Recently a dear friend's daughter chose to do a bio piece on me for a school project. I was flattered and happily complied. Since we lived far apart I took her questions online. I would draft an autobiographical essay of sorts to address a category of interest.
One essay concerned growing up an Army brat in the Vietnam War era. Another dealt with my experiences as a Sailor in the Navy while yet a third covered my post service life. The following gave her insight into how I came to love sitting in front of a glowing screen clattering away at the keys in my own way trying to tell yet another story in an interesting way. This is my journey to being a writer.
I am a Writer
Writing is something I love to do . . . now. I didn’t always feel that way about it. Growing up I didn’t like it much. I preferred drawing and speaking; I told my stories verbally and with pictures. Writing was too slow for me.
Yes I loved to tell stories. It grew out of my love for books that predates kindergarten. Our parents were denied access to education and recreational reading material. Here in the South the prevailing attitude was that a Black person (“neegrah” if they chose to be polite in those days) should have only as much knowledge as they needed to perform the functions assigned to them. My parents both thirsted for more and read everything they could get their hands on. When they got married they seemed to have a pact that their children would never lack for stimulation from the written word.
How the story gets on to the page varies from writer to writer. Some are meticulous planner. They create a detailed outline and only then begin to build the story. Some imagine the story in their minds first, then sit and pour the story out in one continuous first draft.
I fall somewhere in between. I begin with a basic framework for a story and as I write I fill in the gaps as needed. Writing is a journey of discovery for me. I know where I am going but not exactly how I am going to get there. The way I described my writing to my wife is “I am not the writer exactly, I am the first reader.”
I recall writing my first novel, marketed [as a trilogy for the KINDLE] under the title of TULA WARS. I needed to move the main character with a group of officers across a university campus. I could have simply left it there but life is seldom simple. There is a dynamic tension between people in everyday life. All that is needed is a word or a look to spark an encounter for good or ill. Placing military men on a campus is a scene pregnant with impact that should be examined.
I set up a confrontation between anti-war protesters and the service men and wrote it through. I imagined a young man speaking rashly to the officers then losing his nerve. I had a woman step up defiantly only to be stunned by what she heard. I left her to ponder what she now knew.
Much later in the book (note: published in book three in the series) I wrote about my character back in the military and forming a company of soldiers. He got a group of the first female soldiers to be trained in the use of battle armor. He and his staff interviewed the women to identify those who had the greatest potential for leadership to place as squad leaders. One very impressive candidate stood out above the rest. When Captain Alex Phelan asked the final question, “Who in the galaxy talked you into doing anything as silly as running around in powered armor getting shot at by giant insects?” She answered “You did.”
I was as surprised as my character as I wrote the words. She goes on to explain that she was the student from the college campus so long ago. She looked different now. Her hair military short; older, wiser and much fitter than she’d been as a civilian student. She had matured, finished her studies and graduated. She had never forgotten the words he had told her and was disgusted that so many of her male friends just did not have the courage of their convictions. Even the professors seemed to shy away from putting body behind word when it counted. If those men would not do their duty to protect the species then she needed to be around a better class of men.
Often my stories stem from my vivid dreams. I feel fortunate in that I dream in color and can retain large portions of those dreams when I wake up. The dreams are also experiential. That is I exist inside of the dream, sometimes as an invisible observer of other “people” and sometimes as myself participating in the events. I can also be others in my dreams.
Another source of stories is the “what if” question. What if the Russians had attacked in 1962? What if I had joined the Army instead of the Navy? What if the South had won the Civil War? That is called speculative fiction and is popular in the Alternate History genre now. I ponder a “What if” question and let the story flow from there.
Writing for fun and profit
One of the biggest obstacles to writing was technology. I could not drag a clunky typewriter around the world as part of my kit and I did not like the idea of trying to keep track of reams of handwritten manuscripts. Just the thought of creating a 200-page novel by hand still makes my wrists ache.
My early development was stymied by that problem, slow and painful hand writing manuscripts. That is why I started out with short stories. In 1988 I wrote my first sci fi short. Worst piece of fiction, ever! Fortunately, I was dating a very good editor at the time that tore it to pieces! I started all over and got better with each try. Before I went back to sea I bought a “small” portable electric typewriter with a tiny, 1-line LCD screen. It could display an entire sentence (if it were short) so I could proof it before printing. It was primitive but a huge step up.
The neatness and appearance of my writing also improved. After I left the Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, I went to a tender in the Repair Department. I found I had plenty of time to write when we were at sea. We had no repairs to do while underway and I did not have to stand engineering watches. It was like a vacation for me after three carrier tours.
We had a journalist on board and he started going over my writing for me. One evening while I was delivering my latest sci fi piece to him I passed the captain sitting in his office. He was a nice guy and I was pleased when he called me in. He was pleased to see that I was pursuing a writing career and asked to read my work as well.
