Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Night Vision: A Very Short Horror Story.

So I received a prompt after my last post, and decided to give it a go. Warning: it's horror.
The prompts were: A commercial airplane lavatory, an envelope, 400 words max.
Here it is:

Night Vision

Paul stumbled to the bathroom amid heavy turbulence and under the reproachful looks of the flight attendants. Once inside the tiny cubicle, he tried to decide whether to throw up or pee first, in a titanic struggle between Bladder and Stomach. He took three deep breaths and Stomach settled a bit, so Bladder won.
The plane lurched, throwing Paul against the side bulkhead. He cursed and wondered once again why the pilot had decided to fly through the storm. He braced himself: one foot in the corner near the door, one against the smurf-size vanity, one hand on the handle, and one hand on business. Then he stopped.
On the toilet seat lay a padded manilla envelope. Frowning, Paul put business back in his pants and picked it up. It wasn't sealed, and felt unevenly bulky, as if it contained something that it wasn't quite designed to hold. On it, block writing in black ink read “WHOEVER FINDS THIS, PLEASE GIVE TO DARLA SUMMERS, BURLINGTON, VT.”
More turbulence shook the plane, and Paul was thrown down on to one knee as a note fell out of the envelope. He caught it and read.
“I miss you more than I can tell you were my life my light my vision in the night. I don't believe you really meant what you said the other night I don't believe you really left I don't believe you don't love me trust me anymore well I can't do it without you I feel myself slipping away away far away where I don't want to ever go again into the world of THEM CRAZY VOICES.
“Remember you once told me you were scared every time I climbed into my pilot's seat and flew remember I told you not to worry that you were all that I needed to guide my across the night sky well tonight I am going to prove it to you I am going to show you I can fly alone with only you in the copilot's seat with only your light to guide me nothing else nothing else.”
“Love forever,
Stomach and Bladder both clenching, Paul shook the envelope again.
Two white and red rubbery balls rolled on the carpet and left a trail of blood as they came to rest against the door, staring blankly at Paul.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Microfiction: Calling For Prompts!

As some of you know, one of my stories ("In It") has just been published on NYC midnight (you can check that out here, if you haven't already). It's a story I'm very proud of. It was written during a prompt-based flash fiction competition. Which means they shoot three prompts at you (a location, an object and a genre) and you have 48 hours to produce a story.
It's scary at first (e.g. how the hell do you write a crime caper at a bridal shower involving a red button), but it's a great way to force you into writing. As they say, the best tool for a writer is bum glue. It also forces you out of your comfort zone, which I found makes me write thing I'd never thought I had in me. Including "In It"
And it gave me an idea: I have, for a couple of years now, enjoyed writing microfiction. That is, very very short stories (my criteria is usually the size of a tweet (recent example here). So what I'm asking now, is for people to give me a prompt. A word, an object, a character, a place, anything you want, in the comments below. And I'll try to write a microfiction with it, if I can.
Here goes nothing...

Microfiction Du Jour

The sun was rising and the man had a pulse. Doctor Abel looked at the name on the chart, and wondered if it was a good thing.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Annoying Aphorisms of the Day

I once wrote a character called Foster. He was a brainbomb specialist who professed to hate aphorisms but used them all the time. I enjoyed making up his aphorisms. Actually, I profess to hate aphorisms but write them all the time. So here are a few, just for fun:

"The importance of importance is greatly overestimated."

"Where there's a cat, there's always a dog."

"People who say there's always a choice are usually lazy moralists."

"Cheesy aphorisms are the scourge of the scientific mind."

"A short blog post is better than no blog post at all."

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Writing Doctors - 2: Martin Winckler, and The Doctor As a Character.

I have read or seen several pieces of fiction that portray doctors. As a general rule (with exceptions, I grant you), they tend to fall into four broad categories:

1. The superhero (or the saint) (e.g. ER's Dr. Greene, or Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules). Here the doctor tends to be a profound workaholic devoted to his patients, often to the point of neglecting the rest of his life. These are close cousins to the workaholic police detectives who sacrifice everything for their case, the prototype of which is probably Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. They make for fun characters to root for, but tend to be pretty one-dimensional.

2. The (sort of evil) representative of “the man” (e.g. Any goddamn psychiatrist in almost any goddamn movie or book, who always judges the main character in the wrong way). These are usually just a technique used to allow another character to oppose the establishment, and rarely are full characters in their own right.

3. The mad scientist (e.g. Dr. Frankenstein). Need I say more?

4. The messenger (e.g. Too many to list). These are usually just there to tell the main characters some information that is needed for the progression of the story. “Your wife is dead.” “You have two months to live.” “Your brain has been been invaded by an alien parasitic fungus that makes you capable of jumping over buildings but will kill you in nineteen days unless you travel to Titan and then inject this (usually glowing blue) liquid inside your heart with a needle the size of excalibur; this I know after doing a routine blood test and a friggin' chest x-ray that's hanging upside-down on the negatoscope.” They are basically just mouthpieces for the plot, and even less of a character than number 2.

