Taking It

On June 12, 2010, Erin Edwards wrote, How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

When I was starting out and hadn’t yet tried my hand at a novel and all my picture book manuscripts were being rejected, I wrote one that garnered editorial interest.  The story was about a girl, maybe four years old, miserable when bedtime came and her parents were having a party for grownups.  Awake in bed, she decided to dress up as an old lady and crash the party.  She did and was the life of it.

In the story I didn’t say whether or not the adults were onto her, and editors didn’t know what to do with the ambiguity.  I received editorial suggestions that I attempted to follow in revisions.  One editor even met with me.  He talked about “warm storytelling” and suggested I read Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which I dutifully did (it’s great!).  Afterward, I felt that I had an epiphany and really learned something about craft, rewrote the story in a state of great excitement, submitted it – and this editor hated it.

With each revision, the charm of my original story melted away and I couldn’t get it back.  Finally, I saw it was permanently lost and stopped submitting it.

However, nothing like this has ever happened to me since.  I included the anecdote because it can happen, and when it does, it’s really sad.  Maybe the trouble in this case was that the story hung on that gossamer thread between adult belief and disbelief.  Possibly it would have resolved itself if the editors had left the uncertainty to an illustrator to interpret.

Again when I was starting out, I joined critique group after critique group (they tended to fall apart after a while) and I kept taking writing classes.  In my first critique group we were all beginners and none of us knew what we were doing.  We just offered each other what we could, at that point more as readers than writers.  I decided that I should try all criticism.  If a suggestion didn’t work, I could go back.

But usually they did work, and I learned.

A friend of mine had a brain injury that has left her with limited ability to hold onto new memories.  She can’t hear a fact and remember it, but she can still learn by repetition, by doing, through something called implicit learning.  We all learn some things implicitly, like how to ride a bike or how to swim, and I think most writing learning is implicit.  For example, I may read that writers should vary their sentence structures, but just reading the words and remembering them isn’t enough.  I have to try out the suggestion in a mechanical way many times before the practice becomes part of the way I write.

Before I got published I took a writing class that I loved and repeated again and again.  Bunny Gabel, our marvelous teacher, who has since retired, conducted the class as a workshop.  At the end of every class we would drop our week’s writing on her desk.  By the next week she would have picked a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book of three students to read aloud.  She wouldn’t identify the writer, and when she finished, the class would weigh in, constructively of course.  At the end of the student comments, she’d give her own.  The writer was not supposed to speak, just to listen.  In the years I took the class nobody ever broke the code.

Just listening works well under any circumstance.  If we explain or defend, the criticism doesn’t penetrate.  We need to sit with it before we understand its value – or worthlessness.

In class, the level of the criticism was high.  A bunch of the students were published and most of the class were repeaters like me.  At the beginning of every semester, Bunny laid out how the class worked, and she always said that any and all comments could be entirely wrong.  For me, sometimes they were.  The class was hearing a chapter only, so occasionally they couldn’t judge.  Luckily, some of my classmates were in a critique group with me, and I could ask them if an opinion was off-base.

I’m better now at knowing which criticism is worth listening to and which isn’t.  Experience has made me better.  Writing is weird, and I think it’s that implicit learning.  Every book is a different challenge, and what I learned on my last book may not apply to my next.  I feel like a perpetual beginner, and I am, because we learn to write for as long as we do write.  At the same time, I have attained some mastery – and I owe a lot of it to that class and to other criticism I’ve gotten along the way.  I learned the advice implicitly by doing, and now the voices of my fellow students whisper as I work, Am I revealing feelings?  Can the reader see what’s going on?  Have I remembered the other senses in addition to sight?  Am I writing ideas in order?

So how to tell if criticism is on target?  In your comments on the blog I see that many of you are good critics of your own work; you know what your weaknesses are.  When someone criticizes an aspect you know is difficult for you, that’s criticism to believe.  If more than one person identifies the same problem, you probably should pay attention.  If someone fails to understand something you wrote, that is worth looking at.  In fact, when a reader says she’s confused, her confusion may be the most useful criticism of all.

One of the things I love about writing for kids is that there are standards.  One can judge.  Someone can really tell me what’s wrong with my story.  For example, there isn’t enough tension, or the story is too long, or my main character is annoying in a bad way.

But when I used to paint there didn’t seem to be an objective standard and, maybe as a consequence, I never found my way.  If I visit a show of contemporary art and see badly drawn images I can’t tell if that’s the artist’s intent or if he’s a lousy draftsman.  I love art and my taste is broad, but sometimes I’m clueless.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve gotten very interested in poetry.  Last night I was working on a poem and making extra spaces between words and lines for a certain effect.  I’m not sure if I was being too obvious or doing something good, and I don’t know if anyone can tell me or, even if another poet has an opinion, if that opinion is valid.  Much as I love poetry, this makes me uneasy.  In kids’ books something is right or it isn’t.  Poets can actually use incorrect grammar on purpose and that’s okay.  Aaa!

In our writing, the only kinds of criticism we need to be wary of are global criticism as in, You’re not much of a writer, dear, and harping criticism that isn’t meant to help.  If someone insults your writing, don’t show it to that person again.  No second chances, in my opinion.  And if someone nitpicks and you come to understand the nitpicker doesn’t mean your writing well, cut that connection too.  The person can still be your best friend, but not your writing buddy.

And the only recipient of criticism who needs to be very careful is the writer who is already too hard on herself.  If that’s you, cultivate kindness to yourself.  When you show your work for criticism, warn the person that you’re fragile.  This is okay to do.  You in particular may misunderstand and think that what you’re being told is worse than it really is.  Double check to make sure you understand.  Ask, if you need to, if your critic thinks you should trash your story – before jumping to the conclusion that that’s exactly what he does think.

I’m almost at the end and I haven’t talked about how getting criticism changes once one is published or accepted for publication.  It changes enormously, and the answer segues into working with an editor, which I think is worth a whole post, so I’ll continue next week.

The only prompt is to be brave and show your work to other writers, to friends who are big readers, to teachers, librarians.  If you’re not accustomed to doing this, observe yourself as you take in the comments that come back.  Write down what you need to remember.  Don’t argue.  Work on developing a thick skin.  Then return to your computer and try out the edits, being sure to save your earlier drafts.

Meanwhile, keep writing, save everything, and have fun!

Why fairy tales?

On May 16, 2010, lilyofseafoam wrote, I suppose this is a question of meaning…so I will post it here because I’m not sure where to send questions.

    I am working on an undergraduate project on fairy tales involving normative social control, Humanism, and some other aspects that I’ve yet to find a name for. I read your Princess Tales and fell in love with the humanity of all of your characters, and I wondered why you chose to re-tell old tales. Is there any meaning to your experience or any message you are trying to send children through them? (I guess the real question is “Why fairy tales?”)

I suspect this answer is much too late for your project.  Sorry!

Normative isn’t a word I often use, so I looked it up on www.Dictionary.com and read this:

1.    of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behavior, speech, writing, etc.

2.    tending or attempting to establish such a norm, esp. by the prescription of rules: normative grammar.

3.    reflecting the assumption of such a norm or favoring its establishment: a normative attitude.

These seem like two definitions rather than three: reflecting norms – standards, morals – that exist, and setting up new ones.  I’d guess that when fairy tales were first told and when they were originally collected and written down, part of their purpose was to pass on community values to children.  I’m thinking of folk fairy tales, the kind that the Brothers Grimm put in their books, not original fairy tales like the ones Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

It was reasonable then and still is to warn children about wolves in whatever form they may take and to let them know the possible serious consequences of lying.  Probably reasonable to laud courageous boys and docile girls during times when women had few options; if one’s lot is constricted and rebellion is doomed, an accepting attitude may be the only route to happiness.

