Poetic Considerations

On January 1, 2020, Alyce wrote, How do you write songs and poetry? I’ve tried, and if it’s not a haiku I can’t manage. I just can’t seem to get more than a couple rhyming lines out, usually not even that. I can memorize poetry just fine, and make any rhymes I want (one of my characters blurts out anything that rhymes with the word she’s actually thinking of). I just can’t make those rhymes make sense most of the time. Or if I can, they don’t come out the way I want, and they don’t pass the message I want (or anything, really, they’re just a lot of impressive-sounding nonsense). Does anyone have any suggestions?

Erica wrote back, Why do you find a haiku easier than other poetry? If you can write haikus fairly easily, then I would recommend trying either limericks or free verse next, depending on what your precise difficulties are. If your problem is just that your rhymes don’t make sense, try either blank verse or free verse for your poems.

I’m with Erica on trying poetry that doesn’t rhyme.

Songs are a different matter. They should use meter, and, usually, rhymes. I say they should be metrical because meter provides rhythm. And rhyme helps with rhythm too. There is no law. If a song or poem works, it works.

Meter means a regular sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I just looked online for a link that lays out kinds of meter in a straightforward way, but the subject is complicated, and I couldn’t find a site that I thought is perfect, but please google poetic meter and see what you get.

I’ll take a short stab at it, though, using iambic meter as an example. In iambic meter, an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. In this line from Shakespeare, I’m capitalizing the stressed syllables:

a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE.

Another term you should know is poetic foot. A foot is the unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. So in the sentence above, a HORSE is a foot. The second a HORSE is the second foot. Notice that a foot can end in the middle of a word, as in the third foot above, my KING. dom is in the next foot. There are five feet in this Shakespearean line. A five-foot iambic line is said to be written in iambic pentameter, pentameter for the five feet.

The ballad form may be something Alyce and others will take to. Each stanza has four lines. The first and third lines have four iambic feet, second and fourth three iambic feet. The second and fourth lines rhyme; the other two don’t.

Trochaic meter uses a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Feet aren’t always two syllables long, either. An anapestic foot, for example, is three syllables long, two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.

If you come up with your song’s melody first, you can figure out the beats and find the words to go with them.

Another way to get rhythm is to take a poem or song that already has a rhythm you like. Analyze the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables and follow them in your own poem or song with different words.

A thesaurus is great for finding words with the stresses we’re looking for. For example, suppose in our poem somebody goes crazy, but the first syllable of CRAzy is stressed and we need the second syllable to be the stressed one. The thesaurus will offer us inSANE as an alternative.

For rhyme, there are rhyming dictionaries. I use RhymeZone online: https://www.rhymezone.com/, which offers near rhymes too, like rhyming street with free. Near rhymes, also called slant rhymes, are often just as good or even better than exact rhymes. Better because there are more words to choose from. The ear will pick up the similarity in sound even though the match isn’t exact.

In general, simple rhymes work best even in sophisticates songs and poems. Complicated rhymes can seem forced. And simple ones make the poet’s life easier.

But, returning to the beginning, in poetry one does not have to rhyme! Most contemporary poems don’t. There are other ways to achieve poem-iness.

Image is a tool of poetry. Doesn’t have to be a beautiful image either. For example, someone stretching to reach a high shelf can add a poetic note.

Sonic elements also contribute. Alliteration–the repetition of initial letters, like blue bowl–makes a sound pattern that pleases the ear. Same for assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. This also works for internal perfect rhyme or near rhyme, rhyming words that aren’t at the end of the line.

Repetition is a poetic device too: words or phrases that keep coming up. Some poetic forms add structure without rhyme, generally by using repetition. I love pantoums (they don’t have to rhyme but can), which repeat specific lines in stanzas. Triolets operate similarly. Wickedly hard is the sestina, which repeats the last word in a line according to a sequence. The tritina is sestina-light, because it follows the same principal with many fewer lines.

By studying her poems I discovered (or think I have) a strategy used by one of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller (high school and up). She’ll pick a theme for a poem and explore it in different ways (reminds me of my beloved lists). For example, in her poem “Necessities” she considers a different necessity in each of five longish stanzas. Each necessity is italicized: A map of the world; The illusion of progress; Answers to questions; Evidence that we matter; the old things first things.

We can do something similar, approach the poem we’re trying to write by looking at its topic in as many ways as we can think of. Let’s say the topic is escape. We can ask, escape from what? And we can come up with alternatives: our house, our thoughts, a conversation, the world of cause and effect. What do we have to say about each of these? We can ask about methods of escape and apply the same process. Same for destination, what we’d take with us. And so on. We don’t have to use everything we come up with, but as long as whatever we come up with connects with our topic, our poem will be coherent.

Poetry is a big subject, so I’ve only scratched the surface. A book that I use again and again to help me find forms to hold my poetic ideas is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett. If you check it out, look at the chapters on meter and rhyme, which are in alphabetical order: Foot, Rhyme, and Rhythm.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a poem with escape as its theme, and try the method I propose above.

• Write a ballad about a particular escape, because ballads usually tell a story. Here you’ll be using rhyme.

• Write an entirely new poem that uses the same meter as William Blake’s “The Tyger.” You don’t have to write as many stanzas as he did, or you can write more, and you can decide whether you want your poem to rhyme. (I’ve always wondered how Blake pronounced symmetry.) Here’s the poem, which is in the public domain:

The Tyger
BY WILLIAM BLAKE

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tangled!

For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Down With Length, Up With Thrills

Before I start the post, tomorrow evening I’ll be speaking and answering questions on Zoom about A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, hosted by Belmont Books. I’ll also be happy to take questions about writing and any of my books. Bookplate signed books will be available. Here’s the link: https://www.belmontbooks.com/event/virtual-gail-carson-levine. You need to register to participate–it’s free. I’d love to see some of you in the little boxes!

On December 23, 2019 Alyce wrote, My book has a kidnapping plot, but it’s nearly 100k words. I’m trying to make it shorter and up the tension. Do you have any ideas?

Three of you weighed in.

Katie W.: What I would do is look at each chapter individually and examine what happens in each chapter. If you write a single sentence summary of each one, you can see where stuff does or doesn’t happen. This makes it shorter by removing the boring stuff, so you solve both problems at the same time. If that doesn’t help, I would take a look at subplots, backstory, and exposition, looking for places that are too long or too boring. Either way, the goal is to remove excess that’s slowing down the plot and extending the word count.

Erica: If it has a kidnapping plot, then you probably have a time limit. In those situations, tension can be added by putting a countdown at the top of each chapter, something like “Chapter 11: 25 hours left”. Although it makes your story marginally longer, it does increase the tension.

future_famous_author: And even if stuff is happening, like the scene isn’t boring, it can still be excess. I’m sure there are plenty of scenes in my WIP that don’t matter to the plot but are still fun to read and write. Things about what the reader needs to know, what pieces are necessary to reach the end, and take out anything that isn’t helping you to reach the climax and THE END.
Also, that’s a lot of words!!! My WIP right now only has 30K, and it’s the most I’ve ever gotten!!! I tend to get tired of stories before I’m even a fourth of the way done, but it sure sounds like you’re just in the revising and editing stages! Nice work!

