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Monday, December 12, 2011

Yuletide Wishes!

Chuy in Elf Suit Small

Goodness, so much has happened this past month to keep me away from blogging! NaNoWriMo was a thrill to participate in for the first time.  It was everything I thought it would be and more.  The community of people involved (both locally and online) was so welcoming and enthusiastic, it really made you feel like you were part of something huge and significant.  I will definitely be taking part in next year’s writing marathon.  Thank you everyone who cheered me on. 

I started a research assistant position midway through September and immediately had a very tight deadline to meet for a manuscript.  Because of that I was unable to reach my 50k word goal for NaNoWriMo.  I still feel like a winner, though, because I learned something so simple yet profound: I have time enough for anything if I choose to make the time for it.  Although I couldn’t add 1,665 words to my story every day, I could and did add a paragraph here or a couple of sentences there every single day.  I got more work done on my story this past month than I had all year.  Before NaNoWriMo, if I didn’t have at least several hours free to work on my writing, I wouldn’t bother.  I had a very “all or nothing” mentality about my writing.  Now I know I can accomplish so much just by adding little pieces here and there.  This experience has truly been a breakthrough for me as a writer.

I hope everyone gets a chance to go through an experience equally enlightening.  Life really is about taking small steps towards your goal.  It may take you a little longer, but you will get to where you want to go someday.  If you take off sprinting towards your destination, you may end up burning out long before you near the finish line. 

Here’s wishing everyone a wonderful holiday this winter season!

Photo: My sister’s dog Chuy is ready for Christmas! Are you?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: “Runes and Shadows”


It’s a good thing I can’t get disqualified from Flash Fiction Friday for not following instructions.  It turns out I’m quite bad at it! I’ve gone 250 words over the word limit again and failed to use two of the required words in my story.  My writing always takes me where it will, though, and when it decides the rules are too confining and breaks loose, all I can do is hang on for dear life.

This story is actually part of a much larger story that I am currently working on for NaNoWriMo. It was rather fortuitous that this week’s prompt asked for a creepy story involving a castle when that’s exactly the genre and setting of the novel I’m working on. 

There is quite a bit of back-story involved as this scene doesn’t happen until at least 2/3rds of the way into the story.  Hopefully whatever isn’t clear will be intuitive enough not to hamper your understanding of the scene (and, with luck, give the story a nice air of mystery!). I have once again loosely interpreted the prompt to include the Outer Ward of the castle instead of the castle proper; the image above of Harlech Castle has an example of where the Outer Ward is located. 

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Prompt: Write a spooky story about a night spent in a castle.
Use These Words: Drip, creak, shudder, ancestor, tapestry
Genre: Ghost Story/Suspense
Word Limit: 1,500 words


Runes and Shadows

The forest loomed before them, full of gnarled trees and shadows. The girls advanced on it, not bothering to hide as they walked across the grassy expanse that led to the forest's edge. The Cauchemars wouldn't return for another day, maybe more if Ron could drag out the journey like he promised. He'd tried to dissuade them at first, but when he saw that Katta and Lizbeth were set on entering the forest, he finally relented. He would delay the Cauchemars' return as long as possible, if only so he wouldn't have to be the one to find the girls' bodies.

As they walked, Lizbeth tried to make conversation with Katta. Despite the secrets the two now shared and the danger they faced together, it was difficult for Lizbeth to break through Katta's stand-offish exterior.

“What's a forest doing inside the castle walls? Aren't castles supposed to have stables and buildings inside its Outer Ward to house the villagers during times of war?”

“How many castles have you seen?” Katta snapped at Lizbeth.

Looking away, Lizbeth mumbled her answer.

Katta prodded the girl. “What? I didn't hear you. Speak up.”

“None, o.k.? This is my first.”

“Then stop acting like you know everything just because you read a lot.”

Lizbeth finished the rest of the walk in silence, wondering what she needed to do for Katta to like her better. For all she knew, this was how Katta treated her best friends.

As they reached the forest's edge, Lizbeth's foot caught on something and she fell hard. Leaning down, she saw that it was a stone. After she brushed off the dirt, she could see that there were markings on it that glinted in the midday sun.

“Hey, Katta, wait up! I found something.”

“Oh, you actually tripped on something? I just thought you were being clumsy again.”

Ignoring Katta's verbal jab, Lizbeth cleared off as much of the stone as she could for Katta to see. “Look, there are markings. What do you think they mean?”

“What makes you think I know? Just copy it into your notebook and we'll find out later when we check the library.”

Lizbeth pulled out her journal and copied the markings as accurately as she could. There were only three symbols on the stone, so she gave each its own page.

Lizbeth Drawing

Katta wandered as she waited, kicking at the grass with impatience. It wasn't long before her foot hit more than just grass.

“Hey, I found another one. And I can see another stone even farther.”

Rosaline perked up, interested. “Do they have the same markings?”

“Well, this one does. I don't know about the one farther down.”

As they brushed off each stone, they found the same set of three markings. Each stone led them to another one and another one until they'd followed the line of stones all the way to where it joined with the outer wall.

“Look, Katta. More of these stones are embedded into the outer wall.”

“That's peachy, but how about we get back to doing what we came here to do? I want to meet them while the sun is still high in the sky.”

Lizbeth forced herself to push aside her curiosity about the stones and to follow Katta back to where she first tripped. The thought that somehow the markings on the stones were important nagged at the back of her mind, but she knew Katta wouldn't stop for more delays. Facing the trees, the two girls paused. To Lizbeth's surprise, Katta reached out and grabbed her hand. Without looking at her, she stepped forward and into the forest. Lizbeth followed a second later and gasped as she was swallowed by darkness.

Katta let go of her hand and Lizbeth was alone with the blackness. Just when she started to think Katta had abandoned her, she saw a flicker of light appear beside her. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness, she saw that Katta had lit a candle and was holding it before her.

“I'm so glad you always have those on you,” she told Katta. “I didn't think it would be so dark this time of day.”

Shrugging, Katta walked deeper into the forest. “The trees are just dense here. Come on, there's a clearing up ahead where the Cauchemars leave the children. We can wait for the Shadow People there.”

Lizbeth struggled to keep from tripping over tree roots and fallen branches as she followed closely behind Katta. “How do you know about the clearing if you've never been in the forest before?”

Katta looked back at Lizbeth, the candle light framing her face in shadows. “When did I say I'd never been here before?”

Lizbeth shuddered and tore her eyes away from Katta's glare. Katta snorted and got back to finding a path through the forest. They walked together in silence for several minutes, the only sound the creaking of the trees as the girls pushed aside branches. When Katta started talking, she did so without stopping to look at Lizbeth.

“I followed Them in when they took Nora in here last year. I'd long since figured out what was happening - I mean, it's hard not to when you're told you have to write parents in their children's place because they're 'indisposed.' I just wanted to see it for myself.”

Silence followed Katta's words as Lizbeth waited for her to continue. Interrupting her now might break whatever mood had taken hold of Katta and Lizbeth desperately wanted to hear the rest of the story. Minutes passed this way before Katta picked up the thread of her story again.

“They led Nora to a clearing and waited. I didn't know what They were waiting for until I saw shadows start to separate from the trees and move into the clearing. The Cauchemars left her, then, and stood back, watching. There was something wrong with Nora, though. It wasn't like her not to put up a fight. The Nora of then just stood there and waited while the Shadow People fought over who got to eat her first.”

Lizbeth looked at Katta's back and wished she could see the expression on her face as she talked. Swallowing hard, Lizbeth ventured a question.

“Did they... was she...”

“Yes.” Katta said nothing more after that. The feeling that they were missing something obvious came back to Lizbeth and she pressed Katta for more answers.

“Why weren't you killed too? It was night time when you went in, wasn't it?”

“It was night, but I think the Shadow People feared the Cauchemars. I didn't stay much longer after they started... you know... so I was never here without Them.” Katta started to say something else but decided better of it, lapsing back into silence.

Lizbeth, emboldened by how voluble Katta had been so far, pushed for more. “What is it? It might be important.”

Katta sighed. Fighting her reticent nature, she said, “That's when I found Chicky.”

“What, here? By the edge?” asked Lizbeth.

“No... in the clearing.”

It took a moment for the implications of what Katta said to sink in, and when they did Lizbeth pulled back, aghast. “Oh my word! Chicky ate Nora?!”

“Not exactly. I mean, he tried. But he was attacked and knocked aside when he approached her body. I found him by the clearing's edge as I left. He was hurt badly and I just couldn't leave him.”

Lizbeth stopped walking and tugged on Katta's arm to get her to stop. “I don't know if we should be doing this anymore. I mean, we know Chicky and he still tried eat Nora. How can we trust the others not to kill us?”

Katta stopped and looked calmly at Lizbeth. “Even though the Shadow People are beasts, they still took turns with Nora's body. That means there must be a hierarchy they respect. We just have to find the leader and we'll be fine. Chicky forgot his place and got in trouble for it. Besides, he didn't know us back then.”

