I’m writing a romance story. No, seriously.

04Nov13

This has nothing to do with my post. But isn’t it a cool picture?


I’m trying something new, guys. I’ve been asked to write a true story about a wartime romance in Afghanistan. I have a secondhand connection to the story. Writing anything even close to romance is new to me, and I really don’t know the “right” way to do it.

So I’m making a humble request: please read this and tell me if it’s interesting, mediocre, or absolute crap. In a rather unusual twist, I actually have an attorney waiting on this story; he’s worked in the publishing industry before and if he likes this story he’ll act as my agent. So there’s a lot riding on my ability to get this right.

Please take a look guys, and be brutally honest about it. If it sucks, I need to know now. Thanks and I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Chris

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CHAPTER 1

A scared young woman stood in the dark, taking in the sight. Wounded civilian contractors being bandaged by frantic friends. A smoking plywood hut, the smell of blown explosives, sirens broadcasting “Incoming Incoming Incoming!” The frenzied aftermath of a rocket attack. This was not a rare event, but the young woman, Joan, had just arrived days before. This was her first deployment. She had never experienced anything like this.

Joan moved closer to the smashed hut. Blood was splattered on exposed walls. And something else. Something dull grayish, barely visible in the dim light, scattered in tiny clumps around a fallen contractor’s small, sparse room.

Brain matter. She stepped away in horror; this was a new, shocking experience for her. As a child in L.A., she had almost been hit by stray bullets from a drive-by shooting. However, gangsters’ bullets aren’t the same thing as rockets randomly falling from the sky. When Marines imagine themselves at war, they see themselves on foot heroically standing their ground against a brutal, determined enemy. This rocket attack was nothing like that fantasy. Realization set in: this year was not going to be what she had expected. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Not much about her service in the Marines had been what she expected.

Joan was not what most people pictured when they heard the word “Marine”. Petite, pretty, light-skinned with dark hair and eyes, feminine and toned but not “buff”, she looked more like a kindergarten teacher than a warrior. Growing up in a working-class home in California, she never considered joining the military.

Her father and grandmother raised her and her brother after Joan’s mother abandoned the family. Her grandmother was an old-fashioned disciplinarian who took them to Mexico every summer so they would respect their roots. Her father, a Mexican immigrant who spoke only Spanish, worked menial jobs while going to school and struggling to learn English. He even went so far as to read an entire English dictionary, cover to cover. Eventually he became a successful business owner.

Joan’s father didn’t want his children to struggle like he had. He made them study two hours every day and assigned extra homework. When Joan got older, her father decided she would graduate from high school, go to college and then move straight into a lucrative job. Over the years, Joan moved with her family from California to New York to Texas, and her sights were on college after high school. The Marines never crossed her mind.

She graduated and went to college. Then a Marine recruiter called. She told him she wasn’t interested, and hung up. And she truly wasn’t interested, until she saw a Marine recruiting commercial shortly afterward. Marines were jumping out of helicopters into the ocean, firing weapons, charging up a beach, doing all the cool things young men and women imagine Marines doing.

Joan got to thinking. She knew she had been sheltered. She sometimes felt like her life was being planned out without her input or consent. She also had an urge to serve her country. So she decided to make a major decision, something that would make her life her own.

She went to the recruiting officer and started the process. Days later she was sworn in. Her father didn’t talk to her for a week.

At 20 years old, she headed from college to boot camp. And she liked it. She discovered a hard-headedness she didn’t know she possessed, even going so far as to ignore a broken leg and endure a minor operation without anesthetic so she could graduate with her platoon. After initial training she went back home, got back in school, worked several civilian jobs, and even worked as a juvenile corrections officer for a time (which, to her surprise she loved). She excelled at living the half civilian, half military life of a reservist.

In early 2009 she was notified she would deploy to Afghanistan. She was excited; If you’re a Marine and don’t go to war, what’s the point?

In mid 2009 she arrived at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. It wasn’t what anyone imagined when they thought of being “at war”. Bagram was a huge, sprawling base, occupied by roughly 30,000 Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, foreign troops and civilian contractors. Bullets never flew at Bagram; there were so many rules, the bullets didn’t have room. In time, those rules would exasperate her to numbness.

Troops had to wear reflective belts as soon as the sun began to set. The reflective belts had to be the same color, worn the same way. Speed limits were painfully low. Troops driving utility four-wheelers had to wear a reflective belt, eye protection and a helmet (and take a four-wheeler safety course, lest they die in a 15 mile per hour accident). Alcohol wasn’t allowed. Troops couldn’t wear civilian clothes. Anyone walking along the main road had to use the only sidewalk, which was packed with thousands of troops. Enlisted soldiers had to salute officers. And on Bagram, it seemed like there were millions of officers.

But Bagram had, so to speak, good points. Other than the occasional rocket attack, it was safe. It had a well-stocked PX, coffee shop, pizza joint, and other fast food. The fast food places made deliveries. Some troops lived in plywood huts, but others were in air-conditioned prefabricated units that resembled dorm rooms. Wireless internet was available. There were weekly Salsa and Country dancing nights. Some service members had time and privacy for on-base romances, although adultery between service members was illegal and sex between unmarried service members was highly discouraged, though tolerated.

Like many support troops at Bagram, Joan worked long shifts with no days off and few means of relieving stress. Far from being grateful at being relatively safe, she ached to get outside the wire and actually be part of the war. With few exceptions, people don’t join the military because they want to be safe and protected; most of the Soldiers, and probably all of the Marines, would have traded wireless internet and Salsa Night for one good engagement, for the experience of being under fire just once. But the vast majority of the troops at Bagram never left the wire, never heard a shot fired or saw a casualty.

Eventually, Joan saw more of the war than most Bagramites. She was officially a supply clerk; however, in addition to her supply duties, she sometimes helped at the base hospital when Marine casualties arrived. Occasionally she even assisted with enemy casualties. She was in the hospital when the casualties from the battle of Ganjigal, the fight where three Marines, a Soldier and a Navy Corpsman were killed and two Americans earned the Medal of Honor, were brought in. Helping casualties, in any way, was important and rewarding (although depressing) work. Her supply job, though deathly boring, was crucial to the war effort.

But Joan hated being stuck at Bagram. She tried to get out in the field with the Female Engagement Teams, handpicked groups of female Marines who went on missions with the infantry. No luck. She volunteered to fill in on convoys when a driver or gunner was needed. Her leadership refused to let her go. During her entire deployment she only went off post twice, and both times in a helicopter. She never set foot on Afghan soil outside the security of a Forward Operating Base.

Like all Marines, Joan loved the Corps while chafing at its constant aggravations. At times she thought Bagram and the Marine Corps would drive her nuts. And she was constantly annoyed by the Army’s and Air Force’s lack of discipline. But there was no escape; no bar to visit after work for a few beers, no loving husband waiting to pamper her when she got to the shack she called home. There was just dull, monotonous supply work, or the heart-rending sights of horribly wounded Marines, Afghan Soldiers, Taliban and civilians at the hospital. Stress piled upon stress.

Sergeants Major liked to say stupid things like, “If you need stress relief, work out! Or sign up for an online college course. Do something productive!” As they spoke the words they must have known just how ridiculous that advice was. Working out could help a bit. It certainly couldn’t erase the tension brought on by the crush of military rules, or pain of feeling helpless in the presence of brave, wounded men and women.

But all that numbness, pain, stress and helplessness would come later. The most important event of Joan’s life actually happened within the first two weeks at Bagram.

Like all newbies at Bagram, Joan quickly discovered the PX complex. It had a surprisingly comfortable deck area where off-duty troops and contractors could hang out. The Green Bean Coffee Shop was open 24 hours. Service members, foreign troops and civilians would sit at tables all night, just talking and relaxing a bit. Afghan-American interpreters sometimes had dance nights at the PX area, which was a bit odd; usually only the men danced, close together, sometimes very suggestively. Beautiful female Afghan translators either sat on the sidelines or danced at the periphery, but were ignored by the men. For the troops it was, to say the least, unusual.

Joan wasn’t interested in dancing. She just wanted to be away from her work, to escape the already-overwhelming sense that she was going to be trapped in a hell of boredom for almost a year. She didn’t want to be hit on by lonely Soldiers and Marines either, but it happened. Right away.

One of the first nights she hung out at the PX, a persistent Soldier kept trying to engage her in conversation. She plainly expressed her disinterest. He kept at it. She turned away. He wouldn’t stop. She thought about leaving.

And then she spotted, not far away, a handsome, dark haired, muscular young French Marine. He had already seen her. And was walking toward her, dark eyes focused on hers.

From that moment, Joan’s life was completely changed.

——————————————————————–

Your thoughts, guys?

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26 Responses to “I’m writing a romance story. No, seriously.”

  1. Nice start, Chris. Few points, though. I hope they’re helpful:

    -If you plan on writing a complete novel, and not just a short story, then you’ve introduced a lot of the background in the first chapter. You can spread out Joan’s growing up, struggles with fitting in, and the challenges of her post over a couple of chapters. This reads like a history lesson, the way you have it. The action you begin with is gripping, but then you phase into the history, which is distracting and long.

    -Joan’s name is introduced in the fourth paragraph, way too late. A reader must connect with the character early on, her name most important.

    -Please check this sentence grammatically: until she started saw a Marine recruiting commercial shortly afterward.

    -The way you phrase what sergeant major said is funny, and gives a light on how the character views his sayings (stupid). That’s what you need to paint a clearer picture of Joan to the reader. Add more, and use the same technique to explain her background and feelings about Marine life before, rather than tell.

    Looking forward to reading more. ANd good luck with the possible agent.

    • Lilas,

      Thanks for the comments, they do help. One question I have: I was planning on making this more about the struggles they faced to be together, rather than her background. He literally risked his life numerous times just to travel to her base and spend a few hours with her. Do you think the background is as important as what happened in Afghanistan?

      • If the story is more about what happens on Afghanistan, then tgeres no need to put so much of her backgroubd like you did. You can spread the important parts out, like her family situation, and maybe her frustrations once she joined. You don’t need more.

  2. 5 michelle williams

    im so intrigued by that story , i want to see the rest of it ,your doing well thus far ,keep it up good try..

  3. Chris,
    I look forward to reading more of the story. The background story was a plus for me because that told me why she chose to join the Marines. I was able to connect with the character the first sentence. I wanted to know more about the “scared young woman”. The name didn’t matter.
    I would like to see more showing than telling.
    That’s my kind of story:)

    • Manal,

      I think I need to pull some of the background info and add it later. Although I do think this story isn’t really a romance, it’s a war story with a love interest added in, so maybe the romance formula won’t work for this?

  4. 9 zuk

    Hi Chris, that is one massive info dump…it reads like a synopsis (with the exception of a couple of lines that jump out and grab you).

    If I were an editor, I’d recommend using what you’ve written there to guide you as you write the SCENES where those things take place. First one that comes to mind is the scene where she tells her dad she’s signed up. (unless how her family views her enlistment is irrelevant to the bigger story, then why have it at all? unless you can make it funny or poignant- readers will accept digressions if they’re interesting.) Maybe she’s sitting in the px remembering the scene, contrasting her dad’s fears with her current situation…lots of background info can be conveyed there without all the short declarative sentences….

    I’m not sure about the story you are writing. Is it a “romance” for the romance genre? If so, there are some very specific style things you need to do. Or is it some other type of story that has, at it’s heart, a great romance?

    Some quick reaction to the structure as you have it now….

    Opens with quick, declarative, disjointed, brusk sentences- conveys the chaos of the scene she finds herself in.

    Then there is a transition (that I had to go back to find) to the massive info dump of her past history– still written in short declarative sentences– reads like Point, point, slightly longer point…..point, point, slightly longer point… repeat…

    Then the awkward transition back to (nearly) present “But all that numbness, pain, stress and helplessness would come later.” Actually a transition to another history scene and not the present.

    The the good stuff, the meat of the matter Joan and her love!

    So,

    If I was just taking what is here, I’d START with:

    “The most important event of Joan’s life actually happened within the first two weeks at Bagram.” (or some variation) and continue with the next 4 paragraphs. That might be a little gimmicky but it definitely sets up the romance, and establishes who, where, and what, if not why, especially if you don’t have 1000 pages planned. In fact, I’d use those paragraphs as the jacket flap.

    Then you can step back to some personal history (if it’s relevant or revelatory).

    Then tell the story….. (easy for me to say 🙂 )

    One other comment. Opening with the attack is dramatic and fast, and pulls the reader in, but it is (metaphorically/philosophically/something-ally) at odds with the idea of oppressive boredom and the impersonal nature of the war for the folks at Bagram. It is a very intense, and intensely personal scene for our viewpoint character (and the casualties). I think that dichotomy or duality or whatever will need to either be a continuing theme throughout the story, or you will have to find a way to push both extremes into the background while you tell the love story, or emphasize one over the other. Of course, there is probably a fourth way, and finding it as an author is what surprises and delights us as readers.

    Anyway, you asked, so there! I hope there was something in there that helps. (and you can see MY major stylistic problem–a tendency to parenthetical phrases.) 🙂

    You keep writing, and we’ll keep reading….

    z

  5. 10 zuk

    And props for putting yourself on the line like this. It can’t be easy to see people dash off a few comments about something you’ve worked hard at.

    Please forgive any presumptuousness in my comments above, I can be a little bit “enthusiastic”…

    z

    • No worries Zuk, thanks. The comments (including from my wife) have been pretty consistent, it is too much of an info dump and I need to save some of that background info for later. I’m going to do some changing and repost later. Thanks for the critique, I appreciate it.

  6. 12 Tim

    Vive la coloniale !
    The last 3 lines just made my day.
    Love your work, always a pleasure to check your blog every now and then while waiting for your next book ; )

  7. I would agree with Lilas and Zuk, there is too much exposition, which makes this drier than your other writing (I have not read your fiction serials).

    It’s a good start, but let it flow.

  8. 16 Nathalie Leclercq

    Another French-American lovefest! Awesome! Bring it!
    (will post an extensive critique of your work tomorrow, because I’m very ambitious on your behalf – THIS will have to be perfect)

  9. Your best work, IMHO, is cinematic.
    As you (and multiple commenters) noted here, in this one you’re falling back on saying things, instead of setting a scene and painting the picture.

    Relatively minor quibbles:
    1) Don’t hesitate to name Joan as the scared young woman right off the bat. Story=character. Remember, Private Ryan was the mission, and we didn’t meet him until Act Three. But Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller grabbed us from the Normandy Landing opening, and he was the one doing the saving.

    2)”she was constantly annoyed by the Army’s and Air Force’s lack of discipline
    Tread lightly. I know you have a foot in both worlds, and I speak Marine, but other people don’t, and it doesn’t weasel it to note it’s her Marine-induced perception that they’re undisciplined, which both sits better, yet still preserves the narrative. Nobody has any trouble imagining The Gunny being similarly offended, but it helps to remember it’s because he (we) – and your heroine – have had a metaphorical USMC ramrod implanted on Day One of boot camp.

