Plots & Parties
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This is a super issue of A Muse Bouche Review. We’ve combined the themes of plots and parties. In this issue, you’ll find writing advise on how to better plot as well as fun pieces of fiction on parties.
The Amuse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Boom! (Melissa Yuan-Innes) Writing Advice
Camp Coyote (A.P. Miller) Fiction
Rescue a Runaway Plot (Crystal L. Kirkham) Writing Advice
What you should plot before writing the first word (Renée Gendron) Writing Advice
Confessions of Plot Envy (A.P. Miller) Fiction
Plots (Louise Sorensen) Writing Advice
Silent Supper (Aedyn Brooks) Fiction
The Long Wait (Renée Gendron) Fiction
Mrs. Marigold’s House (Melissa Yuan-Innes) Fiction
Backstory Management (Aedyn Brooks) Writing Advice
by Melissa Yuan-Innes (@dr_sassy)
I’ve thought a lot about plot. Especially since I started off writing more in the literary world, where plot is less of a factor.
One of my early influences was Natalie Goldberg, whose book Writing Down the Bones helped me shake off the shackles of high school essay writing as a mechanical fill-in-the-blanks exercise.
However, the problem is that once you loosen the authorial floodgates, you need to figure what you’re writing ABOUT.
Natalie Goldberg later quoted E.M. Forster: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.”
My reaction was ?????
How is this a plot? Not for me, thank you. (I’m sure you could come up with some brilliant examples, and I would still say “Not for me, thank you.”)
Then I picked up a writing book that quoted John Le Carre: “The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story … ”
That clicked in my brain. Plots require conflict between at least two elements: person vs. person, person vs. a blizzard, dog vs. a cat.
You can get more complicated than that—I enjoyed article showing the plot as a line diagram, for example—and you can take endless courses on this.
But basically, make sure that you have at least two elements facing off against each other, and boom! Plot unlocked.
by A.P. Miller (@Millerverse)
A crude horn trumpeted through the cool autumn evening. The horn’s clarion prompted the dozens of people gathered in the ramshackle woodland retreat of Camp Coyote to raise their red plastic cups & howl.
“I thought we were going to hide Buzzy’s party horn,” Michael said, his face illuminated by the bonfire raging inside of a tractor wheel rim.
“We were, but it makes him happy. He feels like Baby New Year, announcing the party is in full swing,” Geoffrey said from across the fire.
Michael smiled & shook his head. His arm slipped around his wife Maddison’s waist, pulling her closer to him on the bench.
“Speaking of the party horn,” Geoffrey said, raising his plastic cup, “here’s to twenty years of Camp Coyote!”
Mike & Madison rose their cups & the trio howled. The scores of people in the distance howled in response, honoring decorum.
“Of all the things you could have called your camp, why did you call it Camp Coyote?” Maddison asked.
“Because we killed a man, drug him out into the woods, & let coyotes eat him. After they did the deed, we buried the bones, & built a cabin on top of it so no one would ever come looking for him,” Mike said, deadpan.
Madison’s jaw was agape. “You’re making that up!”
Mike & Geoffrey howled, then laughed.
“You believed it for a second though, didn’t you?” Mike asked.
Twenty Years Ago.
Mikey Wilson’s truck tore through the crude trails through Coyote Hills Forest. Mikey drove with little regard for himself, or Geoff, or Buzzy in the truck with him. Mikey’s knuckles were white, his cheeks flushed.
“Where are we going?” Geoff asked.
“To a coyote bait station my dad built before he died,” Mikey said.
“This is crazy, Mike, we have to call the cops,” Geoff said.
“We’re going to go to jail if we call the cops. We’re both eighteen & Buzzy will be by the time a trial is over. Our lives will be over before they start,” Mikey said.
Mike pushed the accelerator closer to the floor of his truck.
After a half-hour of driving through the woods, Mike’s truck finally lurched to a stop. Without hesitation, Mikey was out of the vehicle and dropping the tailgate.
“Mike, you need to think about this. If we do this, it’s going to be a lot worse for all of us,” Geoff said, following Mikey out of the vehicle.
Mike sharply stopped & grabbed Geoff by the shoulder. “Have you heard a peep out of Buzzy this entire time? Dan Rivers was terrorizing Buzzy & his mom. It was only a matter of time before that needle-dicked alcoholic was going to kill one of them. Mrs. Kline was like our second mom, Geoff. Every time we had a sleep-over at Buzzy’s, she made us feel like kin. Things got out of hand, sure, but Dan Rivers is not going to lay a hand on our kin again.”
Mike let go of Geoff & went back to the task of unloading the tarp out of the back of his truck.
“Here, let me help,” Geoff said, taking the other end of the tarp.
It took about an hour to unload the tarp & set the bait station. Buzzy sat in the front seat in silence. Buzzy didn’t have to speak, his black eye, split lip, & bruises told the story just fine.
Mike & Geoff got back into the truck, joining Buzzy in his silence.
After an agonizing minute, Mikey finally spoke. “Buzzy, we’re taking you to the hospital. The story is: Dan lost his mind, Geoff & I got you out of there. We have no idea where Dan went or what he did after we left. Are we all on board with that?”
Buzzy nodded slightly.
“What about Mrs. Kline, how are you going to get her on board with the story?” Geoff asked.
“I’ll make sure she knows,” Mike said.
Mike didn’t have to worry about getting Mrs. Kline on board with the story — she came up with the story after all. Mikey’s heart broke when his second mom, the woman who’d given birth to one of his best friends, came to him to plead for Buzzy’s life. She was sure Dan was going to do something terrible to Buzzy, because Buzz wasn’t his son, & she had to make sure he’d be alright. Mikey knew where the gun was being hidden, he knew where to park his truck to get out the fastest, & he knew where Mrs. Kline would have the tarp ready.
Three days later, Mikey and Geoff returned with shovels to start digging the foundation for the cabin. Mike & Geoff mixed the concrete with shovels & wheelbarrows, using water from a nearby creek. Mikey had learned how to frame up walls from his father, Geoff learned how to drywall from his. The two learned roofing on the spot.
