“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter 5c, Excerpt 14, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

DANNY LARGEST ORIG PHOTOTommy Butler lived just a few blocks further up the avenue. We’d been friends since third grade. I decided to go see if he was home—though I had no idea where else he would be—and spend the rest of my birthday with him. Tommy’s mother worked at a bar and grill in the neighborhood and had odd hours. His father had odd hours, too, mostly because he drank too much.

Once, Tommy found Dad passed out in bed, apparently having wet himself. I could tell Tommy was embarrassed by the stained sheets. Another time, we found Tommy’s father on the living room couch with a cigarette between his fingers which had burned down to the skin on the two fingers that formed a V. I felt sorry for Tommy’s father. He was a nice guy when he was awake, even drunk. I got the feeling he wanted to escape his life but was doing a lousy job of it. I felt sorry for Tommy, too, though he always made it clear he had no pity for his old man. It was probably why, despite Tommy’s bouncy blond curly hair and big blue eyes, he rarely smiled.

Heading up the short avenue blocks, the air was so frosty it looked almost like a white veil across the houses and trees as I passed them. By the time I arrived at Tommy’s, after walking just a few minutes, my face and hands were numb. Tommy and his parents lived in a four-room apartment on the downstairs floor of a wide, three-story house which stood out on the block as the only one with a front garden overrun by untended thorny bushes.

I prayed he was home as my frozen finger pressed the doorbell, but then remembered the doorbell didn’t work, and that I had to pound on the wooden door for him to hear me. I was relieved when I heard what I hoped were Tommy’s footsteps from the inside hall. The dead bolt slid open from the other side.

“Hi,” Tommy said as he pulled the door open.

“Hi,” I said. As usual, the house was stiflingly hot. The landlord who lived upstairs controlled the furnace, and he was old and always cold. I heard The Beatles, “Nowhere Man” playing in the living room.

Once inside, I noticed the 45s stacked on the record player, waiting to drop down and play next, one after the other. I smiled, knowing how Tommy shopped—shoplifted, that is—about one 45 a week, since he never had money. His mother thought I got a big allowance and bought them for him. That was his standing story. The truth was Michael gave me a dollar every Friday, when Mr. Grenelli paid him which I usually used to buy pizza and cokes or ice cream for Tommy and me up on Liberty Avenue. Money wasn’t a problem for Al, so she never let me spend any on her.

“Happy birthday,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”

The victrola arm lifted up and over, and the next 45 dropped down. “Paint It Black”, began playing.

“What’s wrong?” Tommy asked. “You don’t look so good for a birthday boy.”

This was a switch, since Tommy rarely smiled and was usually the one being asked what’s the matter. I sat down on the couch. The brown and yellow flowered slipcover slid down, as I did, showing the worn brown upholstery underneath. I set my drawing pad down and peeled off my jacket and threw it over to the chair in the corner.

“It’s hot in here,” I said.

“Sorry,” Tommy said. “I’ll open the window.”

“Thanks,” I said.

He sat down next to me.

“I just walked from Al’s and it’s freezing out,” I said. “It feels like a sauna in here.”

“You were at Al’s?” he asked, pulling back.

I nodded.

“What were you doing there?” he asked with the usual tinge of jealousy in his voice whenever I talked about Al.

“I just wanted to get away from my apartment,” I said. “She gave me this for my birthday.” I showed Tommy my drawing pad. “There’s a boss lead pencil in my jacket pocket that came with it,” I added.

“Great,” he said with his typical sarcasm.

I wanted to change the subject before he asked me why I’d gone to Al’s first. “Al’s frog Larry died. Or I think it was Larry. I get their names mixed up. Well, I helped her bury him in her yard. She’s worried about Chow Mein. She thinks he’s going to die soon of a broken heart.”

“She’s strange,” Tommy said.

It had been a long day already, so I ignored the crack about Al. His opinion of Al was mutual.

