At the bottom of a lake long dried up, my hazy gaze rested hopefully on a cloud building in the distance. Dust rose up around my plodding feet, settling on my cracked tongue. The size of this lakebed desert must have grown since the last estimation. I didn’t have enough water to get back; I could only move forward and hope I reached the edge before I ran out.
I tried not the think about how dehydration could have me just walking in circles.
A ridge of reddish rock stretched across my path, a veritable fortress wall. In the distance, it culminated at a former island, towering upward. I had tried to scale the wall only to slide back down on slopes of shale. When I had rolled to a stop at the base, dust in my hair, I picked myself up and followed the wall instead, looking for a break. Better to save my energy.
The cloud inched closer, pure white edges blurring with the horizon.
A break in the wall appeared all at once to my left. In the moment I registered freedom to continue forward, I stumbled on a hard object in the sand, going down to my knees. Tiny rocks skittered away from my hand as I scraped the object free. At first, I frowned, not understanding what I found.
A railroad tie. Attached to a railroad rail. The line passed through the break leading straight to… the oncoming cloud.
I got to my feet as the rippling heat revealed a dark train running toward me from the distance. The cloud of steam puffed upward, better than any raincloud I could imagine.
As the train neared, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. The brakes squealed as the train started to slow.
I have never had much use for writing magazines. When I first began writing, I went to them for instruction, guidance, the revealing of writerly secrets. I didn’t find as much of that as I wanted. Plus, the issues kept piling up in my home, not quite read all the way through, because what is focus? So I canceled my subscriptions and when more offers for magazines arrived in my mailbox, I ignored them.
One of those offers came from Poets & Writers. I had never subscribed to them nor had I submitted to them, so I’m not sure how they got my address and the knowledge that I wrote. But while sick these past couple of weeks, I ordered a digital subscription on a whim. I had long wondered what they had to offer.
Though I still did not find the revelation of secrets to writing stories loved by all, I did find a joyful celebration of writing. A loving lingering over impactful word choice, a delving into the triumphs and heartbreaks of writers, and desperate expressions of the struggles writers face. High emotion for all things writing dripped from the paragraphs, such that I felt validated as a wielder of words for the first time in a long time. Perhaps it’s all just an ego stroke in the end, but one that we writers, toiling away in obscurity and anxiety, could use once in a while.
This issue of Poets & Writers featured as its main article ‘Inside the Notebooks,’ revealing the journals, sketchbooks, and thinking boards from several prominent literary authors. These pages represented the hearts and minds of writers, often scribbled out in big, sprawling letters, on cardboard, and even across walls. Sketches thrown together with no intent to show others, portions blocked off with uneven lines. Sentences that flew up the page toward the top right corner.
The sight of that whole beautiful mess imparted to me a sense of relief. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t make pretty bullet journals with straight lines and perfect sketches. I wasn’t the only one who threw word spaghetti at the page just to see what stuck. Who let feelings out in the margins.
Maybe, all along, this was what I needed from writer magazines. A presentation of reality for writers.
So in the spirit of inside the notebooks, I figured I would do my own notebook reveal. The pictures aren’t great, some of the words misspelled, the margin thoughts messy and disjointed. But that’s the whole takeaway, isn’t it?
Without a breath of air to stir them, a plume of snowflakes rose up from the drifts coating the mountainside. Where the morning sunlight had not yet touched, deep blue shadows crept beneath a forest of firs. Nothing moved but the flurry of flakes, whirling around each other, the whole cluster angling upward along the mountain’s flank.
I crouched behind a screen of snow-heavy tree limbs, a tiny encampment from which I had not shifted all night. My legs hurt and snow soaked through the knees of my pants. Cold nipped at my lips. My breath fogged white, then gold, sparkling where the sunlight had just glanced over my shoulder, lancing between the trees down the mountain in a wide ray.
My breathing stopped. In the revealing light, the mysterious plume of snowflakes passing by my hiding place had resolved into a shape. Gold glimmered along the faint outline of a delicate creature – a long low body, tufted ears perked in my direction, pointed nose twitching for scent, one of four paws raised in consideration. Blinding white feathery wings folded along its back.
A breeze had lifted from my back, carrying my scent straight to the creature. All in a rush, it flapped those wings hard, scattering snow in every direction. The whoosh of wind threw flakes in my face, stinging my cheeks. Only four pawprints and the faint pattern of wings on the snow remained.
