Stepping It Up

This is going to be an unusual post. On March 28, 2018, Carley Anne wrote, There’s a part of my manuscript that’s been bothering me: much of the drive for my story (though not all), is that there’s a supposed legend which gives a date for when certain things will be ‘ended.’ Some characters believe in the legend, others do not; we don’t know the truth until the end of the story–but whether the legend is real or no, my antagonist believes it, so therefore, everyone has no choice but to act. How do I make a legend believable? Without smoke and mirrors (and some old, wise, stereotypical cloaked guy rasping the legend’s words through the darkness, if you know what I mean). There are supernatural beings in my fictional world, and they are the first to hear of said legend, but I’ve been looking for ways to reveal bits and pieces to the readers, so that it’s believable, and straightforward. As far as legends go.

You responded so well and thoroughly that I have little to add, so I’m going to reprise the responses, put in a few thoughts of my own, and move on the a second question.

Angie: Maybe you could show signs that the legend could be true by having certain aspects of it line up with real-life events? Events that could be explained away, but also seem to carry the weight of prophecy to those who believe, i.e. a storm or an eclipse bringing darkness, or a kingdom whose rulers and heirs cannot survive past a certain age (perhaps due to a hereditary disease, OR, due to a curse/legend that seems to be coming to pass) or something to that effect. Something like this could make a legend seem real enough to sway many people into believing it.

Raina: Ditto what Angie said about having certain aspects match up with real events. If people think “look the prophecy is right about x and y, it’s probably going to be right about z too,” they’ll probably believe it. In addition, you could also make the terms either general enough or metaphorical enough that anything could be interpreted as fulfilling it. For example, if a prophecy says something like “a dragon shall sit on the throne,” it could mean a literal dragon (like in Terry Pratchett’s book GUARDS! GUARDS!), a monarch whose house sigil is a dragon (like the Targaryans in Game of Thrones), somebody with a draconian personality, or just somebody named “Dragon”. I think any of these explanations would seem logical, especially if people are thinking about it after it occurs. There’s something in psychology called Hindsight Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias) in which people tend to see past events as predictable, despite no evidence. I think that effect would be especially strong in the context of a prophecy, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make people go “yep, the prophecy definitely predicted that.”

Also, does your antagonist have any particular reason for believing the prophecy? If they believe it because they want it to be true, they might also be affected by confirmation bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and perceive every little thing as a sign of the prophecy. I think as long as your characters truly believe in the prophecy and act accordingly, your reader will too. You could reveal bits of the prophecy to the reader by having some characters mention bits and pieces of the prophecy (like: “oh, hey, a red sun rises, just like it said in the legend) and maybe even discussing/arguing about it.

Bethany: The legend could give some precursor proof (you know, things the legend says will happen before the rest of it starts), such as a lightning storm taking out a major building or the royal baby dying, that could all be happening. That would give the readers that little sneaking fear of ‘is this actually going to happen?’ Or a few of the smaller things the legend says will end could actually get ended. Then the legend would seem to be starting to come true, if any of this makes sense to you.

My turn: We might add weight to the legend through corroborating evidence, as often happens when scientific ideas become confirmed, as in physics, when particles are observed to behave in a way that bears out a new theory. In our story, a scroll might be discovered that revels the credible origins of the legend. Or an ancient civilization might be excavated. Their urns are decorated with scenes from the legend.

Or the belief of a respected character can give weight to the legend. If Gandalf, for example, believes it, this reader (me) would be sure it must be true.

Of course, we have to keep our eye on the truth that only we know: the factual or fictitious nature of the legend. We want to be sure that we have the balance right between belief and doubt in the minds of our characters and our readers, because we want the eventual reveal to work.

On to the next question. If anyone responded to this one, I missed it, and I apologize.