“Um, I was going to get you a present, too, but, you know, I didn’t have any money,” he went on.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, glad to change the subject away from Al. “You don’t have to give me anything.”

“But I want to,” he said, looking dejected. He looked around the room, his eyes settling on the record player, which by now had been playing “Elusive Butterfly.”

“How about if I give you a couple of my records?” he said.

“Um, sure,” I said. “But you really don’t have to give me anything, Tommy.” Michael had a record player he let me use. He might even like whatever songs Tommy gives me, I thought.

“Oh, that’s okay. I want to.” He went over to the record player on top of the hutch. On the bottom shelf was his mother’s faded green paisley cloth-covered sewing box that he kept his hot 45s in. He brought it to the couch and sat back down next to me.

“Want to pick them out, or should I?” he asked and placed the box on his lap and opened it.

“Still a steady customer of Sam Goody’s, huh?” I asked.

“Ha ha, you’re so funny,” he said. “Here, which ones do you want?” He handed the box to me.

I looked into it and pushed some records back, reading the titles—Bob Dylan “Positively 4th Street,” “The Times They Are A Changin’,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart,” Four Tops “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”.

“What a collection!” I said. “Sam Goody would be proud.” I smiled and shook my head. “Here, just give me whichever ones you want me to have, Tommy,” I said though I felt guilty taking stolen goods.

“Well, okay,” he said, and took the box back. Then said, “Feel like a drink?”

“A drink?” I asked him. “I don’t know.”

“There’s some scotch in the cabinet,” he said.

“Not after last time,” I said, squishing my face up.

“Oh, right,” he said, making the same face. “Well, then, how about a beer? Dear old Dad’s got some in the fridge today. Maybe he knew it was going to be your birthday.”

“Right,” I said. “Sure, okay.”

He went into the kitchen and came back with two bottles of Ballantine, opened them with Mr. Butler’s metal bottle opener, and gave me one. Then he sat back down and took a few gulps of the beer, as did I, though I really didn’t want it.

He smiled. “Why don’t you drink some more of your beer, Danny.” He took a long gulp of his own and set it down on the coffee table.

“Um, what about my birthday present?” I said. “You were going to pick out records to give me. Remember?” I tried to interrupt one sin with another.

“Oh, right,” he said. “Sure, Danny.” He sat up and picked up the record box. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay. It’s just not my best birthday, between my stupid sister and Al’s frog’s funeral.”

“Oh,” he said.

I knew I had hurt his feelings—as I seemed to do often—with my not being in a drinking mood and seeing Al on my birthday before coming to his house. I left out the part about how Al and, especially her sweet kisses, had made me feel better, but his believing Al had depressed me with her deceased frog seemed to cheer him up.

He began to read over the record labels in the box. “Okay, let’s see. You like the Supremes, don’t you? How about ‘Stop In the Name of Love’?” He gave me his innocent smile which was anything but.

“Sure,” I said. The Supremes were Tommy’s favorites.

A few years before, Tommy had moved into the neighborhood and was the new kid in school. Al had already started skipping grades, leaving me behind. Since her schedule had changed, I was spending most of my lunchtimes alone, dodging bullies. I was the only one in our large third grade class who didn’t torture Tommy for being new, and he became very attached to me. He was a Flower Child, perpetually sad about life’s troubles, such as the mistreating of animals (Tommy was a vegetarian), and the war in Vietnam depressed him.

“Oh, and do you like The Four Tops?” he asked. “‘I’ll Be There’? Oh, and how about ‘Baby, I Need Your Lovin’.’”

“Yeah,” I said. “I love The Four Tops.” I drank some more of my beer. He handed me the three 45s. I slipped them between the pages of my sketch pad and put it inside my jacket, so they wouldn’t get broken.

“And I love my birthday present,” I said, “ aside from how you got them. Thanks, Tommy.”

