Short Story: The Old Lady

The Old Lady

by Victor Poole

Once upon a time there was a lady called Gunhilda. The old lady had warts on her nose, and ugly, misshapen lumps in her temples, and poking up through her hair. She was ashamed of her lumps, and hid in her house from the time she was a child until she was quite an old woman. When she was grown tired of being alone, the old lady went to a doctor, and said, “Mr. Doctor, I want to get rid of these lumps on my face.”

The doctor looked at her, and then he laughed.

“Go and help other people become pure in their hearts. Show them the way to be happy, and then the bumps will shrink.” The lady paid the doctor, and went on her way.

She thought and she thought about how she was going to find a way to show others how to be happy. She first thought of teaching little children to sew, but when she went to watch the little girls at school, she found that she hated their noise. I could teach little boys how to be kind to their mothers, the lady thought, and she went into the first house that she found, and took hold of a little boy by the ear.

“You must treat your mother with kindness!” the lady said sharply to the boy, who shrieked, and kicked her. The lady began to shake the boy, but then his mother came in, and beat the lady with a broom stick.

The lady went to jail, because she had broken into a householder’s place, and hurt a child there. The honorable judge put the lady into prison for three months.

“If you bother anyone after this,” the judge warned her, “you will be banished from our city.”

“You can’t banish me,” the lady said to the judge. “My father was friends with many wealthy people.”

“You are not your father,” the judge told her.

The lady with the lumps on her face sat in the prison cell, and she tried to think of how she would impart happiness to the others in the prison. She looked at the three prisoners with whom she shared a cell; they were sitting as far away from her as they could get, and their faces were turned away.

“I am going to bring all of you into the way of happiness,” the old woman announced.

“She is speaking to you, I think,” one of the prisoners, a fat man, said to his neighbor.

“No, I was speaking to all three of you,” the old woman replied. “I have been instructed by my doctor to make you happy. Now you must listen.”

The fat man pressed against the bars of the prison, and screamed for the guard, who came running.

“Is there a fight?” the guard demanded.

“This woman, she will not stop harassing us!” the fat man said. The other two prisoners joined in, clamoring to be moved.

“Well, you are a frightening thing to see,” the guard told the old woman. “You had better come with me to solitary.”

“Thank you, thank you!” the other three prisoners cried, as the old woman and the guard went away together to an old shack of wood at the back of the prison. The shack was badly guarded, and the old woman noticed that it was outside the prison gates.

“Why will I be kept here?”

“This is where we take people when we hope they will die soon,” the guard told her. “The wolves come here sometimes, in the cold weather, and they have learned to break open the door to the shack.”

“This is not a prison! This is a nightmare!” she cried.

“You will stay here for three months, and if the wolves have not eaten you up by the end, you will be set free.” The guard shut the shack door in her face, and locked it. The old woman sat in the shack for some time, and then she had a new idea. I will bring civilization to the wolves, she thought. I will tame them, and then the people of the city will have to admit that I am a kindly woman. She thought the taming of the wolves would heal the big bumps on her face.

The old lady sat, and ate the gruel, day by day, that the guard brought her. She became filthy very quickly, because she was anxious not to miss the wolves when they came, and she refused to leave the shack when they came to bring her to the main prison to relieve herself. She was soon covered in her own filth, and the guards started to feed her with a very long pole. Soon even this was not enough, and the people of the city demanded that the shack be disposed of.

“How can we get rid of the shack, when there is a prisoner inside who will not come out?” the city fathers demanded.

“Move the whole piece of land, then,” the people cried. “Only get her stench away from us.”

The head guard came to speak to the woman; he used a large horn, so as to stay as far away from the stinking shack as possible.

“You must come out and bathe yourself,” he shouted.

“I am going to be eaten by the wolves,” the old lady cried back. The wolves had come sniffing on the first day, but the old lady smelled so old that they had run away.

The city fathers could not think of what to do with her. They could not convince her to come out of the shack, and no one would go near enough to carry her out.

“We should have gotten her out in the beginning,” the guard told the director of the prison.

“How were we to know she would shit herself like this?” the director snapped.

Finally, the guards, the prisoners, and the townspeople all decided to move. They left in a body, united in their abhorrence for the hideous smell of the old woman. They moved to another valley, far away, and started a new colony.

The old woman, after she had gotten very hungry and thirsty, stood up on shaking legs. She was very weak, because it had been days since the last pole of food had been thrust at her, and her water had run out. She had been sitting in a heap of her own filth, and her skin was coated so that she seemed made of muck.

She was shaking when she came out of the shack. The lady found, when she came into the fresh air, that it was not pleasant to be so dirty, and she began looking for some way to clean her flesh. She stumbled through the town until she came to a pond. She waded into the deep water of the pond, and submerged her whole body.

The streets were empty, and the houses were empty as well. The lady, at first, thought that everyone had gone to some kind of market festival. She went to the mayor’s house, and took up the nicest dresses she could find. She clothed herself in finery, and sat in the mayor’s own chair.

