Category Archives: Writing

From Hopeless Romantic to Sceptical Cynic to Something Inbetween

When I was young all I wrote was romance. I was obsessed with the idea of love, with the beautiful emotions captured upon the page in a story that had a central romantic plot. My friends would tease me, commenting on how my works always (and I do mean always) ended up with happily ever afters and marriages and everything else in typical Disney story fashion.

And then the years passed. And something inside of me seemed to die.

Hopeless? I’d always been quite hopeful. In many ways it was as though the hope died out. But I suppose four years of college without a single boyfriend made me start to realize…made me start to wonder if I’d been lied to and if there was more out there than a wedding ring on the finger to signify ultimate happiness. And besides, out of the works I’d read in class, it was rare to find one that actually ended with the characters getting everything they wanted. And the few that ended somewhat happily usually were picked apart by my professors anyways.

As a result my works started to become more depressing. My fifth novel I finished ended in utter despair. Dead characters and the protagonist locked away in a mental institution. Part of me felt proud for actually having made some progress. Actually having said goodbye to the naive little girl who’d always written love stories.

And then over the summer I just stopped trying. I’d worked hard on my “senior thesis” a somewhat depressing novel that I had shown to several professors and fellow students for criticism. After having worked on that for so long I needed something new.

So I began working on fluffy romance. Things that made me smile and laugh and feel good again. I’d spent so long during senior year feeling depression build up over the inevitable end of the school year, that it felt good to relax a little. Write things that weren’t serious that I’d never send to a publisher. But there was more than that.

I had a friend who I was sending a few chapters to when I’d finish them. And she made a point of saying something to me one day that struck me.

She told me that my last two updates were both during horrible life moments. Apparently one came in right after her mother’s passing, and the next while waiting in the hospital. She told me “I actually laughed with happiness when my email came that you had updated, because I needed something lighthearted right in that moment.”

I cannot even express how much that meant to me. How deeply moved I was to think of this friend reading my cheesy ridiculous love story in the hospital and smiling.

But that’s the beauty of happy things. Sure, a depressing story might have some great messages in it, or be written beautifully. But happy stories have the power to make people’s lives better.

With this in mind I decided I might rethink the depressing college novel if I ever get started on it again. Because I know now that while there is value to a story that has tragedy and sorrow…there is also beauty in a story that helps other people remember to smile. I don’t think writers should forget that too quickly.

 

What do you prefer to read or write? Do you think there are advantages and disadvantages to comedies vs tragedies?

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How to Give Up

So, most writers probably want to write blogs on how to keep going. How to overcome writers block or make it through a tough segment. But what I need today, is a segment on how, or at least when, to give up.

We’ve heard it all our lives. Quotes about how quitting accomplishes nothing. If at first you don’t succeed, or if life gives you lemons, or you miss every shot you don’t take etc. But surely there is a time when one must just give up, move on, try something else entirely? Maybe you tried a hundred times over and you’re just wasting time now. Maybe your lemonade is on its fifth batch and it still tastes disgusting (after all why keep trying to use rotten lemons when clearly they’ll never be any better). Maybe your legs are too worn out to even take one more shot at a goal and it’s time to just pass it to another player instead, or better yet, go sit on the bench and rest before getting back in the game.

I write this because I’m giving up. Don’t you worry. Not this blog. Not being a writer. But I’m giving up on a writing project I’d been attempting. And for once I think that’s the best approach.

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In high school all I ever did was write. I spent ages working on my novels, tapping away and dreaming of the day I would be published. By the time I graduated from college I had finished writing four novels and a novella. Five finished works. And the only thing I felt stood between me and publication, was my inability to edit. And I knew, if I’d just sit down and actually make an effort I might finally have a book out.

Fiction writing class was what caused me to start thinking I might need to really crack down and start working on second drafts. And while it was hard, I did begin to think it was a possibility. But life doesn’t always go the way we want it to.

That same year, the person who had inspired me to write the four novels dropped out of my life. Our friendship had been fading for some time, and I made some horrible mistakes in the last moments that just finally killed it once and for all. I can’t really even find the words to describe how much this devastated me. But beyond just losing my closest and dearest friend, a person who had changed my life countless times over, who had been there for me in my darkest hours, I also lost years of work. Four novels, suddenly worthless.

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For a while I clung to some sense of hope. Maybe I could revise all of them. Take out things she’d contributed and rework them to be my own. For a while I hopelessly did my best to destroy what we’d built together and build my own world. But every time I did I ended up hurting myself.

