Monday, November 25, 2013

Undertakers of Rain: Passing the Rubicon.

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The Rubicon is a short river in Northern Italy. Caesar made this a part of our speech today when his army crossed this river in 49 B.C. His action created civil war. But we know it today as to pass the Rubicon, this means we reach a point of no return. We've set a course of action that cannot be changed.

I think in the construction of a novel, there is a point of no return. The opening days of work are days filled with excitement, with endless choices. But after a number of days when the material is accumulating there comes a point when the project just has to grow and become finished. Flowery comparison, I know. But I do feel like writing is war, and some days the writer wins and some days the writer loses.

There is also a Rubicon in the manuscript itself. There is a point, and I think this is in any good piece of fiction where the main character changes, and must go forward, transformed, new, different. This is the defining moment in the story. The defining moment in Undertakers is the night in the bar. We know that John has hang-ups with hippies from the first page. Of course, we don't know why, and the night in the bar he really makes it clear how much he hates hippies.

Any course of action in fiction, as described by John Gardner in chapter seven of the The Art of Fiction has reactions. Under the model of the Fictean Curve, there is the event and what the character should do to resolve the event, but we know that what a character should do is not always what a character does. This track of what the character does is what makes mini climaxes within the course of the plot. I know we've all read books, or seen movies where we (as readers or viewers) know what the character should do. We sometimes will even voice aloud what the character should do and we're somehow appalled that the character chooses another, less obvious course of action.

The bar. In the bar a fight ensues. It isn't like John is xenophobic, although Maria calls him out as such. The fight goes one way, and the course of the story changes.

I shared this particular scene with a few friends during the early drafts of the book. I had spent almost 20 pages letting John and Sam beat the bejesus out of a group of hippie kids. 20 pages. I must admit, it was cathartic, in a way. I don't really have a problem with hippies, or hipsters, or cowboys, or any other sub-group of mainstream people. Perhaps it was just that by the fall of 2009 when I was writing this story, I had not been in a fight for years. At any rate, I was told that the scene was excessive. I was told that the scene was a little too brutal compared with the rest of the text. I was told that the scene was in desperate need of revision. Begrudgingly, I acquiesced. I could not remove the scene. Not entirely. I paired it down to about three pages. I had to keep that much.

This is the event: John and Sam and their bartender Josie fight a group of kids. John's girlfriend Maria looks on. She's horrified, and rightly so. This event is the reason why she breaks up with him, and this break up causes John to become introspective.

Have you ever noticed that when you learn about yourself, it's generally not the learning of something good?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Undertakers of Rain: The novel

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This is a novel about returned war veterans. True enough. But my intent when I started Undertakers was to write a book about jewel thieves. Jewel thieves. This was because of a dream I had. In the dream I was hiding under a staircase with someone, a woman, I think, and we were waiting out the war with a pile of jewels. I think there was more to the dream that just this.

I had to ask myself, why write a book about jewel thieves? I took a couple of points: the jewels, the male-female relationship and the backdrop of war.

The writing process, I suspect is different for every writer. I also think that the process changes for each writer. At the time I drafted Undertakers I was writing close to 40 hours a week. They were just about 40 uninterrupted hours too. This was 2009. I had just got out of graduate school. As the case with most grad school graduates, I two things going on: 1) I felt like I had something to prove. And 2) I was in a heap of debt. The writing process in 2009 was this: wake up, fire up the computer; make the coffee, get the notebook open to the right place; begin draft two. A couple of hours working on the latest draft and then lunch. I got dressed at this point and left the house. I went to a park, the backyard or a coffeehouse and with my notebook, I began to work on the initial draft again. Late in the day, I headed off to work. I did this seven days a week for most of the year. The fall of 2009, I taught two classes at the community college and I got nearly twelve hours a day to write. It was a hell of a time. I was turning out 50,000 word manuscripts every 6 to 8 weeks. Undertakers of Rain was the August-September project.

