14 · 5
· · >>horizon
I appreciate good faith, horizon, but I think you're going too far. That's review space you could have given to someone who actually wrote a story, and there are quite a few stories that don't have nearly as many reviews as Revolver.

Edit: It also occurs to me that, aside from being against the Writeoff rules, unless our mysterious entrant is ZZ Packer herself, it's straight-up illegal to violate copyright in this manner. He's actually putting Roger at risk by using his website to host copyright material.
#15 · 4

Weirdly enough:

It was the moment when Dina shouts "Plagiarist!" that made me realize I'd read this story before--references to Frank O'Hara's poetry are few and far between...

Mike Again
#16 · 6
· · >>Scramblers and Shadows >>Baal Bunny >>horizon
Damn, the experiment was going so well! D:

Hey, friends. I guess I owe some explanation...

For months, even before the advent of the General Fiction writeoffs, there have been constant discussions in both threads and in chat about how the output of an average Writeoff round would compare to a professionally published work. It’s something that I was wondering myself. In my eyes, though, the only way to accurately measure something like that would be to subject the professionally published piece to the same standards as a typical Writeoff piece—in other words, completely anonymous and with its publishing status unknown.

And when I saw this round’s non-prompt, well…

A few minutes after fic writing began, I contacted Roger, asking him how he would feel about my experiment. He was apprehensive at first—after all, as far as I know no one has ever plagiarized a Writeoff story, and we didn’t want to start a precedent. But after some thought he accepted, and we set to work.

The biggest problem we faced—and the one that eventually brought the story down—was if someone found out. If another user found the original story, the jig would be up. That’s why I changed the title (the actual title of “Revolver” is “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”) and put Anonymous in the author box (as opposed to ZZ Packer).

Of course, that didn’t remove the threat of someone having read “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” before and recognizing it, as Baal did. Part of Roger’s requirements for picking a story to post was that it had been vetted for quality by multiple sources. That was easy enough to fulfill—but a story being published in multiple places by multiple editors also increases the likelihood that someone has read it.

I had a whole anthology of short stories to pick from, and I went through each piece, google searching the first lines of each. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single one that you can’t find somewhere online, whether it be the publisher’s website or Google Books. There was one that could only be found in a locked JSTOR database… but when you searched it, it still showed enough text to give it away.

Eventually, knowing that no decent story would be perfectly secret, I said “fuck it” and picked “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” which I thought people in the Writeoff would enjoy. And it seems like those who read it did! Well, except for Hat. But Hat doesn’t like anything I submit. >:V

I hope no one was/is upset by this. At no point did I ever intend to use this to cheat. In fact, I had even arranged with Roger to have the story separated from the numeric results at the end of the contest, so it wouldn’t knock anyone out of the spot they deserved. If anything, the fact that I felt the urge to do this experiment is a testament to the quality of Writeoff writing.

Love you guys. Sorry I made you waste your time on a disqualified story. :B

TL;DR: Roger and I worked together to submit a professionally written, edited, and published work to the Writeoff in order to compare it to the average Writeoff story. Peeps found out. WHOOPS

There are multiple versions of this story, yeah. The one you guys read is from the New Yorker. It’s also published in ZZ Packer’s own book, and the anthology Deepening Fiction (which is where I read it).

#17 · 2
· · >>RogerDodger

Ethics of plagiarism aside, I'm irritated that I spent time reading and reviewing this when I could've put that time towards reviewing someone who, y'know, actually wanted a review.
#18 · 7

Once again:

I demonstrate my uncanny ability to stumble into other people's schemes and inadvertantly desrupt them...

Mike Again
#19 · 4
>>Cold in Gardez
I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't read the story last night already — it literally was on my slate and first in my reading, and I'm not lying, I had to grind my mind against it for a few hours (all of which time was spent before knowing of its origin) — and I already noted your argument in >>horizon.

Your concern is legitimate, but I stand by my assertion that my review had value too. People can learn from critique of stories that aren't their own. And my choice was between typing out my thoughts, and letting that analysis go to waste because of the situation.

That said, yes, direct feedback is absolutely important, and as usual I will be providing reviews to other contestants as well. Just haven't had the chance for much reading yet.

Edit: To make this crystal clear, I had nothing to do with >>Dubs_Rewatcher's decision. I only found out about it now like the rest of us.
#20 · 1
I was actually in a similar position to horizon; it was on my slate and I'd read it before the reveal, although I hadn't gotten as far along in composing a review.

My general impression was along the lines of 'this is an impressive piece of work, with a lot of depth, but it's not really my cup of tea. It was still moving, though, and had a very strong literary feel to it, that I think would knock some readers socks off.' Also, yeah, pretty polished for a 3-day composition. While not something I would normally choose to read, I don't regret having read it.

Since it seems it'll be excluded from the results anyhow, I'm going to rank it as if it was still a contender, in which case it is currently second after The Necromancer's Wife.
#21 · 1
It's in the Terms of Service that you can't post things that you don't have the rights to.


>>Scramblers and Shadows
I did consider this but didn't end up weighing it heavily enough as a downside. For that I'm sorry.