Sunday, January 31, 2021

We Just Need 10 Quick Ones. Finishing a story-a-day.

 This premise challenge was pretty hard. But, today I'm getting it done:

1. A city gal goes to college and falls in love with a guy who wants her to then move up to live on the Alaska homestead with his family. They have a reality television series, and she needs to be on it. And have a pit toilet and hunt bears.

2. A woman puts an app on her kids' phones that lets her read their every text without them knowing. She accidentally finds out way more than she wants to know about her son's friend group and their weird friend-hazing cult type thing. She tries to stop bad stuff from happening and ends up in a compromising situation.

3. A woman hates her stepfather. She's always just had a bad feeling about him. When her mom dies and the woman starts cleaning out the attic, she discovers that her stepfather is actually much worse than she imagined...and her mom might have been complicit.

4. An animal-lover can't stop getting animals. She has many dogs and cats, plus a couple of fish tanks, four guinea pigs, a handful of gerbils in separate cages, and a tortoise. It's hard to explain this situation and the accompanying smells when she starts to date.

5. It's the 100th year of a summer camp. There have never been deaths at the camp before ever in the camp's history, but this time, there are two in a boating accident. The trauma turns up other secrets of the camp from past and present.

6. A woman enters a writing contest and doesn't make the finals. This snub puts her over the edge, and she starts to stalk every finalist, turning up in their towns and at their online events to heckle them and make their lives miserable. This isn't a good career move.

7. A kid plagiarizes a paper, but it turns out his dad is the one who helped him with the plagiarizing. And the dad is the headmaster at the school.

8. A woman was on The Biggest Loser back in the day. She has since learned that The Biggest Loser is very bad... it messes with one's metabolism in a way that makes it impossible to maintain a healthy weight long term. Plus, the trainers yelled at her so much that she now hates every single thing about herself if she's not working out. She seeks revenge on the trainers.

9. A woman wishes to buy a vintage typewriter and finds one on Facebook Marketplace. She drives a half-hour to pick it up from a stranger. The stranger is odd and wears ill-fitting clothes. When she gets home and types on the keyboard, fantastic words and sentences spew forth. It might be haunted.

10. A woman has not seen her father in many years, and when she does see him, she's stunned by his youthfulness. He might have discovered a secret and dangerous drug to prevent aging. She launches an investigation.

Quick and dirty. And Done.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Four More Dead Bodies. Catching Up.

Well! Here we are a few days behind. In my defense, we got a new president. Joy cometh in the morning, and the reign of terror is finally over. Also, it has become clear that a major tenet of my marketing plan for my second novel (out March 16th from Penguin Random House) is me contacting everyone I know and asking them to preorder my book. 


Please preorder my book. Do it from this place, and then you get access to my launch event with Nora McInerny. This is very important. I will also sign your book before the shop ships it. Nora is a BFD, and you're going to want to see her. Besides her brilliance, she usually looks very striking and has a bold lip.

Ok, moving on. Really quick, here are four more dead bodies that could turn into novels.

There might be a dead body in the back room of the bookstore and here's why: An author moved from central Minnesota to New York City when she was 22. She hadn't written a full novel yet or secured an agent or a book deal. She had a chapbook of pretty good poetry and started an online journal. She had three other jobs she did while also trying to make it as a writer, including one in a sandwich shop. After a few years, she gives up on her impossible life in the big city and crawls back to her small town. People think she's too big for her britches. She tried and failed, and now she should pay. She gets a job in the independent bookstore, and two weeks later, she's dead in the back room.

There's a dead body in the locker room at the Super Bowl. It's not a player or a coach. It's a woman who was very vocal about fighting against the rampant sex trafficking that happens at the Super Bowl.

There is a gal who has been a life-long student at a prestigious all-girls Catholic school. This young woman is a star at that school: she has top grades, zero uniform violations, and also she has prayed the rosary with the Archbishop of the Diocese as a representative of her school. And then one night, she's caught in the monestary with a cocktail of questionable drugs on the same evening one of the elderly nuns has been found dead.

