Make it Meaningful, Part 1

On September 2, I’ve started my new job as Knowledge Management/Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist for The Demographic and Health Surveys Program (if you really want to know what I do, shoot me a message :P). Trying to wrap my brain around the myriad of new things that I will have to know and work with though has kept me from writing pretty anything else but stuff that needs to be written for work. The nice thing is that part of the reason I was chosen in the end was the fact that the interview team really liked my writing; I had to submit three writing samples, and while these were, obviously, professional pieces, it gave me a boost of confidence.

Now the fifth week is over and I think that I can spare a few brain cells for another blog post. Despite the fact that the writing I do at work and writing/re-writing my novel are very different, I did come across one of the characteristics that both types have in common: Don’t include stuff that really does not need to be there. In other words: Make it meaningful. It’s really bad when your readers go through your stuff and you can virtually see a bubble hovering above their heads that says something like “And why am I reading this, exactly? Why is this important for this report/story? Couldn’t this be a little shorter …? I get the idea!” necessary

Sometimes it’s easy for a writer, to identify obsolete parts of a text, and sometimes it’s even easy to cut out those parts because you don’t feel a strong connection with them. Oftentimes though, you know that a part or a scene or dialog is unnecessary but you still want to keep it because you either really like the content, or maybe it took you a long time to write, or maybe it’s just something personal that you want to include in the story. That happened to me at the very beginning of my story: It started out with my main character Kyra waiting for the metro, and then riding the metro, and then switching lines, all while she is thinking about some stuff that is going on in her life. I wrote the first scene because I am a big fan of subway systems and find them fascinating, and since Kyra is a lot like me, it felt only natural to me that she shares this particular interest of mine. Unfortunately though, the whole shebang didn’t add anything interesting or of value to my story (insert sad face here). It took me a while (and a gentle nudge from two of my beta-readers) to realize that. Believe me when I say that it was with a heavy heart that I took out this very first scene … but I have to admit that the beginning of the story is a lot more fast-paced and interesting now, so I guess that the little scene had to be sacrificed for the greater good. As for Kyra’s interest in the subway: It still made its way into the story, but in a more subtle (and shorter) way.

Then you have instances where you experience a case of  “cannot see the wood for the trees”: You are too involved with your text that you really don’t see parts that are maybe not necessary for the story to work, or at least not in the way/at the point you chose to include them. To avoid falling into that trap, always keep your readers in mind: What is it they really need to know? What can they deduce from your writing? Again this happened to me, this time in my second chapter. I had a bunch of information that I needed to convey to the reader, and the whole thing spanned about four pages in the beginning. Despite the fact that I knew the narrative was too long, the information was still something I needed my readers to know, or at least I thought that all of it was vital enough to be included in that narrative. One of my beta-readers (Cindy Young Turner, author of Thief of Hope) sat me down and gently pointed out that some of the things I dumped into these four pages can (and should) be weaved in to the story in different ways, but that some of the information is actually not necessary because the readers will be smart enough to figure it out. Discussing this with her was a great learning experience; it made me see that there are other ways to sneak in information without making it sound like a lecture and bore the readers with too much background story in one place. Some of the information now resides in dialog, some of it is sprinkled throughout the beginning of the story, and some I have yet to incorporate again somewhere else.

So, the next time you write a report or story, ask yourself: What’s really necessary and what can safely be omitted? It makes your writing so much more interesting, meaningful and, of course, beautiful.

For The Love of Learning: The Kid Experiment

Like many people, I go through each day with the goal to learn something new: a new expression/word, a new fact, the title of a new book. These experiences and -more importantly- how we make use of them shape who we are. In other words: They shape our very own story.

As writers, I think we go a tiny step further: We think about how the things we learn, the people we meet and the experiences we have can be woven into the stories we dream up. We keep scrutinizing our surroundings for little details –a scent, a sound, a visual we can use to overcome a writer’s block or to come up with an entirely new story.

Sometimes though, you experience something for the very first time, something that opens up entirely new possibilities and provides insights and perspectives you have never been able to get before. That’s what happened to me a few weeks ago, when my friend and fellow writer Timewalkerauthor came to visit me with his two kids (six & seven years old). Although I’ve had two Babysittlings (thank my tired brain for that word) years ago, I have never had kids in my house for more than a few hours, let alone for almost five days in a row. I am not a parent myself, and I am not exactly the biggest fan of children; despite the fact that both my mom and grandmother were kindergarten teachers, I don’t think I carry that particular gene in me. Trust me, if my mom read this, she would agree. In fact, she is probably the only mother that discourages her daughter to have kids. But I digress.

