TRIMMING: the art (and pain) of honing your (wordy) masterpiece into a (finally readable) story

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Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

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.

 

The “final” version comes first today, followed by the original, but this time I bolded allllllllllll the stuff I took out. (I would highlight it, but that doesn’t show up on some phone services, and a lot of you read on phones.) To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and see them side by side.

What you’ll see in the untrimmed version is a story that is quite readable and tells you lots about the characters.

The trimmed version does, too.

In fact, the untrimmed version is fine as is – so why trim it at all?

How do you know when and what to cut???

Simply put, you decide what the goal of the chapter is, and eliminate what doesn’t move toward that goal.

Read on and see what stayed and what ended up a victim of the delete key.


 

An Angel On Her Shoulder, chapter 3 “FINAL”

We stopped to hear if the man from the park was coming after us. Staring each other, we held our breath and focused on what terrifying noises might come to us through the trees.

Nothing.

Jimmy took a deep breath and pulled his t-shirt up to wipe the sweat off his brow. “We got away.”

I don’t know how he managed to get anything other than a grimace onto his face. My stomach still hurt, my chest was thumping, and my t-shirt was soaking wet. I couldn’t stop sweating.

Jimmy hopped up on his pedals and rode away, taking the hiking trail towards home.

Once we were sure we had ridden far enough, we worked our way down the hill and across to our side of the creek, the side with mowed lawns and paved streets.

And our houses, right next door to each other, just a mile or so away.

When we finally got onto Reigert Drive, Jimmy just rode his bike home like nothing had happened. He leaned back and lifted his palms off his handle bars, riding hands-free. He was better at it than I was, of course.

He took a quick glance at me. “How’d you know?”

Easing my hands away from the handlebar grips, I sat upright but still let my fingertips touch the cross bar. I pretended I didn’t know what he was talking about. “How’d I know what?”

Jimmy dropped to his sides, riding effortlessly. “About that guy having a night stick.”

“I don’t know.” I slid my hands back to the rubber grips, squeezing them. “I just did.”

It was a lie. I didn’t want to explain how I knew about the night stick. I didn’t want my best friend to think I was a freak.

Some secrets don’t get shared.

It wasn’t a complete lie, though. I didn’t really know how I saw the night stick, or what the red haze was. I overheard Mom on the phone with aunt Amy, whispering about panic attacks. Maybe it was one of those.

It happened to me at St. Matthew’s once, too, in the middle of mass. An old guy in a baggy, dark suit sat down a few rows behind us, and strange feeling crept right onto me the way heat does when the oven door opens. I tried to ignore the sensation, but the little blotch appeared in the corner of my eye and seemed to force my attention to it then, too. I had to look because not looking was like trying to hold your breath after running wind sprints in gym class.

I tried not to see it. I squinted, focusing on the priest as he rambled through his sermon. I forced myself to take deep breaths, swallowing hard and hoping to push the crimson fog out of my eyes. A ringing grew in my ears and my stomach felt queasy. The whole church rocked like a boat and became hot and stuffy.

The priest blathered on, calmly gesturing in his flowing robes, but his words were crowded out by the insane ringing that pounded through my head. As the redness swept over my vision, I gripped the back of the pew in front of us, convinced I was going to throw up or pass out.

With my eyes squeezed shut as tight as they would go, the pressure lifted. I could see the wrinkled old man in the baggy suit. I was now next to him, but we were in his house, next to his bed. He held up a pillow and lowered it over his sleeping wife’s face.

Sweat covered my brow. I shook my head back and forth as hard as I could, nearly falling onto the old red carpet at St. Matthew’s as I tried not to see the kicking old woman clawing at the pillow.

When I opened my eyes, the wrinkled old man was gone and the ringing was, too. The priest was still in the middle of his sermon. I sat there, drenched in sweat and staring at nothing, gasping for breath as my mother’s voice urged me to calm down.

You’re okay, Dougie. Take a deep breath. You’re okay.

It was the strained tone adults used when everything’s not okay.

Jimmy didn’t need to know about that episode, either.

It was still pretty early when we got home from the park, so we dropped off our bikes and headed down to our creek. A day or so before, we had strategically stashed a plastic model aircraft carrier we had built and a few G. I. Joes. That is to say, we had left them near the creek when our moms called us for dinner, and we forgot to bring them up to the house later. We had to make sure that kid in New Orleans didn’t have them now.

Living next door met the requirement for Jimmy and I to be friends. To be best friends, secrets had to be shared and trusts had to be constructed, done through years of playing together. The confrontation in the park had been just one of many things that had cemented into a solid friendship.

But like most things with ten-year-olds, all that would soon change. After Jimmy moved away, it would be a long time before I made another friend that close—if I ever did.

He was always outside learning about nature while I was always inside teaching myself how to draw. While he practiced bow hunting with razor tipped arrows, I went to swim meets and read books between my events. He learned how to use his dad’s sharpening wheel to hone the blade of a pocket knife (allegedly he could shave with it—if we needed to shave) and could skin a rabbit and store the meat. His older brother showed us how to do it once. It was fast and almost bloodless, not at all what I expected. Once started, the skin seemed to slide off the rabbit like you’d pull off a t-shirt over your head.

