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:

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.


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!

Desperately Seeking Critiques

I lifted the requirement that all comments must be modified, but if the serious spamming sets in again (as it may already have), I’ll reinstate it, so if your comments don’t instantly appear, please understand and be patient. I’ll hate having to do it, because I want you to have the satisfaction that comes with seeing your comment right away. And it’s more work for me, and I can’t always get to the comments immediately. We have a spam filter in place. Spam is slipping through, though–one of the mysteries of the internet!

Also want to announce that Transient, my book of poems for adults, was released a few days ago. If you’re an adult (at least high school and up) and you like poetry and you think that themes (among others) of aging and dying friends won’t make you too sad, here’s a link to the website David created:

On May 11, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, What do you do when none of your beta readers give any advice so you’re not sure if your writing is good or not? Because whenever I give my writing to someone they usually say they liked it, but no more than that. I just want to know what they liked about my story, what they didn’t like, how they felt at certain times, if it was confusing at some parts, and what characters they liked the best! But everyone just says the same thing, or they just put the story aside and end up never reading it. Its so frustrating! What am I to do, keep nagging them or just let it go?

I feel your pain! When I needed blurbs for my poetry book, I had to chase after poets to get them, and I didn’t want to be a pest! It all worked out in the end, and I’m very grateful for the kind words–but the experience was miserable.

Several of you had thoughts and experiences to share.

Christie V Powell: I had that trouble with beta readers who are related to me (especially my younger sisters). I have started giving them a list of questions to answer. This last time, I gave my sisters the story without the ending, and said they had to answer my questions or I wouldn’t give them the ending!

Sounds like a great plan. Giving readers a list of questions may relieve them of the worry of not knowing what to say. And withholding the ending is genius!

If I were doing this, I would put on my list of questions one or two that solicit positive feedback. I’d want to know what they liked or even loved as well as what didn’t work. Criticism usually goes down easier if it’s leavened with praise.

I’d also be sure to include these questions: Were there any spots where you were confused? Were there any gaps in the story? Were there places where you got bored? I’d ask them to mark those spots.

And I’d ask an open question or two, because we may not always see clearly what’s going on in our story. (We may have much more clarity about other people’s work than about our own.) We can ask, Are there any other things not on my list that bothered you? I’m always surprised by some of the concerns my editor raises.

Kitty: Lots of talk about beta readers here, so if it’s okay to do so (sorry if this sounds spammy, I’m not being paid to promote it or anything), I’d like to recommend a website I use, Scribophile. It’s basically a site where you can critique work for karma (the currency on the site), which you use to post your own work. It works like an actual economy, “buying” and “selling” critiques (with fake money, of course), which I like a lot more than asking people to critique my work out of the goodness of their hearts. You can also find whole novel beta swaps with the group’s feature. (the group The Novel Exchange hosts beta swaps every month or so. I’ve had both some good and some bad experiences with those.) It’s a freemium payment model, but I’ve found that the free basic account is more than enough for me.

It’s a great site, but just a word of caution if you do join. Be careful in the forums, especially the cool hangout chill zone, which isn’t really that cool or chill anymore.

Me at the time: Are the critiques on Scribophile helpful and not mean?

It’s certainly okay to recommend a website if one isn’t profiting from driving traffic to the site. I’ve recommended sites and so have other people. We’re helping our fellow writers!

Lady Laisa: My younger brother is my go-to for an opinion on anything I’ve written. He and I have different taste in our reading material but are still more similar than others I might go to for advice, so I always run my writing past him first. He often picks out any grammatical mistakes I’ve made, which is super useful and points out things he thinks ought to be worded differently. Then I usually have to ask his opinion on a specific character/description/bit of dialogue. He’ll tell me and then I might have him read the excerpt through again to see if he has any new insights. He’s invaluable!

I think mainly you just have to ask questions and prepare for the possibility of having your darling story torn asunder. I asked for someone to read one of my excerpts once (a young lady who does critiques on her blog) and I didn’t mentally prepare myself to have my treasured creation dissected and I kinda lashed out a little. Not something I’m proud of. I mean I actually ASKED for it, and everything she pointed out was correct and I did end up changing things that needed to be changed. But I still felt awful when I saw all the notes and scribbles and changes. Next time I’ll be more prepared though, and can take it better.

