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  1. #1
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    New Story

    Dealing with third graders is annoying, but the parents can be just as annoying—if not more so. Jacqueline Marqaud is definitely one of the more annoying ones. She enters the room for her parent-teacher conference and shrieks, “How dare you give my Jocelyn a C in math!”
    “It’s the grade she earned, Mrs. Marquad.”
    “It’s ‘Ms. Marquad,’” she hisses. She slaps her daughter’s report card on my desk. “I want this travesty remedied right now!”
    On the scale of “travesties” I’d put her daughter’s math grade slightly above a paper cut. “If you’ll have a seat, Ms. Marquad, we can discuss your daughter’s work—or lack thereof.”
    “Are you saying my Jocelyn is lazy?”
    “No, ma’am—”
    “Don’t ‘ma’am’ me,” she snaps. She pats her shoulder-length black hair. “How old do you think I am?”
    I would put her at about forty-five, but I shrug and say, “About my age, I would guess.”
    “I’m twenty-eight, if you must know. I was a young mother when I had Jocelyn.” I manage to keep from laughing at this assertion. Tears bead up in her eyes; I reach for some tissues to mop at the mascara that has begun to run. “My husband died shortly after she was born. That’s why she’s so precious to me. She’s all I have left of Peter.”
    The play for sympathy is obvious, not to mention over-the-top for a C in math. “Would you like something to drink, Ms. Marquad? Coffee? Water?”
    “I’ll be fine,” she says with a sniffle. She finally sits down on one of the children-sized chairs. She dabs at her eyes. “Thank you for offering.”
    I hope her next trick isn’t to try seducing me; she’s not bad-looking for her age, but I don’t need to deal with her brand of crazy any more than I have to. I take out my grade book. “Jocelyn is performing in the bottom ten percent of the class. In a class of thirty students, how many do you think are doing better than her?”
    “I’m not here for story problems,” she grumbles. Obviously Jocelyn inherited her math ability from her mother.
    I stand up and grab a piece of chalk. “We have thirty students. Ten percent of thirty is three. So there are at least twenty-seven students better at math than Jocelyn,” I say as I work out the problem for her.
    “Are you trying to tell me she’s stupid?”
    “Not at all. I think she’s plenty bright. Her problem is with paying attention. Just yesterday I had to scold her for having her phone out during class. The next time I catch her doing that, I’ll have to take it from her and then we’ll be meeting again for another discussion.”
    “I think the real problem is obvious: you’re not making your class stimulating enough for Jocelyn. She’s a very special girl. She needs special attention.”
    “I’m sorry, Ms. Marquad, but I have to devote my time equally among all my students. I can’t play favorites.”
    “That’s why she’s struggling. She’s a very creative little girl. She draws such beautiful pictures.”
    “Yes, I’ve seen some of her artwork,” I say. I reach into a drawer to take out a sheet of paper. On it is drawn a girl with dark hair and a pink dress. There are stink lines radiating from the girl and the caption, “Shelly Stinkmeyer.” I let Ms. Marquad get a good look at it. “I took this from your daughter a couple of days ago. I don’t think I have to tell you Shelly was not very happy with this portrait.”
    “What proof do you have that my Jocelyn drew this? It could have been anyone.”
    “There are others. She could have a great future as a caricaturist.”
    “Really, Mr. Ridley. I can see now that you’re dead-set against my little girl. What happened: did she reject your advances, you pervert? Or is it because of her superior genes and breeding?”
    It’s because she’s a spoiled brat, I want to say, but then I’d be in trouble with the headmaster for sure. “I’ve never made advances on any of my students. As for genes and breeding, I don’t take that into account.”
    “I doubt that,” she says. “Now, are you going to grade my daughter fairly or not?”
    “I can’t change grades she legitimately earned,” I say. “I can recommend a tutor if you’d like.”
    “A tutor? Why on Earth would my precious Jocelyn need one of those?”
    “A tutor would be able to give her that special attention I can’t.”
