by Gary Carter
Ned answered the phone in spite Allison’s objection, the swell of toothpaste foam almost gagged her as she tried to speak. He was still in boxers and had remains of shaving cream scattered about his face. His tie hung uselessly around his neck and did nothing to flatter the shirt he had chosen.
“Ned. Glad I caught you. Got a minute?”
“We don’t like it, Ned. We both know you can do better than this. Your descriptions are pedantic. I have how-to books that are more exciting. Your characters are one-dimensional and that’s actually being kind. Your plot is nicely done. Very twisted and woven between the three main characters. But a plot doesn’t make a book – especially with your characters.”
Ned was aware that the draft was rough, and that it was a little over due, but he hadn’t expected such harsh criticism. Allison’s cat leaped to the top of the chair back that Ned had settled behind and plunged its head into Ned’s ever softening gut. The enormous feline’s purr rattled like a poorly tuned engine, briefly distracting him. Ned placed his hand on the creature’s broad head. The criticism stung Ned’s ego as much as any physical punch could have stunned his senses.
After an uncomfortably long silence, Ned finally responded. “I understand what you are saying, Jack,” Ned lied, searching for something, anything, to say. “And I’m putting everything I have into the next draft. I just wanted to get the story down so you could see the direction I’m going. The characters are going to be better defined in the next draft.”
“I’m going to be honest, Ned. Allen was really disappointed. He’s wondering if you might just be a one-hit-wonder. He’s talking about withdrawing the advance offer. He doesn’t even want this manuscript right now.”
“You’re pulling my leg. The plot.”
“Yes. The plot; he loved the plot. Very unique. But Humpty Dumpty was a more thoroughly developed character than your protagonist. At least people cared when he fell.”
“But that’s coming. I just had to fine tune the plot.”
“But this draft was four weeks past due. When is the next one coming?”
“Soon. Two more weeks.” Ned winced as he said it. It was an impossible deadline.
“Are you capable of pulling this off, Ned? I mean, you did such an incredible job on your first book. The critics loved it. The public loved it. That’s rare. Everyone believed your protagonist was a terrified whistle blower. They felt his inner conflict; his feelings of betrayal for his colleagues. Readers pitied the guy for doing the right thing and then suffering the persecution and financial devastation that ensued. It was real. It was vivid. But was it because it was all true? Because the protagonist was you?”
“My story went nothing like that, Jack. It was a completely different fraud. A completely different method.”
“Yes, you invented a great plot, but in that book your characters mattered. They were real. But they were real because you experienced all those feelings so you were able to describe, in blistering detail, what your protagonist went through.”
Ned contemplated his agent’s concerns. Could he possibly be right? Will he prove incapable of writing about something he’s never experienced? The cat chose that moment to stretch a paw up to Ned’s tie and give it a hearty smack. A claw failed to retract and pulled the expensive silk. He popped the nuisance on the head with the palm of his hand and it laid its ears back and hissed as it jumped down. Ned backhanded the massive creature on the ass and turned it end over end. It still somehow managed to land on its feet. He had always despised that damn cat.
“Ned. Are you there?”
“Yeah Jack. I’m here. But I’m not buying what you are saying. I know that there’s work to do on the characters.”
“It’s not just the characters. On page eighty, your protagonist murders his wife. But not only do I not care by page eighty, I don’t believe it either. You can’t get much more clinical than your description of the murder. It’s his wife for Christ’s sake. She’s supposed to be the love of his life. We’re supposed to care why he did what he did enough to read the next two hundred pages to find out.”
Ned felt a gentle, nearly silent breath of air in his free ear, “We need to go, honey.”
“Listen, Jack. I’ve got a dinner date that I’m already late for. I have to go. But I do see what you are saying,” Ned said; this time in earnest. “And I appreciate your honesty. It pissed me off at first, but you’re right. I’ll have the redraft done in two weeks and I promise you that you’ll be as emotionally moved by it as you were with the first book.”
“Good. I’m looking forward to it.”
* * *
Ned was clearly distracted all through dinner. He didn’t participate in any conversations and he excused himself repeatedly. He was vaguely aware that their dinner guests were uncomfortable but was selfish enough not to give a shit. Not until he saw his wife’s concern. She didn’t appear to be irritated with him as he had expected. Ned then noticed that both of their guests were also focused on him. He paused and froze each muscle in its position. He noticed that their eyes were focused at his chest, not at his face. He looked down and saw that he had fiddled with the pull in his tie and had worked out a hole the size of a dime. Ned laughed. It was a jovial, hearty laugh that eventually consumed his entire body and brought tears to his eyes. His wife smiled and laughed politely and his guests followed suit. For the remainder of dinner, Ned became himself again. He carried the conversation well past dessert and through the after-dinner brandies.
Ned and Allison arrived home after
midnight. She didn’t ask what had been on his mind but she was
certain it was related to the phone call he took just before they left.
Something about the book wasn’t going well. “He just needs his space,” she
thought. She went to bed, Ned did not. At seven the next morning, Ned e-mailed
the redrafted murder scene to his agent. He had pulled his first all-nighter
since college. Exhausted, Ned crawled into bed, hoping to go unnoticed.
Ned rolled himself into a quasi-seated position on the edge of the bed and took the phone. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for another verbal barrage.
“Ned, I loved the rewrite. When I read it, I was actually uncomfortable. I felt like you were strangling me through the text. ‘He felt her muscles throbbing, pulsing, crying out for relief. The tendons in her neck rolled under his grasp as his thumbs searched for and locked down on her air passage. She tore first at his bulging forearms and then at his face. He slung his head back to keep her from his eyes but she caught his lower lip and pulled until he thought it would tear from his face. His grip started to wane as his forearms began to burn and throb with exhaustion. Her body trembled and jerked in brief spasms and shallow grunts choked from her pasty lips. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets and blood drained into them, filling them with a possessed crimson fire as his rage passed through her body.’ Ned, that was powerful. And having her piss herself added an additional depth of realism. In fact, I was actually relieved when your wife answered the phone. It felt like you had actually strangled someone. I owe you an apology.”
“I take it you liked it.”
“I loved it. It was vivid. It gave me chills.”
Ned felt a “but” coming.
“But, we’ve got to have characters. When do we get to the part about his emotions after having murdered his wife? It’s got to be emotionally devastating to him or the whole book doesn’t work. Have you redrafted that part yet?”
“No. But it’s coming.” Ned felt nauseous as he reflected on the previous night’s work. “I’ll deal with the emotions today.”
“I can’t wait. It’s key to the entire story. It’s got to be perfect.”
“I’m working on it, Jack,” Ned said, finally becoming irritated. “I’ll send it to you when I’m finished.”
Ned collapsed back into bed and dropped the telephone in the floor beside the nightstand. He had just shut his eyes when his wife called from the kitchen, “Ned. Have you seen the cat?”