Humility in Writing by C.J. Sweet

As writers, we all must come to grips with the ongoing dilemma of humility versus self-promotion; it is far less complicated to look at the role of humility in our characters than in ourselves.

 

As in life, humble people often possess a quiet, inner strength that plays well against an obnoxious main character. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. Definitely not humble. Yet, his dependence on the humility of Dr.Watson is subtle, yet powerful. Watson not only admires and supports Holmes, it is the doctor’s steadfast loyalty which makes Holmes a household name. And while Watson highly disapproves of Holmes’ use of mind-enhancing drugs, he will still go out of his way to save the life of the indisputable genius.

 

In the same way, in Gone With the Wind, Melanie’s quiet, unassuming character serves to highlight and heighten Scarlet O’Hara’s self-centeredness. Is Melanie remembered? Of course she is, for her humble spirit and shy nature. After Scarlet has been caught being “comforted” by Ashley Wilkes, it is sweet, unassuming Melanie who offers friendship and forgiveness, heaping “coals of kindness” on her cousin’s head. It is interesting how this seems to confuse the enemy, yet it is stated in many articles that a spirit of humility is the best deterrence when confronted with anger, resentment, or jealousy.

 

In the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd, Rutledge is a main character whose energies are spent solving intricate murders. The stories take place shortly after World War I. Using a brilliant character flaw, Todd gives Rutledge PTSD at a time when it was unknown and/or condemned as an indication of cowardness. Detective Ian Rutledge must contend 24/7 with the voice of a soldier he was forced to shoot for refusing to take his men over dead man’s land one last time. Throughout the book, the ghostly “Hamish” makes his presence known in critical observations and angry remarks. This strange use of PTSD adds an extra layer of suspense to the book as a whole, yet holds Detective Rutledge in a complex grip. The condition not only denies him the opportunity of either promotion or marriage, it allows a deep insight into the pain of others, while contrasting Rutledge’s inner strength, which he must always hold in check, against the obnoxious resentment of his immediate supervisor, who is both arrogant and demeaning.

 

The world-famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie, created a boastful, arrogant, and far from humble Belgian, with a love of chocolates — definitely not a liability, right? Hercule Poirot’s true weakness is his strength. Come again? Poirot knows himself to be a brilliant detective and, much like Sherlock Holmes, only appears humble when the occasion demands it or when doing so will ingratiate himself to others. Indeed, he is totally convinced of his own intellectual superiority, and Christie uses this very attribute, not only as quasi comic relief, but to bring the short Belgian down another notch. Upon missing a vital clue, Poirot curses his own stupidity, something that would never be tolerated coming from others! While Poirot is truly “an unforgettable character,” I often catch myself thinking that one more reference to “those little gray cells” will surely cause me to scream and run amok. Maybe he’s just not my cup of tisane.

 

In contrast, Christie’s other brilliant detective is Miss Marple, who is so unassuming, many forget she’s even there, including the killer. Marple is given a peace, an inner strength that others sense; they migrate towards what they perceive as a naïve kind of dignity, confessing their darkest secrets to someone who listens to their every word while instilling an unspoken sense of confidentiality and caring. In true humility, she sorts through the facts and zeroes in on the perpetrator, who never suspects the little old lady of anything other than dementia and an obsession with knit one, pearl two.

 

Finally, Harry Potter. In tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin calls Neville Longbottom “the most important person in Harry Potter.” Why? Because it is this unassuming, humble, kind minor character who “determines the course” of the entire series. Wow. “Neville understands that it’s not about being loud and brash every day, it’s about picking your battles and knowing what’s dear and worth fighting for.” In other words, he makes Harry Potter look really good. Need I admonish you to place close attention to your minor characters? While not “remarkably talented or suave,” Neville is trusted. He “makes all the hard choices that Pettigrew refused the first time around.” Pettigrew allowed the weakness of hero worship to affect his decisions while Neville, knowing he could have been where Harry Potter is now, bears no grudge. Instead, he develops a fierce determination to do what he can to help the group as a whole. Asher-Perrin calls it “a lesson in self-worth under stronger personalities that most human beings could do with at some point or another.” Neville Longbottom, in effect, makes Harry Potter possible.

