Smarts versus Strength

The average kid is not a bodybuilder. They generally are not that tall yet, nor do they have the same strength of an adult. If they get into trouble with some kind of being that’s stronger than them, they cannot solve the problem through brawn. They have to use their brains instead. In my children’s stories, that is exactly what happens.
When I was younger, I was a pretty scrawny kid. I could not even turn a key in its lock (although, in all honesty, I still may fail at times). During that period, I really did not enjoy reading about people in my fantasy books who just managed to fight themselves past every obstacle. I wanted to be able to identify with the main character, which I could not in cases like these. Instead, I preferred the main characters to be clever and witty. They could be tiny, they could be weak, but they could not be dumb. I wanted them to be me, yet I wanted to admire them at the same time. How I admired those with smarts…
I still do, though. In my opinion, fight scenes are not all that interesting. Sure, they are great ways to create tension, but I cannot read them over and over again. People punch, people kick, people bite. I’ve never been interested in violence like that, especially since I couldn’t believe it. Nobody is going to convince me that the average eight-year-old can kick a powerful warlock’s ass with sheer strength. No thanks. I can imagine that there are more kids like me out there, and they are the ones I like to write for. Horror is my preferred genre, and I know that the evil doesn’t necessarily needs to be punched in order to be overcome. In fact, that sounds like a terrible idea. The supernatural cannot be hit – it should be outsmarted instead.
Horror is just as broad of a genre as all others. I like smart kids, so they will be in there. Still, though, I should be able to figure out a way to make them witty and smart and not want to murder them at the same time because I grossly overdo it. Smarts are fun in children’s fiction.

Character Development Gone Wrong

In an earlier post I admitted to absolutely hating my ten-year-old main character for being the brattiest, most annoying kid I could have come up with. To be honest, though, when I started thinking out the storyline I purposefully made him that way. Since he was a huge brat, it would be easy to make him go through some character development, or so I thought. I wanted to teach him to care about people instead of bossing them around and getting them into danger. I wanted him to become less of a lazy brat and actually start doing things on his own. However, I completely failed in this. The kid started out as a horrible person, which was enough for me to just despise having to write about him. I couldn’t even get around to his character development, as I’m only three books in.
Character development is good for any story. It is great. It is perfect for fleshing out characters, as it allows the writer to make the character overcome both external and internal obstacles. However, these internal obstacles sadly can get too big to overcome. I believe that our personalities are set – we cannot change who we are at the core, we can only change what we do with it. Sure, our beliefs can be challenged – so can mine. Maybe our personalities aren’t set in stone, but that doesn’t mean that this kid can go through a 180 degree turnaround.
Now, there is a big question left: how does one make a character develop in a way that feels natural, without them needing to be horrible people from the start? We, as writers, cannot force our characters to become people they are not. However, they can learn how to be a little braver, a little nicer or a little less reckless. Sometimes they have to. Even the laziest person would want to save their loved ones, right? Let them have to fight their internal battles to overcome the external ones.

The Voice

No, this is not a post about that horrible yet way too popular talent show which I don’t want to hear a thing about. Instead it’s about voices. Not voices in the literal sense, the ones that you can hear with your ears, but the ones that you can only hear in your mind. I’m talking about character voices.
In order to be believable, every book character or actual narrator needs their own personal voice. This doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as not letting a not-so-smart character use difficult words, as simple as letting a popular character speak in popular language and as simple as giving a character a catch phrase. Things like these are what makes a character come to life. This is even more important when writing in a first-person point of view, where one voices completely dominates the entire story. That voice needs to be strong, distinct and preferably relatable or interesting in another way. The kid in Emma Donoghue’s “Room” is a great example of this, as he is the story’s narrator and it clearly shows through that he is a little child who really doesn’t understand the world. I personally loved that novel, especially because it was so dark yet cute at the same time.
Another way of giving a character a voice is by actually writing out what they say phonetically, which might work if they have an accent or a speech impedement – but please do not overdo this, as I’m one of those people who wants to be able to understand what is being said without having to read it out loud/three times. Accents can give a character colour, although they come with some other dangers, as they might come across as racist or belittling towards those from a certain area or background. Also, the accent/dialect/whatever is spoken in my area is the most annoying kind of speech I know and I really wouldn’t want to see it in a book.
Character voices can make or break a novel. They can give a story a certain freshness if the protagonist or narrator is someone with a strong personality or wit, although this also goes the other way around. If the character is dull, their voice will reflect that – and a dull voice does not make for an interesting read.
Who is your favourite voice?

