Here’s a post I wrote originally for the lovely and talented Marni Graff, who runs the Auntie M Writes Blog – don’t tell her I borrowed this, okay? It’s about a subject I loathe… cutting down your manuscript:
You would think that cutting your manuscript was relatively easy. I mean, compared to getting the words down on paper in the first place, cutting what’s already there should be a snap. Didn’t Michelangelo say airily, “I just took a chisel and cut away everything that wasn’t David”?
Well, that sounds simple enough. You drop an extraneous phrase here, a flabby sentence there—and suddenly your manuscript is ten pages shorter and a million percent better, and you’re all ready for the next step. Nothing to it, right?
I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do it until I began a much-needed revision this summer on FORWARD TO CAMELOT, the 2003 time-travel thriller I co-authored with Kevin Finn. We had both loved the book as written, but with a 50th-anniversary edition about to be published (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which is the subject of our novel), we felt it was a good time to fix some of the usage and grammar errors that had slipped by us the first time, and especially to tweak a couple of small historical points that had bothered me for ten years.
That was the intention. Make sure the quotation marks are facing the right way, check the history and turn in the book to our publisher.
Then Kevin and I began to look at what we had, and we realized there were other issues we wanted to address. What started as a simple fix became a much more complex, line-by-line scrutiny, and what we were eventually looking for were the words, sentences and even paragraphs we could cut to bring down the length. Our publisher, Drake Valley Press, explained gently that a book as long as the original version (almost 500 printed pages) would cost so much that we might not see any profit on it at all in paperback, and it could affect eBook sales as well. But if we could significantly reduce the word count, we would do a lot better. And besides, the narrative really did have its flabby moments. Keep the story, by all means—just make it, you know, a lot shorter and simpler.
I began to feel as though I had an “Everything Must Go!” sign on my computer screen.
While I began the historical fixes, Kevin began streamlining the manuscript, pulling out sections he felt could safely be cut while maintaining the pace, the plot and the flavor of the original. While we both resisted cutting entire scenes—we cut only one full scene, and that one only reluctantly—there were certain scenes that we also knew we wanted to rewrite; we hadn’t got them right in 2003 and we had another chance now.
But when I finally saw Kevin’s long, meticulous, detailed (and did I mention long?) document listing all the changes—which ran about 30 pages—I almost cried. Then began the bargain-with-your-partner phone calls: “Look, we have to keep the hunt scene at the end.”
“But it’s ten pages; that’s way too long.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll cut it way down, as long as I can keep the gist of it.”
“You can have the gist. Just get rid of the gristle!”
Thus began the slash-and-burn portion of the rewrite, where I began incorporating Kevin’s notes. (“Did you realize you write everything twice?” he asked me. “If you could cut it down to one telling, we could really cut through this manuscript.” By this time the word ‘cut’ or ‘slash’ made me queasy.)
We argued, and we both agreed to accept less than what we wanted. Kevin let me keep almost all the scenes intact, as far as intent; I swallowed a good deal of bile and pride and slashed away at anything that wasn’t strictly necessary.
Within a couple of weeks we’d brought down the 488-page original manuscript to a lean-and-mean 382 pages, cutting 100 pages (25,000 words) in the process. It was still the longest book either of us had ever written, but the word count was at least in the ballpark.
Did I enjoy the process? Losing all those threads of story, no. But on some level I did like examining each paragraph and finding a way to cut straight to the heart of what we were trying to say. It’s a process writers need to go through all the time—understand what we want to say and say it as effectively—and as simply—as we can. We can never afford to forget that part of our process, especially writers who become very successful, and whose editors then seem to somehow mysteriously evaporate (or more likely, are intimidated or overpowered by the author at that point).
I know I’ll do the same process from now on: I’ll look for stuff I’ve said twice and hack away at it, along with everything else the reader doesn’t absolutely need to know.
And maybe that snob Michelangelo was right: when you finish slashing with your machete, what you end up with looks a lot less like a flabby ‘before’ picture and a lot more like that glistening David in marble.
That alone makes it worthwhile.
Good luck with your own machete …
Here is another post dealing with the Kennedy assassination, the subject of my latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (with Kevin Finn). As this is the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I will write one blog post about it every week through November, as I did in October. (See the Archives for more.) Here’s today’s:
Last week I mentioned five troubling facts about the JFK assassination, some of which few people actually know.
Here are five more, which certainly indicate that there was more going on than one lone-nut assassin with an agenda, who got off 3 quick shots and somehow luckily managed to fatally wound the President while also badly wounding Governor John Connally and nicking a bystander named James Tague:
1) Immediately after the assassination, on the direct order of new President Lyndon Johnson, the special Lincoln limousine in which Kennedy rode–the crime scene itself–was washed down, fixed up and refitted, including the windshield (which supposedly had been cracked by a bullet). To say this is bizarre, in the normal course of crime-scene investigations, is an understatement. That limousine probably contained more clues to how many shots had been fired and where they had come from, than any single piece of evidence we had. Yet it was completely sterilized and all clues were destroyed, on the orders of the new president. (Try that with a crime scene yourself some time–and see if you don’t land a jail sentence.)
