Self help

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

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

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

My lecture segues nicely into this post’s question.

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

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

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for these links!

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

How do I know all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. That was a great post. I have a lot of trouble finding what I need to change in my stories, and how I should change them. So this post is helpful. Also, I wanted to ask a question. Sometimes my friend give me some of her writing and ask me to give them feed back. But usually when I read it all I can see is plot holes, and too many cliches. Should I just strait up tell her, or keep my mouth shut. Because if I honestly point out all her flaws I would be tearing her whole story apart. But I don’t want to do that. What would you suggest I do?

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      Tell her! She won’t improve if she doesn’t know what’s wrong. However, the best way to go about this is to start with a compliment. Some people do one compliment for every criticism, others one for every two. For example, you can say something like, “I really like your use of metaphor here. One thing you can do to improve it is…” This way you will still be pointing out the flaws, but you will be building her up instead of tearing her down.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I agree with Jenalyn Barton. But even after the compliments, straight up may be a little harsh. You might couch your concerns as places you didn’t understand, like, I wasn’t sure how this part leads to that development. Maybe the story can be expanded in this section to clarify.

    • I tend to err on the side of caution. Include complements, and then choose one or two things to comment on that they could focus on fixing. Of course, I also hedge too much (INFP!), with questions instead of statements and lots of redundant phrases like “in my personal opinion”. Also, know when to quit. I visited a writing group where one woman read a chapter that detailed the war strategies and mentioned the main character about twice. I made a couple of hedging comments, and very soon realized that she wasn’t going to listen because she immediately got defensive and explained everything. She was there for complements and not instruction, so I quit. Incidentally, if you’re given feedback, the best response is always “thank you” and nothing else unless they ask specifically.

  2. My Self-Helpers take the form of post-it notes. Some of the notes are from THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (old fashioned yes, but tried and true). Others are from books on writing and from my critique partner whose eyes see what I cannot. BEWARE THE PASSIVE VOICE states one note (was, felt, had, those ‘ly’ words), IT’S – contraction & ITS possessive, and THAT vs WHICH. I was lucky enough to have Gail critique my work at the Rutgers One-on-One conference a couple of years ago. Even with my post-it notes it helps to have another set of eyes look at your work. It was tremendous fun to go through my MS with an imaginary Gail on my shoulder saying, “tighten here and here.” I hope you find what works for you Taryn.

  3. This is a great post, especially since I’m the only one who sees my stories until publishing.
    Anyway, I have a question:
    I have a fairy MC who’s idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures…the things he avoids as much as possible.
    He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.
    The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?
    As always, thanks for any suggestions!

    P.S. Kudos to Mrs. Levine for pulling off a cowardly, but still appealing, character with Addie in A Tale Of Two Princesses! : )

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

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

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

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

  4. The Florid Sword says:

    Does anyone have any advice for editing a book that needs a great deal of reworking? The plot is the way I like it, for the most part, but there are a lot of gaps, missing scenes, and other things to work in. It is also set in the future, and therefore needs a lot of work on the technology. Anything would be appreciated, thanks!

    • I like to summarize every scene with a few words, and then organize those phrases into chapters. Then I write in what I think is missing, in a few lines. I have a hard time switching from editing mode back to drafting, so sometimes I’ll do the new scenes on paper. That seems to help.

    • I think I do something similar to Christie V Powell, though not necessarily with whole scenes. I’ll write every plot point, piece of necessary information, and things I know I need to put in there that aren’t in there now (and sometimes small scenes, if I know I want to keep it all) on its own notecard in a few words. Then I clear space on the floor and physically organize everything in their chapters, starting with the original configuration and then rearranging things and adding new notecards on things I had forgotten or just things I think could/should happen into the mix.
      Then I’ll go back through my document and rework what I have to match the notecards. Of course, if it doesn’t work out for the sequence of events to actually follow the notecards verbatim, I’ll go with what works, but the notecards help to organize my thoughts.

  5. Has anyone tried writing with speech to text? I want to be writing but I just had double wrist surgery and now I can only type with one finger.

  6. Hey, I have a question about writing romance. In my story, the MC is a homeless waif, and she falls in love with a gentleman who always crosses her path. But the awkward part is that they really don’t talk to each other. She falls in love by watching him. And besides, she’s a tough girl, not one that falls in love easily. So, any suggestions for how to make this not seem super awkward? Thanks!!!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I wonder if she might fall in love more readily just by watching him If she’s tough, close contact might cause her to push him away. Just watching from a safe distance could make her less guarded.

