Writing Exercise – The Time Has Come

Time for another writing exercise from Fiction Writer’s Workshop. Chapter 2 of this book focuses on setting, and the different ways setting is used in fiction. I absolutely love the example given from Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, where a very stingy hoarder is described through how he keeps his living area. An exercise follows from this example – Exercise 12 on page 43:

Make a character visible through her surroundings. If she loves plants and cats and hates people, her house might assume certain traits. Sketch the house, listing the sights, smells, sounds.

Well, I won’t win any points for originality for my reaction to this prompt, but I just had to try this with an established character rather than one I made up. Here’s what I came up with:


card_tower

The Time Has Come

The mirror dominates the room. The frame may have once been an elaborate bronze, but its flowery pattern is now a hideous green from years of neglect. By contrast, the glass is pristine, reflecting myself and the room in perfect clarity. A house of cards sits in front, three tiers high. Faded, tattered cards lay about its base and at the foot of the plain wooden dresser upon which it stood. I nearly bang my shin on a low table, set with a delicate china tea set. Each of the table’s four sides hosts a tea cup on a saucer, with tiny silver spoons sitting nearby. The cup nearest me has long ago lost any distinguishing pattern on its bone white surface, and two stumps jut from it where its tiny handle should be.

I step over the carpet, my feet deftly avoiding several chess pieces. Stooping down, I pick up a queen. It is white, with flecks of red paint clinging to its surface. In my other hand, I take another white queen, this one noticeably shorter and a bit wider than the other.

I set the pieces before the mirror as I step to the rocking chair with its back to me. It rocks slowly, as though swayed by the evening breeze from the open window. Light snoring announces the presence of the lady I seek. I hesitate.

My eyes find another tea table next to the chair. This table looks even older than the previous, its varnish chipped away to show wounds of rotting wood. It is also decorated with ancient china – a plate, with a cake the size of my fist atop. The cake, to my pleasant surprise, was fresh, immaculately painted with chocolate frosting, and bearing the words “Eat Me” delicately spelled out in white icing. Next to it was a fine glass flask half-filled with a sparkling liquid. A square of paper was tied about its delicate neck by a tiny length of red ribbon. Predictably, I suppose, the blue ink on its surface read “Drink Me”. Unlike the table and the other dishes, this glass is spotless – I might think it freshly blown if I had seen it anywhere else.

I resolve to waken the lady. My business has to be done, no matter how regrettable I find it. I reach to the arm of her chair. My hand finds a glint of gold draped over its arm, and I am again distracted from my goal. I take up the gold, finding it to be chain for a fine pocket watch. I pop it open, revealing the hands working their way across a circle of Roman numerals. I nearly laughed, calming my breath as I see the drawing on paper placed carefully where a family portrait might be on other watches. The sketch was a detailed rendering of a rabbit, standing on its hind legs, dressed in overalls, and panicking as it stared down at a pocket watch.

“I’m late.”

My eyes snapped to the speaker of the soft words.

“I’ve gone and overslept, haven’t I, dear? You’re here to take me away.”

Snapping the watch closed, I nodded solemnly at the elderly lady.

“It is for the best, Ms. Liddell. Your family is worried, and I assure you, our home is like no other. You will be treated with respect and dignity.”

“Is there croquet? Oh, but not the kind with flamingos and hedgehogs.”

“There is croquet, of course. As well as many other pastimes – draughts and bingo, for instance. I’m certain I’ve never seen flamingos, and we do keep out any sort of pests.”

She stood up slowly, her wrinkled dress now revealed as it fell loosely over her bony frame. It might have been a bright blue, some ages ago, but the color had long worn away. She reached down, taking up the plate with the cake and offering it.

“Won’t you have some? You’ll get a little surprise, I think.”

“Perhaps another time. Our driver should be quite anxious by now.”

“The time has come, the walrus said.”

I shake my head, deciding not to answer her odd comment. I hold her bony hand gently, guiding the frail lady over the safe patches of the cluttered carpet. As we reach the door frame, she takes one last look at her strange room. She then gestures to the watch, and I realize that I still hold it. I give it to her, and she pops it open again before me. She points to the panicking rabbit.

