Tag Archives: Writing

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.

Finished!

Yes, indeed. The first draft of Perceval in Love is done! I had not imagined at the beginning of the year that I would finish it this year, much less in June. I’m beyond pleased. It needs work, of course, but I’m well on my way to achieving my goal of getting the first drafts of novels 2-5 of the Perceval series on paper before working on revisions. Except for Perceval’s Shadow. The first revision of that one is done.

What’s next?

Yesterday, I worked nearly all day compiling notes for the revision work on Perceval in Love and I didn’t finish. I did some organizing also — the research, for example. Tidying up. For the next week, I plan to continue working on cleaning up my notes, writing character notes, and completing the book’s outline for future reference.

After that?

On to work on the first draft of the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game. I’ve already been doing some work on characters, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what will occur in the first 3 or 4 chapters. I’ll probably sketch out an outline of those chapters and see how far I get. I remember when I wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow, I sketched ahead 2 or 3 chapters from where I was so I always knew where I was going. I know what Evan Quinn needs to accomplish in the fourth book. The story will really be in how he does it and if he manages to get out of America alive.

Silver Lining

So that’s the silver lining for me of having to self-isolate because of COVID-19. I’ve been able to write and write and write. It has kept me sane and taken me outside of myself and the present world.

However,

All good things must come to an end. I expect that I will be returning to my fulltime job at some point in the coming weeks. We have a preparedness and re-opening plan, and I’m going through the training so I’ll be ready. That’s fine. I’ll just return to working on the novels on weekends.

And I get my hair cut this coming Saturday!

Slowing Down

Photo: Margi Nutmeg Lake Harriet

During the last month, I’ve slowed down and settled into a regular daily routine. Having a routine helps me to cope with the crazy pandemic news, the tragic pandemic news, as well as the hopeful pandemic news. I am still at home, going out only for needed medication refills or food shopping. The restlessness has begun, as well as some days feeling down. The sadness hasn’t hit me as much as the surreal qualities of our current world and what we can look forward to in the months ahead. I just read an email about what will be required of employees at my job in order for us to return to work. I feel like I’m in a disaster movie without a script.

So, I’ve tried to maintain my daily routine, like putting one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. I rise from bed to eat breakfast with national news on TV. I get dressed. Then I sit down at my desk to write. And I’ve gotten a lot of writing done on Perceval in Love‘s first draft. When I first got home on paid leave, I had been working on Chapter 12. I finished Chapter 20 this morning. I’ve made the decision to cut one chapter I thought I’d need so there will now be a total of 24 chapters. Close, very close to the climax.

Mariinsky Concert Hall, St. Petersburg, Russia

The time I’ve had at home has also given me time for research and daydreaming. Most people don’t know how important it is to have time to daydream when working on a novel or any fiction, for that matter. The research is easy to understand. In the last week, I’ve spent hours on Google Maps, traipsing through the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia, in preparation for the final chapters. I’ve also researched the concert hall where Evan will conduct in St. Petersburg, running into notices about the pandemic at its website. Eerie to see foreign websites announcing concert postponements and alternate online concert viewing. It’s not only here in the U.S. As I’ve spent more time in St. Petersburg, my imagination has been returning to my personal memories of that enigmatic city, so steeped in sorrow and the past, struggling to be the “Window on the West” that Peter the Great envisioned. I find myself dreaming of Evan in that city, Evan trying to make sense of it, Evan shocked by how much Russia resembles his America.

About 12:30 p.m., I stop work on the novel to make lunch. I eat reading either one of the magazines I subscribe to, or a novel. Only recently I read a couple of nonfiction books about totalitarianism that would make your skin crawl. How human beings can want that oppression or do that to other human beings is a mystery to me. There is a fascinating psychological component that has turned out to be important for the Perceval series.

