Category Archives: Fiction

An Update

A rough two weeks. My health has been my first priority to insure a complete, full recovery from the illness that felled me a little over two weeks ago. I am on the mend.

Last weekend, to conserve energy, I focused on revision work for Perceval’s Shadow, feeling guilty that I had not written a blog post. Someday, I need to explore the conflict that arises among social media/email, blogs, and fiction. But it was a productive time. I managed to update two chapters’ electronic files, then revision work on four chapters. I don’t know if I’ll make my goal of finishing half the novel by December 31, but I work away at it.

This weekend, I’m feeling better healthwise but caught up with month-end business chores. It’s been extremely busy at my office job, so I’ve been exhausted during the week. That probably won’t change for at least another month or so. I’m trying to get chores done today so I can focus on Perceval’s Shadow tomorrow. There really are not enough hours in the day. I’m looking forward to a four-day weekend for Christmas — my present to my writer self!

I have to admit here that my first writing priority right now is Perceval’s Shadow. So, I will try to post here when I can, but please be patient and understand that I want to get the novel done and out into the world, and I’m working on it whenever I can!

Stay tuned for more updates….

Credit: Walt Disney

Being a Writer

My father

“You can’t write.”

My father said that to me, looking me straight in the face over a beef stew dinner, and with a voice that held finality in its tone. I’d just announced to my family that I’d quit my fulltime advertising agency job to write.

“Being a writer is the same as being a prostitute.”

My brother said that to me the next day when we were running Christmas errands for our mother. I remember we’d just exited the car and were trudging through a snowy mall parking lot toward the entrance. He went on to explain that even though the entire family read lots of books, no one thought of writing as a legitimate job. I held my tongue. At the time, I knew a high-priced call girl whose bodyguard was a good friend of mine, and she thought of her job as a lucrative business and quite legitimate.

When I made my announcement, I did not know where my family’s responses originated, only that they were against it, and once again, I’d be completely on my own without their support as I’d been in college when I declared my music major. Now I understand that my parents wanted me to live the life that they wanted me to live, ignoring me as a person, my desires, skills and talents. My brother was just parroting them. I really don’t believe he cared one way or the other what I did. But he did care about staying in our father’s good graces. I decided since they were ignoring me that I’d ignore them. By the next summer, I was earning money with my writing.

An article in the December The Writer sparked this memory for me today. In “Girls Like Me,” Anna Kahoe wrote about the voices in her life that told her the things that she couldn’t do, and as a result, she thought she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, i.e. write. Eventually, she figured out that it was her choice, her decision, and she started writing. She described confiding to an actress that she wanted to write, and the actress told her “Writers write.” The actress went on to tell her that not everyone was an artist, but Anna held onto that truth: Writers write.

Being a writer means a lot of things, but above all, it means writing, choosing words to craft sentences into paragraphs that build one on another to become a story for people to read and enjoy. And there it is — story. Whether writing nonfiction or fiction, writers tell stories. Without a story to tell, the words have nowhere to go, nothing to say. This is the part of being a writer that can’t be taught — coming down with a story that gives the writer a fever of creation and the visceral need to express the story in a creative way unique to that specific writer. Everything in a writer’s life informs the imagination, the creative process, and leads to the stories.

I write. I tell stories. I am a writer.

Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 3

My revision work has begun to settle into a kind of routine: I work on a hard copy of a chapter, making changes in ink by hand. Every couple of chapters completed this way I boot up the computer and enter a “new” file for each revised chapter that I date once I’ve finished entering the changes into the electronic document. This gives the work a rhythm between handwriting and thinking over the hard copy and typing. Of course, I’m also editing as I’m typing. This revision work, though, swings and sashays along.

Then I hit a big hole. I suspected it was coming, but it wasn’t totally clear until I stood at the edge of it looking down into nothing. I needed to add a chapter that would reveal character, develop the relationship between two characters, and reveal an inner conflict. I was nervous. It’s been a long time since I have drafted anything new for this novel. Would I be able to recapture the tone of the prose, the pacing, the voice? I put it off a bit, then when I had a full day off from my job, I sat down at my computer and began working.

