Tag: short stories (page 2 of 6)

First Friday Fiction Feature — Just Say Utah

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment.

A link to this story, and all prior stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

Just Say Utah

“Oh, it is so on!” Patty said, glaring at her brother and his two friends.board games

The boys stood in the dining room, arms crossed over their chests, smug smiles on their barely adult faces.

Patty grabbed Dana’s hand and said, “Chelsea, come on!” She yanked on Dana’s arm so hard, the shoulder joint jerked in the socket. The girls followed Patty as she stalked to the den and grabbed a game off the shelf.

“Oh, come on,” Dana moaned. “I hate Trivial Pursuit.”

“Yeah, P. That’s lame,” Chelsea said.

“Did you hear them? They think that because they go to Carnegie Mellon they’re so much smarter than we are.”

“Um, Patty. I go to Carnegie Mellon, too,” Chelsea said.

“Yeah, but they’re seniors and you’re just a freshman.” It was winter break, and they were all home from their respective schools until spring semester started. Joey had been tormenting his sister mercilessly about going to a state school, while he and his friends went to an elite private school. She was obviously desperate, again, to prove to him that she was just as smart as he was, if not smarter. It was an argument that occurred between the two of them at least once a week when they were together. She somehow always lost.

“Patty Ann, it just snowed. We can pelt them with snowballs and then go sledding. I bet your mom will make cocoa. Or mine will.” Dana hated Trivial Pursuit with a passion.

Patty took the box and headed for the dining room. “Girls against… the dumber sex. And may the best team win.”

She plunked the box on the table and grinned at the boys. “Or are you chicken?”

“Against the three of you?” Joey laughed while Troy and Mike snorted and elbowed each other. “We’ll take our chances. We’ll even give you a handicap. How many chips do you want us to spot you?”

“We don’t need a handicap, thank you very much.” Patty set up the game and grimaced at her brother and his friends.

“Come on,” Mike said. “State school versus private? What chance do you have?”

“I go to the same school you do!” Chelsea said.

“Really?” Mike asked. “How’d you ever get in?”

Chelsea lunged at him, and Patty pulled her back. The two of them had disliked each other since grade school. Mike had looked up the skirt of her uniform from under the bleachers at a school assembly and taken a photo, and then he got suspended for it. He blamed her for his suspension although she wasn’t the one who told on him. Patty saw the game getting ugly before it even started.

“Let’s keep it civil, okay?” she said, looking right at Mike. “Team meeting before we start.” She gathered the girls together.

“What’s the plan?” Dana asked.

“We each need to focus on our strengths,” Patty said. “Chelsea, you’re a writing major, so literature is you. And maybe entertainment.”

“We should all be good at entertainment,” she answered, “if the questions are new enough.”

“They aren’t. This is the first edition. My mom knows half the answers.”

Chelsea and Dana both groaned.

“Okay,” Patty continued, ignoring the girls. “I finally got into my core classes this term, so I had two sciences in addition to my teaching courses. I’ll take responsibility there.”

“Sounds fair,” Chelsea said. “I just finished two world history courses, so hopefully I’ll remember something. And if the questions are more about sports and less about leisure, we should be good between the two of us.”

“Agreed,” Patty answered. Both girls loved and followed many professional sports, so she felt confident between the two of them. Then she looked at Dana, who wasn’t even paying attention any longer. Dana was a Philosophy major. What did Philosophy majors even study, anyway? She turned back to Chelsea. “How are you at Geography?”

“I suck. You?”

“No better. I guess that’s Dana’s area, then.”

“Huh?” Dana said.

“Forget that,” Chelsea said. “She can’t find her way across the street without a map, and then she can’t read it. We’ll just have to hope for an easy chip question then.”

“Okay, I guess we’re ready,” Patty said.

“Let’s play,” Chelsea said.

Patty nudged Dana and they turned to the boys and the board. “Roll to see who’s first.”

The game consisted of more trash talk and less civility than a trivia game would have on a winter break in someone’s home. Occasionally someone ran to the kitchen for drinks or snacks, but mostly the six students stayed glued to the table, riveted by the board and the cards. After three hours, the girls were up by one chip and had landed on the Geography triangle.

“Blue for the chip!” Patty said.

“Crap,” Chelsea said so only Patty could hear. “It’s Geography.”

“We’ll be fine. Listen to the question.”

Joey read the card. “What’s the only state in America to end with the letter K?”

“End in K. What state ends in K?” Patty yelled.

“Stop yelling,” Dana said.

“Don’t tell me not to yell!” Patty yelled, waving her fists in the air. “It’s for a chip!”

“Okay, so we’ll guess the answer,” she said, and munched on a pretzel.

“Guess the answer! You haven’t guessed one answer right all day! And we’re winning! We could go ahead by two. By two! And this is geography. Geography!” Patty said.

“So guess Utah.”

Patty and Chelsea both stared at her. Joey’s eyes bulged, Mike covered his mouth and Troy turned some noise into a cough. Patty suspected it was laughter, but she was too flummoxed to address it at the moment.

“I’m sorry, what? Did you say Utah?”

“Yeah. Utah.”

Mike also began coughing.

Chelsea said, “You heard them say ‘K’ didn’t you? The state ends in K.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Patty looked at Chelsea, whose eyes were growing wider by the second. Chelsea shook her head to clear it, like she was clearing an Etch-a-Sketch screen.

Patty said, “Okay. Let’s start at the top and work our way down. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania—”

“I’m telling you, it’s Utah.”

“Are you kidding me?” Patty said.

A snort burst out of Joey.

“Just say Utah.”

“Let’s start over,” Chelsea said. “Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont.”

“New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,” Patty continued.

“Just say Utah. It’s Utah.”

“Oh my God! What is wrong with you?” Chelsea asked.

“It’s Utah.”

“It. Is. Not. UTAH!” Patty said.

All three of the guys laughed at Patty’s outburst, but there was nothing she could say. It was ridiculous. If she heard ‘Utah’ one more time, she might shove the blue pie piece up Dana’s nose.

“Maybe if we did it alphabetically?” Chelsea said.

“Alaska, Alabama,” Patty said.

“You’re already out of order, genius,” Joey said.

