Lesson Five: The 30th Day

Carlyle House--a.k.a. Mead's Manor

As part of my final writing class tonight, I am going to share this story I wrote when I was in high school and ask the students to edit it. I laughed outright in some spots–talk about deus ex machina! Reading through some more of my teenage stories, I see a similar penchant for the “it happened while I was asleep” plot device, as well. Ah, well.

Following the story are some thoughts on self-critique . . . and my own critique of “The 30th Day” using a series of questions designed to help with the process.

Before Buffy the Vampire slayer, there once was Buffy, the girl who threw herself down a well. And if THAT doesn’t entice you to read . . . I give up!

The 30th Day

October 30, 1981:
A door creaks open slowly, the moon slides behind a cloud, and two trembling figures slip inside Mead’s Manor. Two pairs of feet tip-toe onto rotting floorboards and two pairs of eyes glance nervously from the cobb-webbed ceiling to the sheet-covered furniture against the wall.

“Doesn’t this seem a little bit extreme to you, Buffy? I’m sorry that I called you a ‘fraidy cat and all. I thought getting into a sorority was supposed to be fun, not . . . Buffy? Buffy, stop playing games. Okay. So you’ve scared me. You can come out now . . . Buffy? Where are you?”

* * * *
October 30, 1982

The college library was dimly lighted—bad for the eyes of the students, some said—and smelled faintly of old, musty books. I didn’t go there often, but that day it seemed to draw me with its walls and walls of knowledge. Mead’s Manor—the name of the forgotten mansion had been running through my head all day, and I was tormented with a feeling of guilt. “Poor Buffy,” I whispered in the quiet, near-empty room. “Hmmm. Funny thing that tonight is the night of sorority rushing dares—the same night Buffy Halstead had disappeared!”

Thoughts and memories enveloped me in their strangling grip. It had been a night much like this one. My best friend and I were trying desperately to join a popular sorority at college. “How badly do you want it?” someone asked.

“We’ll do anything!” I enthusiastically cried with thoughts of toilet-papering the dining hall or stealing the Dean’s cat. Both of us were then sent to Mead’s Manor—one of us returned.

“M, Med, Meadow, Meads, J.C., Mead’s Manor . . .” here it was. I took the book back to my seat by the window and started to read. “Mead’s Manor was built in 1896 by a Sir John Mead. Later it was passed on to his spinster daughter, Christine. When she died in 1951, the house remained unoccupied. Legend says that Miss Mead practiced witchcraft until October 30, 1951—the day she died.”

I slammed the books shut and shuddered with horror. How could those sorority girls have done something like that to us? Buffy, killed by the horrible ghost of Christine Mead. My fevered imagination ran wild with the thought of what Buffy must have gone through. I walked out of the library, my head full of witches, demons, and restless ghosts.

I don’t know why I decided to go back to the Manor, but later that night found me sneaking in the front door. Nothing had changed. Not even the cobb-webs on the ceiling or the old furniture. The moonlight that had been shining through the windows disappeared when the moon glided behind a cloud. Everything was still and . . . wait! I listened for only a second to the sound of rustling skirts, then headed for the door. Unfamiliar with my surroundings, I bumped my head on something hard and fell to the floor—too late to escape! In the darkness, I felt a cool hand take mine and a familiar voice whisper, “Are you all right—I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

I looked up to see a vague, but none-the-less dear face with blond curls and Buffy’s blue eyes. “Buffy…it’s you!”

“Yes, it’s me. And I have something to tell you that will rid you of your conscience concerning me. Yes, you see, I hid on you that night, and after you were gone I, well, I threw myself into the well behind the house. Now, dear, don’t look so astonished. It was the best thing to do—believe me, okay?”

I nodded my head in agreement. I didn’t want to risk disagreeing with a ghost—even if it was Buffy.

“Anyway, I wanted to give you this locket. I didn’t have a chance to before, and I want you to keep it as a token of our friendship.” She held out the gold locket with her initials engraved in it. I took it.

“Thank you,” I whispered

“You are welcome and good-bye . . .” The last word drifted as the apparition faded and I sank into a deep sleep.

* * * *

“Wake up! Come on, open your eyes. That’s right.”

Ever so slowly, I lifted my lashes, not knowing what to expect. Surprisingly, it was my old, familiar dorm room, and I was resting in my own bed. Mrs. Bosley, the campus nurse, was hovering over me with a smile on her face.

“Well, my dear, you had quite a night last night. But you seem okay just now, thank goodness.”
I started to shake my head, but stopped as the room started spinning precariously.

“Uh, what happened?” I muttered.

“Why, you walked all the way to Mead’s Manor, of all places, and bumped your head on a mantle-piece. Thankfully, someone saw you go into the forsaken place and took you right home. You had quite a dream last night, too—talked about ghosts all night.”

I smiled contentedly to myself—only a bad dream.

The nurse turned to walk out the door, then stopped.

“By the way, where did you find this?” She held dangling in her hand a dainty, gold locket.

–Shelley M. Reed, circa 1982

(The first reader for this story was my best friend, Becky Ellis, whose notes to me on the front page still make me smile. I think we were writing back and forth in study hall down in the library. Also, lots of variations of the spelling “awkward” are scribbled on the cover sheet, so apparently I didn’t want to consult the dictionary!)

