Your Write Turn – Taking Stock of Yourself by Jeffrey K. Walker

Reading Jeffrey K. Walker’s CV I discovered many surprises. I knew he’d been in the military and is a lawyer, but he’s also had top secret security clearance, was a senior advisor working on a US Government funded project to build the capacity of the Iraqi national criminal justice system, and was a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force. His professional writings include titles like “Strategic Targeting and International Law: The Ambiguity of Law Meets the Reality of a Single- Superpower World.” And he was also a B-52 navigator/bombardier. Today, he’s sharing an article he wrote a while back on what it takes to write fiction as a career. Over to you, Jeff.

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I got a lot of traffic on a post I did two weeks ago about new careers after 50. Since my own newest career is writing, I thought I’d follow-up by talking about this crazy idea of becoming an author at the wizened age of 50 or (gasp!) even older. Kids these days…

The Font of All Knowledge regarding aging, the American Association of Retired Persons, says there were 108.7 million Americans older than 50 in 2014—and there are more than that now. Of that 108.7+ million, about 80% think they have a book in them. I’d cut that by a factor of ten to get to those who may undertake writing a book one day. So for those 8.7+ million of you dying to put pen to paper—”pen to paper,” how quaint!—I have a few things I’ve learned along the way that I’ll share.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re fully retired, working part-time, or still pulling fifty-hour weeks at The Day Job. Becoming a writer really just requires saying, “I’m a writer.” And then actually writing something. That, too.

You’ll be shocked how hard it is to say something that simple… or at least say it while sober in respectable company. Sometimes, it’s hard to say it even to your own family. And on your worst writing days, saying it to yourself is hardest of all. Like every new writer who ever lived, you’ll feel like an impostor. This Impostor Syndrome lasts until you hold that first published book in your flop-sweaty hands. And it then recurs with each subsequent book project. It’s a neurosis to be managed, not eliminated.

The best place to start your writing career is with a personal inventory. This consists of several components:

  • Motivation
    • Time
    • Finances
    • Self-discipline
    • Emotional State
    • Physical State
    • Support
    • Skills

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Motivation

This isn’t as obvious as it seems. Why do you want to write a book? There really isn’t a wrong answer, but you need to honestly assess your objectives in taking up writing because that informs much of what follows. Do you want to write a compelling memoir for wholly personal reasons? A family history for your children and relatives? A swashbuckling historical adventure you’ve been noodling over in your head for years? An artsy and innovative high-brow novel? A non-fiction book about a topic in which you have special expertise? Or straight-up commercial fiction in the thriller or romance or mystery genre? All are equally valid reasons. And you may be motivated by multiple desires.

Not insignificantly, do you want to make enough money from your writing to replace all or part of your income from The Day Job? To supplement your retirement income? Or to cover the costs of producing and marketing your book? Let’s be clear about earning money from your writing.

When you inevitably run into a self-identified writer who claims, “Oh, no, no, no! My art is above base considerations of filthy lucre,” punch this individual in the face and move on. You can omit the punch, if you fear prosecution. This insufferable auteur-type has nothing to teach you and will guilt you about wanting to make money from your intellectual property. There’s also a high probability this person’s writing is unreadably self-indulgent.

Time

Ahh, Time! That most precious of resources! And I’ll stop there before I go all poetic. When I first said, “My name is Jeff and I’m a writer,” I had the dual advantages of the financial resources and the spousal tolerance to spend a year just writing fiction. I managed to produce all of one novel and most of another in that year. Once that year was over, however, I had to return to Actual Paid Employment, taking on a growing number of hours of legal consulting work. My third novel took almost two years—there’s a definite correlation there.

If you’re fully retired from The Day Job, you probably have more time on your hands than you ever expected or currently want, so your available writing time is extensive. On the other hand, if you’re still working full-time, don’t despair. The question for you is what time can you carve out for writing? You should approach calendaring and protecting your writing time the way your investment advisor tells you to save for retirement—pay yourself first. Schedule writing time, announce it to your family and friends, and then guard it like a junkyard dog. Also, develop an immunity to the indulgent little smiles and nods you’ll get from people when you tell them it’s your “writing time.”

Most writers I know set aside time during the same part of the day, with the majority preferring mornings. I know a few who swear their most productive time is late at night. Having taken to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admonition about the dark night of the soul, I’m decidedly a morning writer.

