Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 1

So, here I am, facing the words I’ve written to tell the story of Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the Perceval series. I thought I’d start a mini-series of posts about the revision process on this novel to share its progress and maybe a little about my own creative process.

Revision work is all about making decisions. If you’re a terrible decision-maker, maybe creative writing isn’t a good fit for you. The decisions start as soon as the idea comes into a writer’s head — they masquerade as questions that need to be answered. Who is this character? What does she want? Is this story a short story? Novella? Or maybe it’s a screenplay? Where is this character? What’s her backstory? And so on — just a taste of the questions that come up at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first revision, the questions are different. The first question I asked myself was do I read straight through the draft and then start the work, or do I just start the work with chapter 1? My reply to myself, after a few minutes of thought while staring at the manuscript pages, came with a certainty of feeling in the pit of my stomach that spread throughout my body: just start the work.

So, I began by reading through the notes I’d been making over the years (yes, years) with my ideas for how I wanted each chapter, page, and paragraph to go to move the story forward and reveal character. I do that reading in motion, i.e. I walk from one end of my apartment to the other and back. Over and over until I finish going through the notes. Then I sit down at my desk, pull out my favorite purple ink pen, and begin reading chapter 1. This chapter surprised me quite a lot. It’s in good shape and I had few changes or edits. Later I discovered the reason — in the back of the file folder are five other chapter 1’s marked “old” and written all over in different colored inks. I’m certain that chapter 1 will require even more work, but for now, it’s in good shape.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Chapter 2 introduces a new character, a 10-year-old French boy named Pierre. As I began reading, I remembered how Pierre had come into my life, following me around for months before I finally figured out where he belonged, i.e. in this novel. I’d had an incredibly deep feeling for Pierre — I’m very attached to him, very protective. I’m hoping that these feelings will channel into the other characters in the story. Pierre will need their affection and protection. My prose in this chapter needed much more work than the first chapter, and I slowed down to do the work and took my time. And all through it, Pierre’s introduction into the Perceval series pleased me. I liked his feistiness. I went through this chapter twice during two different weekends.

After the second day of working on chapter 2, I turned to chapter 3. The work on this chapter began at a snail’s pace. Immediately, I saw that this chapter would need a great deal of work during this revision, and required a thorough re-think. But I know what I want this chapter to accomplish regarding revealing character and moving the story forward. The trick will be asking the right questions and  putting what I learn on the page.

Revision work is like eating chocolate — it is not to be rushed but savored as a total immersion experience. The first revision for me is not about grammar, syntax or an extensive line edit. It’s about making certain I got the characters right. Revision work is the true work in writing, work to be as creative as in the first draft but in a different way, work to be focused on character. Even when I’m not at my desk, I’m thinking about it.

Experience and Learning, or There’s Always a Lesson to Learn

The first Beta reading of the “Aanora” story has been done and I’ve received the feedback. I have to admit that I was surprised. On the one hand, my set-up for the climax had been extremely successful. On the other hand, a couple things I’d thought I’d made clear — important details — had been missed, leaving my reader confused during the last act of the story. What?

I spent a good deal of time going through the novella with slow and careful attention, looking for where I may have missed something myself. But everything was there. My reader should not have been confused. I made some changes to clarify some details and also some continuity corrections. Then I put the novella away. I sent my Beta reader an email thanking her, and also included a response to some of her comments. Then I moved onto Perceval’s Shadow.

This past week, I was reading the October issue of The Writer and came to an article by Susan Breen about dealing with criticism, “Thin Skin: How to Deal with Criticism as a Writer.” Breen writes about the difficulty of being bombarded with criticism at all stages of a story’s life — Beta readers, editors, agents, publishers, reviewers, friends, well-meaning fans, and the list can go on and on. Each believes, of course, that they’re doing the writer a huge service by offering their criticism. Then Breen goes on to list 9 essential things to remember when dealing with criticism.

