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A little feedback, s'il vous plait ...

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Bob Loblaw Law Blog, Apr 1, 2007.

  1. This past week was spring break in my area, so to fill the void I wrote this fairly lengthy feature piece on a local HS kid who is a wrestler and baseball player. It's a little bit about sports, maybe more about life in general. Still, I'd appreciate any feedback/constructive criticism you guys could give me. Press deadline is on Tuesday afternoon, so I'll leave it at that. Thanks in advance.

    FEBRUARY 10, 2007
    6:47 P.M.

    Mitchell Engeseth rips off his wrestling headgear and throws it to the mat. Frustrated and angry, he gives the discarded headgear a half-hearted kick and sulks toward the locker room.
    Mitchell, a junior on the Banks wrestling team, just lost a 4-3 decision to Yamhill-Carlton’s Steven Westerlund in the 140-pound consolation match at the Cowapa League district tournament.
    Infuriated by Westerlund’s stalling near the end of the match, Mitchell fumes on the sideline for a moment, then quietly slips out of the Tillamook High School gym.
    After months of hard work and sacrifice, he’s finished one point shy of qualifying for the 4A state wrestling tournament.
    One point.
    “It was devastating,” Mitchell says. “I know he was stalling, I just couldn’t get that last call.”
    It is the worst day of his life.

    FEBRUARY 27, 2007
    9:35 A.M.

    Mitchell has been ignoring a steady pain in his lower left abdomen. In January, doctors had told him it was probably a muscle pull from the strain of wrestling every day, but now the season has been over for weeks and the pain isn’t going away.
    On Tuesday morning, Mitchell returns to the doctor for a second opinion.
    On Wednesday morning, he is brought in for a CT scan, and that afternoon the painful area gets biopsied.
    On Friday, he sits quietly in the back seat of his parents’ car while they try to explain to him that he has been diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. Mitchell is numb, but some of the words sink in through the haze: cancer, rare, aggressive.
    The district tournament, the loss to Westerlund, the thrown headgear — it is all forgotten in an instant.
    This is the worst day of his life.
    “I didn’t know what to think,” he says. “I didn’t suspect anything. I just waited outside [the high school] for my mom and dad to pick me up. I found out in the car on the way to the hospital. I was in shock.”
    His parents are in shock, too. How do you tell a 17-year-old that he has cancer?
    “We got the phone call on Friday at about noon,” says his mother, Laurie. “Mitchell was in school, so we were debating how to tell him — were we going to pull him out of school or just wait until he got home?”
    Sensing that she may break down while recounting the day’s drama, her husband, Jack, finishes the story.
    “Then the phone rang and it was the doctors from Doernbecher [Children’s Hopsital],” Jack says. “They told us, ‘Get him over here now. He has a fast-growing lymphoma and we need to start treatment right away.’”
    The pain in Mitchell’s abdomen is a large, cancerous mass, measuring 16 centimeters by 9 centimeters — about the size of a small cantaloupe
    On Sunday, Mitchell has a port inserted into his chest for chemotherapy.
    On Tuesday, he receives his first treatment.

    MARCH 23, 2007
    2:28 P.M.

    Mitchell sits in the bleachers of the Banks High School gym with an embarrassed smile. As the crowd cheers, he reluctantly emerges from the stands and grabs a pair of clippers. Mitchell is about to give instructional assistant Debbie Mott a buzzcut.
    What began as a small fund-raising event to benefit Mitchell and his family has morphed into something totally unexpected.
    Banks wrestling coaches Jacob Pence and Gabe Pagano have organized the “Buzzcut Benefit,” an assembly designed to solicit donations from students, teachers and community members.
    In exchange for a $5 donation, an Engeseth family member will shave your head — a showing of solidarity for Mitchell, who admits he is petrified of losing his hair to the chemotherapy.
    Originally, the benefit was scheduled for Wednesday. Organizers acknowledged that they expected it to last perhaps 15 minutes, giving out maybe a dozen buzzcuts.
    Now the event has been moved to Friday and the bleachers are filled to capacity. More than 800 people have turned out in support of Mitchell and his battle with cancer. The small town of Banks has rallied around one of its own.
    “The assembly was impressive,” Jack says. “The turnout was just incredible. We were floored by how many people came out.”
    When the dust settles, the “Buzzcut Benefit” raises $6,600 for Mitchell and his parents, and the town of 1,400 is overrun with freshly-shaved heads — 110 to be exact. Among them is Mott, Mitchell’s tutor, whose new hairdo raises more than $1,000 for the family.

    continued ...
  2. continued ...