“Have you seen him? Always late, always in a rush.”

“Can’t say that I have, Ms. Liddell. Come now; follow me to a far better world than this lonely life here.”

Her wrinkled face radiates a wide smile as she finds something amusing in my words. As she allows me to take her hand and lead down the staircase, she chuckles softly.

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

“She Never Left Her Coffee” Writing Exercise

I’m going to try to do more writing exercises right here on this blog in the following weeks.

Today’s attempt is taken from a prompt in Chapter 1 of Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich. It’s on Page 22 in the Second Edition, Exercise 7: “Write ‘My mother never …’ at the top of a page, then complete the sentence and keep going.

Here’s what I came up with:

—-

My mother never left her cup of coffee unfinished. Steam still rolls up from it as I pace around the coffee table. The moment replays countless times – I try to get Dad to let me ride with him, and he makes me stay home with Steve. Despite all the worlds my mind makes for my toys and daydreams, it won’t create one where I stay with her. Dad closes the ambulance door every time, leaving me to care for my brother.

Steve is just sitting there, though. Not even really watching the cartoons endlessly fight on the TV screen. Where else will he go? He’s not causing trouble now! I should be with Mom.

I pace. I replay. I wait.

A ring breaks the silence. I run to the stand next to the sofa and snatch the phone from the receiver before the first ring finishes.

Dad’s voice is calm. He says he won’t be home for a long time. He tells me to get Steve to bed. He doesn’t even tell me about Mom. He doesn’t have to. I remember when Grandma was in the hospital, and how he talked then. Grandma didn’t come back.

I hang up the phone. I look back to the steaming cup, and Mom is there. I jump, but she smiles at us, and I feel calm. Steve turns off the TV, and we both watch her silently.

“Thank you,” she says, “I know you wanted to come, but really – it’s quite boring. A lot of people asking questions, papers to sign – nothing you kids would be interested in.”

She takes up the cup of coffee, taking a long sip.

“Mom,” I ask, “You won’t come home?”

“No, dear. I’m going away. Dad will be alone – don’t let him cry too much.”

“Will we… will we see you again?”

Mom takes another long sip. She holds the cup low – one more sip left.

“I think so. Not for a long, long time, though.”

Steve and I both watch her. I see for the first time that Steve is crying, then I realize that I am, too. 

Just then, a headlight shines in through the living room window. The car stops, and Dad walks up to the door.

Mom takes the last sip, and then she’s gone. The door opens, and Dad walks in to see us before the empty TV screen, crying in our dazed stupor. 

“I’ll have to go back out,” Dad says, “I had to check – had to see how you were.”

He hugs Steve first, but stops as he reaches me. He points to the empty cup clasped in my shaking fingers. I notice that my lips and throat are burning with dull pain.

“Mom finished it. She always does. Right Steve?”

Steve nods silently. He turns his lip in the faintest smile, and I know he really did see her too.

Dad’s eyes narrow. Slowly, carefully, he nods. Steve takes the empty mug, and I hug Dad tightly.
 

#FlashFriday – Accident

Photo Source: Me!
My pride took much more damage, and was more difficult to repair.

I wave back at Josh, pulling away slowly. The window zips up as I turn, cutting off the saltwater breeze from the ocean obscured by countless sprawling towers surrounding the side street. Once Josh’s smile has left my mirror, I hastily plug my smartphone into the audio deck, my ears eager to devour more of Pi Patel’s ocean odyssey. I smile as the narrator’s soothing take fills my ears, my hands handling the growing traffic evenly. Even long waits at red lights fail to bother me – some part of my mind savors each wait and the extra minutes of story granted. A green light, and a green arrow under it now shine ahead. I accept the arrow’s invitation, guiding the car left across the wide intersection.

A loud bang jars my rear right side. The steering wheel tears at my grip. For a fevered, breathless second, the back of the car inches into the oncoming lane. A klaxon sounds from a transport truck, slowing sharply as it grows to fill the frame of my windshield. My hands, knuckles white, fight the wheel, wrenching the car back into the proper lane just as the transport barrels past.

