Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#1 1000 Words

TITLE: Battle Axe
GENRE: Suspense

Mitzi had scarcely finished spreading the manure before Johanna was sprawled face-down in it.

Technically, February was too early in the season to be fertilizing, but Johanna wanted to contribute to this year’s harvest while she still could. These days, that amounted to little more than curling up in a chaise lounge and croaking out hushed commands to Mitzi. This time last year, Johanna would have been the one loading the wheelbarrow with gusto, shoveling out its contents and raking it evenly around the base of the vines. But then, this time last year, she hadn’t been tossing back ten milligrams of morphine every few hours. Cancer and chemo had stuck two straws in her, like a strawberry milkshake, and were racing to see who could get to the bottom first.

Seeing Johanna prostrate and motionless at the edge of the vineyard, Mitzi dropped the tray of herbal tea and ran headlong to her side. She turned her over gently and dusted the powdery manure from Johanna’s cheek.

“Couldn’t you wait five minutes? I was on my way with the tea,” Mitzi admonished.

Johanna licked her lips with a papery tongue and murmured, “I was just going to smooth out what you dumped.” She gestured weakly to the rake leaning against the trellis.

“Look, I know you’re the gardener, but they are literally piles of crap. Stop being such a control freak.”

This was the first time Johanna had been out of the house in days. Having kept her muesli down since lunch, she was determined to see the sun again. In its descent behind the Swiss horizon, it hovered just above Lake Constance and turned the water a shimmering orange. Johanna had not adapted well to hospice care. Rather than let death creep over her day by day, she preferred the kicking-and-screaming approach. A homeopathic nurse for nearly 40 years, Mitzi encouraged it with all her patients; if you couldn’t beat death, you could at least knee it in the balls on the way out.

“Let’s not fight,” Johanna smiled, “not today.” She closed her eyes and shuddered, the thin flannel nightgown doing nothing to shield her from the late winter chill. Mitzi felt her forehead—clammy. Johanna appeared to be losing color by the minute, her cheeks going ashen as her bare head prickled with gooseflesh. They had both been preparing for this day, but Mitzi froze with denial. Another twitch from Johanna shook her back into action. She grabbed the blanket from the chaise. It was a good hundred meters back to the house and, while Mitzi was a fireplug of a woman, the wheelbarrow just made more sense.

Johanna barely acknowledged the jostling ride, her head lolling back and forth with every bump. Mitzi kept her gaze fixed on the kitchen door as it grew blurry through a film of tears. So this is the payoff, she thought. Thirty-odd years together, four more of “registered” partnership--and for what?

She hoisted Johanna’s delicate frame from the wheelbarrow and laid her gently in their bed. Still smiling, Johanna groped for the edge of the quilt. Mitzi tugged it up under her chin and gave her a tender kiss. She rolled one of the IV stands closer and connected a tube to Johanna’s catheter. In case her loss of consciousness was pain-induced, Mitzi thought the drugs might bring her around. Though she still swore by her homeopathic remedies, even she had to admit that, as a pain reliever, poison ivy extract couldn’t hold a candle to morphine.

Johanna’s eyes fluttered open and she looked dreamily into the distance. Mitzi sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Johanna’s patchy scalp, her platinum hair reduced to occasional wisps. It was once so lush and lustrous that Johanna had been among a handful of authorized sources for Dolly Parton’s wigs, anointed by the country legend herself after being summoned backstage at a concert in the seventies.

Once a year, Mitzi and Johanna would venture into neighboring Meersburg, Germany, enjoy a lovely lunch at an open-air café that served wine from their vineyard, then end the afternoon in a beauty salon. On the return trip home, with her hair securely wrapped and boxed, Johanna would comment on Mitzi’s charming manicure. Mitzi reciprocated by marveling how Johanna’s new pixie cut made them look like twins, although Mitzi’s hair was a severe man’s style and as black as a liter of schwarzbier. Dolly paid top Deutsche Mark, too--or Euro these days. Definitely helped float the vineyard through some harsh droughts.

