FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement.
Accept and find peace with seemingly unfortunate fate.
SECOND ASSIGNMENT: in 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story. Keep in mind their goals, their background, and the ways they react to the world about them.
The narrator/protagonist is her own antagonistic force when she refuses to accept that she died at birth. Stuck between the worlds of the living and that of the spirit realm, she resents her half-brother, who is born three decades later. She believes he has been given the life meant for her to live. In her resentment she wishes him dead and becomes an active threat towards his safety and well-being.
As she observes the family’s life in the home going on without her, other antagonistic dynamics become apparent—Mother’s mental illness and Father’s practice of the Holiness Signs Following tradition that includes serpent-handling and drinking of poison.
She engages the antagonistic forces at every turn. Sometimes supporting them, other times ignoring them and occasionally, becoming frightened and running from them. In every response to the forces, a life is at stake.
THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed).
Bandits and Brothers
When Serpents Fly
FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: Develop two smart comparables for your novel. This is a good opportunity to immerse yourself in your chosen genre. Who compares to you? And why?
Shiner meets Every Bone A Prayer by way of oldladyvoice, A Feast of Snakes and Lincoln in the Bardo
Appalachian/Southern fiction combines magical realist elements told in a literary style by a young, ghostly narrator.
FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: Write your own hook line (logline) with conflict and core wound
An infant girl born premature and malformed to a newlywed, serpent-handling preacher’s wife, dies on the kitchen floor. Refusing to accept her fate, she becomes a haunting yet harmless entity in the couple’s home until twenty-seven years later, when her mentally unstable, middle-aged mother gives birth to a son. Threatened, the girl vows to end his life and restore her place in the home.
OTHER MATTERS OF CONFLICT: TWO MORE LEVELS
The narrator is the protagonist. She is in conflict because she believes she was cheated out of having a life – she died minutes after being born. Her resistance to her fate causes her to be stuck between the physical and spiritual worlds where she interacts with other spirits in limbo and haunts her religious serpent-handling mother and father. When her mother has a second child much later in life, the narrator is triggered to fight for her place in the world and is determined to regain her parents’ attention by any means necessary even if it means the suffering and death of the boy.
The religious practices of the signs-following mountain church present its congregants with many physical dangers including the handling of venomous snakes, holding open flames beneath their chins or against their necks and the drinking of poison. Living by faith means living on the edge of dying by that faith. It creates a heightened sensory experience for followers. For some, the thrill of the practice may save lives by replacing pain killers or whiskey. For others, it is a dizzying validation of righteousness, regardless of what sins they’ve committed. And when someone convulses from drinking strychnine, catches their hair on fire or is bit and dies by a snake, the eyes of the community widen in suspicion if not everlasting judgement.
FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story?
The Old House and the Piney Point Church of God with Signs Following
The old house sits silent and still, save a creak or two in its rafters when the wind waves its wood. The yard’s long grasses are yellow in circle spots where cans of kerosene sit for days and weeks before Mother moves them onto the bed of Father's truck. Oily prisms form on the rain-watered, rusty tin lids of paint cans. A clothesline stretches from a nail in the left porch-column post to the right in a sad limp, with or without, soiled laundry Mother calls clean.
Not far from the old house, twenty yards or so, is a rusted iron water pump. Evidence remains in peeling speckles that over years it has been textured with Father's paint of various colors; mostly rust-red and white. But as it stands here now, in its twenty varying yards from the old house, it is merely an antique; a stick of a ghost where a well once bubbled beneath, making it clear where the water came from. To its right is a pile of ash in a cinder circle ten feet across, round and crisp at its edges, dry and dusty powder in its center.
The closest neighbor to the house is three rolling acres away and sits uphill; a chapel, made of concrete and peeling clapboard. A white-washed particle board sign, stroked with a shaky freehand of thick, black letters, declares the chapel’s name: Piney Point Church of God with Signs Following. Beneath the name of the chapel, in reflective mailbox number and letter stickers from the Home Depot, is a simple, powerful reference to the New Testament, calling on Believers: M A R K 1 6.
This is Father's church. A sad stranger saluting south, a quiet thing staring toward its neighbor, its owner, knowing its mission; just waiting. At its front door you can see the old white house's whole yard. Its goings-on are never secret from the sagging smile of its rickety front steps. Like eyes wide open, the chapel’s two arched windows are watching, waiting. From there the cinder circle of ash is nothing but a soft gray blemish in the blowing grass.
At night, the lights in the sanctuary stay on. Father believes in the power of the light to beckon to others, anyone, lost in the darkness of sin. The luminescence from inside pierces through the darkness outside, daring the lost. The arches of the windows shift into stiff, questioning brows raised over a set of staring eyes. It is the only light pouring into the thick blackness of night on Piney Point. Night so foreboding the mountaintop bows toward the steepest canopy of its trees— where man-made streetlights will never intervene in its dark pitch.
