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!

Entering the Opposite

Before I start the post, I’ll share this odd discovery I made today about Ella Enchanted and Fairest. I’ve started work, as I think I mentioned, on another book in Ella’s world, and ogres come into it in a major way, so I’ve looked back at the other books, in which there are ogres, albeit less prominently. Ella spends two chapters with the creatures but with no description except that they’re hairy, and females are a little shorter than males. What are they wearing? Are they… er… wearing nothing? In Fairest, in which the ogre encounter is briefer, a female has a scrap of red ribbon in her hair. That’s it. In Ella at least there should have been something. No one has ever complained, but tomorrow someone will. Or I already have.

Further proof for all of us that a piece of writing is always flawed. We do the best we can. We strive for perfection while knowing that the effort is doomed–in a good way, because the best we can do is worthy.

And something else. Please read or listen to this poem by John Updike, which is about getting through a novel and which reminds me of you guys who participate in NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link:

Now for the post. On March 23, 2016, Bookworm wrote, Does anyone have any advice for writing a story in first person with a character with a different personality than the writer? I’m having a lot of trouble with that. It’s okay in third person, but first person is what I’m aiming for. Any help with this is welcome and appreciated.

Christie V Powell said she has a similar problem and suggested an approach to solving it: I’m trying that too, but I am having so much trouble that I might have to start out in third and then maybe switch over after a few chapters and edit in the POV change. My character is very talkative, and she won’t stop chatting and start telling the story!

Bookworm answered: In one of my WIPs (I have at least two), my MC isn’t much like me, as I mentioned in my last post. She’s really shy, and she doesn’t often say what’s on her mind. I have trouble sticking to what her personality is supposed to be, since I’m definitely not shy. Please help!

Next, Emma wrote, I am struggling with this a little bit too. In my WIP that I’ve mentioned several times on here that has four MCs, one of the sisters is very much like me, and one is very much not. I find myself subconsciously making the one that is most like me talk the most and ask the most questions (because I tend to be inquisitive, and talkative depending on the situation), while the character who is least like me says very little. I could use some help as well on this subject, so pretty much what Bookworm said.

And Christie V Powell opined, You’re not usually shy, but I bet you have felt that way sometimes–first day of school? Giving a speech in class? You could try keeping those experiences in mind. I’m doing the opposite for mine–I am not very talkative, but every once and a while I’ll be in just the right situation, with just the right people, and one of my favorite topics has come up, and then I have no trouble being talkative!

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but when I’m feeling shy it’s usually because I’m not sure how to act in a given situation. I have to have it figured out in my head how I’m supposed to act, what rules I need to follow, and how to respond to possible situations. Also, a lot of times there’s a fear of being judged– once when I was a teen, I was talking about writing to a trusted adult, and she said, “you must have mistaken me for someone who cares.” It took me years to be able to talk about my writing with others. I still often freeze up and think, “They aren’t interested in me. I’d better not say too much because I don’t want to torture them with something they don’t care about.”

Gee, Christie V Powell, what a terrible thing for that person to say! You earned that bit of shyness! Too bad!

I like Christie V Powell’s suggestion about changing POV to delve more deeply into a character, or to make her be the personality we’re going for. We can switch back and forth from first-person to third and create consistency when we revise. If we’re stuck, we can even shift into second person and see what happens, as in, You want to speak, but you’re afraid of sounding foolish. In your mind, you phrase and rephrase. The moment passes. The conversation moves on. You nod, hoping to seem part of the conversation.

Here’s another idea. If we’re not shy but our character is, we can turn his speech into thoughts. He’d like to express his opinion of, say, another character when she’s being discussed. He has an opinion, but he can’t bring himself to put it out there for whatever reason: he’s afraid no one will agree with him; his mouth is suddenly dry; he thinks he can’t say it well enough. If we put his dialogue into his thoughts–made him a talkative thinker–we may satisfy our own not-shy impulses.

If we ourselves are shy, we can reverse the process and turn thoughts into speech.

My guess is that most of us often write characters who are unlike us. Presumably, our villains aren’t much like us. Our other secondary characters probably aren’t, either. The differences don’t give us trouble, but when the different personality is our MC, the process gets difficult. We may not be sure about what’s going on in her heart and mind.

Christie V Powell did us a service by revealing what’s behind her shyness. When we write our own shy characters we can build on what she wrote. Our character may be careful and deliberate. She may think ahead and prepare as Christie V Powell does.

I’m shy sometimes, but usually not. For those of you who are shy, here are insights into the inner workings of a non-shy person. It seems a little like boasting, but in most social situations I feel confident. I’m interested in other people and hardly think of myself, which gives me a leg up. My motives for speaking up are varied. Sometimes I want to connect with others. Sometimes–shame on me!–I want to show off how thoughtful I am. Sometimes, lately, as I age (this is probably crazy), I want to demonstrate that I’m not senile. The reward for being not-shy is that often I do connect with people. The downside is that sometimes I rush in where sensible people won’t tread, and I goof. We not-shy, impulsive people have to take the consequences. Sometimes I kick myself afterwards. Sometimes I wind up with a funny story to tell on myself. We can do both with our characters.

Poetry school is almost over for me. On Friday the graduating graduate students will read from our theses (collections of at least twenty-five poems) at NYU’s Writers’ House, and then I’m done. I’m very sad. These three years have been marvelous, and I’m a better writer for it. I’m mentioning this, though, because in my final poetry workshop our entire class seemed to fall under a spell of shyness. Our teacher is soft-spoken and, I think, shy. A few of my classmates seem shy, too, and I’ve fallen under the spell as well. We email our poems to each other before class. Each student reads his or her poem and then we discuss, praising and criticizing. Our teacher weighs in, usually with comments and suggestions about particular lines or words, which are usually helpful, astute, and surprising. He seems to prefer spareness, my preference, too. The poet isn’t allowed to speak until the end, when he or she can ask questions. The spell kicks in. We speak softly. There are long pauses. Animated discussion never breaks out. The class always ends early. I’m almost as shy as everyone else, and I have an ulterior motive, because I have a long train ride home. I feel disappointed and glad.

Poetry is kind of an invitation to shyness. Poems are slippery. Good ones are often subtle. Meaning is elusive. Even graduate poetry students fear they’ve misunderstood the work of their fellows. I know this from looking inward. I don’t want to be revealed as a blockhead. So here’s a crazy suggestion: If you want to shy up your ebullient MC, stick her in a poetry class and see what she does.

