Open Pen

Struggles at Starbucks: An Open Pen Critique

This Friday, we have a short story set in a Starbucks. The author, Annalia Fiore, has a blog about appreciating the joys of writing, so if you enjoy this story, you may want to drop by her blog.

Regarding feedback, Annalia seems open to any comments on her story and even asks that we “destroy it entirely” (though I am willing to bet that she does not want complete annihilation!) So please feel free to give constructive criticism, and remember that even short comments can be very helpful!

God bless,

Gabrielle

Open Pen is a critique opportunity  on this blog. It is specifically meant for teenage writers who want feedback from their peers, but anyone is welcome to submit. If you are interested in submitting or learning more about Open Pen, you can on the Open Pen page.

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Struggles at Starbucks by Annalia Fiore

Thumbing for my phone beside me, I looked through the windshield of my car at the looming Starbucks coffee shop. Inside the christmas-light framed windows, sat an elderly woman wearing skinny jeans and hoop earrings. She was typing furiously on a laptop covered with brightly colored stickers saying: “Save the whales.” Across from her sat a middle-aged man with a balding scalp. He stared back at me through the frosted window.
I opened my car door and put a booted foot out into the slushy snow.
The warmth of the coffee shop greeted my cold body. A soft murmur of voices spread about the room. I got in line behind a short man wearing a fluffy gray sweatshirt. He peered at me behind oval glasses.
“C-cold out,” he stuttered.
I gave a short nod. Instinctively, I pulled out my phone and began to attend to it seriously.
“I’ve been coming to this Starbucks for eleven years. I always get the same thing. Do you know what I get?”
“What?” I said, not looking up. He hardly looks twenty-three.
“A hot, white chocolate mocha. Grande.”
I looked up from my phone. The small man was grinning at me. I gave another quick nod and returned to my screen.
“I sit in that chair, over there, by the old lady with earrings.”
“Someone is sitting in your spot.”
“Yes! It’s so funny how you know that without looking up.”
I had no interest in explaining to him that I had been coming to this Starbucks for thirteen years and that I sat in that particular chair.
A tall, blond lady from behind the counter handed a plastic cup to the small man.
“White chocolate mocha, sir? Grande?”
“Thank you!” said the small man to her. He then turned to me.
“Excuse me?” he said. I ignored him.
“Excuse me?!” he said again, this time tapping me on the shoulder with one finger.
“What?” I said, finally.
“Oh…hello! You must have not heard me. Anyway, will you please come with me?”
“Where…? No!”
Where are the mental institutions when you need them?
“Oh, but you see I am so attached to that chair. I want you to come and help me get it back. You see?”
“No, I do not. I’m very sorry but I have a lot of work to do.”
I went up to the counter and slammed a five dollar bill onto the counter.
“White chocolate mocha,” I whispered, hoping the small man would not hear, “Grande.”
“That’ll be five dollars and eighty cents, sir,” drawled the blond lady. I looked at the five dollar bill and then to her.
I reached into my back pocket, feeling a few smooth quarters. I pulled them out with two fingers, fumbled, and the coins fell onto the hard ground. I whirled around to pick them up but banged into something in the process.
“Darn! I’ve spilled my tea.”
I looked up to see a huge man wearing a black leather jacket over a shirt that said: “Snake Charmer.” He had enormous black rubber boots on and bushy gray eyebrows.
“I’ve spilled my tea,” the man repeated.
“I’m very sorry, sir. If you’ll just excuse me for a-.”
The man bent down and picked up my lost quarters.
“Here ya go,” he said.
“Thank you,” I muttered. I turned back to the blond lady and gave her my coins.
“Five dollars and eighty cents,” I said.
She glanced down at the quarters that lay in the palm of my hand and then back up at me.
“You’re missing five cents, sir. You gave me three-quarters.” A faint flutter of amusement went across her made up face.
I felt my back pocket. Nothing there. I felt my front pockets. There was nothing. I turned back to the lady.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t have five cents on me.”
The blond lady raised one well-groomed eyebrow.
