Risk – “Junk Drawer JuJu”

Today I had originally planned on posting a completed version of a short story I’d been working on, however, as the story started developing I started to think about my dreams and why I began this blog in the first place.  It’s moniker, “Dastardly Reads”, was inspired by my own cowardice as a writer.

As a child, I used to write with full intention of being an acclaimed author, hoping to one day have my stories out into the world and maybe make a bit of a living off of them.  Yet, as my life went on, and I got older, more world-weary, and a lot too cynical, I became crippled by fear.  I didn’t want to put my stories out there, to let them be heard, because what if no one listened?

Or worse, what if no one liked what I had to say?

It is so easy to tear apart someone who has something they care about, especially something they created, displayed for the world to see.  I think it’s easier than some people realize and still others do realize and happily exploit its ease.   Writers, creators — artists in general, they take a great risk in putting their work out there.  The rewards can be great, or so I’m told, but they’re also rare, and more often the outcome is that you leave yourself vulnerable and wide-open to attack, and attacked you will be.

It’s no wonder Harper Lee cautioned would-be writers, “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”

Starting this blog was the first of many steps I’ve been taking in hopes to develop that thick hide, and I think  that it’s time I finally test its durability.  The short story I planned on posting today, I’m going to instead make attempt at getting it published and, once it is finalized, I will begin querying and submitting to a few literary magazines.  If nothing else, it will provide me a little insight into the publishing process.

Wish me luck.

Or even better, I’m posting a very brief snippet of the short story, and would love any constructive feedback you could offer?

Excerpt of “Junk Drawer Juju”

The tiny house at the end of Canterbury Lane looked ordinary by all outward appearances, and Millicent felt skeptical pulling her powder blue Coupe de Ville up sidelong the driveway. She peered vaguely out her window, took in the red brick two story with its wrap around porch, hanging plants clasped to the trellis, scant lawn decorated with pink flamingo ornaments and a dream catcher in the window, ivy growing up the building’s side, and a long hedge poised like a crouched tiger all around. The only aspect of the house that really set it apart from its neighbors’ own tacky layouts was the auspicious tree that stretched high up, over the top of the house, its wicked branches curved into spindly limbs scratching at the clear sun-baked sky.

Millicent threw her car into park and scurried up the walk, tentatively tapping the door, its knocker shaped like a napping cat. She hugged her purse to herself and shuddered, suddenly feeling ice through her veins, though it was a warm summer day. The door swung open and a small, beady-eyed woman filled its frame and gasped.

“You’re late!”

“I…I didn’t know…you were expecting me?” Millicent stammered, taken aback, perhaps there was something to this woman after all, with her bedraggled hair, gold spandex, and swampy “Mizz Thang” sweatshirt.

“Of course. Franz called. Said you’d be here around noon, it’s nearly supper time now,” Mizz Thang answered, swinging her door open wide and ushering Millicent inside.

Millicent softened her expression and smiled at her own silly conclusion jumping.

“Franz. Of course,” she drawled, stepping into the house and flinching when the woman slammed the door shut and tossed its lock and a series of deadbolts into place.

The house’s insides were even less conspicuous, knick-knacks and doilies topped with vases from flea markets, a large clock overhead featured a watercolor rooster cock-a-doodling atop a red barn. A shaggy dog, its eyes — one blue and the other brown, sat on the stairwell, disinterestedly watching the two women enter the house and stride swiftly into the den. There was a tweed sofa, a knit afghan flung over its high back, and a coffee table littered with magazines about gardening, cooking, and high-tech gadgetry.

“Would you like something to drink? Maybe some chamomile tea?” the woman asked and Millicent politely declined. Chamomile gave her hives.

Altogether, the atmosphere in the house seemed pleasant enough, like grandmother’s home, where small children sat quietly on the couch sucking sweet lozenges thirty years expired and hoping their parents would take them home soon.

“Right to business then,” Mizz Thang announced, clapping her hands together and causing Millicent to nearly jump clear out of her own skin, “Will we be casting a curse, hex, or love spell?”

“Aren’t they all the same thing,” Millicent dryly wondered. Mizz Thang grinned, she had maybe five teeth in her mouth.

“Of course not. A love spell is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, a hex is the hasty excise of a fleeting moment of anger that smarts for weeks after, and a curse is a rage so precise and exacting, their great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will feel it!”

“I see. Then I suppose I’m here for a curse,” Millicent decided, setting her features grim. She was a chubby cheeked woman, prone to fits of giggles when drunk, though, so the effect wasn’t much.

“Of course,” Mizz Thang replied whimsically, “No one is ever here for a hex, but as a matter of professionalism, I’m compelled to recommend the hex over curse. It’s more efficient, economical, gets the job done with a fraction of the side-effects…”

“Well…I don’t know…” Millicent wavered, crossing her arms over her chest and worrying her bottom lip. When Mizz Thang put it that way, it was difficult to resist.

“Hexes are far easier to reverse in the instance of buyer’s remorse, and also, require no animal sacrifice whatsoever. Easier clean up.”

“Ah…well…I do feel bad about the animal sacrifice bit…but no. No. I’m definitely going with the curse,” Millicent announced.

“I tried,” Mizz Thang said…

  1. Be brave 🙂

    I like it. I read a lot of blogs here written by folks who aspire to be published, and I do a fair amount of criticism that I believe is constructive, though not all would-be writers have the “thick hide” Harper Lee suggests.

