Story Sprint—Writing a Story in 20 Minutes

Everyone has a reality show these days—housewives, house hunters, doctors, singers, sword-swallowers. I’ve always thought it would be the most boring show in the world to watch writers write.

And yet, about 60 people showed up last week in Old Fairfax Town Hall to do just that—watch writers write. Well, to be fair, we went into a different room to do the actual writing, but the purpose of the evening was to see what three writers could do with the same first line and same last line and twenty minutes in between to craft a story.

I was pleased to be one of the three writers, along with Zach Powers and Colleen Kearney Rich. I will admit—I was terrified leading up to this event. I’m generally a fast writer, but writing under pressure? I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with something—anything—coherent.

Luckily, the audience was great, and the lines they chose were just interesting enough to be interesting, but not so crazy weird that we couldn’t come up with anything. Here were our first and last lines:

Grandma’s cookbook is worn and torn, a living record of splotches, comments and comfort.

When the plane lands eight hours later in Rome, the airport is completely deserted.

My first thought—zombies. So I went with it. I am actually proud of the story I came up with, though I’m not going to share it here since I want to work with it some more and maybe, at some point, submit it. But we’ll say that it was not so bad that I was embarrassed to read it aloud, so I consider that a win.

In fact, I was impressed with all three of the stories—all different in tone and plot despite having the same starting and ending point. It was fascinating to hear them all and see the audience response.

A really great event overall. Thanks so much to Fall for the Book, George Mason University, and the City of Fairfax for hosting us. I had a blast!

Photos by George Bradshaw

“The Case of the Vanishing Professor” named an Agatha Award finalist!


It’s been a wonderful writing week. I turned in my final book edits for ONE NIGHT GONE on Sunday…and then found out that my story “The Case of the Vanishing Professor,” which was published last year in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, was named a finalist in the Best Short Story Award for the Agathas!

I first started writing the story about 12 years ago, when I got the idea of writing about a woman named Nancy Drew who really hated being named Nancy Drew. For a long time, though, I couldn’t decide what her story would be beyond that—so I kept writing a bit, then putting it away for a long time, then bringing it back out again. Finally, it came together when I put Nancy at a cheesy murder mystery dinner. It soon becomes clear that other suspicious things are going on besides the story on stage—and Nancy, like it or not, gets sucked into solving the mystery.

Read the full story below. You can use the arrows and controls at the bottom of the embedded PDF to navigate through the story. You can also download the file to print and read offline. Presented with permission of the publisher.

Laskowski_Case_of_the_Vanishing_Professor

And, as if getting the nomination wasn’t enough, I’m also thrilled to be sharing the honor with my husband, Art Taylor, who is also a finalist with his short story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop.” And we are both thrilled to share the slate with the fine writers Leslie Budewitz, Susanna Calkins, and Barb Goffman.

Thank you so much to Linda Landrigan and all the wonderful folks at Dell Magazines.

Let the partying begin—we’ll be celebrating this victory up until the Agatha banquet dinner at Malice Domestic in May. Whee!

Check out the full list of nominees here. Congratulations to all!

#365DaysOfCarl — Win a 2019 Wall Calendar!

Sometimes we need a little silly in our lives.

On New Year’s Day 2018, my son Dash and I had an inspiration. Dash had gotten a LEGO minifigure for Christmas that came with a little passport showing a few of the figure’s “travels” and adventures. We decided we were going to give this minifigure an adventure each day of the year. Dash named him Carl—and thus, #365DaysOfCarl began.

I’ve been posting a new image of Carl every day this year on Instagram (Follow me @beanglish or #365DaysofCarl)!

Dash sort of lost interest in this project fairly quickly, I’ll admit, but I found it kind of fascinating and fun. At times, it was more about the challenge of finding something cool or fun or different for Carl to do, about looking at all the stuff in our house in a very different way. At other times, the project was a fun release from the stress and anxiety in life–one creative burst to focus on and share. And when those anxieties and stresses got very overwhelming, sometimes #365DaysOfCarl got to feel like a burden–but I persisted. I’m a completist at heart, so I knew once I got past Month 1, I was going to see this through.

Good question!

