Hello from the Dogpatch! Since 2000, our group has been reading and commenting on each other’s work. Those of you in writing groups well know the rewards of watching your friends’ work flourish over time. A few years ago we started posting parts of our critiques on this blog and have appreciated everyone who joins our ongoing conversation about writing and revising. Many thanks for reading!
Today we bring you “Section 13,” a chapter from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In this chapter, the book’s protag, Amnesty, is searching for her missing brother, Tracy, a suspected felon. En route Amnesty visits the home of a childhood friend, Lynette, who’s still living in the 1980s and in alcoholic squalor. She unknowingly helps Amnesty begin to unravel the mystery surrounding her missing brother. Here’s a short excerpt with our comments following. We don’t post the entire piece since these are often submitted later, but you can read another excerpt and more discussion about Wes’s novel here. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!
[from “Section 13”]
The room was quite dark with the door closed. Amnesty stood squinting for a moment in the cave-like gloom, waiting for her eyes to adjust, making out shapes by the scant light the television provided. She could see now they were showing an old Disney movie.
‘Give me the secret, mancub. Clue me what to do,’ sang King Louie. ‘Give me the power of man’s red flower, so I can be like you.’
‘So how are your folks holding up?’ Lynette said.
‘My dad’s locked himself in his room and won’t come out.’
‘I wanna talk like you. Walk like you, too,’ Louis Prima, a.k.a. King Louie, sang. ‘You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.’
Lynette walked over and turned down the sound on the television.
‘Jesus, what a mess,’ she said. ‘But what’re you gonna do?’
For one wild, disorienting moment Amnesty thought her friend was talking about the state of her own house, but then she realized Lynette was talking about Tracy.
‘Do? I want to help my brother, of course,’ Amnesty said. ‘I mean, he’s on the run. He must be frightened and feeling all alone. But I don’t even know where to start.’
‘Aiding a suspected felon can get you in a shitload of trouble, you know.’
‘You sound like you’re talking from experience.’ Her friend said nothing. Then Amnesty said, ‘Well, I’ll worry about that later. Right now all I want is to get my brother to turn himself in before he gets himself gunned down in the street like some kind of mad-dog criminal.’
‘Well, you’re not going to be able to help your brother right this minute,’ Lynette said. ‘So why don’t you sit down and take a load off?’
Right off, one of the elements that struck me about this chapter is your total audacity. Disney’s Jungle Book mixed with the Sex Pistols and the Clash, mashed together in the same scene. At first, the music seems to be merely a backdrop to what’s happening between the characters, but then the music becomes significantly important both to the character and to the reader’s understanding of the character. I bow to the way that the music is introduced so casually, and then bam, nothing casual about it; it becomes a key part of a scene in which so much is happening that the reader can’t help but grab onto their hat and try to keep up. Without knowing whether the music will continue to play a significant role in the story, let me say that I hope it does. Especially the Sex Pistols. We don’t see the reference in the excerpt posted on the blog here, but Amnesty’s memory of the lyrics and what they meant to her in her youth and presumably still mean to her, to me, has potential to become an important idea that the reader can carry with them across the story. The Sex Pistols both show how Amnesty’s friend is stuck in an eighties time warp but also bring the importance of the group into the present-moment scene—much as I think that music operates for many who will read this. It’s truly audacious and brilliant, and I wish I’d thought of it.
Adding to the effect of the music is the setting itself. In this chapter you have Amnesty walking into the rubble pile that her friend calls a living room, with clutter in piles that the characters have to walk around and then begin to dance around. I think you mentioned in conversation that you’d once entered that type of room. Either way, the level of detail is exquisite. My personal favorite is the cigarette burn marks in the well of the coffee table. The description of the trashed room lends bizarreness to the scene that sticks with the reader. Maybe we’ve all been in (or live in) a version of a house where there’s literally no room to sit without shoving stuff off the sofa and onto the floor and it’s impossible to find a clean glass to drink out of, or anything to put in that glass except alcohol or tap water. “I gots tap water and I gots vodka. I also gots diet soda to go with the vodka,” Lynette tells Amnesty, before realizing she actually doesn’t have diet soda, so it is down to just vodka and tap water, putting Amnesty into the position of having to make a sort of non-choice: start drinking vodka straight way too early in the morning or dare to sip tap water from a dirty glass. There’s not a good answer for the character, and yet out of the rubble and, for a moment, seemingly directionless scene, she extracts the answer for what to do next in the quest for her brother, and you extract a plot point. Again, brilliant, because the plot point seems to come out of nowhere. It’s a wonderful example of how you can let a scene be about itself rather than predictably about the most obvious thing. If Amnesty had sat down, sipping bottled water and asked Lynette for advice and they had strategized together about what to do, it might have yielded the same answer for Amnesty and probably a pretty good scene. But instead you have Lynette drinking in the morning and dancing around the clutter to the Sex Pistols and tossing out conversation that seems near meaningless until it’s not. I think I told you that to me this is the greatest scene of yours that I’ve ever read, and that’s a lot of why. I have no idea where this story will go next; it’s really impossible to guess, but I know I absolutely want to go there with it.
