3 Ways You Are Ruining Your Story

coverUsing my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

Enjoying Several Drafts – That Aren’t Beer

There are 3 ways new writers (and, sadly, many veteran writers) RUIN their story.

These are things they DON’T do. I’ll show you why you should do them and how.

First, some background.

This was an important scene, so I had to go over it several times to make sure everything I wanted in there was in there.

But first, I just read it.

So I’m gonna ask you to do that on this one.

Then we’ll talk about what I did to make it better, how many passes/drafts that took – which sounds awful. Who wants to reread and rewrite their stuff a bunch of times? Nobody. But here’s why you should, and here’s how to do it.

Also, here’s what the most important thing in this chapter might be.

Go read.

I’ll see you at the bottom.

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side. Seriously. Do that.


Chapter 31 “FINAL”

 

I crept forward into the alley behind Vespers, holding my breath and glancing around. Big shadows from the rooftops let one side of the alley remain dark despite the overhead lights. I relaxed a little. The city had done a good job of keeping Ybor safe and friendly, hoping to draw the money spending crowds. Places that would have been dark and foreboding someplace else were decently lit here.

The street lights cast a bronze glow over the asphalt and backsides of the bars and restaurants. To the right, a man and woman chatted—he sounded drunk and she sounded like a prostitute, but they were too far away to tell for sure. Down the other way, a couple of guys were smoking next to a stack of empty wooden pallets. The occasional gust of wind let me know it wasn’t all tobacco.

A few parked cars and a lot of dumpsters, otherwise the alley was empty. I folded and unfolded my hands, stepping a few feet in every direction but not straying too far from Vespers’ back door. The five minutes came and went, but I couldn’t necessarily expect punctuality from a guy who kept his office in a men’s room.

A few shadows appeared at the far end of the alley. There were three of them, a big guy, a bigger guy, and a normal sized guy.

My pulse throbbed. They were headed my way.

I swallowed hard, glancing down the other side of the alley to make sure I didn’t find myself surrounded. The smokers kept smoking, conversing among themselves and ignoring the rest of the world. Nothing else had changed in that direction. Good. I could escape that way if I had to. Despite what Mario had said, I wasn’t convinced that they weren’t going to rob me. My stomach tightening, tried to maintain my breathing as the three men approached.

Their footsteps clopped and crackled on the pavement. I made out the loud jacket—the tipster was with them. The fear gripping my stomach eased down a notch. I had Mario’s name, and Mario knew the tipster, so if anything happened, there were links in the chain.

When they got close enough, I stepped further into the light.

The biggest one faced me. “You Mario’s friend?”

I nodded. The overhead lights behind them kept their faces in the shadows.

“What you want, sniffing around down here looking for stuff that don’t belong to you?” His tone was terse. Angry. My stomach notched up again.

“I asked your man here for help.” My heart was pounding but I forced myself to maintain an even tone. “I thought he could find me some.”

He remained unmoving, a large black shadow with few identifiable features. “What kind of help?”

I pursed my lips. “That’s complicated.”

Folding his arms across his big chest, he eyed the tipster.

The tipster nodded.

“Five hundred,” the massive shadow said.

The breath went out of me. If they were scammers, was I supposed to give up my cash and get introduced to, what, some friend of theirs who’d pretend to be a fortune teller? No way. But if I didn’t give them money, the three of them might just beat me up and take it anyway.

I glanced at Vespers’ rear door. It seemed very far away now. The drunk guy and the prostitute had left the alley. So had the smokers.

It was just me now, alone with the three strangers.

The uneasy feeling grew in my gut. I swallowed and braced myself. “No. You get your end after I—”

“Who are you!” His voice was like a gunshot. “To walk around here asking for that!” He stepped toward me and put his finger into my chest. “What do you want?”

Adrenaline streamed through my veins like a low fire. I had no other choice but to act angry and try to stand my ground. Otherwise it might get ugly. Images of getting beaten to a pulp and robbed flashed through my mind.

I gritted my teeth. “I told you want I want.”

I stared right at him, face to face. I said it all with my eyes, but forced myself to focus on an attitude. If you hit me, I’m going to get hit. Maybe I’ll hit back, maybe I won’t. But what I’m not going to do is turn tail and run.

I’m going to stand here, alone and shaking, but you’re not going to back me down.

Not today.

“I asked for help.” I let the words hang there, wanting them to be enough on their own. He was sizing me up. I couldn’t think about that. Not right now.

Everything inside me wanted to run, but something held my feet in place.

The wind tossed around some fast food wrappers and pushed an empty beer bottle from its resting place under a dumpster. The soft clinking of glass on asphalt came to us, the only other sound in the deserted alley.

“Okay,” Big Man said. “Let’s go.” He turned and gestured down the alley. “That way.”

A wave of relief washed over me. There wouldn’t be a fight. Good.

I walked in front of them, my hands in my pockets. Sticking to “help” seemed to matter. It was making the difference. Ybor frowned on con artists ripping off tourists, but thieves might not care about that. If there really was a mambo, and she was legit in any sense, this might all have been to avoid a hassle from the city, nothing more.

We went a few blocks down, and a few blocks over, past the commercial side of Ybor and into the seedier, less friendly neighborhood next door. Small houses in need of paint jobs and yard work; broken chain link fences.

The lump in my gut returned. They were luring me away from the safety of the well lit streets up by the bars. I took deep breaths—trying not to appear to do so—to calm myself, but the farther I walked, the more I wondered if I was about to get jumped. How stupid was I being, walking around this part of town with two strangers and a pocket full of cash? When we got far enough away, we might walk around a corner and I’d get hit in the head and robbed. Or maybe they’d just demand my wallet. What was I gonna do against them? Big Man could take me down all by himself.

We were getting too far away. It didn’t feel right. My breathing grew shallow as my heart pounded harder. I glanced around. Even the street lights down here seemed darker.

My pulse throbbed in my ears. Ahead, one house burned a dim yellow bug light over the porch.

This is it. This is where they grab me. We go inside and they take me apart.

