Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Bells

by Anna Jo Christopher from the December 17, 2012 issue

Tagline: Ryan thought his first Christmas away from his family would be a lonely one. Then he met Maggie...

In A Nutshell: Ryan has recently moved and not looking forward to a holiday with no family nearby, but he has had his eye on Maggie, a pretty bank teller. One day as they chit-chat, he finds out she volunteers to serve meals at a shelter. He decides to volunteer, too.

Observations: Surprisingly, this story didn't tug at my heartstrings as much as I would have liked for an issue so close to Christmas. It was solid, make no mistake, but I always expect more emotional umph from a Christmas themed story.

Anyway, I did enjoy the ribbing that Ryan's coworkers gave him at the beginning of the story. The mention of direct deposit sets the story firmly in current times. It also shows that Ryan can take a joke, even at his own expense. This is a nice bit of characterization, something that's sometimes difficult to add when working with only 800 words.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, negativity can have a place, but you have to temper it. Ryan is wistful about being alone for the holidays, but Christopher doesn't belabor this. And in the paragraph after the description of his situation, she writes:

The queue advanced quickly, and Ryan shook off his melancholy thoughts. He didn't really have any friends yet, but he would in time. 

There she shows him to be a positive person, a role model for the reader, if you will. :)

I also liked how she handled the simultaneous speaking:

The spoke at the same time: "Would you like to help--?" she began, as he asked, "Will you need help--?"

They both laughed.

It's nice to know how to punctuate that type of situation.

Finally, I wanted to point out another subtle thing that I think helped flesh out his character and give him a sincerity that all Woman's World characters need. A reader might question his motives in volunteering at the shelter, thinking he might just be doing that to connect with Maggie. But cleverly, Christopher already established that Ryan is a giving sort of guy by showing him making the generous donation for the canned food drive. Smart writer! All that talk between Maggie and Ryan was more than filler.

Photo by: Chase Lindberg Photography (cc)


Linda Butler said...

I always appreciate your comments. For me, this is a top story and I find it very fitting for Christmas. It works because of the symbolism of the ringing bells.

While outside the bank, Ryan hears Christmas bells, which have just started to ring. Christmas bells are symbolic of the announcement of the birth of Christ who offers the world eternal life. This is part of our culture and we don’t have to be told what ringing bells at Christmas symbolize. We are also told that these are not just any church bells but are Christmas bells.

The ringing has only just started as Ryan prepares to enter the bank. He recognizes the sound and has “always loved that sound”, however this year “he couldn’t quite feel the joy”. He feels like an outsider in this new town. “The bells were meant for families and friends celebrating the holidays together...not for someone as alone as he was.”

Inside the bank the volume of sound rises as a man speaks “as if he were hard of hearing.” It is hard for the world to hear the message of the bells. The man says “Don’t have much insulation left up top anymore.” This might mean that this man never accepted the Christmas message. He is in contrast to Ryan, who at least has heard the ringing bells in his past. “Ryan had always loved that sound (bells)”. The reader does not know at this point if Ryan will accept the spirit of Christmas or live an empty life like the old man, and not hear the bells.

Maggie laughs with a “lilting sound”. The dictionary describes lilting – adj –“ as characterized by a rhythmical swing.” A lilt (n) is a “spirited and usually gay song or tune.” Her voice sounds like soft church bells to Ryan. Through her, he hears the Christmas message and agrees to work at the shelter on Christmas day.

Maggie’s lilting voice is interrupted by another sound – the cough of an impatient customer, perhaps a reminder that there will always be jarring sounds in our lives.

After Ryan’s encounter with Maggie more holiday bells started ringing. The suggestion is that these are different bells but they may just sound different to Ryan. On hearing the bells, he smiles and realizes that they are ringing for him too. As he leaves the bank he embarks on a new phase of his life and has accepted the Christmas message.

Ryan parallels the shepherds who heard the heavenly music (bells) and transformed their lives. This is Ryan’s journey from being down and not accepting that the Christmas message is for all people, to being upbeat and forward looking and connecting with the bells. (Even in a story this short, there is a hero’s journey.) It is through Maggie that Ryan learns the meaning of the bells and he willingly embraces the message of the Christmas season - that all people can start again, change their ways, and find joy in the birth of Christ. The bells ring for all people of goodwill.

Ryan and Maggie could have met anytime, but in this story, their meeting is tied into the joy of the Christmas Season by the symbolism of the bells. I am impressed with Christopher’s writing skills.

Linda Butler said...

Symbolism of the old man
Mr. Fransworth is the name of a mad scientist TV character so the name Farnsworth might suggest that the world has gone mad. He says his cap keeps his head warm. Perhaps his head is a symbol for the world as it is round like the globe. He talks about it being chilly and going to snow. This could be a reference to the unrest and fighting in the world. World relations are cold, and are getting colder. Farnsworth’s wool cap is only a temporary covering but it keeps his head warm. Perhaps he is saying that there is a fragile covering on the world situation that could be lifted at any time. This character may be a symbolic warning that we still have a chance to hear the bells and bring peace to the world.

I may be reading too much into this, but otherwise why does the author spend so much time with him when he is not a central character.

Kate Willoughby said...

Wow, Linda! Seems like you should be writing this blog instead of me! LOL Those analyses are way deeper than anything I've ever tried with a Woman's World story. I wonder if that says I'm a shallow person... LOL

It would be interesting to see if Mary Jo Christopher comes here and comments on whether she intended all that symbolism or if she's just such a good writer that it happened without her even thinking about it. :)

Linda Butler said...

Hi kate: We all appreciate the work you put into your blog to make it an interesting read and to give us an insight into the WW stories.

I attended a writers conference last fall where Donald Maass, an agent, spoke. He said that of the novels on the NY best sellers list, a lot of them are what would be considered “literary fiction”. Popular fiction is changing and becoming more literary, but a good story is still a good story.

I have never read any other WW story with this amount of hidden meanings so I was surprised at what I found in the story. Usually the stories are a quick read with a simple romance theme. Hopefully Mary Jo Christopher will comment and we can learn her thoughts on the matter.

Linda Butler said...

I see I have the author's name wrong, it is Anna Jo Christopher. Sorry.

Mary Jo said...

You ladies must have had me on your mind. This is one of the two issues I missed in the last two months. I must call the WW Subscription Service and ask for an extension or copies of the magazine.

Linda B., you certainly got a lot out of 800 words. Do remember that Johnene edited this story before it went to print.

Linda Butler said...

Hi Mary Jo: I'm sure you're right, we saw your name and just got confused as to who wrote this. It would be interesting to hear from Anna Jo and see what she intended. Since it has probably been heavily edited, it would also be interesting to see the original. It is remarkable to write a romance in 800 words and when you add this layer of complexity, it is a powerful story. Even if I'm wrong, it doesn't really matter, because all readers take different things from what they read.

Kate Willoughby said...

Well, I'm the original miscreant who got the name wrong. LOL. My apologies to all involved. :)

I would say that I am certain Christopher's piece was edited. What I am uncertain about is whether it was heavily edited. If you've ever critiqued stories from fellow writers, you know that different stories require different amounts of reworking.

I'm extremely interested to see what Johnene does to my Chinese New Year story. I love a good edit. Anything that makes me look better is a plus in my book! LOL