Balsa is an itinerant woman warrior and bodyguard. Chagum is her current charge -- the Second Prince of New Yogo, eleven years old, now in exile.

On the tenth day after Tanda and Torogai left, with a sound like a sigh, it began to snow. It fell thick and fast, burying the earth and the trees. Chagum helped with the washing-up after dinner. That night, he put his hands out to warm them at the fire, only to draw them back hastily. For the first time in his life, they had become chapped, and the heat made them sting.

Balsa took his hands in hers. “Let me see. My! Just look at that chapped skin!” Chuckling, she rose and began rummaging among the things on the shelf. Finally, she returned with an ointment that she rubbed into his cracked fingers. Chagum looked at her hands as they worked. They were so different from his mother’s — thick and rough, and covered in calluses from wielding the spear. But when he felt their warm, dry touch, tears welled unbidden and spilled down his cheeks.

Balsa said nothing, but simply kept rubbing his hands. The blizzard raged outside, but the cave under the snow was warm and silent, as if they were in the bowels of the earth.

“I hate snow,” Chagum whispered. “It swallows up sound, and I feel like I can’t breathe.”

Balsa patted his hands lightly and let them fall. “Then how about I tell you a story to help you?” she said.

Chagum’s face brightened instantly. “What kind of story?”

“The story of a country far to the north, and of a little girl who was the daughter of the king’s physician.” Staring into the crackling flames, she began. “If you travel across the Misty Blue Mountains and keep going north, farther and farther, you will come to a country called Kanbal. Unlike your country, Kanbal doesn’t have good fields—only mountains covered year-round in snow, and some steep, rocky slopes. The people survive by planting tough grains and potatoes and raising goats on the mountainsides. The huge eagles that live on the cliffs feed on mice and goats, or other animals that fall to their deaths. . . . They especially love the marrow inside the bones, and they’ll drop them from great heights to crack the bones open and get the marrow. I can still hear the sound of the bones hitting the rocks, echoing in the valley — crack, crack. That’s what Kanbal, my homeland, is like.

“Although it was a poor country, the old king had several wives and many children—four princes and five princesses. When the princes grew up, they began to fight over who would be the next king, as princes often do. Rogsam, the king’s second son, was a particularly evil man. When his father died, Rogsam made sure that his older brother Naguru was set on the throne. Then he poisoned Naguru before he could have any children.

“No one guessed that the new king had been murdered. He had always been sickly, and everyone in the palace knew he had caught a bad cold that winter. They thought he just died of it.

“But there was one man who knew Rogsam’s secret — Naguru’s physician, Karuna Yonsa. Rogsam had ordered him to poison the king, and threatened to kill his daughter if he didn’t obey. Karuna’s wife had died the year before, so this daughter was all he had left in the world. He knew that Rogsam was a cruel man, not above murdering a little girl. So in order to save her, Karuna did as he was told and poisoned the king.

“But then he knew too much. He was sure that once the king was dead, Rogsam would never let him or his daughter live. So he secretly asked his good friend Jiguro Musa to take his daughter and run away with her as soon as the king died. Jiguro was Rogsam’s martial arts instructor, and saving Karuna’s daughter would mean the end of the life he knew. You can see that, can’t you? To escape with the girl, he would have to give up everything — his position in the palace, his whole life. Rogsam would never let him get away once he realized that he knew the secret of the king’s death.

“And yet Jiguro accepted his friend’s request.” Balsa’s eyes were tinged with sorrow. “He and the little girl ran away into hiding. Rogsam sent warriors to kill them, and Jiguro fought them one by one. And again and again, he took the girl and fled.

“Soon they heard that Karuna had been killed by thieves. The girl felt as though her heart had been cut in two. She hated Rogsam. She vowed that one day, she would rip him to pieces with her own two hands. She begged Jiguro to teach her how to fight.

“At first, he refused. Martial arts were for men, he insisted. Girls didn’t have the strength for it. But the real reason he refused to teach her was because he didn’t want her to live a life of bloodshed. It’s strange, but once you learn to fight, you seem to attract enemies. . . . Sooner or later, those who master the art of combat must end up fighting.

“In the end, however, Jiguro gave in, for two reasons. One was so that she could escape and survive on her own if he was killed by their pursuers. The other was because he recognized that she was born with natural talent.”

“What kind of talent do you need for martial arts?” Chagum asked.

“Many different kinds. This girl could mimic a move perfectly after seeing it only once. She could also —” She broke off and held up her index finger. “Chagum, can you hit the same spot over and over again with your finger?”

He gave it a try, tapping his fingertip against a charred spot on the edge of the hearth. It was surprisingly difficult; the faster he tried to hit it, the more his finger wavered and missed the spot. Balsa suddenly began tapping a much smaller spot right beside his. Her finger moved so fast it looked blurred, and though she was hitting the point from a greater distance, she always touched the same place, as though drawn to it by a magnet.