    3) Chronologically, you kind of slide around. In the opening, trauma drama is new to Joan (then), but as you give the lead-up to The Romance, she’s evidently volunteered and saw quite a bit.
    So I guess it’s that the opener is a great grabber, then you hurdle backwards and forwards to get to The Romantic Encounter.
    Suggestion (worth exactly what you’re paying for it)
    Keep the grabber opening
    Then work through the flashbacks.
    Once you catch up to the rocket attack, flesh out the in-between from the Act one Rocket Attack to the late Act Two Romantic Encounter, and take your time. Including showing us a little bit more about who she is, i.e. more diary, and less itinerary.

    With all that, I like it. Hope the comments help, and looking forward to what you do with it. There are worse things than expanding your niche and broadening your audience, right? We already know you can write.

    You’re on the right track. Now kick this thing’s @$$. Best wishes.

    • Thanks Aesop. I’m going into this one with eyes wide open, I know I’m way outside my realm of expertise (such as it is) and need to rely heavily on critiques. I think I need to pull all the future information, reword some of the background, and restart. I appreciate the backup, on this project I’ll definitely need it.

  10. 20 Dave L.

    I’m going to have my wife read this…she reads a lot of self-published free stuff on her Kindle, and one of her comments was, “I can always tell when it’s a guy trying to write from a woman’s perspective.” I don’t know exactly what the tells are, but she can tell.

    Plus she’s got the added bonus of having been a female in the military (7+ years between the Guard, Reserve, and Active, Civil Affairs and MP).

    • I think your wife will say this doesn’t sound like a romance novel. I’m kinda thinking I need to reassess what kind of book it is, as it definitely can’t be called a pure romance. Maybe a war story with romance included?

  11. 22 Nathalie Leclercq

    I agree with the criticism you got from your reviewers so far, so instead of repeating what they already told you, I’d like to just mention a few things that I stumbled upon:
    – if you want to be taken seriously as an author, scrap the phrase “From that moment, Joan’s life was completely changed”
    – if you want to tell the story from Joan’s point of view, don’t describe what she looks like. In “Proof of our resolve”, you mention that the main character is worried about gaining weight. So instead of saying “Joan was petite”, you could describe her frustrations about her ill-fitting uniform or something like that
    – the French dude is muscular, young and uniformed. And he’s a fellow Marine. Joan will be automatically intrigued (if not attracted). That’s why you don’t need to mention that he is also handsome. I think that’s just too much!
    – you start the novel with the aftermath of a rocket/mortar attack, and you should spend more time describing what it looks like. You could add some dialogues that Joan overhears (since she herself is too horrified to talk to anyone), maybe describe someone who’s freaking out or someone who keeps his calm and manages to be helpful in the general chaos as Joan observes him
    – if Joan gets harrassed by a guy at the PX, why not use this for some funny dialogue? I love writing dialogues more than anything else. It’s not just the easiest way to add some humor, it’s also very useful for conveying information on your characters
    …Anyway, I hope Joan and her French love interest will go on an exciting adventure. At the end of your story, they will, of course, have to procreate in order to strenghten transatlantic relations!
    By the way, there is ONE book, and only one, that I can recommend for advice: “How not to write a novel”. It’s hilarious!

    • Nathalie,

      Noted, and thanks for the valid comments. I need to redo this chapter, among others.

      I should post the second chapter and see what the reaction is.

      As far as procreation, well…looks like you need to read the book. 🙂

  12. I just read a lot – and recently finished a military romantic suspense. At first I almost didn’t finish it, but once into it I wanted ot know the ending. Marine corps combat medic and newly assigned corpsman, a female RN. Afghanistan. While the romance was there I found more intrigue in what was “going on”. Might be worth reading for ideas? Beyond Valor (Black Jaguar Squadron) Lindsey McKenna. Gave me a new perspective of things happening “over there”. I’d never thought about this stuff. (It’s a quick read…)

  13. 25 Robert Rocha

    I’m just now rediscovering your blog for the second time. Did this ever get published? I got emotionally involved and want to know what happens next.

    • Robert,

      Unfortunately I had to drop that project, since I absolutely suck at romance writing. Another author picked it up though. I’ll announce when it’s published.


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