When Lizbeth continued to look unsure about proceeding, Katta snorted derisively at her. “This was your idea, remember? Didn't you say we needed to communicate with the Shadow People?”

“They're called the Darkin,” Lizbeth whispered.


“The Darkin. You keep calling them the Shadow People but in the legends they're called the Darkin.”

Taking that to mean Lizbeth was back on track, Katta resumed her trek to the clearing. They didn't have far to go. Within minutes the two were standing in a circular clearing several acres wide. Light streamed down from the gap in the trees and dripped off leaves into darkness as it met the clearing's edge. Katta blew out her candle and she and Lizbeth walked to the center of the clearing, blinking furiously to help their eyes adjust to the brightness more quickly.

“How long do you think we'll have to wait?” asked Lizbeth.

In answer, Katta tilted her head towards the trees to the left side of the clearing. A cloaked figure was stepping into the light. As it approached them, it moved its head up, sniffing the air. Its hood fell back a little, letting the girls see the lower part of its face. It had thin lips that stretched taut over long, sharp teeth that angled out, barely contained by the thing's jaw.

Lizbeth screamed and stepped backwards. Whirling on her, Katta's rebuke died unspoken on her lips when she saw that other shadows were emergjng from the trees to stand around the clearing's edge. They were all shapes and sizes, human and animal forms, some more bestial than others. She turned back to the cloaked figure, now flanked by two smaller, no less grotesque, figures. Squaring her shoulders, Katta called out in as steady a voice as she could manage, “You can't do anything to us during the day. That's why we picked this time to come.”

The cloaked figure's shoulders started to shake, slowly at first, then more violently. Throwing its head back, it erupted into gravely, hoarse laughter. In barely intelligible English, it said “Silly girls. It's always night in here.”

While Katta stared at the Darkin, dumbfounded, Lizbeth started to groan beside her. “Oh no, the markings... Katta, the last one is a moon in all its phases. It means eternal night.”

NaNoWriMo 2011 Kickoff!

NaNoWriMo 2011 Participant

This year I am finally going to be taking part in NaNoWriMo instead of just watching from the sidelines.  For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. November of every year since the event began in 1999, tends of thousands of people around the world participate in writing a novel from start to finish within a time limit of 30 days. 

An average novel has about 50,000 words so NaNoWriMo participants need to reach a daily word count of 1,666 to finish on time.  Needless to say, I’m going to spend more time working on my novel than writing blog posts this month, so posts will be few and far between (if they happen at all).

I’m super excited about participating this year. I’ve been playing with an idea for a story for quite some time now and now I finally get to put it to paper and see what happens.  Here’s a shout-out to all my students who kept telling me to stop talking about it and just participate already every time November rolled around and I spread the word about NaNoWriMo goodness :).

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Maturation Process

I ran across this image a while back and it has stuck with me.  I remember learning about the maturation process in my psychology classes and this image is dead-on.  If I were still in the classroom, I’d blow it up and hang it on the wall. I’m glad age ranges weren’t added to the graphic as a person’s maturity level is a very subjective thing; I’ve known adults who refuse to accept responsibility for any of their actions and I’ve had the privilege of teaching some adolescents who were surprisingly wise for their tender age. Unfortunately, there seem to be more of the former than the latter.

Click here to go to the full size version. Thank you, VirusComix, for creating this graphic! The world would be a better place if more people understood the struggle towards self actualization.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: “Attack of the Cliche Circuit”

This prompt for Flash Fiction Friday was one of the most difficult for me, especially since I used a very loose interpretation of what an antagonist is.  I chose to write a science-fiction story and I never realized how much you have to keep track of: ranks, ship layouts, and command procedures (to name a few).  I gave it my best shot and only went a couple hundred words over the word limit this time.  Thanks for reading!

Prompt: This week’s prompt is to start with one conflict and reverse the polarity.  Let’s see what happens when the tables are turned and your protagonists or antagonists are suddenly holding the fate of the other in their hands.
Genre: Any
Word Limit: 1,300 words
Deadline: 10/19 by 8:30 PM ET

Attack of the Cliche Circuit

Admiral Morgan awoke to blaring sirens and flashing lights. Still tugging on his uniform, he stumbled down the corridor towards the bridge. So intent was he on reaching the command room, he nearly ran into Lieutenant Gaffreys. He was standing in the middle of the hallway, staring out a side window into space.

“Gaffreys! Why are you just standing there?! This is a full emergency!”

“Oh, Admiral! I was on my way to the bridge when I looked out this porthole to see if I could glimpse the threat...”

Lieutenant Gaffrey's words trailed off as he started staring out the window once again. Morgan touched the lieutenant's shoulder to get his attention.


“My God... It's full of stars...”

Gaffreys' words startled Morgan because they were so strange. They teased at the corners of his memory, but the alarms were sounding and there was no time for remembering. Morgan left Gaffreys looking out the window and sprinted the rest of the way to the bridge.

Morgan entered the command room shouting. “I need a report of the situation!”

“We, uh, appear to be in the middle of a meteor shower, Admiral. It came out of nowhere!”

The Admiral turned towards the speaker in surprise.

“Ensign Creed? What are you doing manning the bridge? Where's the Vice Admiral?”

“She started feeling ill halfway through the second shift. She's in the med bay right now recovering, but before she retired she put me in charge while you slept.”

“Creed, you're the least qualified person on board to run this ship! Why would she choose....Oh my God.” The pieces started to fall into place in the Admiral's mind, his expression slowly changing from surprise to horror.

“Sir? I've actually got it under control. Even though the shields are offline, the navigation system is still running and our pilots are getting us through the shower.”

The Admiral shrugged him off and grabbed the intercom. He yelled into it, “I want all hands on deck who aren't otherwise engaged to find me Captain Logan. Make this your top priority!”

“What's so special about Captain Logan, Admiral?” Creed asked.

“He's BLACK!” the Admiral responded.

“That's not very racially sensitive, sir” piped up one navigator nervously. “He may be the only African American on board, but that's no reason to single him out.”

Before Morgan could reply, a second lieutenant came running into the command room, urgency apparent on her face. “Admiral! Sir, there's a problem with the AI!”

“Give me a report, Lieutenant Liu.”

“It started in the mess hall, sir. Second shift was trying to order rations from the Substance Processor when all the orders started coming out wrong. We tried getting through to the tech department through the comms, but no messages are getting through. Now the door access system is malfunctioning. We've got personnel trapped in rooms with no way out!”

The Admiral sat back, arms crossed as he contemplated these developments. Sitting up, he addressed the terminal in front of him. “Computer, find me the coordinates for the Gamma system.”

A mechanical voice responded with “I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.”

The crew looked at each other in confusion.

“Is your first name Dave, Admiral Morgan?”

Ignoring the question, Morgan switched off the terminal. Covering the intercom, he whispered to the navigators “Get the pilots on the manual navigation system.” Turning to Second Lieutenant Liu, he said “The AI's gone rogue. Quarantine it.”

Liu ran out of the bridge just as a group came in escorting Captain Morgan. He was out of breath, his red shirt showing sweat stains down his front and back. Seeing the Admiral, he broke away from his escort.

“Admiral! What's going on? I was on my daily run when the alarms suddenly started going off and then these guys came and told me you need to see me right away.”

Relief flooded Morgan's face as he grasped Logan's arms. “Thank God you're o.k., Captain!”

“Sir? What is goi-”

The Admiral cut off the Captain midsentence. “There's no time to explain, Logan. Creed!”

Ensign Creed appeared behind the Admiral's right shoulder and awaited his instructions.

“Creed, I want you to stay by Logan's side and never leave it for a second. We need him safe. Take a group with you. I want you all armed.”

Ensign Creed escorted a very confused Captain Logan out of the bridge. As they were leaving, the Admiral caught sight of Logan's shirt and yelled after them “And for the love of God, change Logan's shirt. Anything but red!”

“We're out of the meteor shower, Admiral,” the head pilot reported.

“Good. Stay on the manual drive and someone find me Lieutenant Liu. I need a report on the AI's status.”

Morgan sank into his chair, his hand covering the worried look on his face. “Please don't let this be what I think this is...” was all he said for several minutes. His other hand fingered a key he had hanging around his neck and the remaining crew looked at one another, no one wanting to disturb his contemplation.

Second Lieutenant Liu jogged in and broke the silence. “Sir? You wanted an update?”

The Admiral sat up, his face all business, and turned to face the second lieutenant. “Give your report, Liu.”

“Well, sir, we have the AI isolated in the mess hall. We managed to contain it in a toaster.”

“A toaster?”

“Yes, sir. It was the only piece of equipment not connected to the network. We felt it was safest.”

“As long as it worked. Jettison it into space; we'll install a new AI when we reach port.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Good work. You're dismissed, lieutenant.”

