Born Under a Bad Sign: Behind “The Cumberland Package”

IMG_2653 (1) (2)Vernon Stagg was born from a bad book.

A manuscript actually, mine sadly, and fortunately for us all I abandoned it before the querying stage. This was 2011, early yet for me into This Whole Writing Thing. The manuscript was a sort of Westlake-ian, Hiaasen-ian lovechild romp, and no matter what I did, it came out low on cohesion but high on character.

Such as somewhere in Part Two, when one of the baddies, a gold-digger who can’t believe her luck–or abide her fiancé’s creepy attachment–needs a lawyer on her side. The chapter opens with her asking for help busting a prenup, and suddenly this Vernon character just starts riffing. I was as surprised as anyone. Pure bombast and quasi-legal hoo-hah and single entrende come-ons. Great fun, but honestly he soared so far over-the-top that I worried he didn’t work. In that manuscript he probably didn’t, but as a character he killed for anybody that read him.

Vernon Stagg. Self-proclaimed player with the law and the ladies. Gubernatorial prospects inevitable, if only the dogged conspiracy of malpractice suits and the Tennessee Bar Association would stop trashing his good name. In reality Vernon gets by on iced tea and amorality.

And somehow every beta reader rooted for him. Said he stole scenes. Said he’s so thoroughly honest about his dishonesty.

That crime manuscript faded, and so did Vernon. In 2014 came a notice for a writing competition wanting crime stories about lawyers doing law stuff, you pick what. And wanting it quick. I am not a fast writer. My typical story demands months of iterating to gel in voice, pace, Big Honking Moment. Still, I thought, I have this lawyer character in my back pocket. Surely I can see what havoc he can wreak on Nashville.

So I sent something titled “Reprobates” in under the wire, and again thankfully, the piece flopped. It was only half-baked back then, crammed into too short a word limit, and I probably had scads of estate law stuff all wrong.

Failure is a better teacher than success. Vernon would agree in some colorful way, if he could stand to admit he wasn’t already a complete and comprehensive success. Failure gives you something concrete to fix, and in retrospect this story had a few concrete things to fix. Like the length, POV, supporting cast, and ending. Whodun the whodunnit. Yeah, not much at all.

The good news? I still had Vernon the character.

Cumberland Package ready to goSix months of rewrite and a lot of help from talented writer friends later, I had a more rounded and toned-down Vernon and had stumbled into a bigger and better ending. The cast got more page time and the story took off in depth, hilarity and conflict. Like with most zinger endings, it had been there all along, only I was as blind to it as Vernon is to the Bar’s code of ethics.

Not that I thought it a sure thing. “The Cumberland Package,” as it had come to be titled, was way longer than most of my crime stuff. My first two pieces for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, “Aix to Grind” and “Two Bad Hamiltons and a Hirsute Jackson,” both clocked in a third shorter, at 4,400ish words. Same range as the MWA and Bouchercon pieces. And longer stories mean longer odds when up against limited slots and page counts.

And a scene had me fretting myself in circles: an extended dream sequence in which guilt-ridden Vernon is prosecutor, defense attorney and judge in the same mental courtroom. Dream sequences aren’t exactly a thing editors are dying to come across in a submission. Worse, three Vernons in one courtroom debate risked the cardinal sin of reader clarity.

On the other hand, the sequence just flat worked. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Still can’t tell you why. A guess? Vernon himself. Playing all three roles is of course the only way he’d see the finest legal minds battling out for the truth, and his struggle against greed and ambition sets up where he discovers, huh, he has a conscience after all. A sliver as small as legal fine print, but hey.

Still, though, you’re supposed to cut your darlings. Except every time I cut the dream sequence, the arc of that self-discovery fell apart. No punch, no life. I decided to take that risk and submit “Cumberland” with the dream sequence in all its glory. Let Vernon be Vernon.

And this month he leaps into the May 2016 AHMM. I hope you enjoy the Vernon ride, because he sure did. Thanks to AHMM as always, to my critique buddies as always, and thanks most of all to that bloody awful manuscript for bringing Vernon into Vernonhood.

Thank you SMFS!

“The Cumberland Package” was a 2016 finalist for a Derringer Award.


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