Top 10 Discoveries About My Book

Joe’s Post #180

This is how I imagine the book cover. Only with the shadow of a man in a coat and hat looking all detectivie

Are you surprised how your book turned out?

Now, spoiler alert, this is a longer post than normal. Get into your comfy underwear, pour yourself a glass of whiskey, put your feet up on the dog and continue.

Yager’s War has come so far since it’s inception back in 2016, but my first historical novel has finally been sent off to my first readers – Two professional writers, and one person who lived through that time.

Oh, but that seems so long, ago, now. A lifetime. And in that lifetime, I learned a lot about my story, which kinda surprised me since I thought I pretty much knew everything about it when I sat down to write it.

So, what did I discover?

1) I discovered that I can’t eat well and write. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with the novel, per se, but if anyone is looking to write a character in a novel who writes for a living, it’s a good trait. Not a healthy one, but something odd. Quirky. Stupid. Peanut M&Ms. Pop. Pizza. Oddly, I didn’t drink. Sorry Hemmingway.

2) I discovered that I sat down to write this because I love history and World War II history in particular. But it’s not a love based on battles, but stories. It’s something that’s not being taught a lot in schools. It’s all about facts, maps, (wait, I love maps, too), and dates. Even without a specific person, there is a narrative that thrills me. The massively outnumbered Jews who fought the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. The 500 Spartans at Thermopylae. The Alamo. Then it hit me. I love the underdog. The few who stood up when it mattered BUT died in the end. All knew they would die, yet still fought the fight. That leaked into my novel in a big way (and will certainly be a major part of the second and third novels.)

3)

Iron Lungs. Therapy for polio. But it looks like something out of a horror movie.

I discovered a lot about things we understand now, understand back then. Polio. PTSD. Asperger’s. They’ve all existed since the beginning of time. Like the Queen of England. But we’re only now understanding them fully and I was surprised at the complexity of each one of those subjects.

 

4) I discovered ‘what to keep in and what to take out’ was tougher than I ever thought. Yanking out a whole subplot ain’t easy, my friends. It’s like trying to yank off a skin tag, it’s quite painful and wants to snap right back. I can still use a lot of what I wrote or imagined in my next book,

5) I discovered I could fall in love with one of

Amelia Anderson. (AKA-
Bryce Dallas Howard)

my characters. It’s amazing how much a story can change even from the 2nd draft, to the third. I yanked out some decent writing about my character’s interaction with a family to explore a love interest and I fell in love with that love interest. Amelia “Amy” Anderson, a brilliant red-head with Sherlock Holmesian Asperger’s. Socially awkward. Kind. Driven. Beautiful (of course, cuz, you know, I’m a guy.) I dream about her now. Don’t tell my wife.

6) I discovered it’s tough to choose what research to use and what not to use. I had to cut research out. Oh, that fine line between having authentic historical details and way, way, way too much information… it’s so easy to cross because information is so fun! (You know what I’m talking about, Paula!)

7) I discovered that I could make myself cry while writing. Not, oh god, this is terrible, but I moved myself at some of the tragic scenes. Maybe no one else will shed a tear, but it’s odd that I could actually get in touch with emotion. Without whiskey. Thanks to Don Maass for making me live in the pain for a while.

8) I discovered, much to my horror, that it was not as much fun, sometimes, to do research. Now, this really shocked me. I love learning new facts. Like did you know that the Kaiser, the Imperial Emperor of Germany, fled to Holland? And had the nickname of the Woodchopper? But trying to get all my facts right, like what soap the Dutch used for dishes or what goods were sold in the Waterlooplein market, well, that took a bit of work and I often got distracted tracking down other details.

9) I discovered this is not, at its heart, a who-killed-Roger-Rabbit story. This is a Jewish

Lest we forget

story. Again, a bit of a shock. Not that I didn’t have Jewish elements in it, but on the last rewrite, it really hit home how much I needed to tell the Jewish story here.

10) I discovered it’s a feminist novel. This came as the biggest shock. BIGGEST. Like finding a spider in your underwear.  Both of my main female characters are strong, independent women in a time where such things were not the norm. Maybe it was all the women in my life who influenced that. My mom who went to university and graduated as the only woman in her class. My wives, Margot and Corinne. My inherited great Baba, who designed and built a frigging church.

