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?

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.

Prose versus Poetry

I do not intend to start a war between poets and writers of fiction; instead, I would like to tell why I prefer writing fiction over writing poetry. Most of it has to do with my lacking emotional capacities – although that’s an exaggeration – and my refusal to use flowery language, excessive descriptions or actually touching material.

Personally, I am not really an emotional person. While poetry does not have to be emotional, most of its power comes from touching the hearts of its readers. Most of the fun, lighthearted poetry does not have that effect, although there is nothing wrong with that. I do not like writing either of them. I prefer my writing to be fun and adventurous, yet not to be devoid of meaning. Finding that balance is hard. To me, writing is supposed to carry some kind of meaning or message without being obviously blatant about it. Poetry is great for those who are not as blatant as I am. I would not be able to do it right. Either it would come out over the top emotional or completely inane. A great poet knows the difference, whereas I do not.

Also, writing fiction seems to come more naturally to me. There haven’t been many instances in my life where I tried to write poetry, whereas fiction has always been important to me, both in reading and writing. I wanted to tell fun stories that captured the readers’ attention. They had to be clear, to the point and interesting. Poetry can definitely be interesting, but it seldom is as much to the point as I’d like to write. Besides, I prefer longer texts, as slowly giving away pieces of information does not really work in a short text. Poetry is short, in general… And I have to admit, I often won’t read it if it looks too long, as I typically struggle to grasp the sentences. It might be because English is not my mother tongue, making long sentences even harder to understand. I’d like to think I am relatively proficient, but not enough to pull off some beautiful poetry.

All in all, both poetry and prose have their qualities, but I still prefer the bluntness of my children’s books… The reality is that it’s what I can do best, and while experimenting is fun, I’d rather stick to what I know. How sad, I know.

Children’s Books That Should Not Be Written

Children's Books That Should Not Be Written

Of course the list of children’s books’ titles I just posted is merely a joke of which I do not know the original source – it is all over the Internet, so it was impossible to trace back its origins. However, there still is a point to this list. Some children’s books should not be written; period. Although the limits may be vague, I believe standards should be set.

Firstly, no children’s book should actually encourage children to act inappropriately. By that, I mean acting in ways that is harmful or dangerous, either for the child themselves or for the others around them. This is not to say that nothing can happen. Children’s books should be filled with fun, adventure and danger – why would any child otherwise want to read them? Reading is about knowing about the unknown, which is why it is such a good passtime. Stealing candy from a candy factory is a great example of something that could definitely happen in children’s fiction. It is adventurous, but it is also dangerous and illegal. Does that mean that it should not happen at all? No, that is not what I am trying to say. Still, the characters should not just get away with their crime – which is what this is. Breaking in in factories is illegal. The main characters should be caught, one way or the other. They might be seen, or they might feel remorse. They should not run home laughing without trouble and then eat candy for the rest of the week without anyone ever finding out. The example may not be all that realistic, as there are not that much fun factories around, but the point still stands.

Secondly, children’s books should not be about actively making the reader feel bad about – about themselves or in general. “Your parents just don’t love you” may happen in the real world, and it sometimes does happen in books, but I am not sure if I agree with this. Should children really be reading those depressing close-to-home stories? While they might be comforting, they could also be a powerful trigger, whether the reader actually experienced this or not. Another example about making children feel bad is the title “The Monsters in your Closet are Real”. This is great for older children who don’t believe in monsters anymore – not for the little kids for whom this title seems to be intended, although it is just a joke.

Lastly, children’s books should not be age inappropriate, no matter how straight to the point this advice may seem. If it doesn’t come up in children’s minds yet, it probably isn’t a good idea to write a story about it. Chances are the readers won’t enjoy it or otherwise get ideas that may be harmful. Romance does not occur often in children’s fiction for the reason that most children do not care about it. They may have crushes on each other, but they do not go around groping each other – or at least, they should not be. Middle Grade fiction may include a kiss, but that’s it. The same goes for topics such as abuse. The level of it should be age appropriate. The higher the intended audience, the more severe it can be, but it still should not cross those lines.

Even jokes can hold an important message: some children’s books just should not be written.

What do you think of that?