“No cash? Credit cards? We take casino cards,” she said, smirking, “If that’s all you have.”
“I don’t gamble. Your manager won’t mind if you let go on a nickel, right?”
“I’m afraid he will,” she said, pushing my cash and coins to the edge of the counter. “Sorry, sir.”
A hot wave rippled through my body. My neck was wet with sweat.
“Ma’am,” I began with a desperate patience, “Starbucks is the only coffee shop that sells white chocolate mochas. I’ve been coming here for thirteen years. And I live in Plainville! We have two coffee shops on Main Street, two minutes away from my apartment. Why do you think I drove thirty-four minutes to Starbucks Coffee shop?”
I looked down at the ground. A rusted penny lay beside my foot. I stooped and picked it up.
“Here! Five dollars and seventy-six cents! No! I’m not an insane! I don’t gamble. I just left my credit cards in my apartment. Will you take the money? Deal?”
The blond lady flipped her head behind her. She gave a deep sigh.
“I’ll check with my boss, sir. Just a minute.”
She retreated slowly away and disappeared. Behind me, I heard many sighs of frustration.
It felt much longer than a few minutes when the blond lady returned.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said with pathological patience, “But it’s against the rules.” She looked beyond my shock ridden figure to the next customer.
“I’ll take your order, sir.”
“Just a minute,” said a familiar voice. The huge man with the black jacket came up behind me.
“I have a nickel.” He put the coin on the counter.
The blond lady stared at him. I stared at him.
“T-thank you,” I said at last.
Handing me my penny, the blond lady said: “The pickup counter is to your left, sir.”
She must have forgotten that I had been coming here for thirteen years.
“Thank you,” I said, with effort.
I glanced towards the window. The small man was sitting in my favorite seat. He saw me and grinned. I went over to him.
“Hello,” I said, in a very nice voice.
“Hello! You had some trouble, didn’t you?” said the small man.
“Yes,” I said. I lowered my voice. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Marley. What’s yours?”
“Marley…” I said, ignoring his question, “Can you…Marley, do something for me?”
“Of course!”
“Well, you see… I hope it won’t be too much trouble.”
“Not at all!” interrupted the small man with glee.
I tried not to show my annoyance.
“Well, really, it’s just…” I leaned closer to him and whispered: “Have you heard of Anguliphobia?”
“No. I don’t think I have.”
“Well, anyway, it means a fear of corners or angles. You see?”
“And you have it…this Angu-Angi-.”
“Anguliphobia. Yes.”
“But you came through the door! There are corners and angles there!”
Perhaps this man’s isn’t so mentally ill.
“Well you see, I have a very special case. I don’t like marble. Marble gives me the creeps. It’s hard and shiny. But by itself, like at the order counter, I can stand it. But marble corners! Oh! Those are the worst!”
“Ah! I see,” said the small man, “What is it you want me to do?”
“Will you go and wait for my coffee?”
“Certainly! What did you order?”
I hesitated.
“Well, it’s a White Chocolate Mocha. It’s a Grande.”
“Really! You know, I’ve been ordering that very same thing for the past eleven years! We must be soul mates! Do you know what-.”
“That’s very nice! I think my coffee is about ready.”
Without further words, the short man hopped up and went to the counter.
Stealthily, I put the small man’s coat onto a nearby vacant chair. I sank into his seat and pulled out my laptop. I plugged in my headphones and waited for the man to return. The sun streamed into the coffee shop. Across from the same old lady kept typing. Her iced tea, that sat beside her had not been drunk.
“You are in my seat.”
I looked up. The small man was now towering over me in my seat. He had a puzzled look on his face.
“My coffee!” I said, taking the cup from the man, “Thank you so much.”
I turned back to my computer.
“Yes, of course. But you are in my seat,” repeated the man.
I slipped my headphones on.
“You don’t understand,” continued the small man, “That’s my seat. I’ve been coming here foreleven years. I always sit there.”
I signed into my laptop. I clicked wifi settings.
The small man tapped his finger on my shoulder.
“Excuse me? Excuse me!”
I was completely tired of this irritating man. I selected a hard rock song to blast in my ears. Then a white tab came up in the middle of my computer. It read: We’re sorry, but Starbucks Internet is currently down.
“Excuse me?”

