Category Archives: Hintergründliches

writing and… making up people

snowglobe

I recently went shopping with a friend and found this snow globe. I tweeted it with saying that Adelie would love this… stopping dead in my tracks after I hit “Send”, wondering if I’d gotten insane. Adelie is a fictional person. Yes, she used to collect snow globes as a kid, much prettier ones as this. But that I even thought about her like a friend as soon as I saw a snow globe?

Making up human beings is not an easy feat, if you don’t want cardboard cut-outs. Humans are incredible complex things, but what that means I only understood as I tried to pen some on paper. We all have things we like and things we hate, we have weaknesses and strengths, a bunch of problems, etc. None of us is purely good, or completely evil. We all acquired our personality through living. Imagining a human being means coming up with a lot of these things out of thin air. The more you know, the easier it is to write them, even if a lot of the stuff doesn’t even matter for the story. Adelie’s snow globe collection is a give-away, mentioned in passing. But it tells us that before she became a die-hard soldier, she once loved kitschy things. She might even love them now. In an homage to Calvin & Hobbes, Nate owns a pair of lucky rocket ship boxer shorts, a fact that won’t be mentioned at all (1), but I know it. It tells me that under all his prim and proper, perfect outer shell, there’s a man who doesn’t take himself all too serious.

Coming up with all these little quirks is great fun. Trying to sneak them in even more. I once read a glorious quote (2) that said, that if you cut back a 800 pages manuscript down to 200 pages, the information will still be felt in the remaining pages, but not if you only had written 200 pages in the first place. That’s what prompted me to go down every little rabbit hole my muse throws at me, coming up with snippets like this:

Adelie lounged in her chair, turning the soda can between her fingers, smiling about something privately.
“What’s so funny?” Nate asked, grabbing himself another chair. Those research station kitchens had the most comfortable chairs.
“Ah, nothing. I still have a bit of trouble believing that the 13 bottles of Rum are really for this experiment. And not for a party. Even though Dr. Renner doesn’t look like he’d a party in ages.”
“Ha, talk about it. He looks as dried up as a raisin.”
“Nate!” She shot him a half-amused, half-warning look.
“What?!” He did his best innocent face and she shook her head, crumpling up the soda can.
“Okay, time’s up. I’ll go and ready the shuttle for our flight home, you find Ophelia? Bet she’d cornered a poor lab rat to talk shop with them.”
She took aim and threw the soda can ball against the switch of the trash chute, hitting it fair and square. The chute opened just in time to swallow the dropping can ball.
“Nice shot!” he grinned.
“You trained me well.” she laughed, got up and left the kitchen.

I don’t know if this is going to end up in the final story, but I liked the idea of Nate and Adelie sitting in front of trash chutes, being bored, and trying to hit the switch with crumpled up soda cans. It just sounds like something two competitive people would start doing. Maybe they even have a leader board, running since their Cadet times. It is sort of important to me to give them a history that doesn’t only consist of longing looks and unrequited love. Those two are first and foremost best buddies, even though my personal weakness is to write fluffy stuff with them. Nobody’s perfect. ;-)

(1) Because the Alpha Reader found it silly.
(2) Which of course I now can’t find because that was pre-Ember times.

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Writerly Tools: Ember

ember

Being creative means being interested in a multitude of things – you got to feed your muse, don’t cha? And as most creative persons can probably relate, keeping all the things that inspire you neatly and accessible can be a bit of a headache. For a while I used Evernote, and then Pinterest – but I always feel a bit uneasy when using internet based services. Mostly because I’ve seen more than one service biting the dust, and then what do you do? Saving pictures and websites and quotes into folders and documents on your hard drive is kinda unwieldy though. And you have to back it up regularly too, otherwise you might lose everything in a crash.

While wandering aimlessly around the App Store recently, I stumbled across a little app named “Ember”, and it looked like being the answer to my specific set of requirements.

