So how do you learn craftsmanship? By reading, reading, and more reading. That means studying the way a fine fiction writer puts together her sentences and paragraphs and chapters; examining why sometimes a paragraph consisting of a single word can be a miracle; understanding the flow, word choices, sentence length that work. Then taking that learning and putting it into practice. That means writing, writing, and more writing.
It also means revising. I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time in drafting new text and 90 percent of it in revising. It means reading aloud what you’ve written and listening for the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs come together.
I know perhaps a hundred writers, most of them successful to one degree or another. Of those, perhaps three have what I call “the gift.” By that I mean the inborn genius for knowing how to put words together to create beauty. Two of those three are as yet unpublished. It’s because they haven’t mastered the craft. They haven’t inculcated in themselves the mechanics of fiction writing.
Until they do, their work won’t see the light of day in print.
For years, I’ve been offering a class in what I call fiction craftsmanship. That’s the mechanical side of writing fiction—all the pesky little rules that distinguish literary writing from journalism. I recommend to participants that they consult The Chicago Manual of Style (The University of Chicago Press), now in its 17th edition. I caution them that they should not use The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the bible for journalists. The guidelines for literary writing are not the same as those for journalism.
I make a clear and precise distinction between creativity and craftsmanship (sometimes called technique). Both are required for successful and publishable fiction. Creativity can’t be learned; it’s inborn. But craftsmanship can. Even so, craftsmanship takes a lifetime of practice and learning, and it never ends—I’ll still be discovering new aspects of craftsmanship on my deathbed. Besides, the rules change over time.
The odd thing about craftsmanship is that it’s all but ignored in texts about writing. Early in my career, I took more than twenty classes in creative writing. Craftsmanship was only mentioned in passing. But every master writer has learned the craft to the point that it’s become second nature, always present, almost unconscious.
For me, the master craftsman in fiction is Hemingway. I profoundly disagree with his outlook on life, but nobody wrote better than he did. I still reread him from time to time just to study his technique.
As noted earlier in these pages, I am a proud veteran. Other veterans have read my novel, Last of the Annamese. They’ve told me how personal the story is to them. They understood how Chuck, the protagonist, felt. They agonized along with him.
In a very real sense, the novel was written for veterans. These men and women are my brothers and sisters. We share experiences the rest of Americans are spared. We have bitter memories that won’t leave us in peace. We know what it is to lose a buddy under fire. We know without being told that we are alive because somebody else died in our place.
We veterans know that we put our lives on the line for one another. In our common grief and pride, we love one another, but we’re not sentimental enough to use the word “love.” We use no words. It’s hand on the shoulder, a look in the eyes, a smile. Our experience has given us common memories, but our bond is unspoken.
I just received word that my friend and partner, Su Patterson, died last night. She’d been in a hospice close to my house for more than week and hadn’t been conscious for five days or so. She was 91.
The title of my 2017 novel, Last of the Annamese, is deliberately ambiguous. It could be understood to mean the end of the Annamese as a nation, or it could refer to that nation’s last surviving native. I intended both meanings.
As of Last of the Annamese progresses, the definition of “Annamese” becomes clear. The reader learns that Thanh, the South Vietnamese Marine colonel at the heart of the story, dislikes “Vietnam,” a name conferred millennia ago by the Chinese which means “troublemakers in the south.” He prefers the name “An Nam,” which means “peace in the south.” An Nam was one of the original names for the country now known as Vietnam, and in English, a resident of An Nam is an Annamese.
In the novel, as the final conquest of South Vietnam by the north comes closer, the end of the Annamese as a people is imminent. Thanh considers himself the last of the Annamese in the sense of being the last of his race. All his loyal brethren have fled or been killed or have gone over to the North Vietnamese. But Thanh has a son, Thu, six years old. He will survive Thanh in the long run. Toward the end of the book, Thu’s mother, Tuyet, refers to Thu as the last of the Annamese. She understands that Thu will end up in the United States and will grow up as an American. That doesn’t alter the fact that he, in her view, will be the last surviving member of his nationality.
So “last of the Annamese” has several meanings. All are fulfilled by the end of the story.
In March and April 1975, I repeatedly warned the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, that a North Vietnamese attack on Saigon was imminent. My signals intelligence data, the result of intercepting and exploiting North Vietnamese radio communications, was rejected as successful North Vietnamese communications deception. The Ambassador forbade evacuation and even preparations for evacuation. I cheated and got 41 of my 43 subordinates and their wives and children safely out of the country before the end. Fortunately, General Homer Smith, the Defense Attaché, disobeyed the Ambassador and proceeded with evacuation planning in conjunction with the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific. The two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end went out by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that night under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.
To my knowledge, labelling signals intelligence data as communications deception has been rare in our history. I never knew of a case in which the label was accurate. Those of us who worked on North Vietnamese communications knew the target backwards and forward. Anything false transmitted for the purpose of fooling us would have been immediately obvious. Communications deception is extremely difficult to design and carry out, and it’s so easy to detect.
My memories of the Ambassador’s refusal to accept the intelligence warning of a forthcoming attack makes me all the more uneasy about what’s going on right now with President Trump. He dismisses valid intelligence and blames the intelligence agencies for leaking. In my years in the business, it was rare if ever that a member of the intelligence community leaked classified information to the press. When leaks occurred, the source nearly always turned out to be an intelligence customer, that is, a recipient of the finished intelligence. The culprits, more often than not, were members of Congress or their staffs.
Trump ignored intelligence warning that the coronavirus posed a severe threat to the nation. The result was worsening of the pandemic. I shudder to think what else he may have dismissed.
A reader recently noted that the character of Pham Ngoc Thanh in my novel, Last of the Annamese, is remarkable for his lack of corruption in a society riven by corruption. The reader was right. South Vietnam during my years there was a nation in which corruption was a way life. The habit of private citizens giving money to public servants for their carrying out their obligations went back centuries. The accepted way of doing business was that the government paid functionaries so little that, to survive, they were forced to sell their services. It was so commonplace as to be unremarkable.
Pham Ngoc Thanh’s pay as a colonel is paltry. He is expected to siphon off the salaries of his subordinate soldiers, exact taxes from the civilian population, and accept payment for protection. But Thanh, a monk turned warrior, refuses to participate in such practices. As a consequence, he is dirt poor. He’s used to poverty. His family, before the communists murdered them, were poor dirt farmers.
One of the causes of the fall of South Vietnam was poverty driven by corruption. The North Vietnamese exploited the situation with great success. Some U.S. personnel in-country, as early as the beginning of the 1960s, saw what was happening. They were at a loss to ameliorate the situation. The loss of South Vietnam to the communists was inevitable.