Entry the First, In Which Proust’s Playlist is Born, Sunday Snipets Critique Blog Hop


This is the beginning of my first attempt at a novel, started during NaNoWriMo a few months ago. I suspect there are more than 250 words, so, uh, feel free to criticize the length.

It’s fiction, in the tradition of Spalding Gray, who never really could make things up, but told fabulous stories. In fact, his one novel, “Impossible Vacation,” was a fictionalized partial auto-biography.

I think that all stories that resonate do so because they are, in some fashion, true. True in meaning, even if not in fact.

I don’t know who the audience might be. Maybe, only me.

Thank you for your comments.

Melanie skidded on the wet leaves as she sprinted from her car to the backdoor. She fumbled with the keys as the wind pushed her hair into her eyes. On the third try, she picked the right key for the lock and shoved it into the handle. The door warped against the frame as it opened, having expanded with the moisture in the air. Melanie tripped over a box on her stoop as she entered her house, dropping the groceries in her arms.
She turned back towards the door once she was inside to look at the package. Noting that it was beginning to rain, Mal grabbed the box and tried to pull it inside the three season porch. The box didn’t move with her effort, and instead, she slipped and fell on the wet leaves which had stuck to her shoes. “Damn,” she muttered and, kneeling over, she reached to drag the box inside. It was a large package, the shape of cowboy boots, and heavier than a law school student’s backpack. It was not labeled for shipping, but had her name written across the top. “MAL: for when it’s quiet,” the note said.
A maple leaf whipped up from the ground and landed on the box. Mal squatted over the box and shimmied it inside the door. The door rattled on its hinges as the wind picked up and threw more leaves inside. Mal grunted and leaned over the box to grab the door. She shoved it shut, and kicked a piece of firewood behind the door to hold it closed during the night. Once more, she wondered to herself about the wisdom of bothering to lock a door that was practically falling off already. It would be easier to break the hinges than unlock the door.
Mal believed in paying lip service to symbols, though, so she kept locking the door despite the uselessness of the act. Perhaps someone dumb enough to try to break in would be too blind to observe the state of the door frame, or the absence of windows in the wrap-around porch, and decide her old house wasn’t worth the effort of busting the lock.
“Yeah, sure,” she thought, smirking as the flicked the lock shut. Pushing her wet hair out of her eyes, she turned towards the main house. Thinking about brewing a fresh pot of coffee to fend off the chill in the air, Mal forgot about the box and promptly tripped over it. “Damn,” she hissed again and kicked the box for emphasis as she walked past it.
Mal shrugged off her barn jacket as she walked into her kitchen. Filling the copper kettle with water, she absently looked at her word-of-the-day calendar. “Petrichorwhich.” “Petrichorwhich?” she muttered. “Like that would ever be useful in a sentence.” Mal did appreciate, however, the timeliness of the word. It did describe the atmosphere outside as the Nor’easter came in. Much as she enjoyed the humor of locking a broken door, she liked the idea that the calendar had some kind of precognitive power and knew just which word to use each day. As if lifeless objects could change the ocean’s tide.
Mal placed the kettle on the stovetop and turned on the gas. She walked over to the bean grinder and measured out her life with coffee spoons. Slightly bitter and somewhat acrid, the smell of stale Starbucks Christmas Blend played pat-i-cake with the scent of rain and moldy fallen leaves. The porch door rattled against its frame and the firewood behind it.
Mal watched the trees outside shake as she reached up for the French Press. Trusting the combining of boiling water, ground beans, and coffee press to muscle memory, she wondered if she needed to cover furniture with plastic tarps or set out additional buckets under known leaks. She decided against it. There wasn’t much more damage a storm could do to the battered Colonial, unless it just went all-out and tore off part of the roof or shingles. In which case, a tarp would be useless. “There are advantages to being disadvantaged,” she thought. “There isn’t much more that can break.”
Despite the cavalier affected indifference, Mal loved the old beast. Stubbornly built on the edge of the coast, on a piece of Cliffside too obstinate to permit the building of a proper road, the structure resisted the peppering of sea spray and the whipping of wind over time. Defiantly, the building withstood over a hundred years of hurricanes and blizzards, calmly challenging nature to take her down. She might be bruised, but she was unbreakable. Mal scrounged up enough for a down payment shortly after she took her current job. The house had been empty for years, abandoned, but still owned by the family of its builder. Eventually, an attorney had convinced the owners to sell off unneeded assets (or, insurance liabilities) and the house had been placed on the market.
Mal was certain the family had never seen the house or the land. She had lived in town for most of her life and never seen anyone at the house. Locals sometimes claimed it was haunted, but Mal thought that rumor was some kind of yuppie pretense to be interesting by association rather than by substance. Regardless, whether it was due to fear of ghosts or just the fear of the cost of renovation, Mal had no competing offers when she placed her bid.
