Group Writing Critique: “National Pastime” by Wes Pierce

Welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a snippet from a short story by Wes Pierce, followed by critical comments. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed!
From “National Pastime”

They sit in their usual seats. Tony has season tickets on the front row of the first balcony, right alongside third base. ‘Best seats in the house,’ according to Tony. Her husband makes a lot of money, so he can afford the best seats in the house. But for Beryl they are not the best seats in the house, they’re the worst: she is afraid of heights. 

Tony knows this. ‘We’re only twenty feet up. Thirty, tops,’ he says, whenever she brings up her fear of heights. ‘What’s twenty or thirty feet?’ 

‘But couldn’t we sit just a few rows back?’ she says. ‘Couldn’t we sit lower down?’ 

‘I don’t want to sit a few rows back. I don’t want to sit lower down,’ Tony says. ‘You can’t take in the whole field lower down. I want to sit right here.’ 

Tony says she only has to be logical about it. 

‘You’re not going to fall, if that’s what you’re worried about,’ he says. ‘And besides, we’re only twenty feet up. Thirty, tops. So even if you did fall, you’re not really going to get hurt, you know. Not if you keep your head. If you were to fall from up here, but you kept your head, you’d be all right. Oh, you might break a leg or an arm. But you wouldn’t die or anything.’

Comments from the Dogpatch:

Wes,

You’ve got a harrowing story and a parent’s nightmare—being seated next to an obnoxious drunk at some “family” event they’re attending with their child. They don’t want to leave the seats they’ve paid good money for. They don’t want to make a scene. They want to make nice while maintaining  a psychic distance from the annoying ass and hope that nothing gets out of hand. Until it does.

Since the last time we saw this story, you changed the action from past to present tense. It does make the action seem more immediate. I believe the change is effective.

However, in many instances, you’ve changed paragraph breaks while changing little else in the narration or dialogue. I’ve been thinking a lot about paragraphs lately and how one decides where to begin and end. In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose spends an entire chapter on this topic. Here’s an excerpt:

“I would suggest that the paragraph could be understood as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended—in some cases, very extended—breath. Inhale at the beginning of a paragraph, exhale at the end.”

Prose also discusses something that I have noticed in many works: “…not only the emphasis but the implied meaning of a sentence can differ, depending on whether it appears at the end of a paragraph, or the start of a new one…”

I also am thinking about those paragraphs that consist of a single sentence or word, a useful way to make a reader pause and consider the weight being placed on those few isolated words.

For example, you made this change:

OLD VERSION

“Beryl liked the way this guy kept calling her a ‘pretty lady.’ He probably thought he was real smooth, he was real smooth. Tony hardly ever called her pretty.

He hardly noticed her looks at all anymore.”

NEW VERSION

“Beryl likes the way this guy keeps calling her a ‘pretty lady.’ He probably thinks he’s real smooth, and, no doubt, he is pretty smooth. Tony hardly ever calls her pretty. He hardly notices her looks at all anymore. Beryl is beginning to think this guy sitting next to her really is kind of cute. He’s only trying to pick her up, she knows that. It’s nothing new for her.”

The sentence, “He hardly noticed her looks at all anymore,” stands out in the old version. In the new version, this realization is lost midst her thoughts about this stranger. This realization about her own vulnerability takes a back seat to the cute guy, something that I think is a mistake in the new version.

And I think it’s also one reason why this new version is still not working for me. It feels like you’re not certain when to alter the POV because it seems to wander between omniscient and a super close 3rd person without particular reason for being either. I don’t feel confident that “the writer” knows how and why he’s closing in or moving out at any given moment. So I lose confidence in the narrator and in the truth of the story.

For example:

“The two of them had a fight on the way over to the ballpark, she and her husband Tony, and now Beryl is stinking. She’s practically embalmed.

It’s nothing new. The two of them seem to be getting into a lot of fights lately. Tony has no patience with her anymore, and Beryl doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get it at all.

After all, it was Tony who suggested they stop and get a drink on the way over to the ballpark. There is nothing her husband likes better after a hard day’s work filing legal motions against environmental nonprofits and regulatory agencies—take that evildoers! Take that tramplers of what should be the otherwise free and unfettered operations of innocent multinational corporations!…”

In the first paragraph, the first statement could be a close 3rd, but then the last statement in that paragraph seems like an omniscient narrator making a judgment against her. Would she see herself as “practically embalmed” and say so? The first statement in the second paragraph seems to be back in a close 3rd, continuing until you get to the part about evildoers. For a woman who chose a man not on the basis of love or any other reason other than never having to work a day in her life (a woman who seems about as deep as a mud puddle), this statement cannot realistically come from her POV. Is it the omniscient narrator? Or is it, Tony, her husband’s POV? Something that Tony would think to say?

I think that’s my biggest issue with this piece. If you go over the POV in this piece with a fine tooth comb and make the lens slide in and out with a sense of purpose, I think I may find the action convincing.

