Contest #173 winner 🏆

How to Return a Book Titled "How to Improve Your Writing in Five Easy Steps" in Five Easy Steps

Submitted into Contest #173 in response to: Write about a character going to great lengths to return an unwanted gift.... view prompt

107 comments

Funny Fiction

It was an anxious and desperate night; my sweat fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by the violent shriek of a middle-aged white woman with an unchecked ego which swept up the aisles (for it is in Walmart that our scene lies), rattling along the plastic toy displays, and fiercely agitating the volatile attitude of the underpaid sixteen-year-old who struggled against the onslaught of last-minute shoppers.

There I stood, holding my unopened copy of How to Improve Your Writing in Five Easy Steps, resting on my two sore feet which had been purpled with bruises from a long day of standing in front of a whiteboard teaching calculus to a full room of glass-eyed freshmen, rocking back and forth slightly to relieve the pressure on each in sequence, at the back of the customer service line, which meandered like a ball python around the corner and past the self-checkout machines where a gaggle of elderly shoppers out well past their bedtimes were trying (and failing) to scan the last of the pre-made pies from the bakery section; and I wondered why oh why I waited until the last day of the 30-day return period to get $11.99 in store credit for the book that my coworker gave me for my birthday after I mentioned briefly during a meeting that I had a passing interest in writing as a distraction from the impossibly dense textbooks about integration on abstract measure spaces, debating whether or not I should just bite the bullet and put the book up with the rest of the unread books that sat collecting dust in the small library I had assembled in my home office; then the line shifted ahead by a single person and every one of us stepped two feet forward in a cascade whose wake worked its way at a uniform pace backward down the line, and we crawled ever closer to the paradise shrouded in the pale light of a tube bulb that hanged by two partially-rusted chains above the light blue counter, behind which stood the underpaid sixteen-year-old who ran from the line of customers to the computer and then to the phone and finally back to the line of customers which appeared to recede infinitely into the horizon and merge with the power tools for sale on the far wall; and in my boredom, my growing sense of ennui that caused me to rock faster and sweat harder and question why everything in my life felt so overwrought in the tedium of this capitalistic modus operandi that served only to degrade the consumer’s patience to the point where they simply accept the mediocre product and let the money remain squarely in the pocket of the corporation, I decided to open the book to the first page to see what I could possibly be missing out on by putting it back on the shelf from whence it came.

*****

Step 1: Avoid clichés and overly-long, melodramatic, or unnecessarily extravagant sentences. 

*****

When I was almost done reading the page, I heard the person behind me speak to get my attention.

“Whatcha got there?”

I turned around to see a woman, the most… (I peered down at the book) average-looking woman I’ve ever seen. She had… eyes and… hair. 

Not particularly interested in having a conversation with the stranger behind me in line, but having nowhere else to go and not being one to be blatantly rude, I responded.

“Oh, just a book I’m returning.”

“What’s the book about?”

“How to improve your writing.”

“Interesting! Are you a writer?”

“No, I’m not. That’s why I’m returning it.”

“Why’d you buy the book then?”

“I didn’t buy it, it was a gift.”

“You’re returning a gift?”

“It’s not like he’ll know I’m returning it.”

“But the principle, y’know?”

“Who cares about principle when I can have store credit?”

“Well, okay.”

“Yeah. It’ll save me on my next grocery run.”

“Who got the book for you?”

“My coworker.”

“Why did he get it for you?”

“My birthday.”

“Does he know you’re not a writer?”

“He should. I told him it was just a hobby to get away from my job.”

“Oh, okay. What do you do for your job?”

“I’m a professor at the local community college.”

“What do you teach?”

“Calculus.”

“Do you like teaching?”

“I do, but it’s been tough. None of my students are particularly engaged with the material.”

“Oof, I understand them, I never liked math.”

“What do you like, then?”

“Writing!”

“Is that what you do for a living?”

“Yes! I’m working on a book right now.”

“What’s it about?”

“Not sure yet. I still have many directions I can take it.”

“Well, that’s good. Always nice to have options.”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Say, what are you doing in this line?”

“Oh, me? I’m looking for a book about how I can improve my writing.”

“Huh, would you like this book, then? Five bucks sound fair for it? It’d save us both a bunch of time and you’d get a good deal.”

“Oh, no thank you.”

“Why not?”

“I already have that book.”

