Monday, August 16, 2010

 Eros, eyesore, she writes on her mop.

In the great hall, where singletons toil in the night -- so marrods can't see them -- a thick-headed marrod wouldn't understand her palindrome poem. But the next singleton to use the mop would. Marrods, drunk on state-ordinanced coupling night after night, could hardly read left to right, let alone retain the information when they attempted to read backwards.

A marrod child cries in the night. They did that often. Ella has never seen a child up close, only heard them. Singleton sleep was  plagued by marrod child shrieks and thumps. She imagined that all marrods started out with disproportionately large heads and feet and grew into them. Marrod males stayed large and loud, while females grew hissing gaps and long, long claws.

Ella herself has never attended a marrod function, although some singletons were promoted as house singletons, allowed to stay up after sunrise, and dressed in fine clothes so that they could carry silver trays. She heard that the marrods move in clutches and dance in rotating lines as if attached to one gigantic puppeteer's pole. Clever singletons have theorized telepathy among them, since they are reported to dress and act alike.

Ella doubts this, or at least that their telepathy skills transverse their own race. It was true that marrod females never speak to their male counterparts, except in shouts. Perhaps marrod males simply never grow out of the hearing disability that seems to afflict all marrod children.

After completing her chores, Ella has whole hours of inactivity she can fill as she pleases. The villa is endless, reaching into the sky and under the ground, and also back in time. Generations of singletons have claimed garret rooms and under-stair cupboards to retreat to when they want to be alone. Books, entertainment disks, and jury-rigged music plug-ins are squirreled all over the main house and out buildings to be shared more or less communally; at the very least, Ella knows not to touch a collection that's clearly being enjoyed by someone else.

Singletons communicate in graffiti, left inside cupboards or the margins of computer files. "Does anyone have the third volume of Remembrance of Things Past in plug-in format?" is left plaintatively in the butter. A spikey, cocky reply: "Oho, who's getting her doctorate in godawful egotism?" as well as the code to the book. The respondent wouldn't have the code if s/he hadn't read the book. Singletons understand the words beneath the words. Ella smiled with remembrance of that pleasant week, practically a party, when the whole staff held a threaded conversation on the back of the shed door over their favorite friend Jane, the disappointing last line, and who truly deserved to be locked up mad in the attic. Well, probably the whole staff; even a clever singleton didn't really know -- or want to know ­-- who was writing on that shed door.

It was true, sometimes singletons fell through the cracks. Sometimes one didn't show up at his assignment for a week and would be found by the strange smell in the hay loft. But then, how many marrods had been assigned to poor partners and were discovered murdered in their beds. The only difference was the speed of detection.

It wasn't that singletons couldn't love. Ella played chess every Sunday with Susanna. They met at 3 pm, set up the board, and played silently until supper. There had been times they shared a garret room, or a book. As girls, there was a notebook they kept between they two, and even now passed notes between them that they didn't share with the rest of the household.

It was what they wanted. It was enough.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

tips: more prompts than you can gather under your hat

Sites to find a less traditional prompt (that aren't a pain to visit):

PostSecret - Every 5x4 piece of confessional artwork tells a story.

Overheard In New York - "So I says to Mabel, I says..." Go here to work on your dialogue and character. Google for other cities.

FOUND Magazine - Stuff. Letters, notes, drawings. The detritus of civilization. Where did it come from and who found it?

Not Always Right - Customer blunders. The worst part is, we've all been that dumbass at the front of the line. Go here for your small town color and big city ennui.

National Geographic Photography Archives - From landscapes to people, the beautiful to the bizarre, our world and far beyond the stars. If you can't find a picture of it here, maybe you should consider if your SF is too inaccessable.

Youtube - Most people use this go-to idiot box for vids, but youcan also find any song in the history of ever on the biggest multimedia site on the web. Music and writers have had a long history together. If you just have to hear "Thriller" or you'll never finish your big love scene, Youtube is the place to go.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Prompt 10: just keep talking

Prompt 10: An all dialogue challenge: Someone has something to confess.

I've missed you all! Had to step away for a while, but I'm back. Here's what I've been working on.

PhotobucketAs always, I encourage you to respond to this prompt in the comments, your own journal (please link back!) or the wild open fields of your own imagination.

A swoosh of curtain.

