The View From the Deck Plate
I re-watched Sleepless in Seattle a few weeks ago. I was flying home to Georgia to visit my family, and it was one of the complementary selections on the in-flight entertainment system. (The choices were Annie, Frozen, a straight-to-video Tinkerbelle flick, or Sleepless. I chose Sleepless.)
I enjoyed the movie—as I enjoy all Nora Ephron films—but about halfway through, I noticed something I’d never picked up on before. Whenever Annie (Meg Ryan) needed to park, there were always four car lengths of open curb in exactly the right place.
No need for parallel parking. No backing and filling. No circling the block and hoping for someone to vacate a spot. Always an empty parking space precisely where and when she needed one, and always four car lengths long. Enough room for Annie/Meg to zip right in on the first pass. No muss, no fuss.
It was a simple bit of movie magic, and one that made perfect sense for that genre of film. In the context of a romantic comedy, the ever-ready parking slots were both expedient and completely understandable. When you have less than two hours to create and resolve the complications of a human relationship, you don’t want to waste precious minutes of screen time having Meg Ryan search for a place to park.
I get that. If I had directed the movie, I’m sure I would have solved the problem the same way that Nora Ephron did—by leaving four car lengths of open curb at the end of every driving scene.
But I’m not in the business of writing and directing romantic comedies. I write techno thrillers. In my genre, the goal is not to simplify the world. As I see it, the goal is to show the world in all of its gloriously messy complexity. Military hardware and tactics? Complicated. The international balance of power? Damned complicated. Global Geopolitics? Unbelievably complicated. The frailties, ambitions, and prejudices of flawed human leaders? Insanely fucking complicated.
Given the kind of books I write, it only makes sense that at least some of those complexities should be reflected in the stories I create. Anything less would amount to spoon-feeding my readers, which would be an insult to their intelligence, not to mention a complete waste of my time.
I suspect that most readers of techno thriller fiction would agree with me on that point. So you might be surprised to learn that the mainstream publishing industry does not agree with me at all. It turns out that acquisitions editors for the major houses don’t want any of that nasty complex stuff in the novels they publish. At least not in my experience.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been asked variations of the same question from editors representing nearly every major house.
Is there any way to sort of “streamline” the political arc of this book?
Do you think the readers will be able to follow all of that technical information?
Aren’t all these subplots a bit confusing?
Couldn’t we get to the meat of the story quicker if we left out the historical underpinnings?
What do you think about drawing your protagonist and antagonist in sharper contrast?
Every one of those editors was doing his/her best to communicate through wink-wink-nudge-nudge circumlocution. Trying to ask the real question without ever having to speak the actual words.
The real question is this…
Can you please dumb this book down? You’re completely overestimating the intelligence of the book-buying public.
My answer to this carefully-avoided query has always been the same. No. Not at all. Not ever.
If an editor wants to talk to me about pacing, I’m all ears. Character motivation? Lay it on me. Dialogue? Description? Theme? Readability? Language? Absolutely! Any of those. All of those. Whip out that blue pencil and let’s edit the hell out of this thing. I’m willing to rewrite. I’m willing to polish. I’m willing to rip out twenty-five chapters and rework the whole damned thing.
As long as the goal is to weave a tighter, better, and more meaningful story. But if the intent is to dumb the book down, on the (false) assumption that readers are idiots, my answer is not just no. It’s hell no.
I happen to believe that the world we live in is complex, chaotic, and utterly fascinating. The politics are not cut-and-dried. No real person has the purity of good or evil depicted in cartoon heroes and villains. Sometimes cultural conflicts fester for decades (or even centuries) without reaching any kind of lasting resolution. And we can’t expect every detail to be tied up in a neat bundle by the time the end credits roll.
I also happen to believe that readers are smart enough to understand all of those things. That they can sift through the chaff to find the kernels of wheat. That they enjoy a story that isn’t written for the lowest common denominator.
And when they come to the end of the book’s journey, they don’t expect to automatically find four car lengths of open parking at the curb.
For most of my life, I’ve been judging Herman Wouk’s authorial Kung Fu on the basis of his 1952 novel, The Caine Mutiny. That always seemed like a pretty good yardstick to me. It was the only one of his books to win the Pulitzer Prize, so it must (logically) be the high water mark of his writing.
I was so confident in this assumption that I never bothered to read anything else written by the man. Instead, I contented myself with re-reading The Caine Mutiny every ten years or so—reliving the tribulations of the spoiled and callow young naval officer, Willie Keith, and the spectacularly-flawed Captain Philip Francis Queeg.
