Critique Group – Gatekeeper

Yes, sometimes rejection does feel like that.

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Gatekeeper – by Stephanie (this is a rewrite of an earlier critique submission)

“Stop pulling, Bosco!” I snapped, commanding my Goldendoodle to heel. He heaved a concussive bark in complaint and stopped his frantic sniffing. He was more interested in smelling the world than listening to me as we sloshed through the trees.

After a good rain we always scouted the creek behind my house for washed up items that I could re-purpose in my workshop. If it rained enough, the water rose into the trees beyond the creek’s banks. I considered scavenging the adventurous part of my life, boy was I in for a redefinition.

Because of our past excavations a miniature salvage yard now hid behind the workshop in my backyard. It wasn’t that I was a hoarder… Okay, maybe I was a hoarder but only with artable items.

In my family art was also a verb, so yes, I considered artable a word. ‘What are you going to art today?’ or ‘I feel like arting.’ were normal sentences between my parents and I.

Both successful artists, my parents so nurtured the creative in me that I never thought of being anything else. They had me later in their lives and past away soon after I finished college. Living through the heartbreak of being an orphan at twenty-four was only slightly mollified by having the financial means to follow my passion, sculpting. I loved creating 3D art pieces with re-claimed junk. After my parents’ death I mourned by pouring my heart and soul into my work. Ten years of hard work and imaginative online marketing proved me moderately successful at my craft. Therefore, Bosco and I had to regularly scavenge the creek for usable junk to resupply the ever changing pile in my yard.

Frightened from its nest as we walked, a rabbit darted through the trees in front of us. Bosco instinctively gave chase, pulling me off balance. With a yelp, I slipped on the slick ground and banged into a tree. Eighty-five pounds of dog yanked again, splaying me into a large mud puddle.

“I said no,” I growled along with an angry tug on the leash. His prey long gone, Bosco looked back at me and sat. His fluffy white tail wagged in the mud puddle. “Great,” I muttered, adding dog bath to my to do list. Bosco gave the front of my soggy shirt an apologetic slurp as I carefully stood.

“Are you all right?” a concerned male voice called from the nearby walking trail.

“Only a scraped elbow and muddy clothes,” I answered back as a nice looking man in jogging clothes pushed through the trees.

He glanced me over with a bemused smile while I pointed accusingly at Bosco. “He wanted to chase a rabbit.”

The man snorted a laugh and appraised my tongue-lolling dog. Bosco woofed a friendly greeting and nestled his giant head under the man’s outstretched hand.

“Such a great guard dog,” I muttered.

“If he was able to pull you this far off of the trail, maybe you should take him to obedience classes,” the man offered.

At the man’s admonishment, I imagined myself skiing through the mud behind Bosco. Trying to hide a smile, I said, “No, I spied some old fencing in the bushes back here and wanted to drag it home.”

“Ah, so the rabbit incident happened on the way to the fencing,” he noted, his eyes dancing with amusement. Bosco nudged closer and was rewarded with a chin scratch.

“Oh no, you’ve done it now,” I said in a mournful tone. “Once you’ve scratched his chin you’re his friend for life.”

The man answered in my same tone, “What a horrible fate.”

We shared a grin and the moment became awkward when I found myself staring at the handsome tilt of his jaw when he smiled. ‘Get a grip, Donna. You don’t need no man to be happy.’ My mantra, since my entire dating life amounted to two wretched blind dates and a blundering ask to a middle school dance. Don’t get me wrong, in the junk business I knew a long list of men and considered them friends, just not dating material.

Embarrassed by my gawkfest, I said, “Well, I better grab this wood and get home before the neighbors see me. The rumor mill will be reporting a muddy Sasquatch loitering in the woods by the end of the day.”

“Nah, you’re not furry enough. Do you live nearby?” he asked, spiking my nerves. Alone in the woods with a stranger wasn’t always the best scenario. He seemed to pick up on my worry. “I’m sorry. My name is Vance Chambers. I just moved into the red brick house on Woodbury.”

“Ah my new neighbor, I live two doors down in the white house.”

“I was wondering who lived there. You’ve got quite a quirky front yard,” he said, offering me his hand.

Quirky was a nice description, most of my neighbors called it a monstrosity but I loved it. In the sparse grass under the trees was a wandering stone path. Off of the path was an entire gnome village with varying homes I had created out of re-purposed doll and bird houses.

I found a dry spot on my shirt and wiped my soggy fingers before shaking his hand. “I’m Donna Gibbings. You are much nicer about my yard than most.”

“Your village is amazing. I spent almost an hour there enjoying all of the different homes. Did you make them all?”

I nodded and said, “I’m an artist. The gnome village is my guilty pleasure when I’m low on orders or mentally blocked on a project.”

“By the looks of it you’re low or blocked a lot,” he teased.

“I’ve just lived here awhile. The village did not go up over night but now I’m running out of room. I would run a path into the backyard but Bosco here would feast.”

Vance barked a laugh. “Gnome carnage. Maybe turn the backyard into a gnome war zone. Little siege engines and gnome armies.”

“I like your sense of whimsy, sir. Perhaps you could explain the backyard project to Benny Barnes over on Northside. He’s started a petition against me.”

