Critique this short story, please!

tanzola-house-with-pretty-shadowsI’m thinking of submitting this short story to a fiction contest. Would appreciate your constructive comments.

A Star on the Farm

 

“I don’t care about silly movie stars,” I said.

My big sister Elma, our nearest neighbor Lucy, and I were lying on our stomachs under the shade of the giant lilac bush next to our chicken coop. Lucy had brought over the movie magazine.

“You’ll care when you’re grow up like me and Elma.” Lucy had turned twelve last week.

“Listen!” My sister Elma read from the magazine: “It says more movies will be shot in color in 1937.”

Lucy grabbed the magazine from my sister. “I get to cut out Claudette Colbert for my scrapbook!”

I taped a four-leaf clover onto the first page in my scrapbook. Lucy and Elma sang “I’ve Got You under My Skin” as they clipped movie star pictures.

When Lucy wasn’t looking, I scratched myself as if something itched under my skin. Elma giggled behind her hand, partly so Lucy wouldn’t notice and partly to hide her crooked teeth.

 

About a week later, Lucy galloped right through our vegetable patch, shouting, “Elma! Elma! A photographer is….” Lucy gasped to catch her breath. “A photographer from the city newspaper is coming tomorrow afternoon!”

“You smashed our seedlings,” my sister said.

“Never mind about that.” Lucy bounced on her toes. “I’m going to braid my hair and wear my satin dress for the photographer.”

 

 

 

“Why would a photographer come here?” Elma asked.

“Daddy said a photojournalist is writing about farmers,” Lucy said. “Put on your Sunday dress and comb your ratty hair if you want your pictures in the newspaper.”

Elma was silent. Two sparrows raised a racket tussling in the dust. My sister was probably searching for the right words to explain to Lucy that the way we looked was the way farmers are supposed to look.

“My picture will be in the paper,” Lucy said over her shoulder as she left. “Just like a movie star!”

Momma stepped of the chicken coop with a bushel basket. “Remember the crazy quilt we sewed last winter?” she asked.

“Yes.” I remembered embroidering chain stitches onto the patches.

“I traded that quilt for these eyes.” Momma called pieces of potatoes “eyes.” She plopped the basket down. “Let’s plant these eyes before the sun gets too hot.”

She dug a hole in the dry ground. I dropped an eye in it and Elma pushed dirt over it.

Elma tugged her overalls. “We don’t get the city newspaper anyways, so it doesn’t matter if I won’t gussy up for the photographer.” She said that to an eye before kicking soil on it.

Momma moved along the furrows, digging more holes for the eyes. Gardens don’t wait for newspaper photographers.

 

The next day we were eating fried chicken under the lilac bush when Lucy bounded into the backyard. I think she stayed clear of the garden so she wouldn’t get her black patent shoes and white anklets with the pink lacy trim dirty.

“Aren’t you the looker!” Elma said.

Lucy was wearing a shiny dress with matching ribbons in her braided hair. She smelled soapy.

“Is he here yet?” Lucy pinched her cheeks to make them rosy.

“Who?”

“The photo-germal . . . photojournalist,” Lucy said.

We heard a motor and saw a dust cloud floating over the hill. Soon, a car pulled up to our fence. A man wearing a stiff white shirt and a bow tie and hopped out. He carried a box.

Lucy ran to him. “Are you the photojournalist?”

“Yes. Are you the lady of the house?”

“No. But you can take my picture and put it in the city newspaper,” Lucy told him.

Momma staggered out of the house, lugging rolled up carpets. She hung them over the rope between two trees. She squinted at the man and said, “You can take your pictures if you want, but we have work to do.” She beat the carpets with a paddle, making the dust jump off.

Between grunts as she whacked the carpets, Momma told me to draw enough water from the pump to make dinner. “Elma, you stack that cord wood over there.” Elma’s eyes rolled toward the huge pile of logs.

“Perfect,” the man said. “I prefer to shoot candid photographs. And I’ll deliver a copy of the city newspaper to your doorstep, to boot.” The man loosened his bow tie and peered into his camera box hunting for candid photographs.

Elma stacked wood straight and tight like we’d been taught. I put all my weight into the pump handle to coax the water up. Lucy twirled to make her skirt and braids flare out.

