3rd SR Crapometer #88

Dear Miss Snark,

TITLE: "He Looked for his Mother"

GENRE: Family Drama Survival

WORD COUNT: 80,000 words


A series of everyday random events collapse Harris Elliot’s world when he loses his wife and two of his children in an auto accident. Left to take care of himself and an infant Son, Harris slips between harsh reality and visions of a psychiatric hospital. A forgotten past which holds the secret of survival for the future. ( A Sentence Fragment which holds the key to my response)

Thank You.


Sincerely yours,

“He looked for his Mother”

Despite all we are told, life is not dynamic and ever-changing. Life is in fact a series of snapshots. Millions and millions of instamatic portraits of a given time in space. The pictures are pressed into our memory or at least version of a memory, until we pull them out, dust them off, and look back and wonder if we really knew the people in the pictures, including ourselves.

Zap. We can talk about Instamatic as a brand name, thus a proper noun. We can talk about omniscent narrator who sounds like a voice over in a high school hygiene film when they made the boys leave the room. We can talk about the value of telling me the name of the character early on.

Snap. Snap. Blurry images. Confusing pictures. He looked for his mother. Small, sad, blue eyes scanning the blurry, unfamiliar faces. Confusion, people swirled around him. Finding no sight or smell he knew among the faces pressing close, he cried and cried and cried. His father walked with him in his arms, in ever tightening circles, the room of people closing in on him, offering help, suffocating.

They walked out the front door, the damp, sticky March air chilling. He pulled the baby closer. His footsteps hard and hollow on the gray concrete. Their only solace from inside. They wanted to help, needed to help. He understood, but he could not let go. For his 3 month old son was all he had. He tried to breathe, his chest hurt, pushing air out instead of in.
The crying slowed to broken, stuttering sobs, his father crying with him, until he could not see. Walking instinctively, an imaginary groove worn in the sidewalks they walked endlessly in the last two days and nights.

He knew too soon, the family, the friends, neighbors would be gone. Slowly drifting back to the living and their lives. They would be missed when the house was dark and empty.
The voices of the baby’s sister and brother missing, only a distant echo swallowed by the walls and by . . . No broken staccato laughter when he tickled them. No screaming at each other in one breath and laughing in a darkened room the next.

The family, designed somehow to fill the bottomless void, would be missed, but now, now he needed to breath. To breath (is this you being all artistic and shit? cause it works better if you spell the words right) in the smell of his baby. To feel his fuzzy hair and warm skin next to his. They only way they could sleep now, in short fitful frames, pressed to one another, crying, wearing themselves into broken, empty dreams of exhaustion.

They were in front of the house, again 5 minutes. An hour. He had no way of knowing. The baby had given in, crying himself to a fitful sleep. His arms asleep, numb from carrying him. . His house. Ironic. His house filled with people who wanted to help, but he did not know how to let them.

Shadows and voices and lights filled the house. He hoped, prayed for a moment of quiet, empty house, but he knew they would be there. Everyone parted, then pressed in against them. “No. No.,” he pleaded.

They collapsed into the bed. The bed he and his wife bought. The baby slept, for now. Soon, he would stir again, looking for his mother. He could not sleep. Only listen to the voices. Slowly, very slowly, the voices faded and the house settled to sleep, creaking, popping, sighing.

The crying scared him. Disoriented him. The crying was next to him. Reflexes came to without the benefit of full consciousness. He swept the baby into his arms. “Shh,” he whispered over the piercing cry.

They staggered into the kitchen, lights, voices, family emerging in their wake. They were in his house.

He quickly mashed together cereal and bananas and forced it at the still crying mouth, now propped in a high chair. Finally, after much negotiation and the rapid dissection of the cabinets, refrigerator and kitchen, the baby agreed to some juice. They fell into the big chair; the first piece of new furniture he and his wife bought.

Another picture. Smells. Horrible, retched smells. Urine, vomit, sweat, blood. The pungent odors seared his nostrils and permeated the room. Lifeless, bland, sickening colors.

This is a mess.
Get some help.
Critique groups are a good start.


Anonymous said...

Miss Snark -

GO TO BED!! It's almost 2 am already on the East coast!

S William said...

I have a hard time believing that someone really wrote that. Maybe it was tape recorded during a bad LSD trip, and transcribed years later. Snap!

