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“Is it bigger than a breadbox?” – Deleted Scenes from Shimmer

July 12th, 2010 Comments off
When I’m writing something new, I tend to write far more than I ultimately use. Combined with my habit of writing out of order and without a outline (and without, early in the process, much sense of where I’m going), the whole effort is wildly inefficient.  But that’s just how I write. And so I’ll spend a lot of time on various scenes that I ultimately don’t finish. Sometimes, I’ll finish them, then, in the process of editing and finding some structure for the book, I realize there’s no place for the scene.

The Putt-Putt Golf Scene that Unbridled rightly cut from Shimmer was probably one of those scenes that shouldn’t have made it into my final draft. And below is a scene that I cut from Shimmer on my own, prior to sending the manuscript to anyone.  I think I wanted the scene to be at once funny, and puzzling, and reflective of some sort of deeply ingrained dysfunction in the way businesses operate. The disconnection between what is said and what is heard (and what is meant and what is real).

Maybe the scene does that. But I just couldn’t find a place for it in Shimmer.

“And so really, in the end, my message to you is very simple,” the salesman was saying. It was morning and I was sitting in on a sales presentation to a few members of the tech group. “What I’m offering is a multi-dimensionalized, fully integrated solution that will leverage your core, traditional strengths in what we’ve taken to calling the second transition of the new economy.”

The salesman shrugged with a confident finality. Ran his hand across his carefully unshaven face. He put down the controller to his LCD projector. He sat down in the chair near the end of the table. He had to be less than twenty-five years old.

Around the table, three young men from system administration were nodding seriously toward the salesman. Two young women from software development scribbled detailed notes into handheld computers, both also nodding in appreciation.

A few times a month, I still sat through sales presentations from outside vendors – insurance agents, office product resellers, software vendors. Each promised greater efficiency, increased productivity and quick cost savings for us.

After listening to the salesman’s fifteen-minute presentation, I had a question. Yet I could not find a way to phrase it correctly. However, Leonard, our head of IT who was sitting next to me, he was speaking already, already asking the question on my mind.

“I have to ask,” Leonard started, then paused a moment. “And bear with me, because it will seem obvious that I missed a key point early on in your presentation.” Leonard was nodding toward the projector screen, but let his hand drift across the marketing materials placed carefully on the table. “What, well, what exactly is the goal of this?”

“That’s a great question,” said the salesman. “One that too often does go unanswered. What this is – and at this point I like to use the analogy of your home – what this is the living room furniture, i.e. the sofa, the chairs, the coffee table even,” he said and, for some reason, he laughed lightly as he said it. “A coffee table made of the finest hand laid wood, I should say. And in using that analogy I’m as much saying what this isn’t, as I am saying what it is. It is not the dining room. It is not the kitchen. It is not the attic and certainly it is not a bedroom or basement. Again, it’s the living room, Leonard. A post-analog, new economy living room. And more importantly, it’s an integrated solution.”

The young staffers nodded, scribbling faster, glancing knowingly at one another.

Still the question lingered for me and, I could see, for Leonard.

“Let me put it this way,” Leonard was saying. “Is it software? Or is it hardware?”

The salesman nodded quickly, standing now. “Sure. Great question. You see, it’s neither and, in fact, it’s both. Think of electricity – stored up, generated, passed from power plant to power line, corner pole to building or home. That, really, is the best comparison I can think of.”

“If and when we were to buy this,” Leonard said, “would the item or items arrive in a box? Would it come via email?”

“Truthfully,” the salesman said easily, “because we’re so scalable – the industry press, for instance, has consistently called us the most scalable solution in this space – because of our scalability and the highly tailored approach we take to building your solution, because of that we arrive how you want us to arrive. That’s the beauty of our system. I don’t have to walk in here and sell you on what we have to offer. Instead I simply walk in, let you tell me what you have to say, and then I shape the resulting package around your needs, not mine.”

“Let’s try this,” Leonard was saying now, and I thought that I could see even the innate patience and understanding so central to Leonard’s being, I thought I could see it withering just slightly. “Talk to me in terms of its size,” Leonard said. “Is it small? Medium? Large?”

