Miranda’s Garden Excerpt | Year 2 Winter | Poinsettia—Unity/Poison

Photo by Eva Elijas from Pexels

Miranda stood in the attic surrounded by cobwebs and old cardboard boxes. Dust balls itched her nose, and the cold, damp air made her shiver. Aunt Minna was on her knees hunched over an open box. “I thought since you’re here, you might as well get some of your things,” she said. “I’ll box them up for you. If you can’t get it all on the plane, we can mail everything before you leave.” She held up a doll with orange matted hair and no clothes. It winked, its left eye stuck shut. “Was this one yours or Elizabeth’s?”

“Elizabeth’s,” said Miranda. “The head fell off mine. We threw her out.”

Miranda had broken the head off her doll in a rageful fit when she was seven. She was in her room stifling an outburst, the reason for which she couldn’t remember now.  A scream gathered inside her. She pounded her bed with her fists until her wrists hurt. She spotted her doll lying on her pillow next to a small brush and comb from earlier that day when she and Elizabeth had been playing beauty parlor with their matching dolls. Miranda’s lay on its back, its eyes stuck in a stare at the ceiling. Stupid doll, she thought. Laying there, doing nothing. She grabbed the doll by the legs, banged the back of its head on the wooden bed frame until it popped off and rolled across the floor, its dead stare aimed at Miranda. She cried and cried, did her best to reattach the head to the body. I’msorryI’msorryI’msorry.

Though Miranda couldn’t name it as such, the incident embedded a deep, searing shame in her, and it stayed with her, hidden beneath other unidentified emotions, tucked in her many layers. It was the same feeling she’d had when Aunt Minna found her and David “playing doctor” behind the chicken coop, or when Uncle Frank found her pressing her young body against Jack, the hired help, ten years her senior.

Now, it crept up on her, slow and gradual, the way day turns to night. Standing there in the attic, Miranda shrunk. Her edges shriveled, leaving her tiny and new inside.

Aunt Minna opened more boxes, retrieving baby hats and sweaters, small books, crayon drawings of stick figures with I LOVE YOU scrawled by a shaky hand. Inside one box with MIRANDA written across the corner of a flap, they found an old, broken Oriental fan Miranda hadn’t been able to throw away for some sentimental reason she couldn’t remember now, a plastic change purse full of fake foreign coins, a pop bead necklace, a 1973 calendar saved with the intent to frame the pictures of mountains, and the kaleidoscope Uncle Frank won at the Illinois State Fair in Canton the summer Miranda was nine.

She pulled the black cylinder from the bottom of the box and put it to her eye. The light from the bare overhead bulb was too dim to illuminate the colored chips inside.

“You just loved that thing,” said Aunt Minna.

Miranda moved to the window at the far end of the attic, passing through a spider’s web. She dragged the sticky strands from her hair and off her face and wiped them on her jeans. At the window, she put the tube to her eye and turned it. The plastic jewels tumbled against each other, taking shape, then changing again with the slightest move. Their colors were not as luxurious as she had remembered from years before when she sat on her bed until daylight disappeared, mesmerized by the changing colorful designs that formed and fell away. She thought it unfortunate that we can’t bottle moments of pleasure from our childhoods to consume years down the road when we need them because she could use something like that now.

She held her stomach, and a heavy pressing ache in her head grew. “I don’t feel very well,” she said. “I think I need to lie down.”

Miranda’s Garden Excerpt – Year 2 | Fall | Dianthus—Love/Appreciation

Saturday, September 26, 1992 | New Moon

Hand-drawn illustrations
New Moon in Libra
Dianthus | Love and appreciation

She dusted the mantle and the bookcase, vacuumed the musty carpet, and gathered and stacked the ever-present books, papers, and colored pencils. Next to the defunct fireplace in her living room, she placed a few pumpkins she had bought at the Farmer’s Market as autumn decor, alongside the bunch of dried wheat stalks, resting in a bronze barrel-shaped canister. She washed her sheets and pillowcases and remade the bed, her toe grazing the remnants from a midnight snack she had slid beneath it, a plate with a cellophane cracker wrapper and a dried streak of hummus, which she took to the kitchen, then set to work on a flower arrangement. She poked orange chrysanthemums and bright, yellow black-eyed Susans with a few wisps of purple fountain grass for effect into a half-full vase of water she had treated with sugar and vinegar to maintain the bouquet’s freshness. This would go on the nightstand next to her bed where David would sleep, along with a couple of books: The Essential Rumi and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Humming a non-descript tune with no form, she worked on a second arrangement for the kitchen, plunging the cut stems from a batch of deep maroon dianthus into a tall vase of the treated water, their spicy clove scent mingling perfectly with the warm honey fragrance of the sweet alyssum she used as filler. She wiped down and cleared the kitchen table of graph paper and colored pencils, a twist tie from a bread sack, and a stack of random flyers she had gotten in the mail, which she tossed into a paper bag to be taken down to CU’s new recycling center in Boulder, and placed the vase in the center of the table.