I am the king of this village now, she thought, and the wolves came back. One of the birds had flown over the empty shack, and then the bird had gone and found a squirrel, and the squirrel went and found one of the baby wolves, and told it to tell its mother that the lady who sat in filth no longer smelled like a decaying thing. The cub wolf told this to its mother, and the pack of wolves, which was very hungry, turned around, and ran towards the town.

The wolves came, and they ate the old woman up. The wolves got very sick, because she was so sour, and the whole pack of them died. Shortly thereafter, God looked upon the town, because he had enjoyed the howling of those wolves, and he missed their voices after they never sang to him anymore. When God looked down and saw the eaten corpse, and the dead wolves, he was furious, and he sent a big rock down to decimate the town. The whole continent turned into a desert, and the old lady’s remains were obliterated forever.

God went into hell, and found her soul there.

“You have killed some of my wolves,” God told her. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“It is not my fault that some wolves ate me up,” the old lady replied, for she had no respect for God, and God looked at her, and then went away and found his chief architect.

“Who has made this woman?” God demanded. “I did not make her. Where did she come from?”

The chief architect blushed, and murmured something incoherent.

“I could not hear you,” God said. “Explain yourself.”

“I said that we do not know where she has come from,” the architect said.

“Who is running demons these days?” God demanded. Again, his chief architect blushed, and murmured a name. “Call him before me,” God commanded, and the architect ran away.

“Explain this monstrosity,” God demanded, pointing down towards hell, when the beast Chaos was before him.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Chaos said. “She isn’t one of mine.”

“My architect says she is,” God said.

“Well, he’s wrong,” Chaos replied stubbornly.

“Go and find out who made her,” God said.

Sometime later, the hosts of hell appeared at the gates of heaven.

“We want to reform our souls!” the hosts of hell called out in one voice. One of Beezlebub’s favorite lieutenants, who had quit his post with the others, was leading the rebellious factions of hell.

“You can’t come up here, you have your own place,” Gabriel shouted down.

“But we want to learn to be like you people,” the lieutenant shouted back. “There’s a monster down there, with lumps on her face. She stinks. We want to repent.”

“I’ll have to talk to God about this,” Gabriel shouted back. The lieutenant nodded agreeably, and the hosts of hell made orderly camps outside the gates of heaven, and began to sing hymns with reasonable reverence.

“They’re out there, singing, and being kind to each other,” Gabriel said to God. “They say they want to repent, and join up.”

“Put them through the trial stages of purgatory, and see how they do,” God suggested. Gabriel nodded, and called together the heavenly host. The hosts of hell passed through the tests in short order, and began to be assimilated into the heavenly order.

“This is going remarkably well,” the chief architect told God, who shrugged.

“You know,” God said, “people do tend to unite against a common enemy.”

“And you don’t know where she came from, or what she is?” the architect asked. God made no answer to this, but when the architect had gone, God went into his wife’s boudoir, and picked up her favorite hairbrush.

“How is my project working out?” God’s wife asked. God put the brush through her long, silvery hair, and sighed.

“The hosts of hell have integrated successfully into heaven,” he admitted.

“Good,” his wife said. “Soon it will be time for us to take that honeymoon you’ve been promising me for the last eight millennia.”

“I wish you would have spoken to me before you made her,” God said, looking solemn. “All my people were quite in a tizzy trying to find out where she came from.”

“Yes, that was the idea,” his wife said. “Now, do you think I ought to bring my blue dress or my green?”

“Both, of course,” God said. “But we are supposed to work together on this kind of large-scale project, don’t you think?”

“Yes, dear,” his wife said soothingly. God laughed, and put the hairbrush down on the dresser.

“My archangels are going to be gossiping about you managing me, when they all find out what she really is,” God said.

“Oh, I think they will be all right,” his wife said. She had a twinkle in her eye. “Has she taken charge of hell yet?”

“No,” God said. “I’ll go and see her tomorrow.”

God went and met the old lady at the great crimson gates of hell.

“Where have all the people gone?” she demanded.

“Well,” God said. The lady’s face was filled with fleshy boils.

“I came here expecting to meet all sorts of people,” the old lady said. “I thought I would finally be able to get a handle on my boils. The doctor in my town, you know, he told me that if I brought other people into the light of happiness and truth, my boils would lessen.”

“Did he, now?” God asked.

“Yes, he did,” she said firmly. “Now, you’re God, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” God said.

“Why can’t you do anything about my skin?” she demanded. “You have got to have some kind of power you can use to make them go away, or make them smaller.”

“I don’t like you,” God explained kindly. “I don’t help people that I don’t like. I hardly help people at all, you see. My job is to create order in the fabric of the universe. I don’t actually work on many of the details.”

“That is wrong,” the old lady said. “I will teach you to be a better God than that. First, you must learn to help people who need it. I help everyone that I meet.” A pair of new lumps sprang up, fully-formed, on her cheeks, and God winced.

“Listen, I am going away with my wife,” God said. “I was wondering, since you’re here, would you mind taking charge of hell for me?”

The lady’s eyes sparkled.

“Do you mean it?” she asked. The two boils that had grown on her cheeks shrank, just a tiny bit.

