Louie, Louie

In New York State, people over seventy (I’m seventy-two) or with health challenges that make them particularly vulnerable have been told to stay home. (Just saying to put you at ease, I have no health challenges.) Stay home period. Groceries are left outside our gate. I’m lucky to have my husband and my dog, to keep company with, and a big backyard to walk in. And to have you guys–to be able to read your questions, discussions, and the way we support each other. Please, everybody, be careful and stay well!

On December 4, 2019, in response to my plea for questions, Melissa Mead wrote, Questions….let’s see…

I write really slowly. Any tips on writing faster/spending less time chasing red herrings?

The WIP has 2 POV characters. How can I balance out their timelines?

I wrote back, About the first, I’m very slow too, and I chase red herrings, which sometimes turn out to be crucial. I’ll take a stab at this one from the standpoint of a fellow easily distracted writer.

I’ve added this to my list, but are they together, interacting, or are they in different places?

And Melissa Mead answered, In different places–and they’re essentially 2 versions of the same person. in different places, interacting with some of the same people, but at different times. They meet up once or twice in the course of the story, and at the end.

My brain hurts just trying to explain it.

Raina came in with these suggestions: For the writing faster, this method helped me tremendously, and I’ll let the original author explain it much better than I ever could: www.thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html.

The part that particularly changed my way of thinking was Side 1: Knowledge, or Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It. I use her method for outlining scenes before writing them for nearly everything I write now, and now the actual writing goes so much smoother. Of course, my scene summaries tend to be looong and take me a while to write so I don’t know if I’m actually saving time, but it feels so much easier and that alone is worth it for me.

For timelines, I really like this NaNoWriMo blog post about plotting your story like a subway map: www.blog.nanowrimo.org/post/166302962291/nano-prep-outline-your-story-like-a-subway-map. I’m a visual person who loves using number lines to visualize plotting and pacing, so this was right up my alley. Your results may vary, but it’s worth a look, especially for complicated/multiple plot lines.

If you’re talking about in-story *time*, specifically, rather than narrative pacing, I found that a simple schedule helps, at least on a small scale. I planned out my MC’s day like an agenda (12 AM: arrival. 1-2 AM: getting settled in. 2:15 A.M.: visit another character) and it helped me keep track of timing and how long things should take. It also helps to remember that narrative pacing and in-story time can be very different; a 3,000-word scene that’s mostly dialogue can take place in less time than it actually takes to read, while a single paragraph of a character traveling can take place over hours or even days. It also helps me catch when I forget to make characters eat or sleep.

Thank you, Raina! I especially like the enthusiasm side and the techniques to ramp it up. Being eager to write a scene makes everything easier and more fun.

There’s this quote attributed to Oscar Wilde, although the wording varies. It goes something like, “I had a busy and productive day. In the morning, I took out a comma, and in the afternoon, I put it back in.”

He was talking about poetry, and poets are notoriously finicky and precious. Still, everyone’s pace is different, and we should take credit, as Oscar Wilde did, for our productivity (even if the word count is zero).

As I’ve said here, I’m slow. I don’t know if all pantsers are. But lately, I’ve had to face the fact that I allow the online world, especially emails, to contribute to my pokiness. I’ve started limiting email checking to half-hour intervals, and I’ve already noticed improved concentration.

But it isn’t only email. I google too much. As you may know, I’m writing about the Trojan War. Near the end of the war, thirteen Amazon women came to the aid of Troy. Thirteen is a small number, but the Amazons (who really existed) were fabulous warriors, and they cut a swath into the Greek army. I’ve read a book about them, The Amazons, Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. They were Scythians, an ancient people, who were technologically advanced for the time: among the first to domesticate the horse and to smelt iron. Most of all, for my purposes, their bows were far and away better than any others, smaller but more powerful than those of the Greeks. The Scythian bow was complicated, consisting of wood, animal horn, sinew, and animal glue. Making a single bow took a few years, so each one was precious. My MC is a young bowyer (bow-maker), so I need to understand the process.

I’ve spent hours online, reading articles, watching YouTube demos, and–in terms of frittering–learning many fascinating things I may never need. The whole process still isn’t clear to me, but I may have enough for the writing. I now know how to make glue from my dog’s collection of half-chewed rawhide!

So we limit our email checking, our Facebook looking, our tweeting (I don’t do that one), our Instagram gawking (guilty!). We set limits.

Pantser that I am, I now know that I need a fundamental, very basic, maybe just half a page, outline. And I have to know, more or less, the ending. With those two, I’m confident that I have a real story and not a meandering maze. And with them, I write (slightly) faster.

I write faster, too, as I get farther along and the choices narrow, and the excitement builds–I think this is the enthusiasm side. So, it will help us to keep our eyes on the prize, our basic plot and our ending.

A deadline can help, too. It does for NaNoWriMo writers. I have deadlines, but I generally push them so far out that a non-English speaking writer could probably learn the language from scratch and make my deadline. (Slight exaggeration.) Even if you don’t have a waiting editor, you can set a deadline.

However, we all go at our own pace and take our pleasure where we may. I like fiddling and rewriting as I go and making lists and seeing what I come up with. I enjoy framing and reframing a sentence sometimes and sometimes getting an elegant turn of phrase. These do slow me down, I guess, but they also are part of what I love. I won’t come anywhere close to the output of the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who, in his seventy-two years, wrote or edited more than five hundred books–I’d have to live more than five hundred years!

In terms of the timeline for Melissa Mead’s two characters, a chart might help. Since they’re versions of the same character, lets call them Louie One and Louie Two. The chart might consist of a column for each Louie with a third column for dates and times. For some times, when the action is intense, we’ll need to include hours and possibly even minutes. For example, the left-hand column might show Saturday, 9:00 am. Next column: Louie One, dusting the bric-a-brac in his front parlor. Third column: Louie Two, spooning arsenic into his delicious lamb stew. Next line: 10:00 am. Louie One, not in story. Louie Two, ladling stew into mason jars. And so on. (I don’t know if they can be in separate places at the same moment–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde couldn’t be.)

I think the chart can be used either during the writing or in revision–or both.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Jack and Jill live in the kingdom of Desertia, which has been in a drought for fifty years. Throughout their whole young lives, they’ve heard rumors of a well on a certain hill. A pail of water from that amazing well will inexhaustibly irrigate all the farms in the kingdom. There are conditions, though. Not a drop of water may be spilled, and the pail may be lowered into the well only once. In half an hour of real time, write any scene from Jack and Jill’s journey to the hill. Decide if you’d like to spend the half hour writing the tragic denouement.

∙ Jack lives in western Desertia, and Jill lives in the far east. The well is over the northern border in the kingdom of Floodovia. In an exchange of letters, they agree to meet at the bottom of the hill at sunrise on a certain morning. Each encounters obstacles on the way. Jump back and forth between them, and write their travels, keeping track of the time, so that they do arrive as arranged.

∙ Both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are diarists, though their styles are quite different. Dr. Jekyll mulls over every word, and Mr. Hyde writes at a fever pitch, the heck with grammar, spelling, and handwriting. Write a diary for each of them.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Santa on the Dark Side

On December 4, 2019, Raina wrote her third question in response to my plea for questions (Thank you, Raina!): What do you do when your story turns “deeper” than you originally intended, and a whole bunch of complicated (not bad or problematic, just…complicated) themes and messages crop up, and the story you find yourself writing is no longer the story you set out to tell? I’m really bad at explaining this one, it’s more like a gut feeling. To use some examples from my work, what was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted adventure romp about Santa turned into a story about revenge, power, grey morality, and social media mob mentality. In other words, thematically it basically went from Percy Jackson to Game of Thrones.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like dark, deep, serious, or morally complex books, or that I think that MG readers shouldn’t read these books. I love Game of Thrones and similar works *because* of the complicated characters and grey morality, and I think there should absolutely be books like that for MG readers. It’s not really a matter of a serious tone or “dark” content, either. (I asked a similar question a while back but I don’t think I phrased it well.) It’s more like, as I write, the story is starting to ask difficult questions that I don’t know how to answer and am not sure I want to ask.