The End

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15 thoughts on “Struggles at Starbucks: An Open Pen Critique”

  1. Annalia,
    This was very interesting, but I do have a few comments.
    First, the whole scene is a little weird. If your main character has been going to the same Starbucks for thirteen years, wouldn’t he have seen the small guy with oval glasses earlier than that? Also, I would also think that he would have known what a White Chocolate Mocha Grande cost and would have prepared better.
    Second, the beginning seems to have the feel of a mystery and I was waiting for some kind of relief for the suspense, or to at least see more clearly the reason for it. All I got, however, was a feeling of “maybe I read that wrong” and had to reread it. But I still got the same feeling, that something possibly dangerous was going to happen, and then nothing did. Almost like your main character has a kind of memory loss and an obsession on top of it.
    Thirdly, and this is just a personal preference, I didn’t like your main character at all. I felt angry at his rudeness to the seemingly friendly man, and I didn’t sympathize at all with the coin scene. When he lied to the nice man just to get his seat back, I threw him off as a villain completely, and not a good one. You know, there are those kinds of villains you could root for, the ones with some goodness in them that just doesn’t have the opportunity to show itself most of the time. This guy seems to be a guy who is rude and inconsiderate, but I want to think well of him. I just don’t have a reason to. Do you understand what I am trying to say?
    Anyways, over all, I liked the story idea, but I do think it could use some work. Hope this helped!
    God bless and keep you.
    ~Bethia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Bethia!

      Thank you so much for your critiques!! I highly appreciate your feedback. 🙂 🙂

      First of all, I highly agree with you. He ought to have seen the man in past visits. I actually edited that in a more recent draft and made his attendance a bit shorter. 🙂 Good catch!!!

      Here’s where it gets kind of strange. I actually wanted you to hate my main character. :O While he is blaming the other man for being mentally unstable, it is, in reality, himself that is the problem. The psychological term for this is “projecting.” Also, I am trying (at least) to create a parallel between him and the Small Man. They both enjoy the same coffee shop, the same drink, and the same seat. Both are socially whacked out. However, one is in reality rather kind, the other is not.

      However, I say this not to defend myself, as, I probably made the story to dislikeable for someone to really want to read it. 🙂 And, I realize, now, that I did not make the point clear enough!

      Thank you, so, so, much for pointing this all out!! Again, I highly appreciate you taking the time to critique my writing.

      God bless you too!!! 🙂

      – Annalia Fiore

      Like

      1. No problem! I understand wanting your readers to hate your main character, and I also understand that this might not be the whole story. I enjoyed it when I read through the second time, knowing that I was supposed to hate the main character. 🙂 Have a great day!

        ~Bethia

        Like

  2. How do you thumb?

    So I’ve read Bethia’s comment above and agree with most of it. What is the point of this story? Why bother telling it to us? The man doesn’t go through any character arc at all, and his “struggles” are due to his own forgetfullness and bad personality. I think “Portrait of a Jerk” would be a better title, to be honest. Is this the entire story? It seems unfinished. The ending doesn’t leave me with any sense of satisfaction, and I have no idea why anything happened.

    Again, as Bethia mentioned, it doesn’t make sense that these two men would have never met before, unless they habitually come to Starbucks at different times. In which case, you would need to mention why one of them is here at a different time than normal. Also, if this man is a coffee snob, I feel like we need more indications of this before he explains why he has to come to this particular coffeeshop. Also, if it’s this important to him, he should have been freaking out about forgetting his credit cards LONG before he realized he didn’t have enough cash. Plus, if he forgot his credit cards, that probably means he forgot his wallet, which means he’s driving without a liscence, which means holy crap what is this man doing on the roads?

    I think it’s ironic that he thinks disparagingly of the man in front of him for seeming mentally imbalanced, but he seems to be very imbalanced himself. Also pretending you have a phobia to take a man’s seat is just low. He should have gotten far more commupeance (is that how you spell that? no idea) than the internet being down. And since I don’t know WHY he needed the internet, I don’t even really care. It doesn’t seem like a punishment.

