January 2: 55 Fiction Day

On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways.  Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).

Just as reducing your speed when driving increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your communication efficiency, making every word count.  One excellent way to practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new genre of writing called 55 Fiction. In these short, short stories, you must not exceed the 55-word limit.

Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest. The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction:  The World’s Shortest Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.

As Moss explains, 55-Fiction is a little like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).

The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story, concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise, irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of the truly great short, short stories.

While 55-fiction is fun to read and write, these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction, vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.

Here are a couple of examples:

Last Call

It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”

Alone

He shivered in the darkness. Long ago, there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained. Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice: “Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”

Today’s Challenge:  Fifty-Five Test Drive

What is an anecdote that you can tell in no more than 55 words? Write your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in “Last Call.”

Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five Fiction:

1. Like any good story, these stories need a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.

2. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.

3. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words in your first draft; instead, focus just on writing a good short, short story. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.

4. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.

5. For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to the New Times web site.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Less is more. -Andrea del Sarto

1-The American Presidency Project – Richard Nixon. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4332.

2-New Times.  55 Fiction. https://www.newtimesslo.com/sanluisobispo/55-fiction/Category?oid=2872608.

December 24: Grammar Rules Day

On this day in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg made a grammar error that went down in history. Speaking to the Council of Constance in Latin, the Emperor called for the gathered assembly to eradicate the Papal Schism, a division in the Catholic Church in which three separate men claimed to be the true pope.  Unfortunately for the emperor he mixed up the gender of the Latin word schisma using it as if it were feminine instead of the correct neuter form.  When the error was respectfully pointed out to him by a monk, Sigismund responded angrily say, “I am the Emperor of Rome! Even if the word is neuter, it will be feminine from now on.”  

In response to Sigismund’s decree, a monk stood and proclaimed, “Caesar non supra grammaticos” – or “The Emperor is not above the grammarians.”

Ever since Sigismund’s historic fail, the expression “Caesar non supra grammaticos” has been used to remind us that the rules of English grammar and spelling are not given to us as authoritative decrees from on high; instead, they are based on the conventions of writing that are followed by actual writers. They are also inherently democratic in that they apply to everyone, and no one individual has the power to arbitrarily change them.

Too often we see grammar as a study of the things we can’t do with language. Instead, we should view grammar for what we can do with it — it allows us to craft clear, quality sentences that equip us to share our best thinking with others.  If English is our first language, we have an unconscious understanding of how to put words together so that they make sense.  Written English, however, is different from spoken English.  Studying grammar gives us the specific language we need to diagnose errors and to reason-through how to correct them so that our sentences are clear.  Just as an auto mechanic knows the names of the different parts under the hood of a car, we should know the different parts of a sentence.  The mechanic’s job is to diagnose the problem and fix it so that the car will do its job, which is getting its owner efficiently from point A to point B. Grammar is simply the mechanics of the sentence, and knowing grammar will help you make sure that all the parts work efficiently so that your sentences do their job, which is to clearly and efficiently communicate your ideas to a reader.

Today’s Challenge:  Grammar, not the Emperor, Rules

What’s your grammar pet peeve?  What one grammar rule do you find the most useful in crafting clear writing?  Identify a single grammar rule, and write an explanation of the rule with examples that show both the rule and violations of the rule. Include the clearest possible explanation of the rule along with a rationale of why it is an important rule to know and how knowing the rule will help the writer.  The list of frequent errors below might help you zero in on a specific rule to write about:

Run-on sentences, Sentence fragments, Dangling participles, Ambiguous pronouns, Lack of subject/verb agreement, Lack of parallelism (Common Core Language 1 and 2 – Conventions of Standard English)

November 20:  Significant Object Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

On this day in 2009, a fascinating five-month anthropological study was completed by two writers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  The hypothesis of the study was that storytelling has the power to raise the value of a physical object.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers acquired 100 objects at garage sales and thrift stores at a cost of no more than two dollars per object.  In phase two of the study, each object was given to a writer who crafted a short, fictional story about the object.  Each object was then auctioned on eBay with the invented story as the item description.  Walker and Glenn carefully identified each item description as a work of fiction. Based on the results of the study, the average price of an object was raised by 2,700 percent.  The total cost of purchasing the 100 objects was $128.74; the total sales on eBay reached a total of $3,612.51.  For example, a duck vase purchased for $1.99 sold for $15.75.  A motel room key purchased for $2.00 sold for $45.01.

Walker and Glenn compiled the results of their study, including a photo of each object along with its accompanying fictional story, in the book Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

To see additional objects and their stories, visit www.significantobjects.com.

Clearly, stories captivate our interest and attention like nothing else. Packaging both ideas and emotion in a narrative makes a powerful combination, and the results of the Significant Objects Study provide us with quantitative evidence of this.  As stated by Walker and Glenn, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Junk Drawer Stories

What inventive story would you write to give value to a seemingly valueless object?  Go to your junk drawer and find a physical object of little value.  Then, craft a short narrative about the background of the object.  If you are working with a group or class of storytellers, have a Significant Object Contest or a Significant Object Slam (SOS) to share your stories. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Walker, Rob and Joshua Glen.  Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.  Seattle, WA:  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

June 17:  Essay Question Day

On this day in 1901, the College Board Examination, the precursor of today’s SAT, was first administered.  The testing came about after presidents of twelve leading universities formed the College Entrance Examination Board.  The purpose of this organization was to create a more uniform college admissions process and to encourage New England boarding schools to develop a uniform curriculum (1).  In 69 locations a total of 973 test takers completed examinations in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, chemistry, and physics.

