“The Boys will be Home by Christmas”

There is a phrase that will be familiar to pretty much anyone who has ever taken a history class—ever:

“The boys will be home by Christmas.”

I spent the better part of twenty minutes trying to find its origin, but wasn’t able to come up with anything definitive.  It seems George Washington used it in 1775.  It was also stated toward the beginning of the US Civil War.  It pops up again from the heads of state in several countries in reference to World War I.  In the end, I suppose its provenance isn’t as important as its meaning:

This is going to be a short conflict.  Nothing to worry about.  We’ll be in and out.

Of course that is never the case.  Each of the conflicts referenced above lasted years, indicating that the idea the boys would be home by Christmas was born of bravado, unrealistic self-confidence, and/or an ignorance of the resilience of the opposing side.  Either that or the men who uttered the words on so many occasions across history were simply delusional.  Were they merely trying to convince themselves?  Did they know they were setting forth toward a long, painful engagement?  Did the false hope of brevity give them the courage to begin—to engage in the first place?

It sure sounds a lot nicer than:

“They boys’ll be over there for years.  Better settle in.”

I only bring it up because—well—

Its been nearly two months since I put up a new post here.  A lot of that is by design.  After I finished the first draft of TEORG I resolved to take the entire month of February off from writing.  The consensus amongst writers is that there needs to be a break between drafts—a chance to breathe and get a little distance from the work.  It allows a writer to come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and to edit with a certain, necessary detachment.  It was hard at first.  I was on such a high from actually finishing the damned thing that I wanted to dive right back in.  But I took the time, and in the end it was great.

Stephen King recommends about six weeks, but I didn’t feel like I could wait that long.  I gave it the month, and then on Leap Day I opened up the writing software again and decided to have at it.

I said, foolishly, that I should probably be able to finish the second draft by the end of March.  I knew as I was setting that goal that it was ambitious, but look!  It couldn’t be that bad, right?  Essentially Chapters One through Twelve are already on their second draft—I did a ton of rewriting before posting them here.  Its only Chapters Thirteen through Twenty-Three that are really raw.  It should be a breeze, I told myself.  Then, in the back of my mind I decided that my back-up deadline would be Patriots Day.  For those of you who don’t live in Massachusetts, thats the Monday closest to April 19, and commemorates the beginning of the War for Independence on April 19, 1775.

It was a goal born of bravado, unrealistic self-confidence, and an ignorance of the resilience of large swaths of lackluster writing.

I’m just now about halfway through Chapter Five.  If I can complete Chapter Six by the end of next week then I think a truly reasonable goal would be to finish this draft by the end of June.  I didn’t want it to take that long, but if its more beautiful in the end—if its my best writing—then I guess time doesn’t matter.  This summer I’ll have been working of TEORG for seven years?  What difference does another month or two make, right?

And its not as if I haven’t had some little victories.  Here are a few little excerpts I’ve rewritten that I am particularly pleased with:

ORIGINAL:

He looked out the windows.  High snowbanks at the side of the road reflected the red of the traffic light above while all around barren tree branches rose, silhouetted against yet another stale orange winter sky.  The music fit the setting with a near supernatural precision.

The night pressed in around him.  “I love this.”  Ryan said, quietly.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard something like this before.”

REWRITTEN:

He looked out the windows.  With almost supernatural precision, the music fit the setting—the snowbanks reflecting the red of the traffic light above, and the silhouettes of tree branches against yet another stale orange winter sky.  The music was cold and deep—it was winter and it was night.  It was everything he could see and feel and all of it fused together into a single, flawless moment.

“I love this.”  Ryan said.  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard something like this before.”

A lot of the rewrite process is supposed to be about taking things out, omitting needless words, etc.  But this was a scene I felt particularly compelled to get exactly right, so I lengthened it slightly.  Ryan is on his way to the soon-to-be disastrous Valentine’s Day party with Darren.  He needs a perfect moment—an instant of pure bliss—to contrast with how devastated he feels at the end of the chapter.

Here’s another example.

ORIGINAL:

Ryan disliked the opening shift and was grateful he only had to do it once a week.  His lifeguard didn’t show up this morning so he found himself stranded supervising the entire olympic sized pool on his own and by 6:45 he was fighting to keep his eyes open as he sat sloppily in an elevated lifeguard chair.  After one particularly dramatic nod forward he shook himself awake fearing the next time he might actually fall off the chair.  He sighed.  No other staff was scheduled until 8:30.  Relief was nowhere in sight.

Minutes passed, and the hands on the large clock over the diving well crept closer to 7:00.  Ryan’s head was nodding more frequently now as the sky began to imperceptibly lighten through the skylights above.  His eyelids were heavy, and suddenly closing, and then—

“It looks like I got here just in time!”

REWRITTEN:

The opening shift was a particular kind of hell—a long slow march out of the gloomy depths of morning where every advance of the minute hand on the clock was a hard-won battle against heavy eyelids.  He simply wasn’t cut out for it—for being awake that early—so he was grateful he only had to do it once a week.  His lifeguard didn’t show up, and repeated calls from the office telephone remained unanswered.

