Category Archives: Writing Challenges

From a Project (9/7/13)

From a short story in progress (Crude pre first draft, reader is warnedl):

There was something cold in his touch. I felt death in his grip, and whether it was just the cold creek water rushing by or the final fading moments of his heartbeats friction, I couldn’t tell, but there was no warmth to be found in the man. I thought all this in the flash of a lightning bolt, as my eyes frizzled up like a furious photograph being taken, and I looked on the black and white negative of the storm water before me. Where in God’s name had this poor bastard come from?
The lightning was gone, I was blind, and only the thunderous roar of the chocolate milk colored water was my reality. He was flying by, the rapids taking him, the river some two or three miles down the way was hungry. I acted on a cocktail of reaction and instinct as I yanked backward, trying to free the man from the grasp of the creek. I felt him spin around in liquid fluidity, closer to me, close enough to think I had him, to think I was winning. I dragged him up the sandy little pull off at the edge of the drive just below the big orange outside light and electric pole, the transformer buzzing all the way to the ground. I fell back, planted my feet on the loose ground, dug my ass in, and yanked with all the strength I had.
It did so little good. I had him, but the trouble was, he woke up or came to a fright and all of a sudden he had me. There are few things more dangerous than a cornered animal, in fear for its life. And that’s all any of us amount to in the end, cornered animals, all of us in some level of realization to our own grand demise. He gripped my hand hard then, only the coldness remained, but the death was still in question. He yanked back all of a sudden, I thought then it was fright but in the days after I wondered about that.
By ass started scooting, my feet lost their grip and before I knew it I was sliding toward the raging water. I felt my heart tumble like a fallen gymnast, all in ugly slow motion, first it was excited, and then it was free falling, and now it was hitting the hard floor of my stomach and leaving me in the grips of an ugly nausea and horror. I was heading for the goddamned water and heading fast. I remember thinking, the whole time, my family won’t even know I’m gone for God knows how long. Rachel is in there right now, scared shitless and rounding the kids up, not even thinking I’d be so damned dumb as to get close to this water but here I am, and heading straight for it.


Modeling Monday – Write like Steinbeck

Not even a full mile down the road, maybe a smidge more, the Kentucky river rolls through a low laying flood plain. When it’s the summer the fields there are wild and untamed, a happy lively wild place, a garden for the animals to come and eat. But there are other times when the river runs a deep ugly brown, painting the air with a muddy scent, and roaring its mighty voice as the damn is overtaken and the waters rage on. At first the water stays in its domain, the banks holding the brown majesty of the flood to its confines, but soon enough the water spills over and fills the little valley with a hungry need for expansion. When I was a boy, there were two old houses in the valley, never lived in, not for times longer than my short life can remember have those houses seen real habitation. But for those of us that lived near the river, we’d go to the high place the road took you and look down on that valley and measure the rising river’s fury against how far the waters had risen against the house. One time, I saw the waters go so high as the roof.

We were somewhat fortunate where I grew up, the river was far enough away to never reach us, and the hills provided a safety net enough to guarantee the water there would never come so far. Fortunate enough, which is not the same as saying I never saw a flood around the house. I saw several when the little creek that wound out behind and below my family home could take no more rain. Sometimes the bridge up the road would get clogged with debris. The water would back up and finally push over top and come down the road, which was a terrifying sight. Or, the water would simply rise and rise and soon enough poor over the rock fence out back and fill the yard. Flash floods are speedy demons, sometimes giving very little warning, and in no time, a family can be completely shut off from all the civilized world beyond, left looking to one another wondering, will this be the one to take our little home?

Swamp Rats (an exercise in setting)

A scene: Setting Building (An exercise):


It was a hot Louisiana night fresh from the swamps, stagnant as a dead stream and as lively as a bed of ‘skeeters singling in on the trail of a blood feast. The two figures in their tiny boat sat as silent as the night would let them be, their eyes communicating all their fears back and forth like a saggy slow ping pong ball.

“Listen now,” the one man said to the other, “you hear that?”

Their ears seemed to wiggle as they both leaned over the edge of the boat and studied the cricket ridden breath of the night. There was life all around them, and yet there seemed to be absolutely nothing but competing shades of darkness and silence on all sides of them. Somewhere, through the thick heavy tones of the steamy night there was one thing, just one thing, it could have been caused by any number of things. One ugly loud commanding thing.

“Goddammit Joe, how’d he find us?” the other man said, his voice ribbetted high then low bobbing his Adams apple as he threatened the sturdiness of the boat.

“Don’t know it’s him,” the other said. His eyes bugged out in fright no matter his words.

Another stick broke.

“Just row Stevie, row!” Joe said, looking half ready to leap in the dark abysmal unknowns of the swamp and run for his life.

