Group Writing Critique: “Holiday Parade” by Lisa Lynne Lewis

 Welcome to the dogfight! Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed! For this round we requested a story from Southern California–based writer Lisa Lynne Lewis (see her bio below). We very much enjoyed reading “Holiday Parade” and give our thanks to Lisa for being part of this forum. This was a particularly interesting endeavor for us, as we all had a slightly different takeaway from the story, which made for a thoughtful as well as enjoyable discussion. You can find more of Lisa’s work at Literary Mama.

Santa

From “Holiday Parade”

  Emily held her pink-mittened hands over her ears. “Why do they have to do that? It’s so loud!”
            Debra looked at her daughter, hands still over her ears, her light-brown hair spilling over the fake fur hood of her silver parka. She’d seemed pretty unconcerned about the lockdown when Debra had picked her up after school on Monday. “It was gross when they made the boys pee in the trashcan,” she confided in Debra. “Mitchell and Ben really had to go, but the teacher wouldn’t let them out to go to the boy’s bathroom.”           
“That is kind of gross,” Debra agreed.
“But it was in the corner and she put the flip chart in front of it so we couldn’t see,” Emily added. “So it was OK.”
Comments from the Dogpatch:

Thanks for the story, Lisa! Here are my thoughts: This piece is about being safe in the world and the folly of thinking we can be “safe” anywhere. This delusion is and should be owned solely by children. Being a parent, I identify with this theme as my son gets older and loses his innocence. And I see this in action when parents move out of the city to the “safe” suburbs or small town rural areas. It’s a timely topic, given the recent massacre on the East Coast.

I like how the main character attempts to deny her feelings of panic and becomes incapable of giving herself over to that response, considering she’s surrounded by other complacent town citizens. I like how both the thief and police appear to be incompetent, but I’m not sure how well this comic feel serves the story.

I like how the parents’ worries never leak through to the children who only remember the incident as the “time they had to pee in the trashcan.”

I like the last image: the flares in the wake of the child. Or land mines going off after the child has passed. She remains ignorant of the explosions, the near misses. Other children who are not as fortunate strewn about in her wake. All while she leads the proverbial charmed life—until, of course, she doesn’t. I am reminded of an insight from Joan Didion’s book, Blue Bights, about the death of her daughter, when she realizes that tragedy ends up visiting us all, no matter how fortunate, at some point in our lives. No one ever escapes.

When the Dogpatch writers got together to discuss your story, it was interesting to see how varied our readings were. They ranged from “get rid of the framing device” to “if the author can explain why the frame is there, then it fulfills a a purpose” to “the frame just needs to be tied a bit more tightly to the mother’s interior processing of the school lockdown.” Gotta love it when the same story draws such differing opinions. Please don’t let it throw you. As you already know from your experience at Mills, part of having a story “workshopped” is figuring out which suggestions ring true.

What would make your story better for me is the following:

Real life detail/accuracy is important in this story. Not being familiar with school procedures during a lockdown, I’m wondering if parents and kids would even be able to get in to the school once it’s been locked down?

Although I like the incompetency of the robber, it makes the story feel a bit comical to find him passed out in the ivy. It feels a little like a scene from “Home Alone.” Perhaps have something happen to the thief that heightens his desperation because he remains conscious and in hiding, increasing story tension for the reader?

I think that using the parade as a frame for the central story seems extraneous, a convenient way to talk about the “hero dog.” I think your story would be much better served by getting rid of the frame and making the lockdown and search for the burglar/gunman happen in present time. As it is now, the parade frame in present time and the lockdown as flashback releases the tension that would drive the reader and the story forward. It will also fill the scenes with real time parental fear/terror or complacency, panic, second guessing their actions, etc., heightening the ambivalence of the emotional response.

I don’t think the reader needs the two paragraphs on the old life that’s been left behind. I think a carefully chosen detail or two could leak through during the present time lockdown/robber search scenes. And you don’t have to give much. One or two details would be enough to stand in for the whole thing. So many people have done or thought these things that you don’t need to go into the complete reason why. It seems too familiar. Perhaps think of a detail that usually isn’t mentioned for leaving?

