Today, we have an excerpt from Before the Flames’ untitled novel. She wrote this interesting piece from three points of view and would love to hear advice on keeping her characters relatable and distinct (hint: I think she would love to hear about style, tone, and voice of her characters.) She also mentioned hearing tips for how to keep the plot moving.
Thank you for taking the time to make a few comments on her piece! It is one of our longer pieces, but I know that any comments are greatly appreciated– even if they are short!
The current queue for Open Pen is as follows:
- Sami P.
- Jane Blake
If you would like to submit a piece of writing to be critique, you can read the rules and submit on the Open Pen page.
Also, I am happy to say that I will be posting normally next week– I promise. I already have a post written 🙂
Untitled by Before the Flames
Oliver stared at the ground as he walked swiftly through the hallways toward the office. He was aware of the whispers and snickers directed at him. The students’ stares bored into him like tiny needles. He felt his face flush. Being a teacher was definitely different then walking the halls as a student. It was bad enough that at home there was nothing but crying and bickering, and he never could escape the sympathy. He had always been the failure, the quiet one, until his older sister, Jemma, realized he had an aptitude for teaching. She quickly employed him to help with all her homework. Soon, both of them were acing classes and he was no longer an outcast. He went on to teach school, and she went off to be a missionary, just like her father and mother before her.
Walking through the school, students gathered around him, face flushed, he remembered her graduation. How surprised their parents were. How proud they were. Until she came home and quit. She had always been in the spotlight, the girl everyone looked up to. How quickly it could all tumble down. Now his parents and Jemma were fighting constantly. He had received postcards from her, letters, detailing her mission. As the letters went on, they seemed to get shorter and shorter. She often remarked she wished she could make an impact, which he had always ignored because he thought SHE was the one making an impact, not him.
Now all she did was shut herself in her room and cry. She didn’t even speak to him. Oliver didn’t notice the tear sliding down his face until it hit the ground. A student stopped him, “Mr. Finch, sir, are you all right?” “No,” he murmured, “I’m not.” He cleared his throat then said in a louder voice, “Class is canceled for today, children. I need to work out some personal issues. I expect you to return with your homework for both this class and tomorrow’s class.”
He drove home, tears streaming down his face. His sister had always been responsible. How quickly lives could crumble. He parked the car, then walked in just as a vase flew inches from his head. “BUT MOM. I CAN’T DO THIS WITH MY LIFE!” Jemma cried. “Hormones,” her father murmured. “Darling, you already are doing something with your life. Or, were doing something with your life. Doing God’s work is most certainly doing something. Can we talk about this some other time? I have to host a lunch with the Methodist ladies in twenty minutes and I still haven’t curled my hair”, her mother clicked her tongue. Sobbing, Jemma ran from the room.
“Jemma”, Oliver called after her, “talk to me.” “Go away, Oliver,” she spoke in between sobs, “you wouldn’t understand either way.” He sighed, “Jemma, just tell me what I won’t understand.” “Fine,” she sniffed in between sobs, “Mom and Dad want me to go back to the mission field, but Oliver! I just can’t do it.” Oliver sat down, “Do you want to talk about it?” She sighed, “No, I don’t particularly want to.” “You can’t block everyone out!” Oliver argued. “I can’t talk about this right now,” she evaded. He stood up, “If you ever feel like talking to someone, I’m here for you.”
She stared at the lock screen of her phone. Her and Alexander, her husband. Happy. She quickly dialed his number, and waited for the comforting sound of his voice. “Hi, Gem!” he greeted. She hadn’t seen him for five years, since she went to the mission field and he stayed behind studying psychology. “I’m coming home,” she whispered “I miss you.” “I missed having my Gem,” his voice seemed to smile, “Do you want me to meet you at the airport?” “Yes please. I’ll be arriving at 2:00 tomorrow. Coming home will feel great, but nothing could be better than seeing you.” “See you then”
Jemma sat back on her childhood bed. It really would be great to see Alexander. Her head throbbed as she stretched her neck. Five years since she had seen Alexander. Five years. It felt like just yesterday when she said goodbye and left for ______. Yet it seemed like a lifetime. So much had changed. When she left she was a naïve 21 year old, fresh out of college with no idea what to do with her life. Clinging to what she knew, following her parents footsteps. Now she was 26, almost 27. They had been newlyweds when she left, married just a month before she left. Young and in love, they believed their marriage could survive 5 years without seeing each other. Now she wondered what Alexander would be like when she saw him.