Ironically, it was now Johanna who needed a wig.

“What can I get you, darling?” Mitzi whispered, trying desperately to keep her voice from quavering.

“Nothing. Nothing now. You’re all I ever needed.” Johanna’s eyes were closed, but she turned away from Mitzi and pressed her lips together. Just then, a large face filled the window, a dark glove cupped on one side of it. A look of panic crossed the face and its mouth dropped open.

Seconds later, Brock, a circus bear of a man, came barreling through the door, shattering the mood, the tenderness and anything else in his oafish way.

“Is she all right?” he asked breathlessly.

“Dying, but otherwise, not bad,” Mitzi replied.

He glowered at her. “You’re not funny, Mitzi—you never have been.” He laid aside an immense antique axe he carried with him, as well as a blunt, short-handled weapon, both part of his costume. When he dropped to his knees and took Johanna’s hand, he inadvertently stretched her IV cord taut. She winced. “Sorry,” he fumbled, taking the other hand instead.

“Don’t worry about me, Brock—you’ll be late to work,” Johanna murmured. He was dressed in his night watchman’s full regalia, ready to patrol the cobblestone streets of Meersburg, his warning horn dangling from a leather rope around his neck. The job was part tourist attraction, part mall-caliber security.

He scoffed. “What is work, but something else that keeps me from your side.” Forty years later, the man refused to let go. Mitzi felt embarrassed for him.


  1. This story intrigues me and some of your imagery is great. Loving the milkshake!

    I don't know if I would start out a story with manure... for me I would not buy that book if that was the first chapter preview I got from Kindle...

    I do want to know more though... so that's a good thing... poor girl shoveling poo! I am concerned for her!

  2. This is well-written technically. You have described your characters very well, and I had no problem picturing the scene or the action. Good job!
    BUT … oh, wow, manure. All I could think of was the smell (which remains even when dried) and I wondered how much of it stuck to the nightgown and was carried into the house. Very distracting.
    Also, I realize that Mitzi has apparently developed a gallows humor due to her work, but using the strawberry milkshake imagery for cancer and chemo, was too shockingly cavalier for me.
    I was concerned that Mitzi didn’t at least dress Johanna in a robe to take her outside in the “late winter chill” even if she did cover her legs with a blanket and expect Johanna to stay on the chaise.
    Obviously, these two women love each other, but was Johanna’s plea not to “fight” meant in jest? I took Mitzi’s admonishment as a loving, almost teasing, expression of concern, not a hard reprimand.
    Not sure what I think of the Dolly Parton wig thing. Is that really how she gets her wigs? It’s interesting, but does it figure into the story in some important way?
    Awww, poor Brock.
    I’d read on, I’m interested to see how this becomes suspense.

  3. As others have said, its very well written. I can definitely picture the images you draw, but I agree that manure might not be the best place to begin. Or maybe it is. I guess that falls to your own ideas about where you're going with this, but I like what I read so far. I was trying to look for issues in writing, and honestly I don't see any.

  4. I agree with the others that it was well written. I have to say that the only part of the manure that truly bothered me was when Johanna "licked her lips" - all I could picture was the manure as it seemed like she fell face first in it and thus she would have licked... /shudder :)

    There is a lot of back information about the characters, which isn't necessarily bad but did seem to slow the pace to me.

    Brock kind of came out of the blue - given Johanna is described as really ill, she's probably had other bad moments and been in wasn't clear that he saw her fall so he just assumed the worse when he saw her in bed? I could be overthinking this LOL.

    Good job overall and best of luck! Thanks for posting.

  5. The only thing that stopped me was the Dolly Parton episode. That side trip took a lot of the tension out of the scene for me.

  6. Good writing. I like your voice and your colorful descriptions of the characters. Nice.

    I worried about Johanna being covered in manure throughout the entire section and it pulled me out of the story. I know it is dry -- heck it was probably frozen, but still, if Mitzi was a nurse, I think she would have helped Johanna into a hot bath and clean gown before putting her in bed. Short of this, she might have stretched her out on the sofa and covered her with a quilt. I can't imagine putting someone in their bed who had been lying in manure. It REALLY bothered and distracted me.