I looked up humanism too and found this definition among others: “any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.”  Some fairy tales are religious, but most aren’t.  They’re generally about coping in this world with the help of fairies, genies, seven-league boots, and other magical paraphernalia.

Last winter I was invited to be the guest speaker at a tea at Yale.  Before I spoke, the young woman who invited me said that most of her classmates hadn’t read the classic fairy tales in their original versions.  Instead, the stories were known through Disney and other modern interpreters, like me.  Many parents are keeping their children away from the grimness of Grimm.  This could mean that norms have changed or that the ways the old norms were transmitted have changed, as we now have movies and television.  Parents may no longer want to scare their children witless in order to teach them to obey (“Little Red Riding Hood”) or to be truthful (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) or not to lose themselves in rage and jealousy (“Snow White”).

As a child I read jillions of fairy tales.  They didn’t scare me.  The most horrific tale, in my opinion, “Hansel and Gretel” because the parents abandon their children, didn’t trouble me.  I was just glad the witch got her comeuppance and that Gretel was clever enough to give it to her.  But I did soak up at least some of the fairy tale messages.  I wanted to be blond and tall and have a handsome prince fall wildly in love with me on sight alone.  If I was blond and tall and gorgeous and he loved me, then I would never say anything awkward, my blouse would never come halfway out of my skirt, I wouldn’t get hives on my face; I would never be ordinary or imperfect again.

I’m glad my parents didn’t keep the fairy tales from me.  My imagination is richer for them.  And they connected me to the fundamental struggles we all face.

Then I grew up and didn’t look at fairy tales again until I started writing at the age of thirty-nine.  But when I did start, my imagination zipped right back there, to revising fairy tales and making up my own.  The first fairy tale I fooled around with eventually turned into the first of The Princess Tales, The Fairy’s Mistake, which is based on “Toads and Diamonds.”  If you remember the story, there’s a pretty and sweet sister who has jewels and flowers coming out of her mouth and a mean and ugly sister who has snakes and toads exiting between her lips.  Naturally, the prince falls in love with the pretty and sweet one and decides that the falling jewels can be her dowry.  They marry and live happily ever after.  And the mean, ugly sister goes into the forest and dies of mean ugliness.  When I thought about it, I realized the prince would really fall in love with the jewels rather than a girl he just met, and the terrible sister could make the creepy crawlies work for her.

In that book I was writing about three character types we experience in real life: people who take advantage of others (the prince), people who have to learn how to stand up for themselves (the sweet sister), and people who know what they want and go after it in a direct way (my favorite, the mean sister).  There’s also the bumbling fairy who tries to help, who stands for ineffective do-gooders.

Not that I thought of any of this while I was writing; I just got it right now.

If the idea had occurred to me, I could have developed modern characters who exemplify these traits.  I like contemporary stories.  So why not frame this kind of situation in a twenty-first century way?  My novel, The Wish, is set in New York City in recent times.  There is a fantasy element, but the action focuses on eighth graders in an invented middle school.

Writing The Wish was hard!  I don’t feel I know popular culture.  I rarely go to the movies and haven’t listened to many current musicians.  Weirdly, I have to do more research for a contemporary novel than for a fantasy one.  Still, I might write a sequel to The Wish someday.  I’m proud of it, and I left openings for a follow-up.

But I have other reasons for writing fantasy in addition to laziness.  Exaggerated gestures and unrestrained feeling work in fairy tales.  The jewels and flowers and the toads and snakes dramatically represent the natures of the two sisters in “Toads and Diamonds.”  In “Snow White” the queen expresses her fury and jealousy and desperation with a poisoned comb, a deadly corset, and a poisoned apple.  That kind of grandness is hard to achieve in a modern setting without slipping back into fantasy.

In fairy tales big ideas can be worked out on a big stage.  And there’s clarity.  Even though I don’t think about themes when I write, they’re still there.  Of course, my meanings aren’t the same as in the original tales, and they’re more complex, I hope.  I never extol beauty for its own sake or submissiveness and certainly not obedience.  Often I let the villain off the hook, according to some.  The meanings are generally aimed at me.  For example, I’m a worrier and The Two Princesses of Bamarre is about finding courage.  Other people worry too, so the story reaches them as well.

And then there’s the fun factor.  I loved writing how it felt when a snake exited from the evil sister’s mouth.  Or how it was to turn to stone in Fairest.

Here are some prompts:

•    Think of what the characters in a fairy tale might represent.  For example, take “Rapunzel.”  This is only one interpretation, but maybe the witch stands for despotism, the maiden in the tower for despotism’s victim, the prince for an outside liberator.  Can you think of other possibilities for this tale, like maybe the maiden represents fear?  Pick a different fairy tale and think of what the characters represent.  Write down more than one interpretation.  If you feel like it, pick another tale.

•    Now take the fairy tale and the archetypes you’ve identified and put them in a contemporary story.  Write a scene or the whole story.  Notice how the change affects the story.

•    Going the other way, take a contemporary story you’ve written or a novel or movie or TV show by someone else and recast it as a fairy tale.  Write a scene or the whole thing.  Notice how it changes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Aaa! Action!

As you see above, the website is up and running.  Please let me know what you think if you haven’t commented already or have more to say.  It’s still a work in progress.

Announcement: Yesterday was Betsy Red Hoodie Day, when my second Betsy book (the first was Betsy Who Cried Wolf!) was released.  You can read about both books on the website.

And check out my upcoming appearances on the “What’s New” page.

When you ask a question on the blog and I say I’m going to add it to my list, the list is a document called “blog ideas,” and each week I mark off the last question I answered and go on to the next.  Today when I went to the next question, it was this from Sami: “How do you write a love story if you have never been in love?!?!? I want to but don’t know how..”  I realized this was one I already covered – on Wednesday, June 9th, in a post called “Un-sappy Romance.”  So Sami, I’m not ignoring your question, and please take a look at that post.  If you – or anyone – have more questions on the subject, please let me know.

The next question, on May 6th from Abigail, was about covers, but I discussed covers on August 4th, “Cover Musings.”  Abigail, if you have more questions about covers, please post them.

Now for today’s topic, on May 7th, 2010, Rose wrote, …do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven’t done this sort of thing much, that’s fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

I wrote a battle scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and my recent Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, and I wrote a fight scene in Dave at Night.  In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, the battle is between the fairies, aided by a human girl, and a dragon.  It lasts a few pages in two segments and gave me more trouble than the entire rest of the book.  Speed was one problem and where everyone was was another.

The battle takes place on a plateau, so I needed to make up landmarks.  I invented a tree, the only one for miles, a petrified log, and a pile of stones.  Then I drew a map, a rough one, no work of art, and I had the three landmarks form a triangle.  No matter what happened, I knew where the action was relative to at least one landmark, because if I don’t know where the characters are and if I can’t visualize the scene, the reader doesn’t stand a chance.

In Dave at Night, the fight scene, really a beating, takes place in the orphanage superintendent’s office, a small space, but I still drew a map: desk, knickknack case, electric fireplace, door.

Short sentences can help move things along and give the feeling of the rush of  action.  This is a snippet from the battle against monsters in The Two Princesses of Bamarre:

…Her sword flashed.  Blood spurted from the ogre’s neck.  He pitched over.  She stood and ran at the falls.
    I raced to catch up.  An ogre leaped between us, his head and shoulders swathed in cloud.  Another cloud-ogre lurched about nearby.

