Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: First Draft


Around the first of September, my health shaky, my mind fluttering and befogged, I shuffled to the end of the first draft of my next novel Butchertown. I finished later than expected, figuring June or July. Didn’t happen.

Butchertown is a gangster thriller set in 1922 in a fictionalized West Coast city. First among its antecedents is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Some may hear an echo of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire while others will sense the ominous thunder of the original The Untouchables TV series and the original Scarface. But whatever the echoes, I hope readers will forget them, as they’re pulled into its bloody torrent.

One quality of a great genre novel is that it gives the reader the illusory feeling that they’ve never read anything like it before, though they have many times. From my own experience, I think of Red Harvest, Ghost Story, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Among more recent books, The Sisters Brothers gave me that vibe. I hope readers will have the same experience with Butchertown.

The first draft of Butchertown runs a total of 231 pages and over 67,000 words. Those of you who were around during early Dragon’s Ark days will recall the first draft of that book topped 600 pages, around 170,000 words.

Butchertown’s page/word count represents quite a drop, but is easily explained. Dragon’s Ark was told from multiple viewpoints. The events stretched over a period of months. Butchertown, like many—maybe most—noir novels, is told in first person singular; further, its querulous events tumble across a compressed period of time, namely one really horribly long weekend and a day.

No worries about over length here. However, I do feel a little concerned with under length; with a writing a tale that comes off as an undernourished herky-jerky, Post-modern mashup of older, better books, rather like Tarantino movies at their most annoying.

Writing the draft went smoothly. (Then again, I wonder if that isn’t always the case. The words bubble and sizzle quickly up on the screen as I jam along, their true worth unnoticed until much later, when I see them, thin and lonely, stranded across bleak snowfields of paper.)

As I finished each chapter, I would read it aloud to my wife, Elizabeth, who, whatever her natural and correct biases, found the story to be a ripping, gripping page turner. That was the first thing I needed to know.

My pace slowed along with me when I fell ill in early July. I lived in gaps of thoughtless time, wobbling at the office door before retreating back to bed to the warm bliss of sleep and the sleek rectangle of my i-Pad. I even took to handicapping horse races just to keep the brain cells mindlessly churning. I hated the news and rejected all attempts at profundity.

Finally, as recovery slowly began and a wedding anniversary/recuperative vacation approached, some kind of closing appeared called for. The last two chapters floated up in the anemic pond of my miasma. I scooped them off the surface and poured them out.

When I returned home, I let the draft stew and simmer out of sight a couple of weeks more, as my body continued to heal. At the end of September, I printed it out in double-space, 12-point Roman and sat down at the dining nook table to read it over line by line, paragraph by paragraph.


As I predicted, writing the first draft was a lot more fun than reading it. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop to wrestle and fuss over every tree, but instead read it for the forest; meaning for its general attributes such as flow, story, and the general cloth of its characters. I found, after a while though, that I couldn’t really keep that promise.

For one, those weedy details count for a lot: do I need that strand? Do I not? Do I need it here or elsewhere—this is especially a problem with crime clues. A mystery writer is always caught in the dilemma between giving away the game too soon or waiting too long so it looks he’s dumping a thousand rabbits out of his hat.

Further, filigree is not always merely filigree. A choice of neck scarf, an allergy to certain materials matter; even one’s choice of drink might be a life and death trigger. The stray detail, spit out, slapped down, considered useless suddenly becomes a thin but strong stand in the larger web, while another lovingly detailed and admired moment means nothing after all and is discarded with only a pang.

So, I slowed down, but not too much, dodging entanglements with the always absorbing details of adjectives, adverbs, and sentence structure. I swore a lot, left red slashes like Freddy Krueger, circled with question marks, and jotted down actual questions.

Sometimes all I could do was emit a self-forgiving sigh, mumble something about Shakespeare et al writing pages of absolute shit before getting it right. (I’m the only one who really has to smell it.) Then I moved on.

On many days, rereading and rewriting Butchertown is only a job like any other. Let no one call this romance. Ecstasy is brief and fleeting. Like the English say so aptly, “Well, get on with it then!”


No, not an entirely pleasant experience. Though I think my story an excellent one, its tissue remains distressingly patchy in many places, especially toward the end, the Sick Section, as you might call it.

One thing I like very much is my protagonist, a fellow seldom seen in the back alleys of crime and thriller fiction nowadays. (Those who’ve read my criticism likely know my attitude toward contemporary genre heroes.) I’m already outlining a new adventure to maneuver him in to. By force, if necessary. “My characters,” a favorite writer of mine was known to say, “are slaves.”

My antagonists so far, are a colorful, meaty stew of femme fatales, trigger-happy lowlifes, thugs, and self-styled schemers, grimy and unwashed with one or two exceptions. There are two others characters whose appearances I hope surprise, as people like these don’t often appear in this genre (or are treated with any understanding.) Some characters are still much too scrawny, too much in the wallpaper and need to be brightened and beefed up, pushed into this small arena, into the bloody swirling chaos of Butchertown.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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