I'm going to do something a little different this month. June's first story, Just S'posen by Sandra Stoner Mitchell and the last story, The Forest by Shalee Reeve have so much in common that it makes sense to discuss them together.
The similarities are obvious: Both stories feature a friendship that is tested by the trials of darkness, being lost, and physical hardship. Both stories feature male characters in situations that would generally be associated with male characters, yet both stories are written, and written well, by women.
Also, the friends survive and after their trial they are put into the hands of the authorities. The primary difference is that in Mitchell's story the two best mates make it on their own by their own determination, and their friendship never wavers. Reeve's friends have a third person to worry about, and the plight of that third person serves as a wedge that separates the friends.
Regarding that feature, I thought one real nice touch was James imagining Ash calling him names and mocking him, and how welcome that would be since it meant rescue.
The biggest difference is the writing style. Shalee Reeve sprinkles metaphors and similes throughout her story: "...watching the sun rise in the branches of barren trees, setting their bows on fire with broken orange light." Also, "The space blanket that shielded Felix drooped like glittering moss," and "His lungs rattled like a wolf in a cage..." Good stuff, and appropriate for the story.
Sandra Mitchell, on the other hand, uses none of those things. Descriptions are very straight-forward; they are blunt and practical: "Their hands were bleeding from the roughness on the rubble and sweat was dripping from their foreheads, stinging their eyes." And another example: "The room was small and had a hole in the high ceiling where the sun poured through. On the walls there were many little drawings of strange creatures. Most unusual for a church."
This is appropriate for the story just as the use of those devices was appropriate for the other story. The characters and the story can dictate what kind of language the writer uses. Two English boys in London during WWII would have no room in their worlds for "flowery speech." Things are hard and even their play is hazardous.
In The Forest, the characters' speech is plain and rough, so the literary devices add color. In Just S'posen those devices are unnecessary because of Jake's colorful dialect. Adding picturesque narration would have the author competing with her character for attention.
I felt that Just S'posen was slightly superior because it seemed more natural. The predicament of the three men seemed contrived. James's insistence on extending their exploration while his brother was sick, and then all three of them losing track of the way back did not have the same feel of likelihood.
Albatross in Flames by Brian Anthony Thornton is a story of addiction. Hers is obvious, his less so.
I do want to remark that I really like the title. It not only has a certain flare, but it is perfectly apropos to the story. Lucie is indeed an albatross hung around Mark's neck, and she is burning out. The flames will burn him as well.
As I said, Lucie's addiction is obvious. She has taken her refuge in drugs as she tries to flee from imaginary enemies that have, we find out near the end, a basis in reality: "Far away from the hungry hands of foster fathers." That revelation is handled skillfully.
Some people that have kicked the habit of smoking or drinking can be fine for years. They won't even feel a craving. But just let them smell that tobacco smoke or see a glass of whiskey, and the addiction comes roaring back, resistible if they're strong enough, but just barely. And they really must want to resist.
Mark's addiction to Lucie works like that. He hasn't seen her in quite a while and apparently hasn't missed her. But she unexpectedly appears like a smoking cigarette beside a glass of amber set in front of him without warning, and he is lost. He has neither the strength nor the desire to offer more than a token resistance.
There was romance there once, and desire. But what fuels his addiction is the connection to the hopes and dreams from years ago. Those too had been forgotten. But they come dancing back with Lucie's presence and they become real again and the hope is somehow rekindled in him by her presence. Like the recidivist drunk, the rational part of him knows that hope is only illusion. But the illusion is just pretty enough to cling to, as long as the substance of addiction is present.
Mr. Thornton makes excellent use of metaphor: "She felt the air grow heavy as their breath, hot as cinders, coiled serpentine around her." I liked this one: "Lucie’s eyes glazed over as she fell backwards, arms outstretched, through a hole in her own mind."
