Tag Archives: revision

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.



A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006The last week or so my writing work has been focused on a nonfiction piece that’s ready for revision/editing. An interview in a Q&A format, a first for me. It’s too long for one thing. I want to preserve its current flow because it’s an interview, which means any editing cannot change the original meaning or the unique voice of the person interviewed. This mountain of a job will give my revising and editing muscles a real workout. Where to begin?

Sharpening Focus

In any conversation, whether an interview or not, the direction veers off on tangents, circles around and back to the topic, and veers off again. The first task of editing my piece is to identify everything that isn’t an answer to the questions, i.e. identify the tangents. Next, I ask myself: does this (or that) tangent illuminate a point the interviewee is making? If not, out it goes. If it’s an example of the interviewee’s point, I then weigh how good it is or how many examples he gives for this one point. Maybe he’s given 3 or 4, so I try to choose the best one.

Sharpening focus for the answer to each question is probably the most important part of the editing process. It takes the longest because it requires some thought about the question as well as the answer. Editing the question for length also comes into the process. I’ve discovered ways to strengthen the questions by tightening them.


The next step, after the first revision, is to put the piece away. This part reminds me of the fermentation process. It’s really crucial to put it away and wait for the fermentation to take its course. I often continue thinking about the piece, though, and this interview is no exception. And I’m on deadline for it, so the fermentation period needs to be shorter than I usually prefer.



With one piece put away to ferment, I’ll work on some other writing project, read, clean house, go to the part time job, or anything else on my to-do list. Today, for example, I’ve been working on business chores, cleaning out e-mails, working more on my very late holiday letters, house chores, researching a talented young French pianist that I discovered over the weekend, and running errands. All my watches have stopped — is this the Universe trying to tell me something? — and I need to take them in to get new batteries for them this afternoon. And I’m finishing this blog post that I began last Saturday afternoon.

More Revision

The next step after fermentation, is another round of revision. During this round, I’m checking for grammar issues, typos, spelling mistakes, and syntax issues. I’m also looking for more ways to tighten, to cut, to get the piece down to the word count I want.

If I have enough time before the deadline, I’ll repeat the fermentation-revision-fermentation-revision process several times until I cannot find anything that needs attention. I’ll read the piece aloud during this process also to check for the flow. I’m also checking any links I’ve included, and I add photos if necessary. In the case of my current project, only one photo will be included, that of the interviewee.



When I’ve arrived at a place with the piece where I’m feeling comfortable that it’s ready for publication, I’ll do one last read through with an eye to anything I may have missed. Dropped words and misspellings are usually caught in this round. I then submit it to the publication.

In general, this is the revision process I follow whether I’m working on nonfiction or fiction. It can vary a little from piece to piece depending on how much time I have for it or what the purpose of the piece is. I’ve learned, however, that even when I’m working on deadline it’s important not to rush the revision process, to slow down and savor it, really use the mind and imagination to make the writing the best it can be.



Photo: Marina Shemesh

Photo: Marina Shemesh

The last two weeks, my mind has been preoccupied with the science fiction short story I’m working on.  All sorts of problems so far and I’m not yet finished with the first draft.  The biggest problem was its structure.  I have to think about structure for a short story?  Sure.  Any story, no matter how long, needs a solid structure.  OK.  What is the structure of my science fiction short story?

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

Freytag Pyramid for narrative structure

I learned about structure when I studied screenwriting. In the class I took, we studied two structures: 3-Act Dramatic and Sequenced. The first is probably the most common story structure.  The second can actually be broken into 3 Acts  as well as standing on its own and isn’t as common.  The story I always think of for sequenced structure is the 1995 movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.  For a while I was thinking that maybe my sci fi short story was a sequenced narrative structure until my imagination finally handed me the solution to one of the other problems it had. Now I know that it’s a 3-Act Dramatic narrative structure.  So, what’s the difference between the two?

