Writers Contest Entry: Stage Craft

wagon wheels

Today we present for your entertainment the first entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest. Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.

wagon wheels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Stage Craft


Writers Forum Member #1

Sheesh. What does the old geezer want now, Matt thought as he trudged reluctantly for the third time that day out to his uncle’s workshop, almost tripping along the flagstone path that led up from the house. And just when I was getting the hang of Level 9 on that awesome new video game Mom sent me.

Fourteen-year-old boys weren’t supposed to be at the beck and call of any old relative that agreed to put them up for the summer, Matt grumbled to himself. It didn’t matter that Mom was off enjoying herself on a honeymoon after marrying that banker who had been hanging around the house for the past year-and-a-half. Matt was much more interested in mastering the finer points of his new X-Box game player than helping out his Mom’s oldest brother, Ken Moss.

Oh, Uncle Ken was an OK guy, Matt allowed. For someone who was retired, anyway. But there was never much of anything fun to do in Butte, Montana. He’d already seen the huge open pit mine twice. At least the part that hadn’t filled in with toxic wastewater poisonous to birds. And the open-air museum was way too dusty and crowded with summer tourists to really explore the way he wanted to.

Why couldn’t Mom have sent me to Disneyland or someplace fun for a change, Matt muttered to himself as he pushed aside a heavy wooden door partially blocking the workshop’s entrance. Every time Matt caught a glimpse of this place, his mind filled with wonder. This was no ordinary workshop. Built almost entirely of recycled barn siding, the shed where his uncle spent most of each day could easily have swallowed up several three-bedroom houses and still leave room to shoehorn in a detached garage or two.

Scents of tanned leather, glue, burning coals, hot metal, wood shavings and varnish filled Matt’s nose even before he had fully drawn his first breath.

“There you are,’’ Uncle Ken hollered at Matt from across a dimly lighted space piled high with large wooden wheels, some of them missing a few spokes.

“I need you to do some research for me on the computer upstairs,’’ the old man continued as Matt’s eyes adjusted from bright sunlight to the semi-darkened room.

“The spokes on these wagon wheels are splintering whenever they use my coaches for a TV commercial. I’ve got to replace every one of the spokes on these wheels,’’ the older man said as he brushed a thin shock of gray hair out of his eyes.

“I reckon our Montana prairie dog holes, rocks and gullies are taking their toll every time they drive my Concords over open country at full gallop,’’ his thin-faced uncle continued to grumble to no one in particular and anyone within earshot.

“I’ve got to find a way to build these wheels stronger on my replica stagecoaches or Wells Fargo Bank will stop buying ‘em.  The first three coaches I built for them are relegated to parade duty until I fix the wheel spoke problem,’’ Ken said by way of further explanation to his nephew, who was just beginning to catch on.

If you ask me, I think the sawmills are selling me their culls,’’ Ken continued even before Matt could respond. “So, if there is a place back east that could make spokes for me from better quality wood stock, it would save me time and effort. I need you to find me that supplier, and I need it pronto! Do you think you might put those computer skills of yours to work and do that for me, lad?’’

“I dunno, Uncle Ken,’’ Matt responded, somewhat surprised yet pleased that his uncle was finally asking him to do something more important than simply fetch a glass of iced tea or a clean packet of shop towels from the house.

“I guess I could do a Google search on wooden coach wheels and see if anyone makes spokes for them,’’ Matt gulped. “Would that help?’’

“Sure thing, Matt. That’d be just what the doctor ordered,’’ his uncle said as he stooped to inspect a wagon wheel that he was repairing.

“Er, Unk, I think I might need just a bit more information from you before I start,’’ Matt said following a few seconds hesitation. He did not want to distract the 67-year-old who was obviously concentrating hard on something.

“I mean, like, what kind of stagecoaches are you making? How big are the wheels? And what kind of wood do you want the spokes made from?’’ Matt blurted out, his mind spinning with all sorts of other intriguing questions that he desperately wanted to ask. Continue reading

Queen’s Letter: Notevengonnatrytolookupwhatdayitis

writers forum president

This week’s Letter from the Queen highlights some important issues we have to deal with today. Laura’s piece on contact testing and continued social distancing should go viral. It’s that important. And then Laura gives us another great writing aid.



Contact Tracing

I’ve done this.  When I was in graduate school for Medical (Urban) Anthropology, I manned and ran the Hotline at the university health clinic in the eastern San Fernando Valley.

It wasn’t the flu we were tracing. It was venereal disease. Girls would call; it was mostly girls calling.  They would call and describe symptoms we were trained to ask about, and we’d make appointments at the clinic for confirmation testing. The reason there were more girls calling than men is because most of the time, females have symptoms they notice. Their male partners did not have symptoms. But they were carriers. The men didn’t know they were carriers. Yet.

That’s where contact tracing found them. In the appointments at the clinic, girls were encouraged to make a list to take home, of the sexual partners they had in say 6-8 weeks previous to the onset of symptoms.  It was up to the infected girls to contact their previous partners and encourage those partners to come to the clinic (or an anywhere clinic), for testing and treatment.  There was blaming, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

I encouraged the girls to paint a grim picture, with colorful language, for the important phone call they would have to make to each partner (former and current, cute or ugly). She, in turn, was encouraged to use colorful language to encourage the partner to come clean and get clean before he made any further contacts.  Once the male partner(s) came into the clinic, same dosey-doe. Each contact was traced by each person who came for treatment. The clinic didn’t contact the contacts on the list.

Unless a person told us that a contact refused treatment and made some kind of threat that they would intentionally continue untreated contact with the community. That didn’t happen in our clinic. But we heard about a guy who did that at another university. Cops were involved as a Public Health Emergency. For that one guy.

Contact tracing for Chingona Virus is coming. It’s already here. That’s how we heard about that Redding woman who just had to go to Sacramento to visit a sick person and brought the Chingona back with her to her son, to her church.  She was asked, after she was sick, who the hell she had contact with. She told health care workers before she died. The health care workers did this tracing and contacted those people she contacted because she was too sick to make the phone calls.

Staying the eff at home makes contact tracing much easier.  One way you can make this easier to do for yourself is to keep your receipts from the grocery store and the drug store for 3 weeks at a time in a prominent place. They are date and time stamped, so you don’t have to remember when asked, and health care workers can find these in case you are too freaked out when asked after you get sick or someone you know is now sick and you had to visit them and are now busted. And, of course, these are the only places you should be going for a while, so that’s not a lot of receipts to keep, is it? Don’t rend or gnash, just keep your receipts.

As of today (it’s the latest, trust me) Age 18-49: 26,956 cases,

Age 50-64:14,078 cases

Age 65+: 12,098 cases

in California. What the hell does this mean? It means that Californians who are 18-49 are getting sick far more often than older people. My guess is that they are also more likely to not be staying the eff at home. And also more likely to get in their cars to go somewhere else for recreation because, you know, they are bored.  And it’s not that they are going on a hike in the wide, open spaces and not contacting other people. They go to the gas station to prepare for driving Somewhere Else. They buy snacks at the gas station or one of our little markets. Contact. If your nephew, or grandson or sons and daughters are doing this, don’t yell at them, just back away. Tell them to just wave from where they are. Save a nurse.

Things are opening up, but not all the way and we are still vulnerable to spreading this and getting this. Wear an effing mask.  Not while you’re driving. Didn’t you read about that woman who was driving around with her mask on and hit a tree because she passed out at the wheel? The mask is hard to breathe through. I saw 3 people driving around downtown Redding yesterday, wearing masks while driving.  Don’t do that.  It’s going to start getting warm outside and that makes breathing more difficult, too. Limit wearing your mask to when you get out of the car to get groceries.  And you can’t put on your lipstick before your mask.  Found out the hard way. A cloth sleeping mask, turned upside down with the “nose part” flipped up, can make a pretty good mask with something you may already have around the house. Don’t try and order N-95 ones yet as our health care professionals still need them more than you do.


I know you’re bored and freaked out. I’m one of those. I’ve been trying to write and have been reading about writing, which is the same thing (it is, it is, it is!).

The funnest book in My Pile right now is Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody. This book has a predecessor for screenwriters and this book builds on that one for helping us write something as riveting as a great movie.  She’s written (and sold) some 15 bestsellers (YA mostly), so she does know a couple things.

This book helps you write a Beat Sheet for your plot points to fill out the Three Act Structure. It’s good for planning something you haven’t done yet, but it’s also great for fixing up what you’ve already written! Jessica (I can call her by her first name because I have contacted her online and now we are Pretend Friends!), shows examples of what she’s writing about in popular movies so you can get the visual.

And there’s more! Udemyyes, I spelled that right…is an online teaching place that offers Jessica’s “Write a Best Selling Novel in 15 Steps” course!  It’s offered on sale for $9.99 most of the time (wait for a sale, not the $50 price), and once you buy it, you have it online forever. It’s a lot like the book, but not exactly, but it’s very good to use and play along.  You can go back anytime and re-view one of more of the almost one-hour class. Go to www.udemy.com to sign up, create an account and pay online. There are 100s of classes to take, not all of them by Jessica.

I bought her book, marked it up and use it, but I also bought the course from Udemy because sometimes you need a puppet show.

