Leap of Triumph

(What If? Exercise: Read the description here.)

I can hear the crowd cheering, applauding madly as the contenders before us finally complete their round. The competition is fierce today. Why shouldn’t it be? This is the Grand Prix after all, and only the best come to compete.

A cloud shifts in the sky, allowing the sun to shine brightly over the course. Some might say it’s a sign of good luck, but I choose not to believe in such things; we’ll do well because we’ve trained weeks for this, and if we win, it’ll be because of all our dedication and teamwork alone.

The judges have finished announcing their scores, and our opponents now come striding in, passing us by without a glance. I notice Belle shifting slightly in place; if I didn’t know better, I’d say she was nervous. But maybe that’s just me.

“All right”, I breathe with as much confidence as I can muster while the announcers call our names next. “Let’s do this.”

With a click of my tongue, Belle and I stride proudly out into the course. The audience follows our progress as we make our way to the starting point, and the judges fall silent as we position ourselves, ready for the signal. All eyes are on us. It’s now or never.

A few seconds pass… then the bell chimes. Time to ride.

I click my tongue once more and coax Belle forward with a firm squeeze of my legs. Obediently she begins to move in a walk, then a trot, and finally a canter. No surprises; this horse and I have been working together for years, and by now we know each other’s every intent. With the sun gleaming in her chestnut coat and the warm summer breeze flowing visibly through her light mane, I start to feel the rush of riding that is always so familiar but never gets old. There’s no question; this is where I belong.

The first jump approaches. Four feet. We can make that, I think with assurance, and I know Belle can sense it in me. As the fence grows in our line of vision, I shift into the two-point position, ready to cue the horse for the leap. Just a few feet now; she knows what to do from here. In a single fluid motion, Belle and I dip together as one, and her strong hind legs push against the ground to send us both sailing through the air and over the fence. This is by far the best part of show jumping: that brief second in every leap when both horse and rider are flying together, defying gravity like a great two-headed mythical beast. Then gravity wins, and Belle’s legs touch the ground again. As we clear the jump, I lean back slightly to allow for a smooth landing. The fence’s planks remain untouched after the leap. No penalty incurred.

With another 15 obstacles to clear, the course is far from over, but so far so good. The horse continues forward, and now I tilt the reins and lean with her to steer her toward the next jump. Another four-foot-high vertical awaits us, this time with poles. Not a problem; Belle clears it with the same effortlessness as before. I can feel the pride and triumph rising in my heart now. We can win this competition, I just know it.

The clock keeps running as we continue through the course. Verticals, oxers, liverpools – none of them are too great a challenge for my Belle and me. Expertly we turn as one past the cleared obstacles and hurtle straight toward the next fences in the sequence. One, two, three jumps in a row. Combinations have never been a weakness in our routine. Almost every fence cleared, and not a single plank or pole overturned. We’re almost there. Just one more jump to go.

But the final jump is a triple bar.

Of all the show jumping obstacles Belle and I have ever practiced with, the triple bar has always been the most difficult for us to clear. Roughly every three attempts we make to jump it, one try will result in the third bar being knocked off the fence. Whether this is because of a difficulty Belle has to leap completely over such a wide ascending spread or an error in timing and control on my part, it’s hard to say. In any case, this means that there’s about a 33% chance we won’t completely clear this jump now without incurring a fault. Can we make it this time?

I decide I have to trust my horse. Deep down, I know she wants that blue ribbon just as much as I do, and she’s going to do everything in her power to help bring it home for us. No matter what, we’re in this together.

The last jump approaches…

Once again, I ready myself in the two-point position, guiding Belle straight toward the center of the triple bar. Five feet away from the fence, I squeeze her sides just a little with my legs. The horse dips, my body moving with her, and she kicks off from the ground in the takeoff.

Suddenly, everything seems to be happening in slow motion. In the flight of the jump, I’m now aware of several things at once: the breeze on my neck, the steady stretching motion of the horse’s legs, the racing pace of my own heartbeat. The high poles of the fence almost seem to slide beneath us as we soar fluently above them. There’s one… There’s two…

And at the very last pole, I swear I can just sense Belle’s final surge of determination take over. In that one split second, I feel her shift her back legs the tiniest fraction upward, and suddenly I know the pole won’t be dislodged from its post as her hooves barely shave by it…

Never in my life has a jump landing felt so triumphant. I can’t even hear the crowd cheering anymore; the rushing sound of my heart almost leaping out of my chest is too overwhelming. I spare a glance at the clock, which stops after we cross the final line of the course. Two seconds under the time limit. Unbelievable; we did it!