I wanted:
– to save and tag pictures
– sort pictures into a kind of collection
– write down and tag notes from online research

Ember lets me do all this and a bit more:
– I can put a reference link to every item so I can go back to where I found it
– It can create “smart” collections based on titles, tags, colour…
– I can also create and fill collections manually
– It lets me share every item via Twitter, Facebook, Mail, iMessage and a gazillion other possibilities
– I can back-up the whole thing to iCloud Drive where it is ‘safe’ (1)
– It has a Safari plugin and a nice screen shot function.
– It can do GIFs!!! *___*
– If I absolutely have to, I can draw and scribble on the captured items too.
– and much, much more…

As a marvellous thing like this is not freeware, and the price tag more in the middle of things (2), I tested the heck out of the promo version, and Ember delivered with flying colours. I finally have a place where I can put in everything that tickles my muse while browsing Tumblr, or Pinterest, or where ever else I happen to be, and put it there, tag it and find it again when I need it. It is glorious! \o/

(1) Yes, ‘safe’ might be relative here, but I mean safe from a crashing hard drive.
(2) Meaning, too expensive to buy it blindly, but still affordable.

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Why it is important to write every day

One thing you read quite often in any sort of writing related medium is to write every day. It took me a long time to actually get what was meant. Of course, at first I took it as “Write your story every day.” – but this can actually be quite exhaustive. And writer burn out is a thing that should be avoided at at all cost.

I recently adapted my writing to first scribble into my notebook and then (or never) type it up later. I don’t censor myself when I write into that notebook. I try to pen down every snippet, every scene, every picture that pops into my mind – no matter if it has anything to do with the plot or not. This can lead to quite lengthy explorations of backstory, or totally irrelevant cuddle scenes. Because I like writing cuddles, and I like writing happy characters. Sometimes I’m more on a world building trip and think of pedigrees and parties and intrigues. All of this goes into the notebook.

You might ask yourself what this has to do with writing every day. Scribbling into this notebook daily is easy. I don’t have any expectations towards my writing, no certain goal that I want to reach and especially no nagging word count. I can start and stop whereever I want to, I don’t have to finish anything (there’s a lot of abandoned stuff in there, oh my) and nobody is ever going to read it. The trouble with writing is, that it takes an insane amount of doing it to get it right. You write, and rewrite, and rewrite some more. With scribbling every day, the chance that I have a sentence there that is beautiful and hits every note, increases significantly. Sometimes a scene leads to thinking about other stuff, and that leads to a breakthrough somewhere else. So, over time this notebook became a treasure trove of words I can use or get inspired by.

Another benefit of writing daily is, of course, the practice. The ability to string words together in a pleasant way is like a muscle that needs to be trained. Technique suffers from not writing. Sentences are unwieldy and clunky after I haven’t written for a while, and I forget the littlest things.

And that’s why it is important to write every day.

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dealing with a shapeshifting chameleon of a book

There wasn’t a lot of writing lately, mainly because I decided to live like a grown-up and also a lot of stress at work. It’s meeting season, cue me having to pour all my creativity into creating brochures and flyers and shiny illustrations in a ridiculous short amount of time. On top of that we’re one man short and have too much to do. Leaves you drained and not with a brain that wants to deal with writing in the evening.

Getting a bit of a distance between yourself and your work isn’t that bad though. I worked a bit on backstory and plotlines and also discovered that I have the stupid tendency to think up overly complicated things. I always want to put too much into a scene, a chapter, even the whole book. The whole Apples are a mess of too much crammed into a too tight space. Too many characters, too many plot lines, too much universe.

Sooooo – I chopped up the whole thing. Or, plan to chop it up. Focus on one plotline at at time, allowing to explore the universe and the characters and their relationships with each over time and not jumble everything together, hopping from place to place, from character to character.

This also taught me that I absolutely can’t trust myself. I started with the goal of writing a handful of short stories, because, d’uh, novels are time consuming behemoths. Then I said, okay, I write one novel, because more room to explore things and people. Now I suddenly have plots for four books on my hands. Granted, these are not doorstoppers like the original novel idea, so probably faster to write, but aaaaah, am I insane?

To amp up the insanity, I now have enough material to actually participate in NaNoWriMo, another thing I never wanted to do. But then Book 1 would be written and that would be awesome, wouldn’t it? I have to think about this…

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writing and… certain aspects of femininity

A lot of things are not mentioned in stories, especially not the mundane stuff. The fact that people eat, sleep and have to use the bathroom for example, unless it serves the story. There are also a lot of traps to avoid while writing strong women. A strong woman doesn’t mean that they’re emotionless battle-amazons, but that they’re independent human beings with a range of emotions and one or more goals.

