Beloved beastie

For those of you who are SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) members, I’m teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon, February 3rd, on writing fantasy at the national conference in New York City. I’ll talk a bit and give prompts, most of which will probably come from this blog. Participants will write, and then we’ll discuss. The workshop will last 2 ½ hours, so there will be lots of time to get into the weeds. I’d love to see you there!

Onto the post! On October 18, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I have a “beastly” question:

What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:

The character does something literally inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.

… how do you get across the shock of what they’ve done, yet not lose reader sympathy?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Aster: Have you read the YA novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo? One of the main characters- Kaz Brekker- does some pretty horrific things yet (and this part depends on interpretations) still is a fairly likable character.

Chrisite V Powell: What about showing the inhuman culture so that the reader believes that he thinks this is normal? If it’s his POV, maybe a mini flashback about someone else who did it (maybe worse?). His reaction will also say a lot, when he’s confronted. 

Melissa Mead: That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, but I’m not sure it’s enough- or if the inhuman culture itself will turn readers off.

I’ve never issued a trigger warning for a post before, but if you’re prone to being nauseated, you may want to skip this one–not because of anything Melissa Mead wrote but because of where I take it.

Most days, Reggie and his pal Demi have a play date in our backyard. Demi’s owner and I walk around and chat while the dogs play or ignore each other or bark at passersby. Demi often takes a poop, which Reggie sometimes eats. Ew! And double yuck! This is exceedingly inhuman behavior!

I may not be willing to smell Reggie’s breath for a year, but he’s still adorable, with that big nose, pleading eyes, tell-tale tail. My love for him is undiminished despite this disgusting propensity that, like Melissa Mead’s character, he sees nothing wrong with.

So that’s one strategy: Make your monster (demon?) appealing to your POV character. If your reader likes the narrator, he probably won’t be irreversibly turned off by the monster’s behavior.

Sympathy can be agonized sympathy. I think of the TV series House (high school and up). House, a brilliant doctor, is self-destructive and insensitive. Sometimes he acts cruelly, but he’s also saving lives, not because he loves humanity but because he hates to fail and loves puzzles. He has a single friend and could be the source of the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” I used to watch and squirm and want the best for House and keep watching. A big part of my sympathy for House is that he does save lives. So that’s another strategy: Give the reader a reason to care about the monster. Rescuing others is a time-honored reason.

Among the worst practices I can think of is cannibalism, and yet the late sci fi writer Robert Heinlein made a good intellectual case for it in his classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up). (This is cannibalism following death from an unrelated cause–people aren’t killed so they can be eaten. And the book was written decades before mad cow disease was discovered.) Another strategy: Make a thoughtful argument for the offending behavior. Readers will be fascinated.

I suspect it will also help if the demon makes clear his perspective on his act. For instance, he can invite other characters to do the same or participate. He can ask, If you don’t do this (the beastly thing), how do you do that (which shows how the behavior functions in his society)? And, likewise, he might react with horror at some human customs. For example, he might be aghast that humans eat together, because in his culture eating is intensely private. There’s another strategy: Make the reader understand the demon’s viewpoint.

One more: Reveal the monster’s feelings, which, presumably, the reader will recognize and identify with. If, when he becomes aware of his companions’ shock, he responds with confusion, dismay, even resentment, the reader is likely to relate. Even if he isn’t the POV character, we can reveal his emotions through body language, dialogue, the understanding reached by our POV character, a chapter in a tome about demons and demon society, and probably more. For example, I understood Reggie’s disgusting behavior better when I read in a newspaper that dogs don’t have the region in their brains that we have to register disgust.

Readers can have a range of responses to the demon’s act. They may be intrigued or pleased by the surprise–they didn’t see that coming!–or delighted by the author’s daring. They may recognize that the behavior is beyond the pale, but it fits and, if we’re really cooking, couldn’t be otherwise.

Worst case scenario, a few readers close the book. We can’t please everyone. On the other hand, some will enjoy the demon’s behavior but will stop reading a book if they think the writing is too cautious. That goes for gatekeepers, too. Editors and agents vary. Some may be put off, but others will be thrilled to find a writer who colors outside the lines.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is picnicking with friends. The cold baked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad are scrumptious, and the ants, who invade, think so, too. Your MC or another character–you decide–picks up an ant and eats it and asks people to send more her way. Write the scene. Make the reader at least understand and tolerate the ant-eating.

∙ Write the above picnic scene from the POV of one of the ants, or, using the first-person plural POV discussed in a recent post, from the POV of the colony. While anthropomorphizing as little as possible, get the reader to be on the side of the ants.

∙ One of your characters fights the kind of fires that destroys thousands of acres. There’s no counting the people, wildlife, property, and land he’s saved. However, in his personal life he’s a relationship arsonist who blows up all his human connections. Write his reunion with his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for many years. Make this meet-up go disastrously because of his self-sabotage. In the writing, make the reader suffer out of sympathy for him and the sister.

∙ This “Snow White” takes place in an authoritarian society. When the hunter is given the order to kill Snow White, he has no moral compunctions, because it’s right and a duty to obey the queen. Write the scene in the forest when Snow White presents an alternate ethic of compassion and individual liberty. You decide if she succeeds.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.

Hah!

Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Making It Personal

On September 21, 2017, Carley Anne wrote, All right, so I have a fabulously difficult journey that my main characters are going on, full of life-threatening natural obstacles, with time slipping quickly through their fingers, and an ever-looming bad guy (not to mention, getting chased by castle guards, who don’t realize that the mc’s are trying to do good!). My problem is, I feel like (although the bad guy wants to GET mc’s personally), the difficulties aren’t personal enough. I wish there was more of a Hattie versus Ella sort of thing going on, and I was hoping for some advice on getting that vibe, without changing the entire course of my plot-line.

A little lecture is in order. Sorry!

Everything is up for grabs when we write and when we revise. If a character isn’t working, we have to fix her, even if she has to change gender, go from hero to villain, get older, get younger, lose a finger or two–whatever! If our plot needs a complete overhaul, which it may not, we have to give it one.

