Category Archives: Dogfight

There Are Many Kinds of Scars

Dogpatch writer Laurel Leigh’s essay explores how as a child she experienced the scars of her mother’s mastectomy and how those issues of image and identity carried into her adult life. Here’s an excerpt of “Scars” and our comments about this deeply honest piece of writing.

The author’s mother on her wedding day.

The wound in my chest was open and wide, and I could see the layers of my skin disappearing into the circular black hole. As a kid growing up in the country and later an acrobat, I’d had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but I’d never had a cut that deep. I was engrossed by how deep the hole was—about an inch.

The doc came back to the table and explained that the wound leakage had just been fluid, but it likely would re-occur if he used liquid anesthesia. If I was tough enough to look at it and not get grossed out, then, asked the doc, was I tough enough to let him stitch me up without anesthesia? The incision would heal more rapidly, if so, he told me. I said okay.

 

 

Hey Laurel,

In your essay you look back on your childhood and examine your feelings, both then and now, about your mother’s mastectomy scars and what they meant to your own physical and emotional development growing up. Over the course of this essay you, as the narrator, come to understand that there are many types of scars an individual can incur over the course of a life — physical scars, of course, but also mental and emotional ones as well.

In many ways this piece is about self-acceptance versus others accepting us, but beneath this it is really a rumination on intimacy and mortality. The narrator is given three privileged glimpses in the course of this work: at her mother’s mastectomy scars; at the hole in her own breast after surgery to remove a tumor; and, finally, a clear, unimpeded view of the sky as seen through a hole in the ceiling after the constant rain of western Washington state eats through the roof of her house. All three of these privileged glimpses lay bare a sense of intimacy with the world, as well as a marked vulnerability to that same outside world.

The scars that life leaves on all of us can lead us to want to hide them from others. It is only natural for people to want to hide or camouflage their scars, just as we all want to hide or camouflage the uglier parts of life. But the narrator, over the course of this piece, learns to embrace her scars, to see their beauty instead.

I like the symmetry, or poetic echoes, you achieve with the various ‘holes’ we glimpse in the essay — how the deep, scarred depression left behind after Mom’s mastectomy mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s own breast, which itself mirrors and reflects the hole in the narrator’s ceiling. As she considers her own feelings about her mother’s mastectomy scars, the narrator reflects on the scars two previous surgeries have left on her own breasts. Continue reading

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Amnesty Goes to Mass

Dani culture, Catholic mass, and sex with a photojournalist in a seedy hotel all come together in this excerpt from Wes Pierce’s novel in progress. In the Dogpatch, we do what we do, which is talk about writing. We had a lot to say about this riveting chapter and can’t wait to read more. Here’s an excerpt to help you see why we’re riled up:

She was also witness to a burgeoning — well, maybe feminist movement wasn’t the right word for it; but with pacification, and a marked decrease in the need for protection from neighboring hostile tribes, the role of women in Dani society had greatly expanded. Of course women still did most of the work, farming and mending what little clothes they wore and watching after the children, as well as the pigs (which, along with sweet potatoes, were the staples of their diet). But the men’s lodges, the center of all important discussions of a political or economic or social nature, and formerly off-limits to all married women, were now a place where everyone in the village gathered to talk and eat and tend to everyday chores in the company of their family and friends. The division between the sexes was not as clearly demarcated as it had been in the past, and women were rushing in to fill the void left by the enforced cessation of (formerly incessant) tribal warfare. Social gatherings focused less on the planning of attacks and the mourning of the dead, and more on the communal tending of the fields and the improvement of the settlement. And Amnesty was a witness to all of it.

The Dani made her feel like one of them; every moment she was there she felt more alive than she had at any time before in her life. When she was there among the Dani, she didn’t have to try to live. Then one day, near the end of her first full year at the Dani settlement, a wave of concern swept through the small village. She had never seen anything like it in all her time there. Some of the men looked scared, and they were muttering names that were unfamiliar to Amnesty, as they grabbed spears and other weapons long disused and gathering dust as old war trophies in the men’s lodges. It appeared to her to be something right out of the literature, with the men of the village gathering to repel a surprise attack on a remote outpost.