 

In the workplace, a spirit of humility can encourage others to shine. In relationships, humility can bring a deep calm to troubled waters. In fiction, a character with quiet, inner strength can add depth and contrast to your writing, and take it to the next level.

 

  1. J. Sweet

12/06/2016

 

“Night Vision” – Short Story, First Place, Writer’s Digest 2015 Fiction Contest, Thriller Category

“White Rabbit” – Short Story, Honorable Mention, Saturday Evening Post 2016 Anthology

“The Organ Chaser” – Short Story, The Final Twist “Denizens of the Dark” Anthology 2016

 

Find more about C.J. Sweet at her blog, https://cadenstclaire.com/tag/caden-st-claire/.

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Halloween Story Time! by Debra Black

Hello, all you ghoulish writers out there. It’s time for another haunting episode in The Final Twist blog space. As you are all probably aware, it’s time to dust off the ol’ witches’ hat and re-mount our collective fall holiday decorations. This year, there’s a better alternative to giving just a few calorie-loaded, hyperactivity-inducing sweets to the wandering superheroes and evil vampires that appear on the gloaming of All Hallows Eve.

Most of you that read this blog have a trick in your treat-bag that could be just what the zombie ordered! This is the perfect time of year to make those skeletons rattle with a bone-chilling short story. Whatever creepy-crawly you may want to employ for your tale, I’m going to give you 10 words to use for a treat that you can raise from the grave to delight your friends and strangers alike. We would love to see what you come up with, if you choose to share.

The purpose of this post is to give everyone who reads it several stories to use for the evening. Your rendition will be used by strangers far and wide to provide a proper scare to local trick-or-treaters. Shorter is better. We don’t want to make the audience disappear before the finale because they are apprehensive at losing their valuable candy-collecting time. Stories should be short enough that you can print up your favorites on a sheet of paper to slip into plastic pumpkin buckets. Please keep reply posts to 500 words or less.

After you’ve written the story, don’t forget to set the atmosphere! For ambiance, try setting up several dark blankets in the driveway or yard with chairs or pillows (that you don’t mind getting dirty). Settle the children in a semi-circle around the story-teller, and don’t forget to let the accompanying adults in on the fun. For an extra surprise, you can do a double-walled blanket enclosure and have a costumed assistant (or a willing parent) ready to jump in from behind at the most exciting part! Just make sure you have enough room to not trample anyone.

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Another fun idea is to make a fireplace without the fire by attaching some light-weight red, orange, and yellow cloth strips on top of a wooden or cardboard box (not too large) with a LED battery-powered light and fan inside.  Several online resources are available to help with ideas. Here are a few:

Make a Fake Fire   Realistic Fake Fire

Onto the writing fun! The 10 words I challenge you to put in your story are:

Slither

Crunch

Trickle

Ooze

Petrify

Cadaver

Spirit

Tarantula

Fog

Spirit

Submissions (use the Leave a Comment button below)  will stay open for seven days, then we will begin voting to see who gets bragging rights for having “The SCARIEST story anyone has heard!” Don’t forget to check back often to pick out your favorite stories for use on Halloween so that you can memorize them or print them out for practice. May your thoughts be frightfully productive, and Ghoul luck!

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TIME, CIRCUMSTANCE, and SETTING by C.J. Sweet

I recently watched Stephen Hawking’s Genius series on PBS Channel 8 in Houston on the possibilities of time travel. Three people were shown numbers that constituted an invitation to a party. The numbers represented the intersection of 46th Street and 11th Street, and a 15-story building. But when the people arrived, the party had long been over; they walked dejectedly among the half-inflated balloons, empty cups, and food remains. Hawking had given them the where of the party, but had neglected to give them the when. My writer’s mind immediately made a connection between the elusive dimension of time and the importance of time when applied to the setting in a story or novel.

I had just finished Mary Buckham’s book, “A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting,” explaining how setting adds depth to your character, and a time tangent led me to Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”:

 

“Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon and after their three o'clock naps. And by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There's no hurry, for there's nowhere to go and nothing to buy…and no money to buy it with.”