Finances 

If you have a comfortable pension, social security, and/or 401(k) income [or whatever retirement savings mechanism your country offers], this is easy beans. If you’re somewhat younger and/or somewhat poorer, there will be trade-offs. There are two components to your financial inventory: the money you need to keep body and soul together and the budget for your book. Even in this day of self-publishing that’s as easy as hitting the send button on a Kindle file, unless you’re impervious to embarrassment and have no concern over making sales, your book is going to need some capital investment. (I have an entire blog on book budgeting scheduled in the near future.)

Self-Discipline

You must honestly assess your level of self-discipline. Generally, your spouse or significant other will be more than happy to help with this. It’s likely he or she has already rendered an opinion.

The most important thing separating people who just want to say, “I’m a writer” (usually spoken with a Manhattan and a cigarette) from those who actually want to do writing, is the self-discipline they bring to the task. There is only one way to make that stack of manuscript pages get thicker—writing them one word, one sentence, and one paragraph at a time. As the always sage and seldom sober Papa Hemingway taught us, “All you have to do is right one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Then write another one.

There are lots of techniques and tricks to keep your forward momentum—I’ll write about some of those in a future post, too—but there’s no substitute for grit, for the sticktoitiveness that will muscle you through your first agonizing draft. Self-discipline is also the only known preventative cure for writer’s block. That and a lot of bourbon.

So give yourself some time for a mano a mano with that person in the mirror. If you’re somewhat certain you can handle the delayed gratification of creating a 120,000-word manuscript and then putting it through half a dozen (or more) vicious edits and revisions, then welcome to the writer’s tribe. If not, you may want to consider blogging or podcasting instead. Or maybe stick to golf.

Emotional State

I don’t want to sound all New Agey and Group Huggy about this, but writing does require a deep well of emotional reserves. No matter how successful your prior professional life may have been, you’re exposing yourself to a whole new world of doubts, criticisms, inadequacies, and general neuroses when you embark on your new writing career. Remember there will be no mediation between your literary creations and the very judgmental reading public. It’s all yours and you’re hanging out there naked, protected only by the words you’ve written.

In addition, can you keep yourself emotionally bounded by realistic expectations? You’re unlikely to become fantastically rich or land a guest spot on a late-night talk show. The best way to ground your expectations is through honest introspective analysis at the “Motivation” step of this personal inventory. There’s a reason that one is first.

On the other hand, there is no joy like the elation of positive reviews, encouraging comments from other writers, or sales reports that prove people have spent their hard-earned money on your book.

Physical State

Since I’m talking to people over 50, let me caution against deluding yourself about the physicality of writing. When I was a 19-year-old college student, I could sit at a typewriter for 12 or 14 hours and pound out that overdue research paper. Not so easy four decades later. For me, there’s eyestrain, shoulder pain, a sore lower back, and mental fogginess that kicks in after a few hours of intense writing. It’s not a good idea to plan your writing life around marathon sessions. And that loops right back to time and self-discipline. That’s not to say there won’t be random days when you’re completely Lost In Storyland and the words are coming in a flood. On those glorious and rare days, write until you drop. Then take 1000 mg of ibuprofen and a few shots of brown liquor.

Support

How much support can you expect from those around you? First and foremost, you need to have The Writing Talk with your spouse or significant other. The reality is you’re going to disappear behind a closed door for long stretches of time. You’re going to need agreement to be left alone. (See, supra, protecting your writing time.) By happenstance, I married a woman who is both very supportive of my writing and—double bonus!—an outstanding editor. (I’ll talk more about our “family business” approach to writing in a future blog.) My wife, Kay-Kay, and I also have three children and a couple of grandchildren. You need to factor them into the equation, too. (More on my adult kids’ role in the “family business” later, too.)

Skills

I’m an attorney by training, so I’ve spent most of my adult life writing professionally. You simply can’t avoid it if you’re making a living at the bar. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me, usually at some writer’s conference, “Oh, so you’re new to writing?” Well, no, I’m not. I’m a new novelist, but I’ve been a professional writer for years.

What I’ve long carried in my toolbox is a thorough knowledge of and years of experience in the mechanics of writing English prose. And the importance of that is not to be gainsaid. It’s often remarked in writing workshops, “Know the rules before you choose to break them.” I came in knowing the rules, so I feel entitled to break them when necessary. 

If you consider yourself a weak or awkward writer, you’ll need to begin farther upstream.

If your mechanics aren’t solid, best start at the local university, community college, or writing center to sharpen your skates. I caution against jumping into creative writing as a means of learning basic grammar, punctuation, and elements of style. That will only undermine your self-discipline and exacerbate your Impostor Syndrome. 