“Yes,” God said. He noticed, though he did not say anything, that the old lady’s skin brightened a touch.

“Isn’t there a devil for that sort of thing?” she demanded, her eyes sparkling.

“Well, you know,” God said, “there is a little problem here of inefficiency.”

“Say no more,” the lady said, in business-like fashion. “I will take care of everything. You just send any erring souls my way, and I will show them a rough time. I know perfectly well what is best for sinners, you wait and see.”

God smiled, and nodded.

“So kind and obliging of you to help me out,” he murmured. The old lady raised a hand sharply.

“No, don’t thank me,” she said, and another long chain of boils lessened into tiny freckles, and vanished. One stretch of her cheeks was now positively smooth and lump-free. “I understand the need for order in a fallen universe. Mind, if you’d been watching your post properly, there’d be no fallenness to begin with, but it isn’t my place to tell you how to be God. I’ll just be down in hell, sweeping up now,” she added, and God saw that she was positively bristling with eagerness to get down to work.

“Well, I really appreciate your willingness to pitch in,” God said.

“It is no trouble at all,” she said, and she nodded sharply to God. “Nice seeing you, sir,” she said.

God waved, and chuckled as he watched the old woman, whose face was rapidly smoothing, bundle herself down the streets into the depths of hell.

God pushed the crimson gates closed, and locked them fast. He went up to find his wife, who was fussing over the last details of her packing.

“How did it go?” she asked, when God came in.

“Quite well,” he said. “She’s got the idea that she’ll clean hell up once and for all.”

“Excellent,” his wife said. “Go ahead and get the prophets dreaming of her. They’ll spread the news to all the people on Earth, and we will have no more sinners at all.”

“Excellent,” God said, and he went and took hold of his wife’s hand. “It was really brilliant of you, to clothe pure efficiency up as a mortal woman.”

“Oh, you would have thought of it sometime,” God’s wife said. “I’m nearly ready to go on our honeymoon.”

“Yes, dear,” God said, and he went to find his favorite sunglasses.

You’re reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here.

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How To Explode Relationships That Will Get You Hungry Readers

Humans Like Stories

Here’s A Story

When I was working in theatre, I met a kid who was very quiet, and had very little hair. He was always on the fringes of the group during rehearsals, and when some of the other actors were getting chummy and making memories together, a couple of young women got worried about him. They tried to talk to him more, to draw him into the group. He stayed aloof, though he was always gracious about saying “No,” with his body or his continued silence.

One of the more proactive social butterflies came and talked to me about this guy.
“I’m worried that he feels left out,” she explained. She wanted to know what I thought we needed to do to make him feel loved and safe. I laughed, and told the young woman that this kid was getting exactly what he wanted out of the experience.

“He isn’t lonely,” I said. She frowned at me, as if I had presented a riddle, and wandered away to socialize with more sympathetic folk.

I didn’t exactly handle this guy with kid gloves, but I never pushed him the way I pushed the others. I peel open actors like Kinder eggs, when I work them on stage, but this guy had “Caution” tape wrapped up all over his energy. I never prodded at him, and when the show closed, he smiled at me, said, “Thank you,” and vanished from the face of the earth. He wasn’t a theatre kid; I think he had never acted before in his life, and was unlikely to act again. No one knew what he did, or where he came from. He was like one of those enigmatic cowboys that comes into a sleepy town for two weeks and then vanishes in the dead of night, never to be seen again.

Well, Who Was He?

Probably a moral drug dealer. Yes, they exist. He had an independent, mature energy, though he couldn’t be older than twenty-four at the time. He clearly had sophisticated social skills, and he operated under a closed, autonomous energy system (those are very interesting, but I’m not going to explain them to you right now). There was no darkness in his system, which, given his age and looks, was remarkable (that would take hours to explain, but suffice it to say that he was a good person, as evidenced by the clear light in his aura).

That Was Fascinating, Now Tell Me About Writing

The burning need to know what happens next, to know who people really are on the inside, and what will happen to them, is the driving factor behind most leisure reading. Here is an easy way to create that need in your readers.

Make A Promise

Open your first paragraph with a hook. Here are some samples:

Jethro was the last alien Deidre could ever imagine losing her virginity to, let alone seducing over the course of months.

Kate was a murderer, but she had only ever killed once, and that had been a long time ago on a different world.

Gorm was only a janitor, but he was destined to destroy the order of Caruvian space pirates single-handedly.

Well, I Can’t Use Any Of Those Examples

My one-time actor was a mystery character; he had a lot of secrets. They were the kind of secrets that never get told at all; those are the best kind. Your characters have secrets; those secrets drive the plot, and the development of those characters. You need to know those secrets, and you need to strategically exploit them in a way that whets the reader’s interest. So, go to your work in progress, and select a character. Write down their secret. Now, go to the very beginning of your work, and on the first page, layer a hint of that secret, a promise, a sniff, an allusion, into the first part of the writing.

