Category Archives: Revision Work

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.


When Inspiration Strikes

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole

I wrote one of my favorite blog posts, “Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You,” here almost ten years ago, and as I read it over this morning, I realized that it is the best description of my writing process that I’ve written. However, it doesn’t really describe how, when, or where inspiration can strike when it does strike. So how do I know when to be open to it? I’ve been thinking about this lately because ideas have been popping into my head at the oddest times.


One large project I’ve been working on (at the same time I’m looking for a fulltime job) is thoroughly cleaning my apartment. It’s not a huge apartment, but the clutter had been accumulating, as it usually does, as well as the dust and dirt. So I’ve been working on the cleaning a little at a time to keep this project manageable and not overwhelming. I detest housework of any kind. But I love it when my living space smells fresh and gleams. To distract myself while I’m doing this onerous task, I usually pick music I love to listen to while I work — could be classical, classic rock, or a Broadway musical.

I’ve just created conditions conducive for my imagination to come out and play. At some point while I’m cleaning, a thought will pop into my head about fiction or an essay that I’m working on. The most recent example occurred while I was cleaning in my bedroom — the thought came to me that my short story Light the Way was as much about different people having different expectations about the same thing as it was about the main character sharing her experience. I wrote a note to myself and finished the cleaning for the day. The next time I worked on that short story, I revised to make clearer the different expectations aspect of the story.

In the Shower

On Sundays, I like to have a relaxing, quiet day, and one of the things I do is take a nice, long, hot shower. My mind wanders all over the place, often thinking about the week ahead, what I accomplished in the past week, and my writing. Or I’ll start daydreaming about traveling or outer space, or being rich. Usually, when I’m almost finished, that’s when the idea will pop into my head. The most recent example of this occurred last Sunday. And the idea came to me with a physical jolt. I needed to rework one section of the Aanora story to add a little trip to another dimension for her to show another character something relevant to him in terms of character development and their relationship. It was one of those things of “Why didn’t I think of that before?” it was so obvious after I thought of it.

My suspicion: inspiration is like a cat stalking me, its prey, and that cat only pounces when she sees that I’m in the perfect position (or state of mind) to be captured. And I do often feel “captured” by a strike of inspiration.

Between Sleep and Wakefulness

Of course, it’s easy to think of inspiration striking while daydreaming or listening to music. That happens to me also, especially when I’m listening to music. But another fertile time occurs in the bleary state between sleep and wakefulness. I feel like I’m rising up or floating up or rocketing up depending on whether my alarm clock has gone off or not. The other morning, as I was slowly coming out of sleep, a sentence popped into my mind. Yep.  Just like that. I heard myself saying the words, and then I realized, oh my god, it’s the first sentence I’ve been seeking for Perceval’s Shadow. Now, I’m not working on the revision of that novel right now. In fact, I haven’t thought much about it because I’ve been trying to finish the short stories I have in progress. So for this gift of a sentence to come to me now is truly magical.

Inspiration can be courted but not coerced. Demand what you will from it, but prepare to be disappointed. Inspiration will not be forced. Invite it into your life and then provide welcoming conditions to entice it but don’t just sit around waiting for it to arrive. Do something! Write something everyday, read voraciously, clean house, take a shower, or take a nap….

Photo: Vasillisa/

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!


Being a Creative Writer in 2017

Yesterday, while cleaning out e-mail, I ran across several Funds for Writers newsletters I hadn’t yet gone through. One contained a brief musing from Hope Clark on “How to Make Time for Writing.” What really caught my eye were these 2 sentences: “When someone thinks writing is about squeezing it into an already busy schedule, they’ve already discounted it (the writing). Instead, writing ought to simply be more important than something they are already doing, and they stop doing that other thing because it just makes sense.”  To which I thought, “Clearly, Hope Clark doesn’t need to work to pay the bills like most writers in 2017.” Usually that “something they are already doing” is a fulltime job because writing doesn’t pay the bills.

Clark goes on to say: “Fulltime money means fulltime writing, and even so, fulltime writers struggle making enough income to live on.” I’ve been a fulltime writer. Most years I made $0 income from writing and lived off my retirement savings while I continued to write and seek out paying markets. The reality is that getting paid for writing, especially writing fiction, is a tremendous struggle nowadays, and I suspect it always has been. But you can write for free all you want on the internet of course, and websites will welcome your writing.

If you are a writer with a fulltime job to pay the bills like me, you know what I’m talking about. I’m fortunate if I can get an hour a day for writing, and afternoons on the weekends. That’s for the writing and research for writing. That doesn’t include marketing for Perceval’s Secret or promotion for it, networking for shorter pieces like essays and short stories, or reading.  I’m fortunate to have a commute of about 40 minutes in the mornings and 60 minutes in the evenings, so I’m able to read on the bus. If I didn’t have that commuting time, I’d not be reading either. I’ve thought of writing on the bus, but handwriting is hard because of the stops and starts, and bringing my laptop on the bus when I don’t use it at work ends up being too heavy and too much, and too much of a risk it’ll be damaged or stolen.