Where I write

The whole day surprised me. I was so afraid that I would struggle and struggle to get anything down before I sat at the computer. But then something happened. Looking at that blank page on the computer screen switched on that part of my brain that’s been working on that chapter for months behind the scenes. The words just gushed out of me. I wasn’t even thinking about the structure of the chapter, just focused on typing as fast as the words came. By the end of the day, I’d written 2500 words — a daily record for me.

What did I have then at the end of that day?

Two short scenes and the beginning of a long tracking shot scene. I showed Evan dealing with the aftermath of the chapter 1 event. I showed him interacting with his British artist manager and his Spanish cousin. And there is an emotional change that I hadn’t known was coming until it was upon me. But I realized that this specific change was actually the reason this new chapter is important. And there’s a tension in this chapter that I hadn’t expected as well.

I haven’t yet completed this new chapter. It may require a couple more days of work. This writing has stopped the revision work, but it’s also a crucial part of it. I had known that I may need to write some new scenes or whole chapters for this first revision. My experience with this new material flowing out of me reassures me that it is something the novel definitely needs.

First drafts surprise as they appear like magic out of the imagination, but that magic continues during the revision process. I have this image of my imagination as a laughing child, giddy with play, having a blast as I work. That’s certainly what it feels like in my mind. And then there’s that tingling feeling that cascades through my body when I write something — that’s when I know it’s absolutely right. It’s a wonderful feeling.

To Sex Scene or Not to Sex Scene

Sex scenes can be truly difficult to write and write well so that they move the story forward or reveal character or both. The question I usually ask myself — how does this scene reveal character or move the story forward? — before I decide to include a sex scene or not doesn’t really apply, I’ve discovered, if you’re writing bodice-ripper style romance novels. Then the question becomes more about how well to write the scene — how much of the physical action to include vs. the emotional action — and if an explicit sex scene is consistent with your characters’ beliefs and behavior. I’d also question whether or not the sex is gratuitous, because after all, sex does sell.

This reminds me of an experience I had years ago with a movie called Die Hard starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The first time I saw this movie was on TV. It had been edited for length and content, but I didn’t think about the parts that I were missing. The version I saw on TV was highly entertaining — suspenseful, twisty, and really fun. Then I decided to buy my own copy of the movie for my movie library. I purchased what was available at the time, looking forward to seeing this fun movie again. When I viewed it, I discovered all the parts that had been edited out for the TV broadcast — primarily explicit violence — and was startled by how little the edited parts added to the story or character development. In other words, I would not have missed those edited parts if they hadn’t been included.

Sex scenes are similar. Sometimes sexual tension or the suggestion of sex going on behind the scenes is far more effective because they don’t stop the action or forward momentum of the story. And they’re not nearly as boring. I’ve now read two historical romance novels in which the authors chose to stop the forward momentum of the story and character development to have the romantic leads have sex with each other for 100+ pages in various ways, in various places, and with a varying degree of explicitness — and nothing else. The story just stops. And after about 15 pages of this, it gets really boring. At least for me.

The most recent novel I read, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, included explicit sexual violence, including rape, against the main female character. This historical bodice ripper takes place in 1743 in the Scottish Highlands where the men are depicted to be far from sophisticated or considerate — as far as they are concerned, a wife is their property and they can do whatever they want to her and she cannot complain about it. Loving a woman essentially means fucking her whenever and however they want. At least, that was the message I understood from this particular historical novel. It really disappointed me. I got to the point where I thought that really, Gabaldon was a good writer and it was a shame she was wasting her skill on these scenes that went nowhere. But sex sells.

While Jamie and Claire were characters with a lot of potential, I thought all but a few of the sex scenes could have been cut in favor of focusing on the development of their emotional and intellectual intimacy, how they get to know each other as people rather than only as two bodies. The last 100 pages of the book gives them a wonderful opportunity to deepen the emotional connection and trust between them, and to perhaps broaden Jamie’s realizations that there’s far more to Claire than he thought. There are glimmers of this possibly happening, but I did not see it coming to the fore and going to another level for their relationship.