As well as one feather.
When I lifted the feather and moved it back and forth between shadow and light, it vanished in the darkness, though its icy touch stung my fingertips.
As promised to the people in the town below, hanging this at the community coop would at least deter any more of these creatures from stealing their chickens. That should appease the hunters.
The way I see it, no new year has hurt us the way 2020 has hurt us. In past years, I have found myself quietly swept up in the hope of a fresh start on New Year’s Day. New writing goals to pursue, maximum output calculated down to the letter ifI can just write X number of words per day… as if I were some machine, chugging away on the tracks to writing success. No room for error, like bad mental days, family emergencies, work stress, or just breaks to have fun. A piston pumping up and down, ceaseless.
Ironically, I didn’t make resolutions for the year of 2020. Not that I thought I, at last, had things figured out. But just because I had come to learn that not only would I not hit my goals for the year (I never do, as they’re always just so lofty), but that plans have a lot of opportunity to change over the course of 365 days.
Boy, was I ever right about both those things.
Nevertheless, I feel burned. Such that I may never again go into another year feeling optimistic about my prospects. Though too many press releases now have used the phrase, I find myself creeping into 2021 with an abundance of caution. Un- optimistic.Prepared for ambush from some fresh horror, some predator stalking in the ceaseless stream of the future. But I am wary prey and I fully plan to see the next attack on my very existence coming.
All this is to say, there will be no goals from me in 2021. No writing goals, no self improvement goals. Not just because 2020 has been the equivalent of an emotional abuser, traumatizing us all daily. But also because the whole experience has brought home to me more than any intellectual exercise that
none. of. that. matters.
Time will come. Perseverance of whatever that thing is that we pursue will see us through. What need have you or I for tracking and numbers and dates? For output? We need only to continue living. To keep going.
We will always keep going.
There will be new things about the blog this year. If only because I want to try some new things I may love and drop others I have not enjoyed so much. Instead of author updates, which were not much in the way of updates really, I have planned a series of short memoir topics, all centered around my journey as a writer. I will likely drop reviewing every book I read and reserve my reviews column for indie authors and publishers who reach out for the exposure. They’re the ones most deserving of the attention anyway.
Who knows what else will come our way in my microscopic corner of the internet? Certainly not me. I have no plans, after all. But I’m glad you’re along for the finding out.
As always, dear reader, I leave you with my exhortation for the coming year.
Gray smoke rolled skyward and drifted along the tilled dirt, tangling around my feet and stinging my eyes. I had picked this field to cross because nothing grew in it, so I couldn’t imagine what the fire consumed. Pulling my shirt up over my nose and mouth, I trudged along with my head down.
I hoped I wasn’t trapped.
With so much haze in the air, blowing ahead and behind me, I almost walked straight into a thick swath of fire. Orange flickered at the base of a line of heavy black smoke rising into the afternoon, flashing warning lights. The leading edge of flames churned ahead in a straight line.
Making a barrier right across my path.
Realization dawning, I ran. Lungs heaving, eyes streaming, feet digging into soft earth, I caught up with the fire. Leaped across in its path. The scent of gasoline hung heavy in the air, assaulting my already overwork lungs. Clinging to my shoes where liquid soaked the earth.
On the other side, the wind blew the smoke away from me. Indifferent to my near escape, the flames crept along the gasoline trail while I stood with hands on knees, taking huge gulps of clean air.
Later, as I climbed the side of the valley, I got high enough to see the shape of the roads burning through the field. They spelled out words in huge cursive letters. Big enough to be seen from space.
The irony got to me and I laughed a little until I coughed up more sooty phlegm. I could’ve been trapped inside those lines.
If the fire starters wanted to message aliens, I sure hoped those aliens could read cursive.
Happy Spooktober to everyone who followed the #GrimList2020 drabbles and the spooky Hopeful Wanderer short stories this month. It was great fun to write these for you and I appreciate all the likes, comments, and follows they received!
My mouth was a weapon. One I could aim and fire at anyone. But once. Just once. Too obvious and the authorities would take me down.
Shouldering my way through the crowd, I grinned at the knowing.
So, so many people had gathered for our high school reunion. I hadn’t been invited, but found out about the reunion anyway. All these people who picked on me. Shunned me. They would make a perfect ground zero.