Or, to make this a tad more ordinary, put her in a situation in which she feels less than competent. Before you start, think about what’s she’s good at and what she’s not. Then stick her in a setting where she feels like the least accomplished person in the room. If she’s tone deaf, put her in a music appreciation class. If she can’t tell her left from her right, make her participate in a conference on high-seas navigation.

Of course, our MC can be different from us in ways that have nothing to do with being shy or outgoing. He can be generous although we’re a little tight with money. His background and manners can be upper crust while we’re solidly middle class. He can be nervous while we never worry, even when we should. And so on.

To help us craft alien personalities, we can research these dissimilar traits. We can interview people we know who exhibit the characteristics we want in our MC. We can discuss our plot with these people. If we share our work with other writers we can ask them if we seem to have gotten it right. We can think about characters in books and movies who align with our MC. If we worry about imitation, we can also change our characters in important ways from our models so readers won’t pick up the source.

Here are three real prompts and a possible one:

∙ Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t easily reveal their meaning, if they ever do. Here’s an example:

Except the smaller size, no Lives are round,
These hurry to a sphere, and show, and end.
The larger, slower grow, and later hang—
The Summers of Hesperides are long.

Emily, I have no idea what’s going on. Put two MC’s in a poetry craft class (where published poems are discussed). The students are considering this poem. One MC is outgoing, the other shy. The outgoing one offers her opinions, so you need to give her dialogue. The shy one thinks what he’d like to say. Write the scene and make both of them suffer.

The possible prompt is to comment on the blog about your interpretation of the poem. Comment whether you’re shy or not. Since this poem’s meaning is so opaque, it won’t be possible to be foolish.

∙ Your two poetry MC’s happen to run into each other later at a café. Write their conversation, which may or may not go well.

∙ Your MC is out of work, impoverished and hungry. She will do anything to change her circumstances, so she sees an online opening in an occupation of your choosing. To give herself a chance, she invents a resume that includes education, expertise, and experience she entirely lacks. She’s hired. Write her first day on the job.

Have fun, and save what you write.


First off, I will be speaking in the Oak Room of the public library in San Mateo, California, on May 5th at 7:00 pm. The library is at 55 West 3rd Avenue. If you are in the area, I would love to meet you!

On March 16, 2016, Poppie wrote, Has anyone ever redeemed a bad guy? The villains in my fanfic story have once been good, then they were turned evil by dark magic, now they need to become good again. How can I make that happen in a convincing, non-magical way?

Several of you weighed in.

Christie Powell: I did a short story where the main character is extremely angry. It grows through the story until she snaps. She set a house on fire (magically) without realizing her little brother is inside. So she has to save him, and as she does she sees the consequences of her anger tearing everything apart, and that helps her to set her anger aside and start to forgive the people who hurt her. “The Christmas Carol” is a good example of a book with this rebirth plot. Even kid movies like Frozen or the Lego movie use it.

If this is a really bad person, I’d think it would have to be something pretty dramatic to be convincing. Shakespeare got away with “I ran into some monks and converted and now I’m going to make everything right again,” but that was a long time ago. Realizing that their actions are harming someone they care about seemed like a good one.

Bookworm: Poppie, here are some ideas:
Your villains could:
∙ notice something your good character(s) did that made him/her see the error of his/her ways
∙ get a nightmare that snaps them out of it

Your other characters could:
∙ slap him/her (literally or figuratively) out of it

If you want to be extra convincing, maybe a character can rant about it to the villains, giving the villains new POVs.

Jenalyn Barton: My favorite example of a villain gone good is Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. It is a TV show, so they had a bit more time to work with his character, but there is still a lot to learn from it. I’ve watched the show over a dozen times now (yes, I’m slightly obsessed), and I’ve observed that Zuko’s character arc basically went through three stages: Establishment, Fall, and Redemption. In the first season, the story focuses on establishing his character. You will notice that even though he is a villain, the creators of the show waste no time in creating sympathy for the character. In fact, they do this from the start, by explaining his motives and giving him a rival villain who is even worse than he is. His back story is established in the first season as well, helping us understand why he is so determined to capture Aang. In the second season he has a fall from grace, where he loses his status and is forced to live the life of a fugitive. He learns some lessons on humility and such because of this, then has his major fall when he betrays his uncle in his attempt to regain his status. In the third season his character goes through redemption, when he realizes that having his status back has not made him happy at all, and that true honor comes from being loyal and doing the right thing despite the opposition. He then switches sides, and spends the rest of the season earning the trust of those he once hunted. By the end of the show, his change from bad to good feels ultimately satisfying. If he had skipped any one of these three stages, his change of heart would have felt hasty and contrived.

Emma: One of my favorite methods I’ve heard of goes like this:
The bad guy is forced to help the good guy in some way (either the bad guy is captured, and is literally forced, or because of unfortunate circumstances has to help the good guy… This could go in a million different directions). While helping the good guy, the bad guy either realizes 1) There is no reason to remain evil, 2) They actually agree with some of the things the hero does/says/believes, 3) They actually have come to care for the hero because of their kindness (whether this is through a brother-brother relationship or a romantic one is up to you). Because of a realization, perhaps the bad guy actually saves the good guy without really realizing what they’re doing. This could be a literal rescue or an emotional “rescue”, or anything along those lines. The bad guy comes to the conclusion after the rescue that they no longer want to be a bad guy anymore, and end up the hero’s sidekick, romantic interest, mentor, or even the hero him/herself.

Now, this does involve a relationship of some kind, and it would really work best on a quest story. But of course, the hero doesn’t have to change the bad guy. The bad guy could change because of his/her new found relationship with another good character. Anyway, I just like this idea because it highly involves sympathetic/likable characters, and would work best in a quest (my personal favorite type of story). It also doesn’t have to involve magic, and can be very convincing.

These are great!

I’m assuming that the original black magic spell can’t simply be lifted. Here are some more strategies that may help:

∙ If we can, it’s often best to work from character, so we might think about what’s least bad about each of our villains. For example, many years ago, before I became a writer, I had a bad boss: egotistical, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-important–self, self, self! The only admirable quality I could detect in him was generosity. If he were a character and I wanted to turn him, I’d work on that, because generosity suggests a smidgen of empathy–and empathy is villain poison.

∙ I notice a common thread in most of the post comments, particularly in Emma’s: relationships. The villain is changed by her connection to another character, who isn’t a villain. I used this in my Princess Tale, For Biddle’s Sake. The fairy Bombina, the villain, takes the child Parsley from her parents. Bombina’s evil stems from the joy she takes in turning people into frogs, for which she has been jailed by the fairy queen. When the story begins, she’s just gotten out. All this is lighthearted, unless you’re a current frog/former person. What starts to turn Bombina around is her love–which takes her by surprise–for Parsley. I won’t give away the turning point, but by the end Bombina is thoroughly reformed. She’s still sharp and prickly–we don’t want to make her unrecognizable–but she’s given up her frog misdeeds.

