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May 27, 2006

A poem by an African …

A poem by an African …

When I born, I Black
When I grow up, I Black
When I go in sun, I Black
When I scared, I Black
When I cold, I Black
When I sick, I Black
When I ill, I Black
When I die, I still Black

And you white fella

When u born, u pink
When u grow, u white
When u go in sun, u red
When u scared, u yellow
When u cold, u blue
When u sick, u green
And when u die, u gray

And u calling ME coloured???

March 08, 2006

Short Story: The Promise, By Hasan Shikoh

Being a father is a pleasant feeling. Particularly when of a girl. You are so proud because of having helped make such a complete, lovely contribution to the world. And when she is as sweet and ethereal as mine, bliss and pride know no bounds.

When your daughter is a little girl of five years, and you see her running among tall grass on the foot of the hill in her white frock with appliqué of tiny, colorful flowers on it, and the way she giggles chasing butterflies and beckons you to join her … and then suddenly you see her for the last time from behind Eucalyptus trees when she is twenty and in her white bridal dress and with a gleaming chaplet, running back to where the rest of her ceremony is, the cobbled promenade at the back of St Paul’s Church is certain to look lonely after she is gone. Then just some warm wind laps around your ears with a sweet-sad whisper in it. Just that. Even the sparrows and parakeets all seem to have packed up and flown away with their earlier orchestra.

The memory of her wedding is fresh. Only a few moments ago, I had been overseeing all the final arrangements just before the service began, and consequently arrived late in the chapel. The hall was packed with guests. The cacophony of ladies waiting for the bride and of the gentlemen who were talking of business and sports and government filled the air. I heard somebody say that my daughter was delaying the service until someone she had been waiting for arrived. At first I thought I should go up to her room and let her know that I was very much around, but decided against it. I wanted her to see me only in the chapel where the ceremony would be.

Soon, however, the bride, wearing her diamonds and her perfectly fitting white gown that had an arc of little white flowers that ran from her shoulders to the hem at her ankle, sauntered on the aisle with her bridesmaids and kids. I managed to find some space just behind the fifth pew and waved to her above the thronging crowd, but I could not attract her attention. The procession stopped just before the stage where the pastor waited to start with the recitation of the vows. But still my daughter looked expectantly around. I could understand she wanted me beside her – she had so wanted it all her life.

The pastor began his recitation. I determined to make my way past the throng and be with her. In a few moments, I startled her with my presence. She looked askance, recognized it was me, and she beamed. I saw the pastor notice her facial features shuffle-dance as if now there were another and happier bride before him. He stopped with the vows and asked solemnly: “Are you all right, Miss April?”

“Yes, Pastor. Yes,” she squeaked.

With her bouquet of white tulips in her left hand, she stretched out her elbow just a little so she could touch me. I shifted closer. I thought I could sense her mixed feelings – very ecstatic and then suddenly very tense. Her bouquet also slipped out of her hand, and the pastor’s mouth froze in mid-sentence. Then he gathered himself and asked in his thick baritone: “Are you sure, Miss April, that …” he paused, “… you are prepared for this?”

“Wha- Why y-yes, Pastor.”

When the vows ceremony was over and the couple kissed, and everybody hurled their bouquets at them, the lovely chiming music began to spread like a happy cloud into the hall amid shouts of “Congratulations” and “Best wishes”. Soon, the hall began to empty as people walked into the dining area where a huge cake and delicious dishes and drinks awaited them.

I kept at close heels with my daughter and Julian, my son-in-law, and she kept her left hand behind her so I too could hold her hand. Blissful with our shared little secret, we went straight to the tall, creamy cake, and she and Julian cut it, setting off great applause from the guests.

She waved to everybody and the smartly dressed people came to talk briefly to the woman-of-the moment, and she dealt with all of them very cheerfully. I could notice the way her eyes shone. It was as if the ink of a full moon were dripping from them and collecting thinly just around the lids.

The couple engrossed themselves among their chattersome friends so I pulled away. I wanted to see my daughter from different angles; close up and distant. This chance would never come again.

The chink and clatter of cutlery and the hum of the air-conditioning, and the giggle and laughter of the ladies and the boom of the men’s voices charged the dining hall. And despite all that gregariousness, the ceremony ate the dizzying succession of food like they had never eaten before. They were all merry. And this was my daughter’s wedding. How much prouder could a father be?

April detached herself from her friends and started to look for me. I could almost always sense it whenever her mind began to think of me again. I was her very special guest, she had said to me a long time ago. In other words, I was the most revered of all those people in the hall. It made me feel so big.

I stood by a tall window so that she could spot me. When our eyes met, she excused herself from Julian who was busy talking to his friends, and both of us slunk to the promenade at the back of the church.

I waited for her outside the huge mahogany door. She looked at me for a long time and smiled that indefatigable smile of hers. I smiled back and my heart pounded in my throat. We stayed like that – sentient beings – for a long time until our eyes were tearful.

Then she broke the spell: “You haven’t changed, Baba.”

“You’ve become a woman, my little girl.”

She continued to smile.