And, of course, part two of the question is how do you know if this is actually an issue, and not just in your head? I have a tendency to overthink/over-read into things (like the old joke where the English teacher goes on a long analysis about what blue curtains symbolize, while the writer just liked the color blue) and maybe I’m seeing things between the lines that normal readers would never notice.

And as a note, I know that some stories are *meant* to be serious, complicated works that force the reader to think deeply about the world and its issues. I like to read those and I sometimes write those, but my problem is when a book that *isn’t* supposed to be like that starts turning into that and I can’t control it. Sometimes I just want a fun, lighthearted adventure romp to stay a fun, lighthearted adventure romp.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can sympathize. Real-life politics are trying to creep into the WIP, and I don’t want ’em there. Themes, sure. Moral issues, sure. But not something I just saw on the news, only with serpent-demons. (Fortunately for the WIP, life’s simpler for serpent-demons. If somebody invades their territory, the demons just eat ’em.)

Raina responded, Yes! That is my problem exactly. I can deal with morally complex big-picture themes relatively easier than I can with smaller, specific ideas that may or may not be reminiscent of real-world issues (though neither are easy to deal with). Themes like power, morality, corruption, etc., have been around for millennia, both in fiction and in history, because humans are flawed, and I feel like I have comparatively more leeway to explore them from all angles because of that. They’re so common, and occur in so many different forms, that you can’t really pinpoint any specific event or issue that those themes correspond with.

But what I’m really afraid of is writing something and have a reader think “this sounds like an analogy for a specific thing that’s going on in the real world, and this is what I think the author is trying to say about that real-world thing” when I wasn’t trying to say anything at all. I admire authors who use their medium to address real-world problems, and I think it can be done well, but sometimes I just want a story to be a story and I’m afraid people will read between the lines and find messages that I never meant to leave.

I feel your pain! Since my Princess Tales book, Sonora and the Long Sleep, came out I’ve heard from readers a few times about–breast-feeding! If you’ve read the book and remember, Sonora is ten times smarter than any other human being. She can talk almost instantly (though with a lisp, because she doesn’t have teeth yet), and she refuses to be breast-fed, calling it cannibalism.

Readers have deduced that I, Sonora’s creator, oppose breast-feeding. Not so! But I imagined Sonora as, intellectually, a twelve-year-old in a baby’s body. At twelve, there is no way I would have breast-fed!

If I’d anticipated this response, would I have changed what I wrote or cut it entirely? I can’t say. This was many years ago. But I continue to like it, because it’s true to my character, and it’s funny.

We can’t anticipate what readers will think when they read our stories. It’s wonderful when they let us know, because they felt strongly enough about our words to reach out to us. (We can answer, or not.)

Going back to the first part of Raina’s question, about serious and problematic themes cropping up unexpectedly, I have a couple of thoughts.

This is just a possibility: These grave topics may be pushing you, wanting to be written about. If we tamp them down, our story may punish us in the ways that recalcitrant stories know all too well how to do.

Raina, I remember that you outline. You might spend a few hours figuring out where the story would go if you let it be serious. If you like what happens, you can go that way.

If you don’t, then you can list ways to lighten things up.

If you’re a pantser like me, you may have to write a lot of pages to find out.

Or you can write both stories. A writer I loved (I haven’t read him in years), the late Donald Westlake (high school and up), wrote comic crime novels under his own name and darker crime novels under the name Richard Stark. In the comic ones, the MC is always the bumbling crook, Dortmunder, and in the serious ones, the criminal MC (but not the villain) is Parker. In one of the funny books, Dortmunder and his gang of idiots have a book by Richard Stark (which is an actual Richard Stark book that Westlake wrote). They decide to commit Stark’s crime exactly, because it turns out well for him. What could go wrong? It’s such a funny premise! Westlake got two books out of one. You can, too.

If we decide we don’t want to be serious, how can we dial it back?

∙ Our characters. This is probably the most important one. Let’s make Santa our MC. We can write two versions of his stream of consciousness:

The dark one: The letters came from this house. Not addressed to the elves or the old elf, who would be me, but to the King of Cold, the bringer of winter, the troll at the top of the world. Been on my mind all year. Don’t they realize I need to be happy? Don’t they know my happiness affects everyone else’s?

The light-hearted one: The letters came from this house. Sent me straight to the mirror to see the troll at the top of the world. I didn’t get what she meant until I shone a flashlight under my chin and forced a snarl. Ho, ho, ho! That was funny. I want to thank this girl. She got me through a dull summer.

If we’re getting too serious, we can examine what our characters are thinking, saying, doing, and make different choices for them. Also, the effects of events on our MC will influence the mood. An MC who keeps trying, who isn’t defeated when events go against her, will keep our story bobbing up no matter what.

Secondary characters can help, too. If Santa shows the troubling letters to his chief helper, that character will also set the tone. If she’s horrified or outraged, matters may escalate. If she, for instance, says, “You want to hear from your public, boss. I wish somebody would once, just once, write to me.” she’ll calm the waters.

∙ The stakes. The stakes don’t have to be high for a story to be engrossing. What’s needed most is likable characters who care deeply about an issue, which could be either winning the snowman-making competition or surviving the global snow-pocalypse caused by nuclear winter. If our story is more serious than we want it to be, we can lower the stakes.

∙ Setting. Might be hard to make The Shining quite so scary if it took place in a Holiday Inn or a private house, say a raised ranch.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m never sure how to take the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill,” which seems tragic. Turn the rhyme into two stories, one sad and one happy.

∙ Take “Jack and Jill” again. Your MC, Abby, is babysitting for little Bobby, who heard the rhyme at school and was terrified. At home, he brings it up and weeps uncontrollably. Write a very serious story in which Abby, who means well, makes everything worse, with lasting consequences for her, Bobby, his family, and the town of Hillsford.

∙ Santa receives the first name-calling letter in July and begins a correspondence with the writer. Write a few letters back and forth and then have the two meet. Let the story decide for you whether it’s lighthearted or dark.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Repainting the Big Picture

This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?

A few of you responded.

Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.

NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.

future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.

I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.

Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.

Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.

We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?

Naturally, we can make a list!

∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.

∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.

∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.

∙ More that you can make up.

The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.

Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.

Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.

On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.

Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.

Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).

If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.

But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.

Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.

Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.

∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Keeping On Keeping On

Before the post, this is a good time to mention the annual writers’ conference (in the fall) from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL), which I think is the best, most helpful one-day writers’ conference in the–galaxy! (Alas, you have to be at least eighteen for this.) Here’s a link: https://www.ruccl.org/index.html. The FAQ page is especially helpful. Be sure to take note of the deadlines, the cost, the scholarships, and the fact that the deadline for scholarship applicants is earlier than for people who can pay full freight. What’s so great is that it’s a mentorship program. Mentees are assigned mentors, who are usually either agents or editors and occasionally authors, like me, who go almost every year. Your mentor reads up to five pages of your WIP and meets with you about them for forty-five minutes to discuss them. There’s also a session of groups of five mentees with their mentors to discuss the industry and answer questions. Plus a speaker and a panel. I highly recommend it–and I can meet you. We can have lunch together!

When I appealed for questions, Raina came through with several great ones. Here’s the first: How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done.” I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.

On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Right now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can totally relate to these questions, and I’m itching to hear the answers.

Gee, Raina, I think you have this. A couple of posts ago, you wrote about your method of keeping track of your writing time, which is very much like my method. I’m thinking your method doesn’t apply as well to revision for you. I’ll write about that, as well as the more general problem.

Melissa Mead, I’m not sure if I have answers. I just have thoughts.

Two years ago when I was seventy, at my annual checkup, my (now retired, younger than I am) doctor predicted that I’d be healthy for another thirty years. If his crystal ball is right–as it may not be–I’m mid-career, since I started writing (not being published) thirty years ago. Yippee!