Moving in only required the use of her friend Timmy’s pick-up truck and the promise of beer; Mal had been living in a studio apartment in the city and didn’t own much furniture. She and Timmy had carted her futon, her TV, her clothes, and her guitar in one load, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking on the new-to-her porch and throwing rocks at seagulls. They missed every bird.
Even now, almost a year after moving in, Mal hadn’t done much decorating. She left the guitar on the floor of the living room, up against the wall. She dragged the futon upstairs and eventually assembled an IKEA frame to make it look less collegiate. She had, however, added a free-standing metal fire pit and a rocking chair to her three season porch. She didn’t entertain, so she never wondered if she should add more chairs or a table to her living room. The house was not near any public transit routes and Timmy was the only one of her friends who owned a car. When he moved to Oregon, she bought his truck from him with a case of [insert name of profoundly hideous cheap beer here] and the everlasting promise of a place to stay. The absence of stuff made cleaning so much easier.
Remembering the groceries on the porch, Mal set her coffee mug on the counter. She walked back to the porch. The bag had torn so Mal picked up the items individually. Milk, chips, coffee beans, muffins, all balanced on top of a frozen pizza. Mal lamented the absence of salsa. Who knew there would be a run on Green Mountain Gringo just before a storm? People were weird. As if black bean and corn salsa could prevent a landslide.
Still, Mal preferred salsa with her chips, just as she preferred locking the door. Neither activity actually did much of anything, or was terribly important in the face of, say, the European debt crisis, but it was what she liked. Maybe she couldn’t salvage Greece’s economy, but why couldn’t she have salsa? Such a small thing – was it too demanding to expect that token accommodation to her comfort? Mal wondered, not for the first time, if she expected too little from the world and therefore left it too few opportunities to please her, or if the world were actually so disappointing as to be incapable of offering even a teeny bit of solace. She backed away from philosophy quickly and put the milk in the refrigerator.
She walked back to the porch where the box sat. The wind threw leaves against the screens of the windows while Mal and the box stared at each other. Mal flinched first, and decided to build a fire. So far, the fire department had not officially warned her about open flames on a porch; she figured as long as she didn’t burn the house down, it was none of their business. She did place a fire extinguisher on the porch, though, as a concession to damage-control. One ought to do what one can, after all, so Mal gave safety a nod and left the fire extinguisher by the door to the kitchen.
Mal watched as the flames caught the driftwood and began to change colors. She absently rubbed her hands on her jeans and listened to the surf below. Rain began to tap on her roof like a snare drum. The daylight faded and the firelight flickered, pinks, blues, and purples winking at Mal, flirting. She realized she had forgotten about her coffee.
She tried to dribble the box into her kitchen as if it were a soccer ball, but only stubbed her toe successfully. She glared at the box again and walked over it. She returned a moment later with her cold coffee and a knife. She looked again at the address on the box. The handwriting looked familiar, but she couldn’t place it. She wasn’t sure if she should open a strange box from a stranger, but then she figured that she wasn’t statistically important enough to warrant a mail bomb. Careful to pull the note off the top first, she whisked the knife around the edges of the box, slashing the tape. The lid popped up.
Mal reread the note. “For when it’s quiet?” she muttered and looked in the box again. Inside, there was a pile of loose papers. Mal was confused. She set the coffee mug on the ground and reached into the box, pulling out a few pages. Reading quickly, she flipped through the pages. She reached in for more. “Hmph,” she grunted, standing up with the pages in one hand and her mug in the other. She walked back into the kitchen and flicked on the overhead lights.
Leaning against the counter, Mal continued to read. With one hand, she turned on the faucet. She yanked the lid off the kettle and refilled it. Setting the kettle back onto the stovetop, she flicked the gas back on as she walked past the stove into the living room. She returned to the kitchen a few moments later, still carrying the paper in her left hand and now her guitar case in her right. She set the case on the floor in the middle of the kitchen and turned the gas off when the kettle howled in competition with the wind.
Mal forgot to be cynical when reading. Sometimes, she would read great works of literature for the mental exertion. Sometimes, she would read trashy romances for the entertainment. She read op-ed columnists and Dear Abby. She scanned newspaper headlines when buying coffee at the stand outside her office. She read philosophy to challenge her world-view, history to fill in gaps, and children’s books as an act of faith. She read music to play.
It was the play she enjoyed the most. She could be more than distracted. She could participate in something that existed outside of herself or her experiences, entirely independent and yet also shared by others across years or continents when she played. Self-taught and with questionable form, Mal made up for accuracy with enthusiasm. Alongside her cynicism, she would lay down her snark and her self-doubt. She soared behind the shield of her guitar, free within the measures. In someone else’s work, her dreaming was safe. She was full with the expressions of others.