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I've never been to confession."

Old wood creaked behind the dry screen. "Never?"

"No, sir, I'm not a Catholic."

"I understand. What compelled you to come here today?"

"I don't know, sir. I just. Um. . . . Your church is really pretty. . . . Big."

"My son, if this some sort of prank, there are many more people in line--"

"No! Sorry, sir, I just --"

"It's 'Father.' No one calls me 'sir.'"

"No one?

"No. And we haven't said the 'bless me, Father' part since at least the seventies."

"Oh. I watch a lot of television."

"Then we have somewhere to begin."


"You should confess your sin of idleness."

"But that's not what I have to confess."

A creek of the bench as a considerable weight leant against the wood paneling. "A sin is a sin."

"You want me to confess to watching too much TV?"

"When you're ready."

"I thought I just did."

"My son, there is a procedure: first you confess your sins to me, then I grant you absolution from God for them. But you must admit your sins and truly wish to atone for them."

"O . . . kay. I admit I watch too much television. But that's not the sin --"

"I forgive you for that sin. Three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers."

"Sure. Thanks. Right now?"

"Didn't you have something else you wished to talked about?"

"Yeah. Um. You're not going to believe it."

"Son, I've been in this business a long time."

Clicking noises -- fingernails picking apart vinyl cushion. "You can't tell anyone, right?"

"The confessional is sacred."

"That's a no?"

"That is a 'no.'"

"This is harder than I thought it was going to be."

"Is it something criminal?"

"No. Never."


"Depends on how you look at it."

"Is it an action you've taken against another, or words that you've spoken?"

"It's something I'm going to do."

"Then no sin has been committed."

"No, it has."

The wood paneling creaked again. "Is it a woman?"


"A man?"

"Not like that."

"Son, I can't spend all day playing 'animal, vegetable, or serial killer.' Perhaps you didn't notice the half hour line you stood in before this booth became available."

"Father, I'm supposed to give you a message, but I don't think I'm going to be able to do it."

"A mes-- excuse me?"

"A message. From the angel Jophiel. It's not something I know, it's not like I'm going to sit here saying 'I know something you don't know.' It's something I've got to show you. But I think when the time comes, I won't."

A leathery burp as a great weight shifted over vinyl cushioning. "Young man, you must listen to me. See the secretary in the hall, Sister Ann Michelle, she's a very kind woman. She can give you a number to a very competent service. There's people from St. Anthony's hospital who would be happy to talk to you about this angel, and you needn't pay if you cannot afford to --"

"Father, I appreciate that. But I don't need those kind of people. I just need to tell you what my sin is."

The air hung in the stale cubical. "All right."

"First of all, Father, I should apologize. I lied."

"You did? That -- It's a very big sin to waste a priest's time, there's so many people I must help in a day."

"I'm sorry."

"Well, to be honest, I'm relieved. Then you haven't seen the cherub Jophiel?"

"No, I meant that I lied about not being a Catholic. I had to be sure that you'd believe me even if I wasn't one of your kind."

"A priest doesn't . . . all men are . . ."

"I don't see the angel, I just know how he works. And he's been leaving me little clues all my life, like tests, you know? And I keep failing them. Little things, but also big things. Sometimes really big things."

"The Lord . . . His tests are meant to --"

"Anyone can fail a test, but I think if the angel picked me, then I should have passed them, you know? So I think that means I must be a really bad person, or maybe not a person at all. So I'm sorry, Father."

"Son, please listen to me, every human on earth is a sinner. We require the light of Jesus to restore our souls --"

"So I think I'm going to fail my final test. But don't worry, Father, you'll be there and you'll get it right. So, I guess that's my big sin. Can I have my penance now?"

"Can you --? My boy, I don't -- You say I will be there? Be where?"

"Don't worry, Father, it won't hurt." A small creek as a bench is relieved of its burden. "Well, I guess you don't have a penance for a demon. Don't worry, I fell a lot better. I guess I'll see you later. I'll do those Hail Marys and Our Fathers. You're right, I do watch too much television."

A swoosh of curtain.

Groan of wood as a tremendous weight springs from it.

"Wait! See Sister Michael, she has a pamphlet --!"


The thundering silence of a dozen staring, enqueued Catholics at a helpless, panting priest.