* * *
“Really, Madison, we named it Camp Coyote because coyotes are scrappy animals that live in families. We couldn’t imagine a better way to describe what kind of buddies we were,” Geoff said.
“To Camp Coyote,” Mike said, raising his plastic cup.
“To Camp Coyote,” Geoff said in return.
The pair howled. The others howled in decorum. In the distance, an actual coyote howled.
Renée Gendron (@reneegendron)
Plotting is something authors love or dread. If you’re a discovery writer, you’ll find pulling teeth more appealing than plotting. If you chose not to plot, that’s fine. This article will guide writers who want to plot on what they should know before starting their story.
I encourage writers to come up with a story arc before they type the first word. Some may call it a trope, and others might say it’s three or four major touchstones, decisions, or plot points. Others may call it one of the basic plots. Christopher Booker identified seven basic plots. They are overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Even if you don’t know what’s going to fill the space in between these major events, they will help you identify what kind of conflicts, obstacles, and challenges to throw at your character.
In addition to Booker’s seven basic plots, there are two basic types of stories. One type is character-driven, and the other is plot-driven. You need to know what you’re writing before your fingers touch the keyboard. If your story is character-driven, you’ll need an understanding of how you want your character to develop. Again, these can relate to the three or four plot points you’ve previously identified, or these can be different events or activities.
If you’re writing a plot-based book, you’ll need to understand how the major turning points connect. Otherwise, you’ll be adding car chases, explosions, alien invasions, and all manner of complications that don’t necessarily advance the story.
Remember, the different chapters need to link to one another and form a cohesive whole. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of stuff happening without any logic, connection, or, well, plot.
I view plotting as an opportunity to know your main character, your world, the antagonist or villain, and the stakes. You don’t need to spend as much time as I do plotting these elements, but the beginning of your story is an opportunity to think about them. You can think of one or two connections between your MC and your antagonist. Pick up one thread about their relationship, the origin of their relationship, and the stakes involved if one loses.
As you write your stories, your characters will surprise you. They will say witty things, they will get themselves into more trouble than you expected, and they will royally mess things up (intentionally or not).
Leave yourself some room to explore. That’s the fun part about writing. The moments of I-can’t-believe-I-just-wrote-that and how’s-it-possible-my-character-is-smarter-than-I-am are glorious.
The more you understand your world, the more detail you can use to enrich your story. Most people don’t want to read aircraft carrier manuals as light entertainment, and authors do get away with carrying research. A strategically placed piece of information can sell your story, and it can immerse your reader in the world, deepen POV, and provide enough realism to make the plot plausible. Even if your technology is made up, there still needs to be some conceptually clear and plausible reason for things to work the way they work.
I suggest each scene has at least one distinct goal, conflict and motivation. Each chapter has at least one unique goal, chapter, and motivation. If you’re using a three-part act or a four-part structure, each section has one or more unique goals, conflict, and motivation. And, yes, you’ve guessed it, every POV character has one or more book-long goal, conflict, and motivation.
The more you weave in these goals, conflicts, and motivations together, the tighter the storyline, the more engaged the reader, and the more interesting the book.
Plotting can be minimal or extensive. Good plotting ensures conflict drives the plot, and there’s enough tension to motivate the conflict. Solid plotting ensures good pacing, no unresolved matters, and a satisfying resolution.
by Crystal L. Kirkham (@canuckclick)
No matter how you write, whether you make it up as you go or outline your story in meticulous detail, at some point you are going to experience a moment where the plot slips from your grasp like a wet bar of soap. Characters start running in directions you hadn’t imagined and, perhaps, you may even find you’ve written yourself into a corner.
If you’ve already experienced this, then you know exactly what I am talking about. For those lucky ones who have never been here, keep your fingers crossed that it never happens to you. (Though, chances are it will at some point).
For a lot of writers, the challenge comes in figuring out how to get back on track and bring your story to a satisfying conclusion—or at least, to the next important plot point. Getting stuck on how to get your plot moving forward again or writing yourself into a corner doesn’t mean you should give up a story. You can rescue your plot and here are a few tips on how to do it.
1. Find A Landmark
A landmark in a plot is any major scene that needs to happen for the story to get where it needs to go. It can be the ending or the next big moment you need to happen. If you’re an outliner, then you might already know what you need to happen, but no clue how to get there from where you are now. If that’s the case, then you might find more use in the next few parts, but if you haven’t looked at your next few major plot points—not just the next thing in the outline—do that now. See if any of the next few major things are something you can write yourself towards.
For those who like to write without a plan in mind, this might be a good time sit down and do some thinking about where you’re going. Having a goal scene in mind can help you find which way to go. When I have pantsed novels, I’ve found that the best scene to focus on is how you would like the story to end and then figure out what big things need to happen to get your characters and emerging plotline back on track.
2. Back It Up
Sometimes, there really is no way to get from where you are to where you need to be. If this is the case, try to back it up to the last place where you could have taken a different path. This can be a few lines or an entire chapter. It can hurt to get rid of something that isn’t working, after all, you did put time into writing it.
Backing things up doesn’t mean deleting things. You can cut the scene and place it in another document or move it into a later spot where it might work better. There is always a chance that you could find a use for it.
3. Explore the Possibilities
When you have to use a landmark to guide you, or if you have to back things up a bit, the biggest tool will be exploring all the possibilities of the decisions your characters made. One small decision can be what led you to where you are. Exploring the possibilities that got you there and what other paths you could have taken might lead you to your solution.
Sometimes, you can find an idea of how to get where you want to be simply by exploring all the possibilities. It can take time to investigate every option, but you might even find a new path that excites you. One that you might never have considered before.
4. Skip a Bit
For those that are linear writers, this is a suggestion that might go against every fibre of your being. However, skipping doesn’t mean leaving a great big blank spot in your document. You can leave notes, ideas, or even humorous phrasing to give your future self a clue as to what you wanted to write there.
If you have no idea how to join where you are to where you need to be, then do feel free to leave it entirely blank. Simply move on and come back to the gap to fill it in when you are ready. Sometimes, inspiration on how to fill that scene in can strike when writing a later scene.
