The Road Runner

This week’s homework which I’ve been working on instead of working on my piece for Fiction Friday, which, zomg, is tomorrow.

Describe a place where your character feels trapped. Use the details of the place to suggest your character’s discomfort, claustrophobia, and dread. (1-2 pages)

The Road Runner


The unchanging horizon of a clear blue sky encircled Joshua, a white-and-denim speck in a pale-gold sea of sand. A thousand steps brought no change in scenery; a day’s trudging made as much of a difference as standing still.

The sun stalked Joshua relentlessly, beating down on his head, his shoulders, his feet. The glare of it pierced his eyes from every direction. His tongue, swollen and numb, filled his parched mouth, making it hard to breathe. Whenever he took a swallow of water, it felt like sandpaper scraping his throat raw.

Joshua spent the days trying to outrun the sun. He spent the nights numbering the stars. The days and nights blended together, and the only real measure of time was the decreasing weight of his waterskin. Whenever Joshua measured time this way, he wished it were the day before. But the days and nights marched on.

The monotony of the desert was sometimes broken by the occasional cactus, arms raised in supplication like the cacti in a Road Runner cartoon. Whenever Joshua came across such a cactus,  he would pause and mimic it. This ritual sometimes lasted for minutes at a time, Joshua upright and motionless, side by side with a cactus — two figures, arms outstretched, communing with each other and with God.

One night, he numbered the millionth star. The cool, grey sand drank up his tears, leaving no trace of them behind. He rose while it was dark, but he could not outrun the sun.

The unchanging horizon of a clear blue sky encircled Joshua, a white-and-denim speck in a pale-gold sea of sand.

Labrador Butts & Other Things

3 weeks in a nutshell — Netflix, reading, baking, cooking

“It’s been 20 days since your post ‘Sky’ was published”.

Holy moly! I feel really, really guilty about this. Since this blog is about cultivating some discipline as a writer, the fact that I haven’t written a post for nearly 3 weeks is a personal failure. My goal is to blog at least twice a week, so 20 days is bad. Real bad.

I don’t have a good reason for my neglect. One episode of Gilmore Girls led to another, one episode of Downton Abbey led to another, and before I could blink September was almost over. Curse you, yellow labrador butt!

Besides watching a ton of Netflix (New Girl, The Office — again! —, Jane the Virgin, Chef’s Table…the list, to my shame, goes on and on), I’ve also been caught up in Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter’s The Long Earth series. I discovered the books in the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is just 700m away from home. If you’re a resident of Philly, membership is free and you get to borrow up to fifty books at a time, for 3 weeks at a time, and you can extend your loan period up to ten times. Yep. Fifty. This is fantastic!

The Long Earth was part of my haul, and I’m really happy I borrowed them. The books are about the discovery that there are an infinite set of Earths that humans can Step to. These Earths aren’t alternate realities, they’re distinct Earths that have experienced different cosmological events, which have affected the evolution of their life forms. Recently, humans have developed the technology to Step to these other Earths, and we follow a few characters as they explore these different iterations of our planet.

Writer’s Rant

One of the more useful things I’ve been up to instead of blogging is working on my punctuation with Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  English is my first language (no kidding, banana!), so I breezed through English at school without having to really study punctuation and grammar. I get really frustrated when I’m reviewing some one else’s work and I know the grammar is wrong but I don’t have the vocabulary chops to explain why.

It’s also pretty horrifying to discover I’ve been doing some things wrong my whole life, like using hyphens instead of em dashes and single quotation marks instead of double quotations marks. To this day, I’m still not clear on the use of “who” vs “whom”, “than me” vs “than I” (e.g. you know more than me/I). Recently, my professor pointed out that the “duchess’ daughters” in a recent story I wrote really should have been the “duchess’s daughters”. I won’t go into specifics, but an illustration of why this particular use of the apostrophe is not simple is the fact that “Jesus’ disciples”and “Achiles’s heel” are both correct, but “Jesus’s disciples” and “Achiles’ heel” are…less correct.

This kind of thing makes me wonder if I can ever purge all the errors I must have accumulated over the years from my writing.

While I’m on the subject, a friend made a comment that really stuck in my craw. When this friend heard I was going to do a masters in creative writing, he/she responded with an incredulous “Do you really need to study to become a writer? Don’t you just need a great idea?” I was speechless. So much more goes into the writing of a great book than a great idea.

In his seminal work, The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “No one can hope to write well if he has not mastered — absolutely mastered — the rudiments: grammar and syntax, punctuation, diction, sentence variety, paragraph structure, and so forth.” From where I’m standing, this seems a substantial task,  and it’s only the first step towards becoming a good writer.

