Category Archives: Nonfiction

How do you write until you’re done?

Lately, I’ve been writing short stories to exercise my writing muscles in preparation for work on the second Perceval novel. Narrative structure has taken over my life. It’s so important for grounding a story, for keeping the action moving, and for knowing when the story’s done. Or not.  How do you write until you get to the end?

Hope Clark in her Funds for Writers newsletter brought up this subject recently in response to a writer sending her a plea for help. The writer wanted to know Hope Clark’s secret for writing to done.  Well, there is no big secret, and there’s nothing out there on the Web that could help with it.

The issue here is maintaining momentum and motivation. It’s different for each piece, I think.  A novel, or series of novels, requires a very long term commitment compared to a short story or essay.  Sticking with it, though, still demands more than only commitment. It demands practically an obsession with the piece and a determination to overcome all obstacles to finish it. It demands a willingness to struggle, wrestle with it, to do the work.  In short, you (the writer) are the protagonist in the story of how you wrote that short story or this novel.

At work at computer. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Writing is hard work.  It’s a struggle. You have to want to do it in the worst way. Hope Clark writes, “Any story that goes down on paper easy is not a good story.” Some days, I do not want to write. Those are the days I need the most to sit down and write something. That’s what writing is all about. The work. Transforming the imagination into the reality of a story on paper. Finding the right word or image, structuring an elegant sentence, searching the just the right active verb. It takes time, thought, and hard work.  I don’t know how many people I’ve run into who, when I tell them I’m a writer, always comment that it’s so easy to write, anyone could write. No, not just anyone can write and truly write well.

For me, when I’m working on something, I’m obsessed with the mystery of what happens next. Usually my characters very wisely withhold everything from me and parcel it out on a need to know basis. That doesn’t stop me from asking them a lot of questions right from the beginning. More days than I can count, though, I’ve not wanted to work, but to read, or watch a movie, or do something else that’s a lot easier than taking the narrative structure bull by the horns or learning to dance with my latest protagonist. Sometimes I just want to throw my laptop out the window I get so frustrated. At other times, life and its demands frustrate me because they keep me away from the writing, the work I love. Because there is absolutely nothing like the feeling of writing “the end.”

There is no easy way to write to done.  You just do it. And if you don’t go through the blood, sweat, and tears, it will show in your writing, your characters, your story, and the structure of it. And do you want to be known for sloppy, schlocky writing? Or known as a writer who doesn’t care enough to do the work? I don’t.

Just do it.

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Grammar Matters

This morning, I began reading the October 2017 issue of The Writer. October already! One of the articles concerned the verb to be and how it weakens prose. Have you ever gone through a piece of writing specifically to root out all the to be forms and substitute action verbs instead? The author of the article (“Not to be”), Gail Radley, suggests using the find function in your word processing software to find and replace all forms of to be.  I like to print out what I’ve written and circle all the to be forms in red first, then work sentence by sentence to find the best replacement verbs. Radley shows in the article how often the to be form is near the verb that needs to replace it and she provides examples. An excellent article.

This article sparked thoughts about grammar in general. If you don’t think grammar is important to your prose, consider this. I occasionally agree to review novels when asked at GoodReads or elsewhere although I’m not a professional book reviewer. I’m usually happy to help out fellow writers and enjoy reading their work.  But there have been two times when I’ve agreed to review a novel but decided once I began reading that I could not write the review.  Why? Because the novel had been so poorly edited and contained so many grammar issues that the prose was nearly impossible to read. For both of these writers, I sent private e-mails with my assessment and that I would not review their books publicly.

Grammar exists not only to organize words but also to insure that the words make sense when put together. For professional writers, no reason exists in this world to justify not insuring that the grammar in their writing isn’t the best. Do you want readers to understand what you’re writing? Do you want readers to read your writing easily and with enjoyment? Do a close edit for grammar issues, whether you’re working on a novel or shorter piece.  If you feel rusty or unsure of your grammar usage, invest in a good usage manual like The Chicago Manual of Style and a grammar guide like Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar. Enough grammar reference books exist in libraries and bookstores that there is no excuse for a professional writer to not write grammatically correct prose.