Other Critique Hop Participants:












About Shannon Blue Christensen

Storyteller. Author. Editor. Literary Critic. Director. Teacher. Knitter. nascent Musician. Student. Operations and Quality. Marketing. Historian. Lear's Fool. View all posts by Shannon Blue Christensen

24 responses to “Entry the First, In Which Proust’s Playlist is Born, Sunday Snipets Critique Blog Hop

  • journeyofjordannaeast

    Hi there! Definitely way more than 250 words, I thought I was on the wrong post, haha. You defintely have a gift for detail, that’s for sure. Maybe consider toning some of the detail down a bit though, because I often found myself skimming and had to scold myself. Also, with so much detail, the reader doesn’t know what’s important and what might be revisited later. Other than that, a really nice piece of writing.

    FYI, you have my website listed as ‘johannaeast.’ Please correct it to jordannaeast.com. Thanks.

  • Karen

    OK, I looked at the first 250 or so words (actually 264) which ends with the sentence “She shoved it shut, and kicked a piece of firewood behind the door to hold it closed during the night.”

    I think it’s actually a very good start, and I wonder about the mysterious package, so I want to read more. You start where the story begins–the arrival of this mysterious package 🙂

    A couple of things–I wonder why you would give a character named Melanie the nickname “Mal.” I realized quickly enough that the package was for Melanie, but it had me going back through the text to see if I had the name wrong, so I’m wondering why you would choose “Mal” instead of “Mel” (or, “Mallory” instead of “Melanie” if you’re wanting that “Mal” nickname.)

    Some lesser issues: not sure if I would choose “skidded” instead of “slipped” in that first sentence. Skidded implies coming to a stop, and not being able to do so. Not sure if that is the image you are going for. Also, you might want to explain why she’s dashing into the house with an armful of groceries (the impending rain) earlier because this left me wondering too–it’s not typical behavior to run around (on wet leaves, no less) with one’s arms full.

    Also, “cowboy boot shaped box”—is the box actually shaped like a cowboy boot? Or is it a box large enough so that it looks as though it might hold a pair of boots?

    I really like the opening, the mysterious package and the cryptic note. It’s good stuff–I can tell a lot about what this story is going to be from those first few paragraphs, it’s good, spare writing 🙂

    I think this critique was longer than the excerpt! 😉

  • mandyevebarnett

    There are some great elements that had me wondering why she lived alone, who the package was for (see previous comment re: name) and also the shape of the box was rather strange. You have built up a good character
    piece. I would love to read more.
    I saw two edits – Yeah, sure,” she thought, smirking as the flicked the lock shut. Instead of ‘the’ do you mean ‘she’?
    Christmas Blend played pat-i-cake – I believe is it pat-a-cake.
    Good luck with the rest of this story.

