Guess the movie

Here’s a game I’ve played with a few writing classes. These are the opening paragraphs to novels that were made into films. Do you recognize them?

For writers, this exercise offers the chance to study what makes these openers successful. As we write, with the very first words we make promises to the reader.

What do these first words tell you about the book? What kind of narrator is telling the story? How much do you know about the setting, characters, and likely conflict? What should the reader expect going forward?

The opening paragraphs:

1. [He] was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in “The Good Old Summer Time,” the waltz of the day.

2. An angry man — there is my story: the bitter rancor of the prince that brought a thousand disasters on the opposing army. Many a strong soul it sent to the underworld, and left the heroes prey to vultures and dogs, while the will of a god moved on to fulfillment.

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The time I got beat up after school

I’ve never told anyone about this, and looking back, silence may have been the kindest response. One day, as I was walking home from junior high school, another student attacked me in a parking lot, punched me, and kept knocking me down into the frozen snowpiles, screaming at me the whole time.

I was in eighth grade, and I barely knew the girl. We moved in separate circles. She was skinny, wore cheap and unfashionable clothes, had a bad haircut, smoked cigarets, and always seemed angry. Even at the time, I sort of knew why she jumped me. It wasn’t about me, except that as a chubby, bookish, short girl, I was an easy target. Probably, I represented something she didn’t like.

Since I wasn’t really hurt — winter wear can make good protective padding — I continued home as fast as I could, although my resentment was off the scale. I didn’t deserve what had happened. In fact, I’d never even talked to that girl. She was angry, and she just wanted to beat someone up.

I didn’t tell anyone for two reasons. First, as a general principle, I tried to keep adults out of my business because they only made things more complicated. Second, if I told adults or even merely my friends, they would make things more complicated for her. She had enough trouble. Something was wrong in her life, and I didn’t want to add to it.

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Forest to Table

My writers critique group here in Chicago recently released an anthology, Over the Edge Again: An Edgy Writers Anthology.

Samuel Durr, who also edited the anthology, used his experience as a hunter to explore the relationship between two people who didn’t seek each other’s companionship in his story, “Wild Heart.” In this essay, he shares the best part of hunting.

Forest to Table 

By Samuel Durr

Scouting, hiking, climbing, freezing, spotting, calling, shooting, tracking, celebrating, gutting, dragging, hoisting, skinning, quartering, grinding, butchering, packaging, and finally, cooking, sharing, and enjoying. Deer hunting is hungry work, but the part that makes me consider buying a lifetime license is the last bit. Preparing meat harvested from the forest takes an enormous amount of time, money, and energy, but is worth the cold toes. 

The first time I tried deer meat I was struck by its similarity to beef. Cue the eye rolls, but it’s true. The less desirable cuts on a cow, those which contain connective tissue like the shoulder and neck, are identical to the same cuts on a deer and can be used to substitute any beef recipe traditionally utilizing those cuts. Which is a long way of saying venison is fantastic for jerky, braised dishes like Italian beef, ossobuco, or beef stew. One of the great myths of deer meat is that it’s tough, but it’s only tough if it’s cooked inappropriately.

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Review: "A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking"

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive BakingA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Your inner 12-year-old wants to read this novel. That child is still there, so don’t be put off by the fact that this is a middle-grade book. The hero, Mona, is 14 years old, and she has some magical sourdough starter. She also has a brave, magical gingerbread cookie, which you can see depicted on the cover art of the book holding a sword. Then things go very wrong (long story; it’s a novel, after all), and she has to save the city where she lives.

Mona is self-aware, a little snide, and more than a little resentful that such a heavy burden falls on her young shoulders. She gets wise advice and help along the way, and she winds up a hero.

The pacing is fast. The story is sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes even a bit dark, because kids — including your own inner child — want to grapple with life’s big challenges. The vocabulary might be simple, but the story explores complex themes. One of them: Is it actually good to become a hero?

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In the zone: What planet am I on?

You may have heard about “writing in the zone.” It’s a creative state where the writer or artist becomes one with the work, in the flow, totally focused. Athletes can experience this, too.

Having been a writer for a while, I can say that this rarely happens. Most of us work distracted, even if we’re trying not to multitask. The computer advises you about a program update, the dog wants your attention, you’re out of coffee, and what’s that funny smell?

Still, it can happen. I remember one time vividly. Actually, what I remember is when it ended. I’d been working on the novel Interference, which takes place on a distant planet called Pax. I felt like I was there, living in the odd and wonderful sights, the cacophony of sounds, and the scents that carried meaning.

