Swallowing the Wallowing

On April 6, 2017, Writeforfun wrote, I love to explore people’s emotions when I write – love to – to the point that, as I look over my stories, I realize that the majority of my writing is spent detailing what is going on in characters’ heads. I enjoy writing because I get to put them in dangerous situations or scar them emotionally, and then explore all of the conflicting and interesting emotions they experience (my favorite characters to write are those who are sensitive about something). That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s so much fun (for me!) but I realize that it often overshadows the action and other important details. Has anyone else had that problem? How do you rein yourself in from including too much emotional exploration? I try to cut back on the detail I’ve included… but it’s too interesting to me to give it up! How to find a balance between what is going on in your story and what is going on in your characters’ heads?

And Christie V Powell wrote, I like using the action and plot to show the emotion–possibly in the present, possibly with a mini-flashback. Usually when someone is feeling emotional, there is a specific image or phrase in their heads (if I’m in the car and afraid, I probably have an image of a car wreck in my head). I like “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as an example–I think I “inherited” some of his style and only recently noticed the connection. He uses short sentences, even one word sentences, and line-breaks for emphasis. His main character Brian’s survival story is both inside his head and in action, as he develops the attitude to survive as well as the ability.

Here’s a section from my WIP that includes a more emotional moment, but it also pulls in a little plot, a secondary character, and some backstory:

“Had anything to eat yet?”

Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out of Keita’s mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.…

At last he asked, “This your first meal in a season?”

“Thereabouts,” Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.

The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.

Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.

Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract’s eyes widened. Waste of food was sin.

Song4myKing weighed in with, I don’t generally get too detailed with emotions – I stem from a fairly stoic family :). I generally rely on memory flashbacks and things like songs, and on external details like body language. I lean toward the observable, not by a decision as much as by what I’m comfortable with.

But I do have a problem showing too much of the thought processes when a character is trying to decide what to do. I guess I feel I have to make the decisions understood, but I think I go overboard. It’s like I can’t leave any stone un-turned. I try to show every angle the character might take.

I was taking a writing class when I wrote Ella Enchanted. Every week, our beloved teacher, Bunny Gabel (now retired), would select a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book from two or three students and read them to the class for discussion. She never said who’d written the piece, and the person whose work was read wasn’t allowed to say anything, not even to ask a question. The idea was that if the words on the page didn’t communicate what the writer had in mind, no amount of explaining could help.

*SPOILER ALERT!* If you haven’t read Ella, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs:

Bunny read the chapter after Ella’s mother dies, and everyone said I hadn’t gone nearly enough into Ella’s sadness. I remember thinking resentfully, Her mother just died! Duh! Of course she’s sad!

But I revised, and when I did, I recognized the improvement.

It isn’t true that Ella would have to be sad. She could be angry. She could blame someone. She could be numb. She could even be happy, depending on the kind of mother Lady Eleanor had been and the kind of girl Ella was.

I was converted by that experience. When something important happens, I always go into my MC’s feelings about it. When something minor happens, I sometimes do, too.

I was converted as a reader, too. If I’m reading a novel and the main character seems not to be reacting emotionally, I notice. If this character happens to be stoic and I know that about her, then I want at least an indication that emotions are concealed but churning. Stoic or not, if her reaction is delayed by even a few paragraphs, I notice that too and wish the author had managed to move the feeling up.

Same goes for thoughts. Decisions seem abrupt if I’m not told the reasons behind them, and characters seem wooden, robotic.

Merely telling the emotion doesn’t do it for me, either. Emotions, if they’re significant, call for showing, another lesson I absorbed, this time from an editor, which. I wrote about years ago in a post called “Fear of Flat.” Christie V Powell’s dropped bowl is a good example of such showing. Often, we can nail the feeling by including something physical: tight throat, squeezing stomach, etc. For a character–other than our POV MC–who is gripped by powerful emotion, we can have another character describe his reaction: his expression, voice quality, stance. We can search online for images of facial expressions, like “sad face,” “angry face,” something I’ve done many times. When I look at a photo of a sad person, I see details I wouldn’t think of purely out of my imagination.

By now you’ve realized that I, too, love to delve into feelings!

But of course it’s possible to overdo. I agree that we don’t want to overwhelm our story and bring it to a halt. However, if we enjoy writing about feelings, I think we should let ourselves go in the first draft. That’s the “have fun” part at the end of every post.

