Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First fiction awards bring joy, happy dance

They called my name twice at the Alabama Writers Conclave awards ceremony at Fairhope Saturday night – second place for first chapter, novel, for my first novel, “Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone,” and third place for flash fiction, a new category for fiction 500 words or less, for a piece I called “Broken Dishes."

Someone told me I did a little sashay when I walked up to get my certificates and checks. I don’t recall a conscious happy dance, but I don’t doubt it, because the awards were affirmation that I CAN WRITE FICTION THAT SOMEONE LIKES. 
Appropriately, my fiction teacher and editor Carolynne Scott was in the auditorium along with class member Steve Coleman, whose suggestion “that part about him being in the tree with the blow gun belongs in the first chapter” resulted in the latest revisions to the first chapter of the novel I began in 2009. MY FIRST NOVEL is still “in revisions” as they say, a sixth draft (or seventh?), hopefully the final one before I go after an agent and/or publisher and/or self-publishing.

See, this life-long writer, reporter, editor, corporate communications manager, never wrote fiction before this novel and the flash fiction piece that started out as a possible short story. That I won fiction writing awards – among more than 500 entries overall from Alabama and across the U.S. – leaves me more determined than ever to revise, pitch and get Mojo to readers who I hope love these characters as much as I do. I won honorable mentions for humor writing and creative non-fiction from AWC in the past, but those were not FICTION; neither were my long-ago news writing and feature writing awards.

I winged it as I began this novel – based on a kernel of a true story I covered when I was a reporter in Selma -- after I lost by public affairs manager job to the recession and another restructuring in late 2008. My novel was pretty much “finished” by my standards when I met and started working with Carolynne, a veteran editor and fiction writer who taught fiction writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) for 30 years. She and members of our Wednesday night fiction writers’ class that meets at the Homewood Senior Center helped this reporter-turned-fiction-writer in countless ways.  One big lesson learned: revise, revise, revise. 

More than one published author (I'll name Mike Stewart and William Cobb) told me to "listen to Carolynne. She knows what she's doing." So, I have. 

Every Wednesday night, we read a section or chapter of something we are working on and get input from class members, and then Carolynne takes her red pen to what we turn in to her, returning the edited sheets back the next week. She’s had a time teaching this Associated Press style-trained just-the-facts reporter about the magic and mechanics of fiction.

This was my third try in the AWC contest for first chapter, novel, and third must have been the charm, as my oft-revised chapter placed and a snippet was read aloud to this room of writers, who applauded. No wonder I did a happy dance.

I won’t belabor the points – that I’m happy, excited and proud, and grateful for the expertise of Carolynne Scott and input of Wednesday night class members Yvonne Bennett Norton, the late Dr. John Norton, Willum Fowler, Mark Monosky, Steve Coleman and newest member David Roberts.

Instead, I’ll just do another little happy dance, make a copy of the checks to put on my bulletin board and share with you the current version of the first chapter of my first novel.  
(Note: My novel's chapters are named for songs, mostly blues songs.) 

I hope reading this makes you want to read more. 

A Novel by Jackie Romine Walburn

Chapter 1: Trouble Blues

t was early morning when the man with the coffee-cream skin and shining green eyes padded silently through the summer woods and climbed a moss-draped tree in front of Percy Williams’ shack.
He settled in the crotch of a water oak tree and reached for his side bag, feeling for the blow gun made of cane and palmetto, and for the dart with its poison tip. Later he’d wish he had brought a camera, but electronic surveillance had not been a part of his proclaimed mission for the Spirits.
Breathing deep and quiet and balancing catlike and still – in the way of his Native American ancestors -- the man stayed invisible as he became part of the waking forest.
The man who came out of the house – dressed in overalls over pasty white skin, barefoot and stumbling a bit – apparently didn’t notice the man or any other creatures outside his front stoop as he sat down. He opened a warm beer from the stack behind the bench, lit a cigarette and reached for the paper bag in his hiding place under the lard bucket.
The watcher in the tree saw two teen-age boys he knew – the ones he’d feared would be there – talking to Percy and sharing the sack’s contents. As Percy put a hand deep in his overalls and reached out to the boy closest to him, the man in the tree yelled a coyote call, “yep yah ah, yep yah ah,” and shouted, “DeMarcus and Anthony, run now!”
Already wired, then startled by the animal call and their names being shouted from the trees, the boys sprinted off the porch toward the woods and Chilatchee Creek.
As they disappeared into the underbrush, the man in the overalls scrambled down the crooked steps, looking for whoever had yelled; he moved toward the tree, out in the open. “What the hell?”
Then, the man in the tree brought the blow gun to his mouth, took a practiced breath and let the dart go, aiming for Percy Williams’ heart and hitting it dead on.