Anonymous said...

Author, you may not have intended for it to sound like a slow build-up to child abuse (or neglect) but it does. Terrifyingly so: "forced it at the still crying mouth". Plus it sounds too much like untreated mental illness, and when an infant is involved . . . well, it brings back that awful sense of dread I felt while reading "Sybil" except that was written really well. I'd reconsider writing this at all.

TMack said...

You say in your query that [i]"A series of everyday random events collapse Harris Elliot’s world."[/i]

I'm wondering, is that the reason your protagonist seems to be awash in disassociated images, thoughts and feelings?

I like the idea of using snapshots as a vehicle as long as it is structured smartly and used sparingly. It can help create back story, transitions or whathaveyou. With the introduction of the 'idea' of snapshots in your opening, I can barely follow the facts, i.e. (1) What are your snapshots showing? ([i]I’m confused. Are they mental pictures or photographs?[/i]) (2) What's happening in the plot? And, (3) how do the two interrelate if at all?

You say, "Harris slips between harsh reality and visions of a psychiatric hospital."

Writing the story is not the same as 'being' the story. The reader is overburdened with "Snap. Snap. Blurry images. Confusing pictures." It doesn't make sense - at all.

When you start paragraphs with pronouns i.e. "They" or "He". The reader is wondering, "Who?" and "What?" and "Huh?" It's another unnecessary hurdle. Do your characters have names? Again, the story is blurry, vague, confusing and the tone feels removed.

Have you considered that the reader may completely disagree with your opening paradigm or find it nonsensical? As follows:

[i]"Despite all we are told, life is not dynamic and ever-changing. Life is in fact a series of snapshots. Millions and millions of instamatic portraits of a given time in space. The pictures are pressed into our memory or at least version of a memory, until we pull them out, dust them off, and look back and wonder if we really knew the people in the pictures, including ourselves."[/i]

What if I want to give your omniscient narrator a good shake after reading that? I think it's naive to dish up a paradigm of reality in the first paragraph if you expect to hang onto your reader. That is, unless you can follow up immediately with a compelling hook that won't let go of me. I'm not compelled to continue, however, especially by descriptions like the disembodied baby, as follows: [i]"He quickly mashed together cereal and bananas and forced it at the still crying mouth, now propped in a high chair."[/i]

Do you MEAN to say the "crying mouth" was propped in a highchair? Why is this baby disembodied? Everything is just too disassociated, too unplugged from a reality that I can or want to relate to. It doesn't draw me in. I feel the opposite.

The Unpretentious Writer said...

If you're looking for a good use of mental imagry under the context of mental illness, there's nothing better than 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'.

McSwilligans said...

Submitter, please forward me the number of your LSD dealer. My current stuff is shite.

M. Takhallus. said...

Miss Snark is overly harsh, Tmack is on-target. There's some good imagery and I don't mind you playing with sentence structure and giving us fragmentation. But it reads more like a short story than the start of a novel.

Anonymous said...

Clarity is generosity.

Anonymous said...

I think by '...retched smells' you mean '...wretched smells'. Your computer's spell-checker will, of course, pass both as OK. A dictionary (a proper, printed paper one) can be very useful for avoiding the similar-sounding words trap (ridged/rigid, retched/wretched, etc. etc.). If you have the slightest doubt about whether you've used the right word, look it up!

writerdog said...

If you want to critique my writing, great, I appreciate it. Clearly it needs works; this is why outside perspective is needed. But personal attacks are not necessary or welcome.

Thanks for you input everyone.

RainSplats said...

I liked the first paragraph. However, since I'm in the minority, perhaps you could make it an epigraph? *ducks* Maybe it's something taken from the journal of one of the characters.

"His father walked with him in his arms,..." That phrase is confusing. I reread it five times and still didn't understand. I thought they were both walking as they hugged.

"He" is used both for the father and for the baby without any help as to which the author is talking about.

Remove the picture intros: snap snap, etc. You can show the pictures w/out this and the reader will be less confused. Try using chapter breaks.

Use names.

Writerious said...

In three very short paragraphs, we go from the voice of the omniscient narrator to the POV of the baby to the POV of the baby's father. And I'm still unclear where the baby's brother and sister went to.