The audience is going wild. We were far from the favorite team to win, yet here we stand, being presented with a $10,000 prize and a first place blue ribbon. I may be the one getting most of the glory, but I’ll always know who the real champion is. Could I have asked for a better show jumping horse than my Belle?

This short story is based on What If? Exercise 9: “Taking Risks”. The idea is to write a detailed first-person story depicting an event that you will likely never experience firsthand in real life. The objective of this is to step outside the limits of “write what you know” and practice writing what you can only imagine, an important skill that every fiction writer should learn.

The subject I chose for this piece is a certain sporting event that I’ve always enjoyed watching during the Olympics, but that I’m sure I would never be able to try myself. Though it took a fair amount of research to write the story as accurately as possible, I had fun imagining myself in the narrator’s place. I hope you enjoy what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

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Five Things I Wish I’d Known About Writing a Book When I Was a Kid

I fell in love with creative writing when I was in the fourth grade, after spending many childhood years reading books and discovering the fun of narrative composition assignments in school. At the age of ten, I decided that writing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and publishing a book was one of those goals I absolutely had to accomplish at least once before I died. Eager to get a headstart on my career as an author, I wasted no time in writing my first novel. As it turned out, however, being a preteen writer came with a major disadvantage: a severe lack of experience.

Bondi Blue iMac

The vintage typewriter of my life: this is the classic iMac on which my very first novel was written.

The final product of my labor was a relatively short tale about a child’s adventure through a dream world, creating imaginary friends along the way to aid her on her quest to develop what she had been missing for years: an active imagination. Though I believed the idea to be a good one, I realized a few years after finishing the story that the execution was subpar due to various mistakes that I hadn’t recognized when I was ten. Of course, I don’t want to bore you with the details of every single one, so instead, here’s a list of five of the most important aspects of fiction writing that I wish I had known when I was working on my first book.

1) Good books don’t get written in a day.

Unless you’re an extremely focused hermit locked in a room with nothing but a desk and a typewriter (or you’re the Flash), you’re not turning out a bestselling novel in less than 24 hours. Now, I didn’t literally expect to write a whole book in one day, but given that the basic outline of a plot was already clear in my mind when I started, I also didn’t expect it to take longer than a week to finish. Instead, I probably spent the equivalent of at least a month’s worth of writing before I finally completed my novel. By creating such unrealistic expectations, I was setting myself up for the disappointment that inevitably hit me after the first week of writing came and went. And disappointment is not an emotion that ten-year-olds are usually prepared to handle well…

It’s worth mentioning, however, that I probably still could have finished my story in less time than it actually took me. So why didn’t I? Because there was one piece of advice I didn’t take into account before I started…

2) Planning is important.

I made the rookie mistake of thinking that a single idea was all I needed before I actually started writing a novel. I thought that as long as I could keep that one idea clear in my head, inspiration would take over and I’d have a full manuscript ready before I knew it. Unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, novels don’t quite work that way. There were several instances during the writing process when I had to stop and even retrace my steps because I wasn’t entirely sure how to move the action forward, or how to fill a gap between two scenes that I already knew were going to happen. I’m not saying I should have spent a year only planning without actually writing anything, but had I taken just a little more time to map out the full course of my story before I dove headfirst into the narrative, I could have saved myself a lot of confusion and tedious rewrites in the long run.

3) Compelling characters are those who are flawed.

During the course of my story, my protagonist created three imaginary friends, each of whom was some sort of fantasy creature with magical abilities of incredible power. Ironically, the only imperfection in each of these characters was the fact that they were perfect. They were all beautiful, intelligent, strong, courageous, and downright wonderful in every way conceivable. In retrospect, they were probably the personifications of the qualities I subconsciously wished or wanted to believe I had myself, with none of the drawbacks.

But there was a major problem with this: my characters were not relatable. Perfection was fine for my own daydreams, but nobody wants to read about impossibly powerful heroes who can save the day without so much as breaking a sweat (outside of comic books, that is). Readers want heroes who make mistakes, who fight for their goals with everything they’ve got and emerge triumphant after struggles that only made them stronger in the end. In other words, readers want to potentially see themselves in their heroes. And my characters didn’t fulfill that purpose. By designing them to be impossibly perfect, I had inadvertently made them every writer’s worst nightmare: boring.

4) Bad things must happen to good people.

Yes, I was one of those idealistic children raised on fairy tales, who believed that good always triumphed over evil, and the heroes should always defeat the villains in every battle, with no exceptions. This was reflected in the climax of my novel: when I finally introduced actual antagonists near the end of the story (another mistake, mind you), a series of fights ensued in which my main characters would always beat the bad guys every time they tried to attack. In the end, the villains were completely defeated, while the heroes were left without even a scratch. As you can imagine, that was a pretty boring scene.