      It might be fun to think of this like a silent movie. If anyone has seen Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp, you’ll know that the audience falls in love with him through his actions, his pantomime.

    • Awkward is fun! At least, if you’re a writer or reader or otherwise a bystander. It gives character heart and personality, it makes them both loveable and relatable… and it’s just plain fun.

      I’m reminded of Snape revealing himself to Lily in Harry Potter 7: he planned on speaking to her for a long time, and it went badly. And in doing so it captured readers’ attention and heartstrings.
      I used something similar in my book series: two boys fall in love with a girl (at least, they think they do) based only on their conversations with her brother. It creates awkwardness galore when she finds out.

  7. The Florid Sword says:

    Another question: I may have asked this one before, but I can’t remember.
    My MC in my WIP is a princess on the heroes’ side. The main general/second-in-command villain guy and one of his associates take her hostage towards the beginnings of the story, but she is saved by the general’s son, who helps her to escape and then flees with her because he’s afraid of what the consequences might be from his father and the other villains. Afterward, the two of them fall in love.
    How do I make that transition happen without making it seem like Stockholm Syndrome, instalove, or something else like that? I’d appreciate any advice. Thanks in advance!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Hearkening back to my post on lists, you can list the possibilities. You may also not be giving yourself enough credit. When you start writing, I bet you steer away from the Stockholm Syndrome and instalove-because you’re aware of the danger.

      That’s my take, but there are great idea people here. Please weigh in.

    • Being rescued, and having him switch sides? That already sounds pretty romantic, and with decent reasons. I’d say maybe throw in some conflict: can’t let it get too easy. Perhaps he picked up some bad habits from the villains. Or perhaps his helping the princess was only a first step on his road to reform, and she’s going to help him. I love how the romance tied into reformation in “Behold the Dawn” by KM Weiland.

  8. Hi guys! So I’m working on a story set in a dystopia where disabled people are used for medical experiments. The main character, Deanna, is mute, so the government locks her up in a lab inside a prison. Her parents are dead, she has no siblings, and her only friend fled the town before the government gathered everyone up. Deanna is very shy, unsure of herself, kind of prissy, and is very slow to action. Well, she has to escape this lab, which is inside of a prison, which is guarded by soldiers! How do I make her brave and confident enough to DO something instead of sitting around freaking out that she’s going to die? Thanks!

      • Well, she’s a really sweet girl, and she likes animals, and she loves baking. But none of these qualities seem to drive her to do anything. She’s kind of the type who panics and hopes the soldiers won’t hurt her. (At one point she even says “But maybe they’re nice soldiers!”). Anyway, I’m just having trouble with creating that grit in her.

        • Hm. How old is she? What’s her background like? Might the guards have sympathy for her?
          Oh, how does she communicate? “At one point she even says “But maybe they’re nice soldiers!” threw me for a second, since she’s mute.

          Do these people experiment on animals too? Could she work her way into a position where she’s caring for them, so that her captors start seeing her as more human, and maybe let their guard down a bit? Does she have contact with other prisoners she can team up with?

          • She’s 19. Her mom died when she was 6 and then her dad actually dies because he tries to break her out of there and the guards kill him. I don’t know why the guards would have sympathy for her; they’re all pretty rough guys. Maybe I could write one who’s a little nicer, maybe a younger, naive one who doesn’t live, eat, and breathe the dystopian movement.

            She doesn’t really communicate much with other people, because she’s mute and shy, too. (When I said she was saying “maybe they’re nice soldiers!” I meant to say that she’s thinking it to herself). She used sign language to communicate to her parents.

            I haven’t written anything about the animals being used for experiments; she isn’t shown having contact with animals until she’s out of there and rides a horse to get away. She can’t communicate with other prisoners because she’s in solitary confinement in the lab.

        • I wonder if giving her enough motivation to escape would help. If she’s really sweet, she might not try to escape just to improve her own situation–especially if the outside is no better than inside. You’ve already said she’s got no humans who she might feel motivated to help, so what if it was a pet? Or a feral animal she’s made friends with? Maybe she’s earned the trust of a feral dog, so that she is the only human it likes, and she’s saved him from gangs and hunters before. She needs to escape so she can help him. Perhaps she bakes food for him every day and he will starve without her. Try figuring out some outside motivation strong enough to overcome her panic.

