On receiving my first short story critique

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Photo from Flickr user J. Paxon Reyes

I finally tied down my ego with double braided nylon rope (it’s still screaming, “Love me! Love me!”) and got one of my short stories edited. I used the editing services from Carve Magazine, a magazine named after the minimalist writer Raymond Carver. I love Carve because it publishes pieces that are so concise and beautiful.

I felt like it was time to have a professional glance at my work. I used to be so incredibly shy with sharing my work with anyone. I was only comfortable with anonymity. It all started with writing Harry Potter fanfiction. Boy, was that embarrassing. I’ve only realized recently that a good majority of readers venture into the realm of fanfiction writing and are proud to announce it. But I have yet to verbally admit my fanfiction days…

…and no, I will not tell you my username, because I don’t want anyone to know how angsty I was as a teenager.

Wow, I’m sidetracking. Okay, so yes, I paid a generally low price of $45 to have the editor look over my short story about a listless cab driver who encounters a passenger who then inspires him to right some wrongs done to his loved ones.

I submitted this piece in a workshop for my Fiction I writing class with Dr. Michael White. I received good comments, and he encouraged me to submit it to magazines. However, he warned me (with a pointed index finger) that I should have it edited first. This time I felt serious about having my work published. The previous works that  I’ve submitted had been silly high school pieces that I idealistically believed were good. Well, the list of red, bold “declined”s in my Submittable account had proved me wrong…

After a few days of waiting, I received a line-by-line critique of my short story. I was pleasantly surprised by how honest it was.

I’m not going to tell you all the nitty-gritty details of the editor’s comments (I’ve already talked about it with my therapist), but one thing that he did say was that I was overwriting. I let out an unlady-like snort when I read this comment, because way back when, I had the serious problem of underwriting! On almost all of my essays in middle school, the teachers would write “MORE!” One teacher even liked to underline the word with three lines!

I’m working as hard as I can, people.

Overall, did I find the editing service helpful? Most definitely. You always need someone to ‘Gordon Lish’ your work. Yes, the editor actually turned the name of a well-known editor into a verb. The editor pointed out inconsistencies that I missed, mentioned parts that didn’t make sense, and highlighted sentence structures that needed serious revision. At the end of his note, he said: “Sometimes revision is a re-‘vision’ as in reimagining the work, not just revising.” I couldn’t agree more.

I’m trying to improve my editing skills. In fact, in a few minutes, I’ll be attending my first class on editing. So excited!

If anyone else is interested in trying an editing service, I do suggest inquiring the help of Carve. I also discovered a new editing service for “independent authors and publishers” called Indie Proof. I haven’t tried it, but it has absurdly low rates for its services and seems worth the try. You won’t regret it!

Update: Indie Proof apparently closed. What a shame.

My Reading Resolution (Thanks, Random House!)

Retreat, a blog from Random House of Canada that seeks to help the average reader “read, retreat, and relax,” recently posted a fun activity for the year 2013. I can’t tell you how many times I tell myself to read instead of sleeping until noon every day during school break. My laziness is seriously inhibiting my resolution to read more. But I am also hesitant because I don’t know where to start. What’s in and what’s out in the publishing industry?

Luckily, Retreat understands that life gets in the way of pleasure reading, which is why the bloggers decided to provide motivation with their new Reading Bingo 2013 Challenge. The bingo card has 25 boxes that describe different books. I can choose a book because of its cover, because it’s a book recommended to me, because it has a great first line, and etc. Apparently I can try to fill a row or diagonal (like in the actual game) or I can conquer the whole card. I’m choosing the latter, since I know I’ll be seriously challenged by that number. I like that this game allows me to read books from different genres. I typically read thrillers and contemporary fiction, but I’ll have to read a book of poetry and a book by a Canadian author (of course: this is Random House of Canada).

After a lot of research and an hour of memory retrieval, I’ve planned out my bingo card.

Books

Sorry, my handwriting is so messy. But at least the image is clear–thanks to my iPhone.

This is a long post, so if you are interested in seeing a few books, look at this list and press a bullet for a more detailed description. If you have time to spare, read on, my peeps.

 

A book you chose because of the cover: “Obsession,” by Leonard J. Davis

Summary from Amazon: We live in an age of obsession. Not only are we hopelessly devoted to our work, strangely addicted to our favorite television shows, and desperately impassioned about our cars, we admire obsession in others: we demand that lovers be infatuated with one another in films, we respond to the passion of single-minded musicians, we cheer on driven athletes. To be obsessive is to be American; to be obsessive is to be modern.

But obsession is not only a phenomenon of modern existence: it is a medical category—both a pathology and a goal. Behind this paradox lies a fascinating history, which Lennard J. Davis tells in Obsession. Beginning with the roots of the disease in demonic possession and its secular successors, Davis traces the evolution of obsessive behavior from a social and religious fact of life into a medical and psychiatric problem. From obsessive aspects of professional specialization to obsessive compulsive disorder and nymphomania, no variety of obsession eludes Davis’s graceful analysis.

