Gloves Off: Round V
A deeper dive this go-round
Let’s try something different today…
I worry that posting my comments here… and referring the reader to the piece elsewhere, creates too much work. To ease the effort I’ll try posting each piece here and intercutting it with the comments. Please let me know if this works better for you.
On rare occasions an editor or teacher will give your work a “line edit.” That means going through it line by line and addressing almost every element. Here I won’t address copy edit details such as spelling, but I will look at the function of each paragraph. My comments follow each portion of the piece; to read it in the original form, please use the link below.
Here we’ll take a long look at Tumble salts by Kerri Rickard. It begins:
At the Shell, before it was, the Shell, I had just come from a very hot bath in the Andy Gumps basement, climbing up the stairs quickly, all the way up to the landing right in front of my bedroom. I told Mom I wasn’t feeling well earlier and right away, “Oh, no! You’re not getting out of going to school— you’re going— I don’t care how sick you say you are! You’re going.”
My comment: The opening is wonderful. It gives us unexplained proper nouns—the Shell, Andy Gumps—without explaining them, and that creates tension and authority. And it balances that authority with the physical action of climbing the stairs. The long quote at the end is artfully attributed using the phrase “and right away.” This is how subtle and in-character dialog attribution can be.
She starts hollering for my Father— I hear his name over and over again in her high pitched shrill way with just the right amount of mocking sing-song that will piss you off. I’m 9 and standing at the top of the steep wooden steps which was often the place for my punishment for just being in the way or in trouble, but more than likely, in trouble. I was always sitting on my hands. Don’t move anything or he will know. Windows dropped shut on my hands more times than I care to remember. I’m bad for just existing. You can ask her. I messed up her whole life. I have been told countless times to where she took it so far as to say— “You were going to be aborted, if your Father had his way.”
She saved me?
My comment: Consider that Minimalism doesn’t allow you to say nine years old. Instead, you have to avoid that abstract by saying something the narrator strongly associates with being nine. In her short story The Harvest Amy Hempel begins by saying, “The year I began to say vahs instead of vase a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” Likewise, in a recent short story I wrote of a character who refuses to get a puppy because he’s reached the age when he won’t outlive it. The question becomes, “What does your narrator associate with being nine?” Another example is the title of the story collection In the Year of Long Division. How can you say what nine means to the narrator?
Also, stay in the scene. Don’t shift to the nebulous “often” and “more times than I care to remember.” These, and the out-of-scene shift to the mother’s statement about abortion, rob the passage of immediacy and tension. Yes, the abortion line is good, but it’s so good that it deserves to be said in a scene. If the character is nine then he or she must avoid making sophisticated judgments that are coming from the adult version of the narrator. For example, “She saved me?” Such asides bump us out of the drama and destroy the tension because they give the narrator the last word, and that allows the narrator to dominate.
I hear her arguing with my Dad— he’s going to hit me— I hear him making his way out of bed— I hear him pick up the paddle, use my full name and before he can make his head around the edge of the door frame and see me standing there in a towel and with dripping wet hair— I fall backwards down the steep steps and I hear a clunk— I see them both standing at the top of the steps— and I go dark. Echoing off as my ears began buzzing, “Oh, no! Go get her… see if she’s…”
My comment: The first thing Tom S. ever taught me was to never filter the world through the narrator. Instead of writing, “I heard the bell ring,” just write, “The bell rang.” If you filter through the narrator you remind the reader that she’s not in this fictional world. And by not filtering, you also dispense with an “I.” This means not writing, “I hear… I see… I feel…” Instead you describe the object: The lines of dialog in the argument, and other violent sounds. For example, in regard to the next passage, “A towel settles on top of me, a scratchy one, not a fluffy one for guests, but a rag towel for washing the dog.” Put the camera on the towel, not on the narrator seeing the towel.
And… attribution. Don’t make us puzzle over who said the line, “Oh, no! Go get her…”
I open my eyes but can’t move anything else. I’m cold. The linoleum is so cold and smells like cat pee this low. I feel a towel go over top of me. My name is called. I hear finger snaps. The buzzing returns and I’m gone again. I drift off thinking about Grover telling me about not reading a book because of the monster at the end of it… where is this monster? I’m gone again.