    TLDR, there doesn’t seem to be a point to this story and I’m confused.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, Faith!

      Thank you so much for your critique! You are an amazing editor/commentator and all that you said made lots of sense!

      My main character is definitely a jerk… 🙂

      In my most recent draft, I changed the time span my POV had attended Starbucks.

      About the credit cards, yes, he should have been freaking out before hand. Nice catch!

      Here is where I get stuck… In your critique, you stated, “it’s ironic that he thinks disparagingly of the man in front of him for seeming mentally imbalanced, but he seems to be very imbalanced himself.” First of all, I highly agree with you. However, that is exactly what I wanted you to think. That was the point of the story. The psychological term for it is “Projecting”. However, I now realize that this point in not clear enough for the readers. And, because my character is rather dislikeable I am not quite sure what to do. Do you have any tips/ideas on how to make the piece more pleasant for the readers but also keep the main point?

      I definitely did not make the point clear enough! 🙂

      Again, thank you so much for taking your time to write me a critique!

      God bless you,

      – Annalia Joy Fiore

      Like

      1. Just a quick note, Annalia. Projecting is when you project your own problems and flaws upon someone else who actually does not have them. In your story, your MC was not really projecting since the other person really was that way. Of course, they were different character but the annoyance and other aspects that your MC supposedly projected upon the other character seemed to be real traits of that character.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. In response to Gabrielle:

        Good catch! I am wondering, perhaps the Small Man is not necessarily mentally insane, but merely socially awkward and gullible? If he truly does appear to be mentally whacked out, perhaps I should make him more normal so it is truly projecting.

        Thanks for your comment! You’re probably right!! 🙂

        God bless,

        – Annalia Joy Fiore

        Like

  3. Hi Annalia!

    I have to second what has already been said here – the “point”, or punchline of this story seems to get lost. I read through your response on the other critique, and here are my thoughts on fixing this. 🙂

    – Your character’s flaws aren’t established early or clearly enough to seem intentional. We need a sense of who he is right away so that we know where his arc is headed. At the end, when he steals the small man’s seat, I was actually surprised because I didn’t realize he was capable of that level of meanness. Especially because of the barista being so unsympathetic about the five cents, I was expecting the protagonist to be the victim of the story.

    – Similar, there’s a tonal dissonance happening in the way the story starts. The cold, moody atmosphere of the coffee shop and focus on small details sets the story up to feel like a drama or romance. Towards the end of the story I started thinking the story was meant to be more of a situational comedy of escalating frustration for the main character (punchline being his comeuppance). If that’s what you’re going for, then the scene needs to be set in a tone that establishes the story as comedic.

    – Also related, I didn’t realize the narrator was male until the barista called him “sir”, and by then I was well into imagining him female! (because of this, I actually assumed that the small man was hitting on “her”! I had to re-frame my whole context of the scene when I realized he was a he.) The narrative voice at the beginning sounds female due to the sensory details he notices (he is particularly honed in on what people are wearing) and the way things are described to sound “cozy” (bright stickers, soft murmurs, Christmas light framed windows, etc). The word “fluffy” struck me as a particularly feminine way to describe a sweater. I’d look at striking any adjectives that don’t further the story (do we *need* to know the small man’s glasses are “oval”?) and filtering description down to only what this character would notice (and since he’s a grouch, won’t his impressions be generally negative? The woman in the “fluffy” sweater, for example, may be “the woman in the ridiculously PUFFY sweater”).

    – Something that can probably help with all of the above is to give the character a snarkier tone of voice. It is helpful that this is already in first person. Give him a funny, mean edge! This can help establish tone and character with a single well-placed first line.

