Aug 2012
The Odds, by Nancy Scott Hanway
Posted in Workshop by Lieb at 3:02 pm | 9 Comments »

A few months ago we put up a call for work that the submitters knew wasn’t quite there yet -  the idea being that a nice thorough deconstruction might not only help the author get a stalled piece moving again, but potentially shine some relevant light on stories that some of our other readers might be held up working on as well.  We’ve also kinda been feeling like there’s too much show and not enough tell around here in the main.   There are lots of talented writers and enthusiastic readers who check up with Conte, and Adam and I know you folks out there can be just as helpful as we can.  So in that spirit, comments, suggestions, analyses, exegeses, and the like are welcomed and encouraged – just please do keep in mind that the whole idea here is to help the author in question get the story unstuck and moving again.

That author, by the way, deserves no small amount of praise, not just for being our guinea pig, but just for having the moxie to put an unfinished piece out there in public view and invite a critique.  Heck, sometimes I don’t even let myself read my clunky, unfinished first drafts.  A brave, worthy soul is she, and let it never be claimed otherwise. 

With that, we’re very pleased to submit, for everyone’s consideration, Nancy Scott Hanway’s "The Odds." 

Click here to read "The Odds" in draft form.


What’s right:

In a big way, the descriptions. A lot of what sold me on this piece initially had to do with Hanway’s ability to root you right in the moment, not just with regards to time and place, but with her narrator’s internal monologue. His puzzlement, defensiveness, and flashes of merciless honestly give rise to passages that are low-key poetic; you trip over them, and they bubble up with dread, wonder, pity, but are never so self-conscious that they can’t pass for honest reactions. In the main, her descriptions are so pleasingly arresting and immediate that you sort of get used to them and don’t notice how well-chosen they are.

He was working as a counselor at Boy Scout camp, showing younger boys how to tie their own flies to catch river trout, when a thirtyfoot oak tree—weakened by recent storms—fell and crushed him. Whenever we tell people about his death, they shake their heads at our son’s unlikely tragedy, as if they disapprove of him dying in such a strange manner.

Every time I read that part, I find myself involuntarily shaking my own head. Even the opening line is a little masterpiece of juxtaposed images that grabs you in that not-ostentatious-but-still-hey-what way that first sentence ought to do like:

I bring death like duty-free liquor swinging from my hands as I get off the plane.

What’s not, so much:

I’ve got nothing but love for Ms. Hanway’s descriptive style; the dialogue, though, isn’t yet on the same level. There are passages that sound wooden, skeletal, like the sketch of what the people ought to say or mean, but in a way that it’s hard to say aloud and imagine being part of a real conversation:

“Surely you know there’s something supernatural going on,” she says.

“Incorrect,” I say. “The world is full of chance happenings. These are a series of very sad coincidences.”

I don’t really remember the last time I used the word “incorrect” without the funny mad-scientist inflection; anyway, it doesn’t quite fit there for me. And given all the emotions flying around about this particular problem, it’s hard to imagine that “a series of very sad coincidences” would be the narrator’s method of summing up his perspective. Also:

“She says that Kathy wants me to die. But what if it’s Miss Esme who’s the key?”

“Why?” Lise says. “It doesn’t make sense. She doesn’t have any connection to us.”

“I don’t know.” I’m warming to the subject. I know it doesn’t matter what I say. Lise won’t believe me. She has gone over to that world, a world of impractical, desperate people who believe the dead return from darkness to witness what the living have done. I wonder if she thinks that Jacob will come back to us that way; I wonder if she hopes he visits her at night while we’re sleeping.

"But I think it’s just as suspicious that someone dies the day after you visit her. You two are blaming me, but what if it’s really her?”

There are a couple passages like this, which go wrong by makings things that we already know a little too clear. It gets all metaphysical, and then the stark restatement of the obvious sort of flips the lights on and shuts down the séance just when the mood was getting good.

Where do we go from here?

The big issue with “The Odds” is that, by about the three-quarter mark, the story’s rudderlessness starts to be apparent; Ms. Hanway mentioned in her workshop submission that she was kind of stuck figuring out where to take it.  There is a line here that’s tricky to walk, or several: between the mundane and the supernatural, between conspiracy and paranoia, and a whole spectrum between blind faith and truculent adherence to the empirical here & now.   You can leave one or two of them ambiguous, but starting with “I don’t know” and ending up with “I don’t know, even more so, now” doesn’t make much of an arc unless some pretty significant developments, you know, develop in the in-between. So far, that’s not visible yet.

