Thursday, December 25, 2014

X-Mas in Writing

It's been looking a lot like X-Mas outside. I love the Holiday Season. Even though work seems to triple during this time, there is a special spirit out there. People are friendlier and more willing to give.
You can use this spirit for your writing. Holidays and special are a great source to support conflict and tension.


  • X-Mas: You could use the spirit and holiday feelings to create conflict in the protagonist. He might have just returned from a war zone and the spirit seemed unreal or a relative might have stage four cancer and the protagonist questions the meaning of live. 
  • New Years Eve: Use the spirit of new beginning with all the new years solutions to create a turning point I the protagonist's life. He might feel the need for change, but he is neglecting it until a plot twist on New Years Eve lets him embrace the change.
  • Pentecost: If you want to know how to use pentecost just read Pentecost from Joanna Penn. It is a brilliant example using the spirit and meaning of a  Holiday in a story.
  • 4th of July: Same here - I love how the movie Independence day uses this date to create tension. On July 1st you know there are still three days to go. But there is more to it - using the 4th of July implies the bigger cause. This is not a simple fight. It is all or nothing. It is about everything we believe in.  

Special Days

  • Birthday or Anniversaries: Birthdays and Anniversaries are a ticking clock. Every year we are shown our own mortality and that the number of years are finite. That is why we celebrate - it is less of an accomplishment, more an achievement.
  • Weddings: Despite the option to divorce, weddings have a notion being final. This creates tension - in the bridal pair as well as in the bridal party. Sisters/brothers could be jealous or here could be a rival amongst them. There are tons of fils out there covering this - My Best Friend's Wedding, Made of Honor or The Wedding Planer just to name some of them. You want novels as example? Here you go: Great Expectations where the marriage of Estella increases the tension by seemingly moving them out of reach for the protagonist.

Other Religion's holidays or special days
Even holidays of other religions might help to create tension in a novel, be it on Diwali, during Ramadan or Hadj or on Yom Kippur. However, there are two things you need to remember when doing so. First, treat the holiday with respect the way you want to have things treated that matter to you. Second, understand the holiday, its customs and meanings and especially they way people feel and celebrate it. If you are not sure, ask for help.

Other special days/historic days
There is an almost countless number of special or historic days or times you can use, discovery of America, Russian Revolution, assassination of JFK, Tchernobyl-incident etc.
The broader known the better, but you can also use less known events. On December 22, 1974 the Comoros voted for their independency from France. This is hardly general knowledge, but we all understand the notion of independence and freedom and therefore it creates tension.

You could also use general events, like the Superbowl or the inauguration of a president. It doesn't have to have a direct connection with the event, but the event itself creates a collective feeling. We have all memories accompanied with one of these days.

But why is it that these examples work? Because all these dates and events are important in some way.  They matter and whenever something matters there is a high chance/risk for conflict.

Merry X-Mas and Happy Holidays
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Diversity in Writing

Last week Chuck Wendig published a blog post which is like mirror or like a punch in your face, depending how used you are to be candid with yourself. The blog post was about racism, sexism and other -isms - not the obvious ones, not the ones we recognize in others or the ones that is brought to us in the news. It was about a latent racism or sexism in ourselves and its different reasons.

The blog post stands for its own, but I only want to add another angle - racism and sexism are the other side of the coin of something that was essential in the development of human beings; the ability to create shortcuts and compartmentalize experience. This doesn't make it better, but it helps us to overcome our own -isms.

The blog post ends with the suggestion to add more diversity into the writing industry, into publishing and into our books. I don't know about the industry and not much more about publishing, but I know my bookshelf and my writing.

My Bookshelf
I have a nice variety of books on the shelf - from European, Asian, North American and Latin American authors, male and female writers and... wait... honestly, I couldn't really tell the race of the author, simply because in most of the cases I don't know.

So what should I do about this? Look out for more books from specific authors, based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion? Quite the contrary - I thinks we should be agnostic about that at all. I love to read a good book; a good story told well. Coming from that angle I don't care about the author's background. I really don't and I think that is good.

My Writing
How many different races or how many religions do I have to include in a story to be diverse? How should the distribution of gender be? I truly think this is the wrong approach. There should not be any quotas that need to be fulfilled.

The question lies in the story itself. Your characters serve a purpose and if a protagonist needs to be male or female because of the role or the century the story plays, you can't write him as female. Well, you can try it, but the story still has to work. Maybe it does, maybe the story even gets better.

Same with race - it follows the purpose of the character and his or her environment. Why would I need to introduce a latin american character other than his roots play an important role in order to explain his behavior. On the other side, why should the main protagonist be caucasian? What is the purpose of it?

If In Doubt, Leave it Out
In the story I am currently writing I don't define neither race nor religion. Same with sexual orientation, where I don't put them into a relationship, I don't define it.

Because it doesn't serve a purpose in the story.

Ok, you could try to derive it from their origin or their name. Niklas Soderstrom from Sweden is probably caucasian and christian. Probably, but neither of it does matter. To pay his dues to the story he needs to be cynical and have a certain portion of fatalism and willingness to leave the system. I could replace him with Antonio Juarez from Argentina who had to flee the junta or Tony O'Hara from the Chicago suburbs. The only thing that matters is his purpose in the story.

Don't look for defining a race, a religion or anything else. If you are in doubt, leave it out.

Avoid Stereotypes
Stereotypes are the little brother of racism (or the little sister). I wrote a lot how gender, race, religion etc. should serve a purpose. This is dangerous, because you might be tempted by stereotypes you don't even recognize as such. And your unconscious stereotypes might be racist or sexist to others. Chuck describes this perfectly in his blog post and I have to admit I'm not immune to it. But what's the solution to this? Well, diversify your environment.

Diversify your environment
It all starts with ourselves. We tend to stay with our kind. It's human nature. We tend to group with similar people if not forced into a diverse environment. Don't deny it, but be aware of it. If you are not sure how a certain character which is not your gender, race, religion etc. comes across, you should seek for critics from people, which belong to it. I am sure, if you ask nicely, they will be happy to help.

In this sense, happy diversifying.
Your writer in a foreign land