 Just look at the cover. This is designer porn right here. I don’t have a zoom function, but apparently the obsession typeface was not produced via Photoshop; it was handmade by poking “tiny pinpricks through heavy cardstock.” Credits for the design and lettering go to Isaac Tobin and Lauren Nassef, respectively. The summary is also intriguing. The line “to be obsessive is to be American; to be obsessive is to be modern,” caught my attention, leading me to ask: “Are we really defined by this phenomenon?” Reading this nonfiction book will surely be an eye-opening experience.

A book you saw someone reading: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” by David Foster Wallace

Summary from Amazon: “In this exuberantly praised book – a collection of seven pieces on subjects ranging from television to tennis, from the Illinois State Fair to the films of David Lynch, from postmodern literary theory to the supposed fun of traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruiseliner – David Foster Wallace brings to nonfiction the same curiosity, hilarity, and exhilarating verbal facility that has delighted readers of his fiction, including the bestselling Infinite Jest.”

I haven’t spotted anyone reading a physical book in a while. See, the negative aspect of e-readers is that you can never figure out what a stranger is reading! However, I’ve consulted one of my favorite Tumblrs called Underground New York Public Library. Moroccan/New Yorker photographer Ourit Ben-Haïm takes pictures of people reading in the subway. Though she puts in e-reader up once in a while, many of the pictures show people and the books they’re reading. On the front page, I found “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” by the famous David Foster Wallace.

A book that will help with your career: “Object Lessons,” by The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story

Yup. That’s me with “Object Lessons.”


Some chose classics. Some chose stories that were new even to us. Our hope is that this collection will be useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique. Most of all, it is intended for readers who are not (or are no longer) in the habit of reading short stories. We hope these object lessons will remind them how varied the form can be, how vital it remains, and how much pleasure it can give.”

My sister gave me this book for Christmas, and I’ve been perusing it occasionally. I’m excited to dig deeper. I’m considering both journalism and publishing careers, and I see no better way to learn writing than to read select stories from masters. I also admit that I’m not one to read short stories for fun, even though I aspire to write them. I mostly read short story submissions for Dogwood and my Fiction I class. It’s sad, I know, but I’m trying to change. This past summer I picked up a collection from Ernest Hemingway, and I loved it. My next collection after this book is “Tenth of December,” by George Saunders. I never heard of him until I read this ridiculously well-written article by Joel Lovell in The New York Times.

A book you saw on TV: “The Beautiful and the Damned,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Summary from Goodreads: “… the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects wild ambition…”

A friend tells me that this novel was mentioned in an episode of “Gossip Girls.” Fitting, I believe.

A book with an animal on the cover: “Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee


Summary from Goodreads: “…tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.”

I only know Coetzee as a post-modern writer, but ooh la la, what a plot. By the way, the animal is a dog on the cover.

A book from the library: Random!

A book that is out of your comfort zone: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” by Robert A. Heinlein

Summary from Amazon: “…an epic saga of an earthling, Valentine Michael Smith, born and educated on Mars, who arrives on our planet with psi powers—telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, teleportation, pyrolysis, and the ability to take control of the minds of others—and complete innocence regarding the mores of man…Valentine begins his transformation into a messiah figure. His introduction into Earth society, together with his exceptional abilities, lead Valentine to become many things to many people: freak, scam artist, media commodity, searcher, free-love pioneer, neon evangelist, and martyr.”


I’ve only read two science fiction books in my life: Ender’s Game and Shade’s Children. It’s not that I don’t want to read in that genre; it’s just not on the top of my list. For the spring semester, I will be enrolled in an Introduction to Science Fiction class and I will have to read “Stranger.” There’s no better motivation than mandatory reading.

An award-winning book: “Tinkers,” by Paul Harding

Summary from The Pulitzer Prizes: The novel is “… a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality.”

I like depressing books. I like happy books. Makes sense to me.

A book recommended by your local bookseller: “Tenth of December,” by George Saunders

There’s already praise in the book description on Amazon: “Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human.”

Taken from Lovell’s article, Saunders on David Foster Wallace and what it means to write: “I admired him so much,” he said about Wallace. “His on-the-spot capabilities were just incredible. And I thought, Yeah, we’re a lot alike. We’re similar, nervous guys. And then when he died, I thought [of myself], Wait a minute, you’re not like that. You don’t have chronic, killing depression. I’m sad sometimes, but I’m not depressed. And I also have a mawkish, natural enthusiasm for things. I like being alive in a way that’s a little bit cheerleaderish, and I always felt that around Dave. When he died, I saw how unnegotiable it was, that kind of depression. And it led to my being a little more honest about one’s natural disposition. If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it” — which is, in part, what the process of writing allows — “then the possibility exists that you can convert it.”

A young adult novel: “The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green


Summary from Goodreads: A girl who has tumours in her lungs meets a guy who is, for some reason, attracted to her. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.”