The windows of the chapel provide a view of the old white house’s backside, its lopsided addition— – an afterthought of a back room built with pieces of plywood and painted white. Three tiny, mismatched windows with varying panes of decrepit wood hang in a row, high enough to catch the morning sun as soon as it peeks at the mountain.
To the traveler and passerby, it is a home without charm. But behind the painted plywood walls, inside the back-room addition, a sound rises from shelf after shelf after shelf of Plexiglass aquariums. Inside each one there’s a collective popping and sizzle, a rhythmic rattling as the leathery scales of poisonous snakes slide through smelly cedar chips.
The new sun seeps through the back-room’s tiny windows and warms the glass as it strikes. The eyes of the chapel watch. Dawn calls out with a sweep of its heat and light and shadows: Rise! Greet the morning!
As the sun fills the back-room, there is an echo, one and then another, filling the room with waking, quaking sounds. Shh-shh rhythms. Shhhake shhhake shhhake like drips, the sounds begin to echo through the cool earth underground. Oh, the glorious sounds! The glorious, glorious sounds rattlesnakes make as they rise like a congregation and greet the morning!
And so begins each day at the old house. Serpents in the back -room addition answer the sun's call as it beckons. From inside their smelly, cedar bottomed aquariums, rattlesnakes vibrate good morning with hissy, hot breath: it'sss a new day.
The Great Waters
The Great Waters is where spirits go to stay attached to their soul from the last life lived; it’s where spirits wait to be born again and in so doing, in their sunken time in the Waters, the souls absorb the moments of conflict experienced in those lives; it becomes an imprint on the soul, the knowledge gained from the love, contrition and fruition of each lifetime. The Spirits in the Great Waters choose to be born and learn. The Great Waters is the wading place between incarnations.
The Great Waters are an infinite ocean of love, of knowledge, of peaceful understanding that buoys the souls as their individual spirits float, attached. The souls talk to the spirits, trying to get them to learn from the mistakes of the last life, and lives lived before. Some spirits, being comfortable where they are, refuse to listen to the soul speak, trying instead to forget their lives altogether; such is the comfort, restful space of the Great Waters.
Many spirits listen intently to the sound of their souls, noting the lessons recounted, the repercussions of choices made in their Born Again lives. They have moments in which great realizations occur and although they are at peace, they want to master those realizations in another Born Again life, impressing its truth even further within the soul, so they can experience being better spirits, perhaps even becoming masters of the souls – which has a great reward, a city home to only those, the Masters, on thrones. They walk on golden streets, peer into crystal waters, live in majestic mansions built just for them, for their mastery of the Born Again lessons. Some spirits, of course, do not desire wisdom or mastery; they simply become restless with the boredom of love.
Eventually, all spirits want out of the Water once again. They desire to be reborn.
There are different kinds of spirits with the souls. Some are very old and some are being born brand new without names, with new souls. They swim over to the edges of humanity and lift their noses above the Water. They gulp for air while taking the Water in like a drink. Feeling for their flesh, they ask to go above and about in every direction. Most sink as they wait their turn.
I was swooped with a rushing force back toward the depth of Great Waters again, where I fought the tide and rose above, hovered in mists and vapors, envisioning, knowing if I did not fight, if I did not resist the force of the soul waiting to be attached to me, it would drag me down and I’d be gone -- in just a few bubbles, I would be descending in a swallow of the Great Waters.
I couldn’t accept such a fate -- sinking, drifting, down to where the land is muddy and the grass is ancient. Down to where the earth is slime and the stones are soft. Where Masters gather over souls and form plans for new spirit lives, stirring the salt of the earth. I was not going back to the land beneath the waters, away from Mother's arms, separate from her heart; I could not descend in bubbles and ripples without a basket, without a princess to claim me should I reach the shore.
Over the mists and vapors of the Waters, the soul I had been given for this life rose up and pulled towards me like a magnet. It had no form but the density of fog, white and ghostly, sparking, screeching, becoming hot, white embers, then back to a dense, formless fog making gulping sounds, taking the Waters in the same time as it rose for me. It grabbed for me then shrieked the most piercing cry and sunk back down again. Around the soul, spirits came from everywhere beneath the Waters. I moved closer, turning to see the faces of the spirits who were there, attached to their souls -- some perhaps I could recognize, as I did before this time, when we were growing and waiting in line together, waiting to be born for the first and for the thousandth time. But my soul was surrounded by spirits attached to other souls. I could see them all, swimming around her in the Great Waters without me attached. They stroked up to the soul and nestled their faintness near her.
"You abandoned your spirit?!" One of the spirits, whose soul was attached, hollered to the soul.
"It is gone!" another spirit said.
The soul began choking on the Great Waters.
"It did not come back!" another spirit said.
"Oh…my…" they sighed together and began to sink.