These are terrific! I agree about taking the book apart and examining each scene. And time pressure is a great way to increase reader worry. And, of course, writing so many pages, whether or not they are too many, is an achievement. Congratulations!

There was a brief but thrilling bidding war over Ella Enchanted at the start of my writing career. In the end, the advance turned out to be the same from the two publishers, but one wanted me to cut a third of the book and the other, HarperCollins, said nothing about that.

I went with HarperCollins. But before I did, I thought about what I might cut, and I decided the book could do without the elves–no night in their forest, no Agulen pottery.

With HarperCollins, happily, I kept the elves–but I cut a third of the book anyway.

I was inexperienced, and I didn’t realize how much could be stripped off just by snipping here and trimming there. Nowadays, my revision process always involves a lot of deleting. No major amputations may be required, though hundreds of pages wind up on the cutting room floor.

So we can start there. I’ve said before (and I didn’t make this up) that the strongest parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs, and the weakest are adjectives and adverbs. We can scrutinize each sentence for culprits. As an example, in my last sentence, the verb is scrutinize. Instead of scrutinize, I could have written look closely at–three words instead of one and the result has lost power. Especially, we should question words that emphasize, like very, and ones that dilute, like almost and slightly. I’m often guilty of very, but usually we don’t need it. Pretty is just as intense as very pretty, and if we want to turn up the volume, we can use stunning or gorgeous–or one of the many synonyms.

I took a little side journey in thinking about the question and found this fascinating article about readability: https://contently.com/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/. I’d take the readability gauges cited with a grain of salt, though. The level seems to depend greatly on number of three-syllable words, and many of those are easy. Terrific has three syllables, for example, and I wouldn’t call it a hard word.

We can also check for repetition. I think it was Christie V Powell who mentioned in a recent comment that we should watch out for scenes that accomplish the same plot objective as other scenes. More than one isn’t necessary and can go. But it must be saved somewhere else!

We can check for repetition at the sentence level, too. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve been astonished at how often I say exactly the same thing twice in entirely different words, so I fool myself. One sentence should be nixed. (I save even these.)

As some of you know, I’ve been reading from my books every day on Facebook. So far, I’ve read Ella, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and Writing Magic. Last week, I started The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Except for Lost Kingdom, these are books I wrote a long time ago, and I’ve noticed how my writing has changed. There’s a scene in Fairest in which Aza observes zhamM, who is a judge in the gnomish courts, decide a case. As I read, I thought, What do I need this for? It adds nothing to moving the plot forward. I don’t remember if my editor wanted me to ditch the chapter. If she did, I must have refused. Its only virtue is that it does a little world-building (and it’s somewhat interesting), but it comes late in the book when the world is established.

Please learn from what I say, not what I did. Beware of self-indulgence!

Scenes should develop our characters, advance our plot, and build the story’s world (mostly at the beginning). Best of all is when one scene does more than one of these. Keeping that in mind as we revise will naturally heighten tension.

Next week, I’m going to start revising the first draft of my novel about the Trojan War, which is roughly three hundred pages long. When I wrote it, as a pantser, I was finding my way, not sure what I would need. Now that I’m done, I know. That perspective will guide my revisions. If a scene doesn’t do anything, I’ll kill it.

But sometimes increasing tension adds words. When we reveal our MC’s worries, the reader will worry too–and won’t mind the length. When we paint a scene in rich detail, the pressure will mount. Say our MC has to descend a cliff, and we show her experimentally toss a stick ahead of her and see it break into bits. The reader will be silently screaming, Watch out! as she puts a leg over the edge.

• Below are the first four paragraphs of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When I read the novella a few years ago, I was amazed at how wordy it is. Your job is to shorten this part. If you feel like posting what you come up with here, I’d love to see it.

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will, therefore, permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole[12] administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s Church-yard, for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

• Some of Dickens’ novels were serialized before they came out in book form. He had to produce thirty-two pages each month, which may have made a habit out of the prolixity (look it up, if you don’t know it–a great word!) we see here. The first four paragraphs, in my opinion, don’t do much in terms of plot and just a little in the way of character development. If you’ve never read the story and aren’t in the mood, you can read a plot summary on Wikipedia. Write your own first scene that does develop Scrooge’s character and begins the action.

• In Greek mythology, Hercules, in a fit of madness, murders his sons. To atone, he undertakes twelve labors. If you don’t know the myth well, you can google the twelve labors of Hercules. In my opinion, twelve is too many! Write the story condensing to the ones you think are the most important.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Blahs

On December 22, 2019, viola03 wrote, Hi y’all, you may have noticed that I haven’t been as active on here lately, and that’s because I haven’t had a lot of time for writing because of school (I’m a high school sophomore). I’m hoping to write some over winter break, but I’ve run into a serious lack of inspiration. I do really want to write, but I’ve found that the inspiration for all of my WIPs has just ground to a halt. Any tips?

Melissa Mead kindly wrote, Welcome back! Gail’s posts have some great prompts.

And Writing Ballerina wrote, I get this sometimes too. You have a few options:
1) You can let them sit for a while until you feel refreshed. (Be careful with this one – I do this and then have the tendency never to feel refreshed. If this happens, let them sit until the details are fuzzy, then read them over with a reader’s eye and you’ll probably get excited about them a bit.)
2) You can add something random to spark things up and get the ball rolling (something like a green sea monster obsessed with raspberries or a random cat). (I did this a few times during NaNo.) This will help you write something, anything, and then the momentum of that writing (that will inevitably be cut later) can help you move on to the next plot point.
3) You can skip to a part that does excite and inspire you. There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically.

And future_famous_author wrote, Read!!! Read a book that’s written really well. Read a scene from your favorite book. Watch a good movie. Or re-read something that you’ve already written.
Scroll through Pinterest. Look at the character inspiration pictures, and just keep scrolling. I got a really good idea for a story based on a picture that I found on Pinterest.

These are great suggestions! I don’t use prompts much for fiction, but I often do for poems.

Just yesterday, I finished teaching my annual writing workshop, on Zoom this year. Reversing the usual order of things, here are three prompts that I gave the kids that I don’t think have appeared here:

• Imagine the people who lived in your house before you did. Think about who they might have been, how they might have furnished it, what their hopes were. Put them in a story and use the house.

• In this version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the prince is the main character. His father, the king, has been captured by the evil Baron Von Roten. The ransom the baron requires is the pillow on which Sleeping Beauty has been resting her head for a hundred years. The prince has fought his way through the thorny hedge, but when he enters the castle, he discovers that it’s haunted. Write the final scene.

• Write the first scene for the prompt above.

Here’s a which-is-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question: Which comes first, inspiration or writing?

I guess it depends on the writer’s process. But I’d wager writers get more done if writing comes first and inspiration follows. Here’s what I do:

• If I have to leave my WIP, when I go back to it, I reread the last chapter or two to see where I am. If I wasn’t in deep trouble when I put it aside, that’s usually enough to get me going.

• If I was in deep trouble, I’ll probably read from the beginning to see when my enthusiasm begins to wane. That’s the spot I need to focus on. What’s the problem there? Do the later scenes solve it? What else can I do? I’m always sad to cut lots of pages, but I do it if I need to. Getting to the root of the problem makes me happy enough to want to soldier on.

