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.
Time to go through a few areas we’ve been addressing in each chapter but not necessarily highlighting, like IMMERSION.
If you want to read the part about SUBPLOTS, it requires you to skip down to the bottom, and there are spoilers along the way so be advised.
Ha, see? You thought you were getting a lesson per chapter. No, no, no – you may have to take a lesson from today and apply it to what you’ve been reading all throughout, now that you understand it. I couldn’t throw all this at you in chapter one. You’d have been overwhelmed. (I wanted to, though, if that helps.)
My job as your mentor and/or guide…
…and/or critique partner and/or editor and/or sounding board…
is to figure out the things you’ve done that make your story less perfect, point them out, and try to help you figure out ways to correct them.
It’s also my job when I review my own writing.
I consider it my duty, what I would do for you and what I need you to do for me. Really giving it to each other straight so we can make our stores the best they can be.
It is a tall order.
CRITICISM and INPUT
It requires guts to tell somebody what’s wrong – with patience and kindness to do it in an encouraging and non-destructive way – and it requires time and energy to help them come up with a solution.
It requires fortitude to hear what’s wrong, even when delivered kindly, and it requires strength to accept the words of others who want to help you become a better writer.
- Fear, not ego, makes us weak and closes our ears to even the best suggestions.
- Ego allows us to know that accepting good suggestions from others makes our writing better, and even if we took every suggestion from every source, our writing is still 99% our own.
MY JOB AS Critique Partner:
When I read your story it is like carrying a soft blanket through a thick forest. Anything that blanket snags on is something that needs to be addressed.
So as I read, if you misspell a word, that’s a snag. If you started three sentences in a row with a declarative noun-verb combination, that’s a snag. If you have a run-on sentence, or a character reacting before the action takes place, or a patch I want to skim, that’s a snag.
Anything that would potentially snag that blanket is what I point out to you, what must be pointed out. I will try to find them all, regardless of size, so your writing can be the best it can be.
I ask you do the same for me, so my writing can be the best it can be.
Together, we can become GREAT writers.
It is WITHIN OUR GRASP as humans.
It is LEARNED.
(Although we’ll let be fine letting people think we were born with the gift of writing.)
Once we can get the blanket carried through the forest without any snags, I know I’ve achieved The First Step of the First Priority of a Story
Never un-immerse your reader from your story.
In order to have a great story, readers have to become fully immersed, never pulling their head up to see the world happening around them but only flowing along with where your story goes and what your story does. They get lost in the world you created.
You need many things. An interesting plot. Relatable characters. Good pacing. On and on.
You must avoid mistakes. No typos. You can’t be dull.
When it’s right, readers know it.
You see it in movies all the time. When people leave a movie there pumped up after watching Rocky or they’re feeling adventurous after watching Indiana Jones. Where they are sad, crying their eyes out, at the end of Love Story or Dr. Zhivago or Titanic.
When it’s wrong, readers know it.
The Angry Birds movie, if you are over the age of ten. Finding Dory. Zoolander 2. Heck, just about anything 2. Independence Day 2, whatever it was called. The Johnny Depp/Through The Looking Glass thing where he wore all the clown makeup. Come on. Clown face? That’s awful on the cover. Nobody’s seeing that.
Just… kill me now.
All the things we advise you to do – spell checking, trimming, grabber openings, cliffhanger endings – are the things that help immerse your reader in your story.
Your goal is to never un-immerse them.
Typos and run-on sentences and things like that all serve to pull your reader out of the story, even if only for a nanosecond.
Un-immersing your reader from the story is the ultimate sin.
The goal is to keep them in, so anything that takes them out has to be addressed.
Look, at some point you’re going to have to end a chapter. That’s a great place for the reader to say oh it’s time to make dinner – and then they get busy with a phone call and email and then the next day they have to work late and then the air conditioner breaks and then soccer practice starts and it’s their day to make brownies for the team – and your book never gets picked back up. I’ll get to it tomorrow…
A DAY becomes a WEEK becomes NEVER.
The third Harry Potter book still waiting for me. I got halfway through it because I took two airplane flights to go snow tubing. Killing Jesus took me four months to read because I read half of it in one sitting, got busy, and didn’t get back to the second part until four months later! And those are both good books. Anything slightly less and I would not have picked it up, such as Bird By Bird or The Hero With A Thousand Faces or any of a number of other books. Or movies I recorded that I started watching and never got back to. Or TV series with multiple episodes DVRed and every time I get a chance to start back up at episode three, I’m kinda sleepy and Kevin Can Wait looks better. A month later, the folder gets deleted from the DVR in a fit of digital spring cleaning and no one notices.
Is that what you want for your story after all your hard work writing it? No.
So you have two goals. 1: Tell a great story, and 2: Keep your reader completely immersed.
That’s what makes writing difficult.
We can all tell good stories.
We can’t all tell smooth ones that readers stay completely immersed in. It’s hard work and it requires concentration and hours of furrowed brows, rewriting the same line four times and still hating it. It’s hard work to ACCEPT when somebody tells you to cut a whole chapter. It’s hard work getting up the courage to show your story to a critique group. It’s hard work to call local book store sand ask them to let you do a signing. It’s hard work = whatever you don’t like doing.
That’s why Hemingway said we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
Chapter 40 and 41 “FINAL”
“Been a long time.” Jimmy stared at me through the thick glass, the intercom phone filling his words with static. There was neither happiness nor sadness in Jimmy’s eyes that day, just a hardness that had come from years behind bars. His face had aged many more years than his ten years in Lima.
Some of the life had been taken out of him there. I guess that was the point.
He held up a cigarette and a lighter.
A nearby corrections officert nodded. “Go ahead.”
Jimmy lit the cigarette and took a deep draw. “Sorry to heard about your mom.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
The phones in the federal penitentiary were accompanied by wipes, for sanitation. They needed it. The receivers smelled like bad breath and ash trays.
“I have to wonder what you’re doing here.” Jimmy leaned back and blew a white stream of smoke toward the ceiling. “Why today, of all days? Isn’t today her—”
“Yeah.” I shifted on the cold metal chair. “I was going to be in the area, and I didn’t want to be at my mom’s house this afternoon. Not without her in it.”
“Millersburg’s not exactly in the area.”
“No, it isn’t.” I took a deep breath. “I need to ask you something.”
“After all this time.” He shook his head. “Don’t come looking for answers. Prison isn’t that kind of place.”
“I’m not asking the prison. I’m asking you.”
He held his hands out and glanced around at the walls. “We are one and the same now.”
As a kid, Jimmy started almost where I started, but there were differences from the beginning. He went down a different path, and the step that did him in was the latest in a long series I heard about. A lot of earlier steps could have been the one to send him to the Lima Penitentiary. The one that did was almost a fluke.
He landed a lucky punch in a disagreement that got out of control. They were in a bar and the other guy swung first, but Jimmy was agile. He dodged the blow and put his fist square in the other man’s chest, dropping him.
The only problem was, the guy had a bad heart. When he went to the ground, he never got up again. Jimmy’s punch killed him.
On the wrong side of town, with no friends in the place and a growing reputation, things went from bad to worse. Add in a jury that wanted to send a message, and prison was the result.
I’d say it could happen to anybody, but that would be a lie. It couldn’t just happen. It needed help. In Jimmy, it got all the help it needed.
We went to different grade schools after he moved. When we were reunited in high school, we were barely acquaintances. We said hi to each other when we passed in the halls in high school—freshman year, anyway, for the first few weeks. Time had changed both of us. I was looking forward to college and a professional life. Jimmy wasn’t even looking forward to finishing high school. He skipped whenever he could, which was often.
He went back down to the park the day after we had the run-in with owner of the abandoned car. Jimmy was always off hunting or hiking, so nobody took too much notice—except for the tough kids. They noticed. A year later when I heard he had joined their gang, I was surprised. I thought we were better than that. Even if he couldn’t be a better student than me, or a better artist than me, I could never be a better hunter or tree climber than him. In our own way, each of us was a little jealous of the other. I thought that was a good thing in 10-year-old boys, that maybe they ought to look up to each other little bit.
I heard occasional rumors in high school. Stories about stealing beer became stories about stealing cars. When I went home to Indiana for Christmas one year in college, my older brother said Jimmy got busted selling drugs but beat the charge on a technicality. His choices never seemed to catch up with him, so he kept going. The rules didn’t matter.
Until they did.
“It was hard to hear about you being here,” I said. “We were friends. I looked up to you.”
“We were kids, Dougie.” Jimmy took a drag on his cigarette. “We looked up to anybody who could throw a baseball better than us.”
“I didn’t become best friends with them.”
“Don’t start that crap. Don’t get into that.”
I wiped my sweaty hand on my jeans. “Why not?”
“Because all day, every day, that’s what I get to think about in here.” He leaned forward, pointing at me through the glass with his cigarette. “Don’t try to slide in sideways and tell me that you feel guilty. My mom and my dad and my brother all came in here telling me that. They all get to feel bad because they have a son and a brother in prison. They have to hide their faces around town because they got tarnished with my sins.” He sat back in the chair, tucking a hand under his phone arm. “You think you could have stopped all this somehow, right? If only you’d have been a better friend?”
I swallowed hard. “I guess so.”
“Don’t be arrogant. You didn’t control me. You couldn’t control me, and I didn’t want to be controlled.” He took a long pull on his cigarette and narrowed his eyes, glancing at a wall clock mounted in a wire cage. “Coming in here allowed me to stop the slide.”
“What?” I sat up straighter. “What do you mean?”
“Do you remember in Drivers Ed class, Mr. Morgan told us to look both ways before crossing a one way street? Do you remember what he said?”
“A one way street?” I cocked my head.
“Yeah,” he said. “Because other people screw up. The guy who doesn’t look both ways can do everything right and end up just as dead as if he’d done everything wrong.”
Jimmy exhaled, blowing his smoke toward the ceiling. “You aren’t looking both ways, pal. You never did. Maybe guys like you don’t have to.”
“Guys like me?” I said. “You were a guy like me, once.”
“No,” he said, rising. “Not really, I don’t think.”
He hung up and walked toward a steel door.
“What are you talking about?” I jumped up and pounded on the glass. “Why didn’t you just stop?”
A big guard approached me, his hand on his night stick. “Sir, please do not touch the glass.”
Jimmy looked back at me as he prepared to make his exit. He mouthed the words. “I told you why.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
Another guard approached. “Sir, control yourself or you’ll be removed.”
Jimmy said something to the officer nearest him, gesturing to the empty chair. The officer nodded.
Returning to the glass, Jimmy remained standing and picked up the phone. “I had to,” he said. “I was out of control and heading full speed off a cliff.”
I couldn’t believe my friend could just throw his life away. I pressed the receiver to my ear. “You got yourself locked up for twenty years because it was better than what would have happened otherwise? That’s hard to believe.”
