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New York Pitch and Algonkian Pre-event Assignments - 2022


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Seven short assignments for the New York Pitch conference in June 2022:

 

Assignment One – Story Statement

Uncover the identity of a serial killer, who may actually be her friend

 

Assignment Two – Antagonist

He murders women for the power he feels and the pleasure derived from acting on his urges, but also to receive praise and approval from his mentor, the King. After he kills, he photographs the body and puts the pictures online for the King and others in his group to enjoy. Early on, the reader learns that he is someone who works at the United Nations mission with the main character, Stella. He does not draw attention to himself, but he enjoys exploiting his position as a foreigner and feels superior to his peers by operating outside of the rules that restrict them. Because of past mistakes (which are revealed as the novel progresses), he is compelled to prove to the King that he is worthy of the second chance he was given. He is physically strong and reasonably successful, yet he needs to cover his insecurity by proving he is smarter than others. He has little respect for women, especially those who work in the sex trade. Interspersed chapters told from his perspective provide details about who he is and how he thinks, but his identity is only revealed at the end of the story.

 

Assignment Three – Title

Blood in Bangui

Under Cover of Chaos

Murder on the Banks of the Ubangi

 

Assignment Four – Comparables

This book is similar to the Archer and Bennett series by Candice Fox in that it centers on a female protagonist who follows the trail of murderers, but Stella, the protagonist of this novel, is not a cop – she is an accidental detective by virtue of the situation and her curiosity/overly analytical mind. This book is also similar to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series in that it is part of a trilogy in which each book describes a complete story with a different setting and main antagonist. However, while each novel in this series stands on its own, there is an underlying plot line that links all three books and is resolved in the last novel. One of the themes this book discusses is how foreigners with means can exploit lawless or chaotic conditions in developing countries for nefarious purposes, a theme also discussed in To The Lions by Holly Watt, and with respect to level of violence, these two books are also similar in that, while murder is central to the plot, there is relatively little explicit violence.

 

Assignment Five – Hook Line

A young woman working far from home stumbles upon evidence that may link her colleague to an ongoing murder spree and finds herself caught between trust and friendship and her desire to bring the killer to justice.

 

Assignment Six – Inner Conflict and Secondary Conflict

Inner Conflict: Stella is torn between revealing the information she has found out about her friend Eric’s connections to a string of murdered woman and potentially letting him get away with killing more women. As both a supportive friend and colleague, he has never given any indication that he might be violent or unhinged, let alone a serial killer. However, she questions whether you can ever really know someone, especially in a place like a UN field mission where anyone can become whoever they want, since their background is unknown to their new circle of friends and acquaintances.

Secondary Conflict: There is an ongoing tension throughout the novel between the underlying violence and unrest in the country and the characters’ ability to make friends and enjoy themselves. Despite the terrible things that have happened in the country and continue to occur, the people who live in Bangui refuse to give up or give in, continuing  to live their lives and find joy where they can. The local population continues to work, dream, and take advantage of whatever opportunities come their way and Stella makes great friendships, finds love, and has unforgettable experiences in the midst of death and chaos. 

 

Assignment Seven – Setting

The story is set in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, one of the poorest countries on the planet, where Stella works for a UN peacekeeping mission. When she arrives, the violent conflict has slowed as there have been truce agreements between the two main fighting coalitions and the government. However, clashes between armed groups still occur in the outlying regional areas and violence sometimes breaks out in the capital.

 

Scenes in the novel occur at the following locations: 1) the best hotel in the city, where Stella gets a glimpse into the nightlife and her coworker Eric’s lifestyle; 2) the main headquarters of the UN mission, where Stella interacts with her coworkers from around the world and meets her new best friend, Phillipe; 3) on the roads of the city, where life and death not only occur but are on full display; 4) at her apartment complex near the Ubangi River, where she spends time with her friends and colleagues and discovers some of their secrets; 5) at one of the restaurants that foreigners frequent, where she goes for a date with her love interest, Rachid; 6) at the tennis club next to the river and 7) a party at an NGO house, both places where she blows off steam with her friends and sees her coworkers during off hours; 8) on a cruise on the river, which takes her outside of the city limits; and 9) back at the tennis club at night when it’s dark and secluded and there is no one around to hear the screams.

 

The setting of Bangui and Stella’s work in the peacekeeping mission provide the opportunity to show the reader a place and type of work with which they are probably not familiar. The backdrop of the conflict and the peculiarities of life in a peacekeeping mission also help to drive the action by reinforcing the fact that, in a chaotic place without a fully functioning government or justice system and plenty of secluded places, violence can touch every life, often going unresolved, and also by showing how, in an intense operational situation in a conflict zone, the close interaction between personal life and work life make knowing more than you might want to about your coworkers, for better or for worse, inevitable.

 

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Assignment One:  Story statement.

A crew of misunderstood FBI agents freelance as Deep State guardian angels.


Assignment Two:  Statement on the antagonist.

My novel’s antagonistic force is a bewildering talent possessed by the agents in FBI Unit 13, which they self-depreciatingly call “it.”  Unit 13’s agents are idiosyncratic students of human behavior and nonverbal communication, leading some FBI colleagues to apply the label “psychic” -- a label they reject emphatically.  The Unit 13 agents believe there’s nothing supernatural about their abilities; they’re based in neurology, not magic.  The problem is that “it” sometimes provides the agents with troubling insights, even though they are powerless to act.  But, when Unit 13 is firing on all cylinders, “it” is a formidable tool.  

In a world increasingly characterized by self-absorption and digitized communications, the Unit 13 agents stand apart, bringing to bear their heightened powers of observation and empathy, which they do with a sense of dark humor and irreverence.  Operating under the radar and not entirely by the book, Unit 13 encounters an array of narcissistic bullies (some redeemable; some not), as they tackle seemingly unrelated cases involving a bizarre uptick in train track suicides, mistreatment of asylum seekers at the Mexican border, and a morale crisis among public corruption prosecutors investigating a shadowy political figure.

Assignment Three:  Proposed titles.

The Quiet Car

It Goes Without Saying

The It Squad

Assignment Four:  Genre and comparable works.

Genre:  Literary fiction (elements of detective story/buddy story/suspense/dark comedy).

My novel is comparable to No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, sharing common themes involving law enforcement officers as they confront a mysterious tide of inhumanity with stoicism and bemusement. Likewise, my novel bears resemblance to The Sportswriter by Richard Ford in its elevation of commonplace New Jersey settings to iconic significance.  In advancing the story, my novel includes narrative echoes of David Foster Wallace (simplified for mere mortals like me) and dialog influenced by the Coen Brothers.

In terms of visual media, my novel could be described as a present-day reimagining of the film, Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (guardian angels watching over Berlin) combined with the quirky, humanistic squad room antics depicted in the 1970s television comedy series, Barney Miller (which, remarkably, still gets extensive, cultish play on cable channels).  Rustin Cohle from the first season of True Detective and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks might also feel at home in Unit 13.


Assignment Five:  Hook line.

A pair of aging FBI operatives struggle to preserve the Unit they run, hoping their young protégés can continue the Unit’s unofficial, altruistic charter as they confront a sinister tide of cruelty and indifference.

Assignment Six:  Protagonist conflict sketches.

Primary conflict.

My novel features two protagonists, whose fates are intertwined -- J.W. Winchester and Charlie Barrow, the FBI operatives who run Unit 13.  J.W. and Charlie are endowed with the heightened awareness, empathy, and communication prowess associated with “it.” Because of their abilities, both developed a sense of hyper-responsibility to use them for the greater good, even when doing so is anxiety provoking, personally burdensome, and not exactly consistent with FBI protocols.  Misunderstood by the Agency at large, J.W., Charlie, and the Unit 13 crew make short work of standard, official cases and focus instead on their preferred guardian angel projects, doing what they can to stem society’s pernicious tide.  It’s tough work but, hey, someone’s got to do it.

Protagonists’ inner conflict.

J.W. Winchester is the FBI’s oldest active woman, by far.  Nobody knows exactly how old -- and she isn’t telling -- but smart money has her closer to 100 than to 80.  Decades earlier, J.W. came to the attention of Unit 13’s revered founder, who told anybody who would listen that she was the best natural detective he had ever encountered.  J.W. was a pioneer “when there were few women working at the FBI, let alone pregnant women, let alone pregnant woman without a husband, let alone pregnant women without a husband who had assumed high supervisory authority in the absence of any official title because, at the time, the FBI wasn’t calling any women ‘Special Agent.’”   Being a pioneer came at a cost:  J.W. had a challenging relationship with her daughter, Meredith, who was afflicted with psychiatric illness and ultimately died as a young adult, leaving a daughter of her own behind.  Years later, J.W. still struggles with how she might have done better.  J.W. also feels the daily weight of responsibility to ensure that Unit 13 will thrive after she is gone.

Charlie Barrow is a charming eccentric approaching sixty, preoccupied with his expanding prostate and waistline.  Charlie’s marriage to his law school girlfriend is deteriorating, although he maintains a close relationship with his two children, including a daughter, who, like her father, recognized that she had “it” since early childhood.  After J.W. Winchester assumed the helm at Unit 13, she took note of Charlie’s talents and persuaded him to leave his position at the U.S. Attorney’s office to be her second in command.  Growing up in the 1960s and 70s as the son of a Jamaican father and Italian mother, Charlie became attuned to the frustrations of incomplete progress and learned to see things from the outside.  Charlie’s experience as an outsider, coupled with “it,” led him to become a tireless observer of humanity, and one of his favorite perches for study is the New Jersey Transit quiet car during his daily commute.  In an early scene from the novel, an unpleasant dispute concerning the ambiguous “quiet car guidelines” causes Charlie to become bombarded with ominous concerns about people in imminent danger, helpless to do anything about it -- for the time being, at least. 

And when Charlie Barrow is bombarded, J.W. Winchester is bombarded….

Secondary conflicts.

The use of “it” as J.W. and Charlie’s preferred policing tool ultimately gives rise to several secondary conflicts, including confrontations with various memorable villains as Unit 13 works to rescue potential track jumpers, relocate courageous refugee families, and convince demoralized U.S. Attorneys to hang in there for another election cycle.  The narrative also includes rivalries (and pranks) among Unit 13’s quirky young agents, as well as unconventional, unexpected love triangles.


Assignment Seven:  Setting.


With respect to time, my novel is set in the ominous three months preceding 2020’s arrival.  Catalyzed by unorthodox police work, chance encounters, and romantic entanglements, several disparate story lines converge as the novel marches toward its New Year’s Eve conclusion that serves as a fitting, nostalgic farewell to 2019 and pre-pandemic, pre-insurrection times.

