Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Book In Print - Sort Of

My first complete manuscript has now been as finished as I can and will (at some point, the revisions and rewritings have to stop so that another story can be started) make it for several months. So far, it hasn’t landed me an agent yet and I have no illusions: this is my first novel and might never snag enough interest from anybody in the publishing world (though I haven’t stopped trying). Still, it’s my baby, my precious, and I wanted to see it as a “book”.

So I converted the ms into a nice pdf-file, used Power Point and a perfectly - PERFECTLY - fitting picture downloaded from the internet to make a pretty cover, and took ms and cover to the nearest copy shop. I had the book printed out three times, then bound in a white adhesive binding with a transparent front that nicely displays the pretty cover page.

Of course, it’s a tome. 162 one-sided Word-sized pages don’t a lightweight make. Just one of the scripts would carry as much oomph against a burglar as a bouquet of baseball bats. But it looks nice and “together”. And the pages are flappable and spreadable. Just like a real book. I luuurve it!

I still love it even after finding the first “editing” mistakes the second I first snuck a peek into one of the print-outs; the page numbers got tangled when I added one more page at the beginning without checking how that affected the numbering. Even more annoying - and puzzling - I didn’t write “The End” on the last page! Unbelievable! Did I really forego the pleasure of writing those two little words after one and a half years of sweating over every single one of 197k words? I guess I must have.

Oh well. As Robert Cormier said: “The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.” To make that list complete, I’d add “and those pesky formatting errors”.

What am I planning to do with my “books”? I have three copies after all.

One is going to a friend, who wants to read it and has agreed to proofread while she does. I’ve sent her a Word-copy via email, but it’s slow going for her because she doesn’t like reading on the computer after a whole work-day spent at one. Once she’s through, I’ll probably make this copy my scribble-version, in which I can go wild with pens, post-its and highlighters - if I decide to do another round of revisions.

The second copy is being shipped off to the US as a birthday present for a good friend of mine, whom the book is also dedicated to.

The third copy is solely for me. My book, my baby, my brrrrrecccciousssss! Maybe I’ll buy it a glass case on a pedestal and only take it out on special occasions. Obviously I’d only handle it while wearing white satin gloves, a surgery mask and a chef’s toque. Nobody else may touch it so that it stays pristine and unwrinkled forever. And ever and ever and ever - or until it gets published, at which point I’ll replace it with the publisher’s “proper” version.

But no matter what happens to it, my first novel is now a “book” with a pretty cover, if I may judge so myself. I can pick it up, open it, turn the pages, snuggle down on the couch to read it. It’s there, it’s real and I wrote it. Talk about an immediate self-esteem boost.

Do you also have - and act on - the overwhelming urge to hold your book in your hands?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Finding My Inner Comedian, Part 2

In Finding My Inner Comedian I blogged about my reasons for trying to understand humour, and outlined a few definitions of humor and situations that make us laugh.

Surprise seems to be the key to humor. It's about things not going/acting/being said as people expect them to. The incongruity theory states that humor is perceived at the moment of realization of incongruity between a concept involved in a certain situation and the real objects thought to be in some relation to the concept. The main point of the theory is not the incogruity, per se, but its realization and resolution (i.e. putting the objects in question into the real relation) - the surprise.

There are several different methods of delivering humorous surprise:

1. Hyperbole, the use of exaggeration to create emphasis or effect as a rhetorical device or figure of speech, which evokes strong feelings or creates strong impressions, but isn't meant to be taken literally. "I've told you a million times, don't exaggerate".
2. Metaphor, the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another. A metaphor creates an analogy between two things or ideas, which is conveyed by the use of a metaphorical word in place of some other word. "It's raining cats and dogs". A metaphor is not to be confused with a simile, which uses "like" and "as". For example, "the goalkeeper was as solid as a rock" is a simile, whereas "the goalkeeper was a rock" is a metaphor.
3. Farce, a type of comedy in which one-dimensional characters are put into ludicrous situations; ordinary standards of probability and motivation are freely violated in order to evoke laughter. An example would be a comedy of a bank robber, who mistakenly wanders into a police station to hide.
4. (Comic) Timing is also an important element of humor. Delivering the punch line before the end of a joke ruins the surprise. Giving away the key element before the end makes the story obvious.