I never had a pocket knife. Eventually, my dad bought me an Xacto knife at Pfirman’s Hobby Shop that I was allowed to use when I built model cars.

Our hikes were a different story. We were almost always a kindred spirit in the woods, walking and talking about the important things that ten-year-olds talk about: comic books, movies, and sometimes girls. We also had a question and answer game that we invented, and we played the game while we hiked the narrow trails through the woods.

Jimmy poked at the capsized aircraft carrier with a stick. “Hey,” he said without looking up. “Would you kill Hitler?”

It was the way we always began the question and answer game we had invented. I was tired and didn’t want to play. A massive amount of mud had somehow gathered under my fingernails and needed attention.

“C’mon.” He turned around to face me. “Let’s play.”

He stepped onto a rock in the middle of the creek, attempting to find enough to cross without having to walk down to the shallow part. “Would you kill Hitler?”

I leaned forward, accepting the challenge. “Of course. No hesitation.”

Arms held out to balance himself, he glanced up and smiled. The game was on.

He hopped back to the other side of the water. Somewhere in the next ten minutes or so, he would try to have me saying that I would do something crazy. That was the game.

We didn’t know who Hitler was at that age. Not really. It was a bad name for our game, but that’s what we called it. It was our way of being a little bad, I guess, naming a dumb game after someone like that.

The hill by the creek was grassy and soft. Sunlight filtered through the maple trees to illuminate varying patches of the green turf. Small clusters of orange and red leaves glided to earth with each gentle breeze. Jimmy was thinking up the next question—if he hadn’t prepared one already. Usually, he was working toward a point.

The game was as simple as tic tac toe. Jimmy was good at it, but I was better, like a good offense against a good defense. That made it all the more important for him to beat me. Him beating me at Killing Hitler would be like me being a better shot than him with our brothers’ BB guns. Ten-year-olds have to try to stake out their own “bests,” especially if they have older brothers.

Jimmy strolled along the creek bank like a lawyer preparing a cross-examination, wagging his finger in the air. “Would you… kill Hitler if you knew they would catch you?”

“Oh, sure.” I picked up a stick and pushed it through a yellow leaf, spinning it like a pinwheel. “Hell, I’d expect to get caught.” It was easy to be brave in theory, when life and love were hypothetical. Or to use cusswords like “hell” when you knew no parents could hear you.

Nodding, Jimmy turned and paced back the other way. “What if the Germans had spies that took your mom and dad hostage?”

“I’d still do it.” I shrugged. “Besides, if I could sneak in close enough to kill Hitler, I could probably sneak out and nobody would know.”

“Oh, they’d know all right.” Jimmy chuckled. “He’s in charge of the whole country. They’d know.”

I thought my answer was pretty solid. “I’d have to do it. He was a bad guy. He killed a lot of people. I would be a hero for killing him.”

“Oh, a hee-ro!” Jimmy laughed. “You’re a tough guy, huh?”

“No…” I tossed my stick in the water and watched it drift towards New Orleans. “Not tough. Smart.”

“Right. Smart.” He sauntered over the rocks for a moment before perching himself on a small boulder jutting out of the hill. “You might be smart but you aren’t sneaky.”

I didn’t know where he was going with that, but we were off track. “C’mon, you aren’t playing the game.”

“Okay, okay.” He had probably already thought of his good question, and now he needed time to remember it. His attention appeared consumed by a few passing minnows as they darted around in the stream, then his eyes narrowed. “Okay, so if you were sure to get caught, you’d still kill Hitler, right?”

“Right. No question.”

“What if the Germans were going to murder your parents if you killed Hitler?”

I was ready for that. “I’d still have to do it. Two people for the price of a million people is a good trade.”

“So you’d just sacrifice your mom and dad, just like that?”

“Well . . . I think you’d have to. Heck, for a million lives? You do have to.”

He nodded, seeming to agree with that math.

“Besides.” I smiled. “Then I could run the damned air conditioning in my room.”

We laughed. His bedroom was just as hot and stuffy as mine. For some reason, our parents just wouldn’t run the air conditioning in summertime until after dinner, not even the window units upstairs where the kids’ bedrooms were—the hottest part of the house. They said electricity was expensive, but maybe it was a ruse to keep us playing outside.

“Hey, no.” Jimmy waved his hand. “You wouldn’t get any air conditioning. You’d be dead already, remember?”

“No, I think I could still sneak out if I was able to sneak in.”

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head. “You can’t sneak out. They have too many guards. You definitely get killed.”

I nodded. “Okay…”

“Okay. So…” He squatted, resting his arms on his knees. “What if they . . . if they also kidnapped your aunts and uncles, and all your cousins, and they were all gonna get killed, too?”

“Hah. Take ‘em.”

“Boy, it’s a good thing you don’t have a dog.” He stood threw a rock into the creek. A tall column of water splashed up with a bloop. The water was deep where the stone hit. A smile crept across his face. “Suppose they also grabbed Sheila McCormack.” He glanced my way. “And they were going to kill her, too.”

I opened my mouth but didn’t speak. I didn’t know he knew about Sheila.

Jimmy hopped back onto the rock in the middle of the creek and made kissing noises. “Ooh, Shee-lah. Oooh!”