With respect to geography, the novel’s primary locations are metropolitan New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, and venues along the border of Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Several New Jersey locations and motifs are integral to the novel’s themes, including the byzantine, claustrophobic confines of the NJ Transit system, where Charlie Barrow does some of his best thinking and where some of the novel’s most suspenseful and gruesome scenes unfold.   The Dunkin’ Donuts storefront in Hoboken’s Lackawanna Terminal is where we meet several key secondary characters and where several of the novel’s comic subplots originate.

Throughout the novel, Charlie serves as the composer of a gritty love song to New Jersey and its diverse, resilient inhabitants, and we frequently find Charlie and other characters in recognizable, real-world New Jersey locations (notably, bars and pizzerias).  Charlie is a longstanding resident of Montclair, a town that was once celebrated as the best place in America to be a biracial couple, and Charlie’s nuanced affection for the town serves as a platform to address racial issues that arise.  And, of course, the novel includes several compulsory settings reminiscent of The Sopranos (e.g., a female psychiatrist’s office and a seedy hotel near the Resorts casino in Atlantic City).

Across the river in Manhattan, several of the novel’s scenes take place in a high-ceilinged, ornate courtroom that J.W. Winchester secured as Unit 13’s headquarters after most of the Southern District judges moved their chambers to a newly constructed federal building.  Many gatherings of Unit 13 transpire in that magnificent, slightly deteriorating space.  Other NYC scenes take place in J.W.’s Varick Street loft which, not surprising to anybody, she managed to buy at the exact bottom of the real estate market. 

Throughout the novel, physical settings are enhanced by projecting the narrative against pop culture backdrops that include film, sports, and music references.

 

 

 

 

 

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Assignment one: Write your story statement.

Seventeen-year-olds Mason, Sarah, and Patrick must learn to believe in themselves and decide whether or not to rid a dystopian world of its magical and destructive human senses. 

 

Assignment two: In 200 words or less, sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force in your story.

Everyone in the world of Fovea has the Sight (moving objects with one’s eyes), but some are born with the Hearing (hearing people’s thoughts), the Taste (tasting one’s blood and knowing exactly which Senses they posses), or the Scent (smelling premonitions). Over the years, some new Senses emerged—the Ceptors. These are powers of Pain, Balance, and Temperature. Prince Lance Acheron, and his army of supporters, the Crossmerry, are desperate to protect these powers from the one individual left in Fovea with the power of the Touch (the ability to take away power and rid the world of all the magic Senses). The individual with the Touch must always pass it on before they die, otherwise it will be gone forever. Lance, consumed by his fear of losing power, has gone so far as to murder the last ruler of Fovea—and his own sister—who both threatened to use the Touch to destroy the Senses. After discovering that his murder did not destroy the Touch after all, Lance and his army are desperate to seek out whoever is hiding with it—and kill them. 


 

Assignment three: List three options for a breakout title.
1. Unsensational (spelled out like unSENSEational)

2. A Song of the Senses
3. Unheard, Unseen, Untouched

 

Assignment four: Develop two smart comparables to your novel.

1. Scythe — Similar in writing style, this YA work follows the POVs of two teens who, like Mason, Sarah, and Patrick, are thrown into the middle of a conflict between two very opposing factions. Instead of deciding whether people should wield the power over life and death, the protagonists within my work are presented with the decision of magic senses or no magic senses. Both stories feature politics, murder, and protagonists discovering who they really are.

2. Seasons of the Storm — Comparable to my work is this YA’s unique magic system. Whereas this story has the physical embodiments of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, my story consists of the physical magical embodiments of the human senses (Sight, Sound, Taste, Hear, & Touch). Both works also speak on themes of love, friendship, death, and rebellion.

 

Assignment five: Write your own hook line/logline with conflict and core wound following the format given.

When three teenagers battling self-doubt, loss, and trauma find themselves in the midst of a physical war over the fate of the world’s magic human senses, they must overcome their own demons and ultimately decide which side they are on.


Assignment six: (A) Sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction. (B) Sketch out a scenario for the “secondary conflict” involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? What is the nature of it?  


Because I have three main protagonists, I will do this for all three of them:
 

1. (A) Mason has never been good at his Sight. In a world where he could have been more with a more remarkable Sense (perhaps the Scent, Hearing, or Taste), he wishes more than anything that he could at least be good with the one he does possess. It makes him feel like an embarrassment and failure in his society. When Mason tries to use his Sight to rescue a stranger and fails, his actions result in his close friends being captured by the Crossmerry and then catapult him into being involved in a political war. Mason blames himself and his lack of skill completely, and it fuels his need to be the one to rescue them.
 

(B) Mason teams up with a rebel group called the Unseen, led by a charismatic and gregarious Garth, and his caretaker, Timp, who both put him through rigorous training with his Sight. Despite Mason’s participation and determination to make his caretaker proud in the grueling training, Timp and Garth won’t let him join them and the Unseen on their mission to stop Lance because of his lack of skill and progress.

2. (A) Sarah struggles to come to terms with and accept her mother’s death by suicide. Since her mother was a huge inspiration for confidence, without her, Sarah feels that she has none at all. At home she needs: to be considered cool amongst her peers, the constant distraction of social media, and a small ballerina figurine that reminds her of her mother in order to feel okay. So when she finds herself in Fovea and thrown into a war without most of these distractions, she battles with processing, feeling, and moving on from her traumas and finding the strength and courage from within herself.
Example scene: During a heartwarming conversation with Mason, where she is being vulnerable about her past, she decides to let him hold onto the ballerina figure she holds tightly to her chest. When Mason tries to get it to dance using his Sight and the ballerina falls, Sarah panics.

(B) Sarah winds up with the Unseen alongside Mason, and develops feelings for him despite knowing that their paths will ultimately fork.

3. (A) Patrick grows up in the modern world a misfit. Having been really born in Fovea, Patrick possesses magic powers: the Sight, and all three Ceptors (Pain, Movement, Temperature). Due to him hiding his powers from everyone for his entire life out of fear of being a freak, Patrick is reclusive and for that he is a subject of constant bullying. The only person who ever stands up for him and has his back is Sarah, and it is because of this that he is completely and unrequitedly in love with her. When Sarah discovers the world of Fovea and goes missing, it sends Patrick into a spiral of destruction and morally grey decisions as he realizes just how much he is capable of with his powers.

(B) Patrick discovers that his true family and heritage is in Fovea and that Prince Lance Acheron is his blood relative. Finally feeling like he belongs somewhere and that he is applauded for his powers instead of being coined a freak, Patrick must choose between belonging and doing what is right.
     

Final Assignment: Sketch out your settings in detail. What makes it interesting enough, scene by scene, to allow for uniqueness and cinema in your narrative and story?


The story takes place in two worlds: The world of Fovea and modern day Massachusetts. Most of the story takes place in Fovea though, with the only scenes in Massachusetts happening in the first and second act. Those include scenes at a local high school, a local concert at a dive bar, and a mysterious underground chamber behind Patrick’s house that is filled with curious antiques, junk, and the base of three massive converged trees.

Fovea is a dying world ruled by these powerful human senses. There are devastating draught, scarce food, and ruined villages due to negligence and the destructive nature of some of the magic-bound senses. Because the people of Fovea have relied so heavily on their magic, they have not quite revolutionized the way the modern world has. Thus, they get around in horse and carriage, write with quills, and send letters by bird.

The story begins in one of the villages of Fovea, where Mason and his other orphaned friends live in a home run by a caretaker. Despite the loving family nature of the home and its caretaker, the home is dirty and there is barely enough food to feed everyone. Everyone sleeps in shared dormitories on cots.

In Mason’s village square, as with many of them, everything is grey and dirty. The small, well-spaced wooden houses of the village grow into huddles of cramped, stone buildings, empty storefronts, dusty pubs, and abandoned merchant’s carts.

Mason’s actions in the village square send him and his friends a few hours' ride out past the square, over the Singing Mountains, and through a valley beside the only green part of Fovea—the Iris Forest. Beyond the forest, they arrive at the Crossmerry’s headquarters, the Cept. The Cept is a giant sandstone building with polished, arched windows that are paneled and barred. Swarms of black carriages sit outside its steel, web-like gates and a massive, pitch-dark door painted with the Crossmerry’s crest is its entrance. 


Inside there are glossy marble stairs and Crossmerry in their umber-colored uniforms bustling about. There are many hallways with many different labeled rooms. It is within this building that the Crossmerry perform questioning of their prisoners, use their Tasters to test people for the Touch, and train new recruits to their cause.

The inevitable escape from the Cept takes the reader deep inside the dense and vibrant Iris Forest, where we visit an old Tatster’s wooden alchemy cabin, overgrown with plants.

From here we journey to the Sanctum of the Unseen, which is the base camp for the rebellion shielded by a protective canopy of vegetation. Over a dozen timber cabins and straw huts dwell here, lined neatly in rows with fire pits dusted between them. In the center of the camp is the Inner Sanctum, a church-like structure with a splintery, arched doorway and a bow roof. This is where the leader of the Unseen stays.

The story guides us west past dried-up gulches garnished with yellowing, brittle weeds, to where the Crossmerry live. Here, brick barracks with red tin roofs circle an immense stone tower.

From here we travel to the castle, where King Acheron and the prince, Lance, live. The castle stands high in the sky with five towers and a door that is also branded with the crest of the Crossmerry. A wooden drawbridge separates visitors from its cobblestone entrance. It is heavily guarded by members of the Crossmerry, who often have to skirmish with local insurgents who view the king and prince as traitors for what Lance had done to the previous king. Inside, the high loft ceilings are painted gold and the walls are flanked with engraved oak doors.

And lastly the end takes place back in the Iris Forest, where the imposing converged trees from the modern world also exist. This is the only entrance between the two worlds.

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Assignment 1: Story Statement

Sylvia must recreate herself by bridging the gap between fantasy and reality.

Assignment 2: Antagonist/Antagonistic Force

The antagonistic force (which I now realize I must personify in a character) is Sylvia’s inability to define herself as her own person and claim that status in her life. She does what society tells her to do to have a happy, meaningful life: get married, have children and live happily everafter. But she doesn’t go beyond that to foster any talent or inclination of her own. Who is she beyond being a societal expectation? Even her husband who is living his counterscript is striving toward something.

Adonis is the personification (dream) of romantic fulfillment. Sylvia commits to this fantasy. It owns her. Then it threatens her reality such as it is.

 As she struggles to define herself, she is opposed by both her husband and Adonis.

Assignment 3: Breakout Title

Sylvia’s Anniversary Ring

Vest-Pocket Dreams

Ringing Camouflage

 Assignment 4: Women’s Fiction Comparables

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Overdue Life of Amy Byler

(The fact that these are in paperback for less than $10 at Amazon is ominous.)

