An Angel On Her Shoulder, Chapter 2: an exercise in storycraft

Starting January 1, 2017, I am showing the process of changing a first draft into a finished book.

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, we will see what gets kept, what gets cut, and how we roll out a story that immerses readers.  It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

The reworked (“final”) version of the chapter appears first, followed by the original first draft. Open two windows and read them side by side to easily see the changes.

My analysis and explanation of the changes is as the bottom.

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.


An Angel On Her Shoulder, Chapter 2

cover
working cover – I don’t think it’s ominous enough

We would never have called it bullying.

Not back then, when Nixon stepped down as our president and plaid pants dominated the business fashion world. In Millersburg, Indiana, whining about being bullied would get the crap kicked out of you.

Some kids were towel snappers in the high school locker room, but they were usually fifteen or sixteen years old. Jimmy was already there when we were ten. He was my best friend, and even though he was a little small for his age, he made up for a lot of that in effort. He had to. It would be a long time before we were as big as our older brothers, if we ever got that big. And like a lot of older brothers, Jimmy’s was pretty ruthless on him in public. It was one of those, “I can pick on my little brother but you can’t” things. Only, Jimmy’s older brother didn’t care who else picked on him.

It wasn’t bullying. We called it “teasing” or “tormenting.” That was some sort of parental code for getting close to the line but not quite crossing it. If you got punched, it was in the arm, as part of a “game.” Your grade school friends might give your triceps a good shot playing slug bug while riding bikes, but if you hit a kid hard enough to make him cry or wreck his ten speed, you probably paid for it when you got home. Nobody got punched in the face or drew blood—not on purpose, anyway. Accidents happened all the time, but a cut caused by a go-cart with no brakes that crashed at the bottom of a hill, that bleeds differently than a cut caused by a tough kid at the park with a pocket knife or a broken bottle.

Jimmy might get his butt kicked, but he would get right in there if a confrontation occurred. That impressed me about him on the occasions when it happened. I could never do that. If I rode my bike to the park and there were some rough-looking older kids there, I would go home and come back later, or maybe just wait for another day. Jimmy would stay there and ignore them, deciding that we’d come to test our bikes on a makeshift bike ramp or to hike the trails through the woods, and we were gonna do just that. It never bothered him that the rougher kids were around. If it did bother him, he never let on.

He never had to. I would always mention it.

“Aw, come on, Dougie, ignore them.” Jimmy would say. “Let’s splash some rocks in the deep part of the creek.  

They were just a few years older than us. Punks, as my brother would later call them when he grew up and joined the Millersburg police force. But at that age, when we were barely ten years old, a few years makes a big difference. An extra 30 lbs. and 8 or 10 inches lends itself to a pretty unfair fight. The tough kids were bigger and stronger than us, and they had been around. They probably actually knew what to do in a fight.

I never saw Jimmy’s attitude toward them as being brave. It was, but it was also a kind of nonchalant. He was indifferent, somehow not seeing them as a potential threat. He’d heard the same stories I’d heard, about kids getting beat up and having their bike stolen or something. Jimmy was patient, taking in the situation like all good hunters learn to. If those kids wanted to smoke cigarettes or read a stolen Hustler magazine, they didn’t want a bunch of us younger kids around watching. They would leave. And Jimmy always seemed to know that.

One time, my family went to a fundraiser for our church. We were always selling raffle tickets or chocolate bars or some damn thing for St. Matthew’s. Going door to door asking strangers if they wanted to buy an overpriced candy bar so we could get new basketballs. It never ended. I was the worst at it, too. I ate as many candy bars as I sold; probably more. I’d come home with $10 in cash and $20 in missing candy, and Mom would know that she was going to have to write another check. Jimmy moved his allotment of chocolate, but his mom helped. She worked in a big office, so pushed it to the other employees. Jimmy almost never had to go door to door.

My mom helped me by driving me to neighborhoods I hadn’t door-knocked yet.

