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“Between Worlds” Now Available in Large Print Edition

Cover for "Between Worlds 3: The First Step." On the left, in a muted image, is a teenage woman in a peasant dress, with a long apron and a shawl and headscarf. She's leaning against a tree. On the right, on what looks like the same tree, is a modern teenager girl wearing a bright winter jacket, a toque, and mitts. A cityscape is behind her.

Sophie Morgan, a supporting character in Between Worlds, is twelve and has juvenile macular degeneration. Aside from attempting to improve accessibility for my readers in general, it also seemed appropriate to offer the novels in large print edition because of Sophie. However, trying to learn what the norm for large print edition books actually is proved more difficult than I had thought.

Large Print, Small Selection

When I checked a major book store’s large print books section, I mistakenly thought all the packaged series books were the large print ones. Although there was no other indication on the packaging that these books were large print, they were on the shelf that had “large print” and “audio” on its label. (“Series” must have been there, too, but I probably developed tunnel vision once I saw “large print.”)

I wanted to see what large print looked like so I could produce it for my readers. However, with all these “large print” books wrapped in plastic, I couldn’t look inside. So, I went home.

Best Practices for Large Print

Online, I found the American Council of the Blinds’ best practices for developing large print materials. I read through them and did the best I could to reproduce them in book format:

  • 22-point sans serif bold font
  • 1.5 line spacing
  • left alignment for all text
  • no italics
  • asterisks to denote indented passages, like letters and Bible excerpts (necessary for the historical time line).

I’m certain some areas could use improvement, but the document said that the most important factors in creating large print books for the low-vision community were spacing, font size, contrast, and font style, and in that order. I think I got those okay.

Ensuring Large Print Editions Are Readable

It’s impossible to approximate with my own eyes how someone with low vision sees. I can blur my vision, but that’s not the same thing. Thankfully, an acquaintance of mine out West, Kyle Bergum, volunteers as an advocate for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. He agreed to evaluate the first large print copy of The Move.

How Kyle found time in between his career as a senior IT leader, work as an opera singer and voice over artist, and his volunteer role, I’ll never know. But somehow he did. When the first book got his blessing, I went ahead with The Distance and The First Step. All three books are now available as large print editions, and you should be able to order them online at major retailers or at your favourite book store, including many independent book stores. (They likely won’t be on any shelves, though.)

Large Print Books Are Not Cheap

All three books finally arrived in my home office last month. Because of their thickness, they cost more than the regular print ones. It’s a long story as to why I priced them at $18.99 CAD, but that was as cheap as I could make it if I hoped to support small book stores who should be able to order them in for their customers.

That Was Large Print?

A few weeks after that first visit, I finally woke up and noticed that the large print section was indeed where I was looking, except it took up a shelf-and-a-half further up. (I wondered how someone with low vision would ever find those—I’m 5’9” and had to look up.) When I finally opened one up, I was shocked: The font looked barely larger than that found in a child’s chapter book and it didn’t follow most of the ACB guidelines I’d read about and tried to follow. In fact, it looked more like a relaxing read for me, and I can read really tiny print.

So, there you have it. Between Worlds is available not only in ebooks and regular print formats, but also in large print that follows the guidelines of the American Council for the Blind. You can watch the video below if you’d like to see what that looks like.

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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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What Does It Mean When a Story is “Inspired by” Something?

As a writer, I have my fingers typing away at many different projects, which keeps my creativity flowing. Today’s topic is my young adult series, Between Worlds, and the historical protagonist, Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s story is historical fiction, which means her timeline is based on documented facts about her time period. But does that mean Elisabeth really existed? Yes and no. Elisabeth Schuhmacher was inspired by a person who did exist, but she is not based on that person.

What’s the difference?

Writing About Real People in Fiction

There are two people who did actually live in the historical timeline of Between Worlds: Herr Blum, the teacher for the school that housed grades three to six, and Pastor Fröhlich, the Lutheran church pastor. They act as anchors in that time. I have some information about Pastor Fröhlich, who was apparently a controversial figure in the village, but I have almost nothing about Herr Blum.

