A Guide to Writing the Military, Soldiers, and Their Environment
0. Why Are You Writing This?
I. How and What to Research (Building Armies, Building Battlegrounds, & How to Select Good Information)
II. Creating Realistic Soldiers (A start to finish tip sheet on how to make your soldier a complete person, with 3 writing assignments)
III. Creating a Narrative (Painting war as a background, Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, Vulgarity in War *NEW*)
IV. What Not to Write (How to avoid Plot Killers, Pace Killers *NEW*, Writing a Text Book, and Soldier Sues)
V. The Politics of your War Story (Polemics & Writing Wars of the Modern Day) *NEW*
VI. You Will Be Criticized (What to Expect, Strategies Towards Coping) *NEW*
A note before I begin: I will be using the word ‘army’ but certainly everything I go over is applicable to any branch of the armed services. Also this is geared mostly towards historical fiction, thus ‘he’ is used for the character but again, any of these tips apply to women, and also apply to modern, science fiction, or fantasy settings.
0. Prologue: Why are you writing this?
So, you’re writing a war story. Maybe it’s a real life, real war story based on family history, or something that interests you. Maybe it’s fantasy or sci-fi and set in another world completely apart from our own. But no matter where it’s set or when or who your characters are, the biggest question you need to answer is this: Why are you writing a war?
It’s a fair question to ask. If you really want to have a realistic story, you want to have a realistic perspective on what war is and why it comes about, as well as why you want it in your story. The war must be necessary to your story, not ancillary, and it must be, above all else, true. War is never, ever something to take lightly, and it is never, ever something fun.
This is not going to be a tutorial on writing fight scenes, nor is it going to talk about anything at all like a video game. I’m writing this for one reason and one reason only: to help you make true to life stories about the worst thing that humans ever do to each other.
I. How to do Research
Over the course of my amateur historian’s career I find that this is simultaneously the most boring and most horrifying part of the entire war-story process, only because research can be mean hours and hours of tedium, but it is also frequently punctuated by very gruesome things. In my opinion, if you’re doing this part right, you’re going to find things that disturb you. It might take hours of pouring over battle maps and weapons specs to find that one picture that jumps out and turns your stomach, but it will happen. Just be prepared for it.
Everyone knows how to research to some degree, but not necessarily what to research and when it comes to wars. There’s such a breadth of information available that it can become overwhelming to even think about where to dig in. So let us begin by listing key basics you will want to have a notebook filled with before you start your story: (note that if you are writing fantasy or sci-fi you’ll get the fun/headache of writing all this from scratch yourself!)
1. Basics of the War/Your Army: When did it happen? Where did it happen? Know the factors leading to it, key players of it, and what the results of it were.
Then specifically, you want to know where your army participated. This one can turn out to be hard if you are doing anything that pre-dates the turn of the 20th century, but it’s necessary. It doesn’t do well to put your characters in places they could not have been. Please make a note here: Army structure differs a lot from time period to time period and country to country. Do not use a ‘popular’ military structure (ie, modern American), as a template for your entire army. Please, please look up the specifics.
However, that being said, for infantries you can generally rely on this across the boards for structure: (and thanks to *tuomaskoivurinne for putting it so succinctly)
Individual - Squad - (Half-Platoon) - Platoon - Company - Battalion - Regiment - (Brigade) - Division - Army Corps – Army
Usually (and I emphasize usually), the Company is the basic "unit" for the fighting man.
His Squad is where his mates are.
His Platoon is like a big family and they have a job to do.
His Company has an objective and he knows a guy from another Company.
He has heard about this one guy in another Battalion who did something.
2. Daily Routine for Soldiers: With modern wars, there is a lot of documentation on this. I will get into this concept more later, but it’s a huge misnomer to think that war is mostly combat. It isn’t, it’s mostly really boring because it involves a lot of waiting, and a lot of drills. So figure out what your specific people did on their time off.