She stopped and said, “The little girl had always been good at that. And she had other abilities—she was light on her feet and more aggressive than most boys. Jiguro decided that she was born to be a warrior, that it was her destiny to master the martial arts.

“Their journey continued, with Jiguro teaching her as they went. One or two years passed. Sometimes they had to do dirty work just to make enough to eat. Jiguro was hired as a bouncer for a gambling den. The girl ran errands and even begged. That’s how they survived. They could never stay in one place for long because their enemies might find them. And no matter how careful they were, in the end, the enemies always did find them.” The sadness in her eyes deepened. “Jiguro was so strong, Chagum. None of his attackers could beat him. But the little girl knew that every time he killed one of them, it broke his heart. For you see, they were all his old friends—the people he had trained with long ago. I don’t think they wanted to fight him either, but if they disobeyed the king, they would be killed and so would their families. So they came to kill Jiguro, their hearts in agony.

“Eight men he killed, eight friends, to protect himself and the girl, and this lasted fifteen years. Then Rogsam died of a sudden illness, his son became king, and there was no longer any need to hide. Those fifteen years were hell, Chagum. By then, the six-year-old girl had become a young woman of twenty-one. She was warrior enough to beat Jiguro one out of every two tries.”

The logs in the fire had died down to embers. A silence filled the dimly lit cave.

“That girl was you, wasn’t it?” Chagum asked.


“And that’s why you vowed to save the lives of eight people. The same number that Jiguro had to kill to save you,” he said hesitantly.

Balsa looked at him in surprise. “Tanda must have told you that. So you knew that story already?”

Chagum shook his head. “No. When I asked him why he didn’t marry you, he said you had made a vow to save the lives of eight people, and until you’d done that, he didn’t think you would marry anyone. That’s all.”

Balsa sighed. Then she laughed wryly but said nothing. Her face was etched with a startling loneliness.

To his surprise, Chagum found himself pitying her from the very bottom of his heart. Balsa seemed invincible, endowed with powers no other warrior could match, but in her profile he could glimpse the shadow of a young girl, hurt and buffeted by a cruel and hopeless fate. If he had never experienced what it was like to be at the mercy of fate himself, he would not have noticed, but now he could see it with unbearable, heartrending clarity. A warm tenderness welled up inside him. He wanted to say something but could not think of anything. All he could whisper was, “Balsa, what number am I?”

She laughed but did not answer. Instead, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “When Jiguro was dying,” she said, “I told him to rest easy because I would atone for the wrongs my father committed. ‘I’ll save the lives of eight men,’ I told him. But, you know, he just smiled. ‘It’s much harder to help people than to kill them,’ he told me. ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, Balsa.’”

“He was right. If you want to save someone in the middle of a fight, you can only do it by hurting someone else. While saving one person, you earn yourself two or three enemies. After a while, it becomes impossible to figure out how many people you’ve really saved. Now, Chagum, I’m just living.”


Excerpt from Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano, with illustrations by Yuko Shimizu. Excerpt (c) 2008 by Cathy Hirano (the link goes to a wonderful Horn Book essay she wrote on the difficulties and pleasures of Japanese translation). To receive a copy of a galley for review on your website or blog, please e-mail chavela_que at yahoo dot com with your name, website, and postal address (limited quantities of galleys available).

Miss Dynamite, Episode IV and Last

(My thanks again to KTBB for allowing me to share these.)

November 7, 2007. Miss Dynamite inspected the fire-engine red of her lips with satisfaction. It had been a long time since she'd been undercover -- though it seemed like just last night that Norman Conquest had been trying to get under her covers. Probably because it had been just last night. She checked the chambers in her .45. Harry Potter done, and the sad sack was still looking for a bit of magic. Good thing she didn't need Veritaserum to see through him. She flipped her new bob, put on her FMBs, and tightened the belt on her trenchcoat. “Empire State Building, and step on it,” she told the black-and-yellow.

The observation deck was thumping as she worked her way through the crowd. (Was that Tony in the corner playing turtledove to not-Mrs.-Lane? Men.) She found her quarry sipping a neat gin—not quite tall, dark, and handsome, but tall, bespectacled, and English would certainly do. She pushed back a blonde tress and gave him a come-hither. His gin may be neat, but she could be neater. He came hithe.

“Of all the Book Expo parties in all the city, you walked into mine,” said a voice at her back.

Damn. This was no time for sad sacks (although she could use a bit of the old 1066 on the English don right quick). She put a boot in a tight spot to shut up Norman and tilted her head at the quarry. He took the hint. Soon they were all alone, high above 34th Street, with the lights below glittering like Mrs. Astor's insurance policy.

“So, Philip,” said Miss Dynamite, pocketing a key and pouring a bit of the good stuff, “ever thought about who you'd like to work with after The Book of Dust?”

