On writing a short story (part two).

So I’m having trouble with this short story, as I often do with short stories. I really struggle conceiving a plot to fit the limited length. My pacing seems off; things happen to quickly or without any authentically developed context. And my characters seem wooden, without depth. I know there’s nothing wrong with lovingly crafting a story (I think John Irving takes years to finish his novels), but short stories serve a specific purpose: deliver powerful prose in a compact space. I should be flooding the market with my short stories the way aspiring musicians offer demos. I want to be quicker, but I’m finding the results to be unsatisfying if I rush through.

And, if I’m being honest (which I always strive to be), I’m in Florida with family and there are a million and one setbacks and interruptions and obligations to be met. It’s frustrating, but as I wrote last time, I need to celebrate the small victories. So though this draft does not advance the plot persay, it does contain enough revisions to develop and deepen the narrative. Changes are marked via underline and change in text color (I switched it from black to red; hopefully it shows up?).

The Story (needs a title…)

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.

The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.

Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.

“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.

Zander started talking about and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group that anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”

Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingerprints had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?” 

The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”

Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”

Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage, given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group inside, to continue on, with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.

Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”

“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I’m not sure where to go from here. I know I want it to end in mayhem and tragedy and chaos, but in an unexpected and engaging way. Do I …

  • have Bryan turn out to be a satanist and kill Madeleine to open the portal to hell in the estate?
  • have Madeleine kill Bryan in self-defense, or because she becomes possessed by entities in the estate?
  • have Zander kill them both in a satanic ritual the group members are in on?

All of these seem melodramatic and uninspired, but what do you think? I’d love, love, LOVE to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!

On writing a short story (part one).

If there’s anything I pride myself on, it’s being authentic while being kind. To that end, I must admit that I did not finish writing my short story. I didn’t post by 5 PM as planned. This is because I’m quarantining in Florida with my three nephews (all under 12 years old) and my niece (under two years old) and a house full of family. It’s been amazing and entertaining, but I am so tired. I’m also trying to finish the school year strong and it’s this kind of juggling that leaves me tired and uninspired. I know it’s critical, non-negotiable even, to make time for writing. Even though I didn’t finish the short story, I need to be proud of myself for what I did complete, which was nearly 1,000 words. And this is a typical part of my writing process, honestly. I’ll stop when I feel like I have to force it. This is where I ended up today:

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. There was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, you don’t want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny 99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at an abandoned lunatic asylum on the other side of town. So in a week, she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thicker liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and the anxious group of paranormal investigators moved closer together and turned in unison to observe her. She released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, was wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. Zander, the self-proclaimed psychic medium leading the investigation, started talking and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine was only half-listening. She was scanning, always scanning, for Bryan. She didn’t see him and loaded up with a digital recorder and an EMF reader. She followed the group inside.

As the group moved through the first floor, a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said. The fluorescent lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.” Everyone nodded, offered a quick, sympathetic smile, and then went back about their business, which at the moment, was following Zander deeper and deeper inside the abandoned lunatic asylum. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” She extended her hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

On planning a short story.

Now that I’ve finished a 21-day creativity challenge (courtesy of Grammarly), it’s time to keep the confidence and creativity going! I thought it’d be a good idea to walk you through how I write a short story step-by-step.

Step 1: Get inspired

For me, inspiration comes from my surroundings. I feel lucky that I’m able to pull from my daily environment and my day-to-day doings. For the past three weeks, I’ve been quarantining in Cape Coral, Florida with my sister, her husband, and FOUR kids (all under the age of 12). It’s been entertaining as hell and while I may be short on sleep, I am definitely not short on inspiration or love or laughter. Surrounded by palm trees, heat and humidity, and unpredictable and fast-moving storms, I had an idea to set a story in the Sunshine State. There’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time about a guy murdering his wife and getting rid of the body at an alligator farm, the kind where they give tourists airboat rides, and the local sheriff works with a beautiful but broken bartender from a honky tonk bar to solve the case. That feels like more of a novel, because it would absolutely take time and space unavailable in the short story format to explain everything concerning the plot, so I hunted for another idea.