But all those discoveries aside, the novel will get one last polish from my first readers, then it’s off to the agent.

It is the best thing I have written, but something not achieved without great pain and anguish. Ask my wife who’d find me wandering around the house muttering, “No, that won’t work, won’t work, my precious, he has to die, yes, die but how, dammit, how?”

It’s been an interesting journey, combining my deep emotional connection to the Netherlands (based on my visits there and my reading of the holocaust), my love of a good thriller, and my love of books that touch a poignant chord within us all.  But, as any writer should, if someone has a way to make it EVEN BETTER, (my first readers, my agent, my editor, Bob the grocery bagger,) then I’ll kick it up yet another notch.

Because I not only want it to be the best story I’ve ever written, but one of the best others will ever read.

The First Rewrite

Joe’s Post #179

Last Wednesday, at 9:44 pm, I finished my first rewrite of my novel, Yager’s War. Or my second draft of it, depending on your point of view.

So, what’s it like to do a rewrite?

Best I compare it to cake, cuz, I’m hungry and I’ve been thinking about cake a lot.

If my book were a cake, this is how I imagined it before I wrote a single word.

When you start out to write a novel, it’s because you have some amazing idea or story or character you MUST write about.

Like a wedding cake, at this point, the story is perfect beyond perfect (because you’ve not written a single word and just have something in your mind.)

You can imagine the sweeping character arcs, the brilliantly described settings, the epic emotions everyone will feel and, of course, the perfect way the plot all comes together.

Then you do your first draft. My first draft had the title, The WW2 Dutch Novel. Like calling something, The Cake. And, if I continue the metaphor, imagine making a cake when you’ve only seen one made by a master. The ingredients are listed, but not the amounts. The cooking time is only hinted at. And, as for the icing, there’s merely a note saying that you need some.

But if you take seminars, go to conferences like the Surrey Writers or attend workshops, you can get the idea you might need 2 eggs instead of one and maybe use some sugar at some point.

So, off you charge to make your cake, all excited cuz, you know, you like to make cakes.

This is what a first draft cake looks like. And it tastes like it looks.

Here is the result. And, guess what, it doesn’t even taste that good.

For some writers, this is as far as it gets. To fix that first draft mess requires a lot of work. Even Stephen King says he looks at what he’s done, sighs, puts it in his drawer and looks at it at a later date.

It’s not like I didn’t try to make a good cake, I simply had to see what worked and what didn’t. And hey, it kinda looks like a cake, right? Kinda a different color than I imagined, and I think I used salt instead of sugar, but now it’s time to fix it.

Can you fix it?

No. Not really. I mean you could put it in a blender, but really, you have to start over. So, in cake creation, like in writing, you start from scratch, again. You work hard to make it look better, taste better, smell better. You also realize that achieving that perfect perfection may be a little harder than you originally imagined.

The first reworking of the cake. See, it looks like a cake, smells like a cake, even tastes like a cake, but is it what you imagined?

The result is the next stage. The stage that I just finished. It looks ok. It even tastes kind of cakey, but you know you can do better. You just know it.

But you have the basics of what your cake will become. You’ve learned a bit about how to make it, how to add some interesting details and it is beginning to take shape.

Now, comes the next step. Refinement.

This is where you take a look at all your parts, all your ingredients, all your techniques and ask the simple question. Can’t I just go buy a cake instead?

Well, you can, but the question you really need to ask is How can I make this better? Then better than that? Then, even better still.

That whole process will take a lot more time, but when people bite into your cake, don’t you want them saying, OMFG is that ever good, I couldn’t stop eating it, this is the best cake I’ve ever tasted.

Now it’s time to work on those final details. The right mix of ingredients.

So, too, does it go with my novel. Now I need to work on making it the absolute best it can be before I send it off, because, as my published writer friend Sean Slater said to me, Joe, you only get one chance at a first impression.

Next week, a quick update on this progress. I think I’ll make a system because I’m all about systems.

Now for some cake.

 

Falling in Love With Your Own Writing

Joe’s Post #177

Listen to what Boromir says.

Listen to what Boromir says.

Is there anything better than falling in love? What about falling in love with your writing? Is that a good thing?

Well, no. No, it’s not.