As I read the article, I realized that I knew everything that Breen was saying, and I’d been very good about doing everything she suggested, i.e. listen, write down notes, wait (give it time to ferment), use the criticism to make it better, look at the big picture, consider the source of the criticism (how trustworthy?), never take it personally (even though it can feel that way), pay attention to the positive things, the praise (it can get lost among the negative stuff), and remember that real writers are the ones who are criticized, not those who never commit anything to paper. I also realized that I had not done a very good job of accepting the criticism I received from my Beta reader.

I had chosen this particular reader for the first reading because I knew that she knew the sci fi universe in which I had set the story. I had asked her to watch for anything that could be out of place, and she pointed out several things that were very good catches. She also reads widely. I trusted her to be honest with me and she was. Where I fell down in this process was to give her comments time before I responded to them. Then I needed to go back to her and ask some questions about those things that she had missed. For example, what had she thought when she’d read that section? Why had she thought in that direction and not some other direction? I realized that I was the one who needed the clarification from her, not that she needed clarification from me to explain those things she had missed. There was a reason she’d missed them, even though I had set them up earlier. Clearly, I had not done a good enough job of setting them up so that they wouldn’t be missed.

I’ve been writing for decades now, and I continue to write a lot in a lot of different genres. My experience over the years has given me knowledge and skill. However, it doesn’t matter how many years or how much experience or how much skill, there’s always something to learn — or re-learn — in writing. So if someone says to me that they’ve been writing so long, it all comes really easily to them and they really don’t have anything more to learn, I don’t believe them.

Life and living is learning. As part of life, writing is the same thing.

Two Years and Counting….

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

As I watched national news during the past week since Senator John McCain’s passing, my thoughts returned time and again to my original work in building the world of 2048-2052 for the Perceval series, how I imagined America becoming an oppressive autocracy. During the summer of 2016, I wrote about my concerns with the upcoming election, and especially how America had developed since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. During the past week, I went back to that summer also, remembering my hope that America would not walk down the path I had seen before it while working on Perceval’s Secret. I don’t pretend to be able to predict the future, but the signs were there for anyone to see.

In “The Drift Toward Autocracy Continues,” the August 20, 2018 post at The Weekly Sift, Doug Muder lays out how America continues to move toward an autocratic, not a democratic, federal government, bringing America closer to the America in Perceval’s Secret. What really stood out for me was the following:

“Here’s a norm that is key to separating a republic from an autocracy: In a republic, executive powers are tied to executive responsibilities. In an autocracy, executive powers are personal prerogatives, subject to the whim of whomever the Executive happens to be.”

The current American president insists on personal loyalty from his staff, not loyalty to the country and Constitution. The current American president is embroiled in the appearance of, if not yet proved to be involved in, corruption, collusion with a foreign power, and violating the Emoluments clause in the Constitution. The current American president this week was annoyed with the media’s coverage of John McCain’s life and death — a man who served his country as a Navy pilot during war, and as an elected representative of the people of Arizona, revealing this president’s fragile ego.  Senator McCain knew and modeled public service to country and community. The current American president pays off women with whom he cheated on his wife so they wouldn’t talk about the affairs. The current American president revokes the security clearance of a highly respected intelligence official to punish him, not because he was a national security threat but because he’d spoken truth to power, using the president’s power to grant or revoke security clearances without following standard protocol and procedure. The current American president would like very much for the Justice Department to do his bidding, no questions asked, to eliminate his enemies and rivals which would be a gross abuse of power. The current American president has no respect for Freedom of the Press as he attacks the media and calls it “fake news.” The Republican Party does nothing. The Republican Party wants to maintain their majority in Congress, and as Karl Rove put it, to have “a permanent majority” which would be another step toward autocracy.

I’ve listened to those who support the current American president. They think he’s doing an excellent job and taking the country in the right direction. But when it comes to specifics, I have not heard anyone actually go into specifics. What I find especially interesting about the current American president’s supporters is that they are usually not wealthy, they are racist against African-Americans and immigrants, especially Hispanics from the south, they want America to bully the rest of the world to get what they want which I haven’t a clue what that is, and they want the federal government to shrink along with the taxes they pay. They feel threatened by anyone who is not white, Christian, male. They do not comprehend, apparently, the irony that they elected a wealthy white man who’s not particularly religious, and who really doesn’t care about them to get them what they want. Sadly, all this president cares about is what he wants and that is power — feeling powerful, wielding power over other people, and enjoying being treated like a powerful person.

