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!

Fickle or faithful

To continue the trend of the last two posts, here’s another word question. As you probably know, English is an enormous language, because it has its roots in several other languages and it’s still happy to accept word immigrants. We writers have a dizzying number of choices for almost anything we want to say. So it always surprises me when I stumble across a word that has no synonyms, like shrug, which I’ve been worrying about overusing, because my characters seem to do it a lot. My question for this post is, What other unique words have you happened across? Or, if you know a one-word synonym for shrug, what is it?

And to all of you working feverishly on your NaNoWriMo projects: Best wishes for smooth sailing and great progress!

Onto the post, which also maybe useful for you heroic NaNoWriMo people. On June 22, 2016, the Florid Sword wrote, How do you stay interested in a story? I have trouble finishing my books because I have a grand idea that works and I write feverishly and then- I get a new idea for the same book, usually involving a new character or a new subplot. And I start over. Either that or I write the first three pages and then lose interest and move on to something else. Needless to say, it’s annoying. Does anyone have any advice about how to stay on a story without changing the plot or losing interest?

Several of you weighed in.

Martina: I would recommend using a motivational sort of tactic to keep yourself on a story without losing interest or changing the plot. There are a lot of good websites out there (Write the World– for young writers– NaNoWriWo, Camp NaNo, etc. A quick Google search will bring up tons of options) that you can use to link in with fellow writers and share your story with them. On many of the websites, they have a deadline for you to complete your project by, and occasional prompts to jumpstart your writing. I find that having other people motivating you and holding you to your word makes it easier to stay on task.

Christie V Powell: I have a box of stories from high school in my closet. Most of them are unfinished (but they are super fun to go back and read). Almost all of the stories that I did finish were ones that I outlined. I had to know where I was going and a couple of steps on the way, so that I desired to get there. Otherwise I lost interest and filed them away. I know it’s not for everyone but that’s what worked for me.

As far as not changing the plot, is that a bad thing? Even we outliners know that our plans are flexible. If we follow where the story wants to go, it’s not going to go exactly according to plan and that’s okay. Instead of starting all the way over, make some notes (in the margins, or a separate document, or in a different text color), about what you’re going to change when you go back and edit. Then keep going.

Ellen: Create a lot of suspense and laughter. That will make it a lot more interesting. I have written a few stories myself, and some are very long. Think of what you would do in the situation. Sometimes I even play a game out of my books. Sometimes I write a story out of a fun game. If you happen to lose your interest, draw some pictures for it. Maybe even draw some pictures for what’s going to happen next. I am sure you are a great writer, you just need to not only catch your reader’s interest, catch your own interest. If you want to change the plot, you can, but don’t erase the rest. Create a new book and maybe even connect the two, like have the different characters meet.

These are terrific!

I love the motivational suggestions. I belong to a poetry critique group that meets every other week, which forces me to come up with a poem. If we’re sharing our work, our fellow writers can help us move forward in our story when they say what interests them, because we may not always be the best judge of where the excitement lies. If they’re fascinated by this character or that event, we may discover a fruitful direction to take our plot, one that interests us, too. Also, as we write, it’s cheering to think, Oh, boy, Megan is going to adore this. Or even, Megan is going to hate this–because we’re anticipating a response. Many of us read to be read. An audience is a great goad.

And Ellen’s ideas are reminders that playfulness is a big part of creativity. When our plot has knotted up, we can act out the problem. Surprises may result. Or we can bring in our other talents. Ellen draws or invents games. How about a computer app game (way beyond my dinosaur capabilities)? Some of you make maps. How about a diorama? In my case, a poem may help. Often, entering another artistic realm can free and reinvigorate us.

And Christie V Powell’s ideas are, as usual, spot on. I agree that abandoned stories are not a tragedy–especially not if we save them. We can enjoy going back to them later and meeting the person and writer we used to be, and they may even suggest new work.

I half wish I’d abandoned Stolen Magic after a year or so. I mean, I’m happy with the way it finally turned out, but I might have written three other books in the time it took me to write the one, so I don’t think it’s terrible to fail to complete a story. And when we’re in the early stages of our lives as writers, we’re trying things out. We can let something go without a backward glance. If we turn out to be writers in the long haul, we’ll start finishing our work when we’re ready.

And, I agree again that it’s fine to change a plot. We can’t know when we start what discoveries we’ll make as we write or what new ideas will crop up. My outlines, as I’ve said here many times, are either minimal or nothing, though often I have a fairy tale in mind that I’m following and filling in with detail, and I, too, find it helpful to have an idea of the end I’m writing toward. So that might be another strategy to use to help stick it out. Before we start writing the actual story, when we’re thinking or outlining or writing notes, we can consider how we’d like it to come out–which may change, as everything else can–but having a sense of the ending can give us something to aim for. When I wrote Ella Enchanted *SPOILER ALERT*, for example, I knew I wanted Ella to end her curse herself, but originally I thought that Hattie, rather than love for Char would provide the solution. So, our idea of the ending doesn’t have to be fleshed out, but it probably should be a little more than wanting it to be happy or sad–although I suppose that can work, too.

Another strategy, which probably won’t work for everyone, to help finish a story is not to jump instantly into the writing. Jot down some notes first. We can let the story roll around in our brains for a few days or a few weeks before we get going. We can let other approaches develop. We can even wonder in this early stage if this is the story we want to write. I usually stick to notes until they bore me and the pressure to write a beginning scene becomes intolerable. Also, even though I haven’t finished Ogre Enchanted yet, I’ve begun to speculate about the next book and to start daydreaming.

Here are five prompts:

∙ In this post, I express doubts about this approach, but try it out anyway. All you know is the ending has to be happy. Put your MC into a miserable situation. Pick a few of these and pile on some of your own: Her family and friends have been wiped out in some horrible, painful way; she’s hated by everyone she knows; she’s imprisoned and has just been sent to solitary confinement; she has a dread disease with little prospect for survival; she is haunted by the ghost of a former dictator. Think of a few more before you start writing. Write the story and–believably–bring it to a happy conclusion.

∙ Now, all you know is that the ending is sad. Your MC is the most fortunate person on the planet. Pick some of these and make up your own: He just won a major award that comes with a big cash prize; his cancer is not merely in remission, it’s cured forever; his family is well and healthy; he lands his dream job or gets into his dream school; everyone loves him. Make it all fall apart. To add to his misery, make some of the trouble be his own fault and make some be caused by betrayal. End it tragically.

∙ If you have abandoned story fragments, go through them. Look for things to admire. Choose four fragments, any four. Jot down ideas that you can use again. Think about how you might cobble together an MC and other major characters. Write a new story that combines elements of the four, but if you wind up using only three or remembering parts of others or bringing in entirely new threads, that’s okay, too.

∙ Pick one of your abandoned stories and think about how it might end. Write the ending as a scene with full detail. Type “the end” under it. Walk away.

∙ Picking up the last prompt. If you want to, wait a week and return to the story and fill in three scenes leading up to the ending. Consider it finished–unless you want to work on it some more, but I think you can declare victory.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Love Express

First off, best wishes to all of you who are taking on NaNoWriMo! You are my heroes!