If you’ve never read the book, you should. It takes a hard look at the complexities of military politics and the pressures of wartime leadership, then goes on to examine the razor-thin boundaries that separate privilege-of-rank from abuse-of-power, personal interpretation from simple deception, and reasonable caution from outright cowardice. It also happens to be a rollicking good sea story, with enough saltwater action and human drama to keep an old Sailor like me flipping pages long into the night. (The movie is great, by the way. Humphrey Bogart gives a masterful performance as Queeg, and Fred MacMurray is wonderfully despicable as Lieutenant Keefer. But—as fine as it is—the film is no substitute for the book.)
I’ve always regarded The Caine Mutiny as one of the best novels ever written about the U.S. Navy, so I spent something like three and a half decades avoiding Mr. Wouk’s later work. I knew instinctively that his other books would only disappoint me. He couldn’t possibly equal the power, tension, and insight of that one book. No writer is that much of a badass.
Do you know what’s worse than being stupidly and stubbornly wrong? Taking thirty-something years to figure out that you’ve been stupidly and stubbornly wrong. Because it turns out that Herman Wouk really is that much of a badass. His authorial Kung Fu is far greater than I ever imagined. After ignoring his subsequent books since the Carter Administration, I recently decided to take a chance on The Winds of War.
That book is not just good; it’s fucking brilliant. As far as I’m concerned, it’s better than The Caine Mutiny. Don’t ask me how such a thing is possible, because I don’t know. What I do know is that War and Remembrance is next in my reading stack.
Maybe it’ll be as good as The Winds of War. Maybe not. At this point, I don’t even care. Mr. Wouk—who celebrates his 100th birthday this month—has given us two astoundingly good novels about the United States Navy. It’s probably too much to hope that he managed to make lightning strike a third time, but I’m damned well not waiting thirty years to find out.
Happy Birthday, Mr. W. You sir, are a Mark-1 Mod-0 Badass. I bow three times in the direction of your writing desk.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my first experience with writing military fiction was also my first experience with plagiarism. I was seven years old, and my family had just moved from Marietta, Georgia to the nearby town of Austell. Our new house was only a dozen or so miles from our old apartment, but the distance was enough to put me in a different school district.
Before our change of address, I wasn’t even aware that other schools existed. Park Street Elementary in Marietta wasn’t just my school. It was the school. The only one I’d ever seen. How could I possibly go to school anywhere else?
But it turned out that there were other schools in the universe. I discovered this when I found myself sitting at an unfamiliar desk, listening to an unfamiliar teacher, in a classroom full of complete strangers, in a preposterously round school building called Richard B. Russell Elementary. (My mom said my new school looked like a donut. My dad called it the circus tent. I preferred to think of it as Hell.)
A few months later, I would learn that there are worst things in life than changing schools in the middle of the year, but if you had told me that back then, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Except for my brother who was two grades ahead of me and avoiding me like the plague, I didn’t know a single person in that school. No friends in the classroom. No familiar faces in the lunch line. No one to pal around with at recess. No seat buddy on the school bus. Even the textbooks and assignment sheets were strange and alien to me.
So when my new teacher announced that she would be holding a story writing contest, she had my attention immediately. As she laid out the rules, I began to smile. The stories would be submitted anonymously, and the class would vote to select the best one. (Good… Good…) Illustrations would be permitted. (Even better, as I considered myself something of an artist.) And the grand prize was to be an ice cream cake, which the winner could take home to his or her family.
I nearly stood up and cheered when the teacher revealed this last part. This was my chance! It was the perfect setup! I would write a dazzlingly brilliant story, brought to eye-popping life by my full-color art work. My classmates would not even realize that they were acknowledging the glory and talent of the new kid when they selected my entry as the obvious winner. And then, when I was basking in their collective adoration, I would have an announcement of my own. Ice cream cake for everyone! The frozen delight would not be going home with me on the bus. I would be sharing it with my fellow students.
No longer would I be the new kid. I would be the story master. The artist. The provider of icy confections. All would love and admire me. And best of all, I already had the ideal story in mind.
My favorite song back then was Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, by the Royal Guardsmen. If you’ve never heard it, you can take my word; that was a pretty cool song. In addition to having a catchy tune, it told the story of a beagle who takes to the skies atop his dog house, to duel with the infamous World War I flying ace, Manfred von Richthofen.
To my seven year old mind, that song had everything a story could possibly need. It had a flawless balance of military action and humor. It had history. It had a life-and-death struggle against superior odds. It had blazing machine guns, and a flying freaking dog. With that much literary goodness going for me, how could I possibly lose?