However, if I need either of these figures in a novel, I’ll have to fill in all the holes. I’m comfortable doing that with the pastor, because he’s down in the congregation’s minutes as causing a lot of issues. Writing about Herr Blum, though, is more difficult because of the lack of information on him, so you probably won’t actually see or hear him too often.

But besides those two, I generally avoid writing about real people in my fiction for three reasons:

  1. There’s often too little information to create a fully fleshed character.
  2. No one likes having their negative sides on display in public.
  3. A good story requires showing characters’ negative sides.

So I started with someone and built a character from that starting point. In other words, a real person was the inspiration for Elisabeth. 

Who Was the Inspiration for Elisabeth?

A teenager in 1917 or so reading a magazine

Elisabeth was inspired by a great grandmother of mine, Katharina Wolf. But Elisabeth Schuhmacher is not Katharina Wolf

Katharina was born in 1901 in Semlak, Hungary. I only know her through a few stories in the family and several postcards she had written, though, because her son, my grandfather, died before I turned nine. Katharina got stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Romania, so she could never leave to travel to Canada, and for a period of time, Romania had also remained closed to travellers. Sadly, by the time her son and his family could travel to Romania to visit her, she had died.

Katharina strikes me as an outspoken woman who placed family above all else. One of these postcards (or, more accurately, photos with a letter on the back) was her “most cherished”: it showed her father in his coffin, with her family standing behind him. (It was normal to take photos of deceased ones back then.) She numbered each person, and on the back wrote down who they were. This was all so my mom would know her father’s family.

Where Does Katharina End and Elisabeth Begin?

Elisabeth is outspoken and does get herself into trouble because of that. She was born a few years later, in 1905, but also in Semlak. Like Katharina’s father in real life, Elisabeth’s traveled overseas, to Pennsylvania, too.

Cover of "Between Worlds 1: The Move," by Lori Wolf-Heffner
Cover design by Angela Donelle

However, I have no idea what Katharina’s childhood was like, what she thought about the war, if she had an opinion on what we nowadays call PTSD, what she liked to eat, what she disliked…I have no information on any of that.

In addition, photos I have of Katharina suggest she began modernizing her personal fashion around 1917. (This assumption comes from some of the research I had done in Romania for Between Worlds 3.) Elisabeth, in contrast, still follows the traditional style of dress in 1920. (But keep reading the series, and you’ll see that eventually change.)

If I had based Elisabeth on Katharina, I would have had to make a lot of assumptions about someone whom some people alive today will have known, and that’s just not fair. Plus it would have needlessly limited what I could do with Elisabeth and therefore affect the series.

Folding More Family Stories into Elisabeth

The various experiences my grandparents on both sides of my family shared with me also helped me make Elisabeth more real and not a cardboard cutout of an Eastern European peasant girl.

For example, the family name, Schuhmacher, was inspired by my dad’s side. My grandfather lost his father at age 4 to appendicitis, and his mother never remarried. (I knew her as well as any grandchild knows a grandparent: She died when I was 17.) My great grandfather’s profession was shoemaking. In addition, because he had contracted polio sometime in his life, he had a limp, which is why Samuel Schuhmacher, one of Elisabeth’s cousins, has one.

The Larger Circle: Incorporating Others’ Stories into Elisabeth

It’s hard for me to envision a life in the 1920s that still didn’t involve electricity, indoor plumbing, and “the Roarin’ Twenties” culture. As part of my research for the novels, I asked others from these German communities in Eastern Europe for their stories. If you’d like to see such discussions, you can subscribe to the Donauschwaben Villages Helping Hands listserv. It’s a group of family historians interested in researching this branch of their family tree, and through their questions, memories spring up that the older members share with us young’uns. It’s some of those memories that I try to incorporate into Elisabeth.

