Category Archives: Literary World

Gina with the Cross: A Vingette

I first came across vingettes when reading The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of vingettes. Instead of having a single plot, where each chapter flows in chronological order, this novel is more a series of photographs. Each picture shows a scene, a snapshot into a person’s life. In the case of The House on Mango Street, that life is of Esperanza Cordero, as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood that she’s determined to leave, only to discover that once she fulfills her dream, she’s drawn back through the need to once again see the people she left behind.

Intrigued with the vingette, I decided to try my hand and create a scene that’s more about conjuring meaning through imagery than plot:

Gina with the Cross

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Gina, petite squirrel girl with emergency red flare nails and gold cross necklace, one purple rhinestone and one missing because she liked to pick, was my girlie friend who loved to pray.

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” she said, staring at me, her brown eyes wide. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap and her elbows were going to leave indents in her knees.

Despite her whispering, her words charged down the pews, bouncing off the stone floor and the stained glass windows. Nail polish puddled around the purple rhinestone in her left index fingernail, trying to suck the stone down into the sea of red.

“Why?” I asked. My hair fell about my face, and as I stared at my friend, her face was cut into strips: pale, pink flesh divided between strands of coarse mud.

“If you don’t, you’ll be excommunicated.” She scooted closer to me, until our knees bumped against each other. “Just tell them what you did.”

I tugged at a loose flap of skin clinging to the edge of my fingernail, twisting it around and around and then yanking. A plum of pain stabbed into my flesh. I yanked again.

What I did? I wanted to breathe, to expel all the air from my lungs. Just shove it all out there and away, but my throat was constricting. A lump formed in it. My lump, a callous, lopsided chunk of lard and ash. Soot-coated and reeking, it slicked against my esophagus, twisting, trying to grind up the soft tissue there.

“I have nothing to apologize for.” I frowned. My voice had choked on itself, like some piglet trying to squeal, but who had its mouth taped shut.

“Don’t say that.” She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers until pain spiked up my wrists. “You’re going to Hell, if you don’t.” Her forehead bumped against mine; her breath burned my cheek. “Worse, you’ll be ostracized. What will your pa say if he knew? You’re going to give your ma a heart attack.” Her voice dropped, quivered. “What about me? What am I supposed to do?” Her head started shaking, almost as if it had a life of its own. “I can’t keep this secret.”

I ripped my hands from hers. “Then, don’t.” I rose. Pain spiked through my jaw. It raced down the side of my neck and made my ear throb, a double bass bashing against my eardrum.

The backs of my calves banged against the pew and the wood shrieked against the stone. A few parishioners swiveled around from closer to the altar, but I didn’t care.

I opened my mouth to shout: What are you looking at! You think you know me! You think you know who I am! But no words came out.

My gaze fell to Gina. She stared up at me; her lips parted in a stark O, her Bambi eyes bright in the dim candlelight. “Tell them whatever you want. Whatever makes you sleep better at night.”

My palms pressed against my jeans. My index finger poked through the hole worn at my knee. “You can even tell them that I wanted it. That’s a lie, but you know that’s what they’ll say. I asked for it.” The big cross gleamed in the background. Massive and golden, it hung heavily over the altar, waiting for the perfect moment when its cables would snap and it would crash, banging against the stone, and squashing whoever was standing beneath it. Perhaps I should stand there. Perhaps it would fall on me. “After all, our bodies know when to get pregnant and when not to.”

“Aislinn…” Her hand fluttered to her mouth. I hoped she could feel my eyes piercing her. I hoped they seared her ribs black. “I know you didn’t want it. I know you were forced – I believe you – but…you killed your baby.”

The lump grew larger, churning and elongating. It would turn my throat to stone. “It was never mine.” I spun around and abandoned the pew. My Keds squeaked against the aisle. One of my shoelaces was untied. The white flopped against the red of my shoe, and dragged along the gray stone. I glared at it, but didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Gina hadn’t moved.

Solid oak doors rose in front of me, stretching far above my head and arching. Iron bars locking them in place. I stopped and stared stupidly, my hands frozen at my sides, unable to press the bars. I’d been able to enter this place. I should be able to leave.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood. There were eyes on me.

My nails pierced the palms of my hands – there would be little crescent moon imprints that would refuse to fade – as I slowly turned, my heels digging into the stone. Great, golden eyes from a tilted head, encircled by jagged thorns, watched me. They shouldn’t be able to. The head was pointed down and to the side, the ribs jutting out against the flesh, the stomach caving in, but still the eyes were on me.

I could have been so many things. I’d wanted to be so many things. What was I now, to Him? To everyone?

Noise rose in my throat, shoving upward, scraping and clawing at my tongue and lips, trying to pry my jaw apart. An uproar about to burst free, shredding me from the inside out, but my lump wouldn’t allow it.

I steeled my hands – iron could only burn – and shoved open the doors.

(Picture courtesy of arbyreed.)

A Trend in Literature: Nameless Narrators

13908520198_0f6a24d13f_oIt can be agonizing to come up with the perfect protagonist name. In literature, a character’s name can be integral to that character’s identity. However, sometimes a character has no name. Perhaps this anonymous narrator plays no part in the tale, acting only as the observer. Or maybe the character is experiencing an identity crisis. Without a name, readers can’t unconsciously attach an identity to the character. Maybe the character doesn’t want to be known.

