Hello from the Dogpatch, and welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a selection 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 we’d love to know what you think about the excerpt or what we had to say about it.
This story isn’t titled yet. Wes called it “A Work in Progress.” To give you some context, a feckless ranger is assigned to lead a busload of work-release inmates to build fire breaks during the Great Western Fires:
This was when Shoehorn took over. Never in my life had I seen a man handle an instrument the way Shoehorn did an ax, nor take such joy in physical mastery over an object. He would set his initial cut on a downward slope, one clear ringing thwak! burying the head of the ax right up to the handle. With a booted foot he pushed to dislodge the ax-head from the tree; then another thwak! at an upward angle, lower down from the first and right up to the handle again. Finally a third and a fourth stroke to the topmost angle — then a fifth and sixth, maybe a seventh, to the bottommost — and out plopped a hunk of tree the size and shape of a large slice of watermelon. He would do the same to the other side of the trunk, lower down: seldom more than two or three dozen strokes total and the heart of the tree lay exposed and vulnerable. You almost could have pushed the tree down with a good shove of your boot.
Shoehorn was taking down trees twice as fast as any of the rest of us. He was like a machine. Looking again at those arms of his — it seemed now to me that they ended in massive knuckled appendages, hard and shiny from usage, like hooves — made me think of the hydraulic machinery in those old black-and-white movies based in newspaper offices, with their shots of the giant presses churning out the next day’s breaking news in those swirling montages.
And so while the rest of us dug trenches or paired off and went to work with the whipsaws, Shoehorn struck out on his own, taking down the smaller and medium-sized trees in a more or less straight line several hundred feet ahead of us. Since there wasn’t always enough equipment to go around now, there were times when each of us got to rest; which was fine, I guess. But I didn’t feel much like sitting back and watching, for it always had been my unhappy lot in life to sit by and look on, with envy or disbelief, at those guys who knew how to accomplish things with their hands. On a branch above me a squirrel watched too, a small pine cone paused ruminatively before its mouth, while all around us men busily went about their business. Just about my whole life it seemed I had been unwilling poster child for the inadequacies of a Liberal Arts education. I could only stand aside as other guys fixed their own cars, or impressed the girls in our dorm by rewiring a broken washing machine so those luscious young honeys could wash their delicately-soiled underthings, while I watched my t-shirts and jeans and white cotton briefs roll and tumble impotently in a dryer nearby.
Notes from The Writer’s Shadow (aka Jilanne)
Love this story. It’s intense. In some places, its precision awes me—the exact placement of the ax while felling a tree, for example. I love the use of ancient superstition, especially the part that acts as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is inexorable, one of my favorite words, and I’m using it to describe this narrative.
Humans are drawn to the supernatural. We want to believe in something that is bigger than ourselves, so we aren’t out there on a tree limb by ourselves, waiting to spontaneously combust when we’re touched by fire. Like your characters. And as always, I love the big themes’ presence in your work. You never concern yourself with the trivial, unless it speaks in a broader sense to the universal.
Here’s what I need for this story to work for me:
- Firefighting – I know you’ve done the research, so I need to understand how this world works, one where they send convicts out on a bus without guards. I need to understand how these lily-handed men can wield chain saws and axes for days without nary a blister. I’ve volunteered on park workdays, and I can’t say that sit-at-a-desk-daily adults can do physical work for longer than a few hours before melting into a limp pile of quivering jelly. How do these men last for days? What do their hands look like? Are they bleeding. How do they learn how to use chain saws? How do they carry the equipment they need for miles? For that matter, what exactly are they carrying? Chainsaws, axes, gas, water, food, tents, sleeping bags, etc? Up and down ravines. I need to see this in action. Give me the details to see how this is done and I will believe it is possible, and I will feel a portion of their agony.
- I agree with Laurel that we need to see more glimpses of the white raven. Its adds to the mystery and helps build narrative tension throughout.
- Along with the glimpses of the raven, I need to see the relationship between the narrator and the group evolve over time.
- Shoehorn’s response to the narrator’s request doesn’t ring true to me right now. The childish nature of the response undermines the gravity of the decision. I would believe it more if Shoehorn becomes quietly serious. Deadly resignation. The narrator knows what he’s asking—I need to see this come through more.
- I don’t like getting new names for the convicts so far in to the story. Perhaps you could do without the names and leave them as voices with personalities, instead.
- Pacing. You’ve got us in your grips. Slow down once we’re in. Give us the details we need to believe. Let’s see the wear and tear take its toll through well-placed details throughout, not just toward the end. Let us see the panic build a bit more. Give us a play by play of the fire bearing down on them while they wait for Shoehorn to move. Right now, we know the fire is there somewhere, but I’m not sure how close, what it’s doing, maybe sounds, etc.? As it is, it doesn’t really feel any closer than it has at other points in the story. What about its presence is different now?
