Monthly Archives: April 2016

Then end of the road (and the story)

I did it.

I finished my children’s story, and two days ahead of schedule.

I’m not sure how much of my children’s writing class I tied in, I think a lot of it will be worked through in the editing (which may or may not ever happen…), but I can talk about mapping out the story, and how that affected my writing process this month.

Having never done much planning before I write, there have been many times where, I come up to the end of my story several thousand words before I need to. (And I believe in allowing the story to end where it will, unless I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, or, in this case, Camp NaNoWriMo, and I have a specific word count goal I’m chasing, then, be prepared for lots of word padding.) This time, however, I was almost spot on in my prediction of how many words the story would/could be. Twenty thousand was right on track, I only had to make up a few hundred at the end.

In terms of meeting a goal, then, planning out the story and writing even just a brief outline like I did helps me know if the story I’ve come up with will fit with that goal. Also, as I think I mentioned in another post, it helped me get from point A to point B faster, I didn’t have to drag out scenes or write long internal monologues because I felt like I needed a higher word count before I moved on.

What I did learn specifically from this adventure is that I’m not sure I like writing for children. Sure, there are fun aspects of it, but, I like to use fancy words, and sometimes I come up with something humorous that I don’t want to let go of, but it would go way over kids’ heads.

But perhaps that just means I need more practice. And with only myself as a judge for what of my writing is good and what isn’t, let’s be honest, I don’t really know. I’m rather attached to all of it, because its all part of me.

I really enjoyed taking the time this April to work on and complete a project. Too often in my life I let myself get busy (or lazy), and I tell myself I don’t have time to write, or I choose to do other things. Setting aside the month to work on a short project reminded me of how much I enjoy writing, even if it never sees the light of day. I always remember that when I take time to write, and maybe with a month of practice and a little resolve, I will make it a habit.

There are several projects on my computer that would really appreciate that.

The Lovers

I picked up “The Lovers” by Rod Nordland because it caught my eye, and I decided to read it with almost no idea of what it was about. All I had to go on was the cover: “The Lovers Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet The True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing.” (Though I did read the back cover before I started the book.)

Nordland is a New York Times journalist working in Kabul, Afghanistan. He wrote this book from interviews and research he did for the Times as the story was unfolding.

It follows Ali and Zakia, two young adults who found themselves in love, despite ethnic differences (Hazara vs. Tajik). Her family does not approve of the match, and when the couple elopes, her family vows to kill them. Honor killings such as this is often seen to be the only way to right certain wrongs that shame the family.

The book details the life the couple leads, constantly in the run, meeting challenge after challenge, trying to find a safe place to live and start a family.

But this book is also a detailed look at certain aspects of life in Afghanistan, specifically the oppression toward women.

Men–whether father, brothers, uncles or cousins– take ownership of the women in their families. Women are property. A good match may bring benefit to the family. A bad match, disobedience, or even crimes against a woman being shame to the family, and frequently the responsibility is laid on the woman, she should not have put herself in to a position that led to the shameful act.

Ali and Zakia’s story is a case study, wherein Nordland explores the history and current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan, as well as looking at the challenges of balancing religious law with government law, and a growing desire among many young people to do away with traditional arranged marriages and allow young adults to choose their own spouses.

Nordland does a good job of weaving these threads together and highlighting them throughout the story. He also presents several moments especially interesting to me, as a journalist, where he discusses his ethical dilemma of wanting to help the fugitives, but also recognizing his professional obligation to remain objective and detached. He also poses the question that journalists often have to consider in sensitive stories: does the publicity help or hinder?

Nordland does not offers answers to these questions, but as a fellow journalist, I appreciated his transparency in bringing it up in a book where he could easily have overlooked them; not everyone understands the journalistic demand to be detached from even heart-wrenching situations.

After he concludes Ali and Zakia’s story (the story so far), Nordland includes a (semi) lengthy history of the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan, dating back to post-World War II and communist Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, which includes many attempts at promoting rights for women. Despite continued affords by European nations and the U.S., however, a 2013 study of 187 countries ranked Afghanistan as the 169th-worst country to be a woman in.

Nordland offers no call to action nor any solutions, but simply draws attention to the ongoing struggle in a country where America has invested billions of dollars (according to Nordland). Yet when a situation came to attention that was not in keeping with American values and ideals, government was seen to be dragging its feet and abstaining from action, wary of appearing to have wasted money on a government that proved contrary and largely unchanged.

The book offers a striking look at what it is like to live as a woman in Afghanistan– or at least to live as a woman who refuses to be property.

Whether the hope behind the book was to renew a fading interest in women’s rights in Afghanistan or not, it serves as a stark reminder of all that many of us take for granted.

Making people talk, real-ly and on purpose

I’ll be honest. Dialogue in my stories has never been something I’m overly conscious of.

I know to make sure to throw it in to break up descriptions ect., no one wants to read a story with no dialogue. But I’ve never given a lot of though to what my characters say. I just make them say whatever seems right in the moment.

Perhaps this comes, in part, because I don’t have quite the diversity in characters that I could or should have. But in large part, I just don’t often think of what they are saying.

Module five of my children’s book writing class was all about dialogue, and it had several good pointers, like making sure dialogue has a purpose and isn’t just filler, and making sure your characters are speaking in realistic ways.

For example, the kids in my current work should not sound exactly the same (they are different people, different ages, different genders), and they certainly should not sound the same as their mother. At 12 years old, Molly is probably trying to sound more grown up, she might be trying out new, longer words every now and then. Vinny, younger than Molly (yes, I forgot how old I made him), is not going to understand Molly’s bigger words, and he is going to express himself in the most basic of terms.