One way to contain our emotions-writing, in any draft, is to use time or setting or other characters to get the action going again. We can deny our character the opportunity to wallow in feeling. Suppose our MC Melanie has just discovered that her best friend, Janice, who has passed herself off as an orphan, has two perfectly good parents and three siblings. Melanie has believed herself to be the only one who cares about Janice and has lavished energy and sympathy on her. She feels betrayed, foolish, furious, and possibly several other emotions. She wants to rant and pound her pillow and go into her closet to scream. And we want her to! But we’re aware of our propensity to dive in head first, so we put her in a car with her family when she finds out the truth. She can’t let herself go there. Maybe her younger brother wants to talk about something or play a game. Her stomach can churn; she can take it out on the brother, which will have consequences that move the action forward. For the rest of the day or week or until the two confront each other, her feelings can simmer, but circumstances keep the story moving.

The example above involved setting–a car–and other characters–Melanie’s family, especially her brother. Time can do the job, too. Melanie makes the discovery about Janice five minutes before she goes on stage in her local community theater. She has to finish getting into her costume, take a last look at her lines, and get to the wings in time for her entrance.

So if we engineer the arrival of our emotional triggers, we can contain them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the confrontation between Melanie and Janice from Melanie’s POV. Make it emotional for both of them and show the feelings of each, one from the inside, one from the outside.

∙ Interrupt the confrontation with something urgent. Continue writing. The feelings remain, but they’re background.

∙ Your MC is learning to be a mountain climber. The stakes are high. She will be part of a team climbing to the realm of the sentient snow leopards who have wisdom to impart that can save her family. But her balance is bad, and she isn’t progressing as quickly as she needs to. She’s frustrated, frightened, angry at herself, but giving into these feelings is a luxury she can’t afford. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Some Comfort, Maybe

On March 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, “The problem with querying is… that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.” I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which doesn’t is completely random.

This was not comforting.

Sadly, I think this is probably mostly true. And true of all the arts. Humans are drawn to art, and many of us are good at it and love to make it. There aren’t enough readers, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries to provide all of us with an audience, let alone a living.

Once the skill threshold has been reached, luck becomes important. Agents’ slush piles teeter to their ceilings. The interns and junior staff who read them–I’m guessing–find no easier to say than yes.

Many of you know that it took me nine years to get a manuscript accepted. I may also have written before that at one point in my long trek it occurred to me that if I had set out to become I brain surgeon, I would already have been one (aside from the fact that I’m too squeamish even to remove a splinter). This thought jumped to the fore when I met a doctor who had given up his practice to try to write for children. Yikes! I thought. I hope he knows what he’s getting into. Yikes! I hope he has savings!

During my pre-published time, an editor visited one of my writing classes. He said that the way to get published was either to write something great or to write about something that few were expert in. The only subject I was expert in was welfare programs for people who were healthy enough to work, and that topic didn’t seem promising for a children’s book. As for great, I felt defeated right off.

Hence the nine years.

Now, let me try for some comfort.

When I talk to kids about the nine years, I ask them for the moral of my story. Hands pop up, and the answer I get is, “Never give up,” which was true for me. If you give up, you don’t get published. You also may stop writing, and for some of us, that’s like cutting off a limb.

Okay, maybe not comforting. I’ll try again.

There’s another moral. During those nine years, I took adult ed writing classes and read the Newbery-and-Newbery-honor-winning books of the prior twenty or more years. Both helped me become a better writer and one who could write for the readers I wanted. In my classes, I met other wannabe writers. We supported each other. I joined and formed critique groups and made friends. Turns out, this was one of the happiest times of my life, even though achieving my goal still seemed more a dream than a likelihood. So the second moral is: While you’re never giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time. Which will help you stick with it.

Also, a critique group and classes gave me a (tiny) audience, and one of my most important reasons for writing was to be read. 0thers were self-expression and to learn a skill.

So these are comforts, I hope, for continuing to write, regardless of the eventual outcome, which, unless we have a crystal ball, is unknown. And I still find them valid. I’m published now, but I don’t know if a particular book will catch on with readers. My audience for any one book may be small, but I’ve still added to my skill set by writing it. I still have writing pals who sustain me. This, as I’ve said here before, is especially true of writing poems.

But there are things that we can do to increase the odds of luck smiling on us. Some of these, alas, don’t apply until you turn eighteen.

Go to conferences, if you can afford to. At many writing conferences, the editors and agents who are speakers and panelists will preferentially treat participant submissions, which means your work won’t be placed at the bottom of the slush pile.