Quickly, she hurried out of the crowded airport. She grabbed her baggage then found the exit. Crowds always made her nervous, especially since the attack. Her head rocked as she started to slip into a flashback. She pinched herself, mostly to keep the memories at bay. Jemma couldn’t help but smile when she saw the purple VW bug Alexander insisted they buy. He honked the horn obnoxiously. Even that couldn’t dim her happiness at seeing him. He smiled back, and she knew, even if the memories never left her, everything would be okay.
He hopped out to load her suitcase in the tiny trunk and opened the door for her. “You know I can open a door by myself, right?” she teased, “I had to open them for five years. My, how did I survive?” He chuckled, “I don’t know, Gem. But you’re my Gem, and Gems are to be held precious.” “It feels so good to see you again,” Jemma leaned her head on his shoulder, “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that we haven’t seen each other in five years. Never again.” “I appreciate you need rest, but I need to drive. Get your head of my shoulder. So, do you plan on getting a job in boring old Seattle?” “I guess so. Right now I think I just need sleep. Visiting the family is always taxing, you know.”
Jemma took a deep breath before cracking open the door to their sunny-yellow cottage. They bought it once they were engaged, and it was the cutest little cottage she had ever seen. They spent many Saturdays decorating it, painting, and furnishing the house. Not much had changed. She noted that the kitchen was especially clean, and the kettle was on the stove. Alexander was thoughtful like that. His voice broke the silence, “I would love to catch up, Gem, but I have a class. I’ll be back for dinner, and I’ll take tomorrow off.” “Okay, I’ll need time to acclimate to being home so that will work out quite nicely.”
She dug through one of five boxes she brought her stuff home with. One per year. The first box was full of letters and journals, back when she was in touch with her family and journaling every day. The second box was full of pictures, memorializing the friendships she had made. The third box was full of dried flowers, from her friend’s honorary funeral. Her friend had given up on ministering. The fourth box hurt to open. The journals had stopped. Her last entry was about that fateful night. The letters were shorter. The pictures had all but disappeared. The fifth box was full of newspaper clippings. She started reading through them, and noticed there were tears on the sheet. Jemma didn’t know when she had started crying.
Olive seemed particularly upset tonight, as they went out for their nightly run. “Olive, are you okay?” she inquired. “I’ve told you multiple times not to call me Olive,” he protested. “I’ll take that as a yes”. Their footsteps pounded a rhythm onto the dark pavement, a beat echoing life, energy. Pounding out all the worries of the day. He had seemed a bit bent out of shape since his sister came. She couldn’t deduce whether it was because he had argued with his sister or because he was sad for his sister. Either way, it was his sister’s fault. That made her feel a bit better.
Olive had always been shy, since they met in the kindergarten. The first day, someone had asked her if she was a girl or a boy, and she had cried. Olive had come over and comforted her, telling her that it took a very stupid person to not be able to tell the difference. Obviously, he had said, she was a fairy queen in human form. Since that day, they had been the best of friends. He had let her practice makeup on him, and she had let him give her ‘Classics’ to read. It may have been an odd friendship, but it worked for them.
They, of course, had had many disagreements over the years. For example, she had wanted him to take her to prom, but didn’t want to date. He thought that if they went together it made the wrong impression. In the end, they ended up skipping prom Junior year and went together Senior year. They had always been nerds, a bit overshadowed by older siblings.