I had no chance.

When we got close, Big Man spoke. “Here.”

I stared up the dim front steps at the yellow door. Lights were on inside. The faint aroma of incense drifted down the steps to me.

Three concrete steps ended on a worn wood porch. Beyond that, the door.

I went up the steps and paused, not sure if I was supposed to knock, not sure if a voodoo priestess awaited me on the other side—or a violent beating.

The door opened.

Another large man filled the door frame. He didn’t say anything, he just stepped back.

My guess was, the person inside didn’t want anyone thinking they weren’t well protected. Point taken.

Standing in the dim light, I looked around the small living room. Beads on stringers, and a lot of African themed artwork. In one corner stood a rack of candles, like at Our Lady of Mercy.

I don’t think I was supposed to look around too much, because the big guy from the front door stepped in front of me. He looked me over, then peered over my shoulder at something.

I turned around to see the mambo. The voodoo priestess.

She was tall and thin, with long black hair and dozens of bracelets adorning her wrists. Her colorful dress hung on her slender figure like a sack. She wore too much makeup, a reflection of a woman who is either trying too hard or didn’t have makeup skills.

But just from looking at her, she seemed legit. Something about the way she carried herself around all these guys who were there to protect her. She was cool. Like she didn’t really need their protection. She just like how it looked.

“Come.” Her voice was laced with an accent from the islands. Somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe Jamaica. She walked on ahead.

I entered a small room with a tiny round table in the middle, like what you’d see in those old séance movies with a medium and a crystal ball. Candles lit this room, housed on the shelves and tables that cluttered the walls. Dark glass jars and bottles filled every available space. A tray of incense embers glowed in the corner.

But the room itself was plain and brown and well worn. Everything here was well worn.

In that room, it was just us. Me and the priestess. She sat down and gestured at the other chair. “Sit.”

The big guy stood near the room’s entrance. I sat.

“I am Dahlia. My friends tell me you are looking for something.” She spoke slowly and deliberately, each word filling the entire room. “What . . . are you looking for?”

I drew slow, even breaths to mask my nerves. “I’m looking for help.” Trying to answer as slowly as she did, my words came out sounding quiet instead.

She smoothed the table cloth. It was colorful, like a silk scarf. “Why . . . do you need help?”

“Because things are happening that I can’t explain.”

“What sort of things?”

I cut to the chase. “Tragedies.”

That didn’t faze her. She nodded, staring at the table. “Did you bring money?”

It didn’t seem like a good idea to lie. Most seers are pretty good at reading people. I figured she would know if I lied. “I did.”

“Who do you need to protect? Not yourself. You came here in the middle of the night.” She lifted her gaze to me. “That is not the act of a person who is afraid for themselves. A person like that would stay home.”

“I want to protect my family,” I said. “My wife and daughter.”

“But you did not bring them.”

“That’s right.”

Her voice fell to a whisper, a low hiss audible only to me. The wind grew outside, masking our conversation from anyone else. “Why . . . do you think I can help you?”

Again, I thought honesty was the best approach. “I’m not sure you can. I told your friends I needed help. They brought me to you.”

“What kind of help do you think you need?”

“Any kind I can get.” I spoke softly, the uneasiness in my gut settling. “Magic. Voodoo. Religious help of some sort.” I offered these words with quiet reverence. Not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes cares to have it known. But those who practice in such trades have their reasons for body guards.

Dahlia stroked the colorful table cloth, as though reading its patterns for her next question.

“Magic . . . Voodoo . . . Religious help.” She said my words back to me like they were part of a mantra. “Do you have the gift?” She lifted her eyes and peered into me, a piercing gaze that made my stomach tighten. “Do you see?”

I hesitated, uncertain of how to answer.

“Your wife? Your child? Do they see?”

I looked down. “I don’t think so. No.”

The wind picked up, tapping tree branches against a window somewhere.

“But you believe that I see, yes?” She drew my gaze off the table and back to her eyes.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe. I respect the talents and gifts that any descendant of Marie Laveau might have.

She smiled, accepting my words as a compliment.

“I do see.” She nodded. “Auras. Colors, around an animal’s eyes, or a person’s face.” Dahlia’s eyes flashed wide at that. “What do you know of this?”

I took a slow breath. “I’ve heard of it.”

She wagged a finger at me. “No, no, no. If I am going to help you, then you must tell me the truth.”

“Okay.” I nodded. “I know a little. About auras.”

“Do you see them?”

“I, um—not like . . .” I shifted on my chair. “Like you suggested.”

She stood up and slowly walked around the room, circling me. “A voodoo priestess, a mambo, sees the aura. In people, in animals. It is always there if they have the gift.”

Dahlia struck a match, and held it to a candle. “If others have the gift, the mambo can see it in them, too. If she can hold items of theirs, she would see it as well.” She blew out the match. “Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“The gift is inherited. But there are those who refuse to understand that they have a gift. They deny it, and push it down. Then, it can die in them.”

She continued around the room with the candle. Its flickering light threw dancing shadows on the walls. “But just as a child has to learn to speak, even though there is speaking all around them their whole lives, they still must learn to build the muscles for themselves. It is the same thing with the gift. Some can be learned, but you must be born with the ability.”

Sitting down, the mambo placed the candle in the center of the table. The orange glow illuminated her face, seeming to darken everything else in the room.

She gazed at the flame. “And then you must be taught. And then you must do for yourself. A coach cannot make an athlete run, the athlete must do the running. But still the athlete needs a coach to show her what she cannot see for herself. How to improve, where her faults are.”

Lifting her eyes to mine, she smiled. “And there are many things we cannot see for ourselves.”

I sat, unmoving, taking it in.

“The gift is stronger in women anyway. That is how it has always been. A woman listens to her body more, and will allow it to grow. A man does not do this. The gift is stronger with women because they want to believe it more. A man may give it to his daughter without ever knowing that he did so.”

She eyed the candle, focusing on it like the answers lay within the flame. “That is where I got my powers. But it was nurtured in me.” She looked me up and down. “You are a writer?”