Selling candy for the church was lousy, but the church festivals were great. Candy selling was a lonely business, done by yourself or with a friend across the street, but the festivals were packed with friends. There was music, bright lights, and games of chance. They had a big spinning wheel lined with poker cards. There was a ring toss, where you could win a huge glass bottle of Pepsi if you could get the little wooden ring to land on its neck. I don’t think they make them anymore, those big glass bottles. They must have been almost as big as the plastic two-liter ones they sell now. A kid who could get the little ring to stay on the neck of the bottle got to walk away with an enormous warm soda to share with their friends. Winning a big Pepsi was a really huge deal—those little rings never stayed on when you threw them. They always bounced crazy and landed on the floor of the booth, so players would end up paying two or three bucks for a one dollar bottle of soda. Kids didn’t care, though. We never got soda at home unless our parents hosted a big party with all our friends and relatives, like New Year’s eve or something. Winning the massive Pepsi was a treasure for a ten-year-old kid.

Like a lot of small cities in southeast Indiana, we had a large German population—and our church festivals showed it. There was always a long line at the beer booth, and they sold nasty smelling stuff in the cafeteria: sauerkraut, turtle soup, red cabbage—stuff like that.

Jimmy looked at the sign as he sipped warm Pepsi from the enormous glass bottle. “‘Rathskeller?’”

“That means rat cellar.” My knowledge of German was embarrassingly weak, but overhearing Mom and Grandma when they played canasta at holiday get-togethers, I’d picked up a few words.

“Rat cellar?” Jimmy snorted. “It doesn’t mean that.”

“It does.” I eyed the sign and reached for Jimmy’s big glass Pepsi.

He shook his head. “Why would you call the cafeteria the ‘rat cellar’? That sure doesn’t make me want to eat there.” He glanced at the windows of the darkened upstairs. A thick metal wire mesh protected them against errant baseballs from the asphalt playground that doubled as the parking lot. “Do they cook rats in there?”

“Worse.” I gulped the warm Pepsi. “Turtle soup. And sauerkraut.”

Turtles? Yuck!”

“Yeah.” I held the thick glass bottle in both hands, waiting for the fizz to stop hurting my throat from taking too big a swallow. Jimmy could hold it with one hand sometimes, and even drink from it that way.

It was too heavy and awkward for me to do that. “I tried turtle soup once. It’s pretty awful. And the sauerkraut is just as bad.”

“I like sauerkraut.” Jimmy took the Pepsi from me and sipped it without wiping it on his shirt first.

“Man, I hate sauerkraut. That smell.” One of the true blessings in our house was Mom didn’t cook traditional German food very often. Grandma did, though, and her house always smelled . . . stern. The pungent nasal assault of her homemade pickles and sauerbraten reminded her many grandchildren that rules were strictly followed in that house.

Jimmy and I walked between the rows of boardwalk style festival games, trying to out-burp each other. Our whole church parking lot had been transformed for the weekend, giving it a surreal, fun feeling it didn’t have most of the rest of the year. Happy, as opposed to respectful and somber. Even the girls from our class seemed different when we’d see them. At the festival, they would be in shorts or jeans, not the school uniform—a dull, blue-gray plaid skirt and plain, white collared shirt. It would be another year or so before those boring skirts would be the highlight of my school day.

Popping six balloons with six darts would earn a festival goer a giant teddy bear. The overstuffed monstrosity was huge, like three feet tall. I practiced on the dart board Dad hung in our basement. It had real darts, too; not those toy darts with the suction cup tips. I worked on my dart throwing skills as I stood between my old toy box and our upright piano, waiting for my chance to impress some lucky girl one day.

“Wanna try it, Dougie?” The booth attendant grinned at me. Small town. I didn’t recognize him, but he probably knew my dad, which meant he knew our family. Everybody kind of knew you in a small town, but if you were a doctor’s kid, they all knew you for sure. Dad had so many patients that knew him and loved him, I couldn’t ever misbehave. When everybody knows you, you can’t get away with anything. It felt like my parents had eyes all over town, and at that age, I believed that they did.

