Writer walks, reader gallops

Last week I received an email through my website about an essay contest from as organization called AddictionResource.com. There seems to be no fee to enter, and the first prize is $2,000 toward college tuition. The email asked me to spread the word. I googled the organization and the scholarship, which is listed on a couple of college financial aid websites, so it’s legit as far as I can tell, but you should check it out, too, if you’re interested. Here’s the link: https://addictionresource.com/scholarship/.

On October 5, 2016, Martina wrote, My current WiP is supposed to be a novella, but I find the plot hurrying on too quickly. Any ideas on how to make the story progress more slowly?

Also, what do you think a stereotypical “author” looks like? I’d like to dress up as one for my high school’s Halloween party, but I don’t think many people would recognize what I was in costume as (or not in costume… I don’t know). Any and all ideas are welcome!

Christie V Powell wrote back, I think pacing is very individualized, and something you have to develop a sense of. Personally I use chapters to control my pacing. I read somewhere that a chapter is like a miniature story, with a build-up to a climax, while ending on some kind of hook. I try to vary the climaxes so that some of them are plot based (Keita and her friends escaped the noblewoman’s house) and some are character based (Carli decided to help the abandoned kids). The best ones are both (Keita defeated the feral dog and then realized she’d been wrong to be angry at her friends). I also try to mix up whether they are cliffhangers (the boulder slammed shut over the tunnel, locking Keita’s friends inside), or ending on a poignant image (the lizard that had been petrified because the enemy thought it might be the main character sank into the sand). The rest of the chapter leads up to the climax in some way or another.

Interesting! I’d never thought of chapters as controlling pace.

Oddly, if done right, slowing a story makes it more tense.

Imagine cell phones haven’t been invented yet. We’re on a train (as I happen to be right now). Someone is waiting for us at our destination with news, which will be wonderful or awful. Our futures hang in the balance. The train stops between stations. Minutes pass. Do we relax or grow more tense?

We grow more tense–even if a second before the train stops we were wishing the trip would go on forever, with knowledge endlessly delayed.

Detail slows things down. For example, suppose we’re writing the train trip rather than living it. We know nothing important plot-wise is going to happen until Shirley, our MC, arrives at her station, but we want to make the journey work for us. Lanie, our MC’s sister, takes Shirley to the station and presses something into her hands. Shirley finds her seat. She’s early, so the next seat is unoccupied. If it stays unoccupied, she thinks, that will be more comfortable but will be a bad omen. Let someone come. If it’s an old man, that will also be bad. She looks out the window to see her sister’s comforting form, but Lanie has gone. Why didn’t she know to wait? Or had she known but something befell her? Shirley looks down at whatever Lanie gave her, a palm-size something wrapped in newspaper and tied with cord.

And so on. We can’t go on forever, making the written train trip take longer than an actual ride on the Orient Express, but we can spin it out and heighten the tension thereby.

In this example, I’ve slowed the story mostly with Shirley’s thoughts. So thoughts are one tool.

Setting is another, especially if we make it serve our story. The train groans and wheezes as it leaves the station. Shirley (thoughts again) wonders if it’s going to break down. She goes to the dining car, which smells exactly as her mother’s pot roast used to. And so on. The windows may be grimy, so she won’t be able to recognize landmarks. The seats are soft, slumber-inducing–but she doesn’t want to sleep!

Dialogue can slow our story down, too. A nosy man sits next to Shirley. They talk. She tells him her story, or she lies. If he doesn’t know it already, the reader gets the backstory of the train trip. Or the reader gets the lie, and, depending what we do, knows or doesn’t know it’s a lie.

It may be helpful to ask a friend or a fellow writer to read our story and point out any places that seem rushed and any spots that he or she didn’t understand. Sometimes the moments that are unclear are the ones that need expanding.

And sometimes, occasionally, once in a while, a story is straightforward. We think we’re writing a novella, but it’s really a short story. We’ve done everything right. There just aren’t many twists and turns. Nothing wrong with that.

As for an author costume, though it’s way past Halloween, I think it’s all in behavior not in what you wear. Hang a sign around your neck. It can say “Author” and then you sit alone and stare out a window, occasionally talking softly to yourself. Or it can says “Brilliant Author,” in which case you move from group to group and hold forth about character development and plot devices and the good sentence. Martina, if you’re reading this, please say what you did wear.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Theseus’s father waits on the shore for his son’s ship to return. If Theseus is alive, the sail will be white; if he’s dead, it will be black. Using plenty of detail, write the scene of the father’s sojourn. Make his wait exciting. Write at least three pages. Include thoughts, dialogue, and setting.

∙ This probably has nothing to do with slowing things down, but can you believe Theseus? He forgets to change the sail and lets his father think him dead–which has tragic consequences in the myth. Write a story that explains Theseus’s forgetfulness, if that’s what it really is.

∙ Fairy tales in their original form are pure telling. In lots of them, a loving mother dies. Alas, she doesn’t get much of a sendoff, maybe five words: The queen sickened and died. In old western movies and TV shows, sometimes a character would be shot, then stagger several steps, collapse, rise up on one elbow, gasp out a few words, and finally die. Write the queen’s death scene. Spin it out. Have her revive a few times. Show what her death means to the people around her.

∙ Make up Shirley’s reason for riding the train. Write the trip and make the news at the end be a surprise.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Development

On September 23, 2016, Grace (The Girl Upstairs) wrote, How do you develop your writing ideas? When you first get an idea, what do you do first? I really struggle with what to do when I first get an idea.

It’s uncanny how often the next-up blog question touches on what’s going on in my work at the moment.

The manuscript for Ogre Enchanted is in my editor’s hands. She emailed me about a week ago that she was reading it and enjoying it. But I don’t know if she’d read three pages or fifty and I haven’t heard since. My fingernails are very short, and my fingers themselves are in danger.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking about what to do next, often the hardest part for me. So here is my process as I’m now living it.

The book that comes out in May, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, resolves its main problem but leaves a kingdom in disarray. In my next effort I’d like to deal with that, with reconciliation. Since I’m bad at making up plots out of nothing, I looked for historical models.

On a personal level, we reconcile all the time. The people we love most are often the ones who push our buttons hardest, but we find a way to work it out. For most of us, life isn’t littered with failed relationships.

But on a macro level, which is what I want, I’m coming up empty with examples of reconciliations between groups. I looked at the aftermath of our Civil War, but we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that struggle. I read about Scotland, where, if I have it right, the Lowlands became reconciled to England for economic reasons, but the Highlands were brought in only by military defeat. I read about South Africa, and there it seems that outside pressure brought about change, which I don’t want to use. Ancient Rome grew by conquest, though its practice of readily granting citizenship is interesting and possibly useful for my purposes. To decide whether or not I can use these, I write notes.

