Friday, October 30, 2009

Pages From Jan's Diary

After all the interest shown in the SS-5 story, I've decided to post excerpts from the actual diary for you all to read! As my writing journey continues, I may also post excerpts from the novel, showing how I'm taking the diary and converting it to fiction... but for the present we'll stick with fact! Here are the first four entries in Jan Jonkheer's diary.

(if you like this idea and want to read more of the diary, let me know and I'll post more!)

MAY 9, 1940

This is the first diary I have ever had, and I am itching to write in it. It also has a lock and key.
Tomorrow is my birthday, and it is a present from my parents. It was given to me yesterday, because my father, who is a doctor, was called up to join the army. But I am sure that this mobilization is another false alarm, because Hitler has promised faithfully not to invade Holland. So we expect Father to get leave to spend my birthday as we planned it.

I will be fourteen tomorrow, and my four best school friends, Piet and Charlotte, the "carrot twins," because of their fiery hair, and Hendrik and Jos are joining Father, Mother, and me.

We live in a suburb of Amsterdam. We will begin my birthday celebration with a tour of the city by boat, gliding through the famous grachten [canals]. (This is really to please Charlotte.)

Then we will go to the Rijksmuseum, which is our National Gallery. It makes me proud to be Dutch, when I look at the paintings by Frans Hals, San Steen, Vermeer, and especially Rembrandt. I am going to buy a copy of his best-known work The Night Watch. Then we will have lunch at Zandvoort aan Zee. I like this seaside resort.

In the evening we are going to Haarlem, because there is to be an organ recital in Saint Bavo Church. We are all fond of music, and I love this organ, which is one of the most famous in the world. It has three keyboards, sixty-eight registers, and five thousand pipes. It was built in 1738, and my father tells me that Mozart and Handel played on it. It must have been wonderful to hear the play­ing of such famous musicians, and I get a tremendous feeling of peace and happiness whenever I hear it.

The weatherman says it is going to be fine tomorrow. Hurray!


MAY 10

Mother awoke me this morning. One look at her serious face, and I knew that something was wrong. She kissed me and said, “Happy Birthday," but it was so unlike my mother, who is a very jolly person. This morning it was all very sad.

I could now hear distant thuds. "What is it?" I asked.

“The Germans have invaded Holland. I pray for Father, and for our poor country."

I washed and dressed very quickly, and went down into the street. Everybody had a different story to tell. Schiphol airport was on fire, but some soldiers - they were fifth columnists in Dutch uniforms, I learned later - said that we were doing well and beating back the Germans.


MAY 11 , 12, 13

These have been chaotic days. The Queen has moved from her house Hrris ten Bosch into the palace in the center of The Hague. No news about Father. We are worried.


MAY 14

We leave been told that the Queen has decided to leave the country. A British destroyer took her to England yesterday, where she has been joined by her Cabinet.

For a moment it looked like desertion, but, as my mother explained to me, the struggle against Hitler will be carried on from there, and from here, I hope.

Still no news about Father.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fictional Families

A few years ago I discovered my characters are all orphans. That discovery led to some uneasy speculations about Freudian significance...until a writing mentor noticed the same thing and gave me an explanation. Apparently, most fictitious characters are orphans. Speculation on why ranges from engaging the reader's sympathies to necessary freedoms. But one of the biggest reason is: it's hard to make a realistic fictional family.

Someone once said "A family is the most complex civilization" and I believe that. In my new novel SS-5, for the first time I have two main characters with families. It's weird how difficult it is to realistically replicate the workings of a large family, particularly if the familes aren't central to the plot. Because in fiction, just like in real life, families take over. They dominate. I'm getting so interested in my family I'm losing track of the story!

I suddenly understand the attraction of the orphanage.

Seriously, though, some things I've found helpful in family-building are 1) twisting cliches till they're fresh ideas - sibling rivalry is fascinating if you freshen it up, 2) give each family member a history and story of their own - my MC's father is a WWI vet, her sister's boyfriend is a POW, her mother smuggles Jewish children from the Nazis, 3) use enough tension to make the family realistic.

And then I just have to keep all that lovely information in the background, a vivid setting without strangling the rest of the story. Lovely. Such a simple task.

Orphans are definitely easier.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Historical Note: Teenage Spies!

When the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, they announced that the Dutch had meekly accepted their fate, and life went on quietly. But under the surface, civilians rose up to fight for freedom with everything they had. Very few had any military or espionage training, but they became one of the most effective Resistances during the Second World War. Corrie Ten Boom may be the best known of these resistance fighters, but stories like hers are found everywhere; they only need to be told.

I stumbled across such a story a year ago, when I picked up an obscure book about WWII which included a diary kept by a teenage boy who fought in the Resistance. Together with four of his schoolfriends, he founded a secret group called SS5 to fight back against the Germans. With no adult support whatsoever, the five young people (Jan, Piet, Charlotte, Hendrik, and Jos) struck back at the German overlords.

At first it was small things, clever ways for civilians to show support for the exiled Dutch government; switching street signs so German convoys ended up in canals; carrying messages from forbidden radios.