Although today’s SAT is primary a multiple choice test, the test administered in 1901 was made up entirely of essay questions.  After the test takers wrote their essays in answer books, their essays were read and evaluated by experts in each subject. Each essay was rated Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor.

Today’s Challenge:   Say It in an Essay

What are five good questions you might ask a college candidate in order to assess his or her readiness for college?  Subject-related essay questions remain a common form by which students are tested.  In fact, the word “essay” originates from the Latin exigere, meaning “to examine, try, or test” (2). Another common form of essay questions are the ones that students must answer as a part of the college application process.

The following questions are examples of Common Application Essay Prompts.  For these essays students must write between 250-650 words:

2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.  (3)

Select one of the questions above, and write your own essay.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  The drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It’s in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay. -Richard Rodriguez

1-http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/where/timeline.html

2-http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=essay

3-http://www.commonapp.org/whats-appening/application-updates/common-application-announces-2017-2018-essay-prompts

May 26: Replete With Ts Day

On this day in 1927, Henry Ford watched as the last Ford Model T rolled off the assembly at his factory in Highland Park, Michigan.  Introduced in 1908, the Model T was the first car that was mass-produced on an assembly line. Its 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine could reach a maximum of 45 miles per hour. 

By 1918, one of every two cars on U.S. roads were black Model Ts.  As Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  In 1999, the Ford Model T was named The Car of the Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation (1).

Just as the Model T was at one time ubiquitous on U.S. roads, the letter T remains the most ubiquitous of all consonants in written English.  In fact, Ts are so prevalent that writing students might attempt to write compositions replete with Ts.

Today’s Task:  Composition Replete With Ts Contest

What types of writing compositions contain Ts?  Attempt to write a composition in which every word contains at least one T.  Brainstorm composition types first; then, try to construct the most tremendous, t-ladened masterpiece written this century.

Composition Types to Try:

Tall Tales, Narratives, Descriptions, Editorials, Creative Non-fiction, Skits, Worksheets, Advertisements, Diatribes, Tongue-Twisters, Letters, Fact Sheets, Timed Tests, Textbooks, Telegrams, Detective Stories, Fantasies, Gothic Tomes, Metaphors, Mysteries, Eyewitness Accounts, Reflections, Arguments, Tragedies, Reports, Interviews, Abstracts, Short Stories, Sonnets, Alliterative Poetry, TV Sitcom Scripts

Contest Criteria:  creativity, clarity, jocularity, lucidity, timeliness, style, originality, plot, character development, tone, diction, detail, organization, craftsmanship, editing, syntax, sentence variety, grammatical correctness.

Caution:  Writing compositions replete with Ts might turn tragic.  Students often get addicted. They can’t stop writing with Ts.  Therefore, trust this caveat: try to contain writing to ten contest entries tops.  Thanks.

Quotation of the Day:  Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it. -Henry Ford

1-https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2013/08/05/model-t-facts.html

 

April 15:  Deliberately Bad Writing Day

Today is the deadline for a delightful contest for deplorable writing: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), where entrants face the challenge of writing the worst possible opening sentence to a novel. The contest began in 1982, created by Scott Rice of the San Jose State University English Department.

The contest is named after the prolific Victorian novelist Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). He was a contemporary of Dickens, and in the 19th century, his novels were nearly as popular as Dickens’. Bulwer-Lytton’s flair for the melodramatic has inspired more than twenty years of good bad writing, “writing so deliberately rotten that it both entertains and instructs,” according to Scott Rice.

Here’s the famous opening of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830):

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

An overall winner is selected in the contest each year, but there are also category winners for various genres, including western, detective, romance, and science fiction. Below is the overall winner for the 2002 contest, written by Rephah Berg of Oakland, California:

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.

For more past contest winners, visit:  http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

Today’s Challenge: The Good, the Bad, and the Funny

What are some examples of bad ways to begin a story?  Get a head start on next year’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Read the rules below; then, write your own one-sentence masterpiece.

The rules of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are simple:

Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Sentences may be of any length (though you go beyond 50 or 60 words at your peril), and entries must be “original” (as it were) and previously unpublished.

Surface mail entries should be submitted on index cards, the sentence on one side and the entrant’s name, address, and phone number on the other.

Email entries should be in the body of the message, NOT in an attachment. If you are submitting multiple entries, please include them in one message.

Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners.

The official deadline is April 15 (a date that Americans associate with painful submissions and making up bad stories). The actual deadline may be as late as June 30.

The contest accepts submissions every day of the livelong year.

Wild Card Rule: Resist the temptation to work with puns like “It was a stark and dormy night.” Finally, in keeping with the gravitas, high seriousness, and general bignitude of the contest, the grand prize winner will receive . . . a pittance.

Send your entries to: Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest Department of English San Jose State University San Jose, CA 95192-0090,

Quotation of the Day: The pen is mightier than the sword. –Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton