The Weird Week in Writing (plus a 4th of July prompt challenge): Harper Lee re-emerges, a novelist sells her first book at 82, and a writer pens the best worst line of the year

Freaky Friday—the latest from the weird and wonderful world of
writing this week (followed by a series of prompts):

To feed a (mocking)bird: On the eve of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, a journalist tracked down the awesome, reclusive Harper Lee to figure out why she’s been so silent all these years. The reporter found Lee by agreeing not to talk about her famous book, and then fed the birds with her.

Late Bloomer: A writer sells her first novel … at the age of 82. And it’s part of a trilogy. As GalleyCat notes, take that, New Yorker 20 under 40 list that’s been haunting us for the last few weeks.

Throughout her Supreme Court confirmation, Elena
was asked about abortion, military issues, and another nationally
divisive matter:

Team Edward vs. Team Jacob.

Glenn Beck’s first thriller, The Overton Window, may have gotten critically slammed, but it’s still selling like hotcakes: No. 1 NYT hotcakes. As Beck said on his show this week, “It’s not only meant to entertain, but also to be able to go back and pore over. … I think National Review did a review on this and said it’s a book you can read a couple pages and just put down and think about for a while and do research on.” Let me know how that goes.

Paul is Undead: Jacket Copy reports on a new book detailing the British Zombie invasion. The Beatles = Zombies. However, Ringo = Ninja.

“For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil”: And the awesomely worst line of the year award, per the Bulwer-Lytton contest, goes to …

Sodapop / dreams of / Punky Brewster:
This week, memoir announcements broke for Outsiders star Rob Lowe, “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden and “Punky Brewster” star Soleil Moon Frye.


Have an excellent Fourth of July. I’ll be out next week, taking a road trip down south (and hopefully reemerging with a notebook-full of Southern Kentucky-/Nashville-/twang-/Chattanooga-/bourbon-/Atlanta-infused prompts).

I’ll post some extra prompts below for the week to come. Here’s to hoping yours is a great one.

* * *



free to take the following prompts home or post a
response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our
occasional around-the-office swag drawings.
you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

[1] In fiction or nonfiction, describe a moment in a hard-fought quest for independence—for you, someone you know, or a character.
[Aside: It can be anything—freedom in the Revolutionary War sense, freedom from smoking, freedom from a relationship, freedom from prison.]

[2] Opposite Day: In a form you typically stay away from—nonfiction, fiction, poetry, etc.—describe what the Fourth of July means to you, someone in your family, or even a character, and why.

[3] A plane flies above your house. Leaflets tumble from it, and as they hit the ground you pick one up, and read.

[4] On a vacation that you won, part of the prize is something you never, ever wanted. But it’s part of the prize, and it’s mandatory, so you do it.

feature package on how to write and sell your
memoir. Interviews with Life of Pi author Yann Martel, and
the scribe behind “True Blood,” Charlaine Harris. The results of our
Pop Fiction competition. New markets for your work. For more, click

here to check the July/August 2010 issue of WD out.



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7 thoughts on “The Weird Week in Writing (plus a 4th of July prompt challenge): Harper Lee re-emerges, a novelist sells her first book at 82, and a writer pens the best worst line of the year

  1. Zac

    Love the pieces, everyone. As always, a million thanks for sharing them here.

    The trip was most excellent, although I’m currently recuperating from an overindulgence of fried catfish, Southern sun, and other items. And Mark, I’ve got that photo prompt in the works!

  2. Mark James

    Hey Zac, if you see this before you get back, how about a picture prompt from your wanderings through the south?

    [1] In fiction or nonfiction, describe a moment in a hard-fought quest for independence—for you, someone you know, or a character.

    I created sex. Don’t worry. You’re not the only person who doesn’t believe me. And I’ll tell you something else. You know that big fight in Heaven, the one where everyone says Michael cast me down into Hell? He wasn’t trying to throw me out, he was trying to keep me in. This is how it really happened.

    I was sitting on the grass next to a vegetarian lion, planning a way out.

    Leo said, “You seem discontent, my friend.” He licked his paws, eyeing me, then he ripped up a patch of grass and ate a mouthful before he went on. “You seem to have all that an immortal could need or want.”

    “I do,” I said. “It’s driving me nuts.”

    He chewed on grass a while before he said, “Having all that you want, this is not pleasing to you?”

    I stuck my hand in his mouth and watched him rear back, as if I’d tried to bite him. “Look at that. You don’t even eat meat. You’re a lion and there’s a lamb not two feet away. You don’t even give him the evil eye.”

    Leo lowered his big head to his paws, his mane mixing into the grass. “I would never kill to eat,” he said.

    “That’s the problem here,” I said. “Never. Always. Everything. All. All the time. I want something different.”

    A shadow floated across the lake, and I knew who it had to be. It’s not like it ever got cloudy. “Keep it down,” Michael said. “You’ll scare the lambs.”

    I jumped to my feet, ran at the nearest ball of wool. “Good. Let them be scared. Maybe the lions will come around and hunt down some meat.”

    Leo made a low disgusted sound, stretched the way cats do, and walked off to a herd of baby lambs by the water. I watched them all lie down and munch the grass.

    “There’s something wrong with that,” I said to Michael.

    He slipped his flaming sword from the sheath across his back, swiped it through the grass. It charred, then sprang up again, green and, I gritted my teeth, perfect. “I can’t let you leave,” he said. “Bad things would happen.”

    “Michael, you’re only a second younger than me.” I swept my arms toward the wildflowers that covered the meadow on the other side of the lake, all the way up to the feet of the mountains. “You can’t like all this. It’s peaceful. It’s calm. It’s boring.”

    “You’re staying.” He sheathed his sword, and stood there with his hands at his sides, his dark eyes on the still lake. Even back then, he had a dangerous look to him, like gunpowder that’s waiting for a fuse. “Don’t make me go to war with you, brother.”

    I left him standing there with the lions and the lambs, and went looking for angels who didn’t like all that perfection.

    You know the rest.

    Hell’s not as bad as those books say. I’ve been fixing it up for eons. And one day, Michael, he’ll come to his senses, and he’ll take my side, then we’ll see who gets thrown out of where.

  3. Mark James

    Martha, dark humor? Me?

    [3] A plane flies above your house. Leaflets tumble from it, and as they hit the ground you pick one up, and read.

    I beheaded the night lamp because it was there, and it was dark, and there wasn’t any light. That was four months ago. Back then, there was nothing else I could be mad at. Before that, in a world that made sense, a world that had electricity, and money in the bank machines and drivers in cabs, a world that had food on shelves in stores that had long, beautiful rows of fluorescent lights, I didn’t attack furniture.

    I know. I’m obsessing about the dark. It’s that kind of night. Most times, I light a candle, and I don’t care. But sometimes, all this quiet, it gets to me. No cars, no subways, not even that Arab music I used to hear from two doors down. What the heck kind of music scale is that? Sounded like it was written out on Pluto and came by way of the moon.

    It’s happening again. I can feel it. I might be the only live man left in a city full of dead people, but I know when it’s starting again; I know when I have to light all the candles, and sit in the middle, and not look out the window, not look at the streets without cars, the skies without planes.

    The candles help me stop seeing the dark. I have about twenty nine candles for each room, including the bathroom and the walk in closet. When the sun sinks low, I fire them up. I only use my lighter for the first one, then I light them from each other. I don’t know when the fluid’s going to be gone, and it’s not like I can plan a trip to Wal-Mart.

    When the candles burn down to nothing, I don’t know what I’ll do.

    I keep promising myself I won’t burn them all at the same time. I’m wasting wicks and wax. I hear the wild dog packs hunting at night, hear them snarling and fighting over some rotting carcass they found. If I went out on the streets, they’d just about rip out each other’s throats to get a piece of me, a piece of fresh meat. But, then the sun goes down, and the shadows come, and I forget about the promise.