One more.

A popular progressive news host on a channel very much like MSNBC disappears after uncovering documents that link a conservative general to war crimes. She had been warned not to release them, but she did anyway, and now there's hell to pay... maybe by people who've been sworn to protect her safety.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Two Dead Bodies. Stories Fifteen and Sixteen.

 My last post was misnumbered. After today, we'll be up to sixteen. And, both of these premises will be about... MURDER.


Sarah Smith went to a state school in Wisconsin in a beautiful small town adjacent to an idyllic river. "Stay away from the river when you're drunk," her mother warned her before she left for her freshman year. Every so often a kid would drown in icy water in the winter after doing something stupid on the way back to the dorms after a party. During Sarah's first year, a kid did just that, and the victim happened to be named Sarah Smith, just like our protagonist. 

It was just really weird and kind of creepy for our Sarah that someone with her same name suffered this horrible fate. For at least a year afterward, people kept telling her they thought the victim was her. Professors, students, strangers, friends from high school. Five years after she graduates, our Sarah starts finding strange posts on her social accounts, things she hasn't posted, about what she's done and where she's gone. She changes her passwords, and it keeps happening. Then, she gets a letter in her mail one day with a return address from the same small town in which she went to school. "It should have been you," the letter says. And Sarah starts to investigate.

Now, here's story #16:

Lauren James always wished her dad was dead. He was not such a great guy and impossible to get a long with. Him dead would have been easier to deal with than their weird estrangement. The last time Lauren sees her dad is at her high school graduation. Her dad looks awful there, wearing a baby blue suit several sizes too small. He criticizes Lauren's appearance, pointing out her round cheeks, her thick upper arms. 

On the way to the graduation, Lauren wishes again that he were just gone. 

But, Lauren didn't kill him. She's suspect number one when he's found soaked in blood and vomit in his condo. Lauren didn't even know he lived in town, but her jackass older brother fed her as a suspect to the police. He showed them text messages about how much he hated him. His replies, equally as damning, were conveniently deleted from his feed.

The police don't have enough evidence to arrest Lauren, so she starts investigating. She's only 22, but she's scrappy. Her bitchy grandmother on her dad's side is her first suspect.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Two Stories about Substitute Teaching. Twelve and Thirteen.

I subbed yesterday. Certainly, that's fodder:

Fresh from student teaching, Darby keeps hearing about a teacher shortage, but at the same time, she keeps getting passed over for the jobs she applies for. It's December, so most of the openings are actually filled, but still. "You were our second choice," the principals keep saying when they call her to say that someone else will do so-and-so's eight-week maternity leave. Eventually, all of the first choices will already be hired, and then she'll actually get a job. In the meantime, she'll sub. 

It's a dystopian nightmare from the start. No lesson plans, kids who throw chairs, one who defecates in the corner, and worst of all, a guy from her graduate school program who just happens to end up at the same schools she subs at each day, even when she district-hops midweek. What's with this guy? And what's the definition of stalking?

That's one. Here's another:

Ingrid lands a long-term sub job. She's pumped because she's been out of the workforce raising her kids for a few years, basically going crazy watching spit-up dry on receiving blankets and shaking rattles above their wobbly heads. But now the twins are in Kindergarten and the next one can do daycare. Ingrid's husband wonders whether the daycare investment is worth it, but Ingrid insists. "What is the price of my fucking sanity?!" she demands. He lets it go.

Little does Ingrid know, she's walking into another nightmare. The teachers in this place are unbelievably competitive. They hide lesson plans from one another, steal each other's recess spots, and trash-talk each other's contributions to mandatory workplace potlucks. Ingrid's got to not only manage her rowdy class and keep them quiet in the hallways, but she also has to navigate this grown-up bullshit. A week or two into the job she discovers one teacher's shocking secret, and suddenly the power dynamics start to change.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Two Stories Today. Eleven and Twelve.