She heard gravel pop beneath slow-moving tires. Her heart stuttered a couple of beats, and she headed for the front door with happy conviction. She opened it wide just as David stepped out of the beat-up Toyota Corolla, packed to the roof with his worldly belongings. He stood and stretched, then turned when he heard Miranda say, “Hey, little brother.”

A giant smile graced his weathered face, and he opened his arms wide. She ran right into them, and as he folded them around her, he said, “Hey, big sister.”

She breathed in his smell: deodorant overpowered by the tang of sweat, a faint scent of laundry detergent, and a thin trace of weed smoke, all laced with his natural pheromones, the vapors of their familial DNA mixing and mingling between them, within them, and in the ethers around them. She rested her cheek on his chest, his strong arms around her, her eyes warming with a tinge of moisture.

Her mother appears again, behind David. Her father has come along this time. He leans against the trunk of a tall Douglas fir. Her mother sits on the large, rounded rock at its base. They smile at Miranda. It has been months since her mother last appeared, and Miranda had since written her previous visits off as the result of a grief-addled brain. She inhales a jagged breath at the sight of them.

“You alright?” asked David, his arms still around her.

Miranda nodded as her parents faded. “You smell like Daddy,” she said.

David gave a little “Hm” in acknowledgement, not remembering their father himself. Miranda knew this from discussion they’d had at various junctures in life, Miranda hoping that as David aged, he would recall some small thing—a laugh, a touch, a scent—that would bring them back to him.

“I was too young,” he had said many times over.

A strange, small wave of jealousy passed through her. If only she had not remembered them the way David had not remembered them, maybe the depth of her loss would have been less. When she finally let go of him, he said, “No wonder you love it here. This is fucking beautiful.”

“Wait until you see out back.” She grabbed his hand, pulled him inside and across the living room, into the kitchen, and out to the deck, him scanning the interior as he passed through, noting the smell of fresh-baked zucchini bread. She opened the back door and presented the lake.

“Holy shit,” he said, hands on his hips. He took in the still, sparkling body of water and the surrounding trees, awestruck. His expression changed, and he looked at Miranda. He put his arm around her. “You okay?” he asked.

She leaned her head against him. “I’m okay,” she said. “Better now that you’re here.”

 “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch,” he said. “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. Must’ve been hell for you.”

Miranda’s Garden Excerpt – Year 1 | Summer | Lily of the Valley/Return to Happiness

Image: CreativeCommons

Friday, June 21, 1991 | Summer Solstice | Waxing Gibbous Moon

Hand-drawn Illustrations
Waxing Gibbous Moon
Lily of the Valley | Return to happiness

The timer rang, drawing her back inside to stir the beans and start the rice. She fried a few eggs, and warmed up the arepa she had on hand, a Colombian flatbread Maria had also taught her to make. After removing the dry denim from the laundry area under the stairs and tossing them on the sofa in the living room next to the pile of linens with plans to fold and hang them after dinner, she called Len to come down for dinner.

He appeared without hesitation and parked himself at the kitchen table in front of his plate of food. He shoved the Lily of the Valley to the back of the table.

“Any chance we have a spare bottle laying around?” he asked as he broke the yoke on his egg, fiercely jabbing his bread into the yellowgold river that flowed toward the pile of beans.

 “No, sorry,” said Miranda, as she moved the flowers to the counter near the back door, a show of protection.

He stopped without looking up. “I thought we had an extra,” he said. “The one my mom gave me.”

Sensing his level of agitation, she made her best on-the-spot decision, quickly running down the possible consequences and outcomes, depending on her response. “That’s the one you have in the loft. Is it gone?”

“What do you mean, ‘Is it gone?’,” he said. “Of course, it’s gone. Why would I ask if we had more?” He resumed eating.

Thinking she may have bypassed a confrontation and not wanting a replay of the outburst from six months before, she asked, “How’s it going?”

 “How’s it going?” he mocked.

Like an emotional ninja who sensed subtle alterations in the air, the way horses or cats know when a storm or earthquake is coming, she was accustomed to reading the smallest change in him. A pang of angst surged through her, an electrical shock to her chest. She didn’t comment, pushed the food around on her plate, her appetite vanquished.