Just then Ensign Creed came running in, panic stricken and covered in blood, shouting “He's gone!”

The Admiral jumped up and steadied the shaking man. “Where's Logan, Creed? What happened?”

“We were in the laundry room getting a change of uniform when Captain Logan noticed how quiet it was. Usually you can hear all the machines going down there. Right after I said 'Too quiet' a monster reached down from the air shaft and took him. I tried to grab him, but...”

“Where was your armed escort?!”

“It was the laundry room, sir. We didn't think we needed them in there...” Creed started crying and wringing his hands.

“What did the monster look like, Creed? Did it have tentacles?”

“How did you know, sir?” Creed marveled. “Did you know it was on board?”

Morgan shook his head and paced the bridge, fingering his key again. Worry lines creased the Admiral's forehead. Stopping, he turned to a navigator and asked him to pull up the personnel files.

“What am I looking for, sir?”

“I want you to find me the woman on board with the biggest breasts. Once you identify her, send a dispatch to bring her here.”

A murmur started among the crew and someone piped up, “Just what is going on, Admiral?”

Admiral Morgan sighed and said, “We need Samson.”

The navigator cleared his throat, catching the Admiral's attention. “It's Lieutenant Sky, sir. She's already in here.”

Morgan immediately slipped the key off from around his neck and handed it to the lieutenant.

“Go to the last capsule in the Cryo chamber. Use this key to start Samson's rehydration process. When it is complete, bring him here. And hurry!”

Lieutenant Sky sprinted out of the room as quickly as her ample bosom would allow. Once she was on her way, Morgan turned to look at his bewildered crew.

“While we wait for Samson, let me explain what I know. They warned us about this in the academy, but I never thought I'd ever actually encounter one. What we are experiencing is a rare occurrence that has been documented no more than twice in the last 2000 years. It's called a 'Cliché Circuit.' Every ship carries a fail safe on board in case of it, but it's more a precaution than anything. That fail safe is called Samson.”

The bridge erupted into anxious conversation as the crew internalized the Admiral's announcement. As time passed and the group quieted down, noises could be heard coming from the supply closet.

“Sir, there's something in the closet. Should we-”

“No! Do NOT open that door! Logan's gone so any one of us could be next!”

The scratching noises got louder, and the crew huddled together around the room, waiting. After half an hour, Lieutenant Sky returned, holding a wiggling puppy in her arms. The more she attempted to keep it from licking her face, the harder it tried, its tail knocking against desktops and chairs as it wagged wildly.

The Admiral sighed in relief and took the puppy from Sky. Patting him on the head, he turned to his crew and said, “Samson's here. Everything's going to be alright.”

Photo credit: Sweetie 187

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: “Birthright”

Flash Fiction Friday has come up with another prompt for this week and I’m as excited about this short story as I was about the last prompt I participated in. I still have trouble sticking to the word limit (I’m 300 words over after extensive editing), but I can feel myself improving with each story I write.

Here’s the story and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Prompt: A car pulls up to a lake with two occupants inside.  Explain why they are there and who they are.
Genre: Any
Word Limit: 750 words
Deadline: 10/12 by 9:00 P.M. EST



Jeff turned the Mercedes sharply off of the trail he was following, showering the roadside with dirt and rocks as he slammed the car into park. Looking at the wide expanse of lake in front of him, he let out a cheer and gave his passenger a light punch in the arm.

“Woo! Here we are! I told you I wasn't lost.”

“Are you sure all these rocks won't hurt the rental? It's a really nice car. Maybe we should've gone with the Jeep.”

“C'mon, Drew, live a little! My 'rents got it all covered.”

“Yeah, I'm just not used to stuff this fancy. Not everyone's as well off as you are, you know.”

Jeff and Drew got out of the car and headed down towards the lake's edge. Jeff fiddled with a camera case while Drew stopped to look for smooth, flat stones he could use to skip across the lake's surface.

“O.k., I got the camera ready. Let's go face your destiny, Your Highness.”

“Will you cut it out with the 'Your Majesty' stuff? I never should've told you about that.”

“About what? The fact you could potentially be related to King Arthur himself? You'd really keep a secret like that from your best friend? We practically grew up together. We're bosom buddies!”

“It's just a silly story my mom told me when I was growing up. It's not like I have any proof or anything.”

Jeff spotted an outcropping of large rocks at the lake's edge and rushed over to it. “C'mon. Stop lagging behind and get your royal butt over here. This rock is perfect for your big scene!”

“You know this is retarded, right? You've had some stupid ideas but this one really takes the cake.”

“Stop whining and get over here. This is gonna be awesome! O.k., so you're gonna lift your arms up and say something ancient sounding like 'Cometh fortheth, Excalibur, my swordeth!' I'm gonna get it all on tape. Once I add the special effects and stuff on the comp and upload this to YouTube, do you know the number of hits we're gonna get?!”

Drew shot Jeff a look that made it clear Jeff had lost him again. “How is me waving my arms around and acting like a doofus going to get us hits?”

“Did you forget where we are?! We're in England, dude, and this is THE lake where Arthur threw his sword before he died.”

“It was Girflet. Arthur ordered Girflet to throw Excalibur into the lake. Although Malory's version says it was Sir Bedivere who threw it in.”

“Yeah, that's what I said. Anyway, the point is, you owe it to your heritage to try and call the sword from the lake. So what d'ya say?”

Drew gritted his teeth and kicked at the ground. “Will you get off my back if I do it?”

Jeff whooped and slapped Drew on the back as he led him to the rock outcropping. “I'll do you one better! I promise to stick to the tour schedule for the rest of the trip and stop busting your balls if you do this, alright?”

Drew rolled his eyes and slapped away Jeff's Boy Scout salute. “Let's get this over with, then.”

Jeff grinned and bounded away to get a better shot of the scene. When he was in position he shouted “Action!”

Drew rolled his eyes again and raised his arms. After a few seconds of thinking, he yelled “Come forth, Lady of the Lake! I am here to claim my birthright, Excalibur!” He kept his arms raised for a few more seconds, then turned to Jeff. “Good enough?”

“Yeah, man, that was good, but can you did it one more time with more feeling?”

“More feeling? How am I supposed to feel more retarded than I already do?!”

The boys' argument was cut short by a whooshing sound coming from the center of the lake. To their surprise, a geyser appeared. When it cleared, it left in its place what appeared to be a hand holding a sword straight up.

Drew was the first to speak after the sight. Turning to Jeff, he demanded “Did you do this?”

“How can I rig a lake?!”

“So you're really not just screwing with me? Just tell me if you are, o.k.?”

“Whatever that thing is out there, I didn't put it there, o.k? Why don't you get out there and see what it is?”

“How?! It's not like we have a boat. You want me to swim? You know the kinds of things that live in lakes? I don't want some worm swimming up my dick!”

Jeff pointed to Drew's pockets and said “Didn't you pick up some rocks earlier? Throw 'em at it and see what happens.”

Lacking a better plan, the two turned back to the lake. By then, the hand and sword were gone.

“Um...Jeff? I did what you wanted. Let's just get the hell outta here, k?”

“But we saw something! There was something out there, dude!”

“Look, you probably got it on tape, right? Let's get back to the hotel and look at it on the computer. I'm sure it'll turn out to be nothing.”

Defeated, Jeff turned to walk back to the car and came face to face with a woman. She was wearing a long white dress that had detailed gold embroidery on the sleeves and skirt hem. Any other details, including the woman's face, were hidden behind a mess of long, wet blonde hair. In one hand she held a sword, the tip trailing on the ground.

“Oh shit! It's that dead girl from The Ring! Drew, run!!”

Jeff sprinted over to the car but before Drew could make it, the Lady moved to block him with the sword. He stood in front of her, his hands palm up to his sides to show he meant her no harm.

“Are you o.k., m'am? Do you need something? We're just tourists but-”

Before Drew could finish the Lady brandished the sword in front of her, the tip now pointing to the sky.

Jeff shouted to Drew from where he crouched behind the car. “Don't worry, dude! I'm calling 911 on her dead ass!”

“It's 999 here, you idiot!”

Taking advantage of the opening Drew's distraction afforded, the Lady ran the sword through his chest.

“Oh shit! She got you! Shit!” Jeff cursed and hunted around in the back of the car for something he could use as a weapon. Seizing the tire iron, he rushed out to help his friend. He'd only taken several steps towards the Lady when a blinding light erupted from Drew's chest. Dropping the tire iron, Jeff fell to his knees and covered his eyes. When he opened them, Drew and the woman were gone.

Photo credit: Nickel Media

Monday, October 10, 2011

“Talker’s Block” by Seth Godin

I enjoy reading Seth Godin’s blog because of how concisely he articulates everyday truths that we all know, but few of us practice. His posts are little nuggets of wisdom that seem so obvious only after reading them.  His recent post titled “Talker’s Bock” is a new favorite of mine. I particularly enjoy the introduction:

No one ever gets talker's block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right, until all the craziness in his life has died down.

