Group Writing Critique: “No Vacancy” by Laurel Leigh

Welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a snippet from a short story by Laurel Leigh, followed by critical comments. If you want some context for this excerpt, you can read another story of hers, “Shoeless,” published in The Sun, in which the character Ralph appears. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed!

From “No Vacancy”

Ralph took a key off his belt ring, meaning to hand it to the guy. He’d been getting more used to them, but the floaters in his eye suddenly turned into lightning streaks and zoomed across the edge of his vision. He dropped the key, fumbled to pick it up. Then he stood blinking, feeling dizzy after the guy took the key and walked away. His eye hurt like hell. He rubbed the spot just below his eyebrow. He lit a Doral and took several long puffs. Back in his office, he swallowed aspirin and squirted eye drops in both eyes. Then he locked the office door, went into his back room and stretched out on the pullout bed. The aspirin started to kick in, but he still felt shaky and sick to his stomach. And tired—of everything. Of the pain in his eyes. Of worrying about it. Of guys like the one just now. Who made him feel even smaller than he felt most of the time. And those types of guy always got women by half trying, whereas Ralph was lucky to cop a feel once in a blue friggin’ moon. And a guy wanted more than that, you know? Someone to spend a night with, or even talk to. And, he was tired of waiting. One day, his uncle would have to retire and the motel operation would belong to Ralph, or so he hoped. But that day was a long ways off.
 
Comments from the Dogpatch:

Laurel, Love, love, love this story! It stands on its own, and fits almost seamlessly with “Shoeless,” the story published in The Sun. In this story, we’re looking at a man who longs to have something more in his life, to feel like part of a community instead of an outsider and to be with a woman he cares about, but he can’t quite figure out how to make these things happen. He can’t even make a doctor’s appointment or manage a small hotel. He’s so lost in his vague dreams, in the tiny aspects of his life that are beyond his management capabilities, that he’s only capable of taking action when desperate. And even then, his action is really inaction. What he ends up asking for (and paying for) lies far below what he truly desires. A heartbreaking story. You noted that you were struggling with the ending, and I’d have to say that I think the first ending is far superior to the alternate. But I would suggest that you cut the first ending slightly at the parts where you provide a little too much internal dialogue, the paragraph that reads: “His eye felt like it was bursting out of his head. If it could all just stop, so he could think. relieved at the sound of the outer door being kicked open, Grateful for the time out, he his brain leapt to the puzzle of  wondered  who was slamming against the door. [Maybe switch the order of this so the slamming happens before he hears the door being kicked in.] He put his hand in his pocket, slid his fingers around the knife. His uncle wouldn’t break down the door, so It had to be Lois’s boyfriend. He felt a sliver of satisfaction at reasoning that out before fear poured through him, mixing with the pain, but the pain was greater than the fear, and above all he just wanted to sit down. Yes, he felt very tired. If he could Actually, just lie down. The guy was in the room, coming toward him.” And in the very last paragraph: “It was funny. Wasn’t it? He heard himself laughing. Screaming? He strained to focus his one good remaining eye, reached out, felt his fingers pull at fabric before something, someone, slammed into him and he lost his balance entirely and felt himself tangle with another body as they jointly windmilled backward. It was Lois. He was falling on top of Lois. In the moment of falling, just before he blacked out, it came to him  he remembered that he’d taken the other Lois’s blouse to a consignment shop with some other items and that it sometimes took three weeks or more for the clerks to finish sorting and putting things out.

In the excerpt shown at the top of this post, I’d take a look at the verb “zoomed” and think of a different, more unusual verb that visually resembles lightning. Something like “cracked,” perhaps. Otherwise, I’d suggest you take a closer look at how time passes in the story, giving the reader a few more clues to track its movement. For example, I’d like to see how Ralph learns the names of people instead of suddenly knowing who’s who and using their names. The Mexican family checks in to the motel for a night, and it seems like they immediately become “long stayers.” The newlyweds are hanging in their room, and then they suddenly seem to be by the pool. And I’d like to have a better idea of how old Ralph is. A technical detail: You use pain to put pressure on Ralph, step up his reactions, and drive the tension of the story, but from my understanding floaters and flashers are painfree symptoms of retinal detachment. Do you know exactly just what Ralph is suffering from and why it causes him pain and dizziness? Sometimes Ralph seems more self-aware than his character would warrant. I’d check out the places I’ve marked in the text and decide if he really is that knowledgeable about his own feelings and motivation. I’ve also marked a couple of places where it’s unclear who’s talking. Giving the reader a few simple clues or a sprinkle of dialogue tags would solve that issue. I would also check to see if the time of day coincides with the time of day in the “Shoeless” story since the two stories are linked. I’ve commented on other small issues in the manuscript. Great job!

Thanks! Jill

What I like most about this piece and what the writer consistently achieves is a sense of place and time. She takes us to a part of the country that I’ve never been and I am enriched by the journey, For example, the writer digs deep into her magic bag and pulls out a Vega, a car whose heyday was in the late sixties and early seventies and was a poor man’s car the moment it was driven off the showroom. 

