Greetings from the Dogpatch!
We bring to you a weird, wild segment from Dogpatcher Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. Amnesty, the co-protagonist, looks for clues to her missing brother’s whereabouts, while trying to elude the investigators who are after him. Of course, she thinks about her mother! Here’s an excerpt, and what we had to say about the scene.
“Every January her friend Deidre threw a white elephant party, where the guests were expected to bring gifts that had been given to them, usually the previous Christmas, that nobody, including they themselves, would ever want. It was a contest of sorts, with a prize given to the person who brought the weirdest, most wildly inappropriate gift: the kind of gift that no one in her right mind ever could imagine receiving from a loved one. Deidre had thrown this same party for years, and Amnesty had won the prize almost every time. It was like her mother had a gift for giving the oddest, most unappealing presents. After winning two or three years in a row, people began to accuse her mother of buying these weird gifts on purpose. When Amnesty told them her mother didn’t even know about the white elephant party, they didn’t believe her. But it was true. If Momma ever found out, she would never forgive her.
She took out of the box an antique illustrated book on sexual positions, written in German, that her mother had given her on her first wedding anniversary. Momma said it might help ‘spice up’ her marriage. Neither she nor Dean understood any German, but the illustrations were explicit enough to render any text unnecessary.”
I could read your work all day. My main complaint is that we only got ten pages this time around, and I wanted to just keep reading. You’re incredibly hard on your own storytelling, and I think you occasionally take your skills for granted. This story overall puts me in mind of a dark and sometimes comic, twisty movie where we have no freakin’ idea what’s coming next. Like Sam Raimi meets David Lynch meets Stephen King meets Edgar Allan Poe, all bound together with a literary style that contains a unique depth and crazy span of knowledge. That knowledge base underlies the storytelling and gives it a sense of authority and authenticity. As your reader, I achieved full suspension of disbelief once Amnesty pulled out the map, and from that moment until the end of the section, I was mesmerized.
I actually don’t think there’s that much to fix in this section. I think you just have to get the dramatics in order and write a little more purposeful action to bolster the exposition we get while Amnesty is inside the storage room. First, regarding the dramatics, perhaps let Amnesty call the school first and learn that cops in suits have already come by the school. That would ratchet up the tension from the onset and put a clock on her activities. We would understand her urgency and why she hides her car in a dark alley and sneaks into the storage building. Whereas in this current version (this said without reading the immediate preceding chapter), I had more of a sense that she was freaked out by the emptiness of the isolated storage complex vs. having a specific fear of who is coming after her. “Grim-faced men” could be robbers until we glean whom she’s actually worried about.
Would she do the dumb hat thing to disguise herself? Maybe she would and know it was dumb, but it’s all she has? When she gets to the storage locker and barricades herself in, that works, but there doesn’t yet seem to be a deep sense of urgency about it, and I think that’s mainly what’s missing from the front of the scene. She glances around, shudders over her boxed-up thesis, and then randomly opens a box and pulls out a map. We start to lose the focus of her being on any kind of desperate search for a message from her brother. I would experiment with speeding her up. Let her hurriedly scan the room. Maybe she worries about light showing under the door, so she uses a flashlight? Let her shine the flashlight into corners, randomly open boxes and push them around until she’s out of breath and has to take a break and finally compose herself. Then let her resume the search in a still nervous but more purposeful fashion. When she finally feels her endeavor waning and doesn’t expect to find anything, let her pull out the map. Maybe send her in a few more wrong directions. Tracy would have seen the map on her wall, so would she look at the map hoping he’d drawn some clue on it? Let her get tired and sweaty, maybe feeling thirsty or hungry, or hot inside the storage room. Maybe she scrapes her finger on a box? Then she can bleed on the screenplay.
We don’t get a real sense of whether the storage room is neat and tidy or if stuff is shoved in there somewhat randomly. Is it at all dusty or disturbingly clean? We also don’t know how big it is, so it’s a hard sell when she finally notices a white rabbit in a far corner that seems to have escaped her detection earlier. Give us more of the layout inside the room, so we understand what’s facing her as she conducts the search and why she would miss the rabbit. I would make the activity of searching even harder on her. Let her have to lift some heavy boxes. Maybe she forgot to bring a box cutter, so she has to peel tape off by hand. When she finds the rabbit, would she poke around the seams looking for a hole and a secret message inside? Let her have to work through her anxiety and fatigue to realize the rabbit is marking a box location. Then, when she finds the screenplay, you’re golden. The scene all comes together nicely at that point, and that screenplay is wonderfully bizarre and reads like something Tracy might write. We feel like we can almost decipher it even if Amnesty can’t.
