Sunday, February 9, 2014

Susan and an excerpt from THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: So, remember when I was going to copyedit THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT and Random House sent me the wrong manuscript? Well, this time — for the page proofs — they sent the right pages. (Yay!)

"Page proofs" are the first version of the type-set book. They are for editors, copyeditors, and authors to proofread — not for extensive rewriting, but for technical glitches that sometimes happen when a manuscript is converted to type (flipped quotation marks and bad breaks in the text, for example). There's also the opportunity to edit for clarity, etc., although changes at this point are expensive and extensive rewriting is frowned upon by The Powers That Be.

Page proofs are also what professional reviewers and bloggers eventually see. This is the version that bound galleys and advanced readers (ARCs) copies are made from — and why there's always that disclaimer about how it's not the final version and shouldn't. So whatever I see, they're seeing — and any changes that I and the copyeditor make will only be seen in the final book. (I use blue pencil on actual paper because that's what my editor likes, but most authors make changes on e-versions. Personally, I like the old-school blue pencil way.)

Here's the letter that comes from Production:

Page proofs are fun in that you can see all the design elements that have been added. I was thrilled to see this plaid page — perfect for a novel mostly set in Scotland.

Oooh, it looks like a book! (I love seeing all the technical marks showing where the pages will be cut, etc.

And now I'm delighted to share an excerpt from the page proofs of THE PRIME MINISTER'S SECRET AGENT, Maggie Hope #4, which is scheduled for publication this June.