If we don’t, as I know from sad experience, our story will bog down. We’ll feel like we’re typing with mittens on, afraid to touch this or that. When this happens to me, I get bored and sleepy. My forehead hits the keyboard. My snores resound.

Sometimes we (I) have to rewrite hundreds of pages, change tense or POV, add characters, cut characters. We have to serve our story, no matter what.

End of lecture.

I love the guards’ confusion!

I’m understanding Carley Anne’s question as being about emotional connection, and when our characters connect emotionally, in a positive or negative way, our readers will connect, too.

In the case of Ella and Hattie, the negative connection works two ways. *SPOILER ALERT!* Skip this paragraph if you haven’t read Ella Enchanted and plan to. When Hattie takes Ella’s necklace, Ella’s dislike of her is sealed and hardens to rock as Hattie continues to order her around, playing on Ella’s obedience. Hattie may not be naturally villainous, but she’s profoundly jealous of Ella, who has more charm in a fingernail than Hattie has in her entire body. Also, to Hattie’s dismay, Ella doesn’t have an embarrassing mother and sister, either. Then, at finishing school, Ella makes a real friend, a comfort and pleasure Hattie has never experienced. In persecuting Ella, she keeps trying to even the scales, which infuriatingly continue to go the other way. Ella remains appealing, and Hattie worsens because of her own cruelty.

The reader sides with Ella, and so did I while I wrote the book, although I also pitied her.

In Peter Pan, the original by James M. Barrie, Hook is always striving for and failing to reach something called “good form,” which Peter possesses effortlessly, and it’s this quality that stokes Hook’s hatred. In an interesting twist, Hook goes to his end pleased in one regard: he thinks Peter has violated good form at the final moment. Barrie himself doesn’t take a position on this and suggests that the good-form standard is just Hook’s fixation. Barrie is such an original writer, and this is one example.

So how can we get an emotional connection working for us between our villain and our MC?

Jealousy stokes both Hattie’s and Hook’s enmity. We can come up with a reason for our villain to envy our MC in an overwhelming and obsessive way. Any quality in our MC can do it: beauty, brains, charm, wealth.

Other emotions can motivate our villain as well. Let’s try fear. Our MC, Carole, is the first Martian to be elected to head a planetary council. Our villain, Griffith, fears, baselessly, that this election is just the beginning, and Martians will take over and enslave the earthlings. Griffith and Carole meet at a public event. Carole, unsuspecting, says something that’s interpreted by Griffith as a put-down of earthlings. Now it’s personal for him. He starts to take steps.

The fear can work both ways, and we get more tension if it does. Carole can–realistically–pick up something off, something fanatical, about Griffith. She’s seen it before and recognizes it and becomes afraid, too. She starts to take steps to protect herself and other Martians, not always wisely.

For our villain, we can use any negative emotion or state of mind: rage; prejudice; despair, thwarted love; even obsessive love, which is creepy. And we can use negative and positive emotions and states of mind to fuel our MC, too–such as protectiveness, determination, stubbornness, a commitment to justice.

It helps if we can bring our villain and MC together at least once when we’re building their animosity. They may become enemies at that point, or the animosity may already have been festering The air can sizzle with their antagonism. What was theoretical before becomes intensely personal.

Even the natural obstacles mentioned by Carley Anne may sometimes be made to be challenging in a personal way. When we can do it, we’ll ratchet up the tension. Our MC has to scale a sheer cliff wall, but she’s terrified of heights. Or she’s trekking to save her family when a hurricane blows in. She takes it personally, believing the universe is against her and the people she loves. A forest fire breaks out, and she loses focus, overwhelmed by memories of her brother’s death in a burning building.

Here are three prompts:

∙ When the mirror tells the evil queen that Snow White is the fairest, the queen doesn’t decide immediately that Snow White has to die. The queen hasn’t killed anyone before. She loves her husband and knows he’s fond of his daughter. She invites Snow White to the throne room for a chat. During that meeting something happens that seals future events. Write the scene.

∙ Write a campaign speech for Carole and write the scene in which she delivers it, with Griffith in the audience, misunderstanding, drawing wrong conclusions.

∙ Your MC and her antagonist have never heard of each other. They meet as a result of an online dating site. They arrange to meet for coffee. Write their meeting and their rapid progression from neutrality to dislike to loathing. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

First Among Equals

CONGRATULATIONS to the NaNoWriMo’s in blog land! You are my heroes! How did it go? Please share your experiences. What was most helpful? Least helpful? What strategies did you develop? What discoveries did you make? How will you use the experience in the next eleven months? What did you learn that might help the rest of us? And please post any questions that cropped up along the way.

On October 4, 2017, Poppie wrote, I’m writing my fairy story in first person. I tried third person and it made my MC Lio feel “distant” from me, like I couldn’t feel for him as much. First person works better for me in this story. My problem is whether or not first person is overused these days. It seems to me that over half the recently published books I pick up are written in first person.

I’m also a little tentative when it comes to first person because some of the most annoying characters I’ve ever come across in books have told their stories in first person (although Mrs Levine’s characters are wonderful in both first and third person). 🙂 Any thoughts?

Thank you, Poppie!

Two responses came in.

Song4myKing: I know what you mean about annoying first person characters. Two causes I thought of (there probably are others):

1. Sometimes, it seems the author thinks the bigger the attitude of the first person narrator, the better. Basically, the annoying or arrogant character should NOT be the one telling the story.

2. Sometimes there’s too much “telling” – relying on witty commentary or unusual ways of saying things rather than backing off and letting the reader see it. Let the reader experience the story, not just hear it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’d worry about first-person being over-used. It’s a form of storytelling. It doesn’t fall into the same category as cliches.

Christie V Powell: I found this one of Gail’s posts helpful: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2017/01/04/showing-whos-on-first/ Personally, I prefer to stick to writing in third, but I agree with Song4MyKing not to worry about it being over-used. When you only have two choices like 1st and 3rd (unless you’re being really fancy with 2nd), both of them are going to get used a lot.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for shouting out to a past post!

I agree that first-person over-use is one worry we can cross off our list. If only there were dozens of person choices!