You need to build an extensive vocabulary in order to write scenes that are vivid and believable. You need to study and master the use of plot arcs and narrative voice, character development and themes, suspense and poetic rhythm.

Consider, for example, the way these sentences (from The Art of Fiction) have a different rhythm and emphasis when you read them aloud:

  1. Tammy was a damn fool
  2. Tammy shot a damn fool
  3. Bill Jones shot a damn fool
  4. Bill Jones shot two damn fools

Great writers work painstakingly not only to get the big things right (the “great idea”) but the little things right as well, working over every syllable until their masterpiece sounds just right.

My friend’s question left me speechless because it implied that writing is easy; it’s anything but! Especially if you want to write something even half-decent.

The more I learn, the more I realise how much work lies ahead of me. Maybe I’ll never write anything even remotely as good as The Wind in the Willows, but a girl’s gotta dream.

Coming Soon


In pursuit of that dream (and a result of my blog-neglect guilt), I’m planning to kick off a project this week. I have short story due on Sunday (Oct 2), and I thought I’d work on it every day this week, on my blog. The exercise will hopefully make me a more consistent writer, since my previous three short stories were the results of last-minute all-nighters.

Once that’s done, I’m going to aim even higher and kick off Fiction Friday, which is a challenge to myself to blog a thousand words of fiction a week.

Wish me luck!


Surprisingly Inspirational

As the writer’s residency approached, I was filled with anxiety. The shock of actually being accepted into a writer’s program had not worn off, and the thought of meeting other writers and having them go over my work was terrifying.

Would they discover what an amateur I really am? After all, my undergrad was in pharmacy, of all things, and I didn’t have a single writing workshop under my belt. My application fictional story took a month of banging my head against the writer’s granite block, writing and deleting and writing and deleting and asking my husband repeatedly, “Are you sure I should do this? What if I don’t get in?”

To which he invariably replied, “Fake it till you make it.”

I faked it. I made it. Was I about to be exposed for a fraud?

The Writing Workshop

A workshop run by Zach Vickers, author of “Congratulations on Your Martyrdom!”

The week-long residency consisted of daily writing workshops. A workshop is a group of writers who review each other’s work and offer constructive criticism. The biblical imagery of iron sharpening iron comes to mind, sparks, grating, everything.

I expected it to be a painful process. I imagined my classmates going over my short stories as they ate their breakfasts, scribbling furiously in red ink.

“How did she get in?” they’d ask themselves.

“What a terrible story!” they’d say.

The writing workshop was nothing like that. As it turns out, fellow writers understand what it’s like to write a story and think it’s crap, or to write a story and think you’re crap. They’re also great at analysing your story and giving you helpful feedback, because they’re voracious readers. As a result, the feedback you receive at workshops is tactfully delivered — bitter pills covered in jam to make the swallowing easier. As in life, the bitter pills are often better for you than the jam.

We were also given writing exercises, which were usually to be completed in five minutes. Folks, five minutes is hardly any time at all, yet my classmates came up with fantastic stuff.

Because one of the things I learnt at the residency is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, I’m going to share my hastily-scribbled scene below, verbatim. Zach, one of the facilitators, would say that there’s no such thing as a bad story, so keep that in mind as you read it.

Write a scene in which two people are talking while doing something bizarre/interesting.

“Are you working this weekend?” William asked. “His Highness said all the footmen were to,”

George heaved another mattress on top of the pile.

“The kitchens are all to be fully staffed as well,” he called down. “Here, steady the ladder, won’t you? It’s a bit wobbly.”

William adjusted the ladder, and passed another mattress up the human chain.

“We’re supposed to work too, but I’m going to try and see if I can sneak away to the pub in the evening. Join me, George?”

George accepted the mattress from Cecil and shoved into place before replying. He tried not to look down, because their task was nearly done and he had always hated heights.

“I wish I could, but Cook will be on the lookout, she always is when one them so-called princesses come to visit. With the last one I was kept shelling peas all evening. What a waste of time that was!Speaking of peas,- “ and he looked at William.

“Oh crap,” said William. The silence that followed was broken by a chorus of curses.

I emerged from the residency feeling less like a fraud. Fran Daulerio, the visiting poet, said that he went through a hundred drafts per poem. My professor, Joshua Isard, published his first novel, “Conquistador of the Useless” ten years after completing his MFA. And it’s a well-known fact that J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was rejected by twelve publishers before being picked up by Bloomsbury.

I guess we’re all faking it till we make it. In Rowling’s words, “We just shoot for ‘writing better than yesterday’.” And in this little bird‘s words,

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