“Remember you’d said to me you’d like to take a last walk with me before I went away married?”

“Yes, April, I do.”

“Well, I’ve kept my promise.”

“Let’s go. You and me. We walk like we used to.”

We silently took a complete round of the cobbled walkway. Then she spoke again: “Listen to those parakeets. I’ve always loved their song.”

“I know, sweetheart. You always loved the outdoors. Africa was perfect for you.”

“That’s your daughter.”

“Yes, I too love Nature. I love God. He has been very kind to me.”

“God has been kind to you? What do you mean?”

“I got to meet you again so he’s been kind to me. Simple. And then I meet your mother so often now.”

“Oh, how is she?”

“Very fine. She has her work to do and she does it very well. She’s way ahead of me.”

April became quiet. The parakeets and the little sparrows hidden in the thick foliage of the trees cackled and chirped in the divine hush of the church.

This time I broke our silence.

“See those gardenias?” I said, pointing at the rows of the little flowers along the promenade. “Those were your favorite when you were seven. You always brought some from our garden and put them in a crystal vase in the living room.”

“Yes. Bu- but I guess I like tulips more now.”

I could sense she still wasn’t comfortable. Her uneasiness was drawn all over her skin. Perhaps the earlier mention of her mother had disturbed her. She had got the chance to live with me; never with her. We kept walking quietly for another eight minutes or so, before I began to get a little awkward myself. Time was passing away quickly.



“Can’t you stay longer?”

I was taken aback. It was as if my face had exploded. That was one thing I never wanted her to say. I would miss her just as much as she missed me.

May be more now.

“You know I can’t. You know I can’t.”

“Please. I know you want to go.”

“How can you say that?”

“You’ve been too quiet. Is there something on your mind?”

“You know I’ve always been quiet. That’s my nature. But you need to be going soon. People will notice your absence, dear. It’s your marriage day.”

Three old nuns hurried past us. One peered obliquely at April in her wedding dress, then back at her companions. They all drew the cross.

“You must hurry on now. Look how awkward it would be for you if someone else noticed you like this here.”

“But I’m with you. I’m happy. It’s my wedding. I should have whatever I wish.”

I had no answer. Life had to be lived on. She should have learnt that in all this time.

There was a long pause again. Her cheeks began to pale. She was beginning to understand now. Perhaps reality was dawning on her after all.

“Will you see me off at the door, Baba?” I noticed she couldn’t cover up the crushed look on her face as she spoke.

“You are getting late. You should be rushing now.”

“Will you come again?”


“Will you ever come again?”

“… it … it … will not … be possible.”

She was completely still. I thought she had stopped breathing.

“Now you must get going. I have already overspent my time sanction. Go.”

She didn’t move. It was as if time had stopped. It was as if the birds had never existed.

Then I noticed the sky would turn blue soon.

“Go, April.” I choked.

Still she didn’t move. From far down the promenade the muted cackle, laughter, music and light reached us. I seemed to implode as I held back my tears.

Then I knew the time had come for sure.

I stepped forward and kissed her on the forehead. She remained stationary, but a large teardrop fell on her necklace. I couldn’t take it any longer, and quickly disappeared into the trees.
April stood still for a long time. She should go now, I thought. They must have noticed her absence by now.

“I love you … Baba,” she finally spoke to the breeze. “… and pay my regards to mama.”

Then she jerked out of her trance, quickly turned and ran back toward the church, holding up her dress. She was my little girl running on the foot of the hill among the flowers and grasses. But the tic-tac tic-tac of her white stilettos knocking on the cobbles heralded of a different kind of urgency. She had all her life ahead of her. All of a new life to live. I prayed that she might live long to have it all.

Soon, my girl vanished.

And the promenade became empty, very, very lonely.

“I love you, too, April,” I whispered from the tree I was hidden behind. I felt as if I was swollen from inside. I could not hold back my tears any longer. The dam broke.

Twelve months ago she had asked me to be at her wedding come what may. I had committed to her that I would. Because of the condition that I was in then, I was helpless. I had needed to make her feel confident, hopeful, as I lay critically injured after my car accident. In the finance ministry, work was always much, and my driver had to drive fast as we had to reach the presidency urgently. But God had other plans.

Evening settles like a song. The breeze picks up again. The solemn, silvery chime of the church bells spreads out once, then twice and then thrice. I have proudly married my daughter off. The birds with their orchestra have gone. I too must go back to my cemetery now.

Dead men don’t have much choice, they say. But I did. God has been kind to me. I was happy that according to my wish my daughter had a last walk with me before she went away as a married woman. I am sure my daughter would be pleased too, that her Baba also kept his promise.

February 24, 2006

Misery, by Anton Chekhov

"To whom shall I tell my grief?"

THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to
shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.

"Sledge to Vyborgskaya!" Iona hears. "Sledge!"

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

"To Vyborgskaya," repeats the officer. "Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!"

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse's back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of. . . .

"Where are you shoving, you devil?" Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. "Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!"

"You don't know how to drive! Keep to the right," says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse's nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

"What rascals they all are!" says the officer jocosely. "They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse's feet. They must be doing it on purpose."

