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Gloves Off: Round XXIII
The Southern Gothic lives!
Today we’ll take a closer look at the first chapter of Dog Funeral, a novel by Maria Holmdahl. To read the chapter as originally posted, please click here.
20 June 2006
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Cecily saw the alligator man for the first time on the day Angus ran out in the road. Late that afternoon, she stood with her small hands clasped in front of her as Grampa filled Angus’ terrier-sized grave.
“I want to stay for the resurrection,” Cecily said.
My Comments: This line of dialog is so great, you need to set it up better. Create a hand pulling her away for tension. Or rain begins to fall. Give us just one or two beats of forces that might pull Cecily away. Only then can you deliver the line.
And put the attribution on the front. In effect:
Cecily said, “I want to stay for the resurrection.”
Also, be mindful of point of view. If the POV is Cecily, would she describe her own hands as “small”? If it is Cecily’s POV, can you get closer? Put us in her body. Describe things the way she would.
The grave site she had picked out was a good, long walk into the cypress swamp near Gramma and Grampa’s house. Heavyset live oaks dangled gray, curly Spanish moss from their branches. Thick grapevines clung to the trees so tightly it seemed like they wanted to pull themselves through the bark. Cecily hoped Angus liked this spot. He had been a mean old thing, but his death had been her fault, really.
One last shovelful of dark soil and the cardboard box was out of sight.
“Resurrection?” Grampa stretched his back. “Where’d you pick that up?”
My Comments: Good impulse to repeat “resurrection” after you’ve given us a chunk of description. Do not forget insects. They add motion and sound and menace to anything. Can you unpack “mean old thing”? For example, He’d never stopped charging the mail carrier, and he’d pulled the fringe off one full side of the parlor carpet, but his death was on her hands.
“Miss Beasley told us
in Sunday School.” Cecily stared down at the disturbed earth. “ She said it means coming back to life.“It happened to Jesus after three days.”
“And what did you say, Cecily?” Grampa tamped the dirt down. “I know you said something.”
My Comments: Very good impulse in repeating and rephrasing Grampa’s line. What’s Cecily doing with her hands now? Remember to go in baby steps. In the next line “Brother Timothy” establishes some context, so we don’t need “Sunday School.” Likewise, we don’t need “coming back to life” because the line about Jesus establishes that better.
Cecily scuffed the ground with her stupid shiny church shoes. The left one already had a scratch on it. Gramma would fuss at her when they got back. “I said doesn’t that mean Jesus was a zombie, and then I had to go have a talk with Brother Timothy.”
Grampa smiled, just a slight up-turning of his thin lips.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll be seeing any zombie dogs here.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and swiped it over his bristly, sweat-beaded hair. “I’m about ready to head back. You want to say a prayer or something?”
My Comments: Keep in mind that you’ve introduced no objects. The dog’s collar? The shoes are good. What makes the shoes “stupid”? From memory, church shoes tended toward patent leather so they hurt and felt sweaty because the plastic didn’t breathe. How can Cecily unpack “stupid”?
Also, in a tight, Minimalist story the scratched shoe is a set-up that must pay off. Just the fact of it being scratched makes the reader wonder about how it got that way.
And if the shoes are polished you have the opportunity for Cecily to glance down and see her on reflection. How she reacts—looking away, gazing at herself, spitting—can depict her emotional state.
Cecily pulled at the lace-trimmed pocket on the front of her dress.
“You do one.”
Grampa leaned on the shovel and blew out a long breath. “Let’s see… Angus was a good dog, most of the time. Caught the occasional squirrel. Not sure that was such a good thing.”
Cecily shifted her weight from one foot to the other. She and Angus had never really gotten along, but the grumpy Scottie dog had been a fixture in Gramma and Grampa’s house since before she was born. The finality of putting him in the ground was pulling up all kinds of thoughts she wished she could ignore. How long would he be there? What if he woke up again, or got better? Was he mad at her?
She hoped not.
My Comments: Rather then have Cecily defer to Grampa, consider that her silence will create tension and force him to fill the void. To date, we don’t know if she’s mourning or guilty or whatever, so silence will prolong that suspense.
Again, careful about POV. For instance, “…had been a fixture in…” doesn’t sound like a small girl. Nor does “The finality of putting…”
And I cut the last sentence because it creates more tension to end with, “Was he mad at her?” It creates the possibility that she’s afraid of the dog’s revenge.
“Um… what about…?”Cecily bit her lip. “Hm? Oh.”Grampa continued the prayer. “I’m sure he don’t blame nobody for his untimely death. If he’d had any sense, he wouldn’t’ve chased that ball into the road.”
My Comments: By holding her silence, and having Grampa deduce the mood, it shows that even he suspects Cecily plotted to kill the dog. Or that she was at least at fault. It creates the question of who threw the ball into the road?
