novel

On Creating Characters

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I’ve been reading a lot lately. I love reading because it allows me to fall into another world where everything and everyone in it feels so real. It lets me lose track of time, so I don’t even notice when hours have passed and my mind spins, still lingering in that fictional world. I think that’s what’s so amazing about writing and storytelling: Simple words on a page can make us care for places we’ve never been to and people we’ve never met. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend when the book closes and the story ends.

With the start of my own project, what I’ve found most challenging so far is just that —  trying to create characters that feel less like they’re made of adjectives and more of flesh and blood. I first wanted to explore the story of Vietnamese Americans in this project, because I think often in literature, ethnic identity can become the entire defining feature of that character’s identity, erasing any other interesting facets of who they are. I find this often sad and disappointing, as readers are robbed of the chance to gain a fuller perspective of other people and cultures that they may not know a lot about yet.

While working on ideas for these short stories, I’ve already spoken to my grandma and friends for inspiration, but the process isn’t always so easy. Sometimes, I feel ready to write with ideas and characters bouncing around in my head, but when I rush to a computer, my mind goes blank, as if those ideas had already floated away like balloons. To try to hang onto them, I’ve been carrying around a small journal with me everywhere. I seldom write about my day at length in journals, but I’ve actually scribbled and drawn in it a lot lately.

They’re never fully formed thoughts or sentences. I just want to capture moments of possible inspiration from my day: something funny a man said on the bus, an argument between a girl and her mother at Giant Eagle about squash, or a couple of Comcast guys gossiping about other Comcast guys. (I swear I’m not a creep!) And then, when I sit down to write later in the day, I can look back at these pages and find a glimpse of a seed, a character ready to burst free and be heard.

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Hello Friends

photo-1458925140641-48569e57da75My novel, for the purposes of my thesis, will be done tomorrow. I will submit it to my advisor, who will submit it to the department head who will then send it on to the Dean’s office. I can’t believe it!

The last few months I have been working on editing, rewriting scenes and trying to fully define what I wrote so I can describe it when people ask that much-dreaded question “So what is your novel about?”

Now, I can safely answer, “I’m working on it.”

I am so thankful for the opportunity that Dietrich College gave me to write a novel. The time and the resources provided have given me the chance to prove to myself that I can do it. But more than that, it has shown me that I love long form fiction.

This time last year, I asked my friends who were finishing their theses what they had learned during the process. One friend, who had been working on a historical-fiction novel, candidly said, “That I don’t like novels.”

That response stuck with me. But for me, this experience has been the opposite. I have emerged from this year secure in my knowledge that I really enjoyed writing my novel and I can’t wait to write another one.

I am excited to share my work at Meeting of the Minds and with all of you who have supported me through this process.

Thank you!

Learn more about my project.

Big Bite: A Student’s First Novel

Creative writing major Eleanor Haglund has written plenty of short stories and even one novella before, but never tackled something as long and involved as a novel. Until now.

Haglund, a Humanities Scholars Program student with a psychology minor, has embarked on writing her very first novel. She spent the summer figuring out just how to do this as part of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Honors Fellowship. The fellowship allows students to get a head start on their Senior Honors Program thesis work.

eleanor presentationHaglund presented her work so far earlier this week – about how her story switched focus and how she made so much progress (100 pages written and counting!)

“My novel is a coming of age story about a girl in college,” Haglund said. “The girl is struggling with school and her family as she comes into her own. It’s totally fiction.”

Haglund was advised by English Professors Kevin González and Jane McCafferty not to outline as she began the writing process.

“But I love structure and schedules, so I freaked out,” Haglund admitted.

However, she said by not having a pre-determined path, so many doors opened for her.

“I would have focused on events and plots – and wouldn’t have focused on characters,” she said.

Haglund said that she needs to write every day, and even blogged about her quest to find the perfect location. But she’s writing and not looking back.

“It’s really hard to revise a large project as you’re going, so I plan on revising later,” Haglund said.

She plans on having a completed first draft by November.

“Then I will start with what Jane said, ‘re-envisioning what I’ve put down,’” she said.

Learn more about her novel.

Transition

My mind was wandering. There I was, in a beautiful, pre-Hitler-era building in Munich, Germany, sitting next to my favorite 77 year-old German woman, listening to my apartment-mate play the last song that stood between him and his bachelor’s degree in classical cello. And I could not keep my mind still.

As soon as I sat down, I knew I would be in for a treat. The room, adorned with a stunning golden wall hanging and a shiny, black piano, waited patiently for us to fill it. When the concert began, every corner seemed to swell with the perfectly played notes that my apartment-mate had practiced with patience and dedication for this very moment. My whole body felt cushioned by the sound, floating effortlessly, drifting with ease.

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And then a thought wiggled its way into my mind, making a wedge between the music and my internal calm. I couldn’t quite locate its origin. I just knew that it was there. I took a deep breath. As I exhaled, I watched the thought float out of the open window.

But just as soon as that one was gone, a new one was in its place. I didn’t want to be distracted. After all, cello has always been one of my favorite instruments. I knew I should be here, in this moment, fully present, and totally surrendered to the good fortune at play. But it was a struggle.

My somewhat rambling adventures this summer have given me the luxury of wandering in both body and mind. This is something I have come to enjoy, and something that has become an integral aspect of my thesis. I seem to be in a constant state of motion, and I love it.

As I write this, I am sitting in the bustling Oakland airport, watching as planes arrive and depart. With so much movement around me, I can’t help but to think of the transition that lies ahead. This year especially, returning to my home in Maryland and then, soon after, to Pittsburgh has left me somewhat torn.

