Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Creative Writer’s Notebook: authentic voices

Because I don't always keep up on my editing, and don't always have something here and exciting worth sharing, I decided to come back to my book of writing prompts that I bought almost a year ago.
This week I did the lessons inspired by William Faulkner (ok, I did two out of three, the last one was hard and I couldn't think of what to write). They were mostly focused on allowing your characters to speak in a real voice, allowing punctuation, grammar and vocabulary to show what your character is like. I've always thought that would be quite easy, but as I sat down to do it, I realized just how proper my dialogue must be. When I'm writing, probably my most authentic language is the use of contractions.
The first prompt I did was inspired by one of my nieces, who wanted to make sure her papa didn't "lost" her hat instead of returning it to her. I tried to write a little scene about a small child who had a bad dream about an upcoming zoo field trip. I tried to think of the kinds of things that trip kids up, often tenses. My little girl would sometimes use the present tense if a word because she didn't know any better, and sometimes she would add an extra "ed" on the end of a word.
As challenging as that was, it was harder to try to write a scene about two people trying to cross a river using only dialogue to portray what kind of people they were. That I as what really made me notice how proper I am while writing.
So this next week, I have two goals in mind for editing: I want to work on the first chapter, making it something that grabs your attention and makes you want to know more. But I'm also going to read through my story and pay close attention to my dialogue, and ask myself if my characters sound real, or if they sound stilted and stiff. I'll have the answers for you next week!

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Sarah’s Key

I’d heard of Sarah’s Key before, but until I had the chance to bring a copy home, I don’t think I knew what it was about, but it made sense to read it shortly after finishing the Book Thief.

Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, is a story about Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. On the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ de’Hiv roundup, Julia is assigned a story, to find out about it. She discovers that Vel’ de’Hiv refers to the days in July 1942 when the French police rounded up Jewish families–men, women and children–and herded them into the stadium before shipping them out to other camps and, ultimately, to Auschwitz and other death camps.

In her research, Julia discovers the apartment she is moving into with her husband and daughter was the home of a Jewish family that was rounded up during Vel’ de’Hiv. Thus begins her quest to find out all she can about the family that lived there, despite opposition from her husband and in-laws. What Julia discovers is tragic.

Throughout the Julia’s narrative we get a snapshot into the life of Sara Starzynski, the daughter of the family whose home Julia is moving into. Sarah, at age 10, leaves her home on July 16, 1942 with her parents. Her younger brother, only four, hid in the secret cupboard, and Sarah, expecting to return soon, locks the cupboard door and takes the key with her.

De Rosnay writes a moving tribute story to the children who survived the French round up and the holocaust. Her characters experience ups and downs, in a break from what seems to be traditional approaches to this kind of story, where it ends in utter grief or else complete triumph. For de Rosnay’s characters, you wrestle with the same dilemmas they do, the moral obligations and the emotions. It’s a story that let’s you know what’s coming, but makes you unable to believe that it will–and to me, those are some of the best kinds.

If The Book Thief deserves a place in school literature for depicting the Holocaust, I think Sarah’s Key should be on the shelf right next to it. They are vastly different books, showing opposite ends of the spectrum. And yet, they are moving, and Sarah’s Key gives some insight into the challenges survivors must certainly face–survivor’s guilt, rebuilding a life when everything has been destroyed.

Based on a true event, I think de Rosnay is successful in creating a touching tribute to all the children who were involved.

One more lap down

The reason I tend to blog about my editing every other week is because I usually only get two or three days a week where I get time to edit.
That said, this weekend I was finally able to get through the last 20-30 pages of my story. This part of the story tends to move faster than the rest of it, which is to be expected, because it's what everything else is building up to. This weekend my focus was weaving in two elements that I thought of after I wrote the first draft: the family that stepped forward to claim Mason as their missing son, and the psychological turmoil Mason deals with as he's faced with people telling him that everything he believes is made up.
For the most part, I think I've got the family's involvement woven in pretty well. The psychological turmoil probably needs another scene. I think I rushed my timeline a little bit and didn't have time for it, but I need to add it in. I've also got some research to do now, mostly on HIPPA laws, like whether police could access medical records as part of an ongoing investigation, and whether it's believable that a person who experienced trauma at a young age would invent an alternate reality in their mind to deal with the trauma. Luckily, the research part goes pretty quickly.
I'm excited to read through my story now though, to see how far it has come. I know the plot is stronger and the details of it are much more intriguing. I know it's already a better story than when I first imagined it, much less wrote it.
As I read through it again, I'm sure I will uncover more problems and things that need ironing out, but it's exciting to have finished one solid round of hard-core editing, and encouraging to know that it's easier than I thought.
Now on to another round.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

While Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have written this book for people in a hurry, it’s not meant to be read in a hurry. In fact, I read it twice in a row, because I thought I read it too fast the first time to get a good grasp.

That said, this book doesn’t disappoint as a quick introduction into the field of astrophysics. You won’t be able to go out and get a job as an astrophysicist after reading it, but you will know some of the history and the science behind it.