He said, “I sit here largely bored because everyone is terrified to tell me anything.” Fortunately, I am not intimidated by anyone and love to talk to everyone. From that night onward I would stop by with my latest work and sit and chat with him about it.
Not long after we began the XO, the second in command, came during one of our chats. The captain explained he was proofing my writing. The XO thought some of the other officers would like to pitch in to help me develop. Now I had to print three copies of anything I wrote and deliver: one to the captain, the second to the wardroom and the third to the journalist. That got expensive for ribbon until we got a copier! But I greatly improved my style in that year on board which I consider a good thing.
I long for that quality of feedback today now that I am more established. The captain usually sent his copy back with comments. The most common being, “Great story, but too short. Make it longer!”
With his encouragement I increased a short story (On Sparta) from 3,000 words to 32,000. Now I have gone back to that story and made it the background of a novel currently in progress.
I came to writing through two paths. The first was most obvious. I was a military brat and writing letters was a big part of our youth. We didn’t have texting or emails in those days. The only way to keep in touch with dear friends from our last post was via snail mail. It was also often our only link to our fathers who were often deployed to the war.
At one point I had a lot of pen pals all over the world: four in the Philippines, four in Germany, two in New Zealand, two in France and five more in other countries (all girls, of course!) I kept getting compliments on how my letters seemed like mini stories. I later took that to heart and considered the profession.
Also, during that time we had little to do with our time while on deployments on the ships. No video games, no DVD players – we barely had computers them. One of my coworkers brought a Commodore 64 with its massive 4” screen. Not much to do so we did what most people in my age group did, we played Dungeons & Dragons. We didn’t know as much then as we do now.
Fortunately, that was not the only RPG around. More games came out over the next few years. The ones I enjoyed the most were space-based sci fi games like TRAVELLER, RIFTS, ROBOTECH and STAR TREK.
Sometimes it was hard to find a game to join even on a crowded ship stuck at sea. One of the main things you look for in any games is a consistent game master whose style you were comfortable with. All too often you had a person running the game who enjoyed the “god-like” power over the domain he created and the poor souls submitting to his authority. Having a longtime character killed off on a capricious whim from some smirking idiot soured many people on gaming.
It didn’t take long before people realized I had potential to be a game master. I subbed for the GM a few times and was widely praised. I invested in a few books to learn what was actually a subtle art of game mastering with a light touch. The best GMs were actually nearly invisible to the game itself. The players played their roles and their decisions shaped the course of the game. I only provided the framework of the world their characters inhabited.
My most memorable experience was my single adventure run as a STAR TREK game master. I set the characters on a frontier world inhabited by a group of disenchanted Black intellectuals. They had fled Earth a century earlier and set up an advanced society based on the sciences. In time their world became important to both the Klingons and the Federation. It was a world that could not be easily conquered so diplomacy was important to resolve the challenge.
The players spent the next three days dealing with the locals, justifying the Federation claims of peace while having a long history of war. They also had to discover and foil a plot by younger scientists to overthrow their government (aided by the Klingons).
At the end of each session each player had homework. It was usually in the form of questions asked of them by the scientists. They didn’t have to do it. But the success of the mission depended on each member doing their part. So no one could sit back and say, “I’m only the communications officer” and role dice once in a while to see if they managed to make a phone call. Everyone had a part to play.
At the end of the long last day the players were exhausted; and thrilled! They said it was the best game they had every played of any kind, ever! They never saw my hand guiding events, never heard ominous dice roles after any given decision. It was simply a face to face encounter with fate every time we chatted. To them it was gaming; to me it was storytelling.
That is how I began building stories. I start with a premise, the question of “what if.” I build a framework for the setting. Then I set my characters free to explore the world and create their fate. All of their successes add up but challenges always loom. There are a few basic rules I have for writing that apply no matter what genre I am writing in:
1. never kill a character unnecessarily
2. make each death count
3. only stupidity is instantly fatal and
4. people learn more from their failures than they do from successes
That last can be understood simply. If what you do works, you’ll do it the same way next time and the time after that. If what you normally do fails then you are forced to reevaluate your strategy and formulate alternatives. You have learned something new, overcome an obstacle and become more flexible. That is character development, in writing and in life. Those are the most successful stories to sell and the most satisfying of lives to live.
Writing is a tough road to travel. Ask anyone who has ever tried to pursue it. The percentage of "overnight successes" in this business is the same as hall pf fame quarterbacks in the NFL compared to the number of total boys playing high school football; far less than one in a million.
Still it is my chosen life. I do it not just for the money but because I love it. I have lived an interesting life and have always enjoyed relating stories about the people, places and odd things I've seen. If I never sold another book (Lord above forfend!) I would still do this. That makes all the difference between wanting to be a writer and being a writer.