I stay away from politics here, but I can’t resist saying that if you’re old enough to vote, I hope you will.

And third. Last post I asked for words that make you cringe, and I relished reading your picks! How about words that you adore? I love palimpsest, both sound and meaning, which I’ve read is the favorite of many, possibly to the point of cliche. I’m wild about grok, which was invented by sci fi writer Robert Heinlein in his classic Stranger In A Strange Land (high school and up). Grok is a verb that means to understand fully, with all the nuance, complexity, and context that any situation can have.

On June 20, 2016, Martina wrote, I am kind of doing a retelling of the fairy tale “Manyfurs” and am mashing it with “Snow White.” My MC is very stubborn-minded, because in the story, when her father wants her to marry a preselected prince, she refuses. (Well, she accepts on the conditions of three impossible items being given to her.) My problem is, later on in the story, she promptly falls in love with another man, and he is instrumental in helping to rid her of the other prince. How can I make her love with the second man not seem forced or abrupt?

Christie V Powell weighed in with, I think that one of the big things in building a romantic relationship is that you focus on things beside romance. Sure, they’re attracted to each other, but just like any other relationship they also need friendship, trust, respect, fun (think sliding down banisters!), and especially selflessness. Pet peeve: romances where the guy is forceful and makes her do things. Sorry, that’s not love, that’s abuse.

One thing I’ve been playing with is the 5 love languages. Everyone speaks and hears love through different ways. My romance in my WIP hasn’t gone far yet (it was barely hinted at in the first book because I wanted the MC developed on her own first, then they’re just learning to be friends in the second), but when I get to the romance stage I’m planning on using all five of them, so it speaks to the reader no matter which the reader likes best. The five are: words of affection, giving gifts, quality time, service, and physical touch.

I agree! True love in fairy tales is usually inexplicable–or unpleasantly explained by beauty and power. I’d add to Christie V Powell’s five the sixth element she mentions in her first paragraph: fun. And a seventh or maybe part of the sixth, a sense of humor.

Here’s something else to consider in this particular fairy tale, if we want our MC to be sympathetic: the rejection of the first suitor. Our MC, and everyone in the real world, has or should have an absolute right to turn down a suitor. She doesn’t need a reason–but she will be more understandable and likable if she has one and the reader gets it.

I’m dealing with this in my WIP, Ogre Enchanted. Fee (short for Phoebe) says no to Wormy (short for Master Warwick) in the first scene. As I kept writing, I realized that even I didn’t like her, and part of the reason was that I identified with Wormy, who felt terrible, and she caused his unhappiness. So I worked on him and made him less appealing.

Now, because I’m embracing complexity, I’ve doubled back and made him more appealing again, although I’m hoping her reasons will still be clear.

So, if we’re dealing with two romantic prospects, we want the reader to understand our MC’s choice.

I do believe in love that comes on pretty fast, if not quite at first sight. I met my husband when I was just eighteen, and he was the first boy I felt totally comfortable talking to. I didn’t yet know I was a word person, but I think that clinched it–along with his other sterling qualities, especially of kindness, sensitivity, and humor.

And I’ve seen it happen with friends. Something in this one hooks into something in that one, like jigsaw pieces. There’s a shared recognition.

So abruptness may work, but not forced-ness. The reader has to get the reason for the romance–and will be able to if we open up our MC’s emotions and thoughts. I think the inner life of our MC is the key. Narrative distance can’t bring love to life.

Not that it always happens fast. Many years ago–I think we were in our thirties–a friend told me about his ambivalence regarding his girlfriend. I was mad at him and probably told him he should go all in or all out. He married her, and, near the end of his life, I reminded him of our conversation, which he didn’t recall. He said that marrying her was the best decision he’d ever made. But it came on slowly.

We know this MC is stubborn. We can use that characteristic to make a speedy connection believable. Maybe something in him can connect to that stubbornness. He may be compliant, and she may think, At last, here’s someone who isn’t always giving me an argument. Or, he can be stubborn, too, and they can enjoy bumping up against each other. We can think about the other traits that we can give each one that will help them fit together, some that are in opposition and some that are complementary.

I’ve said this before, but I will again: We can look for romantic models among happy couples and even happy friendships we know. What makes the two people click? We can set two pairs side-by-side and consider the different ways they make their relationships work.

I read or heard on the radio a while back that relationships that last don’t bury their irritations. That dish left in the sink or that unicorn left ungroomed will rankle if it’s never discussed. Eventually, the dish will sail across the kitchen and the unicorn will be driven over a cliff and the love will corrode. Dire. So I’d add one more element to Christie V Powell’s list: arguing–in a good way.

Anger is also lively. Just billing and cooing gets dull. A little squawking on the page will wake up a scene.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your romantic duo meet in a prisoner-of-war camp run by the dread Sir Mank. They fall in love plotting their escape. By day, they help each other survive the awful conditions; by night, they plan. Each brings a set of skills to the mix, and they become a mutual admiration society. The escape goes flawlessly. They reach the safety of their own forces and now have to find a way to be together when they’re not in danger. Write a scene from the time they’re imprisoned together and one from the time after. Figure out a way for them to stay in love without outside opposition.

∙ Rewrite the second scene and have them split up.

∙ Write the happily ever after of a fairy tale. Snow White and her prince, for example, are married. The evil queen is dead or permanently imprisoned. Write a scene. You can keep them happy or make them miserable.

∙ She’s a groom in the castle stables. He’s the prince who rides his unicorn daily, leaves it in the stall on his return without even putting out a pail of water for the poor thing. She’s furious. She thinks he’s worthless. Make them fall in love.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Trapped by the (inter)net

Before the post, I have a question: Are there words, other than curse words, that make you cringe? I read that the word moist is the most disliked word in English, but I don’t mind it. I do intensely dislike two other perfectly good words: scurry and smirk. I’m trying to get past my aversion because I’d like to be able to use them. Do any of you have words that get unpleasantly under your skin, that you shrink from using, that cause a shudder when you read them?

On June 12, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you focus on your writing instead of getting distracted by the internet? My computer broke down so I have to borrow my husband’s, which means that I have to have internet access to get to my files. It doesn’t help either that my main WIP is being reviewed by beta-readers at the moment so I need to start something new in order to keep up the writing habit. Anyway, what tips do you have for staying focused and actually writing?

I got mixed up when I copied the responses over to my list, so what follows may not be in the order in which it came in:

Song4myKing: I do have one trick that helps me – location (I use a laptop). Upstairs, at my desk, where internet is sometimes a little flaky anyway, I’ve instituted a personal “no internet except email” ultimatum. Even if the email sounds like something interesting on Facebook or Pinterest and includes a handy link. When I want to do something on internet, yes, including reading a blog about writing, I do it downstairs on the family computer, or bring my laptop down. Bringing my laptop down sometimes has the unfortunate effect of the laptop staying downstairs for a few days. But I think over all, writing-only time has improved, and internet time-wasting has decreased since I started.