“Shut up, Joe. At least I have a real major. I don’t just blow into a horn all day long.”

“Being a music major at CMU is harder than being an education major where you go, so blow on that,” he said.

“Well, I go to CMU, and I have a real major, so you both can shut up,” Chelsea said. Turning to Patty, she said, “I can’t do it alphabetically. There’s Alaska, Arkansas… too many Ks. Let’s start at the top again.”

“There’s Maine, New Hampshire,” Patty said.

“Vermont, New York, Massachusetts,” Chelsea said.

“Utah,” Dana’s soft voice chimed in.

Chelsea threw her head down on the table.

“I’m going to kill you,” Patty said.

“What?” Dana asked. Patty wasn’t sure if the innocence in her voice was true or if she was mocking her.

“Why in God’s name do you think it’s Utah?” Chelsea asked. “There isn’t a single K in the entire word.”

“It’s only four letters long,” Dana said.

Patty glared at her. “The question isn’t ‘What’s the only state with four letters?’ And by the way, Utah isn’t the only state with four letters, there’s also Ohio, so what is your obsession with Utah?”

“H is close to K. So I figured it’s probably a trick question, and the answer is Utah.”

“You think it’s a trick question?” Chelsea asked.

“There are trick questions sometimes.”

“And if this is a trick question, the answer isn’t going to be that there aren’t any states that end in K,” Patty said. “The answer will be Utah, because H is near K in the alphabet.”

“Well, when you say it like that it just sounds stupid.”

“You think?” Patty said.

“Now you’re just being mean,” Dana said.

“Shut up.”

The guys were laughing so hard that they had red faces and tears in their eyes. Patty ignored them. She and Chelsea went through all fifty states, including Utah, at least three times, but neither of them could figure out which one ended in K. It didn’t help that Dana was sitting there muttering “Just say Utah” under her breath as they recited state names.

After about twenty minutes passed, Joey said, “I realize there’s no time limit, but at some point you really need to take a guess.”

Patty refused to include Dana in the decision, but she looked at Chelsea, who shrugged. “I haven’t got a single idea. We’ve been through them all. We’ve been through the territories. I don’t know.”

Dana didn’t say any words, but she hummed four syllables that sounded like, “Just say Utah” in Patty’s head. Patty refused to acknowledge her. “Chels, what do you want to guess?”

“Your game, your call.”

Patty banged her head down on the table so her hair covered her face. She mumbled something unintelligible.

“Sorry, sis, we didn’t catch that,” Joey said.

“Utah!”

The guy hooted and hollered for a full five minutes before they informed the girls the answer was New York.

Patty was livid. Had Dana been quiet, they would have gotten it right. They had mentioned New York at least six times, but never heard it because of her ‘Just Say Utah’ mantra.

The girls never got another chip. The guys beat them within the hour.

Then the girls lured them outside and creamed them in a snowball battle. Patty might have hit Dana with one or two when she wasn’t looking.

First Friday Fiction Feature — Real Estate Realities

It’s the first Friday of the month. Time for another fiction installment.

A link to this story, and all prior stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

Real Estate Realities

real estate realities“It says ‘A cozy one bedroom vintage bungalow. Mature landscaping. Rustic charm.’ This has to be it. Carol should be here soon, and we’ll check out the inside.”

He had stopped the car in front of a ramshackle old diner. White paint peeled off the clapboard siding. Faded black stripes with white letters advertised:

CALIFORNIA LUNCH ROOM

SNACKS

CANDY

TOBACCO

GLOVES

CAPS

It was a generic laundry list of days gone by, when pathetic patrons could stop in for a number of items ranging from greasy food to cancer sticks to outerwear. She couldn’t dream who would frequent such a place, but she had no trouble imagining why it closed. The overgrown pine in the corner only helped hide its embarrassment to the world. The dead potted plant at the doorway cemented her resolve.

“I’m not going in there, Justin.”

“How else are we going to know if we like it?”

“I already know. I hate it.”

“Come on, Sara. Look at the hidden potential. The front is almost entirely all windows. Think of the natural light.”

“So we can see the filth?”

He ignored her. “And it was a restaurant, so it should have a large kitchen.”

“And an inch thick layer of grease.”

“Here’s Carol. Let’s go check it out.”

Their real estate agent offered Justin a handful of papers. “I have the comps. Now that you aren’t looking at the coastal area of San Diego, I think you’ll find the properties more affordable.” She led them inside.

“This area was the patron space of the café. It can easily be converted to your main living space by removing the booths and tables. I’d replace the windows and doors, of course, and wall this area off to make the master bedroom.” She gestured to a recessed area of the interior.

“You mean there isn’t a separate bedroom?” Sara asked.

“None of the reno is done yet. That’s why this place is a steal.” Turning toward the bar, Carol continued. “This would have to go, but you could put your own eating bar in, and open this area up to your kitchen. It, like the bathroom, is fully functional, but would need to be redone.”

“Let’s check them out,” Justin said.

They walked through the kitchen and bathroom and walked back out again, trying not to touch anything.

“What about a bathtub?” Sara asked.

“When you redo the bathroom, the plumber can install one for you.”

“This is so not what I want,” Sara said.

Justin pulled her aside. “This is really all we can afford. We can renovate, install hardwood, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances. We’ll make it work.”

Carol approached. “I can show you something in the barrio, perhaps?”

Justin looked at Sara and raised his eyebrows.

Sara said, “I guess we’ll take this one.” She looked out the door through rusted security bars at the dead potted plant and wondered how long it would be before she too withered and faded.

First Friday Fiction Feature (on Thursday) — Raising Mason

Hi Folks!

I spent the morning rearranging the toolbar on my site (took far longer than it should have 🙁 is it me, or is it WordPress?) to make navigation easier, the toolbar cleaner, and to make room for a new feature here: fiction.

Now, on occasion, I’ll be posting short stories for you to read at your leisure. Some will be flash fiction, some will be longer pieces, but none of the pieces I post will be published anywhere but here.

A link to this story, and all future stories, can always be found under the “My Work—Freebies” tab.

I hope you enjoy this feature, and visit often.