“You’re welcome,” he said and smiled in his no-smile way. Then, he finished his beer and set down the bottle. The effects of the beer were beginning to settle in, and I felt more relaxed. “My World Is Empty Without You,” came on the Victrola.

I never got around to telling Tommy my sad story about Frances and the Diary Dilemma, which sounded like the title of a mystery book. I didn’t even remember to tell him about my new fishing pole. I hadn’t noticed that it was already getting dark, and the walk home would be colder than before. After a while, I started to get up to put on my jacket. I slid my sketch pad with my new 45s under one arm inside my peacoat.

“Don’t leave, Danny,” Tommy said. “Stay over.”

I was not in a hurry to leave the warmth of his friendship for who-knew-what awaited me back at the ranch. I would have been delighted to stay over, as I had done many times, and, after his mother walked home from her job at The Hideaway bar on Liberty Avenue, have some of her great cooking, since I couldn’t remember if I’d eaten anything that day. But with all that had gone on earlier, I had this feeling I should go home, though I wasn’t sure why. Because it was my birthday? I didn’t know. I just wanted to connect with Michael after all that had happened.

“Sorry, Tommy,” I said. “I really do have to go.”

“Okay,” he said, seeming to sense not to push it the way he normally would have. “Will you be around tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” I said, remembering that Al would be away in the Catskills, though sometimes I got to spend some time with Michael on Sundays, so I liked to keep them open. I said goodbye to Tommy and headed down the hallway. I could hear the song “Stay” coming from the living room…“just a little bit longer”. I stepped out into the biting but refreshing cold air.

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach       ebook 99 cents (258 pages)

 

“Funeral for a Stooge”, Chapter. 5b, Excerpt 13, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach

ARCH SELZ COVER FRONTI followed her out the back door. The sun was lower in the sky, the backyard had grown more still, and the frostiness icier.

“Isn’t the dirt too frozen to dig through, Al?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Grab the key from the hook on the wall there.”

I did, and Al opened the garage door and emerged a few seconds later with the—implements of death—a small, pointed hand-shovel and a pick. She carried the mini coffin to the rose-less rosebush, its branches stiff as Larry. On the ground were two large, round rocks sunk into the frosty dirt neatly aligned next to the garage’s outer wall. Andy’s perpendicular influence, I imagined.

She knelt down and, with Larry’s coffin in one hand, began stabbing at the hard dirt with the pick with the other. She hacked away at the frozen ground, then started chopping at it with the shovel, silent tears streaming down her face.

“Want me to help, Al?”

“Yes,” she said, stabbing and digging away with one hand. “Hold Larry.”

“Hold Larry?”

“Daniel, will you please just take him?”

I stuck out my hand and Al placed leathery Larry’s matchbox casket into my freezing hand.

“Okay, Daniel,” she said a few minutes later and about four inches down. “Let me have him.”

I handed her the matchbox. She looked up at me with puffy eyelids.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just get the feeling something’s not right with you.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded.

“Well, maybe that’s because it’s the worst birthday of my life,” I finally blurted out.

“What?”

Her eyes got big and she almost dropped Larry into his grave.

“Oh, no! What are you saying, Daniel? Why didn’t you tell me?” Then she smiled.

I was glad to be able to cheer her up with my news of a nightmarish birthday.

“It’s not important,” I said. “There’s just something I have to tell you about.”

“Daniel, what could be more important than your birthday?” She dropped Larry’s casket into his cold grave and stood up a few inches from my nose and faced me.

“Danny, what is it?”

“Well, it’s a long story, Al.”

“What kind of story?”

“Why don’t you finish burying Larry first? Then I’ll tell you.”

“No, tell me now,” she said. “It sounds important.”

“It is important,” I said. “But finish burying Larry. I can wait another few minutes, Alison.”

“Darn it, Daniel.” She turned back to her gruesome task. “Okay. I’ll finish, then tell me.”

“Well, that is why I came over.”

