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guns and exploding dinnerware

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Rusty Shackleford, Jan 30, 2007.

  1. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    I've been wanting to post something here for some time, but haven't because I suck. Anyway, I did this story about a local trapshooter recently and thought it was as good a place to start as any. Let's just say there's a reason I don't get to write often at this place...

    BUNKER HILL – Down an inconspicuous gravel road, at the end of the short drive that runs alongside the Mohr family farmhouse, Lauren Mueller is ready to fire. The barrel of the red and black Browning BT-99 Plus 12-gauge shotgun rests in her left hand. Her right hand, inches from her cheek, holds the rear of the gun, her right index finger caressing the trigger.
    At the call of "pull," a dinner plate-sized orange and black ceramic disc launches from the concrete traphouse 16 yards directly in front of Mueller. In an instant, a loud crack echoes throughout Brittany Shooting Park, and that orange and black ceramic disc meets an untimely end.
    "It's not really hard to do that once," Mueller's father, Don, says, standing several yards behind Lauren. "What takes talent is doing that repeatedly, over hundreds of shots."
    Again and again, Lauren Mueller yells "pull" and another disc meets an ear-splitting, ceramic-shattering end. It's been this way for Lauren since about last June, said her mother, Michelle. Lauren went from hitting 85 or 90 shots out of 100 to hitting 95, 98 and sometimes 100 shots out of 100.
    "All those hours of practice - she grew up around this shooting park and she's been doing this since she was 11 - all those hours of practice started paying off then," Michelle Mueller said.
    Lauren Mueller, 14, a freshman at Bunker Hill High School, won 13 trophies at the Illinois State Shoot last June and won the title of Champion Doubles Shooter in the state of Indiana last summer after hitting a perfect 100 of 100 shots during a doubles competition (when two discs, also called birds, are launched at once). The latter feat made her the youngest girl in Amateur Trapshooting Association history to break 100 straight in doubles. She is ranked No. 14 in the nation in the sub-junior (under 16 years old) category of the ATA, and she recently was named to the ATA's All-America team.
    Lauren Mueller's considerable talent is as much a product of her upbringing as it is her practice. Her grandparents own Brittany Shooting Park, and her own family lives in a house on the opposite side of the shooting range. Since she was born, she's spent much of her free time hanging around the shooting park, watching the adults practice and compete. It wasn't until three years ago, though, that she first went out to the range with her grandfather, Larry Mohr, to learn to shoot. Since that time, she has improved dramatically as a shooter, evidenced as much by the wide array of trophies in a curio cabinet in the family dining room as by the impression she has left on fellow shooters.
    "She's an All-American. I think that says all you can say about where she's at now as a shooter," said Bill Duncan, 50, of Carlinville, who has been shooting for 40 years and shooting with Lauren since she began. "Within just the last couple of years, she's gotten to the point that you have to work your butt off just to stay with her. She's light years better than when she first started."
    Lauren Mueller's passion for shooting has developed with the blessings of her mother. While some parents may worry about the safety of a child competing in a firearm sport, Michelle Mueller, who also was raised around guns and the shooting park, wanted her daughter to learn firearm safety.
    "I'm sure there's lots of parents with reservations about kids with guns," Michelle Mueller said, "however, this is just like any sport - you always train for safety, you take all the precautions not to get hurt. ..... (But) it's not something I was even afraid of that my 11-year-old daughter was picking up a gun and wants to go shoot, because it's what I've always grown up around."
    Lauren Mueller's trapshooting season picks up again in May with the U.S. Open competition in Sparta and runs through August. But despite the relative proximity to the U.S. Open, competing in trapshooting requires the Mueller family to travel all over the nation, from Wisconsin to Indiana to Ohio, with Florida even a possibility this season. "My kids have expensive tastes," joked Don Mueller, alluding to Lauren's trapshooting and his 10-year-old son Jacob's quarter-midget car racing. "They couldn't just pick up a soccer ball and some shoes."
    All that time in the family car traveling to various trapshooting events has given Lauren time to reflect on what the sport means to her.
    "It's pretty near the top of the list of things that are important to me," she said. "I get to meet lots of people, travel all over the country and it's just a fun sport."
    It's also an increasingly popular sport. According to the ATA's Web site, www.shootata.com, more than 7 million people participate in trapshooting, the nation's third-fastest-growing sport.
    On a cold Saturday morning, though, none of that really matters to Lauren Mueller. With her protective glasses and bright orange earplugs in place, she yells "pull" and another bird launches, however briefly, into flight.
  2. Angola!

