Voice of The Other

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

As a writer, I explore the human condition and human behavior. People fascinate me. As I create a character, I ask myself a lot of questions — in fact, I have a list of questions that I go through several times until I feel in my bones that I’ve gotten a character right.  Each character tells me who he or she is, history, desires, goals, friends and family. I listen and write.  There are times when I feel as if I’m channeling a character.  I believe this is how it should be when writing fiction.

Last week at nytimes.com, I read interesting commentary in their “Bookends” feature from Anna Holmes and James Parker entitled “Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories?”  When a writer creates a character outside the writer’s own race, gender, sexual orientation, income, and heritage, is the writer operating with empathy or exploitation?  Anna Holmes writes: “…identity is part of experience, and that experience (or the absence of such) should not preclude anyone from telling other people’s stories.”  James Parker writes: “To the degree that you are using a person, a character, simply to propel your plot or give shape to your ideas, to that same degree you are denying this character his or her full reality — and your story will suffer accordingly. Where empathy stops, in other words, exploitation starts.”  Holmes and Parker agree that writing about The Other must be done with care and profound respect.

Writers cannot limit themselves in any way.  They must write about whoever shows up to tell his or her story.  But I do understand that some writers follow formulas, whether that is for the romance, mystery, or thriller genres, and write plot-driven stories rather than character-driven ones.  I think that plot-driven stories can fall prey to the exploitation of The Other rather than empathizing through The Others’ voices and experiences.  Character development can be minimal in plot-driven stories.

"Independence Day" movie poster 1996

“Independence Day” movie poster 1996

I believe that it’s also important for each writer to know himself enough to know and understand his prejudices and guard against them or purge them.  A writer’s prejudices can leak into a story in subtle ways, stealthy and damaging to the writing. Just this morning, I saw an ad on TV for a new Independence Day movie, a sequel to the first which came out on July 4, 1996.  I recall seeing that first movie and while I enjoyed the action, what bothered me the most was that it was so American-centric.  Do Americans really believe that if earth, i.e. the entire planet, is invaded by aliens that they’d focus their attack primarily on America and only Americans would be able to save the entire planet?  I noticed that same prejudice in the ad for the sequel.  (How movies and the arts reflect the prevailing societal beliefs and emotions is a subject for another post sometime.) As an American writer, do I also suffer from this prejudice? Every American writer, especially those writing science fiction, need to be aware of it and open themselves to other possibilities.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107When Evan Quinn arrived, before he’d revealed his name to me, I saw him conducting the empty Grosser Saal stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. At the time, I knew little about conductors and I didn’t want him to be a conductor.  When I decided that he’d be an auto mechanic, Evan invaded my night dreams, dressed in his white tie and tails, his expression angry, and he scared me.  After four nights of him scaring me awake, I relented.  Evan was an orchestra conductor and that was it.  I would just have to knuckle under and do the research such a main character required in order to make him authentic.  When writing a character that is The Other, it’s important to be open to that person’s experience and life, to do the research needed to insure authenticity, to put yourself as the writer in that character’s shoes.  No matter how long it takes or how difficult.  I think this is true for any writer of fiction no matter that writer’s race, gender, sexual orientation, income, or heritage.

I want to conclude with a lovely quote from Damyanti Biswas at Daily (W)rite:

“A live story is to be as true to the character as possible, as true to the emotion, the circumstance as I can, and to always, always suspend judgement. More than anything else, it is about being true to my body, the urge inside of it to bend towards writing. Indeed, it is to use all of my body to write, and to obliterate from the story its teller, to leave as few signs of the artist and the craft as possible, so that the story takes on a life of its own, independent of me.”

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Review of ‘Perceval’s Secret’

Nice review of the first novel in the Perceval series!

Charles Ray's Ramblings

Evan Quinn is an orchestra conductor who only wants to make music. Unfortunately, his mentor was an opponent of the repressive government that governs the U.S., as was his father, a famous writer. While in Austria on a government-approved tour, Evan defects. The police detective assigned to his case is suspicious of his motives, made all the more so because of the interest shown in him by an American intelligence agent assigned to the embassy in Vienna. What none of them know, though, is that Evan is concealing a deadly secret—one that could endanger not just his life, but the lives of everyone around him. The biggest danger Evan faces, though, is not external, but inside his own mind.

Perceval’s Secret by C.C. Yager is a chilling story of the world’s near future, with an emphasis not on the amazing technology, but on the personal relationships people have with technology…

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The First Page

La Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires  (Photo: Suite101.net)

La Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires (Photo: Suite101.net)

One evening this past week while preparing for bed. I was brushing my teeth, letting my mind wander.  Suddenly, Evan Quinn was talking in my mind with another musician as they ran through the streets of Buenos Aires after Evan’s last concert there. This conversation has been nagging at me for years. The first time I wrote it, I just wanted to get something down on paper so I could work with it.  Over time, I’d revised and rewrote it several times, never getting to the point where it felt right in my bones. This conversation opens Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in my Perceval series.  It starts on the first page.

