Pyromaniacs 7

Welcome to the 7th episode of #Pyro! The rules are short and easy: your job is to read this story and critique it! Please remember our purpose is to HELP the writer, so (1) focus your comments on the story, not the writer; (2) try to address story elements specifically (WHAT works/doesn’t work, and WHY/HOW); (3) be honest but kind (imagine someone is giving you this feedback). Ad hominem or mean-spirited comments will be deleted. And now, here’s a story for your reading & critiquing pleasure, with many thanks to the writer who courageously volunteered it.

Encendador. CC2.0 photo by Villegas Lillo.

Encendador. CC2.0 photo by Villegas Lillo.

The Baby Shower
Written by One of You 🙂

Karen forced a grin and thanked Ginny for the invite. Handing over the bag Karen felt the weight leaving her, the heft from her bank account.

    “You look great,” she said.

    “I look like a whale,” Ginny replied. But thanks for the gift.”

    “It’s from the list.”

    “Come through and meet the rest of the girls.”

    Ginny’s apartment had changed since Karen was last in it.  The vaguely pornographic Vargas print was gone, the cupboards had small white clips on them. Instead of the angular writing desk Ginny had commissioned to fit by the window there was an old battered bureau with soft rolling edges.

    Karen recognized some of the women. None of them were close anymore. It was the baby divide. Karen was right in the middle. Either her career was ahead of the women who’d had their beloved offspring and never intended going back to work, or it was behind the ones who’d dropped in for an hour before heading back to the office, knowing that the nanny would have the childling walked, fed, washed, and put to bed before the adults wanted to eat and discourse. Of course, it wasn’t just that which separated her.

    “Hi, I’m Irma. How do you know Ginny?”

    Karen turned to find a thickset woman who held a large glass of orange juice and a plate of finger food. She was taking large sips from her glass.

    “I’m Karen. I work with her.”

    Irma brayed, tilting her head and displaying large white teeth. “Worked with her, you mean.”

    “Sorry?”

    “You don’t think she’s going back to work is she?”

    “Well…”

    Irma laughed again. “You think she’s really going back?”

    “No,” Karen looked around the room. “Probably not.”

    “Damn right. She’s got a baby-daddy. Means she don’t need to work, she can lunch.”

    “So what about you?”

    “I ain’t never worked. You?”

    Karen smiled. “It’s not an issue for me.”

    “Maybe not now.  But sometime you’ll be deciding if you’re a momma, or a mommy. Staying home worrying about play dates and school intakes, or letting the interns worry about that crap.”

    “What d’you mean?”

    Irma sipped her orange juice and dropped her chin theatrically. “I reckon you’ve not decided if you want to stay home and look after the baby-daddy’s sprog, or if it’s the full on Nanny McPhee service for you. Of course, if it’s the second you can enjoy these.”

    She offered Karen the glass. Karen too it and drank. The orange juice was fresh, but the vodka was stronger.
“I really don’t think it’s going to be a problem for me.”

    Irma’s eyebrows arched further.

    Karen drank again. The vodka was more pronounced further down the glass.

    Someone approached from the side. “Colin? Sorry, Karen.”

    Karen bit her lip and tried to ignore Irma’s wide eyed gaze as she took her glass back.

♣♣♣♣♣♣♣

QUESTIONS you may wish to address: 

  1. Does the first line catch your interest?
  2. How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end?
  3. Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?)
  4. Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic? Sympathetic/resonant?
  5. Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling? 
  6. Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors?
  7. Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed?
  8. Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well?
  9. Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors?
  10. Does the last line effectively conclude the story?
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10 thoughts on “Pyromaniacs 7

  1. 1. Does the first line catch your interest?

    The first line isn’t particularly catchy. However, there is a clear sense that “Karen” is reluctantly going through the motions of social interaction and that she would rather be somewhere else. So, my interest was sparked by the first line.

    2. How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end?

    The story is deliciously paced. Excellent camera eye going on here.

    3. Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?)

    The dialogue is great. Information is revealed slowly, conversationally and the suspense accelerates with every step into the shower.

    4. Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic? Sympathetic/resonant?

    We get a generous helping of character development in an amazingly short space. There is a Stepford Wives vibe going on here that really rings true. At least for me.

    5. Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling?

    The writer skillfully carries us along perched on her shoulder; we are engaged at every turn. Fine and true POV. Or, more poetically, fine and true point of view

    6. Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors?

    Yup.

    7. Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed?

