Living My Second Act

In honor of the upcoming celebration of Halloween (always a favorite around here!), this post feels a bit Funhouse of Mirrors. but in the weird, wonderful world of writing and blogging, it actually makes perfect sense. If you’ll bear with me…

Several years ago—and I’m not sure how many years, but I know it was after the wild fantasy of writing a novel had taken hold of me—in the course of a conversation with a very cool woman I was just getting to know, I learned that she was a writer. This brief but powerful encounter with Mimi Golub inspired me to join our local professional writing organization, take that class that sounded intriguing, attend my first writers’ conference, and keep scratching away at that novel. (That “novel” is now 2-1/2 manuscripts, on its way to four.)

Fast forward to last week when I bumped into Mimi again. She told me about her new venture, an online newsletter called Living the Second Act, “a publication that caters to women who are beginning again — with an empty nest, a new job, a new relationship or jumping into the forties or fifties decades with questions about what lies ahead.” Pretty much what Mimi and her partner Stacy were doing, what I’m doing, what most people in my general age range are either doing or trying to figure out.

Knowing my general life path, Mimi invited me to submit “my story.” I checked out the site, cruised around the content as one does, engaged with the features (especially enjoyed the “Ask Wendy” page), and felt my story would be in very good company there. I already knew it would be in good hands with Mimi. So off it went and here it now appears.

If you’ve already read my coming-out-as-an-erotic-writer story here on my blog, definitely skip the reread (!) but I do recommend taking a look at Living the Second Act. Subscriptions are free, and you never know what might inspire.

Side note: I’ve been flashing again, so keep your eyes peeled for my round one entry, “The Frog and the Filigree Necklace”… coming soon to a blog near you.

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We made the FINALS!

Okay, sorry for the shouty title, but JEEZ! This flash fic contest was a crazy experiment, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get this far… but here we are. And I say “we” because a LOT of people have helped me each round—a few lucky folks got tapped EVERY round and some rotating “experts” depending on the subject matter. If you’re reading this post, you’re part of the village, too. It’s not really much fun to sit around and write stuff if nobody reads it. So thank YOU for being here. I mean that.

So now what? Well, I’ll tell you. Last Friday at midnight(12/9) the remaining 48 of us received these prompts:

Genre: OPEN [Writer’s choice]
Setting: A TRADING FLOOR
Object: SCRAPBOOK

A trading floor is a pretty cool setting when you happen to live with a stock market guy who can tell you stuff! The coolest bit of information my darling husband shared with me, after we’d agreed the point-of-view character was going to be an 8-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, was that the Marvel cast rang the opening bell at the NYSE before the last Avengers movie opened. I have to say a special note of thanks to my sweet, patient husband, who agonized over every word of this story with me. You might say he was invested. And I did drive him nuts, not gonna lie. If I read the story 35 times, he probably read it 25. That’s… 25,000 words. And I didn’t really feed him much all weekend. Ah, the glamorous life!

A few very special folks gave me advice on everything from superheroes to parenting an autistic boy (and being one), and a very special shout-out to a new friend from the contest (Carrie Beth) who gave me invaluable help with my draft. Many thanks to Shell, Domie, Brad, Kitkat, PJ, and always Chayasara. Special shout-out to Alec Frazier at Autistic Reality for his candor, heart, and love of superheroes.

We’re supposed to learn the judges’ final verdicts on January 9th at midnight, so I guess that will be a tense moment. But honestly, I have already gained so much by participating. Seriously, I don’t even need one of those participation trophies. I have received insightful critical comments from some excellent writers, and I’ve written a few stories I NEVER would have tried. And this time, I didn’t even get a stomach ache… so YAY! I don’t expect I will do this again because the stress of the 48 hours is just way too much, but I’ll chalk this up to a very positive experience. And now… my LAST FLASH FIC! Enjoy!

*

A HERO AT THE END OF THE DAY

cap-america

“Just eight more hours, Gabe. That’s like watching The First Avenger four times.” Daddy places the visitor necklace over my head and settles the name tag right in the middle of Captain America’s shield. “Ready?”

Ready? I’M MEETING CAPTAIN AMERICA TODAY!

I nod.

Daddy opens the shiny, gold door. “Welcome to the New York Stock Exchange.”

So many people… It reminds me of when Mommy used to take me to the mall. Daddy doesn’t take me places without Mommy. Not like Emma and Will.

“I have a VIP today,” Daddy says to the man behind the counter.

“Oh! Someone gets to see Captain America ring the closing bell.” A buzzer scares me backwards into Daddy.

“It’s okay, Gabe.” Daddy pushes the silver bar, and I walk through. “Remember, stick close.”

Daddy says he works on the floor; this is a whole city. I’m too short to see everything. The ceiling reaches the sky. Towers of computer screens look like giant triple-layer cakes.

“Those are called ‘posts,’” Daddy says. “The brokers, like me, have desks around the outside of the room.”

My finger creeps below my name tag to trace the shield on my chest: five-pointed star, circle one, circle two, circle three. I start again, pressing harder. Daddy sees.

Mommy says my patterns make Daddy feel worried, not mad.

Daddy points out the bathroom as we walk down a row with computers on both sides. “Here’s my desk—securities location C-4. It matches your name tag. My cellphone number is there, too. See?”

I nod.

“Once the market opens, I’ll be running around, but I’ll keep checking in.”

“Okay.” I’m eight, not a baby.

“Why don’t we both get organized?”

I unzip my Avengers backpack and lay out my supplies: a stack of old comics, scissors, a glue stick, markers, and a brand-new scrapbook.

Some people start clapping. Daddy says a swear. “The opening bell’s about to ring!”

He digs out my headphones, settles them over my ears, and turns on the white noise.

When the bell’s over, we take off my headphones. The grownups start using outside voices and chasing each other around, like everyone’s at recess.

I get busy on my story. Cutting. Gluing. Drawing.

