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.


“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.


By Beth Fowler, author of “Ken’s War.” Visit


Why Editors Reject Thousands of Great Manuscripts

Two three-foot high piles of manuscripts teeter on his desk. These represent a fraction of the manscripts he’s received in response to a “call for submissions.”

Every editor hopes to uncover a gem – the manuscript that will rival the works of Alice Munro, Charles Krauthammer, Donna Tartt . . . This editor’s hopes slump. He’s frustrated and maybe saddened.

The twin towers of paper on his desk are destined for the shredder. And it took the editor only a few seconds per manuscript, a quick glance, for him to reject each one.

Did he reject the works because of purple prose, weak plots, one-dimensional characters?

In fact, the editor didn’t read the manuscripts. Didn’t need to.


The writers didn’t follow submission guidelines.

If that seems harsh, consider that every profession has standards. Publishers’ submission guidelines are the standards we writers must follow if we’re serious about the business of writing.

You’ll notice some of the guidelines listed after the video below are slightly different from the guidelines on the excellent video How to Format Your Fiction Manuscript, which goes to show that it’s important to seek and follow each publisher’s guidelines.  ,

And, yes, there are still agents and editors who do not accept emailed submissions.

Ignoring submission guidelines is a sure-fire way to put your work at a disadvantage, and possibly have it rejected immediately.

If a publisher’s guidelines differ with any of the guidelines below, use the publisher’s guidelines. For example, Melange Books LLC requested that Ken’s War, my YA novel slated for publication in 2014, be submitted in rtf (Rich Text Format).

Writing contests always have specific rules writers must follow for eligibility.

Cover Letter and Query Letter Checklist

__ Return address – your name, address, phone number and email address.

__ Address to proper editor, spell name correctly.

__ One-page letter (two if absolutely necessary) of 3 – 4 paragraphs.

__ Letter is concise, polished, courteous, written in business format, yet “human”.

__ Check spelling and grammar. (Donut really on word processor’s spill chick.)

__ Cover letter – SASE large enough with sufficient postage for return of ms or a contract! If you don’t want the manuscript returned, write “disposable manuscript” on it.

__ Queries – business-size SASE for agent’s or editor’s response.


Manuscript Checklist

__ Follow writers/submission guidelines.

­­__ 12p font, Times New Roman, double spaced on 8 ½ x 11, one side only.

__ Proofread for spelling and grammar. (Due note relay on computer spill Chuck.)

__ Capitalize first letter of first word, and rest of words unless small (to, of, in) in chapt titles.

__ Approx 1 inch margins all around.

__ No italics. Underline instead.

__  No handwritten corrections.

__ Mag/newspaper ms: Top left corner – 1st p single-space name, address, tel, fax, cell, email. Mr/Miss/Mrs if first name is unisex. Top right corner – wc, rights offered, dept or column if applies. Drop down ½ way. Center title, By and name. Every p thereafter: Top left corners – last name & keyword of title. Top right corners – p number.

__ Book ms: Title p with title, address, cell, email, wc. Half way down: center title, By, name. Every p thereafter: Top left corners – last name & keyword of title. Top right corners – p number. New p for new chapt, drop down 1/3 –1/4 way.

­­__ End at end.

__ No                                                                                                  “widows”.

__ Cover letter introduces ms. (See Cover Letter Checklist.)

__ Big envelope or ms box (no paperclips).

If this blog was helpful, “like” and share with other writers who want to get published.

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Tight Writing is Good Writing

Competition judges and magazine editors eliminate manuscripts exceeding the required length. Successful authors have learned that tight writing shortens their manuscripts without diminishing impact.

1. Cut the‘s. “She locked all the windows,” becomes “She locked all windows.”

2. Delete bland adverbs. “She really was just totally confused by the very complex problem,” becomes “She was confused by the complex problem.” or “The complex problem confused her.”

3. Use metaphors over similes. “Maria longed to touch his muscles which were like blocks of solid oak,” becomes “Maria longed to touch his muscles, blocks of solid oak.”

4. Employ words for double-duty. “‘Things ain’t like the old days,’ the crone said in a raspy voice,” becomes “‘Things ain’t like the old days,’ the crone rasped.” (Double-duty eliminates ubiquitous said’s.)

5. Edit details that do not develop plot, character or theme. “She donned her trousers, sweater, wool socks and boots before leaving the house,” becomes “She tugged at the oversized sweater to conceal her pregnancy.”

6. Replace stings of itty-bitty words with powerful words. “Don’t set him off and make him mad,” becomes “Don’t provoke him.”

7. Use plural forms. “She rarely attends a party,” becomes “She rarely attends parties.”

8. Write it once. “Fifteen years ago in 1980 . . . ,” becomes “In 1980 . . . ,” or “Fifteen years ago . . . .”

9. Rephrase prepositional phrases. “Andrew kicked the leg of the table,” becomes “Andrew kicked the table leg.”

10. Delete give-away sentences. “He was never the same after the accident,” is deleted. The idea should be implied through the character’s action and dialogue.

11. Use adjectives sparingly. “The kitchen had a sour, musty, rancid odor,” becomes “The kitchen smelled rancid.”

12. Chop would. “Each evening he would salute the flag,” becomes “Each evening he saluted the flag.”

13. Reverse subjects and objects. “Andrew spiked his words with accusation,” becomes “Accusation spiked Andrew’s words.”