~S

Raising Mason

rain stormCara glared at her son. He hadn’t packed a single bag, hadn’t unloaded one item from the car, hadn’t gathered a twig. He had done nothing since they arrived except laugh while she was engulfed by the pop-up tent they were to share. Once she had it sturdily anchored, he lay on a sleeping bag—the good one she had brought—and put his headphones in while she gathered wood for the fire and struggled to get the flames started. She almost allowed a feeling of accomplishment to creep in, almost, when that first drop fell. The hiss of the raindrops on the hot rocks was as welcome as the rain would be on the fire it took her twenty minutes to build. Cara glowered at the ominous thunderclouds roiling over each other in their haste to cover her anemic campsite. She poked at the kindling with a long branch. It reminded her of the saying, Don’t poke the bear. It felt like she was poking at disaster. Another drop fell and she heard the sizzle amid the crackle of the flames.

“Take your headphones off, please.”

Mason still had the headphones on, so she reached over and pulled one out.

“I asked you to take the headphones out.”

“You didn’t ask, you told. And they aren’t headphones.”

She sighed and gripped the branch tighter. “Fine. What are they?”

“They’re Beats.”

Ah yes. Dr. Dre’s Tour ControlTalk Beats. She scrimped and saved to buy the damn things, she should have known what they were called. “My apologies. Would you please take the Beats out?”

“Why should I? You’re listening to your shit.”

“Mason, don’t use that language.”

“You do.”

The “shit” currently playing was a CD of metal hair bands from the 80s. She had brought an old boom box and a selection of CDs to play while they roasted hotdogs and made mountain pies and S’mores. Her music collection hadn’t been updated since he’d been born… so what? Music was better when she was young, anyway.

Cara sighed and turned off “Still Loving You” by the Scorpions. Nature made its own music. She was there to bond with her son. She could listen to hair bands on her own time.

“Now I’m not listening to my music and you don’t have to listen to yours. We can just talk.”

He wrapped his Beats around his iPod and shoved them in his front pocket. He lay with his arms behind his head while Cara poked at the fire. The crackling continued to be interrupted by the occasional hiss of raindrop spatter.

“I thought you wanted to talk,” Mason said.

“I’d love to.”

“So say something.”

But she was at a loss. She no longer knew her own son. Gone was the little boy who used to give her sweaty hugs and sticky kisses, the boy who she’d read stories to or played catch with in the yard. Cara used to know just what things would make his face light up, and one of those things used to be her. Now she didn’t know what any of those things were. She only knew that she wasn’t one of them.

“I know you come here a lot with your dad. I thought maybe you’d enjoy camping with me, too.”

“I enjoy camping with Dad because we fish, or hunt, or hike. We don’t just sit and listen to some crappy music on an old relic.”

Cara was silent for a while before she answered. “I just thought we could use a little alone time.”

“I have alone time with you constantly. I live with you.”

“You just always seem so excited about your camping trips. I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.”

“It’s Dad. Dad makes them fun.”

Does Dad? Dad’s so fun. Dad’s so special. Where was Dad when you had a fever of one hundred four degrees? Where was Dad when you had to be at school at five in the morning for a field trip? Where’s Dad for all the dinners and the laundry and the homework help and the rides you need everywhere?

The branch she was poking the fire with splintered in her hand. Cara started picking slivers of bark out of her palm.

“Mom, it’s raining harder now.”

Cara had been so preoccupied with her mental tirade against her ex-husband that she didn’t notice the increase in the rainfall. “Let’s get in the tent.”

“Let’s get in the car.

She merely stood and stared while he doused the fire by kicking dirt over the twigs and stones. It had been such a pathetic fire that it died out without much fight.

As though the gods themselves were against her, the clouds chose that moment to empty in a tirade. “Damn it, Mom. Aren’t you going to do anything? We’ll be soaked in a minute.” He had the tent folded up before she willed herself to move.

Cara did about as much packing as Mason did unpacking. She grabbed her boom box and CD collection while he grabbed the rest, and they threw everything in the car. As Mason predicted, they were pretty well drenched by the time the car was loaded and the campsite was clear. “Thanks for the help,” he said.

“I helped.”

“You didn’t do anything!”

“I got my music. The rain would have ruined it.”

“It could only be an improvement,” he muttered. Before she could defend it, he continued, “Didn’t you want to leave?”

“I thought the tent would be enough protection from the storm.”

“It wasn’t even put up the right way. The first strong gust of wind would have taken it down, and drenched us with it.”

“If you knew it was assembled wrong, why didn’t you help me put it up?”

“I just wanted to see what you did when it fell, I guess.”

Cara sighed. “Mason, if you had just helped to begin with, we would be dry right now.”

“Whatever.”

“You wasted time putting out the fire when the rain would have done that.” She could hear the bitchiness in her voice, but couldn’t stop it.

“You can never be too sure about forest fires.”

“Whatever, Mason.”

“Let’s just go.”

There was no point in being angry on top of the frustration she already felt. She tried to swallow it all and dug her keys out of her pocket. Putting them in the ignition, she turned and… nothing. She tried again. Nothing.

“It’s your battery.”

“How can you tell?”

“Because when I was loading the car the interior lights never came on. I wondered why the car was dark, but I was rushing too much to give it a second thought. And while you were turning the key, the car didn’t sputter or try to turn over. It’s the battery.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“Dad.”

Of course. St. Michael taught him about cars even though he didn’t have his license yet. Wonder what else Super Dad taught him before he was ready?

“You better call AAA.”

“I don’t have AAA.”

“Dad says all drivers should have AAA.”

“I really don’t give a flying… fig what your father says about AAA. I had a membership, but I let it lapse.”

“What did you do something stupid like that for?”

Because a certain sixteen year old who only wears brand name clothes needed braces and joined Ski Club and insisted on getting his own pads for football because the school-supplied ones were sub-par. Wonder who that could have been?

“You make choices in life, Mason. That was a choice I made.”

He took his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m calling Dad.”

“Oh no you’re not.”

“Well, I’m not sitting here in this storm.”

“I’ve got jumper cables in my trunk.”

“That’s great. Do you have a battery to connect them to?”

Damn it. She stayed quiet, unwilling to answer him.

