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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