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The Editor’s Clinic: Promise Fresh Perspective

The day after he left, I became extremely tired and took naps that lasted for hours even though I slept well at night. My morning coffee didn’t help. It was all I could do to throw bag lunches together, pour milk over bowls of Quisp, and toss the piles of dirty socks into a bucket of HiLex. After a few days your grandma came and stayed in the blue room on the first floor so she could be close by in case I needed her. To you, Grandma would always have hair like steel wool, a Dowager’s hump and gnarled hands that gave out Brach’s caramels as generously as spankings, but truth is, she was your guardian angel. [7] Annie and Imogene moved upstairs with the older girls in the flamingo colored room. The boys had the big green room except for Jimbo who slept in the hallway beneath the big picture of Jesus. Later when you slept in the hallway you never told me you didn’t like having Jesus stare at you, his bleeding red heart circled by a crown of thorns poking into it like barbed wire. If I’d known how much that picture frightened you, I would have taken him down long ago. [8]

When Grandma arrived, immediately, order came to the house. No one argued with Grandma. They scrubbed the walls that had smears of Velveeta cheese. They wiped the soup splattered counters and all the floors and took a knife to the dried bubble gum on the underside of the dining room chairs. No one argued anymore about whose turn it was to do the dinner dishes, take out the trash or shovel the sidewalk. Everyone, even the older boys knew that you were a special baby. , the one we’d been planning, the one we expected, and they all Everyone dug in and prepared for the little prince or princess arriving soon. Even though you believed what the older kids always told Later, they’d tell you that you were an accident, a fluke, Mommy and Daddy’s little woopsie—really, you were the only one planned. but never in front of Grandma.

On the day you were born it was a dark morning and all the kids were home from school for winter break. It was a day that you won’t remember, but it will haunt you for the rest of your life.

[Material to save for end:] There were very few things your dad and I agreed upon, but you were one of them besides the doctors consulted, symptoms monitored, and temperatures charted that led to your conception. You were planned from the very beginning, not just by God, but by me and your father. 

Notes:

  1. Consider some bit of action that starts a ticking clock. This confession should feel urgent.
  2. I’m not sure that the Tetris detail is germane to your readers’ orientation to this story. With a more careful build, you could use it to foreshadow, i.e., “You always were consumed with how things fit together.”
  3. Why does the narrator have ice cream in her mouth if she is seconds from death? To tolerate this kind of gross detail would require that I first care a bit more about the character and her dilemma. Instead, perhaps add a detail or two that grounds us in the setting in a way that reveals character. Are they in a nursing home? Hospital? Bedroom at home? Does her son have her favorite ice cream by her bed in case she wakes up, and it’s melting, or has Imogene dragged him there against his will? How can you show us how the son feels toward his mother?
  4. If I’m guessing correctly where you are going with this, it seems that with this line you are giving away your piece’s conclusion. Hold back.
  5. Let the reader fill in some details. Even men know what happens when their bladder is kicked.
  6. These details derail the narrative that has been building so far. Is this about the mother’s abuse? Perhaps simply mention that she has wide hips well-suited to childbearing?
  7. This is the first whiff of conflict in a story about a woman who seemed to handle having 11 children just fine. It perked me up to think that perhaps it was her 12th child that tipped this mother over the edge; that perhaps she fell apart, and only this crotchety grandmother held her together enough to manage. “Crotchety grandma as guardian angel” is the fresh perspective I’m looking for. Maybe that is her confession: she wanted this child, but hadn’t foreseen the way she would fall apart. Maybe she complained all the time and that deviled her youngest son, who believed he was an “oopsie.” Maybe she was even abusive toward him because she wasn’t in her right mind, and wants to confess her weakness because he’d always been planned and wants him to know it. Whether this is so or not, plant some foreshadowing that points toward story as opposed to mere recollection. Addendum: If this is the direction you are moving in, consider changing “my older brother/him,” in green, to “my mother/her.”
  8. Add detail that the youngest had to sleep in the hallway later, when the mother feels powerless to effect positive change in her life, and show how Grandma changed things. We would expect that at the end, she is able to communicate her love to her youngest on in a profound way, and be released to the light.

I may have taken this story in a direction the author didn’t intend. That’s always a possibility when doing a developmental edit, but I hope I’ve driven home my point: a short story should launch fast enough that within three pages we have a better sense of its central conflict. Hook us with a fresh perspective and you will earn yourself a reader.

Have you written about birth and death? What fresh perspective have you brought to the illumination of these commonplace mysteries?


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.