So our villain can care about another living thing, which doesn’t have to be a person, can even be a plant. The villain’s beloved is a tiny crack in her shell of badness. We can make the story widen the crack until our villain finds it impossible to keep being evil.

∙ We may be able to change him through reason. Our villain is very smart, but he hasn’t thought through the world view that underlies his villainy. If we can undermine his assumptions, we may turn him around.

∙ We can get to her through her self-interest. She wants power, for example. We may be able to show her through events in our story that she’s more likely to gain power by being a humanitarian. It may be a pretense at first, but we can nudge her toward more honest kindness with our other strategies.

∙ We can give him a flaw that we can exploit. Maybe he’s vain. In the fairy tale “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” for example, Puss works on the ogre’s vanity to get him to turn himself into a mouse. In a more serious story, we can use our villain’s vanity to our MC’s advantage, too. When he discovers the consequences of his vanity–or of any flaw–he takes the first step toward change.

∙ Magic has been disallowed, but maybe other outside interventions can be brought to bear. For example, her brain could be changed surgically or with medicine (modern or from another time period) or through hypnosis. If we go this route, we have to establish early that such a thing is possible, and there may be suspense over whether the procedure will work on her.

∙ If these characters were once good, we may be able to persuade them to remember their old selves, as long as their memories are intact.

∙ Here’s a weird one. Let’s call it The Silver-Lining Effect. The bad boss I mentioned above had the good effect of spurring me to find another job, which was a much better fit for me. I think this is common, a good outcome arising from bad behavior. Our villain, who is smart, realizes that his destructive actions may hurt some, but they also strengthen the forces arrayed against him, which is the opposite of his intention. Diabolically, he decides he has to embrace virtue. Then, he can be brought to turn truly decent–or not, if we want to keep his evil in reserve.

The Silver-Lining Effect is an example of the complexity in moral issues, which we can use to create layered stories. An example I think about regularly is homelessness and the beggars that one sees on the streets of many cities, especially in decent weather. I’m a big walker, often in New York City. New York, to its credit, is a great walking city, so it’s also a great place to panhandle. If I have change, if I’m not in a gigantic hurry, I’ll drop a quarter in a beggar’s cup. When I don’t, I feel guilty. When I do, I feel uncertain. I definitely haven’t changed anyone’s life with a quarter, and will my quarter go for cigarettes or worse? And I don’t make the interaction human, either. I drop in the coin and move on, rarely saying anything, rarely making eye contact. So I wind up guilty again. Was this a good deed or not? Upstanding people can argue both sides.

With villains we sometimes bring in moral complexity by revealing backstory. There are other ways as well. If we’re in our villain’s POV, we can show her thoughts and feelings, which can be different from what the reader expects. But even if we’re not in her heart and mind, we can demonstrate what lies beneath through dialogue and action. For example, the villain may be kind to his henchpeople; opposition is what brings out his despicable side.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Dark magic has made villains of Robin Hood, his merry band, and Maid Marian. Think of an un-magical way to turn all of them back at a single stroke. Write the scene in which this happens. You may need to start at an earlier point to set this up. If you’re inspired, write the entire story.

∙ Pick one of the characters above, could be Robin Hood or a band member or Maid Marian. Develop the character and work the transformation gradually.

∙ Reform the evil queen in “Snow White,” using her character as we know her: jealous and rageful. Use one or more of the approaches suggested above, or another that you come up with, but no magic allowed.

∙ Using the complexity of moral questions, create a switcheroo. In the course of an investigation, make Sherlock Holmes evil and Moriarty good, and totally confuse Dr. Watson!

Have fun, and save what you write!

Cinderella with a Teddy Bear

On February 18, 2016, WriterGirl4Life wrote, I find that I’m always getting bored with my stories, putting them away, critiquing myself, or just getting bored with my plot. Can you help?

When one of my stories isn’t going well, I just don’t want to go near it, which is my version of getting bored. Working on the project feels like slogging through glue. It’s happened many times, and the reason varies:

∙ We’ve made our MC unsympathetic, a mistake I’ve committed than once and the latest instance is very recent. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve started a new book in Ella’s world, and my main character, Daria (recognize that name?), is turned into an ogre in the first chapter, so this isn’t much of a spoiler alert. I’m only twenty-two pages in, but I started feeling gluey and eventually realized that likableness is the problem. Instead of responding with horror over her transformation, Daria minimizes the situation and instantly plans how to deal with it. I want her to be capable and self-confident, but these qualities mean the most when a character struggles. In this case, the consequences are that the reader doesn’t worry because Daria has the situation in hand and doesn’t care because Daria doesn’t seem to. The reader may think, I don’t understand this character. If someone turned me into an ogre, I’d want to jump out of my skin.

Once I figured that out, I went back to the beginning–contrary to the advice I give here–and fixed. Daria is now miserable, and I’m out of the glue. So one cause of boredom may be MC character trouble, and one reason for that may be unlikableness caused by a deficit in vulnerability.

∙ We’re not in our MC’s mind and heart enough, which is related to unlikableness. We’re telling our story more through action and dialogue and our MC’s inner life is missing. We’re bored because we can’t seem to connect with him. We may have our plot path worked out, but we don’t know why he goes down it.

I’d go to my notes to consider this. I might interview him in my notes and ask him what he feels and thinks about what’s going on in the story. We may dream up alternative answers for him, and we can decide from them what sort of person he is, or we’d like him to be. We may discover he’s not willing to do some of what’s being required of him. Based on our discoveries, we may adjust our plot or adjust him, which may involve rethinking earlier scenes, whether we revise on the spot or wait until the whole story is written. That done, we can work his thoughts and emotions into our narrative.

