Loneliness and a shovel

Writing prompt

Prompt by Cameron Graham, Oct 25 2017, Writing Prompts Group, Facebook

The loneliness was crushing. For six weeks, since the fever had taken her, there had been no one to talk to. The walls would not reply; the looming trees around the cabin had nothing to say; the winds only whipped his words away.

Why did she have to be gone?

He realized she did not have to be gone. Taking up his pick and shovel, he returned to the clearing where he had made her grave.

Writing

He dug madly into the earth. The moon watched over him throughout the night and then finally retired. As the sun rose, he carried her frail and withered body back to rest in her favorite chair beside the hearth where she had sat for all the years of his life. It was from that chair she’d taught him all the most important things to know.

“You can’t keep that sweet young girl here, Jimmy,” Mama would say. And then she would wait patiently as he pinched his ears and shook his head and moaned and groaned in a fit of anger. She was always so patient. Always so gentle and wise.

Jimmy picked maggots from her flesh and tossed them into the fire. He fetched her crochet needles and placed them gently in her hands. Laid the roll of yarn in her lap and arranged the blanket snug upon her shoulders.

“I know, Mama,” he said. “Someone might a come lookin’ for that girl.”

He waited for her to answer as she had done so many times before. He waited for her to say what she always said, and what he always hated to hear. That’s right, Jimmy. And you ought not have her in your bed when they come a knockin’.

“But Mama,” he would whine.

And “Now, Jimmy,” she would say, “you know better. You get that girl on outta here now.”

He peeked through the door in his bedroom at the child. In the soft glow of the firelight, he could see that she was still there. Still sleeping. So, he sat on the floor by his mama and waited for her to tell him when it was time.

As the day went on, she said many things, but never a sharp word. She never told him to take the girl on out. She had changed. The fever had softened her heart.

And Jimmy’s heart grew full. His loneliness was gone. He had someone to talk to. Like wise old friends, even the trees around the cabin had much to say. The winds sang like a jubilent chorus in their leaves.

If she can stay, why do the others have to be gone too?

He realized they did not have to be gone. Taking up his pick and shovel, he returned to the clearing where he had buried them.

Quotes for writers

A list of quotes for writers – most often from writers, most often inspiring.

The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.

Joyce Carol Oates

Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly.

Some Asian dude on Chef’s Table, Season 3, Episode 1

Editing while writing is a terrible idea. Reviewing while writing is a terrible idea. Making retrospective story changes while writing is a terrible idea. There are cases where you might feel that you have to do some of those things, but you’d be better off if you didn’t. Just write the thing. That’s the single most valuable lesson I learned. Get the words out, almost without regard to what those words are. Keep going, at all costs.

Some Asian dude on Chef’s Table, Season 3, Episode 1

Habit is the bed of creativity. Tuck yourself in.

Steven King

Time constraints sharpen the mind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Inspiration is everywhere. Carry a notebook.

Victor Hugo

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightening.

Mark Twain

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

The two most engaging powers of a writer are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

unknown

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

Anais Nin

It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.

Robert Hass

Good dialog illuminates what people are not saying.

Robert Towne

My presecription for writer’s block is to face the fact there is no such thing. It’s an invented condition, a literary version of the judicial ‘abuse excuse’. Writing well is difficult, but one can always write something. And then, with a lot of work, make it better. It’s a question of having enough will and ambition, not of hoping to evade this mysterious hysteria people are always talking about.

Thomas Mallon

One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you’re going to get down on paper.

Robin McKinley

Be an unstoppable force. Write with an imaginary machete strapped to your thigh. This is not a wishy-washy, polite, drinking-tea-with-your-pinkie-sticking-out stuff. It’s who you want to be, your most powerful self. Write your books. Finish them, then make them better. Find the way. No one will make this dream come true for you but you.

Laini Taylor

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.

Steven King

When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life, we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks., we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into trouble.

Janet Fitch

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

Terry Pratchet

You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.

John Rogers

Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position.