5. Map Where You’ve Been
If your story has gone off the rails, outline what you’ve written. For a pantser this would mean making an outlining everything that you’ve written already and, for a plotter, it will just be from the point your characters started taking you somewhere unexpected.
It may not seem like much but it can be eye opening to have your plot laid out in it’s most basic form. Often, the solution can jump out at you when all the fancy trappings of the writing taken stripped away.
6. Work Backwards
Similar to skipping forward a bit, this one makes differ slightly in how you continue from that new scene. Instead of continuing on forward with your story you, this time you write backwards from that the scene. Filling in the gap by asking yourself at that point, ‘How did my characters get to this point?”
I hope you find something in this list of techniques that will help get your plot back on track when you get a bit lost.
by A.P. Miller (@Millerverse)
“I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” -Augusten Burroughs.
This quote came to mind when I thought about the times I try to plot. I’ve gone on record to say that I am a discovery writer — not by choice, but by necessity. The truly beautiful & magnificent truth about the creative types is that we all process the world around us differently, thus resulting in the wide variety of works we create over countless media. I will plot with the greatest intentions, but the way I process my works unfolding, I end up veering off course into the realm of discovery writing.
I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this past year. During October, I plotted the entire story, front to back. During the first fifteen days of the event, I stuck to my plot & drove the planned course like in the old days of printing the directions off of MapQuest (or, actually used a map). I took the last two weeks off of work to make sure my NaNo effort crossed the finish line. When I had the freedom to analyze what I’d written (which D.W. Hitz warned against in AMB’s NaNoWriMo check in) my neurodivergency saw other roads that could be traveled and I got myself into some trouble. I crossed the finish line, but it was close.
In terms of writing about plot, perhaps I should have recused myself from the topic, or used my traditional humor to portray myself as a cautionary tale, but I feel this is a wonderful opportunity to employ the platform as a personal retrospective into my experiences with plotting.
See, I love the idea of plotting. I see writers like Renée Gendron, who are so proficient and passionate about plotting, and I envy their ability to do that. If I were able to plot effectively, I would be able to identify and plan for plot complications that I may end up headbutting a wall over later. I liken the ability to plot to the ability to create a successful travel itinerary. There are some folks that have a system, a process, and it works. I remember going on my senior trip to Washington D.C. and the educator who organized the trip was talking about how she loved to travel. She had a tried and true method for gathering what she needed, a checklist for necessities, and even knew how to pack her luggage for the most efficient trip. That’s how I see a plotter like Renée, someone who can plan and pack for a trip and can do it well.
I, on the other hand, am the complete opposite in the writing regard. I want to get in the car and I couldn’t be bothered to make sure there was enough gas in the tank. While I’m waiting for roadside assistance, I kick myself for not being a more effective planner, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the rush of it up to that point. Perhaps it has something to do with why I started writing in earnest to begin with, to escape a difficult mental present. Maybe I need to have that anarchist approach and I can’t feel alive in my writing without it. That sounds like a conversation with a professional that I need to have.
I experience plotter envy. As a visual person, I like the idea of a binder filled with pages, notes written in red, highlighted sections, and post-its marking important information. When I plotted my NaNo effort, I did so with color coded pens and outlines, but when the tires met the road, my plotting folded like a house of greasy cards.
I wanted my contribution to A Muse Bouche Review’s focus on plotting to be like the rest of my work: an outlet where people can feel like they belong. Not all of us are plotters and a lot of us wish we were. I am certain there are going to be a lot of great pieces on plotting from my colleagues and cohorts. If you’re reading this, and you’re a discovery writer, you’re not alone. Before I became a regular contributor, I was asked to explain what I wanted to accomplish with my participation. I said I wanted to create pieces that were engaging and entertaining. I was asked that question because A Muse Bouche Review wants to create a great experience for you and I am allowed to continue contributing because my pieces are in line with that objective.
Write, my friends. Whether you plot, discover, or utilize a hybrid of both, write.
By Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)
Round about 1998, I stopped painting because of a life changing natural disaster. I put my creativity to gardening for a few years, and then started writing, by taking a creative writing course at a community college. This is the only time I’ve taken formal lessons to learn a craft as I was tired of learning by trial and error and for once, wanted to do something the right way.
One of the lessons in class was about plots. Since then, I haven’t heard or read much about them.
The most I remembered about the various forms of plots were man against man, man against nature, man against himself. I think the teacher said there are five basic plots, but I can’t remember the other two.
So to research this article I took myself to Wikipedia and found that, according to them, there are seven basic plots.
-Overcoming the Monster
-Rags to Riches
-Voyage and Return
And they all adhere to the Rule of Three.
Wikipedia has a good article. Check it out.
I recommend this because I can’t tell you how to plot. I can only tell you how I write stories without being able to plot. This is for all the Pantsers like me out there. We’re called Pantsers because we write by the seat of our pants. Another term for this kind of writing is Exploratory. It has a nice ring to it. Exploratory writers start off with a nebulous idea, conjure up some characters, and follow them around, writing down what they do.
Plotters will probably throw up their hands and scream at this. My understanding is Plotters know what’s going to happen in their story from start to finish. I’ve known painters like that, so I think it happens in every pursuit, depending on how the person’s brain works.
Plotters might welcome or allow some serendipitous inspiration into the story at some point, but for a Pantser, it’s all serendipitous inspiration.
I only ever used what I learned about plots to categorize what kind my stories were. I still think in terms of man vs man etc.
Being a Pantser, I don’t overanalyze my stories. I’m also not a label person, so I don’t think it matters how you categorize your story. The whole point of writing a story is simply to tell a story. Writing it down makes it more accessible.
My own foray into the world of plots was best answered by my long time workshop teacher, a retired Lit and Theatre prof. On plots he said, chase your characters up a tree, and throw rocks at them until they figure out a way to come down. In doing so, I’ve found sometimes they live, sometimes they die. It can be funny, or tragic. It all depends on the characters and the tree.
That’s what I do. My tree is a what if.
What if someone couldn’t die? (Man vs Nature)
What if aliens invaded Earth and started killing everybody. (Man vs Monster)
My current wip, Ice and Fire, is based on what if there was a terrible ice storm and a person could visit her other selves in other worlds in the multiverse and be warned about it before it happened. (Man, or in this case Woman vs Herself and Nature)
You may bristle that I’ve eschewed political correctness in naming the plots. I’ll allow it.