Again, don’t filter the world. Try to avoid thought verbs; consider that when you’re delirious you don’t think, “I’m dreaming.” No, things just happen. “Grover tells me about not reading a book because… The Count asks about all my blood…” If depicted clearly, these details will imply that they’re occurring in delirium or a dream state. Allow the reader to recognize the dream state.
This time, I’m sitting in a chair and there’s so many bloody paper towels on the kitchen table in front of me. A red that is so red it looks cartoonish. I hear and feel my parents behind my head. Somehow, I have clothes on. They’re telling me to sit up in my chair— yelling at me to sit straight— nope, this is too much— Dad makes a joke— “I guess you got your wish, you didn’t have to go to school today.” I’m gone. I feel my head fall back and my mouth open… as I fade out, Dad says, “You better close your mouth or flies are gonna land in it.” You’re an asshole… I’m gone again.
My comment: Avoid the verb “is” whenever possible. “I sit at the kitchen table, in Mom’s chair at the table, crumbles of paper towel crowd around me, balled-up paper the color of ruby slippers, of Clifford the Big Red Dog.” The term “cartoonish” isn’t a child’s point of view, and this is your chance to particularize the life of this kid. What are the cartoons he/she watches. Also don’t steal your own thunder, by saying, “Dad makes a joke.” If you just allow Dad to say what he says, it will automatically land as a joke—and with more impact because we weren’t warned ahead of time.
Here let’s talk about tension. Whenever the narrator gets the last word—“You’re an asshole… I’m gone again”—you cut the tension by showing the narrator with spunk. Instead, you want to end with the Dad’s line and force the reader to absorb the punch. In short, avoid showing the narrator countering the situation because that takes the energy and tension back to zero. Instead, if you end on the assaults and insults, you force the reader to carry the accumulated baggage.
Something smells so bad— something being waved in front of my nose, Mom shrieks his name— I’m up— I taste and smell iron. They’re doing something to the back of my head, I see white tape being called “butterflies” and hear how it won’t close that way and that it’s really bad. This time, I’m staying awake so far and they go off to the side of the room, murmuring between one another. Mom goes over to her sewing kit— I see a needle and thread with scissors come out. They argue about how I am not going to the hospital and they can’t afford to take me. Also, what are they going to say happened? Everything is kept away from me visually— I hear them say they have to cut some of my hair, back there. Long brownish blonde hair with blood, is on the table near my right hand along with more paper towels, clown red all over them. Kool-aid meets beet juice. I’m gone, but I feel this strange tugging, cold liquid—
My comment: Again, don’t filter. “I taste…” and “I see…” can be easily replaced to better effect. For example, “the summer taste of the metal nozzle on a garden hose, or the winter taste of my tongue stuck on a flagpole, these both filled my mouth. It’s the taste of nickles tucked in my cheek to that Nola girl won’t take them on the bus.” As always, particularize the taste to the narrator’s experience. Likewise, consider a form of, “She takes out a curved needle, the mattress needle, the quilting needle, and the purple color of embroidery floss she bought cheap and never uses.” By unpacking the objects you avoid using the “I” to filter everything, and you begin to give us the narrator’s body of knowledge—I’d bet this narrator knows every distinction of sewing scissors and needles. Demonstrate his or her smarts.
In the spirit of avoiding abstracts, never distinguish between “right” and “left” hands. That forces the reader to jump to an abstract concept. Instead, you can always say, “near my hand on the table.” And, consider stating some of the argument in dialog. Not all of it, but a pithy line. You seem to be very good at natural-sounding dialog, and it would help to ground this passage to use a line of burnt tongue in dialog.
I’m gone for a really long time— while I’m gone in the away— I made a friend. A pleasant woman, a librarian— she tells me she will help me keep things straight now that things have changed and that I now have a new gift. She holds my hand and walks me back into the kitchen. I see myself at the end of the table, face down with my arms around my face. I do not see my parents, just me, how I was dressed a little bit ago. She leads me to the little girl in the wooden dining room chair telling me to go back to her. I look back, I do what she says. She says she will always be with me now.
My comment: In minimalism you don’t get to say “pleasant” but must unpack that quality according to the narrator’s body of knowledge. More importantly, do not cut tension with this passage. You’ve worked hard to create tension, and already you’re rushing to resolve it with a guardian angel and a special gift. If the guide must appear, use her to increase the tension. Have her say, “I’m sorry, dear, but it’s only going to get worse.”
