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Rodeo #3: Three-Act Story

What is a story? We all tell them, and as writers, we craft them in the written word. A story is about Something that happens to Someone, Somewhere. It’s plot, character, and setting. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Because we are hardwired for stories, we retain data better from narrative. Storytelling is in my blood.

When I was a kid, my mother ran a general mercantile in a town of 99 people. One of those 99 was Eloise Fairbanks, a one-eyed shut-in born in 1908. Her father operated the water mill, and when she was a young woman, she rode the backcountry of the Sierra Nevadas as a telegraph lineman. Weezy, as she was called, would call the store and order a six-pack of Coors. My job was to pedal the brown bag over to her house. She’d holler for me to come in when I knocked, sitting at her kitchen table. I’d sit, too, anticipating what followed the popped tab of her first beer — stories.

See what I did there? I slipped in a little story about stories. It has a beginning and is about someone, with me as the narrator (first-person POV). The Someone is Weezy. She’s from Someplace in time (when I was a kid, the Sierras, my implied hometown). Something happened — she’d tell stories once she got her beer. The end.

According to Greeks, stories happen in Three Acts.

Act I, the beginning, the story rises. It’s marked by pity, or what we would now consider empathy. If a story is about someone, we have to feel something for that character. Literature can teach empathy because writers and readers practice it. When we care what happens next for or to this Someone, we come to the middle.

Act II shifts to fear, according to the Greeks. We can interpret this as the emotion that drives the writer and reader to worry about what happens next. Or be curious about what comes next. The driving emotion doesn’t have to be fear, but the middle holds an important shift or build-up of tension or expectation. The story is in motion.

Act III is when that motion comes to an end. The Greeks called it catharsis. The action falls; the story has arrived at an exit. A good ending is not canned, but one that lets the reader think about the story and the Someone long after the conclusion. A twist is when a writer ends with the unexpected, and it can be humorous or dramatic.

When I teach storytelling to engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs, I like to show them the science of a three-act story mapped out in a graph. This video is worth watching. Kurt Vonnegut graphs stories, and once you see their form, you’ll also understand how versatile story structure can be.

Now it’s time to craft a story!


  1. Write a story that has Three Acts (they do not need to be labeled).
  2. The story must have a discernible beginning, middle, and end.
  3. The story must be about someone, set somewhere, and something happens.
  4. The story can be fiction or BOTS (based on a true story).
  5. It can include any tone or mood, and be in any genre, and there is NO PROMPT.
  6. Make the judges remember your story long after reading it.


  1. Every entry must be 99 words, no more, no less. You can have a title outside that limit. Check your word count using the Entries that aren’t 99 words will be disqualified.
  2. Enter this contest only once. If you enter more than once, only your first entry will count.
  3. Do your best to submit an error-free entry. Apply English grammar and spelling according to your country of origin style. As long as the judges can understand the language, it is the originality of the story that matters most.
  4. If you do not receive an acknowledgment by email WITHIN 3 DAYS, contact Charli at
  5. Entries must be received by 11:59 p.m. EST on October 23, 2019.
  6. You may submit a “challenge” if you don’t want to enter the contest or if you wrote more than one entry.
  7. Refrain from posting your contest entry until after November 28.
  8. Use the form below the rules to enter.



Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, will collect stories, omitting names to select the top ten blind. Please refrain from posting your contest entry on your blog. A live panel of judges from the Keweenaw will select three winners from the top ten stories. The blind judging will be a literary event held at the Roberts Street Writery at Carrot Ranch World Headquarters in Hancock, Michigan. After selections are made, a single Winners Announcement with the top ten in each category will be posted on November 28. All ten stories in each contest will receive a full literary critique, and the top winner in each contest will receive $25 (PayPal, check, Amazon gift card, or donation).

January 20: Flash Fiction Challenge

January 20It was Christmas Eve, and I was baking sugar cookies and cooking a pot of wild rice soup for dinner. Longboarder was by the fire texting friends. The dogs needed the outdoor snow bank to make yellow snow. Longboarder offered the escort.