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips. . . . Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

"What?" inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: "My son . . . er . . . my son died this week, sir."

"H'm! What did he die of?"

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says: "Who can tell! It must have been from fever. . . . He lay three days in the hospital and then he died. . . . God's will."

"Turn round, you devil!" comes out of the darkness. "Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!"

"Drive on! drive on! . . ." says the officer. "We shan't get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!"

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box. . . . Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another. . . .

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.

"Cabby, to the Police Bridge!" the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. "The three of us, . . . twenty kopecks!"

Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare. . . . The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.

"Well, drive on," says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona's neck. "Cut along! What a cap you've got, my friend! You wouldn't find a worse one in all Petersburg. . . ."

"He-he! . . . he-he! . . ." laughs Iona. "It's nothing to boast of!"

"Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?"

"My head aches," says one of the tall ones. "At the Dukmasovs' yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us."

"I can't make out why you talk such stuff," says the other tall one angrily. "You lie like a brute."

"Strike me dead, it's the truth! . . ."

"It's about as true as that a louse coughs."

"He-he!" grins Iona. "Me-er-ry gentlemen!"

"Tfoo! the devil take you!" cries the hunchback indignantly.

"Will you get on, you old plague, or won't you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well."

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says: "This week . . . er. . . my. . . er. . . son died!"

"We shall all die, . . ." says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. "Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?"

"Well, you give him a little encouragement . . . one in the neck!"

"Do you hear, you old plague? I'll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don't you care a hang what we say? "

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.

"He-he! . . . " he laughs. "Merry gentlemen . . . . God give you health!"

"Cabman, are you married?" asks one of the tall ones.

"I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth. . . . He-ho-ho!. . . .The grave that is! . . . Here my son's dead and I am alive. . . . It's a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door. . . . Instead of coming for me it went for my son. . . ."

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. . . . The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery. . . .
His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight. . . .

Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.

"What time will it be, friend?" he asks.

"Going on for ten. . . . Why have you stopped here? Drive on!"

Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins. . . . He can bear it no longer.

"Back to the yard!" he thinks. "To the yard!"

And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early. . . .

"I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even," he thinks. "That's why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his
work, . . . who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease. . . ."

In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.

"Want a drink?" Iona asks him.

"Seems so."

"May it do you good. . . . But my son is dead, mate. . . . Do you hear? This week in the hospital. . . . It's a queer business. . . ."

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself. . . . Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet . . . . He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation. . . . He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died. . . . He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son's clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country. . . . And he wants to talk about her too. . . . Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament. . . . It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.

"Let's go out and have a look at the mare," Iona thinks. "There is always time for sleep. . . . You'll have sleep enough, no fear. . . ."

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. . . . He cannot think about his son when he is alone. . . . To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish. . . .

"Are you munching?" Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. "There, munch away, munch away. . . . Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. . . . Yes, . . . I have grown
too old to drive. . . . My son ought to be driving, not I. . . . He was a real cabman. . . . He ought to have lived. . . ."

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on: "That's how it is, old girl. . . . Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . . He said good-by to me. . . . He went and died for no reason. . . . Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You'd be sorry, wouldn't you? . . ."

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.


November 28, 2005

Notes: Story Structure … in brief

SPELT 2002
Workshop 1: Teaching Story Writing


What do we mean by Plot? Simply, plot is WHAT HAPPENS in a short story or novel. No more, no less. It isn't description or dialogue, and it certainly isn't theme. Theme is the subject of the story – e.g. loneliness, revenge, jealousy, self-discovery. In the best stories, plot grows organically out of character, rather than being imposed from above. Specifically, plot is the result of choices made by characters in a story, especially the story's protagonist, or main character.

Renowned writer Anne Lamott ('Bird by Bird,' 'Operating Instructions') created a mnemonic device to help writers remember how to structure plots that work:

Begin your story as close to the inciting incident as you can.

Provide only enough Background at first so that the Action doesn't confuse your readers. They don't need to know everything, just enough to follow along.

Conflict constitutes what your protagonist wants, but doesn't have. It doesn't matter what your protagonist needs, as long as he or she needs it badly. The best Conflicts are dramatic and specific. Don't write about a teenage girl who's looking for love; write about a teenage girl seeking her first kiss. For one thing, focusing on the kiss will focus your storytelling and your readers' attention. Even more important, those readers will know without question at the end of the story whether the heroine has attained what she wants or not. Hamlet seeks to overcome his late-adolescent malaise, but what makes Shakespeare's play dramatic is his need to kill his uncle to avenge the murder of his father.

Conflict IS story, and, conversely, without Conflict, you have no story.

Development is the series of attempts made by the protagonist to resolve his or her Conflict. These attempts should increase with regard to drama and/or suspense, and ideally, each step in the Development should tell us a little bit more about the protagonist. Development can be an emotional, spiritual or intellectual journey. Often, it is a combination of all of these.

Here's where the mnemonic device needs further development of its own, since 'End' isn't an especially helpful term; expand it to include 3 more C's: Crisis, Climax, Consequences.