“Where’d she go?” the man asked, looking for Momma.

“In there.” Elma pointed to the chicken coop.

The man with the camera stood by the door to the chicken coop. He waited for Momma to step out so he could to take a candid picture. He aimed carefully.

In a less than a second, Momma flung that bird onto the stump and chop!

The people at the newspaper company weren’t going to get any pictures of Momma killing the old hen for stewing. The man had forgotten to press the button.

He leaned against the coop and wiped his face with his untied bowtie. Large wet spots darkened the armpits of his white shirt. Lucy stood next to him, fluffing her dress.

He took a picture of her. Then he took another one of Lucy on the porch swing. Lucy at the gate. Lucy in the grass. Lucy in the garden. Lucy on the cordwood Elma had stacked.

Elma sat on the fence rail for a breather before feeding the chickens. Dust streaked her face and around her eyes. Damp hair stuck to her forehead.

“Look at you!” Lucy said. “You look like something the dog drug in.”

I couldn’t hear what Elma said to Lucy as the camera clicked one final time. Lucy left, walking on stiff legs like one of our hens.

 

It wasn’t until after we’d dug up potatoes one day that Momma found a brown envelope tucked just inside the front screened door.

“Lookie here, girls,” Momma said.  She pulled a handwritten note, a five-dollar bill and a clipping from the city newspaper out of the envelope.

She read the note to us. “I won an award in a photojournalism contest and thought I should share at least some of my winnings with you.” A fountain-penned squiggle was in the spot where you’d expect to see a signature.

The photo in the clipping showed the back of Lucy’s head, kind of blurry. You knew it was her head ‘cause of those two big ribbons in her hair. In the middle distance my sister stood with thumbs hooked in her overall straps and a slight frown on her face.

Elma and I read the caption aloud together. “ ‘Looking pretty fades. Working hard pays,’ says Elma Green, the face of farming’s future.”

I taped that clipping into my scrapbook next to the four-leaf clover.

End

By Beth Fowler, author of “Ken’s War.” Visit https://www.facebook.com/kenswar.

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How to Impress Editors & Get Published: Part 1

By Beth Fowler

Editors acquire, improve and publish manuscripts. Although I had only 50 manuscripts to work on during my two-week stint as an editor, I developed sympathy for editors who’d rejected my work in the past. (Contact me for your free copy of Travelers’ Tales, the anthology I edited.)

While wielding the red pen, I learned how to make the best impression on editors. Here’s the scoop.

FOLLOW GUIDELINES (Yes, that again!)

When H.L. Mencken received a batch of Thomas Wolfe’s short stories, the critic yelled, “Take them out! They’re not even sanitary.” The future novelist had submitted dog-eared, greasy manuscripts.

That anecdote reminds us that good writing alone didn’t guarantee publication in the past, and it doesn’t now. During my stretch in the editor’s chair, otherwise talented authors submitted handwritten manuscripts without contact information, without margins, with pages secured by pins and with word counts too high by half. Standards for capitalization, spacing and punctuation fell by the wayside.

In addition to word count and format, guidelines provide other information if read closely. A magazine’s articles that are “highly referenced” means writers better quote big cheeses, if they want to see their bylines in this mag.

Deviations from guidelines sabotage or even kill your chance for publication and leave a sour taste in editors’ mouths. The editors at one large publishing house say, “We’re linear. Very linear.” Translation: If your submission doesn’t follow their guidelines, they’ll reject it.

Guidelines are provided so incoming manuscript formats and conventions are standardized, allowing editors to do their real job, discover and publish writers’ work.

CRAWL INTO THEIR HEADS

Paul McCarthy, author of Editing and the Ideal Editor, believes “It’s only by understanding totally your editor’s thinking that you make the best creative decisions about your manuscript.”

Understanding an editor’s thinking isn’t difficult if writers remember that an editor’s greatest dream is to publish crucial information and riveting entertainment that readers need and want. And then readers crave more! Editors need writers to turn the dream into reality.

Crawl into editorial heads by “reading the writer’s guidelines and back issues of the publication,” longtime e-zine editor Dan Case said. Scrutinize letters from the editor in magazines and newspapers, and dig into books the editor wrote or had a hand in. Study written communications (acceptance letters, contracts, suggestions, short e-mails and the like) from the editor.