    Absolutely love the “small children on the couch” description of the living room–very well done (nice bit about those old candies “thirty years expired”). It captures a sort of benign claustrophobia of the room. Like, there’s nothing really horrible here you want to escape, but still you want to get away. And Millicent’s casual, almost off hand selection of a “curse” (“I suppose I’ll go for the curse”). You reveal a lot with that bit of dialogue–Millicent’s skepticism and ambivalence about being in this woman’s living room, looking for the supernatural.

    I think the piece would benefit from some tightening up, though. The really meaningful line here, the sentence that sets up the story you are about to tell, is the “I suppose I’ll go for the curse” and I think it takes a bit of time to get there, especially for a short story. You spend a lot of time on the description of the house and even the neighborhood, though as I re-read it knowing where we are headed, I see it’s only about one paragraph, but on first reading, it seemed longer. I think I might hit some spooky, eerie foreshadowing in that first descriptive paragraph, which you kind of do when describing the tree (the “spindly limbs and “wicked branches”) but that comes at the very end of a long paragraph. On rereading that paragraph, I misread “auspicious” as “suspicious” so there’s a suggestion for you, but this is your story, and I’m very curious about your selection of the word “auspicious” there-are you revealing that Millicent is superstitious, looking for signs everywhere? (In that case, I misread skepticism into her “I suppose I’ll go for the curse” comment).

    So anyway, I would edit that first paragraph to just her pulling up into the driveway and tentatively approaching the house, and seeing the tree.

    I would also edit some of the dialogue–that stammering first statement from Millicent “I . . .I didn’t know . . .you were expecting me?” uses two ellipses, which looks very strange on the printed page, and I would not do it, as a writer (there are two more instances in the piece of using ellipses twice in a single line of dialogue). I think just having Millicent respond “You were expecting me?” achieves the same purpose in the narrative. Other things: I’m not sure if a character who chides another character about being late would then further delay the proceedings by offering tea. That accusatory “You’re late!” seems to indicate she wants to get down to business, is a no nonsense sort of person. So if she isn’t that sort of character, and wants to socialize (offer tea) and make chit chat, you might want to remove that “You’re late!” But I would go with removing the offering tea part (if it doesn’t advance character or the story, cut it. Unless it’s somehow significant to the plot–and it may be–that Millicent is allergic to chamomile tea, I would cut that exchange).

    Finally (wow, this critique is longer than the piece!), I found referring to the woman as “Mizz Thang”—I guess you’re calling her that because that’s what’s on her sweat shirt? Does Millicent not know her name? Surely Franz would have told her? Anyway, I found it confusing that the character is referenced that way.

    I think it’s a good piece, and I want to find out why Millicent wants to put a curse on someone and I’d like to know the rest of her story. 🙂

    • I want to start by saying thank you so much for this incredible feedback! I appreciate you taking the time to pick apart my story excerpt the way you did. This was the kind of helpful criticism I had hoped for, though didn’t expect, and I am incredibly grateful of it. You are awesome. I completely understand your comment, on would-be writers yet to develop that thick hide, I’ve run into that same problem delivering criticism I thought constructive, and I know it can make a person very reluctant to critique other writers, so I’m glad your past negative experiences didn’t stop you from delivering this careful analysis of my piece!

      I’m delighted to hear that my story has you intrigued, and that some of my descriptions hit the marks I was aiming for! Definitely helps bolster my courage. 🙂

      As for the beginning paragraph and my taking forever to get to the meat of the story…yes, hah…that is kind of my weakest trait as a writer. I like a slow build up and I will slow play a story into oblivion. I can also be very unintentionally verbose when I write. In high school I wrote a short story that became infamous among my fellow creative writing classmates. It was forty-four pages long, single spaced, twelve point font. No one wanted to peer review it…it was too long to read in the short class time. I figure I’ll finish writing this story, see how long it gets…at this point, I’m thinking it might push past short story status up to novella, then probably snip-snip the excess fat, and per your advice, that first paragraph will probably hit the chopping block first.

      Yeah, Millicent is less meant as a skeptical character, as she fully believes in the magic, and is more so supposed to be excited about the whole experience and a little disappointed that, thus far, everything has been very mundane. I’ll have to re-examine her character, try and work it so that comes across better. As for the old woman, I’m glad you pointed out that “You’re late!” line. I’d intended for her to go on and mention that she’d had tea and supper ready for the company and it was getting cold, but that part didn’t make it into the dialogue there, I will have to rewrite it. Yeah, the woman isn’t so much meant to be a down-to-business type as a sort of spritely, playful, sort of eccentric grandmother type, whereas, Millicent is the snappy, down-to-business type.

      Lol, I love that your critique was so long! My reply to your critique is getting just as long, though, I better wrap it up.

      Yeah, Mizz Thang became the woman’s identifier because of the sweater, partially because I didn’t want to name her, leaving a kind of air of mystery to the woman, and I didn’t really get the impression that Franz knew her name when I started writing, but it was mainly because as the story unfolded she began to transform into a character that I had created for a different, novel-length story that I’d been developing, and was reluctant at first to commit her to being that character. By the time I made the decision I’d already started calling her “Mizz Thang”, so I determined to reveal her name later. I did feel it would be weird, for the reader, my referring to her that way, and your comment certainly confirms that, so I will rethink her identifier. You’re right, Franz would probably have given Millicent something to call the woman by…

      Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to write out this wonderful feedback! When the story is finished, and I take those second, third, fourth, and fifth looks at it, I will definitely bear in mind the things you mentioned, especially that first bit of advice, to be brave.

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