In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the protagonist has multiple aliases, but readers never discover his real name. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man contains a young, unnamed, college-educated African American male, who experiences violence and racism after moving to New Year in the 1930s. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the young and naive protagonist is never named, instead the book breathes more life into the deceptively charming and ultimately unworldly realm of the grand British country manor Manderley.

I found this trend of the unnamed character intriguing, and challenging, since I love naming characters, and thought I’d give it a try. As an exercise, I wrote a short scene where an unnamed narrator looks back at a pivotal moment. Let me know what you think in the comments:

The urge came again yesterday. An old thing now, a rote response to stress or sadness, or any other strong emotion, but still the impulse arrived. It seemed to surge up from the depths of my mind, like when you’re standing in the ocean and suddenly a riptide grabs you. Your feet are yanked out from under you. You know what’s happening. You know what to do to free yourself, but you don’t. Silly really. Such an old compulsion shouldn’t have so much power.

Yesterday, I saw her. At least, I think I did. A girl – no, not a girl, not a girl for a long time – with bushy brown hair and cherub cheeks that were anything but angelic. I couldn’t see her eyes. I strained forward in my seat, leaned to the side too far and slipped from my chair outside the little café. My knees hit the pavement hard, a jolt ripped through my legs.

The waiter came up to me. Tall and skinny, leaning over me like a wilting green bean, and asked if I were okay. I only looked away from her for a moment. One moment. But when I looked back across the street to the little used bookstand, she was gone.

My hands shook as I pushed myself off the ground. I stood, my legs unstable; the pavement felt like it was listing. The sunlight fell away, but there were no clouds in the sky. Still, the sun vanished and the sky darkened. Thunder rumbled. Something wet plopped onto my forehead. It ran down my nose, trembled at the slightly upturned tip, and then dropped to my lips.

She stood amongst the roses. Rain poured from the sky. The world was gray, except for the roses. Thousands of roses. Such vibrant red against the slanted rain. My hair clung about my temples and ears. My jacket stuck to my body, a second layer of skin. My shoes squelched in the muddy grass.

I couldn’t see her eyes. She bent over the roses, her hand thrust in among their thorns. She yanked on a stem, snapping it and ripping it free. Red trickled between her fingers. It coursed down her palms and wrists, mingling with the rain as it reached her arms. She held the rose up, her back arching, her head tilting toward the sky. Then, she dropped the rose and stomped on it. Mud sloshed up, speckling the hem of her white dress. The mud spread along the fabric, mixing with the rain until the bottom half of her dress looked like it had been tie-dyed. Too many colors used, so that everything appeared brown instead of blue or red or yellow.

I called out to her. Screamed her name against the thunder. She grabbed another rose. Repeated her previous actions. The extra flesh on her pale arms wobbled as she moved. She never looked my way. Over and over again she plucked at the roses, stomped them into the mud. Her dress turned brown. Her pale flesh darkened. Still, she repeated her ritual.

Mud sucked at my shoes, and when I glanced down I saw hands reaching out from the ground, hands made of grass and dirt and mud, rooting me to where I stood. But, of course, they couldn’t really have been hands. Perhaps roots, or perhaps she had stomped on so many roses that entire patches of them were buried in the muck, and only now that the rain came were they able to free themselves from the sludge.

It didn’t matter. I saw that she’d moved on to the next patch of roses. A line of torn red petals littered the ground behind her, a trail of fragrant breadcrumbs. If I were to go back to that grove of roses now, grass would choke the breadcrumbs, but I’d see them, shining as clearly as when they were drenched in rain. Mud only buried things for so long.

(Photo courtesy of Indrek Torilo.)

Character Sketches: How They Bring Fictional Characters to Life

9781270733_e3e28651e6_kCreating fictional characters can be challenging. You might get a glimpse of a character in your head, but when you go to write a story about that character, you discover that he is one-dimensional. Developing a character sketch enables you to purposefully design your character. It gives you the opportunity to brainstorm and then organize physical and non-physical characteristics, such as height, eye color, personality, the character’s backstory, and the character’s inner and outer conflicts.

Character sketches can be written in various ways. One way is in outline form, where you have categories and subcategories. An outline form works well for highly organized people, because it acts as list, like the partial character sketch example below:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

I. Physical Description

   A. Eyes

  1. Color: Caribbean Ocean blue
  2. Glasses or No: No glasses, no contacts; perfect vision
  3. Any striking features: His eyes are blue to the point where they seem inhuman, like he’s wearing colored contacts.

   B. Hair

  1. Color: Dark brown
  2. Style it’s kept in: Cut short and straight
  3. Any striking features: His hair usually smells like chlorine.

Sometimes an outline can seem too rigid. In that case, consider doing a character sketch in paragraph form. By asking questions about your character, you create a quasi mini-story, as if you’re describing your character to the reader. There’s no plot to this mini-story, but you learn in depth about your character and have more room for creative expression, as in the below example:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

What does your character physically look like?

