Category Archives: Publishing

Imitation is an Intensely Challenging Flattery

Imitation of others work is said to be a form of flattery. That flattery can often be mistaken for plagiarism. However, when it comes to writing exercises, imitation can help expand your writing repertoire, especially if you’re attempting to imitate a writing style very different from yours.

By imitating sentences, punctuation, paragraph format, word flow, etc., you can improve your writing. You can take commercially successful works, literary works, and works that have survived throughout the ages and toil away on increasing your knowledge of varying writing styles.

By mimicking others’ works, you introduce yourself to different sentence patterns, expanding your vocabulary, and more, so that you avoid becoming repetitive in your work, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

 

 

Imitation Smiles

Bring on the challenge!

I mimicked three different works: “Stoner” by John Williams, “Desert Breakdown, 1968” by Tobias Wolff, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen.

I chose these three stories because of their wide-ranging writing styles. “Stoner” is written in a very factual format. The beginning of the novel starts with detailing information about Stoner’s life. The writing is detached and unbiased, and from the start there is a desolate atmosphere of disappointment.

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” is viewed through the eyes of a narrator, who falls short of his own moral measure, and the reader’s measure of him. The narrator has impulses toward abandoning his family in search of dreams that will most likely never come to fruition because of his self-defeating nature and his need to have someone else to blame for his failures.

“Atmospheric Disturbances” quickly questions narrator reliability, specifically bringing attention to close-up, first-person narrator unreliability.

I wanted to compare the same basic story through different writing styles to see how the various writing styles would change the tone of the story. I also wondered if the order you read the imitation pieces in would affect your impression of the story.

The basic premise I decided to use was about a friendship between two girls, Elizabeth Kendricks and Catie Abrams. I won’t go into any greater detail about them here, but will explore their story through the three imitation pieces.

“Stoner” Imitation (“William Stoner entered…by Stoner’s mother.” pp. 3-5):

Elizabeth Kendricks moved to the town of Wistburg as a child in the year 1997, at the age of six. A few years later, while playing soccer in her yard, she met Catie Abrams and recognized her as her new best friend and as a kindred soul, where they remained friends until the fall of 2010. She did not realize how much college would change her, and that she would discover how quickly her best friend would demote her to a pawn in some of her more fanciful games. When their friendship ended her ex-friend made no move to rectify what had happened between them. This lack of apology still effects Elizabeth Kendricks to this day, an emptiness within her: “I will never forget what transpired that fateful weekend, my memories will never fade, and I will never be the same. Forever void.”

Anyone who happens by what transpired may wonder why these two people were ever best friends, but no one digs too deeply beyond the surface. Elizabeth’s teammates, who held her as the most determined of collegiate athletes, think of her ex-friend vaguely now; to her old high school friends, that weekend is an admonition of the continual death of friendships, and to her newest friends it is nothing more than a story with which they wade through blankly and put aside.

She was born in 1991 in a hospital in Falls Church Virginia near the city of Arlington, some two hours from Wistburg, where she would ultimately meet Catie. Though she had happy early years in her childhood cul-de-sac—playing with other children, making her Barbie Dolls kiss—she found, when her father said he was leaving, happiness couldn’t last. At thirty-five her father left; taking his car, he looked at the horizon with the hope-filled eyes of a newly single man. Her mother stared at her three children, as if she were stuck with an impossible task to endure alone. Her eyes were red and her cheeks blotchy, and the yellow of her hair was beginning to give way to premature gray worn back with a hair clip at her neck.

With the earliest memories she possessed, Elizabeth Kendricks knew she was good. As a little girl she helped anyone who needed it, practiced ballet and soccer in the yard in front of her house, and worked hard to impress everyone she knew. And during her short stint in private school, she would, from the moment she woke to the moment she slept, do everything in her power to make people feel special. At thirteen the weight of the world was already weighing too heavily on her shoulders.

Being good was a solitary pursuit, of which she was sorely tempted from, and with Catie she felt tied together with a good sister she never had. In the mornings the two of them walked to middle school together as siblings often would, laughing with each other; many people believed they were sisters, the only times they were apart was at night when no one could see them and even then they’d spend hours whispering through their phones to each other under their bed sheets.

