Forever Young, my Unborn Soul

Some blog posts make me happy. The ones that achieve this most often are those rare ones that offer a glimpse into the writer’s mind. What she was thinking when writing a particular scene, how she came to invent a certain character, or what gave her the idea for a particular plot development. When I read posts like that, it makes the person who wrote it even more human to me, and it just makes me plain happy to get close to a person I don’t even know for a very short time (i.e. the time it takes me to read and think about the post). So, since I’ve just had such a particular moment, I would like to return the favor and share it with those of you who feel the same when it comes to diving into another person’s mind.

It all started by discovering the song Forever Young by The Tenors this morning, which I have been listening to all day. I can get quite OCD with songs I like, so it’s not uncommon for me to listen to one song for days on end. At some point today during my drive home, I was thinking about my own novel and thought it would be a great scene, at some point, to have Nathaniel do something for Kyra that is totally out of character. Just for your information, Kyra and Nathaniel are my two main characters, and Sandra, Jack, Sebastian and Cameron are some of the important supporting characters; this post isn’t really about my story, the plot or the characters though, so it really does not matter if you haven’t read the story and/or know about the characters. At some point, either now or after reading this post, you may want to  listen to the song/read the lyrics (YouTube link here, and the lyrics can be found here).

Back to Nathaniel and my thinking that it would be cool if he sang something for Kyra since he knows how much she loves music. That thought alone made me smile (if you will ever read the story, you will most likely understand why). Here’s how my next string of thoughts went (almost literally):”Well, he would need a pretty good reason to sing something for her … besides, the song is performed by four guys, so maybe I can throw Jack, Sebastian and Cameron into the mix. But for what occasion …”. At that point my thoughts trailed off from that question and I imagined the four guys on some sort of stage, singing for Kyra and the others, and after a few more repetitions of the song, it hit me: The unborn baby.

Prior to writing this, I debated whether to reveal this tiny piece of information, but I think by keeping it vague I am not spoiling anything. I then decided that the very first and last verse of the song could be sung by Sandra, who is somewhat of an artsy type anyway, and I figured that the whole “sing a song for the baby” thing could have been her idea in the first place. Why? Because it’s something beautiful to do (among other reasons the group has), plus she gets to convince four very different men with different backgrounds, motives, and relationships to each other to work together for one person they all love in different ways.

Having all these little details about a scene (or a character for that matter) form in my head always has a very relaxing and calming effect on me. Oftentimes, depending on the scene and music, it helps me understand myself and certain situations a little better, but above all, visualizing ideas and having bits and pieces come together to a coherent scene just makes me plain happy, whether the scene actually makes it into the story in the end or not. And it’s the same when I read about other writer’s thought processes. So please keep sharing, you definitely light up my world every time you do!

For those of you who have read my manuscript as beta readers and therefore know the characters, and for those who just want a little more detail, here’s how I imagined the distribution of lyrics among the five people. What they sing also reflects their personalities. It differs a little from the way The Tenors do it, but hey, my story is fictional, so I figured I can get away with it … plus, at this point it’s all in my head, and I don’t even know if it will ever make into the story. Certainly not in the first book, but maybe the sequel I already have in my head.

[SANDRA]
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others, let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the sky, climb on every rung
And may you stay, forever young

[JACK]
May you grow up to be righteous, may grown up to be true
May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you

[NATHANIEL]
May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong
May you stay, forever young

[JACK]
Forever young, (echo -always by the other 3)
Forever young, (echo)

[NATHANIEL]
May you stay, (echo)
Forever

[CAMERON]
May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation, with no winds of changes shift

[SEBASTIAN]
May your heart always be joyful, your song always be sung
And may you stay, forever young

[CAMERON]
Forever young, (echo)
Forever young, (echo)

[SEBASTIAN]
May you stay, (echo)
Forever young, (echo)
And may you stay, (echo)

[SANDRA]
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes always come true
And may you stay, forever young

So … You Want to be Funny?

So do I. Really. I’m just … not. Not when I want to be, anyway. Every now and then I end up in situations where my friends almost choke because they thought I was so hilarious. Those situations usually involve some joke I didn’t understand and thus provoked a ridiculous reaction. I could tell you the tea bag story (I really just wanted some hot tea), but … never mind. The point is that it’s American humor, and I’ve only lived in this country for close to eight years now, so sometimes I still don’t get it. Give me a break!

But seriously, I wish I could  be funny and come up with stuff  that you find in books by Bill Bryson or John Scalzi. I can’t remember how often I’ve read I’m a Stranger Here Myself (“Why Everyone is Worried” is my absolute favorite) or Old Man’s War (I would marry John Perry if I could … really) and couldn’t stop laughing, even in public places. No, it does not count as being funny when other people laugh at you just because you act like an idiot in public :P.

Of course, it does not always have to be so elaborate. I would be perfectly happy if I were able to come up with stuff you see in the catalogs that appear in your mailbox every year around Christmas time (What on Earth and Signals.com being two of my favorites). I mean, how hard can it be to come up with lines such as these:

itired

tense

 

 

 

 

Who came up with that? Certainly not the catalog people? I have no idea, and that’s not really the point. The point is that they made me laugh regardless, and that’s always a good thing on a cold Sunday morning. But it got me thinking: How hard can it really  be to be funny? Because, when you think of it, I doubt that even masters like Bill Bryson, Dave Barry and others walk over to their desks, sit down, merrily scribble something on paper and toss the pen into a corner after maybe twenty minutes, get up to do something else? I really doubt it works that way (and if it does, please don’t tell me and destroy my hope that even these writers actually have to work on their stories to perfect them). So I think at the end of the day it’s really damn hard to be funny.