Leaning back on one shoulder, I tried to play it cool. “Whatever. Take her.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Really? You’d let them kill Sheila McCormack!?”

“Well.” I inspected the mud under my fingernails. “Do I get to kiss her first?”

“You sure do.” He was wearing a huge grin now. “Maybe more than that.”

“Okay, then. Hitler lives.”

“Bwah!” Jimmy laughed, nearly falling off the rock. “I knew it!”

That was his goal, to find out if I liked Shelia McCormack. That wasn’t usually how we played the game. Typically, we’d start out by asking if you would, say, rob a bank. You’d say no. Then we’d say, what if bank robbers had kidnapped your parents and they would kill them if you didn’t rob the bank. Maybe you’d consider it then. The goal was to get you to admit that you’d do something crazy that you originally said you wouldn’t. Something you’d never think of doing in a million years, and suddenly in a few questions, there you were, admitting that you’d definitely do it.

But it was a game, a joke. I always knew we had no chance to do something heroic like killing Hitler, just like I knew I probably had no chance of kissing Sheila McCormack. But it was a fun way to trick your pal if he played along. And sometimes it was just funny.

“Would you ever peek up an old lady’s dress?”

“I have peeked up your mom’s dress. Yuck.”

“HEY!”

Sometimes it went off the rails right from the start.

“Would you ever kill a person for a dumb reason?”

“I’d kill you for telling me it was too hot to wear pants today. I tore the hell out of my legs shinnying up that tree.”

Sometimes it tested our limits.

“Would you kill the President for a million dollars?”

Digging clay and sand out from under one fingernail by using another fingernail just took it from one and wedged it under the other. “Kill President Ford, huh?” I peered up at the sugar maples, their leaves turning orange and yellow and red with the onset of fall. “He just took over. Would I get caught?”

“Nope. But you’d spend the rest of your life on the run.”

“I don’t know. A million dollars is a lot of money. If I could get a million dollars and get away with it… I don’t know.”

Usually it was like tic tac toe—it didn’t get far, and it didn’t get complicated. But sometimes, it opened doors that were better off left shut.

“You couldn’t do it.” Jimmy scanned the bank for another baseball-sized rock. Finding one, he heaved it into the deep part of the water. Bloop. “No way.”

I watched the ripples from the splash fade and the water become a clear, blue-green tint again. “I bet I could for a million dollars.”

“No, you couldn’t. Not you.”

“Why not me?” I placed my hands in the grass and righted myself. “A million dollars is a lot of money. My brother said that if you had a million dollars and you put it in the bank, you could spend a thousand dollars a week for the rest of your life and never touch the original million.”

“Yeah?” Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “How do you figure that?”

“Interest. The amount of interest the bank pays you is so much that you could take a thousand dollars a week out and never go broke.”

He stared at the water. “Man, a thousand dollars a week.” That was a lot of money to kids who were lucky if they earned five bucks for mowing the lawn on Saturday—and that took most of the day.

“Yeah, you could have a Corvette and a gullwing Mercedes.” Those were our favorite model car kits to build, so of course we’d buy them for real if we could. Things like food would still be provided by mom and dad, of course.

He nodded. “I’d definitely get a Corvette. Maybe a convertible one.”

“That won’t work.” I smirked. “You can’t fit a gun rack on the back window of a convertible.” He didn’t like redneck references. They hit too close to home.

“The heck with that.” Jimmy hopped onto the midstream rock, throwing his arms out again to balance himself as he eyed the next stony foothold. “Besides, if I had a million dollars, I could get somebody to make me a custom rack for my convertible corvette, that’s for sure.”

“And a CB radio?” Holding a fist to my mouth, I pretended to hold a receiver. “10-4 good buddy!”

Finding enough dry rocks so he wouldn’t slip, he bounded over the water and landed near me. “So? What would you put in yours?”

“If I had a Corvette?” I thought for a moment. “I don’t know. They’re pretty cool just the way they come.”

“You wouldn’t customize it?”

“I don’t know…”

“You wouldn’t.” It was a statement, not a question. Jimmy stretched out on his back, put his hands under his head, and stared up at the tree tops.

I never did that. Bugs might get in my hair.

“Why not?”

“Because you wouldn’t get a Mercedes or a Corvette.”

I put a hand in the grass and turned to him. “Why not?”

“Because you couldn’t kill anybody.”

“For a million dollars I bet I could!”

“No, you couldn’t.” His tone had changed. Now he was almost sneering. Maybe the redneck stuff had been over the top after all. He sat up and eyed me. “You couldn’t do it. You could never do something like that.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.” He spat, not at me, but to emphasize his point. His sneering pissed me off.

“Why not?” My cheeks felt hot with embarrassment.

Just then, the voice of Jimmy’s mom pierced the woods. Supper time.

Hearing it, he took off like a shot. I’d get called soon, too, but if Mrs. Marondeck thought Jimmy was up in the woods somewhere, she would let him stay out for a while. So he scampered off, across the creek and up the hill, disappearing into the woods and the farmer’s fields beyond, allowing me to lie to his mother without really lying. If she saw me coming up from the creek to my house, I could tell her that Jimmy was up in the woods. The kitchen windows of these houses were strategically placed so moms could see the kids in the yard. By the time Mrs. Marondeck saw me, what I’d tell her about her son would be true.

