Words of the Week 3/12/2014

This week’s words:

ineffectual adj. not producing the desired effect

apostate n. one who renounces a principle or belief; one who forsakes a cause

barbarous adj. savagely cruel, brutal; uncivilized (much as it sounds: barbaric)

dissimulation n. deception; disguising or concealing one’s true thoughts, motives, feelings, etc.

pullulating adj. swarming, teeming, sprouting with ~

In use (Hey! I made a short story this week!):

“Is it supposed to do that?” asked John, poking at his and Greg’s pullulating science project with a ruler.

Greg watched the Jello bubble and froth, beginning to panic. “‘Course it is,” he replied.

Thinking their strawberry lava volcano a failure, the pair had gone ahead and emptied the box of baking soda inside it. At first nothing happened; it appeared ineffectual.

Then the mass had started to swell.

“I don’t believe you,” said John, not fooled for a moment by his friend’s dissimulation.

Greg said nothing. The Jello was rising.

“Crap!” said John, and began to run in panicked circles as strawberry gelatin bubbled and spat. “Crap!” he said again. “My mom’s gonna kill me if it gets on the carpet!”

“Told you we should’ve done it in the garage,” said Greg.

“You did not!”

“Did so.”

John stopped spinning and clutched his head.

“Oh, stop,” said Greg. “It’s just Jello. Nothing a little Tide-To-Go can’t fix. Besides, you’re exaggerating. Your mom wouldn’t kill you over a carpet. A Persian rug is nicer than your average flooring, I’ll admit, but surely the gentle lady would not be so barbarous as t– “

“OH GOD,” said John, voice breaking as the Jello began to spurt out the volcano’s top.

Seeing no other option, he snatched the board it was mounted on and sprinted for the nearest door.

“Hey!” Greg yelled after him. “You’re messing up the results!”

“AHHHHH!” John replied, Jello spewing after him.

Apostate!” Greg called.

John didn’t answer.

Lame,” said Greg, sadly shaking his head at the globs of Jello strewn over the coffee table.

A rug! A rug! Their project for a rug!

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30 Short Stories in 30 Days: The List

Last year, for the month of January, I read a short story every day. I set this challenge for myself as a concrete goal that would expose me to many authors, genres, and writing styles in a short time and collectively improve my own writing. And it did: After each story I’d reflect on what I’d read in terms of both content and writing, and then I’d write a blog post about it.

What I forgot to do was post a complete list of the 30 stories. So, requested by a reader and terribly belated, here it is– the 30 (actually 31) stories I read for this challenge. The links included are to the blog posts I wrote for each story, most of which contain links to where the story can be found online.

Enjoy!

30 Stories in 30 Days: The List

  1. “The Saucier’s Apprentice” by S.J. Perelman (Day 1)
  2. “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe (Day 2)
  3. “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury (Day 3)
  4. “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck (Day 4)
  5. “The South” (El Sur) by Jorge Luis Borges (Day 5)
  6. “The Door” by E.B. White (Day 6)
  7. “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez (Day 7)
  8. “Three Questions” by Leo Tolstoy (Day 8)
  9. “The Tale” by Joseph Conrad (Day 9)
  10. “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka (Day 10)
  11. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (Day 11)
  12. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant (Day 12)
  13. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (Day 13)
  14. “Graven Image” by John O’Hara (Day 14)
  15. “The Nightingale and the Rose” by Oscar Wilde(Day 15)
  16. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor (Day 16)
  17. “The Standard of Living” by Dorothy Parker (Day 17)
  18. “The Happy Man” by Jonathan Lethem (Day 18)
  19. An Upheaval by Anton Chekhov (Day 19)
  20. “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (Day 20)
  21. “Almost No Memory” by Lydia Davis (Day 21)
  22. “The Three-Day Blow” by Ernest Hemingway (Day 22)
  23. “The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami (Day 23)
  24. “Putois” by Anatole France (Day 24)
  25. “The Ghosts” by Lord Dunsany (Day 25)
  26. “Nicolas was…” by Neil Gaiman (Day 26)
  27. “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut (Day 27)
  28. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Day 28)
  29. “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov (Day 29)
  30. “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen (Day 30)
  31. *Bonus story! “The Apostate” by George Milburn (Day 31)

Forum Friday: What was the first part of your WIP that came to you?

It’s amazing to me how many places stories can spring from and what wild directions they can grow in. Every story begins as a single idea, whether in a scene, an image, a character, a name, a superpower, a concept, a line, a title, a prompt, etc.

Drawing from my own experience, the starting point seems different for just about every work. Where one is inspired by a dream, another unfolds entirely from the title. A short story I wrote for fun began with a prompt (internet matchmaking) and the first line that came to me: “Peter McBunterbeans was always making bets, and almost always losing them.”