Revision

Okay, so revising isn’t usually a writer’s most favorite part of the job, but it is necessary. When we are in the flushed excitement of creation, we are carried away into that subconscious part of our minds where the stories live and we try to get it all down on paper as fast as we can before we can lose any of the details we are discovering down there in the deep. We are explorers wearing headlamps strapped to our foreheads, digging around in the cluttered shelves of our internal archives, sending messages back to “home base” where the fingers type and the hand grips the pencil and moves it across the paper. We aren’t thinking so much as transcribing. And it is good.

However, after a couple of days or a week (or in this case thirty years), we know it is time to send in the internal editor to do the dirty job of cutting, pruning, pursing of the lips and shaking of the head in disgust, pointing out weak spots, examining the structure for soundness, and causing us pain and suffering in general.

But we should thank our internal editor . . . because without him/her we might be tempted to send a story out into the world before its time where it will flop around and be humiliated and tossed into trash buckets and fade from memory as fast as a snowflake held in the palm of your hand.

So, when it is time to critique your story, or someone else’s, what are you looking for?

I took some of the suggestions from HOW TO WRITE SHORT STORIES by Sharon Sorenson (MacMillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster MacMillan Company, New York, 1998, 3rd edition.) and went down a list from the chapter “Checking Your Story” (page 73) as follows:

Does the beginning capture the reader’s attention?
Does the beginning allow the reader to entire the character’s world?
Does the beginning start the conflict?
Are the characters believable?
Do the characters’ dialogue and actions fit their personality?
Does the story establish the characters’ motivations?
Does the setting contribute to the tone and premise of the story?
Is the point of view consistent?
Does the conflict make sense?
Do the events arise out of character choices rather than from outside the characters?
Are there vivid sensory details?
Does the resolution grow naturally from the conflict?
Are the conflicts resolved?
Is the ending satisfying?
Have I used conventional grammar and punctuation?
Are the words spelled correctly?

Checking your own work for these elements may not be the most fun thing in the world, but if you give yourself a little bit of time in between first draft and revision, glaring issues will most likely jump out at you. I like to go through first with a quick read and mark places that jar or irritate me. This can be done using “track changes” or “balloons” on the revision tab of Microsoft Office Word if you are using that program. Other programs probably have similar tools. Otherwise, print out your story or look at your notebook, grab a pencil and make notations on your paper.

Next, I go through the story again, analyzing the spots I marked, asking myself, “What isn’t working here?” I make notes. I might try a few different things—getting rid of sentences, adding words, crossing out entire paragraphs. If I make very big changes, the plot may also need to be revised.

Finally, I make another draft, incorporating any changes. Then I begin the process again. When I am satisfied that it is as good as I can get it, I proofread it for grammar and spelling and punctuation. Then, only then, do I ask a trusted “first reader” to take a look at it and give me an opinion.

Unless I don’t wait . . .

Because sometimes I want to make sure the story is even worthy of all that work, so I might share a first draft with a first reader. Or if I’m stuck and want some suggestions.

It’s all about what works for that particular story. So, without further ado, here is what I thought of my teenage attempt at paranormal fiction.

Self-Critique of “The 30th Day”

While the beginning of the story captures the reader’s attention, it could be expanded with more vivid details and dialogue. We also need to know the protagonist’s name, at the very least, and there could be more details that give the reader a sense of her character.

I like the library setting. Expand it more. What has happened to this character? Why is the mansion “forgotten?” She wouldn’t have forgotten in a year. She would have been traumatized. More info! More emotion! Her conflict is with her own guilt. Did they ever find her friend? What part did the protagonist play in it? Was there an investigation? Why did she wait so long to research? Maybe it shouldn’t be a year later.

The protagonist decides to go to the manor . . . why? She says “I don’t know why . . .” I think, “Cop-out!” Is this action arising out of the character’s motivation? Make sure it does. Maybe she wants to go there as a sort of memorial trip since there was no body found. She could be bringing flowers to put on the doorstep or something like that.

All the action takes place in one short paragraph. Extend it. She is working through her guilt, she’s scared, she’s also curious. Is there really a ghost of a witch? Is that really what happened to Buffy? (And shouldn’t I change that name? Buffy is now cliche even though I wrote this long before the Buffy character on t.v.)

Ghost appears…really? And it is “Buffy?” Okay, that could maybe work, but expand it more and make sure Buffy sounds her age, not so maternal. And she threw herself down the well? No WAY! The ghost should point her toward her next action, maybe, but that can’t be the answer to the mystery. Makes no sense.

So I’ll need to add a lot more action here…but she is given the locket. Maybe a clue?

The entire ending needs to be rewritten. She knocked herself unconscious? And was taken to the dorm, not the hospital?

I kinda like the locket in the hand thing.

The story was resolved in a cliched sort of way. Not terrible, but immature and naive. Boy was I naive at 17!

So that wraps up my self-critique. I’ll rewrite the story and post it later on here. If YOU have any suggestions, please send me a comment!

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