3. Crime & Punishment: You can go light on this unless you really think someone is going get in trouble, but you should know what general ‘light punishment’ is for missing duty/being a sassmouth/etc is versus “you really effed this up and now you’re gonna get it.” Even if you don’t think someone is going to get in trouble, officers do love to threaten people with anything from extra KP to Field Punishment Number 1.
We will explore this more later, under ‘vulgarity’ in part two, but also do not try to modernize punishments in historical contexts. Maybe now a drill sergeant can’t touch a cadet, but they sure as hell could in 1918.
4. Know the major battles, the basic tactics, and the results of these. And that means all. Soldiers will talk about battles even if they were not in them, and major battles, even if they are far away, often have bearings on the smaller ones. Successful tactics that were new in one battle will come around and show up again in the next. So be aware of when things happen and what develops as a result of them.
5. Know what kind of communications service was available. During WWI for instance, there wasn’t even much in the way of commercial radio, but some companies had one to use for war time purposes. Especially if you are writing a home-front story, you should know who is in charge of media flow. Even if in WWII people had radios and newspapers, they were usually censored before being released, and there was no Wikileaks out there to tell anyone otherwise.
6. Understand the basic workings of hospitals, both field and behind the lines – this means learning what medical technology was available as well, which can actually be pretty interesting, or pretty heart wrenching. You should be aware if there are any diseases on the loose at the time period and what areas they are affecting.
7. Get to know what kind of transport systems were in place, and their frequency in the field.
8. Slang: As far as slang, I don’t feel there is any need to look up a slang list and use it as a thesaurus; this almost always sounds stilted. My advice instead is just to read books and letters from the time period and you’ll get a good idea of what people sounded like. Read from multiple sources, and you’ll start to see patterns forming of how people spoke. Newspapers and radio casts are great if they were available for your chosen time and place.
What to read: Primary sources, biographies, letters, period fiction. If you’re going to read anything written by a second party or a text book check the references first. Know the bias of the information the intention of the person writing it. War tends to breed politics and opinion by outside sources, neither of which truly belong in a war novel unless the book is specifically about those two things. So just be careful, know the facts, form your own opinion, and then report the truth as you see it from all sides. (more on this in part five).
II. Creating a Soldier
Soldiers are people. Soldiers are not robots. They are going to act at times somewhat exaggerated because they’re in extreme circumstances, and trauma either brings out the best or the worst in us. But they’re not Rambo and they’re not the Terminator and they’re generally not insane, trench-knife wielding psychopaths, either.
Ever notice that people are one way when they’re single and then can drastically change when with a significant other, especially if that S.O. is present in the room? Each person has 1,000 aspects, and generally they will reserve a handful apiece for certain atmospheres. You’re not the same with your family as you are with your friends. The big thing is to create the base ‘self’ and the ‘military self’. How are they different? What is across the boards and what do they hide from each side of their life?
1. First let’s start with home and early years. Think of your character. Who were their parents? Were any family members in the military? Does their family value the military? Were they raised city or country, working class or upper class? Do they have a university education? What are their social and political values? Their hobbies? Their religion? Please remember your time period and what values your average person might have. I will use the example of World War One because that’s I’m most familiar with. It’s unlikely I’m going to have a black character with a lot of white friends, or a gay character with a lot of loving, encouraging supporters of his lifestyle during this time period. It’s terrible, but it’s true.
Your assignment at this point is to write down a summary of this character from before he became a soldier. Do it as a piece of flash fiction or just a character study. To do this you might want to be aware of the politics of the time period, know who your character votes for in political elections, and if he (or she) is under any peer pressure from his community to believe a certain way. Keep this sheet. Refer to it later. It will all be important, I assure you.
2. Now on to their military life. What was their reason for joining? Was it money, prestige, pressure from others, or maybe conscription? How does this person react to authority? Did they join before the war? If so, did they expect a war? What are their prior weapons experiences? Then, figure out their outlook on death, killing, and how does religion fit into it for them?
