When you've written a 116,000-word young adult novel and you're told that nobody really wants to look at anything longer than 100,000, you end up having to make some hard choices. Just trimming away the odd adjective/adverb that's already implied by the situation isn't going to do it — you're going to end up taking things out that you really would have liked to leave in, along with a few things that I have to admit were best left out. So I put them here for your reading pleasure.
This early attempt at character-building, for instance:
As far as Lee Smith was concerned, her younger child Lachlan was almost an ideal son. He was tall for his age — he took after her that way — but was nowhere near as awkward and clumsy as she had been at twelve. He was handsome — at least, she thought he was, even if he kept wanting to let his hair grow out because he was so self-conscious about his ears and the shape of his head. He was intelligent enough not to have any problems with schoolwork — she was sure he could be a straight-A student if he just applied himself a little more. He was even athletic, not like the little porkers you saw waddling around these days.
On top of all that, he was levelheaded and surprisingly self-sufficient for his age — you could leave him alone almost indefinitely without worrying about him getting into trouble. (The only problem was when he wasn’t alone. One or two of his fights with William had gotten ugly, and he’d had to be suspended last semester after Troy called in that bomb threat.) He didn’t stay up late playing loud music. Rather the opposite — he tended to rise early, and liked to make a game of seeing how softly he could play the music and still hear it. (William, unfortunately, had spent the past year or so diligently destroying his own eardrums playing something called “alternative rock” with the volume on maximum.) He ate what was put in front of him without compliment or complaint, and unlike William, he never gave her any backtalk.
And that was the problem, right there. He didn’t complain or talk back — in fact, he hardly talked at all. Even before they’d lost Wayne, he’d been a quiet type — so quiet, in fact, that at one point she’d had him tested to make sure he wasn’t autistic. Now, days went by in which he said nothing, just giving the people around him the odd wave or nod of acknowledgement. Behind his impassive face — a face which might someday get him a lot of money at the poker table — and light brown eyes, he might have been in terrible agony, or just numb.
Lee had tried giving him a journal for Christmas. It had seemed like a brilliant idea. Since he didn’t want to talk about his thoughts and feelings, give him something to write them down in, then read it when he wasn’t looking. What could possibly go wrong with such a simple plan? On New Year’s Day she’d let William stay up late watching TV, heard Lachlan’s pencil scratching away, and known that it was working perfectly.
The next day, she’d gone into the boys’ room while William and Lachlan were out. The first thing she noticed was that Lachlan had, for the first time in his life, not only picked up his half of the room but put all his books on the shelves and put away all his clothes, neatly folded… with no parental prompting. This should have been a warning sign, but Lee was too busy looking for the journal and she wasn’t sure how much time she had. Finally, after practically ripping his half of the room to pieces, she had found it, opened it up, looked inside and seen… poetry. For some reason, Lachlan had been doing nothing but copy poems out of a book by someone named Stephen Crane.
Then she’d looked around at the mess she’d made of his impeccably neat half of the room and realized that this was all an elaborate test on his part, to see whether he could write anything in his journal and expect it to stay private. She’d blown it. Even if she could somehow put everything back exactly the way it was, Lachlan had probably left a hair or something lying across the pages.
Over the course of her work in the prosecutor’s office in Georgia, Lee Smith had outsmarted con artists, embezzlers and some surprisingly canny street thugs. Outsmarting her son, it seemed, was another matter. Well, with any luck, he’d blame this mess on William. (No, he wouldn’t. If it had been William who’d found the journal, he’d be pestering Lachlan relentlessly to tell him why he was writing down all these poems.) And the maddening thing was that all this had happened before the death of the man who had been her husband and his father, when she was only curious, not desperate, to know if her son was all right.
More recently, Lee had just gotten through an e-mail exchange with the school’s guidance counselor, a Ms. Thames, who would have weekly appointments with Lachlan. Ms. Thames had made it very clear that anything Lachlan told her in confidence would stay in confidence, and that it would work a lot better if he never had any reason to suspect that she was in contact with his mother. Lee had responded, untruthfully, that she hadn’t been expecting reports on every little detail of what was going on in his mind and heart.
Now, more than ever, Lee wished she could simply open up her son to see what made him tick… and whether it was the tick of a clock that could run forever, or a bomb that could go off at any moment. But now, more than ever, she understood that there was no way she could penetrate his stainless-steel façade without his consent.
Maybe I'll include something about all that in the second book.
This is one of the early exchanges between Lock and Lucy.
"I remember when I first went to college," Lucy went on."I remember getting set up in my dorm room, getting all my stuff put away, sitting down to relax… and then it hit me.