Louise Aronson, author of the book “Elderhood,” bemoans that tendency in American culture to “talk about the bads of old age and not the goods.” The five decades or more you’ve spent on this earth prior to jumping into authorship are a rich storehouse of resources and skills to help you succeed as a writer-entrepreneur. There is no such thing as wasted time to a writer–everything is grist for the word mill.

If your kids and grandkids routinely roll their eyes and beg you not to tell that same story again, you may have well-developed storytelling skills. (Hey, at least they remember them, right?) And being a working writer extends well beyond putting words on paper. Even if you’re picked up with a juicy contract by one of the Big Five publishing houses, unless your last name ends with King or Gabaldon or Grisham, most of the marketing for your book is going to fall on your shoulders. You may have deep prior skills in that area. Public speaking is an important part of any author’s life—book club chats, library presentations, book signings, school visits, and more. If nothing else, you’ve lived long enough to work through your fears and know the value of sticking to a long-term project with a difficult but achievable goal. 

None of this is intended to discourage you from your new career as a writer. Rather, it’s meant to give you some ideas for approaching your new writerly life with a clear eye and well-grounded expectations. But the payoff can be enormous—and not necessarily in dollars. Although dollars are nice. It’s in the process of creating something beautiful and moving and lasting that will survive long after you’re gone. And that’s priceless.

Jeffrey K. Walker writes historical fiction. His award-winning Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy explores World War One and its aftermath. The trilogy includes: None of Us the Same, Truly Are the Free, and No Hero’s Welcome.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Birth of the F-Bomb by Jeffrey K. Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is back today with the promised post on the Birth of the F-Bomb. Intriguing stuff – to be filed under the category ‘Who Knew’.

There’s an irresistible impulse amongst we humans always to overestimate the uniqueness of our own situation. In the USA, for example, we’re currently hyperventilating over the hideous partisanship and coarseness of our political discourse.

I call bollocks.

There’s really nothing worse than what the Jeffersonians and the Adams-Hamilton Federalists meted out to each other 200 years ago. Adams was labeled “a hideous hermaphroditical character” by a journalist hired by Jefferson. Adams responded by throwing said journalist in prison for sedition. The happy aftermath to this story is that the journalist, a Scotsman (not surprisingly) by the name of Callender, later turned on Jefferson and outed ‘The Author of the Declaration’ as ‘The Father of the Children of His Slave’ Sally Hemings. (Who was herself probably the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. It all got rather complicated in Ol’ Virginny.) 

So I for one believe things could get much worse.

The same sense that Our Time Is Utterly Unique applies to… the F-Bomb. My kids seem to think they invented the word f@ck in all its marvelous polygrammatical guises. I beg to differ, but until recently I’d kinda thought MY generation invented everyday use of the word f#ck. I was woefully mistaken. 

In fact, the first usage of the word f$ck in any kind of sexual sense appears to date to the early 14th century when a man from Chester in England is referred to in a writing as “Roger Fucke-by-the-Navele.” Which says something most hilarious about poor Roger’s sexual prowess, we may safely assume. The first use of the F-word in literature dates to a poem written by a Scotsman (not surprisingly) named William Dunbar: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit / Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane.” But since less than .0008% of the world’s population could even come close to understanding this, it’s kind of a “no harm, no foul” usage.

The first book of a fiction trilogy I’m writing came out in May [2017], set during and after the First World War. Doing research for these books, I discovered that the F-Bomb, as in the carpet-bombing usage of the word f$ck in each phrase of every conversation, was probably invented by millions of English-speaking soldiers slogging around the trenches during the First World War. (I stand ready to be disproven by all you U.S. Civil War or Napoleonic War authors out there.)

It seems to have become something of a Word of Universal Usage among the Brits, Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Newfoundlanders, South Africans, and—belatedly—the Yanks. Its use even spilled over to the non-English speaking troops, including the Germans. By the end of the War, it was in the same league as “O.K.” in terms of worldwide currency.

I’ve spent much of the last 18 months in a deep dive into First World War soldier’s letters, memoirs, interviews, songs, cartoons, trench newspapers, poems, and novels. Much of this was consciously cleaned up by the former Tommies or doughboys or diggers for consumption back home in decent society. I then learned to decode the accepted replacement euphemisms or entendres. Some examples, by way of illustration:

  • ‘Sod off/sod/sodding’ equivalent to f^ck off/f&cker/f&cking
  • ‘Bugger/buggered/buggering’ equivalent to f&cker/f#cked/f&cking
  • ‘Blooming’ equivalent to f&cking
  • ‘Blessed’ equivalent to f#cked

You get the idea. And it quickly became obvious to me that in the trenches, about every fifth word seems to have been f^ck, f+cked, or f!cking. Or some combination or derivation thereof.