This was recommended to me by my good friend, Ali, who texted: “Yeah, it’s really good. You would like it especially.” Since Ali knows me very well, I’ll trust her judgment. I think I’ll like it because I already love John. Let me tell you: John and his brother Hank are some of my favorite YouTube Vloggers. They’re the epitome of nerds (followers are called ‘nerdfighters,’) and they are awesome. Based on the summary, I can expect to get a huge dose of angst, romance and life lessons.


A book that’s been on your shelf for more than 5 years: “The Book of Fate,” by Brad Meltzer


“Washington, D.C., has a two-hundred-year-old secret. Six minutes from now, one of us would be dead. None of us knew it was coming. So says Wes Holloway, a young presidential aide, about the day he put Ron Boyle, the chief executive’s oldest friend, into the president’s limousine. By the trip’s end, a crazed assassin would permanently disfigure Wes and kill Boyle. Now, eight years later, Boyle has been spotted alive. Trying to figure out what really happened takes Wes back into disturbing secrets buried in Freemason history, a decade-old presidential crossword puzzle, a two hundred-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson that conceals secrets worth dying for.”

And I ask myself: Why has this been on my shelf for five years?

A book someone recommends to you: Random!

A book with a great first line: “Metamorphosis,” by Franz Kafka

Summary from Goodreads: “It is the story of a young man who, transformed overnight into a giant beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. A harrowing — though absurdly comic — meditation on human feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and isolation, The Metamorphosis has taken its place as one of the most widely read and influential works of twentieth-century fiction.
As W.H. Auden wrote, “Kafka is important to us because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.”

First line is: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”

A book written by a celebrity: “The Pleasure of My Company,” by Steve Martin

Summary from Amazon: “Daniel resides in his Santa Monica apartment, living much of his life as a bystander…It is through Daniel’s growing attachment to Clarissa, and to Teddy, that he finally gains the courage to begin to engage the world outside, and in doing so, he discovers love, and life, in the most surprising places.”

You’ll never catch me reading Snooki’s biography. So, I chose a funny man named Steve Martin instead. In addition to acting in comedic films, Martin also writes and makes music.

A book with more than 400 pages: “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy

Summary from Amazon: “…tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.”

This is a classic. I bought my copy at a book sale, and I’ve gone through maybe a hundred pages already. Yeah, I know, I need to get working. You don’t have to tell me that again.

A book of poetry: “Theories and Apparitions,” by Mark Doty

From The Independent: Urbane New York peregrinations and conversational musings from the prizewinning American.

Again, I am not a poet; the best I can do is a haiku–a sorely, horrible, and uncreative haiku. This book of poetry can go in hand with the “book that is out of your comfort zone.” I found this book on the Independent website as part of their ‘Ten Best-Selling Poetry Books,’ and I usually trust their judgment.

A book you heard about on the radio: Random!

A book with pictures: “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Summary from Amazon: “This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin.”

I’ve only read “Fun Home,” by Alison Bechdel and “Stitches,” by David Small (both from my college English courses!), but these two have spurred my love for graphic novels. I’ve heard of “Watchmen,” and its raving reviews from graphic novel fans, so I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon and check it out. As long as the storyline is compelling and graphics are amazing, I’m sold. Then again, that can be pretty hard to do.

A book recommended by barista: Random!

Hold on – looking for a barista. Contact me if you can suggest a good person or received a great recommendation!

A book recommended by a celebrity: “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn

Summary from Amazon: Marriage can be a real killer. One of the most critically acclaimed suspense writers of our time, New York Times bestseller Gillian Flynn takes that statement to its darkest place in this unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I’m not sure if ‘unputdownable’ is a word, but I’ll let it slide, Amazon. Anderson Cooper and I have a close and personal relationship, and he told me once over a cup of Chai Latte on the streets of Paris that I should read this novel. Andy, I hear you now. Will I like it? I don’t know; the ‘suspense’ is killing me 😉

 

A book by a Canadian author: “Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel

Summary from Amazon: The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true?

Canadian, ey? JOKES! I honestly don’t know what a Canadian accent sounds like, but I bet Canadians are super nice. I always thought of this novel as a kid’s book because of the cover, which is why I stayed away from it. However, people have been telling me to read this, so I will. Guess I’ll see the movie after.


A book you (should have) read in high school: “The Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad

How dare you, Random House! Of course I’ve read–well, kind of-not-really–OKAY! You caught me, sneaky publishing house. I’ve perused HoD and watched the totally tripping movie version, but I’ll try and get a closer reading of it when I have the time.

From Amazon: Heart of Darkness tells of Marlow, a seaman and wanderer, who journeys into the heart of the African continent to discover how the enigmatic Kurtz has gained power over the local people.