“Do you have anyone else to call?”

The rain splashed on the windshield, each drop a splotching disapproval of her predicament. “Do you?” she whispered, ashamed to ask but even more fearful of his not bailing her out.

He shook his head and dialed. “Dad, I need your help.”

The wait was interminable. Part of her wanted Michael never to show up, part of her wanted him to just get there and get it over with. All of her wanted the ground to open and swallow her whole. She hated that she was in this predicament. Why did it have to rain? Why did her battery have to die? Why did it have to be Michael to the rescue?

She and Mason had said nothing since he called his father. She watched dusk fall in silence. A solitary swath of purple streaked across the horizon, the reds and oranges oppressed from view by the indigo storm clouds billowing across the heavens. True blackness of storm and night descended without a single word passing between her and her son. The only sounds to break the monotony were the rumbling of thunder and the pounding of rain on the car. Occasionally a flash of lightning illuminated their surroundings, and Cara could see the stubborn set of Mason’s jaw in his profile. He was staring out the windshield and hadn’t moved.

About an hour into the storm, Cara made out two points of light in the distance. The moment she dreaded had arrived. Michael was approaching.

“Finally,” Mason muttered.

“You know he does things on his own schedule,” she said.

“Give it a rest, Mom. He didn’t have to come at all.”

No, he didn’t. But then he couldn’t win Parent of the Year if he left his son in the woods during a storm.

When Michael got to them, they both got out of the car, but Mason was faster. He clambered into the backseat, leaving Cara to take the front. She dreaded being so close to Michael again, but she dreaded delaying him with her dawdling even more. She squared her shoulders and opened the passenger door.

“Could you take any longer, Cara? You’re going to get my seats all wet.”

She swallowed a sigh and shut the door with just a little more force than was necessary. “I’m sorry, Michael. Thanks for coming to get us.”

He pulled out before she was even strapped in. “Well, I couldn’t just leave Mason out here.”

Not both of us. Mason. “No, I suppose not.”

“Why did you cancel AAA?”

Here we go. “There were many factors to consider. It was the right decision for me.”

“Well, not for me, obviously.”

Obviously.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t be out in the middle of a storm hauling you all over God’s green earth. You better get that renewed.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“Did you even check the weather? What were you doing out there tonight?”

“I did check. It said slight chance of rain. And it was my night off.”

“My report didn’t say slight chance. It said ninety percent. You should listen to Channel Two. Or get the app I use for my phone. I’ll check which one it is and send you the link. It’s not too expensive.”

Cara didn’t have an iPhone, so she didn’t really care what app he had. She had no use for it, and if she did have an iPhone she couldn’t afford to buy an app anyway. She willed herself to keep her mouth shut and just stared out the window. She still had bark in her hand and she picked at it blindly to pass the time.

They sat in silence for a while, Cara peering into the darkness. The road home wove through dense forestland and over a river. The moon and stars were blanketed by strata of storm clouds, leaving only Michael’s two halogen headlamps and the occasional flash of lightning to illuminate the way. Occasionally he tried the high beams, and when he did all Cara saw were spears of rain pelting the car. She preferred it when he used the low beams and just raised the speed of the wipers. She looked up. Tree branches interlaced above her, forming a giant leafy blanket. As the wind blew, the boughs moved as one undulating mass, shaking leaves and buds onto the windshield. The wipers cleared the mess away. The sights unnerved her, so she focused on the sounds: the grind of the tires on the road, the pounding of the rain on the car, the thrum thrum of the wipers on the glass. The sounds outside the car were almost soothing. The silence in the car was nerve-wracking. But it was worse when Michael spoke. And of course he spoke again.

“Who goes on a trip with a bad battery, anyway? Either you haven’t been maintaining your car properly, or you didn’t check the car before the trip.”

“It was my fault, Dad.”

“Your fault?” Cara and Michael said together.

“I was excited when we got there and I left the hatch open after we unloaded the car. The interior lights being on that long probably ran the battery down. Mom didn’t neglect the car’s maintenance. I was just careless.”

“Oh. Well. You should know better. I’ve taught you about cars and responsibility. You’ll have to wait a month before I take you to get your learner’s permit.”

“Michael, that’s not—”

“Don’t argue with me about this, Cara. He needs to be accountable for his actions.”

“It’s fine, Mom. I’m okay with it. Really.”

Cara turned to look at Mason. He nodded his head toward his dad then shook his head. She fought back tears, not wanting to betray her son’s lie. Then she turned and watched the rain again. She tried to ignore Michael and focus on what soothed her until she got home: the grind of the tires, the pounding of the rain, the thrum thrum of the wipers.

Finally they stopped in front of Cara’s townhouse.

“Thanks for the ride, Dad.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He just ran to the door.

Cara saw Michael roll his eyes and shake his head almost imperceptibly.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just expected him to wait for me to say goodbye. I would think you’d be teaching him better manners than that.”

She bit the inside of her cheek before answering. “Thanks for the lift, Michael.”

“The storm’s supposed to let up tomorrow afternoon. Will you need a ride back then?”

“We’ll let you know.” There was no way in hell she was calling him again.

“I’d like some notice. I can’t sit around all day waiting for your call.”

“I’ll let you know. With advance notice.”

Michael was gone before she reached the porch. She leaned in to kiss Mason’s cheek, and he let her. That was her sweet little boy. “Do you want some hot chocolate?”

“Sounds great. I’ll make a fire.”

She smiled at him and was heartened when he returned it. Cara unlocked the door, and he headed toward the fireplace. She’d make them a snack while Mason built a fire, and they’d spend the night talking and listening to the rain.

Inspiration for 2013’s Goals and Targets

comedy tragedy masksHappy New Year!

For those of you who thought the world was going to end in December (an end that the Mayan’s never in fact predicted), welcome back to the party. And it is a party, by the way. I have the highest hopes for 2013 being a fabulous year.