“Again you’ve hit on what I think is one of the great pressure points of companies like yours. Size doesn’t matter, does it? You’re up and running twenty-four/seven, right? You’re open when your doors are closed, yes? Complete integration with your clients and suppliers, correct?”

“Is it bigger than a bread box?” Leonard asked.

The salesman started to answer, but Leonard cut him off.

“Does it make noise?”

The salesman started to answer, but Leonard cut him off.

“If I touched it, would it be warm?”

The salesman started to answer, but Leonard cut him off.

“Does it have or emit an odor?”

And it was only now that I saw the slightest, almost imperceptible hint of anxiety in the salesman. Because finally he’d realized. Realized that not only did Leonard have no idea what this product or service was, but he’d realized – worst of all – that he had no idea either. He’d searched his catalog of analogies, anecdotes and quotes, trying again to find some deft and productive response from his two-week sales training course. But as he searched his memory – scanning all those training handouts, visualizing all those charts drawn so carefully on a massive whiteboard in his employer’s high-tech training facility, replaying all those training tapes he’d listened to in his car and at his home – suddenly these things only highlighted for him that he did not have an answer.

Because he didn’t know. He had no idea what he was selling.

No one else in the room saw this realization pass over him. I saw it only in the slightest paleness that crossed his face, in a slight shift in his shoulders, in the way he made a note to himself on a legal pad in front of him.

Leonard was squinting his eyes, his neck stretched out, and I thought that if he leaned forward any farther his chin would touch the table. “What exactly,” Leonard said, speaking so very slowly now, “in the simplest terms, what exactly does this do?”

And now the salesman nodded just once, smiling again, eyes blinking faster, life returning to a nearly drowned man. “Now I see what you’re asking. In simple terms, what does it do? Leonard, let me tell you,” he said, leaning forward too now, the young Core staffers sitting back in their chairs, staring at him, waiting breathless for his answer, “Leonard, it’s even guaranteed.”

•              •              •

Deleted Scenes – Shimmer Putt-Putt Gone Wild

July 5th, 2010 Comments off
When Unbridled bought Shimmer, the editing process was fairly light. This is in part thanks to my agent, Gary Heidt, who’d had me do a last edit of the manuscript before he sent it out. He gave me what was, for me, the best type of criticism: General feedback, not particularly specific cuts or changes. “It sort of loses focus around page 220,” is what I remember Gary saying.  “And somehow, Robbie’s just a little bit too passive.” I spent a few months trimming and focusing the last third of the book, which was muddied by a series of strange subplots, and making Robbie less passive. The latter point was relatively easy when I realized that all I needed to do was shift a fair amount of the decision-making in the book from Whitley to Robbie. In the earlier draft, it was Whitley who took the lead in dealing with the near collapse of the company after the hacker attack. It was Whitley who dealt with Wall Street in rebuilding the company’s reputation. It was Whitley who, too often, drove the changes in the company. In the edited version, Whitley remains strong enough without making those decisions. And the book is better for Robbie being that much less passive. The only major edit that Greg Michalson at Unbridled asked for was to cut an extended scene of putt-putt golf between Whitley and Robbie. I’d always liked the scene as a relatively silly digression from the growing tension in the book, the increasing distress the characters are experiencing. It may have even been that, for me, writing that scene was a relief from the increasing darkness of Shimmer. The book gets more dark, less funny. Ever more severe. Maybe I was the one who needed a break, not the reader. The scene survived in a much more purposeful, focused moment that better portrays the changing relationship between Whitley and Robbie, and better shows Robbie’s realization of how to extend the life of the company, if only temporarily. Here, though, is the original scene, in its entirety. I have to admit, it is pretty silly. (The italics are, for the most part, what was cut. The bold text is text I knew I wanted to keep, one way or another.)