So you have to realize that you are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage. People are usually super-extremely-ever-so-very-polite when they critique, but it will still feel like you are coming under attack, and you have to prepare yourself for that. Just a warning.

Lady Laisa later revised her comment: I think I worded that one sentence awkwardly. “You are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage.” A better way to put that, I think is: “You are basically ASKING someone to tell you what parts of your story are garbage.”

Not that I think what you write is or may be garbage, it’s just that when someone criticizes something you’ve written it kind of feels like that’s what they’re saying. And I’ve had to realize that yes, a lot of what I’ve written would probably be better off in the garbage disposal.

I have a little visceral reaction to the word garbage, because it sounds harsh and possibly hurtful. I understand that Lady Laisa wasn’t applying the word to Mary E. Norton’s writing or anyone else’s, but she was applying it to some of her own. Ouch!

I’m trying to think of what writing I would call garbage and the only thing I can come up with is writing that is meant to hurt someone or some group of people. Beyond that, some stories and some writing I love and some I don’t love or even like, but applying the word garbage goes further than I would venture.

I think I’ve said before that asking someone–anyone–if one’s writing is good or not good is the least useful question we can ask. We need specifics or we don’t know how to revise.

There may be a few writers who can do all their own editing and whose work, when they let it be read, is as good as it can be–I won’t say perfect because no piece of writing ever is, in my opinion. But most of us need outside eyes and opinions. I always do.

If I can’t get other writers or a professional editor to look at my work, then someone who is a good reader, who loves to read, is the next best choice. But if we think we may be able to involve other writers, we should go after them. If it’s an exchange, then we don’t feel like a beggar.

There’s something else. With friends or family, as opposed to other writers, we may have more motives than wanting a critique. We may want to be admired or for our worth to be recognized or to be liked. These motives may get in the way of how we ask for criticism and how we receive it.

Here are three prompts, which you can approach realistically in a contemporary world or which you can move back in time or transform into fantasy:

∙ Since we’ve been talking about feeling a little like beggars, your MC is a panhandler on the streets of a major city. Write a scene in which he or she tries to get people to give her money. If you like, write the beginning that leads to this scene and continue on to tell the whole story.

∙ Your MC is a visitor in this major city. He or she–well-meaning, soft-hearted–does something surprising in response to the beggar’s importuning. You decide what that is and write the story.

∙ The above visitor to the city is neither well-meaning nor soft-hearted. He or she is your villain, preying on the vulnerable. Write the encounter with the panhandler and continue the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Temporary change

Hi, Everybody,

The blog has been slammed with a deluge of spam, so I’m temporarily requiring that every comment be moderated by me before it’s posted. I hope this will end the onslaught and I’ll return it to its usual state. Grr….

In the Person Hood

Before the post: When I’m in New York City, I’m always aware of homeless people. I read their signs and often drop a quarter in their cups. Last week, I passed a young woman, sitting against a building on Fifth Avenue. Her placard described her sad circumstances, which I won’t burden you with. I had no change and walked on. A few blocks later, a man swayed in the middle of the sidewalk. He had no shoes; his socks were just holes at the heels; his shorts bagged; his tee shirt showed an inch of skin at the waist. His hand on his begging cup trembled. I couldn’t ignore him. I stuffed a bill in his cup. I meant it to be a single, but I may have given him a ten. I didn’t care.

As I rushed into Grand Central Station and tried to recover my composure, the realization hit. I had just seen a writing maxim brought to life: Show, don’t tell.

(Of course, as has been stated here many times, writers have to do both, but the contrast between those two homeless people revealed the raw power of showing.)

On April 23, 2016, the Florid Sword wrote, How does one know which view to use? Picking POV characters and MCs is never the problem for me, but sometimes I have trouble figuring out whether to use first person or third person. Second person really appeals to me, but I’m not brave enough to try it. How does one pick a person view?

