From Shrug to Scorch: Scrubbing My Prose in 30 Days, Report Three

And so the June challenge to improve my editing skills continues … I’m taking a look back at my Abishag mystery series and two examples from Jack Fell Down. Since I’m also editing current projects Lillian in the Doorway, The Ghosts of Thirds, Egrets, and The Foreign Story Collector, these challenges sharpen my revision knife.

Challenge Thirteen: a conflict without “shrug” or “eyebrows rising”

Sinking Ships Cover with Eric's pictureSad to say, I love shrugs and rising eyebrows. Here’s a scene where I managed to restrain myself in Sinking Ships, the first Abishag mystery.  After several run-ins with the housekeeper, Leslie confronts Mrs. Timmons.

I’d said about the unkindest thing I could. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t a mean person.

To her blank face, I stuttered, “I meant to say that I think me being with Thomas is making him better. Not better, but more comfortable. So I should spend more time with him.” She blinked at me, so I added lamely, wallowing in embarrassment, “Don’t you think so?”

“I think you have bags under your eyes and are so tired you’re talking nonsense. Shouldn’t you take a nap?”

I nodded dumbly. “Yes, ma’am, but I promised Thomas I’d be back in an hour.” Then for no reason at all, I burst into tears.

Challenge Fourteen: a character’s motivation for running into a dangerous situation

Anyone who writes mysteries featuring amateur detectives has to answer the question: why would any sane person walk into a dangerous situation.  To her friend Kat, Leslie explains her reason in Sinking Ships:

“I’m going to find out who murdered her.”

Kat took another swig of water. “Why?”

It seemed petty to say I wanted to annoy Donovan Reid, “She was a relative of Thomas’s. I’m doing it for him.”

She waved her hand. “What’s the real reason?”

“That is the real reason.” When she continued to stare at me, I added, “The agency lawyer told me to stay out of it.”

Her eyes sparkled. She dropped the hedge clippers and sprawled comfortably on the lawn. “You usually do what you’re told, so why do you wanna fight him?”

“I don’t want to fight him.” When she smirked, I knew I’d spoken too quickly. “Maybe I’m trying to figure out what kind of wife I’m supposed to be. I’m Thomas’s final wife. Seems like if I can help him, help his family, then I should.”

She cocked her head. “Nothing to do with the lawyer then?”

“He just clarified my thinking.”

Challenge Fifteen: a silent conversation

Indelible Beats copy-001Since “college girls who marry vegetative old men” is the premise of the Abishag series, silent conversations are not uncommon. In the second Abishag mystery, Indelible Beats, Leslie provides hospice care for her husband by warming him at night.

I slipped into the bed and pulled the light duvet over us. Although the room was sultry, my hands felt like frosted glass. I blew on them, rubbed them, till they were warm enough for me to wind my left arm around Jordan and slip my hand into his. Leaning my forehead against his back, I listened to his heart. I wasn’t sure how to describe those beats, whether in rate or strength or in harmony with my own.

I thought about Jordan’s most famous painting Indelible Beats. However long or short my nights with Jordan, his heartbeats would become indelible too.

Challenge Sixteen: a cat’s behavior

This is from Jack Fell Down. I’m currently working on its sequel. Two separate excerpts from two types of cats.

Pam to her Aunt Ivy:

My throat tightened, but I managed to say, “I miss you too, but I don’t miss your ugly cat.”

Tiger scratches:

“Would you believe me if I said your leg was not injured by a tiger?” Ivy said.

I’d seen the scar. Could I honestly say that I’d seen it before a week ago? Did I trust Ivy more than the evidence of my eyes?

Challenge Seventeen: a dog’s behavior

jack fell down copyAnother excerpt from from Jack Fell Down. You’ll have to read this first mystery to find out something special about the dog introduced in this excerpt.

The dog splashed between us, one of those creatures of little brain but an all-encompassing love of anything human. Grinning at me, his long hair dripping water, he crouched slightly, inviting me to play.

“He doesn’t bite,” the boy said. “Dad says he’s a terrible guard dog but a first rate catcher of anything you don’t want.”

Challenge Eighteen: a scorching afternoon only using your sense of taste

riddle in bones 3 copy-2Riddle in Bones, the third Abishag mystery, takes place in Palm Springs. In August. So I had lots of opportunities to show scorching scenes. If I’d only thought to show it using taste!

We walked through the blistering heat where the melting asphalt of the parking lot stuck to my huarache sandals. Sebastian’s beater car suffered in its own way: the interior sweltered and the seats fried my bare legs.

Using only the sense of taste? How about the following?

Sebastian introduced me to Indian food after a study session. He loved the heat of it layered with different spices. When he checked his phone, I sneaked a bite of his lentil dish spiked with ghost pepper. I thought my mouth had been torched, fried, and seared. When I recovered from the shock, only the flavor of tart charcoal remained.

An afternoon in the Palm Desert was much like that.

You decide which version you like better.

Challenge Nineteen: a trip to the seaside

An Eggshell Present Cover copyThe final Abishag mystery takes place in my birthplace: Santa Monica, a city on the Southern California coast. In An Eggshell Present, Leslie marries her last comatose husband and moves to his townhouse.

I levered open the window and leaned against the glass, glad of the smoky September chill and of the wind blowing from the ocean, smelling of brine.

He didn’t remember me.

I’d borne many things since the accident, and I would bear this too.

That’s it for the third chunk of days in June. See you next Sunday!

Till then, happy reading.

About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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4 Responses to From Shrug to Scorch: Scrubbing My Prose in 30 Days, Report Three

  1. dayya says:

    Enjoyed reading these challenges, and think you succeeded admirably. The best one is describing a scorching afternoon using only taste. Well done!

  2. Kaye Klem says:

    All great writing!

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