Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Invitation: Holiday Story Exchange 2011 (5th Annual)

Back in 2004, when I decided to make a determined effort to focus on my writing, I joined the Writer's Digest Forum. I spent a few years running around the circles, learning, posting stories, and exposing my writing to criticism. As a group, we had fun with different writing contests. Some of the forumites had a Halloween contest, others a Friday 13th contest. In the summer of 2007, I took the idea of a Secret Santa and proposed the Holiday Story Exchange.

The premise was simple. Each writer would complete a questionnaire, giving personal details. Examples of questions included "What is your favorite food?" and "What is your favorite book or movie?" The point of answering the questions was not to be too direct, but rather to give a little peek into the person. For instance, I could have responded to the food question by noting that I "... absolutely love deep-fried frog legs, covered in pepper sauce. You ever hear of Buffalo Wings? Well this is the same, only with a little extra kick!" Joking aside, though, it was those kinds of responses that made HSE so fun. The other part of the fun was seeing what another writer could do with this completed questionnaire.

After all the questionnaires were submitted, they were then redistributed to other participating writers, who then took the information and created a story with the subject writer as their lead character. Once finished, the writers submitted their stories, which were then posted on a secure website without naming who wrote what. Finally, we added a little extra fun by trying to guess the Secret Writer. The best part of HSE, however, was each writer seeing what someone else could write about them.

This year marks the 5th Anniversary of something that started as a bit of fun, but then carried over each year since. When I came up with the idea, I originally thought it would only last a year. To my surprise, many of the original participants asked when we would do it again. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

This year, I would like to extend a personal invitation to all of my #FridayFlash friends out there. If you've never done anything like this before, now is a good opportunity to check out something new. To participate, all you need to do is come join the fun out in the Writer's Digest Forum. I have a post set up in the Take It Outside! forum. If you've never been a member of the forums, it's not that hard to sign up. And best of all, it's free.

Finally, to give you an idea of the types of stories we write, you can see an example here. This was a story originally written as part of the 2007 HSE, and then, with the approval of my subject, it was later submitted and published by Long Story Short.

Anyway, if you're interested, we in the forums would love to have you join us.

Friday, September 23, 2011

#FridayFlash - Being Relevant

With two fingers Lee tapped at the rim of his coffee cup and stared across the table at the young man standing next to Kari. It was a turf thing, he could tell, the way the young man narrowed his eyes as he glanced over, trying to tell Kari what was on his mind without actually saying it. Lee’s returned presence tonight made the situation uncomfortable, and that was okay. In fact, it was better than okay.

Her voiced lowered, Kari said, “Please, Jim. We’ll only be another five minutes, ten at the most.” Turning to Lee now, she said, “We’re almost done, right?”

Lee looked at the young man and thought about The Waltons, the show he used to watch as a kid—had to watch with his mom, really—sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the black-and-white, and he almost smiled now, seeing this young buck slowly chewing on a stalk of hay, incisors as big a couple of Peppermint Chiclets. And the funny thing was, in spite of the massive teeth, the kid probably imagined himself as some sort of ladies’ man, a regular James Bond. Lee only saw him as another Jim Bob.

Lee pushed his thoughts aside long enough to give Kari a nod. He looked at the young man and said, “Yes, we’re almost done.”

Jim stared for a moment longer, his mouth open like he had something else to say. Except nothing came out. Then, he looked back at Kari. “Sure, okay. I’ll just be over at the bar. Maybe I’ll have an espresso and strike up a conversation with someone over there.” Meaning, of course, some young lady besides Kari. And with that, the punk stalked off, shaking his head in an I-don’t-believe-this way. Kari looked after him.

Watching it all, Lee bit at the side of his lip. Comical or not, if Kari turned around too quickly, he didn’t want her to see the smile on his face. Their little “study time” wouldn’t last five seconds longer then.

