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Agents of Literary Change

Nobody critiqued my last two posts...I'm hoping to get some feedback this time.

Mr. Marcus remembered Justin as a bright kid. A little on the mischievous side, but smart nonetheless. A bit of a dreamer, too. Always reading comics or talking about the latest video game or movie. Justin, unlike the real troublemakers, always sat near the front of the class. Every now and again Justin would play some silly prank, talk out loud, crack a tasteless joke, but he was never rude or disrespectful.

So what had happened since Justin left junior high? What turned Justin from the potentially brilliant scamp, to the convicted murderer awaiting sentence? What could society have done to make things better? Was it television’s fault? Was it those crazy rap songs?

What hurt Mr. Marcus most of all was the potential Justin had. Though Justin did not know it, he had some serious poetical skills. Mr. Marcus had read some of his poems that he wrote for another teacher. They were smooth and easy on the tongue and evoked vivid imagery and feelings. Justin was great with words, but not so good with math and science. During the year Justin was in Mr. Marcus’ homeroom, Justin barely passed his math and science classes. As a matter of fact, Mr. Marcus had to speak to his math teacher to let him slide and give him a passing grade just so the boy would not have to do summer school.

But that was okay. Nobody’s good at everything. Mr. Marcus told Justin the same thing the next year when they were discussing which high school he should go to. Justin really wanted to go to Brooklyn Tech which was known for having an excellent math and science and engineering program. Mr. Marcus told Justin to be realistic and practical. After all, students had to take a test to get into Brooklyn Tech, and then the curriculum was very difficult. And Justin just was not all that good at math and science. He told Justin that he should focus on his poetical skills, and refine those talents. Who knows, Mr. Marcus had joked, maybe he could even become a rap artist. Mr. Marcus thought that was a valid strategy; Justin should do anything to get out of the ghetto.

The court appointed defense attorney called Justin’s mother to the stand. She was a broken, sad, hollow woman. Beaten by life and the men in her life. She had three sons; one dead, one in prison and Justin. Her scrawny arms still bore the marks of needles from a lifetime of addiction. Mr. Marcus felt she was partially to blame. She should have been a better mother. Instead of getting high and selling herself for poison, she should have been trying to take care of her sons. Here she was contributing to the prison population when she could have birthed three doctors or three lawyers or three executives. Or maybe just three good men. She looked sad, but she got no sympathy from Mr. Marcus.

Her testimony was important. She had to convince the jury her son was not all bad. She gave her name and relation to Justin. The defense lawyer got her started by asking a few softball questions. And then, like the overworked pro he was, he got her to open up.

“I know I could a’ done better. But I was messed up back then. I was getting’ high ‘most ev’ry day. My ‘dictions kept me from gettin’ any kinda good job. Ev’ry time I got somethin’ good, I’d mess it up by stealin’. Whenever I got me a little bit o’ money, I’d go blow it on dope. That’s just the way it was back then. I ain’t like dat no more, but like dey say, the damage was done.”

“Do you think your addiction affected Justin negatively?”

“Of course it did. I used to shoot up right in front a’ him and his brothas. I’d get messed up and spend the whole night passed out on the bathroom flo’. I’d wake up the next mo’nin’ and Jesse, dat’s my eldest, he’d be gone, and Justin and Jerry’d be in de kitchen makin’ dey own breakfast.”

“What about your friends? Couldn’t they have helped with your boys?”

She gave the lawyer a crazy look, though they had discussed these questions numerous times before. “My friends? My friends? I ain’t have no friends back then. Anybody who did care ‘bout me left me alone ‘fore I could pull them down too. The only people I hung out with were other dopeheads and dealers and such. I was straight gutter back then. I even pros’ituted mahself for dope. That’s all I could do after I couldn’t find work. I had jons comin’ into mah house, with mah boys sleepin’ in the other room. We’d do our thing, sometimes they pay in cash sometimes in drugs. Then I’d be out for the night. I hope none of them ever did anything to mah boys but I never heard of it.”

“Where was Justin’s father in all of this?”

“He died ‘bout ten years ago. He was sellin’ for some big dealer and tried to sell a little bit on the side. One day a couple of dudes come by our house, kick in the do’ and come in with guns and stuff. They daddy had a gun too, but he was caught by surprise; din’t even had time to get his pistol. Dey made all of us sit in the middle of the living room and pointed guns at our heads. Jake, dats they father, was beggin’ them not to hurt his kids. They was cursing at Jake and callin’ him a cheatin’ nigga and sayin’ they gotta make an example for the other dealers not to be dealin’ on the side. Jake was just beggin’ them to leave his family alone, and Justin was only a little kid back then but he wasn’t cryin’ he was just quiet and watchin’ the men and they guns. I think he thought it was just a TV show or somethin’. They made me open my mouth and stuck the gun in so hard it knocked couple a’ mah teeth out, and I was scared and cryin’ and Jake was scared and cryin’, and Justin was just watchin’ it all. He wasn’t scared, least he didn’t look it, and he definitely wasn’t cryin’. Then Jesse tried to fight them men, but he was only fo’teen. They knocked him down and started kickin’ him in the stomach till he spat blood. He had to have surgery afterwards. When Jake saw that he jumped up and tried to fight the man, but the one holding the gun in my mouth took it out and shot him in the back right there in front of all his kids. Then the one that was kicking Jerry grabbed me and dragged me back to the room…and I tried to fight him, but I was too weak and too tired and scared…so what could I do?”

Listen to my voice. Visit to hear my novel read in streaming audio

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Replies to This Discussion

This is very well written grammatically ... very good use of language and a very easy read.

Is this the first chapter? If so, it starts kinda slow ...

