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Putting Workshop feedback into practice

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by J.C. Wolf, Jun 14, 2007.

  1. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    I haven't been around the site much these last several weeks, a result of moving several states farther south for a job at a bigger paper. At any rate, this is my latest. I posted a couple of stories in this workshop in April and got some really great feedback (Alma, jgmacg, I'm looking at you ;)) — feedback I relied on pretty heavily while crafting the following story. I really, really tried to focus this time around. jgmacg — this story is about family. Please let me know what I did right, what I did wrong and where I can improve. To everyone who chimes in, I greatly appreciate all your time and energy.

    — J.C. Wolf

    CHRISTIANSBURG — As the horde of girls poured from the hot, sticky, green vinyl seats of their big yellow school bus, a small group made a mad dash toward the Econo Lodge pool, cannon balling into the crystalline water. They were still wearing their red and white softball uniforms.

    This had all been planned out on the ride back, mind you.

    “I’m getting in the pool whether Mr. Cook likes it or not!” senior center fielder Brooke Fugate told her teammates Friday. “He can’t kick me off the team now.”

    Only a short while earlier on this steamy June afternoon, the Tunstall High softball family had suffered its most brutal, heartbreaking loss of the season, a 1-0 extra-innings defeat in the Virginia High School League state semifinals at nearby Radford University. The tears had dried and the girls, on the whole, were taking it quite well. This was just a loss on the field after all and they all, as usual, had each other for support.

    Jennifer Slaughter was not one of the girls in the pool.

    She had headed directly for her motel room upon disembarking the bus — the one the girls call the “Big Cheese” — and this behavior was not unusual for the junior designated player. A self-proclaimed “very personal person,” Slaughter kept quiet and to herself more often than not.

    “She’s so private and so strong,” said Wendy Bryant-Cook, the coach’s wife and the team’s pseudo mother, pausing to run her fingers through her graying blonde hair. She pulls off her sunglasses, and uses her wrist to wipe the tears from her eye. “If you didn’t know what was going on, you wouldn’t know what was going on.”

    Jennifer learned during the week of tryouts that her mother’s cancer had returned.

    Nearly a decade earlier, Angela Slaughter had been diagnosed with melanoma — a particularly aggressive form of cancer — and had a malignant mole removed from her back. She had returned to her doctor for regular checkups ever since.

    “They said that everything was fine,” Jennifer said, her dark frazzled hair held back by a thin, blue hair band, her dull, brown eyes the only outward indication of the angst she hides so well.

    Jennifer is very reserved and down-to-earth — no makeup, no nail polish, no frills, save for a colorful friendship bracelet — unlike some of the other girls on the team. She sports a pair of flip flops and a plain white tee and a pair of red shorts — Tunstall team colors — even after getting changed. The 17-year-old never flinches, and speaks in a monotone voice. She’s even more emotionally strong than she is physically stout.

    Jennifer went on to describe the migraines her mother had suffered from through the years, and the back pain, and the mistaken diagnosis of pleurisy, and the chronic aching in her lungs. “They couldn’t find anything … and they didn’t catch it until she went back and told them, you know, something’s wrong.”

    Angela, suffering from pneumonia, had chest X-rays taken … and her doctors found a spot.

    It was a tumor. In her lung.

    The next 48 hours would reveal one grisly discovery after another.

    “They told me that we had a golf ball-sized tumor on my spine, and one on my spleen, and then the one on my lung, and that I had to do something immediately,” Angela said, sitting balled up in a sort of fetal position on her living room couch.

    The 40-year-old mother of two speaks slowly, in a low, somber tone, and peers through the horizontally outstretched lenses of her thick tortoise shell eyeglasses. She sits gingerly in her double-wide manufactured home, located on the same, secluded parcel of Pittsylvania County land as a house inhabited by her husband Tony’s parents.

    “That was on a Wednesday,” Angela continued. “… Thursday night I had an MRI done, and they found two more tumors in my brain.

    “So that was one, two, three, four, five.”

    She was counting the tumors.

    Angela wears a faded blue Chaps sweatshirt and her husband’s green flannel pajamas, revealing freshly applied pink toe nail polish to match that on her fingers. The two had recently celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary, and a wooden plaque with the word “BELIEVE” written in wide mirrored letters hangs nearby.

    Angela initially searches for her hat, but doesn’t get up from her spot on the couch. The surface of her perfectly smooth, pale, oblong head — ravaged by the chemotherapy and radiation treatments — is jarringly interrupted by the 2-inch scar on the right side of her scalp. Like the tumor disintegrating her spine, one in her brain has been mostly surgically removed. The other proved inoperable.

    Tony briefly soothes Angela’s anxiety of being seen unadorned. She still wears red lipstick.

