Jeff Moriarty's Assorted Writings

Cakepan Manuscript – Chapter One: Broken Bottle

Our blog has been quiet of late, so we’ve decided to try something new. The Chopin Manuscript is a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. We’re shamelessly stealing that idea for what we call the “Cakepan Manuscript”.

To help me write the first chapter of this impending masterpiece, the other members of my writing group gave me the premise “An unemployed teacher, in a wine store, runs into a former student.” Now each week one member will write another chapter and post it in the blog.

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter One: Broken Bottle

Wine Bottles

Image via Wikipedia

Dietrich rubbed the wine label with his thumb and frowned.

It was beautiful. A rich off-white paper, almost parchment, with the image of a medieval woodcut printed in deep maroon. The woodcut was fourteenth or fifteenth century if he had to guess, and showed a woodsman riding a mystical beast through a forest. The beast was part lion, part deer, and seemed unconcerned about the rider it carried. Matching the label color, the bottle glass was a deep maroon, helped in richness by the wine inside. The vineyard on the front was “Woodland”. A Merlot.

Or did he want a Syrah?

Dietrich sighed and picked up the next bottle on the shelf, trying to remember. The label on the Woodland Syrah label was identical to the Merlot except for the type of wine. Dietrich wondered where the woodcut was from. It looked original and not something cobbled together by a graphic designer for the label.

Flipping the bottle over, he saw the Syrah was even more expensive. He couldn’t afford both, not with what he spent on dinner. Setting the Syrah back on the shelf, he headed towards the front of the store with the Merlot cradled in his left arm. He knew he probably shouldn’t even buy the one bottle. Spending this much on dinner with a stranger would be silly even when he had a regular paycheck. Art teachers didn’t make much even by teacher standards. Now his income was scraps, and a new job was likely far away in time or geography. Possibly both.

Dietrich’s odd approach had cost him his job, and would make a new one tougher to get, but he was okay with that. He was fascinated by expression and creativity in all forms, whether a classical painting or a sculpture made of refuse. His bizarre projects infuriated the administration but delighted his students. More than once his class was the only one where a notoriously  “bad student” received an ‘A’. Not because he was an easy teacher, but because he actually got them curious and engaged. He heard some students attempted a Sit-In after he was fired.

Running his fingers from bottle to bottle on the shelf as he walked, Dietrich watched the labels go past. Bump, bump, bump. Every few steps the label changed but the bottles stayed the same. Or almost the same. Subtle differences, but each relied overwhelmingly on that small piece of paper to attract the eye and proclaim its individuality.

Dietrich turned at the end of the aisle and entered the checkout line behind a few people. Why had he agreed to this blind date? His brother could not have more incompatible taste in women, and he never understood Dietrich’s fascination with art, or why he would want to teach it to “smelly, stupid kids.” Dietrich would rather spend a year trapped with the smelliest and dumbest of his students than an hour with the bankers and fancy suits that filled his brother’s life. Yet in a staggering act of personal interest, Terrence had set him up with this woman, Kelly, and swore they would be a perfect fit. It would take his mind off things and get him back in the game, Terrence said. What game was that, Dietrich wondered.

The line shuffled forward as a customer finished paying.

Dietrich studied the bottle, turning it over in his hands. He wondered if winemakers were allowed to change the shape of the bottle at all. Sculpt it. Keep the same basic dimensions for packing but make the glass really flow with the label. Make a single presentation.

The line shuffled forward again.

He realized it was probably for an excuse to cook more than anything else. Cooking was an art, and an art form he was good at. Other things may escape him, but give him a canvas (or a pan) and tools (or ingredients) and he could work wonders. Maybe he should cancel with Kelly and just make dinner for himself. Then he could experiment more.

The line shuffled forward. Dietrich was at the front of the line. He placed the bottle on the stand and looked up at the cashier for the first time. She was a young girl, maybe twenty-two, with enormously green eyes. She smiled for a moment, about to speak, before she saw something over Dietrich’s shoulder and stumbled backwards in alarm.

Dietrich turned and saw a gunman rush in through the front doors, a pair of pantyhose over his face, his automatic pistol waving wildly. Dietrich backed into the cashier stand in alarm, knocking over his bottle of wine and sending it smashing to the floor.

“Empty out the registers! Now! Move it!” yelled the gunman in an oddly warbling voice. “Do it quick and nobody gets hurt!”

Dietrich blinked, confused. He knew that voice. He squinted at the face under the pantyhose.

“Zack?” he asked. “Zack Newberry?”

The gunman turned to him, the look of surprise clear even on his smooshed up features under the nylon.

“Mr. Holfinger?” the gunman asked. “From… from art class?”

(Continued in Chapter Two)

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If you love words, watch the History of English

One reason I love writing is because I love playing with the language itself. I enjoy finding that perfect word, twisting it in a strange way, or otherwise crafting something original. English is amazingly maliable, and is constantly incorporating new words and evolving how old ones are used. It’s been like this throughout its history, with even the standardization of spelling being a fairly recent development.

If you share my interest in the wordification of English, I strongly encourage you to watch this great video series from the Open University on the History of English. There are ten videos, each over a minute long, spanning from the Anglo Saxon invasions through English’s evolution as a global language.

The first video is below, and the rest of the fabulous History of English series is on OU’s YouTube channel.


Trust30 – Motivation for a month to get yourself writing

Engraving of American philosopher and poet Ral...

Image via Wikipedia

Who are you, and what do you want to say?

Do you even know?

Finding your own voice and using it in a crowded room is always difficult, but it’s become even tougher with the immense access to ideas and silliness the internet permits. Strong and creative ideas can easily give way to self-doubt, conformity, and endless revisions.