Also, what part of the army are they in? They could be regular infantry, maybe medical, engineer, administration, etc. They will have wildly different experiences in combat depending on where the army ends up placing them.
Once you have the split-self established, you get to see how this character interacts in each environment. Do yourself a favor, write two shorts, 500words minimum; one with your character(or characters) at home, away from the military but after their commission/enlistment. Figure out what they are hiding from their civilian friends and family. Figure out what they’re letting show. Then write a second short of your character(s) in the field or if they have not deployed, on base. How are they different? What do they do that they wouldn’t talk about or do at home? Anything they’re deliberately hiding? If you have several military characters that are close, you might want to explore how their relationship is different in each setting.
3. Now let’s talk about the very difficult part of writing war and soldiers: aftermath and trauma. Here is the toughest part of the whole journey. This is really where you need to be reading first hand accounts of the soldiers themselves that served in your war as well as those of doctors, family members, policemen, etc who saw them after the whole thing was done. People react to trauma in different ways. The best I can say about this is that the human psyche is a very fragile but resilient animal; it can be broken but it also can grow back, even on its own. Humans are survivors, and they can survivor much more than they think they can. But everyone has a breaking point.
You will need to decide who is going to survive your story, and you’re going to need to stick to it. Remember that surviving is an arguable term, as well. Shrapnel isn’t the only thing out there than can hurt a person, and even someone with all limbs intact can still come back a walking dead man.
Something I have encountered over my life, which has been liberally peppered by veterans, is that there is always a divide when a soldier returns home from combat, where he or she no longer feels fully attached to the mundane world. This can be subtle, it can be very apparent, and it can fade, or it can become insurmountable. It all usually depended on what had happened to that person, what they were like prior to the traumatic event, and what kind of support system they had to return to.
Remember that not all soldiers have someone to return to.
4. Vulgarity in War
The simplest way to put this: Vulgarity happens in history. Soldiers swear. Ugly, nasty things can happen between the men. Depending on your time period, racism is probably present. Rape might be present. Don’t shy away from these things because they are horrible to us now.
The biggest issues I see with people who do historical Mil Fic is that they feel ashamed to research or show what really may have happened in a given time period. There are a lot of very terrible subjects that become intrinsically tied to war, and sometimes it’s important to know they are there, even if you don’t care to show them.
Remember that throughout most of history: Soldiers went to brothels. Prostitutes had abortions. There was segregation of all kinds of people for their skin color. Until more or less the 20th century, homosexuality was a crime that warranted imprisonment and sometimes death, especially in a military setting. Men suffered psychological breaks, so war involves a lot of deviance, mental illness, and strange acts that people in normal circumstances might not commit. Rape was often common. Field punishments and circumventing the law happened, too. These are things that really cannot be avoided in a war, even if the war is set in a fantasy world.
Why does it happen? Because when people are angry or scared they want vengeance, they need comfort, and often times they are so broken or so wound up that they’ll seek it in self-destructive or harmful ways without meaning to. And some people didn’t seek it, some controlled themselves, thus, realizing the vulgarity of the war, of the time period, is not always negative, but sometimes a testament to those people who suffered from it, with it, or rose above it. Sometimes it’s simply an explanation of why a good man can do a bad thing.
But you really shouldn’t ignore it, no matter how frightening or politically charged it might get (more on that in Section V).
Likewise, do not make vulgar what was not vulgar at the time; this mostly means do not demonize the enemy using hindsight. I can tell you now from the amount I’ve read that there were no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in a trench, just guys, all hungry, all tired, all surviving.
Be true, be true, be true. That’s the mantra to repeat.
