Critique Group – Split Obsession

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Split Obsession – by Tree

William was the only thing written on the envelope sticking out of the mailbox; his name had been scratched in black ink, like a hen had clawed the farmyard ground. Nothing indicated whom it was from. William Stadler glanced over his shoulder to the area leading up to his front door. A stone walkway separated two lilac bushes on a dimly-lit, corner-lot. Shadows were cast across the yard, but none created by someone waiting. He was alone and now curious.

Inside the house, he removed his shoes and arranged them alongside others on a mat in the hall. His jacket now hung on the coat rack. The scented, spring breeze that followed him in added life-like features to the floral painting on the wall beside him. He entered the living room and retrieved a pen from the coffee table to open the letter. Inside was a folded piece of unlined paper. Nothing else.

He sat on the leather couch and sank into the cushion his body had spent years molding. He unfolded the paper. On the single page, centered, were three paragraphs. The type looked oddly spaced and ink filled in some of the letters. Definitely not from a laser or inkjet printer. Also, there were no salutation or closing words, just the three paragraphs.

His brow lowered. He had last seen a typewritten letter when he was a child. His father, a middle school teacher, used an old typewriter to complete report cards. He remembered the frustration his father had when ink from the ribbon got on his hands while trying to unjam it. Now at thirty-two it looked archaic to him. He began to read aloud but his voice trailed off to a whisper. A sudden adrenaline rush coursed through his body and made his hand unsteady.

 

Her right arm is broken. I told her not to struggle, but she didn’t listen.

They never do. They fight as if their lives meant something to them.

Yet they insisted on poisoning their bodies with drugs and alcohol.

 

I had to slit her throat to silence the cries. The power you feel from

their helplessness only lasts so long before the high is gone.

You get addicted to the rush. But enough about that for now.

 

Does it still sound exhilarating to you, William?

Don’t do anything stupid. In time you will understand.

 

 

“What the–?” His eyes widened as he instinctively looked around. Hairs on his neck rose and a tingle rode down his body like a wave. What the heck is this? Was this some kind of joke? Who would send something like this? His mind raced as he shifted thoughts between the people he encountered over the years. Then his head jerked forward. Logan. Relief set in and his heart-rate lowered.

You see, Logan regularly played jokes on his friends to get a rouse out of them. Once, back in college, he wrote a letter to a friend, Teddy. He confessed the love of a girl Teddy spoke about from his Sociology class. Well, poor Teddy was an emotional guy and thought his dreams had come true. He approached her with flowers to express how he felt as well. Much to his surprise, she in fact didn’t like him and her friends had a good laugh watching his sad retreat.

William reached into his pocket to retrieve his cell phone. Speed-dial 6.

After a few rings, a deep voice answered. “Hey, Will. What’s up?”

“Man, ya had me going.” William shook his head and sighed, the letter still in his hand. “Ah, that was a good one.”

“What was a good one?” Logan answered, confused.

“The letter you put in my mailbox. For a second I thought it was real.” William laughed as he dropped the letter on the coffee table. “Wouldn’t that be messed up.” He walked to the kitchen to get a drink.

“A letter? Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about. What letter did you get?”

William closed the fridge and put the carton of orange juice on the counter. “You’re telling me you didn’t try to prank me with a fake letter?” His hand held the carton of juice in place until a muffled bang came from the direction of the back door and made his grip release. He spun around to face the door located just off the hallway leading to the kitchen. “One second.” His voice lowered.

With the phone by his side he crept around the corner to the door. The inside-light was off and it gave him a clear view outside. He put his forehead against the cold glass and looked around the dark, gravel driveway between the houses. No one was there. A ladder rested on its side next to his neighbor’s wooden fence. The wind must have blown it over.

William turned his head. “Okay, I’m back.” The phone returned to in front of his mouth.

“As I was saying,” Logan’s voice lowered and sounded sincere. “I didn’t send a letter. What did it say?”

“It just…” William was a little on edge about that eerie last paragraph. Don’t do anything stupid. Would telling someone about the letter be considered stupid? What would happen if he did? Logan might not have pranked him, but it could still be fake. “…talked about a cruise for three hundred dollars to the Bahamas. Insane, right?” He decided it best not to mention what it really said yet.

“Ah, man, throw it in the trash. We get those at work over the fax machine all the time. Hidden costs are crazy.”

 

William finished the call and grabbed the letter on his way to his bedroom. Light colors accented the clean and well-organized room. He sat at a desk in front of his laptop and shook the mouse. A beach view brought the screen to life. He logged into his email, just to double-check, and found no new message related to the letter.