I'm wondering if the author has experienced death of a loved one, and perhaps I'm wrong in wondering that because everyone's experience is different, but something in this doesn't ring true. I'm wondering if either the author hasn't had such an experience and is drawing from television dramas, or has had such an experience and is having trouble getting it all down on paper. Because it's not all like this. Yes, there are the bits where you're wandering around the house like a lost puppy, or where you lock yourself in the bathroom and howl out your grief into a thick towel so no one else hears, or you want to slap your neighbor's Aunt Marge who never met the deceased but has still decked herself out all in black and is sitting into the living room pretending to weep into her hanky, but there are also the bits where you go and do the dishes because even though death has altered your life forever, dishes still get dirty. And someone has to go to the deli and get some sliced meat and cheese and bread for all the people who are going to come over. And when they come over, they'll talk about old times and laugh and you'll be struck by how surreal it all is but you'll find yourself laughing, too, and wondering if it's okay.

Writerious said...

Oh, and this bit: "...Smells. Horrible, retched smells..."

I think you want "wretched, not "retched." "Wretched" is an adjective describing an unkempt state. "Retch" is a verb meaning "to vomit."

TMack said...

A comment on mechanics:

"They fell into the big chair; the first piece of new furniture he and his wife bought."

The semi-colon (;) is a full stop. So, if you want to use it to closely connect two independent clauses (i.e. clauses that stand alone and could also be separated by a period) make sure you don't create a sentence fragment like, "the first piece of new furniture he and his wife bought".

Or, you could use a comma in place of the semi-colon in the existing sentence.

Anonymous said...

Who's doing what here? Are you deliberately conflating the baby and the father? Because otherwise, you're shifting so rapidly from baby's POV to father's POV that it gives me whiplash, and I can't tell whether it's the baby doing something or the father doing something.

Does it work better if you've got different fonts for the different POVs?

Snapshots are great. Little vignettes of memory. But what you've done is confusing, because it seems that there are two memories here, one of the father and one of the baby. I don't know about other folks, but I sure as heck don't have memories from when I was two months old...?

Anyway, rather than the amorphous "he", when you shift POV, maybe you could do "the father" and "the baby", then segue into the pronouns?

Miss Moore, Please! said...

I like it.

As far as the whole snapshot thing goes, it seems to be a glimpse(a way of catching and holding onto something) inside the psyche of grief--for the people most affected. So, I think it works (for what that's worth).

Love the "staccato laughter." Beautiful.

As for the whole "retch" thing, I took it as something that this person would like to purge, but can't, because it's so permeating. The image, that is (supposing that there is one at all).

I don't know much about the whole point of view thing, or if it really matters in the long run, but a three month old baby would not be likely remember at all)(which would maybe explain the whole point of view thing). Again, like I said, I don't know, and it probably doesn't matter. LOVE IT!

As far as the whole mental illness thing goes, readers should NOT play shrink. And writers shouldn't be concerned with that sort of thing from an artistic standpoint (again, just for what it's worth). Real life is usually a real leap!

"Moore," please!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

I'm trying my best not to sound mean. I don't intend any of this to be mean.

I wouldn't send this to a critique group. It's not ready for that. What you need is a basic understanding of how words work.

I can't think of anything softer to say than, "Your grammar sux."

There are glimpses of talent here. But they're so hidden by bad grammar that they'll never be more than a flicker without some remedial education.

Most school districts offer low cost English classes for adults. Take one. Take two, and call me in the morning.

Seriously. That's what you need.

There is a world of difference between a good story and a good story well told.

There is a place for sentence fragments, non-standard grammar and such. It's usually in dialogue

Good writing is about cadence, rhythm, the natural flow of ideas and images. Bad grammar muddies the images. Fix your grammar; then find your voice

sex scenes at starbucks said...

When I read your synopsis, it sounded pretty cool. You got a character in trouble, with more conflict on the way.

However, I agree with Tmack. Whether they agee or disagree, readers hate to be told what to think. Coerce us, woo us, fuck us and leave us, but DON'T tell us what to think. Writers are guides, not gods, contrary to (our) popular opinion.

