Tag Archives: The Writing Life

First Page, First Chapter

Facing the blank page. Every writer confronts that blank page. This moment can be a joy, or a daunting blank — not only the page but a blank mind as well. I really don’t think there exist any surefire fixes for this moment, ways to work into and out of it. The moment exists and I’m about to do it again.

Although not all the prep work is done — I still have character work and a little more work on America 2050 to do — my imagination has been pushing at me, nagging at me to just start writing, for pete’s sake. When it’s like this, I think of my imagination as a six-year-old me breathlessly telling stories to our dog, Patty, or to anyone who’d listen. My Grandma Yager occupied a royal place on my list of recipients for my stories. She told me her stories as well. At that age, I told stories about Bunny Rabbit, my imaginary friend, or about my adventures with the neighborhood kids. Now, I’m telling stories about a 36-year-old symphony orchestra conductor from America who struggles with PTSD and a guilty conscience, his choices and his secrets.

I already know what happens in chapter 1 of Perceval’s Game, the fourth novel in the Perceval series. Evan conducts concerts in Toronto, Canada and people from his past show up to surprise him. Is he happy or dismayed to see them? Does he trust them? How will they affect his plans? Because he does have plans that will take him on a highly dangerous journey through his past. Those of you who’ve read Perceval’s Secret know the pain and danger that lurk in his past.

So, what’s the first sentence, the very first sentence of the first chapter? I’ve been thinking about it all week. The first page needs to pull in the reader with an intense grip. Homer knew this when he told (or sang) The Iliad. The first verse of this epic poem not only sets the stage for the story, but summarizes the story in a way that pulls in the reader with the question: How did this all happen?

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus/ and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,/ hurled in their multitudes to the House of Hades strong souls/ of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting/ of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished/ since that time when first there stood in division of conflict/ Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

— Richard Lattimore’s translation in the 1951 University of Chicago Press edition.

When I’m thinking about first sentences and first pages, I return often to Homer for inspiration and humility. He knew his audience and he played to them. My audience today is my six-year-old self who wants a fun, suspenseful, and thrilling story. She can be a tough audience. What first sentence will pique her interest? What first sentence will spark questions in the reader’s mind that will encourage him or her to read the next sentence and the next?

MC Escher: Paradox of being a writer

It’s time for me to slip out to play with my imagination. And you know the thing about first sentences and first pages? The first draft is the perfect place to play around with them. I will most likely revise them many times before I’m satisfied.

Whoever says writing is easy doesn’t really write.

 

Review: FITZPATRICK by Richard Carr

Self-isolation has turned me into a burrower into my personal library for books to read. I bought Fitzpatrick by Richard Carr in 2018, along with his chapbook Our Blue Earth. I read the chapbook right away and put the poetry collection away for another day. Well, another day arrived last week! I’m glad I let some time pass so that I could read Richard’s poetry again with an uncluttered mind. And this collection proved to be an interesting diversion away from the pandemic.

Fitzpatrick is an artist. He paints. Carr approaches him from 4 different angles: the bartender in his favorite bar, his best drinking buddy, his wife, and his work. It was like going from standing far away to standing nose-to-nose with the man. And while the blurbs on the back cover describe this collection’s aim as “the search being the mystery and nature of art,” I read these poems as being biographical, a search for the artist, and how is an artist defined. In that regard, the bartender is the impersonal public who recognizes the human being but doesn’t really know the artist; the drinking buddy is closer, a guy who shares Fitzpatrick’s sense of the world up to a point; his wife is closer still, but even she does not really know that part of him that imagines and sees his paintings in his mind before he puts them on canvas; and then there’s the work itself, a series of poems describing paintings by an “I.” I wondered about that “I,” as if it were really Fitzpatrick speaking about the work he never talks about with anyone else.

I actually thought the best description of Fitzpatrick came in the 7th poem of the “His Wife” section: He was a pyramid, and in some tiny, deep chamber/a pharaoh folded himself for sleep. The wife recognizes his protective and defensive exterior, its silence, its stone hardness, but also that deep down inside himself he is the king of his life, with all the problems, frustrations, and excesses that means. What is not said explicitly is that pyramids contain lots of corridors and rooms, and could be an analogy for the mind, and the pharaohs inside are entombed.