Steven King

A good writer is always a people watcher.

Judy Blume

If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.

Beverly Cleary

Pink hearts

My sister tried to kill herself. Or, at least, I think she did.

I was eleven years old. I don’t remember much about it; it was a long time ago – kind of a blur at this point. The thing that sticks out is all the little pink hearts – speed pills. She’d swallowed a shit-load, then sprayed them all over the upholstery of the car with her vomit.

Mom rolled down the windows. The stench was bad.

I watched those little pills drip off the top of the car as we raced to the hospital to have her stomach pumped.

She was thirteen years old.

She survived it.

To this day, I don’t know why she did that.

I was too young to understand much, but it makes me wonder now.

What could have been so troublesome for her at that age? I don’t even recall her having a boyfriend at the time. She never did drugs before then. It’s not like we lived on skid row or anything – we were at my sweet grandmother’s house for Christ’s sake. Where in the hell does a thirteen year old girl find a bunch of speed?

Maybe they were just caffeine pills. Maybe it was just a ploy for attention or a cry for help. Maybe not.

I’ll never know.

Last night, I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I went to bed without my laptop or smart phone. Once in the bed, I did not so much as peek at either screen. I didn’t even set an audiobook or podcast to playing as usual. I just laid there in the dark with nothing but silence and my very own thoughts. Not even a book.

As I laid there, for what seemed like forever, I was reminded of a conversation I often have with my son, which goes something like this.

“Caden,” I say, “You’re not getting enough sleep.”

“I can’t sleep,” he says.

I look at the unshaven hair on his chin and neck. It itches me.

“You know you need at least seven or eight hours of sleep per night,” I say. “How much sleep have you been getting?”

“I don’t know. About four hours?”

“If you’d stop going to bed so late, you wouldn’t be so exhausted and then, when you areawake, you would be more effective. Your mind will be clear. Your brain will work better. You won’t be so stressed.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I tried that. It doesn’t work. I just lie there and I can’t fall asleep.”

“So, just keep lying there until you do!”

“It doesn’t work! I just lie there with my monkey mind, thinking about all sorts of things, and I never fall asleep.”

And then he gets frustrated. I bark at him about shaving, or his unkempt hair, or his absences at school, unfinished business, or whatever. I’m always dispensing advice – like pestulant drips of water on his forehead. I might as well be thumping him there with my finger. I can see from the way he diverts his eyes that it feels like that – endless criticism, not guidance.

Anyway, so I’m lying there thinking about this. Thinking about that. Thinking about all sorts of things. Monkey mind, as my son said. And just like him, I can’t sleep.

Still, I resist the swelling urge to grab my smart phone.

And then it occurs to me. That monkey mind, all that noise in my head, is me. I’m am with myself, in myself, of myself. Even if my thoughts are in the past, or the future, I am experiencing them fully.

I remembered that, as a boy, I once enjoyed this time before sleep. It was my chance to make movies in my mind. I would close my eyes, the lights in the theater would dim, and I would project my stories up there on the back of my eyelids. And I would enjoy them as much, if not more, than the real movies. I would work on them for nights in a row – changing up the scenes, introducing new characters and situations. And then, in the days, I would write or draw or tell stories and people would often ask “Where in hell do you come up with this stuff?”

So, I try it again.

Instead of just letting my mind jump around like a broken time machine, I direct my thoughts. I try to hold them on a single idea or question.

At first, it’s very clear that I’m out of practice. Every little thing that comes to mind reminds me of something else – like an inbox full of spam. But, I concentrate. I heave my mind back out of the muck and return it to the idea. Back and forth it goes like this until alas, I’m thinking.

I’m thinking!

I’m not bored, I’m thinking.

Since when did thinking become boredom?

I like thinking!

I like this place of thought. I like this spot here in the dark, in the bed – this perfect place for quiet contemplation. I like the silence. I can hear myself. I’m in good company.

And then, maybe thirty minutes later, maybe an hour, maybe more, I fell asleep.