My nephew Jonathan LOVES scary movies. It’s all he ever wants to watch and I know I’m mostly responsible. I’ve been forcing them on him since he was about four years old. The other night, he joined me in watching old episodes of “Ghost Adventures.” The episodes in question featured Mark and Debby Constantino, paranormal investigators and EVP experts who died tragically. After several incidents of domestic violence, Mark killed Debby and himself after a standoff with police. You can read more about the tragedy here.

Paranormal investigating, coupled with personal tragedy, makes for engrossing material. It’s been storming a lot here too, so an atmosphere formed in my mind before an actual story did, but everything I needed was there.

Step 2: Create a bare bones outline

Scenes don’t formulate for me until there’s a tangible kind of plan. I love making lists and outlines for this very purpose.

  • Two paranormal investigators meet online during a televised, live investigation
  • They bond over corny, melodramatic personality and technology used (looking at you, Zak Bagans … sorry)
  • They plan to meet in real life for a real ghost hunt
    • Stanley Hotel (and use my real life experience)?
    • Research abandoned lunatic asylums?
  • During the investigation: he kills her? she kills him? they find real ghosts? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!

Step 3: Character sketches

I honestly believe the best stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. It could be the most exciting series of events in the history of literature, but if the characters are flat and do not elicit some kind of visceral response, none of it matters.

My character sketches aren’t too detailed, which is frowned upon, but it works for me. My main character is named Madeleine. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit —> heavily painted lips, a dark crimson; thick, black eyeliner; pitch black hair (dye from the box, drugstore); listening to Screamo(?), heavy metal(?); studio apartment, light beet can beside her at desktop computer?

The above sketch is very visual; I believe imagery is ESSENTIAL to storytelling. The reader NEEDS to have a picture painted in their minds in order to connect to the characters and the story. So as a picture forms, there are more questions to answer: should I set the story ten years earlier? twenty years? And as the picture becomes clearer, it brings me to step 4.

Step 4: Specific scenes

Again with my list-making: I make lists of specific scenes I want to include. So far, I have a scene with walkie talkies and EVPs (a demonic voice coming through, something neither investigator is prepared for), a scene referencing ITC and “white noise” (to build mood and atmosphere), and a Van der Graaff generator (featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” but to be believable and specific, I need to do more research).

Step 5: Research

I’m going to be looking up any technical details I’m not familiar with to give my voice authenticity (an element emphasized in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book, a brilliant memoir on writing). After that, I’ll write a rough draft and post it here.

On an unrelated note… in the past six or seventh months, I’ve become a better woman. I’ve been moving ever closer to the woman I always dreamed I’d be, and that is thanks in part to two very special women. I promised I’d write an entire blog post about them, but they’d be embarrassed and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever be able to put into words how amazing these women are, at least not to my own satisfaction. So the short story will be dedicated to Casey and Kathleen.

On ending a 21-day challenge and maybe calling it a 21-day fix

I’m really glad I stumbled on this 21-day creativity challenge when I did, because life has been very weird for longer than anticipated. For me, it’s not so much a lack of inspiration as there is P L E N T Y to pull from if one only observes the world for a moment. For me, the trouble is sticking to a writing schedule, to get those plentiful ideas down on paper. The awesome thing about attempting this 21-day creativity challenge is that it has forced me to carve out time each and every day to be creative. It has forced me to create and stick to a schedule where I am writing (or developing inspiration for writing) everyday, and that in and of itself, has been i n v a l u a b l e.

So let’s review my third – and final 😦 – week of my 21-day creativity challenge.

Day 15: Perform a mundane task.