The first page of any book, fiction or nonfiction, is crucial in the set up for the rest of the story.  I call it the “Sing, goddess” page, after the first stanza of Homer’s The Iliad.  In that first stanza, Homer encapsulates the entire story of his epic in general terms, giving the promise of fleshing out the details in the subsequent stanzas. Its conciseness is brilliant. It pulls in the reader (or listener, back in Homer’s day) with drama, war, gods, and the tragedy of the favored, beloved Achilles.

Nowadays, writers must pull in their readers with the first page, but not necessarily with an encapsulation of the entire story. What are the elements of a riveting first page?

Action: Begin in media res, or in the middle of action. Ironically, this does not have to be physical action.  It can be internal action, i.e. the action of the mind at work.  Especially if the mind is acting in an interesting or unusual way.  Physical action can be anything really as long as something is happening.

Conflict: This can be the introduction of the main thematic conflict, or actual physical conflict, or even intellectual conflict embodied in dialogue.  For Perceval’s Shadow, at least two conflicts exist on the first page.  One is a broader conflict (war) that affects Evan directly, and the other is a much more personal conflict.

Mystery: Who are the characters?  Why are they in that location?  What will happen next?  There can also be foreshadowing that will create a sense of mystery surrounding the characters, their motivations, and their behavior.  In every good story there is always a strong element of mystery that keeps the reader reading.  What’s going to happen next?

themartianbookcover-jpegWhat is a good example of these three elements coming together in a successful first page?  I think page one of Andy Weir’s The Martian.  It begins with “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6.”  What?  What does that mean?

Then the first sentence: “I’m pretty much fucked.”  This made me smile, in spite of the dire nature of the statement.  It was over the top.  Something has happened, but what? Mystery.

Second sentence: “That’s my considered opinion.”  We’re getting a sense of character with this sentence, a kind of defiance in the face of the adversity implied in the first sentence.

Third sentence: “Fucked.”  OK, what is so terrible to result in such a fatalistic reaction?  Mystery.

Fourth sentence: “Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.”  Ah, lots of questions come out of this statement.  Why should it be the greatest month of his life?  What was he doing?  What happened that it became a nightmare?  What is that nightmare?  Clearly, some sort of conflict occurred but what was it?

Fifth sentence: “I don’t even know who’ll read this.”  Now we know he’s alone, although we’re not certain of this character’s sex yet.  So far, these sentences have raised more questions than they’ve answered, and the action could go in just about any direction.  This is an example of mental action or thinking in action.

Two sentences later, Weir gives us some answers with conflict, action, and some more mystery. We find out that the character is Mark Watney and he’s on Mars. He was a member of a crew who thought he’d died (why?).  And the conflict?  Well, obviously it’s going to be Mark Watney vs. Mars. And that is essentially the first page of The Martian.

Next time you’re shopping for books, be sure to read the first pages of the books you’re looking at.  Where’s the action?  The conflict?  The mystery?

To Write or Not to Write

nebula-100x100A month ago, I wrote about inspiration and how it visits when you least expect it. The week after I wrote that post, I faced a blank page with an equally blank mind.  Today, I’m thinking about my process and wondering why some days seem much better than others for writing.

This past week, I’ve been reading the June 2016 issue of The Writer.  While the emphasis of this issue was Middle Grade and YA books, writing is writing.  One author commented in response to the question “What’s your best tip for writers?”:

“The process of writing is that you have an amazing world in your head and when you go to put it on the page, it never translates smoothly….You have to turn off that inner critic. And then you turn it back on when you need that eye.”

Aha! That inner critic can block the creative process in weird ways. He’s a clever operator. He’s not just about criticizing my ideas, my ability to express them, my writing.  He’s about deflecting me away from my creative impulses by re-directing my thinking to things like the part-time job, my dwindling bank account and if I’ll be able to replenish it, and my health.  It’s not that these things are not important.  They are.  But they have a different place in my life and I don’t want them bulldozing over everything else in my life, especially not my creativity.

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

To write or not to write.  I find myself focusing more on making money instead of writing fiction which is what I truly want to do.  My financial situation demands that I focus on making money to pay for my living expenses.  In fact, I’ve come to realize that I’m currently flirting with going completely broke much sooner than I’d allowed myself to know.  Writing takes too long.  There’s no guarantee of publication.  There’s the issue of promotion and marketing that cost money but without them the sales don’t happen.  These are the realities of being a writer in 2016.  My Inner Critic brutalizes me on this point.  The power of my resistance in accepting this reality astonishes me.

First things first, I tell myself.  (Or is it the Inner Critic?)  I won’t be able to write if I don’t earn enough to pay the bills, including internet and office supplies.  But I hate putting money making at such a high priority.  Then that inner voice counters with the very real concern I have about losing my apartment.  In reality, I am only months away from it.  My writing makes pennies for me, not the thousands that I need each month to live.  My part-time job pays only a little more than minimum wage. And then there are the health expenses on top of everything else.  I must be able to pay for medical insurance (this year I’m on my state’s Medicaid program) because without medical care I could face an even more dire reality, i.e. one in which I can no longer take the medications I’m on and see the doctors who care for me and as a result my health deteriorates.  These are all powerful arguments to leave writing in the dust.

