Hello again, campers –
As part of the ongoing jollity surrounding Author! Author!’s 1000th blog post, let’s take a gander at what first place winner of an Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence D. Andrew McChesney has to say about self-censorship, shall we?
Did I just sense some of you out there doing a double-take? “Two first-place winners, Anne?” the masses cry. “How is that possible?”
Well, if you’ll consult the rules, I think you’ll find that I’d been a contest judge often enough to anticipate that the judges would keep saying, “But…but…” when it came right down to ranking the top few entries. (I’m not all that into linear hierarchies, anyway.)
I was tickled that Dave McChesney — as he’s known around these parts — had an entry that made it to the “But…but…” stage of competition, I must admit. There’s a certain symmetry to it: Dave was the first reader ever to post a comment on Author! Author!, so he’s presumably been here for the unveiling of pretty much all of the first 1000 posts.
When he’s not commenting here, Dave also blogs, as well as sharing his naval adventures on his Stone Island Stories website. As if that weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, he’s also president of Spokane Authors and Self-Publishers. And I have it on good authority that he painted the naval scene behind him in the photo below.
What does he do with the rest of his time, you ask? Read on…
For the past five years I’ve spent three mornings a week cleaning tennis courts at a private athletic facility. Tennis balls are covered in pale green fuzzy stuff that flies into the nether at a glance. Striking one of these lime colored orbs with a racquet, or letting it to bounce off the sandpaper-like surface of the court causes wholesale shedding. The fuzz doesn’t drift away and disappear, but settles on the court’s surface. Depending upon air currents, it also collects in various corners and turns into phosphorescent green dust bunnies.
Pushing a heavy court sweeper for two or three miles before most people are awake requires a certain amount of physical stamina, but demands on my intellect are minimal. I use a battery-powered sweeper-vacuum machine to rid the playing surfaces of the accumulated fuzz. The chore is somewhat akin to mowing a lawn as it involves walking around in circles while ensuring I don’t miss a spot and clean another one seventeen times.
Because I work early, my lunch break occurs at a time when most “normal” people first leave home for the day. I’m not usually hungry but enjoy the relaxation a break affords me. I kick my shoes off, drink a cup of coffee and read. After finishing nearly all of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, for once following the order of Hornblower’s career, I felt compelled to re-work a story I had originally written in high school.
The hour and a half it takes to clean the tennis courts lets me turn loose a large portion of my imagination and come up with characters, plots, and scenes for the story. I’m not always satisfied with what I arrive at, but I’ll be back at the same task in a day or two and can revisit and revise to my heart’s delight. The biggest difficulty is remembering my thoughts until I have a chance write them down. Even if I don’t remember things word for word, I usually retain the basic idea. These times also allow me to mentally compose query letters, conceive face to face pitches, and consolidate all I am learning about being a writer.
Having a unique story I want told in a singular way, I must conform my personal creativity to several sets of rules. If I disregard the basic rules of writing, how easy will others find it to read my work? Do I spell as I see fit, or punctuate as I desire, it makes it more difficult for the reader to comprehend my intended thoughts. The basic rules of writing establish common ground between readers and writers, enabling them to “speak the same language.” The more difficult it is to read a particular work, the more likely a reader will become frustrated and set it aside. I do not want anyone to quit reading what I have penned, until, of course they have reached “the end.” If I want people to read my work, I must also adhere to the rules of publishing. I need to understand the conventions of the book-selling world.
Within these guidelines, I do have choices. In making my selections, I effectively establish a third rather fluid set of rules. These can apply to a single work or to everything I write. I might change them within a particular work if doing so better tells the story. All the while I must ensure my personal rules don’t run afoul of pre-established conventions, nor befuddle any readers.
Long fascinated with the sailing navies of two centuries ago and a devoted reader of C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and others, I write Naval Adventure. The story that has become or is becoming the Stone Island Sea Stories has bounced around in my cranium for decades. Over the years a fantasy angle has manifested itself, largely because of certain self-imposed conditions. In the original story the island was small; a mere pinprick on the map, so it was easy to pass off as being undiscovered. But as ideas for future stories grew, so did the island. It got big enough that I couldn’t justify or explain its existence in this world.
Realizing that Stone Island exists in an alternate and somewhat parallel world also allows me the freedom to tinker extensively with history than if my imagination had remained in this world alone. Other writers sometimes alter history to fit their stories or have characters perform historically significant acts attributed to real individuals, but I dislike doing so. I prefer that events and characters in my stories contribute an additional dimension to what really happened.
While the fantasy angle creates a unique story situation, it also causes problems with marketing. If I pitch the first book as “Fantasy, cleverly disguised as Naval Adventure,” the intrigued agent scans the first fifty pages and asks, “Where’s the Fantasy? I had to read the synopsis to find it.” If I promote it as Naval Adventure or Mainstream Fiction, I am told that the Fantasy aspect might be a turn-off for those who buy what they think is a traditional nautical novel. I have pitched and queried Beyond the Ocean’s Edge extensively over the past few years and admit a certain amount of frustration with the process. I get an ego boost when a professional reader praises my writing, but I feel equally depressed when in turn that reader indicates difficulties in placing my work in today’s marketplace.
I tell the Stone Island Sea Stories in a linear fashion, centering the tales on a single protagonist. I wrote the original in first person, not because I see it through his eyes, but because of a paradox I wanted to include in the original ending. Coming to know Edward Pierce better, I cannot picture him relating his adventures in detail, which he would theoretically be doing if I wrote in first person. Third person allows me a bit of flexibility with point-of-view; although I sometimes hear critical comments from those a dear friend calls “POV Nazis.” Rigidly maintaining a “close third person” point of view can be cumbersome when I want readers to see the situation from other perspectives.
