Words Bridge the Gap: Cesar Egido Serrano Foundation $20K Prize for #flashfiction

Could you write a hundred-word flash fiction by Thanksgiving? How about for a $20,000 first place prize? Runners-up get a thousand bucks. And it’s legit. I checked because you know what they say about things that seem too good to be true.

This year’s theme is the word, bridging the gap between different cultures and religions. Four languages are accepted: Spanish, English, Arabic, and Hebrew, and the contest is judged by an international jury. Reflecting on how words can bring us together is time well-spent, regardless of the prize money.

The way I see it, the Powerball costs $2 to play. This costs nothing, and you get a piece of flash fiction out of the deal. It’s a win-win.

Want to enter? Click here. Happy writing!

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It Ain’t Easy Being Real

I’m a laissez-faire teacher, which is something out-of-control teachers say to make themselves feel better. The truth is, I’m more comfortable allowing my students to talk, so long as I can get them to say, with some degree of accuracy, what I was going to say anyway. Today we did a little self discovery. I gave them the following worksheet and told them to fill out what they wanted, but that we’d share. Everyone, would share.

Oh, the gasps. The moans. No one wanted to share real facts about themselves. (This is how you know we’ve been too long in fiction. How lovely a mask is fiction.) One prompt: I have a big problem with… is basically a green light to complain in your best eloquence. That made them feel better.

Several students took the opportunity to tell me they have a big problem with writing class. One even said he’d rather watch grass grow than write. I was impressed with his illustration. One student came up with a seemingly incongruous phrase: grotesque beauty, but taken in context of our world that can be both those things at once, made perfect sense. Some students made jokes. But one student, who evidently thought hard about the prompt, began to reveal his soul-searching in a sincere and penitent manner– and with such beautiful and haunting language– we were all stunned into a moment of silence. A class of middle/high schoolers, silent. It was a bona fide Dead Poets Society moment right in my living room.

It’s not easy, in a classroom full of peers, to write truth about yourself and share it. But every time it happened, I felt blessed. Sometimes I saw myself in their opinions. Sometimes my perspective angle zoomed out as I understood a completely different perspective (like hating writing… who does that???). Getting real in front of others isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

How to be a Writer in November: Show up and Throw up

Want to be a writer? It’s as easy as show up and throw up. Write stream-of-consciousness. Write garbage. Write your dreams, your fears, somebody else’s fears… What often happens in the show-up-throw-up process is: something awesome makes its way onto the page. Inherent in the process is a throwing-off of the shackles of self-loathing and– usually at about a thousand words in– one manages to shut down the inside voice that says this is a ridiculous waste of time. Why don’t you just get a job at Aldi? They kill themselves too, but they get paid for it.

November. Writers know it as National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo for short. Two years ago I participated, thanks to my blogging friend Nthato. After several starts and forfeits, I finally wrote that crappy first draft all writers need to complete. Every day for a month I showed up and didn’t let myself off the keys until I’d vomited several thousand words onto the screen. If you think I’m being dramatic, try writing 3000 words in two hours. It’s slapdash, my friends. It’s Chinese manufacturing.

Can I confess how much I hate writing crappy drafts? I know it’s the way, the prescription, but it’s hard to keep dumping time into a project that can only be honestly appraised as: half-assed. Apologies to my young readers and sensitive souls for the coarse language– but it’s appropriate because in novel writing, half-assing only becomes satisfying when you’ve got a really big ass going. I’m talking tens of thousands of words. Once you’ve got the meat, you can show up at the very least, pleased with the sheer copiousness of your own derriere. This is your brain on paper. Ain’t it big? Ain’t she a beauty?