My tummy rumbles, and I remember Mommy packed snacks. I’m eating grapes when Daddy comes by. He checks his watch and says a swear.

“I’m so sorry, Gabe. I forgot all about lunch.” He looks at my scrapbook and smiles. “Have you practiced what you’re going to say?”

I shake my head. Either the words will come or they won’t.

“You’ll be great,” Daddy says. “I gotta go.”

I eat the peanut butter sandwich next and the pretzels a while later. I’m so thirsty, I drink the whole bottle of water.

I need to pee. So bad.

Daddy’s gone, better hold it.

What if I pee my pants when I meet Captain America?

I am not a baby.

The bathroom is right… here. I do my business and even wash my hands. Mommy would be proud.

I leave the bathroom. Now, it’s too loud and too bright and too fast.

I hold my sides and look at the floor and spin and spin.

Which way is C-4? I’m all turned around. My brain won’t work.

“…just trying to help.”

Stranger danger!

Grabby hands.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

“Check his badge…”

I curl into a tight ball.

“…says ‘semi-verbal.’”

“Gabriel! Oh, God! Gabe.”

Daddy’s knees hit the floor beside me, then his hands, then the tip of his purple tie. “Daddy’s here. Can I hug you, Gabe? Please?”

I scoot my body closer to Daddy. His arms stretch around me and lift me into his lap. He rocks me against his chest. I want to stay so bad, but I can’t.

I squirm away, and he lets me.

Daddy’s eyes are watery. “Y’okay, Gabe?”

I want to go home, but then I won’t meet Cap. I nod.

“Wanna call Mommy?” Daddy asks. I shake my head.

“I’m so proud of you, Gabriel.”

We move my scrapbook and markers under Daddy’s desk. I put on my headphones and draw. Daddy sticks close and peeks in now and then.

The last peek-in, Daddy points to his watch and holds up four fingers. I almost hit my head jumping up, but Daddy’s hand blocks me.

We hurry toward the platform. The crowd crushes in. Someone bumps me. I twist Daddy’s pants in my fist.

Daddy swooshes me onto his shoulders. Captain America salutes me!

“Daddy! Did you SEE?”

Daddy slides me down his back and eases the headphones off. “Yes, I sure did.”

Everyone lets me go first in line.

Captain America comes out and smiles—at me! “I like your shirt.”

My face heats up. I look down.

Daddy whispers in my ear. “Want me to say it?”

I nod.

“Gabriel wants you to know you’re his hero.”

“That’s awesome,” Cap says. “Thank you.”

I stare hard at Cap’s boots. My body shakes.

“Would you mind signing his scrapbook?”

“If Gabriel wouldn’t mind holding my shield.”

Mind?

I hand Cap my scrapbook and pen. He hands me his shield. Vibranium’s heavy.

Cap opens to the newspaper clipping for Infinity War. “Seeing the movie tomorrow?”

I nod real fast.

“Excellent!” Cap writes something, then flips through the pages, saying “Wow” and “Wish I could draw like you!”

He reaches the last page, stops, and brings the book to his face. “Have you seen this, Gabriel’s dad?”

Daddy shakes his head. “Been kind of a long day, Cap.”

Cap turns the scrapbook so Daddy can see. It’s me with Daddy, in his suit and purple tie, flying high above the towers. His arm is around my waist. We’re both smiling.

Tears spill down Daddy’s cheeks.

“Looks like your son has more than one hero,” Cap says.

On the way home, I glue my visitor necklace into my “Best Day Ever” scrapbook. Right next to the picture of Daddy, Cap and me.

 

Funny Thing…

Anybody in the mood for a diversion? How about a romantic comedy?

At midnight on Nov. 1, I learned I’d made the cut for round 3 of the flash fiction contest. YAY! Our 2100 entrant pool shrank to 300 competitors, 48 of whom will progress to the finals. Fun, right? This crazy flash fiction challenge always seems like a great idea until I have to actually pump out a thousand words [or, in my case, pump out 1500 and back out one-third of them] in “48” hourswhich, unless you’re a walrus or giraffe, actually amounts to 32 awake hours, less any outside obligations. I had a doozy of a real-life commitment this time, our close friends’ son’s wedding Saturday nightand I was determined and excited to be fully present.

Three nights later, I stared at my computer at midnight on Friday, heart pounding, not even sure what genre I hoped for. After historical fiction and romance, I figured I was in for political satire or something equally impossible. And then… THIS popped up onto my screen:

Genre: ROMCOM |Setting: COMPUTER REPAIR SHOP | Object: MEGAPHONE

Romance again (wow) but COMEDY? (yikes!) Funny, and on command? screen-shot-2013-03-21-at-1-13-40-pm1

I snuggled into bed and let those prompts swirl together into… ugh, not much, as it turned out. Luckily, my “plot coaches” were awake and caffeinated early Saturday morning. While we batted around ideas, I reminded myself (repeatedly) not to freak out. I have a tempo that’s worked so far free-wheeling idea generation, marination time, identifying major plot points and the majority of dialogue by the end of the first 24 hours. Writing, tweaking, editing, and title generation on Sunday. I gotta tell ya, though, a ton of trust is required to watch the clock tick down with zero words on the screen, and I held my shit together pretty well…

Until about 2 p.m. Saturday, when panic seized me, in its old familiar forma major stomach ache. Started out the size of a pea, but by 4, that sucker was a grapefruit. If we hadn’t left for the wedding, I might have continued to choke my story with the iron grip of despair. Fortunately, I had a joyful diversion, and I didn’t even think about my challenge again until 2 a.m. Sunday (the pre-DST one), which is when all the story problems resolved with a Matrix-like clarity. I sat at the desk in our hotel room with a pen and paper, scribbling story notes until my brain emptied out, then I slept for a few hours. Woke up Sunday and the words marched into place.