Kitty: What type of computer is it? Do you use Google Docs or Word? If you use Word (or whatever the Mac/Linux equivalent is), there shouldn’t be a problem working offline. If you’re using Google Docs and a Chromebook, there’s a “work offline” feature in the built-in Google Drive app. If you’re using Google Docs on a PC, then there’s a Google Drive app you can download, but I’m not sure if it has the same features as the Chromebook one.

These are super helpful!

I confess I haven’t been very focused in the last week or so, and I haven’t often met my day’s writing goal. Tomorrow looks pretty good, however, for low distractions. It’s interesting that future time generally looks less cluttered than present or near-present.

Here are some of the ways I keep distraction down. I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn, but I hardly ever go near them. I’m not on Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat (do I have that one right?) or anything else.

It’s not at all that I sneer at these programs. I fear them! I think I’d love them and get sucked in, so I just keep them out of my life.

I have been struggling with a computer-related addiction, however, which I mentioned once before here. It’s a form of solitaire called Free Cell, and I play it too much. It presents a little puzzle that takes anywhere from three minutes to fifteen to solve. After you play a while, you almost always win, but some of the games are hard. I can feel my brain buzz when I even think about playing. I do manage to keep it down. I never play more than one game at a time and I usually interrupt myself on the long ones, but it’s hard, and I have dire imaginings of myself in a small cell, gibbering, and playing Free Cell again and again on my phone. When my rehab counselors take the phone away, I play in the air with imagined cards. The way back is a long, uphill slog.

I’m also incapable of ignoring emails and text messages–or, while the weather is still fine–the real-life implorings of Reggie to come outside and play with him.

My main method of getting in enough writing to keep me from a severe guilt attack, is to keep track of my writing time. Say I start at 8:03, I type that in to my Time document. And say that at 8:07 an email comes in, and it’s one that interests me. I type 8:07, read the email, go back to my Time page and type 8:10 and continue writing. By the end of a writing day, I may have twenty start-and-stop listings, and I know exactly how much time I actually put in. My minimum is two-and-a-quarter hours, but I try for more. If I make the minimum, however, I can feel okay about the day.

And if I don’t make it, which I sometimes don’t, I forgive myself–essential for being able to get started again the next day.

Oh, and there is a kind of computer activity that I count as writing. If I Google something I need to know for my story, I don’t call a time-out. For example, in my WIP, Ogre Enchanted, my MC is a healer, and I’m often looking up herbal remedies. I don’t think I should be penalized for that! But I try not to be sucked in to expanding my search or lingering more than I should.

I’ve also been sending fifty page chunks of manuscript to my editor, because I want to know if I’m going off-course. I don’t have a deadline for that, but it is a goad. I want to get her the pages. I want to power through another fifty pages, which will get me closer to “The End.” I want to impress her with my productivity. If I let myself get lost online or with Free Cell, none of this will happen.

You may not have an editor who’s willing to look at your work as you’re writing it, but you may be able to exchange work with another writer in chunks like this. Or with a family member, a teacher, a librarian.

For poetry, I’m in a little critique group that meets every two weeks, which means that I have to come up with a poem, and that focuses my mind. Let me just add–off-topic–that needing to produce a poem wakes me up to the world. I never know where my next poem will come from, so I pay attention.

I have other assists that you all may not have. The book I’m working has a deadline (January 1, 2018), and that is a powerful motivator. When I get it done, my editor will, I hope, want another book. There will be another contract and another advance, because I earn my living this way.

Even if you don’t yet get paid for your writing, you can regard it as a job, or as prep for your future, and you can use that notion to keep yourself moving. But don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with if you don’t meet your goals. Forgive yourself and climb back in the saddle.

A lot of you participate in NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo camp. This is a great way to keep yourself out of the online rabbit hole.

I love this blog, as you all know. I love the questions you ask and the help you give each other, but please don’t let it be part of the problem. There’s kind of a pull, when someone asks for aid. But giving it shouldn’t come at a cost to your own work.

And none of the advice above should fuel self-criticism. Everybody writes at his or her own pace.

Here are four prompts:

∙ This comes from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It’s very old–eighty years, maybe, and old-fashioned–written for adults, but nothing in it will hurt anyone, I don’t think, and it’s useful. She offers this exercise, which I’ve modified: Wake up twenty minutes early every day until the next post and write for the twenty minutes. Pee, if you must, but don’t dress, drink coffee, turn on the TV, or look at anything online. If possible, don’t talk to anyone. Work on your WIP or journal or write notes or a rant, whatever. Report how it went after the next post.

∙ If you have a meal by yourself or can make yourself alone, write while you eat. I do this at lunch and sometimes breakfast. After I eat, I often get sleepy, but chewing keeps me awake. Don’t look online. Just eat and write. Do this until the next post and report back.

∙ Try my practice of recording your writing times. Set a daily goal and keep track. If you don’t make it for one day, forgive yourself and go back to it. Report on how this went.

∙ Keep a Bridget Jones (high school and up) type diary of your writing life. Or write about a character who’s a tormented writer and write her story for her.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Why fiction–at all?

This came in from Bethany two posts ago and was discussed in the comments following the last post. I’ve moved it up to meet her research deadline: I am writing my research paper on the purpose of fiction. Please tell me your opinions. What is the purpose of fiction? Is it to entertain? Is educating important? Do you think reading about fictional characters can change us and make us better people?

Here’s what followed from you:

Christie V Powell: You might consider reading “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker, which addresses these questions. However, it’s huge. It took me weeks to read, and I rarely take more than a day to read a book.

Short answers: Yes, it entertains. Education can be important, but can’t be too blatant. Novels ask questions, especially big moral/theme questions, but leave the reader to answer them on their own. Yes, I think there are scientific studies that say that reading makes people more empathetic because it helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Chicory: One purpose of fiction is to try out different lives and situations. I decided I didn’t want a horse after reading how much work it is to take care of one in the Saddle Club books. (Even though the girls in those books loved their horses.) That was a lot easier and less expensive -and better for horses everywhere- than getting one and making the discovery! (Of course, I was twelve at the time and couldn’t have afforded my own horse -or driven myself to get one- but still….)

Another purpose of fiction is to be a safe place for fears and other dark feelings. When you’re going through a really hard time, reading about someone else in trouble can make you feel less alone.

Fiction is a great way to connect to other people, too. If you know someone likes the same books as you do, talking about them can help overcome the shyness of meeting a new person.

Jenalyn Barton: I think one of the purposes of fiction is to answer questions about life. I think it also teaches us about human nature in ways that the social sciences never could. In fact, in a way, science and non-fiction and statistics are telling, while fiction is showing. That’s because fiction helps you step into the shoes of another person and experience life through their eyes and mind. Fiction has a reputation for changing worldviews, for raising awareness, and for influencing political movements in ways that no study or speech ever could.