On that score, I wonder if it would be possible to write an entire novel in first-person plural (we). Has anyone encountered such a book? One possibility might be a Greek-chorus sort of narrator. Or twins or triplets. I’ve always been intrigued by the myth about the Myrmidons, descendants of ants who were turned into human soldiers by Zeus for Achilles’ grandfather’s benefit. In the Iliad, Achilles’ soldiers are called Myrmidons. A Myrmidon, or a squadron of them, could narrate in first-person plural. Or, there could be a dystopia in which group-think has taken over, and the narrator is the group.

I agree with Song4myKing that a first-person narrator’s voice–in general–needs to be straightforward and to not call attention to itself. Whether our narration is in first-person or third, it should get out of the way of the unfolding story.

But I say in general because if a more idiosyncratic first-person voice works, then it’s fine. In writing, the rules can be broken. The only absolute law is: Thou Shalt Be Clear. We can deliberately confuse a reader along the way, which can be fun, but at the end, he should know what happened in the story–unless we’re writing experimental fiction. An unresolved ending is okay, as long as the reader understands it’s unresolved on purpose.

When I think of successful quirky voices I think of Mark Twain. I love his narrators! And I give Twain a pass, as I usually don’t, when the narrator runs on a tad too long. I tried, though not exhaustively, to find a contemporary quirky voice I like. Salinger’s narrator in Catcher in the Rye (high school–maybe middle school, I’m not sure–and up) is certainly quirky. Originally published in 1951, I doubt it can be called contemporary, and I can’t say I like it, because I read it many decades ago and, though it was an important book for many of my friends, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t dislike it.

The keys to a successful quirky voice, in my opinion, are likableness and interest. If the reader loves this MC, he’ll love the odd voice–especially if we don’t overdo it or make it hard to read. And if what this crazy narrator is telling our reader is fascinating and in synch with the voice, he’ll want the story served up exactly that way.

When we’re not going for quirky though, the voice can be similar to a third-person narrator’s, telling and showing what’s going on and reporting thoughts and feelings. Our character can be full of personality and still narrate simply. Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins is a marvelous example of this. The reader will experience the personality through dialogue, action, thoughts, and feelings. The last two can be told rather than enacted. For instance, let’s take fear. Our first-person MC can report symptoms like icy hands, rather than narrate Aaa! Eek! Yikes! Oh, no! which, piled up, is likely to become tiresome in a hurry. (One Yikes! is fine.)

When I write my post and you guys comment here, we’re all writing in first person, our own first person. We each come off a little different. We sound like ourselves, and we’re not annoying. We have something to say, so we say it. Same for our first-person narrator, who has a story to tell.

The delight of first-person narration is the opportunity to reveal character through storytelling. Our narrator reflects the world as she sees it. Her responses can be different from what ours would be in her place. Empathy is called for. How would someone like her react to this or that? We come as close as possible to another person–even though that person is invented.

And the sensory data we talked about in the last post can flow naturally. Our MC, on the spot, tells the reader: I felt the wind, shivered in the November chill, saw the ordinary backyard in flashlight glow, tasted the vinegar of my unease, heard the rustling fallen leaves as Reggie veered here and there–and then choked and snorted on the stink of skunk. (As you may guess, this has happened to Reggie and me more than once.)

One last thing: choice of narrator. Usually our MC is our first-person narrator. So far, all mine have been. I’ve tried and failed to narrate from the first-person POV of a secondary character. Someday I’d like to succeed. Two examples of secondary narrators are found in the Sherlock Holmes tales told by Dr. Watson and The Great Gatsby (high school and up) told by Nick Carraway, both of which I love. In each, the secondary character tells the story because, I think, the MC is by nature unable to. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a narrator! The digressions! The technical language! The abandonment of the story for a new case.

There can be other reasons for a secondary narrator. This secondary narrator, unlike the MC, may be on the spot for all the story’s important moments, or may be a more reliable narrator, or may care about our MC in a way we want to convey. We can try more than one narrator before we settle.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your telepathic team is engaged in a difficult enterprise. They may be building a seawall against an expected tsunami and time is running out, or protecting their citadel from a much bigger force of non-telepaths, or mounting a political campaign to restore democracy in a dystopian future. You pick which and narrate the scene in first-person plural.

∙ Write the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from the first-person POV of the fairy who prevents Beauty from dying.

∙ Pick a scene in one of your stories that’s written in third person and translate it into first. Do more than just change pronouns. Make the first-person version more internal.

∙ Your MC has trouble focusing on anything. He worries constantly and has synesthesia. Here’s a link to a description of this quality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia. He is assembling a seven-foot-tall model of a dinosaur for his cousin whose birthday is the next day, who has had a tough year, and who adores dinosaurs. The manufacturer’s directions are hard to follow. Write the process in the voice of this quirky narrator. Your goal is to make the reader like him and not be put off by the odd voice.

∙ Write a scene of a family dispute told from the first-person POV of the dining room table.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Movie Making

Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!

And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!

On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?

And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.

And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!

And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.

I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.

The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.

Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.

In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.

Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.

As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.

The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.

I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.

So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.

One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.

Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.

One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.

I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?

Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.

Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.

We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.

We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.

In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.

It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.

∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Switcheroo

To all you brave and wild NaNoWriMo people: Ever onward! I’m cheering for you!

On September 16, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, What does everybody think of changing viewpoints? If there’s more than one POV character in a book, do they need to take turns in a predictable pattern, or does that not matter as long as the author makes it clear whose head we’re in at the start of each scene?

I asked for more info, and Melissa Mead added, The first book starts out with chapters from several viewpoints, then settles into the MC’s viewpoint for the last 2/3 of the book or so. I did it because:

Prologue- the MC’s only a few weeks old, so the POV is more “camera eye.”(MC’s POV for a bit.)

Then the MC is blind and in a cage, so he’s limited in what he can take in. Also, I want the reader to feel sorry for him, but not for him to feel sorry for himself. So I switch to the POV of a demon-hunter-in-training who sympathizes with him and has more freedom to act.