A few of you offered ideas:

Christie V Powell: I think it might depend on you. I’ve tried first person, but it just wouldn’t click for me. In third I can be a little more descriptive and have more fun with imagery, which is a strength of mine. Here’s a line from my WIP:

The predawn gray was silent except for the river’s roar, and Keita was alone in an empty yard.

Maybe I could switch “Keita” to “I”, but I feel like if it were 100% in her voice she’d be more pragmatic. She notices things, and thinks about them that way, but if she were the one putting them into words instead of me she’d say it differently. Maybe: “This was the perfect time to practice walking again, when no one else was awake to watch me fall.

Melissa Mead: I find first person most helpful when the MC has a really distinct personality/voice, and that’s a big part of the story.

Bookworm: Just start writing. Don’t bother with POV yet, and that will come naturally.
For one of the novels that I abandoned, I’d been trying to write in 1st Person POV. It turned into 2nd person POV, so I kinda went with it. It was so much fun, and then I got stuck, so sadly, like I said, I did abandon it in the end. . .

I applaud Bookworm’s willingness to experiment. I haven’t written in second person, because I haven’t had a story that seemed to call for it, but I did read a YA novel in that POV, and it immediately set the story apart. The book was about the MC’s depression, which was embodied in the way she (or he–I don’t remember) couldn’t seem to own herself with an I.

What I suspect is hard about second person is the danger of confusion. We want to be sure that the reader always knows to whom the you refers, whether it’s to our narrator or to someone else. So if we decide to go that route, we need to examine every sentence until we’re certain that clarity prevails.

I’m dreaming up other reasons we might use second person:

∙ a group-think kind of culture in which people are discouraged from individualism.

∙ a traumatized MC who wants to distance himself from his pain.

∙ someone, say, whose parents always called her You rather than by name, and she’s come to think of herself that way.

∙ our MC is ambitious but reluctant to own her ambition. She finds it easier to work out her schemes (for good or ill) in second person, as in, You say this. He says that. You shake his hand. He believes he’s found an ally in you. She begins to think of herself this way even when she isn’t scheming.

I agree with Christie V Powell that some writers may instinctively prefer either first person or third, and we can make a good case for following our natural bent. Writing a story is hard enough without forcing ourselves in every possible way.

On the other hand, we may want to challenge ourselves sometimes and try an uncomfortable voice. As Christie V Powell demonstrates with her examples, the different voices can bring different character and story aspects to the fore.

If we’ve decided to write in third person, we need to keep in mind the difference between omniscient and limited third person. In omniscient third, the narrator can relate the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. In limited, unless our MC has ESP, the narrator can reveal only the inner life of the POV character. I sometimes read books in which the author occasionally forgets, and I get pulled right out of the story. The mistake can be subtle, and many readers won’t notice, but we should still get it right.

But if our story needs us to inhabit more than one character in a scene, then omniscient third may be the way to go. Let’s imagine, for example, a panel of judges who are deciding the fate of our MC, who has committed some crime according to this society. Even though she’s guilty, she’s an ethical person, and we want the judges to understand that and not give her a long prison sentence or–gasp!–death in the viper pit. We may want to use omniscient third in our story so that when we get to this scene, we can jump in and out of the judges’ perspectives to heighten the suspense.

Even in first person, we can make a POV-jumping error. Our MC Jackie can be with her best friend Carly; they’ve known each other for years. Something happens that gets the friend mad. Jackie knows she’ll have this reaction to this stimulus. In my opinion we still shouldn’t write, Carly saw red, because the reader may think, How does Jackie know that? Better is, Carly’s chin went up. I knew from experience what that meant. She was seeing scarlet. Now we haven’t switched POVs because Jackie has explained how she knows Carly is angry.

We can write a contemporary now-feeling story in either first person or third, but I think it’s harder to write a story with an old-fashioned tone in first. I may believe this because the classics of my long-ago childhood–Heidi, Bambi, Peter Pan, Anne of Green Gables, Black Beauty–are all in third, and I can’t think of a single example in first. So the tone we’re aiming for can guide our choice.