Jessica’s course on novel writing is presented in little blocks of something like 5-10 minutes each with examples, charts, short outlines, and clear explanations from her little face of what the hell she’s talking about. You can stop and start and repeat in the middle of each lesson and go back and forth as you need. She shows how popular and classic novels used what she’s talking about (because they all have these beats!), and of course, how popular movies show her concepts. AND this gives you a movie and book list to learn from and get back into right now because you need more to watch now!

She explains things like Theme, the Catalyst, the Debate, and the B-story (which is NOT the sub-plot but is the main character’s emotional development throughout your novel, her reason for and resistance to the change she needs to make to survive her story).

You’ll learn exactly how to improve your Fun & Games, Midpoint, Bad Guys Close in, All is Lost, and the Dark Night of the Soul. And yeah, you need to improve all that to write and sell your best-selling novel. The Finale Beat and Final Image spots are the necessary ending parts that will make you sure you have given the reader what she needs to love your novel and look forward to your next one.

There’s a “writer’s room” at the end of each “chapter” or “beat” where she shows you what she’s working on that illustrates what she just said, and shows you how writers plan in person, in real time, and how we can help each other “spit-ball” ideas in the comfort of your living room in the Time of Chingona Virus!  See how that all came together?!

Learn something new online, you know, Distance Learning. Continue to stay the eff at home. And just be glad it’s not the University Health Clinic contact tracing you.

Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.

A Workshop Experience

As newsletter editor and webmaster for Writers Forum, I have tried for years to get several members to write about their experiences at workshops or conferences to share with the rest of us who had never been to one. The rest of us would like to know what to expect from them, what not to expect, but above all, whether it was really worth the time and expense to break up our normal routines for a few days to travel away from home, mingle with total strangers, and put our writing out there for everyone to see and criticize. However, none of my invitations to write had ever been followed up with an actual piece to share with you.

That’s right. I said ‘rest of us.’ I had never been to one, either.

That changed last fall when I took the opportunity to attend the Writing By Writers Tomales Bay Workshop.

The application period is once again open for this annual workshop, and I hope that by telling you what I gained from attending last year’s workshop, some of you might be encouraged…even emboldened…to give it a shot this year.

When I say ‘emboldened,’ I really mean that. It takes a certain level of grit to open your creative self to the whim of strangers and lay it all out there on the line. And to pay top dollar to do it. Especially when you have been playing on a small stage for a while, like we can when the only people seeing our writing has been our family, friends, and local writing group. The small familiar audience can feel safe. Secure. Comforting. Why would I want to rock that boat?

Because there is a bigger world out there that needs your writing.

Let me tell you about the motivational trigger that finally convinced me to try a workshop.

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a memoir of my time in the California Conservation Corps. It has technically been a work-in-progress for almost thirty years. I started jotting down trail stories and collecting them with encouragement from a college English teacher around 1991. Over the years, these stories have collected into about 70,000 words. Now I have a bunch of small stories, and I need to build them into a coherent narrative of about fifteen months of my life.

A few years ago, nationally known writer Pam Houston came to Shasta College for a reading. Several Writers Forum members, including our president Laura Hernandez, and Alicia McCauley, were excited to hear Pam speak. They convinced me that it would totally be worthwhile to attend. I did. They were right.

Pam read a selection from her memoir-in-progress. I was spellbound as Pam read about her balancing of two lifestyles…a high country Colorado rancher, and a UC Davis creative writing instructor. Over the next few weeks, I went out and either bought Pam’s books or checked them out from the library. This writer was the real deal, and I was hooked.

Early in 2019, Pam’s memoir was published: Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I bought it immediately. It delivered everything promised in that reading at Shasta College. I did something that I never do. I contacted the author directly to tell her how much I enjoyed her new book. I also mentioned my memoir-in-progress, and that her memoir was an inspiration to make progress on mine. Since I had been following her Facebook author page, I sent it as a Facebook Message.

To my surprise and delight, she replied in a few hours.

She said,“The world needs a CCC memoir.”

Validation. That’s what Pam gave me in those few simple words, and that’s exactly what I want to give you. Validation that the story you are working on has value, and the world needs your story. Your story. And a writing workshop can help you do that.

Every workshop out there is different. You should learn as much as you can about any workshops that might interest you. Some workshops focus on creating new material. Others focus on critiquing something you have already written. The Writing by Writers Tomales Bay workshop is mostly the latter. The workshop started out as an official part of the UC Davis MFA program. However, budgets got tight and the workshop was on the chopping block. Pam decided to try to save the annual workshop as a separate endeavor not funded through the University of California.

She has been successful.

The workshop is still attended by many students in the UC Davis MFA program, but it is open to anybody that cares to apply. It is a four-day workshop, and the tuition cost includes lodging and three meals a day at the Marconi Conference Center, a California State Park on the shores of Tomales Bay. Once you are there, you do not have to leave the facility for days. Enjoy the time!