Elisabeth in a Nutshell

Elisabeth Schuhmacher is a fictionally living, breathing character in her own right. But to help me better understand what her life may have been like, I’ve collected stories from several people and researched (and continue to research) her era, country, and village. If you have any questions about Elisabeth, feel free to email me or ask me online! All my contact info is in the footer, and I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.

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Oh No! Fixing Errors From “Between Worlds 1: The Move”

Lori Wolf-Heffner with an "oh oh" look on her face

Reviewing Between Worlds 1: The Move after it had been released was exhilarating and depressing. Not only had I finally published my first novel, but I also found a few errors. In addition, several kind souls pointed out some inaccuracies to me, and I also learned a few new details as I researched Between Worlds 2: The Distance. I won’t be able to go back to each novel and fix mistakes after the fact, but improving the very first book in the series made sense, especially because I was switching distributors, anyway. Curious to know what was changed? Well, then read on!

World View

One of the hardest things about recreating Semlak as accurately as I can is the simple fact that this agrarian village has not left much written material about it. So, for example, I don’t really know the general world view of the Germans in this village. After an online acquaintance read the first edition, he wondered if Semlakers would have indeed known who Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was. Therefore, I removed this part from chapter 2:

“If Kaiser Wilhelm hadn’t attacked France, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“He got greedy and wanted more.”

Elisabeth frowned. From what her father had told her, war could rarely be blamed on just one side. That was why so many dignitaries were spending so much time on the other side of Europe, in Paris, sorting out the mess the war had made.

Between Worlds 1: The Move, 1st edition

The villagers of Semlak would have been aware of their own political leader, King Ferdinand I for this series, but likely not of leaders of other countries or empire. And if they did know, there’s a good chance they may not have cared. I’m still trying to deduce just how much reading material was actually consumed by these people, but so far as I know, they got their news via the mailman, who announced several headlines and perhaps gave a quick summary and/or answered questions from the crowd.

Time-Traveling Characters?

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried
Did they notice?

Despite best efforts, Elisabeth suddenly showed up on page 55 in Juliana’s timeline. I’ve made a few changes to my editing process now to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sorry about that!

Historical Accuracy

I knew indoor plumbing didn’t exist at that time, so I assumed each household had a water pump. It wasn’t until I researched the home space more for Between Worlds 2: The Distance that I discovered the well. When I then returned to old photos I have of the village, I did indeed find one with a well off to the side.

In addition, a character named Adam Pinczes in the first edition has been renamed to Adam Krehling in the second. The various church congregations usually married within their own membership, and Pinczes is one name that is recorded only in the Reformed (Calvinist) church, not the Lutheran church that features in the series.

Medical Accuracy

When I wrote The Move, I knew Sophie would be blind and simply assumed she would have no vision at all. However, the more I read, the more I learned that the blind community faces many challenges, one of which is the assumption that someone can’t be blind if they don’t “look blind.” One blind friend of mine in university had no vision, I believe, and another had some. By the time I sat down to outline The Distance, I had found an appropriate condition for Sophie and realized that I needed to make the few descriptions of her visual impairment more accurate.

It’s in the Numbers

Unlike Canada, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had switched to metric in the previous century. So although these German communities had some of their own measuring units, other units were already in metric. In the first edition, I used imperial.

Or My Head

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried, again.
Will my readers forgive me?

I didn’t realize until Between Worlds 2 went to print that I had renamed the dance studio. Of all the things! I had written from memory instead of referring to any notes and didn’t double-check that before sending everything off. So I changed it, too. Advice for those of you want to write as a career: create a style guide for your series!

Elisabeth’s Journey

Another difficult aspect of writing about characters who lived long ago is putting yourself into their context without falling back on stereotypes, especially ones about village life. (There’s actually an entire genre in 19th-century German writing called the dorfgeschichte, which presents village life as idyllic, regardless of whether it actually was. It was inspired by Maltese writer Sir Walter Scott.) So I made some minor changes about Elisabeth’s journey into womanhood.