∙ We’ve solved the problem in our story without realizing. I did this in an early version of The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. To be specific would be a major spoiler alert, so I have to speak in generalities. My MC has a mission, but she’s propelled to pursue it only because of a  need that’s deep-seated in her psyche. Accidentally, without realizing and in a tangential way, I solved the need, and the wind went out of my sails. I was trapped in glue until, finally, I saw what I’d done. Let’s take an example from the traditional “Cinderella,” not my version. In my opinion, the underlying problem, and the reason the story appears in some form in every culture, is that the MC feels unappreciated, a near universal source of unhappiness. Cinderella is great! Look at how helpful and capable she is. And kind. And plucky. But the only one who might appreciate her–her father–is never on the scene, and she gets no respect from her step-family. Well, suppose, a year before the balls, her fairy godmother shows up and gives her, say, a magical stuffed teddy bear that can talk. Every night at bedtime, Cinderella cuddles up with her toy and he admires her for all her accomplishments and her sterling qualities. Nothing really has changed; her step-family is still cruel. But she’s satisfied. Who cares about a prince when she has Teddy? We’re likely to stay bored or gluey until somebody wields a sharp instrument and slits that bear open from his cute black nose to his darling belly.

In this case, we may not know why we’re bored, but we can think about what our MC wants or needs most. Have we accidentally provided it? Have we been unable to tolerate her unhappiness so we helped her out just, we thought, a little bit?

∙ Houston, we have a plot problem. I never fail to have some of these, alas. You may remember how tangled up I got writing what eventually became Stolen Magic. In an earlier version, which I eventually revised out of existence, MC Elodie’s mother falls under a spell of greediness. She believes she’s King Midas and doesn’t mind when Elodie seems to turn to gold, because she’d rather, in her madness, have wealth than a living daughter. It was horrifying, and, forgive me!, I loved it. But I didn’t know how to end the spell without making everything okay or without giving Elodie an ally I didn’t want her to have, so the madness dragged on and on, and I sank in glue. I wish I’d figured this out and been able to use this plot twist, but I couldn’t.

We may not have to revise everything. If we’ve written ourselves into a corner, we can go back to the point where we got into trouble, or we can list ways to change what’s going on, and we can judge how we’re doing by our state of mind. Are we no longer bored? Are we eager to write again?

The point is, we’re not stuck with anything. The final state of our story is changeable until we say it’s done. If we save our old version, we can blow up any part. I love this freedom, which is a prime advantage of writing, in my opinion, over every other art form!

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this election season, here’s a political’ish plot idea. Your MC at fifteen is running to be the youngest member of the town council. She has the vote of her parents’ generation, who, basically, think she’s adorable, and that’s enough for them. The problem is the youth vote, because young people near her age but old enough to vote find her unlikable–you decide why. Write the story, being sure to include her thoughts and feelings.

∙ Give Cinderella the admiring teddy bear (or other stuffed animal), but make him creepy. Lead the reader to suspect him right away even while Cinderella is delighted with him. Soon, he adds to her many troubles. Write “Cinderella with a Teddy Bear.”

∙ Snow White has escaped to the dwarfs. The magic mirror breaks, and her evil stepmother goes on thinking she’s been restored to fairest-in-the-land status. Readers all over the universe are yawning. Give her a new problem–the hunter? a problem dwarf? the prince in danger? an approaching asteroid?–and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Other Than Weepy

The sad news is that the Powers That Be at my publisher are no longer pleased with the title The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. I suggested Look, This Book Has No Title. Everyone laughed. I’ll keep you posted.

On February 16, 2016, Writeforfun wrote, What are some emotional reactions to lots of terrible changes happening at once in a preteen’s life that don’t include crying? My character, an independent but insecure 12-year-old girl, has gone through a lot within a three-day timeframe; her dad was framed for a terrible crime, someone broke into her house and tried to kidnap her and her mom, she had to go to live with a friend to be safe, where someone tried to break in and kidnap her again, and now she has been sent to live on the other side of the country with relatives she has never met. When I try to write her reactions to all of these events, I find that she just ends up crying! I suppose technically she isn’t crying the whole time, but whenever she stops to think about what is going on, she always winds up bursting into tears. How can I make her reactions seem real without making her cry all the time?

Poppie suggested this: Mrs. Levine should have a post on emotional characters. I recommend reading it. It might help.

That post is called “Weepy.” If you’re interested, you can look it up.

In my last post, I proclaimed the helpfulness of lists in getting to writing solutions. Writeforfun’s question is perfect for the list approach. I’d start by listing possible emotional states. Some may be appropriate and others not so much, but I’d list every one I could think of, and I wouldn’t rule any out right off the bat. And, to give my brain a break, I’d probably research the question. I might google “list of emotions” and see what I got. If that didn’t yield much, I’d rephrase my query. If you have time right now, try it. It’s wonderful to remember that we don’t have to go everything in writing alone. While I’m using the possibilities that the worldwide web gives me, other ideas may also arrive. Everything goes on my list.

Yesterday I heard a short segment on the radio about the neuroscience of creativity. Seems that studies on the generative part of creating (as opposed to the editing stage) show that the part of the brain that pays attention to social norms is dialed way down. We turn off the side of our minds that cares about what other people will think of us or our ideas. I think this is critical. We’re creating! Who cares what anyone else thinks?

I’m not online as I write these possibilities, so I’ll wing it. Here’s at least a partial list:

∙ tearful (which is the problem, but which pops up first)

∙ sad but dry-eyed

∙ angry

∙ happy (we’re writing everything down)

∙ joyous

∙ ecstatic

∙ calm

∙ anxious

∙ hysterical

∙ amused

∙ frightened

∙ cerebral, thoughtful (which probably isn’t an emotion, but who cares?)

∙ disoriented

∙ comforted

∙ satisfied

∙ self-satisfied

Let’s stop here, though I might be able to wring out a few more. And, when it comes to lists, it often pays off to keep going after we think we’ve squeezed out every possibility. Stare out a window. Stamp around the room. Give it ten more minutes before moving on.

In this case let’s look at what we have. Let’s start with the least probable one: happiness. How might that one come into play? Well, let’s make a list. I’ll make it short, just to illustrate how we can keep using lists:

∙ MC Judith arrives at the home of her unknown relatives, and the welcome is warm. She’s so relieved (add relief to our list of emotions) that she feels a brief burst of happiness.

∙ Judith uncovers her first clue to what’s behind her troubles, which she comes about purely by her own brainpower. Briefly again, she feels happy. Her adversary doesn’t know she’s smart.

Looking down our list of emotions we see others that will be easy to draw on: anger, fear, anxiety, disorientation, hysteria. We can use them to vary the weeping. But if we bring in some of the more surprising ones, like amusement or thoughtfulness, we’ll also expand Judith, make her more interesting, deeper, and more varied.

I’ll end with this over-the-top statement: If the only writing wisdom you take from the blog concerns lists and the freedom to generate them, I will have done a good job!

