Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
I’m writing this post because this message hit home yesterday. An editor can usually tell within the first page or two if a manuscript is good or acceptable. A novel’s first pages encapsulate much of the story and establish character, setting (time and place), voice, pace, and even audience.
I started my novel a while back and wrote it piece by piece–a piece here, a piece there, knowing the pieces would need to be shuffled around and reworked. I started in a mysterious tone. I really liked it. But, alas, it didn’t work.
Actually, I broke all the rules. So I spent yesterday killing words.
There were words and paragraphs and chapters that I loved. The wording was precise and exact and descriptive and I thought, um, beautiful. But I killed them. I can easily kill the words of other people when I edit, but it was really hard to kill my own. I’ve done this before to my own work, but never, ever this much.
Do you know how it feels to kill words? (Maybe, just maybe, you should.)
After killing words, I like the new chapter. I think I’ve created a platform, a story opening, that I can jump into the depths from and swim across the pages.
So if you are wondering about your own manuscript, I can not only help you kill words and get the opening right, but now I can really and truly sympathize and empathize! We’ll cry together, hug, and then be happy! Check these things in your own novel opening that you may need to address:
- Do you open in scene? Some manuscripts open with interior thoughts of the characters or with description of the place. Ask yourself: is anything happening?
- Do you give too little information? Some manuscripts attempt to create a sense of mystery, but in doing so, don’t give the reader enough information. Some manuscripts don’t make clear what is happening or the importance of what is happening. Ask yourself: do you make clear where the characters are and what is going on?
- Do you give too much information? Some manuscripts start with pages of backstory or description or flashbacks. As an editor, I’ve killed five to fifteen opening pages of different manuscripts. (It’s easy when it’s not my own!) A reader only needs enough information to understand the scene in progress.
Good and successful manuscripts are well-balanced with action, motivation, a little description, and some thought. They begin with a main character in a scene with an immediate goal to achieve. They pull the reader in to turn the page and see what happens next.
TurnStyle helps with the editing of full manuscripts, but also with first chapters. Let us know if you need to make sure you are on good footing in your opening!
I haven’t heard much about new year’s resolutions this year. I haven’t made any. Has anyone? I think I’m still reeling from 2016. But hey, here we are, and life goes forward spinning round and round as the world turns. Perhaps, I should just think about what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of goals.
Goal. A desired result or possible outcome that one envisions, plans, and commits to achieve.
At the top of my list should be to bring kindness to my world. Not only to bring it, but to look for it in others.
I feel a need for my own sanity to avoid toxic people who continue the trend of 2016 to spread political untruths, to engage in name-calling, to manipulate others into seeing things their way. I’m a writer. I will continue to write and read and explore for understanding. That is how growth comes. Growth comes from way down deep, from thinking, from questioning, from soul searching, from seeing things the way that only I do. I’m a writer. I see differently. I don’t bury my head in the sand and ignore. I work it out. I write to know.
Some other things I would like to achieve:
- Finish the novel I’ve had in the back of my mind for maybe 15 years. I’ve made three attempts to start it. I remember sitting in downtown Nashville at a restaurant around the new millennium and talking to Charlie about it. Maybe I let all the steam out. Write a chapter a week.
- Write an essay every month. The new month starts today. I should get busy.
- Plant garden foods I will eat. Take time to work in the gardens and flower beds. Tame my yard. Maintain it better.
- Live with less. Get of rid of old things I don’t need. Pack things to save in bins and label.
- Go to a movie once a month.
- Spend time with Puppy Heidi on Franklin trails.
- Reach out and make a friend in the neighborhood.
- Go to the beach—with or without the new little camper I want.
- Blog more. Ten years ago when I started blogging, I committed to two or three times a week. When Charlie died, that went out the door. I had to go to work full time and support myself. Maybe now, two or three blogs a month. At least.
- Rethink social media. Remember why I got on Facebook ten years ago. Get back to that. I didn’t want any old friends or family. Just the writing community. Facebook for marketing and keeping up with other writers and new books and writing support. I need to tighten my boundaries. Say what I want to say and leave the room.
Okay, that’ll do it. I’m in. Foot down. New year. Go!
I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about it, and I’m getting more serious about it. Should I? Could I?
If I’m going to, now’s the time. What would it be like to hook up my own little ultra light white and blue camper and take off for the coast? Park it right on the beach. Listen to the waves all night. Just sit there and be lulled by the waters, watching the waves come in one after the other. Just me and the dog. Getting in tune. Peace. Quiet. Nothing but the sound of waves crashing in and the softness of puppy breath.
I’m thinking I would love to go to the mountains, but I’ve done that…without a trailer. I’ve driven up a high, steep mountain, 5 mph, scared, trailing behind me a mile-long string of cars. If I can’t do it without a trailer, maybe I shouldn’t with one. Or maybe a small mountain.
I love the idea of always having a roof over my head and taking my “roof” with me. Of packing the basic necessities, and a laptop, of course. Writing on the road…
I’ve upped this dream to the top of my mind. Yes. It’s a dream. And dreams can be made to come true.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the last breath out after the gathering of family to eat and share and affirm, and then two days of saying good-bye, left-overs, and a houseful of desserts that can’t be denied. The next breath in will be in preparation for Christmas—putting up the tree, shopping, wrapping, baking (again!), and making more plans. So as I rested on Sunday morning, I mixed it all up—undid the usual, did the unusual.
I got my first cup of coffee and sat in the living room. I turned on the TV for the local news about thick fog covering up downtown Nashville, a house fire off Briley Parkway, and a wreck with multiple fatalities on I-24. I never turn on the television in the morning. Can’t stand the noise.
I did some quiet planning for the next scene in my novel . . . Chapter 9 about Betsy’s Trunk, and I must admit that this was much fun.
I cooked breakfast, and we ate together, the dog and I. We had eggs, left-over Sister Schubert’s rolls, and “cookie-later.” Cookie-later, said as one word in a high-pitched voice, has a story behind it. Recently, when the pup was in Canine Good Citizen class, we learned the week before the final test that no treats are allowed when commands are completed during the exam. Dogs work for treats, and the better the treat, the harder the dog works. So I had to do something creative. The week before the test, I bought and cooked bacon and taught her that bacon is “cookie-later” and during practice, after she completed a command successfully, I’d say “cookie-later.” Afterwards, I’d give her tiny pieces of bacon. For the test, I rubbed a little bacon on my fingers and after she completed each of the ten steps of the exam, I told her “cookie-later.” She worked like a dog for it.
I pulled out the crock pot and dropped in all the freshly washed produce not used over Thanksgiving. Soup sounds good for the week: green beans, kale, carrots, onion, celery, leek, and tomatoes, along with some brown rice and already baked chicken breast.
I put all the silver away in its chest. It’s only used once, maybe twice a year. Before Thanksgiving dinner, our new bride put the Wallace sterling forks, knives, and spoons at each place setting. With her recent “I do,” the silver became hers. It was given to my son more than thirty years ago by a woman in our church who had no children to pass it on to.
I folded the clean napkins, kitchen towels, and potholders and put them away. The guest towels and sheets are drying now. The china and wine glasses have been returned to their places.
Lastly, I’ll store the two pumpkin decorations: the fragmented glass pumpkin and the block of cedar carved into a pumpkin with a chainsaw. I love that pumpkin, mainly because of the unique color of its stem, light creamy green.
I can’t begin to think of Christmas yet. But the next breath in will come soon, and I will gear up.