As Kari turned around, the look on her face sent a thrilling current through Lee’s body. In those eyes and mouth, he saw embarrassment, and that was something he could work with, turn to his advantage.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Jim’s really a nice guy. Sometimes, he just gets—I don’t know— a little impatient or something.”

Lee nodded and said he understood, though in his mind he saw it a little differently. Whether Jim was a nice guy or not was up for debate, one which Lee didn’t see the point in arguing. The bigger issue though—and right now, Lee was working up how he would actually say it—is what would she get in return? Gauging from the way the boy dressed, his total lack of hygiene and attitude, a future with him would hold less hope than a cockroach clinging to the inside of a toilet bowl. One good flush, maybe even a minor hiccup in the finances, and that would be it, right? And looking at her, Lee knew the only thing Kari needed, the best thing to swing the pendulum his way, was to see how her life would turn out if she played the wrong hand.

What guys like Jim Bob failed to understand is that some people will refuse to settle once they’ve already acquired a taste for the best. Jewelers like Lee understood that better than anyone, though; it’s why he always showed the young hopeful ladies the full carat first, laughing inside at the young men who only wanted to buy in as cheap as they could. Because, boiled down, for some people love took second place, standing in line behind a more important need—of wanting an image, of being seen as relevant. After all, ask anyone who has regularly shopped at Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdales or Nordstrom for that matter, if they would rather die or be seen in a Wal-Mart and see what kind of answer they give. Which was why, when given the choice, a young woman would rather be married to an older man with money than to saddle herself down to a race horse stud that would eventually become worthless. And it was also why that same older man enjoyed walking around with the young lady hanging on his arm.

Lee looked down at his textbook. “Where were we?”

Kari paused, her eyes unfocused, the expression on her face telling how hard she was working to regain control. And Lee couldn’t blame her for that. Jim Bob had just stopped short of saying what was really on his mind, and everyone knew it.

After a moment, she said, “I think we were talking about Jake and how he really loves her, but he can’t.”

Lee nodded again, though in truth he never forgot their place in the story. Having read The Sun Also Rises at least a dozen times, and probably more, he knew the novel’s landscape better than anyone in the class. But then, taking the night course to learn more about American literature hadn’t been the point.

After five minutes turned into twenty, Lee controlling every bit of the conversation, he looked up and noticed young Jim Bob throwing down a couple of bills and storming out of the coffee shop. Kari hadn’t picked up on it yet, but eventually she would. And when that happened, Lee would be ready to take her home, let her ride in a car that actually said something. Maybe they would have a few more things to talk about, too.


S.B.: As a side note, my previous #FridayFlash posting from two weeks ago, "Dr. Zanthur's Journal," has been published with Flashes in the Dark. For those of you who did not have the chance to read it here, you can read it there.

Friday, September 16, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Third Time

Ricco filled his mouth with wine and held it there, his thoughts still churning about what lay on the table before him. Finally, he swallowed. He looked up at Manny, his good friend and the man to whom he had often sought in times of need.

“She sent these?”

Manny nodded.

“She actually handed them over… to you?”

Manny frowned. “What does it matter? She’s just a whore trying to save her own skin. For all we know, she could have had some help.”

Ricco glanced down at the table. She’s just a whore trying to save her own skin.

“Yes or no,” he said. “She give them to you?”

Manny stared at him, and then shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “She gave them to me.”

A growing emptiness filled Ricco, like his heart had just been sucked out and a deep, yawning hole took its place. To Manny, and probably everyone else, the items on the table meant nothing; they were trophies, most likely stolen by Tara herself, or, as Manny suggested, by someone trying to help her. And even if they had never been returned, their loss could have been fixed by walking into any nearby jeweler’s store. Looking at the necklace, though, a medallion hanging from a golden chain, Ricco knew it was the one item that could never be replaced. Passed down from his grandfather to his father, and then to him, the metal held more value than its price on the commodities market. Only the true heir of the family could wear it around his neck.

