Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

The last two weeks, my mind has been preoccupied with the science fiction short story I’m working on.  All sorts of problems so far and I’m not yet finished with the first draft.  The biggest problem was its structure.  I have to think about structure for a short story?  Sure.  Any story, no matter how long, needs a solid structure.  OK.  What is the structure of my science fiction short story?

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

I learned about structure when I studied screenwriting. In the class I took, we studied two structures: 3-Act Dramatic and Sequenced. The first is probably the most common story structure.  The second can actually be broken into 3 Acts  as well as standing on its own and isn’t as common.  The story I always think of for sequenced structure is the 1995 movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.  For a while I was thinking that maybe my sci fi short story was a sequenced narrative structure until my imagination finally handed me the solution to one of the other problems it had. Now I know that it’s a 3-Act Dramatic narrative structure.  So, what’s the difference between the two?

Sequenced  narrative structure begins at a relative low point in terms of plot and story. The reader is dropped into the story in media res or in the middle of action albeit not necessarily crucial action in which a character makes a defining decision or sets a specific goal to achieve. There is very little set-up or exposition. From there, the character(s) encounter one obstacle after another, one conflict after another, in escalating intensity until the climax and resolution.

In 3-Act Dramatic structure, there are three sections or acts weighted approximately as 1-2-1 or 25%-50%-25%.  The acts are defined as follows:

  1.  The Exposition Act or Set-Up: in the beginning there was the introduction of characters, setting, time, and the situation. There is a rising tension until the main character makes a decision or sets a goal to achieve, i.e. a turning point.  This is sometimes also described as the main character’s primary desire.  What does the main character want and what will he do to get it?
  2. The Conflict Act: in the middle is one conflict after another, one obstacle set in the main character’s way after another, one development after another.  In this act, the reader often finds out what the villain wants and what he’ll do to get it, working against the main character.  The difficulty of the obstacles/conflicts increases until at the end of this act, when the main character is in crisis — it looks like all is lost for the main character and he has no way of achieving what he wants.
  3. The Climax Act: at the beginning of this act, the main character learns something or realizes something from an accumulation of information/detail during Act 2 that gives him what he needs to    achieve his goal or not (the climax).  Then there can be a short “resolution” that ties up any loose ends or provides explanations.

Readers expect conflict in a story.  It can be a conflict of the main character vs. another character or group of characters; the main character vs. Nature; the main character vs. him or herself; or the main character vs. God (which is rare).  The first two conflicts are the most common. There can also be peripheral conflicts that function as obstacles.  But there must be conflict.

In my sci fi short story, I realized that I didn’t know what my main character wanted.  Then it hit me what she wanted, that she’d been actually telling me throughout what I’d already written and I just hadn’t been paying attention.  And then I felt that exquisite physical sensation of cascading tingling from head to toes that tells me YES! THAT’S IT!  Now I know that this story has a 3-Act Dramatic structure.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by




Writing vs. Talking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a new acquaintance asks me what I do, I proudly reply that I’m a writer of fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve published a novel as well as numerous essays both online and in print.  Sometimes, the new acquaintance wants to hear about what I’m currently writing — in detail. This new acquaintance looks so excited about hearing my story, what do I do?  Do I talk about my story before I have it down on paper?  Or do I respect the privacy of my characters and their story?  This new acquaintance could be a new fan/reader…..

Roz Morris at Nail Your Novel reminded me of this with her post “Vow of Silence: how much do you talk about your novel in progress?” She also has a policy of no talking.  I especially liked this quote: “Good writing needs a ruthless mindset; you include only what’s good for the book, not the pieces you like or the crowd-pleasers.”  That is, the crowd-pleasers that you’ve revealed to well-meaning people who’ve asked what your work-in-progress is about and then given you positive feedback about it.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107I currently have a series in progress.  The first novel, Perceval’s Secret, was published as an e-book in March 2014.  You can check it out here.  The second novel in the series, Perceval’s Shadow, is a completed first draft that I need to work on…a lot.  I’m not saying anything more about that book until I know that I’ve got all the meat on the bones, so to speak.  The third novel, Perceval in Love, is half-written, that is the first draft is half-written.  I know the outline and how it ends.  I just need to get it all down on paper.  For the fourth novel, I know the general outline of action, many of the new characters and who from the earlier books will participate in this story.  I know what Evan Quinn’s challenge is in this book.  But I haven’t written anything beyond notes and playing with character names.  For the final novel in the series, I also have a general idea of the action, the players, the locations, and especially the ending because the ending of this novel is also the Finale of the series.