I realized it was time and circumstance that Harper Lee used to draw me into the story. She didn’t just tell me the where (Deep South) and the when (1932), but she used specific details to show how the people reacted to their circumstances at a specific time in history. Being a native Texas, I certainly knew what to expect in the way of heat and humidity, but she wove the setting in such a way that it brought depth to her characters. It was a different place and time, and a remarkable first paragraph. Of course, someone who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line might not relate to the difference in time−that there’s a heap of difference between the Republic of Texas and the Deep South, not just in speech, but in mindset. Or that in the pre-Civil War Deep South, things moved so slowly it was even said that “time stood still.” So how relevant is time to circumstance, and how do they relate to setting? Sometimes, the addition of a sentence or two can explain both. Buckham demonstrated this with the following two examples:

“The day I left Paris, I knew I would be returning as soon as possible.”

“Paris had dressed in her best to see us off. A warm spring sun peeked through the pearl-grey skirts of early morning gog. And a light breeze stirred the new leaves on the Champs-Elysees as if waving farewell.” −Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass

The first sentence tells us where (Paris), but doesn’t really explain how the character feels about leaving. The expanded paragraph tells us not only the when (spring) and the where (Paris), but takes us deeper into the character’s circumstance of being forced to leave a city she’s grown to love, and shows us how she feels. Buckham also includes a negative, rainy-day reaction when the setting changes. We all look at things differently, and how we filter what we see depends on who we are and where we come from, our character. And how that character reacts over time can change as well, from child to adult to a senior citizen. Time can just as easily refer to the time of day/year/month/century as it can a person’s time in life. Hawking seemed to understand this elusive nature of time, and demonstrated in his documentary how we cannot move back in time without meeting ourselves−a complicated circumstance, to say the least. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right when he said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Time of life, or actual time?

Back to Buckham’s book. Setting also uses time to create conflict (future) or show backstory (past), hopefully without making it an “info dump” that pulls the reader out of the story. Each of us reacts to feelings in different ways, and setting can evoke positive as well as negative reactions, depending on time and circumstance. Buckham reminds us that backstory matters only if it is relevant to current choices, decisions, or events in your story. She gives an example of using setting and circumstance to trigger a memory that serves to contrast what the character is seeing and thinking. And she incorporates sensory details as well:

“A watery sun was shining on it [the house]. There was a faint breeze and the smell of woodsmoke in the air and a kind of intense cold-afternoon quiet all around us. It was the kind of place you would have wanted your grandparents to live…it reminded me of the places in the picture books they gave me in Manila and Guam.”

This is a vast improvement over:

“I had been a child who had grown up on miliary bases around the world, who had never had what I saw as a traditional American home.”

A lot was said about the setting and the character’s reaction to it, which took him back in time and revealed another level of his character. You can draw the reader deeper into the character’s point of view (POV) by triggering a memory that causes the reader to care. If place and time form an integral part of your story, take extra pains with it early on to anchor it in the reader’s mind, but Buckham reminds us to be careful about pacing. When is setting too much setting? When it takes away from the story. Take your character into the setting, and use the setting to take the reader deeper into the character. And remember that elusive dimension of time, so nobody misses the party.

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Cover Story by L. Stewart Hearl

It’s been said that you can’t tell a book by its cover. While this may be true, if the cover doesn’t grab the reader, he may not open the book. I will not discuss cover art here, but there is something else to be found on the cover—the title. It is the first print the reader sees. Does it capture your reader’s attention? Does it make him want to open the book and read your story? The title should suggest the main subject of your story, usually with a twist.

Examples of titles that suggest the story:

“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, “Star Wars”, “The Expendables”, “Forbidden Planet”, “Song of Fire and Ice”  (Movies are usually based on books.)

Titles cannot be copyrighted and can be re-used. However, I would not suggest that you grab someone else’s title. Your title should be a short-hand introduction to your story, not someone else’s.

