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: http://www.gailcarsonlevinepoetry.com.

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:

http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html. 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!

Condensation

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: http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160507/?htm_campaign=TWA%20Newsletter%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua&utm_content=The%20Writer%27s%20Almanac%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&elqTrackId=b9e915bc82274beeb6edb771fa8b7d44&elq=ab58705a1d474dfcbe7e1bc4faf06736&elqaid=22020&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=19143.

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.

Redeem-eroo

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!