Chapter One

Maggie Hope had thought that summer in Berlin was hell, but it was nothing compared to the inferno of darkness that now raged in her own head, even as she was “safe as houses” in Arisaig, on the western coast of Scotland.
A mixture of shame, anger, guilt, and sadness had become a miasma of depression, which followed her everywhere, not at all helped by the lack of daylight in Scotland in November. She’d once heard Winston Churchill describe his own melancholy as his “black dog,” but didn’t understand it. She’d pictured a large black dog with long silky fur, and dark, sad eyes, silently padding after his master.
But now she knew the truth: the black dog of depression was dirty and scarred, feral and rabid. He lurked in the night, yellow eyes gleaming, waiting for a chink in the armor, a weakness, a vulnerability, a memory. And then, jaws wide and fangs sharp, he would leap.
She had trouble sleeping, and when she did finally fall unconscious, she had nightmares.
         Sometimes, just sometimes, Maggie had a few moments in the morning, when she first woke up, when she didn’t remember her nightmares, or any of what had happened. Those were blessed moments, innocent and sweet. Until her mind started working again, and the sharp ache returned to her heart. She remembered what had transpired in Berlin. Remembered that her contact, Gottlieb Lehrer, was dead—a devout Catholic who’d shot himself rather than be taken by the Gestapo for questioning. Remembered that she herself had killed a man.
“It was self-defense,” the analyst she’d been ordered to see by Peter Frain had told her. “It’s war. You don’t need to torture yourself.” And yet, even though he’d shot first, and she’d killed in self-defense, his eyes —sad and reproachful—haunted her.
As did the sweet high-pitched voice of the little Jewish girl being pushed into a cattle car in Berlin, destined for Poland. “I’m thirsty, Mama,” she’d cried, “so thirsty.” What had happened to her? Maggie often wondered. Had she died on the train, or later in the camp? Could she still be alive? Because now that Maggie—and most of the rest of the world—knew that the Nazis were capable of killing their own children, calling it “Operation Compassionate Death,” she didn’t hold any hope at all for the children of Jews.
And, as if that weren’t enough burden, her mother, Clara Hess, a Nazi Abwehr agent was imprisoned in the Tower of London—and asking to talk with her. She was also scheduled to be executed soon, if she didn’t share some of the top-secret information she possessed as a senior Abwehr officer.
Maggie turned over beneath the scratchy grey wool blankets, reflexively reaching for the hard outline of the German boy’s bullet, which had just managed to miss her heart. Dumb luck was what had saved her—and allowed her to kill him, instead. The doctors in Switzerland, and then in London—even one of her best friends, Chuck, a nurse—had wanted her to have it removed, but she wouldn’t. She called it her “Berlin souvenir.”
I’m dead inside, she thought, not for the first time since she’d made it to Arisaig. Worse than dead—if I were dead at least I wouldn’t have to remember everything anymore.
On her nightstand, the black Bakelite clock ticked, and she reached over to turn it off before the alarm rang. Maggie concentrated on breathing—in and out, in and out. Even that caused pain, almost as though he shad a shard of ice in heart.
Maggie had heard the expression heartache before, of course, but never thought it would be so literal. So much pain, literal physical pain in her heart. But the heart was just a muscle, an organ, made to pump blood—not to feel things. So was it strain? Adrenaline? What made it hurt so much? Of course, the brain wasn’t much better—the brain could be a hellish prison of despair and pain and emptiness. Who knew that the brain could be such a traitor?
It didn’t help that it was coming up on Thanksgiving—and even though she’d lived in Britain since 1938, Maggie still missed her Aunt Edith, a chemistry professor at Wellesley college. She missed the United States sometimes too, truth be told. She missed the U.S.—its innocence—or was it ignorance?—of war, its clear skies, and untouched cities. Not to mention unlimited hot water and unrationed food. Although she was British by birth, she’d been raised in the U.S., and even though she’d made a choice to throw her lot in with the Brits when war started, she missed her Aunt and her friends and their broad, flat, nasal accents. She missed Thanksgiving. She missed turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. She missed Boston and Cambridge. She missed America.
            Maggie sighed and then rose, washed up with the rust-tinged water in the enamel sink, and changed into her clothes, the brown twill jumpsuit all the instructors wore over layers of thermal underwear and wool socks, plus standard-issue thick-soled boots. She twisted and then pinned up her long red hair with her tortoiseshell clip. If she’d been doing office work, as she had been doing at Number 10 Downing Street, she would have put on the pearl earrings that her Aunt Edith had given to her when she’d graduated from Wellesley in ’37—but not only were they inappropriate for her job as an instructor at an SOE camp, she’d lost them somewhere in London after returning from Berlin. Not that anyone cares about anything as silly as earrings anymore. But they were another symbol of everything she’d lost.
Sallow and pinched, with shadows under her eyes and a chafed red nose, Maggie shrugged into her thick wool coat, and pulled on a scarf and stocking cap. She left the upstairs flat of the gardener’s cottage, where she’d been assigned to live, and headed to Arisaig House, the large home that loomed above.
Although her body ached and felt as if it were made from spun glass, she jogged to warm up her muscles before breaking into a run up the path of the rockery, taking the steep lichen-covered flagstone steps up to the manor house at a brisk jog in the darkness. It was November and so it was light only from eight-thirty in the morning to four-thirty in the afternoon. But to Maggie it always seemed dark, not Henry Vaugh’s “deep but dazzling darkness” but a sinister absence of light.
Arisaig House was the administrative heart of the War Office for Special Operations Executive—or SOE, as it was better known—in Scotland. SOE was neither MI-5 nor MI-6, but a black ops operation, training agents to be dropped into places such as France and Germany, and helping local resistance groups “set Europe ablaze,” as Winston Churchill had admonished. The SOE used great houses all over Britain to train their would-be spies, earning the joke that SOE really stood for “Stately ’omes of England.” While training camps were preliminary schools, or specifically dedicated to parachute jumping or radio transmission, Arisaig was the place where trainees received intense training in demolition, weapons, reconnaissance, and clandestine intelligence work.