When we got older, we’d figure things out differently.

But the dart game cost too much and my allowance was too small, and I said so. Besides, I didn’t have any girls to impress just yet. I thanked the booth attendant, though. Manners. Maybe he’d let mom and dad know I was polite. “That boy of yours sure is polite, doctor!”

Jimmy and I moved on.

“Hey,” he said, stopping and turning to me. “Did you really eat a turtle?”

I nodded.

“Damn.” He kicked at a stone, watching it roll away under the bushes. He used to have little green turtles in a small aquarium, and sometimes we’d catch box turtles in the creek that ran behind our houses. It was an odd thing for us kids to think that some people ate them, but turtle soup was a kind of delicacy among the German people. It was part of the ambiance of the festival, and my mom got some once and let me try it. I don’t know if I liked it or not; I couldn’t get past the thought of eating little green reptiles. But somehow, trying the soup was like being brave. So I did it. I didn’t know “mock” turtle soup meant “pretend.”

Sometimes at the church festival, they would have a “smash car”—an old car for you to hit with a sledge hammer. The windows had been taken out, so you wouldn’t get cut by breaking glass, but for 25 cents you could whack the car three times. There was even a “barker,” a man with a microphone who explained the game over the loudspeakers. I guess it was a show of strength to see which man could put the largest dent in the car. To a kid, the idea of smashing anything was pretty appealing—and the thought of putting a memorable dent in a car on purpose was, too. Stray baseballs and other sports activities on Reigert Drive had put a few dents in a neighbor’s car from time to time. This was all sanctioned. Pre-approved destruction. What could be better? The smash car was fun for boys of all ages.

The barker’s job was to draw a crowd. He would goad men into playing, then cheer or mock them over the loud speakers when they did. The crowd loved it. He’d call a really big guy “tiny” and really little guys “King Kong.” He announced the play by play as men tried to outdo each other damaging the smash car, but mostly he tried to get the crowd to laugh by making fun of the players. It was great entertainment.

The sledge hammer was really heavy. At that age, I didn’t know they made them in different sizes and weights. The one at our house was heavy enough, but this was even heavier—and the players were surprised by it when they went to pick it up. That was the first trick up the barker’s sleeve. Men would attempt to wield it without showing that they were straining, but smart observers would see that even big men had trouble guiding the heavy sledge to its target. To us kids it weighed a ton, so we got to swing it one time for a nickel. Most kids my age couldn’t even do that.

“Whoa, big fella!” the barker would say to a kid. “You’re supposed to swing the hammer, not let the hammer swing you!”

I had never picked up a sledge hammer except to carry it from the garage to the back yard for some Saturday afternoon project my dad was working on. Even then, it seemed like too much weight for a kid. This one was extra heavy, so the adult men couldn’t swing it too hard or too many times.

“Can we get this guy some help?” the barker would ask the crowd. “I’m not sure he can pick up a mallet this heavy.”

Then he would find a pretty girl in the audience. “Maybe you can help him, dear. With a dress like that, you could pick up anything!”

The crowd would roar.

If he embarrassed her enough, she would walk off and he would stop the game. “Just a minute, folks, just a minute.” He’d take off his hat and hold it over his heart, shaking his head and leaning over dramatically to stare at her behind as she sauntered off. Then he’d hold up his microphone and say, “Bless you, dear.”

Laughter erupted from the crowd again.

The barker knew his stuff, and the audience enjoyed it, even if he had been using the same lines for 20 years. By the time I was a senior in high school, I could recite the lines along with him. Still, if guys made enough visits to the beer booth, the barker was always able to draw a crowd and get them to beat on the smash car.

He made guys feel like they were in a competition with each other, and with the big sledge hammer, there was a thrill factor for the audience.

Men would hoist it waist high, get a feel for its weight, and then walk around the car looking for the best spot to inflict damage. Then they would raise the giant hammer over their heads.