As I fell into bed well after midnight on Sunday, physically and emotionally spent, I experienced that unbelievable rush of finishing the story, completing the challenge, writing 1000 words in 48 hours. I tried to sear that positive feeling into my brain, just in case, God forbid, I make the final round.

I survived what I now recognize as the 7 Stages of Flash Fiction Weekend:
1. Excitement (Got my prompts, Fun, Yay, I can do this!)
2. Panic (What the hell am I gonna write? I cannot do this! What was I thinking?)
3. Inspiration (An idea! This might work!)
4. Exhilaration (Look at me! I’m writing a story!)
5. Panic (watches ticking time bomb, I don’t have to submit)
6. Acceptance (It is time.)
7. Remorse (I coulda/woulda/shoulda… this one gets worse as you read the other entries)

Special shout-outs to my online village: Stacey (Tech support), Kitkat, Karen, & Betti (plot ideas and humor team), Shell (the je ne sais quoi of writing support), and Sue (grammar, word choice, beginnings, endings, and everything in between). I love you guys! God bless my honey of a hubby for mental health support, story details, and truly horrible titles, the worst of which was “Porn Free.” Actually, it’s pretty good.

I hope this light morsel will bring your mind to a happier place for a little bit! Thanks for reading!
XOXOX ~b

*

Attack of the Cheerleaders

When the girl of his dreams needs a computer whiz’s help,
it’s either the best or worst birthday he’s ever had.

d0e58cbc62e72d215a9655ecd9533ef1Today, I am a man, and yet, my life hasn’t changed since yesterday. I went to school. I came to work. I’ll go home, do some homework, and go to bed. Cait Harvey will still have no idea who I am.

“Happy birthday, man.” Eli sets a Subway bag on my desk. “Sorry about the wrapping.”

I tear open the bag, expecting a can of Dr. Pepper, maybe a bag of chips. Instead, I find a six-inch sculpture of Canyon High’s cheerleading captain.

“This is awesome!”

“Had to test our new 3D printer. Figured, why not make a Cait, for the man who has nothing?”

“Gee, thanks.” I run my fingertips over the smooth, yellow plastic. “Is this a megaphone?”

“Yes, it’s detachable.” Eli plucks off the tiny cone and points out the “Happy birthday, Raj,” in green lettering.

“Impressive.”

“In case you wondered, she’s anatomically correct.”

“You are so sick.” I flip it and peek under the skirt.

“Made ya look.”

“I hate you. Go home.”

Eli chuckles. “Going. You finished Dragon Lady’s laptop, right?”

“I think I can handle a Windows 10 install.”

“Don’t piss her off, Raj.”

“Yes, Mother.”

I’m still admiring Eli’s workmanship when the door opens, and in scurries Cait Harvey, cheerleading uniform and all. For a stupid second, I’m sure I’ve conjured her—a life-size replica of the 3D model—until she speaks.

“Hello?”

I jump up and fling mini-Cait into the recycling bin. The megaphone flies across the room and rolls to a stop near the front door. My armpits pump out Niagara Falls.

“Can I help you?”

“I have an emergency!” She pulls a laptop from her backpack. Our eyes meet for the first time, and she freezes. “You’re the vaulter.”

“You’ve seen me vault?”

“Yeah. We practice at the track.” I know this. I just had no idea she paid any attention to us—to me. “You’re good.”

I swallow hard. “Thank you. So are you.”

“You wear glasses?”

“Just at work.” I finger the dark frames. Nothing I can do about it now.

“Hmm.” She cranes her neck to look around me. “Isn’t anyone else here?”

“Nope, just me.”

“Ugh. This is super embarrassing.”

“I’ve pretty much seen it all.”

“So, I swear I wasn’t watching porn…”

My antiperspirant takes another hit. “Okay?”

“I was working out a routine, googled ‘cheerleader straddle,’ and all these windows popped up and froze my computer.”

I somehow manage not to hurdle the counter. “Let’s have a look.”

I cannot open her computer fast enough once she lets go. The screen is a glorious montage of spread-legged girls wearing the bare minimum to establish they’re cheerleaders.

It works—I’m cheery. Then it hits me: Cait’s watching me look at porn.

I snap the lid shut. “This is nothing I haven’t seen before.”

Excuse me?”

“The malware attack, I mean.”

“How long will it take to fix?” she asks.

“I won’t know how extensive the damage is until I get inside. Let’s say Tuesday.”

Tuesday?”

“We close in half an hour for the weekend.”

“Our bus leaves tomorrow morning… All our music is on here. What am I gonna do?”

I glance at the ThinkPad I’m supposed to be updating. The choice is clear.

“I can squeeze you in now.”

She blows out a massive breath. “Thank you!”

“Don’t thank me yet. I don’t know what we can recover.” If her hard drive is fried, this magical moment will end soon.

I work; she paces. The external boot is successful, and her data files appear to be uncorrupted. I copy everything to a thumb drive as a precaution before running the malware scan and powering down. We reboot together, holding our breath on opposite sides of the service counter until we hear the happy bing of a healthy operating system.

“It’s fixed!” she shouts.

“Hold that thought.” I spin the screen toward her. “Type in your password, please.”

Seconds later, the shop fills with porn-star moans at full volume. Cait shoves the laptop back at me. I click the windows closed as fast as my fingers can navigate the touchpad, but it’s not fast enough.

“Obviously, I’ve come at a bad time.” Dragon Lady.

I slap the mute button. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Dragonov. I haven’t quite finished your updates. We got slammed.”

“I can see that.” She nails Cait with a nasty glare. “Your boss will be hearing from me, Rajiv. You can kiss your job goodbye!” She yanks the door open and stomps out of the store.

Cait swings the door closed with a gentle click. “I’m so sorry—”

Something on the floor catches her eye, and I realize a beat too late what she’s found. She crouches to pick it up. “‘Happy birthday, Raj’?” She holds the tiny megaphone inches from my face. “What is this?”