Then we see him from his uncle’s POV, so we can get a feel for both of the cultures the MC’s struggling to live in.

Then we see him from the POV of an innocent child.

It’s pretty much the MC’s POV from then on.

It works logically in my head,, and agents haven’t complained about it, but I worry that it could be jarring for the casual reader. (Especially since the demon-hunter-in-training doesn’t turn up again right away.)

(And the agents may not have complained, but they haven’t offered to represent it, either.)

These ideas followed.

Christie V Powell: ‘Bella at Midnight’ by Diane Stanley does this. I actually really liked seeing the story from different perspectives, but I know some reviewers were critical. It added more depth to the story. I think it would be far worse to throw in a new POV at the end than to start out with multiples and then settle into one. ‘Bella’ also works because the storyline is the same even though the POV is different. I think several people have commented before that we had some trouble with ‘Lord of the Rings’ because of the jumps between two plotlines.

So far I’ve stuck with one POV, but I’m planning on jumping between several for my next NaNoWriMo novel. I’m not planning on sticking to a predictable pattern, although I did appreciate it when Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Elantris’ did that.

Melissa Mead: I’m having trouble with the plotline thing in the second book. For the first, I’m hoping it’ll work as long as I keep things really, really clear.

Song4myKing: I don’t think it matters if there’s a pattern or not. Patterns are nice, but I would think they would be more difficult to write, depending on the story, of course. Without a pattern, you can choose which character would show this particular scene best.

I think if part of the story seems to call for single POV and part seems to call for multiple, it would work best if there is some kind of clear division. I don’t know how a typical “Part One, Part Two” division works for submitting a story, whether that’s cumbersome to do, or if there are any reasons to not do it. There could also be ways of making a division clear without the use of a hard and fast “part” break. You’ve mentioned having a twenty-year gap somewhere in the story. If that corresponds to where you go from multiple to single POV, I’d say you’ve got a natural break. Another possibility is to title the chapters with one theme for one section, and switch it up for another section. Basically, I think acknowledging that there’s been a change of some kind is better than breezing on through.

Does your MC have any POV scenes between the Prologue and where he takes the single POV? If not, the very fact that you’re now switching to him would be a clear enough change.

Melissa Mead: You remembered the twenty-year gap!    Nope, that’s after it’s all him.

Yes, it’s his POV until he gets imprisoned, and mostly afterward, except for the bit from the child’s POV. In the cases where it’s someone else’s POV, he’s generally too physically incapacitated to do much more than be really miserable. Plus, it gives us a look at both how others see him, and how he sees himself. And in the beginning, there’s a big gap there.

Whenever the subject comes up, I say how much I love this blog, and one reason is wrapped up in Song4myKing’s recollection of the twenty-year gap. Here on the blog, we pay attention!

I agree with Melissa Mead’s pledge to be really, really clear. If the reader is invested in a story and knows–effortlessly–what’s going on, he won’t mind plunging into other POVs. If he’s confused, he’s likely to be annoyed and we may lose him.

Multiple POVs can be fun to write and to read. Obviously, the POV of a character is determined by the character’s personality. For example, say the demon-hunter-in-training is hyper-alert. The tiniest sound or smallest movement captures his attention. When we write from his POV, we reflect that attentiveness. We should also think about how each POV character thinks so we can make each voice a little different. A book that’s a masterpiece of this (though I read only a little of it) is The Poisonwood Diary by Barbara Kingsolver (high school and up).

I agree with Christie V Powell that it’s best to introduce POV switching early, when the reader is still discovering the world of our book and will more likely be open to anything.

And I’m with Song4myKing that clear divisions can help. We can separate voices by chapter, even if we create irregular-length chapters thereby–another element that we can bring in early. We can even name the POV under the chapter heading. Doing something obvious like that can support the change in voice, too. The voice differences may be subtle. If the reader is told whose POV the chapter is in, he’ll be looking for the change and will notice it more.

We can use other POVs to inform the reader’s sense of our MC, a neat trick that Melissa Mead suggests she’s doing in the demon-hunter-in-training’s POV. The demon-hunter-in-training seems to like her MC. If the demon-hunter-in-training is likable, too, the reader will be swayed in the MC’s favor.

Another plus of multiple POVs is that more than one perspective can be lived by the reader. In Melissa Mead’s book, the uncle may accomplish this. He’s so embedded in his culture that he can’t help but reflect it.

So I’m fine and happy with multiple POVs if there’s clarity. As a reader I don’t think I’d care if the POV switch was regular or not..

In Stolen Magic and Ever I switched POVs. In Stolen Magic, since the three MCs are separated and can’t communicate, and what they’re each doing is crucial to the plot, I thought I needed three POVs. In Stolen Magic, the three POVs are written in third person.

In Ever, Kezi has no idea of the civilization Olus is part of and thus can’t experience it for the reader. Also, the two POVs allowed me to develop a love story from two perspectives, which was fun. In Ever, the two POVs are written in first person.

However, in both books I probably could have made other choices. I could certainly have told the stories in third-person omniscient, an option that’s always available. There would have been a single voice within chapters that jumped in and out of the thoughts and feelings of the MCs.

I could have told Ever entirely from Kezi’s POV. The reader would have made discoveries about Olus as Kezi made them. I can’t say if the result would have been better or worse.

There isn’t any right or wrong choice on POV–or, uncomfortably, any certainty, even after a book is finished and out in the world, that we couldn’t have done better. Oy, the writer’s life! But on the other hand, the more books we write, the better we get in whatever POV we choose.

Melissa Mead mentions that her demon-hunter-in-training isn’t active in the story for a while and then pops up again as a POV character. We can keep a character in the reader’s mind, however, even when she’s absent from the action, by having our MC think about her and have other characters talk about her.

Now let’s imagine we don’t want to shift POV. What can we do? In Ella Enchanted, I used Ella’s magic book to reveal events she couldn’t experience directly. In addition, Char’s letters tell her about Ayortha and also open up Char’s character in a kind of interior way.

