First Sentences, Second Sentences

Here are two more fiction exercises from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Make a list of ten first sentences. Then choose one first sentence and write a few second sentences for it. Experiment with the direction a story might go, at the very start!

Here are three of my ten first sentences:

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter.

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin.

I knew before he said no.

And here are my second sentences:

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. Angela’s parents followed and then the rest of the varsity volleyball team. Within a week, Ashley spent her school days in the high school office.

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. “Her counselor, for God’s sakes,” she said, “He wrote Josie’s college reference letters. Of course she’s traumatized. She applied to Yale. God knows what he wrote.”

Josie’s mom was the first to file a restraining order on behalf of her daughter. The family attorney was confused until Mrs. Roby pulled a stack of photocopied letters from her bag. “She has Josie’s locker combo,” Mrs. Roby said, “Josie gets one of these nearly every day.”

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. Tim pointed to the  man’s cupid lips and then to his own. “I think this is my dad,” he said.

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. I shook my head no. I only caught a glimpse, faraway. Tim sighed, put a hand on mine. He said, “Maybe you should report it.”

The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. “She’s so symmetrical,” I said, “I mean, really gorgeous.” I took the photo from him and thought how he was always this lucky.

I knew before he said no. His face was fire blush. I shouldn’t have said anything. I had to get out of there.

I knew before he said no. He laughed. I shoved away from him, sat at the other end of the sofa. He sobered. “Hey,” he said, “I thought you were joking.”
“Why would I joke about a baby?”
“Because you know me.”

I knew before he said no. He tried to be nice about it. He said he’d like to give me the time off, but if he made an exception for me. I quit listening. The Hobart was steaming the air between us. “It’s my mom,” I said and he clasped his hands in front like a schoolgirl. I saw a busboy looking at us. I untied my apron and held it out.

10 to 1

This is one of my favorite flash fiction prompts from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Tell a story in ten sentences: first sentence has ten words, second nine, and so on until the tenth single-word sentence. Rather than creating new fiction, I thought of my previous writing about my trip from Cali to Medellín. I used this exercise to tell the first part of that trip when we were on the bus, waiting to leave the terminal. I never felt very afraid of kidnapping, but knew it was possible; this was the first time I thought what might happen if.

She moves down the narrow bus aisle, camcorder in hand.
Pausing at each seat, she frames our faces, close.
Some men say rude things to the camera.
She walks slowly forward, focused and unsmiling.
She is near when I understand.
We travel a dangerous road.
We could be kidnapped.
Held for ransom.
I blink.

Reading for Writing: Short Fiction

A year ago I signed up for a Stanford Continuing Studies online short fiction workshop. I loved it. I started a lot pieces and worked my way through a couple revisions. I decided to keep writing short fiction, and to more purposefully read short fiction. Just as the post I re-blogged explains, when you read for your writing, your reading is a little different. I still immerse myself in a story, but I am also aware of the craft.

Since that workshop, I returned to reading contemporary short fiction. I am already familiar with authors featured in recycled high school anthologies. I wanted to find authors new to me, known or not. Here are a few collections I’ve read recently:

The Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. I read this collection after seeing an article in the NY Times about Saunders. I finished reading the book, downloaded his previous collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and overdosed on the man. In a good way. Even though some individual pieces disturbed me, the whole body of work reminded me of the first time I read Kurt Vonnegut: I didn’t know you could write like that.

The Best American Short Stories 2012 edited by Tom Perrota. This collection was great for my writing. I was writing these long wandering pieces with fifty characters too many. I’d received feedback about unnecessary characters in my drafts but was afraid to cut. This collection showed me the value of keeping a small cast.

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. Years ago in college, I read his first collection, The Shell Collector and it remains one of my favorite short fiction collections. I like his style. What I really like is that he writes pieces set around the world, speaking from wildly varying perspectives. The first time I read Doerr’s fiction, I sensed an almost reckless boldness, to write fiction from all over. I was stuck writing from my own experience. So when I read and reread The Shell Collector or Memory Wall, I think: why not write from places I’ve never been, physically, emotionally or spiritually?

I Want to Show You More: Stories by Jamie Quatro. An editor I work with recommended this collection after reading a couple of my fiction pieces. When I finally started reading Quatro, I felt two things. First, I was so glad I’d already written the particular pieces that prompted my editor to suggest the book.I was pleased to realize I’d managed difficult truth-telling on my own, in my own style. Second, as with Saunders, I read Quatro and thought: you can do that? Which I why I am now experimenting, taking what I’ve seen Saunders and Quatro do in their writing and seeing how it may fit into some of my own pieces.

If you have favorite short fiction authors or collections, please post in the comments. Next up on my short fiction reading is The Best American Short Fiction 2013. I am also reading pieces from The Story and Its Writer.


When I show up at the page, I don’t always know why I am there. Sometimes I ask. Most of the time, I cycle through the top load of junk and find something to take me through a couple of pages. Actually, most of the time, it is that top load of junk that takes me through a couple of pages.

But I show up. And I think that’s enough.

Right now, I’m practicing revision. I like that word “practicing” in front, because I’m learning to return to a piece and work with it. For years I’d finish a crappy short fiction piece and think it was actually kinda good. Then I’d go back, expecting to dust-up extra commas and swap out a few words. Instead, I’d reread the piece and close the file because it was complete crap and I didn’t know where to begin.

Now I am coming to revision work with the same intentionality I have when I show up at the page: I open a file, take a breath, and begin. If I have comments to work from, I have those up too. Most of the time I revise at home, during the kids’ quiet time. Those slots of time are usually short so I like to take revision writing dates out, packing my laptop and heading to a coffee shop. On Sunday I met a poet friend who was also revising old work. And today I worked alone. Both days I put in a couple of hours on a piece I’ve let sit for nearly three years.

And if being intentional about revision happens to come with a triple shot mocha, all the better.

The Knee Prayer

God, I write.

Father, I write.

Please, I write.

A few lines or paragraphs or lists of wants, needs, sins. I write prayers for the same reason I write many things: for the right expression or understanding. I write prayers to slow myself and think about what or whom I am seeking.

A couple of years ago, I knelt down to help my son with his sandal and I felt a tightness in my right knee and quad. I knew immediately something was wrong but ignored the pull, running for another week or so, until my knee swelled so painfully, I had to stop. I’ve been looking for a tidy summary of that year and half long experience, waiting for my knee, which had no physical injury appear on an MRI, to heal. Physical therapy provided my body with much-needed strength training, but my knee didn’t heal.

My notebooks from that time are packed with prayers about my knee. I confessed selfish motivation, on multiple pages. I played with syntax and logic. I wrote a single line over and over like a mantra: Please heal my knee. I thought if I hit the right combination of words – written or spoken – with the proper measure of humility and boldness, then God would just heal me. And it didn’t happen and it didn’t happen and it didn’t happen.

Until it did. But not because of a perfect combination of words written longhand. I don’t know why my knee finally healed when it did.

I am writing about that experience, carefully. I pressed hard into prayer. I often felt abandoned, stupid or misled as I sought healing. A lot churned up in the process: selfishness, idolatry, vanity, anger. It was a knee: it wasn’t cancer or paralysis or divorce. Now I am writing about the knee without knowing what clarity I’ll find from remembering, or what I might open to: questions of faith, prayer and healing. Very likely, I’ll write around the topic and leave it again, for another time.

But I think even that is worth it.