Back to the jewel thieves. They made it into the story. They are, in fact, a big part of the plot. But the jewel thievery is not the major focus of the book. The major focus of the book are the two main characters, John and Sam and the way they reconcile the past.

So, I set the story ten years after the war. I set the story in Portland, Oregon. I set the office building where these two work in the office building where I worked. John lives in the house where I lived in late 1999. This is about where the autobiography ends.

The construction of characters is a process in itself.

As many of you know, and as the all of you will find out, I dedicated this novel to my buddy Chris Howk. Chris and I met in college. He was still in the Marines at the time, and I had been out of the Army for a few years. We did not go to war together, as the two characters John and Sam did. But Chris is a integral part of the construction of my two main characters. In real life, Chris and I had adventures that lasted a decade. In that ten years we lived in Denver and Portland. We worked in fantastical places like Elbert, and Willamina. We squatted on the beach at Rockaway and we were homeless in Denver. Ten years is a long time. I love Chris.

Much like a war memoir, jewel thieves, and my life with Chris, these do not make a good story and they do not make good fiction.

I took every negative quality I saw in both Chris and me and put them into one character. I took all the good qualities that I perceived in both of us and put them into the second character. This was the birth of Sam and John. I gave them failed relationships, bar fights and stressful jobs. Nothing too far from real life. And, as it was, the book wrote itself.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Undertakers of Rain: Veterans Day

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The armistice with Germany went into effect in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. 11/11 or November 11th is Veterans Day here in the United States. This day is known in other countries as remembrance day, or armistice day. At any rate, it should be a solemn day because of what it commemorates. On the one hand, Veterans day is the ideal time to thank a vet. I get plenty of thanks. I thank other vets. On the other hand, perhaps Veterans Day should be a time to openly display gratitude for all ended wars. And perhaps we can show gratitude for all wars that need ending.

It was sometime in the early 2000s when I met Frank. He was a patron in the bar where I worked at the time. He had spent a number of years in the 1980s in the Persian Gulf monitoring the war between Iran and Iraq. My relationship with Frank was an interesting one. Sure, we shared a common past in the middle east. We also shared a small level of fury about the war in Afghanistan and the mounting acceptance the new war in Iraq was gaining. Frank and I and others openly protested the war. Many of these people were very politically minded, they protested George W. Bush and his administration. I just didn't want to see war happen in Iraq again. There was no need for it. The last war there proved to be nothing more than a way to sow seeds of uncertainty and instability in a place that never had much else. It's over now, and we'll be paying for it for a very long time.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Undertakers of Rain: Leaving the War

Falling Soldier: Magnum
Photographer Robert Capa, born Friedmann Endre on October 22, 1913 died on May 25, 1954 from a land mine in Vietnam. In his 40 years, he participated in five wars: The Spanish Civil War, the Second Sin-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and his last, the First Indochina War. His weapon, of course was the camera. It is, perhaps, a gruesome thought to consider the carnage of five wars. I would think it's one thing to participate in the carnage, and it's something else entirely to record it. The 20th century brought us enough wars to make a concise understanding of war, everything from petty skirmishes to entire world wars, not to mention the one war that really cold one, that fortunately, no one acted on. And as long as we're introducing the concept of war with photographer Robert Capa, let's just say that the record of war, and the method of documenting war changed considerably from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of it. Early photographic prints around 1900 were significantly different from satellite digital imagery complete with ticker-tape CNN banners so prevalent in first world homes by the 1990s. And I cannot speak of the technological advances we see today. Today we have more than Life Magazine, we have more than TV. Computers and smartphones give us video and news as it's happening. It sends us war from the remotest parts of Earth instantly. So, the recording of war has change, and war itself has remained the same. 

Images are one thing. War is one thing. What we're talking about here is something else. This is the question I pose today, much like Robert Capa's famous Spanish Civil War photograph, The Falling Soldier, we retain war images long after the war is over. After peace treaties and armistices are reached, we still have images of the battle.