    “Oh, I see. You want me to pay someone to do your job. Aren’t I already paying enough in tuition?”
    “I’m sorry, Ms. Marquad, but the tutors charge their own prices. I have seen it help a number of children.”
    “Yes, well, my Jocelyn doesn’t need tutoring. She just needs you to do your job.” Ms. Marquad shoots to her feet. “Or maybe I should talk to the headmaster about finding someone who will reach her.”
    “That’s fine, Ms. Marquad.” I get to my feet and hold out a hand that she refuses to shake. She bustles out of the room, probably to go bawl out the headmaster’s secretary. I don’t envy her at the moment.
    ***
    The next conference goes much better. Ms. Frobisher bounds into the room bearing a plate of brownies. “I thought you might like a little treat,” she says. “I made them just this morning.”
    “Thank you,” I say. I probably shouldn’t accept the brownies—Ms. Marquad would lose her mind if she saw me taking a gift from another parent—but I’ve been at this for two hours and my stomach is rumbling.
    Ms. Frobisher sits down on the chair Ms. Marquad vacated. She could actually pass for twenty-eight, though she’s probably older than that by a couple of years. She’s petite to the point of looking delicate, except for the breasts that will probably give her back trouble when she’s Ms. Marquad’s age. Her bright pink dress matches her shoes and lipstick; I have little doubt that’s on purpose. Her brown hair is bobbed short with a headband on top that also matches her dress, shoes, and lipstick. If it wouldn’t get me fired, I’d ask her out for coffee.
    All I can do is take a bite of a brownie and nod. “These are really good. Homemade or a mix?”
    “Homemade. The secret is using just the right amount of cocoa.”
    “I’ll have to get the recipe. Not that I’m much of a cook.”
    “I’ll have Ethan bring it in tomorrow.”
    I nod to her. “Ethan is doing really well in his schoolwork. I’m more concerned about his interactions with his classmates—or lack thereof.”
    “Oh dear. Ethan has always been a quiet child. Even when he was a baby he didn’t make a lot of noise. Sometimes I went into his room just to make sure he was still breathing,” she says with a lilting chuckle.
    “Has he mentioned any bullying to you?”
    “Bullying? No. Is someone picking on him?”
    “There have been a couple of incidents on the playground and in the cafeteria. The boys responsible have been disciplined, but I’m worried Ethan might become more introverted if this continues.”
    “What can we do?”
    “I can recommend a therapist. She’s helped a few of my previous students. She could probably do some good for Ethan.”
    “Is it expensive?”
    “The first session is usually free. After that she has a sliding scale.” I reach into my desk for a business card. She takes it gingerly. “You don’t have to call, but I think it could help.”
    She nods slightly. “It’s been hard for Ethan, especially after his father left when he was just three years old. I’ve done what I can, but a boy needs a male role model, you know?”
    “I understand. Maybe just talking about his problems will help.”
    “I hope so. Ethan is such a nice boy. And so smart too. I really don’t want him to be unhappy.” She pats my hand, her skin probably softer than her dress. “Thank you for your help.”
    “You’re welcome, Ms. Frobisher.”
    “You can call me Madeline,” she says.
    “Phil,” I say, taking her hand to shake it.
    “Well, Mr.—Phil—I should probably go. I’m sure you have other parents,” she says, her cheeks reddening.
    “Yes, I do, but not for a few minutes. Would you like some coffee? They haven’t changed the filter in the machine as long as I’ve been here so you can probably peel the paint off your car with the stuff.”
    She giggles at this. “As tempting as that is, I should go. Ethan’s at home alone. He’s a good boy, but there’s still plenty that can happen, you know?”
    “Some other time,” I say. I wait until she’s gone to curse myself for my stupidity. I doubt she’ll go running to the headmaster like Ms. Marquad, but it’s going to make things awkward whenever we have to see each other now. I remind myself that besides having relations with a student, trying to date a parent of a student is about the worst thing a teacher can do.
    I drop in my chair to devour another brownie. The richness of the brownies doesn’t help to improve my mood, but at least my stomach isn’t rumbling anymore.