• When I can’t figure out how to fix a story, then I’m unhappy and distinctly uninspired. I write notes. I’m kind to myself about my daily writing time, but I do keep on with notes, dozens of pages of them sometimes. So far, I’ve always been able to get my story going again.

• If I suspended work for a month or more, I’ll also read from the beginning, because I’ll have forgotten too much. Rereading (and revising, because I can’t help myself) will start me up again.

(As an aside, I just wondered, since we have the word revise, was there ever a verb vise? My Oxford English Dictionary–OED–says yes! There was a verb vise with several meaning, having last appeared in print in 1587. How does that happen, for the do-over meaning to survive and the first-time-around meaning to bite the dust?)

Inspiration does come to me eventually. Over the many years, I’ve developed ways to find my stories, and I’ve talked about the ways here, but maybe not all of them.

• While I’m working on a novel, part of my brain is auditioning ideas for my next project. Usually, by the time I finish my WIP, my next book is in the wings, waiting for its cue.

• While I’m working on a novel, I read books connected with what I think may come next. Lately, since I’ve become interested in history, I’ve been reading history books. Both Ever and A Ceiling Made of Eggshells came out of reading.

• I maintain a state of receptivity to inspiration, so in a way I’m always trolling for ideas.

• I’ll leave my WIP, briefly, to write notes about a new idea that may sail through my brain.

• I save my ideas so that I can go back to them. I’ve mentioned more than once several fairy tales that intrigue me but I haven’t figured out enough to make them into a novel. Sometimes the gestation of an idea can take years, but I keep the germs on ice in my computer.

When I’m uninspired, I write anyway. My daily time goal goads me into it. Sometimes I don’t reach it, and then I forgive myself, but it’s there waiting for me the next day.

However, unless you have a deadline, unless you are absolutely committed to writing, I don’t think you should do it in misery. And even if you are absolutely committed, I still don’t think you–or I–should do it in misery. Take a vacation! Read a book! Swim the English Channel! Play solitaire!

Dip your toes back in the writing waters when you feel refreshed. Then see what happens.

I finished writing this blog yesterday, but today, in the shower, a relaxing place for ideas and inspiration to drop in, I started to list what I do and don’t like about writing.

Here goes, starting with the negatives:

• The isolation.
• Lacking a shared enterprise. My publisher puts out lots of books.
• How difficult writing is. I wish there were a potion to make it a little easier, one that wouldn’t rot my liver and didn’t contain eye of newt.

The positives:

• I tell myself stories. This is the most important one.
• I love my stories to be read. And my poems. On the poetry side, I’m satisfied if only my poetry critique friends see them.
• I get better. There’s always more to learn about writing.
• I learn about whatever I’m writing about–the Middle Ages, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece.
• Contact with readers and other writers.

There’s no contest. For me, writing is much better than not writing. And that’s inspiring.

Try the three prompts above and/or this one: Write the circumstances surrounding the death of the word vise. Who was there? Was its end deliberate? Was there a trial? Did it plead for its survival?

Have fun and save what you write!

Horrors!

Before I start the prompt, I want to let you know about a science comics contest for kids between ten and eighteen. One of the contest sponsors is my friend, kids’ book writer/science writer/intrepid Antarctic explorer Karen Romano Young, and this link is on her website: https://www.karenromanoyoung.com/scicom-comics-contest. Please let me know if you or a sibling or a child is a winner. And good luck!

On December 8, 2019, Poppie wrote, Do any of you have advice on how to write a horror novel, especially on how to make it scary? In movies, you can rely on camera angles, lighting, and sound, but how do you accomplish this in a book? Also, does anyone have any good horror/thriller book recs (I don’t do sexual content or excessive gore.) I was thinking about starting off with Edgar Allen Poe and Coraline.

Initially, I wrote back, I can’t help much about horror, because I’m such a wimp I can’t watch it or read it. Here’s one thought, though: Don’t reveal everything until near the end. Our imaginations do a lot of the work in scaring us–the villain half seen, the incantation half heard, the fright of bystanders.

And Song4myKingwrote, I don’t generally read horror, but I enjoy thrillers. Some recommendations …
– just about anything by Mary Higgins Clark. These are murder mystery thrillers intended for an adult audience, but they are pretty clean. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of them, but I don’t remember anything objectionable.

Alfred Hitchcock’s books. Actually, I’ve never read any of his, but some of my siblings have loved them. I’m pretty sure they’re clean too, because my mother kept a pretty good eye on what we read, and my brothers were reading them voraciously in their early teens.
– Ted Dekker’s books. Some of these might get a little more into horror. I haven’t read very many if them, so I’d say read them with caution. I’ve read and enjoyed his Circle series (RED, BLACK, and WHITE), which flips back and forth between a real world thriller and a fantasy setting; and I’ve read and partly enjoyed Thr3e, (yes, it’s spelled like that) which I would call a psychological thriller.
– Code of Silence, Back Before Dar
k, and Below the Surface, by Tim Shoemaker. These should probably be at the top of my list, since they are my favorites of these recommendations. And they don’t have objectionable content. They are intended for tweens and young adults, but I loved them as an adult, and so did my mom.

As for how to make books scary, I’d say it’s important to think of it on both the big picture level and the individual scene level.

Consider having a “ticking clock,” or some deadline when something bad is going to happen.

In short, make sure there’s always something to be afraid of.

By individual scene level, I’m thinking more about how you can convey the feelings of fear or unease within a given scene.

Your word choices can set the mood, and even sentence structure can make things feel more tense. You can think of this type of thing as the writing equivalent of the movie’s soundtrack. It’s creating a feeling on an almost subconscious level.

Then there are details. Carefully choosing which details to include in a scene is like the lighting and camera angle. Think about weather. You can include details of the dark clouds looming, or play a bit of the irony game. Set the character’s unease against a perfect, cloudless spring day for contrast. Think about surroundings. Is there anything in the environment, or any other people near by that can add to the mood? Most importantly, probably, think about the characters. What are their reactions? Posture? Body language? What does it reveal about their thoughts?

In short, make the reader feel the fear that the character is feeling (or should be feeling!).

One more note. Gail, do you still need more questions? Because you could take Poppie’s question in a broader sense. A post on conveying the right tone for any type of story could be very interesting.

These are great from Song4myKing! And I always need more questions!

Before I move to tone in general, a little about horror from my experience as a reader and watcher.

Dean Koontz may be a good choice to read. I’ve read only Watchers, which I loved. I think Koontz straddles horror and suspense. I don’t remember age level.

Many years ago, I read Rosemary’s Baby (high school and up) and was very scared. I just reread several pages of the sample that Amazon provides, which comes near the beginning. I approve of the writing–lots of detail, the tiniest hints dropped in of the danger lurking in the apartment that the likable young couple are thinking of renting.

There’s nothing breathless in the tone, no obvious foreshadowing. What may engage the reader and feed the horror is how easy Rosemary is to identify with, how innocent and sweet, how clueless. In the few pages I read I had to watch her bumbling disregard of danger. I didn’t feel Yikes! yet, but I felt it coming.

Here the stakes are high–the end of the world.

