By Bob McCrillis
This is boring! Who in the heck told you that you could write? This isn’t writing, it’s just typing!
My internal editor pointed out the many deficiencies of my first twenty-five pages. He delights in bashing my fragile ego, doesn’t ever take a vacation or get laryngitis.
I had labored mightily and created a corpse.
My sentences were flat and lifeless. Paddy shook off his guilt over Phou.ng’s death and took point position, leading the rest of the squad into the bush. Oh, yeah? Guess it didn’t bother him too much, then, did it? Okay, it isn’t bad but it isn’t alive. Telling a story is not stringing together a series of events. I needed to get my reader involved but how?
Let’s try a little more action. The sight of Phuo.ng’s bleeding body caused Paddy’s stomach to roll. He was torn between horror and red lust for vengeance. The lieutenant didn’t give him time for either. His order, “Saddle up, marines. Let’s catch the bastards who did this!” overrode his young corporal’s need to grieve. Okay, it’s a little gooey but better.
Re-writing my initial twenty-five pages with more color helped. While not graceful, it was good enough. I kept going, forcing myself to add detail and emotional cues as I went. At a hundred pages, I quit.
How could it be this hard? Telling people stories had never been hard, why was writing one down so damn difficult?
I’ve told all kinds of stories to all kinds of people. One of my favorites came when I was in my twenties and fronting a band. We were just good enough to get regular gigs in bars. The founders were real musicians nurturing the hope that they’d someday get a contract and make it. The drummer, bass player, and I were guys who could fill out the stage.
We had a funny schedule. We held Saturday nights open for rock gigs where we could play original material. The younger, hipper Saturday night crowd was interested in hooking up. Standard opening lines were, “Boy, these guys suck, don’t they?” Or, “I rather listen to records – have you heard Devo’s latest?”
Our bread and butter came from a standing Friday night date with a big, old country bar with a dance floor. Why? Simple – money.
At that time, most county music was easy to play, easy to sing, and easy to remember. The audience was older couples who were happy with music to drink and dance to. I loved the old folks who came on Friday’s as much as I hated the Saturday night twits. One night, the lyrics of some country song about losing everything to drunkenness got to me. The following story rolled out of my mouth.
“I want to thank y’all for coming here tonight. You’re a great audience and we love to play for ya. Before I sing another number, I wanted to send out a thank you to Mr. Breesee down at the pawn shop. You know the one, on Delaware Ave. Like some of you know, I’ve had some trouble lately. And…well…I had to hock my guitar. Y’all know how sometimes you have to do things ya don’t wanna do but I had to make my rent. When we got this gig, I went and told Mr. Breesee about it and that I couldn’t do it without my guitar. Ya know, he let me have my guitar back on a promise that I’d bring him the money tomorrow mornin’. I’m gonna sing a tune called A Family Bible just for Mr. Breesee – I’m sure he must read his often.”
The audience would throw money! I’d made them part of a real country tragedy and they loved it!
So what? That ridiculous whopper forged a connection with the people we were playing for. I had presented myself as someone to whom they could relate. For a moment, they remembered hard times that they’d been through. It would not have had the same effect had it been about some guy I knew.
So, remembering this example of ‘show, don’t tell’, I started another re-write from the protagonist, Paddy’s, perspective.
The acid taste of the puke I was chocking back filled my mouth as I looked at her. “Phuo.ng, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…if I…I…”
“Saddle up, marines,” the LT barked. “Let’s catch the bastards who did this.”
Dewey pushed my shoulder trying to get me into line. “C’mon, bro. Nothin’ you can do for her now. We gotta go.”
Go? And leave her? She looked up at me. I know she could see me even through the blood and the pain. I took a step toward her. She tried to lift her hand.
“Meecham, take point,” the LT’s order and Phuo.ng’s need warred within me, freezing me where I stood.
“Move out!” The LT’s expectation that I would take my place at the head of our column was like a chain that dragged me forward. I slung my M-14 and moved out.
I think that version makes Meechams’s conflict real.
Try writing in first person. It might help you get to the emotions of a situation.