With a weary resolution he climbed up into an elevated lifeguard chair as the first bright-eyed swimmer grinned and nodded upon her exit from the locker room.  Her face beamed as she waved and dove happily into the pool, breaking the water’s still, glassy surface.  The gutters of the pool—dry all night—hissed and roared as their thirst was slaked, and the gentle, rhythmic percussion of freestyle arms cutting through the water met Ryan’s ears like a lullaby.  No other staff was scheduled until 8:30, so he settled in for a long morning of solitude.

By 6:45 he was quickly losing the fight to keep his eyes open.  After one particularly dramatic nod forward he shook himself awake, fearing the next time he might actually fall out of the chair.  He sighed, it was nearly two hours before anyone else would arrive to take over.  Relief was nowhere in sight.

Minutes passed, and the hands on the large clock over the diving well crept closer to 7:00.  His head was nodding more frequently now as the sky began to imperceptibly lighten through the skylights above.  His eyelids were leaden, and suddenly closing, and then—

“It looks like I got here just in time!”

Expanding this scene was important to me, because my principal criticism of my work is that periods in-between dialogue can often read like sterile, laundry lists of events.  When I am reading (which I’m doing voraciously at the moment, but thats a topic for a later post) it is passages like this that really light up my imagination.  They remind me of the beauty of language.  The original gets the point across and advances the story quickly, but I love the idea of the pool gutters being thirsty and the rhythm of a swimmer’s arms being soothing like a lullaby.  I believe little pockets of extra imagery like this are worth it.  Of course I can’t overdo it.  Who remembers how bogged down in imagery the beginning of Chapter One was?

Last example.  This time its about cutting things out:

ORIGINAL:

“You’ll love this place.  Just give it some time.  Should we start bringing things up?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a ton of trips ahead of us and you still need to paint at Elizabeth Street.”

“How many bags do you think you can carry at once?” Ryan asked, with a wink.

“Two,” Steven Replied, flatly.  “Someday, Mister Gregori, I’m going to help you move using boxes, and not Wal-Mart bags.”

Ryan laughed.  Steven was the first friend Ryan made after leaving his parents’ house the previous summer.  It started as a romantic interest—at least on Steven’s end—but quickly evolved into a solid friendship.  They were uncannily similar, especially in their lack of confidence when it came to dating.  In November Ryan convinced him to help with the move from Asbury Drive.  Steven arrived to find everything packed in plastic shopping bags and vowed to never help Ryan move again.

“You have to give me points for consistency, right?”  Ryan flashed his widest smile.

Steven scowled and began walking toward the apartment door.  “Isn’t Darren supposed to be here?  This would go a lot faster with another set of hands.”

“I don’t know.”  Ryan was quiet for a moment.  “He said he would be—I talked to him twice yesterday.”

“He’s been acting odd lately.”  Steven shook his head.  “Come on, do you want to call him from the car once we get everything up?  You can use my phone.”

REWRITTEN:

“You’ll love this place.” Ryan laughed as Steven leaned against the wall scowling.  He was tall and thin, with straight dark hair.  Beneath thick eyebrows his brooding eyes darted around the room with obvious disapproval.  He looked very serious, and it made Ryan laugh even more.  “Just give it some time.  Should we start bringing things up?”

“Yeah, we’ve got a ton of trips ahead of us and you still need to paint at Elizabeth Street.”  He paused.  “Hey, isn’t Darren supposed to be here?  This would go a lot faster with another set of hands.”

“Yes—I don’t know.”  Ryan was quiet for a moment.  “He said he would be—I talked to him twice yesterday.”

“He’s been acting odd lately.”  Steven shook his head.  “Come on, do you want to call him from the car once we get everything up?  You can use my phone.”

There are a few things I love about this rewrite.  First of all, I made it all the way through the first draft of TEORG without ever giving a physical description of Steven.  Tall, thin, dark hair isn’t much, but its more than enough.  It gives readers an idea at least.

Secondly, in the original I tried to fit a lot of backstory into a single paragraph.  Steven wasn’t originally going to be a major character, so I was content to just get it out of the way.  Of course it never would have stood anyways because its just a clumsy paragraph.  But seeing who Steven becomes to Ryan, its important I build his back story more slowly, and smooshed into a single paragraph like an afterthought isn’t going to work.

Finally, moving in plastic bags?  Okay, thats something that I did several times in real life.  This excerpt is from Chapter Two when I still thought I was writing a memoir.  It is an extraneous detail that has absolutely no impact on the story.  Hitting the delete key here was intensely satisfying.

So yeah, thats where I stand right now.  Four and a half chapters down, eighteen and a half to go!

I’ll be posting more frequently again.  Let me know what you think of the rewrites, and if you finished the first draft and have any feedback, I’d love to hear it.  Thanks as always for reading!

Comments

  1. Brian - March 18, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    Great job! Love the rewrites.

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