For me, the fundamental disconnect to address here is between the coincidence, the psychic, and the resolution. We spend part of the story, along with the narrator – whose perspective we receive, who we must identify with out of necessity – daring ourselves into considering the notion that something supernatural is at work. We feign bravery as we walk right up to a series of inexplicable coincidences, which if they continue to recur, will bring drastic consequences. Because we know we’re right. We’ve already lost so much. Our eldest, best son. Our marriage. Our lives, as they were.  If we’ve lost everything else, we must at least have lost our fear right along with it.  Haven’t we?

In a broader sense, this story dances around the edge of that premise – whatever you have, it’s on the way out, and can you deal with that?  Can coming face to face with it only crush you, or can you be healed, too, in some way, eventually?  The experience of loss is bad enough, but this is primarily about the integration of loss, which sees infinitely worse. That’s why I love the airport as an opening, and the fact that the deaths only happen at home while the narrator’s away – it’s like he comes home to survivor’s guilt every time, despite being a victim himself in more ways than one, without ever having the chance to let the scabs heal over. Holding on to the things you cherish, as Lise does with whatever is at her disposal – a phone, a charm, a gun – is no defense, and ultimately counterproductive. But we have a need to just do something, anything, anyway, regardless; passivity is emotional anathema. That fierce, cannibalistic love that Hanway talks about in one of the later passages (one of my favorite parts) demands that we swing, even if blindly, to try and protect what we have, if for no other reason than we have to be able to live with ourselves when the dust settles.

That leads us, I think, to where this story lives – in the thrall of that action, the chaos and breaking down of what we know or think we know or want to know into what we need for no known reason. The narrator copes with his tragedy by walking in his old footprints to the best of his ability – what would be called keeping up appearances, going to work, taking care of the other survivors, and I think not really acknowledging the breadth and depth of the crater that Jacob’s death created. When faced with the unusual string of further passings-on, he’s as powerless as the first time heard about the tree falling – more so, perhaps, because Lise has gone the opposite way, taking that huge hulking pain and crushing it against her breast, daring it to break her first.   But nobody’s right here; neither course is apt to be fruitful.  The situation is the metaphysical equivalent of proving a negative, trying to stop something you aren’t actually doing, or even sure is really happening.

That’s what I think what’s really being hit on here. We love a challenge; especially in times of stress, of loss, of dilemma, one of the worst feelings is passivity, having to sit by and just suffer. Whether it’s productive or not, it just feels better to be doing something. And so the narrator jumps to the challenge of proving that Ms. Esmee is a culprit- by the end of the story, she’s not only a fraud, but quite possibly a criminal mastermind, which is in itself almost as absurd as the idea that ghosts are out there felling trees like lumberjacks and crashing airplanes out of sheer crankiness. (I’m normally loathe to discourage anyone from taking on the supernatural in their writing, because I loves me  a good ghost story, but I’m not sure how to work that angle here without tearing up a good bit of the good writing that’s already been accomplished here – it seems unnecessary.)  And that, too, is one of the story’s best touches, that cyclical guilt, the crushing concern that you have, whether truly through your own fault or otherwise, been part of an experience that will taint you, follow you, haunt you for the rest of your days. That ghosts do exist, because we make them, the inesc echoes of our own past – and that there is some broken part of you that can never be mended, some deed which can never be undone. That’s the possibility that’s most terrifying, I think, to the narrator – that he knows, deep down, he’s doing everything in his power to avoid the reality of the loss that follows him around like a curse, but will, inevitably, catch up to him at last like a bullet in the night.