On April 12, 2018, Enchanted wrote: I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy (eek!) and I’m a little stumped. The story is based on “Snow White,” except it involves vampires. Basically, Snow White starts off as a pampered princess (her father spoils her) and she has a best friend, this young prince from the neighboring kingdom who has slowly become…more than a friend. He visits her during the summer but lives in his own country most of the time, so they mostly communicate by letter. Snow White’s father brings home his new wife; aforementioned evil stepmother murders him, and Snow White gets framed for it. She escapes prison, but the evil queen shuts down all the roads out of the country, so the only way to get out is through a forest full of vampires. The vampires catch her, but they’re really running this resistance movement against the queen, so they want to help Snow White. One of the vampires is really young and handsome, and Snow White starts falling in love with him (by the end of the trilogy, she has to choose either her best friend or the hot vampire–no spoilers!). Eventually, the evil queen figures out she’s hiding in the forest and sends some bad guys to kill Snow White. One of the men stabs her, but the vampires bite her back to life and then she becomes one of them. Then they set off for the castle where her best friend lives, because they need his army to overthrow the queen. That’s the end of Book 1.

My problem is with the pacing; the middle of the story slouches for me (I think Gail calls this the “sagging middle”). Because for several chapters, they’re holed up in a cottage in the woods. Of course there’s all this romance going on with Snow White and the handsome vampire, but I feel like there’s not enough meat to the middle of the story and not enough motivation for them to just sit around in this cottage when there’s an urgent need to get to the other country. And I need time to pass somehow, because there has to be enough time for them to fall in love and also some crazy stuff needs to happen in the capital with the evil queen while they’re gone.

Any suggestions would be appreciated! (I know, it’s a tricky one!)

I’ve been thinking about this in my own WIP, my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. You’d think it would be all action and danger, but I’m including some of the lead-up to the expulsion, which historically took at least a hundred years, though I’m covering only the final nine. For most of that time, my MC, Cima, is safe. Terrible things are happening, but she’s protected by her prominent, wealthy Jewish family. I often found myself struggling to stay awake. To wake myself up, I listed whatever I could think of that makes trouble for Cima. You can do the same. Here’s what I mean:

∙ I’ve introduced family conflict in the form of a hysterical mother and an evil brother. Cima hates discord, and she suffers. That livens things up! Discord is an item on my list. Applying this to Enchanted’s story, is all sweetness and light among the vampires in the cottage? If not, how do their problems affect Snow White? Can she be in actual danger? Even when they leave the cottage the negative emotions can bubble up when the plot has to slow down.

∙ Cima loves children and, from the beginning of the book when she’s seven, what she wants most is to be a mother someday. This is another item on my list. I keep threatening Cima’s most cherished desire. For example, the evil brother reveals what her horoscope said when she was born, and the signs were not auspicious for motherhood. I’m not sure what Snow White wants (she can want more than one thing), but whatever it is might be can be brought to the fore and made unlikely.

∙ Jews during this period were sometimes baptized by force, though Church policy didn’t approve. Once baptized, even forcibly, people weren’t allowed to go back to the old religion. Cima fears baptism, and I bring this fear in sometimes when my story slows. So what does Snow White fear, and what does she want? Can that fear and that desire be awakened in the cottage?

∙ Cima is her grandfather’s favorite, which also causes conflict. Other family members are jealous, and he’s demanding. For Enchanted, can the romance create stress in the cottage? Might the romance itself get bumpy sometimes?

The overarching strategy is to look around at our plot and our characters to find threads we can exploit when the going gets tedious. We can give our MC personality buttons that go off when pushed. Ditto for other characters. We can give her desires that can be frustrated during quiet times as well as during big action scenes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your characters are trapped in a mine. This can be a reality-based mine or a fantasy one, possibly created by dwarves. For the moment, they’re safe, and you want them to stay that way for long enough to introduce them all, and you want the reader to stay awake. Using the strategies above, or any others that you think of, write this stuck part of the story. If you like, keep going and write the whole thing.

∙ Your MC is on the road in a rock band. Keep things tense on the trip from New York City to Miami. Write the journey.

∙ Snow White (without vampires) is new to living with the dwarves. The evil queen hasn’t discovered where she is yet. Make the interval until she does tense, even though the dwarves mean her well.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Big Plot

Before the post–just letting you know–I’ll be reading with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. These won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

After my post called “Making It Personal,” on December 21, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m having the opposite problem. Plenty of personal conflicts, not enough large-scale dramatic action.