“Water droplets flung free from Marc’s dark brown hair. It always amazed him that no matter how short and straight he kept his hair, chlorine seeped in and refused to budge. Not that he’d express that to any of his teammates. He didn’t want to be called a wuss and get rat tailed. By the time swimmers got to high school, they’d perfected the art of towel snapping.

“He was already nicknamed “pretty boy” because of his eyes. He couldn’t help that they were ridiculously blue. It irritated him anytime some girl mooned over how his eyes reminded her of the Caribbean Ocean.”

A third way to create a character sketch is much more fluid. It’s where the character speaks directly to the reader, and relates his personal story in a conversational manner. This type of sketch usually contains stream of consciousness elements, as in the following partial sketch:

“Hey, I’m Marcelo. (You can call me Marc.) I’m co-captain of the varsity swim team at Mount Crest High School. I’m seventeen. A junior. (Can’t wait to be a senior.)

“My best friend is Ana Arias. Yeah, my best friend’s a girl. Get over it. (And no, we haven’t done it. Have I thought about her naked? Once. It was weird. Like accidentally glimpsing my mom naked when I was ten. Not something that can be unseen.)

“I have this crazy ex-girlfriend. Hot as all get out, but nowhere near hot enough to stay with. My teammates think I’m the insane one for letting Vicky go. They say sex with crazy chicks is the best type. Seeing as how she’s the only girl I’ve done it with, I wouldn’t know. (She was flexible and had a thing for pinching. I always ended up with bruises.) Though there’s this girl Stephanie (Steph) Blake who likes me.

“Steph’s a sophomore. She’s pretty. Got a great butt. She likes wearing shorts that let half of her butt hang out. (Steph is biracial, and without sounding like a complete girl, she has the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. Don’t think she’s ever had a zit. And to make me sound even more like a wuss, her eyes are beautiful: almond-shaped and hazel. Any guy should jump at the opportunity to get with her. She’s got this demure, Catholic girl thing; it’s like part of her personality is missing, and she lives by a literal interpretation of the Bible. I’m Catholic, but not that Catholic.)”

Character sketches are especially helpful if you have a large cast of characters. Too often it’s too easy to confuse characters or have them all sound the same. When your characters become living, breathing individuals with dreams, fears, and goals, they become unique and relatable. They become people that readers want to invest time with.

Have you created a character sketch? Did it help you visualize your character and his personality?

(Photo courtesy of Danica Saerwen.)

When No Monkeys Show Up: Why Creating Critique Group Bylaws Is Vital for Success

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Happy Monday, Everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your weekend, and if you worked, I hope that at least you weren’t bored out of your brain. Part of what I did this weekend was chat with some new friends about creative endeavors. Turns out we’re all writers!

This led to offers and agreements to read each others’ works, which got me thinking about my previous experiences with beta reading, specifically participating in critique groups.

While critique groups can foster a highly beneficial, symbiotic relationship, they can also be detrimental. It all depends on who’s in the group and how the group operates. But how can anyone know what a group’s expectations are, if there’s no document outlining the rules—well, more like strongly encouraged guidelines?

When I joined my first critique group, I knew that we were to turn in at the most ten double-spaced pages a month and that we had to attend most monthly group meetings. However, that’s where the rules ended, and it was all too soon that I wished there were more obligations. The meetings turned into social hours, and it wasn’t long before people were showing up late or not at all. One day, via a Facebook message, the group leader abruptly announced that the group was going to be online only and people could turn in work if they felt like it.

That was over a year ago. No one has turned in a single word.

My current writing group is very different. I founded it, and the group encompasses some individuals from my graduate writing program. The group’s name is “The Writers’ Syndicate” and we have bylaws. These rules state the group’s purpose, membership requirements and expectations, meeting scheduling, preparation, and structure, the addition of new members, and events/retreats.

While the final document can come across as strict, we’re a fun-loving group of serious writers, and because we all understand how easy it is to let writing fall to the side—everyone has other obligations, like full-time jobs, family and friends, etc.—we wanted to have rules firmly in place.

I’ve included my group’s bylaws below, if you’d like to use them as a reference for creating your group’s bylaws. Take a look!

The Writers’ Syndicate Bylaws

Purpose

The Writers’ Syndicate was created to aid in developing writers’ work through honest and rigorous feedback; to encourage and help writers to submit their work for publication; and to provide a supportive and encouraging environment and network. The critique group is based on the workshop style.

Membership Requirements

  • Members are fiction writers, either working on novels and/or short stories.
  • Members are serious about their craft.
  • Members are ultimately pursuing publication.
  • Members are able to receive criticism of their work, and are able to provide detailed and helpful criticism of other members’ writing.
  • Members are able to consistently attend meetings.

Note: Non-active members may remain a part of the group. However, their non-active status may last no longer than three months. After three months, their membership will come under review, to be decided if the member must become active to remain in the group, or due to circumstances can remain non-active.

Non-active members will not submit any work to be critiqued; they will not critique any other members’ work.

Meeting Scheduling

  • The Writers’ Syndicate meets one evening biweekly, from 6:00 pm to approximately 8:00 pm.
  • Meeting locations will be set to accommodate all members, and will be agreed upon by all members.

Meeting Preparation 

  • Two to three members’ submissions will be critiqued at each meeting.
  • Submissions will be no more than 25 pages apiece. (There will be a one or two page leniency to reach a chapter or story ending.)
  • Submissions for meetings will be sent out at least one week prior to the scheduled meeting.

