Outtake – Final Exam

The mini-story below, about a final exam, is posted in response to the Daily Prompt Final. The mushroom image is the best representative I have for hyperbolic paraboloids, without resorting to borrowed imagery 🙂

That fall, Marie had boldly and confidently signed up for Math 201a: Multivariable Calculus. The topic had a visual component that appealed to Marie. Hyperbolic paraboloids reminded her of Pringles chips.

During the first exam, the pressure of finishing within an hour—the tyranny of the clock—jangled Marie’s nerves, and time got away from her. The clock loomed overhead and mocked her with each nervous glance. An hour was a minute; a minute was a second. Her mind was a wall of worry. The hour marched to its end, and she had answered no questions.

The professor, Maciej Zaborowski, paced around during the exams. He had a habit of holding a piece of chalk on his chin and accidentally creating a chalk soul patch. He tripped backwards when looking at the board and not noticing an umbrella beneath his feet. They called him “Magic Z.”

There were four exams in this course: three hourly exams, and a long multi-hour final. Failing an exam meant that the remaining exams were weighted more heavily. Marie was embarrassed but not horribly worried. She had several chances to redeem herself.

During the second hourly exam, time played the same cruel tricks as before. She could practically hear the tick, tock.

These two exams didn’t bode well. She had never gotten a poor grade in a class. However, she still had a bit of hope, and a plan. She joined study groups. She crammed. Studying would solve the problem; studying always solved her problems.

The day of the third exam, sweat trickled down the small of her back. She wasn’t prone to palpitations but she could feel her heart pounding. She knew before even submitting the booklet that she had failed a third time. She felt like crying. This was completely absurd and unacceptable.

The night of the third exam, she dreamt that she sat naked in the front row of an empty class. Incomprehensible Math 201a assignments crackled loudly out of the intercom system. Compute the surface area of the sphere above the xy plane. Locate and classify all the local maxima, minima and saddle points of the function. Find the parametric equation of the line of intersection of the tangent planes. She woke up in a sweat.

The final was now the biggest single contributor to her grade for the class. She took drastic measures. She reallocated all resources to Math 201a. Her mind swam with wave equations, flux integrals, and arc lengths. Nights and weekends were entirely dominated by Stokes’ Theorem and Green’s Theorem. Helical curves and one-sheeted hyperboloids danced before her eyes.

The day of the final exam was bright and sunny. Spring was coming and that day seemed the first hint of warm weather to come. The final exam was a leisurely, multi-hour event. There was a clock, but it was far less potent. One question after another, she answered, confident she understood the question. The parametrized surface is everywhere perpendicular to the vector field. False! The vector field has zero curl and zero divergence everywhere. True!

A few days later Marie went to the class to check on her grade. They weren’t posted yet, dammit. A day later, on a terribly rainy Wednesday, she came back to check again. She saw a flyer for a vegan support group and an advertisement for used textbooks, but no grades. On the third day she came back and saw the fateful sheet with a half dozen students clustered around it. She shoved her way to the front with a few Excuse me’s and looked for her name: Anderson… Ebert… Gibson. There was her score, but could that be right? She did a double-take. She got an A on the exam.

All at once the relief washed over her. She couldn’t believe it. She looked around for a chair; she had to sit down. Finding a metal fold-up chair in the same hallway, Marie plopped down, put her hand through her hair, and worried about her future. Would it be like this for every science class going forward: weeks of stress followed by an unbelievable day of relief? She couldn’t take another Math 201a. Shit, she thought. Maybe she shouldn’t be a scientist.

What is your attitude towards the word final? Does it feel you with unease like it does me? Do you hate endings as much as I do?

Work in progress


I will be sharing snippets from my novel Washing off the Glue in the hopes of getting some constructive feedback. I’ve been working on it for about a year now. You can see the synopsis on my about page.

The first two paragraphs:

Marie came to Burning Man to let go of a memory.

Ten long years of searching for Dad, and she had nothing to show for it. What if he’s sick? What if he’s dead? She had no way of knowing. That’s the part that killed her. Rachel, her best friend and roommate, was probably right: she should give up the search and start living in the present.

I am told “absent or missing fathers” are a cliche in novels, but I’d like to think I have a novel (so to speak) approach. It’s not about the father; it’s about the main character, Marie, who embarks on an obsessive search for him, and encounters all sorts of problems of her own.

What do you think?

Do you have any works in progress you’d like to share? Leave a snippet in the comments and let’s start providing feedback to each other!

On revising

I started this blog in order to write about my novel & the novel-writing process, and maybe to even get a little feedback, but when I sit down to put together a post I feel very exposed. I don’t like working in a vacuum, but I’m also frequently averse to sharing my work outside a select subset of people. So much of my identity is wrapped up in my creative projects that I fear criticism of the project as though it were criticism of me. I know in my head this is not the case, but emotion is ruled by the heart and the stomach.

My novel is deep in the revisions stage. I work on it in fits and starts. When I get feedback from friends or editor-types I tend to go on a rampage of editing. When I feel good about the writing, I go on a rampage of editing. When I feel like my writing is dumb, I avoid it. Right now I’m avoiding it.

It’s a bit of a a vicious circle, either in the positive or negative sense.

Do you have a source of feedback for your writing? How do you avoid that scary exposed feeling? What do you do when you feel like your writing is dumb? How long do you spend on a post before hitting that publish button? Do you revise posts after you publish them?


My form of procrastination is a random language generator.

