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AYE, SIR! MY MILITARY BETA AND I




 Soon after I started writing the Abendau books, I ran into research blackholes. Most could be addressed by asking appropriate questions or reading books. But one proved problematic: my characters - many of them, anyway - were in the army, over a variety of ranks.

Now, this is what I knew about an army. It's big. It has soldiers, with guns. They say 'Aye, Sir!' a lot.

I knew nothing about the culture or language. I could - and did - research ranks, and roles. I understood the leadership required - I'm a leadership consultant and the skills are transferable. But I didn't understand how belonging to the army can affect that leadership approach.

In short, I did not have the knowledge or understanding to write a convincing army officer. And my main character was destined to become a CEO....

Having accepted my limitations, I started chewing my lip nervously. Happily, Jim Kane, a Game of Thrones fan, posted to offer advice to writers writing military scenes. It turned out he was a major in the US army.

As a blagger extraordinaire, I asked if he’d look over my scenes. I expected a quick readthrough and some critique. I had no idea that five years on Jim would still be reading and advising on my third book having put me through my paces on book one and two.


JIM:

Browsing around the forums I saw that people would post short stories or chapters of longer pieces up for critique, and two things really struck me: 1) That a ton of people write about military activity, whether in the real world, fantasy worlds, or in future science fiction environments, and 2) Holy cow do they have some weird ideas about how things work in the military.

I mean, when you’re in the military you see these kind of things all the time in books, TV, movies. Things that as I like to say with Jo: “Make me cringe.” But it’s one thing to see them and just think ‘Oh my God they have no idea.’, and it’s another thing entirely to read through something like that analytically, like you would editing or beta-reading. In the second case you have to really look at it and ask, “Why does this make me cringe? What about it is completely ludicrous?” and then the far more important question, “What would have to change to make this make sense?”

So, after throwing in critiques on the forums for a bit, I posted a thread offering to give a military-specific once-over to anyone that wanted it. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I remember that at the time I was trying really hard to be polite and not just scream at the forums something like, “You God damn civilians…”

Anyway, I must have been sufficiently restrained because I was approached by a few people, Jo Zebedee being one of them. It was actually a fortunate coincidence, because a lot of Jo’s military scenes revolved around her main character, Kare, going through a boot camp/basic training program, and at the time I was the XO for a basic training battalion at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I had a lot of recent first-hand experience with her subject matter, and I could always just yell outside my office for a drill sergeant if I needed a more specific opinion on something.]


Jo:

I don't ask Jim to read all 90,000 words. I doubt he'd have time, for a start, and, also, I have beta readers who help with full, continuity readthroughs. What I ask of Jim is different. To take some 10-15,000 words, with limited context, and make sense of them. To comment on sections of a book is, I've always found, harder than commenting on a whole.

First, I go through the document, pulling out the scenes I think are relevant. Then I wince at the wordcount and trim. After, I fiddle with the continuity - so storylines and characters go together, rather than the order the scenes appear in the book - and provide context. And then I send them off.

JIM:

[Jo asked me to write about what I look for, and what makes me cringe to read.

Well, first off there are a lot of tropes about the military that you see in media that are, well, honestly they are a little insulting if you think about it. People just screaming at each other, soldiers acting like mindless robots that do exactly what they are told, and a kind of awkward machismo that would fit better with the character of a thirteen year-old wannabe bully than with an adult who has to live in intimate proximity to hundreds of other guys in a barracks. Those things defy logic if you think about it. I mean these are people you are talking about here. Perhaps people who are inculcated with a slightly different culture, but still people none the less. No one in any culture would act the way a lot of soldiers are portrayed.

After the tropes are the things that don’t match with those differences in military culture. There’s a way of speaking to people of different ranks, the way people are treated by each other, that kind of thing. I saw a lot of this early on in Jo’s sections with the way people addressed each other (first names? My God!), and it continues to pop up in motives behind personal interaction and conflict. I find myself giving a lot of commentary on sections where the characters are in conflict with each other and suggesting more military-culture appropriate ways to get at the character interaction Jo is looking for.

Finally, I end up looking at how things are experienced and the way things work physically. Soldiers in Jo’s universe are doing things that are beyond what I would expect are common for most authors in their own personal lives. Ever been in a sandstorm? Jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft in flight? Fired a rifle? Taken a good punch? An author might guess what these things feel like and describe them correctly, but if they don’t guess correctly it sticks out to someone who has experienced them.]

Jo:

So, I get it back. I read over the suggestions and implement those I think add and fit with the rest of the book (read for that, most of them.) I also need to decide where to wing it a little for the sake of tension in the story - but at least now I know I'm winging it.

But what really helps me is the discussion we have. For instance, I have a character in the books who is a professional soldier. She hates the CEO yet stays in his army. I wept blood over why she might do that. Why not leave? I fought to find a reason.

I mentioned this to Jim. He responded by asking why on Earth she would leave. She was a career soldier, why would she walk away over something like that?

Suddenly I knew that character in a way I hadn't before. That comment - encapsulating a culture I had no understanding of, a new mindset - took things in a new direction. The right one.

For me, this beta relationship has become a very unique and special one (made all the better by meeting up in person). We're very different - I'm a pacifist, he's a soldier (although, as Jim rightly points out, I’m the one writing about violent warfare). I'm from Northern Ireland, he's American, with all the accordant cultural nuances. And yet, I value Jim's judgements. When he told me a speech in book 2 was all wrong, I gave it a rehaul instead of a rewrite. My editor roasted me for that speech. I should have listened.

At the end of all this, Jim has still had the appetite to read the books. I wondered - how does it feel to see the scenes in their final piece? Can he recognise where his input was felt, not just in the specific scenes but in the wider context?

Jim:

[At this point I’ve gone through and provided commentary on quite a bit more material than I have seen in finished form, so I would have to say that actually the thing that has struck me most is the difference in draft passages that I have received from book 1 through 3. I read the stuff that she sends now, and there is no cringing involved.

It’s also a little funny that she specifically asks if I can recognize where my input was felt in the wider context. I am currently reading through Sunset Over Abendau, and I noticed that throughout all the new material I was reading (remember that Jo doesn’t let me see the full manuscript – she even tries not to give away “spoilers”) all the military characters seemed to act, well, like they were in the military. Not being perhaps as introspective when I am reading for pleasure, I asked myself, “Why the hell is she sending me those other passages for a military-beta when she’s obviously got a handle on this?”

Okay. I get it now.]  

So - does this process work? I believe so, very well.

Here's a before and after scene. See what you think.

Before (Jim’s comments are bolded in brackets)


Sam handed over the comms unit and Kare waited for a moment before there was a cautious answer.  “Simone?” 
“Yes, who is this?” came the reply, calm and unruffled as ever.
“Is the line secure?”
“Yes.”
“It’s Colonel Kare,” he told her.
 “You’re alive, then,” she said.  “That’s good, we were worried.  I was worried, Sir.”
“Alive, and not too bad, all thing’s considered.  It’s nice to hear you are too. Do you recognise my authority?”
 “Sonly has sent a very clear message, Sir. Yours is the commanding authority in Abendau.”
“How many troops (have you do you have available)?” Kare asked.
“I have twenty in the palace, seventy in the city and thirty of these are military.” [I am confused by this part of the conversation.  He asks how many “troops” she has, which I would assume is a reference to Soldiers.  Then she says she has, I think, 90 “troops” total, but only 30 are “military”.  I don’t clearly understand what she said.  Perhaps “I have twenty agents in the palace, and seventy in the city.  Thirty of my agents in the city are military.”]
“Good.  Can you confirm report to our leader I aim to take the port this evening.” [‘confirm’ implies that he is checking the orders he has received, I think ‘report’ would be better since I think he wants her to just tell their leadership that he is attacking.]
“Yes, Sir.”
“Once I secure the port, she can bring her troops in [how about “...bring the main assault force in.”]  I land at five this evening; they will be expecting a prison convoy. [who is ‘they’?] Have your people at the port, waiting.”
“Do you need anything further from us, Sir?”
“No,” said Kare.  “I know the plans layout of the port well.  I’ll make contact once we’re in.” [recommend ‘layout’ since there are all kinds of ‘planning’ occurring and ‘plans’ being carried out]
            He put the comms unit down.
            “How do you know the port?” asked Sam.
            “We were planning an assault on Abendau just before I was taken,” said Kare.  “I’m basing this attack on those plans, and they were viable, both General Rjala and I agreed.  In fact, with the army [‘strike force’, ‘assault battalion’, anything other than ‘army’ please.  She is not bringing an army] Sonly’s bringing, if I can get them in, it’ll be a bigger force than I planned it with, initially.”
            Sam stood up.  “I’m getting some food; do you want any?”
“No,” said Kare, “I’ve eaten more today than I have in months. Breakfast and lunch, Sam.  I don’t want to get carried away with dinner as well.”
Kare watched the doctor walk away, and thought how lucky he’d been to have Sam join them. He decided to keep Sam very close this evening; he didn’t want him getting himself killed. 
Lichio and Silom returned at half past four.
“Well?” Kare asked.    
“We’ve got your hundred,” said Silom. “Of that, about half of them are useful, the others are, at best, keen.” [see earlier comments about the mess I believe this would be.]
The clear green eyes switched to Lichio.
“I managed to find one pilot in the Banned group, but you’ll have to be co pilot [finding a pilot amongst the slaves wouldn’t be too beyond believability either.  Finding an individual with a useful skill to work with sounds reasonable, it is the coordination of large numbers of human beings on the fly that I think is impossible].  As instructed, you me, and the Doc aren’t allocated.” [I don’t remember those instructions.]
 “We’ve got their arsenal,” said Kare, “and I need weaponry distributed.  Lichio, you sort that out, Silom you make sure everyone knows how to use them.  Oh, and show Sam, too, make sure he knows how not to shoot himself, at least.  Or me,” he added, remembering his decision to keep the doctor close. [Exactly!  Multiply Doc Prentice by 100.]

