Category Archives: the future

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.

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Character: The First Appearance

Yesterday, I had a great afternoon of writing fiction! All the pent up creative energy flowed out onto the page and my imagination just played, and played, and played. The result: a finished first draft of a story that had been stuck in limbo before. I feel as if I’ve flown free of prison — the prison of fulltime work and not having enough time to think creatively for my fiction. My body has finally become accustomed to the fulltime work schedule during the week, I’m not as behind with mundane chores, and I now have the time and brain and energy to work creatively on weekends.

So, wouldn’t you know it? A new character has popped into my head. She doesn’t yet have a name, although I know it’ll be something unusual. I know she’s middle-aged. I know that she’s a shape-shifter. She is also a Wizard, i.e. a master of magic. I think. Her shape-shifting has nothing to do with her magic, it is her physical form so she is not human. She is a White Wizard, i.e. she uses her magic for good, not evil. The first time she appeared in my mind, it was two very feminine green eyes in what looked like a rough granite wall. She was hiding. Why was she hiding? The granite wall was on an alien planet. At this point, I have no idea where or when, although I’m thinking future.

Maybe the power she has isn’t exactly magic. Wizard was the first thing that came to mind for what she could do. She has the power to move from one point to another instantly. She only has to think it.  Although she’s middle-aged for her kind, she would be quite old in human years. I see her as having a high level of integrity, of honesty, of compassion, and of mischievous humor. She is modest. And oddly, I see her having worked as a diplomat at some point in the past. What universe does she inhabit? What does she want? Is she a protagonist, or is she a POV character and another character is the protagonist?  She inhabits science fiction or fantasy, I think, probably science fiction. Maybe a pivotal character in the story somehow.

While doing some cursory research on “wizard – female” online, I ran across a site that generates wizard names. So for the fun of it, I clicked on “female” to see what would come up. A lot of nothing that grabbed me, but a couple I wrote down because I could think about them and maybe they’d spark other names. They already have, actually. So I’ll be writing down names for a while until one really hits me as the one that fits her.

There’s a lot I don’t know about this character, but I have a strong sense that she’s here to stay. Typically, she’ll get around to telling me more about herself eventually, and I’ll find out who she is, what she’s doing in the granite wall (besides hiding), and what the story is. She’s interesting right now, just as she is.  I can’t wait to find out more.

It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.

Being a Creative Writer: Under Oppression

In 2017 America, we have access to countless narratives of people existing and surviving under oppressive conditions, be they social, psychological, or political. In my own life, I’ve read Soviet writers who worked in the USSR as well as Western writers who visited the USSR and wrote about their experiences and observations afterward. I was reminded of this today when I saw in The New York Times an article by Margaret Atwood entitled “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” In this article, Atwood talks about her novel and its setting: an America which has gone through a coup that establishes a strict patriarchal rule based in 17th century Puritanism. Under this oppression, human rights, especially women’s rights, are minimal if they exist at all. Only “the elite,” i.e. those in power, have human rights and freedoms. They dominate and control everyone and everything else. Atwood wrote this story in 1984, during the Reagan era in America. It was in 1984 that I first met Evan Quinn, the protagonist of my Perceval series, and began to explore who he was and what his story was.

Since the November 2016 election, I’ve been thinking about the role of the writer in a society that is hostile toward the arts, especially literature, and is obsessed with money. Commerce rules in America, and there’s nothing sweeter than gigantic profits. The sign of success? Your income level, earned, or especially, unearned, as in investments. If you are a member of the Working Poor, you are not a success according to American society. The number of writers in the top 1% income group are few. Most writers fall somewhere between the Working Poor and the middle Middle Class. And no, I don’t have specific statistics on that, just what I’ve observed in Minnesota which is an active literary area in the country. For the last 2 months, we’ve seen a new president and government that wants to keep writers either subservient to them or silent. They’ve acted to destroy the press, calling various media news outlets “the enemy of the people.” They’ve acted to cut federal government support of the arts by defunding and abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This government doesn’t like writers.  Why?

Moscow. First secretary of the Union of Soviet writers Konstantin Fedin (tribune) makes a speech at the fourth Congress of Soviet writers. Photo TASS / Yevgeny Kassin; Vladimir Savostyanov

For the same reason the USSR’s government didn’t like them. And I know that I may be making a controversial comparison here, but please bear with me (I’m not making the Nazi comparison because it’s redundant). The Soviet government established rules and bureaucratic procedures by which every citizen had to abide, except for the ruling elite who enjoyed all the power and perks. Writers observed life in the Soviet Union and how this system affected that life and they wrote about it. And many were “disappeared” because of it. The government tried to corral writers into a governmental structure called the Union of Soviet Writers which was created in 1932 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. If a writer gained membership in the Union (and the Communist Party), he enjoyed financial support and publication. If a writer was not a member, he enjoyed poverty and being banned from publication. Members of the Union had to adhere to the Party’s Socialist Realism in all their creative expression. In this way, the government controlled what the writers wrote.

Example of Socialist Realism in architecture: All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow (from Wikipedia)

I’m a bit surprised that the Bannon-Trump government hasn’t thought about merging the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities into one artist union with departments for literature, painting, music, dance, etc.  (In the Perceval novels, it’s called the Arts Council.) Perhaps they haven’t yet thought of it, or maybe they have and have concluded that it would be a waste of money since they believe the arts are not very profitable but dangerous to them.

What should American writers do right now and going forward? As always, write the truth as you experience it. Whether in nonfiction or fiction, writers need to continue doing what they do best: observe, witness, reveal, and be clear and true in all of their words. In the April 2017 The Writer, Gail Radley (“Through the Looking Glass”) writes about what facts are and how to find the truth. She’s comprehensive in talking about the internet, trusted sources, and how to tell when a website is not to be trusted no matter what it looks like. Her tips could also apply to government websites masquerading as private websites.

Write to resist. Write to witness. Write to record for posterity, whether in a fictional format or nonfiction. If you have activism running through your blood, protest and demonstrate non-violently, peacefully, and meaningfully. Keep it simple. Writers know how to reveal character through dialogue, right? Use that skill to actively communicate to your elected representatives or when you are protesting in a group.

I know, I know. All this sounds rather paranoid. Perhaps it is. But I do think that those in power right now are truly serious about what they want to accomplish. Those who disagree with them, anyone who wants to insure the arts will be available to anyone and everyone forever, all need to be just as serious and determined in what they want to accomplish.

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.