Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Critique: The Ebony Piano

At last, I finished the critique I promised you. Aside from the usual red and blue, you'll see a few green words. That's because Debbie isn't from the US, but her story is set here. The green phrases are ones that needed American-izing.

The Ebony Piano

by Debbie Roome

[red = could be deleted, blue = my comments or additions]

The air was frigid and her breath hung like misty ribbons against the velvet spread of dusk. On the street, lamps [Streetlights] spilled golden puddles of light[This would be better phrased as a question. Where was Ryan?] Probably with a customer. He seemed to work[ed] such long hours these days. Chilly, she pulled her coat around herself, a leather womb of comfort and warmth. [You can skip telling us she’s chilly. The rest of the sentence shows it nicely.] onto soft mounds of snow heaped around their bases. The neighbourhood was quiet, the evening sounds muffled by layers of white. She had expected to find the house welcoming, with warm light overflowing window ledges but it was dark, silent, aloof. She wondered briefly where Ryan was.

Anxious to get inside, she tiptoed carefully across the icy walkway, her movements cautious, feline. [To say her movements were feline sounds odd coming from the inside. That’s something for an outside observer to note. Plus, it sounds conceited.] She hoped Sylvie had laid a fire. It was one of the few pleasures she still enjoyed with Ryan. Relaxing in front of a crackling fire, burnished logs shooting mellow sparks towards the heavens and a mug of creamy coffee at her side. Her mind riffled through the last few weeks. How long had it been since they’d shared an intimate evening? Toasting marshmallows and drinking hot, spicy cider that burned warm pathways through their chests. She couldn’t remember. “Oh Lord,” she whispered, “What's happening to us?”

Light pooled around her as she flipped the switch inside the hall. [Change the order. You have the light appearing before she turns the light on. “She flipped the switch inside the hall and light pooled around her.”] The emptiness took a few moments to process. The lack of all that was familiar. Instead of the rich ambience of copper and brass, she faced stark walls and dull reflections from bare window-panes. Shocked, she stumbled backwards, half falling down the steps, fumbling for her cell phone, clumsy fingers stabbing at the keypad. Come on Ryan. Please answer.

[Redo the last sentence. You’ve got a couple of problems—telling an emotion, plus everything is happening at the same time, which is impossible. She can’t be fumbling for her cell phone at the same time she’s punching numbers on that same cell phone. Try: “She stumbled backwards, half falling down the steps. Her clumsy fingers fumbled for her cell phone, then stabbed at the keypad.” I still don’t like stumbled and fumbled so close together, but that gives you an idea of how to fix it.]

“You’ve reached Ryan Stafford. I’m not available right now.”

Oh, God. What should I do? It looks like a robbery. What else is missing? How did they get in? Where is Ryan? Was Sylvie here when it happened?

She tried to shuffle the thoughts into some kind of order. Scenes from CSI filtered into her mind. If this was a crime scene, there had to be evidence. The hall-light dribbled over the steps and lit the wide pathway that led down to the road. Although fresh snow was falling, she could see signs of recent activity. Dirty heaps of slush, scarred and crushed, trampled by heavy, booted feet. Deep impressions left by laden carriers. Along the road-side, lumps of turf and sod [turf and sod? What’s the difference?] lay scattered where a heavy vehicle had struggled to gain traction. A vehicle that had disappeared with part of her life.

[You’ve got a lot of active description. Now, that’s a good thing, but it can be overdone. So far light alone has puddled, pooled and dribbled. Also, your description is doing a great job of establishing the setting, but you aren’t establishing your character. I feel distanced from your character.]

The emergency services answered promptly. “911, please state your emergency.”

“Uh, my home has been broken into.”

“Is there any sign of activity?”

“I haven’t been inside yet.”

“Is there any sign of forced entry?”

“Not at the front, but all the furniture from the hallway has gone.” [In America, this sounds like the furniture got up and walked away. We’d say the furniture is gone.]

“Alright, Ma’am. Your address is 79 Hartwood Drive in Amberfield, is that correct?”