"This was it. I'd left home. From here on, everywhere I went, every place I stayed up until they planted me in the ground… was just going to be another way station." She looked him in the eye. "Sound familiar?"
Lock nodded. "That's… a little like what I felt when we were leaving the old place in Georgia," he said.
"The good news is, you learn to make yourself at home in all sorts of places."
The impulse to interrupt the story for an Important Life Lesson is a powerful one, and must be resisted.
Here's a scene in a barbershop.
When Dad was alive, Mom would always take them to the barbershop to get a haircut just before he came back. Somehow, because Dad's hair was cut close to his scalp, Mom assumed that he wanted his sons to have the same sort of haircut, although Lock had never heard him express a preference one way or the other. Now Dad wasn't coming back, period… but still she kept after them about their hair. And so here they were, in front of a little brick building with a glass window and an old-fashioned barber pole outside the door. The sign above the door read McCLARY & SON.
"I was very lucky to find this place," said Mom. "There aren't many left like it."
Lock thought about saying that maybe there was a good reason why there weren't many places left like it, but decided there wouldn't be any point. There were times when Mom could actually be reasoned with, but this didn't look like one of them.
Inside the shop, the barber, a stern-looking man with iron-gray hair was deep in conversation with a couple who looked to be in their seventies. Asking for service felt almost like an intrusion in a place like this, but Mom had no problem intruding.
Just then a very old man came out of the back with a pair of scissors in one hand and one of those rubber sheets in the other. He focused on Lock.
"Have a seat, young man," he said. A feeling of dull horror crept into Lock's mind as he realized that the gray-haired barber, whom he'd thought was "McClary," was really "Son." Hadn't anybody in this place ever heard of retirement?
Bill, meanwhile, was having his own problems.
"Just take about an inch off it," said Bill, but the barber ignored him.
"Short, please," said Mom. "The same for Lachlan."
"Mom, I'm sixteen. When do I get to decide how I want my hair cut?"
"When you're the one paying for it."
"I can pay for it — I've got money," said Bill, reaching for his wallet.
"Hold still," said the barber.
"Mom. Why is it so important to you that everybody gets a good look at my zits?"
"I just… think… shorter hair looks… better."
"Don't want your boys to look like a couple of damn hippies, eh?" said the gray-haired barber, smiling.
"Something like that," said Mom.
"Hippies? Hippies?" Bill spluttered, looking around in disbelief. "Am I the only one here who even knows what decade this is?"
Mom, the younger barber and the other two customers gave him dirty looks. Old McClary, on the other hand, burst out laughing.
"You're still new to bein' old, son," said the old man. "Still think you can keep up with the world. You'll learn, you'll learn."
"Hippies?" said the not-quite-as-old man. "That's not from that far back. It's from…"
"The sixties," said the old man. "About the time this pretty little thing was gettin' herself born." He gestured to Mom, who blushed.
"Might as well be talkin' about 'bobby-soxers.'" He turned to Lock. "You know what those are, son?"
"Hmm?" A big part of Lock's brain was still trying to get past the fact that his mother, who was forty years old and the tallest person in the room, had just been called a pretty little thing.
"Do you know about 'bobby-soxers'?"
"Dude, I've never even seen them on sale."
Old McClary laughed harder than ever.
"I should hope not, in this neighborhood," he said. "Bobby-soxers are girls, son. They were called that 'cause they wore bobby socks." As embarrassed as Lock was, he couldn't help but notice that no matter how hard the old man laughed, his hands stayed steady as a pair of machines cutting Lock's hair. Maybe Mom wasn't too far wrong about finding a place like this. He must have been doing this his whole life, to the point where his hands knew what to do all by themselves… no, he was not going to think about what Erin had told him of his father's last flight.
After a few minutes, the damage was all done. A ring of chestnut clippings circled Lock's chair.
"Whaddya think?" said old man McClary.
Lock looked in the mirror. Sure enough, there were his ears sticking out like a pair of Portobello mushrooms in a field of wheat stubble. And there were his cheekbones flaring out, giving his whole head that stylish gourd shape. On Monday he would go back to class looking like the Prince of Dorkness.
"It sucks," said Lock. "But… you were just following orders, so…"
"That's the spirit."
It's cute and all, but it doesn't do enough to reveal character and does basically nothing to advance the action… and neither the bobby-soxers nor the socks they wear will ever be heard from again. It's just a mildly interesting bit of trivia. (And also… Portobello mushrooms? I know about those, and maybe you do too, but would Lock?)
Or this little moment—
She looked at the bruise on Bill's cheek. Some guys at the high school had messed with him on account of all this.