The idea behind this “challenge” reminds me of the “Eureka theory.” The “Eureka theory” proposes that formerly impossible becomes solvable when one “thinks outside the box,” which happens when the mind is allowed to wander from the problem and, in some instances, think about something else entirely. This (apparently) comes from ancient Greece when Archimedes was asked by a local king to prove the king’s crown was pure gold. Archimedes had no idea how to do that, and puzzled over the problem. The solution suddenly came to him when he was doing something entirely different and unrelated; taking a bath. When at the public bath, Archimedes “noted that water was displaced when his body sank into the bath, and particularly that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of his body immersed in the water” (Wikipedia). Thus, Archimedes discovered how to find the volume of an irregular object, which solved his problem concerning the king’s crown, and legend has it that Archimedes was so excited that he jumped from the bath, yelled “Eureka (meaning “I have found it!”)!” and ran naked all the way home.

This method has definitely worked for me many, many times. When I let my mind wander and do its own thing, nine times out of ten it brings me to where I need to be. I even recommend this to my students; if they’re stuck, leave whatever it is behind and go do something they love for half-an-hour. The mind is more relaxed, more open to possibility, and the solution often appears.

I tell the students to do something they love instead of a mundane task because it offers more of a buy-in, or an incentive. For the older (and sometimes wiser), mundane works because there’s always something that needs to be done but can simultaneously prove fruitful for the creative life. Just the other day, I was folding what appeared to be a never ending pile of laundry and BAM! The plot hole I’d been puzzling over resolved itself! If only dealing with fitted sheets were so easy.

Day 16: Knit or crochet.

When I saw this challenge, every muscle in my body tensed. For years – literally years – I’ve been teasing a colleague who knits and crochets. It’s gentle teasing and truly comes from a place of love, but really? Seriously?

I had to stop judging and climb down off my high horse and give it a whirl. After all, I realized this “challenge” wasn’t so far off from doing something mundane. Knitting or crocheting could be like painting or coloring; the repetitive muscle movements and hyperfocus on the tactile challenge could indeed open up a world of possibilities. BUT – I also knew I couldn’t do this without my poor colleague I’d teased mercilessly. So I’m going to set up a time with her where she can show me the ropes (of yarn! … get it?) and I’ll post the finished product here.

Day 17: Make a list.

OMG, ALL I DO IS MAKE LISTS! In my daily planner, in my journal, on Post-it notes stuck all over my desk and monitor, there are lists and lists and lists! Again, the idea here is that considering a wealth of possibilities to whatever creative endeavor is challenging you, you open up your mind and find the right one.

Day 18: Have a conversation.

OMG, ALL I DO IS CONVERSATE! But really, direct quotes from conversations I have had with friends in real life end up in my writing A L L T H E T I M E. According to the late, great Professor Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” For example, I can remember all the details of when my second grade teacher told me years and years later that she remembered my handwriting and what a wonderful writer I was. And with equal clarity, I can remember when someone pointed out all the flawed editing in my first novel. I recorded the exchanges and have filed them away because 1) writing through real-life situations is an effective coping mechanism for me and 2) inspiration could be hiding within.

My hero Stephen King wrote:

Writers remember everything… especially the hurts. … A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”

So having conversations, good and bad, and remembering them is important to helping stimulate creativity.

Day 19: Keep an idea file.

Done and done; been doing this for years. In my Google Drive, there are two folders: Novels and Short Stories. Inside each of those folders is another folder, simply labeled “Ideas.” And the best thing about those folders is that I’m constantly adding to them.

Day 20: Try a topic generator.

Topics/ideas aren’t really my issue, but these are fun to play with anyway. And the point of this 21-day “challenge” is to try new things and think outside the box.

Having trouble starting a deep, interesting conversation sure to be filled with nuggets of creative gold? Try this random conversation starter generator.

Having trouble thinking of something to write about? Try this topic generator specifically for blogs.

Or try this fun one!

Day 21: Light a vanilla cinnamon candle.

In life, it really is the little things. Sitting at my desk in my front room with the window open on a nice day, watching the sheer curtains ripple from the gentle breeze blowing through with a vanilla cinnamon candle flickering is a perfect way to start my writing day. Specifically, the vanilla cinnamon candle is good because in the aromatherapy realm, those two scents really seem to boost creativity.

So how did your 21 days go? Comment and let me know!

On week #2 of my 21-day creativity challenge.