Photo credit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tips: get outa my head

Attention nonwriting public: we don't want to talk to you about our book.

Talking to non-writers about your project is like telling a stranger about the dirty dream you had last night, except not only did you have it, but you're so proud of it you want to charge people money to read about it. 

Why do non-writers care so much about a profession that has nothing to do with them?

1. They think writers are wizards. They want to see a trick.

2. Like all Americans, they believe they could be a writer, if they had enough time or took the right memoir writing class at the learning annex; talking to you is a servicable substitute.

3. They're bored and assume you can entertain them with your book idea, because all stories start out as brilliantly as the end-product they check out of the liberry on DVD.

4. They don't understand that creative people often don't talk about their process because to them, the creative process is exacly like baking a cake. From a box. Who doesn't love showing off their birthday cake? (Don't get me wrong, this is not about the cake. I am not dragging cake into this.)

So you tell them to be polite and you get that look: 'Oh. That doesn't sound anything like [insert favorite hack author].' 

So what do you say when a non-writer has put you on the hot spot?

1. Rattle off technical jargon like pacing, branding, genre, ouvre, feminist menstrual journey.

2. If you have an MFA, recite the plot of The Faerie Queene or Remembrance of Things Past, as you interpreted it from the Spark Notes.

3. Retell your latest office gossip as set in 1066 England, Mordor, or a space ship, as pertains to your genre.

4. After ten seconds of listening to you, they will be feeling jealous and wish to dominate the conversation again. So, claim the book is about crochet or scrapbooking so they can naturally segue the conversation back to their own creative efforts.

5. Ask them about their kids.

Photo credit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ways to Grab An Editor

5 Ways Your MSS Can Grab an Editor
(And avoid the slush pile.)

Editors have literally piles of manuscripts lining their halls and no time to read them. They will only read the first three pages of your work, and if it grabs them, they'll try the next 20 pages. Maybe. 

Here's some tips to to keep them reading.

1) You should be spending weeks crafting your first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter. Go back to it often as you write your book. It should be quick, show action, and have dialogue.

2) Don't info dump in your first page. Do not open your book with a description of the scenery, the character's life, or anyone's relationship. Jump straight into the action. Use dialogue, props, clothing, the 5 senses, and other details to suggest information. Readers want to figure things out at the beginning, not be told.

3) Cut your introduction, prologue, preface, preamble, or whatever you're calling it. These chapters are the thing you write when you are new to the world. Later on, as you worldbuild, everything you've put in the preface comes out in the main story, making the preface an unnecesary info dump. So get rid of it. I'm looking at you, fantasy writers: You don't need it.

4) Edit judiciously. Do you really need three best friends, three villains, or three towns? Consider combining similar elements into one. Make the prose move faster by cutting out unnecesary words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters. How many times do you reiterate your theme, conflict, or point? Say less and it makes the telling more powerful. 

5) Read your first chapter aloud. Mark where you trip over the words or have to reread to make a sentence clear. If you can read it aloud clearly without a hitch, then a stranger will read the prose as smooth and elegant.
Photo credit: Old typewriter by Petr Kratochvil  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prompt 9: round and round

Prompt 9: A child watches a black car pull up in front of her house.

So sorry it's been a while! I've been working on a larger project. This is a bit of it, as a prompt response (because I was stuck.)

As always, I encourage you to respond to this prompt in the comments, your own journal (please link back!) or the privacy of your own imaginations.

PhotobucketIt is so hot you breathe in mosquitoes and breathe out oven air.

Elyse was five and she had been sitting in the wine cellar for an hour watching her sister Beatrice "get a tan." Bette, as they called her (because "Grandma's name is 'Bea' and I'm not some old lady"), is turning pink and Elyse has predicted she will throw up like she did the last time they went fishing and sat on the lake for hours and hours and Bette was the only one who wouldn't cool off with the wet towel dipped in delicious lake water. ("We've got enough trout for a feast, Gary!" "If she's too stubborn to stick her head in perfectly clear lake water, then she'll learn what the consequences are.") Baby Wade bobbed along next to Ma in the innertube with a cloth baby seat stitched into it. He didn't throw up, but he did make a poopy. No one seemed to notice that Elyse hadn't needed any special cleaning crew.