Explode The Relationship

Now that you have placed a hint into your opening, take a second character from your work. Find their secret; write it down for yourself. Go to your opening page, and contrast this second character’s secret with the first secret you put in. It should look something a little like this:

Jethro was the last alien Deidre could ever imagine losing her virginity to, let alone seducing over the course of months. Just before the two met, Jethro took a vow to eat the next sexual partner he took on, and, unluckily for Deidre, he didn’t meet any luscious partners in the months between his vow and her moment of disrobing.

Won’t That Change My Whole Story?

Maybe. It doesn’t need to. Once you have planted your hook, the reader will be desperate to know what happens. Will she be eaten? Will Jethro break his vow? What will happen to him if he does? What happens next?

Successfully Antagonistic Relationships Create The Strongest Hooks

When you plant a story in your plot, and let the reader know the boundaries of the story (Diedre is going to seduce Jethro; he has sworn to eat his next partner), the reader will read on, desperate to find out the fulfillment of that setup. Take two pre-existing characters in your work, find mysterious folds in their lives, and pit them against each other in your opening. Your readers will love it.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. To find out if Ajalia’s master turns out to be like her father, start with book one, The Slave from the East. Thanks for visiting!

How To Discover Secrets Your Characters Keep From You

Your characters have secrets. The secrets your characters keep are often (almost always) hidden even from you, the author. This happens because you write more than you realize; your characterizations conceal hidden folds. Today we’re going to talk about how you can break open these secrets, and suck out the hidden parts of your characters that drive them through the story. (As insight into your characters is one of the hallmarks of lasting fiction, this will make you a better writer.)

They’re Keeping Secrets, Huh?

Character Secrets

Character secrets develop from your energy; you write down, often unconsciously, genuine patterns of energy that you have experienced in your own life. You might include touches of conversation you’ve had with people, or elements of emotion that you have experienced, either in your own body, or when reading or watching someone else’s work. When you write down these patterns you’ve absorbed, it is as if you are writing down markers, or outlines, of human types. Inside the heart of each human type is a deep, dark, closely-held secret. Great fiction drags the aftermath of these secrets out into the light, and showcases their results for the readers’ enjoyment. So part of your job, as an author, is not only to write down these markers of deeper meaning, but then to find out their underlying causes.

I Still Don’t Know What You Mean, Victor Poole. Can You Give Me An Example?

I have written before about Ocher, a character from my fantasy series. When I wrote him, I based his physical body on a military relative I have. Now, here is where the hidden secret comes into play. My relative, who is a large and violent person, is terrified of sleeping. I mean, on a pathological level, but you would never, ever know this. I think possibly his wife knows, but he hides this secret very well. (I know things like this because sniffing out secrets is my specialty; I have an imaginary PhD in Reading Human Beings.) How this secret translates into fiction is that Ocher, or the physical body component of Ocher, desperately avoids rest and peacefulness at all costs. Why? Because to him, sleep is like death; he is terrified of the oblivion of slumber.

How Do I Use This Kind of Secret in My Writing, Victor?

A secret like this, a true, deep secret, is something that you, as the author, don’t actually reveal. It is like the inside of a shiny product that is not meant to be opened—like a blender. You buy the blender so that you can blend things. You don’t pry open the casing and prod about at the wiring inside; unless you are a mechanical hobbyist, such an act would defeat the purpose of buying a blender.

So it is with fiction; there are dynamics within the work that need to remain hidden; to reveal them openly to the reader would negate the functionality of the work as a whole. So Ocher’s terror of sleeping is never, ever brought up, even glancingly, in any of the books in which he is featured (he’s in books 3-5, and 7-9). But Ocher’s pathological fright at the idea of sleeping shapes his whole character, and drives his arc.

Well, Cool. Show Me How To Find Out Secrets In My Own Characters, Victor Poole!

Let’s get started. The first thing you need to understand is that your body and your mind are a highly-tuned machine; this means that you know things right now that you are not aware of knowing. For example, you may write something like this:

Mabel drew a brush through her hair, and studied the texture of her skin. I’m not getting any younger. Her eyes lingered over the crow’s feet that were gradually appearing at the corners of her eyes, and her tongue glided along the rim of her lips. He said it was cheap; said it was mostly painless. Mabel breathed out sharply, and slammed the hairbrush down on the bathroom counter.

Here we have Mabel, who is thinking of purchasing an experimental skin-grafting treatment that will, reputedly, restore her skin to a younger glory.

Let’s dig down a layer deeper; we will sit down with Mabel, and ask her a series of questions; as she is our character, she will have no choice but to give us some manner of answer.

Us: Mabel, why do you want younger skin?

Mabel: I don’t want to answer this kind of question.

Us: I’ll make you fifty years older if you don’t answer me.

There is a short silence.

Mabel: I don’t like the way I look.

Us: Why don’t you?

Mabel: Because I look horrible.

Us: Now you have pitted acne scars. I just decided that would be part of your character.

Mabel slaps her hands to her cheeks, and cries out.

Mabel: No, no! Stop, take them back! I’ll tell you anything!

We wait patiently.

Mabel: I think I look like a chicken.

Us: A chicken?