Cecily bowed her head like Gramma had shown her. The sun heated the black fabric of her dress until it felt like the cloth might burn her shoulders. The glare on her shoes pointed out the scratch to her again. She shouldn’t have worn them in the woods, but she just couldn’t let Angus be buried next to the road or in the back yard. Dogs probably liked the woods. There were plenty of squirrels for him to chase. Maybe Grampa would know if dogs liked the woods. The unasked question made her feel squirmy, like too much juice on a long car ride, but Gramma had said you have to be quiet at funerals.
Grampa fell silent, too. Cecily poked him in the arm.
“Oh… ah… amen,” Grampa said.
“Amen,” Cecily echoed, and felt a quiet satisfaction in completing the ritual.
My Comments: This raises the question of where were the squirrels buried? Is Angus being buried among his kills?
“Let’s go, sweetpea.” Grampa hefted the shovel over his shoulder and headed back toward the dirt road that ran through the cypress swamp.
Cecily’s shoes sank into the earth every few steps. She already had dark streaks of dirt on her white stockings, and her legs were all sweaty. She wished she could have worn pants, but Gramma had said it was important to dress up for a funeral. When they reached the old dirt road, Cecily stopped to fish a twig out of her shoe, then jogged to catch up with Grampa. Cicadas buzzed in the trees. They sounded like electricity.
My Comments: As always beware of “Has” and “Is” because they rob you of more interesting language.
Instead of She already had dark streaks of dirt on her white stockings, and her legs were all sweaty, consider, Mud kicked up with every step, mud from the grave streaked her white stockings. Burrs snagged them, and the stretchy parts felt cold with her sweat.
“Is there a dog heaven?” Cecily asked.
Grampa glanced down at her.
“Do you believe there’s a dog heaven?” “Yeah.”Cecily veered off to pick up a nice long stick from the side of the road. “Then there probably is one,” saidGrampa shifted the handle of the shovel to his other shoulder.
“If there’s a dog heaven, wouldn’t there be a dog Jesus?” Cecily dragged the stick through the dirt. The tip cut a shallow line
through the dark, packed dirt.
Grampa tilted his head and peered up at the sky. He nodded. “I reckon there’d have to be.”
My Comments: Again, I’m allowing silence to create tension. It’s clear that Cecily has an idea. We don’t need Grampa as a foil; that creates tennis-match dialog that resolves too much tension and feels plodding.
Allow us to wonder about Grampa’s reaction until he finally speaks.
“What if Angus is the dog Jesus?” Cecily asked. “He’ll get resurrected in three days and we’ll have to come back for him.”
Grampa laughed, one strong Ha!
“Cess, that mutt wasn’t nothing but trouble.”
Cecily caught a clump of Spanish moss with the end of her stick and dragged it through a patch of dead leaves. “Maybe I should ask Miss Beasley tomorrow.”
Maybe.”(here use an action or a misdirection so the characters talk at cross-purposes, like, “Cess, you want we should get you a puppy?”)
Cecily heaved a huge sigh. “I’ll just have to talk to Brother Timothy again.”
“Could be.”(again, talk at cross-purposes to create tension, “Cess, the driver of that car couldn’t anyway stop in time.”)
Cecily furrowed her brow. “Do you think I’m going to Hell?”
My Comments: If this is the first chapter of a book—especially if this is a first chapter—it’s got to raise questions and tension to hook the reader. Do everything you can to avoid tennis-match dialog, and to suggest other possibilities. Who was the driver of the car? In Minimalism no element is unimportant. Everything happens for a reason.
That question had been churning through her mind for a long time now.She kept walking a few steps before she paused and looked behind her to where thatGrampa had stopped. (this is to avoid the thought verb “realized”) “Why in the world would you go to Hell?”Grampa’s sparse white eyebrows pinched together above his nose, so low that they almost hid his narrow eyes. “Angus shoulda learned by now not to run out in front of a car, ball or no ball.”
Cecily kicked at a thick root bulging out of the dirt road. “Miss Beasley says everyone has to accept Jesus or they go to Hell.”
“Uh-huh,”Grampa said flatly. Hestarted walking again.
My Comments: As always, avoid forwarding plot with dialog. You can always go inside Cecily’s head and paraphrase. That will give you a new texture of information, and you can avoid too much talking.
In the next paragraph, for example, Cecily flicked the Spanish moss off the stick. It was probably full of chiggers. Miss Beasley always said that if people in South America never heard of Jesus because they live too far away, and missionaries couldn’t find them, it was our obli… um… our job to tell them about Jesus so they don’t go to Hell. Cecily furrowed her brow again. But that meant if they go to Hell, it’s our own fault, too.
By paraphrasing it within Cecily’s POV, you don’t have to externalize it via dialog. The observation about possible chiggers automatically puts us into Cecily’s head, there she can review her theory.