In the early stages of works-in-progress, make sure you understand the editor’s ultimate vision for the piece. For example, does she envision the book splayed on coffee tables or shelved in university libraries? Does he envision illustrations, lists and sidebars or a dense article? The Better Homes & Gardens editorial team says that most of their articles undergo a lengthy development process involving both editor and writer. This “lengthy development process” gives authors opportunities to see the world through the editors’ eyes and revise along the way.

QUERY WITH STYLE

Let’s say you’ve studied Gentleman’s Quarterly guidelines and editorial vision. You have an idea for an article about custom-made shoes. A query to “Dear Editor” screams “Amateur!” So you flip GQ open and see 28 editors listed. Six handle fashion. To which editor should you pitch your bespoke shoes idea? Aim for the editor-in-chief, and you risk annoying this VIP who’d delegated portions of his editorial tasks to lighten his load, and you risk snubbing a fashion editor. Call, write or e-mail and ask who gets a shoe query. Staff might’ve departed since the magazine was last published, so verifying the recipient is a good idea in any case.

Submitting queries “on topics that are over-discussed, entirely general in nature or don’t apply to our targeted readership” is one of the most irritating thing writers do, according to Francesca Kelly, who edited Tales from a Small Planet.

Francesca’s colleague added, “Don’t think that because you’re submitting or querying by e-mail, you don’t have to be polite. ‘Hi! Thought you might like to read this!’ with a link to an essay on the writer’s website doesn’t inspire me to use my limited time to follow up. Even though I correspond with people by e-mail, I expect writers to present the same information they would in a written query letter: who they are, what they’ve written and why they think their work fits our publication.”

In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner wrote, “Nothing is more refreshing for an editor than to…read a query letter that takes him completely by surprise.”

***

ken's war coverIf you were to judge a book by its cover, what do you suppose Ken’s War is about? (I approved the cover art a few days ago. . . pub date getting closer…)

Punch up your writing

Communications students from Wisconsin experimented with avoiding forms of the verb to be in their essays. The to be forms consist of am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

For instance, one student rewrote the sentence, “‘Independence Day’ is a great movie,” without the word is. She decided to explain what made the movie great, rather than simply stating her opinion. So, she wrote, “‘Independence Day kept my attention so much that I’ve seen the movie three times.”

Look at this example of another student’s revised sentence.

With to be: “I am a student.”

Without to be: “I study six subjects in high school, play on the soccer team and do homework every night.”

Which sentence tells what the person actually does? Which sentence interests you more? Which sentence provides more specific details? Which sentence includes facts rather than a label?

The Wisconsin students had this to say about writing without to be forms:

“It forced me to pay more attention to what I wanted to say. It’s easy to write, ‘I am a student,’ but what does that really mean?”

“I might develop my writing more if I had to fully explain myself. I know I should do this anyway, but if I write without to be, I can’t get around it.”

“After writing my paper, I think of myself as having more confidence and strength.”

“The most difficult part was getting out of the habit of labeling myself as being something. If I can eliminate some labeling, it will be easier for a reader to understand what I mean.”

“I don’t think I would have sounded as creative if I had used to be verbs.”

Writing without to be verbs encourages writers to pay attention to what they really want to say and explain otherwise unsupported labels, judgements and opinions. Using action verbs in favor of to be verbs punches up flat writing. Eliminating to be forms creates more powerful, crisp communications.

How about deciding for yourself if writing without to be verbs improves your normal style of writing.

Write about one of these topics, or one of your own, without using am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

• Write from the point of view of your nose.

• Write a letter to your future self.

• Write about the benefits of boredom.

• Write what you did this week to respect the environment.

• Write about what really makes you sad/jealous/angry/embarrassed.

 ***

Ready for a break from stories about vampires, suicide, self-mutilation, and other bleak topics? Teens through adults also want books that entertain while exploring life’s important questions. Ken’s War, slated for publication this May by www.fireandiceya.com, does that.

Ken, the protagonist, takes a train trip in Japan. There’s no turning back from the consequences.

japan-138954_640

 

(Student comments from Andrea Johnson, “Oh to be a Writer,” More E-Prime: To Be or Not To Be, ISGS, Concord, California)