His face took on a pained look, like he was remembering things better off forgotten. “I wasn’t in charge of myself anymore. It was worse than you know, Dougie. Dark.” He swallowed hard. “I did things. Terrible things. Coming in here for killing that guy . . . I got off cheap.”
“To what?” I was nearly shouting again.
“Okay, sir. Put down the phone.” The big guard gripped his baton and squared his shoulders. “Time’s up.”
I lowered my voice, but not my intensity. “What kinds of things? What did you do?”
Jimmy shook his head, moving his gaze to the floor. “The worst things you can think of.” He raised his eyes to look at me one last time. “They locked up two of us when they put me in here.”
He slid the phone back into the receiver and walked off. I didn’t know what things he could have meant, and he didn’t want me to know. At the time, he was right.
It would only be years later, after talking to a voodoo witch and a priest, that I would even begin to understand what he was talking about.
Original Chapter 40, An Angel On Her Shoulder
Michele made good time. We were on the road five minutes later.
The winds were terrible. It knocked the Navigator all over, and it came and went in gusts, which made it worse. I couldn’t get a good feel for the road. This 8-hour trip north on I-75 to Atlanta was going to take a lot longer than eight hours.
Still, it was better than nothing. I worried about whether the Navigator’s battery would give me issues on the road, but it was too late to try to arrange for a rental car, and we didn’t want to wait a minute longer than we needed to.
As Michele and Savvy eventually fall asleep in the car – Savvy because she can’t ever stay awake in a car, and Michele because she was simple exhausted from thinking about events, and what had happened to Tyree, what had almost happened to me, again… she’d had enough. I drove while Michele sat next to Savvy in the back. She put up a good front until Savvy fell asleep; then I heard her crying.
Then, after a while, sleep. It was well deserved and much needed. No matter how much sleep we got, it wasn’t enough; it was poor quality these last few days, and not very refreshing.
I, on the other hand, was wide awake. The winds and rain were keeping me alert, but my mind was elsewhere, thinking of a similar windy drive I’d had on I-75.
It was a few years ago, before Savvy was born. We were headed south on I-75, coming home from my dad’s, I guess; a road trip to Ohio for his birthday. My wife and my brother were in the car. We were just south of Atlanta.
It was pretty windy that day, too. We were driving along and all of a sudden there was debris everywhere, all over the road and the grass. Leaves, tree limbs, some trash; it was everywhere. A tornado had just ripped through the area. A windy day that just got out of control. Other drivers on the crowded interstate just had to get a look. They were gawking at all the crap that had been flung everywhere. But the interstate was too busy for that.
Two cars smashed into each other right off my right front tire. It was like it was in slow motion. They slammed into each other with a loud crunching bang! At that speed, with the wet roads, they both immediately lost control. As they swerved and swung, three feet away from us, everybody else in the car jumped and screamed. I was driving, just watching. It was as though time had slowed down. I saw them hit, I saw them bounce around, and I knew what would happen next.
Since wrecking cars tend to slow down, I decided to speed up. Any crashing pile-up of cars would happen behind me, not in front of me – and it would definitely not include me. Not if I drove faster; we wouldn’t be touched.
I’ll never forget it. Everybody else in the car screamed; I was surprisingly calm.
We could’ve been killed. Maybe others were killed.
But it didn’t scare me at all. Not one little bit. I glanced back and saw the cars in the rear view mirror, piling up like a Hollywood action movie. They banged into each other, one right after the next. It was crazy. And it all started happening three feet away from us, maybe less. I wasn’t any more alarmed after the wreck had happened than I was before. It didn’t even faze me. That can’t be said of everybody else in the car; they probably saw their lives pass before their eyes.
Snakes scare some people. I can take or leave a snake. If I find one on top of my toolbox in the garage when I’m reaching for a screwdriver, yeah that’s going to scare me; if I’m on the lawn mower and I see one scamper off through the grass a ten feet out in front of me, I couldn’t care less. My wife, on the other hand will freak out, grab a rake and shovel, and kill every single snake she sees.
I’m not really afraid of heights, like if I go up in a tall building and look out the window, it doesn’t bother me; but I have been on some really high things that weren’t real stable, and that made me will nervous. Climbing up my two-story ladder to hang Christmas wreaths on the top windows of our house sometimes gets me a little bit, but that’s usually just the first time I’m going up the ladder. By the time I hang a wreath on the fifth window, I couldn’t care less. But I know ladders and tall buildings bother other people…
I went across what I think is called the New River Bridge in West Virginia. That bridge is so high and so skinny, it scares people. They’ll drive miles out of their way not to have to cross it. I thought it was awesome. But I went over a tall skinny bridge in Louisiana somewhere; it seemed to go up about six stories high, across some stupid river. For some reason, that thing looked rickety as hell. And, yeah, it scared me. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. It was like being on top of a roller coaster when you’re at the top of that bridge. Looking around on top of that bridge, I was kind of scared. It seemed like my car could fall right off.
And then there are the things that probably do scare me but in the deeper philosophical way. Like when I lived alone in my small apartment in West Palm Beach, a bump in the night might’ve caused me concern. Now, in my house, with a wife and a kid and a dog and a cat, just about anything could go bump in the night and I’m not even going to wake up. I think that has more to do with imagination than actual fear…
What tends to scare me now is more the things that could happen, like if something were to happen to my daughter. That would scare me more than the possibility of something happening to myself.
