firefly o’clock

Two years ago today I woke up my eldest daughter to see the fireflies for the first time. Her little hand was warm and sweet inside my own as she peered out into the dark forest. “It’s not as dark as I thought it would be,” she announced.
I tried to point out the fireflies among the wildflowers, but her eyes gazed steadily at the seldom-seen stars of the hazy night sky, eagerly devouring them with her entire being. “Wow,” she whispered, transfixed.
We walked further along the wooded lane, with her looking over her shoulder now and again to make certain that the moon was still there. “It’s my friend, the Moon,” she’d tell me in a hushed voice, then shout “Hi Moon!” and give a joyous wave to the jolly orb. Now and then he winked at her with wisps of fog, much to her delight.
A green firefly lit up in a patch of clover not far from us. She gasped. “A firefly!” The green light flashed again, and again, as she counted…poorly.
“I want to see another one, mummy!” she said, So we circled our lawn, traipsing through the wet grass as we watched for fairy lights in wild places.
“We have to whisper, and tiptoe. Whisper and tiptoe,” she hissed loudly to me as she stomped through the wet in her beloved rubber boots.
She squeezed my hand tight as a moth flew too close to her face and they startled one another, but it’s easy to be brave when you’re three and your friend the Moon is right there and your mummy is holding your hand. “What was that?”
“It was a moth.”
“Was it a fairy moth?”
“It might have been, it’s hard to tell in the dark.”
As we neared our little pond a handful of fireflies whispered luminescent greetings and we settled in to watch the twinkle of their phosphorescence. Some nestled in the devil’s paintbrush, while the bolder ones soared as high as the branches of the nearby trees. Her eyes, glazed with the sleepiness of one who should be in bed before dark, wandered back up to the stars in wonder.
In sitting still the mosquitoes discovered us and began to bother. We swatted until she suggested we go back inside. Hand in hand we walked back to the house. “So what did you think of the fireflies?” I asked her.
“I thought there’d be less bugs. And more faeries,” she said, her most serious look upon her face. “But I liked them very much.”
webonbluebottles

eighty unicorns under the hood

When she was young, Granny volunteered at a retirement home for imaginary friends. She would read them books, listen to their stories,  and keep them company. Her favorite resident was an aging, black unicorn with an opalescent alicorn who’d been popular in the 1700’s.

“You know, I’ve always been jealous of horses,” he told her. “I was James Watt’s imaginary friend when he was a boy. He grew up to coin the term ‘horsepower’. I’ve never gotten over that. He could have used ‘unicornpower.’ No one would have minded. It sounds good.”

Granny tested it out. “This baby has eighty unicorns under the hood.” She whistled. “Oh my. That does sound good.”

“Doesn’t it? I think he did it just to spite me for not spearing his sister with my horn when he wanted me to. Told me he’d rather have a real horse that listened to him than an imaginary unicorn who wouldn’t.” He let out a sad knicker. “James never imagined me again. He was only five years old.” A few tears dribbled down the unicorn’s muzzle. “Stupid horses.”

Granny always referred to engines in units of unicornpower after that. When she took up farming with Gramps she liked to brag she was the only woman in the county with a thirty-two unicornpower tractor. Drove him absolutely nuts.

tractorpower

review: Short Story Mechanics with Richard Thomas

My first writing teacher was my high school’s gym teacher. What could go wrong?

There we were: a small group of sensitive, bespectacled book nerds, our heads full of poetry, our thoughts a jumble of hormones and innocence, eager to pursue our dream of becoming a writer.

Toss in an angry meathead who doesn’t want to teach writing or have any respect for the craft. Boom. Mentally dismembered young writers, their unwritten stories bleeding on the linoleum floor, wondering what the hell hit them.

The experience turned me off writing classes for decades.  I wrote here and there for the following year, a twinge of PTSD with every word. That passed with time, and writing became a joy again.

After my first small publications, I wanted my writing to grow further and faster than craft books and critique partners could take me. I took a deep breath and hunted around for a class.

I ended up taking a short story class with Gamut (horror fiction magazine) editor Richard Thomas at Litreactor. I did my research to make sure I respected his work, finding some of his short stories, reading his Storyville column, and asking writers I know if they’d had the experience of working with or learning from him. The responses I got were favorable, so I signed up for the class.

And I got so much out of it.

Richard picked out my weaknesses and addressed them. He pointed out my strengths and built upon them. At multiple points in his lectures I had a ‘eureka!’ moment where I figured out what was making some of my stories fall short (and how to fix them). Never once in his critiques did he try to make my voice sound like his voice, and that’s what impressed me the most.

Now that the class is done, I’m going back to stories I’d given up on and getting excited about them again.

What the heck is your point, Jenn? I couldn’t find actual reviews of writing classes when I was hunting for one. There’s kajillions of them out there, and they cost money. For a struggling writer, money is often an issue and every hack with a wifi signal is onto the ‘masterclass’ buzzword. It can feel like a gamble.

