Hello from the Dogpatch, and welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a selection from a short story by our own Jilanne Hoffmann, followed by critical yips and yaps. 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.
And, woofs to Jill, who is soon headed to show this story at the prestigious Community of Writers at Squaw Valley!
By the age of eight, I’d seen my share of farm animals give birth and die: chickens, cows, sheep and even a horse. In one memorable birth, Dad had reached in to a cow and tied a rope around the leg of her stuck calf. Then he heaved mightily, pulling the entire heifer out. She and the mother both survived. But when it doesn’t work out and they die, they go silent and still, as if the air in their lungs were the only thing that distinguishes them from stuffed animals with glass eyes.
I knew that this ewe could die, and it was OK since she wasn’t one of our pets; she didn’t have a name. I think its one of the many ways children who are raised on livestock farms learn to cope with the death that surrounds them. If each one were a tragedy, a pet dog or cat, we would have been emotionally paralyzed from early on. As it is, this kind of emotional distance is itself a form of paralysis, one that leaves a certain aspect of the soul a little unreachable but safe. A human survival trait that allows us to function in the face of tragedy. And if we aren’t vigilant, it is a trait that also allows us to kill.
—from “The Hippocratic Oath”
First off, I think this is a fantastic story to take to Squaw! (And congrats for having your marvelous self selected for the workshop. Totally well deserved.) The highlight of this story for me was the gripping scene that unfolded in the barn, where a father and his two sons are observed by the younger daughter as they labor to aid their birthing ewe. It’s the most powerful scene in the story, which then becomes also a challenge for the surrounding text, as all of the other scenes risk being outdone by the barn scene. I think that is an issue mainly because this story seems to present itself as a character study of the adult daughter—her coming to terms with what happened in the barn that night, who she is as an adult, and who her oldest and estranged brother has become when she meets him again. That’s a long way of saying that you’ve given this story a powerful center and so it will be critical to clearly establish what is at stake for the narrator/character before the barn scene unfolds. Allowing the reader to carry the narrator’s driving motivation into the barn scene will both keep the adult persona present in the reader’s mind and allow the reader to, as does the character, not only observe the barn scene through both the eyes of the child and the wiser eyes of the grownup daughter but fully reflect on how it intertwines with the other, present-day, scenes in this terrific story.
As mesmerizing as the barn scene is, one way to notch it even higher may be to let the daughter sneak in unnoticed by her father and siblings. That is, let what she sees be the secret she carries into adulthood, until she is finally forced to (or free to) resolve it within her adult sensibility. It’s so interesting how we return, sometimes often, to what we view as pivotal moments in our lives and re-examine them with renewed perspectives, and I’d like to see this character do just that—reinterpret or more fully understand this scene and this secret that she has carried. She is, by the way, a marvelous character and narrator.
To me, the text could provide a fuller sense of the framing story, the medical convention at which adult brother and sister re-meet. For one thing, I’d like to get a much fuller sense of the brother. Is Derrick a kind man? Whether he is or is not seems important and will help inform his adolescent actions in the barn scene. And that perhaps begs the question of whether the sister narrator is and was reliable. Is part of her epiphany a reaffirmation of her opinion of her brother or a reversal of that attitude? And why exactly is this narrator telling this story? Rather, what does she want? Giving her a clear agenda in the present story will lend even more context to the memory. Additionally, who is the narrator in the present story? On the one hand, she’s extremely observant but then it’s hard to digest that such a perceptive narrator would be so completely out of touch with her sibling’s nature. Perhaps let it be a simple fact of them not speaking at all over the years vs. trying to explain why she’s at a loss about who he is despite periodic if infrequent visits.
There’s an interesting tension between whether the narrator is the main character of this story (a grown-up Huck Finn), or whether she’s mainly the storyteller and the real focus is on her brother, making her, as Wes pointed out, a version of Nick Carraway. I think not only do you need to be clear on that point, but the reader should likely fairly soon ascertain it as well, so it doesn’t distract from the main impetus of the story. This story of yours explores the fascinating tendency people have to try to explain complex stuff/their lives by pointing to a single event and describing it, after its occurrence, as pivotal. It begs the question of whether such an event is truly pivotal or whether the person decides in retrospect that it was. Either way, I see this tendency at work in this character and for me it makes her and the story that much more engaging. She’s smart, and I’d like to have even fuller access to her interior. That is, once you’ve assigned point of view, the reader really deserves to know everything that the narrator knows if not more than she knows.
As I mentioned in our meeting, I think you can cull through the front of the story to remove any lines that tend to broadcast that something big is coming. Avoid preempting the barn event by describing it as important. Rather, let it unfold in due course and, trust me, the reader will get that it’s important. Life, death, coming of age, the milk of human kindness or lack thereof all scramble onto the page in a lovely way in this scene. In the scene, you might work to allow better balance between the child and adult narration. I think the child narrator of the barn scene is somewhat overwhelmed by the adult hindsight, and I think if anything the child should lead the narration. Let the reader apply the adult/interpretive perspective. At the end of the story, is there a way to link an image of Derrick to the memory of seeing him outside the barn in the moonlight? That may help to further link the past and present scenes as you return to and close in the present.
Lines wise, on the first page, I’d yank any exposition out of the dialogue. He’s a “true humanitarian” and “you must be thrilled to be his sister” are exposition that should belong to the narration not the speaker. A bit further down, you build an image of a guy who looks like a golden retriever. In that line, I’d let “retriever” be the last word, so we are left with that interesting image. I think you can cut the bit about not being a lush and jump right into Derrick’s thank you speech. That is, keep the story in the present moment a little longer to avoid diffusing the tension you’ve worked to establish up front. Let us see this room and the people in it and where the narrator is positioned physically relative to her brother and the crowd.
My favorite line might be: “Back then though, my focus was more circumscribed; I wanted to see some real guts—of anything.” For me, this sets up the childish expectation that will be undone by what she actually witnesses. I’d like to have a further knowledge of the adult narrator’s expectations. Instead around this point of the story we get a sideline update about the other brother. He’s on the fringes of the story, and I don’t think we need a lot of detail about him as it pulls us too much out of the present-moment scene and too far away from the expectation the narrator has just voiced. Perhaps in the barn, you could just say something about how he won’t do as well in life as Derrick and leave it at that.
I think you can slow the tussle over the shotgun down a bit. Let those details and images hang in the air for a moment longer. I was expecting the gun to go off and that anticipation lends a nice level of tension you can stretch out even more. Finally, I’ll echo Wes’s desire to know exactly what went wrong in the surgery. That said, there’s a lot that went right with this story! I’m excited to see where you take the revision and expect this story will be exceedingly well received by its lucky readers.
XO Laurel Leigh
The Hippocratic oath of the title — ‘Do no harm’ — looms over this piece, a childhood memory about a college-age brother who tries to deliver two lamb kids caesarean-style on a cold Midwestern winter night.
But my first, perhaps chief overall question is: What exactly happened in the barn that night? From the father’s reaction to the events as they unfold, I get the sense that something terrible happened. And the fact that the narrator says that that evening altered the course of her brother’s life also leads me to believe something bad happened. Yet except for the fact that the ewe and her two kids die, I don’t get the sense that anything extraordinary happened at all.
The narrator, in fact, goes out of her way to explain that animal deaths are a common occurrence on any farm. So what happened that night that was so bad? The reader needs more of a sense of what Derrick did wrong, and why or how it altered the course of his entire life. At present I still don’t know why that night in the barn was so significant.
Also, moving back a bit, the first thing I think the author has to decide is if this story is about the narrator Amy or about her older brother, Derrick. The reason I say this is because the opening and the close would have one think the story is about Amy. But I think this story is as much about the character Amy as ‘The Great Gatsby’ is about Nick Carraway.
Nick Carraway’s role in ‘Gatsby’ — like Amy’s in your story — is to provide a reasonable person’s reasonable response to the central character of the story; in Amy’s case, her older brother Derrick. Something bad happened in the barn that winter night, it was somehow Derrick’s fault, and Amy’s — and her father’s — reactions to the unfolding events give the reader a sense of its purported magnitude. Other than that, the story is all Derrick’s. He’s the one at the center of the central event in the story, the one who seems to grow the most as a character.
On a more practical note, I would ask why they have to resort to a caesarean birth at all. From what the narrator Amy has told us about her father, he’s a whiz at this sort of thing, tying a rope around a breached calf’s ankle and pulling it right out of its mother with a mighty tug on the rope. If the ewe is in such dire straits, wouldn’t Dad at least spring for a vet?
What does Derrick say to their father to make him go along with his playing doctor? The ewe doesn’t seem particularly distressed in the scene in the barn, and I think you miss a chance for heightened drama by not giving the reader a sense of the ewe’s deteriorating condition. So then what circumstances put them all in a position where a caesarean birth seems like the only viable option?
Also, there is inherent drama in a surgeon prepping for surgery. Yet Derrick doesn’t do anything to prep for surgery. Don’t vets at least wash their hands before they cut open an animal? Don’t they make a fetish out of sterilizing their equipment? As it is, it seems like Derrick dives right in with no ceremony, no prep, no nothing.
I have no problem with the framing device you use, an adult Amy at an awards ceremony for her highly decorated doctor brother. While it opens the story nicely, though, I think its efficacy falls off a bit at the end; and through the middle, too. Once Amy begins to relate the events that took place on that long ago winter night in the barn, the reader is sucked right into the narrative. Yet at several key moments you pull the reader out of this part of the story to give us some larger perspective the adult Amy has gleaned from the events of that night. I don’t know if these shifts in time and space help your narrative; but if you are going to resort to them, then I think the reader needs some sense of where exactly Amy is in both time and space.
She’s obviously back at the awards banquet in Washington, D. C. So give us some sense of where she is in space and what she’s doing. Is she still on a balcony overlooking the Potomac? Is she still getting politely sloshed on champagne?
It’s at the end that I think your framing device hurts your story the most.
Since this story, to my mind, is more about Derrick and the growth that came about in his character from the events that unfolded that night in the barn, it might be better to end on an image of Derrick than with an observation by Amy.
I feel that an image of a remorseful Derrick from that night in the barn, or an image of the grown-up successful Derrick, might both serve to cement in the reader’s mind the significance of the events that have occurred and help you to leave a more indelible impression on the reader’s mind.
But to end with some general observations by Amy about the randomness of life only serves to water down the riveting effect the barn episode previously had, upon this reader at least. The barn episode is truly affecting; the ending of your story, for me not as much.