Hello from the Dogpatch! This image would exemplify our new motto, assuming love still retains potential for sufficient rising dramatic tension. We’re pretty sure it does. Not that we’re battle happy, but it is time for another so-called dogfight. This time, it’s Dogpatcher Wes in the hot seat, with his novel-in-process Sunshine Superman getting scrutinized as he writes into the homestretch. Here’s an excerpt from this darkly hilarious story:
Shoes are not allowed inside the yurt. Gerda can see her mother’s white Keds set neatly beside the door. Next to them she sees Chad’s big black motorcycle boots leaning against each other like two drunks. There also appear to be at least two other pairs of men’s shoes that Gerda doesn’t recognize. She and her father stand outside the door a moment, listening. But they don’t hear any sounds coming from inside. Her father says, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you wait over there for a moment?’ pointing off toward the sunny side of the clearing.
Gerda is caught between the twin, dueling notions of wanting to see what is about to happen and not wanting to cause her father any more grief and humiliation, but she does as he asks. From the other side of the clearing she watches while her father knocks on the door, then she watches as he seems to prepare himself for whatever it is he is about to see inside the yurt. His hands drop to his sides, and his knees bend slightly like he is preparing to take a punch.
Hey, Wes: This might be one of the most complex stories of yours I’ve read, where we meet the characters in a present that is entirely collapsing around them and then also meet them in their past, where a bizarrely self-engineered world seems to put them at risk, emotional and physical, from the get go. Yet that earlier world speaks to a bygone era of yurt-dwelling free spirits that we can tend to look upon with some nostalgia. One of the things I appreciate about this story is that it reveals some of the grime in the underbelly of that seemingly idyllic society, such as the realities of nearly starving in the woods or the existence of un-pretty human relationships. And you manage it in a scene that motivates the reader to thoughtfulness without feeling as if the commentary has been delivered by the narrative in heavy-handed fashion. It’s like there’s a bee hidden in the flower waiting to come out and sting you, and I sort of want to get stung. I’m left with a sense of characters placed in continual risk—early in the book—so when the adult Gerda launches her quest, I feel that she’s not only risking material things, her job, her home, her belongings, but she’s also risking losing (or finding?) who she is at the core, a core in part defined by the childhood to which she was subjected by her parents whims. My only complaint about the backstory is that the narrator might riff too long on the later outcome of life in the commune, when perhaps the focus of the flashback should remain on the day Gerda and her father go to seek her wayward mother.
At times the child Gerda appears wise beyond her years, able to suss out the layered meanings in what the adults say. At times she appears relatively naive. Of course a youngster demonstrates both qualities, but in this case, compressed into a single chapter, it might be useful to aim for a slightly more consistent level of awareness in the character. That is, Gerda grasps the subtle reference to the shovel, but she seems clueless about sex. Those two levels of awareness residing in one character could certainly be true, but what is the intended takeaway for the reader in terms of how we are guided to perceive adult Gerda? Is adult Gerda equally inconsistent in her levels of development and perception? From what we see in this chapter excerpt, I can’t say, so am just asking the question. You’ve cast her as an anthropologist, which inclines me to want to see more of the child Gerda who is able to interpret subtext and might be equally precocious in other realms of human relations. In the excerpt above, we see what for me is the most compelling part of this character in her youth, one who witnesses adult interactions and interprets evidence, right down to the physical stance of her father. It’s a compelling and heartbreaking moment on the page, and that’s far more satisfying than a kid who wonders what “deep breathing” means. Mainly, we get the wiser child Gerda, and that’s the one I vote for in this scene. Gerda herself tells us that at times she feels like the oldest person in the commune, which, by the way, might be the spot to break this chapter and leave us in the past before reinstating the present in the next chapter. I know, I know, you have an overall structure in mind, but just saying . . .
In this version, I think there’s a little too much exposition woven into the dialogue between grown-up Gerda and her mom. It’s tempting to use the conversation to fill in the reader, but if you strip out the expository lines, you’ll be left with an incredibly fascinating conversation. Let them say what they authentically would say to each other, without restating history that they both fully know. If the reader truly needs a few more details, I think the narrative can just state it. Momma is a whopper of a momma, by the way. Hoo boy, she gives me delicious nightmares! Momma is a piece of work among pieces of work, although as I read through the scene again, I also wonder slightly how to reconcile present-day Momma, who seems awfully bent on justifying herself, with past-day Momma, who flitted around and did what she wanted to without seeming to have a need to justify. I don’t think we get a story on the transformation of the mother character, so perhaps compare her in the yurt scene to the later scene with Gerda and look for ways that we can recognize the woman from the past in the woman in the living room. I think she should be recognizable to the reader, especially when met right on the heels of the past scene.
Looking over the chapter again, I find myself really wanting dad to be onstage for the Gerda-Momma encounter. He seems deftly tucked away, and I wonder if bringing a third party into the room, even if he’s cast in the role of frozen, broken observer, will ratchet up the tension in the scene even further. The image of him readying himself to take a punch will stick with the reader—in the present-day scene, why not let us see what so many punches have turned this man into. I really want to see it rather than hear about it.
The writing itself is your usual gorgeous, image-laden lines that make me jealous and want to poke holes in your backyard yurt with my fishing knife that I carved from a bamboo branch. Seriously, the writing is beautiful and one thing that’s tricky about evaluating this scene is that the writing can tend to mask places where the focus of the scene or dialogue might not fully deliver. So in revision, work to set aside how well the lines flow and look closely at what is happening alongside that flow, for example, sneaking exposition into dialogue just because you can do it pretty gracefully. I’m excited for this story and since you told us a little more about where Gerda’s quest will read, I’m excited to find out whether she succeeds or fails, lives or dies—hurry up and finish so we can read the rest!
