Working Review: Our Daily Toast

This time, I am headed over to Toasted Cheese, which is a literary journal, writers’ forum, and writing prompt provider. They have a fantastic monthly calendar, which provides prompts for each day. March particularly impressed me because every Saturday was a genre challenge and anyone who encourages writers to experiment with many genres deserves a pat on the back. Unfortunately, April does not include Saturday genre challenges; I suppose it would be difficult to find enough different genres to do it every month.

The nice thing about these calendars, as opposed to a book of writing prompts or other collections of them, is that it really encourages writing as a daily habit. I know for me, especially now when I am juggling House of Cats and a list of anthologies for which I want to write, writing often turns into something about deadlines and quotas. If I don’t have a deadline hanging over my head, I don’t want to write at all. I start to think, I’ve put in my time for the day, the week, the month, now leave me alone.

But ironically, the discipline of a daily habit makes writing less about what you have to do and more about the joy of storytelling. Because even if I say I must write each day, there are no rules and no demands about subject or, heck, even quality. This is writing as play, as an adult’s recess, as indulgence.

Tuesday’s prompt is “Bangles and Beads: she was obsessed with making jewelry.” But I feel like I should be giving you a bit more than just hi, here’s a site, here’s a snippet, good night. So let me break down for you my process of developing an idea when presented with a prompt.

First of all, my best brainstorming occurs in the shower. The combination of quiet solitude and the automatic movements of washing leave my brain free to tinker with ideas. The shower is where I conquer all my worse blocks and develop ideas from nothing. I break down the elements of the prompt and ask questions about each one. So:

Jewelry: who makes jewelry? –> women, craftsmen, metalworkers, children (I am envisioning the macaroni necklaces I foisted on my mother as a child)

What can they make it out of? –> metal, gems and stones, rope, wood, macaroni, found objects, glass, beads, pearls (found objects and pearls are speaking to me at the moment)

Why do they make it? –> to wear, to sell, to pass the time, to preserve objects, to repurpose objects

From this, I’ve got bored children using found objects to make their own jewelry and pass the time.

Obsessed: what sort of person obsesses? –> perfectionist, hyper focused, avoidance of other issues

Under what circumstances does obsession develop? –> has little else to occupy mind, stressful situations, way to block out unpleasant realities

From this, I’ve got someone in difficult circumstance who can’t do anything to change them, but who needs to focus their attention on something to cope with that stress.

After that, I get to the part that I can’t explain or map out. Once I’ve picked out the details in the prompt and found variations and interpretations that speak to me, my right brain really kicks in and starts putting the tinker toys into new and attractive configurations. I get an image, usually, or a character or a bit of plot. The parts stick together into something that resembles story. Right now, it is the idea of a child in a new land, maybe even a new planet, entertaining herself while her mother works, and the image of a necklace made out of a huge and luminous pearl-like object, which floats above the child’s head in zero gravity while she tries to sleep.

Once I have that kernel of an idea, I can start to develop. POV character is the child. I’ll need a theme if it’s going to be much more than a vignette. Number of words to shoot for and number of scenes I can get out of that based on my average words per scene. Lines describing each scene. A sentence describing the core of the story.

Joanna washes her cereal bowl in a sink with running water, which is a nice change from buckets pulled up from wells or rivers. The bio crisis planets are usually more advanced than the famine planets. Their cottage is right on the beach, so it makes no difference to her if Dr. Claudia Shipman spends the day treating the local livestock — something like a llama and something like the mega rabbits on XMV-671 — for the virus that is killing nine out of every ten. Joanna can amuse herself. If she gets bored of playing by the water, she can go inside, where there are books to read and half-strung necklaces to finish and math lessons to not do.

In the tide pools, Joanna finds a strand of seaweed caught on a colony of anemone-like creatures. She teases it loose from their waving fingers and retreats to the dry sand with it. Where each leaf attaches to the vine, there is a pearl, a bud, a buoy and when the sun has baked some of the water from the vine, these pearls float in the air. The ends of the vine drag in the sand. Looking through its parabola, Joanna sees a knot of tall children scuffing towards her through the sand. She plucks the vine from the air and retreats to the house. She locks the door behind her.

When Joanna lets Dr. Shipman in, she stinks of sick animal. There is mud up to her knees and the mostly washed off remnants of blood on her arms. “Why did you lock the door?”

Joanna shrugs and goes back to the little kitchen table, where she has a thick sewing needle stabbed through the stem of one of the pearls. Its skin is thick and hard like bark. She uses a pair of rusty forceps to pull the needle the rest of the way through. Dr. Shipman goes into the tiny water closet. The water turns on. Joanna slips the needle from the thread and puts it safely away. She holds up the two ends of thread. In the middle, the pearl bobs. Joanna opens her box of beads. She slides a blue stone onto the thread and takes it off again. She tries faceted glass and polished stones. The pearl sags with their weight and floats free again when she takes them off.

The water shuts off. Dr. Shipman sits down at the table wearing the battered flannel robe. “Hey, kiddo, what did you find?” Joanna only thinks of her as “mom” when she wears it. The rest of the time, she calls her Dr. Shipman like everyone else on every planet they visit.

Joanna tries red and orange and yellow beads, all down the list of colors she has neatly organized, and takes every one off again. “Found it on the beach,” she says.

“That’s called moon tree. The floaters are filled with lighter-than-air gasses. That’s how the plant floats high enough to get sunlight underwater.” She goes to fix dinner when Joanna just keeps working.

Over chicken and rice MREs, Dr. Shipman says, “It looks like we’ll be here for a few more weeks.”

Joanna pushes her fork through her food. “Fine.” At eye level, the pearl drifts, the ends of thread looped around her off hand.

Dr. Shipman lets out a loud sigh. “Do you want to go to classes at the school?”

“No, thank you. I’ll do my lessons here.” When the table is cleared, Joanna just knots the ends of the thread behind her neck. In bed, with the two moons shining through her window, Joanna catches the pearl in her mouth. It tastes of sea water. She lets it go and a third moon rises over her planet. It is a moon she can carry with her when she leaves in two weeks or two months, whenever this assignment ends and the next one comes in.

I think I must have been reading something written in present tense because I did not notice until the second section that I had started writing in it. I’m a strictly past tense sort of person usually. I feel pretty strongly that I would like to finish this story some time. It hits a whole bunch of my favorite things: new worlds; awkward childhoods and parent-child relationships; animals and medicine; crafts; weird flora and fauna; rural settings; and issues of loneliness and independence.

I did not in fact go through all the development I described earlier, since I knew I would not be doing the full story within the confines of this article. So I can see that I don’t have enough overt conflict driving the story forward. I’m still just drifting in the area of “mood,” which is fine for practice, but makes for deadly dull fiction. But it is exactly what I imagined when I first started thinking about someone obsessed with making jewelry.

This is the first time I have written science fiction, though I admit I have taken the soft science approach. Which is another fringe benefit of following these calendar challenges: if you write long enough and often enough, it is my belief that, to keep from boring yourself, you will eventually have to branch into new genres. This, as I mention, can only be a good thing.

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