Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday's Critique


Today's critique focuses on two particular maxims of the publishing world - show don't tell; and it's all about the voice. I think today's entry, Cold Summer, aptly raises both these issues...but more about this in my comments after the piece...

COLD SUMMER
Sammy Davis Jr. was no relation to the famous twentieth century performer. For that matter few people he knew even had regular jobs, at least not legitimate jobs. Anchorage Alaska's Sammy Davis Jr. made his living as a small time drug dealer, primarily marijuana and ecstasy. He dabbled here and there with other drugs but being afraid of the stiffer penalties for cocaine or methamphetamine, neither of which he used himself, he avoided them as much as possible.

As a supplemental source of income Sammy committed the occasional burglary. For the most part he stuck it to businesses, alleviating a great deal of the guilt that straddled his conscience. He hated the thought of leaving a family’s children crying from nightmare images of a bad man breaking into their home. And he certainly didn’t want to crush a woman’s heart by stealing her wedding jewelry or some keepsake. He may be a professional criminal but he still had morals, even feelings. Hell, he even cried at movies sometimes, like when that girl died in Bridge to Terrabithia or when the farmer said "Well done pig" in Babe.

While he didn't rob the homes of families, that moral barrier didn’t include people’s cars. Wallets, purses, laptops, even an occasional gun, were all for the taking if some idiot left a car unlocked, or not locked enough. That Saturday morning though, Sammy Davis Jr. made a slight change in his routine. He'd never robbed a church or a synagogue. Sammy had always felt that while he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make it to heaven he didn’t want to totally blow whatever chances he had by burglarizing God’s house.

Both of his parents were religious people, Messianic Jews (that is Jews who hold to Christian beliefs about Jesus). Sammy had been both Bar-Mitzvah’d and baptized as a teen. He hoped that somehow those actions and his parent’s prayers might redeem him. Churches and synagogues were out of the question. But a Mosque, that was different. Or so he had told himself.

My Critique: First off let me say that I did like the tone - a distinct voice is starting to emerge (particularly re: crying at the movies and the morals of this small town drug dealer) but at this stage it isn't quite strong enough to carry off what is essentially a first page of exposition. Starting off with nothing but narrative is a tricky thing to pull off but in order to succeed the voice must be amazing - it must be enough to lure a reader in and keep them turning the pages.

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do and I would recommend that the writer consider starting this story off with a Sammy in a compromising position which can enable the exposition and voice to come through in smaller chunks. Perhaps Sammy is trapped in the mosque he is trying to rob (?), or he is facing an angry accusatory cleaning woman there...some kind of situation (possibly farcical given the satirical edge to the piece so far) which reveals to the reader who Sammy is and also gives some action that can help draw the reader in.

At the moment the piece feels a little too stiff and forced (too much telling and not enough showing), and maybe a situation with characters, action and dialogue all in motion will help give it greater momentum. As for the voice - I think, again, some action and dialogue may help strengthen this.

The juxtaposition of Sammy's inner voice and what is happening around him could add further humor as well as tension to the piece. Voice is one of the hardest elements to explain (you kind of know it when you see it) but I do see strong glimmers here - though at the moment it seems constrained by the lack of action. My recommendation? Brainstorm some scenarios that allows this background information and voice to come through to greater effect.

So what do you all think? any other suggestions for the author of Cold Summer?

15 comments:

  1. Clare, I liked this piece. No, scratch that. I liked it as a rough idea for an opener. Like you said, there are some good elements to build on. I could see it turning into something like this:

    "Sammy Davis--"

    "Junior, yeah, like it says on the card. Can I have my smokes, Hooked On Phonics?"

    The store clerk looked at his Alaska driver's license, again, and then back up at his face. "You ain't..."

    "Right faith. Wrong shade. So, no. No relation."

    The clerk stared at him. "Right."

    "You gonna give me my menthols or what, Billy Bush?"

    "Sorry." Embarassed, the clerk pushed the pack and the lighter across the counter. "Can I ask what you--"

    "You can call my publicist if you want further comment." Sammy shoved the cigarettes in his pocket and walked out.

    If asked what Sammy did for a living, most people in Anchorage would answer, more often than not, "Couldn't tell ya. Don't think he even has a regular job?"

    He liked that.

    Sammy made his living as a small time drug dealer--weed, ex, some other stuff here and there. Never coke or meth, though. The penalties were too stiff. He never used himself, avoided those bad boys as much as possible.

    He did the occasional B&E too, as supplemental income. For the most part, he preferred to stick up businesses, alleviating a great deal of the guilt that straddled his conscience. The thought of leaving a family’s children crying from nightmare images of a bad man breaking into their home bugged him.