Emma G. C.: What a coincidence! I just wrote a 5 paragraph persuasive essay on the purpose of fantasy and how it can be more important than acquired knowledge. I’ll give you some tips I learned from writing it. First, I used this quote by Albert Einstein to support my beliefs about fantasy (I argued in the favor of the importance of fantasy, by the way):

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusions that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” -Albert Einstein

Now, since you’re writing about fiction and not fantasy, and since you’re not arguing the value of fantasy as opposed to acquired knowledge, it may not be necessary to use a quote to back up your beliefs. If you are writing a persuasive essay, however, then using a quote to back up the importance of fiction is a great idea! Moving along, I brainstormed and came up with 3 topics/places in society where fantasy has shown its importance. While brainstorming, I asked myself “how can I show my readers the value of fantasy?”. Try asking yourself the same question about fiction. How can you show your readers the value and purpose of fiction? After asking myself that question, I decided that the best way to prove the value of fantasy was to pick 3 topics/places in society that are very different and diverse, so my readers could see that fantasy isn’t just important in one area. It’s important in all areas. So I decided to argue for fantasy in the areas of literature and the arts, inventions, and business. Three very different categories that, in my opinion, require some degree of fantasy and imagination. So after you ask yourself “how,” maybe ask yourself “where.” Where is fiction important? Where does it help? Where does it stand out? In my paragraph about literature and the arts, I wrote that literary fantasy inspires people to use their imaginations, and makes reading and learning fun. I wrote that fictional stories have been proven to inspire people, either in a positive or negative light. I also included that without literary fantasy, the movie industry, song writers and composers, and other writers, whether fiction writers or not, would all lose quite a bit of creativity and imagination. This applies to fiction as well. Fantasy is a form of fiction, after all. So where does fiction show its purpose to you? Give real life examples. Give quotes to support your reasons. Ask yourself the questions “how” and “where.” While researching, ask your friends, siblings, parents, and grandparents what fiction means to them. Don’t forget to record their answers. Have fun, and I hope it turns out well!

I agree with everything!

Along the lines of Emma G. C.’s comment, I recently heard a pundit on the radio, decrying the homogeneity of the justices on the Supreme Court, not in terms of race or gender but life experience–all attorneys, all similar in education and career. He said that he would welcome a novelist on the court. Yes! We can see around corners, turn problems inside out and upside down. We look for unforeseen consequences that will throw monkey-wrenches into our plots. A nation couldn’t do better than one of us. I volunteer!

Let’s examine Bethany’s question. Whose purpose? The writer’s? The reader’s? The educator’s? The librarian’s? The bookseller’s? The editor’s? The publisher’s? The nation’s (which Emma G. C. touches on in terms of the industries supported by fantasy)? Christie V Powell touched on broad societal concerns. Others responded as readers.

And I love Chicory’s mention of novels and friendship. I have bonded with people over books, for sure.

As for educational and societal purposes, books have brought about change. I’m thinking of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which led to reforms in the meat packing industry, and of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which resulted in the banning in England of the bearing rein for horses.

Years ago, I attended a panel on publishing trends in children’s books. The panelists mostly reported on what categories of books–like fantasy, historical fiction, picture books, YA–were selling or not selling. But I raised my hand and asked an executive of a major house how she saw the publisher’s role in setting trends. After all, I thought, they don’t publish every manuscript that comes in. Do they ever think about the directions they’d like to see children’s literature move in? She didn’t have an answer. In her case, the publisher was a trend follower. I wish I’d gotten a more interesting answer, but I don’t want to condemn publishers, who foster reading and do whatever they can to get books into the hands of readers (and make money in the process, which I think they’re entitled to).

Librarians and individual, real-life booksellers are often passionate about books and want to connect the right reader with the perfect book for her needs. For them, I’d guess the purpose of fiction is to meet a reader where she lives and sometimes to widen the boundaries of that territory. Some bookstore owners and librarians will carry books that may not sell well because they love them. They’re the trend setters. They want fiction to entertain but also–sometimes–to elevate, to expand the conversation, and, I hope, to showcase great writing.

Readers are also trend setters, by virtue of their choices.

Sadly, I’ve become less of a reader lately, and a lot of what I do read is poetry. When I turn to fiction, it’s mostly to be entertained, but if I learn something along the way, I’m delighted. Recently I read a forthcoming (March, 2017) early YA novel, Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, which weaves Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in general into the plot both skillfully and cleverly. I know the broad outlines of the story, but I don’t know the play very well. I loved being introduced to it in this charming way.

From my writer’s perspective, my purpose, chiefly, is to get from page 1 to The End with a story that holds together in between.

Of course, there’s more than that. I always want to entertain. Storytelling may have been the first entertainment medium. Books aren’t medicine. My purpose is to provide enjoyment.

I like to find the right word for a story moment and, sometimes, to make up the right word. So sometimes my purpose is to roll around in language. Poetry probably uses language the most wildly, metaphorically, and expansively, but I’d guess fiction is next. Is one of fiction’s purposes to be inventive with language? Maybe, and I hope readers will fall in love with English, as I have. It isn’t my purpose to expand my readers’ vocabularies, but mine certainly grew through the fiction I read.

Then there are my books with particular purposes. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, I wanted to explore my father’s childhood through guesswork and imagination. He’d died a few years earlier, and I missed him, and he said little about his sad growing up in an orphanage. So, that’s a personal purpose. More generally, I wanted to get the history and the period right.

In the forthcoming The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, my prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my purpose was to explore prejudice and oppression, although, as Christie V Powell says, readers may come away with something else entirely. Naturally, I think oppression and prejudice are negatives, so there’s hardly a message in that, since it’s a generally shared belief. I just wanted to shake the concepts out and try them in different situations and in a fantasy context, where we might see their effects fresh. (Which is why I’d be such a good Supreme Court justice–just saying.)

In Ogre Enchanted, which I’m working on now, I’d like to return to the lightness of Ella Enchanted, since it’s in Ella’s world, and I’m trying something new with romance, which is tricky and fun. Is the purpose of fiction to provide those who create it with puzzles and pleasure and frustration and exhaustion? Maybe. Sometimes I think that’s its only purpose!

My overriding purpose in all my books is to tell a good story. I’d have to vote for offering a good story as the primary purpose of fiction for readers, too. Nothing else can be achieved by fiction that’s unreadable.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Jokes are little stories. This one comes from The Joys of Yiddish, a book that is full of jokes and definitions of Yiddish words and phrases. I don’t speak Yiddish, and no one can learn the entire language from this book, but it’s lots of fun. Here’s the joke: The people of the village of Chelm (where fools live) are asked which is more important, the sun or the moon. To a person, they say the moon–because the sun shines in the day when they don’t need it. Write a scene in the village of Chelm. You can use this joke or not. Your purpose is to entertain.

∙ Think of something you know more about than most. Could be anything: your younger brother, your dog’s favorite toy, or string theory. Write a story that works as a story but that also educates the reader about that thing.

∙ Write a tendentious (if you don’t know, look it up–it’s a great word!) story. Some writers have been able to write such novels. Ayn Rand, for example, had me going while I was under her spell, and I kept reading despite the windiness of her dialogue. Pick something you believe in deeply and bring in your message, loud and clear. Is this something that you’re good at, or does the message force you away from complexity and an interesting story?