So, it’s fine to dream about writing fulltime, make money with your writing, and maybe even having a substantial readership someday. To get there you need not only hard work but time in which to do that hard work. Being a creative writer in 2017 means that you will be expected to do everything yourself: writing, publishing, marketing, promotion, and perhaps even distribution although Amazon has made distribution much easier as well as other online sites. And going into debt to do it all.

If you choose to go the traditional publishing route, you’ll need to secure representation from a literary agent which means research, writing query letters, sending query e-mails, and repeat. You could also research publishers to find out which ones publish your genre and accept unagented manuscripts. If you get an agent, then that agent starts shopping your manuscript around. Chances are, you’ll be asked to do more revision work on it as well. Let’s say your agent lands a publishing deal for you. The publisher’s editor now takes over your manuscript, perhaps will request more revision work. Writers working for the first time with a publisher won’t generally be given any say in the title of the book, the cover, and production decisions like font. You will be expected though by the publisher to market and promote the hell out of your book because the publisher won’t. But you won’t have to set up distribution yourself.

This is the reality of being a creative writer in 2017. And in my humble opinion, it’s perfectly OK to squeeze in writing in my busy schedule whenever I can because I need to write, I need to market my writing, and I need to keep writing. That is not discounting writing at all. I’m saying it’s important and as much a part of my life as the job I have to pay the bills.

Do you squeeze writing into your busy schedules? How do you do it? Do you think that’s discounting your writing?





Writing Sound

Human beings possess five natural senses. Writers work hard to use words to stimulate those senses. It’s easy for certain senses like sight and taste, much harder for touch, hearing and smell. We have words that mimic sound, for example, like “eeeek!” or thud or squelch. And we use simile to describe something, e.g. sounds like, tastes like, smells like, feels to the touch like, etc. I’ve read three Daniel Jacobus mysteries (by Gerald Elias) this past summer and as a result I’ve been thinking about writing sound.

It’s possible to simply note the title of the music I’m referring to, such as the Mahler Fifth Symphony, the fabulous trumpet solo that begins it like an elegiac call to witness what comes after which often feels to me like Mahler tearing down a structure to create something new. If a reader is familiar with the music, the title may be all that’s needed to conjure memory of the music. But what if the music referred to is fictional, as is some of the music in Perceval’s Secret?

When I was writing and revising the first chapter of Perceval’s Secret in which Evan Quinn conducts Caine’s Fifth Symphony, I worked hard to avoid my prose turning purple on me in pursuit of capturing the sound in words. That’s really the huge challenge whether writing about a fictional piece of music or something that’s real. I admire greatly the music critic who can describe music’s sound and color in words that will evoke in anyone’s mind precisely the sound and color. I decided, with Evan, to focus more on what the music evoked for him rather than strictly the sound. But then I also realized that Evan, as a musician, would be sensitive to sound in all areas of his life, so he thinks of human voices in terms of the sounds of musical instruments, e.g. a man’s reedy voice reminds him of an oboe.

It may all boil down to the purpose of writing the sound, describing it in words.  In the first chapter of Perceval’s Secret, the purpose is not only to show Evan at work and how much he loves what he does, but also his emotional connection to the music and what it evokes for him. Music performance is an emotional experience every time it’s done.  Music evokes feelings, and through those feelings, it can spark the imagination, or memory, or other feelings. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the complete soundtrack to the movie Star Trek (2009), which is sparking memories of scenes in the movie as well as how I feel when I’m watching those scenes. Words do not have the same power as sound, but words become sound when spoken aloud, or when accompanied by music, or when sung. And in the time of Homer, stories were told, spoken aloud, not read. I’ve always wondered if Homer accompanied his telling of The Iliad with sounds, i.e. changing his voice for each character or adding sound effects for the battle scenes. For example, how did he begin:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians…..

Did he sing with the words “Sing, goddess”? What is the word “sing” meant to evoke here? We have songs that tell stories, and I suspect humans have been singing stories for thousands of years.

In Perceval’s Secret, my task was to describe the sound of the music I use in the story in words. Some of that music was fictional, some real. I had thought while writing how wonderful it would be to provide a direct link to the music that I was writing about so that the reader could hear it in the background while reading. It is the only time that I’ve thought that creating an interactive experience might be helpful. But I decided against doing that in any way in favor of leaving it to the reader to seek out the music to listen to on his or her own. And I’ve thought a lot about writing sound, and will continue to think about it through the subsequent novels in the series. Writing the sound of music is a lot harder than writing the sound of a kid jumping into a pool. Splash!