    His weed connection, his "distributor," so to speak, used to always say, "If you're gonna steal, steal jewelry. That's where it's at, Sammy D. Five minutes ah work for five g's. Can't beat it."

    But, Sammy had always said, "No, I don’t want to crush a woman’s heart by stealing her wedding jewelry or some keepsake, just not my thing."

    He may be a professional criminal but Sammy still had morals, even feelings. Hell, he even cried at movies sometimes, like when that girl died in Bridge to Terrabithia or when the farmer said “Well done pig” in Babe.

    He didn't mind looting cars, though. Wallets, purses, laptops--the occasional gun--all were for the taking if some idiot left his car unlocked, or not locked enough.

    He looked at the metal crescent on top of First Masjid's dome as he walked by and stopped. For some reason, maybe curiosity, maybe bravado, a little voice in his head perhaps, Sammy decided to make a slight change in his Saturday morning routine.

    He'd never robbed a church or a synagogue. He was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to make it to heaven, but, just in case, he didn’t want to totally blow whatever chances he had by burglarizing God’s house.

    Both of his parents were religious people, Messianic Jews (Jews who hold to Christian beliefs about Jesus). He'd been Bar-Mitzvah’d and baptized as a teen. So, churches and synagogues were out of the question. But a Mosque, now, that was different, right?

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  2. This feels more like a character study than an opening, as if the writer is still exploring, still trying to find the character.

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  3. I agree with the comments made, Clare. This is pure exposition without action. And yes, this is an interesting character, but nothing is happening. And it would work better with dialogue mixed with some action that paints a more vivid picture of this guy in action, hustling.

    The start of a book needs something more. This reads like a chapter in, not a beginning. And there's a thing I call a Defining Scene where the author introduces their protag in one specially crafted introduction to the reader. They do this in movies. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't just walk into his first scene and deliver lines. He makes a worthy entrance that defines his character by his actions and dialogue so the reader knows exactly who and what he is in a minute. In Robert Crais's Two Minute Rule novel, his gentleman bank robber is robbing a bank, but stops to render aid when a woman collapses during his robbery. And he gets caught by breaking the one rule he NEVER breaks--staying longer than two minutes. In that one moment, the reader knows who this guy is by what he does.

    This author has a vivid character in mind, but he needs to be fleshed out by a Defining Scene.

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  4. I agree with the comments made, Clare. This is pure exposition without action. And yes, this is an interesting character, but nothing is happening. And it would work better with dialogue mixed with some action that paints a more vivid picture of this guy in action, hustling.

    The start of a book needs something more. This reads like a chapter in, not a beginning. And there's a thing I call a Defining Scene where the author introduces their protag in one specially crafted introduction to the reader. They do this in movies. Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't just walk into his first scene and deliver lines. He makes a worthy entrance that defines his character by his actions and dialogue so the reader knows exactly who and what he is in a minute. In Robert Crais's Two Minute Rule novel, his gentleman bank robber is robbing a bank, but stops to render aid when a woman collapses during his robbery. And he gets caught by breaking the one rule he NEVER breaks--staying longer than two minutes. In that one moment, the reader knows who this guy is by what he does.

    This author has a vivid character in mind, but he needs to be fleshed out by a Defining Scene.

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  5. First off Sorry - I'm not sure what weird stuff is happening with the formatting but I have tried to fix it three times and it still reverts - so apologies this post is very hard to read...But I'm glad so far we have some agreement re: the need for a bit more that character exposition. Anonymous, I liked how you used dialogue to reveal character and humor. As Jordan says, we need a real defining scene to open it up and get the reader going. As JJ says, it does feel more like an exploration of character - perhaps the author could brainstorm some other scenes fleshing out the voice a bit more and then see what comes out. I often write scenes that help me explore something with a character knowing that most of it will not make it into the book. It is freeing somehow just to explore the character is this way until the voice becomes clearer.

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  6. Thanks to fellow TKZ er, Joe, the post is finally reformatted so we can read it! So feel free to give our author any more suggestions or comments.

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  7. Clare, excellent critique. Your comments are right on. This is all exposition and backstory. We need to start with a character in motion, so Sammy breaking into the mosque would be a start...then, all narrative should "sound" like Sammy, not the author. It's a fine line, but the one who pulls it off every time is Elmore Leonard. That kind of specificity would really increase the readability level here. I'm interested in this character, but I need to be captivated by him.

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  8. Good critique, Clare. This is one big info-dump. It needs a complete rewrite with much more exposition through action and dialogue. The character sounds interesting but he's given nothing to do in this opening, which is usually the kiss of death for a novel.

