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I haven’t posted here in ages and this has nothing to do with writing, but this commercial is VERY important, and I think everyone should watch it because the world gets a little better when we understand the struggles that other people face, even if we’re not going through them ourselves. Empathy is always a good thing. 

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Tell the story of a job interview that goes badly. The more your character wants the job, the better the story will be.

Claudia is sitting in the reception area of Flash, Ltd., her posture immaculate, though the way she feels, she should be sitting back with her hands behind her head and her legs up on the glass coffee table before her. Her leather portfolio rests on her lap, in which her resume is tucked; her spiel so perfectly prepared in her head, it was as though she had it mental cue cards, and her outfit is tasteful and simple. She’s even forgone her usual five-inch stilettos for flats, which is quite uncomfortable for her, but she’s willing to make that sacrifice for this job.

Which, by the way, is totally hers. “Nobody is better, smarter or prettier than you,” her mother had told her practically from birth, and that’s been Claudia’s motto ever since.

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To Outline or Not to Outline

This exercise is one done in irony. My previous story, generated by the spark word “virus”, did not turn out exactly as planned. This is something every writer has surely experienced time and time again: the frustration of having your own words, your own characters turning against you. But they belong to you! How can they betray you? Well, they just do.

Since this assignment is about outlines, what I will be doing is taking the “virus” story, using the plotline that I originally intended to use, make an outline for that, then write and post the story here! Ties in pretty perfectly, doesn’t it?

Outlines are most common among thriller and mystery writers, for obvious reasons…many non-genre writers use outlines, too…on the other side of the fence are writers who prefer a more organic approach to their craft…If you’re suffering from writer’s block, try changing your approach. Make a detailed outline of the story - or plunge first into the opening paragraph without any idea where you’re going. Either way, the change in routine may be surprisingly effective. 

-From The Writer’s Block, by Jason Rekulak

Like I said, I’ve already completed the latter part of the challenge - plunging headfirst. Now it’s time for me to fulfill the latter. So, first, here’s the outline:

Setting

  • Unnamed town in the province of Ontario, late 1990s.
  • Starts off on a bus full of high school kids, including main character, Lillie. Their  senior drama class is traveling to a junior high school where they’re performing a show made up of several skits, each containing a valuable lesson
  • Setting goes back to the past: to her junior high school and her current high school, as well as some of the elementary and junior high schools that they visit (maybe). Ends in a hamburger restaurant.

Rising Action

Lillie thinks back to junior high, where she developed a virus that made her an outcast and has carried on through to the present, as all the kids on the bus seem to forget that she is there, even though everyone else seems so close. When they arrive at the junior high school where they’re performing, she sees a poster advertising their graduation buffet and remembers her own, when all her friends got a table together and left her to sit at the “leftover” or “reject” table.

Climax

Turns out the same thing happened just recently, as she is about to graduate high school and also got bounced around from table to table, with no one seeming to really “want” her.  So she declines to go after all but is furthermore disappointed when no one seems to care that she’s not going anymore.

Denouement

At this particular school, there are two shows instead of one, so the group goes to lunch at a hamburger restaurant. They all gather tables together in a pattern that effectively cause her to end up sitting alone. And that’s when she decides that they are the ones with the virus, not her, and that she should stay away from them.

Now, here’s the story…after the cut!

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Spark Word: Virus

In fourth grade, I caught a virus. I don’t know where it came from, or how I got it, but all I know is that it made everyone stay away from me.

Okay, not everyone. Mostly the kids at school. Everyone else seemed immune to it.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when they started to stay away. I guess it began with looks of disdain, then whispering, then an unkind word or two hissed or shouted in my direction, but from a distance.

The virus was so bad that people had trouble sitting next to me, so they’d move. If they didn’t think I was far enough away, they’d throw things at me to keep me at a further distance, or left notes in my desk and my locker advising how I should stay away. Because whatever I had was catching and they wanted nothing to do with it.

By eighth grade, the virus went into remission, so a few people had no trouble being around me. They actually didn’t mind me being around more than once, or sitting next to me, or even being in their homes, because I was no longer contagious. There were more than a few who thought I still had it, so they continued to stay away, even though I didn’t. Not anymore.

But by the end of the year, the few who hadn’t stayed away started to back away, slowly, receding far into the distance until they’d fallen in with the rest who’d stayed away all along. After that, I stayed in my room, safe within my womb, under quarantine, because it was clear: the virus had come back. 

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Write a story about the images on a roll of film - using only 12, 24, or 36 paragraphs.

[Author’s Note - I will be using 12 paragraphs]

Frame 1 – Our First New Year’s Eve!

Us at Nathan Phillips Square. Seconds after midnight. Shiny party hats, identical smiles and half-full plastic champagne glasses (mine in my left hand, camera strategically held in the right, outstretched arm caught slightly in frame). Captured mid-torso. Me, low neckline, emerald silk; him, pea coat chic. Cheeks pressed together, our eyes in happy slits. Behind us a black canvas is alight with streaks.

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Opening Lines

What makes a good opening line? It depends on the story. Editors of suspense thrillers often hold manuscripts up to an “Airport Test”: If you were browsing through an airport bookstore, picked up a paperback and read the opening line, would you buy the book before boarding your flight?…Draw up a list of five favourite novels and review their opening lines. What drew you in? A beautiful metaphor? The hint of danger? Try duplicating the effect in opening lines of their own. See where they take you.

