The Tale of The Harpy – A Scary Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wish for a tropical breeze to lighten the intense humidity that hugs this August morning.  The porch, thank goodness, is high off the ground and the mildew on the screens somewhat block the steamy rays from the sun.  The sky is intensely blue and the ocean is still and quiet—waiting. I breathe in slowly through my nose and exhale gently through my mouth, waiting for what I know must come. I feel powerless to change my fate.

My notebook is before me and I stare at the cover, that I am unwilling to open.  I have been siting here now for what seems like hours trying to begin a story that I must tell.   I must make sense of it, at least in my own mind. Perspiration drips from the corners of my temples.  Tendrils of fading blond curls are damp across my forehead and I push them aside with the back of my hand.

The old mahogany rocking chair I sit in, with its old cane seat, presses into my bare legs making my skin feel sticky and I am sure that deep patterns are now embed on the backs of my thighs that might blister, courtesy of the mahogany chair.  I shift uncomfortably, and vow to retrieve a pillow from the sofa when next I rise.

The breeze I have been waiting for finally arrives like a soft whisper across my cheek and I turn my face toward its source, the sky and sea.  In the morning light, I open the notebook and stare at the empty pages, that are now somewhat damp from the humid air and I begin again searching for the right words, the truest of words. It will come to me…..I know it will. I close my eyes and I try to remember all of it

_____________________

 It began some years ago.  I was standing on this screened in porch with my cousin, Jordan. It was after the funeral of my great Aunt who willed me this beach house that sits comfortably overlooking the ocean.

The sky was a vivid blue and the sea was quiet, until quite suddenly, a quickly moving storm, crossed the horizon and blocked out the sun. Darkness came, and a whispered voice, close to my ear, spoke, “Dare ye not linger lest she bring a curse upon ye, child.”

I turned quickly to the voice, but no one was there. A chill went up my spine. I thought I had imagined it. Moments later, again, the disembodied voice spoke, “Dare ye not linger lest she bring a curse upon ye, child!” This time the voice was urgent and fearful.

I began to tremble with an unreasonable fear, of what—I did not know. I grabbed my cousin Jordan’s arm to plead with him to let us head for home. He took no notice of me and continued to stare at something that was standing beyond the gate. I turned to look and before us was something that could only have materialized out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

An unearthly woman glared at me from beyond the gate, and her dark crystal eyes began to glow so brightly that the darkness disappeared around us. The hag-like woman, lifted by unseen wings, soared over the gate.

The whispering voice behind me suddenly gave out an ear-splitting scream that shook the floor where I stood. The hag-like apparition beyond the screened porch screeched with such an unearthly sound that I dared not move, even if I could. I was still holding Jordan’s arm and he turned to me as if to wonder what I was doing.

“Jordan,” I whispered, “What is that?”

“What is what, Ana?”

“You know, the old hag, the woman, Jordan.”

“Ana, there is no woman, only a light in the window from the cottage down the road, but there was nothing to it. Let’s go home.”

I was incredulous. Was I the only one who saw the woman and heard the unearthly screams?  My young cousins, Richie and Anise seemed not to be at all aware of what had happened as they played along the beach before me.

I couldn’t understand what was wrong with them and then once again, I heard the whispering voice behind me and I angrily turned to respond. The whispering apparition was floating in the air, now in front of me, her long dark hair was whirling around her head as though she was in the center of great storm, “Thou art hexed, forsaken in ye life, poor child,” she said. “I begged thee not to gaze upon the Harpy.”

The apparition’s voice was sad and low as she slowly vanished before me. The sky was once again blue, and the sea was quiet now. The storm was gone along with the screeching old hag.

______________________

The Mahogany chair is now hotter against my thighs as the chair begins to rock back and forth. I know she is coming. I look beyond the screened porch, knowing she will come. I see her now, the Harpy, she stands beyond the porch. Her dark crystal eyes glare at me, as her dark mane of hair blows in the dark storm she brings with her.

Another form appears on the porch, near me. It is the apparition, I now know as Nellie, who has been protecting me all of these years. The Harpy’s unholy screech suddenly pierces the air and in turn, Nellie’s high pitch scream drowns out all else.

Then it finally comes to me, the truest words: “Do not look at the creature, the Harpy. Do not listen to her screams, should you hear them, and abide this warning: Go as far away as you can, a quick as you can—for it is far too late for me.”