And yet, I wake up some mornings wondering if I could start another, different career at my age.

Is this burnout? I don’t know. I know I had trouble deciding on my present project, about the Trojan War. Everything, including this one, seemed too much like what I’ve done before. But I love Greek mythology, and now I’m into it. And I have an idea for another historical novel after this one.

The point is, writing is hard for many writers, including me. We keep learning–forever!–which may be the best thing about it, but new challenges always crop up, and what worked for the last book probably won’t be helpful on this one.

I’ve written about this before here, but below are some strategies that enable me to continue writing:

∙ I have a daily writing-time minimum goal of at least two and a quarter hours. The goal is a goad.

∙ If I don’t meet the goal, I forgive myself. This is super important. If I don’t forgive myself, it’s harder to start the next day.

∙ I’m especially kind to myself when I’m just beginning a book, because that’s the hardest part for me, so I cut myself some slack. Raina, you may do the same for revisions, which may be the time for you for a little coddling. Praise yourself for as much as you do manage.

∙ I don’t allow myself to make global judgments about my work. No, This is so cliche. No, Nobody will want to read this. No, This stinks. Even, This is great is prohibited, because it’s too likely to lead to, What if I mess it up?

∙ I steer clear of thinking about how monumental the task ahead of me is. A novel is big and daunting. We should concentrate on the task at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I shared my WIP so far with my friend, the writer Karen Romano Young (whose marvelous contemporary fantasy and paean to libraries has just come out–A Girl, A Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon), and she shared hers with me, both in the early stages. The critique was super helpful, but equally helpful for both of us was the deadline. I wrote hard to have as many pages as I could to give to her. We’re going to meet again later this month.

So a critique buddy, a writers’ group, beta readers can help us keep going. The advantage of an exchange with other writers is that we’re all equally vulnerable. You see how imperfect my draft can be, and I see how not-ready yours can be. Neither of us feels stupid, or we both feel equally stupid.

What can we do to make revision more tolerable if we hate it?

∙ We can take small bites, as I do when I’m starting a new project. Half an hour of revision may be tolerable, followed by working on a shiny new story.

∙ We can think ahead of time about what we’re going to tackle and set a limited goal, like today I’ll work on the argument between Jeff and his brother. Or, more generally, today I’ll concentrate on dialogue.

∙ Thought control is especially important here. No, It isn’t getting better. No, How many drafts will I have to go through before I’m satisfied, if I ever am?

∙ This is general, but it may apply especially to revision: No book is perfect. Mine aren’t. We strive to write the best book we can, which is all we can do. We can expect to get better over time, but we’ll still never write a perfect book.

As for knowing whether it’s burnout or something else, well, do we ever finish anything? Or is it just this book that has us stymied?

If we never finish, maybe we should try a different kind of writing, like plays or short stories or poems. Or maybe we should try other art forms. Or we can figure that we’re not in a finishing frame of mind and write as far as we can and then start something news. Then we’ll have lots of threads to return to.

If it’s just this book, then maybe we should put it aside until we’re drawn back to it.

As for writing when writing is your job, having a contract does help. I make my deadlines as far in the future as I can get away with, because the idea of being late horrifies me, so I suppose that’s a goad, too. So does not knowing what I would do with myself if I stopped writing.

By now, happily, finances aren’t an issue so much. I get a small pension from my job before I quit to write full-time, social security, and royalties, and they all add up to enough. I’m not sure if finances were ever a factor. Earlier, I figured that if I wasn’t earning enough from writing, I would find a job. After all, I did have a job and write before I got published.

Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has done something terrible, which she regrets and feels ashamed of. What her dreadful deed is is up to you. The do-over wizard arrives and gives her a chance to repair the past. After she’s gone back, matters are different but not better. Write the story with at least seven do-overs until a solution is reached that satisfies her. Have her make discoveries about herself along the way.

∙ Cinderella’s stepfamily are portrait painters. Cinderella is expected to be one, too, and she wants to be! But nothing she paints is good enough, and the art exhibition is coming up. Her stepmom and stepsisters tell her that her work isn’t ready to be shown. Write the story.

∙ The miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear, and the king will execute her if he doesn’t get his gold. In your story, have her do whatever it takes to stay alive–figure out how to do that spinning, or something else. Give her a happy ending, but it’s up to you whether it goes well for the king and the miller.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Long and the Short of It

Before I start the post, last week I was interviewed on the pretty new Good Story Podcast, mostly about my forthcoming A Ceiling Made of Eggshells but also about writing in general, because the podcast is for writers. My interview won’t be out until May, but another may interest blog people, the interview with Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: https://goodstorypodcast.com/.

Onto the post.

On December 4, 2019, Kyryiann wrote concerning NaNoWriMo, I ended with 60,000 words, yet still didn’t finish my novel. The first draft was 76,000 words in the end.

Here’s a question: what about novel length? I like longer novels because I’m a fast reader, but I know that other people like shorter novels because they can finish them in a shorter amount of time. Does novel length have anything to do with genre or audience? I would imagine that middle grade novels are usually shorter.

Yay me on making it hard for myself.

Writing Ballerina wrote back: I’m of middle grade age, and I prefer longer novels, but I’m more of a bookworm than average. A long book like LOTR or things like that are my heaven!! As such, I try to write what I’d like to read and thus aim for longer word counts.

Yay me on making it hard for myself.

And future_famous_author wrote back, too: I have read Little Women (777 pages, but incredibly good for anyone middle grade and up), but I tend to stick to anything between 100 and 350. I know that’s a wide range, but a lot of middle grade books are written in that range. Also, there is information on the Internet about lengths for different genres. A trend I see right now though is that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are both really long and are both fantasies. I think (I may be wrong) that realistic fiction books are typically shorter than most.

I’m with future_famous_author that there’s a lot available on the subject online. I pulled this from this site: https://careerauthors.com/genre-book-length/. I picked it just because it popped up first:

Readers of individual genres anticipate certain book lengths, and so do publishers. What follows is a rough guide to book length expectations in certain genres.

Romance: 65,000–80,000 words (Most romance imprints have specific word count requirements that writers should know and observe before they submit.)

Mystery: 80,000 words (Subgenres like cozies tend to be a bit shorter, often coming in at 70,000–80,000 words.)
Science fiction: 100,000–120,000 words

Thriller: 90,000–100,000 words

True Crime: 90,000–100,000 words

Historical fiction: 100,000–150,000 words (This may depend on the topic and demands of the marketplace.)

Mainstream women’s fiction: 90,000–100,000 words

Memoir/Bio: 70,000–90,000 words

Literary fiction: 80,000–100,000 words

Young Adult: 70,000–80,000 words

Middle Grade: 40,000–50,000 words

Picture books: 500–700 words

Here’s another site with somewhat different advice: https://thewritelife.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/.

I’m not endorsing either of these, and I’m not an expert.

A source I do endorse is Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. I wrote a blurb for the book (see the back cover), and I know Harold, who is one of the most thoughtful people on the planet and a complete kidlit insider. (I don’t get paid when he has a sale–in case you were worrying.) I took this from page 70 of his book:

Young middle grade: 48 to 60 pages;
middle grade: 80 to 160 pages, occasionally more;
older middle grade: 128 to 200 pages or more;
YA (young adult): up to 300 pages.

A double-spaced page equals about 250 words. I tend to think in pages rather than word count, and a double-spaced page seems to come out roughly to a page in a published children’s novel.

There are many exceptions to the average. The Newbery winning middle grade novel Sarah, Plain and Tall is just 58 pages, roughly 8,377 words. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is very short, likewise Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. At the other end of the scale, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind weighs in at about 260,000 words–1,037 pages. When Harry Potter first came out, it was way longer than most kids’ books. Before Ella Enchanted was published, I brought the manuscript with me to a conference to be looked at by a published kidlit author, who told me that it had to be under 200 pages if it had a shot at being published. Hah! (It’s longer.)

