Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obviously, I cannot share my current work-in-progress for The First Line's slush pile at present, but here's a story that I wrote and submitted for your reading pleasure. I love this story. I believe in this story.

I cannot imagine where I can possibly submit this story for publication. You'll see why in a minute.

Perfect Girl

Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong. That's certainly true for Alberta Helstein. That's one unglamorous name for a very glamorous girl. She gets around it by calling herself Ali, which is almost pretty enough for a girl like her.

She's glamorous, like I said, but down to earth. Like now. She's been on the track for the past forty-five minutes, doing the workout she missed because she was scheduled to work at the restaurant over practice. She's resting after one of her sprints, leaning forward with her hands on her knees, and her gray Nike t-shirt has dark spots at the top of her sports bra, at the small of her back. Her sleek brown ponytail has fallen forward into her damp, red-cheeked face. But she is still heartbreakingly pretty, with her delicate bonestructure and full lips and impossibly bright smile. She has a good face, I mean a really open and honest one; and of course you can't be sure a person is really as good as they look, but I've been watching her for a while and I think I know. She lives with her mom because her mom is sick, even though the dorm is more fun, and she works part-time to pay for her car to get to and from the college. She holds hands and kisses her boyfriend but doesn't go father than that, which is pretty rare and special for a nineteen-year-old these days. Most girls you just can't respect.

Her boyfriend is down there now, as well as two of the female friends. Such is Ali's magnetic personality that even though the other two girls are not fond of running - she goes to the gym with them on occasion, and they are Stairmaster types, not runners - she has persuaded them to come out with her.

They line up, laughing, for another lap. The two girls make a show of coming out hard but then immediately slow as soon as Ali and that guy have passed. Ali, on the other hand, is all running grace, an elegant efficiency in her long-limbed loose movements. Her pink-and-white running shoes deign to touch the ground for a fraction of a second each time she lands, and in between each propulsion forward, she flies above the track. That guy lumbers alongside her, good-naturedly trying to beat her; he doesn't seem to care if he proves himself worthy. Probably wise for him, because when they take the final bend at the 300 meter mark she leans forward into the run, pumps her arms, throws her angular body forward at the finish. She trains like she races and she races like she takes on the world. I want some of her energy and life.

When she makes it across the finish she turns back, panting, and throws her arms around him. He picks her up and walks with her to where their gym bags and Nalgene bottles are waiting on the turf. The four of them gather up their things and walk from the track up the hill to the parking lot. This is where her guy makes a mistake, one of the big ones that proves he doesn't deserve her anyway. He doesn't walk with her to the car to make sure she will make it home safely. Instead, he kisses her goodbye and he and the two girlfriends turn and amble away towards the dorms on the other side of campus. Ali walks between the cars, her blue duffel bag banging against her leg, jingling her car keys in one hand, humming Maroon 5 to herself. That's her favorite group; when I snagged her IPod while she was studying in the library, she had every single song of theirs.

I follow her between the cars. I'm parked in the next row, which took some waiting. I can't wait to be close to her again. Once, in Borders, I brushed gently past her when she was leaning over to survey the lower shelves in the chic-lit section; she smelled like vanilla, spice, warmth and home. I touched the back of her gray wool coat. She turned her head over her shoulder, surprised, and said, "Excuse me", but with a smile. She has the most vibrant blue eyes, and the smile she gave me - it was a smile of sharing. I think she knew then that we were soulmates, like I do.

But in case she doesn't, and it takes some time, I have a taser, and duct tape in the back of the car.

She stops at her car door, keys in the lock - it's almost time to reveal myself now, but I freeze when she stops. She looks around her, slowly looking right and left in a studiedly casual way. My heart pounds in my chest. She's looking for someone - looking for me. She must feel the nearness of her soul mate, the soon-to-be reveal.

Then she looks down, as if she has decided there is no one around after all, and puts her finger in her nose.

She looks disgusting, standing there, with one finger shoved into a nostril, crinkling up her cute little nose. Picking her nose, like a dirty-handed little kid. I almost gag.

She must not get it with her finger, because she tries with her thumb instead.

I turn around and walk away.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The deadline for The First Line's summer 2009 issue is rapidly approaching (May 1st). After my last rejection letter from them for the spring issue, I was debating not submitting to them anymore. At least my first two submissions both included nice personal notes encouraging me to submit again even though my story wasn't quite right for this particular issue. Since the last one I got back was a plain-jane form letter, though, maybe they're getting a bit tired of me.

And yet - The First Line offers a fun creative writing prompt. Then you can submit whatever you come up with for possible inclusion, and even if that doesn't work out - you still have a jaunty new story completed. So it's hardly a bad deal.

