Tag Archives: writing critique

Dogfight: “Dearest” by Laurel Leigh

10__Red_River_of_the_NorthHello from the Dogpatch, and welcome to the dogfight! Based on a childhood experience, Laurel Leigh wrote an early version of this story as a pre-MFA student taking creative writing classes at U.C. Berkeley Extension in 1999. That first version was one of few student stories selected for an SF Bay Area reading night. Being the type of writer who can let stories sit for a very long while, it’s been through numerous revisions over the years and the plot now continues where the actual events ended. A previous version titled “The Raffle” was selected for both the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and Tin House Writers Workshops. Laurel plans to include this story in her collection in process, Gracie and Them, and meanwhile may submit it separately.

The photo above is of the rumbling north-flowing Red River, seen where it divides Moorhead MN and Fargo ND, a key location in the story now called “Dearest.” This newest title was suggested by Wes during our meeting, and we think it will remain the title. 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. (photo credit: The Red River: Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Excerpt from “Dearest” (formerly “The Raffle”)

When I’m even with Snee’s front door he walks out of it. I stare at him and forget to pedal. Maybe it’s a rock or that old pothole again, but something bounces into my worn-out chain and it snaps. I go over the handlebars in a kind of somersault, shut my eyes, bounce into the street. When I look again, Snee is staring down at me.
 
He’s the blondest man I’ve ever seen. When he reaches toward me his thin wrist sticks out from his striped shirt. I’ve only seen cufflinks in the Sears-Roebuck catalog, never anyone wearing them. The ones on Snee’s shirt look like clock faces. I’m wishing so hard I’d talked my daddy into letting me keep a dog and that dog was biting Snee on the leg. Then he’s so close, his hand on my shoulder, and I know he’s going to kill me and I should pray. The only prayer I can think of isn’t a prayer. It’s the recipe for butternut pie.
 

jill-hoffman-e1331589180324From Jilanne:
Well Laurel, You’ve got yourself quite a lovely, devastating story here! It has evolved so much since the group first read it. I love how you’ve eliminated an unnecessary character and dialogue, both distractions from the critical components of the story. The result is a much more concentrated or condensed, however you want to view it, version, one that’s driven by voice and tension. The voice of the little girl reminds me of the young female narrator in Ellen Foster, a slim novel written by Kaye Gibbons, a southern writer. She’s both funny and heartbreaking.

I have three suggestions for WWMIBFM (what would make it better for me).

1) I need just one more brush stroke to anchor me in time. I want to know how much time is passing between the loss of the money and the festival, and the confrontation with Snee and his being “dealt with” by the town. Otherwise, I find myself distracted from the story by having to guess. Continue reading

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Listening Hard: The Puzzle of the Writing Workshop

~ Guest post by Wendy Scheir ~

 
The greatest analyst in the world can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being.

– In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm

NYU Film School, circa 1987.

We blink in the dim light of the auditorium, dazed and subdued by the atrocious rough-cut just screened by a fellow student. We are sleep-deprived, beset by a feeling of unreality induced by months working on each other’s insular, chaotic film sets, chain smoking, downing Oreos for dinner, hunching over editing tables. Now we’re showing rough-cuts, itching to get done and out onto the festival circuit—eagerly awaiting our sparkling lives to begin.

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The student, Steve (I’ll call him Steve), the one responsible for this mess of a movie, stands up front, face grim and ghostly, peering out at us, his critics.

We’re fidgeting, trying to think up what to say. Someone coughs. Someone fails to stifle a snicker. Finally, a voice rises from front row center.

“Don’t cut a frame.”

The voice belongs to our leader, head of the graduate film school. His words are incisive, his pacing deliberate, his tone soaked in a cocktail of boredom, sarcasm, and the purest disregard. Dick—his name is Dick (really)—says no more.

Steve looks like he’s been punched in the gut. I mean he visibly recoils. His lips quiver. These words, this feeling, will sometimes float to mind even years later, after he has groped his way to a fulfilling career in some distant field.

***

It’s thirty years later, now, and we’re in a thoughtful, sophisticated writing workshop where critiques come in forms more muted, with less intention to do harm. But they can cut as deep.

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What to do with these comments?