III. The Narrative
1. The War is the Backdrop
The number one thing error I see in most military based fiction I read is that people often try to use the events of the war as the plot. It is not a plot. It’s a history. If people wanted to learn that they would look it up on Wikipedia (and I would cry inside. Please see part one about checking sources if you are so inclined to use Wikipedia.) The best war stories I ever read are not about dates and battles and who tactically did what; they are plain old stories, same as any other story, which happens to be set in a war. The war is important, of course, but it is incidental. Your narrative is going to become sharpened and enhanced, and your character brought to extremes because of the war, but you should have character and a plot that lies on top of that.
Example: Boy meets girl. Oldest plot in the book. Look how it changes when one or both are in the war. But it shouldn’t change their inherent development; maybe accelerate it, maybe make it more desperate, maybe it makes them more noble or more monstrous or noble and monstrous in pockets. But it is a plot on its own.
If you really need help thinking of something more specific, try to think of something out of place. War is like travel – things never go as planned. Something outside the plan is going to happen, the madness of the men, a strange sight on the battle field, a letter from home, an incident on leave. Don’t limit yourself, and remember that information coming in from the outside is limited and strange in and of itself. It’s ripe for misinformation and misunderstandings
2. The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell, folklorist and general genius, came up with the idea that all stories are conceptually the same: you have a person who starts out small, and goes on a journey to another world. This can be literal (Narnia) or it can be figurative (say, the war). He will be helped by a certain group of people, fight an enemy, probably fight and destroy part of himself, and then will suffer a real or metaphorical death and rebirth. Then he will return to the world from whence he came. But he always has one foot in the otherworld, one foot in the real world, never to truly fit in either. That pretty much sums up my personal experience with soldiers, especially those that have seen combat.
I think one of the best war stories I’ve read is I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant. It’s about 95 pages long but it only drops you in the war for about 5 of those. Mostly it is about the development of a young boy from civilian to soldier and how that affects the people in his family and his lovely contentious objector girlfriend. Then we get another 10 pages at the end of how he changed after what he experienced. You start out with total integration to the cause, a few broad but very effective strokes which paint World War II for you, and then you see his lack of integration back into the society he’s come from. The war was always present and permeated everything, but it did a very good job of showing the main character’s transition into the war and out of it again, and an excellent job of how they changed. And while we’re speaking on transitions, this links in nicely to my third narrative point…
3. War is mostly Boring, and Everybody’s Tired
Of course it is also punctuated by short periods of extreme carnage, but most of war is sitting around and waiting, and the waiting is often horrible. Troops in battle do not like having time to think, because when they do they often reflect on what’s happening to them, and also how on earth they’re going to vocalize that metamorphosis in their letters home (often, they don’t). They also don’t like sitting around thinking about what could possibly happen in the future to them, or playing the same game of cards over and over for hours on end. War is a lot of waiting. This is a good place in your narrative to start exploring your character’s own personal Hero’s Journey.
Leave is sometimes awkward because it’s so temporary and soldiers in the middle of a combat tour often have trouble relating to the civilians they meet in town, but you will have to determine the degree of that awkwardness based on the war you’re looking at, the specific rank and corps of your soldier (for instance a supply officer is probably going to do a lot better than an infantry man just off the line, no?), and also the culture of the area they are taking leave in.
In addition, war is flippin’ exhausting. These poor grunts are usually carrying half their bodyweight in supplies like turtles, and marching miles and miles to get to their destinations. They don’t sleep, they eat like crap, and their feet constantly hurt. Add that into the constant waiting for their 30 minutes of Hell and probable death, and you get a pretty good idea of what war is like.
All Quiet On The Western Front is probably hands down the most beautiful, effective, and concise example of both of these points. It handles the downtime of trench warfare with such grace it’s almost painful to read sometimes. I think reading that book twice will teach you more than any tutorial ever will.