Why then, is writer's block endemic?

Please visit Seth Godin’s blog to read the rest of the post “Talker’s Block.” It will make you question just how common common sense really is with its straightforward, to-the-point advice on how to improve as a writer.


Photo credit: Rodrigo Muniz

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive clauses

If commas were edible, no one need ever go hungry. You don’t necessarily see them everywhere in professional writing, but trust me when I say that less seasoned writers’ writing is teeming with  commas.  People feel an overwhelming need to stick them anywhere and everywhere when writing without really knowing why.

Let’s look at restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, for example.  One comma is all that distinguishes a restrictive from a nonrestrictive clause and you could potentially be signaling to your reader that you want your clause to be restrictive when you actually don’t, and vice versa.

Also called essential and nonessential clauses, they indicate to your reader what information in your sentence is vital to its meaning and what information is just extra, and can be ignored.  To understand why correctly punctuating these clauses is important in your writing, think about taking notes at school or at a meeting.  A competent note-taker knows not to transcribe every word that comes out of the speaker’s mouth.  As entertaining as any tangents may be, only the most important information gets written down and studied.  This editing of unimportant information keeps us sane; it’s simply impossible to commit everything to memory.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

A restrictive clause modifies a noun in a sentence and indicates that the information it contains is vital to the meaning of the sentence. It is not set off by commas. Here’s an example to help make this idea clearer:

The cat that has a crooked tail would rather play with rats than eat them.

The clause “that has a crooked tail” lets us know which cat out of all the possible cats in this world is the one that refuses to hunt rats.  If you put commas around the clause, you make it nonrestrictive and dispensable.  I like to use my thumb to cover the clause and see if the sentence retains its original meaning without it.

This next sentence has another restrictive clause.  Try covering it up and seeing if the sentence still makes sense without it.

Alanis Morissette’s hit album Jagged Little Pill won a Grammy.

I’m calling the phrase “Jagged Little Pill” a restrictive clause because it limits the meaning of “hit album.”  Students tend to want to put commas around titles without realizing that that makes them nonessential to the sentence.  Without the title, you have no idea which album won a Grammy.

If we add some more identifying information, then enclosing the title in commas and thus making it nonrestrictive is perfectly acceptable.

Alanis Morissette’s hit album, Jagged Little Pill, won a Grammy in 1996.

Since Jagged Little Pill was the only one of Alanis Morissette’s albums  to receive a Grammy that year, removing the title from the sentence now does not destroy the meaning.  Now it’s time to look at nonrestrictive clauses.

A nonrestrictive clause also modifies a noun in a sentence and indicates that the information it contains is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.  It is set off by commas.  The following sentence contains a nonrestrictive clause:

Management rewarded the employees, who received bonuses.

This sentence has the nonrestrictive clause “who received bonuses.”  It is nonrestrictive because it is set off by a comma.  The sentence therefore means that ALL employees were rewarded. 

If the comma were removed, the sentence would look like this:

Management rewarded the employees who received bonuses.

Without the comma the clause becomes restrictive.  The meaning of the sentence changes as a result and now means that ONLY employees who received a bonus will be rewarded. 

Further Practice

The difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive clause is a difficult one for many people to grasp and only a good deal of practice will tighten your grasp on when to employ commas.

ChompChomp has a great explanation of essential and nonessential clauses that includes many more examples.

The Law Student’s Guide to Good Writing by Professor Grinker also contains a very thorough explanation of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

I’ll keep updating this post with more examples of correct and incorrect usage as I see them in student papers.  In time, I’d like to create worksheets to help with this grammar issue as there is a lack of practice for essential and nonessential clauses online.

Hope this helps your writing and keep practicing!

Photo credit: Cmurtaugh

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday: “The Currency of Death”

Yes, I know it’s Tuesday today, not Friday.  I’ve been following the blog Flash Fiction Friday for the last several weeks and I’m excited that I finally had enough free time this week to participate.  Flash Fiction Friday is a community writing project that invites people to write a short story every week based on that week’s prompt.  The entry has to conform to any specific requirements mentioned and be posted by Wednesday.

I told a friend I was writing a story for this week’s prompt and he said “What do you get if you win?” It took me a few minutes to realize he thought the entry was for a contest that awarded a prize for the best story.  It took me a while to explain that the story IS the reward. 

I don’t expect to be able to participate every week, but I will try to take part as often as I can.  It thrills me to no end to know there are other people out there writing stories simply for the joy of writing. 

So, without further ado, here’s this week’s entry!

Prompt: Use the starter sentence “You know Javier, poets say that in the spring a young man’s thoughts turn to love, but I think they’re wrong.”
Genre: Any
Word Limit: 1,000 words
Deadline: 9/28 at 8:30 EST

The Currency of Death

“You know, Javier, poets say that in the spring a young man’s thoughts turn to love, but I think they’re wrong.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, mister? My name ain't Javier. I'm not even Hispanic!”

“No, it's not love his mind turns to when the flowers bloom. It's something far more sinister, more base. Wouldn't you agree, Javier?”

“Fine. You know what? Call me Javier all you want. I don't care. I just need to know where you wanna go, k? Where do you want me to drive ya?”

“A young man's desires drive his mind, take him where they will, but never more than in the beginning of the new year. Life springs up all around him, suffocating him with its vitality. Do you know what young men do when faced with such vigor?”

“Look, I don't really care, mister.”

“Oh, but you should care, Javier. You are a young man, are you not? It is of you I speak!”

“You know I'm just driving around aimlessly, right? The meter's runnin' and it's on your dime. So do ya wanna tell me where to go or not?”

For the first time since entering the cab, the old man sat silently. He sighed in resignation. “I've been telling you, Javi. My stop is here, but yours will never come. Not until you've sated your primal nature, rent the blooms from their stalks, and crushed Imbolc beneath your heel.”

“Here? Like, right here? You know there ain't nothing but vacant buildings in this part 'o town. You're gonna get yourself mugged getting out here.”

The man waited for the cab to come to a full stop before stepping out into the street. Holding the door open, he looked back at the cabbie. “Heed my words, Javier. I was a young man once, too, and I see that darkness in every shrug of your shoulder, every turn of your head.”

“Geez Louise! I'm getting sick of your bullshit, mister. You gonna pay me or what?”

The old man dug in his coat pocket for a minute before pulling and tossing a coin onto the driver's side seat. The cabbie reached over and grabbed it. “A quarter? Your fare's more than a lousy qua- JESUS!” The coin burned the skin off the cabbie's fingers where he had touched it, filling the air with the smell of charred flesh.

“That hurt, you friggin'- Hey! Where'd you go?!”

The cab door still stood open but the sidewalk was empty. Muttering under his breath, the cabbie got a roll of paper towels out of the trunk, wrapped his hand with it, and kicked the back door shut as he walked back to his seat.

“Crazy 'ol loon. Last time I'm pickin' up anyone from Montrose.”

The cabbie drove down several streets to the nearest coffee shop. A waitress looked up from refilling a truck driver's coffee mug when she heard the jingle of the front door opening. “Hey, darlin'. Be with you in a minute.”

“Take your time, miss. I'm in no hurry,” was the cabbie's response as he leaned against the front bar and waited his turn. Halfway through looking at the menu, he felt a hand on his left shoulder. He turned to see a man staring at him intently.

Letting go of his shoulder, the stranger said, “Xavier? Isn't it pretty early for you to be out? It looks like you forgot your 'tools', too. I didn't think you ever left your house without them.”

“Look, my name ain't X-whatever; It's Ray. I don't usually drive this far into town, mister, so I guarantee ya you got the wrong guy.”

The stranger looked puzzled a moment, then his face cracked open into a big smile. “You're kidding, right? Man, it's so not like you to josh around! You drink something weird or somethin'?”

Ray's right hand balled into a fist, further saturating the paper towels wrapped around his fingers with blood. “I ain't joking around, mister. I'm not this X guy and I'm not in any mood to play games right now.”

The stranger's smile faltered and, after a few moments, died entirely. “It's been a while since you've done this. Look, I'm not playing around. I've been waiting for you all afternoon.”

“You were waiting for me?”

The stranger ran his fingers through his hair and sighed loudly. “Man, I hate when you space out like this.” Grabbing Ray's arm, he led him to a back table and they sat down. “I'm Tom. You're Xavier. We're exorcists. Got that? Here, I'm supposed to give you this. Monseigneur entrusted me to give you this if he should ever pass away. Well, guess what, our friend the Bishop has died a most unnatural death and I'm complying with his last wishes.”

Tom pushed a leather wrapped package towards Ray, who pushed it right back at him.

“Whoa. Just...whoa. You're a what? No way. This ain't happening. Whoever you think I am, I'm NOT. This is crazy. I'm getting outta here.”