Mabel (growing quite angry): Yes, I look like the chickens that my grandfather plucked. I was a little girl, and he would pluck the chickens after he chopped their heads, and the skin was all bumpy and pink where the feathers came out. I want skin like smooth ivory. I don’t want to look like a chicken.

Us: Thank you, Mabel. I took away the acne scars.

Mabel runs away crying.

Gosh, You’re Mean, Victor! But What Now?

Now that we know Mabel’s secret, we can write any scene at all for her, and her motivation will be thoroughly grounded. We know now that she will buy the skin graft, and we know that if anything goes wrong at all, she will descend slowly into bitterness, self-hatred, and eventual villainy (driven by the unfairness of life). If she does become a villain, she will target the young and beautiful, and surround herself with men and women who have the coarsest, bumpiest skin possible. We now have Mabel’s deepest, darkest secret. When you own the character, the character will perform well for you.

Well, There You Are

Digging into your characters’ deepest, most closely-held secrets will give you the power to write them in any situation, and under any emotional duress, with sureness, power, and grounded insight. Mabel’s fear of looking like a chicken, in our example, will never, ever be mentioned at all in the book about her. Chickens will never be written about; there will be no feather metaphors, or mentions of skin texture. Mabel’s secret will form the engine of her motivation; it will be hidden from the reader, but you will know it, and your knowledge of Mabel will lead to insightful and powerful writing. Sit your characters down, one by one, and interrogate them until you find what you are looking for. Keep their secrets for them, but know what the secrets are.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Thanks for visiting!

How To Get Your Best Readers

Readers are attracted to like-minded writers. People generally read to relax, and to have their current world-view affirmed and reinforced by cool, exciting folk that live a special, exciting life. This is part of the illusion of escape; readers, many of them, if not all, want to believe in a fairy-like land where a noble author sits at a roaring fireside (or, you know, a minimalist office all in white, depending), and pens exquisite morsels of perfect prose on the first try. Readers want to believe in a heightened extension of whatever kind of world they believe in in the first place. To gain your ideal reader, you must express, coherently, the strongest version of your true self.

Wait, A True Self?!

Your Soul

Every human body is made of energy and matter; your emotions, whatever they may regularly be, are an alchemical product of your individual thoughts, your mental framework, and the physical health of your body and spirit. When I say spirit, I am speaking of the flow of energy that passes daily through your body. All human beings have a unique combination of energy, of emotional cocktails, and of detailed beliefs about “the way the world works,” and “reality.”

What does this have to do with writing?

Writing fiction is the process of performing, with your emotions and spirit, in the vehicle of the written word. Creating fantasy and science fiction worlds relies on a particular, somewhat reliable set of assumptions about morality, reality, and human relationships (and we can talk about that on another day). In order to write your best and strongest work, you need to accentuate what you already are; you need to understand your personal brand.

But How Does One Understand That?

Within yourself, right now, is a surge of potential energy; it is lurking somewhere near the lower half of your spine. If you focus your mind, and imagine this surge of energy, you will get a gradual sense of emotion; that is your branding. When you learn to write down a coherent and consistent trail of that potent sense of self, your readers, like woodland birds, will begin to follow the trail, and to peck at your soul, much as a bird would consume crumbs along a forest path. The goal, in your pursuit of the Ultimate Body of Dedicated Fans, is to so alter your energy management that you can present, openly, a great feast of your soul to all comers. Readers who share, or who are complemented by, your particular emotions and spiritual branding, will flock to this feast, and consume your work.

That Sounds Pretty Macabre

Human relationships are composed of taking, giving, and sharing energy. Predators steal; friends give freely; families, ideally, nurture with strategic gifts of energy. You are ultimately the only one who can cultivate from yourself edible work, in the sense of writing words and stories that other humans can safely and enjoyably read. Think of yourself, and of your body and mind, as a garden that has the potential to bear expensive and rare fruits (for authentic stories told straight from the human spirit are both valuable and rare). Cultivate yourself with the same care and attention that you would give a valuable plot of garden, and when you have isolated within yourself the taste of you, of your unique combination of lived experience and inherent spiritual composition, you will be ready and able to offer your soul in the form of fiction, and that is when you will begin to gain dedicated and loyal readers.

That Sounds Long, Hard, and Complicated. What Can I Do Right Now?

You are already writing the stories that you need to tell; what you need to ask yourself, right this second, is who you are currently allowing to influence (to add to, or to take away from) the true story you form from yourself. Weed out these outside influences, and your abilities will grow faster than you can imagine.

That’s All For Now

You can earn the readers that you dream of when you see yourself as the tree from which your fiction-fruit grows. Nurture your true self; weed out influences from the outside; trust your deep sense of self. When readers find, in your writing, an echo of themselves, they will follow you, and buy your books.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can find my tasty books here.

Questions about writing? Need clarification about this post? You can reach me at victorpoole12@gmail.com. Thanks for visiting!

How To Establish Mood With A Metered Voice

Shakespeare was the best at this (is). You can induce emotions in the reader with the arrangement of the sounds that you use in your word choices. If you need the reader to feel excited, you can build a quick pitter-patter into your rhythm; if you need the reader to feel slow and melancholy, you can stretch out the words and sounds to create a funeral pace.