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9 Responses:

Susan Scott said:

Wow, this is a great short story writer! She grabs the reader right away with the image of death like duty-free.
Sentences like the one about mother love “…so fierce it’s almost cannibalistic…” are powerfully written. As are her descriptions like the one about Miss Esme’s house with specific details (grey bungalow, Chevy) saving it from stereotype.
I think she’s good at dialogue too. “Incorrect” is perfect from a lawyer talking to a psychic! And the dialogue after Miss Esme reveals truths about Kathy’s death is fast paced and exciting.
Emotional states are quickly and truly drawn too: “I feel a huge surge of anger; my vision blurs.” What a great, fast description. And this is a woman writing!
I love the ending too – the image of Lise with a gun and the moralistic tone is just hilarious.
And this brings me to the only issue I had with the story. Hanway is really good at being funny, but the death of a child is not funny. From the scene in the elevator, cracking up over her comic timing of “She’s joking”, quickly followed by “He put his hand on my shoulder. “Take care, dude.”" the reader is abruptly introduced to the death of the protagonist’s oldest child. Ouch.

Jacki Christopher said:

I agree with the original poster’s comments about what is right and since the author is looking for constructive feedback on how to improve the story, I will address my initial thoughts on how to make it better.

First, I would recommend writing about 20 more pages and then trimming by 20-25. Neither the characters nor the plot are fully germinated. Get them to the point where they’re all blossomed to the point of overgrown and then prune the hell out of them.

Second, I personally would like to see the style and voice be a little more perfunctory. This is told from the perspective of a professional male who isn’t quick to access his feelings. Sentences 3-5 words long will speed the story up and better convey his dismissive personality.

Clearly there is more to this story. I think a deep exploration of the three main characters, who they are, and what they want may help to inadvertently fill the holes in the plot. I would also recommend that as an exercise the author experiment with telling Jacob’s story in his voice, through his eyes. I think it might be very revealing.

Really excellent work and a unique story idea. I look forward to reading future drafts!

Anne Carter said:

Nancy Scott Hanway is a beautiful writer, and I love this story. In some ways, it reminds me of the supernatural ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw, but with a sense of humor. The humor is apparent when, for example, the Gopher fans are expectant in a quite different way from the narrator. I love other scenes of extreme contrast between the emotional wreckage caused by past or future death in the family and the narrator’s everyday high anxiety, as in the elevator, where the narrator’s professional acquaintance may or may not now be privy to information that is far too personal, or when the story brings us back from the narrator’s thoughts about odds and death to the gritty (or creamy) reality of the burrito that clings annoyingly to his shoe. He can’t shake either, and you can just imagine Nancy deciding not to say outright that death clings to him like a burrito to his shoe. I love the way that the husband carries the threat of death at the start, but it’s the wife who carries it at the end, by which time death may arrive just as mercilessly, but may not be as seemingly random. I appreciate the eye for descriptive detail that people have commented on earlier. This is a talented and gifted writer.

How to improve the story? How can the writer get unstuck? One thing I wondered about as I read was how the narrator went from Kathy to his current wife. Could we have some rumination about that part of his past, or is that best left unspoken? Part of how they get to where they are involves the late Kathy and the string of other bodies, but it surely also involves the change in their desire for one another. Now that desire seems missing altogether, and that’s reasonable. But what was the baseline? The love for her child is drawn with such insight. What an image, and how powerfully that idea of cannibalism conveys the emotion! The fact that the narrator has made this observation tells us a lot about him, but I’d like more. Has the love between this husband and wife ever been as strong or as threatening as that, or as strong as the wariness and anger the wife now feels? This might help to define the narrator’s masculinity, too. I would like a stronger sense of him as male; he seems androgynous to me. He has the checkbook, he drives the SUV, but she carries the gun, ultimately–and good for her; don’t get me wrong.

Is it possible, too, that the story isn’t really about the odds? Or that the odds need more discussion? Perhaps the similarities and differences between the odds and the supernatural could be teased out a bit more? Is belief in the odds any more “correct”or wrong-headed than belief in the supernatural? Aren’t they both ways of making sense of events that lack meaning otherwise? True, we do get that at the end, but most directly in terms of the supernatural, and maybe we are to make the connection ourselves to the odds.

Another thought on this theme: the calculations that the narrator makes about the odds left me scratching my head a bit. I wondered if he was snowing us, and I was a little confused that the math showed that the odds didn’t seem to be that high that someone of his acquaintance would die, or it wasn’t clear how high they were. I wondered how many people had died, and over what period of time.