 

 

The Beautiful Words, A Poem by K. D. Dowdall

The beautiful words,

That ring so true,

Bring me but dark memories,

From a time and a place,

Best forgotten,

Yet always, just beneath,

The surface of a black night,

Filled with anguish and loss,

Of fear, trepidation, horror,

Not of this world,

Not now, I pray,

but then it crawled

Into being, by what force,

I know not,

They say, nonsense, but it lives,

Somewhere, now,

To come again,

To crush, destroy, all the goodness

The world has ever known.

The pinnacle has arrived,

Once again, we face, the face,

Of evil incarnate, we see it,

Daily,

but never acknowledge,

What we see,

We feign ignorance,

Deny what we see,

Yet, it creeps to our door,

Seeps under the floor,

The poison of its words,

It lies so beautifully.

 

 

 

 

Anwen and Aodhan, A Celtic Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(this is a previous post I did from 3 years ago)

The year is 500 A.D. in the wilds of Ireland where Druid kings rule and the Gods and Goddesses speak to the high priests in each tribe throughout the land. It is a time when lives depended on the spirits in Oak trees, Standing Stones, and nature’s creatures to guide with wisdom, each of the lives of every member of each tribe. Through the magic of Runes, each inscribed with ancient symbols, the future is foretold.

Anwen, a Celtic maiden, named for her beauty, as custom demands, is assigned at birth to marry a local Chieftain. She grew up to become a beautiful and desirable maiden. Anwen did not wish to marry the much older Chieftain of her tribe, Cathal, a powerful warrior. This was not because she was childish or selfish. It was in a dream she was told of her true love that existed somewhere in the land of her ancestors.

Her years went by and still she dreamed, although by now, she had married the older chieftain and bore him a son and a daughter. Anwen, now the healer of the tribe with powers given to her by the Goddesses dutifully went about her healing with love and care, yet inside, her deep loneliness cried out to the Goddesses to grant her the power to see her true love that she had dreamed of all of her life.

On a star-filled Beltane evening, with all the neighboring tribes celebrating together the rituals of fertility and renewal, they gathered around the high priest and the great wooden tower of fire to give prayers to the Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful year. Suddenly, as Anwen watched the Beltane fire as though the flames would reach the stars and out shine them, she felt a knowing, a certainty. Her true love was near, and her heart fluttered with joy.

Aodhan, a Chieftain from the farthest reaches of the land, arrived with his fellow tribesmen and women to Celebrate Beltane and unity with all the other tribes. Aodhan, a widower with no children, was father to all, in his small tribe in the far away mountains by the northern sea.

For Aodhan, named for Ireland’s ancient spirits of fire and light had the power of knowing, this, his gift from the Gods. He watched the other tribal revelers be enraptured by the tower of fire, as the flames roared and filled the night sky, Aodhan felt the terrible power of this omen, of things to come. Aodhan, looked at the moon, as a flicker of blood red crossed its path, foretelling brutal future. It bodes ill for the coming times.

Aodhan turned his back to the celebration and saw the most beautiful maiden that made his heart beat wildly. She was smiling at him as though she knew him, had known him and he felt this longing, a life time of longing and knew she was that need in him, his true love.

Aodhan approached her as though he had known her since the heavens formed the sky and starlight was born. He held out his hand and she hers. They held each other knowing without saying a word that they had at last found each other. The Goddesses had answered Anwen’s prayers.

As they held each other and gazed deeply into each other’s soul, memories long forgotten of centuries passed filled their being, knowing they had lived and loved before and that they would again one day, in another life. Their lips touched, but once, and their souls embraced and for that moment, they were one, Anwen the beautiful and Aodhan of fire and light.

The night hurried by as they sat on a hillside, looking at the stars until the morning sun crested the Celtic hills with colors of lavender, pink, and gold that bloomed across the sky. Anwen and Aodhan’s fingertips parted with the dawn light and both slowly turned away from each other, knowing their time would come in whatever future the Gods and Goddesses deemed for them. It was enough, this gift of knowledge, knowing that a future life would bring to them, an eternal embrace until the end of time.

The Boy With The Indigo Eyes – A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jenna Sweet was taking a walk back in time. It was now mid-afternoon, sunny and warm. A slight breeze rustled through the trees. A dog barked in the distance. She walked along the side walk, not really aware of where she was headed. Jenna guessed it was by instinct alone, a path she could not forgot. A narrow bridge was ahead of her and Jenna knew it was the bridge that crossed over Stoney Brook.

It was a place where she swam and frolicked as a kid. It was where her mother and her aunt would bring lunch for Jenna and her cousins. Her mom and Aunt would sit around the picnic table talking, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. Both of them have been gone for a very long time now. It was a terrible accident. It changed all of their lives forever.