Now here we are in December, and I’m on the final stretch. Carl’s become a regular figure in our household at this point. I carry him and his friends and a few props around with me in my purse. He’s gone with me to Texas, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania. He cheered the Philadelphia Eagles on to a Super Bowl victory. He’s nearly died a few times from getting into precarious positions. He’s found love, broken up, and found love again. I think I’ll miss him when this project is over. It’s certainly been an adventurous, ridiculous year.

To celebrate #365DaysOfCarl, I’m giving away a 2019 wall calendar of some of Carl’s adventures to one lucky person who signs up for my author newsletter before December 19, 2018. You can sign up here for the newsletter, which I send out a few times a year to announce fun book news (such as my upcoming thriller One Night Gone!), other giveaways, events, reading recommendations, and more.

If nothing else, Carl is a reminder to not take ourselves—or life—too seriously. Remember that as we plunge headfirst into the wilds of 2019. And happy holidays, everyone.

Carl, navigating the great Puddles of My Driveway.

 

My debut novel ONE NIGHT GONE to be released in Fall 2019!

I’m thrilled to announce that my debut novel, a suspense/thriller titled One Night Gone, will be published in Fall 2019 by Graydon House Books.

Here’s a little bit about it:

One sultry summer in the 1980s, a teenage girl arrived in the wealthy vacation town of Opal Beach to start her life anewto achieve her destiny. But before the summer was up, she vanished.

Decades later, when Allison Simpson is offered the opportunity to house-sit in Opal Beach, it seems like the perfect chance to regroup and start fresh after a messy divorce. It’s the off-season, after all, which means peace and quiet, and more importantly for Allison, safety.

But when Allison becomes drawn into the story of a girl who disappeared from town thirty years before, she begins to realize that Opal Beach isn’t as idyllic as it seems. Beyond the walls of the gorgeous homes hide dark secrets. And as Allison digs deeper into the mystery, she uncovers not only the shocking truth, but finds herself caught in the middle of a twisted plot.

Part electric coming-of-age story and part breathtaking mystery, One Night Gone is an atmospheric, suspenseful novel about power, privilege, and ultimately, sisterhood.

I’m excited to be working with the editorial team at Harlequin/HarperCollins on this book, especially my excellent editor Melanie Fried. Thanks most of all to my wonderful agent Michelle Richter and the team at FUSE Literary for believing in this book and finding what I believe is the best home for it!

Stay tuned for more details as the year progresses, and consider signing up for my (very, very occasional) newsletter for any giveaways, readings and other events, as well as random ramblings.

Ok, now for the freak-out: EEEEEEEEEEKKKKK!!!

(Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash)

When your ghost story haunts you in the coffee shop

My story “Coal Girl” was published at Jellyfish Review as part of the Stories for the Dead special issue. It’s about ghosts and teenagers and coal banks. At its heart, it’s a love story, despite it’s weird creepiness.

I was thinking about all this yesterday when my husband and I were at our favorite coffee shop in the area, De Clieu, where I ordered one of their specials–a delightful drink called Honey Charcoal Latte. When it arrived, the first thing I thought of was, well, my story:

Honey Charcoal Latte–Yum!!

The digestive charcoal bits look like coal, and the white foam and mug reminded me of ghosts. And, of course, when I tasted it, it had an underlying sweetness like the love story that emerges out of the darkness. It was dark and delicious and a tad sweet, just like I hope my story is.

I love the idea of pairing drinks with stories, such as Deborah Lacy does with her Drinks with Reads column at Mystery Playground. When Bystanders came out, we invented a drink to go with it (The Bystander, which is basically a whiskey sour with a little bit of red wine drizzled on top.) But a pairing has never come so easily or naturally as this one, and I’m still a little spooked by it, to be honest. Seems like a little magic on what was a dreary rainy day. I’ll take it!

Bystanders named a ‘best book of the year’ in The Guardian

What a lovely post-Thanksgiving story to wake up to! This morning, The Guardian released part 1 of their Best Books of 2017 story–asking authors to discuss their top favorite reads of the year. I’m honored–and oh so thankful–to discover that Jennifer Egan named Bystanders as one of her three recommendations.

You can read the selections here and shop for all the book lovers on your list.

Bystanders Wins the Balcones Fiction Prize!