    A very compact almost claustrophobic (in a good way) tale that flows as smoothly as spilt milk.

    8. Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well?

    There are a couple of dénouement clues but if the key rule is to surprise the engaged reader, it worked very well.

    9. Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors?

    The story, in many respects, is as ordinary as life. The language used is very appropriate and here and there something new for this old male Canadian to behold…for example “baby-daddy’s sprog” and “Means she don’t need to work, she can lunch.” Tiny language gems, really, but satisfying.

    10. Does the last line effectively conclude the story?

    In spades. It really works well. Revelation, the sense that maybe the reader (this one, anyways) should have clued in a few chitchats earlier, lingers. Well done. Excellent tale.

  2. Does the first line catch your interest? Yes it does. I want to know more.
    How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end? It’s smooth and interesting.
    Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?) Very natural
    Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic/Sympathetic/resonant? I like how the characters develope with the dialogues. Realistic enough.
    Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling? Very clear, not so unique but interesting.
    Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors? Yes, as much as I can see.
    Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed? I think it’s believable and I don’t see any plot holes.
    Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well? I wouldn’t know anything about genre in this piece.
    Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors? I loved some of the phrases and words used, mentioned above in the comments, very new to me.
    Does the last line effectively conclude the story? Oh yes, I would never have guessed. Nice twist at the end. I always like stories which surprise me. It’s a story that can be expanded. Well done!

  3. Great story! Here are my responses to the questions posed. 🙂

    1. Does the first line catch your interest?

    Yes. I want to know why Karen’s forcing the grin. She clearly doesn’t want to be there, and the second line tells us that she spent too much money on the gift. Why? (Later, I see this might be a red herring – “trying to fit in”.)

    2. How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end?

    It moves very smoothly. It feels quite natural. I would definitely want to read more from this author.

    3. Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?)

    For the most part, yes. I had a little trouble with Irma’s lines. And while I loved the repetition of Karen’s lines, they did feel a tiny bit shoehorned in there. (The preceding questions or comments could be altered slightly to have them fit more naturally.)

    E.g.,

    “So what about you?”

    “I ain’t never worked. You?”

    Karen smiled. “It’s not an issue for me.”

    What’s not an issue? Working? I found this part confusing.

    4. Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic? Sympathetic/resonant?

    Yes, although Irma sounded more uneducated or uncultured than I think someone in her position might be.

    I do feel a lot of discomfort for Karen. Maybe that reflects my own antisocial nature. But I felt the mild anxiety I think the author wanted us to feel. Awkwardness. Fish out of water-ness. What am I doing here-ness. Etc.

    5. Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling?

    POV was clear and consistent. The flow, as stated above, is very smooth.

    It has a little bit of a chaotic feel in how the other characters are introduced, but that’s totally appropriate for the party scene. Well done.

    6. Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors?

    Mostly, yes. Here are a few very minor things I noticed, mostly regarding commas.

    I’m a little OCD, so take these with a grain of salt. I could be be wrong, or they could be artistic choices.

    Handing over the bag Karen felt the weight leaving her, the heft from her bank account.

    I think a comma might be missing after “bag”. (dependent clause)

    Instead of the angular writing desk Ginny had commissioned to fit by the window there was an old battered bureau with soft rolling edges.

    I think a comma might be missing after “window”. (dependent clause)

    “Maybe not now. But sometime you’ll be deciding if you’re a momma, or a mommy. Staying home worrying about play dates and school intakes, or letting the interns worry about that crap.”

    I think both of the commas are unnecessary here. (compound object and compound predicate)

    One might be needed after “sometime”. (introductory word/phrase)

    “So what about you?”

    Comma after “so”. (introductory word)

    Irma sipped her orange juice and dropped her chin theatrically. “I reckon you’ve not decided if you want to stay home and look after the baby-daddy’s sprog, or if it’s the full on Nanny McPhee service for you. Of course, if it’s the second you can enjoy these.”

    I think the comma after “sprog” is unnecessary. (compound predicate)

    One might be needed after “if it’s the second”. (more than one introductory prepositional phrase)

    She offered Karen the glass. Karen too it and drank. The orange juice was fresh, but the vodka was stronger.
    “I really don’t think it’s going to be a problem for me.”

    The spacing between the action and dialogue is a little off. It should either be part of the paragraph ending with “stronger” or have an additional space to start a new one.

    Also, it says “too” instead of “took”. 🙂

    7. Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed?