Let’s Get Started!

Meter and Rhythm

Every word that you choose is a small piece of music; the vowels and consonants combine to create a beat. Look at these different words, and at the way they break into patterns of emphasis: shivering, molten, reams, chest, steadily. Both the length of individual words, and the softness or hardness of each consonant at the beginnings and ends of the words determine the overall effect of the language on the mood.

Here are some examples of rhythmically-arranged prose. Read each excerpt, and see what emotional effect the language creates in you.

Reams of strange, watery blood from the sky land, and shivering chunks of molten gold light under the floating earth flew up at the approach of the two furious kings.

 

Four pigeons quarreled over the corner of a turkey sandwich.

 

I first decided to kill my father when the snow was falling outside my window. I was watching the flakes fly hither and yon, and a vivid picture of my mother’s shears, sticking straight out of my father’s chest, filled my vision. I could see the blood pumping steadily, surely out of the place where the scissors pierced, and I wanted, I longed to hold the handles of the shears, and to wrench them out of the hole.

The Context of Individual Words

One of the reasons writers are constantly advised to read so much is that individual words have very specific social connotations; each word is like a collage of emotions, pre-established stories, and unique flavors. For example, if I choose to use the word “quixotic” in my fiction, I need to be familiar with Cervantes’ work, with the popular musical adaptation of the novel, Don Quixote, and with three or four of the most notable depictions of the main character by actors.

If I choose to ignore the long and storied history that has become attached to any word containing the construction, “quixo,” I risk looking like a fool, and introducing elements of nuance and emotional tone into my fiction that destroy the effect I was going for. (For example, if in my heroic saga I mention that my dashing protagonist has a quixotic bent in his personality, he may begin to seem ridiculous to my readers.)

Instead of telling writers to read widely, it would, perhaps, be more to the point to tell them to read a great deal of what we may term source material; the farther back to the original branding and emotional connotation of a word you can go, the more power you gain, and the more range you will have in your use of words.

Combining Strong Words for a Harmonic Effect

If we know that words have many specific emotions and flavors pre-attached, and if we become aware of the effect of consonant and vowel sounds on the mood of the writing as a whole, we can begin to make powerful word-music.

Let us look at the master of this music, Shakespeare. I want you to take note of the repeated ‘n’ sounds, the constant soft vibration of the voiced consonants, and the occasional, very spiky use of the ‘t’ and ‘k’ plosives.

‘Tis not alone my Inky Cloake (good Mother)
Nor Customary suites of solemne Blacke,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitfull Riuer in the Eye,
Nor the deiected hauiour of the Visage,
Together with all Formes, Moods, shewes of Griefe,
That can denote me truly.

Bear in mind that this speech is one sentence; it is a very drawn-out, complex thought, but it is one thought, and each addition to the described behaviors adds urgency, speed, and emphasis to the whole. The contrast of the hard ‘c’ and ‘k’, in combination with the dense use of ‘s’ contributes to a simultaneously biting and hissing effect.

Tying it all together

When you use rhythm and meter in your work, it is important to be aware of the overall tone and effect of the story as a whole. Each story will function best when it maintains a musical consistency from beginning to finish; when a piece of fiction changes the rhythmical palette partway through, the reader becomes jarred and annoyed. You can avoid this kind of harmonic upset by establishing for yourself the total emotional range of the story, and making rules of creation for yourself that pertain to the specific work in hand.

And now, to finish

Deliberately arranging words to create mood and emotional resonance in the reader is an excellent way to add sophistication, depth, and lasting impact to your work.

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Is Your King At The Mercy Of His Advisors?

What conscious influence does your king allow?

People who are in power, and who stay in power, have an interesting relationship to their support people.

By virtue of being physically near the king, his servants, advisors, and near relatives influence his state of mind, his manners, and his daily routine. These factors, in turn, shape his use of power.

 

Bad Writing:

King Sorle pulled the sheaf of papers towards him, and glanced up at the pair of advisors that hovered, like concerned butterflies, at the end of the table.

“He’s been cheating the tax advisory,” the first young man said. His nose was like a rabbit’s snout.

“Have you issued a warning?” Sorle asked. He flipped through the pages; he’d warned Jules about this wordiness in his reports. Weariness and annoyance teased at his shoulders; Sorle shifted in his seat.

“We’ve sent two messages,” the second young man said.

“But has anyone gone to speak to the man?” Sorle asked. The two officials glanced at each other, and then stared at the king. It was abundantly clear that they had not done this. “Bring me a personal report of what he says,” Sorle said, pushing the papers at the two advisors. The first one snatched up the papers, and scuttled from the room; he was followed close behind by the second young man.

Sorle stood up and stretched his arms. He would have gone out today, but the palace had been in a snarl ever since the new tariffs had gone into effect, and no one seemed able to do anything properly without him.

Good Writing:

King Sorle strode down the steps of the palace; his train of hangers-on clustered behind him like a gaggle of noisy schoolchildren.