Shaking his head, he closed the laptop and re-read the letter. I had to slit her throat to silence the cries. The words still blanketed him with an uneasy feeling. But at the same time, curiosity grabbed hold of him. He had written a paper in college on the suppressed emotions serial killers harbored inside. Also, spent a whole semester trying to solve the Zodiac cryptograms. Whoever sent the letter certainly picked the right guy for this psychological dilemma.

This can’t be real. Why send it to me? William wanted to shrug it off. In time you will understand. William dropped the letter onto the closed laptop. “Understand what?”

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14 replies

  1. This is Bryan Davis. I can’t seem to log in right now.

    Tree, this is intriguing. I would definitely continue reading.

    Watch for important placement and inventory issues. You showed the letter protruding, but you didn’t show William taking it. He started opening it, but in my mind, it was still in the mailbox. Also, you had him sitting on the sofa, then he was suddenly standing with a carton of orange juice.

    Consider point of view issues. It’s unlikely that William would notice light colors or how organized his room was or even the beach view on his computer, especially when this situation caused such a mental distraction.

    I thought the memory of Logan’s trick was too long. Just have William laugh and remember that Logan was a trickster in school.

    Let’s look at this section:

    Now at thirty-two it looked archaic to him. He began to read aloud but his voice trailed off to a whisper. A sudden adrenaline rush coursed through his body and made his hand unsteady.

    You don’t mention what is thirty-two. The antecedent is either the typewriter or the ribbon. Also, delete “to him.” Get rid of as many similar pronoun references as you can. Having them hurts intimacy. In addition, you have him reacting to the message before you show any of it. I think you need to have him read some, react some, read more, react more, etc.

    I hope that helps. Keep up the good work.

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    • Bryan, thank you for the informative critique. Sometimes I assume the reader will know what is meant in a line, for example, I mention he last remembered seeing a type-written letter as a child, then say, now at thirty-two meaning his age. I should make better references to what is being targeted to clarify things for the reader..

      I feel I may still have some problems with POV. I feel it necessary to add description for the surroundings, but not sure how to bring it up. I know to avoid the obvious, looking in the mirror to describe himself or he can’t describe something behind him is doesn’t see. But how can he walk into a room and sit in front of a computer without the reader knowing any details of the room? He’d just be floating at a desk somewhere.

      You have given me lots to review and improve on. Again, thank you for taking the time to review this piece. It is very appreciated.

      Tree

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      • If you want to note details, have your character notice changes. For example, have him notice that the computer scene changed since the previous day. Note that spilling the Coke last night left a stain that tinged the normally blue carpet slightly darker.

        Regarding his age, it’s fine to mention that as long as you don’t have other possibilities regarding what 32 could mean. Since he was thinking about an old typewriter, that device might be 32 years old or that long in his possession. That was the antecedent in the reader’s mind at the moment.

        I saw other comments about a topic I forgot to address. When the POV character does an action, don’t make it sound like the action is being done on its own, like “his brow lowered” should be “he lowered his brow” and “the phone returned” should be “he returned the phone.”

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        • Mentioning change as a method of bringing up description without it feeling forced on the reader. Nice approach.

          That does make a lot of sense. His brow can’t move on its own. And to have him return the phone vs the phone returned gives a better visual of what is happening in the scene.

          Thank you for clarifying this, Bryan. It is very helpful and I think it will improve my writing.

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  2. You’ve got the start of an interesting story here.
    I like the descriptive you use. However, at the end of the first paragraph you used 4 sentences to describe him looking over his shoulder. Try taking those 4 sentences and making them one or two.

    Other than that, I agree with Mr. Davis. Though I like the introduction of Logan if he’s going to stick around in the story.

    One paragraph stood out to me as wordy. ‘William turned his head. “Ok, I’m back.” The phone returned to the front of his mouth.’ Why is it necessary to tell the reader that William turned his head? Also, most people would suppose that he put the phone to his mouth unless it was on speaker. But even the way it was phrased could indicate that it magically returned to his mouth.
    A simple fix: “Ok, I’m back,” he said.

    Over all an interesting story. Can’t wait to read more.

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    • Thanks, Stephanie. I was trying to create a little tension with the dark shadows and let the reader see his surroundings. Maybe a little too much. lol

      Also, I totally understand where you’re coming from about the “Ok, I’m back” line. I originally had that, but changed it to not have the reader wonder how the phone moved from his side to his mouth when he spoke.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and review it. glad you like it.

