Tag Archives: Research

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.

Character: Building and Maintaining Relationships

Last week I wrote about creating and sustaining characters through external aspects: the body, speech, and occupation. This morning, a story sparked some ideas about creating and sustaining characters through relationships, i.e. how characters interact with other characters or human behavior through character. This is the part of character creation and development that most writers find the most difficult because it requires knowledge of psychology and human behavior. The more complex the motivations of a character, the more mystery, tension, and interest around that character.

When I’m beginning work on a story, I want to get to know the characters — at least the characters that have appeared to me so far. With Evan Quinn in the Perceval series, I conducted an interview with him to get an idea of how he thought, what was important to him, how he saw himself. The interview was very much like a 60 Minutes interview — a series of questions that I’d written down and used as my guide. This first step led me to digging deeper into his background, his relationships with his father, with Joseph Caine, and with his mother, much like getting to know a good friend. I ended up creating a detailed backstory for him that doesn’t appear at all in any of the series’ novels. It’s like doing research but instead of reading documents online or in libraries and interviewing sources, it’s inviting the information to come forward out of my imagination. I did not write down this backstory in narrative form, but made detailed notes about the most important elements in that backstory that I knew would feed Evan’s motivations during the series. The bonus: this is work that keeps on giving, since the more I work on Evan the character, the more my imagination (and Evan) gives me.

Once I’d done all that work with Evan, I worked on each of the important people in his life: his father, Joseph Caine, his mother, and then the people that he meets in Vienna and who become important to him — Vasia Bartyakov, Klaus Leiner, Bernie Brown, Sofia Karalis, Greta,  Nigel, Woody, and Freda. And there is one character from Evan’s past that makes an appearance, and I needed to do the same with him. Each character was asked: How do you know Evan? What do you want? What will you do to get it? What is your primary emotional vulnerability? What is your biggest fear? The answers to these questions by each character often revealed their importance in the story, and what kind of conflicts or obstacles they would be to Evan. I wrote all the answers down for each character, and keep them in a characters file. For each novel and the new characters that appear in them, I follow much the same process.

Next, it’s time to look at Evan and all these characters in terms of their relationships. What is the relationship? How does it support Evan? How does it challenge Evan? Does Evan want this relationship? If not, why not?  If so, why? Then I turn it around and ask the other characters the same questions to get their perspectives on their relationships with Evan. Sometimes, I have not known the nature of the relationship until I’ve gotten into it (Sofia, for example, or Owen te Kumara), and what I thought it was turned out to be wrong. The relationship then veered off into a direction I had not seen coming.

Meeting people and making friends is relatively easy. Sustaining the relationship presents the challenge. So, even though Evan is drawn to Vasia Bartyakov and sees him as Joseph Caine reincarnated in some way, they often butt heads because they have different beliefs and personalities.  Evan admires and respects Vasia’s musicianship and his talent as a pianist, just as Vasia admires and respects Evan as a musician and conductor. Music is really the glue that holds them together, and they actually become quite close in a short period of time because of it. My challenge in writing this relationship was showing that closeness through their behavior when they’re together as well as how they talk to each other.

Another challenge for me was Sofia Karalis. I had initially thought of her as Evan’s romantic interest until I got to know Evan better. Then I realized that although he may be attracted to her romantically, his background becomes an obstacle to his being able to love her. When this first occurred to me, I was quite disappointed. In fact, Sofia remains in Evan’s life and plays a pivotal role for him on his life journey a couple of times, challenging him to be a better person and man.

Relationships between and among characters offer opportunities not only to reveal character but also to develop character. It’s important to know the characters involved before throwing them together to see what happens.  But then sit back, watch, learn, and enjoy the show!

Maestro or Maestra?

Mariss Jansons conducting

“Hmm, well. Well I don’t want to give offence,” said Jansons, “and I am not against it, that would be very wrong. I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It’s a question of what one is used to. I grew up in a different world, and for me seeing a woman on the podium… well, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea.”

On Thanksgiving, Classic FM published at its website an article by Lizzie Davis about the renowned Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons and his reactions to changes in the conducting world over the course of his career.  Mr. Jansons is 70 and has been conducting professionally since he was 28.  He belongs to a generation that would not have considered a woman capable of conducting a symphony orchestra or any other kind of musical ensemble. I was surprised at the amount of vitriol leveled at Mr. Jansons for this comment. He was honest. He puts his comment in the context of his world and his experience. We can disagree with what he said, but I think condemning him for being sexist is going a bit far. Yes, he’s old. He’s not caught up with the rest of the world in his view of the world and acceptance of capable women who contribute so much. He’s honest about that, too. (Mariss Jansons issued an apology here.)

Maestro or Maestra? When I was conducting research into conductors and conducting for the Perceval series, I’d occasionally hear what I considered to be rather illogical statements from conductors — a few of the men were quite well known. Age definitely influenced their thinking most often. Anyone under 40 today does not remember a time when women did not have the freedom or opportunities they have now, and were often restricted to “female” occupations like teaching and nursing when they did have to work. Men ruled, so men made the rules in society. Male expectations of women focused on sex, family, cooking, housekeeping, in other words, taking care of and obeying men. Women were not expected to go out in the world and accomplish other things. This is the world that Mariss Jansons comes from and hasn’t left, really.

Women fought hard to get to where they are today, and they still must fight, because there are still men who want to go back to the way things were. I believe that quite a lot of the sexual harassment, abuse, and rape that is now being revealed after being hidden for so long is just one more step in women achieving equal status with men in American society. The sexual misconduct has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with men establishing power and dominance over women. They use sexuality as a tool for control. And by trying to perpetuate the message that women are the “weaker” sex and not capable of doing anything but be wives, mothers, and keepers of homes, men are still trying to control and dominate women. Some women still prefer to be controlled and dominated by men because the men give them security and stability, and the women don’t have to be responsible for their own lives. Women conductors are not part of this category, clearly.

During my research, I also learned that conductors don’t generally have a lot of time to attend concerts conducted by other conductors, so it doesn’t surprise me if Mr. Jansons has not seen many women conducting orchestras. We have many more now than when I first began my conductor research years ago, and some have become famous — for example, Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, and Xian Zhang, among others. At the Minnesota Orchestra, there are currently two women conductors on staff: Sarah Hicks and Akiko Fujimoto.  Kathy Saltzman Romey conducts the Minnesota Chorale, the chorus that works most often with the Minnesota Orchestra. As far as intelligence, musicianship, and performance ability, women stand equal to men on the podium. (If you want to check out a list of female conductors, they are here, or do a Google search on “list women conductors.” You may be surprised.)

Conductors are human beings, as imperfect, flawed, subject to ignorance and misinformation as any of us. My favorite illogical comment by a conductor, of course, was about the height of conductors. That conductor (who was shorter than me) stated emphatically that tall men make terrible conductors because their height slows them down. I’m sure all the conductors out there who are over six feet tall would disagree….

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.

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.