BFF’s

First off: my book tour is now posted here on my website. You canjust click on In Person and you’re there. I will be in or near five cities and after that locally in New York and Connecticut. I can hardly say how much I would like to meet you all. Sometimes I fantasize about a big party for all of us.

On November 11, 2016, Enchanted wrote, I taught myself to write from reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In it, there’s a strong omniscient narrator who delivers the information as if from afar. Example: “He was a good-looking man of twenty-five years, well-educated, wealthy, with excellent manners, but he was still unmarried.” I really like it, but some of the writing manuals I’m reading discourage that kind of narrative. They say to show, not tell. Like, they would want me to SHOW that he’s educated by, say, showing him reading a philosophy book, or SHOW that he’s well-mannered by showing him in conversation. So, is writing like the classics bad because it tells instead of shows? Just curious.

Three writers chimed in.

Christie V Powell: I’d say it’s okay if you have a really interesting voice. It’s especially useful in first person, where the whole thing is in one character’s voice, so that even the most telling of paragraphs also reviews the characteristics of the narrator. It’s a bit harder in omniscient, but in that case the narrator is almost a part of the story too. Dickens or Austen are as much a part of the story as their characters, and they have an interesting voice to match that reveals a lot about who they are. It’s harder to pull off nowadays but certainly doable.

Writeforfun: Enchanted, that’s a fascinating question! I’ve always liked the way some books, especially older ones like Jane Austen’s and others, are written in such distinct styles. I know all authors will have their own style in some way or another, but I’ve always found it interesting how most modern books use the same basic “show, don’t tell” styles, as well as including approximately the same amount of descriptions, as opposed to books from different time periods.

On another note, in regards to style, J. M. Barrie’s might be one of my favorite distinct voices! Aside from when Gail wrote the Fairies books intentionally leaning toward his sort of style, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything written quite like it! You?

Emma G. C.: Yes, the classics do tend to tell more than show. In this instance, the telling is very straightforward and informative, which can actually be a good thing. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time describing some trivial information about a character and would rather TELL readers this information so you can SHOW this character’s actions, manner of speech, and what they look like, then I say it’s completely allowed. It might be a good idea to SHOW in the next sentence, maybe by describing the way his voice sounds or the way he is dressed. As long as you have a healthy mix of showing and telling, you’re good. Jane Austen still shows, even though she may tell more often. And honestly, most people don’t go around saying they would have preferred it if Jane Austen used more description or showed more often. No, they instead focus on how well the plot and characters are written. That’s why it’s a classic.

Writeforfun, I’m with you about Barrie! Every writer is unique, but he’s the uniquest–which the internet tells me is a word, and since it is, I think it was invented for Barrie. Thank you for recognizing that I chased after his voice and may have gotten it a little.

I don’t like books on writing issuing orders: show, don’t tell. Writing is complicated. Telling may work here, showing there. We writers have to be versatile to serve our stories.

Showing immerses the reader in the world of the story, provides the detail that makes it all real. I love to show! It’s thrilling to find the gesture or speech quirk or habit of thought that establishes a character, the object that captures a setting, the sensation that nails a moment.

But it’s impossible to only show. Telling applies to more than describing a character. It can compress time, as in, They argued for another fifteen minutes until Jenna stormed out. Marla collapsed on the couch and slept for twelve hours while her family tiptoed around her. If the reader already knows or doesn’t have to know what the argument was about, this telling is a great way to move the story forward into the next important scene. However, if the reader needs to hear the argument or to know anything else embedded in my sentences, showing is the way to go. For example, if the people in Marla’s family are generally incapable of being considerate, the reader will wonder why their behavior has changed. A dab of showing–or more telling–will be required.

I also love to tell. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. In the beginning of The Two Princesses of Bamarre below, I’d argue that the lines of poetry are showing–even though the words are pure telling–because they aren’t relating the ongoing story; they’re artifacts of an earlier age. What follows the poetry is definitely telling:

Out of a land laid waste
To a land untamed,
Monster ridden,
The lad Drualt led
A ruined, rag-tag band.
In his arms, tenderly,
He carried Bruce,
The child king,
First ruler of Bamarre.

So begins Drualt, the epic poem of Bamarre’s greatest hero. No one knew whether its tales were true or were only inventions of a long-ago anonymous bard. We didn’t even know if a man named Drualt had ever lived.

It didn’t matter. He was Bamarre’s ideal. Drualt was strong and brave, and kindhearted and jolly too. He fought Bamarre’s monsters – the ogres, gryphons, specters, and dragons that still plague us – and he helped his sovereign found our kingdom.
Today Bamarre needed a hero more than ever. The monsters were slaughtering hundreds of Bamarrians every year, and the Gray Death carried away even more.

I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.

The last paragraph exemplifies a danger of telling. In it, I (through Addie) tell the reader what to think of her. Once I’ve done that, she has to stay fearful unless I put her through a process and she changes.

Our characters and our descriptions of them–what we tell about them and what we show–have to line up. If we say outright that a character is shy, for example, he needs to be shy. Sometimes this can result in characters who are less nuanced than they might otherwise be. As many of you know, I adore Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book ever. I actually like it when Austen tells me what to think. Still, her characters are a tad static. Mrs. Bennet for example is described as a very silly woman, and she stays that way, is never jolted for an instant into a moment of judiciousness. Mr. Darcy changes in the course of the novel–a little. The reader’s idea of him does shift, but fundamentally he remains the same: honorable, loyal, deliberate, grave, steadfast. However, if we avoid telling, we can give our characters a little more elbow room. They still have to be consistent and identifiable, but more surprises and more fluidity are possible. This is a more naturalistic approach to character.

So showing helps with character depth.

I went hunting for examples of old-fashioned telling and found this example, and it horrifies me. The excerpt below is from the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter (high school or middle school–I’m not sure), which I read decades ago. First we get telling and then showing mixed with telling in the dialogue that follows. I’ve condensed the excerpt a little–without changing the tone. I’m troubled by what seems to me to be woman-hating. The only thoughtful speech is given to the male speaker at the end. I don’t remember if Hester Prynne is the single good and complicated female in the book. Maybe one of you can say. It’s a great example of literature with an ax to grind, something I think we should avoid.

The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons… into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not character of less force and solidity than her own. The women who were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition…. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.

“Goodwives,” said a hard-featured dame of fifty, “it would be greatly for the public behoof if we women, being of mature age and church-members in good repute, should have the handling of such malefactresses as this Hester Prynne. If the hussy stood up for judgment before us five, that are now here in a knot together, would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not.”

“People say,” said another, “that the Reverend Master Dimmesdale, her godly pastor, takes it very grievously to heart that such a scandal should have come upon his congregation.”

“The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch—that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madame Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she—the naughty baggage—little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!”

“Ah, but,” interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, “let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.”

“What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die; is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray.”

“Mercy on us, goodwife!” exclaimed a man in the crowd, “is there no virtue in woman, save what springs from a wholesome fear of the gallows? That is the hardest word yet!”

Such unkind descriptions of these women! But if you disagree with me or see it another way, please weigh in!

I also revisited Pride and Prejudice and found myself criticizing my beloved Austen for this line, which comes after Lady Catherine, in her heedless way, has been rude to Elizabeth:

Mr. Darcy looked a little ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding, and made no answer.

We’re getting deep into the weeds here, but if Jane Austen were my student, I would say, How does Darcy look when he looks a little ashamed? Does he blush? Roll his eyes? If yes, just say so. Or is it something with his eyebrows, his nose, his lips? Does he wring his hands? Hop three times on his right foot?