There was one little thing I must regard as a flaw. Twice we are told that Mark "was not a heartless man." I found the first occurrence incongruous but excusable. The second is almost offensive. With all the frenetic activity, the conflict, the danger, and the great metaphors, this statement is so mundane it intrudes a brief spray of extinguisher on the fire of the action. And it is an implied lie; it implies his motivation is something other than what it really is.
If this is what Mark is telling himself as his excuse for his actions, that should be made clear; but the story would be improved by deleting those two totally unnecessary sentences.
I did not like Fixing by Peter Hully. That's an entirely subjective reaction. Fixing is a literary story and I don’t have a lot of patience with them, even though I've tried to write a couple. There's a good market for literary fiction if it's good enough. I've tried, but I can't seem to wrie, or enjoy, a story where the characters remain unchanged. Here's a comment about literary stories from a literary story: "They were like funerals and burials. A lot of fancy talk, mostly for the sake of saying something fancy, and maybe some emotion here and there. But in the end the main character may have had his position in the world altered a little, through the offices of others, but his condition hadn’t changed." The same story, though, follows that statement with this one: "...he did have to admit the writers did have a skill with words. And sometimes a unique perception popped through, like a lone iris in a dandelion field." Those quotes are from Thanks, Winstons, a story published in Page & Spine.
Just as the first two stories discussed were stories about men or boys written by women, this story is about a woman written by a man. I did not like this nameless woman, though I felt that I could if I really got to know her. But can any man get to know her? Can she really know any man?
I do appreciate irony, and this story does have that: "Without make up, there’s a delicate thinness to her features, which she sometimes thinks makes her look helpless, as if she’ll forever need other people and she’s waiting to be saved." That look is exactly how she is! She is waiting to be saved, and she will always need at least one other person to do the saving. But who?
Her boyfriend is an obvious butthead, with no understanding, no empathy, and no real strength. She needs those things and I felt that she expected a boyfriend to provide those emotional necessities. But she does not know how to articulate her needs, so she drifts.
I also discovered a similarity between this young woman and Lucie from Albatross in Flames. Both imagine things about others that are not true—they think of themselves as victims, yet they are victimized only by themselves. Both young women are very dependent and looking for someone to take care of them. But this one is much too timid to demand that care as Lucie does. She cannot even ask for it because she does not recognize it.
And unless she summons the courage and the insight to somehow seek the fortification she needs she will be doomed to remain as she is at the end: herself, alone in the dark.
I may not like the story, but I do like the writing.
Once a Lucky Man by Kenneth Sibbett reminded me of several non-specific stories I've read over the years. It has a Gothic "Poe-ish" feel to it. Again, I do like irony and this story is certainly that. It also reminded me of "the Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" by Stephen King. I've never read the story but I saw the movie version in the movie Creepshow.
Just like Jordy, Herbert has discovered something potentially wealth-making, but the timidity sown by their lonesome existences dooms them. Herbert is terrified that he will be accused as an accessory of the crime, though there is no basis in reality for this.
There is a connection between this story and Just S'posen. Herbert finds a treasure. So do Jake and Billy. But the boys have friendship going for them, and that friendship helps pull them through their trouble. They trust each other, which makes it easier to trust the authorities.
Herbert has no friends. He has been content to be without one his whole life. But when a crisis appears in Herbert's life he is not equipped to deal with it on his own and he has no friend he can trust, so trusting the authorities—or anyone—is foreign to his experience and he gives in to despair.
I had only one objection, and that was at the end. I realize that the premise was necessary to keep the dime undiscovered, but if there's a suicide, there's going to be an autopsy. The authorities will want to know if drugs, illness, or something posing a public menace might be at fault.
I have very little to write about Pixie Pomade by Martina Kranz. Since it was based on the English fairytale Fairy Ointment, I read that story.
Ms Kranz has prettied it up, but the basic story is unchanged. She has made it a bit cheerier, "nobleized" the pixies, and modernized the language, but that's about it. I would have liked to see a greater departure from the original, to make this story a little more...original.