2) Governor John Connally, who was nearly killed himself on that day, and who was experienced with gunfire, insisted to the very end of his life that he had not been hit by the same bullet that hit Kennedy. This is critically important, because in order for the Warren Commission’s thesis of three shots fired by Oswald–all that could be fired by one man in six seconds–to hold up, one bullet had to account for seven wounds in two men. According to the WC, the first bullet hit the president in the back; the second caused multiple wounds to Kennedy and Connally (then emerged on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital looking almost pristine, something no one who understands gunfire would believe for a second); the third was the head shot that blew Kennedy’s head off. So the second bullet had to account for all the other wounds. There was no other way for the Warren Commission thesis to work.
Except Governor Connally insisted that it didn’t happen–and he was in a position to know. He heard the shot that hit Kennedy–and he knew that the one that broke his wrist a second later was a different shot. BTW, Connally died with some of the original bullet fragments still in his knee. Researchers have wanted those fragments extracted and weighed to compare it with ‘the magic bullet’, because if the weight of the material in Connally’s knee plus the weight of C-399 (the magic bullet) add up to MORE than the weight of the original bullet, it would be another sure proof of conspiracy.
BTW, another irony of history is that the man who invented the single-bullet theory was a junior counsel on the Warren Commission. His name was Arlen Specter, and yes, that’s the same Arlen Specter who was the U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania for so many years. Amazing where these people end up, isn’t it?
3) There were no fingerprints on the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that the Warren Commission claim was used by Oswald to shoot the president. Okay, that’s understandable; the dumbest assassin would wipe the weapon clean, right? The rifle was sent to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. on the evening of November 22nd, and it was subjected to rigorous tests. Nothing. Afterward, the rifle was returned to the Dallas police. Only after that did Dallas PD show off a palm print!
Consider that at the time, the FBI lab was the state-of-the-art facility for fingerprint testing. And this was the crime of the century–the murder of a sitting president. If there was something to be found, they were going to find it at the FBI lab.
But they didn’t. Yet a couple of days later, the Dallas Police Department (who had not covered themselves with glory in the way they handled the assassination, including the murder of Oswald), discovers a palm print that matches Oswald’s? Could it have been taken in the morgue? The funeral director at the funeral home that handled Oswald’s body said they had noticed black dirt under his fingernails after they had prepared his body. How did it get there? And could it have been from the fingerprinting process?
4) A female witness who gave a deposition to the Warren Commission was disturbed about the alteration of her statement as printed in the Warren Commission Exhibits, and she discussed it with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison when he began to investigate the case in 1966. She had seen a man in a pickup truck parked with its wheels up on the curb on Elm Street, in Dealey Plaza, a couple of hours before the shooting. The day after, she went to police headquarters and positively identified him from photos they showed her. The man she’d picked out was Jack Ruby, a full day before he killed Oswald on national television. But though she signed a statement to that effect, when her statement was re-printed in the WC Exhibits, it was altered to say that she had not been able to identify the man she’d seen in the pickup truck, and the signature on that statement was not hers. In addition, there was a notary signature and stamp on the statement, though she told Garrison there had not been a notary present during her questioning at all.
How could Oswald, who by that time had been dead for three years, possibly be responsible for this? And if he wasn’t, where does the lone-assassin theory fit now?
5) The autopsy of the president was done badly, sloppily and in a crowded room where the doctors (none of them experienced in dealing with wounds made by gunfire) were not the ones in charge. They were told what to do and how far to probe, in some cases not even checking for how far a bullet had penetrated into the body. After the autopsy was complete and the report written a couple of days later, one of the autopsy doctors burned his notes of the procedure. This is not done ordinarily, or innocently. Notes of autopsy cases are typically saved, to be consulted if necessary for court testimony or in case of any questions raised afterward.
Even more interesting, the doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital who attended the dying president all saw the same thing: a huge, gaping wound at the back of the president’s head, which would indicate a bullet entering from the right front and traveling to the back of the head–ie, the gaping wound was an exit wound. Yet at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where the autopsy was done late in the evening of the 22nd, the doctors there saw something completely different; the wound at the back of the head was small, indicating it was an entrance wound; the wound at the front of the head was much bigger.
There has been much thoughtful discussion over the years whether or not this indicated that some sort of surgery had been done to the president’s head before the autopsy officially began, and orderlies at Bethesda have described seeing two different types of coffins altogether being rolled in from two different hospital entrances, and the president’s body being wrapped two different ways.
Are you uneasy yet?
These are just a sprinkling of facts that indicate something much greater was going on than just a disaffected young man seizing a moment of glory. At the least, it indicates a serious effort by some very powerful entity to change our perception of what happened in Dallas. And where you have a change of perception, you have cover-up. And where ou have cover-up … you have conspiracy.
OK. Let’s get down to meat and potatoes. We’ve talked about the events of November 22, 1963 and the rest of that tragic weekend, and we’ve talked about conspiracy and how many Americans simply refuse to believe in it.