The reason writers have to write that crappy first draft is because loping off swaths of exposition we’ve labored over for hours is more wasteful (and painful) than amputating thousands of words puked onto the page… and one will never escape the process of novel-pruning. It must be done. The age of Tolstoy and his eternal rambling is over. But still. I have to love it a little in order to show up to the page every morning. Which means I’m often wasting loads of time on one crucial word in a page of words that will eventually get scrapped. This is writing. I thank God I love the process, that the search for that one perfect word I threw away with the rest was still pleasurable.

Showing up, even to a nearly-finished novel, is difficult. I come to the screen and wonder if I’ll have anything to write. I show up empty-handed and hope something materializes. It usually does. And once I get into my world, oh boy… it’s awfully hard to climb back out into reality to fold a load of laundry.

My novel I Trespass is at 76,664 words and is labeled in my folder as Trespass Millionth Draft. I consider every read-through like combing a knotty head of really, really, really long hair, like miles of it. Each time I take the comb through, a few more knots come out. Soon I’ll be looking for beta readers. Soon I’ll be able to say, I finished.

Zer0flash Fiction: Absolute Camouflage

Assignment from Zer0flash: create spine-tingling flash fiction inspired by this tranquil video of a dam in Cambridge.

Absolute Camouflage 

The lake floor was crusted over with garbage and cans and the slimy brown bones of a dying tree. Long, leafy willow locks writhed over the water’s edge, and even the gentlest breeze could slough off a confetti of brittle branches.

In the shade crouched a grasshopper, stock-still until a boot slammed into the spongy ground beside him. Startled, the creature performed his usual crescent jump. Not even the boot-owner noticed: at the highest point of the arc the insect crashed into an invisible obstacle. His cracked and oozing exoskeleton plopped into the water.

No one noticed the frogs either. Right off the lily pads a phantom hand plucked their shiny bodies and squeezed until their insides burst from their mouths in a sticky cornucopia. Ducks dipped their iridescent heads, popped their spade-shaped tail feathers into the air where they bobbed on the surface. And were abruptly sucked down.

You’d have to be looking dead on or you’d miss it.

At sunrise a jogger noticed swan feathers floating like opals on the dark ripples. He shrugged and continued on his way. Later,  Jimmy came with his mum to float his paper wax boat. By then the feathers were blown to the shoreline. Jimmy pushed them into the mud with his shoe.

When he got too close to the edge, chilly water seeped into his shoes. His boat, his very own creation, gloriously heaved and dipped. With a bounce he tugged on his mum’s coat, thrilled by his own awesomeness.

Then he frowned and yanked hard on his mother. The vessel caught a gust of wind and headed toward the curling punch of overflowing water.  Just before the boat crumpled under the force, Jimmy’s mum snatched it and held it high. The water reached her thighs.

“It’s ok, Jimmy,” she said.

 

 

Say It: A #Halloween #Horror Story

“That’s quite a costume, young ma– … er… are you a boy, or a girl? I can’t tell under all that make up.”

The childlike thing shook a head, but made no answer. The widow Hann held upwards of $37 worth of chocolate in her lap, and she wasn’t giving it up to rude, ungrateful children who couldn’t be bothered to answer a simple question. Theses kids were getting more and more ill-mannered every year.

The zombie child reached a veined, pinkish hand into the bowl.

Mrs. Hann snatched it away. “Not so fast.”

The costume was stunning. Or the paint was still wet. It glistened in the inconstant light of Mrs. Hann’s tiki torches and carved pumpkin display. “Say ‘Trick or treat first.'”

It shook its head more violently. A low guttural sound issued from lips that dripped red paint and saliva.

“Just say it.” The mother instructed, sloshing a glass of some alcoholic elixir. It wafted around the two of them like a third apparition.

“It.” The little monster said and reached again.

The sass.

Mrs. Hann clutched the ceramic pumpkin to her breast. Not a single piece would leave this bowl, not while blood flowed through her veins. This kid deserved a swift kick in the a–

“Trick or treat,” said a ragged, sexless, ageless voice. Mrs. Hann narrowed her eyes. The zombie smiled a huge smile full of baby teeth, strait and white as a fence. There was no choice but to offer the bounty.