The best writing teacher I ever had, the retired Bunny Gabel at The New School, was firmly opposed to worrying about length. She advised that a book should be no longer and no shorter than it needs to be to tell the story. I mostly agree with that, with the warning that today Margaret Mitchell would have a hard time finding an agent willing to read such a doorstopper of a manuscript–and I’ve read that it was much longer when she first turned it in. Publishing has changed and not always in a good way. I think publishers used to take more risks, and that attitude has been passed on to agents, who, unfortunately, are often the gate keepers.

My books keep getting longer without my meaning them to. I’m hoping that my current project, based on the Trojan War, won’t be much above 200 pages, but I’m on page 91 and I have a lot more to go.

While I don’t have an opinion about page count, I do have one about concision. I’m a fan. We don’t want flabby sentences. We want to watch our adjectives and adverbs, and we want to kill any we don’t need. We pay special attention to words that weaken, like slightly or almost, as in, She was slightly ticked off. If the emotion is worth mentioning, let her be ticked off. We want our writing to take a position, so that our readers will understand completely what’s going on.

And we want to keep an eye on our pacing. Are we doing anything to slow our story down, like introducing a fun incident just when things were getting exciting (as I think I just did in my manuscript)? We don’t have to do anything about it in our first draft when we’re spilling it out, because the fun incident may turn out to be important (pantser talk). But in revision, we should zap it if it doesn’t advance our plot.

Going the other way, we may be rushing our story and leaving out details that will bring it to life. Then we need more words to pick up the pace, even if that seems contradictory.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write dialogue between Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter. He has a lot to say, but she just wants to know if he can turn straw to gold. Have her keep cutting him off.

∙ Tell a frame story and the story it’s framing. Your MC is babysitting and reading to two children while a flood is rising outside their house. Decide whether or not she knows the danger they’re in. Figure out a link between the frame story and the one that’s being read.

∙ Your MC gets lost on her way to visit her uncle, because he’s sent for her. Imagine her on a variety of kinds of transportation, which may include plane, boat, train, taxi, camel, foot, or anything else. If this is fantasy, she can ride a magic carpet, lace up seven-league boots, or anything else. Trouble erupts on each leg of the journey. Decide how long you want the story to be, and let that determine the number of stages and the problems that come along. But if, when you start writing, you get swept up and keep going, that’s fine. And if your story shape wants to be shorter, go with that.

Have fun, and save what you write!

First-draft Doldrums

With this post, I’m starting the thread of questions that came in after I appealed to you. Many, many thanks for the big response!

On December 4, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, How do you make yourself keep writing the first draft? I’m sure we can all agree that writing the first draft isn’t that pleasurable at times. How do you make yourself keep going when the story starts to drag? How do you make yourself write when you don’t want to?

Two of you chimed in, most helpfully.

Future_famous_author: If you write your first draft as some do, almost like you are just puking out ideas and writing stuff on the paper that isn’t really that good but still tells the story, try writing it like a real book. Sure, you can still leave out detail in some places, but you can also write with more detail.

Now, if you are like me and write the first draft well just because you write better that way or have more fun doing it that way, even though it takes more time, try going the other way. Write a “vomit draft” as I have heard it called. Just get your ideas on the page, and then save the character personalities and details and all that for the later drafts.

Raina: I struggle with this a lot too, but here are some methods I’ve worked out, both in regards to writing in general and writing the first draft specifically.

In general:
The biggest thing I used to struggle with was self-discipline. I’d always think “oh, I’ll write later when I feel like it or when inspiration strikes” and never do so, and when I did write, I’d frequently only get through a couple hundred words before getting distracted by other things. Then one evening in college I realized that I was never going to get anything done like this, so I told myself “Raina, you are going to go to the library and write, right now, and log the time to keep yourself accountable.” I created a time log spreadsheet with my beginning and ending times, beginning and ending word count, and time elapsed/words written, and I’ve been using it ever since. I think there’s something psychological about treating writing as a structured, scheduled event, like a class or job you have to show up to for x amount of time, even when you don’t want to, that really clicked for me. I used to write in bursts, with good days where I got a lot of writing done (usually during NaNoWriMo) and then long stretches of nothing at all, but having an accountability spreadsheet and set schedule was what made me settle down and be able to churn out words slowly but steadily. Of course, this is just my method and may not work for everyone, but it’s helped me a lot.

The first draft specifically:
It’s easy to get stuck on your first draft, and I’ve found that it helps to take a step back and ask yourself *why* you’re stuck, and then troubleshoot from there. Here are some common reasons that happen to me, and how I deal with them:

1. I don’t want to write right now – sometimes I’m legitimately tired from classes and real life and I don’t have the energy or brain capacity to write. In that case, I show up at the library anyways and make myself try to write for 15-30 minutes. Sometimes when I start writing, I’ll get into a scene and I’ll actually feel more energized and I’ll want to keep writing. But if after that time, I still can’t write, I’ll let myself take a rest and return the next day when I’m fresh.

2. I don’t know what to do next – this doesn’t happen that much to me since I’m a heavy plotter, but sometimes I’ll deviate from my outline and thus need to figure out where to go next from there. When this happens, I’ll always stop and re-plot, like a GPS recalculating its course. When I’m back on track and have a new outline, I’ll keep writing. This method might not work as well for pantsers, but others might have better suggestions.

3. I don’t want to write *this specific scene* – In this case, I’ll always ask myself *why* I don’t want to write the scene, and why I think I *need* to write it.
–> Is it boring? In which case, is it really necessary? If you don’t even want to write it, chances are readers won’t want to read it. Try to think of ways to make it something you’re excited about, or ways to get rid of it altogether.
–> Is it overly long/dragging? Sometimes I’ll start a scene that I’m excited about, and lose interest as the scene goes on because it starts to slog. (This is a problem for me especially because I have a problem with overwriting in general. I’ve written 5,000-word scenes that I later had to cut down to 3,000.) In this case, I’ll usually try to wrap things up as quickly as possible (usually by either cutting content or telling instead of showing) so I can move on, and then promise myself I’ll fix it in the next draft.
–> Does it “suck”? (Nobody’s writing actually sucks. Ever. But first drafts can be messy.) Sometimes I’ll have moments where everything just feels horrible and I don’t want to look at it. At times like this, I’ll usually try to get the scene done with as fast as possible (see the above point), remind myself that it’s okay if it’s not perfect in the first draft, and that I can always fix it later. (There have been times I’ve left comments to myself in the document that say “this needs to be completely rewritten but I don’t want to deal with it right now.”) The important thing is to get the story done. Sometimes in school I’ll turn in assignments that are not my best work because I just want to get them over with. That’s my mentality for first drafts. The only difference is, you get unlimited revisions until you’re happy with the end result.

4. Something is wrong with the story that I recognize on a gut level but don’t know how to fix – this one is more a feeling than anything, so it’s important to listen to your instincts. I still struggle with this a lot, but my advice is to stop, take a step back, and think about things. Make a list, take a walk, or whatever helps you make decisions. There have been times I’ve pushed on and dealt with things later. There have also been times I’ve backtracked and deleted entire scenes and started over from there. Usually, the deciding factor for me is when I ask myself: 1. Will doing this take the story down a path I don’t want? and 2. If I go down this path, will I be able to come back?
For an example from my work, I wrote a scene near the beginning of the book that was waaay too dark and completely wrecked the fun, lighthearted, satirical mood of the story. I had a bad feeling while writing the scene but I pushed through, but at the end of it, I looked at it again and realized that if I continued, I wouldn’t be able to get the story back on its happy original track without causing major mood whiplash. So I stopped and rewrote the scene to fit the tone better. Looking back, that was absolutely the right thing to do.

These are great!

I use Raina’s method of timekeeping, not on a spreadsheet, just a document. I record start and stop times, even when the stops are short, like just to let Reggie (dog) in from the backyard. My goal is at least two and a quarter hours a day. Usually I make it, but when I don’t, I forgive myself–or it’s harder to get started the next day. Forgiveness is part of the bargain.