Short phrases in long sentences work too.  Here’s an example, also from Two Princesses:

    Rhys hovered, just higher than the ogres’ heads, pointing his baton at one ogre, then another, wrapping them in cloud.

A battle can have a cast of thousands, but of course it’s impossible to show what a thousand people are doing, so the author needs a camera with a zoom lens.  Zoom way out to show the armies assembling, then in on the important characters.  It’s been a long while since I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if I remember correctly he’s a master of shifting in close and out again, and it may be worthwhile to read a few of his battle scenes.

You have to wield that camera even in a fight, when there aren’t many characters.  Say your main character, Jesse, is attacked by three bullies.  If you’re writing from his point of view, you can show only as much as he’s taking in.  As the bullies approach, the camera zooms out to see them all.  Once the melee starts, the camera comes in close.  Jesse may see two coming at him, but the third has circled to attack from behind.  The view may narrow next to one boy.  If Jesse falls he may see only the left sneaker of one bully or two inches of pavement.  Same for sounds.  Before the action starts, with his senses on full alert, he may hear children playing, a mosquito whining, an ice cream truck going by.  But once the first bully makes the first threat, he’ll be listening only for noises that endanger him.  If a fire truck passes, sirens blaring, he probably won’t hear it. 

Same for smells.  Once the fight starts he probably will no longer be aware of the newly mown grass a few yards away.  But he’ll be noticing the sour odor of his own sweat.

If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, the task is harder, because you have to decide at every turn where to point the camera.  But you still need to focus in here, pull back, and focus out there.

Even though the pace is breakneck, don’t omit details, because they’ll bring the scene to life.  In this, think of the camera as a movie camera.  The camera is rolling until you freeze the frame to linger on a bully’s screaming mouth, his sweaty upper lip, his nostrils, which seem enormous, his chipped front tooth or his gleaming braces.  Action rushes on again until you stop to take in the detail that may save Jesse, a bully’s trailing, untied shoelaces or, say, a tree that can be an escape route for Jesse, an expert climber.

When you choose your details, pick carefully.  You want details that increase the tension or advance the action.  To increase the tension at the beginning, for example, a bully might go a few steps out of his way to kick a cat.  Or, while they’re beating Jesse, they’re talking about what a nice house he lives in or how pretty his sister is.  Yikes!

Jesse isn’t going to stop thinking during the fight, and you shouldn’t stop reporting his thoughts, but they’re likely to be stripped-down thoughts, limited mostly to the immediate situation.  He may think about where he can move, what the bullies are going to do next.  There may be other thoughts too, depending on the situation.  If Jesse has something in his backpack that’s precious to him, he may think about how to protect it.  He may even give away his thoughts and further endanger the thing.  Or maybe he had a conversation with his aunt that morning, and she urged him to make friends at school.  During the fight he may fleetingly and ironically remember her advice.

The only exception to this that I can think of is if something devastating happened to Jesse just before he’s ganged up on.  Let’s imagine the worst: his mother died, and he just got the news.  In that case, he may hardly notice the bullies, may not care that he’s being beaten.

As for feelings, the reader needs them, wants to experience Jesse’s fear, his desperation, his churning stomach, icy feet, shallow breath.  Again, stripped down.  If Jesse deliberately breathes deep, remembering his brief martial arts training, that’s okay.  But we don’t want a digression to a martial-arts lecture.

In fact, we want no long thoughts, elaborate feelings, certainly no flashbacks – because they suck the tension out of the scene.  When I read an exciting part in a book, my reading speeds up.  If the author throws in complications I may miss them, and if I have to slow down for a detour, I may just jump ahead.  In an action scene, I’m thrilled.  I want to be on a roller coaster with nothing to interrupt the wild ride.

Two prompts:

•    Tighten an action scene you’ve already written.  Take out anything extraneous.  If you need to, add thoughts, feelings, sensations that heighten the tension.  Try shortening your sentences.  Paragraphs too.  Then put the revision aside for a day.  The next day go back to it and tighten even more.

•    Write about Jesse.  You can change his name, his sex, his age, whatever you like, but have him attacked by three bullies and make the setting an amusement park or a playground.

Have fun, and save what you write!

In good voice

Before I get to today’s post, I want to tell you that the website is close to going live.  Thanks for all your suggestions!

When I mentioned that I would move the blog over to the website, two of you expressed concern about leaving Blogspot, which is what I will do, probably not instantly but soon.  I’d hate to lose anybody or stop hearing from any of you, so I want to assure you that there won’t be a change in the level of safety.  The host will be invisible, as Blogspot is, and it will be a big company too, with a long history of hosting websites and blogs.

Also, I have a couple of events coming up for my new picture book, Betsy Red Hoodie, which will be out on September 14th.  By events, I mean I’ll read from the book, maybe the entire book, answer questions, and sign.  Here are the events:

September 21st at 4:30 PM, Bank Street Books, 2879 Broadway (near 114th Street) in Manhattan, (212) 678-1654.    

October 9th at 2:00 PM, Ulster Plaza Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY, (845) 336-0590.

As I always do at an event I’ll ask if anyone is there because of the blog, and I’ll tell the unaware about it.

By the way, I love that this has become a place for sharing writing ideas and support.  I don’t always weigh in, but I always read and enjoy.   

On April 29, 2010, Debz wrote, I’ve been having some trouble with voice in my story. Like for one paragraph in my story it’s told perfectly, and sounds just right, but then the next paragraph, the voice changes and sounds all wrong for the story, and no matter how much I edit it, nothing seems right.
And on May 6, 2010, F wrote, Ms. Levine – I was thinking today, about how they say that you should write, write and write until you find your ‘voice’ and style of writing (And coincidentally how yours always has that ‘fairytale’ feel to it). Whenever I think upon this topic, I’ve always mused idly that my voice is sure to differ from book to book. Coincidentally, I came upon a similar topic on the net, where someone had mentioned authors whose voices have differed from series to series, leading to their readers not recognizing them.
    What are your thoughts on the matter? Is it important for an author to write in a consistent voice? Or is it all right to differ from book to book?

Chapter 15 in Writing Magic is called “Voice” and is about voice.  I just reread it and was mighty pleased!  So you may find it helpful to take a look.  Here is the first paragraph, which defines this slithery, tricky concept:

        Everything written has a voice, from advertisements to warning notices.  “Trespassing prohibited” is written in a different voice from “Stay out!  That means you!”

And a few paragraphs later:

        Suppose I’d just written “Voice is ubiquitous” instead of “Voice is everywhere”.  The meaning is the same.  I’ve changed only one word.  But the voice is a little different, isn’t it?
  
Editors, when asked what they look for in a manuscript, sometimes say “Voice” and then can’t explain what they mean.  Miss Red Pencil, a hypothetical editor, says she knows voice when she sees it.  She’s being honest but not helpful, and her response makes voice seem scary.  If it can’t be defined, how will I know if I have it?  How can I go after it, work diligently, and get it?

Voice is an amalgam of many elements: word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, kind of sentence, sentences combined together, mood, point of view, even tense.  So let me go through them one by one.

Or start with two, because I’m not sure if word choice and vocabulary are the same.  Vocabulary level is obvious.  Does the voice in question run in a sesquipedalian direction?  Meaning, does the writer use a lot of big words?  But word choice is more than vocabulary.  Words have tone.  My late, much missed friend Nedda was once asked by a native French speaker, “Which is more elegant, ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’?”  (Imagine the question asked with a charming French accent.)