IV. The ‘Do Nots’ of War Fiction
1. On Weapons
Do not, please, for the love of all that is good, put weapons specs into your story. Yes you definitely need to know what weapons you soldier is using. If you don’t know the difference between a Mauser and a javelin, as George Carlin puts it, no one will take you seriously. And if you’re going to ever add in any description of a gun, you best well know if it loads from the breech or the muzzle. But, that being said, name dropping and stilted dialogue or narrative detailing the type of weaponry being used kills your flow and it bores the ever loving daylights out of your reader. I will give you an example of why:
In the unabridged version of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables, there is a scene at a barricade where several students (who at this point have attempted to start an uprising), are hiding behind the parapet while the National Guard sprays musketballs and cannon shot over their heads. At this juncture, instead of oh, say, crapping his pants or perhaps praying for his life, Combferre takes it upon himself to give everyone within shouting distance a lecture on the type of cannon being used, a short history of it, its trajectory and how far in meters it’s capable of firing, thus proving it cannot hurt them. Well, Combferre, everyone already knows it can’t reach them, as they haven’t been blown up, and it’s also not realistic at all to take the reader on a two page diatribe about the cannon when the character is in the middle of a combat scene. Remember, if Victor Hugo can’t pull that off, no one can.
2. Beware of Soldier-Sue
Let me tell you what, in my experience, soldiers are:
Soldiers are normal people put sometimes into extreme circumstances. They experience the same things everyone else does, sometimes more intensely, such as going away from home for the first time, appreciating things while you have them, love, hate, fear, etc. Combat vets are mentally worse for the war because of the violence they see, they are often left questioning morality, but they are not often psychopathic as a result. Extreme mental snaps do happen occasionally, but that really isn’t the norm. More than anything else, they are people with whole lives built around them that have nothing to do with the military, and the same loved ones, friends, churches, and hobbies as the rest of us.
So let me tell you what soldiers are not:
- Deranged Sociopaths (I suppose they could be, but again, they were probably a sociopath beforehand). This especially goes for enemy soldiers in combat. The enemy is never a horde of baby-frying, kitten-slitting maniacs that everyone feels ok about killing. They’re people and they believe what they’re doing is right or necessary as much as your character does. Again, please read All Quiet for this point alone.
(The exception to this is, of course, for scifi/fantasy where the enemy really IS a horde of baby-frying, kitten-slitting maniacs.)
- Rambo. Soldiers are you and me and the guy that lives down the street, the baker, whatever. While they are trained professionals who are better at their jobs than the average Joe, they are generally not super-humans who can take down half a platoon on their own in hand to hand combat. There will always be some professional level soldiers, they go on to become special ops guys, but they still are not able to single handedly eliminate a roomful of enemies on their own. And in fact writing this kind of super soldier is in a way a slap in the face to real soldiers who fought and will never live up to the fictional expectation.
- A Dark Knight Who Only Love Can Heal. Seriously, love of a pretty girl or guy does not erase the effects of PTSD. This is the one that personally bothers me a lot, as I have had multiple people in my life who have suffered because of combat experiences, and trust me, love helps, patience can move life along, but there is nothing an outsider can do to completely erase the effects of that level of trauma.
If you would like to know more traps and pitfalls about Soldier Sues, I suggest going to www.tvtropes.org and browsing their selection.
Now. How to avoid Soldier Sue?
- Read memoirs. Talk to real soldiers. I really, really recommend that if you’re serious about writing any kind of military fiction. They can give you a pretty accurate representation of what goes one.
- Also, learn the rules of your military’s time period and ranking system and don’t let your character break those rules without 1. damn good reason and 2. serious consequences happening because of it.
- Conversely, if your soldier is in a position of power, remember that armies work best when they are working together, so your authority figure had better do something to win the love and trust of the men and/or women working under them.
3. How to Lose a Reader in 10 Seconds
There are three ways that I often see a military fiction work lose reader interest faster than you can say hot potato: writing lists of dry, boring weapons or tactics related material with no character interaction (see number 1 of this section), overwrought carnage and destruction, and continual battle scenes. Let’s take a quick look at how to avoid 2 &3.
a. Too Much Blood.
