Writing Exercise 2

Read the following story and tell me what’s wrong with it. (Actually, don’t really bother to read. Just pretend that you did and come back to it for reference. Start reading where it says START READING HERE.)

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure. It was an assignment I deliberately lobbied for. I think I have a natural talent for lobbying in the bureaucratic environment. Definitely more than for street level investigation. Even though I sought a career in law enforcement because I desperately wanted to be on the action end of the guns-and-handcuffs game, I gave up on that genre of police work after I realized I had no talent for the job I had romanticized all my childhood. Reality hits you quickly when you badly botch an undercover sting.

My alias was Danny Abatangelo. I thought that sounded a lot more gangster-like than Daniel Fairbanks. I was sold as a friend of a friend of Mickey Donati, a real life crook and a second nephew of a notable made man now in protective custody. A few name drops and some recommendations from carefully planted moles and stooges set the stage for my legitimacy. I was cocky. I was upbeat. I was ready to be Steven Seagal. Why not? I had just received my post graduate degree in criminal investigation summa cum laude from one of the most prestigious universities on the East Coast. I was too naïve to realize that was not where the best ground level cops came from. In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department. I took the advice from the half dozen self-help books I had read which invariably advised me to go straight to the top. So, within a month of being employed, I went over the heads of an entire chain of command, ambushed the deputy chief in the hallway between meetings and talked my foot into the door to the most dangerous segment of the NYPD, namely, undercover organized crime investigation.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for. We attribute all our successes to our own talent and effort and discount the influence of our privileged environment. But when we do not get what we want, we blame it on foreign influences, usually on the failure of others. We are the last ones to see how incompetent we really are. I was that kid. Maybe I still am. When I was diving head first into the underground world of organized crime I was still religiously convinced of my omnipotence. I knew I could accomplish anything if I tried. That kind of optimism, so useful in school, could get you killed in police work. The six weeks of undercover training seemed largely redundant to me. I felt that there was little I could not have learned from two decades of cable TV. The rest I had already read about in postgraduate school and police academy. I played along. I was a good student those six weeks. A few voices grumbled questioning my suitability for a bare knuckles job, but nobody really called me out for the ticking time bomb I really was.

So with little training and less prudence, I suddenly found myself paraded in front of Ronny Fabbri and Vinny Bandoni in a smoke filled dive only three days into my assignment. I felt proud that I had gotten so deep in such record time. Ronny Fabbri, the centerpiece of our investigation, was the head of a medium sized branch of mob activity. He was only a rung or two below being a made man and had a long list of bad things attributed to him. Vinny Bandoni was his beastly right hand man. He was so big, it was said that he preferred pistols that had no trigger guards because his fat fingers would not fit in them. The two occupied a small round table with a large ashtray full of cigar buts and two darkened amish chairs. Ronny was in the process of lighting another cigar. The room was full of gangsters, some well-known some less so, in loose fitting suits, casual shirts and gold ornaments. Minny Campo, the pale, gaunt and whiskered guy who escorted me, introduced me to the crowd as “the new kid I was talkin’ about”. As he said this the room fell suddenly quiet and attentive. If I had any street smarts that should have tipped me off that something was wrong. In fact something was already very wrong. Soon after I met Minny two days before on my very first day, introduced to him by a secret informant for the NYPD, I casually mentioned that I was to be known as “Danny the Ghost”. I got that idea from a short-lived TV series called The Ghost Squad about a group of undercover agents. I thought all gangsters had nicknames like that. As it happens, only the greatest of the great mobsters, the Titans of the underworld, go by compound nicknames. Tony Spilotro was “Tony the Ant”. Tony Accardo was “Joe Batters Accardo”. Charles Luciano was “Lucky Luciano”. And Al Capone was “Scarface Capone”. You have to be feared by the fearless and respected by the most irreverent before you can dare to have a multi-word nickname. You can have a simple alias like “Joe” or “Nick” that is different from your given name or something descriptive like “Scars”, “Shorty” or “Bear” but not a compound nickname like “Danny the Ghost”. A compound nickname is a title bestowed upon kings. Anyone familiar with the world of crime should have known that. In the day following my first meeting with Minny, the word got around and the gangsters spent a whole evening having a hearty laugh at the story of the arrogant young recruit who did not know any better than to breach such a sacred code. And now, I was the subject of show and tell. I was the new kid Minny Campo was talkin’ about.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost” he said after a while. Some fiendish chuckles could be heard from the back of the room.

“Sure. That’s me” I said, putting on my best Dennis Farina impression which is something a twenty four year old guy from the Upper East Side should never try to do in front of real life mobsters.

