Monday, September 15, 2008

On writing a war novel - Part 2

After laboring for a year and a half on a novel about the war in Iraq I discovered that neither I nor anyone else could really capture in words what the experience was like. The problem, simply, is that for the reader to understand even the most common conversations that we had would require untold pages of explanation. Let me give some examples.

A lot of this was revealed to me when my friend edited the first draft of my novel. She had no experience with the military (which was good - I was writing for a general and not a military audience). The military is obviously a very hierarchical organization and for those familiar with military rank a colonel means something completely different than a sergeant in that a colonel is older, better paid and most likely better educated (although in the Reserves there are many more exceptions to the educational difference.) My editor friend missed this, plus the nuances that a captain outranked a lieutenant but not a major.

The military is a separate culture from the civilian world but not everyone knows the tremendous cultural differences that exist between the Army and the Marines, or that the Army has a subculture called the Reserves that is a strange amalgam of civilian soldiers. Take this sociological soup and drop us into the Middle East as an Army unit attached to a Marine organization and the fun begins.

The Marines had their own jargon and ways of doing business that was different from what we were accustomed. The U.S. military in Iraq invented new acronyms and code words that were critical to understanding everyday conversations. The reports we read were filled with confusing Iraqi geography, providing descriptions of events in a multitude of cities when our knowledge extended to a vague idea of the location of Baghdad and Basra.

Thus, our everyday work conversation was filled with terms and concepts that are alien to the average citizen. These alien terms had and still have an emotional impact for me whenever I hear them: Tampa, Anaconda, Cedar, Nasiriyah, and Highway 8. If I were to spend all my time explaining, the reader would lose interest.

The task that I set for myself in writing a novel about the war is translating the entire experience into English. As always in such cases, something is lost in the translatiion.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On writing a war novel - part 1

A lot of novels have been written about war and I have read a lot of those novels. My entire life I have had the desire to write a novel and in 1994-95 I wrote a 100,000 word novel called "Every Man was Free". As many of you know, writing a novel and getting it published are two completely separate tasks. The third part of this trilogy, promoting a book once it is published, is another task requiring knowledge and skills completly separate from the first two. Although I did not get that first novel published, I did learn a lot about what it takes to develop a story and then pound out the words until the manuscript was completed.

Spending a year in a combat zone was a very intense experience and the entire time that I was there I told myself and some close friends that I would write a novel about the experience. I returned home to Tallahassee in the Spring of 2004 and in June I started an electronic journal in a Word document. In this journal I wrote down my thoughts about what my novel would be about: the story, the characters, and the themes that I wanted to explore in the book. I found that this was a very effective way the "think out loud", ask myself questions and then try to answer them.

One mistake that I did not want to make, and that I had made in writing my first novel, was to labor two thirds of the way through the manuscript and realize that I had no idea how the novel was going to end. "Literary fiction" was once defined to me as starting a manuscript with a germ of an idea and then seeing where the characters and events lead. I yearned for more structure in my writing endeavors.

I found that structure in a technique called the Snowflake Method. Using that technique, I was able to complete a 90,000 word first draft of my novel, "The Lion of Babylon." I paid a friend to edit the mansuscript, and this gtave me plenty of suggestions to work on as I began a second draft. The most significant thing that I learned from her editing was that, no matter how well I wrote or how many words I produced, I could never really recreate the war or the Iraq that I had experienced for a year.

In my next post I will tell you why.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

On writing a war novel - Part 3

Last January I posted parts 1 & 2 of my thoughts on the subject of writing a war novel. I explained my motivations for writing such a novel in part 1. In part 2 I showed how, after writing 90,000 words in a first draft, I had come to the conclusion that no novelist, no matter how talented, could accurately convey the true sense of the experience as it was actually lived by the participants.

I have not read War and Peace (it's on my Bucket List), perhaps one of the greatest war novels ever written, but I have read numerous other great war novels: Catch 22, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Thin Red Line, A Farewell to Arms, The Red Badge of Courage (to name just a few). Plus, I have read countless non-fiction memoirs and histories about war. I did not fall into the trap of copying or imitating any of these works. Whatever I wrote would have to be unique to me and my experience in Iraq, but would be universally understood and interesting to the readers (hopefully numerous) who undertook the time and effort to read and understand the words that I had written.

I have been thinking about and writing this novel for three and a half years. My efforts during this time were not continuous because I had other obligations to fulfill. This undertaking has taught me some things about writing and about myself and I want to pass some of this knowledge on to you.

At the meeting of the Tallahassee Writers' Association last Thursday night Michael Rychlik, a local author and English teacher, spoke to us about his latest novel. He arises every morning and writes at 5 A.M before he goes to work. Someone asked him about writer's block and he made an interesting (to me) comment. He said that he always had something to write if he had thought about it beforehand. This was very insightful to me because I immediately recognized this as the source of some of my own episodes of writer's block. I had positioned myself before a blank page with a similarly blank mind and been frustrated when no words had come forth.

This weekend I decided to use this insight in my own writing. I am halfway through the second draft of my novel and I desperately needed some insights into how I was going to weave the disparate characters and themes that I had introduced in the first half of my book to a consistent and coherent end in the second half. I decided to sit down and think about how I would resolve this problem.

I tried to assist this process based on my own experience with attempting "deep and profound" thinking. I knew that I did my best thinking on the screened back porch of my house. The abundance of trees, the scampering of squirrels, the sounds and movement of the birds (I often hear a hoot owl couple conversing) has the affect of clearing my head and allowing the onset of a reflective mood. I also knew that the casual care and maintenance of a lit cigar increased the reflectivity of my thinking.

I am blessed and cursed with the personality that requires that once I have decided to do something I am not easily dissuaded. On Friday night, with the knowledge that my wife would be gone until Sunday and that I would be home alone with the dog, I set aside Saturday afternoon in my mind as the time in which I would tackle the great, remaining issues in my novel.

Saturday dawned rainy and cold. In fact, at my appointed time Saturday afternoon the rain was considerable and the temperature on my porch was 45 degrees. Undaunted, I bundled up and headed out (no sacrifice is too great for my craft). When my cigar had expired and the cold had finally driven me inside, I had done a lot of thinking but had not resolved any of the issues confronting me. For the thirtieth or fortieth or maybe fiftieth time since I had started this project I wondered if I was ever going to figure out how write this novel.

Last Friday the Wall Street Journal (the source of all knowledge and wisdom) had an article on the scientific research on sleep. One quote caught my attention: "...the Harvard Medical School tested 56 college students and found that their ability to discern the big picture in disparate pieces of information improved measurably after the brain could, during a night's sleep, mull things over." Folk wisdom and experience ("let me sleep on it") indicated that this was the case but I was comforted that modern science was able to validate it just the same.

The next day, Sunday morning, with little expectation of success, I turned my mind to the issues that had defeated me before and within a period of ten minutes had resolved them all. Two minutes into that ten minute period I raced to my computer to write down all these revelations. Those ten minutes were unbelievably exhilarating and rewarding.

Immediately afterward I wrote this post to document and share the experience with you. The task of converting those revelations into sentences, paragraphs and chapters still awaits me. But I can now see the end of my journey. And better yet, I know that I would get there.