  • Jennifer M Eaton

    Way too long for a hop like this, my dear. You need to be sensitive of other’s time. You’ll get a better crit if people don’t feel pressured. Funn in-line crit coming to your email, but overall commens —

    You have a scene set in your head, and you are getting it “on paper”– but now you need to add the art. You need to make it “flow”. You ned to avoid paragraphs that sound like “this happened and then that happend and then this happened”. You can do this by inserting emotion and/or scenery inbetween the action.

    Emotion is sorely lacking here. You need to insert emotion (at least a little) to help us relate to the character. How does she feel about this package? Is she annoyed, excited, scared? We need to know how she feels

    • Shannon Blue Christensen

      Yep, you’re right. Too long, etc. Feelings, gag. 🙂
      Thank you. This is why it’s a work in progress. I started writing, and then I realized that I didn’t know enough about my world to show it correctly.
      I struggle with the amount of emotion, because the story is “about” learning to experience emotion. The absence is deliberate – although, I can easily believe that it can be more deftly protrayed. Thank you.

  • James Lande

    turned on the gas (sounds like suicide…lit the gas, turned on and lit the gas, lit a burner…)

    measured out her life with coffee spoons (nice allusion, raises the bar for the reader, changes expectations of the story, characterizes Mal)

    some suspense can be heightened with something like “she eyed the package warily, thinking… take that where you like. Later on “She wasn’t sure if she should open a strange box from a stranger, but then she figured that she wasn’t statistically important enough to warrant a mail bomb.” could be brought forward and reworked to heighten suspense about the package, and help propel the reader through the detail of action and description

    on a piece of Cliffside too obstinate to permit the building of a proper road (strike “the building of” – too obstinate to permit a proper…)

    peppering of sea spray (salting by sea spray?)

    breaking into smaller paragraphs will enhance the cadence; there several places where the topic changes mid-paragraph

    “Moving in only required the use of her friend Timmy’s pick-up truck and the promise of beer; Mal had been living in a studio apartment in the city and didn’t own much furniture. She and Timmy had carted her futon, her TV, her clothes, and her guitar in one load, and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking on the new-to-her porch and throwing rocks at seagulls. They missed every bird.”
    She and her friend Timmy had carted her futon, her TV, her clothes, and her guitar in his pick-up from her tiny studio apartment in one load, then spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer on the new-to-her porch [is there a view to the horizon, or surf crashing] and throwing rocks at seagulls. They missed every bird. (Just a shot at trimmming verbiage, an example that’s not neccessarily any improvement)

    Sounds like she lit a fire of driftwood on the wood floor of the porch, so she’ll soon need that fire extinguisher

    Cut “slashing the tape”

    She set the coffee mug on the ground and reached into the box, (ground? She’s either in the kitchen on on the porch, isn’t she?)

    “With one hand, she turned on the faucet. She yanked the lid off the kettle and refilled it. Setting the kettle back onto the stovetop,” (She refilled the kettle and flicked the gas back on… – there are many places to economize with the words)

    She was full with the expressions of others, but there was room still for expressions of her own.

    Norman Maclean’s father would say “very good. Now write it again half as long.”

    This selection wants economy, and for me an inkling at the beginning of where this is going. We who write detailed prose owe it to the reader to provide some impetus to carry the reader through the detail. Suspense, tension, unanswered questions – all part of the craft of moving the story along at an appropriate pace. Not necessarily in literary fiction, but crucial
    to popular fiction. It’s not clear yet which this selection will become.

    • Shannon Blue Christensen

      Dear James,
      I doubt this novel would ever be a popular fiction bit…. 🙂
      Your notes are wonderful, and I thank you for them.
      As for emotions of her own – she doesn’t have any yet.
      *That* evolution, caused by the contents of the box, is the “happening.” 🙂
      Thank you-

  • debyfredericks

    You capture this character well, her loneliness, barren surroundings, and reliance on routine. I wondered why she is so alone and if she chose to live this way or what circumstances led to it. The surroundings are well drawn.