A book you would have picked up as a teenager:  “A Tale of Two Cities,” by Charles Dickens

Summary from Goodreads: After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the aging Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

A book “everyone” but you has read:  “Lord of the Ring” series by J.R.R. Tolkien

At first I wanted to read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James, but then I decided against it. “Everyone,” in that case, only applies to the female population. My next choice is the LoTR. I used to be a total “Harry Potter” snob. I said, “No, HP is the best!” (Not that it’s a bad thing, but now that I think about it, that assumption sounds so narrow-minded. Luckily no one punched me.) I’ve grown out of that phase and now I want to go back and read what everyone seemed to obsess over in middle school and high school. I saw the movies–fantastic–but I admit I still don’t understand the whole evil eye thing.

I really hope I can complete this challenge. Rereading this post, I’m getting excited about buying and borrowing these books! And you’ll be glad to know that I am sticking with printed books. Reading on e-readers actually cause strain on my eyes. Also, e-readers cannot replace the sensation of paper between your fingers.

Now, I am curious…what will you read? Comment below, you brave souls who stuck around.

Many of these images were found using Creative Commons

Short fiction piece: Freedom

I’m reading this short piece tomorrow at a gathering for creative writers. I’m so nervous. I don’t often read my fiction to people other than my close friends. Wish me luck!

Update: It wasn’t bad at all! Everyone seemed nervous but when they started reading from the podium, they sailed through. People read a variety of works. I read short fiction. My roommate, Ali, read a nonfiction piece about ‘catastrophic diarrhea,’ which sounds disgusting but was absolutely hilarious. One person from my fiction class read spoken word and I didn’t know that he was so good at it! A really nervous-looking girl read a poem in which she made a metaphor out of one person’s body part. Who thinks of that?

I left this event feeling extremely fulfilled. We all bared some bit of our souls, so in the end, it didn’t matter if one person messed up or not. What mattered was that we, as creative writers, took the step to read works that we usually keep to ourselves.

The event also made me think about the future. Representatives from Fairfield University’s MFA program discussed how life-changing the seminars and meetings were. They have a community of writers willing to critique and comment on each others’ work. I wish we had more of that at school.

I mean, sure, we have Inkwell, the student-run literary magazine, but at the meetings, we do prompts and read unfinished work. I know that a lot of students don’t feel comfortable reading something that’s unedited and based off a prompt. I think that people might prefer to have a set time and date to read finished masterpieces, and then accept constructive criticisms. I had time to talk to the people who’ve read at this event and they all seemed to agree that this event had somehow changed the writer in them. I can see the confidence in the way they talked about their experience. I sense some coffee shop readings in the future.

Overall, I am so glad that I went to this event and I hope that the creative writing department holds more of these in order to nurture the writing community that they talked about.

Freedom

by Loan Le

When Abby shot the security guard, she didn’t notice that her father, who was pinned underneath the other man’s knee, stopped struggling against his impending arrest. She didn’t know at the time that the gleaming golden bullet from her Glock 27 would make a nearly straight path toward the guard’s neck and lodge itself in his external jugular vein. Abby had only wanted it to go for his shoulder or arm, or anything that’d stop him from reaching for his handcuffs, which were intended for her father. The split second after she sees the guard’s blood spurt in different directions, she naively thinks that, somehow, he’d be alright. Somehow, the mahogany flesh encasing the guard’s massive neck would diminish the bullet’s impact.

The guard didn’t see her. The guard didn’t know that he’d die on a Tuesday in October at 8:14 in the morning. The 250-pound guard collapses on top of her father, who then grimaces at the added weight to his much smaller prone body. Abby doesn’t help him up, not immediately, that is, because she finds that she can’t move her legs. The Glock drops to her feet, only to skid across the sleek marble floor of the bank. Around her, people, who waited to cash in a check or pay their late mortgages, clamber over the black bars that kept them in line, and they run from her, the sixteen-year-old girl who just wanted to help her father pay the bills.

He can’t be dead, she thinks.

If her brother Hayden was with her, Abby knew he’d look at the guard and say, “Wow, good shot, Abs,” because that’s the type of sick guy he is—was … well, before he overdosed two months ago. Hayden would push the man’s body off their father’s. He’d even shoot the guy again for a good measure. He’d tell Abby to run. Abby needs someone to tell her what to do, because right now, she’s stuck. She feels a sudden, new ache in the part that burns whenever she cries alone in her bathroom, the part that perks up when she learns that they’d have enough money to last the month, the part that yearns for freedom. Abby knows the name of this intruder that’s gnawing at her insides, it’s called ‘remorse,’ and she doesn’t like how it feels, but she can’t stop herself from recognizing the calamity that she has caused. As she stares blindly at her trembling hands, she wonders if the man had a toddler waiting at home, excited to see her “Dada” after a long day of work. She imagines the wife who will never again run her hand through her husband’s mousy brown hair in a show of absent-minded affection. Abby thinks of all this because that’s the kind of girl she is – the soft-spoken girl who never, ever imagined that she could kill.

