Gloves Off: Round III
Feedback on another submission
First a note…
My plan is to return to the post A Call for Stories to look for submissions to comment on here. Please continue to post your links there. In the future I’ll likely create a new post for submissions. When I run across a posting that won’t print or link I’ll try to post a reply to that effect.
Now our next story:
Inside the Last Cinnamon Raisin Bagel by Benjamin Davis
What I like about this piece…
I confess I love absurd fiction. From Gary Larson cartoons to Tom Robbins novels to The Day of the Locust. Whether it seems to be drug induced or magical or insane, storytelling with an obvious warp hooks me. To me fiction is already a distortion, so why not push that aspect?
By limiting elements—the settings, the time window, the characters and objects—this story moves quickly and stays focused. Very well done. Above all, it’s clear. We can accept the miracle within the bagel because the rest of the world seems so concrete and familiar, and we’re never lost from one moment to the next.
Once we look inside the bagel, the story moves like wildfire. It resolves well. And the physical way—the discovery process—in which we venture into the lunchroom and explore the bagel is simple and easy to follow. So much so that I wanted more.
The story has a clever misdirection. It seems to riff on the cultural precedent of Groundhog’s Day but then quickly shows us something new. That’s a sweet trick because it makes the reader feel a little smug (like, “I know this story from Bill Murray”), then pulls the rug out from under. The reader is left flailing and must pay close attention after that. A very sweet trick, and one to learn from.
What I’d like to like more…
Please avoid summarizing, especially at the opening. Yes, I know that stating the paradox outright might seem like a hook, instead consider a small discovery process here. If you open by peeling the page off your Gary Larson Far Side desk calendar, only to find the same date on the next page—and the same goofy cow cartoon—then you could open a desk drawer and compare the peeled-off page to 941 identical pages already placed in the drawer. Then your narrator could riff through the rest of the calendar to find that all the days are March 6th. The nod to Gary Larson could also be a wink-wink clue to the reader about where this story is headed.
Then you might look at the desk blotter calendar—do they still make desk blotters with the calendar days printed on them? And we’ll see that every day on the blotter is March 6th. Then your narrator says, “I think my calendar is broken.”
The co-worker will say, “No, it’s not.”
My point is, get us into the incredible with physical proof. Create tension by having the co-worker deny what seems obvious. Show us the situation with gradual clues, then you can sum things up. Or better, once you’ve shown us that every day is the same—using the calendar and blotter, maybe pull up a schedule on the computer monitor that shows every day to be March 6th—then you can have your narrator say, “But why this day?” He says this while riffing through Kevin’s desk calendar. “Why not a day with some adventure…?” Which sets up the miracle.
Unpack touching his shoulder. This is a distinctly icky moment, done in desperation, and if you go on-the-body here and unpack how his shirt feels, and the possible warmth, and the feel of his shoulder, whether it’s softer or harder than you imagined, then we’ll be even more grounded in the authority of the moment. Does Kevin jump or jerk away? Just a couple more physical beats would help settle us in “reality” so that the shift to the incredible lands harder.
And attribution. I will always hammer on you ALL to use attribution. It can be “he said” or a gesture or action linked to the line of dialog: Kevin wheeled around in his chair. “Do you mind?” But you need to show the characters as physical beings with body language, taking actions. Clearly depicted physical actions and gestures will enroll your readers on a physically sympathetic level. At that point you’ll be getting into readers’ heads under the radar. When something happens in a physical way on the page the reader can’t intellectualize it or mount a psychological defense.
No one is supposed to talk about this—industry secret!—but storytelling is a form of hypnosis. Or, if you prefer, guided meditation. A great gesture on the page should prompt your reader to resist making that same gesture as she reads it. That’s why the sequence with the bagel works, and the earlier sequence could be stronger with some physical discovery process.
Whether it’s a moving light or a swinging pocket watch, to watch something in motion entrances us. Consider the hypnagogic state.
“…artists, writers, scientists, and inventors—including Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dalí, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton—have credited hypnagogia and related states with enhancing their creativity…”
That’s why physically moving objects and characters are so important. Only they can create the trance. With that in mind, what becomes of the blood that sprayed through the bagel? It’s great how the scene escalates, but details like the bit of blood need to be kept present. Please consider staying with the bagel a beat longer. You’ve built such a realistic world it’s a shame we don’t stay there for bit. If blood and snow can emerge, what else? Can you shake out the centaur’s severed head? Don’t take this as a complaint. It’s a compliment when readers want more.
Thanks to everyone for sending Dennis your info. The fourteen packages will go out tomorrow. I’ll be making more of an effort to post comments on the writing samples submitted.