Tom pulled the string on the package and it fell open, its contents spilling onto the table before the cabbie could get up.

“He left this for you. Not me, YOU. It's really important that you take it, o.k.? God! Today of all days, why can't you be acting friggin' normal?”

Ray didn't respond to Tom's outburst because his eyes were riveted to a silver hand-mirror that had spilled out in front of him. Looking into it, he saw two other faces superimposed over his own. They were all him, but not him. The bone structure was the same for each face, as was the hair and eyes. But the similarities ended there. The longer he stared into the glass, the clearer the faces become, until they started separating, one from the other. Ray felt a burning begin in his chest then, and it spread across his body and intensified with every second his eyes remained glued to the mirror. Only ten seconds had passed before Ray was in agony.

“Hey, you o.k., man? You don't look too goo- Holy shnikey!” Tom reached out and tried to move the mirror, but it was riveted to its spot on the table. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the leather wrappings it came in and threw it over the mirror, breaking its connection with the cabbie.

“You o.k., man? Sorry about that. I should have known the Monseigneur would leave you something powerful. The runes carved on these wrappings should have been a give-a-way, but I didn't want to go through the package's contents without you.”

Ray sat dazed. “What was I looking at? What were those faces? And why do I hurt so bad?”

Before Tom could answer, a bestial shriek cut through the coffee shop, coming from all directions at once. Patrons were pointing to a spot on the far wall that was darker than the surrounding shadows. The spot grew steadily until it engulfed an entire wall. It moved towards the nearest table and that's when the screaming began. People sat paralyzed as they were ripped limb from limb, the shadow beast stopping only to shake more cries from its dying victims.

As fast as he could, Tom bundled up the items on the table back into a package and shoved it at the cabbie. “Get outta here, NOW!”

“What the hell is going on?!”

“Go, just GO! You don't have your tools on you! I'll deal, so go!”

His confusion mingling with fear, Ray ran to his cab, looking back once to see Tom grappling with a shadow. Claws tore at Tom's abdomen and Ray turned away just as Tom's innards spilled onto the floor.

“Ohmygod. Ohmygod. Ohmygod. This isn't happening.” Ray's hands shook as he turned the key in the ignition. The car sputtered and stalled.

“Oh no. Not today, not now. Please, baby. Work for daddy. Come on, come on...”

The engine revved so quickly that the car jumped forward, jostling everything in the cab. Ray pushed the car into drive and slammed his foot down on the gas. The contents of the cab shifted again as it sped off, causing a quarter-sized coin to slip unseen under the floor mat. Glancing up at the rear-view mirror, Ray saw the coffee shop disappear as it was engulfed in darkness.

Photo credit: JCarlosN

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Not Flush!!! Grammar Issues in the Bathroom

While at the Town & Country HCC campus, I was in a hurry to use the restroom during a quick break between teaching classes.  I rushed into the nearest open stall, did my business, and was just about to flush the toilet and step out when I was confronted by this sign on the wall:

feminine napkins or tampons

I immediately pulled my hand back, grabbed my purse, and started to leave  the stall before I thought to myself “Wait a minute….that’s gross!” After rereading the sign, I realized what I had missed during my initial glance, but it made me wonder just how many people had left without stopping to question their first reading of the sign.  On top of that, the sign was posted on all 4 walls of each stall and every 2 feet along the sink mirror.  It made me think something truly horrible must have happened the last time someone flushed a pad down the toilet, something along the lines of Godzilla.

I’d hate to have been on the janitorial staff servicing that bathroom.  Forget having to clean the space, just having to use the facilities could be distasteful if I’d been to a stall that someone else had previously used.  Whoever made that sign was responsible for creating the mess. 

In case you’re still confused about why this sign led to miscommunication, there are two problems with it. First of all, the font size used for the directive “DO NOT FLUSH” dwarfs the rest of the message, capturing readers’ attention and blocking or hiding the much smaller words. Secondly, the exclamation points that follow the command stop the reader’s brain from processing the rest of the message because exclamation points indicate the end of a statement by taking the place of periods in exclamatory sentences. 

I love using this anecdote to illustrate to students the need for attention to grammar.  If they were janitors trying to make their work easier by putting up signs for customers, they could potentially be complicating their lives if their signs were badly constructed.   Most students laugh and say they won’t be house-cleaners when they graduate, and I make sure to tell them that I would hope not. I want them to aspire for more in their lives! Not that there’s anything shameful about being a custodian;  I’d challenge anyone to trade places with a stay-at-home mother or manual laborer and not end up exhausted after a hard day’s work.  Manual labor jobs don’t usually provide living wages, though, and I want better for my students than living paycheck to paycheck. 

What I hear quite a bit from students is that they will have jobs where they won’t need to write. People on the lower rungs, like secretaries or assistants, do all the writing, but not nurses/engineers/<insert the career they’re studying for>.  It comes as a shock for many to hear that my mom writes e-mails to other nurses and managers on an almost daily basis, in addition to the notes she has to make on patient charts and signs she posts around the unit.  My father was a civil engineer and he churned out proposals, memos, project reports, and letters around the clock.  There are no “assistants” who do all the writing for the professionals; it saves companies so much money to hire professionals who can do their own writing that it has now become a requirement for succeeding in the work force.

I’m off to visit family in San Antonio! Happy writing ‘till I get  back!

Photo credit: Mirjam van den Berg

Friday, September 16, 2011

Word Mix-ups: Less vs. Fewer

While watching television the other night, I was taken aback when I saw this commercial:

The commercial was going so well until the ending when these words are read: "More power. More style. More technology. Less doors" (emphasis added). Less doors?! It's fewer doors.

Not everyone is a grammar guru and remembering which word is appropriate in certain contexts can trip many people up, especially if they or their family members are non-native speakers of English.  But the people who created this commercial should have known better.  This mistake should have been caught somewhere in the editing process before it made it to production.  Was no one on that advertising team a native English speaker who passed high school English?

I am by no means a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar, but you have to keep in mind who Mercedes’ target audience is.  Mercedes-Benz is a luxury vehicle that wealthy, well-educated people purchase.  Their clientele probably knows what the subjunctive case is and uses it regularly.  Mercedes is a company that should be able to afford the best talent to create its ads and for there to be such a blatant grammar error in a commercial is, quit frankly, embarrassing. 

So that you can avoid making the same embarrassing mistake as the Mercedes ad team, here’s a quick guide on how you can remember when to use the word “less” or the word “fewer.”

Less = Non-Count Nouns

If you cannot count the noun you are referring to, then you use the word “less.”  Examples of non-count nouns are: electricity, humidity, weight, salt, air, and water.  You cannot say “I have one electricity,” or “”I have three humidity” because the noun refers to the phenomenon as a whole.

For non-count nouns, you will use “less.” So, “Toasters need less electricity than televisions” and “Dallas has less humidity than Houston.”

The  moment you add a quantity indicator in front of the non-count noun, your adjective (“less”) is no longer modifying the non-count noun; instead, it is modifying the new count noun you introduced and needs to be changed to “fewer.”

Examples of quantity indicators are: loaves of bread, kilowatts of electricity, pints of water, puffs of smoke.

Fewer = Count Nouns

If you can count the noun you are referring to, then you use the word “fewer.”  Examples of count nouns are: door(s), animal(s), book(s), television(s), and spoon(s).  Since you can say “I have one door,” or “John has two spoons,” fewer is the appropriate adjective to use.

So, “This car now has fewer doors” and “After two cats ran away, Jenny has fewer pets” are acceptable ways of indicating a decrease in quantity.  The same applies when referring to non-count  nouns that have a quantity indicator preceding them. So, “I baked fewer loaves of bread” (NOT “I baked fewer bread”). 

If you have difficulty differentiating between count and non-count nouns, spend some time looking up lists online, print them out, and keep them handy until you are familiar enough with the words that you no longer need the lists.  Most dictionaries don’t include a count/non-count noun indicator in the word entry, so it’s up to you to create a list for yourself.  Some dictionaries will include a list of common count and non-count nouns in the back, so be sure to check yours. has a very handy mnemonic for remembering what words are non-count nouns. You can check it out here.

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab also provides easy to use tests for determining if the noun you have is a count or a non-count one. You can check them out here.

Good luck with your less and fewer usage, and make sure you edit your work more carefully than the Mercedes advertising team did!

Photo credit: Hooverine

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review of The Maze Runner


I purchased The Maze Runner by James Dashner because it is a young adult novel and I wanted to provide a wide range of reading material for my students.  The beautiful cover art captured my attention and the dust jacket’s promise of a story full of mysterious characters, a dangerous setting, and an interesting story cinched the deal.

The Maze Runner is a story that centers around one boy’s struggle to survive in the strange, lethal maze he’s been dropped into while simultaneously trying to unlock sealed away memories that hold the key to his identity and, ultimately, the solution to escaping the maze alive.  To further complicate matters, he’s not alone. 