If any of you can cite a historical example of reconciliation, please weigh in.

When I’m hunting ideas I don’t always look to history, but I do look around for outside sources of assistance. And my usual go-to’s are myths and fairy tales. I read Lang’s Red Fairy Book, which I never had delved into before. (Lang’s color-titled fairy tale collections are great, because they’re in the public domain, so we can use them without worry. And there are so many books! A feast!)

I didn’t find anything there for this purpose, although a couple of stories jumped out as marvelous. I recommend “The Nettle Spinner,” which doesn’t repeat the formula of any other fairy tale I know. And there was a terribly sad one called “The Voice of Death” about a doomed search for eternal life.

Though not in the Red Fairy Book, I found myself thinking again about both the fairy tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which seem to me to be in essence the same story, but I don’t know if I can mold either of them into the shape of a tale of reconciliation. Maybe I can. I’ve written lots of notes.

Another myth keeps coming to mind is the tragic “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which I may be able to use, minus the tragedy. In case you don’t know it, here are the bare bones of the story: Orpheus is a master musician. On their wedding day, his wife Eurydice is bitten by a viper and dies. Orpheus, grief-struck, goes to the underworld to play for Hades and persuade him to restore Eurydice. Hades, moved by the music, agrees that Orpheus can lead her up to the land of life so long as he doesn’t look back at her until they’re both fully out. However, he can’t resist a glance right at the end and loses her forever. The reconciliation that I’m writing notes about here is between the underworld and the world above, which can be any two opposing camps.

What I like about this story is its simplicity, the most important quality I look for when I pick a fairy tale to embroider around. My writing impulse is always to pile on complications. If I start with something straightforward, I have a chance of not losing my way.

(I’ve already used the myth of Orpheus in a poem, in a way that’s entirely different from the approach I’d use in a novel. For the poem, I researched the effects of a viper bite, which are horrifying. I imagined that Eurydice doesn’t want to return to life only to have to die again eventually, possibly by another viper, but Orpheus won’t listen to her, so she sets him up to look back.)

Let’s assume that I pick “Orpheus and Eurydice” to become a book. My next step is more notes. I’ll ask myself whether I’ll write in first person or third, and, if in first, who my POV character will be. If third, omniscient or close focus? I’ll wonder who my MC’s will be, what the events of the story will be.

I’ve been evolving from a pure pantser to a vague outliner, so I’ll start listing plot points and, most important for me, how the story might end. I won’t start writing until I have an end point in mind, though I may not know exactly what the outcome will be–whether it will be happy or sad.

My notes, even at this early point, will be scattered with lists–they are already, about how I might use this fairy tale or that myth, about the state of my world at the beginning of my story.

When I have a very basic outline, maybe a page, and I’m satisfied with it, I’ll think about an opening scene that will introduce my MC and may set up the events that will follow. When the scene takes shape I will be unable to resist writing. And I’m off.

You? How do you get started?

Depending on how you count, here are five prompts:

∙ Try my method. Read or reread ten fairy, folk, or tall tales. Jot down a few notes on the three that interest you most. List ways the stories might go, considering gaps in logic or failures in understanding about the way real people feel and behave–these cracks are spots you can exploit to make a fresh story. Write notes about the characters that are given to you by the story and how you might flesh them out. In your notes, consider who your MC’s may be, because they may not be obvious. For example, you may decide that the hunter in “Snow White” interests you most. Another factor that I haven’t mentioned is time period. Do you want this to be fairy-tale time or an actual historical period or contemporary or future. Explore the possibilities in notes. Write more notes about which point of view to use, first person or third (or even second), what tense. List possible plot developments. Create a short outline. Write notes about where to begin. Finally, write the first scene.

∙ There are several distinct chapters in the myth of Atalanta. These prompts are based on her story. Try out my idea-development method on one or more.

∙ Atalanta’s father wants a son. When he’s presented with a daughter, he dumps her on a mountainside to die of exposure, but she’s adopted and raised by a she-bear until hunters take her in.

∙ There are depictions on ancient Greek vases of Atalanta overcoming Peleus (Achilles’ father and a hero in his own right) in a wrestling match. That’s all there is, as far as I know, so this is a challenge, to build a story out of that image.

∙ This part of her story is the best known, I think. Atalanta’s father finally accepts her and wants her to get married. She’s not interested, so she says she’ll marry only the man who can outrun her in a footrace. She’s victorious time after time until a suitor, Hippomenes, asks Aphrodite for help, and the goddess gives him three golden apples to throw in front of Atalanta, one at a time, to slow her down. He wins; they marry.

∙ Use Atalanta’s story or any other myth or a fairy tale as the basis of a poem–there is a long tradition of doing this. For those of you who are at least high-school age, you might check out some of Anne Sexton’s fairy tale poems.

Have fun, and save what you write!

To major or not to major–that is the question

Here is the cover of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, which will come out on May 2nd. I love it, and I’m super-excited about the release. If you remember, this is the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

And I’m now on Instagram, where you can find me under my name gailcarsonlevine. I’m finding my way, feeling like a total newbie, but at least you’ll see my dog. I’ll also–if I can figure out how–be directing people to the blog, so that may be old for you. (This is why I shouldn’t self-publish–I warn people away!)

On September 22, 2016, Veralidaine Sarrasri wrote, My mother keeps going on and on about how I should do something in college besides creative writing as my major, and keep writing as a hobby. I feel like I really want to become an author and not much else, so I want to take creative writing as my major. What do you think? I could really use your opinions.

You guys had a lot to say:

Christie V Powell: I can’t tell you what to do, but I can give you a few case examples from my siblings who are grown up now and what they’re doing:

I actually had a similar argument with my mom. She had an idea of “acceptable” majors that would get me a good job, but I was more interested in learning interesting things. I took Wildlife and Wildlands Conservation because I wanted to know more about it. I’m now a mother, author, and hobby farmer, while my husband works as a school teacher. So I’m doing the kind of things I’ve always wanted to do, but there is a cost. We struggle with money quite a bit. If my husband couldn’t work and I had to, I would have a lot of trouble earning enough money to pay for daycare. It wouldn’t be too hard to find a decent job in my area with my degree, though.

My little sister got a degree in English (another degree my mother disapproved of). She got a divorce a few months ago. Now she lives at home where my mom and other siblings can watch her little daughter while she works. She has an entry-level job at a movie theater. I know she likes to write and participates in NaNoWriMo, but I don’t know if she has any plans to use her degree.

My closest brother didn’t finish college. He has a job in pest management (spraying for bugs and such), which he seems to enjoy. He struggled over the summer when they laid him off for the off season, but he can afford his apartment and an engagement ring. Another sister chose a degree in Family Counseling, but she’s currently on a mission for our church. Maybe some of the younger ones will take a more traditional path.

