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May, 2010

So who is the celebrity you most resemble?

This question is a fun game that a couple of my favorite radio personalities play with people who call in to their show. But it also helped me frame the characters in the book as I wrote for them. So, here is a list of the primary characters and my mental image of each as I wrote them.

The Old Man. I describe him this way, “The Old Man is an undersized man, with petite, precise hands and a small head. His piercing eyes are a disturbing tone of gray that’s the color of a dead fish, and his hair is a shade of brown that resembles autumn’s last leaves. A few wisps of hair cling to his head like the remnants of last year’s lawn, manicured just before the first frost and left dormant ‘til spring. When he smiles, it’s as cold and slimy as a toad’s belly.” Do you remember the movie, the Green Mile? In it the character of Percy Wetmore played was by Doug Hutchison. This character was in my head when I wrote about the Old Man.

Major Eastman. I describe him as “another piece of work; a ridiculous yes-man whose only nutrition is coffee and cigarettes. His coarse, untrimmed hair has the same murky color and smell as wet dirt, and his shaggy eyebrows blend seamlessly into his bloodshot brown eyes. He pops his knees back and forth as he stands at the briefing board during the meeting, and his eyes are as restless as mosquitoes. Tall and rock-star thin, it’s like he has some internal motor making his legs twitch rhythmically.” I see him as Michael Richards, Kramer from Seinfeld.

Colonel Ken Holland. Dennis Quaid, “With his rugged Steve Canyon good looks, a deep tan from months in the desert sun, and an immaculate uniform complete with all the right patches, he was an impressive sight—a poster child for colonels everywhere. I’ll bet that under his helmet he had just the right amount of gray hair.”

Finally – Slade himself. Slade is never described in the book. In my head, I had an image of Sam Rockwell as I wrote about Slade. Rockwell was also in the movie, the Green Mile.

Mike Smith
May 2010

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Don’t be “That Guy”

In many ways, the process of writing something this large was a very humbling endeavor.  Here is one of my more embarrassing moments.

 In August I asked several friends at work to look over the first rough draft manuscript and give me their honest opinion. One of them, Patrick, did a great job, but took great glee in busting my chops about my overuse of the word “that”.  In the office, I was “That Guy” for a week or two. 

 It appears that my writing style incorporated this particular word in places where it had no business.  It was like some pesky varmint inhabiting various nooks and crannies of the book.  I used the “find” tool in MS Word and counted 838 instances of the word “that”.  In one paragraph, it showed up seven times.  Here is one example with three instances in a couple of sentences, “I want to stand in the middle of the headquarters camp and scream that someone just tried to kill me; that someone just ran over my Hummvee and my driver . . . .But I won’t forget that things are going really wrong and really strange.

 So I spent one rainy weekend last fall executing a That Eradication Program.  I replaced it with which, and where, and when, and who, and he or she, or most often – by simply removing the word and leaving the rest of the sentence untouched.  At the end of the drill, I had removed over 700 of the 838 instances and the text was a great deal cleaner. 

 What lessons did I learn, besides the obvious?  Well, it showed me the value of having a second reader who will give honest feedback.  It humbled me, something I frequently need.  And it taught me to constantly edit the manuscript to make it cleaner and crisper. 

 Thanks again to all the people who read it and gave me their honest feedback, especially Patrick. 

 Mike Smith – no longer That Guy.

May 2010

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So, why did I write this particular book . . .?

at 3:39 pm

There’s no deep hidden reason why I chose to write this book first.  I started with a topic and genre I knew and liked – fiction, thrillers, and military themes.  I’m sorry it isn’t a chick-book, as one good friend laments.  But I don’t think I could do a good chick-book. 

I began by looking at things in my past that might provide fodder-for-the-mind in developing interesting plots and dramatic situations.  One of the most interesting places I have ever been is the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.  It’s a place of stark beauty, harsh conditions, high stress, some degree of risk.  And it’s a place most soldiers can relate to. 

I noodled on the NTC as a setting for a long, long time.  One theme kept popping up in my brain: What if we unearthed a dead body during the process of a routine training exercise?  It was this theme that propelled me into considering all kinds of scenarios.  Would the body be male or female?  Naked or not?  What kind of conspiracy would surround the body?  It took me months of thinking while driving before I reached a satisfactory set of circumstances for the plot. 

But I was never comfortable with the pace of the story.  Until, I heard a song on the radio which turned my thinking into another direction – it was the key I needed.  Until that moment, I was thinking of writing the work as a single time-line, with all present tense action and set solely at Fort Irwin.  The song was Live to Tell, by Madonna, which starts with a retelling of some horrendous past event and how it is impacting the singer’s present day life.  That was the key.  I could tell the NTC tale as a flashback, not as a current day time-line.   At that point the story started taking shape.  The NTC events would be explained as a past event – as it turned out by use of the literary device where the protagonist writes them into a journal.

I needed a solid protagonist.  My inspiration for him came from channel-surfing one day.  The movie, The Verdict, with Paul Newman was on.  Newman plays a drunken lawyer who stumbles along and in his ineptitude wins a major case.  That was my hero – a flawed, jaded man who thinks his honor has fled the scene, but is put in circumstances where he needs it again.  The pivotal question is: can he find it when he needs it? 

So, with a plot, a protagonist, and a setting – I started writing.

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