In 1955, when I was seven or eight, the horror movie Creature with the Atom Brain came out. (This was not long in historical time after the atom bomb was dropped and World War II ended. Atomic zombies, Nazis, and gangsters are involved.) Murder and mayhem are at stake. I saw the movie and had nightmares for months. Then, voluntarily, I saw it again and had nightmares again. I just read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I doubt that, even then, adults would have been very frightened. To this day, though, I remember what terrified me. Early in the movie, a policeman visits somebody’s home, where a little girl lives. The policeman is kind and plays with the girl and her doll. Later, after he’s been turned into a zombie, he comes back, picks up the doll and holds it by its hair or a leg, and he’s wooden rather than friendly; he doesn’t care about the little girl. That’s what got me, that he no longer cared about her (me).

The nub of that can be used for more realistic horror. The inexplicable withdrawal of love can be horrifying–or tragic–even without huge stakes.

The scariest movie I ever saw was a 1960s British psychological horror movie, Repulsion (older than adult, older than geriatric–certainly at least high school). In it, a young woman commits murder twice–but she thinks she’s acting in self-defense. She’s both villain and victim. Special effects reveal her deteriorating mental state. A rotting rabbit is involved. As I watched, I pitied her and was terrified. I would prefer a medieval torture rack to ever watching that movie again.

In Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the character we care most about can’t help herself. In Repulsion, paranoia has turned her mind against her. In Rosemary’s Baby, her lack of paranoia works against her. In both, there’s a balance of power issue. The MC is the victim. In some horror movies and books, the ones that turn out okay, the MC recovers control in time.

Let’s look at my own Ogre Enchanted, my prequel to Ella Enchanted, in which my MC Evie is turned (by Lucinda) into an ogre because she refuses the proposal of her best friend Wormy. The only way she can transform back is to accept a proposal from Wormy or anyone else. Physically, she becomes all ogre, a pretty one by ogre standards. Mentally, she’s half and half. Among other things, she’s hungry all the time, and humans and dogs and everything that moves looks tasty. The novel is a romcom, so Evie embarks on a search for love and also for ways to remain in the company of humans and heal them, since healing is her calling.

Her human side is able to control her appetite. She doesn’t eat the family cat or her mother or Wormy, but if I were writing horror, she’d eat the cat for sure and probably a human or two whom the reader cares about. The horror would be strongest in her distress at her own actions and her inability to control herself. The persuasiveness of an ogre would make it all worse. She could charm Wormy into offering parts of himself, while her human side is in torment. Aa!

So we have two contrasting tones: romcom and horror, set apart by the degree the MC can control what happens. Evie has to have trouble making things go her way or there would be no story, but if she has no control, we get horror or, I think, tragedy. Possibly humor, if it’s all exaggerated–exaggeration is one way to achieve a humorous tone.

What other elements of tone might there be?

Our MC’s thoughts help set it. We get adventure if she thinks about solutions to the troubles that beset her, tragedy if the solutions are there and she can’t take advantage of them.

What we draw our reader’s attention to is a factor. In Rosemary’s Baby, tiny details of the apartment and the building are on full display. I just picked up my fave, Pride and Prejudice, which is a romance and a comedy of manners, and opened it several times at random. What I read about every time was personal interaction, revealing relationships and character. Setting, which can help set a tone, is barely sketched in. Contrast this with suspense in a story that takes place in a haunted house–the house is almost as important as the MC.

Here are samples of beginnings of books from several genres. Directing the reader and voice come into these:

Science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up): Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

Historical thriller with a hint of magical realism, John R. Maxim, Time Out of Mind (high school and up): …But what made him afraid, in a way no bar bully or snarling dog could, was snow… Jonathan Corbin saw things in the snow. Things that could not have been there. Things that could not have been living.

Mystery (clever, humorous, and intellectual), Rex Stout, The Black Mountain (may be okay for middle school–it’s been years since I read the Nero Wolfe series, which this is part of): That was the one and only time Nero Wolfe had ever seen the inside of the morgue.

Middle-grade adventure, Sharon Creech, The Wanderer: The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me.

Notice what the reader is made to see or consider. Just saying, I admire Sharon Creech’s voice.

To summarize, some ways to set a tone include: MC’s control or lack of control of her situation and even her thoughts; our MC’s thoughts and attitude; and where we direct our reader’s attention.

Here are three prompts:

• Some fairy tales lend themselves to horror. “Snow White” is one, in my opinion. She’s mysteriously passive all the way through. And what’s more horrifying than being placed in a glass coffin and then being brought back to life by a kiss from a total stranger who assumes she’ll be glad to marry him? Write a horror version of “Snow White.”

• Give the horror treatment to another fairy tale. To me, good candidates are “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Hansel and Gretel.”

• Try “Rumpelstiltskin” as a mystery. Rumpelstiltskin has taken the child of the miller’s-daughter-turned-queen. Your MC, the fairy tale gumshoe, has been hired to find the child.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Fear of Writing

This is the usage item that I promised last time: You may remember that I’m working on a book based on the Trojan War. Well, women in ancient Greece lived restricted lives and didn’t go out much. They mostly stayed in the women’s quarters, and I wanted to know if women’s quarters can take a singular verb as well as a plural one, since in my book the women’s quarters are a single big room. According my favorite authority, the blog of grammarphobia.com, quarters in any context is always plural. Weird, huh? So a correct sentence is, as before, The women’s quarters are a single big room. And another correct sentence is, A single big room comprises the women’s quarters. Compounding the weirdness, the word headquarters can take either a singular or a plural verb. We’re deep in the weeds here, but English usage is mysterious and wonderful.

Onto the post!

On December 14, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, So… I’ve been having a problem lately.

I’m kind of afraid to write again. After the epic failure that was NaNoWriMo, I’ve been having a very hard time getting myself to write. It’s not just that I failed, it’s that I feel like I failed so badly. I hate my story, I hate my characters, I hate the idea… but I used to love all of those things very much. I’ve always had a difficult time choosing ideas, but I was invested enough in my NaNoWriMo idea to want to finish it, and to think I actually could.

And I know I asked a question about writing past the beginning, and I still need an answer to that, since I’ve always had that problem. But now I can’t even write anything without thinking I’m gonna fail, and end up ruining a really good story/world/characters.

Any advice on how to get over my fear, and write even when I’m 99.9% sure I’ll fail?

I wrote back, I’ve added your question to my list, but I won’t get to it for a while because of all the excellent questions above it. In the meantime, please put your NaNoWriMo project away and don’t look at it for at least a month. At the end of the month, peek at it. If you still despise it, put it away for another month. Repeat. While you’re waiting, write small projects, like poems or letters to imaginary relatives. Treat your writing injury as you would a sprained ankle. Go easy.

And future_famous_author wrote, If it takes you so long to get back to your NaNoWriMo story that you want to start something new, that could be a good idea, too. And, if you don’t stick to that, try going back to your NaNoWriMo. Maybe all you need to do is get away from it for a little bit.

That was seven months ago, so I just went into my blog dashboard and looked at Kit Kat Kitty’s recent comments, and I’m happy to report that she/you are back to writing. The NaNoWriMo novel even got finished. Congratulations!

I also see that it hasn’t gotten its author’s seal of approval, which may come in time. Or not.

The important thing is to keep writing. We learn when we write, whether we’re working on something new or on a revision.

