Excerpt from a “Memoir Fear and Counquering it.”

 She woke up with so much pain she never realized you could hurt so bad. She knew she was alive because of the pain. She looked around there was no one, she was in a bed in a white room.There was a needle in her arm attached to a tube, going to a bag hanging from a pole. She blinked and looked again. Everything was the same. It was so quiet, she tried to move her legs, they wouldn’t move, her arm throbbed. She looked,- it was in a cast, her mouth wouldn’t open, one eye couldn’t open. She was scared… about to panic…

Then a face was there, a nurse was bending over her and was saying something, but she couldn’t hear her. She moved her head a little it hurt.

“Can you hear me?” The nurse shouted. She nodded her head a slighty.

“Do you know where you are?”

She moved her head back and forth. Tears started rolling from the corners of her bewildered eyes.

“No! no! don’t cry, it will only make things worse. Please, you are safe here.”  The nurse, lifting her voice to be heard. “You had a terrible beating. Your husband is in jail, so he can’t hurt you anymore and your baby is safe, he didn’t injure you there.”

She could tell what the nurse was saying by watching her mouth, with her one good eye. She remembered the beating now. Bennett came home drunk and very angry. He always took his anger out on her. Nothing she could say or do would stop him. She sent the boys to the back-yard and tried to stay out of the reach of his fists. He’d been fired for drinking on the job and causing an accident with the equipment.

He’d yelled! “It’s your fault, you never do anything right, that’s why I drink. You can’t  even have supper ready when I get home. You just keep having babies and pull me down. I’ll teach you to have a hot meal ready for me when I get home, or you’ll get more of this.”

She was clumsy with this pregnancy, at eight months she couldn’t move fast enough. He used his fists at first and just in her face. When she tried to get away he grabbed her arm and twisted until she heard it snap. He let her go and picked up the broom handle, the first blow sent her to the floor. She’d curled in a ball around her baby, he could only hit her back and head, not the baby. She felt each Wack, Wack,-Wack,… then nothing… everything went black.

By enduring this  she saved my life.



It was my worst nightmare. The man of my wildest dreams had come into my life and I didn’t have clue as to what to do with him. My words didn’t come out right. No matter what I said, I couldn’t affect the look on his face. No smiling, no grinning at my jokes.

And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been practicing–in my night dreams and in m daydreams–what to do with him. Goodness knows, I’d done enough in real life, my waking love life, to practice for this guy. And here he was. I just didn’t know what to do with him.

Then things got worse.

“What do you want?” he asked me, in just the deep silky voice I remembered.

But I couldn’t remember what to say. Or maybe in my wildest dreams I never said anything and what he did next had always been a blur. It was always wonderful; I knew it afterward. Though I couldn’t actually remember any details.

I wanted him doing things to me, but I couldn’t remember what those things were. And because I couldn’t tell him, he faded away–my  worst nightmare.

Critique Technique, part almost 9: preview of coming attractions

Recovering from out-patient surgery this week, so I’m running a little behind. (If you think that’s a pun, were you in the O.R. and I didn’t know it????)

But seriously…the next 8 or so segments are going to be on problems with characters and characterization, specifically:

  • Lack of conflict between characters;
  • Weak/vague characterization;
  • Lack of character development;
  • “Telling” about characters, rather than showing;
  • Contrived, unrealistic, or out-of-character behavior;
  • Unclear character goals;
  • Unclear or insufficient obstacles to those goals; and
  • Excessive or inappropriate use of dialect to show character.

Before we get started, though, I want to point you to another excellent blog post, titled The Night the Lights Went Out in Texas, by Keith Cronin, on Writer Unboxed. This paragraph sums up so much about the enterprise of story-telling, whether in fiction or non-fiction:

But it really comes down to the people. (I look at the sentence I just typed, and realize I instinctively chose the right word with “people.” It’s hard for me to even refer to them as mere “characters” – that’s how real they’ve become to me.)

That says it, doesn’t it? It’s the fundamental question you’ll be asking about the pieces you read as a reviewer: are the characters in this piece people to me, or just characters? The answer will tell you, and the author, a lot about whether or not the piece is succeeding.

And remember, for each of these next sections, we’ll be asking these four key questions:

  • Did the problem happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • What was the exact nature of the problem?
  • What can the author do to fix it?

‘Til next time, then.

And by the way, Happy Holidays, whichever ones you celebrate.

The Brush

There are brushes for brushing on, brushing out, brushing off. But is there a brush for brushing in? Does the brain work that way? Can a writer slowly brush details, and thoughts and emotions of a tale into a reader’s mind? Is this the magic of writing?