I asked her to explain the problem a little more, and she wrote back, Well, it’s those books I’ve mentioned about Malak, who’s half serpent-demon and half “angel,” basically. The first book’s mostly about his culture shock, and I think it works. But as the story goes on, it really ought to be less in Malak’s head and more about the larger ramifications of a half-demon living in the house of a Ward Minister (kind of like a senator), when the Ward Ministers are the ones who hire demon-hunters to protect humans from the serpent-demons.

I love getting deep into characters’ heads and writing from there, but I really should have more stuff happening out there in the wide world, too. More “fabulously difficult journey,” as Carley Anne said.

(Another reason why I love the comments on this blog–that the help we give each other lingers as ongoing support.)

Melissa Mead added, If anybody had ideas on how to work through consequences of having “the enemy” in your house, and how to balance Big Picture and Little Picture thinking, I’d appreciate it. I’m used to writing short-shorts, with a small cast + small scale.

The ever-helpful (I mean it!) Christie V Powell offered this: It might help to look at plot types: I like to refer to Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots when I need help with the big picture plot. Overcoming the Monster (defeating a villain) and Quest (seeking and earning a goal) are most focused on big picture. The others are Rags to Riches (small person overcomes obstacles), Voyage and Return (wandering into a strange new world and seeking to get home), Comedy (relationships become tangled until one bit of clarity rights all wrongs), Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from the monster’s point of view), and Rebirth (the Monster descends into darkness, but turns and is able to become light).

My WIP right now is being tricky because it’s got three POVs, so technically the big picture is the plot and all three of my main characters are actually subplots. Their families are seeking refuge from persecution, which is the overall story, and their character struggles are second.

Melissa Mead answered: Hm. I think this falls under Rebirth. At least the first book did…

Back to Christie V Powell: If the first one is rebirth, it seems like now he’s already become good and he needs a new plot. What conflict is he up against? Prejudice/bigotry (and if so, which character represents it)? Is he turning against his former snake-demon allies and stopping their schemes? Or coming to the rescue of other former friends who might be able to change?

Melissa Mead: Yes on the first two, There’s an overall arc that I don’t know how to explain without spoilers, except to say that I recently realized that all my books have been about outcasts finding home.

Jim weighed in: If the first book was a rebirth tale and the MC has been established as a “good guy” but there is still a lot of personal conflict and mistrusting characters “overshadowing” the MC then it seems to me that you’re set up for a “rags-to-riches” plot next. How can the MC prove his worth to the larger society? Usually it happens in two stages: first with help (e.g. Aladdin gets the princess with the help of the djinn), and then with the help removed (e.g. The lamp is stolen and Aladdin has to outsmart the magician on his own to get his princess back).

I’m more in Melissa Mead’s camp. For me, it’s cozy in my characters’ heads! The pesky, unpredictable world out there is scary! So, sometimes I have to force myself.

In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, for the first time in any of my books, I had to deal with enormous forces acting against each other: Lakti armies against Kyngoll armies, with a Bamarre rebellion in the mix. I didn’t–and still don’t–know how to write at this scale, at least not through a first-person narrator, and it would probably be the same from a third-person limited POV. I might be able to do it with an omniscient third-person POV. (So there’s a strategy I haven’t used: Write in omniscient third.)

Since I was stuck in first person and didn’t know how to do anything else, I kept the action within the range of my MC, Perry. She views the legions arrayed against her from a tower, but only for a few minutes, and that’s the farthest out I zoom my author’s telescope. There are two battle scenes. In the first one, she’s helping the field doctor. In the second, she’s doing something humanitarian, though I won’t say what and have to issue a spoiler alert.

In the second instance, though, the commander of the Lakti force is right where she is, and her actions ripple through the war and set off outsized consequences.

I do this again and again in the book. Small actions have big effects. So, I’d recommend as an approach to stories that play out on an enormous and daunting scale to keep the focus narrow but influential. When we do this, we can bring to bear our skill at the interpersonal stuff, which doesn’t go away just because the fate of the universe is at stake. Our characters are still themselves, still hampered by their limitations and empowered by their strengths.

