In our last episode, we left our wooden-headed puppet hero on Total Freedom Island, where writers are free to write freely in freedom. Totally. He had just gone in search of a day job, accompanied by his friend and fellow writer Marge, and guided by the town mayor, Bill Coventry.
If you’re joining us for the first time today, you may want to start with Part 1, as this
mess tale is less confusing best appreciated when read from the very beginning.
Intaglio had never worked a day in his admittedly short life, which was something of a liability in a town where everything was do-it-yourself. Marge, who’d grown up on a cabbage farm, was quickly placed in the village commissary at the salad station, but Intaglio had no discernible skills besides writing.
Bill the Mayor guessed the puppet might know something about wood, and though Intaglio hadn’t taken much interest in his father’s cabinetmaking, he had a fairly decent grasp of routine maintenance. Nearly everything on Total Freedom Island was made of wood, and all of it needed varnishing. Intaglio was outfitted with a small brush and a large can of varnish, and his employment was no longer a problem.
Three hours and three shiny doorways later, Intaglio went back to the Publication Acceptance, Promulgation, Evaluation, and Reimbursement Machine to collect his feedback and the handful of golden ducats he expected to come along with it. Bill looked on with a placid smile as Intaglio pressed the appropriate button and turned the crank. After a few moments of whirring and grinding, the machine ejected his manuscript and a single ducat with a pathetic burp. A black star was stamped on the manuscript’s front page in greasy black ink.
Intaglio was outraged. “This isn’t fair! It says my story stinks on ice! When I rated that other story a ‘1’, the machine let off with a siren, and everybody got mad. How come there wasn’t a siren or anything when somebody gave my story a low score?”
“Let me see that.” Bill flipped through the manuscript, humming a little tune as he did so. “Ah, here’s the problem. Classic rookie mistake. You didn’t follow the standard format, and that’s an automatic downgrade.”
“Format? I thought the whole idea of this place is that we’re free to write however we like. Nobody said anything about a standard format.”
“That’s because you strolled into town without registering at Town Hall first. It’s only a formality, but that’s where we give our new citizens a copy of the format. No worries, I’ve an extra one here.” Bill pulled a creased rectangle of paper from one of the many pockets of his blue frock coat and after several rounds of unfolding, handed it to Intaglio.
The instructions were brief:
One-inch margins all around, paragraphs single-spaced and separated by an extra space, no indents. Pages numbered at the upper right-hand corner beginning on Page 2. Times New Roman 12-point script. Title centered halfway down the first page in all-caps as follows:
FAIRY TALE ROMANCE #(insert random number): (insert title of your fairy tale romance)
IMPORTANT: All stories must begin, “Once upon a time…” and end, “…they lived happily ever after.”
Intaglio scratched his head, generating a loud squeak. “I don’t understand. No wonder that other story looked like it came out of Vinnie and Guido’s sweatshop. Why are you using the same format?”
“Excellence is all about expressing your creativity in a manner that is accessible to your audience and appropriate to the market. This community exists to help you flourish as a writer…to create the kind of stories we know people want to buy. I can show you a summary of the research, if you like.”
“I don’t care how many ducats you pay me, I won’t write like that. I won’t betray my creative vision. Or the Writing Fairy.”
“Then I’m sorry to say you can expect a great many more black stars in your future. I understand your passion, Intaglio. I felt quite the same way myself a few weeks ago. When you’ve gained more experience, I’m confident you’ll see our way is best. In the meantime, don’t quit your day job.” Bill tipped his hat and turned away. “Happy varnishing.”
In the following days, Intaglio began to appreciate the importance of his “day job.” When he wasn’t varnishing, he stubbornly churned out story after story, all the wonderful tales that were his legacy from the Writing Fairy. They all came back with a single black star smeared onto the cover, and a single ducat, and that wasn’t enough to live on, even for a wooden puppet who didn’t need to eat. Everything on Total Freedom Island cost money, and without the extra five ducats a day from his varnishing work, he wouldn’t have been able to afford writing paper, ink, and quill pens. He had to pay for his lodgings, too. Staying outside in the damp night air would have warped him horribly.
He found other ways to earn extra money on the side, like the occasional “poetry slams,” where writers slugged it out in a cage for the right to read their work in front of an audience, with the audience wagering on the outcome. Intaglio won several matches by knockout and was a crowd favorite until someone pointed out that fighting him was very much like fighting a tree, so he was summarily barred from that activity.
It was discouraging. He began to frequent the town’s cooperative tavern to drown his woes in homebrewed ginger beer, but it went right through him, which was embarrassing and did nothing to lift his spirits. He wondered how Marge was coping.
As he left the pub one evening, someone abruptly yanked him into an adjoining alley. He struggled to identify the face of his assailant in the dim moonlight, and being soaked in ginger didn’t help. “Margie? Oh, Margie, I been misshing you. Hey, looksh like you put on a coupla poundsh. ‘S good. You were alwhaysh too schkinny.”
Marge clapped a hand over his mouth. “Hush! I’m getting out of here, Intaglio. Tonight. This island is nothing like what I expected. I can barely survive on what I make shredding cabbages, and I got so desperate yesterday I actually wrote one of those awful fairy tales. You know what the score was?”
“I am schurre it wassh a berry, berry good sschhore. Becaush you write good.”
“I got five stars. Five whole ducats. It was the lousiest story I ever wrote, and I got the highest score they give. Something screwy is going on here, and it’s not just the writing. I think they’re putting something in the food and water. I’m living on cabbages, and I’m always hungry, but I’m still gaining weight. Today, I started breaking out in a weird rash. Besides that, at least five people I know of have just…disappeared. All their stuff is still in their rooms. Nobody knows where they went. I’m getting off this island before I disappear too.”
“The boat only goesh one way. I think it doesh. Doeshn’t it?”
“I made a raft from some scrap wood.” She looked over her shoulder toward the empty plaza, lit at the margins by flickering lantern light, and shivered. “Come on, let’s both of us get off this rock while we still can.”
Intaglio shook his head, which made him even dizzier. “But I got lotsh an’ lotsh o’doorsh to varnish, and lotsh an’ lotsh o’storiesh to write. I got it aaallll figured out now. Gonna make lotsh an’ lotsh o’money now.”
“Well, I’m leaving right now. Are you coming with me, or not?”
“I think…I need a nap. Or schumthing. G’night.” He curled up into a ball on one side of the alley and lapsed into unconsciousness.
To be continued…next time, a horrifying revelation, and the thrilling conclusion of The Legend of Intaglio!