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Maybe it was the relief of knowing that Regence’s attack had failed.  Maybe it was the success of having restored the network in time.  But one week after the attack, I had what I can only call a vision. It happened near the end of eighteen holes of putt-putt golf, on the advanced course known as Pebble Beach.  It only lasted a second.  But, in that second, I had a revelation.  A revelation that came from Frederick Fadowsky. In the week since the attack, I’d taken to re-reading Fadowsky’s published journals late at night, poring over the pages as I waited for the sun to light my living room.  Three years earlier, when Trevor had first brought me the idea for the Blue Boxes, I’d read the entire published set of annotated journals.  Now, as I came back to them, Fadowsky struck me as more visionary than ever, an arrogant but brilliant man haunted by wildly prescient, deeply inspired insights into the future.  Fadowsky had foreseen a networked world, and had seen it in a light so separate from any of the purely technical issues. What he’d seen was an entirely new relationship between people and time. “The future network,” Fadowsky had written back in 1977, “a truly robust and high-speed network made up of a near infinite number of interdependent machines, a network such as this alters completely and forever people’s relationships to one another.  Fundamentally, a network such as this alters time.  It renders distance meaningless.  It renders physical space unimportant.  It renders such artificial constructs as time zones and borders irrelevant as it recasts the very notion of human interaction.” Wordy, self-important, filled with an inflated sense of his place in the world, Fadowsky was nothing if not arrogant.  But he was also right. And so it was that as I entered a game of putt-putt on Friday afternoon, my head was filled with Fadowsky’s thoughts. Although, thinking back, I know it was more than Fadowsky’s writings that inspired my vision.  It was also the game of putt-putt itself. I was playing in a group of four, partnered with Whitley, the two of us matched up against a pair of remarkably skinny Java programmers carrying binoculars, a mobile surveying kit, and two handheld GPS units.  There’d been some resistance to the programmers using the GPS units during the game.  Whitley and I hadn’t raised any concerns, but the marketing coordinator on seventeen who doubled as manager of the Pebble Beach course had been wary of allowing the use of any type of electronic navigational devices.  As manager of the course, the marketing coordinator was charged with tracking the scores of all registered players, checking out clubs and balls to those who didn’t have their own, and upholding the course rules as defined by the Official Core Tournament of Putt-Putt Specialists (OCToPuS, or more commonly, Octopus).  Octopus acted as a standards body for each of the six separately operated courses within the building and the five more located in field offices worldwide.  After asking the Java programmers to give a thorough demonstration of the features of the GPS units, the Pebble Beach manager was concerned enough that he called one of the members of the Octopus executive committee. “This is Rick up at Pebble Beach,” the call started, “looking to see if Octopus has a precedent on the use of handheld GPS.”  He paused, listening.  “Yes, I can hold.” So common was the internal dialect of games and competitions within the company that none of the players, course attendants or spectators standing near the marketing coordinator’s desk even smiled. And so ingrained was the culture, that no one thought twice about doing this in front of their CEO. After a moment, word came that there was not a previous ruling barring the use of GPS, so the units were allowed on the course. I had never played Pebble Beach.  Only now, as I looked over an eight-page color booklet mapping out the course, did I realize what I’d gotten into.  With eighteen holes stretching across four floors, eight departments, sixteen divisions and a remarkable thirty-two sections of the company, players had to wend their way from the mailroom on four to the cafeteria on eighteen to the edge of the lobby on one, ending again in Marketing on seventeen.  The terrain varied from the relatively slow, low-cut carpeting covering most of the building, to the horrendously fast linoleum in the break rooms and lunch areas, to the uneven, highly unpredictable tile surfaces in bathrooms and various meeting rooms.  The course took players through hallways, workspaces, conference rooms, break rooms, closets, three different elevators, a copy center, two sets of hard steel stairs, three vice presidents’ offices, and a small atrium I’d had no idea existed.  There were chip shots over conference tables, long balls sent careening across the carpet of a fifty-foot hallway, combination shots to be bounced off of printer stands, file cabinets and doors. I noticed, in a footnote, that the course had been designed by Perry. Like all the putt-putt courses, Pebble Beach was as much an obstacle course as it was a golf course.  The obstacles included furniture, printers, potted plants and the nearly endless movement of people through the building.  