Also, strange things bothered me when I was a kid. Like how difficult it was for me to do something simple like pull the trigger on a stupid squirrel. I really, really didn’t want to do that.
I’m not sure that’s fear, but if it is, respect for life and fear of God. It’s not like killing a man, taking a human life; but it is still the taking a life. And an animal’s life isn’t as precious as a human’s, but it still counts for something. It shouldn’t be taken for no reason.
Like the raccoons. I was growing grape vines on the side of our house. All spring and summer, I tended those vines, for two years. Finally, they were getting big bunches of grapes. Big for the side of a house, anyway. A few years later, they’d put out 30 lbs each, like a plants in a real commercial vineyard do, but back then it was smaller stuff. Maybe 10 lbs per vine, but that’s still a lot of wine grapes.
So I had raccoons coming to visit my little vineyard every night. They’d eat three or four pounds of grapes, but they’d knock off another 10 lbs onto the ground, climbing around on the vines and the posts. Then the fallen grapes would start to spoil. All the grapes were still too unripe and sour for us to harvest, or even eat them, but they were free food to a hungry raccoon, and he came back every night for more. He didn’t care how sour they were.
If he could have waited a few weeks, I’d have shared the sweet grapes with him. And I would have some benefit for my two years of hard work out in the Florida sun. And my wife could make her wine. But the way we were headed, the only one who was going to get anything from my grapes was a thieving raccoon who was going to have them all for himself. I looked up a bunch of stuff on the internet that was supposed to scare raccoons away: lights, music, peeing on the posts to scent them with a human’s smell. I tried them all.
Nothing worked. A raccoon appreciates the lights; it helps him find his way around the vines better. And some dinner music is downright elegant.
If you think a little human pee is going to stop a hungry raccoon, think again. He just climbed out of your neighbor’s garbage can full of used kitty litter; he couldn’t care less about what you did to the posts.
So I set a trap. I called a few friends who owned wineries, and they told me just what to do. John Savant said, get a trap and put some wet cat food in it. The raccoon will want that smelly stuff more than the grapes right now, and you’ll trap him. Problem solved.
I got a trap, and I baited it with some canned cat food. I had to put our own cat out on the screened parch so I didn’t catch her, but that was the only wrinkle. She never did figure out what she had done wrong. Every night, instead of being allowed to prowl around the house, she got apprehended and sent to jail out by the pool.
The trap worked like a charm. I caught a big raccoon on the second night. I came out right to our little vineyard just after dawn, to see what had happened – and there it was.
That big raccoon looked just like the ones at the zoo, or in the movies. He was looking at me and I was looking at him. Then I looked a little closer.
He had spent a good portion of the night trying to claw his way out of the cage, and now he was sitting there. The ground all around the cage was torn up in a dirt perimeter just about the length of the raccoon’s arm. When he saw me, he started whimpering and shaking. I didn’t know raccoons could make noise; John Savant didn’t tell me about that part. But it was kind of whimpering, like a dog’s growl but not like a dog’s whimper. That’s how a raccoon whimpers, almost like a bark. And he was shaking, and he was scared.
He probably knew what I was going to do more than I did.
I know he didn’t want it to happen. He wanted it less than I did, but not by much.
I was also surprised when I fired the rifle into him. I couldn’t see where I hit him, but I saw him react from getting hit, so I knew I did.
Unlike the movies, he didn’t just grab his chest and fall on his back. He didn’t stick his feet in the air like he was in a cartoon. He was a real, living being, and he wanted to fight for his life. He wanted to hang on to his life. He didn’t want to end it needlessly and stupidly in a cage over some grapes.
But because my former friend taught me well, I knew I must not oblige him, and I cocked the rifle again, sliding the grip up and down the barrel. Just like in the movies, it made a noise like chick chick, and it was ready to go. I took aim a second time and fired.
Now, I told myself, all I was doing was putting it out of its misery. You can’t let him suffer. I cocked again – chick chick – took aim, and fired again.
I probably didn’t need to shoot him six times, and in the quiet morning of our quiet neighborhood, six shots probably would’ve gotten somebody’s attention. But since this was only a .22 caliber rifle, and since we live out in a somewhat of a rural area, someone firing a rifle at a rat or something else isn’t all that unusual.
I shot him six times. I don’t know which bullet killed him. I don’t think they all hit him, to be honest.
But in the end, he was dead and I was the one who had done it.
Then I had the problem with getting it out of the cage and disposing of the body. I could dig a hole about 3 feet deep behind the vineyard, and I bury him in the soft, sandy Florida soil. That would prevent other animals from smelling him and coming in to dig him up.
But that was a lot of hot work right after sunup, before heading off to work. Too much for one stupid raccoon, and who knew how many more would be visiting the vineyard over the ensuing nights? So I simply wrapped him in a dark-colored trash bag and put him out with the garbage.
I rationalized that it was no different than when I threw out some old hamburger, or a piece of chicken that had sat in the back of the refrigerator too long. It was just meat at that point. Wrap it up so that nobody can see what it is, and get rid of it. My trash guys came twice a week, and even in the hot Florida sun, the raccoon wouldn’t smell any worse than the rest the trash.
I’d like to pretend that it didn’t bother me, but I thought about it all day.
I remember yelling at the raccoon in a loud whisper as he sat in the cage, trapped and scared that morning: I turned on lights and played music! I peed on the corners of the posts so the human smell would scare you! I put out marshmallows and cans of cat food to lure you away from my vines! I did everything I could! It’s illegal to take you and release you on somebody else’s property! This is my last option!