Meeting Structure

  • The first 15-20 minutes having snacks/dinner, talking freely, and sharing any interesting and helpful writing tips or resources, books, or links discovered.
  • All members will participate in a verbal critique. Verbal critique times will be divided evenly between all works submitted at the current meeting.
  • The member whose work is being critiqued cannot speak during the critique. The member will have time after the critique to address any questions or concerns.
  • Each member will supply a written critique for each piece submitted at the meeting.

Member Expectations 

  • Members should strive to submit work and provide written critiques when appropriate, and to attend all meetings. Advance notification must be given when a member cannot meet the following expectations.
  • Members must be supportive and respectful of other members.

Addition of New Members

  • Active members may introduce potential new members to the group. But the group must unanimously agree on the new member, and the new member must meet all membership requirements.
  • Prospective new members must submit a writing sample to the group, and attend a critique meeting once each member has reviewed the writing sample prior to the prospective new members acceptance into the group.

Events/Retreats: 

  • Holidays: Members can bring holiday related treats to the meeting that takes place closest to a holiday.
  • Writing Conferences/Readings: Members are encouraged to attend at least one writing conference and/or reading during the year.
  • Annual group getaway: Attendance is encouraged, but not required. Members will plan a trip together, and the trip will focus on group bonding.

Note: Non-members may attend the annual getaway, as long as members are given advance notice.

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What do you think? Have you had a positive or negative experience with critique groups? Share in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.

(Photo courtesy of Sally T. Buck.)

Writers Beware: Would You Rather Will Get Your Pencils in a Bunch

I hope everyone is enjoying the last few days of January! I’m currently in Minnesota and its weather is so different than Maryland. We had a snow storm, however, the locals said that six inches of snow wasn’t that big of a deal… In Maryland, we’ve had several seventy degree days this winter.

In the spirit of wintertime, I went ice skating with friends yesterday, am planning on going snowshoeing, and am disappointed I’m leaving Minnesota the day before the yearly ice bar opens. However, one of my friends in Minnesota with me lives farther south than I do. So, I dared her to go stand barefoot in the snow for five minutes (this is a type of extreme conditioning to acclimate your body to colder temperatures). She didn’t take me up on the dare, but it got me thinking about the game “Would You Rather.”

So let’s play! I’ll ask some questions and provide my answers. Feel free to comment with your answers or post these questions and your answers on your blog. Don’t forget to link back to me! I’m excited to know what you say.

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Would you rather live your entire life in a virtual reality where all your wishes are granted or in the real world?

This is difficult! On one hand, I’ve got some pretty hefty wishes I’d love to see come true, and living in a world where everything I desire is granted seems great. However, I believe that (1) if you don’t experience the negative sides of life, you won’t fully be able to appreciate and be grateful for the positive, (2) you can’t become a better human being if you don’t work, struggle, and compromise for what you want, and (3) there wouldn’t be a sense of achievement for accomplishing anything, because you wouldn’t have to work toward anything. Therefore, you’re more likely to have a flimsy layer of self-confidence, so that if things were to ever get tough, you’d give up before you really tried. Plus, part of establishing deep, meaningful relationships is working through the tough times, and how can you ever truly know yourself, if you never face hardship or your fears.

What I’m trying to say, is that while my knee-jerk response would be to live in a virtual reality, after some thought, I’d rather live in the real world. 

Would you rather go back to age five with everything you know now or know now everything your future self will learn?

Another tough question! Hmm… I’d rather know now everything my future self will learn for multiple reasons: (1) while going back to the past and being able to change my actions and responses to various situations is appealing that doesn’t guarantee that my life will turn out the way I want it to. (2) I don’t know what type of person I’d become if I changed my past. What if I didn’t like myself? I’ve had some dark times and awful experiences and relationships, but I’m more empathetic, understanding, and less judgmental for it. (3) It’d be challenging to grow up again with all that adult knowledge…what if knowing everything I know now royally screwed up childhood’s development process? It’s a lot of what ifs, and choosing to know now everything my future self would learn could also have horrendous results, but I wouldn’t want to relive my childhood. That’s in the past; I want to move forward, not back.

Would you rather everything you dream each night come true when you wake up or everything a randomly chosen person dreams each night come true when they wake up?

 While I tend to have nightmares instead of dreams, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a random person’s dreams each night coming true when they awaken. I have no idea what types of dreams that person would have, and if anything bad happened to that random person because I chose for their dreams to come true instead of mine, I’d have trouble living with the guilt.

I’d rather fight the monsters in my dreams. Heck, I’d have some fascinating stories to tell around the campfire.

Now, some questions specific to writing:

Would you rather publish one insanely best-selling novel and never write again or publish twenty average selling books over twenty years?

I’d rather publish twenty average selling novels over twenty years. I could spend my life being a full-time writer, which is my dream job. I wouldn’t be happy not having writing in my life. It’s part of who I am.

Would you rather read a novel that is written poorly but has a fantastic story or read a well-written book with a weak story?