The first graph is telling, not showing. You've given away your entire premise and your literary device in one graph. Why should I read on? Get me inside your guy's head. Let me learn about the insanity. Let me come to my own conclusion about that snapshot frame of mind. (ok, couldn't resist.) Jerking me from POV to POV, even if it's necessary for the story, is not a good idea on the first page. I need to build a relationship with your guy and the crying baby won't shut up so we can do that.

However, I think this, and other issues, will be easily rectified by moving your POV into first person rather than omnicient. Play around with that and see if it refines your voice a bit. Oh, and ditto on the crit group. Most successful writers have one.

lizzie26 said...

In critiquing, people aren't attacking you, just your writing. First rule as a writer: Get thick skin or don't submit.

Your query: I saw one just like it on a writer's board about a year or so ago. Most writers found it to be too cut-and-dry.

I think with your story you're trying too hard to write in the literary form. Set your work aside for a week or so, read all you can about writing, then revisit your work.

Stacy said...

I got the impression of the man's pain very clearly, but everything else was wasted words.

Evoking emotion is only one part of writing. One also needs to pass on some useful information so the readers can follow the plot.

I hope you have a plot.

otto said...

Try the first person pov on this, since I question why the third person pov narrator would be so disjointed, though I would accept it from the protagonist. There are some confusing pov changes between the baby and the father because of the same reference of "he" or "his."

Like the idea, like the writing style but it does need a bit of tightening up I think, and this scene in this voice goes on a bit too long and just touches tedious. I don't mind a slow build, but I do have to learn from it what's going on.

pulpfiction said...

Author, You have the freedom to be as creative with language as you wish. What bothers me is the frequency of poor grammar, punctuation, random capitalizations, and the like. That's not creativity; it simply demonstrates a poor education. (Typos don't count, IMO.)

That said, for my taste, the sentence fragments and loose constructions are overused. Your ideas will be clearer and more effective if you learn and apply standard English, and keep the reader in mind as you communicate your thoughts.

There's nothing wrong with tripping on LSD or your mind-expander/destroyer of choice, but when you approach the common ground of writing for readers, be a tad more understandable.

One specific question: "Harris slips between harsh reality and visions of a psychiatric hospital." Do you intend to say that when he's not experiencing harsh reality, he is seeing visions (or hallucinations or mental images of some sort) of a mental hospital? Or that he is physically going to a mental hospital? Or that he's afraid he will have to go to a mental hospital?

Admittedly, I don't much care for ambiguous writing. I read for pleasure and while I'm willing to work hard during parts of a book, I want to be rewarded with some meaning. Quickly.

It's nice to see something with depth. The effect of this piece is too detached, though.

Linda Adams said...

What is the character's name? I got all the way to the end of this and never found it.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Sometimes one needs a parctical demonstration.

I wouldn't write this story. It's not me. But here are your words (more or less) pruned down to the thoughts behind them. And here are your words with the confusing grammar cleaned up.

This is only a first edit. I wouldn't be happy with this. It's not how I tell a story. But this is your story, and your thoughts, and your voice.

As you read my revision, ask yourself if what you write says what you mean it to say.

I'm not trying to be offensive. I'm doing this because I think you have some raw talent.

Here's my rewrite:

“He looked for his Mother”

[delete everything you have to this point]

He looked for his mother. Small, sad, blue eyes scanned unfamiliar faces. People swirled around him, and faces pressed closely. He sobbed. His father carried him through the tightening circle of people offering help.

His father carried him out the front door in to the damp and chilling air. His father snuggled him against the cold, and he heard his father's footsteps, hard and hollow on the gray concrete.

His father's chest hurt, and his breathing was shallow. Jason's crying slowed to broken, stuttering sobs. His father cried with him until neither could see.

Family and friends would be leave. The house would turn dark and empty. The voices of Jason's brother and sister were only a memory. Their staccato laughter would never again be pulled from them by his father's tickles. They would never scream at each other, and they would never laugh with each other.

His father needed to breathe. He needed to take in his baby's scent, to feel his fuzzy hair and warm skin.

Mark said...

This is clearly autobiographical, because almost everyone thinks their personal tragedies are fodder for a novel. Most aren't and the garbled execution is one reason why. The story is the other.

writerdog said...

Clearly, the writing needs work. I appreciate the comments; I really do.

But when there are references to the writer and LSD, this is a personal attack and not a critique on the writing.