I had to eat fast or I’d be late for swim practice. A whole hour of my head immersed in water, with very little talking. It was a lot of time to think. Too much, really. At least my fingernails would be clean when I got back home.

As I swam, I thought about the game.

Stupid as it was, Jimmy and I liked playing the question and answer game mostly because we had invented it. But there was never a real point in the line of questions, because if you think about it realistically—like considering if you really went back in time to kill Hitler—the game took on a whole other dimension.

You’d have to do it before he came to power, before the damage started. You’d have to do it be before Hitler was Hitler. That means doing what most people would consider an insane act, killing a harmless politician. You would become an enemy of the people for killing a person like that. No one else would know what he becomes.

It was a long practice. Mr. Holtzman has us doing sets of 200 yards and distance swims. He must have had a bad day at work. Churning my arms through the chlorinated water at Highcrest Swim and Tennis Club, the questions bounced in my head.

If somebody showed up on your front door on a Saturday afternoon and said, “You have to kill this stranger to save millions of lives . . .” Hell, you’d laugh. You’d freaking call the police on them. Nobody would ever really do such a thing, and the few who did—aren’t they the ones we read about? Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh . . .

When swim practice finished, I was tired mentally and physically. We drove home in near silence, listening to Easy 105 FM on the radio. An old Carpenters’ tune, done as an instrumental, filled our station wagon. Our little town only got rock n roll on one AM channel, and my parents never played that. I stared out the window and watched the houses roll by in the dark, my cold, damp hair clinging to my head.

After watching some TV, I went to bed and stared at the ceiling of my room. Model airplanes pinned with strings created a frozen dogfight overhead, but the questions wouldn’t let go.

If the bad acts aren’t random, if they’re not just crazy people going crazy, if that’s not what they are, then—what are they?

I rolled over and adjusted my pillow, shoving an arm under it. The headlights of an approaching vehicle shined around one edge of my window shade, casting long white rectangles onto the far wall of my room. As the car rounded the curve on Reigert Drive, Benny And The Jets became audible, fading as the traveler continued up the hill.

In Millersburg, kids had to wait until they were practically sixteen and had a car before they could listen to any good music—unless they stole an older brother’s portable radio for the afternoon. Mostly, we were limited, and we accepted it. We never tried anything. We never stole a car or skipped school or smoked. We rode bikes and played in the woods and climbed trees. We were supposed to be good kids who grew up to be good adults.

We played our little question and answer game to amuse ourselves. We never played it with other kids. We chose to just play it between us.

Until we got too big for it. Then we chose to do other things.

One of us chose college in Florida, graduate school, and marriage. The other chose very differently.

 


ORIGINAL chapter 3, An Angel On Her Shoulder

After we raced through the woods for a while, we stopped to listen and see if the man from the park was coming after us. We stared at each other, sweating and holding our breath, being completely still to focus on what noises might come through the trees.

Nothing.

Jimmy took a deep breath and pulled his t-shirt up to wipe off his brow, smiling. “We got away.”

I don’t know how he managed to get anything other than a grimace onto his face. My stomach still hurt. My chest was thumping.

Jimmy hopped up on his pedals and rode away, taking the hiking trail towards home.

Riding a bike in the woods was hard. The paths were narrow and bouncy, and tree branches would snag your handle bars and yank you into a tree trunk. Limbs scratched your hands. Once we were sure we had ridden far enough, we worked our way down the hill and across to our side of the creek. The steep side had the woods. Our side had mowed lawns and paved streets.

And our houses, right next door to each other, just a mile or so away.

When we finally got onto Reigert Drive, Jimmy just rode his bike home like nothing had happened. I never forgot how he acted in the presence of the raging stranger. I thought he was terrified just like me, but he wasn’t. Not as terrified, anyway. He was able to function and get us out of there. His face held a look of . . . understanding. Maybe because he knew how to take a beating from his older brother, or maybe because he understood that a grown man could actually bludgeon little kids to death with a club, but he was able to take action when it was necessary.

I would learn about that kind of thing after I grew up and left our sheltered little town. TV, newspapers and the internet have a way of making sure that you’re aware of every bad thing that happens in the world. But back then, it was just a couple of kids being terrorized by an angry stranger in an isolated park.

When an adult tells you to do something, you do it. That’s just how it worked, in Millersburg and everywhere else. Any of the neighborhood parents could spank a kid if he got out of line, and his own parents would thank them for it when they found out. Which they would—that night, if not sooner. A kid obeyed the adults or there’d be worse trouble when the kid got home.

So I just stood there, unable to reconcile boundaries between discipline and abuse as the red-faced stranger worked himself into a rage. A boy, frozen in place by what he saw yet unable to leave.

Jimmy leaned back and raised his palms off his handle bars, riding hands-free. He was better at it than I was, of course. He took a quick glance at me. “How’d you know?”

Easing my hands away from the handlebar grips, I sat upright but still let my fingertips touch the cross bar. I pretended I didn’t know what he was talking about. “How’d I know what?”

Jimmy dropped to his sides, riding effortlessly. “About that guy having a night stick.”

“I don’t know.” I slid my hands back to the rubber grips, squeezing them. “I just did.”