Kitty: I’m in the exact same boat as you right now. Everybody is different, but here’s my plan if you want a reference point:

-I’m applying to college right now. I’m probably going to major in Economics/Business since I really like it, with maybe one writing class. I plan to write the whole time, though, and hopefully will have a few novels self-published and more ready-to-go by the time I graduate.

-When I graduate, I’m going find a job (fingers crossed!) in some economics-related field that pays decently but is relatively light on the workload. (A standard 9-5 job, no need to work overtime or on weekends, etc.) I like to think that I’ll work in a company’s marketing department, an economics research facility (I love science, but lean towards the social sciences), but realistically, I’ll probably end up an accountant or financial analyst. Or something boring but stable along those lines, which I’m not wild about, but it’ll only be temporary.

– Hopefully by now, I’ll have a nice backlist of books that are making decent returns. An economics/marketing/business degree will *definitely* give me an advantage with the marketing. If I’m doing well enough after a few years of saving up, I might quit and become a full time indie author/entrepreneur like Johanna Penn. If not, that’s fine too, I’ll just work a day job and write at night, just like when I’m in school.

My dream is also to become a full-time author, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth it to get a Creative Writing/English degree. For starters, if the author thing doesn’t pan out (and you have to be prepared for the possibility that it might not, self-pubbed or traditionally), you don’t really have anything job-wise to fall back on, unless you like teaching, which I don’t.

Second, a business degree will help you a *lot*, more so if you want to self-publish, but even traditionally-published authors are expected to do more and more marketing nowadays. And if you self-publish and essentially run your own business, you will pretty much *need* to know how to do accounting, bookkeeping, and other stuff. I did DECA, which is an international business/finance competition, in the Business Finance Category last year, and trust me, anything involving numbers and math (as to, say, more creative pursuits like marketing) is *not* something you can BS without actually having learned how to do it. Sure, you can learn on your own like I did, but having a class would make things *much* easier. Writing is becoming more and more of a business, so a degree will serve you well.

Third (and this is *very* much my own opinion, so take it with a heavy grain of salt), I don’t think a Creative Writing/English degree will teach you much. I’ve taken three years of high school English, and apart from things like literary devices and parts of a sentence, I haven’t really *learned* that much. Of course, I’ve only taken expository writing/literary analysis courses, so Creative Writing or college classes might be different. Maybe Gail or somebody else who has taken them can weigh in on that. Once you have the basics, the “tools” of the English language out of the way, everything else is very much the honing of the craft. And I don’t think that’s something you have to–or even *can*–learn in a classroom. For me, I learn by “osmosis” and practice. I read *a lot*, and sort of just subconsciously absorb how sentences are formed, how stories are formed, that kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll consciously analyze books and what makes them good or bad, or seek out blog posts or articles online that teach the craft of writing. But all of it is free and unstructured, not something you necessarily need a class for. And practice. Just keep writing, the more the better, and sooner or later you’ll get better. You might need some help along the way, but that’s what critique groups are for. And from I’ve heard about Creative Writing classes, most of the course is just enforced writing and critiquing. I can go grab a CP from the NaNoWriMo or PitchWars community and do the same thing on my own, for free. Since I learned writing this way, and it works fine for me. I just don’t think it’s worth shelling out several tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars for. But others who have taken a college writing course might be better informed on that topic.

Christie V Powell: Kitty has a good point. I can see how a business degree would be really useful.

I just wanted to point out that there are other ways to take creative writing classes, even when you’re not at college. Brandon Sanderson, a Sci-fi fantasy writer, teaches a college course on writing and posts his lectures on youtube for free. Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4ZDBOc2tX8. You can also attend writing conferences and groups near you. Some are very pricey, some aren’t. The Festival of Books in Tucson Arizona, for instance, has free writing courses one weekend in March. I also attend a writing group that has a very class-like structure, with lectures and lessons and everything.

Melissa Mead: For what it’s worth, I only found one of my college English classes helpful for fiction writing. I majored in Psychology instead, which I actually think comes in handy more often, because it helps me get into my characters’ heads.

I actually LIKE keeping my writing as a hobby. It takes the pressure off having to write to survive, so it’s still fun.

Besides, if I had to write for a living I’d have starved by now. I made my first professional-level story sale in 2004, and published one e-book, and there have only been 2 years since then that I’ve earned enough to pay the mortgage. For a month. Not a year, a month. Plus writers don’t generally get health insurance. So I’ll stick with writing for fun for now. Maybe I’ll get famous after I retire.

These are so interesting! Everyone carves out a writing life differently.

When I started college and after I finished, I had no plan, no list of what I hoped to accomplish during my life. Due to a damaging remark by my high school creative writing teacher, which I may have mentioned on the blog, I believed I had no potential as a writer.

As a planless person, I majored in Philosophy because I admired a particular professor. It later turned out I didn’t like the subject particularly, but by then I had too many credits to switch. Philosophy is a useful pre-law major or good for going on to a PhD and then teaching, but otherwise, it and $2 (or whatever) will buy you a cup of coffee.

What I did know was that I wanted to help people, so I got a job in New York State government helping people on welfare find jobs. I loved it and stayed with it until I got promoted into administration, when the loving petered out. As a security-minded person, I stayed on. At first, my creative outlet was painting and drawing, but I was too self-critical to be happy. When I started writing, I felt that I had finally found myself.

By then, years had passed. I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-nine and didn’t get published until I was forty-nine.

Of course I was a big reader, and I had a tight grip on grammar. When I wrote a memo, the meaning was clear. My job at the time had me writing correspondence and reports, and my bosses were encouraging. One day, while meditating, I thought how much I loved stories but never made up any. I opened my eyes and picked up my pen–in pre-computer days. That was the beginning.

You can see that my trajectory until Ella Enchanted got published was the same as Melissa Mead’s and much like Kitty’s intended path. Six months after Ella came out (before the Newbery honor and long before the movie), when I thought I could have some kind of writing career and income, I took early retirement, knowing that I’d get a small pension when I turned fifty-five–security-minded again.

In my ten years to publication, I did what Christie V Powell suggests: I took adult-ed classes. Mine were at New York City colleges and universities. I left myself back in one marvelous class and took it five or six times. (The year Ella won the Newbery honor, another honor book, Lily’s Crossing, was by another alum of that class, Patricia Reilly Giff.)

Also to prepare myself–in a pre-blog universe–I read books about writing. I read everything on the Newbery shelf of my library. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, attended conferences, joined critique groups–did everything I could think of to improve my craft. And I sent my work out and accumulated a four-inch thick stack of personalized (not just form) rejection letters.

Publishers in children’s literature don’t care if an author dropped out of school in the third grade and certainly don’t care what her major was–as long as her manuscript is good and also likely to find a market. Adult literary publishing may be different. The poetry world smiles on an MFA–but almost no one earns a living by publishing poetry.