Being around Emma and Ethan has given me the opportunity to experience a tiny(!) fraction of what parents deal with on a daily basis. First and foremost, there is a a lot of stuff that made me want to pull out my hair:

Kid: “I don’t want to eat the rest of my dinner.”
Me: “Then you’ll have it tomorrow for lunch.”
Kid: “I will NOT!”
Me: “Oh yes, you will, because you won’t get anything else. There are kids who would be HAPPY to have this food because they never have enough food and are always hungry!”
(I refrained from throwing the “starving kids in Africa”-card … hey, I really don’t know how much kids that age can comprehend).
Kid is either in a pouting or tantrum-stage at this point … luckily, my friend backed up my resolve, with the result that the food was indeed being eaten the next day. Suck it!

On the other hand though, I had some truly amazing moments with the kids, and it made me realize that the effort is probably (somewhere, somehow) worth it. I can already hear most parents protesting: “OF COURSE IT’S TOTALLY WORTH IT, HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY DOUBT THAT?!”, to which I can only say “Baby steps, everybody, baby steps.” And whereas I doubt that I will be working on some parenting or a children’s book anytime soon, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to live a different life from the one I am used to, at least for a little while as it greatly expanded my horizon and will help me to see things from a different perspective.

Thanks, Emma & Ethan, for a truly sweet time (and thanks, Timewalkerauthor, for reminding me that -for right now- I enjoy my life without kids :P).

A Tasty Surprise – Guest Post for Timewalkerauthor

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This week, I wrote a short guest post for Timewalkerauthor, so hop over there and enjoy (and don’t forget to check out his stuff as well).

Every Story Needs a Voice

 

yourVoice

One of the hardest parts on my journey to finding the writer in me is to find my very own writing voice. I’ve often found myself wishing (and sometimes still do, I suppose) that I could write as humorous as Bill Bryson, as captivating and realistic as Donna Leon, as fascinating as Michael Crichton … the list goes on and on. But while I may have my funny moments here and there, I would never be able to imitate any of these voices … and I know that I really should not try. None of us should. Part of writing, editing, fighting with and finally loving your story is to find your very own voice. It’s the only one that will truly bring your story to life.

While working on my story, I realized that the more I wrote, the less I tried to be like other authors (even the ones I love). The more I got to know my characters, learned the intricacies of my plot, added exciting or emotionally charged scenes, the more my own voice started to break through. Upon finishing the first draft of my manuscript and then re-reading it (and re-reading it again, and again, and …), I grew more confident in my ability to write and -maybe more importantly- in the way I write.

Then, just a little while ago (pretty late at night), I read part of my story while listening to a song I had recently discovered (Book of Days, Enya).* The melody and the words had an amazing effect on me: Instead of being anxious about whether my story is any good or not, whether I have what it takes to be a storyteller, I actually started to feel calm. The anxiety I have been feeling for so long was slowly disappearing, and I realized that I was on the right way to developing my very own voice. I have found but a tiny little string of notes so far, and I don’t think that this journey will ever truly end, but with each word I write I know that I am creating my very own melody, the one that has the power to give a story what it needs, what I want it to be able to do, what I crave from every story I read myself: the ability to let the reader feel the emotions I intended to convey with each word I write.

So the next time you doubt yourself or your writing abilities, just lean back and wait for the melody to find you. It will when you least expect it.

*I really can’t write if I don’t listen to some kind of music, so I have songs for everything I write; fiction, non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. Music is really important to me, as you can read here. Should this novel ever get published, I will share the songs that have had a truly profound impact on this story. 

Location, Location!

When you are about to embark on a journey towards a new story —no matter of what length—, you have a lot to think about. 
 If you are like me, ideas for new stories pop up at the most random times: while taking a shower, while trying to go to sleep or already dreaming, on the subway, while watching people at the library or restaurant … and if you are smarter than me, you jot down each of your ideas in a few words instead of pulling the cover over your head and thinking “Eh, I’l remember it when I wake up.”
Yeah. That never works. -.
Have a small notebook next to your bed, quickly do a voice memo with your phone, whatever works for you.
To quote the wonderful Margaret & Helen: I mean it. Really.

In any case, your idea may already come with one or more of the main characters, a general plot line, and an idea about the time frame.

Now: What about your location?

If you write Fantasy (which I hardly do, so I am not the best person to ask about this), chances are that will make up some new realm or build on something that exists already and alter it to a point where it fits your story.