    Just in regards to Irma’s character, as stated above. Otherwise, no plot holes that I noticed, etc. It’s short and sweet. Very well written.

    8. Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well?

    I don’t know much about the genre this would fall into, so I’m not sure.

    But I will say that even though I had my kids at a young age, I definitely hear a lot of women complain about the pressures to have kids or how they feel left out by those that already do. I really got the impression of Karen being uncomfortable as an outsider, and I thought that was why. Another great red herring. Could be added on to a little more, but it works great as is. 🙂

    9. Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors?

    I didn’t notice any cliches. Most of the character indications come from dialogue, and it works well. In a piece this short, I don’t see any reason to describe their physical characteristics that much, although a little more might help orient us to this world. These women seem like they are wealthy or are around wealth, but Irma speaks in an uneducated manner. I get a “Real Housewives of Atlanta” vibe here. Whether that’s what the author intended or not, I’m not sure.

    The language is great. “Childling” and “sprog” are very telling, in regards to people’s attitudes towards children. (Since Karen is our protagonist, I’m not sure if “childling” is appropriate for the narrator to use or if it’s more of an “Irma-ism”. lol)

    The story flows with near perfection. There is so much conveyed in so little space. And yet, it feels even shorter than it is. Well done.

    10. Does the last line effectively conclude the story?

    Yes, but I read the story a couple of times and had to think about it for a while before I understood what it meant. The twist itself is awesome, and after I finally did get it, I was like, “Ohhh, what a great idea!” I think the story could be lengthened and more added to Karen’s discomfort to give the punch that line extra oomph. But that’s just IMHO. It could have just been me not getting it. That’s very possible.

    Great story! I’d love to read more.

  4. . Does the first line catch your interest?

    It’s not a hook, but neither is it a turn-off. It’s an entre into the story.

    2. How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end?

    It is a well-paced story. There aren’t jumps or things that take you out of the flow.

    3. Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?)

    There’s a line from Irma, “I ain’t never worked,” that read a little oddly to me. I got the feeling that Irma’s world was one of upper-crust women who, once they landed a man, had nothing to worry about. In that case, she’d probably have better grammar, if only to impress her husband’s friends. It seemed like this line was designed to imply that she wasn’t all that bright, but it felt off.

    4. Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic? Sympathetic/resonant?

    Yes, primarily Karen, of course. Ginny’s life is mostly told as backstory (her former apartment decorations, that she worked, but now spent time around people with money, etc). And Irma (as discussed before). Karen is sympathetic. I don’t have much sense for the current Ginny. And Irma annoyed me to no end. But I think she was supposed to. 🙂

    5. Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling?

    Yes. Karen is a fish-out-of-water even before the revelation at the end. I certainly identify with her POV more than anyone else.

    6. Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors?

    Yes.

    7. Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed?

    Yes. No – it was well-constructed.

    8. Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well?

    I’m not really sure of what the genre is specifically, or the rules thereof, but it was self-consistent, which is what I ask for in a story.

    9. Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors?

    Yes. Ginny’s backstory is told well (the line about the Vargas posters, etc), and the world is understandable.

    10. Does the last line effectively conclude the story?

    Yes and no. It brings a new reason into why Karen is uncomfortable here, and it opens up a wider story that I’d want to know more about.

    Thank you for sharing!

  5. As it doesn’t say we must follow the question script, I will deviate.

    First, I loved the dialogue. I felt like it was very realistic and alive.

    I loved how even though the story was about Karen and Irma, it was Ginny’s backstory we received–so creative, going through the decor! I am not really sure how necessary the dialogue with Ginny was.

    One silly thing that I got hung-up on was why there were already white-clips on the cupboards. Most parents I know (and myself) didn’t baby-proof until the baby began to getting into things. Considering, I assumed Ginny already had another child, but as the dialogue continued I figured I just read into that wrong.

    Irma was a great character. She annoyed me, and I loved that about her. I was confused as the story suggests she is in a certain upper class of society, but her language makes me believe she really isn’t part of that class. I wouldn’t want to lose that, as that is such an essential part of her character. Mentally, I pretended she was a far-removed relative to get over that discrepancy.

    I only saw a few grammatical errors. Mostly they were commas, but I am far from perfect at using commas so I am not totally sure. Also, “too” was supposed to be “took.”

    I loved the descriptions and placement of some of the words–I felt it made this story colorful despite the common scene (vaguely pornographic, angular, sporg, Nanny McPherson, baby’s daddy, she can lunch, the description of the vodka). I also loved Irma’s eyebrows as we arrived at the end!