What came across to me, did not come across to the reader. Again, I emphasize why it is important to have others read and offer comments.

This is also the beauty of writing, we are all entitled to our own style, preferences, and commentary.

Thanks again.

McKoala said...

POV is all over the place.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

oh my


His father carried him through the tightening circle of people offering help.


His father carried him through the tightening circle of people.


Family and friends would be leave.


Family and friends would leave.

I really should learn to proof read.

Chumplet said...

Writerious: Wow. Your description of the surreal life of a wake is bang on.

Sha'el, you're very kind to the writer.

Writer: Listen to them. They know what they're talking about. The regulars have helped me a lot.

zotar, coolest word verification ever said...

"First rule as a writer: Get thick skin or don't submit."

Yes. Thick skin is required. But isn't it like building a callus? You don't conjure up a callus. You go to work first, get painful blisters, bleed some, and slowly build up that protective skin. Same with rejections and harsh comments. They gotta hurt before they stop hurting.

Writerdog, one point of a thick skin is that it lets you take away what's useful, no matter how harshly it's presented, and discard the rest. Some of the most useful comments I ever got still make me wince. Yup--they were worth it. My work got published. That's all I care about.

Amendment of first rule: Get thick skin WHILE you submit.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Zotar, dear, thank you for writing that. I'm not doing my best at the moment, and it's hard for me to measure my words. I wanted to be helpful to this person. I don't think I was.

If our writer comes back, I hope he sees that not everyone who posted in this thread was as unkind as he thought.

What we write is often, though unaccountably so, as precious to us as are our children. Editing is akin to murder. But our words aren't our children. They're our ideas. And our ideas are at their best when they're sharpened, refined, and purged of foolish conceit. We must refine what we write, or people won't read it.

I have another life other than posting on this blog. I used to lecture (on topics most boring). People would often make comments after the lectures. They were usually nonspecific though appreciative comments.

I learned to ask what specifically they liked. Their answers would tell me if I made my point. I asked them how I could improve. Now, you know I didn't take all the improvement advice. Some of it was silly. But some of it was very good.

When we submit our ideas to a public forum, we will get mixed reactions. Almost never will we get uniformly good reviews. This is not a bad thing. The bad reviews can be the most helpful. They are some of the strongest reactions to our writing. They show us how we made someone feel.

Analyze the reactions. Seek their cause. If there is a fault in your presentation, or in the quality of your ideas, make changes.

One last point (have you noticed I can't "shut up" lately? I'm not sure why. Live with it for now, ok?) is this:

Good writing depends on good grammar. Be willing to learn it. You don't need to become an expert grammarian. You do need the basics. And you need to recognize dissonance in your writing. There are times when rules should be broken. But to break them successfully, you have to know what they are.

Did I help this writer? I don't think so. This is my last try. Writer, you presented your words for our analysis, and you got the analysis. It was some positive and there were many negatives. Most of the negatives, even if expressed in terms you do not like, are valid points. They are at least points to ponder. Even those who were personally critical did you some service.

I submitted to "big name agent." She was my ideal agent. She turned out to be a rude snot who held me and what I wrote up to public ridicule. I'd never resubmit to her. But I learned from the exchange. She was abusive, but she educated me. I don't do what I did then. Writer, it's your turn to learn.

writerdog said...

Apparently there is considerable confusion about my reactions and the readers intent.

It is not about being thick-skinned, it is about being open to new ideas and perspectives. As I tell my children, listen to what people have to offer, most of the time they are trying to help, then decide what you want to do.

Yes, much of the advice offered here has been helpful. As I indicated it gave me much needed perspective. Am I likely to ressurect this piece or move on to something else? I do not know.

I never said the words were not appreciated.

Once again, thank you.

Natalia said...

I think this needs a lot of work, but it's not beyond help. You've been offered a lot of good advice. Remember grammar. Emotional and intellectual clarity. Don't attempt to dazzle the reader with linguistic pyrotechnics. You have a real story buried underneath them. Dig it out. Brush away the extraneous stuff.

Anonymous said...

Ya think this person read, 'A Million Little Pieces' first and then tried to write?

My writing stinks, but compared to this writer I now look like a gem.

Jo Bourne said...

I think this was probably more fun to write than to read.

It should be the other way round.