I would send myself reeling back into reminiscence. Remembering the good old times, finding myself wondering why it had to end. The truth was, I could never do any work because everything was too fragile. Everything felt connected in a personal way that I couldn’t possibly destroy.

So this is my decision for the moment. I’m giving up. I’m turning over a new leaf and starting over. Four novels are as good as in the trash now, and while it’s hard, it had to happen.

And that’s what made me decide to write this post. For others who might be in a place where they simply need to give up and move on. Perhaps you’ve been working on a novel for a year and you still just can’t finish it, but there’s another project you can feel calling you. Maybe you’ve sent out your book to a hundred publications but no one is biting, and maybe that means you need to do some serious re-editing. Maybe three friends have read your work and said it is terrible, perhaps you try again, maybe you just scrap it and start fresh.

Do what works for you. Know that sometimes you have to just throw in the towel. I’m not talking about giving up on writing itself or anything so dramatic. But there are times we have to let projects go. Or else they’ll simply drag us down.

Here’s my fresh start. I hope some of you who need it can find yours.

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Dreams of a Lifetime

So yesterday was my birthday. And in honor of that special day, my mother made me read through my entire baby book, which is basically a scrapbook covering the major points of my entire childhood. The only benefit, besides making my mother happy, was discovering a true treasure from my youth. My first story.

For the sake of readability, I’m going to be my own editor and fix any spelling mistakes and capitalization errors there are. But here you are.

“Silly Potatoes”

Once on a Saturday night, Ms. Vanilla and Mr. Vanilla were in the kitchen cooking potatoes. The recipe book said wait five minutes. Ms. Vanilla could not wait. She opened the oven door. Out popped Fred Fryer and Ms. Mashed with their little tater tots. They skied out of the house on French fries and never came back. So from now on, Ms. and Mr. Vanilla listen to the recipe book. Or they will starve.

THE END

My mother and I laughed so hard when we found this. I loved how I left it open ended. It just amused me for a while, and I had to share it.

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I suppose the main thing I wanted to talk about is pursuing your dreams. Since I was a child, I’ve dreamed of being a writer. Though this story is clearly some kind of school assignment from first or second grade, to me it still speaks to this lifelong dream I’ve had of creating and sharing stories. But what does it really mean to pursue your dreams?

When I was little I would always tell people I wanted to be an author when I grew up. When I went to college and started studying English, I still knew that was what I wanted to do. But at the same time I recognized it wasn’t the most logical choice of career in terms of a steady income, so I’ve moved writing to a side pursuit while making teaching my main focus at the moment. However, as I start into my adult life, I’ve had to wonder how this is all going to work out in the end.

I’ve recognized there need to be sacrifices made for this to work. For now I’m working at the YMCA with children, helping them with their own learning, encouraging them to chase their own dreams. And in my free time I write. And I continue to imagine the future, hoping one day I’ll actually have a book out on the shelves.

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I watch America’s Got Talent a lot in the summer, and I always have to shake my head at the people who say they dropped out of high school to be a singer. I suppose it always makes me wonder if that truly is chasing the dream. If that’s the best decision. For me, my dream has required balance. But maybe for others that isn’t the case. In the meantime, I pursue my writing in my own fashion, hoping one day maybe I’ll be published, but recognizing that the pursuit is the beautiful thing in itself. Looking back and seeing these old stories. Knowing I’ve finished novels in my lifetime. Those are beautiful. And I hope many more milestones will be met over the course of my life, even if those aren’t my only pursuits. Each little accomplishment is important to me. And I take what I can, while I try to balance my dreams with the realities of life around me.

What dreams do you have? How do you choose to pursue them? What sacrifices do you make for your goals and aspirations?

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Write What You Know

One of my favorite books of all time is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Maybe someday I’ll actually write a post just on it, but for now I was skimming through old favorite parts and I ran across something I think is so crucially important to writing.

So a little backstory for those who don’t know. Fangirl is about a young English major named Cath who goes off to her first year of college and spends most of her time sort of hiding in the magical world of Simon Snow, a magical series of books that she is utterly obsessed with. She’s entered into a fiction writing class for upperclassmen, and she has trouble when she tries turning in fanfiction for some of her assignments.

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She and her professor have a conversation at one point that goes something like this:

Professor Piper nodded. “You said something last time that I’ve been thinking about–you said that you didn’t want to build your own world.”

Cath looked up. “Yes. Exactly. I don’t have brave new worlds inside of me begging to get out. I don’t want to start from nothing like that.”

“But Cath–most writers don’t. Most of us aren’t Gemma T. Leslie.” She waved her hand around the office. “We write about the worlds we already know. I’ve written four books, and they all take place within a hundred and twenty miles of my hometown. Most of them are about what happened in real life.”