The Flawed Main Character

Every main character needs to be flawed, at least to an extent. Actually, every character needs to be flawed. No one is perfect, everyone has their own strange quirks and shortcomings. However, what are we as writers supposed to do when our own characters are driving us mad?
My series’ actual main character, a ten-year-old boy, is a total brat. He is bossy, arrogant and lazy, he’s a scaredy cat and he is driven by wanting to be perceived as ‘masculine’, although he really doesn’t have a clue as to what actual manliness entails. One hint, main character: it’s not about being a jerk to everyone around you. If it isn’t clear by now, I really cannot stand the kid. Why I ever picked him to be the lead of my series is a mystery to me. I actually had to quit the third book in the series for a while because I really did not want to have to get into his head again.
On the other hand, I liked the main character’s older sister much better. She’s eleven years old and aspires to become a witch. Although she is totally nuts in the main character’s eyes, she is so much more likeable to me than he is. She isn’t driven by some weird ideal – all she wants is to have fun and to explore the boundaries of the world. It may have been a horrible choice, but she is the reason why I decided to skip straight to the fifth book in the series, where she is the main character. A bad idea, huh? I’m guessing that most boys don’t enjoy reading about girls, especially not about young witches. With regards to my intended audience, it is not the greatest idea. However, as soon as I started writing about her, I immediately found my drive to write back. It may not just have been her, though. Another reason may have been that this is an actual ghost story with a likeable main character, instead of a story about a bratty boy who turns into a mouse.
I am not sure what to do now. I’m definitely going to continue the series. Possibly there will be another book about the girl. That is not the core of the problem, though. The real question is why the original main character turned into such a horrible brat that I couldn’t even stand to write about. I will have to fix that. He will get better over time, that’s for sure. That’s called character development. Until then, I will have to deal with him – and try to iron out his slightly-too-flawed personality. Thankfully, he is just a character in my head. He can change… Reality is, he has already come to life, so it’s going to be hard.
Has anyone else ever had that problem? Some main characters just decide to live their lives on their own… and it feels like there is nothing we can do to stop it. That may be the power of the writer’s mind, but it’s also a curse.

It’s “Just” A Game

I do not claim to be a hard-core gamer, as that’d simply be untrue. However, I can appreciate a nice game now and for. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age and its sequels, just like I indulged in Guild Wars 2 (about 800 hours over the course of a year and a half is not that much, though). Many people love games, as they allow them to play out a story and feel like they actually can influence what happens – others use these games to vent, rage and unleash the stress of daily life. To be honest, I do not just play fantasy games. I also adored the The Sims series, strangely for reasons close to the ones I mentioned before. I like storytelling.
One could claim that a game is just that: a game. They think video games are about nothing but aggression and killing virtual opponents. Well, while some games are like that, just as many are not. Shooters are not the only genre in the virtual world. Some games tell actual in-depth stories in the same way a book would tell them. The only difference in that case is that the player is involved.
What I’d like to say is that I think that games have become a valuable means of storytelling. While they are different from books and movies, it doesn’t mean that they are worth any less. They are a new medium – one that may be more compelling to its audience than any other one. In games like Dragon Age, the player can actually influence the outcome of the story by making choices, which is something not often seen in books – most likely never in movies. I know that books like that are out there, but they seem to be for kids only. Don’t get me wrong, I am the kind of person who loves children’s books, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get it. Gaming has become a hype because it is so varied. There is something out there for everyone. The fact that some of these stories allow us to change their outcome often makes them more interesting, at least to me. Just like children, adults like this ability. They like feeling powerful. Not all of us want to read about a dumb hero wandering into a deserted building, only to find out it’s a trap and get killed. We want to fight back. We want to change his fate. That is the power of games.
As the world keeps advancing, new mediums of storytelling become available. I believe we should use them to their fullest instead of bashing them. “Just” games? I don’t think so.

