Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A homework assignment for my readers

I'm starting to find some extra hours to write, which is really exciting. It might mean even fewer blog posts, though, as I'm trying to put stories together for a book, rather than little isolated incidents and thoughts like this blog has become. But, for now, I'm going to try to encourage you to become more active participants and help me out! What follows is the beginning of a story that I've been working on. I'd love to hear your thoughts and criticisms. Just post them in the comments section of the blog...

Pablo, on a good day, would probably be able to tell you that he’s 14 years old, that he’s got 6 brothers and sisters and his mom is raising them with stepfather number two (or three—he can’t really remember). Someone who knows how to ask the right questions, preferably accompanied by a burger and fries, would be able to elicit responses about his education level (just past second grade but he can’t really read), his interests (funk music), and how long he’s been addicted to crack (just over a year). The problem is, Pablo doesn’t have too many good days. And no one has ever bothered to ask him those questions. Usually, he’s just one of the many children that scatter the sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro with their limbs splayed in the sun, passed out from a night of drug use. Homeless, he only returns to his mother’s place from time to time, where if he can withstand the beating and the tongue lashing, he’ll eat everything in sight, sleep for two straight days, and then hightail it back to the streets, where he makes money for drugs by doing odd jobs, stealing, and washing car windows. Very few people know his name. His days are spent in utter inertia.

Yesterday, for example, Pablo decided to sleep near a telephone booth. It was a miserable, wet night. He couldn’t find shelter and was too tired to bother looking, so he slept with his head under the little protection the booth offered and let the rain soak into his clothes. They needed a good washing, one way or another. The telephone booth, located on a main thoroughfare that gets pretty crowded during the morning rush hour, also happens to be at a bus stop. Pablo didn’t wake up until nearly 4pm the next day, even though the sun and the summer heat were scorching. In spite of his unconscious state, Pablo managed to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Fifty-two people, to be exact, plus the uncounted commuters who were briefly moved by the sight of his skinny legs sticking out at such an uncomfortable angle.

The first to be disturbed by Pablo’s presence is the street sweeper, who, tired of these little street punks who throw trash all over the street in their attempt to find recyclable materials, gives him a vindictive jab with his push broom. Pablo is unresponsive, but the street sweeper immediately feels terrible and inflicts upon himself a dozen “Ave Marias” as penance.

Little Granny A-, out early to catch a bus for her appointment at the public hospital, and anxious to avoid the crowds, tiptoes nervously around Pablo’s body. She is sure he’s alive, but goodness, where are families these days? That poor, poor child. Asleep on the sidewalk. She opens a worn pocketbook and pads through wads of faded papers and identity documents until she finds a few coins, which she puts into Pablo’s open hand. She gets on her bus and notices a nice looking man looking down at Pablo. Maybe he’ll take the boy to get some help. She smiles, pats her handbag with pleasure, and settles back for a long trip.

The man standing over Pablo is Marcio, unemployed and feeding a slight habit of his own, who is briefly considering taking the coins from Pablo's palm. After all, isn’t that actually contributing to the delinquency of a minor, leaving money for them when everyone knows they’re just going to use it to buy drugs? He refrains, though, because of the growing crowd of people waiting for their buses.

The crowd of bus-waiters is comprised of 11 people at 7:45 am: Marcio, a young couple out apartment hunting, 3 cashiers, 2 students, a dentist, a bricklayer and one very pretty girl with a baby in tow. The women all look with pity and fear at Pablo, his dirty shorts and rumpled hair, the thin line of dried saliva that appears at the corner of his mouth to his chin. The men grip their newspapers, pretending not to notice, but all of them stand in direct sun so that their shadows fall on his little body. Coincidence?

By 8:15, the number of passerby is up to twenty-six, and no one but the street sweeper and Granny A have actually touched little Pablo. Most people are keeping a respectful distance, with perhaps a sneer of disgust disguised as an aversion to the sun. If they are wearing sunglasses, they sneak surreptitious glances his way, marveling at the deep cracks in his heels (made from months of walking the streets without sandals), the way he is sleeping with his head cranked to one side and his arms flailed out, twisted like a broken toy.