You’ll notice that although this blog’s subject matter covers the Perceval novels, I haven’t really said much about any of the novels after the first.  I feel that if I talked about them, about anything regarding them, that it would siphon off the creative energy from the writing of them.  It’s like my imagination, my mind, is an aged oak barrel in which I’ve poured the ingredients for the story and the mixture needs to ferment, to age into the best possible form I can imagine it.  Talking about it is like poking a hole in that barrel.

It can be lonely.  Yes.  It can be isolating not to talk about writing, about my stories and characters.  But how else to honor my own creative process?  How else to respect it?

Gina's Eyes

So, I never talk about a work-in-progress.  I adhere to this policy until the first draft is done, and even then I rarely talk about it.  I do not even pitch agents or editors about a novel before I’m ready.  This policy grew out of my experience taking workshops and classes in the past and talking about being a writer rather than concentrating on writing.  It could be so easy to talk all the time and not actually write.  So, for all my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. who wonder why I am so tight-lipped, it has nothing to do with you.  It’s about being true to my creativity and my stories.

What do you do — talk or write?


Three paradoxes of writing life

I found this blog post from Roz Morris helpful and interesting, so I wanted to share it with my readers here. Do you agree or disagree with the paradoxes she identified? Are there more?

Nail Your Novel

MC Escher Paradox of being a writerYesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.

1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.

Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)

Certainly, some books…

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Ludwig Van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.  (Ludwig von Beethoven)

The last few weeks I’ve had Beethoven and his music on my mind.  I finally bought my own personal copy of the revered biography of the composer, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven.  Suddenly, it feels like I’m holding the totality of Beethoven’s life in my hands when I hold this book.  His life was no walk in the park, either.  He struggled with poverty, evictions, family, health issues and deafness.  And yet, he continued to compose music.  That makes me feel like a total wimp and whiner.  When I think of Beethoven’s music, the music that I return to over and over, I think of perseverance and defiance.  I think I could use a lot of both right now, as well as courage.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about classical music here, and Beethoven’s life and music are fertile territory for me.  So what pieces in Beethoven’s library am I drawn to right now to listen to as I work?  From what do I draw sustenance and comfort?  Wait, Beethoven’s music comforting?

Yes, comforting.  The “Archduke” Piano Trio, for example.  The first movement’s theme is a simple ascending line that lifts and soars.  Its major key gives the music a positive, confident sound.  Immersing myself in this music makes me feel good and comforts me.  Then I wonder how on earth Beethoven thought of that theme.  How do I come up with my ideas for stories?

I first listened to Beethoven’s symphonies when I was in high school.  My piano teacher loaned me her complete set on vinyl LPs for a summer.  I listened to them, one after the other in order, 1 through 9, over and over.  At the time, I didn’t have enough knowledge of music to put these symphonies in context or to understand how much of a destroyer of musical conventions Beethoven was.  With his symphonies, Beethoven moved away from me and stayed at a distance for many years.

Beethoven circa 1802 by Christian Horneman

Beethoven circa 1802 by Christian Horneman

I had learned about his deafness, about “The Heiligenstadt Testament,” and his alleged rage at the world. A musician going deaf? I could not comprehend his pain.  And had he really composed all that gorgeous music while deaf?

While the Ninth Symphony is an uncontested masterpiece, and its hope continues to astonish me, I prefer the Seventh Symphony’s Second Movement or the Third Symphony’s Marcia funebre.  The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in concert, I was in the Grosse Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, listening to the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Boehm.  It was at that moment of the opening notes that I laughed, and remembered how I’d always laughed at this dramatic theme.  It’s always sounded to me like Beethoven pounding his fist on a table…or a door, perhaps?  I still laugh at that theme.  I have no idea why, except that there is something irresistibly funny about it.

