Author Archives: Matt Jones

About Matt Jones

Software Engineer for a living. Fantasy writer for myself. I'm a writer, veteran, gamer, hacker, maker, astronomer, thinker, and altogether indescribable.

Stress After Iraq

Military Convoy
U.S. Soldiers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and Iraqi soldiers assigned to 8th Division Iraqi Army stage their vehicles to depart from Camp Diwaniyah, Iraq, Nov. 30, 2008, to conduct a cordon and knock operation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Eric Harris/Released)
I’ve written about my time in the U.S. Air Force a couple times before, and for good reason. Even one tour in a combat zone can give you more life experiences than most would really care to have. The quick recap is that I was sent to Iraq in 2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 2632 AEFTC. We were basically on loan from the Air Force to the Army and drove the guntrucks that protected the convoys. During my time over there, I was witness to danger, destruction, and death. I’ve seen the aftermath of battles, watched as mortars fell around me, and lived through experiences that could of easily taken my life.

These days the most dangerous thing I experience is driving through San Francisco on my motorcycle. While stressful in it’s own right, it’s a far cry from my time overseas. There is one thing that the experience has taught me that still holds true today. Stress is a part of life, a necessary element even. It’s stress that makes us strive to become better. It’s stress that keeps us moving when we just want to stop. Perhaps it’s the fear of failure or the need to finish a blog post before a deadline. Stress doesn’t have to be bad, it’s can just be another part of being alive. As writers, stress is another material to be molded into our work. We use it as someone does an IV of adrenaline. We turn the knob and the readers pulse starts to speed up. Turn it a little more, and they’re sweating.

Stress is powerful, yet just like the adrenaline, you have to be careful about the dosage. We’ve all heard about the soldiers who return with PTSD. I’ve personally watched friends and family deal with traumatic stress in different ways. Some pull away from the world, while others fight against it. The stories aren’t pleasant, and neither is the experience. Our readers have one benefit over the soldiers in that they can put the book down and walk away. When I was driving convoys, I was in action and alert for 10-12 hours a day. I know how draining it is. I also know the pure bliss of just being able to decompress and relax after these drives. I was lucky in that I was able to balance the stress and the joy pretty reliably. I was never truly burned out as some of my brothers at arms were. I still learned the lessons and am here with a story, and hopefully some advice, to tell.

Stress is a powerful tool in our arsenal. We can use it to keep the pages turning and the tension high. We can also abuse it and draw it out far too long and lose readers if we’re not careful. We need to provide those small moments of blissful respite from the action. The line between high tension and reward is a thin one, and should be walked carefully. The more you can build the stress in a sequence may give a larger payoff, but you risk burning people out.

My time in the military has shaped me into who I am and what I write. I draw upon that tension and discipline I learned to try to write exciting and fulfilling stories. Hopefully you haven’t had to deal with anything as stressful as this, but I think you can probably relate it to your own experiences. It’s our special power, after all. Take stories of others and elaborate. Imagine and create the future. Keep the tension high, and relax when needed.

It’s the beat of the drum that mimics the heartbeat of the reader. We write, and roar with that thunder!

Do All the Hobbies!

We give a lot of advice on Fictorians, but one phrase seems to come up again and again. “Keep writing.” It’s great advice, and I say it myself all the time. However, this time I think you should stop. Put your writing aside, temporarily, and go do something else. Take my word for it, and in the end, it will hopefully improve your writing as well.

I myself have taken this perhaps a little too far and I’m working on cutting back now. In the past couple years I’ve became the president of an astronomy club and a scuba divemaster. I’ve taken up projects like robotics which has forced me to learn how to weld, 3d print, and build electronic circuits. I’ve also taken flight lessons, learned to skydive, and have taken many other computer oriented courses. While this has taken up much of the time I could spend writing, it has taught me many things about the world and how we interact with it. I’m pretty sure I could write a far more realistic scene involving someone scuba diving or skydiving now than I could before.

It all comes down to writing what you know. I’ve had one author tell that he doesn’t write much about horses because he hasn’t ever been trained in how to ride or care for them. How could a real equestrian stay committed to a novel where the characters, who are supposed to be experts themselves, are making obvious mistakes? Instead, he glosses over the point and instead focuses on what he does know. Having a firm understanding of the mechanics of some parts of your book will allow you to gloss over other parts and still sound like you fully understand every aspect of what you’re writing about. Of course, as an author, you have to be careful to keep it interesting to those outside the hobby so you don’t limit yourself to a niche. Keep a close eye on your test readers. If you get positive messages from those who enjoy the hobby as well as those apart from it, you know you’re onto something great.

