When Fiona Mcvie asked if I’d like to be interviewed for the blog, Author Interviews, I expected the usual round of questions, but I was in for a surprise. The interview forced me to think about how all this writing stuff began and why I can’t stop. It’s the first time I’ve ever considered what motivates and influences me.
Tag archive: Afghanistan
Forget the Mayan Apocalypse because that is so last week, or will be by the New Year. If planet Nibiru was on the way into our inner solar system, it would be the brightest star in the sky right now. As for planet killing solar flares, the sun is heading for the weakest solar maximum in a century.
The second craziest thing I’ve done in my life is to sign up for the Ottawa Marathon, which will be my second marathon race in less than a month. But when I get an idea in my head, it’s like a worm that burrows deep into my brain, chewing up all common sense along the way.
The trouble with this is that one of them doesn’t have a compelling enough reason to walk into Afghanistan. Author Michael Blair pointed this out to me when he was critiquing my novel, In a Country Burning, three years ago at the Bloody Words Mystery Convention. He also suggested I “pump it up a notch” for the first chapter and also speculated that I was too close to this novel and should just give it up and write something new.
Bummer. I hate it when people are right, and I often wish I’d paid attention to all three of his comments. I did pump up the first chapter quite a bit, and comments from Fogel and other readers now describe it with words like “relentless, dizzying and confusing.” Oh well, I can pump it down.
But the motivations: Jackson is a lousy freelance journalist with not much of a career until he gets approached by the CIA, not to spy but just to come in for interviews every time he returns from Afghanistan to tell them what he’s seen. It’s illegal for the CIA to use American journalists for intelligence gathering, but Jackson is a Canadian. In return the CIA co-ordinate with the mujahideen parties to ensure Jackson gets to all the right places in Afghanistan at the right time to ensure he gets the stories he needs to be a successful freelance journalist.
The problem for Jackson is that he has stepped on a slippery slope. He finds himself passing on CIA advice to the muj, and soon pushing them into CIA agenda assaults. He is no longer a journalist but is now a combatant.
Okay, now for the protagonist: Thomas Sutton. His motivation is much weaker. He was a paramedic in the Rochester Fire Department, a committed Christian, and engaged to be married when all that fell apart. He made a surprise visit to his fiance and caught her in bed with another man, a no good loser who’d gone to the same high school.
Sutton is later accused of negligent homicide in the loser’s death. After escaping a guilty verdict, Sutton decides he is guilty and goes to the most dangerous country in the world at the time, Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, seeking God’s punishment for his crime.
Susan summed up the biggest problem with this motivation: whine, whine, whine. Get a gun. Shoot yourself and we’re all done. Get it over with and save us the time.
Which brings me back to Michael Blair. He said, “Look, he needs a better reason to go to Afghanistan. I mean, come on! You didn’t go there just to research this novel.”
Uhm, actually I did. To which Blair replied without skipping a beat, “You’re crazier than I thought.”
Maybe that’s why I have trouble finding a suitable motivation for Sutton: I didn’t need much motivation myself to seek out adventure.
I like writing because it’s a solitary task. I’m the complete dictator of an entire world when I sit in front of my keyboard. I decide who lives and who dies, who get’s laid and who joins the priesthood.
Of course this dictatorship ends when I present my work to others to read, whether an editor, a writers group or friends. Then I have to listen to opinions, weigh reputations and compromise.
So Fogel, my editor, has serious concerns about my novel, In a Country Burning, and I have some big decisions to make. Because it’s my first novel, written and rewritten dozens of times over twenty years–yes, you heard me–twenty years, I’ve lost all perspective.
So I thought, why not make it a public effort? I’ll tell you where I am in the novel and the problems I’m having. People are welcome to e-mail suggestions.
Just remember: I’m still the dictator in the end. All opinions are just that: opinions. If you send me a suggestion, you’re sending it for free and will receive no compensation. If I use one of your suggestions it doesn’t mean you own part of my novel. I retained all rights, copyrights and ownership. This is my baby.
So: these two guys walk into Afghanistan in 1983…
Writers are human beings, so unfortunately when three or more are gathered together they will break into at least two factions. I know this because I belonged to a writers group for a few years.
It was an exciting time. Most of the group were younger than me and eager, and all of them were good writers. We shared successes and failures, brutally honest critiques, and we even encouraged one another to compete in the same short story contests. We became friends, attended weddings, and went on road trips to parties and conferences.
Then one day the fun ended. I was pulled aside by one member and gently informed that a clique had decided that another member should be evicted from the group. He wasn’t writing enough. Someone didn’t like his critiques. His worst crime seemed to be that he nodded off to sleep a couple of times during an excessively long critique (not of his story.)