 Assignment 5: Core Wound And The Primary Conflict

Feeling lost and empty, a woman finds refuge in a fantasy lover only to have the affair threaten her sanity and her marriage.

 Assignment 6: Other Matters of Conflict: Two More Levels

Sylvia lives the life society has prescribed but it leaves her feeling empty. Her core wound is her poor self-image. The celebration of her 25th Wedding Anniversary was to have been the culmination of marital bliss but it leaves her unfulfilled. The tipping point occurs when her husband only begrudgingly gives her the much-coveted anniversary ring,

 A secondary conflict emerges with her fantasy lover who refuses to accept the end of their affair.

 Assignment 7: Setting

A small town near a regional hub city. The family lives in a suburban type environment. The husband works at a local car dealership which will participate in a regional auto show.

 

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FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement. 

Neoma navigates through the pain and negative emotions of healing from her traumas in order to control her powers, thereby defeating the fae and freeing humans.

 

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 antagonists are the fae. They were originally created by humans and witches to defeat the abusive gods in an attempt to bring peace to the world. However, the power the fae were gifted went to their head. An ability to compulse humans, taking away free will and unparalleled speed and strength rotted most of them to their core, creating another oppressive rule over humans. A majority of the fae deem their kind superior and have hunted the witches to near extinction and forced humans into indentured servitude. While not all of their kind are bad, the ones in charge hold the fate of everyone in their hands. Their ultimate goal is to rid humans and witches altogether.

 

THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title (list several options, not more than three, and revisit to edit as needed).

Starshine

Of Fae & Gods

Rising Sea, Fallen Star

 

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?

A Court of Thorns and Roses Series by Sarah J. Maas - Both are set in another world and deal with a kind believing they are superior. They also share similar attributes in the main character overcoming her emotional baggage and righting the wrongs of the world set in place by others who came long before her. 

From Blood and Ash series by Jennifer L. Armentrout - Both are set in another world with warring people. And there is a huge mystery surrounding those ruling. The main character also discovers something about herself and realizes she holds the key to saving the peace of their lands.

 

FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own hook line (logline) with conflict and core wound following the format above. Though you may not have one now, keep in mind this is a great developmental tool. In other words, you best begin focusing on this if you're serious about commercial publication.

After a catastrophe destroys her town leaving her as the lone survivor, a young woman deals with the unintended consequences of her actions while finding a way to save humankind. 

 

SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one hypothetical scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction.

Next, likewise sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it?

Neoma’s pain and suffering comes from losing everyone she loves after a tsunami and eathquake destroy her town, leaving her the lone survivor. After she is thrust into indentured servitude to the fae, she struggles with survivor guilt and numbs out with the aid of alcohol. Eventually, she is forced to confront the pain when she finds her best friend and other survivor of the town in the woods one night. He begins to slowly unravel the truths of the existence of the fae and humans, revealing the answer to their salvation lies with witches. As they travel to find the witches, it’s revealed Neoma is a child of the gods, and her powers are tied to her emotions and the elements around her. When she is sad, it rains. When she’s angry or afraid, there’s lightning or an earthquake. The night her town was destroyed, she was being assaulted by a man, causing her to panic. Unbeknownst to her, since prior to this her powers were dormant, she started the earthquake leading to the tsunami and destroying everything and everyone she loved. The knowledge she caused her suffering adds to her emotional turmoil, but to control her powers, she must navigate her emotions. 

The secondary conflict around the social environment comes from Neoma’s best friend and other sole survivor of her town, Ravi. He’s known for a long time of her godly parentage. However, he’s hidden it from her because he doesn’t think she can handle the truth. His underestimation leads to her feeling betrayed, and she banishes him. But it causes a core conflict within herself. She doubts herself, having relied on her best friend for reassurance. Since he didn’t trust her to handle the enormity of her powers, she calls into question his reasoning. Is it substantiated?

 

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? Please don't simply repeat what you already have which may well be too quiet. You can change it. That's why you're here! Start now. Imagination is your best friend, and be aggressive with it.

The land of Oria is surrounded by water. In the northern center of the town is Boerboeline, the capitol city of the ruling fae. Tall fortified walls protect Boerboeline, and it sits in the middle of a dense forest. All other cities in Oria sit on the coast at east, north, and west. These are the cities where the humans reside, the coast providing an easy access for them to work and provide food for the fae and rations for themselves. The southern part of the world is seldom traveled as most believe it’s only a forest leading to a barren valley set in front of a treacherous mountain range. The witches’ haven lies beyond the mountain range, hidden by spells. 

At the start of the story, an earthquake and tsunami destroy Neoma’s home, the city on the western seaboard and unbeknownst to most, lined with iron, the source of suppression for a fae’s powers. Neoma is saved and discovered in the woods where the guards take her into custody, forcing her into servitude of Helike, a town on the western seaboard. The docks of Helike house the fishing boats as well as larger boats designed for faes’ pleasure. Most of the humans work the docks, either hauling in catch or sailing into the sea. And at the end of the workday, humans are relegated to poorly constructed homes, stacked one on top of the other. Neoma has found her home in the woods, a shack depleted and offering only the comfort of a small fireplace and a mat on the dirt floor. Her late entrance in the town doesn’t guarantee a home with the other humans, so she’s isolated from them. 

Before Neoma finds her best friend in the woods, the other lone survivor, she spends her nights warming the beds of others who provide her the necessary liquor to numb out from her traumas. In one particularly hard instance, as the liquor from the night before fades, she sneaks onto the impressive boat of a fae intending to steal their supply and help her survive the day. On the vessel, a man interrupts her, hoping to warn her of the owner boarding momentarily. The man’s beauty shocks Neoma into silence and she grudgingly accepts his warning, wary of hidden motives. 

Weather and the elements play a large role in the setting. The main character notes several instances of a deepening chill in the air and an unexpected increase of heat. Sometimes a random rainstorm makes an appearance or a fire burns brighter. In the beginning, the main character notes these simple changes and, along with the reader, are unaware the changes directly align with her shifts in emotions. It’s her powers coming to light, a setup of a reveal in the novel as Neoma, her best friend, and her protector travel to find the witches. Once it’s revealed Neoma’s emotions are affecting the elements around her as she is a child of the gods, she realizes a detrimental truth. On the night of the events destroying her town, she was running away from a man sexually assaulting her. Her fear and anger caused the ground to rumble, triggering the tsunami. At the point of discovery, Neoma and her traveling companions are in the forest, heading south to the witches, and the pain of her destruction unhinges her emotionally. Her powers rage, and lightning and thunder build, taking down trees of the forest and almost causing a fire. As she recovers from her emotional rampage, Neoma promises to navigate the hurt to heal instead of furthering her self-inflicted damage through the aid of alcohol. They resume their travel, heading deeper south, and enter into a large valley sitting in front of a great mountain range. Her best friend, Ravi, informs them they must travel through the mountain range to meet the witches. 

They pass through the mountains and are met with another forest. Ravi instructs them to build a fire while he casts a protective circle to summon the witches. They wait for the witches who appear shrouded in mist. Once it’s determined Neoma and her companions mean them no harm, the witches take them to their haven, protected by enchantments and surrounded by water to ensure no fae find them. 

Entering the witches’ haven reminds Neoma of home, although it’s not set on the sea. But the peace and tranquility offer her a safe space as she comes to terms with her powers and works on managing her emotions to harness them against the fae instead of causing further destruction. The land of Arcana is separated into three parts. Upon entering, there is a village, filled with small cottages of other witches. Set off to the left is a large waterfall in front of a cavern. The waterfall flows into a creek running through the middle of the village. Beyond most of the homes is a field sitting in front of another mountain range. To the right of the field is another forest, shrouded in the mist of the witches. It is in the forest where Neoma and her companions find a large cottage. The witches inform them it is their home as they are the daughters of the High Priestess who rules over their land, keeping them safe. 

Neoma spends time in the land of the witches, training to prepare for the ultimate fight of the fae, knowing as a god, their powers of compulsion have no effect on her. While she is safely tucked away from the prying eyes of the fae and free of servitude, something happens to move up their timeline, requiring Neoma and her friends to travel to the capitol of the fae in the center of the forest. The capitol, Boerboeline, is only a place for the fae. Humans who are sent to the capitol are sentenced to death and spend time in the dungeons. Surrounding the capitol are tall walls, higher than the trees, deterring any breakout of humans captured. And now it’s up to Neoma and her friends to break in and rescue one of their own. Reaching the walls protecting the capitol, Neoma uses her emotional powers to create a small earthquake, breaking a portion of the wall and allowing them to slip in. They must move quickly and unnoticed under the cover of darkness to reach the dungeons as the small earthquake surely alerted someone. 

The end of the novel occurs in the capitol during their rescue of a friend, and during the climactic moment, Neoma summons her powers, destroying the capitol and the fae in it, sacrificing a friend in the process. 

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Story Statement: When her mother failed to retrieve six-year-old Adrienne from a visit to her father's home in Canada from Hong Kong, she found herself caught in a Chinese “tiger parent” upbringing gone awry that demanded absolute obedience.  On her coming-of-age journey, she seeks her voice as she navigates cultural expectations, intergenerational trauma, and parental conflict.

Antagonist: After she arrived in Canada, Adrienne was required to present her young stepmother Julie as her birth mother, and she was forbidden by her father from mentioning her mother.  When Julie discovered Adrienne had divulged the family secret by revealing the nature of their relationship to a school friend, their relationship took a dark turn, resulting in a psychologically unsafe home environment that would persist for the remainder of her childhood. Barely coping with her troubled marriage, increasingly resentful over having to raise a stepchild, and haunted by her own unresolved childhood trauma, Julie increasingly directs her rage and frustration at Adrienne.

Titles: 

Chinese Laundry

Eating Bitter: A Chinese Daughter Speaks Out

Confessions of a Cursed Chinese Daughter

Comparables: 

 

Memoir

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: memoir that addresses a comparable topic – that of the authoritarian Chinese upbringing – but from the opposite viewpoint, offering a fresh new perspective

UnOrthodox: also coming-of-age memoir about resilient young woman successfully navigating and overcoming cultural constraints to discover a strong sense of self

Still looking for an Asian-American rising star comparable!

Hook: Raised in a traditional and dysfunctional household that stifled self-expression, a young girl must battle the expectation to “chi ku,” or “eat bitterness,” which refers to the Chinese value of silently enduring hardship, in order to find her voice.

Conflict: 

 

Increasingly scapegoated by a resentful stepmother and controlled by a mercurial father, Adrienne endured the restrictive requirements imposed upon her with grit.  But despite excelling in academics and athletics, it seemed she could only gain criticism rather than approval.  Meanwhile, her father and stepmother doted on their son, Adrienne’s younger half-brother, breeding resentment. 