There is also the added benefit of gathering people who share similar hobbies. I was first given a copy of the novel “In thin air” by a rock climber. My marine biologist friend urged me to read “Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings”. If you can train yourself in a skill and really show that expertise in your novels it’ll attract others who share the same interests. It’ll give you talking points and possibly allow you to expand your reach to podcasts and blogs of those focusing on that interest. This is where you’ll be able to go into depth about those little things that would be too specialized to put into the novel. You can let your passions show, which will help attract new readers as well as spread your name in the community.

In the end, what we write is a culmination of all our live experiences. The world’s we write exist in our mind. Looking at the sky at night can give you ideas for your space opera, but it’s more like the broad swaths of color in the background. Listening to Astronomycast and joining your local astronomy club can help give you discreet knowledge that can build the foundation for your work. It’s like adding those fine strokes that can change your generic novel into a masterpiece.

That said, go climb a mountain, dive in the ocean, or fly in the skies. Go take a class and learn something new. Go do something amazing. And after you’ve finished that, come back and write something great.

Do you agree? Think I’ve been wasting valuable time away from the computer? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Tales from the Front Lines

Matt on a HumV Of the many forms of conflict that we’re talking about this month, one of the more difficult kinds to write about is war. War is something you see on television. You read about it in novels. You talk about it with your friends. You complain about the money spent by the government, or the atrocities committed by those in the field. You wear your rose tinted goggles and scoff it from afar. But, unless you’re unlucky, it’s something that’s far away. I know, because I was there.

As far as the unlucky go, I was probably among the luckiest of them. I was deployed for just under a year to Balad, Iraq with the United States Air Force back in 2004. The Air Force loaned us to the Army to drive guntrucks. At first this meant large trucks with sandbags under us and metal welded on the side wherever we could put it for safety from explosives. Soon we received uparmored hum-v’s and things got much nicer. Our jobs was to drive alongside the convoys transporting equipment, food, and water all across Iraq.

I’ve seen lots of happiness and lots of horror in my year out there, however, I know I haven’t seen or experienced the worst of it. I have seen enough to know what novels get right and what they get wrong. Maybe some of my memories will help make your novel a little more real when it comes to fighting in a modern day war.

50cal Machine Gun The people I served with definitely come from all walks of life. While I call getting called upon to serve in a war zone as unlucky, some didn’t feel that way. I was supposed to be deployed three times, but I had someone offer to take my spot twice. The pay is good and the tax free benefits are especially enticing. Especially when you’re re-enlisting and have a bonus coming your way. You also have those out there that do it for the thrill. Some do it for the glory. And some honestly see it as the best way to help those in need. But one thing is true among all of us: the camaraderie. I’ve made strong bonds with people who I still call friends to this day. The soldiers you work with become your family. You rely on them and will trust them with your lives. If they can’t trust you, you’ll end up with the shitty jobs where they can just put you out of mind while they get the job done.

The environment was different, but you get used to it quickly. When I arrived out there it was in the middle of the summer. Temperatures around 120F weren’t unheard of. Pallets of water were all over the base, and you got used to drinking hot water very quickly. We slept in tents at first and small trailers as they became available. Everything smells of diesel since most of the electricity is from generators. You also couldn’t get away from the hum of the generators and a/c units. It was the white noise that muffled the explosions.

When we first arrived, our base was attacked around three times a day. Sometimes you would hear the rocket fly overhead. Sometimes it would just be a small shadow that flashes by. When the munitions worked, however, you would always hear the explosion. Sirens would sound and you would take cover, but usually by then the attack was already over. Walking around outside was always an ordeal. At first there was a standing order that you would always wear your body armor and helmet. You would need to get suited up just to walk to the chow hall. Walking anywhere was like walking through a labyrinth of cement and dirt barriers. Every day was lived with the hope that you weren’t the ones at the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn’t really talk about it, but every now and then someone would stop and look up. The question of “What If” was always in your mind.