I nodded.

“Did you be born with a pen and start writing? Of course not. You were taught. And for many years, you were taught just the plain, the basics. Then one day you took it upon yourself—to make it more.” She leaned forward. “Do you remember when you did that?”

I cleared my throat, confused at how this related to why I was here, but following where the priestess lead. “Probably high school.”

“That was the start?”

“Well, the grade school paper, I guess. I was the editor. I pestered my teacher to make it happen, to have a school newspaper.”

Her eyes watched mine.

I thought deeper, going back, like drifting downward into a well. “It was earlier, though. I always wrote comics and funny stories.”

“Who were they for?”

“I made them for anybody, everybody. Probably I made them for myself.”

“Who enjoyed them the most?”

“My brother.” I said. “He loved them.”

“Always?”

I rubbed my chin. “No, that was later when he was in high school. So I was in about eighth grade.”

“Think,” she commanded softly, her voice nearing a trance. “Who was your audience?”

“Well.” I thought for a moment. “My mom, early on. She made sure I had pens and paper—that stuff was hard to come by for a kid, and I went through tons of it. Colored pencils, art class. She even sent me to typing lessons.” I laughed.  “That was a bust. Typing. Boy, I hated it.”

“It was not organic,” the mambo said. “The natural part, you supplied yourself—and your mother fostered it.”

“I guess.” I shrugged. “Maybe.”

“She did!” She slammed her hand down on the table. “She saw the aura!”

Dahlia glared at me, her chest heaving.

“Come on.” I looked away. “That’s a bit much to—”

“Because you refuse to believe!” She jumped up, gripping the table and sending her chair over backwards. “When the aura is there, a man tends to deny it, even to his closest friends. A woman embraces it and her friends may not understand, but there are always signs if you know what you are looking at!” She pointed at me. “You may not be the caretaker of this garden, but the garden exists!”

“This is crazy.” I stood up and reached for my wallet. “I have to go. I’ll pay you.”

“Pay! There is no paying with money! What do you possess that I would want?” She glared at me, her eyes wide, her breath coming in gasps.

Putting her hand to her forehead, she turned away. Lowering her head, she sighed. “When the time comes, you will offer your gift to me. You will know what you need to do. Do not disappoint or your mojo will be cursed.”

I stood there, uncertain what to do. “You will want a favor?”

She nodded, her back to me.

“How will I get your gift to you?”

The big man walked in, as if on cue. He handed me a card. Scrawled on it was a name and a phone number.

I looked at the mambo. “The tipster?”

She nodded again.

It was over. I’d blown it. Whatever she was going to tell me, if anything, I missed my chance.

“No.” I elbowed my way past the big man and approached the mambo. “I want answers first.”

Big Man didn’t move.

I pursed my lip. “Let’s stop playing games.” I moved back to the table, pulling out my chair. “Come on. If you can help me, help me. What do you see? Look here. At me. What do you see when—”

She looked back with a stern face. “Sit.”

The gusting wind rattled the glass again.

I lowered myself into the chair. If she was going to be of any help to me, now was the time. She had proven to be insightful, but she was being evasive. But if she knew something that would help my family, I needed to hear her out.

She took her seat and closed her eyes, slowly lifting her hands to rest on the table top. She drew several deep breaths and turned her palms up.

I didn’t know if I was supposed to put my hands on the table, or on hers, or what. I wasn’t sure it mattered anymore.

“Ask me.” She whispered. “What you want to know?”

The wind picked up again, rustling through the trees. Light gusts of rain batted along the roof.

I swallowed, trying to relax. “Do . . . you see an aura in me?’

She nodded.

“Do you believe I have the gift?”

Another nod.

“Can it also be something else?” I clutched the table. “Something other than a gift?”

She nodded again. “A gift is a tool. You can use it for good or for evil.”

I hesitated, not sure how to ask the trickier questions. For the first time, I wasn’t sure I really wanted the answers.

“Ask,” she said. “Ask what you want to know.” She opened her eyes and looked softly at me. “You have come all this way. Do not be afraid to find the truth.”

I took a slow, deep breath, held it a moment, and let it out in a huff. It was time. “Is—is my daughter . . . cursed?”

The candle flame flickered once, then remained still.

A thin smile crept over the mambo’s face, her eyes aglow in the warm orange light of the flame. “No, not yet.”

My heart caught in my throat. I leaned forward. “Does she have an angel on her shoulder?”

“What happened, to bring you here?” Dahlia asked.

“I told you.”

“You tell the wrong things. Tell me what happened . . .” She closed her eyes. “At the winery.”

A wave of shock shot through me.

She kept her eyes on mine. “Do you now believe me?”

I swallowed, my heart pounding. “Yes.”

“Then tell me. Tell me what you saw.”

I forced myself to continue, barely able to speak. “There was a wreck . . .”

“No,” she shook her head. “Open your eyes to not look outside, but inside. You understand this. You saw a blue color flash across the face of a man at the park, as a child. Use that sight.”

My mouth fell open, my mind reeling. How could she know that? Jimmy, the smash car, the crazy man. Her eyes seemed to peer right into me, into the things I’d hidden, like it was all there and only she could read it. My thoughts were a blur. I was falling down the well.

Her eyes flared. “And you have seen others.”

The storm gathered life outside. Distant thunder rumbled and rolled.

Dahlia’s voice was a whisper. “Tell me what you saw in the winery.”

I shook my head, gasping. “I don’t know. Nothing.”

“Think,” she gently commanded. “Remember.”

“My daughter. She wanted to look at t-shirts.”

“Go on. What else?”

“She—she was fussy.”

“Why?”

“She was hungry.”

“Was she?” Dahlia coaxed me, pulling the words out of me. “Think. Remember…”

“She . . .”

“Yes?”

I gasped, squeezing my eyes shut. “She saw the truck driver. He almost ran us over with his cart in the lobby. He wasn’t paying attention.”

“And?”

“And she had a fit. She started yelling about eating.”