Their houses were across the street from each other, and the brick stairs were a favorite hangout spot. The stairs had with so much teen gossip taken to crumbling into the front gardens—purple and rust red, streaked with yellow.

Between their houses was a smooth neighborhood road, lightly lined with trimmed trees and a few scraggly weeds, and a basketball hoop, where the girls spent most of their afternoons together. Behind their houses were two backyards, each with an outdoor lawn set, a pile of wood, and a fence, with a dent and paint streaks on it. The grass was a yellowing green, unsymmetrically grown and speckled with mud, up through which worms wriggled and were pulled apart each summer by the girls’ brothers.

 

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” Imitation: (“Krystal was asleep…was an opening.” pp. 119-120)

Elizabeth was dancing when they entered the auditorium. Catie had sworn to not shoot a video, but when they reached the stage she took out her phone and did so. Elizabeth’s face was pale from the brightness of the stage lights. Her hair, too unruly for a dancer, clung drenched to her body. Only an odd strand swung into the air. She had her arms raised above her and that made her seem much taller than she was.

The music rang across the cheap flooring of the auditorium. The seats swelled along both aisles, red as the rotting stage curtain. Catie saw the silhouette of Elizabeth on the curtain with each pirouette across the stage, and the glint of metal under the curtain. Then Elizabeth went still. Braggart, Catie thought, and for a moment she felt as fantastic as she had predicted to feel.

But it didn’t last. She had ignored her promise, and she was going to get a look for it when Elizabeth gave her some attention. Catie nearly threw her phone at Elizabeth. But she didn’t want to lose a phone, and fib to her parents, and watch Elizabeth scold her again. By now Elizabeth had hundreds of examples of Catie, Catie with rocks in her hands standing in front of Elizabeth and beside her and behind her and the three instances she’d bitten her since becoming friends.

Catie did not react well. For some reason she always exploded. But those tantrums gave the wrong impression. An old friend of Catie’s had expressed it right—“fun, wild, and self-serving.” Well, that was the perfect picture of Catie. All the world was waiting for her. All she needed was a cohort.

 (“Krystal was awake…low anyway.” pp. 121 – 122)

Elizabeth was sitting now too. For a second she didn’t speak or do anything. Then she looked over at Catie out the corners of her eyes. “So tired,” she said. She tucked up her hair over her shoulder and turned to Catie. Catie kept her eyes on her feet. “Home from the dance,” Catie said. “Man, thought you’d never stop.”

“The video,” she said, “Catie, the video.”

“There was nothing I could do about that,” she said.

“But you swore.”

Catie glanced at her, then down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t help it.”

“I don’t want an apology,” Elizabeth said, and stood up. Catie could see that Elizabeth was biting her tongue. It made her feel happy. “Okay,” Catie said. “Do you want me to erase it?” She got out her phone to show she meant it. “If that’s want you want I’ll do it.”

Elizabeth let out a sigh.

Catie put her phone away.

Elizabeth started to walk down the middle of the aisle. Catie didn’t move anywhere. At least Elizabeth was mad at her and not another. “Hey, Elizabeth,” Catie said. “Look. I bet a chocolate bar that you’ll have forgiven me by ten o’clock.”

Elizabeth gave Catie a look that Catie felt all the way to her core. “A chocolate bar,” Catie said. “Think so?” She went after Elizabeth and saw her hands were fists. She tapped her shoulder. Elizabeth paused, then turned around and flexed her fingers, as Catie knew she would. Elizabeth was not one to stay mad. She wrapped her arms around her friend.

“A big chocolate bar,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s giant, I checked.”

“No YouTube,” she said. “This time don’t put me on YouTube.”

Catie stopped hugging. Then, without blinking, she puffed out her cheeks. Elizabeth snorted and rolled her eyes at Catie. Catie immediately started laughing and put her hands on her hips, where she tried to imitate Elizabeth.

“I have to go,” Elizabeth said. She rubbed her arm. “I have homework, a lot, to do tonight.”

Catie frowned. Elizabeth could study three times the amount of time Catie was willing to do homework, and when Elizabeth got straight As she liked to describe in supreme detail what she did to get there. It made Catie angry.