“Oh, sorry, Danny. Guess I sidetracked you. Why didn’t you say something?” Her gloomy mood seemed to lighten as she began to cover poor, stiff Larry in his little sliding-door coffin with frozen, gravelly dirt. When she was satisfied that he was in deep enough to rest in peace, she stood up, brushing the knees of her jeans.

“He needs a headstone,” she said. “To add to Moe’s and Curly’s.”

I was speechless.

“I’ll run and find a rock for him, then we’ll go back to my room, and you can tell me.”

“Right.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you had something to tell me?” she called back from the side of the house.

“You were too sad about Larry.”

“Oh,” she said, back now.

“And then you got sadder and sadder, and crying and everything,” I said.

“Oh, that.”

“I got the feeling you were thinking about your mother, Al.”

“How’d you know?” she asked.

“Because I was, too,” I said.

On her knees, Al finished arranging Larry’s rock with the other Stooges’ tombstones.

“Good-bye, Larry,” she said. “Your friends Moe and Curly are waiting to welcome you to Frog Heaven. And, don’t worry, Chow Mein will, in time, learn to live without you. It won’t be easy for him. Or for me. We’ll miss you.”

I felt like crying, but had already done enough that day.

Al put her hands on my shoulders, her dark eyes still damp.

“Okay, Sweetie,” she said. “Come on and tell me what happened.” She pulled me toward the back door, inside, and back up to her room, where she pushed me down onto her bed and sat next to me, close. I was happy to see she was feeling better.

“Okay, Sweetie, what’s going on?”

Al’s room was cold. Outside her bedroom window, I could see the backyard covered in the sun’s shadow. The warmth of Al’s body next to mine on her soft bed comforted me. I thought about Larry in his matchbox alone in the frozen ground. I thought about my father Frank whom I never knew. I thought about Al’s mother. Al’s tenderness touched me and the tears did start up again. Her face so close to mine, still cool from the outside air, blurred, until the tears spilled over my cheeks and down my chin. I felt like an idiot.

“What’s the matter, Angel,” she asked, and kissed me lightly on my lips, now wet with the tears that had settled in the corners of my mouth. I told her what Frances had done and described the whole mess up to the point when I had to pass the three of them in the kitchen to make my final escape.

“Poor Sweetie,” she said. “That’s terrible.” She squeezed my hands and kissed me again on the cheek.

“Yeah, I was a real mess,” I said, enjoying her softness and sympathy, a side of Al most people never saw. Despite everything, I felt fortunate in that moment.

“Well, Linda never liked you to begin with,” Al said, “and as long as Michael’s not mad at you, that’s all that matters, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. It was true.

“I mean you didn’t really say anything bad, just a bit embarrassing?”

“Yeah,” I said, praying Al would never know she was in my diary, too.

“Well, are you feeling better now?” she asked.

“Just being with you makes me feel better, Al.”

“I have a present for you,” she said.

She smiled. “Here, open it,” she said, and handed me a flat, rectangle gift wrapped in blue, white, and green paper covered in sailboats and seagulls. I tore off the paper. A sketch pad.

“I hope it’s okay,” she said. “Is it the right size?”

I nodded.

“I wasn’t sure if you would like the big one or the small one,” she went on. “I thought a small one would be good because you can take it wherever you go. There’s a pencil in there, too, Daniel, with a special eraser.”

“It’s perfect,” I said.

“Happy birthday, Sweetie,” she said.

“Thanks, Al.”

We sat on the bed for a few minutes, me fingering my art pad and fancy crystal blue pencil, and Al gazing into the tank with its now solo inhabitant, Chow Mein.

Then, Al said, “Oh, Daniel? I would have told you this sooner, but we got sidetracked with Larry, and your story about that sister of yours, and your birthday present.”

“What?” I knew I didn’t want to hear this.

“Well, it’s just that I’m going away tonight, with my father. Upstate. The Catskills? My grandparent’s house. I’m sorry, Daniel. I know it’s your birthday and everything….”

“Oh.”