I’ve just flushed my job down the toilet. Why shouldn’t my last scrap of dignity dive in, too?

“It was a birthday present from a friend who knows I, uh, have a thing for a certain cheerleader.”

Her cute blonde eyebrows arch. “You do?”

“Yep.” Go ahead. Kick me while I’m down.

“Did this girl”—a hint of a smile plays at the edges of her lips—“just get you fired on your birthday?”

“You didn’t get me fired. I made my own choice.”

Her smile breaks free. “So, it is me!”

I open my arms in surrender. “Busted.”

Cait places the megaphone onto my outstretched palm, then closes her own hand over mine and wriggles her fingers into my valleys. “I might have a thing for a certain computer whiz.”

And I might explode from happiness. “Yeah?”

“Mmhmm, and that Clark Kent vibe… hell, yes.”

“I always thought Superman was the hot one.”

“You know what’s hot, Raj?” I can almost see my name doing a forward roll off her tongue. “Risking your job to follow your passion. I would totally cheer for that guy.”

###

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave me your thoughts here or anywhere. XOXO

It’s not about the “pussy”

not-about-pussyDo NOT pin Donald Trump’s disgusting remarks on me.

Joe Walsh, you started it, with your tweet—If women are so outraged by Trump’s dirty talk, then who the hell bought the 80 million copies of “Fifty Shades Of Grey?”—that became a meme that became a virulent argument. Just so we’re clear, Joe, there’s a difference between erotic dialogue, aka “dirty talk,” and plans to grope body parts without a woman’s consent, aka criminal behavior. I’m not offended by the word “pussy”; in fact, I’ve written it myself many, many times. [The word “moist” is far more reviled in my circles.] I’m offended by the boast that the man can grab whichever pussy he wants without the owner’s consent. Get the distinction?

Obviously Scottie Nell Hughes doesn’t.

Yes, SNH [Mind if I call you that? I want you to be happy], I heard you repeat Walsh’s theory in an interview with Anderson Cooper, but then you took it one step further. “We have made that to be a part of a Fifty Shades of Grey culture in today’s society that men can talk like that.” When Cooper pressed, “Where have we made it okay to talk like that?” you parroted, “Eighty million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey was sold.” And then you threw Magic Mike and “that vampire trilogy” under the bus.

Oh, hell no!

I am one of those “80 million” you blame. I bought Fifty Shades. I’ve seen Magic Mike (both of them), and, not coincidentally, I am a die-hard fan of that vampire “trilogy” you refer to. [The Twilight series is four books, by the way, but you probably didn’t read them before deciding to blame all of us for Donald Trump’s vile comments.] In addition to all these demerits, I write kinky, rough sex, and I sometimes watch it, too. If you’re profiling me, I’m also happily married and 100% monogamous.

And yet, try to imagine this, SNH, there is not one kernel of Donald Trump’s braggadocio about women that is remotely sexy or erotic or anything but downright disgusting and completely unacceptable. Donald Trump’s words are not the stuff of fantasy; they are words we warn our kids to run from, especially our girls.

Here’s a thought, SNH. Let’s look closely at the major themes of the stories you refer to as the “Fifty Shades of Grey culture,” the sources of our demise: *Spoilers ahead*

  • The central conflict of FSOG is consent. When Christian Grey takes what he takes without consent, he’s an asshole. It’s not okay. He loses the girl. And then he learns and he apologizes and he changes his behavior, and then he’s not an asshole anymore. [Incidentally, Trump definitively debunks the myth that Christian Grey is only sexy because he’s a billionaire; otherwise, he’d just be creepy.]
  • Magic Mike XXL is about lifting people’s spirits. A not-so-merry band of hot men make it their mission to spread joy through erotic dance. They respect the women they seek to entertain, and the same courtesy is afforded them. They do not take what is not offered, and neither do their customers.
  • Twilight is literally a parable for abstinence. The hero is a 107-year-old virgin whose idea of a proper date is drinking iced tea on the porch swing. Edward desires Bella as he has never desired another, and she wants him just as desperately [typical horny teenagers]. With his vampiric strength, Edward could easily take what he wants with or without her consent—and yet, he never does. That’s kind of the point. And I can guarantee you the word “pussy” never left Edward Cullen’s lips in the canon series. [*wink to my fanfiction friends*]

So, SNH, where do you see “‘No’ means ‘yes’ if you’re a star,” or “Please, grab my pussy, random man. That’s hot”? I’ll tell you where: nowhere. And nowhere, not even in the filthiest, grittiest, kinkiest scene I’ve ever written, would Trump’s behavior or language be welcome. Once upon a time, I wrote a character who was an abusive sleazeball, and guess what—he was the villain, not the hero. And boy, did that jackass get it in the end! Know why? My readers demanded it. Those same people you’re blaming for creating the monster insisted I destroy it.

Since your comment went viral with Facebook memes, I’ve watched my fellow FSOG readers defend Christian Grey and remind everyone he’s a fictional character, not a presidential candidate, but I think they’re missing the point. Your accusation is not directed toward Christian Grey or Magic Mike or Edward Cullen. Your cannon is aimed directly at us, the 80 million, the readers, the watchers—or as I like to call us, the empowered. Because we read, fantasize, or *gasp* enjoy sex, Donald Trump’s disgusting boasts are clearly our fault.

We asked for it.

Sound familiar?

This is victim shaming turned sideways. And never mind that this particular batch of offensive statements was made by Donald Trump four years before the first chapter of “Master of the Universe,” the Fifty Shades of Grey fanfiction precursor, ever saw the light of day. Fact check on aisle one, please?

Here’s what a “Fifty Shades of Grey culture” looks like to me: Women emerging from a different kind of closet. Reading and writing erotica and watching sexy movies and gazing at naked bodies and using naughty words! Sharing our stories without shame. Talking to our partners about sexual fantasies (theirs and ours) and finding out it’s gosh darn liberating!

