Welcome to the first SBYF Memory Writing workshop.  I’ll be guiding you here in blue.

For years now we’ve been wondering how we might take what happens inside a closed SBYF workshop and share it with everyone.  It’s been a long, tricky process, since it’s not easy to bottle up what we do.  The first step was building a custom platform so that anyone, anywhere can create Memory Postcards.  That was our big step last year.

But that’s not enough.  We don’t want to just throw open the doors and say “good luck.”  Occasionally, I’m going to be reading and critiquing a work-in-progress from a member of the SBYF writing community and posting some feedback.

First step: read this week’s submission all the way through.  

 

“Untitled” by Giancarlo, Age 21
Writing for: Richard, Age Not Given

The man came in with a black suit bag thrown over his right shoulder.  With him the sweet April air seemed to follow. He asked for Ken, my boss, who was out.  I was the only one in the office today, I told him.  He looked down at his watch then back up at me.  He said he had something for Ken.  He laid the suit bag on the counter between us.  He told me he wasn’t interested in being apart of the war machine anymore.  I asked him why.  He replied.

“Well what do you know?”.

I guess not much.  He told me his stories of fighting as a soldier for the United States.  His face was cold and stoic.  No emotion seemed to pour from his eyes as he deconstructed these stories of war to me.  His eyes would light up in and out of these stories and his indifferent facial expressions evolved into something assertive and absolute.  His brows fell toward his nose and his lips would thin.  There was some kind of fury behind his eyes and in his voice now. Though his rage seemed to subside as fast as it came to.  He retreated to a more reserved voice. He asked about me about my volunteering at Students for Non-violence at such a young age.  It almost sounded like he envied me.

He slowly marched over to the door.  He looked back and told me he was leaving town, and I make sure to let Ken know he stopped by.  I nodded in agreement.  With one foot out the door he turned his head toward me once more and whispered a bizarre question.

“Richard, would it make sense to kill the president?”

I sat in silence. I couldn’t register why this man would think of such a question.  Why would anyone want to kill our president? Before I could collect an answer he was already out the door.

I looked down at the bag in front of me. The top collar of some military uniform poked out at the top of the zipper.  I secretly zipped open the bag, just in case Ken were to come in.  The bag parted open and the beige uniform shined through. The suit was littered with medals and baubles, all colorful and unknown to me.  There was a patch above the upper right breast with the man’s name.  The small black patch with bright and bold embroidered letters read.

L.H.OSWALD

CONTEXT: Richard volunteered for Students for non-violence when he was 12 years old.  One day a former soldier, Lee Harvey Oswald came in for a visit.

_____________________________
Wow.  We’ve got a chilling story here of an “ordinary” boy’s encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald.  Our goal is to cut out everything that’s not essential so what’s left will be vivid and haunting.  

Overall, it’s too long.  We’re talking about POSTCARDS here, so we have to be as concise as possible.  As a general rule, you can usually cut about 30% of your first draft, easily.  That 30% isn’t wasted effort however; it’s the price of getting to the good stuff.   

Let’s look at the same scene again with cold eyes.

The man came in with a black suit bag thrown over his right shoulder.  With him the sweet April air seemed to follow.

The weather/season is a go-to scene setter.  For 99% of these Memory Postcards, however, the weather is totally irrelevant to the story, meaning it moves the reader sideways when you need to be moving them forward.  GENERAL RULE (with a tip of the cap to Elmore Leonard): Weather is boring.  Descriptions of sunlight are boring.  Raindrops trickling down a window pane are boring.  Your great-grandchildren won’t care if it was sunny or cloudy out.  They care about the characters.

He asked for Ken, my boss, who was out.  I told him I was the only one in the office today, I told him.  He looked down at his watch then back up at me.  He said he had something for Ken.  He laid the suit bag on the counter between us.  He told me he wasn’t interested in being apart of the war machine anymore.  I asked him why.  He replied.

“Well what do you know?”.

One of your primary narrative tools is dialogue.  Dialogue is as close as a reader can get to the experience; you (the writer) vanish, and it’s just the characters speaking directly.   Cool, right?  There are times when you want to compress dialogue, as you’ve done here, summarizing it.  But here, since Oswald is your primary character, and the line is so unusual and jarring, I say let him talk.

“I’m not interested in being part of the war machine anymore.”

I asked him why.

“Well, what do you know?”

See the difference?

I guess not much.  He told me his stories of fighting as a soldier for the United States.His face was cold and stoic.  No emotion seemed to pour from his eyes as he deconstructed these stories of war to me.  His eyes would light up in and out of these stories and his indifferent facial expressions evolved into something assertive and absolute.  His brows fell toward his nose and his lips would stretch thin.  There was some kind of fury behind his eyes and in his voice now. Though his rage seemed to subside as fast as it came to.  He retreated to a more reserved voice. He asked about me about my volunteering at Students for Non-violence at such a young age.  It almost sounded like he envied me.

I like the instinct to slow down and “zoom in” here (this is the most important paragraph), but this feels repetitive.  The first time I read it, I found myself scanning, becoming detached…

It’s okay though!  In a first draft, you almost always say the same thing multiple times.  It’s natural; you’re figuring it out as you go.  The trick is to go back and leave only the best stuff.  Repetition and vagueness are by far the most common mistakes of bad writing.  

He slowly marched over to the door.

Can you “slowly march?”  He marched?  Moped?  Crawled?  Cartwheeled?  You can save yourself a lot of adverbs (words ending in “-ly”) by just selecting a more precise verb.  General rule: if writing is the creation of an experience in someone else’s head (let’s agree to think of it that way) then your verbs are the difference between a blurry, out-of-focus scene and crystal-clear HD.

He looked back and told me he was leaving town, and I make sure to let Ken know he stopped by.  I nodded in agreement.  With one foot out the door he turned back and asked his head toward me once more and whispered a bizarre question.

“Richard, would it make sense to kill the president?”

I sat in silence. I couldn’t register why this man would think of such a question.  

Same thing.  Repetition.  See?

Why would anyone want to kill our president? Before I could collect an answer he was already out the door.

I looked down at the bag in front of me. The top collar of some military a beige military uniform poked out at the top of the zipper.  I secretlyzipped open After he’d gone, I unzipped the bag, just in case Ken were to come in.  The bag parted open and the  A beige military uniform shined through. The uniform was littered with medals and baubles, all colorful and unknown to me.  There was a small black patch above the upper right breast with the man’s name.  The small black patch with bright and bold embroidered letters read.

L.H.OSWALD

Final notes:

All the cutting leaves you room to expand your characterization of Oswald in the “His face was cold and stoic” paragraph.  That’s what essential here; that’s what makes this memory unique from all other; thus, that’s where the narrative should slow down and “zoom in.”

But overall, what’s left is a clearer, more engaging version of the memory.  Thanks for sharing, Giancarlo!   You’ve got a great story here.  

Everyone else: now it’s your turn.  

ASSIGNMENT #1 – CRACK OPEN YOUR PHOTO ALBUM.  Choose a photo from your personal archive and write your own Memory Postcard.  

1) It should be written in the first person “I…”
2) It should be 250-500 words.  You can address it to someone, but cut out all the “Hi, how are you…” and get right into the scene.
3) To apply something we learned here, let’s say you must have at least one line of dialogue.

Keep in mind that all these notes are for REVISION.  ON the first pass, just have fun and let it flow.  I know you’re just starting out so do your best.  You’ll get better with each tutorial, and each postcard you write.  

Write Your Memory Postcard Now

 

 


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