Grenny ran off, loping past the barn, the pond and disappeared in the forest behind our place. When Longboarder reported the escape, I wasn’t concerned. Our neighbor told us they were going to Utah for the holidays, and I saw the other two neighbors leave earlier. With no neighborhood dogs to harass and snow falling lightly, Grenny would return.

I heard the first gun shot when I pulled the last sheet of cookies from the warm oven.

Hustling outside, wiping my hands on my holiday apron I froze on the porch. The fear that compelled me outside to find my dog now had an old familiar grip on me. One of my struggles with PTSD is dissociation. The emotional fear trips a danger switch and my emotions numb. Unfortunately, so does my body. I have not experienced a full-body freeze in decades. In fact, I thought I would never do this again after years of therapy, learning to recognize triggers, understand responses and find alternatives.

Stepping outside only to hear the second gun shot split my connection and I could  not move.

Longboarder, unaware of my state, stepped outside and asked if Grenny came back. I didn’t answer and she shrugged and went back inside. How could she know my struggle? I envied the ease of her ability to walk in and out the door. I hated being frozen, feeling the accusation of an old mental enemy that what happens is my fault — normal people scream, move, do something. I felt a wash of shame.

After a third shot and much coaxing from my mind that continued to process what was happening, Grenny came running down the snow clogged dirt road from behind our place. My knees buckled and the spell broke. He was alive and I could move. He ran to me, all wiggles and we walked inside. Longboarder was happy to see him and apologized for letting him run off. I assured her it wasn’t her fault, but told her about the gun shots. She shook her head and asked why would anyone shoot at him?

Why, indeed.

Often the very neighbors behind us let their dogs run free. And they visit, barking at our dogs, chasing the barn cat and lifting a leg on my snapdragons. We’ve even had dogs from across the train tracks and highway visit. Fearing for their own safety, we’ve secured the dogs and called neighbors until we found the owners. After all, that’s what neighbors do. But shoot a trespassing dog?

Evidently this is a serious problem in our area. After the Hub confronted our neighbors over the incident, taking my response to it seriously, we were left puzzled. As I had thought, all three neighbors were gone that day. None saw — or shot at — Grenny. So who was in the forest with a high powered rifle (I recognized the retort) and shooting at dogs when he or she was the trespasser? We didn’t think much more about it until I read a disturbing article in our local newspaper.

North of us, a grisly dumping site was found — dogs, all shot with a high powered rifle. And these dogs include ones that have gone missing from where we live. Someone is killing dogs. For a writer, such stories can make for curious and dark explorations for fiction. Personally, it unnerves me. My dogs are such a vital part of my feeling connected to my body.

This brings me not to horror, but to redemption.

I may not understand autism, but I understand what it is to have something that cuts me off from myself and others. I understand the impact it has on loved ones. I understand the saving grace of a dog. Dogs have a way of cutting through terrific binding barriers. In fact, notice that it was upon seeing my dog that the dissociation state broke. My dog, though the source of my initial shock, was also my comfort. Grenny may not be a trained service dog, but this link between humans and canines is why dogs are used in service.

Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction ContestWhich is why we have an important contest happening at Carrot Ranch — 4 Paws for Noah. Blogger, writer and friend, Shawna Ayoub Ainslie, supports writers through her #LinkYourLife blog share, workshops and posts at The Honeyed Quill. And she supports her family with love and compassion, including her nine-year old son, a boy with autism. And a boy with a dog. Noah’s dog is a service-trained dog, linking Noah to the world. Training is costly but worthwhile. The contest is a fundraiser to help offset those costs. It’s only $15 to submit a flash fiction (100 to 500 words) and the first place prize is a generous $250. Second and third place (along with first) will all be featured in the newly launched e-newsletter, Roundup.

Read the rules here and submit through Submittable. All Rough Writers and Friends (except our illustrious judges) who write here are eligible to enter due to the blind process.

Not only can you make a real difference in a boy’s life through his connection to his service dog, you can write about it this week. Maybe your story will inspire others. Perhaps it will encourage understanding the value dogs can bring to our lives. And hopefully, it can be a balm to my community shocked by the atrocities against dogs.

January 20, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a boy and his dog, showing the value or benefit of such a relationship. Be creative, uplifting and demonstrate that such a relationship has merit. If the prompt takes you somewhere darker, know that writing into the dark often retrieves the light. Let it have a purpose.