After my lunch break, I’ve been doing house chores, cleaning, sorting, de-cluttering, and organizing for 1-2 hours. While I’ve gotten a satisfactory amount of that kind of work done, it seems the more I do, the more I notice needs to be done. I’m almost finished with the cleaning, with my usual vow that I will do a better job of keeping up with it. I am hoping to make a big dent on sorting through files and throwing out what I no longer need before I must return to my fulltime job.

My writing desk

The last couple of hours of the work day I return to my computer to go online. I’ve been diligent in cleaning out my email boxes everyday. Once that chore has been done, I turn to either more research, blog post writing, shopping, or at the very end, social media. I’ve been grateful to social media the last two months for keeping me in contact with friends and relatives, as well as Skype. There have been some days when I’ve needed to connect with my boss and my job in order to stay in touch. And there are the public health updates from my state that I now check every other day rather than every day.

Evenings have been for exercise then a light meal, followed by some kind of entertainment, either TV, DVD, or streaming video. I’m glad I decided last summer to subscribe to Amazon Prime — I’ve been using it quite a lot, along with Acorn TV and BritBox for my beloved British shows. Then I hit the sack between 9 and 10 p.m. to read for a few minutes before turning out the light. I realized earlier this week that I’ll soon need to start getting up earlier, a few minutes each day, and going to bed earlier, in order to re-condition my body to my fulltime job schedule.

I am well and safe, and grateful for it. As we adjust to living with the SARS-CoV-2 virus — it’s not going to be eradicated anytime soon, unfortunately — and we return to jobs, social lives, and travel, I think we will discover that this virus has changed us irrevocably. We are not necessarily the top predator in the food chain anymore. We have natural enemies that cannot be seen with the naked eye. It will be up to each of us to protect ourselves as well as those in our communities by following the public health guidelines that will come out of this for us in the future.

Silver Linings

My boss sent me home on March 18, and my paid leave began on March 19. I am in the high risk group for COVID-19 in multiple ways, so I’m at home for as long as it takes to flatten the curve and make it safe to return to work. I find the pandemic scary, and I find my thoughts about getting sick scary, especially because there’s a high probably that I might die. So, although I understand the need to stay informed, I also need to step away from our current reality (although not like the American President has done).

The silver lining in this pandemic for me is a wonderful amount of uninterrupted time to work on the first draft of Perceval in Love. It’s astonishingly quiet in my apartment building, quiet in the neighborhood because much fewer people are outdoors. Sitting down at my desk everyday to work on the first draft takes me out of myself and away from the current world.

I realized at one point during the last three weeks of writing that I had not considered a pandemic as a catalyst for America to become a totalitarian dictatorship after 2016. How could I include COVID-19 now? The current administration in the American White House is giving me lots of raw material to work with, and especially a president who likes to hog all the time and touts TV ratings for pandemic briefings rather than giving the briefings over to the people who are knowledgeable about infectious diseases and pandemic response, and taking himself back to the Oval Office. But he hasn’t been idle, either.  He’s been firing the Inspector Generals who oversee important functions of government, especially the disbursement of financial aid. The Republicans just sit by and watch, doing nothing.

Then Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, began talking again about California being a “nation-state” for the purpose of securing the medical supplies and personal protective equipment needed for medical personnel. This apparently is not the first time he’s called California a “nation-state.” He is distancing the state from the federal government and establishing independence. A next step would be to stop funneling money to the federal government like tax payments. I had imagined there would be states that would declare independence from an NEP government in Washington, D. C. and created a map to show who were still in the United States and who weren’t.

America 2048-2050

In the photo above, the blue states are still in the US, the orange states are border states, the green states have seceded and are fighting a civil war with the blue states, and the yellow states are in contention. The purple Alaska has seceded and is now its own country. The blue states with black lines through them will announce secession during the course of the Perceval series. I probably won’t change this map for now. As anyone who’s read Perceval’s Secret knows, in 2048, America remains embroiled in a civil war and the border states are active battlefields.

I’m over halfway done with the first draft and excited. It’d be great to finish it before I return to work, but who knows?