Friday, January 24, 2014

Three Sample Performance Stories with Notes

The Scene at Subway by DM

Without a smile the teenage girl with shoulder length black hair asks, "What can I get you?" (I like this: The first three words are the ‘theme’ of the piece. We see and then we hear. If DM began with the quote, the quote would lack context. With the quote late in the sentence, we immediately get the sense that it was said coolly without human connection.)

A quick response from the man across the counter, (Is that man DM? We don’t know. He’s keeping himself detached, observant and detached. His emphasis is on showing and not telling.) and the girl reacts. She turns her back and reaches inside a Windex-streaked (Windex isn’t the only way to clean glass. But it’s a shorthand way of saying a lot of things about the general cleanliness of the place, so I’ll let it stand.) bread oven.

(“As if”: This is a reasonable judgment concerning the speed with which this task is done. In context, it implies how boring the job seems.) As if it’s a task that she’s done a thousand times, the young woman places a 12-inch loaf (We understand this is a judgment, an approximation based on observation. The menu says these things are a foot long, doesn’t it?) of wheat bread on a white cutting board covered with crumbs. She pulls two clear plastic gloves from a small box to her left and blows into each one, making it easier to stuff her hands inside. (So much good detail, reminding us how in our daily lives we look but we don’t see. Also “stuffs” is a really good very verb? Want to talk about why?)

She reaches for a knife and slices the loaf of wheat in the middle, but not all the way through. Then, opening the bread as if it were a book (Not a great comparison but in context a very effective one. This job is just the opposite of the relaxed and informative act of reading.), she sets it down in front of her. As if folding laundry on a countertop, (This comparison may also imply something about the tedium of the job. Which job would you prefer, working at Subway or folding laundry??) the young woman rolls slices of processed turkey and white cheese, and places them on the bread.

Sliding the unfinished sandwich in front of silver bins filled with (Have we talked about the Rule of Three? For thousands of years, rhetoricians have praised the effectiveness of the ‘threepeat.’) purple onions, olives, green peppers, and several other vegetable choices, she prepares to present the man (Or would customer be better?) with his options.

The girl looks up from the sandwich and makes eye contact with the man (Right here I like ‘man.’ Why?? Because it emphasizes the lack of sexual connection, which some think implicit in all commercial encounters.) across the counter. He looks down and makes a large circling motion over the vegetables with his index finger. In an orderly progression, (Is the tone of the phrase ‘orderly progression’ a little more formal than previous descriptions of the task? Yes, which through indirection emphasizes the mundane nature of the task. Right??) the girl distributes (‘Distributes’: I like the formal, multisyllabic verb for reasons just stated. Also, there’s the matter of variation. Nice contrast with ‘stuffs.’) his vegetable choices upon the sandwich in front of her.

(Momentary chaos! Don’t worry.) Unable to close up the sandwich without spilling its contents, the girl rolls it up in a piece of wax paper to keep it tightly pressed together. As (Key adverb. We looked ‘slow’ at something that happened fast.) quickly as the process began, the girl slices through the wax paper and sandwich, places it next to the register, (She is part of an assembly line, doing the same thing again and again.) and walks back to the front of the sandwich line to greet the next customer.

Summary: A nice piece of feature writing should be artful, rewarding scrutiny. Though I will ask you to have a ‘focus graf’ for some of your stories, in some cases the point is shown rather than told - though in that case I'd ask you to put a note for me at the end stating your Implied Theme. This story leads me to think through description that this particular job is boring, mechanical and unrewarding. What’s your interpretation?

Noah's Street Scene

Some may question what separates a street performer and a panhandler.  (A provocative statement of opinion suggesting the writer is an urban dweller who appreciates the nuances of city life. Though I love scene setting, not every story has to begin with a scene. In the following sentence, there is a certain formality in word choice and phrasing. Thus, through tone, the writer characterizes himself.) The skeptical may declare that there in no difference between the two. (Does ‘I’ work here? What do you think?) I like to believe that if someone has the nerve to perform in front of uncaring and potentially belligerent crowd they have some right to the (Change of pace, from formal diction to the simple and concrete.) change in my pocket.

(Boom. Big change in tone, from detached to conversational. Nice change of pace.) However, I can’t really decide with this guy. It seems as if he is able (Clever image.) to conceptually limbo under the bare minimum of street performance rapport.  I say this with lifelong respect for the (Lost art? This guy may not be doing it well, but we – urban dwellers ourselves – often see this kind of street performance.) lost art of painting oneself up and standing for hours on end. I can’t help but wonder why this guy has chosen to stand atop a milk crate in an unmistakably dank, greyish-white sweat suit. (I’m thinking I’d like more description, but for this assignment the word limit was 250.  Sometimes you have to ‘kill your darlings.’)

