StoryADay May – Day 17 – Sonnet Story

Hello writers! Today’s story prompt takes a cue from a classic poetic form.

Day 17 Prompt: Write a “sonnet story”–a story in 14 sentences.

As you may recall from Day 24 of NaPoWriMo, there’s quite a bit more to an actual sonnet, which is measured in lines, not sentences. But we’re writing prose here, so no need to worry about meter or rhyme. Like writing a 100-word story, this is an extreme limitation that will force us to consider what the essential parts of a story are and how directly they can be set on the page.

For an added challenge, you might also want to borrow from the thematic structure of a sonnet.

Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets, for example typically start with 8 lines setting out a proposition/problem/question, followed by a turn, or “volta,” in the ninth line, signaling a transition to the corresponding answer or resolution.

In Shakespearean sonnets, the volta usually comes in the last two lines, which summarize the theme of the poem or give a new insight on that theme.

StoryADay May – Day 8 – Conflict [updated: Sibling Rivalry]

Yesterday’s story, “Freya’s Return,” was meant to be a character sketch but wound up being a story about the relationship between two people, told through the life (and rebirth) of their dog.

I think I’m doing a pretty poor job of following the prompts. But … I’m writing stories!

Let’s get thinking about today’s prompt:

Day 8 Prompt: “Put your character in a mundane, everyday situation. Then introduce a strong element of conflict.” 

And as your character tries to resolve the conflict, throw obstacles in his or her way. As Nabokov said, “[t]he writer’s job is to get the main character up in a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”


When I thought of conflict I immediately wanted to write about sibling rivalry. And I decided to do something different and write my story in the form of a math problem. This is one of the nontraditional story forms suggested by John Dufresne in his book, FLASH! Writing the Very Short Story (see also, story as diary entry, personal ad, restaurant review, list, product advertisement, business memo, postcard). I was having some fun so I kept going and made it a little math test. I borrowed language from story problems I found on the Internet, but it has been a LONG time since I studied math, so please forgive me if the problems are not actually solvable.

Sibling Rivalry

1.  Carlos has taken several large doses of a prescription medication. The relationship between the elapsed time, t, in hours, since he took the first dose, and the amount of medication, M(t), in milligrams (mg), in his bloodstream is modeled by the following function:

M(t) = 20 ∙ e-0.8t

 In how many hours will Carlos have 1 mg of medication remaining in his bloodstream? Round your answer, if necessary, to the nearest hundredth.

2.  Five minutes before taking the medication, Carlos calls his younger sister, Graciela. Carlos and Graciela, long estranged, speak for five minutes before Carlos hangs up. Graciela, doubting Carlos’s sincerity and recalling past incidents that were mere cries for help, waits 5 minutes before leaving her house. But Carlos says he has a letter for Graciela. And he convinces her that it will be in her best interest to arrive first on the scene to retrieve it. Graciela leaves her house at 2:15 p.m.

Graciela lives with her husband Craig in a sprawling gated community on the other side of town from Carlos’s apartment. It is a small town, only three miles square, and Graciela owns a fancy new SUV, but she is careful with it, and never exceeds the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour. At 2:25 p.m., a train will pass by, just a block from Carlos’s apartment. If Graciela has not passed the tracks, she will have to stop and wait for the train to clear the tracks. This typically takes 4 minutes, but seems much longer.

Six minutes after calling his sister, Carlos calls 911. After 3 minutes on the line, 911 dispatch identifies Carlos’s location and notifies the local fire department. The closest fire station is 2.6 miles from Carlos’s apartment, on Carlos’s side of the train tracks. An ambulance, lights flashing and siren blaring, is immediately deployed, travelling 45 miles per hour.

Who will reach Carlos’s apartment first?

3.  Carlos is a high school band teacher. Finding himself between jobs, five years ago Carlos borrowed ​$500 from a storefront payday loan operation. Securing the loan with his most prized possession, an $8000 tuba, Carlos agreed to pay $95 biweekly. After six loan extensions, and having paid the maximum fees allowed by law, Carlos has still not paid off his loan. What is the total amount of interest that Carlos has paid? How much does he still owe?

4.  As a side gig, Carlos hauls music equipment from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, MI, 86 miles away. Carlos’s old conversion van gets 14 mpg. Gas is currently $2.78/gallon in New Buffalo and $2.92/gallon in Chicago. Carlos gets paid $150 per trip. What is his net profit?