1. CRISIS is often the final stage in a story's Development. In the best stories, it involves a choice — and not simply a choice between good and evil, since given that choice, we'd all pick good. Crisis is a choice between two options of equal, or nearly equal, value. Crisis is, by definition, the most dramatic point in your entire story.

2. CLIMAX is not necessarily the most dramatic point, despite the word's colloquial meaning. Instead, Climax is the resolution of Conflict. Climax is the point of no return. At the Climax of a story there is simply no turning back; the protagonist is powerless to change his fate. Think of Romeo's suicide, the Climax of Shakespeare's play not because it's dramatic, but because it prevents him and Juliet from living together in love.

3. CONSEQUENCES is what is left when the Conflict of a story has been resolved. How have your protagonist and his world changed — or stubbornly refused to change — as a result of the story? The French call this part of the story the 'denouement' or 'unraveling.' Take the example of the uncut grass next door at the conclusion of 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which indicates quite literally that the landscape of the book has been altered forever by its Action.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Of course, you aren't required to use this structure in telling stories. But if you do, however, your stories, novellas and novels are sure to work. That is, when people are done reading [one of your] pieces of fiction, they will feel as if they've been told a story.


Short Story: A Crime to Die For, By Nigel Spriggs

A Crime to Die For
By Nigel Spriggs

Her agent described her as genius gone cold. In her own mind, she was genius gone bad, genius found out.

She remembered the moment clearly. Seven years ago now. Conrad Macaffey phoned within minutes of the book launch. "The butler did it," he said.

In hindsight she should have thought up a better response – something along the lines of, maybe, maybe not. Or, you've looked at the last page, Conrad, you cheating stupid waste of space, over-paid, over-critical, under-achieving, book-reviewing scum. Instead she squawked, "How do you know that?"

"It's obvious," he told her. "Within the first twenty pages. A five year old could tell."

Others put it kinder, but the response was always the same. "I knew it was the butler." And then, added in a hurry. "Good read, though. Enjoyed it very much."

She determined to try harder. It somehow made things worse. Her agent looked up from the script. "For God's sake, Constance. The butler did it again."

"You've only read five pages. How can you know that?"
"It's obvious. You've mentioned him a dozen times. You've said he couldn't have done it. He's even got a limp."

"He was in an accident."

"We'll be in an accident if we publish rubbish like this." He dropped the novel in the bin. "Go write something new. And for God's sake, not the butler."

So here she was, five years down the line, screen blank, mind empty. From a shelf her novels watched her. She picked one up, looked at the writing on the fly. Constance Grainger. Queen of Mystery. Master of Macabre. Another Slasher Smasher. Constance sighed. The only mystery now was where it had all gone wrong. She couldn't seem to think straight. She couldn't seem to see. She looked down to her right. A pile of novels towered on the carpet. Greatest Ever Mysteries. The World's Wackiest Unsolved Crimes. Murdered By Who And Why. To her left, a larger pile of cuttings, taken from the press. Constance "The Butler" Grainger Disappears from Scene. Constance "The Butler" Grainger Attacks Critic at Awards (In the picture she is getting fat. Luckily, most people fail to see this. They are too busy gawking at Macaffey, the blood pouring from his nose.) Constance Grainger To Wed (again).

She'd tried marriage to get herself going. And divorce. And marriage two times again. Constance had tried everything, from not working for six months to not having a day off in three years, from typing out her first ever number one smash to typing out every single Harry Potter in the hope her own magic would return. Yet here she was, nothing left inside her, nothing left to write. All the mysteries had been solved.

And if they hadn't, they'd all been done to death: Jack The Ripper. The Mary Celeste. The Babes In The Wood. All the great unsolved. Everything had an answer. Constance couldn't add a thing. And then it came to her. What the world needed was a brand new unsolved crime. A puzzle to get them thinking. Something they'd never be able to solve, no matter how long they spent trying. At last she began to type:

Constance Grainger is retiring. Yep. She's had enough. To show there are no hard feelings, you are invited to a Farewell Constance Party at the above address on Friday, 23rd August. RSVP if you please.

She sent one to her agent, her editor, her ex-husbands, her three main rivals for the title Queen of Scream. She sent one to Conrad Macaffey. With herself, there would be ten. Constance prepared the way she used to write; quickly, methodically, and with an added touch of invention that made her feel brand new. The weeks seemed to fly.

Suddenly, it was time. Her agent turned up first. Then her first and second ex-husbands. Then the other novelists, giggling and preening. Constance showed them in, then ex-husband number three. Finally, her editor and Conrad arrived together. "Conrad," she said. "So glad you could make it. Your nose is looking swell."

He touched it with his finger. "I suppose you think that's funny?"

"Believe you me," Constance said with feeling. "You've caused me much more pain."

This seemed to cheer him up. He allowed her to take his jacket. They went through to join the others. Constance stood at the head of the table.

She tapped her glass for silence. Her guests all turned towards her.

