A #MeToo Story?

By Mark Alpert

Thanks to an interesting anonymous submission from one of our TKZ contributors, we have a chance to discuss the art of writing fiction about important, topical subjects. Here is the first page of the proposed novel:

Title: Cooper’s Loot

As she drove away from the gas station pumps, an odd inspiration yanked Beverly Wikowski into a U-turn toward a neon sign she’d glimpsed in her rearview mirror. She entered the adjoining gravel lot, where “Beer Here” in frosty blue letters blinked like a beacon in the dripping November night. She didn’t need a beer, but a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny blocked her from starting the sixty-mile journey home.

Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage.

After parking her ’64 VW Beetle next to the front door, Bev peered out her windshield at the Spar Pole Saloon, which had to have been built not long after Lewis and Clark had paddled by on the Columbia River. Brown planks pocked with paint blisters and bare wood glistened with rain beneath the neon sign. From nearby pulp mills, the odor of boiled cabbage climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.

It took her a minute to unearth from her purse a largely unused maroon lipstick. In the flash-dark light, she applied a thin layer and rubbed her lips together. She imagined the day-shifters would be quaffing at least their third Coors or Hamm’s or whatever they drank in Kelso. They’d notice her right away. Female flesh. Plus, she was from out of town and didn’t exude blue collar.

It would be easy to get them talking. They’d be thinking, hey, city chick, hippy-aged, maybe loose in the skirt, which she happened to be wearing, not a mini-skirt but more an earth momma variation, brown like a buck deer. They’d like her wavy ginger-blonde hair, which she topped with a cream-colored fedora hat. The dim lighting would obscure her hazel eyes, but it would also hide the two little zits on her neck.

Not that she gave a rat’s ass what these men thought of her.


I liked this first-page submission. What I liked most about it was the narrative voice, which seemed full of anger. (Especially that last line.) Strong emotion works really well at the opening of a novel, because it wakes up the reader. It makes you ask questions: Why is Beverly Wikowski so angry? Who or what is she angry at? Lecherous, predatory men? And what sparked this anger? What’s her history? Most important, what is she going to do with her fury? Will she bottle it up or let it rip? The reader wants to know the answers to these questions, and that gives him or her a strong motivation to keep reading. It’s a great hook.

The hook sank into me with the phrase “a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny.” I didn’t understand what the phrase meant — why did this woman want an encounter with woman-haters? — but it intrigued me nonetheless. The next two sentences (“Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage”) didn’t really clarify things. Actually, it’s a contradiction; first Beverly says she’s thirsty for the misogyny, and then she says she wouldn’t drink it. So I was confused. I started wondering, “What does the author really mean?” and I made a few guesses. And my best guess was that Beverly hates the misogyny because she’d been badly hurt by misogynists in the past, but she’s eager to see it again at the Spar Pole Saloon so she can punish the perpetrators. In other word, what she’s truly thirsty for is revenge.

Now I could be totally wrong about this. A revenge plot could be the farthest thing from the author’s mind. That’s the problem with making guesses based on a submission of only 300 words. So I apologize to the author if I’m completely off base. But at the same time, I feel compelled to point out that this would make a fantastic plot for a suspense novel.

Think about it. Ever since the disgusting revelations about Harvey Weinstein last year, there’s been a flood of news stories about men treating women with criminally horrible cruelty. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we’re now all-too-familiar with the arrogant perversions of celebrities such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The disclosures have also tainted the reputations of several novelists whose books I admired: Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why), and James Dashner (The Maze Runner), just to name a few.

I’m stunned by the depth and breadth of this reprehensible behavior. But, as my wife and daughter like to point out, the main reason why I’m so surprised is because I’m a man. Women have to deal with this crap all the time. My daughter is only sixteen but already she has to endure catcalls on the street. She tries to laugh it off, but I don’t think it’s funny. Not one damn bit.