I’m not sure I have a larger point about the sentence–maybe that we have to watch out for vagueness when we’re telling.

I hope I’ve conveyed that I don’t come down on one side or the other. Telling and showing are both essential, and the more we write the more automatically our gear shifts will be.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the argument between Marla and Jenna. This is artificial, just for this prompt, but start the scene with a sentence or two describing the personality of each–telling the reader what to think. Move into showing their argument. If your showing changes what you told about them, revise the description.

∙ Write the scene with Marla’s family while she sleeps. Stick to telling.

∙ Write the scene with Marla’s family while she sleeps. Stick to showing.

∙ Creation myths, in my experience, are mostly telling. From reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, I understand that everything began with Chaos, which was shapeless and disorganized, until she (Chaos) gave birth to Night and Erebus (the depths where death is). Somehow, from the two of them, an egg is laid, from which hatches Love. Use mostly showing to write this creation myth or any other, or one you make up. Take the reader there.

Have fun, and save what you write!

When Am I?

Short notice, but I’ll be reading, along with other poets, at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut, on April 2nd at 3:00 pm to celebrate Poetry Month. My poems will be for adults, and so will the other poets’, so high school age and above–but I would love to see you if you can make it!

On November 6, 2016, Bejoy4theworld wrote, In my story, I have three MCs going back in time to get Johannes Gutenberg to invent the printing press. The problem is, I have no idea how to get my characters to time-travel without seeming completely unrealistic! Any suggestions?

Emma G. C. wrote back, There have been so many creative ways writers have used time travel! One of my personal favorites is the time turner in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Look it up if you’re not familiar with it, because it’s very interesting and isn’t your standard time traveling device.

As far as time traveling seeming unrealistic, that would depend on your story. If your story is set in a world with a form of magic, such as Harry Potter, you may not have to worry about it being unrealistic as much as if your story is set in real, modern society. Also, if your story is more science fiction based, you would most likely use a form of machine or gadget to time travel, whereas if your story is a high fantasy, you might have your characters time travel by using a form of wizardry.

My advice would be to research different methods of time travel used in literature, and specifically in the genre your story is in to get an idea of what is realistic for your story.

Great ideas! I agree that method will depend on the kind of story we’re writing, whether it’s fantasy or sci fi.

I love time travel, and I particularly love the way it’s treated in Time and Again by Jack Finney, which I would guess is middle school and above–though written for adults–a wonderfully nostalgic look st New York City before World War I. And I adore Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. So I agree again that it may be useful to see how the problem has been treated by other writers. I bet a google search will yield plenty of examples.

When this comment came in in November, I posted this: I think in any time travel story, readers know they have to suspend their disbelief.

We build on that suspension, so I don’t think we have to worry much about being realistic.

I always think, the simpler, the better. If our setting is contemporary, we can tell the reader in narration that time travel was invented fifteen years earlier. After that span–as with the internet or smart phones–the technology is established. For example, if we were writing about someone buying, say, shoes online, we’d write, She clicked Submit. We wouldn’t mention a mouse or the mouse-less options. We wouldn’t explain the difference between clickable and not-clickable text, because the reader would know. Same old-hat with time travel. We don’t have to go into everything, because our characters will know.

The reader doesn’t need the science (invented or based on physics) explained. If we love the ingenuity of what we’ve come up with and can figure out a way to work it in, we can provide the science. But we don’t have to.

Of course, if our plot demands that we deal with the mechanics of the time travel, then we must. For example, if there’s any uncertainty about whether the machine will work or not, then we have to make clear how the machine or the app or whatever works.

What we do need to focus on, however, which will buy us a lot of reader belief and engagement, is the experience for our MC. We have to figure out the details. For example, we have to answer basic questions, like these, and I’m sure there are more, depending on our story:

∙ What does it feel like to time travel–physically? Does it hurt? Is it quick? Are there surprising effects that will entertain readers or increase tension? And more questions along these lines.

∙ What can she take with her?

∙ Does she have to speak the language when she reaches her destination?

∙ What about diseases, like the plague, that have been eliminated in the present, to which she won’t have immunity?

∙ How prepared is she to enter the time she’s headed for?

It can be helpful for us if this is her first trip, because everything is new to her, and we can use her thoughts to share the experience with the reader. But if she’s a seasoned time traveler, we can introduce other ways to inform. She can remember her first trip. She can brace herself for a certain part in the process. She can love a different part. She can be tinkering with some other aspect.

If we’re writing a fantasy, simplicity is still a virtue. There can be a particular donkey that’s endowed with time travel magic. Our MC climbs on his back, whispers the date into his left ear. He takes a single step, and presto! she’s there. Or anything else. The world has to be set up to accommodate the magic–there have to be enchanted donkeys–but the magic itself can be straightforward. (Incomprehensible, or there really would be time-trekking donkeys, but straightforward.)

Interestingly, in a fantasy medieval setting, the kind I often write, travel from the fantasy medieval present into the fantasy medieval past won’t land our characters in a radically different environment. Change happened very slowly before the Industrial Revolution. The fashion in shoes might change. Trade might open up to some far-off region. A better sword might be invented. But people will still ride horses, write with quill pens, spread rushes over dirt floors. There still can be reasons for time travel, like to get to the week before Good Queen Charlotte was poisoned, but the culture and technological shock will be much less.

Here are four prompts:

∙ List five ways time travel might be accomplished through magic in a fantasy. Use one in a story.

∙ List five ways time travel might be accomplished through science in a science fiction. Use one in a story.

∙ Your MC travels back on a magic donkey. Write the experience.

∙ Your MC has prepared for two years for her trip back to ancient Egypt. She opens her app, clicks on what she needs to, and she’s there. Nothing is as expected. Her translator box falls apart. She can’t understand anyone, and no one understands her. Her suitcase fails to make the crossing, and she loses the amulet from the Egyptian exhibit at the local art museum, the amulet that was supposed to make her safe. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Writer walks, reader gallops

Last week I received an email through my website about an essay contest from as organization called AddictionResource.com. There seems to be no fee to enter, and the first prize is $2,000 toward college tuition. The email asked me to spread the word. I googled the organization and the scholarship, which is listed on a couple of college financial aid websites, so it’s legit as far as I can tell, but you should check it out, too, if you’re interested. Here’s the link: https://addictionresource.com/scholarship/.

On October 5, 2016, Martina wrote, My current WiP is supposed to be a novella, but I find the plot hurrying on too quickly. Any ideas on how to make the story progress more slowly?

Also, what do you think a stereotypical “author” looks like? I’d like to dress up as one for my high school’s Halloween party, but I don’t think many people would recognize what I was in costume as (or not in costume… I don’t know). Any and all ideas are welcome!

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think pacing is very individualized, and something you have to develop a sense of. Personally I use chapters to control my pacing. I read somewhere that a chapter is like a miniature story, with a build-up to a climax, while ending on some kind of hook. I try to vary the climaxes so that some of them are plot based (Keita and her friends escaped the noblewoman’s house) and some are character based (Carli decided to help the abandoned kids). The best ones are both (Keita defeated the feral dog and then realized she’d been wrong to be angry at her friends). I also try to mix up whether they are cliffhangers (the boulder slammed shut over the tunnel, locking Keita’s friends inside), or ending on a poignant image (the lizard that had been petrified because the enemy thought it might be the main character sank into the sand). The rest of the chapter leads up to the climax in some way or another.

Interesting! I’d never thought of chapters as controlling pace.

Oddly, if done right, slowing a story makes it more tense.

