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.
On Wednesday of last week, those of us who participate in Friday Fictioneers got our photo prompt for our 100-word stories for Friday. On Thursday evening, I drafted and edited a story and scheduled it through WordPress to publish at 0600 on Friday morning. (You can find the story, “Status Update,” by clicking on the Friday Fictioneers tab above and selecting it from the drop-down list.)
It is absolute and utter coincidence that the story, “Status Update,” is about a terrorist who is preparing a bomb to blow up a school, and it’s a poetic justice story–the terrorist blows himself up instead. I like poetic justice stories, and I like writing stories where bad people get their comeuppance. Again, this idea came into my head on Thursday, and I wrote it on Thursday, at least twenty-four hours before the horrible events in Newtown, Connecticut.
Over the weekend, several readers of this blog suggested I take the story down, and, frankly, on Friday, I did consider just that, mainly because the story involved an act of terror at a school.
Then, I remembered I don’t let murderers and terrorists dictate my behavior, and I certainly don’t let them make me censor myself.
I was a federal employee during both the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. On both occasions, we were sent home–for a day only. The following day we were back at work, doing the people’s business. That was especially important after the Oklahoma City bombing because a federal building had been attacked.
Had we not gone back to work as soon as possible after Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh and the anti-government types would have won; they would have shut the government down, which is what they wanted. Had we not gone back to work on September 12, 2001, al Qaeda would have won a battle, and that was not acceptable. Believe me, with the Pentagon smoldering a few miles away, it was difficult, as a supervisor, to explain to people why they had to be at work the day after, but they understood the simple concept of not letting the bad guys win.
With the cursor hovering over the “Delete” icon for that Friday Fictioneers story on Friday afternoon, I remembered that feeling of carrying on, of not letting the bad guys win. I realized if I took that story down, I’d be hiding a possibility people needed to know.
People exist who want to blow up schools because they think teachers are union thugs or the curriculum isn’t biblical enough or because they believe children are kept from praying. They’re out there right now, ranting and raving, plotting and planning, but most of them are too cowardly, thank goodness, to follow through. They are an unfortunate reality we have to face, and I’ll write more about this on my political blog on Wednesday.
For this, my writing blog, I’ll just say, no, I wasn’t prescient. Because of research, I know how people like this think, and it’s not fun or pleasant. Further, I’d never glorify people like the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in my writing, but I will make certain in my stories the bad guys get justice, poetic or otherwise.
No, I won’t stop writing about characters who carry guns to protect themselves or to achieve that justice, and, no, I won’t stop writing about people who do bad things and the bad things they do. I will keep writing about getting justice for the oppressed, the injured, the murdered.
Even in real life when justice seems elusive, in fiction you can provide it, and you can get closure. And the bad guys will always lose.