This isn’t what she imagined would happen when she first agreed to help plan robberies with her father and Hayden. If she could have predicted this, she would have said no the day her father told her: “I promise, it’ll only be this one time.” She pictures in her head that cloudy summer morning, when they had, for the third time that week, charred Spam and runny scrambled eggs. She sees her twelve and a half-year-old thin self, hunched over her chipped Ikea plate, holding her shoulders in a way so that her nipples wouldn’t brush up against her T-shirt. At the time, she was growing what all girls her age wanted, but she also knew that her family had no money, and buying training bras were not on the top of the family’s list of priorities. Her father’s plan seemed like the only option they had, so she said yes.

But now, now, as the bank is empty, as her father reaches for her, she finds herself inexplicably caught in what she wanted to escape that day she said yes. Trouble. Confusion. Desperation. She knows that this is the last time she’d steal anything.

The doors to the bank open up, the entrance bell’s chime gets Abby’s attention. She hears the quick footsteps of the officers who barrel themselves into the lobby and their shouts to “Get down!” and “Drop your weapons!” The dead man is pushed unceremoniously off her father, and before he has the time to rub the pain away from his aching chest, the SWAT officers grab hold of him and roughly slam him back onto his stomach.  Abby’s pale blue eyes connect with the officer who’s pointing the nozzle of a gun at her.

She wants to run away. But then she searches for her father. His gray hair has speckles of blood on it. Her father refuses to look at her, now that he’s being led away. She feels a light hand on her left arm; she glances down and back up to see that a redheaded cop is touching her. Her fingers are light on Abby’s pale and dry skin. Abby thinks this is the maternal instinct of the cop coming out. Maybe the cop feels sorry for her – Abby’s only sixteen and going to jail. She killed for her father. She killed because of him.

Abby’s not going anywhere for a long time.

Fiction: The Right Thing

Contrary to popular belief, the cafeteria was not a complete animal kingdom. Each table kept to itself. All conversations were focused at the tables. Girls gossiped about the latest celebrity news–something about Beyoncé and her baby. Guys talked about various sports, and arguments would erupt from opposing sides.

Ben didn’t fit into any conversation. He had little care for the celebrity world and sports world. Not to mention that he was relatively unknown to anyone. He wasn’t particularly smart–maybe average. He couldn’t play sports for his life. He dressed like any teenage boy with his t-shirt, sweater, and jeans. He would never admit that his mom still buys his clothes.

It wasn’t that he was a victim to any social injustice. He just…didn’t seem to exist. There was always someone like that. People never glanced at him. Teachers glossed over his name during attendance, without meaning to. He also tended to stumble over his words when reading out loud in literature classes. Add that to his list of problems.

Ben was used to it. In fact, he was sure he’d have to deal with the same thing all his life. His parents always discouraged his pessimistic thinking, but Ben didn’t think it would help to fool himself. A realist, he called himself.

Ben sighed as he pushed around a blob of chili with his fork. Even the food at his high school couldn’t hold his attention. He decided his appetite was done, so he gathered his tray to stand and head over to the trashcans–

–then he heard a crash, and he, startled, emerged from his self-imposed silent bubble.

At the same moment, all talk stopped. Heads turned to see what the sudden commotion was all about. Someone had tripped and her tray had toppled out of her hand and mixes of fruit juice, chili and dessert crumbs crashed to the floor. To make things worse, the girl looked like she had landed in the pile.

The girl’s name was Sara.

Sara was the girl that everyone knew. With her bright hazel eyes, easy fashion sense and involvement with various extracurricular clubs, she was well-liked. Even Ben knew her–and that’s saying something. Ben didn’t like to keep up with profiles of his classmates. Sara was in his U.S. History class and sat in the middle and occasionally answered questions the teacher would ask.

The only thing Ben puzzled over were her friends. They didn’t mesh with Sara; they always seemed to look at her for leadership, but she seemed adamant to not be anything like that. When she wasn’t around, her friends were ravenous and soul-sucking fiends. They liked to target the weak.

Ben heard the girls would steal other girls’ boyfriends without remorse. They’d shoplift for fun. They’d make a meek girl cry for entertainment. Ben hated girls like that. It made Ben feel thankful that he was invisible. Yet, Sara seemed oblivious or maybe she knew about these incidences but didn’t want to do anything.

Ben wondered why an accidental fall and the sound of a cup clattering across the floor always garnered extreme reactions.

The cafeteria roared in laughter. Some boys at the next table yelled, “Nice!” They started to clap their hands like imbeciles. Ben thought they sounded like pigs.

Sara glanced around the room and probably saw what he saw every day–the mocking, the amused and the curious–and she quickly ducked her head. She began gathering her tray together, but Ben know she was probably more worried about her dignity than the mess on the floor.  He couldn’t believe there was no one to help her–not even her friends. He didn’t think her “friends” would be so callous to leave her there, since they always were desperate for her attention.

With only a minute of hesitation, he left his seat and his sneakers squeaked as he trekked over the food pile. Ben bent down, taking the tray from a blushing and embarrassed Sara. He carried it over to his table, mindful of the stares he was receiving.