“Eating?” Dahlia’s voice rose. “You must look. You must see.”

Sweat broke out on my forehead. My shaking hands grabbing the table, I lowered my head. The words were coming now, whether I wanted them to or not, struggling to free themselves from me. “Um, Sophie, my daughter, she . . .”

“Go on. It is there.”

“She wanted to have a picnic in the parking lot. But she didn’t want to have Jello. But we didn’t have Jello with us anyway. It was a crazy thing to say.”

“What exactly did she say?” Dahlia’s voice grew firm.

“She said, ‘No blue Jello!’ She freaked out.”

“When?”

“Right after we almost got hit by the old guy wheeling the cases of wine through the tasting room.” I said. “The truck driver.”

“She saw him?”

“Yes.”

“And then she said . . .”

I was gasping, rushing, the words spilling from me. “She saw him and then she said she didn’t want to go outside, that the man had blue Jello on his face, in his eyes. She was ranting. She was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“And then?”

“And then I distracted her. I showed her the t-shirts. The funny ones. I read them to her until she calmed down.”

Lightning cracked outside. The booming roar of thunder cascaded through the room.

Dahlia urged me on. “How long did that take?”

“A minute or two…”

“A minute or two,” she echoed. “And then?”

“And then we headed out to the parking lot.” I said. “That’s when the wreck happened.”

“Your daughter delayed you long enough for you both to be safe.”

“Yes.” I nodded, gasping, my insides turning over and over. I was lost, reeling. I laid my head on the table and opened my eyes to the priestess.

Her face was red in the light of the candle. The room around us had faded to black.

“That happened by chance, you think, but you are wrong.” Dahlia’s eyes went wide. “She sees! She saw him, like you saw, but she saw it first, and she made you stop!”

The priestess stood up, the force of her revelation lifting her. “That is why the dark angels want her! Because she sees them.”

I cowered against the blinding white light of the revelation. I wanted it to not be true.

I wanted my daughter to be safe.

And she was not.

The priestess pointed a long finger at me. “She has not yet learned from you how to ignore these things, and push them down, and pretend they do not happen, until the gift is finally lost.”

Lightning cracked outside, lighting up the room and splashing Dahlia’s face white with light. “She can see them.”

It was all coming at me too fast. I was lost. Powerless.

But I knew. Inside, I knew Dahlia was right.

She narrowed her eyes. “You asked if your daughter has an angel on her shoulder.”

I wiped my eyes and looked up at her. It was all I could do. The priestess wasn’t really asking questions anymore.

“Everyone has angels on their shoulder.” She towered over me. “Angel of light, angel of darkness. Good and bad. You choose to let them guide you or choose to push it down and ignore what you should know.  Your family, your upbringing, that tells you what you believe. To some, there are many angels with us all the time. This is how I believe. To others, there is one that maybe watches over a child, or helps the sick.”

Her voice grew quieter, almost inaudible. “But in the end, every time a choice comes, you make the decision, the good angel or the bad angel. In the end, if you make enough bad choices, the bad angel is all that is left.”

I stared at the woman, my mind unable to fathom it all. Thunder rumbled as the rain streamed down the windows.

Dahlia took a deep breath. “Have you ever met someone where that happened?”

I sat up, propping my elbows on the table and rubbing my brow. “I think maybe I have.”

“Then you know,” she said. “That’s when the dark angels have been playing with them—but dark angels don’t play. When you meet that person down the road of life, they are not who they were at the beginning of the road. Young in life, they had not yet allowed the dark angels to win. Then, later on, they are not the same.”

She stepped to a shelf of bottles and dried plants, leaning on it like she would fall down if it weren’t there. “You don’t have to go too far down the wrong path before it becomes impossible to get back to the right path.”

“Impossible?” I asked.

Her shoulders slumped, her head hanging low. “For those who choose wrongly, it becomes a habit, then it becomes a way of life. Impossible. Yes, impossible.”

“That seems a bit harsh.”

She screamed, grabbing the table and heaving it. The colored scarf sailed through the air as the table crashed into a shelf, sending glass containers to the floor. “Do not mock the truth! Stop denying your aura. This is what make your inside feel sick when you see the policeman at the winery! Same as with the man you see in your head at the church, and when you confront with the animal. You make your body fight against itself. Against your gift. Stop making yourself not see.”

I sat there, flinching and exposed in the lone chair, holding my shaking hands up in front of me. Dahlia saw it all, everything inside me.

“Life and death are real. Decisions are real.” She waved her hands, her bracelets and bangles clashing together. “This is what it a thousand generations of seeing have taught us. You must see. Recognize these things and understand them.”

The rain thumped the old roof in a steady, rhythmic hum.

“Learn this.” Dahlia rasped, her eyes narrowing. “Do not be a fool when the moment requires you to be something else.”


 

Original Chapter 31, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

First I was in a dark parking lot; now I was in a dark alley. I can’t say I was enjoying this.

At least the rain hadn’t started again.

The alley behind Vesper’s wasn’t super bright, but it wasn’t pitch black. The city had done a good job of keeping Ybor safe and friendly, hoping to draw the money spending crowds. So places that would have been dark and foreboding someplace else were decently lit in Ybor. Behind Vesper’s, big shadows from the rooftops let one side of the alley remain dark despite the overhead lights.

To the right, a man and woman chatted. He was drunk; she may have been a prostitute. They were too far away to tell. Down the other way, a couple of guys were smoking. The occasional breeze let me know it wasn’t all tobacco.

There was a stray parked car and a few dumpsters; otherwise, the alley was empty. I wasn’t relaxed enough to be calm, and I wasn’t nervous enough to be jittery. The five minutes came and went, but I couldn’t necessarily expect punctuality from a guy who kept his office in a men’s room.

Then a few shadows appeared at the far end of the alley. There were three of them, a big guy, a bigger guy, and a normal sized guy. They were headed my way.

I looked down the other side of the alley. The smokers kept smoking, conversing amongst themselves and ignoring the rest of the world. Nothing else had changed in that direction. Despite what Mario had said, I wasn’t convinced that they weren’t going to rob me. I looked back to watch the three men approach.