    “I didn’t at first, I’ll be honest with you,” Angela said, trying to explain how she could possibly process her horrendous diagnosis. “I was numb for about 24 hours. I had accepted the fact that I had the tumor in my spine, the tumor on my spleen, the tumor in my lung. I was OK with that, because I had accepted that. But when they told me that I had the tumors in my brain, that’s when I pretty much lost it. That was beyond my comprehension.

    “I didn’t want any in my brain, because I knew what that meant.”

    Jennifer and her cousin are watching “Shrek,” and can be heard giggling from an adjacent room. Her 12-year-old sister, Taylor, is out of the house, visiting friends.

    “That was when I knew … I had to give it to God,” Angela continued, “because I could not handle that.

    And so I just kind of broke down, and really realized that this was way bigger than me.”

    This revelation came at about the same time in early February when Tunstall High’s softball tryouts were beginning. Jennifer had kept the nightmarish reality of her mother’s disease to herself.

    “She’s very quiet; she’s very to herself,” senior first baseman Megan Wood said, “unless you drag something out of her. She don’t want to talk about it.”

    But word began to spread, however, as you can imagine with a group of teenage girls in a close-knit community. It started out more or less as hearsay, the news trickling from teammate to teammate.

    “As soon as I found out about it — it was awkward to — you didn’t know what to say to her,” Megan said. “So I slipped her a little card after tryouts one day and told her, you know, that I was thinking about her, and that if she ever needed me to call. … We didn’t want to make it awkward for her, because we knew it was heartbreaking. But we all tried to show support, somehow.”

    That support became tangible in the form of red elastic American Cancer Society bracelets, each with a metal pendent attached that read “HOPE.” The tribute was suggested and organized by Megan, and the bracelets were worn by every teammate from that point forward, except during games, when wearing the bands was against regulations. Angela got one, too.

    “My family’s been touched by cancer,” Megan said, explaining how her grandmother passed away from stomach cancer the summer after her freshman year, “and (Jennifer) deals with it day-in and day-out. We thought we needed to do something to help out her family and show our support.

    “And I figured that was the way to do it,” she said.

    Tony awoke the morning of Tunstall’s state semifinal game to the sound of Angela vomiting. She had been sick the previous day, too, when she had missed her first shift at work since the latest round of chemo. He tried to talk her out of the 2 1/2-hour car ride from Danville to Radford. “Jennifer will understand,” he said.

    But Angela would have none of it.

    She was equally as stubborn earlier in the season, when her oldest daughter mulled the idea of stepping away from the game she loves.

    “I guess I considered at some point, you know, maybe I shouldn’t, maybe I don’t need to play softball. Maybe I need to focus on and stay at home,” Jennifer said. She was a busy girl, after all, attending the prestigious Piedmont Governor’s School early every morning before heading to Tunstall mid-day. And she also had her mother’s worsening condition dominating her thoughts. Forgoing softball seemed an appropriate idea.

    “But my parents knocked that down,” she said. “They know how much softball means to me. It’s something really important to me. And my mom was like, ‘I really want you to do this. I don’t want this sickness to affect your life in any more negative ways than it has to.’”

    Angela didn’t want the cancer to change her children’s lifestyles. Not one little bit.

    And through the past four months she’s done her best to follow her own advice, as well.

    Angela had attended most every Tunstall softball game this season, but missed the regional semifinal and championship games that were played a week earlier. She was receiving her chemotherapy that week — a treatment she takes just one week out of each month so that her body has time to recover — and those games were played nearly twice as far away as Radford.

    Missing them may have been harder on her than the medication.

    Softball was something to look forward to, “like a treat,” she said, and the parents, the girls and her daughter provided both a distraction from her illness and motivation to get out of bed. Her presence would also invigorate not only Jennifer, but the whole group.

    “It meant so much when I could look over there and see her,” Jennifer said.

    “Her mom, her smile just lights up the team,” Megan said. “It really does. After every game that she was able to make it to, she was there with a hug and a smile for each and every one of us. She’s showed real courage, and that’s an inspiration to all of us.”

    The few times Angela was unable to attend, she knew that because of the girls on the softball team, and particularly because of head coach Roger Cook and his wife Wendy, her daughter was always in the very best of hands.

    “They would do anything for each other,” Angela said. “I think if any of them needed anything, they could depend on one another. I think that Jennifer knew that, that she had her buddies, her softball family that she could fall back on, and that was important. And I know that I have the support of all the moms and dads.”

    The 61-year-old head coach hasn’t had the easiest ride this year, either. He broke his right hand during one of the team’s home games and was forced to wear a cast for much of the season. A few weeks earlier, during tryouts, he spent a night in the hospital while suffering from an abnormal heart rhythm, and doctors have tweaked his blood thinners ever since.

