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All the King’s Editors: David Corbett

This post is the next in the ‘All the King’s Editors’ series, the brainchild of WU contributor Dave King. In this series, WU contributors edit manuscript pages submitted by members of the larger WU community, and discuss the proposed changes.

This is intended to be an educational format, and we hope this exercise will generate useful comments about the proposed changes–why the editorial suggestions do or don’t work. 

Interested in submitting a sample for consideration? Click HERE  [1]for instructions.

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Hello, everyone. Time once again for me to step into the editor’s chair. The following story is intriguing and well written with a strong, distinctive voice, and I think this writer is clearly capable enough, with another revision or two, of making this a fascinating story.

I have only a few line edits given the writer’s competence — largely punctuation (commas vs. semicolons) and capitalization (“Momma” when used as a proper name). Most of my other edits are cuts, where I thought the writer was either explaining too much or providing information that was better left implicit, rather than made explicit.

My principle focus will concern approach, specifically tone and perspective, and I’ll address all of that after the story itself.

Here we go:

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My momma is a healer. She heals lost souls.

We live in a huge building with a doorman who holds open the door and leads us into the elevator. He even walks us to our apartment and opens the door with a special key. Momma gives him some money when he does this and he bows at the waist like in the old movies.

I go to a private school now. , mMomma says it’s important that I learn as much as I can ‘cause she don’t want me to turn out like her. That doesn’t make sense to me. I think she’s just grand. She’s beautiful with her bright red lips and her spiky heels and silky dresses. Her hair is black and shiny and it smells like Aqua-Net. It’s never out of place. Everywhere we go people stop and stare. I see them whisper and point. They must really think she’s something too.

Our life wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we didn’t have much to eat, ; when we lived in a small apartment, and slept on a mattress laid out on the floor, and ate our dinner out of a bag. I think that’s when mMomma was training for her job, before she learned how to dress and act. That was before she learned to make herself pretty, to put on her makeup and nice dresses and heels. But she studied real hard, she read magazines and watched the women on TV. She learned how to walk straight with her head in the air. I would giggle when she walked around with a book on her head but she got real good at it and now it hardly ever falls off.

Sometimes we would practice manners. She would set the table with plastic silverware and paper plates and cups and we would practice eating like the people on TV. She taught me to say please and thank you, to talk in a low voice when in public and, most important, to disappear when her patients come around.

I used to wonder why all her patients were men, but mMomma says that women have a better sense of direction in life, that they know their place, but whereas men get lost sometimes. They forget what’s important. All I know is that she must be really good at her job because they always kiss her goodbye when they leave.

One time she let me meet one. He came in and patted me on the head and told me what a pretty little girl I was. He asked how old I was and I told him I was nine, he said I look just like my momma. I felt proud. But usually I have to go to my room and shut the door. I’m not allowed to come out until mMomma calls me. But I sometimes peek out when they are leaving–that’s how I know that they kiss her goodbye–and they always seem really happy when they go.

I asked her once what she did for them, how she healed them. She just said that they were lost souls who needed a shoulder to cry on. But none of them ever look like they’ve been crying when they leave.

The men come in all shapes and sizes. Some are old and ugly, others are fat with wiggly bellies, but they all pay in cash and according to mMomma that’s what’s important.

Once in a while she’ll get a man who’s really sick. I can tell because there will be a lot of groaning and loud noises coming from Momma’s room. There’s one man who always comes late at night, after I go to bed. When he comes, I don’t sleep much because of the noise. I can hear mMomma slapping him.; hHe cries a lot and begs her to stop, but every time he does, she hits him again. I don’t think that mMomma’s mean, I just think that some kinds of lost souls need to be punished, maybe because they didn’t have a momma like mine who taught them good manners.