A pair of young men hovered at the mouth of the courtyard; the king saw these two, but did not acknowledge them as he mounted his white horse. The first young man, who had a face like an earnest rat, muttered rapid words to his companion, who smoothed his clothes, and came over the stone ground towards the king.

“Yes?” Sorle asked. The chingle and rattle of the harness rang merrily in the fair morning air.

“I’m Edwun, of the secondary tax advisory,” the man said. He glanced at his rat-faced companion, who stepped forward.

“We need further authority to seize on the lands of a merchant in Habor town,” the rat-faced man said. His eyes were hard, and eager.

“We’ve sent two emissaries, and gone ourselves, but he claims the new tariff doesn’t apply to him,” Edwun explained.

“Who appointed you to the advisory?” Sorle asked. He turned the white horse towards the gate, and the young men hurried to keep up with him. Rat-face glanced uneasily at his companion, who flushed, but gazed up at the king determinedly.

“Jules,” Edwun said.

“And did Jules send you to me?” Sorle asked. The clop of his horse’s hooves mingled with the chatter of Sorle’s men, who strode along behind him. Edwun looked at the rodent-like man, who turned an interesting shade of purple. “Go and tell Jules to fire one of you,” the king said.

Edwun looked suddenly relieved, and Rat-face looked ready to vomit. Sorle hid his smile, and nudged his white horse into a trot.

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Two Writers Correspond, Fall In Love

This is a short story called Sticky Notes. I wrote this eight years ago, when I was taking a creative writing course. I am clearing out my laptop today, and stumbled upon this sweet morsel of awesomeness in a very buried folder.

Sticky Notes

Sunspot,

            Send more. Included are pages for you.

                                                Chuskin

            Chris drew a notepad into his lap. He fingered a pencil. Not good for writing, he chanted, but the bottle of pens was across the room. Throwing a swoop in the page he inscribed a great, daring H.

“H,” he whispered. “H.”

Twenty minutes, and the H remained a bachelor on the legal pad. Chris watched a solitary pigeon waggle frumpily on the window sill. The pencil twisted idly through his fingers.

***

            The pen poised in his hand, Chris regarded the title page. He smoothed the sheet, which was still warm from the printer. Chuskin, he wrote. What kind of a name is Chuskin? He must be an eccentric. His eyes lingered on the post-it that was still clinging to his desk. Chuskin had good handwriting; smooth and strong and tilted to the left. The loops on his p’s and y’s were even. They made thin, powerful dips into the space below, and the consonants marched like well-ordered acrobats over a tight rope. Men shouldn’t be able to write that way, he thought, looking at his own crunchy scrawl.

 

            Chuskin,

Here is the next chapter. We should have a meeting and discuss characters. I like Molly.

                                                Sunspot

            He took the package to the mailbox and dropped it in. The paper made a whispery thud at the bottom of the box. Chris stood for a moment and felt the sun baking into his arms. The air moved against his chest, and he could feel the shadows of leaves falter over his face. With a sigh, he stumped up the stairs and into his clammy apartment. The air machine was broken, but the landlady refused to take the bolts off the windows. Two inches of air limped into the room, admitted by a battered edition of Chaucer jamming the casement open. Chris would have put Hamlet and Chekhov into the window as well, but he’d only been able to smash half of the bolt away, and two inches was as much as he could get. Chris slumped into the chair. He folded the edge of his legal pad. He unfolded it and creased a smaller triangle.

“Harold,” he said. “Harold.”

The frumpy pigeon was back with a friend; Chris watched them squabble vociferously over the stale bagel on the window ledge. The corner of his page fell away.

           ***

Sunspot,

 Harold is a terrible name. Bryant or Jerrez. You choose. More pages for you.

                                    Chuskin

            Chris stuck the note next to the old one and turned over the sheets. Chuskin had written twelve pages in two days. He’s good, Chris thought with a twinge of envy. Better than me. He pulled the notepad from his desk and fished a pen from under the chair. Thirteen pages, he wrote at the corner of the pad. He underlined it four times.

“Molly and Bryant,” he said. “Molly and Brian.” The chair swiveled gently back and forth, back and forth.

Four pigeons quarreled over a corner of turkey sandwich.

            ***

            Chris practiced writing Chuskin on a spare page. He swept his elbow in circles, trying to get a perfect hemisphere for the C.

“Ch. . .” An odd angle burgeoned into the curve. Chris printed a new title page. “Chus–k–in.”

            Chuskin,

Can you meet me next week? I want to discuss plot points. Call me.

                                    Sunspot

                                    (356-223-4589)

            ***

Sunspot,

            Meet me in Fred’s Grease Pot at five. Thursday.

                        Chuskin

            Chris stuck the note to his desk. He was relieved to find the stack of pages thinner than usual; only six this time. He wrote a seven at the top of his legal pad and underlined it.

Chris chewed the cap of his pen and watched the pigeons mangle pizza crust. The last time he’d been to Fred’s he’d taken a girl, which was not a mistake he’d make again in a hurry. Fred lost things in the food sometimes, and his plates were never really clean. It took guts to eat there, but to Chris it was a proof of manhood. He and Chuskin would bond well at Fred’s.