The tipster was with them. That was a relief. I had Mario’s name, and Mario knew the tipster, so if anything happened, there were links in the chain.

When they got close enough, I stepped further into the light.

“You Mario’s friend?” the big guy asked. I nodded.

“What you want, sniffing around down here looking for stuff that don’t belong to you?” He seemed angry.

“I asked your man here for some help,” I said, maintaining as calm a voice as I could. “I thought he could try to find me some help.”

“What kind of help?”

“That’s… complicated.”

He folded his arms across his big chest, then he looked at the tipster. It was a knowing look, and then the big man turned his gaze back to me.

“Five hundred,” he said. Holy cow, I was getting robbed alright.

I shook my head slowly. “No. You get your end from the mambo after I – ”

He cut me off. “Who are you!” he shouted. “To walk around here asking for that!?”

His voice was like a gunshot. He put his finger into my chest. “What do you want?”

I had no other choice but to get angry. Otherwise it was going to get ugly.

“I told you want I want.”

I stared right at him, face to face. I said it all with my eyes, but my mind was thinking: if you hit me, I’m going to get hit. Maybe I’ll hit back, maybe I won’t. But what I’m not going to do is turn tail and run. I’m going to stand here, alone and shaking, but you’re not going to back me down. Not at this point.

“I asked for help.” I let the words hang there, wanting them to be enough on their own. He was sizing me up. I couldn’t think about that. Not right now.

Sticking to “help” seemed to matter. It was making the difference. I know the city frowns on scammers, so they didn’t want to just show me to her door, but I wasn’t sure what else I was supposed to do at this point. Besides, if there was a mambo, and she was legit in any sense, this was all just to avoid a hassle from the city, nothing more.

“Okay,” Big Man said. “Let’s go.”

He turned and gestured down the alley. “That way.”

We went a few blocks down, and a few blocks over; past the commercial side of Ybor and into the seedier, less friendly neighborhood next door. Small houses in need of paint jobs and yard work; broken chain link fences.

The farther I walked, the more I wondered if I was about to get jumped. How stupid was I being, walking around this part of town with two strangers and a pocket full of cash? I could just imagine them, luring me away from the safety of the well lit streets up by the bars, going just far enough away, and then we walk around a corner and BAM, I get hit in the head and robbed. Or maybe they just demand my wallet. What was I gonna do against them? Big Man could take me down all by himself.

We were walking too far away. It didn’t feel right. Even the street lights down here seemed darker.

Ahead, one house burned a yellow bug light over the porch. When we got close, Big Man spoke just one word.

“Here.”

I stared up the dim front steps at the yellow door. Lights were on inside. I could smell incense.

I went up the steps and paused, not sure if I was supposed to knock.

Then the door opened.

Another large man filled the door frame. He didn’t say anything, he just stepped back and opened the door for me. My guess was, the person inside didn’t want anyone thinking she wasn’t well protected. Point taken.

Standing in the small living room, I looked around. Beads on stringers, and a lot of African themed artwork. In one corner was a rack of candles, like at Our Lady of Mercy.

I don’t think I was supposed to look around too much, because the big guy from the front door stepped in front of me. He looked at me, and then he looked over my shoulder at something.

I turned around to see the mambo. The voodoo priestess.

She was tall and thin, with long black hair. She wore a colorful dress that hung on her slender figure like a sack. And she wore too much makeup, a reflection of a woman who is either trying too hard or didn’t have makeup skills.

But just from looking at her, she seemed legit. Something about the way she carried herself around all these guys who were there to protect her. She was cool. Like she didn’t really need their protection. She just like how it looked.

“Come,” she said in a voice laced with an accent from the islands. Somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe Jamaica. She walked on ahead.

It was a small room with a tiny round table in the middle, like what you’d see in those old séance movies with a medium and a crystal ball. Tables lined the walls, filled with dark glass jars and bottles of special herbs and mystical ingredients. But the room itself was plain and brown and well worn. Everything in here was well worn.

In that room, it was just us. Me and the priestess. She sat down and gestured at the other chair. “Sit.”

The big guy stood near the room’s entrance. I sat.

“I am Dahlia. My friends… tell me you are looking for something,” she said. She spoke slowly and deliberately. “What… are you looking for?”

“I’m looking… for help” I said. I tried to answer as slowly as she did. It came out sounding quiet, instead.

“Why… do you need help?”

“Because things are happening that I can’t explain.”

“What sort of things?”

I cut to the chase. “Tragedies.”

That didn’t faze her. She nodded.

“Did you bring money?”

It didn’t seem like a good idea to lie. Most seers are pretty good readers of people. I figured she would know if I lied.

“I did.”

“Who do you need to protect? Not yourself; you came here in the middle of the night. That is not the act of a person who is afraid for themselves. A person like that would stay home.”

“I want to protect my family,” I said. “My wife and daughter.”

“But you did not bring them.”

“That’s right.”

“Why do you think I can help you?” she asked.

Again, I thought honesty was the best approach. “I’m not sure you can. I told your friends I needed help. They brought me to you.”

“What kind of help do you think you need?”

“Any kind I can get. Magic. Voodoo. Religious help of some sort.” I spoke these words with quiet reverence. Not everyone believes, and not everyone who believes cares to have it known. But those who practice in such trades have their reasons for body guards.

“Magic… Voodoo… Religious help…” She said my words back to me like they were part of a mantra.

“Do you have the gift?” she asked. “Do you see?”

I hesitated to tell her about the animals, and how I could calm them and walk up to them. It was just a kind of trick, after all, and not really a… but she saw my hesitation. That told her my answer.

“And your wife? Your child? Do they see?”

I looked down. “I don’t think so. No.”

“But you believe that I see, yes?” She drew my gaze off the table and into her eyes.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. “Maybe. I respect the talents and gifts that any descendant of Marie Laveau might have.

She smiled, accepting my words as a compliment.

