Eek!

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

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

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

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

Onto the post!

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

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

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

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

The jagged teeth of Whiterocks Pass pierced the overcast sky.

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

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

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

I love the hand surprise, which is nicely creepy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

Showing Who’s On First

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

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

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

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

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

Great suggestion!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

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

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

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

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

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

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

This was invitation enough.

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

∙ Rewrite the insanity scene in first person.

Have fun, and save what you write!

 

Spam!

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

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

Self help

Recently, I read these two words: slight shock, and was put off. I suppose a shock can be slight. We hear of mild shocks in laboratory experiments, but in fiction the word slight weakens the word shock, and a different noun would be more accurate. Surprise might do, or something else. This is where our enormous language and a thesaurus can help. Or we can let it be a full-scale shock, nixing the slight.

I’ve written before about weakening words, but I’m guessing seeing that slight shock startled me into writing a refresher. We should be suspicious of such words, like slight, and also almost, nearly, half, a little, which can sap the vigor of our prose. These vocabulary miscreants are handy words, and sometimes they’re exactly right. We should just train ourselves to be aware when we use them and weigh whether they’re needed.

Words that punch up can also weaken, words like very and extremely. For example, if we write, The chicken-pot pie was extremely (or very) delectable–delectable says it all. We don’t need extremely or very.

My lecture segues nicely into this post’s question.

On July 31, 2016, Taryn Chan wrote, My older brother is the only other person besides me who has read my story. He says he likes it and there is nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, I know better than that. My parents have no time to read my story, and my friends aren’t interested. Is there a good method for editing a story by yourself?

Christie V Powell responded: A few people have mentioned different websites where you can connect with people. The NaNoWriMo forums are a good one. As far as editing for yourself, I like www.prowritingaid.com. It’s a free site that will highlight some of your mistakes and helps make your writing better. There are a lot of similar sites (www.grammarly.com, for instance), but most require money.

Thank you, Christie V Powell, for these links!

I’m revising Ogre Enchanted, my Ella Enchanted prequel, right now before sending it off to my editor. Sadly, it’s in rough shape. A love story, but the romantic part isn’t right. My characterization of one of the major characters is muddled. The pace is slow in spite of time pressure on my MC.

How do I know all this?

Well, my editor has seen parts already. But I’d know even without her input, because I’ve been writing for almost thirty years (published for almost twenty). I know where I go astray, and pacing, for instance, is a regular issue.

So experience is a good teacher. By doing, we get better at diagnosing our flaws.

However, outside opinion can speed the process. A teacher can be recruited when family members are less than helpful. (It is kind, however, of Taryn Chan’s brother to be her reader and to be encouraging even if he’s light on the criticism. Encouragement is a wonderful boost to keeping us going.) For those who are home schooled, a librarian may be asked. Friends may also be helpful. We don’t need to be critiqued by other writers necessarily. The most important qualification we’re looking for is love of reading. A good reader is likely to notice where our story loses its way.

And the other most important quality is kindness. Global criticism (“This is lousy,” for example) isn’t useful. We don’t learn from being ripped apart.

Sharing our work online may be helpful, but I worry about the kindness factor. We know the people when we share work in person. An anonymous online critiquer may not be worthy of our trust. I don’t say not to use such resources, I just caution caution. If you’re not sure about feedback, if it doesn’t ring true or even seems spiteful, I suggest getting an opinion from someone you know. After that, I’d double down on the caution.

Having said that, I am constantly delighted with the quality of the comments, the thoughtfulness, the knowledge, of the people who post right here. If you’ve met first here and then started sharing work through NaNoWriMo, I think you can move forward with confidence.

There are autodidacts who like to go it alone. My husband is one. When he wants to learn, he reads on the subject. He may look online, too, but he doesn’t take classes–and he becomes adept anyway.

If, for whatever reason, you are on your own, there are things you can do. For one, seek out good writing. If you’re  writing for children, the Newbery and National Book Award winners are sources for models of excellent prose–and excellence in all aspects of storytelling. If you’re writing for adults, the National Book Award is still good. When I was getting started, I read many Newbery winners and runners up. To mention just one author, the young adult writer Virginia Euwer Wolff is incapable of an awkward sentence. I suggest reading her books, which aren’t fantasy. My favorite is The Mozart Season.

I hate to say this, but mediocre prose gets published. Some writers are great at plot and character, not so much at deathless writing. We can read and enjoy the less stellar, but it’s nice to be in the presence of greatness sometimes. And greatness rubs off.

If something grabs you, take a few minutes to analyze what’s going on. Look at sentence length, sentence variety, vocabulary. Think about what grabbed your attention.

If you love a writer, see if he or she has written about writing itself. Some of us have, but, alas, many books about writing fiction we find online are by people who have never written a novel, so be alert. It’s possible that they’re excellent, but I’m skeptical. You can read my recommendations for writing resources right here on this website: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/writers.html.

Do any of you know The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White? When I was in college, everyone had it. I’ve heard it called old-fashioned, and the charge may be true, but it can’t be beat for elegance and concision. A very thin book, but packed. I used to reread the examples for pure pleasure in the way the ideas are expressed.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has survived a disaster (you decide what), but modern life has been destroyed. Before, she was into Legos. Every spare minute went into creating Lego structures. After the disaster, she is separated from family and friends (or they’ve all died). Her survival is in her ill-equipped hands. Write her first attempt to teach herself how to stay alive. Keep going if you like.

∙ Your MC has survived a car–or spaceship or winged horse–crash. He’s alone, badly injured, in harsh conditions. Write the scene in which he attempts to save himself. You decide whether or not he succeeds.

∙ Your MC starts a new school and discovers that her old one failed her. She is way behind. Her teachers could speaking ancient Sumerian for all she understands. She is ashamed to ask for help. Write her struggle to catch up on her own.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Vive la difference!

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

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

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

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

This exchange followed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three prompts:

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

What do you want already, you character, you?

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

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

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

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

These are great examples!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are four prompts:

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

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

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

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

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!