Turning my head, I watched the houses of our street go by. Brick houses—new ones—with tiny trees freshly planted in the front yards and thick, green lawns. The latest models of Fords and Chevys parked in the garages or driveways, and colorful flowers adorned all the flower beds.

It was a lie, what I’d said. I didn’t want to explain how I knew about the night stick. I was a little ashamed about deceiving Jimmy, but I didn’t want my best friend to think I was a freak.

Some secrets don’t get shared.

It wasn’t a complete lie, though. I didn’t really know how I saw the night stick, or what the red haze was. I didn’t know how it happened. I overheard Mom on the phone with aunt Amy, whispering about panic attacks. Maybe it was one of those.

It happened to me at St. Matthew’s once, too, in the middle of mass. An old guy in a baggy, dark suit sat down a few rows behind us, and strange feeling crept right onto me the way heat does when the oven door opens. I tried to ignore the sensation, but the little blotch appeared in the corner of my eye and seemed to force my attention to it then, too. I had to look because not looking was like trying to hold your breath after running wind sprints in gym class.

I tried not to see it. I squinted, focusing on the priest as he rambled through his sermon. I forced myself to take deep breaths, swallowing hard and hoping to push the crimson fog out of my eyes. A ringing grew in my ears and my stomach felt queasy. The whole church rocked like a boat and became hot and stuffy.

The priest blathered on, calmly gesturing in his flowing robes, but his words were crowded out by the insane ringing that pounded through my head. As the redness swept over my vision, I gripped the back of the pew in front of us, convinced I was going to throw up or pass out.

With my eyes squeezed shut as tight as they would go, the pressure lifted. I could see the wrinkled old man in the baggy suit. I was now next to him, but we were in his house, next to his bed. He held up a pillow and lowered it over his sleeping wife’s face.

Sweat covered my brow. I shook my head back and forth as hard as I could, nearly falling onto the old red carpet at St. Matthew’s as I tried not to see the kicking old woman clawing at the pillow.

When I opened my eyes, the wrinkled old man was gone and the ringing was, too. The priest was still in the middle of his sermon. I sat there, drenched in sweat and staring at nothing, gasping for breath as my mother’s voice urged me to calm down.

You’re okay, Dougie. Take a deep breath. You’re okay.

It was the strained tone adults used when everything’s not okay.

Jimmy didn’t need to know about that episode, either.

It was still pretty early when we got home from the park, so we dropped off our bikes and headed down to our creek. A day or so before, we had strategically stashed a plastic model aircraft carrier we had built and a few G. I. Joes. That is to say, we had left them near the creek when our moms called us for dinner, and we forgot to bring them up to the house later. We had to make sure that kid in New Orleans didn’t have them now.

Living next door met the requirement for Jimmy and I to be friends. To be best friends, secrets had to be shared and trusts had to be constructed, done through years of playing together. The confrontation in the park had been just one of many things that had cemented into a solid friendship.

But like most things with ten-year-olds, all that would soon change. After Jimmy moved away, it would be a long time before I made another friend that close—if I ever did.

We had many similar likes and dislikes, but with our own approach to them. Jimmy was a hunter, just like his older brother and his firefighter dad, but it interested him in a way it didn’t interest me. I couldn’t figure out a compound bow or a shotgun shell re-filler. Jimmy knew that stuff frontwards and backwards.

Instead, I could draw sketches that looked realistic, and I wrote cartoons and stories. Our differences were big, but that didn’t stop us from being friends. Our similarities were big, too. 

He learned to hunt with a rifle as I leaned to hunt with a camera. He would kill a beautiful bird or squirrel, then stuff and mount it to display in his room. I would try to capture its beauty in a photograph. To me, it was two very different ways of enjoying nature.

Jimmy was always outside learning about nature while I was always inside teaching myself how to draw. While he practiced bow hunting with razor tipped arrows, I went to swim meets and read books between my events. He learned how to use his dad’s sharpening wheel to hone the blade of a pocket knife and could skin a rabbit and store the meat. His older brother showed us how to do it once. It was fast and almost bloodless, not at all what I expected. Once started, the skin seemed to slide off the rabbit like you’d pull off a t-shirt over your head.

I never had a pocket knife. Eventually, my dad bought me an Xacto knife at Pfirman’s Hobby Shop that I was allowed to use when I built model cars.

Our hikes were a different story. We were almost always a kindred spirit in the woods, walking and talking about the important things that ten-year-olds talk about: comic books, movies, and sometimes girls. We also had a question and answer game that we invented, and we played the game while we hiked the narrow trails through the woods.

But we mostly played in the creek.

Setting up a grand adventure for our G. I. Joes, once again the plastic war hero would be called upon for another daring mission. Storm down the mud hill and take out the enemy gun turret, like a mini D-Day invasion, or bomb enemy positions with rocks as makeshift cannon fire. Big rocks would be thrown into the deep part of the creek to create an enormous splash, simulating a bomb blast. Sand was slung across the shallow water to replicate the look of machine gun fire. Of course, each of our two GI Joe’s had to represent 20 or 30 fighting soldiers, so they were killed and reincarnated a dozen times in each attack. Somehow, they always managed to get to the bunker and save the day. I don’t think our GI Joes ever lost a battle in that creek.