    On the down side, not a lot is happening. I caught some hint that the house might be haunted, thus the doors that stick and package always under foot. But I would have liked to see more of an active plot woven in here, with perhaps Mal trying to carry on her routines and some new factor disrupting her habits.

  • Shannon Blue Christensen

    Thank you very much, everyone for your time and your comments. I appreciate them – they will be helpful. And, next time it will be shorter! LOL

    As for the name…. Well, I don’t know why it started out as Melanie. “Mal” is deliberate, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

    The other comments – thanks. i’ve never done this, so it’s good to hear what people think.

  • caitlinstern

    Holy paragraph breaks, Batman! The first thing I saw was this dense page of texts, and I was a little intimidated.
    So I read the first four paragraphs. I won’t attack you for going over–I did, too. But maybe go a little less over? The part I read was already 591.
    Excellent description–involving all the senses–it feels rich and textured, like some classic novels I’ve read. At some point you’ll have to explain the nickname, but I say keep it! I know someone named Justin whose nickname is Bob. 🙂

  • Let's CUT the Crap!

    Hi Shannon. I won’t repeat what others have noticed. Some observations on my part: 1) why isn’t Mel more curious about the box? 2) sounds like the fire she’s building is on the porch floor. 3) a pet peeve of mine is overuse of the word she. 4) the bit about her guitar, is it sheet music in the box? 5) If no-one’s lived in the house for so long, I picture it in terrible shape. How bad is it really?

    No matter, this has me curious. I wonder if Timmy’s coming back (a love interest). If only Timmy has wheels, who could have dropped off the box and why the mystery?

    I’m a late starter this week. Will catch up for next week.

    • Shannon Blue Christensen

      Thanks for the feedback. Some I can answer now, and some…. Welllllll

      Yes, the house is in terrible shape and the fire is on the porch floor and – you got it! -it is a box of sheet music. Very specific music that I actually have to get permission to print. :p

      Clearly, I need to work on the emotion bit. This is tough, because I’ve got a character, with an intentionally off-putting name, who deliberately avoids emotion.

      The music is how she learns to feel. The story is about that education.

      She distrusts the box. She ignores it because she’s wary -she won’t permit fear, but she’ll allow for caution. This is also why she can’t lift it, why she trips over it, why it hurts to kick it. And, yep, Timmy dropped off the box. (How? Where is he? Will he come back? I don’t know yet. LOL)

      Agh, it needs work.
      Thank you!

  • Ileandra Young

    I enjoyed reading this very much. I’m not certain what a three season porch is and had to do a little checking, but from the looks of things it’s just what I’d call a Conservatory. That’s just an ‘across the water’ thing so don’t worry; I just thought I’d mention it.

    I like the description of the package and it’s shape. So unusual right away that my interest was suitably piqued.

    You have a couple of instances of repetition, but nothing that a quick edit can’t take care of.

    There is a lot of detail in Mal’s actions. It’s nice, on some level to get a play by play, but it may be that the piece would benefit from getting to the meat of the action a bit sooner. Not to do away with all your beautiful description and detail, just pare it down slightly to ensure your reader’s attention doesn’t wander.

    • Shannon Blue Christensen

      I totally agree.
      this started as a NaNoWriMo project, which has a lot to do with word count, so I made myself be extra-wordy…. Which means, there will be a lot of editing 😛

      Thank you so much for your time and your consideration. I appreciate it.

      • Ileandra Young

        I do hope the my words are useful. This is the first time I’ve done so much critiquing outside my group(s) and I’m hoping that what I’ve learned there will help people on the outside. It’s a great exercise on both sides to critique and be critiqued, I’m really enjoying myself!

        And there are quite a few NaN projects too, which means we’ll all see each other hone and sharpen our writing as we go on. That’s as much of a treat as anything!

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