But there’s one thing that I never see mentioned (maybe I’m reading the wrong books). A (biological) woman will have to deal with her body every four weeks or so. Regardless of if she’s a soldier, a princess or a scientist, her uterus will declare war and she has to deal with it.
And even though most women put up a strong facade and pretend there’s nothing wrong, it is uncomfortable, it hurts and you’re not quite yourself. More often than not, you want to curl up in a ball and curse a blue streak.

The longer I think about it, the more I want to put this in the book – it’s about women, after all. And I thought, hm, how will my precious male lead, supposedly every girl’s dream, deal with that. Because let’s face it, men usually blatantly ignore a woman’s period or use it as a reason to not take her seriously and it makes them feel uncomfortable. If they are even aware of what’s going on…

Nate handles this a tad bit differently:

Nate watched Adelie as she fidgeted in her pilot’s chair, taking a deep breath every so often while rubbing her lower back.
“You okay? Pulled a muscle or something?”
“Wha- oh, no, it’s nothing. I’m okay.”
Nothing. Sure. If she had pulled a muscle, she’d have said so. Nothing only meant one thing. He stood up.
“Be right back.”
” ‘kay.” She kept watching the consoles, rubbing her back.
Five minutes later he returned with a tray, holding a little red pillow, a chocolate bar and a cup of tea.
“There, I thought this might help.” He placed the pillow, which was a heating pillow, in her lower back and handed her the chocolate bar and the cup.
The astonishment in her face was priceless. “Thank you. How do you…?”
“Sharing bridge duty with someone for eight years makes you pick up certain patterns. No big deal. Now put up your feet and relax for a bit. I have a painkiller too, if you need one.”
A grateful smile over the rim of the cup as she reclined her chair, snuggling with the warm pillow.
“Better?”
“You have no idea.”
“Oh, judging from your happy face, I certainly do.”

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transformation, or: the process of finding the right words

This is how the short story “Cadets” began, as I wrote it the very first time, in German:

Seite an Seite standen die Kadetten der beiden Schwesternstaffeln Albatros Alpha und Albatros Omega in ihren dunkelblauen Uniformen neben dem Flugfeld der Westerhaven Airbase Academy. 50 Köpfe mit akkurant sitzenden Berrets auf kerzengerade gehaltenen Körpern hatten ihren Blick unverwandt nach vorne gerichtet, während die Mittagssonne erbarmungslos gleißend am wolkenlosen, augustblauen Himmel stand. Die wabernde Luft über dem Beton verwandelte die geparkten Camaro-Fighter auf der anderen Seite der Startbahn in undeutlich flirrende Schatten.

This is how it looked like after I translated it into English:

Side by side the cadets of sister squadrons Albatros Alpha and Albatros Omega stood in their dark blue uniforms next to the airfield of Westerhaven Airbase Academy. 50 heads with accurately placed berets, on bodies held straight as poles, were staring steadfastly ahead, while the midday sun burned mercilessly from the August blue sky. The flickering air above the tarmac turned the Camaro jets on the other side of the runway into hazy shimmering shadows.

Pretty close. And both are pretty boring. Something was missing. I couldn’t feel the sun, the airfield, the heat. So this is how it looks now, as the beginning of the prologue for the Apples of Eden:

The air over the tarmac of the runway flickered. Camaro jets, parked and ready for combat, were glimmering shadows behind a hazy veil. The light breeze felt as hot as jet exhaust against the skin of the 50 cadets, standing on the scorched grass next to the airfield of Westerhaven Airbase Academy. The sister squadrons Albatross Alpha and Albatross Omega suffered silently, while the August sun burned mercilessly on their dark-blue uniforms.

Of course, in all three versions I knew how this scene looked like, because I could see the 50 cadets standing there, but it took me several rewrites to finally find the words that would make the scene come alive, to make Nate’s wish for a cool drink in the next paragraph understandable.

The following was the beginning of the actual story of the Apples until this afternoon. It is not working the way I want it to work.

They were playing their favourite game: Comparing the customs on their respective home planets. She was packing up her desk after a sixteen hour workday, while he was casually leaning in the doorframe of her office, watching her and explaining a special flirting technique.
“… and they often employ a manoeuvre that is called the bend and snap.”
“That sounds more like a pretty painful combat move than anything I would use to gain a man’s attention. What do Earth girls do then, when they ‘bend and snap’?”