“And your name?”

“Terri Stafford.”

“Terri, I’m dispatching officers to the scene as we speak. I want you to stay away from the house. Go over to a neighbour if you can or wait in a safe place. Will you do that for me?”

She clicked the phone off, shivering slightly, more from shock than cold she guessed. Surely it wouldn’t harm if she went into the house? [We’d say it wouldn’t do any harm.] It was obvious the thieves had long since departed.

The hall echoed softy as she padded through to the living room and groped for the switch. Soft peach light illuminated hollows in the carpet where leather furniture had stood that morning. The accessories were gone too. Coffee tables, CDs, television, stereo, lamps and rugs. The only thing undisturbed was her piano, the ebony upright she’d inherited from her grandmother. She walked across to it and ran a finger across the smooth, ivory keys. How many times had she worshiped God from this piano? Memories washed across her heart. Grandma’s tiny cottage, the fragrance of baked apples and cinnamon. Grandma singing Amazing Grace in sweet tones. The clean scent of soap and witch hazel as Grandma leaned over her and helped her pick out the melody. Thank you God. Thank you for sparing my piano. You know how special it is to me.

She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed her eyes as she continued down the passage way, following the trail of splotchy mud. Room by room, she surveyed her loss, the emptiness in her heart growing in proportion to the emptiness in her home. Nearly everything was gone. The dining room was empty, the kitchen stripped of appliances. Only the simple wooden table and chairs remained. She’d left a note for Sylvie. Asked her to prepare a casserole for dinner but there were no savoury aromas in the air, no pungent garlic or spicy curry to stir the appetite. She wondered if Sylvie had come in but then spotted the cookie jar. It was full of thick choc-chip cookies and striped pinwheels in peppermint and pink. I wonder where she went to. I hope nothing happened to her.

[When she stops to think about all these things, dinner aromas, cookies, memories—your scene loses its immediacy. If she feels confident the robbers have gone and she’s not in any danger, she should be rushing from room to room simply taking note of what’s gone.]

She moved on to Ryan’s study. A barren cube of muted beige and khaki. Seeing the phone lying in a dusty patch on the floor she felt a pang of irrational annoyance at Sylvie. [I like the irrational annoyance. It’s one of the only glimpses you give us of Terri’s personality.] When had she last moved the desk and vacuumed under there? Next to the phone lay the framed photos that had been on Ryan’s desk. Crouching on the floor, she picked them up and arranged them like silver soldiers in a neat row. Those had been happier days. [This isn’t the place for more reflection. You established well enough in the beginning that they have marital problems. The fact that almost every belonging is gone is going to take precedence over all else.]

Ryan grinned out at her, fist raised in triumph as he received the award for businessman of the year. His face was relaxed and toffee hair curled rampantly round strong features. The next photo was them as a couple, dancing at their wedding; her slender frame engulfed by his bulk as he whirled her in the air. The last was a studio shot that captured the sheen of her hair, glossy as a raven’s wing against milky skin and blue-sequin eyes.

[My, my. Doesn’t she think a lot of herself? Narration is basically your character’s thoughts. You might as well put it in italics, I’m so beautiful. Okay, you can't hear my teasing tone. I realize you’re only trying to get a description in the reader’s mind, but that can wait until you can do it differently—through another character, ideally, if you have more than one POV.]

She glanced at her watch, wondering how long the police would take. She thought they would have arrived by now. Maybe she should call Ryan’s office. He preferred she use his cell number but it was an emergency. She picked up the receiver and punched in the number. An unfamiliar male voice answered. “Compumate, good evening.”

“Good evening. Could I speak to Ryan Stafford please?”

“I’m afraid he no longer works here.”

She didn’t absorb what he was saying. “Has he left for the evening?”

“No Ma'am.” His voice was toneless, bored. The drone of a gum-smacking youth. “He left the company about two weeks ago. Is there anything I can help you with?”

