Song-Inspired #13

Song: “I’m Not the Man” by Ben Folds

Chatter and slow music and the pop of a wine cork.

Aunt Gertrude’s infamous pea soup. A store-bought veggie tray. The neighbor’s onion dip.

The plastic wristband that’s too tight. The paper gown that provides no protection against the draft. The coarse carpet that probably hasn’t been shampooed since my mother bought the house.

My mother.

She’s sitting on the piano bench away from all the people, and she’s wearing the black dress Grandma bought her when we buried Dad. Her clenched fist is resting on the white keys, depressing three on the left-hand side. She’s holding a crumpled tissue and staring at the ground. Marcus’s sheet music is missing.

I suddenly feel angry. He’ll need it on Wednesday for his lesson. The recital is only a week away, and he’s been practicing “Jingle Bells” my whole visit. I only got him to stop today by offering to take him to get hot chocolate.

If my stepfather took the sheet music again, I don’t know what I’ll do. I turn to find him, to take it back. Marcus can help run the family diner and learn piano. The two aren’t mutually exclusive—no matter what Roger says.

I find him by the front door, talking to one of the neighbors.

“… black ice?”

“No. No. That’s what the police report says, but no. It’s got Alan all over it. He was speeding or texting or something. I just know it. I told Dana that he couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel again. I told her. But she trusted him—God knows why. Only six months sober! If the punk pulls through, I’ll insist that charges are pressed.”

My mother is suddenly beside me, and she’s looking at my stepfather. She’s clenching the tissue tighter now, and a few tears slide down her cheeks and dangle on the edge of her jaw.

They fall, finally, when she speaks: “Alan’s on life support, and—”

“He killed our son. Am I supposed to be singing his praises?”

I did what? I move my lips but no sound comes out. What are you talking about?

My mother raises her hand as if to slap Roger—but she never strikes. Her trembling lower lip drops, and a sob falls at their feet. It lingers there as she spins and runs from the room.

I start to follow her, but then I see them: the flower wreath, the 24-by-36 photo of Marcus on his 13th birthday, the collage of sheet music.

Roger walks through me to go after my mother.


The Importance of Reading

A darkened French class with a sea of pimple-faced high schoolers pretending they’re not texting—that’s where I adopted the biggest cop out of my young life.

We were watching Midnight in Paris, and a line from Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway caught my attention:

“If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more.”

In context, this line was Hemingway’s refusal to read the manuscript of Gil (Owen Wilson), but taken out of context by a young aspiring writer, it was an excuse to read less.

While it doesn’t seem to be an actual Hemingway quote—14-year-old me scoured the internet to quadruple check—the line resonated with me all the same; at last, I had validation for how I felt about reading at the time. Rife with the insecurities of an ambitious but unformed young writer, I had a complicated relationship with reading. Reading great writing filled me with feelings of inadequacy rather than inspiration or excitement as it had in prior years.

I loved reading as a kid. In fact, I think my love of reading preceded my love of writing—or at least they came in tandem—but somewhere along the way, reading became a chore.

I’ve been working to change that, to reconnect with my love of reading. The motivating factors behind this effort are numerous—the encouragement of friends, the pressure of my new Goodreads account, the understanding that my day job is literally to teach children to love reading—but above all, I want to improve my writing. How can I improve my writing if I don’t read? How can I write well if I don’t study the craft and see what works and what doesn’t in other books?

A few months ago, I started the habit of reading every night. A page, a hundred pages—it doesn’t matter as long as I pick up a book and read. And I’m happy to inform you, internet stranger, that I have consistently stuck to this habit, and now I find myself looking forward to that part of my day.

Success? Maybe.

Better yet, I can already see the positive impact on my writing. Two of my recent reads—The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom (which I picked up from Boston BookFest) and Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey—gave me some welcome inspiration for how to approach the experimental rewrite of my WIP. As a result, I seem to finally be picking up some momentum on that project after a few months of dreaded stagnation. Whether I’m back on track enough to meet my end-of-year goal remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I’ll take the wins as they come.

And for me, reading every night is a win.

Boston BookFest and old friends

I went to the Boston Book Festival over the weekend, and I’m so glad I did. I got some free and inexpensive books, and I enjoyed the cool autumn air and a walk around Copley Square with a friend. Most importantly, though, my writing aspirations were placed before me in a very real, very tangible way.

This is all important to acknowledge because I almost didn’t go. Lately, writing has been an old friend I’ve lost touch with, and I knew—I thought—that going would upset me. I was convinced it’d remind me of how little progress I’ve made in the past month, and that nasally, middle-school-bully voice of self doubt would make its comeback: “You’ll never be an author.”

That didn’t happen, though—or, at least, not in the same way. Instead of a nail in the coffin of my would-be writing career, the experience served as a challenge: “You’ll never be an author if…”

If you let life get in the way. 

If you don’t make writing a priority.

If you don’t write.

And, of course, all of these statements are true. A writer who doesn’t write? Preposterous!

The tricky part of all this is turning reflection into action, but one of the great things about the Boston Book Festival is that it’s an annual event. As I move forward, looking to next year’s festival as a deadline can give me a time frame for turning things around.

I’m glad I went.

(Seeing Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera was pretty great, too.)

Setting Challenge: “Setting it Up”

Okay, so, deciding to do this setting activity backfired a little; instead of just procrastinating on my WIP revisions, I also procrastinated on blogging.

In any case, I’m back now, and here’s the first of three setting exercises!

Exercise: Choose several settings and write short, opening descriptions that tell the reader when and where the action is taking place.

