Sometimes You Get It Right

One question people often ask me when looking at my books’ subject matter is, “Were you a spy?”

Sometimes, I joke and reply, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Most of the time I tell the truth. No, I’m not nor ever have been a spy. I merely write about them.

The reaction to that is usually, “Well, then, how do you know what to write about?” or “How do you know you’ve gotten it right?”

I don’t know that one hundred percent. What I do know is with a background as an historian, I’m a great researcher, and I work as hard as I possibly can to “get it right.”

What if I Don’t Get it Right?

That plagues me. I’ve written a novel about two spies who struggle to balance their personal lives with their work. That part is real. The mechanics of espionage is what I don’t have personal experience with beyond cheesy novels and B-movies. For myself, I like real world espionage, as found in John Le Carre or Alan Furst’s novels, over James Bond and Jason Bourne.

I’ve read nonfiction works on the history of espionage and tradecraft, the memoirs of Soviet defectors, and declassified reports of actual operations. I borrow from that for my fiction, but I keep it as authentic as I can. What helps is having acquaintances from a certain counterintelligence agency who’ll take a look at what I’ve written and tell me honestly what’s authentic and what’s not. Even then, I take some dramatic license.

Was I ready for a real spy to read A War of Deception?

Nope. Never. No way.

Almost Like a Covert Op

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an outdoor book festival in central Virginia, hawking books and making a couple of sales. At a break in the activity I look up and who should be standing there but one of those acquaintances mentioned above.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m buying one of your books,” was the reply.

I had to bite my lips to keep myself from talking the buyer out of it. Money was exchanged–man, I wish it could have been a dead drop.

“Would you like for me to sign it and make it out to you?” I asked.

“Make it out to [opposite gender name],” was the reply.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“A retired spy I think will like this.”

Once again, I reminded myself a sale is a sale and what said acquaintance does with a purchased book is no concern of mine. I wrote the transcription.

And said acquaintance’s departure was as quiet and unobtrusive as the arrival. I rather felt as if this had all been some version of a covert op, but, then, I do have an overactive imagination. Help, I’m a writer.

Then, it hit me.

Oh, s**t, a real spy was going to read my book about spies. Here comes a bad review, or at the least a list of what I got wrong. Because I’m me, I braced myself for the worst.

Validation

I’d put the incident completely out of mind, though yesterday when I noticed A War of Deception had a new review on Amazon, I had a momentary hesitation before I looked at it. Whew, it was posted by my niece.

Then, I got a message on my Facebook Author Page from said acquaintance who’d bought a copy. Here it is, I thought, the list of what I got wrong.

Instead, I read:

“This weekend I brought A War of Deception to my friend who retired from the Intelligence Community (where she actually DID espionage-related activities for many years). She just wrote to me saying that she couldn’t put the book down. High praise, indeed, for a thrilling tale.”

After about the fifth time I read it, I believed it. A real spy liked my book.

At first, I couldn’t describe what that meant to me. One, it meant my research skills are undiminished. Two, I’d done a good job of making the characters, whom I’ve worked on for decades, believable. Three, I got it right.

And not only was this a real (retired) spy, but it was a woman–just like one of my protagonists.

I got it right. And. That. Feels. Good.

Oh, The Horror!

The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is on!

If you recall, this is a two-month challenge involving three rounds (if you’re lucky) where  contestants write short stories from prompts provided by the contest. The top three from each heat of the first round go on to the second, and the same for the third and final round. I signed up back in January to participate, and as the deadline for the first set of prompts (midnight February 7) neared, I went from anticipation to panic. What prompts would I get? Would I actually be able to come up with something? What if I flop?

I didn’t wait up until midnight to get my prompts. I got a good night’s sleep then planned on checking email first thing on Saturday morning. However, a writer friend of mine, who is also participating, messaged me first thing in the morning, terrified about her prompts. Gulp. I looked.

Genre: Horror. Okay, not so bad. I’d been terrified of getting YA or Romance, neither of which I have much experience in nor enjoy.

Subject: Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Again, not bad. There’s been a debate locally about such products and whether they should be labelled as such, so I knew there was fodder here for a decent horror story.

Character: A prisoner. Hmmm. More possibilities.

However, I didn’t sit down to write right away. I had to travel to Charlottesville, VA, for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Virginia Writers Club; however, the prompts kept tickling at me the whole drive over. I was a little early in arriving, so I pulled out the notebook I go nowhere without and jotted down this opening paragraph:

“I always figured it went down like this: one of those impersonal government buildings–you know the kind, all concrete, no glass–a conference room, a table occupied by faceless bureaucrats, a couple of guys in lab coats, maybe with names like Krishnamurtichatterjee or Schwartzenschikelgruber. They sat around the table reading a thick report, maybe watched a PowerPoint or a Prezi. The guys were from USDA, FDA, maybe Justice or U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Prisons, or some such.”