    Softball players and their parents frequently called to voice both concern and support.

    “Oh God, it scared me,” Megan said, like the others, fearing a heart attack. “I told him before that if anything ever happened to my dad, he’d be the one walking me down the aisle. That’s how much he means to me.”

    The team’s softball coach of 24 years, Cook is a father figure to his players in every sense of the term.

    “Everybody around Danville knows Roger,” his wife said. “He’s been a fixture forever. And everybody who knows Roger knows enough that he truly cares about the kids. It’s not just about winning and losing. We have kids that come back, they visit the house — kids that graduated years and years ago. We get graduation invitations, wedding invitations, baby shower invitations, cookout invitations, reunion invitations, and we’re always going and we’re still involved in a lot of these kids’ lives years on later, because we care so much for them personally. And I think that’s one of the things that leads to success.”

    Roger said he enjoys knowing that his players tend to see him as a father, or even a grandfather. He relates to the girls. He’ll scold them when they do wrong. He’ll hug them when they’re crying.

    “I try to treat all of my athletes just like they were my own children,” he said. “I told a lot of them that I’d adopt them if they didn’t have nobody or nowhere to go.”

    Some of the girls even playfully refer to Roger as “grandpa.” And the coach has a life’s worth of experience, wisdom and advice to dispense, even for a girl living through a harrowing reality.

    “I know what Jennifer — I feel like I understand what Jennifer is going through,” Roger said, nervously tapping a plastic cup of ginger ale on a table in the Econo Lodge lounge. “About three years ago I lost my mother and my father and my brother in 24 days. And they were all sick during softball season.

    “But I had softball as an outlet, you know, away from that. I dealt with my parents’ illness when softball was over with,” he said. “But during that two or three hours away, I got a chance to get my mind away from that and on to something else that I really love. Fortunately, we made it through the season.

    “My parents passed away that summer. So I know what softball means to Jennifer,” Roger said. “Her mother’s sick. And I think softball is the one thing that keeps her going.”

    Angela traveled the morning of the state semifinals with a big bowl in her lap, just in case she had to throw up again.

    “But I was there anyway,” she giggles. For a person so gravely ill, her eyes are full of energy.

    “This whole thing really changed my life,” Angela said. “This is definitely what you call a life-altering experience. It’s changed it in many ways. It’s given me a second chance. I look at everything different. Everything. I sat at graduation today, and I’m wondering if I’m going to be here next year for Jennifer’s graduation …

    “I think a lot of times with cancer … your mental outlook has such a huge impact on your health,” she said. “I think if you want to give up, you can. Because I’m pretty sick right now, and you know if I want to just lay down and let this get the best of me, I could. And, you know, Jen’s softball really, really, really helped. I think it’s helped all of us.

    “I don’t know what we’d have done without it, without the group support, without the parents, without the girls,” Angela said. “The whole group is such a big family, and they lean on one another, and it’s amazing. And it was really sad yesterday when they lost …” she trails off.

    Tunstall went toe-to-toe with softball powerhouse Broad Run — ranked sixth nationally by USA Today — only to watch the Spartans celebrate their nerve-wracking 1-0 victory in the ninth inning. The next day, Broad Run took the Virginia state championship by the largest margin of victory in nearly 30 years.

    But it is only a game.

    “The field, that’s just softball,” junior shortstop Sarah Smith said. “We like to think that wins and losses, they all teach you something — that anything can happen, and just always put your best forth, and just go with whatever happens. Hit the curveballs, pretty much.”

    “I hope to play softball in college,” Jennifer said, “but the experiences are what’s important, and the friendships that you make, the relationships that you build. And I think it was critical at this time in my life. I needed this more than anything.”

    Her composure, her hard exterior, ever so slightly begins to crack. She’s a strong kid, and she gets it from her mom, evidently.

    “Whenever I need anything, I know I have 14 other girls who will do anything and their parents,” Jennifer said, “and that’s … it’s the most amazing thing.”

    Shortly after Tunstall’s loss, Roger lies flushed on his motel bed, surrounded by family. Most of his four children, six grandkids and a puppy he called his “granddog” found a way to make the trek, hoping to see Tunstall and “grandpa” bask in the glory of a long-awaited state title. For now, at least, only the Big Cheese awaits.

    “Sometimes the game of softball,” Roger said, “will teach you a whole lot of life lessons.”

    Sophomore catcher Emily Atkinson rushes into the room, dripping from head to toe, still wearing her uniform after taking a plunge in the pool. She pounces on the coach, giving him an enormous hug.

    Roger hugs her back.

