Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Dogs Project: The First Couple Critiques

03.27.12
by Daniel Abraham

What is the Dogs Project?

First drafts are supposed to suck.  Seriously, it’s their job.  Trying to make everything that comes out the first time perfect is the way to writer’s block, frustration, and madness (as, it turns out, is trying to get any freaking work done in the waiting room at Carmax, but that’s another story).  If y’all have been following this, you’ve seen how the first draft came out.  Now, we’re going to talk about the actual *important* part:  planning the rewrite.

I’m very lucky in that I have some really brilliant people who are willing on occasion to do me favors.  I’ve put the story out to four or five folks.  I’ve got a couple reviews already back.

Our first reviewer asked to have the serial numbers filed off, so you may speculate now at will.  The second is Ian Tregillis, author of the The Milkweed Tryptich.  I will note that Reviewer X has been following things on the blog here and Ian hasn’t.  I’ve read both of these letters several times, and I want to make it very clear before anyone else puts eyes to them that I am deeply grateful to both of these folks for thier time and attention, and I think the level of critique I’m getting here is really, really top-notch.

I’m going to post these notes here, along with the next couple three that come through, and then talk a little about what I’m taking away from them and my to-do list on the rewrite.

Critique letter #1:

This is a story about violation, fear, the loss of innocence and trust, rejection… It’s dark and gripping, and I was left with an ugly taste in my mouth at the end, which, to me, is the sign of a good horror story. 😉

So, yeah, you’re writing a story about rape. No question about it. However, in a sense it’s oddly uneven. You do a terrific job of exploring the primary emotions that occur in the aftermath of a brutal attack, but right now you’ve written a story about a mauling, and put in page thirty to be the HELLO, THIS WHOLE THING IS A METAPHOR FOR RAPE! announcement. That particular scene between Charlie and Adam fell very flat for me, simply because it was quite heavy-handed–especially with the part about how everyone knows someone who’s been victimized like this. Plus, I couldn’t fathom why Adam hadn’t said something sooner about also being the victim of a mauling (like, say, around page 14.) Yeah, yeah, a rape victim possibly wouldn’t immediately say something, but the fact that Adam didn’t say something about a dog mauling made me see how you-the-writer were trying to manipulate me-the-reader into the overall rape metaphor. Again, too heavy-handed, and by that point I was starting to kinda hate Charlie. I wanted to see him make some sort of progress, even a tiny conquering of his fear–or so he tells himself, which could add more impact to the last scene when he knows the fear will always be there. Anyway, I think that scene needs to be rethought. (And yes, I’m addressing issues completely out of order.)

While you’ve captured the fear, loss of trust, PTSD etc extremely well, there seems to be very little re the feelings of failure and shame (from self and others) that go hand in hand with this sort of trauma. For example, when his dog leaves, Charlie knows he won’t go looking for him, but then doesn’t seem to suffer any grief or loss or shame that he didn’t try harder or do something different, even while he’s feeling the relief that the dog is leaving (which was very good.) You tell us he felt guilty… but that was about it. I kept wondering why he didn’t try and get someone else to walk Dickens or take care of him. So.. why was that? Was Charlie determined to prove to himself that he could do this, prove that he could be perfectly fine and normal with his own pet dog? And then, of course, when he can’t, that gives him a nice extra helping of Failure. Even if he simply thinks later that he could have found Dickens a new home or someone to walk him, he’d feel like a jerk and a failure for not thinking of it, shame for being so broken that he couldn’t make it work, and didn’t even try to make it work. That whole scene is IMO The Pivotal Scene in the story, it’s where we see the impact this event has had on his personal life, and I think there’s much more depth to be had with it.

I confess, I wanted to see someone say, “Don’t you know what to do if a dog attacks? Why didn’t you curl into a ball? Why didn’t you yell for help?” Or even a burly guy telling the story about how a dog tried to attack him once and he punched it out cold, ‘cause he’s a REAL man y’know.

Little thing: how far away is work that a cab ride would cost him an entire day’s pay? And why didn’t he transition to a cab to the busstop? (Perhaps even feel like an idiot for doing so, with people at the busstop eyeing him like a freak for getting out of a taxi at a busstop, etc, compounding his own feelings of being Not Right.)

He never considers carrying pepper spray? Or feels dumb and naive for not carrying it in the first place?

Finally, the only glimpse we have of the More Innocent Time is memories of time spent at the dog park with Dickens. Part of me wants to see a bit more contrast between Before-Mauling-Charlie and Broken-Charlie, but YMMV and it’s certainly not a dealbreaker as far as the story goes for me.