“I do see,” she said. “Auras. Colors, around an animal’s eyes, or a person’s face.” She flashed her eyes wide at that. “What do you know of this?”

“I’ve heard of it.”

She wagged a finger at me. “No, no, no. If I am going to help you, then you must tell me the truth.”

“I know a little about that. About auras.”

“Do you see them?”

“Not in animals, like you suggested.”

“In people?” she continued.

“Once, maybe twice,” I offered. It was almost true.

So far, it was a dance, an introduction. Looking at me to see what I was all about, and offering almost nothing in return. Now it changed. Whatever she had wanted to learn about me, she had enough of it now.

She stood up and slowly walked around the room, circling me. “A voodoo priestess, a mambo, sees the aura. In people, in animals. It is always there if they have the gift.”

She struck a match, and held it to a candle. “If others have the gift, the mambo can see it in them, too. If she can hold items of theirs, she would see it as well.” She blew out the match. “Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“The gift is inherited. But there are those who refuse to understand that they have a gift. They deny it, and push it down. Then, it can die in them.”

She continued around the room with the candle. Its flickering light threw dancing shadows on the walls. “But just as a child has to learn to speak, even though there is speaking all around them their whole lives, they still must learn to build the muscles for themselves. It is the same thing with the gift. Some is taught, but you must be born with the ability.”

She sat back down, placing the candle in the center of the table. “And then you must be taught. And then you must do for yourself. A coach cannot make an athlete run; the athlete must do the running. But still the athlete needs a coach to show her what she cannot see for herself; how to improve, where her faults are.”

She smiled. “And there are many things we cannot see for ourselves.”

“The gift is stronger in women anyway. That is how it has always been. A woman listens to her body more, and will allow it to grow. A man does not do this. The gift is stronger with women because they want to believe it more. A man may give it to his daughter without ever knowing that he did so.”

I didn’t know if she was trying to tell me something about myself or not.

“That is where I got my powers,” she said. “but it was nurtured in me.” She looked me up and down. “You are a writer?”

I nodded.

“Did you be born with a pen and start writing? Of course not. You were taught. And for many years, you were taught just the plain basics. Then one day you took it upon yourself to make it more.”

She looked at me. “Do you remember when you did that?”

I cleared my throat. “I was pretty prolific in high school…”

She cut me off. “That was the start?”

“Uh, the grade school paper; I was the editor. I lobbied to make it happen, to have a school newspaper…”

I was really thinking back now. “It was earlier, though. I always wrote comics and funny stories.”

“Who were they for?”

“I made them for anybody, everybody. Probably I made them for myself.”

“Who enjoyed them the most?”

“My brother” I said. “He loved them.”

“Always?”

“No… that was later; he asked me to make some of him and his friends when they were in college, so I was in about 8th grade.”

“Think,” she commanded softly, her voice nearing a trance. “Who was your audience?”

“Well, my mom was my biggest audience throughout. She made sure I had pens and paper – 8 1/2 x 11 paper was hard to come by for a kid, and I went through tons of it. Colored pencils, art class. She even sent me to typing lessons!”

I laughed.  “That was a bust. Typing. Boy, I hated it.”

“Because it wasn’t organic,” she said. “The organic part, you supplied yourself and she fostered it.”

“Maybe,” I volunteered.

“She did!” she suddenly pounded the table. “She saw the aura!”

“Come on,” I protested. “That’s a bit much.”

“BECAUSE YOU REFUSE TO BELIEVE!” she shouted. “When the aura is there, a man tends to deny it, even to his closest friends; a woman embraces it and her friends may not understand, but there are always signs if you know what you are looking at!”

She pointed at me. “You may not be the caretaker of this garden, but the garden exists!”

“This is crazy,” I stood up and reached for my wallet. “I have to go. I will pay you.”

“PAY! There is no paying with money! What do you possess that I would want?” she forced herself to regain her composure. “When the time comes, you will offer your gift. You know what you need to do. Do not disappoint or your mojo will be cursed.”

Freaking blackmail? But a deal is a deal. “You will want a favor?” I asked. She nodded. “How will I get your gift to you?”

The big man at the door walked on, as if on cue. He handed me a card. Scrawled on it was a name and a phone number.

“The tipster?” I asked. She nodded again.

Then I got angry and slammed the table. “I want answers first!” The man at the door looked over his shoulder at me, but didn’t move. I leaned in to her and lowered my voice. “Let’s stop this running around. Come on! If you see something, tell me. What do you see? Look here. At me. What do you see when – ”

She looked back with a stern face. “Sit.”

I paused for a moment, considering my options.

Then I pulled the chair away from the table and sat down. If she was going to be of any help to me, now was the time. She had proven to be insightful, but she was being evasive. But if she knew something that would help me, I needed to hear her out.

I watched as she closed her eyes. Slowly, she lifted her hands and placed them flat on the table. She drew several deep breaths and turned her palms up.

I didn’t know if I was supposed to put my hands on hers or not; I didn’t. I don’t think it mattered anymore.

“Ask me… what you want to know” she whispered.

I tried to relax. “Do you see an aura in me?’

She nodded.

“Do you believe I have the gift?”

Another nod.

“Can it also be something else?” I asked. “Something other than a gift?”

She nodded again. “A gift is a tool. You can use it for good or for evil.”

I hesitated, not sure how to ask the trickier questions. For the first time, I wasn’t sure I really wanted the answers.

“Ask,” she said. “Ask what you want to know.” She opened her eyes and looked softly at me. “You have come all this way. Do not be afraid to find the truth.”

I took a slow, deep breath, held it a moment, and let it out in a huff. It was time. “Is my daughter…”

The priestess waited.

“Is she… cursed?”

She smiled. “No… not yet.”

My heart caught in my throat at that. I leaned forward.

“Does she have an angel on her shoulder?” I asked.

“What happened, to bring you here?” Dahlia asked.

“I told you -”

“You tell the wrong things. Tell me what happened,” she whispered, “at the winery.”