June offered an interesting mixture of stories. Three took place in England, and only one of those in modern times. Two take place entirely at night, a third begins at night, and a fourth finishes in the darkness. There is quiet desperation and frenetic panic and two quiet deaths that were unnecessary. And although romance is referenced as something far away, in time or in space, there is no hint of romance in any of these stories...the first time this year that's the case.
I was told that I was pretty harsh last month, which I knew. None of the stories deserved that kind of treatment this month. They all deserved a measure of kindess.
The cornerstones of storytelling are scene, characters, crisis and resolution, yet there is an element that sets writers apart—the tone or the mood. As strong as the hook, or the snag writers need to employ to keep readers interested, the mood must be established within the first paragraphs of a story.
The tone of a story employs oft heard advice; strong verbs that reflect the action and sensory details that allow the reader to feel the scene; hear the splash of raindrops on a tin roof or inhale the sweetness of aromas emanating from a bakery. But, the mood can also be enhanced through sentence structure. Varying the length of sentences establishes a rhythm with almost poetic meter. A series of short, staccato-style sentences speeds up the action, introducing an underlying urgency or panic while a longer, liquid flow, creates a languid mood. Some great plots have missed publication simply because the story feels off--the mood doesn’t match the scene presented on the page.
A sure-fire mood crasher is linear writing. Writers who tell their stories using a systematic start-to-finish formula miss dramatic opportunities. Though technically the work may be correct, the reader quickly loses interest in the mundane stroll down a city block before the main character encounters the thugs that confront him. The nuance of an interrupted walk can make the mugging more intense when the contrast begins with the action.
Stories can be told by beginning with the conclusion or throwing the reader into the centre of the
action, filling in details about what led up to the crisis. And while an orderly unfolding of the plot can be
the preferred writing style, testing the temperature, measuring the tone of the story should be one last
step an author employs before sending the work to a publisher.
Wooden characters are death to a piece of fiction. The surest way to avoid stiffness is to take on each role as if it’s your bid for an Oscar. That’s right. Become each character as you write them. What? You’ve never heard of method writing? Well, imagine you’re five years old again and playing pretend. You’re not faking being a princess or a superhero. In your mind, that’s exactly who you are.
Talk about control!
With it you bring depth to your character—backstory, motivation, emotion. None of it has to be real for longer than it takes to write and polish your creation, but for that length of time, it’s who you are.
Let me show you what I mean with this short piece.
Death of a Lifetime
His arctic presence looms. His tone—I should know that voice—demands a response. But my confusion reigns. Besides, all the words have already been spilled; they puddle at our feet. What is there left to say? I’m sorry sounds trite when sorrow is this profound. And why would he hear my whisper when he ignored my screams?
My heart pounds. My head spins. My breath comes in tiny gasps, as if sucked through a coffee stirrer.
Tin-can words seep through the cotton in my ears and slide over the surface of my addled brain like pieces of a face-down jigsaw puzzle—cardboard colored confusion. Try as I might, I can’t assemble them into anything that makes sense. Later. Maybe later.
My arms rise to protect my slowly shaking head from the contempt that batters harder than fists. I slide down the blue-painted corner to fold into a tight ball on the beige rug. My trembling outside shivers in pale sympathy with my quaking inside. Despite my determination, tears trail down my cheeks.
I plead inside my head. Just stop! Go away! Please go away ...
He doesn’t, so I do.
Darkness. Silence. I draw a cautious breath. My ears quicken. I hear nothing but the pendulum of the wall clock swinging to and fro. I extend my senses, but recognize no menace.
I unfold the origami figure that is me and stumble stiffly to my feet. Wandering aimlessly, I explore the strange emptiness that has been my home for nearly a lifetime.
A death has occurred. I feel the absence, and I mourn.
I am alone. Hollow. My feelings have fled—or are numb like novocained nerves. Alone is no longer a precious refuge, but a prison I don’t have the strength to escape. Blame is a decaying corpse to be tripped over in the dark.
I belch a bit of emptiness that would pass for a laugh in company. But I have no company, so I acknowledge it for what it is—despair.