Jenna stood looking over the bridge, looking down into the rippling water feeling pensive and sad. She listened to the flow of the brook over the rocks and stones as the afternoon sunlight glittered on the water like sparklers on the fourth of July.  She breathed in the sweet smell of the glacier-fed brook and the musky scent of wet moss along its banks. A long kept memory of a young stranger came flooding back into her consciousness from the past.

Jenna was once again walking through the forest and it was cool and shadowy. She remembered how the sunlight coming through the tree tops dappled the forest floor with shades of sun-kissed yellow.  The forest, thought Jenna, was a masterpiece of infinite color, with shimmering emerald leaves, azure sky above, and chestnut brown earth below.  The pungent memory scent of evergreens enveloped Jenna’s senses. She remembered the feel of the waxy substance of the fallen leaves beneath her bare feet as she padded through the dense forest and listened for the sound of water against rock. She would follow the sound to discover the hidden part of the Brook that few had ever ventured to see.

Beneath the forest canopy she heard a slight rustle and then she saw the boy. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace like a white-tailed deer through the brambles and bushes. He leaped dancer-like over decaying logs and skipped stone by stone over mossy growths, wet with dew.

The tall, dark-haired boy stopped now and again to smell the air as he made his way through the forest. Jenna, Indian-like, followed the boy through the brambles and bushes. She was almost close enough now to see his nostrils flare. In the distance, Jenna heard the flow of water over pebbles and stones as she followed the stranger who followed the sound of the brook.

Ahead of them were large granite boulders and the sound of rippling waters. She watched the boy as he skillfully scampered over the huge glacier boulders and disappeared from view. Jenna followed suit and climbed over the boulders to reach the rocky banks of the brook, but when she looked around, the boy was nowhere to be seen. She sat down for a moment and sighed as she wondered who he was and why she had never seen him before. After all, reasoned Jenna, this was a small farming community with only one middle school.

Jenna dangled her feet above the crystal clear water as she looked at her reflection that was gazing back at her. Her long golden brown braids framed a face that was tanned from the summer sun, hazel eyes now as deeply green as the moss beneath her feet.

She then slipped her slender pubescent body into the cool waters of the brook and was suddenly struck by an incredible sense of freedom within her being that was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. She was growing up and her life and all of life was before her.

Jenna looked down and saw that the wet cloth of her blouse had fallen away, revealing how her body was changing. Suddenly, she was aware of someone looking at her from above. It was the tall dark-haired boy. He was looking down at her. She was sure he had been watching her and then he smiled. Jenna blushed crimson. The boy’s broad shoulders and long muscular legs glistened in the warm sunlight as he stood high on the rocky over-hang above her.

Without acknowledging it, both Jenna and the boy were awakening to their bodies as they grew and changed. Soon, thought Jenna, they would no longer be the carefree children who swam with abandon and ran like deer through the ancient forest. Jenna turned away from the boy, but secretly smiled at this sweet flirtation as the sunlight sparkled like diamonds on the rocks, the trees, and the water’s surface.

The boy, not unlike an Indian brave stalking his prey, suddenly appeared near Jenna, having silently slipped into the water. It was his indigo blue eyes that startled her. The depth of emotion that emanated from his eyes, she didn’t understand. The boy smiled knowingly at Jenna. He could read her thoughts, she knew.

“Listen, he whispered to Jenna as he placed his hand near to his ear. “The water is whispering – do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna leaned into the water to hear the voice of the brook. The brook murmured as it gently flowed over the rocks.  Puzzled, Jenna could only shrug her shoulders.

The boy leaned closer to Jenna—his face just inches from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now glittering in the sunlight, looked into Jenna’s eyes, willing her to somehow absorb the mystical knowledge of the brook that he so easily understood.

“You must hear it for yourself” he replied gently, in a voice that was softly mesmerizing. Jenna felt spellbound by his presence and she opened her mouth to speak, but she could only shake her head.

Suddenly, a flock of Canadian Geese flew over their heads and broke the spell. Both of them she remembered, had looked up together to see the geese majestically crossing the azure blue of the endless sky. So close to them, she thought, that she could feel the air move around them. A single feather swirled downward to the water’s edge and the boy gently cupped it in his hands. He then placed the feather in her hand. She brought it to her lips to touch and smell the still warm and fragrant odor of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow. The white quill was downy soft and still warm. She would always keep it.

When Jenna turned to thank the boy, he had already climbed back up to the rocky ledge and was staring at her.

“Wait”, she cried out. “Who are you?”

“Someday you will know, Jenna.” And then he was gone.