I won’t repeat myself unnecessarily, so all I’ll do to open up this post is reiterate how difficult it can be to be creative during a pandemic. Life is not as it was, and information about returning to the way things were changes every day, and the amount of information is overwhelming and varied. The only real consensus is that there is no real consensus, and all of those circumstances can make it quite difficult to keep to a writing schedule and all of those circumstances can make it near impossible to start and stick to a *new* creative schedule. But at times like these, the best we can do is try. So please, join me on my second week of Grammarly’s 21-Day Creativity Challenge (featured here).

Day 8: Carry an idea notebook.

One of my favorite aspects of this challenge is that most of the tips are tips I already implement daily, let alone weekly. One of those tips is to carry an idea notebook. I’ve actually been teased for always having a journal and a pen in my purse or bag. Here’s photographic evidence of my idea journal:

Mostly, I write down things my friends say and dreams I remember. Occasionally, I’ll be especially inspired and able to write a scene, or a couple of scenes, or even a whole chapter! I write down the homily during mass too, and daily schedules, and let it all flow together. My writing life should and will forever be entwined with my general life.

Day 9: Freewrite.

A former co-worker RAVED about freewriting. We would have our students participate in that activity to help deepen their understanding of a concept, or help them begin to develop analysis. There’s excellent and extensive information about freewriting at this link. And other teachers, writing for Psychology Today, agree with our premise as its benefits go beyond the realm of creativity, as explained here.

So how does one freewrite? Luckily, The Book Designer walks you through it:

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

1. Use a prompt.
2. Set a timer.
3. Keep your pen moving.
4. Write quickly.
5. Use the first word.
6. Write crap.
7. Go for it.

Find more information here.

Day 10: Join a social writing site.

I began to explore this last week when the tip was to join a group of creatives. Physically doing this is not a current option, but joining an online group through a social writing site is entirely plausible. According to Grammarly, the goal is to do more than just connect, however. Grammarly says, “If your muse gets lonely, online social sites for writers, such as Wattpad or Amazon Kindle’s Write On, may help. (Just be aware that getting noticed and earning feedback on these sites can require a significant time commitment.)” The goal should always be inspiration first, but there is the opportunity for developing a readership. I haven’t truly tackled this step yet, but I will and I will report back.

Day 11: Go somewhere busy.

This particular tip was difficult to try during this pandemic, so to talk about this tip, I have to rely on past experience. The benefits are almost endless. You can overhear real dialogue to make your own more authentic.I remember sitting at a crowded bar and watching two guys across the way rehash the fight one of them had with his girlfriend. I made note not only of the dialogue, but of the way they moved. Going to crowded places can also inspire settings which can develop plot.

Day 12: Go someplace quiet.

This tip, conversely, was extremely easy to accomplish. It seems like everywhere is someplace quiet. I’ve done my best writing alone in my room. What works best for me is gathering and generating ideas in busy places and then developing them into prose in quiet places. Quiet places help with concentration and can be relaxing and soothing. Also, the perfect blend of someplace busy and someplace quiet is one of my favorite places to write: a bookstore or coffee shop.

Day 13: Do something brave.

This one confused me when I first read it. Grammarly explains, “Shy? Join an improv group. Clumsy? Take a beginner’s dance class. Do something that pushes your limits and then use your experiences for inspiration.” Again, this becomes an issue when most places are closed and new experiences are severely limited. However, I did something brave as best as I could; I traveled to Florida during this quarantine to see my sister and her beautiful, precious family. I was worried about checkpoints at state lines, about rest areas and service stations being closed, and taking the trip in these scary times.

Day 14: Attend a creative event.

This is not possible currently, but I cannot stress enough how much attending writing conferences has helped me. I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but I’ll happily repeat myself if it convinces even just one person to put him or herself out there and attend a conference. The benefits vary depending on the conference, but no matter the conference, there are always undeniable benefits. I got into more details in the following posts:

Tune in next week for my third and final week of the 21-Day Creativity Challenge!

On a 21-day Creativity Challenge!