I don’t have a page or word count goal, because I’m so slow, and I include research in my writing time. Right now, as I work on my novel about the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, I often google questions that come up, like How old was Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia when she died? (No one seems to know.)

So that’s a strategy: Set a daily time goal and keep track of how we’re doing as we go along.

For me, too, writing the first draft is the hardest. As a mostly pantser, I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. But I love to revise when the worst is over!

One thing that helps me keep writing is to bar myself from thinking that my draft sucks, or to think anything globally negative about it. That kind of name-calling just makes writing harder. Better to imagine the first draft as a baby animal that has to be cuddled and coddled and soothed. Sure, it messes up, but it’s an infant!

(Even when I’m done–even when the manuscript has become an actual book, I refrain as much as I can from overall judgments, because they aren’t useful for the next project. There are enough critics who will, asked or unasked, offer opinions. I don’t want to pile on–on myself!)

Of course, I’m making specific judgments as I write, the sorts Raina mentions: Is a scene moving too slowly? Do I need it at all? Have I rushed it and left out the detail that will engage the reader? Even little things like, I have a string of sentences that start with I. I should break that up.

That’s a second strategy: We don’t judge our work in a global way.

I think it’s best to write the first draft straight through to the end, but sometimes, like Raina, I can’t. My story has turned to sludge, and words have stopped coming. Then I have to figure out what’s wrong and go back. Sadly, I’ve started this new project several times, though I think I have it now.

One of the main things that keeps me going is curiosity, and this, I think, is an advantage that pantsers have. It’s important to me to know, in at least a general way, the ending of my story, because that ending is what I’m writing toward, and lately I’ve been writing a very minimal outline. But I don’t know in any detail how I get to the end or what happens along the way, and I’m eager to find out, so I soldier on. Curiosity is, if not a strategy, a help. We won’t know how we solved the story problem if we don’t write it. And we won’t know what we’re capable of it we don’t write it.

Also, there are pleasures that I can give myself along the way. If I’m writing a funny book, I enjoy laying on the humor. Looking for places for humor, often humor that has a poignant side, helps me keep going. And you all know how much I love poetry. In the new book I’ve imagined a Greek chorus, spoken by crows (sacred to Apollo). The crows’ lines are short poems. Every five or so pages I have the crows caw about the action, and I look forward to those moments. To write their parts, I use some of what I learned in my class on The Iliad in poetry school.

So that’s a strategy: to build in bits we enjoy writing.

When we’re slogging through one part, we can always jump ahead to a scene we’re eager to write. Once that’s written, we can go back, and we may find that the dreaded one has become easier, informed by what’s ahead. Another strategy.

This one is probably ridiculous, but I’m including it because I do think it: If I weren’t going to write, what would I do, I mean, aside from distractions like the solitaire game I play on my cell phone? What other big thing would I do? (I don’t mean that spending time with friends and family, playing with pets, going for walks, etc. aren’t worthwhile, even essential–they are, and we should do them.) I can’t answer the question, so I get back to work.

Here’s another one: Not every one of my books has been pleasurable to write, and, surprisingly, the misery doesn’t matter in the outcome. The quality of the books I disliked writing the first drafts of (Fairest, Stolen Magic, The Two Princesses of Bamarre–you know I’m talking about you!) is the same as the ones I mostly enjoyed writing. If we don’t expect pleasure, we aren’t shocked when we’re not getting it.

I like trying new things. In the new project (I would call it something if it had a title), I’m writing two parts, a first part from one first-person POV, and a second part from another first-person POV. I’ve written alternating POVs, but never successive, but I’ve liked books that do that. So we can work in something new and challenging.

Since I keep worrying about my pacing, I’m exchanging pages with a writer friend who has also started a new project recently. Fresh eyes will help me see my own work. If she’s excited about the book, that will lift my excitement level, too. We can exchange work with a writing buddy or with critique group members, or we can involve beta readers or friends or family.

Here are three prompts:

∙ This one comes from Greek mythology. Annually, seven maidens and seven young men were sent from Athens to Crete as tribute–to their death, really, because they were forced into a labyrinth that was so complicated no one had ever managed to find a way out. What’s more, the Minotaur–half bull, half human–lived in there and eventually devoured the poor victims. Theseus later killed the monster and, with help, found his way out. But for your story, your MC and her friends are pushed in, and they have no help. If they are going to survive, they have to do it on their own. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Your MC is running an ultra marathon, a hundred-mile race. She is doing it just to see if she can–not a tension-charged reason. Your job is to bring in the tension. Pin your reader to his seat. Write the story.

∙ Hansel and Gretel are imprisoned in the witch’s cottage. As in the fairy tale, Gretel has figured out how to fool the near-blind witch into believing that Hansel isn’t plumping up. Days turn into weeks, and things are mighty dull. Liven them up with a scene and then keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tra la la

Happy new year! May we all have perfect vision, actually and metaphorically, in 2020! And may we have good writing!

A year or so ago I said here that I would occasionally write something about grammar and usage. Occasionally seemed to be never again, but I have a little rant before I launch the post. Many people misuse lie and lay, so many that eventually usage will probably change. But at this point the old way is still hanging on, and I came across a poem that may make lie easy to remember. It’s an unpleasant two-liner written hundreds of years ago by the English poet John Dryden (I don’t know if he was writing about his actual wife, which would be very sad.):

Here lies my wife: here let her lie.
Now she’s at rest, and so am I.

Lie is the present tense; lay is the past. I lie in bed now. I lay in bed last night. The usefulness of the poem is that if we’re confused, we can think of the poem and make sure our usage fits the rhyme.

What confuses everybody is that lay is present tense when it takes a direct object: The hen lays an egg today. (An egg is the direct object.) The hen laid an egg yesterday.

Onto the first post of the year!

On November 9, 2019, Erica wrote, I like to sing, and have a tendency to randomly start singing bits of songs as I feel like it. My question is, how do you include songs/poetry in a story and make it seem like a part of a character’s nature, rather than like it has to be significant to the plot?

And Sara wrote, My advice would be to have all the songs or poems be pretty different from each other, and pretty random (if that’s what your character is like). I think if your character repeated one song or poem the whole time, then people would expect it to be significant. If the songs or poems are well known in your world, maybe have other characters notice and point out when your character randomly brings them up. They can talk about it. I think if something is related to character bonding, then people will see it more in that way than in a plot way. If they’re making up their own little songs or poems, I would go for random, situation-specific ones, since doing that kind of thing is sorta unique and noticeable and cool. Another thing is to just have little snippets of different songs or poems, because when there’s some huge song or poem in a book, it really seems like it’s there for a huge plot thing. The most important thing, though, is to do it, however you’re going to do it, multiple times in different situations without exactly calling a bunch of attention to it. I think when you let the audience notice something, it comes off as really subtle and clever. And something can’t really be part of a character’s nature if they only do it once or twice.

Erica wrote back, Yes, what I was thinking of would just be snippets here and there. Part of the reason I want to include them is because the plot of the story itself is very serious and dense. Including songs helps keep it from seeming so overpowering.

I agree with Sara that, in general, if songs or poetry are in a story, they should appear more than once, and if they’re part of our MC’s character, they certainly should. They can be as short as a word or two, broken off when someone enters the room where she is. It’s terrific if singing helps define a character’s personality, and I think it can work well to lighten the mood of a book.

(My mother used to hum when she was angry. When my sister and I heard her hum, we would tread very carefully! If I made her into a character, the humming would help define her.)

I agree also that if there is only one song in a book, it will take on a lot of significance just by being the only one, which is fine if that’s what we want.

And I agree again that the selections should generally be short. Otherwise, they can stop the action, and some readers will jump over them.

