A Writer’s Notebook: The Writer’s Toolbox, sentence sticks

So, last week I let Jamie Cat Callan‘s The Writer’s Toolbox help me start a story. It was about John, an architect from Minnesota who is feeling guilty over abandoning his elderly mother in order to stalk the woman he’s secretly in love with. Don’t ask me — the Toolbox came up with this story. But that’s where I stand, and I figured this week I’d let the Toolbox also get the ball rolling, so I chose a different exercise to begin drafting.  I’ll explain it below. First, the silliness I’ve produced so far.

John stood in the center of his living room, his lights off, his binoculars to his face. From here, he could watch her through the window and she would never know — no glint on the lenses, no silhouette on parted curtains. Just John, free and open in his room, hidden in the dark, standing before her as though she’d asked him to. And there she was, in her own apartment across the way, gleaming in the bright light of her overhead fixture, standing before John as though he’d asked her to. Which, in his daydreams, he had.

But not in his nightdreams. Those, he remembered, were for his mother, and the race to save her from some unseen evil he could never quite track down. The nightmares were childish, and in fact he often saw himself as a young teenager in them, his legs thinner, his belly flat, his hair short-cropped and sleek, unless he was running through empty city streets or gliding supernaturally over a wide desert canyon, at which times his hair was longer and blew back from his forehead as he pursued the evil man-creature who had taken his mother from him and hidden her away.

He lowered the binoculars and shook his head. He would have laughed at himself if he’d found it funny, but he’d been having the dreams too regularly for too long to think them anything but terrifying or pathetic. Today, he found them puzzling, because he didn’t often leave his fantasies of the girl across the way in favor of these nightmares. They’d never come together in his head. But today, he stood looking down at the binoculars, absently turning the focusing dial back and forth, the lenses extending and retracting, trying to think how he’d gotten the two fantasies confused.

He’d met the girl for the first time last Tuesday. He’d found her in the lobby of the building they shared and she’d asked him the most peculiar question.


The lemon sherbet that melted all over the counter

I know, that last line comes out of nowhere, but I’ll explain in a minute. First, here’s what I’m doing:

The Writer’s Toolbox includes three sets of popsicle sticks, each with lines written on them. One set is labelled “FS” for First Sentence, another is “NS” for Non-Sequitur, and the third is “LS” for Last Straw.

The idea is that you pick up the fistful of FS sticks and draw one at random. This sentence will become the first line of your story. Mine came up “There I was, just standing there, when what I really wanted to do was forbidden,” but I wasn’t feeling very first-person about this character, so I switched it to third, and in doing so, the whole structure of the opening changed. That’s okay. These aren’t rules — as with any good writing exercise, you’re allowed to play with the sentences you get, because the point is just to start writing.

So I’m rolling along, but just to keep things interesting, I don’t want to get too comfortable with my flow. Several weeks back, Tom Franklin was in town doing a reading from his novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, and during the Q&A he mentioned that in his experience, whatever he thinks is the right direction for his stories to take is usually wrong, so he winds up taking his stories in places he’d never have expected. This is the point of the second batch of sticks in the Writer’s Toolbox: the Non-Sequitur sentences throw a surprise into your story and steer you down a completed unexpected path.

Mine was “On Tuesday she asked me the most peculiar question.” (Again with the first-person!) So I tossed in a bit of transition and away we go.

Except I’m not going there yet. Maybe next week. I’m not sure this story will ever be any good, but it still feels fun, so I’d like to follow through with at least a draft.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and draw that last stick, just for fun. The Last Straw is supposed to be a catalyst for conflict, something that sets off a dramatic arc in the story. Given what I have so far, I have no idea why lemon sherbet melting on a counter is going to be a problem. Though I just thought of this: maybe John sneaks into the girl’s apartment, decides to “taste her” by digging in her fridge and eating some of her sherbet, but she comes home early and he has to escape out the window, but he’s left the sherbet out and she finds it melting on her counter and knows someone’s been inside, and now John is panicking….

That’s the fun of these exercises. They tend to cause a lot of problems, but when they work, they force you to come up with creative solutions to the problems they cause.

Anyway, tune in next week and see where things go.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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