Writing for Children – The Fun of Grade Calculating Devices

The stories are write are meant for children of the ages between eight and ten years old. However, while I can say that they are meant for this group, this does not mean that they would be actually appropriate. Figuring out the right style has always been difficult for me. Back when I used to write for teenagers, my language always turned out to be too difficult and prententious. No kid would want to read it, I am sure of that. That is why I am not going to try that ever again. Still, now that I am writing for younger children, I keep running into the same problem. What style is age appropriate? Am I really just dumbing it down, which is the most horrible mistake to make, or am I so afraid of doing so that my texts are too boring or difficult for the average eight-year-old?

I know that there are a few tools out there that could be helpful in this case. I tried the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level technique, and according to that, my stories should be appropriate for children in the third grade. However, at the same time, either the Gunning-Fog Score or the Coleman-Liau Index (I cannot remember which) indicated that my writing would be more appropriate for sixth-grade readers. Apparently the words I use are too long of difficult. Now I am left wondering if I should take those out or try to ignore these scores. Do they really mean as much as they appear to? The problem is that I do not enjoy writing for older audiences. Even a story for actual sixth-graders demands more depth and more emotional problems… and while I love creating backstories, deep, emotional problems are not something I want to deal with. My stories should be short, fun and a little scary, in my eyes.

I’ve come to the conclusion that writing for children is hard; much harder, in fact, than writing for teenagers – but only when it comes down to style. I am not saying I am going to give up. That would be a shame. I am just going to keep writing, try to ignore the problem and finish my job. It will be hard, as I will be moving out in a couple of days, but the holidays are near and I will have a lot of spare time. I will also be joining Camp NaNo, so let the writing commence. I will not let those horrible grade calculators stop me!

Writing Tips, Part V: Telling versus Showing

During my time here on WordPress (which is not that long), I’ve seen this question come by several times. I typically try to explain, but it is difficult to do so in only a few lines. I am talking about the ancient debate between showing (mimesis) and telling (diegesis). I am sorry for throwing those terms in there; for some reason I felt compelled to show the one thing I remember from my past literary theory classes. Anyway, that is not the point. The point to this blog post is that I am going to try and explain the difference between showing and telling, so that hopefully the “Show, don’t tell” rule will become clear.

Firstly, telling often refers to describing emotions and conversations in such a way that the reader will have to come up with his or her own interpretations. It is not that horrible; however, a story that is written in this mode will come across as dull and lifeless. For example, you could write:

“She looked happy and surprised. ‘Would you really do that for me?’”

That is not the most visually stimulating word choice, is it? Instead, you could also write:

“Her eyes glimmered in the moonlight and she smiled. ‘Would you really do that for me?’”

I know it is not the best example, but I hope you agree that the second instance is more interesting than the first. Another example, from a first-person point of view, is:

“I felt embarrased.”

Yes, the character feels embarrased, but there are ways to make it clearer. However, it is important to note that a character cannot see themselves. They cannot make observations involving their own bodies, unless it is what they exactly do or feel. They cannot see their cheeks getting red, but this would be fine:

“My cheeks started to glow and I looked down, trying to avoid her glare.”

I admit that this idea of showing is often overly dramatic and it may feel unnatural to some. However, from what I’ve gathered, these second instances are always preferred over their duller counterparts.

Secondly, do not give away information without any explanation to back it up. While you could say that a character is smart, it would be more interesting to have him work out a difficult mathematical problem or come up with a well thought-out plan. Do not say a character is brave if nothing in your story points in that direction – in that case, it would be completely unnecessary information. The most important part here is to let your readers draw their own conclusions about characters’ personalities. The same goes for descriptions of the environment; make your characters use the furniture, or, if you really have to, have them note one important detail. That is enough.

Thirdly, “showing” instead of “telling” is also about choosing the right words – the words that exactly fit the picture you are trying to paint in your readers’ minds. By choosing the right word, you won’t have to explain anything else. You won’t even have to use adverbs to clarify (and, as we all know, adverbs are our enemies). For example, there is the word “to walk”, which means “to move by using one’s feet”. It is one of the least descriptive verbs out there. Instead of “walking”, there are so many other words out there that could be used. “To stroll”, “to pace”, “to hurry”, “to scurry”, “to bolt”, “to dart”… None of these words describe plain walking. However, make sure not to overdo this. “To say” is generally just fine. While you could use other words to imply the way something is said, words like “to warn”, “to note” and “to comment” are not necessary. They are all literally about saying something, wrapped up in a fancy package.