However, as a SciFi writer … well, actually, you are pretty much free to do what you want.
You can go crazy and invent an entirely new locality, city, country, world, universe … it’s entirely up to you! There are authors and stories out there that have done this SO successfully that I would not be surprised if some people think Battle School actually does exist.
Don’t laugh, I’ve seen worse :P

I am one of those people who prefer to set her stories in locations that are real, and then make small changes to to reflect the reality of my story.
But why, you might ask, would you want to set your story in Washington, D.C., or in Venice, Italy, or in Beckley, WV (‘in the boonies’, as one of my friends calls pretty much every place outside D.C.) if you can invent a whole new, exciting and suer-futuristic world? (The Jetsons, anyone?)

I can see where you are coming from. However, just because you invent a totally new worlds will no guarantee a great story. On the contrary: I have read (or at least started to read) some stories that were so convoluted because the author had to explain every little detail that everything else pretty much disappeared. No matter how much I wanted to read the story, I just could not because there was no action, the plot didn’t move forward, the characters just didn’t develop. It was boring … it was a very sad day. (My dog thought so, too).

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Allison Leotta, a former federal prosecutor, sets her Anna Curtis Series in D.C., and it speaks to her readers. People that live or work here and read the books can identify with the places: Capitol Hill, metro stations, landmarks … it’s really great!

Donna Leon, one of my favorite authors, has her Commisario Brunnetti series set in Venice, Italy. Despite the fact that I don’t live in Venice and have only been there once, I can totally identify with the city and surrounding areas because she describes it so vividly (and also provides a map of Venice in each book, which helps). Ask me where the #1 Vaparetto takes you and I am sure I’ll know the answer :)

The very first novel of my very good friend Timewalkerauthor is set in/around Beckley, WV. Chances are, you have never heard of that little town, but it gives the novel character that just cannot be ignored.

So, while I am not saying that inventing a new location is bad, I think that an existing location has the power to draw in your readers and to make them feel comfortable. There’s nothing better than listening to some people telling you about their favorite novels and saying things like “And you know, there was a scene at L’Enfant Plaza metro station (or any other place locals are familiar with) that I simply loved! It was so real and I could picture it so very well!”

P.S. Just in case you are curious now: my debut novel is set in D.C. (what a surprise, right)

The Dreaded PP

While I was taking a break from editing my novel manuscript the other day, I started working on another story that is part of a project I am working on together with Timewalkerauthor. After give or take 6000 words, I came across the oh-so-dreaded

… [pause for dramatic effect] …

PP: the Plot-Problem!

We’ve all encountered PPs one way or another. You really don’t have to write an actual story with an intricate plot to feel stuck at some point. I lost count of the times that I sat over an article I was writing and simply could not figure out how to go on.

In case of my story, the PP was actually caused by my characters running wild. They just did not want to follow the direction I had outlined for them. While this is actually a good thing for character development, it’s terrible when they maneuver themselves into a situation that they can’t possibly get out of –much less in a story that is supposed to be a novella (around 60k words) and not a trilogy that gives the characters time to dig themselves out of their hole. In any case, my protagonist managed to get herself and the other main characters into a situation that would have required them to take on the entire Department of Defense. And despite the fact that this is a SciFi story, it would not have gone over well. If I allowed them to do that, then the story would come to a really quick end: People apprehended, locked away forever, the end. Not exactly what I was going for.

So, how do you solve a PP? Oftentimes, I cut entire paragraphs (and just put them at the end of the document … you never know when they might come in handy again) and start to re-write the story from a point that still makes sense and allows the characters to go into a different direction. So far, so good, but unfortunately there’s one flaw to this solution: My characters are as stubborn as I am. So even though I am pleading with them to explore new avenues, they just give me this look of defiance and are pretty much like “No. I will take on the DoD, and if it’s the last thing I do!”
To which I have to say: “Well, it will most likely be the last thing you do, so forget about it.”
With that, I usually close the laptop and leave them be for a while until I feel that I can reason with them.

That time has come now, so if you’ll excuse me, I have some characters to reign in.

 

 

A Novel in The Making

I am super-excited to announce that I have just finished the second draft of my (yet still untitled) novel … the very first I’ve ever brought to paper (err, screen).

If you like SciFi, stay tuned; I will post little snippets now and then while doing some more editing … hopefully you’ll like them and want to know more!

 

Simple Talks: The Date

“No.”
“Not that one.”
“Ew, THAT?”
“That’s itchy!”

I growled, rolled my eyes and threw the three dresses I had in my hand on the bed.
“Really …?” I asked and thought briefly about smacking myself upside the head.
“Don’t even think about that, you’ll give me a concussion!” my brain said.
I fell down on the bed, back first and groaned.
“It’s hard enough to chose clothes for a date as it is, but with you two nags it is literally impossible!” I said.
“Virtually”, my brain said.
“Literally”, my body answered and refused to let me get up again. “See? I win.”

