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Gloves Off: Round XVII
Do not explode the narrator's mouth
Today, let’s take a longer look at Meltdown by Richie Zaborowske
To read this wonderful short story as it was originally published, please click here.
Rest assured, the story pays off beautifully.
We will soon join the others in the mass exodus. But first, I must convince Charlotte to go with us peaceably. This will not be easy.
My comments: Be careful not to state everything in a summary “Thesis” statement up front. We want a small action/fact that suggests the possibility of violence. For example:
The rohypnol I get just in case Charlotte won’t get in the car.
Or, The dog (cat, gerbil, mother) went ahead with the Andersons. I shoved them in the car myself. Now Charlotte won’t dare put up a fight. Note that Mom is largely missing from the scene — she only braids some hair — so making her absent creates tension and questions in the reader’s mind.
Or, If you chloroform somebody wrong, you hold the cloth too tight for too long, and you can burn a person’s face. Nonetheless, a burned face beats Charlotte getting killed (instead of ‘killed,’ front-load a suggestion of the threat they all face). Because this story resolves so nicely, you might suggest the child’s fate if her will is not so stubborn. Something like, … a burned face beats Charlotte falling into the hands of the slavers. Or the butchers.
The question isn’t really whether or not Charlotte will go. She’s tiny and can be carried. The question lies in suggesting what will become of her if she’s not strong. And doing so without stating the overall threat, if possible.
To kill time, I pace the driveway. I double check to make sure the van is ready. Our neighbors, the Andersons, left a week ago. Soon after, I looted their garage and scavenged several tires. Hoping they’d deflect bullets, I strapped them tugboat style to the exterior of our Kia Sedona. Originally, when we purchased the Sedona years ago, we’d thought it would be perfect for shuttling the family to and from soccer games, maybe the occasional camping trip. Now the van looks like it’s outfitted for a trip to the Thunderdome, and I fear that we may be spending more time in the woods than we had anticipated.
My comments: Consider that you get more dread if you don’t explain your motivations. Take Hoping they’d deflect bullets, I strapped them tugboat style to the exterior of our Kia Sedona. Instead, see what happens when you rephrase this to: The tires I strapped tugboat style to the exterior of our Kia Sedona. To deflect bullets.
Re-think the mood, also. When you summarize with existing culture like Thunderdome, you cut the tension and make us think of something outside the story. Your world should be the only world on the page.
The gas tank is full, as well as the oxygen canisters. I remind myself that compared to many families, we have been fortunate. We are healthy, and we have each other; all things considered, we are lucky.
I take a deep breath. I can do this. I just have to convince her and then we can join the caravan of vehicles on the interstate heading north. I just have to press upon her how dire our situation truly is.
My comments: Not many active verbs here. As always, forms of “is” and “have” and thought verbs don’t get you much bang. Some suggestions? Consider your audience to be Claire, and your job is to convince us of how dire things are. Thus, don’t reassure us about being healthy and together. If anything, list those blessings, then state I used to think we were lucky. That will suggest a looming threat that overrides all existing good things.
I used to think Charlotte would grow up to be a veterinarian. I used to think Charlotte would grow up.
The screen door bangs like a gunshot and I grit my teeth. I can see Charlotte making her way toward me. She saunters with the drunk swagger of a pirate; her head is poised and stately, and yet she canters as if she’s testing her sea legs. She abruptly turns around and then careens back towards the house. The screen door bangs again and she is inside now. And then it bangs and she is outside. It bangs again, and she is inside. Then the screen door bangs once more and I can see her tiny profile in the doorway. She stands in the threshold, backlit from the light of the kitchen, defiantly holding the door open; the words “were you born in a barn” rise up like bile in my throat and I swallow them back. I remind myself that fallout has killed all the insects, and at any rate, flies in the house no longer matter. Then finally, the screen door bangs once more, and my two-year-old daughter makes her way toward me.
My comments: Be careful of filtering, for example, I can see Charlotte… Instead, Charlotte makes her way toward me. This removes the filtering and helps submerge the “I.”
Can you unpack two-year-old? What characteristics will mark her as that age? A diaper? Build authority by depicting a two-year-old according to the narrator’s experience.
Charlotte doesn’t have hair yet, just a few stray wisps. I look down at that little dome and remind myself that I am the parent. I’m the one making all the sacrifices. She didn’t swallow a mouthful of gas siphoning off the Martin’s Buick, I did.
My comments: What’s the first rule of fiction? If you don’t know what comes next, describe the inside of the character’s mouth. Going on-the-body with physical sensation gets under the radar and holds the reader. Thus I began a long-ago story, Two screens into my demo to Microsoft, I taste blood and have to start swallowing.
There’s your great way into the story. The narrator can still taste gasoline in their mouth. They keep spitting, but still taste gasoline. If they kiss anyone, the kiss will taste like gasoline. That’s the kind of small, physical detail that sticks in the reader’s mind because it evokes a physical sympathetic response in the reader’s body.