Why wouldn’t you just leave my grapes alone?
Then I shot him to death.
I decided that I did not want to be a wine grape grower enough to kill animals for it. I went out and got an electric fence that I could put up and down around our small vineyard, to keep the raccoons out.
Jimmy would’ve laughed it at that.
My friends on Facebook probably never thought anything of it either, but then I never told them about the killing.
I love raccoons. I love seeing them in the zoo. I love seeing them in cartoons. I only hated them when they were destroying my grapes night after night, and robbing me of what I had worked so hard for. But in the end, I did not hate them enough to kill them. I did not want the grapes badly enough to do that. So I found another way; a better way, a smarter way.
It was a way that work for me, and that was really all that really mattered. My only regret was that I didn’t think of it sooner.
Between the squirrel and the raccoon, I never killed any other living animal.
Now, here I was, fleeing my home to protect my family, thinking that I might need to kill anything that crossed our path and dared to threaten us.
And wondering how the hell I was going to do it.
Original Chapter 41, An Angel On Her Shoulder
Half way to Atlanta, I did some mental calculations.
I had a full tank of gas; the Navigator thankfully calculates your rate of consumption, so I knew I could usually go about 450 miles without stopping. It would be less with all this wind, but it was a good estimate. Technically, I could reach Atlanta from our house without needing to fill up, but reality was a little different. The trip to Tyree’s and back home again had used some fuel, and the wind and driving conditions were taking their toll. I was getting a lot less per mile than normal; about 20 percent less.
That was okay, though. Three gas cans riding in the back held 6 gallons each. So we had about 300 additional miles we could go, if necessary.
But Atlanta should be all we’d need right now. Downtown Atlanta, a nice dry hotel, and some room service; just the way we’d laid out our hurricane evacuation plan. Atlanta was far enough inland for a hurricane to dissipate before it ever reach there, so we could just sit tight and wait for the storm to pass. I was actually glad to see our disaster plan was working.
The rain had let up a little, but the winds had gotten worse, and now there was lightning. Big, loud lightning, moving in front of the storm. Pretty soon, it would be coming down all over the place.
I couldn’t get anything on the radio; there was way too much electrical interference for that. The wind and clouds obscured the satellite radio, and the cell towers were weak at best. It was just a long, nasty drive in crappy conditions.
As much as I tried not to, I kept thinking about Tyree and what had happened. I felt bad about it. Sick, almost. I had enough distractions to push it out of my mind, but it kept creeping back in. Here was a good man, trying to help me and my family, and now he was dead because of it. And I almost was, too.
It wasn’t the first time that I’d known somebody and ended up seeing their life go off in a direction that nobody could have foreseen. In Lima, Ohio, an inch of glass separates two different worlds.
I only went to the federal prison there once, but I think the sights and smells of the place will never leave my senses. Maybe that was because I had skipped out on part of my mother’s wake to be there. I didn’t really want to be in either place.
I wasn’t sure what kind of reception I’d get from Jimmy. It had been a long time since we spoke. Almost twenty years. But I checked out the visiting procedures, and he hadn’t declined to talk to me, so I went.
As a kid, Jimmy started almost where I started, but there were differences from the beginning. The ones that were obvious when our paths were close and the steps had just started being taken. After he moved, he fell in with what they call the wrong crowd. He tried some of the stuff that he had always found daring; I heard rumors about joyriding, and shoplifting beer from a convenience store. Since a punishment didn’t ever catch up to him, he just kept taking more steps. But by then, I didn’t know him anymore; not really. Pretty soon after he moved, we stopped being friends altogether.
He just went down a different path. A very different path. The step that did him in was just the latest in a long series of bad steps, and a lot of steps he had taken before then could have been the one that landed him here. The one that did was almost a fluke.
He landed a lucky punch in a disagreement that got out of control. They were in a bar; the other guy went to hit him first. But Jimmy was agile, and he dodged it while he landed a punch in the other guy’s chest.
The only problem with that was, the guy had a bad heart. Jimmy’s punch stopped the guy’s heart cold, dropping him dead.
On the wrong side of town, with no friends in the place, things went from bad to worse. Add in a lazy lawyer and a jury that wanted to send a message, and prison was the result.
I’d say it could happen to anybody, but that would be a lie. It couldn’t just happen. It needed help. In Jimmy, it got all the help it needed.
So when I skipped out on my mother’s wake to see him at the federal prison, it was a long time coming.
We said “hi” to each other when we passed in the halls in high school; freshman year, anyway, for the first few weeks. We went to different grade schools after he moved, and when we were reunited in high school, we were barely acquaintances. Time had changed both of us. I was looking forward to college and a professional life; Jimmy wasn’t even looking forward to finishing high school. He skipped whenever he could, which was often.
Jimmy went back down to the park the day after we had the run-in with owner of the abandoned car. He was always off hunting or hiking, so nobody took too much notice, but now he was hanging around the park, waiting for the tough kids to show up.
The confrontation in the park had scared me, but it had excited Jimmy; he got a thrill from it that he wanted to taste again, and he went hunting for it.
He kind of hung around the park til he was able to work his way to the group. Then he started doing the things they were doing. They noticed.
One choice lead to another choice; one bad decision led to another bad decision.
He was excited by the prospect of that lifestyle. Of the tough kids. Doing what they wanted, when they wanted. It was a way to get recognition and be special in his own way.