If the conference includes a critique option from an editor or an agent, sign up for it, even if there’s an extra fee. Frankly, these industry readers (I’ve been one) will see a lot of work that falls sadly below any reasonable threshold. Writing that rises above will be a relief. The editor or agent will be so happy not to have only bad news to deliver to the writer. You may begin a relationship that, if not immediately, may result in an eventual acceptance.

When you’re there, move outside your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to editors and agents. Talk about your work. Do not mention your uncertainty about its worth.

Also, for the comfort of community, speak with other participants. Make friends, if any of them appeal to you. Share experiences. Get tips.

If you’re old enough and you’re writing for children or young adults (which these days extends into college age and a little beyond), join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.SCBWI.org), a great organization for people just starting out–in terms of its focus on getting published as well as on craft. Get involved in your local chapter, where there may be meetings and may be a regional conference that’s much cheaper than the national one.

Send your work out! You can’t get published if no one is looking at your stories. I once heard of a critique group where the person who got the most rejections in a year got an award–because the one with the most rejections is the one most likely, after a while, to get the most acceptances. I recently went through my files. My folder of personal rejections is about three inches thick! I didn’t keep the form letters, or we wouldn’t be able to get into the basement.

Don’t get in your own way!

For example, a woman in my favorite writing class was working on a book I adored. I don’t know if she’s finished it, twenty years later. I know it isn’t published, and I also know she’s shown it, or parts of it, to this friend or that. She keeps fooling around and not getting to the point, and the world is deprived of a great story.

If you do send something out and get criticism from an agent, take the criticism seriously. Try out what’s being offered to you, and do it relatively quickly. After you’ve revised, ask this person if she’s willing to see it again.

Before you send work out, proofread it obsessively. It should be free of typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. If it isn’t, you won’t get much of a reading. If you’re not good at this skill, ask someone who is for help–not with critiquing the story, in this case, just checking for these sort of mistakes. Same for query letters. With something as short as a letter, read it backwards, which will help you notice the itty-bitty things.

End of lecture.

But here’s a little more comfort: According to my favorite podcast, Planet Money, fiction writers are unlikely to be replaced by robots. Chances are better than ninety percent in our favor.

And new people break in all the time, and debut books come out constantly. Yours can be one of them.

So–since I have no prompts to offer this time–have fun, and save what you write!

End of the Road

On February 18, 2017, Angie wrote, I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!

First off, congratulations on finishing not one but two manuscripts!

When I was taking writing classes and in the learning stages of becoming a kids’ book writer, the advice I heard most often from teachers about endings was, When you’re done, get out. So it’s possible that the criticism Angie received was just one person’s opinion and the ending is fine.

But let’s assume, for the sake of having a post, that the critiquer is right. What to do?

If every plot point has been checked off, have they all become equal? If yes, that evenness may give our ending a flat feeling. To break it up, we can think about which conflict is at the heart of our story. Fundamentally, what’s our story about? That conflict, the one the story turns on, should stand out in our ending, and we can look for ways to amplify it, perhaps make it come last.

Along the same lines, have we made our plot points’ success–or failure–hard won enough? If the solutions are too easy, the ending again, can feel flat or abrupt. In revision, we can go in and beef up our MC’s struggle. We can give our villains or our opposing forces more power, a few more weapons in their arsenal.

An ending doesn’t have to be unpredictable. As I’ve said here many times, when we’re working from a popular story, a fairy tale or a myth, the end is known. And even if we’re not, most stories follow arcs that readers are used to. The interest lies in how we get to the end of the rainbow. We can surprise the reader and make the ending more satisfying by throwing in lots of monkey wrenches–twists that aren’t predictable–along the way.
We can think about what feeling we want the reader to be left with. In a tragedy, for example, we want hankies to come out. Have we made our readers care enough about our MC to weep for her? Have we shown why her losses are devastating? (If I know someone has to die in a story, I usually make that character–like Ella’s mother, like Dave’s father in Dave at Night–super lovable.)

In an adventure story, we probably want a feeling of satisfaction. Our heroine has accomplished what she set out to do, with great difficulty, probably at some cost, and she’s grown along the way. We have to make sure those things have happened.

In a happy love story, we want rejoicing. Our MCs have been foolish; they’ve made mistakes; they’ve misunderstood themselves and each other. But finally, the blinders have come off their eyes. They’re together at last. We have to deliver on all the mishaps along the way to make the ending feel earned.

What else makes a satisfying ending?