Shivering, I guide the car to the curb, berthing it next to a looming sign, forbidding any parking in angry red letters. A mad imagining passes my mind – a cop, face hidden under huge sunglasses, scrawling a ticket just to add further insult to my injured pride. I shake off the vision, and tear out the cable connecting the still-playing smartphone. Silence, followed by many shallow, shaky breaths of composure.

I’m out of the car, legs wobbling. A blue van is behind my car – it passed through my vision before, framed in my mirror in a mad instant as the car spun, but now I grasp its reality. The left headlight is caved in, it’s bulb shattered in small fragments still held in the empty cavity.

Then I turn to my rear bumper. It dangles, with one corner barely attached to the car. A black foam insert lies on the ground under it. Dazed, I circle my wounded car. A ragged concave gash consumes the rear left door, along with a few inches of space above the wheel. The taillight is gone, its glass scattered across the pavement in a trail of red fragments.

Something vibrates in my hand. I realize I’ve got my phone gripped tightly. I look, and my wife’s smiling picture looks back at me from the screen. The beefy driver of the blue van prowls toward me, anger stretched over his large face.Another vibration, and my fingers swipe and take the call, before my mind realizes it. My wife’s voice, in lyric Korean, asking where I am. The big man, a full head higher than me, stares down at her voice. A sigh escapes him, his frown softens. He pinches the phone between two sausage fingers, and I let him take it. He answers.

I follow the dialogue intently, mind working overtime as I decipher the rapid fire Korean. The man’s calm belies his momentary anger. Surprise dawns in me as I realize the man is claiming fault. He insists that his insurance will take on all damage to both vehicles.

A curt smile plays across his face as he presses the phone back to me. My wife’s voice is even and calm as she begins to repeat much of what I’ve heard in English. I assure her, in my ever-shaky Korean, that I understand the fine details.

A tow truck appears from around the corner, just as I hang up. I quickly turn my phone in my fingers, aiming its camera at the wounds to my car. I open the trunk, relief beginning to seep through my nerves as I see no damage within its confines. The big man helps as I rescue a backpack and my laptop’s shoulder bag from the trunk. My most needed items in hand, I’m left to watch as my car is pulled off to join other wounded vehicles in a repair shop.

A few awkward minutes of conversation leave me with the big man’s business card, insurance numbers, and license plate number. He points to an oncoming car as it pulls to the curb. My rental, a temporary car provided by his insurance.

We shake hands, and he climbs in to his van. I watch him pull away, moving with careful grace as he rejoins traffic.

A handsome young man is climbing out of the rental car. His English is flawless, but I only barely listen as I imagine myself at the wheel of this spotless vehicle worth twice as much as the one I’ve abandoned. Another call comes from my wife. My fingers answer again, pressing the ‘Speaker’ button as they do. My wife’s confident English assures me that I’ll be fine driving the rental. The young man smiles as he hefts my bags into the car, and then passes a key into my hand.

Behind the unfamiliar steering wheel, I glance at my smartphone. Pi Patel’s voyage might calm my jangled nerves, I think. I sigh, heart still slowing to its usual cadence, still recovering from that second after impact. No, that story will have to wait. I have my own voyage to finish.


At the start of this blog, I shared prompts from other sites, along with my responses to them. I’ll keep doing this on occasion, but I’m also planning to share revisions suggested by reader feedback – I hope that seeing my revisions can help readers as they improve their own writing.

This story is a response to the prompt on One Minute Writer for February 2, “Accident”. What I wrote was a fictional account of an accident I had in downtown Busan. I put up the #FlashFriday tag so I could join the fun of the FlashFriday.org community (and it’s still Friday by GMT, even though my own clock says differently). I’d love to hear what regular #FlashFriday participants have to say about this quick piece.

Happy 2014 – Time for resolutions!

Time for Resolutions!

(Also posted as a response to the One-Minute Writer’s post for December 31)

Yup, time to use a completely arbitrary denotation of time to state vows that could be made any freaking time. Okay, so what the heck – here are my goals for 2014.

