Category Archives: Writing

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

Just Published!

The Minnesota Orchestra has published an essay that I wrote about my first concert experience with the music of Gustav Mahler.

Check it out!

Photo by Moritz Naehr

How do you define Success?

Success. Everyone wants it. But what is it, really? I’m also curious to know if different countries define success differently based on their cultures. That curiosity arises from American society’s fixation on financial success as the only kind of success that counts. Writers need to figure out that writing for money can be a huge mistake, but it’s hard to ignore that it takes money to live, to pay the bills, obtain food, shelter, clothing. I’ve written about success before at this blog. In that post, I explored the idea of “commercial success.” Now I want to explore the notion of “success,” that is, success unencumbered by money.

Athletes can define success in two ways: when they win a competition, and when they attain their goals whether in training or in performance. Writers can learn from the example of athletes. Success is in how you define it, in other words, not how society defines it. Society will always define success in financial terms. For writers this means in sales. So let’s forget that and return to the athletes.

Photo by William Warby

Competition

Writers competing with other writers — do writers really do this? From my own experience and my voracious reading, I have a tendency to compare my writing to that of another writer’s. But I’m not thinking in terms of competition. I’m thinking in terms of noting what the other writer does well, doesn’t do well, and how I can learn from it. Competition exists, however, with writing contests. Every time you submit a story, a poem, a novel to a contest, your submission is in competition with all the other submissions. Do you submit writing to a lot of contests? I haven’t done this much in the past. Winning or placing well in a writing contest looks very good on your publication credits. Sometimes winning brings extremely favorable publicity, a bump in sales, or attention from agents and/or publishers. But is winning a competition success?

If you define it as success, then for you, it is. Maybe just entering a competition could be the success.

Attaining Goals

I set goals all the time — to do lists for housework chores, shopping lists, to do lists for business chores, setting a number of repetitions for an exercise (like sit-ups, for example) and setting a goal total to work toward.

In writing, wonderful possibilities exist for setting goals and then celebrating success by achieving them. For example, a daily word count. I used to do this when I was writing fulltime. My daily word count goal was 1000 words, or about 5 pages, double-spaced. When I reached my goal, I could either celebrate by stopping work for the day, or continue writing. My choice. But the success was there in writing those 1000 words.

I’ve set goals like this throughout my writing life. I set a goal to finish a short story by a certain date. I set a goal to start a short story on a particular day. I’ve set a goal to get off my butt and find a good editor when I began the production process to publish Perceval’s Secret. During the month of November, there’s a quite well-known activity called National Novel Writing Month when writers set the goal to write a novel first draft by November 30 (or December 1, if you want the entire day of November 30). If I were to participate, I’d be overwhelmed thinking about the entire month, so I’d probably break it down into a daily word count goal. Completing the month with a finished first draft is definitely success achieved!

Nowadays, my goals tend to be a bit different, so my definition of success is, too. If I manage to carve out 2 or 3 hours on a weekend to write fiction, or work on Perceval’s Shadow, I consider that a success. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal to finish the first revision by December 31. For a long time, it didn’t look like I’d come even close to achieving that goal. As time went on, I began to think in terms of chapters — my goal was to finish 17 chapters by December 31, then 15 chapters. Now it’s 12 chapters, or half the novel. I have 3 months to finish the revision of 12 chapters. So far, I’ve done 3 chapters. I am so slow!

Success According to You

Everyday, each of us has the opportunity to enjoy success, or even many successes. It depends on how we define success and if we’re willing to truly claim each success achieved.

Think about it. What will you do?

 

Dear Stephen King

My “Office”

As I’ve been working on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow, I’ve been feeling inadequate, terrified, and drowning in a writing ocean in which I’d chosen to swim (why did I? I hate swimming). Thinking I could use encouragement and support, I decided to read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book had resided in my bookcase for years. I don’t read self-help books, and books on writing remind me of self-help books. But I’d read a favorable review years ago, and writer friends had spoken highly of it, so I’d bought the book and then left it in my bookcase where I could eye it and wonder what Stephen King could possibly have to say about writing.

Now I know. I finished reading it this morning, pleased that I felt so reassured in my own creative process as a result. Stephen King recommends Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and that alone convinced me that he knows far more than I’d expected about writing. It’s my Bible too. He also confesses to the same terror and feelings of inadequacy at times when facing what he’d written, and at the same time exulting in the joy he feels when he’s writing. I can relate. I am the happiest when I’m writing fiction.