So, that's some humor theory for you. The trick is to apply it well. Many articles and blog posts have been written on the subject (just type "writing humor" into google). I forged my way through many of these articles and decided to pick out the things I think will help me best.

In The Secret to Writing Humor, Brent Diggs makes the suggestion, coined by Dave Barry, to put the funniest word at the end of a sentence, and the funniest sentence at the end of a paragraph. Brent Diggs personal mantra on writing humor is "great humor is not written, it is rewritten", with which he means to say that you have to edit and revise to be consistently funny in your writing - a rough draft usually doesn't cut it.

Brent Diggs also points out that writing humor is painfully difficult to do, if you want to do it well (hence the necessity for rewriting), because nearly every tool of comedy is denied the writer. A writer's humor rests exclusively on the power of his/her words. Jan Hornung, in her post Seven Steps to Better Writing Humor elaborates on this by saying: "A writer must create an image in the reader's mind that makes him chuckle, giggle, and smile. A writer cannot shove a pie in the reader's face, trip over his own feet and go sprawling, or make goofy gestures. A writer must use only words to conjure up situations and dialogue that bring rib-splitting, bone-tickling, knee-slapping guffaws, or at least a snicker, from the reader."

Jan Hornung also tells us that "whether or not a writer is personally funny is not important. What is important is that the writer can make the reader think that the characters and situations are funny". I like this statement because it means there's hope for me and my desire to create more humorous prose. Revising, rewriting and practicing seem to be important, all things I can accomplish.

Jan Hornung's first step to finding your funny-bone is not to tell the reader that something is funny, but to let him/her discover this for himself. This is another purpose for the "show don't tell" mantra every writer should internalize. She also encourages writers to find new ways to say the same old thing, f.e. describing a thin man as having to run around in the shower just to get wet. I find phrases like this extremely funny yet particularly difficult, because I never seem to be able to come up with them.

Kris Neri has several suggestions in her post Humor Writing Tips. My three favorites are:
1. Abandon your dignity: You can't be funny if you're afraid of embarrassing yourself.
2. Don't sacrifice truth for a funny effect: Good humor always contains a grain of truth; without truth, it's just  playing with words.
3. Don't let your characters laugh at their own jokes: This is the prose equivalent of a sitcom's laugh track. Let the reader decide what's funny.

So, the insights I've gained after this research on humor and applying it in my writing are, in no particular order, the following:
1. Writing good humor is difficult but can be conquered by practice, revision and rewriting.
2. Don't just throw your rough draft out there; it could confuzzle readers.
3. Surprise is the key to humor.
4. Good humor always contains a grain of truth.
5. Abandon your dignity.
6. Show, don't tell - create an image in the reader's mind.

Over to you: Do you have other suggestions or methods for writing humorous prose? Do you have to work at it like me or are you blessed with a natural knack for it?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Scrivener - My New Love

Yesterday, I downloaded the 30-day-trial version of the writing software Scrivener onto my MacBook. I played around with it for about an hour, feeding my current manuscript
into it - and found myself hooked.

Here's the description from the Scrivener-Website: "Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft."

The way it works is that you create a file for each chapter and fill the chapter-file with text-files, one for each scene. You can move both scenes and/or chapters around wherever you want them in the manuscript. Like in Word, you can attach comments to single words or sentences - and you can see the whole structure/story line, your current scene, and the comments all side-by-side, without having to jump from screen to screen. Or you can open solely your scene to full-screen mode, in which you can work on the document.

The really cool, amazing, awesome thing about the whole chapter/scene design, is that, with a single click on the button "compile", the program joins all scenes together in a pdf-file, automatically adding your chapter titles page numbers and title page with title, your name, address and word count number. In doing so, the formatting you used in the text-file is "translated" into manuscript format. For example, words in italics are underlined in the compiled version, chapter beginnings start halfway down the page, stars mark the breaks between scenes and there is an indentation at the beginning of each paragraph (this is already done automatically in the text-file, as well).