Tyson writes in a fun and easy to understand way, making science seem much less intimidating that it’s otherwise presented. And, authors always earn brownie points from me when they throw in appropriate but snarky comments, so the book is extra good because of those.

Tyson presents basically a consice history of the field of astrophysics, using the framework to explain how science has reached its conclusions for various things, such as the Big Bang, dark matter and dark energy. He also explains how these things interact with gravity to influence stars, planets, galaxies, and possibly even our universe itself. In this book you’ll also find plenty of particles, elements, various kinds of light waves and some references to aliens (but nothing outlandish, this isn’t science fiction).

I’ll admit, a few times as I was reading, I came across passages that I felt could have used some better transitions And information that, though interesting, didn’t quite seem to belong where it was, but sometimes that is personal preference.

On the whole, Tyson’s book, I believe, does what he wanted it to, per his introduction: give you a basic understanding of the field, and leave you hungry for more.

So whether you’re in school, out of school, busy or bored, if you’ve ever looked up at the sky and wondered, this book is for you.

The Book Thief

I’ll just come right out and say it, The Book Thief is a classic of our era. I don’t know how often I get kids coming in for it as part of their required reading for school.

Having now read it, I understand why. Not only is it an excellent story for exploring Workd War II history, but the writing style gives plenty of content for literary study.

The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is the story of a young girl, Liesel Memminger, and her new life with her foster parents on Himmel Street. Though Germans, Liesel and her family don’t fit the standard mold. With her loyal friend by her side, Liesel finds herself addicted to a thievery, especially of books. Her story is narrated by Death, a mixture of observations from Death and knowledge gathered from Liesel’s own autobiography, which Death managed to obtain.

Liesel’s story revolves around books– the ones she’s given and the ones she takes. Each book is related to a scene or time of her life: her family harboring a Jew in the basement, war-time hardships making themselves known in Liesel’s house, Liesel growing up and forming her own opinions about the Fuhrer’s ideals.

Mixed in with the defining moments are the everyday habits of Liesel’s life, her adventures with Rudy, school, and growing up in general. Together, these form a powerful and heartbreaking narrative.

Zusak uses a unique style to tell Liesel’s story. Death, as could reasonably be expected, idea not always use the English language as humans are accustomed to. This allows for some interesting descriptions that provide a new way at looking at things, from the sunset to a feeling. But for this story, it works, creating a unique and memorable style that would be hard to match.

All in all, the book is worth the read, even if it makes you cry.

Keeping motivated

I’ll confess, the hardest part for me, when it comes to editing, is keeping motivated. I’ve probably said that before.

It’s also hard to write blog posts, because I feel like I’ve written it all before. But here goes.

I pushed myself this week and I got a big chunk done in the first half of my story. My young rebels have a much better scheme for their civil disobedience, and I like it a whole lot better.

I’ve now started working through the second half, which will be more challenging. This is the part where I have to work in the people who claim to be his parents, and Mason’s struggle to grasp what is true. I think this part will require more than just a couple scene edits and additions, but that’s ok. I’m excited to be working on it.

What made a big difference in the last week or two was just editing when I found a note or spot that needed work, instead of trying to add a note or details on what to change. When I make notes, I end up using that as an excuse to “work” but not really accomplish anything, so I’m glad to be getting past that.

So this week it’s moving into the psychological part of the book. I’ll need to dig out my notebook and see what I had planned for it, then, as Nike advocates, “just do it.”

The Return

When I saw that Buzz Aldrin had written (or co-written, at least John Barnes authored the book also) a sci-fi book, I couldn’t pass it up.

The Return was written and set in the 2000s. It follows the lives of four people who are inextricably linked. Kids together, Scott, Nick, Thalia and Eddie called themselves the Mars Four and dreamed of going there after growing up in the ’60s. In their adult lives, each one has been individually working toward commercial space travel.

When a routine mission goes fatally wrong, it’s just the beginning of a chain of events that make it seem like someone wants to keep the everyday folks out of space. A bomb set off in the upper atmosphere, putting the crew of the International Space Station in deadly danger, and now only the Mars Four and their individual expertise can save the crew.

The Return is all adventure and action, with a dash of nostalgia. And as it’s written by someone who’s been there, it actually does not read like sci-fi, but more like a fiction book. This isn’t Star Trek or Star Wars, this book reads like something that could happen today, with no magic high-tech gadgets required.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not just because I love just about anything associated with space. It was fun, the characters felt real and relatable. It had action and intrigue. It was about everything you’d want in a book. Plus, when they did talk about science, it was explained clearly, no fancy jargon and complicated terms, just plain English.

The Return is, however, one of those books that just might turn you into a believer again. Surely the technology is out there, both for commercial space travel and, eventually, for Mars. Some people already firmly believe in that future and are working toward it. After reading this book, you might find a bit of that passion has rubbed off on you too. And even if you’re not signing up for a Mars mission, you might find that you hope we have enough people around who will.