Tag Archives: revision work

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!

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How do you write until you’re done?

Lately, I’ve been writing short stories to exercise my writing muscles in preparation for work on the second Perceval novel. Narrative structure has taken over my life. It’s so important for grounding a story, for keeping the action moving, and for knowing when the story’s done. Or not.  How do you write until you get to the end?

Hope Clark in her Funds for Writers newsletter brought up this subject recently in response to a writer sending her a plea for help. The writer wanted to know Hope Clark’s secret for writing to done.  Well, there is no big secret, and there’s nothing out there on the Web that could help with it.

The issue here is maintaining momentum and motivation. It’s different for each piece, I think.  A novel, or series of novels, requires a very long term commitment compared to a short story or essay.  Sticking with it, though, still demands more than only commitment. It demands practically an obsession with the piece and a determination to overcome all obstacles to finish it. It demands a willingness to struggle, wrestle with it, to do the work.  In short, you (the writer) are the protagonist in the story of how you wrote that short story or this novel.

At work at computer. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Writing is hard work.  It’s a struggle. You have to want to do it in the worst way. Hope Clark writes, “Any story that goes down on paper easy is not a good story.” Some days, I do not want to write. Those are the days I need the most to sit down and write something. That’s what writing is all about. The work. Transforming the imagination into the reality of a story on paper. Finding the right word or image, structuring an elegant sentence, searching the just the right active verb. It takes time, thought, and hard work.  I don’t know how many people I’ve run into who, when I tell them I’m a writer, always comment that it’s so easy to write, anyone could write. No, not just anyone can write and truly write well.

For me, when I’m working on something, I’m obsessed with the mystery of what happens next. Usually my characters very wisely withhold everything from me and parcel it out on a need to know basis. That doesn’t stop me from asking them a lot of questions right from the beginning. More days than I can count, though, I’ve not wanted to work, but to read, or watch a movie, or do something else that’s a lot easier than taking the narrative structure bull by the horns or learning to dance with my latest protagonist. Sometimes I just want to throw my laptop out the window I get so frustrated. At other times, life and its demands frustrate me because they keep me away from the writing, the work I love. Because there is absolutely nothing like the feeling of writing “the end.”

There is no easy way to write to done.  You just do it. And if you don’t go through the blood, sweat, and tears, it will show in your writing, your characters, your story, and the structure of it. And do you want to be known for sloppy, schlocky writing? Or known as a writer who doesn’t care enough to do the work? I don’t.

Just do it.

Grammar Matters

This morning, I began reading the October 2017 issue of The Writer. October already! One of the articles concerned the verb to be and how it weakens prose. Have you ever gone through a piece of writing specifically to root out all the to be forms and substitute action verbs instead? The author of the article (“Not to be”), Gail Radley, suggests using the find function in your word processing software to find and replace all forms of to be.  I like to print out what I’ve written and circle all the to be forms in red first, then work sentence by sentence to find the best replacement verbs. Radley shows in the article how often the to be form is near the verb that needs to replace it and she provides examples. An excellent article.

This article sparked thoughts about grammar in general. If you don’t think grammar is important to your prose, consider this. I occasionally agree to review novels when asked at GoodReads or elsewhere although I’m not a professional book reviewer. I’m usually happy to help out fellow writers and enjoy reading their work.  But there have been two times when I’ve agreed to review a novel but decided once I began reading that I could not write the review.  Why? Because the novel had been so poorly edited and contained so many grammar issues that the prose was nearly impossible to read. For both of these writers, I sent private e-mails with my assessment and that I would not review their books publicly.

Grammar exists not only to organize words but also to insure that the words make sense when put together. For professional writers, no reason exists in this world to justify not insuring that the grammar in their writing isn’t the best. Do you want readers to understand what you’re writing? Do you want readers to read your writing easily and with enjoyment? Do a close edit for grammar issues, whether you’re working on a novel or shorter piece.  If you feel rusty or unsure of your grammar usage, invest in a good usage manual like The Chicago Manual of Style and a grammar guide like Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar. Enough grammar reference books exist in libraries and bookstores that there is no excuse for a professional writer to not write grammatically correct prose.