    Another thing that bothered me was the fact that in that area of the world in February it is too cold for a patient on hospice care (or anybody else for that matter) to be outside in only a thin flannel gown. The average temperature is a chilly 34 degrees and the average high is 38. This doesn't work for me unless you give me a good reason, which I didn't find in this post.

    The wig info left me undecided. I can see the irony, so in that sense it works. ON the other hand, I almost felt like this paragraph wasn't anchored firmly in Johanna's thoughts or emotions. Borderline author intrusion with the narrator giving me so much information without Johanna being involved other than lying on the bed. If it's important to the story, then you might try to let Johanna tell about providing wigs for Dolly. Better yet would be to find a place in the story for this to be placed to raise the stakes or provide more clarity and impact.

    Finally, while I most certainly would read on, I felt that you crammed a lot of information into this scene and it felt a bit choppy and confusing to me as we jumped for one small bit of info to the next. I would have preferred more unfolding of each of the elements to give me a solid feel for the actual story. That's what seems to be missing for me. While you have a fast pace, it is coming from hopping from one snippet to the next rather than from action. Falling into manure is not very suspenseful, lol. I wanted to get a glimpse of what has changed in these people's lives -- that's where the story begins -- when everything changes (and Johanna's cancer isn't the change). The rest is backstory and can be given out in small bits as the ACTION moves along. Suspense readers want to get that action from the first line.

    Still, good work. Keep going.

  7. I wasn't immediately sucked in, but the general feel is good, and I'd give you the benefit of the doubt. Same thing with the suspense, benefit of the doubt.

    "Cancer and chemo had stuck two straws in her, like a strawberry milkshake, and were racing to see who could get to the bottom first." I really like the idea you're going for, but I didn't go for the feel of this particular sentence. Maybe something along the lines of "Cancer and chemo were drinking her like a strawberry milkshake, and both were trying to finish her off themselves." Just spitballing.

  8. First of all, I would keep on reading. Definitely. I hadn't expected to when it started, but it did grab me in.

    As others have said, the manure got me. The two parts that it bothered me were the licking of the lips and when Mitzi gives her a tender kiss. Just seemed intimate for her to have fallen face first into the manure (as the opening line indicates).

    Now for the Dolly Parton excursion, I thought the part of it worked on a level (though I didn't at first). It seems that as she's looking at her she's reminiscing about how they used to be (at the cafe) and such. But it took me a second to stop, think about why this was in there, and go from there. I'm a big proponent about giving reason for such things.

    Still, it definitely pulls you in.

    At first it seemed to me that Johanna had gone out there of her own volition when Mitzi had gone to get the tea, but Mitzi's line about waiting seemed more like she knew Johanna was going to help. Now if she said that she should have stayed inside, I'd definitely buy that.

  9. I really agree with practically all of Being Beth's comments. I'm intrigued by the love triangle but was very distracted by the manure (especially, as previously mentioned, the lip licking) and the wig tangent.

    It reads well, and I would turn the page...if only to find the paragraph somewhere later where they all bathe her and cleanse her of the manure...

    they do clean her eventually, right? Even my very mild OCD is making me want to go wash my own hands :)

  10. First of all, excellent writing.

    I'm going to disagree with just about everyone else here and say I didn't mind the manure one bit. I like the misleading nature of the first line - my first thought was there was a dead body in the manure. I mean, it's manure. It serves a purpose. I'm sure they'll clean up Johanna as soon as the immediate crisis has calmed down a bit (and I say this as someone with OCD).

    I enjoyed the milkshake line, too, but I also like morbid humor. Other people obviously found that too sensitive a subject.

    The Dolly Parton/hair paragraphs are good background, but they do create a jolt in the scene. Looking at this excerpt, the story could jump right from "poison ivy extract couldn't hold a candle to morphine" to "What can I get you, darling?" and a reader wouldn't know anything was missing. If possible, put that hair background information elsewhere. Otherwise, it would make the narrative smoother to delete it.