He couldn’t be a better student than me, or a better artist than me, just like I could never be a better hunter or a better tree climber than Jimmy. In our own way, each of us was a little jealous of the other one. I thought that was a good thing in 10-year-old boys; that maybe they ought to look up to each other little bit.
Jimmy decided the other path was more exciting. And it was. His choices never caught up to him, so he kept going. His bad choices kept adding up, like a credit card that was never going to come due. They just didn’t matter.
Until they did.
Then he was so far down the path, there was no going back. I don’t even think he wanted to go back. He said as much that day in the prison.
The phones in the Lima federal penitentiary were accompanied by wipes, for sanitation. They needed it. The phones smelled like smoke, or worse. I looked at my old friend through the thick wall of glass at the phone stations, sat down, and picked up the phone on my side. He was different. Bigger. Tougher. I almost didn’t know what to say, to get things started and end the awkwardness, but Jimmy broke the ice for us. He lit a cigarette, took a deep draw on it, and picked up his phone.
“Been a long time,” he said flatly.
“Yeah,” I replied. There was neither happiness nor sadness in his eyes. Just a hardness that had come with years behind bars.
“I heard about your mom,” he said. “Sorry.”
There was a long pause.
“I have to wonder what you’re doing here,” he said. “Why today, of all days?”
“It seemed like a good enough time. I was going to be in town, and I didn’t want to be at my mom’s house this afternoon. Not without her in it. You can understand that, probably. Besides, I needed to ask you something.”
“After all this time.” He shook his head. “Don’t come looking for answers; prison isn’t that kind of place.”
“I’m not asking the prison. I’m asking you.”
“We are one and the same now.”
His face had aged many more years than his time here; alive, and the same, but different. A little deader. Some of the life had been taken out of him here. I guess that was the point. The face I was looking at was not the one I remembered, and it wasn’t the way I wanted to remember him going forward.
“It was hard to hear about you being here,” I said. “We were pals; I looked up to you.”
“We were kids, Danny,” Jimmy replied. “We looked up to anybody who could throw a baseball better than us.”
“That’s true, but fate gave us a lot of next-door neighbors. Fate put a lot of kids on our block. I didn’t become best friends with all of them; I became best friends with you. I’d like to think there was a reason for that.”
“Don’t start that crap. Don’t get into that.”
“Why not,” I asked.
“Because all day every day, that’s what I get to think about in here. Don’t try to slide in sideways and tell me that you feel guilty about me being in prison. My mom and my dad and my brother all came in here telling me that. They have to feel bad because they have a son and a brother in prison. They hide their faces around town now. They got tarnished with my sins. You feel bad because you think you could have stopped all this somehow, if only you’d have been a better friend?”
“I guess so,” I offered.
“Don’t be arrogant,” he spat. “You didn’t control me. You couldn’t control me. I didn’t want to be controlled.”
He took a long pull on his cigarette and looked down. “Coming in here allowed me to stop the slide.”
“What do you mean?”
“It allowed me to seal myself off from the things I saw everywhere, from the temptations. But it didn’t allow me to start rebuilding.”
Jimmy stared at me through the prison glass. The intercom phone filled his voice with static but it was the constant stream of cigarettes that had made it sound rough.
As kids, we had been a balance for each other, and once they moved away, Jimmy just lost his balance. The choices didn’t seem bad to him, just interesting.
“You know why our Mr Moretti told us in Drivers Ed class to look both ways before crossing a one way street?” he asked. “Do you remember what he said?”
“A one way street?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “You’re still supposed to look both ways, even when you go to cross a one way street. Know why?”
He took a puff.
“Because other people make mistakes. You can be doing nothing at all wrong and end up just as dead as if you’d done everything wrong.”
He exhaled, blowing his smoke toward the ceiling. He could tell I didn’t grasp his meaning.
“You aren’t looking both ways, pal,” he said. “You never did. Maybe guys like you don’t have to.”
“Guys like me?” I said. “You were a guy like me, once.”
“No,” he said, rising. “Not really, I don’t think.”
He hung up and walked off. It was his own way of exerting what little control he still had.
Maybe he did get himself thrown in jail so he could stop the path he was on, like he said. Maybe he couldn’t do it by himself so he made it happen the only way he could. I didn’t know if it was true or of it was just something he had decided to tell people, to make his prison time seem virtuous somehow.
I pounded on the glass. “Just tell me: Why?”
The guards didn’t like that. One said sternly, “Sir, please do not touch the glass.”
Jimmy looked back at me as he prepared to make his exit. He mouthed the words. “I told you why.”
He could hear me a little through the glass. “I don’t understand!” I shouted.
“Sir, control yourself or you’ll be removed,” An officer on my side of the glass warned.
Jimmy said something to the guard nearest him, who nodded. Then Jimmy came back to the glass, but remained standing. He picked up the phone.
“I had to,” he said. “I was out of control and heading full speed off a cliff. I wasn’t in charge of myself anymore.”
I couldn’t believe a man would throw his life away like that. “You got yourself locked up for twenty years because it was better than what would have happened otherwise? That’s hard to believe!”
His face took on a pained look, like he was remembering thing that were better off forgotten. “It was worse than you know, Danny. I did things. Terrible things.” He swallowed hard. “I racked up a bill I was never going to be able to pay. I got out of balance with God and the world… Coming here, I got off cheap.”
“To what?” I said, nearly shouting again. Then I lowered my voice, but not my intensity. “What kinds of things? What did you do?”
He just slowly shook his head.