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  9. Jim, Elmore Leonard is a great example and, given how talented he is, how hard it is to pull it off. I agree Mike, action is key.

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  10. It definitely needs to be a more active voice, less tell and more show and all that.

    I spoke with the author of this piece and he said "yeah, it's an early piece that has been shelved, unshelved and reshelved several times over the past couple of years and nearly tossed more than once, but keeps coming back."

    That being said I...uh...he thought that it needed more dialogue as well, and action, but didn't really think hard about it until after he posted it here.

    Therefore I..uh..he gave it a once over this evening and came up with this...

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  13. Cold Summer - rehash

    “I’m not doin’ it,” Sammy Davis Jr started for the door, “I told you a hundred times, no houses unless they are filthy rich bastards without kids.”

    Frank snorted, “Look Babe, you are a burglar why don’t you just admit what you do and stop pretending to be freakin’ Robin Hood.”

    “Don’t call me that! I said no, and that’s final. I’m out.”

    Sammy stormed out and climbed into his ratty looking eighties model pickup surprising Deano, the ratty haired mutt he had found wandering around half starved the previous summer. While Anchorage Alaska’s Sammy Davis Jr. was no relation to the famous singer of the previous century, he was a fan of the Rat Pack, hence the dog’s name The bent door hinges squeaked and the frame rattled violently when he slammed it. He gave a quick tug to make sure it wasn’t going to fall off.

    “Jerk,” Sammy grunted as he turned the key in the ignition. Deano cocked his head, ears raised in that weird half way look that made him look like he was listening. “Not you, boy. You’re cool. I just wish my other friends were cool like you.”

    He turned the key and the engine ground several times then when silent.

    “He thinks I’m a wimp cuz I won’t break into people’s houses,” Sammy turned the key twice more before it erupted to life. He slammed the truck into reverse and quickly backed up. Deano gripped the seat to avoid sliding to the floorboards as the truck lurched back. “I just can’t stand the idea of some little kid crying cuz I broke into his house and made him scared forever, or some wife bein’ all upset after her wedding ring goes missing. No way, I got feeling’s you know.”

    He braked hard when the truck hit the road, yanking the wheel to face the truck toward south Anchorage and sending Deano sliding uncontrollably across the vinyl bench seat. He flipped the truck into drive and floored the gas, spitting gravel from beneath its tires as he shot down the road.

    “We’ll see who’s stupid.”

    The truck bounced over a rut in the road, making Deano’s head nod as if he agreed with his human.

    “Yeah, you’re my real friend boy,” he reached over and rubbed Deano’s head. “As for Frank, I’ll show him. I’ve got a big score coming and he’s not going to be part of it.”

    Deano laid his head back down on his paws.

    “Frankie thinks I don’t have what it takes cuz I won’t sell coke or meth,” Sammy said. “I’m not stupid, everyone who ever sold that for him ended up in prison. Frankie says I’m a wuss because I cry in movies. Can you believe that jerk, if he had any feelings he’d have cried too if he saw Bridge to Terrabitihia, cuz that was sad when that girl died. And I hate it when he calls me Babe, just cuz I get choked when I hear that farmer say “Well done, pig”.

    As they rounded a bend, the dog slid closer, his head landing on Sammy’s lap. Sammy absentmindedly started massaging Deano’s neck. The dog didn’t try to back away from his human’s caress, not wanting to lose the chance.

    “I may not rob homes, but that moral barrier doesn’t include people’s cars,” Sammy admired the cab of the truck. “I mean, where does he think I go this perfect ride? Not to mention wallets, purses, laptops, even some guns. That stuff is all for the taking if some idiot left a car unlocked, or not locked enough.” He laughed at his own joke.

    “I’ve never robbed a church or a synagogue either and that doesn’t make me a wuss. Cuz you just don’t wanna mess with God’s house.” He kept talking but Deano, having heard the story before, drifted off to sleep on his lap. “I’m pretty sure I ain’t going to make it to heaven but I don’t want to totally blow whatever chance I got by burglarizing God’s house. Both of my parents are religious people who pray for me a lot," he kissed a finger and pointed to heaven, the closest thing to a religious gesture he did these days.

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  14. "Yup, they’re Messianic Jews, you know what that is Deano? That’s Jews who hold to Christian beliefs about Jesus. I’m one of them too, you know. I was both Bar-Mitzvah’d and baptized when I was a teen, so there’s a chance in there somewhere. Churches and synagogues are out of the question. But a Mosque, that’s different, cuz those Muslims don’t believe in the real God, so I won’t be stealing from Him, just taking stuff from a bunch of pagans right?”


    Whaddayathink?

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  15. Getting there, Basil! Much better with dialogue and action!

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