 I'm obsessed with mysteries and detectives right now. Maybe I should write some books with dead bodies? Here are some ideas:

Louise Marmaduke is a young woman who has just scored her first position as an investigator in a suburban police department. The main guy, Jerome Saint Ruf, is old and craggy, and Louise is young and fresh. It's a dichotomy. On her first day on the job, Louise almost quits because Saint Ruf is mean and not that innovative. Their first case is about tagging at the local park, and the guy basically terrorizes a few pre-teens who are maybe or maybe not responsible for a little spray paint. Everything changes when Saint Ruf sends Louise over to the high school on her own after a weird call from the police liaison officer. When she gets there, she quickly realizes ole Jerome probably should have accompanied her because there's a dead body in the oven in the cafeteria. It's a despised teacher of Advanced Placement United States History.

Not sure that one has legs. What about this one?

A dog trainer (I've met a few, and they've all been interesting sorts) is doing the boot camp program for her dog training school, See Spot Sit. Her livelihood and freedom are threatened when one dog at a time from SSS starts to die. Someone is poisoning the dogs. It's not the trainer! But, it's someone who hates her quite a lot. The suspects include a disgraced former employee who was found to have used small shock buzzers on unknowing animals, the trainer's mother who really wants her to do something different with her life, and a total weirdo from her high school class who feels it's his mission in life to marry her.

Also not the best. But, we all know that you just have to write the ideas and sometimes they grow better as you edit and think.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

A Story a Day. Ten.

A woman is just making her way through life, trying to be a good parent and wife. One of her kids is usually humming or singing lightly, little non-tunes, under his breath. The tunes are high pitched and loosely melodious. She doesn't think he even notices he's doing it, and is generally pretty pleasant.

One day, the song the boys hums takes a shape that is uncomfortably familiar to the woman. It's the same damn song her dad used to sing to her when she was little. It makes her spine tingle. Something messed up happened when she heard that song. "Where did you learn that song?" she demanded. She hasn't seen her dad in more than 20 years, either because they're estranged or he's dead.

It turns out the song came to him in a dream. The dream is that a guy who resembles the woman's father whispers in the kid's ear. Maybe he's singing to him from outside the window.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Two Stories Today. Eight and Nine.

As many have noted, this is a hard challenge.

Here's what I've got today:

A girl goes to a small liberal arts college in a remote area. I guess it would most likely be in New England, right? Where all those elite small liberal arts colleges are located? But, I kind of want this one to be in Montana. In any case, the girl has been pretty lucky for her whole life -- plenty of money and food and opportunity, adoring parents and teachers. She tries to contact her assigned roommate over the summer. There are Facebook groups for it, and she reaches out on social to no avail. When they finally meet, something is a little off about the roommate. She has three or four outfits total. She smells a little off, not BAD exactly, but also not like the usual soap and shampoo. As time goes by, there are weird calls to their room and odd packages, and then near Thanksgiving, her roommate filches a paper the girl is working on and hands in an identical one to their ecology professor. Later, a card from the girl's mom lies open on her bed with the twenty-dollar bill that's normally inside missing. There's other stuff, and then it gets worse. I'm thinking there's also a bear attack. That's why I wanted it in Montana.

Speaking of Montana, this next idea takes place in some of the USA's National Parks:

Some parents are divorced, and the dad moves away to another state. It's an unusual choice, but there were circumstances. The divorce decree says the kids have to spend six weeks in the summer with the dad because they don't see him hardly at all during the year. They're teens and they hate this. They miss their sports and their friends, and they don't really like their dad that much. He's not the world's most spectacular guy for reasons that will become clear in this novel through flashbacks, etc. For the second summer (after the first one was a spectacular failure when he signed the teens up for a bunch of lame-ass park league activites), the dad decides on a several-state road trip to see our National Parks. Endless calamities ensue -- falls off cliffs and into geysers and such. I haven't decided the tone of this story, yet, so I don't kow exactly what happens. But, this is the premise.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

A Story a Day. Seven.

If you go to a certain vending machine in a certain building on campus and press E1, a secret code drops with your Snickers.