On the one hand, I am thrilled. I have missed cooking, having a space of my own, doing laundry (said no one ever…I know), and most of all, sleeping in my bed. Yet, in reestablishing my routine, I feel that I will miss so much more. I will miss every day being a new adventure, being surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world, and feeling so full of love and gratitude in each and every moment. It’s not that I can’t access those same feelings when I am in school, it’s just that it is so much harder. But since I can’t bear to let the reality of this summer slip away, I will have to find a way to continue to grow and thrive, even in depths of winter.

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Change is always a double-edged sword. And this time, I know a big change lies ahead. As I contemplate my return to Pittsburgh and my impending role as full-time student for my final year, I am filled with a similar mix of emotions.

Between juggling my thesis, completing classwork, and spending every possible moment enjoying my friends, I know this culminating year will be a whirlwind of its own. But, oddly enough, I feel ready.

This Week’s Inspiration:

For the Eyes: I’ve been on the hunt for a new pair of sunglasses (you can see a contender below) for a year. Maybe I’m just indecisive, but there are so many cute options! Fun, vintage accessories are especially catching my eye right now.

For the Ears: Have you ever stopped and listened to what’s going on around you? As a writer, I love taking a minute in a coffee shop, restaurant, store, or any public place, just to listen. Is that creepy? Hopefully not.

For the Soul: Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey have been leading a free meditation experience since July 13th that I am loving so much. It’s in its final few days, but I would definitely recommend checking out the Chopra Center Meditation website.

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Til next time, friends.

Learn more about my project.

Timelines Converging

I’ve been really lucky this week in that I had the opportunity to go home to North Carolina for a little while and visit my family, who I miss a lot! It’s been a great few days so far.

My mom, the biggest fan of the novel even from the time my grandfather was writing it, helped me to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of my grandfather’s life (complete with a free 30-day trial at ancestry.com). She explained a lot of the circumstances surrounding his brother Claxton’s death that I never knew. Claxton died when he was just 20 from a blood infection, a complication of an injury he sustained from jumping a train into the next town. What I didn’t fully understand is that jumping trains would have been the only affordable way for young people to make it out of the town to find work, which is what Claxton was doing. I also didn’t realize the degree to which his death divided the family. My grandfather’s mother felt that it was her husband’s fault for not earning the family enough money and therefore leading Claxton to do something desperate and reckless in search of an income.

I’ve been thinking that maybe the most notable part of this family history is the degree to which the book differs from it. The older brother, who is named Daniel in the book, dies a hero in WWII, a death that, although painful, both his parents take pride in. It’s an idealistic version of the real scenario, in which his brother’s death means something, and neither of his parents resents the other. Moving forward, I’ve wondered whether it’s more important to honor my grandfather’s wishes, and keep the novel plot as is, or whether I should alter the plot to be based more clearly on what really happened. In all honesty, I find the real story–the story of the train, the infection, and the money–to be more interesting, and I think it would make a fantastic novel plot. But I’m afraid that by changing the story, I would lose what it meant to him.

Learn more about my project.

Listening to the Music of the Words

haglundI am more than a third of the way done with the first draft of my novel! I am so excited to be continuing to make progress.

This week, I have been experimenting with sound in my novel. Of course, including all of the senses in my work is important, so I have started trying to think of how the main character would smell, hear and feel the world around her. But specifically, I have been working on how my work sounds when read out loud. This interest was sparked when I decided to do a reading as part of my final presentation for the Dietrich College Honors Fellowship Program. I read it to myself and out loud. I wanted to make my work appealing to read silently, but also out loud.

I was also inspired by my recent attendance of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective’s slam poetry event at Capri Pizzeria in East Liberty. Listening to the poets play with the sound and meaning of the words they employed in their poems was exhilarating. They used every word’s full potential and had them working together to create an almost musical event.

Because of how much easier it was to hear when the writing was clunky, as opposed to see it on the page, I started placing more weight on saying my work out loud. For a couple of passages, I even started speaking while I was typing to try out how a sentence would sound before I put it down. Of course, I only did this when I was writing at home. I would have received a lot of strange looks if I had done this in the silent section of the library!

I have enjoyed experimenting with sound in my writing, as it is a new tool that I had been ignoring. I look forward to utilizing it more in my future writing.

Learn more about my project.

How do you find Inspiration? You stop trying.

haglund1Hello!

I’m back after my vacation on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver city. During my time there, I went hiking, surfing, caving and, of course, did some eating. At the beginning, I thought I would write during this time, just a few hours in the morning. But after the first few days, I realized that what I was trying to accomplish was both impractical and not conducive to my writing.

So, I decided to take a real vacation. I stopped trying to cram writing time into the mornings and let go. And suddenly, I was flooded with ideas. Each new experience brought me a new narrative, begging to be told. Inspiration flowed in from the peace of being below ground, seeing a chance sculpture on a walk, being pummeled by cold ocean waves and listening to the stories of the people who call Vancouver their home.

Flowstone from my caving experience.

Flowstone from my caving experience.

My mind is now filled with scenes, characters and themes from the short time I spent in Vancouver. I did not make much, if any, progress in my novel, but writing is so much easier now that I have been refreshed with all of the incredible experiences I had.

Side note:

One of the really cool things about Vancouver is that it is where Ruth Ozeki, one of my favorite authors, lives for part of the year. It is also where she chose to set her novel A Tale for the Time Being. Experiencing the natural beauty of British Columbia that she describes was breathtaking. I also found the name of A Tale for the Time Being’s main character, Nao, carved into a board on a bridge I was walking across. It has absolutely no relation to the book, as the name beside it is Mike, but it was a fun coincidence.

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Learn more about my project.