The author writes without taglines and quotation marks. I like this, but the danger is that any mistakes or inconsistencies could pierce the fictive dream by distracting the reader from the story. 

The most crucial adjustment IMHO would be to empathize with Ralph in some way or another. I say this for several reasons. First, no one is all bad or all good. One can be mostly one or the other, but a character that is all good or bad, unless it’s a stock character, would cause a reader’s interest to diminish and would be unable to maintain rising action. I think that rising action is the essence of story and the reason that a reader stays up all night to find out what happens to the characters with depth, but with an unrounded main character, chances are the reader will turn out his/her reading light five minutes after going to bed. I think a good example could be the car salesman in Fargo. He is thoroughly despicable, but still a sympathetic character…….David

 

Laurel,

I suffered mild chest pains while reading this piece. When I called my doctor and described my symptoms, and the circumstances under which I had experienced them,  she said I merely was suffering from the pangs of professional jealousy.

I flat-out loved this story. A petty, shiftless man who runs a run-down motel is presented with a moral challenge and finds himself lacking — and yet, at the end, he finds enough generosity of spirit to at least regret some of his actions. Instead of thinking first of himself, and of the physical hazard to which he has exposed himself, his thoughts go back to another woman with whom he was infatuated and whom he cheated, selling off a blouse that he knew belonged to her. Paired with your ‘Shoeless’ story, particularly when this piece is read immediately after the other, they provide a devastating one-two emotional punch.

It’s the economy of the piece I especially like. With just a few lines of dialogue, for instance, you clearly establish a minor character like Sherman: possibly an immigrant, East Indian perhaps, and better educated than the other characters, yet suffering from the same reversals and loneliness to which all the other characters are subject as well.

But in the end, it is Ralph’s very human (and near bottomless) capacity for making excuses — to others, but most especially to himself — for his own shabby behavior that I found most heartbreaking. This is a lonely man who feels cheated by an unfair world — why shouldn’t he help himself to what little he can get his hands on? And yet, at the critical moment, when all his schemes have finally delivered the willing blonde to his bed, he finds himself unable, or unwilling, to go through with his plans. Instead, his thoughts go back to another woman, a woman for whom he had warm and generous feelings, even though he barely knew her. The tiny, limited interior world you present for your protagonist — he wonders if this ‘other’ Lois might have been the kind of woman who played records after dinner or kept a cat — gives heartbreaking (there’s that word again) life to these desperate characters leading their hardscrabble, unsatisfying lives.

You also do a good job presenting the cobbled-together family long-term motel guests might form around something as simple as some tortillas and stew shared around a motel swimming pool. Your protagonist, Ralph, could ease his feelings of loneliness and be a part of this ‘family’ — and he is for a short time, if only tangentially — but his selfish actions clearly place him outside the temporary family-feeling the guests have formed, and his fall from grace is made total and complete by the end.

I have little to suggest that might make this story work any better than it already does, but I would definitely stick with the current ending. The alternative ending you included gives us way too much information. We don’t really need to know what becomes of Ralph in the future. It is enough to know that, with his life possibly in danger, his thoughts go to a woman from whom he stole a blouse, a woman he fancied from afar. He does not clearly express regret. And I think that this is important, because at present that would be outside the character’s realm of possibilities to express actual regret. Yet the fact that his thoughts should go to her, this ‘other’ Lois, at such a critical moment shows that even such a feckless little man as your protagonist is not beyond redemption.

Great job!

Wes

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Group Writing Critique: “No Vacancy” by Laurel Leigh

  1. This is fantastic! I agree that it totally stands alone, but it also leaves me wanting more. I want to know what comes next for Ralph… something involving the hotel rooms, I’m guessing. Nice job!

  2. Hi Jilanne,
    After much thought and reviewing your blog, I have nominated you for the Inspiring Blog Award. I have included a brief explanation of why I specifically nominated you in my blog. Thanks for inspiring me, and may you continue to inspire others. 🙂 ML

  3. Oh, and I love that Wes used “feckless” in his critique. The word comes up in the story. My beloved high school English teacher, Dr. Thomas Mooney, taught us that word and as a running joke with him, just about every graduating valedictorian during his tenure used the word “feckless” in their speech. For years I’ve been waiting for the right time to use it in a story. Here’s to you, Dr. M.!

  4. Hey Dogpatchers, many thanks for the thoughtful comments on this story. It’s so great to get feedback and reiterates for me how the writing community can work together to help build each other’s stories. Writers Cate Perry and Charlie Jensen heard and read earlier drafts of this story and gave me invaluable insights, and now with this latest round of comments I feel I have the tools to jump back into the story and fix some more parts of it. Mad love, LL

  5. So that explains the heart palpitations! Reading Laurel’s work is hazardous to your (emotional) health.

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