We can use hearsay. A secondary character can tell our MC what went down, whatever it was when he wasn’t there. We can use newspaper reports, letters, diaries to convey information our POV character can’t know directly. Very judiciously, we can give him magical aids, like a crystal ball or a cloak of invisibility. We don’t want to get him out of jams with these, but we can use them to give him knowledge he wouldn’t have any other way. And we can use the magical props to get him into trouble, too.

If he happens to lose one sense as Melissa Mead’s MC does, we can sharpen the others.

Ella, Fairest, and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre all begin before my first-person MC is old enough to remember, but the events are necessary for the plot. Ella in Ella and Aza in Fairest are able to relate the history because others have told them what happened. In Lost Kingdom, Perry finds out via a fantasy version of a movie.

In Melissa Mead’s book, I’m not sure what to do about the uncle or the innocent child, but I suspect there are options–not that Melissa Mead needs to change her course.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your villain has a cloak of invisibility. Whatever your MC does keeps getting foiled because the villain is always one step ahead of her. Write as many scenes as you need to to have her figure out what’s going on. If you like, keep going with her attempts to capture the cloak–which is invisible, too.

∙ Write a scene in “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” from the first-person POV view of one of the enchanted princes. Write a scene, the same scene or a different one, from the first-person POV of the soldier. Then from the POV of one of the princesses. If you want to keep going, write one from the POV of the king. Make their voices different. Then, if you like, try a scene in which all of them are present in an omniscient voice.

∙ To get a little topical, write the saga of an election. Could be a race for class president or mayor or judge or best pie baker. Your MC is one of the candidates or her daughter. The other POV characters are the opponent’s campaign manager and someone hired to dig up dirt on one of the candidates. (Just saying, because I’m so tickled by this, in a local election here in upstate New York, the absentee ballots haven’t been counted yet, but one candidate is up by a single vote, absolutely giving the lie to the notion that the vote doesn’t count!)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Tinker, Writer, Reviser. Sigh.

To give plenty of advance notice to those of you who are SCBWI members or plan to join (you have to be at least eighteen): I’ll be teaching a two-and-a-half-hour workshop on writing fantasy at the national conference on Saturday, February 3rd, in New York City. I’d love it if you’d come!

A shout out to those of you who are getting ready for NaNoWriMo. April Mack, who sometimes comments here, has written helpfully on her blog about NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://www.thelovelyfickleness.com/2017/10/nanowrimo-notes-plans/. And from me: May the wind be at your elbows. May the sun shine on your brain. May time slow as your fingers fly.

One more thing, a poetry competition for students from middle school through college. It does involve using The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection based on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, which you can buy or ask your local library to get for you. (Full disclosure: I have a poem in the anthology.) The form of the poem is fun, and, if you don’t want to enter the competition or are out of school or too young, it can be applied to other poems as well. Here’s the link, where you’ll find out how it’s done and how to enter: https://www.roosevelt.edu/colleges/education/community-engagement/golden-shovel-competition.

Another one more thing, a podcast interview featuring moi. You can check it out here: http://podcast.9thstory.com/. It’s an in-depth conversation, covering character development, world-building, plotting–the topics we dive into here.

On to the post. On September 10, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m trying to write a trilogy, which is on a whole different scale than the flash I usually write. I keep getting stuck on Book 2, thinking of ways I could change Book 1 that might tie the trilogy together better, and going back to tinker, even though I know I should write the whole thing first, because things could change. How do I resist the tinkering temptation and get Book 2 to come into focus?

Christie V Powell wrote in response, My way is to publish book 1 first… but I don’t think that would help in this case. I think it’s fun to find the elements of book 1 and twist them around in new ways (like Gail did with Bamarre). My current WIP takes place 500 years before my series, and I’m finding all sorts of ways to play with the world so that they work together.

One thing I do when I’m working on a rough draft but want to change something earlier is to write myself a note, like: “Edit: she’s still wearing the collar” or “Note: White Leader was promoted, not demoted.” Then I keep going.

In Ella Enchanted, Prince Char writes to Ella during his sojourn in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha that the Ayorthians say little. He goes on at length about their taciturnity. I wish he’d have shut up! Because, years later, I wrote Fairest, which is set in Ayortha, and I couldn’t write a novel in a land where people hardly ever speak, so I contradicted the earlier book. One reader called me on this, and I’m sure others noticed. If only I’d thought ahead!

So it’s great that Melissa Mead’s book 1 isn’t published yet.

If you take or have taken a Philosophy course, you’ll probably read or have read Zeno’s Paradox, which goes something like this: You want to cross the room, but first you have to cross half the room and then half the remaining space and half again, and so on. If you keep halving the distance you can never reach the end. You can’t completely cross the room! Which of course you can, and there lies the paradox.

Writing can feel like living Zeno’s Paradox, with The End forever hanging tantalizingly out there, because we keep halving the distance–in the wrong direction! We keep going backwards to fix and fix again.

I love to revise, as I’m sure writers on the blog know. I much prefer to tinker with my WIP than to forge ahead into new territory. But in general I try not to give in to my proclivities. What helps me keep keeping on is my competing desire to get to the end and find out what happens along the way.
I’m with Christy V Powell about writing a note or notes to my future self about revisions I’ll have to make, which can satisfy my itch to fix. I put the notes at the top of my manuscript, so they’re the first things I see when I start revising.

Going back may be counterproductive. As we continue in Book 2 or in our singleton WIP, we may discover that the revision we made earlier wasn’t necessary or even that the scene we revised needs to be cut. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve said here that I toss hundreds of pages in the course of writing every one of my books. But it’s nice if I can avoid deleting even a few of them by reining myself in.

However, I always go back a page or two and do a little revision before I start a day’s writing. This orients me and helps the juices flow.

But if the urge to revise is too strong to resist, we can at least contain it. We can put a daily limit, say twenty minutes, on tinkering with old territory. We can set a timer. When the buzzer goes off, we have to stop.

We can write signs and put them in key places, signs like The End justifies the mistakes left behind. Or just Onward! Or Endward Ho! I have used reminder signs for other purposes, why not this?

The popular wisdom in the writing books I’ve read advises marching forward no matter what. If the species of your MC changes mid-book, march on. If the villain changes from one character to another, march on. We’ll know best what to fix when we get to the end.