    MARCH 23, 2007
    10:06 P.M.

    In the span of six hours, Mitchell has gone from the highest high to the lowest low. After the assembly he begins to feel weak, tired. Jack and Laurie rush him to the emergency department at OHSU.
    Mitchell has a viral infection, brought on by his hectic day and his low white blood cell level from the chemo.
    Just a few hours ago he was smiling and having the time of his life at the “Buzzcut Benefit.” Now he is lying on a hospital bed, an IV jammed in his arm and antibiotics coursing through his bloodstream.
    This is what his life is like now. A rollercoaster. Ups and downs, twists and turns.
    “That was a pretty big swing,” Jack says. “To go from euphoria to a crash — it was an interesting weekend, to say the least.”
    But Mitchell is resilient. He fights off the infection and by Monday he is back on his feet.
    “He has good days and bad days,” Laurie says. “But after the antibiotics, it was all we could do to keep him down. He was up and bouncing around like nothing ever happened.”

    MARCH 29, 2007
    3:22 P.M.

    Mitchell sits in his living room, a Banks baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, his already gaunt frame nearly swallowed by an oversized chair. Jack and Laurie sit nearby, recounting the trials and tribulations of the last month.
    The family is upbeat, positive. Doctors have told them that treatment for Burkitt’s Lymphoma has an 85 percent success rate. Fast-growing cancers such as Burkitt’s respond well to chemotherapy because the drugs target cells that divide quickly.
    There is plenty of reason for optimism.
    Mitchell, Jack and Laurie all wear smiles and laugh freely at funny stories from their ordeal. Like how Mitchell got to shave Debbie Mott’s head at the assembly two weeks ago, or how his good friend Johnny Janisko had to part with his beloved mop of brown hair when the baseball team decided on a collective head-shaving to support their former teammate.
    “It was cool to see the baseball team get their heads shaved,” Mitchell says. “Johnny loves his hair, so I got a good laugh out of that.”
    Still, there are times when emotions pull at them. Beneath the smiling exteriors, Jack and Laurie have questions — most notably, why a previously happy and healthy 17-year-old has to fight for his life against cancer.
    “If you smoke cigarettes your whole life, you’re going to get lung cancer. If you eat at McDonald’s every day, you’re going to get colon cancer,” Jack says. “But kids shouldn’t get cancer.”
    For his part, Mitchell doesn’t weigh himself down by feeling sorry for himself. At least outwardly, you will never hear him ask, “Why me?”
    “I’m just going with the flow, trying to keep a positive attitude,” he says.
    As motivation, Mitchell is setting his sights on next wrestling season. Nothing would make him happier than getting healthy and getting back on the mat.
    Except maybe a rematch with Westerlund.
    “Right now I just want to get back to wrestling,” Mitchell says. “It would be nice to get another shot at him, maybe make it to state.”

    FEBRUARY 9, 2008
    6:05 P.M.

    Mitchell Engeseth rips off his wrestling headgear and throws it to the mat. Jubilant, he hugs his mother and father and celebrates both a district championship and a berth in the state tournament.
    For now, it’s just a dream. But for those who know him, it’s not so hard to imagine.
  3. Sweetness

    Sweetness Member

    Dude, this is fucking good.

    The lines that realy stuck with me:

    “It was devastating,” Mitchell says. “I know he was stalling, I just couldn’t get that last call.”
    It is the worst day of his life.