“So everything in your books is true?”

The professor tilted her head and hummed. “Mmmm…yes. And no. Everything starts with a little truth, then I spin my webs around it–sometimes I spin completely away from it. But the point is, I don’t start with nothing.” (307 Rowell).

Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013. Print.

I read this novel going into my senior year, finally taking the fiction writing course my college offered. The amount that I related to Cath was enormous, just in being a shy and confused English major and having trouble interacting with others etc etc etc. But I really related to her when it came down to my final fiction writing project.

My whole life I’ve tried weaving fantasy worlds. Occasionally I’ve branched out and written something more real, but for the most part I’ve always been taken with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and knights and dragons and fairies and other things not of this world. But for my final project I just kept drawing a blank. Coming up with a fantasy world was one thing, being able to contain it into a short story was another. And so I knew I needed to do as Professor Piper had suggested. I needed to start from something. I needed to pull in real world knowledge.

Last year I really strove to be better at standing up for myself. I’m usually quite terrible at it in general Especially when it comes to saying no. Even in the last week I didn’t say no to a friend when she asked me to do something I didn’t want to, and I bought something I didn’t need from a little girl who came to my door. I’m still working on it. I’m still getting better. But this last semester I did try better at speaking out in some difficult circumstances, especially in ending a friendship seven years in the making. Because I realized after a while that I had to stop being nice, that I needed to start standing up for myself and saying no. And in a moment of inspiration, I decided I should write about that.

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I did. It was beautiful and fulfilling. Almost more so than making magic worlds or watching my characters live happily ever after. I was able to share an experience I’d had with the world. I was able to capture how hard it is to say no, but how crucial it is at the same time.

I’m still considering trying to send the story out, otherwise I’d put it up here for you to read.

The point I’m trying to make is sometimes you have to dig into yourself to find something worth writing about. Maybe it’s not as exciting on the surface as creating something completely new or magical, or writing about something in another country or another world, or going back in time. But it’s meaningful because it includes your passion and emotions. I think it gives people something more concrete to sympathize with. I felt particularly pleased when my professor commented in class “Oh I think most of us have had something like this happen before.”

So, has anyone else had a moment of real life you’ve decided to use as a catalyst? Do you feel like most of the time you write what you’ve experienced or create from nothing? How do you find yourself being inspired?

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Practice Makes Perfect

So one of the things I’m doing this summer is teaching an older couple in my neighborhood French. They’re both incredibly sweet people, and have done quite well all things considered. One of them has never learned French before, and the other learned it in high school and has since forgotten most everything he learned.

I think one of the biggest problems for myself is that I’m finding my own rustiness the more I try to teach them. I’ll look back through my lessons later and realize how badly I messed up a simple conjugation, or they’ll ask for clarification on pronunciation and I’ll realize I pronounced something wrong. And it’s extremely frustrating after all the time and effort I’ve put into learning a language. But the thing is I haven’t been using all that much French, so in a lot of ways it makes sense I’m not up to where I used to be. It’s not unlike me pulling out my violin after a year without touching it and trying to play again. Let’s just say that didn’t go so well either…

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Me in Paris during study abroad.

The same idea applies to writing, at least for me. If I don’t use my writing skills they rust up, it stops feeling natural. And it’s the reason I’ve been continuing to participate in Writing Challenges on twitter where I have to write 500 words a day. Not only is it a great way to make friends with fellow writers, but it’s been a way to keep myself diligent and keep my writing skills from getting rusty.

Last month I wrote a total of 60,000 words. And yes I now know I probably could do NaNoWriMo if I wanted to. But the one problem is that most of what I was writing isn’t something I’d publish. I’ve been dinking around playing with different story ideas that I don’t consider in any way worthy of publishing. I haven’t really touched my novel I was working on since I graduated. And sometimes I feel ashamed that I’m not working on something more important or worthwhile.

But the truth is that those words still count. Every one of them counts. Maybe they aren’t going towards the next great American novel, but they’re going towards continuing to make me a better writer. They’re going towards creating confidence in myself and my abilities. They’re going towards continuing to practice and perfect the craft I love so well.

So this is my encouragement for language learners, musicians, writers, or anyone else who is doing something that requires some level of practice to continue to function: set small goals for yourself. You might not be able to go to a foreign country and immerse yourself, but pick up a movie in the language and watch that. I like taking my French Bible to church with me and using that as a once a week tool. For an instrument, try to set a certain number of practice days a week for an instrument or join a group that will keep you going. And for writing tell yourself to write a certain amount. Maybe that’ll be a hundred words a day. Maybe a weekly goal of 500 words is more up your alley. Or maybe just have a goal to finish a chapter or short story by a certain date. Find what you’re comfortable with and set that as your goal. But find ways to continue practicing.