Ellen said...

give Granny A more of a name. did the passers-by, the men in the morning let their shadows fall on Pablo from the sun? The early morning crowd seemed to be more compassionate than the later crowd, which takes away from it being realistic. It should be a close combination between the two crowds to seem realistic. Except if there is one incredibly nice person that compels the rest of the crowd to be more kind, too... its realistic.

nora said...

sorry if this is totally weird--but i found your blog through a friend's blog (another expat who was living in rio until recently). I'm trying to move to rio myself and I'd love to hear about your experience if you're willing to send me an email: noramarisolsalem@gmail.com

by the way, love the story.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ellen - give her a name or just call her Granny. Also, I found the parenthesis in the first section annoying. I would find a way to incorporate them into the sentence, use a dash or something other than (). Other than that, I am waiting for the next installment.

- Love, Mom (The Grammar Nazi)

LeAnne Hardy said...

Dear Jena,

You have a good ear for language and wonderful insights from your extraordinary experiences. You have a lot to offer as a writer. I suggest that you find a book (Since you probably don’t have an English library available, look on Amazon) that will help you to refine some techniques for telling your story as effectively as possible. There are lots out there about how to write and sell fiction.

Pablo’s story reveals so much about the street children and about our discomfort when confronted with their needs. It is a story that needs to be heard both in Brazil and in America. But it lacks a point-of-view (POV) character with which the reader can identify. 19th century books (like War and Peace) used an omniscient POV that sees inside anyone’s head for their motivations and back story, but modern readers don’t go for that as much as what we call a close third person or even first person. Whose story is this? Tell the story through that person’s eyes and give us the sense that we are experiencing the story right along with that person and you will have us completely gripped by the power of the situation.

Basically, this is Pablo’s story, but since he is unconscious it would be hard to tell it from his POV. (Athough if you really wanted to use his POV, you might have him vaguely coming awake and being aware for a few moments of what is being done to him.) Since you are at the bus stop, I wonder if you might tell the story through the eyes of a news seller near-by or a bus driver who comes around several times during the day. Each time he would observe one of the vignettes you have described here. Now since you are in his POV, we cannot see anything that he does not see, i.e., we can’t know what is going on in the heads of those who are waiting at the bus stop. But we CAN see what they do and hear what they say if the bus driver is near enough. (Hearing might be easier for the guy at the news stand.) He can observe their body language—how they turn away, how they look at Pablo when they think no one is looking their way—and he might surmise what they are thinking based on what he knows of human nature and Rio culture. We hear it as he thinks it.

In the course of the story, your POV character needs to change in some way as a result of what happens. At the end he/she needs to DO something that shows that change. The bus driver might get off the bus and do something compassionate he has been resisting all day. Or, alternatively, he might choose not to change and the opportunity is gone forever. He doesn’t get off the bus. He comes by and the boy is gone, (Oh, well. It’s not my problem.) or the police are standing around the boy’s dead body. (It’s too late.) In either case the reader knows that we came to the brink of change and missed it. The opportunity is gone forever. In children’s books we never do that. We always end with hope no matter how bleak the situation (like my current manuscript where the POV character has just learned she has the HIVirus that she was so afraid of people discovering her father had. She is going back to the routine of her life, knowing she has at least one friend who will stand by her.) But modern adult and even young adult books may well end on the depressing note that the chance for change has been lost.

You will want to study your POV character thoroughly so you provide him with an interesting back story that underlines his motivation to act or not act. A book about writing fiction will help you with that. Or I have a list of questions I use when developing characters.

Good luck, Jena. As I said, you are gifted with words and have an incredible heart. I hope you will take the time to polish your skills and get published.

Ellen said...

I really liked LeAnne's suggestion about point of view. I would suggest that the POV be from a non-human. Perhaps the bus-stop itself is the point of view, naming the different children who sleep there, the actions that go on there.
A window in a nice apartment that looks down on the street to the homeless child sleeping there. A stray dog that knows the children. I like the idea of a point of view, but I also want to see you use your creativity through something that is somewhat neutral, yet seems to have more dignity and knowledge than the average people walking past.