I’d always thought the magic was to have a picture, even a film, of something in my head and to place squiggly black marks on paper that would put those same pictures into a reader’s mind. Those black marks were the magic carpet that transported my imagination into the minds of others whom I may never meet.

I’ve tried to respect that magic, but now I think I’ve been limiting myself by seeing hard, black (or green or blue or red or yellow) marks as my only instrument. I need to soften the edges and brush, softly, stealthily transferring images and anguish and joy and action and desire into another’s mind and soul.

For good writing is certainly more than an intellectual exercise on the part of the writer or reader. I must learn to paint from my gut, too, brushing on, brushing over and brushing in the magic.

Creative Quotes

I like Debrah’s idea of offering the T-shirt sayings she found in a catalog.  It inspired me to  pass along a few quotes about the challenges of writing and other art forms.  These gems come from the wide margins of Julia Cameron’s books on creativity, the series that begins with The Artist’s Way.  (I love the white space in her books.)

I hope you find one or more bits of wisdom to sustain you through the holidays and the coming year.

To create is always to learn, to begin over, to begin at zero.  –Matthew Fox

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all . . . that is genius.  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before but in saying exactly what you think yourself.  –James Stephens

Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance.  –M. C. Richards

Only a mediocre writer is always at his best.  –W. Somerset Maughm

Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss it, you will land among the stars.  –Les Brown

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Persistence and determination are omnipotent.  –Calvin Coolidge

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  –Vita Sackville-West

This is the practice school of writing.  Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  –Natalie Goldberg

I don’t wait for moods.  You accomplish nothing if you do that.  Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.  –Pearl S. Buck

The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.  –William Cowper

We learn to do something by doing it.  There is no other way.  –John Holt

Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.  –Sigmund Freud

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.  –André Gide

Let the beauty we love be what we do.  –Rumi

I don’t have a lot of respect for talent.  Talent is genetic.  It’s what you do with it that counts.  –Martin Ritt

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.  –Joseph Chilton Pearce

Critique Technique, part 8: story endings

To quote from Ogden Nash’s puckish poetry accompanying Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, “Now we reach the grand finale / Animale Carnivale…”

The story you’ve been reviewing has reached and passed its climax, its moment of greatest tension and conflict. The good guys have won—or not. The protagonist has survived, achieved whatever she set out to achieve (or maybe something different), or gained some new understanding—or not. Now it’s time for the author to tie everything up in a shiny bow, or leather straps, or bands of steel, so you, the reader feel that satisfying sense of completion—or not.

Or not?

Or not. We’ll get to that shortly.

Award-winning thriller writer Joe Moore recently wrote an excellent post on The Kill Zone blog in which he talked about the makings of a great ending. I won’t try to reproduce the whole piece here—you should go read it for yourself—but he says a great ending should:

  1. Resolve anything that wasn’t taken care of in the climax. Tie up the loose ends, in other words.
  2. Answer the “story question”—that is, what the story was about, what changes the protagonist was going to go through as a result of the situation he faced, or whether, as noted above, he was going to achieve his objectives or not.
  3. Establish a new sense of normalcy. Things have been topsy-turvy for the protagonist through the whole story. Now she can get on with her life, even if that life is totally different from what it was at the beginning.
  4. Reinforce the story’s message, theme, or moral, if there was one.

That third point deserves a bit more discussion. The “new normal” doesn’t have to be a good state of affairs. The protagonist might be dead—which could be bad for him, or good. Or enslaved. Or wealthy. Or married. Or divorced. Or back at home (except, of course, that you can never…). There may be hints that there’s more chaos or turmoil yet to come, but at least the chaos and turmoil of this story are over—or not.

There are a couple exception to this “rule.” First, some genres tolerate unhappy or ambiguous endings that leave things unsettled. They’re acceptable in “literary” or science fiction but anathema in romance. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath ends with a scene of amazing humanity and giving, yet we never know the result of Rose of Sharon’s act or what happens to the entire Joad family.

Second, if the piece is part of a series—and this is true for non-fiction as well as fiction—there needs to be something left unresolved. In this case, just as with the end of a scene or chapter, this is where the writer leaves the reader with that, “But wait, what about…?” itch, that hint of something left undone, unfinished, or still to come that makes him want to read the next installment, even if it’ll be a year or more before it appears!  This incompleteness can appear in the form of just a word, a phrase, or a sentence, or even in something left not said or not done.

In the end (pun fully intended), no matter how a piece ends, your job as the reviewer is to decide whether it succeeded in its mission to complete the story—or not.