“What do you say?” Mrs. Hann reminded.

“It.”

Mrs. Hann’s mouth was in an “O.” First, in shock at such brazen, deplorable behavior. The mother had already started down the sidewalk to the next house, and the waif scuttled after her.

The next little gang of ingrates skipped up the driveway. “Trick or treat!”

Mrs. Hann hadn’t recovered her speech. The children helped themselves, squealing in delight.

But the squeals turned to shrieks, then to shrill siren screams. The children were the first to see, and they yanked their hands, sending the bowl and its contents flying. Wrapped candy projectiles flew up like a bees from the lap of Mrs. Hann. The ceramic bowl slid off her ample thighs and shattered, sending orange and white shrapnel skidding.

Neighbors drifted over, curious at the uproar. Some children retreated, the ones who saw. Others cautiously maneuvered for a better look at widow Hann, whose mouth still hinged open, whose eyes drooped, wider and wider, until one by one they fell from their sockets with an almost merry pop! ….and dangled from the optic nerves like jewelry. The tiki torches flamed high, many feet into the night sky, revealing Mrs. Hann as a driftwood being: cracked and grey and greying further. Until not a drop of blood flowed in her veins.

This flash made me $25 in the GNB Writers Block Halloween Contest! I’m grateful for the opportunity to have fun writing. The cash is icing.

Cinderella, a Twister #writingexercise

I gave this assignment to my 5000 Words students.

Take a fairy tale and either:

  1. Re-tell the whole thing in a modern adaptation or
  2. Choose a scene from the middle and use it to begin a story of your own that diverges from the original.

Sometimes as my students write, I do too. Here’s my twisted Cinderella story:

Cinderella lived with her father, stepmother, and step-sisters in a beautiful, flat country. One day a tornado touched down. As Cinderella’s father ushered the panicked horses into the barn, Cinderella waited dutifully in the storm cellar.

From outside came a terrible crash and a scream. Cinderella knew something happened to her father.

Against his command, she cracked open the storm door. Instantly a gale wind whipped it from her hands, slammed the oak door to the earth and snapped off the hinges, throwing the iron hardware into her face. She was knocked unconscious and slumped down the cement stairs.

For the duration of the storm Cinderella lay, the rainwater soaking her socks, her petticoat, her dress. Only her face was dry, still under the basement ceiling where the rain couldn’t reach. Blood flowed from the spade-shaped gash on her face.

Once Cinderella was beautiful, but the storm changed all that. It took her father too. The cry she heard was his last, as the barn supports fell on him. Cinderella’s stepmother and her two step-sisters were away at the market when the tornado hit. Upon their return they made the gruesome discoveries. Carelessly, Cinderella’s stepmother sewed the stitches on Cinderella’s face, and the resulting scar was grotesquely jagged. It pulled her lip on one side into a perpetual frown, and though her eyes remained beautiful, no man would look past the scarred lips to her kind and lonely eyes.

Worse, Cinderella’s step-sisters made fun of her, taunted her, called her Cinder-hella. Because she was so ugly, Cinderella kept to herself. The small farm animals were the only ones who saw past her damaged form. Especially the mice; they were dear friends. It was the mice who helped her with her chores and made beautiful music with her. Dancing and singing with her animal friends, Cinderella almost forgot her ugliness.

A ball was to be held, a masquerade ball. There would be music and dancing, and most wonderful: there would be masks. Cinderella could feel gloriously beautiful for one enchanted evening. All she needed was a dress and a mask. The mice heard her muttering about it as she scraped the dinner plates.

The step-sisters, already gangly and towering, seemed to be going through a growth spurt. Several of their best silk dresses were obscenely above their ankles and had to be thrown out.

“Oh, may I have them?” Cinderella asked.

