The Learning Curve

SoOthersMayLive

Dear Readers,

Today I finished the first round of edits to my novel. Technically, I think it is the second round since my wife reads each chapter and marks it up as I finish. What I’ve really been doing is going back through it and mixing her suggestions with a few of my own and also putting it together in one file. Normally when I am working on a project, I make a folder with the project name and each chapter gets its own sub folder. When it is complete, I merge them all into one. I’m sending it out to Beta readers now. Some are reading it for subject matter content (ie: any historical anachronisms, etc) while others are reading it for general flow, characterization, and overall story. Once I receive their feedback, I’ll incorporate it into the next draft. I hope to pass it off to the professional editor in August. Then will come more changes and more drafts. Hopefully it will be ready to submit to agents by the first of the year.

After I finished today’s work, I began to ponder what I’d learned in the year that has gone by between the first typed word and the finished draft. This isn’t my first completed novel, but it is the first that I feel somewhat comfortable with though I know it still needs quite a bit of work. I’m not qualified to give writing advice to anyone, but here are the lessons I’ve learned while I devoted myself to this book. Some of it might be of use to you.

1. Your first draft isn’t going to be perfect! And do you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The trick is to get it down on paper. When I took creative writing courses in college, my instructors always said that good books are not written, they are re-written. Your first draft simply provides the bones. Sure, good bones are important, but you can flesh them out when you start working on revisions.

2. Good research is essential for historical fiction, but don’t get bogged down. I love research. I love diving into the archives, reading old newspapers, interviewing people, and watching old films. This book has its genesis in an interview I conducted in graduate school. The elderly man I spoke with had been a teenage firefighter in Germany during World War Two. After he described a horrific experience to me, I asked him how one gets over something like that. He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” The dozens of interviews and hundreds of books prepared me to write, but I still found things I didn’t know as I was writing. Rather than stop and go back to the books, I just made a note to myself to fact check the items and kept on getting the draft pounded out. If I had stopped each time to do more research, I’d still be researching and would have no completed novel.

3. Immersion helps with historical fiction. What do I mean? My book is set during World War Two. While I worked on it, I only listened to 1940s music, watched movies from the 1940s, and even listened to baseball games from the 40s. I turned my bedroom into what looks like a squadron ready room (I write in the bedroom). Since I wear 1940s clothes anyway, I got inside the time period as best I could. I do know that this would not work for every historical time period, but for the more recent ones, it is a way to get caught up in the world inhabited by your characters.

4. Bounce ideas off of people. The internet is a wonderful place for writers to meet and exchange ideas and support. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers in general, writers of historical fiction, and even writers of World War Two fiction specifically. What you’ll find is that other writers will be quick to offer help, encouragement, or ideas. The only person who knows what struggles you go through both internally and externally as a writer is another writer! Writing does not have to be a solitary task. Certainly you are the one putting finger to keyboard, but let others cheer you on. I’ve written stories since I was in elementary school and up until a few years ago, only my closest relatives (and by that I pretty much just mean my wife and cats) knew that I liked to write. I don’t think I was ashamed of it, I just didn’t want people thinking I was…..I don’t know…..weird or something. Well, I got over that and now have no problem “coming out” of the writing closet.

5. But Social Media can be a double edged sword. It is nice to make new friends and interact with other writers, but take care lest social media consume your world. I once lived on Facebook. Now I visit a few times a day, but I take time out for other things too. In fact, when I set out to finish the last 40K words of my novel, I did it in November. To aid me in that endeavor, I took a social media vacation wherein I did not post for the month. I did keep up my cat Anastasia’s page (since she has more followers than I do), but I made no personal posts. The withdrawal ended after the first week or so and rather than spending my time reading stuff, I spent it writing stuff. I met my goal of finishing the book in the nick of time, as it turned out.

6. Life happens, so be prepared. Write what you can while you can. The day after I finished my first draft was Thanksgiving. That evening I ended up in the Emergency Room with a bowel obstruction and spent the next six days in the hospital. I got out, only to return on January 15th with the same problem. This next trip, I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in a hospital bed. As it turns out, the surgery didn’t work and I was once again in the hospital for a week in early March. I need a second surgery, a much bigger one this time. Right now it is planned for May when my semester ends, but the problem could reoccur at any time and necessitate an immediate surgery. This is why I was pushing so hard to finish my revisions and ship it off to the Beta Readers. Now I don’t have to worry about that while I worry about my surgery. So my advice is to take advantage of good writing days/times whenever you can. They won’t always be there.

7. Take time for yourself too. Even though you are hard at work trying to write a book, you need some “me” time. Don’t become so wrapped up in your project that you forgo food or human companionship. Step away from the keyboard every now and then. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Play with your kids or pets. The exercise will do you good and help clear your head. Since I’m a college professor, my lecture days provide me with an outlet to move around and interact with others. Writing is important, but so is your family. I’m fortunate that my redheaded wife supports my creative endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I can lock myself in my room 24 hours a day. No matter how many words I’d written that day, each evening at around 6pm, we’d sit on the front porch of our 1932 bungalow a few blocks from Galveston Bay and discuss our day. Sometimes we’d discuss my writing, but more often we talked about anything but writing.

8. Try to limit the self doubt. Easier said than done, I know. I’m the world’s worst at laying in bed at night and thinking of all the things I suck at and replaying every negative event in my life. It is tempting when reading a well written to novel to think “I’ll never write as good as this. I should just give it up.” If you have a sliver of talent, you’ll get better every day. Writing, like anything else, takes practice to master. If you read authors who write numerous books, often you can chart their own development across the years. As a writer, all you have to fear is your own mind. Don’t engage in negative self talk and pull yourself down. That doesn’t mean you should travel with an admiring entourage either. Be realistic but be realistic. If you are just starting out, don’t assume that because you don’t write like [insert your favorite author here] that you’ll never amount to anything. I’d be willing to be that your favorite author probably felt the same when they started out.

9. Finishing the book is a success. Am I working towards getting my novel published? Absolutely. Will I cry in my beer if it doesn’t? No, for two reasons. First, I don’t drink alcohol. Second, by finishing the book I’ve already accomplished more than most who start out to write a novel. If it never leaves the binder I place the printed pages in on my bookshelf, I’ve still done something worthwhile. I don’t write for fame, money, or adoring fans. I’m actually a fairly private person. I write because I don’t know how to not write. The urge to write/tell stories comes from deep within my psyche and has been there as long as I can remember. I finished the novel, anything that comes after that is simply a bonus.

10. When you finish one, start a new one! I finished So Others May Live in November and set it aside for several months. I wanted to be able to look at it with fresh eyes for the editing round. That doesn’t meant I twiddled my thumbs. I had already plotted out another novel and so I started on that one. It is also historical fiction, though not WW2 era. When that one ends, I have a mystery novel plotted. I’ll keep writing as long as I have the strength to tap the keys. Someone out there in this big old world is waiting to read your story, so don’t let them down.

So that’s it, Dear Readers. I hope that you might find what I learned to be useful. Good luck and happy writing.

L.H.

 

A Reader’s Life

RRWW2

Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.