To write my story, I construct my tree, chase my characters up it, and tell what happened. It’s important to stress that I don’t actively or intentionally plot. I just follow the characters around and tell their story, like storytellers have been doing since the days of tribes and campfires. The what if is my guide. The story is the cause and effect, action and reaction, scene after scene. I do picture scenes and dialogue in my head.
In my research into plots, I found quotes from writers who said they didn’t care about plot, they wrote the story from the characters.
In my stories, the characters are those poor imaginary souls who happened to be around when I chased them up the tree. Even before I laid pen to paper, that is, started typing on the laptop, they all shuffled around in my mind, until the character strong enough and suited to be the protagonist showed up. The antagonist is often revealed right away in the what if.
That said, my stories then go on to explore the psyche of the characters, their actions, reactions, and feelings.
I can relate to Stephen King’s writing. He writes a lot of Man vs Monster. His characters usually enjoy a short pleasant period before the monster skulks onstage. I often throw the monster onstage first.
I have more trouble relating to an amazing writer I’ve been reading lately, who I know only as @pirateaba.
He or she, has been/is writing a huge online serial epic fantasy called The Wandering Inn.
In this epic, @pirateaba chases the characters up the tree, throws rocks at them, sends monsters to attack the tree, has a mage turn up with an army to kill the monsters, chop down the tree, burn it for firewood, and slaughter the characters. Sometimes they escape, or get killed or captured, fight back, or magically grow another bigger, meaner tree. The story is told with great originality, imagination, accuracy, and detail.
And moments of glory that bring tears to my eyes. @pirateaba claims to be a plotter. With at least eight books in the series, it seems to me like an awful lot of information to keep track of, even if you’ve written it down. And there’s a new chapter of often 20,000 words once or more a week. I don’t know how @pirateaba does it. Not that it’s impossible to write 40,000 words a week, but that it’s done so incredibly well, and as far as I know, without beta readers or editor.
I’ve learned a lot about writing from reading The Wandering Inn. One thing is to describe some scenes more fully. Especially battles. As much as I am not interested in battles, the story often depends on them and you need to show it.
So. I can’t tell you how to plot.
I can tell you to read widely about the theory. And I can better tell you to write a lot and have people give feedback and read a lot and absorb all you need to know about writing and plots by osmosis.
Think of a what if and grow your tree. Wait for your characters to show up. But don’t wait too long. If no one shows up, imagine some and chase them up the tree. With something. A monster. A vice. A natural disaster. Observe what they do.
In writing, you bare yourself to the world. Many writers are stuck on a theme that reveals how they think and what’s important to them.
Are there monsters under your bed? Stephen King.
Do you dream of a united humanity? Gene Rodenberry.
Are you afraid of dying? Or not? Humanity
Do you always have a backup plan and/or plan for failure and if you do, would you like to know what your other selves in the multiverse are doing to cope with a problem? Me.
Do you sprinkle parts of your real life into your stories? Base your characters on people or amalgams of people you know? Many writers
Are you like me and can’t remember the seven basic plots?
Do what storytellers have always done.
Grow. Chase. Observe.
Tell your story to friends sitting around the campfire.
by Aedyn Brooks (@AedynBrooks)
Jayne Abbott sifted through her mail on her way back to the house, her hand hovered over a black envelope. She’d expected an invitation from her grandmother for their annual Silent Supper, a pagan ceremony celebrating the dead. Though traditionally held on Samhain, Grandma insisted nine family members come to dinner on the anniversary of Grandpa’s disappearance.
Some in the family said he’d met a frightful end, maybe at Grandma’s hand. Others speculated Grandpa had reached his limit and walked out. Jayne had never met a more henpecked man and hoped he was enjoying a tropical shore somewhere, slamming back a gin and tonic. Grandma had wanted a divorce fifty years ago but Grandpa said his vows meant something—and no matter what, he wasn’t getting divorced. Two more miserable souls didn’t exist.
Grandpa had been her greatest ally on her summer visits to their lakeside Victorian. He’d taught Jayne how to fish, garden, and scan a rummage sale for valuable items. Anything to stay away from Grandma’s nit-picking.
Jayne opened her invitation and scanned the particulars. Grandma was specific. Formal funeral attire was required, and I was to bring a letter addressed to Grandpa that would be burned, as usual. The biggest bonus about the silent supper—no one spoke from beginning to end. Truly, it was better than Christmas. This year, Grandma added a footnote: This will be the last year we honor Gorelly Abbott. Henceforth, Mr. Abbott will be declared dead. Seeing the word “dead” eloquently penned by Grandma’s hand didn’t soften the blow.
Heaviness weighed on Jayne’s heart as she tossed her mail on the entry way table. It’d been seven years and legally, Adelaide Abbott could declare her husband dead. Her gaze fell on the return address of the largest envelope. Brinkerton, Farley, Dobbs and Associates was the family’s law firm. She opened the envelope and scanned the letter.
Ms. Jayne Abbott, You are receiving Mr. Gorelly Abbott’s final will and testament. Your grandfather named you as executrix of his will. He held strict instructions that his will would only be shared seven years after his disappearance.
Jayne frowned. He’d planned his disappearance? Hope surged and simultaneously underscored how much she’d missed him.
Two additional envelopes were inside the larger one. One read “Dearest Jayne” in Grandpa’s scrawl. The second envelope was sealed and labeled last will and testament. She opened the one addressed to her.
First and foremost, trust no one. My lawyers had strict instructions not to divulge my last wishes until seven years after my demise. I’ve grown paranoid the last few weeks. I’ve spied Adelaide collecting my hair and I caught her trimming my fingernail in my sleep. She’s up to something. And if I go missing, I want you to know it was at her hand.
“Grandma could have been making a protection spell.” Jayne never saw Grandma practice dark magic. In fact, she was adamantly against it. Otherwise, Grandpa would have been dispatched decades ago.
In my desk, there’s a false bottom in the middle drawer on the right. In there, you will find additional instructions. The cipher will be obvious once you find it.