Wow! That was my initial reaction to this chapter. I honestly had to read it a few times before I could stop being simply fascinated and try to look at it critically. Wes, I find it very fascinating that your initial question to the group was whether there was enough action content to sustain this chapter. I sometimes think you are completely unimpressed by your own ability to mesmerize the reader as well as your ability to weave unique and complex content into a character’s on-the-page experience. Somehow you make it completely reasonable that a character would go to church, call to mind her time spent in the highlands of New Guinea, and regale the reader with tales of the Dani people that somehow link to her own need for both action and atonement.

For someone just joining this discussion, I’ll say loosely what unfolds in this chapter. A character with the unlikely name of “Amnesty,” who is non-religious, goes to Catholic mass because it offers a place to think without the usual interruptions. That’s wildly ironic because the cacophony going on in her brain is deafening. Amnesty is a little Hamlet, in that she’s kind of stuck in her life and subsequently tortured. On a past anthropological visit to the wonderfully bizarre Dani villages, she pulled a Captain Kirk and got way too involved in the daily goings on of the isolated modern-primitive Dani. Her bosses kicked her to the curb, and now poor Amnesty spends more time planning her next move than actually making it. Of course, in church she can’t help but turn her anthropologist eye on the rituals of organized religion, and her opinions are not surprisingly damning. If we read what she thought in an academic paper, it would be fascinating. But putting the character in scene and having her dissect the religious ritual as it unfolds is beyond riveting. But then it gets better, because despite her brilliance, we see how stuck in place she is. She’s rooted in that pew and rooted in place in her life. We think it’s because of her screw-up on the field trip; but as the layers of her life are further implied, we realize her dilemma goes much deeper. Having read other chapters, I also know that her wacked-out upbringing further ups the stakes for poor Amnesty having any semblance of a peaceful inner life.

Much of the time reading, I forgot we were in church and felt completely transported to the Dani village. That is a strength of the writing, although I ultimately thought you could consider leaking out the Dani story en route while Amnesty observes the mass ritual and letting the climax of the village story (which, sorry readers, I’m not gonna tell ya until the book comes out) intertwine with that horrific (from Amnesty’s perspective and mine as well) moment when the chanting priest holds the wafer aloft and all of Amnesty’s missteps among the Dani and her interpretation of the mass collide. That wafer waving moment is important in this scene, and I think you could slow the writing down to highlight it even more. That’s really my main comment: that I’d love to see the church scene and the village scenes told more concurrently until we hit that ultra moment of tension and imagery in both.

As for the interpretation Amnesty herself needs to take away. I would like to know whether you agree with the reading that even while Amnesty doesn’t believe in the religion she observes, her time in church is nonetheless akin to religious action. I find it drastically ironic that your non-believing character nonetheless enacts a sort of religious interpretation of the mass service: a prayer, inward meditation, an account of her past sins, and, finally, seeking atonement. It’s completely masterful, and I’m dazzled by your skills.

Finally, about said photojournalist: That’s an awfully sexy career, and I’m all in favor of wild sex in a cheap hotel with a thrill-seeking photojournalist. But I think the hotel romp adds too much of an ending to this chapter and sends it in a different direction. Once mass is over, I really think the chapter should be too. Of course, don’t cut the sex scene. Pretty please. It’s wickedly great. But consider moving it to another chapter and possibly separated from the mass chapter. Let us all wait to find out the bedroom coda to the conclusion of Amnesty’s day in church.

The only other thing I have to say is please hurry up and finish writing this book so everyone can read the whole thing. It’s going to be a hit.

XO Laurel Leigh

Geez, Louise. Laurel got to say all the important stuff before I could jump in with my 2 cents. Your initial question, Wes, was “Is it OK if nothing HAPPENS in this chapter?” Hmmm, I say, hmmm. Well, the way I see it, it doesn’t matter whether something physically happens in this chapter, but something darn well better happen to launch Amnesty into the search for her brother. I mean, I enjoyed learning all these things about the Dani people, BUT I’m not reading a book written by Margaret Mead (although I have read her work and enjoyed it). I’m reading a book about murder and the messed-up lives being lived by “Love” children, with a little side helping of Margaret Mead. So, while it’s all well and good (don’t you hate clichés, but they’re so useful) for you to include this info about the Dani, I think some of it should either leak through in earlier chapters, with the final leak being the moment with the hatchet. That will then deepen our understanding of the moment where we see Amnesty conclude that she must take ACTION. Use this chapter as the launchpad for the search.