There was always a slight pause at the apex, the point between the giant hammer going up and it coming down, as the player attempted a last bit of aim. The crowd would draw quiet then. But it was only for a moment, and then the man would bring down the mallet with great force and a grunt, crashing it onto the car.

A sizeable dent would be met like impressive fireworks. The crowd would all say “Ooh,” in unison. A lame dent, or—God forbid—a miss, would be met with chuckles.

And some teasing by the barker. “Maybe you should have your mother help you next time, pal.”

It was a balancing act for the barker, keeping people entertained while continuing to draw in more, so he never let things go too far. One of the smaller—and drunker—men bounced the sledge off the car and into the dirt, taking the man with it. Not only did he not leave a dent in the car, he put a hole in his pants leg and skinned his knee.

The barker jumped in. “Hey, let’s have a round of applause for our friend here!” Leaning down, he put a hand under the small man’s armpit, helping him to his feet and raising one of his hands into the air. “It’s harder than it looks folks! Harder than it looks!” While getting the crowd to applaud, the barker slipped the sledge hammer out of the man’s grasp, avoiding a scene. “Good try, sir!” The barker put the microphone up to the man’s mouth. “It’s a lot harder than it looks isn’t it, fella?”

Taking the hint, the little man wiped his brow. “It sure is.” He even managed to muster a smile.

“What a good sport!” The barker waved to the crowd. “How about another round of applause!” The circle of festival patrons complied.

Changing gears, the barker went back to work. “Who thinks they can do better? You, sir, how about it? Impress the little lady!”

Step right up!

At the park, a few tough kids were milling around up on the hill. They were probably waiting for their friends, but they kept staring at Jimmy and me as we walked our bikes over the rocky creek bed. I lowered my head and acted like I didn’t notice them, trying to glance in their direction without making it obvious. I pretended to scour the water for fossils. Jimmy just shrugged and said the punks wouldn’t be a problem until a few more of their friends came.

I took a long look at my green Schwinn as I leaned it against a maple tree.

To me, once the rest of them showed up, it would be best for us to leave.


ORIGINAL An Angel On Her Shoulder, Chapter 2

We would never have called it bullying.

Not back then. That would get the crap kicked out of you.

Some kids were towel snappers in the high school locker room, but they were usually 15 or 16 years old. Jimmy was already there when we were ten. He was my best friend, and even though he was a little small for his age, he made up for a lot of that in effort. He had to. It would be a long time before we were as big as our older brothers, if we ever got that big. And like a lot of older brothers, Jimmy’s was pretty ruthless on him in public. It was one of those, “I can pick on my little brother but you can’t” things. Only, Jimmy’s older brother didn’t care who else picked on him.

It wasn’t bullying. We called it “teasing” or “tormenting.” That was some sort of parental code for getting close to the line but not quite crossing it. If you got punched, it was in the arm, as part of a “game.” Your grade school friends might give your triceps a good shot playing slug bug on bikes, but if you hit a kid hard enough to make him wreck or cry, you probably paid for it when you got home. Nobody got punched in the face or drew blood – not on purpose, anyway. Accidents happened all the time, but a cut caused by a go cart with no brakes that crashed at the bottom of a hill, that bleeds differently than a cut caused by a tough kid at the park with a pocket knife or a broken bottle.

Jimmy might get his butt kicked, but he would get right in there if a confrontation occurred. That impressed me about him on the occasions when it happened. If I went to the park and there were some tough older kids there, I might just ride on home and come back later, or maybe just come back another day. Jimmy would ignore them, deciding that we had come to jump the makeshift bike ramp or hike the trails. It never bothered him that the rougher kids were around. If it did bother him, he never let on. But he never had to; I would always mention it.

They were just a few years older than us; punks, as my brother would later call them. But a few years makes a big difference at that age. An extra 30 lbs and 8 or 10 inches makes for a pretty unfair fight. They were stronger and they had been around. They probably actually knew what to do in a fight.