Then there’s the follow-up problem with the narrow focus: how does our MC keep track of what’s going on? In Lost Kingdom, Perry has a magical aid that helps her travel quickly, so she can see some of the effects and maintain the momentum. But there are other possibilities, like newspaper or gazettes, messengers, letters. A magic one that crops up sometimes in fairy tales is talking birds. There are other magical or occult possibilities as well, like flying dragons or teleportation or ESP. We just want to make sure that our magical devices don’t make matters too easy for our MC.

Let’s take as an example Christy V Powell’s plot archetype of turning against former allies and apply the principle of small actions leading to large consequences. If Malak can prevail over even one snake demon, he’ll come up with methods that can be applied universally to snake-demons. Or this particular snake-demon is an important one, who’s critical to the survival of all the others.

We can start by LISTing the advantages and drawbacks Malak has in this struggle. On the plus side, he knows the way snake-demons plan and operate. He understands better than anyone how ruthless they are. On the down side, they’re individuals to him, with personalities, and he’s recently absorbed empathy. Will he be able to hurt them? If he does, will his new good side be destroyed? If he doesn’t, they will certainly kill him!

The stakes are high.

The setting can be small-scale, too, say the home of a Ward Minister, which will give Malak another advantage if he knows the layout better than his opponent. And a disadvantage, if the Ward Minister’s family, including the adorable three-year-old twins, are present and at risk.

Naturally, this leads to a prompt:

∙ Write a battle scene between a half-ogre-half-elf and a whole ogre in the mansion of a knight. The knight and his family can be there, or not. Think about the qualities of each character and the floor plan of the house. Include thoughts and emotions along with the action, but keep dialogue to a minimum. The results of this battle will reverberate through the worlds of elves and ogres.

And here are two more:

∙ Your ogre-elf is wounded but on the point of victory when the full ogre gets away from her. Write the pursuit. Think again about the setting and the qualities of your characters, and work in thoughts and feelings.

∙ Turn the tables. The full ogre appears unexpectedly, and now he has some new advantage. Your ogre-elf MC has gone from hunter to quarry. Write the chase.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Worry Wart

Got a nice surprise last week when five advance reading copies of Ogre Enchanted showed up in my mailbox. So it’s a book, not the book, but a book–always a great moment.

On December 10, 2017, Bird dog wrote, I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.

The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.
If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!

Sara wrote back, First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!

I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in a bunch of ways.

And Zoe/TheSixthHobbit wrote, I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it often: We should stifle our worries about what readers will think. It is just a stick to beat ourselves with.
A couple of days ago, I started reading a memoir I will not name and took it with me to New York City, but I hated it so much I couldn’t keep reading and switched to my addiction, Free Cell Solitaire on my cell phone. In my opinion, the writing was cutesy and way too wordy. In the first few pages, the author constantly announced what he would and would not include in the memoir, and I wished he would shut up and just tell what he planned to tell and not blather on about it in advance. So, for this post, I looked at reader reviews of the book on Amazon: “…great storytelling…”; “He writes beautifully.”; “Excellent writing style.” Obviously, readers’ opinions differ.

Another example. In this case I will say the name because he can take it. I can’t bear Stephen King for a similar reason. In my opinion, he overwrites. My husband loves his books, so I’ve tried more than once to read one or two. But my mental red pencil comes out instantly, and I’m deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs! I prefer spare writing that disappears into the story, but millions–many millions!–disagree with me.

And a few other readers probably don’t like his work for reasons that are different from mine.

And I’ve adored books that haven’t caught on. And others that have.

And my books, incomprehensibly, aren’t the cup of tea of many readers.

Having said all this, however, we can set our fears to rest–or discover that they’re justified with a writers’ group or beta readers. One reader isn’t enough, and three are better than two. Don’t tell them what you’re worried about. Just let them read and then find out what they think. If it doesn’t come up, you can ask about the anxiety–or whatever else you happen to be concerned about.

If only one person is bothered, listen, think about it, and decide if you agree. But if more than one are troubled, and especially if more than two are, take that very seriously.

As for the anxious first-person MC, I’m with Sara on all counts. Yes, congratulations on finishing a draft! Kudos to you!