Behind them, Norman pounded on the glass door, but she only shrugged and rolled her eyes. It was the Empire State Building, after all—and just another big hairy ape beating his chest.

Miss Dynamite, Episode III

[N.B.: The inside joke here is my longstanding crush on the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, who is not only a hilarious and insightful reviewer (see the description of Legolas's takedown of the mumak at this link), but, I believe, the world's closest living embodiment of Lord Peter Wimsey. Placetne? Hell yeah.]

February 8, 2004. Cads will be cads, but he'd been one cad too many, thought Miss Dynamite as she replaced her revolver. "Farewell, my lovely," she whispered as she let herself out. She needed a drink, she needed a vacation, she needed a whole lot of life insurance, she needed a barge with purple sails with a Tony who knew the difference between hardballs and highballs. What she had was a coat, a pen, and a manuscript.

"Grand Central, and step on it," she told the cabbie. The Campbell Apartment was all lit up for the holidays, and she'd been a very good girl. The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith sat in front of the Campbell like an expensive Christmas present, and it unwrapped itself into something tall, dark, and handsome.

"Damn," she said as she took Handsome's arm. "I thought I was through for the day."

"Hiya to you, too, Gorgeous."

"You're still wrong."

"I thought we'd called it quits."

"I like long, slow goodbyes."

He took a break to get a grip and a Manhattan. "Still a Bellini and nothing else, doll?"

She set him straight and gave the manuscript to Charlie behind the bar. No sense in being careless. With a guy like Norman, you played your cards close to your chest, and he'd dealt the Knave of Hearts once too often.

"That guy over there's giving you the eye," he said, putting down his drink and picking up his cigarette, before he remembered the mayor.

"A Manhattan's not a Manhattan in Manhattan anymore," she commiserated, eyeing the guy right back. He winked, and Norman saw it.

"That goddamn Anthony Lane!"

She gave both of them a cool smile. Here was a Tony who knew the difference.

Miss Dynamite, Episode II

February 6, 2002. "She was as naked as a September morn, but a darn sight less coy." -- The Long Goodbye

Valentine's Day. The last one had ended with a round at the station. You don't mind a sexy man in uniform as a rule, but you prefer to be given wine and roses -- not the third degree. Lucky a chipped nail and a lot of mascara can do all kinds of magic, and some poor flatfoot with a lonely temperament is always a sucker for the weepy kind. Sure, it was a dirty card to play, but then, you'd been dealing for so long that you'd lost your Ace of Hearts a damn sight back. You hardly remembered holding it, and now all you seemed to be turning over were Jokers. Even Norman Conquest had folded, and left you looking at the Big House instead of a full one.

Still, you shut up shop and grabbed the package that had come in today's mail. Who needed chocolates when you had a pair of high heels, a full barrel, and a dress so dangerous Hoover would have thrown it in Sing-Sing -- if he didn't keep it for himself. Sam met you on the corner and you two hoofed it all over town, anywhere the drinks were cold and the jazz was hot. He was a good kid, and as long as you didn't get him started on the Dodgers, his jitterbug covered a multitude of sins. He dropped halfway through the night, however, just when you were getting started. They were all like that, and after the G-men had finished picking up the shell casings at the club, you found yourself under the bright lights yet again. As usual, February 14 was less like the Valentine's, more like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Miss Dynamite, Episode I

Many years ago now, my dear friend Katy (ktbb) sent me a greeting card whose cover showed the jacket from an old pulp novel: Miss Dynamite, starring that handsome detective Norman Conquest* -- and thus genius was born. Katy has now written four entries in the sad, swanky life of Miss Dynamite, and they all still make me laugh out loud every time I read them, so now I am sharing them with you.

* A joke I am ashamed to say I didn't get till last week, when I Googled "Norman Conquest" to find a picture of the book jacket and got this instead.


October 22, 2001. "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window." -- Farewell, My Lovely

Your lips: fire-engine red. Your heels: black leather, impossibly high. Your pistol: a Colt .45. Your name: Miss Dynamite. Impeccably coiffed, you leave your day job at a children's book company to roam the streets of Manhattan in search of a stiff drink and a stiffer man. But as you sip your highball at the club, in walks Norman Conquest, the most dangerous gumshoe this side of the Hudson. The last time you two tangled, you ended up with a bare ring finger and six months in the clink -- damn his eyes.

"Hiya babe," he says. "Riker's treat you well?"

You consider giving him the brush-off, but then you remember that Arthur doesn't need that flap copy till Thursday, so what the hell. "You know," you say, "I bet some girls fall for your nice-guy act, but not me -- I just take the fall."

"Listen, gorgeous," he says, lighting a cigarette, "Nobody asked you to put two holes in Billy's tux -- while he was wearing it."

"I rather thought it improved his looks," you say. "Billy was never known for his sense, fashion or otherwise."