All in all, “show, don’t tell” is all about bringing your story to life. Do not make random statement about characters and at the same time, stay clear from dull descriptions of situations. Show what you would see if you were actually present – unless you actually think in sentences such as “he was sad”, in which case you should not write down your natural observations.

What do you think? Is it indeed so important to “show” or is it fine to sometimes just “tell” something?

An Essay on Essays

Essay-writing is one of the most important skills taught at college-level education. However, while writing an academic essay generally is not that difficult for those who know the rules, the rules are still the basis for the entire skill. In order to write an academic essay, one should pay attention to thesis statement, topic sentences, layered structures and an academic tone.

Firstly, the thesis statement is the core of the entire essay and should therefore be clear and complete. For an academic essay, the thesis statement should always be the last sentence of the introductory paragraph. It is supposed to contain every point to be made in the essay, although it is used as a summary and should be clear per se. A great thesis statement cannot be too long, though; it can best be kept under a maximum of twenty-five to thirty words.

Secondly, the topic sentences are supposed to be elaborations on the points made in the thesis statement, meaning that every topic should be granted its own paragraph. The rules for a topic sentence are almost identical to those for the thesis statement: it has to be clear, concise and should not surpass the maximum word count. By and large, a topic sentence starts with a linking word. ‘On one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’, ‘on the contrary’ and the numerals ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, ‘lastly’ et cetera are appropriate as paragraph starters. Also, every topic sentence should be explained in its own paragraph.

Thirdly, layered structures in the body paragraphs cause the argument of every paragraph to be comprehensible and clear. There can be said to be three layers, which should be used in order. The first layer is generally the topic sentence itself, which introduces the subject or the argument. The second layer is the explanation of the first, but it can contain more than one sentence, as opposed to the first layer. Lastly, the third layer consists of examples to clarify the explanations.

Fourthly, an academic tone has to be kept over the course of the entire essay, which can be accomplished by using several rules (this is an example of a bad topic sentence). It is important not to use the first person in an academic essay, as the tone of such a paper is supposed to be objective. Personal interferences would cause the essay to come across as subjective, no matter the research that was done. However, this seemingly unpreventable subjectivity can be prevented by writing in the passive. Also, the informality of the diction should be kept to a minimum. Learning the words of the academic word lists by heart allows one to avoid those informalities.

All in all, writing a great essay is not too difficult as long as one to hold on to the right structure and tone. On the condition that the voice of the author is confident, the essay will come across as of higher quality. While content definitely matters, essays for college-leveled education should foremost stick to a set thesis statement, topic sentences and an academic attitude.

 

(I apologize if this seems rather pretentious; I wanted to do something special for my 25th blog so I decided to go with one of the subjects taught at my university: essay-writing proficiency. I hope it is alright, considering I am still a first-year student with not that much experience.)

My Beloved Clichés, Part I: Dream Sequences and Prophecies

From the perspective of originality, writing clichés is a mortal sin. Even the definition of the word already states this, as a cliché is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”. They can be proverbs or saying – true clichés -, they can be certain descriptions and they can be entire elements of stories. In this case, I’d like to talk about the clichéd dream sequences and prophecies, as everyone knows they make for terrible writing and yet I still love them. Don’t most children do so, though?

As for dream sequences, it probably is not hard to imagine why a writer would love writing them. They can be strange, they can mysterious, they can be downright terrifying… but they aren’t real. Or are they? That is the thing about dreams. No matter how horrible they are, it is never clear whether or not their content really happened. Personally, I love playing with this. Creating frightening dreams is a fun activity and it is a way of showing a character’s internal world. As Freud believed, dreams are like a language. They are our subconsciousness. Where a story is the writer’s subconscious, the dream inside the story is the character’s true experience. For instance, my main character is a slightly paranoid boy, albeit his paranoia has more than enough reasons. There is an alien in his house. What do people think of when they hear that word? Abductions, dissections, UFOs. He dreams of the alien staring at him all night, and wakes up only to find out that he was right about that. Luckily, in reality he was not abducted… Or was he? Yes, I know it is a cliché, but playing with the borders of reality definitely helps with creating an uneasy atmosphere.