I woke early, feeling fully rested – energized, but remarkably peaceful. I made a cup of hot tea. The house was quiet. I watched a hummingbird drink from the feeder just outside the window.

I opened my laptop. I didn’t jump straight into the email. I didn’t open Skype. No Facebook. No Twitter. Not even the daily news. Just a blank page and a blinking cursor.

I wrote.

Story structure diagram

Recently, I created a story structure diagram to help me visualize and plan as I work on a novel. There are plenty of story structure diagrams on the web, but I wanted graphic of my own so that I could use layers to overlay my own elements (character arcs, major events, and what-not).

LEGENDActs, PeriodsEvents, Points

Details

  • ACT I – The Beginning
    • Hook – Grab the reader, provoke interest,and cause questions to be asked.
    • Inciting Event – The event that sets the story in motion, and will lead to the Key Event.
    • Key Event – The event that causes the protagonist to be caught up in the story.
    • Plot Point 1 – A change of surroundings. A personal turning point. The point of no return for the protagonist.
  • ACT II – The Middle
    • Strong Reaction – The protagonist has a strong response to the 1st Plot Point.
    • Pinch 1 – The antagonist’s presence and power are displayed.
    • Plot Point 2 – The midpoint. The turning point of the novel. A change of direction for the characters. A push from reaction to action. A personal catalyst for the protagonist. A move to dramatic, new, fresh, different circumstances. The true midpoint is not a scene. It’s a moment within a scene. It’s like the earth’s core. The true center. Find it in your novel, and everything will radiate from it. 
    • Strong Action – The protagonist takes a strong action after the Turning Point.
    • Pinch 2 – The antagonist’s presence and power are reaffirmed.
    • Plot Point 3 – We are setup on our inexorable course towards the Climax. A low point for the protagonist. Perhaps a meeting between protagonist and antagonist? A decision? An upheaval? An unexpected event?
  • ACT III – The End
    • Increased Pace – The pacing will naturally increase (and chapter length will decrease) as we approach the Climax.
    • Climax – The final 10% of the novel, where the core conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is brought to a conclusion.
      • Climactic Moment – The critical moment that fulfills the dramatic promise of the story.
    • Resolution – A brief hint (a scene or two) of how the story continues beyond the novel’s scope. A period of emotional recovery. A chance to spend another brief moment with the protagonist.
       

Sources

Although this is pretty standard for story structure, I’ve based it primarily on my study of the book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by K.M. Weiland. She also has an excellent blog called Helping Writers Become Better Authors where you can find a treasure trove of tips on writing.

I also got some inspiration from Matt Gemmell’s own study on Weiland’s structure, which he documented in the article, Structuring Your Article.

My momma used to say

As the new year approaches, I’ve been thinking about my mom. She was about my age when she died and she often said to me that if you don’t have your health, nothing else is worth having.

Chronically depressed, obese, on a daily regimen of both pharmaceutical and narcotic drugs – I figure she knew what she was talking about.

This is the same woman I knew as a child; the one who painted herself free and naked on a cliff overlooking the canopy of a lush green forest. The one who made sculptures of horses and dreamed of living in the country. The one who opened all the windows on sunny Sundays and played Gold Dust Woman on the stereo. Wore red lipstick and blue eye-shadow. Brushed long golden hair.

She often took me to work and let me choose gifts from the back of a comic book. I got Sea Monkeys once and then X-Ray vision glasses. The glasses didn’t work, but the anticipation of getting them in the mail kept me happy for weeks. The Sea Monkeys were kick-ass.

She walked me down a creek when I was just a boy and in the middle of some magic forest she showed me things I’d never seen before. “If it bites you,” she said of the first snapping turtle I ever held, “It won’t let go until lightning strikes.” Wow. I was full of wonder. She was full of beauty.

Donna Carole Baker died Jan 5, 1995 – she was 46.
William Charles Nobles died Oct. 17, 2001 – he was 50.