Last week, I happily posted about how I had a breakthrough while writing. I was pleasantly surprised by that burst of creative inspiration as it seemingly came from absolutely nowhere, seeing as how we’re STILL in the midst of a pandemic, which means we’re still social distancing and quarantining. As random as it appeared, I was afraid that after that initial spark, there’d be n o t h i n g. For once in my writing life, I decided to be proactive and challenge myself to be creative no matter the circumstance! I did some research and stumbled upon a Grammarly post about 21 Ways to Inspire Creativity When You’re Out of Ideas.

I saw the number 21 and figured it was a sign from the universe; if you do something consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit. The 21 ways could easily become 21 days as long as I vowed to try a way a day (oh, how I love rhyme!). For the next three blog posts, including this one, I’ll be writing all about my 21-day creativity challenge! I’ll share what worked, what didn’t work, and what I learned!

Day 1: Listen to music.

I listen to music C O N S T A N T L Y. Hell, I even listen to music when I sleep! Naturally, I listen to music when I write. On my Instagram, I post a #tuesdaytune , which is a song that’s been especially inspiring that week. For a song to inspire me, it has to inspire great emotion, which for me, usually comes from the lyrics. If lyrics are especially poignant, I’ll stop in the middle of my writing and jot them down. I’ve been doing this since college:

This is one of my notebooks from college.
I spy lyrics from My Chemical Romance, Boxcar Racer, and Snow Patrol.
I spy lyrics from MGMT, Bayside, and Billy Joel.

For day one, I set myself up in my bedroom. I’d recently watched “Twilight,” inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s announcement she’s finally going to release Midnight Sun, Call me a snob, but I really didn’t care for the books. The writing was too juvenile to really pique my interest, but I will gladly admit I LOVED the movies. It’s always a treat to watch Robert Pattinson do anything, and those movies were delightfully hollow. I didn’t have to think or analyze, I could just imagine laying in a meadow with an immortal Robert Pattinson who was so in love with me, he’d get us both caught up in adventures riddled with poor character development and gaping plot holes.

But I digress. I wrote about 750 words in one hour, even with pausing to copy lyrics I loved. I think that’s sufficient evidence to prove listening to music really does inspire creativity.

Day 2: Journal every day.

Again, this is another way to inspire creativity that I’ve been using for years. I’ve been journaling every day since middle school. Here’s photographic evidence:

That middle shelf is all the journals I’ve filled over the years.
This is the journal I’m currently using.
And here’s proof I’m using it for this 21-day challenge!

Day 3: Join a group of creatives.

Considering the current global state, this one proved especially difficult. There are TONS of online writing groups, but that’s actually a challenge for a later date. Though I can’t join a new group, I can absolutely attest to the power of joining a group of creatives. I’ve been blessed to attend three writer’s conferences in just as many years: the Algonkian Writer’s Conference, the Writer’s Hotel, and the Frank McCourt Summer School for Creative Writing. In each setting, I was awed and inspired by the creativity and tenacity of other writers. I still keep in touch with the groups I was in from each conference and I still seek their advice. I am honored to still be a part of their writing lives.

Day 4: Take a walk.

This is another activity I do regularly. I don’t always take my journal as I tend to focus on the walk for its exercise benefits, but when I adopt a more leisurely pace and allow myself the opportunity to stop and write, I’m never disappointed. If the inherent beauty of nature doesn’t inspire me (and I’m fortunate enough to live near the water), then being out and about among others definitely will. Even during this pandemic, I’ve found opportunities to “people watch,” to steal glimpses into the lives of others and formulate a plot with my imagination. I’ve copied overheard conversations into my journal to help me make my created dialogue more authentic and because, sometimes, people say wonderfully interesting things that I want to remember forever.

Day 5: Turn off (or cover) your monitor.

According to Grammarly, the point of this way to inspire creativity is to prevent focusing on what’s already been written:

Interesting things happen when you can’t edit—you have to move ahead rather than worry about what’s behind you. Sure, you’ll make tons of typos, but you can fix those. Later.

Written by Karen Hertzberg for Grammarly.