    I loved Brock's arrival, too, because at first it seems like someone sinister is at the window.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I'm curious how it ends up as suspense. I would keep reading.

  11. wasn't going to comment but felt the need to echo celestialgoldfish - i like the manure. and the milkshake.

  12. I would definitely read on. The manure gave the story a punchy start, and the relationship between the two women drew me in. Brock is the only character who confused me. When you introduced him, it was a bit abrupt and choppy.
    Good work, though!

  13. I loved the first line. Loved it!

    I must have pictured a different kind of manure. In my mind it was dry, the kind you just brush off. Not a problem for me, but I have been up to my elbows in dirty diapers for long enough that it takes a lot to bother me.

    That said, I was expecting a little more suspense in this, if it is indeed a suspense novel. The death is already laid out waiting to take its victim in a really depressing way. The villain here is cancer. I don't usually read on, because I've seen too much of it in real life.

  14. Loved the first line. Very good writing. I don't get the 'suspense' genre - I normally think of spies, or something to that effect. Was Brock the ex-husband? Former boyfriend? Maybe give a brief blurb about his former relationship with Johanna?

    Other than that, very well done. I'd read more, mainly to figure out the 'suspense' genre thingy. : )

  15. I'm not sure if manure is the best place to start the story- my reaction after the first sentence was "gross" instead of being intrigued. But it certainly is an attention grabbing sentence.

    In the second paragraph you don't need the second 'this time last year' because we are already there. I'm torn between the milkshake analogy, because on one hand it's clever and a good metaphor, but on the other hand a strawberry milkshake compared to a human body dying of cancer is a little disjointed.

    Why is Mitzi dumping fertilizer for Johanna? Is that part of her homeopathic nurse duties?

    The part about Dolly Parton wigs takes you away from the scene at hand, I'd shorten that bit if it's not important to the story.

    I don't get the last paragraph- "Forty years later, the man refused to let go." Forty years later from what? Forty years of being with Johanna? Wasn't she fine only a year ago? Why does Mitzi feel embarrassed for him?

    Other than those few details I like the scene you have here. I'm interested in what might happen, and I would read on.

  16. *Didn't look at other comments yet, so don't know if this is right in line with what they're saying or what. :P

    - Not crazy about the first sentence here. The grammar seems clumpky and not right. Besides that, you need to give us a clearer idea of the scene. 'Spreading the manure' brought up instant mental images of tractors for me. Is this like a backyard, or big farm?

    - Second paragraph starts out nice, you tells us what and when and fill in a little about the characters. The strawberry milkshake metaphor seemed odd to me.

    - Prostrate and motionless : Word choice stood out to me kinda odd.

    - Would manure be powdery?

    - Now I know part of the reason why the prostrate and motionless seemed odd to me. Like she was out cold. Whereas she was just lying there, unable to get up because of pain or weakness.

    - Another thing is from the start 'scarcely finished' implies Mitzi was still out there. That's why the tea tray surprised me.

    - Ah. A pov shift. And telling. I would probably save Joahanna's pov for the next chapter, or throw a scene break in so you don't surprise finicky people like me. Another thing is you don't need to tell us all about what Johanna had been through right away. Show it bit by bit when it's important.

    - Wait... she went out to rake manure in a thin nightgown? I would have grabbed a robe at least. Or coat.

    *** Ok.

    My major problem is I feel that this could be sharper and more focused. Maybe stay strictly in Mitzi's pov for this chapter? Show Johanna through her eyes, and show what's going through Mitzi's head.

    Good luck!

  17. This was absolutely first rate -- writing and story. I feel for these characters, each one, and want to know how things turn out. Bravo!

    I don't have any nits really -- but I do think you might change the manure to compost or something less squicky -- to have her face down in it and then lick her lips, and for Mitzi to kiss her -- ICK!