Read more here!

Simple Talks: All we Need is Love

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“Hey. Hey there. Wake up!”
I slowly opened my eyes, looking around my dim bed room and then at my clock. Eight in the morning on a Saturday. I closed my eyes again.
“Hey, right over here!”
I looked to the left, where my dog Dutch was curled up next to me. He was still snoring.
“No, over here!”
I glanced to the right toward the window. The voice was too close to be outside. I was probably dreaming. I pinched myself.
“Ow! What did you do that for?”
I stared at my arm that I had just pinched. Definitely dreaming. I closed my eyes again.
“Really? You are just going to ignore me?”
I refused to open my eyes. “Whoever you are, I am not talking to you” I said.
“Fine, if that’s how you want to play it” the voice said, sounding insulted.

Read more here

Guest Post: It’s Good to Be Bad! The Villain in All of Us

My oft-misquoted literary idol, Stephen King, said in his manual On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  I find that to be easy to do, because—and here is confession time—my hero characters are not usually my darlings.  Oh, they are certainly interesting (I hope), and fun to create, but they are not nearly as exciting to write as my villains!  And, of course, we kill off our villains, all too often.  The real question, though, is why are they so exciting?  Just what is it about these terrible people that entrances us so much?

Cyndera’s most recent post gives some compelling answers, and I’ll not go back and repeat them.  I will expand on them, though, and suggest this:  Villains are fascinating characters because of the lure of the forbidden.  Does it matter what, exactly, is forbidden?  Of course not!  But there is not a human on the planet who doesn’t know the temptation of forbidden fruit.  We get it honest; Adam and Eve ate the apple, after all.  For your villain, the fruit isn’t forbidden—or rather, he (or she) doesn’t care.  When he bites in, we get to find out the answer to that age-old question, What if?

Villainy is a hot topic these days.  More and more writers, on the page and on the screen, are creating villains who are complex, not to mention heroes who are flawed.  This can only be a good thing.  After all, we live in a jaded society; and let’s be honest, how many Supermen do we really need?  Much has been written about Superman’s relevance as a heroic character, because he is, in essence, a god.  He’s untouchable, aloof, and dare I say squeaky-clean?   Give me Batman any day.  For that matter, give me Two-Face!  Now, there’s a character we can relate to.  A hero or a villain is only relevant inasmuch as we can see ourselves in him.  It’s a tight balance; we want to see something that we can aspire to (our Superman), and yet we want to see that we can, in fact, rise from where we are.  Hence, the flaws in our heroes, and the virtues in our villains.

This brings us to the question:  Can the villain be the heart of the story?  In essence, we’re trying to make the villain into the protagonist.  The protagonist of a story is the one whose goals are central to the story; the story is “about” whether the protagonist achieves his goals or not.  Most of the time, the answer will be yes, but not necessarily.  In popular culture, we could make a case that Darth Vader, while being the villain of the Star Wars films, is the protagonist (now that we have all six films to examine, at any rate; had we only the original trilogy, we would absolutely cast Luke Skywalker as the protagonist).  He is clearly the villain, and yet it is his goals that shape the story.  As well (and setting aside issues of the actors who played the part), the early chapters cast him in a sympathetic light:  hard, single-minded, yet not wholly evil.

Viewpoints in literature, as with the rest of society, swing like a pendulum.  Decades past have been dominated by Superman stories:  clear-cut, squeaky-clean heroes; dastardly, reprehensible villains; diametrically-opposed goals for each; and good always wins.  We may be swinging now to the opposite extreme, where everything is grey, and absolutes are frowned upon.  I think that’s a fantastic turn of events for characters; I’m not so certain that it’s a good thing for plots.  Call me old-fashioned, but I like stories where good wins. (To be fair, I don’t think that means the hero should always accomplish ALL of his goals!  Sacrifice and loss have been making stories great since the dawn of time, and always will.)  Nevertheless, I think there’s a place for the complex villain in today’s world; the type of complex, gray-area plot that is becoming more common, can allow a good villain to come into his own.  Certainly there is no excuse for any writer who neglects his villains!  They deserve as much respect as the heroes.

After all, our villains are part of us.  Our heroes show us where we may go; our villains show us where we came from.  They’re as complex as us; they took the choices before them, and went the other way.  Rarely are they one-dimensional; rarely are they, in a nutshell, just plain bad.  That’s what makes them worth our time.  To borrow another line from Stephen King:  “Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do—to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.”