I never saw Jimmy’s attitude about them as being brave. I saw it as nonchalant, indifferent… cool. Just not seeing them as a potential threat. Jimmy was patient, like all good hunters learn to be. If those kids wanted to smoke pot or read a stolen Hustler magazine, they didn’t want a bunch of younger kids around watching. They would leave. And Jimmy always seemed to know that.

One time, my family went to a fundraiser for our church. We were always selling raffle tickets or chocolate bars for the church, some damn thing. Going door to door asking strangers if they wanted to buy an overpriced candy bar so we could get new basketballs. It never ended. I was the worst at it, too. I ate as many candy bars as I sold; probably more. I’d come home with $10 in cash and $20 in candy missing, and mom would know that she was going to have to write another check to St Matthew’s.

Selling candy for the church was lousy, but the church festivals were good. Candy selling was a lonely business, done by yourself or with a friend across the street; the festivals were packed with all your friends. There was music, bright lights, and games of chance. They had a big spinning wheel lined with poker cards. There was a ring toss, where you could win a huge glass bottle of Pepsi if you could get the little wooden ring to land on its neck. A kid who could do it got to walk away with an enormous warm soda to share with their friends. Winning a big Pepsi was a really huge deal; those little rings never stayed on when you threw them. They always bounced off, making you pay two or three bucks for a one dollar bottle of soda. But we didn’t care.

Millersburg had a large German population, and our church festivals showed it. There was always a long line at the beer booth, and they sold nasty smelling stuff in the cafeteria: sauerkraut, turtle soup, things like that.

Jimmy looked at the sign as he sipped warm Pepsi from the enormous glass bottle. “Rathskeller?” he read.

“That means rat cellar,” I replied.

“No, it doesn’t!” Jimmy protested.

“It does,” I said, “My mom told me that.” I reached for the big bottle and took a swig.

“Why would you call the cafeteria the ‘rat cellar’?” Jimmy chided. “That sure doesn’t make me want to eat there! Do they cook rats?”

“Worse,” I replied. “Turtle soup. And sauerkraut.”

Turtles? Yuck!”

“Yeah,” I went on. “I had some once. It’s pretty awful. And the sauerkraut is just as bad!”

“I like sauerkraut,” Jimmy said, sipping the soda.

“Ew, I hate sauerkraut,” I confessed. “How anybody can eat something that smells that bad…”

We walked down the rows of boardwalk style games, trying to out-burp each other. Our whole church parking lot had been transformed for the weekend. Even the girls from our class seemed different when we’d see them. At the festival, they would be in shorts or jeans, not the school uniform – a blue plaid skirt and white shirt.

If you could pop six balloons with six darts, you could win your girlfriend a giant teddy bear. It was huge, like three feet tall. I practiced at home after school with our little dart game, waiting for my chance to impress some lucky girl one day.

“Wanna try it, Danny?” the booth attendant called to me. Small town. I didn’t recognize him, but he probably knew my dad, which meant he knew our family. Everybody kind of knew you in a small town, but if you were a doctor’s kid, they all knew you for sure. Dad had so many patients that knew him and loved him, I wasn’t allowed to ever misbehave. I couldn’t, really, but not by choice. When everybody knows you, you can’t get away with anything. It felt like my parents had eyes all over town, and at that age, I believed that they did.

When we got older, we’d figure things out differently.

But the dart game cost too much and my allowance was too small, and I said so. Besides, I didn’t have any girls to impress just yet. I thanked the booth attendant, though. Manners. Maybe he’d let mom and dad know I was polite. “That boy of your is sure polite, doctor!”

Jimmy and I moved on.

“Hey,” he said, stopping and turning to me. “Did you really eat a turtle?”

I nodded somberly.