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That doesn’t mean you have to remove the fun element either, and recognizing the usefulness of moments that aren’t professional but help you practice are great. Take joy in those moments you get together with a few friends who also play instruments and jam just for fun, even if you’re not making money performing. Or enjoy just reading a blog in another language, even if you’re not off translating for someone important. Or simply realize that writing for fun has its uses too, even if it’s not something you’ll publish. Each word you write keeps you practiced and ready to continue writing when more important occasions should arise.

What goals do you set for yourself? Do you feel like writing for fun is still useful? How do you keep in practice with writing or other activities you might do? Have you had times you’ve felt rusty at something you once were good at?

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Human or Charicature: Finding Balance in Creating Characters

My mom and I watched a movie the other day that just confirmed for me why character development is so important.

The movie was Black or White. And I’m not here to sit down and pick apart the plot or messages about race or gender or any of the other potential problems. So if you’re here for that go home. But I would like to spend a small amount of time talking about the problems of character development and portrayal that this movie had. Now, screenwriting is very different than novel writing, I won’t claim otherwise, but I still thought it was a good example for my purposes.

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Open on Elliot Anderson, a rich white grandfather who is trying to raise his mixed race granddaughter while dealing with the death of his wife and obvious alcoholism. Then of course there is Rowena Jeffers, Eloise’s black grandmother, a woman who embraces her cultural heritage and is trying to deal with the problems of her son’s decisions in continuing to be involved in drugs and crime, and his choice to not be a part of Eloise’s life. Thus ensues a custody battle between the grandparents.

Wow confusing enough? Definitely not an easy plot to keep straight, but the point I want to start talking about is that I could not enjoy this movie. And the main reason for that, the fact that I thought most of the characters were flat and that the development through the story was minimal.

Elliot Anderson had so many flaws that I simply couldn’t see past them to find anything I actually admired. He was completely dependent on his drinking, he was pathetic at dealing with Eloise in terms of getting her to do everyday things, he did not support Eloise having counseling, he was rich and used money to buy off others, and even used the n word and later tried to defend his choice. Now, if you’re going to try to draw me into this story at all, shouldn’t Elliot have some qualities I admire? Sure he’s lost his wife and daughter both, but because I didn’t really like him as a person those two facts didn’t allow me to have any sympathy for him.

Rowena was less flawed, but I found I knew very little about her as a character. The only real roles or characteristics the story seemed to give her was a role as mother-hen. And besides that I had no clue what she was like as a person, or really how she functioned one on one with her granddaughter or anything else. The movie spent so little time on her and so much more time on Elliot’s flaws that I couldn’t find anything really unique about her.

And then there was Eloise. Who again seemed more like her grandmother in just not being very well developed, not being given much of a chance to display who she was as a person or how she was changing in the story. She just seemed like any other little girl, going to school, dealing with some family issues. No sense of who she was personally or what she liked or what she wanted in her life.

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Now, it’s one thing to make a character flawed. It’s another to make him or her so flawed that the audience simply cannot connect (or at least I couldn’t). I understood wanting to make the situation tough. The title of the movie is Black or White, which might remark on the problem of race in this custody case, but it also kind of plays on the whole idea of thinking things can be either black or white, when in many cases they’re more gray.

So yes, playing flaws up can be good, especially on both sides of the picture. Custody cases are messy. There aren’t always right answers. But if you make both sides either so underdeveloped or so flawed that I don’t see a good point in either, then you’ve lost the whole emotional depth that could have been achieved. Especially with Eloise. If she had been given characteristics that make her interesting and sympathetic, I would have been a lot more emotionally involved.

This last semester my literature class read several books by Denise Giardina. She’s a wonderful author who I very much enjoy. And one of the things I thought she did the best at was creating characters one couldn’t help but be interested in in spite of all of their problems. Probably one of the best examples of this was in Saints and Villains.

Saints and Villains

Saints and Villains has a similar principle in trying to show the complexity of issues we might want to see as black and white. But unlike the movie I just watched, this novel did manage to achieve a level of uncertainty about what the right decisions were that made me feel emotionally invested.

The main character of the novel is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who helped with Nazi resistance schemes, including a plot to assassinate Hitler. But other parts of the novel also cover a “doppelganger” Alois Bauer, a fictional Nazi officer. So, anyone reading that description probably just assumes Bonhoeffer is the protagonist and Bauer is the antagonist. But it’s not that simple.