Balls had to be played between the running feet of the office messengers, the clogs of the assistants in HR, and the slow-moving sneakers of wandering programmers. The course not only tested players’ ability to determine the shortest routes to the holes, it also tested their ability simply to locate the holes at all.  It was a situation made more difficult by the fact that usually the holes were not really holes, given that cutting into the floor on a regular basis had been deemed “impractical and inappropriate” by the facilities department in a still-famous memo written by Julie.  “Although the requested holes would result in no impairment to the structural integrity of the building,” she’d written after Octopus’s joking request had somehow made it to her desk, “the addition of such holes presents an engineering challenge unprecedented in the history of this company.  Sadly, it is also a challenge insurmountable at this time.” And so, although cups were sometimes placed on their sides, although shipping tubes were laid lengthwise on the floor, most of the holes were actually objects that had to be hit with one’s ball.  A steel trash can, a clay planter, a fire extinguisher, a broken and soon-to-be-discarded computer.  This meant that in the company’s tech and marketing departments, where the various courses most frequently crossed over one another, there was often a noise like a violent Midwestern hail storm as players slammed balls into objects spread out across the floor. As with most of the Octopus courses, it took about an hour to finish Pebble Beach.  Most playing took place at lunch or between three and midnight.  Even if the playing had taken place throughout the day, however, there was no manager in the building worried about the apparent loss in productivity.  The people who played most tended to be the top performers in the company – extremely bright, deeply committed, and highly stressed people who, if they hadn’t found putt-putt, would have had to participate in some other form of emotional and physical release.  And during the games themselves, a remarkable amount of work was usually accomplished.  Players talked through a range of solutions to seemingly impossible system problems, they discussed strong but incomplete ideas for new products or services, they formed plans for pursuing new strategic partners.  All of this meant that most players – the best and worst, those who played a few times a week and those who played only every few months – could name the course and hole they were on when some bright moment of clarity had come to them. I played only every few weeks, usually limiting myself to nine holes and staying on the novice or intermediate courses.  But today I’d found my way onto Pebble Beach with Whitley, who’d encouraged me to extend a weekly security meeting with her.  “You look especially tired,” she had said as she led me toward the first tee – a printer stand in a hallway on the north side of the building. Through the first few holes, I was too occupied with the security plan we were still discussing to notice how well Whitley was playing.  By the fifth hole, though, I realized what was happening.  Playing with a care, speed and purpose that was at once deeply creative and hauntingly dispassionate, Whitley had built an eight-stroke lead over the rest of us.  By the seventh hole, she was ten strokes ahead of us. “I’m a one handicap,” she said to me as we rode up an elevator, the Java boys desperately attempting to recalibrate their GPS units despite apparent interference from the elevator’s doors. “Which means?” I asked her. She tapped her white teeth.  She pulled at her black sleeve.  She smoothed her black suit coat where it lay against her sides.  In a moment, one of the Java programmers said quietly, “It’s the highest possible rating in the Octopus system.” “I had no idea,” I said. The two programmers nodded slowly, seriously.  Wide-eyed in the presence of genuine greatness. Whitley shrugged, smiling lightly.  “It’s true,” she said, turning away from me, pushing that sharp black hair from her eyes as she then gripped her club with a casual balance and care.  “I’m a bad ass.” She leaned back, lifted her club nearly two feet from the floor, then all but drove the ball out of the elevator as the doors opened onto thirteen. For most of the first nine holes, I had been barely hanging in the game.  I fell as far as twelve strokes back, totally unfamiliar with the course, the obstacles, even the color maps we were following through the building.  But that began to change.  Maybe I was inspired by Whitley’s methodical commitment to the game, by the Java boys’ obvious passion for each shot they took.  Maybe I was gaining confidence as we entered a series of floors that were much more familiar to me. Whatever the reason, by the twelfth hole I’d pulled ahead of the Java boys.  By the fifteenth hole, I’d cut Whitley’s lead to four. “So much promise,” Whitley said, watching as I sank a twenty-foot shot.  “Some would even call it hope.” The sixteenth hole was another elevator shot.  This time, though, we had to hit the ball into an elevator as it opened, rather than swinging out of the elevator.  I stood near the center of the floor, the four of us hidden behind a series of abnormally high workstation walls.  We were sixty feet from the elevator.  Essentially, the hole was a maze, the kind of hole that, more than anything, challenged players’ knowledge of the building’s layout and their ability to read the course map.  