One other element that bothers me is the mother’s reaction to this woman. I can see the father sitting there mutely, pretending to be lost in the game. But the place where the mom shouts at her son doesn’t seem real. It feels like it comes out of nowhere. I think I’d like to see a little more nuance in their reactions (at least the mother’s) to this drunk woman. Put yourself in that situation minute by everlasting minute. Identify your emotions if you were in this situation. Every little feeling. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m wondering right now if you would gain by allowing your omniscient narrator to slide into the parents’ world. It might be worth trying to see what happens. As it is, I’m left wondering whether I would let this woman touch my son more than once. And if I would, why would I allow it? That is still a missing piece for me in this story.

Looking forward to seeing the final version. Ciao!   Jilanne

Wes, your stories always prompt incredibly fruitful discussions, even arguments, and I think it’s because you hit on societal sore spots. I’ve seen a version of this story from your point of view and recognized the Beryl character within a few lines. It’s quite interesting to see you take an experience from your life, transfer the point of view to the antagonist, and turn it into a short story that is an exploration of one individual’s pain. It made for fascinating reading being already familiar with the events and then reading them from Beryl’s fictional point of view. It also is a critique challenge, because I had to try to factor out what I previously knew about this story and its characters and focus on what is now on the page.

Even more of the crowd and the noise in the place should get on the page, I think. You call out the teenage boys and the cute guy who hits on Beryl, and I think we need even more snapshots of the people Beryl notices and may talk to. We need to see some of the actual “joshing” lines exchanged with the people around. After being at numerous games and, like it or not, hearing her husband talk baseball, I think Beryl would know the fundamentals of the game, boring as she thinks it is. Perhaps she would at least initially try to be “good” and pretend interest, or show some false animation during the first couple innings until the usual flaws in her interactions with her husband surface and, alongside, her level of intoxication grows.

Would she recognize a couple of the players and think one was good looking? Based on the description of her looks and self-image, she would be extremely visual and probably obsessed with her own looks as well as everyone else’s, so she would be checking out the crowd, noticing any good looking men and whether they noticed her, and also noticing attractive women and how she compares (she might think that another woman has great hair but that she is still skinnier, etc. as well as mentally recording aspects of their outfits that she likes and reminding herself to get a pair of those cute sequined high-heeled tennis shoes). She might also be in her baseball attire—presumably dressing down from her perspective but likely dressed to the nines to anyone observing her.

The memory of her earlier boyfriend Noel feels dropped in and risks making her simplistic. Did she really make a marriage choice based on the simple fact of whether or not she would have to work? I think Beryl has the potential to be much more complex on the page and there will be more tragedy in her failed potential. Perhaps let her mourn the choice she made to sell out for the lifestyle her husband offers—she is now paying for every cent and knows it, and that would seem to be part of her discontent and resentment. What if you saved the encounter with the mascot until further into the story and let them have a more meaningful exchange in the bathroom, where Beryl is uninhibited talking to a guy in a seal suit because she can’t gauge his looks and hence hers seem to matter less? It seems that their exchange could offer potential for Beryl to show some depth before she’s lost to the effects of the vodka.

Beryl’s exchange with the boy Robby is good, but I think you lose the tension of that exchange when she then gets up to leave. I’d vote to condense the two conversations with Robby and his parents to the final one that leads to the implied tragic ending. That is, build with slight encounters—her noticing the boy, maybe saying hi, and then finally fully, sickly, throwing herself into the odd behavior of trying to force the child into conversation and then forcefully hugging him. By the time she hugs him, I think the reader needs to fully understand her desperation and what she is trying to hang onto. And, does she earlier try to hug her husband only to be ignored?

About her intoxication: I think that every stage of drunkenness would be extremely familiar to her. She would recognize the stage at which her vision starts to blur and the stadium starts to spin. Nothing about drinking should come as a surprise anymore, and maybe you could tie it into the innings count, with Beryl full aware that by a certain point of the game she’ll be oblivious, her way of freeing herself from the confines of the seat at this game and also the confines of her existence. I think her deepest thoughts and feelings along the way will be important to get on the page—and it may work that ironically she’ll have more complex thoughts and feelings as she descends into drunkenness, until she frantically drinks more to obliterate her ability to feel.

A lot is made of Beryl’s fear of height and concern over where the seats are (as well as her husband’s callous disregard of her feelings about it) at the front of the story, but the height issue falls off the page until the very end. I think it needs to factor more into how the setting is used and the action of the story in general—how Beryl carefully makes her way to and from her seat, etc. The ending is almost spot on, leaves us gasping, knowing what is about to happen without you having to spell it out. Beryl has already fallen in many ways, and we finally get the physical manifestation of it, but we know that the last fall is the last in a long line of falls. Really nicely done, my friend.

Finally, I do think switching to Beryl’s point of view works, allowing us to get inside the head of the character who has the farthest to fall. But I think you still need to do some more work to get truly inside her head vs. showing her from a sometimes exterior point of view. Keep circling back to what it is that Beryl wants on various levels and let that guide any revisions you make. She’s a marvelous character. Thanks for a highly engaging read.