Despite my admiration for the above mentioned writers, I would never try to copy their style, or even attempt to. Mainly because I could not, even if I quit my job and locked myself up for the rest of my life and read nothing but their books. It just would not happen. More importantly though I think I am okay with my own style (or what it is shaping up to be). I just would like to make people giggle every now and then. After all, humor is one of the three things that provoke reactions in people, at least according to Eve Mayer, and that’s what writers strive for (okay, the reactions should be positive, too, but that’s beside the point).

So, the next time you read something that I’ve written, and it elicits a smile or maybe even a giggle, let me know. It will make my day, I promise!

Holy Sh**, That’s [Insert Name of Character Here]!

That exact thought flashed through my mind the other day when I was waiting for the metro in D.C. to go home after a night out with some of my girlfriends. I look to the left, and there’s this guy, and he looked EXACTLY like I picture Nathaniel, one of the main characters in my novel. It was uncanny, but very cool at the same time. Of course, it does not happen very often that you see a personification of a character that you have been writing next to you on the subway platform. I could still kick myself for not saying hello to the guy … but what was I gonna say? “Hey, I am writing a book, and you look EXACTLY like one of my main characters?” Even through it’s true, it sounds like THE worst pick-up line EVER! So of course I didn’t say anything … I really hope I will run into him again, but I am not sure I would be better prepared next time.

After this admittance of having no courage to approach people I think are cute, I am getting to my actual topic: Although you don’t usually see your characters walking/standing around in flesh and blood, you can use bits and pieces of the people around you to shape your characters, to give them personality, background, and authenticity. You can draw a lot of inspiration from strangers and friends/acquaintances alike. Maybe there’s this really tall guy walking by, and just the way he carries his briefcase reminds you of your villain (my apologies to all tall men with briefcases out there … I am sure you are not all that bad :P). Maybe one of your friends has a character trait that works perfectly for one of your characters. For example, a good friend of mine is one of the sweetest, kindest and most honest people you will ever meet, and those particular attributes perfectly describe Cameron, one of the good guys in my novel. Cameron tries hard to be a friend to Kyra, whom he loves -which -of course- is good for the story as it creates tension, and not just between him and Kyra.

It also works the other way ’round: Say you have a character (or need a character) but are not quite sure yet how you can give him/her more personality and depth; next time that happens, focus on what’s going on around you, whether you are on the subway, in the grocery store or just walking around. There’s so much inspiration out there that’s just waiting to be found, and suddenly you come up with all kinds of great ideas on how to develop your character and also plot.

So the next time you walk around, or ride the metro, or are just sipping your cup of coffee, have a look around and just observe. You’d be surprised how many little things will stand out.

Happy Writing, and Happy Weekend!

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.

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 😛

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.

 

 

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.”

Of Grief and Happiness

Today, during my lunch break, I read two more essays from the book “This I Believe II” … personal philosophies of remarkable men and women; famous and normal alike. The two essays I read were, as the headline gives away, about grief and happiness, which are two emotions I currently struggle with. As some of you might now, I am going through a difficult personal situation, so my brain and emotions and everything else that belongs to a human body is a mess.

The first essay, by Wayne Coyne, is called “Creating Our Own Happiness”. How fitting since I have been told that I cannot let one single person define my life’s happiness. Happiness, I came to realize when I read the essay, can be simple, small things like the a smile from a stranger, or telling somebody you like their dress, purse, or even tell them they are cute. It has always made me happy to give to other people. But I also realized that happiness, even for a brief moment, is the warm wind caressing your skin when taking your lunch-break walk (which I did today). Stretching your muscles and feeling your body … feeling that you are alive. I guess there is a lot of happiness in every day, and we need to CHOSE to see it. We can make our own happiness, even if it is just a tiny glowing spot in the darkness that seems to consume my heard, mind, and soul. What I took away from this essay is that I want to find, and consciously recognize, one thing per day that makes me happy, even if it just for a second … and I look forward to that moment.

The second essay, by a nurse, spoke about grief. About how it is human, about how it can be … no, IS healthy, and that we have the right to grief, each of us in our own way. I grieve because I am about to lose the person that means the most to me in my life. My beloved husband, friend, partner, teammate, maybe even soulmate. And I grieve, and cry, and weep, although it is partly, if not totally, my fault that I lost him. But I still have the right to grieve. Some days the feeling is overwhelming, a darkness that slowly consumes me and kills every part of me, and it makes me feel as if I am slowly dying. I miss him, I love him, and I grieve for what I have lost, for what I have destroyed.

But maybe, in an hour, or in two, I encounter that little piece of happiness that waits for each of us every day … if we chose to let it touch our hearts. You never know what’s around the corner. And I know that for just this moment I will be alright. That I will survive, and live, and that life can be what I want it to be … I just wish it could be with my husband. But I believe that each of us has a path in life, and although I don’t know what it is, I believe it is there. Maybe the little moments of happiness can lead me down the right path.

Yours in grief and happiness,
Aileen