Respond by January 26, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Those Left Behind by Charli Mills

Sarah coaxed the terrier out of his hiding place beneath the barn. Sarah felt numb, disbelieving Cobb was gone. Ever the backbone of the McCanles family, Cobb’s loss was crippling.

The terrier poked his head out, recognized Sarah and snuggled into her arms, darting his tongue at her face. Despite her despair, she smiled. She lifted the dog and walked toward where Mary sat erect in the wagon, stone-faced. Her children were disheveled, an unusual oversight. Monroe ignored Sarah as she approached.

“Monroe, he’s yours now. Take care of him.” And silently, she meant the last for the dog.


NOTE: My internet connectivity problems are linked to failed satellite equipment. I’ll continue to be intermittent, but I will be here!

November 18: Flash Fiction Challenge

November 18I feel like I’m breathless, dancing.

My partner is Writing and we’ve been together a long time, me and W. I fell in love as a young girl, giddy to practice story-steps on that old paper dance-floor called the Journal. W showed me new tricks with a pencil beyond spelling words and long division. With my imagination and W’s endless possibilities, the world was our ballroom.

The fancies of youth gave way to the trials of learning complicated steps. Yes, dancing with W was still fun, but our relationship was challenged by English teachers and professors, literary criticism and the needs of media editors and bosses. For a time, W and I danced secretly in other Journals we found, not showing our moves to the world. We danced formally, earning some jobs and greenbacks.

The one day, we left the formal dances, cracked open the moves we started in Journals and took a chance that we might be able to create dances of our own. W has taken me to new heights and my head is spinning.

Writing has opened new doors. Or perhaps, I opened new doors with writing. See, that’s the thing with dancing — it’s a partnership. Much has happened in a short period of time. When I was asked to host a BinderCon event, it lead to partnering with the library. When I was ready to launch an anthology project, I was offered a chance to host a contest. When I was searching for another supplementary client project, I found two that are perfect matches to what I love to do — profiles on people and place. When I went into revision I planned to come out with a draft, but I will have a draft and a serial project to plot.

When I worked 9-5, I would take any opportunity that led to my dream even if I had to write late nights or weekends. Now I am working that dream. I should feel overwhelmed at the heaping portion on my plate, or how full my dance card is, yet this is…exactly…what…I…dreamed…to do. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. This is my life’s work. I’ve found a happy balance between writing that pays and writing that fulfills. There is nothing that I’m doing that is a step toward something; this is the destination.

Life doesn’t always celebrate with us. In fact, life often rains on our Happy Parades. It blew in like a  hurricane. What happened? Well, that’s what happened — it RAINED. Yesterday morning we awoke to four inches of snow, the first snowfall in the valley. Sad to see winter arrive, but snow (not a date on a calendar) is the signal. Then the snow began to melt, the clouds sputtered rain and a fierce wind blew in replacing the rain with RAIN. Our house felt battered, wind howling in cracks we didn’t know we had and water pouring off the roof and down windows like garden waterfalls. The winds blew across Schweitzer Mountain (behind our house), clocked at 101 mph! If we had been a ship, we’d have wrecked, for sure. Instead, we lost electricity. We were lucky.

Yet Life has a wicked sense of humor. It didn’t understand that W and I had to dance! These were the dances we had been waiting for and we needed electricity! Come on! Life had its way and I actually found it rather pleasant to curl up by the fire in the dark, listening to the howling wind and lashing rain. My phone was charged and I reached out to Sarah Brentyn who so kindly rode over to the ranch to announce the delay. I prematurely got excited when the lights came on for 30 minutes, followed by darkness. By then the outage included eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana and southern British Columbia.

Life added a further insult when I began reading from my Kindle aloud to the Hub. Just as we were cooing over our rediscovery of reading together, it smelled smokey. The Hub flicked on his flashlight and smoke was billowing from the wood-stove like a steam engine. Evidently, the wind gusts were so massive that they were forcing the smoke down the chimney! The Hub knew enough about the physics of wood-stoves and he opened the damper full throttle to counter the wind force with fire. That was a scary sight! We had to hold open doors against gusting winds to try to air out the house, listening the the crack of tree branches.

