More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Writers’ range

So I was at a writers’ conference this past weekend and I mentioned the blog to Brianne Johnson, an agent at the respected Writers House, and told her the question that comes in fairly regularly here, about how teens can get published. She said she’d be happy to look at manuscripts from teens, and I leaped six inches into the air.

If you decide to submit to Brianne, send her a cover letter describing the book and send the first 25 pages in a Microsoft Word document, as an attachment.  Brianne prefers to receive submissions via e-mail, at bjohnson@writershouse.com. In your e-mail, say you got her name from my blog. Your writing sample should be double-spaced in 12-point type and the typeface should be easy to read. Your name, address, phone number, and email address should appear on the left above the title. Your last name and the title of the book should be in the upper left hand corner of every page that follows, like this: Levine/Ella Enchanted. This is in case a page gets separated from the rest.

After you send it, be patient, patient, patient. And good luck!

And here are some questions for everybody. Are you writing poetry? Would you like some posts on the subject? Do you have questions? I’m not as experienced a poet as I am a fiction writer for kids, but I have been published, and I love to read and write poetry. Right now I’m reading a fascinating book of essays about poetry called Structure and Surprise, Engaging Poetic Turns, edited by Michael Theune, on a pretty advanced level, high school and above, I’d say. Anyway, I’d welcome poetry questions. I probably won’t have definitive answers, but we can explore together.

Now for the regular post. On June 1, 2012, Michelle wrote, I’m homeschooled, and recently in one of my school books I studied novels/novelists. The book talked about ‘range’: an author’s limits and experiences, and his or her ability to work with them. They used Jane Austen as an example, saying that even though the Napoleonic Wars took place in her time, she chose not to write about them because wars were outside her range. Now, after pouring my heart into a fantasy series for over three years – a series that does include numerous battles – I’m wondering if I tried writing way outside my range. I know nothing about fighting other than what movies and the many books I read tell me. Do you think I was wrong to write outside my range? Can books like that still be successful?

The old adage is, Write what you know. If we all followed it, there would be no fantasy genre, no sci fi, no horror, no paranormal, no historical fiction earlier than its author’s childhood. So, no, I don’t think you were wrong.

However, if the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen are entirely fictional, you might want to supplement that with some nonfiction and documentaries and see if the wider reading changes or confirms what you’ve written. You may find first-person accounts particularly helpful, even if you’re writing medieval fantasy and the weapons are swords and pikes, or if it’s a space drama and the soldiers fire ray guns and wield energy shields. You’ll learn how it feels to be in the middle of a battle, what the after effects are, what the relationships are in the unit, and more. Surprises will come along that you’ll use.

If any of you are writing realistic fiction, readers who are familiar with the weapons you include, for example, will notice if you get a detail wrong. If you’re writing historical fiction, to take another example, readers will hope to learn about the period, and it would be a shame to let them down.

When I write fantasy often I avoid elements that are too closely tied to our world. I made an important dog character in A Tale of Two Castles be a Lepai mountain dog, a breed that doesn’t exist outside my book. If I’d made him a poodle, that would have brought up associations with contemporary life. On the other hand, when I made Kezi in Ever be a gifted weaver, I learned about weaving. It didn’t seem to me that a made-up process would have been good enough.

The book you cite said that Jane Austen chose not to write about the Napoleonic Wars as outside her “range.” I suspect she knew a lot about the subject, which must have been much in the news and much discussed. “Range” may merely mean the kind of writing that suited her temperamentally. Narrow domestic concerns – marriage, family, fortune, local characters – were what interested her. You, Michelle and many others on the blog, unlike Jane Austen, may be more into the broad canvas of war, at least at this point in your writing.

Let’s consider the adage. It’s been around for a long time and, I suspect, must have some truth. What we all know most fundamentally is ourselves, our emotions, thoughts, physical sensations. We know what it’s like to feel well and to have a fever. We know our environment, the late afternoon sun shining slantwise on the street outside our house, the smell of a parent’s closet, the cell phone ring tone, and a zillion other details. Next level of distance, we know friends, family, pets pretty intimately. After that it gets more and more remote.

If you bring what you know well into your fiction, if you use a losing game on the soccer field last week in a battle between your heroine’s battalion and the invading aliens from the seventh planet circling a distant star, you’ll still be writing (partially at least) from what you know.

Complete knowledge is often impossible. Yesterday I shopped for groceries and asked a young woman if the store had any more of the ice cream my husband loves. When she came back with a case, she called me Sweetie. I’m about forty years older than she is! Where did that Sweetie come from? I didn’t mind. It was affectionate, so maybe it came from an excess of benevolence. Or maybe from a cheeky testing of the boundaries. I can guess, but I can’t know. Still, I see nothing wrong with putting her in a story and giving her a motive. I can call her Della Louise and make her live with an adored grandmother, or a hated one. I can turn her into a mermaid who’s living among humans and is really two hundred years old, so I’m a youngster to her. Not knowing, being outside my range, is a gateway to opportunity! If Della Louise comes across as real on the page, readers will slip inside her as easily as she slips into her scaly tail at midnight every night.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your main character is lost in a forest filled with bears. Write what happens, and make sure the bears are part of the story. If you know a lot about bears and not much about aardvarks, make the forest full of aardvarks. Do no research! If you like, make the story fantasy.

∙ Read about bears or aardvarks. Write again, either a new scene or a revision, using your research. Compare. (I’m not thinking one will necessarily be better.)

∙ Write about an inventor, inventing an anti-gravity machine.

∙ Your main character parachutes into a battle in progress. Write what happens. Again, this can be fantasy.

Have fun, and save what you write!