Both weak stories and poorly written novels irk me. After pouring so much time and energy into creating well-written, strong stories, the writing in me turns into a pit-bull and goes on the attack anytime I see plot holes, flat characters, poor grammar, etc. But, since I have to choose one, I’d rather read a poorly written but fantastic story. The writing may be contrived and clichéd, but I could get lost in the story. Shallow, plot hole-ridden stories get my blood pressure up and I often end up rewriting the story in my head (and grumbling about how such a badly written book ever made it onto the market).

Would you rather write a book that changes a person’s life but receives no mainstream success or write a novel that is wildly successful in sales but that people don’t think about afterwards?

The literary and commercial halves of me are fighting over this question. But, the commercial writer knocks out the literary one. I enjoy writing commercial fiction, and I enjoy reading it. While it may not be the most enlightening experience, I still find myself transported. Plus, being wildly successful in sales could mean that I become a full-time writer. That would be awesome.

What are your answers to these questions? Do you agree with me or not?

(Photo courtesy of Kris Williams.)

Stretching Beyond the Limit: Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Today, I’m sharing with you the first chapter of a novel. Well, it can’t really be called a novel…not yet at least. In my last graduate semester before thesis, my professor gave the class an assignment: we were to write something outside our comfort zone. There were more stipulations than that, but one of the main things I learned from pushing beyond my preconceived limits was how much I enjoyed writing different material.

So, here’s the relatively unpolished first chapter of a detective novel (I hope you enjoy it, and please remember that I worked hard on this chapter and would be disappointed to see my idea taken from me):

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MINE

Chapter 1

The Strangler

The news said the police caught the killer. Some twenty-nine year old guy from Ohio. His alcoholic father abused him as a child. His mother was too high on drugs to care. The news reporters had done their research on this guy. Billy Marcus: a single, white, calculus high school teacher who never stayed at one school for more than three years. Billy stalked Danielle Lewis, raped her, and strangled her. He took her corpse deep into the woods and buried it. The news said he came back and visited the corpse. Did unspeakable things to it.

The news was wrong.

Not about visiting the corpse, or the stalking, the rape, and how Danielle died. Strangled with a white and red polyester rope. Low stretch fiber. Resistant to abrasion. Durable. That rope’s got a nice feel to it.

The news was wrong about Billy. He wasn’t the killer. He was some nobody looking for a few minutes of fame.

If he wanted the attention, the trial, the conviction, the death sentence, he could have it. I didn’t like seeing an innocent man get convicted, but no one forced him to lie to the police. And Billy knew things. He looked guilty.

I picked up the TV remote from the bed and clicked off the television. A moment of quiet. I breathed it in.

And then the whimper came.

I hushed the noise.

It came again.

I rose from the bed and headed for the bathroom. The room’s carpet, a moldy green, and the print on the wall, a cluster of flowers, held the faint imprints of all motel guests before me. The air conditioning unit thrummed in the background, a steady buzz that sucked all the moisture from the air.

My reflection appeared in the rectangular mirror over the faux marble sink. Brown hair, combed back. Brown eyes under thick, straight eyebrows. Square jaw. Cheeks more rounded than sharp. Eyes spaced evenly apart. Clean shaven. A handsome face. Trustworthy.

I smiled at my reflection. No wrinkles formed around my eyes. My cheeks barely rose from their resting position. I told myself to close my eyes slightly, to push up my cheeks more.

Better. That smile looked believable.

The whimper. Muffled. Feminine. Pretty.

I stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. “Good evening,” I said, and turned to the bathtub. A shallow tub. Horrible for any sort of bath. An adult couldn’t stretch out fully in that tub. I preferred the deep claw foot tubs. Something nice about soaking in hot water. Lilac scented bubbles were my guilty pleasure. They left my skin smooth, soft.

“I do apologize for having to restrain you in such an undignified manner.” I closed the toilet seat and sat on it. The tips of my shoes touched the side of the tub. The shoes were black, a cross between boat shoes and casual dress shoes. An intriguing combination, but sturdy and good looking. The type of shoes a man bought when he had money to spare.

“I would not have to gag you, if only you would not scream.” I reminded myself to smile. A woman was in my tub, a beautiful woman. Her hair, a dark, wavy red – not the dyed type, but natural. Her eyes, warm brown, a shade lighter than mine. Nineteen. Freckles lightly dusted her cheeks and collarbones. Her name: Ellen Breen. A sophomore at Maxwell University, she was majoring in physics and had a passion for astronomy.

I enjoyed stars as well. Cygnus, the Swan. Perseus, the Hero. Orion, the Hunter. But Ellen was Cassiopeia, the Queen. Ellen: my Gamma Cas, the main star in the Cassiopeia constellation. A monster of a star, so brilliant and volatile and bursting with energy that it would eventually collapse on itself and then explode. A supernova, outshining all the other stars in the night sky until it burned out and was no more.

A dead star, but still a star and worth visiting. After all, the death of a star made way for the birth of new stars. With so many young stars in the galaxy, it was difficult to choose or to see all of them. Many of the most beautiful stars lay hidden behind dense dust clouds. Only when the radiation-saturated winds ate through the dust did these young stars become visible. By then, they were no longer so young, but nearly ripe. I watched them until they grew ready to go supernova.

How could I miss such a transformation?

I couldn’t.

I was drawn to these women. Nothing to stop me. Nothing anyone could say to prevent these women from going supernova.