Sometimes it’s hard to come up with a good idea for your story.  In such circumstances, some suggest “Read a newspaper” or “Get a magazine on your favorite subject”.  Those suggestions are good, but here’s something that might help kick start you into your story.  I call it the Superlative Starter for both your story and your story title.

Generally speaking, a superlative is a word ending in “est” although there are some superlatives that don’t follow that rule.   Here are a handful of examples: Best, worst, tallest, shortest, first, last, smartest, dumbest, fastest, etc..  When you use a superlative in a title it immediately tells the reader what to expect from your story for it asks a question that, hopefully, your story will answer.  After reading your title, the reader is forced to ask the question “Why?”

The title format is very simple.  It’s just “The <superlative> <noun>”.

Examples:
The Last Ship
The Smallest Monster
The Richest Woman in Town
The Smallest Hero
The Last Drop of Water
The First Man on Mars
The Shortest Cop
The Fastest Car in Bogota
The Sharpest Pencil in the Box
The Hottest Day on Earth

From “Creative Writing Essentials” by L. Stewart Hearl
Available for $2.99 on Amazon Kindle

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Transformations by Selmin Seren Gulunay

I closed my eyes, emptied my mind

Entered deep, deep inside

I searched for clues to what had happened

When did I let go of my trust

When did I stop being loving

When did I confine myself only to existence

To only a shadow of a real person

I felt deep sadness, emptiness, and fear

I opened my eyes quickly and promised

To let my heart be free again

Like a child, curious and trusting

Ready to experiment and to love

To be like a bird in the sky

A cloud high above

Until it meets the cold air

And becomes rain and snow

To fall on the ground

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Reflections on National Missing Children’s Day by Selmin Seren

Webmaster’s note: This wonderful article from Ms. Selmin was submitted in plenty of time to be posted for the May 25 recognition days she cites below. The webmaster pulled a Rip van Winkle and snoozed right on through May, June, July. But, there are no wrong days become more aware of an international children’s issue. So, with profuse apologies for the delay, here is a wonderfully informative article. Feel free to share you own experiences in the comments. And please, when you talk to your children make sure they understand what you mean by “strangers.” Many children believe that word does not apply to anyone with a smiling, friendly face.

We are going to commemorate both National Missing Children’s Day and International Missing Children’s Day on May 25. Before I share my own experience with a close encounter to have the same fate with these children, I would like to give a brief account of how these days were established.

High profile child abduction cases shocked people in the USA between 1979 and 1981. On May 25, 1979, 6-year- old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York City. His father, a professional photographer, distributed Etan’s black and white pictures all over and placed them also on milk cartons in the hope of finding his son. Thus, he created awareness for child abductions nationally and internationally. Etan’s body has never been recovered.

On July 27, 1981, almost 7-year- old Adam Walsh was left at the video games section of a Hollywood, Florida, Sears department store while his mom stopped to check out some lamps not too far from him. When she returned, Adam was gone due to a scuffle between older boys which resulted in a security guard’s demand for the boys to leave the store if their parents were not with them. The security guard assumed Adam was with the older boys. Unfortunately, perhaps, Adam was too shy to speak out that he was not with these older boys and that his mom was at the store. On August 10, 1981, Adam’s severed head was found in a canal approximately 130 miles away. The rest of his body was never recovered.

There were no regional and/or national response systems to help with the searches. In both cases, the fathers were initially prime suspects. John Walsh, Adam’s father, said “The abduction of a child is a tragedy. No one can fully understand or appreciate what a parent goes through at such a time, unless they have faced a similar tragedy…” John Walsh became the host of the television program America’s Most Wanted and an advocate for victims of horrendous crimes.

The Missing Children Movement, the milk-carton campaigns of the mid 1980s, and a new legislation followed the aforementioned and other tragic events. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 25th National Missing Children’s Day to be observed at the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance. Similar events in other countries proved that this was not specifically an American problem. International Missing Children’s Day was first observed on May 25, 2001.