My mind travels to the TV mystery series Bones (high school, possibly middle school, though I’m not sure). The series, which wrapped up recently, was episodic, meaning that, mostly, each mystery got solved in the episode in which it was introduced. In later seasons, when the mystery was solved and the murderer dealt with, the final scene almost always took place in the home of Temperance Brennan (Bones) and her husband, Seeley Booth. Chit-chat happens; often a minor spat between Brennan and Booth is charmingly resolved. The audience feels settled.

We can do something similar. After the blood has been mopped up and the main conflict resolved, we can end with a smaller scene that gives the reader time to collect himself. If we like we can use an epilogue, as I’ve done more than once, to hint at the uneventful futures of our characters.
I’d call that an order-is-restored ending. Shakespeare used this kind of ending in his tragedies, as I was taught in high school. The problem of a play, like Hamlet, is so grave that the balance of the universe is disturbed. Storms result. A ghost walks the earth. Madness afflicts Ophelia. But at the end, following the death of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, the stage littered with bodies, good governance can resume, and all will be well.

There’s also the circular story, which I devoted a post to years ago. The circular story ends where it began, and that return provides the sense of completeness. Lord of the Ring and The Wizard of Oz are examples of stories that begin and end in the same location.

Not every book ends neatly. Take Gone With the Wind–or my understanding of it. Rhett Butler says his famous line and decamps. He understands himself better than he had before, and we readers understand Scarlet, but she doesn’t understand herself, which we realize is her fate. We know that her future life will be full of events and turmoil, whatever they may be. (I haven’t read the sequel, so I don’t know what the modern writer has dished out for her.) Still, despite the lingering possibilities, Margaret Mitchell’s ending works, I think because of the way the characters become resolved.
And there’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” which I’ve talked about before here and which is a short story rather than a novel. Look it up if you don’t know it, because it ends with a question mark, and the reader has to decide what happens. I’m not sure if this would be satisfying in a novel, but it’s great in this particular short story. The story raises a big question and then asks the reader for an answer, and the answer is more revelatory of the reader’s character than of anyone in the story itself.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rewrite the unsatisfying ending of a book that frustrated you. Make it work!

∙ This is an old and silly joke that I may have told before here: A congregation’s rabbi is dying. His most important congregants gather around his deathbed to hear his final words of wisdom, which are “The world is a barrel.” His listeners are shocked. What are they to make of this? They beg him to explain. He lifts his veined eyelids. His watery eyes go from face to face. His chest heaves. His wheezes sound painful. Finally, he gasps out, “So it isn’t a barrel”–and dies.

Make the barrel world be true for at least the youngest person around the bed. Write an adventure in this barrel world and bring it to a satisfying ending, which can be the same or different from the ending in the joke.

∙ Pick a moment in history–an assassination, the fall of Rome, an election, the purchase of Manhattan from its original inhabitants, whatever. Go into it in detail, peopling it with real or imagined characters. Ignore the historical outcome and follow the characters to an ending that flows from their conflicting wishes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek!

First off, thanks to all of you who came to an event on my tour, some of you traveling impressive distances! You asked the best questions, and it was a joy to meet you!

And, since I’m just getting the hang of social media, I’ll say now what I should have said a few months ago: If you like, you can follow me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. Not much there about writing, though. At the moment it’s mostly spring flowers, and you can see some of the beautiful places I happened across on my tour, like a prairie river walk in Naperville, Illinois, or a bird sanctuary-nature preserve in Petaluma, California. And a silly selfie of my condition when I returned after a redeye from California–as a dead tree!

Now for the post!

On December 23, 2016, Poppie wrote: I have a fairy MC whose idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures… the things he avoids as much as possible. He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society, where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.

The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?

Two of you weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Give him a reason: Is he afraid because he once witnessed something tragic or scary? Or does he have a big goal or dream that he wants to stay alive and well for? Was he betrayed by someone? If he has a reason, I think his fear would be more relatable.

Another idea: When have you felt afraid? Pull from that experience. I sometimes avoid conversations because I dislike conflict. If I were writing a cowardly character, I could use those experiences, probably by showing some thoughts (‘I could say something friendly, but what if she misjudges it and thinks I’m being forward or condescending? Best say nothing.”).

Song4myKing: If he knows he’s cowardly, I think it can help. Whiny and annoying characters are the ones who think the world owes them something, or think they are somehow great, or somehow exempt from doing the grunt work everyone else should be doing. Your fairy may whine and be annoying to the fairies as a front, but if the readers know that he sees his own shortcomings, they’ll be less likely to want to slap him.

And acknowledging his timidity (especially if he’s telling the story) can sprout opportunities for humor – which helps make just about any character likable.