I believe most writers will benefit from a class with Richard. The value is well worth the cost. Yes, this is an honest review. I’m not getting any compensation for it.

Richard Thomas has another Litreactor class starting up in late July, this one focusing on flash fiction. Check out his website and you’ll see even more. My kid’s got cavities we need to fix, so I can’t take another class for a while. Don’t be like us. Brush, floss, and take Richard Thomas classes.

keep-it-brief-3
he may look grumpy, but he’s no phys. ed. teacher. (Photo from litreactor.com)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some short stories to work on.

 

 

 

 

gentle whimsy from my tattered thoughts

At long last, I have found the place where stars go during daylight hours.

stars
#notscientificallyaccurate (that was for you, James)

#

I saw a single firefly last night in the rain. His little blue light glowed beneath the shelter of a plantain leaf. The light reflected back from the raindrops all around, and he didn’t seem lonely at all.

the terrible thing I did to the selkies

Karen and I spent the summer making fun of the beach selkies and the girls who mooned over them. I dunno, maybe we were jealous. Those guys had rippling muscles and oozed sex appeal, but they never looked at us, two gawky girls whose breasts hadn’t budded yet.

At the end of the summer there were a few who’d had their sealskin coats stolen by lovelorn women. They stood o016n the beach, unable to go home, looking haunted and broken. Searching.

Giggling with glee, Karen and I ran to the thrift store, buying every seal fur coat we could find. That night we hid them all over the beach.

We set up our beach towels for the day to watch the selkies find them and rush around with mistaken joy, only to be crushed when they discovered the truth.

It’s still the meanest thing I’ve ever done.

Karen laughed at me when I told her I felt bad. “They’re not even human!”

I gathered up the remaining coats and brought them back to the store. It made Karen furious. We never hung out much after that.

 

 

*this post was first written as a comment on a writer’s prompt at the Write Practice

a breakfast with fear

“Hello, Fear.”

“Hello, Paige.”

Paige strode across the sunny terrace to a bistro table set for two. Wisps of gauzy fabric whispered about her bare feet. She threw herself into a shaded chair with the petulance of a teenager whose been called a child. “What’s on the menu today? A cup of discouragement? A plate a self-loathing?”

Fear smiled, revealing his fangs. “Both, actually.” He served these dishes to her cold. “Enjoy your breakfast.”

She sipped at her cup in cheeky rebellion. It was all she had left and she refused to fight with him. “I must say, I couldn’t help but admire your work in the United States this week.”

Fear sat down in the chair opposite hers, crossing his legs and taking a nibble from her plate. “It’s almost too easy. The threat of nuclear war makes everything so deliciously tense.”

“Hmmm.”

Fear leaned forward, licking his lips. “What about you? How’s the writing going? Received any rejections of late?”

Paige shook her finger at him. “Naughty Fear. I haven’t even finished my breakfast yet.”

“Ah, then allow me to offer another dish: a bowl of ‘my accomplishments are all worthless’ stew. Full of all the things that eat you up on sleepless full moon nights.”

“How generous of you, darling Fear!” She watched him cringe at her ‘darling’.

“Now, Paige, be careful. You wouldn’t want to piss me off.” He snarled, his eyes flashing.

She leaned across the table, sweeping her cup of discouragement, her plate of self-loathing, and the stew to the hard-tiled terrace ground. They shattered with a satisfying smash. “Do your worst. You were always going to anyway.”

Drool began to ooze from his fangs. He always loved his victims best after they moved past the simpering, tearful stage. Paige held his gaze. She was growing stronger. He would make a writer of her yet.

 

a sketch of Harold

Harold’s ears pointed upwards, sharp enough to skewer a falling leaf. His skin had grown sallow and green-hued from shunning the outdoors in daylight and too many hours in front of his computer. A hard, bloated belly bulged at the buttons of his vest and poked over his belt. A permanent slump had begun to form in the painful spot where the vertebrae of his neck met his shoulders but he paid it little mind.

It hurt his feelings when people pointed and laughed at his appearance. He read blog after blog of people suggesting he not let it bother him, but no one ever seemed to offer any advice as to how to make this happen. He began to feel nothing but contempt for these self-proclaimed experts, these gurus of the internet.

Harold spent his days in the cramped quarters of his cubicle, typing at a frantic pace to keep up with the four to five live chat conversations his employer expected him to follow all at once. Each conservation represented a disgruntled customer he didn’t have the authority to assist. One out of twenty would thank him in the end, while the rest would swear and curse his very life.

By the end of most days Harold hated people, every single one of them.

The only time Harold spoke aloud to a human being was when he ordered a tea from the local cafe after his shift. If the girl with the charming smile worked that day, he would remove himself from line and go into the bathroom to test out his voice, hacking out the hoarseness that came from his lonesome, silent life.

When he could squeak out his order without an adolescent’s cracking voice, he returned to the line. His heart beat too fast for ordering tea and his eyes hunted the coffee shop for the chance to meet hers. Some days he lived for the moment when she brought him his tea, as if there was no one else in the whole world but her, and him.

IMG_8308

Until her eyes flicked over to the next customer and the spell fell to pieces.

The days she didn’t work grew dangerous for the innocent users of internet comments everywhere. His eyes grew sharper, his skin sallower, as he unleashed buckets of pent-up rage and bitterest hate on everything he saw. No one was safe, not the woman seeking advice for her toddler’s diaper rash – no, she was a terrible mother and he needed to rake her over the coals. Not the liberal commenter on the news site, nor the conservative one, how dare they have opinions! He would squash them into nothingness while cackling menacingly to the ceiling and finally, finally feeling alive and listened to and important and someone!

Harold is an internet troll.

story’s end

“How do you know when a story is finished, mum?”

I take a deep breath. “That’s a loaded question, pumpkin. Every writer has a different way of knowing, and I can only tell you my way.”

She looks frustrated. “But how do you know?”

“I know a story is done when I can read it out loud without tripping over any lines or feeling self-conscious.”

She stares at me, a perplexed look on her face. I struggle to explain myself. “It might sound simple, but it takes a lot of work to get there. First I revise it a few times on paper, then I start reading it out loud, pen in hand to mark the spots that need work. Sometimes I’ve gotten my plot tangled in my first revisions, so I have to do undo all of that.”

She continues to stare, the furrow in her brow growing deeper.

I start to sweat. “Sometimes I’m so embarrassed I want to burn it, so I put it away for the rest of the day. By the next morning I’m ready to tackle the broken spots and sculpt my story into what I want it to be.”

I chuckle. “These days this involves pen, paper, and a clipboard resting on the baby’s bottom while she contentedly suckles. When I’m done I’ll feel happy and exhilarated.”

“Exhilarated?”

“That means happy and alive. When I wake up the next day, I might read it again and realize how much work is left. One day I’ll read it and everything will fall into place, a story that flows as smooth as the baby’s bottom it was edited on, and then, at last, I’ll know it is done. At least until my critique group tells me otherwise, but that’s another thing altogether.”

She shakes her head. “No, mum, I mean, how do you know when its finished?”

I stare, drawing a blank. “I don’t understand.”

She stamps her foot. “How do you know when to stop reading?”

“Oh.”

She waits.

“Well, it usually says ‘the end’.”

20170402_150627
writer at work, baby’s bottom not shown

Save

what’s in a Nim?

Baby has arrived and she’s settling into our lives well. Or, more accurately, she’s overturned our former lives and ripped out the guts of our routines. Now, seven weeks after her auspicious arrival in the middle of an ice storm and a seven day power failure (you’ll have to wait for more on this in a future essay), we’ve rebuilt our lives to include her.

We named her Nimia, a hard-won name, I must say. We had a hard time naming our first daughter (Evening), and our second proved even tougher because we were determined to find a name we loved as much as we loved Evening’s.

20170212_125637_resized-001
our wee Nimi-gnome

It’s a great deal harder to name children than characters. With characters, you can write whole drafts knowing full well you haven’t found the right name yet, but with kids it’s different. You can’t change it five drafts and three months in when you find one that suits them better. You’ve filled out legal documents that will follow them everywhere. People know them. It would be like J. K. Rowling changing Harry Potter’s name to Reginald Montgomery in the seventh book. Confusion and complication will follow.

 

Harder still: you have agree on this name with a whole other person. I have pages of names I adore, written in two long lists of female and male, but that doesn’t mean Mr. The Spouse likes them enough to name his children after them.

Does everyone make naming their children such serious business?

We happened upon Nimia’s name when I was eight months pregnant. She had been Nim for a few months already; there’s a few Nims floating around in the fictional world and I’ve loved every one I’ve met thus far. When I hear ‘Nim’ it strikes me as full of fun and unexpected giggles – the perfect name for our little girl. However, we still struggled with a grown-up version of it to give her. For a while she was almost Nimue, but the Lady of the Lake seemed a lot to live up to, and there’s always that matter of Merlin still trapped in a tree …

As for fun and unexpected giggles, our Nim has this funny goat-giggle she makes in her sleep which we find quite contagious. Her name suits her well.

I suspect not every writer takes character naming as serious as I do either. Good ol’ Billy Shakespeare suggested “what’s in a name?” as if he could just pluck a name from a crowd and plop it onto the page without a second thought. No curated lists of striking names for him. Then there’s Neil Gaiman, who famously wrote down ‘Coraline’ in a misspell and got a whole book out of it. What about you? Do you struggle to find the perfect name for a character or does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Do you reach for a pen every time you come across a name that grabs your attention?