It makes little paragraphs like this:

  • None of the nude cheese lets everything speak of her tryout. Some fiercely stunning pauses speak of her. She says, medium-size. He replies, collecting operatives. They say, mad.
  • I yearn for an oval, parental, and crimson layer. Azure housemothers can gladly take her overcast border. She says, corned. He replies, confusing those heretics. They say, confused.
  • They grin at something. Those customers have these discerning outlooks. She says, blorpy. He replies, rubbing the stuff. They say, nervous.

I wrote it in JavaScript:


I even made one for dirty language:


Feel free to use those sentences in your own writing projects.

I am a little obsessed with it. I strive to make it better and better. I want the output to be as natural-sounding as possible. It is satisfying when it spits out realistic-sounding sentences. It’s extremely satisfying when the grammar is correct. I spent hours getting the plurals of the nouns to match the verbs. I spent forever deciding whether or not a sentence needs an adjective, an adverb, or a prepositional phrase.

It will never produce a novel. If I spend half as much energy on my novel as I do on this thing, I’d be done by now. Yet, I am fascinated by the process of creating machine-generated sentences. I am drawn to it. Occasionally, from an unexpected and surprising turn of phrase, I get inspiration.

I find myself getting lost in sites like this, imagining how I would emulate such rules in my own language generator: http://www.gingersoftware.com/content/grammar-rules/adjectives/order-of-adjectives/

What’s your form of procrastination?

Gestures, movements, and facial expressions

Gestures and facial expressions are a thorny topic. I tend to re-use the same gestures too frequently in my writing.

So, I’m trying to mix it up. My goal was to come up with a list that I could refer to when I needed a gesture or facial expression.

This is inspired by Bryn Donovan’s master lists for writers and the daily prompt Chuckle


  • yawned
  • smelled
  • sniffed
  • sniffled
  • creases on her forehead deepened
  • furrowed her brows
  • wrinkles formed between her eyes
  • face became brighter and warmer
  • kissed
  • mouth twisted a bit
  • raised her eyebrows
  • raised an eyebrow
  • cocked an eyebrow
  • squealed
  • wondered
  • whispered
  • huffed
  • expression fell
  • expression grew sullen
  • expression hardened
  • expression grew flat
  • nodded
  • smiled a saccharine smile
  • chuckled
  • laughed
  • smiled
  • grinned
  • guffawed
  • cackled
  • burst into laughter
  • exploded with laughter
  • frowned
  • gasped
  • let out a deep breath
  • breathed deeply
  • sighed
  • exhaled sharply
  • inhaled sharply
  • grit her teeth
  • pursed her lips
  • bit her lip
  • bit her tongue
  • cringed
  • swallowed
  • drank
  • took a swig
  • smoked
  • took a drag of her cigarette
  • clenched her jaw
  • bit her thumbnail
  • bit her nails
  • wrinkled her nose
  • scrunched her nose
  • sneered
  • smirked
  • grimaced


  • gaze followed the tiles of the dirty floor
  • gaze tracked
  • gave a look
  • looked down at her feet
  • looked at him
  • looked out the window
    • I try to avoid using look/looked/looking very often
  • narrowed her eyes
  • squinted
  • noticed
  • glared
  • stared
  • peered
  • watched
  • ogled
  • glanced down at her hands
  • glanced sidelong
  • glanced back
  • surveyed
  • inspected
  • took her in
  • with tears in her eyes
  • eyes welled up
  • eyes glistened with the beginning of tears
  • focused on her feet


  • clenched her muscles
  • shivered
  • crouched
  • knelt
  • plopped down
  • hunched
  • her shoulders fell
  • slowly moved to a sitting position
  • stood up
  • sat intently reading
  • sat down
  • jumped up and down
  • ran into her bedroom
  • sank into her seat
  • sweated
  • shook
  • quivered
  • hugged
  • woke up mid-sentence
  • shrugged it off
  • shrugged
  • paced around
  • tapped her foot
  • bounced her knee
  • crossed her legs
  • folded her legs
  • crossed her arms
  • folded her arms
  • stood back
  • stood up
  • straightened up
  • tensed
  • a knot formed in her back
  • shuffled
  • ambled
  • slowly made her way
  • walked
  • trotted
  • pranced
  • traipsed
  • perambulated


  • shook his hand
  • tapped the side of her nose
  • rubbed her temples
  • pushed her bangs away from her eyes
  • pushed her fingers through abundant curls
  • pushed her braid behind her shoulders
  • adjusted her braids
  • twisted a lock of hair around her finger
  • let her hair unfurl
  • twisted a ring around her finger
  • held up her hand
  • splayed her fingers
  • splayed her legs
  • put her hand on her stomach
  • drew the sharpest weapon she had
  • bounced her fists
  • formed a fist
  • interlaced her fingers
  • grabbed his hand
  • pointed
  • released his hand
  • made the motion of waves with her hands
  • touched his face
  • flipped through a book
  • shuffled the deck
  • examined her fingernails
  • reached out
  • hands turned with palms towards her
  • put his hand on her shoulder
  • twirled the pen
  • clicked the pen
  • high-fived
  • scratched her droopy cheeks
  • clutched a bottle
  • put on gloves
  • took off gloves
  • rubbed her forehead
  • rubbed the nape of her neck
  • rubbed her eyes
  • rubbed the back of her neck
  • fiddled with her hands
  • squeezed her hand
  • squeezed her shoulder
  • clasped her hands
  • clapped
  • picked it up
  • put it down
  • grabbed her hand
  • plucked an eyebrow
  • pulled a thread
  • pulled a cuticle
  • punched a pillow
  • drummed her fingers
  • squeezed the spot between her thumb and forefinger
  • put her hands on her hips
  • rested her hand on her hip

Do you have any others to add to the list?