Raw Material – Day 10

Prompt: The worst Thanksgiving dish you ever had. 

Wet clotted spoonfulls of stuffing, made from the rubbery crusts of day-old baguettes, wormholed by limp strings of sautéed onion. The cook attempted to “crisp” the thing, flashing it in the oven at high heat. This had rather the effect of an as-seen-on-TV food dehydrator, leaving behind a vomit-brown casserole the consistency of shoe leather, with little charred tips like the points of a meringue.

If you could get beyond all of that the–the texture and appearance–the sound of it squeaking between your teeth, the flavor would hit you. Not rosemary, thyme, or sage, those Thanksgiving standards, but oregano. Dusty green handfuls of oregano. The monstrosity tasted like nothing so much as a frat-party pizza, waxy and abandoned the day after the party in a grease-stained box.

Lucy dutifully raised another a spoonful to her mouth. She wondered if she had the nonchalance to spit it into the fancy embroidered napkin in her lap.

Raw Material – Day 9

Prompt: Tell a story that begins with a ransom note. 

She could do without it, Abby thought. Should be able to do without it. She had been planning on getting a new one soon anyway. The old one worked fine but it was a little slow, and beat up, with campground stickers from her gap year plastered across the top. Whoever took it must have known she needed it right now, enough to clean out her meager checking account and hide a fat was of bills in the prescribed hiding spot: under the loose plank in the step of the old stone water tower building.

That alone should tell her something, she thought. Who knew that building? An actor in the stage company that performed there on weekends? One of the tourist information desk workers in their blue T-shirts and khaki pants? Maybe someone less obvious. Some behind-the-scenes figure. A set designer or someone on the janitorial staff. Really, she suspected it was someone from the law school. Who else but a law student would think to ransom a person’s laptop in the last days before the bar exam?

She pulled the note out again and unfolded it. She smiled, in spite of herself. Someone had taken the time to clip letters from magazine and newspaper headings and paste them down on a sheet of white typing paper. It was a good, old-fashioned ransom note, fit for FBI scrutiny, the sort left by a serial killer at the scene of his last crime or stuffed in the mailbox of a rich celebrity’s daughter, as she lay gagged and squirming in the back of a utility van. It couldn’t be real, she thought. It had to be a joke.

A Lesson From Story Genius, Ch. 2

In Chapter 1 of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron sets out the premise of her book: that we are all biologically hard-wired for story–that stories are not mere entertainment, but an important evolutionary we use to virtually test new experiences.

In Chapter 2 Cron debunks a few (ok, quite a few) writing myths:

Myth 1: Great Writing Equals Great Story. This is like mistaking the wrapping paper for the present. The story is the thing that is essential, that makes us want to turn the page. Beautiful words and unusual metaphors are gravy. Want proof. Cron points out that the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy sold over 100 million copies. What did everyone in my book club say about it? “It’s terrible, just awful, but I can’t put it down.”

Myth 2: Pantsing (Writing By the Seat of Your Pants) Is the Only Authentic Way to Write. Yes, it’s liberating, fun, easy. It might get your creative juices flowing. But if you want a good story, you have to do some of the hard work of planning.

Myth 3: Just Get a Shitty First Draft On the Page. What you need is a shitty first draft of a story, not thousands of rambling words.

Myth 4: Figure Out Your Plot Points and You’re All Set. The plot is concerned only with the surface events. They are the after-effects. The cause, the whole reason a creative work exists, is because of the internal events. What is going on inside the protagonist’s mind. You need to know your character’s past so you know how the external events of the plot will affect him or her.

Myth 5: You Need an External Story Structure. You can religiously follow Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” but you will still be left with a dull, lifeless manuscript unless you focus on your character’s internal conflict and change.

So, if none of these things will guarantee you a good story, what will? You need to focus on your character’s “inside story,” everything that came before the inciting event. What starts on page one is only the second half.

Raw Material – Day 7

Prompt: Something you had that was stolen.

The package arrived on a Tuesday. In a neat bubble-wrapped mailer with her address printed in black ink. The writing was big and bubbly, like a young girl’s. There was no address. Chandra didn’t think much of it. She did a lot of online shopping. Maybe something she’d ordered a while ago had been delayed. She tore open the envelope and turned it upside-down over the dining room table. It fell with a soft thud. A old wallet. Soft brown leather, rectangular. A woman’s wallet. She had the strangest feeling of deja vu as she picked it up. And she suddenly knew, even before she flipped it open, what she would find inside; her own driver’s license, from twenty years ago, at least. It was hers.

Raw Material – Day 6

Prompt: The long-lost roommate.

There had been a lot of grappling in the elevator. This she remembered. Could still picture it if she closed her eyes. The darkly patterned emerald carpet like a putting green or the felted surface of a pool table. The reflective black paneling, good as any mirror. The optical illusion, when you stepped inside: whole armies of yourself, standing at attention, in rows and rows. Forever.