"Well," she said. "Thank you all for coming. As you'll have seen from my invitation, I feel my writing career is over. I just wanted to hold this little party to show there were no hard feelings. Not in life and not in writing. It's been a good innings. I've had a lot of fun. So I propose a toast. Constance Grainger's dead. Long live Constance Grainger." She raised her glass. The others raised their glasses. Constance watched them drain them, then watched as they slumped forwards, one by one, against the table.

Smiling, she put her untouched glass down, went through to the kitchen. The handcuffs and bags were ready. She took them through to the other room. Her guests were sleeping soundly. She cuffed their hands in front of their bodies, then put the bags over their heads, pulled the draw-strings tight. Nine faces turned deep blue; their air began to run out.

Constance went back to her seat: one pair of handcuffs left, one drink, one plastic bag. She looked at her dying companions, then clicked her handcuffs on, drained the drug laced drink, and put her head inside the bag. Her breath began to fog it; her last chapter had begun. Constance pulled the draw-strings tight, smiled at her own genius. This was the perfect crime. No motive. No survivors. No suspects. No forensics. Detectives and writers would puzzle forever and ever, but they would never pin it to her; never, ever solve it.

Constance fell forwards, towards the table, and slipped mysteriously away.


Notes: Story Openings: Four Essentials, By John R

Story Openings: Four Essentials
By John R

The opening paragraphs of a short story are particularly important. If they don't tilt the reader into the rest of the story, the reader may well give up before they get to all that meaty stuff 1,000 words in.

So, make sure your opening is effective.


Well, effective openings generally do at least four things:

a) introduce character
b) set up conflict
c) suggest a Dramatic Question the story will answer
d) demonstrate the writer's prose-writing ability.

a) If you introduce your main character early, you give the reader a person to focus on, and perhaps to identify with. That can increase reader involvement.

b) If you hint at the nature of the main story-conflict in the first few paragraphs, the reader is primed for what comes later.

c) If your opening raises a Dramatic Question in your reader's mind (will your main character find the love she needs, or discover the truth behind her father's lies, or defeat the school bully…?) – your reader has a solid reason to carry on.

d) In your opening you must convince the reader that you can handle the English language well enough to tell a good story. If your prose is awkward (and especially if it contains basic mistakes) your opening may not get finished – which of course means your story won't get finished, either.

Get the opening right and your reader (or editor) will keep on reading.


Short Story: The Man at the Bar, by Hasan Shikoh

The Man at the Bar
By Hasan Shikoh

The night flashes absently with gaudy neon signs in the empty General Mathenge Road. In numerous alleys along it, old men and women sleep with blankets draped around them. From a building in a corner, a red-orange light spills out from a doorway. A loner sits half-asleep on a chair by its entrance. A cacophony of conversation and music emanates from inside.

The night is cold. People inside the bar warm themselves with cheap beer and laughter. A bleary-eyed band plays live reggae music amid the cloud of cigarette smoke, stench of Tusker beer and body odor.

"The boss is a bastard, Kamau."

"That's not new."

"He doesn't know a damned bit about what to do."

"He's always like that, Njoroge. He has no sense."

"Who brought him to the top?"


"I wish I had that kind of money."

"Well, you just don't."

"I know."

"Then what's the point?"

"Can't I just wish? Don't I have the right even to wish, damn it?"

"Perhaps. But you don't have money. And that is just that. You are a poor thing. You'll die so."


They sip their beer.

"Tell me, where did he get that kind of money?"

"They say he's rich and has good contacts. He says he's worked as foreman for 12 years at another place. That's all. Nobody knows anything more."

"I'm thinking of quitting this job."

"Where do you think you'll go?"

"I don't know."

"Thank the Lord you can get even this cheap beer with what you make, my friend."


"Let's go over to those girls. You need to relax. They're playing roulette."

The barman snatches their lagered mugs away along with the smeared two ten shilling notes from the bar. Njoroge, taller of the two, and short tempered, lights a cigarette as they plod toward the crowd.

Everybody is excited. People are gambling. Two girls with long, red painted nails manage the game. One rolls the machine while the other collects the chips and the money. Men snuggle around them, jostling deliberately against their bodies.

Njoroge, towering above others, can see best what is going on. Suddenly, there is clapping and excitement. Somebody has won. Everybody looks greedily at the fingers giving away five hundred shilling notes to a shabby little man who wears a hat over his bald head. He has won five hundred shillings – half a month's pay – in just a few minutes. He has become rich – in one night!

The little man decides he will have a go again. He wants to get even richer. He slams the bank notes on the table and the girl pulls them charmingly towards herself. Somebody shoves people away and arranges himself alongside the girl with the money. He removes his cap and rubs his hands together. It is Njoroge. He wants to get rich, too. He, too, has a dream.

The little man rubs his huge belly as he takes a long sip of his beer. "Five hundred shillings," he says.

The girl with the money smiles.

"Five hundred shillings," Njoroge echoes.

"What are you doing, man?" Kamau cries. "You got no other money. You got a family to feed."

Njoroge counts five hundred shillings – some of it in small change – and hands it over to the girl. Kamau shouts at him again from behind other thronging men; but Njoroge's mind concentrates, and his eyes stare at the red, black and white rink with passion.

