And the Revising Goes On and On and…

The writing project which has obsessed me for the past six weeks to two months is a rewrite/revision of the first book in a series I’ve planned entitled A Perfect Hatred. If you go to my brand new author website to the Works in Progress tab, you can read a synopsis of each book in the series.

This is a project I’ve worked on since 1997, when I happened to be in Oklahoma City when the trial for Timothy McVeigh ended in Denver. I became intrigued by the rabid hatred of this man, perhaps well-deserved for his horrific act, but I wondered if there were more to the story. As I researched, I saw that his story of how he came to be the Oklahoma City Bomber would be a great vehicle to discuss, through fiction, a political movement I’ve long believed to be a clear and present danger to the United States.

Of course, this draft novel started out as one book, a collection of widely disconnected scenes in reality. As I researched and added my fictional version of real events and provided the transitions between scenes, it swelled to nearly 200,000 words. I split it into two books, did more revising and more writing, and ended up with nearly half a million words over three books. Too much. Way, way too much.

A writer friend told me not to worry about it because people don’t have a concept of page numbers in e-books, but, no, it was way too bloated. About three years ago, after having another friend, who is a PhD candidate in English, read it, I began another revision, starting with book one, which I pared down to about 140,000 words. Overall among the three books, I probably cut nearly 300 pages.

And it still wasn’t enough.

I further split it into four books, against the advice of the same writer friend who said length doesn’t matter in an e-book. Then, I put it aside for a full year, didn’t look at any of the four books. Earlier this year, I decided it was time to start again with a total rewrite. Instead of importing the Word file of Book One into Scrivener and editing, I split the screen on my MacBook, with the Word file on one side and a brand new Scrivener file on the other, and I started rewriting. Or maybe just writing.

A few days in, and the results weren’t promising. I had pared and cut and condensed a lot, but I’d also expanded some scenes to the point where, when I reached a particular point in the story, I’d ended up adding more than a thousand words overall.

That didn’t bode well. I went back over what I’d added. No, that was necessary because it filled a hole, but I had to resolve to be a tad more vicious in killing my darlings. Now, at two chapters away from the end, I’ve cut whole chapters, reduced lengthy sections of expository dialogue to summaries, and even done the Virginia Woolf “and then time passed” thing. It’s probably going to come in at around 115,000 words. Better, but there may be room for more cutting.

The issue is real espionage involves a lot of researching, a lot of briefings, and a lot of meetings. Even in light of all its flaws in stretching the truth, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is a prime example of how it works: Sometimes it takes years, and the needed intelligence comes in by accident or coincidence. Alan Furst’s books are rich in historical detail as well as the painstaking process of being a spy and not getting caught. Some people don’t like getting bogged down in those details, but I feel you do real spies a disservice if you don’t show what it’s really like.

In real life you don’t go to M for a five-minute explanation of the mission over a glass of Scotch. You don’t go to Q for a collection of implausible gadgets. You get a data-dump. As one special forces guy I know once said to me, “You read every scrap of paper you get because you never know which bit of information will save your life.”

In my drive to make my spies authentic, I’m in the tough place of making that mundane information-gathering lifestyle interesting while conforming to the vague publication industry standard that 100,000-plus words are too much.

Give up? Never. Carry on? Of course. Books two, three, and four need to lose the bloat, too.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 11

In just one more week, the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge will be three months old. Time flies when you’re having fun.

In a past story, I delved into how Alexei Bukharin came to The Directorate (“Desert Nights and Weeping Flowers“), so I thought it was time to get a glimpse into why Mai Fisher chose her life’s work. This story also gave me an opportunity to explain why espionage intrigues me–the casting aside of morals and norms to assure a country’s integrity may seem a contradiction in terms, but it’s beyond interesting to learn whether a newly minted spy can handle these “shades of gray.”

So, initially, I was going to name the story “Shades of Gray,” for reasons that are obvious when you read it, but I don’t want to imply any connection with a current “book” that’s all the rage for some reason I don’t quite grasp, Fifty Shades of Gray. The story does end up being the longest (at about 4,300 words) of all the offerings in “Spy Flash” and probably doesn’t count as flash fiction at all. Oh well.

Here’s the Week 11 roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: (l. to r.) building/hotel; reading; footprint; credit card; die/roll of the die; fork in the road/at a crossroads; reaching/out of reach; moon; and house.

Here’s the link to “Family Matters.” If you don’t see the link, then hover your cursor over the “Spy Flash” tab above and select the story from the drop-down list.

Why don’t you give the story cubes challenge a try? Take a look at the picture above, write a story of any length, then post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

A Shameless Plug

If you’re enjoying the flash fiction adventures of U.N. spies Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin written for Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge (Click on the Spy Flash tab above.), you’ll probably love this first collection of short stories about them:

Blood Vengeance is a collection of linked short stories for sale as an eBook at Amazon, and it’s only $3.99! I can even sign your e-copy through Kindlegraph.com.