So, really all you have to do is write - then, once the first, second and/or third draft is finished (you can even mark each scene as "first draft" or "revised"), click one button and the program converts your scribblings into a presentable, basically format, which can save a lot of time and ulcers. Gone are the days of scrolling through the manuscript time and again, making sure everything is consistent and looking for those pesky formatting glitches Word likes to slip in that only show themselves when transferred into pdf or when printed out. Bliss!

Apart from the manuscript itself, you can create files and texts for each character and location. I haven't explored these options further yet, but I think you can even add pictures - which I'm totally psyched about because I luuurve scouring the internet for pictures of people that resemble my characters or illustrations that depict certain scenes (sometimes with amazing accuracy and resemblance). Such visualization brings them even more to life for me and helps with writing them.

Until last night I was a writing-software virgin, so I don't have anything to compare Scrivener to. Patricia C. Wrede recently tried out and compared several writing programs in her blog posts Tools of the Trade and Tools of the Trade, part 2, which is also where I got the idea to try one of them myself. Since I have a Mac and because my first trial-choice, ywriter5, is strictly Windows-based, I went for Scrivener. Oh happy day! I might try out one or two others (if I can find more Mac-based, free-trial programs) before deciding on Scrivener. As of now, if it continues to inspire me, it has good chances of becoming a permanent fixture in my writing-life.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Finding My Inner Comedian

I love to read books that are serious in matter yet manage to lighten the mood with an occasional humorous style, phrase, joke, wordplay, or quip. Ilona Andrews, f.e. does this really well in her Kate Daniels series and it makes me want to read the books even more, since I'm a sucker for a good laugh.

It always amazes me when I meet somebody who is naturally witty. As in hilarious-without-having-to-think-about-it witty. Like Lorelai Gilmore of Gilmore Girls; In one scene somewhere in the fifth season, her father is trying to get her to listen to him, so he says "focus, please", and she responds with "I am a camera". That's a kind of clever humor I really enjoy.

I realize of course, that Lorelai Gilmore is only a fictional character and that a lot of work, thought and probably revision went into the script before that phrase was fully formed. Then again, maybe not. I have met people who are that witty (not surprising, considering I'm a half-Brit who grew up in a family full of smart asses). They seem to understand intuitively what makes others laugh and they somehow grasp the humor in every situation and are able to deliver it without a stutter.

Sometimes I wish I could do that. I can be funny, but on occasions when I'm uproariously funny, it's more of an accident on my part. I'm a straighforward, pragmatic sort of person. When it comes to humor, I can do straightforward and obvious. But when it comes to sly wit, I can only marvel at the twists and turns in thinking some people are able to go through within seconds. I'm fine with that - except when it comes to my writing.

I want readers to enjoy my writing. I personally enjoy stories that show either funny situations or writing-style, so that's what I want to have in my own stories. This just proves difficult when I can't seem to wrap my brain around certain mental leaps.

I know it's best to be as natural as possible when writing - don't try to mold your style into something you're not intuitively capable of. I have no intention of becoming the next Carl Hiaason or Douglas Adams (more examples of great funny writing). Yet I would like to add just a tad more humor to my prose. And I believe I can accomplish that, with a little research and a lot of practice.

So, to start out, I'll try to answer the most important question: What is humor?

My trusty wikipedia states that "humour or humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement". Aha. Well, that didn't help me at all. Further down, it says that "humour occurs when the brain recognises a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition [...] is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter". Bingo! Now we're getting somewhere.

Next question: What Makes Us Laugh
1. Ambiguity: where information can be understood or interpreted in more than one way. "I promise I'll give you a ring tomorrow".
2. Contradiction: a logical incompatibility between two or more propositions. F.e.: calling the Pope an atheist.
3. Paradox: a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition. "I know that I know nothing."
4. Misdirection: a literary device most commonly employed in detective fiction, where the attention of the reader is deliberately focused on a red herring in order to conceal the identity of the murderer.
5. Being reflective or imitative of reality: based on the premise of "It's funny because it's true".

I'm cutting this post short for now, since it's already a mile long.
(Could that possibly be a contradiction?)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Building My Platform

As Michael Hyatt pointed out in his post Three Reasons Why Authors Must Develop Their Own Platforms, there are some important factors to be considered concerning building your own platform even long before getting published. I've read advice like this all around the literary blogosphere over the past few months, so now I've decided to take the plunge and get serious about my own platform, when still in the querying stage.

