Daily Writing Exercise #4 (Wed 6/13)

15 minutes of writing without thinking. Let your thoughts just write whatever comes next. This is for your eyes and your eyes only…unless you want to share. Maybe it’s awesome, maybe it’s hysterical, maybe it’ll prompt your next great novel…

EXERCISE #4:

You are buying a new home and are doing a walk through with your realtor. She opens the front door, you step into the (supposedly) empty living room and…???????

Write it entirely as dialogue, a conversation between you, the realtor and (if you want) whatever/whoever is in the living room..

Have fun!

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Celebrating Creativity With Imaginative Young Minds

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting my son’s elementary school and sharing a day of reading and creativity with some of the students.

I was invited to my oldest son’s 5th grade class where they are beginning to learn about and explore creative writing. After answering some general questions about the craft and about my own methods of revision and work processes, I read them the first chapter of my middle-grade work in progress.

If you ever have the chance to sit down with a large group of children and share your work with them, DO IT! To begin with, it is magical. No matter how many adult readers, editors, and peer readers you have, none of them can give you the intangible reactions you hope to get from your target audience.

I was escorted to my chair (a VERY comfortable rocking chair) by the student of the month and then the kids gathered around, in bean bags and on the rug; in chairs and on stools. I explained the premise of the story and told them that they were my first young audience to hear the beginning of the story. They were excited. I was excited.

And so I read….and it was AWESOME! There were laughs when there should have been laughs. There were smiles when I hoped there’d be smiles, and there were shocked expressions or gasps when I’d written in sections that were expected to cause those same reactions.

If I’d had the book done and published and ready for purchase, I would have had a room full of new readers. In other words, it was a success. They’d not only enjoyed the story, but they’d given me the proof that I had succeeded in my attempt to write a fun, quirky and enjoyable story for young readers. It was written all over their excited faces.

And afterward, I fielded questions about the rest of the story, about writing in general, and about key concepts and components of storytelling. It was great to discuss, point of view, foreshadow, metaphor, theme, climax, character evolution, and idea generation with the kids. They were as excited to demonstrate that they’d noticed the foreshadowing clues as I was to hear that my inclusion of them in the story had worked. They were as eager to learn what happened next as I was to tell them about it.

It was truly a rewarding experience. To give them a chance to explore their creativity and to pen a short story of their own, I prompted a little writing exercise. Using Rory’s Story Cubes (and if you haven’t seen these, they are the coolest things!), we rolled up nine images and put them up on the projector so the whole class could see them. The idea is that our minds think in pictures and an image gives us an infinite variety of interpretations. So, we rolled up the nine dice (the student of the month had the honors) and broke the class up into groups of three.

One person was responsible for writing the beginning. They had to write the hook and establish the conflict, along with introducing the character. Another child wrote the middle, working toward conflict resolution and inserting obstacles. The last person wrote the climax (having worked out with the middle writer where they were going to “meet”) and the resolution.

The groups were free to arrange the nine images in whatever order they wanted, each person taking three of the images and incorporating them into their section of the story. Their teacher and I listened in to the brainstorming process and watched as they eagerly created fantastic tales, some of which included mysteriously locked doors, laser shooting eyeballs, a honey-hunting cyclops, and giant alien bees. It was so much fun! And afterwards, some of the students shared their work with us, reading their sections and demonstrating how their voice, their imagination and their approach differed from their classmates who had the same pictures to work with.

I hope that when I left, I left some of them with a hunger to continue creating. I hope that when I left, I left some of them eager to tell more stories, to explore worlds within their own minds that they may have been hesitant to explore. I was there once. I was a 6th grade student when a similar experience had changed me forever. It was a similar experience that showed me that all I wanted to do was tell stories.

If even one creative young mind takes pen in hand and walks through that door of imagination and storytelling, then I’ll feel as if I have come full circle. But I’ll never know that, we’ll never know that, until they are sharing these same sentiments one day and remembering that afternoon in 5th grade when there were no walls and their minds could take them places where nobody could hold them back.

Here’s to creativity. Here’s to the next generation of wordsmiths, ready to ply their craft at the imagination forge.