To come to my own story, I was seven and a half years old, and in third grade. It was a Saturday. We had school only for a half day on Saturdays. Most of the students had already gone home, but I was taking my time crossing the cobblestone street that divided our elementary school from the start of my neighborhood. Once I was on the other side of the street, I stayed on the payment hopping and kicking stones. While I was having fun, I was suddenly startled by a man’s feet in dark color leather shoes with their backs crushed down by his weight in front of me. As my eyes moved from his shoes to his black loose pants, tucked in shirt which was open down his chest, and a colorful cloth belt wrapped around his waist, he announced that he was my maternal uncle. He stated that he just arrived in the city and didn’t have time to get a present for my mom. He wanted me to take him to a confectioner’s store to select her favorite candies. I was not only startled, but also frightened now. From the uncles I met in real life and from the pictures that I had seen of others, he didn’t look like anyone who could be my maternal uncle. I mumbled some things, turned around, and ran in the opposite direction as fast as I could. I was running to the principal’s house. His house was a little above the school and on the same side that I was running on. Only a few cars were passing in the street and some people were walking. When I arrived at his house, I pounded on the door. His wife looked from the wood lattice covered window, which was projecting to the street on the second floor, and she asked what the matter was. Again I mumbled some things. She said that she was coming down to open the door. At that moment I was able to turn around to see if the stranger was following me. I didn’t see anyone that looked like him. As she opened the door and let me into the court yard, I saw a glass of water in her hand. She poured some into her hand and applied it to my face and forehead and let me drink the rest. I couldn’t tell her what had happened, only that I came to see the principle. The stranger’s yelling after me “It’s a secret, it’s a surprise, etc.!!!” were still echoing in my ears.

She, one of the most kind ladies I have met in my life, invited me to go upstairs and wait there. She was expecting him for lunch any minute and she invited me to stay for lunch. I said that I’d wait for him down in the courtyard and that my mom would be extremely angry with me if I were to be too late. Some time passed and he didn’t come. It was her opinion that he was tied down at school and I could tell her anything. Meanwhile, she went upstairs and came down with some sweets wrapped in paper. I thanked her for her kindness and expressed my hope of seeing the principal on the way home. I couldn’t talk about it, but I was feeling much better. Once I was on the street I looked carefully to see if the stranger was around; I also searched with quick and careful glances if the principal, Ubeyd Soylemezoglu, would appear so I can tell him what had happened. When I came to the corner where I had to make a right turn to enter the street to my home, I carefully surveyed to see if the stranger was anywhere on the street. The street looked completely empty. Then I ran as fast as I could and pounded on our door. My brother who was three years older than me opened the door and told me our mom was angry with me for being so late. She was urging him to go and look for me. I quickly moved to the kitchen, and gave the small package of sweets to my mom by saying the principal’s wife sent it to her. I was grateful that she didn’t ask why I went there, but she inquired about why I didn’t tell my brother that I was going there so he could have brought the news of my whereabouts. I spent the whole weekend in anxiety, and didn’t go out for any reason.

On Monday, I heard that the principal was looking for me and I needed to go and see him at his office. Once I was in his office, I felt as if all of my anxieties disappeared, and I was in peace. He was not only kind, but also had tremendous wisdom. I told him what had happened and he told me that I did the right thing and inquired about if I told it to my family. When I said ‘no’, he inquired further ‘why’. I remember saying that my mom would say it was my fault because I didn’t come straight home like the other children. He mentioned that he would speak with my mom without telling her what I told him. After this incident, Ubeyd bey, the principal of our school, began talking about children’s safety, what children should be aware of, what they could do if anything happened to them, and parents’ responsibilities. He shared these insights and warnings in our classes, on Monday mornings after the Flag ceremonies, and even during parent-teacher meetings, without ever mentioning my name.

He loved children. His eyes used to shine when he was talking to students; I don’t ever remember him spanking a student even though we were living in a society where spanking was considered an important part of disciplining children. He made most of us feel that we were the future of our country.

Our children are the future of our countries. Let us talk to them and with them. Let us share our experiences with them in any form, verbal and/or written. Please reach out to children and other adults on May 25 to commemorate this day with them.

 

Some important resources:
http://www.ojjdp.gov/missingchildrensday/
http://www.icmec.org
http://www.netsmartz.org/parents
http://www.kidsmartz.org

Selmin Seren

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