Maybe and perhaps are synonyms, but we probably encounter perhaps more often on the page in narration and maybe more often in speech or in written dialogue.  The level of difficulty is roughly the same for both.  Possibly we learn maybe in first grade and perhaps in second.  But the tone isn’t the same.  Perhaps is a tad more formal.

rage – fury
argument – dispute
antediluvian – ancient
huge – gargantuan – ginormous – massive

In the word sets above, one word can often replace another.  Think about which you’re drawn to.  Do you like rage better than fury?  Or vice versa?  I think they’re equal, but one might seem angrier to you than the other, or you might prefer the long u in fury.  Of course, rage is a verb as well as a noun, but consider both in their noun forms.  Maybe you’d use one in a particular place, the other in a different situation.  Or you might alternate them so you’re not repeating words, if you’re writing something with a lot of hostility in it.

Consider all the word sets, and when you choose words, be aware of your choices.  Notice words in other writers’ work that they use and you never do.

Sentence structure.  I’m thinking here of simple sentences – a subject, verb, maybe a direct object, and that’s it – compared to medium complex ones – a statement but and an opposing statement, or two simple statements joined by and – compared to really complex sentences with many dependent clauses, possibly a parenthesis or two and a statement between dashes (kind of like this sentence).  Some writers are given to sentences that take up half a page.  My sentences are usually straightforward.  In Ever in particular they’re very short.

Kind of sentence.  Do you use questions a lot, as I do?  Or exclamations?  Or mostly sentences that end with a period.

Combos.  Are you mixing up your kinds of sentences: long after short, statement after a question?  This is worth being aware of.  Most of the time you don’t want sameness to creep in, because sameness is often dullness.

Mood.  Is the feeling happy, somber, funny, sarcastic, straightforward and unemotional?

Point of view.  For example, if you’re writing from the first-person POV of a twelve-year-old boy, the voice will be different from the voice of the same character looking back forty years at his twelve-year-old self.  And so on.  This will come naturally in the writing.

Tense.  Are you writing in the past or present tense?  The two feel different.  I wrote Ever in present tense, because past would have suggested something about the book’s outcome.  Present tense sometimes gives a book a feeling of immediacy, as if events are happening this week.

Debz, you can analyze your voice according to all these elements and change it.  Experiment!  Alter sentence length, word choice, and so on.  Fool around even with the paragraph that seems right.  Maybe if you revise it, the rest will fall into place.

Also, I hope you haven’t stopped writing until the segment is right.  You may wind up cutting this part.  Or something you write later may show you what you need to do.  The whole may guide the pieces.

F, I think it’s fine to change voices from book to book, and I don’t see it as a problem if a reader doesn’t recognize an author’s voice.  The reader is likely to be interested in the variation.  My fairytale voice in some of my books is absent from others.  Ever isn’t precisely written fairytale style.  Dave at Night certainly isn’t, and neither is The Wish or Writing Magic or the blog.

Taste varies when it comes to voice.  I don’t tolerate extra words well, but some people may not mind.  If you like spare, graceful prose, William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style is worth reading.  Let me change that, it’s a book you should read if you haven’t already.  If you’re in high school heading for college, you may need it when you get there.

Last of all, there’s muddled voice, which accompanies errors in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation.  A reader can’t sort out the voice from the mistakes.  Becoming best friends with a book of English usage will help.  I’ve recommended Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I before, and this is a fine occasion to recommend it again.

The prompt is to take a page from the beginning of one of your stories, the beginning because that’s where voice is established.  Rewrite the page three or four or more times, trying different sentence lengths, different vocabulary.  Fool around.  This is only an experiment.  Try writing a paragraph entirely in exclamations.  Write another as if someone were screaming it, do you hear me?  Another as if all your characters were on a stage, exaggerating everything.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Dreaded Mary Sue

Before all your comments and the links I read fade from my memory, I’m going to jump ahead to Kara’s question last week, How do you avoid writing Mary Sue’s?  Later, Kara also wrote, By “Mary Sue”, I mean a character that’s perfect in every single way.

F asked, And, adding to that – how do you make your character ‘human’? Imperfect, with flaws, etc. I mean, I really don’t want to just insert a flaw for the heck of it, but that’s what I’ve done. That, or made the MC similar to me…and that’s not good. Have you ever had that problem? The character being too similar to yourself?  Further on, F added, It’s the author basically writing herself/himself into the role, or rather, a glorified version of themselves. I’m scared that most of my characters are just extensions of various parts of me that I wrote unconsciously, and I don’t want that! I want original, UNRELATABLE characters.

And later on Rose wrote, …I’m also interested in a “how to” on making characters relatable-to.

I had the uncomfortable feeling as I read the definitions that Ella of Ella Enchanted might be a Mary Sue.  She’s beautiful and everybody who’s good loves her.  Some people have a talent for picking up languages, but Ella is almost magical at it.

Then there’s Aza in Fairest.  Although she’s ugly she can out-sing Maria Callas.

For Ella Enchanted more than any of my other books I drew on books I’d loved, and I suppose some of them had main characters with Mary Sue qualities.  For example, Anne, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, which I reread a thousand times when I was little, has a tragic back story.  People are constantly finding something special in her, particularly when they look in her enormous green eyes.  And, as she grows older, she becomes stunningly gorgeous.  Put this way, she seems a total Mary Sue.  But Anne is engaging.  As a child she talks too much and uses ridiculously big words.  She has a temper, holds a grudge, and is immovably stubborn.

If you’re writing a sympathetic main character it may be impossible to avoid all Mary Sue or Gary Stu-ishness.  For instance, if Warren is likable, other characters are going to like him.  In fact, you may have to show him being liked to convince the reader that he is appealing.  However, some may not take to him, and here is a chance to avoid the Gary Stu.  You can make a person who doesn’t like him sympathetic too, thus showing that not everybody who fails to fall for Warren is rotten.

As for beauty, perfection is probably not as attractive as mild imperfection.  Your main character can have a weak chin or over-sized ears.  When I wrote Aza I made her physically unattractive but I didn’t give her terrible weeping eczema or brown and crooked teeth, which might make the reader recoil rather than slip inside her. 

Oops!  My advice is sounding formulaic, so I’ll mention a memoir I read some years ago called Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy (high school and up).  The author had a kind of cancer as a child that eroded her jaw.  She writes about her reconstructive surgery, the degeneration of the surgery, her feelings about being disturbing to look at.  The narrator’s voice is engaging.  I was certainly on her side on the page, but I was forced to wonder how I would respond to her in person.  I recommend this book.  The writing is excellent and there’s lots to think about.

If I remember right, some of the power of Autobiography of a Face comes from the author’s suffering.  An ingredient in the Mary Sue problem may be loving a main character too much to let her get hurt.  We know Mary Sue has to be challenged or there will be no story, so we make something bad happen.  But because we don’t want her to feel pain, we give her an ability that enables her to overcome the misfortune, or we bring in some other plot development to mitigate her misery.  Then we recognize that the bad thing fell flat.  We escalate the next difficulty and make what ensues dreadful in an oversized way.  Afterward, we have to save her again, which lands us in a cycle of rising misery that may even become comical.

Scaling back is probably the answer.  Say Don is actually a superhero.  He’s inhumanly strong.  This is okay if he’s also shy.  Or impulsive.  Suppose he’s not good at sizing up situations and keeps rescuing people who are doing fine, and suppose some of these people are friends or schoolmates.  Resist the impulse to make him so adorable they immediately forget he crashed through a window to save them from a tiger that actually was a dog.  Let one of them tell him an unpleasant truth about himself.  He may be strong and kindhearted, but he’s also a busybody.  Let him feel hurt, and let the hurt linger.  Let him not learn from it immediately.  Have him repeat the same mistake a few times.

