The most common questions any writer gets are: Where do you get your ideas? What is your approach to writing? How do I become a better writer? When do you find the time to write? How do you deal with writer’s block? There are a few more but they are variations of these enquiries. The answers given are usually basic no-nonsense maxims. Seriously, how any writer becomes a good writer is by writing (and writing, and writing, and writing). Writing a lot develops discipline and opens doors in one’s brain they didn’t know where there before. This is how it’s been for me. However it’s time to be honest and reveal the key aspect those who ask me are never told. This will require a story.
After an injury to my lower back my life went out the window. As the rest of my life underwent reinvention the first idea was to write a book about the 7th Infantry Division (Light) which had been based at Fort Ord, California. How hard could it be? The problem was focusing on research, which was a whole separate headache, instead of writing which lead to the creation of a huge mess. The mess led to classes at Monterey Peninsula College to shore up my writing skills. I have always been a writer, there are hand-written stories (or parts of stories) tucked away in my closet going back to high school, but I never thought about taking it seriously until 2007. Composition 1A lead to Comp. 1B, which lead to Comp.2, followed by Survey of English Literature, and those lead me to the Creative Writing classes. The goal being to write a quality narrative, which will bring the 7thID back to life, and put the reader out at Fort Ord wearing 75-pounds of gear in the freezing indigo of Monterey Bay nights.
Whatever else I will become known for writing, I will always be ingrained by my research of the one Army division that got it all right, and was able to operate at a superior level with little more than the will to do so. So my writing secret is the application of infantry training and doctrine to my writing mind-set. The 3rd Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment’s barracks (the one with the Ninja painted facing the parking lot) used to have maxims painted on the front. Those which I apply to writing are:
Train as you will fight. Conduct meaningful and challenging training.
Train at all levels concurrently
So I write. I write anywhere, at any time, and this is done so there is no excuse for not being able to write. The 7th’s breed of soldier was named “Lightfighter”, and they could fight anywhere in the world. This is because they trained in Iceland, Alaska, Korea, Fort Irwin (in the Mojave Desert), Panama, Honduras, Arizona, and countless other locations. The Lightfighter knew he could be anywhere in the world within thirty hours with no warning. This has translated to those times when there is no story to write, the challenge becomes working on weak spots with fundamental exercises. Sometimes it’s looking at a picture and describing details. Maybe I take something off my Twitter feed to make a one page story. Other times I work out set pieces for action stories, and then cull the narrative until it flows like sand between toes.
These things are done so when the stories spill from my head I don’t waste time wrestling with mechanics, and I can just write. There is also a lot of reading going on. Reading for fun and reading about writing. Answers to every writer’s puzzle can be found in a classic novel or poem. Whatever the problem, it is a safe bet some other writer has solved it in a way you can use. I write horror so I read horror. When I began writing westerns I picked up short story collections by the best writers of the genre. To bring Max Chrome to life the stories of Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, and Ed Ruggero paved the way. As the 7thID trained with armies of other countries, I “train” with different authors.
Fighting light meant no relying on a huge apparatus to get the job done. I apply this by writing light. Don’t use twenty words if three will do. The Lightfighters could read the ground, and take an objective in an economic –yet – dashing way. When a story forms in my head I can tell how long it will be, and my writing is calibrated to achieve it. I find people are more forgiving if I don’t take too much of their time. When the novels begin I’m sure concise narrative will move the story along while engrossing the reader as well.
The Army loves to complicate things whenever possible, so the 7th ID was doomed from the start. The Lightfighters drilled in the fundamentals so when the call came they performed in combat in exemplary fashion. Everything step by step, though not always in order, until the job was done and they went home. So I drill and I write and I hang with other writers. I listen, read, and practice so I can write in any reasonable situation. This is done to avoid over-thinking once the story is in the breech. Over-thinking is a problem for every writer. It is a seizure-like mental breakdown. For non-writers this is seen most often in football where the place-kicker blows a short field goal, or a golfer misses a short putt. They failed mentally because too much was going on in their heads. Writing a story of any length is like balancing a marble on a two-by-four and if you think about it too much the marble ends up on the ground.
The things I learned from the Lightfightesr have helped me to not lose my marbles at the critical moments of story writing. Their approach to soldiering has informed my assault on writing. Their hard work went unappreciated, yet all 200 men I have interviewed would do it all over again if they could. They would put on all their gear; head out into the night to dig fighting positions, and freeze their nuts off just to be Lightfighters again. All I have to do is sit in my room and write to be part of a community. So I do. I will always be the bastard child of the 7th’s Lightfighters. Lightfighters and Lightwriters understand often only reward from all the hard work done is the knowledge you did it. The key to the Lightfighter’s success was their commanders kept raising the bar, then dared them to surpass, and they did – every time. So I raise my bar whenever possible too. I’m probably a good enough writer now to get around, but I want to write better.
So I drill and I write.