Saturday, January 9, 2010

Glad it's gone

By Michael Wiley

I’m fortunate, very fortunate, to have a few trusted readers who tear into my manuscripts before I send them to my agent, much less my editor. These readers are ruthless: if they could turn pages with knives, hatchets, and chainsaws in their hands, they would do it. When I wrote THE LAST STRIPTEASE, one of them ex-ed out all of the sex scenes. (I restored about half of them, and the book was stronger for the other omissions.) Another of them caught most of the places where I said too little about characters and situations . . . or said too much.

I credit these readers for the fact that my editors at St. Martin’s have asked me to cut very little from my first two books. What they have asked me to cut really did deserve cutting, so I hold no resentment and bear no scars. For instance, I was asked to cut the following scene from LAST STRIPTEASE. In it, my private detective, Joe Kozmarski, visits a psychiatrist while investigating the death of a Vietnamese-American woman named Le Thi Hanh. Why, my editor wanted to know, is Kozmarski being such an antagonistic smart-ass? Why does he joke about Mark David Chapman and Liz Taylor? And why – please, why – is the psychiatrist packing a Beretta in his vest? “Um, I don’t know,” I said, and hit the delete button.

Patrick Holcombe’s psychiatry office was on the first floor of a five-story graystone on Oak Street. Double glass doors opened from the outside into the waiting room. Double doors: you could escape if you wanted to, but who would want to with a waiting room like this? An overstuffed sofa stood at one end with a painted screen behind it: birds fluttering above cherry blossoms. An overstuffed chair with an ottoman stood in another corner. There was a coffee table with magazines and a wicker table with a vase of dried ferns and pussy willows. Soft music piped in from speakers in the ceiling. A ceiling fan spun slowly.

The place made me itchy.

I knocked on the glass partition that separated the waiting room from the receptionist, and a pale, vacant-eyed woman slid the window open. She wished me a good afternoon, and I told her I wanted to talk to Dr. Holcombe, and, no, I didn’t have an appointment.

She looked worried. “Dr. Holcombe has a very full schedule today and a flight to catch this evening. What do you need to talk to him about?”

“The murder of one of his patients.”

She nodded like she heard it all the time. “A murder you’ve committed or a murder you plan to commit?”

I smiled at her joke, but she gave me nothing back. “A murder I’m planning to commit.”

Now her smile showed only her four front teeth. “Just a moment.” The window slid closed.

Five minutes passed. I tried the door that led to the office. Locked. Five more minutes. The doctor and his receptionist could have slipped out the back and gone out to lunch; they could be clinking wine glasses and laughing about me right now. A skinny woman in tight black pants and a sweater that looked like it was skinned from a llama came in with a slovenly boy around fourteen. He punched buttons on a Gameboy and looked angrier than a cornered cat. He sat on the sofa and kicked his sneakers up on the pillows. The woman knocked on the glass partition. No one answered, so she sat down in an overstuffed chair. She hissed at the boy to take his feet off the cushions, but he ignored her.

Then, the door leading to the office opened about eight inches and a man’s head poked out. He had round, gold-rimmed glasses, short gray hair and a short gray beard. He peered slowly around the room like he’d lost his keys. “Hello, Steven,” he said to the boy. “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.” His voice was calm, slow, warm. The kid punched at the Gameboy, said nothing. The man nodded at me and I followed him back into a hallway. He had on loafers, khakis, and a maroon vest over a collarless white cotton shirt. The calm voice said, “I’m Dr. Holcombe. And you are?”

“Mark David Chapman,” I said, and he shook my hand in both of his, then guided me into his office. It looked like a smaller version of the waiting room, except it had a set of bookshelves, photographs of his family, and an old empty cigar display board and a hand-written sign on it that said, “Sometimes a cigar isn’t even a cigar.”

He directed me to a chair, sat, and crossed his legs. “What can I do for you?”

“Do you have a handgun tucked under your seat cushion or do you always talk down trouble?”

“Nothing under the cushion but springs.” He stood and lifted the cushion. He sat down again and said, “How about you? What’s that inside your jacket?”

“It’s a Glock 23. It’s unloaded and it’ll stay in my jacket.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“You probably should tell your receptionist to look for weapons before letting people see you.”

“If she hadn’t seen your gun, she wouldn’t have let you in. Now, which of my patients are you threatening?”

“I’m investigating the death of Le Thi Hanh.” I gave him one of my cards.

He shook his head, disgusted. “A private detective. I should have guessed. You didn’t act much like you thought you were Mark David Chapman.”

“If you prefer we can start again and I’ll do my Liz Taylor imitation.”

“I’d prefer that you stop wasting my time. I have a patient waiting.” He laced his fingers over his chest.

“I would like to see Hanh’s file,” I said.

“You know I won’t show that to you. Everything a patient tells me is confidential.”

"Even if she’s dead?”

“Dead, incarcerated, out of the country, it doesn’t matter.”

“Even if what she told you could help catch her killer?”

His hands stayed laced, but his knuckles were turning white. “What did she say to me that could help catch her killer?”