I’m with both of you. And humor is great for likability.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for sharing your fear. Here’s one from my life, which you can use however you like. During the year when Ella Enchanted, my first published book, was going through the publishing process, I became convinced I would die before it came out. When I had to fly during that year, I was paralyzed with terror. I know there are scientific reasons that explain why planes, loaded with people and luggage, get off the ground–but I don’t understand them. Intuition says, Impossible!

A friend whispered a Jewish superstition to me that’s supposed to keep you safe, which, while not believing in it any more than I believed that planes really could fly, I adopted. I can’t tell it here or it will stop working for me, but if you know a Jew who has a great-grandmother or if you are a Jew with such a great-grandmother, ask her to whisper it in your ear. That superstition has kept me calm on flights ever since. I haven’t used it in any additional circumstances, though there are others that scare me too, but the practice is a little uncomfortable and inconvenient and I don’t want it to take me over. If you find it out, don’t publish it! It’s secret!

I don’t think I’m being whiny to make the confession above. People’s fears are often interesting. Readers are likely to be drawn in rather than put off. Imperfection humanizes characters–even if they’re elves!

In this case (unlike mine), the elf has a real reason to be afraid. The mission of this society is to rescue elves from danger–so the danger isn’t imaginary. Not being afraid would be odd. His fellow elves are likely to be afraid, too. How do they handle their fear? This is a great opportunity for character development, because we all process, manage, and give in to fear differently. We, the writers, can experiment with lots of ways on our characters and decide which will best suit our MC. We can try to write a minor character whiny elf (probably not easy) and give the whining to him or her.

Is fear whiny if it’s just in thoughts? To me, a whine involves an annoying sound, and it needs repetition. If he rarely speaks of his fear, he’s unlikely to be whiny. But I think he can talk about it often and still not be whiny. As Song4myKing suggests, he can be funny. Comedians often turn their foibles into humor. This elf can do that, too.

His nattering on about his fears may even set his companions at ease. He’s far more frightened than they are. And they may also feel less alone.

In characters and people, there’s nothing wrong with fear. A person or character entirely without fear is exceptional if not troubling. What one does with fear is what counts. If, out of fear, our elf lets a friend go into danger alone, the reader may not like him, and his talk of fear may then sound unpleasant.

Of course, he can let the friend go into danger alone the first time–and redeem himself later, and I believe the reader will forgive him.

I’m charmed by this MC’s love of books and wonder if that might be another tool to address the whiny factor. He can remember his favorite fictional characters and bring their strengths in to help him, with varying results. Humor may be discovered there, too.

Also, as is always true, we can fix whining–and see more clearly whether it is or isn’t whining–in revision. When we gain some distance from our story, its flaws become evident–and fixable–and so do its virtues, like the perfectly nuanced fear of the MC we thought was whiny.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your technophobic elves discover a high-tech bomb ticking away in their home, the basement of an office building. If the bomb goes off, they and hundreds of people will die. Each is struck with terror. Describe their behavior. Write the scene.

∙ Your (human) MC discovers, at the riding camp she begged her parents to send her to, that she’s afraid of horses. She knows no one at the camp. Going home is not an option. Write a scene. If you like, write the story.

∙ If we’re discussing fear, we can’t skip a haunted house. This one appears on an island in the middle of a lake where the day before there were only trees. Light burns in an attic window, and black smoke issues from three chimneys. The smoke wafts to our MC’s town. People choke. Babies can barely breathe. Someone has to enter the house, get to the source of the smoke, and stop it. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Why so bad?

Last day of my tour! I was delighted to meet those of you I met! Thank you for coming! Remember, I have more events coming up in my local area, so I hope to see even more of you. And then, after that, there’s the rest of our lives…

On November 23, 2016, Failed Villain wrote, What about the motivation for an antagonist? They’re always harder for me because I personally have no desire whatsoever to kill someone or rule the world, so I can’t figure out how to express those motivations. Or are they even realistic motivations? Sometimes I get stuck because my villains seem too pure evil. I try to give them some sort of backstory, but again I can’t really relate to that. It’s one thing to write about a character with a dark side, but it’s another to write a character that is pure (or mostly) evil.

I’ve noticed a disturbing side in many of you here on the blog: mrah-ha-ha, you love to write about writing villains! And I love to, too. Does this make us… evil?

Hmm… I’ve selected a few from your pages of excellent responses.

