Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Deconstruction of a story OR Why I Do It This Way

I'd like to try an experiment. Let's deconstruct the Christmas story I just put out as a free Kindle Short (it is now back in the store at under $1.00 because Amazon only gives you five days for "free" promos, and I need to have this go free on Christmas Day as well). I would like to point out why I did the things I did in the story.

Critique groups will always carp on something or another. When a powerhouse agent was considering taking on MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, she sent me a list of issues. One of the issues was that Ariadne owned a carved wooden box that Aaron had given her back at the height of their love (or whatever it was). The box had a unicorn motif. When *I* see a unicorn motif, it evokes the Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters museum, from Renaissance times. It evokes a sense of mystery and mysticism. I think of the boyfriend I had who said I reminded him of the Jimi Hendrix song "Little Wing" and how I had come unto him as he sat quietly, as a unicorn approaches a virgin. This tidbit is in Ari's history as well.

Guess what? The agent wrote, "Unicorns are things for young girls. Why would she want a box with that on it?"

Well . . . I didn't want to enumerate all that stuff in the narrative. I had already hinted at the unicorn being a symbol of innocence and of the Virgin Mary (which is what it represented in medieval times!), and I had let readers know the box was sentimental to Ari. I thought that was a silly thing to carp about, and I didn't change that in the final text.

She didn't take me on for representation, either.

But now writers are freed from the tyranny of agents/big publishing. We now live by the tyranny of being unable to get the word out about our work instead. (LOL)

However, I think it might be instructive to take a look at the reasons I did what I did in this story. You may bring up questions and problems in the comments. That would be fun.

A fictionalized memoir of an imagined Christmas miracle
by Denise Weeks

I'll never forget the year I almost missed Christmas.

(This is the hook, presumably. I am not satisfied with it, because it telegraphs what happens, in a way, but readers say that without this, many people won't engage with the story. So it stands, for the moment.)

On the afternoon before Christmas Eve, our final bell rang, dismissing school for the next entire week and a half for Christmas break.

(Setting the date and time. Also, we are taken into the past because we're now reading about that year mentioned in line one.)

Mrs. Mischen turned from the whiteboard and smiled down at our sixth grade classroom. "Y'all have a great holiday. And come back ready to work!" She dusted her hands as every desk instantly got vacated. She called after me, "Madeleine Pierce, remember you owe me a book report on the book I lent you!"

(This gives you the age of the protagonist. She's in sixth grade. We don't need to quibble about exact age. Also, we see that Madeleine is the teacher's pet, and perhaps you'll think that is disgusting. You know that she goes by her full name.)

I waved in reply. Of course I would be reading it at my first opportunity so I could write one of my typically prolix (SAT study word) analyses. This teacher always wrote comments back that made sense, which is why I always enjoyed doing extra-credit work.

(Readers should now suspect her aspiration to be a scholar and get a scholarship. She does extra-credit work and already has a list of SAT study words. But she has a supportive teacher. Wonk!)

Despite being slightly delayed by this exchange, I was one of the first out of the school. As I skipped down the concrete steps, tiny snowflakes dusted my head and arms. I smiled. The cold didn't bother me . . . nothing could bother me. It was finally Christmas!

(Yes, she does have some enthusiasm for the holiday. . . .)

"Christmas won't be Christmas if I don't get everything I want." Michelle Stevens' voice pierced the cloud of falling flakes directly behind me. "It'll really suck. I asked for a tablet and a new smartphone and a cashmere twin set and some other stuff, and I'd better get it all." She huffed, but I didn't think it was from the cold. "I cannot abide my brother and I can barely be civil to my parents. I hate to think of being cooped up in that house with them for nearly two weeks."

(We see the attitude that some people have.)

"I know, right? I can't stand my family." Lindsay McIrate commiserated in a vicious tone. "If there weren't presents, and good ones, I would never be able to stay in that house at all."

