Tag Archives: “Perceval’s Secret”

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.

 

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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!

Character: Power

 

The July/August issue of The Atlantic offers a fascinating article by Jerry Useem about how having power actually changes the human brain. The mental abilities that enable someone to rise in society into a powerful position end up disappearing once the person has gained power. The example Useem begins his article with is of former CEO of Wells Fargo John Stumpf’s performance at a congressional hearing last fall — his utter failure to “read the room.” Useem goes on to cite study after study that show how having power damages the parts of the brain that enable humans to relate to other humans and to have empathy.

 

The lust for power has motivated many a character in fiction. Power fascinates me as well as how we define power. While researching Post Traumatic Stress for Perceval’s Secret, I stumbled onto the Pandora’s box of Power, i.e. external power, or having power and/or control over other people. I learned that the people most likely to seek external power feel powerless but are not self-aware enough to recognize how they are really feeling. All they know is that having power makes them feel better. There is another kind of power: internal power. This is the individual’s self power, i.e. he feels powerful in being himself rather than feeling powerless.  This person will not seek external power over others. He simply doesn’t need it.

So, which individual is the character you’ve created? How does she perceive the world? In a way that signals her sense of powerlessness such as constantly ingratiating herself to another character? How does he respond to people? Is he manipulative? Narcissistic? Focused only on what will benefit him? Or is your character empathetic, genuinely caring of others, and not in need of control or motivated by fear? Having a bloated sense of self-worth, a common symptom of narcissism, can also mask a person’s sense of powerlessness. A character with power issues, especially one who isn’t self-aware, can end up being a villain or a victim, or ironically, both.

When you have a character that feels powerless, it’s important to figure out why that character feels powerless. Whether or not you put that part of his backstory into your story, you, the writer, need to know the reason. His powerlessness will come through in his behavior toward himself as well as other people, through his desires, professional goals, and even in how he dresses and takes care of himself. For example, he may choose a profession in which he exerts power and control over others in some way — corporate CEO, a surgeon, a government bureaucrat, or even a symphony orchestra conductor. My favorite is the co-worker who believes that she’s entitled to be the head of the company and will do anything to get there. Criminals also tend to possess a sense of powerlessness and their criminality gives them a sense of power whether it’s beating the system or taking a life.

Deep-seated fear often goes with a sense of powerlessness, and the desire for power is also a desire to be safe and secure. When the powerless gain the external power that they seek, they are most often likely to abuse that power, also. How all this manifests in human behavior can be unique to the individual and her background, and the same is true for a fictional character.  You don’t have to be a psychologist yourself in order to write a fully dimensional character who behaves in plausible ways. Be open to the possibilities.  Let your character act, speak, and think as he does and be the observer. Respect the character.  Allow the character to be himself. He’ll most likely give you his story if you’re open to all the possibilities.

Power definitely motivates characters in ways unique to each of them. Whether or not your character obtains the power he seeks could be the story your character wants to tell you.  Are you listening?

 

The Cost of Being Independent

The May 2017 issue of The Writer is chock full of helpful and interesting articles! Since I’m working to pay off debt incurred from e-publishing Perceval’s Secret, I was particularly interested in the article, “Going Rogue: Is Self-publishing right for you?” In this article, Kerrie Flanagan compares the traditional publishing model and the self-publishing/independent model, covering all aspects of production, publication, marketing/promotion, and distribution. I recommend this article highly, highly, highly — especially for anyone who believes it doesn’t cost much at all to self-publish.

It depends, of course, on what you want. If you just want to publish an e-book, your costs may not be that high compared to a paperback or hardcover.  I took the advice and suggestions of others, some were writers I knew who’d been successful with self-publishing, and made certain that I found a good-to-excellent editor and a collaborative cover designer for my e-book. Editors can be expensive, anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on what you want and who it is. Shop around, but also shop local if you can. I’m fortunate to live in a literary urban area full of colleges and writing resources. The cover design for me was actually the least expensive cost. I went with a designer who’d done a friend’s book covers. There are writers who are talented in design also, and they can design their own covers, saving money there.