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” More chuckles.

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” Ronny Fabbri repeated very slowly with a menacing smile. He spread his arms in a wide shrug and turned toward the room full of gangsters behind him. There was more laughter this time.

“Do you know what business I am in?” asked Fabbri.

“Yes.” As green as I was, I could somehow feel the tension building up.

“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?” All the gangsters laughed. I felt totally humiliated. I could feel my face burning up.

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there”

Ronny Fabbri was grinning wider. The room was laughing at every word I spoke. It was not supposed to be like this. My head was hot. My mind was in a tailspin. I struggled not to lose my Dennis Farina. The more I spoke the more they laughed.

“I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” He poked my chest with a finger of the hand that held his cigar.

“Y-yeah” I said tentatively. There was a sudden silence in the room. Everyone stopped laughing. The grin disappeared from Fabbri’s face. Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. Half the room seemed to be waiting for the same thing. Seconds ticked away. My temples pulsed. I imagined Fabbri picking up a golf club and smashing in my skull.

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

I could have sworn I heard someone swallow down a gasp. The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

While I was groping for something to say, I nearly jumped at the metallic clink of a Zippo lighter. He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand?”

Before I could respond he gestured to Minny Campo and said “Get him outa here.” He sat back down on his battered amish chair. When my back turned to him as Minny took my arm, Ronny Fabbri called out “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!” The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.

(START READING HERE)

Needless to say, this is a first draft. It is actually like a memo. Something to help you remember what you novel idea was later on when you really have the time to write. Any editor, or even any reader could find a hundred things wrong with it. That is why we all need to self-edit. But editing line by line is such a chore. Nobody enjoys slashing and deleting what they have written. So let me propose a new way to self-edit.

Step 1. Pick out one sentence from each paragraph and copy/paste it. Leave the quotations as they are.

My first undercover assignment was a miserable failure.

In retrospect, it was something of a miracle that I could peddle myself as a potential undercover agent to the deputy chief of the New York Police Department.

The trouble with us overachieving kids from rich neighborhoods is that we are generally incapable of believing that there is something in the world we are unequipped for.

And now, I was the subject of show and tell.

Ronny Fabbri leaned back in his chair toying with his unlit cigar and grinned as he took a measure of me.

“So you’re Danny the Ghost”

“Sure. That’s me”

“What can you do for me Danny the Ghost?” 

“Well I usually specialize in theft … break-ins.”

“What else?”

“Mostly anything.”

“Most-ly any-thing” “Do you know what business I am in?” 

Yes.”

“Then you should know that *mostly* anything ain’t gonna cut it.”

“Look, if you can give me a job I can do it.”

“Like what? Washing windows?”

“I could steal… rob… I can disarm most alarm systems…I can be invisible. You’ll never know I was there” “I could beat someone up. I could effing kill somebody…”

“Effing? Did you just say effing?”

“I mean…”

Ronny Fabbri stood up slowly.

“How are you going to kill somebody? You mean like a contract?” 

“Y-yeah”

Vinny Bandoni was leaning forward in his chair as if he was waiting for a command to pounce on me. 

“Okay Danny the Ghost. I want you to go kill William Gorman.”

The room was roaring with laughter only seconds ago but now the air was so tense you could hear the silence.

“Who’s that?”

“He’s a lawyer. He’s tall. He’s black. I want him dead. That’s all you need to know.”

He finally lit his cigar and spoke through the smoke.

“You got twenty four hours. Get it done and I’ll pay you a hundred grand. If he ain’t dead in twenty four hours, I’ll kill you slow and throw you in the same ditch as Gorman. Do you understand? “Get him outa here.”  “Go effing kill Gorman, Danny the Ghost, or you’re effing dead!”

The room was filled with laughter again as Minny closed the door behind us.

Step 2. See if the copy-paste version makes sense as a story. If you can pick out other sentences that make better sense, exchange them.

The original passage was 1432 words. The copy-paste version is only 367 words. It is not better writing, but you can still follow the story pretty well. Which means that about 1065 words were redundant. More strikingly, the first four paragraphs which had 997 words have been reduced to just 74 words and you can still follow the story. 923 words, roughly 92.6% of the words were redundant.

Step 3. Put back in descriptions that you feel are absolutely necessary, but not more than one or two sentences per paragraph.

Step 4. Start doing some conventional editing.

I think this is a much less painful way to deal with your brainchild. Nobody wants to slaughter their own creation. But you cannot hire a professional editor when all you have is a first draft. You have to chop up your creation and improve it. It’s best to do it in the most painless way possible. For that, a fixed regimen like “Extract only one sentence per paragraph” will come in pretty handy.

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