Category Archives: Fiction

Being a Fearless Writer

One of my vivid memories from working with an editor on Perceval’s Secret: She told me that I was a fearless writer. Why? Because I had followed my main character where he was going instead of stopping him and making him do something safe and acceptable. The choice Evan makes toward the end shocked me when I wrote it in a white heat. It was as if he controlled me rather than the other way around. It took me a week to recover.  But when I read over what I’d written, I realized that as shocking as it was, it was still inevitable given Evan’s thought processes and background. I made sure that the set-up was there, i.e. the reader could follow Evan’s thoughts throughout the book and right up to the moment he makes that shocking decision.

Stephen King just reminded me of this experience of mine working with the editor on my novel. I had not thought of King as a fearless writer, actually.  Up until this past week, I’d read only one of his novels, Salem’s Lot, which hadn’t impressed me much, but then I’m not big into vampires and horror stories. I do love mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, and serial killer stories. It’s very satisfying to me when the perp is caught and right prevails in these kinds of stories. The King novel I’m reading right now falls into the serial killer/thriller/mystery genre and it’s titled Mr. Mercedes.  It’s the first book in a trilogy with the retired police detective Bill Hodges as the main character.

In Mr. Mercedes, however, King reveals just how fearless a writer he is. He not only takes the reader inside the serial killer’s mind and life, he also takes the reader inside the minds and lives of his victims. This makes their victimhood all the more devastating, also ratcheting up the reader’s emotions to be absolutely behind Bill Hodges as he tries to figure out who the killer is and catch him. It’s one thing to set up victims as King does, and quite another to set up the reader to fall in love with a character who looks safe but turns out to not be safe at all. When I read that section of the novel, I was shocked.  I also admired what King had done. He’d been fearless.

Being a fearless writer can be very, very difficult. After all, we want our work to be read and loved.  We want readers to love our characters, hate our villains. But readers can smell a cop-out a mile away. Writers who are fearful about following their characters’ leads will wrest control of the story away from them and create more “acceptable” action, dialogue, and motivations. That is, being cautious about what they write, not only in subject matter but also in the types of characters in their stories. No extremes. No graphic violence. No questionable ethics or motivations. This caution may reflect the writer’s sensibility, core beliefs, and desire to please. But readers understand that darkness lives in the hearts of all humans, and it’s far more interesting to show characters wrestling with that darkness than ignoring it.

Let your characters tell their stories, be who they are, and behave the way they will. They need you to write and share their stories, exactly as they are, not the way you might think the reading public wants it, or the way you’re most comfortable writing it. Being a writer is not comfortable.

 

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Filling in the Holes

It’s been a tough month and a half in life. But this past week I’ve had more time for writing fiction, and my mood has improved greatly as a result.  I continue to work on the Aanora story with building excitement.  The rough outline is done up to the moment before the climax, and I know the very last scene.  But that climax has me stuck.  I’ve put my characters into what seems to be an impossible situation, and I haven’t a clue – yet – how they’ll get themselves out of it. At this point, I tell myself, “trust the process.” My imagination will come up with something plausible.

In the meantime, I’ve been writing this story in a way I’ve not done before, i.e. I’ve been skipping around…a lot. I’ve been writing scenes as they come into my mind.  In the past, I’ve usually written straight through from beginning to end, then I’ve gone back and rearranged scenes as necessary.  I’ve also not outlined the plot points as I’ve done with this story.  So, this story has demanded from the start that I take a different approach.

I call it “filling in the holes.” I write skeleton scenes, or write one scene in a section and leave it to skip to a different section. The next time I can work on the story on my computer, I write another scene or two, and then return to scenes I’ve written earlier and edit, add details, or fill in dialogue and action. My imagination tells me where it wants to play and I go there.

As a result of this approach, I’ve discovered that I’ve had a significant number of false starts, action that turns out not to work, and scrapping whole scenes to start over. At one point a week ago, it hit me that I hadn’t made the stakes high enough for my characters and that’s when I figured out what the villain wants and how it conflicts with what the protagonist wants. For me, this is a particularly strange way of working. In the past, I’ve laid down a first draft, printed it out, and then gone through it carefully, asking questions about what each character wants and what he or she will do to get it, if the action, dialogue, scenes are moving the story forward or not, what the purpose of each scene is.

And another thing I’m doing differently with this story: I’ve broken it up into sections and each section has a title. Now I realize that my imagination wanted it this way to have playful titles — yes, I am using the word “play” a lot in one form or another because this story has been all about playing — playing with the characters and action, and playing with my imagination more than anything else. Playing with a detail, an action, a block of dialogue, to see what will work best. The sections make it easier for me to write in short bursts, as has been necessary with my current work schedule and life, and to write something in one section, then leave it to write in another section without losing track of the story.