“Hey, I almost had a winery owner run down me and my daughter in his the parking lot. What could be worse than that?” I smiled weakly, hoping he might offer an answer.
He moved his gaze to the floor. “The worst things you can think of.” Then he looked up at me one last time. “They locked up two of us when they put me in here, Danny.”
Then he slid the phone back into the receiver and walked off.
I didn’t know what things he could have meant, and he didn’t want me to know. They locked up the good kid I knew as a child and the bad man he had become, but whatever horrible things I might imagine that he could have done, he wanted me to know it was still worse than that. Worse than killing children? He knew I didn’t want to hear more.
At the time, he was right.
It would only be years later, after talking to a voodoo witch, a priest, and an ex-priest, that I would even begin to understand what he was talking about.
The dark angels had gotten to Jimmy. He let them. And once he did, there was no going back. I was right there at the beginning, when it all started to happen; I just didn’t let myself see it.
Why did we cut all that?
It’s extraneous. It goes on too long at a point when the story needs to keep moving. It is a distraction.
It’s not that good.
It might be rewritten into something interesting but it serves as a big un-immersing bubble, and it lessens the tension. Even shortened, it still might.
Kill your darlings, my pretties. That’s what the wicked witch should have said. That’s way scarier.
And much harder.
Okay, so: a few questions. SPOILER ALERT!
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
IF YOU ARE READING THESE OUT OF SEQUENCE, STOP HERE.
If you are reading in sequence and don’t want a spoiler, I’ll tell you when to rejoin us, but it’s gonna be awhile. LOOK FOR “SPOILER OVER – COME ON BACK” when it’s time to return, below. IF YOU ARE READING OUT OF SEQUENCE, BYE BYE! YOU ARE DONE FOR NOW WITH THIS SEGMENT.
Did you stop? Okay. Here we go: Jimmy’s role in all this is pretty much done. He served as a companion and playmate for Doug when we wanted to show stuff happening through Dougie’s life, because kids have companions. Friends at that age are what Dougie and Jimmy were – friends. They do everything together and are declare they are best friends and then one day one of them moves and they aren’t best friends anymore.
That’s a simple canvas upon which to paint a nice background for Doug. We all love the simpler times of our youth like a warm blanket because we had fewer problems then, and readers identify with that. Anybody who stayed past chapter 2 was patient, saying Hmm, there’s richness here. Let’s see where it goes. When it came back to the winery, they either liked that lop or they bailed.
But that’s style stuff.
(There weren’t fewer problems when we were kids, there were different problems. As adults we don’t worry about getting beat up at school, but we did as kids – in a semi-constant way. That threat was always possible to a small degree, and as kids when we were getting picked on, it was a constant stress. We don’t have pop quizzes as adults, we don’t fail a vocabulary test, we don’t have to worry about asking somebody to the dance or not being asked. There were stresses as a kid!)
It’s stylistic to jump back into the past the way we did, and to show things were not always what they seemed. Dougie’s idyllic life had a few major potholes he didn’t know what to do about at the time. We layered in some of Doug’s insecurities we’d want to build on later, and reflected on things Doug considered important.
STILL SPOILING! STAY AWAY!
So… at this point we know Dougie the child could see evil when he was a kid. The scene at the park shows us that. Here’s the question. I think readers will remember the “blue flash on the face” thing from the park scene. If it’s added to the guy in church, we have our pattern (our setup, remember?). NOT seeing it on the face of the cop at the winery will be okay then because Doug’s daughter sees it on the face of the old man. Dahlia tells Doug that Sophie sees it, and Doug reacts dramatically (hopefully), confirming Dahlia is right. So Doug feels sick around evil because he’s been suppressing his gift, but his daughter hasn’t suppressed hers. As a result, we don’t need Doug to see the blue flash on the cop’s face at the winery, right?
If you look in the original, you see it was laid out differently (Doug heard and saw stuff so we knew his gift was still active, or we might assume it, and that he was aware of it). In the Final, it’s scaled back (we kind of forget about his gift) so Sophie seeing the blue Jello is a bigger moment. Readers didn’t know she could do that and Doug didn’t know she could do that. We discover it together. SIDE NOTE ABOUT STAGECRAFT and DRAMA: As the writer, I thought Sophie seeing the blue flash would be awesome, so I made that happen, but as the writer I have to remember to really amp up the drama there to make sure it comes across as intensely as I want it – a moment readers don’t forget and one they love. The scene with Dahlia is wild. It’s different. And it needs to read that way, so I will look at it several times to ensure it packs that punch. Beta readers will be asked about it, believe me. So remember your stagecraft in dramatic, big reveal scenes!
So to finish the thought, Doug seeing the blue flash on the face of the cop at the winery – we cut that now, right? Tell me your thoughts on that. I think so. I think cut. And I’m going to type a little bit more here so people trying to avoid the spoiler don’t accidentally see it when they jump to the next line and rejoin us. There, that should be enough. Thanks for your patience.
SPOILER OVER – COME ON BACK
Now a quick discussion about rearranging or adding SUBPLOT stuff and SUBPLOT SETTING areas. See, at this point in the story we can have Jimmy’s reveal be bigger. Should we? He said what he said, and we get to wonder about his crimes, but we don’t really need to know what they were.
Yes, the reader gets to imagine whatever they think is awful, but it’s our job to give them a good ride.
Well, based on all we have, there are two ways to go – if we want to make it bigger.
