Monday, December 24, 2012

Hope for This Season of Light

by Kelley Lindberg

I wrote this a few years ago, but I decided to dust it off and repost it, because it still sums up my wishes for us all in this season of light. Best wishes to you and your family, wherever you are.

The season of light is upon us.

Earlier this month, we celebrated Chanukah, when Jews light the candles on their menorahs to celebrate the miracle of a sacred lamp burning steadily in the reclaimed temple for eight days on only a single day’s worth of oil. Christmas is tomorrow, when candles everywhere will be lit to welcome the newborn Prince of Peace to earth. Kwanzaa starts on Wednesday, with candles for Kwanzaa’s seven guiding principles. Last Friday was the winter solstice, and drum circles and candles said good-bye to the shortest day of the year and welcomed the lengthening hours of sunlight. In another week, the New Year will arrive in a shower of booming fireworks.

In the middle of our darkest times of winter, we use candles and fireworks to restore light and remind us that the darkness will not last. The cold will give way to warmth. The ice will thaw. The spring will come. Leaves will bud and flowers will bloom. And we light candles to show we remember, we believe, and we will persevere until light spreads around us once again.

Last week, I was outside at my mailbox when I heard a flock of geese approaching. We live near a bird refuge, so geese are forever flying overhead, even in the winter. I stopped and waited to see them as they came up over the house across the street. It was a small flock. There were nine geese.

And one seagull.

The seagull was white and shining in the sun, almost glowing beside the darker, larger bodies of the geese. But the seagull appeared to be a welcome member of the flock. He soared and glided in the middle of the others, keeping perfect time and formation with them. As one, the entire flock, including the seagull, curved into a turn and headed for the mountains, finally disappearing in the distance. There was no honking protest. There were no missed wing beats. There seemed to be nothing but comfortable acceptance. The seagull was simply a member of the flock – whether temporary or permanent, I don’t know, but it was clear he was welcome. Adding the seagull didn’t diminish the flock – it enhanced it, adding a quiet splash of sunlight to a routine flight of noisy shadows.

It was a lovely thing to see. If nature can make acceptance look that easy and beautiful, perhaps all hope is not lost for us human beings after all.

So my wish in this season of light is this – that we all find, somewhere in our hearts, the capacity to welcome each other’s light into our little shadowed worlds, because there is strength in numbers and beauty in new colors. And strength and beauty are good things to keep close as we push through the cold months ahead.

May the lights of the season be yours. Merry everything!


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why I Love Being a Writer

by Kelley Lindberg

Lists are great. Lists can keep you organized, remind you of your priorities, or prevent you from making a faux pas (by forgetting to invite Aunt Myrtle to the birthday party, for instance). They can help you remember to pick up yogurt at the grocery story, and they can show you how many more editing changes you have to make before you can turn in that story to your editor.

And of course, there’s that all-important list we hear about this time of year – you know, the one where we hope our name is under the “Nice” heading, so we can get that shiny new e-reader we’ve been eyeing.

Since the holiday pace has picked up to somewhere around Mach 3, I find my lists are my lifeline. I’ve got my Christmas card list, my grocery list, my work assignments list, and my gift-shopping list. And my general end-of-the-year To-Do list is about 20 miles long, with no rest stops.

So in the spirit of list-making, and because I sometimes need reminding, I decided to jot down a quick list of the reasons why I love being a freelance writer:
  1. I get to daydream and call it “plotting.”
  2. I get to surf the web and call it “research.”
  3. I receive a crash course in a brand-new subject every time I write a new article, and for a brief time, I get to be an expert in something new.
  4. I have an excuse to meet really fascinating people. And sometimes famous ones.
  5. I get to wear my slippers to work.
  6. NO OFFICE POLITICS. Although I sometimes have heated arguments with myself. But I always win, so it’s okay.
  7. The lunch room is always stocked with potato chips.
  8. I love reveling in words, rhythm, and emotion.
  9. I measure my commute in cups of coffee, not miles per gallon.
  10. I get to live several lives simultaneously – and in only one of them must I wash dishes and do laundry.
  11. I can say “no” to jobs that look suspiciously unsatisfying.
  12. I can write off lunch with writer friends.
  13. I can ensure there’s a happy ending if I want one.
  14. Or I can bump off a bad guy if he needs it.
  15. I have seen my words touch the lives of strangers around the world. And theirs have touched me in return.
Those are just a few of the reasons I love writing. What are yours?


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just-In-Time World Building

by Kelley Lindberg

You’re sick of hearing “Show, don’t tell.” Got it. But then you’re told to use vivid description and setting to enrich your story. So how do you describe the world your character inhabits without “telling” about it? This is a constant balancing act, whether you’re writing a space opera, a medieval fantasy, an urban paranormal romance, or a contemporary thriller set in your own neighborhood. Somehow you have to describe that world without looking like you’re describing it. Good trick.