“I ain’t the kind of man you be bossing about now,” Stevie said, and yet he was readying the oars and paddling hard. Somewhere in the inky black depths of the night one lone hound warbled out its lonesome call, and the two men in the boat trudged down the waterway as fast and stealthily as they could summon.

On the Run

Bonnie and Clyde infront a Ford V-8 Català: Bo...

Bonnie and Clyde (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An Exercise:


Jake sat on the couch, listening to Annette finish with the other man upstairs. He looked at the tattered frayed arms of the couch, then he played with the off centered little button barely hanging on. That was him, wasn’t it, he thought, barely hanging on. The same hand that played with the button was the same hand that wore the ring, the promise, the lie.

Annette came to a finish and not long after Jake heard a door open upstairs. The quiet, satisfied footsteps of his wife came pattering on the creaking boards toward the steps. She stopped a while, and then continued. Soon he could see her figure descending the stairs. She looked at him, and though she looked amused, she never smiled. Her eyes were a wrestling match of beauty and contempt as they bore in on him.

“I’m gonna kill that sumbitch,” Jake said.

“You couldn’t kill a half dead cockroach Jake,” Annette said, walking toward him, “let alone a stone built outhouse like that man upstairs.”

Jake pulled the snub nose from his pocket and toyed with it. Annette looked at it, and again gave the half cocked amused look Jake had fallen for.

“I’m gonna kill him, and then,” he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“And then?” Annette asked, sitting in the old warn out chair across from the couch. She lit a smoke and held it like someone of fashion and class. Jake thought she had neither.

“And then I’m gonna burn this no good shack down and we can get going with our lives.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she said.

“What?” Jake asked. His jaw threatened to swing loose at its hinge, as a roaring nausea threatened to swell in his stomach.

“You couldn’t pull the trigger back there Jakey, what makes you think you could now?” she said, she took a long draw on her cigarette and then, “we might’ve been caught if it weren’t for Sam stepping in.”

“Sam,” Jake said, and then he grimaced, “What’s Sam ever really done for you? For us?”

“He got me off three times for starts,” Annette said. Jake’s eye twitched, she saw, and then she finally did grin. “The third one was weak, don’t feel so bad, but the first two were out of this world.”

“Is that all that counts? Him making you happy? We’re married for Christ’s sake!”

“We’re crooks Jakey, outlaws like Bonnie and fucking Clyde. We don’t play by rules anymore,” she said, finishing her smoke going for another.

“We were just bank robbers till Sam came into the picture,” Jake said, finally laying down the gun beside him. “We can still have a life.”

“WE don’t have anything Jake, you’re just a farmer’s son with an imagination,” she said, “but Sam is real. He’s got what it takes to give me what I need. You, you’re just the one I had to marry to get out of momma and daddy’s house. Don’t you get that?”

“I’m gonna kill that sumbitch,” Jake said, his eye twitching again.

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Old man at the Bar (Exercise)


Use a place with a group of people to observe. Write a single scene inspired by this group. Bring them to life, and imagine out the details.


Old man at the Bar

He stood in the corner of the room, blanketed in equal measures of shadow and mystery. His ball cap hid an old fat pair of fluffy black headphones from easy view. In one hand he held a mug bigger than his knobbed and worn down hand looked able to hold. In his other hand he held a nearly empty pitcher of cheap yellow beer with all the foam threatening to dry up. He stood statue still, transfixed perhaps by all the youth that surrounded him.

The birthday girls and soon to be bride walked by him with a wrinkled nose. It wasn’t clear if they did this because of a smell they both detected coming off the man—he didn’t look very clean despite his perfectly ironed clothing, all bright and free from visible dirt or stain. They giggled to each other and darted furtive glances back at the odd man, saying all they needed about how highly they valued his worth as a person from their damning cold glances.

The man by the jukebox didn’t seem to mind. His eyes rolled about in a slow methodical way. Each young face fell under his ancient gaze at least once or twice as his hands went about the busy work of refilling his mug. The statue still persona of the old man broke up for a few good drinks of his warming beer. Beer fuzz stuck to his chin and upper lip before popping away, leaving only a thin line of drool behind as testament to their existence. His eyes remained ever watchful. The young people that surrounded him on all sides hummed with a bee like electricity, charged up and primed, and giving off a sneaky aura of threat as though they were always ready to sting and hurt.

Three rowdy looking young men came in the door of the bar, talking loudly about all the wonders of their young and ignorant lives. The odd man lowered his mug and let his eyes roll to them. He sized them up and in his fastest move yet, he looked away. His head followed his eyes and with more speed than one could guess the old man capable of pulling off, he walked with rat like worry and speed to the opposite side of the bar, far away from where he had been, and even farther from the door and the young men walking in.

