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7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Thomas W. Young

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Thomas W. Young. Thomas W. Young's Afghanistan war novel, The Mullah's Storm (Putnam, Sept. 2010), received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Thomas W. Young, author of THE MULLAH'S STORM) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

Thomas W. Young's Afghanistan war novel,
The Mullah's Storm (Putnam, Sept. 2010),
received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.
As an instructor flight engineer, Young flies with
the West Virginia Air National Guard, and he has
served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has logged nearly 4,000
hours of flight time on the C-5
Galaxy and the C-130 Hercules in 40 countries.

In military aviation, we like to review lessons learned. After each mission, crews go over what we got right and what we could do better. I'd like to discuss how some lessons learned about combat flying can also keep your writing more tactical: fast-moving, powerful, and deadly accurate. This briefing is unclassified.

1. Know your character's mission. When we start engines for a tactical flight, we need to know our mission: the altitudes, the turn points, the target or the drop zone. Likewise, you need to know what your main character wants, and the kind of work it takes to get it. Have a strong idea of what in your character's world is wrong that needs to be put right. These are the basic elements of conflict, on the page or on the battlefield.

2. Understand the tactical environment. It gets interesting when the shooting starts. (Sometimes a little too interesting.) As we enter the target area, there might be people who don't want us there. They'd like to see us fail in our mission, or worse. The same goes for your main character. Once you know the character's mission, you need to know what's keeping him or her from accomplishing it. Know what threats and obstacles your character must overcome. Think about who or what opposes your character, and why. Consider all possible difficulties; adversaries can include weather, illness, or just plain bad luck.

3. Remain unpredictable. Mission planners love the element of surprise. If the enemy knows what to expect from us, we're toast. Our readers aren't enemies, but we still want to keep them guessing. Every genre has its formulas, but strive to give your story twists the reader does not expect. Read outside your genre for fresh ideas and perspectives. To go way outside your genre, read poetry and consider how poets use words not just for their meanings but for the way they sound. Think about how poets draw word pictures. When someone first gave me that advice, I thought, "Come on, that's way too artsy for me." But I tried it, and it helped me improve metaphors and scene descriptions.

4. Maintain a high level of proficiency. In a high-threat environment, the last thing we need to worry about is how to fly the aircraft. That should be second nature. As a writer, how do you maintain proficiency? Keep your skills sharp. Attend writers' conferences and workshops. Always strive to improve. A flight instructor once said to me, "When you think you've learned it all, you're dangerous and you need to turn in your wings." Same with writing. If you're tired of learning, it's time to quit.

5. Use terrain to your advantage. A valley is not just pretty scenery. It's both a refuge and a hazard. If the enemy has radar on the next ridge, they might not see us if we blast through the valley at treetop level. But if we aren't careful, we could slam into the valley floor. Your setting can become almost a character in itself. It can heighten interest in your story, and not just serve as a backdrop. Create a strong sense of place with evocative descriptions of the locale. Then, use the locale. How does it influence your character's actions?

6. Speed is life. There's a military flight tactics manual that actually says this. It applies in writing, as well. Keep your plot moving; maintain the tension. If you get slow, you make an easy target for the enemy's RL-1, known to civilians as the Rejection Letter.

7. Look out for your wingman. Writing is a lonely pursuit, but writer friends can provide a sense of community. They can give you support when you get hit by that RL-1. They can point out strengths and weaknesses in your writing when you can't see them yourself. Their love for the craft can help keep you in touch with why you signed up in the first place. And finally, they make good drinking buddies, just like a flight crew. After a mission, or a reading, there's nothing better than a round of beers with your squadron mates.

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