Rising beneath the waters, a choir of spirits appeared, souls attached, buoying them in the waters then quickly, before pulling them below only to bounce them up again, the spirits shake “no” in unison, then button their lips with their skinny fingertips, sighing, saying:
"OH. Oh my..." their long arms stretching thinner than their fingertips, and their fingertips suddenly growing fat in the water, they reach out for the soul.
"Come to us," they said. "Yes, yes," they whistled and sighed and softly, sang hallelujah as the soul waded nearer to their fingers, "Come to us… hallelujah…"
The soul cried. And went to them. They began to sink with my soul in their arms. Long bubbles descending, each one with a hallelujah, then pop! Then gone.
I was stunned in the fog of the dead. I skimmed the Great Waters in doses and spurts diving with every force and wind. One of the sinking spirits saw me, and pointed upwards, calling for the others: "There! It's the spirit!"
When the others saw me, their thin spirit arms fattened out towards the tops and they reached for me, their spirit fingers breaking the tips of the water and sparkling across it like flat, shining blades.
"It’s the spirit!" They said. "LOOK! It's the spirit!" They tried to grab me. NOOOOOOOO! I screamed at them. I just got Born Again!
They tried to grab me and make me go into the waters with the soul and the other spirits who already had lives with names! They struck at me with foggy fingers and grabbed at me with ghost-palms.
I summoned all my will, using all of my force to fly away from them.
I flew high above the trees and looked for the old white house; when I saw the house, buried in the bough of green trees, peeking through light beams out of the chapel, I dove down, down to the mountain, spinning through the trees and the light beams in the direction of the house, whizzing through whirling greens, gold pinks and blues; it was a dizzying, frantic spiral but I knew a body was there, one meant for me; formed from the ancient mud, the slimy stones and grasses of the Great Waters.
And then, I was there, in the kitchen and there it was; the body, in the house, on the floor. I surged, breaking through, where across from Mother on the linoleum floor, a motionless pound of malformed flesh, cooled.
The Veil is the space that exists between the living world and the spirit world of the Great Waters. The Veil is a place of being in limbo.
There are two kinds of Spirits. There are the spirits buoyed by their souls in the Great Waters; they don’t go far, but they do enter the veil from time to time. They peer at the other side then quickly return to the Great Waters where they are safe, immersed in other-worldly love to ponder things only souls know. They never push through like the Bandit Spirits do.
The Bandit Spirits go the farthest, they pop! themselves outside the veil, to the other side, where they can be with the living and engage with their last life, even if no body from the last life is still there. Even if nobody who is still there sees them. They’ve got no buoy to keep them in place. The Great Waters have a grieving pool for the souls who’ve lost their spirits. The souls cry and pray in its salty, shallow waters, begging for their Bandit Spirit’s safe return to them, so the Bandit Spirit can ponder the truths and lessons of the hundreds of lifetimes the soul endured to buoy each lifetime, and to be each lifetime’s great teacher. It is all in the effort of the ultimate outcome: the spirits, united with the soul self, live and learn through millennia, become part of the Saints, the Sacred, the Holy, the Loa, the Orishas, the Powers, for eternity.
There are all sorts of smells inside the veil. They come from the scented memories released by the spirits, usually while they are glimpsing the other side; they see someone or someplace they know and a scented memory releases itself in an effervescence towards the living. If they are lucky, the scented memory reaches the living and the living recall: orange zest and cloves, Mother’s Easter ham; Wind Song perfume, Grandma in the car; burning engine oil and melted rubber, brother at the speedway; all sorts of scents from all sorts of memories are released as spirits recall their lifetimes. It’s a favored form of communication with its instant confirmation: memory received. Helloooooo over therrrrre: smellllllllllll thissss, looookseeeeeeee? Inhale the memory! Aaahhh. Exhale, the veil.
Throughout the veil are sentimental floaties—they aren’t real things, but the shape of things, manifesting inside the veil. Shapes that pulsate when someone on the other side sees the thing, holds the thing, loves the thing—like Grandmothers’ hair pins and brooches, wedding bands and tin-plated photographs, old sports jerseys and pressed flowers, things spirits were clinging to on the way to the Great Waters, things they didn’t know they couldn’t take with them and had to let go just before the final dive. Those types of things, the sentimental floaties; conduits between the Great Waters and those living on the other side of the veil.
I met Jawn Henery in the veil. I was on my way to the boy’s closet and Jawn Henery was looking for a train to catch. “You see a train come this way?” he asked while waving off a sentimental floatie.
“Ain’t no trains here.”
“No? Well then, loookseee?!” He popped! floated around me: “I show you where to find ‘em, pop! C’mon! You can help! pop! find ‘em! C’mon!”
He laughs. “You ain’t busy! Busy with what?” He pulls me upwards away from my path to the closet. He pulls me and pulls and pulls until I feel all stretched and taffy-like and it starts to tickle, it starts to be fun and then he pop!pop!pops! me and him, right where he wanted to go all along, right where a train should be coming.