Tag Archives: novels

Revision: How to get started?

After the wonderful news earlier this week that Perceval’s Secret had won the Silver Medal in the “Thriller/Mystery/Horror” category in Connections eMagazine’s Readers Choice Awards 2018 (thank you, Melanie Smith!), I spent some time publicizing the news, and I continue to tell the world (of course!). It’s the first time Perceval’s Secret has won anything — indeed, the first time I’ve won anything! Another effect of this award: my work on the first revision of the Perceval Shadow first draft has become urgent. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, actually, and working through various issues and scenes in my head. But now it’s time to pull out the manuscript and get cracking.

How do I start the first revision?

First of all, as daunting as it might be, it’s not nearly as scary as the blank page all writers encounter when starting a first draft. When the first draft is done, there’s material to work with, to sculpt, to massage, to add to, and to smooth. I have pulled out the manuscript and my working file, what are the next steps?

Steps for First Revision Work  

Read through: It’s been a while since I’ve lived inside this novel, so my first step is to read through the draft. I had printed out a hard copy before. Now, I’ll curl up with it and my purple pen to read it, write notes on the page or on my handy legal pad, and dream about the scenes and characters.

First Chapter: This chapter will almost always need a lot of work (along with the last two chapters of the book). Writing the first chapter can be a nightmare, challenge, or pure joy, depending upon how it goes. What I’ve learned about my own writing is that the first chapter is the most problematic and scares me even more than the ending. I’ve learned that it’s best to pay close attention to what I’ve written, but to not do too much work with revision until after I’ve been through the rest of the book. There will be threads in later chapters that need or have some connection to the first chapter, and I need to know what they are.

What is the purpose of the first revision? Good question. I approach the revision work as steps toward the summit of completion. Each step has a purpose. What each step’s purpose is can be completely up to the writer. For example, one step could be for scene work. Another step could be for narrative structure and character development. Another step could be for line editing. Another step could be for checking for inconsistencies, e.g. a character’s eyes are blue at the beginning and inexplicably brown in the middle of the story. It is helpful to decide at the beginning of revision work what the purpose of each revision will be, and then focus only on that revision’s specified purpose as the work progresses.

The purpose of the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow is scene work. I need to take care of fleshing out scenes including crucial details, looking at character motivation in each scene, and resolving problems within scenes. I expect this will be slow work, and anyway, it shouldn’t be rushed. Because this novel is part of a series, I also need to make notes about what happens in each chapter and how it might relate to action in subsequent books in the series.

How long does a revision take? Forgive me while I have a good laugh at my own question. I’m not a very patient person, and of course, I want the revision to go really fast so I can get on with the next revision. But then I look up at the neon pink sticky note above my desk on which I’ve written “Pay attention.” This is from Zen Buddhism — the goal of staying in the present moment and paying attention in that moment. It’s amazing what can be observed by being still and paying attention. The same holds true for revision work. In order to pay attention to the words, how they build into the structure of your story and the development of your characters, it’s necessary to go slow and proceed with care.

And now, chapter one, page 1….

Who among my readers here are doing revision work right now on a large piece of writing? Do you have your own steps? What is the most frustrating thing about revision work?

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In Celebration of Summer Reading (as a Writer)

Canada has turned its northwest wind toward Minnesota and we are finally enjoying real Minnesota summer days with dewpoints in the 50’s, temperatures in the upper 70’s and low 80’s, and that wonderful cool Northwest breeze. This weather brings a flood of memories — not of baseball in the sun, swimming, playing tennis or boating. No. It brings a flood of memories of reading, usually outdoors in the shade either on a porch or under a tree, the sounds of swimming, water-skiing and boating on the lake in the background, a lawn mower grazing with a buzz nearby, and the smell of suntan lotion laced with coconut oil. Urban noise pollution wasn’t a part of my childhood, but a lake house, a library card, and lots of free time were.