“Grandma’s not doing well, and Andy decided to go up there, a last minute idea. He’s not sure how long we’ll be staying. He’s worried about Grandma, and even Grandpa, now that my uncle is dead and isn’t there to help out anymore.”

“Right, sure,” I said.

“We’re heading out as soon as Andy gets home from work,” she said. “I’ll call you as soon as we get back, okay?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Any idea when that will be?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “It’ll depend on how Grandma and Grandpa are doing. I’m sorry, Daniel.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said. Up there in the Catskills, Al wouldn’t be just a walk or even a phone call away.

I left Al’s, clutching my new drawing pad under one arm, feeling better than when I had left my apartment, but uneasy about her leaving. I pushed open the wooden gate from Al’s backyard to the sidewalk on 115th Street and stood at the corner, looking both ways. It was late afternoon but already starting to get dark. I was in no hurry to go home.

The Archangel of Hamilton Beach       ebook 99 cents (258 pages)

Get Over Yourself (Please): Letter from a Writing Teacher

Dear Class,

Thank you for the last ten weeks. You have all worked hard writing and rewriting and editing your own work and your fellow writers’ works, all the while growing in knowledge and experience, which was evidenced in your writing, which has been better and better every week.

I look forward to publishing our Let’s Write! class anthology, our collection of this class’s unique and original memoirs of which I am very proud.

Since I’ve already extensively shared with you my gratitude and appreciation for your patience with me for the duration of our longer-than-usual class due to my inopportune accident, let me jump right in here with what’s rambling through my mind.

Sometimes I think people take themselves a little too seriously (or a lot). “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (from the Holy Bible, Galatians 4:16)

Yes. If you want to clear a room or empty your life, tell the truth. And you could say this is the story of my life, both personal and professional. People say, “Val, you’re so real,” but then when I am “real” (in other words, honest), they hate me for it and call me names and run away.

But here’s the thing of which I’m really guilty. I’m going to really clear the room, now, maybe empty myself of all students/clients, present and prospective, “because I tell you the truth.” Here goes: It’s not my clients/students for whom I work (they just pay the bill), it’s their writing.

My concern is not for the poet, it’s for her poetry and its effect on those for whom it’s meant. And therein lies the problem. God gives us a gift with which He expects to use us to reach others, whether that gift be music, public speaking, sewing, writing, carpentry, or any other number of specialties.

So when all the while, a writer is concerned more about him- or herself than the writing, all I’m thinking about is will anyone ever read this out there somewhere? Paperback? eBook? blog post?  Will any of those ever happen so the memoirs, stories, essays, poetry so full of wisdom and experience ever be allowed to live? I try.

Writers Who Got Over Themselves for the Sake of the Writing:

I practically begged student Gayle Peebles to write a book because the potential from an essay she’d tentatively started in class was overwhelming. She fortunately took the bait, and I got to help her give life to the story wanting to be told and appreciated by all who read it. The result, Best Friends Worlds Apart is a real classic book, receiving high accolades from the judges at Writers Digest in 2017 when Gayle entered it in an eBook contest, and enjoyed by many here in the United States and in Russia.

I cajoled Lily Allyson Liu, a lovely Taiwanese-American lady who was afraid her English wasn’t good enough (It was, with a bit of editing.) into writing her memoir about falling in love with a man involved at the time in a regrettable gay relationship. The result, a touching little 60-page paperback and eBook Lily called A Rhythmic and Melodious Friendship: A Memoir because one thing they had in common was a strong love and knowledge of classical music. It was a true story being written even as it was being lived by her (and him). 

It wasn’t easy, but I coerced Shirley Ann Moore into writing the family story of her mother, a Wiyot Indian, after she had submitted a three-page essay about herself growing up with her mom. Then I convinced Shirley into including a brief history of the Wiyot tribe, complete with a map of the tribe’s home of northern California. Shirley named the memoir A Lick and A Promise: Remembering Mom, Descendant of a Wiyot Tribe. The title came from Shirley’s mom’s favorite line about how she’d clean the kitchen when in a hurry, with “a lick and a promise”. Shirley included a family recipe at the end of each chapter of her book, a delightful aspect readers appreciated.