“How the hell do you think it’s going?” he snapped. “You, in and out, in and out. Washer and dryer going all goddamn day.”

“I’m sorry, Len, but I haven’t been able to do laundry much since we got here. I haven’t wanted to disturb you.”

“So why today? Why’s today the day Miranda gets to disturb Len?”

“Because we were out of clothes and clean sheets and towels,” she said, feeling a momentary jolt, a barely negligible rising of her young Firecracker Self: You. Bastard, she thought. And before she was able to filter her words, she said, “I can’t do it at night because that’s when you sleep, if you even do.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them. She saw it. The miniscule shift in the position of Len’s head.

He looked up at her, vacant, the way she’d seen him other times in the recent past when he’d been drinking all day, a dark void behind his eyes, his soul departed. He put down his fork. The air held a stillness, more threat than reassurance. “What did you say?”

“Len, I’m sorry… I.. I just—“

“You just what?”

“I don’t know. I’m just frustrated, I guess. I’m trying to do what I can to help you—“

You can’t help me!” he barked. He stood in a flash, his chair tipping over, its wooden back bouncing on the floor a few times before coming to rest with its two front legs in the air. “You wanna do laundry, Miranda? Is that what you want?” He marched into the living room and snatched up a shirt, holding it out in his clenched fist. “Here,” he challenged her, “come do the laundry.”

“I’m eating right now,” she said.

 “I’m eating right now,” he mocked again in that whiney voice she had gotten too used to hearing. “Get in here now,” he ordered. “Fold the fucking laundry.”

To keep the situation from escalating, she went to the living room and started to fold a pair of his jeans. He stood close to her, watching, his breath on her bare shoulder. He walked around to the front of the sofa, picked up an armful of sheets and flung them into the air. “Yeah. Let’s. Do. The laundry!” His jaw bulged and receded. As if jerked here and there by a mad puppeteer, he flung laundry in the air, denim shirts floating up then falling around him, draping across the coffee table, the sofa’s padded arm.

“Len, don’t. Please. I’ll do these. Go back upstairs if you need to.”

“Go back upstairs…” he mocked. He took a deep breath, and his demeanor calmed and quieted in an instant. Rather than take it as a good sign, Miranda knew from experience he was picking up steam. “You wouldn’t be trying to get rid of me, would you, Miranda?”

“No, I’m not trying to do that. I just don’t want to fight with you.”

“Too late for that. Once again, you had to open your goddamn mouth.”

She stood there, a pair of folded jeans in her hands, telling herself this was the alcohol talking, not her husband, not knowing whether to engage and try to talk him down or to carry on as if he weren’t there. Whatever she did, she knew it would anger him more.

“I have an idea,” he said, feigning an epiphany, index finger in the air. “Let’s go to the lake.”

Miranda looked out the window. Daylight had dimmed. The sun would be setting soon. “It’s getting late,” she said.

“Aw, come on big baby, Miranda. Let’s go…”

She knew not to challenge, so she complied and went to the back door with him. With a subtle push of his hand to her lower back, he moved her in front of him on their way out, bumping the Lily of the Valley with his elbow, knocking it to the floor, unearthing the plant from its pot. Miranda stopped, wanting to pick it up and recover it to safety. Len pressed his hand on her lower back again. She moved forward.

The temperature had dropped. Goosebumps sprouted and tingled on her skin. In the few minutes it took for them to feel their way down the long flight of stairs and over to the lake’s shore where a canoe was tied to a fat, wooden post, the sun had completed its fast sink to the other side of the world and washed the sky with a deep blue grey. Twilight. The time between daylight and darkness. The moon began to materialize, waxing toward full, offering partial illumination. Len unknotted the rope and threw its end into the vessel. He grabbed the canoe’s edge and motioned Miranda to get in.

“Len, I don’t think we should. It’s dark.”

He leaned over, whispered in her ear, “You wanted to be at the lake. Let’s be at the lake.”

Miranda’s Garden Excerpt — Year 1 | Spring | Colorado Columbine/Love and Faith

Wikimkedia Commons

In my novel, MIRANDA’S GARDEN, I used moon phases and plants (and their symbolism) to serve as headings for sections. The purpose: to create mood and give some insight to the theme of the section.

Here’s an excerpt. (Miranda and her husband, Len, have recently arrived in Tyler, Colorado, to start the next chapter of their lives.)

Year 1 | SPRING
Tuesday, May 14, 1991
New Moon
Colorado Columbine | Love and Faith

Miranda worked into the early evening, the warm Colorado sun caressing her back, and she was surprised to find that, despite the fast approach of late June, the air didn’t feel heavy like the oppressive humidity in Illinois and Michigan. There, it held a weight that took shape, mildly choking when she breathed in, like being under water. When she inhaled the dry, clean air in Colorado, it felt good in her lungs, and they expanded more than ever before.