Today, our yard is littered with broken branches and our house smells like an ashtray. But still I rise to the dance. I will dance across the litter Life tosses at me and I’ll counter stale air with fresh. And I’ll be late on the compilation. It’s a set-back, not the end of the dance.

In trying to regroup, I decided to get the next prompt out first and do some quick summaries. Notice that this next prompt has a longer deadline. Carrot Ranch is welcoming home the Little Buckaroos next week and I’ll be a giddy mum. We haven’t all been together in one place at one time in over three years. They’ll be expecting ranch-cooking so W will have some time off. That means W has much to do in just few days, but we’ll get it wrangled!

I hadn’t intended to be missing in action on social media, but the way W was dancing, I didn’t get the chance. In particular, #MondayBlogs, #wwwblogs and #LinkYourLife are all Twitter events I try to keep up with, but they will be there when I return. Elmira Pond is rather neglected these days and I miss connecting with Ruchira Khanna on Wordless Wednesdays, but I will return there, too. The pond is rather silent, anyhow with all the migrating fowl having migrated elsewhere.

I’m excited to share my other writing as it publishes. A new magazine is launching in Idaho and I get to cover fun assignments in the Panhandle like a castle up on Schweitzer, my favorite local restaurants and Ruby’s Lube (it’s not what you think, but then again, maybe it is). When the publishers release the name, I’ll share it. A newsletter I’ve edited for years has a new look and most of the content is my writing (pages 2, 4-5, 6-7, -8-9) though I only have one byline. The fun challenge here is to vary the voice between articles, such as representing the board, operations and highlighting their food educator. You can access the digital publication at Living Naturally if you want to see our new look. Another project is ghost-writing but I can sneak you a peak as they publish.

The Congress of the Rough Writer’s Anthology Vol. 1 has officially kicked off on a ride to publication. It’s an exciting ride and one of my favorite new dances with W and the ranchers here. Sarah Brentyn is Trail Boss as the anthology Editor. What an incredible and skilled writer for the project! Many Rough Writers have stepped up to teams on the project. If you are a Rough Writer and received the anthology notice, you have until December 9 to decide if you want to participate. Even if you don’t, your writing may be selected or we may have questions and we’ll follow up with you. If you are a Rough Writer and didn’t receive the email (some filters will flag group emails as spam), shoot me a note at We have new Rough Writers to announce and they’ve been patiently waiting for their pages — soon! I’m so privileged to be in the company of so many diverse and talented writers. Thank you!

A quick NaNoReViSo update — revision is to writing what Pilates is to dancing; both will make you stronger but it’s going to hurt! Writing is free expression (for those of us who identify as pantsers) and it feels like revision is a bunch of laws we freedom writers want to rebel against. However, revision gives what we write structure, clarity, correctness and artistry.  We think we are more artsy free writing, but the real artistry shows up when we can master the craft and apply the right creativity. Creativity without craft mastery will not be clear or correct, thus our art might be missed. I thought I’d be working more on structure, but instead I immersed in research for clarity. The result is that my improved understanding led to better plot structuring. I’m cutting much and will need to fill in new places. I can better see what work needs to be done. It’s a lot of big picture focusing, problem solving and handling details I skimmed over in writing. It’s painful, but it improves the dance. And, Sherri Matthews, thank you for dancing with me this month to tune of revision! Tough steps to learn and I’m grateful for your company.

The Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Contest is open until January 31, 2016. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you our Rough Writer judges: Sarah Brentyn, Norah Colvin, Pat Cummings and Geoff Le Pard. This is a great crew who will give submissions the review they deserve for entering and supporting Noah in his quest for a service dog. All other Rough Writers are eligible to enter, but remember this is blind judging so do not include any identifying information inside your submitting documents. We have a process in place and will announce the Winner and the over all Top Ten February 20, 2016. Entry fee is only $15 and you can enter as many times as you like. Read the details on the Contest page so you know by what criteria we are judging. Have fun and support a worthy cause!