I would like to see the police find the guy. Does he have a gun when they find him? Can we see the scene of the woman running about, trying to figure out why the dog is barking? Can she be the focal point of the story? Can you compress all this into one family, the girl staying home alone while the mom takes the other two to school? Dropping off the older girl while leaving the boy alone in the car. Then dropping off the boy while feeling tense about the girl at home. Seeing the shirt in the driveway, thinking it was her son’s and that she would ask him to pick it up himself when he got home. Finally picking up the shirt when the dog won’t stop barking and seeing that it’s a strange man’s shirt. Calling the police. Show the scene where they miss the man the first time around. The dog barking again. Seeing the police finally find the guy.

I am wondering why the woman doesn’t seem to worry about her son sitting in the car alone while she’s inside the school having the conversation with another parent.

Even though you’re seeking to show how the mundane details rule the lives of these complacent small town citizens, this carries a very real risk of lowering the tension. I think you need to juxtapose the actual danger in scene with the mundane qualities of their lives. Right now the danger is only alluded to in thoughts. We don’t get to see it on the page.

The story, in some ways, centers around the sentence: “Debra recognized the slowness of her reaction, the murky sense that it was somewhat unreal.” The “it” being the dangerous situation. Let’s see this play out against the real danger.

I like the idea of using the dead cat and baby photo sections to highlight how the little girl writes the narrative of her life to make it all seem rosy and secure. But I think you could focus on this a bit more without intellectualizing it. Show the little girl doing this without the mom’s commentary telling us: “Emily was already making choices that would shape how she remembered the incident.”

You mention worst case scenarios, but we don’t get to see those on the page. They are skirted in favor of other less tension-filled things, like the parade, and the dog not making it to the parade.

The last 2-3 paragraphs sum up the story’s theme. I think you would be better served by removing the discourse and showing these elements throughout.

Thanks for bringing your story to the Dogpatch for critique. I think you’ve done a good job of getting “the bones” down on paper. Now the work of “revisioning” begins. Onward!

Jilanne

Dear Lisa,

Your story, as I read it, is about a mother who goes with her husband and two small children to watch a Christmas parade in their new hometown, far from their old home in the city, and reflects upon a recent scare involving a lockdown at her daughter’s school.

We have long been a nation obsessed with security, particularly since 9/11, and I think your story nicely plays off that. ‘Holiday Parade’ is about a parent confronting the problem of ‘trying to right a situation that had veered into dangerous territory,’ which I quote directly from your piece. Nice phrase, that. Told from a mother’s perspective, we see her reactions to threats both real and perceived, and her assessment of how her own daughter emotionally processes, in a rather graceful manner, those same threats.

Let me say first, then, since you are new to the way we do things here at the Dogpatch, that my comments do not reflect whether your story is good or bad. It’s quite good.

My comments are directed more at how you might make a good story better…for me. So the operative phrase I would use before each comment — which I’ll repeat only once more, since the repetition would drive us both crazy — is ‘What would make it better for me.’ Feel free to append this phrase to the front of everything I say from here on out.

And so, for example, one thing that would make your story better for me would be the inclusion of more details. We know that Emily has a purple backpack, and that the elderly man down the street wears a white headband and a blue knit cap when he goes jogging, but we don’t know where Debra and her husband live. It’s a small town, I gathered that, but knowing where it is could add a little color and texture to your piece.

A story set in small-town Nebraska is going to have a very different feel from one set in California. Crazy gangster stuff happens all the time in places like Fresno or Stockton, not so much in Foggy Bottom (I made that last name up, as I cannot think of a single town there), Nebraska.

The reader also might want to know why Debra and her husband moved to their new home. Was it to escape the stresses of city life, or did either one of them recently get laid-off? Did an elderly parent need their help as she reached the later stages of life? Did Debra and her husband simply want to downsize?

I’m just putting some examples out there, but what I think any one of these situations might provide is an opportunity to add more tension to a story which should have narrative tension to spare: a lockdown at the school to which the protagonist’s daughter goes. What could be more tense?

And yet the story lacks a bit that essential sense of rising tension. I once heard storytelling described as getting your hero stuck up in a tree…and then throwing rocks at her. I think you need to throw more rocks at Debra.

A quite tense situation, the lockdown at her daughter’s school, is undercut a little by being told as a recollection. I won’t give away too many plot points, but in the end your protagonist goes through a terrifying experience in which she must repeatedly second-guess herself: is she only being needlessly paranoid? Has she not successfully left life in the big city behind for the slower, gentler pace of small town life?