How about you? What was the very first part of your work in progress that came to you?

The Most Disgusting Thing I’ve Ever Done

As a writer, I just had to sit down and type this little mishap up. It was too visceral not to record.

So here’s what happened. Last week, I turned on a lamp in the living room. Flash. The filament cracks to a surge of blue and the light bulb promptly dies.

I unplug the lamp and remove the shade. Here’s where it starts to get ugly: in the white bowl of the lamp shell, when I unscrew the bulb, I discover two deceased insects. “Dead bugs,” you might be saying. “Whoop-dee-frickin’ doo. How old are you again, Julie?” And I would then assure you that I dispatch unwanted spider-guests all by myself, thank you very much, and once chased a cockroach the size of my fist with a can of bug spray. But that’s another story.

These insects– one an orangish lady bug, the other a red-backed, fly-resembling insect I have only ever known as “window bugs”– are fried to a crisp. They are yellow-brown, like straw, and textured as wheat square cereal. It doesn’t take a forensic scientist to see what happened: the bugs had clearly zapped themselves, or for whatever reason become unable to climb out of the lamp bowl, and became trapped at the base where the bulb screws in. By appearances, they have been there for some time: cooking, crisping, browning like the skin of marshmallow held to flame every time someone turned on the lamp.

That’s not even the gross part. The gross part is that in order to screw the replacement light bulb in, I have to take the insects out. I could, I suppose, have fastened the new light bulb in over them, but I didn’t relish the idea of the leg-collapsing crunch this maneuver was liable to make, and now that I knew the bugs were there, the idea of leaving their six-legged corpses to fry every time I sat to peruse the paper was not the most agreeable to me. I decide they’re coming out.

Removal, however, is complicated by the fact that the base of the lamp bowl– the pit in which these crispens reside– is narrow. It is smaller in diameter than a quarter, and only as deep as the base of the bulb. I could probably reach in and dig them out with my fingers, but I am not too keen to get Golden Antennae Crunch stuck under a nail. I resolve to use a tool. Preferably something disposable.

I evaluate my options in the kitchen. Plastic forks and spoons: too large. Straws: no grip. Small spatula/other rubber-tipped utensils: too wide and no grip. It occurs to me that a tea spoon– the elongated tool for stirring beverages, not the measuring instrument– would be both narrow enough to fit and provide some kind of scooping leverage in the sink. But that’s no good; I use these spoons all the time for tea, and would be much happier not remembering the serving of Refried Bugs one of them once exhumed from a dusty lamp crevice, even after washing.

I decide on the pickle fork.

Armed with my weapon of choice, I set to work. The fork is minute and fits easily into the trap, but its collection ability leaves something to be desired: I push the skeletal husks around but they, like the evasive last noodles in a bowl of ramen, refuse to be gathered. Finally I manage to scrape the lady bug, then the window bug, out of the bulb pit, all the way up the side of the lamp bowl, and into the trash.

ARE YOU NOT DISGUSTED?

I then lathered the fork with dish soap, washed it, and put it through the dishwasher for good measure. The insect-picking pickle fork is now back in the drawer, chillin’ with the other silvers. But that’s cool, ’cause I’m exactly not over the moon about pickles. I see no need for anybody who might be to hear this story.

HOW ABOUT NOW?

Forum Friday: Craft & Reference Books

The more I experience of novels (reading, writing, and reading about them), the more I am struck by the brimming seas of information and resources out there on novel craft, improving writing, grammar/punctuation, character and story development, etc. etc. etc. ad every element you can possibly imagine related to writing and or publishing a work of fiction.

Since honing our craft is something we can (and should) work on at every stage, for today’s Forum Friday I want to ask: as a writer or novelist, what books/resources have you found particularly useful? These could be books on craft, medical or military or architectural terminology, how to write different age groups or the opposite gender– anything. Let us know below!

To start I’ll posit Stephen King’s oft-cited and aptly-titled memoir, On Writing.

King’s book is part autobiography, part lessons in craft– and often enough the two overlap. It is one of the few books on the craft of writing that I have (to date) read from cover to cover, and I would gladly recommend it to anybody looking to improve their fiction or even basic written communication skills.

Let’s Talk Dialogue (Plus,Tell Me a Tune)

Dialogue. The Big D. The Cheese Burrito. (Don’t ask me why I threw that last one in– just roll with it.)

It’s a fundamental part of fiction: one of the best ways to show rather than tell (i.e., let your characters speak for themselves…literally), a great way to communicate information quickly, and an excellent pace-quickener, among other things. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s natural.

…Or should be.