I was taken aback. That came out of nowhere. There was no way she could have known…

“Now you believe me?” asked the mambo.

I swallowed. “Yes.”

“Then tell me. Tell me what you saw.”

I took another deep breath to steady myself. The shock of her even knowing about the winery was still hanging in the air.

“There was a wreck…”

“No,” she shook her head. “Tell me about what you saw… About the blue colors you saw on the faces of the men.”

My mouth fell open. How could she know?

Her eyes seemed to peer right into me, like it was all written on my chest and she could read it without looking.

“What else did you see?”

“I don’t know. Nothing.”

She could tell I was nervous. “Think,” she gently commanded. “Remember.”

“My daughter wanted to look at t-shirts.”

“Go on; what else?”

“She was fussy.”

“Why?”

“She was hungry.”

“Was she?” Dahlia coaxed me, pulling the words out of me. “Think. Remember…”

“She…”

“Yes?”

“She saw the truck driver. He almost ran us over with his cart in the lobby. He wasn’t paying attention.”

“And?”

“And she had a fit. She started yelling about eating.”

“Eating?” Dahlia seemed not to believe me.

“Um, Savvy, my daughter; she… she wanted to have a picnic in the parking lot. But she didn’t want to have Jello. But we didn’t have Jello with us anyway. It was a crazy thing to say.”

“What exactly did she say?” Dahlia persisted.

“She said, ‘No blue Jello!’ She freaked out.”

“When?”

“Right after we almost got hit by the old guy wheeling the cases of wine through the tasting room.” I said. “The truck driver.”

“She saw him?”

“Yes.”

“And then she said…”

“She saw him and then she said she didn’t want to go outside, that the man had blue Jello on his face, in his eyes. She was ranting. She was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“And then?”

“And then…” I had to think for a moment. “I distracted her. I showed her the t-shirts. The funny ones. I read them to her until she calmed down.”

“How long did that take?”

“A minute or two…”

“A minute or two,” echoed the mambo. She was pulling it out of me now. “And then?”

“And then we headed out to the parking lot.” I said. “That’s when the wreck happened.”

“Your daughter delayed you long enough for you both to be safe.”

“Yes.”

She paused. “That happened by chance, you think; but you are wrong.” The priestess grew intense now. “She sees! She saw him, like you saw, but she saw it first, and she made you stop!”

Dahlia stood up, the force of her revelation lifting her. “That is why the dark angels want her! Because she sees them.” She pointed a long finger at me. “She has not yet learned from you how to ignore these things, and push them down, and pretend they do not happen, until the gift is finally lost.”

“She can see them!”

I let it sink in. I was in shock. A wave of unfamiliar emotions washed over me. Fear, relief… I was in unfamiliar territory in my own mind, the way I had been after talking with Father Frank, but much more intensely. It was all coming at me so fast, I couldn’t tell what to believe or not believe. It was like I couldn’t question things.

Dahlia continued. “You asked if your daughter has an angel on her shoulder.”

I looked at her and nodded. It was all I could do.

“Everyone has angels on their shoulder,” she replied. “Angel of light, angel of darkness. Good, bad, more… You choose to let them guide you; choose to push it down and ignore what you should know.  Your family, your upbringing, your place in society, that all plays a role in how you believe and what you believe. To some, there are many angels with us all the time. This is how I believe. To others, there is one that maybe watches over a child, or helps the sick.”

Her voice grew quieter, almost inaudible. “But in the end, every time the choice comes, you make a decision to let one of the angels get bigger or smaller, the good angel or the bad angel. You are constantly choosing, with every decision you make, to let the good angel get bigger or the bad angel. In the end, if you make enough bad choices, the bad angel is just running the show.”

She went on. “Have you ever met someone where that happened?”

I nodded, and with a sigh, whispered, “I think maybe I have.”

“Then you know,” she said. “That’s when the dark angels have been playing with them, but dark angels don’t just play. When you meet that person down the road of life, they are not who they were at the beginning of the road. Young in life, they had not yet allowed the dark angels to win. Then, later on, they are not the same.”

“It’s not a straight road,” she continued. “There are many, many choices on it. But you don’t have to go too far down the wrong path before it becomes impossible to get back to the right path.”

“Impossible?” I asked.

“For those who choose wrongly, it becomes a habit, then it becomes a way of life. Impossible. Yes, impossible.”

“That seems a bit harsh.”

She slammed her hand down. “Do not mock the truth!” she screamed. “Life and death are real. Decisions are real. This is what it a thousand of years of lessons have taught us! You must recognize these things and understand them!”

“Learn this,” she said her eyes narrowing. “Do not be a fool when the moment requires you to be something else.”


ANALYSIS

This chapter took several drafts. (New writers don’t do that, and don’t know what to do when they do.)

And also a few rewrites while I drank those drafts.

Here’s what I went through to get this to where I wanted it.

  • I wrote it, and when I did, I just wrote. I went wild, letting whatever thoughts came to me go down on the page. Spew jibberish if necessary. Get the raw emotion of the scene down.
  • I reviewed it the next day and trimmed it, and that’s more or less what you see in the “original” version.
  • Then I let it rest. A while. Longer than was necessary.
  • I read it with fresh eyes, going all the way through without making a note. I liked it, and I thought it had a lot of the drama and energy I wanted…

But

…it lacked a few things.

Tip #1: New writers don’t fix the simple stuff first.

It’s fast and easy, and it’ll make you feel like you accomplished something. Which you did.

If you don’t know what the simple stuff is, go read that post. New author ruin their MS (manuscript) with dialogue tags and stuff. Here, I had to eliminate some tags and smooth out a few things like tense. (Occasionally when I freestyle, the scene is in past tense and I slip into present tense.) I fixed as many as I saw.

Then

Tip #2: New writers don’t make sure they have characters reacting the way they want the reader to react.

I saw that there was a noticeable lack of reaction on Doug’s part. That’s not good.