I thought it was an interesting concept. I’ve been using a typewriter now and again, and it’s a similar concept. The typewriter I use is old school; manual. And I didn’t buy any correcting ribbon. But, to do the thing properly, I will now try to write a part of my short story without looking at the monitor. Here we go:

The office was loud and overcrowded, as it usually was. Bernadette couldn’t work in that kind of environment and actually did her best work in the late afternoon when everyone else started to fdrift home. On nice days, she’d take her laptop up to the roof and work in the rays of the setting sun and letting the sounds of the evening commute serve as relaxing white noise. It was a good thing that Greg, her boss/editor, kept a similar schedule. It would end up being just the two of them in the office and he always seemed more prone to greenlighting her story ideas. The mini-fridge kept fully stocked with beer under his desk may have helped greatly, but Bernadette also liked to believe her talent and charm played an equally important role.

I’m impressed I didn’t make more mistakes. I mean, this is still rough – very rough – but thank you, Mavis Beacon (haha).

I like the idea behind this challenge, but in the end, it’d probably be more frustrating than inspiring. I’d keep this in the “Break in Case of Emergency” file, when I’m completely stuck and desperate for any kind of inspiration.

Day 6: Reward yourself for writing with a kitten.

If you go to this website, it allows you to choose between a kitten, puppy or bunny to pop up on the screen after so many words (you’re allowed to select that as well). I left the defaults chosen, so for every 100 words, a fresh kitten popped up. I recorded the experience for your viewing pleasure:

Adorable! But a message does pop up suggesting that users copy and paste the writing because the website could lose it. It’s not very practical, so I rank it with covering the monitor: only use in desperation.

Day 7: Mind Map.

I am NOT artistic at all. You don’t really need to be for a Mind Map, though. The idea is to creatively think about your big ideas and present them in a way so you can see your ideas in ways you never did before. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up tutorials on YouTube (since the class linked from the Grammarly blog cost $47) and found this helpful (and quick!) clip.

I totally traced the big rig in the center. I’m really not artistic.

I really liked Mind Mapping, and I definitely will do it again in the future. It forced me to think about my short story idea in a different way, and the coloring aspect was soothing. It combined the best parts of being creative.

So tune in next week for another week of creative challenges! Let me know if you tried any of these in the comments! Let’s start our own group of creatives ❤ 🙂

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂

On how it’s gonna be.

The Final Episode: “How’s it gonna be//when you don’t know me//anymore.”

So, where did he and I go from there? For starters, he lied to me about dating her in spite of the face that I had also attended one of their first dates. He insisted over and over that he wasn’t dating anyone, and the flirtatious texts and behavior continued. I remember being in a poorly lit bar with him and other colleagues. I was sitting on a stool, sipping on a sweating bottle of lite beer, and he was standing before me in light colors, in shades of blue. He was emphatically insisting he was not dating anyone, stomping his foot against the dark carpet and smiling at me, almost like he knew that I knew I should know better. There was another time we were drinking together at a different bar (better lighting and better crowd). He said he had to get going and I asked him to stay. I asked him for just fifteen more minutes. He thought about it, but he ended up leaving, no matter how reluctantly. The next morning, he sent me a message that simply said, “Good morning! You suck.” He never explained what that meant exactly, but I knew. That went on for nearly a year.

I was traveling to Indiana to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends. I was traveling with other friends, and it was a completely wonderful trip. The whole way there, I was texting with him as I usually did. It was the night of the rehearsal dinner, and I was waiting to meet friends. He had been unusually uncommunicative and I wondered why. Then I received a message from a mutual friend, telling me he was engaged and with his fiancee. She could see the ring. If we were really such great friends, why didn’t he tell me? I walked from the hotel to a liquor store. I bought a handle of vodka and a pack of Marlboro Reds. I sat and smoked and drank from the bottle until it was time for dinner. But at least I didn’t cry until I was alone in bed that night. When I confronted him, when I asked him why he didn’t tell me, he told me he was “a private guy.” But he was comfortable enough to tell me all about his past and his feelings? I bought it, though. I bought it hook, line, and sinker. And we stayed “friends.”