Jenna stood on the bridge over-looking the brook remembering those moments long ago. She was now twenty-four years old and her life had taken many twists and turns since the day that seemed a lifetime ago. It surprised her how constant the memory of the boy stayed with her. How many years, she thought, have I returned to this town, to stand on this bridge, wondering whatever happened to the boy.  Jenna took the single white quill feather from her pocket and brought it to her lips. It still held the scent of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow.

Jenna suddenly became aware that someone was watching her. She then turned to see a tall, dark-haired young man. He was staring at her. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace as he walked toward her. She was stunned. There was something about him, she thought. Her mind raced with speculation.

The young man came to stand in front of her. He leaned in, closer to Jenna—his face just inches away from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now resplendent in the afternoon sunlight, looked into Jenna’s, willing her to remember. “The water is whispering,” he said with a grin. “Do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna’s eyes opened wide. She nodded to the tall, dark-haired young man with the indigo blue eyes and smiled. “We are like the brook–a constant thing, she told him. “Nothing is ever truly lost, if one seeks to remember.

“Yes,” he said, “that is the secret of the brook.” The young man took her hand in his and together they walked down memories road, into the future.

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Dark Cold Water, A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted two years ago. One of my most favorite short stories.

The Indian summer began like any other when I was twelve years old growing up in the small colonial era farming community of Granby, Connecticut. The last fields of the summer harvest had been shorn of their corn, alfalfa, hay, and tobacco. The wet smell of fresh cut hay filled the air as well as the mingling aroma of tobacco fields that now lay bare of their crops. The large tobacco leafs would hang neatly from wooden poles to dry underneath white-sheeted tents. The smell of tobacco, sweet and pungent, hung in the air. It was a grown-up smell, a smell of intimacy and secret goings-on. My cousin Garrett and I would sometimes sneak up behind the white-sheeted tents and listen. Giggles, laugher, and strange noises were not unfamiliar sounds to our ears as we listened. More than tobacco leafs nestled under the white-sheeted tents.

Not far from the tobacco field was an ancient apple orchard that looked like something out of a wicked fairy tale. Walking through its darkly gnarled wood was a rite-of-passage experience for anyone under the age of twelve. To this day memories of Canton road, where I grew up, float across my senses.  I envision its tar paved darkness as it crosses over Salmon Brook, cuts through McLean’s game preserve, wanders by weird old Stewart Duncan’s farm, and the said-to-be-haunted Sperry colonial homestead. Canton Road weaves it way over-laying the swell of land occupied for ten thousand years by the indigenous people like the Massaco Indians who were a part of the Algonquian tribes. Evidence of their inhabitation is still visible by those who know what to look for.

Spirit Pond is one of those places. There are sightings by the locals of ghost warriors that still drink the dark cold waters of Spirit Pond and are not as rare as one would like to believe. Spirit Pond is a large spring fed body of water surrounded by tall reeds and weeping willows. Its dark cold water and deep recesses still hold untold secrets as well as the body of Minnie Brogan. My rather strange cousin Garrett was drawn to the story of Minnie Brogan and I followed suit. Young Minnie Brogan lived in a small dwelling at the edge of Spirit Pond in 1680 not far from our home in the Salmon Brook Settlement.  She was said to have met with a ghastly end. It is a haunting legend of sorts and the story appears in the town’s tourist pamphlets as a way of advertising its colonial history to visitors.

It was said that young Minnie Brogan lived a solitary existence in her meager dwelling on the edge of Spirit Pond and tended a few chickens and a vegetable garden. She also grew medicinal herbs. In colonial times, a female living alone who also concocted remedies was sure to raise suspicions of witchcraft. Yet, Garrett and I doubted this explanation and we would often sit by the edge of Spirit Pond trying to envision that long ago crime. Minnie Brogan was dragged from her thatched hut. She was bound by her hands and feet and thrown into the spring fed pond. We wondered how scared she must have been as she slowly sank into Spirit Pond’s cold dark waters. I personally believe there was more to it than just medicinal herbs. Minnie was young, alone, and was said to be hauntingly beautiful. She was accused of conjugating with evil forces. As a six grader, I had no idea someone could actually be murdered for not knowing how to conjugate a verb (although there were times I was sure by teacher had thought of it).

So, it was in winter when Spirit Pond was frozen-over that Garrett and I would go ice skating and just as often we would look to see if Minnie Brogan’s ghostly apparition would rise up from the ice. Although we never actually saw her ghostly-self rise from the pond, we imagined what she would look like if she did. I wonder about Minnie Brogan’s secret hopes and dreams that vanished into the dark cold waters of Spirit Pond one nefarious moonless night long ago. Sometimes I even imagine I can feel her presence as I dip by fingers into the waters of Spirit Pond. It is though the earth remembers her and still holds her secret longings. I, too, will always remember Minnie Brogan.