Today, I’m reading a classic science fiction novel published in 1977 that reminds me of the mid-1970’s rage for disaster movies — Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It’s a fat paperback — my favorite kind — full of characters I can relate to in some way, caught on a planet in the path of an ancient comet.  Will they all survive a direct hit? What will that hit be like? And who cares just how plausible the premise is, right?

Summer reading. Book marketers go immediately to the stereotypical beach reads: thrillers, mysteries, more thrillers, and action adventure stories set in lost worlds of the past or far future. What are your favorite summer reads? Is there really such a thing?

I have a particularly potent memory of one week in August when I was in junior high school. My family was at our lake house. I had been to the library and checked out a pile of books, among them, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a collected works omnibus of Sherlock Holmes stories. That August week was unusual for its weather: cool, overcast, often foggy from the humidity, with especially damp chilly nights. We had built a fire in the fireplace and hunkered down inside. I read on the squishy soft sofa upholstered with pink flowers on a dark green background about 6 feet in front of the fire, engrossed in The Hound of Baskervilles. The weather outdoors with its cool enveloping mist created the perfect environment in which to read this scary story. And wild hounds could not have roused me from that sofa.

When I was ten, I discovered the romantic suspense of Mary Stewart in her novel The Moon-Spinners. It was blistering hot outdoors, too hot to sit in the sun or go boating, and after a swim, I would curl up on the rocking lounger (upholstered in dark green vinyl) on the front porch and read about the rugged landscape of Crete, the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the beautiful beach, a small inn run by a Greek family and the mystery surrounding a young Englishman named Mark. From that summer on, I was convinced that the British were the masters of mystery stories.

The year after I graduated college, my first year living in Minnesota, I picked up a book with a strange title: Watership Down by Richard Adams. It was the title that caught my eye. Once I began reading, I couldn’t put that book down, and to this day I’m still amazed that a novel about rabbits could have so powerfully held me in its grasp. A friend had invited me to spend a week with her and her family at their lake cabin in the north woods and I took the book along with me. Now I associate that specific location in northern Wisconsin with reading Adams’ novel.

When summer rolls around, I feel my attention as a writer and a reader circle away from anything heavy or philosophical and toward fun. And fun means mysteries primarily, although this summer I’ve added a science fiction disaster thriller to the mix. In addition to the Niven/Pournelle novel, so far this summer I’ve read The Private Patient by P. D. James, Death and the Maiden by Gerald Elias, Finding Moon by Tony Hillerman, and Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart.

What have you been reading this summer?  Any recommendations?

PERCEVAL’S SECRET Has Been Nominated! Woo-Hoo!

I found out this afternoon that Perceval’s Secret is a finalist for the Readers Choice Award presented by Connections E-Magazine!  This is wonderful news and came as a huge surprise.

Please check out the entire list of nominees in all categories here. Vote tor your favorites! Voting closes August 1 so you have plenty of time to give Perceval’s Secret or any of the other nominees a read and then return and vote!

Artwork from the Connections eMagazine website (thank you!)

Is Anyone Out There?

Photo: NASA

One of my lifelong interests is stars, planets, galaxies, and everything about them. Today, I saw an article about seeing the light from galaxies that were formed over 3 billion years ago. They are so far away from us, it has taken 3 billion years for their light to reach us. Distance in the universe often confounds my imagination. I was thinking, in response to that article, that the blinking lights in the night sky that have always fascinated me are not necessarily single stars but probably entire galaxies. Those tiny blinking lights. Does sentient life in those tiny blinking lights ever look to their sky and see us?

As a writer, I often feel like a tiny blinking light in a massively gigantic universe, and I’ve struggled to find how to be inviting as a writer and encourage readers to read my stories. After all, as a tiny blinking light I am most likely an entire galaxy of planets, stars, black holes, and stardust. And I’m really not 3 billion years away, I’m right here. My stories are right here, too. But how would I ever know if anyone came to visit?

Is anyone out there?