Then his fiancee told me she was pregnant. I smiled and congratulated them. I waited until they left, and then I drank until I threw up in the parking lot and my friend had to drive me home. I promised myself that was the end of it. But his hooks were so far in me that I lied to myself. I convinced myself we could really be friends.

But then I found out he was married. He had lied to me on multiple occasions, swearing that he wasn’t. He shoved his hand in my face to show there was no ring. But once I confronted him and he knew that I knew, he told me he only got married for a reason I won’t share here because it’d just be embarrassing and hurtful. He told me that to keep me stuck, to keep me right where I was, to keep me hanging on. Friends don’t do that; real friends wouldn’t need to do that.

So I finally told him we couldn’t be friends. I told him everything; how I felt and what I was thinking. I didn’t throw a drink in his face. I didn’t turn on my heel and storm off. I was trying to be honest and kind, but he told me I was being “dramatic” and “gay.”

We didn’t talk for three months. He didn’t even reach out on my birthday.

But he sent me a message exactly a week later. I answered because I’m an idiot. I answered because I still have intense feelings for him, though they range the gamut, to be sure. If I’m being honest, and if I’m serious about moving on, then I have to admit we were never friends. We cared about each other, definitely, but we were never friends. And we can never be friends because I can’t get over what was, or what almost was. I think he likes the attention and won’t let me leave, but that’s mostly bullshit because I didn’t really want to leave.

But I think I’m ready now. Thanks for reading. ❤

On “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

From Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

So it’s like the fifth week of being quarantined and it’s only getting more difficult. I’m blessed to have a home and steady income, and I’m not sick and my family is happy and healthy, so it’s a shitty thing to complain about being bored and lonely; aren’t we all? To pass the time, I’ve been reading a lot and I’ve also started re-watching CBS’s 1994 miniseries “Stephen King’s The Stand.” I watched the second episode yesterday morning and had the sudden urge to tell everyone I know to watch it because it totally explains what we’re going through right now (not totally…that’s me being dramatic). This is NOT a new idea; King has apologized for us all feeling like we’re living in one of his novels. Still, I feel like Randy in the movie “Scream,” when he’s freaking out in the middle of Blockbuster and imploring everyone to watch horror movies so they could be better able to survive the slasher attacking Woodsboro. Only I’m alone, in my living room, urging everyone to read The Stand.

Another way to pass the time is writing and thinking. The latter, unfortunately leads to overthinking, which then leads to crying and mourning the past. But I think it’s mostly good. One day, I’ll be numb.

Episode Two: “A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. And one of the best scenes from the novel is when the narrator comes upon Tyler Durden on the beach. Tyler has built a statue from driftwood. The narrator can’t tell what it is at first. He explains, “I asked if Tyler was an artist. Tyler shrugged…What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. . . he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”

The beauty and tragedy of my moment of perfection is that it’s come and gone.

To be fair, we had two perfect moments. One was during an all-day drinking event on a sunny day in March. That day was the most attracted to him I’ve ever been. The place was crowded and being that we had been drinking for hours, I was mostly stumbling and having trouble keeping up. He told me he didn’t want to lose me. He was leading me through the crowd at the one bar, holding hands as he stretched out his arms behind him. Then he brought them around so that I hugged him from behind and it took all the self-control my drunk ass could muster not to bury my face in his hoodie and breathe deep.

We kept drinking. Day turned to night. We ended up at another bar. The thumping bass boomed incessantly, sounding more like war drums than anything else. Everything was vibrating, everything was shaking almost imperceptibly, and I used that as an excuse to hang onto his muscular forearm and steady myself. I put my ear close to his beautiful, smooth mouth to try and decipher the slurred nonsense that tumbled out. He sloppily smashed his lips against my cheek. It was over before I was even sure it had happened and both of us stood there looking at one another stupidly. Everything was bumping and booming and loud and hot and close and he drunkenly smiled at me. At that moment, I knew that if I were to push close against him and grab him and hold him and decimate his mouth with mine, he would yield and he would succumb. That is an unfamiliar and dangerous amount of power and I resisted. It would mean something cheap and tawdry. I wasn’t as drunk as he was, and I was worried that if it went as far as it possibly could, we’d have different feelings in the cold light of the next morning. It would have meant so much more to me than it would have to him. It wouldn’t be what I really wanted.