Here are questions for you to ask as you make that evaluation:

  • If the piece ends a series or is meant to stand alone:
    • Have all the threads of the story been tied up?
      • Do I know what happened to all the major characters and why?
      • Has a new state of normalcy been established?
    • If the author meant the piece to have a message, moral, or theme, is there a concluding restatement of it? Note that this statement can be implicit or explicit. Grapes has one: the human spirit will triumph, no matter how many degrading and demoralizing obstacles are put in the way. Rose of Sharon’s action says it better than any blunt statement even Steinbeck could have ever made.
    • Do I feel the story is complete, or is something still lacking? If lacking, what?
    • If the piece ends ambiguously:
      • Is this what the author intended (as best you can tell)?
      • Did she prepare me for this?
      • Is it a fitting ending for the story?
      • Is the piece written in a genre that accepts or allows this kind of ending?
  • If the piece is any part of a series except the last, add:
    • Do I have an idea of where the larger story is headed next, what’s in store for the protagonist (and possibly the antagonist)?
      • Is the “new normal” still unsettled?
      • Does the protagonist know there’s still something more to do or resolve? He may not, but you, the reader, have to sense it.
    • Am I excited by the possibility of spending more time with these characters? Do I want to know more about them? Do I want to find out how they deal with their next adventure, or that danger that I see lurking around the corner?

What else do you look for in the end of a piece to decide whether that ending is successful or not?

And with that, we’ve reached the conclusion of this series on beginnings and endings. Next time we’ll begin looking at characters and characterization.

Critique Technique, part 7b: more on scene and chapter endings

I need to “revise and extend” my last post.

Last time I wrote that things should be worse for the protagonist at the end of each section (or scene) or chapter of an article, short story, or novel than they were at the beginning. Well, that’s not entirely true. In a longer piece, and particularly in a short part of that piece, that may not be possible, or desirable.

Letting the scene’s or chapter’s protagonist make a little progress, or seem to make progress, has its benefits:

  1. The reader is encouraged, and so wants to read further.
  2. That progress gives the author more opportunities to make things worse for the protagonist: one step forward makes room for the two steps backward to come. (There we writers go again, being evil and devious!)
  3. If the scene’s protagonist is the story’s antagonist, or even a secondary character, letting him make progress toward his goals can be a direct or indirect way to make things worse for the story’s protagonist. (Oh, what a tangled web we weave!)

The bottom line, then, is that in every chapter or scene, something has to happen that changes the situation for the characters involved. The change can be large or small. Its size doesn’t have to match the length of the scene or chapter, although a small change over the course of a long chapter or section may not go over so well. As a reviewer, you’re looking for that change and whether the story moved forward because of it.


New Haircut

The new Mohawk haircut was driving him nuts. Everyone in the coffee shop must be staring at them. He could feel their eyes. He leaned across the table at her.

“Why did you do that? It’s awful.”

“It’s wonderful.” She laughed. “So easy to take care of.”

“And is that a new piercing on the side of your nose? I can’t tell when you have so many.”

She just smiled. “You’re just from the wrong generation.”

He looked down at his sensible breakfast of eggs-over-easy, a rasher of bacon, and whole wheat toast. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“Not yet.” Her feet rocked the skateboard under their table.

“What’s next? A blue Mohawk?”

She twisted her mouth as if she were thinking. “Nope. Purple.”

He rolled his eyes, then caught sight of his father coming out of the post office across the street. He watched the older man a moment, and considered how alike they were: sandy hair, square shoulders. They even dressed the same, in khakis, a shirt with real buttons, classic leather loafers.

Then he gazed back at her just as she was taking off her sweatshirt. The tank top underneath revealed way too much of her shoulder tattoos. He rolled his eyes again, and concentrated on breakfast until her rocking feet shot the skateboard out from under the table and across the room to whack the mayor on the ankle. The man yelped.

She started to rise from her breakfast of rhubarb pie and caramel ice cream. He waved her back down.

“Eat,” he said. “I’ll go get it.”

She frowned. “I’m a big girl. You don’t have to clean up my mistakes.”

“It’s okay. I think the mayor wants you to keep your distance anyway.”

He retrieved the skateboard, his face feeling hot as he apologized to the mayor. Then he parked the board under his own chair where her feet couldn’t reach it.

As they finished eating, the waiter stopped by with the check. She reached for it.

He gently pulled it out of her hand. “No. My treat.”

“Thank you.”

She gave him a look of such profound and unconditional love that he forgave her everything. He reached for his wallet.

“My pleasure, Mom.”