Welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a snippet from a short story by Jilanne Hoffmann, followed by critical comments. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed!
I flip through the pages until I find the map of hell I’d been trying to draw. I trace the outer circle that says “Limbo” with my finger and then spiral through the circles until I reach the Circle of the Violent and remember Henry memorizing, “But now look down the valley. Coming closer you will see the river of blood that boils the souls of those who through their violence injured others.” I look up quickly to see if Henry is sitting in a dark corner of the basement waiting to jump out and scare me, but he isn’t. I haven’t seen Henry for two days, and I’m ready for this game to be over. Maybe if I just sit and wait he’ll surprise me. So I slam the book shut, squint my eyes real tight and sit there, trying not to breathe. Then I turn off the lights and stare up at the constellations. In the dark I can pretend he’s right here with me.
Comments from the Dogpatch:
Dear Jill: This story is sick! You’ve created a truly tragic scenario in this story, made more so by the restraint with which it is told and by the narrator’s own lack of understanding of the true implications of her own innocent actions. Pile on that her mother is completely shattered by her own historical grief and unaware of who her daughter is, and this is a story that sticks with a reader long after the pages have been put down. You do an amazing job of allowing the reader to correctly intuit what the narrator herself doesn’t know, and that makes the heartbreaking effect of the story even stronger. Nicely done! I hate you!
Picky point, but the narrator plus six other characters are introduced in the opening two paragraphs. This reader got distracted from other details trying to just keep track of who’s who, and then who do we follow? I don’t think any of the annoying cousins need to be named so early on. Put the spotlight right away on the two key characters: the narrator, Lizzie, and her brother, Henry.
Perhaps rework the opening a bit and start further in, in the middle of the baseball game and use the description of the action of the game to introduce us to the characters. During the baseball game, Lizzie has an innocent desire that leads to the tragedy—she want to have a turn at bat. Let us see more of the play-by-play, and let Lizzie’s desire drive the description of this game being played (it’s baseball all from a precocious seven-year-old pov, which begs to have some humor), and it’s there you can weave in the back story of the paintball game and Henry’s dramatic play death scenes as well as enough about the cousins for us to glean their generally antagonistic nature. Perhaps having them all spit on Lizzie is a little over the top? I didn’t have that many boy cousins though (and mine were nice to me), so maybe it’s realistic!
I never understood whether Uncle Charlie was the mother’s brother or brother-in-law or a male friend, and that question hung in the air for me throughout the story. If brother-in-law, there was the potential for him to become her lover, and wondering about that was a minor distraction from the true action of this story. Just clear up that little point right off so the reader isn’t inadvertently guided in a different direction than this story should take them.
The relationship between Henry and his little sister is simply wonderful. He has become Lizzie’s father figure, stepping into a maturity beyond his years to file that hole in her life. The way Henry plays with his little sister is parental and touching:
“. . . like when he walks tragically around with one hand spread over his heart and the other across his forehead whenever I finish all the Sugar Snaps in the morning before he comes down for breakfast.
He says, ‘She is by nature so perverse and vicious, her craving belly is never satisfied, still hungering for food the more she eats.’
“I’m tired of your incessant questions, Pilgrim,” said Henry. “Gotta go.”
Henry took off for his room, and I went to the dictionary to look up “incessant.” Then I knocked on his bedroom door to tell him that my questions weren’t incessant, they were intermittent.
Much of this beautiful relationship is related in flashback while Lizzie is hiding under the bed, and, for me, that is the one weakness of the structure. That is, the present action of the story is set aside for much too long while we travel backward in the narrator’s thoughts. I agree with the general structure but I think the middle could be tightened and, more important, more of the present moment action needs to intrude on Lizzie’s remembered scenes. That is, beneath her delightful memories we need to really glean her anxiety and fear and panic bubbling up as she waits for Henry. Her little seven-year-old brain would get caught in a loop she couldn’t fully understand, and I think she would keep returning to the image of Henry on the baseball field. On some level she would intuit that this time he wasn’t playing—and this may be where she plays out in her mind all of the previous times he’s played with her and pretended to be wounded or fake die. Each time she comes back to the more recent events though, she would slowly start to interpret them in a slightly different way, trying to suss out how or if this time was different yet also in denial that it could be. Going back to the baseball scene, I think if Henry said anything at all to Lizzie, it would be: “It’s not your fault.” The magnet constellations he makes for her on the basement ceiling is a great aspect of their relationship, and I think Lizzie could spend more time in the bottom of the house (hell?) waiting for her brother to return.
The line “In the dark I can pretend he’s right here with me” is beautiful and haunting. To me, this is the more shattering moment, where her inner panic starts to peek through, letting the reader intuit that eventually she will have to face the literal truth of Henry’s absence. It may work to leave it up to the reader to imagine how the funeral will go vs. actually writing that later scene.