Arnie starts the band playing your song, and you grind out your cigarette on the bar and finish the highball in one go. "Come on, kid," says Norman, and you two step out onto the parquet, the lights reminding you that the last time you let yourself get dazzled, your intern took a one-way trip over the Brooklyn Bridge.

"So tell me," breathes Norman in your ear, "what's the word on the street about the manuscript for Book 5?"

But he shuts up real quick when he feels the cold steel of a barrel against his back. You just can't trust some guys. They make like they're angels -- till you see St. Peter’s boot-print on their backs.

"Bye, Normie," you whisper on your way out. What a city. You go out looking for stiff drinks and stiffer men -- and find yourself surrounded by plain, dead stiffs.

A Writing Exercise: Fun with Spam

A little post-Halloween silliness, and a fun little writing experiment for those of you who aren't doing NaNoWriMo (and Go, you! those who are):

  1. Select a sentence (or at least, an independent clause) from the spam message below, which I received from one "Sheena Roland."
  2. Write a short story (of no more than 1000 words) that either dramatizes the situation described by the sentence, or uses the sentence as a moral for the story, or -- really does whatever the heck else you would like to do with the sentence, as long as it involves its nouns and emotions.
  3. Your story must include either one character named "Sheena Roland," or two characters named "Sheena" and "Roland."
  4. You have exactly an hour to write this story.
  5. Post your story on your blog or LJ, and leave a link to it in the comments here; or, if you don't have a blog, you can leave the story itself in the comments (though please try to keep it short if you're doing the latter).

Have fun!

The spam: Most people believe that a greasy cargo bay avoids contact with an avocado pit, but they need to remember how almost a chain saw ruminates. An umbrella for a warranty is highly paid. For example, a ball bearing related to the dust bunny indicates that a cab driver non-chalantly gives a pink slip to a judge inside a photon. When you see an asteroid, it means that a hockey player laughs out loud. Some pickup truck inside the grand piano procrastinates, and a chess board for a buzzard hesitates; however, a mean-spirited jersey cow eagerly trades baseball cards with the briar patch. For example, the particle accelerator indicates that a bowling ball figures out the most difficult fruit cake. Most people believe that a turkey completely secretly admires a stoic blood clot, but they need to remember how knowingly the turn signal defined by an apartment building beams with joy. When a tabloid is gentle, the outer globule tries to seduce the inferiority complex. A grand piano around the ski lodge feels nagging remorse, but a satellite secretly admires an asteroid inside an ocean.

My attempt at this: It started out as an ordinary day for Dr. Teeth. He was neglected in the morning as the skiers streamed busily out into the sparkling February air, clunking along in their heavy boots and Stay-Puft insulation; pounded on at lunchtime by a few screaming children before their mothers called them away for the snack bar’s overcooked hot dogs and undercooked French fries; and in the late afternoon, used to tinkle out “The Music of the Night” by a balding man who sang the song with a heavy French accent, to the barely muffled snorts of the giggling teenage girls who had taken over the snack bar. As the man launched into the bridge, Teeth wished upon his 88th key, and for the 8,888th time, that he might be transferred into more respectable surroundings. From his birth in a melodious factory in Queens, he had played the very best concert halls of Europe, accompanied by some of the greatest pianists ever to grace the stage; and then taken a dignified and happy retirement in New York, as the rehearsal piano for a small company devoted entirely to the works of Stephen Sondheim. But the company had gone under (appreciation of genius being in short supply as always), and Dr. Teeth had been sold northward . . . to this backwater of a Vermont ski lodge where he was condemned to play Andrew Lloyd Webber!

Teeth trembled with the indignity of it. He rattled. He shook. He thundered—

And right at the height of the song’s climax, he dropped the keyboard cover on the man’s hands, refashioning the song as “THE MUSIC OF THE—OWWW!!!

The teenage girls howled. The man reddened, but he didn’t swear or pound Teeth’s keys; rather he looked anxiously in the direction of a pretty brown-haired woman reading alone on a couch near the fire. She didn’t look up.

“Well, that’s good,” the man muttered as he pushed the keyboard cover back into place. His normal accent was flat, affectless, almost Midwestern. “At least she didn’t notice . . .” He swept a hand down the keyboard. “But what would she notice, I wonder?”

He started “All I Ask of You,” and through his irritation (couldn’t the guy at least vary the damn Webber musical? There was some good stuff in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), Teeth felt a wave of nagging remorse at his impulsive act of rage. So the guy was self-aware enough to know he kind of looked like an idiot, and he wasn’t just showing off like some “American Idol” wannabe. The woman was pretty . . . Maybe Teeth could help him out. Not “Send in the Clowns”—still a great song, but it had become almost as cheesy as the Webber through overuse. Something from “Company” or “Follies” or . . . ah.

