HP Press Debriefing : Walking Wounded
*Author Notes and Insights*
Hi everyone, and welcome to the Walking Wounded debriefing. There will be some spoilers below, I’m sure, which is why I’ve put it under a “read more” cut. So if you haven’t read the novel, and don’t want to be spoiled, come back to this later. If you have read the book, I hope you’ll enjoy taking a deeper look at the novel through my eyes.
No two stories begin the same way. They always start with a character, but those characters never reveal themselves with any sort of coherence. Back in the spring, let’s say May-ish, I was working on Loverboy, and TLC, and I’d been pestering readers for a while with the declaration that I wanted to write something different. I was so frustrated, so stagnant, so…bleh. That’s never productive – that under-the-skin itch that says different, different, different. It never leads to good ideas.
But I was sitting at the computer one day, and in stumbled Luke, with his glasses, and his no-socks, and suitcase “belted against latch failure.” And he was a prickly little hedgehog writer type, but he had a tender heart, and I loved him straight off. “Okay,” I said. “What’s your story?”
The Long Gap/Initial Ideas:
I wrote chapter one, and then stashed the story away on a flash drive, because I knew I didn’t have the time to work on it properly yet. I had a long gap between conception and execution, so I had months to stew over plot and character arcs and decide the particulars.
Initially, Will was going to be a WWII vet. It’s long been a dream of mine to write something set during that war, and I thought this book would be as good a time as any. But the longer I thought about it, the more I began to change my mind. For starters, Will would need to be older than he is in the final version, which would make Matt older by necessity. And also…my grandfather and his brother served in the Korean War. I had direct sources at my fingertips. I would have been crazy not to use them! When preliminary research started, that’s when I knew – Korea is the Forgotten War. And it shouldn’t be. I wanted, badly, then, to draw a little attention to it.
A Chance to be Literary:
Right from the start, I set out to write a proper literary fiction novel. I’ve been annoying everyone for the past two years with the insistence that I’m not a romance author, but rather, a literary fiction author. I knew it was long past time I wrote something that was challenging, and that was rooted in the human experience. Not high art, no – I may never achieve that – but something more honest and real. Something that makes you think, and makes you feel, that touches on the complex in simple and relatable ways.
So when I sat down to work on WW, I did so with a clear vision that I wanted this to feel like a “grown up” book. An intangible sort of goal, yes, and one that demands the author be more “present,” aware of the effect of each word, each line, each scene. A book that is crafted, carefully built, and self-aware.
The result? A book that I am more pleased with, more proud of, than anything I’ve ever written. On Goodreads, one reader said the book felt different from my others, and she believed this was the result of me being unhappy with the book, of having cut large sections from it, of having “not know what to do with it,” and even of being uncomfortable with writing an m/m love story. Nothing could be further from the truth. None of what she supposed is accurate. Yes, the book feels different from my others – it was designed that way. This book was not heavily edited. I didn’t cut lines or scenes or chunks of text. I wrote this book exactly as intended, and it was a joy to work on, all the way through. My happiest, most productive writing spell in two solid years.
So let’s talk about that: the design.
I generally like to work through multiple POVs, but in this book, I used only two: Luke’s contemporary viewpoint, and Will’s historical viewpoint. This was a story that I felt benefitted from staying in the dark, wondering along with Luke, limited by what he knows, thinks, and assumes. He’s a character whose opinions and perceptions are evolving as the story progresses, and clinging tight to him enables readers to experience this in a more intimate way.
This was my first time using present tense, and I chose to do so because I knew that large chunks of the book would take place in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Using present tense for Luke’s story, and past tense for Will’s created distinct “feels” for the complimentary segments of the novel. It took some getting used to at first, I’ll admit. I’ve always felt that I didn’t like to read in present tense, when the truth is that I didn’t like to read sloppy fiction. Sloppy and present tense seem to go hand-in-hand, so I mistakenly blamed the tense. I challenged myself to try something new, and I’m pleased with the result. I’d definitely write in present tense again.
Will’s scenes, set during the war, are intentionally hazy. Rather than inundate the reader with detail – and risk looking like I was just trying to prove I did the research through an overload of description – I chose to keep those scenes a little uncharacteristically bare, focusing on Finn, and on Will’s attachment to him. The emotions, rather than the setting details. Because Will, as an old man looking back, doesn’t remember what color his bedroom walls were. But he remembers Finn’s smile. He remembers love, and fear, and death, and the things – the people – who mattered most to him.
Likewise, most of the flashback scenes are fairly open-ended, and this was very much done on purpose. For the most part, humans aren’t any good at drawing conclusions about their emotions – they experience them. I didn’t want to make any declarations about Will, or Finn. I wanted you to see them, like looking at an old sepia-toned photo. And I wanted you to draw your own conclusions. There is no right or wrong way of looking at it. Will told Luke – told you – a story. Think of it what you will.
The best books don’t seek to fill all the gaps, and I didn’t want to here. Genre fiction tends to hold your hand and tell you what to believe, but literary fiction takes a more subtle, “grown up” approach, and that’s what I did here. Yes, different from my other books. Very much so. Some people will enjoy this, and others won’t. But don’t let it be said that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. I very much did.
There’s a romance in play here. In fact, the love story is the catalyst for the action of the book. What the book doesn’t do, however, is follow a romantic narrative style. The romance doesn’t drive the action; rather, Luke’s feelings for Hal are very much a part of how he views his own history, sexuality, and sense of worth. The romance here isn’t exactly unexpected. “Falling in love” is not a part of the plot. Love – romantic love, friendship love, familial love, even love of country – is a driving force behind all the decisions and assumptions of the characters in the novel. A love story for sure, but not a fast-paced romance novel. This approach, oddly enough, enabled me to write a much more touching and realistic love than I normally present in my other books. In my opinion, Hal and Luke’s relationship felt much more visceral and real than some of the other love stories I’ve written.
There was only one scene that was removed from the initial draft, and that was a rather explicit sex scene in chapter 19. My beta and I talked at length (haha) about removing it. She felt that, ultimately, the sex wasn’t necessary, and that it didn’t match the feel of the rest of the novel. I agreed with her, and removed the scene, and I think the book is better for it. It’s not a smutty book. I don’t think any romance requires smut to be emotionally satisfying – and that was the ultimate goal here: to write a romance that was emotionally satisfying, rather than one that was sexually titillating. Believe it or not, I don’t enjoy writing smut, so it felt really good to write a book that could stand on its own without it.
My grandfather and my Uncle Ted were both radio operators in Korea. Thanks to the unusual nature of the Korean War, and the scramble to get Marines deployed, they ended up serving in the same unit. Quite a few of their true stories made it into the book: the North Korean hit with napalm with the cards in his hand; the helicopter door falling off; the Big Snow; the air mattress shot full of holes; the trucks loaded with bodies; spending the night in the rice paddies; the bodies in the river. I’m so thankful that they were willing to share their stories with me, because the book could never have taken shape without them.
This book was my favorite project of the year…and probably my favorite project ever. I’m immensely sad that it’s over, and that now I have to go on and write other things. It’s not the book that anyone expected of me, or even wanted of me, but it’s the book that best represents who I am as an author and an artist. Completing it has given me the courage to be a little selfish and plan projects that help me improve as a writer; projects I’m excited about and proud of. As I’ve said before: the first lines of a new chapter in my writing life.