Imagine cell phones haven’t been invented yet. We’re on a train (as I happen to be right now). Someone is waiting for us at our destination with news, which will be wonderful or awful. Our futures hang in the balance. The train stops between stations. Minutes pass. Do we relax or grow more tense?

We grow more tense–even if a second before the train stops we were wishing the trip would go on forever, with knowledge endlessly delayed.

Detail slows things down. For example, suppose we’re writing the train trip rather than living it. We know nothing important plot-wise is going to happen until Shirley, our MC, arrives at her station, but we want to make the journey work for us. Lanie, our MC’s sister, takes Shirley to the station and presses something into her hands. Shirley finds her seat. She’s early, so the next seat is unoccupied. If it stays unoccupied, she thinks, that will be more comfortable but will be a bad omen. Let someone come. If it’s an old man, that will also be bad. She looks out the window to see her sister’s comforting form, but Lanie has gone. Why didn’t she know to wait? Or had she known but something befell her? Shirley looks down at whatever Lanie gave her, a palm-size something wrapped in newspaper and tied with cord.

And so on. We can’t go on forever, making the written train trip take longer than an actual ride on the Orient Express, but we can spin it out and heighten the tension thereby.

In this example, I’ve slowed the story mostly with Shirley’s thoughts. So thoughts are one tool.

Setting is another, especially if we make it serve our story. The train groans and wheezes as it leaves the station. Shirley (thoughts again) wonders if it’s going to break down. She goes to the dining car, which smells exactly as her mother’s pot roast used to. And so on. The windows may be grimy, so she won’t be able to recognize landmarks. The seats are soft, slumber-inducing–but she doesn’t want to sleep!

Dialogue can slow our story down, too. A nosy man sits next to Shirley. They talk. She tells him her story, or she lies. If he doesn’t know it already, the reader gets the backstory of the train trip. Or the reader gets the lie, and, depending what we do, knows or doesn’t know it’s a lie.

It may be helpful to ask a friend or a fellow writer to read our story and point out any places that seem rushed and any spots that he or she didn’t understand. Sometimes the moments that are unclear are the ones that need expanding.

And sometimes, occasionally, once in a while, a story is straightforward. We think we’re writing a novella, but it’s really a short story. We’ve done everything right. There just aren’t many twists and turns. Nothing wrong with that.

As for an author costume, though it’s way past Halloween, I think it’s all in behavior not in what you wear. Hang a sign around your neck. It can say “Author” and then you sit alone and stare out a window, occasionally talking softly to yourself. Or it can says “Brilliant Author,” in which case you move from group to group and hold forth about character development and plot devices and the good sentence. Martina, if you’re reading this, please say what you did wear.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Theseus’s father waits on the shore for his son’s ship to return. If Theseus is alive, the sail will be white; if he’s dead, it will be black. Using plenty of detail, write the scene of the father’s sojourn. Make his wait exciting. Write at least three pages. Include thoughts, dialogue, and setting.

∙ This probably has nothing to do with slowing things down, but can you believe Theseus? He forgets to change the sail and lets his father think him dead–which has tragic consequences in the myth. Write a story that explains Theseus’s forgetfulness, if that’s what it really is.

∙ Fairy tales in their original form are pure telling. In lots of them, a loving mother dies. Alas, she doesn’t get much of a sendoff, maybe five words: The queen sickened and died. In old western movies and TV shows, sometimes a character would be shot, then stagger several steps, collapse, rise up on one elbow, gasp out a few words, and finally die. Write the queen’s death scene. Spin it out. Have her revive a few times. Show what her death means to the people around her.

∙ Make up Shirley’s reason for riding the train. Write the trip and make the news at the end be a surprise.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Development

On September 23, 2016, Grace (The Girl Upstairs) wrote, How do you develop your writing ideas? When you first get an idea, what do you do first? I really struggle with what to do when I first get an idea.

It’s uncanny how often the next-up blog question touches on what’s going on in my work at the moment.

The manuscript for Ogre Enchanted is in my editor’s hands. She emailed me about a week ago that she was reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t know if she’d read three pages or fifty and I haven’t heard since. My fingernails are very short, and my fingers themselves are in danger.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about what to do next, often the hardest part for me. So here is my process as I’m now living it.

The book that comes out in May, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, resolves its main problem but leaves a kingdom in disarray. In my next effort I’d like to deal with that, with reconciliation. Since I’m bad at making up plots out of nothing, I looked for historical models.

On a personal level, we reconcile all the time. The people we love most are often the ones who push our buttons hardest, but we find a way to work it out. For most of us, life isn’t littered with failed relationships.

But on a macro level, which is what I want, I’m coming up empty with examples of reconciliations between groups. I looked at the aftermath of our Civil War, but we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that struggle. I read about Scotland, where, if I have it right, the Lowlands became reconciled to England for economic reasons, but the Highlands were brought in only by military defeat. I read about South Africa, and there it seems that outside pressure brought about change, which I don’t want to use. Ancient Rome grew by conquest, though its practice of readily granting citizenship is interesting and possibly useful for my purposes. To decide whether or not I can use these, I write notes.

If any of you can cite a historical example of reconciliation, please weigh in.

When I’m hunting ideas I don’t always look to history, but I do look around for outside sources of assistance. And my usual go-to’s are myths and fairy tales. I read Lang’s Red Fairy Book, which I never had delved into before. (Lang’s color-titled fairy tale collections are great, because they’re in the public domain, so we can use them without worry. And there are so many books! A feast!)

I didn’t find anything there for this purpose, although a couple of stories jumped out as marvelous. I recommend “The Nettle Spinner,” which doesn’t repeat the formula of any other fairy tale I know. And there was a terribly sad one called “The Voice of Death” about a doomed search for eternal life.

Though not in the Red Fairy Book, I found myself thinking again about both the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which seem to me to be in essence the same story, but I don’t know if I can mold either of them into the shape of a tale of reconciliation. Maybe I can. I’ve written lots of notes.

Another myth keeps coming to mind is the tragic “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which I may be able to use, minus the tragedy. In case you don’t know it, here are the bare bones of the story: Orpheus is a master musician. On their wedding day, his wife Eurydice is bitten by a viper and dies. Orpheus, grief-struck, goes to the underworld to play for Hades and persuade him to restore Eurydice. Hades, moved by the music, agrees that Orpheus can lead her up to the land of life so long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both fully out. However, he can’t resist a glance right at the end and loses her forever. The reconciliation that I’m writing notes about here is between the underworld and the world above, which can be any two opposing camps.

What I like about this story is its simplicity, the most important quality I look for when I pick a fairy tale to embroider around. My writing impulse is always to pile on complications. If I start with something straightforward, I have a chance of not losing my way.

(I’ve already used the myth of Orpheus in a poem, in a way that’s entirely different from the approach I’d use in a novel. For the poem, I researched the effects of a viper bite, which are horrifying. I imagined that Eurydice doesn’t want to return to life only to have to die again eventually, possibly by another viper, but Orpheus won’t listen to her, so she sets him up to look back.)

Let’s assume that I pick “Orpheus and Eurydice” to become a book. My next step is more notes. I’ll ask myself whether I’ll write in first person or third, and, if in first, who my POV character will be. If third, omniscient or close focus? I’ll wonder who my MC’s will be, what the events of the story will be.

I’ve been evolving from a pure pantser to a vague outliner, so I’ll start listing plot points and, most important for me, how the story might end. I won’t start writing until I have an end point in mind, though I may not know exactly what the outcome will be–whether it will be happy or sad.

My notes, even at this early point, will be scattered with lists–they are already, about how I might use this fairy tale or that myth, about the state of my world at the beginning of my story.