The other girl rolls the rink. The men drink and suck long at their cigarettes before the dice and the rink come to a stop.

There are cheers as Njoroge wins. He does not have many friends around so the merry-making does not last long. He wants Kamau to see him having won a game. He would like to look at him straight in the eye now.

There is going to be a set of three rounds. Quickly, arrangements are made for the next one. Njoroge has won one. If only he wins one more, he would be five hundred shillings richer – in the middle of the month!

The smile on his lips disappears as he concentrates again. He must win.

The rink and the die are rolled again. Njoroge stares at the rotating movement, concentrating so much that his eyes nearly lose focus. He curses it to stop, and prays for the red for he has chosen that color again.

The die stops on the black. The short, unkempt man wins. Njoroge swallows. His heart skips a beat. It is one-one now.

Njoroge breaks from the throng and orders a beer at the bar. He swallows the whole drink in one swig and returns to the rink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He adjusts himself beside the buxom girl and waits until the other one rolls the rink and the one by his side rolls the die a third time. This time, he has chosen black as his rival did before because he thinks that the short man has a lot of good luck.

The rink rotates at a fast pace, then it slows down and the poor man's heart beats faster.

"Black, darn you. Black. Gaawd … please, black!"

Njoroge watches the dial point at white, then red, then black. The rink crawls ever more slowly and it seems to stop at white; then that last millimeter squeezes past and it rests at red. The lucky little man wins again. He is the owner of another five hundred shillings now.

Njoroge's dream is shattered once again. Men praise the short man. The girls smile and eye him approvingly.

Njoroge is dazed. He does not seem to register anything now. He loses his temper. He swears at the little man and flounces at him. The men around him clamp his limbs. There is a lot of hooting. After a little struggle, Njoroge sags. The men set him free. He trudges out away from them and reaches the bar. He orders a beer but the barman looks at him reluctantly. He knows he has just lost a lot of his money and doubts whether he would be able to pay for a drink. Njoroge notices his attitude and orders rudely again. The barman complies, spilling some beer out of the bottle as he serves with disgust. Njoroge grabs it and pours the entire beverage down his throat in one go again; then he slams the bottle on the counter and orders for another.

Presently, Kamau flashes through his mind; then the issue of money for the month springs up and he instinctively grabs the new bottle that just appears before him.

There is no more money for his wife and his seven children. And there are fifteen days yet to go. He drinks.

He looks nonchalantly for his friend but does not find him anywhere. A few paces away the band entertains a sparse group of swinging drunkards to Red, Red Wine, in a smoky wash of disco lights. Njoroge seems to think for a while then pulls out some last ten-shilling notes and drops them on the counter. Then he slides away from the barstool, but his legs buckle as a sharp pang of nausea attacks him. Banter breaks out at his back.

"Shurrup!" he shouts without turning but the men hoot back even more. His knees hurt but he manages to lift himself up and trudges toward the exit, away from this smelly, noisy world.

It is three o'clock and the night has gathered on with its earlier bite. The sky is a confusing blue-black with the distant, jewel-like stars far away and above watching Njoroge slave himself along the empty road.

In the fresh air, he catches his own beer-fumed breath and feels even sicker. He drops his arm into his shabby blazer that he had bought at a second-hand clothes sale from an Indian family up at Kusi Lane, and pulls out his half-smoked cigarette. He lights it up after a series of failures and puffs deeply.

The distant howls of stray dogs reach his ears as he passes along an unlit area of the road. Just then, a skinny dog sneaks past him and he looks at it hasten away into an alley. Suddenly his spinning mental theater straightens.

Ah, yes. Although everybody else despises him – his boss, Kamau, the girls and the men at the bar – he is not the only defeated creature in this cold world.

While he is engrossed in this consolation, he trips against a large slab of cement placed half over a manhole. He pitches headlong and crashes into a dented lamp post. He senses warm blood pour across his face and a violent pain stab in his head; then everything turns dark. But still, just before he collapses, he registers a last strange solace: It is still two hours before day break when somebody might spot him, and if at all, pick him up; at least till then, it would be a dreamless sleep.


Notes: Ten Quick Tips for Inexperienced Writers, by V. Berba Velasco Jr.

Ten Quick Tips for Inexperienced Writers
By V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D.

One of the biggest problems that inexperienced writers have is simply knowing how to get started. If you’re unsure of your writing skills, then here are some quick tips to help you get started.

1. Get yourself a thesaurus—or better yet, two of them. These can be tremendously helpful tools when you’re struggling to find the right word. A thesaurus is no substitute for a solid vocabulary, but it is still helpful in a pinch.

2. Avoid using the same word too frequently. This can make one’s work sound repetitive. Again, a good thesaurus can be helpful in this regard.

3. Keep your sentences fairly short, since longer sentences can sound unwieldy. I’ve found that 17 words or fewer is a good guideline. Do remember that this is just a guideline, though.

4. Even as you keep the sentences short, make sure that they flow together well. Sometimes, unskilled writers will simply chop longer sentences up into shorter segments that don’t blend together smoothly. If in doubt, try rephrasing the sentences or adding the proper connective phrases (e.g. “then,” “so,” “as a result”).