Karen Holman said:

This is an engaging, affecting, accomplished story. For me it’s about is the need to tell stories, to interpret events and make sense out of tragedy. Yet the story resists simple explanations and that’s something that makes it powerful. The timing of the deaths is uncanny. It seems there must be some kind of causal link between the narrator’s trips and the deaths. And what does Esme have to do with the accidents since they stop when she dies? But in the end I can’t find a satisfying reason for the deaths other than they are very, very improbable coincidences. Or are they? I really like that the story doesn’t come to a conclusion and the reader is left to wrestle with the events and come to his or her own explanation. Engaging with the story calls into question the process of assigning causality, which makes me start to rethink my understanding of my own history. The story challenges my perspective and that’s something fiction should do.

The craftsmanship is wonderful. I loved the opening. I had a strong sense of the characters and the pacing was perfect. The descriptions and dialogue are terrific, too. If I would change anything it would be to add more about how the death of Jacob affected the narrator. Also, I wondered why Lise didn’t just call the narrator with the news about the deaths instead of waiting until she saw him at the airport. Overall, I loved the story the way it is.

Debra Smith said:

I love the ambiguities of Nancy Scott Hanway’s short story. They leave us questioning not only the circumstances of the death of the narrator’s first wife to the death of Miss Esme, but more importantly perhaps the narrator’s feelings for his family. Did he kill his first wife by failing to light the pilot light? Are his other sons protected because his love for them lacks the intensity of that which he feels for his first son? As for Miss Esme, who is she? And why does she die?

Like poetry, Ms. Hanway’s short, seemingly simple sentences express realistic emotions while evoking disturbing, raw images. Her descriptions of the bond between the mother and her son go straight to their love and interdependency; at the same time, Hanway’s descriptions of that fierce love conjures up disturbing images that speak to love’s destructive potential.

Brendan N said:

Ms. Hanway’s story reminds me almost of the story “Love in the time of Cholera” and the entire genre of magical realism as a whole. I especially liked the perspective of the somewhat hard to write married again man, whose sympathies might be hard to garner with some people. Even then, our suspicions are tested after finding out about the pilot light incident and Miss Esme. He is an unreliable narrator, conveniently revealing things only when pressed, and luring the audience in with his sympathetic and tragic past. Again, this is not because he may or may not be a bad person, but is simply like the rest of us. We make things up, fill in the blanks, make ourselves look better because that’s what we do when confronted with unflattering or tragic events.

Anyway, Miss Esme is, to quote Churchill, “an enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by mystery.” What are her motives? Does she really care, or is she just being daft and scamming the poor couple out of money, ruining their marriage in the process? We never do find out, because she dies, like so many others in the main character’s life.

There is something magical and supernatural to this story, mainly the deaths of people that the main character knows ever time he leaves town. There are no wizards or witches ala Harry Potter, but something else seems at work, something out of control of the normal realm of the physical world we live in. Even Miss Esme, the spirit medium is subject to this supernatural entity, but then it all comes crashing down when she dies, and the deaths stop; perhaps the supernatural link has been severed, hence “the odds” have now been tipped in the main characters favor. Not that it helps Lise, and she’s the ultimate loser when it comes to the odds in this story. Her trust shaken, and her supernatural beliefs stood up after the deaths stop sends her off of the deep end, and she’s never the same as the main character points out. In a sense, the magical realism part is subverted, shown to be just a bunch of bad rolls of the dice or a crummy deck of cards.

The dialogue however, does leave something to be desired. It feels a bit stilted at times, and it chops up the great descriptions given to us by Ms. Hanway. I’m not quiet sure how this can be remedied, but I feel like sometimes it just gets in the way. The characters also feel one dimensional at points, but maybe this is due to the fact that it’s a short story, and that there’s just not alot of time to focus on character development.

Overall, this story is excellent, The vagueness and abstract nature is in contrast to the detail that some authors put into their work, and while not wrong in its own right, Ms. Hanway’s work allows us to fill in the blanks left by the descriptions she provides in the story.

Featured Client: Nancy Scott Hanway - Writer's Relief, Inc. said:

[...] Review, Washington Square, Primavera, Main Street Rag, Grey Sparrow, Apalachee Review and in the Conte Online Workshop. She blogs about books and wine (mostly Malbecs) at wordvine.org. Her wonderful family includes her [...]

Daniel said:

This is a great story, I believe that Ms.Hanways story is just a recollection of dreams that people have not understood correctly. Furthermore different people have had separate ideas.

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