Also the trick to creating a delirium world is to make it seem very real and unpacked. Consider how our minds work hard to make sense out of dreams: “I was in the house where we grew up, but it was this castle only made of scrap lumber, but it was still our house, and Mom was there, but she looked like Mrs. Francisco, but she was really Mom…” Dreams—and Lish forbid his students from using dreams—should be detailed, even more detailed than reality. The appearance of a guide/mentor shouldn’t be rushed in a single passage. If you introduce her here, she should only create foreboding, then leave. Later, you can introduce the gifts and whatnot.
I wake up for good this time and just start crying— I go to touch the back of my head and my parents rush into the room— “No, no, no!! Don’t touch the back of your head! Leave it alone!”
My comment: Again, attribution. Who’s saying the quote?
They explain what happened and she laughs as they both describe what comic relief and a scare I had given them. I’m crying. They tell me to cut it out and start laughing again. I tell them I wish I had never come back. They look puzzled at one another with crossed arms over their hippie 70’s clothing. They give me some apple juice— the table is clean, but my shirt smells like— I dunno— I don’t know this smell from a clear bottle that they always keep up high with others— and iron still.
My comment: Be careful to stay in a child’s perspective. In particular “their hippie ’70s clothing.” That’s the adult looking back, and it cuts the stress by showing the narrator being too much in charge. Instead, unpack the clothes: beads? ruffles? How would this nine-year-old child depict such clothes?
I lost a lot of blood from hitting my head on the back of a sewer pipe that was at the bottom of the stairs— I hit it on the large nut around the bolt attached to the sewer cap. There’s still blood all over the floor from where I was. They tell me sorry about the clothes, but they had to get me dressed in case I had to go to the hospital. I keep crying and they both keep yelling at me. Mom sponges at my hair to get the blood out the best she can. My hair is crusted together for a while until it’s safe to wash it. There’s little flecks of dried red powder when I crush the matted hair together. My head has been sewn shut.
My comment: Don’t summarize before you show. Consider that if you begin by showing all the blood on the stairs and the pipe and the bolt, then you allow your reader to recognize what occurred. Likewise, instead of declaring, “My head has been sewn shut,” show it—“Mom holds her hand mirror and Dad holds his shaving mirror to show me the purple embroidery that stitches together the back of my head.”
At night, in bed, a week later, that’s when the fucking vampires start appearing outside my windows. I sleep with a blanket around my neck all the way into my 20’s. I never think it’s weird until I have a sleep over guest. I don’t care, I still sleep with it around my neck— the guest can find out on their own, I guess.
My comment: Here we jump forward a week, then jump several years to refer to the narrator in her 20s. Then we jump back to some sleepover age. Such a large time shift trivializes the harrowing drama that came before. This last passage should be the start of a new chapter. That way all the unresolved drama will pay forward into the subsequent chapters.
Levatating vampires, knocking at my windows. Every night. I’m exhausted at school when I go back a week later. I wish vampires had a better schedule or could do my school work at least. I’m falling behind, I’m always tired. There are bruises all over me. My body is so tiny— I am a Macy’s parade float above my body. Later in life in my 20’s— I watch, “Twin Peaks” and there is a scene with Leland Palmer and Bob where they are hovering above their bodies— I’m shocked— that’s what I felt. David Lynch is now my hero.
My comment: It’s hard to evaluate this last paragraph. It combines so many elements that it seems glib, “I wish vampires had better schedules…” In short, it negates all the tension created in this piece. Is that the intention? If this paragraph were dropped—and the information used much later—then the tension would carry into the next chapter and prompt the reader to keep reading.
Consider that if you ended with the sewn-shut head the chapter/passage would close with an image as well as an ominous hint of things to come. Tension is not your enemy, keep it going.
Tomorrow, I’ll be choosing the three prizewinners from the serial-killer discussion thread. Get your last shots in while you can.
This weekend I’ll be creating a new post for story submissions. If you’ve revised your work and want me to take a look, please repost the link on this new post. I regret that I can’t respond to every submission, but we can all learn from what some people do well and could do better. In fact, it might be easier to learn from someone else’s work—often we’re too close to our own.
ty for your candor as always
This is very helpful. Examples of student writing and then Chuck's critique. Thanks!