Category Archives: Revision Work

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?

 

 

 

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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!

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.

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.

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?