“What book are you looking for, then?”

How to Make Your Writing Better in Five Simple Stages.

“Sounds pretty similar to this one.”

“Oh no, they’re totally different.”

“How are they different?”

“Seems pretty obvious to me.”

“Hmm, alright. Was this one helpful when you first read it?”

“Definitely. It has some great steps.”

I took her statement as a cue to take a look at the next page.

*****

Step 2: Keep your dialogue interesting and short. Advance the plot and don’t rehash things previously covered in exposition for no reason.

*****

“Nice talking to you.”

The line had shifted forward considerably during our conversation, and I ventured into the next leg of my adventure: the Gates. 

Through the automatic doors came and went people whom I could only describe as those who gave rise to the term “lowest common denominator.” I saw a steady incoming stream of sparkling-eyed children leading their parents by their hands toward the section of playthings and knick-knacks that spanned every color on and off the rainbow. Equal and opposite went the monotonous, hollow shuffle of zombified consumers carrying bags full of the latest race car sets and doll houses. The Keeper stood in the middle, donned in her vest and nametag, greeting those coming in, thanking those going out, and receiving no response from either group.

Seeing that I still had quite a ways to go, I reminisced on my journey thus far.

It started in the Forge, where I was surrounded by tools of unknown purpose. Throngs of strong, rotund, bearded men grunted to one another like boars, picking up hammers of various sizes and putting them down after a few firm swings. Then the Smith approached and guided them to the selection of drills kept under lock and key behind the plexiglass. They were so enchanted by the multitude of sizes, lengths, power ratings, and attachments that they became children again. “Can I have this one? No, wait, this one! No, no, both!” As the line moved on, I looked back and saw the gnarled maws full of unwashed fangs that constituted their beaming smiles.

Then came Cyberspace, the future, but now! Google-faced and scrawny, the inhabitants spoke in encoded, rhythmic bursts, peppering in theorems and figures every few words. They prodded at the laptops and tapped on the tablets, diligently inspecting each for their CPUs, GPUs, RAMs, GUIs, and a bunch of other acronyms unknown to me. One by one, they approached the Scholar for his wisdom in the fields of payment plans and extended warranties; and one by one, he imparted this knowledge to each one of his students. The last thing I saw before the line moved on was the metal-filled mouth of a joyful tech-enthusiast as he smiled at his brand-new wireless stylus.

The Boutique was the next stop. Everywhere I looked, I saw the finest polyesters and cottons displayed elegantly on their plastic hangers. There was a wide selection of superhero underwear and stylish short-sleeved shirts adorned with wise proverbs such as “Sarcastic Comment Loading… Please Wait.” The Seamstress assisted the ladies in selecting the garments that were most flattering to them, then guided them to the dressing rooms where they promptly put them back on the racks after trying them on. Once the line moved on, I saw the pearly smile of a young woman who clearly used too many of those whitening strips as she spun around in a tacky rainbow dress.

I then found myself in Utopia, where children ran about, gazing in wonder at everything they ever wanted. There were dolls, action figures, monster trucks, board games, bouncy balls, drum sets, and all those other little things that kids love and parents eventually “accidentally” throw out during spring cleaning The centerpiece was a plastic cooking set with pots, pans, spatulas, and a sink, and a burner that simulated heat with LED lights under the stovetop. A large group of children, girls and boys, flocked around the cooking set and begged their parents with big puppy-dog eyes to buy it for them. Each parent agreed in sequence, and as the line moved on, I saw the cavity-filled teeth of children smiling up at their moms and dads. 

The Meadow followed, where I was met with the sickeningly sweet smells of drooping roses and daisies with missing petals. There was a pimply teenager in a white dress shirt, brown khakis, and haphazard tie ruffling through the selection of corsages, working his way through the displays in order of ascending price. The Florist came up behind him and pointed toward a rather pretty one with orchids. While it appeared to be a bit outside his budget, she managed to convince him to spend a little extra on his special girl, and as we walked away, I saw his smile which showed off his apparently freshly-brushed teeth.

I trekked through each of these departments over the course of five grueling hours. After the trials I overcame, the people I faced, the headache-inducing light I endured, I was surprised I had even made it this far. 

After reminiscing, I looked at the book again.

*****

Step 3: Keep everything that is absolutely necessary; cut out everything that is not absolutely necessary.