Cecily flicked the Spanish moss off the stick. It was probably full of chiggers. “And I asked what about people in South America who never heard of Jesus because they live too far away, and missionaries couldn’t find them, and Miss Beasley said it was our obla… um… our job to tell them about Jesus so they don’t go to Hell.” Cecily furrowed her brow again. “But that means if they go to Hell, it’s our own fault.”
“Hmm.”Grampa’s lips drew into a tight line.
rest of thewords tumbled out of her. “ And if I let someone else go to Hell, wouldn’t I go to Hell?Because I can’t get to South America to tell them about Jesus. It’s really far away and I only have five dollars.” “I don’t think God would send a 6-year-old girl to Hell just because she couldn’t get to South America.”Grampa shifted the shovel to his other shoulder. “Come on. Your grandmother won’t forgive me if we’re late for dinner.”
My Comments: I LOVED the particular detail about five dollars. By paraphrasing within her head, then blurting out what seems like a non sequitur, we see that Cecily has a rich inner life. She needn’t state everything.
But don’t assuage her fear by having Grampa deny it. Allow him to be confused, and to redirect toward dinner.
Cecily took his hand. His fingers were thick and tanned and not as smooth as they looked. She felt small and safe at the same time.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “Sure, I’m sure.”Grampa squeezed her hand. “(We’re) She’sexpecting your Mom and Dad later tonight.” “No, about going to Hell.”“Am I going to Hell?” (attribution)
Grampa exhaled loudly through his nose. “I’m gonna tell you something important, but you absolutely cannot tell your grandmother. This stays between us. All right?”
My Comments: Keep the possibility of Hell open. Create tension. Escalate. Evade. Misdirect.
Now, just because some preacher or Sunday school teacher or book says something, that don’t make it true.”“Tonight, Cess,” he said, “you can’t tell your folks about Angus being dead.”
The skin on the back of Cecily’s neck crawled
at the blasphemy. Grampa did know everything, but so did God. It felt wrong for them to disagree.
Grampa glanced down at her. “What I’m saying is that a lot of people believe in a lot of different things. Who’s to say what’s true?”
Cecily’s hand tightened on the stick. The old bark crumbled between her fingers.
“But you go to church!” she said.
My Comments: Stay in scene. Chapter One is too early to launch into big ideas. Don’t explain anything, just keep building your disconnects.
The reference to the Alligator Man was a good hook, but it needs to come into play before we fully forget it.
“Well, if you keep quiet, people think you agree with them,” Grampa said. “I don’t see as how it does any harm to let ‘em just keep thinking that.”
“But I can’t keep quiet.”Cecily dropped her chin. “Sometimes people don’t make any sense.”
And I love your questions.What works for me ain’t necessarily gonna work for you.” (attribution) “I’ll still get in trouble.”Cecily bent the stick until it snapped. A few strands of splintery wood held the two halves together.
“People who ask questions are always in trouble.” Grampa tousled her hair.
“Don’t let that stop you.”
On the left, the surface of Mirror Springs glinted through the trees. She could just make out the place where the large, spring-fed pool joined up with the Silver River in the distance.
My Comments: Be careful to not state the obvious. You demonstrate that Cecily talks, so you needn’t say she can’t keep quiet.
Be careful of left vs. right. I let you have the shoe, but always consider saying one shoe was already scuffed or along one side of the road the trees fell away to reveal the glint of sunlight on water. Out a ways a green change in the depths showed where the springs joined the Silver River. This allows you to avoid filtering with “she could just make out” and it avoids make the reader think of abstract left vs. right concepts.
When you write left, you force me to think of my hand. Keep me in the scene.
“Can we go swimming?” Cecily asked. She could already feel the ice-cold water. “Please?”
Grampa gave her a doubtful look.
“We’re just barely gonna make dinner as it is.”
Cecily pouted. “
But iIt’s my last day!” “It’ll still be there next summer,” Grampa said.
Cecily pulled at the pocket of her dress. One corner came loose at the top.
“Can’t we just go look at the water for a minute?” she asked.
“Please? I won’t even put my feet in.”
One corner of Grampa’s mouth pulled down. He glanced upward, then down the road ahead. “Just for a minute.”
Cecily swished the broken stick through the air as she ran down the path to a weathered fence overlooking the springs. The floppy end of the stick tore loose and sailed into the pool. A few ripples disturbed the glassy surface, but the water was soon still again. On the far shore, droopy trees hung over the water. A cluster of picnic tables stood in the shade a little farther away. Near the bathing area, lily pads spread across the water like a blanket.
The summer had been a dry one, but the lichen-spotted wood of the fence felt cool and damp under Cecily’s fingers. She climbed up to sit on the top rung, careful not to let the seat of her stockings show. She breathed in the fresh smell of the water. No people around, either. Cecily and Grampa were the only ones in the world.