Here’s what a recent reviewer of Blood Vengeance had to say:

“This is as real and intense as it gets. The stories mix real events with fictional characters in a way that makes everything extremely believable. The fact that those events can be researched on the web, where explicit pictures show the extent of the horror, is hair-raising.

“The characters’ expertise takes them to world hotspots. They get the job done while trying to lead normal lives, which is a lost battle. But they try very hard, and live very intensely. I enjoyed their struggles immensely and hope to read more about their undercover work. A great find.”

Give Blood Vengeance a try. You may like it, and then I won’t have to resort to these shameless, buy-my-book-please plugs. ;-)

Politics Wednesday – Bad Apples

You’re on a business trip, well away from home, on a different continent even. The country you’re in offers amenities rarely available at home. You’re with a group of your buds. You have an intense job, adrenaline levels spike all the time, and your job has long been a male bastion of bravado and camaraderie.

What would it hurt to go to a strip club? Who would know? And it’s cheap; you easily hide the cost on your expense account–you get a certain amount for “incidentals,” and you don’t have to explain what they are.

At the strip club, the drinks are cheap, too, and there are plenty of young, willing women. You’re a prime, male specimen, after all. You keep yourself in shape; you work out. Of course you attract their attention. You buy them and you drinks, a lot of drinks, and, well, it’s inevitable that you head back to your hotel with them. It doesn’t matter who suggested it; it’s a chance for a wild, uncomplicated ride. Besides, who’s going to find out? You don’t even care when you return to the hotel that you have to register the women as guests, per local law. You’re special. You’re elite–the elite of the elite with a hugely important job.

It doesn’t really matter when you find out the women want to be paid afterwards. Prostitution is legal in this country, but when one of the women wants more money because there were two of you and one of her, you balk. Why would a whore think she’s worth more money just because she’s serviced two men?

Because prostitution is legal in this country, the woman goes to the police. She’s a business woman, and she’s just been cheated. The policeman comes to your room, demanding entry. You refuse. Don’t the cops know who you are? Local police are beneath you, the elite ones.

But the local cops aren’t so dumb. They check the hotel register and see what country you’re from, then they go to that embassy and let them know what happens. Now, all hell breaks loose. You’ve compromised not just yourself, but your work, the security of your country, and possibly the security of your head of state.

You didn’t stop to think any one of those women could have been a honey-trap to lure you into a compromising situation her handlers could blackmail you with. Her handlers could be anyone from that foreign country’s intelligence service to narco-terrorists to al Qaeda. You didn’t stop to think that in a few weeks you might get a copy of a video in the mail or by e-mail, showing just what you and a strange woman did. The accompanying message might mention your wife and children or your family or your boss and how they’d feel upon seeing this. You want this to go away, just, you know, pass along a code word or two, a secure frequency, where a government official is going to be at a specific time.

This is an old espionage ploy and dates beyond the Cold War or even Mata Hari. The honey trap was a favorite of Soviet intelligence entities, and though the U.S. intelligence services may deny they did the same, they did.

What I’ve outlined above is not the plot for my next book–though, it’s tempting. It’s something that’s under investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Army CID. The people being investigated are members of the uniformed section of the Secret Service and the U.S. Army who were in Colombia to make certain the President’s visit had no security issues. Yet, at the last minute, when the dispute over $40 to $60 became public, those agents and soldiers had to be removed and replaced. Never a good security situation.

If what is alleged is true, I hope the book gets thrown at all the guilty. I hope asses are fired and careers ruined. The sexual aspect of it is not what’s unacceptable to me–just disappointing, but who really cares what consenting adults do or pay for on their own dimes? What bothers me is the potential bullet–perhaps literal–that we dodged. If those Secret Service agents and soldiers did what’s being investigated, they put the President in danger.

And it shouldn’t matter whom that President is. Secret Service agents protect the holder of the office, regardless of political party. (However, if I really wanted to write a good book about it, I’d posit that a right-wing cabal was behind it all, but that would just be fiction. Right?)

From pissing on Taliban corpses, to burning Q’urans, to posing for pictures with the body parts of suicide bombers, more than a decade of war and fear of the next act of terrorism have ripped sensibility from our military and our law enforcement. How else do you explain spying on female Muslim college students five states away from your jurisdiction or leaving your post in Afghanistan to murder civilians in a village in the dark of night?

It’s proper to put our military and police on pedestals–when they deserve it–but, just as with most of life, some in the military and in the police are bad apples who spoil the whole barrel. Other soldiers and police need to distance themselves from those bad apples, or they will lose our respect. In fact, remember respect is earned, and donning a uniform doesn’t automatically imbue it. Right actions gain respect. Right now, my respect for the Secret Service is qualified, as it probably is for most Americans.

It’ll take a lot for that respect to return.