“Next commercial break,” Catie said, “I’m bored anyway.”

 

“Atmospheric Disturbances” Imitation: (“Last December a woman…puppy trembled.” pp. 3-4)

This morning a girl walked into the dorm room who looked precisely like my best friend. The girl slammed shut the door after her. In a pair of glittering midnight purple heels—Catie’s heels—she was dangling a flabby condom. I did not know she had condoms. And the real Catie, she didn’t let condoms hang out in the open, she didn’t have sex at all. The lemoncrustedly skunk odor of Catie’s ganja was swarming the room and through that audacity I peered at this girl, and at that condom, admitting to myself simply that Catie was exceptionally bad.

She, the girl, the likely condom user, reached up to de-dress. Her arms concealed her eyes slightly, and my tongue choked the end of my throat, but yet, I could watch: identical yanking off crumpled dress, identical pushing up of same dark purple bra with spilling peach breasts. Identical brows lined thick across like on caterpillars with all those innate stripes that fail their singular purpose to become winged beings flying up in the blue sky around the plants. Identical female, but not my Catie. It was a new awareness, that’s why I noticed. Like the instant at the end of a movie where I can hardly say to myself, “I was deceived.” I recall thrice standing up from a movie where the girl, hidden now for ten-some years, was snorting popcorn in her reclined seat, jabbing her finger at the guy on which there was a sticker “I Spit, I Suck, Fisted in Many States.” I would attempt to remove the sticker from the back of the guy, but the girl kept swatting my arm, re-snorting, throwing popcorn, a noise like a burst of tinfoil crunching on the ground. When I would leave I looked all about the theater for the guy, and around the parking lot as well, but I never spotted him.

“Hey!” the fraudulent said loudly, appearing to ignore the stifled air. “I’m still drunk.” She duplicated Catie’s subtle lisp thoroughly, the words slipping over each other. “You are awake this early?” She pressed those sparkly purple heels against her thigh; the condom wiggled.

 

Wow! Okay, so that exercise demanded more intellectual awareness than I thought it would. I had to consciously focus on the core elements of each sentence. Doing so helped me become more aware of structure, both in terms of punctuation and style. Not only did I look at where the commas, semi-colons, and periods were, I examined word order, flow, syllable count, sentence length, parallel structure, and more.

Reading over my imitation pieces, I know I succeeded in some areas and failed in others. When I began this exercise, I had thought to use the same section of story for each imitation piece. I quickly realized that was something I couldn’t do, so I switched tactics and used each piece to express something different about Elizabeth and Catie’s friendship, or more accurately, their relationship, as well as different periods within their relationship. “Stoner” is the overarching summary of their association, while “Desert Breakdown, 1968” shows a glimpse of them during high school, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” shows them in college, near the end of their friendship.

With the “Stoner” imitation, I was able to get an accounting of when Elizabeth and Catie became friends and was able to give some background into Elizabeth’s personality and life without getting too subjective. For “Desert Breakdown, 1968” I found that using Elizabeth as the protagonist didn’t fit, so I switched to Catie as the protagonist. This time you get a sense of who Catie is, and that she may not be the best of people.

In the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation, I was able to shed a different light on Elizabeth and Catie’s relationship. One part of that was due to the story being in first person, while the other two pieces were in third person. This gave a zoomed in view of Elizabeth rather than a wider angle because everything readers were seeing was through Elizabeth’s eyes.

I also didn’t want to follow Galchen’s (“Atmospheric Disturbances” author) narrator unreliability so much as give the impression that something occurred the previous night between Elizabeth and Catie, something that Catie doesn’t yet know about, something that Elizabeth discovered about Catie, which has changed her perspective of her best friend so much that she doesn’t recognize her. I’m not sure if I was successful in that endeavor, but I hope I was at least in part.

Overall, it was very difficult to create a different story from the ones John Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Rivka Galchen were telling, while still keeping true to their stylistic elements.

As for whether or not the order the imitation pieces are read in alter a reader’s impression of the basic premise, I believe they do, especially if you read the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation before either of the other two pieces.

Have you ever done imitation pieces? How’d it go?

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk.)

 

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Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)

 

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.)

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.)