Heat in the Kitchen

PHOTO PROMPT © Valerie J. Barrett

“Will you two knock it off?” protested Spoon. “Let me lie in peace.”

“Hey, I’m just doing my job,” deadpanned Iron. “Our neighbor’s the one dribbling like a nervous basketball player.”

“Then get off the stove, Flat-Face!” whistled Kettle.

“Settle down — ”

“You’re a tea pot, not a lawn sprinkler.”

“Go play Monopoly!”

The heat on the stove top was turned down, and Kettle cooled to a low simmer, as the water on Iron’s handle evaporated.

“Peace, at last,” sighed Spoon.

“Just hope spigot-breath gets turned towards the wall before I have to warm up again.”

“Go press a shirt!”

Sometimes I just wanna have a little fun with Friday Fictioneers.

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Two Lessons

In my latest writing workshop, I was assigned to write the story of my writing life. Ten minutes later, I came up with this.

Towards the end of my junior year of high school, my English instructor told me I was not a strong enough student for our school’s senior Honors English class. This was devastating news, as every student in my small rural Maine school knew that Honors English was the key course for getting accepted to any school outside of the state. It was only when the instructor of that class, who had taken a liking to me in her freshman class, overruled my junior class instructor, in her typically brusque manner: “That dumbass is taking my class.”

Three years later, a college composition instructor told me I wrote like a pinball machine, my prose bouncing among topics wildly, propelled by force and gravity rather than logic. This evaluation was equally devastating, as I had decided to abandon my original college major, journalism, and hoped to apply for the school’s program in nonfiction writing. I applied anyway, defying the advice of my instructor, and, in a decision that today seems not at all surprising, was rejected.

These experiences taught me two things: first, never become satisfied with the quality of my prose. Second, and more important, writing was the only thing that really mattered to me. This wasn’t like being bad at sports, or lacking any mechanical ability, or having no clue how to talk to girls — all skills that interested me, but not enough to make me want to overcome my shortcomings in those areas. Having my writing dismissed made me feel like lying down and not getting up again, like a horse with a broken leg. Failing to overcome the problems of my writing would be the death of my spirit.

A year after being rejected to the nonfiction program at my school, I applied again. Taking to heart advice I received from more conscientious instructors, I submitted a more polished piece. And this time, I was accepted.

Planning Sheets

When you’re working a “real” job, you never run out of things to do. Those things may lack any inherent interest, you may have to do things which are self-evidently counter-productive to the larger mission, and all the effort you put into getting all your tasks done may lead you nowhere — but you’ll always be busy.

One challenge I’ve faced since leaving that world behind has been organizing my time. With the only person telling me what to do being myself, I soon found a need to have some planning tool, a way to record goals for my days and weeks, and review accomplishments as well as missed opportunities. I used my journal for a while, but never got comfortable using it for both my writing and planning. I tried several planning journals, but found their format too restrictive and overly focused on corporate work.

Then one day a few months ago, I was tossing out clutter from my basement when I found a roll of dry erase graph sheets, 24″ x 32″, that cling to walls like giant Post-It notes. Having no idea how this roll wound up in the pleistocene strata of our family’s belongings (though I strongly suspect my wife took it home from her own corporate job), I was about to shove it into the big black trash bag — then decided it was time for an experiment.

I went up to my home office, tore off a sheet, grabbed a few dry-erase markers and began writing dates. After several weeks of trial and error, I developed a system that’s been working pretty well for me.

The Planning Sheet at the Start of the Week

To the right is the Planning Sheet (I guess that’s what I’m calling them, now that I’ve blogged about their existence) drawn up on my office door at the start of the previous week. I put everything on there — work schedules, appointments, household tasks, recreation, and perhaps most significant of all, writing goals, which gets their own section on the lower right. Every Sunday night, Monday afternoon at the latest, I put my plans for week on the board, and due to its high visibility — there isn’t a day I’m not in my office at home, and the door is just to the left of my desk — I always know where I need to be, what I need to do, and when everything has to happen.

I leave five lines between each day, and when creating my plan at the start of the week try to list three or four activities for each day. Having less than three activities in a day inspires me to move activities from other busier days; more than four is a sign I need to offload some activities to another day. I add tasks as needs arise during the week, but try not to delete any tasks, so that at the end of the week I can see which activities were either missed or deferred.