Momma says you have to be careful, being a healer. That there are men who will try to hurt you, or take advantage of you, but she says that’s the price a woman pays for working alone. I found out that was true when the man with the limp came to get healed. I went to my room and peeked out my door. He had a big red scar on his face and he walked with a cane. Momma always greets the men with a smile but this man didn’t smile back. He seemed angry and when they went into her room he slammed the door behind them. A little while later I heard a loud crash and mMomma cried out. I ran to her door and asked if she was okay. , sShe told me not to come in, said she just bumped into the dresser. The man left soon after that, but the next morning mMomma had extra makeup on her cheeks and she wore dark sunglasses at breakfast.

When I asked her why, she said that she just had a headache, but her temple was black and blue and I couldn’t figure out how she hit her eye on the dresser.  Maybe some lost souls are angry souls too.

I watched real close after that, every time a lost soul came. I would peek out to see if it was the man with the cane again, but he never came back. Momma must have put up a good fight. I’m proud of her even if she doesn’t always tell the truth.

Momma said she had a special guest coming one night, . Tand that I should be on my best behavior. She said he wanted to meet me, but I didn’t know why. She looked beautiful in her best blue dress, the one with silver buttons. Her matching blue heels made a clicking noise on the kitchen floor as she finished cooking dinner. We’d never had a lost soul for dinner before, but mMomma said this one was special and that if we were both really nice he might stay for a while. She said he was an old friend, one that she knew about nine years ago and she had told him a lot about me.

#

I never met my father. Momma said he was a very sick man and that she tried her best to fix him, . Bbut then after she got pregnant.  he found another healer. She said he had seen many healers after that but he never got better. I wish I knew where he was, I would try to heal him myself. I would let him cry all night on my shoulder and I would comfort him and tell him that everything was going to be okay, and soon he would get better and he would come and live with me and mMomma again.

One night when mMomma and I were watching an old movie she pointed at the screen and said, “You see that man? That man is Cary Grant and he looks just like your father.” I watched a lot of old movies after that, trying to find another one with Cary Grant in it.

Momma doesn’t have any pictures of my father but now I know what he looks like. He is tall and handsome. He has dark hair and he smiles all the time, and he’s a good dancer. Momma loves to dance. Sometimes she’ll dance with me. We’ll spin around the living room in our apartment until I get dizzy and we start laughing and fall on the floor. Other times, when mMomma has to go out, I’ll put on music and pretend that my father is dancing with me. He’ll bow to me and take my hand just like the man in the movies.

#

I was thinking about my father when mMomma’s special guest arrived. He was tall, even taller than mMomma in her spikey heels. He kissed mMomma on the cheek and bent down to shake my hand. He said his name was Paul and that he had been waiting a long time to meet me. His hands were soft and warm and he smelled like the beach. It made me wonder what my father smelled like.

Momma served dinner at the kitchen table. We never eat in the kitchen, we usually sit on the couch in front of the television. She made pork chops and mashed potatoes and green beans, and there were little rolls and real butter, and I got to drink out of a wine glass. It was just like Christmas dinner.

After we ate we went to the couch and Paul told us stories about all the places he had been. Momma must have had too much wine because she laughed and giggled at things that weren’t even funny. One time when Paul told mMomma how pretty she was, mMomma got tears in her eyes. I asked her if she was alright and she just nodded and excused herself. When she came back she had on fresh lipstick.

When it was time for Paul to go, mMomma asked him if he was going to come again. He knelt down and held my hand and said he’d try to come back real soon, and that when he did me and him would have a long talk.

I told him I’d like that but after he left mMomma started to cry again. She went in her bedroom and I could hear her sobbing for a long time. I decided it would be better if he didn’t come back after all.

#

Momma was in a real good mood for a while. She let me stay up late a few nights and we’d play board games and sing and dance. But after a couple of weeks, she got sad. I would hear her crying in her bedroom at night. I decided when I grew up I would be a healer for mothers. , iIt seemed that they needed a shoulder too.