Tom, the main character of our story, begins his adventure by waking up alone and afraid in a metal box that is steadily rising.  Once his upward journey comes to an end, the box is opened and he is in an open glade, surrounded by dozens of other boys, most of who treat him with disdain as the “greenbean” who knows nothing about surviving in the Maze or the society the Gladers have painstakingly created over the years. It’s up to Tom to learn the rules as quickly as possible and solve the maze before time runs out for all of them.

If you don’t want to see any plot spoilers, you should stop reading now. The remainder of this review will take apart what made this book successful as well as point out some problematic areas in the writing.

The Good Stuff

Technically, the dust cover isn’t part of the novel itself, but I have to take a moment to give props to Philip Straub, the creator of the jacket art.  The snapshot of the maze that the art provides is beautifully mysterious.  Vines cover giant metal walls in a carpet of greens and browns while rusted spikes stand menacingly in the foreground, threatening to slam the door shut on our stolen glimpse of the mysteries the maze offers.  The lushness of the cover art mirrors the beautiful description in the book.

Creating a setting that entices a reader’s imagination and is vivid enough to make the world come alive is crucial for any book that relies on the setting to carry part of the story.  It’s easy to see Dashner has accomplished this; sentences like “Glimmers of an eerie light shone through the window; it cast a wavering spectrum of colors on Newt’s body and face, as if he stood next to a lighted swimming pool” provide a clear, somewhat poetic image of what Tom is seeing without bogging the writing down with too much description.  Despite having to describe a completely new environment for the reader, Dashner manages to keep the pace of the story quick.  I wouldn’t have minded longer descriptions, but Dashner is doing what good authors do and  keeping his target audience in mind.  As an adult reader, I hardly notice the shallow (but beautiful!) description because Dashner immediately gives me something else with which to occupy my mind.

The Gladers have created their own vocabulary. “Klunk,” “shank,” “slopper,” and “shuck” are just a few of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the boys have come up with to describe their world.The effect of having all of these neologisms thrown at you from the moment the box is first opened is that you are just as bewildered as Tom is when he first meets his new companions.  You feel Tom’s confusion, share his anxiety.  Dashner very adeptly shows you Tom’s emotions instead of telling you about them.

The linguistic creativity in the novel also serves other purposes.  For one, young boys really do come up with epithets for each other.  The Gladers are acting and speaking like the youngsters they are, lending an air of believability to the characters.  Not only that, but they’re actually cussing at one another and calling each other rather derogatory names without using socially inappropriate terms.  Young adults can read this book without their parents getting offended that the characters are calling each other “shit-heads” every other page.  The neologisms give the story an air of mystery and novelty that the setting requires, as well as keep the reader engaged in trying to figure out what the words mean. 

Dashner hit a home run by introducing these terms into the book.  They, combined with the believable characters, rich setting, and fast paced plot, make this book quite enjoyable.

Problematic Areas

As good as this book is, there are a couple of problem areas that hold it back from being all it can be. For starters, Tom is a hard character to swallow. He is supposedly 16 years old, but frequently acts much older and wiser than his tender years.  Granted, he IS an incredibly intelligent child who helped design the maze for the Creators, but I’m not sure that warrants how much more mature than this companions he is. The other Gladers themselves are ALL incredibly intelligent children who have been hand-picked for the maze experiment too.  The only other explanation for Tom’s level-headed confidence is the fact that he designed the maze itself.  But if you remember, the novel begins with his memories wiped, so they are of no use to him.

The ending of the novel is also problematic as the solution to the maze, along with the identity of the children, and their purpose for existing all come to Tom after he allows himself to be stung by the Grievers and endure the Changing.  Logically, there is nothing wrong with the scenario: the Changing is brought about by the poison in a Griever’s sting and gives the person enduring the Changing access to his blocked memories.  Emotionally, however, it’s quite jarring for me, the reader, to be faced with all of the answers all at once.  It’s too neat, too convenient. Tom’s remembering of everything is too much of a deus ex machina.

The way the maze is actually “solved” strikes me as contrived, also.  There is no exit to the maze and, therefore, no solution.  It takes Tom to see that the different wall formations spell out a series of words that must be entered into a computer they will find when they jump into an invisible Griever hole.  The problem for me is that the entire experiment that puts these children in the maze to begin with stipulates that no child is more important than the others. The experiment itself will weed out the unworthy ones, gather data about the children’s reactions to events, and end with the best suited children surviving the ordeal.  Tom, however, is clearly a child the Creators have a vested interest in and without his knowledge of the Griever hole (which is invisible) and the computer (which he placed when he designed the maze), the words the walls spell out are nonsensical and offer the other children NO chance at figuring out the solution by themselves.

All in all…

The Maze Runner has many more good qualities than it has problems.  The plot is a little shaky towards the end, but there are no egregious holes that keep it from being plausible, if not believable.  The way Dashner ends the book on another cliffhanger is genius as I no sooner put the novel down than began looking online for the sequel.

This novel was successful because I couldn’t wait to snatch up The Scorch Trials. If you haven’t read The Maze Runner, it’s a quick read and enjoyable.

Check out this awesome cover art:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Editing Examples

Editing is as important as writing a first draft.  It’s the reason people are willing to pay for copy editors and proof-readers to scour their work looking for errors.  Unless you’re Shakespeare, who was rumored to never change a single word once he wrote it, your unedited work will be a diamond in the rough, at best.  Publishing it without taking the time (or hiring someone else to take the time) to look for errors is akin to announcing to the world that you are either incompetent at editing or too lazy to care about presenting your work in the best possible light.

If you’re serious about writing well, you need to be willing to edit your work.


Two authors I admire a great deal are Stephen King and Christopher Ruz.  The former has published an outrageous 70+ novels, while the latter is just starting to send proposals to publishing houses for his first full-length novel.  Both writers know how to edit.

Despite their vast difference in publishing experience and backgrounds, these two writers have very similar editing practices.  Both write two drafts, both spend  a period of time away from the first draft before looking at it with “fresh” eyes, and both ask for feedback from reviewers before sending out a polished manuscript.  How many drafts you will need and how long a time you will shelve your first draft before feeling distanced enough from it to be able to see the flaws in it will depend on you.  These things vary from author to author.

Stephen King takes no longer than 3 months to write a novel. Any longer and he claims “…the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs…” (149).  Of course, his full time job is writing.  Chris Ruz took a full three years to finish his first novel, while also juggling school, work, and a social life.  Stephen King lets his novels rest a minimum of 6 weeks between drafts (212) while Chris Ruz gives himself 6 months before he’s ready to edit his work.  When it comes to editing, both authors are brutal.

You can see an example of Chris Ruz editing of his novel Century of Sand on his blog post “Why Editing on Paper Beats Editing on Screen.”  Stephen King includes an example of his own editing in his book On Writing, followed by detailed explanations for why he cut/changed what he did.  I strongly recommend you look at both Chris Ruz’ and Stephen King’s editing examples to see the kind of brutality you need when proof-reading your own work.

Hopefully one day I too (and you, if you’re as hesitant about deleting words as I am) will have what it takes to cut entire paragraphs from work when it’s what needs to be done for the betterment of the story.

This blog post has me rereading Stephen King’s On Writing again.  I pulled it off my bookshelf to get a few quotes and now I can’t put it down.  If you haven’t read the book yet, I can’t urge you enough to go out and get a copy. Buy it, borrow it, steal it – do what you have to do to READ THIS BOOK.  I’m going to include a link to its Amazon page under this post so you will know what it looks like when you go get it (You WILL go get this book).

Work Cited

King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. 

Photo credit: CreepySleepy

Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Cite in APA Style

The APA in APA style stands for American Psychological Association.  Although the American Psychological Association created it, it is a citation style widely used in all of the sciences.  Do not let the fact that APA style is used for science intimidate you.  The fact is, it isn’t that much different than MLA style.

APA style and MLA style are fraternal twins.  Although they are not identical to one another, they are so similar that it’s possible to get confused between them if you’re not careful.  They use the exact same information but since they prioritize different things, they arrange that information in a different order. 

It’s important to note that APA  style asks for a title page, a running head across the top of all pages, and an abstract page.  If you are typing up a paper that requires those sections, please see Purdue’s Online Writing Lab’s reference guide for formatting your essay correctly.  This blog post will only focus on how to construct the citations you will use in your paper using the 6th edition of the APA Style Guide.

There are only 3 components to a citation style:

  • References page (known as the Works Cited page in MLA style)
  • Parenthetical citations
  • Notes (either footnotes or endnotes)

You may think that these components are arranged in the wrong order as the References page doesn’t actually appear until the very end of a paper, but you can’t build a parenthetical citation without the References page (indeed, a parenthetical citation is meaningless without its corresponding entry in the References page).  If you practice starting your References page as soon as you begin writing your papers, after a while it will feel more natural than leaving it until the end and you’ll thank yourself when you see how much more quickly you get your essays finished.