*****

I was nearing the front of the line, so I turned to the next page.

*****

Step 4: Ensure your characters have strong motivations.

*****

… I had motivation.

I was ambitious throughout my entire life. I went to undergrad, where I achieved a 4.0 GPA and got published in a somewhat prestigious journal, which guaranteed my admission to grad school where I wrote the most thorough thesis the department had ever seen, which allowed me to achieve my dream of becoming a college professor. Everything I needed to do, I did. I kept my head high every day, knowing that I had been “certified” as someone of greater intelligence. Someone who would not deign to step foot in a Walmart.

Yet in the end, I stood for five hours in the same place as all of these other people. These people who lived lives just as important as mine, yet were far more willing to spend a few dollars on a trinket that made them happy. My success, if it could be called that, didn’t make me spectacularly wealthy enough to simply keep the book in my library or give it away. Some part of me decided that it was worth my time and sanity to get the measly pennies for the gift I never wanted. I thought for a moment, and questioned if I was any less a cog in the system as anyone else. As I thought more, I questioned whether or not I was a well-defined person at all. Did I define myself in terms of everything that constituted me, or did I define myself in terms of everything that I was not? Why did I feel the need to put myself above everyone else to feel like I mattered? Was I truly motivated?

… Yes.

Yes.

Yes! I did!

I was there for the credit.

The $11.99.

Though I could only spend it at Walmart, the prospect of free money was one only a fool would turn down, and I was no fool. How happy can a life be without a little bit of mindless consumerism?

It would be magnificent! I would walk through the aisles like a king through his land, dignified and important. I could buy the extra-large bag of frozen pizza bagels, miniaturized and microwavable for my convenience, topped with tiny cubes of what could only be legally described as “pepperoni meat product.” Or I could buy the battery-powered pillow ring with three massage settings that offered the “most relaxing rear-end experience” and still have 99 cents left over to buy a melted Snickers bar from the shelf by the checkout. Or perhaps, I could buy the three-in-one ultimate utensil complete with a spork, knife, and cheese tongs. Better yet, I could buy the double-decker cat tower, though I would need to adopt a cat to really get my money’s worth on it. These things, and everything else, were all at my fingertips, begging to be taken home with me!

Yes!

I could have it all!

It would all be mine!

I wanted it!

Needed it!

If not to use, to have!

To know the glory of! 

Just like the last page of this god-forsaken book!

*****

Step 5: Introduce a plot twist.

*****

I approached the counter, as it was finally my turn.

“Hi, I’d like to return this item.”

“Do you have the original receipt?”

November 26, 2022 01:17

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107 comments

Carla Ward
04:37 Dec 03, 2022

Outstanding ending. Perfect, in fact.

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Jacob Brown
00:16 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! :)

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Chris Campbell
03:30 Dec 03, 2022

Congrats Jacob! This was a very cleverly-woven piece. where do I buy that book??? Well done!

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Jacob Brown
00:17 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you! Hopefully you can find the book in a less-crowded Walmart :)

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Chris Campbell
03:17 Dec 04, 2022

If I do, I'll probably have time to read it before reaching the checkout...

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Suma Jayachandar
03:14 Dec 03, 2022

This is a great integration of details, humour, wisdom and of course a killer twist. A well deserved win. Congratulations!

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Jacob Brown
00:17 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much!!

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02:29 Dec 03, 2022

Well done, Jacob! Literary flair and humor.

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Jacob Brown
00:18 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you very much!!

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Kendall Defoe
01:04 Dec 03, 2022

I was laughing so hard as I read this! I wrote a piece here called 'How to Run A Secret Society', and you made me recall the breakdown of a system that is often difficult to follow. No matter what else you do in your free time, keep writing. You deserved the win! And maybe tutor me in math? ;)

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Jacob Brown
00:18 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! And yes, I'm always happy to help math-wise :)

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Julie Squires
00:53 Dec 03, 2022

Very well written piece - funny and brilliant. Congrats. :)

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Jacob Brown
00:19 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much!!

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Midnight B.
23:58 Dec 02, 2022

This story made me laugh from the beginning to the end! However, the humor of the story wasn't the only thing that made it a winning story. You did awesome with being very descriptive about what was going all around the character. As someone who works at Walmart, you truly encapsulated what it's like to work there during the holiday season. It is truly as hectic as what the character went through to return that book. Congratulations!!