    “People see the winning and the losing and the scores in the paper,” Wendy said. “But we care for each other. We’re more of a family than just a ball team.”
  2. Re: Putting Workshop feedback into practice (jgmacg, Alma, I'm looking at you)

    I hope you don't mind me chiming in, though I'll keep it brief and focus only on the lead because I have my own story to write:

    I think you have a wonderful, wonderful opportunity with this lead. I love the image of the girls cannon-balling into the pool while still in their uniforms and it's a testament to your getting great access and/or asking good questions. I applaud you for that and all the energy you've put in so far but I really think you should develop the lead a bit more.

    You can improve on the first sentence with something stronger, more active. I've noticed a lot of your sentences are in a passive voice. Consider going back and looking at how you can change that.

    The second sentence is a throw-away graph, especially the "mind you," which made me pause. Use that graph to keep moving the story forward.

    Once you have that scene set up with the pool, come right at me with Jennifer for juxtaposition. "Jennifer Slaughter headed right for her motel room."

    Keep it active. Push me forward.

    That's all I can offer for now. I'll come back later if I get time. Good work. Keep at it.
  3. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    Thanks, Write!

    I don't mind you chiming in AT ALL! I only singled out the other two because they had given me some great advice on past stories, advice I tried to put into practice this time around.

    Passive sentences, huh? Hmmmmmm.

    I wish someone would kick me in the ass BEFORE these things go to print. :mad: :-\ ;)
  4. Am I being clear about the passive sentences? Every one of your sentences before the first subhead is in passive voice. Think verbs.

    As the horde ...

    This had all been ...

    Only a short while earlier ...

    Jennifer Slaughter was not ...

    She had headed ...

    I think if you go back and rewrite the majority of those with active subject-verb agreements you'll notice a world of difference. Not everything has to be active but I think the passive clauses should be the exception.
  5. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    Would you mind re-writing one or two of the sentences to further illustrate your point? I'm not sure I fully understand. Doesn't the subject of most of those sentences perform the action expressed in the verb?

    The horde of girls poured

    Tunstall High School suffered

    The tears dried

    She headed

    Maybe I unnecessarily incorporated too many "had"s in those sentences. I certainly could have dropped those, and can maybe see that as being an issue. :-\
  6. The horde of girls poured ...

    The girls planned the cannonball attack on the ride to the motel ...

    The softball team suffered its most heartbreaking loss of the season just hours earlier.

    Jennifer Slaughter headed directly for her motel room ...

    Sorry it's not more detailed but it's late and I've got my own puzzle to piece together.
  7. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    Yeah, it's getting to be about that time.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom.

    ... to be continued ...
  8. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    JC -

    Thanks, as always, for posting your work for us to see.

    First, congratulations on delivering a very ambitious piece. Here are my first-cup-of-coffee thoughts:

    - I agree with Write-brained that you're backing into a lot of your sentences with passive constructions. The antidote to this is simplicity. Concentrate, especially in your feature ledes, on writing clear, declarative sentences. Here's a quick example of tightening your first sentence:

    As the horde of The girls ran poured from the heat of the hot, sticky, green vinyl seats of their big yellow school bus, a small group made a mad dash toward the Econo Lodge straight into the motel pool. , cannon balling into the crystalline water. They were still wearing their red and white softball uniforms.

    - Note also that I took a lot of your modifiers out of those sentences. Don't use three - "hot, sticky, green" - where one will do. You're getting terrific detail into your story, but don't overdo it. The trick is not in finding and including a lot of detail. The skill lies in finding the one perfect detail that illuminates either scene or character or both. As an exercise, go back through the piece and count how many times you paired weak modifiers. Replace them with a single, stronger modifier. If you can't, take the modifier out altogether.

    - Don't reach for descriptive words. I.e."frazzled," which I generally take to mean "anxious" or "stressed" is inapt for someone's hair. "Curly" suffices.

    - Which brings me to the nature of description itself. You're getting the hang of describing your subjects, which is great. Again, don't overdo it. Find the one thing that describes them best. And while it's good to describe clothes or hair, it's better to describe faces or voices. That's where emotion lives. (As when you describe the mother's eyes. Good.) It's also a great deal more dynamic to describe a physical trait than an article of clothing. Once you know what you're doing, you can write a fairly comprehensive emotional sketch of someone simply by describing how they walk.

    - The piece swerves a little at the midpoint when you start writing about the coach and his physical problems. I think there's a way to include him, but that section needs trimming, because as it stands it steals the momentum you've built.

    - The coach's bad ticker also creates a problem at the end of the piece. The moment in the motel room in the last couple grafs reads like a deathbed scene, which I don't think you intended. Reread it, and I think you'll see what I mean.

    - Jennifer Slaughter is forgotten entirely at the end of the piece. I think her story, and her mother's, needs to be reiterated. This can be done in a single sentence.

    So those are my early Wednesday thoughts. Hope they help. Good job, and again, thanks for letting us see this.
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