  2. #2
    Member Lawrence Tabak's Avatar
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    Dropping copy into these windows seems to invite poor formatting. If I remember, spacing between paragraphs helps. Here's an attempt with your opening:

    Dealing with third graders is annoying, but the parents can be just as annoying—if not more so. Jacqueline Marqaud is definitely one of the more annoying ones.

    She enters the room for her parent-teacher conference and shrieks, “How dare you give my Jocelyn a C in math!”

    “It’s the grade she earned, Mrs. Marquad.”

    “It’s ‘Ms. Marquad,’” she hisses. She slaps her daughter’s report card on my desk. “I want this travesty remedied right now!”

    On the scale of “travesties” I’d put her daughter’s math grade slightly above a paper cut. “If you’ll have a seat, Ms. Marquad, we can discuss your daughter’s work—or lack thereof.”

    “Are you saying my Jocelyn is lazy?”

    “No, ma’am—”

    “Don’t ‘ma’am’ me,” she snaps. She pats her shoulder-length black hair. “How old do you think I am?”

    I would put her at about forty-five, but I shrug and say, “About my age, I would guess.”

    In terms of the story, this strikes this reader as more of a transcription than a narrative. It might be something a writer would put into a journal as a reminder of a day's events, but it seems to be lacking much of what would make a compelling story, or even part of one. There is no setting or description. It lacks context. The first-person narrator is not identified in any meaningful way (it takes quite a while to ID gender, for instance.) There's little to suggest this scene has a point -- it repeats the same message over and over, as we see the parent badger the teacher in the least subtle way possible, again and again.

    There's nothing wrong with this as MATERIAL for a story. You've captured a lot of workable dialogue. I would recommend looking carefully at some well-crafted stories to see how an accomplished writer sets up scenes, creates tension, makes a reader care about the characters.

  3. #3
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    Ivjohnson, you really do need to go back and separate the paragraphs or very few will take the time to read and critique this.

    As far as the story, it depends on how far along this story is. Is this a first draft? Second draft? It's a good start, but I have to agree with what Lawrence said below. You don't have to tell us who the POV character is in the first paragraph, but you've waited too long here; I was confused as to whether the teacher was a male, or a female. You need to fill in a few of the blanks earlier. I only read the first scene, but I think it could use a little more subtlety, IMO.

    Quote Originally Posted by Lawrence Tabak View Post
    There is no setting or description. The first-person narrator is not identified in any meaningful way (it takes quite a while to ID gender, for instance.) . . . . as we see the parent badger the teacher in the least subtle way possible, again and again.

    There's nothing wrong with this as MATERIAL for a story. You've captured a lot of workable dialogue.
    Good luck!!

  4. #4
    Senior Member John Oberon's Avatar
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    Well, I don't see how anyone can say there's no setting or description. The setting is a school, most likely a very expensive private school if there's a headmaster, and a mother thinks she can get a teacher fired by complaining. Mr. Ridley is a male math teacher, most likely younger than 45, and participating in parent-teacher conferences. How do I know all that if there's no setting or description?

  5. #5
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    What you're going is taking the part of the camera, and telling the reader what they would see and hear where this a film. But does knowing what's in a picture give us the image? No. Your characters lob dialog back and forth like a softball. They don't change expression. They don't stop to think, rephrase, hesitate, or do any of the things people do in conversation.

    Think about your own conversations. The words matter, of course. But doesn't how the words are spoken matter nearly as much for what they tell us about the speaker's mood and intent? Take three simple words: "Good morning, Charlie." Spoken one way that could be an invitation to make love. In another, they could be a recognition that Charlie has arrived at work, and say the one speaking is glad to see him—or annoyed that he's there. They can also be inflected so that Charlie knows he's about to die. And that all comes from how the line is spoken. So how can a conversation seem real when we have no more than a transcription of the words, without being made to know the things the protagonist observes about the speaker's demeanor and more?

    A script is written in the general style you're presenting—alternate lines of dialog—but it includes stage directions and information on what's driving the character, so the actor can use their skills at movement and behavior to make the character seem real. Without the equivelent of that, how can your reader visualize the scene?

    Story doesn't lie in what happens. That's plot. Story lies in the effect of those events on our protagonist. It lies in what matters to the protagonist enough to respond to, their analysis of what needs to be done about it, and all the things that drive the protagonist to be what they are. That entertains. Facts only inform. And the reader is with you to be entertained., after all.

