Tag Archives: nonfiction

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

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.

Revision

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006The last week or so my writing work has been focused on a nonfiction piece that’s ready for revision/editing. An interview in a Q&A format, a first for me. It’s too long for one thing. I want to preserve its current flow because it’s an interview, which means any editing cannot change the original meaning or the unique voice of the person interviewed. This mountain of a job will give my revising and editing muscles a real workout. Where to begin?

Sharpening Focus

In any conversation, whether an interview or not, the direction veers off on tangents, circles around and back to the topic, and veers off again. The first task of editing my piece is to identify everything that isn’t an answer to the questions, i.e. identify the tangents. Next, I ask myself: does this (or that) tangent illuminate a point the interviewee is making? If not, out it goes. If it’s an example of the interviewee’s point, I then weigh how good it is or how many examples he gives for this one point. Maybe he’s given 3 or 4, so I try to choose the best one.

Sharpening focus for the answer to each question is probably the most important part of the editing process. It takes the longest because it requires some thought about the question as well as the answer. Editing the question for length also comes into the process. I’ve discovered ways to strengthen the questions by tightening them.

Waiting

The next step, after the first revision, is to put the piece away. This part reminds me of the fermentation process. It’s really crucial to put it away and wait for the fermentation to take its course. I often continue thinking about the piece, though, and this interview is no exception. And I’m on deadline for it, so the fermentation period needs to be shorter than I usually prefer.

fermentation

fermentation

With one piece put away to ferment, I’ll work on some other writing project, read, clean house, go to the part time job, or anything else on my to-do list. Today, for example, I’ve been working on business chores, cleaning out e-mails, working more on my very late holiday letters, house chores, researching a talented young French pianist that I discovered over the weekend, and running errands. All my watches have stopped — is this the Universe trying to tell me something? — and I need to take them in to get new batteries for them this afternoon. And I’m finishing this blog post that I began last Saturday afternoon.

More Revision

The next step after fermentation, is another round of revision. During this round, I’m checking for grammar issues, typos, spelling mistakes, and syntax issues. I’m also looking for more ways to tighten, to cut, to get the piece down to the word count I want.

If I have enough time before the deadline, I’ll repeat the fermentation-revision-fermentation-revision process several times until I cannot find anything that needs attention. I’ll read the piece aloud during this process also to check for the flow. I’m also checking any links I’ve included, and I add photos if necessary. In the case of my current project, only one photo will be included, that of the interviewee.

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Finishing

When I’ve arrived at a place with the piece where I’m feeling comfortable that it’s ready for publication, I’ll do one last read through with an eye to anything I may have missed. Dropped words and misspellings are usually caught in this round. I then submit it to the publication.

In general, this is the revision process I follow whether I’m working on nonfiction or fiction. It can vary a little from piece to piece depending on how much time I have for it or what the purpose of the piece is. I’ve learned, however, that even when I’m working on deadline it’s important not to rush the revision process, to slow down and savor it, really use the mind and imagination to make the writing the best it can be.

 

Updates:

Image from Pixelstalk.net

Image from Pixelstalk.net

The last day of 2016. The prevailing feeling online is “good riddance” to this year. No doubt about it, 2016 has been a challenging year in many ways. Right now, I’m in a strange place because of the election. Back in June, I wrote about the election in terms of my work on the future world in the Perceval series. Now the election results have brought America maybe one step closer to the America I envisioned for 2048. Let’s hope not. It’s challenging me as a writer, thinking about protesting against the actions of the Trump administration through my writing, and realizing that I probably will not be alone in this. A friend recently asked me if I were prepared to be arrested. Wow. I never thought anyone would ask me that in America because I’m a writer.

My last writing update was in June of 2016. Time for another:

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Perceval Novels:
No new reviews at Amazon for Perceval’s Secret since June. I continue to search out book reviewers.  Sales continue to be slow at Amazon, and none at Barnes & Noble or Kobo.  If you have not yet bought your copy (only $2.99!), please do, and give it a read.  The reviews continue to be good to excellent!  I’d love to hear from readers through reviews at Amazon and B&N, or at Goodreads.

As for the other novels in the series, last spring I pulled out all my files for Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the series. My plan was to revise it during the summer, then move on to finish the first draft of Perceval in Love, the third book (I have half the first draft done already).  I did not accomplish this goal because I became caught up in the part-time job and a job search for a fulltime job, and I didn’t sit down and figure out when I’d be working on the novels. I hope to do better in 2017. I know that I feel much better physically and psychologically when I’m putting words on paper.

Marketing:

I continue to work as hard as time allows on marketing and promo for Perceval’s Secret.  I continue also to research free marketing and promo, especially online.  I need to talk more about the novel and hand out the postcards for it far more than I do.  Still need to utilize the marketing/advertising tools at GoodReads, LinkedIn and Publishers Marketplace.  Time has not been kind to me.  I continue to promote the novel on Twitter and Facebook.  I’ve been writing more posts at the Perceval Novels Facebook page, too.  Please go and like it, and visit often for updates on the novels.

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New Novel Project:

As a result of reading a couple of gothic romance novels this year, I’ve hatched an idea to transform a screenplay I’ve written, Over the Rainbow, into a novel. I love the story, the main character, and the potential of it, so I’ll be doing some foundation work on it in 2017.

Indiegogo Project now GoFundMe Project:

The one change I made in this area was the website I’d use for this project. I’ve had experience with GoFundMe, and I like the option to have ongoing fundraising rather than a deadline. All the rest is the same: I continue to pay off the credit card debt I’d been carrying from production, publication, and marketing expenses that I incurred to publish Perceval’s Secret as an e-book.  I’m now paying off the principal rather than having the interest eat into my payments, and I continue to pay more than the minimum each month.  I hate asking for financial help through crowd-source funding, but I don’t have the resources to deal with this all by myself.