Isolated on the far Western coast of Scotland, closed off by military roadblocks, the rocky mountains and stony beaches of Arisaig were perfect for pushing trainees to their physical and mental limits. Arisaig House was the administrative hub, with its own generator, water supply, laundry sent to nuns in Glasgow. Other great houses in the area were used for training—Traigh House, Inverailort, Camusdarrach, and Garramor, just to name a few. Maggie’s lips twisted in a smile as she recalled how groups of Czech, Slovak and Norwegian trainees had stumbled over the Scottish and Gallic names.
But it was the perfect place for Maggie, still recovering from her wounds.
As an instructor, she trained her charges harder than Olympians—running over stones, swimming in the freezing Loch, navigating obstacle courses in the cold mud, and mastering rope work.  With the other instructors, the trainees also learned field craft, demolition, Morse code, weapons training, and the Sykes and Fairbairn methods of silent killing. Anything and everything they might need to know sent to France, or Germany, or wherever a local resistance group might need aid.
            Maggie hadn’t always been a draconian instructor; in fact, the very idea would have made her former bookish and dreamy self laugh in disbelief. She’d wanted to earn her Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT, but had instead found herself in London when war had broken out. Maggie had been offered a job in Winston Churchill’s secretarial pool, and, after discovering secret code in an innocuous advertisement, and then foiling an IRA bomb plot, had been tapped for MI-5. She’d been sent to one of the preliminary training camps in Scotland as a trainee in the fall of 1940. While she was excellent at Morse code and navigating by stars, she’d flamed out spectacularly at anything that required the least bit of physical fitness.
Maggie remembered how angry she’d been when she’d washed out of the SOE program and Peter Frain of MI-5 had placed her at Windsor Castle to look after the young Princesses. But, in retrospect, it had done her good. She’d grown stronger both mentally and physically, and was able to help save the Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping plot.
After her assignment at Windsor with the Royals, she’d returned to SOE training in the spring of 1941. She made it through all the various schools, and, as a newly minted agent, was sent on a secret mission to Berlin. Now, she had returned once more to Arisaig House—but this time as an instructor. As she opened the thick oak door, the bells in the clock tower chimed eight times.
The vestibule of the large stone manor house led into the great hall, which SOE had turned into a lobby of sorts, with a desk for a telephone and a receptionist. Sheets protected the grand house’s wooden paneling from the government workers, while Arisaig and Traigh Houses’ owner, a Miss Astley Nicholson, had been relocated to a smaller cottage up the road for the duration of the war. However, the spacious high-ceilinged entrance hall with its mullioned windows, staircase elaborately carved with birds and thistles, and views over the fields dotted with white sheep leading down to the jagged coastline made it clear this was no ordinary office.
In the vestibule, Maggie heard an ongoing discussion by her some of her current charges: this time around, mostly young women bound for France. She stopped to listen, without them seeing her.
“Yes, miss,” said the girl on receptionist duty said into the black telephone receiver, twisting the metal cord around her fingers. She was short, sturdy, and a bit stout, with a wide grin and eyes that crinkled when she smiled, which was often. Her name was Gwen Glyn-Jones and she was from Cardiff, Wales, but her mother was French, and she had a perfect accent from summers spent just outside Paris. She was training to become a radio operator—if she survived the physical training at Arisaig.
In the light of an Army-issued lamp, Gwen scribbled something down on a scrap of paper, and finished with a number. “Yes, miss—I’ll make sure Miss Hope receives the message as soon as possible. Thank you, miss.” She hung up.
“Message for ‘Lady MacBeth’?” one of the other girls asked. Yvonne had been born and raised in Brixton, London, but her grandfather was French—from Normandy—and, like Gwen, she was bilingual.
            “The one and only.” The girls giggled. Maggie was strict. She was hard on her students. She never smiled. None of the women at Arisaig House liked her. None of the men liked her much either, for that matter. “I loathe being in her section.”
            Yvonne leaned in. “Why does everyone call her ‘Lady MacBeth’?”
“Because she’s a monster.” Gwen lowered her plumy Welsh-inflected voice. “Rumor is, she has blood on her hands.”
Yvonne’s eyes opened wide. “Really?”
“I heard she killed a man in France.”
Two other trainees walking down the staircase, a man and a woman, also overhead their conversation. “I heard she killed three men in Munich,” the woman offered.
One of the men said, “I heard she was interrogated by the Gestapo and never talked—”
“She’s always nice to the gardener’s dog…” Yvette ventured.
“Well, Hitler loves dogs, too.”
All right, that’s enough. Maggie swept in, giving them what she’d come to call her “best Aunt Edith look”—cold and withering.
 “Two, Five, and Eight—aren’t you supposed to be out running?” Maggie had given her trainees numbers instead of names.
There was a lengthy silence, punctured only by the ticking of a great mahogany long case clock. Then, “I’m on desk duty….” sputtered Gwen.
“And I was waiting…”
Yvonne tried, but Maggie held up one hand. “Stop making excuses.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Miss Hope,” Gwen stuttered.
“Stop apologizing. In fact, stop speaking.” Maggie looked them all up and down. “You—Twelve—stay here and do your job. You three—go run on the beach. Relay races on the stony part of the shore—they’re good for your ankles and knees and will help your parachute jumps. I’ll be there shortly.”
They stared, frozen in place.
Maggie glared. “I said, go! Go! Gae own wi’ it, as they say around here!”
Yvonne nearly fell over themselves in their haste to get away from her and Gwen became very busy at the reception desk.