During the bombing run, Jimmy and I would work from different sides of the creek. That way, the splashes wouldn’t push the toy boats too far in any one direction and run them aground. After a few minutes of assaulting the flotilla with rocks, we’d end up splashing each other, too.  Usually, the first splash was accidental, but the retaliation shot never was. That’s when the big rocks came out, for the maximum effect of soaking your opponent across the creek while the smoking hulls of our plastic navy burned and sank.

Wet and exhausted, I sat down on the hill side. Jimmy poked at a capsized aircraft carrier with a stick.

“Hey,” he said without looking up. “Would you kill Hitler?”

It was the way we always began the question and answer game we had invented. I was tired and didn’t want to play. A massive amount of mud had gathered under my fingernails and needed attention.

“C’mon.” He turned around to face me. “Let’s play.”

He stepped onto a rock in the middle of the creek, attempting to find enough to cross without having to walk down to the shallow part. “Would you kill Hitler?”

I leaned forward, accepting the challenge. “Of course. No hesitation.”

Arms held out to balance himself, he glanced up and smiled. The game was on.

He hopped back to the other side of the water. Somewhere in the next ten minutes or so, he would try to have me saying that I would do something crazy. That was the game.

We didn’t know who Hitler was at that age. Not really. It was a bad name for our game, but that’s what we called it. It was our way of being a little bad, I guess, naming a dumb game someone like that.

The hill by the creek was grassy and soft. Sunlight filtered through the maple trees to illuminate varying patches of the green turf. Small clusters of orange and red leaves glided to earth with each gentle breeze. Jimmy was thinking up the next question—if he hadn’t prepared one already. Usually, he was working toward a point.

The game was as simple as tic tac toe. Jimmy was good at it, but I was better, like a good offense against a good defense. That made it all the more important for him to beat me. Him beating me at Killing Hitler would be like me being a better shot than him with our brothers’ BB guns. Ten-year-olds have to try to stake out their own “bests,” especially if they have older brothers.

Jimmy strolled along the creek bank like a lawyer preparing a cross-examination, wagging his finger in the air. “Would you… kill Hitler if you knew they would catch you?”

“Oh, sure.” I picked up a stick and pushed it through a yellow leaf, spinning it like a pinwheel. “Hell, I’d expect to get caught.” It was easy to be brave in theory, when life and love were hypothetical. Or to use cusswords like “hell” when you knew no parents could hear you.

Nodding, Jimmy turned and paced back the other way. “What if the Germans had spies that took your mom and dad hostage?”

“I’d still do it.” I shrugged. “Besides, if I could sneak in close enough to kill Hitler, I could probably sneak out and nobody would know.”

“Oh, they’d know all right.” Jimmy chuckled. “He’s in charge of the whole country. They’d know.”

I thought my answer was pretty solid. “I’d have to do it. He was a bad guy. He killed a lot of people. I would be a hero for killing him.”

“Oh, a hee-ro!” Jimmy laughed. “You’re a tough guy, huh?”

“No…” I tossed my stick in the water and watched it drift towards New Orleans. “Not tough. Smart.”

“Right. Smart.” He sauntered over the rocks for a moment before perching himself on a small boulder jutting out of the hill. “You might be smart but you aren’t sneaky.”

I didn’t know where he was going with that, but we were off track. “C’mon, you aren’t playing the game.”

“Okay, okay.” He had probably already thought of his good question, and now he needed time to remember it. His attention appeared consumed by a few passing minnows as they darted around in the stream, then his eyes narrowed. “Okay, so if you were sure to get caught, you’d still kill Hitler, right?”

“Right. No question.”

“What if the Germans were going to murder your parents if you killed Hitler?”

I was ready for that. “I’d still have to do it. Two people for the price of a million people is a good trade.”

“So you’d just sacrifice your mom and dad, just like that?”

“Well . . . I think you’d have to. Heck, for a million lives? You do have to.”

He nodded, seeming to agree with that math.

“Besides.” I smiled. “Then I could run the damned air conditioning in my room.”

We laughed. His bedroom was just as hot and stuffy as mine. For some reason, our parents just wouldn’t run the air conditioning in summertime until after dinner, not even the window units upstairs where the kids’ bedrooms were—the hottest part of the house. They said electricity was expensive, but maybe it was a ruse to keep us playing outside.

“Hey, no.” Jimmy waved his hand. “You wouldn’t get any air conditioning. You’d be dead already, remember?”

“No, I think I could still sneak out if I was able to sneak in.”

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head. “You can’t sneak out. They have too many guards. You definitely get killed.”

I nodded. “Okay…”

“Okay. So…” He squatted, resting his arms on his knees. “What if they . . . if they also kidnapped your aunts and uncles, and all your cousins, and they were all gonna get killed, too?”

“Hah. Take ‘em.”

“Boy, it’s a good thing you don’t have a dog.” He stood threw a rock into the creek. A tall column of water splashed up with a bloop. The water was deep where the stone hit. A smile crept across his face. “Suppose they also grabbed Sheila McCormack.” He glanced my way. “And they were going to kill her, too.”

I opened my mouth but didn’t speak. I didn’t know he knew about Sheila.

Jimmy hopped back onto the rock in the middle of the creek and made kissing noises. “Ooh, Shee-lah. Oooh!”