She swung her thick shag of dark hair over one shoulder to keep it out of her way and sat in the middle of the thirsty patch of earth, uprooting weeds. Crystal, her nearest neighbor, walked down the road with a man about Miranda’s age. On her way home from working at the salon she owned in Tyler, Crystal had made a habit of stopping to talk when Miranda was out in her yard, and the two women were becoming fast friends. Miranda went to meet them.

“This is my son, Ray,” said Crystal.

Ray commented on the vast improvement he saw in the cabin.

“Looks like something out of a magazine, doesn’t it, Ray?” said Crystal.

“Sure does,” he said, then adjusted his line of sight when a string of twinkling notes drifted out the open windows.

“It’s Len. Miranda’s husband,” said Crystal.

“He’s a composer. Classical.”

“Really,” said Ray.

Miranda tucked a rogue strand of hair behind her ear. “He’s working like mad to finish a piece.”

“For the Chicago Symphony,” said Crystal, beaming, as if Len were her own son.

“Impressive,” said Ray. Then, referring back to the cabin and the yard, “This is all quite an undertaking,” he said.

“She’s persistent,” said Crystal.

She motioned to the piles of dirt at the edge of the property, laughing. “I see you’ve got more plans.”

“Many more,” said Miranda, smiling.

“There used to be a trail right there. Between our properties,” Crystal said, pointing. “Next to that last pile of dirt.”

“What happened to it?” asked Miranda.

“Overgrown. Lack of attention. Old man Johnson was too sick to take care of it, and I sure as heck wasn’t gonna do it. I already spend too many hours on my feet at the beauty shop.”

Miranda smiled. “Wouldn’t it be fun to open it back up?”

Crystal laughed her hearty laugh again. “Ah, kiddo… I can read your mind. Knock yourself out.” She was holding a planter with delicate, pale blue, star-shaped flowers. She passed the pot to Miranda. “For you.”

Miranda took the plant from her friend and tamped down a wave of emotion. Kindness directed her way always touched her in a deep place. “What’s this for?” she managed. “Thank you.”

“It’s a ‘just because’ gift. Or a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift. Although we’re not much of a neighborhood up here,” she laughed.

Miranda’s cabin and Crystal’s house were the last two homes on the long, ascending road, with the next nearest house almost a mile away, a forest of trees between them.

“It’s our state flower,” added Crystal. “Colorado columbine.”

“It’s lovely,” said Miranda, gently holding a thin petal between her index finger and thumb. “So delicate. I love it.”

“Enjoy,” said Crystal, as she and Ray turned to walk back up the road.

Over his shoulder, Ray said, “It’s good for the soul, isn’t it?”

“Pardon?” said Miranda.

He turned to face her but continued to walk away, backwards. “All this digging in the dirt,” he said. “Good for the soul.”

Another feeling she couldn’t quite name rose up inside her. She tucked it away in one of her layers, smiled, and said, “Yes. It is.”

How to be a Good and Helpful Beta Reader

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In my last post, I wrote about how to find beta readers and what to expect from the process. Now, I want to share a little about what it means to be a good and helpful beta reader, all based on my recent experience of sending my novel, Miranda’s Garden, out to beta readers. And also from talking with other writer friends who have done the same.

Understand What Beta Reading Is

beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased piece of written work. This could be for a novel, memoir, non-fiction book, or a script.

A beta reader provides the author feedback from an average reader’s point of view rather than from a professional point of view, like an editor, proofreader, writing coach, agent, publisher, or another author/writer.

This feedback is used by the writer of the unreleased book to fix remaining issues with plot, pacing, or consistency. It may also point out sections that confuse and/or don’t ring true or important threads that get lost or aren’t resolved.

The beta reader also serves as an audience to see what kind of emotional impact the story has.

Understand What Beta Reading is Not

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A beta reader is NOT any of the following.

Editor – A critical reader of a piece of written work who polishes and refines. This will be THE WRITER’S job on the revision – or an editor of HER choosing.

Proofreader – A reader who looks for and changes/points out spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. A proofreader may also look for formatting issues, make sure all elements are included as they should be—for example, bold headings, missing sentences/words, etc. This will come AFTER the writer has made yet another pass at her manuscript AFTER she’s received beta reader comments and feedback.

Writing Coach – An experienced writer who walks another writer through the process of writing a book. By the time a manuscript gets to the beta reader stage, the writer has already done this.