Short Stories:

I completed a short story, Into the Woods, taken from some of my early work on Perceval’s Secret, and submitted it to a contest. I continue work on the science fiction short story, Light the Way.  For 2017, I plan to work more on short stories to get more of my writing out there for people to read. Short stories do not take quite as much time as novels to write.

Essays:
I continue to write posts at the Eyes on Life blog (as Gina Hunter) and here at Anatomy of Perceval.  My focus at the Gina Hunter blog has become a bit fluid: I continue to write “The Successful Patient” posts, but in addition I’m writing about the experience of being one of the Working Poor, so it’ll be about economics, money, working, etc. I think., and more about politics and how it affects the Working Poor. I hadn’t planned on getting into politics, but it looks like I’ll need the outlet for my outrage.

Paid Gigs:
I’ve written essays about my personal experiences with classical music for ClassicalMPR.org this year and I continue to pitch ideas to them. I’m presently working on an interview with a young composer for them.  I continue to search for other places that will pay me to write about subjects that interest me (or that will pay for fiction).

Yager Editing Services:
After dealing with the scammers last spring, I decreased my marketing and promo activity for this small online business. As a result of my Publishers Marketplace page, however, I received an inquiry for editing a novel last month. This put me face-to-face with something I hadn’t thought about before: the need to be 100% in support of the book in order to spend so much time editing it and in order to be fair and objective. The inquiry involved a book I could not be 100% behind, so I declined to work on it. I need to write something at this website that will clarify my position on what interests me and my need to be 100% behind the book in order to be an effective editor of it.

The Successful Patient:
Nothing has changed on this project — still on the back burner.

Part-time Job:
I continued to work part-time at the customer service job and the receptionist position. A raise in July was most welcome but wasn’t enough to offset my expenses. A good friend stepped up and offered a no-interest loan to pay my rent so I wouldn’t get evicted, and I accepted. I began looking for a fulltime front desk receptionist position and have had several interviews but still haven’t clinched the job for me. Since my financial situation is so precarious, I’ll be working harder at selling my possessions as well as promoting my writing, and my editing services.

Reading:
I met my 2016 Reading Challenge at GoodReads! Not yet certain if I’ll sign up for another in 2017. It has been helpful in giving me incentive to read more than I was. But I want my primary focus in 2017 to be writing fiction. I’ll continue to read, but perhaps not as much as I return to journal writing, for example, and work on fiction in the evenings.

Health Update:
Autoimmune fatigue continues to challenge my schedule every day.  My very slow taper off prednisone continues, and the lower the dose, the more I experience joint pain with occasional tiny flares of my other autoimmune issues. So far, I’ve been able to control it all. I’m also working on getting off some other medications. Dealing with my medical insurance company takes more time than I’d like, and I have to say that they definitely do not make it easy for their customers. I’ve begun my favorite stair exercise (to music) and plan to move my body more through walking, yoga, and Falun gong practice in 2017. Since writing is such a sedentary activity, it’s important to get up and move on a regular basis.

Thinking About my Creative Process

holly-and-bellsIt’s the holiday season, that time of the year when it’s next to impossible to get away from the noise, activity, crowds, and craziness that accompanies it. When I was a child, I loved this month, loved snow storms, loved the anticipation and school vacation. I read like mad during school vacations. A vivid memory was reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima on New Year’s Day, with only a break for a holiday dinner, and sneaking holiday cookies I’d baked called Berry-Berry Bons Bons (cranberry orange walnut cookies that melted in the mouth). I miss those times.

The holidays are more for extroverts than introverts with all the parties, gift exchanges, Secret Santas, and traveling. They’re not conducive to introspection, solitude, or writing. I find myself feeling frustrated most days because I haven’t been able to even think about the writing project I’m working on. This makes me cranky and snarky, and I’ve caught myself taking it out on people at my part-time job. It’s not their fault. But this time of year is always difficult for me. I recall once searching for a place I could go where Christmas was not celebrated, and never did find one.

fun-in-snow

Out of all of this Sturm und Drang has emerged the realization that maybe I needed to think about my creative process, i.e. how I actually go about doing my creating. That takes me back to almost 10 years ago when I was working on the first drafts of the 2nd and 3rd books in the Perceval series. I established a work routine: after breakfast, I did my stair exercises to classical music and thought about what I’d write that day. Then I’d go over my notes before plunging right in to writing. I wrote for hours with no break except for lunch. Toward the end of the afternoon, I’d often work on other writing, research, or run errands. I was so very fortunate to have been able to work on my writing fulltime back then. I miss that time now.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve been struggling to find a new work routine, a way to preserve my creative process. When I exercised to classical music, that opened up my mind to my imagination — I resolved so many issues during that prelude to writing. When I sat at my desk, I then found myself already working in my mind and it was only a matter of getting the words on paper (screen). I had the freedom of time before, now I don’t. I write when I can — blog posts, short stories, holiday letters, essays for online publication. But I’m not feeling creative. It feels like drudgery. Although there have been times when a particularly neat word has popped into my head and I’ve felt like dancing.

There’s a saying that you can’t miss what you’ve never had. Well, I’ve had a creative process that worked wonderfully for me, a structure to my writing work day, so now I miss it because it’s gone. That doesn’t mean I can’t find a new writing routine again to enhance my creative process. It just means that during this crazy holiday season when I swear everyone goes a little insane, I am wishing for something that only I can give myself — time.

How do you survive the holidays? Does your creative process suffer during the holidays?  If you work part-time or fulltime, I’d love to hear how you schedule writing time into your days in the comments section below.  Thanks!

Photo: cutewithchris.com

Photo: cutewithchris.com