Zombies Just Want to Have Fun….Part II

Hold on, read no further. This is not the beginning. To truly appreciate this tale, you need to begin at the beginning (hence Part II). So please, if you would, click here. If you’ve read Part I, then by all means, carry on…

Sucking wind and banged up a bit, we jogged through the woods. Others had raced on ahead, some half jogged, half shambled in time with us. The first zombie exposure had been a shock. People wore the kind of expression normally reserved for moments like when you open the front door only to be sprayed in the face by a soured ricotta cheese spewing skunk. You know, part surprise, part disgust.

The trail wasn’t wide and it was chock full of tangle roots, mud, and toe-stubbers. The sun slanting through the heavy forest canopy was beautiful. Lichen covered fallen trees and fern growth provided the perfect backdrop to a Rob Zombie/Norman Rockwell painting. There they were, blood and gore crusted zombies in the path. These were the under achievers, the zombies without any desire to get ahead in life. They served as shuffling scenery, making feeble attempts to reach out for flags as you danced past them.

The trail brought us to an inverted “V” cargo net where zombies waited underneath and on the other side. We crossed this with ease and hit the short tunnels (about 2 foot high and 10 feet long solid pipes/tunnels). After scampering through, we’d have to cross a clearing before entering the woods again. The zombie waiting must have been a NFL cornerback in life. I waited until I thought he was distracted and dashed for the woods. He was quick, I slipped in the mud, and my first flag was gone.

The next series of obstacles would find our party decimated. I was to be the only one of the three of us with any chance of survival. We hit an uphill series of bleachers, having to jump from plank to plank. Upon landing, we had to make it through the field of sprinting, savage zombies. I wish I’d had a camera on my head because it was madness. Pure and simple madness. There were bodies everywhere; zombies, runners, victims and monsters. Somehow we made it through and hitched for breath. However, that had only been half of the obstacle.

Death waited in the form of a hay bale maze. The walls were three or four bails high, the ground a churning mess of muddy water and inside…swarming with zombies. While people contemplated vomiting, fighting cramps and wondering what the hell they’d gotten themselves into, someone began to organize the survivors.

“We have to go as a group,” said the take charge survivor, somehow with enough breath to form words over his vocal chords. “Let’s put the dead people out front, as bait.”

That quote is verbatim. I mean, there’s a no-nonsense, tell it like it is, action Jackson. We knew he was right though and we staggered up to join the throng. To try to do it alone would be flag suicide. At his command, we surged forward, punching forward like a desperate picket charge. Ray went down hard, like push-ups in the mud hard. Face first, six-foot mud spray hard. He made it through with one flag left, looking like a walking Tootsie Roll. I hadn’t been hit, still two flags. The next part happened so quickly that we didn’t realize Jimbo was not with us. There was a third part to this series of chaos and the group was ready to roll through en masse.

It was a downhill run through a field of the undead. There was no time to think, the mob went and we went with it. I shot forward, bee-lining for two zombies, hoping a direct charge at full speed would throw off their decayed brains. I zipped left out of the reach of a zombie who came in from nowhere and then hit the two with a leaping scissor kick, clearing their outstretched claws like a flying squirrel-deer. Just imagine that for a moment. The rest was downhill, literally. I made it through again, with my two flags. Ray was not so lucky. His “crotch-clutch” tactic backfired. He’d placed his last flag squarely above his…um, manhood, hoping that one of the zombies might think twice before snatching at his junk. To begin with, zombies don’t think. Secondly, the wedding dress zombie was not shy in the least. She came in grabbing and though Ray died on the hill, at least he died happy.

We collected ourselves at the bottom of the hill and realized Jimbo was not with us. We waited a bit and still no sign of him. We assumed that maybe he had gone a different route and decided that we’d have to get moving. It was too dangerous to linger any longer. What we did not know was that Jim had never made it into the hay maze with us. He’d been left behind and that mistake would prove tragic. Jim never made it through the maze alive and we would not see him again until after the race was over and he arrived, infected.

We moved on. Ray was now the walking dead, it was only a matter of time before the virus spread and I’d have to put him down. But, for now, he offered to act as a shield, hoping that maybe I’d survive and live to tell this tale….

To be continued in Part III…….Come back to read the conclusion to this tale of life, death, mud and madness…and maybe the odd squirrel-deer or crotch clutch.