I am thrilled to announce that Bystanders has won the Balcones Fiction Prize, which is awarded by Austin Community College to an outstanding book of fiction published in 2016. My book was among stellar finalists–Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Heirlooms by Rachel Hall, Landfall by Julie Hensley, and Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy–and I’m humbled to be in their company.

Final judge Amanda Eyre Ward had this to say about Bystanders:

Her stories pulsed with energy and excitement, like small lightning storms on the page. I was constantly surprised by her characters, and finished the book wishing there were more. I think she is a real talent–original and vibrant–and I’m excited to celebrate her work.”

Past winners of the prize have included Margaret Malone’s People Like You, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark, Douglas Trevor’s Girls I Know, Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners, Katherine Karlin’s Send Me Work, and Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate.

Thanks so much to Joe O’Connell and everyone in the creative writing department at ACC for your support. Thanks also to SFWP publisher Andrew Gifford for taking a chance on Bystanders.

I’m looking forward to visiting Austin next year, where I’m told the Museum of the Weird is a must-see destination for those of us who appreciate all things creepy.

Bay to Ocean Writers Conference: Flash Fiction Resources

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting “Tiny but Mighty: How to Write Amazing Flash Fiction” at the Bay to Ocean Writers Conference at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, Maryland. As I promised attendees, I’m posting my handout here of some resources for flash fiction writers, some of which was adapted from an earlier handout for a novella-in-flash panel created for the Conversations and Connections Conference in Virginia.

In addition, here are the stories I read aloud or mentioned during the presentation: Soap by Katrina Denza, Nightstands by Cole Meyer, and Gravity, Reduced by Kara Oakleaf.

Tips, Prompts, and a Reading List from Tiny but Mighty: How to Write Amazing Flash Fiction

A Bay to Ocean Writing Conference 2017 panel by Tara Laskowski

 

Tips for Writing Flash:

  • Start at the flashpoint—by definition, flash begins at the moment of conflict, when all the action is nearly complete.
  • Focus on the powerful image(s)—Find one or more powerful images to focus your story on.
  • Hit them where it hurts—go for an ending that offers an emotional impact. Play against expectations with a sense of narrative mystery or devastating twist, a poignant implication or declarative last sentence that leaves the reader breathless, and going back for more. Not an “aha” moment or a punchline. An ending more nuanced than that.
  • Strive for the concrete. Eliminate the word “thing” or “something,” for example. Replace that word with an actual concept, image, noun, etc, that explicitly participates in the image you are portraying.
  • Write the whole story, then eliminate useless words.
  • Stay away from punchline endings or “joke” flash fiction.

Some Flash Prompts:

Fictionalize a true moment: Start a flash piece with a specific memory of your own grounded in the five senses (touch, smell, feel, seeing, hearing) – For example: the feel of an aunt scratching your scalp or the smell of your child’s bedroom. This memory should be specific enough to work into a moment. Find the story from there.

Use pictures, paintings, or music to inspire a flashpoint.

Tell the story backward or play with the idea of memory and nonlinear time in a story.

Think of writing a flash piece as a scene when working on something longer, say a longer short story or as a novel chapter.  Flash is inherently raw with emotion. When wanting to draft a pivotal moment, take the time to draft a flash piece – with a beginning, middle and end — to represent that moment between your characters.  Break down the action to its bare essentials for more impact.

Write a story only using dialogue. Use no dialogue tags.

Find a dictionary. Open it to a random page, close your eyes, and point to a spot on the page to select a word. Do that several times to generate a list of random words, then write a flash that includes all of those words.

For Further Reading

Flash Guides

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction edited by Tara L. Masih

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore

A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction edited by Randall Brown

Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook edited by David Galef

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter

Flash Fiction Collections

Mad to Live by Randall Brown

Severance by Robert Olen Butler

A Kind of Flying by Ron Carlson

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis

The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybeck

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick

Wild Life by Kathy Fish

Maybe Mermaids and Robots Are Lonely by Matthew Fogarty

Surrounded by Water by Stefanie Freele

Truck Dance by Jeff Landon

Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons by Tara Laskowski

Lust by Susan Minot

May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks

 

Journals That Feature Flash

Smokelong Quarterly

Brevity

Every Day Fiction (open to genre)

