Depicting the Bad Guy as a Good Guy

One of my current projects is a book entitled, The Troubleshooter. The story features a newly-trained Army OSS officer tasked with bringing Waffen-SS war criminals to justice. Fresh out of spy school, our hero quickly discovers that the world of clandestine combat conflicts in a big way with his Christian values.

The stark realities of capital punishment become all too vivid, and, in short, our would-be hero finds himself ensnared by a military justice system that he feels may destroy his soul. Upon reporting for duty in Holland, he finds himself the newest member of a squad of OSS operatives known only to themselves as, “The Troubleshooters.”

As a writer, I will be maneuvering under, over, around, and through the ethics of an honorable man. The story describes how the values of this man are stressed as he witnesses the residual fragments of humanity left in the wake of evil men committing heinous and barbarous acts. Our hero reassesses his moral standards, and attempts to answer a question that haunts him: “What is justice?”

The literary process of altering a human value system is truly challenging. Equally demanding is satisfying readers that the main character is a hero, and is justified in exacting capital punishment without “due process.” World history helps me out a bit.

History has depicted members of the Nazi Waffen-SS as examples of the darkest form of evil. The war criminals being pursued by the Troubleshooters were barbaric and unfeeling as they used torture and agonizing death as tools of demonic acts of terror. It’s tough to tell the story in a manner wherein the reader approves of summary execution, notwithstanding the villainous nature of Waffen-SS soldiers. But the story reveals them as merciless (and even enthusiastic) executioners of helpless victims, including members of the French underground, and American and Allied prisoners of war.

So, there it is. Is the hero of the story a Bad Guy – or is he a Good Guy? Will he inherit eternal damnation for his sins or will he have earned a place in a glorified kingdom?

I suppose the readers of the story will sit in judgment.

Converting Blank Page to Enthralling Episode

Tags

, , , , ,

I’ve learned some great lessons by paying attention to TV and screen writers’ methodology. What I’ve learned has helped me – I hope – to improve the quality of my own books. Most importantly for me – and my readers – I’ve made two significant observations:

  1. Action shows begin with action!  In the gool-ol’ days, movie goers expected to see the movie begin with the title, and the names of the stars they came to see. Then they munched on their popcorn while enduring the obligatory tribute to writers, musical artists, cinematographers, and producers. At length, the viewer knew the movie was about to begin when they saw the name of the director displayed on the screen. Today, viewers expect an immediate onslaught of dramatic music and sound effects designed to blast the ear drums of elderly folks like me. They do this, of course, to heighten the intensity of beginning an action movie. The viewer loses control of the popcorn (50% of which now ends up underfoot on the theater floor). It’s time to buckles up! The credits now displayed are almost invisible as viewer attention is focused intently upon the ebbing intensity of action on the screen.
  2. Dramatic TV show writers work their artistic craft by skillfully conjoining episodes with an ominous and opaque backdrop of suspense. Something sinister is brewing in the background. It’s an adjunct to the main plot, but viewers are enthralled by it; almost distracted by the dark shadow of intrigue that threatens to upset the apple cart. The viewer is given just enough information to realize that something ominous and unsettling will – at some point – rear its ugly head to obliterate lesser concerns. The viewer will enjoy a satisfying conclusion to the episode, but will be left in suspense, wondering when the mystery of the ominous specter will be resolved. A skilled writer will keep this foreboding monster alive through two or more seasons of episodes.

Fortunately, I’m at a stage in my current writing project that I can implement that which I’ve learned about these two important lessons. Converting a blank page to an enthralling episode is not easy, but the challenge of doing so is an enjoyable task.

The Sikorsky UH-34D Helicopter

Tags

,

It’s challenging to write a book containing technical elements. My current novel, “Wings of Valor,” features the Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter as much as any character in the book. Describing a character is challenging all by itself. Describing a mechanical entity, without boring the reader to death, is even more challenging. There are many facets to describing the operation of a helicopter: sights, sounds, scents, vibrations, heat, aerodynamic effects, etc.

Describing one’s own sensory perception is another technical challenge. Helicopter pilots and crew members often speak of their aircraft as if it were a living entity. “She was cranky today,” is something a pilot once said to me. And, as it happened, I agreed with him.

I’ve observed that my sensory perception seemed to have peaked at times when I knew my aircraft was laboring under the demands of maximum military power. I vividly recall the scent of overheating transmission oil as the pilot pulled the collective stick to the maximum, while performing a rotor climb at eight thousand feet above sea level.

Writing a description of the sound of a Pratt & Whitney R1820-84C radial engine, as it cranks to life, is something I want to describe without rhetoric. Including excessive technical information could cause a reader to lose interest. But, I don’t want to leave the reader wondering what the heck I’m talking about either. I may have a crystal clear idea of the sound I have in mind as I describe the cranking radial engine as a “chugging” sound, but what will my readers hear with their virtual ears?

Then there are the issues of, does it really matter? Is it important to the story? This is something I must constantly keep in mind. Honestly, I don’t know how Tom Clancy does it. Maybe, as I continue to study his descriptive writing, I’ll learn. He certainly has a way of pulling such things off in a most impressive manner.