Where am I at with Cobb? I’m resting easy these days, and focusing on Nebraska now that I understand circumstances in North Carolina better. A big round of applause for Geoff Le Pard whose real estate law background helped me understand a tough nut to crack. He also looked at it with a writer’s eye and gave me interesting plot twists to consider. I now feel that my story has the historical legs to stand on and while I can’t prove my theories, I can explore them in fiction and give a more plausible story than the ones historians have recounted over the years. If my Uncle Cobb were to sit by the campfire with me he might say I got it, or he might say I was off the mark, but I do believe he’d feel proud that a descendant was willing to search for the truth and see a whole man, not just the good or the bad.

And thank you to all who responded last week! My apologies for the weather delay and getting to this post first. In that 30 minutes of returned electricity yesterday, before it went down for good, I read a fun exchange about dance in the comments. Thanks for this prompt’s inspiration! I look forward to tangos, rumbas and more.

November 18, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write dance into your story. Twirl your characters round and round or stomp your plot onto the page. Use dance in any way that comes to mind. Be specific or free, tango or disco.

EXTENDED DEADLINE! Respond by December 1, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!


Secrets Kept by Charli Mills

Cold seeped into the corner of the Greene barn where Sarah watched him unseen. Snug breeches clung to massive legs, but he danced as fluid and light as any gay girl. More like a prancing stallion. Why did he keep dancing with Mary Greene? If only she’d the courage to step out of the dark, she’d ask him to pull molasses with her, then maybe he’d reciprocate with a dance. So cold, though. She couldn’t move.

“Mama, Miss Sarah’s waking.”

“She’s too far gone. Poor dear, I hope she’s ready to dance in heaven. We’ll never know her secrets.”


Flash Fiction Becomes a Challenge

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionAfter exploring options for developing the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction on Wednesdays (beginning March 5), I’ve refined two points. First, I’m clarifying that this is a “challenge,” meaning that any writer can participate. Second, there will not be a link option in the body of the hosting post.


These two changes alter the rules of play. Here is what to expect:

  1. Flash Fiction at Carrot Ranch begins Wednesday March 5.
  2. New challenge issued each Wednesday at noon (PST).
  3. Response is to be 99 words. Exactly. No more. No less.
  4. Response is to include the challenge prompt of the week.
  5. Post your response on your blog before the following Wednesday and share your link in the comments section of the challenge that you are responding to.
  6. If you don’t have a blog, you may post your entry in the comments as long as it is business-rated, meaning don’t post anything directly on my blog that you wouldn’t want your boss to read. Your blog, your business.
  7. Create community among writers–read and comment as your time permits, keeping it fun-spirited.
  8. When the next challenge is issued, I will post the response links to the previous challenge.

At this point, I feel like the new buckaroo on the ranch, and I have no idea if the other buckaroos will want to play cards with me. That’s okay. We can start slow. The point is for the challenge to be engaging to writers, including me. I’m inspired by other creatives and want to meet people who are tackling the same writing issues as me.

If this grows into something bigger, I’m considering making the challenge a contest. Top three responses would be highlighted and one monthly winner selected from the top responses to receive food. That’s right, I said food. Fun, foodie, organic stuff that I have access to on the ranch. No, not carrots from my garden, but prizes from vendors in the natural food industry.

But for now, mark your calendar for March 5 and stop back next week for a final reminder. This buckaroo looks forward to meeting you and reading your responses!

Why Flash Fiction?

Carrot Ranch Flash FictionLet me tell you why I’m excited to share flash fiction with other writers.

Back in “ye olden days” of the initial, it was the first social network site that I joined. It was created to give voice to those who typically followed and responded to National Public Radio. The idea was that Gather was a collection of people who were poets, artists, photographers and writers. You could share and read the stories of others who were intelligent, engaging and creative.

While active on Gather, I met many people who are now good friends. I learned how to write tankas, cinquains and other short-forms of poetry because I was inspired to try. What I learned from practicing poetry, is that the creative exercise unlocked my mind. In fact, cinquains became the opening to all my department meetings–I actually required my staff to show up to weekly meetings with project updates and a poem. By that simple act of creation, my team became more open to creativity.

As a storyteller, my favorite short form is “flash fiction.” It is similar to cinquains only in brevity. Beyond that, it is a story. By challenging yourself to craft a story in 99 words, you unlock potential in your brain. When the brain shifts into problem solving, it shifts into creativity. The constraint of 99 words adds to the problem solving activity and you will be amazed at the results.