Now for four prompts:

∙ Before Judith leaves for her relatives, at her friend’s house, the friend criticizes Judith for the way she’s handled her many crises. Write the scene and bring in a surprising emotional response from Judith. Use notes and lists in writing the scene.

∙ Judith is picked up by the police for questioning about her dad’s supposed crime. Write the scene and have her run through three emotions, and not all of them have to be genuine–she can play act strategically.

∙ Rewrite the questioning scene and make Judith make everyone, herself included, laugh.

∙ Turns out Judith’s relatives aren’t very happy to have her as a guest. Write the scene when she finds this out and do not let her cry.

Have fun and save what you write!

Pride and Prejudice and Lists

First, if you’re interested, here is a link to an interview with me. When you click on it, the first thing you’ll see is login information. Ignore this and just scroll down to hear the interview:

On February 4, 2016 Ella Hensen wrote, I really love writing fiction and whenever I start writing something I get really excited about what I’m going to do. I’ll write some the first day and then the next day I keep going but by then it’s turned into something I don’t like at all! Most of the time it’s way to similar to a book I have just finished reading that I loved. How do I stop this from happening? Has this happened to anyone else?

Christie Powell wrote back, It seems like Gail has answered similar questions about this. Here’s a good one:

NPennyworth commented, You’re not alone; this has happened to me too many times to count! Whenever it does I look at the story and ask “What don’t I like about this?” Sometimes I want to write a different part of the story, and then I switch to that. Sometimes a character doesn’t make sense and I take a break to do some character building. Sometimes it’s just a slow, but necessary, part of the plot, and I try to just plow through it so I can get to the more exciting parts. I usually find that if I dislike what I’m writing it’s because I’m bored, so I try to shake things up by putting in an action scene or a new character, or switching POV.

If all of the above fails, then I try to give my brain a break for a while. I can switch to writing another story, or do something else entirely. But I eventually sit down and try again. Being a writer isn’t all light bulbs and inspiration; a fair bit of writing is just forcing yourself to write.

I love NPennyworth’s suggestions. And I love her calm and practical tone. No desperation or self-condemnation. Writing is almost always a bumpy ride. We need approaches that help us keep jogging and slogging.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what loosens me up when I write, because, in my opinion, being loose is imperative. When we’re tight nothing new can squeeze out–or at the least our original ideas have a harder time getting past our rigid gate-keepers.

For me, I need a space in my work where nothing counts. In a poem, all I have to do is drop down a couple of lines. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ve disfigured the poem–really! The stanzas no longer descend in an orderly way, and all bets are off. I’ve made a mess, so I might as well play. I can feel my brain relax. I often copy over the lines that don’t satisfy me and try them different ways. Many different ways. The loosening allows me to consider the poem as a whole, too. Maybe the words are fine but the lines aren’t arriving in the right sequence. I try one way, close the poem up again, consider, and, often, start over.

In a novel-in-progress, I toggle over to my notes in order to relax. If what’s troubling me is the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, for instance, I’ll copy the whole thing into my notes. Suppose I don’t think I’m being clear, well, I may rewrite the paragraph in the most basic way I can think of, even if the writing is less than charming. Then I may copy that and revise. If I’m not happy, I start again.

If the problem is bigger than the way I’ve expressed myself in a paragraph, if it’s a plot or character problem, I’ll write notes about that. And often I’ll list possibilities.

Ah, lists! The world’s greatest boon to originality. All great thinkers use them, actually down through history. When the wheel was invented, it was the product of a list scratched into dirt with a stick, like this:
Possible shapes:
isosceles triangle

As history proves, the right solution may not be the last to appear on our list, but it’s the one we most often circle (hah!) back to.

So how can we use a list to move our story from following the course of the last novel we read and loved?

A thread in comments on the last blog concerned Pride and Prejudice and Lydia’s elopement with Mr. Wickham, which ***SPOILER ALERT*** had the eventual effect of uniting Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Suppose we’re writing a romance, too, and we adore P&P, as I do, so we make our two star-crossed lovers misunderstand each other, even though the reader knows they’re meant to be together. It’s a contemporary tale, because we’re a tad doubtful that we can be pitch-perfect regarding early nineteenth century England. Our MC Melanie’s family is wacky and can be counted on to say and do precisely the wrong thing at precisely the right moment for maximum trouble. Melanie’s sister Winette has a crush on geeky James, who is a whiz at all things tech and oh-so helpful when anyone’s computer melts down. We’re tempted to make James kidnap Winette, and have Melanie’s opposite number Stefan find her while she’s still alive. But even we realize this is just too derivative. So, how can we use James and Winette to bring Melanie and Stefan together? We make a list:

∙ Stefan discovers that James has hacked into the family’s financial information and has account numbers, passwords, and social security numbers. Stefan brings his discovery to Melanie and never suggests by so much as a sneer that her parents are careless fools who deserve to be swindled. Since we don’t want her rescued (though Austen doesn’t mind), she handles James.

∙ Melanie herself realizes what James is up to. With more courage than caution, she confronts him. He shrugs and says that he did nothing without Winette’s knowledge. If he’s prosecuted, she will be, too. He leaves her at the coffee shop where they met. On the way home, she runs into Stefan, who sees how distraught she is. She tells him what’s happened, and between the two of them, they cook up a way to foil James. In the course of their planning, they come to appreciate each other.

∙ James steals the family service dog, who is the only being who can calm down Melanie’s father when he becomes agitated. Family and friends mobilize to find the dog, and Melanie and Stefan wind up collaborating on the rescue.

∙ This one moves away from James. Despite her flirting, Winette is friendless. After being aloof at a social event, Stefan is kind to her when her schoolmates torment her. Melanie begins to appreciate him.

We can keep going. If I were writing this story, I would, to give myself even more choices. I’d think about Melanie’s family members and come up with a possibility that involves each of them. I’d also consider other characters and other aspects of Melanie’s life, and I’d invent possibilities for Stefan, too. I might even go back to other Austen books and see how she brought matters to a head in them. Then I might adapt one to these circumstances and use it.

Lists can be any length, but it can help to set a minimum number. I may say I want at least seven options. When I get to seven, I can still keep going.

Just one more thing about my process and finding the freedom to develop ideas. When I wrote the possibilities above, I got tight about my list, because I was going to put it out where others could read it, while my lists and my notes are usually private. I had to drop down on my page, away from the bullets where the final ideas would go. Then I could loosen up again. That’s what I mean about how important a safe space is.

Here are three prompts:

∙ You knew this was coming. Add three more possibilities to my list.

∙ Write a scene based on an item on your list or mine.