When I got to the middle of the gymnasium, lost in the crush of my peers all around me, I
As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”
I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”
Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”
“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”
I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.
All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.
The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.
I raised my hands. “Easy…”
“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”
The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.
The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.
Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
The Plight of the Back-loaded Writer
Do your sentences ramble with a bunch of important details attached to the the ends? Like the equivalent of remembering relevant information for the story you’re telling your co-worker, but only after you’ve told most of it. A lot of your sentences start off with simple phrases like “The dog ran to the house” but tack on all nuance later, such as:
The dog ran to the house like a streaking comet as if carried by angels under his feet.
These sentences are fine. You know they’re not great, but fine. Maybe a period or two could break them up into manageable chunks. But what of when each sentence looks like this? The details, clauses, prepositions, and such all dwindle toward the end. The subject>verb>object pattern always happens at the beginning. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.
When you notice your sentences always or often follow this pattern, you may begin wondering how to fix this. Add more punch. Sprinkle your sentences with style, like those writers whose sentences pulse through the page like magic.
Below, check out how to mix your dull and extraneous sentences up and bring them to life!
Enter: Subordinate Clauses!*
To recap your basic English lessons from middle school, parts of a sentence fall into two categories:
the main clause
the subordinate clause
Main clauses tend to come first and stand on their own, while subordinate clauses tend to come last and depend on the main clause to exist. Kind of like me with my relationship to my day job.
But subordinate clauses don’t have to come last. In fact, mixing up the order adds power to your writing. Not every sentence works better when mixed up so you just have to feel whether the rearrangement adds more punch to your intended meaning. (Spoiler: it almost always does.)
In the above sentence, the main clause appears in the form of: “You can pronounce spinach like stomach.” Subject = you; verb = pronounce; object = spinach. Subject>verb>object, the most basic building block of sentences. One we writers repeat over and over as we string words together to form meaning.
The subordinate clause takes the form of: “if you’re not a coward.” That’s a sentence fragment on its own, buddy. We know it depends on the details of the main clause to make any sense.
To switch up the boring usual order of this sentence, we can just move the subordinate clause to the beginning (and add a comma) to read like this:
If you’re not a coward, you can pronounce spinach like stomach.
Boom. Now I don’t have to read yet another subject>verb>object sentence after another.
Enter Also: Prepositional Phrases!*
Another sentence block that lends itself well to rearrangement is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are the connectors that link the verb to the object, so any words like for,in, on, around, over, through, beneath et cetera.
Dictionary.com definition:a phrase consisting of a preposition, its object, which is usually a noun or a pronoun, and any modifiers of the object.
In the above example sentence, the prepositional phrase appears at: “for someone who does not teach writing.” Preposition>object>modifiers. Once again, this is a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own without the main clause!
To switch things up, put the entire prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence (and add a comma).
For someone who does not teach writing, I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons.
Hid that subject>verb>object sentence order there in the middle again. Nailed it.
Enter As Well: Similes!*
In our sentence rearrangement endeavors, the final movable sentence block I want to discuss is the simile. You might remember similes from when you had to annotate poetry in high school. The easiest elements to highlight/underline and make yourself look like you knew what you were doing were phrases starting with like or as.
Because I could find ZERO tweets of mine containing any similes going back two years, and because I’m determined to keep things consistent, I tweeted this status just for the sake of example.
In the above sentence, the simile begins at: “like a pleb.” Similes are just comparisons, but they go great at the beginnings of sentences to usurp the subject>verb>object position.
Like a pleb, I just had to write this tweet for a blog example.
Better examples might look like: “He shot through the sky as fast as a speeding bullet” > “As fast as a speeding bullet, he shot through the sky.”
Basically, putting your as or like clauses first hints at the flavor of the main clause to come.
How I Learned This Skill
As mentioned above, back to back sentences all starting with the subject>verb>object pattern become tedious. They bother me to read, they bother me to write. I dislike seeing ‘the _____ (whatever noun)’ descriptor begin sentences again and again. Of course, those sentences matter as basic building blocks of communication. But they project more emphasis to meaning when used with intention.
Got any questions about rearranging sentences for better impact? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for rearranging sentences, I want to hear them!
*Excessive exclamation points brought to you by recent excessive listening of enthusiastic podcasts.