I don’t mean we can’t write in first person and set our story in the past or in a fairy tale world as I’ve done many times. I just mean that there will be a more modern mood. Ella, for example, may wear a bodice and live in a manor, but she still has the perspective of a late twentieth century girl. In my books for the Disney Fairy series, I was trying for that days-of-yore mood, so they’re all in third person.

I find it easier to get inside my MC’s mind and heart when I write in first person. In third, I have to keep reminding myself that she has thoughts and feelings about whatever action is going forward. It can be done, and I’ve done it, but it’s more effortful. More effortful for me, maybe not for other writers. I’m more inside her when I’m using I, and that’s a factor in my choice of first person or third.

Here are four prompts:

∙ You think of another reason to choose second person. Write a scene in the story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Use one of my reasons for second person. Write a scene. If you like, keep going.

∙ Write the scene in omniscient third person with the panel of judges.

∙ Write the fairy’s dining scene in “Sleeping Beauty” from the first person point of view of one of the fairies, who can read minds.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Out of the Info Dumpster

This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:

From Nicole:

Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?

Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?

From Christie V Powell:

2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.

3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.

Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!

What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.

Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.

In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.

That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.

Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.

We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.

In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.

I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.

So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.

Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.

Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.

But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.

If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.

We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.

Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.

Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.

∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.

∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Rolling the doughnut

Before I start the post, there’s this: Reggie bit our garden hose in hopes of creating a fountain–and succeeded. I discovered it because I heard clicking, which turned out to come from Reggie’s teeth as he bit water repeatedly. David caught it all on video and put it on my website. If you have any interest in seeing our crazy dog, here’s the link: Just click on the first video with the nightscape and full moon.

On April 11, 2016, Nicole wrote:

Q#1-How do I write the beginning and get the ball rolling? I always have exact plans for how I want the plot, middle, and ending to go, but when I plan on paper, my beginning always reads something like, “MC Jane sat on her bed eating a donut.” No specifics. I’m blank on how to start the story to get the reader interested. I’ve re-read my old works and they’re always boring and dry in the first few paragraphs.

Nicole had two more questions about beginnings, which I’m saving for my next post.

Christie V Powell responded:

1. Beginnings are the hardest part for me. The rest of the writing goes okay, but getting started feels like pulling teeth, one word at a time. Sometimes telling myself to just write something, no matter the quality, and I’ll fix it later, helps a little. Another thing that sometimes helps, if you know the ending, is to figure out what opening might start your story heading toward that eventual ending–my WIP starts with the main character sneaking into an enemy camp, which she will have to do again, more dangerously, in the climax.

And Christie V Powell had more to say, which I’m also holding back till next time.

I agree with Christie V Powell that not worrying about the beginning is important. My beginnings usually change and often disappear. As a pantser, I don’t even always know what story I’m really telling when I start.

Below, just for fun, are the first three paragraphs from the earliest version of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can find, which I think I also put in Writing Magic::

Fable has multiplied us. Perhaps the hall of mirrors where we danced is to blame. Instead of twenty-four, we were only six. Three princesses. Three princes.

There was always one soldier. Fable did not multiply him. Fable couldn’t, not such a one as he. But the old woman, the one who gave him the cloak of invisibility, she is entirely fable. There was no such person.

And Father did not have any princes killed. He has many faults, but murder is not one of them. The fable is more exciting, I suppose, if the princes have to pay for failure with their lives. But it strains credulity, and it simply wasn’t true.

It’s a nice beginning. Maybe someday I can go back to it, but not a sentence of it appears in the published book. I was trying to novelize “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which I found impossible, although others have succeeded. My story changed, and I discarded the beginning, although, obviously, following my own advice, I saved it.

However, even in this aborted attempt, I was following one of Christie V Powell’s suggestions, in that I was setting up my story. I knew I couldn’t deal with twenty-four main characters, so I shrank the number right off. And, since I had never been able to figure out the motivation of the old lady with the cloak of invisibility, I ditched her. Finally, I eliminated all the decapitated un-enchanted princes, because I couldn’t tolerate all those innocent deaths.

Christie V Powell’s idea is even better, though: to hint at the conflict that will motivate the whole story. Let’s see if we can do so using Nicole’s example: Jane sat on her bed eating a donut with Christie’s advice.