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  3. This is an amazing story you’ve got going. I liked how you described the room in the second paragraph.
    Some disruptions, though, sounded strange. For example, at the end of the second paragraph, maybe use something like “He went to the living room, grabbed a pen of the coffee table, and skid it under the flap, breaking the seal.” When I first read that he was using a pen to open the letter, I initially pictured him jamming the thing through the letter.
    The last sentence of paragraph 2 seemed like he expected something besides the paper to be inside. Maybe say what he expected to find, or find a way to say that he pulled out a piece of paper.
    Instead of saying what the letter was not created with, try stating that it was typewritten. Also, the fact that the lines where centered is inconsequential to the story and seems really hard to do with a typewriter.
    “His brow lowered.” This might just be preference, but I think that saying “He furrowed his brow,” would seem a little bit more natural.
    With the letter, I think it’s interesting that the writer said that her arm was broken, then say that he slit her throat. (My internal dialogue:) Why say her arm is broken if he slit her throat? Wouldn’t she be dead? How could she survive a wound like that, unless the guy had medical training? Is this some sociopathic doctor? Not that having Dr. Nutjob is a bad idea. It’s just something to consider if this creep is not a doctor.
    Finally, having William remember his college paper when it comes as an epiffany might justify why he remembered those details with such specificity. I don’t know anything about the Zodiac, but what does it have to do with serial killers? Maybe specifying what that means could be helpful for we ignorant folk.
    Overall, it was incredible! I was hooked almost instantly. This story has a lot of promise.

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    • Thanks, Daniel. Your words are what make writers happy to share their work with the world.

      Funny thing is I had an earlier version of the chapter that described him sliding the pen under the flap more like a letter opener as you described, but some people said it was too much description. I guess our problem as writers is to find the fine line between too much or too little description.

      Your comments on what was expected or not in the letter are interesting. I will think more on that section.

      As the story progresses we learn what type of character we are dealing with regarding the letter, and your comment on what does the Zodiac have to do with serial killers is excellent because I need to reword it so the reader will see more clearly that I am making a reference to William trying to solve the puzzle left by the Zodiac Killer. Notorious in the US for his cryptogram puzzles sent to police and newspaper still not being solved to this day.

      I am so happy the story did its job and hooked you and that you shared your insight with me to improve it even more. Thanks!

      Tree

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  4. Tree, thanks for sharing. I’m not much into psychological mysteries myself, but my wife is a big fan of murder mysteries, so I’ve read a few to her. I’d say this most reminds me of Ted Dekker’s “Three” (which was definitely a cliff-hanger).

    Here are the thoughts that came to mind as I read it:

    1. Would it be good to quote “William” in the first sentence?

    2. My mom (an English teacher) always told me “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Perhaps: “Nothing indicated the sender.”

    3. What cast the shadows in the front yard?

    4. Did he hang his jacket just now, or was it hanging there from before? (Is this just setting the scene, or does the jacket matter later in the story?)

    4. Perhaps: “He walked to the coffee table in the living room and retrieved a letter opener.” Or, if it’s important that he uses a pen, “retrieved a pen” and then just show him opening the letter with the pen, like you had it originally?

    5. There were a few times the arrangement of thoughts, reactions and action felt odd. I’ve felt the same about my own writing at times. This article on “Motivation-Reaction Units” helped me arrange things more naturally: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/

    6. Perhaps: “to get a rise out of them”?

    7. The phrase “to get a drink” made me expect him to pour something stronger than orange juice (like a shot of whiskey).

    Keep writing! 🙂

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    • I read the rest of the chapter on your site. I guessed close, but not quite. I like the twist!

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    • Hi John. Thanks for your thoughts. The review will be very useful. I find it very interesting to see how different areas of a story stand out to different people. I will be going through the chapter, ensuring things are clearer for the reader.

      I will definitely check out that article. Thank you for sharing it. It is so easy to mistake the order of motivation and reaction.

      Also, thank you for mentioning the comparable novel, “Three”. It”s good to hear my story can remind someone of a published piece. Gives me some hope.

      Hope your wife enjoyed it.

      Tree

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  5. Wow. This really has a Dee Henderson feel of the start of a great suspense story. Who is the victim in the letter? What would make someone want to stalk this guy? Can his friend be trusted? I would love to see more! I would say that you use your words in sometimes awkward ways, and they trip over themselves. Try reading the passage aloud, and work on improving the flow. Also, instead of saying what he did exactly, say how it sounded, how the paper rustled as he opened the envelope, or how the door creaked as he opened it. Disclaimer; I tend to do too much of this when I really should just say the simplest thing! So, taking my advice with that grain of salt, I hope it helps!

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  6. Hey K.G.,

    Thanks for your input. It does help. I have to keep reminding myself to add in audible sounds to evoke more senses. Puts the reader deeper into the story.

    I appreciate the advice. And now have to look up Dee Henderson as a comparable.

    Tree

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