“Damn,” he said, shaking his head. He kicked at a stone, thinking about it. He used to have little green turtles in a small aquarium, and sometimes we’d catch box turtles in the creek. It was an odd thing for us kids to think that some people ate them, but turtle soup was a kind of delicacy among the German people. It was part of the ambiance of the festival, and my mom had let me try some of her turtle soup once. I don’t know if I liked it or not; I couldn’t get past the thought of eating little green aquarium turtles. But somehow, trying the soup was like being brave. So I did it. I didn’t know “mock” turtle soup meant “pretend.”

Sometimes at the church festival, they would have a “smash car” – an old car for you to hit with a sledge hammer. The windows had been taken out, so you wouldn’t get cut by breaking glass, but for 25 cents you could whack the car three times. There was even a “barker,” a man with a microphone who explained the game over the loudspeakers. I guess it was a show of strength to see which man could put the largest dent in the car. But the idea of smashing anything was pretty appealing, and the thought of putting a memorable dent in a car on purpose was, too. Errant baseballs and other sports activities had put a few dents in a neighbor’s car from time to time. This was all sanctioned. Pre-approved destruction. What could be better? The smash car was fun for boys of all ages.

The barker’s job was to draw a crowd. He would goad men into playing, then cheer or mock them over the loud speakers when they did. The crowd loved it. He’d call a really big guy “tiny” and really little guys “King Kong.” He announced the play by play as men tried to outdo each other damaging the smash car, but mostly he tried to get the crowd to laugh by making fun of the players. It was great entertainment.

The sledge hammer was really heavy. At that age, I didn’t know they made them in different sizes and weights. The one at our house was heavy enough, but this was even heavier – and the players were surprised by it when they went to pick it up. That was the first trick up the barker’s sleeve. Men would attempt to wield it without showing that they were straining, but smart observers would see that even big men had trouble guiding the heavy sledge to its target. To us kids it weighed a ton, so we got to swing it one time for a nickel. Most kids my age couldn’t even do that.

“Whoa, big fella!” the barker would say to a kid. “You’re supposed to swing the hammer, not let the hammer swing you!”

I had never picked up a sledge hammer except to carry it from the garage to the back yard to help my dad. Even then, it seemed like too much weight for a kid. This one was extra heavy, so the adult men couldn’t swing it too hard or too many times.

“Can we get this guy some help?” the barker would ask the crowd. “I’m not sure he can pick up a sledge hammer this heavy.”

Then he would find a pretty girl in the audience. “Maybe you can help him, dear. With a dress like that, you could pick up anything!” and the crowd would roar.

If he embarrassed her enough, she would walk off and he would stop the game. “Just a minute, folks, just a minute,” he’d say. He’d take off his hat and hold it over his heart, shaking his head and leaning over dramatically to stare at her behind as she sauntered off. Then he’d hold up his microphone and say, “Bless you, dear.”

The crowd would erupt with laughter.

The barker knew his stuff, and the audience enjoyed it, even if he had been using the same lines for 20 years. By the time I was a senior in high school, I could recite the lines along with him. Still, if guys made enough visits to the beer booth, the barker was always able to draw a crowd and get them to beat on the smash car.

A regular carpenter’s hammer, like what you’d use to hammer nails or hang a picture, anybody could swing a hammer like that all day. Even at age 10, I could have done that. But it wouldn’t do much damage to the car, and it wouldn’t satisfy the gathered crowd. Or the player. The barker made them feel like they were in a competition with each other. With a sledge hammer, one of extra weight, there was a thrill factor. Even the biggest guys were surprised at how heavy it was.

They would hoist it waist high, get a feel for its weight, and then walk around the car looking for the best spot to inflict damage. Then they would raise the giant hammer over their heads.

There was always a slight pause at the apex, the point between the hammer going up and the hammer coming down, as the man took his last bit of aim. The crowd would draw quiet then. But it was only for a moment, and then the man would bring down the hammer with great force and a grunt, onto the car with a crash.

A sizeable dent would be met like impressive fireworks. The crowd would all say “Ooh,” in unison. A lame dent, or a miss, would be met with chuckles. And some teasing by the barker. “Maybe you should have your mother help you next time, pal.”