Please visit http://runforyourlives.com/ for pure awesomeness or visit their Run For Your Lives Facebook page. Great time, great people. Check it out. And don’t forget to look for Part III, coming soon…

Zombies Just Want To Have Fun..Part I

You should know that I am infected. There, disclosure. Now we can trust each other.

I mean, it may be any day. These could be my last words as a human and tomorrow I may be on your lawn, clawing at your door, wanting nothing more than to gnaw at your grey matter. That’s right, I was “bitten” by a “zombie.”

Hold the phone, don’t call the CDC. Put the shotgun down. These zombies were human volunteers in make up and costume and my brains were red flags. It was all part of the FIRST EVER “Run For Your Lives” 5K, zombie-infested, obstacle course race. Thousands of victims, I mean runners, descended on Darlington, Maryland to participate in an event that has already grown to 9 annual events from Baltimore to Texas, from Boston to Seattle. Nine crazy weekends in nine cities. Unofficial reports have the number of attendees at 10,000. Probably not far off.

This race/obstacle course/zombie nightmare…let’s just call it “The Event”, was sponsored by WARWEAR and Subaru and counted the American Red Cross as a charitable partner. The company mission: “To prepare you for a zombie apocalypse, and let you party like it’s the end of the world.”

Mission successful.

While nervous runners passed military garbed race officials on their way into the dark starter’s tunnel, while mud-covered, wet and ragged remnants of human civilization crossed the chain link fence finish line, and while campers set up their tents and campsites, music, food and beer did the rest. Fifteen bands jammed all afternoon and into the evening. Food vendors offered Pit beef, pulled pork, warm sandwiches and other delicacies at reasonable prices. Deli slicers worked incessantly, providing fresh meat from the on site smokers/grills. The taps rarely stopped as beer became the medicine for aches and cramps, chills and laughs. This was like nothing I’d ever done before, not even when I was in the Army.

Now, this was organized as a legitimate race event. Runners wore a “bib” pinned to their chest, with a number. We had electronic chip timers in our shoes and times were posted after the race (not that many people were interested in their pace or overall time). The flags were important. This was your life. You started with three and if you finished with even one intact, you were a survivor. All others were doomed. Figuratively. Everyone walked away with a medal. Everyone walked away with bragging rights, having successfully navigated a course that sent runners and zombies alike to the hospital with everything from dislocated fingers to broken legs. Hence the pre race waiver.

I took the starting tunnel with my brother, Jimmy and our friend Ray. We were in the 1:30 p.m. wave, lined up and stretching. We talked about pacing and strategy, how we were going to stick together and how best to fend off the zombies. None of it would matter, it would all go to hell over the next hour.

It should be mentioned that the flags are exactly like flag football flags and there is to be no purposeful contact with the zombies. You can’t hit, kick, push, prod, shove or shiv the zombies. No weapons, no animals, only your legs and your wits.

The gate opened. No turning back.

The weather was beautiful and Darlington might have been lifted off a post card from a New England farming community. An eldritch forest bore witness to nervous runners chancing upon their first zombies on the root-riddled and muddy woodland trail. These were the slow ones, the groaners. They shuffled and groaned (hence the name, original, right?), and casually reached for flags. No worries, screen to the outside, use other bodies as an obstacle. Just keep moving. If only it had all been that easy.

There were twelve obstacles throughout the course. Some were more challenging than others, but combined they left you wet, muddy, sucking wind and at the mercy of the undead.

The first obstacle left me with a knee that looked like I’d been attacked by a badger. It’s still healing. We emerged from the woods into an open field. Hay bails had been arranged in a broad, tall, step-like pyramid. We picked our spots, ran up the one side and then descended into hell.

A sea of zombies awaited the wave of runners. They came at us like flesh hungry jackals, clawing for our flags, grabbing and chasing. The woodline was the only sanctuary. Once we reached that, they’d stop coming after us, content to wait for stragglers or the next wave. If you didn’t come with the main body of runners, you were doomed. Survival depended on collective navigation.

I hit the grass and spun away from a zombie, shot left and used two more runners as screens, darting in between a couple more of the living dead. Then, he saw me. His dead eyes locked on me and he sprinted at me. SPRINTED. This worm bait was quick! I threw it into extreme high gear and bolted. Right into some girl. We both hit the ground, hard. I don’t know if she made it, I couldn’t know. I was rolling as he came, grabbing tufts of grass where my flags had just been. No idea where the others had gone. I gained my feet and shot towards the woods. He was right behind me. I juked right and my feet tangled over one another, pitching me to the ground again. This time it was a rolling launch and I was up and running before he was able to gain any more ground. This was not a 5k race. There was no pacing. This was extreme wind sprints with apocalyptic complications.