This was probably the biggest flaw of my story: I had failed to create suspense. With every single attack of every single fight ending in the heroes’ favor, the scene that should have been the most exciting part of my novel became too predictable and bland. If, however, I had thrown a few twists into the mix, such as having one of my protagonists suffer a terrible injury that put her at the villains’ mercy, I could have set the scene up for a much more engaging and satisfying conclusion. In short, if anyone was going to care about whether my good guys would win the war, there had to be at least a chance that the bad guys might win a few battles first.

5) Your first book is going to stink… no matter what.

OK, maybe this isn’t true for all writers, but it’s likely true for most (if you’re one of the exceptions, I salute you). Sometimes I think that even if I had known everything else about planning and character development and conflict, my first novel still would have turned out mediocre at best. I was, after all, only ten years old; how well could I really have written a story reflecting important values of life if I had barely even started living mine? But even if I had started my first book in my twenties, I’m sure it still wouldn’t have amounted to a great classic of literature, because to know what to do in order to turn out a brilliant piece of fiction, I first would have had to know what not to do, and there’s only one truly effective way to learn that lesson…

I have absolutely no regrets about my first attempt at writing a novel. Although it was rather lame, I still love it for everything it’s taught me about fiction writing, and the fact that I was able to start gaining this experience at such a young age makes me all the more optimistic about my future as a writer. Today, I’m proud to say that I am once again working on a novel, this time with naturally flawed characters and a storyline filled with due drama and suspense, all planned out well in advance. From here on, there’s only room for improvement.

So what about you? If you’re a writer, have you been through a similar experience? What did you learn from your first mistakes in fiction writing?

Word of the Week: Incorrigible

Word: incorrigible

Pronunciation: in-KOR-i-juh-buhl

Part of Speech: adjective

Definition: not able to be corrected, improved, or reformed

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Kurt von Trapp: I’m Kurt. I’m 11. I’m incorrigible.

Fräulein Maria: Congratulations.

Kurt: What’s “incorrigible”?

Maria: I think it means you want to be treated like a boy.

The Sound of Music (1965)

Clearly the above dialogue cannot serve as a trustworthy source of information, as the enchanting character of Fräulein Maria (immortalized by the very talented Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music) was only humoring the mischievous young Kurt von Trapp. Instead, it can be inferred from context that a former governess to the von Trapp children simply believed the boy to be a lost cause (and rather insensitively made that opinion apparent to him).

“Incorrigible” is a word used to describe a person or their tendencies that are supposedly difficult (if not impossible) to correct from their undisciplined state (e.g. an incorrigible flirt). This definition shouldn’t be difficult to memorize, since it stems from the Latin adjective incorrigibilis (in- “not” + corrigere “to correct” + -ibilis “-able”), or literally “not correctable”. I myself find it easy to remember because of my familiarity with the word in Portuguese (my second language): incorrigível, which translates directly as “uncorrectable”.

Personally, I prefer to use “incorrigible” in my writing when referring to a character with a more harmless type of behavior, as in the aforementioned examples of flirting and playful mischief. For a more serious connotation, I would probably go with a synonym like “hardened” or “habitual”; despite having a similar definition, these adjectives tend to fit better with nouns of a darker sort (incorrigible gossip, hardened criminal, habitual liar). Take care with your choice of words when writing; it could make all the difference in setting the tone of your scene!

Note: not to be confused with “encourageable”, which may or may not be a real word, but which is definitely what I understood the first time I watched The Sound of Music!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

Breaking Blocks

(What If? Exercise: Read the description here.)

I sat at my desk, typing away at my computer, trying to break through my writer’s block as I wrote about anything and everything that came to mind, hoping some random idea would blossom into a story, when I happened to glance over at a pile of books sitting nearby, on top of which sat a book from my childhood, The Cat in the Hat, a book I had recently found sitting quietly on one of the room’s many shelves, a book I had loved as a little girl, and suddenly I found myself thinking back on the simpler days of my life, when six-foot cats wearing tall striped hats and pet fish who could talk made perfect sense to me, when stories about boys who had crazy adventures in magical chocolate factories and young children learning the craft of magic were much more appealing to me than the average everyday life, a normal life where I was just a shy girl trying to hide from the scary kids at school by making herself as inconspicuous as possible, while still longing for a day when she would be recognized as a great storyteller with a gift for touching people’s lives with her unique voice in writing, a day when people everywhere would know her name and celebrate her beautiful stories about fantastic adventures and worlds where anything was possible, worlds that existed only in her mind but that could hopefully live on in the imaginations of many young readers, perhaps some of whom would choose to pursue their own talents in the arts and continue to color the world with their own voices, making the world a much brighter place… and then I looked back at my computer screen and smiled, realizing that I didn’t need to worry so much about finding a perfect idea to shape into a perfect piece, that ideas were anywhere and everywhere, and as long as I had my own storytelling voice, I didn’t need to produce a great novel to be heard, for I could just as easily write a simple short piece about an ambitious writer’s long train of thought and her hopeful journeys breaking blocks.