“She told you about the sex videos she made. She told you she liked knives and she liked getting cut as long as the cut wasn’t too deep, so you really weren’t surprised when you heard she got stabbed to death.”

None of that made him flinch. “I was treating her only for a drug and alcohol dependency.”

“You’re talking to an ex-drunk and ex-user, so you’re not fooling me. Dependency is wrapped up with everything else.”

“So what do you want me to tell you?”

“I figure she also told you she liked it when people watched her, so I want the names of anyone who might have seen the murder. And she probably told you where she went to do the things she did. Did she go high class all the time, or did she like to slum? I want to check out those places.”

He shook his head. “Hannah’s file doesn’t include that kind of information. Counseling represents a small part of what I do. You would find her file entirely unhelpful.”

I didn’t believe him. “Do you want to help me, or do you want the cops to break down your office door with a subpoena for Le Thi Hanh’s records?”

“You’re threatening me now?”

“I’m just telling you I want to figure out what happened to Hanh.”

“No, you’re threatening me.” His voice was calm but he got out of his chair and stepped toward me.

I could have gotten up too, but he was thin boned and if he took a swing I might have to break his jaw. I didn’t want to wreck that calm voice. So I tapped my Glock through my jacket. “If you make a habit of inviting guys with guns into your office, you should keep a gun of your own under your seat cushion.”

He gave me his calm smile again. “If someone planned to shoot me, I would never have a chance to get a gun out from under the cushion.” His hand reached into his vest, and a little Beretta pocket pistol flashed out and pointed at me.

I would have bet against him moving that fast.

“Size matters. It does,” he said. “But so does speed. Anyway, in this office, everything is close range. I would like you to leave now.”

I stood up. The little gun was aimed between my belly and my heart. Even if he didn’t shoot straight the bullet would do a lot of damage. “A guy like you shouldn’t point a gun at someone,” I said. “It says that you’re a lie: you aren’t the calm, controlled guy you pretend to be.”

“Get the hell out of my office.” He said it calmly.


Sophie Littlefield said...

sweater skinned from a llama....hey, since you're not using that, can i have it?


it's always a drag when an editor asks "so why did you choose to...." - - for me, the answer so far has always been some variation of "huhwhaaaaa...?"

Michael Wiley said...

Maybe the sweater skinned from a llama can reappear when I finally get to use my discarded title, LITTLE DOGS IN LEATHER CORSETS. Corsets skinned from a . . . ? No.

I agree with you, Sophie: the "Why did you?" question can throw a wrench into the system, which for me usually involves a large amount of the intuitive, at least in the first drafts. But I figure that the "Why" question is necessary at some point: it's the question we try to ask ourselves as we self-edit, and the question that I hope my hatchet-handed friends will read before I send out the manuscript. So, I'm glad (I guess) that my editor asked "Why" in this case, even if it cost me a sweater skinned from a llama.

Mike Dennis said...

Thanks for sharing this deleted scene, Mike. I can kind of understand why your editor wanted it out. It seems that, since Dr Holcombe has no pertinent information on the victim, and since Kozmarski appears to learn nothing in this visit that would propel the story, the scene is expendable.

Of course, if there's something later on in the book that renders this scene necessary, then that's another deal altogether. Brand names of weapons are usually not that easy to discern.

Also, Kozmarski made Holcombe's handgun as a Beretta a little too fast, since the doc apparently pulled it with blinding speed.

Mike Dennis said...

Whoops! Error alert!! The sentence about "brand names of weapons" was intended to be placed at the end of the final paragraph.

Michael Wiley said...

Agreed at all levels, Mike: the scene needed to go and went. (I did write an alternative one that gave some key information.)

I should say, though, that Kozmarski has quick eyes . . . .

Thanks for the thoughts!

Shane Gericke said...

Nicely written scene, regardless that it had to be cut.

Kelli Stanley said...

Super scene, Mike!! :) I really enjoyed the wonderful Chandler-esque detail: the cigar motto and (of course) the llama-skin sweater. Good stuff!!!

I've loved reading everyone's cuts so much this week! I think we need to do this more often!! :)


Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Shane. I know it has problems. I see them. And yet it's always hard to let go of something that has given me pleasure.

Michael Wiley said...

And thanks, Kelli. When I lived in New York, a psychoanalyst who had an office downstairs from my apartment had an empty pipe display board on one of his walls. I always figured that he was being ironic: sometimes a cigar isn't even a cigar.

Jen Forbus said...

O.k. Michael, I have a question for you in regards to your early readers. I did this once for a friend who said to me afterward, "you managed to indicate you didn't like something without hurting my feelings." I'm not really sure what I did to avoid that; I just wanted to be honest. But have any of your early readers commented, written suggestions or whatnot that did offend you or hurt your feelings? I mean, seeing red exes all over my scenes might be a little hurtful. Did you just say, "no holds barred. Gimme your best shot?"

And do they also tell you what they really like when they read? I'm very interested because I've been asked to do this again by a different writer and I simply want to be as useful as possible.