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Writing Snippets and Exercises

Writers produce a lot of material that never gets published. These are some small pieces that I’ve written as exercises for classes or in my personal time, things that I think are fun, or that illustrate some particular concept I was exploring during a class. Where appropriate (or interesting, or entertaining), I’ve added a bit of detail about what was required for the exercise or what was going through my head as I wrote it. These are all things that I don’t ever expect to publish, but let me know if you find them entertaining or interesting!

Habitual Ritual

I wrote this exercise in November 2020, to explore the use of 2nd-person point of view and the idea that specific details can make a piece of writing feel more universal, especially in this voice. Specific requirements were to write 500-750 words about a holiday, ritual, or routine, and to use a lot of specific details. Since we had pancakes with the kids this past weekend, it seemed appropriate to post this snippet this morning.

It’s Sunday morning, you realize as you crack your eyes and glimpse dust motes in the sunbeams flowing through your bedroom window. You peel back the covers, warmth surrendering to cool morning air. Hair on your arms stands up against your pajama sleeves as your skin prickles with the chill. You lie there a moment, trying to convince yourself that you can just pull the covers back over your head and burrow back down into dark warmth. Then your wife stirs, and you hear sounds of the kids moving around elsewhere in the house, and thoughts of further sleep evaporate.

You take a deep breath and open your eyes a bit more against the bright morning light. You spin yourself up to a sitting position and plant your feet on the bedroom floor – a jolt of cold from the wood shakes you a bit farther out of the sleep haze still clinging to your brain, and you slide your feet into the slippers sitting beside the bed. Feet now protected and warm, you rise and shuffle to the kitchen. Your body moves through the daily coffee-making routine on auto-pilot: filter into the coffee maker, grounds into the filter, close the hopper, pour in some water, place the pot, hit the button. You could do it in your sleep. Arguably, you are doing it in your sleep. 

The rich smell of the coffee brewing knocks a bit more sleep off your brain as you look out the kitchen window into the yard. The sounds of the kids playing in their room stops, and then a horde of elephants stampedes down the stairs and into the kitchen. “Daddy! Daddy!” the elephants shout, “can we have pancakes today?” 

You smile and nod, and the kids trample their way to the living room, bouncing onto the sofa and starting up the TV. The cheerful sounds of a morning kids’ show blare out as you turn back to the coffee maker. Black life-giving liquid accumulates in the pot – not fast enough by far. You hear a shuffling sound behind you moments before you feel your wife’s arms wrap around you, her head leaning against your back. A sleepy voice, muffled by your pajamas, says “Pancakes?” You chuckle, spin in the embrace to plant a kiss on top of her head, before responding “Of course.” 

You open the pantry and fill your arms with ingredients: pancake flour, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. You pile them on the counter, and white powder puffs from the corner of the Bisquick box as you turn to the refrigerator. You pull more things from the fridge: eggs, bacon, milk, butter, maple syrup. 

You grab a large glass bowl and toss ingredients into it. You’ve done this so many times, you don’t need to measure any more. Pancake flour first, and break up the lumps. Milk next, stir the mix with a wooden spoon until it’s syrupy and thick. Then the egg, and of course you have to fish out a few small bits of shell that fell into the bowl. A splash of vanilla, a few pinches of sugar, a liberal dose of cinnamon, then more stirring with the wooden spoon. The cinnamon forms dark swirls before the mix evens out into a light red color. 

Bacon sizzles as your wife works at the stove, and the rich smells of bacon, cinnamon, and coffee combine into the perfect aroma that finally wakes you up fully. The electric griddle hot and ready, you ladle out the pancake batter. It sizzles and rises, bubbles appearing as the thick cakes cook. You flip the pancakes with a wide spatula, whistling as you see the perfectly golden-brown color of the first side. 

Bacon comes off the stove onto paper towels that soak up the grease. Plates and silverware clink as the kids help set the table. You stack pancakes on a serving platter and bring them to the table, setting them down where a hungry pack of predators settle their gazes upon them and begin to salivate. You take your seat and lift your coffee to your lips, breathing in the aroma as you sip from your mug. Pancakes and bacon disappear rapidly, piled on plates and slathered with butter and maple syrup. At peace in the maelstrom of sounds, smells, and smiles, you realize that Sunday breakfast really is the best meal of the week.

Peer feedback on this piece was universally positive. But, what might one expect about a piece about Sunday morning pancakes?

The Wagon Woman

I wrote this exercise in November 2020, the first lesson in a class focused on Style. The first module in this class focused on incorporating all five senses into your writing, and not relying entirely on just sight and hearing. The specific requirements for this piece were to write a three-paragraph description of a person or a place, to incorporate all five senses, and to really push to make every word and phrase sensible and clear. The idea for this piece was inspired by one of my nieces, who was ranting about she would one day become a woman much like the one described here. That rant stuck in my head, and I imagined her in a post-apocalyptic setting, and hence the Wagon Woman was born.

The high-pitched squealing was my first hint that the Wagon Woman was near.  I might have taken it for a metal sign swinging in a breeze, but the day was still and hot. There was a regularity to it, a rising and falling in its sharpness as the wheel that caused it went round and round. SQUEAK-squeak, SQUEAK-squeak, SQUEAK-squeak, each repetition going through my ears like an icepick, causing my shoulders to get more and more tense. I could hear the tin rattle of the wagon beds as the wheels bounced over rocks and cracks in the ruined sidewalk.

