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Gloves Off: Round XIX
Context v. A Scene
Today a deeper dive into part one of Saint Vrain Street Rapture by Dane Owen
To read the piece as originally posted, please click here.
Saint Vrain Street Rapture
(Part One of Twenty-Three)
This is your idea Aaron. (It feels weird writing “Aaron” still even though I’ve been calling you that for pretty much this whole school year. Instead of Mr. Enslin like it was that first week. When I came and met you in Mr. Crocket’s office that first time. The first of every day after while he’s eating lunch in the Teacher’s Lounge.) This is your idea, to write this to you. To “put it towards someone safe.” It took a long time to get me to this point, and I really appreciate your patience with me. You’ve shown more than anyone else has. Thank you for taking your nametag off every day you come in, making it less formal. Thank you for your colorful bow ties. I look forward to those every day. Thank you for doing everything you can to make me feel comfortable. To make me not feel like a freak. Thank you for making this year feel a little more like school from home, like I wish it was. Thank you for pushing me to write this over break. During this hardest week. I started it in the D Room Thursday, the day before school let out, cause I was done with all my work early. (If this ever gets out to anyone safe besides Aaron, D stands for Detention and I’m not in there everyday because I’m in trouble. I’m in there because when everyone’s quiet in a normal classroom and all those kids are all around me it makes me want to pop my top. It makes me want to pull things apart and see what everyone’s made of. See if we’ve all got the same stuff under our skin. In short, it messes with my anxiety and Aaron says that’s completely normal, even though I’m still not sure it is.)
My comments: All good stuff. You’re establishing context for telling the story. You’re making the narrator look good by having him/her thank another character. This thanking also helps you hide the “I.” It looks generous, and it helps introduce other characters. Then, you bring the menace at the end. We’re left wondering if this is a school shooter? A maniac? Now consider that this would all work better in a second chapter.
When your reader pulls up the first few pages — the free sample online — you want to hook them. The same goes for a bookstore or editor or agent. This first paragraph must be irresistible, demonstrating a voice that jaded publishing folks have never heard, and promising huge events. Although the context for telling the story and world building is important, it’s not first chapter stuff. It’s second chapter stuff.
I started this Thursday and now I’m doing it from what I call home. Writing this and thinking about all the places the kids in the halls said they were going this week. This is my break from everything hopefully. My break too. Even though I’m not going anywhere. My release. Like those places will be theirs.
My comments: Be careful of thought verbs and abstracts. Again, this is second chapter material.
This is called literary therapy you said. The step after just talking about the event that caused my trauma. Now it’s good to write about that traumatic event. Then next, which you said can be way way down the road, is to visit or view the location of the event. You said we can start with just a picture if I want, maybe just some of the police photos. Then last is discriminating between the original trauma warnings and current, non-traumatic triggers.
My comments: Again, all of this would work (beware of too many forms of “is”) in a second chapter. That said, you might not be able to write the first chapter until the book is done. Once you have a good draft you can create a more compelling scene to open with.
I ask whoever is listening to this voice to forget these words. Anyone other than Aaron. It is important that no one listen too very carefully. To think too very hard about what is said. I want these words to vanish back into the long silence they came from. And then for nothing to remain but a memory of their presence without details. The highpoints might stay, but even those, over time, will hopefully weather away. Paul Auster said something like that.
This is a true story. (I’ll start it with that)
My comments: Careful here. You’ve established that this is a written account. When you mention “listening” you confused me and made me scan the earlier passages for any mention of listening. You really get cooking in the next passage, once you settle into a scene.
And, alas, you get no authority by stating it’s a true story. Blame The Amityville Horror blame Three Cups of Tea, blame A Million Little Pieces, but people sniff bullshit when something purports to be a “true” story anymore. That ship has sailed.
I sat so still I swear I could hear the sun blades crawling down that old wood-paneled wall. The wall we’d put up, Uncle Joey called it an “accent.” I’d been sitting there since before there was no sun at all. Only did I move when Mrs. Gerri rapped a big knuckle against our front door and then the commotion outside all came rushing back in again. She pushed it a little open. It groaned because it didn’t close all the way anymore and apparently didn’t like to open now either. I didn’t bother trying to smile because she wasn’t either, she just held up a bottle of water from a satchel pack on her hip. I shook my head no. She saw the bottom of the gash under the end of the wrap-job on my arm done by one of the paramedics like he hadn’t had enough stuff to cover the whole thing. I couldn’t believe he’d even bothered with me at all with so many bodies lying around out there. There was a baby in a tree in our backyard and the Flanders kid from down the street had been in two pieces by our bloody brick mailbox but the guy had bothered with the gash on my arm while the rest of the responders did the hard stuff. Maybe he’d seen what I saw out there. Probably not because as quick as they got here, it was still well after it was long gone and all that was left outside was screaming and dying noises and chainsaws trying to get down to more dead people in the dark.
My comments: Excellent, we’re into a scene, and you’re depicting it great. Consider opening the paragraph with:
“The wall we’d put up, Uncle Joey called it an accent. You could hear the sun blades crawling down that old wood paneling. I’d been sitting there since before there was no sun at all.”