I want to understand the scene where she’s moved to kill but thwarted by cultural taboos. As it is, I knew something had terminated the interaction, but I wasn’t sure what. It’s a critical moment in the story, and I’m not there yet. I DO understand that her interference got her fired, but I don’t understand how her interference completely altered the events between the two warring factions. Give me more there.

As an aside, I think you need to weed out those authorial intrusions that distract, you know, the ones where you can’t help but pass judgment on the situation or add a little pointed but subtle commentary, thinking that reader won’t “get it” otherwise. Some may be in there to elicit chuckles. And some may be in there just because you find them entertaining (or maybe you’re too close to see them). Kill them!!

Oh, and get rid of that sexy scene in the humid hotel room. It distracts and sends us off in a different direction, as Laurel said. OK, I agree with Laurel: put it elsewhere. It’s entertaining. But when I’m in church, I want to be in church or with the Dani. When the church scene ends, we should be following Amnesty into the heart of darkness, so to speak.

Nuff said. Now finish this sucker! I want to read the whole thing!

Cheers! Jilanne

 

Photo of cathedral interior: Pixabay.

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Section 13

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?’ Continue reading

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The Mission

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Terri McAllister posing “shoeless” in 1987, many years before the collection was thought about.

Hello from the Dogpatch! Today we’re talking about “The Mission,” a story from Laurel Leigh’s ongoing Shoeless collection. In this story, two sisters both define and defy their daily struggles to survive when they head to San Francisco’s Mission District, hoping to get days-old Roma tomatoes at a grocery giveaway so they can cook a special 4th of July meal. This story was inspired by Laurel’s experience volunteering at a food bank. You can find the full story in Volume 12 of Clover, A Literary Rag. Feel free to jump into the fray! Your comments are always welcome and much appreciated!

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Clover, A Literary Rag, Volume 12

If you’re in Whatcom County, Washington, on February 12, Laurel Leigh will be reading from “The Mission” as part of the biannual Clover reading event at Village Books. You can submit to Clover here.

[from”The Mission”]

Thursday morning, Celeste put on her good dress, her one pair of heels, and did up her hair. It was her day off and an outing, even if it was just going back to the Mission District, where she worked most days anyway, but on Thursdays it was for the grocery giveaway that only some people knew about – although more had been showing up each week – and sometimes the actual grocery store (not today though, on account of Mrs. J). She and Cel had talked about whether there would be enough gas for both the giveaway and Mrs. J’s house and decided not to risk it. It was sixteen miles round trip to get to the market where the owner gave away the didn’t-sell foods each week before his trucks came to restock the shelves. Adding on Mrs. J’s would mean two more miles each way – it wasn’t so much the distance but all the time in city traffic that burned up gas – and knowing Mrs. J, she’d find another reason not to pay until next week.They had set out two cans of green beans and one cream corn to bring along and trade with old Miss Florence, who didn’t eat fruit, so they would most likely have extra apples or soft bananas, which could usually be counted on, but it was tomatoes they wanted today – Roma tomatoes. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and Celeste planned to make baked lasagna with ricotta cheese and Roma tomatoes layered over. It had been their grandmother’s specialty, every year on the Fourth and once for Celeste’s eighth birthday. Celeste had saved up the rest of the ingredients, including some McCormick’s Italian seasoning; all that was needed was the tomatoes. Canned could be used for the topping, but there was nothing like plum Roma tomatoes. Most would use a Roma for canning or a sauce, but Grandma had known the secret of bathing them in garlic and layering them over lasagna. Of course, it was a gamble that there would be any tomatoes today, even week-old Heirlooms, but Celeste couldn’t help but hope. The market sold Romas out the front door so they were always a possibility for giveaways. Only two were needed; if there were four, they could go in a salad. They planned to make the lasagna in the morning, then Celeste had two houses to clean but would be back by six,  in plenty of time to pack up the rest of the picnic and get down to the pier to watch the fireworks light up the bay.

