Bone-Grubber’s Gamble

Illustration copyright © 2000 Kevin Ward

Illustration copyright © 2000 Kevin Ward.This is a detail of a painting Kevin did to illustrate the story when it appeared in an earlier collection of mine, HEMOGOBLINS: STORIES TO CHILL THE BLOOD – Scorpius Digital Publishing. 


The writing game Kevin Ward and I were playing in writing the story in my last post, “Where Pink is for Poodles, Appliance Genetics Applies,” was something I call Bone-Grubber’s Gamble.  I was going to do a new write up about it, but I got lazy and decided just to post my Author’s Note from Boneyard Babies because it explains the game very well.  And, hell, maybe it’ll promote the collection.

(Author’s Note from BONEYARD BABIES)

There are two types of stories in this collection, ones that make sense and ones that do not. I’ll let the ones that do make sense speak for themselves. The ones that do not deserve a little explanation and with it a little history.

I am primarily a visual artist, but in the 1970s while living and going to school in San Francisco, I began to write as yet another means of creative expression. I smoked marihuana with my roommate and then we’d tried to write bizarre stories. It was fun collaborating and laughing about what we came up with. Our tendency was to try to write a solid story with a beginning, middle and end, an antagonist, a protagonist, conflict and resolution. But being high, it was difficult for me to focus on telling a character-driven story that didn’t wander off and get lost in the thick forest of my imagination. I think he had the same problem. Over time we became frustrated as the unfinished, hopeless stories piled up. I could have laid off the marihuana when writing, but when I did, I thought my ideas were bland*. Besides, that would have been too easy.

The solution was to stop making sense. Being a surrealist at heart, I believe in the power of the subconscious to offer up creative solutions. I proposed to my roommate a writing game that would prevent us from concentrating on creating reasonable story elements.

The process put us in a position of having to find a story through free-association. What we ended up with definitely did not make sense in a conventional way, but it felt like a story and seemed complete. When reading it, my imagination did it’s best to assign meaning to the text, creating a surreal cartoon of sorts for my mind’s eye.

Here are the rules of the game I call Bone-Grubber’s Gamble:

1) Two writers each create ten partial sentences of bizarre content and then trade them with one another.
2) A simple open-ended premise for a story is agreed upon (My roommate and I decided the first one of these we wrote would be about TWO BEST FRIENDS WHO HATE EACH OTHER).
3) A coin is flipped to see who will go first.
4) The winning writer chooses one of his counterpart’s sentences and begins the story. The sentence can be kept as is and completed or changed in any way or it could be just a spring board for ideas. Sentences don’t have to make sense, but they should still have good structure.

When the first writer is finished, the other writer takes a turn and they alternate turns until the story finds its own end. This usually occurs within the first two pages. As the writers take turns, they keep in mind that connective tissue in the form of repeated words and concepts helps tie sentences, paragraphs and ultimately the story together and give a sense that the story is whole even if it is truly nonsensical.

Below is an example of a set of partial sentences of bizarre content that I generated this year while looking through a book on torture devices. I sent them to Eric M. Witchey to use when we wrote the story titled “Conrad’s New Shoe Goo.”

1) where harmless humans, roasted and boiled to little cubes
2) every apology a death penalty
3) fervent prayers became an iron gag and a drunkard of gin
4) four claws and a high-end adultery appliance
5) a heresy of corn dogs and chocolate-dipped
6) hankered after the older and more popular atrocities
7) would have four testicles instead of the usual tub of lard
8) bespectacled himself by stretching out his naked erection
9) hadn’t screamed puppet warnings in over a decade
10) wake unto waist rings and pyramid points

This is not about the story. After all, some of them don’t make sense. It’s about how nimble the imagination is, that of the writers’ combined with yours.

The table of contents is broken into three sections. The first, titled Older, more Popular Atrocities, is made up of stories that are more traditional and are not arrived at by means of the Bone-Grubber’s Gamble. The second section, A Heresy of Corn-Dogs, is composed of stories that were arrived at by means of the Bone-Grubber’s Gamble, but developed with an eye toward making more traditional stories. The third section is pure Bone-Grubber’s Gamble. Several of these stories I wrote by myself. This required me to assemble at least twenty partial sentences and to pretend to be two writers.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

*Later in life, after I’d given up marihuana and alcohol, I discovered that my ideas were far from bland and my imagination was more powerful than ever.

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