Once upon a time I wrote a novel worth publishing. After working on A War of Deception, my editor said, “You do know you left [character’s name] in an interrogation room with no indication what happened to him. You need to address that–and don’t take the easy way out and kill him.”
My editor was right. Killing that secondary character simply for the purpose of tying off his thread in the story was at best a trope, at worst a cliche. But here my editor was telling me to make a significant edit when I was looking forward to seeing that book in print soon. We have editors for a reason, though: They point out what you got wrong, and I’m not only talking about grammar and punctuation.
Ignore Your Editor at Your Peril
I could have ignored my editor; authors have that right, but I wanted A War of Deception to be the best it could possibly be. Rather than sit down before a blank screen and hope for inspiration, I went back through the manuscript and re-read all the scenes where this character appeared.
His fate couldn’t necessarily be a happy-ever-after. I seldom write those anyway. I could have had Mai and Alexei turn him over to the FBI–he was an “illegal” Russian spy, after all. The FBI could have used him for a later spy swap, but once handed over to the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, his fate would be sealed. They’d kill him for me.
But no, that was still the easy way out.
In A War of Deception, which takes place in early 2001, this character’s cover was as a graduate student at Harvard, but on the weekends he tutored disadvantaged high school kids in a poor section of Boston. Take it from me as a former history teacher, getting high schoolers who are not history geeks interested in history is tough. My character, however, used rap music, changing the lyrics to historical events or even writing his own songs.
Now, I had written this character into the rough draft of A War of Deception in 2010, five years before Hamilton premiered, but as I was trying to figure out how to tie off this character, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece was reaching its heyday on Broadway.
And it came to me: a high school history teacher whose students live in poverty but who are inspired to like history and stay in school by his teaching methods.
The Famous What If?
Okay, how did I get a captured Russian spy from a detention cell in the U.S. to a high school in Georgia? But since I had the “what if I make him a history teacher” down pat, it flowed from there.
Mai Fisher offers him a deal: Take a new identity in the U.S. Witness Protection Program, consent to constant surveillance, and never contact one of the other characters again–on pain of death or deportation. The character knows what his fate would be back in Russia, and he consents.
I write the chapter, figure out where to insert it in the flow of the novel’s denouement, and send it off to the editor.
This time, she says, “This is good. You tied off his thread perfectly, but now I want to know what happens to him ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. Not in this book, of course. That wouldn’t fit. Maybe a short story?”
Another what if?
The Reader/Book Magnet
I’d recently been introduced to the concept of a book or reader magnet–a short work based on characters or the plot of an about-to-be published book. I decided this short story concept my editor suggested would be a perfect teaser for the upcoming novel.
In late 2016, as I sent out ARCs of A War of Deception off to authors for blurbs, I had a draft of the short story, except it wasn’t a short story anymore. At 10,000+ words, it was now a novelette. At that time, I was planning on publishing A War of Deception in the summer of 2017–an appeal to the beach-read market. I’d publish the novelette in the spring, maybe closer to Memorial Day. A perfect teaser.
And then life happened.
I had a significant health scare, to the point where I decided to focus on prepping A War of Deception for a moved-up publication date. That decision was solidified when my doctor said that scary word, “surgery.”
“Here’s the thing, Doc,” I replied. “I have a novel I want… No, I need for it to debut before surgery–just in case.”
Now, yes, I had books out but not a novel. A first novel is something beyond special to a writer. We don’t call ’em “book babies” for nothing. A War of Deception debuted on May 26, 2017. I had a book event that evening at a local book store, with punch and a cake with the cover printed on it. Five days later I had heart surgery.
Put aside amid all the drama was the novelette.
A Face in the Crowd
After a few weeks of recovery, I opened the novelette again and almost decided not to pursue it. The time had passed for a reader magnet, but…
It could be a “mini-sequel.”
I brought that dangling character from A War of Deception forward fifteen years in a novelette entitled A Face in the Crowd, where he teaches history in a high school in Americus, Georgia. His students have raised the money for a field trip to New York City for a performance of Hamilton. The only problem is, by his witness protection agreement, he can’t go to New York City, at all. He approaches the man with whom he has to check in periodically and asks for a chance, swearing that nothing will happen.
Lo and behold, he gets permission to go, and on spring break, he and his students hop on a bus for New York; however, a medical emergency sends him to a hospital ER and an unexpected reunion with the person he’d agreed to never see again.
And, maybe there’s a happy-ever-after.
A Face in the Crowd eBook is on sale for all of March for 99 cents–AND from 3/17 through 3/19 it’s FREE.