Many of my books weave in songs or poetry: Ella Enchanted, Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand (though the poems are written in Mermish, the language of mermaids–with no consonants), Ever, Stolen Magic (limericks), The Fairy’s Return (in which the poems are entirely silly). Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is a collection of humorous poems, and I offer advice on writing poems in Writer to Writer. And in the novel-without-a-title I’m working on now there’s a Greek chorus of crows, who comment and issue warnings in verse. (I love a good Greek chorus.) So I’ve used poems in lots of ways.

For me, writing them is slower than writing prose, because I’m thinking about elements I don’t pay a lot of attention to ordinarily, like assonance, alliteration, rhythm, and, once in a while, rhyme. A couple of editors have asked me to write a novel entirely in verse–until I’ve explained how long that would take.

Erica says that she sings song fragments when the mood strikes her. If we’re like Erica, we can pay attention to those moments when we sing and what gets us started, and we can give them to our MC.

We can think about what we know about our MC and how singing fits in. We can make a list!

∙ She sings when she’s nervous (or when she’s angry, like my mom).

∙ She sings to keep herself from stuttering.

∙ She sings when she’s happy and has to let out her joy, or to express any passing feeling.

∙ She sings because she knows it irritates a certain person.

∙ She sings to see how high or low a note she can hit.

∙ She sings the songs her dead mother loved.

As an early prompt, list at least three more possibilities.

We can also ask how and when she sings–loudly or almost inaudibly, in the presence of others or only when she’s alone or some combination of the two. Is she a good singer?

We can pick a few of these and they will become part of her. They’ll make the reader’s understanding of her more complex. We can create a secondary character who also sings, but at different times and for different reasons, and this will contribute to his character. We don’t have to have two singers, but if we do, we’ll even further solidify how singing can delineate character.

If she gives up singing or stops speaking and only sings, the reader will be affected, even worried, depending on what else is going on.

The singing might become integral to the plot, if we’re pantsers and our story isn’t entirely set. For example, suppose our MC is in a tight spot. Can we have her use song to improve her situation? Maybe she sings in her prison cell and gets better–or worse–treatment from the guards as a result. Or, since song carries better than speech, another prisoner may answer her in song. Their duets can remain defining character traits, or they can influence what happens (plot).

This is not the direction Erica wants to go in, but I–a pantser–love when things I toss in casually turn out to be useful for my plot. For example, when I made Addie talented at needlework in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I had no idea that her skill would come in handy later on when she’s trapped in a dragon’s lair.

Here are three prompts. In them, there may be more song than Erica is going for:

∙ The two Disney versions and the Broadway show of “Cinderella” are musicals. They did it first, but you can, too. Your Cinderella loves to sing. Write a scene from the original fairy tale and include song snippets. Some may be in Cinderella’s thoughts rather than out loud. One may be sung softly, and one may be belted out. If you like, write your own “Cinderella.”

∙ “Lovely Ilonka,” which I’ve mentioned here at least once, is one of the weirdest fairy tales there is. You can read it for free online in Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. (These adaptations are old enough to be in the public domain.) Here’s a link: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2435/2435-h/2435-h.htm#link2H_4_0002. Part of the story involves three maidens, each trapped in her own (of all things) bulrush. Write the scene when the prince plucks the bulrushes. Give each hidden maiden her own song or song snippet, which reveals her character. Show that each character is different through her song.

∙ To satisfy my continuing fascination with Rumpelstiltskin, make him the character who loves to sing. Write a scene in which you reveal his motivation, whether fair or foul, in song.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Evolving

Many thanks to the many who sent in questions! My list is stocked full of thorny topics for months to come. And, of course, more thorns are always welcome.

On September 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, I’m having a lot of trouble with one of my MC’s. In one of the character development posts, I don’t remember which, there’s a bit that describes him perfectly. “He develops strategies to distract from himself, becomes charming, a great talker, a reliable friend, but he never feels truly seen–because he doesn’t let anyone truly see him. Our plot needs to get him out of his isolation.”Problem is, I have no idea how to pull it off. How does he turn from a social chameleon to someone willing to stand up for an unpopular opinion? I have him doing it, but the transition seems too sudden, because he’s doing it for the sake of the plot and because I want him to, not because it fits with who he is. Although I have very little idea of who he is, as well, which might be part of the problem. Any suggestions?

Melissa Mead asked, Is there someone he cares about enough to want to earn their respect?

Katie W. answered, Not nearby. I really don’t like writing romance, so he doesn’t have a love interest, and until about two thirds of the way through the story, his family members are all at least a hundred miles away. He can talk with them, but they’re not physically there, plus he’s 27, so I don’t think he’d be in super close contact with them, anyway.

I’m noticing two threads in Katie W.’s question: How do we make our characters follow our plots? And how do we reveal the inner lives of our characters so that the reader (and the writer) understands why they do what they do?

I may not say often enough that the ideas I share here come out of experience and mistakes. The first thread make me think of my only novel in a drawer–deep in the recesses of my laptop, a book so problematic that I hate even to think about it, in which I made my character behave in a way that made even me loathe her.

It probably would fall into the young end of YA today. The title was My Future Biography, which, as you’ll see, says it all. I’ve buried the book so far in my subconscious that I don’t remember my MC’s name, so let’s call her X. X is a fifteen-year-old aspiring actor who believes she has more talent than anyone else in the universe. She lands a spot, through no accomplishment of her own, as an extra in a summer stock theater. (An extra, for people who don’t know, is on the lowest rung of the theatrical world–goes for coffee, paints sets, puts props away–whatever’s needed.) The first play of the season is Inge’s Playboy of the Western World.

As early as the first rehearsal, X begins to criticize the leading lady to anyone who will listen (no one). She also offers suggestions to said leading lady, truly meaning to be helpful.

My plot idea was that X would be taken down a peg or ten and wind up a humbler person. On the way there, frustrated that none of her ideas are taken seriously, she writes an anonymous bad review of the production for the local paper, which hurts the theater and the whole cast. This inconsiderate act makes her entirely unlikable. When the leading lady is injured, X gives a dreadful performance as her understudy, which even she recognizes. She finally gets her comeuppance, but it’s too late to save the book. (This is sad, because I still love the secondary characters I came up with. Also, at X’s age I was an extra in summer stock and I wanted to put some of the fun I had in a book. I was already humble–the theater did only musicals, and I’m not much of a singer.)

I think the problem here is my plot. The strategy for all of us would be to examine our plot as early as possible and think about what it will require of our MC. Can a consistent person do this? We usually want character growth, but it’s hard to make a character change completely and still be believable. I can’t imagine how I could have crafted a likable character who would do what I made X do, because if she was likable, she wouldn’t have written that review, but if she didn’t write the review, her comedown wouldn’t work.

What might I have done to the plot? Well, I might have introduced a villain, who, because he has it in for the leading lady or for some other nefarious reason, encourages X’s opinions and behavior, which are tentative at the beginning. It’s his influence that leads her to behave badly. She realizes her limitations as an actor at the same time she discovers that she’s been a pawn. Whew! thinks the reader. Now I can like her again. (But without trying it, I don’t know if that would fix the story, either.)

If we’re outliners, we can work this out as we’re planning our plot. If we’re pantsers, as I am (mostly), we should be considering character consistency as we write and adjusting as we go along.

If our plot is okay, then we think, again as early as possible, about what sort of character can carry it. The example I always use from my own work is my Princess Tale, The Princess Test, which is based on the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” Who would have a terrible night’s sleep in the most luxurious bed in all of fairy tale land?

Let’s also consider Hamlet. What sort of character would be as indecisive as Hamlet is? Just saying, many characters, confronted by a ghost whose reality can’t be doubted, would decide in pretty short order whether or not vengeance is called for or what else should be done. Laertes would. But Hamlet waffles. Shakespeare figured out who would do that and what the result would be. That’s the character he wrote.

Onto how we reveal our characters, because if we know them, we can engineer their change, as in Katie W’s case from a chameleon to someone with permanent stripes or spots. We have available what our MC thinks, feels, and does. Plus the other stuff we can invent about him: what his hobbies are; where he lives (whether his home is furnished early-American style or modern, whether its neat or messy, like that); what his friends are like and how he behaves with them.