It’s time for resolutions. It’s a time I usually dread. I think back over the resolutions I’ve made (and never kept) in the past and wonder why I should bother. But this year I have a better outlook. One reason is that I know even attempting to improve myself in any way is better than the status quo. Another reason is that everyone needs a clean slate once in a while. This is a great time for a fresh start. Finally, I usually look at the resolutions as something bad that I have to try to change. This year I’m looking at them as something good that I want to try to attain. Perhaps a different outlook will make all the difference in achieving my goals. Even though I’m just starting today (my vacation is just ending because my kids are just going back to school today), I already feel better than I have in prior years. It all has to do with outlook.

Many writing sites say to set both goals (something within your control) and targets (something outside of your control, but likely affected by your goals), and to be specific. They say if you set them publically, you’re more likely to be held accountable. I agree with the goals and targets, and I agree that a public declaration does give you motivation, but I believe that your resolutions are personal. Do what you want with them. If you want to share them for motivation, by all means, take a megaphone to the mall. If posting them above your laptop keeps them on your mind, then post them there. Write them in glitter paint and hang them across from your toilet dining table so you see them several times a day. Tell your mother-in-law so you can be harassed about them until you complete them. (Hey, whatever works for you.) But the important thing is to be specific. Use concrete numbers, not generalities, and set realistic deadlines.

In order for me to set my 2013 goals and targets, I thought back over 2012. And I realized, I had an emotional year. I laughed a lot, and I cried a lot. I cried when my niece left for boot camp, I cried when my son “graduated” middle school and cried again when his football team went undefeated this year. I cried when there were births and deaths, I cried at natural disasters and violent tragedies. I cried at Mass when I heard hymns that reminded me of my grandfather and I cried when I heard songs on the radio that reminded me how precious and short life is. I cried during movies, TV shows and reading. And, despite my kids’ utter humiliation, I even cried during certain commercials on television. I’m a softie.

But I also laughed a lot. I laughed when my husband and kids told jokes. I laughed when my dogs jumped up and licked my face. I laughed when family visited from out of state. It filled me with joy just seeing them walk in the door. I laughed (and maybe cried a little) when my daughter won her first tennis match. I laughed when I learned for the first time I was getting a story published. I laughed with my friends at writing group and at writing conferences. I laughed at myself when I did and said stupid things (more times than I care to count). I laughed when my computer posted an, “It’s dead, Jim,” message on my screen (otherwise I would have cried). I laughed when my daughter and I foolishly thought we could do the P90X system. That lasted four days. (And then I almost cried when I could barely walk.) I laughed when the Steelers hired Todd Haley as the OC. (Look where that got us.) I laughed at Christmas when my kids opened their gifts—their faces were priceless.

Yes, it was an emotional year. I wish I could erase the horrors, but we learn and grow from them, and they make us appreciate our joys and successes all the more. As I evaluate 2012, I know what I want from 2013. I hope you take the time to do an honest assessment of your last year and create a goal and target list for 2013. If you want, post it here. I’m not your mother-in-law, but I’d be happy to keep after you about your progress!

The Year in Review

NativityIt’s Christmas Eve. I haven’t been writing as much as I usually do. I guess I’ve been taking a “holiday” vacation leading into the Christmas season. It’s been a busy year for me, so I don’t feel too guilty (who am I trying to convince, anyway, you or me?), but I promise, after the New Year things will go back to normal.

So, the year in review for my girls and me. My sister Michele has a degree in Accounting. When she got a job at a newspaper, no one was more surprised than I was, but it was in the accounting department, so it seemed to fit. Then they asked her to write book reviews. I had seen her write. I wasn’t optimistic. So I helped edit every last one of them until she left the newspaper. And became… what you ask? A technical writer! Who would have guessed my sister was interested in writing and would not only develop an interest for it, but a knack for it, too. This year, she published her first two pieces: a memoire essay, “Letter to Krista,” which was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Pastiche and a poem, “Shadow People,” which was published in the Fall 2012, 6th issue of Canyon Voices Literary Magazine. Congratulations Michele!

My friend Rhonda is one of the most creative people I know. She has ideas that amaze me time and again. But she constantly insists that writing is difficult for her because she doesn’t have the education that I do (which I tell her is ridiculous… technique can be learned, creativity can’t). She’s been working really hard. We’ve attended local seminars, taken local classes and even gone to our first conference. With a lot of encouragement and even more hard work, Rhonda got two things published this year. She got a four-line western published in Cactus Country III and a short story called “The Devil’s Growl” published in Bigfoot Confidential: Finally the Truth Revealed. Way to go, Rhonda!

One of the local classes I just spoke about leads me to Joy. Rhonda and I met Joy in a short story seminar and we formed a writing group of our own afterward. We’ve become good friends through that experience. Joy is truly a joy… she brings laughter to our group, which is kind of funny, because she mostly writes horror stories. Joy is also an incredibly hard-worker. We meet around her work schedule (she seems to always be at work, and when she isn’t there, they seem to be calling her to go in), plus she freelances for a magazine, and she still finds time to write… and she has time for family and friends. She is, in short, a joy. And she is, now, a published author. She also got a four-line western published in Cactus Country III and got a short story called “Legend of Dark Mountain” published in Bigfoot Confidential: Finally the Truth Revealed. Nice job, Joy!

As for me, my progress and published works are always available for review by clicking on the tabs above, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here. My short story, “No Peace in the Quiet,” won second place in the Storytellers Magazine division at the OCW Conference. I had a story published in Female First, a UK online magazine, called “Bridging the Five Year Gap.” My short story, “The Den,” was published in Bigfoot Confidential: Finally the Truth Revealed. I also had a four-line western published in Cactus Country III. My short stories “Dudley” and “Code Blue” can be found in the HSFAC anthology. I won first place in an online teen fantasy fiction contest for my short story, “Rite of Passage.” And I’m now an Associate Editor for Frontier Tales, the Western Division of Pen-L Publishing. (Can you picture my fingers cramping? It’s been crazy!)

So, we’ve had a productive year, and we’re all working on projects that promise to make 2013 even better than 2012. Congratulations to my fellow writers mentioned above, and to those of you out there who also reached new heights in your writing careers this year. Let us know in the comments how you did, and what you are hoping for in 2013.

