Category Archives: Revision Work

Character: Power

 

The July/August issue of The Atlantic offers a fascinating article by Jerry Useem about how having power actually changes the human brain. The mental abilities that enable someone to rise in society into a powerful position end up disappearing once the person has gained power. The example Useem begins his article with is of former CEO of Wells Fargo John Stumpf’s performance at a congressional hearing last fall — his utter failure to “read the room.” Useem goes on to cite study after study that show how having power damages the parts of the brain that enable humans to relate to other humans and to have empathy.

 

The lust for power has motivated many a character in fiction. Power fascinates me as well as how we define power. While researching Post Traumatic Stress for Perceval’s Secret, I stumbled onto the Pandora’s box of Power, i.e. external power, or having power and/or control over other people. I learned that the people most likely to seek external power feel powerless but are not self-aware enough to recognize how they are really feeling. All they know is that having power makes them feel better. There is another kind of power: internal power. This is the individual’s self power, i.e. he feels powerful in being himself rather than feeling powerless.  This person will not seek external power over others. He simply doesn’t need it.

So, which individual is the character you’ve created? How does she perceive the world? In a way that signals her sense of powerlessness such as constantly ingratiating herself to another character? How does he respond to people? Is he manipulative? Narcissistic? Focused only on what will benefit him? Or is your character empathetic, genuinely caring of others, and not in need of control or motivated by fear? Having a bloated sense of self-worth, a common symptom of narcissism, can also mask a person’s sense of powerlessness. A character with power issues, especially one who isn’t self-aware, can end up being a villain or a victim, or ironically, both.

When you have a character that feels powerless, it’s important to figure out why that character feels powerless. Whether or not you put that part of his backstory into your story, you, the writer, need to know the reason. His powerlessness will come through in his behavior toward himself as well as other people, through his desires, professional goals, and even in how he dresses and takes care of himself. For example, he may choose a profession in which he exerts power and control over others in some way — corporate CEO, a surgeon, a government bureaucrat, or even a symphony orchestra conductor. My favorite is the co-worker who believes that she’s entitled to be the head of the company and will do anything to get there. Criminals also tend to possess a sense of powerlessness and their criminality gives them a sense of power whether it’s beating the system or taking a life.

Deep-seated fear often goes with a sense of powerlessness, and the desire for power is also a desire to be safe and secure. When the powerless gain the external power that they seek, they are most often likely to abuse that power, also. How all this manifests in human behavior can be unique to the individual and her background, and the same is true for a fictional character.  You don’t have to be a psychologist yourself in order to write a fully dimensional character who behaves in plausible ways. Be open to the possibilities.  Let your character act, speak, and think as he does and be the observer. Respect the character.  Allow the character to be himself. He’ll most likely give you his story if you’re open to all the possibilities.

Power definitely motivates characters in ways unique to each of them. Whether or not your character obtains the power he seeks could be the story your character wants to tell you.  Are you listening?

 

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.

Adam Burns, or Characters that are cut

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Adam Burns has been on my mind a lot lately. He was an old guy, a bum, a journalist in hiding in a very early draft of Perceval’s Secret.  Evan Quinn met him once, in a wooded area not far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Quinns lived. Evan was ten years old. He knew Adam as “Old Man Burns,” the neighborhood drunken bum. The encounter Evan has with Adam brings into laser sharp focus for Evan the danger that his family is in. Adam isn’t really drunk when he meets Evan — he’s acting drunk and stupid — and he tells Evan that his father must leave the country. Later, Evan learns that Adam was murdered, his body found along the Mississippi River, a bullet in his brain.

I killed off Adam Burns and that entire encounter with Evan. In fact, just before Evan meets Adam, Evan and his friend Paul Caine have been hounded and abused by Harold Smith and his gang. I didn’t realize it at the time I cut out that entire section of the draft, but Harold Smith would become Evan’s nemesis in the Perceval series. He survives in flashbacks in Perceval’s Secret as well as in the flesh late in the novel. But I never put the childhood section back into the novel. And Adam Burns was lost, except in my mind. Now he haunts me.

Have you ever been haunted by characters that you’ve cut out of stories or novels? It’s strange. It’s like they want their own stories, they do not want to be forgotten. I have yet to figure out why Adam keeps popping up in my mind. What’s his deal?