    They come at night. I don’t mean the kind that follow you around, you know, sewn onto your heel like Peter Pan. These are alive, and I think they’re getting hungry.

    I think there’s a plane outside, flying over, but it must be the shadows making me think that because it’s too low, making the whole building shake. It’s snowing outside. No. Can’t be snow. It’s July in the city. I open my window. Three stories up, I can do that and still be safe.

    Sticking my hand out in the swirl of paper, I grab one. It’s only got four words on it. But that’s enough.

    I crumple it up, send it flying out the window.

    Trying to light the first candle, my hand’s shaking so hard, I drop the lighter. I have a real bad moment, feeling around for it in the dark, thinking about those four words: “The Shadows will win”.

  4. Martha W

    Okay, I’ll be Pete the Repeat. Have a great time down south, Zac! *grin*

    Mark – Love your dark humor every time.

    [1] In fiction or nonfiction, describe a moment in a hard-fought quest for independence—for you, someone you know, or a character.


    Dan struggled to catch his breath. The slam of the door meant he was gone but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be back.

    Jay always came back.

    Pushing to his feet, Dan scooped his clothes from the floor and chair where Jay had thrown them, tugged them over his battered body once again.Grimacing at the sharp pain when he lifted his arm above his head, he kept moving toward the door.

    Kicking and punching had done nothing to deter him this time. The last thing Jay had said was that he going to find someone to bring home for him.

    Dan peered out the peephole. Nothing.

    Every muscle in his body hurt but he felt the relief like another living thing in the apartment. He sagged against the door, his forehead pressed to the cool metal. Whatever Jay had planned for him, he wouldn’t be able to handle. He had to get out of here.

    He straightened and moved through the apartment, careful of accidentally hitting against something. Dan dug his old college backpack out of the bottom of the closet and stuffed a couple shorts and t-shirts inside. He grabbed his toothbrush and comb, refusing to leave anything personal here for Jay to have.

    It only took minutes to grab the rest of what he wanted but it felt like time had slowed to a crawl, like Jay was on the other side of the door, waiting.

    Dan zipped the bag, took a deep breath and looked through the small hole out to the hallway again.

    Still nothing.

    He dropped his key on the foyer floor for Jay to find and twisted the knob, intent on his plan. Quietly, he shut the door behind him, leaving everything but what was in the pack. Dan crept along the corridor, took the stairs to avoid the lobby and left through the side entrance.

    His Camri sat three spaces away, but it looked like a football field to Dan. He kept close to the bushes and didn’t breath until he was in the driver’s seat with the doors locked. He shifted into gear and drove out of the parking lot, like he was headed to work if anyone were to notice him.

    Once he’d turned out onto the street and taken another left to get to his sister’s place, he rolled down the window, letting the cool night air soothe the salty sting of his tears on his cheeks.

    Freedom had never felt so good.

  5. Mark James

    Zac, have fun wandering the south. . . thanks for all the great prompts

    [4] On a vacation that you won, part of the prize is something you never, ever wanted. But it’s part of the prize, and it’s mandatory, so you do it.

    Jan won the vacation to Hawaii, and that was good. He had to get there by air balloon. That was bad. He didn’t care how many rescue boats would be following them across the ocean; it wasn’t natural to be floating around like you had wings.

    He was on the field, looking up at the basket he was going to ride in, ignoring the wall of photographers behind him snapping silent pictures with digital cameras.

    The reporter next to him said, “What’s the first thing you plan on doing, Jan?”

    That was the thing about being an actor; everybody thought you were on a first name basis with them. “Getting out of the balloon,” Jan said.

    The reporter turned to the camera. “There you have it ladies and gentleman, the first words from Jan Nigel about his million dollar vacation to Hawaii.” He made a cutting motion across his neck.

    “Jan,” the reporter’s voice was low, wheedling, “do you think you could give us a little more enthusiasm in the live segment?”