Yeah, promising, but where to go from there?

All throughout the meeting, as I knew it would, the prompts kept “talking” to me, and I jotted more notes at breaks and at lunch. By the time I left for home, I had a fully formed idea.

A really grotesque, fully formed idea. Even then I let it stew most of the day on Sunday; then, I sat down and started to write. It was all going smoothly until I got a text telling me I was late for my three-year-old granddaughter’s cake and ice cream birthday party. Oops! I hit save, dashed to the car, and took care of family business. I had to remind myself not to scarf down cake and ice cream and dash home, that Mamo had to be there for the Emster.

I got home, sat right down again, and resumed the story. When I next looked at the clock, it was almost 2300, and I had written 2,498 words. (The story can’t exceed 2,500 words.) I read it over, noted the spots needing work, and got to the end. I liked it. It needed work, but I liked it.

For the first round we have eight days to upload the story, and I’m grateful for the time. I’m letting the draft sit for Monday and Tuesday; then, I’ll pick it up again on Wednesday, with a goal of having it ready to upload on Friday. Yes, I’m grateful because if I make it to Round 2 I only have five days. Should I make it to Round 3, I only have twenty-four hours to upload a story. And you can’t pre-write because you don’t know what the prompts will be.

It’s certainly a challenge–so, aptly named, NYC Midnight–but each story gets feedback, and that’s what most interests me. Two of my writer friends from Tinker Mountain are also participating, so we’re supporting each other by listening to each other vent on Facebook Messenger. It would be the coolest of cool if all three of us made it to Round 3.

 

The Waiting Game

In a culture of instant gratification, being a writer can stretch your patience pretty thin. I don’t know which is worse: getting a rejection within days (or hours) of submitting something or waiting and wondering for weeks (or months).

I’ve submitted to several contests and literary journals in the past year, most of which had deadlines far in the future and notification times even further out. I never got a formal rejection notification for any of the journals, and the only way I knew I hadn’t been accepted was when the list of winners or the issue of the journal itself came out. For example, there’s one anthology I submitted a story to in late summer last year; the deadline was December 31, and the notification deadline is in March. I know for a fact it got more than 600 submissions, and they all have to be read and evaluated. Intellectually, as a former magazine editor, I understand that; emotionally, it’s gut-wrenching.

Then, there’s the manuscript which an agent has been considering (as in, whether to represent it or not) for about six weeks. I came to this agent in a roundabout way–through a workshop instructor, and the agent is looking at the MS as a favor to him. I know he probably has lots on his plate. Again, there’s the dichotomy in the whole head/heart thing, but I’m getting twitchy.

Having several things out at the same time puts me in a turmoil: there are all those chances to wonder if I’m good enough, if my writing is worthy. Every day, I get these inspiring writer quotes on Facebook, and I lap them up, every one. But, I still worry that I’m fooling myself.

I mean, I’m not in it for the money, because, as we all know, the publishing business is in an even worse turmoil than I am. Advances are almost nonexistent, royalties are at best minimal (no wonder people self-publish), and even if you’re lucky enough to get a publishing contract, you still end up having to hawk your work like a bad used-car salesperson. There’s a reason why I never lasted long in retail.

I write because it’s in my nature to do so. It has been since I was in third or fourth grade. I made everything into a story, and, trust me, as brilliant as my story-telling might have been, it doesn’t work when you explain to your mother that strange men came into the house and broke her favorite vase, did nothing else, and left. Yes, a fine line between fiction and lying to cover the fact you picked the stupid vase up when you knew you weren’t supposed to, but, hey, what could go wrong?

As human beings, we live for validation, especially when you lived a childhood where that was not forthcoming because your mother wanted nothing to do with you and your father doled out praise so you’d work harder, get better grades, etc. When I post my Friday Fictioneers or Flash! Friday stories and the comments come in, each one makes me feel good, makes me glad to call myself a writer, gives me validation. However, it’s pretty instant feedback–same day or within a few days, built-in writing community; no waiting.

In the last four years I’ve had three stories published, one about to be published, and one which came in third in a contest. There’s a weekly contest I enter, which I’ve won three times. Some days I marvel at that; others, I think it pretty scant. I’m one of the lucky people who doesn’t let that stop her from writing. Hell, I’m going to write even if my writers group and my family are the only ones who will read what I’ve written.

In the meantime, I’ll wait.