∙ Think of a debate question, like, Should schools permit free speech in the school newspaper? Write a story that explores both positions. You can come down on one side or the other or leave the resolution open-ended.

Bethany, since a bunch of us weighed in, please let us know how your research paper went.d

Have fun, and save what you write!

How-to and When-to Show

First off, for anyone in my neck of the woods (lower upstate New York), I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival from 10:00 to 4:00’ish (I sometimes leave a little early to catch my train) on September 24th, along with many other great kids’ book writers. Details are here on the website when you click on News and then on Appearances. If you can come, I’d love to see you, and, since I’ll be there all day, we’ll have time to chat.

On to the post. On May 26, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, My mother, who is my main beta reader, always tells me that when I write a story I always tell instead of show what is happening. The only thing is I don’t know how to show instead of tell. Can anyone help explain to me how I can achieve this?

Christie V Powell offered these ideas and examples: I think Gail described it as a camera that zooms in. If you’re telling, it’s zoomed out so you get a big panorama picture with few details. If you show, you’re zooming in so the details are prominent.

Tell: Tess climbed the tree and looked for danger.
Show: Tess’s fingers grasped the rough bark as she heaved herself upward, ears alert for any hint of danger.

First two lines of my WIP:
For Keita Sage, crossing the valley floor without detection was the easy part of the rescue. (tell)
She had darted across the brush, her feet sure despite the predawn darkness, but now they trembled inside their awkward, bulky shoes. (show)

For me, portraying emotion is where you really want to be showing.

Jasper was afraid.

Jasper didn’t speak, but a strange rattling sound came from his direction. It took her a moment to realize what it was. The wooden feet of Jasper’s sofa were shaking against the floor. At last he choked out, “Why are you telling me? I can’t go in there.”

And I wrote, A terrific example. Just naming the feeling usually falls flat. I love how the emotion gets transmitted to the sofa.

In showing all the senses may get into the act. My camera lens comparison that Christie V Powell mentioned highlights the visual, but we can also bring in the auditory, as she does with the clattering sofa legs. Smell and touch may be involved, too. Christie V Powell uses touch in her example of the rough bark. She didn’t include smell–which is fine because we don’t want to follow a checklist–but Tess might also have picked up the earthy scent of the forest.

In addition to the sensory, we can also think about the temporal element, which Christie V Powell demonstrated (showed) in her examples. Please notice that her telling examples are shorter than her showing ones. So we can make another analogy. On a tape recorder, telling means pressing the fast-forward button.

And we need that button, which moves a narrative along. If we were to show everything, our stories would be slower than real time and our readers would slip into a coma. We can’t avoid all telling. Telling is baked into language. We are telling creatures. We just need to shift back and forth from one mode to the other.

So how do we move from the more instinctive telling method to the acquired showing way? And how do we know when we should?

One of the effects of showing is to draw our reader inside our character, to make him see what she sees, hear what she hears, etc. Let’s imagine Tess in the forest on the run from Robin Hood and his not-so-merry band, who are convinced she’s going to turn them in to the Sheriff of Nottingham–because lately they’ve been stealing from everyone and giving to themselves.

Often, when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure about the environment, I use google images. I might google “forest floor” and noodle around. I might also look at forest images, especially old-growth forest, which Sherwood Forest probably would be. I might google “English songbirds” to discover what she might hear. The point is, I want to be inside Tess in that forest.

From my Tess story, I probably know what season it is and what time of day. I probably also know if Tess is a woodlands girl or if she’s spent her life in a castle and a village, and whether or not she’s following a road or a path.

Once I’m prepared and maybe have jotted down a few notes I can start writing.

If Tess is inexperienced in the woods, that can up the ante. She takes a step. The dead leaves are deafening, sound like they’re shouting in dry voices, “Here I am!” She’s listening to her own noise and trying also to hear the sound of hooves or a wild boar crashing through the underbrush, homing in on the scent of her fear.

We’ve covered sound and smell. What does she see? It may be noon, but the forest canopy may be so dense that the light is murky. We may describe from our google images, or we may go into an actual forest if one is nearby. If it’s day she can probably see enough to make her way, but there may be no distance vision. She may imagine the worst lying straight ahead.

If we want to introduce touch as well, Christie V Powell mentioned the rough feel of the bark. She can knock against a tree. We can make her trip on a tree root and encounter the forest floor up close and personal.

We can–should–include her thoughts as part of our showing. She may be nervously narrating everything she’s doing, as in, Now I step gingerly but sound like an elephant. Now I broadcast exactly where I am. Now my heart rises and catapults out of my mouth. Or she may be bargaining frantically. If I survive I will never say a mean word to anyone. I won’t complain. Or something more positive, like, Mother says I’m good in a pinch. Father tells me I’m all determination.

And we can show the physical side of emotions as Christie V Powell does with the couch legs.

In our first draft of a scene in showing, we may write more than we need, but that’s okay. We just snip here and there when we revise.

So that’s the how. Slow down, inhabit our characters, and write the 3-D version, plus sense- and smell-a-rama. And taste, if taste comes into it.

Now for when to show. Christie V Powell says at moments of heightened emotion, and I agree. Also, when important plot moments are happening. If our main characters are robbing a bank, we can’t skip much, which means showing.

Here are some other times:

To heighten tension. The scene in the forest is nerve-racking because of showing.

To reveal relationships. For example, dialogue is showing, although characters may tell each other things.

To reveal character. In our showing of Tess in the forest, we convey more about her. Does she plow ahead or inch along? Is her throat dry? Does she stop to drink from her canteen? Or does she fail to think about dehydration. Did she forget to fill her canteen?

Showing can make us aware of the gaps in our plotting. When we show, we can’t jump over the parts that don’t really work. It keeps us honest.

But telling is a part of creating a story, too. So, when do we tell?

It gets confusing, because telling is in everything. Let’s take three words in one of Christie V Powell’s examples of showing: Jasper didn’t speak. Well, I’d argue that that’s a moment of telling. I guess if we were going to show it we might say, No sound issued from Jasper’s throat, which seems unnecessarily long to me. So maybe it’s more accurate to compare predominantly showing versus predominantly telling.

So when should we mostly tell?

When we want to cover ground quickly. Maybe we want to summarize events that the reader needs to know, but that don’t hold a lot of drama. Or maybe we want to move time along. We have a stretch that has to be accounted for during which not much significant happens, so we may write something like, Tess was on the alert, but three weeks passed in the village of Sherwood without a single new theft.

When we want to provide background economically, because telling is economic. Maybe Tess’s childhood friend arrives in Sherwood village and we want the reader to know a little about their mutual history but we don’t want to go into a full, showing flashback. We might just write, It was Fiona who taught Tess to never underestimate an enemy.

When we want to comment on the action, as in this famous beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. A bold statement like this is less common in contemporary novels, but we can still use telling to guide the reader. I do at the beginning of Ella Enchanted with That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not mean to lay a curse on me. By calling Lucinda a fool I influence the reader’s perspective. Notice that commentary can be delivered by a first-person voice as well as an omniscient narrator.