Underneath a shy exterior, imposed upon her by the cultural expectation to put aside her personal needs and silently bear suffering, Adrienne tried to make sense of her environment and tried to harness strength from adversity.  Despite the daily put-downs and being labelled "cursed” by her stepmother and a Chinese fortuneteller hired by her father to pinpoint the source of the family’s troubles, she held inwardly head steadfast belief in herself and shocked everyone by getting into Yale University. 

In college, in contravention of the values instilled in her, Adrienne became determined to overcome her social anxiety.  She pursued boys and the party scene with as much vigor as she applied to academics, experiencing an awakening in the most unlikely venue of a seedy nightclub adjacent to campus and leading her to be cast out of Yale’s tight-knit Asian-American student community. 

Settings:

Hong Kong: Within the monochrome kindergarten classroom of Sacred Heart School, considered a top school for girls in Hong Kong, I remember rows of desks and a blackboard but no toys.  The only color I remember was the pop of bright red backpacks issued to all students and the clip-on ties issued to each student, color coded by grade level.  The kindergarteners wore pink.

Vancouver, Canada: I enjoyed dashing around in the wide-open green spaces, such a relief from Hong Kong’s congested streets, where it seemed everywhere I turned all I could see was an endless sea of people’s backsides.  In Vancouver, I was in awe of everything nature had to offer, from the mist that clung to the evergreens to the way the ocean lapped against the beaches and seawalls.

Yale University: I spent much of my time by myself, exploring the medieval-like courtyards and alleyways in awe.  I felt like I was in a dream sequence as I opened yet another elaborately carved iron wrought gate or used my fingers to trace intricate carvings along arched doorways. 

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1/ Story statement

A shy boy finds himself in ancient Greece in the shoes of ancient Greek hero, Theseus, and has to step up as a leader to complete the hero’s mythological labor and find his way back home. 

 

2/ 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.

Nikolas has a series of antagonists that appear sequentially in the story and drag him in a perilous journey to antiquity. Each antagonist places obstacles to Nikolas’ effort to unite with the girl he loves and his return to safety. These antagonists are Agis, Nikolas’ best friend and Veronika’s original love interest, Aegeas, the king of ancient Athens who does not recognize Nikolas as his long-lost son - contrary to the original Theseus myth, and Minoas, the king of Knossos who wishes to kill Nikolas to avenge Athens as part of a long-standing vendetta. None of the antagonists are really mean, they just have wants that clash with those of Nikolas’ and eventually contribute to Nikolas’ path towards self-realization. 

 

3/ Breakout Title

Theseus for a week

Theseus upside down 

Theseus!? Really? 

 

4/ Comparables

Back to the Future meets Persy Jackson: there is time travel to antiquity with gods, monsters and magical transformations all blended together in Hollywood-style. 

 

Comparable 1: Manolito Four-Eyes by Elvira Lindo. I see resemblance in the style of writing. It is written in a relaxed conversational tone resembling more to a spontaneous narration than a piece of literature. The way of writing makes it easy to follow - easier even than most middle grade books. The characters are above all lovable and easy to relate with. 

 

Comparable 2: Gangsta Granny or The Midnight Gang, both written by David Walliams. The resemblance with my novel relates more to the pace of the story. Both Gangsta Granny and The Midnight Gang are so action packed that they feel more like movies than novels. There are very few descriptions if any, and emphasis lies on an engaging high-concept premise, multiple plot twists and unexpected events. There is also a fair amount of humor, which blends well with the action-packed plot. 

 

 

5/ Logline

A bullied boy get transported to antiquity and finds himself in the body of his favorite hero, Theseus, called upon to perform the hero’s labors to find his way back home.

 

6/ Conflict

The protagonist suffers from shyness and his struggle intensifies when he finds himself in the body of a mythical ancient Greek hero, Theseus. He is asked to perform Theseus labors and lead his fellow Athenians back to safety, including the girl he loves. The protagonist’s trauma originated from his earlier childhood and his father’s cross manners. The trauma is evident by his nasty stutter, which he manages to overcome by the end of the story and the successful completion of his mission. Turning point for the protagonist’s growth is when offered the opportunity to escape to safety, he makes the conscious choice to stay and fight, finally exhibiting the leadership that everyone expects of him. 

 

7/ Setting

The story starts in a common school setting, which is visited by Zeus, the leader of the ancient Greek Dodekatheon. Then the story moves to ancient Greece in a series of different settings: the palace of the king of Athens, a boat trip to Crete, Poseidon’s palace in the bottom of the sea, Zeus’ palace on mount Olympus and Minoas’ palace in Crete & the Minotaur’s labyrinth. 

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Cape Cod Spring 2022 Retreat, now summer course.

 

Story Statement

Working on this--so far my attempts skew toward the high concept format:

Resilience in a world where everything and everyone is disposable.

More realistic Story Statement format:

A homeless alcoholic must make amends with his estranged daughter, or die alone on the streets.

 

Antagonist Sketch

In terms of a Man vs. Nature/Man vs. System conflict, the antagonistic force is ultimately a capitalist system that produces waste and scarcity, which leaves the protagonist struggling for bare survival. Capitalism is not named directly, but rather embodied in the police, who criminalize, harass, and ultimately destroy the only security the protagonist and supporting characters have managed to achieve.

In terms of protagonist vs. daughter conflict, the antagonist is alcoholism, or more specifically alcohol withdrawal, itself a consequence of the limited life opportunities available to the protagonist.

 

Title

Defeated From the Valley

 

Comparables

Classics: Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy (1979); The Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck (1939)

More contemporary: The Road, also by McCarthy (2008), might be considered comparable, at least thematically; The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse (2010), shares location and some socioeconomic elements.

 

Logline

Alcoholic, homeless, and thrown out of his own camper van by his teenage daughter, Sherman survives the streets of Los Angeles only with the support of unhoused friends who've become like family, but after the police destroy their encampment Sherman is forced to earn back his daughter's trust and his camper for shelter, or he and those who've cared for him will be left on the streets with nothing at all.

 

Core Wound and the Primary Conflict

Protagonist's failure as a parent--his son was killed in the military, his daughter won't speak to him. Primary conflict is over shelter--protagonist must reconcile with his daughter to take back his campervan, in which she lives, to shelter his friends who've lost their encampment in a police sweep.

 

Other Matters of Conflict

Related to alcoholism, protagonist is in continual battle against withdrawal. Interpersonal conflicts arise when he manages to drink--he becomes happy, or at least not despondent, when drunk but everyone is angry at him. When he doesn't find alcohol he's desperate and miserable and his health is in serious risk from withdrawal, though ironically the people who care for him are happy because he hasn't had a drink.

Secondary characters face conflicts over basic issues of survival: money, securing places to sleep, the daughter's workplace problems, etc.

 

Setting

Los Angeles, major locations:

Echo Park Lake (where daughter sleeps in camper van, protagonist sleeps in park)

Alvarado/101 overpass (supporting characters' encampment, location of major confrontation with police)

MacArthur Park/Red Line subway station (where protagonist meets supporting characters every afternoon to exchange food, alcohol, other necessities, starting point for protagonist's journey to confront daughter)

Encino (where daughter moves, and where protagonist must confront her over possession of the camper van)

L.A. River (where supporting characters move--perhaps one step above Skid Row--after their encampment is destroyed, and where protagonist meets them in the final scene)

 

 

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THE ODESSA CONNECTION Matt Evans (Humorous Fiction) 

September 2022 Write to Pitch 

 

Synopsis 

 

Mike Novack is a struggling, incompetent young small animal veterinarian on the Upper East Side of NYC. One day, he gets hit in the head and can suddenly hear animals talk. Sounds a lot like Dr. Doolittle, I know. Except that Mike is a Russian sleeper agent, which Dr. Doolittle certainly was not. At least not that we know of.

Mike, who always had a special gift with animals, was abducted by the KGB from his childhood home in Odessa, Ukraine during the cold war and sent to America to live and become a veterinarian to further Russian infiltration of American society. He was then forgotten about by collapsing Russia in the 80s and 90s, left to his own devices with his fake family in Odessa, Texas before being pulled, unwillingly, back into spy work by a new FSB agent, none other than Putin's evil son, in the 2000s. 

Thanks to Russian connections, country boy Texan Mike, who graduates from veterinary school trained to be a cow vet, ends up in New York where he is placed at a clinic to meet, work for and get information from the richest of America's rich and influential. His ineptitude causes multiple issues, so much so that his handler, baby Putin, loses his cool and beats Mike causing the concussion that leads to Mike hearing animals talk. This power changes everything - from Mike’s professional competence to his ability to retrieve information useful to his Russian bosses.  

Mike falls in love with a client who is his childhood friend from Odessa and is now the Ukrainian diplomat to the UN and is on his way to animal communicator fame until Lil' Putin's devilish ways put Mike in a conundrum where he must navigate between saving his love and protecting his adopted country of the US and home country of the Ukraine, all while surviving his betrayal of Put-Putin. 

All this obviously very serious spy business is kept humorous by talking animals who offer a running commentary on Mike's fish out of water persona as a country boy lost in New York society, lost in sudden fame, lost in international espionage, lost in love and finding himself in life. 

 

Story Statement 

 

An inept NYC veterinarian, who is a Russian sleeper agent, gains the super power of telepathic communication with animals and must use his nascent ability to save his new home country - the US, his country of origin - the Ukraine, and his love - the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, all from his plotting FSB handler, none other than Putin’s most evil and incompetent son.

 

Antagonist Sketch

 

One of Putin’s children, his bastard son from one of numerous affairs, Andrei Osipov is a meaner and less intelligent, but not less conniving, version of his father. Vladmir Putin, Jr., as he likes to think of himself, secured a position via nepotism in the FSB but through his ineptness and proclivity for destruction has found himself assigned as a handler to a group of unnecessary sleeper agents planted in America twenty five years ago - all veterinarians. He is making the best of it - cheating, black blackmailing and bribing his way to wealth and power when one veterinarian, Mike Novak in NYC, goes from his most useless agent to his best asset. When the opportunity comes to use Mike and Mike’s girlfriend, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, to do serious damage to the US and the Ukraine, Osipov sees the opportunity to get himself back in his father’s graces and make a name for himself. Andrei will stop at nothing to earn Putin’s respect and a position of power in the FSB that will lead to wealth. Mike, in one strange moment, went from a nuisance he had to babysit to the very means of his ascension. 