None of what I’m writing here is a secret. Any intelligent person who makes an effort to stay informed about current events and our federal government can see it all for herself. Anyone who observes the current American president and how he speaks can come to the same conclusions. The American people and their government do not have a leader in the Oval Office right now who is a public servant and who knows how to govern in a democratic republic. They have a guy who wants to be president and be like a Mafia don. He wants to make money off the American people who elected him as well as the political party that continues to turn a blind eye, and help the wealthy multiply their wealth. He doesn’t know how to work with Congress and doesn’t want to learn. He doesn’t know how to work with our Allies and doesn’t want to learn. He’d much rather tweet insults and brag about his “accomplishments” — a large word that he could not even begin to fill with what he’s done in his life.

After the election two years ago, I’d hoped that Congress would be a strong check on him. It turned out that only the Judicial branch fulfilled their role as a check on Executive power.  The Republicans seem happy with the current American president — after all, if he takes over, they won’t have to deal with governing anymore. The Congressional Republicans, for the most part, have not proven themselves to be democratic leaders who govern well. Senator John McCain was an exception. I wonder if the Congressional Republicans are really paying attention to their constituents; after all, the current president lost the popular vote by a rather large margin.

Recently, a couple readers of Perceval’s Secret approached me separately and commented with a certain amount of fear on the future that I depict in that novel. They wanted to know how I knew that the 2016 election would be the beginning of a wealthy elite take-over of the country, turning American society upside down. It’s been in the works for years. All I did was pay attention. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Remaining True to Characters

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy

What writer hasn’t grappled with the sense of playing God while writing characters? It is a seductive feeling.  Power.  Control.  Bossing characters around so that they do and say what I want. Wow. Certainly can’t do that with people in real life. But guess what? It doesn’t work anymore with fictional characters than it does in real life. That is, if you want your characters to truly be themselves. I’ve experienced characters staging protests and coups when I’ve forgotten my true place as the writer and tried to play God, and so now that I’m doing lots of revision work, it’s time to remind myself just what remaining true to characters really means.

Observe

People Watching

The first thing is to step back and watch. As I read my writing, or anyone else’s, that’s what I’m doing mentally. I wouldn’t try to interfere with someone else’s characters, and so I will not interfere with my own. And actually, that possessive “my” is relative — at some point, characters become their own people with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings, motivations, behavior, and speech, and when that happens, that’s when a writer knows he or she has succeeded in creating characters who are as real as people in the real world. Part of getting to that point is believing they are real people.

While doing revision work, it’s important to set aside all my own ideas and preconceptions about each character, and just watch them as I read. Who are they? What do they want in the context of the story? What will they do to get it? What is their worst fear? What is their primary emotional flaw? Watch the characters in their behavior and speech to learn the answers to these questions. I’m usually not surprised by the primary characters but sometimes a secondary character will shock or surprise me, and then that opens up possibilities for the story that I had not seen before.

listen

iStockphoto

How a person talks reveals an awful lot about their character, education, and background. Pay attention to the rhythm of the speech, to the use of language, to the choice of words. Pay attention to how characters talk to each other.

When I was working on Vasia Bartyakov in Perceval’s Secret, I knew that he was Russian, and that his English would reflect the influence of his native tongue. But what really came through to me from him with his English was a sense of his natural exuberance. He’s old enough to have some idea of the way the world works, but still young enough to believe in optimism and the inherent goodness of human beings. He loves life. He loves music. Every word out of his mouth and the way he said it reflected that. I learned all that by stepping back and listening to him, and stopped myself from putting words in his mouth that I believed would move the story forward or reveal character. What I learned from Vasia is that characters love to reveal themselves through their speech if you shut up and listen.

witness

Write what you see and hear. Describe it as closely as you can to what you saw and heard from your characters. I call this “witnessing.” This is where the give and take between the writer and her characters really comes into play, and it’s important that the writer remain true to her characters, i.e. be worthy of their trust and belief in her by being faithful to what she’s seen and heard.