"Speaking of which, you'll be glad to know that those two boys who attacked you will have charges pressed against them, if I have anything to say about it. And whatever happens, I promise you they'll be expelled."
"Wow," said Bill sarcastically. "The two most popular guys in school going to jail on my behalf. I don't even have the words to describe what that'll do for my social life." This surprised Lock. He'd thought his brother would love the idea of having everybody think he could get them in deep trouble if they messed with him.
It reveals character (Mom is fiercely protective of her children, and intends to stretch her authority as a county prosecutor as far as it could possibly be said to go) but it also sets up the beginnings of a subplot that's never going to go anywhere.
Then there's this exchange between Lock and Lucy—
Even though Lock wasn't much for conversation, he could tell a story. He told her about being called into the office of Mr. Owings, the principal at his old school. How his mother had stood in the middle of the room, staring with godlike wrath at Lock and Troy, while Troy's own mother had huddled in the corner staring at nothing. How the principal had actually called somebody at the FBI and made Troy and Lock talk to him.
"First this guy talked to Troy," Lock said. "Then he talked to me. He had this deep voice, and he sounded really serious. He said it was a violation of federal laws and national security, and 'in these times we have to take terrorist threats very seriously.'"
"He thought you were a terrorist?"
"He acted like it. He went on like this for a while, said I could go to prison or get sent to Gitmo… he was really scary. At the time I didn't think he was bluffing." Lock bit his lip. This was not his favorite memory to revisit, although it did end on a lighter note. "And then he said, 'Now I'd like to talk to my friend the principal again.' So I handed the phone back to the principal, and he pressed this button — it must have been the speaker thing.
"And then the guy said, 'Mr. Owings, I am an FBI agent. My field is counterterrorism. I spend my day reviewing the movements of known Islamic militants…' he went on like this, talking about 'staying in touch with informants' and 'monitoring white supremacists and other domestic extremists,' stuff like that… and then he said, 'and today you have called upon me to take time out of my schedule in order to assist you in scaring a couple of stupid kids. Don't ever call this number again unless Osama bin Laden is personally lobbing grenades through your window, you petty—' and just then Mr. Owings slammed the phone down."
"You're making that up."
"I swear. It's the truth. You should've seen the look on his faceÉ When my dad found out about it — this was like the last time we saw him — he was actually a little easier on me."
"What did he say?"
"Um…" Lock tried, and failed, to think of a suitable evasion. "Do you mind if I keep that a secret?"
Lucy nodded. Lock sighed with relief — he liked her, but he wasn't sure he was supposed to tell her the Soldiers' Secret when he wasn't even a soldier himself. As a change of subject, he asked, "Is this the part where you give me the big speech on Peer Pressure?"
"Which speech is that?"
"The one that kind of goes 'Don't give in to your friends! Be strong! Be independent! Give in to us instead!'"
"Oh, that one," said Lucy. "Actually, I'm supposed to save that one for our next meeting. This meeting is supposed to be devoted to a ten-minute lecture on Why You Shouldn't Smoke." Lock blinked. "But we're almost out of time, andÉ seeing as how I came in five minutes late and smelling like the inside of a pool hall, that probably wouldn't go over very well, so I'll just skip it."
"Yeah… and I can't start smoking anyway."
"That's right… you're an athlete, right?"
"Yeah… track and field. Mostly sprinting. I have to work on my wind, so…"
"Good to actually have a reason to stay away from those things, isn't it?"
Lock nodded. "Two reasons, really. My pop-pop on Dad's side died of lung cancer." It wasn't that he wanted to start smoking — he didn't — but he didn't want anyone thinking it was just because his mom or some teacher or some ad on TV told him not to, either. He wasn't sure he could put this into words, but she seemed to have guessed it already.
"It happened when I was seven… I remember it 'cause Dad took us — Bill and me — aside afterwards and said if he ever caught either of us smoking or smelled cigarettes on us, he'd beat us within an inch of our lives. He hardly ever even spanked us, but… right then we believed him. I did, anyway… ever think about quitting?"
"I'm going to try this summer," said Lucy. "I can't do it during the school year — I'd be no use to you or anybody else if I was going through withdrawal. I want to try that gum… I have to confess, it's not the fear of dying thirty or forty years from now, it's the thought of what the smoke might be doing to Ricky, although…" Lucy bit her lip.
"But mostly, it's the hassle of having to drop whatever I'm doing and run outside every couple of hours to light up. It's like somebody's put commercial breaks in my life. You know what I mean?" Lock didn't, but he nodded anyway, figuring that this was as good an answer as he was likely to get.