Remember lists, a writer’s most useful tool, from a recent post? Let’s list how we might use the sentence to foreshadow what will go on in our story. Below is a list of eight possibilities As an early prompt, come up with four more. Notice that mine got wilder as I kept going. No idea is too foolish to go on a list:

∙ The donut is poisoned.

∙ Jane is stress-eating.

∙ Jane’s dad is strict! If he catches her eating in her room, the consequences will be dire.

∙ Jane’s school has started a program to reduce obesity among the student body. When she gets to school she will have to get on a scale. She’s overweight, and a lot of shaming is going on.

∙ Same as the last one, except Jane was only a pound over her ideal weight the last week, but she’s a perfectionist.

∙ Someone is hiding under Jane’s bed.

∙ Jane is secretly a super hero whose power comes from donuts.

∙ Jane’s house is about to explode, and she will be the sole survivor.

Nicole asked how to get into specifics, and Christie V Powell suggested that the direction of the story can help. So let’s look at a few of my possibilities. If the donut is poisoned, we will probably dwell on its appearance, flavor, smell, taste, and we may reveal–or hold off on revealing–where the donut came from. If Jane’s house is about to explode and the explosion isn’t connected to the donut and she’s going to lose some of the people she loves the most, we may want to go into detail about how the donut came to her. Did somebody buy her favorite flavor for her? Or did her brother buy the kind she hates most because they’re arguing? Or anything else that may heighten what comes next.

So this strategy is to think about whatever we started with and how it fits into the main idea of our story. If we don’t see an obvious connection, we make a list.

Another strategy is to write the stuff that seems boring to you, just to do it, just to get it out of the way and move onto the part you’re happy about. When you get a few pages into that and your story is rolling along, go back and escort the beginning you don’t like into a separate document, so you’re saving it but you’re not keeping it in the story.

I don’t like dry and boring beginnings–who does? And we want to avoid having them, but we also don’t need the terrible pressure of feeling our beginning has to be perfect or that we have to snag people in the first sentence. Most readers will hang in for a few paragraphs or a few pages. Some forgiving readers will hang in a lot longer. They will have liked the cover, the jacket copy, and they’ll wait to be rewarded. One of my favorite books (It’s for adults but as I remember it, it should be fine for middle school readers. Still check with an actual grownup to be sure.) is Time and Again by Jack Finney, which doesn’t really get good until around page fifty-one. It’s a time travel historical novel about New York City at the time when money was being raised to erect the Statue of Liberty. It’s got adventure and romance, and one learns a lot.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick one of my or your donut possibilities and write the story.

∙ Change the beginning of your donut story so there’s no donut and it starts at a different point.

∙ Write the beginning of a long version of one of my favorite myths: “Cupid and Psyche.”

∙ Write a shopping list and make it the beginning of your story, and through the items on the list start the main conflict.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On March 18, 2016, Kitty wrote, I’m writing a short story for a contest, but I’m 238 words over the 1,000 word limit, and I absolutely cannot cut any more. I’ve used most of the tricks in the book, changing everything to contractions, cutting out fluff, and even cutting out a whole scene. The story is simple enough; spurred by a radio announcement of winning a mystery prize, 16 year old Nina takes her 5 year old sister Francesca (who’s implied to be sick with an unspecified disease) to the radio station to claim the prize. The two girls have a discussion about what they would want to win, culminating with Francesca saying that she wants a pair of wings so that she can be lighter and not be a burden on her family (which a classmate has accused her of being, but Francesca, taking the word literally, as a heavy object, thinks that she just needs to be lighter, hence the need for wings) and Nina’s response. I’ve kept the description down to a minimum, but I feel like if I cut anymore description I’ll lose some of the emotional poignancy. Gahh…cutting 800 words was easy, but now that I’m down to the last 200s I’m having a really hard time. Any advice?

Lots of you had thoughts.

Christie V Powell: Do you have a beta-reader who can help? It seems like at this point you might need a fresh set of eyes.