In the revision stage, it’s just as important to remain true to the characters, to insure that even if dialogue needs to be cleaned up for whatever reason, the writer preserves the original intent and meaning of that dialogue. What I most often run into with dialogue is that I need to relax it, make it more like the spoken speech that it is rather than only speech that is read. People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. I want my writing to be the best it can be in order to be an accurate and trustworthy witness to the lives of my characters.

conclusion

Characters may be watching the writer as closely as the writer watches them to determine if the writer can be trusted with their story. They give themselves over to writers, and at the same time, writers need to respect them and the process that the writer and characters are both part of. The next time you’re tempted to play God with your characters, just think of how much you may hate being bossed around, controlled and manipulated, and treat your characters the way you want to be treated yourself.

Out of the Dream, On to the Screen

Photo from Terra Kate at Pinterest

This morning, I woke from a dream, one of those “processing” dreams that rehash something that happened the day before or a week ago. This one succinctly reviewed an issue at work and how I’d responded, giving me “two thumbs up” for handling it well. Why don’t I remember more of these “Atta girl!” dreams?

The notion of remembering dreams stuck like a burr in my mind through the morning, until I finally realized that dreams have played an important role in my writing life. In Anais Nin’s book, The Novel of the Future, she quotes Jung in the first chapter: “Proceed from the dream outward….” She then defines dream: “…ideas and images in the mind not under the command of reason.” She goes on to discuss that dreams are not limited to sleep time, but they can occur at any time the mind slips away from the command of reason which includes daydreaming, playing in the imagination, and hallucinations sparked by drugs. Any products of the imagination proceed from the dream outward.

When I write fiction, I am using my imagination, encouraging it to provide me with the characters, dialogue, and action for the stories I write. When I’ve run into walls during this process, I have asked for help from my subconscious mind before closing my eyes to sleep at night. Patience has rewarded me with paths around the walls or ways to scale them in dreams I have had asleep. Characters have sometimes haunted my dreams at night.

While working on the very first draft of Perceval’s Secret years ago, I really wasn’t that excited about Evan Quinn being an orchestra conductor. The way I saw it, I’d need to do an awful lot of research in order to make him authentic because I knew very little about professional orchestra conductors, especially the successful ones, and of course, I wanted Evan to be a successful something. So, I began thinking about other possible professions. At the time I knew nothing about his story (I didn’t know his name at the time), only that he’d grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I’d seen him conducting on stage in my mind. Professions I thought about included auto mechanic, high school teacher, dentist, and a construction executive, sort of a real estate developer who actually works construction, or real estate agent.

A couple days after I began thinking about changing Evan’s profession, I went to bed in the evening dog tired. I looked forward to a restful night’s sleep. But it didn’t turn out to be: I had a dream in which Evan, dressed in his white tie and tails (his working clothes), stood in front of me, glaring at me with anger in his eyes, then very fast pushing his face into my face, so fast it startled me awake. I lay in bed thinking how odd it was to dream about a character, but then it made sense because the character had emerged from my imagination much the way dreams do. I went back to sleep. But restful sleep it wasn’t, because that dream came back, waking me again, and again, and again. The same dream. For four more nights.

I mean, really! I was annoyed with Evan Quinn, annoyed with myself, and cranky because I wasn’t getting much sleep. It took me five days and nights before I figured out what the dream was about. Evan always appeared in his white tie and tails, as if just about to go on stage or just come off stage. He wasn’t wearing a mechanic’s coveralls, or a suit, or jeans and an Oxford shirt. It was always that tux. And that was the key. He didn’t speak to me in the dream, just glared at me and threatened me by getting in my face. He wasn’t happy. He was angry with me. He was showing me that he wanted to wear his white tie and tails, and he wanted me to know that. In other words, he was an orchestra conductor and nothing else, and he was angry that I was entertaining any other profession for him.

This revelation led to the end of the dream. He left me alone once I’d given in, with some trepidation because of the amount of research I’d need to do, and let him be an orchestra conductor.

Proceed from the dream outward, indeed. It’s time for my dreams to stop being about the job and start helping me with Evan Quinn again as I begin work on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow.

What do you dream about?