“But I Wanted To Tell That Story, Too”: When A Sub-Plot Is Really Just Another Plot (Lesson Learned)

Four thousand miles to the east, a new day was beginning. With
each passing minute, the sun’s rays heated the equatorial waters of
the Mauritanian coastline and generated an oppressive blanket of steam
that covered everything. The only relief was the relative breeze created
solely by the forward motion of the fishing boat. Sofiane Belmokhtari,
an Algerian and ethnic Moor, stood at the bow of the vessel looking aft
toward the pilot house. He was not a fisherman, and he was thankful of
that fact the more he observed the condition of the boat he was on. The
boat was an even blend of white and rust. Sofiane was keenly aware of
the smell of hake that permeated the entire boat. The fishing nets, lines
and floats reeked of fish. It was evident that this boat was used often and
recently, though today the lines remained coiled, the nets neatly piled on
the fantail. They were not fishing today.

So begins Chapter Five of my first novel, Open Source, and the beginning of a sub-plot that could just as easily have been left out.

Why I chose to include this sub-plot

Open Source is a book about an ordinary man’s brush with the world of illegal international arms deals and geopolitical intrigue with a backbone of modern piracy/maritime hijacking providing the glue that holds the story together. Casey Shenk is that “ordinary man.” A vending route driver from Savannah, Georgia, who blogs his way into trouble, Casey unwittingly finds himself the target of an Israeli assassin and the Russian mafia, putting him and his friends in extreme danger, when all they really wanted to do was drink beer and sing karaoke. But that’s life, I guess…or fictional life.

The main players throughout are Casey, the Israeli Mossad, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Russian gangsters, and a private intelligence consulting firm in New York City.

Sofiane Belmokhtari is an Algerian cab driver.

See, the book starts with the hijacking of the M/V Baltic Venture. It is a news report about the hijacking that catches the attention of Casey Shenk, the story’s main protagonist. Casey writes a blog about what he thinks might be the true story behind the ship’s mysterious disappearance and all hell breaks loose–for Casey, anyway.

When the Baltic Venture anchors off the coast of Mauritania to take on supplies, Sofiane is on the supply boat (described above). Only, he’s not there to deliver supplies, he’s there to take delivery of a package that is being smuggled on the ship. No one else onboard either vessel–the cargo ship or the fishing boat–know about Sofiane’s true purpose.

Sofiane recovers the package and begins a journey back to Algeria. The story of that journey, including the reason behind the Algerian’s mission, is told over 23 pages. The final result of his mission is revealed as reporting in five pages near the end of the book. So if you count those last five, the Sofiane Belmokhtari sub-plot is only 28 of 378 printed pages. That’s only 7.4% of the entire book. But was it necessary?

Not really.

You see, Sofiane’s final act serves as an impetus for our heroes to make one final play to get the truth out–about the hijacking, the arms deal,…everything. But the fact that Sofiane Belmokhtari, a taxi driver in the city of Algiers, was the one who sparked that action on the part of Casey Shenk and friends is immaterial.

BUT, Sofiane’s story allowed me to explore and comment on (through story narrative) Islamic terrorism and corruption in many of the North African governments–a full five months before the Tunisian Revolution and the start of the Arab Spring, mind you. This sub-plot in Open Source was fun to write, but it really didn’t do anything for the overall book.

I have only had a few comments from readers about the seemingly disconnected story of Sofiane since I published the book in July 2010, but those comments were either neutral or negative in the readers’ minds. After writing two more novels in the Casey Shenk series, I tend to agree with those folks.

Sub-plots that do not connect in a more meaningful way than Sofiane’s to the main plotline of the story, merely serve a distraction. In my case, the journey of a revenge-minded Algerian from through the northwest countryside of Africa merely served to disrupt the pacing of the story as a whole. And THAT is not good.

In hindsight, Sofiane’s story would have made a good (great?) short story, but it really had no place in the larger work of Open Source.

Lesson learned.


How I Use “Soundtracks” To Help Me Write When I’m Not Writing

“The Official Motion Picture Soundtrack.” How many of those do you own? I know I owned a few soundtracks on cassette tape when I was growing up. Some of these albums were a central part of the film for which they were recorded, like Purple Rain (which I wore out listening to) or [insert musical title here] (which I did not own…because I don’t like musicals).

Purple Rain

But most soundtracks were recorded to provide an audible background intended to enhance the movie by putting the audience in the right mood or frame of mind at just the right time, so they would experience the film the way the director intended.

Remember the title track to Jaws?….Of course you do….It works, doesn’t it?

For movies, sure, but what about books? They don’t have soundtracks. They rely on the author’s ability to put words on the page to set the mood or guide the reader’s frame of mind. There’s no help from an awesome John Williams score to prod the reader into seeing the point the author was trying to make or feeling the emotion he was trying to evoke.

That’s all on the back end, though, after the book is published. What about before that point? When the book is being written? Does an author have an “Official Printed Page Soundtrack” while he’s putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, creating the next New York Times Bestseller?

I DO. I mean, I don’t have any delusions about getting on the NYT list anytime soon, but I do put together a soundtrack for each writing project.

Movies of the Mind

I talked about how I like to have to outline a book project on several different levels before I start writing in Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway). I also mentioned in that post how the outlining process usually takes me a few months to get through. But for the outlining to work, I have to have an idea of where the story I brainstormed is going to go (how it will move from beginning to end…the middle part is always the most difficult, but also the most fun to develop).

Just as important as moving the plot along, though, is how the characters–particularly the main protagonist and antagonist–will develop throughout the story. At some point, these characters are going to run into conflicts, and they will need to adjust in order to overcome those obstacles. How they adjust to each new situation is tempered by their own personalities and abilities.