[Important disclaimer here: I am highly sensitive to the fact that many women (and men) take offense to the content of FSOG. Maybe your definition of SNH’s “FSOG culture” doesn’t look like mine, but I’m guessing there aren’t many of you who appreciate Trump’s comments either. Maybe that’s the tweet du jour: 120 million people didn’t buy FSOG and they’re disgusted too.]

Are you arguing that my sexual freedom translates into condoning (or even encouraging) vulgar, abusive language or unwanted groping? Shame on you, SNH, for trying to send me and our 80-million-strong army back to the Dark Ages because you’re uncomfortable with our empowerment. Shame on you especially for being a woman trying to erase our gains.

I reject your accusation that I am in any way responsible for Donald Trump’s disgusting attitudes toward women. The culture that bred Donald Trump is a RAPE culture, not a FSOG culture. You want to blame someone, SNH? Point your finger at everyone excusing sexually abusive remarks as “locker room banter,” or validating arguments by starting with, “He’s not the only one who… [fill in disgusting behavior]” or referring to rape as “twenty minutes of action.”

Blame the spin doctors who shame women for expressing our sexual fantasies.

Isn’t it romantic?

When last we met, I blogged about the flash fiction contest I entered this summer. Since then, I have been feverishly reading and commenting on other writers’ entries and following review comments on my own story. To give you an idea, I’ve probably read over 100 stories at 1,000 words a pop, and I’ve received nearly that many reviews back. Good critical feedback is enormously beneficial, and probably the major reason I signed up for the contest, and I have not been disappointed. I’m learning tons from  reading so many other short stories, “meeting” other writers, gaining insight, and having a blast! Last week, we received the judges’ scores on round one, and while I’m ecstatic I did well, I’m also scratching my head that some of my [extremely well-written] favorites received zero of a possible 15 points. A very good reminder that EVERY kind of judgment on writing is subjective, even if the person is called “judge” [or agent or editor or reviewer].

After suffering through the dreaded HISTORICAL FICTION last round, I came to realize there are, in fact, even scarier genres—political satire and thriller had me particularly anxious. Just before the round two assignments came out on Friday at midnight, my husband appeared at my shoulder, because let’s be honest, it’s not that much fun to be the spouse of the flasher during the writing weekends. We waited together…oh, it was tense, folks.[See what I did there? Practicing in case I get SUSPENSE next time…]

Imagine my/our sheer joy when this appeared on the screen:

Genre: ROMANCE [RIGHT??]
Setting: AUTO REPAIR SHOP  [Heh. In case you don’t know this about me, our family business was an auto dealership, aka the “what you know” part of “Write what you know.”]
Object: BOTTLE OF BABY FORMULA [Heck, I had a couple of formula-fed babies!]

In round one, I’d wanted to come up with the plot on my own, even though this is not necessary or even encouraged. This time, I chatted with some online friends who are especially helpful with plot coaching [Veronica & Karen], thinking outside the box [Kitkat], fellow writer and invaluable pre-reader [Shell], “specialists” [Meredith, Colin, & Jayme] who know helpful tidbits [about flat tires, for example]. And always, always, always, my most trusted editor [Sue]. A big village for a small story!

I brainstormed with each of them on Saturday, working to ignore the ticking clock. I even considered covering the bottom right-hand corner of my monitor but decided to be mature instead [a stretch for me]. At 3:18, I opened a new Word doc and started typing. It wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t flow, but I had the bones and I could hear some dialogue. I knew my characters and what I was going to do to them [insert evil laughter]. I spilled over 800 words in about fifteen minutes. That was good and it wasn’t good. [Word max is 1,000 in case you forgot.] From experience, I knew I’d need at least that many again to make my random wanderings coherent.  I equate this with buying an unfurnished home. You get my meaning. And don’t even get me started on window treatments!

I cleaned it up, connected the dots, put in everything I had…1458 words. 4:05 AM. I went to bed for marination and, presumably, sleep. [No, marination is not a euphemism for sex! It’s my subconscious working the story.]

Sunday was Red Pencil Day [or, more accurately, Red Hatchet Day]. I love editing. I’m one of the weird ones, I know, but I love cutting and honing and economizing [Ha! you’d never know it from this blog post!]. But day-umm, this one was rough. One-third of the words went into the garbage can. It’s pretty hard to entangle two people romantically in such few words, especially since my favorite part—and I’m guessing, yours too?—is all that delicious unresolved sexual tension. But I got that sucker down to 992 words and here they are!  I’d love to know what you think! Also, see how much more fun the teaser pictures are with ROMANCE [hot dude] vs. HISTORICAL FICTION [Torah]? ‘Nuf said. Enjoy!

*

FOR WANT OF A NAIL

sweaty-mechanic-12828927

The last noise James MacSweeney wanted to hear as he shook the formula bottle over his wrist was the clang-clang of the driveway chime. The customer can wait, Mac fantasized—until he remembered the pile of bills.

Mac cursed and scooped the newborn into his palm. “Sorry, girl,” he said, descending the staircase to his shop with quick but steady steps.

“Hello! Are you open?” The voice downstairs grew more demanding. “Anyone here?”

“Coming!”

Mac found the man outside, a dark suit hugging his pacing form. Black wingtips worked the pavement: step, step, pivot. The man’s agitation was positively glorious.

“How can I help?”

“I need—is that a dog?” He peered over expensive-looking sunglasses. “Do you work here?”

“Yes and yes. She’s an English bulldog, and I’m Mac, mechanic-proprietor.” He pointed the plastic nipple toward the red embroidered “Mac’s” on his shirt.

“Stuart Pierce. My tire pressure light came on a couple miles back. It seems I’ve picked up a nail.” Did Stuart know the silver stripe in his tie perfectly matched the monsoon gray exterior of his A4? “I have an important meeting, so if you could just patch me up, I’ll be on my way.”

