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Ed Lebowitz’s Critique of “Promises, Lies, and Jelly Doughnuts” by George Talbot ©

In Critique on October 31, 2011 at 5:56 am

Ed Lebowitz’s Critique of “Promises, Lies, and Jelly Doughnuts.”

Theme/intent: “Promises, Lies and Jelly Doughnuts” is a funny and happy story in which the main characters triumph over adversity by looking out for each other and honoring each others’ interests.

What I liked:

Opening: The first paragraph presents the two problems the protagonist James faces, finding a wife and caring for his daffy aunt, in a first person voice that is familiar and pleasant. You like the protagonist and care about him because of his modesty regarding his attractiveness to women and his filial attitude toward his mother and aunt.  The first paragraph also makes it clear the story will be funny.

Conflict and Plot:  Both were clear and believable.

Internal to protagonist: Both James’s dead mother and aunt are friendly eccentrics concerned about James’s bachelor status. James isn’t married, but not for lack of trying to find a mate; he just hasn’t connected with anyone yet. His attempts give fodder to the story’s humor and his preposterous explanations to his aunt Madeline extend the humorous motif. However, that James is serious about wanting to meet a woman with whom to fall in love and get married is unquestioned and this challenge, if not an overt conflict, is why you want to find out what happens as his relationship with Lauren, a girl he knew back in high school that he’d always admired but with whom he never felt he had a chance, blossoms under aunt Madeline’s encouragement.

External to protagonist: The conflict that moves the story forward is complex and interesting. James is responsible for his aunt’s finances. This is not without some self-interest, as it seems clear that James will be his aunt’s sole heir. Aunt Madeline owns a valuable piece of property that her lawyer, attorney Bronson, and his son Teddy would like to develop commercially. Attorney Bronson pressures James to sell the land and move aunt Madeline to an assisted living facility, in the process making good arguments that aunt Madeline needs more care than she can afford under her current circumstances, that James isn’t qualified, doesn’t live close enough and wouldn’t be interested in providing it or wealthy enough to pay for it. The money aunt Madeline would realize from the sale of her property would solve this problem.

James is conflicted because he agrees with attorney Bronson’s fundamental premise both about his aunt’s need for care and her inability to pay for it. James even has to liquidate some of his retirement savings to pay his aunt’s expenses because she has run out of money, which indicates that attorney Bronson’s assessment of James’s and aunt Madeline’s situation is reasoned and accurate. This conflict comes to a head when aunt Madeline undergoes a competency assessment that would require her to leave her home if she fails. As James does due diligence on the lawyer’s proposition, he engages further with Lauren and with a motorcycle club members, Sizzler and his wife Susan, he meets by coincidence but who have relevant expertise to help him. James concludes that his aunt should not sell the land and should continue to live independently, and the competency assessment done by an external agency concludes she is capable. This is a layered conflict that engages the reader’s interest throughout the story.

Dialogue, pacing and point-of-view: All excellent. Voice was consistent and engaging throughout. You have a wonderful way of making us like and care about your characters. “Show versus tell” was balanced. Text format was clear. Style and tone are wonderful. I loved the scene at the motel with the motorcycle club.

Opportunities for improvement—Easier:

Why the hyphens in “time-of-death” on page 1?

“Ever apparent” should be “ever-apparent” with the hyphen on page 8.

“Long term” should be “long-term” with the hyphen on page 8.

“Waterfront frontage” on page 9 is redundant. What about “waterfront property” instead?

“Lets” on page 9 should be “Let’s.”

“The Sizzler,” a character on page 9, should have a different nickname. In the context in which it is used, when they are just about to eat, the reader is confused because the Sizzler is the name of a well-known restaurant chain.

“House Representative and Congressional types” on page 14 isn’t clear. “House of Representatives is Congress, so it’s probably redundant. Making the distinction between the two is confusing because there isn’t a difference that I know.

Sizzler said “Good meeting you, Jimmy B. Stay in touch.” on page 10 should be: Sizzler said, “Good meeting you, Jimmy B. Stay in touch.” That is, there should be a comma between said, and the quotation mark before “Good…

On page 11, I believe “doughnuts, but” should be “doughnuts but.”

On page 11, shouldn’t “sat” be “were sitting” and “napped” be “was napping?”

There’s no need to italicize “whole” on page 12. The emphasis is clear in the dialogue itself.

I think “look up pol-y-dac-tyl” on page 15 should be, look up “polydactyl” because when you’re referring to a word as a word as you are when you say look it up, you enclose it in quotation marks I believe.

On page 16: “Pines, and” should be “Pines and.”

Opportunities for improvement—Harder:

I feel the plot broke down at the end for several reasons. First, I did not feel that James relationship with Lauren was adequately resolved. This is a comedy and should end with a marriage. Second, if Aunt Madeline really ran out of money, and James really couldn’t take care of her, why at the end is she suddenly able to stay in her house? Either the resources are there or they aren’t, and we’ve been shown that they’re not, so why all of a sudden does the problem disappear. Although I could imagine reasons why it could disappear, say if aunt Madeline or James won the lottery, nothing is mentioned in the story to explain why it does disappear. I think you should address this.

I felt that attorney Bronson was presented as too much of a villain. There was nothing wrong with his desire to develop the property as long as he was willing to pay a reasonable price. I felt he was presented as evil for wanting to develop the property at all. That other people want to develop the property too is stated on page 13 where it says, “Offers started coming in to buy her place.” To me that means a lot of developers are interested, not just attorney Bronson and his son Teddy. If attorney Bronson or his son Teddy were responsible for aunt Madeline’s financial or medical problems, they would be evil, but they weren’t; the competency assessment was required because of her behavior. However, that’s even unclear to me since the competency test was “prompted by Attorney Bronson on behalf of her insurance carrier after the stories of trips in the old car with a magical cat began to circulate” on page 14.