5.  Carlos sometimes stays to play blackjack at the casino while he waits to meet the stage manager. He winds up ahead only 34% of the time. But he gets meals comped and sometimes gets to see the band for free. How long will it take for Carlos to realize this is not the same as breaking even?

6.  Three weeks ago, Carlos and Graciela’s mother, Esperanta Ruiz, died of natural causes on her 99th birthday. Esperanta’s last will and testament, drafted by the family lawyer when Carlos and Graciela were children, provides that her modest estate, including her single-family home on a quiet, tree-lined street (value: $380,000) and her collection of autographed George Orwell memorabilia (value: $25,000), should be divided equally between her two children. Under this will, would Carlos’s inheritance cover his current debt? Would it provide him with a nice little down payment on a home in Wisconsin he has been eyeing, up in the North Woods, where he can fish and meditate and write a New York Times bestselling novel?

7.  Shortly after Esperanta’s death, a second will surfaced, drafted by Graciela’s lawyer just weeks before Esperanta’s death. This will leaves everything to Graciela. Graciela hires a legal team to defend this will in court and it is upheld. Graciela’s lawyer charges $500/hr and bills 127 hours to her case. Two associate attorneys, each billing $300/hr, bill 230 and 97 hours to the case, respectively. Costs, including filing fees, expert witness and court reporter fees, plus the cost of the very fancy legal pads and fountain pens Graciela’s lawyer insists on using, come to $10,289.56. Did Graciela spend more defending the will than she inherited? Was it still worth it?

8.  Graciela is married to Craig, a multi-millionaire movie producer with expansive holdings. Craig owns a Park Avenue penthouse worth $3.6 million more than his ranch in Colorado, and a chalet in the Swiss Alps that is worth twice as much as his Colorado estate and three times as much as his serialization rights in a blockbuster Hollywood action film, but only 1/4 the value of his classic car collection and 1/8 the value of his shares in a Silicon Valley startup. What is Craig’s net worth?

9.  Graciela and Craig have just celebrated their third wedding anniversary. Craig, who learned the hard way when his first marriage ended, insisted on a prenuptial agreement. The agreement provides that, if Graciela and Craig divorce within 5 years of their wedding day, Graciela receives nothing. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Graciela will receive a 1% interest in Craig’s estate. On their sixth wedding anniversary, she will receive an additional 2% interest in Craig’s estate; on their seventh anniversary, an additional 3% interest; on their eighth anniversary, an additional 4% interest; and on their ninth anniversary, an additional 5% interest. Under the agreement, adultery is grounds for immediate forfeiture of any interest Graciela has acquired in Craig’s estate. When Graciela and Craig have been married for ten years, the agreement expires, and the laws of the great state of Utopia, a community property jurisdiction, will apply in full force. How much money will Graciela have after each of her wedding anniversaries?

10. One week ago, Carlos left instructions with his lawyer to randomly deliver one of seven sealed envelopes to Craig each year on the day before Craig and Graciela’s wedding anniversary. Six of the envelopes contain unsolicited screenplay submissions, of the sort Craig receives hundreds of every week. The plots of three of the screenplays center on a young(ish) wife having an affair with the grown son of her rich, elderly husband. The seventh envelope contains photographic evidence of Graciela’s longtime affair with Craig’s adult son, Carlton. The letter that Carlos has for Graciela, that she is currently making her way across town to retrieve, is a copy of the lawyer’s instructions.

What are Graciela’s chances of living happily ever after?

Please show your work.

NaPoWriMo Day 30: Final Words

All good things must come to an end. Thank you so much to those of you who participated in NaPoWriMo with me, for a single day or for all 30. I started this website as a way to hold myself accountable to my goal of writing every day. And it worked! Your final daily (optional) poetry prompt is all about endings.

Golden Shovel poem. Write a golden shovel poem. Find a short poem or take a line or two from a longer poem that you admire and place the words, in order, as the last words of each of the lines of your poem. Your poem can be an homage or go in a totally different direction, but you need to hit those familiar notes at the ends of your lines.

The Golden Shovel” is the title of a poem by Terrance Hayes. The last words of the lines in Hayes’s poem are, in order, the words of the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Many poets tried this exercise after Hayes and a new poetic form was born. Want to try it?