So as I read today’s first-page piece, I started to think about the asymmetry of this kind of aggression. Because I’m a man, I’ve never been catcalled in my life. No man or woman has ever verbally belittled me on the street, despite the fact that there’s no shortage of possible insults that strangers could hurl at me — I’m short, I don’t shave very often, I dress like a slob. There seems to be an iron rule for interactions among strangers, definitely here in New York and probably elsewhere: men can feel free to insult women, but they almost never insult other men. And the reasoning behind this rule is very clear. If one man insults another on the street, there’s a good chance he’ll get socked in the jaw.

We like to think that we behave morally because of lessons that our parents or preachers taught us, or because of an innate sense of honor, or because it just seems more rational to act in a civilized way. But with many people and in many cases — like when entitled college kids get rowdy at frat parties, or when cocky corporate titans invite underlings to their hotel rooms — all the good angels fall silent, and the only thing that can stop despicable behavior is the fear of punishment or retaliation. And that’s why I love the idea of a wronged woman who goes to disreputable bars across the country (or just in her own state, Lord knows there’s enough of them) and actively seeks out misogynists of all types so she can punish and/or humiliate them.

The punishment could be physical and violent, like the kind that Charles Bronson doled out in Death Wish. I got the sense that Beverly Wikowski is someone you shouldn’t trifle with. She’s well aware of the impressions that her clothing and figure will make on the men in the Spar Pole Saloon, so much so that I wondered whether she’d chosen that particular costume to lure the men to their doom. Or perhaps the author has something cleverer in mind, maybe some kind of mental or spiritual torment that Beverly will inflict. Either way, readers will want to see what happens. They might continue to cheer on the protagonist even if her own mental compass starts to go haywire (which is what happens in Monster, the 2003 film, which has a similar revenge plot, now that I think about it).

In addition to being topical, the book might also have a beneficial effect on gender relations. If only one woman out of a hundred blackjacked any man who tried to sexually harass her, I bet the rate of harassment would plummet. And the example of a fictional character can also influence events in the real world. Just think of all the people who stopped swimming in the ocean because they read Jaws. So if “Cooper’s Loot” is published and widely read, maybe it’ll serve as a warning. The next time that some pervert thinks about exposing himself to a bunch of schoolgirls, maybe he’ll remember what Beverly Wikowski did to those men in the Spar Pole Saloon, and he’ll keep his pants zipped.

By the way, there’s a fair amount of good writing in these 300 words. Any writer who uses the verb “quaff” deserves some kudos. And I liked “loose in the skirt” too. A couple of criticisms: The odors of pulp mills and boiled cabbage are not quite the same, and in this case the comparison seems to weaken the sentence. I’d change it to “The odor of nearby pulp mills climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.” That’s better, right? And I wondered about the pair of zits on Beverly’s neck. Is this a random physical trait, or is there some significance to it? It made me think of a vampire’s bite. It’s kind of distracting, so I’d cut this detail unless it’s important to the plot and/or character.

Any other thoughts on this submission, TKZ-ers?

+5
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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

14 thoughts on “A #MeToo Story?

  1. Well written, good verbs. I agree with the cabbage and the zits. I wonder about “hippy-aged”. As an ex hippy, I can tell you that the days of men sitting up and taking notice when I enter a bar are long gone. Or was there a recent hippy wave that I’ve missed?

  2. Excellent first page. Well done, Anon!

    Mark, I thought the same thing as I read this … it’s a revenge plot. Which intrigued me. I’d turn the page to find out what happens next.

  3. She’s driving a ’64 Beetle with a 60-mile drive ahead of her on a November night in crap weather and she stops in an isolated bar along the way? I don’t buy it. I’m guessing you want her to come across as a hipster with lofty values and intellect, in which case it’s the wrong kind of car. These days, a ’64 Beetle requires a huge investment of time and money. So unless this is a story about a wealthy woman with a passion for classic cars (I have a feeling it’s not) she needs to be driving a true clunker, not a museum piece.

  4. Is this a historical piece? The title is Cooper’s Loot, and the setting is the area near Kelso, Washington where D. B. Cooper parachuted from a plane with a lot of money in 1971. The VW bug and the reference to hippies makes a lot more sense if this is sometime in the 1970s.