5. Get a copy of “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It’s a short book, but incredibly helpful. There is no better reference for aspiring writers.

6. Don’t rely too much on your word processor’s grammar checking features. They can be quite impressive, but their capabilities are still quite limited. Spelling checkers are also limited in their capabilities, since they cannot recognize a lot of proper names and technical terms. In addition, spell checkers cannot detect situations wherein the user has entered the wrong word in place of the proper one.

7. Proofread, proofread and proofread… over and over. When you’re done, have a friend proofread your work as well.

8. Remember your target audience. Ask yourself, “What information will my audience require in order to understand what I’m saying?”

9. Avoid clever wordplay unless you’re sure that it will work. In most cases, it is best to gain more writing experience before trying something witty.

10. Remember the artist’s adage, “Practice, practice, practice”? If you want to become good at writing, then write, write and write!


Notes: Show, Don’t Tell, by Stamford Jackson

Show, Don’t Tell
By Stamford Jackson

This is an article I found on the net – can’t remember where. It may be useful when considering this often discussed problem:

If you've been writing long, and probably even if you haven't, you'll have heard the old writing advice, "Show, Don't Tell." This is good advice, to a point, but sometimes you can't avoid telling rather than showing. We'll explore both in this article.

Think about real life for a moment. If someone told you that a lion had escaped from the local zoo and was running loose around your neighbourhood, you'd probably want to find out if it was really true before investing in a high-powered rifle (though you might bring your cat inside and avoid going out yourself, just in case). If they actually took you to see the lion wandering about on the streets, you'd likely take protective precautions right away.

You may wonder what escaped lions have to do with writing. It's not the lions, but the normal human reaction to being told something versus being shown something (especially if that something is out of the ordinary). In the first case—being told—you may or may not believe the teller, and are likely to want further proof. In the second case—seeing for yourself—you'll probably believe right away (or at least be more easily convinced.

When to Show, Not Tell

Just as in our lion example, readers are more likely to believe something they are shown than something they are told. This is why the saying "Show, Don't Tell" was coined in the first place. So when you really need a reader to believe something right away, it's better to show it to them than to tell them about it. In other words, show the important stuff.

One area where showing rather than telling is especially important is in character development. If you say, "Jack was a cruel man who liked to torment small animals," it might make an impression on a reader. If you write a scene that shows Jack stringing rabbits up by their back legs and leaving them to hang in a cage full of ravenous ferrets, it makes an even bigger impression. No matter how many nice things Jack later does, the reader will not forget "seeing" the man torturing rabbits. Of course, there's no reason you can't both tell and show, but we'll get to that later.

Other aspects of writing can be treated the same way. Just remember that whenever something is important, you'll get the reader believing more quickly by showing it to them (and in some cases, showing it to them more than once).

How to Show Without Telling

It’s all very fine to know that you need to show rather than tell, but how do you go about it? In the example of Jack, the rabbits and the ravenous ferrets above, Jack's character was shown to the reader by writing a scene in which Jack does something cruel. To show—rather than tell—character, the scene is your most effective tool. Through scenes, we can "hear" the character speak and "see" them act.

Descriptive passages can also show things to the reader, but it is easy to fall into telling the reader in long descriptive prose.

But what about something like setting? How can you describe a place without telling? You can't, really, but you can use various tricks to make it seem like the reader is seeing for themself. Most effective in describing setting is to create a full sensory picture, complete with sound and smell and touch. Remember that you have five senses to draw on and use them all to put the reader into the setting. That way, they seem to experience the setting; you haven't told them about it, you've shown it to them. Be careful, though, not to overload the reader with too much detail. Be selective, and choose the detail that will most effectively create the mood or feeling you want to achieve.

When to Tell, Not Show

So now you know how and when "Show, Not Tell" is good advice. When is it not good advice, though? Imagine writing a novel in which every single aspect of character, every new setting, every action and every detail are fully and completely shown to the reader. How long would such a novel be? Not only would it be so long that very few readers would tackle it, but those who did try to read it would get bogged down and overwhelmed by all the stuff they were shown. Probably, they'd get bored and give up because there was too much development of trivial things.

Trivial things do not need to be shown. In fact, if they're truly trivial, they don't need to be in the story at all. But remember how I said that the important stuff should be shown, not told? Well, sometimes you have information that is important to the story—perhaps a small detail without which the plot cannot move forward, or a minor character trait that gives one of your fictional people more depth. This kind of information may not be central enough to the story to require the emphasis that showing gives it, but it still needs to be in there. What do you do? You tell it to the reader.

One place you'll find telling rather than showing useful is in scene transitions. When you want a reader to know that your characters have moved from one place to another, but the journey is not important, you can tell the reader about the move. "Sandra went down the hall into the kitchen" is perfectly adequate as a transition between a scene with Sandra and James fighting in their bedroom and a scene where Sandra gets a knife with which to kill her husband.