XO Laurel Leigh

Tony and Beryl are in the midst of a dysfunctional marriage; one that has descended into total loathing of each other. The only character in the piece that is not either dislikeable or pitiful is Robby, who wants nothing to do with Beryl. Even Robby’s parents are pathetic.

 So how did Tony and Beryl get that way? Was she so shallow that she chose Tony over Noel just so she wouldn’t have to work? If so, show the breakup scene with Noel. Has she kept in touch with him? And did she win Tony just by using that “look” of hers? What else has that “look” gotten her. There must have been more to her appeal then that. Is there a movie actress that has that look in a particular movie?

I think some of the action on the field should be described, even if she isn’t watching. And the joshing—what is it? I want to read it / hear it. More than, “You’re killing me, Blue.”

I would like to see Beryl express her aversion to going to the game; perhaps suggest that he take Nora’s husband. That would serve as a base for rising tension. Meeting the couple in the midst of the game flattens the story.

There are several places that IMO are overwritten. “Bar in the concourse area behind their seats” is repeated a few times.

I think Security would pay these lovely people a visit: Isn’t profanity frowned on at A.T.& T? And I question if Robby’s parents would let this drunk woman paw all over him.

I’m unsure how to analyze the fact that the piece opens in flashback but after that is told in present tense.

Tony is a baseball season ticket holder. You can use that in lots of ways, including his sadism in telling Beryl that the drop is only twenty or thirty feet.

—David

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Group Writing Critique: “National Pastime” by Wes Pierce

  1. Wes, I am fascinated by the idea of trying to write from the point of view of the most ill-mannered character. It’s an interesting challenge to try to get inside the head of that character who is extremely different from yourself and yet make their wants and desires authentic. It will be interesting to see your revision. Thanks, Laurel Leigh

  2. Wes Pierce

    The main complaint I seem to be hearing about the piece is that my characters are not likable enough and that my protagonist comes off as shallow. Let me just say first off that I love ALL of my characters, but in this particular case my story is so unrelentingly grim that I was trying anything I could to lighten the mood a little. That I might have assumed a little too much distance from my characters, even to the point I appeared to be mocking them, I readily concede. I shall try to do better in the future.

    I will also say that Jill is spot-on in her comments about the structural problems encountered due to the (seemingly) oft-shifting point of view in the story. I found this piece difficult to write because it is drawn so closely from actual experience. And so, in moving the POV to that of the most ill-mannered character in the story, I presented myself with more challenges than I yet have been able to master. Trying to relieve the unrelenting gloom of the piece while also preserving the humanity of my protagonist has proved difficult. Again, I shall try to do better.

    Also, a tip o’ the quill to Laurel who picked up on my attempt to portray a quote-unquote fallen woman. Beryl, my protagonist, knows she sold herself out far too cheaply, and on some level I think she feels this need to punish herself. So the notion of falling, or haven fallen, is crucial to the outlook and/or worldview of this character.

    Also also, in our face-to-face discussion of the piece David rightly nailed me for my use of a flashback in a present tense story. In the change from past to present tense — which I feel adds an immediacy this story otherwise lacked when ‘the fall’ would have already happened — I somehow failed to notice that I was still using a flashback to open the piece. Nearly always a no-no, especially in a short story.

    Using flashbacks in a short story is seldom a good idea. Don’t know why I resorted to one, except for the fact that it allowed to use the opening line ‘Beryl knows she’s in trouble when the team mascot has to ask her if she’s feeling all right.’

    • Wes, the only thing missing in your comments is “mea culpa, mea culpa.” And perhaps a few lashes with some palm branches. Maybe this comes from your Jesuit education. We’ve got the fall, too. Have you read any Milton lately? :o) All joking aside, I don’t buy into the belief that characters must be sympathetic or likeable. I will now pull out my bible, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, from under my bed pillow and quote from the chapter “Reading for Courage,” in which she discusses “likeability” at length.

      “…all that’s expected of us [the reader] is that we be INTERESTED in the characters, ENGAGED in their fates, INTRIGUED by their complexities, CURIOUS about what will happen to them.”

      Prose goes on to consider what would have happened if Dostoyevsky had written Crime and Punishment with “the likeability factor” in mind. Think of Raskolnikov, a man who murders two old women! Why do we end up worrying about his redemption?

      And what about the psychopaths of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction? In my MFA program, I wrote a seminar paper comparing the novel and the film of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Likeable character? Nah. Fascinating enough to read the book three times and watch the movie seven times? Yes!

      I think we mentioned during our spirited discussion that Beryl, the fallen woman, was not complex enough. Simply drawn characters feel “thin” and do not interest the reader. There’s a “been there, seen that stereotype” feeling created. Without complexity we are not interested, engaged, or intrigued by this fallen woman. And she’s the one who needs to carry us through this story to its inevitable conclusion. That’s the story’s failing for me. And that’s where you need to go DEEP. Close your eyes and take the plunge (fall).

Bark back!

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