When Tony, his firstborn, came into the world with a sharp cry of defiance, Ricco felt as if nothing would ever be the same again. After all that he had accomplished—swimming against the tide of social morality to take up control of the family business, managing the daily ebb and flow of reefer, of Mexican Brown and other fine products—none of it compared to the task ahead. He was a father, and everything he did going forward would serve only one purpose: to push the family ahead until the day Tony could take his place. But time is a cruel mistress, it seemed. She could make a man lift his hopes and dreams, like a gleaming chalice, only to have it all taken from his hand and tossed aside into the blazing fires of misfortune. Not long after his firstborn took young Tara’s hand in marriage, the ceremony binding her beating heart into theirs, the family put on black and stood side-by-side, fighting back the anguish, as Tony’s body was laid into a hole.

A year passed before Ricco finally asked his second son, Marcus, to stand in Tony’s place and make Tara whole, a point that Marcus rejected at first. After all, she wasn’t born into the family; so, why should any child born to her lead it? But even after he reluctantly agreed, Marcus never had the chance to fulfill his role. The doctor called it an aneurism, a birth defect that nobody could have seen or known about. Again, the family put on black.

Still staring at the articles on the table—the ring, the watch, the medallion—flotsam to most anyone else—Ricco now saw a deeper meaning: three things for three sons. The power of three. He picked up the necklace and stared at it. With the loss of his first- and then his second-born, Ricco promised Tara he would make her whole, but she would first have to wait. His youngest, Nicolai, needed to grow up and become a man. In the meantime, she could live with her own father.

He never intended to make good on that word, however; he had already lost two sons to this woman and, family line or not, there was no way he would lose a third.

Manny’s voice cut through his thoughts then, and Ricco looked up. “What?”

“I asked how you wanted me to handle it.” Meaning: how did he, Ricco, want her killed—with a bullet to the head or with her feet cast into concrete, her body tossed into the East River? To Manny, Tara was a whore, a prostitute who had slept with another man, maybe several, and now walked around as pregnant as the morning sun. And there was no way the Giovannetti family could let that go; nobody in Uptown would respect them again if they did.

Ricco said nothing for the moment.

As if time had become more than just a cruel mistress, after the loss of Marcus, Ricco’s wife took ill—cancer, the doctor had said—and within a month the family put on black. Afterwards Ricco withdrew. Of course, the family business would be taken care of; it always had been. Beyond that, he wanted to be alone. Which worked out fine until one night, growing tired of the gloom, Manny suggested they take a ride to the Eastside. They could drink a few, probably more than that, and then catch a little easy time with some easy women. To his own surprise, Ricco agreed.

He didn’t remember much about that night. What he pieced together was that he had indeed spent time with a hooker he spotted on the corner. “And what will you give me?” she said. Though he didn’t have money on him at the time, he told her his name and promised to pay her double what she normally took. “But what,” she said, “will you give in pawn me to make sure you pay?”

The next morning, he couldn’t believe what he had done, the stupidity of it. He tried to find the woman, but she was nowhere to be seen and nobody had ever heard of her. Looking at the medallion now, though, Ricco knew there was at least one person who knew her name.

He turned to Manny, who probably wouldn’t believe the next few words he was about to hear.

“Leave her alone.”


S.B. : As an exercise at the end of his chapter on plots, John Dufresne (The Lie That Tells A Truth) issues this challenge: “Let’s do what Shakespeare did. Let’s borrow our plots.” This story is just that—a borrowed story, updated slightly for modern times. The original, if you’re interested is found in Genesis, Chapter 38. What is even more interesting (to me) is that the same characters in Genesis were later mentioned in the bloodlines found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In some ways, fact is far more interesting than fiction.

Friday, September 9, 2011

#FridayFlash - Dr. Zanthur's Journal

This week's flash "Dr. Zanthur's Journal" has been removed from the blog since it has been accepted for publication with Flashes in the Dark. For those of you who did not have the chance to read it here, you can read it there. I want to thank everyone for stopping by.