- From The Writer’s Block, by Jason Rekulak

Here are the opening lines from five of my favourite novels.

1. "They shoot the white girl first."Paradise, Toni Morrison. (Obviously, I wanted to know what was going on - why did they shoot the white girl? Why did they shoot her first? Who else were they going to shoot? And who werethey?”)

2. "They’re all dead now."Fall On Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald. (Another obvious reason this intrigued me: who are “they”? How did “they” die?)

3. "A long time ago, I disappeared."Caucasia, by Danzy Senna. (Where did this person go? Were they kidnapped or did they run away? Was the disappearance metaphorical or physical?)

4. "It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead."Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout. (Who is Mr. Robertson, and why did he leave town?)

5. "Brooklyn-born I don’t have no sob stories for you about rats and roaches and pissy-pew hallways."The Coldest WInter Ever, Sister Souljah. (I chose this one mostly because of the tone. The personality and attitude of this person - conveyed so boldly in less than twenty words - was an instant attraction.)

And now, here is my own opening line…with the story that follows after the cut!

“There’s a bull loose in the building!”

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Spark word: Diet

Penelope takes a deep breath, says a silent prayer, squeezes her eyes shut, and steps forward with her right foot. Then the left one.

Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease.

She pops her right eye open. Then the left one. At first, she keeps her gaze directly on her feet, rather than the numbers, which are just above her scarlet painted toenails.

I’ve done all the right things. I’ve eaten all the right foods

But as Penelope pinches at her midsection, she already knows she’s going to be disappointed. Especially with the way her jeans fit her yesterday - ugh.  

Let’s just get this over with

Finally, Penelope raises her eyes to the digitized numbers on the little LED screen. 

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"Describe your first brush with danger."

“Matt, no!”

Lisa catches him just in time. He’s got a bundle of matches grasped in each fist from the large box in front of him on the kitchen table. There’s a scarily determined, concentrated look on his face.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Lisa snatches the miniature sticks out of his fat, sweaty hands; most of them snap in half, but Matt’s face is expressionless, as though nothing’s happened at all. “Don’t you know that if you get in trouble, I get in trouble?” She dumps the wet, broken remains back in the box and slides the lid closed. “Where – how did you even get a hold of these?”

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More about “The Project”.

Here’s some more information about the purpose of The Writer’s Block* and its exercises within, as quoted from the introduction.

Goal:

Writing is hard for everyone. We all get stuck. Every short story and novel presents its own unique set of challenges, and a writer encounters them for the first time with every new project.

Some people develop writer’s block halfway through a first draft - they find themselves in the middle of a short story and discover that they’re stuck. The words just won’t come…Other people claim to live in a perpetual state of writer’s block. They say they want to be writers, but they’re waiting for inspiration to strike, or a really good idea to sink their teeth into.

This book offers solutions to all different kinds of writer’s block, but it is not a how-to manual. There is so much contradictory advice within these pages, I don’t think a how-to manual on writing can ever be written…

Aside from this introduction, The Writer’s Block is not meant to be read in a linear fashion. [Author’s Note - However, this is how I will be using it.]

Then, author Jason Rekulak describes the three different exercises featured in the book.

1. Writing Challenges

These short assignments are designed to get you writing as quickly as possible; don’t ponder the exercise for more than a minute or so before putting pen to paper. With all of these exercises, it’s more helpful to think as you write - you can always go back and revise it later..resist the urge to plan, outline, chart or map, and just get the pen moving.

All of these exercises are paired with photographs. For example, the charge “Describe your first brush with danger” is accompanied by by a photograph of a boy playing with matches. Some writers may answer this challenge with an autobiographical piece; others may choose to write about the boy in the photograph. [AN - This is the first challenge; I will be using the latter option.] Either approach is okay. And perhaps you’ll want to develop the exercise into a longer piece…

Welcome these kinds of changes, and remember that each exercise is only a jumping-off point; if your story veers into new terrain, consider yourself blessed and stay along for the ride. 

2. Spark Words

Many spreads throughout this book consist of a single word that is paired with a photograph (or photographs). These “spark words” carry different meanings for different people; ask ten different women to write about the word “diet” and you’ll receive ten very different responses…other spark words offer direct challenges to your imagination. Can you write a scene or story that centres around words like “Oops” or “Ouch”?…just remember, as with the exercises, you shouldn’t plan very long before setting pen to paper. And you should only treat these spark words as a jumping-off point - follow the story into new territory if that’s where it wants to go. By obeying the lead of your imagination, you may end up with a perfectly wonderful short story that doesn’t mention the spark word once.

3. Writing Topics

From choosing a title and selecting an opening line to coping with negative criticism, these topics feature advice and exercises from legendary and contemporary writers…When appropriate, these topics conclude with a related exercise or writing challenges, but feel free to ignore them if your instincts pull you in another direction. Again, the key here is to let your imagination take the lead.”

With that, I am ready to start writing the very first exercise, which, as noted in the first quote, is “Describe your first brush with danger” and is paired with a picture of a boy playing with matches. 

I will post the story later today.

*Rekulak, Jason. The Writer’s Block: 741 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination. Pennsylvania: Running Press, 2001