    There were two other points I found confusing (in addition to the one already written). One was the reference to how much the baby present cost (unless I got that wrong and it wasn’t a baby present). It seemed deliberate, but I never pin-pointed why, as they all seem well-to-do.

    The other thing is, which I feel very embarrassed to admit, is I still am unsure if I “got” it. Although the general plot seemed great, and this story was built up excellently, I am missing the revelation. After much deliberation, and re-reading, I have decided on one of the following:

    1.) Karen already has a baby named Colin who is in the other room (or maybe Ginny is the nanny), and they are calling for the mother’s attention (sorry Karen, your child Colin needs you). Also, Karen is either pregnant again or looks like she is.

    2.) Karen used to be Colin (gender change). This seems like the most likely story, but only because everything else doesn’t seem likely. It took me two more skims of the story to get to this as a possibility, as I was looking for anything to make sense of that line. If this is the case, I think it would read “Colin? Sorry, I meant Karen.” Or “Colin? Sorry–Karen?” Or even better, “Colin? Sorry, I forgot you are now Karen.”

    The greatest improvement I would suggest for this really great story is to transform the punch-line into something even a naive or young reader can grasp, making sure it is obvious and clear. Something that is obvious to one person isn’t always to another. I have found this out the hard way multiple times myself! This way this otherwise great story won’t be lost on some of us less intuitive types. I sure hope I didn’t totally miss the whole point of the story (someone help me if so)!

    Overall, my favorite parts of this story were the excellent dialogue (I followed it closely to learn from–the give and take–as I feel I personally write dialogue poorly) and the excellent build-up to the big reveal.

    My only real feedback would be to work towards greater clarity “just in case.”

  6. Does the first line catch your interest?
    Yes definitely.
    How is pacing — does the story move smoothly from beginning to end?
    yep moves very nicely
    Does the dialogue sound realistic/natural? (If not, which lines?)
    all good
    Are the characters developed effectively within the confines of this piece? Are they realistic? Sympathetic/resonant?
    yep
    Is point-of-view clear and consistent? Is the voice unique, interesting, compelling? very much so
    Is the story mostly free of grammatical/punctuation errors?
    yep – only one I noticed when Karen took the glass you have too instead of too(k)
    Is the plot clear and believable? Are there any plot holes that need to be addressed?
    no
    Does the story follow the rules of its genre? If not, were the rules broken well?
    ??
    Is language used well: does the story rely on cliches and too-common devices, or does the story contain striking imagery, colorful and vibrant descriptions, powerful metaphors?
    great story
    Does the last line effectively conclude the story?
    yeah, great story, much enjoyed x

  7. I like your story. It is a great slice of life however, I’m not sure the twist works. I’ve read quite a few times now and I’m still not sure what the twist is. Sorry if that sounds harsh. I think a bit more seeding in the earlier words before the twist would give a better guide. As I said I still enjoyed reading it, I just left confused.

  8. I like it; I’m a big fan of twist endings! Rather than go through the entire checklist, I’d focus on three things that struck me.

    First, I found Irma’s dialect somewhat jarring. It meant going back and forth a couple of times when reading her lines, and that interrupted the flow of the story. I get the idea, I think; she’s a bit crass and possibly lower-class, but I’m not sure that matters. The story, particularly the twist, would still have punch if Irma were not otherwise distinguished from the other guests.

    Second, the twist at the end could be a little more explicit without losing any of its impact. I might suggest something with just a tiny bit more setup: Another guest turned and found herself in the conversation: “Irma, hi, how are you? And Colin, umm, I mean, Karen, good to see you.” Having been an observer of that kind of social interaction and seen the varied responses that it generated, I think the most power comes from emphasizing the third person’s confusion and momentary forgetfulness. And personally I’d like to see Karen take some kind of satisfaction in Irma’s discomfort, though that might be wishful thinking; I suspect that most folks in her spot would feel out of place and shy, just as you express in the last line.

    Finally, I find that the best twist endings cause the reader to rewind to the beginning and re-read, searching for clues about the nature of the twist that they might have missed the first time. I certainly did that with your story. You have a couple of nice misdirections – the emphasis on the cost of the present in the opening, for example, as a plausible source of her discomfort – and I love the hint that something else separates Karen from the rest of the ladies.

    Nice work, and thanks for sharing it with us!

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