Slowly, without the man really being aware of it, “All I Ask of You” became “Not A Day Goes By,” about people with all of life before them, who come to New York and fall in love:

Not a day goes by
Not a single day —

But you're somewhere a part of my life,
And it looks like you'll stay.
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, "When does it end?"
That it can't get much better much longer.
But it only gets better and stronger
And deeper and nearer
And simpler and freer
And richer and clearer
And no,

Not a day goes by

The music was so beautiful and true that it seemed to draw the words out of the man, whether he had known them before or not, and in his real voice, not the fake French of the Webber. And it was working, Teeth saw: The woman looked up.

Not a blessed day
But you somewhere come into my life
And you don't go away.
And I have to say
If you do, I'll die.
I want day after day
After day after day
After day after day
After day
Till the days go by,
Till the days go by,
Till the days go by!

The last chord faded. The man was still staring at Dr. Teeth. But the woman now stood at his side. “That was great,” she said softly. His head snapped up, but his eyes were dazed. “‘Merrily,’ right?”

“What?” the man said.

“‘Merrily,’” she said. “That was from ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ right? I love that musical, and hardly anyone knows it . . .”

“Oh, ah, ‘Merrily,’” the man said. “Right.”

“Well, that was really beautiful,” she said, and smiled. “Can I buy you a coffee? I wasn’t expecting to meet a fellow Sondheim fan here at a ski lodge. My name is Sheena.”

“Sondheim. Right. Yeah. Coffee?” The words finally seemed to connect in his brain, and he stared at her as if he’d just woken up. Then he smiled too. “I’m Roland. I’d love some.”

He stood up, and they wandered off toward the lodge’s in-house Starbucks. You’re on your own, kid, thought Dr. Teeth. But he did a little arpeggio, just for fun; sometimes this place wasn’t so bad after all.

N.B.: The definitive recording (in my opinion) of "Not A Day Goes By" is by Barbara Cook on her "Mostly Sondheim" album, where it is paired with "Losing My Mind" and absolutely breaks your heart.

How to Write a Love Story, Part V

5. Come to a resolution.

When he was done he could hardly believe it. Reflexively he ran a word count: 3,321 words, 18,412 characters with spaces. In those characters Jack sulked at Rita till she made him laugh; Rita smiled at him and tried not to show how nervous she was -- she always cracked jokes when she was nervous. They talked about work and their families: Both told stories on his sister. The steak and chicken were delicious, and when they ate the silence was comfortable. He helped her with her coat on the way out. And the last thing that happened had become the only possible ending, the perfect unity of two third-person viewpoints: “They kissed under the white bulb that lit her front porch, and in the stillness was hope.”

Bill felt joyous, like singing, like kissing someone himself. He wanted to share this moment. And so hardly knowing what he was doing, he picked up the phone and dialed Sarah’s number.


“Bill. How’s it going?”

“I’m nearly done with a first draft, but I think I need to do more research,” he said. “Do you have any plans for this evening?”

“I don’t,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice.

“Would you meet me at the Deer Park Inn? Seven-thirty?”

“That would be wonderful. I’m guessing you found a point.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. "I found the point."

When they hung up it was five forty-five. He had time to shower and change. But before he did that he scrolled down through his story, rereading it carefully, not revising anything as yet. He had some fine-tuning to do, but he could manage that tomorrow before class. Bill read the last line and smiled. Yes. Sarah would like it. So did he.

And even though he knew it wasn't, that it would take revision, that it might in fact be a beginning, he centered his cursor in the middle of the line and typed


How to Write a Love Story, Part IV

4. Remember Freytag’s triangle.

He sat down at the computer. A point… a point. What did he want to say about love? Or relationships? Or communication between the genders? What did he know about any of those topics? Surely it would be better to give this up and write a nice space-invader story.
But he’d told Sarah about Jack and Rita. He was committed now.

Reveal yourself,” Madame Markley hissed in his ear. “Think about your emotions.”

So Bill thought about all the times he’d been in love, or said he was. The first was probably Janie Bannerman in the ninth grade: She wore Baby Soft and red lipstick, and every male in the freshman class wanted to explore the contrast. When she picked him for Homecoming, he felt so nervous he could barely put his arms around her at the dance, and both of them were constantly aware of her shimmering sexual beauty -- so much so that it was a blessing when she moved on to a junior with a car. His friend Kathy, who he’d known since he was six, told him she loved him the spring they were to graduate. The moment had been difficult. He didn’t feel like that toward her, he was going to say, couldn’t they just keep being friends?; then he looked at her and knew first that they couldn’t and second that it was going to hurt both of them if he said no. But would it hurt more to lie? She thought she heard his answer in the silence and turned away, but that action pained him so much he drew her back; and they dated all summer long, though Bill lived with the uneasy awareness that he only palely reflected her love for him. He met Rachel Pulaski in a psychology class at the U two years later, and whether it was the class or perhaps, for the first time, love, he felt they understood one another perfectly. They studied together in the mornings; he picked her up after work at the campus bookstore; at night she curled against him, and the days passed so quickly that their senior spring was a shock. Bill remembered how serious everyone had become when they realized they were about to be cast out into the world, how they all clung together like lost children. Most of his friends who were couples moved to Chicago, where they stayed together long enough to meet other people -- not necessarily new lovers, but people interesting and different enough that those who had been comforting now choked. It happened to him and Rachel in Springfield, too. She'd gotten married a few years ago. And since then he’d only dated a few women with any regularity: no great passions, no undying romance.