The Planning Sheet at the End of the Week

On the left is the same Planning Sheet at the end of last week. It shows the color scheme I’ve settled on — black for days, blue for activities, green checks for completed activities, and a red X for a miss. Activities were added on some days, and I even identified an extra writing goal early in the week. When I completed an activity on its scheduled day, I gave it a green check; if I completed it on another day, or only partially completed it, I wrote a note in green. I avoided any red X until Sunday, when I got a little giddy at having reached all of my writing goals the previous day and decided to add some extra tasks on what should have been an off day. But this is how we learn, right?

Having a plan is good, but seeing it every time I sit down to my new job as a freelance writer has helped me succeed at executing that plan.

Prognathous

While one of the district’s most accomplished saber fencers, Hector Santiago would often lean his head forward while attacking, as if he were searching for an opening like a man searching for nocturnal slugs by flashlight. His opponents, at least the few in the region who weren’t intimidated by his aggression, learned to wait for this technical flaw, and would score points against his mask when he leaned in too far, using his prognathous tactics against him.

Starting a new tradition today. On weeks when I’m not inspired by Friday Fictioneers, I’m going to write a 100-word story based on a word I’ve discovered in my reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Praising a novel nearly two decades after it won a Pulitzer Prize feels a bit irrelevant, like applauding with mittens after twenty thousand pairs of fleshy hands have ceased clapping. But since any review says as much about the writer as is does about the subject, let me declare, by way of explaining why I find Michael Chabon’s 2001 novel so exceptional, the type of fiction I aspire to in my own writing.

The novel is set during the late 1930s and early 1950s, almost entirely in New York city with a brief interlude in the most unlikely of World War II battlefields, and follows the careers of three comic book professionals in what is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Comics.” As an avid fan of the medium, I’ve always been uncomfortable with using precious metals to describe the various eras of comic book, as it proposes a hierarchy that in many ways isn’t justified. For all their innovation, the comics in the Golden Age were far inferior, in both their writing and artwork, to their Silver and Bronze age descendants. Yet the Golden Age was a time when comic book sales and their cultural impact (wonderfully depicted in David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague) were at a height they would never reach again, even in today’s world of blockbuster superhero movie franchises. To his credit, Chabon hails the achievement of the era while acknowledging its inferior quality, writing comic books of this time were “like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory… larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.”

The scope of the novel is ambitious, dealing with the immigrant experience of 1930s America, the global fight against fascism, and the crushing social conformity in post-war America. These large experiences are told through three main characters: Joe Kavalier, Sam Klayman, and Rosa Parks, who forms one of the oddest yet entirely believable love triangles in literature. Joe is the illustrator and Sammy the writer for the Escapist, a superhero who is part Superman, part Houdini. (The book cover image at the top of this post shows the Escapist socking the jaw of Hitler).

Chabon’s writing is excellent. What I like best are his paragraphs, which are long and meandering, sometimes containing a long passage of exposition between two lines of dialog — were I to attempt imitating this style, I’d need a much longer interruption than this (with several more variants in punctuation) — that somehow maintains grammatical cohesion. He has some great metaphors as well, such as “her eyes the pale gray of rainwater pooled in a dish left on the window ledge.”

I’ll conclude with a juicy quote from one of the minor characters, an editor named George Deasey, who subtly attempts to convince Joe and Sam to be more ambitious in their licensing negotiations for the Escapist:

“There is only one sure means in life,” Deasey said, “of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. Ad that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money.”

Deasey represents the cynicism which both Joe and Sammy attempt to overcome through their work in the comics. Although not entirely successful in their quest, their journey makes for a memorable adventure.

Rules for Reviewers, Part 1: Critique the Writing

I belong to a couple writer’s groups, informal gatherings of novice authors who share their work and critique the work of others. These groups have been where I’ve learned what I do well (dialog, and creating narrative tension) and where I need to sharpen my game (exposition, and resolving narrative tension). As a reader, I’ve developed a reputation as a tough but fair critic, someone who provides thoughtful analyses that are constructive, rather than destructive. It’s not easy being critical in a supportive way, and to help me succeed more often in reaching these goals I’ve developed some rules for working in a writer’s group. Over the course of several posts, I’ll discuss each of the articles in my code of conduct.

Critique the writing, not the writer

Some of the material I’ve read in these groups has been quite good. On more than one occasion, I’ve concluded my comments with these words: Get. This. Published.

But there’s also been a lot of sub-par, fair-to-middlin, not so great, and at times downright awful work as well, even from writers who had previously submitted very good stories to the group. And as I’ll explain further in a subsequent post, empty praise does little to service the writer. Yet as a reader, it’s important to remember that novice writers fail not because of some personal character flaw, but rather because their enthusiasm is a little ahead of their expertise. Readers need to focus on the words: here is the passage where the writing falls short, this is why it doesn’t work, and (where appropriate — more on this in a later post) here is how it could be improved.