New writers know what all the characters are thinking, so they tend to not put it all into the scene. The effort required to write the scene is tiring. After a while, we have been at it a few hours, and keeping in mind that a character is scared – for three hours while you write and worry about tense and POV and adverb avoidance – is hard to do. As a result, we ease up. It’s in our head, but not necessarily on the page.

Doug would/should be more emotional as he was hearing and discovering the things the priestess told him, and also when he stepped outside of the bar initially. So I went through and made him more nervous in the beginning and more anxious and fearful and shocked, etc., later on.

Tip#3: New writers leave weak and mediocre lines in their MS instead of looking for things they don’t LOVE when they read

I love this scene. I LOVE it.

I don’t love every line – so the ones I didn’t love, I took a hard look at.

  • Some were just awkward, and had to go.
  • The characters needed to have  dialogue (learn how to write great dialogues HERE and HERE) but be more than just talking heads. People move around and gesture and stuff when they talk. I added that. (New writers – PLEASE – no talking heads!)
  • Then I went back and looked at the names. I referred to Dahlia by name only a few times. I needed to rotate between “she” and “the priestess” and “Dahlia. “
  • The detail of the room only needed to be specific in a few areas. That would allow the reader to imagine it however they wanted to. But like a fine painting, I added detail here and there: I added information about the scarf covering the table, but omitted details of the men’s faces (obscured by shadows, remember?) I added stuff about the bottles and shelves. 
  • I added drama to Dahlia’s part. She throws the table, she screams – then she turns and calms herself. Doug’s reactions are more dramatic, too. And I had Dahlia reveal about Sophie’s gift (pretty dramatic) and that Doug had been hiding his (also dramatic, an “Aha!” moment for the reader).
  • Finally, I really went back and forth the idea of having the storm kicking up in the background while Dahlia was doing her reveal, and then dying back down once the moment has passed. That might be a nice effect, or it might be a little too Hollywood. Originally, obviously, that wasn’t in there. And it may not stay. I’m gonna have to let this rest and look at it again, maybe see what my beta readers think, and my editor. I could go either way. It’s not a bad idea to feel like she is so in tune with nature that when she gets angry it starts to storm, but done poorly it will be cartoonish.

Very little of that was in the first draft. The scene was good. It was a big scene.

The changes made it HUGE.

So all in all I was doing one big long slow pass looking for three or four things after trying to read it all the way through without touching anything first.

Then I went through again to see if it hit on all cylinders.

Why did I take out these lines:

First I was in a dark parking lot; now I was in a dark alley. I can’t say I was enjoying this.

At least the rain hadn’t started again.

Because it added a lighthearted element that was nice but it was wrong for that spot in the story. It ruined the tension I was trying to build from one chapter to the next. Even though it fit with Doug’s persona, it was wrong for the scene.

So, all those changes, they took place in one day – but that’s not what I recommend .

However, just because I recommend something doesn’t mean any of us are strong enough to resist the urge to go over a chapter three or four times in a single day. This one got four full passes from me. That’s four drafts.

As a result, it still needed one more pass. Which happened the next day. I deleted two lines and tweaked a third. That’s it, but now it’s amazing.

How did I do?

I love the scene. I think it’s freaking intense.

I don’t think readers see it coming.

Last Item: it’s long. Size matters. Because pace matters.

4500 words is a long chapter. It’s not godawful long, but it’s close, and it’s still fast paced so it doesn’t need to be trimmed. It might need to be divided into two chapters.

So…

Where to divide it? (If we do.) Because where and when you cut or trim may be the most important decision you make!

One thought I had was at the door to Dahlia’s house. The first part of the chapter would end when he goes up the steps and stares at the door. The next chapter would start when the door opens.

Technically that wouldn’t be a cheat because time passed, and I if I divide it might go away to a different scene for 300-500 words, like Tyree doing something – and then come back. (Maybe Tyree’s part where he reads the essay Doug wrote should go in between these. See? What works best? A manuscript should always be open to rearranging for a better effect.

Who can help you decide that? Critique partners, Beta Readers, and your editor. Practice. Judgement. Until you have those things under your belt,

  • go with your gut
  • be bold about what you write and what you leave in or out (you don’t have to click on every link I offer, but if you don’t know what I mean by writing bold, click that one. It’s worth the time; maybe the most important writing lesson ever.)

That’s what I do, and that’s what I did. It’ll work for you, too.

Bonus: involve more of the 5 senses.

Sight, taste, touch, hear, smell. Can you work more of those into a scene? Doug sees a lot in this chapter and his emotions are certainly there, but he also smelled incense outside Dahlia’s house and in the smaller room off the living room. He hears the in-your-face parts of the scene, but also the storm waxing and waning outside. It was subtle stuff, but it’s there, and it takes your reader a little deeper into the scene.

If I did another pass, I might add the words about smelling the acrid, minty scent of incense; or the cold hard wooden chair on his butt. Clammy, cold sweat on his forehead. See?

Let me know what YOU think. Should it be divided or is there enough tension to keep you glued to it as is?

Now:

head shot

 

Let me have your comments. The next chapter will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

 

5 thoughts on “3 Ways You Are Ruining Your Story

  1. I do agree, it was long. Perhaps cutting it before getting “into it” with “SHE” might work. Yet, everything in the alley led up to that and as such was like the preparation of a meal. You plan, you shop, you prep, you cook, you serve, you eat. Most of the time that might not be done all on the same day, but sometimes it is. I believe I would ave to re-read this a time or two before making that decision. *As a professional reader (not a Voodoo Priestess), I can feel the stress within her as a most real reaction. I used to tell people, if they bullshit me, they’ll get a bullshit response and have only themselves to blame. And I have actually had some people removed from my office due to the absurdity of their requests.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No, I don’t think it should be divided. We are flowing here with this chapter, from the bar to the Priestess’s house. Everything in-between those destinations flows. You wrote the scene with the Priestess very well. I have a gift that was passed down from the female line and how you wrote about her, what she said, it was very good. I like the storm, it adds to the nail biting. Yes, my eyes were wide as I read through. This is wonderful stuff, I can’t emphasize how much I am loving reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

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