Beethoven’s music that I know the best involves the piano because I played the piano.  I performed his Piano Sonata No. 10 in G-major, Op. 14, No. 2, in the

Palais Kinsky Ballroom

Palais Kinsky Ballroom

Ballroom of the Palais Kinsky in Vienna where Beethoven had premiered many of his works, and studied most of the rest of his 32 piano sonatas.  I dreamed of playing the First and Fourth Piano Concertos.  It was through his piano music that I began to see glimpses of Beethoven’s good heart, his childlike personality.  Piano was his instrument, after all.  I spotted and enjoyed his jokes, his musical pranks, and the pure joy in the music.  Beethoven found tremendous joy in music.

He was not born deaf.  For the early part of his music career, he could hear just fine.  Then, he began to gradually lose his hearing.  It was an incredible challenge for him as a musician, but he continued to compose, refusing to be defeated by a physical restriction, even one so crucial to his life.  He had known music’s sound before and he held that sound within his imagination.  He persevered.  He defied what Fate had visited upon him.

I could not wish for a better role model as an artist and writer.


Fiction vs. Reality Sophie Chaisemartin/AP Sophie Chaisemartin/AP

My reaction to the terrorist attacks during the last few months has been horror, yes, but also something else.  There’s been a sense of unreality to it all, like the psychological trauma has begun to numb me from the reality in order to cope. The destruction of humans and self-destruction of humans have reached some sort of pinnacle. I’ve also thought, “Not again.

Then oddly, my writer mind wonders if a thriller writer somewhere is taking notes in order to make a terrorist attack in a novel more realistic.  A second later, I’m horrified at that thought. And yet….

There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction.

Vendela Vida wrote an essay about reality vs. fiction at entitled “Highly Unlikely.”  Vida’s musings about using her real experiences in her fiction reminded me of my “Write What You Know?” post here last month.  In that post, I wrote about not using personal experience or real people in fiction.  Vida wrote about using a specific experience in fiction and being told that it was improbable.  We want our fiction to be real but not surreal, to be probable, even though the reality it may be based on is totally bizarre.  Using reality as inspiration is something else, like using the terrorist attacks in some way for fiction.

One of my preoccupations is the effects of trauma on the human mind.  We are attentive to the effects of physical trauma, getting medical help for people who have been injured in an attack, accident or disaster.  But what about the effects of living through such trauma on the mind?  This is what has been on my mind as one terrorist attack after another has been occurring the last few months.  Those of us who see these attacks from a distance, on the TV, or read about them on the internet or in newspapers and news magazines, could become numb to their horror and pain.  The people who were in the middle of it, were injured or witnessed the violence up close, could become numb through dissociation, could develop PTSD.

Writers can explore the psychological effects of trauma through fiction.  I know because I have and continue to do so in the Perceval novels.  The character(s) with PTSD did not experience a terrorist attack, but another life-threatening trauma that created a profound sense of powerlessness and helplessness that was never recognized by the people surrounding them.  What happens to someone when psychological trauma is not treated?


And this is where it’s possible to stray into that “truth is stranger than fiction” territory that readers tend to label as improbable.  And yet, it’s necessary to ground a character’s PTSD behavior in reality, i.e. what has been observed and established as symptomatic of PTSD.  Someone suffering from it won’t always be aware of it, and in fact, a first step in treating it is to become aware of the behaviors, the emotional symptoms, and the psychological symptoms like dissociation.  Until the trauma and its emotional and psychological effects have been confronted and processed, the person will remain in a PTSD loop, getting triggered into flashbacks or dissociation.

How to write about all that plausibly?  By putting the character in a plausible situation that would trigger the PTSD.  Then by using specific details to capture the PTSD experience.  I asked someone who had experienced PTSD and the healing process to read Perceval’s Secret in order to double check that what I’d written was plausible.  It was a huge relief to hear that it was.  But I could have just as easily gone off the rails and exaggerated symptoms in order to make the PTSD point.  And that is a serious mistake — exaggeration.

As writers, we cannot escape reality, not if we want our readers to believe us.  The trick is to make certain that we don’t make our fiction stranger than reality.