The programmers were now studying the GPS units’ bright displays, heads bent low, staring intensely, seeming to believe the machines could foretell their fortune and future.  Whitley had clearly decided to follow whatever path the Java boys took, she too putting her faith in the predictions of the machines.  But as I waited for the programmers to absorb the GPS results, I happened to tap the end of my club against a file cabinet behind me.  I turned, hearing the flat, metallic sound echoing out from the cabinet, and after a moment I noticed that there were actually two cabinets, very wide and tall, pushed together behind me.  They’d been placed back-to-back, their tops forming a five-foot by five-foot platform some six feet in the air.  And I had a thought.  With surprising ease, I lightly flipped my ball up onto the tops of the cabinets.  It bounced twice, rebounding easily off a forgotten pile of paper, then rested almost dead center on the two cabinets.  Whitley turned around a moment later, just as I was lifting myself up. “No,” I heard her saying slowly.  “Don’t.” I stood on the file cabinets now, my head in the space near the open duct work and fans that hung from the ceilings of every floor.  I was still sixty feet from the elevator.  But now I had a clear line of sight.  I would have to hit the ball the full sixty feet in the air, above the workstations, the walkways and an open meeting space that lay between me and the elevator.  I’d also have to wait to hit the ball till the elevator doors opened, given that I wasn’t quite willing to drive the ball toward the doors before they opened, in so doing exposing a group of innocent employees to my oncoming ball. It was a bad idea from a number of points of view – the club was ill-suited to an airborne shot of any distance, let alone sixty feet; there was a quite high risk of injury to passersby and the growing group of spectators who were watching their CEO stand on two file cabinets with a golf club; and, not least of all, there was the significant likelihood of a lawsuit or workplace safety filing whether I hurt anyone or not. I decided to try the shot nonetheless. “Clear out, please!” I yelled, cupping my hands to my mouth.  “This will just take a second!” Heads popped up from the workstations around me.  A group of five now sitting in the meeting space near the elevator all stood to turn toward the voice.  People in the walkways stopped in place, looking around, finally settling their eyes on me.  After a minute, all had cleared out of my way, pulling others along with them. I watched the elevator doors open once, then again, then a third time.  Even people who didn’t play putt-putt knew the Octopus rules prevented them from helping me at all – holding open the doors, pressing the button to draw the elevator back to the floor, even calling someone on another floor and warning them to stay clear of that particular elevator.  Everyone knew the shot had to take place within the normal flow of the natural workplace, even if it was a workplace made artificially self-conscious by the presence of four putt-putt golfers and the now fifty employees standing to the sides, watching them. I stared as the elevator doors opened again.  I silently counted out the seconds before they closed.  I made note of how long it took the passengers to step forward from the door.  In all I tried to get a sense of the elevator’s motions, its timing, its rhythms. I took a practice swing.  I slowed my breathing.  Whitley, standing near my feet, quietly asked if I’d ever even been on a real golf course.  I shook my head.  No. And in what to me would seem like one long second, one motion, one thought, one vision of all the space around me, I then saw the elevator doors open, saw two people slowly clear out of the elevator itself as I moved my head to the ball, already drawing back my club, bringing it forward not hard but firmly, making contact with the ball, lofting it out into the air above the emptied workstations, over three small statues of the empire state building decorating someone’s desk, over the now abandoned chairs of the empty meeting space, toward the doors now beginning to close, closing not slowly, not quickly, but, it seemed, at the perfect speed. The ball slid in as the doors made contact. And the crowd went wild. And I saw myself there, standing on two file cabinets, putt-putt golf club in my hand.  Not sure what I was doing, not caring at all, thinking for that moment about this section of this floor of this building in New York, fifty people sharing the silliest of experiences here for this short second as work went on around them, Core Communications passing data to its clients worldwide, its employees talking to co-workers, suppliers, partners around the globe, its shadow network bouncing data between satellites and hidden outposts, all of it in motion in that frozen second as we cheered. And I saw it. Fadowsky was right. The kind of high-speed network made possible by the Fadowsky Boxes changed completely how we had to view time.  The shadow network working simultaneously in every hemisphere, above the north and south poles, in just seconds passing information from a western day to an eastern night.  Time meant something else completely. I stood [on the file cabinets] and saw the network.  Saw myself.  And I saw an answer.  A way to take so much pressure off the shadow network. … …