But, overall, yes, tough story to read. Great ending. Nicely done. 🙂

 Critique Letter #2 (Ian):
Well, I didn’t get this in by the end of the weekend as I’d  sort of intimated, but if you saw how long it takes me to do whole-novel crits, you wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, here you go– one of my characteristically discursive and rambling critiques. Hope you find something useful here.
This manages a rather creepy undertone that I like quite a bit.  Pieces of this had me squirming on the bus this morning, and not just the flashback to Charlie’s assault.  It’s uncomfortable to watch somebody so badly broken and depressed.  But even more uncomfortable, to me, is seeing how he’s become incapable of meeting even halfway the unrequited love from his own dog, Dickens.  That cuts, man.
But I hit a slight disconnect between where the story is going and where I’m engaging.  My first instinct was to look at the shape of Charlie’s emotional give and take with the story — I think there’s something off there, *but*, at the same time, if I’m reading this correctly, conveying his mental state is anything but straightforward. I mean, he’s fucking Humpty Dumpty, isn’t he? As would be anybody in his position.Basically, on the one hand, as a reader, I want to have a stronger emotional engagement with Charlie.  On the other hand, I think you’re being faithful to his trauma, which means he’s incapable, or unwilling, to engage with his *own*emotions in an honest fashion.  Tricky situation.  So I had to think about this more on the ride home tonight, in order to revise my first impression, which was a little off the mark.That reaction was to think we’re missing important emotional cues from Charlie early in the story.  Such as on page 3, when Adam smuggles Dickens into his hospital room.  We’ve just been teased that Charlie was horrifically mauled by a pack of dogs, and then here, in this safe place, there’s suddenly another dog in his very vulnerable personal space.  And yet there’s almost zero emotional reaction — it’s very muted.  Without careful thought to the shape of Charlie’s trauma (or a more perceptive reader) that feels like an oversight. I got it later, but only with careful attention to what the story is trying to convey.Likewise, page 7– the mention of taking Dickens on a quick walk around the block.  There I found myself searching for a hint of how Charlie feels about being outside and unprotected (and with a dog, no less).  We do get a sense that he’s postponing the day when he has to walk past the scene of his assault, and that’s good- I like that sense of dread and apprehension.  But it comes and goes quickly, and meanwhile I’m still looking for some guideposts to tell me how Charlie feels about Dickens now; about leaving his apartment; about the fact that he had 800 unread emails berating him for piled-up work and, apparently, not a single one welcoming him back, or apologizing, or wishing him well after his ordeal.

Around page 8 I started to grok that Charlie is basically turned off. And I have no problem buying that.  Still, if he’s feeling the need to suppress so strongly even at work, I feel the need to see some contrast in situations where maintaining that emotional numbness is more challenging — at home, with the dog, walking around the block, whatever.  Some modulation.  Shades of gray.  At first I thought there’s a missed opportunity in the lead-up to Sunday, and the ordeal at the dog park.  But, on the other hand again, Charlie is barely functioning, and we shouldn’t expect him to be thinking ahead effectively.

So you’re portraying somebody who has almost completely shut down. Including, or especially, his emotions.  Which is another thing that happens to people in cases of severe trauma.  (Charlie’s qualifies.) As a reader, I’m grasping for signs of emotional trauma where Charlie probably isn’t capable of expressing them.   I mean, I see the outward signs of how he’s not functioning, but I want to get inside that more deeply.  Except his PTSD leaves him unable to access his own emotions reliably.  So what to do?

The clues are there.  Such as in Charlie’s difficulty with work tasks that ought to be, and used to be, straightforward for him. Maybe a more perceptive reader would run with those clues.  But they’re subtle.  Once the full shape and extent of his PTSD does come across, the story gets deeply unsettling.  That’s it’s strength.

Having thought about this a bit, I have one suggestion, and not one I’m particularly happy with.  This feels like a cheat, but, perhaps if there were a stronger component of self-awareness to Charlie’s numbness…  Does that make sense?  If, on some level, he’s aware of  what he’s doing, even if it’s just to the extent that he consciously swerves away from the first tremors of an honest emotional reaction, then I think I’d slide through the story more easily.  As I say, that’s perhaps a little dishonest, as the dissociation might be very deep.  But if I see him struggling to achieve that distance, I’ll have a better hook into what’s going on with him.  And then I’ll sympathize with  him just as much as Dickens when he sends the dog out, never to be seen again.  Right now I sympathize more with the dog than with Charlie.

Otherwise, of course, the prose is fine and the ambiguous ending seems appropriate.  It leaves me in a state of apprehension that might mirror in some small way what Charlie is experiencing.

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