My original idea was to start with the main characters and introduce the setting bit by bit. But I feel like the whole part (not just the paragraph above) is sort of hanging in nothingness. Ironically, this what they actually do, but I want to give the reader a better impression of where we are before actually telling. So this is what now precedes the paragraph above:

The corridor stretched along in a slight curve, a gleaming tube of sterile whiteness. On one side, long windows interrupted the seamless wallpanels in regular intervals, showing nothing but pitchblack darkness outside. On the other side the windows were mirrored by a endless row of identical looking doors, one after the other, like pearls on a string. It was late, and all offices were empty, except one.

Not quite there yet, but better. The hunt for better words continues.

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writing and… skin tones

I have to confess, it took me an ridiculous amount of time to understand why many descriptions of darker skin tones are so offensive. It is not that they are likened to precious stones, fine wood or food. As an aside, many find the food category offensive, because it not only objectifies people, but it treats them also as if they are consumable. That rings true to me, but I can think of certain intimate events in the bedroom when I find this totally appropriate.

But the true offence is not the objectification. And I really didn’t understand this for longer I’m willing to admit. The true offence is, that dark skin tones are often the only skin tones that are described in any detail at all in many stories. In beautiful, poetic language. While the skin tone of a white character isn’t even mentioned. It’s the default, not worth mentioning. That is the insult. People of Colour accuse white writers rightfully to not even have the same elaborate vocabulary to describe white skin the same way.

At first, I felt guilty. Then my little brain gears got churning. See, I really like describing skin tones, and coincidentially, any skin tone. It doesn’t matter if the person is white or brown or black or rainbow-coloured. Because I like colour. I like skin and its many qualities beside its tone. It’s beautiful. It’s important. Just leaving it out wasn’t an option. So I decided to pay special attention to all my characters skin tones, and I also tried to not make it the first thing to mention about my black character. I don’t know if that is any better now, but I leave it to the reader to judge.

But is the accusation right that there aren’t as many descriptions for white skin available as there are for darker skin tones? I’ll go and challenge myself now to come up with as many beautiful (purple) descriptions of white skin as I can – and you can chime in and say what you think or add your own.

Truly white skin:
snowy, alabaster, marble, icy, skin like a lace doily, skin like a spray of cherry blossoms, the luminous white of a pearl, as transparent as fine bone china, eggshell, ivory, skin like liquid moonlight, lily white, frosted glass white, whipped cream, …

Rosy and pink skin:
skin like magnolias or daisies, skin like the morning sky before sunrise, skin like a strawberry daiquirí, like rose quartz, like fondant roses, peachy, candy floss, …

Beige and tanned skin:
honey, caramel, sand, golden, skin like yellowed paper, bronzy, the colour of muddy puddles, butter, olive, teak, …

Okay, coming up with metaphors and similes for beige is hard. Harder than I thought, and it doesn’t matter which of my two languages I try. Treating the norm as exotic is not an easy feat. But I won’t give up yet, but instead add to this collection if more comes to my mind.

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What’s going on with “the Apples”?

I’m still writing, in case you are wondering. Since stepping back from the madness that is trying to reach a certain amount of words in a day or a week, I just let it flow. It will be finished, sooner or later.
I translated almost everything that I wrote in German, and then proceeded to more or less rewrite the first chapter. Not because I didn’t like it, but because it wasn’t working from a reader’s perspective who didn’t read the short stories. There’s now a better introduction to the main characters, I merged some scenes too, and gave the budding romance more setup time. It felt so rushed.

If you are still writing, why aren’t you publishing any new parts?
Because I don’t write in a linear fashion. I have bits and pieces from all over the book in the document now. Some even from very close to the end. As I know have a better grasp of what is going to happen, I might (really just might) start publishing again when I have finished (and thoroughly revised) the first two chapters. But what I plan to do is writing a sort of travel guide here, to show you more of this universe in my head. And to make you excited about the Apples, or that’s at least my evil master plan.

Speaking of plans, as the thing that I have dubbed “the Meeting of Doom” is not just on the horizon but only mere weeks away, it doesn’t really make sense to make great plans about blogging more right now. After May 10th I will hopefully have more brainpower left to write more around here too.

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writing in a second language

Sometimes I wonder why I do this. Why do I voluntarily write with handbrakes on? Because that’s how it feels like, writing a story not in your native language.