We have editors – copy editors –  to help us in the later stages of completing a piece, of course. If you don’t feel confident in your grammar, a good copy editor is worth the cost, i.e. a professional copy editor who knows English grammar and usage. If you want your writing to be the best it can be, the clearest and easiest to read, then you have to put in the work and effort to accomplish that goal.

I will continue to review books, and accept the occasional request to review at GoodReads or post my review at Amazon or B&N.  If you self-publish, please be sure to hire a good copy editor before publishing your book.  It makes the reading and review process that much more enjoyable to me and all book reviewers.

What makes a writer?

This past week, I had a conversation with a young man who was interested in writing.  He enjoyed working with words when he wrote business correspondence, and he believed he had a knack for finding the right words for whatever he was writing.  He admitted that he didn’t read that much, mostly just what he saw on the internet which sounded like maybe news or commentary sites. I’m not certain what it was he wanted from me.  To tell him he was already a writer?  To tell him how to be a writer?  I suspect that he didn’t know anything about it and wanted me to tell him.  I gave him a catalog of writing classes from The Loft and encouraged him to look it over, see if anything appealed to him and pursue it.

Have any of you had a similar experience?  What do you say?

I’m used to more specific questioning or someone telling me that they are writing a short story/novel/essay collection and they want to know something specific about what they’re writing. This is the first time I’ve encountered someone who was thinking of writing rather than just sitting down and doing it, then trying to figure out what it was all about.

So really, what makes a writer?  Is it publication or is it writing all the time? Is it the compulsion to write?  The need to write vs. the desire to write? Business writing is different from creative nonfiction or fiction, and yet, there are freelance writers who specialize in writing for business, for corporate communications departments.  They consider themselves writers (as do I). And some of them are also writing other things — short stories, plays, etc. Writing is everywhere, if you think about it.  This is the point the inquiring young man made to me.  Yes, it is.  And if he wanted to do that kind of writing, more power to him.  I hope that he looks through The Loft’s catalog and sees for himself that there’s a lot more to writing than he thinks.  He did mention that he thought he could write his own story — autobiography or memoir, I don’t know — but I felt at a loss as to what to say.  Why think about it?  Why not just do it?

What makes a writer?  I have to say that the writers I know don’t think about it, they do it.  Sure, they think about the stories they’re working on, or the ideas that they’re developing for a book or script, but they don’t talk so much about it or just think about it.  They sit down at some point and just write.  And it’s hard. In my confusion, I forgot to tell the young man that it was difficult to do it well.  Yeah, it looks easy — everyone has written something: grocery lists, letters, emails, thank you notes, etc. But to sustain a reader’s interest over a period of pages, that’s something else entirely.

This morning, while cleaning out email (it’s amazing how much it piles up in my mailbox over 5 days), I stumbled onto a note from a writer named Hope Clark — she publishes a newsletter called Funds for Writers that I subscribe to. Her note discussed approaching each day as the best day for writing, even when your writing is going badly.  Even when the writing sucks, it’s still something you can work with to make it better.

Hope Clark quoted Neil Gaiman in an interview in which he talked about what writing is like, and I loved the quote so I’d like to share it with you. It describes accurately, I think, what writing is like:

“The process of writing is not necessarily an enjoyable one. The process of writing is way up there with ditch digging. You write a novel a word at a time. And this will go on for hundreds of pages.”

I’d like to add, that while you’re digging for words in the ditches of life, it’s always a sunny day.

Big Classical Music

It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping.  I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.

But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.

Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime.  He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it.  And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school.  So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich.  His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory.  Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony.  In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived.  A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.

And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today.  Why is that?  Why aren’t composers writing big music today?  And what about big literature?  Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?

When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion.  It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music.  And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!

Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts.  His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity.  Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.

The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion.  The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.