She hung up and walked over to the naked window, pressing her nose against the frozen glass. It was snowing hard now, feathery flakes drifting through gilded haloes around street lamps. [That’s nice description, but it doesn’t enhance the mood of the scene. She just learned a shocking piece of news. Any description you place in this spot should deepen the tone—or provide stark contrast to it—not be incidental.] What was going on? Ryan had dressed each morning and left as though going to work. Why hadn’t he told her he’d left Compumate? Did he have another job? A thought flitted across her mind. Maybe he was depressed. Didn’t depressed people do crazy things? He hadn’t been himself for weeks. She thought of the silences, the surliness, the reaction when she entered his study without knocking. The way he snapped files shut and shoved them into drawers. The secretive behaviour when he was on the internet, shielding the screen, minimizing his work as she brought offerings of coffee and Danishes.

Lord. I’ve lost my possessions and I feel like I’m losing Ryan as well. Please help me to be calm when I find him. Let me understand what is going on in his life.

She swallowed a sob as she left the study and climbed the thickly-carpeted stairs to the top section of the house. They’d been up here too. She could tell by the knocks on the wall, the muddy smears on the treads. Did she really want to expose herself to any more pain?

The phone rang in the passageway, jarring and shrill, startling her.


“Mrs Stafford. It’s me Sylvie. I’m calling to find out if everything is alright.”

She tried to keep her voice even as she replied. “I just got home and the house has been robbed, Sylvie. And I don’t know where Mr Stafford is.”

“Oh my.” Sylvie drew a quick breath. “Mr Stafford came in at noon and sent me home. Said he needed to be alone. I didn’t have time to prepare the dinner…” Her voice trailed off. “You say you’ve been robbed.”

“The house is empty. Drapes, furniture, appliances. They’ve all gone.” [They’re all gone.]

There was a pause as Sylvie absorbed the news. “I’m so sorry, Mrs Stafford. Would you like me to come in? Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No. No thank you. The police are on their way. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know what’s happening.”

Her thoughts were running on a new track as she hung up. Why had Ryan come home at noon? Was he having an affair? Maybe he’d taken the stuff and run off with his mistress. She pressed cold fingertips against her temples. Surely not. But why hadn’t he told her about his job. And why had he come home early?

Her cell phone rang and she eagerly checked the display, hoping it would be him.


“Terri? It’s Joan here from Emergency Services. Is everything alright by you?” [Either end the sentence at alright, or say with you.]

“Yes, but the police haven’t arrived yet.”

“That’s why I’m calling. All units had been dispatched to a multiple shooting downtown. That’s under control now and we have a vehicle on its way to you. I’m sorry for the delay.”

“Okay. Thanks for letting me know.”

She tucked the phone away, glad the woman hadn’t asked where she was waiting.

I feel so alone, God. Things seem to be getting worse and worse. I know our stuff is insured, but some of it is irreplaceable. Things I’ve collected over the years. And Ryan. I can’t believe he’s involved in this. Please bring him home safely and help us sort out his work problems.

She paused at the closed door of the nursery. The nursery that had never been used. She started decorating it three years ago, a dream that had bloomed into a passion. She couldn’t bear to find this room empty. I’ll leave it for later, God. I can’t handle much more right now.

The faint wail of a siren rose and fell in the distance as she pushed open the door to the master bedroom. It was a pleasant surprise to find their bed untouched. A solid oak structure, draped in rich emerald and sapphire. The matching drawers and dressing table were gone, however. Clumsy piles of clothing and underwear lined the plush carpet down the left side of the room. She sank onto the bed as her eyes scanned the chaos. She was relieved to see Ryan’s things were there as well. If he was leaving her, surely he would have taken his clothes? She was unable to make sense of any of it. Her life had been shattered in a matter of minutes. Her peace was gone; the accumulated treasures from years of collecting were gone. Even her husband was gone.

The sirens were close now and she felt a small measure of comfort. Give them wisdom, Lord. Help them to find our possessions. Help me to find Ryan. I need him here with me.