I did need to be more careful. Find a new place to keep my dead stars. If Billy hadn’t confessed, the cops would still be looking for Danielle’s killer. If the cops didn’t want to wrap Danielle’s murder up to appease the mayor, the press, the parents, they would realize Billy’s story didn’t add up one hundred percent. For one, he didn’t know how the rope felt. He described it in his interview as coarse.

But I wasn’t going to save his life. I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself for someone who didn’t know the difference between a rough and smooth rope. I didn’t want the death penalty.

The whimper. Big, round eyes. Bambi-eyes. Soft rub of rope against rope.

Ellen’s breasts stretched the front of her crème sleeveless shirt as she pushed against her restraints. The little gold Star of David necklace bounced into the air and then down onto her two small, perfectly round mountains. Many breasts were different sizes. The left a little bigger than the right. The right slightly lopsided. Small imperfections, but mistakes all the same.

“Stop that,” I said, “You do not want to injure yourself.”

Ellen kicked the side of the tub. Mumbled angrily, but the tape wrapped over her mouth prevented any discernable dialogue.

How come Ellen didn’t understand that she was one of the lucky ones? To be chosen, to be plucked from the multitude of stars, to be added to my collection. A gift. She, a treasure, more than the others. Better than them, yet she didn’t comprehend. My Cassiopeia. My queen.

My expression didn’t falter. I dedicated too much time into refining the genial face, the face of a gentleman. The one that said to women, come, you beautiful creatures, you gifts upon this earth, let me lavish you with presents both material and non. I can be so generous because I am wealthy. I’ll spend my wealth on you.

Let me ravish you for all time.

I forget none of you.

Ellen shrieked, a muffled cry, and kicked the tub again. Her bare feet thwacked uselessly against the fiberglass tub.

I met her eyes, and didn’t blink.

In a moment, she quieted and turned away. But the damage, the anger, it swarmed inside me, building to a crescendo. A tidal force.

I rose from the toilet seat.

“We need ice,” I said. If I remained, my anger would best me. Rage would spew forth, and I’d lose control of my hands. My fingers itched for the smoothness of the polyester rope.

Patience, I chided myself as I exited the bathroom. I shut the door behind me, tugged on the knob until it clicked, and then grabbed the beige square ice bucket from the top of the dresser. My fingers warped the bucket’s plastic sides. Careful, I thought. Nothing must be damaged upon our departure.

Outside the air pressed upon my face, my chest. It weighed down my hair. A few strands slipped loose and fell about my eyes. I pushed them back, but they, stubborn, rejected my efforts to appear put together. For the best. This motel was not the sort of place for men like the one I portrayed.

Seven dingy rooms on the first floor. Seven on the second. A narrow set of white painted stairs, the railing slouching sideways, led from one floor to the next. A small main office with a single-paned glass window, and a middle-aged man, balding and who looked more pregnant than the knobby-armed, frizzled haired girl who hung around him. She should flit, all eighty-nine pounds of her, but she slumped against the sea foam colored countertop, her tits, for they did not compare to Ellen’s breasts, two pinpricks pointed at the sticky white floor. A half-burnt menthol cigarette drooped between her thumb and index fingers. When we first arrived at this motel, and I entered the office, with Ellen asleep in my trunk, this girl jammed the butt between her lips and stuck her face in mine. “A light?” she asked.

“I do not smoke. Bad for your health.”

She popped the cigarette out of her mouth and jutted out her hip. A ridiculous gesture. Forced, unnatural and pathetic.

“It’s menthol. Safer. Duh.” She looked at the middle-aged, balding man and jammed her thumb at me. “Can you believe this guy?”

The man didn’t say anything.

“If I offended you, I apologize,” I said. I pressed my hand to my chest, right above my heart. The motion seemed to comfort the girl.

“Yeah, well, whatever.”

“My mother miscarried my baby sister because of smoking menthol cigarettes. I fear I have developed a soft spot when it comes to pregnancy and smoking. What is the saying? Children are our future? We should provide them with the best while we can. They will be taking care of us one day.” I watched as she flicked her cigarette with her index finger. A few ashes fluttered to the floor. “It would be tragic if our children were to die before us, and leave us to fend for ourselves in old age.”

The girl laughed. “I’m never growing old.”

“I do not doubt that.”

Her laughter increased, until it clanged my eardrums. I asked for a room, paid in cash, and picked up the room key.

“See you around,” she said.

I waved and left the office. How unwise her words, her interpretation of mine. Better, though, for her to misconstrue my meaning. I overstepped, said something inappropriate, something strange. Rude, and memorable in a “isn’t he a strange one” way.

I shifted the ice bucket to my other hand, and wiped my forehead with the back of my palm. The sun, fat and bright, suspended high in the cloudless sky, bombarded me. Sweat slid beneath the collar of my shirt.

My mother never smoked. And I would have probably killed any sibling.

The ice machine sat near the pool, an oval concrete menace surrounded by a chain link fence with a gate that never closed. The parking lot encircled the pool, except for the side with the ice machine.

My shoes rapped lightly on the concrete walkway. I turned my back on the pool and lifted the slanted front door of the machine. The machine grumbled and a waft of cold air blasted me. I reached in and lifted the ice shovel.