Gamut Magazine (paying market, genre)

matchbook

Monkeybicycle

Nanofiction

Necessary Fiction

District Lit

The Collagist

The Short Form

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts (paying market)

Wigleaf

Whiskey Paper

Shotgun Honey (crime fiction)

Gay Flash Fiction (LBGTQ)

Shimmer (diversity)

Abyss & Apex (speculative fiction)

Cease, Cows

Aphelion (science fiction and fantasy)

Daily Science Fiction

Narratives-in-Flash

Matt Bell, Cataclysm Baby

Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel, My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

Aaron Burch, How to Predict the Weather

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge

Matthew Salesses, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying

Lex Williford, Superman on the Roof

Presses that Publish Flash Collections

Curbside Splendor

Jellyfish Highway

Matter Press

Rose Metal Press

Press 53

Stillhouse Press

Flash Stories

The Heiress by Tara Laskowski: matterpress.com/journal/2015/03/02/the-heiress/

The Cage in the Woods by Joe Lucido: wigleaf.com/201509cage.htm

Cravat by Roseanne Scott: www.smokelong.com/cravat/

Conjugation by Jen Michalski: www.smokelong.com/conjugation/

Bartleby Snopes contest (2000 words or less): http://www.bartlebysnopes.com/bartleby-snopes-issue-14.pdf

Transplanting by Lisa Smithies: http://www.smokelong.com/transplanting/

Dive by Dawn West: http://www.smokelong.com/dive/

Marriage by Anna Lea Jancewicz : http://www.matchbooklitmag.com/jancewicz.html

I stayed away from my phone and laptop for 24 hours and lived to tell the tale

As part of my #RetreatRepeat New Year’s resolution, I successfully spent 24 hours away from my computer and cell phone this weekend. It doesn’t sound like much, or a great accomplishment, but it was difficult to do nonetheless.

I did this as part of National Day of Unplugging, a U.S. initiative sponsored by Reboot, a group that “affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.” The idea is to create a day of Sabbath for your devices. It was a last-minute decision for me to participate, so I didn’t sign the pledge or get my cell phone sleeping bag. But that made it easier in some ways, because I didn’t have time to talk myself out of it or make any elaborate plans. I just put my phone away when I got home from work and didn’t look at it again until the next evening.

So how did it go? The first few hours were the hardest. Only two hours in, I had a terrible urge to sneak a look. But I resisted. After that first night, the next day was easier. And even though it was only 24 hours, I learned a lot about my online triggers and addictions.

Here are some things I learned:

It’s ok to be alone. My greatest urges came when I found myself in a room alone or sitting at a traffic light. All those times when I would naturally pick up my phone to distract myself, play a quick game or check Facebook, I instead worked on a crossword puzzle, read part of a book, or in the case of driving, found a song to sing along to.

Not allowing myself to do any work made me not think about all the work I had to do. It was a busy weekend. I had a presentation to prepare for a conference the next weekend, a grant to apply for, and writing to do. But knowing that I couldn’t do any of that on Saturday—that I ‘wasn’t allowed’—also gave me the freedom to not care about it. Normally I would’ve been stressing out. Instead of enjoying my walk outside with my son or watching a silly show, I would’ve felt guilty that I should be working. But I felt free of that with my pledge, telling myself I would have designated time on Sunday to do the work I needed to do.

Nothing was on fire. When I finally broke down and checked my messages, I realized that there were no urgent matters waiting for me. It was a relief, and also a wake-up call: I’m not going to miss any opportunities or be missed at all, really, with a 24-hour break.

Check messages when you have the time to do something about them. When I pick up my phone and browse through in at a traffic light or while waiting for my train, I often see messages that I need to reply to but don’t have the time right then. Those messages get marked as “read,” and the next time I log in, my eyes will often skip over them. They get pushed down into the ethers of my un-organized inbox and I forget. So unplugging, especially when I’m busy doing other things, will actually help me be more productive. If I don’t read my email until I’m actually in a place where I can respond to the messages, I’ll be able to take care of things more efficiently and with less stress.

I can’t promise I’m going to disappear from the Internet for 24 hours very often, but I will definitely try to be more conscious of my decisions to stare at my devices. Sorry, Angry Birds. But I’ll miss you.