    Also, if she is this close to death, I doubt she would be up and ambulating or raking manure. I suspect she would be in a chair with a blanket on, if she is on IV morphine. I realize this would entail rewriting the opening -- perhaps she falls out of her wheelchair as she leans over to smell a flower? Just thinking.

    Good luck with this!

  18. I enjoyed this, but see some room for improvement:
    1) The cancer and milkshake sentence doesn't work. It's sort of like a joke falling flat.
    2) You don't lick your face after falling in manure.
    3) "control freak" is a very U.S. thing to say - are these folks ex-pats? If they're Swiss or German, you'll need different phrasing.
    4) "occasional wisps" of hair? How are they occasional? Do you just mean "few" or "meager" ...
    5) I love Dolly Parton. But you're tearing me away from the scene by adding the wig bit. You had my interest without Dolly. As all Dolly fans know, when she's introduced, she steals the stage. Are you sure you want to have her do that here?
    6) If Meersburg is a neighboring city/town, why would they only go once a year? If it's to sell hair, it takes more than a year to get Dolly length hair.
    7) I'm not sure carrying around actual weapons in Germany is alright - I think you might have to be licensed, etc.

    Now some of the stuff I hope you don't change:
    1) Mitzi - I liked her character and name.
    2) Describing Brock as "a circus bear of a man." I could see him when you wrote that.
    3) "liter of schwarzbier" - always good to write in metric ;-)

    Good job! Thanks for sharing.

  19. I would have been more hooked if there wasn't so much infodumping and backstory taking away from the great conflict you've got going on. Keep this scene in the NOW--not in reminiscences of the past.

    Also, you head-hop your POVs. You start out with Mitzi, then switch to Johanna, and then go back to Mitzi. It's distracting for me as a reader to never be sure of whose POV we're in, and it also takes away from the characterizations, IMHO.

    Good luck!

  20. Good descriptive writing, but therin lies the problem with the (yes, once again) manure. It distracted me because I am a clean freak and all I could think about was a poor sick woman caked in (powdery) manure licking her lips and being layed in bed in a dirty nightgown. Maybe if you could inject in there somewhere Mitzi delicately and lovingly cleaning her off.
    I liked how you explained Johanna's tenacity in paragraph seven...especially "if you couldn't beat death, you could at least knee it in the balls on the way out." Good writing.

  21. I love the voice. It's clear and strong. The opening was also strong, but we went from a medical crisis to flashback. The drama was in the here and now, which is where the scene should have stayed. The flash backs could have waited until she had a real moment to reflect, and maybe break down.

    Also, there wasn't enough conflict. Good fiction is based on conflict. Consider having Johanna wanting to die, and Mitzi unable to let go. It would still be about love, but the love would be behind the conflict - the fear of their relationship ending. There is a lot of emotion and conflict in this situation you haven't tapped.

  22. Since you've gotten plenty of comments on manure already, I am going to unleash my RNness on you.

    1. Hospice uses oral morphine, not IV.
    2. No one uses IV morphine as a drip that I've ever seen, and I work cardiac ICU. I've seen ativan drips, and even fentanyl drips, but not morphine. PCA is the closest you get to that.
    3. Mitzi connects a tube to Johanna's catheter. There's only one thing that is called catheter with no other descriptor, and that is the foley, or urinary catheter. IV catheters are called IVs.
    4. A cancer patient who has received chemo would not have a peripheral IV, because they can only stay in for 4 days before they have to be replaced. A cancer patient would have a PICC line, a central line, or a mediport (most likely) implant.
    5. I find it impossible to believe that a nurse wouldn't at least wash the patient's face clean of the manure she fell in.
    6. Johanna strikes me, through your clear voice, as a real fighter... the type of patient who would never agree to hospice, or palliative, care. So unless the laws in Switzerland forced her into hospice, I find it unbelievable.
    7. No nurse would let someone outside in that cold a climate, so thinly clad. Of course, the rule is that you aren't dead until you're warm and dead, so is Mitzi going for cryo here?

    Over all, well done and interesting, despite my nursish nits.