What Can We Steal From Leesa Cross-Smith’s “Making Cowboys”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Making Cowboys,” short story
Author: Leesa Cross-Smith (on Twitter @LeesaCrossSmith)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The short story made its October 2013 debut in Little Fiction.  You can view the story here.

Bonuses:  Ms. Cross-Smith is very excited about her Mojave River Press book Every Kiss a War.  Here is a Literary Orphans interview in which Ms. Cross-Smith discusses her book.  Here is a story that Ms. Cross-Smith published in Monkeybicycle.  

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Presence

Discussion:
The story details the beautiful manner in which a family congeals around newfound love.  Charlotte and Wyatt were both single parents whose children were born on nearly the same day.  She was in an unsatisfying marriage for ten years, he was married to a woman who seems less than pleasant.  Now they are together.  We see the tail end of their honeymoon.  He buys a cowboy hat and she buys a belt buckle.  The newlyweds pick up their children and sit down to (I’m guessing) watch a movie while passing around a big bowl of buttery popcorn.

What struck me most about Ms. Cross-Smith’s story was the specific nature of her third-person narrator.  Although this narrator is omniscient, it seemed to me that it was much closer to Charlotte than to Wyatt.  Further, this particular narrator has a great deal of personality.  Instead of merely reporting thoughts and events, it gets extremely involved in the storytelling and shaping our perception of the characters.  Take a look at the fourth paragraph:

“I like when you listen to country music. That’s different,” he said, turning to look at himself in the mirror. She put her chin on his shoulder, told him it looked good. Told him he looked like a real cowboy with it on. A right rootin-tootin six-shootin somethin or other straight out of the wild west. She made her case about how it should’ve been illegal for a guy named Wyatt to have gone almost thirty-five years without owning a cowboy hat. It ain’t right she said.

The line between narrator and character is blurred in the story.  Ms. Cross-Smith makes sure we don’t think of the narrator as journalistic and objective by slipping the first italicized sentence into the piece.  (I’ve bolded what Ms. Cross-Smith italicized; WordPress doesn’t seem to like playing with the italics in a quote.)  This line isn’t spoken.  It’s emphasis on the part of the narrator that is buffeted by the preceding sentence, in which the author (through the narrator) made a stylistic choice to omit the subject.  The italicized sentence that ends the paragraph IS spoken by the character; Ms. Cross-Smith chooses not to use quotation marks for this bit of dialogue.  What does all of this mean?  The narrator becomes much more of a part of the narrative.  While it may be less “reliable” in terms of factual reporting, the viewpoint through which Ms. Cross-Smith is telling the story has a lot more personality.  It’s likable and fun and appropriate for this story, a piece whose conflicts are fairly mild.  (Wyatt’s ex may be a little unpleasant, but there don’t seem to be any storm clouds on the horizon unless you’re like me: a depressed misanthrope who doesn’t believe that love can last.  But we don’t let our personal philosophies replace those of the author when we’re reading fiction.)

The big lesson is to ensure that you choose and characterize the proper narrator to tell the story.  This narrator is fun and personable and sometimes informal…what a great way to tell the story of new love in bloom.  Let’s say you’re writing a novel about a Bernie Madoff character…the narrator in “Making Cowboys” is probably not the right choice.  (In fiction, of course, nothing is wrong as long as it works and everything is possible.)

I loved the way Charlotte thought about Wyatt in the story.  I’m guessing that this is how loving spouses view each other: they see whatever flaws exist in their partners, but have have a great deal respect and high regard for the person to whom they’ve pledged their lives.  Ms. Cross-Smith happens upon a concern that I think is relatively new.  Early in the story, we learn a little bit about what Charlotte liked about Wyatt in the first place.  She loved the way he talked.  “Hot damn.”  She says.  “That voice.  That voice.”  The next sentence results in a little bit of confusion that arises, I think, from the fact that we now live in a digital world.  Here’s what the sentence looks like in the beautifully done layout of Little Fiction:

crosssmith1

Which letter do you think Ms. Cross-Smith is spotlighting in this sentence?  There were a lot of “Is” (eyes) in the previous italicized sentences, so that’s what I thought Ms. Cross-Smith meant.  I definitely think a woman can make the “I” sound pretty.  (Southern accent FTW.  And English accents.  And German accents.  Pretty much any accent.)

Look what happens when I put that sentence into Word in its original Arial:

crosssmith2

Now check it out if I switch up the font:

crosssmith3

Uh oh.  Ms. Cross-Smith was pointing out that Charlotte likes when Wyatt says his “Ls” (ells).  Did this harm my enjoyment of Ms. Cross-Smith’s sweet story?  No.  And I certainly don’t think it’s a mistake on her part.  I bring my momentary confusion as a warning that we need to think about these kinds of issues.  What happens to our stories as they make the transition from our word processing program to their forever homes on the (digital or paper) page?

What Should We Steal?

  • Decide where your narrator is on the spectrum between real human and robotic reporter.  Your narrator is the conduit through which the reader experiences your story.  Is it talking to your reader one-on-one or standing before a podium, telling the tale into a microphone?
  • Anticipate confusion that may be introduced by the publishing process.  We can’t anticipate everything, but these issues may alter the way our works are perceived in slight ways.  Think about a two-page poem; how can we know where the editor will cleave the work into two?

ADDENDUM: The very kind folks at Little Fiction changed the version you will see on the web site after reading this essay, so the note that I’m pointing out is no longer current.  I leave the analysis intact so other writers and editors (including myself) will consider this kind of very small issue in the future.  If we’re lucky enough to have our work selected and presented, what can change as the work gets translated from our brains, to our fingers, to paper, into digital form and then into another digital form.  Many thanks to Little Fiction for their generosity and for understanding that I wasn’t being a big jerkface.

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