    Angola! Guest

    Rusty - I really liked this story. Especially because I know nothing about the sport and now I feel like I have an understanding of it. You did a good job of giving background on her accomplishments and noted whether they really meant anything or not. Good story and thanks for sharing.
    The only complaints I have are that the lead is really long. I would have tried to break that up into two paragraphs, assuming you are writing for a newspaper. Also, it bothers me a bit that you don't quote the person the story is about until the fourth to last paragraph. I know it can be hard to interview youngsters, but I would just keep asking her questions until I got something I could use higher. Or, I would have found a way to work that quote from her higher up.
    Nothing drives me more crazy than to read a story about a kid and have a bunch of quotes from the parents - just because then it seems like the parents are living a little too vicariously through the kid.
    Other than that, I really enjoyed it.
  3. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Rusty -

    Thanks for posting.

    A couple of things, offered in the usual workshop spirit of broad principles drawn from specific instances, to benefit as many other readers and writers as possible.

    First, a writer needs confidence, and plenty of it. Never talk your work or yourself down. Respect the work. Respect your struggle with it. Every piece everywhere is a failure of a kind to its author - all writing is. The challenge is to do your best every time out, while understanding that what ends up on the page is rarely what you envisioned when you sat down to write. What's luminous and clever and beautiful in your head when you imagine it turns to ashes on the page. True for me, true for you, true for Jones, true for Joan Didion. The trick over the course of a career is to close the gap between the piece as you first conceive it and what you pull out of the printer at the end of the day.

    That said, I think the piece is a fine start.

    As has been said in the Workshop before, profiles are hard because there's no narrative arc pulling/pushing the reader forward. They can seem pretty static. But then all portraiture is static, and yet portraiture remains one of art's most important and compelling forms.

    And all portraiture succeeds or fails based on what it reveals first about others, and then about ourselves and the common condition of humanity.

    Which is a very long way around to this: reread your lede, and look at the level of physical detail you brought to describing the road, the gun, the clay pigeon. Now read down the rest of the piece and try to find a description of Lauren Mueller.

    While scene-setting is important, an apt description of the story's principal is always more important. That's why we're here - to learn about this person.

    If I were editing this piece, I'd strip every modifier out of your lede, and insist you use the space we've saved to describe Ms. Mueller. Is she short, tall, fat, thin? Freckled, blue-eyed, quiet? Intense, cold, warm, silly, goofy, shy?

    Same with her interior life. She says that shooting is only "pretty near the top of the list of things that are important to me." Okay - so what's above it on that list? What's really important to her? Is shooting something she does just to please her parents? Does she do this only because she's good at it - but derives little joy from it? These questions are the component parts of dramatic tension.

    Which doesn't mean the piece has to be some long psychoanalytic deconstruction. But rather that good writing isn't just about the level of detail, but about selecting the right detail to reveal something about character.

    Just some stuff to chew on this morning.

    Again, thanks for posting, and helping me clarify some of my own struggles.
  4. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Rusty, thanks for posting.

    First off, jcmacg deserves some kind of medal for what he does in the Workship. Really.

    Second, Rusty, I'll second (third?) that you should be prouder of your work. I read this piece because it was in the Workshop, but I would have read it had I come across it in my morning paper, too.

    I'll disagree slightly with jcmacg and say that a little neurosis isn't a bad thing. I think a writer who gets too comfortable probably isn't as good as he could be. But it's true that you need to write with some confidence; at least you should recognize yourself as a storyteller, and that story telling is what you do, and that there's a reason why you've been asked to do it.

    In addition to the above comments -- I think the girl should be more visible up top, and I also would have liked to have seen a description of her, probably in the same graf -- I was struck by the short section about shooting somehow being a family business. It almost sounds like the premise of a movie. Maybe there wasn't more to be mined there, but I have to think that grandpa (probably deaf from years of shot) has a story to tell, or even the parents could recount a funny incident or two. Just seemed to me that after all those years on the range, there must be a little levity that could be injected here. I could be wrong. Just what I thought when I read it.

    Kudos, though, for the last line in particular. I don't know how to explain it, exactly, but last lines should have a rhythm, in my mind, that slows the reader down, and finishs the story on a kind of soft note, even a downbeat. Your last line does that. I liked it a lot.
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    The Jones is right, of course. When I say 'confidence,' I mean confidence that the work itself is worth sitting down to; confidence that there's something to be gained in the struggle, even if what we write never looks the way we thought it would. A kind of working 'confidence' in the face of what I take to be the self-doubt that plagues us all. I take the neurosis, to say nothing of the potential for self-loathing, as a given.

    In my own case, for example, I believe if I work really hard, and never give up the study of the craft, and honor the craft and its importance, I'm ten years away from being the writer I want to be.