Setting #1:

The trees clustered like the black lines of a bar code, rising up as the pale morning light squeezed down between them. Their large, waxy leaves had captured rain drops from last night’s storm—and, quite honestly, the storm before that and the storm before that—and every so often, a drop would spill over the edge of its quivering leaf. It would land on the dewy earth below with scarcely a sound, but at this hour, with no creature’s movement to drown out the gentle plunk, it seemed to tick away the minutes until the forest would wake.

Setting #2:

A low rumbling rolled off the mountains and settled in the basin, cracking, finally, before a flash illuminated the entire valley. Locals’ American flags beat against their stucco houses as the wind picked up, carrying dust with it and promising rain. A bolt of lightning split the dark sky just before hard droplets began to pummel the valley, and when the flash floods began, the already swollen cacti threatened to burst.

I’m doing Writing Forward’s “Fiction Writing Exercises for Developing Setting” to get better at writing settings. Stay tuned for the next challenge, “Setting as Backdrop: Too Much vs. Not Enough.”

An Issue of Setting

Admittedly, the experimental rewrite of my main WIP has been slow going, and it’s not because I’ve been busy. That’s just an excuse. It’s one scene in particular that I’ve been stuck on, and I couldn’t really figure out why until today.

It’s an issue of setting. The scene stalling me is one with a setting that’s crucial to the exposition and world building of the entire series, and I’ve been hung up on getting it just right.

This self-imposed pressure to write something perfectly the first time is definitely a problem—and maybe something I’ll talk about in a future post—but my point is this: I’m struggling to convert the time period and place into coherent, engaging words.

Setting is one of the most challenging things for me as a writer (as you may remember from my post on day 3 of the Writer’s Digest challenge), and that’s something I’ve been working to fix.

My realization today sent me to Google to expedite that process, and I came across a Writing Forward post by Melissa Donovan. In it, Donovan provides some tips and a few writing exercises targeting setting, so over the next couple weeks, I’ll try them out—and, to hold myself accountable, I’ll post them here. Stay tuned!

Song-Inspired #12

Song: “Female Robbery” by The Neighborhood

They could kill me and make it all go away. I knew it, they knew it, the whole damn city knew it.

Not just could. Were going to. I knew that, too. Dragging my brother out to this overpass was just for—I don’t know. Dramatic effect? Artistic flair?

Hell, they could’ve just burned down my whole damn house, and that would’ve achieved the same ends—but they fancied themselves more surgical than that. They were squeaky clean; they didn’t leave loose ends. At least, that’s what their bosses thought—and what my video would disprove.

Dave would be here, alone, with the video, at midnight. I knew this because he’d followed all their other instructions—otherwise I’d have lost an ear or a finger by now.

They’d kill Dave and then me, and then they’d put us in Dave’s car, douse it with gasoline—most likely from that gas can I’d seen in the back of their SUV—and then, oops, drop a match. I’d seen enough of their handiwork to know this with certainty. Boy, if I could place one last bet, I’d bet against me.

The way I figured, I had, oh, 13 minutes left, so when Rob pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat, I figured I might as well try to bum a smoke.

He looked me dead in the eye as he dumped the entire pack out and ground them into the dirt with his boot.

We’re at that level of petty, I see. It seems excessive, if you ask me—that shit’s expensive—but hey, I guess when people get used to collecting information from you, they get a little peeved when you try to turn the tables.


Headlights pulled up 12 minutes early, and I resented Dave for being in such a hurry to get to our funeral—but I guess if I can’t even smoke, we might as well get on with it.

The passenger door snapped open while the car was still running. 7 pops, like whacking giant water balloons with a hammer, followed, and Rob crumpled to the ground. So did the other guys.

No way that’s Dave. I guess my payday came early.

I picked up one of Rob’s cigarettes before it could get ruined by the blood.

Click here to learn more about song-inspired stories.

Song-Inspired #11

I’m sorry for the radio silence; between starting grad school and working, I haven’t had a ton of time/energy for much else, so I’ve unfortunately been neglecting my writing. I’m really hoping to get adjusted and find a balance soon, but my posting schedule may be a little irregular for the next week or two. That said, here’s a quick song-inspired story. Thanks for sticking around!

Song: “What Do You Want From Me Tonight?” by Sidney Gish

A red solo cup was shoved into Charlotte’s hand, and a wave of people bowled her onto the dance floor—otherwise known as the dirt floor of some stranger’s basement. Maybe his name was Zeke, but she couldn’t be sure.  She took a swig of whatever was in her cup—flat root beer and hand sanitizer, by the taste of it—and craned her head to look for her sister.

“You’ve gotta get back out there,” Erin had insisted, chucking one of her shortest dresses at Charlotte from across their shared bedroom. “You’re young, and now you’re free. Time to have some fun!”

Now, Erin gave Charlotte a thumbs up over the sea of sweaty heads, and Charlotte nodded at her.

Technically, Charlotte could make her way over to Erin, and maybe she’d have a grand time like Erin had promised. Maybe she’d meet a tall, dark, and handsome who would show her that she’d been a fool to make fun of Dirty Dancing. More realistically, though, a Chad in a snapback and pastel shorts would grab her ass and someone would spill their orange soda and vodka all over her. Erin’s dress would get ruined, and Charlotte would never hear the end of it.

No, Charlotte chose to pass on all that, and rather than tread water, she paddled to the shallow end as quickly as the gyrating strangers would allow.

“What brings you here?”

“Checking for plumbing leaks.”

“Where are you from?”

“The basement down the street.”

“How’s it going?”

“Terrible, thanks.”

Charlotte finally made it to the edge of the crowd and tucked herself behind the water heater, where she’d remain until Erin finally tuckered herself out.

Watching the increasingly drunk teenagers try to wring some sort of meaning out of the night, Charlotte gulped down the rest of her drink and slid down the wall.

Click here to learn more about song-inspired stories.