The small things make a reader identify.  Imagine that Valerie’s mission is to achieve world peace and she actually succeeds.  The reader will share her triumph only if he sees the failures that precede success.  Show her fussing over the conference room before the big meeting and yelling at an assistant.  One of the world leaders is a chain smoker.  Valerie thinks smoking is a vile habit.  She takes the ashtray out of the conference room then brings it back and repeats this a couple of times.  She carries in a fan, then worries the fan will offend the smoker.  She places his chair at a distance from everyone else’s and worries again.  The reader fears that a cigarette and Valerie’s attitude may cause World War III, and he invests in the outcome.  His caring comes partly from the big ideas, the important goal, but largely from the tiny moments.

As for characters who are too much like you – I don’t see this as a problem.  You should mine yourself for character traits, in my opinion, not an idealized you but the real one.  And don’t let modesty make you worse than you really are, either.  You are the person you know best, the one you experience directly.  Why eliminate your most available source?  Ask yourself what makes you likable and what gets you into trouble.  It doesn’t matter if others disagree with your assessment.  You’re looking for material, not an accurate psychological profile.

Wilma in The Wish is more like me than any of my other main characters, particularly in her need to be liked.  Near the end she pretty much begs three popular girls to like her.  All my characters when they’re funny have my sense of humor.  How could I write humor that wasn’t my own?  Or any emotion, now that I think of it.

And as for entirely original characters, I don’t think they’re possible.  It’s like when I used to paint I’d sometimes wish for a new color.  Some birds can see a color we can’t, and aliens may think in ways that are entirely foreign, but if they’re entirely foreign no human writer can write them.

However, we can write characters that surprise the reader.  Suppose Merry Lou’s train has hit another train.  She’s trapped in a sleeper compartment with another passenger who’s severely injured.  Alas, she doesn’t have superhuman strength and the sight of blood makes her queasy.  What can she do?

Naturally, I would start by making a list.  I’d also think about what’s available to her in the compartment and within reach outside the train window.  I’d wonder how I might respond in such an emergency and how people I know might respond.  As I considered the scene I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mary Sue may fail or may only partially succeed.  She may be totally useless in this crisis.  The passenger may die and then she’ll have to deal with that.  Afterward, another passenger can ask her why the heck she didn’t use her cell phone, and she can realize she forgot she had it.  Or maybe she has an iPhone and surfs the net for first-aid tips, wasting precious minutes while the passenger loses consciousness.  Or maybe she pulls off a rescue at the last moment.

Young adult writer Kimberly Willis Holt is a master at characterization.  I particularly remember When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (middle school and up), which is well worth reading and studying.  Wicked (high school and up) by Gregory Maguire shakes and rattles with surprising characters.  In Doodlebug (upper elementary and up)  by Karen Romano Young, which just came out, the main character Doreen is a delight –  fresh, unique – and the reader fuses with her.  Some of the fusion comes from the drawings but more comes from the level of intimacy the author draws us into.  This is another one to study.

Also, I suggest you read outside your comfort zone occasionally.  I confess that I don’t seek out even good books I’m not likely to enjoy, but sometimes I have to read them, and often they help my writing.

Wow, this has been a long post!  Try the situation above, Merry Lou stuck in a train, as a prompt, and here’s another one:

This time Merry Lou has gotten into warrior school, scoring higher on her entrance exam than any other candidate in the school’s history.  She’s gorgeous.  Everybody loves her.  She can read thoughts.  Her reflexes are faster than Superman’s.  Now make her go to her first class and do everything wrong and totally embarrass herself.

Have fun and save what you write!

Like me, like me not

April 29, 2010 Gray wrote, I’m writing a medieval fantasy story with a large cast. I have this fear of making my main characters unlikable and completely outshined by my supporting characters.  I’ve found this restricts me from creating lots of lovable characters that suck a reader into the story.  How do you balance your characters’ “lovableness?”

Sounds like the problem may mostly be making your main characters lovable, a problem I share.  According to my editors’ comments after reading the manuscripts of all three of these, Fairest, Ever, and Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, I failed to create sympathetic heroines .  Before I revised, I asked the editors to point out the places where the characters seemed unappealing because I couldn’t tell.

I vaguely remember what the difficulty was in Ever, and it went something like this: Kezi believes she has only a month to live.  She brought her impending death down on herself by an act of extraordinary kindness, a perfect case of the expression, Let no good deed go unpunished.  Olus loves her and wants to help her.  She appreciates this, but she doesn’t know him well and she’s a tad angry, a little absorbed in her approaching demise.  When she gets mad at him it’s because he’s the only person around.  I expected this to be clear, but it wasn’t.  The editor found her ungrateful, so in revision I softened her.  The book works now and didn’t work then, and I always wanted the reader to love Kezi, but I may have sacrificed a little complexity.

In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, Gwendolyn, my main character, is living with the fairies.  If something bad happened to a fairy, she thought about the consequences for herself rather than about the poor fairy.  I did this without realizing because the consequences for Gwendolyn were going to move the story forward, but, alas, she came off as selfish.

You might want to keep these two questions in mind as you write your main character:  Are his feelings understandable?  Is he reacting in a caring way to others?

It’s a balancing act, as writing so often is.  We’re in our main characters’ heads more than we’re in the minds of lesser characters, even if we’re writing in omniscient third person.  We don’t want a paragon for a main, or the reader won’t identify.  And we don’t want a main whose interior monologue is mean, or the reader won’t identify.  We can’t really reflect life, because if a mind-reading device were ever invented, most people would be unsympathetic, at least sometimes.  I certainly have unacceptable thoughts and feelings on occasion that I keep to myself.

So how to achieve likability?

If Holly, your main character, is thinking mean thoughts you may want to make her aware of this and self-critical.  I hate men who wear tee shirts with suit jackets, Holly thinks.  It’s so pretentious.  The reader begins to dislike her until her next thought, which is, How can I hate a whole class of people without knowing them?  The reader starts forgiving her.

Or Holly can think something horrible and do something nice.  She hates these tee-shirt-jacket guys, but when one of them asks her for directions, she helps him to his destination, going way out of her way to do so.  The reader notices.

Your main character can be grateful when life is going well, even temporarily.  Holly appreciates.  The air smells like earth after rain.  The sunset is the color of her favorite scarf.  She thinks how lucky she is.  The reader is happy to be in her company.  She doesn’t think, I suppose this is just the beginning of another drought.  Good things never last, and a sunset that beautiful means something bad is about to happen.  Ugh!  Let me out of this character’s head.

You can think of real people you like and what you like about them and insert their qualities into your main characters.   Alice is completely dependable.  Zelda thinks the best of everyone.  Barry has the most astonishing insights.  And so on.  There are many ways for people and characters to please us.

It may be more difficult to show your main’s good sides than a secondary character’s.  For example, if Holly tells Barry about a problem and he gets it instantly and shows it to Holly in a new way, she can think, How perceptive he is, and the reader will like Barry better – and Holly for noticing.  But she can’t advise Barry about his problem and then think, How perceptive I am, without coming off as boastful and unlikable.

Not that a main character always has to be likable.  For example, the main character, Titus, in M. T. Anderson’s young-adult novel Feed (middle school and up, I’d guess) is not likable, not to me anyway.  I pitied him, felt for his limited life, and wished futilely that his world would change – and couldn’t put the book down.  He’s not even interesting; he’s utterly shallow, which may be the point of the book.  In this terrible world, no one can rise above circumstance to develop depth.