Emma: When I was writing for my short story contest, I started out with a great idea, and went with it. It was going great, and I was loving where it was heading… until I saw the word count at the bottom of the screen. The word count was 891, and I wasn’t even close to finishing (the word limit was 1,000, by the way). It made me really mad at first, because I really wanted to use the story, but I loved the story I had created too much to change it. I knew that if I took away too much, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as I wanted it to be. So I started a new story. Now, I had about five days to a week until the deadline to send it in, which was cutting it pretty close, so I suggest that if you have less than five days to work with, don’t start over on a new story. Anyway, I wrote my new short story, which I came to love just as much as the 1st one. By the time I got to the end, I was 24 words over the limit. After editing, I finished with 988 words.

So I said all that to say that if you have time, it’s ok to start on a new short story. It may surprise you that you may even like the new story you come up with just as much. Also, since, from what it sounds like, you are very happy with your story and don’t want to strip it of all the good stuff, you may want to leave it the way it is so you can develop the story more without worrying about the word count. If starting on a completely new short story kind of scares you, don’t let it. That’s what I did, and guess what? I won 1st in the contest I entered it in. Hope all this helps, and I hope the contest goes well, whatever you decide to do!

Song4myKing: I have a similar problem with a novel. I’ve read that YA novels are generally 50,000 to 90,000 words and I realized that at 106,000 words, I needed to trim mine down. So I did, taking into consideration comments from my “beta readers” and cutting not-so-needed scenes, paragraphs, and words. I got it down to 98,000 words, but I don’t think I can cut much more and keep the same story. That might not be so bad, except that there’s a publisher that I’d really like to send it to. The publisher is one of the few with the right audience who accepts unsolicited manuscripts. But I see on their submissions page, that they expect YA fiction to be 30,000 to 60,000. Now I’m trying to decide if I should send it anyway, or skip it, or try splitting my novel into two (which would be difficult, after all this time trying to make it one cohesive whole!).

Melissa Mead: If the guidelines say 30,000-60,000, I wouldn’t send them a 98,000 word novel. Ignoring guidelines is one of the quickest ways to get cut, especially for new writers. And splitting the novel into 2 books would mean trying to sell 2 books, not just one. This may not be the right story for this market (or vice versa).

And me: This publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts? If yes, I agree with Melissa. But if you’re going to send a query and sample chapter, then I’d say, go ahead. If there’s interest, you can say then that the manuscript exceeds length expectations and ask if they’d still like to see it. In that circumstance the answer may be yes.

Now for my longer answer. I like the beta reader suggestion. We can ask a reader to note places that can be condensed, spots where her attention wandered–and to say why if she can.

Recently, I read the first chapter of my WIP to the audience at a book signing. I told them beforehand that I would know if and when they got bored. Alas, they did get bored, and I did know. The quality of the silence changed. I could also tell when they snapped back to attention. I trimmed the chapter accordingly.

You can try this, too. Assemble a few friends or family and read to them, not a whole novel, obviously, but a chunk that you’re wondering about. Or, a little over 1,000 words of a short story isn’t too much. A couple of warnings, though. You have to read loud enough for your audience to hear you effortlessly. And don’t read with a lot of expression. If you’re a talented reader, you may get them past the dull spots by the drama in your performance, and, for this purpose, you don’t want that.

This topic is dear to my heart. When I revise, even while writing a first draft, the thing I do most is cut. I just compared word counts between my latest draft of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre and my first draft. The shrinkage was from 105,000 words to 71,000, more than twenty-five percent. I don’t think I’ve ever produced a final draft of a novel without cutting more than a hundred pages. (Of course, it would be nice if I didn’t have to, if I knew what I needed and didn’t need right off the bat. Sigh,)

Just saying, there are famous authors, who have enormous careers, whose work I can’t read because I’m mentally crossing out words and phrases as I go until I close the book five pages in. I like lean prose. And whether or not we’re writing for a contest or a publisher’s guidelines or just for our own project, we want our story to zip along. We should go through this trimming process for everything (except, perhaps, we can skip turning whatever we can into a contraction).

How do we get there?

On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them. The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. For example, examine or scrutinize is better than look closely. I’d especially check and probably excise any uses of very. A pet peeve of mine is the word suddenly (or the phrase all of a sudden), which usually isn’t needed.

