Jonathan Raab is a veteran of the Afghanistan war, where he served as an infantryman assigned to a combat advisor team. He is the editor-in-chief of Muzzleland Press and an editor for the War Writers’ Campaign. His work has appeared in The New York Times’ At War Blog, CNN.com, the Military Success Network, Literati Presents, The Stars and Stripes, and many others. His second novel, The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre, will be available in late 2015. He lives in the Denver metro area with his wife Jess and their dog, Egon.
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Q: Congratulations on the release of your book, Flight of the Blue Falcon. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
The novel is about three men who serve in an infantry platoon deployed to the Afghanistan War. It follows their training, their deployment, and a little bit of them coming home from it all. I wanted to tell the story of men serving in the Long War, especially from the National Guard perspective.
Q: What do you think makes a good military novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
War writing tends to be nonfiction, but I think fiction is the best place to tell war stories. You can tell more truth that way. Every war is different; every war is the same. But every good war story should have good characters, be accessible to civilians, and tell something new (if possible) or true (as true as a story about war can be).
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
I tend to outline everything from the start, but that outline changes as I write. It’s a constant process of writing to catch up with the outline, and discovering that the plot is moving in new and unexpected directions.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
I have three protagonists in the novel, which is something I wouldn’t recommend to aspiring writers! Each character offered a unique perspective on the book’s events. They’re all based on guys I know, in whole or in part. A little bit of me is in each of them, too.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
There’s no real antagonist. The Taliban is in this book, of course, but they’re not really the focus. This is more of a character study—how three men deal with going through the Big Green Army Machine.
I tend to write short, focused chapters. That helps the reader feel accomplished as they go—hey, I finished another chapter!—and so they keep reading. Each scene should communicate something new and important about your characters, the plot, or (preferably) both. If your scene doesn’t do that, cut it. Cut it right out.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
There’s several settings here—but the prevailing setting is that of the Army culture itself. The use of specific language, cultural tropes, and illustrative anecdotes or scenes helps to communicate that to an audience that may not have served in the military. Try to tell larger truths about the setting or culture in small, focused ways. For example, there’s a scene where our characters arrive in Afghanistan on a big command base. Instead of being greeted by enemy fire and soldiers around them ready for combat, they’re screamed at for minor uniform infractions. That scene tells a lot about the culture and the situation, and what’s to come for our characters.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
The broader theme is that war is stupid—on several levels. I knew that going in, and my characters and plot didn’t disappoint in that regard.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
Editing should refine the creative thrust. If it compromises it, it’s not really editing, it’s revision. That said, authors need to know when to throw out those lines or scenes they really love—we can convince ourselves something is really good when it is in fact unnecessary or even distracting.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
1) The novelist finishes a novel. 2) The novelist is open to intense but fair criticism to make the book better. 3) The novelist keeps writing, and keeps improving.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
It’s like homework, sure, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s also very frustrating. It’s a love-hate activity, for sure.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
This is a cliché, but Stephen King’s On Writing is really, really good. I’ve taught a part of it in my English class. I’ve never been to a workshop, so I can’t speak to that. I will say that you don’t need a fancy MFA or creative writing degree to be a writer, although those things can certainly be helpful to many people.
There’s a whole industry designed to separate writers from their money, so don’t go chasing expensive conferences, retreats, or seminars. They might be helpful, but you can probably learn more from joining a free writers’ group or just plugging away at the craft. Books are cheap, so read all the time. And it doesn’t cost you anything to write and share your work with trusted friends who will give you open and honest feedback.
You just have to be ready to be told that your precious baby of a story sucks, because you will write something that is awful. And that’s okay. What matters is how you deal with your failures—large and small. Don’t quit. Keeping writing. Even if it takes you the rest of your life to get published.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
Don’t let your own ego get in the way of producing better work. Also, don’t worry about being a perfectionist—write, write, and write until that project of yours is finished. You can fix all of your issues in editing, when you open the door to others, and when you can read your own work with fresh eyes.