I hit the woods with a flying leap, passing an undead gatekeeper and making it to momentary safety with all flags accounted for. Jim and Ray were waiting, wide-eyed and smiling. One obstacle down, all flags accounted for and enough energy burned to have run half the race already.

Too bad we had eleven more obstacles to go….

(To be continued in Part II)

Pictures reprinted from Run For Your Lives Facebook page. Please visit and “Like.” They don’t bite…often.

What Scoundrels We Fiction Writers Are.

Scoundrels. That’s right. Rogues and villains. Desperadoes. We fiction writers (notice I say we) are all of the above.

Don’t pretend it isn’t true and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Any proper fiction writer can’t help but find themselves in the company of likewise shady characters. Think about it, we lie. We steal. Why, we even commit murder. Sometimes before breakfast and especially when short on coffee. We wage wars and level cities. We do terrible things all in the name of fiction.

Of course I am speaking figuratively (my lawyer told me I had to state this), but we do these things in our writing. We have to do these things in our writing. The very essence of fiction is fabrication. In other words we. are. lying. We create a lie and announce it to the world. We lie and sell those lies. We are paid (if fortunate enough) to lie. It’s storytelling, sure. It’s make-believe, but it all falls into the same basket. Not truth = lying (or insert synonym here if it makes you feel more warm and cuddly). But it’s ok. People want us to lie. They want to hear the falsehoods we create, because they know you’re just spinning a yarn. And for the time they are immersed in our lies, they are entertained; on vacation from the labors of reality.

Lying. That’s the jaywalking of the fiction writer’s world. Let’s move on to bigger fish. We steal. No, I’m not talking about your neighbor’s antique silver flatware, or that sweet corvette you saw in the parking lot. I’m talking about a bigger commodity, a more abstract and invaluable resource. We steal dialogue and names, clothing and hairstyles, memories, experiences, places and events. To be painfully clear, I am not, in any sense talking about the MORTAL SIN of PLAGIARISM. I am talking about observing and recording. Listen to people speak, to their dialect and speech patterns, the topics of conversation and the slang that they use. Write it down, file it away. Sit in a park, the mall, a bus stop, and watch people. Notice that guy checking his watch every 30 seconds? Why? There’s a story. Where’s he going? What or who is he waiting for? Practice studying people and details. You never know when a habit, personality quirk, or article of jewelry or clothing may pop into a story. Write these things down, but also develop your mind to retain these scraps of worldly currency.

I’m always practicing this. I got my haircut the other day, the first time in 90 weeks, and I happened to have the same hairdresser as the last time I was there. I noticed that she had a new tattoo on her wrist and that her nose was pierced. Not that I was stalking her (hadn’t seen her in 90 weeks), but I remembered that she didn’t have those things before. When I commented on her new additions since I’d been in last, she was very surprised that I’d noticed. We are writers. We notice details.

But we don’t stop there, oh no. We murder people on the page. We take unsuspecting characters and BAM. We kill them. That’s just the way it goes. Fiction requires conflict. Conflict often comes at the cost of one or more character’s lives. We make our characters suffer. We make them struggle through seemingly impossible odds to get what they want. We knock them down to their lowest points and then step on their heads. Does this sound like the act of a wholesome creator? No. It sounds like the act of a successful fiction writer.

Point is, don’t deny your true nature. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Our readers expect it of us. Our craft demands it. And damn it, sometimes it’s just fun. ;]

So get out there, you rogue. You are a card-carrying scoundrel with a license for abstract villainy, all in the name of fiction.

Diabolical laughter is optional but encouraged.

Time Heals Owl Wounds

No, I am not referring to wounds suffered in owl attacks, although I am sure the same principle applies. And odds are, if you’ve been attacked by an owl, you probably deserved it.

I am referring to, in a purely Potterical analogy, communication. Specifically, those forms of communication that we, as writers, dread. The communication that smacks us back out of the ego-swelling dreams of multimillion dollar advances and movie rights. The rejection.