Here’s a few examples from widely popular soldiers’ songs, which grew ever more profane as the war dragged through its deadly, sausage-grinding 51 months. As a former aviator myself, I particularly like this Royal Flying Corps ditty derived from the children’s rhyme “Cock Robin.” Just the chorus will do:

All the pilots who were there

Said ‘Fuck it, we will chuck it.’

When they heard Cock Robin

Had kicked the fucking bucket.

Here’s one that made it into my book, set to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Just because.

Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,

The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.

We don’t give a fuck for old von Kluck,

And all his bleeding army.

What I sensed from all these letters and memoirs that referred, either directly or indirectly, to the incredibly coarse language of the trenches is that the enlisted men and the officers took the regular use of f%ck as simply part of the background noise of the soldiering way of life. Just as they stopped hearing the near-constant thrum of artillery unless it was falling directly on them, profanity didn’t register. The hideous level of violence and the omnipresence of capricious death numbed the men to anything beyond getting by from day to day.

My favorite use of the F-Bomb? Actually, it’s not from the Great War at all. Rather, my F-Bomber Award goes to Al Pacino who, in his eponymous lead role in the 1983 film Scarface, scored the first recorded F-Bomb hat trick by using the word as verb, adjective and object of a proposition in an economical nine words: “Don’t f#ck with me you f@cking piece of f*ck.” <Mike drop>

Many thanks, Jeffrey. This gives me a whole new perspective on the F-Bomb!! As mentioned in the post on Other Voices, Jeff volunteered to share some of his blog posts with all my lovely readers at A Writer of History. For more information on Jeffrey’s novels, you can check Goodreads – where they all have great reviews. You can purchase them from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

None of Us the Same by Jeffrey K. Walker ~~ Fiery Deirdre Brannigan had opinions on everything. She certainly hated the very idea of war in 1914. Childhood pals Jack Oakley and Will Parsons thought it a grand adventure with their friends. But the crushing weight of her guilty conscience pushes Deirdre to leave Ireland and land directly in the fray. Meanwhile the five friends from Newfoundland blithely enlist. After all, the war couldn’t possibly last very long… 

They learn quickly how wrong they are and each is torn apart by the carnage in France. 

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Other Voices – with Jeffrey K. Walker

Friend and fellow author, Jeffrey K. Walker, responded to last week’s Missing In Action with the offer to share a few posts on my blog. Such kindness! I greatly admire Jeff’s novels and his blogging voice – a little cheeky, a little irreverant – is most enjoyable. Plus the topics he tackles are well suited for an audience that loves the reading and writing of historical fiction. So … take it away, Jeffrey!

OTHER VOICES by JEFFREY K. WALKER

I turned over my second book, Truly Are the Free, to the copy editor on Friday. That’s always a Highly Emotional Event, since it’s the moment one’s beautiful, finely crafted, and perfectly constructed literary stroke of genius gets turned into… a product. In the end, a book is something you sell. Like soap or sneakers or Silly String. And let’s be honest, Silly String is way more fun than most books. Other than mine, it goes without saying. 

Because if you’re going to write one novel why not write three, Truly Are the Free is the second volume in my First World War and 1920s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. And yet again I ran head-on into a problem that emerged in my first book: how does a middle-aged white guy from fly-over country write how other people talk?

This may not sound like an Earth-Shaking Problem, but it tied me in knots with my first book, None of Us the Same. Two of the main characters and a whole cod-schooner-full of supporting ones were from Newfoundland. Also, half the novel is set there. So far so good—they speak English up there in Canada, eh? Well, sort of. 

Here’s the thing, Newfoundland developed with three historical oddities: 1) it was not part of Canada until 1949, 2) it’s a rather isolated and island-ish sort of place, and 3) most of the people spent four centuries in dispersed outports and coastal islands that you could only get to by boat. 

As a result, with a population of 528,448 (not counting moose), Newfounese sports 20 sub-dialects (if you throw in Labrador, which you have to do to be fair to all dog breeds). So when it came time to actually make these characters speak in my book, I was determined to Do So With Authenticity. Because, you know, I’m an Author and must be True To My Art

Yeah, not so much. Writing authentic dialect meant writing completely inaccessible dialogue to everyone but the .15% of native English speakers who currently inhabit the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

With all my in-depth linguistic research rapidly circling the drain, after the second draft of None of Us the Same I discovered that a) authenticity is really, really hard, and b) what I was really after in my fiction was verisimilitude—roughly translated, getting close enough. This meant creating a fictional space in which readers could lose themselves while I didn’t do anything stupid to jerk them out. So what I needed was the appearance of authenticity. Sort of like making a breakfast cereal bar in Brooklyn appear to be… well, anything other than a Very Silly Brooklyn Thing.