Writing itself is hard, but it isn’t the only hard thing about writing. Harsh, global self-criticism is the other hard part. I used to paint and draw before I started writing, but my self-attack was so relentless that I stopped eventually, which I talk about in Writing Magic. A book that helped me enormously, which I think I’ve mentioned here, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. The author theorizes that the nagging voice in our mind comes from outside criticism when we were very young. That evil criticism worms itself inside us until it becomes part of us. Kit Kat Kitty’s fear may be fear of that inner carping voice.

One remedy may be to put aside the art aspect of writing and concentrate on craft. Let’s compare it with something you know how to do or something I know how to do, and for me, let’s take lifting weights, because I’m mighty proud of my brute strength. Often if lifting isn’t going well, the reason is that I’m not tightening my muscles, or maybe my feet are too close together, or I’m not keeping my chest high. It’s never a failure of character, talent, potential, or even, so far, of encroaching decrepitude.

Same with a piece of writing. Say we think we hate our characters. In the aggregate, that isn’t helpful, so we pick a particular character, our MC, for instance, whose name is Janey. Well, what do we hate? We can list everything we despise. I’ll make up a few items:
• She’s whiny.
• She’s always thinking of herself.
• She doesn’t say anything interesting.
• Janey is a terrible name! She isn’t a Janey!

If we apply the craft approach, we’re in for more lists. Take the first item and the third. Both are about dialogue, though the whiny part can also happen in her thoughts. We look at her dialogue and find something she says that we find uninteresting. We consider the circumstances of the boring remark. Maybe what she said is the best anyone could do at that moment. We think about who else is talking. Is this a conversation with her best friend or with someone she doesn’t know well. Why does she say what she says? What does she hope to achieve? Well, what could she say instead that would work in the situation? We make a list! And we remember that nothing on a list is foolish. We banish fear, because no one is going to read our list, and we aren’t going to judge it, either, for two reasons: because it’s just a list and because we’ve sworn off judging.

We can also ask ourselves what she’s thinking while she speaks. Is she aware that she isn’t adding any excitement? Her thoughts can make her speech less boring. For example, she may be dreadfully shy and wildly imaginative. While she’s saying that the tulip is pretty she can be imagine the flower swallowing her and turning her into a person without a mouth.

Or we can look at her whiny thoughts and speech. We can change these too by listing other options for each example. Sometimes we can simply cut. We can make her self-aware. She can check with a friend to see if she’s feeling too sorry for herself.

The trick is, using craft, we eliminate our emotional involvement. This is just a problem, like a weight-lifting one or a math problem, to solve. When fear, hate, or despair surface, we banish them. We don’t have time for them.

I really do this. Sometimes I question what I’m writing in a discouraging way. Then I get back to my WIP. By now, it’s become automatic. The attack isn’t useful.

As soon as I started writing for kids, I realized one of its advantage over drawing and painting: Writing is infinitely revisable. You can paint over oil and acrylics again and again, but you lose what went before, which you may want to go back to, as I often did. This is why I say to save what you write.

My only fear as I write this is that if you’re learning from me, you may become as slow a writer as I am! Lists take time. Do-overs take time. But I don’t know any other way.

Here are three prompts:

• MC James and his best friend Shinara are FaceTiming about the locusts that have descended on their town and the surrounding farms. They are cracking each other up with a list of the pros and cons of locusts, and neither one is whiny. Write their dialogue. (You may want to Google locusts, because in about two seconds of looking, I found something that could go in the pro column–or in both the pro and con columns.)

• For the fun of it, James and Shinara decide to meet halfway between their two houses, even though they’re not supposed to go out. Write what happens.

• Your MC, Princess Shinara, aka Sleeping Beauty, is the guest of honor at the Sweet Dreams palace ball where she is destined to prick herself. She believes nothing interesting ever comes out of her mouth. Her big worry at the ball is that everyone will fall asleep at the magic moment and wake up thinking how dull she is, and they will dream for the hundred years about the uninspiring, insipid monarch they’re stuck with. Write what actually happens at the ball.

Have fun and save what you write!

Going Short

Here’s a grammar thing in my occasional (rare) remarks about grammar and usage. I just heard this mistake in an online poetry reading. You may know what’s correct, but if not, here it is. It isn’t a happy thing, but we writers should get it right. The past tense of hang when it comes to people is hanged. This from Merriam-Webster: “The Salem “witches” were not burned; they were hanged.” Otherwise, it’s hung.  For our purposes, though, there may be exceptions. If I were writing about elves, for example, I’d use hanged (although the idea of hanged elves is horrible). Same if the characters in my story were talking animals.

I have another less depressing one for the next post if I remember.

On December 12, 2019, Whimsical Wordsmith wrote, I was wondering how to keep stories short. I often come up with ideas for stories that I like and want to work on, and I dive right in. But the plots and subplots become more and more complex, and suddenly, I have a novel on my hands. I’m already in the process of writing a novel at the moment and can’t tackle another right now; how do I keep short stories short?

A conversation developed.

Katie W.: What you can do (and what I have done several times) is write a single episode in the larger story. Novel chapters are usually pretty good lengths for short stories. I’m not so good at incorporating the right bits of backstory to make it make sense to other people, but it might work a bit better for you. If you still want to try to write the entire story, you could try writing it from a summarizing standpoint, like authors do when they recap what’s happened in earlier books. It would make it more formal, possibly too formal for your taste, but it might work.

Whimsical Wordsmith: Thanks for the suggestion, that will definitely help. Maybe I didn’t word the rest of my question exactly right though:

How do I make short stories that stay short, but still include the important details? I try to incorporate the backstory, but it comes off as the character just spilling information to the character for no exact reason (I’m used to information being revealed through events and little snippets, but it becomes a little too long and slow in a short story). How do I determine what and what doesn’t need to be known to the reader?

Katie W.: Sorry, I can’t help you with that because I have exactly the same problem. I took a creative writing class this semester, and one of the most consistent bits of feedback I got was that there wasn’t enough world building/backstory for people to understand what was going on. The stories were about a third of the length I was used to, and for a lot of it I was working with characters I was already familiar with, and so I ended up leaving out a lot of stuff that apparently needed to be explained.

Raina: I think there are two ways to approach this issue: one is to recognize what story ideas are meant for short story form, and the second is to actually cut them down.

Some ideas are better fits for novels than short stories, and that’s perfectly fine! Just be aware of that, and be ready to approach them from a different angle. Generally a sign is complex or multiple subplots, or too many main characters. For me, the general rule of thumb is if I can’t plan out all of the plot events, beginning to end, without having to write stuff down, then it’s not meant to be a short story. Number of scenes can also be an indicator; short stories generally focus on a small slice of life that tells a complete story in a few scenes, or in some rarer cases, a large “tapestry” that covers a lot of time but uses a lot of telling instead of showing and never zooms in (like classic fairy tales). But it sounds like you already recognize when a short story is turning into a novel. What I’d recommend is to let it become a novel (just because you have an idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have to work on it right away! It’s perfectly fine to write your ideas down and come back to actually write the book when you’ve cleared off your plate) or get rid of all the subplots to turn it back into a short story.

As for how to cut your short story shorter: a good rule of thumb is that everything that does not relate to the central storyline in an important and unique way needs to go. And if you’ve gone through the steps above to make sure your story is a short story, your central storyline should be clear and relatively simple.