If you really want to pay-off a gasoline-y mouth, have the narrator light a cigarette.
She crosses her arms and looks up at me. Charlotte likes things her way, and she can do it herself. And we know from experience, that she won’t get into the van unless her long litany of stipulations has been met. With the threat of a temper tantrum strapped to her chest, she negotiates like an unhinged hostage taker. My wife and I have learned to tread lightly; Charlotte’s trigger finger is as itchy as it is sticky. She does not like to be told no.
My comments: Unpack experience, please. What exactly will Charlotte do? Hold her breath until she faints? Refuse to eat?
Charlotte pulls the tab of her pink paci and pops it out of her mouth. She briefly holds it to the light and admires it like it’s a fine cigar. She wipes it on her shirt, and stuffs it in her pocket. The time has come; she is ready to put forth her demands.
Winters are now summers and summers are now hell, and our daughter prefers to sweat through it all in her long-sleeved Disney Queen Elsa dress. This has become her
de facto post-apocalypticuniform. She tells me she’s not going anywhere unless she can wear this dress. I quickly give in.I pray the long billowing sleeves will offer some protection against the radiation.
My comments: Consider implying the radiation instead of saying it. Consider:
Maybe the long billowing sleeves will save her from burns.
Or, A long-shot, sure, but those billowing sleeves might save her.
Or, It’s the dress she’d pick to be buried in.
Our daughter also wants an Elsa braid. And this too is fine since it will keep her occupied. While my wife patiently combs her hair and works in the ribbons, I will pack the last of the ammo, assault rifles, and MREs. I will double check our bunker to make sure we have left nothing behind.
My comments: Things got bumpy here. If her hair is wisps, and her head is a dome, how can she get a braid? Keep track of your objects: the gasoline, the tires, the pacifier, the dress. Keep spitting. Hold the car door open. Eventually, maybe place the doll inside the car, a gesture that depicts a compromise.
And finally, Charlotte demands to bring her favorite doll. She holds up a startlingly realistic Caillou. I grimace and remember that this doll has buttons. And when you press the buttons, a speaker in Calliou’s head blares the inane phrase “Me No Likey” and asks “Why, Why, Why?” over and over, and over again. I imagine what it would be like to have to listen to this as we drive through the barren husk of what once was called the Midwest. Haven’t we all suffered enough?
So I explain to my daughter about the apocalypse, and global warming, and how certain sacrifices must be made; I imagine building a funeral pyre in the backyard, placing Calliou’s bald shiny head on top.But I can see my daughter’s icy Elsa stare, she’s not going to back down on this. And then I notice fresh smoke billowing up on the horizon.
My comments: Don’t remember, press a button and give us a quote or two. As always a few quotes will really ground a reality, and if the only one speaking is a doll, that’s wonderful and creepy. Especially if Charlotte uses the doll as a proxy, and Charlotte remains mute.
And Fresh smoke billows up from the horizon. You don’t get to notice things (that’s filtering the world through the narrator). Likewise, To judge from my daughter’s icy Elsa stare… will avoid filtering and another “I.” And as always, you gain more tension and dread if you refuse or delay naming the threat. Allow the reader to imagine his/her own worst fear. Make the reader scared by showing the narrator’s desperate actions.
So, once again, we give in to her demands. Besides, as parents, we like to think of her as strong-willed and believe her tenacity will serve her well in the future. In the past, we thought that her steadfast ambition would lead to a career as a doctor or a lawyer. Now, in the end times, we know our daughter will fall in with a pack of marauders. She will lead them as they roam and pillage the bombed-out countryside. With her tattered Elsa dress flapping in the blast winds, she will rise like a royal phoenix from the smoldering refuse of civilization. And no one, no one will ever dare tell her no.
My comments: THIS is a gorgeous note to end on. So excellent. And it helps me grasp why the kid’s being so catered to. They want her to be a head-strong force. That’s a lovely twist. Consider front-loading it — a lot. Your lead might be:
We used to picture Charlotte as a doctor. Or a lawyer. We don’t anymore. We can’t.
That would tease us into wondering if Charlotte’s dead or damaged in some way. And you can revisit that statement in a chorus, once or twice, mid-story. We used to see Charlotte accepting her sheepskin in electrical engineering. At one time, we talked about her playing first violin at the Met.
The point is to create foreboding by suggesting all the things that are no longer possible. Discussing possible futures is a natural impulse of parents, and the discarding of those futures will raise a series of escalating red flags. Either something is wrong with the world or with Charlotte, or both. And noting those thwarted futures will better set-up your very nice reveal at the end.
This story is so smart. All along, I just wanted to throw the kid in the car. You hooked me with frustration, then you justified it. Very well done. But such a great ending needs a better build-up.
I was just kidding about the cigarette.