    I found the writing to be strong but was also confused by the misogyny line. Depending on the blurb and what the real story is about, I would be inclined to read more.

  5. I never thought part of my lifetime would be considered an historical piece — ouch. With all the references, I thought the story happened back in the day, like possibly the 60s or 70s. I, too, like the anger displayed. It’s enjoyable to see bastards, no matter the era, pushed off their bar stools, which is a nice way of saying how I’d actually like to see them throttled. I would read more.

  6. I liked it. I feel grounded because you’ve told us Bev’s name, where she is, the weather, that it’s nighttime, and enough description about Bev that we know her personality already. Quaff is a rockin’ verb. And already I want to know why Bev is the way she is.

    I don’t think you need a comma in the second sentence because it’s a clause at the end of a sentence rather than at the beginning or in the middle. Likewise before “which” in the first sentence of the third paragraph. But I’m not a grammar nerd, so you might want to double check in case I’m wrong.

    I agree with Mark in that I think this is a revenge story. I would turn the page to see what Bev does to the guys at the bar, and I am scared for them.

    Thanks for sharing your work, brave author!

  7. Absolutely loved the line about Lewis and Clark – great imagery.

    I didn’t like the last line. The writer spent time telling us about her hair, skirt, hat,eyes, zits and even putting on lipstick- is the character lying in herself or was all of that just so the author could tell the reader what she looked like. Either way, to me, it seemed ingenious.

  8. I’ll start with what I like. First the allusion to D.B. Cooper in the title. Cooper is still a fascinating character with plenty of room for speculation. I like the idea of a woman taking revenge, maybe.

    Because the main character makes her decision to attack the patrons of the Spar Pole in an off-hand manner, I immediately thought of Aileen Wuornos. If you don’t know who she is, watch the movie Monster. It is frightening and Charlize Theron is amazing. If Beverly is the main character, that may not be the greatest image for her.

    The reference to the establishment of the Spar pole in Kelso, Washington, “not long after Lewis and Clark …”, is a big stretch. L & C left the mouth of the Columbia River in November of 1806. Peter Crawford didn’t establish the town of Kelso in 1847 and it took two years for settlers to start arriving.

    Establish the time. The exact year of the VW would be clearer if we know whether it is a new car or an antique. When the make, model, and year of a car is given it should tell the reader something about the person who drives it. Consider the protagonist driving the VW. Now a Jeep Wrangler, Now a Shelby Mustang, now a Porsche Carrara. Very different images. Also, what if you said the VW was stolen?

    I would begin the story as she walks into the Spar Pole. This allow you to start with action instead of a lot of narrative. She has someone to talk to. I’m one who has just rediscovered John D. MacDonald (Thank you J.S. Bell). Consider the opening line from Darker Than Amber.
    We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
    That is the exact moment the story starts for Travis McGee, the MC. Walking through the door of the Spar Pole would be the same thing.

    And finally, I disagree with Mark. I think this piece is overwritten and I wouldn’t turn the page. This could be an interesting story. I assume it is a mystery/thriller/suspense story. I’d like to see you rewrite this in a spare style. Think Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Megan Abbott, and Denis Lehane.
    The only way to fail as a writer is to give up. Write on.

  9. I liked this one…liked the authority of the voice. I’m okay, as well, with the style and wouldn’t ask the writer to tone it down.

    But I was confused by the use of the misogyny thing. This line: “She didn’t need a beer, but a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny blocked her from starting the sixty-mile journey home.”

    She seems so assertive, so sure of herself and her allure. Why does such a woman *need* a shot of misogyny? She apparently is gunning for trouble in this middle-of-nowhere bar. So her *need* doesn’t seem for abuse; it seems to be for vengeance.

    I’m also confused by the line that follows: “Not that she would drink it herself.” Drink what, “a shot of misogyny”? Misogyny is contempt for women, so the way this is worded, it makes no sense to me.

    Good stuff going on in this submission. But I can’t get past this.