 

TITLE IDEAS

 

A MOST UNCOMMON SENSE

GAME ANIMALS

THE ANIMAL GAME

THE ODESSA CONNECTION

GOOD LUCK FINDING WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR


 

Comparables

 

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES

Shelby Van Pelt

LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY

Bonnie Garmus

THE WISE ASS

Tom McCaffrey

THE PERPETUAL ASTONSIHMENT OF JONATHAN FAIRFAX

Christopher Shelvin

 

Hook Line / Log Line with core conflict

 

An incompetent and out of place young veterinarian must use his new supernatural gift of telepathic communication with animals to stop an evil mini-dictator from destroying his country and his love.

 

Inner and Secondary Conflict Sketches

 

Inner Conflict

The protagonist Mike Novack has never had a family that loved him. In fact he had two identical families, both in towns named Odessa, who each did not love him in exactly the same way. Once Mike found his true passion and someone to love - cattle medicine and his bovine focused classmate, Sarah - it was taken away by Andrei. Now Mike is unloved in New York City. 

Once his power of hearing animals kicks in, it leads to a new love, none other than his childhood only friend Oxana Panko, who has grown up to become the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN. Finally on the way to becoming loved, Andrei Osipov intervenes and Mike is forced to choose between love and survival. His inner conflict becomes the source of his core conflict.  

 

Secondary Conflict

Mike also struggles with competence, having focused his training on cattle medicine. Mike is a fish out of water, an adopted Texan with a rural background in New York City. Educated, but not in small animal medicine or the ways of the wealthy elite, Mike finds conflict with his boss, some of the clinic staff and his clientele. 

This continues and he is making the best of it, learning to enjoy and appreciate all that NYC has to offer when Mike’s supernatural gift makes him the best animal communicator in the world and he is thrust into the spotlight as a celebrity, which he is equally unprepared for. A new level of incompetence and imposter syndrome takes hold of Mike that he must battle all while the tension of his core and inner conflict rise. 



 

Setting

 

The novel takes place in New York City. Mike works in the Upper East Side. This land of wealth and opulence is where the action and all of Mike’s famous clients are found.  

In spite of his country upbringing, Mike has found that he loves living in New York. It is the opposite of anything he has ever known and he finds himself enamored with much of what New York has to offer. Central Park, art museums, the subway and New York comedy clubs all play a role.

He lives in Queens and falls in love with his fellow loser neighbors, The New York Mets. He develops an interest in architecture, art and comedy; therefore many scenes are set in The Met, The Guggenheim, MOMA or The Comedy Cellar and Caroline's. The novel takes readers on a guided tour of New York’s art and stand up scene. 

Also, Mike is into New York's restaurant scene as he has become a bit of a street food / mid level restaurant aficionado. He can’t afford the Michelin starred places but is always after the best pizza, pastrami and falafel he can find. There is lots of beautiful food richly described in restaurants that you can still find in NYC. 

Fans of the novel, that’s right - there’s going to be fans - will be able to tour Mike Novak’s NYC and sit where he sat, see the art, buildings, comedy clubs and same pathetic Mets that he loved. They can stop and eat where he ate. It’ll be a side cottage industry - Mike Novak tours.

 

You also have Moscow, Odessa in the Ukraine, Odessa in Texas, Alpine in Texas and Texas A&M as places where characters spend some time. All are fun and maybe super fans will go and see them, but NYC is the place that takes on the dimension of a character of its own. 



 

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Monterey Writers' Retreat 2022

Nell Sweeney 

Story Statement

Maura, a struggling PhD student in her late twenties, must discover the truth about her sister’s death after receiving a flash drive full of neurological research. Did Clare, an artist and socialite with a history of mental illness, kill herself, or is a deeper conspiracy at play?

The Antagonist

Lazer Labs, a corrupt pharmaceutical company, is the main villain. A history of exaggerated data and employees who went missing abroad in the 1980s and 1990s is inherited by the current CEO, Peter White, who is continuing the tradition of illegal acts in the relentless pursuit of wealth. The missing research Maura receives via flash drive is the golden goose that would seal a merger and allow Mr. White to retire fabulously wealthy. Thus, he sends his fixer after Maura with instructions to secretly procure the research. The lab’s illegal activities have been successful because they have flown under the radar, so the fixer’s initial directive is to steal the research non-violently at first. When this proves difficult, he begins to employ more sinister means.

Title

Entomology       

Comparables

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian: this book is an excellent blend of thriller meets speculative fiction with a touch of literary sensibility. Bohjalian’s lead character stumbles upon a major conspiracy surrounding a drug company while dealing with her inner demons. This is strikingly similar to the main elements of my novel, Entomology.  

The Push by Audrey Audrain: this book captures the almost claustrophobic closeness to the main character and her inner thoughts that I have attempted in my novel. Audrain’s narrator is plagued by her own doubts and insecurities surrounding several “accidents” caused by her daughter; similarly, Maura is unsure of her suspicions surrounding her own sister’s death.   

Hook/Logline

After receiving a flash drive full of mysterious neurological research, Maura begins to suspect that her sister’s supposed suicide was foul play. As she investigates Clare’s death, she must confront her own inner demons and a possible conspiracy – one that may cost her life.   

Inner Conflict

Maura faces two main inner conflicts throughout the narrative. The first is her own depression and insecurity, which has been triggered both by a recent breakup and burnout in her PhD program. As a result, she relies heavily on drugs and alcohol following Clare’s death. We see this at Clare’s funeral as Maura becomes progressively drunker, ending the evening as a sobbing mess in bed.

The second is her relationship with her father, who is a serial philanderer and left Maura’s mother while Maura was a child. Maura has a lot of unhealed resentment towards him for his absenteeism and unfaithfulness, but faces her own moral quandary when she falls in love with a married detective.

 Setting

Most of the novel takes place in a snowy, noir version of New York City. Clare’s apartment (where Maura is staying) is a gorgeous pre-war condo that is beautifully furnished with marble, brass, and velvet textures, but feels “un-lived in.”  Whenever Maura ventures outside, the streets are full of menacing shadows and the sound of footsteps just behind her. Cold pervades the story, and Maura often visits large, frigid churches as a place of reflection although she is not religious. The homes she visits – that of a neighbor, as well as her father – all echo her internal feelings of not belonging, either to a certain social set or the general happiness she seems unable to attain.    

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FIRST ASSIGNMENT: write your story statement.

We meet the narrator on a homeward bound flight, making her way to attend to her mother, who has been hospitalized following an accidental fall. This event has forced the narrator into suspending a solitary life abroad, where she has embraced the luxury of an unexamined life. Once she inhabits the rooms of her childhood, she idly begins to explore her balky adolescent self in the pages of journals she abandoned when she pursued other places, other dreams. She investigates the traces of herself in her recordings of her family’s story, fragranced by her limited perspective of the events that marked her passage from infancy through adolescence and adulthood.  Opening her heart and mind to confronting an uncontaminated reality and embracing the truth is essential if she is to awaken and evolve into the person she is meant to be.

 

SECOND ASSIGNMENT:  sketch the antagonist or antagonistic force.

The narrator, a 30-something woman, is her own antagonist. As she tells her story from the narrow perceptions of her six-year-old self, her sixteen-year-old self, and now her adult self, she is revealed to be in a permanent state of a difficult adolescence. She was not, and is still not, capable of the insight required to comprehend the forces that conspired to fragment her family, which included her parent’s broken marriage and her brothers’ maladaptive responses to events beyond their control. She consigns all of the blame squarely on her mother, uncritically adhering to a distillation of childish misjudgments and partial truths. While not especially likeable, the narrator is a tragic figure, blind to the richness of her life and, more importantly, her mother’s deep and abiding love for her.

 

THIRD ASSIGNMENT: create a breakout title.

Heart’s Rain

My Unraveled Self

A Figment of Family

 

FOURTH ASSIGNMENT: Develop two smart comparables.

This is a fictional memoir, of which I could find no comparables. It is a coming-of-age story of someone in her 30s, well past the expected age for that struggle. Her journey is an unrecognized and ongoing battle, fighting psychological and emotional growth every step of the way.

 

FIFTH ASSIGNMENT: write your own hook line (logline) with conflict and core wound following the format above.

A 30-something woman is steadfast in her unquestioning allegiance to living in fabrications and false narratives. Her gain is the short-term ease of being comfortable, but the question is whether it is actually comfortable. Accepting reality comes at a price, but in terms of expense, it is the cheaper option in a quest to understand, and to be understood.

 

SIXTH ASSIGNMENT: sketch out conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Sketch a hypothetical scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment.

The primary conflict is the relationship between the protagonist/antagonist and her mother. An event fueling that dissonance is her brother’s suicide, and her mother’s response, that occurred when she was six years old. Her take-away from that seminal incident is that her mother and the women of her mother’s family are uncaring.  She observes their stoicism, or, as she identifies it, lack of feeling, at his burial, concluding that they are untouched by the tragedy. This is in direct contrast to her paternal grandmother, who, at the same event, “was crying enough for everyone, crying the way a little kid cries, in front of everyone and as loud as she wanted”. The narrator picks her side at this episode, choosing to stand with her father at the graveside service. This is a metaphor of her life. No matter what evidence she may or may not have to the contrary, she selects for the fictions and facades presented by her father and his family.

A secondary conflict in the telling of the story is the push-me, pull-me nature of the narrator’s relationship with a boy, now grown and gently trying to edge his way back into her life. The narrator is too broken, too blinded by her version of truths, to engage in a functioning romantic relationship. The boy, now a man, makes his best efforts to connect with her, doggedly keeping the tiny flame of his adolescent infatuation alive. Despite encouragement and some manipulation by her close sister-friends, the narrator is determined to remain permanently alone, sadly unaware that she has made a commitment to a solitary life.

 

FINAL ASSIGNMENT: sketch out your setting in detail.

Set in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood near downtown Houston, the action is centered in the 100-year-old house in which the narrator grew up. It is on an unusually large tract of land in a city that grew around it. The residence is an oasis of charm, a generously proportioned, restrained Victorian, complete with a wrap-around veranda. It is surrounded by thriving gardens, lovingly tended by the narrator’s mother, in which some of the more festive action takes place.

The neighborhood itself is a wildly eclectic mix of fine restaurants and thrift shops, gay bars and straight bars, prosperous residents and homeless wanderers. Freedom to be who and what you are peacefully coexist with the values of an earlier, gentler age, when people fully inhabited their neighborhoods. They all look after each other in their way, while respecting the invisible boundaries of privacy. It is a sheltered zone of live and let live, a safe harbor for all.  

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1.    Story Statement

 

Jillian’s goal is to escape the dead-end life with her mother and to learn that she can count on herself.