When I have a very basic outline, maybe a page, and I’m satisfied with it, I’ll think about an opening scene that will introduce my MC and may set up the events that will follow. When the scene takes shape I will be unable to resist writing. And I’m off.

You? How do you get started?

Depending on how you count, here are five prompts:

∙ Try my method. Read or reread ten fairy, folk, or tall tales. Jot down a few notes on the three that interest you most. List ways the stories might go, considering gaps in logic or failures in understanding about the way real people feel and behave–these cracks are spots you can exploit to make a fresh story. Write notes about the characters that are given to you by the story and how you might flesh them out. In your notes, consider who your MC’s may be, because they may not be obvious. For example, you may decide that the hunter in “Snow White” interests you most. Another factor that I haven’t mentioned is time period. Do you want this to be fairy-tale time or an actual historical period or contemporary or future. Explore the possibilities in notes. Write more notes about which point of view to use, first person or third (or even second), what tense. List possible plot developments. Create a short outline. Write notes about where to begin. Finally, write the first scene.

∙ There are several distinct chapters in the myth of Atalanta. These prompts are based on her story. Try out my idea-development method on one or more.

∙ Atalanta’s father wants a son. When he’s presented with a daughter, he dumps her on a mountainside to die of exposure, but she’s adopted and raised by a she-bear until hunters take her in.

∙ There are depictions on ancient Greek vases of Atalanta overcoming Peleus (Achilles’ father and a hero in his own right) in a wrestling match. That’s all there is, as far as I know, so this is a challenge, to build a story out of that image.

∙ This part of her story is the best known, I think. Atalanta’s father finally accepts her and wants her to get married. She’s not interested, so she says she’ll marry only the man who can outrun her in a footrace. She’s victorious time after time until a suitor, Hippomenes, asks Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gives him three golden apples to throw in front of Atalanta, one at a time, to slow her down. He wins; they marry.

∙ Use Atalanta’s story or any other myth or a fairy tale as the basis of a poem–there is a long tradition of doing this. For those of you who are at least high-school age, you might check out some of Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To major or not to major–that is the question

Here is the cover of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, which will come out on May 2nd. I love it, and I’m super-excited about the release. If you remember, this is the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

And I’m now on Instagram, where you can find me under my name gailcarsonlevine. I’m finding my way, feeling like a total newbie, but at least you’ll see my dog. I’ll also–if I can figure out how–be directing people to the blog, so that may be old for you. (This is why I shouldn’t self-publish–I warn people away!)

On September 22, 2016, Veralidaine Sarrasri wrote, My mother keeps going on and on about how I should do something in college besides creative writing as my major, and keep writing as a hobby. I feel like I really want to become an author and not much else, so I want to take creative writing as my major. What do you think? I could really use your opinions.

You guys had a lot to say:

Christie V Powell: I can’t tell you what to do, but I can give you a few case examples from my siblings who are grown up now and what they’re doing:

I actually had a similar argument with my mom. She had an idea of “acceptable” majors that would get me a good job, but I was more interested in learning interesting things. I took Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation because I wanted to know more about it. I’m now a mother, author, and hobby farmer, while my husband works as a school teacher. So I’m doing the kind of things I’ve always wanted to do, but there is a cost. We struggle with money quite a bit. If my husband couldn’t work and I had to, I would have a lot of trouble earning enough money to pay for daycare. It wouldn’t be too hard to find a decent job in my area with my degree, though.

My little sister got a degree in English (another degree my mother disapproved of). She got a divorce a few months ago. Now she lives at home where my mom and other siblings can watch her little daughter while she works. She has an entry-level job at a movie theater. I know she likes to write and participates in NaNoWriMo, but I don’t know if she has any plans to use her degree.

My closest brother didn’t finish college. He has a job in pest management (spraying for bugs and such), which he seems to enjoy. He struggled over the summer when they laid him off for the off season, but he can afford his apartment and an engagement ring. Another sister chose a degree in Family Counseling, but she’s currently on a mission for our church. Maybe some of the younger ones will take a more traditional path.

Kitty: I’m in the exact same boat as you right now. Everybody is different, but here’s my plan if you want a reference point:

-I’m applying to college right now. I’m probably going to major in Economics/Business since I really like it, with maybe one writing class. I plan to write the whole time, though, and hopefully will have a few novels self-published and more ready-to-go by the time I graduate.

-When I graduate, I’m going find a job (fingers crossed!) in some economics-related field that pays decently but is relatively light on the workload. (A standard 9-5 job, no need to work overtime or on weekends, etc.) I like to think that I’ll work in a company’s marketing department, an economics research facility (I love science, but lean towards the social sciences), but realistically, I’ll probably end up an accountant or financial analyst. Or something boring but stable along those lines, which I’m not wild about, but it’ll only be temporary.

– Hopefully by now, I’ll have a nice backlist of books that are making decent returns. An economics/marketing/business degree will *definitely* give me an advantage with the marketing. If I’m doing well enough after a few years of saving up, I might quit and become a full time indie author/entrepreneur like Johanna Penn. If not, that’s fine too, I’ll just work a day job and write at night, just like when I’m in school.

My dream is also to become a full-time author, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to get a Creative Writing/English degree. For starters, if the author thing doesn’t pan out (and you have to be prepared for the possibility that it might not, self-pubbed or traditionally), you don’t really have anything job-wise to fall back on, unless you like teaching, which I don’t.

Second, a business degree will help you a *lot*, more so if you want to self-publish, but even traditionally-published authors are expected to do more and more marketing nowadays. And if you self-publish and essentially run your own business, you will pretty much *need* to know how to do accounting, bookkeeping, and other stuff. I did DECA, which is an international business/finance competition, in the Business Finance Category last year, and trust me, anything involving numbers and math (as to, say, more creative pursuits like marketing) is *not* something you can BS without actually having learned how to do it. Sure, you can learn on your own like I did, but having a class would make things *much* easier. Writing is becoming more and more of a business, so a degree will serve you well.

Third (and this is *very* much my own opinion, so take it with a heavy grain of salt), I don’t think a Creative Writing/English degree will teach you much. I’ve taken three years of high school English, and apart from things like literary devices and parts of a sentence, I haven’t really *learned* that much. Of course, I’ve only taken expository writing/literary analysis courses, so Creative Writing or college classes might be different. Maybe Gail or somebody else who has taken them can weigh in on that. Once you have the basics, the “tools” of the English language out of the way, everything else is very much the honing of the craft. And I don’t think that’s something you have to–or even *can*–learn in a classroom. For me, I learn by “osmosis” and practice. I read *a lot*, and sort of just subconsciously absorb how sentences are formed, how stories are formed, that kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll consciously analyze books and what makes them good or bad, or seek out blog posts or articles online that teach the craft of writing. But all of it is free and unstructured, not something you necessarily need a class for. And practice. Just keep writing, the more the better, and sooner or later you’ll get better. You might need some help along the way, but that’s what critique groups are for. And from I’ve heard about Creative Writing classes, most of the course is just enforced writing and critiquing. I can go grab a CP from the NaNoWriMo or PitchWars community and do the same thing on my own, for free. Since I learned writing this way, and it works fine for me. I just don’t think it’s worth shelling out several tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars for. But others who have taken a college writing course might be better informed on that topic.

Christie V Powell: Kitty has a good point. I can see how a business degree would be really useful.

