James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Revision Decisions: LET THE GLORY PASS AWAY

Backstory: I completed the first draft of last summer’s new novel, LET THE GLORY PASS AWAY, on August 21, 2012, after which it lay resting and untouched for nearly five months. With the turning of the calendar’s page and the dawning of a new year (and with 20 pages of notes and ideas at hand), January 2013 is now the time to give this mainstream comedy-drama of a novel its first revision. After two weeks of work and a slight re-working of the first hundred or so pages, I can report to my readers past, current, and future that I feel this piece to be my most mature and entertaining piece yet. It’s a wonderful way to get the writing year going.

The logline and semi-synopsis:

LET THE GLORY PASS AWAY (Mainstream, ~85,000 words)

Cort Beauchamp, a middle-aged, blocked writer with complex personal issues, is charged with persuading a reclusive, damaged rock star, Duncan Devereaux, to accept a monument from their shared hometown. When the death of Cort’s mentor, the community’s arts maven, also forces the writer to become an inadvertent spokesman in the war over arts funding, he finds his formerly staid but unsatisfying life turned upside down, in ways both thrilling and heartbreaking.

A comedy-drama about creativity, finding true love, and healing from the tragedies that follow us, LET THE GLORY PASS AWAY is designed as a ‘light, literary Woody Allen movie,’ with a number of characters and threads who in their way each explore aspects not only of the creative renaissance underway in their small southern city, but also the human condition in terms of romantic travails, loss, grief, and artistic responsibility—to oneself, to the art, and to the audience.

So, from the above we can image the tone of this piece—there’s a romantic subplot that resolves in a surprising manner, and Cort, far from the blocked writer at the beginning, will take to his new role in the community, all of which dovetails neatly into breaking through his writer’s block and confronting, for the last time, the demons of his past.

Cort Beauchamp, who makes a cameo in an early scene from DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW, is a writer (ha—they say write what you know, don’t they?) who needs a story to tell, only he doesn’t realize that his own story, intertwined as it is with the lives of the artists and lovers and friends in his circle, can be seen as compelling as anything he could make up.

As for its setting, my very-real hometown, like the narrator this fictional Columbia, SC, a hundred-fifty years since being one of the only American cities to have been destroyed as an act of war—one in vindictive redemption for what had been an entire nation’s sins—finds itself still searching for an identity and a brand. The writer at the heart of the story dreams of writing an historical romance set in the aftermath of the burning of Columbia, but has always stopped because of the similarities to another well-known piece of American literature—Gone With the Wind. As the story progresses, however, he moves away from the idea of writing about the past to instead writing the present, in a novel he begins called CREATIVE CLASS.

Meanwhile, as Cort grows a friendship with motormouth sound & light company owner Rick Wragg and his mildly-autistic son Cadence, falls in lust with lounge singer Marcy Baumbach, and sorts through his feelings about Marcy’s best friend Opal D’Alessandro—a former lover—our writer-narrator will find a real kinship with the fallen rock star, though at a great personal cost.

The revision so far: after two weeks, I’ve revised the first 125 pages of what had been a 300 page first draft, and despite cutting some material, including the first five pages (more on this in a moment), in fleshing out the characters and the narrative the work has grown by 25 pages, all to the good. I’m finding at this stage of the game in my writing career that initial drafts are in much more serviceable shape than such a document might have been a few years ago, when I continued to grapple with control over the various elements of the narrative. Now, structure, character, and dialogue all seem to already possess a reasonable flow, and I’ve yet to find a scene ‘in the wrong place’, only material that could stand to be shortened, cut altogether, or in some cases, fleshed out a bit. It’s the right mix a writer should expect to encounter, I think, in a manuscript that’s more or less working.

As for cutting the opening: anyone who’s attended any number of writer’s workshops may remember an instructor giving what seems an odd piece of advice—when revising a story or first chapter of a novel, the scribe may find that true opening resides a little farther into the text than the writer initially believed. Sure, it’s a function of following the rule of in medias res, but it’s also because, like a reader, the writer must ‘get into’ the story, sometimes by beginning with what’s really backstory.

LTGPA is no stranger to this phenomenon, and after revising what I found to be a clever and witty opening setup scene—all telling, no showing, introducing the characters and the situation and the writer’s status—I felt so pleased with myself that I printed up the pages and ran in to read them to my wife, first reader, and clear-eyed pointer-outer of narrative problems.

Halfway through reading, however, I already felt the chill winds not so much from her, but from me: this stuff has to go. This can’t be the opening. Nobody will get through this. I kept reading in as enthusiastic a manner as I could, but the writing was on the wall.

“It’s…okay,” she said. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Yeah. I don’t know. This is well-written, but it’s all telling. I need to know all this stuff, but does the reader?”

“Probably not—not yet.”

So I went back to the laptop, looked at the next page, read the scene…and said to myself, why, looky here: this is the right opening—Cort being approached by his mentor, Leora Wood-Cobb, about sitting on the Duncan Devereaux Committee, and a glimpse into his troubled writing life. Perfect. An opening that drops us into an active scene (well, if two people eating Cobb salads can be considered active—it ain’t an action thriller), and that establishes character and conflict. Boom.

In any case, an experience like this only underscores the wisdom that we can glean from those who’ve gone before, and writers and editors at workshops have all run into this sort of seemingly-universal truth regarding openings. Listen to them. It might involve killing some darlings, but it’s in service not only of the artistic success of the piece, but of making it sellable to industry professionals who know what makes for a grabber of a beginning versus what feels like pre-writing masquerading as a clever opening. I had some really lovely turns of phrase in those five pages, and maybe they’ll make their way into the text in some other fashion, but rest assured, when I made the decision to cut, I did so without hesitation.

Besides, cutting isn’t cutting, not if you save all your drafts. Many times I’ve gone back into cut material and fished out some bit of business or line of dialogue that I could repurpose elsewhere. Unless you’re the kind of writer who likes to symbolically cast out the demons of the past by burning pages and erasing files, you can always go back and re-use bits and pieces of stuff, as I may yet with the portions of the cut opening of LTGPA.

In my next post about the revision of this novel, I’ll discuss a major plot change that I am only just now beginning to encounter in the text: the alteration of an important relationship between two supporting characters, and that will force rewriting of many scenes in the next hundred pages. It won’t be as complicated as it sounds…I hope.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

4 Replies

Leave a Reply