These are the uses I can think of, but there may be more, which I encourage you to post for everyone to add to the list.

Here are four prompts. When you show, remember to slow down and to include sensory details:

∙ Use mostly showing to write Tess’s scene in the woods, trying to evade Robin Hood.

∙ Use telling to inform the reader of Tess’s initial awareness of Robin Hood.

∙ Switch to mostly showing and rewrite that first awareness as a scene.

∙ Take Austen’s first sentence and make it into an entire scene written in mostly showing. Demonstrate to the reader what Austen merely (and elegantly) declares–that every mother with at least one daughter and every busybody starts matchmaking the moment a wealthy bachelor shows up.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Also, this came in to the last post from Bethany a few hours ago, and I’d hate for it to get lost:

ATTENTION!!! PLEASE GIVE FEEDBACK!!! Thank you.
Anyone, but specifically Gail: I am writing my research paper on the purpose of fiction. Please tell me your opinions. What is the purpose of fiction? Is it to entertain? Is educating important? Do you think reading about fictional characters can change us and make us better people?
Thanks so much!

I wrote, ATTENTION BACK! When is your paper due?

And Christie V Powell wrote, How much time do you have? You might consider reading “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker, which addresses these questions. However, it’s huge. It took me weeks to read, and I rarely take more than a day to read a book.

Short answers: Yes, it entertains. Education can be important, but can’t be too blatant. Novels ask questions, especially big moral/theme questions, but leave the reader to answer them on their own. Yes, I think there are scientific studies that say that reading makes people more empathetic because it helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Before

On May 25, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, I’m thinking about writing a prequel, but a lot of the information already came up in backstory. Do you have any advice for putting a new spin on a story where the basic plot is already known?

In this case, my book begins several months after an evil group took over the kingdoms. I’ve included enough backstory that most of the original takeover is understood but I thought it might be fun to write out the prequel if I can find a way to make it unique enough.

First off, if the original isn’t published, we can move the backstory out and put it in the prequel. In Christie V Powell’s instance, this would be the history of the takeover, and then–hooray!–we can end the prequel on a cliffhanger. Our reader, panting for what comes next, can rush to her bookstore to be saved from her agony. The example of this that I know best is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I pity the readers who had to wait for the next book while J. R. R. Tolkien was writing them.

I’ve never managed to do this. Maybe someday, because it sure would be neat.

A nice aspect of the immediate prequel is that we can write a tragic or seemingly tragic ending even if we intend for everything to work out well eventually.

However, an immediate prequel isn’t the only option. I googled the word and read the Wikipedia entry. Here’s a little of it: “Like sequels, prequels may or may not concern the same plot as the work from which they are derived. Often, they explain the background which led to the events in the original, but sometimes the connections are not as explicit. Sometimes, prequels play on the fact that the audience knows what will happen next…” You can look up the rest, which I found interesting.

An important and encouraging word in Christie V Powell’s question is fun, which suggests that there are elements in this world she wants to explore more. That’s great!

I’ve now written a prequel and am in the middle of a second, and there’s Fairest, which is in Ella’s world, just a little earlier than the events in Ella, so loosely another prequel. I approached each one differently, and I have ideas about where to look for inspiration.

Lucinda has been invaluable for generating new ideas in the universe of Ella Enchanted. In Fairest, she’s behind the creature in Queen Ivy’s mirror–the magic mirror in “Snow White.” In my WIP, Ogre Enchanted, she casts the ogre spell. I never know what she’ll get into next. Thank you, Lucinda!

We can ask ourselves if we, too, have a character in our original book who can set a new plot spinning. Lucinda, who means well or thinks she does, makes trouble almost every time she intervenes. In a way, she’s the villain, so a villain may be the right place to start our inquiry. Do we have a villain who can create new conflict?

That Lucinda is a fairy with a lot of power is helpful, too, but not necessary. Any character with bad intentions can be terrific for prequel purposes. For example, a gossip can set an entire world spinning if word spreads. A bumbler, who means no harm, may still cause major damage.

We can look at our other characters, too, not necessarily for their power to change a universe, just for story. Which ones fascinate us? Is there a corner of their backstories we can expand? We may discover more than one character and more than one prequel. I find myself thinking about Anne of Green Gables and Anne’s friend Diana. L. M. Montgomery isn’t very kind to Diana, who’s painted as beloved by Anne but dull. Is Diana aware of the way she’s perceived? Does she suffer? What about Josie Pye, who’s painted in an unflattering light. What’s her story? Is she misunderstood?

We can also add characters who don’t appear in our original but exist in the world. When I started writing Fairest, I thought Ella’s friend Areida would be my MC, but I describe her in Ella as dark-skinned, and my MC had to have a snow-white complexion, so I gave Areida an older, adopted sister. Anyone can do that. We can add siblings, uncles, long-lost friends who, we think, will slot right into our world.

The world itself can suggest prequel ideas, as is the case with me and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. The novel begins with lines from an ancient epic poem, “Out of a land laid waste,” which got me going. And now, because of elements of the world I set up in the forthcoming prequel, I have an idea for a sequel to it, although the idea is still vague.

My favorite example of a fascinating world, as I’ve mentioned here a zillion times, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which he exploits beautifully. Within the world, he sets books in the Watch (the constabulary of the city of Ankh-Morpork), the witches in the hinterlands, the guilds, and the character of DEATH himself. So that’s another source: groups in our world.

An aspect of Christie V Powell’s project that especially interests me is the genesis of evil. I’ve read or heard on the radio that many criminals start with small missteps. Recently, I listened to a podcast interview with a former police officer who had become corrupt. His badness began with a small rule-breaking to help a friend, which didn’t benefit him at all. Getting away with it, however, led to trouble.

A prequel that explores the roots of the takeover sounds fascinating.

Just one more thing: worry about uniqueness. I think this may be a waste of good anxiety, which might be more usefully applied to obsessing over what favorite earring is going to fall out of my ear next and be lost forever. From everything I’ve read, there aren’t many possible plots, so repetition rather than uniqueness is inevitable. What’s guaranteed to be unique, however, is the way we pursue our plots, the way the narration unfolds, the words we–because no one else can–put in our character’s mouths.

Here are four prompts:

• Let’s borrow from Christie V Powell. Imagine a kingdom. Write the development of a coup. Consider the conditions that might lead up to it. Think about the people–possibly villains, possibly idealists, possibly some of each–who might start conspiring. Historical research and/or reading about current events may be useful. I’m remembering the recent failed coup in Turkey. Write the first meeting of the cabal. If you like, write the whole saga.

• If you’re a fan of Anne of Green Gables, as I am, or if you know it well, write a story about a secondary character. Could be Diana or Josie, as I’ve already suggested, but the childhoods of siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert might be interesting, too. They turn out to be just what Anne needs, but they have limited lives. What stunted them? Write a crucial backstory scene for any of them. If you don’t know Anne of Green Gables well enough to do this, pick a minor character in a book or movie you love and write a backstory scene.