As for prophecies, they may be even worse than dream sequences. I admit to knowing this and yet loving them. Yes, I love prophecies, especially the kind that comes in rhyme. I am a bit of a poet at heart, although my actual poetry is horrible. However, my story contains a crazy fortune teller who is not believed by anybody. They love her, but her crazy rhymes are nothing more but that. In fact, she loves toying with people through prophecies. At first sight, she might seem a nice lady, but her true nature is slightly more mischievous. I have to be honest here, the fortune teller appeared in the first book of my series as someone’s aunt and she will appear again, although not as obviously. She still is a driving force in the tale, if only because she annoys the main characters so much that they decide to find out the truth on their own.

Clichés are bad. However, saying that they are bad is just as much a cliché. In reality, I’m just trying to free myself from guilt. Sometimes, clichés can be fun, as long as they are used in the right way. I am sorry for sinning like this. I just hope there is a child somewhere out in this world who can appreciate my work.

The Publishers’ Nightmare

I am the publishers’ nightmare. As a shy non-native speaker of the English language who lives overseas, I probably couldn’t be a worse candidate for the English publishing houses. However, that does not mean I would forsake my dream without a fight.

Firstly, yes, I may be shy, but that is not everything I am. It does not shape me as a person, especially because I am shy when it comes down to talking about the weather and other seemingly unimportant subjects. As long as I am not interested, I am shy. Still, once I actively get involved with anything that lies close to my heart, I basically cannot stop talking about it. That’s still a quite annoying quality, but a lot easier than not knowing what to say. To the publishing house that claimed on its site that it refused to accept work from socially awkward writers: too bad, but I am not going to show you my work. I have enough self-esteem not to give it up for your socially inacceptable standards. Do not put guidelines like that up on your site.

Secondly, yes, I may be a non-native speaker of the English language, but that does not mean I am not allowed to try. To me, writing English children’s books is much more interesting than doing so in Dutch. The former is much more lively, in contrary to the stiff Dutch vocabulary. Besides, I am officially a student of the English language. I should be able to master it at a near-native level of speech and writing, and writing is not a problem for me. I consistently get great grades on my essays, so I doubt that would be a problem. However, mastering the literary language is a self-contained skill. I may have to practice some – or a lot – more, but in the end, I will reach my goals.

Thirdly, yes, I live overseas, which may be a huge problem for English publishing houses. Most of them prefer manuscripts from actual British writers, which I am not. However, the British Islands are not that far away from where I live. Nothing but a canal – and a sea, but that would make it sound like a bigger problem – divides Great Britain and the Netherlands. I know it is a presumptious idea to ever have to cross that sea, but I can still dream, right? Plane tickets are not that expensive. I could make it.

All in all, while I may be a true nightmare for British publishers, at least I would like to disprove the reasons why I could never reach my goal. It may still be far off, but publishers, beware. I will cross that ocean, one way or the other.

My Sources of Inspiration, Part V: Boredom

This might be a terrible idea, but one of my main sources of inspiration is boredom. To be honest, I do not have that much going on in my life. Yes, I will be moving out in two weeks, but for now, I am stuck in my home town where I am supposed to study for my exams. I definitely study for them, but that does not take that much time. In fact, I have way too much freedom at the moment. While it is amazing not to have to show up at university for days, it also can get quite tedious when you are all on your own. Coupled with depression, it makes for long-winded days. No parties, no hanging out – everyone is studying back in our university city (well, it is only 15 minutes away, but they are too busy). Still, this boredom works as an amazing source of inspiration for me. Looking at pictures at the Internet is not all that interesting anymore after a week. By then, I want to actually do something. Being bored is what gets my mind racing. It makes me dream of the most horrifying tales I could ever come up with. While my life seems a little empty right now, my mind itself is full of life. Maybe it’s because of my studies, but I am starting to doubt that; translation philosophers are not the most interesting people when you try to write stories on aliens, vampires and urban legends. I love urban legends, let that be clear. Today, I spent most of my time looking up shadow people and black eyed kids, just because I could. My boredom is forcing me to spend my time doing things, whether it is external or internal research. The gears are turning. I am ready for anything.