    It's not a matter of good or bad writing, though, or even talent. It's that though we're not aware of it, we learn only business writing in school, which is why we wrote so many reports and essays and so few stories. Adding knowledge of the tricks of fiction to our existing writing skills can make a huge difference.

    This article is one way of placing the reader into your protagonist's persona as they live the scene, and can make a great improvement in realism by making time seem to pass in the scene at the rate the protagonist experiences it. It's well worth chewing on till it makes sense. Your local library's fiction writing section is another great resource, as is the book that the article I linked to was condensed from.

    Not great news, I know, and certainly not what you were hoping to hear, but doesn't it make sense that if we want to write like the pros we should know what the pros know?

    Hang in there, and keep on writing.

    Jay Greenstein
    https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/...ft-of-writing/

  6. #6
    Senior Member John Oberon's Avatar
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    At first, I thought that was Mutt imitating Jay again, lol.

    I wonder, Jay...does anyone ever write anything good in your view? I mean besides Dwight Swain, of course, lol. Since you've been on here, I don't there's been one writer who hasn't gotten the "not good news" verdict from you. Is there nothing good about the original post?
    Last edited by John Oberon; 11-01-2016 at 08:29 PM.

  7. #7
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    Do I find things I think are well written? Sure. But not often. Why? Given that 99.9% of what's submitted is rejected; given that acquiring editors view 75% of what's received as unreadable, and all but three of the rest is amateur (their term, not mine), do you really believe we're going to see lots of professional writing posted here?

    You've been here for a while. What percentage of the people posting stories here come back and announce that they submitted something they posted and sold it? There's your benchmark.

    People post their work to see how they're doing, and to find ways to improve their writing. And the people posting on retty much any writing forum are, in over 95% of the time, unaware that the writing skills we learn in school are nonfiction skills. No shame in that, of course. But not knowing it can preclude any chance at a writing career. Worse yet, unless they're aware of the problem they'll only harden bad habits into concrete and never know why they receive only rejection. Better to tell them what they need to know than what they want to hear.

    When I had my manuscript critique service pretty much everything I got had the same mistakes in presentation. The story words changed but the presentation, as it is so often online, is either written as a report on events as a camera would observe them, with no senses but sight in use, or a transcription of the author speaking the story aloud. Neither will garner more than a paragraph or two of reading from any agent or acquiring editor.

    But if you think this story is ready to submit say so, and we'll let the acquiring editors decide.
    I mean besides Dwight Swain, of course, lol
    I've never said Swain was a great writer. I've said that he was a master teacher, one whose list of students read like a whose who of American writing at the time—and someone who would fill auditoriums when he went on tour.

    He continued refining the groundbreaking work done by his predecessor at OU—further refined by Honored Professor Jack Bickham who succeeded him (that is his actual title). At the moment Swain's, Techniques of the Selling Writer has 167 five star reviews. You may not like him, but lots of people owe their career to him. Damn few to you and I.
    Is there nothing good about the original post?
    Well, I loved the way the black of the print contrasted with the white background.

    But seriously, it's not a matter of good or bad writing. It's about having the proper tools. If you're not aware of the limitations of our medium, and such things as the difference between it and a parallel medium like film, how can you write for it? If you don't know the three questions a reader needs answered in order to have context for the story will you answer them? Of course not.

    For all we know our poster is oozing talent from every pore. But lacking the basic knowledge of presenting dialog realistically—because it was never discussed while he was learning his writing skills—the product doesn't, and can't, match his intent. And he can't fix it in editing because he's writing with reader's skills. And as the great Sol Stein said, “Readers don’t notice point-of-view errors. They simply sense that the writing is bad.”

    And given that, why object to a suggestion to dig into the techniques the pros favor, a link to an example, and where more information can be found?

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    It's amazing how many new members disappear after receiving a critique. This place is like the Bermuda Triangle of writing, lol.

  9. #9
    Member Lawrence Tabak's Avatar
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    I'm afraid most new posters are looking for affirmation, not critique. I come at it as a writer who has spent many years submitting my work and managing what often are rejections. I celebrate the rare reader willing to provide helpful, concrete advice for improvement. I try my best to be that reader.

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