The good of a degree in creative writing is probably in the classes, in sharing work, seeing what other students are doing, getting feedback, having readers. Frankly, since it’s so hard to earn a living as a writer, the quality of college writing teachers is likely to be very high. A professor may mentor you. If publication is discussed, you may also get a leg up there. However, you can find all of this in other ways, as I did. I’m not coming down on one side or the other.

If some other, possibly more practical, major interests you, too, you can minor in creative writing or even have a double major. But if nothing else is appealing, you’ll get your degree and spend the time doing what you love.

Whatever you decide, there’s commercial value in writing well, because few do. Clarity in business and government writing is priceless, say I, who had to read a lot of murk. The creative writing program I completed sends out job notices, and I just saw one for an assistant in a law firm. The posting said that the position had been held for the last nineteen years by a succession of poets!

There are also writing-related fields. There’s journalism, a possible major. Suzanne Fisher Staples, author of the young adult, Newbery honor Shabanu, studied journalism and worked as a journalist before she got published. There’s business and technical writing, public relations, advertising–though I don’t know if these are majors.

You know yourself. Do you need security, as I did? Some people don’t, but if you do, you may want to factor that into your plans. You may or may not care a great deal about possessions and money. Your lifestyle may be simple, and there’s freedom in that, but–just saying and maybe sounding like a mom–worrying about enough money for necessities is miserable.

One other thing to throw in the mix of considerations: automation. The most complicated, high-skill jobs are being replaced or partially replaced by machines. When you think about a field, you might research its chances of continuing to exist. Novelists, according to something I read, are unlikely to be replaced by robots. And here’s the link to where I read it: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/21/408234543/will-your-job-be-done-by-a-machine. Writers and authors have a 3.8% chance of being automated out of existence. Not bad.

Finally, there’s chance. Nobody knows what marvelous and terrible curves are going to be thrown at us, no matter how carefully we plan. I’m proof of that. I couldn’t have guessed how my life would go, and more surprises may lie ahead. So we can relax, at least a little.

Long post! Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is a writer. Whenever she introduces a character, that character comes to life and appears in her non-book reality, in ordinary circumstances that are nothing like what she’s writing. How does she proceed? Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Cinderella marries Prince Charming. They ascend to the throne. She loves Charming but has no aptitude for queening. Write what happens.

∙ Cinderella is a fine queen, and Charming is a great king, but an invading army defeats their soldiers. They’re taken captive and have to reinvent themselves. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lachrymose lugubriousness

On August 30, 2016, Jordan W wrote, I was wondering if anyone had any tips for writing emotional scenes. Ways you can really make the reader FEEL what is going on, and make them emotionally invested in the story. Whenever I feel like a particular scene needs to be more dramatic and powerful, I overwrite it and make is cheesy.

Several of you responded.

Lady Laisa: Think of a time when you felt the same emotion. Write about your own feelings. I never used to be able to write about death until one night I had an EXTREMELY vivid dream in which my father died. It was horrible and it was so real that when I woke up I wasn’t sure if what I had experienced was a dream or not. Now when I write death scenes, I remember what it was like believing my father was dead.

While dreams are useful, real life is useful too. I have one story that I write especially when I’m angry, because the MC is an angry, bitter person, and writing her when I’m angry really makes her come alive. Sometimes I simply don’t have time to wait until I’m angry, though, so instead I remember past injustices, and try to be as riled up as I can.

I find I get caustically sarcastic and extremely cynical after writing in Pen’s mind-set, and I spend the rest of the day in a red fog of annoyance and disgust. Whoops.

Something I do to help me get into a particular mood is listen to atmospheric music. Creating playlists to boost an emotion has been really helpful.

Emma: I do the exact same things- remember the times when I felt that way, and channel those emotions into the story, as well as listen to music. Also, considering the fact that all characters are different, all characters will end up acting differently in different emotional situations. By taking a close look at a character’s personality, you can figure out how he or she will act in an emotional situation. One of my characters in my WIP, let’s call her A, tends to not express her emotions very much, unless she’s talking to someone she absolutely, 100% trusts. This is because she hates drama and thinks emotions are unnecessary and messy. She normally always bases her decisions on logic, and likes to push her emotions to the back seat of the car in important situations. Thus, after she witnessed her mentor and great friend die, she kept her emotions inside. She cries in a scene when no one is around, and only talks about it to two people. Take a look at your character’s personality in order to write a very real, not forced, emotional scene. If you’re not sure how your character would react, try taking the personality test at www.16personalities.com (which was brought up in comments on a recent post) as your character in question. This test will assign a personality to your character and will give you several lists describing different aspects of your character’s personality, which can help you find out how your character would act and react.

Also, if you feel like an emotional scene is too cliche or cheesy, try changing something like the setting, or the way the characters describe their emotions. Let’s pretend your MC’s mom just died. The funeral has just gotten over, everyone is clad in black and are slowly leaving the graveyard through the drizzle. Your MC is standing alone in front of her mom’s grave when her best, childhood friend walks up and lays a hand on her shoulder. What could you do to make this scene less cliche? What if, instead of an ordinary day, it’s Christmas day, in southern Texas? Begone drizzle, hello dry air. What if the gravestone has something written on it that doesn’t make sense to anyone, but was requested by her dying mother to be engraved on her tombstone? Maybe the friend asks the MC what it means. Maybe they take their minds off the sadness by trying to figure out the odd saying. The emotional scene is no longer cheesy, because it’s different. It’s still emotional. Her mom is still dead, she still has a tear on her cheek, and she’s trying to take her mind off of the sad event. But now, it’s less cliche which means it’s less cheesy. And it’s also more interesting.

Christie V Powell: I find that the more powerful you want your scene to be, the less you need to say. Understatement and zeroing in on details are what I find the most powerful.

Here’s a scene from my second book (ebook is out now; hard copy should be here in a couple weeks!!):

Brian gestured to the unmarred sand ahead. “This is the dangerous Boar Island?”
“Anything’ s better than this boat,” Sienna groaned.
The fisherwoman was quiet—or was she tired from all that rowing? The hull of the boat scraped against the sand, and Brian leapt out to pull it further. Sienna half-climbed, half-rolled out of it and collapsed on the sand. Keita and Avie hurried to help her. In that instant, the boat gave a great jerk. Brian leapt back as it shot back into the water. They all stared as the fisherwoman pulled the oars as hard as she could. “Wait!” Brian called. “How do we contact you to get back?”
“You don’ t.”
“But we’ ll pay you!” Avie reached for her pocket and then gasped. Her hand emerged, empty.
No one said a thing. They stood on that beautiful white sand, watching the rowboat disappear into the great empty sea.