I felt the story would be stronger and the conflict more intense if you showed attorney Bronson in a more sympathetic light. That would center the conflict more on James. Does James, for example, want to keep his aunt in the house and the property from development because he wants to realize the profits from the sale himself after he inherits it? Does James want to keep his aunt in her home to save money on nursing home costs? In other words, I like James a lot, and he’s faced with major problems of love, promises and money. He squirms a bit in this story, but I think he should squirm more. Of course, if The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and EPA were trying to keep the land from development altogether, it would add another ethical/moral dilemma for James, especially if his aunt sides with them and jeopardizes the financial value of James’s potential inheritance.

Toward the end of the story, I became confused. For example, on page 16, when aunt Madeline says, “don’t feel bad if it doesn’t end up happening” in her phone message, it came out of the blue to me. I don’t know why she would say it, so it makes me feel I’ve missed something. However, I’ve read the story carefully and more than once, so it’s hard for me to believe I’m that dense. Am I?

Also, on page 17 when James says, “A nut case maybe — but not crazy,” it confuses me because it’s a distinction I don’t make. If you said, “Eccentric maybe—but not crazy,” I would understand it because people say rich people are eccentric and the rest of us are crazy. However, that would imply that James thinks of his family as rich, and I’m not sure you want to imply that.

On page 15, James explains how aunt Madeline passed the test of competency. However, it’s not clear how he knew such detailed information since he wasn’t there. I feel he must have gotten the information from Lauren because she was there. It would be better to have this information come out in dialogue between Lauren and James or as a scene with James there. You could somehow work into this scene the budding romance between the Lauren and James as well. This story, after all, should conclude with their marriage or at least with the reader sure that they will marry, I believe.

We are led to believe that the Oldsmobile is old and unused for many years. James tries to get Sizzler to fix it to help aunt Madeline pass her competency test. However, at the last minute, it appears that that James and everyone else’s opinion that the Oldsmobile didn’t run was incorrect. This defies ready explanation. If aunt Madeline really drove it as much as she said, then people in the small town would have seen her do it and know that the car worked. There must be a better resolution of the car problem, such as Lauren fixed it unbeknownst to James. Lauren could explain this to James on the telephone call. The point is, for this story to be believable, the car either really had to be fixed by someone or it shouldn’t be mentioned at all except perhaps that aunt Madeline’s erratic driving was another reason why people felt she needed to go into assisted living—and give up her license to drive.

On page 17, there is the following dialogue:

It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I called them.

“Miss Huntsberry’s residence.”

“It’s James. How is everything?”

“Hi. Everything is peachy. How are you?”

“Peachy? How’d the interview go?”

“Great. We were going to call you earlier, but an orphaned bobcat kit was under the shed.”

To me, it isn’t clear to whom James is talking, maybe Lauren and maybe aunt Madeline—I wasn’t sure.  Although I believe Lauren is talking, and it becomes clearer later in the conversation that she is, it feels like she is talking in aunt Madeline’s voice and saying things aunt Madeline would say—almost as if you had aunt Madeline saying most of this at one time but then revised it to have Lauren say it without changing what was said. I feel you need a “Lauren said” in there at the beginning. For example:

It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I called them. Lauren answered the phone. “Miss Huntsberry’s residence,” she said.

“It’s James. How is everything?”

“Hi. Everything is peachy. How are you?”

“Peachy? How’d the interview go?”

“Great. We were going to call you earlier, but an orphaned bobcat kit was under the shed.”

Also, I believe, you should use this conversation to have Luaren explain to James what happened in her own voice, which didn’t sound eccentric like aunt Madeline’s voice until this point late in the story.

Finally, there is the last line of the story:

“I will. I owe him a favor,” the nature of which I’d never admit to anyone.

This sentence adds nothing to the story and at the same time creates a sense of dissatisfaction for the reader. Did James think the cat Luther fixed the car? If so, it’s no wonder James wouldn’t admit it to anyone. However, as the story ends, it leaves the reader wondering if Lauren and James aren’t as loony as aunt Madeline. And up to this point, there was no indication that they were.

As I mentioned above, after establishing the central external conflict that aunt Madeline needed care that she couldn’t afford and had the wherewithal to pay for only if she sold her oceanfront property to the highest bidder, the problem is not resolved. Just because she passed the competency test doesn’t mean she doesn’t need in-house care or suddenly has the money to pay for it. If James and Lauren married and they moved in with aunt Madeline, then the problem could be resolved. As it is, there is insufficient resolution.

Lingering questions: 1. Was the car broken down or not? Was it fixed just in time, and if so, how and by whom? 2. How does aunt Madeline resolve her care and financial needs without selling her property? 3. Do Lauren and James get married?

About Ed: I am starting Creative WOW as an assignment for “Writing Web 2.0: On Blogs and Blogging,” a Stanford Online Writer’s Studio course.  Creative WOW will be a community of creative writers that help each other improve their writing by using the workshop process. George Talbot is a talented writer I met in another Stanford Online Writer’s Studio course I took this summer. You’ll love his story. If you think you’d find attention like this useful in revising your own short story, please send it in by clicking on the SUBMIT A STORY. If you would like to critique “Promises, Lies and Jelly Doughnuts,” please click on  OFFER A CRITIQUE.

Ed’s Website/Blog: Creative WOW

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