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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Critique of "The Mask"

Here's the critique I posted about "The Mask". Some of the story was a little disturbing, but not for the reasons you'd least, not in my opinion.

I think when you write about abuse, there is a carefulness that's necessary. You have to understand things that you don't want to explore, motivations, desires - the whole lot.

One of the worst books written about abuse was "A Boy Called It". The reason? Because even while writing it, he never understood why anything happened - it just did. So, he pulled you through all these awful events, slamming you from one room to the next without any idea of what might happen next and certainly without an explanation.

Compare that to "The Lovely Bones". There were extremely harsh scenes in that book, but she wrote it in such a way that you felt she had your hand and was saying, "I know this will be hard to look at, but it's necessary and I'm going to be here the whole way." She had examined so many different angles of the true events that happened to her that she didn't need us to read them and then tell her what it all meant. She wrote with purpose and direction.

Read "The Mask" again and see if you agree with what I wrote about it. I'd love to hear your comments - even the hard ones.

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Critique of The Mask by Desirea Auten
by Cass Van Gelder
Having grown up in a maniacally abusive household, I’m familiar with the language – verbal or unspoken – that is conveyed by someone who is experiencing this. I’ve done my fair share of “fantasy writing” when it comes to this topic and it can be mightily cathartic. However, the fact is that’s what this story is – fantasy.
The majority of people in real abusive situations spend so much time ashamed and blaming themselves for all that happens (partially because the abuser usually helps that misconception along by saying things like, “If only you were better/prettier/faster/thinner/different, I wouldn’t have to hit you” or “Why do you make me hit you all the time?”), that they are never in a position mentally to do what you described in this story. What you’ve written reminds me of the early Julia Roberts’ film, “Sleeping with The Enemy”. After years of being abused, cajoled, tortured, and pampered (the wide swings of the emotional pendulum that are the trademark of a dyed-in-the-wool manipulative abuser), she leaves her abuser only to be tracked down by him a few months later. When it seems she’ll die at his hands even though the gun is in hers, she picks up the phone and calmly tells the 911 operator that she’s just shot an intruder. And then she does. You see what I mean. You may never have seen this film, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard of these sorts of ends – the abused kills the abuser and then triumphs.
I think you have a first draft of what could be an interesting story, but I think you need to find a fresher angle. Here’s what I think you have working in your favor:
1.   Her confusion over the abuser’s responses – that’s real – particularly after he abuses her, she cleans up the mess, he comes back, and gives her an empty apology that she believes because she needs to believe it. She lies there thinking, gee, I must have dreamt all this earlier junk. That’s classic. However, the scenes you’re using are pretty much scenes that have been used before.
Turn to any Lifetime Movie of the Week and you’ll see something similar.
I know there’s a temptation to respond to this part of the critique by saying, “…but that’s how it happened”. I know I did when I first wrote a story about being beat up. I said, “… but that’s the way it happened. That’s what he said to her.”
“So what?” That’s what my reader said. She said, “So what? I took a dump today, too. That was real. I can tell you exactly moment for moment how it happened and I could say, ‘…but that’s the way it happened.’ Want to read about it? I didn’t think so.”
You have a story that’s rife with emotion - for the person who experienced it and for the people who never have. The ones who experienced it or are currently experiencing it, they are listening to you
to know if you’re the real deal or if you’re an impostor. Because if you you’re the real deal and you write about getting out, they’ll see it as a map and they’ll follow it. Don’t kid yourself; they will.
They look for key words, for key phrases.
2.   Key Phrases - The first one I read in your writing was “white noise”, when you described what the main character heard when he yelled at her because she was in such shock. (And let me tell you,
if this didn’t happen to you, lady, you are a better writer than you think you are. If this did happen
to you, know that right there was one of the first times I saw you dive deep for something to
connect you with your reader.) This is important stuff, that connection. Other times that I
recognized this as having wonderful, connecting veins of truth:
a.   When she cleaned up after he exploded
b.   When she continuously accepts the apologies, though there was an obvious escalating
pattern of explode-abuse-disappear-apologize-stroke-rinse-repeat going on
c.   When she started having second thoughts about her prank, even before he discovered it. That stuff usually starts seeping in once you subconsciously pick up a pattern
d.   Her apologizing after he exploded, as though she was already learning to take responsibility
for his issues
e.   Her approaching the cleanup of his explosion with executive thinking – I have to clean this first because if I wait this will be harder because it will dry and this will be blah blah blah…
I didn’t understand the “A few moments later she got her wish.” sentence because she hadn’t wished for him to come down in a tirade. I’m guessing you meant this to refer to “…and listened
for the sound of his laughter that she was sure was about to come.” If that’s the case, though,
she didn’t’ get the laughter, either. In any case, it was confusing.
Some open-ended questions I had -
a.   “…the most idyll of her life” I think you meant “ideal” here, but I could be wrong. In any case, give us something more specific here. What is idyllic in her world? Feeding the homeless in Africa while on safari? Floating down the Nile in a small yacht he rented just for the two of them? Staying home and watching TMC 48 hours straight while eating home-delivered Ben and Jerry’s recipe he had specially designed for them? Give me something so I know more about them both. Put a face on them, other than the one painted in concealer.
b.   “…she was so in love, she was blinded to what was happening right before her eyes.” Give me an example. Show me this rather than telling me about this. Show me how wrapped up in love she was with him that she couldn’t see what was happening while the audience is screaming, “Walk away! Walk away!”
c.   Skeleton of a story - This reads more like a skeleton of a story, without the flavor that the meat brings to the meal. Give me the flavor. Tell me about the flecks in his blue eyes, not just how his eyes twinkled; or if you do tell me they twinkled, tell me how they twinkled, under what circumstances they twinkled. Tell me how when he pulled out their one new Baccarat crystal glass they were given as a wedding gift, his eyes twinkled from the reflection of the future he saw when there would be an entire collection of similar glasses.
They say that when your view of your life changes or your relationship, how you described how you met or your wedding will also change. For instance, your main character, rather than describe just how lovely everything was when they met, she should have the benefit of a swollen 20/20 hindsight, hypersensitive to who her abuser was now that she can see him for what he is, but also maybe she mistakes simple things as indicators of his “abusiveness”. Maybe she edits her memory of their wedding story by including a bit about him pinning her corsage on, pricking his finger, and getting overly angry until he realizes she’s paying attention to his reaction.
There’s a good framework here, a good start. I think the ending is not realistic, however. That said, it doesn’t mean you can’t rewrite it and make it work.
I would suggest this for the ending. Maybe change the setting to these events she’s reflecting on that happened in the beginning of their marriage. She endures them, but only finds the courage to kill him once he’s completely incapacitated by old age, or a stroke, etc. As I wrote this, I was reminded of a recent episode of “Boardwalk Empire” that dealt with this. Gillian, who had been plied with alcohol and subsequently raped at age 13 by the Commodore, waits 20 years to get an unexpected revenge when he is incapacitated by a stroke. Once they are completely alone, she slaps him – hard – on the face. She pauses, staring at him. And then she does it again, harder still. And again, and again, finally getting some retribution for all he had done to her so long ago. So many times, this is the truth of the situation – the abused wants so badly to leave, to defend herself, or (the unthinkable) get retaliation. It’s so rarely afforded them. That might be interesting to read.
I would love to read your next draft or a new story with a plausible, maybe even comical way, for your female to give the abuser his comeuppance.
I’m looking forward to reading your next go-around.

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