For the uninitiated, you can find The First Line here. Here's how it works: each issue has a wide variety of stories, but they all begin with the same opening line. For instance, I have the summer 2007 issue here in front of me. The first line for that issue was, "My first impression of Phillip was that he was blessed with ignorance."

It is such fun to read the divergent directions writers take from their one line. For instance, from Phillip the stories include: a story about an old man with two left hands, who makes a difference in a young person's life; a tale about the end of a relationship, told from the POV of both Phillip and Sheila; and the story of a family finally coming to terms with a daughter's sexuality. It also helps that the stories in The First Line are usually first rate.

So, I guess I'm going to give this most recent issue's first line a shot before the deadline; this means I only have a few days to write the damn thing, compose my cover letter and send it out, but that's all right. It usually only takes me a few hours to pound out a short story once I get down to it (I might not have quality down, but I sure can do quantity), so I might as well give it a chance.

For anyone else who wants to play, the first line that is due by May 1st is:
"For two weeks now, I’ve been trying to figure out if people are laughing with me or at me. "

I have no idea where I want to go from that. But I know from experience, I don't do my best plotting in front of a Word document and a blinking cursor. My story ideas always come up when I'm out on a long run, in the shower or about to drift off to sleep. You know. Whenever it's inconvenient to find pen and paper. My muse is a real jerk sometimes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Because the smallest memory can be turned into a short story... I took a soft and sweet childhood memory (my older boy cousin giving me a pair of his old PJs) and turned it into a darker fragment of story. What do you think?

The prompt was to write about your earliest childhood memory:

First Memories:
Uncle J and Aunt M's house in Brooklyn (?). Pancakes for breakfast. Joe running down the stairs into the kitchen to give me his outgrown pajamas, which were covered in little pictures of sailboats: pants with an elastic waist and a short-sleeved shirt with a collar and little sailboat-shaped blue buttons.

Add learning-to-read angst and a hint of a controlling, scary parental figure, neither of which existed for me, and this is the result:

"No, you don't need to read her a bedtime story," Dad said. "She's old enough to be able to read on her own. She can read her own bedtime stories when she's ready." The way he looked at Jamie when he said this, obviously meant for her ears, was affectionate enough. Jamie felt hurt and embarrassed in front of her cousins, the familiar weight of being the black sheep of the family at seven. Tom seemed to feel sad for her too and patted her shoulder.

"Oh," Tom said, "I have a present for you. I outgrew my pajamas!"

"What are you talking about, Tom?" Aunt Tina asked.

"I outgrew my sailboat pajamas," he said. "I want to give them to cousin Jamie."

Aunt Tina and Dad shared a look, meant to be over the children's heads. Tom was already running from the living room though, to the two small bedrooms in the back of the house. He came back a minute later, clutching the sailboat pajamas that were, in fact, a little too small for him. He had worn them for almost two years now, steadily rejecting new blue-and-yellow striped pajamas, Superman pajamas, pajamas at Chrismas and pajamas at Birthdays and pajamas for just-because-he-really-needs-pajamas.

"Here, Jamie," Tom said. "You can wear these to bed tonight." He thrust them at her, obviously excited by his own generosity.

"It's okay," Aunt Tina said to Dad. "I'll be glad to get rid of them. And she is very small for her age."

"All right," Dad said. "What do you said, Jamie?"

"Thank you, Tom," Jamie said. she took the pajamas from Tom. There were pants with an elastic waistband and a short-sleeved top with a collar and little blue sailboat buttons down the front. They were colorfully splashed with red, yellow and blue sailboats, cars and airplanes.

"Go brush your teeth, both of you, and make sure you do a good job - use the timer, two minutes at least," Aunt Tina said, even though she must have known Dad would follow them into the bathroom to supervise. Jamie followed Tom to the bathroom, clutching in her arms her new pajamas, in their print of fly-away, sail-away dreams.
Shared as promised. Please don't hate me.

20 Things That Annoy Me:

1. Static on the radio.

2. People who don’t use their inside voices while inside.

3. Drivers who travel up the exit lane (or even the breakdown lane) so they can cut in front of other drivers.

4. Atheist misrepresentations of the Bible.

5. Christian misrepresentations of the Bible.

6. Women who try to use feminism as another way to force women to conform. Um, an oppressive matriarchy would be better than an oppressive patriarchy how?

7. Badly behaved children. Which seems to be the majority, these days. Man, I am getting old.

8. Crappy parents, which seem to be the corollary to the above badly behaved children. Actually, it’s not just bad parenting – it is poor examples of human beings parenting poorly.

