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Gloves Off: Round XII
Be careful with your point of view
Today we’ll take a longer look at Man Today by Cody Talkington.
To read the story as originally published, click here.
He didn’t want to do it.
But he had to.
He was 11 and it was his birthday. There was a war going on. He had no choice. Every boy killed when he turned 11. That’s just how they did it. That’s how society was what it was. Part of it at least. It still didn’t make it easy for Jacob. Not when a large group of men are circling you with fists pumping, telling you to kill.
My comments: Can you hide the ultimate mission to kill? Consider the story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, and how she shows us procedure without revealing the endgame. Create a euphemism for the ritualized murder. Because blowing out a candle is such a metaphor for killing, and the story begins with the action of candles, you might look at a euphemism related to candles.
Also, we seem to be inside Jacob’s point of view. We’re in his head. Always keep this in mind. It will allow you to know his wish, not to state it, but to make it. Or to have another character ask if he’s made a wish. Birthday candles are the natural set-up for that wish.
The more innocent you can make this opening, the more horrible the end will seem. Consider all the childhood traditions such as birthday pinches and spankings that will help build that sense of innocence while they’re also ritualized violence.
That morning he woke with lit candles in his face. All the important family stayed the night before. The women woke early to bake the cake and the men were in the basement figuring who’d they’d hit. Glenn’s son Casey was ran over just the other day. Glenn’s been in that dark corner at the Icehouse ever since. Mumbling and bobbing back and forth.
They’ve got a good lead on the driver and supposedly two passengers were with him.
My comments: Be careful of swamping us with names. They’re the most abstract way of referring to a character, and the least likely to stick in a reader’s mind. They also create a flattened/level hierarchy so the reader’s unsure who’s important to note. Instead, look for ways to denote secondary characters. For example, “The Fitzgerald boy was run over…,” and, “old man Fitzgerald had been in that dark corner…” Or, “Uncle Glenn,” since we’re in Jacob’s perspective.
They can have names based on status. The “barman” or “one of Lance’s crew.” This will signal to the reader which characters are more/less important. In Fight Club the space monkeys were just a way to denote a mass of undifferentiated secondary characters. Very, very few characters should get name-names.
They went down the block to Shire’s and poured into the door. Straight for the bar and ordered drinks and one Car bomb for Jacob. After that he’s cut off. He’s got to be right in the head. He doesn’t know what to think on the bar stool in the middle of everyone. Hailing and cheering.
He can’t believe he’s a man today. He wondered who made that up. Who set that age. He didn’t feel like a man. He was playing with a remote control car last night. Now he’s got to kill somebody. This drink is disgusting. Why is this what we have to do. If this is being a man can I be a kid a little longer.
Uncle Joe grabbed him off the bar stool and put him in the air. “Happy birthday Jacob! Tell him boys!”
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” the bar roared, glasses raised. They shot them back and slammed them on the bar.
My comments: We’re clearly in Jacob’s head. Can you also put us inside his body? Unpack his sense of the drink so the reader makes the judgment that it’s disgusting. Also, beware of thought verbs, know, believe, wonder. Look for an on-the-body way to show that he’s still a boy: his feet don’t reach the ground from the bar stool… he sees himself in the backbar mirror… he’s got a comforting toy in his pocket.
How can you unpack and demonstrate his innocence and unreadiness? How can you slant his perception to imply the effect of the drink?
Uncle Joe sat Jacob down and leaned into Al keeping bar. “You sure he’s gonna be here?”
“I’m sure Joe, I’m sure.” Al said. He’s in his mid fifties, short red hair, parted on one side. Towel tucked into his waist. Always drying a glass. Old school.
Joe’s almost bald except for the thin stringy curtains on the back sides of his head. He’s the tough guy. Short and thick. Muscles coming through a tight t-shirt he’s always got tucked in. A black comb in his back pocket for what’s left. And no one says a word. Glenn’s Joe’s older brother.
“How do you know?” Joe said.
“I told him a girl was askin’ about him, said she’d be in here tonight…he’ll be here, trust me.”
“I trust ya Al, I trust ya.”
My comments: Careful, now you’ve got me plunged down an unnecessary rabbit hole. If Glenn is Joe’s brother then Casey was Jacob’s cousin… was Casey younger than eleven… did Casey and Jacob play together… should we have Jacob recalling Casey?
To avoid static description, show Joe using the comb. Show Al drying a glass. Beware of abstracts such as mid fifties and tough. If they’re important enough to include, they’re important enough to unpack and reinvent according to Jacob’s life. How Jacob sees such details can depict him as well as the world.
On Van Morrison’s third song the door opened and Lance walked in with a crew of two. Half drunk already singing out of tune Whiskey in the Jar. Joe and Jacob’s crew pretended not to notice. Jacob didn’t need to pretend. All he noticed was a bunch of drunk men acting stupid and drinking a lot. Laughing and shoving each other and he’s just there feeling sick and dizzy from that drink he had.
Lance and his crew sat down the bar a few feet. Lance in the middle, his big eyes pressed against his skull. With his unkempt mustache and dirty mullet. Yeah of course it was meth. Meth ate half the town up. Meth seeped out of Lance’s pores while he sweat at the bar rocking back and forth.