I’ll illustrate this approach with an anecdote from the only session I will ever attend of one particular writer’s group. Authors in this group came with copies of their material, which were handed out to readers before the author gave an oral reading. One of the pieces delivered the evening I attended had a number of flaws, one of which was the second paragraph — five sentences long, each beginning with the words He then. When it came time for reader responses, I pointed out this repetition to the author, and suggested a few variant sentence beginnings would speed up the pace of the narrative. Critique the writing, not the reader. A few readers after me, however, took a far different approach. Slapping the manuscript onto the table, this reader leaned forward in his seat, glared at the author, and declared: “You’re a lazy writer!” A statement which revealed a lot about the character of the speaker than of his intended target.

Since writing is an intensely personal expression, this approach won’t work for some writers, who will take any critique of their writing as a personal attack. Readers can’t control how their analyses will be taken, but they can pay attention to how they deliver their messages. And if those messages focus on the writing, the people who compose those works will be far more likely to use these messages to their benefit.

Renny Returns

That’s my left forearm in the picture, and the black band wrapped around the middle is the result of a rare incident — a fencing injury.

Despite having its origin in the deadliest of blood sports (I’ve got a sword, and I’m gonna kill you with it), modern fencing has a remarkable safety record. Cuts only occur when a blade is broken in the middle of an attack that cannot be stopped; bruises are commonplace, and the stress placed on key joints — ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists — are the source of the most serious fencing injuries, especially among veteran fencers like myself.

(And yes, older fencers call ourselves veterans. If you have a problem with that, come suit up and meet me on strip some time, and we’ll discuss which one of us is old.)

About a month ago, I woke up one morning to a throbbing left elbow. It’s been a little over a year since I switched fencing hands, and after decades of inactivity the exterior tendon of that elbow appears to have buckled under the strain. The common term for my condition is tennis elbow, and while it hasn’t bothered me during most activities, some actions are quite painful. I can lift objects, but bringing objects down from a height is difficult. I can read, write, and brush my teeth with my left hand without issue, but I now use my right when pulling doors open. And while fencing, I can hold the blade and even attack as I had before — but even a light parry will shoot enough pain through my arm to cause me to drop my weapon.

The black band in the picture is a tennis elbow brace. It’s wrapped tightly on the forearm, and forces the muscles above the brace to perform work with less assistance from the muscles closer to the elbow. As the elbow muscles rest, so too do the injured tendons. With time, the swelling decreases.

I fenced with the brace for a few weeks, but when it became clear the elbow was not getting better I decided it was time for a temporary switch back to being a right-handed fencer (fortunately, I haven’t sold my old equipment, making this a cost-free switch). So until my left elbow stops hurting, Lenny will be deferring to Renny.

One Photo, Many Stories

As a frequent participant in Friday Fictioneers, I thought it was time for me to show the variety of stories that come out of these contests. Below are ten randomly-selected entries for this week’s contest, for which I had submitted Artistic Vision:

  • In Birthday Party, Iain Kelly adds an unwelcome visitor to the scene
  • Neel Anil Panicker provides a similar dark twist in The Lure
  • A Dangerous Game by Colline Kook-Chun uses the children’s game as a parable of innocence
  • The party ends abruptly in Granonine’s Game Over!
  • Many stories had the donkey coming to life, but Reena Saxena’s I believe in you provides a literary twist to the device
  • It’s hard to make a political statement in 100 words or less, but Speedway Randy gives it a shot in Figures
  • Rowena provides a surprise ending in “Ma-Ma!”
  • Childhood, by Dale, recalls a day when children could play with less direct supervision
  • Alicia Jamtaas used an approach very similar to my own in Taking Advantage
  • Cheaters may never win, but Marlicia Fernandez shows they can have fun in Consolation Prize

Those were just some of the entries for this week. Rochelle’s next photo this coming Friday should inspire similar creative efforts.

Artistic Vision

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

Even at age six, Wylie’s talent was evident.

She began cartooning in preschool, and for her fourth birthday illustrated all 22 invitations. After completing her first comic book the following year, the 43-page space opera Beyond the Stars, Wylie discovered she was more interested in coloring than drawing.

Shen then began painting, but grew dissatisfied. Her lines were clean, the images vibrant — the colors, though, weren’t right. In frustration, one day she painted with eyes closed, and when finished, she opened her eyes, and smiled.

Wylie then began coloring blindfolded, with both crayons and paints. And an artist found her vision.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest. You’re limited to 100 words, but keeping your eyes open is entirely up to you.