Inspirations

This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.

Physical

There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.

Speech

What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins

Occupation

What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.

Inspirations

So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

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Flashbacks in Movies

In prose, flashbacks provide information not available in a story’s present, i.e. something a character experienced that can help a reader understand why the character behaves the way he does in the story’s present. Or they can be the entire story as an older narrator remembers an earlier time and experiences, or a specific person. The first novel that comes to mind that uses an extended flashback is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. An adult Scout (Louise) tells the story about the events leading up to her brother Jem breaking his arm. When a story focuses on a present, however, inserting flashbacks into it can slow down the momentum which is not really a good thing.

Recently, I once again encountered flashbacks in movies. They are used for the same reasons as in prose and in much the same way. As a storytelling device, it limits the point of view to the character who is remembering the flashback events.  This is usually signaled to the viewer by the camera zooming in slowly on the character’s face as he or she thinks back. As in prose, there is a “rule” that the contents of the flashback must be what the remembering character experienced him or herself. Filmmakers try to fudge this and it’s one of my pet peeves about flashbacks in movies.

For example: I recently finally saw the 2017 movie Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince. I was excited to finally see this movie! Not that I’m a huge fan of comic book characters, but I grew up with Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and I’ve always thought of this character as being strong and intelligent, a rarity to see on television at the time. The movie began with Diana Prince arriving at the Louvre in present day Paris, accepting the delivery of a photograph showing her and a motley crew. The voice over sets us up for her memory of how that photograph came to be and we are in an extended flashback.

The photograph Diana Prince looks at that starts her memory

My memory-checking antenna activated and at first it looked as if this movie would not fall prey to the most common mistake filmmakers make when using flashback to tell a story, i.e. slipping into the omniscient point of view of the camera and showing scenes that the person remembering were not in or could not have known about.  Then the first, albeit brief, moment occurred when the Amazon Queen and her sister are talking but Diana is not present. She does come up behind them a moment later. OK. The story continued from Diana’s point of view, with one detour into Steve Trevor’s point of view when he’s telling her about infiltrating the arms factory in Turkey and stealing the evil chemist’s notebook. Fine. After that, however, there are at least two scenes that involved Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in which Diana was not present and neither was Steve Trevor. Diana could not have remembered those scenes nor does either Ludendorff or Dr. Maru describe them to her so she could remember them. What a disappointment! I enjoyed the movie up to a point — I was also a little confused as to why Steve Trevor had to fly the plane full of the poison gas bombs if he’d had faith that Diana would defeat Ares and the fighting would stop.  It wouldn’t have been necessary for him to blow up that plane. Ah, well.

The most egregious example of misusing extended flashback in a movie, though, is Saving Private Ryan, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. At the very beginning of that movie, we see old guys walking through a cemetery near the coast of France — one of the D-Day cemeteries. One old guy crouches down in front of one headstone, the camera zooms in on his face, and we are taken back in his memory. We don’t know yet who this old guy is, so my assumption was that it was Captain Miller played by Tom Hanks. Especially since we then see a series of scenes that lead up to the famous D-Day sequence that seem to be from his experience. I watched the entire movie thinking that it was an extended flashback of Captain Miller’s experience of finding Private Ryan to return him home. Until it suddenly could not have been his experience anymore, which left me wondering who the old guy in the cemetery was. And we do find out at the end of the movie — it was Private Ryan. Shock. How could that extended flashback have been Ryan when he’s not present at all in the story until three-quarters of the way through the movie when Captain Miller’s platoon finds him? I was actually pretty outraged by what Spielberg and his screenwriter had done in the way they told this movie, and thought Spielberg should have known better. But the really sad part is that very few people who have seen that movie realized that the flashback could not have been Ryan’s memory.

So whether you’re writing prose or a screenplay, be careful with flashbacks!

 

Sharpen Focus

Image from Pixelstalk.net

Happy New Year to all my loyal readers and followers!  We have finally left 2017 behind and begun a new year full of promise and the unknown. I don’t know about you, but since January 1, I’ve felt bombarded with everything but what I want to be bombarded by, i.e. ideas for stories and ideas for solving problems with the stories I have already going. The actual bombardment has been about current events, dealing with a new job search, trying to figure out what I’ll do for medical insurance going forward, getting caught up with the piles of things to do that I’ve put on my living room floor (like filing), and then dealing with what I hope will turn into a minor rather than major health crisis.  When do I get to write?

As any professional writer knows, the push-pull of making money vs. making art is constant. Bills need to be paid, food bought, chores done. I am happiest when I am writing, but I am also easily distracted when I know that a job needs to be found to pay the bills or the bathroom has just gotten disgusting and needs to be cleaned. I don’t know how many times in my writing life I have wished for someone to come in and take care of cleaning, cooking, laundry, bills, etc. so I could concentrate on my writing which makes me the happiest. The reality of life in America in 2018, however, is that being happy isn’t what pays the bills, being responsible is.