Do You Need to Buy the New Edition?

No. None of these changes affect the plot in any drastic way, and Between Worlds 2: The Distance was written with these corrections in place. However, if you do have a copy of the first edition, consider keeping it. There are only about 80 or so in existence, and who knows? It might be worth something. (I do have 14 left in stock, so if you’re in Canada, you may be able to order one from me, signed.)

Between Worlds 3 is tentatively scheduled for release at the end of March. To stay up to date on plot developments, get a sneak peek at the new cover design, and get coupons for discounts for in-person purchases, sign up to my email list.

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Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

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Vivian Hicks: A 13-Year-Old Who Doesn’t Let Bullying Ruin Her Dreams

FullSizeR-1
Vivian Hicks at an audition for America’s Got Talent

My first assignment for just dance! magazine this year was to interview a 13-year-old phenom, Vivian Hicks. This young woman has accomplished a lot: Not only is she a Mini-Pop, something I so wanted to be when I was a kid, but she’s modelled, placed extremely well in dance competitions, and is a rising social media star.

However, one aspect of her story particularly grabbed me: her response to online bullying.

A Growing Social Media Star

She’s reached over 1 million followers on musical.ly, has 416,000 on Instagram, and although her YouTube channel has “only” 32,000 subscribers, her video to the song “#DISS,” which she wrote herself, has well over 300,000 views in six months.

It all started when she was three, and her mother, Alley Hicks, began posting videos of Vivian singing. Here’s her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with her mother coaching in the background. Vivian’s 4 in this one.

Cute, in my books. Alley kept posting, and Vivian kept training: first in Georgetown, and then in Oakville, cities just outside of Toronto, Canada. Vivian trained in singing, dancing, and acting, and her career has just flown.

“But with the followers comes a lot of hate, and jealousy, and crazy people. It truly does. I do tell Vivian, if she gets a message, to not look at it if she doesn’t know who it is,” says Alley.

The Dark Side of Social Media Stardom

IMG_4942
Um, who says she can’t dance?

Here’s just a tiny sample: A short hip-hop video with another dancer has comments like these:

  • “I hate white ppl”
  • “Wtf is she trying to hit the folks?I’m weak bruh”
  • “She’s can’t dance you can check that off your Resume”

If I had seen those words when I was 13, I would have buried my head under my pillow and watched copious episodes of whatever show I was into back then. Of course, social media wasn’t around in my youth, but if I’d read those words anywhere, I would’ve been devastated. The closest I can come to that was when I played the title role in Der Besuch der alten Dame (English adaptation: The Visit) in my mid-20s. It was a university production I had co-produced, co-directed, and starred in. I was playing a woman in her 70s out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend from her youth. She bet that someone in the town would kill him if the price was high enough. (Whether she succeeds depends on which version you see: the Swiss original or the American adaptation.)

I saw one review, and they said I didn’t play “old” well enough.

Well, wasn’t I just embarrassed; I thought my world had gone under, because I wasn’t perfect. (They were right, though.) And here’s Vivian, easily ten years younger than I was at that time, dealing with comments like those further above.

Sadly, though, those weren’t the worst comments she’d ever dealt with.

In our interview for the magazine, Alley told me about a disturbing incident where someone threatened to kill her daughter. Unsure what to do, Vivian showed the message to her mom, of course, and Alley advised her not to respond, because people take photos of those exchanges and then exploit them.

So what’s Vivian supposed to do in the face of all of this? Quick perusals through the comments of many posts show that the overwhelming majority love her. I had even found a few fan pages in my research for the article.

Bullying: Don’t Let It Stop Your Dreams

“There’s better things to worry about than about some person hiding behind their phone and saying mean things to you,” Vivian said to me. She advises kids to not worry about. “And be yourself, because that’s the best you can be, to be honest.”