I just wanted to point out that there are other ways to take creative writing classes, even when you’re not at college. Brandon Sanderson, a Sci-fi fantasy writer, teaches a college course on writing and posts his lectures on youtube for free. Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ZDBOc2tX8. You can also attend writing conferences and groups near you. Some are very pricey, some aren’t. The Festival of Books in Tucson Arizona, for instance, has free writing courses one weekend in March. I also attend a writing group that has a very class-like structure, with lectures and lessons and everything.

Melissa Mead: For what it’s worth, I only found one of my college English classes helpful for fiction writing. I majored in Psychology instead, which I actually think comes in handy more often, because it helps me get into my characters’ heads.

I actually LIKE keeping my writing as a hobby. It takes the pressure off having to write to survive, so it’s still fun.

Besides, if I had to write for a living I’d have starved by now. I made my first professional-level story sale in 2004, and published one e-book, and there have only been 2 years since then that I’ve earned enough to pay the mortgage. For a month. Not a year, a month. Plus writers don’t generally get health insurance. So I’ll stick with writing for fun for now. Maybe I’ll get famous after I retire.

These are so interesting! Everyone carves out a writing life differently.

When I started college and after I finished, I had no plan, no list of what I hoped to accomplish during my life. Due to a damaging remark by my high school creative writing teacher, which I may have mentioned on the blog, I believed I had no potential as a writer.

As a planless person, I majored in Philosophy because I admired a particular professor. It later turned out I didn’t like the subject particularly, but by then I had too many credits to switch. Philosophy is a useful pre-law major or good for going on to a PhD and then teaching, but otherwise, it and $2 (or whatever) will buy you a cup of coffee.

What I did know was that I wanted to help people, so I got a job in New York State government helping people on welfare find jobs. I loved it and stayed with it until I got promoted into administration, when the loving petered out. As a security-minded person, I stayed on. At first, my creative outlet was painting and drawing, but I was too self-critical to be happy. When I started writing, I felt that I had finally found myself.

By then, years had passed. I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-nine and didn’t get published until I was forty-nine.

Of course I was a big reader, and I had a tight grip on grammar. When I wrote a memo, the meaning was clear. My job at the time had me writing correspondence and reports, and my bosses were encouraging. One day, while meditating, I thought how much I loved stories but never made up any. I opened my eyes and picked up my pen–in pre-computer days. That was the beginning.

You can see that my trajectory until Ella Enchanted got published was the same as Melissa Mead’s and much like Kitty’s intended path. Six months after Ella came out (before the Newbery honor and long before the movie), when I thought I could have some kind of writing career and income, I took early retirement, knowing that I’d get a small pension when I turned fifty-five–security-minded again.

In my ten years to publication, I did what Christie V Powell suggests: I took adult-ed classes. Mine were at New York City colleges and universities. I left myself back in one marvelous class and took it five or six times. (The year Ella won the Newbery honor, another honor book, Lily’s Crossing, was by another alum of that class, Patricia Reilly Giff.)

Also to prepare myself–in a pre-blog universe–I read books about writing. I read everything on the Newbery shelf of my library. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, attended conferences, joined critique groups–did everything I could think of to improve my craft. And I sent my work out and accumulated a four-inch thick stack of personalized (not just form) rejection letters.

Publishers in children’s literature don’t care if an author dropped out of school in the third grade and certainly don’t care what her major was–as long as her manuscript is good and also likely to find a market. Adult literary publishing may be different. The poetry world smiles on an MFA–but almost no one earns a living by publishing poetry.

The good of a degree in creative writing is probably in the classes, in sharing work, seeing what other students are doing, getting feedback, having readers. Frankly, since it’s so hard to earn a living as a writer, the quality of college writing teachers is likely to be very high. A professor may mentor you. If publication is discussed, you may also get a leg up there. However, you can find all of this in other ways, as I did. I’m not coming down on one side or the other.

If some other, possibly more practical, major interests you, too, you can minor in creative writing or even have a double major. But if nothing else is appealing, you’ll get your degree and spend the time doing what you love.

Whatever you decide, there’s commercial value in writing well, because few do. Clarity in business and government writing is priceless, say I, who had to read a lot of murk. The creative writing program I completed sends out job notices, and I just saw one for an assistant in a law firm. The posting said that the position had been held for the last nineteen years by a succession of poets!

There are also writing-related fields. There’s journalism, a possible major. Suzanne Fisher Staples, author of the young adult, Newbery honor Shabanu, studied journalism and worked as a journalist before she got published. There’s business and technical writing, public relations, advertising–though I don’t know if these are majors.

You know yourself. Do you need security, as I did? Some people don’t, but if you do, you may want to factor that into your plans. You may or may not care a great deal about possessions and money. Your lifestyle may be simple, and there’s freedom in that, but–just saying and maybe sounding like a mom–worrying about enough money for necessities is miserable.

One other thing to throw in the mix of considerations: automation. The most complicated, high-skill jobs are being replaced or partially replaced by machines. When you think about a field, you might research its chances of continuing to exist. Novelists, according to something I read, are unlikely to be replaced by robots. And here’s the link to where I read it: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/21/408234543/will-your-job-be-done-by-a-machine. Writers and authors have a 3.8% chance of being automated out of existence. Not bad.

Finally, there’s chance. Nobody knows what marvelous and terrible curves are going to be thrown at us, no matter how carefully we plan. I’m proof of that. I couldn’t have guessed how my life would go, and more surprises may lie ahead. So we can relax, at least a little.

Long post! Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is a writer. Whenever she introduces a character, that character comes to life and appears in her non-book reality, in ordinary circumstances that are nothing like what she’s writing. How does she proceed? Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Cinderella marries Prince Charming. They ascend to the throne. She loves Charming but has no aptitude for queening. Write what happens.

∙ Cinderella is a fine queen, and Charming is a great king, but an invading army defeats their soldiers. They’re taken captive and have to reinvent themselves. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lachrymose lugubriousness

On August 30, 2016, Jordan W wrote, I was wondering if anyone had any tips for writing emotional scenes. Ways you can really make the reader FEEL what is going on, and make them emotionally invested in the story. Whenever I feel like a particular scene needs to be more dramatic and powerful, I overwrite it and make is cheesy.

Several of you responded.

Lady Laisa: Think of a time when you felt the same emotion. Write about your own feelings. I never used to be able to write about death until one night I had an EXTREMELY vivid dream in which my father died. It was horrible and it was so real that when I woke up I wasn’t sure if what I had experienced was a dream or not. Now when I write death scenes, I remember what it was like believing my father was dead.

While dreams are useful, real life is useful too. I have one story that I write especially when I’m angry, because the MC is an angry, bitter person, and writing her when I’m angry really makes her come alive. Sometimes I simply don’t have time to wait until I’m angry, though, so instead I remember past injustices, and try to be as riled up as I can.

I find I get caustically sarcastic and extremely cynical after writing in Pen’s mind-set, and I spend the rest of the day in a red fog of annoyance and disgust. Whoops.

Something I do to help me get into a particular mood is listen to atmospheric music. Creating playlists to boost an emotion has been really helpful.

Emma: I do the exact same things- remember the times when I felt that way, and channel those emotions into the story, as well as listen to music. Also, considering the fact that all characters are different, all characters will end up acting differently in different emotional situations. By taking a close look at a character’s personality, you can figure out how he or she will act in an emotional situation. One of my characters in my WIP, let’s call her A, tends to not express her emotions very much, unless she’s talking to someone she absolutely, 100% trusts. This is because she hates drama and thinks emotions are unnecessary and messy. She normally always bases her decisions on logic, and likes to push her emotions to the back seat of the car in important situations. Thus, after she witnessed her mentor and great friend die, she kept her emotions inside. She cries in a scene when no one is around, and only talks about it to two people. Take a look at your character’s personality in order to write a very real, not forced, emotional scene. If you’re not sure how your character would react, try taking the personality test at www.16personalities.com (which was brought up in comments on a recent post) as your character in question. This test will assign a personality to your character and will give you several lists describing different aspects of your character’s personality, which can help you find out how your character would act and react.