The car’s fenders went first: unsupported sheet metal, it gave way with each hammer blow to create huge, impressive dents. The crowd loved that. So did I.

The hood was almost as good. A big man jumped up on top of the car and rained the sledge hammer down right into the middle of the hood. It left a massive indentation to the roar of the crowd. He walked off with a swagger.

The next man attacked a quarter panel. He was a smaller guy, and his first shot landed on a supported corner. Instead of leaving a dent, the sledge hammer bounced off the car, nearly breaking his wrists. He looked surprised. The crowd laughed, and the barker taunted him.

He was a little guy, but he was embarrassed. That would not do. The barker’s words would have stung if he had paid attention to them, but he was focused on having misjudged the car and the heavy hammer. He was determined to do better with the second swing.

He eyed the car for a moment, looking for a good spot. The barker’s words and the crowd noise were now just a buzz around his ears. He raised the heavy sledge high over his head and brought it down with a grunt. It missed the mark and skidded into the dirt, taking him with it. He fell to his knees. Now crowd erupted in laughter. Not only did he not leave a dent in the car, he skinned his knees. Angry, and maybe a little drunk, he swore at the car.

The barker jumped in. “Hey, let’s have a round of applause for our friend here!” he said, helping the man up and raising one of his hands into the air. “It’s harder than it looks folks! Harder than it looks!” Casually, the barker slipped the sledge hammer away from the man’s grasp, avoiding a scene. “Good try, sir!” The barker put the microphone up to the man’s mouth and asked, “It’s a lot harder than it looks isn’t it fella?”

Taking the hint, the man agreed. “It sure is.”

He even managed to muster a smile “What a good sport!” the barker announced. “How about a round of applause!” The crowd politely complied.

The barker changed gears, to change the subject. “Who thinks they can do better? You, sir, how about it? Impress the little lady!”

Step right up!

At the park, the punks were up on the hill waiting for their friends. When their older counterparts showed up around noon, they’d all go off to smoke or get high or look at another stolen nudie magazine. Jimmy and I would keep an eye on them, but they wouldn’t usually be a problem. Not til their friends showed up. Then, depending on who came, it might be best for us to leave. But that wouldn’t be for a while. It was still a little early in the day for the tough kids to be at the park.


 

ANALYSIS: Here’s what we changed – and WHY.

As a critical reviewer, the first thing you notice in chapter 2 what appears to be a mistake.

In chapter 1, we left off at a winery, wondering where the husband and child were (and whether they’d been killed in the wreck). Now suddenly we are a couple of 10-year-old boys at a park.

That lets the reader know what kind of story they are in for – and if they don’t care for it, they can bail out now.

That’s not a mistake. Readers will let you do stuff like that as long as they trust you – which they will if you don’t break too many rules.

After a few paragraphs, you see Dougie mentioned, and you can reasonably assume he is Doug from chapter 1, as a kid.

It’s all gonna make sense but who’s in charge of the process? Me. So if the reader can’t handle this kind of jumping around, kind of like Pulp Fiction or Catch-22, they should leave. Those who stay are going to be in for a fun trip, but those who don’t like that kind of ride need to go ahead and get off the roller coaster.

Technical tweaks

The original chapter has lots of dialogue tags and verbs that are not very action oriented. Some of that stayed for the reworked version. What we are trying to do here is establish certain things about the main character. It will make more sense later, but right now if you had to describe him, you would probably say he’s just a normal kid growing up in the Midwest. Something else you might notice is that he admires his friend and his friend’s bravery, because feels he lacks those things in himself.

Since we have all had moments of self doubt as a child, we identify with that emotion (and the MC) as a result – even if we don’t directly associate with the exact reason the MC has these feelings.

And since as authors we are not supposed to waste words, you can conclude these characteristics are being pointed out for a reason that will be relevant later. Don’t be afraid to portray your characters early (just don’t overdo it) or go back and add stuff in early chapters if you need it later.

