THOUGHTS ON ‘OLD HABITS’

Yesterday saw the last part of ‘Old Habits’ posted here.

I was going to say that the initial idea was about eighteen months old, but that was the last time the original file was altered before I started this rewrite for the blog. The start of the file was easily a couple of years before that, probably more, and the germ of the idea before I put fingers to keyboard was about ten years ago.

I suspect on reflection that some of the implicit timelines underlying the story work on this basis and may be stretched if one assumes it is a current event.

It started life when I was writing a fair bit about the idea of a retired, or semi retired, or possibly disgraced, former intelligence officer of some kind dragged back into a world he used to inhabit. The central conceit being that although he is generally out of touch he can still hack it, and does what he was unable to while he was working and solves, resolves or otherwise brings some sort of closure to a singular problem of his service period that he failed to address successfully then.

We’d all like a second chance at bits of our past I suspect. Or at least we think we would.

It is a story, not real life so I quickly put aside the reality that this type of revisiting past glories would take – an enquiry or a request to come and go through some old paperwork – and took a step into the more unlikely but infinitely more entertaining world of unsanctioned violence.

I was unsure when I first sat down to write this piece, or what became this piece, where it fitted. I had several starts to the basic story and in most of those, his marriage had gone south and his wife, with or without the children, had left him. This cleared the way for a more dramatic beginning chapter with actual violent action on the page, rather than the off stage version in ‘Old Habits’. It happened in his home and was not at all premeditated on his part.

The initial scene of ‘Old Habits’ in the house would easily have fitted in a couple of versions as a later part of the overall idea and could in fact have been the denouement, assuming I could tidy up the clash between absent family and present family.

So the initial draughts of the piece came out at about much the same length as the current short story but were full of discursive pieces, and not just about the type of tea he made. There were extensive tell not show thoughts as he checked and loaded the gun and made sure the electronic kit was working. This moved the action on hardly at all. By the time, in subsequent draughts, I had got him to the woods, where the showdown with the men who had been instrumental in effectively ending his career, originally took place, it was much longer and I was bored.

Looking at the story as I left it, unincorporated into the novel I thought it might belong too, it became clear it had way too much explanation jammed into it. This was probably because I was almost making notes about plot that should/would have been dropped in throughout a much longer novel. Or I was just horribly over writing it.

When I sat down and looked at the explanations, plot devices and meditations, some worked and I have lifted them for incorporation into the still ongoing novel, and some have just been abandoned in the original unfinished piece.

What was left, plus some major changes, e.g. woods to abandoned market hall, have been turned into ‘Old Habits’. I liked the original concept but didn’t want to shoehorn it into what was clearly a different story, nor did I want to write a parallel piece that was exactly the same as the other barring a few details, like a recurring Guy Ritchie film. (If I could be as successful as him from the same shtick all the time I would probably jump at the chance).

So this what it turned into. I wanted it to be short. My short stories nearly always top out way beyond what modern markets seem to want, so I set a rough two thousand word limit on it and still came out c170 words over. Out went explanations of how he had managed to get hold of and retain a revolver and ammunition, more discursion on his taste in tea (believe me it sounded really cool when I wrote it) and most problematic; the detailed explanation of the reason for the act of violence and the description of the reckoning itself.

One kind soul has suggested this emasculates the story and they really wanted a blow by blow, knock ’em down, drag ’em out, description of the encounter in the market and how the bodies were disposed of. For me that is a different, much longer story. To include that would have extended the piece to at least three thousand words and really would have unbalanced it. As part of the bigger piece of writing it would have been entirely appropriate and probably necessary, but I don’t think I could have done it justice in my, admittedly self imposed word limit.

I know because I tried, and ended up with lots and lots of scene setting, explanations, dialogue, flashbacks and action that could have become another novel in themselves, and may do some day. It didn’t however fit in a two thousand word short story.

So for better or worse, there it is.

There are I confess lots of questions about how, what and why. As long as there are no impossible answers that’s what I was aiming for.

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