“Nails are tricky.” Mac crouched by the bulging tire. “I’d have to evaluate the penetration—”

“How long?” Steely-blue eyes bore two holes in Mac’s brain.

“Mounting and balancing a new tire, you’re looking at twenty, twenty-five minutes. If the sidewall’s intact, a patch could save you money and only take about fifteen minutes longer.”

Longer? Forget it. Just replace it.”

“The good news is I stock these tires—”

“Lucky me.” Stuart checked his phone. “Twenty-five would cut it close.”

But, as I was about to say, I need to feed this little girl first.”

“Feeding your pet before servicing your customer? Who taught you how to run your business?”

Mr. Fancypants could hold up a suit, but he didn’t know squat about raising a litter.

“True, I’d lose the eighteen-dollar markup on the tire and twenty for labor if you take your business down the road—though I doubt you’d make it halfway to Hilltop riding your rims. On the other hand, my mother will most definitely rip me a new one if anything happens to my little runt here, so no offense intended, sir, but the puppy comes first.”

To his credit, Stuart quickly let go of his customer-is-always-right bullshit. “How long could it take to feed such a little thing?”

“That depends on her appetite, how much gas she takes on, and how quickly her anal glands respond.”

Stuart’s nose wrinkled. “Best guess?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Hmm, what if I feed the dog while you handle my tire?”

“Have you ever bottle fed a puppy?”

“No, but I’m guessing the nipple goes in her mouth?”

Funny guy. “She’s sloppy. Formula leaves nasty stains.”

Stuart switched into striptease mode, shrugged off his jacket, and yanked his tie over his head. Buttons opened, revealing a crisp, white, perfectly filled-out T-shirt. Mac couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn anything that white—or the last time a man had undressed for him.

“You’re not used to taking no for an answer, are you?”

“Nope.”

Mac sighed. “I hope I don’t regret this.”

Stuart answered with a wry grin. “Yeah, me, too.”

Mac led Stuart into the office and grabbed a clean towel from the stash of puppy supplies under his desk. “Have a seat.”

Stuart settled into the side chair. Mac draped the towel across his thighs.

“She’s gonna squirm at first, but she’ll settle down.” Mac lowered the puppy onto her belly. “Angle the bottle like this.” Mac jiggled the nipple inside the puppy’s mouth until she began sucking. “When she’s full, she’ll let go.”

Stuart’s hand snuck beneath Mac’s, gripped the bottle, and batted away Mac’s hand with a playful bump. “We’re fine here,” he said. “Get to work.”

Mac mounted that tire in twenty-one minutes—a personal best for a German car—and rushed back to the office. A lump formed in his throat as he observed the tender scene: the stranger who’d arrived all business and bluster, head dropped forward, his dark hair an anarchy, cooing a stream of endearments to the tiny creature in his lap.

Wildly smitten, thoroughly tamed—man and puppy alike.

“She likes you,” Mac said, his gravelly voice revealing more than he’d intended.

Stuart’s head snapped up. Their eyes locked, honest and raw. “No accounting for taste, right?”

Mac pushed off the wall. “You better get dressed. I’ll take her.”

Stuart clutched the pup as he lifted his right ass cheek off the chair. “Use my Amex.”

“Of course.” Mac dug out the wallet with surgical precision. He ran the card, shaking his head at the day.

Stuart caught Mac’s grin and smiled. “You never told me her name.”

“I don’t name them anymore. Makes me too sad when they’re adopted.”

“She’s up for adoption?”

“Will be in six weeks. Interested?”

“Yes.”

Damn, unguarded Stuart was hot.

“Ever had a dog before?”

“No. Is that a prerequisite?”

“Not necessarily,” Mac said, “but a new puppy can be daunting, especially for someone used to a very orderly life.”

“So, I’m disqualified because my socks match?”

“I’m just being honest.”

“If it helps my case, my love life is a godawful mess.” An awkward laugh followed.

“Sure, I’d say that’s a positive.”

“I was kind of hoping you’d help me fix it.”

“First the tire, now your love life? What’s next?”

Stuart chuckled. “My career, if I don’t move my ass!”

Stuart’s ass moved, all right, and Mac enjoyed every moment from the kitchen window—was it peeping if the person was getting dressed? Mac fingered the nail on the windowsill as Stuart’s new tire triggered the clang-clang below.

The pup snored in her blanket nest, bringing a smile to Mac’s face. “Don’t worry, girl. Daddy’s coming back on Saturday so you can whip him into shape.”

*

Thanks for reading! See you next time…

Flashing… why not?

Have I already got your minds in the gutter? Tsk, tsk… not that kind of flashing! (But I do like the way you think!)

One day in July, a post about a creative writing competition called the “Flash Fiction Challenge” popped up on my newsfeed. “Writing” and “competition” are two words I usually try to keep separate, although I have had some rewarding experiences writing on a specific theme for Twilight fanfiction contests in the past. [As you might have guessed, the theme is most frequently related to forbidden passion, wildly romantic first meetings, irresistible seductions, first ILYs…]

So, what drew me to participate in this particular contest? First off, the 8-year-old contest is professionally managed by an organization called NYC Midnight Movie Making Madness, which means entries are anonymously judged by a diverse group of writing and reading professionals. When the judges deliver their rankings, they also share critical feedback on the writing. [No, the judges’ results have not yet been announced for round one.] Second, writers can submit their stories to a private contest forum, where many of us have been busily devouring each other’s entries and leaving review comments. [Of the 2100 contest entrants, roughly 600 of us posted our stories for peer review, so ask me what I’ve read this summer…] Third, short stories are not my typical go-to for reading or writing, but I recognize how much this genre can teach me. A short story is a microcosm of a long story. Every word absolutely counts. You can’t mess around! Finally, I do love a challenge—and boy, did I get one!