First and foremost is to publish the material I’ve been holding back from this blog. These are works of fiction that I want to see in the likes of Daily Science Fiction, but I doubt I’ll wait to see if they pass slush anywhere else – I want to try them on Smashwords, Amazon, and anywhere else I can self-publish.

One of these is currently in slush with Every Day Fiction, another is with Flash Fiction Online. I’ll see what each venue says. I’ve got 4 others at the same level of completion now – I’ll send them in to Daily Science Fiction first. DSF has a nice quick turn-around, and a nicely-worded automated rejection letter that doesn’t hurt my poor ego too much. Any that don’t get accepted there get revised and put into an e-book anthology that I’ll make nice and cheap.

Beyond that? Keep writing, but also start running my own prompts and writing exercises here on this blog. I had intended from the start for this blog to have resources as well as samples of my growth as a writer – time to get those resources out to the public!

Further ahead? I have to finish a novel. I’ve got two (very) rough drafts from NaNoWriMo in 2011 and 2012 – I need to either revise one, or embark on a new one and get it DONE.

Can’t say much about any further than that – I think those resolutions will be hard enough!

“Snow Day” Revisited – The Old Geezer’s Word

One of the reasons I’m posting a lot of work on this blog is that it gives me freedom to revisit and revise anything I post. While I do put in an honest effort to get good work posted here, I also hold myself to a time limit. I aim not to let any work posted here take me longer than two days. I know full well that this means some works won’t be as good as others, but it also means I’m constantly writing and sharing.

Anyway, I went back to my earlier flash “Snow Day”. A good friend on Facebook had asked me “What happens next?” I took it pretty bad. Good flash fiction (or any other form submitted as a complete story) shouldn’t prompt that question! I thought of weaseling out and saying “Oh, I meant it to be part of a series all along!” – and that’s how I got started on today’s piece. Instead of revising that work for a better ending, I thought of looking at it from the burglar’s point of view, and found out he was caught off-guard by both the sudden snow and the presence of two young boys in the house.

I’ll post today’s piece as is, in keeping with my two-day limit (which this has violated by quite a bit). One known issue is the radio at the start of Snow Day that magically turns itself off – today’s piece runs with it being off when the robber comes in. I’ll likely come back to both stories again, but for now:

The Old Geezer’s Word

Damn, I’ve made a mess of this job. Come on, where’d you put the damn necklace?

I look to the window. The snow keeps coming, thickening the blanket over my only way out. I turn pack to the pile of jewelry, running my gloved fingers through the pile of necklaces and rings I’ve removed from small boxes. Gold, a few diamonds, maybe some silver too. A few hundred dollars, a thousand if I’m lucky. The real prize is still missing. Dammit Ellie, you didn’t let Willie take it with him, did you?

One more drawer. I yank it, dump it on the floor. More clothes – stockings and panties, mostly. A younger me might be excited by the sight of her underwear. Ellie had made it clear, twice, that my love for her was unwanted. Two stabs through the heart. Wounds that had only just healed and hardened. I could even get used to the idea of never seeing her again.

Nothing else in this drawer; just clothes. Inspiration hits, and I check the hallow bureau now stripped of its drawers. I check my gloves again before feeling around the inside. Dammit. No clever hiding place here, just the thumps of my fingers on cheap fibreboard.

I dash over to the wardrobe, throw open its white doors. I smile as carefully wrapped presents greet my eyes. I toss the boxes on the bed, taking care not to throw too hard. Donnie and Stevie hardly deserve to have their Christmas ruined by the likes of me. A stink of mothballs nearly gags me once I’m past the presents. There, sitting on the hardwood floor under dresses carefully arranged on their hangers, is a box. I know its size, its black velvet. I can see Ellie’s face as Willie opens it for her, right at midnight of New Year’s.

That happy face had haunted me through a full bottle of Jack’s Finest, generously provided by Old Ralph at the bar in the long hours before dawn. He had listened to my bawling the whole night, had promised to help again if I needed it. I’d have taken him up, rather than get into this mess, but I just couldn’t ask more of the poor geezer.