Like Gayle, Shirley, after the classes ended, began to come weekly to my studio for private sessions with me. Also like Gayle, Shirley would bring family photographs she’d collected which we painstakingly labeled and scanned into my computer to be part of the history her characters were unraveling for her, little by little, in the book Shirley never believed could happen.

Shirley’s favorite line was, “Do you really think I have a book here?” (Gayle had asked the same question early on.) “Of course, you do,” I’d say. “How can you not see it?” I’m truly shocked and often frustrated when students seem blind and deaf to their own stories trying to be told.

Alix had already written about three hundred poems and had posted them online to a poetry website when he saw a Let’s Write! ad in a local paper. He asked if I could help him put his poems together into a book, editing if and when necessary. It took time collecting, reading, and editing, and it’s a book of which I’m very proud and honored to have been a part of getting into publication. Alix called the collection Transcendental Highway after the title of one of the poems contained therein. As we put it together, we would both cry as we read through some of the 150 poems he’d chosen to include in this volume. Then he cried when the book was finished and the published paperback (with a beautiful photo of his son on the cover) was in his hand.

These are everyday people who show up in my classes and private sessions and are open to their own writing (and my suggestions), and with some egging on and a lot of encouragement, come to realize their story has to be shared, has to see light, and that it is very doable. The stories want to be told. These authors come to realize they don’t own their words. They have to be put together and allowed to express the life they already have, for the sake of others.

It’s That One.

Will it be a best seller read by millions? Probably not, but then it’s well known that many best sellers are such because their rich authors purchase copies of their own books in the thousands and millions thereby pushing their book into best-seller status based on the number of books sold. There are all kinds of tricks in this trade.

But that’s not the point. Maybe ten people will read the story, poem, essay. Maybe fifty, maybe a hundred. But it’s just that one in whom I’m interested. It’s that one who is really touched by what they read, what you wrote, that story that brought them to tears or made them laugh out loud. It’s for that one potential reader that the writing had to see daylight. It’s what writing is for, to be read, the way art has to be seen.

Parents, Let Your Children Go!

Dear Writer, Let your children (writings) go free so they can be read by others. If not a book, learn how to do a blog. Sometimes you will get feedback of readers’ appreciation of your writing. But lots of time you won’t, but that doesn’t mean somebody didn’t read it and it was just what he or she needed just when it showed up.

Don’t be a helicopter parent. Like our real children, we don’t own our works of art or creations of craft; we just bring them into the world. As they mature and become complete (ready for publication) we can’t hold on to them but must send them out into the world so to affect those they touch. That’s what writing is for.

I always pray that those who’ve been given a gift by God, will not only use it, but let others benefit by it as well. The writer’s gift of writing is what I work for. The writer is just the venue (and the one paying the bill). The writer is the vehicle through which the writing (story, memoir, poem—in other words, the message) is passed on to those who read it. That’s why writers need to put their fragile egos aside so others can read what God has given them to say, to write.

And if I can help you write, edit, publish it, I’m thrilled and honored. That’s what I do. I help give life to stories that need to be shared. We do it together. And how delighted I am when one of you decides it’s worth the work, and you’re all in, for working on your writing so it can be at its best (the way we clean and dress up our children before we present them to others), with the goal of letting them go out into the world to be appreciated for their gifts by others.

As I’ve said, but can’t say enough, it’s frustrating when people of true talent lock away their art and craft (manuscripts, artwork, whatever they create) and stubbornly fight this kind of encouragement, even seem to resent it.

So There You Have It.