Suffice it to say, Debra’s experience is similar to one shared by every parent at one time or another: the world can be a bad place sometimes, and we let our kids go out into it, by themselves, nearly every day. But I think maybe you cheat yourself, and your story, from some well-earned tension.

If the reader was left hanging a bit more, as it were, about the fate of the individuals involved in an otherwise volatile and unpredictable (not to mention very interesting) situation, it might lend your story more propulsive force. Told in retrospect, we already know more than enough to make our own assumptions, while reading the story, about what’s going to happen in the end.

You use the parade as a framing device to bookend the mother, Debra’s, looking back on the recent events at the school, and I think that may partly account for a lack of narrative tension. Using the parade the way you do locks your protagonist into recollection mode, which is not necessarily a mistake. But nothing happens at the parade that advances the narrative in any significant way.

I’m not sure what the fix for that might be, but you might want to think about how you’re using the parade as a narrative device. Is it more for introducing us to the characters (Debra and her family), the setting (small town, new home), or to the situation (a lockdown at an elementary school)? Each one of these is a valid reason for using the parade to start and end your story, but I’m not sure that you’re sure why, or how, you’re utilizing the parade narratively.

The husband and son are not really there yet for me on the page. And that also may be due to a lack of narrative details. We have some nice moments with Max in the back seat of the car with his baking soda volcano; but, again, a few more details about the son — did he pour himself body and soul into the making of his papier-mâché volcano or did he just phone it in like always? — might be nice.

You have a wonderful, truthful moment in the story when, after dropping Emily off at her school despite the lockdown, Debra experiences a profound sense of indecision and doubt. She wonders if she did the right thing leaving her small daughter behind in what could be a dangerous situation. And, like I said before, what parent couldn’t sympathize with that kind of personal second-guessing?

Debra worries she too meekly went along with the protocols set down by the school — not to mention the pressures brought to bear by the rules of politeness and the weight of social conventions — rather than storm right back into the classroom, damn the torpedoes, and get her daughter the heck out of there.

You’ve built a nicely fraught social situation, and I would like to see you have a few more moments like that. Perhaps setting your story into a tighter 3rd-person perspective might afford you more such moments. Putting it in present tense might also help, but then you would have to lose the parade altogether. I’m not suggesting you do that, but it is a thought.

In the final pages, the story assumes the daughter, Emily’s, calm, measured worldview, which you encapsulate — I won’t give away the final lines — in a beautiful, and fit, image on which to end your story.

—Wes

Dear Lisa,

 Thanks very much for the opportunity to read and comment about “Holiday Parade.” Seeing pages come in from you put me in mind of the great fun we had together in Lewis’s classes at UC Berkeley and then the agonizing process of applying for grad school!

To fill in our readers, Lisa and I met in a short story class taught by the fabulous Lewis Buzbee (Steinbeck’s Ghost, The Haunting of Charles Dickens) and then went to graduate school in the same year, she choosing Mills College in Oakland and me at SF State. Along the way, we compared classes and mentors, so it’s really wonderful for me to see Lisa writing and publishing her work and now to have a chance to comment on a story she’s crafting.

Lisa, one of the things I appreciate about your work is your ability to weave quietly moving moments into everyday events. While the story within a story centers on a school lockdown, for this reader, it’s the frame story—a family attending a community parade and a mother’s realization that occurs—that carries the greater dramatic weight for the character. For revision, my main comment is to look for even more ways to link the two stories—the parade and the lockdown—so that being at the rather idyllic parade organically cues the mother’s recollection of the scary lockdown. To me, the dog is one key link—I would suggest bringing up the dog at the front, so we understand the main reason for going to the parade is to see the heroic Chihuahua.

To fully maximize the dramatic arc of the parade story, I suggest looking for places in the opening where the mother Debra’s behavior would be slightly different than it is after her realization at the end. Let her be a little over-protective, not want the kids to wander off—in a fashion, perhaps unconsciously over-compensating for leaving her daughter at school vs. taking her home. And likewise, would there be a different physical attitude at the end of the parade story—a subtle change in the level of freedom she allows the children, smiling as they run ahead or something else?