My next expense was to turn my Word document into ePub and Mobi files for Kindle and other e-readers.  For me, this was a painful learning experience. Fortunately, I found an excellent and very patient formatting company, BookNook.biz. Because I had not cleared my Word document of all icky formatting glitches, and Word is notorious for them, there were all sorts of issues with the electronic formatting that cost me more to fix than it would have if I’d cleared the Word document at the beginning. I didn’t know. I paid for my ignorance.  It won’t happen again.  Some writers know a lot about formatting or aren’t scared off by the conversion process. They will save some bucks by doing the conversion themselves.

Flanagan doesn’t go into the cost of ISBN numbers, registering your novel with the US Copyright Office, and marketing/promotion costs.  The last can cost you significantly more than producing the book, depending on what you want, of course.  I worked in advertising at one point in my life and know a bit about marketing.  The most important thing about marketing that you need to know is that unless you are famous or have an irresistible platform, it’s going to be very difficult making yourself heard in the cacophony of promotion at any given moment. In the US, at least 50,000 books are published every year. You’ll be competing with all of them for readers’ attention and hard-earned money. Adjust your expectations for sales accordingly.

With traditional publishing, the writer has no up front costs as with self or independent publishing. The writer also doesn’t have the control that she has as an independent publisher. Traditional publishers take over all the production, with some limited input from the writer about covers, titles, and then proofing galleys. They will also provide very limited marketing and promotion, but are honest with writers that they depend on them for the bulk of this work. It can take up to 2 years for a traditional publisher to publish your book.  If you do it yourself, it can be done in 3-6 months. Perceval’s Secret took 8 months because I slowed the editing and revision process at the beginning.

Photo: aliyasking.com

There is one important thing that traditional publishers (and literary agents) do that writers cannot really do on their own. That is: tell a writer if a book is in publishable shape or not. Even before I contracted to work with my last editor, I’d already been through several edits including a really close line edit. I knew that there would be no major changes or issues for that last edit. There was polishing, however, and that is an important process also. In the last few years, I’ve been asked to read self-published books on occasion. I love helping out a fellow writer, especially if a book is truly worth the attention my review might be able to get for it.  But in all cases, the books were in such terrible shape with grammar, language, sentence and paragraph construction, narrative structure, and in one case, checking facts,  I was shocked. How could a writer allow their work to be published like that? So I’d caution anyone thinking of going the self-publishing route to be absolutely certain that their writing is the best it can be, and do not depend on self-publishing services to provide competent editing for you.  Find your own professional editor.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m still paying off the debt I incurred for publishing Perceval’s Secret in digital form.  I’m coming up on the end of the promotional period on July 1 for the 0% interest rate from the credit card I transferred the debt to (it was originally on another credit card with high interest). I set up a GoFundMe project to raise the funds to pay off this debt, so if you’d like to help out, every $10 or $20 will be a big help. It’d be great if I could raise another $600 in the next couple weeks.  The GoFundMe page is here.  Thank you!  Or please buy Perceval’s Secret at Amazon or B&N, and leave a review there after you’ve read it.

Taking Perceval to the Next Step GoFundMe Page

Update: Taking Perceval to the Next Level

After 27 days, my Taking Perceval to the Next Level fundraising campaign at GoFundMe has raised $530. I need another $8370 to meet my goal.

My deadline for paying off the debt is May 30. The $0 interest promotion ends shortly thereafter and I’ll be back to paying off interest as well as the principal.

I’d love nothing better than to put this baby to bed sooner rather than later. Not long after I launched this campaign, I received an e-mail that still haunts me, calling this campaign “online begging.” Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to be generous, to do something nice for someone who is in need, or to invest in a writer who’d really like to get Perceval’s Secret published as a paperback.  That won’t happen until I’ve paid off my debt.

Taking Perceval to the Next Step GoFundMe Page

Click HERE to donate!

At this blog, I have an Appreciation page where I’ll list everyone who has helped with donations. I’ve run a promotion with giveaways at Facebook, and I plan to run another one soon. I’ll let you know when the next Facebook promotion goes live.

In the meantime, please consider a small donation to this campaign. Every little bit helps!

Thank you!

C. C. Yager