(Paragraphing matters! I like the fact this sentence has its own graf. That gives it emphasis. However, I’m not sure about the grammar. Who is under the fluorescent light? Placement of the prepositional phrase tells me it’s the writer, but I think he means the performer.) Under the fluorescent spotlight of the nearby (Simple detail creates contrast and makes scene concrete and credible.) Victoria’s Secret display, I (Once again self characterization through word choice: We are the superior being!) marvel as he forcefully shakes his white paper coffee cup (I like this image. It makes me sad. Passersby ignore, refused to see.) to remind passersby he is there.

(Hmmm. Check this out. Our writer is watching from a distance. He is detached.  Someone else has to trigger the street person’s action.) All seems lost until a stranger pauses in the shadows, and I am given the gift of watching a tightly choreographed robotic bow. All the while, the bulbous eyes and permanent smile of the man on the milk crate never move an inch (Uh oh. Eyes and smiles are on faces. I don’t think we need to be reminded of their location.) on his face.

(I’m thinking: Of course, you already knew he was trying to perform. You mean now he lives up to your standard.) So he is a performer. (I interpret this to me: The writer is wondering how this guy could improve his act and makes a reference to a Stephen King novel, a reference which SEEMS to end with the implication that the performer is pretty grotesque looking as is. Is that how you read it? Is this too ‘specialized’ a reference? How many readers would get the reference?) I wonder what would happen if he tried some white face paint like the pros I’ve seen before… then I imagine the clown from It and shudder.

(I like the first two sentences here.) Is he a statue? Is he a robot? Is he wasting his time or am I wasting mine? (But I don’t get the rest of this. My instruction: Rethink and rewrite.) We may never know but I still want see his dance up close- even if it will be the most expensive dollar I’ve ever spent.

Summary: In the Subway story, the narrator is invisible. Here the writer self consciously mediates the story. It is easier to figure out who he is and what he thinks.  We see his mind at work. It is significant, I think, that this approach puts more weight on the ending of the piece. He could have ended with ‘So he is a performer.’ But the writer has become a character in the tale and feels the need to end with some thought or action of his own as a payoff. I agree that he needs to have such an ending. But he has to work harder and think harder to bring it off - which he has failed to do.)

Street Corner

            (Classic beginning that foreshadows. Short sentences seem to say: Pay attention to each detail.) His hood is on. His pants are sagged down low. He wears all black, and a prepaid cell phone hangs from a lanyard around his neck.
Pacing back and forth on the corner of McAllister and Jones, (More foreshadowing. He’s a little scary.) he punches a fist into an open palm. (As an editor, I’d ask for a rewrite of the rest of this graf. He IS ‘making moves’ so you have to change that. What the writer is trying to communicate is that he is moving around, but he seems committed to staying on this little patch of ground. Also, I’m thinking another detail or two, and the writer won’t have to tell us his anxious.) He doesn’t make any moves or show any signs of leaving the corner, but he is anxious.

            (Why not cut the first two words? The writer can assert her right to sound expert about street life.) To some, he is just another part of the hustle and bustle of downtown. (I would recommend cutting the rest of the sentence after ‘stand out’ and going to ‘along with….’)He does not stand out from the rest and goes unnoticed, along with the trash and graffiti that surround him. (I would paragraph here, adding emphasis to what comes next. Also, you could cut the ‘however.’) However, there are those who do notice him and stop, as if they were looking for him. The people who do notice him are (Do we need to tell readers these are different types? I’d say not. Cutting would also open up more space for more description.) all very different: a frail old lady wearing slippers and murmuring to herself; two gangsters wearing snapbacks and gold chains; a nervous college student carrying a heavy book bag.
            (Crisp beginning to the graf.) Few words are spoken. The hooded man reaches in his pocket, pulls out an (Detail!) orange pill bottle, and within a couple seconds the exchange is made. As the customer hurries along into the depths of the Tenderloin, the hooded man looks around, then continues to pace. The day seems slow (We get it. Kill the next six words) for the drug dealer - there were only five or six customers in the 30 minutes on the corner. (New paragraph. Just that little pause suggests time has passed.) His phone rings, and, with a quick nod, the hooded man hurries north up Jones, on to the next corner. (This last sentence works for me. We hear the phone, and we see the nod. We have a direction and a street name. We know what awaits on the next corner. You don’t need to spell it out.)

Summary: As in the Subway story, the narrator is detached. As in the story of the street performer, the narrator is out in the city – in this case the tougher part of town, maybe taking just a little bit of a risk?? Is that how you read it? Or do you think it’s just showing off?

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