Ben unzipped his sweater, half sure he might be rejected for his next move. In a moment of silence between the two, he offered her his sweater. Sara glanced down at it, her mouth dropping open slightly.

When she didn’t move, he pressed forward again.

Sara reached over to take it. “Thanks,” she said, gazing up at him in wonder. She slid her arms through the sleeves and zipped it up. The maroon sweater fortunately covered the mess on her shirt. However, her jeans were still covered with lunch food.

With a hand behind his neck, Ben shrugged modestly. He had plenty of sweaters at home and didn’t think he’d miss that one.

Behind him, he heard the snickers of guys and girls–Ben has a crush on Sara!–but he was used to it and ignored it. At least he did something, rather than sit there while she was only a few feet from his table.

Something else–maybe a fart or an undignified burp–took the attention away from the pair, and as quickly as it started, Ben and Sara’s moment was over. The bell rung. Backpacks swung across backs, seats pushed into various directions and chatters rose to the maximum decibel.

Ben, feeling like he had to say something, turned to Sara, who still stood with her hands clasped in front of her, and said, “Well, bye.” After that eloquent response and with reasons unbeknownst to him, Ben turned once more and nearly jogged out of the lunch room.

The next day, the incident had left his mind.

It was towards the end of the day. Ben wasn’t in a good mood, because he just left his history class where they had a test. He didn’t study, obviously, and knew his parents wouldn’t like the grade that was coming. At his lockers, Ben was gathering his books into his backpack, and as he was searching for his Chemistry book, someone tapped him on his shoulder.

He turned and saw Sara there. She gave a little wave, to which he returned with his own awkward one.

“Hey, Ben.”

He tried to hide his surprise at her knowing his name and somehow, he answered, “Hey.”

Sara pushed something towards him, and with one look, Ben saw it was his maroon sweater that he gave to her yesterday.

“Thanks for this, you know.” Ben noticed she had an lilting accent, but it was quiet–like a whisper. He thought it was nice to hear it in her voice, and he missed it yesterday. “Some of the stuff on my shirt got on it…so I washed it.”

“Oh,” Ben said. He smiled slightly, noting how she had folded his sweater in the same way his mom would. “You didn’t have.”

“Yeah, well,” Sara giggled nervously. “I mean, it was the least I could do.” She glanced behind Ben, at his locker, then they locked eyes again. “You’re in my history class, right.” It wasn’t a question.

“Um, yeah,” Ben answered. He then thought it was pathetic how he could even hesitate in such answer. He closed his locker, shouldering his backpack. “So…what’d you think of that test we just had?”

Sara’s eyes widened, and suddenly, Ben realized how easy it was to talk to someone.

Before he knew it, Sara was talking about her fears of failing the class, and there he was, listening attentively, walking beside her down the hallway, the sweater tucked under his arms.

The Onion Article: Weird Girl Only Cool When Drunk

Maria Ankundinov, the girl people usually stay away from in the daylight, became the life of the party at Timmy Jackson’s end of the year bash last Friday.

Ankundinov decided to abandon her coop at Fairfield University’s Dimenna-Nywhat’shisface Library and emerged from darkness when she attended a fucking crazy party on a whim. She wasn’t invited, but people ended up liking her anyways because they were drunk out of their minds.

“Yeah, she was in my HI 101 class. I, like, didn’t really like her,” said Ashley Stevenson ’14 to the reporter on scene as she was holding her vomiting friend’s hair back in the backyard of Jackson’s sketchy apartment. “But now she’s totally fun! She really knows how to drink.”

Students reported seeing Ankundinov chugging three Bud Lights before participating in a rousing round of Absolut Rio shots. Dressed in questionable clothing that looked like a rainbow barfed on her, she then managed to win a beer pong game with a group of acne-faced freshmen.

“I’d tap that,” said Jake Bryant ’12 as he sat in a corner and creepily eyed prepubescent-looking girls partying in the opposite side of the room.

The Ankundinovs were so proud that their daughter was getting a social life. Marcie, Ankundinov’s mother, said in an official statement to the public: “I used to hate my daughter so much because she didn’t have any social skills. But I now like her a bit more. Congratulations, Mallory.” Her husband later told her that she said her daughter’s name wrong. Marcie seemed surprised.

Fiction: Perfect and Pretty

You hear the tumultuous roars of petty journalists and news reporters as they thrust their cameras and microphones in your face. You tease them, give them a smile or pose here or there (the voices get louder), but you never stop to talk to them.

You hear whispers of conversation about your latest date with Michael Manson, the hockey player who has blond hair and sweet eyes. You laugh at the irony — oh, how you despise him. Michael tracked you down and was actually trying to get you in bed, that much you knew. You hate men like him.

You much preferred Mark Skylar, the quiet scholar you once knew in your small town in the Midwest. He liked to write you haikus about the sun and lillies because you loved both things. He made you a bracelet out of dandelions. But then you turned pretty in sophomore year of high school, and people didn’t like it when you wanted to get out. You never talked to Mark again.