When I began work on the Perceval series, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t even a novel. It was a short story about a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be an orchestra conductor when he grew up, but the circumstances of his life in America in 2048 would make that dream impossible to fulfill unless he left the country, according to Adam “Old Man” Burns. Evan senses that Burns has a secret, and indeed he did. I knew his backstory although I never wrote it. It was enough that it was secret and something dangerous that Burns must protect or he could lose his life.

Adam’s backstory: first of all, Adam Burns wasn’t his real name. He made certain no one knew his real name, including me. He’d been a famous journalist on the East Coast during the Change, the period of time during which the New Economic Party (NEP) consolidated power in America with a permanent majority on the federal and state levels of government.

Like any journalist worth his salt defending Freedom of the Press as well as the Bill of Rights, Adam had reported on those in power, exposing their corruption, greed, and lust for power. He’d reported on their narcissism, comparing them to the greatest dictators of the 20th Century. He knew the NEP cared only about enriching itself and insuring that they got everything they wanted. Adam had reported also on the Resistance, the Underground, and the Civil War. But the NEP wanted the American people to know only what they told them. So they waged war against journalists, arresting many who simply disappeared. The NEP wanted complete control over the media. They silenced the media by any means necessary.

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The people had rebelled — the country was embroiled in a Civil War, with western states seceding, southern states threatening to do so, and Washington slamming shut all of America’s borders. By the time Evan is ten, Adam has been underground for over five years, running for his life. In Minnesota, he thought he’d be safer because Minnesota was a hot bed of resistance, led by Evan’s father, a poet, and Paul’s father, a composer. Artists throughout the country had joined the Underground, the loosely organized resistance movement. They could offer Adam a way out of the country.

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I cut Evan’s childhood section when I realized that I was writing a novel and I needed to restructure it to focus on his adult life, what eventually became Perceval’s Secret. Now I find it a bit ironic that Evan carries a dangerous secret in the novel, one that could cost him his life. So perhaps Adam did survive in the importance of keeping dangerous secrets.

Revision

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006The last week or so my writing work has been focused on a nonfiction piece that’s ready for revision/editing. An interview in a Q&A format, a first for me. It’s too long for one thing. I want to preserve its current flow because it’s an interview, which means any editing cannot change the original meaning or the unique voice of the person interviewed. This mountain of a job will give my revising and editing muscles a real workout. Where to begin?

Sharpening Focus

In any conversation, whether an interview or not, the direction veers off on tangents, circles around and back to the topic, and veers off again. The first task of editing my piece is to identify everything that isn’t an answer to the questions, i.e. identify the tangents. Next, I ask myself: does this (or that) tangent illuminate a point the interviewee is making? If not, out it goes. If it’s an example of the interviewee’s point, I then weigh how good it is or how many examples he gives for this one point. Maybe he’s given 3 or 4, so I try to choose the best one.

Sharpening focus for the answer to each question is probably the most important part of the editing process. It takes the longest because it requires some thought about the question as well as the answer. Editing the question for length also comes into the process. I’ve discovered ways to strengthen the questions by tightening them.

Waiting

The next step, after the first revision, is to put the piece away. This part reminds me of the fermentation process. It’s really crucial to put it away and wait for the fermentation to take its course. I often continue thinking about the piece, though, and this interview is no exception. And I’m on deadline for it, so the fermentation period needs to be shorter than I usually prefer.

fermentation

fermentation

With one piece put away to ferment, I’ll work on some other writing project, read, clean house, go to the part time job, or anything else on my to-do list. Today, for example, I’ve been working on business chores, cleaning out e-mails, working more on my very late holiday letters, house chores, researching a talented young French pianist that I discovered over the weekend, and running errands. All my watches have stopped — is this the Universe trying to tell me something? — and I need to take them in to get new batteries for them this afternoon. And I’m finishing this blog post that I began last Saturday afternoon.

More Revision

The next step after fermentation, is another round of revision. During this round, I’m checking for grammar issues, typos, spelling mistakes, and syntax issues. I’m also looking for more ways to tighten, to cut, to get the piece down to the word count I want.

If I have enough time before the deadline, I’ll repeat the fermentation-revision-fermentation-revision process several times until I cannot find anything that needs attention. I’ll read the piece aloud during this process also to check for the flow. I’m also checking any links I’ve included, and I add photos if necessary. In the case of my current project, only one photo will be included, that of the interviewee.