Unless there is something very important in the hallway that the reader needs to know, you don't have to linger there. Also, if you finish a scene with one set of characters and need to move to a scene in a different place with a different set of characters, you can simply tell the reader: "Andrew and Emily had made up but across the street Sandra and James were still screaming at each other across the expanse of their king-sized bed" quickly leaves one scene and moves to the next. It's all you need.

Show AND Tell

The moral of the story is this: show and tell. For the really important things, show the reader. For the less important but still necessary things, tell the reader. For the really, really important things, show the reader and tell the reader. Then maybe have one character tell another character where the reader can "overhear." Show the reader again if necessary. Next time someone says to you, "Show, don't tell," look at the specific part of your story (or poem) they are objecting to, and see if it's an instance where that advice is good or bad, or if it's somewhere you can both show and tell.


Notes: Writing True, by Timber Shelton

Writing True
by Timber Shelton

Write true. Write what you know. Open the vein and let it pour out, says Faulkner.

I have always believed these widely known, often repeated pearls of writing wisdom to mean a good writer should somehow write about their own life, delving into their most painful memories, using glimpses of the things they have actually seen or done, even in fiction. That is, until today.

While I have been told by many that I should write a book about my life, my childhood in particular, that is something I am just not ready to do. At least not yet.

I have shied away from writing anything too personal, particularly the hardest experiences of my life – the experiences that played a major role in shaping who I am, often the experiences I try very hard not to think about. Instead, I choose to write about other people’s experiences or realities – whether real or fictional – choosing situations that are as different from my own as possible, or if my own, at least my funnier experiences. Even in my journals I tend to focus on the present, or at least the pleasant.

I distance myself from my writing, and I often feel a little guilty for it, like I am not giving it my all because I avoid the pain. After all, aren’t real writer’s supposed to be angst filled and willing to pour out their tortured souls on paper? Willing to bleed ink?

Over the day’s first cup of coffee I was reading “Escaping into the Open – The Art of Writing True” by Elizabeth Berg. I usually do a little reading before I start writing in the morning to help get into a literary frame of mind. During the first chapter she gives a short biography describing how she came to make writing her career, (which sounded very familiar). I was pondering the book’s subtitle, wondering, as I often have lately, if I would ever be able to “write true” without actually sharing my own experiences. Suddenly I was blessed with one of those lovely little epiphanies that all writer‘s occasionally enjoy – that lightening bolt of pure, clear understanding that instantly illuminates a path you didn’t know existed. It didn’t exactly come from what I was reading, though it may get into this further along in the book, (I am quite anxious to find out and will finish reading it as soon as I finish writing this).

I suddenly understood that “writing true” doesn’t mean you have to write about your actual biographical occurrences, the setting and situation is just the wrapping paper. To “write true” means to write about the core of any situation – the anger, envy, joy, grief, shame, loneliness, abandonment, longing, denial, rapture, fear and, of course, love – and the impression it makes on your spirit. Emotional landscapes that most of us have visited and sometimes lived in. Finding the grain of truth in any circumstance your characters are given and how the emotions brought on by those circumstances shape their hearts. It is not the specific experiences that readers usually relate to. Instead, it is the truest, deepest and most profound sentiments that lie behind those experiences – whether it be the humiliation that we wish to keep hidden, or the passion we want to shout from every roof top.

Maybe this is something I would have learned years ago had I experienced a formal writing education, but somehow I don’t believe so. This is a realization I was meant to have today. An understanding that will change my writing from this day forward.

I don’t have to put down on paper the experiences of my life, but I do have to remember those emotions. That is something I am willing to do.


November 25, 2005

Short Story: The Story of an Hour, by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin was a forgotten American voice until her literary reputation was resuscitated by critics in the 1950s. Today her novel The Awakening (1899) the story of a sensual, determined woman who insists on her independence, is widely read and highly honored, a feminist work which was decidedly ahead of its time. Born Katherine O'FIaherty into an upper-middle-class family in St. Louis, she married Oscar Chopin when she was twenty and moved to her husband's home in Louisiana. In the ten years that she resided in Louisiana she was aware of and receptive to Creole, Cajun, black, and Indian cultures, and when she later came to write fiction, she would incorporate people from these cultures in her work, especially her short stories. When her husband died as a young man, Kate Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children. Financially secure, she began writing fiction as best she could while rearing her children. She is a good example of an American realist, someone trying to represent life the way it actually is lived, and she acknowledged her debt to the contemporary French naturalists Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant.

Does the psychological ambivalence dramatized in "The Story of an Hour" ring true or uncomfortably real when we consider honestly our own feelings?


The Story of an Hour

By Kate Chopin

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death.

It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of "killed." He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message.

She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her.

There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves.

There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window.

She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams.

She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought.

There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.

Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been.

When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: "free, free, free!" The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body.

She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.

She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.

There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

"Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering.

Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. "Louise, open the door! I beg, open the door—you will make yourself ill. What are you doing Louise? For heaven's sake open the door."

"Go away. I am not making myself ill." No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window.

Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.

She arose at length and opened the door to her sister's importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister's waist, and together they descended the stairs. Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom.

Some one was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife.

But Richards was too late.

When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease— of joy that kills.