    With a professional glance at the camera to make sure it was off, Jan said, “What’s your name?”

    The reporter was fiddling with the wireless pack inside his jacket. “David,” he said.

    “Dave, you know all those stories floating around, about how I did things before Hollywood made me their bad boy? Things that maybe weren’t too legal?”

    David hadn’t been in the business long enough to hide the fear that fell across his face like a shadow. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re new and different now.”

    “Yeah,” Jan said. “So, if you ask me about enthusiasm one more time, I’ll find a new and different way to make it so that pretty face won’t be in shape to be in front of a camera for a long time.”

    The cameraman, who couldn’t hear them, said quietly, “Live in five seconds. Stand your marks.”

    When he faced the camera, David’s voice was just this side of shaky. “We’re live ladies and gentlemen, with Jan Nigel. About to ride to Hawaii in a hot air balloon, with one million dollars in cash waiting for him at the brand new Oahau Paradise Retreat.” David glanced sideways at Jan, who was staring up at the balloon’s red, blue and yellow skin. “Jan, ever had a million dollars to spend in one weekend?”

    “No,” Jan said. “Not since I knocked over a bank.” He flashed the quick, hard smile that had made him the country’s number one bad guy. “And I didn’t get to spend that.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “You know how cops are.”

    “We certainly do,” David said, pasting on a smile so fake, it should have cracked down the middle.

    The cameraman held up both hands, fingers spread. Ten seconds.

    “We’ll be there to interview Jan when he lands,” David said. “So don’t miss the next episode of Tracking the Stars.”

    David didn’t wipe at the cold sweat dripping down the back of his neck until the red light on the camera winked to darkness.

    Jan flashed his trademark smile. “You’ll be in Hawaii, right?”

    “It’s my timeslot,” David said, “but if you – -“.

    “Good,” Jan said. “When I’m floating over the ocean, thinking about things I could be doing, I’ll see if I can’t work up some enthusiasm for you.”

  6. Zakia Smith

    FICTION – Quest for Independence
    People often described me as the youngest of seven children, even before they said my name. “Can you believe it? She’s the youngest of seven children. Her older sister is Eva. You know Eva. The one who goes to Princeton.” Or, “Yeah. Seven children. Her brother Alex is on the track team.” I don’t remember being the youngest of seven children. Two of them had left for college by the time I was old enough to notice their absence. Two of them were popular and so rarely paid me any mind. Another was usually out riding his bike on homemade ramps, or seeing if a bed sheet would in fact work as a parachute if he jumped from the roof. He spent a lot of time being rushed to the hospital to check for a concussion. The last one was only a few years older than me, but when you’re a girl a few years older may as well be a lifetime. I had no interest in boys and off the shoulder sweatshirts. She had no interest dress up or making perfumes out of the weeds in our back yard. So I spent a lot of time alone, the youngest of seven children.

    When I was a senior in high school, I mentioned going to college in the fall, and my parents fell silent for a bit too long. They didn’t think I wanted to go to college. They thought I’d stay home and go to a trade school; maybe beauty school since I spent so much time on my hair. They thought that as I made so little effort in high school that I hadn’t planned on “doing anything.” They thought that I should go to work in my uncle’s store. Maybe meet a nice man. Maybe get married. I don’t remember them having this conversation with any of the others. I relayed this conversation to one of my sisters and she was as surprised as they were that I wanted to go to college. She was the one with school spirit, she said. She was the one who stayed up late studying, she said. She figured I would live out my days in the neighborhood. Maybe help our uncle at the store. I felt like they were talking about a cat, and not me.

    Being alone most of the time I had a lot of opportunity to dream uninterrupted and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. Suddenly, I was trapped in these limits placed on me and I had to free myself. I applied to schools without them knowing and left in the fall, paying for what they couldn’t by working two jobs on campus. But freeing myself from that trap lead me into another. Changing my plans changed their plans and that changed everything. I was no longer the youngest of seven children. I was the hardheaded one.


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