Tag Archives: Writing

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…..


Book Review vs. Book Critique

The November 2019 issue of The Writer has an interesting article about “How to be a good Critique Partner.” I’ve been asked often enough to critique someone’s manuscript, both as a member of writing groups and individually, and one of the things that will always be at the top of my mind before I start is this: Focus only on the work. The second thing is: Stay positive, even when pointing out a negative by being constructive in criticism. I’ve heard horror stories about critiquing sessions that attacked the writer personally or shredded the writing. That kind of experience can be extremely traumatic. That kind of critique actually reveals more about the person critiquing rather than the writer or the writing and is far from helpful.

Anica Mrose Rissi, the author of The Writer’s article on critiquing has some good points I’d like to share here:

  • “Be discerning about what you sign on to read” — From my personal experience, I know I’m not the person to critique (or edit) a military story, horror story, or western. I don’t like those kinds of stories and so I haven’t read many of them. A good critique comes from someone who loves the genre of the book, has read a lot in that genre, and enjoys it.
  • “Ask questions first” — talk with the writer about the work and what stage it’s in. Find out what the writer’s expectations are, and what the writer wants to know about the book you’d critique for her.
  • “React with your head, heart, and pen (or comment button)” — what every writer wants to know about their work is this: what’s it like to read it when you haven’t written it? Be kind. Be generous with feedback.
  • “Don’t hold back on the compliments” — Noting what the writer has done well is just as important as what the problems might be with the writing.
  • “Be kind but straightforward” — or in another word, be professional. Be honest in your assessment. Say what you mean and move on. And be respectful of the work.
  • “Remember, it’s not your work” — I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of this when I start to think about how I’d change what I’m reading. That’s not my job. My job is to ask questions about what I don’t think works, point out problems, and help the writer see what I see. Then trust the writer to do what will be right for her characters and story and leave it.

Lately, I’ve been writing more book reviews than doing critiques. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, there are some very big differences, starting with the fact that book reviews are done for finished and published books, and critiques are done on manuscripts that could go through several more drafts before they’re ready to publish. The approach for each is different: for a critique, I’m thinking about the writing and how to help the writer see its potential as well as its problems, while for a book review I’m trying to answer the question: would I recommend this book and why? Every time I finish a book and sit down to write a review, I’m thinking about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, what’s unusual about it, what I really disliked as well as loved about it. What was the experience of reading this book like? It’s rare that I find nothing to recommend about a book, actually (and I feel much the same about classical music), but there are two aspects that can make or break a book for me, i.e. the characters and the use of language, or just how easy is this writing to read?

Characters: I don’t have to adore all the characters. In fact, I expect not to like the antagonist, although I do hope to find him or her interesting in some way. I think of George Warleggan in the Poldark series, for example. I cannot stand this character but at the same time he fascinates me — I want to know why he does what he does, and I want to know how he’ll end up. He is not an evil person, just a selfish narcissist who has felt hurt and slighted in the past by the Poldark family. But what he does often turns out to be evil in its results. Characters need to be real to me, as if I could invite them for coffee and a chat some afternoon, with plausible motivations, thoughts, behavior, and reactions to the world of the story.

Language: Word choice, syntax, paragraph construction, and dialogue all affect the ease of reading and establish a writer’s “voice.” Right now, I’m reading a novel by Jennifer Lash entitled Blood Ties. Lash’s language is dense which makes for slow reading. In fact, her writing style reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf. I continue to read because her word choice, her English usage, is so rich and colorful. It’s a literary novel. Such writing in a thriller would probably hurt the pace and suspense of the story that belong in a thriller. How a writer uses language can challenge a reader or make it a smooth, easy ride.

Book reviews are not the same as book critiques, even though both are about reading a book with a critical eye.  Both can be valuable to a writer for improving the writing of future books. And doing either one can also be helpful in being a better writer.

Author! Author! Where have you been?

Where I write

Writing! she shouted. Yes, it’s been over two months since my last post here and I must apologize for the silence. But I’ve been writing. Yes. Writing. Just not blog posts.

What have I been writing? Perceval’s Shadow, the first revision. It’s done. I finished the edits. I finished entering the edits into the computer. Then I created the notes for the second revision and began sorting through my Perceval series files to find the working file and first draft files for Perceval in Love, the third novel in the series. The working file bulges with notes, research articles, photos, questions, and doodles. I had completed nine chapters of the first draft in 2007-8. My rough outline imagines a good 23 chapters. I have my work cut out for me.

The first step is to read through all the notes and piece together what was in my mind all those years ago. The next step will be to read through those first nine chapters. At that point, I hope to dive right into chapter ten.

But I haven’t been working only on the Perceval series. Last weekend I read aloud and edited the sci fi novella that I finished a while ago. It was the third draft. Reading it aloud allowed me to hear all sorts of awkwardness and mistakes that I’d made, showed me where I needed to punch up the action or tone it down. And I incorporated the feedback from beta readers that I’d gotten in March. I read it aloud over two days. This morning, I went through the edits and entered them into what is now the fourth draft of the novella. I’m feeling solid about it, in my bones that it’s as done as it’s going to be. So, stay tuned for what will happen next with it!

I miss June when I was at home recuperating and not working fulltime. No, I didn’t write a word during that month, but of course now I wish I had. My mind and its response to illness fascinates me. I know when I am really ill because I cannot read and I cannot write. Probably because I don’t regard writing and reading as distractions like TV or movies. When I am ill, I seek distraction so I watch a lot of old TV and movies, binge watch British mystery TV and spy shows. When I am ill, I have time, and my mind focuses on supporting my body in its healing. Nothing must interfere.