Size matters

Another thing that’s worth mentioning is this chapter was originally nearly 5000 words long. I’m debating on whether to leave it that way but for right now I split it in two.

Why?

  • At the beginning of the story you kind of want short chapters to let the reader feel like there is a good pace and
  • to make them feel they are accomplishing a lot by finishing chapters relatively quickly.
  • It’s just a psychological effect but readers enjoy it.
  • Enjoying the story – whether by having shorter chapters early on or by other means – is a good thing. It’s kind of the point.

A 1500 word first chapter followed by a 5000 word second chapter is almost certain to make readers feel like chapter 2 is extremely slow. It’s slower because it’s not the kind of nailbiting chapter that the first one was, but it’d seem horribly slow by comparison if it was 5000 words long, no matter what was happening. We are trying to explain who this kid is and where he comes from, his mindset. We don’t want to have readers hate it while we do that.

Addition by subtraction (and sometimes by addition)

The other thing you’ll see is we took a 5000 were chapter and cut it in half, but we expanded a little bit in some areas to round it out, and trimmed from other areas because we just didn’t need that much detail.

  • Did I really need to go on and on about the smash car, giving three examples? No. We got it after one.
  • But when we cut that stuff, a little detail was needed here and there to explain why the barker did what he did. Not a lot, just a little.
  • When the beta readers get this or a critique partner, it might get trimmed even more.

Your best assessment is, when you read it for your second or third time, the parts you are starting to want to skip, that’s the stuff you need to trim. That does not mean get rid of it; it might simply mean boil five sentences down to one, or take 500 words and restate them in 250 words. That’s where you take off your “show” hat and just tell us something in as few sentences as possible.

Lessons Learned

In chapter 1 you saw some style things and techniques I pointed out that we enacted upon that chapter during its revision process (like dialogue tags disappearing and being replaced by beats). I won’t reiterate those every time I do them, I will trust that you understand they are happening. Same thing with what I’m pointing out in chapter 2, etc. Unless it’s really important, I probably won’t mention them again, but you’ll see them happening. 

But the reason the original second chapter was 5000 words long was because I really wanted to get to the cliffhanger at the end of it.

Instead, I have made a semi-cliffhanger ending to the smaller chapter that I hope will get you to turn the page and keep reading – which you’ll get to do tomorrow.

A Tip, Too

If I’m doing this right, I’m creating little mysteries for the reader. What happened at the winery? What’s up with the red vision thing?

Often a great story will ask questions you have to read on to find out the answers to, and it’ll usually resolve one small mystery in a chapter while raising a new one in that same chapter. All the while, we are racing toward solving the BIG mystery that arcs over he whole story. Readers love that. Be sure to use it in your stories if you can. And you can.

Now:

head shot
your humble host

Let me have your comments. The next chapter will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Please share and reblog these as we go. Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

7 thoughts on “An Angel On Her Shoulder, Chapter 2: an exercise in storycraft

  1. Yes, I was thrown by the “now for something completely different” second chapter. Then I chilled when I saw Doug’s name. I did feel as though the first example went on f-o-r-e-v-e-r and didn’t have the flow or rush of the first chapter. However, the subject matter didn’t require it to move at the same pace. Still, I enjoyed the more compact version. It gave me the feeling I was part of the story, whereas the first example made me feel as though I were sitting in a lecture hall. Of course, you toss in a reference to one of my favorite films of all time and now I’d follow you anywhere. Bring it on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And that could be a problem. If the first chapter makes you think you are on a fast-paced roller coaster, the second chapter doesn’t really maintain that pace. At least, not at the beginning. But it does get interesting again very quickly in chapter 3. That may be a good reason to shorten chapter two even more if I can! And that is something your beta readers could tell you once they were finished with the story. Whether or not you needed most of a certain chapter. It’s very hard to be objective when it’s your own writing and before they have finished it, to figure out what was and was not needed.

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