Read my will after the Silent Supper on Samhain. Seems fitting, doesn’t it?
Now, burn this letter. No one can know about my journal. And remember, trust no one.
Jayne wasn’t sure if waiting six months to read the will would be wise. If she couldn’t trust anyone, she might as well be prepared and read the will in advance. She cracked the wax seal stamped with the family crest and scanned the first page. No surprises, the basic third party of the third part type legalese she’d expected. She flipped several pages to get to the juicy stuff. All property personal or real, all cash, all personal belongings, all stocks and bonds, in essence, everything I own, is bequeathed to Jayne Elizabeth Abbott, my first grandchild.
She gasped. He didn’t. He’d plumb cut Grandma out of his will. Except, she wasn’t sure that was legally possible, given they were married. Surely, Grandma would get everything. The house had belonged to Grandma’s family. She had her own inheritance to live on. Maybe she didn’t need Grandpa’s money. Still, this put Jayne in an odd predicament. She could hear her Grandma’s wrath already. Dread settled heavy in her gut.
Jayne slipped through the conservatory door, which was rarely locked, and took the back staircase to the third floor. Grandma would be preparing the nine courses for their silent supper—without saying a word. No easy feat for a woman who lived to verbally accost people and mundane things.
Grandpa’s bedroom door squeaked in protest. Jayne cringed hoping Grandma didn’t hear. A thick layer of dust covered everything. No one had entered this room the last seven years. The unmade bed still had Grandpa’s slippers underneath and his pajamas lay where he’d last deposited them on the floor. How sad that not even the maid service tidied the room one last time.
The journal was easy to retrieve. Inside the front cover was a cardboard template with holes punched at irregular intervals, roughly the size of a paperback. Where was the obvious clue that the template fit? She turned the cardboard over and found Grandpa’s chicken scratch: F1TLRB249. What the hell did that mean? She gently pushed up the scroll top desk’s lid. At least that didn’t make noise. Three copies of the same book The Little Red Barn were stacked at the back. Each had a different cover. She thumbed to page 249 in each book. They were different. She put the template over each one, but only one made sense. The first edition. Once she had the key, she took a picture with her phone—just in case something happened to the book or the template.
She tucked the items in her purse and made her way back downstairs and to her car that she’d parked a safe distance away. With no one in sight, she deciphered the last journal entry. Jayne, Help me. I’m fading. A wicked spell. Lost in tim… the pencil scraped across the page.
Grandpa wasn’t dead.
Jayne arrived at dinner, thankful she was sworn to silence. The family had already arrived—and she, being the youngest and only grandchild in attendance, entered the dining room last. The dining room portraits, windows, and mirror were draped in black lace. The table held black linens and dishware. Honoring death was serious business.
They entered the dining room walking backward around the dining table three times, counterclockwise. Once the third cycle was complete, they took their respective seats. Grandma sat at one end and Grandpa’s honorary empty chair sat at the other. They held hands as if they were beginning a séance and remained silent for three minutes. The grandfather clock chimed seven o’clock. The waiters placed the first course.
Two hours later, the ninth course complete, they now would stand behind Grandpa’s empty chair and say a silent prayer and burn the note they’d written. Oldest went first. When it was Jayne’s turn, she burned her note and silently recited a spell that would make Grandpa visible.
Once she returned to her seat, everyone held hands one last time. The dining room doors crashed open. The candles extinguished. When one of her uncles flipped the light switch, Grandpa sat in his chair. His skin hung loosely on his bones. A gray tone shaded his pallor. He cleared his throat, hacking loose phlegm into his napkin.
“Thank you for saving me, Jayne.” Grandpa’s smug smile glared at Grandma. “You win, Adelaide. I’ll grant you your damned divorce.”
By Renée Gendron (@reneegendron)
Rémy Deschamps parked on the street and strolled into the backyard of Benoît Rousseau. A cluster of men stood around a barbecue, a knot of women sat on plastic patio furniture, and more children than Rémy could count splashed in the pool. Over the patio door was a banner that read Happy Birthday Benoît.
Rémy waved to Nadine, Benoît’s wife, and swaggered up to Benoît. “I hear two congratulations are in order.”
His brown curls weighed down by a Habs baseball cap, Benoît looked up from the barbecue. He had the same stupid grin on his face he had when Rémy met him thirty years ago.
“Here.” Rémy placed a bottle of a twenty-one-year-old whisky on the barbecue tray.
“Thanks.” Benoît read the label, and his smile deepened. “We’ll save this for the fishing trip. Beer?”
Rémy nodded. Benoît reached into a cooler and pulled out a Molson Dry.
“When’s the new job start?” Rémy asked.
“Two weeks. Decided to take a break to clear my head before starting. We’re going down to Toronto for a few days, then up to the cottage for the rest.”
Rémy grunted. A few of his friends from high school mingled with other guests. He raised his Molson Dry to the guests he recognised and received some smiles and waves back.
“Ben,” Nadine said, “The kids are ready to eat.”
“Duty calls.” Ben loaded a plate with hamburgers and hotdogs. The smiling cartoon bears on his apron matched his expression; this was his version of domestic bliss. Ben carried the plate to the tables where a dozen soaking wet children with sunburned noses waited.
Rémy’s daughter should be playing with them, not at his ex’s.
He flopped onto a lawn chair and stretched his legs, hooking one ankle over the other. The patio door opened, and a woman stepped out, balancing a large tray of fruit juices and pop. Barefoot with tanned legs, she sashayed across the deck to the kids’ table. Children snatched up their drinks and returned to their excited conversations.
The woman straightened and turned towards Rémy.
His heart bucked. It couldn’t be. He hadn’t seen Camille in twenty years.
She spotted him and beamed an effervescent smile that jump started his hormones. She gestured a cutesy wave and strolled over. She was a little thicker in the waist and heavier in the thigh than he remembered, but Camille Rousseau was just as heart-stoppingly beautiful as always. She glided with an energetic bounce in her step with the same boundless energy she had for sports, music, and kindness.
“Wasn’t expecting to see you.” Twenty years and that’s what he had to say. Pathetic.