I mostly agree with this, and the books that have gone the most smoothly for me have been written in forward motion. But several times–The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Stolen Magic–I have snarled up my plot so hopelessly that I’ve had to go back. Usually, my story itself bogs down. I feel like I’m slogging through quicksand. Or I fall asleep whenever I try to write. Then I have no choice: I have to go back. Sometimes, as in the cases of Two Princesses and Stolen Magic, the book that resulted was little like the story I started. In Fairest, I kept getting the POV wrong.

If your story is contorted in tangles, too, I suggest taking a little time to figure out where the difficulty lies. We can identify the moment–maybe fifty pages back–when the story went south. Or we can suss out the problem, which may be, for example, POV or timidity about making an MC suffer. We think about what we need to do to fix it. How big will the fix be? Will the story continue on the path we had in mind? Or will it veer into uncharted territory. If it will go the way we always intended, we can confine ourselves to a note, but if major elements will change, we probably do have to go back and follow the fork in the road.

One of the best (also one of the worst!) parts of writing is that, pre-publication, we can revise and re-revise and then do it again. And one of the worst feelings in real life and in writing is regret. These five prompts are about regret:

∙ Try a memoir piece. Write a few pages about something you regret. Imagine what might have happened if you’d acted differently. You needn’t show this to anyone. However, it may pay dividends in helping you plumb the emotional depths of your characters. If you like, you can fictionalize this memory and make it come out differently–or the same.

∙ Another memoir piece. Write about something that was done to you. Imagine what would have changed if this thing hadn’t happened. Imagine receiving an apology and the effects of the apology.

∙ Back to fiction. In the second act of the musical Into the Woods, the sad consequences of cutting down the beanstalk by Jack are brought to life. Rewrite the story from the moment when the beans begin to sprout. If Jack doesn’t climb the beanstalk or kill the giant, how does his story go?

∙ In your story, the evil queen in “Snow White” doesn’t dance to her death in red hot slippers. She lives to regret her overwhelming jealousy–and she escapes from prison. Write her story of redemption–or further evildoing. Or, pick another fairy tale villain for your story. Or pick one of your own fictional villains.

∙ Speculative historical fiction works with this kind of pivotal moment. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about what might have resulted if Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given him a son who lived grew into adulthood. Change a historical moment and write a story about the consequences.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Beastie

First off, two appearances: If you’re in the area this Saturday, I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua (New York) Children’s Book Festival. I’ll be there all day, so there will be plenty of time to chat.

And in the evening on October 26th, I’ll be conducting a writing workshop and speaking at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron, Michigan.

Details for both are on the Appearances page right here on the website. I would love to see you!

And let me mention for future planning for SCBWI members, that I will be conducting a two-and-a-half hour workshop in writing fantasy on Saturday, February 3rd at the SCBWI national conference in New York City.

Onto the post!

On September 8, 2017, Aster wrote, I wrote down an odd dream I had the other night, and I’d be interested in expanding it. I read Ms. Levine’s post on expanding fragments (she gave advice including delving into character- thought, feeling etc.). However, I do not think that some of those tips apply because the story is written from the point of view of a monster (more of a fictional animal), and I worry that by elaborating on thoughts and feelings beyond threatened, angry, submissive, etc., would make the character too humanesque.

Any thoughts? 

I asked for clarification, and a dialogue followed with Christie V Powell.

Christie V Powell: Have you read the Eragon books? I think it”s the last one where the narrative jumps to the dragon”s POV for a couple chapters. She still feels alien in her thought process yet you can relate to her as a character.

I also suggest looking at some of Temple Grandin”s books, like ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Temple Grandin uses her autism to describe how animals perceive the world. I tried to use the principles when my MC uses animal form– she is less flowery, doesn’t use names, notices details and especially contrasts, is afraid of sudden movements, etc.

For expanding ideas into plots, I play around with several ideas. If it started as a dream, I’ll daydream with it, just playing around and seeing how long I can make it last. If that goes well, I ‘ll jot down as much of the dream and daydream as I can remember. Some of the characters have depth but others are cardboard cutouts or change throughout. Then I’ll come up with a fluid plot line. I do a lot of brainstorming, some lists, and some stream of consciousness. I also like to cheat and look at THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker, which gives some potential plot structure ideas.

Aster: Thank you so much for the suggestions. To clarify- I was wondering how to expand the story fragment without giving the animal/monster human qualities- like intricate thoughts and feeling other than primal instincts.

Christie V Powell: It seems like it might be tricky to have a pro-active protagonist that way– a character who reacts as well as acts. Nowadays, proactive characters are preferred, although I’ve read a few who aren’t, like WHITE FANG (Jack London ).

I admire Christie V Powell’s loose, relaxed methods for generating ideas, which Aster and all of us can use to turn our idea germs into full-blown books (not diseases!).

And I love the suggestion of looking at the writings of Temple Grandin. I haven’t read her books, but I have heard several of her interviews, which may be available online, and through them have glimpsed inside a unique mind.

Many years ago, I read a book called CREATIVE DREAMING by Patricia Garfield (high school and above). One of the things I learned and have tried a few times is to set the stage for dreams while I’m still awake. For example, we can think about a plot problem as we’re drifting off, and we may dream a solution. Aster might re-imagine her dream, and the dream might extend itself when she falls asleep. It can take a few nights for this to work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s fun to try. Have any of you done this?

Another book to look at is GRENDEL by John Gardner–high school and up–which is a retelling of BEOWULF from the monster’s POV. And one more: NOP’S TRIALS by Donald McCaig (not sure–may be okay for middle school). I remember only the dog’s POV, but I just looked online and see that his owner’s POV is in there, too. As I recall, there is nothing cutesy about the dog’s POV in this book.

These books are real achievements, because, in my opinion, it’s difficult to write from the POV of a character who is so different from us humans. One difficulty, I’d say the major one, is that readers may have trouble entering the MC, whose actions and reactions aren’t explained through complex thoughts, feelings, and speech–unless Aster’s creature does speak. We also don’t know if he–I’m making him male, but he may not be–understands language. Regardless of the difficulty, I think it’s worth trying. It’s always an interesting challenge when we limit our resources. In this case, we’ll probably have mostly action to work with.