When you’re watching a horror movie, what’s more effective in scaring you: buckets of blood and animatronic monsters bellowing at the screen, or the single shadow on the wall that you can’t quite make out, just beyond the doorway? The most important thing to remember when conveying horror, sadness, or the reality of a situation as devastating as a war, is that less truly is more.
This is because the human imagination is a fear factory. It creates all kinds of scenarios if you give it minimal (but horrible) information, and the suspense, the uncertainty, and the range of terrifying possibilities combine to make whatever is in the reader’s mind far, far worse than if you put all the gory details down on the page. A few well placed adjectives, or a stark line punctuating the end of a paragraph is often more stomach wrenching than a 2 page scene describing how much blood or entrails are lying around on the battlefield.
My suggestion is that if you have this problem, whatever you write go back and pare out 50% of the gore related sentences that are either repetitive, or explaining something that could easily be assumed by common sense, and see how your scene lays after that.
b. The All Battle Channel Syndrome
Certainly battles are the most exciting parts of a war, in the literal sense of the word, but they are far from the only parts. If you are writing too many battle scenes you will run into two problems: first off, there will not be enough time for character development or reflection while the bullets are flying, and also, you’ll run out of ways to describe a battle originally and you’ll end up repeating yourself.
The easiest way to fix the second problem is to write it all and then edit out and repeated or unnecessary scenes later, when you have time to make a list of all the scenes and the language you use in them.
As for the first issue, your readers need the battle scenes to make the war real, but remember from Section III of this guide, the War should not be the Plot. People are primarily interested in other people; what they want to know most is how your characters will react to the events they have just suffered and witnessed. Thus, it is very important to allow your characters downtime, as a real army would allow it’s soldiers downtime after battle to recover mentally as well as physically.
V. Politics in Your Story
1. Polemics Is Interested in You
This is my trickiest point: your war story is going to involve politics. Try as you might, it will on some level become polemic, and have to make some kind of commentary on the society or the military at large which you have written about. Maybe that is what you want, maybe it isn’t, but you have two main choices:
First is to try to stay as neutral as possible. No one who knows anything about war wants to support that kind of mass violence, but also no one wants to say that they don’t support the individual soldiers fighting it. After all, they are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and friends. So the safest route is to go the anti-war, pro-soldier way, and this will make a very good story. Someone will probably still be offended, but someone is always going to be offended by your story.
Second is to go the purposefully political route. If you want to do this you really must know what you’re talking about. Get thorough. Really look into what is happening with the political atmosphere and think about what you want to criticize and why. If you take this route you’re going to piss someone off and probably big time, because this is the route that usually lays blame. If you’re going to lay blame, make sure you can stand by it and do it without shame.
2. Modern Wars
I am going to issue a piece of advice, that comes out of personal experience: modern wars are not history, they are memory. I advise some extra caution if you decide you are going to write any war in modern memory. As I am now speaking from 2013, I am going to say that anything from the 1960’s forward is still memory for someone.
Memories are not to be toyed with. If we look at a case study like Vietnam, that is a highly charged, politically controversial conflict that had some severe impacts socially speaking for the people involved. If you want to write about something like this, realize that you might be bringing up something that many people still suffer nightmares about.
That isn’t a game.
While there is arguably an obligation to be true with any piece of historical fiction, I personally feel there is more of a moral imperative to be extremely detail and fact oriented with something that has recently occurred. As writers, our entire purpose is to reach out and touch someone with our ideas. We absolutely need to think about how we’re going to touch someone if we write about things that they still carry as heavy, lead pieces of guilt.
As well, as the publishing industry increases in might, so does the sheer volume of books on the market. Many ‘Nam vets are already writing about their experiences. When we write books about Mil Fiction, who are we writing for but for the soldiers, to explain, to talk about them, to remember the experience. If there are people with the actual memories already doing it, writing a work about a modern conflict is going to force you to walk one of the most highly charged lines in fiction writing.