However, and paradoxically, consider these additional facts (and yes, they’re all documented; you can look them up):
1) When Oliver Stone’s superb film JFK came out in late 1991, it made a great impact on audiences. Polls taken at the time showed that SEVENTY PERCENT of the American public believed there had been a conspiracy in his death. The movie made such an impression that it led to Stone’s testifying in front of the US Congress, and the subsequent creation of the Assassination Records and Review Board, an act Bill Clinton signed into law. The purpose of the AARB was to review still-classified files and determine whether it was possible to de-classify them at this point in time. Hundreds of files were released as a result, some of which had explosive information in them. (But you had to know enough about the case to understand their significance.)
2) Among the declassified files reviewed by documentary filmmakers Ray and Mary LaFontaine were some that became the basis for their book OSWALD TALKED, a much under-rated (at least according to Amazon) book that presents evidence that’s crucial to the discussion of the assassination. They focused much attention on the gun-running operation in and around Dallas that Kevin Finn and I talk so much about in FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION. Why is this so important? BECAUSE THE GUNRUNNING WAS KEY TO UNDERSTANDING WHAT ELSE WAS GOING ON IN DALLAS AT THE TIME OF KENNEDY’S DEATH. The LaFontaines contend that while Oswald was locked in a Dallas Police jail cell, he knew a gunrunner who was also there, and had been arrested days before (an event we used as a plot point in CAMELOT). Why would lone-nut crazy Oswald know a gunrunner, when he was a $1.25/hour stock boy at the Texas School Book Depository? Doesn’t anyone find that strange?
3) On Thursday morning, November 21st, Dallas PD Officer J.D. Tippit (remember him? Shot in Oak Cliff, a Dallas suburb, 45 minutes after the president was shot–the second shooting Oswald was accused of?) was having breakfast in a Dallas coffee shop when a young patron at the counter made a commotion. He insisted his eggs hadn’t been cooked right, and he was so loud and obnoxious that everyone in the shop noticed him (including, presumably, the alert Dallas PD officer). That patron was Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? The man accused of killing Tippit (whom supposedly he had never met) was in the same coffee shop only 24 hours before the shooting? Can you spell ‘coincidence’? (The explanation I’ve heard–which makes a lot of sense–is that Oswald made the scene deliberately as a way to identify himself to Tippit, as is often done between intelligence agents. Consider that the next day–the 22nd–Oswald went home to his rooming house in Oak Cliff after the assassination, picked up his revolver and a jacket and headed out, but his landlady, Mrs. Earline Roberts, saw a police car pull up outside her rooming house and heard the sound of car horn.) There has been speculation that this was a prearranged signal. If so, was Tippit involved?
4) There are a troubling number of unusual or untimely deaths of people who had some connection or were witnesses to the assassination. They are too numerous to discuss here individually. The best source on this is Richard Belzer and David Wayne’s new book HIT LIST, an in-depth investigation of many of the ‘unexplained’ deaths from 1963 onward, including a very good chapter on J.D. Tippit, who has received relatively little attention in the research community. Because Belzer and Wayne go thoroughly into the details of each case, it’s possible to get a troubling overview that leaves little doubt that these people’s connection to the assassination or the relationship between Oswald and Jack Ruby is what caused their deaths to be ‘untimely’. (The mathematical odds against this number of people dying in such a relatively short time are astronomical.)
5) The Warren Commission Report and Exhibits, which total 27 volumes (the one-volume Report and 26 volumes of exhibits), show a strange schizophrenia: though the Report categorically declares Oswald the lone-nut assassin, there are numerous instances in the exhibits where witness testimony indicates clearly that there had to be more than one shooter. Consider the WC testimony of Bobby Hargis, Dallas motorcycle cop, who was riding alongside the presidential limo at the moment of the head shot, directly to the left of Mrs. Kennedy. He was struck on the right side of his helmet with the president’s blood and brains so hard that for a minute he thought he had been shot. Think about this–Hargis was hit on the right side of his helmet. And he was facing forward (check the film footage) at the time. So the blood and debris were flying at him from his right. There’s only one way this could happen–if the shot itself came from the grassy knoll.
The laws of physics don’t change, not even for the president of the United States. Hargis’s testimony alone proves there was a gunman firing from the grassy knoll, which means at least two gunmen, which equals conspiracy. (Norman Mailer tried hard to get around this–I kid you not–by saying that it was perfectly possible there were two lone nuts, each intent on killing the president in Dealey Plaza, but they didn’t know each other or know that the other would be there. I’d love to know what the mathematicians would say about the odds against that.)
Mull over those facts, and we’ll meet back here next week.
A writer friend recently asked me to critique the first couple of chapters of her new novel. As she’s a very good up-and-coming writer, and she’s written wonderful reviews for my novels on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads, I agreed.
I was immediately interested in the subject matter–a young girl worshipping her older brother and grieving over his death–but it surprised me that the writer, whose work was usually a lightning-quick read, had written two chapters (almost 9.000 words) and I was struggling with it.
I knew before I’d finished the chapters, and I hung my head in shame, because it’s one of my own greatest faults as well:
WAY too much back story, WAY too much unnecessary detail, and not nearly enough happening in the present time.