∙ Write a list of four other ways Jane Austen might have taken P&P. Leave it in the eighteenth century or make it modern. Write a scene from your new plot development. Or do this same thing with a different book.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Ha!

First, I’ll hearken back to my recent post about poetry. In my final (sob) class of poetry school, we’ve been assigned a textbook that I think may interest people on the blog who’ve caught the poetry bug. It’s Introduction to Poetry by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia–high school and above–very comprehensive. There are a few poem prompts but not many. The value is in the discussion of all the topics in poetry and the selection of poems, from classic to modern. Also phenomenally expensive, so I’d suggest asking your library to get it for you or buying it used. Try to find the latest edition, which contains the most up-to-date poems.

On January 27, 2016, Bookworm wrote, I need help with some things in my novel. I have it pretty much figured out, but the scenes seem to zoom by. I don’t think my MC is really getting enough challenge in some of the scenes.

I also need some help with a side MC. He’s the main comedian, and I don’t have many jokes and puns for him. I could really use some help to get some good puns and jokes. Can you help me?

First question first. Writer of Magic weighed in with, What I would do to make it more challenging is to go through each sentence and see if you need more detail. Example: Her jeans ripped. Or: The seam on her jeans ripped. Blood seeped out. Sorry for the gore.

I’m all for detail, which does more than add length. Detail puts the reader in the scene. There’s nothing like it to increase tension. What do the jeans rip on? How deep is the cut? How painful? Who sees the event? Is anyone there to help? What else is going on? Does our MC–let’s call her Rose–have time to see how badly injured she is? Is she in danger of passing out from loss of blood? If a lot is happening, we can slow down to a kind of play-by-play.

A scene won’t zoom if we present our details through Rose’s head and heart. What is she thinking? Is she worrying about something even more pressing than bleeding? Is she phobic about blood? What’s her state of mind when the injury happens? Is she angry? At whom? Frightened? Sad? Even happy? Maybe cutting her leg solves some other problem for her. Now she thinks she won’t have to spend a week with her despised cousin. She wonders if she can make the injury worse.

Detail also contributes to humor. Rose’s jeans rip, revealing the laughing frogs on the long underwear her mother makes her wear. A dot of blood seeps through the flannel and reddens a frog’s nose. Can she conceal the whole disaster? What can she wrap around herself? A tablecloth! Can she pull it out without disturbing all the dishes, the way they do in movies?

And how might we challenge our Rose more?

We’re always finding a balance between barriers and abilities, locks and keys. Leaving behind the bleeding situation, let’s say Rose is loyal to Queen Lorraine, but a lot of people are dissatisfied with her rule. Attracted by the noise, Rose joins a crowd surrounding a street speaker who’s inciting the mob to storm City Hall, where the queen’s representatives hold sway. The mayor happens to be away, leaving Rose’s mother, the chief constable, in charge with only three guards to help her. Rose decides she has to persuade the crowd not to attack.

Suppose we want Rose to fail ultimately. The Hall will be attacked, which will propel our plot into its next phase. But we don’t want her to fail quickly. We want to make the most of our dramatic situation.

We might consider what Rose has going for her and what her obstacles are, but let’s start with the obstacles. The anger of the rabble rouser is infectious. He’s a good speaker with valid arguments on his side. The queen’s subjects are tired of a war that’s continued for a decade–although she’s been on the throne for only six months. Many able-bodied people have been forced to become soldiers. A promised school in the town hasn’t been built.

Rose thinks the queen should be given more time. If the throne is overthrown, who will step in? Chaos will follow, and the enemy is sure to take advantage. Rose has made this argument to a few friends, whom she’s persuaded to agree with her. Plus, she knows a lot of the people in the crowd, and she’s well-liked.

Going back to obstacles, she’s soft-spoken. No one will hear her if she speaks up. So we start the scene. Rose clears her throat. “Excuse me.” No one hears. What is she feeling? Thinking? Who’s standing next to her? What’s the weather?

We use these details to create a scene with ups and downs and plenty of challenges for Rose. When one effort fails, she tries something else, seems to make progress until some other upset comes along. We end with her the loser, but she isn’t entirely defeated.

Moving along. When it came to jokes, Writer of Magic asked, What era is this? Then I could probably make up some jokes.

Bookworm answered, The era is modern times, but the action takes place in different dimensions. For example, there’s the real world, then there’s Destiny Forest, and another dimension is Musical Hills. There’s not more than one of the MC though, like a doppelganger.

Humor helped poured in.

From Mary:
What type of bagel can fly?
A plain bagel!!!

What’s brown and sticky?
A stick!

Two man walk into a bar. One turns to the other and says “Ouch.”

“A train just passed by here!”
“How can you tell?”
“It left it’s tracks!”

“Did you get a haircut?”
“No, I got all of them cut.”

If you need more try searching Google.

As for puns I find that they work best in the situation. If the character drinks chicken soup they can say it tastes “fowl.” Fish is always really heavy because it has so many scales. Cheese has many “ Gouda” puns attached, and can be “grate” to use. Horses also have many puns attached. (Behooved is a good word, and people can mention neighbors, both of which can be used in many “tales.”) A mention of eyes can lead to many puns, such as “eye see,” mention of pupil(s) (for teachers or students), and complaints that people will always “lash” out. Cars are “wheely” good, and if you’re getting “tired” of my examples Google can help with some more specific examples. I hope this gives you a few ideas!

These are great! I’d just add that a list of homonyms (words that are spelled and sound the same but have different meanings, like bear) and homophones (words that may be spelled differently but sound the same, like plain and plane in Mary’s pun or bear and bare), which you can google, can be helpful for thinking up puns. Heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like bass, the fish, and bass, the low musical pitch) probably won’t be as useful, because our puns will probably crop up in dialogue, but there may be times when we can use them, too. Of course, some puns are pure inspiration, which can arise only from sub-basement Y of our brains, like the joke about the chicken, the frog, and the librarian, which is best said out loud. If you don’t know it, here’s a link: For best effect, sound like a chicken for her lines and like a frog for his (hers? its?).

Here are prompts:

∙ I find it helpful to think of categories when I fool around with puns. So, looking at your googled lists, come up with three puns in each of these categories: food, occupations, and animals.

∙ Remember a time when you were injured: sports injury, clumsy injury (as most of mine have been), kitchen injury–whatever. Not life threatening, because we want to take something with medium intensity and deepen it. Write it and milk it for every smidgen of detail you can dredge up: the moment before the event, how it happened, how it felt and looked, who was there, who said what, what you said and thought, what made it better, what made it worse, plus whatever I’m leaving out. Now move into fiction. Make yourself a character, and make the other people who were there characters, too. If it fits, turn one of them into a villain. By using detail, make this a scene that doesn’t zoom by and that maintains tension.