I think there could be a tighter link between the first parade scene and the first flashback. It occurred to me that the red Santa suit might prompt Debra to flash to the red shirt of the criminal. Or, if you decided to allow the dog to make an appearance, it could certainly be the dog riding by or even being brought to the sidelines after recoiling from the crowd. I think the reader needs to be able to glean a reason for Debra to be yanked out of the comfortable event and to mulling the recent disturbing event. There’s a nice tension in the story between Debra fresher from the city and the more trusting, complacent members of this community Debra’s family has joined. I think you could utilize that even more at the front of the parade story. Plus she might be jumpy anyway after the school lockdown experience she hasn’t yet fully processed.

A minor point, but perhaps too many people are named in the story, causing the reader to get distracted from important events by trying to keep everyone’s name straight. For example, it could be just “two boys” who had to pee in a trashcan, and Shelly could be just “a school mom Debra recognized,” etc.

It’s a very interesting—and true-to-life moment—when Debra is faced with the choice of which of her children to attend to: the daughter being whisked into the classroom lockdown or the son sitting alone in the car. I think you could push that moment harder to make that choice even more agonizing for Debra, even as she is deciding whether or not it’s time to panic. While not as extreme as the plot of Sophie’s Choice, for a split second there is a feeling of a mother having to choose between her two children, and I think you could work that moment harder and let it rub up against other events of the story as well as the frame story.

A minor point, but initially the officer tells Debra the color of the suspect’s shirt and then in the next line she thinks she should have asked what color it is. The subsequent events indicate that she does know the color, which makes sense in the overall story.

I really wanted a better sense of this neighborhood—the relationship of Debra’s house to both children’s schools and to the yard where the suspect ended up. I think you could do this in the frame story, tracing the path they drive and locating us in the town, so when the interior story unfolds, we have a good sense of distances and relationships between key spots. You could let Debra rationalize even more about these distances, as she in some ways plays the odds deciding whether to proceed with going to school or grabbing her kids and running. The line “Everything had indeed been OK,” perhaps reveals too much too soon, dispelling the nice level of tension built so far. I’d prefer to wait and let the interior story reveal itself as the events unfold.  

Debra’s memory of her daughter in the incubator is beautifully rendered, but I wonder if it should go in a different place in the story. Perhaps position it within the interior story, so that Debra has the memory while the daughter is in the lockdown, allowing the reader to discern a subtle comparison between the confinement of the incubator and the confinement in the classroom—and in both cases not having access to her own child. That incubator memory seems relevant to the protectiveness she might have for Emily and would be a factor in the decision she later makes to leave her at school. This mother has had to make choices and also has not had the opportunity to make choices, and that worked for me in this story.

“The ending had a way of coloring everything else” is a pivotal line to me, and a gorgeous one. So many times in life our evaluation of our own actions and things that have happened are based upon just that—how it turned out. I think you could push even deeper into the character’s thoughts and fears in that paragraph as her epiphany starts to emerge. The lesson this mother draws for herself is a difficult one—how and when to start to let go, and whether to trust. To me one of the elements that works about this story is the idea of a potential threat that never fully materializes—and yet in a slight twist of events could very well materialize, and how do parents navigate that when it comes to their own children? It’s a really complex aspect of the story that resonates and is there ever a right answer?

The last line is gorgeous—there’s that subtle Lisa Lewis touch at play. Our readers will just have to wait for this story to appear in full to see it, and I feel very lucky to have had a sneak preview! Keep up the great work!

—Laurel Leigh

  

Lisa LewisLISA LYNNE LEWIS is a writer based in Southern California, where she recently relocated after many years in the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently writes for Literary Mama and has also been featured on Modern Love Rejects. Lisa spent many years doing corporate communications; along the way, she also freelanced for magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Mills College, an M.S. in corporate public relations from Northwestern University and a B.A. in rhetoric and mass communications from U.C. Berkeley. She now lives with her husband, two children and one dog in an 1892 Victorian, where she somehow finds time for writing in addition to all of the aforementioned.

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3 Comments

Filed under Craft, Dogfight

3 responses to “Group Writing Critique: “Holiday Parade” by Lisa Lynne Lewis

  1. Pingback: Making Good on Promises « Jilanne Hoffmann

  2. Our pleasure, Lisa! Thanks for sharing your story with us and good luck with your revisions. xoxo

  3. Thank you all for for your thoughtful and thorough comments! They are tremendously helpful. Now, onward to revision — I knew it wasn’t quite there yet! 🙂
    Lisa

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