I’m a champion worrier, with a trophy to prove it, so, like Sara, I can relate, and would almost certainly enjoy a narrator who was like me in this regard.

I also love Sara’s idea of using the anxiety to advance the plot, like having it fuel a bad decision.

And I agree with her that there are many ways to portray anxiety.

It doesn’t have to show up only in description. It can appear in the elements fiction writers have at our disposal: dialogue, thoughts, action, physical symptoms. Even setting, which might be a trigger.

In dialogue, for instance, our MC can stop mid-sentence or trail off, distracted by worries. Or she can chatter uncontrollably. Or stutter. Or yell at people and even things. In the TV legal comedy, Boston Legal (high school and up), one of the MCs at one point gets so stressed that he starts speaking nonsense words and seems not to realize he’s abandoned English. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

A few other examples. Thoughts: Her mind can refuse to settle down and can rattle on and on. Action: She can walk out on a situation. Symptoms: Hives. Setting: The school where her anxiety began. There are many more options in each category.

Also, , in dialogue and thoughts and everything else, we can show our MC trying to conquer her anxiety. Her efforts are likely to make her even more relatable.

In our first draft or, as in Bird Dog’s case, an expansion, we shouldn’t worry about going over the top. We should write the anxiety as fully as we can and throw in the kitchen sink. When we’re finished and start revising, we’ll have a better idea of what to keep and what to toss.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC, a writer, is polishing the first five pages of her manuscript for submission to agents, and she is questioning every word. Anxiety is taking her over. She reads this blog, but she can’t keep herself from worrying about her readers. Write the scene, varying the ways she expresses her anxiety. Give it a happy ending, though, and create her recovery.

∙ Your MC never worries. He’s part of a team combing a wilderness to find a lost camper. Everything goes wrong, but he’s untroubled. Write the scene, and make him really annoying.

∙ Two characters are preparing–separately–to debate each other. Their prep methods are entirely different. Write the preparation for each of them, and then write the debate.

Have fun, and save what you write!

*Special post! Poetry competition for teens

It’s late notice, but this just arrived in my email box from a fellow NYU alum:

I’m judging this year’s Hippocrates Young Poets Prize for Poetry and Medicine, an international award open to poets aged 14-18 for a poem on a medical theme. If you  teach high school students or have teens of your own who write poetry, I hope you’ll encourage them to submit. 

The deadline is March 1, 2018 and the prize is a whopping £500 (~$700)! 

For more information and to enter, visit http://hippocrates-poetry.org/.

If you don’t qualify–or write poems, but you know someone who does, please spread the word. Let us know if you enter, and be sure to announce it know if you win!

Hear ye!

I’m interrupting the flow of the post to announce that The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre is out! When you read it, please let me know what you think.

It’s also the twentieth anniversary of Ella, which is crazy.

And I’m touring for both, and at almost every signing there have been blog people, whom I’ve been so happy to meet. One more signing to go, this one next week in Petaluma, California. If you can, come!

Spam!

I’m getting a lot of it at the moment and hope to stem the tide by moderating comments before they appear. I hope this won’t last long. I’m not always at the computer to approve what comes in from you virtuous folk, but I will as soon as I can. And I will lift this as soon as the barrage ends.

But the extra post gives me the chance to say HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Temporary change

Hi, Everybody,

The blog has been slammed with a deluge of spam, so I’m temporarily requiring that every comment be moderated by me before it’s posted. I hope this will end the onslaught and I’ll return it to its usual state. Grr….

Pride and Prejudice and Lists

First, if you’re interested, here is a link to an interview with me. When you click on it, the first thing you’ll see is login information. Ignore this and just scroll down to hear the interview: http://newmoon.com/podcast/gail-carson-levine-interview/.

On February 4, 2016 Ella Hensen wrote, I really love writing fiction and whenever I start writing something I get really excited about what I’m going to do. I’ll write some the first day and then the next day I keep going but by then it’s turned into something I don’t like at all! Most of the time it’s way to similar to a book I have just finished reading that I loved. How do I stop this from happening? Has this happened to anyone else?

Christie Powell wrote back, It seems like Gail has answered similar questions about this. Here’s a good one: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2015/06/10/like-falling-in-love-and-out-and-in/.