Agent – A person who helps a writer find a publisher for her manuscript. Some agents also help writers of novels, for example, find film producers. An agent looks out for the business interests of the writer.

Publisher – A publisher oversees the selection of manuscripts, the subsequent printing, and the dissemination of the printed book.

Of course, you can be a beta reader if you DO assume these roles in your everyday life, but you need to be able to remove your professional hat and put on a beta reader hat. Know that this isn’t your next editing project (you can’t edit the work and expect to be paid), that it isn’t appropriate for you to try and sell your services, and/or that the WRITER OF THE MANUSCRIPT will get to the editing/proofing/revising in her next pass at the manuscript.

How to Help / Questions to Ask

If you’re approached to do a beta read on a manuscript, know the following.

1—It isn’t a finished manuscript The writer of the manuscript has not gone through the process of line editing and/or proofing. It’s too soon for that. Don’t waste your time on the minutia. Don’t “correct” or make suggestions about punctuation and grammar or point out typos. This will take too long and will likely burn you out. It may even cause you to not be able to finish.

2—You are not an editor or proofreader Not on this manuscript, anyway. (See #1 above.)

3—This is a big-picture read Pull back and imagine that you’re reading the manuscript from an aerial view. Look at character arc and development (how a character changes/grows). Look at story arc and development (how a story starts, gets complicated, peaks, then settles into a new normal). Look for important threads that run through the story (if they have a satisfying emotional resolution or get dropped). Identify your emotional experience (how the story made you feel… this will likely be a lot of different emotions, with one or two overarching ones at the end).

4—Be honest yet kind Rather than begin the statements in your feedback negatively (I didn’t like… There’s no way… You are incorrect…), find ways to do so positively (I didn’t understand… I was confused by… I wonder if/why,,,)

You’re certainly not responsible for the writer’s feelings or reaction to your feedback, but keep in mind what it took to get all those words on the page in a meaningful way and to then share it. And as I’ve said before, keep in mind that it’s a work in progress, so expect that some parts might be messy or feel unfinished. You likely will never know how your comments landed on the writer because, as I say in my last post, conversations between writers of in-progress manuscripts and beta readers is generally not a good idea. If for no other reason, in the interest of time.

If you’re intrigued at the prospect of serving as a beta reader for someone, here are some questions you might ask if they don’t provide the answers when they make the ask.

1—Is there anything in particular you’d like me to focus on? This may help the writer identify parts of the manuscript she has questions about herself yet hasn’t consciously identified. Her responses will also give you a framework to work in. If you don’t get any clearly defined instructions about how to proceed, if all you offer in the end is how you perceive the protagonist (and other characters), what you appreciate and/or are confused by regarding the characters and their choices, how you felt at various points in the story—and especially in the end, you will have performed a valuable service for the writer.

2—What is your timeframe? A fair amount of time to do a beta read and provide comments is one month, in my opinion. Of course, this varies, depending on readers’ schedules and the writer’s needs. If you find that the writer of the manuscript wants your feedback within a timeframe that’s challenging for you, either politely decline or explain and offer to do a quicker read that focuses on one or two aspects of the manuscript that you both agree on.

3—Have you intentionally used any special formatting or structuring I should be aware of? Sometimes, authors use special formatting or structuring, so it’s good to know this up front before you begin. For example, an author may use something as simple as a Prologue and/or Epilogue. (Be sure you understand how these function in a book.) She may use chapter titles or not. (If her intention is to inform the chapter content with the title, note whether or not it does.) She may use headings, white space, italics, or other markers to designate shifts in time, point of view, or mood. (Be sure you note how it affects the reading and comprehension of the story.)

4—How will I receive the manuscript and return my feedback? In this day and age, it’s likely assumed that the entire process will take place digitally. You will receive the manuscript, maybe as a .pdf in an email, and you will return your feedback via email, as well. You might be asked to send a summary in a separate Word document, or you might be asked to comment directly on the document you were sent.

What to Expect in Return

It’s nice when a writer of a manuscript offers something in return for their beta readers’ time and effort, but this is never, ever to be expected. You may get a promise to be in the Acknowledgements of the published book, a free copy of the published book, or some one-time service. If these are being offered, the writer will likely share this up front when they invite you to beta read. It’s best to go into the process with no expectation of any kind of tangible reward or compensation. Most certainly, the writer will not compensate you monetarily.

Appreciate the experience and satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped move an in-progress manuscript closer to publication or production.

Writers know this is a big ask, and you most definitely deserve a big “thank you” for your time, energy, and effort.

If you’ve served as a beta reader, let us know in the comments below about your experience.