The characters in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking (high school and up) are not admirable, but I laughed my way to the end.  And is Hamlet likable?  I’m not sure.  He’s terrible to Ophelia and also to her father, Polonius, and yet we feel for him.  Few people walk out in the middle of the play.

As for secondary characters, go ahead and make them lovable, as many as you like, in my opinion.  You may need bad characters for tension, but you can still populate your pages with charmers.  In Ella Enchanted, Mandy is a delight, and her delightfulness doesn’t lessen Ella’s appeal.  Adorable secondary characters may even help your main be more adorable himself.  In life we sometimes judge people by their friends.  I’ve doubted people who seemed nice but whose friends made me uncomfortable.  You may have had the same experience.  And I may trust someone more if I like her friends.  Besides, it can be enjoyable to travel through a book in pleasant company – not always possible; it depends on the story.

Here are three prompts:

•    Your main character Yvette is popular.  She’s with several of her friends at a school function.  An odd, unpopular boy is there, too, and Yvette goes out of her way to be cruel to him.  Write the scene and make Yvette sympathetic even while she’s behaving badly.

•    Four friends are hiking together.  Make each one likable in a different way.

•    Same friends, same hike.  They run out of trail mix.  One sprains an ankle.  Rain starts to fall.  Camp is still three miles off.  Make them all deteriorate into annoying people.  Create a crisis and bring them back to likable.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Brain Jumping

On April 25, 2010, Mya wrote,

...how do you change viewpoints in a story without making it confusing? I know you did it in Ever, and I have a story that goes the same way, but it’s not working out.

In Writing Magic I define the various points of view (POV), and there are many other sources as well.  Also, my post of October 21st, 2009, is related to this one.

When I wrote the first draft of Ever I wrote it in third-person omniscient.  The effect, alas, was that the reader couldn’t feel close to anyone.  Third-person omniscient doesn’t have to work out that way; I just couldn’t get it right in this case.  Then I tried first person from Kezi’s POV, put she isn’t present for many plot developments.  If I’d stuck with just her, the reader would have been unaware of them either, which led me to the alternating narration.

If you and I enter the same party or walk into the same store or even examine the same pair of slacks, our attention will be drawn to different things.  With the slacks, you may be looking for quality; I may be a complete sucker for black-and-white checks (actually, I am) and not care about anything else.

Same with characters.  When you switch from one first-person POV to another, you take on the world view of each character.  If Willis is a cynic examining slacks, he may be looking for quality, but he’ll be expecting to find a flaw.  When you switch over to Allie, who’s easily pleased, she falls in love with seven pairs of slacks in seven seconds.  In writing the scene, you need to reflect their different thoughts and feelings in their separate narrations.

Their voices on the page need to differ too.  In Ever, the male character, Olus, is educated, and Kezi doesn’t know how to read.  The vocabulary in his chapters is harder, because he knows more words.

In the example of Willis and Allie, here’s Willis:  I turn the pants inside out, frowning, then erase the frown because Allie is watching and she likes to tease me, but it’s an effort to keep my forehead flat.  No lining, naturally.  What do you expect for eighty-nine dollars?  Especially when the sweat-shop laborer probably earned eighty-nine cents, if she was lucky.

This could be Allie: Wow!  I love this store.  Listen to the music!  Great beat.  Slacks, slacks, slacks.  OMG.  It’s Slacks City in here.  The buyer must be a genius.

You have vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional reactions, and thought content as your tools for creating distinctive voices.  And maybe more elements I haven’t thought of.  Please weigh in with comments.

An interesting example of multiple POVs is Bat 6 by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is about a girl’s baseball team, and there are twenty-one – count them! – first-person POV characters.  It’s a fascinating book that can be read by middle-grade readers and up.  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is a tour de force of multiple POVs.  I read enough to know what an accomplishment it is, but I didn’t stick with it.  This one would be for high school and above.

If you read these books, notice the devices the authors use to create unique voices.  I remember from The Poisonwood Bible that one of the main characters is a master of palindromes.  How original!

Shifting POV makes storytelling more complicated.  Possibly my biggest problem as a writer is that I tend to over-complicate.  I’m always spinning ideas on top of other ideas, and the task of getting through a book becomes much harder.  Of course, layered, complex stories are good.  So can be simple, direct ones.  I’m thinking of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, both for high-school level and above.  The point is that you should consider your reasons for multiple viewpoints. 

Here are some occasions when it may be worth the work.  These are just what I can think of.  I’d welcome more ideas.

1.    It’s fine and brave to try something new.  If you’ve never written from more than one point of view and you want to see how it goes, that’s an excellent reason all by itself.

2.    You can’t tell your story in the first person because your main character isn’t present for extended events that the reader needs to know about.  I say extended because short events can be communicated by phone, email, text messages, even a magic book, as I used in Ella Enchanted.

3.    Your story belongs to two or more characters more or less equally, and you don’t want to jump within a scene from one character’s head to another, which is what you’d have to do if you wrote in omniscient third person.

4.    Your main characters are distant from one another in time or place or culture.

5.    Your main character is an unreliable narrator, and you want another voice for balance and objectivity.

6.    Truth is elusive in your story.  You want the reader to piece it together by combining points of view.  This approach is probably too sophisticated for any but young adult (and adult) readers.

7.    Again, truth is elusive.  You are going to go over the same events repeatedly from multiple points of view.  Your reader will figure out what really happened.  This also may be only for older readers.  The classic Japanese movie Rashomon (high school and above again) is a mystery told this way.

In numbers two through four above, you might also write in omniscient third person, a perspective I love and find difficult to pull off.  An omniscient narrator provides a consistent voice, but this POV can distance you and the reader from your main characters, since the narrator is on the outside.  Or a cacophony of thoughts and feelings can slow your story down to a glacial pace.

Here are two prompts:

•    Dream up five characters on an urban commuter train.  Write a page from the POV of each of them.  Reveal why they’re on the train, what’s awaiting them at the end, the issue that’s uppermost in their minds.  Some calamity happens: the train hits a tree or runs somebody over or a passenger becomes ill – whatever.  Write what ensues from the POV of each of them, a page for each.  You can either advance the story with each shift of POV or retell the same events.  If you need to, go back and revise any of your first pages to fit what follows.

•    Tell a story from the points of view of the pets in a household, more than one species.  How would a dog think?  A cat?  A fish?  Turtle?  Parrot?  There is a long tradition of storytelling through animal voices.  One of my favorites when I was little was Black Beauty, which I reread not too long ago and still enjoyed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Death and Dying

On April 16, 2010, Ezmirelda wrote, How do you kill a character you’ve become attached to? If the plot needs for a certain character to die how do you do it? Have you ever done it before?

I’ve killed characters, but not many.  The mother dies early on in Ella Enchanted and in The Princess Test, and Dave’s father dies at the beginning of Dave at Night.  A few characters bite the dust in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but I won’t say which ones for those who haven’t read the book.  I’ve even knocked off a few fairies, tra la, in the Disney Fairies series.

Getting very serious – briefly – people I love have died, real people.  I’m sure many of you have lost loved ones too.  My father died when I was thirty-eight, my mother when I was thirty-nine.  Their deaths were a long time ago; I’m sixty-two now.  But I still miss them and think of them often.  A situation arises, and I imagine what my father would make of it.  In a group of people, it often seems to me I’m observing through my mother’s eyes.  Sometimes I picture their astonishment at the technological miracles that have come along since their deaths.  The frustration of course is that I can guess what they might say and do; I make them characters in my internal narrative, but I can never be sure if I’m correct.  Their absence in flesh and blood will remain sad forever.