In the end, if she had shied away from what she loved to do, I suppose you could say the bullies would have won and the light she is clearly shining on her part of the world would’ve been extinguished.

But she doesn’t shy away from it. Instead, she’s just continuing to fly.

Did Kirk Cameron’s parents worry about his growing stardom at such a young age? Jody Foster’s? Emmanuel Lewis’s? Shirley Temple’s? Elijah Wood’s? Keisha Knight Pulliam’s? Probably. What would have happened, though, if they had held their children back because of it?

I just looked at the label on my tea bag: “He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.” It’s apparently a Persian proverb. I guess if any of us are looking for fame, we have to accept that others out there will find their own, mean way of having fun with us.

But Vivian doesn’t just ignore it; she fights it with power. For example, she performs for Bullies Foundation, an American foundation created by some reality TV stars. I don’t follow reality TV myself, so I don’t recognize any of them, but they’re getting the word out there that bullying is not okay. Here’s a short news clip of some stars from Big Brother and Vivian at a rally.

For a young woman seeking stardom, these comments are unfortunately part of the playing field. But to me, it looks like she’s striking every one of them out.

If you’re being bullied:

The RCMP has an excellent site on bullying.

If you’re a child or teen in Canada and need to talk to someone now (or your friend does), then call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

If you’re in the US, there’s the Crisis Call Center. You can call (775) 784-8090 or text “ANSWER” to 839863. Or you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Whatever’s happening to you, get help.

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Keep Your Online Presence Simple

A laptop on a white surface with a glass and a single lily leaf in it.
Photo by Sarah Dorweiler, via unsplash.

The downside to being creative is that your creativity can show up when it’s perhaps not as beneficial to your day-to-day running. In my case, it happened with my online presence: two websites, a blog, and five domains (those three plus two more). Thankfully, I stopped getting creative at the social media stage: I only have four accounts there, and one I’ve almost laid dormant.

However you spend your creative life, whether it’s for fun or as a career, managing your online presence shouldn’t be time-consuming: After all, you want to spend time on your writing, dancing, music, art, etc., right? If you’re freelancing, you’d rather be earning money than frequently managing your online presence.

I’m now unifying everything into one website, and I’m trying out a new theory.

People Want to Know Me

Two months ago, I wrote about how artist and freelancing websites need to differ: an artist website needs to focus on portfolio and expertise, whereas a freelancing website needs to emphasize the services you offer (and also include your portfolio and expertise).

I still stand by those differences. But over the past six months or so, I’ve been working through some marketing advice from Kristen Lamb, a freelance and indie editor, and a book by Michael Port, a business consultant for service providers (which freelancers are).

Lamb focuses on indie authors. In her blogging workshop (excellent, by the way), she emphasized how important it is to market myself as a person, because people who share my interests are more likely to read my books. If someone is looking for a horror, then a blog about dance, life, and marketing will signal that I’m not that author.

In Book Yourself Solid, Port describes how to make your marketing fit you and how to find customers who jive with you, which is why I love his book. As a service provider, and one who does all the writing herself, I’m not interested in getting millions of hits to my websites, hundreds of calls a week, etc.; there’s only so much in my workload I can handle. Port’s promise is to help me find the right customers for me, and in his opinion, I can help that process along by being me. (I add one caveat, though: Professionalism is still important. Putting up drunken party photos of yourself is not what he means.)

Simplifying My Online Presence

Returning to my new website, that means shining a brighter (but still professional) light on who I am. That doesn’t mean I’m going to have my bio on my homepage: that won’t be effective in my case. But having my homepage reflect who I am will let me unify both sides of my writing.

But what prompted all of this? It wasn’t just the time I was spending on my websites and blog, it was feedback, and likely not the kind of feedback you’d expect for such a change.