What can you expect when you are there?

Let me walk you through my few days there.

I checked in and received my room assignment. I met my roommate, who turned out to be somebody that I had heard regularly on a San Francisco news radio station when I had lived down in the East Bay.

I thought, ”What am I getting myself into here? This guy is a pro!” Well, it turns out that a pro radio broadcaster is not the same thing as a pro author. He shared with me some of his writing projects, and they sounded a lot like some of my writing projects. And your writing projects that I know about in Redding. Yep. Your writing projects. And my new broadcaster friend knew that he needed help to get his stories where he wanted them to be.

Dinner was in the conference center dining hall. The food was great, as you would expect it to be in Marin County. We had plenty of time to enjoy our food and talk with other workshop participants. I found out that some of them attended the conference every year. They kept coming back because it was their annual opportunity to totally immerse themselves in writing.

The first evening program introduced us to the staff and instructors, and let us know what to expect over the next few days. Each workshop group learned where they would be meeting the next morning when work started. Then it was free time to do whatever we wanted to do. We could mingle. We could buy books by the workshop instructors. (I didn’t buy any books that first night.) We could go off by ourselves, to write or read or think. We could go to bed if we wanted to.

After breakfast the next day, our groups met to critique. Everybody got a turn in the chute. I had volunteered to go first. I wanted to get it over with quickly.

In a critique, the author isn’t allowed to respond. The goal is for everybody in the group to present a critique of your work. The author is expected to listen to it all and take notes. This gets you out of the defensive frame of mind, where you might naturally respond to critique with justification for the choices you made. Believe it or not, this works. It is not adversarial at all. You know that everybody in that room is on your side. Everyone is trying to help you improve your work. You take your notes and go over them later. Some of the critiques are going to be right on the money. Maybe most of them will be. But not all of them. Then your job is to take the critiques that you think provides the most value for you and edit your piece. This morning workshop is where most of the heavy lifting is done over the four days.

Before you know it, the morning is over, and your group has critiqued three pieces from the group of twelve. You are expected to participate in the critique of each piece. No hiding here! Then you go up to lunch. You can eat with people in your group, or you can mingle with other people attending the workshop. Either way, you cannot lose. You are meeting other writers. You talk about each other’s backgrounds, of course, but the talk always gets around to writing. You are learning from each other even when you aren’t in a formal workshop.

After lunch is free time for a while. You can nap. Or you can mingle. Or you can write.

Then there is a panel discussion for the afternoon program. Several of the workshop instructors will have a discussion in front of the assembled workshop participants on some aspect of writing.  Attendance is not mandatory at these afternoon workshops, but you are there to spend the weekend focusing on writing, so why wouldn’t you attend? One benefit to these workshops is that you get to hear from other workshop instructors. I was overjoyed to have gotten into Pam’s fiction and memoir workshop, but when you listen to the other instructors talk, you realize that you could not have gone wrong, whatever workshop you would have gotten into.

There is another break after the afternoon panel discussion. Use your time however you would like. Then dinner, and evening program. One of the instructors will give a talk and a reading from one of their works.

Then you start to wonder, “How could I have not heard of these writers before?!” Then you are glad that the bookstore is open every evening. You start buying books. And getting the authors to sign them. And you take every opportunity you can to talk to them about their books. Because at this workshop, the instructors are mingling among the attendees. They talk with people. They interact with people. They are even eating their meals in the same dining hall as everybody else.

Then more free time, and eventually bedtime.

That’s how it goes for four days. Total immersion in writing. A phenomenal experience. An unforgettable experience. An experience that should put plenty of gas in your writer tank.

Have I mentioned the oyster reception on the last full day of the workshop?

I recently exchanged emails with the program contact person. At this time, they are still expecting to proceed with the conference, which runs October 21-25. They do still have spots available. Go to the Writing By Writers Tomales Bay Workshop website for more details and to sign up.

If you have ever been tempted to try a writing workshop, this would be a great one. You will be glad you did.


Writers Forum is open to submissions for the blog or the newsletter. Please submit copy to the editor at writersforumeditor@gmail.com . Electronic submissions only. Microsoft Word format, with the .docx file extension, is preferred but any compatible format is acceptable. The staff reserves the right to perform minor copy editing in the interest of the website’s style and space.

Type of Material and Guidelines for e-newsletter and Website Submission: 1.) Your articles on the art or craft of writing. 2.) Essays on subjects of interest to writers. (200 words can be quoted without permission but with attribution.) 3.) Book or author reviews. 4.) Letters to the Editor or Webmaster. 5.) Information on upcoming events, local or not. 6.) Photos of events. 7.) Advertise your classes or private events.