You’d be surprised how fast that kills a reader’s interest.
This might not sound like such a sin–after all, in the opening chapters, you HAVE to tell the reader a little about your characters and describe them, and get into a little of who they are, and what they want, and where they came from, and … watch out. That’s a slippery slope.
What’s really necessary is to introduce your story in a way that’s inherently dramatic–ie, something is happening right now, and we jump right into the middle of it. How much do we need to know to understand it? How many details can you leave out?
To me, here’s the rule of thumb: TELL THE READER ONLY WHAT’S NECESSARY TO KNOW IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
And then–open with a truly dramatic situation that the readers can get involved with right away. You will hook them, they will want to know more, and I promise, they will stick around even when you tuck in bits of NECESSARY exposition here and there (and be careful; only a little bit at a time–giving exposition is like feeding a goldfish–give it too much at a time and it’ll die.)
Too many writers think if they get into tons of back story, they can disguise (or in some cases not even notice) that their opening chapters have NO DRAMATIC MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER.
In the first chapter you introduce and describe your characters (and it’s always better to describe a character through the actions they take and the words they speak, rather than giving physical description and back story). You can tell the reader REAMS about your hero if, as in a very famous instance, you show him not wanting to whitewash a fence on a Saturday morning but figuring out a clever way to get others to do it for him–and pay for the privilege. (Thanks, Mark Twain.) This is the famous school of SHOW, DON’T TELL, and one I heartily subscribe to. But that’s action, and it’s happening in the present time. We’ll like that, and we’ll stay with it.
Almost my favorite novel opening comes from Dick Francis’s THE DANGER: “There was a godawful cock-up in Bologna.”
There is NO WAY I was going to miss reading the next sentence, and paragraph, as Francis talked about the kidnapping negotiation that had gone wrong and now there were innocent lives at stake in a high-rise apartment building and the hero stood frustrated on the street. You want to talk about compelling? He did NOT get into the hero’s angst or back story, except to say that he was there as a kidnap negotiator. He saved ALL the other details (except a couple about the kidnap victim and the previous attempts at ransom) for later in the story. I devoured it, and it was grand.
I also cannot stress enough that while you will undoubtedly, as you live with your characters and your story, come up with a million different ways of showing (or telling) details about them, you need to rein in that impulse as much as you can. You might say that as long as you ‘save’ them for a later chapter, it’s okay to tell us everything you’ve ever thought of about that character.
Wrong. You NEVER need to say it (think of it as a first date–where would you be if you blurted out everything you were thinking to someone you hardly knew?) If there are 12 instances in which you intended to show your character’s greed, drop 10 of them and use the best two in the story. Your readers will appreciate it and will not feel as though they’re being bludgeoned with a heavy stick to get your point.
This summer, while Kevin Finn and I were doing the final edit on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I found myself confronted with my own prose again, for the first time in 10 years, and while we did correct a few minor historical points (and I feel better for it!), the majority of the time was spent first trimming, then chopping, whole sections of the book. Kevin pointed out that I had a bad habit of saying everything twice, and I did: I realized I said something first to announce it, second, to set it up for a dramatic moment. This was obviously not necessary, and I found a lot of places to cut down–WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE DRAMA OR THE FLAVOR OF THE BOOK.
Believe me, writers can be among the most self-indulgent people on earth, and it’s terrible to realize how much we love the look of our words on the page. (We can be like those awful public speakers who go on, and on, and on.) Minimize it and use the strongest examples. Say little about your characters and let their words and actions (and what others say about them) tell us who they are. That’s good storytelling.
Of course, you will always find those who insist that the ‘inner monologue’ is beautiful and is the crux of a ‘literary’ novel, in which action is not nearly as important as thought. To me, a literary novel is usually one that has pretensions to being high-blown and arty, but in reality is just a story written by an author who can’t handle simple storytelling. To me, simple storytelling–getting the hero up the tree and figuring out how to get him down–is all there is, and the hardest thing in the world to do well. That’s what I’m always aiming it, and I hope you are, too. The world needs more good storytellers, and far fewer ‘literary’ artists.
But that is a post for another day …
In my first two blogs about the JFK assassination, commemorating the 50th anniversary of that event and the new release of my novel (co-authored with Kevin Finn), FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I talked about the circumstances surrounding November 22, 1963, which many, many people are not really aware of. They know the president was shot and killed in a Dallas motorcade; they know Oswald was arrested and then shot on live television; they know a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby was wrestled to the ground afterward and that there couldn’t be the slightest doubt that he’d done it, as he’d committed the act in full view of the TV cameras and the seventy Dallas cops (among others) in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters.
But since 50 years have elapsed since then, the details have blurred for a lot of people. I think knowing the details is important, because it gives you a chance to draw your own conclusions. Given only a blurry outline, it’s easy to believe whatever half-cocked theory other people come up with.