Building a platform means putting yourself, your opinions and - as an (aspiring) author - your writing "out there". Out there, where others can see and experience you, where you can interact with your peers, where you can promote yourself and your talent. It means not only waiting for people to come and "find" you, but to participate in other literary social media and events, It means building a presence others are interested in enough to want to know what you have to say.

I think the last part is the really tricky part. Setting up accounts on facebook, twitter and blogspot is easy, but how do you get peoples' attention, get them to read and comment? Especially without sounding redundant, considering the other thousand blogs and twitter/facebook-accounts that all discuss the same writer-related topics. I think the answer lies not in the content itself, but in your own voice you bring to it. Give your opinion. Be personal. Be real. Give others a glimpse into what you feel, into your hopes, wishes and dreams.

I, for example, have been writing my blog for almost half a year now, but haven't had the guts to let anybody know about it. I haven't linked to it on my facebook-account, my twitter-account, my email-signature or my forum-signatures. The reason for that is simple: I'm scared of rejection, of people not liking me. Of "bad reviews", as it were.

The thing is, as an author I'll have to learn to live with rejection. If I ever do find myself getting published, I can't expect to get only raving reviews about my book. Some readers will not like it, and some of those might not keep their dislike on a professional level. Rejection hurts, especially when it gets personal.

On the other hand: f*** them! In the past two years I've been learning that it's not important that everybody else likes me and thinks I'm a good little girl. It's firstly important that I like myself. The fact is, I do like myself, especially as a writer and I don't need everybody else to do so as well just to keep that feeling. As long as I maintain that attitude, I can handle the nay-sayers.

So. Here goes nothing.

I've opened a shiny new email-account for my writer-alter-ego: From this account I will contact only "literary people", as in agents, editors, authors, writing buddies / brothers in arms.

Based on this new email-address, I've created new facebook-  and twitter-accounts (you'll find me under Pia Newman in both), from which I will only follow and befriend those literati mentioned above.

Also, I have linked this blog to the new email-address and cross-mention it on facebook and twitter.

These measures hopefully present the foundation of my own writing-platform, for now limited to social media. Of course there are many other ways to get your voice out there. Off the cuff, writing contests and writers' conferences come to mind. For me, participating in writers' conferences isn't possible at the moment; I'm sure they exist in Germany, but as an English Urban Fantasy writer I don't have high hopes for my niche being represented here, and flying to the US isn't in my budget just yet. I can definitely keep my eyes open for contests, though.

My one concern is that I'll now start spending all my already limited writing-time on facebook, twitter and the blog, without ever getting any actual writing done. I'll have to find a balance, and maybe limit my platform-time to xxx minutes per day.  For now, I'll start with fifteen minutes per day. That gives me a 1/4 hour platform-time, plus 3/4 hour writing-time, since one hour of every day is reserved for my favorite pasttime. Time and experience will have to tell whether that is enough. I guess, if all goes well, at some point it won't be anymore.


Ladies and Gentlemen of the literary persuasion: Behold the gates behind which lurks my Writer-Self and which I hereby unlock for you.

Open Sesame!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sanctuary - A Short Story Of A Dream

This is a dream I had last night, though until the moment I woke up at the very end, I believed it was real. Knew it was real. I saw it, felt it, breathed it, though I wasn’t the person I am now. Did I maybe catch a glimpse of my soul’s future?

I stand outside on my porch, in the stifling heat and unearthly light. The howling wind has stilled, settling into the calm before the true storm. The world holds its dying breath.

Not long now.

It was all over the news. An asteroid collided with the sun; just a tiny drop of oil into the roaring bonfire that made our planet hospitable. Too small a thing to have such an effect, really. Way too small.

And yet, the sun is dying.

She's putting up one hell of a fight. She's blowing herself up, her hot flaming fingers reaching for the infinite emptiness, struggling against the implosion that will be her doom. In her death throes, she will take with her the whole planetary system that circles around her like lazy flies.