I’m going to argue that unlike in novels, details such as backstory, character development, and world-building only need to be there if they have a direct impact on the present action. And it only needs to be there once; if you already have a paragraph showing a personality trait of your character, you don’t need to have a different paragraph showing that same trait in a different way, unless it contributes something significantly new and important. For example, look at the classic short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (Upper middle school and up, link here: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lamb.html), which is about a housewife who murders her husband in a crime of passion and gets away with it by feeding the murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the unwitting detectives. The story is 3899 words and has approximately 3 scenes covering about an evening of real time. Notice what details Dahl leaves out: most of Mary’s relationship with her husband, including the actual details of the conversation that incites her to murder. If this was a novel, it would be great to show a lot of flashbacks to see the intricacies of the relationship between Mary and Patrick, or little details to show their individual personalities. But in a short story, that would be unnecessary, because the story isn’t about Mary and Patrick’s failing marriage; it’s about Mary getting away with murder with a clever scheme. Dahl tells us what we need to know in broad strokes. Mary’s pregnant (which is relevant because that’s her motivation for trying to get away with murder), she’s a doting housewife who adores her husband (which is why she’s so shocked and devastated when he asks to divorce her, and puts her in the mindset for murder), and her husband just dumped her (which is what pushes her to murder). All of those directly relate to the central storyline, which is the murder and the subsequent cover-up.

I’m with Raina all the way.

If a story wants to be a novel, I say, Hooray! My mind also makes a natural beeline for complexity. Some of us are mainly novelists and some mostly short story writers.

But if you’re a novelist and want to try a shorter form, that’s terrific. We should stretch ourselves sometimes, in this case by shrinking!

I’m also with Raina about bringing in only a few major characters. In fact, I think that may be the most important strategy. I’d also suggest that only one character–or none!–is allowed a backstory, which will narrow our plot and keep it focused. The reader should really care only about our MC. Okay, maybe one other character can matter.

I haven’t read many short stories, but my favorite is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (high school and up). There’s very little action. The MC and his wife are visited by an old friend of hers who’s blind. The MC, who is an unappealing character, doesn’t like blind people. They eat dinner and watch a documentary on TV about a cathedral. The wife goes upstairs, comes down again, falls asleep on the couch. The blind man and the MC draw the cathedral in the documentary. That’s it, and yet the unlikable MC goes through a transformation and is barely the same person by the end. The story is an astonishment.

There are just three characters, and the only back story is related by the MC, and it’s about his wife. We never find out what made the MC the closed-off, biased person he is. We’re shown his personality vividly through his thoughts and don’t need anything more to participate as readers in his transformation.

So one choice we can make is to focus on character over action.

And to remember that backstory often isn’t necessary. We may need it for ourselves to understand our characters, but the reader doesn’t have to be in on the secret. Even in novels, backstory is no more than optional. In the Sherlock Holmes books, for example, we never learn what makes Holmes so brilliant and peculiar or why Moriarty is evil, and why Dr. Watson is ordinary. They just are.

Another strategy is to paint on a small canvas. If our setting is limited, we don’t have to devote a lot of words to it. “Cathedral” begins and ends in the MC’s home. The action may even take place in only one room, but I don’t remember well enough to be sure.

I have four published short stories in anthologies. One is a contemporary fantasy, and another would probably be described as contemporary science fiction. The other two are simply contemporary without any magic. If we stick with the modern world, we have only the fantasy element to explain, if it’s there. If we try fantasy, I’d say we should impose limits on our world-building. We can set our story in familiar settings, like a medieval town and then leave most of it to the reader’s imagination. We can allow ourselves, say, one dragon and one elf. We’re just asking for a novel if we include ogres, fairies, and changelings.

The premise of my short story, “Wish Week,” a contemporary fantasy, is that in a certain town, during Wish Week, the sixth graders make a wish, which, within certain limits, comes true–for a week. Only the child who made the wish remembers the results in detail. At the end of the week, everything snaps back to normal. My MC, who is in the middle of an argument with her best friend, wishes for the metaphor in the saying to come true: to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. My MC sees the effects globally as people understand the effects of their actions. The major characters are my MC and her best friend. Walk-on roles go to a former best friend, Tam’s mother, and a few staff at the middle school. Settings are limited, too. There’s brief backstory about the two friendships. The story is twenty-four pages long.

Endings can be less resolved than they often are in novels. The reader doesn’t find out if the transformation in “Cathedral” lasts more than a day. In Raina’s example, the reader doesn’t find out if Mary goes on to become known as the frozen-meat serial killer.

One more strategy: Keep the time frame of the story tight. “Lamb to the Slaughter” takes place in an evening. Same with “Cathedral.” “Wish Week” lasts a week or so. Longer times will cry out for more pages.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC goes on a hike with a friend, and they meet one other person (or creature). When they come back, your MC has new insight into herself. Write the story.

• Fictionalize an anecdote from your life in a short story.

• If you’re in high school or high school plus, read “Cathedral,” which is available online, and write a short story (or a novel) that takes place earlier in the life of the MC. Or try one that takes place after the events in “Cathedral.” Or write both!

• Use my wish-week idea. Your MC makes a different wish. Write a story about what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To Quirk or Not to Quirk

On December 10, 2019, future_famous_author wrote, How do you create a personality for your main character? For some odd reason, my main characters just seem to be girls who like to read and who are outgoing, at least for the most part. The side characters all have very distinct personalities, for example, the very proper princess who likes everything to be perfect and can’t stand anything that makes her seem like a commoner. Another princess is a complete rebel- she’s the youngest of three, and both of her older siblings someday rule a kingdom, leaving her to be kind of forgotten.

And then there’s my MC, who doesn’t have much personality. She’s pretty much every other girl.

How can I make her more distinct and unique?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Hm. What about this character made you pick her to be the MC? That could be a clue.

This is such an interesting question!

I’ve had the same worry myself. My secondary characters are generally quirkier than my MCs. And so are those of other authors. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.

Let’s take Peter Pan by James M. Barrie. It’s told in third-person omniscient, and the narrator has personality along with the characters. But the eyes the reader most often sees the story through are Wendy’s. She’s sweet, kind, somewhat adventurous but also conventional and not very quirky. This allows the reader to slip inside her. I certainly did when I was little, and I still do.

Peter is strange, magical, irritating, brave. His thought process is alien. He’s fascinating–viewed from the outside, because it’s impossible to get in. When I was little, I wanted to marry him! I couldn’t understand why Wendy goes home.

Now I do. He’d be an impossible, unreliable partner. Too quirky!

Or take the Sherlock Holmes series by Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is the POV character because he doesn’t have a big personality, and because, while not stupid, he isn’t extraordinarily smart. Doyle couldn’t put the reader inside Holmes’s head, because then the reader would have to see the steps Holmes takes to reach his conclusions, and the magic would evaporate.

I don’t often read novels or watch TV series with unsympathetic MCs, who always have distinctive qualities. I don’t enjoy being inside them, though a lot of people do–kind, decent people, who think these MCs are funny. So I mean no condemnation toward the writers who write unpleasant MCs. After all, these writers are most likely also kind, decent people, who just want to explore extreme characters. I want to do that, too, in my secondaries. For example, I’m captivated by many of my villains, like Skulni and Ivi in Fairest and Vollys in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

Having said all this, of course we don’t want our MCs to be ciphers (nonentities). So how do we give them the kind of (probably limited) personalities that our readers can mind-meld with?