Back in the present, I open the box. Jackpot.

What’s that? Dear fuck no – is someone else here? I grab madly at whatever silver and gold trinkets I can scoop from the pile, and stuff it all in the overcoat’s large pockets. The real treasure stays in my other hand, embedded into the palm of my closed glove.

As I step quickly down the hall, two small forms dart across the kitchen ahead. They’re supposed to be with you, Willie, you bastard! The door’s shuttering slam punctuates my anger. I tear it open, stepping back on to the porch. Donnie’s leading Stevie over the growing pile of snow, away from me around the house. The loud groan of a bus engine echoes from across the crescent.

Not going back that way. I take to the back yard, scrambling as fast as I can manage over the snow. One wrong step, and I’m in ankle deep, cursing as slush fills the crack between wool sock and boot. I pull onward, getting myself to the fence between Ellie’s place and Old Ralph’s. I follow the fence, more careful with steps. I’m at the back corner, ready to scramble up, when Ralph’s voice cuts across the yard.

“Stop it there!”

I open my palm, and the sharp weight drops silently over the lip of the fence. I continue to climb, knowing full well that the man behind can easily reach me before I can throw myself over.

I’ve got one leg swung over the fence, just as the old man’s rough hand finds my other ankle. I look down into Old Ralph’s weathered face. He’s stoic as he glances behind him, looking for the small crowd that followed him. They are just coming around now – they’ll be here a few more beats of my overworked heart.

An icy glare passes between us. His sage brown eyes blink once. Then, with a sudden thrust from his arm, I’m tumbling over the fence. Air gasps out of me as my back hits an icy patch on the other side. Without even realizing it, I clasp my hand out at a shiny object, clutching it to my chest as I pull myself up. Somehow, through maddening pain, I can shuffle off the ice.

“He got away, the sonofabitch!”

Old Ralph’s curse echoes from over the fence as I scramble away through the small, snow-blanketed forest surrounding the suburb.

***

After a second’s hesitation, I let him in. Don’t know how he’s tracked me here, but I’m not surprised. With the two of us taking up its space, the tiny motel room grows even smaller.

“Cops won’t bother you,” Old Ralph said as he sat on the corner of the stripped bed, “Checked in with some old friends in the precinct. Yer wanted for questioning, but they’re off looking the wrong way thanks to a tip I may have dropped.”

I shake my head. “Why?”

“You remember the whiskey? My promise?”

He leaves the question hanging in the cold air between us, as he takes me in with a hard stare. Slowly, I nod.

“Consider it paid. My word is my word, dammit. You could have asked for money, I suppose, but we both know I can’t give as much as that necklace will fetch.”

I shake my head in wonder. “God. Still can’t believe the kids were there when I took it – they’re okay, right?”

“You’d be in the slammer now if they were anything but.” His stare remains, unmoving. “You couldn’t have known – I already figured that part out. Don’t worry about the damage or the loss, either. Insurance will cover that just fine – Ellie’s seen to that, and I might have pulled a few strings with old contacts myself.”

“I … well, thank you, I guess.”

“You leave. Never let me or anyone of us see you. That clear enough, son?”

I lift the corners of my mouth against the weight of guilt.

“Clear enough, old man.”

Writing Workout – Snow Day

Source: Wikipedia

So I was on a website called Writing Workout, (www.writing-workout.com) today, and I tried out one of their exercises. I tried a recently added exercise, which got me to describe aspects of a certain type of weather, and then combine them with a crime that happens in that weather. I was given “A sudden snow” and “A burglary” to combine into a story.

I encourage my readers to stop by Writing Workout – the exercises there are great when you’re faced with a blank page and the dreaded writer’s block!

This is what came out of my prompts:

Snow Day

Our gleeful giggles stop as the back door creeks open. We stare to the back of the kitchen, shivering both with fear and the breeze cutting through the cracks in our shelter. The announcer goes on, droning through the school closings. Finally finished with distant counties, he goes through more familiar names of nearby schools. A crazy voice inside me is angry, and wants to keep listening. As an unfamiliar boot forces through the opening door, I ignore the voice and whisper to my little brother.