“It’s easier now to make these family events. I’ve moved back from Montréal.”
“Ben hadn’t mentioned it.” Because that’s what men do, sit around and talk about their sisters.
“I got a job offer too good to pass up.”
He glanced down at her left hand. No wedding ring. That was promising.
“Congratulations on the job.” He raised his beer in salute. “Are you leading a team of architects?”
Her smile deepened until one dimple appeared. “You remembered?”
Remembered? He’d feigned not listening to her while playing video games with Ben. Secretly, he was captivated by her enthusiasm and hung on her every word. Passion, drive, desire to experience and see all.
Camille looked out over the party and waved to a few late arriving family members. “You’re doing well?”
“Hanging in there. You?” he asked.
“Excited about the job.” She raised her chin the way she used to when not telling the whole story.
He shifted his weight a fraction of an inch closer to her. God. Twenty years and she still smelled of peppermint and heaven.
“But?” he prompted. But her husband or boyfriend didn’t follow.
“It’s time for a new start.”
Two girls performed a coordinated dance in the pool. When they were finished, they waved at Camille who waved and blew the girls a kiss. Both girls, one seven and five, had Camille’s freckled nose and smooth jawline.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He was a pathetic liar.
“I made my new start two years ago.” Rémy took a swig of beer.
He wasn’t. The only thing he saw in her was a head of thick curls that would cascade over his face every time they made love.
“You know who that is?” Camille’s voice rose to a squeal, yanking Rémy from his thoughts.
He followed her gaze to a woman standing next to Nadine. She had cropped hair, angular features, and a body fit for a magazine cover. Everything about her screamed high maintenance. Manicure with matching pedicure, a diamond the size of a teacup poodle on her ring finger, gold around her neck and hanging from her ears, oversized sunglasses reality like stars wore and clothes that looked straight from the runaway of Paris.
“Is that Rachelle Tremblay?” Rémy asked.
“Is that Rachelle Tremblay?” Camille shook her head, mimicking him. “As if you don’t remember the hottest girl in high school.”
He did, and it wasn’t Rachelle.
“You know,” Camille said, “I’d comb magazines and shops trying to get the same look as Rachelle. But the tops were always too tight or the jeans too low. I couldn’t quite make it work like she did. I couldn’t get the smoky eyes to look right or tame these curls into something manageable.”
Say something. Say she didn’t need any of that. Say she was more beautiful without all of that junk.
“She wasn’t all that,” Rémy said. “Rachelle’s less fashion model, more snowball queen with only one contestant.”
Camille laughed so hard, she folded an arm across her abdomen and tilted her head back. Not a girly ‘tee-hee-hee’ laugh. Not a ladylike sophisticated ‘ha-ha’. No. Camille’s laugh combined the sound of a pig rooting up grubs, gasps to catch her breath, and more snorting.
A few of the guests shot curious glances their way. Rachelle looked over her wine glass with one perfect eyebrow arched in amusement.
“Oh God,” Camille said between snorts. “You’d better stand somewhere else, so the cool kids don’t ostracise you.”
He chuckled. “I’ll manage.” He was right where he wanted to be.
Children in bathing suits ran around playing tag or something. Whatever game it was, it was loud. Before the divorce, he would have brought his eight-year-old daughter, Marie-Anne, to a party like this. She would have fit right in.
A few more people trickled into the party. One man had broad shoulders and a commanding presence. There was no mistaking Simon Gagnon. During high school, all the girls had swooned over him. When Simon walked down the hallway, bras unclasped and panties flew at him in an arch of lace.
The man was built like a brick, with marked intelligence in his eyes, and the capacity to remember every statistic of every game of every sport ever played. He worked as an actuary for an insurance company and made double what Rémy made.
“Isn’t that your man?” Rémy’s throat tightened around the words.
Rémy lifted his chin towards Simon. “Your boyfriend.”
Two red dots expanded on her cheeks in the sexiest blush he’d ever seen.
“He was never my boyfriend,” she said.
“Could have fooled half of the school the way you followed him around. Hockey games, lacrosse games, math club. You were his personal cheerleader.”
“There was never anything there,” she said.
“Yeah? Is that why you’re still blushing twenty years later?”
She popped open a beer. “He didn’t know me from a hole in the ground. Besides, I was busy. I had track and field meets and band practice after class.”
Triple jump, high jump, and four hundred metres. Mondays and Thursday. Band on Wednesdays.
“You still play?” she asked.
“Hockey. Do you still play?”
“Every Thursday night and Saturday morning,” he said.
He shook his head. “I only—” Oh. A little secret almost escaped.
Only took up track to be near her. Best friend’s sister. Not acceptable in high school. Not acceptable as adults. Sour the relationship with the sister, lose a great girl and a friend.
Nadine stepped out of the kitchen onto the patio with a giant cake on a tray. Two candles were lit, in the shapes of a four and zero. Camille and the other guests sang happy birthday, and Rémy joined in the last verse. He was never much of a singer. His voice too often set dogs to howl.
There was a round of applause for Ben. Still with his goofy smile, Ben gave a thank you speech, then children dug into the cake like they were soldiers digging trenches in World War One.
“What were you saying?” Camille asked.
He had almost borne his soul and the secret he had never shared with anyone. Beer didn’t provide enough courage. He eyed the bottle of twenty-one-year-old whisky. One swig. Maybe two. A third on the outside. He could buy Ben another. The Scots made more than one bottle a year. No?
“You want to hear something funny?” he asked between gulps of beer.
“I only joined track to be around a girl I liked.”
“Rachelle never ran track,” Camille said. “She played soccer. Nadine only ran track in grade ten, but it conflicted with soccer practice and she had to quit.” Camille swept her gaze over the crowd. “Hmm.”
Rémy’s pulse rattled his ribs. He’d said too much. Why’d Ben have to be born in July when it was stifling hot? The pool was only thirty feet away. He could dive in head first, blame the beer and the presence of so many people from high school. A need to do ridiculous things again.
“Was it Annic?” Camille asked. “The girl had legs for time zones.”
Annic did have legs for kilometres. To the moon and back and back again. He hid his expression by taking another swig of beer. He had to pace himself because he still had to drive home.