At first, we just have to make up stuff out nothing. All we have to go on is our plot idea and the kind of person who will conform to it.

Let’s suppose that our MC Charles works for a tech company, and the CEO, Jason, operates like a dictator. Jason has favorites who advance whether or not they’re competent. He also thinks ill of some of his employees. He doesn’t hold back from ridiculing them, and their stars do not rise. Flattery is the bitcoin of this realm.

Charles, as we write him in the beginning, is adept at the game, maybe more than anyone else. He flatters without fawning, and everyone likes him. His skillfulness wins him the job of director of HR (human resources), but in that position he has to enforce and even create policies that are in line with Jason’s practices. For example, he reassigns the talented technical writer Sarah, who has been a tad too outspoken, to an offsite location two hours from her home because Jason has said he can’t stand the sight of her.

How do we change him, grow him a spine?

Well, since we don’t know him well yet, what can we make up about him? We can make a list!

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them.

As an early prompt, add five more bullets to my list.

What can we pick to start him toward standing up to Jason? We can add some notes to our list.

∙ He likes his salary and being able to buy whatever he wants, within reason. As head of HR he sets up the pay scale for all the employees, which makes him uncomfortable.

∙ He doesn’t take his job very seriously, except for wanting to keep it. An employee who has been reassigned to a very unpleasant boss breaks down in his office, or, say, threatens him. He’s shaken.

∙ His main interest in life is stamp collecting. Someone he’s buying a stamp from emails him, and they start a correspondence.

∙ He has a stutter, which he controls very well, but when he becomes emotional it comes back. His stuttering starts to be a problem at unexpected times, once in front of Jason, who isn’t nice about it.

∙ His apartment is full of houseplants, which he talks to. When he goes to work, he puts on music for them. One of his plants starts drooping. He takes it to a plant nursery, where one of the workers treats him the way he treats people at work, in a false friendly way.

Not all of these will be useful, but one or two may be. The point is to create an imperative for him to change, which he will do through thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and actions.

Here are three more prompts:

∙ Using my list or your own, bring about Charles’s change. Write the scene in which he stands up to Jason. If you like, keep going. Charles will retaliate!

∙ Make Jason your MC and bring about change in him.

∙ Rewrite Hamlet. Your Hamlet can decide that his dad, the dead king, was a despot, a terrible husband and father, and the kingdom is better off without him, even though murder is an extreme way to achieve regime change. Or he can elope with Ophelia and head for Mantua. Or he can hire an assassin and ascend to the throne. Or something else that you decide. Write the story. If you’re ambitious, write it as a play in blank verse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Plots Beneath the Plot

Kudos and congrats to all of you who ran the NaNoWriMo course! Yay! Please let us know about your victory.

And if any questions came up in the process, please ask.

Actually, I’m pretty desperate for questions. Somehow, my list is almost dry. The kind of questions that get my blog-post mind going are ones related to the big writing issues: character, plot, setting, tension–you know. I’d also welcome some craft questions, too, like about flow or sentences. Also publishing questions, which I don’t generally get into much, like working with an editor or an agent. And poetry!

On September 20, 2019, Erica wrote, Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. Any tips there?

Melissa Mead wrote back, I could use some tips on subplots myself.

Pretend the commas are money, and spend them as effectively as you can.

Back to Erica: Good idea! I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either.

Subplots first.

Erica, you might try–like the combining-two-sentences exercises–combining two of your short stories, which we can all use as a strategy and which will probably involve changes to both stories, especially to the characters. We’ll ask ourselves if our MC in one story can become a secondary character in another, if the plot lines can work together, and if the conflict is similar or can be made to be.

What’s a subplot anyway? I’d say it’s a little story that has its own conclusion while helping the main plot along to its bigger resolution.

Let’s look at some examples. With Wikipedia’s help, I just refreshed my memory about the movie Back to the Future (the first one). The main plot concerns Marty’s need to get back to his present time. The two subplots that jumped out at me were ensuring the success of the romance between his parents and keeping Doc from dying years later.

Both of these involve secondary characters: a younger Doc, and Marty’s parents when they were in high school. I won’t give away the resolution of Doc’s problem, but Marty’s parents have to fall in love or Marty won’t ever exist. Each one contributes to the ending of the movie.

Now let’s look at LOTR, which is loaded with subplots. The main plot centers around Frodo taking the ring to Mordor and saving the world. One subplot involves Aragorn becoming king. Another is Gandalf’s capture by Saruman. Yet another is Boromir’s tragedy. Each of these involves a secondary character. Except for Boromir’s subplot, they also take place away from Frodo, so a subplot can have a different setting from the main event. And they all contribute to Frodo’s quest.

A subplot can be separate in time as well as place. For instance, say there’s going to be a war, and our MC is going to lead one side, we could introduce subplots that take place even before our MC is born. But these subplots set up the conditions our MC faces.

To create our subplots, we can ask ourselves what our secondary characters want, just as we ask what our MC wants. Then we can give them desires that dovetail with our MC’s situation, by supporting or undermining it.

A great example of undermining comes in–you guessed it–Pride and Prejudice. I see three subplots here: Jane’s romance with Bingley, Charlotte Lucas’s urgent need to be married, and Lydia’s flirtation with Wickham. Lydia’s mess, a genuine subplot, causes the crisis that leads to the resolution of the main plot. If you haven’t read P&P, I haven’t given much away.

After we give our secondary characters desires, the next step is to develop incidents to bring the subplot to life. In P&P, Lydia’s subplot comes to fruition when she goes to Brighton, which the reader learns about through reports by other characters. At Bingley’s ball, which is important for Jane’s story, Elizabeth deals with happenings of her own.

To summarize:

∙ We can combine stories, subordinating one to another, to produce a subplot or more than one.

∙ Subplots can take place at different places or times from the main plot.

∙ Story arcs for secondary characters will produce subplots.

∙ Subplots need action and resolution, just like the main plot.

∙ Our subplots will intersect with the main plot, helping or hindering our MC from achieving her goals.

Onto commas and sentences.

Just saying, sentences with commas don’t have to be long: He ate, and she watched. Or, He ate, but she watched. These are two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Five words. He ate is an independent clause, and so is she watched. Also, a list can produce a lot of commas, but the sentence can still be simple, as in: She ate a can of cranberry sauce, half a turkey, a mound of stuffing, a ladle of gravy, a big blob of mashed sweet potatoes, two brussel sprouts, one bite of salad, a quarter of a pumpkin pie, a wedge of apple crisp, and a handful of Tums. It’s all coming back to me.

On the subject of commas, I accuse Erica of being a comma-sentence-length hypochondriac. Let’s look again at her question and her response to Melissa Mead, with my notations:

Does anyone have tips for writing subplots? (No commas. Short sentence.) I tend to write short stories, which don’t need subplots, but now that I’m trying to do something longer, I need more depth. (Four commas. Long sentence.) Also, my sentences tend to feel incomplete if they don’t have at least one comma, leading to run-on sentences. (Three commas. Medium length.) Any tips there? (No commas. Short sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

And:

Good idea! (No commas. Short sentence.) I suspect part of this comes from doing so well on those “combine two sentences into one” sections on standardized tests. (No commas. Longish sentence.) I like long strings of connected phrases, and that probably has not helped either. (One comma. Medium length sentence.)

No run-on sentences.

There’s sentence variety in the sample. Most sentences begin differently. I see two questions and an exclamation. I conclude that the patient is  healthy. Unless Erica writes differently in her fiction, I don’t see a problem.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC and four other characters are traveling together–by train, spaceship, medieval caravan, horse, whatever. They’re all on a mission to warn their king or queen or democratically elected representative or benevolent dictator of a plot against the country’s independence. Their route is fraught with danger. Each of them has personal goals as well as the main mission. One wants to keep them from reaching their destination. Two fall in love. One is hiding an illness. Use these to create subplots. Write the story.