    And I have been sure of this for the last thirty years.
  6. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    There's the truth of it.
  7. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    This is what happens when the laundry room is full and I have too much time on my hands. Off now to start a load of cold-water delicates.
  8. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    Wish I had editors like you. The work at my place gets copy edited in as much as it's checked for typos and style imperfections, but critiques like yours above are never given.

    In retrospect, I do wish I had described the shooter -- that's a very good point. How did I write a profile with no description of the person it's about? As for getting more out of her -- she never seemed comfortable talking to me, never gave me much to work with in regards to quoteable info. But I guess that helps with her description -- very shy and quiet, reserved.

    Any suggestions on how to get useful quotes out of somebody young like that? I asked multiple follow-ups, but as much as I tried to get her to say something, she tried just a little bit harder not to do so.
  9. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Rusty -

    Couple of thoughts.

    Sometimes, with young people especially, you have to tread softly in an interview to draw them out. Start by just talking to them for a while. Be a new person they're meeting, not a reporter. Leave the notebook and the recorder in your pocket until they've warmed to you a little. Once you've broken the ice, and they're talking to you like a normal human, then try to get things for the record - even if it means having them repeat a story they told you an hour before.

    And while I realize the time constraints a newspaper story puts you under, relax. Because they'll relax, too. Once you've met the subject, and done the first face-to-face interview, you can always call back on the phone if you need something fleshed out or explained.

    If you're working on a longer feature, and have the luxury of lots of lead time, think about trying to interview your primary subject more than once. I do book and magazine work primarily, and almost never use material from the first sit-down if I can help it. The first interview serves the purpose of a first date - you're just getting comfortable with each other. The real intimacy lies ahead.

    Failing that, know that sometimes there's just no good quote to be had, so you do your best to maximize the ones you've got. Then the trick becomes placement in the story as much as anything. While Lauren's quote in your story wasn't great, it was what you had. And it still serves an important purpose - giving her a voice - and thus needs to be higher in the story.

    Maybe Jones will weigh in on this, too, or Friend of the Friendless. Interviewing is one of the toughest things we do - as much art and alchemy as it is fact-gathering - and I think they'd be able to add some additional persepctive.

    Also sounds like a good thread idea. Thanks.
  10. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Sirs, Madames,

    Physical desciption is stuff that few of us are inclined to do and yet a little goes a long way (for the reader and for putting stuff over the top). The Significant Other hits me with this on every read. What I'd recommend about physical desciption here is double-back to the substance of the piece ... i.e. if she is freckled then have her freckles sprayed over her face like buckshot in a target (or somesuch). Maybe rising like she would out of a blind. I dunno. Not my sport. But physical description for its won sake isn't enuf ... it should illuminate. Her eyes focus in on you like they were looking down a sight. Or counterpoint--faraway gaze when she's talking to you, a contrast to the hard cold glare ...

    And what mr macg says about second and third interviews, completely true. If you check back in and back in again the subject is often more inclined to loosen up. Multiple emails, calls, whathaveyou. It become a conversation after, far more rewarding. It is sorta intuitive--I know and respect Sawatski and I have found his interview approach helpful ... but I wouldn't stick by it as gospel. Which is probably a matter for another thread. Whyz and howz ... over didyas or didn'tyas is a useful rule, tho'.

    YHS, etc
  11. Rusty Shackleford

    Rusty Shackleford Active Member

    Is physical description still necessary in a case when several pictures of the subject ran with the story? At that point, you know exactly what she looks like. Should you bother stretching to get a physical description in when you know pictures of the subject will run?
  12. SixToe

    SixToe Well-Known Member

    I believe you could dive into some more physical description, even with aphoto accompanying the story, without going overboard.

    Perhaps in that regard you could discuss with her how she "grew into" a trap shotgun, which for a young female can be cumbersome at first. Additionally, top shooting competitors often have specially modified shotguns that are custom-fit to the shooter's dimensions.

    A couple of other things: trap targets are not the size of dinner plates, unless you eat very small meals, and are not ceramic. They're compressed clay, baked into a shape roughly the width of a softball. Ray Charles could hit a target the size of a dinner plate.

    Competitive shooters often aren't gregarious, so dragging information from them can be tough. They compete in an isolated sport without teammates, and are fully focused on their technique and the target. I had the same problem several years ago with a 15-year old who was very good, but "Daddy" was the one pushing him and ultimately he quit shooting.

    Keep track of this girl and follow up with her. She may provide leads to other feature possibilities. You also may want to check out the World Shooting Complex in Sparta to see when the championships will be held and whether you will have anyone from your area competing.

    Good luck.
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