A laugh, not like the girl’s. Like the stars expanding all at once in the night sky. The bucket slipped from my hand and clattered against the ice. I hastily scooped it up, and dropped the shovel. The door snapped shut, nearly trapping my hand.

By the pool, spinning in circles, her arms stretched out to her hands, her white-blonde hair, a freshly fallen snow bank, swirling around her, her red sleeveless dress eddying about her legs as she laughed, the tinkling of stardust. I hadn’t noticed her before. But she must have been there, hidden behind a dust cloud. Revealed by radiation-drenched winds, though no wind stirred, and I felt no disturbance, no moment of insight where I knew she was going supernova.

Yet, millions of stars burst into supernovas with each laugh, each glint of her smile beneath the sun.

Everything else fell away. All the others meant nothing, black holes that wasted my time and energy. Ellen Breen, nonentity, worthless and damaged compared to her.

Cassiopeia. Not a queen. Nothing like a queen.

Ellen must be cast aside. Because the goddess of all queens entered my life.

My fingers trembled. They never trembled. My heart, what was it doing? It raced. Faster and faster it beat. Louder and louder too, until I feared she heard it.

All the nothing led to her. Everyone I met, every woman, man, child, all spiral galaxies coalescing to create the brightest light in all of space.

I had to make her mine. Forever.

“Stella.”

Shattered. The world returned.

“Come here, you silly girl,” a crone of a woman with a darker shade of blonde hair called from a dark blue minivan. She waved her lanky arm back and forth above her head and honked the horn once. “It’s time to go.”

“Coming, Mom,” she called. She ran for the gate. Her sandals thwacked against her heels. She pushed open the gate. It clanged shut behind her.

It did not bounce back open.

Stella.

Instinct grabbed me, shouted for me to race after her, to snatch her before she reached her mother, to never let her out of my sight. The ice bucket cracked in my hands. Matter less.

Stella.

Stella.

Stella.

Mine.

© Brittany Krueger

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

What Are You Reading in 2017?

 

After completing my 2016 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set a new goal for 2017. While this year my goal is to read 20 novels—10 less than last year thanks to a job promotion—I’m excited about figuring out which books I’m going to read. Currently, I’m in the midst of Survival in Auschwitz, an autobiography about a man’s 10 months in a German death camp during WWII. Has anyone read this novel?

Here are five more that are on my list:

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Wool by Hugh Howey

In a ruined and toxic future, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I became excited to read this post-apocalyptic thriller the moment I learned that for someone to be born, someone must die. That sounds ominous—and maybe I’m a bit demented—but whenever there’s a world with that level of sacrifice, I’m intrigued.

Plus, it’s always interesting when an originally self-published novel gets picked up by a big publishing house (Random House) and becomes a New York Times Bestseller. (Remind anyone of The Martian?)

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The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly by Matt McCarthy

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor—the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients.

This funny, candid memoir of McCarthy’s intern year at a New York hospital provides a scorchingly frank look at how doctors are made, taking readers into patients’ rooms and doctors’ conferences to witness a physician’s journey from ineptitude to competence. McCarthy’s one stroke of luck paired him with a brilliant second-year adviser he called “Baio” (owing to his resemblance to the Charles in Charge star), who proved to be a remarkable teacher with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy would learn even more from the people he cared for, including a man named Benny, who was living in the hospital for months at a time awaiting a heart transplant. But no teacher could help McCarthy when an accident put his own health at risk, and showed him all too painfully the thin line between doctor and patient.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly offers a window on to hospital life that dispenses with sanctimony and self-seriousness while emphasizing the black-comic paradox of becoming a doctor: How do you learn to save lives in a job where there is no practice?

I’ve always been interested in medicine. I work in pediatric immunology research, so it’s a good thing I enjoy the medical field.

When I first heard about Matt McCarthy and his writings on NPR, I was intrigued. I’m not an MD, but I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to be a doctor fresh out of med school. So, when I discovered this novel, I read the free excerpt on Amazon and was immediately absorbed into this non-fiction story. It seems McCarthy has the rare ability to draw people in, while not being a writer by trade.

I can’t wait to read this refreshingly frank look into a young doctor’s life.

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A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

This is the remarkable story of one endearing dog’s search for his purpose over the course of several lives. More than just another charming dog story, this touches on the universal quest for an answer to life’s most basic question: Why are we here? 

Surprised to find himself reborn as a rambunctious golden haired puppy after a tragically short life as a stray mutt, Bailey’s search for his new life’s meaning leads him into the loving arms of 8 year old Ethan. During their countless adventures Bailey joyously discovers how to be a good dog. But this life as a beloved family pet is not the end of Bailey’s journey. Reborn as a puppy yet again, Bailey wonders, will he ever find his purpose?

Heartwarming, insightful, and often laugh out loud funny, this book is not only the emotional and hilarious story of a dog’s many lives, but also a dog’s eye commentary on human relationships and the unbreakable bonds between man and man’s best friend. This story teaches us that love never dies, that our true friends are always with us, and that every creature on earth is born with a purpose.

With both my mother and grandmother having loved this book, I must understand what made them enjoy it so much. And, with having a nine-year-old German Shepherd, who follows me everywhere, and who acts like every time I step out the front door I’m leaving him forever, I suspect this novel will make me laugh as much as cry.

