Monday, November 11, 2013

Ten Minute Tales...and a Longer Tale from London

Having hit a wall with this evening's regular writing attempts, perhaps another 10-minute writing exercise from Take Ten For Writers will put me back on track.

After consulting with Twitter, I'll tackle exercise #42. Douglas Adams fans will be sad to learn this one isn't titled "The Meaning of Life." Nope, this one's "Lingo-istics," which is the author's expression for "the touches of slang added to your dialogue to make your writing sound more realistic." Twitter also chose the number that will provide my list of words: numero neuf.

It appears I'll be using Australian lingo. I'll highlight in blue the expressions I had to work with.

1997: I'm eating in a low-grade Chinese buffet off Leicester Square. So far on this trip to London, I've done well as far as student-budget dining goes. This place shows every sign of being a disaster. The chafing dishes are placed in a circle. Apart from rice, every item appears to be made from the same base sauce. The chef believes onions are their own food group - they overwhelm every other ingredient. This belief extends to the base sauce which underlies every hot item, which is little more than barely fermented black beans and dry onion soup mix.

I sit down at a communal table, where I'm quickly joined by a stereotypical backpacker. He introduces himself as Michael, an Australian touring the world. For the next half-hour he's a living, breathing infomercial for his father's hotel back home. I received what Michael called an "earbashing" - an unending stream of details about his family's pride and joy.

"The food's awful here, isn't it? I should have gone to Maccas, but they're everywhere on the planet, aren't they seppo?"

Translation: he should have eaten a Big Mac and enticed potential customers at the Golden Arches. I discover "seppo" is slang for "American," though I had to clarify that despite lingering traces of a Midwestern accent,  I was Canadian.

"How come you don't say 'eh,' eh?" he joked. "Where's the flag pin on your daks?"

I thought he meant my backpack, but it turned out he was referring to my pants.


View from Primrose Hill (2)
OK, this isn't Leicester Square. And the picture was taken in 2006, not 1997. Still, it's a nice picture of the London skyline from Primrose Hill, isn't it?

The tale is inspired by an actual encounter I had at a low-grade Chinese buffet during my university semester in London. Not sure why this memory was triggered. After completing the story, I dove into the journal I kept while I lived across the Atlantic, to rediscover the actual story.

The spot was Mr. Wu, which appeared to be part of a chain. My unintentional dinner companion was English, not Australian, and was possibly in an altered state of consciousness. He rambled on about his parents' B&B in Bath, steering the conversation back to it whenever I switched topics.

An excerpt from the February 22, 1997 journal entry:

Being single, I was seated with another couple. There was one more empty space at our table, which was filled halfway through my first plate. The new diner was a strange little man with blonde hair, stubble, and eyes which couldn't focus. From the moment he sat down he started rambling on. Noticing that I was reading a book about films of the 1960s, he started talking about a book which collected articles from Oz, an underground periodical of the time. I wondered how I could get this pseudo-hippy to shut up.

Eventually he dropped the subject and move on to more interesting things. He repeatedly recommended a B&B his parents owned in Bath and that even if I didn't stay there, a trip to that city was worthwhile. I never found out exactly what Patrick Dunning did - all I knew was that he was 31, had traveled extensively as a student, having several work abroad trips in Australia. It sounded as if he may have been a photographer. I sensed he needed somebody to talk to for the hell of it. The more he talked, the more I didn't mind. He continually apologized for rambling. In a way, I had been looking forward to hear somebody from this city talk about anything, even if they seemed to be in another world.

He left me with the number of his parents' hotel in Bath. I had to leave after an hour to make my way down to the South Bank. Perhaps I wouldn't have been able to shake him off otherwise, I don't know. I sensed he was homeless.
Note for Patrick Dunning if he ever stumbles upon this: If you weren't homeless or stoned, I apologize for thinking you were.

Why was I headed to the South Bank? Based on the rest of the journal entry, I was taking advantage of cheap student admission to catch a concert of pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. Further details would be in Royal Festival Hall programs currently residing in Amherstburg.

The quality of the food was inspired by another Chinese restaurant, where the fare was so awful the eatery remains nameless in my journal. The only clue is that it was in a basement on Gerrard Street. Every item swam in onions and tasted as if the chef had diluted stir-fry sauce with Lipton's onion soup mix. As the January 18, 1997 journal entry puts it, "your mediocre North American chop suey n' chicken ball joint could do a better job."

I stuck to cheap Indian food (mainly at The Raj, a long-gone spot at the south end of Camden High Street), old-school caffs, and affordable Italian eateries after this. 

Thanks to Greg Burrell and Chris Wilson-Smith for promptly picking the numbers I needed to do this exercise.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ten Minute Tales

One of the reasons for this site is to have fun practicing/improving my writing skills. I constantly borrow books of writing exercises from the library but never get around to doing them. Could be all that other writing I do, but who knows.

Among the books that fall into this category is Take Ten For Writers.The set-up is simple: there are 100 exercises, each with a different premise. After you read the scenario, pick a number between 1 and 10. Flip the page, and your choice will provide a phrase you must use, a concept for your story, opening or closing sentences, etc. You write for 10 minutes.

Here’s my first attempt. Rather than do the first exercise in the book, I’ve chosen the one matching my age. The concept (which I'm outlining to scary copyright notice): you’ve been hired to write for a new supermarket tabloid, a la the Weekly World News. Your boss hands you a headline but no equipment to research anything related to it. You’re inventing the story. As he puts it, “Everything you need is in your head. Write from there.”

There are 10 headlines to choose from. Since today is November 2, I’m going with numero deux. Ten minutes. Start writing…NOW!


ORCHARD PARK, NY: Medical students observing work in a local hospital this week made a sweet discovery. A sweet, juicy discovery.

Instructor Dr. Bill Bison was just as stunned as the future sawbones when he opened up the chest of Kelly Levy, 62, and discovered a small watermelon growing inside.

“I’ve seen many strange things in my lifetime,” said Bison, a skilled medical practitioner for the past 36 years. “But a watermelon growing in a human? That takes the cake.”

At first, Bison thought the watermelon was a prank performed by the students when he briefly left the room to heed the call of nature after making the initial incision. But the degree the fruit’s tendrils were attached to Levy’s chest cavity proved it was no joke.

Bison called in a local gardening expert, Merv Weinstein, to observe Levy’s unusual growth. Weinstein estimated the eight-inch wide melon had grown inside of Levy for several months.

According to a student who knew Levy, the retired auto worker had complained of intermittent chest pains recently, but refused to visit any doctors. “I tried to examine him myself,” said Pearl Allen, “but he refused every time.”

Bison was certain that Levy had expired from a heart attack, and believed this would provide his students with a fine example of how to distinguish heart disease as a cause of death.

Levy’s family has refused comment on the matter, though a distant cousin, Marv Saban, joked that the melon could be served at Levy’s wake. “That way, we’ll all enjoy a sweet memory of Kelly.”


If anyone wants to test their 10-minute writing skills with the same exercise, go crazy in the comments section.