They might also have different ways of expressing themselves, based on their interests and primary sensory method of receiving information (visual, audio, touch).

What I thought interesting is how the course authors said not to make your characters sound like you. I’m certainly guilty of that, and I’ve never given it much thought, but it would certainly make characters monotonous, as well as unrealistic. It’s a good tip to keep in mind, and something to focus on as I go back and edit different bits of writing, to look for similarities in speech patterns.

Probably the most interesting thing I found in this chapter was the “thesaurus syndrome” as they call it, and their advice to avoid it. Specifically dealing with the use of “said” in dialogue, I understand that not every tag at the end of each individual’s sentence needs to be something different, but both as a writer and a reader, I get quite tired of “said,” “said,” “said,” all the time. I don’t mind breaking it up. To avoid the thesaurus syndrome (which, I do recognize the necessity to not go overboard with it) I tend to use the method they also suggested, which is to identify the speaker by having them do something before or after they speak. Molly might smile at Vinny before she answers his question. Molly’s secret agent partner Peter might say something and give her a scowl when he’s finished. Or when her mother is scolding her, she might pause between two sentences and take a deep breath to release some tension.

But this is still something to keep in mind, and another focus when I do editing, to look for opportunities to identify speakers (where necessary) with an action, instead of stating the obvious: that they said something.

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss is a classic, written in 1860 by George Eliot.

It took me a while to read, but not because it wasn’t worth reading.

The story follows one family’s struggle in English society. The main characters are Maggie and Tom, sister and brother, and the dynamics of the story are illustrated by the different temperaments between the two. Tom is loyal and focused on honoring and remembering the past while still escaping it. Maggie, while also loyal, would rather move on and forget the past, but that loyalty she has wont allow her to break ties with her past, because that means breaking ties with her brother, whom she has idolized since childhood.

This story is the kind I like, I have to confess, where the heroine struggles from chapter one, and in the end, she may or may not be victorious (spoiler: she isn’t victorious).

It also explores several other themes: how family grudges effect other generations, how passivity can have significant consequences, and how following your conscience isn’t always an easy choice.

It took me a long time to finish the book, but it was worth it. There are many aspects of the story that are relatable still: opinionated family, the need for acceptance, forbidden love and the quest to find the balance between independence and family unity.

Halfway there (nearly)

I’m almost two weeks in to my April writing adventure. I got off to a slow start, and by that I mean it was day four before I even put any words on paper. But now I’m less than 400 words off target (pennies, in the grand scheme of things).

I’ve been using a few tricks I’ve picked up from my online writing class, even though I’ve neglected it for a few weeks. Mostly, I’ve been reaping the benefits of taking the time to plan and outline my story.

Maybe it’s that it is less pressure than the 50k in November, but it sure seems way easier to write when I’ve planned it out and know where to go next. I don’t spend as much time trying to decide what makes sense next, or trying to think of how to get from here to there. It’s all planned out for me.

On the flip side, however, there isn’t quite as much room for my characters to surprise me, or for the story to take an unexpected turn. But, this may be because it’s a story for kids, therefore, it’s a little more simplistic. I want them to be able to follow the progress logically. It’s not exactly my goal to blow their minds at any point in the story. It also may be that my character is a twelve-year-old, and this isn’t my first rodeo. I can anticipate how Molly thinks. I’ve been there before. I’ve babysat kids of that age many times. There isn’t a whole lot I can’t anticipate, and I’m sure that is a contributing factor as well.

Overall, I think I’ll have to get more planning attempts under my belt to know if it’s the planning that takes away that element of surprise (or ignorance). And from there I’ll have to decide which I want more: the ease of the plan or the added adventure of not knowing quite where we are going.

The first chapter

With the beginning of April came a (slow) new beginning for a my newest writing project.

I can honestly say writing for children is different in several obvious ways, but ways that I didn’t really give a second thought to until I began.

First, vocabulary is a big focus. Would 12-year-old Molly even think to herself that something is primitive? Would Molly even know what that meant? It would depend on what kind of 12-year-old Molly is, but, I’m going to go with no. But some words are so ingrained in our adult minds that we have a hard time replacing them. Or, if you are me, you have a hard time replacing it with something more understandable. I don’t want to say something is “simple” or “basic,” when when you’re writing for kids, these are the kinds of words to use, because they are easy to understand. They promote readability.

The next thing I noticed while writing the first chapter of my still-untitled book, is that some of the jokes or sarcastic comments I want to make, I can’t. They would not be understood by my audience, regardless of how funny. And it would be wasted. And the only thing worse, or at least on par with, a misunderstood joke or misunderstood sarcasm is when it is wasted.

I’ve also found that my word count for each chapter, though more of a rough guideline (who am I kidding, I don’t think I could write under my word count for a chapter), can also be a hindrance. One of the most important things in writing, and especially for children, is to keep the story moving. No one likes to read the long asides that Dickens, Hugo and other classic writers always made. And today, you don’t have to write even in the same league as those asides to lose your reader or make them skip a few sentences or paragraphs ahead–or even to the end of the book. My goal for each chapter is 1,000 words. Pretty light, about a page and a half single spaced. But if I can’t keep the story moving, if I’m padding to reach that 1,000 words, it’s too much. I’ll bet that will be my struggle throughout this whole project, because it’s something I’ve done in every other draft I’ve written. I’ve always preferred to chop words out than scramble to put more in.

All in all, though, I enjoyed writing the first chapter. I got to channel my inner child–the sassy, melodramatic me that the years polished into a less melodramatic, more sarcastic and mildly sassy me. It’s fun to write and know exactly what I would have said or done in a situation, and it helps me know what Molly would do, because in a lot of ways, Molly is me.