∙ Injure your MC in your WIP and use some of the moments from your life and your fictionalized version of your life. Write the scene.

∙ Write the scene in which Rose tries to calm the crowd.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Strange New World

On December 20, 2015, Zoe wrote, So I’m working on inventing the world where my story is set right now, and I’m totally overwhelmed with having to invent languages, cultures, religions, political structure, geography, history, all that stuff. I was just wondering, how in depth do you go when you invent the world for your stories, like Kyrria, Bamarre, etc.? How much do you invent about your worlds?

It’s hard to remember what my thinking was with Kyrria and Bamarre, because I wrote the books so long ago. The latest world that I invented entirely was for my mysteries, A Tale of Two Castles and Stolen Magic. And even those I don’t remember well. A kind of amnesia falls over me about the hard parts of writing a book, and the whole first draft is always hard.

So for that reason, I looked at the beginning of my notes on A Tale of Two Castles–and found virtually nothing about world building. The novel is super loosely based on “Puss ‘N’ Boots,” and what I see is me wondering about Puss and why he’s so weirdly clever, not to mention why he can talk. So the world would have to accommodate magical cats. I speculated about introducing a genie, so then this would also be a world with genies, probably because I’ve never written a genie, and they interest me. (Neither the genies nor the magical cats made it into my story. Maybe in a future book.)

A word search on world in my notes. gave me nothing about creating the universe of my story. What I was doing was starting to work out my plot. I do remember that I wanted to use as much as I could of the Middle Ages. In Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre I invented a fairy tale land that never was historical–but some readers intuited a medieval setting–and must have gotten a prettified idea of the period. In Fairest, for example, I dwelled a lot on fashion, and I used actual clothing, mostly gowns, from several reference books. However, I leaped centuries back and forth, and the outfits were post-medieval, because medieval dress was much simpler than the periods that followed, and I wanted to make Aza look ridiculous.

For the Middle Ages, I bought Castle by David Macaulay, which cannot be beat for clarity, and used his castle as the blueprint for mine. I got two books on daily life in the Middle Ages, not that I read all of either of them–just the parts I needed. And I supplemented the books with googling. For example, I learned what covered the floors in a medieval house: reeds. No carpets yet. And tapestries came later than the thirteenth century, which is the time I focused on.

Unless you enjoy world-building–some people do–why make up more than we have to? I do like to create new versions of imaginary creatures, like dragons, and there aren’t any real-life models anyway, so I spend time on them. In Stolen Magic, I made up an entire new kind of being, the brunka, and that was fun, too.

But my kingdoms have always been monarchies, although I could invent a new system of government, which probably would be fascinating. However, I might also lose myself in it. And when I get lost, when I haven’t made trouble for a character in a while, I get bored.

When my stories involve travel, I do have to come up with geography. But, again, I’ve never developed a new kind of landscape. I’m an admirer, though, of writers who have. I’m thinking of the forest of Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, and the geography in the Discworld invented by Terry Pratchett.

I did create parts of languages in Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Ever, but I did that because I wanted to, because I loved the languages in The Lord of the Rings, especially the orcs’. I didn’t have to, I could have made all the creatures speak Kyrrian.

Our universe, in my opinion, pales in importance next to plot and character. We don’t have to defy the laws of earth if our plot doesn’t demand it. But, since many of us are into fantasy, it’s nice to indulge ourselves if we want to.

However, sometimes the world steers our plot. In my Disney Fairies books, which take place in Fairy Haven and in which the fairies are the main characters, I had to think about this sort of fairy, and I did create a partially new world, which leaned a lot on the one invented by James M. Barrie in Peter Pan. Looking at my earliest notes, I see myself grappling with the world, but always in hopes of finding conflict. My first idea was that humans were building a bridge to Neverland. Then I decided that the island, which had floated, would get stuck on something. And my notion was that either of these would disrupt the island’s power to confer eternal youth on its inhabitants. I didn’t use these set-ups, but the one I finally came up with did create a crisis in aging, and I had a blast nudging the classic characters along the trajectory of life. Peter Pan, for example, loses some baby teeth!

So, I’d say we should let making trouble be our guide in our world-building. If we are going to invent a legal system, for instance, let’s come up with a law or two that endangers citizens, especially our characters. If we’re going to dream up customs, let’s include a few that oppose what our MC wants or needs.

We can toggle back and forth between world and plot. We can think, What kind of government do we want? And when we think, let’s not leap immediately to tyranny for maximum trouble. We can list possibilities. Maybe, for example, our kingdom is governed by a committee of university deans who want the best for everyone. How might this go wrong? Considering potential problems, we begin to imagine our MC. Who might she be, and what might she want that would run counter to her benevolent rulers?

Here are three prompts.

∙ Imagine that world ruled by university deans. Write a page of description. Write a scene in which your MC bumps up against authority. If you like, keep going.

∙ Your fictional world is our real one, contemporary modern life. Make it a slice of the ordinary that you know well, your neighborhood or your town or the theater group you’re part of. Change only one thing to make it fantasy. Make a list of what that single thing might be, and consider how it might affect your main character. Write a scene. Keep writing.

∙ Going entirely into the strange and unknown, your story is set inside a black hole in dark matter. Take a half hour to google black holes and dark matter (which I haven’t done). Write a page of notes about the possibilities. Write a scene. Be as strange as you can while still being understandable.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Sneaky Snake

Before the post, a little news. Some of you may have wondered: I’m restarting my summer workshop this year. For writers from ten through high school age who live not impossibly far from Brewster, New York, it will run on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3:00 for six weeks starting on July 6th. Interested writers need to commit for the whole time, although if you miss a week the world won’t end. It’s free, my gift to budding writers! If you’re interested, you should call the Brewster library to sign up. You know I’d love to have you.

On December 4, 2015, Nessa wrote, Congratulations to everyone who finished NaNoWriMo! My sister and my best friend’s brother encouraged me to do it this year, and I said I’d try, but it was really only a half-hearted attempt. I ended up with a measly 2,900 words instead of 50,000. :/ I think my biggest problem (besides schoolwork, and all the time-destroying other things I have to get done) is that I’m a perfectionist. I don’t really have an “inner critic,” exactly–I’ve read some less-than-stellar books before, and I figure if people like them, they’ll like mine–but whenever I write something, I always think, “It doesn’t sound quite right,” so I re-phrase it… and re-phrase it… and rephrase it. Getting 350 words in a day is basically a miracle. Anyone have any tips on how I can handle my debilitating writing perfectionism? (Seriously, it took me about an hour just to write this comment…)

Lots of you chimed in.