This has been a source of continuing irritation for me, for years. I don’t expect the average person to have anywhere near the interest I do in this subject, or be conversant with some of the more arcane topics surrounding it: “Operation Paperclip”, “Alpha 66”, “S-179”, “George de Morenschildt”. (If you’re curious, Operation Paperclip was the secret government operation to transport the top Nazi scientists to the US after WWII ended, to use their expertise to develop rockets of our own; Alpha 66 was the violent anti-Castro group dedicated to overthrowing Castro and establishing a new government in Cuba; S-179 was Lee Oswald’s FBI informant number; and George de Morenschildt was the petroleum expert from a White Russian background (also accused of being a Nazi sympathizer in WWII) who was Oswald’s closest friend–an odd friend for a supposedly uneducated, belligerent whining loser to have, especially as de Morenschildt was also about 20 years older than Oswald. Yeah, I knew you wanted to know. Secretly.)
My point is that if you don’t really know much about the assassination, and you’re told that a blue-ribbon commission appointed by none other than President Lyndon Baines Johnson (JFK’s successor) thoroughly studied the entire event, and after talking to scores of witnesses and with the help of hundreds of exhibits, autopsy photos, x-rays, films and expert advice in many fields, they conclusively decided it had to be Oswald alone … well, you might just believe it.
Because all those smart people couldn’t have gotten that much wrong, could they? And they were acting in our best interests, weren’t they? And they had only the purest motives, right? And they had all the evidence they could possibly need, right there at their fingertips, didn’t they?
Well–uh–yes, they could have gotten it wrong. And they might not have been acting in our best interests, and not with pure motives, and plenty of evidence they should have seen they never did. And when it was finally published as the 26 volumes of exhibits of the Warren Commission Report (making this a 27-volume set that would take up an entire bookshelf in the average home), some of that evidence had been strangely twisted and re-arranged to fit the Commission’s conclusion that 24-year-old ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone nut. (In the last page of the Report, summarizing the evidence, they admit they couldn’t really come up with a motive for Oswald, but attributed that to the fact that he was really SO crazy they couldn’t explain it. I’m not kidding.)
Allen Dulles, the ex-CIA chief, was fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (and yet this guy, who probably hated JFK, sat on the Commission to study his death? Seriously? Can you spell ‘conflict of interest’???) Dulles, being the charming cynic that he was, said it really wasn’t important what the Warren Commission Report said; the American public didn’t read, anyway.
He was wrong about that. Turns out quite a few Americans, troubled by the events of November 1963, took on quite a bit of reading, from 1963 onward, to try to get at what seemed to be a more plausible truth than what we were told. In fact, virtually all the hard evidence we have that has helped us put at least a sketchy outline together of the events surrounding the assassination, come from the relentless pursuit of fact and truth of private citizens who just couldn’t leave this subject alone. The people supporting the Warren Commission Report — and there are legions of them still, poor things — say that these private citizens still studying these arcane and puzzling bits of history are ‘conspiracy nuts’.
Why not? When you can’t make something go away, ridicule it. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
But that doesn’t make the facts of the case any more palatable to anyone who knows them. It’s the ones who DON’T know them, and who want to say indignantly, “How can you say your government is lying to you?”, that give the most trouble. They don’t want to be bothered by facts, and they aren’t guided by logic, so no matter how clear it is that MORE THAN ONE GUN was fired in Dealey Plaza, they don’t want to hear it.
I have a theory that partially explains this. I think of all the nationalities in the world, Americans are perhaps least likely to accept a conspiracy as real, because it’s so against our national character. Generally speaking, we live in the sunlight. We’re open people. Open borders between states. Open about our lives (for the most part) with our families, friends, neighbors. We rush to post our latest doings (and photos/videos of same) on Facebook and tweet about them endlessly.
Conspiracies are dark, quiet things that fester in the shadows. They’re built on whispers and secrets, on people who melt into the background and who lie for a living. So Americans, who can’t imagine living like that themselves, assume NO ONE can live like that. NO ONE could live in another identity (ok, except in witness protection, which is justified). NO ONE could keep that kind of secret. NO ONE could be part of something that unholy, and SOMEONE would have to have talked after all these years, if it had really been a conspiracy.
Well, there are two answers to that. One is that OF COURSE there are people like that. We do have a functioning CIA and other intelligence networks, in which the field agents spend their careers lying, committing illegal acts and gathering information for our country. It’s what they do. And OF COURSE there are professional assassins out there who do ‘wet work’ (killings) on a regular basis. (Like Vince Vaughn’s great response in MR. & MRS. SMITH when asked how he’s doing: “Same old, same old. People need killin’.”) Just because you don’t do it, you don’t believe there are others who do?
The second is that PEOPLE HAVE TALKED FOR YEARS about the assassination and what they knew about it. The problem is, what they say hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention. It should have. There have been deathbed confessions from some pretty interesting people, like E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar, and others. The mainstream media has decided that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, and that’s all they’re willing to say. Smaller publications have published some very interesting information, but it hasn’t gotten out there, or validated by any government authority or highly-rated media sources.
So people are still uneasy about calling it a conspiracy, when it can’t be anything but.