One technique I particularly like is when authors reveal the world as a character encounters it, rather than using info-dumps that sketch (or worse, expound upon) the world’s history, politics, religion, or geography. Let’s look at an example. Here’s a tempting little info-dump:
“For years, the region had been dominated by the Brat’an religion, which was led by power-hungry priests who seemed to delight in sowing political unrest with their weekly sermons. Bob the Mercenary hated the priests. They seemed the worst sort of humanity to him. Fortunately, their toe-hold in this part of the region seemed fairly small.”
Sure, it’s short and to the point, but it’s boring. (I think it’s boring, and I wrote it!) I’m telling the readers something that I think they should know about my world. I’m not showing them what this part of the world looks like in my story. Big difference. Here’s an alternate paragraph that shows how I can stay focused on the story, and let the story reveal the world naturally.
“Bob the Mercenary pushed into the bar and bumped into one of those nasty little Brat’an priests with tattooed earlobes and a crescent moon shaved into his head. “Been sacrificing kittens again?” Bob asked the priest. “Or just whipping the crowd into a treasonous frenzy, as usual?” Bob looked pointedly around the bar, where there was a definite lack of frenzy happening.”
Okay, sappy example, but still…This kind of writing is more fun – we get all kinds of information about a religious faction, some politics, Bob’s attitude about them, society’s view of them, and so on. But there’s none of the long diatribe about the religion he clearly disdains. It’s what I call “just-in-time” world-building, where aspects of the world become visible to the reader as the character interacts with it. In fact, because we’re not just describing the world but showing Bob’s interaction with that world, we get even more information, atmosphere, emotion, and insight than in the first info-heavy paragraph.

To be sure, sometimes you can’t avoid info dumps – to have characters talk or think about it might seem too obvious and staged or slow down the pace unnecessarily, so narrative may actually work better in some instances. But in general, our job as writers is to find the most natural, organic, real-feeling way to show how our worlds work, and that often means that letting our characters do the world-building for us.

Look at some of your favorite authors. How do they bring their characters' worlds alive? If you've got a favorite example or author, post it in the Comments.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

So Many Words, So Little Time

by Kelley Lindberg

We’re a wordy bunch, we English speakers. According to the Oxford Dictionaries website (“How Many Words Are There in the English Language?”), “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries… This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words.” And that excludes different means of the same words and other such variations.

A quarter of a million words? I’m at a loss for words. (Ha!)

The number of words in the English language dwarfs that in its nearest competitors: German, Russian, Spanish, and French. This is largely because English is notoriously sticky-fingered – we’ve been happily stealing words from other languages since we migrated away from our Germanic language siblings, Dutch and German. We were especially thrilled to find ourselves within pilfering range of Norman French and Latin after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

All that filching (and purloining, lifting, pinching, robbing, thieving, and appropriating) means we’ve ended up creating a language that has multiple words for almost everything. English is beyond compare when it comes to expressing ourselves with limitless layers of meaning and emotion.

In all of his plays, sonnets, and narrative poems, Shakespeare used between 18,000 and 25,000 distinct words (the number varies depending on who’s counting and how many variations of words they choose to count separately). Of those words, Shakespeare supposedly invented over 1700 of them, which means he invented somewhere between 7 and 10% of his own vocabulary. (What have YOU done for the English language lately?)

Shakespeare’s facility with language is one of the main reasons his writing is still considered so incredible, even more than four centuries after his death. He didn’t just kill off a character, he murdered them in a hundred shades of palpable intrigue, pain, or remorse, made possible by a complex language (which, by the way, he didn’t think quite rich enough to do the job, so he enhanced it).

When asked how many words the average English speaker knows and uses, linguistic experts typically respond: “Not that question again! Leave me alone, I beg of you!” Then they throw up their hands in despair and strap themselves into a straightjacket.

That’s because it’s nearly impossible to count the words we use. A single English word can take on many different variations, meanings, compounds, and tenses, so how do you know what to count? For example, there’s “dog.” Sure, you just thought of the four-legged animal, but what about the verb form, as in “I will dog you until you get your homework done”? Then there are variations like dogs (noun and verb), dogged, doggie, dog-tired, doggedness, and dog-breath. Are all of those separate words, or do they get counted all together with the single headword "dog"? (And would you say "dog," "breath," and "dog-breath" count as two words or three?)

So estimates of the number of English words we each know range from 25,000 to over 100,000, and we can multiply that several times over if we want to include all those variations, inflections, compounds, and tenses.

Where am I going with all of this?

Only this: We English writers are blessed to have at our disposal a language that is rich beyond our wildest dreams. We can evoke the caress of a springtime breeze, the horror of a grisly murder scene, the terror of an earthquake, or the shattering longing for love in finer detail and clarity than any other language can approximate.

So when we’re exhorted by our teachers, mentors, editors, or critique groups to “find not just an adequate word, but the right word,” we should listen, and listen well. Well-chosen words can separate a beach-read from a gotta-read, a “yeah, it was okay” from an “I’m giving this book to all my friends for their birthdays,” and an “I couldn’t get past Chapter 1” from an “I stayed up until 3:00am reading it.”

Pay attention to your words. Listen to them carefully. Nurture them. Prune them, train them, coax them, and strengthen them.

Revel in them.

They’re waiting for you. All quarter of a million of them.