Before becoming a writer, Sean McFate didn’t have a desk job. Far from it, in fact. McFate spent years as a private military contractor and a paratrooper in the US Army, and racked up a lot of unusual professional experience that he has now channeled into his novel, Shadow War. While McFate’s novel is a work of fiction, he did learn a thing or two in these roles. Some of these lessons are surprisingly applicable to being a writer. Here, McFate shares with Bookish readers what his days as a soldier taught him about being a novelist.
1. Not everyone will like you, and that’s OK
I was a private military contractor—mercenary, to some—in Africa. People see that label and assume I suck marrow out of baby bones for fun. Yet much of what I did as a “private sector soldier” was similar to what I did while a paratrooper in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. I even did great things like demobilize ruthless warlords, raise armies that respected the rule of law, and prevent a genocide in the Burundi and Rwanda region. People assume uniformed soldiers are heroes while private military contractors are villains.
Curiously, this was great training for being an author. People won’t like your book based on prejudiced notions about your subject, who you are, the book cover art… really anything. Some people are prisoners of their own preconceptions, and that’s okay. You can’t change minds not open to change. Meanwhile, continue to do good work.
2. It’s a team effort
Whether you’re with an army platoon, mercenary outfit, or publishing house, remember that teamwork is key. It takes a lot of people to create a successful book: authors, agents, editors, independent book sellers, marketing specialists, publicists, accountants, lawyers, and so forth. Authors who alienate others just hurt themselves.
For example, General Stan McChrystal was greatest leader I served under. McChrystal was not a screamer but an encourager, who trusted and empowered you rather than berated and obliterated you. This fostered a “team of teams.” You wanted to perform for him, not because he ordered it but because you didn’t want to disappoint the team, and you wanted to make him proud. There’s magic in leadership.
3. “Suck it up, buttercup”
This is what my platoon sergeant used to tell me when I was a young paratrooper and complained when ordered to do some odious task, like deploying to Camp Nowhere for a month to live among the ticks and swamp creatures. Similarly, publishing is a no-whining zone. Your editor just chopped up your favorite lines? Get over it, your editor is making your book better. You’re not getting the publicity you deserve? Don’t blame the media; maybe you’re not doing enough. Writing is a tough business, we all know that. Whining doesn’t help.
4. Meet deadlines
The military turned the word “regiment” into a noun, verb, and adjective. They can be a little OCD, especially about being on time, but there is reason behind this obsession. Can you imagine D-Day with wishy-washy deadlines? It would be, in military parlance, a Charlie Foxtrot (clusterfuck). Showing up on time is the difference between victory and death.
One of my favorite authors growing up, Douglas Adams, famously said: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” While it’s easy to understand, don’t let it happen. It’s unfair to the team, and hurts the mission.
5. Have fun
Shadow War began as a memoir and ended as a novel. I struggled in the beginning. I was writing about a private military mission I led in Africa but was too constrained by a complex storyline, the threat of the US government arresting me for betraying secrets, getting in trouble with my former employer, and having a warlord or two come after me. This produced writer’s paralysis.
The solution? Fictionalize it and find a teammate. I was extremely lucky to work with Bret Witter, a versatile writer and gentle soul. Fiction allowed me to relax and write. I could have fun with the story, not worry about someone coming after me, and still convey the unusual challenges of life as a military contractor. This unshackled my imagination.
6. It’s more than money
Yes, yes, yes. I have heard all the jokes about mercenaries and money before (isn’t it all about the money for them?), but it’s not strictly true. For me, it was about freedom more than money. If you’re a soldier facing your fifth deployment to the Middle East, you have to go. You may not believe in the war’s mission, you may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), your kids may not recognize you, your spouse may be living with another, you may have serious financial troubles… nonetheless you still have to give up a year of your life for another deployment. Even if you survive your tour, you may come home to a ruined life. Suicide rates among veterans are tragically high.
As a contractor, you have the option of saying “no thanks.” You have the freedom to say, “I’m sitting this one out” or “I want to do this mission because I know it’s important.” Besides, the pay isn’t that great, despite the myths.
Writing is similar. It’s a calling, like the profession of men-at-arms. If your goal is wealth, then become an international banker. There are easier ways to make a buck. But then you’d never have a book to your name.
Sean McFate is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. He served as a paratrooper in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and then worked for a major private military corporation, where he ran operations similar to those in this book. He is the author of The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, and holds a BA from Brown University, a MA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.