We have editors – copy editors –  to help us in the later stages of completing a piece, of course. If you don’t feel confident in your grammar, a good copy editor is worth the cost, i.e. a professional copy editor who knows English grammar and usage. If you want your writing to be the best it can be, the clearest and easiest to read, then you have to put in the work and effort to accomplish that goal.

I will continue to review books, and accept the occasional request to review at GoodReads or post my review at Amazon or B&N.  If you self-publish, please be sure to hire a good copy editor before publishing your book.  It makes the reading and review process that much more enjoyable to me and all book reviewers.

Adam Burns, or Characters that are cut

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Adam Burns has been on my mind a lot lately. He was an old guy, a bum, a journalist in hiding in a very early draft of Perceval’s Secret.  Evan Quinn met him once, in a wooded area not far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Quinns lived. Evan was ten years old. He knew Adam as “Old Man Burns,” the neighborhood drunken bum. The encounter Evan has with Adam brings into laser sharp focus for Evan the danger that his family is in. Adam isn’t really drunk when he meets Evan — he’s acting drunk and stupid — and he tells Evan that his father must leave the country. Later, Evan learns that Adam was murdered, his body found along the Mississippi River, a bullet in his brain.

I killed off Adam Burns and that entire encounter with Evan. In fact, just before Evan meets Adam, Evan and his friend Paul Caine have been hounded and abused by Harold Smith and his gang. I didn’t realize it at the time I cut out that entire section of the draft, but Harold Smith would become Evan’s nemesis in the Perceval series. He survives in flashbacks in Perceval’s Secret as well as in the flesh late in the novel. But I never put the childhood section back into the novel. And Adam Burns was lost, except in my mind. Now he haunts me.

Have you ever been haunted by characters that you’ve cut out of stories or novels? It’s strange. It’s like they want their own stories, they do not want to be forgotten. I have yet to figure out why Adam keeps popping up in my mind. What’s his deal?

When I began work on the Perceval series, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t even a novel. It was a short story about a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be an orchestra conductor when he grew up, but the circumstances of his life in America in 2048 would make that dream impossible to fulfill unless he left the country, according to Adam “Old Man” Burns. Evan senses that Burns has a secret, and indeed he did. I knew his backstory although I never wrote it. It was enough that it was secret and something dangerous that Burns must protect or he could lose his life.

Adam’s backstory: first of all, Adam Burns wasn’t his real name. He made certain no one knew his real name, including me. He’d been a famous journalist on the East Coast during the Change, the period of time during which the New Economic Party (NEP) consolidated power in America with a permanent majority on the federal and state levels of government.

Like any journalist worth his salt defending Freedom of the Press as well as the Bill of Rights, Adam had reported on those in power, exposing their corruption, greed, and lust for power. He’d reported on their narcissism, comparing them to the greatest dictators of the 20th Century. He knew the NEP cared only about enriching itself and insuring that they got everything they wanted. Adam had reported also on the Resistance, the Underground, and the Civil War. But the NEP wanted the American people to know only what they told them. So they waged war against journalists, arresting many who simply disappeared. The NEP wanted complete control over the media. They silenced the media by any means necessary.

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The people had rebelled — the country was embroiled in a Civil War, with western states seceding, southern states threatening to do so, and Washington slamming shut all of America’s borders. By the time Evan is ten, Adam has been underground for over five years, running for his life. In Minnesota, he thought he’d be safer because Minnesota was a hot bed of resistance, led by Evan’s father, a poet, and Paul’s father, a composer. Artists throughout the country had joined the Underground, the loosely organized resistance movement. They could offer Adam a way out of the country.

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I cut Evan’s childhood section when I realized that I was writing a novel and I needed to restructure it to focus on his adult life, what eventually became Perceval’s Secret. Now I find it a bit ironic that Evan carries a dangerous secret in the novel, one that could cost him his life. So perhaps Adam did survive in the importance of keeping dangerous secrets.

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.

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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.