Really, wow! You’ve done some nice work here. This is a story I will be thinking about for a long while.
XO Laurel Leigh
In ‘Abandon Hope’ we have a lonely, bullied 7-year-old girl who accidentally kills the older brother she idolizes with a baseball bat. Throughout most of the story the reader knows what Lizzie doesn’t, that her big brother Henry is not coming home from the hospital, he’s dead. The dramatic tension that arises from this uneven situation—our knowing something significant, something life-changing, that the protagonist does not—builds a nice forward motion into the story.
The central question that this story (and our protagonist) asks—but in no way answers, of course—is, ‘Who is in charge?’ Lizzie’s mother believes the answer lies in the mysterious laws of Physics, the field in which she works. Uncle Charlie believes whatever it is Uncle Charlie believes in: silly stories and ‘tall, dark strangers from Bolivia’ and happily-ever-afters. While the beloved older brother Henry, obviously marked by the premature passing of their father, believes in something much darker and more complex.
The implication of the story, based on Henry’s beliefs about who is really in charge, is that all the characters are in Hell. But a hell of their own making, like in Dante’s ‘The Inferno,’ a book Henry clings to obsessively? Or a hell brought about by forces entirely outside their control?
This is the question that seems to haunt the characters in the story, and which the mother, at the end, tries to answer (saying over and over, ‘There is a God, there is a God’) in order to calm her young, grieving daughter Lizzie.
Of course the answer to this central question is, No one knows who’s in charge. We all just hope for the best, or we attach ourselves to the story that makes the most sense to us or which we, like the older brother Henry, find the most entertaining, like ‘The Inferno.’ I think Henry is wise enough to understand this, and the reader sees in the long flashback in the middle of the story that he is trying to get this across to his younger sister.
The scientist mother insists there is no past, present, or future, and that was kind of how I felt at times while reading this piece. There is the long middle section, in my version five whole pages, where Lizzie hides under the bed waiting for Henry and Uncle Charlie to come home from the hospital. I felt during this stretch of the story that I lost not only my sense of time but my sense of physical space as well, like I was floating (à la Dante) in Limbo. It would help, some prompt or reminder might do, to remember that we are under the bed with Lizzie, hiding out from whatever punishment is coming her way, as well as from her tormenters, the cousins who bully her, while she looks back on the recent past.
I get that you have to go through Hell before you get to Heaven, but this section feels like an awfully long trek before we get to the ‘heaven’ of the moment of epiphany at the end of the story.
I think you effectively get us inside the head of a 7 year-old Lizzie. You get the details right, and there are lots of details: Lizzie using the incantation ‘Shoo spiders, shoo spiders,’ to ward off the bad things before she crawls under the bed; Lizzie noting how Henry started wearing aftershave only after playing Hamlet to his new girlfriend’s Ophelia; etc.
Finally, I would point out a few small items that would make a great story even better for me. First, in a bit of foreshadowing, Henry play-acts dying twice in the story. That is one time too many, in my opinion, for a story of this length. Also, naming the girlfriend of a character obsessed with Dante’s ‘The Inferno’ Beatrice comes across a little heavy-handed. And finally finally, I am not entirely sure what I make of the mother character. She is obviously sad and confused, since it appears she only recently lost her husband. But for her to confront Lizzie as she hides under the bed to avoid being punished by saying, ‘What would your [dead] father say if he knew you had hurt Henry like that?’ seems to me unusually callous and harsh.
A terrific job, Jill! I found myself still thinking about poor Lizzie hiding under the bed, and hiding from the realization of what she has done, for days after reading this story. Cheers!
Hi Jill: This first person look at Lizzie is well done, with an apt title for the story. The use of first person/present tense drew in the reader. I do think that the piece would benefit by reading it aloud, both by the writer as well as some volunteers. The objective is to get the true voice of a seven-year-old girl to paper.
The story needs action sooner, in order to hook the reader—perhaps a later scene gets moved to an earlier part of the story. Perhaps the entire story could take place in one day and maybe insert third person info, as in the horror and silence of what happened seen through Lizzie’s eyes and in turn through one of the cousin’s.
The fact that Mom is a scientist is important to the story, and you might think of letting her tell that bit of family history before she leaves to go off to her lab. In this way, she could set the stage for later events as well as explain what happened to her husband. She could even be an unreliable narrator. Then she could depart and turn over narration duties to Lizzie.
It’s also important to the story that Mom spends all her time smashing things in the supercollider when in truth she goes there so she won’t have to be around the children.
Too many characters are introduced too early. Perhaps pare down any unneeded characters. Even so, many of the characters fill in the blanks in this family/story. Mike and Little Je spitting on Lizzie??? Also, we need more information on Beatrice and what she contributes to the story.
Perhaps while Lizzie is under the bed, one of the Shades speaks to her from the Inferno.
BTW: Pagination would be nice.