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Finishing

When I’ve arrived at a place with the piece where I’m feeling comfortable that it’s ready for publication, I’ll do one last read through with an eye to anything I may have missed. Dropped words and misspellings are usually caught in this round. I then submit it to the publication.

In general, this is the revision process I follow whether I’m working on nonfiction or fiction. It can vary a little from piece to piece depending on how much time I have for it or what the purpose of the piece is. I’ve learned, however, that even when I’m working on deadline it’s important not to rush the revision process, to slow down and savor it, really use the mind and imagination to make the writing the best it can be.

 

Learning and Growing as a Writer

Thanks to "No, I do NOT have too many books!" on Facebook for photo.

Thanks to “No, I do NOT have too many books!” on Facebook for photo.

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery….”           — Father Richard Rohr

Allow and encounter mystery. Collaborating with my imagination means allowing and encountering mystery. I have no idea how it works, I just know it does and that’s enough for me. I tolerate not knowing, ambiguity, and anxiety in order to participate in this collaboration because I know it works, it’s fun, and it is deeply satisfying.

Above my desk is a post-it in light green and on it I’ve written “TRUST in the PROCESS.” Let go of control. Play. Trust my imagination. As I’ve been working on Perceval’s Shadow this past week, I’ve realized that my imagination demands that I tell Evan Quinn’s story even if it takes me five novels to do it and a totally unknown amount of time. That is certainty I’ve not felt before. It rides on a sense that even though I’ve been away from Evan and his story for a while, he has not gone anywhere, but has waited patiently for me to return. I find this both reassuring and spooky.

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Then today, as I was digging through my pile of notes for things to write at this blog, I found the quote above, and a list entitled “Lessons Learned from a Private Investigator” without attribution. I suspect I’d saved the latter because of the note about the website where the writer had found the list: Diligentiagroup.com.  This website is for a private investigation business in New York that also has a blog. The writer, a mystery writer, noted that he/she spent a lot of time researching websites, blogs, and books by police, agents and private investigators for her/his writing and had found this particular website’s blog. The list could be also titled “Lessons Learned from My Years as a Writer.” Here’s the list:

  1. Always be learning. Learn by doing and observing others.
  2. Know thyself. Know your strengths and where you need help, and don’t be shy about either.
  3. Differentiate yourself. Don’t be ordinary. Create a brand.
  4. Authenticity. Being genuine and authentic is very attractive these days when the world is wrought with fake and “Buy my book.”
  5. Stick to your principles. Be honest and straightforward. Protect your reputation.
  6. Be helpful. Good things happen when you lend a helping hand.
  7. Don’t be everything to everyone. Pick your genre, find your readership base, and avoid trying to write for every reader out there.
  8. Do work you are proud of. If you write slow, so be it. If you write Christian, erotica, YA, whatever the style, voice, genre, own it.
  9. You are never the smartest or dumbest person in the room. Ask questions. Learn more. Help others do the same.
  10. Don’t stop thinking of new ideas. You’re in a creative environment, and change is happening all around you. Be constantly seeking ways to be unique.
  11. Adapt. This industry changes fast. Roll with that change.
  12. Embrace technology. Yes, that means learning ways to publish, brand, and network, whether you like it or not.
  13. Follow the facts. Make decisions or form opinions based upon fact, not rumors, gossip, innuendos, or half-truths.
  14. Be inspired. Be aware of the world around you.
  15. Do great work. Don’t shortchange the quality of your writing.
  16. Be skeptical. Operate with a critical eye. Don’t fall for the latest class, how-to, software, or book that claims to teach you the perfect way to (fill in the blank).
  17. Persistence. Probably the most important of the list, persistence carries you through those times when you think you should not be writing.

And then I would add two more, two very specific things:

  • Read everything but especially read what you love because that is what you will write. I learn something from every novel, essay, poem, short story, or nonfiction book I read.
  • Write something everyday. Even if it’s only a paragraph in your journal or a letter to a friend, write, write, write.

If you haven’t already found it, here’s my job description for a creative writer.

Keep writing, learning, and growing!

Credit: Walt Disney

Credit: Walt Disney