Yes, I realize this piece is only one sentence long, and I can assure you that it’s completely intentional. This story is based on What If? Exercise 90: “The Journey of the Long Sentence”. The goal is to write a short short story that, as mentioned above, is a single sentence in length. The objective of this exercise is to understand how we can shape our writing in a similar manner that our minds function, building a linear order for an observation that often consists of many overlapping aspects.

The story I ended up creating was almost completely improvised; I started with a single idea and just ran with it, typing without pausing while I let my mind continuously fill in the lines of the story. Though I know the end result isn’t perfect, I can honestly say it was a lot of fun to write, and I encourage you to try it yourself. Who knows what brilliant stories might be lurking in the back of your mind?

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How Much Love is Too Much?

No, I don’t actually believe in such a concept as “too much love”. If anything, the world could always use more love. But I’m not talking about world issues right now; I’m talking about romantic fiction.

Today’s topic is about the dangers of overusing the phrase “I love you” when writing romance. Now you might be wondering what exactly gives me the credibility to write about such a topic, and the answer is… not very much, except for my own amateur experience writing cheesy romance as a teenager and reading it again years later as an adult. So I’m just gonna talk about that.

"I Love You" Vector WallpaperWhen I was 16, I was a hopeless romantic. Now that I’m in my twenties… I’m still a hopeless romantic, but with a little more wisdom. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent part of my teen years writing medieval fantasy stories, among which was a star-crossed love story between a paladin (light-magic knight) and a necromancer (dark-magic sorceress). This story, so I had hoped, would someday develop into my first published novel. I was rather proud of it at the time I was working on it, even going as far as to share an excerpt of a particularly romantic chapter with friends. However, because my studies were highest on my list of priorities, the story was never finished, instead sitting in my computer as an incomplete novella collecting metaphorical dust over the course of a few years. It was after I started college that I finally rediscovered the piece among my archives, and after rereading my work with a fresh perspective, I finally began to take notice of some elements in the narrative that were – to my disappointment as a perfectionist but my delight as a neophyte at writing – dangerously clichéd.

Now, I won’t be going into excruciating detail about what made my unfinished story trite; I wouldn’t want to bore you with what could easily be thousands of words’ worth of self-criticism. Instead, I want to cover the main cliché in my work that jumped out at me the most: the aforementioned overuse of the phrase “I love you”. At the end of every romantic scene between the main characters, I would have them finish their conversation with those three words before they parted ways. It made sense to me that those should always be the last words they’d hear each other say until the next time they met. So what was wrong with that?

What I didn’t yet realize at the naïve age of 16 was that by having my characters actually say the words “I love you”, contrary to my intentions, I was creating less-than-believable dialogue. I was writing based on an instinct I’ve had my entire life: to always make sure these are among the last words I say to my loved ones before we leave each other’s company. Although this was perfectly normal for me (or perhaps because it was), it took me a while to realize that such a practice is not universally routine. Not everyone is accustomed to speaking the phrase several times in a single day; for many, it’s often just implied, if even that.

This, I realize now, is what I should have made clear with my characters. The love between them should have been implied, without the need for constant spoken confessions. By having them end every conversation with “I love you”, I was inadvertently detracting from the emotion that should have already been established outside of the dialogue: the way they looked at each other, the subtle gestures they exchanged, the littlest details of every kiss. This surely would have made their romantic moments much more believable, and more importantly, it likely would have made the moments that I did have them confess their love verbally all the more powerful. And isn’t that really the ultimate goal of writing romance in the first place?

Though I never did finish this particular love story, I don’t consider a single second spent writing it a waste of time. Leaving it untouched for a while helped me to see it again with the slightly wiser mindset of a young adult, and recognizing my own mistakes taught me about a part of my growth as a writer and a person that I might not have come to notice otherwise. But you don’t need to care about how this subject has affected me; what’s important for you to take away from this topic is a new awareness of how to recognize believable dialogue in romantic scenarios, especially if you plan on writing some yourself.

So if you appreciate romance as much as I do, please feel free to take my advice and learn from my mistakes (or even yours, if you’ve been through a similar experience). In short, writers should take care not to abuse the words “I love you”; if you wouldn’t do so yourself in your real life, you shouldn’t have your characters do so in your fictional works. “I love you” is a beautiful and magical phrase, but it can only remain so as long as it’s handled with the respect it deserves. Please write wisely; true romance enthusiasts everywhere thank you.

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