Also, if you feel like an emotional scene is too cliche or cheesy, try changing something like the setting, or the way the characters describe their emotions. Let’s pretend your MC’s mom just died. The funeral has just gotten over, everyone is clad in black and are slowly leaving the graveyard through the drizzle. Your MC is standing alone in front of her mom’s grave when her best, childhood friend walks up and lays a hand on her shoulder. What could you do to make this scene less cliche? What if, instead of an ordinary day, it’s Christmas day, in southern Texas? Begone drizzle, hello dry air. What if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn’t make sense to anyone, but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it’s different. It’s still emotional. Her mom is still dead, she still has a tear on her cheek, and she’s trying to take her mind off of the sad event. But now, it’s less cliche which means it’s less cheesy. And it’s also more interesting.

Christie V Powell: I find that the more powerful you want your scene to be, the less you need to say. Understatement and zeroing in on details are what I find the most powerful.

Here’s a scene from my second book (ebook is out now; hard copy should be here in a couple weeks!!):

Brian gestured to the unmarred sand ahead. “This is the dangerous Boar Island?”
“Anything’ s better than this boat,” Sienna groaned.
The fisherwoman was quiet—or was she tired from all that rowing? The hull of the boat scraped against the sand, and Brian leapt out to pull it further. Sienna half-climbed, half-rolled out of it and collapsed on the sand. Keita and Avie hurried to help her. In that instant, the boat gave a great jerk. Brian leapt back as it shot back into the water. They all stared as the fisherwoman pulled the oars as hard as she could. “Wait!” Brian called. “How do we contact you to get back?”
“You don’ t.”
“But we’ ll pay you!” Avie reached for her pocket and then gasped. Her hand emerged, empty.
No one said a thing. They stood on that beautiful white sand, watching the rowboat disappear into the great empty sea.

I agree with Lady Laisa that drawing on one’s own experience can be useful. When I wrote in Ella Enchanted about the death of Ella’s mother I remembered my own mother’s death a few years before. The gravesite moment comes straight from my response at the cemetery. And when Ella thinks about people saying she’d lost her mother, that her mother is gone, not lost–well, that was my thought.

Music lyrics, if we’re writing something contemporary, can help. After each of my parents died, I couldn’t help crying whenever I listened to a jazz song I adore, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” because the lyrics seemed suddenly cruel and deceptive. Of course, we have to be aware of copyright law if we use lyrics that aren’t in the public domain. However, whether we’re writing contemporary or fantasy, we can always use a song’s sentiment to write our own lyrics. Music and song cut straight to feeling.

But what if we and our character don’t have similar experiences? Or if our character is so different from us that she’s unlikely to respond the way we do? I’m with Emma on this. In this situation, I write lists. We can list how our MC might respond to a death, for example. Could be directly with anger or sadness, or by walling off all feeling, or something else. Once we have a response that seems right, we can list how she might enact it, what she might do to release it or keep it bottled in. My mother, who keeps cropping up in this post, was a worrier and, consequently, a frequent insomniac. If we have a character who worries and is up in the middle of the night, we can list what she might do during those dark hours. The action is likely to convey the feeling to the reader.

I agree with Christie V Powell about the power of detail to carry emotional weight. Let’s imagine that our MC has lost a memento of a friend. For whatever reason–death, distance, a quarrel–the friendship is over but the memory lingers. Let’s say the memento is a medal. Instead of telling the reader that our MC is suffering because of the loss, we can show her looking frantically for it. We can describe the box that held it: what it’s made of, the sound it makes when it opens, the material the medal nested in, the smell of the box. Maybe there’s a letter that goes with it, and we can reveal what it says.

Regret is powerful, because it’s painful and we’ve all experienced it, so we can have our MC think about her responsibility for the loss–whether she’s really responsible of not. She can consider what she might have done to keep the medal safe.

However, regret may not be her feeling. She could be angry, and we can write her angry thoughts. She may be angry at herself for losing the medal, or she may be angry at someone else for the loss, or even angry at the old friend for the dissolution of the friendship.

That’s three strategies–action, detail, and thoughts to bring us and the reader into our character’s emotional life. Notice that neither one have to mention the feeling itself. The feeling is intrinsic to the actions, details, and thoughts. We can also bring in body responses, like a churning stomach or a headache. So that’s one more.

Emotional connection with a character will grow as the reader gets to know her. We don’t always have to work hard. Suppose, for example, our character is given to feeling stupid and the reader understands this about her, then we can cause her to say something that comes out wrong. As soon as she does and realizes her mistake, the reader will suffer for her. Whatever she thinks or does next will be infused in the reader’s mind with her pain.

Here are three prompts:

∙ As sort of a mirror image of Lady Laisa’s dream, a few months after my father died, I dreamed him alive again. He and my mother wintered in Florida after they had both retired and would call me on Sundays. My father’s usual mood was buoyant, even joyous, and I dreamed a phone call from him that was so realistic I was convinced for the first moments after I woke up that he was still alive. I had to experience his death all over again, which, of course, was devastating. Dreams are often–not always–hyper-emotional. Keep a pad next to your bed for, say, the next four nights, and write down your dreams. In the interest of going back to sleep, don’t turn on the light and use your free hand to guide your writing hand so you don’t write over your lines. After you have a few dreams, use one or a combo to write an emotional scene that isn’t a dream.

∙ I love Emma’s idea of changing a setting. Imagine your MC and another character are at odds. Their conflict can be major, as in, hero versus villain, or micro, as in, two friends arguing over hurt feelings. As they’re carrying out their fight, which might involve swordplay or yelling or whatever you decide, they’re magically transported to a circus arena, where thirty clowns are exiting a clown car, acrobats are performing overhead, and the animal trainer is entering with a caged lion. Continue the scene in this circumstance.

∙ Apropos of nothing, I heard a poetry prompt on the radio that I’ve been wanting to share. It’s to start a poem with the words I come from… The radio show was a call-in, and people called in their poem beginnings, which tended to go something like, I come from a long line of strong women whose strength was tested… etc. I thought, Meh. In your poem, avoid the general for the specific. For example, when I tried it, I included my husband’s origins as well as my own. He told me about Mr. Dibble, his boyhood barber, and, in the barber shop, the plastic behind the chairs of the people waiting for a haircut that protected the knotty-pine wallpaper from pomade–and I put those wonderful details into my poem. What a peek into mid-twentieth century small-city life! So think about your early toys, pets, bedroom, shops and anchor your poem in detail. (For my I come from stanza, I wrote about times with my friends when we pried mica up with our fingernails from Hudson River rocks in our local park in northern Manhattan.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek!

I’m going to be speaking locally on Monday, January 23rd at 7:00 at the Katonah, NY, library. If anyone would like to come, the event is free, and I would love to meet you in person! The audience will mostly be adults, so I’ll be pitching my talk that way. Teens will certainly be fine.

The library is putting out a press release to promote the event, and the press release includes this quote from Ella Enchanted, which made me laugh:

I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.

Do you remember my recent inveighing against adjectives and adverbs that weaken, like slightly. So I’m delighted that I’ve learned a thing or two in the twenty-plus years since I wrote the book. Today, instead of slightly crushed, I’d substitute squeezed, or I’d just delete slightly–if I noticed. I’m still capable of making this sort of mistake.