Play.  My imagination has prescribed for me the perfect medication for the serious stuff life has been throwing at me lately. I’m happiest when I’m writing fiction, and being able to play with the Aanora story recently has been a respite and sanctuary, as well as lifting my mood. The serious life stuff will always be there, and in its way, it feeds my creativity by giving me life experience. But I love the way working on the Aanora story has given play back to me.

Writing in Pieces

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail (I am forever cleaning out e-mail! Who isn’t?!), I found a blog post by a blogger, Lindsey Gendke, I’ve been following for several years now. She’s a writer, a mom with 2 pre-schoolers, and published author. Her blog post that I read yesterday was from October 23, and she wrote about how to get unstuck when stuck in the mud of writing and life. She suggested writing ideas on index cards. I confess, I’ve done this at times. Not to come unstuck, but just to organize projects.  It’s a good way to keep up with idea generation, though — carry a pack of blank 3×5 index cards and write one idea per card.  Then the ideas are preserved for later scrutiny and development.  After dutifully turning back my clocks and watches last night, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up thinking about writing in pieces.  Using index cards is one way to write in pieces.  It’s the method I used for keeping track of research for a paper in school, and it’s something I’ve done occasionally to map out plot points. Although I think the index cards idea triggered my thoughts about writing in pieces, it’s not what I mean when I say writing in pieces. I mean breaking a writing project down into manageable pieces to work on.  For a novel, that might be chapters, or even sections of chapters. Or scenes, which I did when I was writing screenplays — I wrote scene by scene (usually handwritten on a legal pad).  Prose fiction can also be broken into scenes. And they do not necessarily need to be written in order.

My work this past week on the Aanora story involved a lot of thinking about several different scenes (Monday through Friday), and then yesterday working on the rough outline to capture my thoughts about those scenes. I’m surprised at myself, actually, that I’m fleshing in an outline before I’ve written very much, but it’s helping me organize my thoughts, reveal what I need to research, and helping me see just how viable the story idea is, i.e. well worth developing and writing. As I was working on the outline, I realized that I was starting to break the story up into pieces that did not necessarily relate to plot points but involved 1-2 scenes for each piece. So when I woke up this morning thinking about writing in pieces, I realized that this was the way to go for the Aanora story, and perhaps I could write on it during the work week as a result rather than waiting to the weekend.

So my task today, after I finish this post, is to figure out the specific pieces, open a separate Word file for each, and then see if I can figure out how I get from the place I managed to outline to yesterday to the ending I have outlined. I’m very close. And I realized also this morning that this is the first story I’ve written in which the main character really doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but he gets something better.  That was a surprise to me, a happy one.

The Aanora story is gaining momentum, folks! And I’m feeling quite happy about that.

Truth in Fiction

Photo: Marina Shemesh

This morning, I read a really interesting article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how demagogues use lying as propaganda (“Trump may not be Hitler, but he has the techniques”). It’s difficult especially when a large portion of an electorate believes lies as truths and believes that anyone else is lying. Demagogues are good at creating that Big Lie, too. Reading this commentary, however, also got me thinking about truth in fiction, and how writing fiction, by definition, is actually making stuff up which could be called lying.

In Perceval’s Secret, indeed, in the entire Perceval series, none of the characters are real people. It’s set in 2048 – how could I possibly know what really happens in that year now? The story is not real either, i.e. nothing that happens in the story actually happens.  How could it?  None of the characters are real. I made it all up.  Why?

At the time I began writing the very first draft (and I thought it was a short story, not a novel), I was interested in the experience of exile, of being forced to leave a home country in order to have a better life, or pursue an occupation, or be free. I didn’t think that the average American really had any conception or comprehension of what that experience is like for their fellow humans on this planet (I still don’t think they do). Then Evan Quinn appeared in my mind while I was listening to a live orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and I had my main character. As I began writing and the story developed under my fingertips, it changed a bit from a straight story of exile to one of voluntary exile and what Evan Quinn would do in order to be able to leave an America that in my mind resembled the USSR of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

I found with each revision that Evan and his story was revealing things about how Americans think about their country and the world, how they perceive people in other countries vs. how they perceive themselves, and that American Exceptionalism would eventually damage if not destroy American democracy. Nothing destroys exceptionalism faster than oppressing the population of a country the way the government in the Perceval series oppresses America. At the same time, the government must wage a relentless propaganda campaign assuring the population that what they have now is better than what they had before and they are stronger and more powerful in the world as a result. The propaganda campaign is all lies. This is something Evan discovers when he arrives in Europe on his tour. Demagogues and fascist governments usually cannot risk their citizens having a lot of outside contact because then their citizens will have access to the reality and see the lies.  Unless, of course, the citizens are so indoctrinated that they don’t believe what they see outside their own country.

So all my made up stuff in writing the novel, this fictional story, was revealing things that struck me as being true about humans, true about Americans in particular, and true about oppression. It is in agreement with what another writer once said (I don’t recall who now) that writers lie to tell the truth. I think it’s also the reason why humans need stories in their lives.

 

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?