We can look at our passive constructions, as in, There were a thousand lemmings, galloping toward the cliff. Better and shorter would be A thousand lemmings galloped toward the cliff. Sometimes we need a passive sentence, but often we can rephrase. We can find these constructions by searching for the word there.

We can trim prepositions. Take my sentence above: The muscle parts of speech in English are nouns and verbs. Two prepositions, of and in. I can revise to get shorter and punchier, combining this sentence with the previous one like this: On a micro level, we should question our adjectives and adverbs to see if we need them, because nouns and verbs pack the most power. No prepositions in the last clause. To see how prepositions clog up prose, take a look at the writing that emanates from bureaucracies, like instructional manuals, mission statements, textbooks. You’ll see that much of it is stuffed with prepositions. Yawn.

Another pet peeve is could/can (depending on tense). Here’s an example: Bethany could see her pet lemming Horace join the throng heading for the cliff. If she could see Horace then she saw him. One fewer word. I notice this could/can thing often and sometimes fall into it myself.

On a macro level, we can question every secondary character. What role is this guy playing in our plot? Can another character take his mission on in addition to the other things she has to do?

Have we repeated an action? For example, in Lost Kingdom, Perry has to get away from a fix. She has an eventual destination in mind, but I added an intermediate way station, which she also has to reach, and this bogged everything down. I had my reasons, but I can’t remember them, because as soon as I made her go straight where she needed to wind up, the reasons evaporated.

We can evaluate every scene, which Kitty and Song4myKing say they’ve done, but it’s still worth mentioning. As we did with characters, can we merge two scenes if we need elements of each one?

Have we included background that we can sneak into the story as it unfolds? Do we need all of it anyway?

Same with world-building. Do we have info dumps when all action stops? Are they essential, or can the knowledge be imparted more economically and more organically? Are we failing to give our readers credit for being able to figure some things out?

Can we summarize a part where not much happens? Suppose, for example, a few years have to pass. Maybe our MC has to get a little older. Can we move from showing to telling to get us through this period, name a few highlights, and jump to the new time?

Having said all this, I agree with Emma that a particular story may need more room to be told, and that need, for the sake of literary excellence, is paramount. We serve our stories. Our next idea may be more compact and may be more suited to a shorter word count.

I also agree with Melissa Mead that we need to meet a publisher’s guidelines, but we can keep in mind that the guidelines may be stupid, even while we fulfill them. When I was still unpublished, a mentor at a conference warned me that my manuscript–Ella–had better be under 200 pages. It wasn’t, but it was close. A year or so later, the very much longer first Harry Potter book wowed the kid lit world and changed the standards for middle-grade fiction.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Below is the beginning of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” There is plenty to cut, so go at it . Put these paragraphs on a diet. I suggest trying it two ways. Try anorexic. Then approach it as an abridger might, keeping the flavor of the original, but slimmer.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

∙ I was recently asked to write a version of “The Ugly Duckling” for a textbook publisher, which will be used with first graders at the beginning of the school year, so it will be one of their first reading experiences. My version had to be under 200 words. There were other requirements as well. The children would be learning the short i sound, so I needed as many words as possible with that sound. Most of the sentences had to be short enough to fit on a single line. Words needed to be easy. I was to include time references. The children couldn’t handle quotation marks, so no dialogue per se, although there will be sort of dialogue in cartoon word balloons when the story is illustrated. And I added another constraint. The original “Ugly Duckling” is morally challenged, in my opinion. The poor duckling isn’t acceptable until he turns out beautiful. And there’s a subtler message, too: stick with your own kind, ducks with ducks, swans with swans. So I wanted to fix all that.

I’m pleased that I managed it, including the word count, and I’ve been getting edits that will make the selection even easier. I’ve never written for this age to read to themselves, so it was an interesting challenge, which I’m passing along to you. Try another Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Princess and the Pea.” Tell it in under 200 words or as close as you can. You can include any of the other requirements I had, too, if you like.

∙ Revisit a page of a finished story or a WIP of yours and trim it using the strategies above.

Have fun, and save what you write!