    – We need more context at the beginning. What is his goal? The story feels a bit confusing because we lack context to understand the character’s goal in the scene. For example, the fact that he drove so many miles is a useful bit of information that serves you far better at the front of the story – so that we are invested in the character’s stakes and understand more clearly his frustration. Establishing a clear goal at the beginning will help you find a more satisfying ending. If this is a negative arc, where he refuses to become a better person, then the “failure” at the end needs to pay off that goal. As in your current draft, if the payoff is the internet being down, then we should know he needs to get on the internet by the first few lines. I do think that there can be an even bigger comeuppance for this level of jerk though! 😉

    – It’s just as fun to watch people fail as it is watch them succeed. Even if we laugh at him and cheer at his hard lesson by the end, there’s no reason he can’t be “likeable” in character terms (even if we’d never be friends with him in real life!). Mean characters can be a lot of fun for the audience to hate, especially if they also have a quality that makes them appealing, like humor. A lot of sitcom characters are absolutely despicable people, who learn hard lessons every week – but they are still fun to watch. Don’t be afraid of humanizing him, even as you amp up his meanness.

    Your style of prose is well-defined and graceful to read, and the story kept me interested to the end. You obviously have a lot of talent, particularly in creating interesting settings and characters. Focus on pairing these elements with a stronger sense of mechanical plot and clearer theme, and you will have something really awesome.

    Write on! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Mollie

      This critique is amazing! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on my short story, Struggles at Starbucks.

      – Yes, I definitely did not establish my character in till the end of my piece. I must fix this!! 🙂

      – As to the tone of my story, I highly agree. I did switch the aesthetic half way through. 🙂

      – As to the gender of my POV, you are among many others (including my family) who thought my character is a woman. I fixed this in my most recent draft. 🙂

      – I definitely need to fix his (or really, hers) goal.

      – I ought to have added those details of her driving a long way. And, yes the internet needs to be more of a punishment.

      Thank you so much, again, for taking this time to comment on price! I value highly your comments and encouragement.

      God bless,

      – Annalia Joy Fiore

      Like

  4. Hey Annalia, firstly, thanks for sharing something for us to look over. This is an interesting piece, but it could do with some work. I think most of my problems with it have already been mentioned, but I thought it would be important for you to know that like Mollie, I started the story think the pov character was a woman. Your choice of words sounds feminine during several parts of the story, as Mollie also noted.
    As already stated, there doesn’t seem to be a point to the whole story. What is the theme? Why are you telling us about these two men? Why is it important?
    If you work on those two elements in particular, I think it would make a really great short story. I found the characters interesting and the flow of the story is nice. Thanks again for sharing.
    blessings,
    Chelsea

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi, Chelsea

      Yes, my POV definitely sounds like a woman! 🙂 I fixed this is my most recent draft.

      I ought to have made my point much clearer in my piece! You are absolutely right!

      God bless you!

      – Annalia Fiore

      Like

      1. Hey,
        I actually had a look at your blog and I saw a more recent(ish) draft of this story. It was much better and i enjoyed it more than this version. Thanks again, 😀

        Like

      2. Reply to Chelsea:

        Thanks! It still needs a lot of work, though…

        Again, thanks so much for taking the time to critique my story. Highly appreciate it!

        – Annalia Joy Fiore

        Like

  5. Hi Annalia,

    I was sucked into your story, despite the unlikeable main character. And while generally, it’s a good idea to have a sympathetic protagonist, I think you made this story work. I sensed the drawing of that character was intentional. It was like, “Yeah, this guy is a complete jerk,” but it effectively showed the depravity of human nature. So it felt purposeful.

    I was also able to suspend disbelief that the main character would not have recognized the small man and that the main character would not have had the proper amount of change.

    My critiques are a bit smaller…
    1) First, I didn’t realize the main character was male until about halfway through the story. I wonder if that could be established a bit sooner? Maybe you could have someone bump into him as he’s entering the building and mumble, “Sorry sir.”
    2) This is nitpicky, but I would go a little lighter on the adjectives. Also, avoid phrases like “he began to [verb].” Just jump straight to your action: “He thumbed through his coins.”
    3) The term “soul mates” has romantic undertones, which I don’t think is what you were going for. You could try something like “twins” or “kindred spirits” or “long lost brothers.”

    Otherwise, I thought your writing was vivid and compelling. Sad, but poignant. Good job!

    God bless,
    Hannah

    Like

    1. Hey, Hannah!

      Thanks so much! I appreciate you taking the time to write me a critique.

      I absolutely agree with all that you said!!

      God bless,

      – Annalia Joy Fiore

      Like

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