When he’d reached for her it hadn’t seemed like a choice. Their movements were automatic, full of the inertia of that sea of tangled limbs and pressing torsos. Who were they to resist infinity?  When the door swung open to an instant of bright light on the tenth floor one of them–she could no longer remember who–had pressed the “closed” button. The other–it had been a joint effort, of this she was sure–had sent them all the way up, to the penthouse floor, where a tiny unlocked maintenance door led to the roof, to the hot dark summer air and a sky swirling with wine and stars.

Raw Material – Day 5

Prompt: What a character holding a blue object is thinking right now.

The girl next door had imaginary friends. A shimmering, otherworldly horse named spirit. And a beautiful woman, Varta, with thick black hair and a long trailing blue dress with belled sleeves and secret pockets. Annabelle silently listened to the girl describe them both on the swings one day. Varta was not really alive. Though she had been, or perhaps she still was, in some parallel universe. She appeared now only to the girl, as a hologram.

“Like Princess Leia?” Annabelle ventured.

“Exactly.” The girl dug her feet into the gravel mid-swing and looked at Annabelle with fervent, glistening eyes. Her knuckles were white, where she gripped the chains, and on the middle finger of one hand she wore a huge sapphire, on an old-fashioned filigreed gold band. Annabelle studied the ring when she thought the girl was not looking. It was too large, spinning around on the girl’s finger, but that didn’t seem to trouble her. She wanted to ask if the stone was real but knew, somehow, that that would be a mistake. One had the feeling that the girl was in the grip of some powerful spell, one those around her should take care not to break.

Raw Material – Day 4

Prompt: You are an astronaut. Describe your perfect day.

My console sleeve gently squeezes me awake, signals the cover of my sleep cell to roll back with a whoosh of air. My lungs fill with a gasp and I blink, swallow, a thicket of needles in my throat. Rows of blue LED lights blink on slowly, in concentric rings. I calibrated them, years ago, to the rate at which my eyes adjust to light. That was a surprising discovery, I remember. So many things about the human body are the same–close enough for government work, at least–from person to person. But not our eyes. As it turns out, each of us sees the world quite differently.

I take a few ragged breaths to clear the stale air from my lungs, turn my head from side to side, and step stiffly from the sleep cell. Shuffling, bent at the waist, I make my way to the hex pod’s air lock and place my hand on the plate. The segments recede, close behind me as I step into the ship’s outer passage. Cirrus 8 comes to life around me, her dark corridors glowing lavender, pink, and gold as the operating systems, dormant or in conservation mode for years, hum and flicker to life.

I make my way to mid-deck and collapse in the cushioned captain’s chair, my weight triggering dust shields over the master console to slide back. Lines of data begin to flood the screens. Cirrus 8 pops up, a blinking green dot in the lower left quadrant of the galaxy model. A female voice, faintly British, booms through the silence. “It is Sunday, September 4, 2375.” A pause. Then, “Happy Birthday, Captain Sandall.”

I had almost forgotten. “Ah yes. And if I had a cake, Dac, how many candles would there be?”

“You were born on this day, Captain, 332 years ago.”

“Funny, I don’t feel a day over 100.”

“You have just logged your sixth 50-year down-cycle. Your biological age is 38 years.”

“That’s what I like about you, old girl. Your head for numbers.”

“I am preparing a status report. It will be ready in approximately three minutes.”

A little door slides away to reveal a pouch of peach-colored liquid and a cube the color of mowed grass. I drain the pouch and pop the cube in my mouth with a grimace. Re-entry nutriments are disgusting. I rise and turn to face the curved wall behind me. “Show me, Dac.”

“Accessing the viewing platform so soon after re-entry is not advisable, Captain.” I chuckle. The Syndac 850 is nothing if not pragmatic. But after 50 years there must also be a snall part of her that is lonely. And she is in fact rather eager to please. I know. I programmed her that way.

“Show me anyway.”

“As you wish, Captain.”

The eggshell surface of the wall shimmers once or twice and then begins to dissolve, allowing the scene beyond to come into view. Carthage Transport. Finally. I have to remind myself to breath.

It’s huge, a roiling ball of blue and gold gases that fills the view screen. Two of its three moons are also visible. Centennia, not much more than a bright spot in the distance, and Flournoi, floating massive and barren in the foreground. I feel a sudden wave of vertigo and stagger. I grasp for but miss the chair and fall hard on my knees, vomiting in great heaving spasms.

“Inadvisable, Captain.”

She’s right, of course. But it doesn’t matter. Carthage Transport. I’ve finally arrived.