NPennyworth: I think the only way to do this is remembering that nobody can manage to churn out a 50K word story perfectly on the first try. You may need to take a step back and remind yourself that you can fix it later, but you can’t fix the story if you haven’t written enough of it.

Melissa Mead: I can’t remember where I saw this, who told me, but one writer said that rough drafts are basically putting clay on a wheel. You just pile clay/words on. It’s SUPPOSED to be a big messy lump. Then, when you get to an ending, you shape it into something beautiful.

Kitty: I feel you. I had the exact same problem until I discovered the various word crawls on the NaNo forums. They are super fun and addicting, and I found myself sprinting a couple thousand words a day and enjoying it. My fav is the Harry Potter one: (, but there are plenty of others, from pirate themed to NaNo themed, to Mean Girls themed. The full list of those, and other activities, is here: ( Maybe try one of those next year, or even just whenever you want to write. When you’re focusing on getting words down so that you can progress to the next “level” of the game, you’ll find yourself focusing less on the quality of the words, and instead on the quantity, which is essentially what NaNo is about. Also, the timed word sprints really help get your pulse and mind racing, so that you’re thinking less and writing more. Especially the fifty-headed-hydra. You won’t have time to even think for that one. They are incredibly fun and addicting, and got me out of a rather large word count hole that I dug for myself after the second week.

That being said, just because you didn’t meet the official word count goal and “win” doesn’t mean that you aren’t a winner. You wrote 2,900 words, which is 2,900 words more than you had at the beginning of the month. You developed a consistent habit of writing, and that’s something you should be very, very proud of. This pep talk ( and this blog post ( say so themselves. So celebrate! You’ve still accomplished a remarkable feat, and you should be extremely proud of yourself.

One more tip: If you’re under 16 right now, and if you decide to do this next year, you might want to consider joining the Young Writers Program ( instead of the normal NaNoWriMo. It lets you set your word count goal instead of the default 50,000. That might help you finish and officially “win” a bit easier if you’re super busy.

Ann: I have this exact problem, so I tried handwriting for a bit instead of typing on a computer. It’s so easy to go back and fix things on word processing, I think it magnifies the problem somewhat. It didn’t work out for the long term for me, and I think of it as a temporary fix, but as an exercise in not ending up reworking the same page over and over, it really helped me. (Try it in pen if you’re feeling brave).

These are great and encouraging! I particularly like the word-sprint and switching-to-pen ideas, which focus us away from feeling bad about being perfectionists and toward action. I tend to get too much into revising, too, when I’m in first-draft stage. I may try NPennyworth’s and Ann’s suggestions to bypass my bad proclivities, or I may start typing with my nose or gripping a pen with my toes. Any words I get out that way will be good enough!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I once read a description of a book–I don’t remember the source, so I can’t quote it exactly–as a long document that has something wrong with it. There are no perfect novels, probably no perfect essays or perfect poems. My next novel, after The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, is going to be set in Ella’s world, so recently I reread Ella Enchanted, which was my first published book, and I’ve learned a few things since then. I’d revise quite a bit if I were starting over. For example, I’ve learned about the placement of the word only. Here’s an example that makes me grind my teeth: Ogres weren’t only dangerous because of their size and their cruelty. It should be: Ogres weren’t dangerous only because of their size and their cruelty. The difference is trivial, but the second is more precise than the first.

The only mistake I learned about from HarperCollins’ copy edits on some manuscript or other. I often see it in the work of wonderful writers, who have less gifted copy editors, but I don’t like to see it in moi! Getting deep into the weeds, I don’t think it’s a mistake when it shows up in dialogue, which reflects how people actually speak–generally with misplaced onlys, but in narration, I like to get it right.

Here’s another foolish move I constantly make as I write a first draft: I fix sentences I’m going to wind up cutting. I don’t know that at the time, but I do know that my most frequent action when I revise is to snip. Perfect sentences on the cutting room floor are useless.

Having said that, though, this may be a necessary part of my process, even a comforting one. I start every writing session by rereading a few of my latest pages, and when I reread, inevitably, I revise. Since I love to revise, since it’s my favorite part of writing, by the time I start on fresh work, I’m in the groove.

For those of you who struggle with this along with me and who are high school age at least, a good antidote may be to read a mystery by Elmore Leonard, whose writing is a marvel of simplicity. I don’t know how much he revised to get there, but he goes for a thing plainly said.

In her comment, Nessa says she doesn’t have an inner critic exactly. I beg to differ. When her thought slithers into her brain: It doesn’t sound quite right, who else is whispering but that reptilian inner critic? And once we recognize him, we can talk back or stuff a sock in his mouth. We can say, You may be right, but let me keep writing and after I type or pen The End, I want to know all about the problems. We can even flatter him by pointing out that he’ll be even more helpful once he knows the whole arc of our story.

Also, by the time we get to the end, he may be so pleased with us (since he is us), that he couches his criticism in an encouraging way.

As many of us have said many times, no two writers write alike. Some of us soldier through a first draft uncritically, without ever coming up for air. Some of us are compulsive nitpickers. We may learn to rein ourselves in, but we may never entirely eliminate our three-steps-forward-two-steps-back methodology. And we should respect that. And let me add that Nessa’s question, even though she took an hour to frame it, was clear enough and poignant enough to elicit the help she got. I say, Good work!

Looking for a title for this post, I googled quotations about perfectionism and found this link: I didn’t find my title, but there are lots of gems. I already knew this quote from Oscar Wilde: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’ll try a sprint prompt. If I understand right, there needs to be a reward for success. My reward would be a game of Free Cell solitaire, so pick some time sucking pastime you usually feel guilty about and indulge guilt free for up to half an hour. Here’s the challenge: Write an argument between two friends. You can come up with your own starter line, or use this phrase: Your first mistake was… Write for fifteen minutes without stopping or fixing anything.

∙ Write a page about your WIP as if you were describing it to an admiring friend in conversation. There is nothing to correct, because you’re just talking on the page.

∙ Write the next page of your WIP with your eyes closed. I can type with my eyes closed, although the temptation to look is very strong. Don’t give in to it! If you can’t type with closed eyes, write longhand on paper. If your eyes are closed, you can’t correct. When you’re finished, don’t go back to fix it. Just keep going, eyes open or closed.

Have fun, and save what you write!