Tag Archives: “Perceval’s Shadow”

Getting Started

What happens is I write a first sentence, then I read the sentence that I’ve just written, and then I immediately erase that sentence; then I begin anew by writing another first sentence for a completely different story; then another first sentence for another story, so on and so forth.” Courtney Eldridge, Unkempt

This week, Ideas have inundated my mind. Ideas for essays. Ideas for characters. Ideas for cleaning. Ideas for what to read. I experience no shortage of ideas. The challenge from Ideas is to lasso them, get them to stand still long enough for me to write them down. Writing first sentences can be that way, as Courtney Eldridge writes in the quote above. Also returning to a large writing project after several years.

Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

It astonishes me that it’s been nine years since I’ve worked on Perceval’s Shadow or P2, the second novel in the Perceval series. A lot has happened during those nine years, of course, and I’m grateful that I captured so many of my ideas on paper nine years ago before moving on to P3, Perceval in Love. I had finished the first draft!  I’d written a chapter by chapter synopsis! I had extensive notes on the characters and their motivations, as well as rewrite notes, and notes on what I needed to do during the first rewrite, i.e. research. The actual writing of the first draft is the easy part, true. What happens next, though, separates the real professional novelists from the amateurs.

The first step in re-entering Evan Quinn’s world to work on the P2 first revision is to read through all my notes. Write down any ideas that come to mind. Done.

The second step is to read through the first draft with pen and paper close by to make notes along the way. I’ve just begun this step. It’ll take me several weeks as I do this work when I’m not at the part-time job or doing other things for life. I’ll be looking at the structure first and foremost. Then the plot points. Then the story. The characters and their development. I’ll make a note of any questions I have about locations or anything else that I’ll need to research.


The third step is the actual revision work. Chapter by chapter, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word. I won’t be paying as much attention to grammar, syntax, spelling, or word choice in this revision as I will the bigger issues of structure, character, plot and story. Dialogue, too, but I lump dialogue in with character. The overarching question for this revision is Does it all go together and make sense?

I’m excited. I’ve been thinking about this novel for a long time. My curiosity has finally won out — what did I write? Does it work? Is it exciting? What about the characters? Will I love it?

emerging sculpture

This process resembles the way Michelangelo worked on his sculptures, taking a huge chunk of marble and chipping away at it to find to form within. Then shaping that form in the marble, revealing the lines, curves, crevasses, shadows and surface textures emerging from the stone. It takes time. Patience. Dedication and obsession.

I hope I’m up to the task.


The First Page

La Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires  (Photo: Suite101.net)

La Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires (Photo: Suite101.net)

One evening this past week while preparing for bed. I was brushing my teeth, letting my mind wander.  Suddenly, Evan Quinn was talking in my mind with another musician as they ran through the streets of Buenos Aires after Evan’s last concert there. This conversation has been nagging at me for years. The first time I wrote it, I just wanted to get something down on paper so I could work with it.  Over time, I’d revised and rewrote it several times, never getting to the point where it felt right in my bones. This conversation opens Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in my Perceval series.  It starts on the first page.

The first page of any book, fiction or nonfiction, is crucial in the set up for the rest of the story.  I call it the “Sing, goddess” page, after the first stanza of Homer’s The Iliad.  In that first stanza, Homer encapsulates the entire story of his epic in general terms, giving the promise of fleshing out the details in the subsequent stanzas. Its conciseness is brilliant. It pulls in the reader (or listener, back in Homer’s day) with drama, war, gods, and the tragedy of the favored, beloved Achilles.

Nowadays, writers must pull in their readers with the first page, but not necessarily with an encapsulation of the entire story. What are the elements of a riveting first page?

Action: Begin in media res, or in the middle of action. Ironically, this does not have to be physical action.  It can be internal action, i.e. the action of the mind at work.  Especially if the mind is acting in an interesting or unusual way.  Physical action can be anything really as long as something is happening.

Conflict: This can be the introduction of the main thematic conflict, or actual physical conflict, or even intellectual conflict embodied in dialogue.  For Perceval’s Shadow, at least two conflicts exist on the first page.  One is a broader conflict (war) that affects Evan directly, and the other is a much more personal conflict.

Mystery: Who are the characters?  Why are they in that location?  What will happen next?  There can also be foreshadowing that will create a sense of mystery surrounding the characters, their motivations, and their behavior.  In every good story there is always a strong element of mystery that keeps the reader reading.  What’s going to happen next?

themartianbookcover-jpegWhat is a good example of these three elements coming together in a successful first page?  I think page one of Andy Weir’s The Martian.  It begins with “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6.”  What?  What does that mean?

Then the first sentence: “I’m pretty much fucked.”  This made me smile, in spite of the dire nature of the statement.  It was over the top.  Something has happened, but what? Mystery.