Burning Fuel Truck Our missions involved leaving the relative safety of the base. We trained for months before even going overseas on how to operate outside the wire. Everything was drilled into us since even the small mistakes can cost you your life. Everywhere were the reminders of the horrors we faced. Roads were marred with pock marks of past IEDs. Every object was watched and avoided. Vehicles burned as we drove past from other convoys. At each checkpoint you would hear the stories. The convoy just in front or behind you was hit. Medivac was called for someone but get some rest because we’re moving out soon. And despite the questions and fears, you go and try to sleep since you might have another 10 hour ride ahead of you.

People we passed watched us with guarded expressions as we passed. Some feared us. Some hated us. Some looked at us with hope. At least I want to believe it was hope. When you enter areas and you see people hiding, you duck down and hope nothing happens. Those are always the stressful times, since you never could tell what was happening. They seemed to know something you didn’t, and that’s always scary.

A year of doing runs like that can numb you to the pressures and fears you feel. You begin to feel like you’ve seen it all and that there was nothing else out there that could get to you. People handle that stress differently. I brushed it off and just went each day as usual. My personality didn’t let me dwell on things, but we didn’t lose anyone when I was over there. I’ve seen injury and responded to emergency blood donations, but that was it. I didn’t see anyone break, but I know it happens. Even coming back to the states wasn’t too different. You would still avoid objects in the road and you are hyper vigilant for a bit as you drive around town. At night when you lay in your bed you sometimes forget where you are and the silence is unusual.

It’s a different world, but the conflicts are universal. The stories we tell are of humanity. There are times where we are either brave or have bravery thrust upon us. How you handle the conflicts of life are what make us who we are. You’ve heard it all before, but it’s true. We read stories of war, misery, and pain because we understand the conflict. And as one who lived through it, believe me when I say it’s nicer to experience it behind the pages of a novel.

If you would like to read some great novels that are as close to a real deployment as possible, check out some of Myke Cole’s novels. He’s a fictorians guest author and another veteran who has seen the real thing. His novels definitely gave me flashbacks of Iraq. Well, with the exception of the magic. Everything is more awesome with magic.

Ignorant Secret Troubled Love

whisper-408482_1280 One of my favorite tv shows of late is Castle. What’s not to love? Nathan Fillion is awesome, fights crime, and is an author! He’s who I want to be when I grow up. One of the subplots, and it’s almost getting to the point to where it’s cliche, is the love relationship between Richard Castle and Kate Beckett. Everyone knew from day one that the sexy co-star would eventually end up with the strong protagonist. In fact, I’m sure that even those who have never seen the show know exactly what I’m talking about. The formula is as old as time, so why does it keep happening? Or, perhaps a better question, why is it still so exciting?

If you’ve been following the blog all month, you have seen many examples of how love sells. We’ve talked about why it sells, the science behind it, the deep emotional depths, and the physical side as well. And, like clockwork, it comes up every year as we approach and celebrate Valentines Day. And, like the media we watch, it won’t go away. Cliche or not. The easiest explanation for all of this is that love if one thing that, no matter the genre, style, or age, will instantly connect to the audience. Everyone has experienced love and heartbreak. We all know the spark of attraction, the joy and embarrassment of dating, and the hurt of betrayal. And watching these shows, we can instantly bond with the characters and we have an idea of what they’re going through.

Another good reason is that relationships are a source of easy drama. Misunderstandings and clashing personalities are expected with any relationship. It adds realism, while still providing the tension that can carry an audience through the series. With episodic television, it’s somewhat expected that whatever problem is introduced in the beginning of the episode, it’ll be resolved quickly. This means that you can usually sit down and start watching an episode and have very little requirement in knowing the back story. Someone was killed, lets go find out who did it. The relationship drama, however, can last the entire show. Start watching in the middle, you can be fairy sure that you’ll know exactly where they are in the relationship arc and have a good idea of what came before it and where it will go afterwards. Despite this, it’s still able to elicit the emotions the writers desired.

And perhaps the best reason it still happens is that the audience will always want it. If Castle and Beckett never ended up together, it would be frustrating to much of the audience. The formula is so ingrained in us that if we see the potential and it’s ignored or dismissed, we almost feel that it’s a failure. The world practically revolves around these two characters. It’s hard enough to get through the beginning stage where they both have the feelings but they hide it and walk around in ignorance. After time, it would become difficult to balance the proximity the main characters have with each other with the expectations of the fans.

I will say that not everything follows this format, but even those that break it do so knowing what they’re getting into. We’re human, and we love. Disaster comes and goes. Worlds shatter, and murder cases are solved. In the end, it’s the relationships that will be remembered most. Which is fine by me. The world can always use a little more love.