 

Jilanne: The Writer's Shadow

Jilanne: The Writer’s Shadow

Sooooo, Laurel, dahling. This story is going to be a great addition to the Shoeless collection. It contains such quiet despair, despair that grips so many who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. I LOVE the quote: “Cel looked stricken, like she’d cry but didn’t want to spare the moisture…” Wow. These two women have nothing left. They can’t even waste their tears. The same with the imagery  of the juice from the tomatoes, bleeding through the fabric of Celeste’s skirt and onto the pavement. They are being bled dry. Watching these two women try to put together enough money to get across town for free food handouts, only to find their efforts thwarted at every turn, is so painful. Painful in a good way. Because it feels real. The scenes with the ice cream and the boyfriend who’s a GG bridge painter add so much to show their desperation. You have done your job well. For the opening paragraph, you may want to take a look at Alice Munro’s stellar work in the way she deals with brief flashback intrusions. She’s the master of giving the reader just enough background detail without losing our footing in the present. The vast majority of my comments are about location details. San Francisco’s size is contained to a few square miles, so I think you need to get a map from 1969 and decide exactly where these two women live and where they have to go to work and get food. Now, the SF of that time period was one dependent on buses since BART was just being constructed. So specific details such as bus schedules, daytime temps, etc. will finish out what is already a fine story. Oh, and I’m not sure that people would want their houses cleaned on the 4th of July. Wouldn’t they be busy having BBQs with lots of people hanging out? But that may just be me. Keep on keepin’ on! Well done!

 

mug shotWes sez:

‘The Mission’ is the story of two sisters struggling to make ends meet in 1960s San Francisco. Celeste, the older sister, wants to make lasagna for 4th of July, her grandmother’s recipe, but can only manage to assemble all the ingredients for the recipe by going to a weekly, charitable give-away at a grocery store on the other side of town in the Mission District.

I once heard it said that all it takes to make a good story is to chase your hero up a tree and throw rocks at her. You throw an awful lot of rocks at Celeste.

And while the stakes in the story might seem small — a few, fresh Roma tomatoes are all that Celeste desires — you do such an expert job raising the stakes, and the tension, that by the end this reader was so fully invested in whether these two sisters were ever going to manage to get their groceries home, I thought my head was going to explode.

You do a fine job laying out Celeste’s plans for getting to and from the market where they hold the food give-away. Her plans are sensible, no-nonsense, and highly detailed, which makes the world of the story feel lived-in and true. I can think of no higher compliment for a work of fiction.

But I would like to talk a little about the time and place in which you set your story. Near the end of the piece you tell us it’s 1969. I don’t need to tell you this was a time of incredible political instability and foment. None of this comes through in the story. Neither did I ever figure out, until you told me, that the two sisters in the story were African-American. Given that the piece is set in the Mission, I assumed they were Hispanic.

Two African-American sisters living in late-1960s San Francisco would have been awash in social instability and revolutionary sentiment. The two sisters seem a little too mature for that sort of thing, but it was everywhere in the air. I think they might drop at least a few asides about what it going on in the streets around them, since it would have been impossible to avoid.

As for your setting, San Francisco in July — I don’t think I need to quote you that apocryphal bit about how cold it is in S.F. in the summer, the one that’s usually attributed to Mark Twain. The heat of the day actually plays a small role in your story; you might need to rethink this.

And as a final note, having two sisters with names like Celeste and Celia seems almost cruel. The names sound much alike — not to mention their nicknames, Cel and C — that my head was all a-muddle by the end.

Otherwise, a terrific story. Simple and elegant and true. Good job!

 

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Upside Down

Hello from the Dogpatch! It’s dogfight time again, and this time we’re duking it out over an essay by Laurel Leigh, slated for a collection called Home Is a Handstand.