Losing the "Don't ever call this number again" line hurt, but what could I do?
This moment provides a glimpse into how Lock sees the world.
After the bomb threat, Mom had gotten better at stopping him from hanging out with Troy. The last face-to-face talk he'd had with him, after he'd got back from Arlington, had hardly been a conversation at all. Not only had Lock not said anything, but even Troy had been unusually quiet. Finally he'd said, "You know what would be cool? If you went to Iraq and found the guy that did it and killed him."
Lock had just turned and looked at Troy as if he were the biggest idiot on the face of the earth. What did he think this was, an action movie? Did he think whoever it was had cackled "I've got you now, First Lieutenant Wayne Smith!" just before pulling the trigger? It was freaking war. Everybody was shooting at everybody else, and nobody knew or cared who the people on the other side were, or whether they had families or what. And everybody who got involved knew what could happen.
What appears to be an early maturity on Lock's part is, in fact, a very strong sense of chaos. As far as he's concerned, his father's life was not ended by divine fiat or the forces of evil, but by a random bullet in a random battle of a random war with all the moral content of an earthquake. How many protagonists, given a father who died a violent death, would react like this? But again, it doesn't advance the action, and I had to bring the word count down somehow.
And then there are these rather morbid moments, which, again, do nothing to advance the action.
He got into another lane, trying desperately to get ahead of traffic. There was no place he'd less rather be than home, and that was where he was trying to get as fast as possible.
Which, right now, wasn't very fast. On the road up ahead, the red river of taillights had turned into a reservoir blocked by a dam, with vehicles trickling through a one-lane gap. Red and blue lights flashed at the side of the road. People were changing lanes desperately. This was when you had to concentrate — it was too easy for someone not to see him.
As Bill got closer, he realized just how bad things were. Two lanes of traffic were blocked off, and ambulances and police cars were on all sides. Into his mind appeared the guilty realization that there were people here tonight who were much worse off than he was… as long as he was careful. And he would have to be careful, because if ever there was a night for things to go horribly wrong, this was it.
His Driver's Ed teacher liked to deliver fifteen-to-twenty minute lectures that began "Now I know you young people all think you're invulnerable, but let me tell you someth…" and that was as much as Bill ever heard. By now, tuning out the old fool's bellyaching was as easy as hitting the mute button on the remote. He didn't think he was invulnerable, immortal or invincible, and he couldn't imagine anybody outside of a padded cell who did.
Of course, when he talked to Jeremy and some of his other friends, he got the impression sometimes that they just weren't expecting anything horrible to happen to them. They thought of disaster and tragedy as things you saw on the news, happening to strangers. They knew, in an intellectual sort of way, that there was no rule that those things had to stay on the news, safely removed from themselves and the people they cared about, but somehow the knowledge didn't sink in past the outer layers of the brain. Bill had been much the same, until his own father had been brought home in a box. Now he knew in his bones that anything that could happen to other people could also happen to himÉ or to Lock. Maybe it wasn't likely to happen on any given day, but it could.
And boy, had it ever happened to some people here. Now that Bill was alongside the accident, he could see the extent of the carnage — the overturned SUV, the wrecked car and motorcycle, the still-smoldering remains of the burned car, the ambulance and police lights glinting off the hundreds of fragments of broken glass, the paramedics with their uniforms spattered with blood. The smell in the air was enough to put Bill off roast pork for the rest of his life. Two paramedics were carrying a body bag which, from the shape of it, didn't contain a whole body.
Resolving to concentrate much harder on riding safely, Bill looked away.
A few times in his life — after September 11, after Dad had been killed — he had come close to mending fences with his little brother. Each time had gone more or less the same way. Bill had apologized to Lock for his teasing and bullying. He had even tried to engage him in conversation, once or twice, although this was like trying to perform CPR on the bones of King Tut. And then… within a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, or a little over a month in the case of Dad, the effect had worn off, and Bill had recoiled in horror from the goody-two-shoes he’d become, as if awakening from a nightmare. No, he thought. This is it. This is reality… everything else is the dream. Reality is gunfire and sirens and flashing lights by the side of the road. Reality is war and terror and disease and death. Reality is everything people try to hide from, and to hide their kids from. Or maybe that was just the last traces of pot in his brain talking.
"The red river of taillights…" Cutting that hurt. But seeing as how this accident will never show up again in this novel or any of the sequels, there was really no justification for including so much gory detail.
If there's a lesson here, it's that while your life may be (probably is) messy and full of loose ends and unnecessary details, your novel should not be. Realism doesn't go that far.