Carr’s choice of words to paint images is one of his strengths, and its in fine form in this collection. For example, he describes the drinking buddy as “a smudge trying to catch a cab.” That drinking buddy in the next poem describes Fitzpatrick as “a dark snowbank splashed by trucks.” In the previous stanza, Carr writes “He tensed when someone opened the door/and let in a snake of wind.” In poem No. 12 of the drinking buddy section, Carr writes the drinking buddy saying, “His wife staged the opera of his public life.” And with every poem in the drinking buddy section, I felt I was learning just as much about the drinking buddy as Fitzpatrick. This was true for the other two sections about people as well.

Richard Carr

These are unsentimental poems in this collection, Carr “groping in the darkness of his own creation” for not a revelation about the mystery of art, but for what it means to be an artist as seen by people in the artist’s life. The work becomes a reflection of how the artist — or Carr — sees his art, and perhaps sees himself through his art. In the poem “Self-portrait,” he says “I am a harlequin.” A clown, an entertainer, a fool? I know that feeling. In the final poem, “Evening Lights of a Great City,” he states, “I can’t paint what I mean.” This is the frustration of all artists — taking the meaning in the mind/imagination and putting it out in the world so that it is seen and understood, but once it enters the world, it’s not the same. Composers are astonished the first time they hear their music performed because it’s never really like what they’ve heard in their imaginations, and the system of notating music cannot capture completely the sound and meaning.

I thought this was a lovely collection and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. I especially liked the change of direction that this collection has taken compared with previous collections of Carr’s poetry that I’ve read. Being a writer, I could relate to these poems, the striving to reveal, the frustration, and sometimes the success. I think this collection was an unqualified success, and I’d recommend it to readers who love poetry.

New Year, New News

I came unstuck!

In my last post, I wrote about being stuck on Chapter 9 of the first draft of Perceval in Love. Today, I’m writing about becoming unstuck and how I did it.  How did I do it? Haven’t a clue. But here’s what happened:

The day after that last post, I sat down at my desk, at my computer, at Chapter 9 and just started writing. I knew where the chapter needed to go, it was only a matter of putting the words on the page (or screen, as it were). So, I wrote and wrote and wrote — 6.5 pages that day. I finished the chapter! And I began Chapter 10.

The next day I wrote another 6.5 pages on Chapter 10. It felt great. It felt right in my bones. And I realized that maybe I had over-thought getting back into the draft. Over-thinking triggered fear, self-doubts, and more fear. To get beyond the fear and self-doubt, I needed to write about being stuck, to get it out of my head. So I am grateful to those blog readers out there who read that last post! Thank you. I am back on track with Perceval in Love.

With the New Year, I’m back to my Monday through Friday fulltime job and writing fiction on the weekends. And first draft writing work has awakened the frisson in me again between my creative life and my “work” life. Although I enjoy my fulltime job and the paychecks are most welcome, my creative life pulls, and pulls, and pulls at me. I have no idea why revision work doesn’t cause this frisson.

I’m always interested in novels set in the classical music world, and I ran across one whose premise really intrigued me because the protagonist was a concert pianist who is recruited as a spy during World War II. I began reading this novel this past Friday. The prose is, in my opinion, awful. The pace is glacial which is not a good thing for a spy novel. I thought about just tossing it aside, but I decided to continue reading it as a lesson in how not to write. Reading bad prose tends to be a good thing for writers in the end. I’ve read other bad novels in the past for the same reason. At the same time, reading this novel with its bad prose makes me sad. I think the characters and their story deserve better.

As I continue writing work on the Perceval in Love first draft, I feel relief and happiness that Evan Quinn is still talking to me…..

 

Silence

In our society today, we underrate silence. We prefer noise, sound, often music, but anything so that we won’t have to endure silence. The absence of sound.

I’ve recently come face to face with my need for silence. A neighbor has bombarded me with sound at night that has kept me from sleeping well. She responded to my request to turn down the volume by turning up the volume, which has led to lodging noise complaints against her. I need silence to sleep. Do any of my readers not need silence to sleep?

When I first began writing fiction in a serious way, I wrote with classical music on in the background. It sparked all sorts of ideas in my imagination, but didn’t help the actual writing. At one point, I would listen to classical music during my morning walks while going over notes from my writing on the current fiction project. I found this to be especially productive with generating ideas for scenes, character development, and dialogue. Music opens the doors and windows of my imagination with an invitation to come out and play.

But I need silence in order to write now. It is as if the words generate their own sound, each word its own vibration, within my mind. I need to hear it, to listen. It feels as if my imagination observes the writing process as if watching a play or movie, reviewing my work later in dreams or when I’m going over my notes. The silence allows me to think. The silence creates the space for the words to occupy and resonate. The shy words don’t want to appear when there’s noise or music or something else occupying that space. They want their own silent space.