She hove into view, lurching with a drunken-seeming step. Pebbles clattered across the pavement, kicked aside by heavy, black boots just visible beneath the swaying folds of layered skirts, all heavily frayed from wear and a near-uniform muted gray in color, their original hues long lost to accumulated grime. The layered shirts and sweaters that covered her torso were likewise grimy, colorless, frayed and threadbare, with one exception: a small doll’s head swayed at the end of a bright red ribbon, a spot of color pinned in a desert of gray.  I have no idea how she wore so much clothing without sweating to death, but what I could see of her face through her greasy, stringy hair was dry. Filthy, but dry. Oblivious to my presence, she gazed fiercely at the cracked sidewalk in front of her, muttering to herself as she rounded the corner toward me.

Her left arm was thrust out behind her, her hand in a fingerless glove wrapped around a black metal handle. A child’s red wagon squeaked into sight, rusted and dented, a childhood memory tainted by what it carried: a small mountain of severed human and animal heads, squirming with maggots and buried in black flies that droned so loudly I could hear it from twenty feet away. A second wagon, chained to the first, came into sight next, a makeshift guillotine strapped into it. The sun gleamed on the wicked edge of its blade, the only clean thing in sight. The instrument of death and the heads of its victims transfixed me, the droning and muttering and squeaking combining to hypnotize me. The spell broke when the smell washed over me, the mixture of unwashed clothing, fermented human sweat, and decaying flesh bowling me back like an ocean wave. My throat burned and I tasted bile as my gorge rose. I gagged and held my stomach down, but the motion as I pulled back reflexively attracted the Wagon Woman’s attention. She stopped moving, her skirts still swaying from their momentum. She lifted her head and fixed her gaze on me, her eyes two dark, shadowed pits behind the gruesome veil of her hair, tiny pinpoints of reflected sunlight glittering with malice. I barely felt the scraping of the rough sidewalk on my hands and knees, paying no attention to the pain as I stumbled and fled.

Peer feedback on this piece was pretty positive, with compliments about the imagery and how strongly the reader could imagine it. I have some ideas on how to use this character in the novel series I’ve started sketching out.

Forced to Choose

I wrote this exercise in October 2020, to explore the “ABDCE” story structure taught in the Wesleyan creative writing certificate program available on Coursera (specifically, in the class that focuses on Plot). Specific requirements for this exercise were: use the full ABDCE structure, max 500 words, main character wants a concrete physical object more than anything else, then they learn they have a disease that will be fatal in 24 hours and have to choose between the antidote to the disease or the object. I had an epic fantasy feel in mind – possibly because I was working on my D&D campaign around the same time.

Brennek wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of one hand, his other holding a delicate tool inside the locking mechanism attached to the display case. Weeks of research had led him here; this lock was all that stood between him and the legendary jewel The Eye of Heaven. The lock, and the deadly trap built into it, according to the guard he’d bribed the night before.

“Why not just smash the case and take it?”

Brennek paused. This was the guy he was supposed to trust as backup? 

“Do you want every guard in the palace in here? Breaking the glass sets off an alarm. Stop distracting me.”

He peered into the lock, light from the crystal attached to his headband illuminating the gears and pins. He could just see a bit of green glass, out of place amidst the metal. With slender tweezers, he grasped a tiny spring connected to a small piston and began to disconnect the two. Sweat dripped into his eye, and he squinted against the sudden sting. His hand slipped.

There was a tiny crack, and a jet of green dust puffed from the lock. Brennek inhaled reflexively then pulled back, his tools clattering to the floor. He wiped his face with his hands and spat the dust from his mouth, but his tongue and lips were already going numb. He turned to his companion, eyes wide and face pale.

“Unfortunate,” said the other, a figure in a dark gray cloak, face nothing more than faint gleams of light reflected off eyes hidden in a deep hood. “That dust will rot your organs. You’ve got about one day to sort out your affairs, friend.” He said it with as much concern as one might state that the weather was cloudy.

Brennek stared at him in disbelief. His heart raced, his pulse loud in his ears. His throat was dry and tightening, his mouth numb. He felt a wave of dizziness and fought down nausea, taking several deep breaths to calm down.

He looked at The Eye, glinting in the light from his crystal. The focus of his work these past weeks. The price of his father’s freedom.

Dry throat barely working, he whispered, “What can I do?”

“Mummy dust is deadly,” said the other with a faint shrug of his shoulders. “There is magic that can counter it, but the spells are … expensive.” The figure’s head shifted pointedly toward The Eye.

Brennek’s numb tongue licked his unfeeling lips as he considered. He wanted his father free, and he wanted to rub it in his brother’s face that he’d been the one to arrange the ransom, but was that worth dying?

Alarms rang out as he smashed the delicate crystal of the display case. He snatched The Eye and leapt into motion, racing for the door as shouts echoed from deeper within the palace. He glanced at his companion, running alongside. “How expensive, exactly? I can steal a lot in one day.”

Peer feedback on this piece was that there didn’t seem to be enough tension, and we don’t learn until almost the very end why he wants the jewel. Perhaps revealing his motivation earlier in the piece would have solved both problems.

Header photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash