In 2011 I embarked on one of the harshest undertakings; I placed what I thought was the final draft of my novel in a drawer for one year. Why? Because, as I told others in my most knowledgeable author voice, “A writer needs distance from their material before editing and rewriting.” While that’s true, the real reason was, the story didn’t work. I thought it worked, it worked in my head, but based on a few shrewd readers it didn’t work in theirs.
During that year – fighting the wicked temptation to tweak pages, chapters and plots – I turned my attention to books on rewriting, in search of a magic key to unlock my manuscript and turn it into a novel, the kind people wanted to read. I took workshops, and reaped too many tips to list. All that matters is that nothing helped, until one day . . . .
I read yet another craft book, and SHAZAM! You know how it feels when something simple smacks you like a Mack truck of a good idea? Well, chapter 14 in the The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel by Robert J. Ray, did that for me. The ‘objects lesson’ taught me to utilize my story objects (often called plot-devices) as shorthand for backstory and eliminate a lot of dense narrative.
Finally, that magic key!
“Objects tell your story.” Ray writes. “When you rewrite your novel, you can tighten your story by repeating a single object; car, train, statue, slipper, harpoon, book. There’s a good chance the objects are already there, in your manuscript, waiting to be found, to be selected, to be repeated, to be laid down like neon breadcrumbs in the forest. Readers follow breadcrumbs.”
I began to see the power of storytelling objects everywhere. What’s Lord of the Rings without the ring, Cinderella without glass slippers, The Notebook without the book, or poor little Forest Gump without his box of chocolates?
No glass slippers, no enchanted tale, just a barefoot girl with an unfortunate name who probably does not go from rags to riches and who likely does not find her fella . . . what’s the point?
In Nicholas Spark’s novel The Notebook, that evocative leather bound book literally contains their love story. And that chocolate box on Forest Gump’s lap is a metaphor for the story to come; “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” And oh-boy does that plot device set up and deliver a story.
Though easily overdone, an object that’s well-crafted, or emerges organically from setting or characters can establish a character’s values and thus inform and enhance the story.
In a Willamette Writers Conference screenwriting/storytelling workshop taught by Clark Kohanek, he too touched on the objects lesson. “Think about Die Hard,” Kohanek said, “when Bruce Willis enters with the teddy bear. We immediately know that object defines what’s important to him; family.”
That fuzzy teddy bear represents Willis’s values and reenters the story burnt and dirty, but safe, like him, ready to reunite with what he values so much he’d kill for. That object represents the driving force, and heart of the story because it’s valued by the protagonist.
Eventually, in rewriting my novel, Return to Sender, the protagonist, a Korean War veteran (timely 😦 ) Theo Riley, now has a toy soldier, a stack of blood-stained returned love letters, and a photograph of Korean Orphans. This trinity of objects define him, inform his moral compass and ultimately chart his destiny. These objects give the reader an understanding of Theo on a deeper level. They are backstory shorthand, and explaining it once eliminated pages of narration, because when the reader sees the tin soldier, letters, or pictures (Neon Breadcrumbs), they remember . . . because objects are a writer’s magic keys.
If you’re a local (Seattle area) writer who is interested in delving into this I will be teaching a 5 week class at Edmonds Community College in September (into October). To sign up click here. Hope to see you in class.
Mindy Halleck is an award-winning author, blogger and writing instructor. In 2015 she won a Writer’s Digest short story contest, an Edmonds Arts Association fiction contest, and her novel, Return To Sender received the ‘Readers’ Choice’ award from Readers Favorites. Halleck blogs at Literary Liaisons and is an active member of the Pacific Northwest writing community. In addition to being a writer, Halleck is a happily married, globe-trotting beachcomber, antiquer, gardener, proud grandma, and three-time cancer survivor. www.MindyHalleck.com @MindyHalleck Mindy’s AMAZON Page
In Return To Sender, the protagonist, Theo Riley is a hero with a back-story steeped in real history. Here is the story about one such hero who died yesterday. Thank you, Air Force Col. Dean Hess, for being a real life hero.
Reprint from the Air Force Times
Hess died Monday at his home in Huber Heights, a suburb of Dayton, after a short illness, his son Lawrence Hess said Thursday.
Hess, an ordained minister, was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel when he helped arrange evacuation of Korean orphans from their country’s mainland to safety on a coastal island, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. He was a significant figure in Air Force history, and his efforts to help Korean children are a “shining example” of the Air Force’s humanitarian airlift capabilities, museum historian Jeff Underwood said.
“What is less well-known is the instrumental role he played in training the fledgling South Korean Air Force,” Underwood said in a statement.
Hudson, one of Hollywood’s top leading men, portrayed Hess in the film “Battle Hymn” in 1957, a year after he starred alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in “Giant.”