He was just in time leaving too. The three young men who had came in didn’t bother with ordering their brew first—their smell and loud way of carrying themselves suggested they’d already had their share and more. The young men headed straight for the jukebox and fumbled with change along the way. The clang of coins on solid oak floorboards was barely detectable, but two eyes followed the glint of light each fat quarter and paper thin dime caught as they fell to the floor. Each coin reminded the old man of shooting stars, and wishes that had never bothered coming true.

Loud songs came out of the jukebox not long after the young men made their selections and headed to the long skinny bar. They walked up, tried to out order each other, as if the liquor they ordered gave proof to their being more manly than the other. Old eyes watched them from the corner, sizing them up, putting each careful tick of their drunken idiot movement away to some special part of a long and well worn memory.

The music became deafening, screaming out ugly anthems of new generations and the old man found his own headphones almost inadequate to compete with it. He twirled the dial on his old walkman and cranked good old Hank Williams as high as he could. The old man grinned a little possum grin as he found himself slipping away to a long ago youth he himself once had, and a girl with blue eyes and the prettiest blonde locks he’d ever seen. They’d danced often to this very tune, using the loneliness of the music as justification to cling tighter than ever to one another. But summers pass away, and golden locks turn gray, blue eyes dim to ugly ashen familiarity and they too soon vanish from the earth. The old man’s grin slipped off his face, giving birth instead to a slight tremor in one hand a big plop of tear down one cheek.

He made one fatal error. He closed his eyes and lowered his guard. Just one moment is all it took. But in life, chaos only requires a single unwatched moment to slip in and bring hell with it.

Into Hades

The old man rowed the boat with a bone weary persistence, but hadn’t said a word. The traveler had ridden in the boat for what felt to be ages already, and grew tired of the ceaseless, repetitive sounds of silence. The traveler felt emboldened by his boredom, and with the fire for companionship, he persisted once more.

“Is it as bad as they say?” the young traveler asked the boatman.

The boatman rowed for answer.

The traveler looked about, his neck tucked in tight to the thick wool cloak he wore about him, the cold threatening to steal the very life from him. He peered as far as the eye could see, but the night like sky of the deep cavern was thick and unyielding. Worse, there was a heavy fog all about them, and the stench of something rotten was growing stronger. He leaned over and gazed at the water. It was no better.

“How deep does the water go?” the traveler asked.

The boatman turned his head, his neck creaking like an old door that hadn’t been opened in many years. His face came into full view of the traveler, an unlikely sight to anyone living for a long and countless many years. The traveler regretted his nervous queries looking into that pale corpse ugly face, lips pulled back exposing full teeth, eyes hollowed out showing dark endless rings about twin orbs of eyes with no hint of pupils end and eye’s beginning.

The traveler looked down into the boat. He bit his lips and willed himself to say no more. The sound of water sloshed about the tiny vessel, the vice like grip of their desperate situation choked in on him. He felt suddenly overcome with claustrophobia, wishing he could leave the boat, wishing he could go back, wishing this evil fate had found another.

And then a new sound came to his ears, an ugly sound, like dry leaves in late October, rustling about on cobblestone just before being smashed under heavy feet. It was the dry sandy sound of the boatman laughing, “Have no wish for answers do you?”

The traveler didn’t want to raise his head, but was more terrified of refusing the lord of the boat. He looked up, and without looking square on, fearful of being sucked into the eternal gaze of the boatman, he looked away just slightly. Then he asked, “How do you mean?”

“All these questions, and yet you won’t even look the one who has your answers in the eye,” the boatman said. He shifted his gaze down toward the travelers hands, “Rub them together anymore and you’ll catch yourself afire.”

The traveler looked at his hands and realized how red they’d become. He pushed them away from each other and forced them to his sides. He licked his lips a few times and felt the sticky dry reality of his fear, and then he spoke, “Is it as bad as they say?”

“Worse,” said the boatman, turning to look into whatever ugly thing lay before them. “They say beyond my border there are lands of fire that never cease, and mountains of ice that never melt. They say there are masters worse than the ancient demons and dogs of unending—unyielding—rage and appetite. And cities with no law but murder, and chaos.”

The traveler licked his lips again.

“But that isn’t what you really wish to know is it?” the boatman asked.

“No,” the traveler said.

“You want to know if it’s possible, what you do, if it’s e’er been done?”

“Aye,” the traveler said. “Has it, sir?”

“Ne’er on my watch. Fools have tried, but none have come back. Not from there. They say a man foolish enough to enter is damned from birth, cursed with the headstrong pride of ill belief and hope. Wise men know their limits, know their bounds.”

The traveler gazed into the ugly darkness beyond their one lone torch. A soft sound came upon an unsure breeze, at first it sounded like a song, but as they grew closer the sound grew into an ugly distinct thing. “What is that?”

The boatman’s laugh came back over the boat like a low cloud just before a storm. Then he said, in a hushed whisper, “That is the land of the dead ye hear boy, the howls of the damned, the forgotten, the desperate fools who paid no heed in life. That is the sound of your own future.”

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