And this is the scene from the final book. What strikes me (apart from the fact I'm not wincing at it, and my point of view discipline is improved) is how much leaner this scene is. The terminology, once nailed, can be used sparingly, with one change of word giving context so much easier - an assault force conjures up a different - and correct - imagery than the woolier (and wholly incorrect) army.

Sam handed over the comms unit and Kare waited for a moment before it was answered.

“Simone?”

“Yes, who is this?” came the reply, calm and unruffled as ever. He smiled at the familiar voice. He hadn’t given the spies up, but he’d come so, so, close, his mother’s mind worming into his. That day– the lashings, the shocks; oh gods, the shocks– had faded into a red circle of horror but he still remembered how he’d been on the verge of saying their names and only their faces– faces he’d chosen, trained and placed– had stopped him.

“Is the line secure?”

“Yes.”

“It’s Colonel Varnon,” he told her.

“You’re alive, then,” she said. “That’s good, we were worried. I was worried, sir.”

Kare smiled at her lack of emotion, knowing the small statement said more than any inflection might have done. “Alive, and not too bad, all things considered. Do you recognise my authority?”

“Sonly has sent a very clear message, sir. Yours is the commanding authority in Abendau.”

“How many agents do you have available?” Kare asked, and hoped his relief didn’t show in his voice. Up until now he hadn’t been sure, not completely, that Sonly would back him.

“I have twenty in the palace, ten in the city and five of those are military.”

“Good. Can you report back that I aim to take the port this evening?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Once I secure the port, Sonly can bring her assault force in. I land at five-thirty this evening; the port will be expecting a prison convoy. Have your people at the back door to the port, waiting.”

“Do you need anything further from us, sir?”

“No,” Kare said. “I’ll make contact once we’re in.”

As he put the comms unit down, Sam placed a bowl in front of him. He frowned. “More food?”

Sam shrugged. “It’s nothing much. Porridge.”

Kare lifted the spoon and then set it down again. “I’ve eaten breakfast and lunch, Sam. I don’t want to get carried away with dinner as well.”

Sam crossed his arms. “Eat. I’m the doctor, and I say you need it. Now eat.”

***

Later, Kare looked at the drawings of the port and palace in front of him. They were drawn from memory, but he was pleased by how much he recalled. The two seats opposite were pulled out from the table and he looked up to see Lichio and Silom.

“Well?” Kare asked.

“I managed to find one pilot,” Lichio said. “The only other with any flying experience is you; you’ll have to co-pilot.”

Kare winced at the thought of flying a heavy desert transporter to Abendau. “That sounds fine. Silom, show Sam how to use his gun, make sure he knows how not to shoot himself, at least. Or me,” he added, remembering his decision to keep the doctor close. “Lichio, your big sis is bringing the cavalry, so we will have an assault force.”


More about Jo's books can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jo-Zebedee/e/B00VM61TZG 

Comments

Caleb Wachter said…
This is a good write-up. Thanks to both of you for sharing!
Joanne Zebedee said…
Ithank you! I thought it would be fun to see it from both perspectives for a change.
ML said…
Is your new book available locally?
Joanne Zebedee said…
Hi - yes, it's in Easons Donegall Place (signed), and any Easons store should be able to transfer it in from them. Any Waterstones store should be able to order it in, too.

Thanks so much

Jo