My Friend the Enemy

Recommended Books

My Friend the Enemy by J.B. Cheaney

After meeting Ms. Cheaney at a local book signing in Kansas City, I was delighted to read My Friend the Enemy, a  young adult novel set during the turbulent years of WWII. The author is a native of Missouri (she lives in the Ozarks).

Hazel Anderson is a young girl who dreams about leading a squad of marines against enemy “jap” soldiers. When she isn’t in school, she’s scouring the skies above her Oregon home for signs of an expected Japanese invasion, or looking for signs of enemy spies.

Instead, she discovers a lonely Japanese boy hiding from the prospect of internment at a camp for Japanese-Americans. Hazel’s discovery will forever change the way she sees people. What does the enemy really look like? Can one tell friend from foe by the shape of a face, or the color of an accent?

Most of us who lived after WWII have ready access to facts and information about the events of the war. Countless books have been written; more than one cable channel delivers battles, dogfights, tanks, footage, and docudramas about the politics of the war.

In My Friend the Enemy we see instead a homeland America–a country that is at once beautiful and repulsive, quaint and disturbing, fearful and courageous. The book is not an attack on the U.S. during WWII, nor is it a dismissal of our past. It doesn’t rewrite history, and it isn’t one of those modern YA novels that sees all of history through the lens of one pet issue. Ms. Cheaney seems to have captured the flavor of the era without condemning it.

Why Not Was?

This comes up a lot in writing conferences when I suggest students avoid using the word “was” in their prose. I always get some blank stares.

Was? Are you serious?

I am. Even though it may be used to grammatical perfection in one’s novel, it usually weakens your narrative flow. The OYAN curriculum discussed this in more detail, perhaps because first person POV lends itself to a more casual style, and thus more frequent use of the conversational was.

The cat that was

The cat that was

Put briefly, was is a boring word. It denotes existence. The cat was. The car was. The knife was. Big deal. Lots of cats and cars and knives are. If you want to make me care, show the cat, car or knife doing something interesting: howling, crashing, stabbing.

I agree that in some cases this is impossible. In some places in your novel, you need to tell you audience that something merely exists. But was should be used sparingly, avoided whenever possible.

How do you do this? Two simple techniques may help. If one doesn’t work, the other probably will.

First, change the verb. Pick anything else, even if it doesn’t make sense, and plug it into the sentence. So instead of “The cat was black,” you’d have, “The cat sang black.” No, this doesn’t work, but at least it is less boring. Hopefully it will jump-start your brain into seeing the cat and what it is doing more clearly. What is the cat doing in the first sentence? It is being. What is it doing in the second sentence? Singing. Do cats sing? No, they yowl, or meow, or hiss, or run or fight or lick or nap. Now ask yourself which of these verbs might demonstrate the cats blackness, since that is clearly the intent of the sentence. Just to get the story moving, I might pick “lick.” So, “The cat licked black.” Does that make sense? Not quite, but it is closer. How about, “The cat licked its black fur.” Still not great, but infinitely more active, and therefore more visual, and therefore more interesting, than a cat that just was.

Second, change the subject. Instead of focusing on the subject of a was sentence, focus on something else. Ask yourself, what is it about the cat that my reader needs to know? What is this particular black cat doing in my story? Adding ambience? Spying for a wizard? Plotting to take over the world? When you know the answer, you may know what you need to focus on. Let’s say the cat is there for ambience. Now we can shift the camera off the cat and focus on something more ambient. Perhaps a shadow. “Shadows draped across a black cat that stared out at them from the corner with ghostly eyes.” This sentence delivers ambience AND the fact that the cat is black.

I should add that it is probably a mistake to think about was sentence constructions while writing a rough draft. If you let your internal editor jabber at you about was while you are writing, you will never get anything done. Save your was revisions for your second draft.

Changing Values

I am frequently asked what I mean in The Map when I talk about changing values. Here is a brief explanation that has nothing to do with politics or morality.

Every chapter you write ought to propel your plot forward. Something should change as a result of your chapter, or it isn’t necessary. Furthermore, whatever changes ought to be important to the story goal.

Positive or Negative?

Think in terms of values expressed as a single word: freedom, enlightenment, loneliness, forgiveness. Such values are what your chapter (or scene) is really about, because that value will change as a result of the action of the scene, either in a positive or a negative direction.

For instance, say your hero is imprisoned in the villain’s dungeon at the beginning of a chapter. By the end of the chapter he escapes and finds his freedom in the surrounding forest. The value of the chapter is freedom because the chapter is about the hero’s escape.

Now let’s say your hero tries to escape, but fails. The value of the chapter is no longer freedom. Why? Because his imprisoned state doesn’t change. He doesn’t get freedom. This doesn’t mean the chapter can’t work; it only means it can’t work if the focus is on whether or not he is physically imprisoned. One could write such a chapter and focus on a different value, perhaps enlightenment. In that case, the value would change from ignorant to enlightened as a result of his attempt to physically escape.

What would this look like? Well, say your hero discovers something of interest in his escape attempt. Maybe he finds out where the princess is being held in an old tower. Or perhaps he learns something about himself that causes him to renew his commitment to defeating the villain. Either way would push the story forward and demonstrate a change of values. However, it would NOT mean a change of values regarding his freedom. The change of values would center on enlightenment.

Let’s return for just a moment to the idea of freedom. You do have a second option with your escape from prison chapter idea, and that’s to focus on the hero’s internal state rather than his external state. Instead of making the chapter about how he escapes physically, you could make it abut how he escape mentally or spiritually.

Haralan Popov’s autobiographical account of his 13 year imprisonment and torture at the hands of  communist authorities in Bulgaria is an excellent example. At one point in the story he receives a letter from his wife telling him that they have made it out of Bulgaria. To Haralan this is the best news of his life; it means the authorities can no longer threaten to harm his wife and children. This is the change of values on which the whole chapter turns. The moment Haralan reads that letter, his whole outlook changes. Yes, he is still physically imprisoned. But now he feels free, and the difference is profound. His escape is emotional rather than physical, and the chapter works as part of the story. (Incidentally, the book, Tortured for His Faith, is well worth reading.)

One way to dramatically improve your manuscript is to go through it chapter by chapter and make sure the action of each brings about a corresponding change of values. Make sure the change of values you present to your reader is the one you intend.

Ask yourself three questions:

1. What’s different at the end of this chapter?

2. Is the difference because of the chapter?

3. Does the difference bring the hero closer to the story goal?

If the answer to any of the three questions is No, consider rewriting or deleting the chapter.

First Pages

From my guest blog posting over at Kidlit Central:

“Many years ago I read submissions for a science fiction magazine. I freely admit that I didn’t read everything assigned to me. Reading everything simply wasn’t my job. My job was to pass along to the editor those stories that might be good enough to print. To do that, I only had to grab a story off the top of the slush pile and read far enough to know for sure that the story didn’t work. Sometimes I figured this out in four or five pages. Sometimes it took four or five paragraphs. Stories written in pencil didn’t get read at all. They were returned with a form rejection quoting the magazine’s submission guidelines.

The first pages of your manuscript are the most important ones you will write. If you do not capture an editor in the first few pages, she will not keep reading. Likewise with the casual reader. So how do you make the first pages interesting?”

For the rest, click here.