This helps hide the “I” and launches on a more mysterious note. It also avoids filtering: “I could hear.”
Mrs. Gerri is nicely deadpan, and that contrasts with the horror that’s suggested outside. Consider giving her one graphic detail that she seems unaware of. For instance, that one of her feet is bare and is tracking bloody footprints into the house. Or her house dress is clutched with a child’s bloody hand print. She could be nicely in shock, thus nonreactive to the real horror. That forces the reader to carry the burden of building dread. Or she hands over a water bottle smudged with blood. Just some tactile detail on her person to suggest she’s shell shocked.
“Is everyone okay,” Mrs. Gerri said, looking down at my sleeping dad and uncle and backlit by the bright sun that didn’t care at all. If she thought they were dead too she didn’t seem too surprised. I nodded yes even though I didn’t know. She sat the water in her hand down on the table by the door there and then grabbed two more from her pack and put them down too. I thought about asking her for a fourth but didn’t. She tried to close the door behind her but the top corner just banged against the frame each time till she quit and left it cracked. I heard her shout “Water?” from the porch and I turned to look out the front window for the first time since before I went to bed the night before when the three of us were out there watching Trainspotting and four different dogs ran by one after another. Before I went to bed and the thing came.
My comments: In her shell-shocked state, it would be good to insert a ludicrous line of dialog from Mrs. Gerri. Later, “You’re putting on a show,” is dead-on perfect. But earlier, something like, “You’re missing a lovely day, Hansen” (whatever the narrator’s name is). Unpack the four different dogs. A collie, a mastiff, a fox terrier and a standard poodle. This is the kind of detail you want to hook the reader so you can use it to revisit the disaster in greater and greater detail. First you depict it in least detail, but each time you mention the four dogs you signal to your reader that you’re going to revisit the disaster in greater detail. They’re a landmark, so you want them to be very specific in the reader’s mind. And it’s great that they’re moving.
“Oh Janice honey you’re giving everyone a show,” she said and she sure was. Mrs. Gough was power-walking down the middle of the street with her phone out in front of her, she either didn’t hear Mrs. Gerri or didn’t care because she didn’t bother covering the big open tear in her tank top or her big brown nipple. I could hear the ringing from her phone’s speaker through the cracked-open door as she held it up and walked towards the house, moving her hand left and right like it was a metal detector sweeping over sand for doubloons instead of searching ruined Wyngate Estates for signal and her son. His voicemail caught and Mrs. Gough stopped just short of the porch and looked down and frowned at her phone. I stared at her sweaty nipple. It was set sort of off to the side of her pale breast and it stared back at me blankly through the window like it knew long ago that what they were walking around doing was useless. There was a piece of straw stuck to it.
My comments: Be very careful here. In your first line you use, “she said and she sure was,” but the second “she” refers to Janice. That gets confusing. Consider using “Janice” again instead of the second pronoun. If Janice is important enough to depict and name, you should step on her name this second time to set it in the reader’s mind.
Again with, “she either didn’t hear…,” you should try, “Janice either didn’t hear…,” to avoid too many confusing female pronouns. Okay?
Also, Mrs. Gough and Mrs. Gerri have names too similar. I assume it’s Janice Gough, but that took too much effort on my part. I do approve of the shocked lack of concern about her breast being exposed. It’s that kind of lack-of-reaction that makes the reader carry the building concern.
Bravo on the straw stuck to the nipple. Nice touch.
She tapped the screen hard twice, and then the ringing resumed and so did her silent, big-eyed search down to our neighbors’ with her arm outstretched in front of her.
I watched Mrs. Gerri step down into the yard and kick pieces of wood and trash out of her path. Then she turned and looked up at my house in wonder. I could read her lips. “Not a scratch,” she mouthed, then shook her head and continued on with her pack of waters in the same direction Mrs. Gough had gone.
My comments: I loved the paragraph, “She tapped the screen hard…” After that, beware of filtering with, “I watched…” And, “I could read her lips…” Instead, try, “She turned and looked up at the house, her eyes tracing the gutters, the chimney, the shingles, not a single shingle missing, and her eyes narrowed with fear, maybe envy, as her lips moved to make the words she didn’t say, Not a scratch.” In short, you want to really step on this moment with as much detail as your reader can suffer. Avoid filtering so you can submerge the “I” and just unpack Mrs. Gerri.
I turned my head to the right and my neck shot bright stars of pain up into my brain. I reached for the vibrating phone on the couch, waited for it to stop, then flipped it over and powered it off.
My comments: Please avoid “to the right” because that forces the reader into the abstract. Always better to say, “I turned my head to one side…” Excellent instinct to end on an action.
All in all, the scene carried the chapter. Consider unpacking it, but keeping it short, and putting the context material — you told me to write this, where I’m writing, what day it is — in a second or even third chapter. Context is never very compelling. But dazed neighbors wandering pell-mell, acting as if not much has happened is endlessly engaging.
In summary: Thank you.
In the next few days I’ll be combing through the new batch of stories you’ve posted. Thank you for putting your work on the line. I do appreciate it.