Although our dialogue will ideally read like speech, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it sounds like writing…and sometimes there are other challenges. Have you ever, for example, had trouble with one of these?

  • Someone talking with food in their mouth
  • A character with an accent, twang, or dialect
  • Getting the pauses/hesitation/stutters right
  • Dialogue interrupted by action
  • Putting the tags in the right places and knowing when to exclude them
  • Punctuation-related grievances

Talk about issues!

What challenges have you encountered with dialogue? And (if applicable) how did you read, teach, or talk yourself out of them?

BONUS QUESTION OF THE DAY, completely unrelated to writing and usual Forum Friday material: can you think of any pop songs that tell a story as the story is happening?

Think “Stan” by Eminem, where you hear letters as they are being written, or “Internet Friends” by Knife Party, where a crazy stalker shows up at her new Facebook friend’s house when they block her (and you actually hear the doorbell, knocking, phone ringing, etc.) Heads up– both songs contain language/contentious material!

How do your stories begin?

There’s no right, wrong, or even singular answer to this question—I’m just curious to see where other writers have found inspiration.

A story’s conception is a curious thing. For me it is almost always different. Sometimes it begins with a prompt (duct tape + drunken cheerleader + ninja + Bally Total Fitness); sometimes with a dream (shapeshifting / doppelgangers / manipulating appearance); sometimes with a sentence (“Going to see the secret eater was like going to confessional, except the secret eater was not a holy man and those that came did not seek forgiveness.”); sometimes with a concrete object (pearl earrings); sometimes with an idea  (madness); sometimes with a character trait (ridiculous swears); sometimes with a name (Anne De Manda & Peter McBunterbeans—coined after my friend Amanda and her rabbit Peter, both of whom were proximate at the time).

Sometimes one, none, or all of the above.

How about you: where do you draw or have you drawn your stories from? Do you find one source/starting point to be more common than another?

30 Stories in 30 Days: Complete!

This post follows my successfully-completed endeavor to read one short story every day for 30 days, write about it, then post what I wrote on my blog. I challenged myself to do this in order to observe good writing, apply what I learned to my own writing, and—at least, where blogging is concerned—work on that other goal of expanding my writerly platform.

Now that the daily reflections are over, however, the time has come to reflect on the process as a whole.

Let’s look at the charts, shall we?

THE 30 STORIES IN 30 DAY CHALLENGE

Number of stories read: 31*

Number of words looked up: 135

Number of followers gained: 71

*Rounded up for the 31 days in January.

It’s a little harder to quantify just how much I learned in terms of craft, but there was at least one lesson in it for me each day. Every story, besides generally being a pleasure to read, had something to teach.

Looking at everything I’m coming away with—more stories in my head, better craft, new vocabulary, and no small amount of new followers—I definitely feel that this practice was worth the time I put into it.

That being said, of course, time was probably the biggest tradeoff in this investment. Reading a story every day (anywhere from one to twenty-six pages) might have cost a minute or a couple of hours; summarizing the story, looking up words and reflecting on writing lessons probably took up to another hour, or longer if the story was lengthy; compiling everything into daily blog posts (and formatting, finding an image, tagging, etc.) likely cost upwards of another half an hour.

That’s a pretty big commitment for thirty consecutive days, and it didn’t leave a lot of time for me to focus on the task this whole endeavor was meant to serve: writing! And yet, I did manage to write an entirely new short story in the month of January…(hooray!)

Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.

Would I do it again? With pleasure.

Am I in a hurry to do it again? No, sir—I have a manuscript to revise! That’s going to be priority #1 for a while.

I am, however, contemplating another, less time-consuming series. I like the idea of using those 135 words I picked up for something—maybe printing out and cutting up the definitions, putting them in a jar, and drawing a handful at random each day to make sentences with. We shall see.

Alternatively: blackout poems. That could be a fun break.

At the very least, coming up are a complete list of the 31 stories I read for my challenge, plus a compiled vocabulary list (all 135 new words).

Right now I’m still enjoying my (it feels as if new-found!) free time to write write write, anything I want! So far, since January and the challenge ended, I’ve written:

  • A letter
  • A poem that I’m really excited about…and might name a chapbook after
  • A rant about ugly pajama pants (look for it shortly)
  • Roughly twenty pages of manuscript (well, re-written; I’ve changed a great deal, plus wrote a character into one of the first scenes).

Well, lads—for now it’s back to the books, as they say!

Colbert Interviews Author George Saunders


Having just finished a month-long challenge in which I read one short story each day, the timing of the interview in which author George Saunders explains to my hero Stephen Colbert why he prefers short stories to novels could not have been better.

I tried to embed the video and failed; the best I could manage instead was a link:

Colbert Interviews Author George Saunders

Check it out!