Let me pause a moment to say that workshops can be wonderful. They can support, nurture, inspire. They can help a writer find her voice. They can furnish insight into the craft of writing and bring kindred souls together.

But even the most generous and intelligent of commentaries may be unconsciously laced with the residue of hidden anxieties, skewed by distraction, pride, envy, disappointment, confusion, self-doubt, even by fear. Very often comments packaged in one form actually mask something else entirely.

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Critiques and Critics come in many guises. Here’s a sampling of a few I’ve encountered:

The Befuddled Psychologist

is fascinated but wants to know more. “I wanted to know more about the grandmother!” she cries. Plunge in, she urges, probe deeper. Uncover the motivation, give back story, furnish flashbacks from a traumatic childhood. Above all: Explain! Explain! Explain!

The Stereotypist

believes there’s only one way a person would possibly act. “A mother would never let a swimming teacher push her child into the deep end,” contends this critic. A fireman would never turn and run from a fire. A farmer would never get attached to his cattle. It would just never happen. Continue reading

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Group Writing Critique: “Abandon Hope” by Jilanne Hoffmann

Welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a snippet from a short story by Jilanne Hoffmann, followed by critical comments. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed!
  • From “Abandon Hope”

I flip through the pages until I find the map of hell I’d been trying to draw. I trace the outer circle that says “Limbo” with my finger and then spiral through the circles until I reach the Circle of the Violent and remember Henry memorizing, “But now look down the valley. Coming closer you will see the river of blood that boils the souls of those who through their violence injured others.” I look up quickly to see if Henry is sitting in a dark corner of the basement waiting to jump out and scare me, but he isn’t. I haven’t seen Henry for two days, and I’m ready for this game to be over. Maybe if I just sit and wait he’ll surprise me. So I slam the book shut, squint my eyes real tight and sit there, trying not to breathe. Then I turn off the lights and stare up at the constellations. In the dark I can pretend he’s right here with me.
  • Comments from the Dogpatch:

Dear Jill: This story is sick! You’ve created a truly tragic scenario in this story, made more so by the restraint with which it is told and by the narrator’s own lack of understanding of the true implications of her own innocent actions. Pile on that her mother is completely shattered by her own historical grief and unaware of who her daughter is, and this is a story that sticks with a reader long after the pages have been put down. You do an amazing job of allowing the reader to correctly intuit what the narrator herself doesn’t know, and that makes the heartbreaking effect of the story even stronger. Nicely done! I hate you! Continue reading

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Group Writing Critique: “National Pastime” by Wes Pierce

Welcome to the dogfight! Here’s a snippet from a short story by Wes Pierce, followed by critical comments. Dogpatch Writers Collective occasionally posts these excerpts of our group critiques of work in progress, and your comments are welcomed!
From “National Pastime”

They sit in their usual seats. Tony has season tickets on the front row of the first balcony, right alongside third base. ‘Best seats in the house,’ according to Tony. Her husband makes a lot of money, so he can afford the best seats in the house. But for Beryl they are not the best seats in the house, they’re the worst: she is afraid of heights. 

Tony knows this. ‘We’re only twenty feet up. Thirty, tops,’ he says, whenever she brings up her fear of heights. ‘What’s twenty or thirty feet?’ 

‘But couldn’t we sit just a few rows back?’ she says. ‘Couldn’t we sit lower down?’ 

‘I don’t want to sit a few rows back. I don’t want to sit lower down,’ Tony says. ‘You can’t take in the whole field lower down. I want to sit right here.’ 

Tony says she only has to be logical about it. 

‘You’re not going to fall, if that’s what you’re worried about,’ he says. ‘And besides, we’re only twenty feet up. Thirty, tops. So even if you did fall, you’re not really going to get hurt, you know. Not if you keep your head. If you were to fall from up here, but you kept your head, you’d be all right. Oh, you might break a leg or an arm. But you wouldn’t die or anything.’

Comments from the Dogpatch:

Wes,

You’ve got a harrowing story and a parent’s nightmare—being seated next to an obnoxious drunk at some “family” event they’re attending with their child. They don’t want to leave the seats they’ve paid good money for. They don’t want to make a scene. They want to make nice while maintaining  a psychic distance from the annoying ass and hope that nothing gets out of hand. Until it does. Continue reading

3 Comments

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