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George Talbot’s Critique of “The Neighborhood Commandant” by Liz Dolan ©

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2011 at 12:50 am

Gertrude Meganhardt lives year round in a seaside neighborhood. Within the first three hundred words of “The Neighborhood Commandant” readers get plenty of story, setting, characterization, mood and potential conflict. Her territory is trespassed by a “shaggy-haired young man in baggy jeans and a black tee” seen behind a neighbor’s house. It’s March, and many of the homeowners have left until the warm weather returns, including Jim, who owns the house where Gert sees the man. He’s a plumber, checking out a leak, which is enough to disarm most of Gert’s apprehension, but readers are given an inkling the story isn’t finished with his character. The man’s reappearance at the end of “The Neighborhood Commandant” is not unexpected, but the circumstances are unpredictable and add a big dose of tension and crisis.

Gert is a solid character. She’s had her ups and downs over the years, the details of which are not overdone. She’s alone but not lonely, not overly happy but satisfied to live for many years to come. Readers won’t be inclined to be sympathetic with her character as much as they’ll find her to be interesting. She’s strong-willed, opinionated, a survivor, and real. Same goes for the strange man. He’s a free spirit of sorts, who carries a causal air about him: not threatening or ominous, but with enough gall to get under Gert’s skin. He’s real.

A comfortable blend of backstory is integrated throughout TNC. It never distracts or meanders. The third-person omniscient narration creates a believable picture for readers, and remains consistently subjective. There might be an overuse of the word ‘thought’ when the narrator convey’s Gert’s whys and wherefores — the story would do well to edit some of them. For instance, on page 4, “Such a gentleman he was, and she bet he knew all the answers to the questions.” Two sentences later: “I’ll have to tell him to get that fixed.” Readers are in Gert’s head. We know she’s the one thinking. Likewise, maybe the story would read better limiting the use of the ‘she’ pronoun. “The sky began to darken, a storm was brewing.” (Wonderful use of weather details throughout the story — they add to the overall mood.)

Dialogue. It works double-duty to both convey character and move the story. It’s proportioned well within the mix of narration. Readers might be split on the effectiveness of eye-dialect, but sometimes a “Sure do ask a lot of questions” is better said “You sure do ask a lot of questions.” “Who do you work for?” versus “Who you work for?” And the use of ‘ain’t‘…”I’m not” and/or “It isn’t” might be less distracting. Minimizing words that echo in the story could help maintain the smooth and easy flow (as well composed as the opening of TNC is, the use ‘sniff‘ and ‘sniffing‘ within two sentences echoed — maybe if Gert could ‘grab’ or ‘adopt’ the chair so later on her head could pivot “in that odd way as if sniffing out trouble.”

As difficult as it is to find any aspects to improve this story, there’s one more minor place maybe worth considering: the neighborhood street names. Readers might get more atmosphere with seaside-type titles like an Ocean View or a Sand Dune Way.

The bottom line is “The Neighborhood Commandant” is a heck of a story that twists readers from from an invulnerable Gert to a vulnerable Gert, and then back again. Hugely good reversal of a character’s ability to loose and then regain the upper hand.

I’m glad I had a chance to read the story and the privilege to tell the writer how much I admired it.

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  1. George, how kind of you to take the time to critique my story. I’m glad you liked it. Liz

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