If you use the code in a particular computer in a particular lab, you get access to a top secret news document that has all the latest research from the university.

If you know the right people with the right contacts, that kind of innovation can be worth a lot of money.

That's all I got for today.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A Story a Day. Six.

Each night, a middle-aged woman tries to remember to treat her unfortunate age spots with some kind of miracle cream. She remembers about one of three nights, which is probably why she still has the age spots despite the proven efficacy of the cream.

The reason why this lady can't remember the cream is that she's very preoccupied with a family of rats that has taken up residence in the little utility room off her basement. She let just one of them in just one time because it looked cold in the snow. Its little nose kept twitching and it asked so nicely for just the slightest of reprieves.

And then after she let the first rat in, they kept coming. It was warm in the house, and the two boys in the household never put away their food or dishes. There were plenty of places to scurry about and frolic. It was quite pleasant.

Except that it wasn't because rats are totally gross.

I almost forgot to do this tonight, but then I didn't.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A Story a Day. Five.

The family enters the tenth month of quarantine. Everyone seems okay.

And then one afternoon during an at-home Zoom physics class that hasn't captivated him, the sixteen-year-old of the family retrieves a wayward hacky sack from inside a light fixture and finds a tiny listening device in that very same sconce. This all goes down in his mom's office. She's a university professor.

The kid knows it's a listening device because he obsessively reads John Le Carré novels and also watches television.

Naturally, he takes several photos of the device before flushing it down the toilet. Then, he does copious googling and finds it's the same kind of bug frequently used by the one and only Central Intelligence Agency.

Of course, the kid wonders how this little thing happened to appear in his mom's office. He thinks about asking her what she might be up to, but just when he plans to confront her, he overhears her on the phone in a suspicious conversation. I'm not sure what she's saying, but it alarms him, and suddenly, he's just not sure who he can trust. Maybe not her. She might not be who she says she is, and therefore he might not be who he thinks he is either.

Monday, January 4, 2021

A Story a Day. Four.

This story sprung to mind because I have an unfortunate situation on my hands wherein I have to complete 125 of continuing teacher education in about four months. This happened because of my own procrastination and poor judgment. I started to wonder what other kinds of teachers would end up in my situation, and this is what I got:

Two grizzled history teachers who each refuse to teach anything but the niche electives that they've commandeered for the previous decade. These guys grumble in the back of each department meeting. They pull aside the idealistic newbies and warn them not to work too hard lest they make other people look bad. I can't stand these guys, and I've definitely met them.

Anyway, they find themselves in a very stupid relicensure class. They have to take it because of their own procrastination and poor judgment. 

Instead of listening to the class on backwards curriculum design, they exchange complaints about their jobs. They have a dumb department chair and a principal who's an imbecile. (Those things are true.) They're sick of the rich kids they teach at this boutique public high school in a wealthy first-ring suburb. Neither of these dudes--both divorced dads--can afford to live in the suburb in which they teach. One of them drives a twelve-year-old Honda Civic with a rusty back bumper. Meanwhile, his vacant students have shoes and handbags that cost more than the whole of one of his paychecks. (True, but uncharitable. It's hardly the kids' fault).

So, the delinquent teachers decide to scam some of their rich students. Maybe they're going to run the stock market club and actually start skimming real money. I'm not too clear on the details. But, anyway they decide on an illegal scam to take advantage of the system that has taken advantage of them.

There are still details to be worked out, but that's the premise.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

A Story a Day. Three.

This idea is ripped from the headlines. Or rather, I'm ripping the beginning straight from my friend Carrie's Facebook feed.

A woman starts getting random packages delivered by Amazon. The first is bat window clings, like for Halloween but it's winter. Next is a mini cauldron. After that comes some Borax laundry booster. There might be other little things -- a book of horoscopes,  a Magic 8 ball, a slender copy of Macbeth

The woman hasn't ordered these things, nor are there any gift notes inside the packages. It starts to creep her out, especially since she was in a boating accident the previous summer. The accident seemed at the time like just bad luck, but now, months later, little suspicious fragments come back to her that she can't explain. The guy at the marina, for example, said some stuff before the accident that might mean that someone had a special interest in this woman. The reporter who covered it seemed to have an agenda.