Politics. The situation in the Middle East. Monetary policy and its correlation to interest rates. Religion. Anything. Light subjects to talk about.
“What about Stéphanie? Guys always like redheads.” Camille said.
God no. Stéphanie Beaulieu’s mother owned a BMW car dealership, and Stéphanie thought she came from the richest family on the planet. Stuck up? No. A spoiled brat who didn’t know there were other people on the planet? Yes.
“There’s no one else in your grade that would have—” Camille’s jaw hinged open. “Oh my God. You had a crush on an older girl.” She clasped her hands. “Who could it have been?”
He shook his head. Coward. Twenty years. And they said only Olympic torches never go out.
“Denise Sauver,” she said. “It had to be her. Every guy wanted her.”
“Damn it, Cam. It was you.” He roared like the lion in that movie, standing on the edge of a cliff as the entire jungle stopped to look at him.
Every adult turned to face them. A few grabbed handfuls of chips. Rachelle and Nadine bent their heads together. Everyone from high school turned to look at them, curious and intrigued. One grabbed two beers from a cooler. The ones they didn’t go to high school with looked on with the same fascination of watching a train wreck. Live theatre.
Camille’s beautiful eyes widened. Her expression teetered from disbelief to hope.
“That’s not possible,” she said.
“I went to all of your hockey practices, and you never noticed.”
“What?” he asked.
“You scored a hat trick in the game against De La Vallée, and I cheered until my throat turned raw. You never once looked up at me. But I was there.”
“I saw you. In your stupid, bright pink pom-pom hat. I saw you so much that I got levelled into the boards five times that game.” At the memory of that game, his shoulder ached.
A shy smile peeled her lips back. “You never said anything.”
“And risk embarrassing myself in front of the prettiest girl in school?” He scratched a non-existent itch on his neck, ignoring the dozens of curious stares directed his way.
“I wouldn’t have turned you down.” She sunk her top teeth into her lower lip. “I still wouldn’t.”
His cheeks curved. “Drinks on Thursday?”
“I’ll have to check my calendar.”
“Don’t be late. I know a lover’s lane where we can go after the date.”
“I don’t need to hear that,” Ben said.
Rémy and Camille laughed. He reached for her hand. The long wait was finally over.
This story was inspired by the true story of a woman who invited all the town children to her house on Hallowe’en. I was the only person who thought this sounded sinister.
The whole story is available here:
by Melissa Yuan-Innes (dr_sassy)
“Mom, do I have to go?”
“To the party by the richest woman in town?” My mother bunched her fists on her turquoise and silver spandex hips. She was the perfect, skinny ’80s aerobics instructor, right down to the frosted pink lipstick sneer. “Ashley, get in the car. Mrs. Marigold’ll have plenty of Hallowe’en treats.”
I turned to my stooped-shouldered dad. He smoothed my hair. “What is it, Ashley-bee?”
My eyes filled with tears. “I don’t want to go.”
Mom stared. “Ashley, honey, you insult her if you don’t go. You don’t want to do that, do you?”
“She won’t care.”
“Darling, only six kids in the whole town were invited. Six lucky five to ten-year-olds.” She paused. “Good thing you’re only nine.”
I burst out, “Can’t I just stay home and give out candy?”
“You mean eat it.” She laughed and crouched beside me. “Darling, your dad and I have to go to our party, and you have to go to yours. We can’t leave you alone.”
“You did in Vancouver. And Chicago. And—”
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s safer at Mrs. Marigold’s.”
They always won. I closed my eyes. “Fine.”
“That’s my girl,” Dad said.
We had to go out the front door to get to the garage. It wasn’t attached like at our last three houses. This was an old brick house with a roof that curled up on both ends. Mom wanted bigger, but Dad said we needed something discreet. And cheap. Everything was cheap in Edelson, Ontario.
When I got to our Dodge Aries, I had to hike up my money dress to get in. That was the costume Mom made for me: a million dollars. She’d threaded Monopoly money together to make a sheath. I once saw a movie star wearing a dress made out of gold credit cards. She looked sleek. I looked fat. I also fluttered when I walked and crunched when I sat down. Dad shut the door behind me and waved good-bye.
Mom glared. “Ashley Quarrington, pick up your costume when you sit! Don’t you have the sense God gave an egg?”
She shook her head and manhandled the Dodge onto Oak Lane, muttering, “Last Hallowe’en, I wore a Versace dress to a masquerade ball. Now I’m in Edelson, Ontario, eating chips and dip with the town eejits.”
“Mom,” I said softly, “tell me about your dress.”
“Well. You remember it, honey. It was black silk, full length … ”
I tuned her out. It was 5:30 and pitch dark outside. Just us, the white stripes on the pavement, and the trees looming over us.
Mom missed the turnoff to Forced Road and had to pull a U-turn, swearing under her breath. We found 126 easily enough. There was a huge wrought iron gate with ivy leaves, topped with spears. Real candles, fat and white, were stuck on to the top of every other spear. Mom muttered, “Must’ve been cheap.” We cruised along the mile-long driveway until it ended in a half-circle at the house. Paper bags holding candles led the way to the door. Pumpkins, each carved with a letter, spelled MRS CHERRY’S HOUSE on the steps.
I held my breath. It was an enormous, grey stone house. The four columns around the door were wound with orange streamers, like candy-canes. Back from the entrance, the rest of the mansion spread its rectangular wings. The roof was iced with stone teeth and wrought iron gates.
“Limestone,” Mom said. “Over 100 years old. I have no idea why they built it in Edelson.”
She nodded. “And they were probably crazy. Now get in there, girl.”
One of the massive black iron doors swung inward. I jumped. There stood a fat woman in a pink ballgown with wings and a diamond tiara. “Come in, Ashley!”
I stopped. “How do you know my name?”
Mom elbowed me. Hard.
“Stop it, Elizabeth,” Mrs. Marigold said crisply. I gawped. Not only did she tell her off, but Mom insists on ‘Liz’. Mom gritted her teeth.
Mrs. Marigold ignored her. She bent and looked me right in the eye. “Every year, I invite six children. If you’re extra special, I bring you back the next year. But I love all the children in Edelson and know all your names.”