My current copywriting website got compliments from several writers I respect, but I received almost no inquiries through it. Those who hung around the website long enough to read up on my pricing also didn’t jump off at pricing; they jumped off elsewhere. So if my website was so good, and pricing wasn’t scaring people off, why wasn’t I getting much business through it?

Design for Your Audience, Not Your Colleagues

That’s when I realized that everyone who had complimented me on my website was a writer. Save for content strategists and some marketing managers, most people looking for my services won’t be writers themselves.

In addition, I had learned through several sources (including Lamb) that Google likes websites that are frequently updated. I update my copywriting/translating website every month or two, my website dedicated to writing about dance every year or two, and yet I update my blog – which does not advertise my services directly – every week.

To add to my troubles, the two main websites overlapped when it came to my expertise in dance. Why on Earth was I maintaining two sites with similar content?

So, I’m returning to a simpler strategy, one that will let me focus more on my writing while hopefully strengthening my presence with Google and allowing me to present a full picture of myself to potential clients and readers.

Have you found ways to save time in your marketing? Share them below.

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Language is More Than IQ Scores and Alzheimer’s Prevention

img_0063One thing I’ve always envied about descendants of pioneer families is that those descendants had easy access to their roots from the past one to three centuries. Naturally, everyone in Canada is or is a descendant of an immigrant (save for the First Nations peoples), but my envy was about knowing how your family lived in ages gone by. Descendants of pioneer families could go to a special room at a local library and research to their heart’s content. Not only that, much of it was in English.

My path to understanding where I came from was harder: the information lay overseas and in German (and Hungarian, Romanian, and even Latin). The outcome: I knew very little.

Changing Borders and Forbidden Education

My sense of the world was also very naive.

So, when I learned that my grandmother had been tutored in secret because new laws prohibited her from going to school, I wondered why anyone would want to go to school if you didn’t have to.

When my great grandfather talked about living in different countries depending on where the borders were, I couldn’t understand how the borders of a country changed and thought that maybe something in his story had gotten lost in translation.

My grandparents tried to share some of these stories with me, but they seemed so surreal that I couldn’t comprehend them.

Why Care About the Past?

And then my grandparents began to die, and with them, their biographies. I only have one grandfather left now, and when he takes me to a corner of the room at a family get-together to tell me something, I listen. But I regret no longer hearing the voices of the other six I knew.

I study my family history for a few reasons. One of them is out of a sense of gratitude: When you think about it, if one person didn’t get into bed at the right time on a given night, I quite possibly might not be here. There’s something bizarrely awe-inspiring about the timing involved: all those people had sex at the perfect time that allowed for my creation generations later.

Less bizarre but just as awesome is being here despite all the infants and children who died. One ancestor had five children and I descend from the single surviving one. Again, one person out of whack and boom! I wouldn’t even have Marty McFly’s chance to go back and reconnect those two.

And the third is to understand the stories that contributed to my own life, to understand what kind of “stock” I come from, as it were. What hardships did my ancestors face? What courageous actions did they take? (Less courageous ones are rarely recorded or passed down.) How did history affect my family?

The Language Connection

By the time I was in university, an opportunity to dance in Germany led me to take a full-year university German language course. I’d tried learning the language in the past, but long story short, I didn’t gain too much at that time. Now, with three classes a week instead of a crash course every Saturday morning, everything began to mesh. By the end of university, I was fluent.

Learning German finally unlocked my family history to me and gave me roots. Although the German I speak is not the one my grandparents spoke, I still feel a connection. In a sense, I feel like I’m reconnecting the Germanness I grew up with back to the Germanness that is contemporary German and Austrian culture (minus all that right-wing shit).

What I couldn’t know then was that I would eventually coordinate an oral history project that included participants from my grandparents’ background. One woman, who was in her 90s, was the first and only voice I’ve heard talk about Yugoslavia’s civil war that took place during WWII. She spoke in German. My grandmother never mentioned it, and after listening to this participant, I can understand why: it was horrific, and my grandmother would have been around 10 or 12 when it happened.