Elyse felt prickles as her sweat evaporated in the slightly cooler cellar. Dust was sticking to all the little hairs on the exposed parts of her and now she was beginning to itch. The stone window sill felt sharp and dirty under her chin where she'd propped two big Mason jars of canned blueberries on either side of her head. She drew them hard against her skull. The liquid inside was endlessly cool and pulled the head from her face. She did a naughty thing today, though she hadn't meant to be bad. She ran up back into the woods after Gordon and Frankie Gellert. Ma told her it was too hot to run and the woods were dangerous and besides, she was too little for boys. But Frankie had built a treehouse with a real zipline.

But they were bigger than her and she had to run fast to keep up with their bikes on the dirt paths. But they never intended to take her to the zipline -- when they got up to the part of the woods with the big hills, they swooped ahead on their fast, heavy bikes, laughing as she fell hopelessly behind.

So Elyse ran home. She was afraid if Bette saw her sweaty, she'd know that Elyse had gone into the woods alone with big kids and Bette would tell Ma or worse, Daddy. Ma had the hairbrush but Daddy yelled louder and Elyse would rather take the smack and have it over with than Daddy's shouting. His "Irish temper," Ma said.

Presently, through the syrupy muck of the blueberries, Elyse was watching Bette do her handstands and cartwheels in the dusty side lawn. Bette was six-going-on-seven and had been deemed old enough to start first grade early last year. Ma sewed red stripes on her white shorts, and she wore her blue bathing suit with the white stars, so she looked like a real majorette. Bette was very seriously training to be a cheerleader in four years when she entered junior high -- if not sooner, because she might skip a grade, seeing as first grade had been so easy for her. Elyse thought Bette was going to get a smack if Ma noticed she'd gotten yellow dust all over the seat of her white shorts, doing tumbling on the dry grass like that. Maybe Ma would notice Bette before she noticed Elyse's red, sweaty face and loosened pigtails. Maybe Elyse would help her notice.

It was then that Elyse noticed a black car in the driveway. It was an old car, huge like Pop's, a monster with pretty silver trim. She blinked and it was just there, but now she felt like it had always been there. It was dusty and the white donut parts of the tires were dirty, and the wheels were half sunk into the gravel driveway even though the ground was hard packed. Bette didn't see it. She was cartwheeling closer and closer to it. She finished one cartwheel and then dove right into another one, over and over, like a runaway red wagon. Elyse gasped. If she called out, her hiding spot would be given away!

Someone was breathing in the basement. Elyse breathed slowly. She heard her own breath, in and out, echo against the cool wall. She held her breath. A long breath was let out behind her. Hairs prickled on the back of her neck. She wasn't afraid like she was afraid of getting caught by Ma or Daddy, or when the boys left her alone at the top of the hill or when Bette decided to be mean to her. This was the kind of fear she had at night when the floorboards creaked because there was a witch in the closet or a monster under her bed. This was the fear she felt when she didn't know what to expect.

Elyse squeezed her eyes shut and flattened herself against the bumpy wall. The old rocks scraped her knees but she didn't care. The breathing in the room grew quicker and more specific. She knew where he was -- knew that it was a boy, and a little boy. Someone her height or smaller. He was right behind her.

A car door slammed. Elyse squeaked. She clapped her hand over her mouth. If the ghost saw her, he'd eat her. If he moved any closer, she'd faint. If he did anything except breathe at her, she'd die.

Please, he said.

Elyse jumped. She opened her eyes. The black car was still in the driveway. Bette was still turning cartwheels, unaware or uninterested. Worse than everything except the talking ghost in the basement was this: a man stood next to the car now. She could only see the bottom parts of him, brown shoes with black pants. He was facing the house, not Bette and her majorette-ing still going on despite the stranger. He bent at the waist and Elyse could see his face. It was wrinkled and he wore a hat and his eyes were dark dark dark. He was looking at the house. He was looking at the basement window. He was looking at her.

Elyse whimpered. She jumped down off the crate and sat on it. She had no choice now but to look into the dark basement.

Please, the awful boy said again.

Elyse looked. She didn't want to, but she did want to, sort of. Like when the wolfman jumped on the screen and she covered her eyes but she looked through her fingers just a little, too.

She could see him even though he wasn't completely there. Looking at the ghost boy was like touching a cloud, which she thought would be like holding a cotton candy but Ma said was actually just air.