On the other side of the fence, a green-stained, concrete barrier shored up the walkway around the near side of the pool. The water was clear as air all the way to the bottom, where sandy white roads meandered between forests of eel grass. Silvery fish seemed to hover over the gaping, rock-rimmed mouth of the main spring. Farther out, faint ripples on the surface marked the two smaller vents.
My Comments: Be careful, the pocket’s corner and the corner of Grampa’s mouth are pretty close together. Intentional?
“Careful you don’t fall in.” Grampa leaned the shovel against the fence. He stretched his neck to the left until it popped. The sound made her own neck ache.
Cecily planted her feet on the middle rung of the fence and pushed herself up, craned her neck, but could only see a little ways into the spring. She had spent enough time peering down there with her snorkeling mask to know she’d never see deep enough into it to be satisfied, and Grampa said it was too dangerous to swim inside.
“Grampa?” Cecily asked. “Does an eel live down there?”
“I don’t…”Grampa leaned over the fence, squinting at the nest of lily pads. His voice turned cold. “You stay right here.”
My Comments: Don’t respond to the eel question. Keep the possibility for tension.
And if she’s never been allowed to swim here, why did she ask in the first place? Careful.
And if Grampa is seeking what he’s seeing, you might put an overpowering stink in the air. And and always—flies—clouds of flies.
Grampa snatched up the shovel and ran around the edge toward the bathing area. Cecily swung her legs back to the forest side of the fence and hopped down. She winced at the feeling of her thick white stockings snagging on a splinter. Grampa looked back over his shoulder just as her feet hit the ground.
“You stay right there, Cecily! I’m serious!” (attribution)
The moment Grampa looked away, Cecily dashed after him.
Grampa stopped at the end of the wooden walkway. He took the last steps to the shore with hunched shoulders, more creeping than walking. Cecily followed his example.
At the water’s edge, Grampa eased his shovel out toward a floating log. The shovel wobbled in the air, then splashed down just short of the target. With a grunt, Grampa lifted the shovel again and lunged a little farther out. He caught the edge of the log. It rolled.
“Ah, hell,” he muttered.
Cecily gasped. Grampa never swore.
He turned fast enough to make her gasp.
“I told you to stay at the fence.” The anger in Grampa’s tone turned the afternoon gray.
Behind him, the log drifted into view. It had a man’s head. The coat of algae on the forked trunk became waterlogged fabric that ended where legs should have been.
My Comments: Excellent. But really unpack this monstrosity. “Forked trunk” doesn’t sound like a small girl. Nor does “fabric” or “coat of algae.”
Very nice how you brought the shovel back into play. Bravo.
Cecily screamed. Blackness blotted out the lily pads, the water, Grampa’s stricken expression, until all she could see was the man’s bloated, purple-white face. His eyes had swollen shut. A lump of flesh protruded from between his bulging lips.
Grampa grabbed her head with both hands and forced her to look away from the water. His steely eyes bored into hers.
“Listen to me, Cess. I need you to do something. Can you do something for me?” (attribution)
“Is-is that m-man… Is that man…”Cecily’s lips and tongue felt numb.
“Don’t you worry about him.” A comforting eternity hung between each word. “It’s very important that you run home and call the police, okay?”
“But what… I mean, what… That man…”Cecily couldn’t breathe. “Where are his legs? Where-”
“I’ll take care of him. You run home and tell your grandmother to call the police.” Grampa’s thumb stroked her cheek. “I know you can do it. You’re a brave girl.”
Cecily drew a hitching breath. She nodded, and he let her go.
My Comments: It’s always going to be more powerful when the girl who can’t stop talking suddenly can’t speak.
When Cecily turned to run, she saw the Bennett House, really saw it, for the first time. The crumbling plantation house stared back, crouched among the trees like a cat stalking a mouse. The curved front porch flashed slender, creeper-entangled teeth at her.
It ate him, Cecily thought.
“Get going, Cess!” Grampa shouted.
Cecily squeezed her eyes shut, lowered her head, and barreled off, arms and legs pumping.
My Comments: All good. Here, revisit the shoes. Maybe she rips them off and tosses them so she can run barefoot. Or she ignores the stones scuffing them.
Bear in mind that the dog’s death suggests a symmetry. In Sunset Boulevard the ape’s death (Norma’s companion) predicts the eventual death of Joe Gillis (her lover). All the questions around the dog must eventually be answered in a parallel plot. The good news is that you can flashback to the dog’s death to depict it, and hook your reader with emotional authority.
Okay, I’m hooked. Is the dead man the Alligator Man? For now, cut your dialog to the bone. And begin to build your narrator in a very particular voice so she doesn’t sound like a writer writing about a girl, okay? And paraphrase to avoid telling everything in dialog!
And in closing, thank you! Excellent work.
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