Giardina creates flaws and positive aspects in both characters. In many ways I felt more sympathy for Bauer in sections than I ever did for Bonhoeffer. Similar to Elliot in Black or White, Bonhoeffer is wealthy and has had a relatively easy life all things considered, while Bauer has been abused and lived in great poverty until he worked his way up the ranks.

Our professor had us sit down one day and make a list of everything about Bauer that we liked. We were surprised by how long it became. Did that mean we wanted his cause to win? No, but we could still see the humanity even in someone from a part of history that we normally look down upon. We as readers could still be interested in him and his story even with the seemingly terrible choices he was making.

My point? It’s important to create characters who are complex, well-developed, interesting, sympathetic, flawed (but not too flawed), unique, etc, especially in stories that require less of a black and white, heroes and villains type approach. Don’t make them all good, don’t make them all bad (or at least not bad for the sake of being bad). Make them human, make them interesting. Try giving your characters their own quirky traits, things that make them stand out. Maybe use a worksheet and ask yourself questions about the character. It doesn’t all have to go in the story of course, but getting a feel for who they are outside of the story you’re telling is important, and it will allow you to weave in details more easily.

Gotham Writers

My favorite worksheet is the Gotham Questionnaire, but I know there are lots of great ones out there, so maybe search around and find one you like the best.

Characters are an essential part of story. They should be developed with careful consideration and given time to shine. With their help, more complex and interesting messages can be created, and readers can form a true emotional connection with the narrative.

How do you go about creating characters? How do you balance writing flaws and virtues? What characters have you seen as failures, and which characters have you enjoyed?

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Opening the Door to Criticism

Back when I was in high school and was still very involved in music, I remember the terror of upcoming performances. A school orchestra concert was fine, but it was the solo moments of performing that always terrified me. It was the recitals, auditions, festivals, competitions, and all that jazz that had me a nervous quaking mess.

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My trophy for six years of consecutive excellent ratings in the Certificate of Merit festival

After failing one audition my senior year, I had a long talk with my private violin teacher where I lamented how my nervousness had destroyed me, even though I’d been very well prepared. Her advice to me is something I’ve never forgotten.

Practice regularly in front of other people, she said. Sit down and make your family and your friends and other people listen to you over and over and over again. And you’ll start to get over some of the jitters. The best thing you can do is practice.

I took her advice for my next piano festival, pulling a few friends aside after class to make them sit in a practice room with me while I played my pieces for them. And it really did seem to help in some respects.

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Me at my violin recital

What I’d never considered before this year, was doing the same thing with writing and the thing I feared above all else: criticism.

I am a sensitive person. I hate hearing negative things, whether about myself or my writing or something else entirely. I just don’t take it well. At all. But the thing is, this last year I decided to do a novel for my senior thesis project. I knew that would involve regular checkups with my professors who would end up reading my works and looking at them critically. I was understandably nervous.

And yes, my first few meetings with my advisors were rough. I was embarrassed and extremely jittery. What I found, however, was that the more I practiced giving my works to others, the easier it became.

I had to do a writing group for one of my classes, I was taking a fiction writing class at the time constantly putting short stories in front of my peers, I sent out a plea on Facebook for readers and gave a few drafts to different friends.

Now, I won’t just pretend I can now hand over a manuscript with absolutely no fear, but I certainly stopped hesitating in hitting a send button to send a section to someone. I stopped having to do three edits before being brave enough to give my work away. I started feeling less hurt every time someone told me something I needed to change or suggested I do a rewrite.

Constructive-Criticism

I think my violin teacher really hit home with the basic concept. The more you get used to something that seems intimidating and difficult, the less scary it becomes. Normalizing and immersing yourself in a fear can help you adjust to it.

So my advice for being more open to criticism may seem a little odd, but the best thing you can do to is to take more of it. Keep giving your work out to people. Keep working on being more open to feedback and realizing it’s helpful. Keep being brave and testing yourself. But also keep recognizing the small victories for what they are. It isn’t easy sharing with others, nor is it easy facing potential negative feedback or more critical points, but like any good thing in life, practice makes perfect.

Here are just a few ideas: join a writing group, put up a Facebook post asking for readers, ask a friend, find an online writing community, ask a mentor, teacher, or professor (for students especially), find a website to post works on, try posting sections of your work on a blog, and just keep an eye out for opportunities to submit works to different places or give it to further readers.

How do you deal with criticism? What methods do you use to be brave? How do you choose who gets to read your work? Just a few good questions to get some conversations rolling. Let me know your thoughts!

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