But action isn’t possible without some level of thought. So we should spend a little time thinking about how he does think. In words? In pictures, as Temple Grandin believes (if I remember correctly) that animals and autistic people do? In sound, maybe? In colors–how cool would that be!

How can we create sympathy, if that’s what we want? This is a version of how to make a character likable. We need to use everything we can think of, his name, for example. We’ll have a different initial response if his name is Snarl than we will if it’s Purr.

We can make him save someone right at the beginning, which will prejudice the reader in his favor.

We can use the humans around. Our creature can cause speculation and misunderstanding in his observers, which could be funny–or sad. People can perceive a threat when none is intended. This can escalate; first the creature can be in danger, and then everyone can be. The reader will care.

We can learn a lot about him from his reactions and from the acts he initiates. For example, does he hide from people or go toward them? Does he respond to different people differently?

To develop a plot, we can have him want something. Then we can frustrate his desire and see what he does. We can create obstacles and have him make mistakes or bad choices in the course of going after whatever it is.

Or we can put him in a terrible situation and not let up. Again, he can make mistakes. We can give him an antagonist, who is determined to harm him.

To expand his repertoire, we can give him abilities that humans don’t have. He can have as good a sense of smell as a dog. He can perceive colors differently than we do. He can sense emotions in a complex way, even though he may not have many words to describe them.

Going in a different direction, we can write in third person, and the narrator’s voice can interpret him for the reader. Or, the story can still be from the creature’s POV, but we can introduce a character who is a sort of monster whisperer. This character can explain the creature to the other characters and the reader, but she may sometimes be wrong.

Also, we don’t have to write a continuous narrative. Our creature may lend himself to shorter related pieces. The reader can see him in various situations and can connect the dots on her own.

Experimental fiction, which doesn’t have to be linear or logical, may lend itself to our creature. We can be dreamlike and surreal and concentrate on language. We can create discontinuities.. Also, just saying, dreams are traditional territory for poems.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your creature is trapped and put into a cage in a menagerie. Write his capture and the scene that follows.

∙ Write the scene that precedes the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince is turned into a beast, assuming he becomes at least part beast internally.

∙ Getting real for a minute, your MC has a head injury, wakes up in the hospital with cognitive losses. His thinking isn’t what it used to be. In a way, he’s the monster. Write the hospital scene from his POV.

∙ Have your creature fall in love either with a creature like him or with a human. Write the scenes in which this happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek! Stabbing the Raised Stake

On August 3, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, I have a problem spot here. The book I’m working on concerns the relationship between my main character Keita and her twin brother’s fiancé. My beta-reader suggested a wedding scene right before the climax to heighten the stakes when the couple is in danger. I like the idea but I don’t want to add more than a few hundred words to this chapter. So, any tips on cramming something as culturally significant as a wedding into a few paragraphs? Or should I skip it? So far I have this build up:

Zuri tried to look serious but she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s been a year since we were betrothed,” she said, “and without your parents here, you’re the head of the family…”

“You want to marry now?” Keita demanded. “Your people do all sorts of fancy stuff you couldn’t do here.”

“I know.” Zuri sighed. “But Glen said we can have more elaborate celebrations at the next festival.”

“You just have to give permission,” Glen said, “and…”

“Just give permission,” Keita repeated scornfully. “If I’m in charge, we do all the old traditions… the one where you’re chained together until the next festival…”

Zuri paled. “Three weeks?”

“And you can’t keep your bride unless you defend her from all the cousins carrying arrows…”

“No,” Glen said.

“Then the kidnapping…”

“Keita, come on. We’re at war, remember?”

“In that case, I say no.”

She let them squirm almost a minute before she said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. I’m not an adult yet. You’d have to ask Aunt Laurel.”

Keita tried to smother her laughter but it burst out anyway. Both gave her dirty looks before they fled the courtyard.

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: A wedding right before the climax sounds like drama on top of drama, with no time to let the first one sink in. If the wedding’s important, maybe have all-out fun describing it in the previous chapter, then have the newlyweds enjoying some quiet domestic bliss when BANG! Danger happens. Unless the wedding scene is just a quiet happy interlude, with no great drama? Then the climax WOULD be a contrast.
And if they’re newlyweds and get separated to who-knows-what fate, ouch!

OTOH (just brainstorming here) maybe if they’re NOT married before the climax, and they’ve been planning it for weeks or months, and then they’re in danger, we’ll have an extra reason to root for them to survive and have their wedding. What kind of danger are we talking about?

Have you read Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic? That’s got a wedding contrast to break your heart.

Christie V Powell: I have read it, but it was years ago and the details get fuzzy.

I think this chapter is going to start with the wedding and end with a battle in which Keita and Zuri are captured. I’m just not sure how much of the wedding will occur before the battle begins… or if there’s a small ‘bliss’ scene in between. I don’t want it to be too melodramatic or cliche (I just showed the kids ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and thought about ‘Harry Potter 7’: both weddings get interrupted toward the end). Glen and Zuri have been romantic through the book and Keita finds it disgusting/annoying the whole time.

April: It’s kind of difficult to give advice without more context. But basically you need to make Keita and Zuri have a rocky relationship, right? So give lots of little opportunities to have them cut at each other, with increasing intensity. So here, Keita threatened Zuri (and Glen) with a dangerous wedding, but then revealed the joke so as not to seem mean (but still clearly passive aggressive). You need more passive aggressiveness from Zuri to Keita, and from Keita to Zuri. The characters need to go from “is she just teasing me?” to “oh, no, she didn’t” and retaliation.

Off topic, but why the names Keita, Zuri, and Glen? Glen seems very Caucasian, whereas Keita is a Japanese masculine name (in fact, when I read these excerpts from your story posted here and there, I have trouble remembering that your MC is female, not male).

Christie V Powell: Thanks for the tip. The girls were good friends and they still want to be, so this divider is really hard for both of them. I’ll see where I can add more conflict between the two. Thanks.