“Are you kidding?” They answered, “What on earth could you possibly do with such beautiful cloth? Burn them. And burn yourself while you’re at it, Cinder-hella.” They were off to town for new dresses.

Cinderella couldn’t bring herself to immediately burn the sparkling silk. She put it to her face and luxuriated in the kind fabric. She wore the gowns, danced with imaginary partners, and pretended to be at the ball. The mice knew her well. They waited in their holes until she was done. As Cinderella gathered sticks for the fire, the mice stole pieces of the gowns, working in pairs with scissors, enlisting the help of the cat, the dog (his canine teeth), and even the crows. It was a miracle of animal cooperation and all unknown to Cinderella, who gathered wood as slowly as she could because she hated to see the gorgeous gowns wasted.

Tears blurred Cinderella’s vision as she picked up the bundles. She didn’t even know the dresses had been ransacked. This cheered the mice, because they knew a surprise would be the best present.

On the day of the great ball, Cinderella felt as if her heart would break, watching her step-sisters and her stepmother pile into the carriage in their finery and sweet-smelling perfumes. Their faces were painted to perfection; jewels glittered from every appendage. With masks, the sisters were almost glamorous. How Cinderella wished she could wear one, always.

As the carriage dust settled and they were alone, the mice emerged from the basement, the same basement in which Cinderella had lain and bled, the one place she refused to go. In their little mouths and draped over the dog’s back, the mice carried a silk gown more beautiful than any other. Behind them trotted the cat holding a magnificent mask, carefully clenched in his teeth. It was iridescent; the mice had used duck neck as their base color and copied it perfectly onto the stolen cloth. They’d unraveled the threads, one by one, and re-sewed them together into green and purple perfection.

“Oh!” Cinderella fell back a few steps. Her hands fluttered to her mouth.

One of the great horses took her to the ball on his strong back. She arrived just as they were beginning her favorite dance. Vibrantly clad figures flitted and flirted and clanged their golden goblets together, sloshing punch as they twirled.

One night.

Cinderella had one night to live a whole life of wonders. To be thought beautiful, to engage in conversation like anyone else. To dance and sing and be carefree and merry. To feel real, strong hands hold hers and lead her around the dance floor. For one night Cinderella’s dream could come true.

 

 

Zeroflash Fiction: Rampart

He studies her. Must be she’s grading stories because her smile ebbs and flows. His heart’s been slogging through the desert for years and now this– mirage, his new team teacher. Like all mirages, getting too close strikes the vision, and he very badly wants to keep her.

She’s absent to the aura of her beauty. More than that. Her back is bowed in the fashion of a tied package. He imagines this. He imagines himself unstringing her, pulling her to her full height with his hands.

A paper ball hits him on the cheek. Oh yes, his students. They’re giggling. He rubs his face in mock hurt and tells them sticks and stones will break his bones but paper balls put him in a reading mood. “Due tomorrow: a thousand words.”

She watches too. A wall of glass separates, but doesn’t separate them. The true barrier is the truth he cannot bring himself to speak. Sometimes he imagines he writes her– a love story he’d slip into her pile. It feels like shooting an arrow over a rampart. Once shot, it can never be taken back, and part of him doesn’t want to play the odds. The fantasy, as is, remains intact. Sometimes she glances up and smiles, unreserved, guileless.

First, he loved her through the testimonies: a teacher who could suss passion out of these blocks of teenage cement. She was a fire hose of inspiration. He fell for that. But seeing made it worse. He’d hoped she’d be ugly. Unsure as to whether he wants to rush her, crush and loose himself upon her– or plant a brotherly kiss on the crown of her hair, he’d do whichever she wished. Take it as deep or as shallow as she wished. If only he knew what she wished.

This was a venture into less comfortable territory for me: romance. My novel-in-progress, I Trespass, has a broad romantic theme, but I take a long time building it. Romantic flash fiction? A person can get scared quickly or confused or have a spontaneous laugh… but I believe love takes longer.