Ralph Waldo Emerson railed against this trap long before blogs, Facebook, and Twitter turned on their torrents of opinions and information. He knew the value of the individual and their unique voice. In his recently republished essay, Self-Reliance, his fierce argument against consistency and conformity is set against quotes and ideas from Pam Slim to Theodore Roosevelt. Take action, Emerson says. YOUR action.

Building on this, the Domino Project has launched a month long effort to get people moving that they call Trust30. Similar in some ways to National Novel Writing Month, the idea is to move away from self-censoring and to write something fresh and new for 30 consecutive days. Every day you will receive some motivation in email to keep you inspired and moving.

If you’re feeling stuck, or having trouble finding your own voice in your own work and life, take this challenge. It costs nothing but your time and brain cells. At the end you’ll have new habits, new ideas, and hopefully some new momentum that will take you the places only you can go.

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Wonder Woman: She’s Always A Woman To Me

Who Is Wonder Woman?

Image via Wikipedia

This is another in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Wonder Woman, the Amazon princess who was crafted from clay to become a symbol of freedom and female strength.

The Hero

Wonder Woman has had a wide range of backstories, but what has remained consistent is her status as a princess of the Amazons, a group of warrior women with little or no need of Men.  Diana is endowed with incredible strength, breathtaking beauty, and a deep compassion. She ventures into the world of Men to help them and further the cause of peace and equality.  Her weapons are indestructible bracelets which she can use to deflect bullets, a lasso of Truth that no human can resist, and sometimes a quite silly invisible jet. Her sheer strength puts her on par with Superman, but she would much rather find a peaceful solution to a battle than resort to blows.

Why we love her

She’s a woman, she’s unapologetic, and she holds her own with the most testosterone laden of males in the world. She is dead sexy and supremely competent. She stands out in a crowd, and underestimate her (especially as a Her) at your own peril.

Yet she doesn’t work the same way as her contemporaries. Wonder Woman is more of a defender than an aggressor as she deflects bullets and subdues people with her lasso. She’s here to protect us, and keep us safe even in the face of our own stupidity.

Part of her different approach is because Wonder Woman fights for more than Justice. She fights for Truth. We love to see the villains wail as their plans collapse in on their heads, but having them face their own demons and hidden truths is a defeat even more basic. It’s a blow in support of the feeling we all have (or want to have) that there is an underlying Truth to the world that we can find if we just scratch deep enough.

As A Character

DC Comics' Wonder Woman

Image via Wikipedia

Wonder Woman is a woman, and unfortunately that aspect of her character overshadows everything else.  William Moulton Marston was only considering a new hero that fought not with fists, but with love. The idea to make the hero a woman was tacked on the end of the process. As if being female was one of her super powers. An afterthought.

Unfortunately, the result was that Wonder Woman’s gender became not just a part of who she was, but her defining trait. It is easy for even casual fans to picture Superman’s or Batman’s personalities, but Wonder Woman?  Sometime she is portrayed as curious and helpful, trying to learn about the world of mortals. Other times she is angry and scornful of males everywhere. There is little consistency, and what is there isn’t very crisp. Many young girls who cite Wonder Woman as a role model couldn’t tell you what she stood for, or know that this feminist icon’s original role in the Justice League of America was as its Secretary.

This is one of my key issues in discussions of equality – if people are truly equal should the traits in question really matter?  If you point out someone’s race in trying to ensure they are treated equally, doesn’t the very discussion create a distinction that now dominates the conversation?  If Wonder Woman is really “just as good” as a male super hero in ever respect, why does her gender ever get held up as a defining trait?  She is just good at what she does, end of story.

Couple her over-emphasized gender with her history of not-so-subtle bondage references and her staggeringly patriotic bathing suit outfit and you have a legacy of issues that only super strength could shoulder. None of the other popular female heroes over the past 70 years have had anything even close.  The superhero genre is still dominated by white, heterosexual, muscular males, but thanks to Wonder Woman that ultimate Boy’s Club was cracked open. The price she paid is that she will always be known, defined, and limited, but what – rather than who – she is.

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It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines…


Image by Silverfernzcom via Flickr

Opening lines are a slap in the face with a strange hand. When done right they bring you into this new world you’re about to explore with powerful force, yet leave you needing to know more.

It has to hook your reader quickly and effectively, especially if you’re interested in selling it. In screenplays you only get a few pages, in a novel you may get a chapter. So how do you make a line that gets things running in style? Going off some of the first lines that stuck with me, and ones in the American Book Review’s list of 100 Best First Lines of Novels, here are my thoughts:

Keep it tight – Editing should remove superfluous words from your entire piece, but squeeze things extra tight in your first line. Leave no word there without a specific meaning and intent. For example, consider “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” – except for one deliberately omitted plot point, you learn something from the sheer simplicity of this sentence and specific words and phrases he used.

Make it strongActive voice and strong verbs only. You’re in control, and your story has something to say. Does “Some thought it was a pretty good time, but others not so much” really pack the same punch?

Declare! – Make a bold statement about your world, your characters, or your ideas. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” – Holy cow. Take it further and give your readers a command. “Call me Ishmael” gives you more than just the character’s name, throwing in personality, attitude, and several implied questions.

Keep it vague – Wait, what? I thought you just said strong and delcarative!  Yes, and vague. The opening line is a sharp hook, but you have a whole story over which to reel them in. After one sentence you don’t know who Lolita or Ishmael are, or who will be the hero of David Copperfield (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”) but you will keep on reading to find out.

There are no absolutes here, but if you look at American Book Review’s list you’ll see that, in general, the lines are still very compelling but get longer and more meandering as you move down the list.

Your opening line is a first, bold, glimpse into this new world you created, and like a curious child peeking through a keyhole you want the tiny sliver they can see to keep them glued.

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