I was going for name meanings over origin. When I first chose the name Keita, the baby-name website I preferred listed it as a female Sanskrit name meaning forest. That was years and years ago and the site has changed, but the name stuck. Glen is also a forest term. Zuri is short for Azura, because she’s from a different kingdom with water abilities.

Me: I’m adding this question to my list–mostly in terms of stakes-raising, which is super important! In the meanwhile, though, I’m not sure chapter length is the most important factor in making a plot decision.

Christie V Powell: Thanks. I don’t usually base things on length, but I’m in the final stages and have already designed the cover (including spine width).

I was working on this scene today and I think I’ve got it where I want it. I had to move a couple scenes around that I hadn’t planned on, but it’s smoother. The women are still preparing for the wedding when the attack begins.

I’m glad the problem got resolved and the resolution came for plot reasons not chapter or book length or other mechanical considerations. For any of us who think about this mechanical stuff, length shouldn’t be determined, for example, by word count for a particular genre or age range. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to be told, no longer or shorter.

Having said that, a chapter book for a seven-year old who isn’t a genius can’t reasonably be 200 pages long. But achieving a proper length will come organically from considering the kind of story that’s in synch with the level of sophistication of a child at that age. We’re probably not going to have so many plot twists that the result is a long book. We’re also going to read other books for that age group to prime ourselves for getting it right.

And I’m in favor of as few words as we need. My manuscripts always shrink in revision as the verys, the reallys, the almosts get the boot. Do you guys know The Elements of Style, AKA Strunk and White? It’s a gem of concision. I just copied this snippet of a Boston Globe review: “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”

Hah! The review is backwards! I’d say, No book in more space, with more words, will help any writer as much as this persistent little volume.” It’s a 105-page style-and-usage book that came out in its present form in 1959, and its Amazon sales ranking, as students set off for college, is 38! I hope I’ve internalized most of its precepts. I used to read its sentences out loud for the pleasure of their economy and elegance.

Onto the crux of Christie V Powell’s question. I love raising stakes!

I applaud Christie V Powell’s decision to bring on the attack before the wedding. We can hike the tension just as much before as after, but the former gets us there quicker.

I’d even argue that stakes are intrinsically higher before the wedding–before fulfillment rather than after. I think this goes for any uncompleted versus completed goal. Suppose our MC Sami is the first in her family to attend college. She’s doing well in her senior year, completing a double major in international finance and Chinese. Do we want disaster to strike just before graduation or just after?

I say just before. As she’s in the middle of the crisis she thinks, I was so close. Almost made it. I find that more poignant and wrenching than her thought, At least I got my degree–though both activate the worry part of my brain. But with the first, she has more to lose as she makes choices in the story climax.

In general, how do we raise the stakes?

1. The reader has to care about our characters. In the excerpt Christie V Powell shared, I find it endearing that Zuri bounces on the balls of her feet, which is such an exuberant, young person’s gesture. As a reader, I don’t want anything to destroy that enthusiasm.

And the affection these characters feel for each other is appealing and helps them be likable. I don’t want their connection broken by separation or (gasp!) death.

2. We can strengthen a connection between our characters with thoughts, which will also raise the stakes. Going back to Sami, we can have her call her dad to tell him that she may not graduate. She can notice how grumpy he sounds when he says hello and how that changes as soon as he hears her voice. She thinks about how revealing his voice is and dreads hearing it change again when she delivers her news. As he speaks, or before she dials, she can think of the treasured box in which he keeps mementos of her academic achievements: report cards, A+ papers, debate team trophies, graduation photos. The reader can’t help loving them both–even before the conversation starts.

3. When it does start, dialogue can up the ante. Sami can start the conversation ominously by asking her dad if he’s been taking his heart meds. Oy! She cares about him so much that’s the first thing she asks, rather than launching into her problems! Oy! He’s fragile. He can reassure her that he never misses a pill, and besides doctors always try to scare patients. He feels fine. She isn’t to worry. Then he says, “What’s the good news?” A dagger enters the reader’s heart.

4. Sami can react physically to her father’s question. Her toes curl. Her fingers clutching her cell phone turn a lighter color. Her stomach seems to turn over. The reader’s stomach clenches, too.

5. As she speaks, Sami looks around her dorm room at the school pennant, the posters she brought from home, the throw blanket that her grandmother crocheted–this beloved setting.

6. We ratchet up the threat level as our story progresses. At the beginning, we establish the conflict, whatever it is. Maybe there’s a scene in which the problem appears. Let’s say Sami’s best friend catches her in a little lie, nothing consequential; the lie doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings or get Sami herself out of any difficulty, but it does give her credit in a situation that she doesn’t entirely deserve. Her friend just says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and the story moves on. However, the reader notices. As the plot progresses, the lies pile up. The reader loves Sami for all her great qualities and her humanity and becomes more and more worried about the web she’s tangling herself up in.

To take off from Christie V Powell’s story, the reader finds out about the enemy early in the story, while peace talks are going on. There is an enemy, but it’s likely to work out. Then the peace talks dissolve, but the enemy is disorganized. However, gradually, the threat looms more and more.

7. Details bring it all together. The noise of the wedding prep covers the enemy’s approach. Pots clatter. Drummers practice their rhythms. Children shout and babies wail. Glen receives a gift that means a lot to him and distracts him from his usual vigilance. Keita says something she shouldn’t to Zuri, and a chasm opens between the two. Just then, the dogs start barking in alarm.

Finally, and this has nothing to do with stakes-raising, I enjoyed the humor in Christie V Powell’s excerpt, especially the bizarre wedding rituals!

Here are three prompts, though you can spin prompts from lots of the situations above:

∙ Write the conversation between Sami and her dad. Break the reader’s heart.

∙ Write the scene that sets the stage for her being denied graduation. You can use my idea that a lie she’s told is behind it, or any other reason.

∙ Write the scene when Snow White’s evil stepmother is told for the last time by the magic mirror that she’s the fairest in the land. Foreshadow that trouble is on the way.

Have fun, and save what you write!