OVERVIEW OF OVERVIEW–A couple of months ago we featured our first “Maybe Dialogue Blog”,wherein we emailed an author who was on the cusp of being accepted but needed major enough work to get one of those soft rejects us literary journals enjoy handing out. With the new year, we’ve rekindled the Maybe Dialogue Blog and have published it on our website as the Hot Opener (scroll down a second) so you can see the finished product . So without further ado, here is our Editor-in-Chief Julie Wakeman-Linn dialogue with Stacy Barton about her short story.
OVERVIEW – In this story, “I Read Chekov,” by Stacy Barton, a teenager named Ray has several surreal experiences of hearing things others cannot. He hears the pain of an old woman in the mall, the screams of a dissected frog, and the silent cries of pregnant classmate hiding in a closet at the school dance. The story is about how he navigates this gift and his place in his gang of guys.
JULIE: The premise that a teenage boy can “hear what’s inside” is terrific. The magical realism pulls me into the story, but I have some problems with the narrator’s voice. Ray doesn’t sound sufficiently male.
BEFORE JULIE’S NOTES
Disco parked out front and came around the dumpsters at Joe’s Pizza and set a pair of six-packs on the hood of Chip’s Trans Am. I rearranged the gravel with the heel of my Converse and leaned up against Chip’s bumper and drank. Nobody said much. I was glad. I was having a hard time shaking the memory of the old woman.
The rest of the guys hadn’t made it over yet. Sam would be the last to show, he’d kept his summer job, but Hank and Kowalski should be heading over cause it was getting dark. Disco reached inside Chip’s car and turned the stereo on halfway through Lay Down Sally and started making his dance-fever moves. I laughed. Chip lit a cigarette and the sun went down.
The others got there eventually and everybody talked about cars and which girl would let you feel her up and how Jerry, who didn’t hang out with us, had gotten his girlfriend Sally knocked up. I mostly kept my mouth shut and pretended to be interested in cars. The guys I hang with would never let me drink booze and flip through pin-up calendars if they knew I read Chekov, or wrote poetry, or heard the inner pain of old ladies in the mall.
STACY: Fair enough. Strangely, voice is one of my strengths – but I am not a 16-year-old boy! Truthfully though, hitting the mark for this voice is made more difficult by the fact that this particular boy is very sensitive, perhaps even an empath, and in our culture unfortunately, that equals feminine. I have written for male characters before and managed, but a young male character that has such a soft heart is hard to pull off without making him sound like a girl.
So I read back over the story with your critique in mind, and the first thing I realized was that I had mostly summarized the initial scene with Ray and “the guys” instead of playing it out. It struck me that this passive way of describing his community was – in itself – somewhat feminine. I needed more action.
Also since the young narrator is not your typical guy it is even more important to show the other more stereotypical guys in contrast. So I went to work on the scene itself, rounding out “the guys” through action and dialogue. The scene quadrupled in size after your notes! Here is some of it:
AFTER JULIE’S NOTES
Chip lit a cigarette while Disco pulled his old pickup into the back lot behind Joe’s Pizza – between the dumpsters and Chip’s Trans Am. I had parked out front; my old man didn’t like gravel dust on the Pontiac. Disco set a pair of six-packs on the hood of Chip’s Trans Am. Chip shot him a look and took them off again. The Trans Am was new – to him. Disco reached inside and turned the stereo on halfway through a Bee Gees tune and started making his dance-fever moves. I dug the heels of my Converse in the gravel and leaned up against Disco’s fender and drank. I didn’t say much; it was usually better that way. This time even Chip and Disco were quiet. I was glad. I was having a hard time shaking the memory of that old woman.
The others got there eventually. Sam was the last to show – he’d kept his summer job – but Hank and Kowalski got there just as it was getting dark.
They sauntered over and whistled at Chip’s new car even though we’d all seen it already. Kowalski got in behind the wheel with Hank riding shotgun, and they waved out the windows like they were in the homecoming parade.
“Get the hell outta there,” Chip said, and kicked them out. We all laughed.
The beers went around, and by the time Sam got there everybody was smoking and loud and loose and talking about which girls would let you feel them up. Except me. I didn’t smoke and I didn’t have a girlfriend. Of course Chip was the loudest, bragging about just how far he’d gotten with the last one. After Chip described a particularly graphic encounter, Sam dropped some news. “Jerry got his girlfriend knocked up,” he said.
That quieted everyone for a minute.
“Sally?” Disco asked.
“Better him than me!” Chip said and laughed.
I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t know Sally but I’d seen her around and the idea of her in trouble like that made me sad. Nobody said anything for a minute, but that didn’t last long; the conversation moved on to Kowalski’s hope for a new Mustang. I pretended to be interested in the compression of the optional V8, but the thought of Sally’s long brown hair was distracting and I lost track of what the guys were saying. Eventually I realized Chip was talking to me.
“What’s the matter with you tonight, Ray? Pipe up!” Chip taunted, punching me in the arm. He knuckled me and it kind of hurt, but I didn’t dare rub it.
“What the hell do you think?
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so I just looked at him and waited.
“Should Kowalski get a red mustang or a black one?”
“Red,” I said, a little too quickly. “Definitely red,” I added, shoving my hands in my pockets.
“That’s four to two – red it is!” Chip hollered and raised his beer bottle.
The others hollered and took a swig. I nodded at Chip and took a drink like everybody else; the guys I hang out with would never let me drink booze and flip through pin-up calendars if they knew what I was really like, if they knew I read Chekov, or wrote poetry, or worried about old ladies and other guys’ girlfriends.
JULIE: The teenage boys in the parking lot don’t understand the narrator but they don’t seem like a threat to him or at least they offer insufficient conflict….I felt like they needed to be more dramatic.
STACY: Some of this was discussed in my previous comment – but in particular to the conflict between the “manly men” (said with a Tim Allen voice) and Ray, I tried to heighten the tension in the scene. I was aware of my need to make sure that the conflict was rooted in action, dialogue and masculine attitude.