Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sniper of the 99%

When I fall in love with a character, I always want to share. Right now, as I hunt for an agent and edit "Rise of the Paramancers" (both frustrating slogs) one of my escapes is telling the story of Evil Eye, the sniper of the 99%.

He's a veteran of an unnecessary foreign war (intervention, adventure, choose your euphemism), one designed to relocate the public wealth of the American taxpayer into the private pockets of military contractors. A war designed to never end. Meanwhile, back home, new privatization initiatives lead to cuts in health care for veterans. They especially nickel and dime on mental health care, which is what Evil Eye needs. He tries to obtain care through every proper channel before concluding that there is no difference between the evil men he was trained to kill and the evil men who deny his right to health. The C.E.O. slaughter begins.

Having finished his "origin story" I'm now working on the next chapter in his life. What will happen to this man of the people once he catches a whiff of fame? What will happen when he has to face an inconvenient fact? These men he's killing are bastards, but they have families, and each shot produces a widow and some fatherless children.

I hope readers will find the character enjoyable on multiple levels. He's easy to root for and yet he isn't 100% right. He's flawed but fighting.

Here's a sneak preview of the first section of the first "Evil Eye" story. Enjoy.

Evil Eye

They blame it on my P.T.S.D. The rebels and the ones who call themselves patriots. It’s condescending either way. Offensive, really. My mind is whole, even if my brain is muddled. It was my I.Q. that made them want to train me for their sniper squad in the first place. The dumb guys, they just throw them in infantry. Meat for the war machine.
I read this one reporter who said I never came home from the war. He’s right. But he didn’t have to have that tone. I’m a soldier. Soldiers hate being pitied. I’m not pitiful. I’m pitiless. When they call me that, I’m proud.
I never came home from the war. War means fighting. I fight everyday now, just like I did overseas. They call it, “losing time”. I lose time. Then I fight to keep my head focused on where I am, and what I have to do.
I have to stop. This isn’t about me. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. This was never about me. This was always about J.J.
Back in the war J.J. and I were the pride of our sniper squad. We were always lying on our bellies on some rocky hill, in some bombed-out building. There was sand and searing wind. We blazed days and froze nights. It was a country that started with Ira- or ended in –stan. We can call it Ira-stan. Let’s not pretend you care.
I was the spotter. We studied our marks for weeks. We learned their routines. Our wives sent us diapers and baby wipes from home. We asked for them. We lied and said they were donations, to help us win the hearts and minds of the locals. The truth is, if we were studying a mark, we never took our eyes off them. If our targets were active, or it felt like we should be watching, we shit our diapers, right where we were laying. Then we took turns changing, treated ourselves to some baby wipes.
We were talking about our marks. Omar. I liked to name them. J.J. hated that. He said they’re harder to kill if you name them. I said every man should have a name. We had that argument choreographed. Like the one I used to have with my wife when she wasted tooth paste.
Snipers and spotters. It’s like a marriage.
He was southern, J.J. I’m from Pennsylvania. He first joined the Marines after 9/11 ‘cause he “wanted to kill moose-lambs”. That’s how he said it.
It was weird. We argued over everything. We argued for years. The crippling idiocy or stalwart leadership of George W. Bush. Keynesian economics vs. that trickle-down Milton Friedman bullshit he was into. Later, we argued about whether or not Obama was really a moose-lamb from Kenyer.
But my reason for signing up wasn’t that different from his. I’m a liberal. I’m even against the death penalty. I think our justice system is too corrupt to trust with life and death. Strange belief for a sniper? I study my targets personally. We research for months before a trigger gets pulled. Then we take our own shot.
I know. I said I was a spotter. I’m getting there.
I was trying to say my reason for joining the Marines. I’m a liberal but 9/11 made me see evil. It made me see some men are unrepentant killers. It made me see that some men will spend their lives doing nothing but inflicting agony on others, if they’re permitted. Humanitarians argue it’s always wrong to kill, and I half admire their unwillingness to compromise. Maybe I’m just too practical. Some men need killing. Their deaths raise the quality of life for every human being who survives them.
Addition by subtraction.
On that point, me and J.J. were in total agreement. When our political arguments got too heated and somebody’s feelings were getting hurt, that’s what we came back to. “Addition by subtracshin,” J.J. said. “Ah like it.”
“You know what this means,” I told him. “We have to become unrepentant killers ourselves.”
“Paradox,” J.J. said. “My daddy used to say growin’ up meant dealin’ with paradox. Fuck it. We’re right and they’re wrong. Ain’t no paradox here.”
J.J. didn’t like the idea we had any thing in common with the enemy. And he hated that I named the guard Omar. He didn’t want me to name them at all. It made them harder to shoot he said. And I said every man should have a name. It was choreographed. I might’ve said this before.
“Then yer shootin’,” he said. I tried to think of a good reason to disagree.
When I think about it now, I lose time. But I couldn’t have lost time that night. My head was still whole back then.
Somehow, some way I don’t remember, my binoculars wind up around J.J.’s neck, and one of my eyes stares into his scope.
Omar smokes at sundown. He’s a pacer too. He smokes and paces. But tonight he’s pacing and smoking in a new language. Frantic. Tonight Omar is frantic.
Omar guards a small bunker in a world of shifting sands. Intel says he’s with the new Al Qaeda, “The Lord’s Wrath”. Based on the amount of electronic data flying in and out of this place, the location is important to them. So we watch it. We watch and wait, just like Omar.
“Squirrelly t’night ain’t he?” J.J. says. I take my eye out of the scope and look at him. So that’s what I look like with binoculars jammed against my face. I look back into the scope. The door behind Omar opens.
The man who emerges is Omar’s superior, I decide. We first saw him last week. He has a neater beard. His black shoes gleam in the sun. His hair is always washed and gelled back. Omar puts out his cigarette when this man approaches. Usually. Not tonight. Tonight Omar’s superior asks for Omar’s cigarette. He lights his own with it. They converse. They have a skittish laugh together.
“Mohammad looks nervous too,” I say.
“Stop fuckin’ naming ‘em,” J.J. reminds. In my scope, Mohammad points and shouts. They trample their cigarettes, burying the butts in the sand.
“Check it out,” J.J. says. “East ridge.”
I adjust my body, keeping my face buried in the scope.
No flags. There are no flags on the truck that appears on the horizon. There aren’t many cars in this country, nor roads to drive them on. When you see a truck, it usually has state flags displayed somewhere. That’s supposed to tell our drone operators, “You can blow me up, but the diplomatic incident won’t be worth the paperwork.”
“No flags,” I say. “Just an unmarked Range Rover, remarkable in how unremarkable it’s made to look.”
“Tinted glass,” J.J. observes. “That’s a incognito Lord’s Wrath V.I.P. I fuckin’ guarantee it.”
“You should shoot,” I say. “We could be court-martialed.” J.J. laughs.
“Don’t soak yer panties. Just us out here. You miss, an’ we’ll say I missed. Better yet, just don’t fuckin’ miss. But let’s make sure this ain’t the bread delivery b’fore we get all hot n’ bothered.”
Men with AK-47s emerge from the van, scanning the area. One whistles and makes a whirl in the air with his finger. Another taps twice on the tinted black window. An unarmed man steps out.
I don’t have to name this one. Every sniper in the military knows his face. Every American with a television has seen his videos.
“That’s Amar fuckin’ Atta,” J.J. says. “T’night we burn the bridge ‘tween Al Qaeda and Lord’s Wrath.”
“This is your shot,” I say.
“That’s what it’ll say on the paperwork,” J.J. says. “But back at the nest yer gettin’ the credit.” J.J. was always like that. He never let me be anything but my best.
I can’t believe I’m staring at Amar Atta. He’s so small. His clothes are so plain. He has thin glasses and a thinner beard. He has the vacant expression of a librarian organizing returned books.
This is the man who helped bin Laden plan the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 1998. In the waning days of Al Qaeda, he assembled the men who became the Lord’s Wrath. And then the Chicaco Subway attack – the rush-hour Chlorine bombing just after the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The messages were clear. We can smuggle through Canada. We can hit your heartland. We can manufacture bio weapons straight out of your bleakest sci-fi nightmares.
We can hit back too, you demented fuck. The mind behind all that ruin is in my crosshairs. And I can make it pulp. There’s just one thing I have to ask J.J. first.
“You think it’ll change anything?”
“Dunno. One thing’s fer sure, he ain’t ever gonna stop killin’ unless you stop him.” Of course, J.J. was right. Time for addition by subtraction.
“How the wind?”
“Very slight, outta the southeast. Correct left just a bit.”
“What are my follows?”
“Git Mohammad if you can. He’s a somebody. Then hit the front tire on that truck. Sun’s still behind us. They’re gonna look our way after the shot. Then Allah’s gonna blind ‘em.”
“Alright. Let’s do it.”
“Just like takin’ his picture,” J.J. reassured. I hated that. They said that in basic. I was blowing a sun roof in a man’s skull. It was pretty fucking far from taking his picture.
Atta barks at Mohammad and Omar. He points toward their buried cigarettes. I correct left. I pull the trigger.
Atta’s head bursts like an overripe melon. Mohammad’s face is covered in sudden gore. He looks up into my scope and squints in the sunlight. I fire my second shot, right through his eye. Omar ducks behind a barrel. Atta’s guards shoot wildly, squinting towards us. I fire my third shot and the truck’s front tire pops. Their truck slouches uselessly forward.
“Fuckin’ eagle eye shootin!” J.J. says, slapping my back. “Let’s get the fuck outta here!” We run into the setting sun as bullets chase our heels.