There are probably other variants. But my point is that it is rare to see a doctor as a multi-dimensional, flawed, human, complex and interesting character, but who still is a doctor (as opposed to just bearing the title).

That's where Martin Winckler comes in. He is a French M.D. born in 1955, and also an accomplished writer. I won't go into his detailed biography, you can use google as well as I can. What I want to tell you about him is that he wrote the best, most honest, most beautiful book about a doctor that I've ever read.

It's called La Maladie de Sachs (The Case of Dr. Sachs, in English translation). It tells the story of Dr. Bruno Sachs, a country doctor who also writes, and who is setting up his new practice. It's written in second person, from the point of view of each patient that comes to see Dr. Sachs. Now, usually works in the second person are mostly pretentious and annoying, but in this case it suits the book perfectly. It captures in a very astute manner the way in which each encounter with a patient contributes to shape you, as a doctor and as a human being. It also serves to create mystery, as a little of each patient's story is revealed at each encounter, as well as a little of Dr. Sachs' story. It's a very good book and if you want to read something very real about being a doctor, you could do worse than pick up a copy of it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go interpret a foot x-ray and forestall an alien invasion.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Writing Doctors - 1: The Autopsy of Sherlock Holmes

I'm currently re-reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with way more pleasure than I had anticipated. I did not remember liking it that much on my first read, over fifteen years ago. I thought it dated and, frankly, a little boring. However, I really enjoyed the BBC's series Sherlock, and it made me want to read the original work again. Surprise, I'm having a blast.

The writing is fast-paced (for the nineteenth century, I grant you), the characters of Holmes and Watson are engaging (with Holmes sometimes laugh-out-loud funny), and their relationship is fun. Of course the stories end abruptly, and the author lazily omits long stretches of narrative that are only dealt with in two or three short sentences. But even that, I found this time around, leaves place for the reader to fill in the blanks, which is something that I love to do. In fact, generations of Holmes fans have actually practiced this in something they call “The Great Game”. Maybe those unfilled gaps also explain why the work has know so many successful adaptations over the years. All that to say that, basically, they're as fun a read as any recent crime fiction bestseller, which I suppose they were in their time as well. 

But one thing of particular interest to me is how Conan Doyle's medical background shows up in his writing.

It's well-known that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by one of Conan Doyle's medical school teachers, so I won't dwell on that too long. What strikes me, however, is how much the famous “Sherlock Holmes method” owes to the diagnostic process used in medicine.

As one of my colleagues recently put it, doctors are like detectives. They use symptoms as clues to deduce what the disease is. Simply put:
1- They listen to the patient's story.
2- They ask a number of questions.
3- They formulate a differential diagnosis, that is, a series of hypotheses as to what the disease is.
4- They examine the patient and run some tests to rule out some hypotheses and rule in others, to arrive at a final diagnosis.

This is exactly what Sherlock Holmes does in almost all of the stories.

1- He meets with the client and listens to his story.

2- He asks a number of questions. These often don't make sense to the client or the reader (which is part of the fun of Holmes' character, of course). That is because, just as a doctor, he is looking for specific information that will allow him to refine his differential diagnosis: he already has, in his mind, various hypotheses that he is seeking to rule in or out through the client's answers. In the same way, the questions a doctor might ask you don't always make sense to you. 

As an example: 
Patient: “My joints hurt all over." 
Doctor: “Have you travelled to New England Recently?” 
That question may seem unrelated to joints, but the physician is thinking of Lyme disease as a possible cause for joint pain, and seeking to rule it in or out of his differential diagnosis.

Compare this to:
Client: "Without a word, he grasped my arm and hurried me into a carriage (...).
"One horse?" interjected Holmes.
"Yes, only one."
"Did you observe the colour?"
"Yes, (...). It was a chestnut."
"Tired-looking or fresh?"
"Oh, fresh and glossy."
These questions seem a little strange, but Holmes is trying to differentiate between a carriage that came from far away and one that came for nearby. In that story, this helps him locate a house where a crime was committed.

3- He formulates a number of hypotheses (which he does not share with Watson, or the reader. This is of course a (kind of cheap) literary device to create suspense, but it also reminds me of something I often tell my patients when they ask me what I think before the consultation is over: "I'd rather answer that when I have finished the consultation, because I want to have all the information in hand, lest I give you a false answer" (Okay, I've never actually used the word “lest” with a patient, but it's a cool word)).

4- He goes to the scene of the crime, examines it, and then goes out in the field to test his hypotheses, to arrive at the solution to the mystery, just as the doctor will ask for a blood test, or a CAT-scan, or a voodoo reading of chicken entrails (less often).

So. Crime writers, great detectives and doctors. Same family. Now all I have to do is write that great crime novel that will take the world by storm. My dear Watson.