Not only is flash fiction fun, it can be powerful. The short stories can resonate in unexpected ways with readers. A benefit of regular practice is that you also learn to “write tight.” You will find that after practicing flash fiction, your sentence structures will become more dynamic. You know, the experts always say, if you’re going to write then you need to write regularly. I’d like to tack onto that statement–have fun!

Are you with me? Do you want to infuse your writing with more creativity? Do you want to practice weekly flash fiction with other writers? Then get ready for this coming blog hop. Here are the details:

  1. Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction begins March 5 and continues every Wednesday.
  2. Look for the weekly prompt (such as, “Facts About WWII”) on Wednesday and submit your Flash Fiction link to that blog post by noon (Pacific Time) the following Wednesday to be promoted in the blog hop.
  3. Yes, this is a blog hop. You will write your Flash Fiction on your own blog (any day before the Wednesday deadline) and submit it, using the link-up widget supplied at Carrot Ranch.
  4. Carrot Ranch will promote all the submissions and make comments on each one. You are encouraged to read and comment on the other submissions, too. It’s a great way to get to know other writers and connect with authenticity.
  5. With enough active participation, this blog hop will grow into a contest. Random House is giving away a box of Kind Bars and a Valentine’s Day dinner for a writing contest they are hosting, so I figure, writers must like to eat. I do. And I’m connected when it comes to food. So I’ll be networking for food prizes so that winners can declare, “I’m not a starving artist!”

Questions? Comments? Leave me a note! Share this coming Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction post with other writers and let’s get to know each other, practice our craft and have some fun!

Here’s an example of a flash fiction I wrote on Gather to the prompt, “Facts of WWII.”

“Now what I want is, facts.” My mother’s cousin made this demand with her pencil poised to record the facts of WWII. I glanced to the hospital bed where my once giant grandfather now lay withered and wasted.

“Fact,” he said, wheezing, “I enlisted in 1942…Marines…”


“I earned top rifle scores…one of eight men…selected to guard…Admiral Nimitz.”

“Why were you selected?”

Although weak, I saw him grin slightly, replying “Looks…build…smarts.”

She grilled him for 20 more minutes then left. Once the door shut my Papa’s eyes filled with tears. “Facts are easy to recall…what I faced…I will never tell.”

©Charli Mills 2008

Question of Contests

Before I jump into that question–directed at writers, so my apologies if you are a rodeo queen–I want you to know that I’m building a Flash Fiction blog hop at Carrot Ranch. Wednesdays will be “Flash Fiction” days and I will post more about the rules of play between now and its debut on March 5.

In the meantime, I’m curious to know if you, as writers, enter your writing into contests. I did. Why? Well, if I wanted to be a bronc rider, I’d need to prove that I can ride a bronc (an untamed horse; one that bucks wildly). Rodeos are a test of a cowboy’s skills, including bronc riding.

So, I’m a career business writer making the transition into writing fiction. I’ve long dabbled and throughout the years, from workshop organizers to former lit professors to industry posts, I’ve heard that winning a few contests like winning a few rodeo belt-buckles is good for building credibility.

It’s a bit nail-biting because I might be a great bronc rider, but if I get bucked off during a rodeo, I look like a clown. Thus, I might be a great writer, but fail to win any contests that I enter. Do I then demote myself from great to failed? Such are the questions writers wrestle with daily as we cling to credibility in our craft.

Nonetheless I sent a submission. It was thrilling to get accepted so at the very least I need to remember that an editor did chose my story. The contest organizers are building reader engagement and require Facebook “likes,” good comments regarding the writing and closing arguments to persuade the judges. It’s really hard to tell if this is just a popularity contest or an authentic way to engage writers and readers. I feel caught between the confidence of an adult and the agony of being sent back to junior high school.

Leave me a comment about your views on contests or any experiences you want to share. And if you want to help a writer win a writing rodeo, at least give my story a like at: Midlife Collage Contest. If you want me to shout, “Yeehaw!’ loud enough to be heard across the horse pasture, leave me a stellar comment on my story. Winners are announced next Monday morning, Feb. 3, 2014.