I started writing my next novel “Running With the Enemy” in 1981 as a memoir of an American Marine serving in Vietnam in 1966.
In 1981, I was working toward an MFA in 20th century American literature/writing at Cal Poly Pomona where I earned a teaching credential in 1975 – 76.
I never finished the memoir and only wrote about 200 pages. In fact, the first forty pages took several months to write. It was on page forty-one that I arrived in Chu Lai, Vietnam by climbing down a boarding net into a landing craft in one of the Marine Corps last major amphibious landings.
However, later in the 1980s, I brushed the dust off that unfinished manuscript and enrolled in UCLA’s extension-writing program. My workshop instructor was Marjorie Miller and she recruited a few of her students into her off-campus workshops held in a small room above an Italian restaurant in Westwood near the UCLA campus. For several years on Saturday mornings, I drove 135 miles round trip to attend Miller’s workshop
There was a big difference in the quantity and quality of writing among twenty or more students in a UCLA classroom and the five or six writers around that table in a rented room above an Italian restaurant—same instructor with fewer writers meant more time for each writer.
After I read the first chapter of my Vietnam memoir, Miller said it was not going to work and I should consider writing it as a novel.
Miller was a tough taskmaster with a short fuse. She was NOT an advocate of fluffing up a sense of false self-esteem with warm fuzzies and was not into, “Let’s all have fun and follow our dreams.”
She was a tough and sometimes harsh critic. Miller understood that for most individuals to stand a chance to achieve his or her dream would require dedication and discipline in addition to never stop learning the craft of writing.
I recall that I revised one chapter more than thirty times and Miller lost patience more than once with me for taking so long to fix the problems in that chapter.
Moreover, I wanted to include as much reality as possible in the novel, so I borrowed from my experiences in Vietnam, the experiences of my fellow Marines, and what I discovered about the war later.
For example, early in 1966, a Marine in my unit, a cook, murdered the father of a Vietnamese adolescent that he either raped or paid to have sex with him. The cook claimed that he found the girl working in a rice paddy and offered her fifty US dollars to have sex with him. He said she agreed and while they were in the act, the girl’s father caught them. Later, the girl would identify the cook as her father’s murderer in a lineup, and he was convicted and sentenced to twenty years to life in a federal prison. At least, that’s what we were told, and then the cook was gone—shipped out.
That cook wasn’t the only American soldier to rape and/or murder innocent Vietnamese citizens.
Continued on June 21, 2012 in From Memoir to Novel – the metamorphosis of a manuscript about war as hell – Part 2
His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.
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