 

How to Write Better Stories

How to Write Better Stories

better stories

A few insights to help you write better stories.

You know that feeling you get when you read a novel and become completely lost in it? You can’t put it down, so you lose track of time. When you finally finish, you wish it would just keep going.

Isn’t that the kind of story you want to write?

Over the past year, I’ve read only a few books that I couldn’t put down. Unfortunately, several of the books I started to read didn’t keep my interest past the first few chapters. There was a time when I forced myself to finish every book I started, no matter how boring it was. But I don’t have time for that anymore. My book pile is big and my reading list is long, so if I’m not compelled by the time the second act gets underway, I move on and find something more intriguing.

As a reader, I’m on a perpetual quest for better stories. What does that mean for writers? 

1. The Best Fiction Sticks

I’ve been thinking about what makes some books so easy to put down and what makes others impossible to let go of. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, for example, I had the strangest feeling that Holden Caulfield was a real person. I expected him to come walking around some corner and start mumbling about the lousy week he was having. This sensation lingered for a few days, both times I read the book.

But let’s go back further. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was about six years old. Then I read it again. And again, and again. I watched the animated film over and over. No matter how many times I read the book or watched the movie, I always cried at the end. To this day, quotes from the book and scenes from the film get me choked up. It’s a story that sticks.

A few years ago, I couldn’t put down The Hunger Games. I’m a science-fiction fan, so the dystopian world intrigued me, but what really kept me glued to the page was the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She wasn’t fearless, but she was brave, strong, and honorable.

Stories like these haunt readers, lingering in hearts and minds. These are the best kinds of stories.

2.  Writing Better Stories

If we want to write better stories, we need to read the best fiction and figure out what makes it so excellent. When I’m absorbed in a book, I always try to keep one corner of my mind focused on what the writer is doing so brilliantly to keep my full attention on the story. Some things are obvious: compelling characters, an interesting plot, realistic dialogue. Other elements of the best fiction are more elusive. Here are some observations I’ve made about how to write better stories:

3.  Give People a Reason to Read

If I get to the third chapter of a book and still don’t care about it, I’ll probably put it in the donation pile. The characters have to want something badly enough to go out there and try to get it. They must have purpose, an objective if you will. The characters’ purpose gives me a reason to read their stories. Intriguing mysteries and unanswered questions are also good reasons to keep turning pages.

4.  Don’t Bore Your Readers

Pages of description, minute details that are neither interesting nor relevant to the plot and dull scenes that have no essential function to the story will bore readers. Keep the conflicts coming and the action moving, and your readers will stay up to read your book rather than reading it to help them fall asleep.

5.  It’s the Little Things

Too much detail and description gets boring, but the right details can make an otherwise average scene extraordinary. One liners that make readers laugh, subtle (or overt) pop culture references, and symbolism that has deeper meaning keep readers stimulated.

6.  Stimulate Imagination, Provoke Thought, and Pull Heartstrings

Speaking of stimulation, it’s one of the main reasons people enjoy reading so much. Sure, lots of readers are just looking for escape and entertainment, but plenty of us want to engage our imaginations and have our intellects challenged. Get readers emotionally involved, and not only will they enjoy your book; they’ll also become loyal fans of your work.

7.  Do Something Different

Forget about trying to be completely original. I doubt that’s possible anymore. Every story is the result of stories that have come before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your unique stamp on the canon. Give old story premises new twists and your stories will feel fresh and invigorating.

7.  Write Smooth Sentences That Make Sense

This one is last on the list for a reason. One of the best novels I recently read did not have the best sentence structures. In fact, some paragraphs were fragmented and disjointed — not so much that I couldn’t understand what was going on, but it was jarring at times. The story was strong enough that I didn’t care that much, but this type of oversight can mean the difference between a four-star and a five-star review.

8.  How Do You Write Better Stories?

When you’re reading and writing fiction, do you think about the little things that make the difference between a mediocre story and a mesmerizing story? What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down? What was it about that book that made it so potent? How do you apply what you’ve learned as a reader to your own fiction? How can authors learn to write better stories? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

My brief thoughts about this article.

I found that number 4 Suggestion really stood out regarding my own writing. I really write way too much description about scenery, weather, scent, and backstory.  I started out in my life drawing scenes of people, nature, landscapes of all kinds and then as a clinical researcher, detail was everything. So, now that I have found a pertinent excuse, I can excuse my excesses, however, it is a lesson now learned.  Karen

Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.