We can look to our plots for guidance, which is what I do, because I’m a plot-centered writer. Character is super important to me, but plot is paramount. If you’re like me, you can ask yourself, What does my MC need to succeed in the end and yet also have to struggle along the way? Ella, who has a curse of obedience to contend with, is naturally defiant. Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, who has to face monsters in her quest for a cure to a dread disease, is shy and timid. Aza in Fairest, whose looks are unfashionable, is sensitive about them.

What will bring our MC’s environment into sharp relief and make her and our readers suffer for her? Loma in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, whose life is full of stress, loves the orderliness of numbers and counts compulsively to calm herself. Dave in Dave at Night, who lives in the regimented world of an orphanage, is a rebel, which both gets him into trouble and saves him.

If we’re character rather than plot centered, we start with character. What problem can we give our defiant MC? A curse of obedience! What else? Whatever problem we give her, how else will it shape her? How else can we shape her around it?

So that’s one strategy: use our plots to determine our MC’s quirks.

Let’s look at Ella close up, and I hope I don’t spoil her for anybody. What do we discover as we read? She’s defiant, persistent, has a sense of humor, a warm heart, comes up with clever things to say, and is generally intelligent. Hardly unique. Her lack of uniqueness lets the reader inhabit her.

Let’s go back to Loma for a sec. Her counting obsession is a quirk. If she were a secondary character, I’d probably bring the quirk up often, because I want the reader to remember her. But since she’s my MC, I bring it in only occasionally and trust the reader to remember. For the rest, she’s clever and loyal. Her primary motivator is her deep love for children, especially for her nieces and nephews–a trait shared by many people.

So that’s another strategy: introduce the quirk, remind the reader occasionally, keep the character consistent with it, but don’t harp on it. The reader will remember.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing a mystery from Sherlock Holmes’s POV. See if you can show the reader how his mind works and still keep his brilliance an enigma. If not, just go with him as he comes to you.

• Your MC is contending against her two brothers for the throne of Saker. The competition has three stages: to fetch a golden feather of the misa bird from the depths of a witch’s forest; to think of three policies that will make and keep the kingdom’s subjects happy; and to cross to the middle of an oiled tightrope to proclaim the three policies to the seven judges of the succession. And the unspoken final condition: to survive long enough to rule. Think about the qualities your MC needs to have to have a shot at success and the flaws that will get in her way. Give her a single quirk. Make the brothers super quirky. Write the story.

• Write the same story from the POV of one of the brothers.

Have fun and save what you write!

Back Side

Before the post, here’s info on a free virtual event: I’ll be talking about fairy tales on June 9th at 7:00 pm Central Daylight Time at the Waseca Le Sueur Fairytale and Folklore Festival. Here’ the link to register for my event: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScephrVVNjHtNTfOZnDeyYDjZ4JrQlF9_1ZKiQWZWY9clgB4g/viewform. And here’s a link for the festival itself with all its great events: http://wasecalesueurlibraries.com/festival/. Hope you can e-come!

And I can’t resist showing you this in-depth review of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/a-ceiling-made-of-eggshells.

Onto the post!

On December 10, 2019, Blue Rive wrote, How do you write long periods of character introspection/exposition on their backstory? When I do it, it tends to feel out of scene or ungrounded.

Katie W. has the same difficulty: Yes, help, please! With my traumatized MC I mentioned above, she does a lot of relating her past to the present, and I have her telling other characters about her backstory (so I don’t actually have to write it as narrative, since there are long periods where almost nothing happens), and I don’t want the backstory to take over the main story. Essentially, I don’t want a frame tale, but I want her to think about her past a lot, and I’m stuck.

First backstory, then introspection.

I’ll get to the questions as asked below, but first off, in my books, I mostly turn what might be backstory into the beginning of my book in forward moving action, if, that is, the character with the backstory is my MC and the backstory is important so that the reader can understand her. Fairest is an example of this approach. I start with Aza’s adoption, rather than much later with her first day in the royal castle as the duchess’s companion. This gives me space to develop her family and the consequences of her unfashionable appearance. By the time she gets to the castle, the reader knows what to worry about.

This way also allows me, since I’m a pantser, to make discoveries about Aza and my secondary characters along the way.

My guess for both Blue Rive and Katie W. is that their characters’ backstory is significant and probably dramatic. Then why not let it unfold and give it all the detail that front story allows?

About the long periods when not a lot is going on, we can use telling to zoom past these dull patches. For example, suppose our MC Madi’s trauma is bullying and the bully torments her only when she goes to her dance lessons. We can use the times in between to show events in other parts of our story, but when none of these are available, we can just say something like, Time flies when you’re having fear. It seemed like only seven minutes had passed in the seven days since the green-paint incident. Poof! The week (or months or even a year) is gone.

The problem with backstory can be that it interrupts forward momentum for the reader, who has to leave the excitement, get engrossed in the backstory, and then return to the story, which will have cooled in his mind.

If backstory is a must, though, we have choices. We can reveal it in memory or dialogue, or we can show it in a flashback. If in memory, we can use short bursts that provide bits of the history, which the reader assembles over time. Bursts mean that the reader doesn’t have to leave the unfolding action for long at all.

If we use dialogue, we can make the conversation part of the drama. Or we can have the chatting take place between high-tension scenes, when the reader is happy to have a little break.

If we choose flashbacks, we can show what happened in detail. This one does have the problem of interrupting the flow, but if the reader is invested in our story, he’ll make the leaps. I’ve posted here on the blog about flashbacks, so you can take a look, if you like.

Next introspection.

As a reader, I love being inside an MC’s head. I want to know how she’s reacting to everything that’s done to her and everything that she does back. Otherwise, I feel on uncertain ground. Sometimes I’m not sure I understand what’s going on.

When we’re writing in first person, the reader learns everything from the narrator, who is usually the MC. Unless she’s emotionally flat, her thoughts and feelings will flow naturally onto the page.

I just pulled out a few of my books to see how I handle thoughts, which, weirdly, I couldn’t describe without looking. I generally include them in little bits dropped into my story, but I found two pages of pretty solid thinking in The Two Princesses of Bamarre when MC Addie makes an important decision.

So that’s a strategy to keep the reader engaged in thoughts: use them to advance the plot.

Another is to use them to develop character. The reader learns how our MC processes what happens to her by thinking. A great example of this is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I think is for high-school age readers and up. It’s a classic, though I was never fond of it. Still, when I looked a minute ago at an online sample, I saw that it’s all thoughts and without them I don’t believe there would be much. Worth looking at if you’ve never read it, or worth revisiting.

Our MC can also enhance the reader’s understanding of other characters through her thoughts. The reader, who’s gaining insights, is happy.

Voice and surprises are another strategy for keeping readers interested in our MC’s thoughts. If they’re entertaining to read (they don’t have to be happy thoughts), if she keeps surprising us with the workings of her mind, the reader will be eager to follow her through her ramblings, knowing he’ll be pleased with the journey.