I sharpened my number two pencil and got to work. After a bit of deliberation, I decided to change the title. I was certain that none of the other kids in the class were cool enough to listen to the Royal Guardsmen, but there was a slim chance that one of them had heard the song in passing. To be on the safe side, I changed Snoopy to Spot. This was, I judged, a sufficient injection of originality. For the rest of the story, I could rely on the actual contents of the song, along with a couple of illustrations depicting my visual interpretations of aerial combat between a murderous flying ace and a cute cartoon dog.
I paraphrased the plot line of the song. “A long time ago, after the turn of the century, in the cloudless blue skies above Germany…”
When it came time to extol von Richthofen’s impressive record of kills, I quoted the lyrics verbatim. “Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more. The Bloody Red Baron was rolling out the score. Eighty men died trying to end that stree of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany.”*
*The word “spree” was not part of my vocabulary at age seven, and I assumed that I would learn all about the mysterious term “stree” at some point during the second grade. Or possibly the third.
With such a powerful source to draw from, my story was finished in no time. Away went the number two pencil, and out came the felt-tipped markers. I was determined to make the art work every bit the equal of the literary tour de force I had just penned. And so I did.
My first drawing depicted the deadly Baron in the cockpit of a bright red delta-winged fighter jet. (I apparently didn’t have a good handle on the state of the art for World War I aircraft in those days.) Streaking from the Baron’s jet toward some hapless Allied aircraft were at least thirty missiles, each trailing black curly smoke and long tails of orange fire. The Allied plane—not nearly as badass as the Baron’s delta-wing—was already pockmarked with black dots that represented bullet holes. The pilot was clearly done for.
My second drawing showed Snoopy… I mean Spot… astride his dog house, flying straight toward a head-on collision with the Red Baron’s jet. Guided missiles and machinegun bullets (represented by dashed lines) screamed across the page in both directions. It was a snapshot in time, captured a mere fraction of a second before all of those lethal projectiles struck home. Chaos and disaster just one heartbeat away.
The finished product exceeded my wildest expectations. Looking over my story and drawings, I knew instantly that I was going to win. No one could possibly compete with the lurid high-octane excitement of Spot vs. the Red Baron.
I left my name off the pages, as instructed, and carried my masterpiece to the teacher’s desk where I laid it face down. (Also as instructed.)
Then I had to sit at my desk and wait, while all of the slower kids in class struggled to complete their doomed entries in my contest. I passed the time by mentally practicing my acceptance speech, and imagining the taste of ice cream cake garnished with victory.
At last, the final story was turned in. The teacher shuffled through the pile, pulled out a story at random, and read it to the class, holding up the attached drawings for examination by her students. I didn’t think much of the story or the illustrations. They were adequate, I supposed, but definitely not in the same caliber as my work.
Teacher read another story, and another, and then another. I sat waiting for mine. And waiting.
She finished off a lame tale about a purple horse who could turn invisible, and then proclaimed the voting period open.
I was stunned. What about Spot vs. the Red Baron? Had she overlooked my story? Was such a thing even possible?
My hand shot up. The teacher ignored me.
I waved my raised arm from side to side, in the time-honored gesture used to capture the notice of inattentive pedagogues. The teacher made eye contact with me, gave her head a single shake, and proceeded with the mechanics of soliciting votes for the contest.
This was appalling! I was being cut out of the contest! Denied my rightful chance at victory! But no matter how long I kept my hand in the air, it was clear that the teacher was not going to call on me.
Finally, the prize was awarded. I think it went to the purple horse story. I honestly don’t remember.
I lowered my unacknowledged hand in defeat, and sat through the rest of the school day in disbelieving silence. My master plan was in tatters, and I didn’t even know where I had gone wrong.
When the final bell of the day rang, I joined the scrum of kids shuffling toward the exit. The teacher intercepted me at the door, and handed back my story.
She had circled the word “stree” in red ink, along with an annotation to check my spelling. In the margin was a note which read, “Nice drawings and good penmanship. Look up the word ‘Plagiarism’ when you get home.
I did look up the word, and then I understood why my story had been disqualified. It had never occurred to me that stories and even choices of phrase might actually belong to the people who created them. I took that lesson to heart, and I’ve spent my life as a writer trying to avoid making that same mistake again.
And—to this day—I don’t know what ice cream cake tastes like.