So as this new year begins, I find myself once again re-examining my life and how I’m structuring my days. I want to sharpen my focus on writing in order to get as much writing done as possible before I return to a fulltime job. At the same time, I need to conduct a productive job search. I can say that this past week in that regard I have accomplished what I wanted to accomplish and I applied for three jobs. But I’ve only been able to work a little on the Aanora story. The job search really ate up a lot of time. Working on my writing needs to be in the same category as the job search because if I can finish more stories and get them out to paying markets, maybe I could also earn some money. Writing is as much a job for me as working in an office for someone else. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

It’s tough, and I am not alone in this. What surprises me is that this frustration keeps popping up. It affects every area of my life, and can make me depressed. And this frustration feeds into my envy of writers or other artists who have produced a lot and I am still struggling to produce a couple short stories and my second novel. I remind myself that every writer is different. Just as every person is different. Each has his or her own challenges in getting their writing done. Finding the way to overcome those challenges is unique to each writer. I just haven’t yet found the way to overcome my current challenges. What I am thinking about now is that the job search and the writing, of equal top priority, need to split my time 50-50. I’ll figure this out…..

What are your challenges as a writer in getting writing done and how do you overcome them, or not?  How do you “remain calm and carry on” when frustration threatens to consume you?  Any tips, suggestions or sharing will be welcome and appreciated!

 

End of Year Writing Update

MC Escher: Paradox of being a writer

My writing year 2017 began with a successful essay for ClassicalMPR.org of an interview of one of the young composers participating in the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute and Future Classics concert. It was a great way to start the year.  I wish that momentum had continued.  Last August, I wrote a short update about my writing this year, but it’s been a year since my last full update. Rather than skip writing because of the holiday this week, I thought I’d do my annual end-of-the-year update/review today and take off next weekend for New Year’s. My next post will be in 2018!

Non-writing Employment: Working for others affected my writing this year far more than I’d anticipated or wanted. The first three months of the year, I continued to work part-time at the customer service job and receptionist position. At the same time, I continued to search for a fulltime job as my bank account dictated. In March, I accepted a fulltime position with a financial services company as their front desk receptionist. After beginning that job in April, it took me about three months to get used to the new work schedule. I wasn’t able to do any writing, but at least I did a lot of reading on my daily commutes. That position lasted until about two weeks ago, and now I’m back to searching for another fulltime job. My financial situation has now become especially precarious.  Although I’ve applied for unemployment insurance benefits, what I’ll receive barely covers rent. I’ll be working even harder, when not working on the job search, at selling my possessions as well as promoting my writing.

Perceval Novels:
If you have not yet bought your copy of Perceval’s Secret (only $2.99!), please do, and give it a read.  It’s available at Amazon and B&N.com. The reviews continue to be good to excellent!  I’d love to hear from readers through reviews at Amazon and B&N, or at Goodreads. And I could sure use the money!

I’m planning a couple promotions in the first quarter of 2018.  The first will probably be at GoodReads — a giveaway, if that’s possible for e-books. The second will be through BookBub. Please feel free to take advantage of these promotions, or encourage friends and family to take advantage of them.

As for the other novels in the series, all my files for Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the series, remain piled on my desk awaiting my attention. To be honest, I have not had much time to think about the Perceval series in 2017 except for handing out postcards for Perceval’s Secret to anyone interested and talking about that novel a lot.

Marketing: Marketing and promo for Perceval’s Secret this past year was catch as catch can.  It will receive more time from me in the weeks to come. I did talk more about the novel and hand out the postcards for it more often.  As I mentioned above, I plan to run a couple promotions in the first quarter of 2018. Still need to utilize the marketing tools at GoodReads, LinkedIn and Publishers Marketplace.  I continue to promote the novel on Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve been writing more posts at the Perceval Novels Facebook page, too.  Please go and like it, and visit often for updates on the novels.

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006

New Novel Project: This project landed on the back burner this past year. I still plan to transform my original screenplay, Over the Rainbow, into a novel. While cleaning out some computer files yesterday, I opened the last draft of the script and read some random scenes, a bit surprised by how much I’d forgotten. I love the story, the main character, and the potential of it, so I hope to be able to work on it soon.

GoFundMe Project: What a crazy failure this was! I launched the GoFundMe fundraising page last March. I’d hoped to raise the money to pay off all my debt, especially the credit card debt.  I raised about $600.  I must give heartfelt thanks to all those who did contribute to the project, and I will be posting their names on my Appreciation Page on this blog soon.  During one promotion for the project, one person won the prize of having a character named after him in one of the last two Perceval series novels.  That will be fun for me too! I continue to very slowly pay off the credit card debt I’d been carrying from production, publication, and marketing expenses that I incurred to publish Perceval’s Secret as an e-book.  I won’t be able to even think about doing a paperback until the debt is paid off.

Short Stories: In July, I completed the first draft of my science fiction short story, Light the Way.  Then another interesting character, Aanora, entered my life, and I began writing her story.  It was slow going since I’ve only been able to write on weekends, but perhaps I can finish the first draft of this story in the next month or so. For 2018, I plan to continue to work more on short stories to get more of my writing out there for people to read.