Second sentence: “That’s my considered opinion.”  We’re getting a sense of character with this sentence, a kind of defiance in the face of the adversity implied in the first sentence.

Third sentence: “Fucked.”  OK, what is so terrible to result in such a fatalistic reaction?  Mystery.

Fourth sentence: “Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.”  Ah, lots of questions come out of this statement.  Why should it be the greatest month of his life?  What was he doing?  What happened that it became a nightmare?  What is that nightmare?  Clearly, some sort of conflict occurred but what was it?

Fifth sentence: “I don’t even know who’ll read this.”  Now we know he’s alone, although we’re not certain of this character’s sex yet.  So far, these sentences have raised more questions than they’ve answered, and the action could go in just about any direction.  This is an example of mental action or thinking in action.

Two sentences later, Weir gives us some answers with conflict, action, and some more mystery. We find out that the character is Mark Watney and he’s on Mars. He was a member of a crew who thought he’d died (why?).  And the conflict?  Well, obviously it’s going to be Mark Watney vs. Mars. And that is essentially the first page of The Martian.

Next time you’re shopping for books, be sure to read the first pages of the books you’re looking at.  Where’s the action?  The conflict?  The mystery?

Marketing Conductors

Working again on the Perceval’s Shadow second draft this week and thinking about American society.  We are a marketing society.  We market anything and everything.  Marketing + Sales = Profit.  We even market ourselves on dating websites!  As a writer, I’ve been reading more and more in writing trade publications about the need for writers to establish a “brand” in order to get the attention of agents and publishers.  We are marketing our writing to the people who market it to the people who publish the writing and market it to the general public.  Whew!

A friction exists in the arts regarding marketing/sales and the creation of art.  In order to sell a work of art, say, a novel, it’s not enough that it’s a good, original story.  It must fit into a marketing niche.  So, in order to get published, writers might write to a marketing niche to make it easier to get noticed.  Marketers establish these niches, not writers.  The way I see it, marketing tends to restrict and constrict creativity and experimentation through these marketing niches.  Sure, it’s possible to work within the confines of the niche and be creative and original, but what if a writer wants to follow his imagination and not marketing guidelines?

I have yet to see symphony orchestras organized into marketing niches, although the classical music world does tend to organize them according to operating budgets and rank them according to their artistic quality and accomplishments.  I have seen the niche marketing mentality starting to affect conductors.  Ten years ago, you would not have seen many professional websites for conductors, composers and other musicians.  Now, they have websites, blogs, a social media presence and fan pages.  I’ve also found a website called Instant Encore that brings fans and musicians together, lists concerts, offers music and videos and allows musicians to have a website under their auspices.  Fans can follow their favorite musicians or musical ensembles, receiving notifications of what’s on the web about them.  I haven’t even begun to explore this site and its possibilities.  Here is an example for the pianist Stephen Hough.  For comparison, here is Stephen Hough’s official website which is not part of Instant Encore.  I have also seen some musicians at LinkedIn.

At one point, I considered starting a Facebook fan page for Evan Quinn.  I haven’t yet decided if I’ll do it or not.  But I am thinking of how his artist manager, Nigel Fox, will approach marketing Evan and how much Evan will need to participate in that.  I look at busy conductors and I’d guess that they don’t have much time to spend online, and yet Leonard Slatkin has a blog with the Detroit Symphony, and Sarah Hicks contributes to a blog for the Minnesota Orchestra.  I suspect that Evan would prefer to have Nigel deal with all the marketing stuff and leave him alone to handle the artistic side.  Unfortunately, marketing leaks into that artistic side.  For example, media interviews to promote a conductor’s concerts with an orchestra.  This is a marketing task that’s been around for years.  And now, an orchestra might also make a video to upload on its website to promote a concert — a conductor talking about a specific work on the program for example.  Evan will be doing tasks like these, of course.  But what about an online presence that he manages himself like a blog, website or Facebook page?

In the first novel, Perceval’s Secret, Evan must deal with an abundance of technology that he’s not familiar with despite limited access to the internet professionally and a familiarity with computers.  I am tempted to give Evan a tablet computer in the second novel, something he can carry with him — although not a smart phone.  He’s adamant about keeping a lot of gadgets out of his life and he wants a cell phone that he uses as a phone and nothing more.  I’m thinking of having Nigel, in frustration, give him the tablet so he can monitor the website Nigel has created for him and maintains with his staff including a blog, and perhaps something in social media.  He’ll also need e-mail accounts that he’d need to monitor, too.

I’m sure there are old school conductors who have little to do with all the internet possibilities for connection and marketing.  But in 2048-49, I see the internet as integral to life, especially business and professional lives.  However, Evan is and will remain a staunch believer in the advantages of low tech….