A few years ago, a retired literary agent and long-time friend of mine made a rather interesting comment about my naval warfare books. He remarked that I was rapidly becoming the first military techno-thriller author in history to build a successful career out of writing anti-war novels. Before I could respond, he went on to compliment me for weaving the anti-war message into my stories so subtly that no one had ever caught me in the act.
I honestly didn’t know how to respond. I’ll admit that I’ve explored certain themes in my writing. For instance, Sea of Shadows explores what might happen if an unprepared president takes military advice from his political cronies, while ignoring the counsel of the people who are actually qualified to guide him. The book also examines the dangers of becoming a slave to established doctrine in situations where it clearly doesn’t apply.
In my opinion, both of those concepts are worthy of discussion in real life, and they happen to double nicely as complicating factors in the story. But I wouldn’t consider them messages. In fact, I don’t consider them messages. I’ve never intentionally set out to imbed messages in my stories. I write thriller novels. My job is to entertain readers. Period. Not to educate them. Not to influence their opinions. Not even to broaden their horizons. If I can keep readers turning the pages and smiling, I’ve accomplished my entire mission.
So I was surprised (and frankly a bit upset) when this wise and trusted literary guru congratulated me for the clever subversiveness of my anti-war message. I asked him to explain. He did…
“You’re writing combat action thrillers,” he said, “but your stories are never about crushing the enemy. In your books, the U.S. military units fight until their objectives are satisfied, and then stop. The Soldiers and Sailors don’t wave the banners of victory and proclaim American supremacy. They do their jobs as quickly as possible, and then they go home. No fanfare. No parades. No grandstanding about the glory of war, or moralizing about how the bad guys had it coming.”
Listening to my friend speak, I started to get a glimmer of where he was coming from. Most of what he was saying was true, but I don’t think any of that qualifies as a secret message. It’s more like my basic view of military action, formed over many years of life in uniform.
War sucks. So does open heart surgery, and so does chemotherapy. Military intervention is never a good answer. But sometimes—for all of the attendant horror and suffering—it ends up being the best of all the bad options available. When that happens, like cardiac surgery or chemo, your best course of action is to get it over with as skillfully and quickly as you possibly can.
If you know anything at all about me, you’ve probably realized that I spend a lot of time talking about the nature of heroism. I keep coming back to this topic because I think it’s vitally important. Our very way of life depends upon people who are willing to face risk and bear the sacrifices required to keep our nation safe.
I recently came across a book that explores heroism from an angle which is too often overlooked. Heart of a Military Woman by Sheryl L. Roush and Eldonna Lewis Fernandez is a collection of stories, poems, musings, and sayings, by and about military women. Sometimes funny, sometimes profound, and sometimes heart wrenching, these are the thoughts and experiences of our women in uniform.
Sheryl Roush has kindly agreed to let me reprint one of the stories here…
The Price to Pay
I am a mother, wife, nurse, and an Army Master Sergeant. In February 2003, as a Reservist, I was mobilized to serve my country when my daughter was only three years old. If I had to think of the hardest event in my life, it would have to be the day I left. The front page of the Dallas Morning News said it all in a picture. It showed my daughter being ripped from my arms as I boarded the bus to leave. I have a love for my country and if everyone said, “Military life is not for me,” there would be no one to keep us safe at home. That heartache you never really get over it – and your child never forgets it.
It became a way of life for my daughter to have her mother leave. At age five, In December 2004, I was mobilized again. The sadness I felt was relived all over again. This time my daughter was more understanding. In her Kindergarten class she would say, “My mom is serving her country so we can live here free.” I do not know if she truly understood what she was saying, because it was so far beyond her years. But living the life as a military child teaches our children values others never really achieve.
I trained soldier medics, who were on their way to Iraq, the skills they must possess to stay alive and help others who were in need of medical help on the battlefield. The pride I felt – and still feel – to get an email back saying lives were saved from what I taught is beyond words.
As a woman and mother of three, I have a fear after 15 years of serving my country, I will get that call again. But it is a price I must pay to make sure my children will have a safe place in which to grow old.
—Angela Perez, Master Sergeant, USAR
I don’t know about you, but that short little piece speaks to me as a parent, as an old ex-warrior, and as an American.
Valentine’s Day is nearly here, and I’m willing to bet that three-quarters of the gifts exchanged in this country will fall into the same tired categories. (Chocolates, flowers, jewelry…) Do something different this year. Share this book with the person who shares your heart.
Before you know it, the last of the sweets will be gone and the roses will all have wilted, but these stories of love and heroism will remain in your minds and hearts. Click here to order your copy. You won’t find a more lasting gift than that.