If you’re confused as to what a citation style is, please see my post “Citation Styles: A Primer.” When you’re comfortable with the what and why of APA style, come back to learn the how. There are only 3 components, remember, so you only have to learn how to execute each and you’re set to start citing scientific research!

APA Style References Page Entry

There are several pieces of information you will need in order to construct the References entry, so make sure you jot them down when doing your research so that you won’t have to hunt them down later.

  • the author’s full name
  • the title of the article and/or book, newspaper, journal, etc.
  • the date of publication of the source you are citing
  • the place of publication (if your source is a in print)
  • the name of the publisher
  • the page numbers of the article or book (if your source is  in print)
  • the volume and issue number (if your source is a magazine or journal)
  • the URL of the source (if your source is online)

Once you have all of your information gathered, you can construct a Reference page entry just by arranging them in a preset order, depending on source type. The following are examples of the most common types of sources. Follow the formatting of the examples EXACTLY. If words are capitalized, capitalize them in your own References page, etc.


Smith, J. K. (2010). Intro to biology: The seeds of life. New York: Penguin Press.

Magazine Article

Johnson, J. (1992, April). When algae strikes back. Nature, 15, 45-59.

Notice that the number that follows the magazine is the volume number. If the journal or magazine has several issues per volume, those would be included in parentheses immediately after the volume number, like so:  Nature, 15(4)

Online Blog Post/Article

Seitan, C. (2011, August 29). How to cite in APA style. Writing Simplified. Retrieved from

Online Video

TexasCountryReporter. (2010, Sep 29). Dogs trained in jail [Video file]. Retrieved June 6, 2011 from

APA Style Parenthetical Citation

There are only 3 pieces of information you will need in order to construct a parenthetical citation: the author’s last name, the year of publication, and the page numbers (for print sources or online sources that have pagination).

There are three different ways you can incorporate a source into your text.  You can include a short quote, a long quote, or a paraphrase.  I will show you an example of each type of citation so you can see how simple it is to cite sources in APA style.

Short Quote

When including a direct quotation, you need to indicate to your reader that the words you are quoting are not your own (by putting them inside quotation marks), and attribute the words to the actual author (by including his/her name immediately before or after the quote).  In APA style, you need to follow the author’s last name with the year his/her work was published; this year is enclosed in parentheses.  If you are quoting a source that has pagination, you include the page numbers in parentheses at the end of the sentence immediately before the period. 

If you are confused by the written directions, just use the following examples as models for creating your own citations:

  • In a study conducted by Smith (2010), she found that “rats are as susceptible to tickling as humans” (p. 15).
  • The research concluded that “hamsters have very poor vision” (Smith, 2008, p. 20).

Long Quote

Long quotations (longer than 4 lines on a printed page) are called “block quotes” because you have to indent the quote, creating a block of text on the page.  These quotes need to be introduced and cited just as short quotations do.  The only differences are you include the final parenthetical citation AFTER the final period and you DO NOT enclose the quotation in quotation marks.  Note that in most academic papers, your teachers will prefer that you do not italicize the quotation.

In a recent study conduced by Smith (2007), she found that:

The great myth of the 21st century is the idea that multi-tasking is positively correlated with productivity. Quite the contrary, multi-tasking decreases efficiency. (p. 115)


When you paraphrase a source instead of quoting directly from it, you do not need to include page numbers (if your source has pagination).  The APA style guide strongly encourages the use of page numbers, however, so I will include them in the examples.  Other than that, continue to cite the way you would for a short quotation.

  • Smith (1998) measured the length of rats’ tails and found that the longer the tail, the smarter the rat (p. 25). 
  • One study even discovered that rats prefer healthy foods to eating junk food (Smith, 2000, p. 18-20). 


APA Style Notes

APA style does allow you to use footnotes in your paper if absolutely necessary. If you decide you do need to include an aside note that doesn’t fit in the text of the paper, use your word processor to insert a footnote.  Footnote indicators follow all punctuation marks EXCEPT dashes and close parentheses.

Examples of Footnote Indicators:

Teddy bear hamsters1 are often sold at pet stores.

1Although these hamsters are called teddy bears, they are not genetically related to bears.

Africa is the birthplace of all languages (according to studies done by historical linguists2).

2There are too many studies to properly cite them all. Please search "Africa language birthplace" for a full listing of research studies in GoogleScholar.

More Resources

There are more resources online, so if you want to progress beyond the basics of APA style, or have a more detailed question, there are plenty of web sites available to you. The official APA actually has a tutorial online that takes you through each step of the citation process if this blog post went too quickly for you. And remember, you don’t have to do it alone when it comes to citations; check out free online citation generators to help you with your work and to double-check what you’ve created.

Photo credit: lwtclearningcommons

Monday, August 22, 2011

First Chaper Preview of _Dan, A Man Without Youth_

Daddy's Book

I have had several people e-mail me to ask me about the projects I alluded to in an earlier post.  They’ve been keeping me busy and, as a result, I haven’t posted on this blog as much as I would have liked to.  Let me tell you about one of those projects, the one that is not only the dearest to me, but also the most challenging.

In order to tell you about that project, I have to first tell you about my father.  He was an extraordinary man who was a true intellectual.  He spoke 11 languages, remembered word for word anything he read, calculated complex mathematical algorithms in his head, and could name and date any historical event or person or empire.  That intellect landed him in concentration camp for 18 years when the Bolsheviks invaded Romania.  After he immigrated to America and married my mother, he spent years writing what would be an account of what happened to him during that horrific time in his life.  He titled his first book Dan, A Man Without Youth

He self-published the book in the 80’s, but never sold more than several thousand books.  My mother and he made a modest living and their priority was always my sister and me.  Because he chose to send us to private school, he didn’t have the money to spend on having his book professionally edited or advertised.  I’m at an age now where I think I have the maturity and skills to do his work justice.  English was not my father’s first language and it’s evident in his writing.  I want to rewrite his work and transform it into the story he always envisioned it would be.  He always talked about a time when I would be able to edit the political portions of his book to make it more friendly for people who are less politically-inclined.

This is by far the hardest project I have ever had to write.  I thought it would be simple because the story’s already written. What I’m finding as I rewrite the book is a constant need to question every word I put down.  In rewording the passage, am I changing the meaning? Is it what my father would have wanted to say? Am I preserving his voice? Am I doing right by him?  My father was an immigrant and I want the writing to reflect the voice of an immigrant.  Fixing the English grammar just enough so that the right meaning is conveyed, yet leaving the work rustic enough that it feels foreign is more of a challenge than I realized it would be. 

There are also several problematic areas in the plot of the story.  My father was a man who was writing about horrors he had learned about and witnessed long after he experienced them.  His writing reflects that in that he discusses topics early on in the book that his character is not actually introduced to until later in the work.  I’m currently grappling with how eloquent my father was as a child.  Having known my father and his intellectual prowess, I have no trouble at all believing that his child-self could debate philosophical ideals with Russian soldiers.  I’m not so sure readers will be able to be so accepting, though. 

Feel free to send me feedback, both good and bad, about the work.  It’s still in its infancy, but I could use help with knowing whether or not I’ve captured the voice of a foreigner in the writing style.

Chapter 1 of Dan, A Man Without Youth

The heavy gate of the famous prison of Gherla closed slowly, making a sinister sound. Dan was dumbfounded. As he stood on the sidewalk, he could hardly believe that, finally, he was free. Part of him wanted to run as fast as he could, afraid the guard who closed the gate would call him back to tell him his release had been a mistake. He couldn't move, though. His feet seemed nailed to the sidewalk as questions of what to do and where to go rushed through his mind. What direction should he take? Where was the railway station? Finally, Dan decided to walk to the church that was within sight of the prison. Although his legs, unaccustomed to walking more than the length of his cell, fought him every step of the way, he managed to walk until he reached the front of the church.

Dan tried to open the gate to get inside, but it was locked. He wanted to pray and give praise to St. Anthony of Padua, the saint who had helped him get out of that wretched, cold, fortified place. Dan turned away, disappointed. He'd forgotten that now churches were only open on Sunday mornings or when someone was buried.

An old woman was passing by and stopped to take a long look at Dan. After a while, she said in a whisper, “Did they set you free, my son?” The words hit Dan's ears, but he couldn't understand them. The woman asked again. Dan, guessing at her question, nodded. The woman spoke again, and this time her words broke through the fog surrounding Dan's mind. “If you want to go to the railway station, you should take this street. Keep going until you pass a bridge. On your left there will be a restaurant, and if you keep going, you will see the station farther down.” “Thank you, Grandma,” said Dan, with a voice unused in years. He parted in the direction the woman showed him.