Melissa Mead: Maybe they started with ordinary motivations that got out of hand. For example: “I’m tired of being pushed around. I want some control over this bullying.”
:Punches out bully:
“What a rush! That bully will never bother me again. But there’s this whole gang of bullies…”
:Plan to stop bullies lands the whole gang in the hospital:
“Well, I stopped the bullies, but now the whole town’s mad at me, and I can’t stand it, so…”

And one bad choice leads to another, and another, until the villain’s so caught up in his bad choices that he feels like the whole world’s out to get him, and the only way to make it stop is to rule the world.

Or when he punched the bully, the bully fell and hit his head on a rock, and eventually died, but the villain-to-be was the one who called 911, so no one suspected him. And the next time it was easier to punch harder…

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite villains are the ones that have noble intentions, but go about them the wrong way. Some good examples are Darth Vader (he wanted to save Padme), Light Yagami from Death Note (he wanted to rid the world of evil), Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender (he wanted to regain his honor; although he does eventually become a good guy, he starts out as the antagonist), Professor Callaghan from Big Hero 6 (he is bitter over the loss of his daughter and wants revenge). But don’t forget that even the “pure evil” villains have something they want. Captain Hook wants to defeat Peter Pan and get revenge for the hand Peter cut off. Shere Khan hates Man. The Firelord from Avatar: the Last Airbender wants to expand the territory of the Fire Nation. Hans wants to rule his own country. Syndrome from the Incredibles wants to be a superhero. The possibilities are limitless.

StorytellerLizzie: We also hate Old Toad Face because, as it was explained to me once, Voldemort is like a serial killer you hear about on the news: scary but distant. Toad Face is that co-worker that you can’t get to like you, the Manager who gives you extra work because they can, The boss who made you work on Thanksgiving: scary/mean/evil and up close and personal.

I love that, StorytellerLizzie!

Not sure why I’m remembering this, but it seems somehow germane. A fellow children’s book writer once asked me if I would rather be a victim or a perpetrator, if those were the only options. At first, it seemed to me that the only ethical choice was victim, but the more I thought about it, the more I came around to wanting to be the perp. The victim is acted upon, the perp is the actor. Most crucially, the perp gets to pick the crime, which can even be victimless. I can be the perp who decides that my crime is to jaywalk! My crime can be to remove the label from a mattress that you’re warned never to remove!

Suppose my crime is to park my car in front of a fire hydrant and, in a rare tragedy, a fire starts and the fire truck can’t get to the hydrant and people die. Of course I didn’t mean that to happen. How do I move forward? The fault is mine. Do I grow from a perp into a villain?

If the perp isn’t me but a character named Phil, we have the beginnings of a story.

Since Failed Villain asked about motivation, I think this is one that’s easy to get inside. A judge recognizes that Phil didn’t intend to kill people and gives him a mild sentence, say probation and community service. One way–a common way, I believe–our formerly run-of-the mill Phil can turn into a villain is if he doesn’t accept responsibility for what he did–and doesn’t forgive himself, either. These two go together, I believe. We have to accept we did something wrong before we realize there is something to forgive. Maybe since the judge didn’t take his crime seriously, he decides he doesn’t have to–but I don’t think anyone can really disregard an event like this. It burrows inside. It becomes a kernel with a hard shell around it. Tentacles push out from it.

There may be someone on the planet who has never done anything bad or unkind, but I am not that person. Though I’m not a villain, I’ve let a friend or two down. I’ve been thoughtless, rushed, unkind. When memories of these failures bubble up in my mind, I feel awful, and I try not to repeat–but I have to recognize that someday I will. Maybe next time, though, I’ll be better at apologizing or better at making things right, better at taking responsibility immediately. Or not. I’m no world-destroying villain, but neither my acts nor my motivations are always pure.

Back to Phil when he blocked the fire hydrant. Let’s imagine that he has been driving around for twenty minutes looking for a parking spot, and his date is waiting for him, and she’s going to be mad if he’s late again, and his cell phone has died, so he can’t call her.

What can we conclude about him? He runs late, gets people mad at him, doesn’t think ahead sufficiently, doesn’t want people to be mad at him, doesn’t want to face the consequences, tends to do what’s expedient, is perhaps self-centered. He may also have wonderful qualities, be generous, kind to people in trouble, may run late because he can’t refuse to help anyone.

The backstory I provided two paragraphs ago doesn’t go into past trauma or childhood experiences. It’s minimal. We don’t need much back story, if any, for our villains or our other characters, in my opinion. I don’t think I know the back stories for any of my villains. For example, I have no idea why Sir Peter, a minor villain in Ella Enchanted, is so calculating. I sure don’t know what makes Lucinda tick. If it helps us, we can figure out our characters’ pasts, but the reader doesn’t have to see our discoveries unless they come into the story. I don’t even think we need to know or understand our good characters’ motivations, except for our POV’s, whose head we’re in. Back to Lucinda. She ruins people’s lives, not for gain, not really to please them with her gifts. I don’t know why she does it.