What I ended up with was a judicious sprinkling of idiom that I hope provides a sense of place without confusing people. For example, if someone is very thin, in the USA we might say, “He’s skinny as a rail” but in Newfoundland maybe, “He’s as thin as a rasher in the wind,” the delightful mental image being a strip of bacon flapping in the breeze. I threw in a few flag words, like the ubiquitous “b’y”— today used to refer to men, children, women, dogs, whatever—which was lifted directly from the southeast Irish pronunciation of “boy.”

I thought I had a handle on this tug-of-war between authenticity and accessibility. Early readers of None of Us the Same assured me I’d gotten it about right. Then I started writing Truly Are the Free, which is set in France, Ireland and the USA. While sharing a time period and some characters with Book #1, the story in Book #2 shifts to an African-American regiment from Harlem, some Irish locals, and beaucoup de French people.

The French were my initial problem, since I had to decide how much actual French I could risk having my not-so-actual French people speak. I’ve tried to cut this knot by using just enough French phrases to create that elusive verisimilitude of Frenchness. When I used French, I either selected cognates—words that looked more or less the same in both languages—or I found indirect ways to define the phrase in surrounding text. We’ll see if I got it right soon enough.

The more tangly problem was my African-American characters. Let’s be honest. I’m acutely aware of the highly contentious and often very emotional arguments swirling around writing circles, academia and our broader American society regarding “cultural appropriation.” This debate asks, can anyone not of a particular racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other discrete group write authentically about people from that group? This includes fictional characters. Maybe especially fictional characters. And nothing is closer to the heart of this matter than what form of words you put in a character’s mouth. 

To say I went through waves of panic would be an understatement. Big tsunami waves, followed by deep troughs of self-doubt. The last thing I wanted was my African-American characters to descend into caricatures like Amos &  Andy or some old Hollywood mammy. I actually had nightmares where I was stuck in an Aunt Jemima commercial from my childhood. And be fair, to a 7-year-old me, a talking syrup bottle was a Very Scary Concept. (Or was that Mrs. Butterworth?)

I desperately wanted to do right by my characters. They’re drawn from the experiences of some all-too-real valiant men and intrepid women, even if mine are fictional. On the other hand, my African-American characters span the spectrum from the university-educated son of an affluent doctor to an uneducated soldier from a sharecropper family. They couldn’t speak the same, since that would sound fake and, well, silly.

After a lot of thought and reading and listening to Others Smarter Than Me, I finally landed in my personal comfort zone. I asked myself two things with every African-American character I created or before putting any kind of words in their mouths. 

First, can I describe out loud a legitimate narrative need for this character or piece of dialogue? (This is something you should probably ask about ANY character or dialogue, lest you write a rambling and boring book.) If I truly needed the character, the scene or the dialogue to build a character, convey a necessary sense of time or place, or advance the plot, then I’m good to go on to the next question.

Second, can I treat the character, their backstory, and their behavior with respect and dignity? The starting place here is DO YOUR RESEARCH—that’s the first line of defense against descending into stereotypes and clichés, particularly writing historical fiction. (I recently heard a full-throated exposition on this by way-too-talented Jamaican-American novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn.) There’s no copy-and-paste Googley shortcut to thorough research. And you have to then verify a second time everything that ends up in your manuscript, which will ideally be (according to Papa Hemingway at least) about 10% of what you started with. 

However, this doesn’t mean I didn’t write some broken or malevolent African-American characters—when you read Truly Are the Free, you’ll find some deliciously evil people, black and white. But I strived even with these Bad Guys to treat them with care and diligence, to make them fully-fleshed, warm-blooded, three-dimensional.

And I suppose the final lesson I’ve learned is to approach the whole project with a healthy dose of humility. As a fiction writer, I wield an awesome amount of power, the power of life or death, happiness or tragedy. Since omnipotence is a heady thrill, there’s a constant need to check my hubris, especially when writing cross-culturally. There’s always more to learn, after all.

Hope you’ll give my new book, Truly Are the Free, a read when it comes out 30 November [2017]. And of course you can start right now with None of us the Same.

Many thanks for sharing this post, Jeff. Jeffrey K. Walker will be back soon with another article – this one will be on Birth of the F-Bomb. And by the way, you can read an earlier post by Jeffrey titled The Wages of Violence here.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.