I know that there’s a market/audience for this type of bodice ripper romance and perhaps Gabaldon and other writers in that genre feel a responsibility to give their readers what they apparently enjoy. Maybe that’s fine, as long as it’s well written.  I know now more than ever that I am not a member of that audience. To me, all those sex scenes could have been cut and not hurt the story or character development at all, just as the gratuitous violence in Die Hard could be cut and not have the movie story suffer at all. To me as a reader, stopping the story for page after page of sex scenes isn’t titillating but boring.

This reading experience has certainly shone a new light on the issue of writing sex scenes. It’s no longer a matter of how to write them well, but whether to include them at all. The question still remains: how does the scene move the story forward or reveal character or both? And I’d add the question: how does the scene (or scenes) affect the pacing of the story’s momentum?

Revealing Character Through Language

How does a writer reveal character in a story or novel? The usual answer is through action, speech, and then there’s also description. For these 3 elements, the writer uses various tools, of course, but the most basic are words, i.e. language. Last week, I talked about language in terms of word choice. I was also talking about the use of language to show who Pierre is when the reader meets him in the first Pierre chapter in Perceval’s Shadow. The excerpt I used was a descriptive passage showing Pierre in action as well as his thinking. This week, I want to explore that more and add the dimension of speech.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, how the experience of that novel affected me and McCarthy’s use of Anglo-Saxon words. Through the use of ancient words, he took the reader back in time to a period in human history when survival was a primitive and violent endeavor. He created a tone, an atmosphere, to the story by using Anglo-Saxon words in his description.

In Perceval’s Secret, Vassily Bartyakov is a young Russian pianist who grabs experience and people with such gusto, it’s hard to not to like him. He’s far from an innocent in the world, but a realist. I wanted to convey primarily through his speech, however, his Russian soul.

Before I had written much, I spent a lot of time listening to Russian immigrants speaking English, watching how they used their hands as they spoke, and what about English tripped them up. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. In return, I was conversing with them, helping them with their English, explaining why weigh is not pronounced the same as conceive, and the differences among there, their, and they’re. The one element of English they tripped over all the time was the articles — the, a, an. They don’t exist in Russian, so Russians didn’t use them in English much. Another element was word order. In English, there is a definite order to a sentence. In Russian, word order depends on what meaning the speaker wishes to convey. For example, in English “I love you” is specific and set: subject, verb, object. But in Russian, those 3 words can be moved around to show emphasis and change the meaning — “You I love” or “Love I you” or “I you love” with the first word being the strongest. So for Bartyakov’s speech, I wanted to emphasize through word order and lack of articles that he was truly Russian, not an Austrian with a Russian name.

Another example of revealing character through speech concerns showing a character’s level of education by the kind of vocabulary she uses. A character who has a post-graduate education and is well-read will have a broader and deeper vocabulary (and be a true challenge for a writer) than a character who’s graduated high school and works at a blue collar job. Having written that, I have also met people in life with college educations who speak with the vocabulary and understanding of 5th graders. So education is not necessarily a reliable indication of intelligence. Writers demonstrate a character’s knowledge and understanding through actions as well as speech.

I love to watch fine actors at work. They reveal character by using their bodies through movement but also through clothing and grooming. The first example that pops into my mind is a description of a young woman in the 1950’s vs. a young woman today. In the 1950’s, a young woman might wear a shirtwaist dress, bobby socks, or pedal-pushers. What of a young woman today who describes her dress as a shirtwaist, her socks as “bobby socks,” or her cropped pants as pedal-pushers? What would that say about her? Fashion vocabulary changes often, morphs, and returns, but it can reveal how a character sees herself.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of how language or word choice reveals character in a story. It’s one of the things I’m conscious of when I’m reading novels — how does the writer use words to reveal character? Describe behavior or action? What words does the writer put in her characters’ mouths? While description of action or how a character responds to a location creates a definite image of a character in a reader’s mind, the character’s speech can support or demolish that image depending on how the writer chooses words to put in a character’s mouth.