Can I find myself in her disastrous gifts? A little. I like to be right as much as she does. I can be a tad impulsive. But I would never ever do any of the horrible things she does, even if I had the power. I can still write her, without knowing why she does anything–or without wanting to ruin people’s lives, too.

As we saw with Phil, our starting point can be the first bad act, whatever it is. As we work out the consequences, we can decide how Phil will respond to them. Through his actions we’ll figure out his personality, which will move us forward into our story’s future with a character who gets more and more complete and real.

When it comes to a purely evil villain, unless we’re writing from her point of view, we don’t have to know her motivation. We have to know only that in a given situation she will go for the worst outcome. Naturally, we do need to know her purpose–what specific harm she hopes to impose and on whom. Our other characters can speculate on her motives and methods so they can come up with strategies to thwart her, but they and we don’t really have to know.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Turn Phil into a villain. List five ways his careless (and selfish) act develops into villainy in his life. Pick one and write a scene or his whole story.

∙ Go the other way and write about Phil coming to terms with what he did and becoming a better person. Make this hard. Have him stumble. If you like, bring in family or friends of one or more of the people to whose death he contributed.

∙ Make Phil’s story really complicated by mixing it up with the circumstances that led to the fire in the house he parked in front of. If you like, a more deliberate villain can have been at work to start the fire. Have Phil get involved.

∙ Expand Phil’s future so that he becomes supremely bad–threaten-the-survival-of-the-universe bad. Write his story along with the story of your MC, who, through small acts of decency, becomes the force for good opposing him.

∙ Take a minor bad characteristic, maybe something that drives you crazy when someone does it. For example, could be tickling people whether they want to be tickled or not. Make it bigger and write a scene or a whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear ye!

I’m interrupting the flow of the post to announce that The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre is out! When you read it, please let me know what you think.

It’s also the twentieth anniversary of Ella, which is crazy.

And I’m touring for both, and at almost every signing there have been blog people, whom I’ve been so happy to meet. One more signing to go, this one next week in Petaluma, California. If you can, come!

Singin’ in the… Tale

First off, I begin my tour for The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre on Monday, and the book releases on Tuesday. If you haven’t already, click on In Person, and see if you can come to any of the events. If you can, please be sure to let me know you found me because of the blog. I will be so glad to meet you!

Second off, on the last post, April Mack said she was having trouble posting her gravatar image on the blog. David can’t find the problem on our end, so I’d like to know if anyone else is having trouble. Please speak up and maybe we can get to the source of the problem.

And now for the post. On November 12, 2016, Margaret Anne wrote, A lot of books have songs in them, like Ella Enchanted, Fairest, then other books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games. How do you write songs to put in your stories? In a book I am writing, there is a tune that a character plays on the piano or hums a lot, but I want there to be words to the song. Any tips?

Two writers weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Study songs of the type you’re going for. Hymn? Folk song? Listen to several and listen to the music. Write down phrases that catch your attention. You can also read poetry for ideas, and check out books or do other research on writing poems. I’m reminded of Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy” or Ann McCaffrey’s “Dragonsong” trilogy, where each chapter opens with a song.

Song4myKing: I have a character who (like me!) often thinks in song. Because she’s in our world, I use real songs. One is an old folk song, and therefore no problem with copyright stuff. Another is newer, but I keep it because it expresses the changing attitude of the MC over the course of the story. I had another modern one that she sang only once, but I realized that, although the lyrics said exactly what she was feeling, I really didn’t need that particular song (and its copyright). So I made up words that conveyed the same idea. I have found that almost the only way I can write decent poetry is if I have an inspiring tune to start with. So I did. The tune isn’t mine, and in the end doesn’t even fit the words that well, but what mattered was that I had an original set of words that sounded (sorta) like song lyrics.

If you are thinking of a real tune, consider what mood it gives. If you don’t have a real tune, I suggest you find one or make up one! What mood do you want the words to have? Do you want the song to be sung at a particular time? Could the song in some way include a symbol for the story or romanticize a part of the setting?

On using real songs – My sister and I read the book Chime (Fantasy in our world, probably high school and up). My sister noticed that one of the characters whistled one of the songs in the book. She looked it up, saying that if it could be whistled it was probably a nice melody. It was. We both love it now. This last week, she re-read the book, and noticed another song. She looked it up too, and has been singing it all day. Both are old folk songs. It was like an added bonus to us that we could find tunes for them, and that they’ve actually been sung for generations.