NPennyworth commented, You’re not alone; this has happened to me too many times to count! Whenever it does I look at the story and ask “What don’t I like about this?” Sometimes I want to write a different part of the story, and then I switch to that. Sometimes a character doesn’t make sense and I take a break to do some character building. Sometimes it’s just a slow, but necessary, part of the plot, and I try to just plow through it so I can get to the more exciting parts. I usually find that if I dislike what I’m writing it’s because I’m bored, so I try to shake things up by putting in an action scene or a new character, or switching POV.

If all of the above fails, then I try to give my brain a break for a while. I can switch to writing another story, or do something else entirely. But I eventually sit down and try again. Being a writer isn’t all light bulbs and inspiration; a fair bit of writing is just forcing yourself to write.

I love NPennyworth’s suggestions. And I love her calm and practical tone. No desperation or self-condemnation. Writing is almost always a bumpy ride. We need approaches that help us keep jogging and slogging.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what loosens me up when I write, because, in my opinion, being loose is imperative. When we’re tight nothing new can squeeze out–or at the least our original ideas have a harder time getting past our rigid gate-keepers.

For me, I need a space in my work where nothing counts. In a poem, all I have to do is drop down a couple of lines. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ve disfigured the poem–really! The stanzas no longer descend in an orderly way, and all bets are off. I’ve made a mess, so I might as well play. I can feel my brain relax. I often copy over the lines that don’t satisfy me and try them different ways. Many different ways. The loosening allows me to consider the poem as a whole, too. Maybe the words are fine but the lines aren’t arriving in the right sequence. I try one way, close the poem up again, consider, and, often, start over.

In a novel-in-progress, I toggle over to my notes in order to relax. If what’s troubling me is the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, for instance, I’ll copy the whole thing into my notes. Suppose I don’t think I’m being clear, well, I may rewrite the paragraph in the most basic way I can think of, even if the writing is less than charming. Then I may copy that and revise. If I’m not happy, I start again.

If the problem is bigger than the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, if it’s a plot or character problem, I’ll write notes about that. And often I’ll list possibilities.

Ah, lists! The world’s greatest boon to originality. All great thinkers use them, actually down through history. When the wheel was invented, it was the product of a list scratched into dirt with a stick, like this:
Possible shapes:
diamond
square
isosceles triangle
circle
hexagon
blob

As history proves, the right solution may not be the last to appear on our list, but it’s the one we most often circle (hah!) back to.

So how can we use a list to move our story from following the course of the last novel we read and loved?

A thread in comments on the last blog concerned Pride and Prejudice and Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham, which ***SPOILER ALERT*** had the eventual effect of uniting Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Suppose we’re writing a romance, too, and we adore P&P, as I do, so we make our two star-crossed lovers misunderstand each other, even though the reader knows they’re meant to be together. It’s a contemporary tale, because we’re a tad doubtful that we can be pitch-perfect regarding early nineteenth century England. Our MC Melanie’s family is wacky and can be counted on to say and do precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right moment for maximum trouble. Melanie’s sister Winette has a crush on geeky James, who is a whiz at all things tech and oh-so helpful when anyone’s computer melts down. We’re tempted to make James kidnap Winette, and have Melanie’s opposite number Stefan find her while she’s still alive. But even we realize this is just too derivative. So, how can we use James and Winette to bring Melanie and Stefan together? We make a list:

∙ Stefan discovers that James has hacked into the family’s financial information and has account numbers, passwords, and social security numbers. Stefan brings his discovery to Melanie and never suggests by so much as a sneer that her parents are careless fools who deserve to be swindled. Since we don’t want her rescued (though Austen doesn’t mind), she handles James.

∙ Melanie herself realizes what James is up to. With more courage than caution, she confronts him. He shrugs and says that he did nothing without Winette’s knowledge. If he’s prosecuted, she will be, too. He leaves her at the coffee shop where they met. On the way home, she runs into Stefan, who sees how distraught she is. She tells him what’s happened, and between the two of them, they cook up a way to foil James. In the course of their planning, they come to appreciate each other.