A Lesson From Story Genius, Ch. 1

Hi writers! I hope you had a wonderful and relaxing Labor Day Weekend. I always associate this time of year with the bittersweet end of summer and heading back to school. So, let’s hit the books! For our challenge this month, in addition to toting around our prompt books and generating a lot of raw material to inspire us for NaNoWriMo in November, we are taking some lessons on what makes a great story from Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Every few days I’ll post some thoughts and comments on the book here, but I highly recommend you pick up a copy (published in 2016, it is available in paperback and maybe at your local library) and follow along. 

I received Story Genius from a fellow writer in my neighborhood Facebook group. The thing that hooked me is this quote by Flannery O’Connor, which appears in the book’s introduction: “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” True, right? We all know, after just a few pages, whether we’re going to read a book and enjoy it. Pulp fiction or literary classic, there has to be a good hook to draw us in and keep us in. When we sit down to write, we may be very good at assembling all of the pieces of a novel–interesting characters, cool settings, a “neat” plot twist–but there is often something missing. The whole thing feels flat and disjointed. The idea had so much potential, but it didn’t go anywhere.

In Chapter 1 of Story Genius, Cron sets out the premise of her book: that we are all, by virtue of years of evolution, hard-wired for story. Stories are not purely for entertainment. That is just nature’s bait; the sweet dopamine surge you get when you settle in with a good book and completely lose yourself in the story. But stories are so much more than that. As social animals, we learned a long time ago that, to not only survive but prosper, we needed to understand our fellow humans. Stories let us do that, by stepping into the shoes of a protagonist and exploring an unfamiliar world. This is seductive and satisfying. MRIs reveal that readers’ brains are those of participants, not observers. With a good story, we are not watching things unfold. Reality is suspended for us. We are in it.

And so the key to a great story is not what is happening externally (a/k/a the plot) but what is happening internally, to the protagonist. Cron describes this as the electrified third rail of a subway train. Without it, you have a nice train, full of passengers, and tracks leading off into the distance, but you are going absolutely nowhere. In a good story “[e]verything–action, plot, even the ‘sensory details’–must touch the story’s third rail.” They must have some impact that the protagonist (and the reader staring out of the protagonist’s eyes from his or her virtual reality suit) can feel. Only then does the story begin to chug out of the station. Only by feeling what the protagonist is feeling, experiencing her struggles, and undergoing her internal learning and growth process in real time do we escape into the world of story. This is what makes us turn the page.

Um. Yes. Yes! So how do we make that happen? Check back with me as we read on and find out. Happy writing, guys.

Raw Material – Day 2

Prompt: What can happen in a second.

“You don’t really believe in heaven,” Po said casually. A moment passed and she turned to face me, a shaggy fennel bulb dangling from one hand.

“Not exactly.” I felt her eyes on me but did not look up from my pile of chopped carrots.

“It seems like a pretty all-or-nothing proposition.” She broke the stalks from the bulb and began slicing it.

“It might depend on your vantage point.”

She looked over her shoulder at me, one eyebrow raised. How to explain this?

“For someone experiencing it, heaven is eternal.”

“Okay. And for the rest of us?”

“For us it could seem quite fleeting.”

Po screwed up one corner of her mouth, unsatisfied.


She narrowed her eyes.

“Do you remember that movie, the one where the astronauts go through a wormhole to try to find the lost scientist?”


“And they realize that the planet the scientist is on is close to a black hole? Time travels much faster there. And it dawns on them, In the month he was gone, their colleague actually lived an entire lifetime.”

“And they’re like, oh shit, because every hour they spend there is like a decade back home.”

“Something like that. The point is, the astronauts are on the planet. They’re there for an hour. They’re there for a decade. Both of those things are true. It just depends on your vantage point.”


“So in that last second, when the heart stops beating …”

“You think a dying person might experience that instant as an eternity?” Her face softened, as if she were coming around to the idea.

“Why not?”

“So an eternity in heaven and dust to dust …?”

“Utterly compatible concepts.”

“Hmm.” Po walked the big bowl of vegetables to the table, bumping me with her hip as she went. “You’re turn to make the dressing.”

Raw Material – Day 1

Hi writers! Ready with your prompt books? Let’s start the month off right. If you’re not sure what we’re up to, check out this month’s challenge here.

Here’s a little bit of what I wrote today:

Prompt: A houseplant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.

Ficus, my  ficus, stunted tree with your braided bulbous roots. No, that’s not right. Boston fern? English Ivy? Rubber plant with hand-painted leaves? Drooping peace lily, your tiny white face nodding, nodding, in the draft from the air conditioner? No. Nor a persevering heartleaf philodendron, creeping up my bookshelves, even into the dark corners of the room. Kentia palm? Benjamin fig? Grocery store bamboo rooted in pebbles? Wise-sad blossomless orchid, with its searching silvered air roots? No. Frost-stubbed succulent, drained yellow, visited in the night by vampire bunnies? Alas, you are none of these. But I promise you, little potted sister, if you rise up, if you make it through the week, I will search you out. I promise, I will learn your name.