No … Not Battling Banjos … It’s Battling Novels

Tags

, ,

My mental process is enough to make most any publisher scream in despair. Maybe it’s my attention deficit syndrome, I’m not sure. Day to day, my focus changes from one novel to another. Mine is not a writing process I recommend, but it seems to be unavoidable for me.

My top priority is to complete a book entitled, Wings of Valor. It’s a long novel about combat helicopter crews set in the Republic of South Vietnam circa 1966-1968. When I’m on a roll, the story moves along with satisfying progress. However, my attention is often diverted by the formation of scenes in my mind, having to do with another project: The Troubleshooter. That book is about a U.S. Army intelligence officer (Captain Frank West) assigned to bring WWII war criminals to justice. Beginning in 1944, the story moves through the countries of France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, and Germany.

For the most part, I’ve been able to stick with my primary project. But I find it difficult to disregard the creative flow that percolates in my mind at random times and places. I would say that moving from one project to another is quite counterproductive, but the end result – for me – seems strangely satisfying.

Most of last week found me working happily on Wings of Valor. I was making great progress. Then, late one night, I found myself awakened by questions of protocol for O.S.S. operatives pursuing WWII war criminals. This, of course, had nothing to do with Wings of Valor, but was key to many action scenes in The Troubleshooter. So, after having my REM’s so blatantly interrupted, a new restlessness compelled me to search for answers. By 2 AM, I was searching for answers to questions such as: How does a U.S. Army intelligence officer pursue a German Waffen SS war criminal in the middle of war-torn Europe? How would Capt. West be attired? How would he blend in? How would he apprehend the war criminal? How would he transport his prisoner for trial?

History plays a big part in my two books. Historical facts regarding military protocol are key ingredient in the believability of my two books. So, for me, researching history is as important as writing fiction … writing believable fiction. But, as helpful as Google research and history books are, I have discovered that nothing is quite as helpful as listening to the still, small voice of inspiration. Combining history research with inspiration led me to the answers I sought, much to my relief.

So, having found my answers, I returned my attention to Wings of Valor. I never planned on working on two books at one time, but it seems clear to me that such is my lot in life. I don’t know if other writers face such a delima, but it certainly is a fact of life for me. I hope I don’t come up with a third idea for a book before I finish those I’m working on now. I don’t think my coping mechanism could handle it.

Thinking Ahead

Tags

Some very intelligent and talented people, in the world of literary arts, have offered advice on the subject of thinking ahead when writing a novel. I agree … and I disagree.

In the long term, I know where my story is going … precisely. But, in the short term, I often have no clue what PFC Fines (my gunner) is going to say next.

I’m currently working on Wings of Valor, a long novel on the subject of combat helicopter aircrews set in the Republic of South Vietnam circa 1965-68. Because the story is based on personal experience, I know exactly where t’s headed. I know the ending. I know which characters will be on stage during the final scene. But there is a great deal of filling between the outer layers of my Oreo cookie. Some of that filling is atmosphere, some of it will be ambient sound, and, of course, there will be an abundance of dialog.

My writing style makes limited place for intricate planning of character dialog. While I may find dialog context or content will require carefully structured composition at times, for the most part I feel it unnecessary.

Casting myself as Lee Farmer, the main character, I am often surprised, or moved by that which is said by another character. Lee may find a statement amusing, insulting, or born of ignorance. He may entertain unspoken thoughts about something said. He may find a statement to be amazing, amusing, or offensive. He may be offended, aggrieved, or discomfited.

So, for me, and my writing style, thinking ahead has its place in literary art, but not an extra-large place when it comes to character dialog. Too much planning makes Jack a dull boy, and takes the risk of writing a dull story.

Therapy for PTSD

Tags

, ,

In 1965, the Marine Corps did a great job of preparing me for jungle warfare. In 1968, I returned to the states full of bewildering feelings such as survivor’s guilt, and an insatiable appetite for endorphin flow. In 1968, there was no such thing as post traumatic stress disorder. Some called it battle fatigue, but the term generally was reserved for WWII veterans who fought in a real war.

In 1980 I discovered the Vet Center in West Los Angeles; a place where clinical psychologists helped Vietnam war veterans understand things like intrusive thoughts and feelings. Two years of good counseling saved my marriage, and, in turn, literally saved my life.

Now it is the year 2015, and I am returning to the local Vet Center in Modesto, California. I have been working on a new book entitled, “Wings of Valor.” As much as anything else, it is a project that revives memories of my experiences as a combat aircrew member with a helicopter squadron in South Vietnam. The downside is that working on the book has caused unpleasant dreams, intrusive thoughts, and survivor’s guilt to resurface.

The main thing a combat veteran suffering from PTSD must learn is that there is no cure. It is a condition I will carry with me throughout the remainder of my lifetime. But there is hope by means of good therapy. Learning how to cope with the condition is a good thing. Knowing you are not insane is a good thing. Believing you can take the pain and live a meaningful life is a blessing.