Hope Clark, in her Funds for Writers newsletter several weeks ago, wrote about her perception that nobody is reading anymore. She has that perception because she’s not receiving the responses that she used to receive — at her blog, via email, with book reviews. If people are reading, she’s concluded, they’ve stopped “talking” about it.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

She has a point, but I’m not certain that I agree completely. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that I’ve considered responding to an author about a book of theirs I’d read. Before that, I read and read, and it never occurred to me to try to reach out to an author to let him or her know how much I enjoyed their work. Now that I’m an author myself, I know how it feels to read a person’s review of my work, or to have a reader comment here, or to send me an email. It’s wonderful to know that my work has been read. Like most writers, I don’t like writing and sending my stories into the black hole at the center of our galaxy and never knowing what happened. Up until 10 years ago, though, I would have said isn’t that to be expected?

Now, we have so many ways to connect with people whether or not they are strangers.  One of the things that I learned over 10 years ago — and it made me want to find a cave somewhere in which to write — was that writers must be accessible in some way to publicize their writing. Traditional publishers expect writers to market their work as well. So writers need websites and/or blogs. They need author pages at all the places online where books are sold, and they need to be an active presence on GoodReads, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media they can find time to join and be a presence on. It exhausts me just thinking about it.

One of the things I decided to do, though, to be a presence as a writer is to write reviews of books I’ve been reading. I read voraciously — new and old books, fiction, nonfiction, good and bad. I post my reviews at GoodReads, and then if the book is relatively new, I try to also post the review where others will see it and can immediately buy it, like Amazon and B&N. What a difference it would make if all readers took a half hour (or less) after reading a book and reviewed it online? It’s not a big deal, either, and doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning review. Just what you thought of the book and why, and if you’d recommend it or not.

Writers will know then that their work hasn’t disappeared down a black hole, and they are not alone, a tiny blinking light far away in a black sky.

Truth in Fiction

Photo: Marina Shemesh

This morning, I read a really interesting article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about how demagogues use lying as propaganda (“Trump may not be Hitler, but he has the techniques”). It’s difficult especially when a large portion of an electorate believes lies as truths and believes that anyone else is lying. Demagogues are good at creating that Big Lie, too. Reading this commentary, however, also got me thinking about truth in fiction, and how writing fiction, by definition, is actually making stuff up which could be called lying.

In Perceval’s Secret, indeed, in the entire Perceval series, none of the characters are real people. It’s set in 2048 – how could I possibly know what really happens in that year now? The story is not real either, i.e. nothing that happens in the story actually happens.  How could it?  None of the characters are real. I made it all up.  Why?

At the time I began writing the very first draft (and I thought it was a short story, not a novel), I was interested in the experience of exile, of being forced to leave a home country in order to have a better life, or pursue an occupation, or be free. I didn’t think that the average American really had any conception or comprehension of what that experience is like for their fellow humans on this planet (I still don’t think they do). Then Evan Quinn appeared in my mind while I was listening to a live orchestra concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis and I had my main character. As I began writing and the story developed under my fingertips, it changed a bit from a straight story of exile to one of voluntary exile and what Evan Quinn would do in order to be able to leave an America that in my mind resembled the USSR of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

I found with each revision that Evan and his story was revealing things about how Americans think about their country and the world, how they perceive people in other countries vs. how they perceive themselves, and that American Exceptionalism would eventually damage if not destroy American democracy. Nothing destroys exceptionalism faster than oppressing the population of a country the way the government in the Perceval series oppresses America. At the same time, the government must wage a relentless propaganda campaign assuring the population that what they have now is better than what they had before and they are stronger and more powerful in the world as a result. The propaganda campaign is all lies. This is something Evan discovers when he arrives in Europe on his tour. Demagogues and fascist governments usually cannot risk their citizens having a lot of outside contact because then their citizens will have access to the reality and see the lies.  Unless, of course, the citizens are so indoctrinated that they don’t believe what they see outside their own country.

So all my made up stuff in writing the novel, this fictional story, was revealing things that struck me as being true about humans, true about Americans in particular, and true about oppression. It is in agreement with what another writer once said (I don’t recall who now) that writers lie to tell the truth. I think it’s also the reason why humans need stories in their lives.