Everything Mattering

Two posts ago Kim asked: One question: Do you find it difficult to make everything matter in a story, if you know what I mean? It seems like there’s a lot of pressure on a writer to make everything in a story contribute to the story’s progression through plot, character, etc.

There is more to Kim’s question below, but I’ll talk about this part first. I don’t think every sentence in a story has to pay its dues toward plot or character or setting. Most should, but not all.

For example, you’re introducing a new character who is going to play a minor but noticeable role and is important enough to deserve a name and a description. When you describe him, he needs to fit the story’s environment. If you’re writing a Victorian novel, for example, you wouldn’t give him a Mohawk. Beyond that, feel free. If you want him to resemble your Uncle Bobby, go ahead.

If you’re writing something funny and your reader is laughing her head off, she won’t mind that you’ve wandered a city block from your plot.

When your story problem is established and your reader is worried for the main character, you can take a little time to embroider and have fun. Chances are, you’ll charm your reader. In Ella Enchanted, Ella’s visit with the elves isn’t strictly necessary, but she’s in so much trouble that I could get away with giving her and the reader a break – and for my own pleasure, I could imagine elf society.

We are writers not merely to slave and suffer. Occasionally, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves.

Yes, most of what you write should serve plot or character or setting or mood, and a lot of it should serve more than one. But there are acres of leeway in there. For example, in the mystery that I’m revising one of the main characters is a dragon. Aside from the Komodo dragon in Indonesia and in zoos, I suppose, there are no dragons in real life, but there are many in fiction, and I was free to make up my own. I got to decide how big it is, how hot its fire, what its wings look like, how many teeth it has, even the shape of the teeth. I won’t say what I did, but I could have gone any of dozens of ways. This is the freedom within the rigors of plot and character and so on.

I write plot-driven books, so I always have an eye on plot. I define my characters based on the role I have in mind for them. When they talk I want them to say things that will subtly move the plot along. But I also want them to sound like themselves, in the fashion that I, using my authorial free will and glee, make them sound.

You have authorial free will too.

This is the rest of Kim’s comment: How do you accomplish it all without becoming overwhelmed? Is it mostly done by conscious effort, or have you reached the point where it just happens for the most part?

It isn’t unconscious, but it is automatic by now. I’m always asking myself how a scene contributes to my plot or to developing a character, which will ultimately support my plot. But initially I write a lot that I don’t need. Especially a lot that the reader doesn’t need. Last week I mentioned moving my main character from the back of the castle battlements to the front. I’ve spent a lot of time on movement of characters through castle architecture, like who goes out what door and where the door opens into. I’m not yet sure how much of this a reader has to know, but I have to have the information. Even if most readers won’t be able to tell, I don’t want my characters going through a door that used to go outside and suddenly goes inside. Some reader will make a map and be very disappointed in me. As I keep revising I suspect I’ll wind up cutting and simplifying, but I’ll have the underpinnings correct.

No, I don’t get overwhelmed, for a few reasons. Writing comes mostly from the subconscious, and feeling overwhelmed just gets in the way. That’s one reason. Here’s another: I can always revise. If I don’t see where I’ve gone off the rails on this pass I will get it on the next, or the next, or the next, or the next, as many nexts as I want. This is the last reason: I’ve done it before and it’s worked out. The more you write, the more stories you finish, the less overwhelmable you will be.

My prompt is: Go through one of your stories and add to it. Make the story richer. See what you can put in that your ideal reader – the one who most gets you, who best loves your mind – will adore. Afterward, you can take out what is too too over the top, but let the story sit a little before you apply your knife. Have a blast. Save even the parts you ultimately decide don’t belong.

Ending with self-promotion: If you are in the New York City area on Thursday, December 3rd, I’ll be with a few other kids’ book authors and illustrators at Books of Wonder in Manhattan at 18 West 18th Street from 6:00 to 8:00 pm to celebrate Anita Silvey’s new book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. The other authors and illustrators will be Jon Scieszka, Ann Martin, David Weisner, Wendell Minor, and of course Anita Silvey. We’ll each read from our favorites and then from one of our own books, I think, and then there’ll be time for questions, and after that we’ll sign. If you can come, I would love to meet you if we’ve never met, and to see you if we have.

  1. It is amazing how often I go to bed worrying about a writing issue then awake to find some wonderful person has blogged about that very subject. Thanks for the great and well-timed post.

  2. Thanks so much for this post, Gail. The prompt you give at the end is very encouraging; I thinking of doing that this weekend (if time permits from the holiday gatherings!) as I go over my work-in-progress. As always, your posts are very INSPIRING!

    Have a great Thanksgiving day!

  3. That was very interesting! =)
    My biggest problem is I almost CAN'T get too far away from my plot. I don't know why, but in that sense my creativity is very limited. I can tell when I read many books that the authors do tend to go out of the way and put in moments that may be beautiful or funny but don't really progress the story. I'm not good at that.

    You mentioned the characters' position throughout the castle. Do you ever write out elaborate maps to help you keep up with where what is and how to get to it?

  4. Agreed: great post! Thank you. It's lovely to hear that we writers are in fact allowed to enjoy ourselves, hehe, since that's so contrary to what it seems like sometimes. 😛

  5. Thank you so much for answering this question! I love the prompt, too. I recently cut 50 pages from a manuscript I had already revised a number of times, and I feel like it's a streamlined work now, but it has lost some of its flavor. With a big grin on my face, I'm going back to my manuscript to do as you suggest in your prompt. I think I'm really going to enjoy myself (and I promise to save my work).

    Thank you again, and happy Thanksgiving!

  6. This is a great post.

    There are things in a story that the readers doesn't need to know, but as the writer, I do! And the only way I will remember them is to write them into one of the drafts. I can always remove it later.

    Thanks for posting this.

    Shelley

  7. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    My name is Kira Stathis, I am a 4th grader in Maywood, New Jersey. I am doing a report on you because I just read Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. My aunt, Deb Hilbert who knows David Christiana, gave me two of your books for my birthday in July. There are some things I can't find out about you from Google, such as how did you get your first story published and what environment do you like to write in? If you don't mind, could you let me know those two things about you? If so, I'd appreciate it if you could respond to me by December 1st to my email address, kirastathis@gmail.com. Thank you so much
    Kira Stathis

  8. I have a random question. What kind of word processor do you use? Is there a certain software for writers? I'm using a basic Word right now, and I was wondering if there was something better.

    Thanks!

    Lindsey

  9. What a great reminder to not get bogged down in any one draft – you can always revise later! I know I have trouble remembering that sometimes – okay, a lot. 🙂

    I had the pleasure of meeting Anita Silvey when she was in town for the Texas Book Festival and she was lovely. I'm sorry I'll miss your appearance in NY with her!

  10. Linzlovslife–I'm sure there's software for writers. I use Word Perfect, which gets more like Word every day. WRITERS DIGEST magazine reports on software from time to time, and there must be other ways to find what you need. On the other hand, I often have to convert to Word to send work out, or I get it back in Word.

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