S.B.: This little germ bored into my mind early this morning, somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 while I tried to wake up, and it wouldn't let go. So, scrapping the story I had planned, I quickly wrote this one down, and here is the result. A bit hasty, but I hope it works.

Friday, September 2, 2011

#FridayFlash - Newton's Law

“Good Lord, M-M-Mr. Newton… You scared me.”

“Yes, I do have this habit of showing up unannounced. Or so I’ve been told.”

“How long’ve you been standing there?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I guess not. How’d you get past security anyway?”

“I’m a resourceful man.”

“Oh… Well, what can I do for you?”

“I have a problem, Jerry, and somehow I think you’re the only one who can help me with it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You see… Well, I’ll be. You have quite the collection here.”


“First editions?”


“Autographed copies? ”


“King… Rowling… Deaver… You do read a variety.”

“I try.”

“Jane Austen. Really?

”“Like you said, I read a variety.”

“You have quite the view, too. Not everyone can say they have Central Park outside their window. Weird, isn’t it, how way up here it seems like you can stretch out your arm and just about touch the edge of the city? Down on the ground, though, you can’t even reach out and touch the other side of the street.”

“Mr. Newton, I’m not sure where all this is—”

“Right, I said I had a problem. Well, here it is. You read lots of books—even if some of them are a little out of character—and you have this nice office overlooking the best of the city. You went to Harvard, class of 2003, graduating with honors. You have a brokerage account with Morgan Stanley that’s worth three-point-four million as of the opening bell this morning. And then there’s your Porsche, your house—two houses, really, one out in the Hamptons—each worth five million apiece. I see all of this, and I think: Now here’s a really smart guy. You have to be; otherwise, you wouldn’t have such an excellent balance sheet. And yet, I’m amazed to discover just how incredibly stupid you are.”

“Look, Mr. Newton, I never meant for it to go this way.”

“The road pave with good intentions, is that it?”

“No, it’s not that way at all. Like I told you, this was supposed to be an easy job—in, out, nothing to it. At least that’s what they told me.”


“I don’t know for sure. But thinking about it now, I’m guessing they’re the Feds.”

“The Feds… And what makes you say that?”

“The way you were set up. It’s like they meant for you to be there.”

“So, let me get this straight. You sent me into that office—to eliminate your problem, you said—in fact, you told me it was to remove, and I quote, ‘A thorn in my flesh.’ But it turns out it wasn’t your problem at all. You only sent me there because somebody else told you to. And yet, you failed to disclose that up front?”

“You don’t understand. They said my family would suffer, that my son would go prison.”

“Your son. Jerry, what do they have on you?”

“Money. I used some campaign finance funds to pay off the family of that stupid girl.”

“The one your son raped.”

“Allegedly raped. He’s never been charged.”

“You know, Jerry, you’re really not that smart at all.”

“Look—Mr. Newton—I’m sorry about all of this, I really am.”

“Me too. I’m sorry it has to come to this.”

“What is that? A gun?”

“Well, it certainly isn’t a bar of chocolate, now is it?”

“You can’t shoot me. Please, God, no. They’ll know you did it.”

“… Yes, you’re right, I can’t shoot you. But I can do this.”

“Sweet Mother of God! What on earth? Why did you shoot out my window?”

“Because, Jerry, there’re some things in this world that are too much for a man to handle. As much as you might want to change things, defy the systems set in place, there’re certain laws that cannot be broken. Rules you can’t ignore.”

“Hey! Put me down. What are you doing?”

“I’m showing you the proper way out of this situation.”

“Don’t do this. They’ll know. They’ll—Aaaaaah…”

“No, they may suspect. But they’ll never know for sure.”


S.B. ~ The curious fact about writing fiction and always changing things up is that some of the stories are thoughtful and driven while others are just for the sake of having fun. This one, including the title, falls into the latter.