If you’re feeling pain at the prospect of killing a character you love, I hope you’ll take comfort.  When characters die, they’re not fully dead.  I – or you – can bring the dead back to life in imagination.  I can make up a new flashback or write out future scenes as if the character hadn’t died.  Take Ella’s mother, for example, I could write her first meeting with Ella’s father, Sir Peter.  Maybe she’s heard rumors about him.  People say he’s dangerous, so she’s curious.  Before the ball where he is to be, she dresses with particular care, to Mandy’s dismay.  They dance, and she finds the courage to flirt.  She tells him about her day, her family, secrets she’s kept for years.  His eyes never leave her face.  He smiles and compliments her.  She hasn’t lost her sense of humor, so she tells herself that this is ridiculous and happening too quickly.  Alarms are going off, but she’s taken in anyway.  If I like, I can write what she says and how he answers.

Or I can jump ahead and bring the mother back for Ella’s wedding.  The reader can see her joy at her daughter happiness.  And so on.

You honor your beloved dead character by making the reader love him too.  Don’t hold back on giving him qualities you adore, and go easy on the faults.  In Dave at Night, I made Dave’s father pretty saintly, so the reader would feel Dave’s grief.  You can make the character’s faults endearing ones.  Even a villain can be lovable if you make the reader understand the villainy and see where it comes from.  It is fine to do in a character for plot reasons, but make the death resonate if this is an important character.  What we don’t want to do is rush the death to reduce our own pain.  Death is an occasion for wallowing.

You can soothe your pain by keeping the dead character in the reader’s memory.  I hate when an author forgets to do this.  The character dies; the story is sad for ten pages, and then the character is hardly mentioned again.  The consequence is that the living characters who appear to have forgotten the dead one come off as unfeeling.  I’ve seen this in thrillers.  In the first chapter the hero’s wife is killed.  He sets off to avenge her death, which is the whole reason for the book, but the adventure takes over and he stops thinking of her.  And I think, How crummy is this!  If you go the other way and have the character remembered, whoever is doing the remembering becomes more sympathetic, generally a benefit.

The treatment of a character’s death is masterful in A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.  I read it a long time ago, so I just read a plot summary and almost cried.  If you haven’t read the book, it is marvelous.

Guilt often accompanies death.  For example, the sole survivor of a car crash is likely to be burdened with guilt, even if he wasn’t driving.  He may play out in his mind many scenarios that don’t end in an accident.  If I’d done this, said that, he may think, we wouldn’t even have gotten in the car.  If I hadn’t turned on the radio…  If I had stopped her from answering her cell phone…  When you build in guilt, you make the death more believable.

I’ve been a little prescriptive in saying how to treat a death.  Each story is different, and you may need to handle it differently.  You may have a main character who can’t deal with sadness and deliberately buries the feelings.  Disconnection from feeling may keep the dead character in mind as effectively as wallowing.  Oh, we think as we read, he’s being callous because he’s in pain.  Why pain?  Oh, yes, because Juliette died.

Or you may find another approach that works.

Another option, naturally, is not to kill off the character.  You may be able to get rid of him without an actual death.  Sometimes a character has to die.  You feel it as you’re writing.  But sometimes there are other options.  He can move away.  He and your main character can argue irreconcilably and separate forever.  He can live, but he’s in a coma and no one knows if he’ll ever recover.  It’s worth thinking about why you want to kill him and why you’re hesitating.  If you let him live, you can bring him back into the story later on.

Ever, my Mesopotamian fantasy, could have been a tragedy.  Initially, I thought it would be, but I couldn’t go that way, so I steered the story in another direction.  Tragedy was too bleak for my temperament.  Someday this may change.

As for how my characters have died, I’ve used disease, incineration, a fall, disbelief (in the case of one of the Never fairies), battle, even overeating, and maybe I’m leaving out a few.  No murder and no humans killing humans even in battle.  In fact, I haven’t staged any battles between peoples, only people against monsters.  So far I haven’t had the stomach for it, but that may change, too.

I haven’t treated any of the deaths clinically, but there are resources that can help you get inside dying.  For one of my books, won’t say which, I needed to know about poisons and their effects, and I found plenty online.  Just now I googled “how to write a death scene,” and many entries popped up.  I also found a book series called Howdunit, which is for mystery writers but which would probably have other writing uses.

Here are three deadly prompts:

•    Your main character’s best friend died of a rare cancer a year ago.  Write notes about the impact this might be having on her.  Write a scene showing these effects.  Write a session between her and a grief counselor.

•    Think about killing off a character in a story you’re working on.  Consider which character might die and what the consequences would be for your story.  Write notes about this.  Write the death scene.  (You don’t have to really use it.)

•    This may not be to everyone’s taste – this entire post may not be – but for the lighter side of death, write from the vantage point of a happy arch villain who is joyously plotting a murder.  Get inside her, the more gruesome you can be, the better.  Make the character she is planning to kill a great humanitarian whose death will be an enormous loss for all mankind.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Cover Musings

On April 14, 2010, April wrote, On another topic, your aside about how a book cover can make or break a book really intrigues me. Do you have more to say on that topic that could be made into a post? I’d love to hear your opinions about it.

Warning:  This post is a departure, not about writing at all, just covers.

Many of my book covers – Ella Enchanted, The Wish, the latest Dave at Night, Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Ever – were created through photographs.  There was a photo shoot of the girl or, in the case of Two Princesses, girls.  The artist works from the photograph and paints in the background, possibly also from photographs – I don’t know.  In the last few years, my editor at HarperCollins has been emailing me photos of models, and I’ve had a say about which of a small selection of pretty girls will represent my book.  Back to Two Princesses again: my editor sent me photographs and I chose an Addie and a Meryl and then neither model was available, and the artist used two different young women.

The hard cover of Dave at Night was illustrated by Loren Long.  I love it so much that I bought the original art, which now hangs in my living room.  The cover reminds me of the work of early twentieth century painter Thomas Hart Benton.

An interesting tidbit is that initially Loren Long showed a waiter balancing a bottle of some kind of alcohol on a tray.  The people at HarperCollins felt that liquor wasn’t appropriate on a children’s book cover, so Loren Long replaced the bottle with a goblet and a glass.

A new artist was hired for the paperback.  I like that cover too, and it’s effective because Dave takes center stage.  It’s probably a more kid friendly cover, whereas the hard cover appeals to grown-ups.  The logic may have been that adults buy hard cover books, but children may buy a paperback.  Since then, HarperCollins has had a second paperback cover created.

Publishers commission new covers to breathe fresh life into a book that’s been out for a while.  That’s why many of my books have more than one cover.  A few years ago HarperCollins began putting what looks like a gold-leaf band across the top of my novels and the title in gold lettering.  This is a form of branding.  My books become identifiable at a glance.

Picture book covers are created by the illustrator, of course.  I adore the covers of my Betsy Who Cried Wolf and the soon-to-be-released Betsy Red Hoodie.  My Disney Fairies books are illustrated novels with illustrated covers, and the illustrator, David Christiana, is a master.

Lately I’ve been reading complaints by readers that the girl on the cover of this or that novel of mine doesn’t look like the girl I describe.  In Ever, for example, I say Kezi has an olive nose, meaning it’s a little droopy and a little bulbous at the end.   The artist may not have been able to find a pretty model with this kind of nose, or may not have looked.  The chosen model is lovely and vaguely Mediterranean looking.

My complaint about Ella Enchanted is that every time there’s a new cover, Ella’s hair gets lighter.  But I haven’t said so to my publisher.  I wish the cover of Two Princesses of Bamarre showed the dragon Vollys more prominently, but the covers of both books are fine.  Their purpose is to sell books.  My books are – from a marketing standpoint – targeted to girls, eight and up.  The covers show pretty young women, and potential readers presumably (on a subconscious level) want what these beauties seem to have.  Ooh, this sounds crass!

