Thursday, April 02, 2015

Thursday Thoughts with R.E. Nelson

Some Thoughts on Editing and Structure

I knew that the original structure for my novel Palace Dog was somewhat unconventional.  Instead of chapter breaks I had divided the story into three parts.  I wrote the shorter first and third sections in the third person and had the long middle section in segments written as journal entries told in the first person.  At the time I was writing it, it seemed to make the most sense to do it this way.  This was the format I submitted to Dreamspinner Press and the format I expected for the book.

In spite of my naïve feeling that the book as written was nearly perfect, the first edit was filled with so many notes and suggestions that I could barely find the original text.  A lot of the markings were format related, but a good number were suggestions for textual changes.  The editor suggested I consider adding chapter breaks in order to help pace the story, and to have the entire text in the first person.  Oh, and to eliminate the device of the journal.  Her reasoning there being that the journal entries both slowed the story down and did not allow me to fully explore certain emotional elements that would enhance to story.  It seemed a formidable request, but I was open to trying it and in actuality it wasn’t that difficult to do.  And the editor was right.  I found that it helped keep the story moving and indeed it opened up the development of key scenes.  Particularly scenes of a sexual nature that in the context of a journal entry were not prone to depth or description the story called for.

At first it was liberating, especially in intimate scenes involving the main character, Michael, and Thao.  I had described their original love scene tastefully in a paragraph or two of journal entry that relied on the reader’s imagination to fill in the details.  Suddenly, I expanded the scene to five pages of extremely graphic descriptions of three couplings over several hours.  Now I found that I used too much detail that actually distracted from the story.  This called for further edits in which I described their newly found intimacy over several separate scenes that added balance and meaning as they kept the story moving.

The change in structure also affected other scenes in the book, particularly between Michael and Richard and between Michael and Danny—the first where Michael experiences unrequieted love/lust for Richard and the not-so-fulfilling dreams of encounters with him stretch reality into fantasy; and in the second where the encounter with Danny is momentary but real.  As with the intimate descriptions of the time spent with Thao, I was now able to enhance some of the scenes with Richard and with Danny and add more graphic detail than had been there originally.  This, in turn, I think, added depths to Michael’s character and to the drama of the story.

 Palace Dog

In April 1975, as the government in Saigon is falling, Michael Andrews prepares to make his way back to Vietnam to find the love he was forced to leave.

But Michael’s journey begins four years earlier. He joins the Air Force to keep out of the Army and out of Vietnam, but his first assignment is teaching English in Saigon to members of the Vietnamese military in an Army program called Palace Dog.

As an artist, and a man, before his time in Vietnam, Michael found life lonely and unsatisfying. In the midst of war, Michael searches for direction and meaning. He ultimately finds love and hope with Thao, a young Vietnamese art student, only to have their already uncertain future wrenched from them when he is pulled out of the country.

For Michael, his return in 1975 is inevitable and without question, though the outcome he hopes for is anything but assured.

 I stretched out on my bed, this time placing my head at the foot to rest my cheek on the cool metal frame and look in the direction of the never-ending card game. 
From the far end, Richard appeared, shuffling into the light, gripping his towel around his waist. He paused to talk with the players, to look at one or two of the hands, to make comments I couldn’t hear but that caused the others to laugh. As he began to move away, someone grabbed the back of his towel and brought it to the floor. 
“All right, fucker,” Richard yelled as he turned, bent to pick up the towel, then refastened it loosely about his middle before he made his way down the center aisle. 
His dark freckles seemed to be everywhere. His towel now dipped below the line that marked his tan, revealing a trace of his thick brownish-red pubic hair. Moving closer, the color of his skin changed as he passed through the light and shadows of the barracks. He was fair and freckled, yet he tanned to a color somewhere between conventional brown and fiery copper. His dark red hair was streaked light from mornings spent at the Annex swimming pool. But his body was not a swimmer’s body. He had soft curves, slight sags that showed a lazy disinterest with anything that might make his body boringly perfect. His tan came from lounging by the pool, not swimming in it. 
As Richard blended into the darkness of my area, he stumbled, balancing himself by reaching out and catching the edge of the empty upper bunk. 
“Hey,” he mumbled. “What’s going on?” He raised one leg and placed his foot on the corner of my wooden footlocker. “I’m really fucked-up.” 
My gaze moved up the straight line of his leg, bent with the curve of his knee and thigh, paused ever so slightly at the darkness revealing nothing of his crotch still covered by his towel before moving up his flat stomach and smooth, freckled chest to the glassy disorientation of his eyes. In that moment, I wanted to draw him. Standing there, just that way. 
“Where were you tonight, anyway?” he asked. “I looked for you. Thought you might want to go to the club.” 
“Around,” I answered. “The library for a while. You know.” 
“Randy left in his uniform,” he stated. 
“He’s listening to language tapes,” I said. 
A sly smile crept across his face. “Shit. He’s gone off base. Ten to one that fucker’s getting laid.” 
I smiled. “You don’t know that.” 
“Shit, man. He’s heading for trouble. The whores over here fit razor blades in the plastic caps of shaving cream cans and stuff them up their twats. Then when you plug them….” 
I couldn’t hold my sudden burst of laughter. 
“And black syph. If you get that, they put you on this ship that sails around and never docks. You never see land or people again. They tell your family you died and give them a bunch of medals.” 
“Where do you get that stuff?” I asked, rolling back on my bed. 
He lowered his leg, steadying himself by holding the rail of the top bunk. His head, fiery, coppery, haloed in gold, leaned in slightly and hovered above mine. 
“It’s almost enough to make you queer,” he whispered, his eyes suddenly appearing lucid and clear. 
I froze. Unable to move, unable to swallow, unable to blink my gaze from his. Then, just as suddenly, I relaxed. 
“What?” I finally managed to ask. “Then what?” 
He lingered a moment, his eyes closed. When he slowly opened them, they were glazed again. He pulled back, loosened his towel, and threw it over his shoulder as he turned. In that moment, I saw myself kneeling on the floor in front of him, burying my face in his crotch as my hands kneaded the soft flesh of his buttocks. 
“Fuckin’ bore,” he muttered as he shuffled toward the latrine.   

R.E. Nelson was born in Texas and raised in Southern California. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. One of his earliest recollections related to writing was winning an essay contest in sixth grade--something patriotic about the American flag. When he travels, his preference is staying in select areas for an extended period of time and learning about that place. He has lived in both Vietnam (twice, actually) and Saudi Arabia, and also spent time in Egypt, South Korea, Shanghai (his only China visit thus far), and Dubai. Now he is happy to call San Francisco home.

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