My 15 minutes:
At an early age, Xiao Wang found that he had a natural aptitude for crossword puzzles. Every week, he would buy a copy of the English-language newspaper and flick to the back, seeking out the Cryptic and setting an egg-timer to chart his progress against the riddles ranged against him. He particularly liked clues which played with the letters of words, breaking the usual covalence between characters and meaning in a way which made him forget other, less favourable parts of his life.
One day, Xiao Wang saw an advert listed above the Cryptic in the Sunday newspaper. A competition. When he’d finished the last clue (“In a glass, shadowy – 8”), he promptly sought a terminal at the town’s Internet cafe and signed himself up for entry via correspondence. The first few rounds were easy: returning completed crosswords to the newspaper’s offices via post-paid envelope. Those were the qualifiers. Then he was invited to compete in a live time-trial against others, held in the newspaper’s local bureau. A television crew was there to broadcast the proceedings, and while few watched Xiao Wang triumph over Old Li in a tense decider (quite literally, in fact: the victory came down to Wang’s slightly more acute knowledge of the differences between perfect and past continuous), the semi-finals drew far more attention; the prize money (more than the worth of a small town) may have been a factor.
Two days after he’d won the finals, Xiao Wang returned to his town. He was greeted by a few more people than usual, but there was no gross outpouring of adulation here: most of his neighbours had known him since childhood and, while affording him their friendliness and respect, could not think of him as anything apart from plain old Xiao Wang. Which left him alone, and quite pleased in a melancholy sort of way.
Xiao Wang went to a coffee-shop with his copy of the papers and ordered a coffee from the waitress at the counter. She gave him a glance with dark eyes but made no additional remark. Once he was seated, Xiao Wang tried to concentrate on the crossword, but he found his gaze drifting back to the waitress, trying to decipher the meaning to her actions. Another glance at him, fingers running past the hair drifting down her neck. A pause at the coffee-grinder. The up-twitch of a bottom lip unadorned with rouge. What did those clues mean? For all his experience with the intricacies of English phonetics and logician’s turns-of-phrase, Xiao Wang was at a loss to decipher this new puzzle.
I tried typing instead of handwriting and it shows. Almost three minutes left to spare (2:52, to be exact) – a poor gauge of timing. The first half is mostly superfluous – why do we need the competition? It reveals nothing apart from a few lukewarm turns of phrase – and my own lacklustre knowledge of Cryptics is apparent here. Write what you know: not always good advice, but when it comes to subjects of technical detail…
The final paragraph is acceptable. And I guess the competition acts as prelude to that crisis of understandings, one which I’ve been wrestling with of late. Can one transfer knowledge of one thing’s intimacies into another’s? I like the ending sentence, except for the phonetics and turns-of-phrase bit: very clunky wording. “Quite pleased in a melancholy sort of way” is something I’d probably reuse in a more valuable piece but I’ll likely forget it before then. Is the covalent bonding reference too obscure? Letters as language on the atomic scale, the crossword an act of fissile egress? My writing that is probably evidence that the best writing doesn’t always come from a pressure cooker.
If you’re wondering, the cryptic clue has no answer; I had to make it up.Anoth
The task: I set myself 15 minutes to write something, anything. Then I critique what I’ve written and give you a chance to do so as well. This is a compressed variant of one of my old regimes and a useful habit if you’re aiming to improve your writing especially under time pressures. Like weight-lifting (which I abhor), repetition is the key.