I really have only a couple suggestions for this scene that are dang minor, because I think it’s pretty much maximized. First, you might let Amnesty really want to leave the second she walks in the house. Perhaps experiment with a little more internal push and pull within her when she encounters her best and truest friend from the past who now seems pretty messed up. It takes a little while before the seductive effect of Lynette kicks in and we can start to see the girl from the past that Amnesty knew and valued, so take us on that journey a little more clearly at the onset. By that I think we just need a few more very lightly drawn thoughts by Amnesty about Lynette herself when Lynette answers the door. Right now we get awesome descriptions of the setting but not so much that first impression of arriving to see someone after years apart. I think Amnesty might notice what Lynette looks like right off and what she thinks about it. The scene seems to skip over Lynette and head right into the house, so just a pause to describe her/Amnesty’s impression of her will do it. And then I think you could up the tension even higher in the front of the scene by letting the reader see what Amnesty wants out of this encounter and how Lynette doesn’t seem to be giving it to her. We’re told that Amnesty would run to her friend’s house in the past; now she does that as an adult but it’s a different Lynette, or rather the same Lynette, just one that doesn’t seem to fit well in the present time or location. I liked the sensation of being off-kilter and not quite knowing what to make of Lynette, but I also wanted to know if Amnesty was initially surprised by who Lynette seemed to be or if she thought it was a logical outcome of their shared history.
It’s interesting that sometimes it’s the secondary characters who leave the strongest impression in a scene. For me, that occurs in this scene, where the protag takes on the role of straight gal and the supporting character takes over the scene. And I think it can work that way beautifully because Amnesty offers us a viewpoint into the world so through her eyes so we want to keep following her around as she encounters more interesting characters and experiences and in that way becomes the vehicle by which we, the reader, experience the story. That’s not to say that Amnesty isn’t interesting herself but rather that we by this time know her well enough to be comfortable taking attention away from her for the moment to watch Lynette dance and smoke. But then in the end of the scene, Amnesty takes the scene back, and the story beautifully refocuses our attention on the fact of Amnesty’s quest, the quest that has prompted this long-awaited visit.
Thanks for writing this and letting me read it. Hurry up and finish the rest of the book. I’m terribly into this story and it’s not a question of whether I will keep reading but merely when the heck can you send more chapters?
XO Laurel Leigh
Well, well, well now, Wes. You have such a distinctive voice, one that is simultaneously erudite and extremely funny. And after reading several different chapters of this novel, I’d just like you to finish it so we can put the pieces together.
That said, I agree with Laurel in that I’d like to see Amnesty want to get the hell outta Dodge the minute she walks in there. Walking in to this old friend’s home is so clearly a huge mistake. But it turns out that it’s a good thing she doesn’t, since she gets the payoff at the end of the chapter. I, too, enjoyed how you used music to characterize these two and their past lives.
There are some points in the dialogue that feel a little too forced, like we can see you trying to get information to the reader (moving the strings of the puppet when all we want to see is the puppet), so I would take a look at transferring some of the back story into exposition and also allow the essence to leak into the dialogue without giving us what sounds like a recounting of the past. Maybe make it feel a bit more like we’re looking through the veil of years, not quite seeing everything or hearing everything, but letting us fill in the blanks with what we do know.
Also, when it comes to exposition, you might want to take a look at what you think are essential details, ones that you put in because you and the reader may find them entertaining, and ones that really don’t add much to the story. For example, at one point, you recall that Lynette was called “Skinny Linnie.” I presume this is to contrast with how much heavier she is now, but I’m not sure it’s an essential detail. It takes up real estate, and real estate in the Bay Area is pretty darn expensive. I’d go through these sections and see if there are details like this that don’t add to the story, and then perhaps swap them for details that carry a lot of weight or have layers of meaning. Stack that meaning on top of each other like people in apartment buildings here. Density! Ok, I’ll give the real estate analogies a rest now.
You had asked if this is how two women in their 30s would talk to each other. I think this is a question that should be turned back on the author. Do these two women have talk to each other this way because of who they are? If who they are supports their thoughts, their words, their actions, then yes, this is how these two women would talk to each other. That’s the true test of authenticity.
I love the description of Amnesty recalling how she discovered her own unique scent, and in a way her own unique self. That’s such a fresh description, one that I can’t recall ever reading before in any other novel. Well done!
Soooo, get busy now, and get this thing done! Cheers!