I agree with Lady Laisa that drawing on one’s own experience can be useful. When I wrote in Ella Enchanted about the death of Ella’s mother I remembered my own mother’s death a few years before. The gravesite moment comes straight from my response at the cemetery. And when Ella thinks about people saying she’d lost her mother, that her mother is gone, not lost–well, that was my thought.

Music lyrics, if we’re writing something contemporary, can help. After each of my parents died, I couldn’t help crying whenever I listened to a jazz song I adore, “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” because the lyrics seemed suddenly cruel and deceptive. Of course, we have to be aware of copyright law if we use lyrics that aren’t in the public domain. However, whether we’re writing contemporary or fantasy, we can always use a song’s sentiment to write our own lyrics. Music and song cut straight to feeling.

But what if we and our character don’t have similar experiences? Or if our character is so different from us that she’s unlikely to respond the way we do? I’m with Emma on this. In this situation, I write lists. We can list how our MC might respond to a death, for example. Could be directly with anger or sadness, or by walling off all feeling, or something else. Once we have a response that seems right, we can list how she might enact it, what she might do to release it or keep it bottled in. My mother, who keeps cropping up in this post, was a worrier and, consequently, a frequent insomniac. If we have a character who worries and is up in the middle of the night, we can list what she might do during those dark hours. The action is likely to convey the feeling to the reader.

I agree with Christie V Powell about the power of detail to carry emotional weight. Let’s imagine that our MC has lost a memento of a friend. For whatever reason–death, distance, a quarrel–the friendship is over but the memory lingers. Let’s say the memento is a medal. Instead of telling the reader that our MC is suffering because of the loss, we can show her looking frantically for it. We can describe the box that held it: what it’s made of, the sound it makes when it opens, the material the medal nested in, the smell of the box. Maybe there’s a letter that goes with it, and we can reveal what it says.

Regret is powerful, because it’s painful and we’ve all experienced it, so we can have our MC think about her responsibility for the loss–whether she’s really responsible of not. She can consider what she might have done to keep the medal safe.

However, regret may not be her feeling. She could be angry, and we can write her angry thoughts. She may be angry at herself for losing the medal, or she may be angry at someone else for the loss, or even angry at the old friend for the dissolution of the friendship.

That’s three strategies–action, detail, and thoughts to bring us and the reader into our character’s emotional life. Notice that neither one have to mention the feeling itself. The feeling is intrinsic to the actions, details, and thoughts. We can also bring in body responses, like a churning stomach or a headache. So that’s one more.

Emotional connection with a character will grow as the reader gets to know her. We don’t always have to work hard. Suppose, for example, our character is given to feeling stupid and the reader understands this about her, then we can cause her to say something that comes out wrong. As soon as she does and realizes her mistake, the reader will suffer for her. Whatever she thinks or does next will be infused in the reader’s mind with her pain.

Here are three prompts:

∙ As sort of a mirror image of Lady Laisa’s dream, a few months after my father died, I dreamed him alive again. He and my mother wintered in Florida after they had both retired and would call me on Sundays. My father’s usual mood was buoyant, even joyous, and I dreamed a phone call from him that was so realistic I was convinced for the first moments after I woke up that he was still alive. I had to experience his death all over again, which, of course, was devastating. Dreams are often–not always–hyper-emotional. Keep a pad next to your bed for, say, the next four nights, and write down your dreams. In the interest of going back to sleep, don’t turn on the light and use your free hand to guide your writing hand so you don’t write over your lines. After you have a few dreams, use one or a combo to write an emotional scene that isn’t a dream.

∙ I love Emma’s idea of changing a setting. Imagine your MC and another character are at odds. Their conflict can be major, as in, hero versus villain, or micro, as in, two friends arguing over hurt feelings. As they’re carrying out their fight, which might involve swordplay or yelling or whatever you decide, they’re magically transported to a circus arena, where thirty clowns are exiting a clown car, acrobats are performing overhead, and the animal trainer is entering with a caged lion. Continue the scene in this circumstance.

∙ Apropos of nothing, I heard a poetry prompt on the radio that I’ve been wanting to share. It’s to start a poem with the words I come from… The radio show was a call-in, and people called in their poem beginnings, which tended to go something like, I come from a long line of strong women whose strength was tested… etc. I thought, Meh. In your poem, avoid the general for the specific. For example, when I tried it, I included my husband’s origins as well as my own. He told me about Mr. Dibble, his boyhood barber, and, in the barber shop, the plastic behind the chairs of the people waiting for a haircut that protected the knotty-pine wallpaper from pomade–and I put those wonderful details into my poem. What a peek into mid-twentieth century small-city life! So think about your early toys, pets, bedroom, shops and anchor your poem in detail. (For my I come from stanza, I wrote about times with my friends when we pried mica up with our fingernails from Hudson River rocks in our local park in northern Manhattan.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek!

I’m going to be speaking locally on Monday, January 23rd at 7:00 at the Katonah, NY, library. If anyone would like to come, the event is free, and I would love to meet you in person! The audience will mostly be adults, so I’ll be pitching my talk that way. Teens will certainly be fine.

The library is putting out a press release to promote the event, and the press release includes this quote from Ella Enchanted, which made me laugh:

I wished I could spend the rest of my life as a child, being slightly crushed by someone who loved me.

Do you remember my recent inveighing against adjectives and adverbs that weaken, like slightly. So I’m delighted that I’ve learned a thing or two in the twenty-plus years since I wrote the book. Today, instead of slightly crushed, I’d substitute squeezed, or I’d just delete slightly–if I noticed. I’m still capable of making this sort of mistake.

Onto the post!

On August 9, 2016, #writingstruggles wrote, I struggle to write suspense. I just can’t seem to make my readers feel scared, like my characters, or build up the tension.

In response, Christie V Powell wrote, If you’re up to it, you could try reading a thriller or watch a scary movie to get ideas. I’ve only watched one true horror movie in my life, and I was amazed how my emotions were reacting like crazy even though in my head I didn’t care for the plot.

One thing is to make sure to pace it so that you have both constriction and release leading up to the moment. In some books, especially the last of a series, they try to keep the pressure on all the time, but after awhile it just gets old. “Okay, the world is in danger. The world is still in danger. The world’s in even more danger. I get it already.” If you break it up with some light moments, it makes it much more intense.

You can also do a lot with description. The setting, and how you describe it, can have a big impact on mood. So do details, if you draw in and focus on just a few small things. Here’s examples from my climax:

The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.

The girls stood at the edge of a valley surrounded by sharp cliffs. Ruins of old buildings and deep, open pits spattered the entire valley floor, and every single space in between was taken up by statues.

Her foot snagged on a rock, and to keep from stumbling she instinctively grabbed a hand offered in front of her.

The hand was smooth and cold and definitely not alive. Keita looked up, and screamed.
A statue of a young girl stood beside her. Her arm was held out, in supplication or perhaps to deflect a blow. Her face was wrinkled in an ugly silent scream. Keita scrambled backward and bumped into Sienna. The girl stood just outside the tunnel, still as if she’d been turned into a statue herself.

I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.

So that’s one strategy, to set reader’s expectations up and then have them play out unexpectedly in a bad way: warm, living hand expected–cold, lifeless, and useless one received.

When I was little, I liked to go to horror movies, which didn’t scare me much–until Creature With the Atom Brain. I had nightmares for months.

I don’t remember much of the movie, just that a girl character about my age at the time, which may have been eight or nine, adores a family friend, who plays with her and her dolls–until his brain is replaced with the atomic one. I still remember a frame of the movie in which this formerly nice man holds the doll by one foot, and you can tell it and the child no longer have any significance for him. Aaa!

What got me was the loss of affection. I don’t remember if he killed the girl. He may have, but I was lost to horror the instant the doll thing happened.

Then I saw the movie a second time and induced nightmares all over again. (What were our parents thinking? Both times I saw it at our neighborhood movie theater with friends–and no adults.)

So this movie gives us something else to use to create suspense. If we care about the MC, we’ll want others to be decent to her. Threatening that will create suspense.

Along the same lines, I’m not fond of violence in movies or on tv, but I can bear it and even like the movie or tv show if the violence isn’t nonstop. However, I’m not capable of watching or even reading about harm done to an animal. It’s the animal’s innocence that does me in. Character innocence can create tension, too. The reader sees the threat, but the character doesn’t. She’s having a perfectly fine time. Maybe she’s telling the villain things she absolutely shouldn’t because he’s charmed her. The ax is about to fall. The reader has chewed her nails right up to her elbows.

And that’s another strategy: make the MC clueless–sometimes, of course. She can’t always be out to lunch or the reader will lose patience.

Underlying all suspense is one principle: the reader has to care about the character who’s in jeopardy. The reader doesn’t have to like the character, although that makes the task easier. The reader just has to want bad things not to happen to her.

In the end-of-the-world/end-of-the-series scenario Christie V Powell writes about above, we may be able to keep the suspense going through reader caring. I haven’t written this kind of thing, but I’ve seen examples. I used to love Star Trek (I  watched only the original series). I desperately wanted the entire wonderful crew to be okay. I assume that in a series of books, there are at least a few characters the reader cares about. We can keep the suspense going by making each aspect of the coming apocalypse endanger a different character. Then once that danger has been dealt with, on to the next danger and character.

Thus the one the reader worries about doesn’t always have to be our  MC. Doesn’t even have to be a person or even alive. The reader can be made to care about a work of art, a building, a city. Anything.

In the case of Star Trek, the tension was undermined a bit by my certainty as the series progressed that the writers would never bump off a major, beloved character. We can learn from that too. If we allow dreadful things to happen to our MC, the reader will realize that this book takes no prisoners. The worst really can come about. Eek!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Make the reader care about a plastic cup. Threaten it. Create tension over the cup.

∙ Write from the perspective of the evil queen in “Snow White.” Make us care about her, whether or not you keep her evil. Make us see her tragic ending coming.

∙ Time pressure is a great tension builder. Your MC is on a journey. Her mission, whatever it is, has to be accomplished before the destination is reached. Use the time pressure to make us worry.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Showing Who’s On First

Sad to say, my comment moderating continues. The spammers may be bots, because they don’t seem to realize that their comments aren’t being published. As soon as the flow slows to a trickle, I’ll return the blog to normal. In the meanwhile, I’ll approve your posts as quickly as I can–and so sorry when there’s delay!

Way back in 2016, on August 7, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you show instead of tell in first person? I find it easy in third–in fact, sometimes I have to go back and add a telling sentence here or there. But whenever I try to write in first person and get into the character’s voice, they just seem to want to tell for pages and pages and never get into showing the story.

Emma replied, I agree that showing in first person is difficult. Here’s an example:

Telling: I took the sword in hand.
Showing: I slid my hand onto the grip of my blade, clenching my fist around it. I could feel my knuckles going white around the cold metal.

I, personally, don’t think telling in first person should be done all the time, because it makes a character sound a bit unrealistic or look like his thinking is very dramatic. The reason it may seem difficult to show in first person is because it sounds the most plausible and realistic for a character in first person to just tell what they’re doing. In third person, it sounds more plausible to show because it’s like the narrator is describing what’s going on. In first person, the narrator is the one doing the action, and therefore doesn’t have to describe what’s being done– he just does it. Does that make sense? So that’s my version of why it’s harder to show in first person. I’ve found that spending an hour of my afternoon describing to myself what I’m doing (i.e. I carefully selected the orange marker from the glass jar to my left. I combed the strand of hair out of my face, using the mirroring surface of the jar to see my reflection.) has been a good exercise to do to get both the showing and the first person juices flowing.

Great suggestion!

Before I start, if you don’t recognize the reference in this post’s title, it comes from an Abbot and Costello routine, which you can google with “Who’s on First skit.” It’s very funny.

I think of my first-person narrator as the every-person of my tale. She’s the reader’s window into my story: the action, setting, other characters, dialogue. Yes, she has a personality and a perspective, which the reader learns through her thoughts and feelings, but she reveals what’s going forward fairly. She’s a lot like a third-person narrator.

So one strategy might be to write a scene in third person and then translate it into first, making as few changes as we can. Then we can ask ourselves if we’ve put in enough of the inner life of our MC, especially her thoughts, feelings, physical responses–like cold hands and a scratchy throat, which, by the way, are showing. We can add those in, and, voila!, we have a believable first-person narration.

Naturally, the two POVs will feel different as we write them, and we’ll inevitably (and correctly) make some different choices as we write.

After doing this for a few scenes, we’ll likely have the knack and can start writing directly in first-person. But if the technique comes slowly, making the change isn’t that time-consuming. More than once, I’ve had person problems and have had to make this switch for an entire manuscript–300-plus pages. Doesn’t take that long, and when the task is over, the pain fades.

Our first-person MC may trap us into over explaining. (Of course, we’ve let her.) She may push us to tell the reader the lead-up to everything. If, for example, her friend Sam behaves badly at a party, she may justify his actions with a digression of telling in which she goes into his past and her reasons for putting up with him. If we start in third person, we may not even be tempted. If we start in first, we can cut the digression when we revise. His bad behavior can just be what it is. If there’s a plot reason for going into its backstory, we can work that in at an appropriate story moment. By then, with luck, our showing has told part of the story, and the reader has already seen why his friendship is worth it.