rederick Jones, 25 and at the wheel of his beat-up 1994 Toyota Corolla, was singing along with the radio tuned to the R&B station out of Birmingham and the Blues music his Uncle Mojo taught him to love. “Trouble, trouble, trouble. Trouble is all in the world I see,” he sang along with Lighting Hopkins.
But Frederick didn’t know about trouble. Not yet.
As he negotiated the curves on the road from Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama south to his home in Style’s Bend in Wilson County, Frederick looked again at the 8 by 10 envelope on the time-and-travel stained passenger’s seat – evidence of his having passed the Alabama bar exam on the first try.
I’ve done it, Frederick thought, just like Grandma Ruth said I would.
Frederick smiled his widest smile and pushed up the dark-rimmed glasses his nearsightedness required, glasses that always prompted his classmates to say he looked like Roger on the “What’s Happening?” TV show. “What’s happenin’ Rog?” they’d tease him. He smiled at the memory but wondered at the worry creeping into his mind, even as he headed home, successful, after seven years of college, many a dean’s list and his childhood dream of being an attorney coming true.
“Something’s wrong,” he said out loud.
Then, so quick that he slammed on the brakes and sent his law school letter flying into the floorboard, an owl flew across the road directly in front of him. The barred owl missed his car by a few inches and appeared to turn and aim its brown owl eyes at him as it banked to the left and flew past the driver’s side. Frederick glanced in the rear view mirror and saw no cars behind him, so he stopped in the middle of Highway 5 and watched the owl, its stripe-rimmed eyes, yellow beak and long tail extending from the crisscrossed striped body, as it circled his car and flew back into the thick roadside woods.
“Damn,” he said, “I wonder what Big Momma woulda said about that?”  But he knew what his late great-grandmother would say. “Owl crossing ya path…. means bad luck, bad things gonna happen. Somebody gonna die.”
Frederick breathed deep, clenched his shaking hands on the steering wheel, and slowly sped up, as he saw a log truck coming around the curve behind him. Better speed up quick or it’ll be my death, he thought as he got the car moving to 55 and then 60 mph. He knew there was no place to pull off the highway along this stretch of the highway, save a dirt road or logging trail
“Get yourself together son,” he said, mimicking his Grandma Ruth’s refrain.
But Frederick knew, just as certain as the curves and turns on the road back home, that something was wrong.
heriff Kingston Lewis peered through the Spanish moss that hung from the water oak tree, pushing aside the cool gray tentacles and looking at the dead body propped up against the old oak. He looked past the dead, dark eyes, to the tiny black bag pinned to dirty overalls and the book with underlined passages clutched in stiff white fingers.
Percy Williams had been dead and staring at his beer-can strewn yard for a day or more, Lewis figured. And as he noted the tiny blood stain at heart height on Percy’s overalls, the sheriff was sure that Percy’s body had been moved after death, posed for someone to find.
“The coroner comin’?” Lewis asked his chief deputy, as he reached his hand to close the dead man’s eyes, but then stopped, his training telling him to wait for the coroner and pictures and procedures. The sheriff studied Percy’s face, beginning-to-bloat, and thought that Percy’s eyes looked just as blank and dead when he was alive.
Kingston Lewis knew Percy Williams, everyone did, as what locals would call a “sorry ass white man” and generally unpopular neighborhood menace in the mostly black Style’s Bend community. The sheriff knew him, also, as a suspected drug dealer and community pet killer, but no serious charge ever stuck.
 “Whatya think this means?” the sheriff asked Chief Deputy Bender, who was leaning against his squad car, filling out paperwork. “Looks like whoever did it was sending a message, don’t you think? A message with a voodoo bag attached.”
Bender walked over to the sheriff, and together they peered down at the victim of what was the first homicide in Wilson County in five years. “Yeah, Sheriff, that’s a mojo bag. We’ve both seen ‘em before, livin’ here. I ain’t never seen a black mojo bag though, and all the rest of it, sure, somebody wanted him to be found like this. They’s some hoodoo involved in this here, you ask me.”
Sheriff Lewis looked again around Percy’s yard, at the tumble-down cabin, sloping porch and broken steps. “Yeah, and who around here knows about mojo bags and voodoo?”
“Madame Butterbean?” Bender smiled.
“Yeah, the root lady. She probably does, but I’m thinkin’ about Mojo Jones. This looks like something Mojo Jones could help explain.
“Wait on the coroner for me, and probably need to call the ABI, so we can cover our asses on this one. I’ll be back in a little while,” Lewis said, as he climbed into his work car, Wilson County 1, and accelerated down the dirt road, kicking up dust and obscuring the legend written in gold script on the side of the vehicle: SHERIFF KINGSTON LEWIS, TO SERVE AND PROTECT.
As the dust settled, two young boys stepped out from behind a patch of privet hedge a hundred yards away towards Chilatchee Creek. They’d been hiding and watching most of the morning. The teen-aged cousins – one light colored, or “high colored” as his auntie called it, and the other a dark chocolate hue -- didn’t speak, for fear of being heard by the deputy who remained. Each knew what the other was thinking. He’s dead!
Then they smiled, perhaps for the first time in weeks, touched hands high in the air in a silent high five and turned and raced each other to the creek and back home.

Copyright © Jackie Romine Walburn. All rights reserved.

Song of the day: 

Hoochie Coochie Man, by Muddy Waters

“I got a black cat bone

I got a mojo too
I got the Johnny Concheroo
I'm gonna mess with you”

Me with AWC award certificates and my fiction
writing teacher and editor, Carolynne Scott.
Carolynne Scott's fiction writer class members
at Alabama Writers Conclave in Fairhope.
From left, me, Steve Coleman, Carolynne, Peggy
Carlisle and Stephen Edmondson, all of Birmingham.