He walked as if he were in a dream. Everything he saw had a dreamlike quality. What was real? Did reality even exist? Beyond that heavy gate that so recently closed behind him was a nightmare. In a way, his time behind it was also like a dream... a nightmare or a dream that had lasted more than five years.

Is five years a long time? What does five years mean to a Milky Way star? Nothing! Not even a blinking. But for Dan, five years meant 30,000 working hours of slavery, five springs without seeing the cherry tree in his backyard bloom, five Christmas Eves full of tears and pain, without Christmas trees or Santa Clause.

In the street, everyone was in a hurry. Men and women, children and old people all were walking fast with eyes downcast, staring at the ground. No one was smiling. All the faces Dan could see were sad. Even the children had a serious look in their eyes.

Dan felt like a newborn. He walked down the street, looking curiously to the right and the left, feeling like kissing all those sad faces, especially of the children who were passing by. He had not seen a child for more than five years. He felt like stopping everyone and telling each person about the happiness of being a free man. But the people passing by didn't notice Dan. He was just another strange, slender man with a pale face and a tired looking bag.

The waiting area of the railway station was packed with people. When space had run out on benches, people sat on the concrete floor. Some people were sprawled out haphazardly, sleeping on the ground and Dan had to watch where he stepped so as not to step on them. Many people were smoking and the smoke had built up in the room to the point that everything was covered in a light fog of it. The second-class ticket booth already had a long line formed behind it when Dan entered the station and Dan went to stand at the end of it so he could validate the ticket he received from prison. That voucher for a free second-class train ticket was all that he got for more than five years of hard labor.

The line moved forward towards the ticket booth at a snail's pace. Looking at the people standing with him in line or sitting around on the concrete floor, Dan couldn't see a single smiling face. The Romanian people had forgotten how to smile ever since the Bolsheviks took over the country.

Finally, Dan arrived at the ticket booth. The clerk, seeing the prison voucher, looked up at Dan's pale face with compassion. Without saying a word, he validated it.

There were still more than three hours left before the train arrived at the station, so Dan went outside to escape from the smoke and breathe fresh air. It was a nice day towards the end of August with plenty of hot sun, so Dan looked for a shady place to sit under a big nut tree that wasn't too far from the station.

He was not hungry, in spite of the fact that he hadn't eaten anything in the past several days. How could he eat when almost all of the political prisoners had been freed and only he remained? There had been a political amnesty degree back in April or May, though no one was exactly sure when it happened. In Gherla, news from the outside entered with difficulty. The inmates just saw that every day 10 to 15 of them left the prison. In the beginning, they thought that these people were just being transferred to another prison, but the procedures resembled liberations. Rumors came through the walls, in different alphabets, that there had been an amnesty decree for political prisoners. Nobody knew this for certain, though, and above all no one knew how large that amnesty decree could be. Dan was confined in isolation in a small cell where, many years earlier, the famous outlaw Rosza Sandor was hung. He stared at that rusty hook in the middle of his cell's ceiling almost every day, especially at night when he couldn't sleep, and thought of that tragic event that had taken place more than a century before in that same room.

Dan had received some communication through the wall in a prison code about the amnesty degree. This wall separated his cell from a bigger room, where some hundreds of inmates were kept. First, he understood that only prisoners sentenced up to five years would be liberated. After a month or so, his friends from the big room transmitted through the wall that even prisoners sentenced up to ten years had left the prison. However, this uncertainty gave the prisoners many nights without sleep at all, and Dan was one of them. He had to worry more than the other ones because he had come to this prison on a disciplinary transfer. He made two hunger strikes while there, and was kept most of the time in solitary confinement. He had been punished many a time and he was promised that he would never be able to see his family again. That was why, after almost everyone else had been freed, Dan couldn't eat or sleep any longer. His health deteriorated and he had lost almost all hope of freedom. On a sunny day at the end of August, he was compeltely taken aback when he was called to be liberated.


Dan came from a very poor family and was the oldest of three brothers and one sister. His father, a clerk working for the government, didn't make enough money to feed and provide clothes for the entire family. Dan and his brothers and sister didn't have toys to play with like other children did; instead, they made do with what they could piece together with string and old rags. Worse than not having anything to play with, though, they often didn't have anything to eat. Many a night Dan and his siblings went to bed without having any food in their stomachs. Sometimes Dan had to go door to door in his neighborhood, asking for a pot of corn flour to tide them over “until tomorrow.” Now and then he had to go to the same neighbor four or five times in a row, begging for the same pot of corn flour, without having returned the previous ones. He was so ashamed of this, that if it weren't for his brothers' heart-rending cries for food, he would have preferred going to bed hungry. When he saw his little sister crying for food, he couldn't help going back out to ask for another pot. Sometimes he was unsuccessful and he went back home empty-handed. Then his mother would name each house from memory, to see where Dan might go to ask for another pot. If she was lucky and thought of the right neighbor, Dan would come home with another pot of corn flour and the entire family would have an evening meal of maize porridge to fill their empty stomachs.

Dan remembered that sometimes after the potato harvest, his mother and he went into the field at night to look for any remaining potatoes. In the summertime, most of their food came from the forest: mushrooms, wild strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. In addition to foraging for food in the summer, Dan also brought home dry wood every day, so they would have something to keep them warm in the wintertime. He walked barefoot from spring, after the snow melted, until fall, when the new snow came down. His pants were so full of different colored patches that it was very difficult for someone to tell their initial color. When World War II began and his father was drafted into the Army, they didn't even have the little money his father used to bring home. The entire family would have died of hunger if Dan hadn't started working in a factory, the same one where his mother also worked a poor-paying job. He worked at night and during the day he went to school. He was used to burning the candle at both ends.


The train whistle awakened Dan from these sad remembrances. He saw the train approaching like a huge black snake winding through the hills. It moved slowly because it was a lower-class train and would take more than 24 hours to transport him from this station to Brasov, his home. Dan didn't have enough money to pay the difference for an express train. Full of eagerness to be near his loved ones again, he still had to wait another 24 hours. But what difference did 24 hours make when he'd already spent over 40,000 hours away in different prisons and forced labor camps?

The train finally arrived at the station and, with a great deal of noise, stopped in front of the platform. Dan got into a non-smoking coach and found a seat near the window.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Author Spotlight: Christopher Ruz

century of sand

There’s a story I read that was so haunting in its description, I felt compelled to share it with students and friends.  When it was removed from the Internet, I hunted down the author online and begged for a copy of it.  I’d pay to read it again, I wrote, just name your price.  Chris Ruz wrote back that no payment was necessary and attached the story to the e-mail.  After that, I was hooked.

For a while now, I’ve followed the work of Chris Ruz.  His short stories are full of such rich detail, I can’t even begin to imagine how lush the description would be in a novel written by him.   Well, now I no longer have to imagine because he has written a novel.

I am very impressed with the work Chris has completed on his novel Century of Sand.  I know 3 years sound like a long time, but Chris has completed college, worked full time, and written dozens of short stories at the same time as working on Century of Sand.   He is my real-life superhero and role-model.  Knowing he can create great literature while trying to live a life full of school, work, and friends gives me hope that I can too. 

This post does double-duty, highlight a great writer and the need for feedback. I have a handful of friends who let me know within hours of publishing each blog post if I have a spelling or grammar error somewhere in the post, which is why my posts are as error-free as they are. Unless you’re writing a diary entry, writing is a group effort with readers providing feedback and writers incorporating that feedback into the final draft or into future writing projects.  So help a writer out and let Chris Ruz know what you think about his work.  He has made the entire draft of Century of Sand available for download on his website in pdf format. EDIT: Century of Sand is no longer available on Chris’ website as he is trying to get it published. Good luck, Chris!!!

He has 2 Kindle compilations out for a very reasonable price of $0.99 each. That’s a scandalous price for the quality of work you’ll be receiving if you buy them.  Some of my favorite imagery is contained within them.  One of my favorite examples comes from the story “Black Rain”: “The sky through the bedroom window was the black of caverns and blind children.”  Wow.  What strange and fantastic kind of imagination does a person need to be able to describe the color black as the darkness blind children see?  See what I mean when I say this is great stuff? I even read several of his stories aloud to a friend to make absolutely positive he didn’t miss out on really great literature.

If the thought of work filled with imagery so vibrant it jumps off the page appeals to you, then head on over to and get a copy of either Past the Borders or The King and Other Stories by Christopher Ruz.  Heck, for a dollar each, you could easily afford to get both and never feel it in your wallet.  If his short stories whet your appetite for something more substantial from him, stop by Chris’ webpage and download a preview copy of Century of Sand.  Whatever you do, though, make absolutely sure you drop Chris some feedback about his work.  Artists thrive on feedback and it’s essential for continued growth. 

By the way, that haunting story I hunted Chris down for all those years ago is “The Long Way Home” and you can find it in The King and Other Stories.  All of his stories are hauntingly good, though, and will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them.