Fear of failure has become fear of losing everything.

The Inner Critic has brought me to this point. How do I counter him?

I write.  Something.  Anything. I’m brutally honest with myself about my circumstances, and part of that honesty is acknowledging that I would have arrived at this financial point years ago if I hadn’t been so frugal or so creative at living on little.  I do my best to pat myself on the back for that accomplishment.  Then I point out to myself everything I’m doing currently to earn the money I need, including freelance writing and my new editing business.  I continue to seek out free opportunities to promote Perceval’s Secret and take advantage of the opportunities I find. I’ve been working more hours at the part-time job, and have opened to the possibility of working fulltime, if my health permits. I’ve cut my spending to the bare minimum of living expenses, cutting things like magazine subscriptions, Netflix, social activities, an unnecessary insurance policy that had a monthly premium. I’ve finally begun selling my possessions after creating the necessary documentation system (for tax purposes) and beginning to photograph everything.  I transferred the credit card debt I had as a result of e-publishing Perceval’s Secret to a $0% interest rate credit card so I can more quickly pay down the principal.  And I’m almost finished with creating a crowd-source funding project to raise the money to finally pay off all my debt.  It’s crazy how much money I’m losing (and have lost) because of that debt.

000-money-backgrounds2-prw

It’s an on-going struggle between me and my Inner Critic, whether it’s about earning more money or writing fiction.

How do you deal with your Inner Critic in all areas of your life? What role does money play in your writing life?  Have you found a way to be true to your writing but still be able to live as you wish?

 

Writers: How do you think of your readers?

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Writers need readers.  We want to share our stories with other people, and it’s a bonus if those people respond to what they read and let us know what they think.  We already know that our first relationship with a reader occurs on the page, so it’s important to tell the best story we can, written the best we can write it.

Recently, I read a note mystery novelist Hope Clark wrote in her April 8, 2016 newsletter, FundsforWriters. She calls the relationship writers have with readers friendship. I’m not sure I agree with that term exactly despite the give-and-take between people contained within that word. I understand, however, that calling the relationship a friendship acknowledges its special nature. People who are complete strangers read our writing and feel that they make a connection with us on the page.  As Hope wrote:

Whether you write poetry, scripts, freelance features, nonfiction, memoir, or novels, your goal is to touch minds with a reader. And if the stars align, and you write like an angel, you connect with many readers, making them think you are of like souls.

Writers are also readers. Voracious, and hopefully eclectic readers who experience another writer’s work through a slightly different lens than a reader who isn’t a writer. I know that when I read, I notice style, voice, syntax, word choice, pacing, as well as structure, character development, plot, and dialogue. How a writer uses language to tell a story, that fascinates me. But I know that many people read only to enjoy a good story, to be entertained, to have their emotions aroused, or the mind stimulated in some way. I read for those reasons, too.  In support of her idea of friendship between writer and reader, Hope Clark wrote:

Think of yourself as a reader, and remember that special book that touched you once upon a time. The author reached across the void with characters, storytelling, and voice, and made you believe they understood you as a human being. The author deemed you credible, and you felt the same in return.

This is where I part company with Hope Clark: when I’m reading, I’m not thinking that the writer has understood me personally as a human being.  I think that the writer was successful (or not) in illuminating some universal truth of the human condition. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I don’t think the writer of the book, short story, or article I’m reading is writing to me specifically.  I know when I write, I’m writing for myself in actuality, to satisfy the need to express myself and share the stories my imagination gives me.

Now, from a marketing and promotion perspective, it’s great to foster friendship with readers, to make them feel special in some way. We as writers want people to read our stories, to buy our books, and to continue to read what we write over the years.  Hope Clark puts it this way:

But friendship with your readers means more these days. Once your writing passes muster, you are expected to be readily available online. You are also expected to respect the reader, because they invested time into the reading of your words. Not only do you want to feed them the words they want to hear, but you want to let them know you appreciate them for giving you attention in return

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107The internet has given writers a tool with which to connect even more easily with their readers.  It gives us a way to value our readers, appreciate them, communicate with them, and learn from them, in addition to meeting readers face-to-face during book tours.  The internet also gives readers a place to meet and talk about books, e.g. Goodreads.  I love hearing from my readers!  I wish more people were reading Perceval’s Secret and using the internet to communicate their reaction to it, whether directly to me via e-mail or at this blog, or in reviews posted at Amazon, B&N, or Goodreads (or elsewhere).

Hope Clark cautions in her note that writers write not for sales or Facebook likes, but for that “intimate” relationship with our readers.  I would add that I write to experience my intimate relationship with myself and my imagination, and to explore human behavior.

Why do you write? How do you think of your readers?