Reviewing for Dummies

I am sorry, but I’ll admit beforehand that this is not really a guide as to how to review anything. I am not a reviewer myself, so it would be strange for me to try to do so. Instead, I would like to note something about reviews, which may sound a little harsh, but I don’t read them. Ever.
To be honest, I haven’t read many books, at least not adult literature. I am a children’s writer. I know this is terrible, as every writer should probably start at the highest level and dial back from there, but I can’t. I generally don’t like it. Therefore, I’ve almost never heard of the books that are touched upon in reviews, no matter how popular they are. In fact, doing so would probably negatively affect my view of a book I haven’t even given a try yet. If the reviewer is negative, I will be intrigued, but there is no way I am going to read something that is completely bashed by multiple people.
Of course, there are some great reviewers out there, who know how to be critic without being overly harsh. They are witty and interesting, and even more important, they know their audience. Most people aren’t inclined to read about a book they’ve never heard about. I like reviews about Harry Potter – which I loved – or about Twilight – which I hated – because I already have an opinion about them. Popular book reviews do draw my attention, mainly because everyone has a different opinion about the same book. In the case of not-so-wellknown works, chances are that opinions are not going to vary much. I like depth. If it isn’t in there, then reading the review isn’t worth it to me.
Blogs about reviewing aren’t necessarily bad. However, I am getting the feeling that most of those start out as writers’ blogs, until their creators gradually start to slip up as they find out there isn’t that much to write about. That isn’t true. Writing is everywhere! Of course, writers and other people’s books are connected, as those books are what we strive to create – or absolutely not to create.
In the end, I am a liar and do think I have some tips: don’t overdo it, be creative, be relatable. The last one may sound like horrible advice, as the creative mind isn’t always relatable, but at least pick a subject that is relatable. Something that people can think about on their own. Maybe they will pick up that book that you criticized, just because some just criticism can stimulate them to come up with ideas of their own. Get your readers to read. Some people, like me, don’t do it enough.

Stonecoal English

The Dutch call it Stonecoal English. In English, this form of broken English is sometimes referred to as Dunglish. When two languages seem quite alike, like Dutch and English in this case, it can be difficult to learn both of them. This is something many Dutch people “walk against” (which is a monstrosity and should be read as “have trouble with”).
I have come across this problem many times, especially since Dutch and English words often sound alike without sharing their meaning. “False friends” is what these words are called. For instance, the Dutch word “eventueel” does not mean “in the end”, like the English “eventually”. Instead, it is used to indicate a possibility. This is one of the words I struggled with for ages, until I finally realised that maybe I should look it up in a dictionary. After all, all those English sentences sounded very strange to me…
As a writer, this is something I’ve had – and probably still have – to overcome. I cannot just drop my native language like it’s nothing and start over with a blank slate. It is easy to make the same mistakes over and over. It is easy to slip up and ignore all rules of the English language. I am not going to do that, but at the moment I’m not even sure anymore if what I am saying is actual English or yet another instance of “Stonecoal English”.
However, this is not to say that Dunglish is all that horrible. It has its positive sides. For example, back in the early 1900s, it allowed the Dutch harbour workers to communicate with the English merchants who came to their harbours. Although they did not speak English, both parties were able to understand this cross-breed, no matter how strange it sounded. Nowdays, most younger people are able to speak English relatively fine, but the problem can still be seen, especially in the older generation. It may be a stupid, crude example, but almost everyone knows the tale of the two politicians. “What are your hobbies?” president Kennedy supposedly asked the Dutch minister Luns, to which Luns replied: “I fok horses!” (“Fok” means “to breed” in Dutch). “Pardon?” Kennedy said. Luns enthusiastically said: “Yes, paarden!” (“Paarden” are horses.) I am not sure how much of this is true, but it is one of the most quoted examples of Dunglish, albeit very humiliating.
As a student of the English language, this shouldn’t happen to me. I know what English sounds like and I usually know what not to say or write in order to avoid confusion. It is still stresful, though, as writing a novel in a language that’s not your own feels slightly unnatural. I have to “let on” (“opletten”, “to keep an eye on”) both the language diffences and the cultural ones. For instance, I’ve learned that cursing in English is almost unforgivable, whereas in Dutch words like “shit” are hardly offensive at all. Having a kid in my story use the word “crap” felt like a sin. I’ll probably have to remove it, although it seems a little overbearing to me. Don’t even try to use “funny” curse words in front of Dutch kids – they will mock you. Knowing the difference is an important aspect in avoiding to speak Dunglish. While this is not a case of broken English but a cultural difference, it still is one of the mistakes often made by the Dutch.
All in all, learning a second language is quite difficult, especially when the two languages are as alike as Dutch and English. It can be dealt with, though. Some people like to make fun of their Dunglish. Others just have to work hard in order not to embarass themselves.