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America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

Mystery, intrigue, and scandal…all wonderful bits and pieces that shape the most intriguing historical fiction. This novel chronicles Patsy Jefferson’s life from her childhood during America’s Revolutionary War, her teenage years in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, her father’s presidency, and through the War of 1812. This book seems downright delicious!

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Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

I’m prepared for this historical fiction, coming-of-age story to be heartbreaking, humorous, heartwarming, authentic, and compelling. I can’t wait to learn about some less known Hawaiian history and culture, and to see how this novel isn’t about death, but life, not despair, but hope. Despite this book being about a leprosy colony, this story is about the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

What books do you want to read this year? Got any suggestions?

(Photos courtesy of Brittany E. Krueger’s collection.)

What Are the 10 Most Influential Books in Your Life?

If you’re like me, it’s difficult to narrow down all the books you’ve read to just ten that have influenced you. However, I think I’ve come up with a pretty good list. Take a peak and let’s see if we have any of the same!

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  1. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
    This was my first real introduction to vampires, and it has stayed with me ever since. I’ve consciously and subconsciously compared all other versions of vampires to Anne Rice’s creations.

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    2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    I was in high school when I first read this; the gothic atmosphere, the loneliness, and Jane standing up for herself really spoke to me. I related to her character so much as an adolescent.

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3. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
I’ve always loved running, and when I discovered this book, it was like magic. I was so engrossed by the novel that I wanted to go live with the Tarahumara Indians.

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4. Sabriel (trilogy) by Garth Nix
I rarely reread books. For me to do so, I have to (1) love the novel and (2) have forgotten how the book ended. Not so for this trilogy. First reading this in middle school, none of my classmates had heard of this series. But the worlds, magic, and characters in this dark fantasy series struck a cord with me. I wanted to be part of this story, and, even now, as an adult, I am always drawn back into the tale because of the fantastic writing and the maturity seen throughout the characters.

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5. Daughter of Smoke and Bone (trilogy) by Laini Taylor
This trilogy arrived at the perfect time for me. I was an undergraduate, and I was about to give up on young adult books forever. It seemed that each YA book I read was worse than the one before. The last YA book I read before this trilogy I nearly chucked across the room because of the ridiculousness of the characters. However, this trilogy saved YA books for me. I was immersed from page one. The creativity, the writing, and the pacing were spot on. When the story ended, I felt I’d lost a fantastic world and some phenomenal friends.

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6. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I grew up on this series. Starting with my mom reading book one to my brother and I and ending with us fighting over who got to read book seven first (I won), this series holds a special place in my heart.

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7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I was interested in psychology before this novel, but after reading this I couldn’t learn enough about psychology. This book embodies the nature of humanity’s suffering and insecurities, and how, despite being able to take away a person’s life, you can’t take away his freedom.

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8. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
This novel was like a punch in the gut. It showed how unforgiving nature could be, how easily human life could be extinguished, how human error could turn to tragedy, and how one misstep meant death. It showed what the cost of accomplishing your dream meant, what it took to survive, and what it meant to be a survivor, knowing teammates and friends lost their lives, and wondering if there was anything more you could have done to prevent that.

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9. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
This book goes back to elementary school, but I still own the copy my mom bought me all those years ago; and every time I think of the book or see the cover, I smile. It’s a story about an unusually selfless and caring girl, who transcends the bounds of conformity, while the boy who realizes that the girl’s “in touch with something that the rest of us are missing” and loves her, eventually shuns her, like the rest of the school, because he needs to be accepted by his peers.

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10. The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Another book from elementary school, my fourth grade teacher gave me this novel as a Christmas gift—she left a personalized note in it and everything—because she knew of my love for ancient Egypt, and I think I was her favorite student… But I still have the copy she gave me, and it increased my adoration for ancient Egypt to an almost obsessive level.

What are the 10 books that most influenced you? List in the comments below!

(Photos courtesy of Brittany E. Krueger’s personal book collection.)

“The Shadow of the Wind” Book Review

“A story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

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The Shadow of the Wind is a compulsive page turner. From the opening pages, I immediately knew that I’d love this old-fashioned book saturated with offbeat characters, passionate storytelling, Gothic twists and turns, and tragic, thrilling rushes. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s book is reminiscent of the great 19th century novels, while maintaining the precarious balance between high-brow literature and commercial fiction.

The novel begins in 1945 in a Barcelona suffering the aftereffects of the Spanish Civil War. Daniel, a 10-year-old boy grieving from his mother’s death, is taken to a secret labyrinth called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father. In this maze, Daniel chooses one book to care for; he selects a novel titled The Shadow of the Wind by an unknown author, Julián Carax. This choice dramatically shapes his life, sending him from childhood into young adulthood on an elaborate quest to discover the mystery behind why some dark, almost demonic figure is hunting down and burning all of Julián Carax’s books.

A novel about resourcefulness, courage, loss of innocence, love, cruelty, cowardice, murder, and redemption, The Shadow of the Wind mesmerizes as it elegantly unfolds mystery upon mystery, before shooting around breathtaking lurches and blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

(Photo courtesy of Xavi.)

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)