Today’s post is a guest blog from one of my favorite writers–in fact, my writing partner, Kevin Finn. Kevin co-authored FORWARD TO CAMELOT and its latest edition, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, with me. He is the author of more than a dozen screenplays and produces content for Princeton Community Television, including promotional trailers and independent film projects like the 2012 documentary SETTING THE STAGE: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE. He lives in East Windsor, New Jersey.
Everyone loves a good mystery, right?
Cool, we’re going to have fun together today. I’m going to solve a great mystery of our time.
The mystery of the Exalted Writer.
Ahh..the writer. He or she of the noble word, those that live locked in ivory towers as prisoner to their craft, benevolent caregiver to the imagination.
Salinger, the recluse, embodied this, and it worked for him. Created his myth, the aura of the raconteur, He Who Shall Not be Seen.
We’ve all seen the picture of Shakespeare, regal cock to the head, mischievous grin aside, collar tightly starched. The picture of of poise and eloquence.
By all accounts, Shakespeare was an attention whore, the Snooki of his time. Braggart, drunkard, possibly a fraud.
Shakespeare would’ve loved the 21st Century. He’d have made himself an instant celebrity and instead of waiting for time to tell his legend, he’d have created a name for himself instantly, Like Kathie Lee and Hoda. Nancy Grace. The Kardash…
You get the idea.
Writers no longer live in ivory towers, we live among the people. And that is the way it should be, for we are no more than common people touched with the gift of good vocabulary.
What once served as ‘mystique’ for Salinger and Shakespeare is now called ‘branding’ by the marketing and publicity hounds who help us hawk our wares.
Every writer has a brand, like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and the brand is supposedly their ‘name‘. I prefer to think of it as a ‘theme’.
So what is my theme? Well, if I had to sum up the theme of my writing in a singular title, it would be ‘Guys, Dolls and Curveballs.’ No one is as evocative as Damon Runyon, and that’s what I write about; Guys, hard-nosed manly men on the outside, like Sinatra or Gene Kelly (yeah, Gene Kelly. A dancer, but a tough guy. You wanna make sumthin’ of it?). Soft on the inside. Dolls, beautiful and sensitive women who’s strength lies in their intelligence, always percolating just below the surface. Which makes them all the more alluring.
There’s the old adage ‘write what you know.’ I write what I like.
What I like is meeting people. People are characters, which is why writers need to abandon conventional notions, get out of the ivory tower and meet as many people as they can. Ask any author who their favorite character is and they will undoubtedly answer, ‘well, my favorite character is actually based on someone I knew.’ Today’s social media innovations give writers opportunities and advantages never dreamed of. We must embrace them, learn them, love them, if readers are to embrace our work and our passion. Everyone knows what George R.R. Martin, Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts look like. While Shakespeare trends, Salinger would’ve wallowed, a footnote in the caverns of paperless publishing.
Like the written word begun in calligraphy, writing has changed with the times. So, too, have writers. Writing is hard work, an eight-to-eighteen hour job before lunch, six days a week and any writer who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves as much as Rapunzel waiting for rescue. Or Salinger waiting for a photo op.
So what do you like in your writing? And your writers? If you could sum up your writing (or favorite writers) in one thematic title, what would it be? And why?
I’ve shared with you. Please share with me.
In my first post on the JFK assassination last week (honoring the release of Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, which I co-authored with Kevin Finn), I discussed the events of the assassination itself–that tragic Friday in November 1963 that changed our world.
Today, let’s continue with those events–in which you may begin to see a disturbing pattern:
After the president was pronounced dead, Lyndon Johnson, now the new President, was hustled out of Parkland Hospital under heavy guard and taken back to Air Force One, still on the tarmac at Love Field. He immediately took steps to take the oath of office on the plane, calling an old friend, Judge Sarah Hughes, who lived in Dallas, and asking her to come to Love Field to administer the oath, calling a shell-shocked Bobby Kennedy in Washington to ask for the wording.
Meanwhile, Earl Rose, the County Coroner, was at Parkland Hospital insisting on doing an autopsy on JFK’s body, which was Texas law (it was not yet a federal crime to kill a president, so this was a standard homicide). But JFK’s Secret Service detail and some of his aides were so shocked and angry that they were in no mood to bend to Texas law. Their Commander-in-Chief had just been murdered, and they’d be damned if anyone would touch his body in Texas! Rose was (literally) shoved aside as they called for a local mortuary to deliver a casket. The president’s body was wrapped in a sheet (his blood-soaked clothes had been cut off in the operating room) and placed inside a heavy mahogany coffin. And over Rose’s continued protests (and he was legally in the right), the president’s men took the coffin back to Air Force One, where Jackie Kennedy insisted she would sit with it all the way to Washington. She was disturbed only once; when Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath, Lyndon Johnson requested Jackie’s presence at his swearing in. He also requested that photos be taken, and that the ceremony be recorded on tape (which it was). The famous photo of that ceremony (which we mention in Forward to Camelot) showed a solemn Johnson with a pious hand raised, another hand on a book (JFK’s own Catholic missal–prayer book–which was all they could find to use for the oath. We deal with this at length in the novel–it’s the lynch pin of our plot–though in the context of history, it’s a minor point.) Next to him stood Jackie, her eyes staring at nothing, blood still visible on her pink jacket (though Cecil Stoughton, the Army captain who took the photo, did all he could to minimize the bloodstains). It is one of the most haunting images of the day–the new president so eager to be sworn in that he can’t even wait to get back to Washington, insisting that the widow of the dead president witness the moment. Once the ceremony was over and the camera stopped clicking (and one disturbing photo shows LBJ with a big smile), Sarah Hughes left the plane and Air Force One lifted off for Washington. The Kennedy contingent sat with the coffin in the back of the plane, away from the Johnson people, who were hustling along busily at the front.