This left me in a quandary. I had nearly fallen asleep a couple of times myself during that critique, but apparently I had been better at hiding it. Would I be the next writer forced to walk the plank?
I suggested a better solution would be to limit the length of critiques to five minutes. Only a few weeks before, one member had a valid complaint about one technical point in my story, but she went on about it for twenty minutes. I had it solved in my head in two minutes, but the rules of our group were that I had to keep my mouth shut until she was done. Surely a time limit would solve everything.
Nope. Unlimited critique lengths were required.
Now I could have polled the other members of the group and put it to a vote. I could have approached one or another member, using backroom politics to get my way, sort of what I saw going on already. Instead I resigned from the group. If I want politics I’ll pick up a paper.
It’s been years, but I miss my writers group. We bonded over a common cause, shared the same dreams, and they understood me better than many of my university friends. Most of us are still friends, of course, but its not the same as meeting once a month, bracing yourself for the round of criticism that will be unleashed on you in the politest manner. I even miss the dreaded “but” as in, “This was a great story, but…”
So I have to ask myself: would I join another writers group? I think there is always more to learn, but I’ve never been much of a group person. Even traveling I developed a preference early in my adulthood of venturing to very strange places by myself. I’m not a loner, but I’m not a team player. I like running, but not runners groups. I like writing, and for a time I liked my writers group.
Perhaps that’s it. Start a writers group with an expiration date, say one year. Just enough time to get to know one another but not enough time for factions to develop.
After all, we’re only human.
My novel, In a Country Burning, is about redemption, about accepting fate and even a little romance, but mostly it’s about war.
It’s about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and highlights two of the ten years of bloodshed and genocide that took place during that occupation. Let’s not even get into the disaster the Soviets left behind for the rest of the world to clean up.
So I have to ask myself: will women read this book if I manage to squeeze in a little romance? I’ve been told women read a lot more than men. Any expert in the publishing industry will tell you that women are an important audience if you want to sell.
But Fogel says, “there are too many shoulders in this novel.” She means that I’ve got too many characters, all vying for attention and all fighting to make it into the final scene. So as I rewrite, it occurs to me that I could ditch the love interest and her family and go straight for the war story.
But will women read a war story? How many girls snuggled up on the couch with their guys to watch Band of Brothers? I’m guessing not many. There will still be one woman in the book and even a heavy bit of amorous action, but for the most part it becomes a novel about men at war.
Which is what it always was about. I made a desperate and painstaking stab at making it more like The English Patient, but I’m afraid it’s actually closer to The Hunt for Red October, but without all the cool technology.
So sales be damned. This novel needs to be shorter, sharper and more focused. Will it sell better? Well, if I don’t rein it in it won’t even make it to market.
So to all the female readers: I’m sorry. I don’t think it was going to work for you anyway. To all the men: put down the remote or the game controller and start reading again for heaven’s sake! I’m writing for you here.
By the way: if anyone feels slighted because they don’t like being squashed into a stereotype, well then read my book when it comes out. It’ll be available to both Martians and Venusians.
There’s a box with a manuscript in it sitting on my desk. It’s the manuscript where each neatly printed page has been marred by The Fogel’s harsh scrawls. In a sense, I have already opened it, because The Fogel sent me her notes on Chapter one by e-mail, and her comments strike like a hammer, over and over again.
My day job has been busy over the last few weeks, which is good because I needed time to decide what to do about the novel, one that has taken up so much of my life.
Go to my website, www.michaelmcpherson.ca and you’ll see my smiling face and the photos I took of the men I traveled with in Afghanistan. Back then Reagan was president and the mujahideen were still described in the press as “freedom fighters.”
How things have changed. I watched on TV as the twin towers went down, and as word came out that the terrorists were trained in Afghanistan and called themselves mujahideen, I knew the media would never again refer to them as freedom fighters.
Yet that is how I still feel about the men I traveled with, and I wonder how many of them are alive today. They were generous to me. I trusted them with my life. They had hopes and fears, children and wives and grooming advice. The commander said I should shave my wispy beard because I couldn’t grow a proper beard. He was clean shaven himself. We’re not talking Taliban fanatics here, at least not back then.
I can’t let them go. I want the world to see them as human beings. I want the world to understand what the Soviets did to that country. It was the one thing I promised myself I could do for them, although the commander’s son would have preferred that I’d bought him new boots. I missed the opportunity to do that, and it haunts me.
So Monday I have some time off from my day job, and I will open that box. I will endure all of The Fogel’s comments. I will rethink plot and story, characters and events. I will struggle and rewrite. Somehow, I will finish what I started.
It’s the least I can do.