It’s something I’ve been struggling with as I rewrite my novel, Yager’s War, for submission.

Set in 1940, it tells the story of a Chicago detective in Holland trying to find his missing sister before the Germans invade.

When I first wrote it, it had more of a mystery feel. Dead bodies. Gun battles. Lots of tough guy talk. Some hot sex. But from my writing group and my dedicated readers, it became clear that I needed to shift it a bit, and focus on the humanity of the story. Less Jack Reacher and more Gorky Park.

Why? Because I’m trying to write a deeper story. A story with emotional weight.

I spent a TON of time reworking my first 50 pages to see if I could hit this goal, and after many tears, much staring off into space, and a lot of bugging a published writer friend of mine, I think I finally got the right feel to the story. Good pacing. Some heart. Compelling characters in a compelling story.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

If my novel was a kitchen, this is what I would like it to look like.

For most of 2017, I’ve been hard at work recrafting the rest of the novel to be as good as those first 50 pages. It’s been hard and, frankly, a lot of the novel has been totally rewritten. It’s sort of like doing a kitchen renovation where all you want to do is replace the sink and end with redoing the counters, cabinets, floors, lights and adding a 75” TV, cuz every kitchen should have one.

But perhaps the toughest part has been letting go of some of my best writing. There was one scene that I loved. I loved writing it the first time. I loved reading it the second time. And the third.

It was powerful. It was emotional. Hell, I think I even gotz all the grammar right.

But here’s the horrible truth, a truth that we writers must face sometimes.

It no longer works.

The story has evolved in such a way that this beautifully written passage was no longer relevant.

It’s very sad.

It was hard to let it go.

But then I remembered what someone told me about letting go of things I’d collected in my house. You know, the sentimental things – the ashtray that my mom used to use, the chair my grandfather made that was now nearly in tatters, the 10,000 VCR tapes that I’d collected over the years… the things to which you attach memories, the things that have meaning but take up an awful lot of space and you no long need.

Well, someone said take a picture of those items so you’ll always have the memory. And, you know what? That worked like a charm. A friend saved me from being a hoarder.

So I applied the same principal to that nice bit of writing. I didn’t take a picture of it, but cut it out of the story and pasted it into a file called, “Things Joe Can’t Delete but Loves.” Like my original Sim City from, like, 1989 which hides somewhere in my computer games file.

Doing this allows me to move on.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

And, hey, it can be resurrected.

In my mind, I imagine my kids looking at this after I die and saying, my goodness, Joe REALLY could write. Who knew?

Rest in Peace, Good Writing.

Rest in Peace.

The Joys of Research

Joe’s Post #176

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with research. Like I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise movies or hot curry.

But I come from an age when if you wanted to find something out, you had to go to a library or have a super knowledgeable friend or just make it up. It was an age long ago, an age of encyclopedias, and age long forgotten now.

Because today, we have the internet.

Now if I want to find something, the internet usually has the answer. How cool is that?

radioAnd it has answers for some pretty esoteric stuff. Like, what radio sets did the Germans use in 1940? I mean, seriously, someone has a website about this?

Well, yes, yes someone does.

Or using google maps to figure out how long it takes to get from the Rijksmuseum to the Oud Kerk in Amsterdam.

Or finding pictures of streetcars in 1930s Rotterdam.

Good lord, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you can find. Sure, it’s not always right there in front of you, and I am far from the best search-word user, but the internet is an amazing thing and before Skynet takes over and limits my access, I intend to use the hell out of it.

The only downside is, though, (and this is where the ‘hate’ part of the relationship comes in), it can become a MASSIVE distraction to the actual task of writing. How many hours have I spent looking up small details that would make my story better? Police call boxes in Chicago, 1930. The Red Light District in Amsterdam (ok, I may have gotten seriously sidetracked with pictures of this one). Uniforms of the Dutch army 1939. Hitler’s paintings.

Anne Frank's pictures

Anne Frank’s pictures

It’s fun, even if it is time-consuming.

But without such access, how would I ever be able to make my setting come to life, make my characters interact with proper historical items, or have the correct music playing on the correct device and using the appropriate speakers?

For any novel written in the time I’m living, I don’t really need to look up those things, but for a historical fiction, it’s an absolute necessity.

I am thankful for the age that I live in.

 

Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!