Here are three prompts:

• Try writing “Cinderella” from the POV of a stepsister. She has a backstory that explains her cruelty to Cinderella. Think of what that backstory might be. Make a list of possibilities. Reveal the backstory in thoughts as the front story moves forward.

• Now do it the other way around. Start the stepsister’s story with what happened to make her cruel. Write it that way, as front story. Compare the ways the two versions unfold.

• Let’s use “Cinderella” and the bullying idea I introduced above. One stepsister is worse than the other, and every interaction with her–even just the sight of her–sets off compulsive thoughts in Cinderella. Write the story, including these thoughts, but vary them. Sometimes they show how Cinderella thinks, sometimes what she decides, sometimes her perspective on other characters. Explore the workings of her mind as if you’re on a tour: in this part charming flowers grow, but here is the circus of performing monsters, and here is the tunnel to early memories.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Distinguishing

Before the post–drum roll! A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, is out! Hope you read it and enjoy it! If you haven’t already, I did a virtual launch on Facebook on May 14th following my usual daily reading. In it, I talk about the book and my research and take questions. You can see and hear it here: https://www.facebook.com/GailCarsonLevine/videos/3570405463045222/ If you’d like a bookplate-signed book, you can buy one at Byrd’s Books: https://byrdsbooks.indielite.org/.

Onto the post. On December 9, 2019, Superb♥Girl wrote, I feel like my two main characters are too similar, and I want them to be foils to each other. Y’all have any advice for creating opposites?

Several of you responded:

Erica: In some ways, similarities in personality can create more interesting situations than different personalities. That being said, change the less prominent character more than the more prominent character, and change only one thing at a time. That way, you can assess each change individually.

Melissa Mead: Show a point where they were both in a difficult situation, and made very different choices.

Blue Rive: I don’t know about creating foils–I’d like to learn how to do that better as well–but for making characters different, consider giving them defining quirks. For example, I have one character who’s very rational and thinks through everything she does logically, and then her friend wants to be a storyteller and thinks about things emotionally, plus has a very lyrical way of speaking and thinking.

For foils–I lied: I do have advice–make their personalities very different (though they don’t have to be opposite) but their actions (Catra and Glimmer from She-Ra) or backstories (Mura and Rat from The Nameless City) very similar.

These are great!

I’d never thought of Erica’s suggestion, to change the less prominent character more significantly than the most important one, and I like it, because it should make the revision easier and may lead to fewer plot adjustments.

The discussion about personality and action makes me think of my parents, who died over thirty years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve told this anecdote here a long time ago. They were a love match. They squabbled sometimes, but my sister and I always knew that they loved each other–theirs was a romance that kept going.

Personality-wise, they were very different. My father showed three emotional states: joy, anger, and quiet (when something troubled him). Joy predominated, luckily for my sister and me. He didn’t reveal his inner life to anyone but my mother. She, on the other hand, presented emotional complexity–worried about everything, sometimes went into rages, had a bitter sense of humor, was afraid to show that she was happy (though we knew she was, fundamentally). Of course I loved them both, but she, prickly as she was, was easier to get close to.

When I was grown up and married, my husband David wanted to change jobs. After an interview, he brought home copies of the personality test he’d been given, which was pages and pages long. It may have been Myers-Briggs, which has come up several times here. I took the test at home. I don’t remember the results, but I came out quite differently from David. The next time we saw my parents, I gave each of them the test.

My mother completed it in the room where we all were, and she was finished in five or ten minutes. My father needed silence and shut the door behind him on an empty bedroom. He didn’t emerge for forty-five minutes.

When we scored it, they had each answered every single question identically!

First off, there are two strategies locked up in my anecdote for creating characters who differ from each other. One has been discussed a lot on the blog, that we can use Myers-Briggs or other personality tests to invent our characters. The other is, we can look around at real people we know or knew and use bits of them in our characters. Living (or dead) people offer traits we may not imagine out of our heads. We can write a short description of, say, seven actual people. Then we can stare at what we have and consider how we can use the descriptions in our stories.

Also, this anecdote makes me think about Melissa Mead’s comment. Real people and fictional ones are defined by their actions. Many factors shape personality, but two are certainly what happens to us and what we do about it.

My mother was an adolescent during the Depression. She never talked about that time, but I know the family was very poor, and there may have been times they didn’t have enough to eat, which I don’t doubt fueled her worrying. She was insanely (and sometimes embarrassingly) frugal. In a restaurant, for instance, after everyone had eaten the bread the server brought, she’d ask for more and stuff the second helping into her purse!

My father had a terrible childhood growing up in an orphanage. His joy may have been fueled by the certainty that everything in his future had to be better than that. He was a risk-taker and started his own business.

But it isn’t always so straightforward. My mother’s ethics when it came to property were slippery. If, when she was clothes shopping, for example, she liked a dress that had belt loops but no belt, she’d be outraged and would help herself to a matching belt. (She was never caught, and I would have pitied any store detective who nabbed her!)

My father professed to be horrified by this tendency in her, but I once saw him behave just as dodgily. He took me to a farm stand to buy corn, and, on the way, told me that the farmer always gave customers an extra ear when they bought a dozen. This time the farmer didn’t. When we got home, to my astonishment and dismay, he produced a thirteenth ear, which he’d pilfered.

I hasten to add that their children didn’t inherit our parents’ propensity to steal!

So two stressed childhoods, which were differently stressed, produced both similar and dissimilar actions. Same with our characters. While we distinguish them, we can also create likenesses, which will surprise readers. When something happens, we can decide on their responses, which will be predictable and not predictable.

Voice, like action, is a tool for character development. If these characters alternate POV, we can distinguish their voices. One can narrate in long, multi-clause sentences, that display an impressive vocabulary. The other voice can be direct, simple–short sentences and short words. One can often ask questions. The other can use exclamations. The narrations can reveal their inner lives. Going back to my parents, one inner life can be anxious, the other brimming with optimism. My WIP has two POV characters, one for the first half of the book, the other for the second. The first half is in the past tense, the second in present. I’m hoping that simply changing tense will go a long way toward differentiating them.

If we’re not writing in first person, or if only one MC narrates, we can use dialogue in the same way as I described in the last paragraph.

We can set up an argument between the two characters that will highlight their differences. In an argument, more than words and volume set people and characters apart. Again, it’s worth thinking about real people here. Some retreat into silence. Some play down a problem, others exaggerate it. There are physical differences, too. A friend’s eyebrows slant up alarmingly when she’s angry. A cousin tends to drum on something withe his fingertips. We can make a list!

Here are three prompts:

• We return to “The Three Little Pigs.” This time, have the them argue about house construction. Write their dialogue. Show their different personalities in the way they fight. If you can, without ever saying outright which pig builds which house, make the reader know.

• Describe five people you know, a paragraph or so for each. Then pick one of the Biblical plagues on Egypt, like frogs or boils. Write another paragraph about how they’d respond. If you like, use what you come up with in a story.

• Try a Freaky Friday idea. There’s a big power differential between your two MCs, like school principal versus a new student, or starship commander versus a cadet, or duchess versus a stable hand. Or any other asymmetric relationship you pick. Have them change places for a day, a week–whatever you like. Write a story about how they respond to their new situation.

Have fun, and save what you write!