“Living room, now!”

As the rest of the stranger creeps in, Stevie doesn’t fuss like he usually does. He’s in the living room ahead of me, and we both run to the sofa. We push it forward as we squeeze in behind. My back sweats as a warm belch from the furnace blasts behind my feet, up the back of my sweater. There’s a faint stink of burnt gasoline, tickling my nose, but I try to hold my breath. We both breathe out after the booted clomps follow the hall away from the living room, toward Mom’s bedroom. We’ve got to call her, I think. I’m too scared to try the phone in the kitchen – the burglar has to leave that way.

I peel the curtain from the living room window. A grey world, blanketed under white. The snow is thicker every minute. I imagine being buried in it, right up to my neck. I can just see the front door of the house from this angle. The top window of the door is barely visible – even if I could get it open, the snow is too deep for a quick getaway.

More thumps from Mom’s room now. I imagine drawers, torn from Mom’s favorite antique dresser and turned upside down as the burglar looks for her jewelry. An icy wind blows through my hair. It’s from the kitchen – the door’s still open!

Could we? I look to Stevie, getting him to peek over the old sofa. He follows my eyes, but he shakes his head quickly. Another loud thump sounds from Mom’s room.

I grab Stevie’s hand, yanking as I dash. His hand slips, but I run anyway. I’m at the open door in a few steps. Stevie’s stranded in the middle, looking between our hiding place and the door. Booted thumps sound as the burglar approaches. Stevie chooses the door. We’re out, slamming it so hard that the back porch shakes.

White continues to pile up around us. I think briefly how the burglar’s footprints aren’t even visible now. My brother and I shiver, dressed only in our sweaters and jeans.

The door creaks open again. My brother and I run. My toes get number in my cold, wet socks. I whisper a thanks to the snow anyway – we only sink a little as we run over it. We’re around the house, coming to the front.

Our school bus! Its yellow paint shines instead of today’s missing sun! The driver, Mr. Roberts, has the door open, and is shouting at neighbors gathered around. Some of them are behind the bus, pushing and grunting as Mr. Roberts spins the wheels on the snowy road. Kids laugh and tease as they press their faces against the insides of the bus’s windows.

Seeing our crazy run, the driver stops. He jumps out, and he’s joined by many familiar faces turning to us in astonishment.

“Burglar!” I yell, shivering as I stop before him.

Good Old Ralph, our neighbour, only needs the one word. He leads a small pack of neighbours back the way my brother and I ran. I imagine the robber, trying to get through the snow in our back yard. He might make it over the fence, I think, but Ralph is super fast when he’s angry.

The driver and the other neighbours lend us jackets, taking us inside of the school bus. It’s noisy and only a little warmer than outside. Other kids point and laugh, but they move away when the other parents yell at them. Stevie and I get the seat behind the driver’s chair, shivering even with the big jackets on. One nice old lady, Ms. Carlyle I think, tells us that Mom called her. Mom’s on her way, but traffic and snow are likely to keep her a bit.

“Our school didn’t get canceled?” I ask Ms. Carlyle and Mr. Roberts.

“It did, but I heard too late,” Mr. Roberts said, “I was already turning into the crescent when I got the holler on the radio!”

I grin as I look turn to Stevie.

“Yes!” we shout as we trade high-fives.

One-Minute Writer – Ancient Life

This prompt over at One-Minute Writer asks about the job you see yourself having if you had lived hundreds of years ago.

My answer:

I could see myself as a travelling merchant. Wandering into shoddy inns and taverns, seeking the local gossip and learning which wares are most needed or popular.

At the same time, I’d take in so much of common folks’ lives. I’d have tales to share, which might even get me in good with the managers of the taverns I patronize. If I could read and write, I’d be writing up my tales on the side of all my work. If I couldn’t, I’d seek out the scribes of all the cities I visit – perhaps they’d find some interested eyes for my tales.