I’m very much at home in the English language, there’s no doubt about that. But language is much more than putting words behind each other in the right order or using the correct article. Being fluent in two languages often leaves me groping for words in either of them, because I just can think of a fitting expression in the other one. So much is communicated through nuances, double entendres, idioms, etc, it’s amazing. And no matter how many words you know, how good your grammar is, a second language will never be as snappy and immediately available as your native one is. I don’t “think” when speaking German, I just do. As if the words are somehow hard-wired into my brain. And although my stream of conciousness is more often than not English (I have no idea how that happened, it just did…) when I actually have to speak it, it’s painfully obvious to me that I have to think very hard while doing this.

And I make mistakes, and catch myself, and this makes me furious. For example, I know very well that there is no past tense after “did” –
and I rarely make this mistake when I write, but speaking? Oh boy.

When translating the Apples I quite often run into situations when I stare at the German sentences, and think: You can write this in English as close as possible to the original, and it would be right and correct and everything. But no native English speaker would write it this way. As this is my own story, I know what my idea was when writing the German paragraph, so I can take this idea and simply write it in English. Sometimes this deviates quite a lot from the German story, but it sounds more natural (at least to me).

I have no idea of how “good” my command of English is when I write a story in it. Maybe it does sound wooden or stilted or weird. It sounds nice and okay to me, I love that I have a gazillion more adjectives at my disposal, but I don’t know if my “voice” is as distinct as it would be if I would write in German. Being aware of this fact, I paid more attention to other people’s writing voices, and this is really quite fascinating. Everybody has certain favourite words that they use over and over again, for example, if the editors don’t catch them. Sentence structures, the way they describe things… this carries over through other books, and makes them recognizable. It’s beautiful and magical. And sometimes you connect with that voice, and sometimes you don’t.

Words are the tools a writer works with. Writing in another language is a bit like having a new set of tools that looks like your old one, but is not quite the same. They have a slightly different form, they have a different balance, the grip is not as accurate as it was with your old tools. It takes time to master the new set, to get accustomed to it, and the first products might be very clunky. But I believe with time and persistence the finished piece can be good. After all, there are lot of bad writers in any language, there’s no reason to be scared to screw it up. It gives you an awareness towards language not everybody has, and this is an advantage.

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bite the bullet and do your research

Sometimes you just have to face the music and realise that, if you don’t plant your behind in a chair and read up about a ton of stuff, your story is going to fail.

It started with me wanting to avoid the common pitfalls of Hollywood ballistics, and realizing that the only thing I know about guns is probably how they look like. But certainly not how they work, what the safety precautions are and which gun or pistol is used for which task. Can’t write my trigger-happy heroines in a believable way without that knowlegde, can I?
When watching Star Trek I’m perpetually amazed that the away teams are comprised of what basically is the command of the Enterprise, minus the Captain. How can I avoid turning command into a Special Ops team? And by the howling hounds of the full moon, how does “military” work? Can’t write the United Space Force in a way that rings true without knowing that, either.

Other questions that popped into my mind while thinking of what writing tasks are waiting for me: How do you write hand to hand combat? In what way are the martial arts of combat forces different from that what you practice as a sport? (Short answer: One aims to kill, the other doesn’t.) In which ways do bodies react to the stress of a fight? What happens after a fight? How do soldiers train? Battle tactics of single fighters, teams and whole squadrons? What do special forces do?

So I took my tush to the big river of books and started searching. I’ll be forever grateful for the invention of ebooks, because otherwise I would need a new bookshelf soon.

My current reading list (and that’s just the beginning, I fear):

  • Marine Corps Martial Arts Program; US Marine Corps
  • Violence. A Writer’s Guide; Rory Miller
  • Fighter Wing. A Guided Tour of an Air Force Combat Wing; Tom Clancy and John Gresham
  • Writing Fight Scenes; Rayne Hall
  • A Civilian’s Guide to the U.S. Military. A Comprehensive Reference to the Customs, Language and Structure of the Armed Forces; Barbara Schading
  • The Gun Primer. A Writer’s Guide To Firearm Facts for Fiction; Bruce Jenvey
  • Armed and Dangerous. A Writer’s Guide to Weapons; Michael Newton

Good thing that research was and is something I love to do. Not that I ever planned to learn about how to effectively hurt other people, but that’s probably one of the hazards a writer has to accept. But I can totally see now why it takes so long to write complex books. And why a lot of writers don’t switch universes after they created one. Too much work.

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