Mr. Harold Burns, another instructor, a fit man in his mid-fifties with smile lines etched around his eyes and rough skin dotted with liver spots, walked in from one of the other huge rooms of the house, now used as administrative offices. He favored her with a wintry grin from around the billiard pipe clenched between his teeth. The tobacco smoke smelled sweet in the chill air.
 He removed the pipe to speak. “Impressive, Miss Hope. I remember a time when you could barely run a mile without passing out. Or twisting your ankle. Or dropping your fellow trainees in the mud.”
Maggie put a finger to her lips, as she walked into what used to be the great house’s dining room. “Shhhhh, Mr. Burns. That’s our little secret.”
Burns fell in step beside her. “When you first came here, you were terrible. One of the worst trainees I ever had. But you persevered. And you came back. You worked hard. I’ve heard of some of the things you’ve accomplished, Miss Hope, and I must say I’m proud.” Mr. Burns was a survivor of the Great War. Maggie could see in his eyes that, like her, he had seen things. Things he wished he hadn’t.
The grandfather clock chimed, sending out a loud metallic gong. Maggie started, breathing fast, pupils dilated.
“It’s all right,” Mr. Burns murmured as if to a lost lamb, nearly putting a hand on her arm—and then withdrawing it. “You’re safe here, Miss Hope.”
            Safe. Who’s safe, really? Certainly not children with any sort of illness in Germany. Certainly not the Jews. Certainly not young men who just happen to be on the wrong side of a gun.  But Maggie liked Mr. Burns, she did, even though he’d been hard on her when she’d been in his section. In fact, much of what he taught her had helped keep her alive in Berlin.
            She looked out the window, to the sheep grazing in the neighboring fields, in the shadow of mountains. Maggie watched them until she felt calmer.
“Thank you, Mr. Burns.” She reached for the letter in her marked mail cubby and opened it. She frowned as she read the contents.
            “Everything all right, Miss Hope?”
            She didn’t receive that many letters. Occasionally a postcard from David, Mr. Churchill’s chief private secretary at Number Ten—with funny pen and ink cartoons illustrating his favorite expressions: “Merciful Minerva” and “Jumping Jupiter.” Sarah sent letters in loopy scrawl on hotel stationery from around Britain, on tour with the Vic Wells Ballet. And Chuck wrote less now that her husband Nigel was stationed in the Mideast and she was taking care of their baby, Griffin, almost three months old.
            But, in fact, everything was not all right. The letter was regarding Maggie’s house—the house on Portland Place in Marylebone that she’d inherited from her Grandmother Hope and moved to in ’38. The house she’d lived in with flat mates Paige, Sarah, Chuck, and the twins. The house that, after everything that had happened with the attempted assassination of Mr. Churchill, the planned bombing of St. Paul’s, and Paige’s death, she’d wanted nothing to do with. She’d let out to a lovely couple—he a high-level muckety-muck at the Treasury and she a young wife with the Wrens.
            However, according to the letter, the house had sustained significant bomb damage. Her tenants—who had survived—had moved.
            “Fine, fine,” Mr. Burns,” Maggie said. “Everything’s just fine.”
But her face said otherwise. She hadn’t been to the house in over a year, yes—but it was still a part of her, part of her family, part of her past, that had grown ever-more complicated and confusing the more she learned about it. And now it had been bombed. Was she sad? Angry at the Luftwaffe? Maybe even just a little bit relieved to be free of the responsibility of it and forced to move on? It doesn’t matter anyway, she thought. Probably all for the best. She crumpled the letter and threw it into the waste bin.
            Burns shifted his weight from side to side. “You know, Miss Hope, I served, too—over in France, in the trenches. I was a soldier then. Oh, you wouldn’t know it now, but once I was young—almost handsome, too. We all were, back then. Saw a lot of my friends killed, better men than I ever was, and killed any number myself.”
            “Mr. Burns—no one died. Truly. It’s just a house—my house—that was bombed. But no one was hurt. And houses can—perhaps someday—be rebuilt.”
Mr. Burns didn’t seem to hear her, lost in his own memories. “I don’t remember their faces, but I still think of them. What I try to remember is the Christmas truce—Christmas of fourteen, we had a ceasefire over in France. We even sang songs, if you can believe—us with Silent Night, and them with Stille Nacht. Same melody, though. We even had a game of football, that afternoon, the ‘Huns’ versus the ‘Island Apes.’ Then, the next day, back to the killing business….”
He shook his head. “I’ll leave you to read your message, Miss Hope.” He turned back to the mail cubbies and extracted a packet of letters from his slot, and began to go through them, pipe back between his teeth. 
            “Thank you, Mr. Burns.” Maggie turned her attention to the telephone message the girl had written out:

Sarah Sanderson called to say that the Vic-Wells Ballet is performing La Sylphide at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. She may be going on as the Sylph (and she specified, “the lead sylph, not one of the idiot fairies fluttering uselessly in the background.”)  She’ll put house seats on hold for you for tomorrow night and hopes you’ll make it.

Long-legged and high-cheekboned, Sarah was one of Maggie’s closest friends in London. At first Maggie had found Sarah intimidating—she was so worldly, after all, so beautiful and glamorous, with the slim figure of a fashion model, dark sparkling eyes and long dark hair. But she had a droll sense of humor and was given to witty retorts in a decidedly Liverpudlian accent.
            Maggie had only seen Sarah a few times since they’d parted ways in London the summer of the attempted bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and missed her. If it were at all possible, she’d make it to Edinburgh for the performance, and also to spend time with her friend. The trouble was the black dog. Would the black dog let her? Sometimes it was hard to know. He was always ready to strike, but would he go for her throat? She walked back to the entrance hall, Mr. Burns not far behind.
            “Miss Hope?” Gwen asked, from her seat at the reception desk.
            Maggie blinked. “Yes, Twelve.”
            “Are you—are you going to go to Edinburgh to see your friend dance in the ballet? Because that sounds so very exciting and glamorous—and, quite frankly, quite fun.”
            Fun. What was fun anymore?  The black dog growled low in his throat and bared his teeth. But he didn’t strike. 
“Miss Hope?” Mr. Burns said. “I’ll arrange for the time off, if you’d like to go.”
            Maggie crumpled the message and threw it into the trash bin. “Thank you, but I won’t be needing it, Mr. Burns.”
She turned back to the girl. “Carry on, Twelve!”
Then she pivoted on her heel to make her way to the back garden and down to her trainees, whom she’d sent to run on the beach.
            I can’t, Sarah, I just can’t do it, Maggie thought. I’m sorry, so very sorry.
Take it up with the Black Dog.

So, Reds, how do you feel about this part of the production process? Do you approach your typeset page proofs with anticipation or dread? (I feel both, quite frankly.) Readers, are you surprised by how long the production process is?

Excerpted from The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent by Susan Elia MacNeal. Copyright © 2014 by Susan Elia MacNeal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  1. I love it love it love it. One thing that just brings tears to my eyes in these "what we're writing" weeks is how different we all are! YOu could never mistake one of our books for the others--isn't that amazing?

