Here we are again, presenting the work of a brave author willing to invite friendly fire. This one arrived to me untitled, and is presented as such. The italics are mine, just for the sake of clarity. I’ll see you on the other side.
Quinn Larson slipped into the gallery’s back row, settled on the hard edge of a plastic chair, and waited for the execution to begin. In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words. Instead, she found a handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats. A few stole curious glances at her with lifeless eyes. The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food. She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff as he helped her into a chair near the door. Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to. She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus. It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.
Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks. Phones and video cameras had been confiscated at security and Quinn took wicked pleasure that the prison forced them to write things down the old-fashioned way. She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.
Special Agent Dawson swaggered in next, the execution his final moment in the spotlight. He’d hunted down the monster, bringing an end to a gruesome fairy tale. He came up the aisle ahead of Quinn in the center of the row, scoping out the view. Then, he glanced at Quinn.
“Miss Larson.” He inclined his hat before removing it. They were two tiny words, just a few letters each, but they sent a live current through the assembled spectators. Some turned fully in their chairs to get a look at her, their expressions full of contempt, and her skin crawled. She was an infection to their grief, the painful itch of a murderer’s daughter in their midst. The humiliation of it rose up the back of her neck and blossomed across her cheeks. Even in the heavily air-conditioned room, her face flamed.
It’s Gilstrap again. I think the premise here is very strong. A daughter coming to witness her father’s execution is pretty stuff. Clearly, Quinn and her soon-to-be dearly departed daddy are not what we’d call close. I can only imagine the stress of feeling the heat of so many stares when people realize who sits among them.
Alas, I have not choice but to imagine those things because they are not here on the page. The piece, as submitted, impresses me more as notes for the author than as an actual bit of drama. It’s the emotional equivalent of bland spaghetti sauce. It’s the right color, all the elements appear to be there, but it’s missing the spice that makes the offering come alive.
My first thought is that the author has chosen the wrong place to begin the story. We make much here in TKZ of acting first and explaining later, and for good reason. But this scene is more emotion than action, and emotion needs to be earned. That’s a problem here. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to be in Quinn’s corner, or if I’m supposed to be as appalled by her presence as her fellow spectators are. Maybe the author should start a few minutes earlier, perhaps with an interaction with the guard at the security station, where a few lines of dialogue would give us a clue as to her status on the observer tree.
I think if there were a quick interaction with Agent Dawson, in which she asks to remain anonymous, his greeting to her in from of the others would pay off as an act of betrayal–if that’s where you’re trying to go. Have her encounter a reporter and tell him to go to hell. Lead us into her world.
Bottom line: the author hasn’t triggered empathy from this reader.
At a more granular level, some of the writing gets in its own way. Take, for example:
“In her nightmares, this room had been a chaotic jumble of torches, pitchforks, and angry words.” Remember that this is the reader’s first encounter with any of this story. When you refer to torches, a time frame is set in my head, and even though you counter it in later passages, the contradiction is jarring.
“. . . handful of stoic men and women holding each other up as they took seats.” I’m not sure this is possible. One is either sitting or being held up, it can’t be both–unless there’s a robbery involved, in which case the meaning of “held up” changes altogether.
“The warden entered next, escorting a frail woman starved as much for sanity as food.” How does Quinn know whether the woman is sane? She can appear stressed (“She picked at the skin on her patchy arms around the fraying sweater cuff” does a nice job of that), but stress and sanity are entirely different things.
“Quinn pulled her own hoodie tighter, the edges going much farther around her body than they used to.” The first two or three times I read this, the image in my head was of her pulling her hood tighter, and I couldn’t figure out how that would tighten around her body. Now, I realize that by “hoodie” you really meant “hooded jacket.” Again, because we have no lead-in to this scene, the obligation to be precise in descriptions is critical.
“She probably should have dressed up, but the act of walking through the door took all her focus.” I don’t see the contradiction here.
“It had been ten years since she’d been to the prison or seen her father. He’d written her, but the letters sat, unopened, in a pile on the back corner of her dresser.” This is an intrusive bit of backstory. Not only does it interrupt the present action, it catapults the reader to a place he’s never seen and has no reason to care about.
“Members of the press filed in, scribbling morbid fascination into their little notebooks.” Morbid fascination? Really? Because we have not been brought into Quinn’s close third-person world–where we might understand that she’s pissed at the press for good reason–this feels like a POV violation. How does she know what they’re writing?
“She had no use for reporters. Not when they’d picked the flesh from her bones after the trial and certainly not after the circus they made of her sister’s death. She still wore the scars of their callous disregard.” Finally, this is a good bit of business, but, again, it’s not earned. Put her face-to-face with Reporter Bob and let them interact. Show, don’t tell. Let us witness the angst through her eyes. “Callous disregard” is a facile phrase that ultimately means nothing.
That’s all I’ve got before turning things over to the Killzone denizens. By way of full disclosure, when this critique posts, I will inaccessible to all things Internet, so y’all behave.