Once upon a time, there was a man who died. His greatest and final work was completed without him by a distant descendant. The man was not satisfied with the ending his descendant wrote so he departed in search of other stories.
The descendant continued to write and continued to refine the power to bring stories to life that had been passed to him by his ancestor, for it is a far greater task to craft your own story than to edit that of a greater writer. As his descendant's power grew, the man's interest grew and he returned to watch as his descendant finally embarked on writing his heart's desire.
The author had clearly intended to write a thoughtful exploration of the human condition, but intentions count for nothing. The characters were a trifecta of unlikeable, unbelievable and unrealistic. The inevitable 'gritty' ending left this reader feeling only relieved that his suffering was finally over.
Autor chewed thoughtfully on the end of his pen for a moment.
My advice to the author would be to stop trying to write what he thinks the market wants. The only way to succeed at writing is to write your own story.
Autor signed the review and added it to the pile of other reviews to be sent off when the post was collected the following morning. He remembered writing at least two good reviews and one neutral one, which should make the newspaper editor happy.
He put the kettle on to boil and picked a book at random from one of the piles decorating every flat surface of the room.
Autor read the first page, then swapped it for another. Nose buried, he poured the now-boiling water into the teapot and carried it to his reading chair.
Halfway through the second chapter, somebody knocked on his door.
Sighing heavily, he bookmarked his page and placed the book carefully next to his stone-cold cup of tea.
"Yes?" he snapped, opening the door with a bang.
The man on the other side of the door looked a little taken-aback. After a moment's thought Autor placed him as Fakir Ritter, who may or may not be the author of the book currently lying closed next to Autor's teacup.
"Well?" said Autor, taking refuge from embarrassment in bad temper.
"I need your help," said Fakir.
Once upon a time, there was a duck who turned into a girl.
Autor read a few more lines, then looked up at Fakir, who was browsing the bookshelves and trying not to look nervous. "This is a fairytale."
Fakir nodded shortly.
"That has potential, this sort of magical realism thing is very fashionable these days."
"Just read the story," muttered Fakir.
Autor picked up the manuscript again.
When he was finished, he cleared his throat. "I'm done."
"You have the rhythm and style of it down perfectly," said Autor grudgingly. "But your plot is terrible."
"Yes," said Fakir. "That's why I need your help."
"Why are you trying to write about a duck who turns into a human? Usually in fairytales it's the other way around. Except for..." Memory teased at him, then flittered away. "Never mind. Anyway, why is she a duck? It has no bearing on the rest of the story."
"It has to be about a duck who turns into a girl. The rest of it I don't care about."
Autor gave a heavy sigh. "Then we need a good reason for her to turn into a girl. Even in fairytales you can't just make things happen because you say so. There needs to be some kind of internal consistency."
"I know. Believe me, I know. I've been trying to write this story for five years."
Autor snapped his fingers and walked to the drawing table. "Then, let's brainstorm. Why would a duck turn into a girl?"
Half an hour later they had a neat list on the page, in Autor's careful handwriting that bore nothing in common with the awful chicken-scratch that was Fakir's.
"I beg your pardon?" said Fakir.
"The humans are going to fill in her lake. She has to become human in order to stop them. Environmental messages are very popular in children's literature."
"This is a fairytale, not a children's book."
Autor glared at him. "Do you want my help or not?"
To save a life
"Whose life?" demanded Autor.
"I figured that would come to me when I started writing."
Pop idol (so that she can make people happy)
"That's even worse than the environmental warrior idea. Why would a duck want to be a pop idol?"
"It's very common theme in comics."
"But I'm not writing a comic."
"Just because we aren't writing in a particular medium doesn't mean we can't learn from the techniques of the medium."
"It seems arrogant to make it about true love," said Fakir. "Scratch that one off the list."
"Arrogant?" repeated Autor, but Fakir looked away. "I was thinking 'trite'," he added, drawing a line through the last item on the list.
They stared at the list for a while before Autor decided it was time to move on. He had actual work to do.
"Go away and write these," he ordered Fakir. "Bring them to me when you're done."
The dead man with the feathered cap and long beard wrung his hands in frustration. "No, this won't do at all! A fairytale should be dark and tragic, not light and fluffy."
So the duck Ahiru set off to find the Queen of the great Northern Forest.
"Ahiru?" said Autor incredulously. "You named your duck 'Duck'?"
"Is there something wrong with that?"
"I just thought an author of your... repute... would be able to come up with something more creative than that."
Fakir folded his arms. "By all means, go ahead and change it."
"Don't name the duck. Just refer to her as 'the duck'. Characters in fairy-tales either have fanciful names or none at all."
Fakir nodded thoughtfully. "And the plot?"
"It's still terrible."
"Yes, I'm well aware of that," said Fakir in tones of infinite patience. "I was hoping you could tell me why."
Autor paced the room irritably. "Why does the Queen of the great Northern Forest need a duck to help her? Particularly a duck in human form? Wouldn't an ordinary human be better?"
"The duck is brave and kind-hearted and selfless," Fakir pointed out.
Autor pointed a finger at him. "Stop arguing. Write something better."
Fakir dispensed with, Autor settled down to finish the article he'd been writing before he'd been interrupted.
He managed five lines before there was another knock on the door.
Before he could even get up, his next door neighbours let themselves in, a habit no amount of yelling seemed to cure them of.
"Hey, hey, Autor, was that Fakir from our school?" asked Lilie.
"What's he doing here?" demanded Pique.
"I'm helping him write a story," said Autor automatically.
"Don't you get tired of always being the bridesmaid and never the bride?" asked Lilie.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You don't write novels yourself. You only edit them." A normal person would have sounded sympathetic, but Lilie sounded delighted.