∙ James steals the family service dog, who is the only being who can calm down Melanie’s father when he becomes agitated. Family and friends mobilize to find the dog, and Melanie and Stefan wind up collaborating on the rescue.

∙ This one moves away from James. Despite her flirting, Winette is friendless. After being aloof at a social event, Stefan is kind to her when her schoolmates torment her. Melanie begins to appreciate him.

We can keep going. If I were writing this story, I would, to give myself even more choices. I’d think about Melanie’s family members and come up with a possibility that involves each of them. I’d also consider other characters and other aspects of Melanie’s life, and I’d invent possibilities for Stefan, too. I might even go back to other Austen books and see how she brought matters to a head in them. Then I might adapt one to these circumstances and use it.

Lists can be any length, but it can help to set a minimum number. I may say I want at least seven options. When I get to seven, I can still keep going.

Just one more thing about my process and finding the freedom to develop ideas. When I wrote the possibilities above, I got tight about my list, because I was going to put it out where others could read it, while my lists and my notes are usually private. I had to drop down on my page, away from the bullets where the final ideas would go. Then I could loosen up again. That’s what I mean about how important a safe space is.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You knew this was coming. Add three more possibilities to my list.

∙ Write a scene based on an item on your list or mine.

∙ Write a list of four other ways Jane Austen might have taken P&P. Leave it in the eighteenth century or make it modern. Write a scene from your new plot development. Or do this same thing with a different book.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

NPennyworth:
What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: http://allaboutfrogs.org/funstuff/jokes/lbrry.html. For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lemme out!–convincingly

I am proud and relieved to announce that the Two Princesses prequel has a title. Alas, the dragons in sales and marketing nixed all other suggestions, including excellent choices from the blog, and I had to cudgel my head again. But finally, I came up with this one, which they like, my editor likes, and I like, and I hope you will like, and which I don’t think I gave you enough information to come up with. Here it is: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Hooray!

So, there’s a lesson in this for all of us: We needn’t seek the perfect title until we have a publisher, because publishers have final say anyway. We can go eponymous and just call our book by the name of our MC and then dig deeper when the time comes.

And, if not a lesson, an idea: To loosen myself up and get out of the title groove I was mired in, I googled “popular fantasy novels for children” and clicked on a selection from Goodreads, which helped me realize that almost anything can be a fine title. Thus freed, my mind started wandering and got me where I needed to go.

Thanks again, many thanks, to all of you who posted title possibilities! I’ll probably ask for your help again.

Now for this week’s post:

On November 20, 2015, Kitty wrote, I need some ideas for a way for my MC to escape a prison cell. However, I would like to avoid anything involving the following:
1. Cliches (air vents and the ol’ fake escape gambit are out).
2. Mary Sue-like abilities (so no “Oh, I just happen to know some obscure physics/chemistry fact that I can totally apply to the situation, plus I can pick locks and dangle from walls). The MC is twelve, so anything that would be obviously beyond the ability/knowledge of a 7th grader is a no-go.
3. Outside help. She has to do it alone. Her friends are in different cells, so she’s not going to get any help from them, or anyone else. And
4. Excessive violence. PG 13 is probably okay. R is probably not. I’ll let you use your best judgement on that one.
5. Deus ex machinas. No “Oh, look, somebody left the door unlocked! Lucky me!”, or “Look, I happen to have a magical door unlocking device with me! I grabbed it when I got kidnapped, but I guess they didn’t notice!”

The cell is modern day with fairly heavy security (though I’m willing to make adjustments on the exact nature of the cell/security system), something that perhaps the CIA or FBI might have at their offices. There probably will be security cameras, though I’m flexible about that one. I don’t need her to escape the whole compound (I already have that planned out), just to get out of the cell she’s stuck in.

NPennyworth suggested: It sounds like the only way she’s getting out is if someone lets her out. Maybe she can use her age to her advantage and trick a guard into taking her out, maybe something like she says she has a stomach bug and pretends to throw up, or insists she needs to go to the bathroom. Once the guard opens the door maybe she could stomp on his foot and incapacitate him, and take it from there.

And Poppie said, I agree with NPennyworth about your escape scene: being let out is the only logical way to get away. I have never written about breakouts, so the only other thing I can recommend, is reading and watching some appropriate books and movies about the subject.