I resisted an eyeroll because someone would be sure to see it and report back, and then they'd start with me, just when I was almost free. I was polite and civil to everyone, don't get me wrong, but I couldn't understand these ungrateful rich girls who didn't socialize with anyone below A Certain Station or people who didn't have designer clothes. Maybe our family doesn't have that much--even less now that Dad had remarried and was "forgetting" to send his child support check most of the time--but I'd rather be on food stamps and Medicaid than have such a lack of appreciation for what we had, the way they did. It was almost comical the way those two complained about their fancy this and their designer that and how they just couldn't wear something from Sears or whatever. Give me a break.

(You will notice that Madeleine is not walking out with a friend. The situation is that her best friend moved away a month ago and she hasn't made any other special friends, but I couldn't shoehorn that in--I already have backstory and telling here. Readers who are sharp will surmise that she's kind of a loner, though.)

But I had to concede they had a point about being stuck at home. If only I were older and could drive. My sisters and I got along fairly well as long as they stayed out of my stuff, but could I take them in close proximity (another SAT word) for the entire break? My mother was beginning to be difficult because she had no idea that she needed to relax her helicopter status, since logically you couldn't still put the same restrictions on me as you did the younger ones. She couldn't let go and realize I was becoming a teenager, so sometimes it was a little touchy with her.

(She has issues and right now doesn't entirely appreciate her family. This is to show how she changes by story's end.)

As soon as I was out of sight of the crowd (especially those two), I skipped along, catching cold little snowflakes on my tongue. The snow wasn't sticking, so there was no problem walking in it, although my eyes began stinging a little from the cold.

At the bottom of the hill was our house, a humble abode completely unlike the one Dad now shared with Miss Hotpants, but it was all ours and had no residue from the screaming and fighting Mom and Dad used to do all the time. Actually, we all got along pretty well as long as my little sisters stayed out of everyone else's things. I would just deal with it.

(More foreshadowing.)

Shucking off my heavy coat (it was a size too small already, but I managed with scarves to fill the gap) and the mittens that I'd crocheted from recycled yarn (I unraveled Lissa's old sweater that had so many holes), I heard Lainie's boom box blasting Frank Sinatra Christmas carols. She'd always had a thing for the Rat Pack and swing music, which she could indulge at Christmastime with very little teasing.

(The family is struggling and her coat is already too small, in case readers missed the hints from before.)

"Madeleine?" Mama called me into the kitchen. She had her cat-ate-canary face on.

My sisters were watching me from around the big room where they were wrapping last-minute presents and putting the final touches on the tree. That was unusual in itself--all of them cooperating. I'd seldom felt such a sense of expectancy hanging in the air.

Lainie, although the second oldest, after me, could never keep a secret. "You'll never guess . . . but we're going to have a little money this year."

"Elaine," Mama said in her warning voice. "This is Mother's news."

Lissa (Melissa), only six, couldn't contain herself. "The lady in the big house on top of the hill wants a 'girl' to help serve and clean up on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning for her huge gathering." I didn't even know she knew the word "gathering."

"Mrs. Franzblau?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice.

"We do speak, you know." Mama smiled. They knew one another from women's church auxiliary and from Eastern Star, which for some reason Mama is still in although Daddy was the Mason. "And guess who she mentioned, by name?" "Me?" I wasn't sure if my heart was pounding from excitement or trepidation.

"Yes! I know you've been saying you want more independence and freedom, and this tells you I've been listening." She winked. "You'll go over there around noon on Christmas Eve and help in the kitchen and hand out food and take coats and such. Then in the morning you'll fix the big breakfast and help with whatever until they're done. They've promised you'll get a present." Mama was obviously expecting me to get something GOOD. "Of course, you'll get paid." She named a handsome figure. "We really need it this year."

(Yes, quite a surprise. We now see that Mama knows that Madeleine is chafing at the bit somewhat and thinks she needs more independence. She thinks Madeleine is ready for this sort of thing. Or does she? Maybe she is hoping this will be a lesson of sorts. . . .)

So there are reasons an author does what she does. They may not be good reasons, but by Jiminy she has them. . . .