The guy in Joe’s crew closest to Lance leaned over, “Hey!…Shut the fuck up!”
Lance whipped his head to the side, one eye bulging more than the other. Vein in his neck pulsing, “The fuck did you say to me!?”
“I Said!.. Shut the fuck up.” He stood up and Lance sunk a little. Clayton’s 6’5, 230. A scar under his left eye, whiskey bottle when he wasn’t looking.
My comments: Kudos for measuring time with songs (would an eleven-year-old know Van Morrison?). Where did Clayton come from? Remember the rule from comics — we need to know every object and person before it comes into play. Otherwise, we’re jarred out of the fictional dream. And no abstract measurements, how does Jacob perceive a 6’5” man? Does Jacob know about the whiskey bottle attack? Keep in mind that we’re within Jacob’s perspective all this time.
Meth is funny though. Lance jumped up and punched him quick in the throat and Clayton went down to a knee and Lance’s buddy blasted him with a beer bottle. He fell over with a gash in his forehead.
He threw the bottle at Joe and caught him in the chin. Joe fell back and barely caught himself on a bar stool. His boys rushed them and beat them down fast, one got a bottle broken over his head. Lance and the other got a boot to the face. They shoved Lance into a booth and put his buddies in the seat opposite him, bleeding with goose egg eyes and hunched over.
Joe maintained himself and stood in front of Lance. He grabbed his hand and held it to the table and smashed it with the napkin dispenser. Lance shot back grabbing his hand in pain. “What the fuck is this about?”
Joe got in his face. “ Who hit the kid? Huh, who killed the kid last week!”
“What the fuck are you talkin about!” Lance said, squirming around in the booth.
“Bring Jacob up here.” Joe said.
My comments: This is a wonderful action sequence. Your verbs light up my brain like fireworks. But be careful of pronouns, the “he” that is Casey hitting the floor is followed by the “he” that is the buddy with the bottle. It can read as if Casey has thrown the bottle at Joe, and it forces the reader to untie the ambiguity. Instead, never hesitate to rephrase an earlier moniker to avoid a pronoun. “What was left of the cracked bottle, Lance’s boyo flung at Al’s face.”
The boy had been frozen in his seat. He didn’t know what to do when the fighting broke out. He wanted to leave, but where would he go. Why were they hurting each other. Tommy picked him up out of his daze and sent him towards it. Towards the chaos instead of away. Right into it. Joe picked him up and sat him on the booth seat next to Lance. Lance looked down at him with his bulging eye trembling in his seat.
He knew what it was. He knew he was going to die. He knew it was this kid’s birthday. He looked at the kid and thought he might have a chance of living.
This kid can’t kill. He’s not a man today.
Joe looked back at Al and Al handed him a revolver. A .38 special. Joe thanked him.
“Take this Jacob,” Joe said, “here.” Jacob grabbed it awkwardly, and held it with two hands.
My comments: Okay, be careful here. We suddenly drop into Lance’s point of view. Writers call this “head hopping” (jumping around POVs), and it’s not really allowed in Minimalism. We need to stay in Jacob’s POV.
Also, where did Tommy come from? This is all good action. But Tommy’s appearance made me backtrack to see where he’d been introduced. Again, names are not all that important. Except for a handful of main characters you can reduce Tommy to “another pair of hands” that grab Jacob and deliver him to Joe.
“That man killed your cousin, Jacob. He killed him and doesn’t even care. You know what you do with people like him, don’t you?”
“No.” “What do you mean? No?” “I mean, I don’t know?” “You kill them Jacob. That’s what.” “But why?”
Because I said so.Pull that hammer back. Yeah, that right there.Time to become a man Jacob. Put the barrel to his head, right here.”
His whole body was shaking. Finger tapping the trigger and a puddle of piss running off the booth seat under Lance.
He was a man today and knew he couldn’t back out. The guys crying in the other seat made him feel bad. He hoped he didn’t have to kill them too.
Joe started it off and the others came in, “Happy Birthday to you…”
“Happy Birthday Dear Jacob… Happy Birthday to you…”
My comments: Attribution. Don’t tell the reader what they can already surmise about the situation. Instead of more dialog, focus on the gun as an object. Its weight and kick and the smell of gunpowder. Does Jacob close his eyes? Focus on how his ears ring, and how the blast cuts off the sound of singing. Does the gunsmoke smell like the smoke from the birthday candles?
Unpack the piss for more tension. If Jacob’s also in the booth that piss might be inching toward Jacob — a symbol of infancy — and Jacob pulls the trigger as the piss is about to reach him. Thus, he wards off weakness.
Jacob pulled the trigger and Lance slumped over against the wall. A thick spot of blood over Jacob’s right eye. He wiped it and shook his head. He breathed deep.
And now he’s a man.
My comments: Here’s your pay-off. Consider a blackout line, where Al or Joe asks, “Did you make a wish?” That would tie the horror of the action to a sweet childhood tradition and make things seem worse. Just an idea. Whatever the case, avoid the summary at the end. And avoid using a form of “is” for your most important verb in the whole story.