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I have been wrestling for years over how to organize my work-in-progress, Walking from the USSR. An almost casual comment from a friend over dinner presented a solution.
Now I feel I can wrap this baby up!
The book is the story of my father-in-law, Maurice, who served in the Red Army during the Second World War. It’s a complex story, because his life, like all of ours, I suppose, had several distinct phases. Understanding this story requires an explanation of the shifting borders of Poland, Germany, Ukraine and other countries, and some little-known facts about the war itself and who was on whose side.
I have written separate chapters and have enough raw material written down now to fill several books. All I need is to organize it and write a few connecting passages.
The trouble is, I’ve been at this same stage for well over a year now. I have made almost no progress in all that time. I have to admit, in that year I also wrote and published my second novel, One Shade of Red, and wrote a few other short stories and poems (and kept up with the rest of my life, but all writers do that). But the bottom line is that I didn’t get anywhere with the book.
Until last week, when a group of old friends got together at a local steakhouse for our quasi-annual bull session. One friend, Michel, asked how the writer was going. I summed up: “I’ve written most of the book, but I’m stuck on how to organize it.”
“What’s the book about?” Michel asked and sipped his beer.
“My father-in-law. He was drafted into the Red Army, was captured by the Germans, escaped from their POW camp, made his way with his 12 men back home, joined the resistance, was re-drafted when the Soviets came back, and fought through to Berlin before he could come back home to Montreal.”
I had to explain a little more — how a Canadian-born man ended up in the Red Army in the first place — and then Michel said “Why don’t you just tell it like that? He was drafted into the army, was captured and then escaped?”
I couldn’t say another word. Of course. It’s so simple — why hadn’t I worked that out long ago?
Sometimes, you’re too close to the subject to see it. It took someone who knew nothing about the project to make sense of it.
But that's the point of beta-readers, editors and literary friends. They can tell you about the obvious things that you, the obsessed writer, just cannot see.
That's another reason that we writers have to stick together. And have to get out of our homes or writing studios or wherever we write and talk to human beings occasionally. It just makes everything better. And far from being another distraction from writing, human contact is the stuff of which writing is spun.
Okay, now I have to get down to finishing the book. But at least now I can see the path clearly.