“Some people have nothing better to do,” Vance scoffed. Our conversation lolled a moment then he asked. “So, how big is the fencing you’re after? Do you need a hand?”

Glancing at my target, a vine wrapped gate entangled by some trees, I realized that it was much larger than I originally figured. “Probably so, it didn’t look that big back on the trail.”

Bosco started barking as we walked closer. “What’s the matter boy, it’s just old wood,” Vance said as he tugged on the wooden gate still attached by its hinges to a partial frame. It didn’t budge from the undergrowth.

The frame and gate stood about six feet high, crafted from oak and covered in intricate symbols. Still soaked from the morning rain, I couldn’t tell how old the wood was but the antique hinges were ornate and beautiful. My artistic mind drooled with possibilities.

Bosco’s pitch changed and he added a howl at the end of his complaints. “Bosco, sit!” I said with a firm voice. He sat but continued to bark as I helped Vance pull. This time the gate moved an inch.

“I wonder what it’s stuck on,” he said as he walked around the bushes to investigate.

“Do you see anything?” I asked.

He peeked around the gate with a puzzled frown and shrugged. “Maybe if you pull and I push?”

We reached together and counted to three. The gate moved a bit and Bosco’s bark became frenzied. With my hands still on the gate, I turned to shush him but he shot past me and attacked the gate.

Vance and I joined Bosco’s pull and the gate began to give way. It was still stuck on something in the greenery but it swung open on its hinges.

I glanced beyond the opening expecting to see Vance on the other side. Tall trees and a dirt path beckoned through the open gate, but no Vance. “Where did you go?” I called, still struggling to free the gate.

Looking around the broken frame of the gate I could see his ducked head and arms outstretched as he pushed. Staring back into the gate opening, his head was gone again. How bizarre. Vance was gone and the trees showing through the gate rippled like the surface of water.

“Hey, can you see me through the gate opening?”

There was a pause and he said, “Yeah, I’m waving at you. What’s going on?”

“Weird, Vance come look at this.”

Bosco released his hold and began barking again.

“What?” Vance asked, as he came around the gate.

“Put your hand behind the opening,” I said.

He placed his hand behind the gate’s partial frame. His hand disappeared. He gave me an incredulous look and asked, “What the heck? Is it some kind of portal? Are you pulling a prank on me gnome lady?”

The surface rippled again and without thinking I reached out and lightly touched it. I expected it to feel like water but it was more like thick air that pulled at my fingers. I played them across the opening and they slowly sunk into the ripple. I didn’t mind at first until the gate began to suck on my hand then resisted when I tried to tug my hand free.

Panic set in and I began to struggle against the gate. “What do we do, it’s sucking me through?”


Categories: Critique Group

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10 replies

  1. Not bad work, but there were times when the author used telling instead of showing and the sentences felt a little awkward.

    • Maybe instead of ‘a nice looking man in jogging clothes’ actually describe something about Vance?

      The author’s vocab use was very good. The imagery and metaphors were also creative.

      • Working on the show, don’t tell, Dodger. For some reason my brain 🧠 doesn’t always click with my imagination and I go into description mode.

  2. No other critiques?

  3. I agree that the imagery and descriptions you used were creative and original. I think you should do more of them, though, throughout the dialogue. And be careful with how much dialogue you use. Sometimes when a story I’m reading has too much dialogue and too little action (and vice versa), my eyes glaze over, and I have a hard time concentrating. You have to experiment and find the right balance.

    Also, I think some of the dialogue, though inventive, is a bit awkward. You should develop the conversation between these two characters at a slower pace. Since they’re obviously strangers, why does the protagonist trust Vance immediately? In addition to that, Donna has already told him her first and last name, her address, and her passions. I did see that she has a moment of uncertainty, though:

    “Nah, you’re not furry enough. Do you live nearby?” he asked, spiking my nerves. Alone in the woods with a stranger wasn’t always the best scenario.

    But she doesn’t follow up on it. He supposedly told her where he lives, but he could be lying. Is that tidbit of information truly enough to calm her nerves?

    And if you think about the scene from his perspective, is he nervous as well? Or does he have an ulterior motive that makes him more confident?

    Here’s a tip: When writing dialogue, try using it in real life. Have a conversation with someone you know, using what you wrote as what you say. If you hear it, you might be better able to find unusual wording and points of awkwardness.

    I hope you continue on this story! It looks like it’s going to be really interesting!

  4. Stephanie,

    You made a lot of improvements to this piece. Well done.

    The main problem I had with this is the lengthy back story dump. It slowed the story to a halt, and I couldn’t see why the information was essential.

    Watch for too many speaker tags, not enough commas, and pacing problems.

    You can see details of my comments here –

    Let me know if you have any questions.

  5. Bryan,
    Appreciate you making the time. The info dump was my answer to the critiques from my first draft. The readers were not invested in Donna because they did not know much about her. How do you find the balance between back story and developing a character? I can assume that it would help if I were better at showing instead of telling. What other tactics would you suggest? I tried to keep her back story small but it does sideline the story’s pace a bit. Also, I’ve put a reminder on my phone to re-read the do’s and don’ts of writing dialogue weekly until it gets stuck in my head.

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