Gloves Off: Round XXXIV
Careful about forwarding plot with dialog
Today we’ll take a long look at motherese by Joel Shoemaker. To read the story as originally published, please click here.
The brand-new baby is screaming. In French.
No, in French. It's definitely in French.
It isn't obvious, at first. It's not like she's screaming for a Weiner schnitzel or demanding a baguette or something. She didn't come out of the womb in lederhosen. Is that even German? I don't know. The point is you really have to listen.
My Comments: Great job of submerging the I. You keep the camera pointed elsewhere, always more interesting. And nice move, going into second-person imperative at the end of the passage. You’ve covered all your bases, first-, second-, and third-person.
Do you recall: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It’s from Slaughterhouse 5, and the imperative “Listen” is so sexy and intimate. Always a spooky-good strategy.
She's screaming in French.
It is a scientific fact. In a 2009 study, thirty German cries were analyzed against thirty French cries and there was a statistical similarity between the thirty within each group and major statistical differences between each group. The French produced, quote end quote, rising melody contours. Germans produced, again I quote, falling contours.
Whatever the heck that means.
My Comments: Very funny, building authority and then knocking it down. Something technical sounding, instantly negated. Tension followed by relief. Consider amping up the wonky language with a few words. Regions or districts in France/Germany. Obscure tonal distinctions. Really scare the reader (“I won’t understand this!”) before you knock down your straw man.
Listen, the point is, the baby is screaming.
They're supposed to scream, aren't they?
If they don't, they're dead.
Right? Something like that.
Listen, I'm no expert, I just got here. I've only been reporting to duty in Labor & Delivery for three months.
My Comments: As always, if you avoided the abstract “three months” you could reveal something about the narrator. For instance, I’ve only been reporting… since my IRA tanked. A comic non sequitur can always be used as a set-up later. Just as important, a specific reference—Passover, tax season, May time—sticks in the reader’s mind. It acts like an object we can hold onto.
This is what I prepared for. All those years in school.
Who cares that I just barely passed?
The letters after my name are the same as all of the other nurses on this floor, in this hospital. D stands for degree.
Isn't that what they say?
My Comments: Again, can you get specific? What classes did the narrator fail? Some absurdly arbitrary details would sell this passage better.
Another study would go on to confirm that approximately 1 in 2,000 babies is born with natal teeth. They aren't rooted very well and are often discolored and just pop right out. Neonatal teeth are three times rarer. They emerge within the first month of birth, apparently.
In 23 BCE, Gaius Plinius Secundus (say that one three times fast), supposed that boys with natal teeth would be blessed with a magnificent future. In other cultures, however, the child is believed to be some kind of cursed monstrosity, a bearer of misfortune. Quote, end quote.
My Comments: All good “head authority” details. Curious why you’ve put everything flush left. The lack of physical verbs—besides screaming—makes it tough to picture what’s happening. And while your head authority is there, I’d like to see something to create heart authority. Maybe the mother could play a larger part?
In China, natal teeth are bad luck for girls.
In China, isn't everything bad luck for girls?
In China, isn't being a girl bad luck?
Of course, I don't suppose I tell the new family any of this. It isn't any better, but I just say, no problem, this little wiggly guy is gonna come out real soon and when he does, put a dollar under the baby's pillow and the breastfeeding should become a much more comfortable exercise.
My Comments: All good.
They just stare. I shrug. Uh, I'm new here, I add.
But that is what the study says.
My Comments: Whether you put the narrator’s line in quotation marks, or the dialog of another character, that would help ground this story. Just one or two actual quotes would add a different texture, and make the scene seem more real.
One of the main themes or “horses” is language. Keep that in mind for the ending.
In France, la petite souris enters the bedroom in the dark of night to exchange the tooth for coins.
La petite souris literally translates to the small mouse. This is similar to some Spanish and Latin American cultures. El Ratoncito Perez.
And I quote.
My Comments: All good. The only source of tension is the screaming, and the narrator’s lack of a reaction seems to negate that tension.
This baby, the one with the tooth, the one screaming for an éclair, this baby has the most beautiful green eyes.
Her mother is so happy.
Her father hasn't said a word.
Having a baby is exhausting. Sure. But for the dude, too? What did he even do today?
What's her name? I ask.
He extends his index finger to the woman. The woman that's happy. The woman that's exhausted. The woman that did all the work. The mother, he points. Her eyes the color of the clearest sky on the sunniest day, the mother smiles and says, "Puff." But she says it like, poof.