People said things like, “Every child is a gift.” Then they ignored the kids in Africa with flies on their eyelids, or the street kids who asked for spare change. But Mrs. Marigold had eyes like chocolate. She also had a real smile, creamy skin, and two double chins. She smiled. “Ashley Jane Quarrington, thank you for coming to my Hallowe’en party.”
I grinned. “Trick or treat!”
Mom gasped. “What Ashley means is, she hopes you’ll find her special enough to come back next year. I brought you some Moët champagne as a little thank-you … ”
Mrs. Marigold waved it away. “Please. You have it. I don’t like alcohol. It makes you stupid.”
I giggled and ignored Mom’s look of death.
“My dear Ashley, come in for all the tricks and treats you can handle!” She shooed Mom out. “Don’t come back before nine, Elizabeth. Enjoy your own party.”
by Aedyn Brooks (@AedynBrooks)
Have you entered a contest, or shown your creative prose to someone and received the feedback…the story starts here—twenty pages in? Have you received comments that your pacing was great…until this five-page derailment on why the character chose this particular action? And don’t make me write the “F” word…Flashback. How about, your character appears two-dimensional? What about repetitive information? (i.e. This is the sixth time you’ve told me Jenny had a rough upbringing in ten pages.)
These comments boil down to two central themes in story creation:
- Strong character development
- Backstory management
How many times have you started writing a new book knowing you’ll more than likely trash the first three chapters as you get a “feel” for your characters? Part of you knows this is a necessary evil, and part of you wishes there was a better way to flush out key backstory elements sooner than later. Whether you’re a plotster or a pantster, managing backstory effectively can save you editing time in the future. Part of writing fast is having a solid framework around your story concept. But…isn’t there a better way to manage backstory?
Backstory should be a slow drip and not a tsunami. Only tell the reader what they absolutely need to know in order to enhance the reader’s understanding of their goals, motivations, and possible conflicts. Sometimes a childhood emotional or physical wound drives their decisions, but does the reader need to relive that moment in order to understand its importance? Not necessarily. Just like 20% of your research might land on the page, your backstory should be about the same.
However, as writers, we can create every nitty-gritty detail that our characters have lived and we want to put it in our book. We think of that funny sibling rivalry incident that made you laugh out loud…so naturally, it must go in your book, right? No. Not unless it’s relevant to the story. If you can read the story without that ditty, then delete it. Gasp! No! Sorry to burst your bubble, pumpkin. Trust me, your editor will love that you stayed focused on the story’s central theme.
Writers are notorious for collecting every possible worksheet that helps us hone dynamic scenes. We have copious lists and checklists that we may use once or twice and file them away, and we have our go-to tools we keep at our fingertips as we write our draft. Personally, I use a Happy Planner sized notebook. It’s smaller than a regular sized notebook (A4), and bigger than a mini-notebook (A6). It’s more around a half-sized piece of paper (A5). It’s also the type of notebook that uses discs instead of spirals or hole punches. It’s easy to rip out the page and move it elsewhere. I love that versatility. I have one for each book that I plan on writing this year. Yes, I set them up in advance. Why? One, because I’m incredibly organized. Two, it makes my moon in Capricorn happy. Not being organized frazzles my creative mind. I struggle with feeling motivated if I’m not organized. Weird, huh? I’ve learned to live with it. Please don’t judge me.
Within each notebook I have sections for the hero, heroine, and villain (and many other sections I won’t go into today). These three characters get a full profile. What do I mean by that? After being frustrated from the several character lists I’d collected from other generously sharing authors, I had to stop the madness. My lists had grown to fifteen pages. If I’m being honest, I got bored after page four. The list needed to be in a cohesive order so I’d stop filling out pages longer than my medical history profile. Yet, I needed it to encompass everything. I whittled out the redundancy and irrelevant characteristics and added more elements for diversity…something I hadn’t seen on other lists. (They could be out there but I haven’t seen them.) I like my books to reflect a diverse cast because I live in a community of diverse people. I interact with a broad range of human beings (maybe some aliens too) and probably follow too many cats and dogs on Instagram. It makes me happy. After spending a few days organizing my copious lists, I sat back and thought—this is the last character development and backstory management list I’ll ever create. Wait. Hold my beer.
The only element I purposefully excluded was setting. I keep that on a separate list. Sometimes towns and buildings can have their own character. Think of Footloose and the town’s laws changing because four people tragically died.
Now here’s the crux of technology. In this day and age, we should be able to load any file type onto our WordPress website and that sucker should be readable and downloadable to everyone. But no. WordPress only allows pictures. We put people on the International Space Station, send probes to Mars, satellites to the edge of the galaxy, but upload an Excel file to WordPress? Inconceivable. Did I not mention I’m a data-ninja? I love, love, love Excel. I live in Excel. Nothing makes my little heart happier than Excel. Shh. Don’t tell my family. I design everything in PowerPoint or Excel and write in Word. I’ve tried other programs and they’ve disappointed me more often than not. They’re dead to me and I’m done wasting money on them. Also, I’m not a fan of Google Docs. I can hear you laughing. Whatev. Google Docs is great for collaboration within the same team, but what if I want to share my awesome character development and backstory management spreadsheet to the world without someone modifying it or adding a virus to the original? With two different format sizes—full size and Happy Planner size? I suppose I can share pictures—but wouldn’t it be easier to click and save? What I can do is email it to you because that way you’ll have it forever and ever. Modify at will. What works for me may not work for you and that’s okay. That’s why people are awesome.
The Character Development & Backstory Management images are loaded to my website: https://aedynbrooks.com/char-dev-backstory-mgmt-images/
There are other tips for writers there, in case you feel like hopping down a bunny trail of valuable resources: https://aedynbrooks.com/for-writers/
Or you can email me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to email the spreadsheet to you. It may wind up in your spam folder, so please check there before getting angry at me for not sending you my sweet file of awesomeness.
Happy creating & writing!
AMBR Team Showcase: April 2021
Heads and Tales A supernatural / mythological anthology. Renée Gendron contributed a story. Available July 1, 2021.