As an educator, I was disappointed that Mr. Marcus was not more encouraging to Justin whom he considered to be a "bright" kid. It appears that he was trying to pigeonhole Justin into poetry, rather than pushing him to improve his math and science work.

The storyline, however is compelling, and I love the mother's testimony! Wow ... I can see and hear her. Great job!

It is a short story, about 4000 words. I've already finished it, but I haven't added the rest yet. I'll do that soon.

I would like to offer the following comments on your piece:

Justin’s name feels over-used in the first few paragraphs. You could have used ‘he’ or ‘him’ once you had established who Mr Marcus was thinking about. Also, the constant use of ‘Mr Marcus’ distances us from him as our narrator. We should be experiencing events from inside his skin, whether we agree with his views, or not. But he feels distant, because you refer to him so formally.

In paragraph three, you write, ‘What hurt Mr. Marcus most of all was the potential Justin had.’ I assume you mean the waste of his potential, or the fact that it’s unfulfilled. You could have been more specific.

I think paragraphs three and four could be tightened up around the issue of Justin’s difficulty with maths and science. The line that begins: “During the year Justin was in Mr. Marcus’ homeroom” could come later, to help illustrate Justin’s failure in maths and science. Here it seems superfluous, especially since you repeat this difficulty in paragraph four after expressing his desire to go to Brooklyn Tech. Also, the information about the entry test and curriculum is unnecessary, as they are just symptoms of - and therefore detract from - the real problem: Justin’s difficulty with maths and science.

I like your dialogue. It’s realistic and does what well-written dialogue should do: convey character and emotion, as well as exposition. Although Mr Marcus described Justin’s mother, she really came to life when she began to tell her story. Well done! Good dialogue is not easy to get right. I would have liked to have read how the lawyer got her to open up though, as we seemed to slip too conveniently into her confession, which reduces the impact.

The look she gives the lawyer when he asks about her friends – is it a ‘crazy look’, or a reaction to a crazy question or notion? That look could have been better described. And since we are watching this scene through Mr Marcus’ eyes, would he know that “they had discussed this question numerous times before”?

The detail in the mother’s last answer seems unsolicited. Or perhaps the lawyer’s question is too vague. Obviously, the intention is to demonstrate the damage to Justin’s psyche of having these two for parents, and that does come across. But it seems to be laid on too thick. This would feel more probable if she was given appropriate prompting from the lawyer, which, under the circumstances, would be strategically correct as well as more interesting reading. You described the lawyer as an ‘overworked pro.’ What does that mean? You could use the dialogue to demonstrate this. Next to the mother, he seems vague and shadow-like.

Mr Marcus also seems to have faded away by the end of this excerpt. This is especially noticeable because we had such a strong sense of his point of view in the beginning. This may not be a flaw though; it depends on when, or whether, his presence returns.

Lastly, there’s no sense of setting; no descriptions of the environment to anchor us in the story and engage our senses. It feels like an outline that needs colouring in. Is it? You didn’t mention whether it’s a draft. I would also like to know the answer to Dyahnne’s question about where in the book this excerpt comes (I tend to buy books that hook me in the bookstore while I’m reading the first page).

Overall though, I think you've done a good job. I found the story engaging, lucid and uncluttered. I enjoyed reading it.
Thank you for your comments and suggestions. I agree with much of what you've mentioned. I'll go over each point in turn.

I agree that I overused Justin's name. That is a flaw of mine that I'm working on improving.

I wanted to keep Mr. Marcus' name formal in order to maintain his image as a teacher. I just don't think using his first name moves the story along.

I agree the next two paragraphs could be combined into one and a few sentences deleted. That is a valid point.

I did lose my point of view with the phrase "crazy look." I should not have even included that sentence since it does nothing for the plot.

This is the sentencing phase of Justin's trial. The purpose of the mother's testimony is to elicit sympathy from the jury and avoid the death penalty. Perhaps some of it is too emotional, but the question was asked about his father. Her statement explains how he died. If I was a trial lawyer, I would want the jury to hear the same thing.

Mr. Marcus does return throughout the rest of the story, and I keep the P.O.V. focused firmly on him.

Since it's a short story, I decided to leave off much of the description. I don't think explaining how the courtroom furniture looked or describing the bad lighting does much to move the story along. When writing longer novels, where I'm trying to create a certain mood, or if the scenery plays a role in the story, I am more descriptive. But for short stories, I focus more on plot and dialog.

I'm adding the rest soon. I'm sure you won't expect what happens next.
Trial issues are not an easy subject to write about to effectively convey the message to the reader, but so far so good. Good luck.

In paragraph 2 it seems you let the reader make a determination by asking questions instead of stating what it was that changed Justin to become a murderer. Albeit you may further explain it through the trial, it seems it would be good to give a glimpse into his mind to take the reader on a journey through his adolescence.

Also, about the questioning in the trial. The witnesses give a long answer to simple questions. I'm sure astute prosecutors would pick up on the coaching and cross-examine with the intent to undo the defense's questioning.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for the comments.

More of Justin's journey through adolescence will be posted soon. This is only a short story, but it's over 4000 words, and I notice posts of that length tend to go unread.

As for the questions, keep in mind that this is the sentencing phase of the trial. Justin has already been convicted. It's just a matter of determining whether he gets life or death. I'm no legal expert, but during this phase I believe the defense is allowed to present more elaborate testimony than during the regular trial. That's why there's no mention of the prosecution.
If other's would have given you 5 minutes of their time to read your work they'd be impressed as I am. Keep posting and God will put his hand on your literary talent if its to be. Oncore!
i want to find out in more detail who mr. marcus is. if that's the intention, you've succeeded.
i agree with reviewer energenie about the repeated use of justin's name and the need to get inside the narrator's head. what does the narrator think about the things he's telling me? mr. marcus has thought about what he's saying? what is mr. marcus thinking?


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