Onto the post!

On August 9, 2016, #writingstruggles wrote, I struggle to write suspense. I just can’t seem to make my readers feel scared, like my characters, or build up the tension.

In response, Christie V Powell wrote, If you’re up to it, you could try reading a thriller or watch a scary movie to get ideas. I’ve only watched one true horror movie in my life, and I was amazed how my emotions were reacting like crazy even though in my head I didn’t care for the plot.

One thing is to make sure to pace it so that you have both constriction and release leading up to the moment. In some books, especially the last of a series, they try to keep the pressure on all the time, but after awhile it just gets old. “Okay, the world is in danger. The world is still in danger. The world’s in even more danger. I get it already.” If you break it up with some light moments, it makes it much more intense.

You can also do a lot with description. The setting, and how you describe it, can have a big impact on mood. So do details, if you draw in and focus on just a few small things. Here’s examples from my climax:

The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.

The girls stood at the edge of a valley surrounded by sharp cliffs. Ruins of old buildings and deep, open pits spattered the entire valley floor, and every single space in between was taken up by statues.

Her foot snagged on a rock, and to keep from stumbling she instinctively grabbed a hand offered in front of her.

The hand was smooth and cold and definitely not alive. Keita looked up, and screamed.
A statue of a young girl stood beside her. Her arm was held out, in supplication or perhaps to deflect a blow. Her face was wrinkled in an ugly silent scream. Keita scrambled backward and bumped into Sienna. The girl stood just outside the tunnel, still as if she’d been turned into a statue herself.

I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.

So that’s one strategy, to set reader’s expectations up and then have them play out unexpectedly in a bad way: warm, living hand expected–cold, lifeless, and useless one received.

When I was little, I liked to go to horror movies, which didn’t scare me much–until Creature With the Atom Brain. I had nightmares for months.

I don’t remember much of the movie, just that a girl character about my age at the time, which may have been eight or nine, adores a family friend, who plays with her and her dolls–until his brain is replaced with the atomic one. I still remember a frame of the movie in which this formerly nice man holds the doll by one foot, and you can tell it and the child no longer have any significance for him. Aaa!

What got me was the loss of affection. I don’t remember if he killed the girl. He may have, but I was lost to horror the instant the doll thing happened.

Then I saw the movie a second time and induced nightmares all over again. (What were our parents thinking? Both times I saw it at our neighborhood movie theater with friends–and no adults.)

So this movie gives us something else to use to create suspense. If we care about the MC, we’ll want others to be decent to her. Threatening that will create suspense.

Along the same lines, I’m not fond of violence in movies or on tv, but I can bear it and even like the movie or tv show if the violence isn’t nonstop. However, I’m not capable of watching or even reading about harm done to an animal. It’s the animal’s innocence that does me in. Character innocence can create tension, too. The reader sees the threat, but the character doesn’t. She’s having a perfectly fine time. Maybe she’s telling the villain things she absolutely shouldn’t because he’s charmed her. The ax is about to fall. The reader has chewed her nails right up to her elbows.

And that’s another strategy: make the MC clueless–sometimes, of course. She can’t always be out to lunch or the reader will lose patience.

Underlying all suspense is one principle: the reader has to care about the character who’s in jeopardy. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, although that makes the task easier. The reader just has to want bad things not to happen to her.

In the end-of-the-world/end-of-the-series scenario Christie V Powell writes about above, we may be able to keep the suspense going through reader caring. I haven’t written this kind of thing, but I’ve seen examples. I used to love Star Trek (I  watched only the original series). I desperately wanted the entire wonderful crew to be okay. I assume that in a series of books, there are at least a few characters the reader cares about. We can keep the suspense going by making each aspect of the coming apocalypse endanger a different character. Then once that danger has been dealt with, on to the next danger and character.

Thus the one the reader worries about doesn’t always have to be our  MC. Doesn’t even have to be a person or even alive. The reader can be made to care about a work of art, a building, a city. Anything.

In the case of Star Trek, the tension was undermined a bit by my certainty as the series progressed that the writers would never bump off a major, beloved character. We can learn from that too. If we allow dreadful things to happen to our MC, the reader will realize that this book takes no prisoners. The worst really can come about. Eek!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about a plastic cup. Threaten it. Create tension over the cup.

∙ Write from the perspective of the evil queen in “Snow White.” Make us care about her, whether or not you keep her evil. Make us see her tragic ending coming.

∙ Time pressure is a great tension builder. Your MC is on a journey. Her mission, whatever it is, has to be accomplished before the destination is reached. Use the time pressure to make us worry.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Showing Who’s On First

Sad to say, my comment moderating continues. The spammers may be bots, because they don’t seem to realize that their comments aren’t being published. As soon as the flow slows to a trickle, I’ll return the blog to normal. In the meanwhile, I’ll approve your posts as quickly as I can–and so sorry when there’s delay!

Way back in 2016, on August 7, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you show instead of tell in first person? I find it easy in third–in fact, sometimes I have to go back and add a telling sentence here or there. But whenever I try to write in first person and get into the character’s voice, they just seem to want to tell for pages and pages and never get into showing the story.

Emma replied, I agree that showing in first person is difficult. Here’s an example:

Telling: I took the sword in hand.
Showing: I slid my hand onto the grip of my blade, clenching my fist around it. I could feel my knuckles going white around the cold metal.

I, personally, don’t think telling in first person should be done all the time, because it makes a character sound a bit unrealistic or look like his thinking is very dramatic. The reason it may seem difficult to show in first person is because it sounds the most plausible and realistic for a character in first person to just tell what they’re doing. In third person, it sounds more plausible to show because it’s like the narrator is describing what’s going on. In first person, the narrator is the one doing the action, and therefore doesn’t have to describe what’s being done– he just does it. Does that make sense? So that’s my version of why it’s harder to show in first person. I’ve found that spending an hour of my afternoon describing to myself what I’m doing (i.e. I carefully selected the orange marker from the glass jar to my left. I combed the strand of hair out of my face, using the mirroring surface of the jar to see my reflection.) has been a good exercise to do to get both the showing and the first person juices flowing.

Great suggestion!

Before I start, if you don’t recognize the reference in this post’s title, it comes from an Abbot and Costello routine, which you can google with “Who’s on First skit.” It’s very funny.

I think of my first-person narrator as the every-person of my tale. She’s the reader’s window into my story: the action, setting, other characters, dialogue. Yes, she has a personality and a perspective, which the reader learns through her thoughts and feelings, but she reveals what’s going forward fairly. She’s a lot like a third-person narrator.

So one strategy might be to write a scene in third person and then translate it into first, making as few changes as we can. Then we can ask ourselves if we’ve put in enough of the inner life of our MC, especially her thoughts, feelings, physical responses–like cold hands and a scratchy throat, which, by the way, are showing. We can add those in, and, voila!, we have a believable first-person narration.

Naturally, the two POVs will feel different as we write them, and we’ll inevitably (and correctly) make some different choices as we write.

After doing this for a few scenes, we’ll likely have the knack and can start writing directly in first-person. But if the technique comes slowly, making the change isn’t that time-consuming. More than once, I’ve had person problems and have had to make this switch for an entire manuscript–300-plus pages. Doesn’t take that long, and when the task is over, the pain fades.