What did all these affairs have in common? What he remembered most were beginnings and endings, when the love and the pain and the awkwardness were all at their worst. He either didn’t know the woman and what to say to catch her interest, or they had run out of things to talk about and reasons to be together. The middles faded into a kind of hazy contentment. Bill tried to pull something specific out of the haze and remembered this:

A party in his friend Philip’s second-story apartment. Loud, raucous, wild, drunken – Rachel hadn’t wanted to come. They stood on opposite sides of the room all evening, conscientiously ignoring one another: The one who made the first move lost. Most of the drunk people left or fell asleep. Someone put on an Aretha Franklin album. And at the first notes of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” he looked at her and saw her looking at him. The song had always been one of their favorites, and the look softened as they remembered that fact; it warmed as he crossed the room to her, and then her forehead was warm against his neck and his hands met at the hard dent of her spine. Voices clattered in the kitchen, bottles clinked and Aretha wailed, but they swayed together in the darkness till the song ended, and left without saying a word.

Thirteen years later, that silence filled him with awe. It was silence he feared now more than anything else; it signalled his failure to speak, an inability to communicate. But then words hadn’t been missing: they hadn’t been necessary. It was worth the other silence to have that, he thought.

And Jack and Rita didn’t know that. Rita had actually been married once, to a real jerk who yelled and pushed her around until she forgot what understanding and peace were. This was the ninth date Jack’s sister had set up for him in two months: The first eight had been overtalkative idiots – White Sox fans, even – and he didn’t expect much out of this one. To build a relationship out of such characters and circumstances… There was perhaps one way in the universe it could work.

Bill knew what it was. He placed his fingers on the keys and wrote the first line: “Jack didn’t want to do it.” The line that had to follow explained what and why, but not until he introduced Rita in the next section would his reader – Sarah – know who. The language flowed. Sometimes he stopped long enough to rephrase a sentence or find a more specific word, but otherwise it was like falling in love: an intense awareness of only one thing in the world, a total commitment to whatever might happen next. The sunlight slanting through the blinds turned from white to gold.

How to Write a Love Story, Part III

3. Develop a conflict.

So: Jack and Rita at the Brick Oven Inn – no, just the Brick Oven. Jack would have a thick steak, well done, with a baked potato soaked in butter, asparagus and home-baked bread. (Bill’s stomach rumbled again, but he ignored it.) Rita – Rita would want a salad with honey-mustard, a chicken breast, rice, asparagus, more bread. Would she think the worse of Jack for not watching his diet? But Jack ran two miles every morning. They’d talk about that. Rita did step aerobics. She looked good in Lycra. She was wearing a soft pink shirt and a navy skirt, and beneath that, a white silk teddy with spaghetti straps… Bill stopped his train of thought. He couldn't include that detail on the first date; Jack was a good guy, he waited until at least the second. But was Rita a good girl? Yes, he decided firmly. He didn’t want Sarah to think that all he was interested in was sex. But the longer he sat before the screen, the farther his thoughts strayed from the Brick Oven; and at last he stood up again and paced around his small office.

Maybe what he needed to do first was a warm-up exercise, one of Madame’s short weekly assignments. These were usually a little off-the-wall: “You’re a vegetarian frog. Discuss your dilemma in the first person.” “A priest, a rabbi and an ayatollah sit down in the same train compartment. What happens next?” Bill couldn’t recall the subject of this week’s piece. He looked around for his writing folder; he’d taken it to work on Friday and... it was still there. The building was no doubt locked up for the weekend. There’d be no way he could get in.

Everyone was expected to share at least a sentence during the first five minutes of class. He could simply keep his mouth shut or make something up on the spot, but he realized suddenly that this was the perfect opportunity: He could call Sarah. Besides Madame Markley, she was the only person he knew by name in the class; the phone book listed five Markleys and only one McElderry: She was the obvious choice. Jubilantly, nervously, he punched the keys. It was 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon... She probably wouldn’t be home.


“Sarah? Hi, this is Bill from your short story class. On Sundays?” He felt like he was back in fifth grade, calling a girl for the first time. His palm holding the phone was actually sweating.

“Of course, Bill. How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” he said in a rush. “And you?”

“Great.” She waited.