Here’s my Golden Shovel poem, playing on the words of “This Is Just to Say,” by William Carlos Williams.

The Icebox

Some memories I
do not tend to or have
forgotten quite intentionally. I’ve eaten
them, chewed them like the
frosted purple skins of just-picked plums.
Better that than add them to that
which I carry. Some things were
just not meant to ripen in
that way. Others lie stacked, foil-wrapped, in the
far corners of the icebox


though I know that that which
does not kill you makes you
stronger, these things that were
not close to killing me, probably
not worth saving
myself from recalling, for
some reason surge up, as I sit with my breakfast.
And I must invent ways to forgive
such a young and authentic version of me.

Other memories, they
exist in perpetual re-write, were
once something so delicious
that they beg to be replayed, and so,
through overuse, the sweet
in them is worn thin and,
having hinged them in and out of the icebox so
often, they’ve grown rancid and cold.

NaPoWriMo Day 29: Giving Thanks

The end is nigh, poets! As we close out this month of writing, I thought it would be nice to reflect on what it is that we get out of poetry and to give thanks for what inspires us. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Poem of gratitude . Think of a poem you love and write a poem in response to it that says “thank you.” See Dorothea Grossman’s poem “For Allen Ginsberg.” Speak directly (though perhaps not expressly) to the poet or to the poem itself. Explain what the words of the poem mean to you, how they make you feel, and why the poem is important—to you and to the world. You may want to peruse some of the poems in the Poetry Foundation’s collection of poems expressing gratitude.

[Please check back for my poem! I was up late last night finishing my entry to the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. Wow, you guys! It was fun to write something completely different, in a format I had to learn from scratch. I was assigned to write a 12-page screenplay in the suspense genre, about a government employee and something nocturnal. Now I definitely want to make writing screenplays a future monthly challenge!]

NaPoWriMo Day 28: Cross Talk

We are at the home stretch poets! Let’s make these last three days count. Your daily (optional) poetry prompt invites you to bring two seemingly unrelated things together and let your description of each play off the other.

Juxtaposition. Choose two objects or activities that are, on their surfaces, very different, but which you suspect might have something in common. Write for 5-10 minutes about the first object or activity in an instructional way, naming the various parts, explaining how they are put together, how something is prepared, what the step-by-step process is for doing the activity. Then do the same thing for the other object or activity. At least one of the two things you choose should be something pretty ordinary. The other might be more abstract. Then work to intersperse the lines you’ve written on these two subjects into a single poem. Do the two things say something about each other? Is one a metaphor for the other? Or are their differences only highlighted by their proximity? See if there are any lines you can make a little ambiguous, so it is not completely clear which of the topics the line refers to.

I was inspired to write this prompt by Henry Reed’s poem “Naming of Parts,” which, as Robert Pinsky at Slate noted, “contrasts the language of rifle instruction with vegetation.” We feel like we are the army recruits, sitting in the garden listening to their commanding officer. The syntax of weapons and the syntax of nature overlap, invoking ideas beyond their literal meanings.

Here is my poem written from this prompt. Can you guess what it’s about?

It Helps if Your Blade Is Sharp

Have a little reverence, these are
among the oldest cultivated things.
Fable and parable, myth and legend.
Peculiar nourishment of humans;
the animal gut fails to comprehend.
Wild ones may still have their leaves,
flat reeds woven down into the bulb.
They make a natural handle to pull
the thing up from the dark ground.
But you must snap them
off and discard them.

Beginnings are simple.
The rustling outer skin peels back easily,
it is the living layers, dense, cellulose,
that cling to one another. They must be
breached, forced apart, partitioned
by a practiced hand.

The edible round center
comes in three varieties:
the novel, lengthy prose, with a
narrative arc, is yellow and full-flavored,
will caramelize wonderfully
if exposed to slow heat;
short stories or flashes,
devoured in a single sitting,
have a livening bite, purple
or red, they are excellent raw;
and the little pearly white memoirs,
true stories dredged from murky soil,
can be bitter or quite sweet.

An old defense mechanism will be triggered:
the release of a volatile gas.
your eyes will water, making it difficult to continue.
The more often one chops, the less
one experiences this irritation.

You should have some techniques
at your disposal: slice lengthwise,
chapters and paragraphs,
in rounds or half circles;
chop roughly, point of view;
small dice, dialogue
(for precision, brunoise);
or mince—the one telling detail.

However you go about it,
it helps if your blade is sharp.

NaPoWriMo Day 27: Pinning Down Butterflies

Happy Friday poets! We humans are visual creatures, there’s no doubt about that. But describing what something looks like can only take us so far. We have four other senses that must not be neglected. Today we’ll employ some of our neglected senses to make the abstract concrete. Here’s your daily (optional) poetry prompt.

Making abstractions concrete. Abstract ideas often find their way into poetry. Emotions like love, anger, and fear. Concepts like memory, the passing of time, regret, elation, doubt. But if we speak of these things in only a general way, we invite platitudes, clichés, and banalities into our poetry. Abstractions are like butterflies; they flit about and are difficult to grasp. But we are the lepidopterists of our minds! If those concepts fly into the world of our poems, we must net them and pin them to boards. The tools at our disposal are our five senses. Today I want to challenge you to describe an abstract concept using at least three of your senses. What does anger taste like? What does ambition smell like? What color is fear? Pin those butterflies down, poets! Be absolutely ruthless.

Here is my take on the color, sound, and smell of loneliness.

They Say Loneliness is Blue

They say loneliness is blue
but they are wrong.
It is eu de nil, pale green of
lychen, clinging to rocks,
far above the tree line.

It is the stack music of
superheated steam
bursting from the engine
as the train pulls into
the very last stop.

It is the smell of relics
drawn down from the attic,
slow-blooming molder
of treated wood, scent
revenant of long-dead mice.

NaPoWriMo Day 26: #pocketpoem

Hi poets! Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day. I promise I did not make this up. Here is what the Academy of American Poets has to say about this event:

Poem in Your Pocket Day 2018 is on April 26 and is part of National Poetry Month. On this day, select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners, and on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem. 

Poem in Your Pocket Day was initiated in April 2002 by the Office of the Mayor in New York City, in partnership with the city’s Departments of Cultural Affairs and Education. In 2008, the Academy of American Poets took the initiative to all fifty United States, encouraging individuals around the country to participate. In 2016, the League of Canadian Poets extended Poem in Your Pocket Day to Canada.”

Today I challenge you to read some new poems, revisit some old friends, and share them, in whatever way feels right: Facebook, Instagram, the cork board at your local coffee shop. You can search for poems by author, keyword, and theme at the Poetry Foundation and Academy of American Poets websites. In my own twist on the pocket idea, I’m slipping poems into the pockets of my friends and loved ones today, for them to find later. Have fun!

And, if you would like some suggestions, here are some poets I have really enjoyed so far this year that you might want to check out. Your neighborhood independent bookseller (you still have one, right!?) would also be happy to show you where the good stuff is.

Published in the Last Year or Two

  • House of McQueen, by Valerie Wallace
  • Open Your Mouth Like a Bell, by Mindy Nettifee
  • Electric Arches, by Eve L. Ewing
  • A People’s History of Chicago, by Kevin Coval


  • Circles on the Water, Selected Poems of Marge Piercy
  • Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda
  • Ariel, The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath
  • Come, Thief, by Jane Hirschfield

NaPoWriMo Day 25: Worth a Thousand Words

If a picture is worth a thousand words, why start by staring at a blank piece of paper? Let’s find a good photo and WRITE WORDS NOW.

Writing from an image. We live in an age of digital cameras in our pockets, Pinterest, and Instagram. There is an extraordinary wealth of high-quality photographic images available to spark our imagination. Just take a look at what pops up when you search the Internet for “black and white photos,” “National Geographic photos,” or “historic photos.” Find an image that grabs you and write about it. Or use an old family photograph. Sit with the photo for a minute and just list a bunch of words and phrases that come to mind. Do this with a few photos before deciding which one you will use for your poem. The most evocative one may not have been your first choice. Describe the photo, tell us what is going on in it, or use it as a jumping off point for something completely different. Maybe your poem is about everything that is not in the picture. You decide.

Here’s my photo-inspired poem:

We Cater to White Trade Only

commissioned the sign,
placed it in the window
of the smart little
ground-floor office,
just beyond the stripes
of Venetian blinds
so that, at closing time,
lights out, blinds closed
with a twist, door locked
with the tinkle
of a tiny bell, there
would be no

placed the order,
considered “Whites Only,”
decided to spring
for the extra letters.
Someone handled
the samples,
chose the one
with the graceful bracket,
disappointed perhaps,
that a sign like this
was needed,
but determined
that if it was,
it would be
dispatched with style.

claimed the sign,
when notified
that it was ready,
unwrapped it
from the stiff
brown paper.
Someone assented,
produced bills,
gave thanks.
Someone tucked the sign
under one arm
and walked, dignified,
down Main Street,
past the courthouse,
the green grocer,
the hardware,
the florist.

opened the little
tinkling door,
twisted up the blinds.
Someone placed
the sign in the window,
smiled at passersby,
stood back to check
that it was straight.
Someone nodded once,
with approval,
pursed her lips,
brushed dust
from the palms
of her hands.

sat down at her
cold metal desk,
in a squeaking swivel chair,
and began the work
of the law,
of insuring risk,
of assessing values,
of placing orders,
of making deliveries,
of writing copy,
of catering to trade.

Someone thought,
well then, that’s done.

NaPoWriMo Day 24: The Bard’s Birthday (Belated)

As close as anyone can tell poets, yesterday was William Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare was of course a master playwright. But he was also a poet, writing several long narrative poems and a series of 154 famously cryptic sonnets. Want to read some? You can find them at Or you can listen to readers of all ages and abilities read the sonnets as part of an annual celebration called Sonnet Slam. I’m sure you’ve guessed already what your daily (optional) poetry prompt is.

Shakespearean sonnet. So what exactly is a Shakespearean sonnet? Well, there are some rules:

  • 14 lines (if broken into stanzas, 3 quatrains of 4 lines each, followed by a 2-line couplet)
  • The lines should be in iambic pentameter. This is a fancy term for ten syllables with alternating stresses (sounding like da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM / da-DUM). An example from Sonnet 12: When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME.
  • Line-ending words should rhyme, in the following pattern: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

You might want to try free writing for 10 minutes and then go fishing in your word soup for the elements you need to get you started. Circle rhyming words and words or phrases that have the right number of syllables and stresses.

And check out Rhyme Zone, a fantastic online rhyming dictionary and thesaurus that will give you a ton of rhyming and almost-rhyming words and phrases, grouped by syllable length. Or, if you know what you want to say but the words don’t rhyme, look up synonyms. You can restrict the results to iambic metrical feet by selecting the [ x / ] button.

I know. It’s kind of daunting. But let’s give it a go. Let’s write some crappy sonnets. This is like making our writer brains do Spenga! [If your sonnet is not crappy, please accept my sincere apology. And congratulations on your lovely sonnet.]

Here’s my sonnet:

Sunday Paper Sonnet

Steam, puff, and drip of coffee in the pot.
Fat bulk unfurled from its blue plastic glove.
Familiar parts arrayed without a thought.
First, Sunday Styles, a tale of modern love.
Then sweet surprise of fiction on its own,
Now taste the front-page stories and page through
Op-eds, spot on or—often—overblown.
Dowd, Bruni, Douthat, Kristoff—their world view.
A poem, a recipe for savory tart,
Medieval Tuscan town I stayed one night.
A washed-up actor, his hopeful new start.
An article that says, “Now go and write!”
I fold in halves and quarters each broad page,
And feel that, in this hour, I’ve lived an age.

NaPoWriMo Day 23: One Week Only

Just over one week left of NaPoWriMo! Don’t stop now guys. Your daily (optional) poetry prompt is a fun one.

Personification. Write a poem in which each day of the week is a person. This is an in-class exercise I recently did in a poetry class taught by the talented and wonderful Beatriz Gartler (check out some new poems on her website, she’s doing NaPoWriMo too). The point of the exercise is to get you to experiment with personification, which the dictionary defines as “the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.”

Here’s how mine turned out:

Familiar Friends

Monday: self-assured, wearing
tall boots with clacking heels,
holds the door open for no one.

Tuesday: puddle-hopping
misses the first train,
but catches the next.

Wednesday: pulls on her sweater
with the extra-long arms,
folds herself into the last seat,
in the back of the room.

Thursday: falls down, searches
drawers for a bandage, blows
on the cool sting of disinfectant.

Friday: sweeps everything
from the table, places
a cold glass of water in the center
with a single ice cube.

Saturday: replaces the water
with wine, drinks it down, refills it.

Sunday: makes a list.