            ***

            “You’re a woman.”

She looked up at him. Her eyes were a startling green and she wore three sets of earrings in each ear. She glanced down at the handwritten table card and back up at him.

“Sunspot?” she asked. He nodded. “I’m Marti.” She held out a sun-browned hand. He took it reluctantly. She had a very firm grip.

“Have you eaten at Fred’s before?” he asked when they had sat down.

“All the time. Do you like his spaghetti?” When he nodded she yelled across the room, “Oy! Freddie! Two dishes of meatballs!” She looked back at him. “So. I’ve been thinking about Molly.”

Chris felt awkward; it seemed very wrong to be eating Fred’s meatballs with an attractive woman who was also a writer. If he had met Marti before reading her work, he would have thought she was a dim bulb. She looked like she belonged on the passenger half of a Harley.

            ***

            When they left Fred’s, Chris wasn’t feeling awkward anymore. He had gotten used to the idea of writing with Marti; in fact, he had very nearly asked for her number. He walked up his stairs, kicking the metal step guards as he went. Marti was a nicer name than Chuskin. He lay in bed for some time, feeling tremors of a breeze sneak in at the window crack.

            ***

Sunspot,

            We need a scene with Molly and Brian. Your turn.

                        Chuskin

            Chris thought ‘Sunspot’ was written more neatly than usual. He posted the note on the wall above the desk and pulled a notepad onto his lap. He fingered his pencil. Not good for writing with, he chanted, but the bottle of pens was across the room. He twirled the pencil over his fingers, watching the dried-out tuna on the window sill. The pigeons were gone today.

           ***

            Dear Marti,

Here is the scene you asked for. I hope it is steamy enough.

                        Sunspot

           ***

Sunspot,

            Call me Chuskin. Rewrite the scene. Suggestions below.

                        Chuskin

            Chris stared at the note. He pulled open the pages and scanned; they were filled up with sharp red slashes. He looked at the four-day-old tuna in the window. Pigeons, he had found, didn’t care for tuna. He got up and scraped the crusted lump into the trash. He found a pen and sat back down. The sun blared through the glass.

           ***

            Chuskin,

Better, I hope.

                        Sunspot

            Chris dropped the package into the mouth of the mailbox; it made a thud when it hit the bottom. He stood for a moment, letting the rain dust his hair. A drop fell on the tip of his nose. He sighed and stumped up the stairs again. There was a little puddle forming on the window ledge. A single pigeon–not the frumpy one–was frunched against the window, its wings crouched up against the wet. Chris watched it shiver.

            ***

Sunspot,

            This is very beautiful. Thanks.

                        Chuskin

            Chris held the note, sliding his forefinger over the corners. She liked it. There were at least a hundred notes stuck to his desk and wall, but they were all business notes. This note was like a love song. He stood on his chair and stuck it to the ceiling, right above the desk. He stared up at it, his pen sliding idly over his notepad. Three pigeons fought loudly over a scrap of pie crust.

           ***

            Chuskin,

Meet me outside Fred’s at six.

                        Yours,

                                    Sunspot

            ***

Sunspot,

            Call me Marti.

                        Chuskin

          ***

            Marti,

I love you. Publisher wants a meeting at two this Tuesday. Carpool?

                        Sunspot

           ***

Sunspot,

            We’ll finish someday. Writing is stupid. Call me.

                        Chuskin

            ***

            Dear Marti,

Here is an ending. Mark it up and send it back.

                        Sunspot

            ***

Sunspot,

            Finished your ending. Read and respond.

                        Chuskin

            ***

            Marti,

You are a goddess. Send it.

                        Sunspot

          ***

Sunspot,

        Drama over cover; illustrator claims my name is too long.

                        Chuskin

          ***

            Dear Marti,

Here is the rewrite. Call if you have comments.

                        Sunspot

            ***

Sunspot,

            We are the best ever. Fame and glory. I like the book.

                        Chuskin

         ***

            Chris sat in his chair, making perfect C’s on his legal pad. He fetched his jar of pens and rifled for the smooth black one. He sat down. His palms were moist.

            Dear Chuskin,

            He stopped again. He almost crossed out Chuskin. Snow was swirling violently outside; Chaucer had long since been yanked from the casement, but the crack had proved immovable. A yellow towel was shoved into the gap, but shards of icy air still spun into the room.

            Dear Chuskin,

Marry me?

                        Sunspot

            Chris stuck the note to the book and put it into a package. He went outside and dropped it into the mouth of the mailbox. It made a heavy chunk when it hit the bottom. He stood for a moment, feeling the prick of the cold flakes against his eyelids. The air pressed against his chest, and a shadow from the street lamp flickered over his face. He sighed and tramped back up the stairs. He sat in his chair, a pen in his hand. He twirled it through his fingers. A soiled clump of pigeons was hunched around the piece of towel in the window.

            ***

Chris,

            Stupid question. Yes.

                        Marti

***

(the end)

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Here are some of my awesome books.