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Jacob Brown
00:19 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you very much! I've been in quite a few Black Friday Walmarts, not a pleasant experience, haha :)

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Julie Squires
23:11 Dec 02, 2022

So funny and well-written. I loved this piece. Congrats!

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Jacob Brown
00:19 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much!!

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Kelsey H
21:17 Dec 02, 2022

Great story, I first started thinking - well this is a massive run-on sentence ... oh I see! Loved the structure around the writing rules and the switching style of the narrative very well written and entertaining. Congrats on the win!

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Jacob Brown
00:20 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! I'm glad the "trick" worked out, haha :)

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Anii ✨
20:37 Dec 02, 2022

This is so wonderful! I was incredibly invested throughout, and your way of slowly revealing the steps was so clever! This story’s truly unique, and I think it deserves the win!

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Jacob Brown
00:21 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! :)

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Lindsay Flo
18:25 Dec 02, 2022

That was...just...GREAT! At first, I was sort of like, hmmm? But then I realized the long run on sentence was the beginning of something. So many funny inuendoes, my favorite being the men in the tool section grunting like boars and the children looking up at their parents with cavity filled teeth. The stroll through Walmart as imagined differently (the Forge...the Meadow...lol) was so creative and TRUE. I don't know if you meant it to have sort of a sad "this is what society has come to" undertone, but I felt that too. And it was the perfec...

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Jacob Brown
00:23 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! I tried to make it so the narrator felt high and mighty, like he was superior to everyone else who shopped at Walmart, only for him to realize that he just wasted all his time doing exactly what they were doing :)

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Story Time
17:35 Dec 02, 2022

This story is exactly my sense of humor. It was a total joy. Glad to see it recognized.

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Jacob Brown
00:22 Dec 04, 2022

Thank you so much! I'm glad it was in-line with your humor :)

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Aletta Demrovski
15:18 Dec 01, 2022

Wow! I really really like this story. Just my kind of humor. You did an amazing job!

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Jacob Brown
16:33 Dec 02, 2022

Thank you so much! I'm happy it was up your alley! :)

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Marty B
21:54 Nov 30, 2022

I jumped into those sentences, holding my breath, hoping beyond rational belief there would be an escape at the end, and came through finally, legs quivering, teeth chattering and arms cheering at the sesquipedalian prose, at the excessive grammatical risks, and at the sheer preposterous outrageousness of such a feat, only to ask, sheepishly, if you have not returned it yet, can I borrow your book?

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Jacob Brown
01:50 Dec 01, 2022

Only if I can't find that receipt!

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Laurel Hanson
19:53 Nov 30, 2022

Outstanding. Great commentary about our society, our consumerism, our choices. Framing it with the five steps worked so well since you paired the "mistake" to the commentary. IE: the long single sentence orgy of excess and chaos that is the single sentence and which feels like Wal-Mart, the boring bullets of dialog that make the perfect conversation with a stranger, etc. Character comes through really well here. A lot of fun to read. Nicely done.

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Jacob Brown
01:49 Dec 01, 2022

Thank you so much! I'm glad that you picked up on the conversation bit, I tried to make it as awkward as a real-life conversation with a stranger in Walmart would be :)

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Laurel Hanson
21:00 Dec 04, 2022

And congratulations on a well-deserved win!

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Joseph Friesen
17:28 Nov 30, 2022

Man, really loved this one. Clever, well-written, and truly made me laugh. Great stuff.

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Jacob Brown
01:47 Dec 01, 2022

I really appreciate your comment, thank you very much!

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Joseph Friesen
17:18 Dec 02, 2022

Just wanted to say I knew this story was hot before it won 😤

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Joseph Friesen
18:28 Dec 02, 2022

And you know... Congrats :p

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Olive Silirus
16:43 Apr 22, 2023

Loved the story. The ending was... *Chef's kiss*

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Andrew Estrem
22:45 Apr 12, 2023

Hey Jacob, I am a student at The University of Wisconsin and was fascinated by the layout of your story. The concept really stood out to me. Would you ever want to adapt this into a short film? If you’re at all interested please let me know!

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Marie Perederii
00:52 Mar 13, 2023

Very good dialogue and setting. I love the way you described the character.

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Nichole Aves
21:30 Mar 01, 2023

I have not even read this yet, and this already sounds enticing. That title is just 🤩

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