  10. My first thought: Is this going to be a “Kill Bill” type story? After reading the comments and finally noticing the title, “Cooper’s Loot,” I agree this might take place in the 70’s. The first page has great promise and generates just the right amount of confusion in the reader’s mind. It makes me want to read more. After reading it over a second time, I think she enters the bar seeking information, not revenge.

  11. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. I agree with Mark about the “voice” that shines through in this submission. It’s one of the nicer submissions I’ve seen here in recent memory in that regard. Here are my comments, brave writer:

    Title

    The title is intriguing.

    First Line

    You write:

    “As she drove away from the gas station pumps, an odd inspiration yanked Beverly Wikowski into a U-turn toward a neon sign she’d glimpsed in her rearview mirror.”

    Here’s how I would write that sentence:

    As Beverly Wikowski pulled away from the gas station [you could fill in geographic location or reference road name here], she spotted a neon sign in the rearview mirror that prompted her to make a U-ey.

    Notice I used the character’s name first (instead of she). I also think this sentence would be an opportunity to slip in the geographic location. I removed the word “pumps” which isn’t needed. Instead of “U-turn,” I like “U-ey” (since it sounds more like the kind of word your cool character might use). Notice that I also reworded this sentence in way that gets rid of the “she had glimpsed” to make it sound more immediate. I found the first sentence a little clunky compared to the good stuff that followed.

    Overwriting

    I don’t care for this sentence, as written:

    “From nearby pulp mills, the odor of boiled cabbage climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.”

    I think this sentence is overkill, and I don’t like the verb “climbed” insider her car. Maybe try something like this:

    From nearby pulp mills, the odor of boiled cabbage wafted inside her car.

    Also, this sentence:

    “It took her a minute to unearth from her purse a largely unused maroon lipstick.”

    The phrase “unearthed from her purse” sounds unnatural. For the most part, I like your voice, but be careful not to let odd phrases sneak into your writing.

    Description

    There’s a lot of description on your first page. You spend a lot of time describing the outside of this establishment. Then you have the character think about her appearance in order to give a blow-by-blow description of the character. This is the easy way to describe the character for your reader. Some tricks writers use to describe their characters (rather than have the characters think about their own appearance) are discussed here:

    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/08/what-do-i-look-like-protag-describing.html

    Here are some other articles by Janice Hardy (you’ll have to use a search engine to get the links):

    “How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Characters?”
    “Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back?”
    “The Literary Tour Guide: How Much do you Need to Describe Your Setting?”

    I love the fact that you do such a great job painting the scene for the reader, but rather than give long paragraphs of description, weave these details into the action. This is harder to do, for sure, but I think you have the writing chops to do it.

    Opening With a Character Alone, Thinking

    This is a risky opening. I think you could work in a lot of the information you’ve given on the first page after your character gets inside of the joint. Watching characters drive to and fro and muse about men and such inside of a car is a way to feed the reader information about your character, rather than let the reader see what your character is like through her actions. I do like your voice, but I want to see you take that great voice with very deliberate plot and structure techniques.

    Overall Impression

    I love your voice, brave writer. There’s a lot of nice stuff happening here. You might want to check out the article entitled “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier (on Jane Friedman’s blog) for some more hints about how to make your opening the very best it can be, especially with your wonderful voice. I see great writing ahead, brave writer. Carry on!

  12. Thanks to everyone who took the time to critique the opening. It will help me lots. Yes, I do have a tendency to overwrite. Yes, this is a thriller set in 1972, a year after the infamous DB Cooper hijacking. And, yes, Joanne, after I sent this piece to TKZ, I realized how much of this scene is her in the car thinking, usually a big no-no, so I’ve actually pared from the original (which, as all writers know, ain’t the original at all, just the one that everyone sees) in order to get more motion onto that opening page. And, yes, Mark, the POV character is frustrated…but I won’t disclose more. Ya’ll can buy the book. 🙂 Mark–you rock…I appreciate all the musings about #MeToo.

    • Writers have to juggle a lot of balls, so to speak, when writing openings. Interesting character, Rick. I want to know why she seems to be looking for trouble. Feisty gal! I look forward to reading more, as well.

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