Some writers take on an unreliable narrator. If we do this, at some point we have to clue the reader in that all isn’t as it seems. In this case, the telling and the showing are very controlled, and in a way the reader becomes part of the story, teasing out truth and falsehood. The only times I’ve done this were at a couple of points in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, when Addie herself is confused. She becomes unreliable because she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

If I have a reason to, I’d like to write an unreliable narrator someday, but I expect it will be tricky. In a way, with an unreliable narrator, it’s all telling, because she’s selective about her revelations.

I also haven’t written a first-person narrator with a quirky voice. In my two mysteries, my MC Elodie often says and thinks her favorite exclamation–lambs and calves!–but beyond that, her voice is neutral. I don’t mean that a quirky voice can’t be fabulous. I admire writers who can pull it off, I’m just saying that it can get in the way when we want our story to simply unfold, when we want, mostly, to show. So there’s another strategy: keep our first-person voice straightforward and unembellished.

Another first-person problem that can get in the way of showing is that our POV character may have an opinion about everything and want to share it. A royal wedding is announced, she starts opining about marriage, and the action grinds to nothing. We can let her rip and then trim when we revise.

As an aid to showing, we can remind ourselves that she’s in the scene that’s unfolding and doesn’t know what’s going to happen. We can simply record step-by-step what occurs as it happens, just as a third-person narrator does.

Finally, if third-person is more comfortable, it’s an honorable choice. We can use limited (as opposed to omniscient) third person interchangeably with first. We won’t have failed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take this from the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and rewrite it in first person:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

∙ Our MC is going nuts. Pick a setting for the descent into madness. Write it entirely in third person, without any of his thoughts and feelings, but show what’s happening anyway.

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!

 

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!

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!

Vive la difference!

Congratulations to all you NaNoWriMo-ers! How did it go? Any words of wisdom on plowing through, finding time, writing speedily? Any lessons learned?

Here’s a little more in this English thread that I’ve begun. One of the things that made writing Stolen Magic such a lengthy endeavor is that, under a spell of insanity, I decided to try not to use any words that entered English after 1700, so I was consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) on almost every word. It was nuts to do for a book that would be published in the twenty-first century. I will never indulge that exact madness again, but sometimes I still wonder about particular words. If they seem too modern to me, I look them up. Often, I discover that a contemporary-sounding word originated in the thirteenth century. But sometimes I’m right. I looked up deadline this week and found that its first appearance in writing was in the early twentieth century. What did they use before then?

Do you do that–look up the etymology of a word? I think any online dictionary will give you the date of origin of a word, although the OED shows the etymology of each use. Consider stand, for instance. The OED gives its history not only as noun and verb, but also for all its shades of meaning.

On to the post! On July 7, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, In my current WIP, my main character is facing an arranged marriage. I just started writing a soul-searching conversation with her and her father. Important stuff for their characters comes out but I can’t help worrying I’ve just alienated all of my male readers. Before whenever I have “girly” parts I’ve tried to include other elements of things going on, but I’m worried about this one. So, do you consider the gender of your readers? Can you think of a way to make this scene less mushy?

This exchange followed:

EmergingWriter: Hmm… I’m afraid I don’t typically consider the gender of my readers. I suppose I probably should! You’ve got a male character to work with– the father. Could you give him some thoughts that read as more “male”? Not fully understanding or relating to his daughter, finding her more emotional than he might be, etc. I’m not sure, though, because on the other hand you probably don’t want to fall into the quagmire of gender stereotyping. Maybe the father is really very sensitive!

Christie V Powell: Both of them come from a culture that is very stoic, so they will be talking more logically and rationally, but they’re still talking about marriage– and I feel like that logical approach might be even more alienating to teenage boys.

I’m just remembering when I was a kid and thought Toy Story was too mushy because of the scene where Woody bares his heart to Buzz when trapped in Sid’s bedroom. Not even romance, just high on emotion. Then again, I was a lot younger than my target audience.

Emma: I haven’t really considered the gender of my readers very much either when it comes to things like this. I definitely should think of this more. I do consider my male readers when creating characters, however; I try to create characters, both male and female, that will not only connect with my female readers, but with my male readers as well (but then again, we all try to do that). I think that if your male readers love your story and your books, they won’t be daunted by a few “girly” scenes. I know when my brother reads books, he doesn’t mind a few kissing scenes or highly emotional scenes, so long as that isn’t the main focus of the book, and so long as most of the plot is action centered. He doesn’t let the girly stuff stop him from reading a book if he loves the book (and as long as the girly stuff is kept to a minimum), and he’s a 13-year-old boy who’s a die-hard Marvel fan. There’s no guarantee of how your male readers will react, of course, and since I haven’t read your scene I can’t give specific things to change, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I like EmergingWriter’s idea of giving the father thoughts that are relatable to your male audience. I was going to suggest adding a dash of sarcasm or humor to make it less mushy, but you said your two characters will be talking logically and come from a stoic culture, so this may be against their character.

I’ve thought about this, too. I believe my books are full of action, but they have titles like The Two Princesses of Bamarre and covers that feature the female MC. I’ve sat at book fairs and watched boys approach and then flee the girly cooties of my covers and titles. I should sell the books with optional brown paper covers!

My publisher tells me that most of my readers are girls and I shouldn’t worry about it. So I’ve pretty much stopped. But, regardless of the gender of my reader, I want my male (and female) characters to be believable, which includes gender, and I, too, don’t want to slip into stereotype. I’m entirely with EmergingWriter that a dad or any male character can be sensitive. These days gender seems to be increasingly fluid. The Q in LGBTQ stands for questioning. And, just saying, my husband weeps easily and still comes across as solidly male. I hardly ever cry, and I think I’m unmistakably female.

Admittedly, since I’m writing fantasy and mostly drawing from an old-fashioned European fairy tale tradition, I haven’t gotten very complicated so far, but I have fooled with gender in the character of my dragon detective Meenore in A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic, who won’t say whether IT is male or female. When IT meets people, IT both bows and curtsies. I don’t even know which IT really is! If I write more books in the series, I doubt I’ll ever reveal the answer. IT can even fall in love with another dragon–who also won’t tell ITs gender.

If our plot calls for emotional dialogue, then it does. I don’t think we should duck it. I think we worry too much about what may turn off a reader. Readers bring unpredictable attitudes to their reading. Some males may love the marriage conversation but may be left cold by something else. If our story is engaging and our writing is clear and occasionally sparkles, we’ve done our job.

How our characters conduct themselves in the conversation and what they say will reinforce and expand what we know about them, including the way they inhabit their gender.

Anyway, pronouns do a lot of work for us. He, she, and even the relatively new they (for people with a more complicated relationship with gender) convey a great deal. As readers, when we read the pronoun, we form a limited idea of the character. When he, for instance, does anything–speaks, acts, feels, thinks–we masculinize it in our minds. When she does anything, we feminize it. If we have a they character, we’ll probably have to give our readers a little more information.