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His familiar voice on the phone takes me backward in time, and I want his speech to be the language of Coach, those reassuring tones that let me know I can jump and fly oh so high, only now he’s just this regular guy, sounding baffled and hurt at being snubbed by a gal, and as yet unused to the garb of the newly divorced. And looking to me as someone who’s been there (twice) and seems to have it all figured out, and asking me for advice on ways to cope. Advice I can and do give, from that adult part of myself, the older, wiser me whom the other versions grew into. — from Home Is a Handstand.

Wes PierceWes sez: Let me say, first off, I found this essay deeply moving. The manner in which you expose yourself and lay bare your deepest feelings for two of the most important men in your life — your father and your former gymnastics coach — is both brave and, in its way, awe-inspiring. I might even have cried while reading this piece; but, being a man, I cannot possibly admit to that. So I’m going to punt on this one and say I ‘might’ have cried.

The essay starts off with a terrific opening line about deciding to get fit again at the (comically specific) age of fifty-one and three quarters. This opening line establishes the tone of the piece from the outset: funny and self-deprecating and cutting-to-the-bone in its honesty. The notion of losing weight and getting fit again also serves as a nice framing device for the piece; but the real heart of your essay — for me — is about learning, through time and experience and pain-staking trial-and-error, to heal one’s self.

The narrator (or protagonist) of the essay has reached a point in her life where she yearns for the company of another person, specifically a man. More specifically, the old male friend with whom she shares long phone conversations about his recent divorce and his lurching attempts to get back into the dating game.

There is a nice informality to the tone of the essay, which serves to undercut (in a good way) the anguish and loneliness that permeates the entire piece. If the piece didn’t have this informal, self-deprecating tone it would be almost too painful to read. But as it is now, the essay is both funny and entertaining. The reader is not entertained at the expense of the narrator’s unhappiness; the reader is instead drawn in by the brave and funny voice of the narrator, and in this way the reader can both sympathize and empathize with her. We have all been there, longing for someone who can’t see our longing, even though it’s written all over our face.

There is also an overarching feeling of loss running throughout the essay; the sense of time passing, and the feeling that there’s nothing we can do to slow or stem the flow. We can only sit back, stunned, and marvel at how quickly the years have slipped by. But to leaven this sense of loss, in your essay there is also a buoyant sense of not giving up, of continuing the fight. There is the funny, uplifting sense of not going gentle into that good night, of raging — hilariously — against the dying of the light. Continue reading

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Sunshine Superman

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Image credit: 123RF / Marianne Oliva

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.

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Laurel Leigh

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

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Jilanne Hoffmann

 

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

 

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We Should Do Something

Hello from the Dogpatch. In December 2006, Dogpatcher Laurel Leigh’s 21-year-old nephew was arrested and charged with the murder of his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. Below is an excerpt from the book-length memoir Laurel is writing about the events, along with our comments on the manuscript. As always, your comments are appreciated.

anthony inmate pic

He never gets angry at me for saying I’ll do things that I don’t do, or for not writing very often anymore, or forgetting to send a book he asked for. I’m one of the few people on the outs as he calls it who bother with him at all, so he can’t afford to get angry with me for fear of pissing me off. How hard must that be, to ask and ask and then have to be content with the fourth or fifth that comes back, late and offhandedly?

“I love you, Aunt Laura,” Anthony says, after the next time Helga breaks in to say that we have one minute of talk time left.

Does he? I wonder. Can he? Can I? It’s harder and harder to sustain a relationship in this void, where he is frozen in time and place, his days composed of interminable sameness . . .

 

Jilanne: The Writer's Shadow

Jilanne: The Writer’s Shadow

 

Laurel, Laurel, Laurel,

I’ve known you forever, and I saw the first pages of this years ago when the story was raw and shattering. It hasn’t lost its power over the course of time. In fact, the story has deepened to the point of ache, a heartache so profound that I’m not quite sure where the pain is coming from because it seems to be everywhere.

I do hope you find a place for your memoir, because it needs to be out there for the world to see. And perhaps raise questions that will end with some positive result. I can only hope. And that leads me to the biggest point I’d like to make about your opening. Continue reading

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