  9. And I also have another question. I have another story that focuses on the lives of three 19th-century British couples – the Willoughbys, the Knightleys, and the Prices (borrowing names from Jane Austen). All the couples are related: Mr. Willoughby’s sister is Mrs. Knightley. Mrs. Willoughby’s sister is Mrs. Price. So it’s all about these three couples. Well, the problem is that I have six characters – Mr. Willoughby, Mrs. Willoughby, Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Knightley, Mr. Price, and Mrs. Price. A lot of times, they’re all in the same room, conversing. I’m struggling with finding a narrative voice for all this. I’m trying omniscient third-person, but I’m having trouble relaying all those people’s thoughts at once. Because, say, Mr. Willoughby will say something shocking, and five characters have to respond at once. It’s getting too busy. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you, and Happy New Year!

    • ll right, i did something similar last year, and the trick is, make unanimous reaction whenever you can. So, let us say….
      Character 1: Says something shocking
      Characters 2-5: Look at each other in amazement

      Another trick is to focus on two characters, but include snippets of what the other characters do in the back ground. Here is an example:

      Zephaniah and Gracie walked off a little ways to continue their argument. As their argument got increasingly louder, the words grew harsher. Lilly and Bucko exchanged glances from the other side of the room. This did not sound good. Viviana thought so too, by the look of it- she stood alone in the corner, eyes wide.

    • I’ve noticed that, even if you are in a big group, you are never all talking at once unless it’s a formal meeting, or if one person is saying something particularly interesting (and even then it won’t last long after he or she is done). Little conversations break out between pairs and trios. You might have one (or more) people who listen and never speak, who may or may not be listening to anyone else. Six people holding one conversation is almost as difficult to preform as to write about.

      • Thanks a lot! I think I understand what you’re talking about.

        So Mr. Willoughby is always the one making trouble. He’s loud, arrogant, and he does all kinds of shady deals and even ends up seeing another woman. Mrs. Willoughby only sees the best in people, and she kind of suffers all alone, because she pretends to be happy and nobody ever asks if anything’s wrong. So her reactions are very controlled and slight. Mrs. Knightley is a very passionate lady; when she finds out what her brother is up to, she freaks out and starts asking 100 questions about why he thought he could get away with that. Mr. Knightley is quiet and doesn’t really get into the situation too much – he kind of sits back and watches it from a distance without really reacting. Mr. Price is a morally correct man and doesn’t agree with Mr. Willoughby’s shenanigans, but he is very reserved and states his opinion gently. Mrs. Price is always frowning and making short, blunt comments that kind of sum up what’s going on.

        What I’ve noticed is that Mrs. Knightley and Mrs. Price dominate the story, because they express the most. I have another question related to that, which I’ll post below.

        I guess I should make the characters interact with each other, instead of reacting separately. I’ll go over the scenes and try that.

  10. A strange inquiry, one I’d never thought to ask:

    I (grudgingly) let two of my friends read some things I wrote. They both told me it sounded more ‘British’ than they expected. As we are all American, I found this strange.

    Well, I let an online friend review some of my work, and once again, the reaction was, “Woah, I got British vibes there.”

    It’s not a problem, I mean, I’m cool with it, but I was curious: what makes a story seem more American or British or whatever?

    If anyone has answers, that would be nice. 🙂

    • I’m not an expert on this, but I think British writing is a little more classic-sounding. I don’t know if you read the British author Jane Austen but her work is all classic, and you totally feel like you’re watching a BBC series.

      Is your story set in the olden days? I’ve realized that stories can sound kind of like Regency Britain or something if they’re set in history. If everyone’s talking about their corsets and afternoon tea, it’s going to sound kind of British.

      Hope that helps!

  11. Okay, so another question on my story about the British families. It’s in omniscient third-person, so I can hop from viewpoint to viewpoint. But some viewpoints seem to need more time than others.
    Mrs. Knightley, for example, is a chatterbox. So we don’t need to be inside her head a whole heck of a lot. Same with Mrs. Price – her frowns and eye rolls are enough to tell exactly what she’s thinking. Mr. Willoughby’s character is revealed by his actions, which are never good.
    Mr. Price, Mr. Knightley, and Mrs. Willoughby are quieter. Mr. Price is deeply passionate about things but has trouble expressing his emotions. Mr. Knightley is just kind of not present in the action; kind of like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Willoughby (as stated in my earlier comment) is more like Mr. Price – not sharing her true feelings. She has a kind of deep emotional struggle, because she ends up being jealous of Mr. and Mrs. Price’s happiness (she wishes her own husband cared about her as much as Mr. Price cares about Mrs. Price). So I spend most of the story inside those three characters. But then I feel like the characters with the strong personalities don’t get their fair shot at narrating.

    Any suggestions? Thank you!

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