“Battle Hymn” also was the title of Hess’ autobiography. He used the movie and book proceeds to build an orphanage in South Korea, his son said.
“He was a humble man who loved children and never cashed in on his notoriety,” Lawrence Hess said.
A medal presented to Hess by South Korean President Syngman Rhee in 1951 for his service during the war is displayed at the museum near Dayton. Other Hess artifacts there include a flying helmet that he wore in Korea and that Hudson wore in the movie, which also featured Martha Hyer as his wife and Alan Hale Jr. as a mess sergeant.
The museum said Hess and Lt. Col. Russell Blaisdell, a chaplain, devised a plan to transport hundreds of orphans to refuge on the coastal island as part of Operation Kiddy Car. U.S. planes airlifted the children, and the men arranged food, money and clothing contributions for them, the museum said.
Lawrence Hess said he accompanied his father to South Korea in 1999 and saw Koreans’ respect for him.
“It was like traveling with a rock star,” he said.
Hess, who was born in Marietta, flew 250 combat missions in Korea and 63 missions in World War II. He is survived by three sons, a daughter and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife, Mary Hess, died in 1996.
To read Return To Sender, the story of a Korean War hero turned pathetic Catholic priest, and religious fanatic serial killer who collide with destiny, please visit my Amazon page.
Ex-POW, turned Priest, dealing with the remnants of war: Return to Sender
There are countless millions of soldiers who return, or returned home after war unable to forget, tortured by their memories. My father was one such returning veteran. Based on my experiences with him, then later with friends returning from Vietnam, I created a character, Theodore Riley, in my novel, Return To Sender who embodies these issues–or at least as I imagine them. Theo, who upon returning home to his small coastal village of Manzanita Oregon in the 1950’s kept a family promise and took his vows as a Catholic Priest. He now counsels other returning veterans with unconventional (for the 1950’s) wisdom and often uses his hard earned soldier sensibilities to create small town justice.
Theo suffers from PTSD, which of course back then had no name. Men were simply told to “buck up and deal with it” or to “Put it out of your mind”. Liquor was my dad’s escape. Later, for my Vietnam vet friends, it was much harder stuff; heroine, pot, psychedelics, and whatever else they developed an appetite for while in Nam. Not much has changed. These days Vets still return with PTSD, and bring their nightmares, fears, horrors of war home to their wives, husbands and children who can’t relate, and so they just ‘deal with it’. I know we as a culture have come a long way, sadly not far enough to not go to war in the first place, but far enough to recognize the effect on the human spirit. Suicides are skyrocketing among returning vets of our endless Middle East melees’ and though our society is trying to reach out, offer help when and where we can, it will never be enough to end their pain. Anyway, back to my story….
Theo has nightmares, flashes of memory and struggles to return to life as he knew it before he left, before war, before he fell in love with a group of Korean Orphans, and long before he was held prisoner in a POW camp, shot and left for dead. How could anyone not be changed inside and out, heart, body and soul?
Excerpt from Return to Sender; (one year after Theo’s return home)
The children’s dark eyes emerged from the grainy newspaper picture – for a moment I swear they all moved. We were in Pusan. I, in uniform, my M1 strapped to my back, tying shoe laces for the five year old twins who had never seen shoes that tied – one of the girls held her foot, a foot smaller than the palm of my hand, up for me to lace. ‘Riley,’ she called me, all the orphans called me Riley, ‘you tie shoe.’ She smiled and placed her tiny hand on my shoulder.
The following day we were ambushed. She and her sister, shot.
I grabbed a church pew to balance myself. My stomach rose to my throat.
Excerpt from a scene where Theo counsels another veteran who cannot live with what he did in Korea and now contemplates suicide;
He whispered, “Thing is, dying would’a been easy; livin’s what’s hard.”
The weighty lament in his voice concerned me; knew it well, knew where it may lead.
“It is hard.” I said with a sudden clarity about what he, what any soldier needed to hear. I leaned in and said, “Give thanks, you had the power to shepherd evil from this world back to God for His swift judgment. Give thanks you were able to do something about the tribulations brought forth by evil men. Be thankful, knowing God chose you, and that now you will be healed through His mercy. You shot an animal who killed a blameless family. Take comfort that animal never took the life of innocence again. Because you took action. Be proud. Son, for that’s not cowardice.” I sat back from the screen and straightened my collar. A quiet calm washed over me.
He took a deep breath. “Thank you, Father… thank you… My penance?”
“Your penance . . . read in Romans 13, about how the governing authorities are God’s servants, agents of wrath, bringing punishment to the doers of evil. Understand that the Lord uses man-made authority to rain retribution onto the wicked. So, read and find peace in understanding. That’s your penance. Then sleep like sleep is your reward.”
Return to Sender will be released by Booktrope Books in October 2014