Autor drew himself up to his full height and looked at her with disdain. "I've come to terms with the fact that my calling is to cultivate genius and ensure it reaches its greatest potential. My name may not be known by the average man on the street, but I will be the hidden force behind every great novel. My voice will be heard!"
Lilie pumped her fist into the air. "Yes! Do your best! We'll know it even if nobody else ever does!"
"We'll be cheering for you," added Pique, with slightly more sincerity.
"You can help by leaving my house and letting me get some work done," said Autor, putting firm emphasis on every word and herding up the girls, ending by slamming the door in their faces.
And the duck, now a human girl, set off to seek her fortune in the human world.
"Your problem," said Autor, pointing emphatically, "is that you want to write a story about a duck who turns into a girl, not a story in which a duck turns into a girl."
Fakir appeared to mull on this for a little while. "You're right. It was in extending the story past the point of transformation that everything fell to pieces."
"Exactly. Make the transformation the story. Instead of starting the story with the transformation, end the story with the transformation. The transformation needs to be the quest."
"What kind of quest would a duck go on in order to become a human?"
"She has to prove she is worthy of becoming a human."
"What sets humans apart from ducks?" Fakir pulled up a fresh sheet of parchment and began scribbling on it. "Compassion... Altruism..."
"Humility," said Autor. "You only need three. And there needs to be risk involved."
"Risk?" Fakir looked a little dubious.
Autor nodded emphatically. "If she fails the quest, she can't just go back to being a duck."
Fakir looked down at his list. "Of course."
"Without it, the story is just fluff. The journey is completely predictable."
Fakir held up a hand for Autor to be silent. "You're right. I know you're right. I just... don't want you to be."
Autor blinked. He was starting to feel like there was something very important he was missing in Fakir's motivation for writing this story.
"I'm going to work on this. Thank you, Autor."
Autor closed the door behind Fakir and went the boil the kettle for tea.
When he returned to the front room Lilie was pawing through his manuscripts. Autor leapt into action and snatched them to safety.
"Ah!" said Pique, who had been nosing through the pile of novels lying on his desk. "We wanted to find out how Fakir's story is going."
"It's starting to come together and I think it will be brilliant if he keeps listening to me." Autor paused. "Not that it's any of your business, and would you please stop breaking into my house?"
"You should lock the door," said Lilie.
"What kind of story is it?" asked Pique.
"Ooh. Is it bloody?" asked Lilie enthusiastically.
"No. It's about a duck," said Autor, then snapped his mouth shut.
"Does she disappear into a speck of light at the end?" Lilie's eyes were shining.
Autor threw his hands up in despair. "I don't know! Stop asking me questions! I'm trying to work!"
Pouting, the girls departed.
In the place beyond death, the old man laughed and rubbed his hands with glee. "This looks promising. Yes, this looks very promising indeed.
The manuscript arrived by mail, with a note attached stating that Fakir was unable to deliver it in person as he had a house-guest.
Once upon a time, there was a duck who lived by a lake on the outskirts of a walled town. Every day she saw humans laughing and singing and dancing and she wished to join them, but she was a simple duck so she could do none of these things and the humans just threw bread at her or chased her away.
Promising beginning, Autor wrote in the margin with his trusty red pen, then picked up the manuscript again.
One day, a beautiful witch came to the duck and said, "I can turn you into a girl if you prove yourself worthy of it. I will give you three tests. However, if you fail, you will become nothing more than a little carved wooden duck. Do you accept?"
Although she was very nervous, the little duck was filled with hope, and she quacked her acceptance enthusiastically.
Autor read quickly through the tests of compassion, altruism and humility. The words flowed beautifully, each task the little duck was assigned described in intricate, lively detail.
He even found himself somewhat emotionally compromised when the duck found herself convinced that she had cheated in the final test.
"Congratulations," said the witch. "You passed."
"I passed?" quacked the duck. "But the last test, I couldn't have passed it if I were human. Humans can't fly."
"It's important for everybody to know their own strengths, little duck."
The story ended abruptly as the duck was finally transformed into a girl. Autor frowned in disapproval and picked up his red pen.
No writer was so great that his story couldn't be improved by an even greater editor, after all.
There is no denying that Ritter's work is remarkable. However, it remains to be seen whether it will have the staying power as that of the greats of the genre.
"We're going to turn Fakir's story into a ballet," said the strange, freckled, red-haired girl currently perching on a stool in Autor's kitchen. "I'm going to play the duck, although I'm not a very good dancer."
"But that doesn't matter because she's a duck!" said Lilie, starry-eyed. "It won't matter how much you fall over, it will still be in-character!"
"You're going to be amazing!" said Pique, pumping her fist.
The day had started so well. Autor had mercilessly torn apart three short stories and made good progress on a scathing review of a piece of mindless trash that pretended to be a novel.
Then Fakir had arrived at his door and said, "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
Autor pulled Fakir into a corner of the kitchen. "Who, exactly, is this girl and why did you feel the need to introduce me to her?" he demanded.
"Ahiru? I suppose you could call her my muse," Fakir replied thoughtfully.
And now he had a babbling girl in his kitchen, not to mention his annoying neighbours, and was seriously starting to doubt his own sanity, because surely what he was thinking couldn't be right. It wasn't possible. Fairytales couldn't really come true.
The man who had died long ago stamped his foot in disappointment. "How is it that he can share my blood and my powers, but not write a story with a decently tragic ending?"
His companion with the silhouette of a small child pulled at his cloak and began to walk away, beating her drum loudly. "Happy ending-zura."