Category Archives: Writing

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

Advertisements

Getting Started…again…and again….

“Aanora’s eyes”

The last two weeks or so have been full of life concerns and chores so I haven’t had much time to work on fiction. No, that’s not correct.  I didn’t have much time to sit at my computer and put words on screen, but I was actually working a lot on the Aanora story. That is, thinking about various scenes, asking my imagination lots of questions, and getting a handle on plot points. I’m starting to get a sense of its length, too, and it could end up novella length.  Which is fine.  I’ve not written a novella before.  Always a first time.

What niggled and nagged at me the last two weeks was the beginning. How to start? I have fairly stable scenes down that are in the middle and at the end.  I know now that the story doesn’t begin with Aanora, but with a set of characters at a diplomatic conference. It took me two weeks to get that far.  Yesterday, I decided to devote the afternoon to the beginning with the hope that I’d be able to get something down on screen.  I scrapped what I originally wrote and the first revision and started over. Then I closed my eyes to put myself in the meeting chamber where delegations from 25 planets were enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres at a reception.

Who are the sentient beings attending this conference? Do I need to name and describe each one? Ugh. I don’t think that’s needed. But I do need to name and describe the two parties who collide into a dispute. And then the human delegation that gets pulled into the dispute, challenged to find Aanora. They’ve never heard of Aanora, but understand from what the disputing parties tell them that she is the only mediator they will both accept. I realized that the leader of the human delegation (the main character) feels deeply insecure about his diplomatic skills and would like to find a mentor who can help him. And then there is this other niggling in my mind: one of the disputing parties is not known for accepting mediation.  They are known for taking what they want and leaving. So right away, I have the feeling that something is not right.

Where I write

Tension.  A great thing to have at the beginning of a story.  That sense of not knowing what’s going to happen, wondering what’s going on, what’s going to happen next. I was quite heartened with what I ended up with yesterday. I feel much more secure with this beginning than the others I’d written. It may be rewritten or edited in the future, but I now have my starting point for the story.

Another result of my thinking: getting to know the main character better. He’s a physical person, someone who prefers to act rather than think. He operates a lot on instinct, but isn’t good at reading people. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in this story, if he’s truly open to learning, and if he can figure out what’s going on.  I already know when and how he meets Aanora.  I hope I’ll have more time next weekend for work on the story at the computer!

 

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!

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.