And then life happened. Seasons changed. I suppose water ran under bridges. Feelings got hurt. Things loved were lost. Dreams died. She receded slowly down the downward spiral into some cold darkness of chronic depression. The only thing that could take the pain away was drugs and the only thing that could make her feel good was food.

When the higher-level abstract concepts of the mind are weak or gone, we have only such things left – basic chemical reactions; animal pleasures.

“If you don’t have your health,” she said, “nothing else is worth having.”

She died in her early forties. She was taken out by a bee sting, believe it or not. It elevated her heart-rate and then a vessel burst in her head – weak, no doubt, from all the shit she’d been pumping into her body for so many years. She fell back in her chair onto the floor as her eyes rolled back in her head and then spent the next month with a machine pumping breath into her lungs. A tube sucking saliva out of her mouth. A strange odor like formaldehyde and old people and freshly unwrapped medical equipment all mixed together with the lukewarm coffee in my styrofoam cup. Her eyes were still open, but in a lifeless gaze toward the ceiling tiles.

My wedding was close to that hospital and I dressed for it alone there in the room with her. I told her how scared I was and how bad I wished I could talk to her. I told her about the grandson she had coming and how sorry I was that she would never get to meet him. I told her I loved her and then went and got married.

I later got a call from my dad who said the doctors were pressing him to sign a piece of paper. “It’s OK, dad.” I said. “At least she’s not in pain anymore.” Everyone had been holding out hope that she’d come back. They would cite other cases where people had been in comas for years and then come back. But I never shared that hope. I knew in the first instant I saw her eyes that there was not a shred of life left in them, even if they wereopen.

It seems that we all start sliding into the downward spiral every so often. Life happens and we start taking it for granted. Days blur into one another. Work takes our focus. Flowers speed by unnoticed. Suns rise and set unseen. And the further we go, the darker it gets and the heavier the weight of the world until alas we can barley see or stand at all – much less muster a genuine smile. Or a sense of wonder. Or gratitude.

We begin to think that each day is just another ordinary day. Or worse, we don’t even reallythink much at all because we’ve convinced ourselves there just isn’t time to do so.

But this is NOT just another ordinary day. There are no such things. To think otherwise, is an insult to God, is it not?

And yet, like my own mother was, many here on earth are here in hell.

If you’re not paying acute attention to your health, you are well on your way or already there. That is what my mother was trying to tell me; I know this now. And if you’re waiting for a doctor to tell you your in trouble, you can bet your ass one eventually will.

When you’re on your way or near the bottom of hell on earth, there are only two ways out. One is the way my momma went. The other is to put your fingernails into the dirt and start crawling your ass the hell out of there.

Trim fat from your content

Fat makes your Web content ugly. Face it, friends – it’s a fact. So, I’m going to get straight to the point and leave you with the Here’s the big tip now: Make REDUCTION a conscious part of your Web authoring process. Teach this to your colleagues friends. Have competitions in your office to see who can destroy the most useless words. There is too much shit on the Web already and we just don’t need any more, dammit. Add value, be crisp, be succinct, or get off the pot.

I’m reading the book, Getting the Words Right: 39 Ways to Improve Your Writingin which Theodore Cheney provides 39 ways to improve your writing. , by Theodore Cheney. He starts with a section on reduction with these key tips:

  • Shorten or remove whole chapters, sections, and paragraphs
  • Shorten or remove superfluous, ineffective, or redundant sentences and words
  • Replace longer words with shorter ones

Whether you’re writing a novel, an essay, an article, or an email, reduction should be first and foremost in your revision process. With so many channels to choose from, and with so much traffic and noise online, trimming the fat from your content is more important now than ever. In fact, Studies suggest that 79 percent of Web users scan rather than read . It’s not just some bull-shit from somebody trying to be famous, either. I’ve witnessed it first-hand during formal Web usability evaluations. As someone who loves to both read and write, I have been shocked…horrified…at witnessing this. But the scientist in me cannot ignore the evidence of my senses. It’s simple:

Users don’t like to read a lot of crap, so cut it.