Then, however, if the cover is successful, the girl reads the book and the story takes over.  With luck, it’s a good book.

Take my novel Fairest.  Aza, the Snow White character, is homely at the very least, except for a brief part of the story when she’s beautiful.  If the cover art showed her when she was most unappealing, the book itself would likely have had little appeal.  The cover is clever; she seems beautiful, but most of her face is behind a hand mirror.

I hate when a cover hurts a good book’s chances.  It won’t be read if a child or parent doesn’t want to pick it up.  The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which won a Newbery honor, started its life with an unattractive cover, in my opinion, which was then replaced by another bad one, although the third and latest cover looks excellent to me.  I can’t say who’s to blame for the first two; they may have been just what the author wanted.  I love The Moorchild, but it seems not to be well known, which I blame on the first two covers.  You can see the newest one online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and one of the early ones on Amazon and the other on Barnes & Noble.  I think it’s interesting to look, and you may not agree with me.  After you look I recommend that you read.

A strange cover fad swept through publishing a few years ago.  Somebody got the idea that a cover should feature incomplete people.  One of the covers for my novel The Wish was caught up in the craze, and this particular cover shows a quarter of the main character’s face.  But the moon is very full and very big.

At the beginning of an author’s career she may have little say about cover art.  I’m still not brought in on cover-art discussions, but on the few occasions when I’ve been very unhappy with a cover, HarperCollins has changed it.  For example, the proposed cover of Writing Magic seemed wrong to me.  I thought it made the book appear to be about magic spells rather than about writing.  HarperCollins changed the cover, and now I think it’s perfect.  Of course I had a reason for my opinion.  I didn’t simply say I didn’t like it.

This is just a mini-prompt: Look at the kids’ books on your bookshelf.  How do the covers affect you?  Do they draw you in?  Do you remember your reaction when you saw them for the first time?  Look at new covers in bookstores.  Do you see trends?  What makes you want to pick up a book?  If you can, find out the reaction of someone much older or much younger than you are.  An eight-year old may respond differently than a sixteen-year old to the same book jacket.  Have fun!

Story Hopping

On April 9, 2010, maybeawriter wrote, …what should you do if you have too many ideas, and can’t seem to finish any?

And on July 7, 2010, Alex wrote, My brain runs a lot faster than my hands can type (think race car to horse-and-buggy), and I often change my ideas as I write. I become bored with one idea, get another one, start work on that, and then become bored with the new one. In other words, nothing ever gets done and I have folders overflowing with unfinished work and abandoned stories. I can’t remain true to an idea or story for long, and it’s so annoying! Is there a way to make myself keep working on a story, and stop losing interest in it?

This isn’t one of my problems, but I have a few theories about what may be going on.

You may not have written enough stories to have found one you want to stick with, or you may not have developed the skill to keep yourself happy with a story you’ve started.  The story may not yet live satisfactorily on the page.  I mean satisfactorily for you, no one else.  The solution is to keep writing, new stories, old stories, abandoned stories that you’ve returned to and may abandon again.  You’ll get better and be able to carry a story further, maybe not the very next story, but gradually.

Or the difficulty may be self-criticism masquerading as too many ideas.  The story you’ve begun sours on you.  It’s not going the way you’d hoped.  You suppress the thought that  maybe you’re not much of a writer and leap into something new.  That suppressed doubt is there, though, and needs to be brought out into daylight and then slapped around.  Shut up! you have to tell it.  Story judgment day hasn’t arrived.  I’m just getting started.  I’m exploring this story, and I’m learning how to write (as every writer is, no matter how experienced).  Then soldier on with the original story.

It’s also possible that your story idea isn’t big enough to take you very far.  What interests you may be just one thing, and once you’ve written that, you’re done.  The story isn’t finished, but you don’t know where to go with it, so you hop onto something else. 

Think about whether that something else can fit into the story you dropped.  See if you can meld the two into a larger framework that will accommodate many new ideas.  Suppose, for example, you want to show how one of two sisters always has the upper hand in their relationship.  You write an argument between them, and you prove your point, but it’s just a scene, and you don’t know what to write next, and up pops an idea for a story about the last dinosaur.

Well, what if you put the two ideas next to each other?  One sister finds the dinosaur and the other gets involved somehow too.  You still have the sisters’ problem relationship, but now you also have a dinosaur to broaden the difficulty.  The dinosaur can have its own personality and may prefer one sister to another, for instance.  You’re tootling along with this until it peters out too, and a forest story beckons you.  Can you bring the sisters and the dinosaur into forest?  Maybe this seems like a rambling kind of story, and it may not work in the end, but you’ll still have a longer piece than you usually get.  Then again, it could develop.  Our minds are good at making connections.  While you’re writing the forest part, your subconscious will be putting pieces together.  It remembers a detail from the first scene – a promise the sisters made to each other at the end of their argument – that completes everything.  Or you may think of an even larger story idea to unite the threads.

Here’s another possibility: You’re happily writing when a new idea arrives.  The first story is going well, but the new idea is so shiny and thrilling that you can’t resist it.  If you keep a list of story ideas, as I do, you can jot the idea down including all its wonderful aspects in a paragraph or two, without writing the story itself.  Then return to your first story.  The itch and the tingle are likely to go away because the new idea is satisfied that it won’t be forgotten.  You can do the same thing with your next idea and your next.  The benefit is that you’ll have a long list of great ideas, plus a finished story.

Notes may help, as I’ve written a zillion times on the blog, notes about your new ideas (as I just suggested), about where your old story might go, about how bored you are and how frustrated.  I find complaining in notes enormously satisfying.  Also, in notes you can explore an idea before you start writing to see if you think it’s one you’ll want to stay with.  But don’t use notes to criticize your ideas or deep six them without giving any a spin.  Don’t let notes choke off your creativity.

This may help too:  Imagine an ideal reader who adores your work and can’t wait for the next installment of The Tale of the Lost Dinosaur or whatever.  As you write, think, She’s going to love this.  Concentrate on what she might enjoy next.  And if, in spite of everything, you drop the story, your perfect reader won’t criticize; she’ll simply be eager for your next effort.

Along similar lines, you can talk to a friend about a dying story and see if he has any thoughts that will breathe more life into it.  Sometimes a new perspective will show you your story’s potential.

You might try NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, link here:  http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/hownanoworks.  You commit to writing a 50,000 word novel between November 1st and 30th.  It’s free, and the commitment might keep you going, plus the support of other participants.  If you succeed, it’s a tremendous accomplishment.  If you fail, you get much credit for trying.

I don’t think it ever works to chain yourself to a story you can’t summon any more interest in.  If you’ve reached that point, move on and don’t beat yourself up.

In the end, nothing matters if you keep writing, because eventually – but only if you keep writing – you’ll finish something.  I’m sure of it.  And meanwhile you’re living a writing life, that is, a thoughtful, creative existence loaded with deeper meaning.

To people reading the blog, if you’ve had this problem, please weigh in with how you solved it.  If you’re still going through it, you can commiserate with maybeawriter and Alex.

The prompt is to go back to an old story, at least a month old.  How does it look now?  Do you have a few fresh ideas?   Have you been working on something since that you can combine with it?  Write at least one new page.

You can also use my ideas about the sisters and the last dinosaur and the forest, or parts of them, as a story starter (the last thing someone with too many ideas needs!).  Have fun, and save what you write!