    The pain in Mitchell’s abdomen is a large, cancerous mass, measuring 16 centimeters by 9 centimeters — about the size of a small cantaloupe


    I like how you segmented it into scenes. This doesn't always work. I've tried it before and scrapped it because it read like a cheap gimmick. This works with the emotion of the story. Up and down.
  4. Sweetness

    Sweetness Member

    I don't want to threadjack, but how much time did you put into sourcing this thing? How much time did you spend with the family, at the tournament and benefit, etc?
  5. Thanks, Sweetness. At first I used a pretty cheap and repetitive literary gimmick to break up the piece into segments, and it didn't turn out very well. My editor also hated it and suggested I break it up into time capsules. The goal is to give the reader a glimpse into these personal moments and also break up the story so it isn't one long strand of copy.

    As far as access, I covered this team during the wrestling season, so I was there for the tournament and loss at district. I was also there for the "Buzzcut Benefit," so those sections are first-hand info. I spent about an hour with the family a few days after the benefit. The kid in the story is super, super shy, so getting anything from him was tough. But his parents were pretty candid. I was amazed. If it was my son, I would have been crying like a baby.

    Hope that answers your questions and thanks again for the feedback. I think it's a very compelling story, so I want to get input from you guys to make sure it's written as well as possible.
  6. Sweetness

    Sweetness Member

    My girlfriend, who's a copy editor on the news side, read it and liked it. For what it's worth.

    The only real critique I heard from her was "... worst day of his life ..." was cliche the first time it pops up.

    I disagreed, though. I thought it forshadowed nicely, especially when you come back to it in the second capsule. She's got a good eye for AP style and grammer, so you're probably safe there, too. I think otherwise, people who may dislike parts of it do so just because of personal preferences. You know, maybe they read four stories on a kid with cancer this week and aren't blown away by it anymore.
  7. Not to undercut the help Sweetness has given here or to seem like too much of a whiner, but my deadline is tomorrow afternoon and I'm just wondering if any of the other regulars over here have any input on this story. I know everyone has more pressing concerns with deadlines looming tonight, but if you have a few minutes, please just give it a quick read and offer any suggestions. I don't write many feature stories, so I'd like this one to be well-crafted and well-received.

    Thanks in advance!
  8. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

  9. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Thanks for posting. This is a strong piece of work. I went through and noted what I thought were the weak spots. With something like this, where you're taking some architectural risks, you really, really need to nail the ending. If you spend time today on anything, spend it on those last three or four sentences. Try to synthesize in those few lines all that's gone before - especially since in this case it's speculative.

    Good luck with it.
  10. Thanks, jg. That was comprehensive and <b>very</b> helpful. I have some other stories to work on this morning and a little bit of design to do, but I carved out some time to work on the story before it goes to press. I appreciate your insight and will give the ending some thought. I agree, though, that with the speculative ending it needs to hit hard.

    Thanks again and if anyone else has any thoughts, please feel free to post them.
  11. Hey jgmacg, what would you think about flipping the structure of that last section? It would read something like this:

    <b>FEBRUARY 9, 2008
    6:05 P.M.</b>

    For now it's just a dream. But for those who know him, it's not so hard to imagine ...

    <i>Mitchell Engeseth rips off his wrestling headgear and throws it to the mat. Jubilant, he hugs his mother and father and celebrates both a district championship and a berth in the state tournament.
    It would be the best day of his life.</i>
  12. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    I'm not crazy about it, because simply reordering the graf doesn't quite solve the problem. And I may have oversimplified, or expressed the idea poorly, with my "...best day of his life" suggestion. My fault.

    That last thought needs to be more than a little conditional - and a little more nuanced. If you have a couple of minutes, think about a couple of things -

    - The word "dream" may not be your best bet in that first sentence. Think instead, about "hope." Humans don't live from day to day on our dreams; we live, I think, on our hopes. Especially when it comes to illness.

    - Hope is a kind of medicine.

    - Remember that he's fighting every day now, and find in that, if you can, the parallel with his wrestling.

    - What's the best day in any cancer patient's life going to be? The day he finds out he's cancer-free.

    - Which means that winning his weight class next year might be the second best day of his life.

    That last graf doesn't have to be longer than it is now, or any more complicated. Read the clues I've tried to point you toward. Take a few minutes to simply think about them. Try to write a new ending using just those clues, without going back to your original. Then go back to your original graf and read it over again. See if you prefer one to the other; or where the new ideas might be made to fit with the old.

    Good luck.
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