While I write these stories for the adult market, I believe they will appeal to younger readers as well. I discovered Horatio Hornblower in my first year of high school. My daughter had read the entire series by the time she reached that same age. Yet I understand C. S. Forester meant these stories for adult readers. When Commodore Hornblower was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post it contained the first fictional account of adultery published in that magazine.
With the possibility of younger readers, I limit “adult” content and language in the Stone Island Sea Stories. I don’t feel it is needed and believe certain mature situations can successfully be implied, rather than described in throbbing detail. Having served for twenty-two years as a U. S. Navy Bluejacket, I personally have no problem with the use of “colorful” language, yet such words and phrases might not be appropriate for younger readers. (Would these readers object, or would it be those who monitor what younger people read?) Therefore, as I began the first book I determined that I would not use certain words and phrases.
However, about a third of the way into the second volume a situation arises where the protagonist’s most natural reaction would be to use one of those “forbidden” words. Feeling his use of this particular word would be appropriate, I altered my rules to let a very angry Pierce say, “At your earliest opportunity, do look as I have, at the very underside of the keel, amidships and aft. Then we both might know why this vessel did not so easily show her heels to those (expletive deleted) frigates!”
Having loosened my restrictions regarding this particular word, I might have peppered the remainder of Sailing Dangerous Waters with it. I may have gone back to earlier scenes or even the first book to include it or other “forbidden” words where they might seem essential to the story. I did not because I did not eliminate the rule. I merely gave myself a little leeway in enforcing it, and if truth be told, I use the particular word a time or two again near the end of the second book.
I’d like to believe that my choices in writing are mine, but I know many are based on what others expect. In setting forth the stories dwelling in my mind, I inadvertently combined two different genres. To be published by the traditional industry, do I need to pick one and confine myself to it? Do I maintain a level of artistic integrity and keep the stories as I envision them while seeking out alternative routes to publication? In like fashion, are my choices regarding person, tense, and viewpoint, the way I really see the stories, or are they an attempt to conform? Should there be sufficient objections to the decisions I have made, do I alter my style, or do I stand by it as it is written? Do I choose to avoid detailed descriptions of “adult” behavior and limit certain language because it is what I really want, or do I limit them to avoid possible controversy about my stories? Are my views as to what is acceptable really my own, or are they the result of what society as a whole has imposed upon me? These are questions that I do not have answers for. My lack of responses means I will always have something to think about as I clean pale green tennis ball droppings from the courts.
American writers do not face actual punishment for what they write, yet we are expected to follow certain guidelines. Those who step outside of these established boundaries find it more difficult to have their works published. In essence they are forced to write what the public supposedly demands the way the publishing industry wants.
Following a twenty-two-year US Navy career, D. Andrew McChesney continues a passionate interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naval history. Long fascinated with USS Constitution, he was privileged to be aboard “Old Ironsides” for a turn-around cruise in Boston Harbor. A tour of HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England while serving aboard USS Forrestal provides further inspiration as he crafts a series of naval adventures having fantasy elements. Beyond the Ocean’s Edge and Sailing Dangerous Waters are complete. Work is underway on Darnahsian Pirates.
Dave inherited his parents’ love of reading and developed a strong imagination, spending his comparatively isolated early childhood on a homestead forty-one miles outside Fairbanks, Alaska. Creative and imaginative play kept him and his younger sister busy and entertained. Once in the “lower forty-eight” and exposed to television, series such as The Swamp Fox on Walt Disney Presents kindled an interest in history ranging from the American Revolution through the War of 1812. Interest in the later conflict developed when his grandfather gave him a drawing of Constitution made by a friend during the frigate’s visit to Puget Sound in the 1930s. Discovery of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower in high school solidified Dave’s interest in that era’s naval history.
He writes, edits, prints, and distributes the Rear Engine Review, the monthly newsletter of the Inland Northwest Corvair Club. Dave is currently President of Spokane Authors and Self Publishers (SASP), and also belongs to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).
He resides in Spokane, Washington with his wife Eva, daughter Jessica, a 1962 Corvair Rampside pickup known as “Tim,” and a 1965 Corvair Monza coupe identified as “Ralph.”
6 Replies to “Tennis Balls and Broadsides, by Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence First Prize Winner, D. Andrew McChesney”
Congratulations, Dave! Your essay is as much a testament to your impeccable character as it is to your excellent writing ability. I’m so pleased for you on your First Prize win. Your keen interest and studies in naval history is evident in your stories. I wish you great success and grand writing adventures.
Thanks! And may I offer the same to you. Aren’t you glad to have decided to enter, nearly at the last minute?
As a side note, if you or anyone else is interested, “Tim” the ’62 Corvair Rampside is running again for the first time in nearly two years!
Dave — excellent essay on working and the writing life. You reminded me again that sailors live by correct rule-based language and sometimes die due to its misuse — since time immemorial, and probably before writing itself! Your fiction topic has resonance with writing and writing well.
Which is why the Navy currently uses “starboard” and “port,” rather than “starboard” and “larboard.” Over the noise of the wind or the roar of cannon, the helmsman might have only heard, “..arboard,” and steered in the wrong direction.
I forgot to add that that was a choice I had to make in writing the STONE ISLAND SEA STORIES. Even though “larboard” would have been more appropriate for a story set at that time, I figured more readers would be better acquainted with the current terms. So that is what I used.
How impressive to have won first prize in expressive excellence! You deserve it.