Sequenced  narrative structure begins at a relative low point in terms of plot and story. The reader is dropped into the story in media res or in the middle of action albeit not necessarily crucial action in which a character makes a defining decision or sets a specific goal to achieve. There is very little set-up or exposition. From there, the character(s) encounter one obstacle after another, one conflict after another, in escalating intensity until the climax and resolution.

In 3-Act Dramatic structure, there are three sections or acts weighted approximately as 1-2-1 or 25%-50%-25%.  The acts are defined as follows:

  1.  The Exposition Act or Set-Up: in the beginning there was the introduction of characters, setting, time, and the situation. There is a rising tension until the main character makes a decision or sets a goal to achieve, i.e. a turning point.  This is sometimes also described as the main character’s primary desire.  What does the main character want and what will he do to get it?
  2. The Conflict Act: in the middle is one conflict after another, one obstacle set in the main character’s way after another, one development after another.  In this act, the reader often finds out what the villain wants and what he’ll do to get it, working against the main character.  The difficulty of the obstacles/conflicts increases until at the end of this act, when the main character is in crisis — it looks like all is lost for the main character and he has no way of achieving what he wants.
  3. The Climax Act: at the beginning of this act, the main character learns something or realizes something from an accumulation of information/detail during Act 2 that gives him what he needs to    achieve his goal or not (the climax).  Then there can be a short “resolution” that ties up any loose ends or provides explanations.

Readers expect conflict in a story.  It can be a conflict of the main character vs. another character or group of characters; the main character vs. Nature; the main character vs. him or herself; or the main character vs. God (which is rare).  The first two conflicts are the most common. There can also be peripheral conflicts that function as obstacles.  But there must be conflict.

In my sci fi short story, I realized that I didn’t know what my main character wanted.  Then it hit me what she wanted, that she’d been actually telling me throughout what I’d already written and I just hadn’t been paying attention.  And then I felt that exquisite physical sensation of cascading tingling from head to toes that tells me YES! THAT’S IT!  Now I know that this story has a 3-Act Dramatic structure.

cute-cat-picture-wallpaper by jasonlefkowitz.net




Writing vs. Talking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a new acquaintance asks me what I do, I proudly reply that I’m a writer of fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve published a novel as well as numerous essays both online and in print.  Sometimes, the new acquaintance wants to hear about what I’m currently writing — in detail. This new acquaintance looks so excited about hearing my story, what do I do?  Do I talk about my story before I have it down on paper?  Or do I respect the privacy of my characters and their story?  This new acquaintance could be a new fan/reader…..

Roz Morris at Nail Your Novel reminded me of this with her post “Vow of Silence: how much do you talk about your novel in progress?” She also has a policy of no talking.  I especially liked this quote: “Good writing needs a ruthless mindset; you include only what’s good for the book, not the pieces you like or the crowd-pleasers.”  That is, the crowd-pleasers that you’ve revealed to well-meaning people who’ve asked what your work-in-progress is about and then given you positive feedback about it.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107I currently have a series in progress.  The first novel, Perceval’s Secret, was published as an e-book in March 2014.  You can check it out here.  The second novel in the series, Perceval’s Shadow, is a completed first draft that I need to work on…a lot.  I’m not saying anything more about that book until I know that I’ve got all the meat on the bones, so to speak.  The third novel, Perceval in Love, is half-written, that is the first draft is half-written.  I know the outline and how it ends.  I just need to get it all down on paper.  For the fourth novel, I know the general outline of action, many of the new characters and who from the earlier books will participate in this story.  I know what Evan Quinn’s challenge is in this book.  But I haven’t written anything beyond notes and playing with character names.  For the final novel in the series, I also have a general idea of the action, the players, the locations, and especially the ending because the ending of this novel is also the Finale of the series.

