More Smashing!

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I left the 4th Street Fantasy panel In Consideration of Smashing Things, and What Follows ruminating over a couple of topics that felt incomplete. Listening to the remaining panels and speaking with other members provided me with insight about the writing of violence, training, and agency.

One of the questions asked was how to relay people’s thoughts and feelings in the moment of violence of the type they trained for repeatedly. My response to the question from the Smashing Things panel is that you can’t. You can’t afford to be in your head at that moment. The reason you train repetitively is so that you have muscle memory and don’t think.

In software design, people often approach with a problem and an idea of how to solve it. Phrasing the question as “How do you relay what the character is feeling in the moment of violence?” is a leading question that provides the solution. However, knowing what the character is feeling isn’t the underlying problem. The desire is a symptom of knowing something is missing from the story. The reader wants a rich, layered experience.

Max Gladstone answered how to provide the experience in the Rebuilding the Mystery: Rejecting Rules for Magic panel. One of his examples dealt with the impact of being truly named. He set up the knowledge of naming beforehand so that when the naming happened, the reader understood the weight. Explaining the dangers prior to an event gives the reader better understanding of the experience when the dangers do occur.

After setting up the violence, and enacting it, characters react to it. The immediate response should be small and not debilitate the character enough to survive the situation (as long as the goal is for them to survive the situation). I have an inbuilt delay for strong emotions. Other veterans I speak to report this as well. One to two days later, the weight of situations can hit us. If possible, we will go to a private place and break down. Seeking solitude comes from being shamed about crying or taunted to cry.

During a discussion on basic training, I boldly asserted I hadn’t read a civilian yet who adequately captured the spirit of basic training. My stated purpose of basic training was to strip soldiers down physically and mentally to rebuild them as people capable of doing their job while others are trying to kill them. I questioned the value of having the basic training sequences. Fully capturing the extent of the transformation with words could be difficult.

After the panel, I prodded people for their opinions of the value of the training sequence and received the following reasons; to set up a future danger, to show competence, character development, and to show esprit de corps.

One misconception about basic training is that it is the only training a soldier receives. There are four types of training; basic training, occupational training, on the job training after arriving at a duty station, and continual training to maintain deployment readiness.

Experiences at a duty station are the most likely place where the real understanding of the dangers will occur. There soldiers learn the job they will do after deployment. Compare what people learn in school versus what they learn after getting their first job. Even in the same force, and the same job title, different people use different weapons, vehicles, and techniques. Consider John Appel who was on the panel with me. We were both Army, but as a scout his job had him advancing. My job required me to defend a position. The variety of vehicles used by people with my former job varied from none to trucks to planes to ships. The shorter duration of those incidents or training sessions also reduces the risk of generating infodumps.

Writing training isn’t necessary to demonstrate competence. The initial assault executed in Starship Troopers displays the characters’ capability to perform military actions.

Character development could occur at any of the levels of training. Think about what specific development your character needs to determine where it happens.

The sense of being part of a team begins in basic. However, shared experiences after arriving at a duty station or being deployed cement the bonding. Except for one other soldier, I never saw or heard from anyone in basic training again. Approximately 10% of my language training class joined me at the same duty station. Infantry units exist that train together for basic and vocational training and end up at the same base. A couple of scenarios could make a similar model difficult for other unit types; units with varied jobs, and units with specialized skills. In most cases, team bonding takes place at a duty station or while deployed.

The discussed goals for training scenes can all take place at duty stations. Basic training sequences still contain the potential for fulfillment of those goals. However, depictions of basic training carry a high risk of being disbelieved by readers with a military background. Decide who your audience is and the work you want a given scene to do.

Having only an hour for panels causes some topics to remain undiscussed. Authors often give soldiers incorrect agency or they introduce a theme I call, “Praise the Private!”

In books, soldiers disobey orders with no impact. Generally, soldiers do not have the agency to willfully disobey lawful orders. Soldiers receive punishment for disobeying lawful orders. They know the risk before choosing to disobey. Books often gloss over this when the soldier did something for the benefit of everyone, and it worked out. Even if a soldier did something necessary, that soldier should still receive some level of punishment. Soldiers who disobey orders understand the cost beforehand, decide to do it anyway, and then pay the price. The Black Company by Glen Cook contains an excellent example of this kind of agency. Croaker knows he is disobeying orders, he disobeys anyway, and Cook shows Croaker receiving the punishment.

So how is it that soldiers perform illegal acts or disobey orders without consequence? These acts are possible given environmental factors; ability to act in secret, being buddies with the figure in charge, or a figure in charge that doesn’t care. Listing all of the possibilities isn’t practical. When writing a character that disobeys orders without consequence, describe the environment that facilitates this result beforehand.

Another trope from books happens when a lower level enlisted (often a private) figures out something that no one else could have possibly figured out and saves the day. The overall commanding officers (often colonel or above) visit the private at his unit and shower him with praise and a significant reward. I used the pronoun he because thus far all books I’ve read employed this trope exclusively with men main characters. A commanding officer visiting a private at the private’s unit is to praise him personally is extremely unlikely. The private is more likely to get kudos from his team, and maybe a medal.

The small nature and intimacy of 4th Street Fantasy facilitates conversation and thought. Listening to panels and having discussions with other members clarified elusive thoughts. I look forward to learning more from the discussion next year.

Thank you everyone who put the con together and everyone who let me eavesdrop and absorb.

Related: Traits of (Wo)men SoldiersWriting Military with Women

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