(end of free preview)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing Advice Greatest Hits Volume One

I had one of those great teacher moments today. A former student took time out of his day to seek my help on a piece he's writing just because he wants to. As the deluge of testing-induced excrement begins to fall in the next few weeks, I'm clinging to this moment with both hands.

I’m in the middle of searching for an agent this month, so there’s little to report on the career front. This entry is all about good writing advice I’ve received over the years. I thought, why not share? This is my paraphrasing of advice I’ve received, with credit given to the people who’ve influenced me. These are not quotes.

-Give the present tense a try. It gives a sense of immediate vitality to a story. –Jeff Mann

-The plot has to challenge the character. The minute they’re safe and cozy, we’re bored. – John Adamus.

-Before you send in a book for submission, ask yourself if someone bought it at an airport and read it on their flight, would they leave it behind? If the answer is yes, you still have revision to do. That kind of writing is disposable (I’m looking at you, twilight), it isn’t even worth the time to open a suitcase to tuck it in. Great writing haunts the reader. They would never hesitate to take it with them. –Rosalind Buckenberry, twilight bashing by me.

-You don’t have to go out of your way to invent poignant situations for your characters. Your own life is already full of heavy, cinematic moments. Just use what’s already happened to you and repurpose it for your character. –Richard Weems

-Don’t over-tell. Let the characters speak. Give me action and interaction. Let the character play on the page. –Roberta Clipper

-Use one verb. –John Adamus

And one of my all time favs…

-There’s nothing much to writing. You just have to stand at the typewriter and bleed.
–from Ernest Hemingway, it didn’t so end well for him, but his books were downright spiffy

I haven’t broken through as a writer just yet, but this advice has taken me this far. I’ve finished two novels and one short story collection and I have five published short stories. These are the pieces of advice that have gotten me this far. I hope they can help any writer greener than me to progress.

-James Russell