XO Laurel Leigh
Well, now, Laurel said all the good stuff. That’s the last time I let her go first! Hmmmm, what to say? I love your boldly drawn characters and want to see the entire novel unfold. I’m thinking it’s going to be a doozy!
I love how you weave humor into drama. It’s a very effective and entertaining way of presenting the story. Like I said, Laurel gave you the kudos I was going to give you. If you had given us more than an excerpt, I would have kept reading and reading until long past my bedtime.
Now for the nitty gritty: Gerda’s mother is hilarious, but I don’t want her to be so hilarious that I don’t sympathize with her concerns. Don’t get so involved with entertaining yourself (and I am guilty of doing this every time I sit down to write) that you create a character that turns into someone so funny the reader has a hard time seeing them as something other than a character. I’m thinking that the exposition issue Laurel mentioned could be solved by letting the reader “hear” the television news that Gerda and her mother have both seen. That way, you can cut through the “reader needs to know” parts and give Gerda and her mother only juicy things to say. The way people tend to talk at or past one another.
Along those lines, I’ve marked instances where you’ve tended to over-explain, not trust the reader to get the crux of what’s going on without belaboring a point. Trust. Trust. We must trust the reader to “get it.”
A note about presenting characters as children/youthful and then as older adults: The seeds of the current character should be contained in the earlier version of the character—or if there is some type of dissonance, it should be there for a purpose that the reader will come to understand. Perhaps the passing years have provided an experience or two or ten that may have sent them in another direction. But in any case, those seeds should be there. And right now, I’m having trouble reconciling Gerda the “more adult” resourceful child who feeds the “tribe” with the seemingly less adult and less resourceful Gerda of the present. Similarly, Gerda’s father who appears to be the “resigned” type who searches for his wife in his younger years completely locks himself away in his older years. That’s too convenient. I want him to be present in some way, not just hiding in his bedroom offstage.
I’m also wondering about how the mother is presented. It appears that she’s slept with everyone in her youth, but only one of them (not her husband) was the love of her life. Right now, I’m having difficulty resolving this “love of her life” with the orgy-atmosphere of the commune. Maybe I could be persuaded of this if she hopped from bed to bed until she hopped into bed with Chad. Then she would sleep only with him—unless, she wasn’t the love of his life and he wanted to be with her AND others. And maybe those others were women in addition to men? Just a thought.
And finally, Gerda’s mother ends her diatribe by saying “no one ever has sympathy for the family of the killer.” I’m thinking the word “family” should be changed to “mother.” Because, yes, it’s all about her.
I’m thinking that I’ve forgotten to mention something else that we discussed during our Skype chat. Something at the heart of the story, but my memory is failing me…and I gave you my notes before I put this post into writing. Bad me. Bad brain….Laurel and Wes, please let me know if either of you recall what I’m talking about.
Cheers! Looking forward to reading more, Wes!! Jilanne
6 responses to “Sunshine Superman”
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Every time I think about this story, I’m reminded of a friend here in San Francisco who was born in a fairy ring of redwoods in an unnamed section of redwood forest. Every person who attended her birth gave her a name. You can imagine her name. Multiple flowers, redwood, etc…She has other siblings by other fathers. It was a time of “free love.” Although, love rarely turns out to be free. Get this sucker finished, Wes! The world is waiting!!
This was such a great project to discuss. Hurry up and finish it, Wes! This story needs to be out in the world!
The Dogfight began and I wasn’t even ‘in country.’ Back from Africa now, and ready to ‘do battle,’ but then you guys go and say all these nice things about my piece!
You also touched upon the ever-present problem, especially when dealing with a story that leapfrogs between past and present, of how much information to dole out and when. One works so hard to build up a credible back-story to flesh out the characters and make them feel three-dimensional and fully human, but then it’s such a difficult knot to untie knowing how much of this back-story to give out to the reader.
I wrote TONS of material about my hero’s commune years, mostly because it was fun. But I find myself nixing just about all of it because, really, the reader probably doesn’t want to know all this stuff. Feels like such a waste. Because the material I’m nixing is genius stuff.
Oh, well. Like Jil says, it’s important that the writer not spend too much time entertaining herself and forget to the entertain the reader.
As for what crucial element Jil and we discussed during our Skype chat, something that cut right to the heart of my story, I can’t remember it either. Went white-water rafting in Africa and took a blow to the head when our raft tipped over in a Category 5 rapid. So you’ll have to forgive me if my memory isn’t what it was.
Hi Wes, and welcome home. Head trauma is scary, and I hope you are taking care and recuperating well. But how fun to see Africa from a raft! That sounds like just one part of an awesome trip.
This was such a great piece to read, and maybe the answer to nixing so much back story is that there’s a prequel dwelling somewhere in those pages. You are a writer who can envision large, complex plots so you likely do have to know a lot of back story to make the plot points and characters work the way you need them to in order to tell the story. I can’t wait to see more chapters from this project!
Go ice your head. 🙂
Wes, you sound like Rem—except he was filming a kayak competition and had to ford the river at a “quiet” section where there were crocodiles. Oh, and he was floating his waterproof video case along with him, so I guess he could have knocked a crocodile in the head with the case if it swam too close. Hope you were wearing a helmet and that you’ll remember who we are sometime down the road. Perhaps the blow may have knocked the story loose, so you can now finish it! (Said in the most loving, supportive critique group fashion)