 

2.    The Antagonist

 

The antagonist is Jillian’s mother Laura, who is an alcoholic and a hoarder.  Laura was a loving mom when Jillian’s dad Rick was alive, but she became addicted to alcohol and started hoarding after Rick was killed and she was injured in a car accident.  Laura’s goal is to be numb, and the more Jillian recovered from losing her dad, the more Laura retreated from society.  Laura’s hoarding and drinking caused Jillian to feel like an outcast and ultimately causes them to lose their home in a fire. 

 

3.    Breakout Title

 

·         The Everywhere Road

·         The Strays

·         She, Herself

 

4.    Comparables

 

·         The People We Keep – Allison Larkin (2021)

·         Where the Heart Is – Billie Letts (1998)

o   My novel compares to these because they are stories about young women who are out on their own for the first time, learning that they can depend on themselves, yet also learning to let others into their lives.  Themes of loss, friendship, journey.

 

5.    Hook Line

 

·         Nineteen-year-old Jillian was suffocating beneath her mother’s “treasures” and became homeless, when she must find the confidence to drive an old man to the West Coast so he can reconnect with his son.

 

 

6.    Conflict

 

·         Inner Conflict

 

Jillian feels abandoned by her mother and doesn’t have self-confidence that she can fend for herself – in reality, she has been fending for herself.

 

In one scene in my novel, Jillian has dropped Arthur off at the sidewalk at Old Faithful and went to park the car.  When she finds that Arthur is not at the bench where she told him to wait, she frantically searches the geyser viewing area for him.  Her heart is pounding, and she is scared that she has lost Arthur.  As she is searching the viewing area for him, she remembers when she got separated from her mom at a store when she was six.  She is feeling that same fear.

 

·         Secondary Conflict

 

Secondary conflict involves Arthur, the old man that Jillian is caring for.  Jillian thinks that she is taking Arthur to the West Coast so he can live with his son.  Arthur hasn’t told her that he is estranged from his son and his son doesn’t know he is coming.  Jillian doesn’t learn this until they go to meet his son and he doesn’t want anything to do with Arthur. 

 

 

7.    Setting

 

·         My story is set in contemporary time and starts in Cleveland, Ohio and ends on the California coast.  The early scenes take place in Jillian’s house, where her mom’s hoarding has filled the rooms boxes and bags of her mom’s “treasures,” and Arthur’s home where the furnishings are dusty and old-fashioned, but organized and spare.  The middle scenes take place along Jillian and Arthur’s travels to the California coast – the heartland, the mountains, and Yellowstone National Park.  The later scenes are set at Rose’s cottages in Elk Creek Cove, California (a tiny fictional town) and San Rafael, California, where Arthur’s son lives. 

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Monterey Writers' Retreat 2022

 

1) story statement

Reese, a certified public strategist and cultural sociopath, would like nothing better than to get back into her mother’s good graces. Life was sweet back when Mom thought Reese was the prophesied Magic Californian who would inherit the governorship from her grandfather and lead the state to utopian glory. But lately Reese has done nothing but disappoint her family. All they wanted was for her to convince Californians that the history they’ve been learning is wrong, and that Grandpa did not, in fact, conduct a pretty thorough ethnic cleansing of the Oregonians fifty years ago. An easy task, yet Reese declined to deliver. Now she’s been offered a second chance to impress Mom and avoid deportation to the wastes of Oregon. They need her help; Grandpa’s decided to hold an election for the first time in his fifty years in office. Also on the ballot: an initiative that will determine, once and for all, whether California is an island.

Complicating Reese’s decision, Mom has totally flip-flopped on the whole Magic Californian thing. Now she’s pretty sure she herself is the chosen one who will inherit the governorship. And she’s finally said what everyone’s thinking: The Oregonians keep clamoring about human rights, but aren’t those, by definition, only for humans?

 

2) antagonist

Reese’s antagonists are her grandfather, IraBob, and her mother, Madeleine. Their goals are aligned: Seize more power to create the California they want, and ensure that the lineage of the governorship stays with the family.

IraBob has spent the past fifty years as the beloved governor of California. He seized the governorship as the culmination of a horrific and wildly popular ethnic cleansing of Oregonians, and now holds his constituents in thrall to his state religion, Samsara.

His daughter Madeleine leads from behind the throne, so to speak, and she wants Reese to step up and show some family loyalty. It’s not the tasks themselves that are important – Madeleine’s capable of gaming her own elections, etc.—it’s the symbolism of it all. Plus, is Reese going to produce the next generation of governors willingly, or does Madeleine need to threaten her with deportation to Oregon?

 

3) title options

Scenes from Post-Truth California

Tales of a Cultural Sociopath

None and Done

 

4) comp titles

The Nix (2016, Nathan Hill) for the sociopolitical satire and the protagonist’s core wound: He’s haunted by his mother’s abandonment.

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (2016, Lionel Shriver) for analysis of generational mistakes and the glimpse into the probably inevitable apocalypse that awaits us.

 

5) logline

A political strategist to the trillionaires of post-truth California must choose between erasing the genocidal history of her grandfather or destroying her family’s toxic dynasty and losing her last chance at her mother’s love.

 

6a) primary conflict

When Reese was ten, her mother Madeleine sent her away to be raised and educated by Madeleine’s childhood friend Gershbein. Not that living with old Gershbein was bad, but Reese wanted her mother. Now, in her early thirties, Reese longs for her mother’s love and approval and simultaneously reviles everything her mother and grandfather stand for. She recently enraged Madeleine by refusing to erase IraBob’s genocidal history, and she was thrown into debt prison for it. She escapes, and eventually fetches up at the governor’s mansion in Beverly Hills, where her mother imprisons her until she agrees to align herself with the family goals, including producing an heir. She can’t decide whether to embrace her family and apply her considerable talents to helping them, or try overthrowing this vile dynasty, or perhaps just flee to Oregon.

To complicate things, she discovers she’s pregnant. She never had any intention of bringing another generation of this family into the world, and in fact, underwent sterilization, so WTF?? And she’s already feeling real Mama Bear toward the nugget of life inside her, so that’s just rich.

6b) secondary conflict

Reese betrayed her BFF, Allison, when they were very young, resulting in the destruction of her family and her father’s death. When they meet again as adults, Allison comes to understand that Reese’s family is truly to blame and that Reese was essentially another one of their victims. Allison then plays a key role in engineering the downfall of IraBob and Madeleine.

 

7) setting

The general setting is California in an alternate near future. Fifty years ago, IraBob and his “congregation” killed most of the lower and middle classes (“Oregonians”). He’s been the governor ever since and is absolutely beloved. The state religion, Samsara, teaches that socioeconomic standing is driven by suffering in past lives. Everyone tracks their next-life status via Samsara (the app) and consumes suffering the way we consume social media: performatively, competitively, with malice and virtue-signaling and one-upmanship.

Reese shifts locales from a Silicon Valley debt prison (sparse, boring, climate-controlled) to a fat camp frequented by the upper middle and lower upper classes (“fancy,” but hardly luxe by Reese’s standards) to an obscure stronghold in the wilds of Marin. It features groves of carnivorous redwoods, fat on the blood of genocide; the wrecked homes of those killed in the purge; and a white deer that grants wishes.

Later Reese is imprisoned in the governor’s mansion in Beverly Hills, a ridiculous playground of excess where his constituents gather to watch him spin records and flog temple slaves.

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1.     Story Statement: Two women wade into the uncanny valley of the latest robotic design -- one desperate for help as she nears death and the other, a mom fighting to find a way forward for herself and her neurodiverse child.

2.    Antagonist: Tai Nakamura – decisive, innovative, and scared. He struggles to retain leadership of his family’s manufacturing business in Japan against an old family guard of traditionalists who fear and resent the direction Tai is taking his company. Known as one of Japan’s frontrunners in robotics development, Tai’s latest prototype, Rho, could have propelled him into world renown had it not been lost at sea. He could have rebuilt it, but family pressures have interfered with his plans, and now he is fleeing a botched kidnap attempt on his twin daughters. When he learns of Rho’s recovery and subsequent stored data, he is torn between his need to find a safe place for his children and panic that whoever has Rho will find the secrets hidden inside him.

3. TitleAll Roads Lead to Rho, Rho-7, In Search of Rho

4.  Genre: Speculative, Contemporary 
     Comparable Titles:  Klara and the Sun, I’m Your Man (film), possibly Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

5.  Logline: Two women wade into the uncanny valley of the latest robotic design -- one desperate for help as she nears death and the other, a mom fighting to find a way forward for herself and her neurodiverse child, but the Japanese inventor who created the robot wants him back and will do anything to retrieve the secrets inside him.

6.  Conflict for Protagonist:

I climbed the two flights of stairs to my apartment. My fingers traced familiar cracks and chips in the paint along the old, wooden railing. Step eight creaked; eleven had a slight tilt. I paused at the landing, wondering why I was here and what I would find inside. On the second flight, step three wobbled slightly. Turn twice to the left, reach behind a loosened sliver in the windowsill next to the door for the hidden key. Twist the key to the right. It sticks. Twist again, harder this time and step inside to the life I left behind.

The apartment was largely empty. A laptop and the remnants of Chinese takeout were on the kitchen table. Unnerved, I sucked in a breath and then took a step forward just as a guy in boxer shorts and a t-shirt came out of the bedroom. “What the,” he looked straight at me, as alarmed as I was.

I backed up almost to the door. “I’m sorry,” I stammered. “This is, er, was my apartment. I came back to get my stuff.” He must have just moved in. There were a couple of unopened boxes beside a duffel bag of sweaters and jackets, half pulled out and spilling onto the floor. “I, was there anything left? Do you know what happened to my, you know, the things that were here?” I spluttered out the words as I saw the now blank walls and the small kitchen counter. I wanted to dash into Micah’s room. What about his Legos and both of his spinners?

The guy made a tentative move toward the table. “Hey, I was just trying to find a place to live. The super didn’t say anything about another tenant. There was a box of junk here on the table. That was it. I didn’t mean any harm. I put it on the landing for a day or so, and then I just moved it to the trash bin. Nobody told me I was supposed to keep it.” He was unself-conscious in his five-day stubble and tousled hair.

“No one knew.” I realized how stupid I must seem to him. I handed him the key I had wedged out of its tiny place outside. “You’re right. Sorry to bother you.” I backed to the door again and turned to leave. Sunlight seeped through the kitchen window; someone had taken down the blue dotted curtains I had sewn so carefully a year ago, my first sewing project ever. Treasure to trash.

“Wait. I think there was something else.” He walked to the table and lifted up the laptop, pushing some papers around and moving the empty cartons to the side. There was a white envelope on the table. “Are you Melinda?” He looked down again, “Merinda?” I nodded, trying to process what was happening. I should have expected it. The super was surely no friend of mine. It was just like him, not waiting or anything.