You’ll notice that although this blog’s subject matter covers the Perceval novels, I haven’t really said much about any of the novels after the first.  I feel that if I talked about them, about anything regarding them, that it would siphon off the creative energy from the writing of them.  It’s like my imagination, my mind, is an aged oak barrel in which I’ve poured the ingredients for the story and the mixture needs to ferment, to age into the best possible form I can imagine it.  Talking about it is like poking a hole in that barrel.

It can be lonely.  Yes.  It can be isolating not to talk about writing, about my stories and characters.  But how else to honor my own creative process?  How else to respect it?

Gina's Eyes

So, I never talk about a work-in-progress.  I adhere to this policy until the first draft is done, and even then I rarely talk about it.  I do not even pitch agents or editors about a novel before I’m ready.  This policy grew out of my experience taking workshops and classes in the past and talking about being a writer rather than concentrating on writing.  It could be so easy to talk all the time and not actually write.  So, for all my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. who wonder why I am so tight-lipped, it has nothing to do with you.  It’s about being true to my creativity and my stories.

What do you do — talk or write?


First Sentences

Last Saturday during the memoir class at The Loft Literary Center, the teacher, Angela Foster, talked about the importance of first sentences.  I started thinking about how I shop for books.  Usually, I’ve read a review, or a friend has recommended one, or I’ve gotten hooked on an author and want to read everything he or she has written.  I’m not a browser.  Perhaps this is the reason I have a hard time writing first sentences.  Browsers know how important they are to entice and intrigue someone into reading more.

Source: midwestmountainess.com

Source: midwestmountainess.com

We all can’t be Leo Tolstoys, but his Anna Karenina provides an example of what I call a “setting the stage” first sentence: “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  From this sentence, we know this magnificent story will be about an unhappy family and how it’s unhappy in its own way.  If we don’t want to read a 19th century Russian novel about an unhappy family, we won’t buy this book or read it.  Of course, there’s a lot of irony in that first sentence too.

Here are some other first sentence examples that I’ve culled from books I loved that were on my shelves:

  • She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  • The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning.  The Constant Gardener by John le Carre
  • Moon.  Glorious moon.  Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy.  Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
  • It happened every year, was almost a ritual.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • “Don’t they ever think about anything except killing each other?” Roberto asks.  The Exception by Christian Jungersen
  • Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way.  The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  • Anyone who watches even the slightest amount of TV is familiar with the scene: An agent knocks on the door of some seemingly ordinary home or office.  Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

What do these first sentences have in common?  What do they leave the reader with?  A question.  Each one also suggests an action or situation, and it creates a tension between the two.  In other words, they are dramatic in some way.

Looking at my own writing, I thought first of Perceval’s Secret.  I dug out the draft before the last line edit and rewrite.  The first sentence was “The dark matter of souls leaked into shadows.”  Interesting but there’s no question there, no human drama.  Here’s the first sentence after the line edit/rewrite: “In the middle of the room, the old man’s right hook thumped Agent Higgins’ jaw, but Higgins hardly flinched.”  This sentence has action, two people in conflict, and questions.  Much better.

Next, I turned to my memoir.  The first chapter needs a re-shaping and a rewrite.  Here’s the current first sentence: “After my mother died in 2002, I cleaned out her massive collection of costume jewelry.”  Not terrible, really.  Not if my memoir was of my mother, but it’s not.  She’s in it, especially the first half, but the focus of the memoir is on me and how I learned to be a patient.  I came up with a new first sentence that I showed to Angela Foster.  She made a suggestion that I think I’ll keep regarding how to start the sentence.  Here it is: “The month before my eleventh birthday, the cough nearly killed me.”  Drama, questions, and an illness, so I was a patient.  I think I have my first sentence.

A dramatic first sentence grabs the book browser’s interest, intrigues with questions, and creates a desire to read more of the story.  Sale!  This kind of sentence can be difficult to write, and I usually put off finalizing it until I’ve written the whole book or story.  In the future, I’ll also try reading first sentences in books I’ve read and loved to use as inspiration…..