∙ At random, pick a few paragraphs from your WIP. Analyze them the way I just did. If a lot of sentences are short, combine them, not just by putting them together with and in between. Create dependent clauses. If too many start the same way, say with the or I, recast them. If many are long, cut them up. If many begin the same way, rearrange them. If the verb keeps being was or is, rewrite the sentence so that the verbs are more active.

∙ Mash together “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Pick one to be the main story and the others to be subplots. I don’t know if this will be helpful, but I just noticed that all three involve heights. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Challenging Choices

First off, congrats to all of you who are starting the NaNoWriMo home stretch! How has it gone so far? How is it going now? If you like, post your answer in the voice of one of your characters and them paste it in your story, which will be fun for the rest of us. (I don’t want you to lose word count!)

On September 11, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Question for you guys: When you have a lot of story ideas, how do you pick which one to develop?

As with the last post, a lot of discussion ensued.

Jenalyn Barton: Honestly, I pick whichever one excited me the most at the moment. Not the most sustainable approach (and likely the reason I have trouble finishing things), but it works for me.

Erica: Either all of them or none of them! Really, it depends on the time of year. I’ve been writing short stories to give my family as presents for a while now, so I often consider who would like what story. You might try something similar. (Also makes sure that I don’t just forget about it.)

future_famous_author: My friends, who read my stories, but have trouble keeping up, get really mad at me for starting a story and stopping only a couple pages in. I start a new story almost every day now. It’s a problem. I think that if you can find a story that you actually enjoy writing, then just force yourself to stick with it. It’s not everyday you find an idea that really holds your interest, and so you have to stick with them. It can be hard, and my brother and I have had many arguments about which is harder, basketball or writing, but you just have to remind yourself that it’s fun. I really struggle with this, too, and have yet to finish a novel in my six years of writing.

Writing Ballerina: I like the idea of giving them as presents! Thank you! Tell your brother that writing’s definitely harder.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. My best advice would be to write everything down as soon as possible. Usually, what happens to me is that I’ll get an idea, think about it for a day, write a paragraph or two, and then start from scratch with another idea the next day. I think it’s because I don’t develop my ideas, so I don’t get really invested in them. If I had characters, names, faces, and some fragments of a world, it gives me something to focus on and be interested in.

So I’d recommend developing the first idea that comes to mind, and seeing where it takes you. If the idea is “What if people were once dragons?” Then write that down, and branch off from that. Stories are really just multiple ideas combined into one. (Though it’s a lot more complicated than that) So it could be, “What if some humans knew this, and wanted to become dragons again for evil purposes.” Then, it could turn into, “What if the hero had to figure out how to become a dragon first to stop them, but if they became a dragon, they wouldn’t know how to become human again, so they might have to leave their family and X love interest behind, even though their family means everything to them.”

Just stick with it, and try to focus on one thing. Write things down, and don’t be afraid to say: “This isn’t working for me.” and move onto another idea.

It’s also okay to be developing an idea and to write down as many ideas that come during that time. It’s about not letting the ideas float away, and really making them more than just a sentence or two. Ideas are, in a lot of cases, a dime a dozen. And if one doesn’t work (after you develop it, of course) then it’s okay to move on. Besides, if you at least write things down, you can come back to them later.

future_famous_author: A lot of times I end up writing down a page or two of a story and then starting a different one. I wish I would do that and then go back to the one I had before that. But, then, it’s better than having no ideas.

I love, love, love Kit Kat Kitty’s “what if people were once dragons” idea, whether or not it ever becomes a story. It’s so much fun to contemplate what that might have been like, the literal fire in the belly, the joy in flaming. And flying! The pleasure in terrifying other creatures who aren’t dragons.

And fun is wonderful. If it’s fun to try out lots of ideas, then that’s a fine thing to do. Relaxing and waiting for the one that will sustain us is okay. I think that one will come.

Early twentieth century novelist Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If I were to try basketball, it would have to be in the under-five-feet-tall league, so I can’t compare the two, but for me (and for many but I don’t think all) writing a novel is super hard. I don’t know why that is–we know how to form words and sentences, and we know hundreds of good stories, and we understand story shape, but yowser!

So we can take comfort in the absolute fact that we’re rising to a challenge when we write.

As you know, I’ve recently started my next novel, which is based on Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra, the Trojan War, and the fall of Troy, plus the warlike Amazons who come to Troy’s aid. Before I started, I went through a process of considering which of my ideas to work on. Here’s what happened, which may help with your own process, too:

I’d like to write more books about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and I continue to read on the subject, but I haven’t yet found the right story thread.

The fairy tale “Aladdin” has interested me for years, and I wrote pages of notes about how I might approach it, but what stymied me is that Aladdin and the princess are married for most of the tale, which I think lessens the story’s appeal for young readers. I hope to figure out how to deal with that, but so far I haven’t. Maybe Disney has solved this, but I stay away from Disney movies because I don’t want their solutions to get into my consciousness and make me, unintentionally, use something of theirs.

The myth “Cupid and Psyche” and the related fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” fascinate and irritate me, which is usually a combination that gets me writing, but in this case, I’m stuck. In both, the heroine is made to think the owner of the castle is a monster, and her sisters and mother are made to appear jealous when they warn her against him. One source of irritation is because I think the sisters and mother are probably genuinely alarmed for her. They have every reason to believe she’s in danger, and they’ve gotten a bum rap for centuries!

The other source comes from the hero, and this is the one that has me stumped. The hero, who’s either in monster shape or is pretending to be a monster, is deliberately causing the girl he loves to be frightened, to make a choice for the sake of her family that she wouldn’t make otherwise, and even to see them let her make it. In my opinion, this guy is seriously flawed, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to forgive him and make him likable.

What I love about these stories is the wind that our heroine flies on, and the love story aspect.

As for, Cassandra and Troy, I hope I’ve thought of ways to work out the kinks, but I’m worried that I’ve chosen wrong. The fall of Troy and all that happens before it falls is tragic, and I have to thread my story through the misery.

The point of all this is that, even as a pantser, I think a lot about what I’m going to write before I jump in. I always fail to catch everything, but I try to anticipate the problems that will pop up along the way. So that’s the first strategy: even if we don’t outline, we think deeply about our story before we jump in–which may be hard. If you’re like me, you enjoy the writing, and planning is as unpleasant as standing on a mile-long line at the supermarket.

I wrote up to here on the train to New York City, and while I was walking in Central Park, this post walked with me, and I came up with the steps that I seem to follow from idea to story.

First, boing! the idea. Excitement about the idea, and turning it over and upside down and inside out in my mind. This is the necessary first step. The others can arrange themselves in whatever order works best for you.

Second, notes in the what-if stage that Kit Kat Kitty describes. More boing! moments as we discover what delights us and where our story might go.

Third, notes about characters who can carry our story, who will take it in the direction we want it to go. Like, with the dragon idea, would we want an arsonist as an MC? Maybe, maybe not. Do we want someone who’s afraid of heights? Afraid of getting angry? Angry all the time? The answer will depend somewhat on where the story is going.

Four (not everyone needs this one, but I do), a tentative ending, which involves knowing what the major story problem is and how it might be resolved, happily or not.

Last, notes about where to start.

Begin!

Going through these steps, I think, will get us to a story we can stick with, at least for a while.

After that comes patience, the virtue writers need most. Do basketball players need patience? Just wondering.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Let’s suppose the humans in a story used to be fairies, but somehow their wands were taken from them, and they need them again, or the MC does. Try the steps above and begin the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Find a fairy tale or myth that both fascinates and annoys you. Follow the steps. If the first fairy tale turns out not to be story material, try another one. Keep going until you find one that leads you on to a beginning. Write the story.

∙ Using Erica’s method, think of a friend or a family member and the kind of story he would like. Follow the steps and write the story.

∙ Think of someone you know–friend, frenemy, or villain–and build your story about aspects of that person. Write the story.