I admit, I’m surprised by this book. But hadn’t you read any of his books? Yes. I read ‘Salem’s Lot the summer it came out in paperback. My brother had bought it and consumed it in one afternoon. We were living at our summer house on a lake as we did every summer, so visits to the city library happened once a week when my mother drove into town to buy groceries. I’d exhausted my pile of library books and was looking for something to read until the next library run when I found ‘Salem’s Lot on the sofa in front of the fireplace. So, I read it. I hated it. Hated it. I’m not a fan of vampires despite admiring Bram Stoker’s classic work. Because of that experience, I’ve stayed away from Stephen King’s books ever since.

It wasn’t snobbishness, either. I admired King’s chutzpah and his support of writing and writers. I loved that he chose to live in Maine. I just didn’t think his books were for me. I do not enjoy reading horror stories. Then I saw the movie The Shawshank Redemption and loved it. A friend mentioned that Stephen King had written the book on which it was based. No! Really? You mean Stephen King writes other kinds of books besides horror? But I still stayed away. It wasn’t until a friend recommended Mr. Mercedes that I decided to give King another try. I loved that book and have since also read Finders Keepers. And then I was quite surprised to learn that he’d written Hearts in Atlantis. Hmmmm.  I probably still won’t be reading his horror books, though.

In On Writing, King starts with a large autobiographical section to show the reader where he comes from as a writer. There were surprises: his alcoholism and drug addiction, for example, as well as some pithy description of his job in a laundry. And like me, he began writing early in his life. Like me, he feels happiest writing, as hard as the job can be at times. But unlike me, he enjoyed publication success early. In the second section, King explores writing and how to do it. This was the section that most reassured me because most of what he suggests and/or recommends are things that I already do and have done for years. I was surprised that he only does maybe 3 drafts of a piece, though. Really? Not sure I believe that. In the final, much shorter, section, King describes being hit by a van while out for a walk and the aftermath. I cried through most of this section. I know what it’s like to face major health issues, to be in a hospital, to have a long recuperation, to deal with massive physical pain. I am happy, however, that King returned to writing, specifically On Writing. It has energized me and made my imagination ecstatic.

Dear Stephen King, thank you.

Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 2

I love revision work. It challenges. It’s hard. It frustrates. It slows me down and forces me to think, to imagine, to turn to my imagination to help me. This is the place I’m in now with the second novel. I couldn’t be happier…except there’s never enough time! I want more time to work on it. Amazing how much time a fulltime job and the commute eats out of my writing time.

Before last weekend, I had not done much work on chapter 3. I spent the entire weekend on chapter 3. My original discovery that it needed a great deal of work had not changed at all. In fact, I rewrote sections by hand, not opening the computer at all. Writing by hand is the ultimate way to slow down the revision process. The way the hand holds a pen, the ink flows onto the paper, and the ink forming letters and words thrills me as well as excites my imagination.

As I worked, I finally saw the structure for this chapter. Like a musical Rondo, it alternates between the medical setting and people, and Evan’s life and the people in it. I found the way to bring Evan’s guilt forward more as well as his PTSD. And I know how this chapter ends which right now is quite an accomplishment.

Work on chapter 3 has also shown me strongly that I need a new chapter between the current chapter 4 and chapter 5. Another new character arrives in Evan’s life at the end of chapter 3, and I’ve realized that my original questions years ago about whether or not I needed to give that new character more time with Evan before they return to Vienna were spot on. Right now, this novel has 22 chapters, and I haven’t done a word count because I thought that would be silly for a first draft that will probably change a lot during the revision process. So far, adding the chapter between chapters 4 and 5 is the only place I feel the need for another chapter. It is related to chapter 3, so what I put in chapter 3 now will move forward in a new chapter 5.

At this point, I haven’t done any editing on the computer. All my work has been handwritten on a hard copy I printed out before. Another decision I need to make: when will I begin adding the editing/changes/new material I’m doing by hand to the document files on my computer? That process also takes time, and it’s been my experience that it can also spark additional revisions as I’m working on the computer. The new chapter between the current chapters 4 and 5 I’ll probably write on the computer, as I wrote the entire first draft.

I’m pleased with the work so far. It’s been abundantly clear also that my mind and imagination were quite ready to do it now. I can feel the thoughts just under the surface of my mind focused on Evan and this novel. Lots of that tingly feeling when I know physically that what I’m doing is absolutely right. I just wish I had more time!