The Mighty Pen

I’ll be leaving on a second vacation on August 1st. Yes, I know I may be spoiled, especially seeing as I am not really looking forward to it. I won’t be able to write a thing for a week for the second time in two weeks – which may be the most confusing sentence ever. The point is that last time, it turned out that my laptop did not save any of my writings. It was all lost, maybe due to failure of Google Drive or of the laptop itself – I have no idea, all I know is that I did use Control + S. I probably won’t be taking my laptop this time, as it would be completely useless.

However, this leaves room for the mighty old pen and paper. Some writers say that every great novel should be written on actual paper with an actual pen. It is said to stimulate the creative mind to actually hold something. I am not sure how much of that is true, but it definitely is a nice theory. Sometimes it just feels good to actually see your creations on paper, almost like it could be an actual book. Still, I can see the drawbacks to it. Personally, my hand writing is horrible. I generally cannot decipher what I have written the day before unless I can remember what it is supposed to say. While I would like to applaud the professors who have to read my disastrous hand writing, I don’t think I should do the same to myself. I do like writing on paper, but afterwards I still would have to type it over. Also, I am too messy of a person to be trusted with important documents on a vacation – and yes, to me my stories are very important documents. Every time I lose what I have written, I just want to give up. I like my first drafts most and am not going to write that first draft a second time.

I am sorry for the rant, but I was wondering if there are any writers out there who still do it the old-fashioned way. Who still uses the mighty pen and paper?

Picture-perfect; Pictures in (Children’s) Literature

For the youngest children and the early readers, there is an abundance of picture books – the kind of book where pictures take up entire pages. They love them, as the images help them to create a picture of the scene in their own mind. However, as these children grow older, the pictures in their stories disappear, mainly because they want to feel “grown up” and not go back to the “childish” style of actual picture books. When I was a child, I thought this was a shame. I actually loved the pictures in my books, no matter what they looked like (black-and-white or coloured). Sadly, those books weren’t ever available, at least not for my age range. Sure, I loved reading and I would generally be content with the plain old written novel, but something often was lacking. I wanted to know what the characters looked like. I wanted to know where they were. Children’s books never went into detail, although that detail was exactly what I wanted, and still want nowadays. I believe that novels should start containing some pictures again, if only for the small group of people like me.

To be honest, I do not like comics. I also do not enjoy graphic novels. For my literature courses, I’ve had to read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which I thought was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen. Not because the story was bad – it was a welcome change in the depiction of war novels – but because I absolutely hated the (sometimes gruesome) art. Some books do not need pictures – not if they involve torture, murder or piles of burning mice. The same goes for comic books; to me, they are too picture-heavy and often too over-the-top. I do want to read an actual book, not a comic. I just wish that book would sometimes contain a simple pictures.

Maybe it is just me, but I actually do not enjoy having to think up a character’s looks by myself. To me, whatever I think of is not right. It is not what the author had in mind when they wrote it. It may sound pretentious, but I like the idea of actually looking into the author’s mind. Of course, this does not really work this way, as the author most likely is not the person to provide the pictures. Still, as far as I know they typically have at least some say in what the product is going to look like in the end. If the author agrees, I will agree that it is right.

Now, I have a question. Would anyone else like some visuals in their literature?

My Sources of Inspiration, Part VI: Night Terrors

Having a lively imagination is both a blessing and a curse, especially for those who aspire to use their creative mind. On one hand, it is an amazing ability to always be able to come up with new ideas. On the other hand, coming up with these ideas might not always be the best experience, even more so when they appear at night. I am prone to nightmares. It might be because horror is my preferred genre, but the mind is sadly stronger than most actual horror movies and books. Still, I cannot say I suffer from these dreams. I am pretty much used to them; they come to me daily, although “nightly” may be more fitting in this case.

I would like to advice those who, like me, love to write and experience the same as I do, to keep a dream diary. Having nightmares might not be a nice experience, but there is a good side to almost every bad thing. In this case, you could use these strange dreams to trigger the imagination even more to come up with the best idea ever. Alright, that may be an overstatement, but the point still stands. Keeping a dream diary – by writing in it right after you wake up or else the dream will be forgotten – is a great way to both train the mind to remember any form of inspiration and to have this notebook full of imagination-triggering adventures.

Personally, my nightmares probably are not that typical. They usually concern me being alone in a house that isn’t mine where I encounter ghosts, other strange beings or like last time, this horrible mannequin in an attick. Thing is, while it was one of the strangest dreams I had ever had, in the end only two aspects remained in my mind: a little girl ghost who loved to dance and play piano… and that horrible lifeless doll. As soon as I woke up, I loved it. I love having nightmares.