He handed me the envelope and then added as an afterthought. “It hasn’t rained. I set the box beside the dumpster out back. There might still be, you know…” he shrugged, sorry and not sorry simultaneously. It wasn’t his issue.

I took the envelope and gazed at the apartment once more. It was never my real home. TB and I didn’t live here together; he just came on the weekends to help out. But I had put together a little bookcase from IKEA one time. Like in a real home.

I stepped outside and shut the apartment door. Two right turns and down. At the bottom of the first flight, I sank to my knees, grasping the handrail to keep from falling. I felt for the step and then sat, my hands trembling. No one was around, and the guy hadn’t followed me out. I opened the letter, knowing what was inside.

Merinda, I am leaving this letter here in hopes that you will get it before the super empties the place out. I hope nothing bad happened to you. The next rent payment is due in 3 days. I’m not going to pay it. I just don’t have the money. I got my stuff. Anything else you can throw away. I got a job offer in Omaha, and I’m moving at the end of the month. Maybe I will meet somebody there, and I can start over. I can’t move Micah out west with me. I’m hoping you will show up somehow and figure out a plan for him. If you don’t turn up, I don’t know what to do. Text me if you get this.   Mike

I crumpled the paper in my hands. How like him. Text me. That was how we had finished our life together and how we managed the weekends. That or email. We broke up via text and managed legal aid the same way. It was easier than the continual confrontations that had defined the last six months we shared. Text me, the siren song of the digitally self-righteous.

I stood up slowly and went down the creaks and tilts of the other flight of stairs. Late afternoon light stained the walls beside me, gouges here and there from furniture moved in or out on another day. I followed the sidewalk to the back of the building and the dumpster near the alley. Just as the guy said, a cardboard box sat beside it, full of the remnants of my life. The photos were on top, causing me to sink to the ground again. Grandma and me at a Christmas fair the church held every year. Mike and I holding Micah when he was just a toddler. My certificate from translation classes. I took the photos and the certificates out of their frames, grateful for these fragments of my past, and then dug deeper into the box. There were no papers, records, files. I had no idea if Mike had them, or if no one cared. I didn’t care. I reached in again and drew out my Lithuanian dictionaries, smiling slightly and taking a deep breath of relief. Well-thumbed and appreciated, almost like old friends. I fanned the pages, fixing my sight here and there on familiar words or phrases. Finally covering the bottom of the box was a pillow. I picked it up and took a deep breath. Micah. Micah’s pillow. I inhaled his scent, drowning myself in the peculiar smell that belonged to no one on earth but him.  All that really had ever mattered in my life was here in this box.

______________

An hour later I looked up at the old brownstone, large and imposing. The Stefan K. Neubauer Institute of Learning loomed before me in the twilight. I put out my hand to ring the bell and then stopped. I flexed my fingers in and out, waiting for resolution to power through them and force a decision. I shifted the pillow and books to the crook of my other arm, burying my face in the pillow. I wanted to see him, but I didn’t want to face him, to face anyone inside. Even if it were after hours, they’d probably demand the money for the weekends. What could I tell them? The hell with it. I turned to leave. I stepped down three steps, cursing my own cowardice and weakness. I heard a click behind me and the door opened. “Frau Buchanan, is that you, Frau Buchanan?”

I wheeled around, grabbing the rail again to steady myself and stared at him. Words stuck in my throat.

“Frau Buchanan. It’s after hours. We aren’t supposed to let parents in. You know that. But we’ve been worried about you.  Ja, come in here. Are you all right?” Lukas, one of the staff members, moved out of the doorway, compelling me inside. I cleared my throat uncomfortably but couldn’t think of anything to say. Lukas saw me into the parlor where the remnants of an afternoon fire were smoldering, nearly ready to burn out.

“Lukas, I’m so sorry to show up this late.” I moved toward the fire and dropped my things into a chair.

            “Can I see Micah? Is he all right?”

            He looked around and shook his head. “The administrators have gone out for the evening. All the children are quiet right now. I suppose it would be all right if you don’t stay long.” We mounted the stairs together and walked down a long hall, nearly to the end. He opened the door to Micah’s room, little more than a cubicle, warm but bleak in color. Micah sat on a gray rag rug in the middle of his floor, stacking blocks and intoning his one-note hum.

“Hello, Micah.” I walked in and closed the door slightly as Lukas disappeared down the hall. “Micah,” I said, slightly louder. He nodded but did not speak. I sat down on the rug opposite him, checking him over. He seemed clean, but on further investigation, I noticed that he had pulled off his shoes and socks and was scratching his feet. One had started to bleed slightly. I went back into the hall and called to Lukas, who came immediately. “Look. He has started it again. Can you help me?” Lukas fetched a damp cloth, and together, we sponged his foot and wrapped a thin bandage around it. I reminded Lukas to recheck tomorrow and gave him my new phone number. We put his socks and shoes back on, speaking softly, explaining our actions, and then distracted him by placing his blocks on his desk. “Come up here, Micah. Sit at your desk. You can also fix your blocks here.”

Micah struggled to his feet, his movements stiff and slightly jerky. I pulled out the chair and helped him sit down correctly. He could easily sit there without moving for several hours if left alone. It was important that he not slouch or lean in a way that he might tip over. Lukas would come later to help him to bed. Micah was agitated that I had moved his blocks, but I knew not to touch them or try to reposition them. I wouldn’t get the placement right, and that would only aggravate him further. He rocked slightly back and forth, and within several minutes he started a throaty hum, single-toned, to himself, a signal that he would not notice me again. I reached out to touch his hair, now shiny in the lamplight, but withdrew my hand before making actual contact. Micah didn’t like to be touched, even lightly.

Downstairs I struggled into my jacket again and picked up the things from my apartment, pulling the pillow into my arms once again and inhaling deeply. How long had it been since I had seen him? Five, no, nearly six weeks. Micah made no indication that it meant anything to him. Maybe Tai Nakamura was right; maybe time is a mental construct, meaningless unless you buy into it. Tears prickled at the back of my eyes and filled my throat until it ached. I picked up the pillow, noticing a smudge of dirt on one side and then dropped it to the floor and brushed it aside with my foot. But guilt kicked in, and I retrieved it, shoving it into my armpit as I reached down for the other remnants of my life.

_______________

When I got back to the loft, I found Penny dozing on a separate end of the sofa, not far from where the girls were fast asleep. She jumped up as soon as she heard me, firing questions in a whisper: how was he, did he seem okay, did he give any sign he had missed you, and then, was I okay? I dropped the books and memorabilia onto the kitchen table and shook my head at her, too tired and overcome to speak. She gave me a hug with a promise of catching up soon. I turned around as the barn door closed and surveyed the loft.

I could feel it mounting up inside me, the pressure in my chest. I took a deep breath and then another as I took a numb step in first one direction and then another. This was it; this was my life. Not my house but the only home I had, not my children but ones I was coming to love, a new friend but she was dying. I hadn’t reconnected with anyone except Penny, and I hadn’t even called my old job to see if there were any back wages. That was an embarrassment I couldn’t even begin to face. TB was leaving — Omaha. Who goes to Omaha? Well, good for him. If I were a better person I’d wish him happiness and good luck. But I’m not that person, and he deserved whatever he got out there.

I sucked in some air. Hyperventilation. My old friend, creeping up my chest and into my throat. I crossed my arms, wrapping them around me tighter and tighter as I peeked in on Fiona, fast asleep in her bed. Rho stood beside her, silent as always. But on second glance I noticed that he had on the Father Roland outfit, with the little white collar around the neck. I had seen him in it several times with her lately. I approached him quietly and whispered, “Father Roland?”

 “Yes, my child.”

“Could you step outside for a moment? Are you free, or are you monitoring something with Fiona?”

  “I am here for you.”

He followed me into the main part of the loft, near the fountain, where I could talk to him without awakening the girls.

“Exactly who are you as Father Roland?” I asked vaguely, not really knowing how to phrase what I wanted to know.

“What is it you are seeking, my child? Would you like me to quote from my promotional materials? Would you prefer secular vocabulary or linguistic choices from a particular dogma? May I administer a questionnaire regarding your upbringing and religious training?”

 Ever the same, Rho/ Father Roland poked and prodded to ascertain my user needs. He had no way of knowing that my hands were cold and clammy or that I was biting the inside of my lip until it hurt.

I sighed, “No, I don’t want a questionnaire. I just want to know if you can do Catholic stuff, like confession. Can I do confession if I, uh, you know, haven’t really been to church in a long time?”

‘I can access the protocol for this ritual. I am unable to ascertain what you mean by ‘a long time.’ Can you give me days, hours, and minutes?”

I shook my head. He didn’t get it.

But then he spoke again. “Perhaps you could arrange a place where you would be comfortable.”

I pulled out a couple of screens to section off a private area near the windows of the meditation area. Lights from the building across the street scattered into lines and prisms on the screen, silent and cathedral-like. I pivoted a chair, positioned Father Roland behind the screen with his back to the window. With the ambient light from outside, I could easily make out his charcoal silhouette. I took a couple of deep breaths and picked at two of my nails, waiting for something to happen. My nose started to run.

He began with a prayer and the sign of the cross. “Peace be with you.” I wanted to peek around the screen. Did he have a somber face? Was he still Rho? I wiggled in my seat and twisted my hands, willing my body into a stillness I didn’t feel.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” The words crashed back into my mind. “My last confession was…” I hiccupped so hard it came out a croak. “I don’t even know.” I wiped my nose on the sleeve of my shirt and took another deep breath. The feelings deep in my chest gushed up, a sour reflux of guilt and fear. But then I laughed, giddy and self-conscious at the same time. What difference did it make? I could tell a robot anything; he wasn’t a person. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I could confess all the shame and guilt and uncertainty I lived with daily.

“I don’t know what to do. What if God knows how I feel about Micah? About everything. What if?” Tears mingled with snot, and I brushed them away, rubbing both into my cheeks and then into my hands. I wrapped my hands around my waist again, encaging myself, rocking back and forth like Micah. “I saw him today. He was the same. I didn’t feel any love. I just wanted to run away again. I just feel afraid that he will hurt me or hurt himself. I can’t find the love anymore. I don’t love him. How can I be so horrible? What if all I ever feel for him is guilt or sorrow or pity? What if I start to hate him?” My voice had risen.

Father Roland was speaking, but I couldn’t hear him. Something about prayer. I interrupted, annoyed and impatient. “No, I don’t want prayer. That’s all I ever do. Everywhere I am. I repeat a litany inside myself asking St. Michael to protect my son and keep him safe. It’s all I ever want to know, that he will be safe his whole life, that someone will keep him safe. Someone else will keep him safe. There are no prayers for me. I have failed at my marriage, and I have abandoned my son. I have lost everything I used to love. I am sorry for all my sins, but I don’t see how God could ever forgive me.” I stumbled through the Act of Contrition, knowing inside that I’d make exactly the same sins tomorrow and tomorrow after that, probably for the rest of my life.