My plan going forward? Perceval in Love. And I’ll search for an editor to go over Perceval’s Shadow after I finish the third revision. I am happy to be writing (and reading) again and my mind has changed its focus. A surprise earlier this past week left me shocked: I had Googled my name and the results showed me that other writers had been quoting my writing (giving me credit, which pleased me). The quotes were from essays I’d written about classical music for ClassicalMPR.org. I had no idea that this was happening! How lovely.

I’m Back…I Think

My last post was almost a month ago?! My, how time flies. But at least my news is good this time. My physical recovery has been positive and steady. I’m back at my job, working a reduced hour schedule and working my way up to my regular work schedule. And, more importantly, I’m back to work on Perceval’s Shadow. It’s taken a couple of weeks to get back into my writer’s mind, and to reassure my imagination that it is indeed safe to come out again and play.

I’m now working on the last three chapters. They represent the climax and the resolution to the story. What I’ve noticed especially in the climax chapter is the imprecise description of the first draft, and struggling with making the words I choose create a more precise description of the action and landscape in which it’s happening. For example, Evan Quinn, the main character, is wearing a wool winter coat, jeans, a wool sweater and cotton shirt as well as wool socks and loafers. During the action, he’s forced to jump into a canal in order to save himself. Originally, I had him swimming easily around in the canal. But then I realized, no, how could he be swimming that easily when he’s wearing a wool coat and all those clothes? I’ve had the experience of being in water fully clothed — only once in my life — and the saturated material becomes heavy fast and weighs far more than expected. A knee-length wool coat (on a guy who’s 6 feet 3 or 4 inches tall) would really weigh him down.

Another thing I’m discovering is that I didn’t flesh out the description of locations at all. I guess when I wrote the first draft, I was thinking that I’d do all that writing work during the revision process, eh? While I don’t want to spend too much time and words on location descriptions, I do want to set the scene physically in some way. The location of each scene functions as the stage on which the characters play out the scene. Much can be left to the reader’s imagination as long as I come up with the right, evocative images. Hard work.

Finally, I can say honestly that I’m pleased with the character development I worked so hard on in the first draft. At least I haven’t had to do much work on that. There were some changes in the relationships, but overall, the characters, especially Evan Quinn, are where I want them to be by the end. I’ve got a bit more research to do, especially about Copenhagen, Denmark, and to finish the last three chapters. Then I’ll be entering all the edits for chapter 11 through chapter 23, and I expect I’ll be doing some more editing during that process. My new deadline to finish all this work on Perceval’s Shadow is September 1. At that point, I’ll put it away and work on Novel #3 in the series, Perceval in Love. I have the first draft of the third novel about half completed. I’m looking forward to exercising the part of my brain and imagination I use to write first drafts to finish the first draft of this novel.

It just feels so GOOD to be writing again.

Life Happens, and Then What?

In my last post on May 4, I wrote about all the writing I’d been doing offline — the reason I had not been writing blog posts or spending a lot of time on any kind of social media. Less that two weeks later, life happened, taking me completely away from any kind of writing. What happened?

At the time, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I knew was that my body had begun a campaign against me. It began about May 16 as I fought through nausea every morning to eat something and get to work. The nausea worsened. I thought it might be a sign that my ILD was beginning to act up so I called my pulmonologist. Then I saw my primary physician. No answers. I re-discovered SeaBands, which I’d used after surgeries to control or alleviate post-operative nausea. Wearing them still worked. But then a skin rash attacked my knees, lower legs, feet, and elbows. At first it didn’t itch, but when it did, it was an intense burning itch. Hydrocortisone cream and Benedryl brought some relief. But then I noticed a small bruise on top of my left hand that shouldn’t have been there. Over the course of about 36 hours, I acquired other spontaneous bruises, petechiae all over my legs and feet, and my nose dripped blood. I suspected an adverse reaction to a new medication I’d begun in mid-April, so I called my gastroenterologist. He thought it was an allergy aggravated by the extreme dry air we were having that week. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to his suggestion to simply monitor the situation.

A good friend (my savior!) took me to the ER that same day in the early evening. Blood tests showed that I had no discernible platelets, essential for clotting, in my blood. From that point on, I became a bit of a medical mystery until the Hematology team decided that it was an adverse reaction to the new medication I began in mid-April. They admitted me into the hospital. Over the next 48 hours, there was a serious, determined effort to stop the reaction and get my body to begin making platelets again.

I’ve been in such medical mystery situations before when I’ve been extremely ill. The mind turns primal, focused only on survival and doing whatever is necessary to survive. I could not read much, focus for long periods of time, or make plans. Hospitals are not good places for sleep, either. My primary source of distraction became what I call “stupid TV,” that is old TV shows I like but that I’ve most likely seen before and are being repeated on cable. Although I was discharged from the hospital about 5 days later, I returned the same day with more bleeding that needed to be stopped and explained. That lasted for another two-day hospital stay.

I’ve been out of the hospital for over a week now and plan to stay out if at all possible. There’s been a setback with the return of the skin rash and a drop in my platelet count, but a course of a super steroid is helping everything but my sleep. I’ve been warned that it could be a slow process to return my body to normal after that adverse reaction to medication, especially this particular adverse reaction. I’m wondering when I’ll be able to return to my job as well as to my creative writing.  I was within 4 chapters of finishing the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow by July 1!

Life happens.