Then I looked up. Where was I? Not on Pax. So what planet was this? A blue sky, an oxygen atmosphere, and lots of clear signs of homo sapiens dominance. Yeah, this was Earth. In fact, pretty soon I recognized the city, the building, and the year, and remembered what I was doing there.

I still had one wisp of a question. Why was I on Earth? Why not somewhere else or some other time? The answer was obvious — but not entirely satisfying. Do I really have to be here?


She thought it was only a dime…

Here’s a bit of my family lore. When my great-grandmother was a young girl, her family fell on hard times, and she had to get a job. They were living in Milwaukee, and Pabst Brewery had recently won a blue ribbon at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair. The brewery was tying blue silk ribbons on every bottle.

That was her new job. (In those days, children could work in factories that made beer.) After her first week, tying countless ribbons, she got her pay envelope. She could tell by feel that it contained only one small coin. A dime! She’d worked so hard and wanted to be so proud of the help she could give her family, but she’d earned only ten cents.

She cried all the way home on the trolley and gave the envelope to her mother, who opened it. The coin was a ten-dollar gold piece.

Prague Bridge

A glimpse of unexpected heartbreak

The disaster of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and other southern states reminds me of an unexpected heartbreak I witnessed in 2018.

I was traveling, and on September 10, I was in Michigan eating breakfast at a Best Western motel. I was up very early, and everyone else in the breakfast room was obviously a tradesman: construction workers and truck drivers. These were strong, tough men used to going from job to job and working with their hands.

Television screens on the walls played the CNN morning news, and at one point the news ran a segment on Hurricane Florence. The mammoth storm was about to hit the Carolinas coast and cause catastrophic damage.

The room became silent and every man watched somberly. On their next job, these men, or their friends and coworkers, might be called on to haul supplies and to repair and rebuild the storm damage. They looked grim, not joyful, at the prospect of plentiful work. 

Their jobs would bring them face to face with loss and grief, and the future could be hard on their hearts as well as their hands. They’d seen it before, and they were going to see again.


My critique group has published an anthology

Over the Edge AgainOver the Edge Again by Samuel Durr

We did it again. My writers critique group here in Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago has released an anthology. It shows off the high skill level of the members I’m lucky enough to critique with — and the range of our imaginations.

“As Fast as You Can,” by Julie Danvers, takes a hard look at corruption in the Fairy Kingdom. Who murdered Humpty Dumpty?

“Sport,” by Z Jeffries, examines an ugly divorce through the tender eyes of a boy fixated on comic books. Could Batman fail?

“R/truthseekers,” by Briana Shucart, narrates the pathetic implosion of a Reddit online conspiracy group.

“Milk Cow Standing in Field #48,” by Nate Currier, studies art and its meaning in an authoritarian society, using an absurdist angle. Nominated for a Pushcart prize.

“Maleficium,” by Edward Pionke, takes the point of view of an oppressor without taking his side.

“Let Me Stop You There,” by Edward Pionke, could have been titled “Am I the Asshole?” If you have to ask, the answer is yes.

“Catch and Release Protocols,” by Coleman Gailloreto, accomplishes that rare feat in science fiction: humor.

“In the Weeds,” by Sue Burke. I destroy humanity, but with a dash of marvel.

“Wild Heart,” by Samuel Durr, who also edited the anthology (thanks!), uses his experience as a hunter to explore the relationship between two people who didn’t seek each others’ company.

These nine stories have no theme besides short works that we’re proud of. By the way, new members in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood are always welcome. You can find us on Meetup:

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Sue the Chicago T-rex

Long ago and far away: dinosaurs

Dinosaurs lived on the far side of the galaxy. That is, the Sun orbits around the galaxy’s center, and it’s a long trip, about 250 million years. Dinosaurs — in particular, the big Jurassic critters like tyrannosaurs — lived about 166 to 66 million years ago, so they lived in a different neighborhood of the galaxy.

Here’s the cool part. Because the stars move around in relationship to each other as well as in their orbits, the neighboring stars are different over time. In that way, space travel is possible to distant stars if the travelers are patient and have generation ships (presuming these creatures have generations like human beings). They can hop from star to star, sometimes pausing to rest, and meanwhile the stars will take them to new parts of the galaxy.

So, it just might be vaguely possible that Earth was visited over on the far side of the galaxy by slow travelers, and they took Earth faunae with them as they continued on, bringing them to new homes. Dinosaurs in space! Land of the Lost without a dimensional portal!

Or perhaps they took a different Jurassic lineage, and there’s a Planet of the Turtles out there somewhere.