I’m with Poppie, in that research may be useful. We can google “famous prison escapes,” and even try “escapes from juvenile facilities,” since Kitty’s MC is twelve. Then we can mix and match what we come up with to suit our circumstances.

Kitty seems to be after originality in solving her incarceration problem, and the key, in my opinion, to original solutions is character.

Who is our MC? What characteristics that we’ve already established can she use to get herself out? NPennyworth suggests she pretends to throw up to get out of her cell. This becomes more plausible if she has a history of feigning illness to evade going to school, and the reader knows she’s really good at it. She’s discovered ingenious ways to make herself look pale and clammy or turn green or pink with fever. We have her decide which illness will  most likely get her out, possibly make the guards uneasy and unlikely to scrutinize her closely. This can be a lot of fun to write–and to read.

But we can give her other useful qualities. She can be artistic or persuasive or over-the-top charming. Let’s go with artistic. There isn’t much to work with in her cell, but she pulls a few strands of horsehair out of her ratty mattress and fashions a convincing tarantula in the corner. It won’t bear close examination, but from across the cell, it’s a stunner. The reader already knows that the prison is in the desert, so tarantulas aren’t an impossibility. Then she starts screaming. Guard rushes in, stands in the doorway, annoyed, says, “What?” She points. He runs in or runs out, leaves the door open.

This escape, or any escape, will be most believable if our MC has tried once or twice before and failed.

When we use character, the qualities we exploit have to be revealed earlier, when our MC is established. If she becomes artistic in her cell half an hour before she makes the fake spider, the reader is likely to be unconvinced and may shout “Mary Sue!”

In fact, Kitty’s Mary Sue example typifies the problem of the solution that pops out of nowhere. We may be able to pull off a knowledge of obscure physics or chemistry principles if the reader knows she’s a genius in those subjects, and this is established very early in the story. But scientific brilliance plus the ability to dangle from walls, even if set up early, will probably be too much for a reader to buy and may move our MC from a real  girl to a young super-heroine.

Our MC isn’t the only character we can use. If she’s observant (a really handy quality that we can give to almost any MC, along with whatever else we give her), she’ll pay attention to prison routine, the personality of this guard and that and of her fellow prisoners (which Kitty suggests she already knows). She can plan to use the nice guard in one way, the one who does everything by the book in another. Any other characters in her prison life can also be brought in to serve her purpose.

We don’t want to make the escape too easy. In the same way we use our MC’s character to let her escape, we can use her character to cause her to fail in an early attempt or to almost fail in her final successful one. Suppose she’s the spider artist, but she needs her creations to be admired, she may give herself away the first time. The reader will be terrified for her. An added benefit of an MC’s flaw is that it will counteract any Mary Sue’ishness the reader may have detected in her.

In the same way we use character we can also use the prison setting to develop the escape–although character will usually be part of it. Here again research may help. We can google prisons: maps, routines, personnel. It may be useful to search on well-run prisons and badly run prisons. Think about how your MC can use what you discover. Again, we need to set this up as early as possible so that whatever she turns to her advantage doesn’t seem too convenient to the reader. If there happens to be an abandoned aqueduct, for example, just outside the prison walls, our MC and the reader need to know about it before escape planning begins.

A lovely aspect of writing is that time inside our story doesn’t behave for us as it does for our characters. We can realize as we’re writing her escape that she doesn’t realize a crucial fact she needs to realize. Zip! We jump back three days and twenty pages and sew the fact in seamlessly so it’s there when she has to have it.

Obviously, these strategies apply not only to prison breaks, but also to any pickle our MC may find herself in.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Design an escape for a character using another quality other than artistic ability. Make one up or pick one or use one of these: persuasiveness, charm, taciturnity, short attention span, high energy. Write the escape.

∙ Rewrite the scene, but this time make it fail because of a character flaw. Keep her alive, though, and have her try again. If you haven’t before, bring in secondary characters and use their personalities in the scheme.

∙ Write an escape in which the prison itself, its routine or layout, possibly its computer system, is crucial to success.

Have fun, and save what you write!