Instead, I touched his face and escaped to the ladies’ room. Later, when it was time to go pass out, I walked him home.

I’m an idiot, though. That wasn’t enough of a green light for me to tell him how wonderful I thought he was, how all I wanted was to be with him. Naturally, our next moment of perfection also passed me by. It was a few weeks later, and I was out with colleagues, staying overnight at a beautiful hotel for some weekend-long conference. The first night was pretty laid back, so we all went to bar just cross the street. I texted him, practically begging him to come down.

And he did.

The bar was closing and we needed to go somewhere else, and I invited him to my shared hotel room on the condition that he bring playing cards. He smiled but rolled his eyes, saying there was no way he’d find playing cards and that he was tired. Again, I begged him. He shook his head and said goodnight.

Back at the hotel room, I was commiserating with my roommates about the missed opportunity when there were three, loud knocks on the door. They were serious sounding knocks, reminiscent of the way a cop bangs against door. One roommate hurried to the bathroom. The other tried to hide in the mess of pillows and coverings on the bed. That left me to open the door. I tried to calm myself, rehearsing what to say to the authority figure who’d probably been summoned because we were being too loud. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and opened the door.

No one was there.

I stepped out and looked to the right. There was still no one there.

When I looked to the right, he was leaning against the wall, twirling a deck of playing cards in his hand, smiling slightly. All the blood rushed to my face and I laughed out loud; there was nowhere else for my joy to escape to. It was like something out of a movie. It was the personification of every romantic fantasy I’d ever had. He came in and we played Kings for a couple of hours until he had to go, quiet suddenly.

And then it was all over.

On discovering The Worst Thing Who Ever Happened To Me.

My last blog post was all about finding my passion for writing again and making writing more of a priority. Consider this post me diving head first into being a writer.

It’s been said that all good writers write what they know. And during this period quarantine during this coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been bingewatching “Sex and the City” to pass the time. Right now, there’s something really appealing about the simplicity and style of it all. I’ve slowed down the bingeing though, and very recently, I’ve decided to try to only watch one episode a day, to make it last through this indefinite period of social distancing. The episode I watched the other day had my favorite scene of the series (so far, I should add; I have between ten and fifteen episodes left).

Carrie Bradshaw, elegant and graceful heroine, goes to San Francisco as part of her book tour. Her book, it should be mentioned, is a collection of articles from her newspaper column, and those articles are just anecdotes and observations from her dating life. A lot of the anecdotes and observations revolve around Mr. Big, charming and complex leading man who hurt her terribly time and time again, but Carrie just can’t help herself when it comes to Big.

Do you see why I felt compelled to watch?

Anyway, the San Francisco stop on her book tour is not AT ALL what Carrie hoped for and at probably her lowest moment (pimple on her cheek and no one interested in what she had to say through her writing), Big shows up. He was at her reading the whole time and stood to ask a question: if the Mr. Big character was based on a real person. How fucking suave; it reminds me of  particular moment with a particular man from my past (who irritatingly reappears in my present).

Later, they’re in Carrie’s hotel room and all she wants is sex, but all Big wants is to talk about what she wrote. He actually read her book cover to cover and realized how badly he’d hurt her.

So that’s my new fantasy: the man who ruined me for all other men to come reads my book and becomes determined to talk it out with me. And maybe it ends in sex, but whatever. I don’t think that’s the point – or the only point.

Does this mean I’m ready to write about him? Intentionally, I mean, because everything I write is really about him anyway. But even if I’m ready, does that mean I should? Would everybody know if I tried writing about him on this blog? And by “everybody,” I mean the seven fucking people who read it.

Shit – I think I’m actually getting excited about this. That has to be a good sign, right?

So stay tuned for my first installment next week: episode one of The Worst Thing Who Ever Happened to Me.