“Terri.” A harsh whisper sent adrenaline surging into her blood stream, tensing her muscles, increasing her heart beat, causing a fine sweat to dampen her hands. Downstairs, the police were hammering on the door. “Police officers. We’re coming in.”


What must I do, God? Should I try and get away? [A simple action, such as “She gripped the bedclothes,” would be much more effective than that prayer. Besides, What must I do? sounds entirely too British.] The voice sounded close, maybe in the bathroom. She could hear the police stomping through the rooms beneath her.

“I’m sorry.”

Trembling, Terri pulled herself up from the bed and walked slowly towards the bathroom. Ryan was sitting on the toilet lid. [Toilet lid distracts me. I see why you wrote it—you don’t want to give the impression that he’s actually using the toilet. But why not have him perched on the edge of the tub instead?] A broken man in wrinkled pants and crumpled shirt, eyes red-rimmed and hair mussed up. His elbows rested on his knees and he hunched forward like a cripple. From his clasped hands dangled a gun.

[Good hook. At the end, I want to read more.]

I can’t point out each little instance, but overall the tone is too formal. Your character doesn’t have her own voice. And you break in with direct thoughts and prayers a little too often. Instead of pulling the reader deeper into your character, as you’d think, this actually serves to distance the reader further. You’re breaking into the action to show us exactly what Terri is thinking. And it reads like the interruption it is.

Here’s what I would try—simply as an exercise to get deeper into character. Write this scene in first person, which might allow more of her thoughts and emotions to be part of the narration. Once you capture her feelings in the scene, change it back to third person, leaving the deeper characterization.

You have a good premise and I want to know what's going on. You set the scene very well. But as written, I’m not feeling the sympathy for Terri that I should feel, given her situation. It needs more emotion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Blog Tour: Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon

Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon
Debbie Fuller Thomas
Moody Publishers
June 1, 2008
ISBN: 978-0802487339
Debbie Fuller Thomas

"I am passionate about good fiction, the kind that grabs you and won't turn loose. My hope is that my characters will capture you and that you will consider my stories old friends with whom you visit often."

What others are saying about Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon:
A wonderful debut novel! Honest. Real. Gritty. A compelling look at the hardscrabble lives and beat-up souls of a grieving, single mom and her daughters as they navigate their way to hope and healing to become a family again. I couldn't put it down! I LOVE Debbie Fuller Thomas's beautiful, descriptive writing. You will too. Highly recommended.

Laura Jensen Walker, Author of Miss Invisible and Daring Chloe

You'll be caught up in this story from the first page, and drawn along by Debbie Fuller Thomas' masterful writing. A beautiful, wise tale of a family caught in a predicament with no simple answers, Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon will linger in your thoughts for a good long time.
Kathleen Popa, author of Saint Bertie and To Dance in the Desert
In Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon, Debbie Fuller Thomas takes every parent's worst nightmare and spins it into a deeply touching story. From the fragile seed of hope in Marty, to the fearful confusion of Andie, we see deep into the hearts of two families who have fallen victim to not one tragedy, but two. Compelling from the first word to the last, this is a story of the healing power of love, both human and divine. Sharon K. Souza, author of Every Good and Perfect Gift and Lying on Sunday

An Interview with Debbie Fuller Thomas

Your story is about a mother whose daughter was switched at birth. How does Marty find out that her child was switched?
Marty's daughter, Ginger, is the victim of a fatal genetic disease, Neimann Pick Type C, which often strikes every sibling in a family. Marty is concerned for her other 2 daughters, and when it's determined that she and her ex-husband are not carriers of the disease they know something's not right.

Where did you get the idea for your story?
My inspiration for the book came straight out of real life from a news story I heard about two families fighting over switched-at-birth babies when one child is orphaned. Of course, the circumstances and setting in my story are different, and the characters are completely fictitious. But I knew it would be a heartbreaking dilemma for any parent, especially for one who had suffered through the death of a child she thought was hers.

Do you have a favorite character?