“Let me out,” you think as you glance at a mirror. You’re in the make-up room now, back stage, getting ready for a high-end and popular fashion show. Your agent said you just had to do this show, and your popularity would increase by tenfold if you only went. You see that your eyes are vibrant green, thanks to color contact lenses. Purposely messy black hair, green smoky eye makeup and an emotionless face glance back at you.

“Hey, girl,” someone says behind you. You turn and blink away the blinding fluorescent lights in the room. You see Tami–just Tami, since she just changed her name–and put on a smile.

“Hi,” you say back. Tami starts talking about the latest model scandals. Tabloids caught Ashley Tine heading out for some night time fun and she flashed her breasts at the paparazzi. Stephanie Boarman lost her agent because she gained ten pounds over the summer.

Tami’s high-pitched laugh hurts your ears. When she turns away to get something from her bag, your eyes trace the protruding bones of her spine and you suppress a shudder.

“–hate that pout that Leslie does. It’s, like, what–did you just eat something sour?”

“Five more minutes, ladies!” The stage manager announces. Some of the model groan and yell at their makeup artists to hurry up. Designers weave through the aisles of designer clothes, checking each of the models’ outfits with keen eyes.

“Lovely, just lovely,” one of the flamboyant designers whispers to you. You feel warm suddenly and you caress the silk of your verdant gown. Someone adjusts the straps of your 5-inch black stiletto heels from Louis Vuitton. They cost more than what you were paid annually at your high school part-time job. You already feel the sting of incoming blisters on your heels.

“Okay, so just walk out and you know, work it. Make a pose like this—” The designer does something odd that you wouldn’t be able to copy — “and sexify it.”

The music coming from behind the curtains changes and you know that you’re up. The other model walks back inside and your shoulders brush as you pass by her.

You reach the middle and FLASH.

Cameras on the left, right and center blind you. The audience gasps as they take in your gown, your hair—perfection, you think they were thinking.

You have to admit, as you strut down the runway:  you love the eyes, feasting on your body, because you know you worked hard for it.

You earned everything.

At the final lineup, you glance out at the crowd you suddenly remember when you stood at the end of your first your piano recital, and your parents were on their feet, yelling their hearts out for you. Today, they are not there to see you shine.

You feel your smile slip, but you slightly shake your head, and you’re gorgeous again.

The show ends like usual. Fashion magazine representatives approach you about deals, but your agent blocks them—something you are thankful for. Your agent knows you better than most people, and knows you always get tired after the shows. He has a bodyguard lead you to the pickup limousine, but on the way, more paparazzi bombards you.

“Is it true that you slept with Michael yesterday? Sources say you went into a hotel with him.”

You were never near a hotel.

“People think you are gaining a bit of weight. What can you say about that?”

You like to eat, so what?

“Are you addicted to laxatives?”

Please stop, you think.

The bodyguard roars at the hyenas to move away and he puts a hand on your back, guiding you into the car. The door slams shut and the noise disappears.

In the car, you let out a shaking breath. Your driver, who you recognize, hears you and asks if you’re okay. You smile–that same smile on that Ralph Lauren ad you did a couple of months ago (“Perfect and Pretty”) and nod.

He pushes the button to let the divider rise up, and then you are alone. You start crying, tears falling down your pretty face.

Fiction: Voice

I wrote a quick short story a couple of days ago. I followed a challenge that Figment had posted. Each week, the creative writing site hosts a young adult author who assigns prompts and fun games for online users. This week’s guest was Geoff Herbach. His presence on YouTube is well-known, and he is also the author of young adult novel “Stupid Fast” and the upcoming novel “Nothing Special.”

Herbach recently wrote about how to incorporate personal voice into short stories. I just love the way he explained voice through a video. It’s so much better than reading long blog posts. I can see why young adults would love him. His basic message for writers is that voice should reflect the writer’s personality, not the writer’s idol’s personality.

He also gave us a challenge so that we could develop our voices. The outline that Geoff Herbach had posted are as followed:

1. YOU HAVE A CHARACTER WHO DRIVES.
2. A BIRD HITS THE WINDSHIELD.
3. THE WINDSHIELD CRACKS.
4. YOUR CHARACTER PULLS OVER.
5. THE BIRD IS HOLDING A TINY SCROLL IN ITS LITTLE, DEAD BIRD CLAW.
6. YOUR CHARACTER READS THE SCROLL.
7. IT IS A MESSAGE ADDRESSED TO YOUR CHARACTER!

You’ll see the story below.  I took the plot of a WIP story and used it in this setting.

I had a lot of fun with this. I didn’t even notice that I was writing more than a thousand words!

Untitled

I could have taken one of my kitchen knives and stuck it right between Paul’s shoulder blades. I could have emptied our joint bank account and ran his precious Mercedes into a random light pole. I could have driven this crappy Nissan 1997 to the Hamptons and picked up a beach blond guy half my age on the side.