And so we must be careful. The worst thing that can happen is that a Mil Fic writer doesn’t realize a work is polemic (when it inevitably is), or when not enough research has gone into the story and it becomes polemic in a way that the writer did not want or anticipate.
Now to some extent, this will always happen, because someone out there is going to interpret your story in a way you don’t want, but this issue can be minimized by good research. While what color pencils were issued by the army in 1917 is a minor historical detail, other issues which are far touchier are going to be part and parcel to a war story. Such as: sex and prostitution, problems with religious identity or crises of faith, insubordination, types of punishment, extent of violence, commentary made from the outside on the goings on of the war, and decisions on tactics (See Part IV, Vulgarity in War). Make an error in one of these (and many other) broader aspects of a Mil Fic story and you might accidentally create a controversy you were not at all invested in.
And then guess what’s going to happen…
VI. People Are Going To Criticize You
This happens with any work of art. People love to take it apart and criticize it, believe in it, take it too much to heart, or idolize it. All of these things, in all shades of mild to extreme, can and will happen once your work becomes public. Especially if you are publishing on the internet, remember that it’s not only public, but instantly public to millions of people, and you have essentially shouted your story into a crowded theater from the stage. Expect feedback, good or bad, because it’s coming for you.
1. Negative Feedback You Should Expect
a. The Constructive Critique.
What it looks like: ”Here is what I liked. Here is what I think needs work. This part confused me. If I were you, I’d do this. If I may make a suggestion.”
This kind of critique can smart when it hits you, but even if the language sounds presumptuous or condescending, remember that tone is hard to interpret via text, and this person is probably trying to help. A good critiquer will give you a compliment sandwich with some useful crit in the meaty part. A bad critiquer will have their heart in the right place but might stumble in the execution. But check out their page if they have one, review some of their work, and then decide if you want to take their advice. It’s always up to you anyway. The best thing you can do with this person is thank them.
In that vein, if you run up against someone clearly knowledgeable, it’s ok to admit someone knows more than you on the subject. Don’t get upset with this person, send them gourmet chocolates and make very good friends with them, because walking encyclopedias are hard to find.
There will also always be Historical Nit-Pickers. These are people who are so immersed in the time period that they know everything even down to details in fashion trends and what color bibles were bound in. Again, even if this kind of critiquer corrects you, and they might be very brusque, the info is probably still good. You should always cross reference their information and always ask their source but I don’t suggest you do so in any way other than very politely.
b. The Completely Not Constructive Feedback
You wrote a war story. But! Someone is offended.
It’s going to happen, probably multiple times. Someone is going to hate the way you portrayed an army, or a type of situation, they think you got the history or the battle wrong, or maybe you wrote about sex or heroin abuse or something of questionable morality like an abortion, a draft, drinking, swearing, the list goes on.
The difference between negative feedback and truly bad feedback is the execution. Bad feedback is not trying to help you, it’s trying to tear you down, call you stupid, shame you, beat you, show you that the critiquer is better/more knowledgeable, and force you to explain yourself.
You do not have any obligation to respond to anyone who cannot speak to you civilly.
But likewise if you put something controversial in your story know why you did it. Know your own motives, deeply, and soundly. Because the way to combat someone who is so angry and offended over what you wrote that they are willing to send a barrage of malice at you, is to know in your heart that you did something you are proud of and that you stand by, because it was for a good reason. Hold onto that, even when someone says something that hurts you. Let it protect you. At the end of the day, you wrote this piece for yourself and for your personal set of ideal readers, and if you know you did it right, leave it at that.
So now we’re at the end and it’s time for you to go out and write your story. Do it well. Tell everyone what you know about the best and the worst people can become and what they go through. Also, if you’ve read this far, tell me, too. I always love reading war fiction, and I’ll be more than happy to read yours.