I’m done blogging until the new year. I’ll be celebrating Christmas with my family. The picture here is the nativity scene my brother and sister gave me and my husband as a gift the year before we got married. My brother built the manger and storage case; my sister was responsible for all the figurines. Not only is it one of my most treasured possessions; it’s what the season is really all about. I wish you all a blessed holiday, and I’ll see you all in 2013.

—  Staci

How Dr. Seuss Can Improve Your Writing

Dr. SeussWhen I was a kid, I loved Dr. Seuss. I liked everything he wrote, but my favorite was Fox in Socks. I’ve always been a sucker for tongue twisters, and that fox really had a few zingers. There are still a couple I stumble over.

When I became a parent, I read his collection to my kids. Their favorite was The Lorax. I read it so often, I think I can still quote most, if not all, of it by heart. It has a poignant message, and it was delivered in such a Seussical way, I really don’t mind.

Now my kids think they’re beyond Dr. Seuss, although we still watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas every winter. So you would think my Seuss days are over. But you’d be wrong. Theodor Geisel wrote about writing, and one of my favorite and inspirational quotes is by him:

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

Yes, it’s another childhood rhyme, but that just makes it easier to remember. And it’s a phrase we writers should take to heart.

How often have you been immersed in a novel only to wonder why the author has spent sentences, paragraphs, even pages describing something when a few words would have sufficed, or even worse, when the information could have been omitted altogether? Poetic phrases have their place, but that place isn’t in a novel. Save the purple prose for the poetry books. Fiction has come a long way since the classics were written. Every word must now have a practical purpose or it must not be allowed to stay in the novel.

Frankly, I’m not sure the effusive description served even the classics well. I swear I read a four-page description of a ladder in Moby Dick before Ishmael ever set foot on the ship. Perhaps Melville could have benefitted from listening to Dr. Seuss. I’m not saying I’m in Melville’s league, but I know I’ve learned a thing or two from Dr. Seuss. I didn’t learn anything from Melville.

If you aren’t into Seuss-style whimsical poetry, take some advice from William Faulkner. “Kill your darlings.”

Five Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Scene Descriptions

Hilton HeadWhen you write, you’ve got main characters, secondary characters, minor characters and villains. Many people contend that the setting can become a character in its own right, and in certain situations, a well-written setting can take on a life of its own. But there are mistakes to avoid with settings so they aren’t handled poorly.

Here are five pitfalls in scene-setting to be aware of.

1. Not Writing Enough
Have you ever read a scene so dialogue-heavy that you felt ungrounded? You were missing the basic foundation tools provided by “setting the scene.” Without just a few well-placed details to tell you where the characters are, you will uncomfortably float in the scene.

2. Being Lost in Exposition
Conversely, too much scene-setting can break down the flow of the writing. It’s a real slam of the brakes as your eyes scan the page if suddenly you’re mired down in a lengthy description of where the characters are. More isn’t always better.

3. Making Lists
One of the ways people try to condense their description is to just hit the highlights of the scenery. That often results in a laundry list of details describing the setting of the story. That’s a sure fire way to slow down readers. No one wants to read sentence after sentence of room or landscape detail, particularly if it really isn’t value-added information.

4. Writing Purple Prose
Sometimes the description is added simply as filler because the writer wasn’t sure what to do next or he or she wanted to slow the pace a bit. Often this is where the writer flexes the old poetry muscle, and purple prose is born. Scene descriptions are created in language so beautiful that The Bard himself would be envious. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. In this case, they aren’t really darling. Just because the language is exquisite doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.

5. Regionalizing
I was at a conference recently when an agent discussed scene-specifics. She said that stories set in Anytown USA are more marketable than stories written about miners in Western PA because a coal mine in Western PA poses a limited market. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story somewhere real—plenty of wonderful stories take place in actual places—but try not to limit your market so severely that you make your story’s audience a small, segmented market.

So, we don’t write too little, we don’t write too much. We avoid writing lists and we cut the poetic phrases that were inserted as filler. Finally, we make certain we don’t pigeon-hole ourselves into a region that is too specific to be marketable. What’s left?

The perfect sprinkling of well-placed, well-chosen details. You don’t need to describe the whole forest; throughout the scene mention the darkness of the shadows, the thick carpet of fallen needles and the pungent scent of pine. Those details throughout one scene aren’t too many, but you know you’re in a forest without saying, “They’re in a dense forest. There are trees as far as the eye can see. Needles and cones line the path, and the scent of pine permeates the air.” Further, if you mention the details in lieu of dialogue tags, you’ve killed two birds with one stone. But I’ll leave that discussion for another post…

How to Build a Better Story

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare wrote that in As You like It. If that’s truly the case, then stories themselves are houses. Let me explain.

A-Frame HouseConsider the framework for a simple A-frame house. It’s got four walls and a pitched roof. The structure of the story, any story, is like the framework of that A-frame house. It doesn’t change, no matter what. It is the support, regardless of the dressing. We’ll go into more detail about structure in a later post, but for now, we’ll just hit the highlights. This framework, in all fiction, will have five parts.

The left side wall is the Exposition, or Introduction. This is the part of the story where characters are introduced and relevant background information is revealed. The inciting incident occurs in this section.

The left pitch of the roof is the Rising Action. This is the part of the story where conflict is revealed the story progresses. A series of challenges and setbacks occur in this section to add interest.

The pitch of the roof is the Climax. This is the turning point of the novel, where suspense has built and the reader is caught up in the action, or surprised by the turn of events. This is the part with the most on the line for the protagonist—the most is on the line here.

The right pitch of the roof is the Falling Action. These events are usually the after effects of the decisions made during the climax, and therefore occur immediately after the climax.

The right side wall is the Denouement or Resolution. This is the ultimate conclusion and resolves any unaddressed conflicts that progressed throughout the story. There should be a release of any tensions at this point, and all mysteries should be solved.

Most fiction today is written in a three act structure. You can think of it as the three floors of the home (ground floor, second floor, and attic).

The Ground Floor is the beginning, or the setup. It tells who the characters are and what happens to them, right up to the inciting incident, or the thing that happens that sets the story in motion.

The Second Floor is the middle of the story. It’s where most of the book takes place. It’s where all the challenges and obstacles occur that keep the protagonist away from the goal.