“I wanted to ask you about this week’s assignment, the writing exercise. I left my sheet at the office, so I was hoping you could tell me--”

“Sure, just a minute.” He heard her put the phone down. So far, so good, he thought, and tried to make himself relax. Two minutes passed. He worried briefly that she’d forgotten him, but at just that moment she came back on the line.

“Sorry about the wait – it was buried under a pile of books on the sofa. This was our last week of school and the kids were insane, so I’ve been too tired to do much housecleaning.”

“Congratulations on finishing,” he said. “What are you planning to do this summer?”

“Oh, lots of reading and writing, and I’ll go up and see my sister in Michigan, but that’s about it. Here’s the assignment.” She read it off to him – a plot exercise that had to involve a horse-drawn carriage, a bouquet of roses, Britney Spears, and a bomb. He thanked her when he finished writing it down.

“My pleasure. How’s your story coming?”

“Not very well,” he said. “That’s why I needed the assignment – I’m hoping it will jump-start my writing.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“The assignment?”

“Your story.”

“I, uh, don’t really have that much yet. Just these characters…”

“What are their names?” she said gently.

“Jack and Rita.” He described what he knew about them, omitting the details about Jack’s sex life.

“How did they meet? Through work?”

“Uh… Jack’s sister,” he said, knowing it as he spoke. “She works with Rita.”

“He doesn’t work for CompuMed?”

“That would be easier,” he admitted. “But there’s this arcane policy against employee dating…”

“Ah, but what a conflict,” she said. “Love among the cubicles. Romeo and Juliet meet Dilbert!” They laughed. This was going better than he could have imagined – better even than conversations he had imagined. “But that’s not the story you want to tell,” she continued seriously. “Where do you begin? With their first meeting or first date or what?”

“The first date,” he answered.

“And how will it go?”

"It'll go well," he said. He didn’t want a failed love story.

“Well how?” she asked. “Does she go home with him, do they run off to Vegas, do they just decide to go out again a week later?” He was silent. “What made you decide to write this story?” He couldn’t answer. “What’s your point?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” and he sounded so helpless she laughed.

“All right. Well, that might be a place to begin.” There was a brief pause while he wrote POINT in all caps beneath the instructions for the assignment, then Sarah said, “I’m sorry if I sound condescending, like I know everything about short-story writing. Trust me, I don’t.”

“You know more than I do,” he assured her. “Your response to the assignment last week was really fun.”

“Oh, the White-Out thing? That was a one-off in the fifteen minutes before class. Thanks though.”

“Do you usually write that quickly?”

“The first time through, yeah. I don’t even think about it much – I just have to get it all down.”

"I can’t do that," he said. "I think it's because I work so much with technical material -- every detail has to be perfect, so I can’t stand to have anything out of place.”

“Really? Maybe I ought to try that, given what Madame said about my last story.” The bitterness in her voice surprised him, and he didn’t know how to respond, especially since he had thought it was a great piece. Maybe he had no judgment in these things and his own story was going to crash and burn. He could hear her waiting for him to speak, and he knew what he wanted to say – “Are you free tonight? Do you have any plans for tomorrow?” – but that might sound like he wasn’t taking her confidence about writing seriously, and what if he asked her out for tomorrow night and she accepted and then heard his story and didn’t want to go? The awkwardness, the excuses. He could see nothing but disaster, already beginning with this silence and getting worse and worse...

“Well, I guess I better let you go,” she said.

He was both disappointed and relieved. “It’s back to the computer for me.”

“That’s right. Good luck with it.”

“Thanks. See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow.”

How to Write a Love Story, Part II

2. Know your setting.

All right. The characters were there. He stared at the screen. Nothing happened. He flexed his fingers a few times. No burst of inspiration struck. He closed his eyes, envisioning Rita and Jack, sitting silent on either side of a table somewhere...

His stomach rumbled.

Relieved, he stood up and passed through the apartment to the kitchen. The refrigerator light glared in his eyes: milk, some Colby Jack, two bottles of Leiney’s, a globe of lettuce. What he really wanted was a steak, but all he had was lunch meat. He pulled out turkey, mayonnaise and the lettuce, made a sandwich and sat down at the table for two.

Jack and Rita would go to the Deer Park Inn, except he couldn’t call it that. He pictured the restaurant’s rough-hewn walls and the stone fireplace roaring with flame. The Old Stone Inn. The Brick Oven Inn. No, just the Brick Oven. They’d get a table by the fireplace – it was January, so they could talk over what they did for the holidays. Jack just moved into a new apartment, one of those shiny condos with two bedrooms and a balcony. He bought himself a sofa and a dining room table for Christmas, but the place was still pretty empty. "I bet it's beautiful," Rita said with a smile; and Jack wondered if that meant he could ask her back to see it.