• There are helper characters in many fairy tales. In particular, I’ve always wondered about the cat in “Puss In Boots” and the genies in “Aladdin.” Pick one of them and write a prequel to the fairy tale.

• This is a sequel idea. In my opinion, Hansel and Gretel are abused by their parents. Sure, the father was remorseful, but if he felt so bad, why didn’t he go after his children? The fairy tale ends long before their story is over. How do they recover from the treatment they received from the witch and their own parents? Write a scene or the whole saga.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The best-laid plans of mice and writers

Just want to mention before I start how much better and better the help keeps getting that writers have been offering one another here. Such a pleasure for me to read. Kudos to you all!

This is a continuation of the last post. Here’s a rerun of the question: On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

What followed was an exchange with Christie Valentine Powell, which I didn’t post last time. Here it is now:

Christie Valentine Powell: Does it need to be a specific outline? Many “plotters” I’ve talked to have a rough idea, maybe up to a page, of where things are going, but not a precise blow-by-blow description. I’ll have the story broken down into big sections, but without a ton of detail. That way I know where I’m going but I’ve still got room to play (like giving yourself extra time on the vacation for exploring new places).

Another thought: I’ve heard of the Snowflake method, a type of plotting that works for some people. You might give it a try.

Lady Laisa: I don’t know if I’ve tried your way yet. I have tried a very vague outline, just two or three paragraphs to explain the basic “shell” of the story, if you will, but that wasn’t enough detail. I didn’t know what my character’s short term goals were when I did that, and goals are, I’ve found to my dismay, a VERY big part of a character. I just have a really, REALLY hard time figuring goals out (if anyone has anything to say about character goals I would like very much to hear it).

So when you say that you have your story broken down into sections what do you mean? Like “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Final Solution” sort of thing? I’ve never really tried that, but I could see how it might work.

I do like having elbow room to give some room to spontaneity. Tolkien himself had no idea that Strider, when he wrote him into the scene at the Prancing Pony, would end up being such a pivotal character.

But if I have too much elbow room the plotless expanse stretches before me like an open prairie, and I feel like a rabbit trying to reach his warren and knowing full well that at any moment a hawk might swoop from the sky to devour him.

Christie Valentine Powell: I have somewhere between five and ten sections. The book I just finished (er… mostly) is a quest, so it included different geographical regions. The next one I’ve outlined are more story-related (something like this: Exciting Opening, World Building, Character Building, Betrayal, MC character growth, Exciting Climax, Resolution). I’ll have a few bullet points under each of things I think I should cover. When I’m writing and getting closer, sometimes I’ll stop and plot out the next section more clearly–either on paper or in my head: “Okay, this is the Hanan region section. I’m going to start with the characters sneaking into the city, then they’ll meet some humans who tell them how to find the heir. How can I do that in an interesting way?”

With goals, I think it might depend on your story type. For my quest story, it was pretty easy. For most of the book, the driving goal is trying to find the true heir (although the very beginning and very end have different ones). For my first book it was harder and changed more, and I feel like it’s not quite as good because of it. I imagine a more realistic or character-driven story would be less cut-and-dry–which honestly is one reason I haven’t been able to write that kind of story.

Trying to outline is tedious for me, too. In fact, I just googled the snowflake method that Christie Valentine Powell mentioned, and I got so bored reading about it that I fled the site before finishing. However, the method may work for you, so check it out. When I outline, I always long to start writing scenes. I have a short outline for the novel I’m working on now, but I rarely look at it and rarely change it based on what’s happened in the writing.

I do often use fairy tales as the taking-off point of my plot, and they help me find my direction. Usually, it’s the flaws in the tale that shape my story. In the original “Cinderella,” for example, the eponymous heroine is passive; evil is done to her, and good is done to her. She doesn’t do much except what she’s told. So, I wonder, who is she? Why is she so obedient? Why doesn’t she strangle her step family, or at least ignore them? I get to work to figure out why. The answers shape my plot.

That’s one strategy: use a known and problematic story. Yours can be a fairy tale, too. Or a myth. Or a story in the news that seems incomplete. How was that bank chosen as the robbery target? Why that museum? Or, how did the art forger get her start? (If we’re going to do this, we probably want to invent our answers–although research can help us frame more questions.) Moments in history that seem inexplicable can generate ideas. We’re likely to find character goals when we start interrogating our story.

I agree with Christie Valentine Powell that the quest is a great plot shape for seeing one’s way through. I love when I can frame my story as a quest. But the quest sometimes needs to be set up. Ella’s quest doesn’t start until after her mother dies, because she’s protected until then. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Addie’s doesn’t start until Meryl gets sick. In The Wish, Wilma’s doesn’t start until she finds out her wish won’t last forever. However, Aza’s in Fairest is with her in the beginning, but changes later on.

Before the quest in Two Princesses gets going, Addie has different objectives, which vary from scene to scene. Then the objectives narrow when Addie tries to save her sister, but still, some scenes call forth another response. In Fairest, Aza wants to be pretty or at least not ugly. That’s her character’s goal. If she achieves that or conclusively fails to, her character arc will be resolved, or so we think. But the story has other ideas, and the solution is different.

I’m suspicious of the idea that we have to think up our characters’ goals ahead of time, before we start a book or write a scene–at least for us pantsers or partial pantsers. A few years ago, I used a car service to go to a kids’ book event. It was late at night, and the driver hit a deer, which caused a pretty big jolt. If I had been plotting the scene in advance, I would have given myself, the caring person I believe myself to be, the first objective of making sure I was okay, then the driver, the car, the deer–the important stuff. Actually, my first goal turned out to be making sure my laptop was intact (granted, it was obvious to me that I was still alive). The driver (uninjured) was impressed with how cool and unworried I was. Sure–my laptop hadn’t been damaged. Not really cool. My priorities were haywire.

The funny part is that I used the car service because I hate long distance driving, especially at night, and I realized that if I had driven I would have been miserable but I (probably) wouldn’t have totaled a car, injured or killed a deer, endangered any human or laptop–because I would have made the trip during the day, when most deer are snoozing.

When I planned out the trip, the real-life equivalent of outlining, I didn’t expect deer accidents. I didn’t pack human or vet first-aid supplies.

Let’s imagine a chase scene. Our MC is pursuing the major villain through a forest, desperate to catch him. He’s armed and more familiar with this place than she is, but she’s more fleet. She’s focused on what’s about to transpire. We, the pantser writer, are thinking along the same lines, but something pops into our head and we act on it. Birdsong penetrates our MC’s concentration–not any birdsong, the distinctive call of the elusive purple nightingale, which hasn’t been heard since her grandmother’s time. Without thinking, her feet slow.

(Either the reader already knows that in peacetime our MC is an avid bird watcher, or we jump back fifty pages to slip that info in.)

