First off, two appearances: If you’re in the area this Saturday, I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua (New York) Children’s Book Festival. I’ll be there all day, so there will be plenty of time to chat.
And in the evening on October 26th, I’ll be conducting a writing workshop and speaking at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron, Michigan.
Details for both are on the Appearances page right here on the website. I would love to see you!
And let me mention for future planning for SCBWI members, that I will be conducting a two-and-a-half hour workshop in writing fantasy on Saturday, February 3rd at the SCBWI national conference in New York City.
Onto the post!
On September 8, 2017, Aster wrote, I wrote down an odd dream I had the other night, and I’d be interested in expanding it. I read Ms. Levine’s post on expanding fragments (she gave advice including delving into character- thought, feeling etc.). However, I do not think that some of those tips apply because the story is written from the point of view of a monster (more of a fictional animal), and I worry that by elaborating on thoughts and feelings beyond threatened, angry, submissive, etc., would make the character too humanesque.
I asked for clarification, and a dialogue followed with Christie V Powell.
Christie V Powell: Have you read the Eragon books? I think it”s the last one where the narrative jumps to the dragon”s POV for a couple chapters. She still feels alien in her thought process yet you can relate to her as a character.
I also suggest looking at some of Temple Grandin”s books, like ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Temple Grandin uses her autism to describe how animals perceive the world. I tried to use the principles when my MC uses animal form– she is less flowery, doesn’t use names, notices details and especially contrasts, is afraid of sudden movements, etc.
For expanding ideas into plots, I play around with several ideas. If it started as a dream, I’ll daydream with it, just playing around and seeing how long I can make it last. If that goes well, I ‘ll jot down as much of the dream and daydream as I can remember. Some of the characters have depth but others are cardboard cutouts or change throughout. Then I’ll come up with a fluid plot line. I do a lot of brainstorming, some lists, and some stream of consciousness. I also like to cheat and look at THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker, which gives some potential plot structure ideas.
Aster: Thank you so much for the suggestions. To clarify- I was wondering how to expand the story fragment without giving the animal/monster human qualities- like intricate thoughts and feeling other than primal instincts.
Christie V Powell: It seems like it might be tricky to have a pro-active protagonist that way– a character who reacts as well as acts. Nowadays, proactive characters are preferred, although I’ve read a few who aren’t, like WHITE FANG (Jack London ).
I admire Christie V Powell’s loose, relaxed methods for generating ideas, which Aster and all of us can use to turn our idea germs into full-blown books (not diseases!).
And I love the suggestion of looking at the writings of Temple Grandin. I haven’t read her books, but I have heard several of her interviews, which may be available online, and through them have glimpsed inside a unique mind.
Many years ago, I read a book called CREATIVE DREAMING by Patricia Garfield (high school and above). One of the things I learned and have tried a few times is to set the stage for dreams while I’m still awake. For example, we can think about a plot problem as we’re drifting off, and we may dream a solution. Aster might re-imagine her dream, and the dream might extend itself when she falls asleep. It can take a few nights for this to work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s fun to try. Have any of you done this?
Another book to look at is GRENDEL by John Gardner–high school and up–which is a retelling of BEOWULF from the monster’s POV. And one more: NOP’S TRIALS by Donald McCaig (not sure–may be okay for middle school). I remember only the dog’s POV, but I just looked online and see that his owner’s POV is in there, too. As I recall, there is nothing cutesy about the dog’s POV in this book.
These books are real achievements, because, in my opinion, it’s difficult to write from the POV of a character who is so different from us humans. One difficulty, I’d say the major one, is that readers may have trouble entering the MC, whose actions and reactions aren’t explained through complex thoughts, feelings, and speech–unless Aster’s creature does speak. We also don’t know if he–I’m making him male, but he may not be–understands language. Regardless of the difficulty, I think it’s worth trying. It’s always an interesting challenge when we limit our resources. In this case, we’ll probably have mostly action to work with.
But action isn’t possible without some level of thought. So we should spend a little time thinking about how he does think. In words? In pictures, as Temple Grandin believes (if I remember correctly) that animals and autistic people do? In sound, maybe? In colors–how cool would that be!
How can we create sympathy, if that’s what we want? This is a version of how to make a character likable. We need to use everything we can think of, his name, for example. We’ll have a different initial response if his name is Snarl than we will if it’s Purr.
We can make him save someone right at the beginning, which will prejudice the reader in his favor.
We can use the humans around. Our creature can cause speculation and misunderstanding in his observers, which could be funny–or sad. People can perceive a threat when none is intended. This can escalate; first the creature can be in danger, and then everyone can be. The reader will care.
We can learn a lot about him from his reactions and from the acts he initiates. For example, does he hide from people or go toward them? Does he respond to different people differently?
To develop a plot, we can have him want something. Then we can frustrate his desire and see what he does. We can create obstacles and have him make mistakes or bad choices in the course of going after whatever it is.
Or we can put him in a terrible situation and not let up. Again, he can make mistakes. We can give him an antagonist, who is determined to harm him.
To expand his repertoire, we can give him abilities that humans don’t have. He can have as good a sense of smell as a dog. He can perceive colors differently than we do. He can sense emotions in a complex way, even though he may not have many words to describe them.
Going in a different direction, we can write in third person, and the narrator’s voice can interpret him for the reader. Or, the story can still be from the creature’s POV, but we can introduce a character who is a sort of monster whisperer. This character can explain the creature to the other characters and the reader, but she may sometimes be wrong.
Also, we don’t have to write a continuous narrative. Our creature may lend himself to shorter related pieces. The reader can see him in various situations and can connect the dots on her own.
Experimental fiction, which doesn’t have to be linear or logical, may lend itself to our creature. We can be dreamlike and surreal and concentrate on language. We can create discontinuities.. Also, just saying, dreams are traditional territory for poems.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Your creature is trapped and put into a cage in a menagerie. Write his capture and the scene that follows.
∙ Write the scene that precedes the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince is turned into a beast, assuming he becomes at least part beast internally.
∙ Getting real for a minute, your MC has a head injury, wakes up in the hospital with cognitive losses. His thinking isn’t what it used to be. In a way, he’s the monster. Write the hospital scene from his POV.
∙ Have your creature fall in love either with a creature like him or with a human. Write the scenes in which this happens.
Have fun, and save what you write!