Here’s the point: I’m delighted with students invested in their writing wholeheartedly (like the no-fear, non-ego writers listed above did) because that makes my job of helping clients bring their writing to professional publication standard so much easier and more enjoyable. It can get old to constantly try to convince writers their stories, memoirs, essays, poems are worth publishing, whether as a book or blog posts (or both) when I know from years of professional experience and education that it’s true.

When writers don’t want to do the work and prefer, instead, to argue in defense of their egos (fears) constantly (though they don’t seem to realize that that’s what they’re doing), these fears and unteachable egos get in the way. Then I get the extra job of wasting time and energy (and Writer’s money) placating Writer, so Writing can continue in its best direction in order to come alive on the page. Therefore, the essence of my message to you today, Dear Writer, is as follows:

Dear Writers,

  • Get out of your writing’s way!
  • Stop placating your egos (fears) and feelings.
  • Go ahead and cry if you have to.
  • Stop trying to own the story/poem/essay/memoir; stop trying to keep it locked away, in a drawer, digital file, or inside yourself—What are you afraid of?
  • Realize the writing has a life of its own.
  • It doesn’t belong to you.
  • Its life is not your life.
  • Let it live its own life.
  • Let it go free.
  • Don’t be a helicopter parent to your writing.
  • It will do just fine out there.
  • Trust God.
  • He’s the one who gave you the gift in the first place, for the purpose of your giving it away.
  • Give your gift away.

Thank you for listening. Warm wishes for your writing life ahead.

Your caring teacher,

Valerie Serrano

Blueprint for a Chapter

Hi.  I hope you’ve read my previous post about using a Blueprint for your memoir or fiction story.  (If not, you might click on the link.)

Bones of the Blueprint in Review:

  1. Character’s status quo.
  2. What happens to change or destroy that?
  3. How does the character (you in a memoir) try to fix the new challenge?

(Note:  For this post, I’ll call our sample main character “Jimmy”)

Okay, so now let’s take this Blueprint concept and apply it on a smaller scale.  Instead of the whole story, let’s talk about a blueprint for each chapter within your book-length novel or memoir.

Pull Them In and Don’t Let Them Go!

Let’s say you’ve completed Chapter 1 (rough draft, I presume) where you’ve set up a beginning to your story:  Let’s say Jimmy’s camping (status quo).  He falls over a steep cliff and is hanging on knowing if he falls he could end up in the ICU at best.  This is Jimmy’s status quo: an event that changes Jimmy’s life in some important way which happens immediately—soon enough in Chapter 1 to pull in your readers and keep them interested enough to stick around to find out what happens next.  And Jimmy spends the rest of Chapter 1 trying to figure out how to save himself.

A Real Cliffhanger!

Now you’re on to Chapter 2, which begins with a new status quo inherited from Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 picks up with the new state of things (new status quo), resulting from the cliffhanger (in Jimmy’s case, literal) events with which Chapter 1 ended. 

Now, something else must happen to change that new status quo. (while he’s hanging off the cliff, trying not to let go, an aggressive bird comes by?)

Then, for the rest of Chapter 2 your readers are with your character, chewing their fingernails, wondering how Jimmy will work through this new challenge (that bird, that cliff).  (You could also have a subplot running, such as: he just quit smoking and needs a cigarette, but that’s fodder for another blog post.)

Readers will cringe as they picture Jimmy swinging helplessly while his problem gets worse and worse, the harder he tries to solve it (in trying to dissuade the bird, Jimmy manages to attract the aggressive bird’s larger friends?) before Chapter 2 ends with a new cliffhanger.

Compounded Interest (Your Readers’)

And just as Jimmy thought he had Chapter 2’s problem figured out (while dangling by one hand and fishing in his pocket with the other for a cigarette, he finds that easy-open can of tuna he’d brought along and attempts to throw it to the birds?) here comes a new problem, giving Jimmy something new to figure out, only to become even more perplexed and endangered by Chapter 3’s end, thereby further compounding his problem(s).  