9. Lousy service/attitude when I’m paying for a product or service. It’s really not my problem that you didn’t go to college, and I don’t care that working at T.G.I. Fridays is not the dream job you used to envision playing with your Barbies. Bring me my water and my burger… your tip is dwindling, honey.

10. “Texting” type communications anywhere other than, well, texts. If you have ever typed “UR” in an email, you are a moron. I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules.

11. People who act like going into the military isn’t good enough for them or their kids. Hey, guess what, serving your country is for everyone, even the entitled children of yuppies.

12. Being touched by people who are not welcome into The Bubble of Trust. When I am in foreign countries, I adapt to their customs, but... this is America. We are supposed to like our personal space. Back the F up.

13. The size of soft drinks nowdays. A large at Wendy’s is what, 32 ounces now? That is, minimum, 400 liquid calories to wash down your 900 calorie meal. And you want me to support socialized health care? Maybe when we impose a sin tax on high fructose corn syrup.

14. People who act like you’re a heathen for not supporting their cause/party/ideology. Because vitriolic though I may sound here, I really don’t give a crap what it is you want out of life – even if that is to raise entitled brats or to gain a new Guinness World Record for fattest human being – as long as you’ll just leave me alone. Thanks.

15. Ice on the ground. It’s slippery and dangerous and, sometimes when you fall, there isn’t even someone you can sue.

16. Diet anything. Because a) it’s been scientifically proven that it just makes your body crave more calories to replace the ones you aren’t eating, and b) wouldn’t going out for a nice run just make a lot more sense than putting all those chemicals into your body? But that’s OK. Convince yourself it won’t make you fat.

17. Twitter. Because really? Nobody should care.

18. Celebrity gossip mags. See 17.

19. Political commentary in magazines like Cosmo and Glamour. Um, if I read your crap magazine, it’s to check out the ridiculous fashions in this season, maybe some mascara recommendations… not for some silly party line I’m supposed to fall in line with (right after I blow $600 on a trendy-ugly purse, right?).

20. Lukewarm food on buffets. Because it tastes disgusting, and it could give you food poisoning. And also it just tastes disgusting.
Lately, to try and get in my word count, I've been using two sources to write something, anything. The first is a fun little website:
As you hover over the number of each prompt, it displays what it is -- they aren't brilliant, but they're a start. It is amazing what can develop once you start writing about something.

Growing up religious, I was told that the law of Physics that stated that objects at rest tended to remain at rest was also true for people -- that it was easier for God to get us moving in the right direction as long as we got started moving first in ANY direction. I think the same thing is true with the muse... you might start out writing about automatic pencils or chocolate cupcakes, but the story burning within you will find an outlet from there.

The other prompt I've been using is Novakovich's "The Fiction Writer's Workshop". Each chapter discusses a different concept - dialogue, character development, viewpoint, etc., with examples from literature. Then the end of chapter gives several writing prompts. It's like a little creative writing class, but without the fun of reading aloud and hearing your peer's work. Still good stuff, though. He also wrote one for novel writers, which I am dying to read - I'll have to add that to my birthday wish list!

Tune in tomorrow for my answer to Creative Writing Prompt No. 40 from the website - 20 Things That Annoy Me. I still haven't figured out how to parlay any of those into a story, but I had fun writing it. :) Although, I am somewhat inspired by the exercise to write a tale of a young woman crotchety before her time...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

So I know this is my writing job, but I'd like to take a minute to go off subject and vent about my in-progress Master's degree. That's my other project, you see, besides working full-time and trying to start a career as a novelist (and also training for a marathon, diet-and-exercising my way back to my college weight... two pounds down so far, it's going to be a while... and keeping my house tidy enough that I don't feel like a complete domestic failure).

I am getting my Master's in Finance, because grad school is a must when you decide to get your bachelor's in History because, well, you like the subject and you want plenty of time for varsity sports and drinking. Now, I don't have any interest in teaching (actually, that's not true. I love the idea of teaching. It's the teacher's SALARY that loses me), so that history degree is not helping me out. So, as much as I wanted to do a MFA program in Creative Writing, I decided to be practical with my MS.

But sometimes I wonder, what in the world am I doing? I have eighteen credits down so far, five more classes and a thesis to go. It's not fun doing homework after work and on weekends. I can't imagine what in the field of finance I'm going to write my thesis on -- a lot of the material is, you know, a little dry (as fascinating as it all is in practice). And while I'd like to become a stockbroker and dream of being on the board of directors of a bank I helped start (yes, there are people who dream of such a thing, oddly enough), I picked one hell of a time to enter the finance industry.

Man, this blog is really just me being a big whiney-pants most of the time, isn't it? Fine. I am going to shut up and go do my homework now...