While this all may seem sad and unfortunate, my PTSD counseling has taught me that writing this book is good for my mental health. Keeping feelings bottled up inside can have devastating effects on me and my family. So, I simply set my emotional pressure relief valve at 1,500 PSI, and continue on my merry way. My book will be on my editors desk by March of 2016. Then I can reset my pressure relief valve back to 1,000 PSI.

My First Pancake

I consider myself something of an closet chef. As an adult leader with Boy Scouts of America since 1979, I have charred more than a few “first pancakes” while camping. Even at home – in my own kitchen – getting the griddle perfectly prepared for pancakes is a challenge. Experience helps, but the first pancake often becomes a sacrificial lamb.

Thus it has been with my very first book, “Boyhood Adventures.” I enjoyed writing it because it was so reminicent of my early childhood in Texarkana, Arkansas. But, I made the mistake of rushing it into publication. I failed to employ a professional editor. I made goofy mistakes incumbent on first-time writers. I struggled with a re-write for a year, trying to correct typos and enhance character, all in an effort to get it just right. And … I think I was finally close to finishing it. Notwithstanding, a kind mentor, Beth Hill, sympathetically laid her virtual hand on my shoulder, and said, “Let it go, Aaron. It’s time to move on.” Hmm; seems like my wife has offered similar counsel … more than once.

So, while it wasn’t a ceremonious burial at sea, and while there was no playing of TAPS; no honor guard detail firing a 21-gun salute; I decided to follow good advice, and chalk it up to a lengthy practice exercise. And, surprisingly, I feel okay with it. I learned a great deal along the dusty, rocky road to oblivion. Above all, I have learned to accept a charred pancake when I see one. And, I have learned to listen to good, sound advice.

I’m not sad, actually, to see my first pancake tossed into the literary garbage can. I’m not elated … but I’m not sad. Finally, I’m released from flogging a dead horse. I’m free to be fully engaged in my next project. And this “second pancake” will benefit from all I’ve learned as a fledgling writer. With new hope, I strive for a pancake better than the first; golden brown on both sides. At least, that’s the plan. It will, no doubt, fall short of a best sellers list – again – but the lessons learned on my first book will enhance the second. Truly, I have come to find joy in writing, free from fear of imperfection.

Now I embark on a book much more important to me: Wings of Valor. I have aspired to writing this book since I returned home from Vietnam in September of 1968. And, even though I lived the experiences I’m writing of, I am nonetheless deeply engaged in historical research.

My deadline for submitting Wings of Valor to my editor will be 13 March 2016. I hope, once it’s published, the few fans/followers I have will receive it well.

Beth Hill

In a former post, I expressed my feelings about the eternal nature of study for an aspiring reality fiction writer such as myself. In my pursuit of books I consider essential to my continuing education, I have had the good fortune to acquire a book entitled, “The Magic of Fiction,” by Beth Hill. Beth is a free-lance fiction editor, dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. She recently offered a free copy of her book to members of her blog (The Editor’s Blog).

I’ve only just begun my study of her book, but I feel edified already. Though “self-editing” scares me to death, I believe her advice will lead me to make decisions, and take action that will be in the best interest of my career as a fiction writer. For the moment, I really don’t trust myself to self-edit. I believe I’m far too passionate about my work to be sufficiently critical. At this moment, I feel certain I will be seeking professional editing services. But that’s one of the reasons I feel her book is so important to writers like myself. Notwithstanding my skepticism about self-editing, she offers solid and useful advice, worthy of serious consideration.

For my friends who are writers themselves, I recommend Beth’s book as a study guide. If you study it yourself, please let me know what you think of it.

Surgery: The Ultimate Block

On Friday 5 June I checked in to Valley Care Medical Center in Pleasanton, California, for back surgery. I had no idea how recovery would effect my creative flow as a writer. Throughout June and July I found myself bereft of inspiration or even desire to write. All my energy went to physical therapy.

Only recently have I begun to feel my creative flow return; what a relief. The excitement of writing has returned. When I’m really on a roll, I find myself having dreams about the projects I’m working on. I may see one of my characters do or say something I can’t wait to put in print.

In the end, I’m very happy to be writing again. It feels great.

Physical Therapy

On Friday 12 June, i underwent back surgery for spinal stenosis, and a few related ailments. Since then, I have been laboring through the challenges of physical therapy. Being a Marine, my mentality on the subject of physical therapy echoes something once said by Sir Stirling Moss after his Formula One crash at Goodwood, England.

“No exercise is any good, boy, unless you push it to the absolute limit.”

Pursuant to our mutual philosophy regarding the subject, i am finding that physical therapy / exercise is arduous, demanding, and takes the wind out of my sails in a big way. Yesterday, I was determined to attend my church meetings. At first, i was full of energy. It felt so great to see friends I hadn’t seen in weeks. The meeting began at 1:00pm. But after less than thirty minutes, the room began to spin around. I was sitting perfectly still, but the room wasn’t. My wife had to drive me home and I missed the second speaker.

Everyone keeps telling me to SLOW DOWN – TAKE IT EASY – DON’T PUSH SO HARD. It’s not the Marine way but i’m trying hard to reach a comprimise. Thanks to all my supporters for your encouragement.