And from there to Chapter 4, which starts with a new status quo, his now compounded problem (the birds are vegetarians?) brought on from Jimmy’s (failed) attempts in Chapter 3, and on from there.  Get the idea?  And yes, I feel sorry for your character, which is the whole point, and your readers will, too. 

Let Their Dinner Burn!

As each new problem leads to another, with each new status quo being changed or destroyed right before the next chapter, your readers can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next, and will therefore burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.  And this is the whole purpose of writing your book—to get otherwise normal, organized people to burn their dinners because they couldn’t put your book down.

Holograms R Us        

Each word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter feeds the larger work.  As you write each chapter of your book, the blueprint for the larger story of your novel or memoir will begin to take shape—the blueprint for each chapter a microcosm of the macrocosm of the whole book. 

Using your blueprint within your chapters, each one will be complete in and of itself with a beginning, middle, and an end.  Like holograms, they are perfect reflections of the larger story as a whole, except that at the end of the last chapter of the book your cliffhanger will finally be resolved…

o

r

n

o

t.

(We’ll miss you, Jimmy).      The End.

Blueprint for Memoir or Fiction (and even some Poetry)

  1. What was the status quo?
  2. What happened to change, or destroy that?
  3. How did your main character (you, in a memoir) attempt to resolve it?
  4. How did his or her trials turn out?
  5. What do you hope the reader will walk away with?

In a book-length work, the same blueprint should also be the backbone of each chapter, which begins with a new status quo, a new problem for the character (you in a memoir) to get through, and a new ending—a cliffhanger to take the reader to the next chapter.

Even some poetry can fit into this blueprint.

Don’t see it as a template or outline, because it’s not.  But if you can’t answer the above questions, either before or after you’ve written the piece, something’s missing.  (Unless it’s “stream of consciousness”, which is just journal writing and not what I’m addressing here).

Beginning, middle, and end.  It’s the first lesson in the most basic writing class.  Even the story of how your day went today would be told as beginning, middle, and how it all ended. Hopefully, with your having gifted the world with one of your stories!

Quick Tips on Memoir, off the top of my head

Definition:  Memoir is about an incident in my life, not my whole life which is an autobiography.  Also, memoir is “softer” than autobiography in that it tends to be more about impressions regarding events than hardcore reportage of the details of the events themselves.

Educate your reader:  Don’t assume, if you’re writing about some legal matter, for example, that your readers will find it boring if you divulge enough to let us in on it, but not too much that it turns into a college course.

Don’t depress your reader:  Even the saddest story has its bright spots.  Write with some lighthearted relief among the heavier moments and even some humor if and when appropriate, remembering that often the best humor is directed at yourself.

Tell me a story:  Memoir is nonfiction; but always remember you’re still telling a story, with a beginning, middle, and an end. How were things to begin with? Then what happened to change them? Then what did you do, and how did it go? How did it all turn out? Did you learn anything?

Not therapy:  Even if it feels like therapy to write about a tough time in your life, don’t let that come through to your reader. This is a memoir not a psychiatrist’s couch.  Hold back raw anger.  Work that out in a journal before you start writing your memoir. Just tell us what happened and allow us the intelligence to figure things out.

Not me against them:  It’s easy to think back on an event and see ourselves as the only reasonable ones present at the time (me good, them bad), but be realistic and honest (dare I say, mature?) in your telling of the story, including those times you wish you’d acted differently. This adds depth not only to the story but also to you, the main character in it.

Be factually correct:  This is true with all writing.  Don’t insult your reader by not checking factual info before publishing.  Was that town, where my car skidded on the ice and I broke my leg and the orthopedist turned out to be my future husband, in California or Nevada?  Use the internet to look it up if you are not sure.

Be tough:  It’s not easy to go back over past events that were anything less than joyful in the experience.  Be sure you’re willing to do so, or the story may come out stilted.  I think it was Mark Twain who said if you’re not crying while you’re writing, your reader won’t cry when he reads it (he said the same about laughing, too).

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