I would have to say Andie, because even at 13-years-old, she doesn't become a victim. She's a little quirky, and she's had to mature quickly. Even though she's developed an attitude toward God and her situation in general, she keeps it to herself most of the time, and we understand her need to vent occasionally.

On what level do you think women will identify with Marty, her biological mom?
I think most moms would understand the panic of discovering they had the wrong child, and the guilt at not realizing instinctively that something was wrong all along. On another level, Marty is a caregiver who sets aside her own dreams to nurture her family. As women, we often set aside our dreams out of necessity, guilt or lack of support from our families, but like Marty, we don't have to abandon our dreams completely.

The story is set at a drive-in movie theater. What led you to choose that setting?

I think there's a nostalgic winsomeness about drive-in theaters and I want to encourage families to take advantage of the few drive-ins that are still in operation. I remember the smell of hot coffee when my mother poured cups from the thermos, and falling asleep in the backseat with my pillow and blanket. There's a sense of intimacy and togetherness that comes from being alone with your family, even though hundreds of other people are watching the same movie. I also used the run-down condition of the Blue Moon Drive-in as a reflection of the relationship between Marty and Andie and of the condition of their spiritual lives when they first meet.

What is the meaning behind the title: Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon?
Tuesday night is family night at the Blue Moon Drive-in. Andie needs a family, and the desire of Marty's heart is for her dysfunctional family to be a whole again.

Who are some of the other interesting characters in your story?
Andie is sandwiched in the birth order between Winnie, the needy younger sister, and Deja, an older teen who is bitter about the situation. Some interesting dynamics that take place when the three of them interact, especially when mom has to work long hours and there's too much unsupervised together-time.

What is the message that you would like your readers to take away from Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon?
I believe that God is our Father and that we were created to commune with Him on a deep level, but sin orphans us. When we're open to it, God is ready and willing to re-claim and restore us as his children.

How did you begin your writing career?

I operated a home day care for 6 preschoolers when my children were young, and I was in desperate need of a distraction to keep my sanity. So I began to write a novel during their naptimes. I finished it in about 2 years. It was my 'practice novel' which gave me confidence and helped me plot the blueprint for Tuesday Night.

What advice would you give to someone starting out as a writer?

Don't quit. I sold the first article I ever sent to a publisher and didn't sell another thing for 19 years. It's not going to happen overnight. It's an apprenticeship - a craft to be honed. When you're tempted to give up, remember the encouraging things other writers, agents or editors have said about your writing. If God has given you some talent, what acceptable excuse can you give Him for not using it?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Further thoughts

I wanted to put my thoughts about Every Good and Perfect Gift in a separate post, because I'm going to get personal. (Scroll down to read the review first. I wanted this post second, but it's too late.)

I was happy to see a book whose main character is a woman who has decided not to have children. I don't have any children. By choice.

My health is the reason. Terrible fatigue and a bad back. I won't bore you with detail. Women have a nesting instinct. My instincts tell me I couldn't provide good care for a child. There are a lot of days I can’t take care of my husband—he has to take care of me.

This isn't a pity party. I love my life, I just have my limitations. And if it wasn't for those limitations, I never would have discovered writing. My one heartbreak is for Brian. He'd be such a great dad. As is, he's a wonderful uncle to 15 nieces and nephews.

Anyway, I have my reasons. Legitimate ones. But I still feel evil. Every Mother's Day, whenever I hear scripture such as "the purpose of marriage is godly offspring," every time I see my friend who is unable to conceive and so badly wanted to.

I feel like a selfish sinner for not having children. Like I never should have gotten married if I wasn't going to have children. (I thought I would have children when I first got married. And I don't know what I'd do without Brian.)

Now, bringing it back to the book...

The main character asked her husband that very question. Are we sinning by not having children? He gently assured her that it was a decision, not a matter of sin at all. It was nice to get an outside opinion on that.

Because when I think about my decision, some days it tears me apart. Are we doing the right thing? Will I regret it some day? What do other people think of me? I know many people assume I don't like children. But let me tell you, those 15 nieces and nephews bring me great joy.