And there is nothing - not a single thing - humanity can do to help her. To help itself.

Armageddon, baby. Where's Mr. Willis when you need him?

The ocean stretching beneath me is steaming, sending billowing layers of clouds into the sky. That was on the news, too, until about six hours ago, when the communication systems gave out under a barrage of the sun’s intense electromagnetic waves.

Or maybe there's just nobody left who is willing to broadcast the news and keep the systems running. There's no point, is there?

Order has fled as fear takes over lives. I've withdrawn to my home, my safe haven, waiting out the chaos. Only good things can touch me here even when everything stops making sense. The night hadn’t been dark, but neither was the day bright. The constant red-orange glow flickering on the horizon as the world spun her face from her ravaging sister would now be eye-scorching if not for the roiling clouds blanketing the sky. Every cloud has a blood-red lining of light that sears patterns against the pressing black canvas.

It's beautiful in its own way, as destruction sometimes is. I focus on that, the alien feel of this moment, the experience of it - not its consequences. I long ago set out to enjoy life as a string of experiences to be felt and lived, not analysed. To breathe deeply, to listen closely, to see clearly and to feel fully. I'm not going to sully my wonderful life now by analysing my demise. Life isn’t over after death. Just different.

A wind picks up, stroking hot fingers over my face, through my hair. The clouds seem to shrink as their red lining grows. Dust and light kick into my eyes, so I clos them, blocking out the dust. The red brightness remains, grows hotter. The wind roars and bites my skin. Light swallows me whole, spears through me, flashing pain.

Then peace.


When I woke up I was glad it wasn’t real - I would like to experience life some more - yet during the whole dream I was never afraid. I have learned so much in the past two years; I know that death is not the end and that I am never alone. Apparently, this is a comfort that even permeates my dreams.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragging My Fee(ngers)t

I met my second thesis-deadline at the end of February without any trouble. One week of relaxing later, I started my new job. Now I spend about 2 hours on the road every day getting to and back from work. Every Monday and Wednesday, I get home, down two slices of bread, refill my water bottle and go rock climbing, from which I usually get back around half past nine.
Another snack, a nice hot shower and straight to bed. At least one evening a week I get home from work, eat, then go grocery shopping - because on Saturdays, doing so is no fun. Which means I get two evenings per work-week, during which I actually get home and stay home, can be at home and relax. There’s always something going on at the weekends, too, especially now that my grandmother is so ill and the weather is warming up enough to go climbing outside.

I’m not listing my weekly doings here to elicit pity. I enjoy my weeks, even the daily two hour drives (so long as there are no actual traffic jams). My work is exciting, I love to go climbing, seeing my family, and I appreciate my two free evenings a week a lot more than I ever did.

There is just one thing that has been eliminated completely from my days; and since this blog is about my dream as an aspiring author, I’m sure the same question that has been giving me some head- and heartache has popped into your head:

When am I supposed to find the time to write again?

Two of my last New Year’s Revolutions were writing-related. One: Find an agent with/for my first book. Two: Finish book number two, the plot and characters of which stand and only need to be actually written and revised, revised, revised.

Obviously, this is a time of change for me. I’m still learning the ropes on my new job, getting my new routine down, and all the new experiences piling in every day wear me out by the end of the day. So much that I have no desire whatsoever to turn on the computer at home after spending all day on it at work already. Right now, I honestly don’t miss writing, so it’s okay - but I know I will once things start calming down. Writing to me is like breathing - faster and deeper at some times, soft and slow during others, but always vital to my existence. Except by the time the faster-and-deeper kicks in again, I’ll have my routine worked out and it won’t include writing time. Unless I start including it now.

So here’s an addendum to my original New Year’s resolutions: Write 45 minutes every day. It doesn’t matter what; a novel-page, a blog post, a diary entry. It doesn’t matter on what; the laptop, my notebook or napkins (a friend of mine got me these cool stationary-lined napkins for my birthday that read “some of the biggest ideas in the world started on a napkin”). 

And it doesn’t matter what quality; gibberish, therapeutic ramblings or groundbreaking theories. The quality and drive will return when the time is right. All I want to accomplish with this resolution is to establish writing in my everyday routine.