At midnight on Friday, July 22, I received an email with my assignment for the next 48 hours: genre—HISTORICAL FICTION, setting—a SEMINARY, object—SHAMPOO. By 12:02 a.m. Saturday, I’d experienced the 7 stages of writing grief: disbelief, panic, regret, resignation, disappointment, panic (again), and exhaustion. By 8 a.m., my situation hadn’t improved, and time was ticking away. I seriously watched the clock in the corner of my monitor. Of the 1,000 word maximum due by Sunday at midnight, I had written zero words by 2 p.m.

That’s okay, I told myself, you’re writing historical fiction. That requires research. When was shampoo invented? What was happening in the world around that time? Who were the interesting historical figures that might have been hanging around a seminary? And by the way, what exactly is a seminary? [Most people’s thoughts go immediately to monastery, but they’re not one and the same.]

Don’t panic. Once you get going, the story will flow.

You can quit now and not embarrass yourself.

If you’re doing this, you better get started!

But I don’t have a plot!

Yeah, good times. At some point, I decided to trust myself and start writing the plot bunny bouncing hardest on my brain. My characters usually reveal themselves to me while I’m writing, if I’m not too tense to let them go, and thankfully, that happened. A trusted writer-friend “pre-read” for me and helped me hone the story, and my trusty editor-friend made sure I had all my ducks in a grammatical row. [Don’t worry, it’s all legit to have help! In fact, I probably should have done more plot consulting early on, but I was trying to do as much as I could by myself.]

So far, this tale has a happy ending. I did, in fact, finish and submit my story (around 11 p.m. Sunday) to the judges and the forum. The critical feedback has been exciting and illuminating. Not surprisingly, the better writers give the best feedback! Some are veterans at short story writing, but many are newbies like me. Everyone is kind.

If I haven’t bent your ear too long already, please feel free to take a look at my flash fic and let me know what you think! I’ll keep you posted on round two [coming up Sept. 16-18].

*

HONORABLE INTENTIONS

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Photo Credit: CC BY-SA, RubberPaw/Flickr

Sweet talk the Torah with a few blessings, and she’ll unlatch her girdle and open her scrolls, but if you want to truly take her into your heart, you’ll have to work for it. And work they did, these fourth-year rabbinic candidates at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The class of 1939 was a motley crew of fifteen men and one woman—the first ever enrolled at JIR, Helen Levinthal. Daughter of an eighth-generation rabbi, Helen could hold her own, even when the Talmudic debate turned to intimate topics.

“We learn in this tractate that shampooing is permitted—”

“Hey, did you hear that, Fisher?”

Helen chuckled along with the others. Boys will be boys.

Rav Stern waited for the room to settle. “Mr. Bromberg, since your vocal cords are obviously warmed up, why don’t you tell us the distinction the rabbis draw between a Nazirite using a comb or his fingers to part his hair.”

“Rashi argues the person using his fingers does not intend to remove any hair, so it’s permitted.”

“And if some hair comes out anyway?”

Bromberg shrugged. “If it wasn’t his intention to remove hair, the action is allowed, regardless of the result.”

A new voice entered the conversation. “So, basically, Rashi would sanction any action as long as one’s intentions are honorable?”

Helen forced her gaze to the page of Babylonian Talmud on the table in front of her, her cheeks filling with heat. She knew full well where Jacob Saltzman was going with his pointed question. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried to woo her with Torah know-how. She could have fallen for his sharp intellect and fierce curiosity, but credibility mattered to her. Helen could afford neither the distraction nor the gossip. Her silly crush would have to wait.

A respectful silence descended upon the room. Her classmates may not have inferred Jacob’s motives, but they certainly recognized a “Big Question” when they heard one. Rav Stern tugged on his salt-and-pepper beard, a gesture that always seemed to Helen as if he were literally pulling the answers from his brain.

“Would anyone care to address Mr. Saltzman’s question?”

Helen cleared her throat. “As we’ve learned throughout our studies, much of Talmudic law relies on intent.” She caught the slight pivot of Jacob’s head in her direction and, with it, the beginnings of his sly grin. “However, we’ve also studied examples where intention is not required. For example, if a Jew is forced to eat matzoh against his will, he is considered to have satisfied the commandment. We have to pay attention to both the spirit and letter of the law.”

If Helen had expected her answer to discourage Jacob, she’d underestimated him. He seemed to grow two inches taller in his chair from determination alone. As far as Jacob Saltzman was concerned, Rashi himself had flung the gates wide open. Helen fully expected Jacob would soon charge through, Torah scrolls cradled against his right shoulder.

As it turned out, Jacob waited until the week of their ordination to call on Helen at her Upper West Side boardinghouse. She was summoned downstairs, where Jacob shot onto his feet when she walked into the sitting room.

Jacob’s light blue, cable-knit cardigan was more casual than his usual vest and tie, but he certainly did not seem more comfortable. In fact, she’d never seen him more fidgety. Only his familiar, crocheted yarmulke looked as if it belonged on his body. From the way he studied her weekend attire—a pair of rolled-up trousers and frilly peasant blouse—he seemed equally caught off-guard.

“I hope you don’t mind my stopping by,” Jacob said. “I would say I was in the neighborhood, but . . .” He shrugged, and Helen saw Jacob Saltzman blush for the first time. “The truth is, I wanted to bring you this . . .” He held out a small brown bag with the Grove Drugs logo stamped on the side.

“What’s this?”

“It’s just a little something I probably should have wrapped in fancier paper,” he said with an embarrassed huff.

Helen pushed aside the white tissue to reveal a tube of Lustre-Cream shampoo and a wooden brush. “What on earth, Jacob?”

He swept the pad of his thumb across the bristles of the brush. “I asked the sales clerk if they had a brush that would be sure not to pull out any hairs. She practically guaranteed me this one wouldn’t. You can use it with perfectly pure intentions.”

He was standing too close for Helen’s intentions to be pure, and she strongly suspected Jacob felt the same.