The Third Floor is the end of the story. It’s when the protagonist finally reaches the goal and everything gets wrapped up.

These floors correlate to the side walls and roof, don’t they? You bet. Shouldn’t the framework of a house work together? You bet.

Now, it really doesn’t matter how you dress this thing up. It can be a western with weathered wood siding. A southern Civil War historical with columns and a wrap-around porch. A legal thriller Bostonian brick brownstone with a stately pediment above the door. None of that matters. What matters is that you build three sturdy floors, with solid walls, and a perfectly pitched roof. The dressing is all up to you. Variety is the spice of life, or, in this case, my bookshelf.

Posted for WordPress DPchallenge Easy as Pie

photo credit: Patrick Dinnen licensed under Creative Commons.

The ABCs of Murder Weapons in Fiction

Pole weapons Szczyrzyc MonasteryIf you read or write mysteries, you know the importance of a good weapon for the villain to use to plot the demise of the victims. The problem is that sometimes, we writers sit at the computer and think, “How in the world can I kill these people off in a way that hasn’t been done to death?” (No pun intended there.)

So I’ve compiled a list of potential weapons, from the typical to the way out there, for inspiration when writer’s block slows down the deaths in your next murder mystery. Use them if you dare.

  1. Arnis sticks – Any martial arts sticks, really, would do. Escrima, kali, even a bo staff. No, most people don’t walk around with martial arts equipment in their hands, but if your bad guy is in a gym, owns a gym, studies the art, (is a ninja!), this option can work for you. Both of my kids are taekwondo black belts (second and first degrees) and they work with swords, sticks and staffs. Stars and nunchucks will follow. Your guy has options.
  2. Baton – Before you think majorettes and short skirts (although that could work too), picture the dim lighting of a symphony performance or the darkness of an orchestra pit… A conductor’s baton of course. It’s rigid and pointy and can be jammed into any opening or soft spot on the head or neck to cause brain trauma or fatal bleeding. Hopefully its use isn’t an indication of the quality of the music.
  3. Cord – This could be as simple as twine or as new-fangled as tech cords (phones, televisions, etc.), but wrapped around a victim’s neck, any cord can be fatal.
  4. Drowning – Unless your characters are land-locked without access to running water, drowning is an option for any villain. Oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, bathtubs, pools, hot tubs… A rain barrel or bucket would do in a pinch.
  5. Explosion – Yes, explosions might require a bit of technical savvy. But if your villain has Internet access, your villain can make a bomb. Molotov cocktails, fertilizer bombs, pipe bombs… C-4, digital timers. What’s your villain’s background and access?
  6. Fire – Cavemen had it, why can’t your bad guy? Pin somebody in somewhere and set the place ablaze; he’s going to die of smoke inhalation or the fire. Or just turn him into a human torch. Your bad guy would have to be really sadistic to do it, but maybe he’s into cannibalistic barbecue.
  7. Gun – Does this really need to be discussed in detail? There are numerous sites discussing all types of guns, from tiny palm-sized pistols to giant military-grade truck-mounted beasts. Figure out your need and look them up. And don’t forget the pistol-whipping option… The bad guy can always beat someone to death with his weapon.
  8. Hockey stick – Any sports gear with the potential for violence would do. Hockey: the stick, the blades of the ice skates, the Zamboni machine. Baseball: the bat, the ball pitching machine. Field events: javelin, shot put balls. You get the idea.
  9. Icicle – No evidence left behind with this one. The perfect weapon. Stab and melt.
  10. Jaguar – Well, any animal can be used to kill on behalf of the villain. The problem? Training the animals to obey. And, of course, where to keep the animals. This could work on some kind of reservation or a zoo. Or using a snake to bite someone or strangle someone (snakes you can easily keep at home). Work out the logistics of the animals, and you have a winner.
  11. Knife – Knives, swords, daggers… any kind of blade. Knives can be easily hidden on a person, made of materials other than metal (so they can be smuggled past metal detectors), and can even be weapons of passion. An innocent dinner could turn deadly over the main course. Just make sure the diners are eating steak, not pasta, so there are knives on the table.
  12. Lasso – Cowboys aren’t always the hero. That lasso can easily become a noose. Don’t pretend you haven’t considered it when looking at those horrid rodeo clowns.
  13. Mine – Don’t forget about mines. Booby traps are a great way to get rid of secondary characters. They go snooping where they shouldn’t be and they meet an untimely end.
  14. Nail file – Villains shouldn’t always be the bad guy. Or maybe girls shouldn’t always be the ones getting the manicures. A sharp nail file to an artery can make an effective weapon — for a boy or a girl.
  15. Obsidian – That’s one of my new favorite minerals. It’s gorgeous. But that’s not the only one to consider. Think of all the stones that artwork can be carved out of… obsidian, marble, limestone, alabaster. If your villain is around statuary, he has a weapon.
  16. Pool cue – A billiard room is rife with weaponry. The pool cue, the balls. Even the racks and the table can be used… imagine using the triangle to strangle a victim or smashing a head off the slate of the table. Yank down the pendant light and wield it like a club, or use the exposed wires to electrocute someone.
  17. Quiver – Sure, arrows are weapons. Everyone knows that. But the quiver? Pah-ha, you say. Get creative. The arrows are gone, the bow is broken. How to improvise? Strangle the victim with the strap of the quiver.
  18. Ricin – Ricin is one of many poisons that grows in the wild. Learn or look up deadly poisons. A crafty villain can learn about wild poisons and figure out how to use them.
  19. Scarf – Scarves, neckties, belts, hosiery… any lengthy clothing or clothing accessories can be used to strangle someone in a pinch.
  20. Telephone – Land lines have cords. House phone or cell phone can be treated with poison that’s transmitted through touch. Sound can be transmitted through the phone to burst an ear drum, rendering a person helpless (or at least quite miserable and disoriented) until the killer can arrive to finish the job.
  21. Umbrella – Ah, pointy objects. An umbrella is so innocuous that anyone can carry it, but with a filed point, it’s an effective weapon. Also, it can conceal other weapons. Quite an effective little gadget.
  22. Vehicles – It’s inelegant, but running someone over gets the job done.
  23. Window – Push someone out a window. Drop a window down on someone’s head, guillotine-style. Put a head through a window and use the broken glass as a blade to sever arteries. You have a window of opportunity there… use it. (Even I groaned at that one.)
  24. Xiphos – Bet you didn’t think I had one for X. Bet you don’t know what “xiphos” is. Well, if your bad guy is into history or happens to be in a museum, you’re in luck. Xiphos is an ancient Greek sword with a double-edged blade. If you’re into stabbing or decapitation, think xiphos. More to the point, if your bad guy is into artifacts, look into all the old weaponry.
  25. Yule log – Ah, family holidays can get a bit sticky, can’t they? We’ve all heard about the frozen leg of lamb as a weapon. Surely there are other options at a holiday dinner? The knife-sharpening steel. The electric knife. The marble rolling pin. The Yule log – flaming or not. Strands of garland. A wishbone. Get creative. Sadists would.
  26. Zebu horn – Bet you didn’t think I’d have a Z entry either. But how could I leave off the zebu horn? Everyone has those sitting around, right? Oh, you don’t know what a zebu is? That’s okay. I didn’t either until I looked it up. (I needed a Z.) It’s a type of cattle with a curved horn. But any animal horn or antler will do. Yak, ram, elk… An outdoorsman could have a good time with this one.