Okay, back to the book again. The one place where I thought something was missing was that Gabby didn't feel betrayed by DeeDee's decision to have a baby. I started out with three married friends who said they never wanted children. After a few years, they changed their minds. And I felt alone and betrayed. [Did I mention my selfishness? :o)]

Everyone reacts differently, but I know what a lonely path this is. So if Gabby had a friend for 18 years who was on the same path, I think she'd feel abandoned at this change of heart.

I'd like to think I won't have any regrets later in life. So I felt let down when... MINOR SPOILER ALERT... Gabby temporarily decides she wants a baby at age 41.

In fact, I had a hard time picking up the book again after that. Since nothing came of it, I wondered why it was necessary. Instead of the reassurances the book had been giving me up to that point, it was now giving me doubts.

But that was a very minor part of the book. Sharon Souza does an excellent job with this topic. (I don't mean to imply that the whole book is about childlessness. That's just part of Gabby's situation. DeeDee and the friendship is the focus of the book.)

This isn't something Christians talk about. Spurred on by this book, I'm talking about it.

I have one request of humanity in general. Please don’t ever ask anyone when they’re going to have a baby. One way or another, it’s in God’s hands. That could be a very painful question.

Sharon, if you ever read this, thank you for including this subject in your book.

Every Good and Perfect Gift

Every Good and Perfect Gift :Sharon K. Souza

Every Good and Perfect Gift (NavPress, 2008)

The Review

From the day DeeDee McAllister rode into Gabby’s life on her banana-seat bike, Gabby’s life would never be the same. In fact, her name wasn’t even Gabby until DeeDee decided it should be. Full of charisma and class, DeeDee takes over the planning of their lives. And that’s fine with Gabby. She’s content to be in her amazing friend’s shadow.

They marry their college sweethearts and settle into careers. The plan includes no children. All the reasons not to have children made sense to both women--and their husbands--so the decision was mutual. But at the age of 38, DeeDee changes her mind.

Two years of infertility follow, but DeeDee finally gets her way. After the birth of the baby, Gabby sees an alarming trend of forgetfulness in her friend. The symptoms continue to worsen until they receive the diagnosis. Now Gabby has to be the strong one—a role she doesn’t feel suited for.

The high-caliber writing in this novel is apparent from the first paragraph. The characters are rich—the friendship so real I wanted to be a part of it. The author dares to discuss the topic of childlessness by choice in a Christian setting. Although it’s clear from the back cover that the story is headed for a weighty topic or two, it’s an enjoyable trip.

Humor lightens all but the bleakest of moments. And those dark moments are shown with depth of genuine emotion. This story took me from laughter to tears and back again. It will have a lasting impact on me. A must read.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's April??

This is just a quick post to let you know I'm back.

It's been quite a winter. A very long one... and yet I can't believe it's April already.

On Christmas day, my father-in-law, Perry, ended up in the hospital with a bowel blockage--a side effect of colon cancer and its treatment. Our Christmas was canceled. Well, postponed until January 11, when he was out of the hospital after surgery.

On January 23, he was back in again. This time there was nothing they could do. A patient with a bowel blockage can't eat or drink anything. The IV nutrition they gave him was absorbed by the cancer before his body could utilize it.

On the 30th, they sent him home to die. The hospice nurse gave him a week to live. She's had years of experience, and she's usually right on.

Perry lasted 7 weeks.

For the first three weeks we were there every day. After all, we thought, this could be our last chance to see him. When he stabilized and even improved slightly, we cut back to a few times a week.

So that's where all my free time has gone. I thought about blogging a few times in there, but saying, "My husband's dad is dying" seemed so stark. And so I stayed away. But now that the funeral is over, and I've caught up on some other things that were neglected during those two months, I'm ready to blog again.

I'll have some reviews soon. Even a critique or two. I'll also share a little more about Perry. He was an incredible man of God. Well loved by his family, church and community. He died as he lived--to the glory of God.