    And yes, I love the fix-it stages. When you can see the font, and the chapter divisions, and it seems like--wow! I really wrote a book! (And al those WEEKS and MONTHS of the most difficult brain work--are all worth it.)

  2. Susan, this is wonderful. I've only read Mr. Churchhill's Secretary so far, but I'm crazy about smart, ahead-of-her-time Maggie Hope. Seems I've missed a lot in the next two books, judging by this excerpt.

    I'm not surprised at the process now, but when I self-published my own first book I was astonished at how much effort it took to get from the Word document to a physical book, and how many steps along the way. It's so tedious, it's almost a miracle anything ever gets published.

    Best of luck!

  3. Thanks for an excellent post and excerpt, Susan.

    I love this part of the process too, Hank! This, for me, is when the book finally feels "real." It's fun to see your photos, Susan, because I too worked with Vincent and have pages that look just like yours --- except for a Khmer pattern instead of the tartan.

    This makes me want to write faster so I can go through this process again :)

    Congrats, Susan, on sending another fabulous Maggie Hope story into the world!

  4. Aw, thanks, everyone.... Books are like children, in that you can't really have a favorite — but this one is definitely close to my heart.

  5. Wow. Thanks for such a long excerpt. Changing TBR priorities now.

    Am loving that you all are sharing your process and giving us these little peeks into your next book. Interesting to learn the process and reminds me just how much work and discipline go into these books.

  6. Love this post, Susan; it brings back fond memories from my freelance copyeditor days at a small publisher in San Jose. And until that assignment, I was unaware of everything that went before and after my part.

    But foremost, how generous of you to post such a long excerpt. This has pushed Maggie #3 to the top of the TBR mountain to discover, among many things, how the Black Dog arrived . . .

    Thank you and all the Reds for sharing "what you're writing."

  7. Love it, Susan! I'd read the excerpt, I think, at the end of last book? And I want to read more now!!!

    Thanks for sharing your photos, and such a long excerpt. I love this stage of the production process--it's first time all that work feels like a REAL book. And like you, I much prefer making the corrections with pencil on paper. I've found over the years that you see things on paper than you never catch on the computer screen.

    Counting the days!

  8. Great beginning Susan--looking forward to this one!

    I love the page proofs too, because it looks like a real book. Usually at this point as I read it over, I say to myself, "hey, this is a pretty good book!:

    (Probably party in self-defense, because as you say, it's too late to do much else LOL)

  9. As a reader, I am not at all surprised by the process you've described. Everything seems to have its own way of getting done and it seems to me that it's good to be able to look at the page proofs and ferret out all those niggling little punctuation things . . . .
    As for the story, my heart goes out to Maggie . . . you descriptions brought tears to my eyes. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Maggie's newest story . . . .

  10. Oh Susan! I am ready for that book to be out. I've been following Maggie Hope through her trials and travails. Hopefully her black dog will be sent to a new home in this story. Can't wait!

  11. "a sinister absence of light". What a great descriptive phrase! What an enticing excerpt! I am working my way to your Maggie Hope books, Susan, and I know I'm going to love them all. Churchill's old black dog is so aptly characterized here, and Maggie's despair at the betrayal of her mind encapsulates depression's unyielding grip. I ache for Maggie's suffering in a time when treatment was limited and not in vogue.

    Thank you, too, for sharing page proof part of the writing process. What a thrill it must be indeed to hold in your hands these pages from the publisher.

  12. Thank you, everyone! I thought the excerpt with Dusan Popov and Ian Fleming (yes, THAT Ian Fleming) was at the end of HIS MAJESTY'S HOPE? (I could be wrong, though....) And I guess it _was_ long!

    Kim, OF COURSE we share a copyeditor/designer!

    Grandma Cootie, I love your name!

  13. I read all three of Maggie's adventures last year, and I can't wait for the new one. This isn't making the wait any easier....

  14. Susan, I love this! Oh, poor Maggie... so much loss and trauma, but she's stronger than she knows. I can't wait to read the new book!