The woman starts chatting with an Amazon customer service rep who says to ignore the stuff.

But when more ominous things start arriving--a switchblade, ammunition for a BB gun, butterfly bandages--she starts to investigate what really happened that day on the lake.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

A Story a Day. Two.

Ok, here we go. We're thinking of a story idea every day in January. It's not going to be easy. We won't write on and on about them. The posts will be wicked short.

Today, here's my idea:

A person loses their professional job. They were a hospital employee, a skilled one. Maybe they repair complex hospital equipment like my brother Kevin does. But during Covid, cuts hit the healthcare industry and this person is laid off. They start delivering pizza to pay the bills, and one night while delivering pizza (which they hate, especially when people don't tip), they see something mighty strange at a house to which they deliver. Maybe they're at the wrong house or maybe it's the right house and somebody ordered it for them... but, what's happening there is...

I don't know, is the problem.

Are kids having a massive party with no masks? Probably not. That's not that exciting. Maybe that happens in the lead up to the main event, which is...

A woman answers the door in a flimsy robe. She's clearly in the middle of something. Ahem. 

And then, the next morning, that woman's photo appears on social media. She's missing. Or dead!

That's that. Not too shabby! 

Friday, January 1, 2021

A Story a Day: A January Blogging Challenge

 Ok, I saw this idea on Twitter, and I can't remember who started it. But, I'm doing it. 

Here's the deal: 

You think of a premise for a story each day in January. You don't tell the whole story. You just tell the PREMISE. The "what if." 

Lee said she would do it, and for this and many other reasons, Lee is my favorite. Nicole also said she would do it, but she doesn't have a Blogger blog. Nevertheless, Nicole is also my favorite. It would be really great if I could introduce these two favorites IRL, but alas: Covid. And also, geographical differences. Anyway. Onward. Here's my premise for January 1st. 

Join in if you'd like. (You'd like!)

Here's my premise for today:

What if a third-grade teacher had a heart attack while teaching the class. She tries to pretend everything is totally fine until she's on the floor and sweating and the whole she-bang. And when this happens, at the very same time, there's a lockdown. The kids are well-trained, but all hell breaks loose...


Well, I'm not exactly sure that story has potential, but that's the point of this whole thing. Just the premise. Let's do it.

2020 Book Lists! Second Flight of Great Reads!

Two days ago, I posted the first 10 of my favorite 2020 reads. Here are the second 10! Both lists are fabulous, and I like them each equally. I tried to balance the picks, so they'd be like flights of wine, except books. In this one, I tried to put the books in alphabetical order by author (as is my custom), but I became stymied by the formatting limitations of Blogger. I crashed around on the keyboard and considered moving the whole blog to SquareSpace or something, but that seemed like a lot of last-minute work. So, here you go, out of alphabetical order.

The Last Flight by Julie Clark.

Two desperate women, one the wife of a high-profile Manhattan politician and one trapped by crime, swap identities in the airport, boarding each other's flights. But can either of them truly escape the lives they're living? I inhaled this perfectly plotted thriller in a day. The writing is crisp and empathetic, and Clark expertly weaves backstory without disrupting the lightning-quick pace. I loved this a lot.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.

Every year, I come across a few books that I call "like nothing I've read before." Memorable tomes in this category include all-time faves, A Tale for the Time Being and Dept. of Speculation. This year, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a contender. Told in tight, quick chapters, this is a slim novel about loyalty, sisterhood, jealously, and yes, bloody murder. I devoured it. The audio performed by Adepero Oduye is great.

The Talking Drum by Lisa Braxton.

In this historical novel, Braxton creates a satisfying arc for each character and also interweaves their stories. Black residents in two 1970s Boston neighborhoods, Petite Africa and Liberty Heights, are under siege by arsonists seeking to collect insurance money before the city claims the buildings via eminent domain and displaces the community. This is a story about gentrification and systemic racism, and Braxton pulls it off with spare, understated prose. 