So maybe I spent a little too much time thinking this through. Maybe computer banks at Langley are spinning and spitting my name through databanks and search filters. But maybe something here will get you thinking and spark your creative juices enough so that the next time your villain is going to kill someone, he grabs Hemingway’s prize zebu horn instead of a pet rock or a paperweight that says “Someone went to Carlsbad Caverns and all they brought me was this paperweight.” Now, if that paperweight looks like a rock…

Oh, and don’t forget, your good guy can use these weapons, too! People probably love him more than to give him a pet rock paperweight, though.

photo courtesy of Piotrus, Creative Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pole_weapons_in_Szczyrzyc_monastery_museum_02.JPG

The Five Best Things to Do on Saturday

Over the weekend I attended Fayetteville Public Library’s 6th Annual Ozark Writers Live Event. This event is a nice one because it highlights the talents of local authors while still helping teach budding artists the ins and outs of the craft and industry. In addition to the five speeches I attended, there was a local band who performed during lunch and a quilt display featuring the handiwork of local artisans.

Rich Davis, Tammy Carter Bronson, and Dan BorengasserThe first workshop was a panel discussion entitled “Exploring the World of Children’s Publishing.” Rich Davis hosted the panel; he is a local illustrator and author. Also seated on the panel was Tammy Carter Bronson, an author/illustrator who pioneered self-publishing and advocates illustrating her own work and Dan Borengasser, a children’s book author. These creative talents spent time talking to us about their creative process and about the business side of the industry. Bronson actually began her own publishing company before self-publishing was a popular option for authors, and she discussed the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing. Borengasser discussed alternative writing opportunities for authors looking for ways to supplement their incomes. In addition to leading the panel, Davis explained his own history and encouraged us to find our own paths to becoming successful writers.

Marilyn CollinsThe second workshop was called “Brighten Your Leaf on the Family Tree.” Led by Marilyn Collins, local memoir writing specialist, this session began with a brief introduction to the importance of writing memoirs and what exactly memoir writing entails, and ended with an interactive, hands-on writer participation section in which we began to write our own memoirs using Collins’s techniques. We filled out index cards and timeline sheets and shared some of our own memories with the group. Everyone left with the beginnings of a book about their own life.

Richard A. KnaakAfter lunch, the workshop returned with an interesting take on breaking into publishing. Best selling author Richard A. Knaak was there to talk about his road to fame. He was like all other authors: he had ideas that he wanted to write about. And like so many authors, no one was listening. He actually hand delivered writing samples—IN PERSON—to a publishing call. No, he isn’t advocating that. It was unheard of then, and it’s still unheard of. But the man told him if he didn’t hear from him to call in a couple of weeks. And he didn’t hear from him, so he bit the bullet and called. The man wondered if he’d have the gumption to call. Because he did, he ended up with a contract. But not for what he submitted. He was to write in the parameters of another world that was already created for him. He wrote The Legend of Huma for the Dragonlance Chronicles. He wrote novels for the games The World of Warcraft and Diablo. Because he was willing to work in worlds that other people created, his work got noticed. And because his work got noticed, he was able to write and sell his own work, too. If you think you can write within existing parameters, this is a path he is advocating.

Mara LeverittThe fourth workshop was the most crowded. It was called “Power in the Pen – Exploring Literary Influences during the West Memphis Three Case” and was headed by an author who literally wrote the book on the West Memphis Three: Mara Leveritt. Leveritt took us through the entire process of the West Memphis Three case, from the moment of the murder, through the likely coerced confession and the interest of the media in the case, past all the “evidence” that was entered in the trial leading to the conviction, all the way to the media’s influence in getting the men out of jail and the new, reliable evidence found. She hosted a lively question and answer session and ended with an impassioned plea for everyone to get involved in petitioning government officials to get media in the courtrooms and interrogation rooms.

Tracy Lenore JacksonThe fifth and final session was hosted by Tracy Lenore Jackson. Called “Trial and Triumph – Addressing Sensitive Subjects in your Writing,” this workshop’s whole focus was a bittersweet testimony to Jackson’s life. Jackson has a novel coming out in October, but she told us she couldn’t write that novel until she got other things out of the way first. She ended up writing two memoirs before her novel took shape, all focusing on the domestic violence she witnessed her mother endure when she was a child and what she suffered through in her first marriage. She explains how it seems to be a cyclic thing, running in families, how it affected her brothers and how she was embroiled in it before she knew better. She’s now in a happy, healthy marriage and speaks at women’s shelters across the country. She read excerpts from her memoirs and her novel, encouraging us to deal with the issues we face in our lives, to get them on the page so we can express ourselves fully and move on with our lives.

The OWL Workshop, put on by the Fayetteville Public Library, was a successful event that I’m grateful to have attended. I met new people, I learned new perspectives, and I have new techniques to try. Most importantly, several authors had a chance to showcase their talents to people who might otherwise not have known about them. I can’t wait until next year’s event.

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