Sunday, June 22, 2014

Words (3)

I was so concerned with not running long on my last blog that I left a worthwhile hint off my essay on shortening "The Leather Man." Go figure! So, I'll begin this one with one last bit of advice:

The second stratagem that helped me take out nearly 47,000 words _ about 35 percent of what I copyrighted to start with _ was to re-edit every conversation in the book. It was apparent almost from the start that my characters were talking too much, both to themselves and each other. I found long, long stream-of-consciousness segments in some chapters and conversations that took up entire pages elsewhere. Most of it seemed to be compelling storytelling when I did the initial writing, but, faced with my self-imposed mandate to shorten things, I noticed that some passages _ not all _ were unfolding upon themselves like a 100-foot garden hose in the backyard of a Las Vegas tract home. "The Leather Man" wasn't "Ulysses," I realized, and I certainly wasn't James Joyce, even though we both were fond of Irish humor and history.

Once I got down to applying take-out-the-fat techniques I'd learned over decades of shortening wire-service copy, it was easy to see what could be cut. In just one example from a conversation referred to in my second blog, Sam Moody, Canyon City's police chief, is trying to get prisoner Quintus LeClaire to open up about his experiences in Vietnam. LeClaire finally admits to having taken part in the first pitched battle between U.S. Forces and the Viet Cong. As originally written, he tells Moody:
The first time I got hit was during a big op they called Starlite, the first major ground battle of the war. The First Marines were headquartered in Chu Lai _ ninety clicks south of Da Nang, if that rings a bell. There's a coral reef, barely submerged, and you can walk out and look down and see fish all over the place, every color in the spectrum. It looks like a paint factory exploded underwater." He glanced at Moody again and returned to the subject. "The Zips forced our hand by moving a whole regiment into a nearby village, so we had to hit them first.
Cute simile, a description of Chu Lai as informative as a travel brochure, and a segment full of details that no combat-stressed ex-Marine is going to impart to an interrogator. In the final manuscript, I managed to insert an historical detail and still bring the narrative closer to reality. It came out this way:
I went ashore at Da Nang, if you heard of that?" He glanced at Moody again and returned to the subject. "We're looking for cover and nobody's there but reporters and flower children. Then, a few months later, we had a real battle, Operation Starlite. It was another amphibious landing, only this time a whole VC regiment was waiting.
I could give a dozen other examples, but they were basically more of the same.

Two of the late changes I made just months ago were to delete three-quarters of a chapter in the book's midsection and then an entire chapter in the final third. The gutted chapter, set during football training camp, contained paragraphs of detail on scrimmages, which are preparation for the real games to come. They had to go to leave room for the Wranglers' upset of a team from the highest echelon of college football. Then close to 3,000 words came out when I deleted what had been Chapter 43. It was cut because _ although it introduced most of the varsity basketball team _ it did nothing to advance the real story of the novel, which is neither football nor basketball, but the Leather Man's attempts to cope with the crushing blows life seems determined to deal him.


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