Back at Dealey Plaza, the site of the shooting, there was chaos. Horrified spectators, some of whom had hit the grass at the sounds of gunfire, were being questioned by police, after many had initially run up the hill now called the Grassy Knoll, hoping to nab a shooter behind the picket fence, where they had heard shots. A motorcycle cop named Marion Baker had run into the seven-story brick building at the corner of Houston and Elm Street, the Texas School Book Depository, looking for a shooter there, and after locating Roy Truly, the superintendent, ran into a young man in the second-floor employee lunchroom, very calm and drinking a coke. The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald, a new employee, and after Baker drew his gun and asked Truly if Oswald worked there and Truly said yes, they left Oswald alone.
Oswald left the building shortly afterward, still alone, and made his way by bus and cab to the rooming house where he was staying temporarily in Oak Cliff, a rundown residential section of Dallas. There he went into his tiny room, changed his shirt and picked up his revolver. His landlady heard a horn honking outside and saw a Dallas police car pulled up at the corner by her house. Oswald left the house and walked several blocks.
Some minutes later, a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit was patrolling in his police car near Tenth and Patton, where he stopped a man walking by, who leaned in and conversed with him for a minute through the window. As Tippit got out of the car, the man fired three shots at him, in front of several witnesses. Tippit was dead before he hit the ground. The man ran off. (Here’s where it gets confusing, because while some witnesses saw one man, others saw two, who split up and ran in different directions after the shooting.)
In any case, Oswald was spotted by a shoe salesman some minutes later on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the site of the Tippit shooting. He was at the Texas Theater, where he did not stop to buy a ticket but just walked in. The shoe salesman called the police, and when the house lights went on in the theater, the salesman pointed out Oswald sitting alone in the audience. After a short scuffle (in which Oswald called frantically to the other people in the theater, “I am not resisting arrest! I am not resisting arrest!”), he was handcuffed, his face bruised, and led outside. He was taken to Dallas police headquarters, where word began to spread that he was the man who had murdered J.D. Tippit and likely, assassinated the president.
But disturbing contradictions were turning up. The Dallas police, all familiar with firearms, had found a weapon at the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle stamped “Mauser”, which all of them knew was a superior German rifle. However, within less than 24 hours, the police were reporting that the weapon found was a cheap, inaccurate Italian rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano (which the FBI quickly found Oswald had bought by mail order earlier in the year). All trace of the “Mauser”–all mention of it–was suddenly hushed. And when the FBI ran the rifle through their world-class fingerprint lab, they could not find a print.
The witnesses at the Tippit shooting were also problematical. Their description of the gunman (or gunmen) did not come close to fitting Lee Harvey Oswald–though supposedly it was in response to that description that he had been picked up by police. Witnesses said the man firing the gun was short, heavy-set and in his 30’s. Oswald was 24 and very slender. To make matters worse, the cartridges the police found at the Tippit murder scene were made for a pistol. But Oswald owned a revolver, not a pistol. And even more peculiarly, the cartridges didn’t even match each other. Dallas PD Officer Poe, who marked them with his initials for the chain of evidence, could not find his initials on the cartridges he was shown later, which indicates they were not the cartridges recovered at the scene.
Oswald was interrogated at police headquarters for over 12 hours, but not one word was recorded (which meant none of it could be admissible in court later). When he was paraded in front of reporters his demeanor was calm, and instead of proclaiming his great deed in front of the world, he stubbornly maintained that he had not shot anyone and further, that he had nothing against Kennedy. When he was shown some of the evidence seized in a search of the garage where he had stored some of his belongings, he told the police that the photo of him holding a rifle and a pistol and dressed in black was a fake; it was his head pasted on someone else’s body.
Constantly present when Oswald was in public was a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who was well known to the Dallas police and liked to host them at his club, the Carousel. Footage available on YouTube shows Oswald being moved in and out of various rooms at police headquarters, with a man who looks a lot like Jack Ruby never far away.
Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an official autopsy, but there too, strange things were happening. Orderlies saw different caskets brought in at different hospital entrances–one the expensive ceremonial coffin bought in Dallas, the other a cheap gray casket. The wrapping of the body was different, and most oddly, the doctors at the autopsy (and all those present in the room) saw an entirely different kind of head wound than the one described by a dozen doctors and nurses who attended Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. (Check out David Lifton’s Best Evidence for more information on these strange anomalies, including the alarming possibility that JFK’s body was altered to make the wounds look different and more consistent with a single shooter than multiple shooters.)