"What's wrong with you?" Elyse said. "Go away."

The boy showed her his back, except he didn't. Instead of telling, he showed it to her in her head. And she just knew that the man outside by the car had hit him with a stick when he was bad. That made her stomach hurt; Ma never punished her with a stick.

If you won't tell, the boy said, I won't tell.

He held his misty hand out before her. Elyse watched it hover, sort of a whole hand, sort of see-through, like the cloud she imagined when she pretended she was flying in an airplane. She put her hand out. Something cold dropped into it. She jumped.

For you, he said.

Elyse held her cupped hand in a ribbon of sunlight. The thing she held glittered very prettily. Fascinated, she held it up pinched between her two fingers. It was a little gold chain with a green diamond in it and three sharp holes that looked like flowers, sort of. The gold chain was decorated with little creamy beads that made her think of the man on the moon. It must have been a very expensive piece of jewelry, even if it didn't seem to have any way to put it on. (There was probably some grownup secret to wearing it.) She didn't have anything with this many pretty beads.

"Thank you," she whispered. "I'll keep it very safe and won't let my sister see it."

It's from there. The boy pointed.

Elyse looked. She saw, clearly in her mind: the center of the basement. A dirt floor that existed before Daddy laid cement. The boy's grave, where his body broke down like the dead animals on the sides of the road.

Elyse ran screaming up the stairs.

Later that night, after dinner, after being scolded for going to the woods alone, Elyse undressed for bed.

In the pocket of her cut-off jeans, she found the gold chain, just as real as it had been in the basement. She hid it in her hand before Bette saw it and jammed it under the satin lining of her jewelry box.

He was her ghost.

*Prompt source: The Writer's Book of Matches, by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2005.
Photo credit

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tips: Novel writing


In my writing program, we had writing partners each semester, whose work we shared and critiqued each month. It was always a learning experience to find out what we all had been doing all along was very annoying to the reader, or simply didn't make sense.

Here's some unconscious common habits a lot of writers have that put a wall up between their work and their readers -- or worse, a potential editor.

1) Type dot dot dot when your character's thoughts or speech go off into space. Type dashdash when he is interrupted. Type four dots when you want a long pause that follows a complete sentence. Read other common errors in English you don't know you're making.

2) You know how college taught you the high art of the semicolon? Forget all that. Semicolons in fiction are very expensive, don't use too many on a page. Also, remember that. Short sentencs. Equal. Action!

3) You might not be an outliner, but I don't know any novel writer who doesn't have to do some written down prewriting. Read books and websites about structure and plotting until you find the outlining/worldbuiling method that works for you, because nothing is worse than your plot going nowhere, or your villain's name or species changing every 50 pages. Some people use writer's software, some do an encyclopedia of their world in Word, some use Q&A format in Excel, some hang up poster boards using actors and magazine landscapes. You need something other than your mss to keep you on task.

4) Join a professional guild and consider attending conferences. It doesn't have to be exactly what you're into -- ie, your average romance writer's group will welcome fantasy and women's fiction writers. It's invaluable to know what's new in you genre and, perhaps more importantly, what's so old it's unsellable.

5) "Said" is fine as a dialogue tag.  "Blah blah," Beatrice said is fine to put down 50 times in a conversation. "Said" is one of those words that readers skip over, almost like a punctuation mark. Similarly, do not use 10 synonyms for "said" because repeating "said" feels repetitive to you. Of course it's repetitive - that's why readers skip over it and pay attention to the dialogue. Do you want your prose to be awkward and obvious?

6) More on dialogue: Character voice is the most important element of your book to lending personality to your characters, but unfortunately our TV culture has corrupted how we "see" conversation in the written format. Find other ways to convey your character's mood than using adjectives to describe their voice, because that way leads to talking heads; you are not writing a script, there will be no actors putting life into your scene, pages of dialogue and "-ly" lead to boring talking heads.

7) Consider every single bit of concrit you ever get. Humble yourself. Find other author friends and solicit their opinions.Take classes at adult education centers or libraries. Read books on writing and do the exercises. Write something every day.

7) Keep your first rejection letter. Frame it. Throw it a little party. It means you're a real writer. 

Photo credit: Old typewriter by Petr Kratochvil