Leaning back on one shoulder, I tried to play it cool. “Whatever. Take her.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Really? You’d let them kill Sheila McCormack!?”

“Well.” I inspected the mud under my fingernails. “Do I get to kiss her first?”

“You sure do.” He was wearing a huge grin now. “Maybe more than that.”

“Okay, then. Hitler lives.”

“Bwah!” Jimmy laughed, nearly falling off the rock. “I knew it!”

That was his goal, to find out if I liked Shelia McCormack. That wasn’t usually how we played the game. Typically, we’d start out by asking if you would, say, rob a bank. You’d say no. Then we’d say, what if bank robbers had kidnapped your parents and they would kill them if you didn’t rob the bank. Maybe you’d consider it then. The goal was to get you to admit that you’d do something crazy that you originally said you wouldn’t. Something you’d never think of doing in a million years, and suddenly in a few questions, there you were, admitting that you’d definitely do it.

But it was a game, a joke. I always knew we had no chance to do something heroic like killing Hitler, just like I knew I probably had no chance of kissing Sheila McCormack. But it was a fun way to trick your pal if he played along. And sometimes it was just funny.

“Would you ever peek up an old lady’s dress?”

“I have peeked up your mom’s dress. Yuck.”

“HEY!”

Sometimes it went off the rails right from the start.

“Would you ever kill a person for a dumb reason?”

“I’d kill you for telling me it was too hot to wear pants today. I tore the hell out of my legs shinnying up that tree.”

Sometimes it tested our limits.

“Would you kill the President for a million dollars?”

Digging clay and sand out from under one fingernail by using another fingernail just took it from one and wedged it under the other. “Kill President Ford, huh?” I peered up at the sugar maples, their leaves turning orange and yellow and red with the onset of fall. “He just took over. Would I get caught?”

“Nope. But you’d spend the rest of your life on the run.”

“I don’t know. A million dollars is a lot of money. If I could get a million dollars and get away with it… I don’t know.”

Usually it was like tic tac toe—it didn’t get far, and it didn’t get complicated. But sometimes, it opened doors that were better off left shut.

“You couldn’t do it.” Jimmy scanned the bank for another baseball-sized rock. Finding one, he heaved it into the deep part of the water. Bloop. “No way.”

I watched the ripples from the splash fade and the water become a clear, blue-green tint again. “I bet I could for a million dollars.”

“No, you couldn’t. Not you.”

“Why not me?” I placed my hands in the grass and righted myself. “A million dollars is a lot of money. My brother said that if you had a million dollars and you put it in the bank, you could spend a thousand dollars a week for the rest of your life and never touch the original million.”

“Yeah?” Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “How do you figure that?”

“Interest. The amount of interest the bank pays you is so much that you could take a thousand dollars a week out and never go broke.”

He stared at the water. “Man, a thousand dollars a week.” That was a lot of money to kids who were lucky if they earned five bucks for mowing the lawn on Saturday—and that took most of the day.

“Yeah, you could have a Corvette and a gullwing Mercedes.” Those were our favorite model car kits to build, so of course we’d buy them for real if we could. Things like food would still be provided by mom and dad, of course.

He nodded. “I’d definitely get a Corvette. Maybe a convertible one.”

“That won’t work.” I smirked. “You can’t fit a gun rack on the back window of a convertible.” He didn’t like redneck references. They hit too close to home.

“The heck with that.” Jimmy hopped onto the midstream rock, throwing his arms out again to balance himself as he eyed the next stony foothold. “Besides, if I had a million dollars, I could get somebody to make me a custom rack for my convertible corvette, that’s for sure.”

“And a CB radio?” Holding a fist to my mouth, I pretended to hold a receiver. “10-4 good buddy!”

Finding enough dry rocks so he wouldn’t slip, he bounded over the water and landed near me. “So? What would you put in yours?”

“If I had a Corvette?” I thought for a moment. “I don’t know. They’re pretty cool just the way they come.”

“You wouldn’t customize it?”

“I don’t know…”

“You wouldn’t.” It was a statement, not a question. Jimmy stretched out on his back, put his hands under his head, and stared up at the tree tops.

I never did that. Bugs might get in my hair.

“Why not?”

“Because you wouldn’t get a Mercedes or a Corvette.”

I put a hand in the grass and turned to him. “Why not?”

“Because you couldn’t kill anybody.”

“For a million dollars I bet I could!”

“No, you couldn’t.” His tone had changed. Now he was almost sneering. Maybe the redneck stuff had been over the top after all. He sat up and eyed me. “You couldn’t do it. You could never do something like that.”

“Why not?”

“You know why.” He spat, not at me, but to emphasize his point. His sneering pissed me off.

“Why not?” My cheeks felt hot with embarrassment.

Just then, the voice of Jimmy’s mom pierced the woods. Supper time.

Hearing it, he took off like a shot. I’d get called soon, too, but if Mrs. Marondeck thought Jimmy was up in the woods somewhere, she would let him stay out for a while. So he scampered off, across the creek and up the hill, disappearing into the woods and the farmer’s fields beyond, allowing me to lie to his mother without really lying. If she saw me coming up from the creek to my house, I could tell her that Jimmy was up in the woods. The kitchen windows of these houses were strategically placed so moms could see the kids in the yard. By the time Mrs. Marondeck saw me, what I’d tell her about her son would be true.