Then a local farmer, who also happened to be a major part of the Resistance, recruited them. Overnight, they started smuggling food, exploding German warehouses, and convoying Jews and others at risk to safety. Charlotte went to work at the Nazi headquarters, spying for the entire Resistance. They weren't allowed to tell their parents, and they were responsible for the lives of thousands of people. Every day they expected betrayal; they could trust no one.

The journal is painful reading, as you sense the pain of these five young people, who end up losing friends and family. They are constantly placed in horrible moral quandries, as they have to choose between equally ghastly possibilites. Yet, it's incredibly powerful as the children mature and gradually understand what's really important in life.

My current WIP is the novelization of Jan' diary. I'm honored and a more than a little afraid to tell this story. It's by far the most difficult I've ever done: not only because it's true, but because the emotions and conflicts are overwhelming. But as usual, the lure of a challenge is proving too strong! I only hope the novel holds the qualities of the diary itself!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NaNo Survival Tips!

Only two weeks until NaNo! I'm scrambling to get all the last-minute details ready. As usual, there's a tinge of panic (am I SURE I want to do this? do I really want to increase my chances of heart failure?) but on the whole, I'm amazed at how much better prepared I am this year than last. Chalk it up to learning the hard way.

Anyway, I've had some people ask for suggestions on how to do NaNo. Upon perusing my writing journal and scribbled notes from last November, I've put together a sort of Survival Guide for anyone doing NaNo! Here are a few ways to smooth your passage through the stormy November seas.

Have an OUTLINE. Truly. Even if you never use one. It can be as rough as character sketches and a general plotline; or as detailed as a 60-page scene-by-scene outline with full character development. Whichever works for you is best.

Plan Your Goal. Figure out what you want to do this NaNo. If you're simply shooting for 50,000, that's easy, but if you plan to write more than that, your daily word count will need to go up.

Know Your Word Count. Based on your goal for November, figure out exactly how many words you need to write each day to make it. Then, check your calendar. If you think you'll be able to write every day, then simply divide your word count goal by 30, and plan to write that number of words per day. But if you think there'll be a day you can't write (Thanksgiving will throw the best of us) subtract that day and figure accordingly.

This plan of action should get you nicely set up. What I always do, once I've got my goal and daily word count worked up, is to make a table of how many words I need to write each day, and then, as November progresses, how many I managed to write.

Here's an example from last year:

Nov. 1: Words Written: 2,383 Extra Words: 716

Nov. 2: Words Written: 3,205 Extra Words: 1,538

Nov. 3: Words Written: 2,085 Extra Words: 418

Nov. 4: Words Written: 3,669 Extra Words: 2,002

Nov. 5: Words Written: 1,984 Extra Words: 317

Nov. 6: Words Written: 4,025 Extra Words: 2,358

Nov. 7: Words Written: 2,103 Extra Words: 436

Total Words For First Week: 19,478 Total Extra Words: 7,809

This was based on my 50,000 word goal. I continued to keep this table throughout November, and it was incredibly helpful, both as motivation (beat last week's word count!) and as a way to tell me how on track I was.

Finally, make sure writing becomes your absolute first priority during November. Write before eating, before sleeping, before reading or watching TV, before doing anything that is not absolutely necessary to maintain life. (You will note I don't consider eating or sleeping necessary.) That way, you'll be sure to make your word count. There were a couple of disastrous days last year where I put off writing, thinking I'd have plenty of time later...and then ended up not having any time at all!

Disclaimer: I'm definitely not an expert on NaNo--the views above are simply what helped me last year and what I'm following this year. If you want to read a book by a true NaNo expert (and laugh yourself to death along the way) read Lazette Gilford's book NaNo For The New And The Insane, a free download on the NaNo site.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stop, Smell, Listen: Sensory Description!

Well, my recent editing binge has got me focused on learning the craft. I'm studying pacing, plot flow, and something which I believe draws the line between ordinary writing and extraordinary writer: sensory description. The absolute best writers know how to envelope a reader in a full sensory experience, simply through words. That's pretty amazing.

It's also quite tricky. But I believe there's some easy ways to improve sensory description in our writing! One quick way I've discovered works like this: go through your work and find all the places where you describe things only with visuals. Then see if you can take the same description and portray it using the other senses. For instance, take the example of fresh-baked bread.

Visual: The golden loaves contrasted vividly with the fresh parsley and mint leaves in the basket.

Sensory (touch): The warmth of the fresh bread seeped through the cool wicker gaps of the basket.

Sensory (smell): Warm yeasty-gold fragrance of the bread mingled with the sharp spice of the mint and parsley.

You then have three options for description for the exact same scene. Taste and hearing didn't come into that particular example, but it would be possible to incorporate them by describing the rustle of the herbs against the crusty loaves, or the flavors on the tongue. I find that smell and taste often go together, and can be used interchangeably. Saying someone "tasted" instead of "smelled" often puts a surprising, appealing twist to things.

Using this technique, I've been going through my writing and incorporating all of the senses into description. The loveliness of this "find and replace" method is that it doesn't add word count, yet it vastly improves your WIP!

Now, time to take a walk in the rain and experience it with all my senses...