Tag Archives: revision work

Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 3

My revision work has begun to settle into a kind of routine: I work on a hard copy of a chapter, making changes in ink by hand. Every couple of chapters completed this way I boot up the computer and enter a “new” file for each revised chapter that I date once I’ve finished entering the changes into the electronic document. This gives the work a rhythm between handwriting and thinking over the hard copy and typing. Of course, I’m also editing as I’m typing. This revision work, though, swings and sashays along.

Then I hit a big hole. I suspected it was coming, but it wasn’t totally clear until I stood at the edge of it looking down into nothing. I needed to add a chapter that would reveal character, develop the relationship between two characters, and reveal an inner conflict. I was nervous. It’s been a long time since I have drafted anything new for this novel. Would I be able to recapture the tone of the prose, the pacing, the voice? I put it off a bit, then when I had a full day off from my job, I sat down at my computer and began working.

Where I write

The whole day surprised me. I was so afraid that I would struggle and struggle to get anything down before I sat at the computer. But then something happened. Looking at that blank page on the computer screen switched on that part of my brain that’s been working on that chapter for months behind the scenes. The words just gushed out of me. I wasn’t even thinking about the structure of the chapter, just focused on typing as fast as the words came. By the end of the day, I’d written 2500 words — a daily record for me.

What did I have then at the end of that day?

Two short scenes and the beginning of a long tracking shot scene. I showed Evan dealing with the aftermath of the chapter 1 event. I showed him interacting with his British artist manager and his Spanish cousin. And there is an emotional change that I hadn’t known was coming until it was upon me. But I realized that this specific change was actually the reason this new chapter is important. And there’s a tension in this chapter that I hadn’t expected as well.

I haven’t yet completed this new chapter. It may require a couple more days of work. This writing has stopped the revision work, but it’s also a crucial part of it. I had known that I may need to write some new scenes or whole chapters for this first revision. My experience with this new material flowing out of me reassures me that it is something the novel definitely needs.

First drafts surprise as they appear like magic out of the imagination, but that magic continues during the revision process. I have this image of my imagination as a laughing child, giddy with play, having a blast as I work. That’s certainly what it feels like in my mind. And then there’s that tingling feeling that cascades through my body when I write something — that’s when I know it’s absolutely right. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Revealing Character Through Language

How does a writer reveal character in a story or novel? The usual answer is through action, speech, and then there’s also description. For these 3 elements, the writer uses various tools, of course, but the most basic are words, i.e. language. Last week, I talked about language in terms of word choice. I was also talking about the use of language to show who Pierre is when the reader meets him in the first Pierre chapter in Perceval’s Shadow. The excerpt I used was a descriptive passage showing Pierre in action as well as his thinking. This week, I want to explore that more and add the dimension of speech.

Back in 2008, I wrote a post about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, how the experience of that novel affected me and McCarthy’s use of Anglo-Saxon words. Through the use of ancient words, he took the reader back in time to a period in human history when survival was a primitive and violent endeavor. He created a tone, an atmosphere, to the story by using Anglo-Saxon words in his description.

In Perceval’s Secret, Vassily Bartyakov is a young Russian pianist who grabs experience and people with such gusto, it’s hard to not to like him. He’s far from an innocent in the world, but a realist. I wanted to convey primarily through his speech, however, his Russian soul.

Before I had written much, I spent a lot of time listening to Russian immigrants speaking English, watching how they used their hands as they spoke, and what about English tripped them up. I have to admit it was a lot of fun. In return, I was conversing with them, helping them with their English, explaining why weigh is not pronounced the same as conceive, and the differences among there, their, and they’re. The one element of English they tripped over all the time was the articles — the, a, an. They don’t exist in Russian, so Russians didn’t use them in English much. Another element was word order. In English, there is a definite order to a sentence. In Russian, word order depends on what meaning the speaker wishes to convey. For example, in English “I love you” is specific and set: subject, verb, object. But in Russian, those 3 words can be moved around to show emphasis and change the meaning — “You I love” or “Love I you” or “I you love” with the first word being the strongest. So for Bartyakov’s speech, I wanted to emphasize through word order and lack of articles that he was truly Russian, not an Austrian with a Russian name.

Another example of revealing character through speech concerns showing a character’s level of education by the kind of vocabulary she uses. A character who has a post-graduate education and is well-read will have a broader and deeper vocabulary (and be a true challenge for a writer) than a character who’s graduated high school and works at a blue collar job. Having written that, I have also met people in life with college educations who speak with the vocabulary and understanding of 5th graders. So education is not necessarily a reliable indication of intelligence. Writers demonstrate a character’s knowledge and understanding through actions as well as speech.

I love to watch fine actors at work. They reveal character by using their bodies through movement but also through clothing and grooming. The first example that pops into my mind is a description of a young woman in the 1950’s vs. a young woman today. In the 1950’s, a young woman might wear a shirtwaist dress, bobby socks, or pedal-pushers. What of a young woman today who describes her dress as a shirtwaist, her socks as “bobby socks,” or her cropped pants as pedal-pushers? What would that say about her? Fashion vocabulary changes often, morphs, and returns, but it can reveal how a character sees herself.

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of how language or word choice reveals character in a story. It’s one of the things I’m conscious of when I’m reading novels — how does the writer use words to reveal character? Describe behavior or action? What words does the writer put in her characters’ mouths? While description of action or how a character responds to a location creates a definite image of a character in a reader’s mind, the character’s speech can support or demolish that image depending on how the writer chooses words to put in a character’s mouth.

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

How do you define Success?