Blogs: I continue to write posts at the Eyes on Life blog (as Gina Hunter) and here at Anatomy of Perceval.  My focus at the Gina Hunter blog has become a bit fluid: I continue to write “The Successful Patient” posts, but in addition I’m writing about the experience of being one of the Working Poor, so it’ll be about economics, money, working, etc. I also joined a blogfest called We are the World dedicated to spreading light in the online darkness, i.e. drawing attention to positive news about the love and compassion that human beings have for each other. Those posts appear on the last Friday (or Saturday) each month. I may also look into guest blogging, especially if they are paid gigs.

Essays/Paid Gigs: After the published interview/essay in January at ClassicalMPR.org, writing essays landed on the back burner. I plan to return to writing essays for ClassicalMPR.org (if they’ll have me) as well as research and investigate more markets for my essays.

Yager Editing Services: I closed this online business in May and took down the website.

Journal Writing: After an 18-month hiatus, I recently returned to my journal writing, although I’m taking a different approach to it than I have before.

The Successful Patient:
Nothing has changed on this project — still on the back burner.

Reading: I exceeded my 2017 Reading Challenge at GoodReads thanks to so much reading time on my daily commutes. Reading is an essential part of being a writer, and it’s been fun to read both wonderful and awful books this past year.  You can check out my reviews of them on GoodReads, and give me a holler while you’re there!

Right now, my life is one big Uncertainty.  Please keep your fingers crossed that I come through this time OK, and I don’t end up out on the street. While homelessness is an experience, it’s not one I want to have.  So, let’s hope I find that fulltime job that’s just waiting for me so I can return to my creative life.

Best wishes for a happy and healthful 2018!

Image from Pixelstalk.net

 

Heart-wrenching Music

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

During the holiday season of late November through December each year, I confess that I have a tendency to tune out Christmas music, i.e. Christmas carols that are played ad infinitum in public spaces. There is still some Christmas music, however, that has the power to move me. Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”) with its inherent stillness can give me goosebumps. I love it especially sung by a lyric tenor. Certain sections of Handel’s Messiah can also bring tears to my eyes. But that’s about it nowadays.  I don’t know if it’s just the constant repetition, year in and year out during the holidays, or the fact that I performed all the holiday songs when I was growing up, whether in choirs or in an orchestra. I now have a tendency to avoid Christmas music.

Thinking about Christmas music sent my mind wandering down the path of music that is emotionally moving. All music is emotionally moving in some way since music is emotion in sound. But I’m thinking of that music that has just the right vibrational frequency or whatever it is that will bring tears to my eyes. When I was writing advertising copy for arts organizations, I remember one Marketing Director talking about the phrases and words that he would not approve in ad copy for describing music: “heart-wrenching,” “tear your heart out,” and so on. He thought that these words and phrases described death more than life. But poetically speaking, music moves the heart, sometimes violently, in different ways.

Here is a list of music that I find especially moving to my heart (sometimes wrenching it, too) and that I never tire of hearing:

Prokofiev

Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto, Movement 2: This sweet, sublime melody played by the violin soloist over a pizzicato accompaniment always manages to take my breath away and concentrate my attention. There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire that I know of.  If you’d like to listen for yourself, it’s here, and the second movement begins at 11:00.

Bruckner

Bruckner Symphony No. 8: This magnificent symphony is a deeply emotional sound journey for me.  The first time I heard it was in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, and it was like sitting on a beach with waves of sound rolling over me. While Bruckner is known for big brass moments and loud passages, he also wrote some extraordinarily lyrical and poignant moments. If you’d like to listen to this symphony, here’s quite a good recording here. The conductor in this video is Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a renowned Bruckner conductor, who was also the Conductor Emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Bach Concerto for 2 Violins, Movement 2: I don’t think most people consider Bach when thinking about emotionally moving music, but he wrote some extraordinary music. This concerto is just one example, and the second movement is especially moving to me. In this recording, the second movement begins at 4:00. The two violins are like two voices intertwining.

Verdi’s Requiem: Verdi is best known as an opera composer, and this Requiem is operatic. To me, it is the best example of music capturing the stages of grief, with a Dies Irae that beautifully shows what anger sounds like.  For me, though, it’s the final movement that can leave me sobbing. This final movement was the last music performed at Princess Diana’s funeral service. You can listen to the final movement here.

Elgar

Elgar “Nimrod”: The British composer Edward Elgar is known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches and for his Enigma Variations in which he composed a series of variations on a theme that only he knew because he didn’t include it in the piece. Each variation is a musical portrait of a dear friend of Elgar’s. The “Nimrod” variation, often used in memorials especially for Brits, was written for Elgar’s friend Augustus Jaeger who supported and encouraged his music composition when Elgar, in depression, was in despair and thinking of giving it up.  Here’s a lovely performance of it.

Brahms First Piano Concerto: The pianist Rudolf Serkin once commented that Brahms’ music was all about memory.  I think of it as being about longing for something that can never be. This concerto begins with a tumultuous orchestral introduction as if Brahms was raging against something, but then it quiets.  The piano comes in with the most sublime music, I think, in all of the piano repertoire, and continues throughout this concerto.  The second movement is a perfect example of Brahms’ longing in his music.  I recommend listening to the entire concerto here.

Classical music is full of “heart-wrenching” music.  Perhaps you have your own list?