“Thank you so much. I can’t wait to try it tonight after my shower.” The mention of the shower caused them both to look away.

“The shampoo is just . . . I liked the way this one smelled, and I thought . . ..” She imagined him nuzzling the base of her neck, breathing in the smell he’d imagined in her hair.

“That was sweet.”

Jacob swallowed heavily. “I also wanted to tell you, Helen, I know you’re going to make a great rabbi.”

His compliment warmed her, but it didn’t change the reality. “I’m not receiving my ordination. The faculty isn’t ready to ordain a woman yet.”

“That’s terrible. You’ve been through all the courses just like the rest of us, and they’ve had you believing, all this time—”

Helen placed her hand on Jacob’s arm. “It’s okay. I have a pulpit for the High Holidays and a few speaking engagements lined up.”

“But I waited all this time to kiss you.”

“You are truly an honorable man, Jacob Saltzman.”

He pressed his lips to her smile, and thus began their own commentary.

Set aside the silver crowns and fancy gown, and for all her majestic trappings, the Torah is a gal with a million secrets to give away.

*

Thanks for reading! See you next time…

The Double Life of a Proper Housewife

double trouble horn and halo croppedI can pinpoint the exact moment I split in two: True Blood, S1:E2. Beaten and left for dead, Sookie Stackhouse latches on to Vampire Bill’s gushing wrist and guzzles his life-saving “V” straight from the source. I was grossed out, turned on, and changed forever.

I’ll admit, I’ve lived a seriously “vanilla” life. Raised by loving Midwestern parents who instilled a solid work ethic and offered every opportunity, I met my husband at age 17, married at 21, and worked in public accounting before raising two kids in an idyllic suburb of Boston. Please, I’m not complaining by any means, but I was a “midlife awakening” waiting to happen.

Whether hormones or vampires were to blame, off I went down the rabbit hole that led to my secret identity. Cloaked in my invented fanfiction.net screen name, I went scavenging for the longest True Blood—and eventually, Twilight—stories I could find. The more I loved those characters, the more I ached when the story was over. I’d never possess the “real” Edward Cullen or the lovely actor who portrayed him. Heck, I couldn’t even have the “Faux-wards” my favorite writers had created. Hundreds of stories later, it struck me: the only Edward I could control and possess was one I created myself. [I soon learned this, too, was a fallacy.]

Okay, then. I would write! I opened a Word doc, uncaged my feistiest plot bunny, and watched him trounce on my keyboard. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was a woman on fire! I wrote my first chapter in a matter of hours [a whopper of a wet dream, because let’s start off with a bang], edited myself [another rookie mistake!], and clicked that thrilling button—publish. [With no outline, no second chapter, and not a lick of support.]

Wow! How liberating … until sheer terror set in. What if people hate it? Worse—What if nobody ever reads it? With hundreds of thousands of Twilight fanfics online, how would readers find mine, and why would they bother with an “author” they’d never heard of? I somehow collected a few decent reviews, but my new “career” was nothing to write home about.

That first story was PG-13, but I quickly identified my signature theme—Edward Cullen as sexual dominant. It wasn’t a leap from vampire to dom, as many others [you may have even heard of!] discovered, but the genre married a long-standing fantasy with my current favorite character … and I was off and running! My second story, a kinky Cinderella-Twilight mashup, caught the attention of a mega-blog; suddenly, readers around the globe read and reviewed my daily posts. The behemoth of a sequel—over 500k—drew a couple thousand hits each chapter. I turned people on and told their truths and drilled my characters into their hearts. Virtual strangers shared intimate stories, asked my advice [imagine!], and extended outrageous invitations to chat rooms and private scenes. Heady stuff! The earth rumbled again, splitting the chasm between my halves even wider.

“Secret me” stole increasingly more of the total. I’d bolt from bed to computer most mornings and write furiously as much as the day and night allowed. Less sleep, more double espresso vodka. Thousands of strangers knew more about my secret fantasies than anyone in my “real life”—with one important exception—my husband. He’s read [almost] every word, accepted and supported my obsession, eaten cereal for dinner when he couldn’t pry me from my keyboard. No need to pity the erotica writer’s husband, though. *wink*

 At times, my secret threatened to burst out—no more so than on the day my tennis teammate asked me if I’d heard of “this Fifty Shades book” [formerly the uber-popular fanfic that helped inspire my kinky trilogy]. My “OH SHIT” meter hit a solid 8.5 out of 10. What were my country club people doing in my secret world?

 Five years into this, my “real life” friends and family members know (generally) what I write and understand why I don’t send them my stories, but I’ve inadvertently hurt feelings by holding back pieces of myself. A pout usually accompanies the predictable, “I like sex, too.” Sure, but what if I tell you my best piece is a Male/male BDSM story? How do I share enough without handing over the keys to the castle? What about professional colleagues? My husband’s? My kids’ friends? Is it fair to toss my skeletons into their closets, too? On the flip side, most “Twihards” don’t know my real name, even many I’ve met at conventions. Much like my most recent protagonist, a closeted MLB pitcher, part of me is always shrouded.

Funny thing, the seams between my two selves are fraying. “Alternate me” feels awfully familiar these days—giving back through writing and creating meaningful interpersonal connections—while leaking a little more adventure into “real life me” every day. I’ve met fellow romance enthusiasts from online friendships spanning the globe, introduced myself to strangers as a writer *gasp*, and struck up a wonderful friendship with the two gorgeous—and also talented and brilliant, by the way—men adorning one of my book covers!

Here’s the thing—I’ve written a manuscript, and I hope to publish under my real name [see byline]. Is it sexy? Heck yes! Life is sexy, especially when you’re Cupid! I’d love to share this book enthusiastically with both worlds because I am tired of leaving half of myself behind. Wish me luck, and please, try not to judge that buttoned-up auditor scouring your books … she might just be the author behind your favorite bodice ripper! Follow me on Facebook for updates!