Whether it come in a letter (a what? a letter. a what? never mind), an email, an owl or a smoke signal, rejections suck. But we all know rejections are part of the game and rejections tell you that you are doing what you are supposed to. You are in the game. You’re creating and sending your children out into the world like mischievous little goblins to tweak the literary ear of the world, to whisper your name to agents and editors while they sleep.

But sometimes, no matter how much armor we wear, rejections get to us. This is especially true for a larger project. Sometimes doubts creep in and while constructive feedback is certainly worth looking into (especially from professionals in the industry), it does not always mean that an entire overhaul is necessary.

After receiving a very constructive, very precise rejection letter on a story that I had every confidence in, I couldn’t help but be bummed. There may have been a bit of moping, some niggling self-doubt. There may have been (and I can neither confirm nor deny this) a momentarily lapse of reason in which I streaked through the neighborhood, singing Lady Gaga and eating tapioca pudding until my run became a bloated, melancholy shuffle and I was picked up by the police. But that’s not important right now.

What I discovered this morning, is that there is a band-aid. Put the piece away and work on something else. I’ve since started another project ( a couple really) and figured I’d come back to the rejected piece after I’d finished the new stuff. But this morning, while reading The Writer magazine and walking on the treadmill (sans pudding and WITH clothes), I started thinking about that first story. The one that had recently been rejected. I thought about the points discussed in the letter and the product I’d turned out. And I thought, I have a good story. And the rejection letter I received (for which I am extremely thankful, given the constructive advice offered) did not say it wasn’t. That thought was my own inner consciousness pouting. Some of the points discussed were minor and some were subjective but overall, it was not that far from going back out again. It needed to go back out again. It had just needed time.

Time separated from my expectation, reaction and attention. Time heals. Time applies a healing balm to that sting and allows us, as writers, to approach our projects with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. It’s like Yoda, riding on the Dalai Lama’s back while he’s water skiing on the backs of dolphins. Who doesn’t want that feeling?

So don’t get discouraged. Take some time and come back to it. Might be a few days, might be a week, might be a month. Focus elsewhere and listen, you’ll know when to come back. Unless you hear a screech-owl. Then I suggest staying the hell away. Time might heal owl wounds but they probably hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.

Tell Me a Story About Leprechaun Love

I’ve watched writers gripping their pen with what could only be construed as a focused debate on whether or not to drive said pencil through their eyeball, thus ending their misery. I mean come on, Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat in chapter three is an obvious metaphor for capitalist society infringing on the demands of children brought up bottle-fed instead of smothered against their mother’s breast. And what about a third person, omniscient narrator with occasional amnesia? I know, I’ll write a zombie prom story. Zombie’s are hot, right? No, not any more? What about leprechauns? A leprechaun love story? I’ll go all new media and write it as Facebook status updates. No, I’ll use Post-it notes. And it has to be perfect, NOW. That’s why I am editing the first page again. Yes, it’s the 684th time I’ve rewritten it.

To all of you who write, myself included, I say this: RELAX. Am I being facetious? Yes. But the idea isn’t that far off the mark. We writers are a worrisome lot. We have a lot of tools, dynamics and “moving parts” to contend with in order to produce a quality and entertaining product. However, it seems that the more we write and the more we immerse ourselves in the craft of writing (and don’t ever think for once that writing is not a craft), we forget the most basic and fundamental building block of all. Tell a story.

It’s that easy. Just tell a damn story. At its most basic level, at the core of everything we have learned and will learned, we must never forget the heart of it all: Tell a story.

Of course we need our writers’ tool box. We need to pay attention to technique and style, voice and fundamental dynamics. But these are the things applied to and over the heart of the idea, the story. We have nothing if we have no story. Well, maybe we have a grocery list or a collection of random thoughts about what’s actually buried in the very back of my pantry (and if you know, please tell me). But we need a story. It starts with a story and if you remember that, if you get excited about that, you’ll be alright.

Just…tell me a story.

Now grab that pen, hammer that keyboard, and write that leprechaun love story. Don’t forget Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat.

Hey, if you are so inclined (and damn crazy enough), write the story as a flash fiction. 500 words and post it on your blog or website. Put the title to your story and a link to it in a comment below so that we can all appreciate your craziness, I mean creativity. Let’s hear your stories!

Tell us a story!