- And let us see a bit more with the ending. As Laurel mentioned, maybe rearrange the last few scenes so that we see the end for Shoehorn and then see the result play out with the narrator, trying to convince himself that it wasn’t his action that brought about the end, that it was Shoehorn’s belief that did it. Maybe the narrator refuses to take responsibility because he sees Shoehorn’s end as a self-fulfilling prophecy—one that he really didn’t bring about. But what he realizes is that by not going to see Shoehorn, he failed him. Maybe he could have saved his life if he had reached out, gone to see him, convinced him otherwise. So the crux of the matter is this, I think you need to clarify exactly what it is that brings about Shoehorn’s end (his belief or the narrator’s actions or some combo of both—or is it something else??) And why the narrator feels as he does at the end of the story. Is it because he doesn’t go to see Shoehorn, or because he couldn’t, or because he felt it wasn’t his responsibility and now he feels that he was wrong? So many nuances you can play with here.
Thanks for a fabulous read!!!
Hey Wes: When I was a teenager in Idaho, a bunch of us were in the foothills on 4th of July setting off fireworks in the dirt roadway. Really dumb, since it was dry as hell up there and sure enough someone set off a pinwheel that sparked a brush fire. Four or five guys ran over and tried to stomp it out, but the fire got away from them in seconds. The fire department arrived within minutes, but the entire hill had already burned while we all stood around uselessly saying, “Oh my god, the hill’s on fire.”
It’s a lesson in the speed and mightiness of fire that has stuck with me, and when I read your story I kept seeing that foothills fire in my mind. Certainly, a lot of people have witnessed fires close up and with worse outcomes, and what I appreciate about your story is that it puts us so beautifully in the middle of a fire and lets us draw on our own associations with fire to fully appreciate the daunting scenario you create for these characters—struggling to keep the fire at bay and then ultimately just escape from it with their lives.
One of the reasons I’m a fan of your work is the breadth of knowledge you’re able to display on the page. I don’t know if you’ve fought fires or if you just did awesome research, but you established authority on the subject right off and fully engaged me because I believed this fire was happening and I was worried about what would happen to the characters.
I recall seeing a much earlier version of this story and it was great to see where you’ve taken it. An interesting aspect for me was deciding how much back story the first pages could successfully maintain. I think that’s a useful question to ask of any story. That is, typically, I’m inclined to say to be careful of too much exposition up front, but in this case it is so engaging and authoritatively managed that I was quite happy to immerse in the back story. If anything, I might say tighten it a bit—you clip along in the opening at a pretty good pace and it could only be improved by picking up a bit. But again, I have to say, well done.
Be mindful of allowing this narrator to comment in a way that undercuts the tension being built. Lines such as “In the end it turned out I had been worried over nothing” diminish the anticipation of what is going to happen. Further, in the case of that particular line, I disagreed with the narrator, as it turned out that he had a significant amount to worry about. I suppose the argument could be made that the story purposefully undercuts the narrator’s statement, but in this case I viewed the narrator as reliable, so I didn’t see a reason for the story to disagree with him.
The setup—one feckless ranger and a busload of inmates set out to fight fires—might be a hard sell, in that one could ask, well, why don’t the inmates just run away because this lone ranger can’t stop them. That is, this reader needed to believe that the bureaucracy of the fire department and the prison system would conspire to assign this group to a sole ranger custodian and send them out into the woods.
The action takes off when Shoehorn—who is such a great, colorful and ultimately tragic character—starts cutting down trees. He is the character that we watch, along with the narrator, and that brings me to my main comment about this piece. For me, this story hinges on the relationship between these two men—the puny but intelligent ranger and the somewhat inscrutable yet Paul Bunyan–like Shoehorn. A precarious and somehow deep alliance is formed between these two men, and my biggest issue is that I’m never sure why. Why does Shoehorn allow the narrator to remain the leader of the group, if only in name? Do these men care about each other? I’m very curious to get a feel for what sense of hierarchy Shoehorn subscribes to that causes him to go along. And, when the story builds to its gorgeously tragic ending, I really want to know if the narrator understands or at least intuits the sacrifice he asks Shoehorn to make.
There is a lot of symbolism in this story, most personified by the white raven, which I thought was a really cool element. I just wanted to see that raven more on the page throughout. I wondered if the myth Shoehorn told in some way detracted from the tension built by the raven. More important, we get the reaction to the myth from the other men but we never really learn what the narrator thinks about it.
I think you could bump up the sense of urgency in the scene where the group is trapped by the fire. That is, in this version, that scene is related somewhat quickly and to me it’s when the writing needs to slow down and more fully describe every agonizing moment. Plus, I want even more sense of heat, smell, and noise at every step. You add in the nice element of time, where they have two days to make it to the creek bed, but I think that section is a little rushed as well. You’re an awesome storyteller when you hit your stride and I think you can trust that the reader will want to spend more time in this part of the story and with this narrator, and particularly witnessing this interesting relationship between the two men as it’s tested and shaped. So just be careful of the slight tendency to rush high-action scenes but then describe things, such as the ancient tree, that aren’t necessarily what’s building the key tension.
I don’t fully believe Shoehorn’s motivation at the end—on the one hand it seems to have something to do with a power struggle, and how guys might behave when there are no women around, but there hasn’t been a power struggle up to that point. On the other hand, he seems superstitious, which I do see, but in that case I also want to see that superstition enacted in small ways en route. Like does he lay his axe facing a certain direction at night, etc. Does he pray?
Where you leave the narrator at the end is wonderful—and I hope a lot more people get to read it in the future, so I won’t say much here. Thanks for producing a story that sparked a lot of discussion and that was fun as heck to read. I can’t wait to see where you take this one and what you write next.
xo Laurel Leigh