He wouldn’t mind bringing Sarah here, Bill thought as he swallowed the last of his sandwich. It was a nice apartment -- an old building, unlike Jack's, but that gave it character. He looked around. White counters and cabinet; a white fridge on the stained pine floor; his old-but-friendly speckled Formica table, two pale yellow vinyl chairs. The early afternoon sun glared in the window. The whiteness reflected endlessly off itself; the back of the chair opposite was pushed firmly up to the table. The kitchen clock ticked. Everything was quiet.

Bill stood up abruptly and went back to his desk.

How to Write a Love Story, Part I

I wrote this my senior year of college for an Advanced Creative Writing class, and I came across it again when cleaning out some files while I was home. It is very, very far from deep, original, or good, but I thought it might amuse you all to see it, as it proves I'm such an editorial dork that I can't even write fiction without talking about plot structure! This is part one of five.

1. Establish your characters.

He’d always enjoyed short stories -- Hemingway, Kipling, Ray Bradbury. And he’d written a little bit in college, though that was a long time ago. But Bill had to admit it: When he signed up for creative writing through the university’s extension program, he was doing it to meet women. And now that he had to produce a real story for tomorrow’s session … well, he wondered seriously if even Sarah was worth it.

Yeah, she was, he thought gloomily. Or would be, if he’d ever have the nerve to ask her out. But that was tomorrow’s problem; today, he had to focus on the story.

He sat down at his PC and considered Madame Markley’s instructions from the previous period. “Write what you know,” she said, “but make it new, make it different. If your characters are you they’re boring” – which he thought was a little harsh. “We know you. But if you can take some little spark of yourself and make it live in a character, something nobody knows about – ah!” She flung her arms wide to indicate epiphany. “Reveal yourself. Think about your emotions.”

Bill thought about Sarah. He’d noticed her for the first time when she wrote a story about a father and daughter attending a ball game at Wrigley Field. It was pretty good – not perfect, but definitely something there – and he stopped by her desk after class to tell her so. She raised her heart-shaped face, usually hidden by a mass of honey-brown hair, and he was immediately aware of her youth (though he’d later learned she was twenty-eight), her beauty, his own thinning pate. “I enjoyed your story,” he said without stammering. “You a Cubbies fan?”

“Cards,” she said cheerfully. “Remember? The Cubs lost.”

For a moment he was taken aback, then he grinned. “That’s right,” he said. “The birds got lucky in the eighth. Well, everything except that – I enjoyed your story.”

“Thanks.” She returned the smile, then her hair curtained her face again as she bent to pick up a pen beneath her desk. Bill shifted awkwardly from foot to foot. She was digging for something in her purse -- her car keys? He couldn't tell. He felt like an idiot just standing there.

"Well," he said, "see you next class."

A flash of surprised polite smile -- she'd forgotten him. "Yes," she said. "Next Sunday."

But miracle of miracles, that next Sunday she'd taken the desk by his; and the miracle happened again the Sunday after that. He found out that her story was based on a real trip to Wrigley when she was ten; that she lived in an apartment complex on the edge of town; that she taught third grade and had an older sister named Annie; that she’d written half of a novel and four kids’ books, none of which had been published. Bill told her about his own experiences at Wrigley and Busch, his job as a technical writer, the time he and his sister Lisa ran away to Chicago (he had been seven, Lisa five, and they only made it two miles down the highway before the cops picked them up). He made jokes and didn't think he bored her. Still, each time he nearly got up the nerve to ask her for coffee, an uneasy silence fell into the conversation or she turned away to get something, her hair as implacable and thick as a wall between them.

Now the story rotation had come round to his group, the last, and what better part of his character to reveal than his deep-down lonelyhearts, his inborn romantic? He would write a love story.

A love story. Bill cracked his knuckles to warm them up and thought about the people he wanted. The guy first. Jack, he’d call him. Jack traveled a lot, because he was in sales. Computers – software mostly, with the occasional peripheral. Jack was Catholic and thirty-four, like Bill. He liked the Bulls and the Raiders, also like Bill. He drank hard liquor and slept with fast women. No. He drank Rolling Rock and waited until the second or third date. Better. Jack was – Bill squinted at his computer screen – blond, with a full head of hair. He exercised regularly. He was a good guy. Bill typed this out quickly before he forgot it.

And his female character -- Rita. Did people still name their daughters Rita? he wondered. It was a name he’d always liked, a fiesta in four letters. Rita was in her early thirties, petite, a computer programmer. She got her CS degree from the U and now worked for a medical software company – CompuMed, though she was bored and wanted to move elsewhere. She enjoyed hiking and rock music and ballroom dancing: and she grew, smart-mouthed and dark-haired, in his mind. Neither Jack nor Rita had ever been married. He lived downtown and liked Stanley Kubrick movies. She was out by the river and preferred Woody Allen. (Bill also preferred Woody Allen, but he’d take Scorsese over anyone else.) They both rooted for the Cubs -- hopeless romantics, for sure.