I had to eat fast or I’d be late for swim practice. Other families took the summer off, but not us. Half the kids on the team wouldn’t even be there. A lot of my normal swim team friends were on vacation, so I’d have a whole hour of my head immersed in the water, with very little talking. It was a lot of time to think. Too much, really. At least my fingernails would be clean when I got back home.

As I swam, I thought about the game.

(NOTE; FROM HERE TO THE END OF THE CHAPTER, I TRIMMED 500 OUT OF 1000 WORDS, SO YOU CAN REALLY ONLY SEE THAT SIDE BY SIDE, SINCE LOTS WAS REWRITTEN TOO.)

Stupid as it was, Jimmy and I liked playing the question and answer game mostly because we had invented it. But there was never a real point in the line of questions, because if you think about it realistically—like considering if you really went back in time to kill Hitler—the game took on a whole other dimension.

You’d have to do it before he came to power, before the damage started. You’d have to do it be before Hitler was Hitler. That means doing what most people would consider an insane act, killing a harmless politician. You would become an enemy of the people for killing a person like that. No one else would know what he becomes.

It was a long practice. Mr. Holtzman has us doing sets of 200 yards and distance swims. He must have had a bad day at work. Churning my arms through the chlorinated water at Highcrest Swim and Tennis Club, the questions bounced in my head.

If somebody showed up on your front door on a Saturday afternoon and said, “You have to kill this stranger to save millions of lives . . .” Hell, you’d laugh. You’d freaking call the police on them. Nobody would ever really do such a thing, and the few who did—aren’t they the ones we read about? Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh . . .

When swim practice finished, I was tired mentally and physically. We drove home in near silence, listening to Easy 105 FM on the radio. An old Carpenters’ tune, done as an instrumental, filled our station wagon. Our little town only got rock n roll on one AM channel, and my parents never played that. I stared out the window and watched the houses roll by in the dark, my cold, damp hair clinging to my head.

Laying my head down on the pillow, I stared at the ceiling of my room. Model airplanes pinned with strings created a frozen dogfight overhead, but the questions wouldn’t let go.

If the bad acts aren’t random, if they’re not just crazy people going crazy, if that’s not what they are, then—what are they?

I rolled over and adjusted my pillow, shoving an arm under it. The headlights of an approaching vehicle cast long white rectangles on the far wall of my room. As the car rounded the curve on Reigert Drive, Benny And The Jets became audible, fading as the traveler continued up the hill.

In Millersburg, kids had to wait until they were practically sixteen and had a car before they could listen to any good music—unless they stole an older brother’s portable radio for the afternoon. Mostly, we were limited, and we accepted it. We never tried anything. We never stole a car or skipped school or smoked. We rode bikes and played in the woods and climbed trees. We were supposed to be good kids who grew up to be good adults.

We played our little question and answer game to amuse ourselves. We never played it with other kids. We chose to just play it between us.

Until we got too big for it. Then we chose to do other things.

One of us chose college in Florida, graduate school, and marriage. The other chose very differently.


About That Trimming…

There was a lot of it, right?

Fine, but all this stuff in the untrimmed piece did move us toward the goal. We needed to know about the game, and Dougie’s insecurities, and most of all, we needed to know about that weird red stuff that takes over his vision!

Yeah, yeah, we did – But…

  • there is some repetition in the original, and
  • there’s some side story stuff that certainly talks about being a ten year old boy in Indiana, but runs the risk of slowing down the story just to show us that lifestyle in more detail than maybe we need.

Kill your darlings!

You’ve heard that phrase before, and this chapter is a prime example. There are others coming, trust me.

The day in the life of a ten year old Indiana kid, playing GI Joes in the creek behind the house with his friend, that’s good stuff – and I know, because I lived it. (But in Ohio.) And that makes it a darling to me – but possibly to no one else. Is this a memoir? No. So if it creates a 5000 word chapter when a 3000 word chapter is the  goal, some of it has to come out. (The final was around 3700, a good compromise.)

Do we really need to know how boys play with G. I. Joes, or that they play with them?

It’s always going to be a judgement call, and you will get better after using trusted critique partners (learn more about critique groups HERE) to tell you when they feel like skimming. Dropping a pearl of deep, rich detail here and there (like how when you field dress a rabbit, the skin peels away like a t-shirt) makes you amazing. Too much makes you a show off – and boring, the ultimate writing sin.

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! (The prior chapter is HERE)

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!

 

12 thoughts on “TRIMMING: the art (and pain) of honing your (wordy) masterpiece into a (finally readable) story

    • You really should.

      I just figured, since I have to do this anyway, and since I have both versions right here in front of me, why not put them both up and show people what happened, but also explain why.

      That way, you’re not just being told “Trim it,” you’re being shown – here’s an example and here’s why I did it. Somebody else could decide to go a totally different direction but this is the direction I am trying to take. And when we are done, when we have a complete story, then you could read it again as a beta reader and make an assessment at that point, too. Maybe it could’ve kept some of the detail or maybe it turns out to be lacking in certain areas.

      All part of the process.

      Liked by 1 person

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