But I’m not in a Lifetime movie. I’m just another woman who has a cheating husband.

I’m nothing special. Obviously. Or else Paul wouldn’t have decided to break my trust.

When Paul came home and planted a perfunctory kiss on me tonight, I instantly knew I needed to leave. Leave before I…I don’t know lost control. ‘Cause right now, I’m past my boiling point.

“Goddamnit!” I shout in my car, assured that no one can hear me in my little bubble of woe.

I need a drink.

Give me liberty, or give my Red Death. Some vodka, peach liqueur…oh yes. Perfect. I need them to drown out the image of Paul and his thing fooling around last afternoon when I came home early for work.

As I reach the end of a scenic Brooklyn block, my eyes stray to the shadowed form of a prostitute showing off her midriff and wearing a red leather skirt as she leans against a blue brick building. She has one leg propped up against the wall and a cig dangling between her cherry lips.

She looks just like my daughter Riley who, by the way, just uploaded an interesting Facebook picture from her 21st birthday. One day I happened to ‘stumble across’ said photo. I told her to take it down.

She unfriended me.

A part of my mind tells me to jet out of the car and wrap a blanket around that girl – who is someone’s girl out there – and give her a cup of steaming milk and chocolate chip cookies. Then another part of my mind imagines the police car that’s parked around here, waiting for any commotion to barge onto the scene. I see myself being slammed against the wall, having the cuffs roughly slapped onto my wrists. As all of this goes down, I’m screaming, “I’m a mother! I’m a mother!”

I shake my head. I place two hands on the wheel. And I stomp on the gas pedal.

No red light. No red light, I repeat to myself. If I stop again, I know I won’t be able to stem the tears building behind my eyes.

I’ll just end up crying in my car, and the teenagers who stop next to me at the red light will cackle at the sight of me.

But, who cares! I am a woman! I am a feminist! I am –

“Mother of – ”

Out of God-freakin’ nowhere, some bird collides with my windshield.

I wrench my steering wheel to the right, trying to avoid the inevitable. My heart stops. I hear the tires screeching and the angry honks of some guy behind me who’s probably late for dinner and doesn’t want to be on his wife’s shit list.

My right tire hits the nearest curb, and I manage to get the rest of the car under control.

I sigh angrily and throw a good punch at the stirring wheel. Now I’ll have to call Animal Control or something to get this shit off my window. I can’t do it myself; that’s disgusting.

“Hey, you all right, lady?” An African-American guy peeks through the window on my side. Behind him, I see a small group of nosy senior citizens gathering across the street.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Can’t say the same for this bird though.”

“You want me to call someone? The ambulance?”

I wave a hand at him. “No. Just…just call the animal guys. No ambulance, though.”

“You sure?”

I do the right thing and censor all profanity that’s flittering through my mind. “Yes. Please.” The man nods at me and assures me that I’ll be okay.

I slowly release myself from the seat belt constraints and gingerly move my legs. Good, they work.

Blowing a few blond strands from my face, I lean closer and check the damage. I spy a small crack that’ll probably take $400 to fix. Great. At least I didn’t crack my neck. Once my blood stops boiling, my shoulders begin to relax and my conscience stops its swearing.

Poor bird, some part of me thinks. It still looks peaceful in death.

Wait.

I press my nose against the window and squint my eyes. Is that…? Really?

I kick my door open and scramble to get near the bird. The guy from before is on his cell, and the crowd is slowly beginning to disperse. No one important died so this accident is nothing to look at, I guess.

Back to the bird. I see that under one of his limp claws, he’s holding some kind of scroll.

“Ew, ew,” I mutter, as I gently pry the bird’s claw open. The bird relents and the scroll rolls into my left palm. It’s small and slightly damp with avian blood, but I ignore my germophobic thoughts and curiosity takes over.

I roll out the paper. I feel like I’m Nicholas Cage.

I read: MOVE ON.

Those words are written in some kind of charcoal that’s rubbing off on my hands. I flip the piece of paper to see if there’s anything on its back, but nothing. No signature. No explanation.

I glance up, checking to see if there’s some creep peeping from his window or rooftop. My eyes catch nothing but laundry dangling from homemade lines and one wrinkly man who’s slumbering away on a cemented porch.

“Shit,” I mumble, dropping the slip onto the oil-drenched road. I glance back at the innocent bird who couldn’t have known what was coming.

Okay, I’m officially creeped out. Who cares about Animal Control? I roll up a newspaper that was lying on the sidewalk. With a few prods, the bird tumbles over and lands on top a sewage gutter. The rain will wash it away.

“Hey, miss, they’re coming soon,” the cell guy says to me.

“Oh well,” I answer, sliding back into my car.

As I drive away, I glance at my rearview mirror, as if searching for the paper. I can still see the words in my mind.

“Move on,” I whisper. If only it was that easy.

I’m still going to that damn bar.