First, we have Jimmy imply he did stuff, or we have Doug ask the way he did in the original. I almost got my child kid killed, what’s worse than that? Jimmy can say, “I did that and worse, much worse” and we’d figure: Heck, Jimmy killed kids or something; yeah, he’s evil. He could have said much more, but we leave it implied.
We decide Jimmy killed kids (or was a serial rapist or a serial murderer or whatever) the whole time and we go back and add that in.
Yeah. We have all the elements. Jimmy’s always sneaking off to be in the woods, he’s a jerk sometimes, he doesn’t scare easily at the park… We just use those details now to be sinister. He was off doing child molester stiff when he ran off into the woods. The kids at the park were afraid of him because they knew who he was, that’s why they stayed away. Stuff like that. Am I blowing your mind yet?
Remember, I said I added a hurricane to this story when I was halfway through.
You make a decision and then you say, well, IF that were the case, WHAT would have been happening all throughout the story to show that?
A hurricane – as we went through in an earlier lesson – builds and builds slowly over time. It’s on the news and stuff. So early in the story we added mentions about a tropical storm that might turn into a hurricane, then later the forecasters debated about it becoming a hurricane, then – as you’re seeing, it’s upon our characters; they’re in high winds and rough rain. We created a back story about evacuating and why people should do it, both with the trip to Orlando story and little internal thoughts Doug was having.
But that’s a lot of work, rewriting everything…
It’s not really that hard to do, you just take a separate sheet of paper or a new file and you lay out what would be happening for THAT STORY BY ITSELF, then you say, okay, we wouldn’t mention the wind and rain of a coming hurricane at the end of every paragraph, but we’d mention it… when? Well, when do you notice the weather in your life? Mainly when you go outside, and when you wake up. So when Doug has to get in his car, or go outside. When he visits other places outside his house. Father Frank wants to go outside to talk but it’s raining. When Doug leaves the church, we mention the weather again, as we did when he arrived at the church and when he sat in the fast food parking lot and called Tyree. We added it throughout to make it NOT seem like an afterthought when we needed it, but we also added other details that made it not stick out. Doug notices details so readers get used to that about him, and the weather notices are no different (and he occasionally dwells on details but if I’m a good storyteller you don’t mind).
It’s the small stuff.
If you go back and look at the overall volume of words dedicated specifically to weather up to now, it’s a few hundred words.
- He goes into the church whether it’s raining or not. Adding the gray skies is a few words.
- He gets the flyer off the windshield that reminds him of Ybor City whether it’s raining or not; the rain is a few words added to the scene.
That’s all you needed to add a hurricane, after the fact, to your story.
Now, in these later chapters, like when he went to Tyree’s office, the rain is a bigger deal and more words are devoted to it, but overall I’d say less than 2000 words are devoted to the hurricane throughout the entire MS. That’s a guess, but if its twice that, it’s still not a lot to add to a 98k story (98,000 words) to give it the added element you want.
So don’t be shy about having an awesome idea late in the game and wishing you had thought of it earlier. YOU CAN!
SIDEBAR: PLOTTING VERSUS PANTSING. This is where plotters have an advantage over pantsers – our main outlines are completely flexible so we can add what we want – in this case, I suggested creating a new mini outline, didn’t I, for a small subplot – but we always knew where things were going. If we get a better ending, we use it; if not, we go with the one we have. If we get the idea to make Jimmy a serial killer, we add it. Best of both worlds.
Now you probably wanna know about outlining. Okay, I’ll ad a segment on that, because you’re worth it.
So what would we do for Jimmy? Say he’s a serial killer. That’s kind of big addition, but he probably wouldn’t be one of those as a kid. As a kid, he might be a child molester, but to be honest, that’s so overdone these days. But using that, we’d lay in a sub story – like we did with the hurricane – that kids were being molested around the park or whatever. Dougie would be aware of it, probably assuming the “tough kids” were doing it. A few words here and there would lay it in just fine. An occasional reference. Then, you build and build over time, as the molester becomes a rapist and then a serial killer, probably giving it a name like the Middlesburg Molester or Middlesburg Murderer, and in the big reveal, Jimmy admits to Doug.
Okay, so in about 150 words in the paragraph immediately above this one we laid out an idea that came to me yesterday (I asked Allison if Jimmy needed a bigger reveal and she deferred because she’s editing something else and hasn’t read this MS again yet.) I didn’t think much about it until this morning when I sat down. Reading this, you see the stream of consciousness happening.
And in a whopping ten minutes time, we have
- an additional subplot thought out,
- a plan of how we could implement it, and
- a template to follow to do it.
It’s that easy.
That’s how you’d do it. Use this story as a template. Use it as a guide.
Now, to answer my question, no.
No big reveal for Jimmy.
At this point it might just be a big distraction. And the overall story doesn’t require it so if it’s not going to add, I think I’ll leave it out.
But really it could go either way.
I think this story has enough going on with the flashbacks that we don’t need that. So my decision is just to leave it as a mystery, kind of an itch that got scratched after all this time, but also kind of open-ended so it’s not going to serve as the big climax of the story or take away from the big climax of the story, either.
If you were ever wondering HOW writers do that amazing stuff with multiple subplots and layers, now you know. At least you know how this writer does it, and unless you think I’m just an amazing genius (I am) you can do it, too. If you can find another writer to show how they do it, learn that, too. Then come tell me. I want to learn, too, and anyone can teach me. Take good ideas from every place you can find them.
Emulate the best examples you can, so your stories are the best they can be.
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.
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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!
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