Oh, my! I wish I thought in songs! (Wish I could sing them, too.)

I love the idea of considering mood, because music and most songs are fundamentally emotional. Please remember that I’m not musical, but I think mood in music is conveyed mostly through tempo and instrumentation. If there are words, the singer expresses the emotion in her voice, if emotion is what she’s going for. The late, marvelous jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t skilled, in my opinion, at expressing sadness. You can hear her smile through the saddest lyrics. I think she was too happy to be singing for anything else to come through, but I also think she was going more for technique than feeling.

In words, meaning predominates. But sound can support meaning. Onomatopoeia is one device that can help. Think of words whose meaning seems embodied in their sound. In school, the example we were given was tintinnabulation. Beep sounds like what it means. To my ear, the same goes for blip. Also, extended vowels, like oo and ee, sound mournful when combined with a sad meaning. Boom sounds ominous. Short vowels, short syllables, and percussive consonants set up a staccato pace, possibly for a martial song or a happy one.

A wonderful sad poem is W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” which you can find online. It’s worth studying to see how its effects are achieved. The meter, with a few variations, is iambic (unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, da DUM, da DUM), a common meter in songs. Try singing it.

Sound also adds a poem-y, song-y feel. Maximize alliteration (repeated initial sounds, like red rose) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds, like green leaves) and rhyme, in the middle of lines as well as at the end. You can use a thesaurus to find the sounds you’re looking for if the word you think of first doesn’t contribute sonically. The sound repetition doesn’t have to follow immediately; even if several words come between, the effect will still be felt by the reader or hearer.

If you have a tune to work with, consider the beat to figure out where your stressed syllables should go. When you start to write, a thesaurus will help here, too. The first word you think of may not have the stresses in the right place, but a thesaurus may give you alternatives that fit the bill. This can be slow going. In my books that include songs or poems, writing them took longer than writing the prose did.

An easy and popular form for songs is hymn or ballad or common meter, found in, well, hymns and ballads, but also in blues and rock songs, goes like this:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM we care
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
da DUM da DUM have hair

In other words: four line stanzas; iambic; eight syllables in the first and third lines, which don’t have to rhyme though they can; six syllables in the second and fourth lines, which should rhyme. “Amazing Grace” is in hymn meter, for example. Emily Dickinson’s poems are in this meter, except that she fooled around with it, broke it at will, and made it her own.

A shortcut to using rhythm in a poem or a song is to pick one that you like, analyze the stressed and unstressed syllables, and recreate the pattern with your own words. I did this in the first chapter of Writer to Writer. The verse below follows the witches’ incantation in Macbeth:

Mutter, mutter, dream and ponder;
Writer writes and fingers flutter.
Starting words of a startling tale,
On the paper, laugh or wail,
Days of joy and weeks of woe,
Mountains high and vales below,
Hero’s hope, villain’s might,
Evil’s plot, virtue bright.
With this spell of flash and thunder,
In a vision, write the wonder.

Contemporary songs are sometimes more complex, but often song lyrics are emotionally simple. Ideas that would seem cliched in prose are fine in songs. We find more moons than Jupiter has, more rosebuds than in a botanical garden, and enough broken hearts to occupy a hospital full of cardiologists. But it’s okay. The expression in melody, instrument, voice make it work. When we write lyrics we can be original or we can go with the tried and true, without embarrassment.

We can use songs or poems in many ways. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the poems are narrative–telling rather than showing–about the beginnings of the kingdom. In Fairest, there’s more of a range, with a lot of songs that express feelings. So we have options. We can use songs to tell, to show emotion, to reveal character, to create voice, to describe a setting. A few minutes ago over the radio I heard about a band that bases some of its songs on–recipes!

Here are four prompts:

∙ Try your hand at a poem or song in hymn meter. Write at least five stanzas. Sing it. Set it to music if you can. (This is beyond me.)

∙ From a WIP, have each of three characters write a love song–just words, or words and music. How would their songs differ in mood, feeling, thoughts, vocabulary?

∙ Tell a fairy tale as a ballad. You can use hymn meter for this, or not. Include a refrain that encapsulates the theme of the fairy tale.

∙ I just spent a pleasant two minutes on YouTube, watching and listening to the song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You” from the ancient musical Annie Get Your Gun. Write a song with the voices of two characters interacting. You can make up the characters on the spot or import them from a WIP.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!