She talked about Paul sometimes. She told me the story about how they met, that she had gone shell hunting down at the beach and found him sitting on a rock playing his guitar. She said that his music touched her soul and that they became very good friends. That Paul was a surfer and he taught her how to surf, and how there was nothing better, she said, than the feeling of looking out at the vastness of the ocean and remembering what a tiny speck you are on earth. She told me how they had dated for a time, ; how she thought she loved him more than any other man she’d ever known. How tThey had plans to go to Vermont and see the fall colors. and how hHer sister, who was two years younger, had asked to come along, and though how she loved her sister, but she wanted to be alone with Paul. , and how hHer sister came anyway, and they took turns driving or sleeping in the backseat. , and how Finally, her sister told her that she was falling in love with Paul too, . Aand how she found them kissing in their cabin in Vermont. And how it broke her heart.

Later, she told me that Paul came to her and apologized. He told her that he loved her more than anything and he would do whatever she asked if she would take him back. And mMomma said she would. And they were happy again. For a while. They talked about getting married. And tThey talked about having kids. And suddenly Paul was afraid. Momma said his fear made him sick, that he forgot what was important and he started going to healers. Paul became a lost soul.

After that, she didn’t talk about Paul anymore, and I didn’t ask. I think I know now why my mMomma became a healer. I think she loved him very much and when he got sick she couldn’t help him and she felt bad. When he became a lost soul she decided that maybe he would come back if she knew how to fix him. And maybe she was right, because he did come back, for that one visit at least. I just don’t understand what took him so long.

Yesterday, I found Momma at the kitchen table looking at a picture. I could tell she’d been crying, but she wiped her eyes and smiled when I came in. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that seeing her old friend made her miss dDaddy even more. I asked her why she didn’t go find dDaddy and ask him to come home. I said that between the two of us we could make him better if he was still sick. She just hugged me and told me that I was going to make a great momma someday.

I wonder if Paul knew my father, because in the picture mMomma showed me was looking at he had his hand on her pregnant belly and was smiling as he looked , he was looking at the camera and smiling. If he ever comes back I’m going to ask him.

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There are some lovely touches in this story. I particularly enjoyed the mother returning from the bathroom with fresh lipstick after going there to wipe her eyes.

My chief concern, as I noted at the top, is in tone and perspective. Specifically, I’m not buying that this narrator is at one and the same time both as observant and as unaware as she is.

The risk, when allowing the reader to be more aware of the situation than the narrator, is it can diminish the character in the reader’s eyes. I felt some of that here, but mostly I just felt that more care needs to be paid to how and why the character genuinely feels and responds to what she sees.

Last Tuesday, in her All the King’s Editors post, Sarah Callender mentioned the need for a sense of compulsion, a “desperate need” in the telling. I felt that was lacking here. The narration feels presentational, rather than dramatic, because we don’t feel any urgency in what she’s revealing. Why does she feel compelled to tell this story? I address how the writer might rectify that in my comments below.

I personally find less than credible these elements:

All of this goes to perspective: I don’t believe the narrator understands as much as she does but doesn’t understand the rest. If she’s willfully blinding herself to the truth (perhaps out of devotion to her mother), there needs to be much clearer evidence of that.

Now, for tone. I can buy the aw-shucks down-home vernacular, but it seems that this is something the mother has tried to rise above. Why would she not demand the same of her child, especially since she “don’t want me to turn out like her.” (Another way to show how far they’ve risen above their previous station is to have the mother, as she drinks too much when Paul is there, fall back into some of her old speech patterns — slang, accent, verbal tics — something the daughter will notice since her mother has tried to drill those things out of her.)

I also feel as though the turn toward sentimentality undermines the emotional truth of the story. This is about a girl awakening to the truth that her mother turns tricks for a living, and her father may be one of those tricks. Or, alternatively, she is refusing to admit that possibility despite the evidence, and instead she is doubling down on her mother “healing men’s souls.” Right now, the set-up feels more like a gimmick than a genuine situation that is fully imagined and depicted. The mother’s behavior too much resembles the Happy Homemaker Hooker to genuinely reflect the life she lives.