Our first-person MC may trap us into over explaining. (Of course, we’ve let her.) She may push us to tell the reader the lead-up to everything. If, for example, her friend Sam behaves badly at a party, she may justify his actions with a digression of telling in which she goes into his past and her reasons for putting up with him. If we start in third person, we may not even be tempted. If we start in first, we can cut the digression when we revise. His bad behavior can just be what it is. If there’s a plot reason for going into its backstory, we can work that in at an appropriate story moment. By then, with luck, our showing has told part of the story, and the reader has already seen why his friendship is worth it.

Some writers take on an unreliable narrator. If we do this, at some point we have to clue the reader in that all isn’t as it seems. In this case, the telling and the showing are very controlled, and in a way the reader becomes part of the story, teasing out truth and falsehood. The only times I’ve done this were at a couple of points in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie herself is confused. She becomes unreliable because she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

If I have a reason to, I’d like to write an unreliable narrator someday, but I expect it will be tricky. In a way, with an unreliable narrator, it’s all telling, because she’s selective about her revelations.

I also haven’t written a first-person narrator with a quirky voice. In my two mysteries, my MC Elodie often says and thinks her favorite exclamation–lambs and calves!–but beyond that, her voice is neutral. I don’t mean that a quirky voice can’t be fabulous. I admire writers who can pull it off, I’m just saying that it can get in the way when we want our story to simply unfold, when we want, mostly, to show. So there’s another strategy: keep our first-person voice straightforward and unembellished.

Another first-person problem that can get in the way of showing is that our POV character may have an opinion about everything and want to share it. A royal wedding is announced, she starts opining about marriage, and the action grinds to nothing. We can let her rip and then trim when we revise.

As an aid to showing, we can remind ourselves that she’s in the scene that’s unfolding and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. We can simply record step-by-step what occurs as it happens, just as a third-person narrator does.

Finally, if third-person is more comfortable, it’s an honorable choice. We can use limited (as opposed to omniscient) third person interchangeably with first. We won’t have failed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take this from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and rewrite it in first person:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

∙ Our MC is going nuts. Pick a setting for the descent into madness. Write it entirely in third person, without any of his thoughts and feelings, but show what’s happening anyway.

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!

 

Spam!

I’m getting a lot of it at the moment and hope to stem the tide by moderating comments before they appear. I hope this won’t last long. I’m not always at the computer to approve what comes in from you virtuous folk, but I will as soon as I can. And I will lift this as soon as the barrage ends.

But the extra post gives me the chance to say HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Self help

Recently, I read these two words: slight shock, and was put off. I suppose a shock can be slight. We hear of mild shocks in laboratory experiments, but in fiction the word slight weakens the word shock, and a different noun would be more accurate. Surprise might do, or something else. This is where our enormous language and a thesaurus can help. Or we can let it be a full-scale shock, nixing the slight.

I’ve written before about weakening words, but I’m guessing seeing that slight shock startled me into writing a refresher. We should be suspicious of such words, like slight, and also almost, nearly, half, a little, which can sap the vigor of our prose. These vocabulary miscreants are handy words, and sometimes they’re exactly right. We should just train ourselves to be aware when we use them and weigh whether they’re needed.

Words that punch up can also weaken, words like very and extremely. For example, if we write, The chicken-pot pie was extremely (or very) delectable–delectable says it all. We don’t need extremely or very.

My lecture segues nicely into this post’s question.

On July 31, 2016, Taryn Chan wrote, My older brother is the only other person besides me who has read my story. He says he likes it and there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, I know better than that. My parents have no time to read my story, and my friends aren’t interested. Is there a good method for editing a story by yourself?

Christie V Powell responded: A few people have mentioned different websites where you can connect with people. The NaNoWriMo forums are a good one. As far as editing for yourself, I like www.prowritingaid.com. It’s a free site that will highlight some of your mistakes and helps make your writing better. There are a lot of similar sites (www.grammarly.com, for instance), but most require money.

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for these links!

I’m revising Ogre Enchanted, my Ella Enchanted prequel, right now before sending it off to my editor. Sadly, it’s in rough shape. A love story, but the romantic part isn’t right. My characterization of one of the major characters is muddled. The pace is slow in spite of time pressure on my MC.

How do I know all this?

Well, my editor has seen parts already. But I’d know even without her input, because I’ve been writing for almost thirty years (published for almost twenty). I know where I go astray, and pacing, for instance, is a regular issue.

So experience is a good teacher. By doing, we get better at diagnosing our flaws.

However, outside opinion can speed the process. A teacher can be recruited when family members are less than helpful. (It is kind, however, of Taryn Chan’s brother to be her reader and to be encouraging even if he’s light on the criticism. Encouragement is a wonderful boost to keeping us going.) For those who are home schooled, a librarian may be asked. Friends may also be helpful. We don’t need to be critiqued by other writers necessarily. The most important qualification we’re looking for is love of reading. A good reader is likely to notice where our story loses its way.

And the other most important quality is kindness. Global criticism (“This is lousy,” for example) isn’t useful. We don’t learn from being ripped apart.

Sharing our work online may be helpful, but I worry about the kindness factor. We know the people when we share work in person. An anonymous online critiquer may not be worthy of our trust. I don’t say not to use such resources, I just caution caution. If you’re not sure about feedback, if it doesn’t ring true or even seems spiteful, I suggest getting an opinion from someone you know. After that, I’d double down on the caution.

Having said that, I am constantly delighted with the quality of the comments, the thoughtfulness, the knowledge, of the people who post right here. If you’ve met first here and then started sharing work through NaNoWriMo, I think you can move forward with confidence.

There are autodidacts who like to go it alone. My husband is one. When he wants to learn, he reads on the subject. He may look online, too, but he doesn’t take classes–and he becomes adept anyway.

If, for whatever reason, you are on your own, there are things you can do. For one, seek out good writing. If you’re  writing for children, the Newbery and National Book Award winners are sources for models of excellent prose–and excellence in all aspects of storytelling. If you’re writing for adults, the National Book Award is still good. When I was getting started, I read many Newbery winners and runners up. To mention just one author, the young adult writer Virginia Euwer Wolff is incapable of an awkward sentence. I suggest reading her books, which aren’t fantasy. My favorite is The Mozart Season.

I hate to say this, but mediocre prose gets published. Some writers are great at plot and character, not so much at deathless writing. We can read and enjoy the less stellar, but it’s nice to be in the presence of greatness sometimes. And greatness rubs off.

If something grabs you, take a few minutes to analyze what’s going on. Look at sentence length, sentence variety, vocabulary. Think about what grabbed your attention.

If you love a writer, see if he or she has written about writing itself. Some of us have, but, alas, many books about writing fiction we find online are by people who have never written a novel, so be alert. It’s possible that they’re excellent, but I’m skeptical. You can read my recommendations for writing resources right here on this website: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/writers.html.

Do any of you know The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White? When I was in college, everyone had it. I’ve heard it called old-fashioned, and the charge may be true, but it can’t be beat for elegance and concision. A very thin book, but packed. I used to reread the examples for pure pleasure in the way the ideas are expressed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has survived a disaster (you decide what), but modern life has been destroyed. Before, she was into Legos. Every spare minute went into creating Lego structures. After the disaster, she is separated from family and friends (or they’ve all died). Her survival is in her ill-equipped hands. Write her first attempt to teach herself how to stay alive. Keep going if you like.

∙ Your MC has survived a car–or spaceship or winged horse–crash. He’s alone, badly injured, in harsh conditions. Write the scene in which he attempts to save himself. You decide whether or not he succeeds.

∙ Your MC starts a new school and discovers that her old one failed her. She is way behind. Her teachers could speaking ancient Sumerian for all she understands. She is ashamed to ask for help. Write her struggle to catch up on her own.

Have fun, and save what you write!