I was 24 when she died after living with cancer for several years. I don’t know if I would have ever understood what she saw, and she may very well have not wanted to share it with me.

Speaking more than one language can open up a lot of doors. There are the usual economic and practical reasons, for example. Some studies show benefits towards fending off Alzheimer’s, others about how bilingual kids tend to perform better on intelligence tests.

But for me, learning another language helped me find out more about who I am, and that in turn finally gave me food for my writing: instead of my writing from my teen years, when I had little sense of who I was, being nothing more than bad copies of pop culture, I finally felt a cornerstone form inside of me, giving me the starting point for my own stories, both real and imagined.

And, to use the language of my youth, that’s pretty cool.

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Comfort Zones: Potential Danger for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Everyone in Between

Comfort zones are those nice, cozy, warm, fuzzy parts in our mind that convince us to stay put. They have a purpose: respite. But like any spa, too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing (and, frankly, become very expensive).

I recently interviewed a sportscaster for a magazine article, and time and again she emphasized how important it was for her to get out of her comfort zone. She was a trained dancer, but when she got accepted into a well-known musical theatre program in Canada, she spent three years singing in front of others. For her, that was terrifying. But it allowed other opportunities to flow her way.

Hindsight is 20/20, as you know. In my case, my comfort zone in dance became so strong that I even stood in the same spot in the studio as often as possible: the right front corner. I even said I’d have my ashes buried there. The building, though, has since been razed and replaced with a more modern business building. I’ll have somewhere else to inter my ashes.

With writing, it was the same: I wrote about characters I knew, either by attempting a novel for a franchise or copying TV characters from my favourite shows; created plots familiar to me from same sources of inspiration as the characters; and did not expose my heart to my readers, a necessity for creative writing. In my youth, that was a fine path to follow, because I may not have been ready to show my vulnerability back then. This was before social media, of course, but one well-intentioned piece of feedback from a teacher, friend, or parent can hurt you as much as a stranger’s public criticism of your work these days, maybe even more so. I was looking for approval, not feedback, and using my personal creations for that purpose wasn’t the best idea.

Since January 2015, I’ve been working on a novel. It started as a creative challenge to myself: write 10,000 words by December. I hit that goal by mid-February and kept going. (Now, I’m at 92,000.) I’ve submitted the first three chapters to two editors, a friend, and a family member for feedback, and yes, some of the feedback hurt. But age does something to you besides give you wrinkles: it gives you strength and confidence…if you let yourself push past your comfort zone. Their input made me stop writing and go back to character and plot development. I have some major re-working to do, but the piece will hopefully come out stronger in the end. (The feedback is dead on – we’ll see if the writer can make it work.)

Of course, the usual disclaimer: we’re talking about personal goals here, not seeing how long you can wait for a car to approach before you dart across the street without getting hit.

I think it’s wrong to assume that everyone wants to achieve huge monetary success, but I think it’s right to assume that everyone has dreams that will seem big to some and small to others. For some, being able to free their voice and speak up in front of others is a huge dream. For others, it’s normal life. For some, living off $50,000 a year while also saving money is the big goal. For others, that’s reality and they can’t fathom why someone would find that hard to accomplish.

Whatever the goal, it’ll push you. But what I’m finding is that, like my interviewee, you won’t experience the freedom that comes from reaching those goals unless you cross the boundaries of your comfort zone, even just a smidgen. (Just stay out of the path of moving vehicles.)

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And We’re Back!

Well, I’m back. There’s no one else here behind the keyboard except me.

I took a year off to re-evaluate where things are going with my writing. They were going up, but I wasn’t sure what path they were going to take.

Now, I have a much clearer picture of who I am  as a writer. Don’t get me wrong: my journey is far from over. Just like you, I am a product of the stories I’ve created throughout my life and of the stories that thrust themselves on to me.

So, let’s see where this journey takes us, shall we?