The rabbit is now such an iconic symbol for mystery, that perhaps you should just acknowledge that. Let Amnesty realize it’s the type of clue that her movie-loving brother would leave.
Then, when she reads the screenplaywhich I loved because it seems like something Tracy would write, and it’s just bizarre enough without getting too campy!perhaps experiment with ending on the Fade to Black line. It’s a slight letdown to read the actual scene in script format and then have the next scene only summarized. I think you could find a later spot to have Amnesty tell us what was in the next scene and for it to nag at her. Just leave us with the visual of her sitting in the storage room with boxes piled around her as we Fade to Black.
Thanks for a highly enjoyable scene. I’m dying to read more of this story, so you better keep writing.
You know I love your writing style, so that’s never in question. I agree with Laurel’s assessment, too. Right now, I think the biggest thing you need to deal with, before you do anything else, is to figure out your structure for the whole novel. You said that you’ve got 200+ pages that’s kind of a muddy middle, filled with perhaps an extra character, and flashbacks, and….As I said in our meeting, it feels like you’re stuck in a trench, wallowing in a plate of spaghetti, etc etc…Whatever metaphor you want to use, but it’s not productive, because you need to get out of the trench and into a plane to survey the territory from above. Only then, will you be able to restructure all of the words you have.
First question covered in our meeting: Have you read Save the Cat Writes a Novel? You haven’t, so please get it and read it now. I think it will help you tremendously, even if there’s no plan to use the strict 3-act structure. It will still help you shape your narrative.
I started to write lots more detailed comments, but I really don’t think that’s what you need at this juncture. I think you really need to figure out structure, and I agree completely with Laurel, that you should outline what you have right now. And as you outline, you keep a running list of “to do” items, so they aren’t all jumbled in your head and won’t get forgotten. Whatever your outline looks like, whether it’s a bunch of sticky notes on a wall or a giant piece of paper with things written on it. I recommend the sticky notes, because you can move them around. Here’s what Kate Messner, the novelist I mentioned in our meeting, does.
As she goes through her draft, she also creates a chart with chapters/scenes on the x-axis, and on the Y-axis a list of characters, scttings, themes, flashbacks, running jokes/gags, important things/objects, animals, etc. anything that is important to the storyline. Then she makes a mark/comment if those things/people/places appear in a chapter. Another author I know includes a note for each character in each chapter and what they want to achieve by chapter end. Ex. What is Amnesty’s goal in going to the storage facility? How is she thwarted in achieving her goal? What is the result, instead? How does this move the story forward? How does it complicate the story, if that’s what it does? And she writes down what they achieve or fail to achieve via a particular conflict or how they end up worse off, or whatever. So each chapter has its own mini arc. And in this muddy middle, the tension should ratchet up with each scene. That’s how you keep it from sagging, especially since your story contains a mystery-must-find-a-character element. And if you need to use some kind of ticking clock, do so to remind your reader of what’s at stake.
Messner also recommends finding and using a particular novel whose structure you want to emulate. Go through that novel and mark key plot point moments. Then go through your novel and compare where your key plot points occur.
Since you’re having trouble knowing how much info to include, I suggest you use one of your favorite novels (you read so much, you must have a book that you’ve read that does something similar to what you’re trying to do, right?) that leaks background info into the narrative and study very carefully how the author does it. As you go through your novel, edit your text to do the same. If it helps, make a plot chart of the mentor text, and compare.
Use highlighters to show the balance between narrative, dialogue, description, flashbacks, action, etc. Then highlight a similar stretch of your own text to see how it compares. This could be very enlightening.
Anyway, I hope that some of this helps. I’m going to be using these techniques for my WIP.
Photo “Sad Rabbit” by Susan Newcomb: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/sad-rabbit-susan-newcomb.html