Sure, they will likely have to step outside their comfort zone, and they may even do things, or say things, they never thought they’d do or say. Sometimes the personal or emotional consequences are good–sometimes not so good.

And for each of these situations, in both the plot and character development progression, there is an accompanying song that plays in the background of the mental motion picture playing in my head. Those songs help me stay focused on the mood and emotion I want to convey to the reader at each point in the story when I do start writing–especially when I am in the scene-by-scene outlining phase. I like to think of myself as the director of a movie in my mind, and the music helps set the tone.

Writing without a Pen

This is where the book soundtrack really does its work.

Millions of people spend an average of 400 hours on the road commuting to and from work every year. (I just made that up…but at least I can admit when I’m pulling statistics from my hind end, unlike [DELETED BY DIRECTION OF WH COMM OFFICE].) Many people use that time in the car to “read” by listening to an audio book. I did that for years when I had a no-kidding full-time job in the Navy, and I was attending the National Intelligence University at night and on weekends. I got through mass quantities of possible research material for class papers that way.

I obviously wasn’t writing those papers while I was driving, but I was thinking about things I may or may not use as references as I listened. That’s what I do with the soundtracks I put together for each writing project.

For The Complicity Doctrine, one of the songs on my playlist was “Duck and Run” by 3 Doors Down. In that book, the protagonist, Casey Shenk, is the victim and witness to a bombing that killed several people and injured many more. He was eating an onion bagel when the explosion happened. That traumatic event could have caused Casey to say, “F— this, I’m outta here,” pack his bags, and move out of the Big Apple and back down to Savannah where life was much simpler. But he didn’t. Like the song, Casey refused to “duck and run,” because that’s not who he was…and the book would have ended around page 53, which wouldn’t do me any good.

That song helped me shape Casey’s actions in the subsequent chapters and scenes, as well. And that was just one of the 20-plus songs I put together for that book. I will listen to the book’s soundtrack every time I’m in the car–I burn the iTunes playlist onto CD(s)–and as I’m listening, I am picturing how the characters will act and interact as the plot unfolds. I am writing the manuscript in my head as the background music plays. When I get to where I’m going, whether it’s work or home or wherever, I’ll write down notes on whatever thoughts came to mind during my commute.

So even when I’m not writing, I’m still “writing.” Thanks to book soundtracks.


Planning: The Importance of Outlining (for me, anyway)

Just like the Russians, according to the late Fred Thompson in the film version of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, I also need a plan. Maybe not to use the toilet, but I definitely need a detailed outline before I start the daunting task of writing a novel.

Planning vs. Pantsing

I didn’t start out that way, in writing, I mean (I don’t think I’ve ever “planned” how to answer the call of nature). When I came up with the idea for Open Source, I was living at the office in Naples, Italy, where I worked. My family had moved to California ahead of me, and there was really no other place for me to stay. So what did I do when the rest of the folks went home for the day (except the 24/7 operations center watch)? I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

I was on fire for almost three weeks! I knocked out about 50 pages of a first draft (around 12,500 words) writing every evening and on weekends. But after that opening salvo, the guns went silent. I realized that I didn’t know where I was going with the story–or the characters–and I had visions of my previous failed efforts from my high school days.

In writing parlance, this method of sitting down, maybe with a cup of coffee beside you, and letting the story flow from your brain to the page, is called “pantsing.” It comes from the method of writing by the seat of your pants.

Problem was, I hadn’t done enough thinking things through to even know where the story was headed, let alone where it would end. So I scrapped the first 50 and started over. This time, I fell back on the method I was more comfortable with after years of schooling and publishing three feature articles in a couple of publications. Outlining. Three months worth, in the case of Open Source.

The opposite of pantsing is outlining, or “planning.” There are tons of articles and posts you can find online that argue the merits and/or pitfalls of using each method to craft a story, so I will not enter that fray here. I can tell you, though, planning worked in my case, and I’ve done it ever since.

Here’s an example of the planning/outlining I’ve been doing for my next WIP (work-in-progress…another writing term I’ve had to learn since I decided to take this gig seriously):


(You’ll notice some books in this picture, too. Besides the dictionary, I’ve used those other books for character and plot research. The maps I drew are necessary for keeping the geography and scene location of my fictional town both consistent and plausible. Oh, and the notebooks? I not only take notes and outline on paper, but I also write the novel longhand and type it into the computer when I’m done. This makes my writing office portable, so I can work from the bleachers at my kids’ soccer practices, in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube, or anywhere else I happen to have some dead time.)

So I’m a planner, not a pantser.

For the most part. I plan 95% of the book before tackling an entire manuscript. From broad outlines on a calendar to character bios to scene-by-scene storyboards (without the pictures), I can move things around or change/add parts as needed, without having to dig through an entire completed manuscript looking for holes that need to be filled, and the like.

But I also do some seat-of-the-pants writing at the very beginning. I learned that writing a little bit of the opening scenes/chapters (maybe not 50 pages, though) help to inform my efforts in writing the outline. I get a sense of how I want the story’s mood portrayed, and what the main character’s personality reads like on the page, and then I can get to work on outlining.

Overall, I generally spend about six months researching and outlining before I even start any serious writing. After the heavy lifting is done, however, it doesn’t take long before a completed first-draft manuscript is born.

So that’s how I do it. Bottom line, though, is do whatever works for you. I learned by trial and error, chances are most other writers did, as well. I mean, except Stephen King. That guy’s just a freak of nature…who writes…and scares kids…and makes a lot of money…and plays guitar.