In that foot-dragging moment, her body has one objective and her brain another. We can go a lot of ways from here. She can goad herself even more and take after the villain again. She can stop to enjoy the bird, justifying the delay according to her character. The villain can hear it, too, and also be entranced. Or he can realize she’s stopped and use her slowness to his advantage. Or any other possibility we may come up with.

If I were a committed, happy outliner, I probably would have built this surprise into my outline. I would made the delightful bird discovery earlier in the process and would have had fun figuring out the repercussions.

In my opinion, pantser or outliner, the complexity of the bird improves the story, even if it complicates the goals. And we are likely to learn something about our characters from the surprise. Maybe our MC realizes how important wildlife is to her and how it needs to be part of her plan to save the kingdom. Or maybe she discovers something about her villain that will help her–or vice versa!

Regarding me and my laptop and the late-night accident, I was forced to see how intrinsic writing is to me. My work was backed up. If my laptop had been destroyed I would have lost no more than a few new pages and, possibly, some money, but I reacted as if much more had been at stake.

I hope this is good news for those of us who worry about advance planning. Whether we’re pantsers or outliners, we can’t expect total control of our stories or ourselves. We can go with the flow. I don’t know what my characters are going to do or want until I get into the moment. Something may crop up that I haven’t seen coming, and that’s what keeps the writing un-tedious.

My mantra these days seems to be Relax. Don’t sweat. No worries., which, if repeated at fifteen-minute intervals all the way through a story, may be the key to finishing. Near the beginning of the writing, when we’re either outlining or writing notes and lists (my method), or writing the first few scenes and getting to know our major characters, we can speculate about what might be a satisfying (not necessarily happy) resolution. The answer can be vague: come into herself as a leader; be loved; be safe; find the treasure; rescue somebody. We don’t have to know how the resolution can be achieved. Then we can let our subconscious work for us. While we’re writing scenes, it will keep an eye on the goal, and–I really believe this–create a path to get us there.

I don’t mean this is easy. With my Stolen Magic I had to swim upstream and downstream and start again three times for over four years. But I did get there, and I guess I did my flailing about in the spirit of exploration.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Lady Laisa asked Christie Valentine Powell about sections in rough outlining, so let’s use the first two of hers and two more of mine: “Part One: The Journey;” “Part Two: The Betrayal;” “Part Three: The Accommodation;” and “Part Four: The Terminus.” Use these suggestive headings as a bare-bones outline for your story.

∙ Write the above chase scene with the birdsong.

∙ Cinderella’s fairy godmother from the original tale arrives to help Cinderella go to the ball. Just as she’s about to wave her wand, have someone else come in. You decide who and write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

With friends like me, who needs enemies?

On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many, many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes I literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

First off, I think congratulations are in order for about 300 stories in one stage or another. That’s a lot of writing! An accomplishment.

Christie Valentine Powell answered Lady Laisa, and an exchange between the two followed, but I’m going to save that for the next post. For now, I want to address part of the question. I’ll start by relating an incident that happened in my writing workshop last week that troubled me.

In class I gave the kids a prompt that combined dialogue and ending and asked them to write for twenty minutes. One of my very few boys finished early, so I asked him to show me what he’d done. He said it wasn’t any good and didn’t want me to read it. I tried to persuade him otherwise but didn’t push it. He said he’d work on it at home, which he may or may not do.

I felt terrible for him. For one thing, how could I be helpful about something I wasn’t allowed to read?

But also, what kind of expectations did he have for himself? In twenty minutes I didn’t expect anyone to create deathless prose. I wouldn’t expect it of myself, and I’ve been writing for a long time.

And I had this thought: He is unlikely to keep writing. Why would he, if it’s the cause of such unhappiness and self-condemnation? Then, I confess, I had a follow-up, evil thought: That’s okay. There are enough writers already. He can just be a reader. We need more of them.

When everyone finished writing, I launched into the spiel I’ve delivered here: that asking whether our work is good or not is the least useful question we can pose. I asked them why, and they got it. If someone tells us we’re wrong, that our story is good, we’re pleased maybe, but we don’t know what made it good, and we may feel suspicious. We see problems, why doesn’t this person? On the other hand, if the judgment confirms our own condemnation, we just feel bad, but we don’t know how to make the piece better, and we’re probably not in a state to work on it then anyway–too painful!

Not long ago, I heard an interview on the radio while I was driving. A woman with a young voice was interviewing a physicist about multi-verses, which are part of a theory that there may be other universes in the deeps of space that are identical to ours and also many others that may vary only in small details. The physicist said that there could be a universe in which the same interview was going forward but with different questions and different answers. And the interviewer, to my astonishment, said something like: “In that other universe, the interviewer would be asking better questions than I have.”

I didn’t crash the car. Reggie didn’t bounce around in the hatch, but he did pop up from his snooze when I pounded the steering wheel and yelled at the interviewer, “Why did you say that? What was wrong with your questions? I didn’t notice anything, and I’m a good noticer.”

In a poetry workshop I took years ago, the teacher said anyone who prefaced reading her poem with a warning that it wasn’t very good would be fined five dollars. No one had to pay up, but a couple of people came close and had to reel their words back in when they started with self-criticism.

Some of you may not agree with this, and my exemplar in the workshop was a boy, but I think girls and women are more prone to the self-put-down than boys and men. Please weigh in with your thoughts.

I’m not suggesting that everything we write is gold. First drafts need improvement. My second and third drafts, too. And no book is perfect. I’ve been listening to a new audio version of FAIREST to see how I like it, and I heard a sentence that I’d like to revise. It’s been out for ten years!

So here is the first strategy to help us finish our stories: Be nice to them. Don’t call them lousy.

But how do we combat this habit of undermining ourselves when we’re just getting started as writers?

∙ We can become self-aware of our self-attack. We can notice when we do it to. We can ask friends and family to point it out. We can pay attention to it in other people, which will help us generally be more alert to it. You may be surprised at how often self put-downs crops up.

∙ The last post was about getting useful criticism. That will help. When we see where the problems are–that they aren’t global–we can set about making matters better. If we’re also critiquing the work of other writers, we see that we’re not the only ones who struggle.

∙ Books about writing may help. I love Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser (at least middle-school level, I’d guess), which spends a lot of pages on the inner critic and how to get it out of the way. As beginning writer, this was my go-to book when I got discouraged. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott is also great–high school and up.

The point is, it’s hard to finish anything when we’re constantly passing judgment. I’m going to call out on the blog when someone bad mouths her writing, maybe not every time, but beware! You risk being caught!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Let’s re-imagine “Rumpelstiltskin.” Instead of having to spin straw into gold, the miller’s daughter is commanded to, in a single day, create a masterpiece of a painting. Rumpelstiltskin comes along, but neither of them knows what the king considers great art. Does he like still lifes or landscapes or portraits, or is abstract art his thing? Write the story.

∙ Cinderella thinks her stepsisters are right when they criticize her. This may be a tragedy. Write the story.

∙ Your MC’s brother is trapped in a magic tower. Your MC’s stallion has magical powers, but he has ideas of his own, and rescuing the brother isn’t among them. Write the story and rescue the brother.

Have fun, and save what you write!