I also now read in silence. Except on my commute to and from work when I’m on a bus or train car full of people. Sometimes those people concentrate on their smartphones and are silent. Most often, someone who doesn’t have earphones will play a video or music on the smartphone loud, irritating me and others. Sometimes, someone uses the smartphone to actually have a phone call — one day a couple weeks ago, I (and everyone else in the bus) were forced to listen to a woman doing a career coaching phone call in what I’m sure she believed was a normal voice but was in fact quite loud. It’s a wonder how much of a person’s business becomes public because of cell phones, but it’s apparently more important to make the calls than keep the business private. Or do these people think no one can hear them or are paying attention?

Who has the ability to block out the human voice or a video or hip-hop music? I don’t, especially when loud and in a confined space like a city bus or train car. I do love quiet commutes when the other commuters are silently engrossed in their smartphones and I can read. But there are always other sounds in the background — traffic, the sound of the bus engine or the train wheels on the track, announcements of the next stop, or PAs about not smoking on the train. I have more success blocking out those sounds, sometimes to the extent that I’ve missed my stop because I was engrossed in my book.

Silence. Underappreciated. I crave it. I need it for my writing.

What about you?

Tempus Fugit

For the last six weeks or so, I have been buffeted by my own mind which wants to get everything done. But there’s been this huge problem: time. It is out of my control. I would love to be able to add a couple hours to some days, delete hours from others, give myself an extra day especially on weekends (who wouldn’t?!), and add hours to each night so that I can get more sleep and stay healthy. It’s been a tumultuous six weeks dealing with the flu, a neighbor’s toddler who was screaming through the nights (a behavioral issue, not illness or anything else), and some winter weather that set records in the Upper Midwest, none of which I had any control over.

All through this, I’ve been working on the first revision to the second novel in the Perceval series. Every weekend as I’ve worked, I’ve felt an intense guilt for not writing a blog post for this blog. Tempus fugit. The conflict between writing fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) and writing on social media only exacerbated my frustrations. There was simply not enough time for everything (and there hasn’t been since I began working fulltime to pay the bills). I know that I am not alone in this frustration. I’ve been writing this blog since September 2007, and with few exceptions for surgery, I’ve managed to maintain a posting schedule of once a week on Saturdays. At the beginning of this year, I realized that this schedule, and continuing to work on the novel revision, wasn’t realistic.

Writers and Social Media

As a writer, I am happiest when I’m writing fiction or essays. I enjoy writing blog posts, but I see them, correctly I’ve learned, as a way to put myself as a writer and my writing out in the world to build audience. The March 2019 issue of The Writer confirmed this while I was reading it this past week on my daily commute to work. Most of this issue is devoted to promotion and social media.

My takeaway? There’s no getting around it. Writers must have an online presence, and Twitter seems to be the place to be nowadays. Writers can pick and choose, however, rather than throwing themselves into every single social media platform. That was good to hear. So, a website is a must. Twitter. The rest would be frosting on the cake and dependent on time. I have a “website” — this blog. I’m on Twitter but for my nonfiction writing, not fiction. Does that mean I need to have another Twitter account? Apparently. I don’t really like Twitter, however. I’ve set up a Facebook page for the Perceval Novels, and I’ve done some networking at LinkedIn in the past. But I have to admit there’s one big obstacle for me to spending a lot of time on social media: I prefer to work on my fiction and essays.

Nicki Porter, The Writer’s Senior Editor, wrote a wonderful “10 Social Commandments” in her opening letter from the Editor, and I’d like to share them here as a set of guidelines for writers (and me) for dealing with the social media in our lives:

  1. Thou shalt not tweet only about thyself.
  2. Thou shalt never attack or criticize another writer (unless thou be fully prepared to deal with the consequences).
  3. Thou shalt always remember that social media be more about building connections than selling books.
  4. Thou shalt support other writers at every opportunity.
  5. Thou shalt never offer advice unless said advice is requested.
  6. Thou shalt not succumb to jealousy or nastiness at other writers’ fame and fortune, but rather have faith that thy own successes cometh in due time.
  7. Thou shalt never tag an author in a negative review.
  8. Thou shalt not self-promote in times of national tragedy.
  9. Thou shalt listen as much as thou speakest.
  10. Thou shalt NEVER, EVER pitch an agent or editor on social media.

And with that, I’ll now return to my work on the novel revision.