But I swear. Hand to God. I saw the birth certificate with my own eyes.
P. U. F. F.
Like, as in puff pastry.
The man leaves abruptly, without a word.
The strong, quiet type, I suppose.
My Comments: Careful. The narrator summarizes and explains away any tension. Having a baby is exhausting, and, The strong, quiet type, I suppose. Doing so you don’t leave room for the reader to speculate and make connections. Or to worry. With gesture and action you can use recording angel and your reader will have a greater participation in determining the meaning of things.
Can you unpack how the mother seems happy?
He comes back with coffee, just for him. Hospital coffee. Essentially hot, brown water. Thin. Sure, it's gross, but enough cream and sugar and anything's tasty.
Sure, I haven't been delivering babies all that long. Still, it's never not been interesting. My second delivery was en caul. That's where the water never breaks. The baby comes out in the amniotic sac, a jelly-like bubble.
The doctor cut the baby out of the balloon. Water went everywhere. It wasn't as dramatic as it sounds. The baby was fine, perfectly normal. That's a direct quote. I don't think it's exactly true. I don't think an en caul birth is normal, per se, but listen, I'm not the doctor.
It's just, 1 in 80,000 births isn't, quote, perfectly normal. Is it?
But the baby was totally fine!
That baby, the natal teeth baby. They're both unique. That's what I'd call them.
So that's what I told the dad. I said, your girl is so lucky. The tooth makes her special. Crying about croissants is cute, too, ya know? I actually said it. I even said it like that: QUAH-SAHNTS. You know. Committed to the bit. I was being funny. Or at least, I was trying to be. Humorous. Relaxing. Comforting.
Laughter is good medicine, isn't that what they say?
He said nothing.
Didn't roll his eyes. Didn't smile. Definitely didn't laugh.
Didn't walk away from me.
Didn't walk toward her.
Just stood there drinking his coffee.
My Comments: This all seems clever, but I’m still not sure what’s at stake. The narrator seems nervous, just from the constant speaking and introducing trivia, but what’s the cause of the nervousness?
Doch-an-dorris, I say.
It's not French, I admit. Gaelic or Irish. Something. Anyway, I think it is more typically alcohol, bu, whatever. Either way, it means "farewell drink." Literally, a drink at the doorway.
I say coffee probably works just the same.
He takes another drink.
Going someplace? I say.
My Comments: Again, why does the narrator seem so nervous? Can the “father” behave in a more menacing way? If you keep the screaming present through the whole story, that might support a sense of tension.
Even his sips are silent.
By the way, PUFF, or POOF (POUFFE, perhaps?) passed all of her tests. Appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, respiration. All 1s and 2s. Mostly 2s. Each and every time.
My Comments: All good.
Curiosity finally gets the best of me. A novice move, I admit. It's absolutely none of my business. I say to the father of the baby, I say, aren't you happy? I say, she's very healthy. I say, I assure you, I'm told the tooth falls out pretty quickly. It isn't all that weird. The doctor said so himself.
Quote end quote.
The man blinks, his blue eyes a different kind of sky, cloudy perhaps. A chance of rain. He picks at his teeth. Flicks at the ground.
It isn't mine, he says.
Quote end quote.
And he sits.
My Comments: Okay, this seems to reveal the source of tension, but can you do it without putting the reveal into dialog? It’s a bugaboo from Tom Spanbauer: Never further plot with dialog. What are your physical options for delivering that same information? The birth certificate?
Because a major horse is language, consider the father delivering his reveal in French or even German. If you had him say, “Es ist nicht meins,” that would revisit the German mentioned earlier. And by putting it in German you’d force your reader to participate and suss out the meaning. That and/or you could have the “father” return to the room with Weinershnitzel to pay off that earlier mention.
All in all, it’s a charming story. You do a great job hiding the I at first, but then—by choice?—you swamp us with the narrator’s self-consciousness.
Feel free to push back if I’ve missed your intention. You might also look at how the mother could play a larger part. She might be the element that creates more tension and suspense in relation to the silent “father.” Or, the “father’s” disinterest might be underscored by him futzing with his phone or getting handsy with the narrator. If the “father” were to bring the narrator coffee/a gift and squeeze his/her ass, that would give us good on-the-body sensation, and it would fly in the face of his wife. Can the “father” grope, ogle, visually undress the narrator?
Just spit balling. Hit me back if I’ve misread your intention.