I eye my car keys. My phone. My laptop. I stop and consider. Where would I go? Who would I call? What would I say?
Sympathy. Is that what I want? Is that what I need?
No. What I want is to be sheltered from a reality my mind cannot absorb. What I need is to be tightly held, soothed by someone who gives a damn. I need to be reassured that all will be well, even if every word is a lie.
But I don’t have the words, so I can’t ask. Who would I ask if I could? I have no answer. There is no one left. Nothing left. And reaching out requires the strength to, well, reach.
And so I mourn my dead alone and uncomforted. It wasn’t a sudden thing. I tried to stave it off every way I knew. But duty is no substitute for love. Fear is not respect. And decades of devotion are irrelevant once the drained and neglected well runs dry.
So there you have it—backstory, conflict, resolution, a new normality for the protagonist to adjust to.
I became the protagonist—this is fiction—and so was able to portray her grief and despair as if I was experiencing it…because I was. I felt her pain, confusion, hopelessness as I put it on paper. Imagine doing that with each major character in your story.
I only had one character to deal with in this one, but the technique works with as many major characters as your imagination gives rise to. Give it a try, but be careful--the only thing harder than being a writer is living with one.
I am a reader, and a writer. Therefore, I am a thief. Can any of us maintain a straight face and claim differently?
Not me. And I make no apologies. Sure, I try to give thanks to the literary shadows who coat and protect me from the harsh, burning rays of true originality as if slathering me with SPF 451--thank you, Ray Bradbury. But I'm ticked off, too. At you, Mark Twain. And you, O. Henry. And you, Papa Hemingway. And you, Joseph Heller. Hell, I'm even ticked off at you, the Dumas' (Pere and Fils), you, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and you, A.C. Doyle. Couldn't any of you have left me a few crumbs that hadn't already been nibbled around the corners?
Who among us would be writer enough, vain enough, reckless enough to sit at the Algonquin Round table with the likes of Thurber, Benchley, and Parker? And once seated, who'd be bold enough to utter a peep? Not I. If read these guys. They've used up all the vowels.
Worse, which of us would allow Dickens, or Faulkner, or Chekov to pore over any of our feeble scribblings? You? Really? You who have appropriated Shakespearean thoughts, lines, verses, and entire plots as if there were some sort of Statute of Limitations on intellectual property? Why do you think the term 'intellectual property' was invented in the first place? Because of people like us. Pilferers like us.
But before you slink away, tail between your legs, mournful whines squeezing out between your trembling lips, understand this: You are forgiven. Because you simply can't help yourself. We read, therefore we pilfer.
So many Shakespearean literary nuggets have seeped into common usage, they're virtually unavoidable. So we borrow . . . often without even know who deserves the credit. But Shakespeare is only one of our most common victims.
If you write in a certain genre, you've certainly borrowed from Verne, Wells, Bradbury, Burgess, Dick, and Asimov. If you prefer another genre, you owe Poe, Stoker, Shelley, Lovecraft, and King. Or Doyle, Hammett, Garner, Christie, Stout, and Parker. Or L'Amour, Gray, Guthrie, Brand, and McMurtry. In one way or another, I've appropriated from all of them. And the only mitigation I can offer in my defense: I do it with respect . . . when I'm aware I'm doing it at all. The honest truth is, we often pilfer unaware.
But not always. For instance, when I'm reading a book I particularly like, I find myself picking up subliminal messages and suggestions the author planted in his book expressly for me. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. My point is, whatever I'm reading, influences whatever I'm writing. I call it passive pilfering.
Which brings me to my final comment. As writers, we all freely admit to being influenced by our literary heroes. Heck, our literary heroes had their 'influences', too. But I think we writers would be a happier, better adjusted lot overall, if we 'fessed up to a little well-intentioned pilfery once in a while, too. A form of therapy. Just don't do it out loud. You'll get your pants sued off.
Author's note: I disavow all knowledge of whatever demon possessed my body and forced me to tell such laughable lies. I am not responsible.
Editor's note: What he said goes double for me.- N.K.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.