Success. Everyone wants it. But what is it, really? I’m also curious to know if different countries define success differently based on their cultures. That curiosity arises from American society’s fixation on financial success as the only kind of success that counts. Writers need to figure out that writing for money can be a huge mistake, but it’s hard to ignore that it takes money to live, to pay the bills, obtain food, shelter, clothing. I’ve written about success before at this blog. In that post, I explored the idea of “commercial success.” Now I want to explore the notion of “success,” that is, success unencumbered by money.

Athletes can define success in two ways: when they win a competition, and when they attain their goals whether in training or in performance. Writers can learn from the example of athletes. Success is in how you define it, in other words, not how society defines it. Society will always define success in financial terms. For writers this means in sales. So let’s forget that and return to the athletes.

Photo by William Warby

Competition

Writers competing with other writers — do writers really do this? From my own experience and my voracious reading, I have a tendency to compare my writing to that of another writer’s. But I’m not thinking in terms of competition. I’m thinking in terms of noting what the other writer does well, doesn’t do well, and how I can learn from it. Competition exists, however, with writing contests. Every time you submit a story, a poem, a novel to a contest, your submission is in competition with all the other submissions. Do you submit writing to a lot of contests? I haven’t done this much in the past. Winning or placing well in a writing contest looks very good on your publication credits. Sometimes winning brings extremely favorable publicity, a bump in sales, or attention from agents and/or publishers. But is winning a competition success?

If you define it as success, then for you, it is. Maybe just entering a competition could be the success.

Attaining Goals

I set goals all the time — to do lists for housework chores, shopping lists, to do lists for business chores, setting a number of repetitions for an exercise (like sit-ups, for example) and setting a goal total to work toward.

In writing, wonderful possibilities exist for setting goals and then celebrating success by achieving them. For example, a daily word count. I used to do this when I was writing fulltime. My daily word count goal was 1000 words, or about 5 pages, double-spaced. When I reached my goal, I could either celebrate by stopping work for the day, or continue writing. My choice. But the success was there in writing those 1000 words.

I’ve set goals like this throughout my writing life. I set a goal to finish a short story by a certain date. I set a goal to start a short story on a particular day. I’ve set a goal to get off my butt and find a good editor when I began the production process to publish Perceval’s Secret. During the month of November, there’s a quite well-known activity called National Novel Writing Month when writers set the goal to write a novel first draft by November 30 (or December 1, if you want the entire day of November 30). If I were to participate, I’d be overwhelmed thinking about the entire month, so I’d probably break it down into a daily word count goal. Completing the month with a finished first draft is definitely success achieved!

Nowadays, my goals tend to be a bit different, so my definition of success is, too. If I manage to carve out 2 or 3 hours on a weekend to write fiction, or work on Perceval’s Shadow, I consider that a success. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal to finish the first revision by December 31. For a long time, it didn’t look like I’d come even close to achieving that goal. As time went on, I began to think in terms of chapters — my goal was to finish 17 chapters by December 31, then 15 chapters. Now it’s 12 chapters, or half the novel. I have 3 months to finish the revision of 12 chapters. So far, I’ve done 3 chapters. I am so slow!

Success According to You

Everyday, each of us has the opportunity to enjoy success, or even many successes. It depends on how we define success and if we’re willing to truly claim each success achieved.

Think about it. What will you do?

 

Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 2

I love revision work. It challenges. It’s hard. It frustrates. It slows me down and forces me to think, to imagine, to turn to my imagination to help me. This is the place I’m in now with the second novel. I couldn’t be happier…except there’s never enough time! I want more time to work on it. Amazing how much time a fulltime job and the commute eats out of my writing time.

Before last weekend, I had not done much work on chapter 3. I spent the entire weekend on chapter 3. My original discovery that it needed a great deal of work had not changed at all. In fact, I rewrote sections by hand, not opening the computer at all. Writing by hand is the ultimate way to slow down the revision process. The way the hand holds a pen, the ink flows onto the paper, and the ink forming letters and words thrills me as well as excites my imagination.

As I worked, I finally saw the structure for this chapter. Like a musical Rondo, it alternates between the medical setting and people, and Evan’s life and the people in it. I found the way to bring Evan’s guilt forward more as well as his PTSD. And I know how this chapter ends which right now is quite an accomplishment.

Work on chapter 3 has also shown me strongly that I need a new chapter between the current chapter 4 and chapter 5. Another new character arrives in Evan’s life at the end of chapter 3, and I’ve realized that my original questions years ago about whether or not I needed to give that new character more time with Evan before they return to Vienna were spot on. Right now, this novel has 22 chapters, and I haven’t done a word count because I thought that would be silly for a first draft that will probably change a lot during the revision process. So far, adding the chapter between chapters 4 and 5 is the only place I feel the need for another chapter. It is related to chapter 3, so what I put in chapter 3 now will move forward in a new chapter 5.

At this point, I haven’t done any editing on the computer. All my work has been handwritten on a hard copy I printed out before. Another decision I need to make: when will I begin adding the editing/changes/new material I’m doing by hand to the document files on my computer? That process also takes time, and it’s been my experience that it can also spark additional revisions as I’m working on the computer. The new chapter between the current chapters 4 and 5 I’ll probably write on the computer, as I wrote the entire first draft.

I’m pleased with the work so far. It’s been abundantly clear also that my mind and imagination were quite ready to do it now. I can feel the thoughts just under the surface of my mind focused on Evan and this novel. Lots of that tingly feeling when I know physically that what I’m doing is absolutely right. I just wish I had more time!