The surreal weekend continued, with Oswald paraded in a bizarre police lineup where he was placed with teenage boys, which angered him. Who couldn’t pick him out of that group? (Among those who did was an hysterical woman named Helen Markham, who claimed to have talked to Officer Tippit for 20 minutes after he was shot. Since he was dead on impact, that must have been some conversation.)
On Sunday morning, as the world mourned and the president’s body was lying in state (where a quarter of a million people would file by to pay their respects), newsmen were notified that Oswald was finally going to be moved to the Dallas County Jail. Surrounded by police (and handcuffed to one), Oswald moved forward in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, where a car was waiting. TV cameras were rolling; the whole world was watching.
There was a sound of a car horn blaring, and suddenly a man leaped forward and fired. It was Jack Ruby, and that one shot smashed into Oswald’s stomach and dropped him at the scene. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize him, but the effort was hopeless. He was pronounced dead.
The president was dead. A Dallas police officer was dead. The accused assassin was dead, shot on live television in front of millions.
What the hell was going on?
Today’s post is a combination of two posts I wrote recently for other blogs, about a strange but undeniable phenomenon that most writers don’t talk about… because it freaks us out. But I’m coming out of the ether (and the closet) to discuss it here, and invite you to share your own stories, if you dare:
Cue the creepy music …
Here’s today’s question for all you writers:
Have you ever written something as fiction that later actually happens?
So have other writer friends of mine. We can’t explain it, and we can’t control it. And when it happens, we think it’s cool… and a little scary. Believe me, this isn’t something we trying to do.
But I think I have an inkling of how it happens.
There’s a very famous example of this (I’ll tell you my own story later). A writer named Morgan Robertson published a novella titled Futility about the world’s greatest ocean liner, which on a voyage in April in the North Atlantic struck an iceberg on the starboard side and sank, 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland. There were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers, and more than half of those on board died.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the story of the Titanic. Heck, that’s not fiction; it’s history.
Except it’s not. Futility was published in 1898, more than 14 years BEFORE the Titanic set out on its maiden voyage, and years before it was even designed, let alone built. Yet Robertson eerily forecast the name (Titan/Titanic), the iceberg, the exact spot of the sinking, the lifeboat issue, almost the exact speed at which the ship was traveling, and the fact that the voyage took place in April in the North Atlantic and the ship struck the iceberg on the starboard side.
No one’s ever figured out how he did it. As a writer, I’m sure he was just… picking the story out of the ether, as it came to him. It’s what we all do.
He picked another story out of the ether in 1914, which described a sneak attack by the Japanese in the Philippines and Hawaii that began a war in the month of December–which described exactly the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened in December 1941. Obviously, this is a guy who was really tuned in.
Now while you’re considering that, let me tell you about mine.
When I was fifteen I began writing my first stage play. I had first seen Jerry Lewis on TV when I was about nine, and I just loved him. (Still do.) But I didn’t know he had ever been teamed with Dean Martin, and when I found out, it shocked me, because their careers had taken such divergent paths afterward. So I decided to write a play that began with the breakup of a similar comedy duo, followed them through the years and ended at a charity telethon (modeled after you-know-what). I worked on it for years, and finally wrote the last scenes in July 1976. I set the first scene onstage at a New York nightclub, where the duo did a song and dance that ended their partnership. The entire third act took place at the telethon, where the penultimate scene showed the two reuniting onstage.
Six weeks later came the Labor Day telethon, a staple of our holiday weekend. And lo and behold! There was Dean Martin, walking onstage with Frank Sinatra (who engineered the whole thing), greeting a truly stunned Jerry Lewis with a hug. It’s a beautiful moment; you can watch it on YouTube.
But… I wrote it before it happened, virtually the way it happened.
And that first scene I told you about, the nightclub scene where they ended their partnership? I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s actually the way Martin & Lewis broke up—their last engagement was at the Copacabana in New York, the most famous nightclub of its time. I had no way of knowing. But somehow, I just knew.
It’s happened to me on other writing projects, too, most recently on the novel Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, and I don’t consider myself psychic. But I’ve thought about this a lot. Here’s my explanation, because I don’t believe in coincidence, and I do believe in the energy connecting us all.
When writers truly get ‘plugged in’ on a project, we not only plug into our own creativity and our passion for the project; on some level we plug into the universe, too, on our own crystal-clear frequency. We pick up invisible threads of information floating out there in the ether, which we call inspiration but might also be old stories still hanging around, or new events about to unfold. When we’re in the flow with our writing, we somehow have access to all that energy, and it just comes to us, as naturally as a bee to a flower. And we think of it as inspiration, when it might be real but invisible history, or the energy of an event about to happen. I also think we can only access it at moments when we’re really plugged in, through our writing. (You could say this is related to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.) It won’t work if you try to access it. There’s all kinds of magic out there in the ether, but you can’t chase it or command it; you can access it only when you and the universe are truly one.
So the next time you’re writing (cue creepy music here), be careful what you’re writing about. Because it may not be just a story. Your thoughts really can become reality… and do you really want that vampire strolling down Fifth Avenue?
Think about it.