And that’s where I would have the author turn her attention next. This is an incredibly intriguing set-up, and one that naturally inspires pathos. It needs to be imagined more honestly, with less emphasis on the aw-shucks narration and the sentimental treatment of the father issue.

Possible suggestions:

As might be obvious from much of what I cut, I think the writing overplayed its hand in places where suggestion would serve the story better, especially at the ending, which was both too long and too confusing, with both Daddy and Paul being lost souls and needing healing without the narrator getting what the reader knows, i.e., they’re the same person. (That’s not to say I think the ending I’ve suggested works as well as it should. I wonder how many of the WU community want to actually see the narrator confront her mother or Paul, and have that be the climax of the story.)

If the ending is supposed to suggest the narrator actually does know or suspects that Paul is her father, it makes everything that comes before feel insincere. (I actually wonder if the writer didn’t want the final line to suggest the narrator is not as childlike and clueless as she has seemed, but that isn’t playing honest with the reader. If this is the writer’s intent, some of that sly awareness has to be hinted at or foreshadowed some way, perhaps through questions she asks of her mother, or observations that clearly indicate she’s wise to what her mother is up to.)

If the story is about the narrator growing to an awareness of what her mother does and who Paul is, the approach has to change, because right now it reads like an account of a static situation, not one that is about to evolve into a something else, i.e., a deeper understanding of what is actually the truth. This again will require a more active narrator.

All that said — once again, the writer’s skills are strong, and I have every confidence that after another rewrite or two, she can deliver a truly remarkable story.

A few other issues:

The bit about needing to be healed is overplayed. Mere repetition doesn’t prove the point — I needed the narrator’s understanding of what this meant to develop, go deeper, and the way to do this is to have her try to fit that explanation to the disturbing things she witnesses. There’s a bit of this, especially when she talks about the man her mother hits and some souls needing to be punished, but that moment felt coy and cute, not real. (Notice that I cut the last part of this.)

The paragraph where the mother tells the narrator how she met Paul and how her sister stole him away was clumsy due to the device of using “how” to link all the mother’s admissions together. Although I might buy a nine-year-old going on like that, it felt more like an author’s mishandling of syntax than the character’s. The changes I’ve made try to preserve enough of the narrator’s distinctive voice not to undermine the effect, while making the flow of information more natural.

The doorman “bows at the waist like in the old movies,” but so does the narrator’s make-believe father when she pretends to dance with him. (“He’ll bow to me and take my hand just like the man in the movies.”) This repetition is at least inattentive. But it’s also a bit confusing, because it suggests that maybe the doorman is her father (?).

The transition from Paul’s visit to what follows is confusing. After he leaves, the mother is so sad she sobs for a long time, so much so the narrator hopes he never comes back. Then there’s a space break and: “Momma was in a real good mood for a while.” Space breaks can do a lot of work, suggesting changes in time and place, but this was too much a shift in mood not to be confusing. We need to know what happened to allow the mother to go from being so incredibly sad to being in a good mood. I realize what the writer is trying to suggest is that, despite her sadness, the mother is hopeful Paul will come back and her cheerfulness shows that. But the fact the daughter hopes that he never comes back suggests a much deeper sorrow, and makes the issue far too tangled. All we need is a one-sentence explanatory bridge (something to the effect the mother shook off her sadness and actually seemed quite cheerful/hopeful for several weeks), but the absence of such a transition felt glaring, especially given the narrator’s hoping Paul stays away.

BTW: This same set-up, except the child is an eleven-year-old boy, appears in the 2012-2014 web TV series Blue starring Julia Stiles, written by Rodrigo García. In particular, the boy’s questions as to who his father might be come within the first 15 minutes of the pilot.

Now, let’s open it up to the floor. What did you like about the piece? What suggestions would you offer the author?Do you agree with my take (and my edits) or do you think I’ve missed something? Do you want the narrator to confront her mother or Paul?

About David Corbett [2]

David Corbett [3] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [4], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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