Physical description, including clothing, also helps. I don’t mean we have to describe gratuitously, but when we’re showing people, the reader will see them, including their genders.

As for the mushy factor, I’d wonder about the relationship of the father and daughter and also the relationship between the father and his wife. Are they sentimental about their love for one another? If they’re not, the conversation doesn’t have to get mushy. They can talk about affection rather than love, about negotiating differences, about respect and friendship. Depending on the society, they can delve into tradition and duty.

Doesn’t have to be boring, either. Our MC’s thoughts and feelings can keep the conversation lively. Also, she can have memories that illuminate what’s being said, and these can be full of action.

This is reminding me of an utterly unsentimental, wonderful mid-twentieth century poem about a father’s love for his son. Click here to read: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/core-poems/detail/46461.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write your own version of the conversation between the MC and her father. They’re both stoic, but show how their stoicism differs.

∙ An arranged marriage is pretty loaded with feeling and impending trouble. Write the scene in which your MC learns that there is to be an arranged marriage.

∙ Write a scene in which the husband-to-be discusses the upcoming nuptials with his mother.

Have fun, and save what you write!

What do you want already, you character, you?

I don’t have anything in our little series of contemplating the wonders of language, but if you have any ideas, please post them, and I’ll keep thinking. I’ve loved reading your favorites, least favorites, and needed synonyms.

On June 29, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, How do you figure out what your characters want? I mean everyone says to “make your character want something” etc., etc. But how do you give them something to want that isn’t overly vague (world peace) or overly trivial (sparkly shoelaces)? Does anyone have any suggestions? How do you give each character a separate agenda while still fighting for the same cause as the other characters?

Christie V Powell contributed this: Usually when I think of this kind of motivation, it’s something internal, like acceptance or to be appreciated or to feel loved or to feel safe. Then for a major character those internal needs often turn into a goal: to find my missing brother or get so-and-so’s attention or be popular.

In my book, I have two pairs of characters who have the same motivation. The second two both want safety. One seeks it by searching for her brother, who always protected her (in the second book she seeks it by becoming more independent and learning to protect herself), while the other tries to defend people and face the villain to make the world safer for everyone. The second two both crave acceptance, but in opposite ways: one wants to fit in socially, one wants to be accepted for who she is.

These are great examples!

Let’s mix it up a little, because complex characters can have complex and sometimes conflicting desires, and let’s start with a book most of us know: Pride and Prejudice. I can think of more than one pretty big thing that Elizabeth Bennett wants: love–but she’s self-respecting and wants a partner she can also respect; financial security; respectability for herself and her family; and–which is why she’s so beloved, I think–humor/fun.

In her early nineteenth century world, she doesn’t have nearly as much agency as women do today. She can’t get a job in London and find love prospects online. She can only stay put, like a spider stuck in its own web and travel when her aunt and uncle take her or when her friend Charlotte invites her, and even then, presumably, she can’t travel alone. We see her two goals in conflict after her friend Charlotte Lucas warns her not to offend rich Mr. Darcy when he seems interested. We see her use her limited agency when she refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal and Mr. Darcy’s first proposal. We see her wringing her hands helplessly when her sister Lydia seems lost to that era’s proper society, when Lydia’s actions threaten the prospects of the entire Bennett family. So Austen has to do some of the work for Elizabeth, has to shlep the action to her, by making Mr. Bingley take up residence near Longbourn, by having Charlotte marry the curate of Mr. Darcy’s aunt, by giving Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle a yen for travel. Elizabeth winds up speaking more than doing. It’s the charm of her personality that draws people in, especially Mr. Darcy.

The subordinate characters have simpler wants. We don’t have to go to town with all our characters. Mrs. Bennett wants her daughters well married or, if not well married, married. Mr. Bennett wants to endure his life with his silly wife as pleasantly as possible. Jane wants to love and be loved. Lydia and Kitty want to flirt and be admired. Mary wants to be taken seriously. Mr. Collins wants to cozy up to important people. Wickham wants money.

Of course, you can disagree with me about any or all of these (except Lydia!). Readers have different takes, often different from what the author has in mind–and we’re entitled!

This wanting business is a dance between character and situation. Many writers start with a character who wants something, which can be something internal or something external. Once they’ve decided what it is, they bring in situation to frustrate success. Other writers (like me) start with situation then jig over to the MC to discover what she wants in light of the situation.

If we create an awful situation, what our MC wants will usually pop out at us. He’s in a burning building. What does he want? We list possibilities and remember that nothing is stupid on a list. He wants to save himself, to save his new kitten, to make sure some top-secret papers catch fire, to toast marshmallows, to get a tan, to ensure that the arsonist who set the fire is revealed. We pick one and pile on the obstacles.

To start with character, let’s suppose our MC does want world peace. When we move on to situation, there can’t already be world peace. So we have war. Do we want her to succeed? If yes, world peace has to be attainable. Maybe in this world there are only two or three warring nations. How can we position her to be able to bring peace about? Maybe she works in this world’s equivalent of the UN. Maybe she’s the coffee shop barrista and meets everyone. How can we make attainment hard? What’s she like? What qualities does she have that help her reach her goal? Which qualities get in her way? Who opposes her? What goal can we give this opponent? What qualities?

Back to Elizabeth Bennett. Let’s focus on her desire for love and marriage. What stands in her way? The backwater she lives in. The family’s relative poverty because of the entailment of Mr. Bennett’s estate. The foolishness of her mothers and her three youngest sisters. Maybe her own sardonic eye and overnice tastes. Maybe her impolitic way of talking.

Suppose our MC wants sparkly shoes. No judgment. She’s entitled to want what she wants. Why does she want them? We can have fun with that! She saw the same shoes in a magazine on the feet of someone who, in her eyes, has everything. They symbolize success for her. Or, maybe the shoes are a one-off and no one else has them, and they’re worth a jillion dollars. Maybe they’re guarded when they’re not on their owner’s feet. There are lots of possibilities. Lists will be helpful. How does she generally go about getting or failing to get what she wants? What is her situation in life? Does someone always give her whatever she wants, except this one thing? Or does she live a life of deprivation, never getting what she wants?

To put this all together, like so many things in writing, it’s all in the execution. Our characters can want anything. If it’s a big, abstract goal, we have to make it concrete. If it seems tiny, we have to create its significance, in reality or in the psyche of our MC.

Here are four prompts:

∙ An earthquake strikes, a big one. List possibilities for what your MC wants. Pick one. Write the earthquake scene and the scene that follows.

∙ Pick a different desire from your list in the earthquake situation. Write the scenes again.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants world peace. She–or he–doesn’t have to be a barrista. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Write the first scene in the story of the character who wants the sparkly shoes. If you like, keep writing.

Have fun, and save what you write!