“God will always forgive you. It’s you who must forgive yourself, my child.” As Father Roland finished the formal part of the ritual, he extended his hands to make the sign of the cross as he intoned the final phrases. Then he put his hands together and crossed his fingers awkwardly, a figure of spiritual repose. He stood in the prisms of light from outside, nodding and not nodding, blinking and not blinking, while I cried myself empty.

7. Setting:

 I surveyed the dark neighborhood, recognizing nothing from a brief glimpse down the street. Old factories. Some rehabbed. Our building looked like an old brick factory brought back to life. On the outside I could see the name of one of the businesses on the street level: B2B Chocolates. I didn’t remember this neighborhood, but I could hear repetitious thumps of traffic from one of the bridges and realized that we had to be fairly close to the river. Maybe Brooklyn Heights. We moved into the building as one, the girls each guiding their own small suitcase. It was warmer here, even in the half-lit hallway. No internal doors were open, and no signs identified other tenants. Midway down the hall, we met up with the driver guiding Rho carefully. He gave me security code numbers for future use, and I passed Thistle in her carrier to him, grateful for an extra pair of hands.

We shuffled into the freight elevator, designed to carry good-sized loads. All of us including Rho fit in comfortably with plenty of room to spare. I hesitated. Did we want 6A or 6B? Ruka pointed to 6A. “The other one is our father’s lab. We do not go in there unless he takes us,” she explained quietly and in perfect English.

When the elevator doors opened, one of the twins, Mi possibly, darted out confidently and disappeared to the left. A few dim lights flickered on to illuminate a massive industrial-type loft with soaring ceilings, factory windows, large crossbeams, and mismatched wooden floors. Eager to end the day, the rest of us moved forward, relieved to be past the ardors of the trip and into a place where we could regroup. I turned to help Fiona drag some of the luggage into the warmth of our new ‘home.’ But as I turned back around and surveyed the scene before me more carefully, I stopped in shock.

The place was completely empty.

There must be a mistake.” I gasped. “This can’t possibly be the right place.” I turned to the silent man carefully guiding Rho into the loft. He mumbled through his mask while he backed into the elevator. As the gate shut smoothly, he sank out of sight, and a modern barn door on a black, wrought iron track glided into place over the openin

Where was the staff? Where was the person to greet us and take over, show us to our rooms and assume responsibility for the girls? I sought out the twins, certain that they would confirm the error, but they had already disappeared. Peering into the dim and cavernous space, I began to make out a few features I missed at first. A low, stone wall with a freestanding fireplace projected into the area, almost splitting the giant loft. At the end of the fireplace, literally almost at the loft’s center, one glazed pot, the exact color of the fireplace surround stood atop the stone base of the divider wall, distinctive from the rest by its color and finish. Further right was a large conversation pit lined with dark gray cushions. As I rotated around slightly behind me, I could see a single-wall kitchen on the same old brick wall as the elevator — small, but functional. In front of that, a large, cracked slab of wood on sturdy iron legs served as both food preparation and dining table. Several closed boxes sat on the floor near the table.

I glimpsed both girls. They had removed their shoes at the elevator door and were now headed for the seating area. “Mi, Ruka, come here please. Could you turn up the lights?” Shadows stretched from corner to corner, preventing me from a clear perception of the space and its features. Here a shaft of light from one of the offices across the street. There, more light from an adjacent street, teasing me with glimpses but leaving me unable to make sense of it. There were no lamps, nothing in the ceiling above. Some sort of ambient glow emitted from the walls and some of the crossbeams, but the perimeters and space between windows were dark and unwelcoming.

“These are the lights, Miss.”

“I don’t understand. Where is the furniture? It looks like no one lives here. What about your stuff?”

Finally, Mi said, “Our father believes in wabi sabi, Miss. This is how we live.”

I blew out through my nose and tried again. “What does that mean?”

“Here, lass, use my phone. Look it up.” As Fiona handed me her phone, I cast a glance at her, trembling now with illness and fatigue. Wabi sabi would have to wait. I walked over and turned Rho around, pressing the button for Robert so that he could help her.

 “Good evening, I am here for you.”

I sighed. “Yes, Robert. Please help me get Fiona settled.”

“I am unable to understand the meaning of ‘settled’. Could you be less ambiguous?” He spoke pleasantly, more loudly than Rho, and leaned slightly forward. I turned to the girls, who had their hands over their mouths, eyes wide and giggling slightly as they watched Robert do his thing.
ore I could stop them. “I am deeply ambiguous. It’s one of my best skills. My job demands that I be ambiguous. If you can’t read my nuances, frequent indecisions, and occasional lack of focus, then we have no future together. I want you to help me with Fiona.” I was shaking now too, conned into a place I couldn’t understand with people I didn’t know.

 Fiona grabbed my arm, whispering reassuring comments. “Dinna fash yerself, child. I’ll be all right.”

I hear what you’re saying. Yes, I think you’re right. I see your point. I’m here for you.” Robert spun out a dizzying array of appropriate responses with no embedded solutions to our problems. His head nodded in an encouraging way, a synthetic smile on his lips.

I turned to face the twins, “Girls, is there a bedroom here?”

“Yes, Miss. Over here.” Mi led the way, to the left of the elevator, a direction I had not yet noticed. Fiona took Robert’s arm, and I followed them to a large, normal room with four distinct walls and a ceiling. Thank God. Basic furniture: a bed and an easy chair. A sawed-off log turned upright served as a side table; on its top in a black ceramic vase was a lovely white orchid in full bloom, luxurious and humble simultaneously. As I evaluated the room’s potential for Fiona, I could see that high windows would allow good light during the day. I returned to the entrance near the elevator and gathered her things, coming back into the bedroom just in time to see Robert slam straight into the wall. Fiona sat wearily on the bed, unable to stand any longer.

 “He isna programmed for this space, Merinda. We will have to train him all over again.”
The tears in her voice belied her attempt to find solutions to immediate problems at hand. I summoned up a smile and urged her to lie back and rest while I unpacked the bags, hanging her few dresses in a small closet just inside the door. Then I turned Robert off and crossed the room to check out the bathroom, fearing what I might find there.

But once I illuminated the space, I could see that Tai Nakamura’s personal, private bathroom was the most beautiful space I had ever been in. Primitive. Peaceful. An extension of the simplicity in the rest of the loft, but with a reverence for personal restoration and renewal. A path of roughly polished square pavers wound its way through a bed of river rock from the door to a large open area with an enormous rain shower head that drained directly through the rocks. Adjacent and several feet away from the shower was a Japanese soaking tub of concrete, sunken into the floor like the seating area outside. The ambient light that seemed dark and inadequate in the rest of the loft was soothing and relaxing in this room. My shoulders dropped. I wanted to stay in here for a week, soaking, scrubbing away my surface until I could find who I used to be.

Fiona was too tired to eat. We found her evening medications, and I helped her into bed. I feared that Robert could not function in the bathroom at all, even once he was trained to the space. How could he walk over loose stones? What if he got wet from the shower? Would he short out and sparks fly out from him? I wouldn’t mind seeing that. As I exited the room, Fiona had begun her prayers. I hoped she’d put in a good word for me.

The girls seemed quiet and busy. I let them be and took out Fiona’s phone, typing in the words wabi sabi. The Japanese acceptance of beauty in imperfection and impermanence; the honoring of the cycles of the growth, decay, and death of all living things. Wabi sabi reveres authenticity and the raw and worn beauty that comes with age. Unsatisfied with just the words, I searched online. Dozens of photos loaded onto the screen immediately, each one echoes of everything I saw in this loft. Plain earthen walls, shades of brown and gray, very little furniture.

I wandered through the loft again, still darkened with shadows, empty and bare. Most of the large, arched factory windows on the east side had no shades, letting in whatever light shone from the street or nearby buildings. The floors had been scraped and each board left its original color. Between Nakamura’s bedroom and the elevator, I pulled back a second sliding barn door to find a spacious, walk-in closet nearly the size of a room. Directly across from that, the area was largely empty. The north wall was solid brick. In the corner stood six or eight large, black mesh partitions on industrial-sized rollers. I wheeled one out and examined it further. Most of them were identical, maybe six or seven feet high and eight or nine feet wide. A couple were made of black wire grids instead of mesh, but still the same size. Just as I was about to push one of the mesh ones back into place, both girls showed up to take it from me and pull out a second one, moving them silently toward the living area. They navigated them easily, positioning them behind the sunken seating area, blocking much of the light and giving privacy to a view from offices or windows across the street.
 
I followed them back into the living area, looking down at the pictures on Fiona’s phone again. “Okay, I looked up wabi sabi. I still don’t understand.”

Ruka gave it a try. “When he built it, Miss, he explained it to us. He used the same,” she paused, struggling for the word, “wood and stone,” she went on, “that were already in the building. To honor the building when it started and then to keep it going. Not to add anything fake or artificial.” She looked at me, willing me to understand.

"Ah, you mean he reclaimed the original materials and used them again. Yes, many people here do that. But why is it so empty? That part I don’t get.”

Mi filled in the rest. “If you live simply and quietly, you don’t need many things. Nature does not clutter itself. People shouldn’t either.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Essential Trivia, similar to a trauma narrative, is an experiential work, not a linear one.

The heroine, a young woman in her mid-30s, is reasonably attractive, reasonably fit, reasonably stylish, but with no unusual memorable characteristics.  Power and seduction, not selection and love, have been the modus operandi of her male companions, wrong choices her response.  At the commencement of the novel, the heroine is recovering from the latest in failed romances, this time with a sophisticated Lothario who specialized in broken promises and calculated insults.  

Flashbacks occur when she lying in a hospital bed, perhaps due to a suicide attempt when she stepped in front of an oncoming truck.  Events and linked memories may occur in recent time, in past time, or not at all; the concept of time is of ruling importance, as is the concept of loss.

The protagonist, not a sympathetic character, challenges the smiley face of modern America, the “you are what you think”..  Her feeling of disconnectedness, of just existing, is key to the novel, its oncept of time and non-time.  She hates people, but craves connectedness.  Her internal goal, the discovery of meaning in a beautiful universe seeming to exist without meaning, The relentless fearsome pursuit of earning a living, requiring being liked as well as being competent, consumes her energy. 

Some of the men, real or imagined, are abusive but still sympathetic characters in their humanness. There may be a Cassandra moment.  The novel ends with the woman perched on a cliff over the sea, contemplating the next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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