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré.

I thoroughly enjoyed this engrossing novel about child marriage and female empowerment. The first-person narration sucked me right in. Adunni, a Nigerian teenager in search of her own voice, infuses her heartbreaking story with humor and hopefulness. As a reader, I rooted for her from sentence one. I could imagine reading this alongside A Woman Is No Man, which is also about child marriage and forced labor, but has an entirely different (and also affecting) tone.

You and Me and Us by Alison Hammer.

Alexis and CeCe have never been a close mother-daughter pair. Alexis works all hours and CeCe relies on her therapist father, Tommy, for emotional support. The family functions reasonably well, but when Tommy gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, the balance they've struck upends. Alexis gives up work, so the threesome can spend one last summer together in Tommy's favorite place, Destin, FL, which Hammer describes with loving detail. Her supporting cast charms and complicates, and amidst the sadness, Hammer produces pockets of transcendent joy and laughter. This book gave me serious Beaches vibes, and you know I watched that movie on repeat in the 80s. Plus, the author, Alison, is my friend, and she rocks.

Beach Read by Emily Henry.

Romance novelist January Andrews arrives heartbroken at her late father’s beach house. She's determined to pen another of her bestsellers despite every emotional obstacle. Little does she know that her college creative writing nemesis, Augustus Everett, has taken up residence next door. His heavy-duty literary fiction is renowned, and she’s sure he despises her happily-ever-afters. As they’re both struggling, they swap genres to reinvigorate their writing… and of course, fall in love. Loved this story, and also loved the commentary about what types of writing "count." (Spoiler: all of them!)

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby.

I laughed so hard while reading this essay collection that my child told me to "chill," and my husband asked incredulously whether each sentence was actaually individually funny. Yes, okay? YES. Irby is now one of my favorite humor essayists, and as she's also an early 40s woman with a collection of related troubling symptoms, I feel a kinship. I can't believe I hadn't read her work before, and I have another tome on my shelf ready to dig into early in the new year. 
Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny.

I really feel that Louise Penny is a genius, and that this series--the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series--is genius. I love mysteries, you know. And, I love a great father figure. Armand Gamache is that, and this installment (the 6th in the series) drives that particular aspect of his personality home. While he investigates the murder of an amateur archeologist who's taken it upon himself to uncover the secrets of the founding of Quebec, Gamache also relives a failed investigation in which he's lost a young agent. Flashbacks reveal his sweetness and his regret. I always feel a little jealous when I read Louise Penny because she's such a great writer, and I am not yet as great. :) Start with Still Life. That's the first in the series.
Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer.

I'm cheating a little bit here because I definitely read this book in 2019, but it launched in to the world in 2020, at which point I couldn't stop talking about it. It's charming, delightful, relatable, and carries important messages for teenagers. Kronzer develops a winning and vulnerable protagonist, Zelda, who spends a summer at a male-dominated comedy camp in the Colorado Rockies. She adds in a supporting cast of hilarious and sympathetic kids, cultivates an important #MeToo girl power message, and sprinkles it all with funny improv jokes. I'm sorry, but who wouldn't give this book five stars?

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia.

Yes, astute and dedicated readers of my lists will remember a Kate Racculia novel in the other 2020 flight, as well. I was so delighted to discover Kate this year. She's a brilliant, funny writer, and her stories are filled with puzzles and surprises. Did you like The Westing Game as a kid? This author did, too, along with pop culture and words and riddles. In this book, an iconic Boston billionaire dies and leaves the city a treasure hunt. Tuesday Mooney, an prospect investigator for a nonprofit hospital, and a lovable supporting cast must face their demons to have a chance at the jackpot.

And that's it! I already finsihed my first book of 2021, and I know it's going to be a great reading year. Did I miss something great this year? Be sure to tell me. I'm always looking for reading suggestions.