New Dimensions

On February 4, 2010, Jaime wrote, …I really need to learn how to make my characters more dimensional.

I worry about this too.  I know writers – some of you may be among them – who can take their characters with them to pick out gift wrapping paper and know exactly which pattern each character will select.  This is admirable, but I can’t do it.  I can guess for a few of my characters.  Wilma, for example, in The Wish loves dogs, so if there’s gift-wrap with dogs on it, that’s what she’ll choose.  On the other hand, she’s considerate, so she might forego dogs for something the gift recipient would want.

See?  I don’t know for sure.

I’m particularly uncertain about my characters near the beginning of a book when we haven’t been together for very long.  They haven’t gone through many situations yet.  I haven’t seen their reactions or dreamed up reactions for them.  I’m feeling my way.  How will Patrick (invented right now) react to losing the allowance money he’s been saving for a year?  I think about his possible responses, list several, consider their impact on my story, pick one, and keep going.  Later, what he did about the lost money may give me a clue to how he’ll behave when he has an important exam coming up.  I already know that he saved for a year, so he’s a preparer.  But his previous preparation did him no good, so maybe he’ll decide to wing the test.  Or he may do something entirely different, which I discover through notes.

The point is not to feel you’ve failed if you haven’t mined the depths of your characters’ characters right away.

When I was very little,  two or three years old, my mother took me to a university for some kind of intelligence test.  I’m not sure why, but I suspect I wasn’t talking as fluently as my older sister had at the same age.  I think I remember the event because my mother made me promise not to tell my father.  I have a few vivid memories of it.  The examiner, a friendly man, asked me what a puddle was, and I knew but couldn’t find the words to explain – I hadn’t yet learned concavity.  I smiled at him and probably shrugged.  Inside I felt frustrated and foolish.  Afterward, he told my mother (in my presence) that he was concerned at the beginning but then I improved.  I think he wound up saying that I was normal.  On our way home, I remember having the adult and forgiving thought that of course my mother needed me to take the test.  I was new, and she hadn’t figured me out yet.

The same goes for our characters, who are new to us, and it takes a while to get to know them and figure them out.  In Writing Magic, in the chapter called “Character Helper,” there’s a questionnaire that can help you round out your characters.  It asks basic questions about the character and also questions that call for some digging.  Some may never come up in your story.  Your character may be a medieval peasant before pockets or purses or backpacks were invented.  She certainly doesn’t have her own bedroom.  You can answer the question anyway or adapt it to suit your needs.  If she has no backpack, she may still collect things and hide them in a secret place or in a sack that she keeps with her always.

Most often I use the questionnaire, not when I’m thinking up the character in the first place, but later, when I’m in trouble, when the character is as opaque to me as the bottom of a frying pan.  As I answer the questions, traits come to me.  Ah.  Patrick is freaked out by people with loud voices.  He doesn’t like to be asked to explain his actions; he wants to be trusted.  He loves to whistle.  Now I’m getting a better idea of him.

The writer’s best tools for creating layered characters are feelings and thoughts.  Let’s make Patrick a minor character this time.  He’s a friend of our main character, Louisa, and he’s been hurt by another character, physically or emotionally.  How does Louisa feel about this?  Pure sympathy?  Does she cry?  Or chew the inside of her cheek?  Does she tell anyone?  Does she feel the hurt as if it had happened to her?  Does she want to take revenge for her friend?  Or does she see both sides?  Does she guess how Patrick contributed to the hurt?  Does she want him to learn a lesson?  Does she want to be the person to explain the lesson?

If you show Louisa’s thoughts and feelings she’ll become more real to you and the reader.  Her thoughts and feelings may not be saintly even if she’s a good person.  She may be prone to envy or to criticize or to deny unwelcome emotions.  If her reactions are genuine, the reader is likely to find himself in her.  Then the reader will collaborate with you in endowing her with complexity.

You can try throwing your main character into a new setting or introducing a new character.  Stirring things up may bring out aspects of your character that you haven’t seen before.  Give Louisa a peculiar new teacher.  Send her on a camping trip.

Here are a couple of character-development prompts.  To do them, use a character in a story you’re working on or invent a new character.

  •  Your main character has been insulted in any way you choose by someone he (or she) thinks is on his side, and the insult comes out of the blue.  What does he feel?  How does he express the feeling?  What does he think?  Does he keep his thoughts to himself?  How does he interact with the person who delivered the insult?
  • Your main character is traveling alone for the first time.  Make up the circumstances that occasion the trip.  How does she (or he) get ready?  What are her thoughts and feelings about it?
  • Take Patrick’s problem.  Your main character has lost (through carelessness or theft or whatever you like) his stash of cash.  What does he do?  How does he think and feel?
Have fun!  Save what you wrote.

Artistic Freedom

On February 4, 2010, April asked, Have you ever had an idea for a story that you love (and love its characters) but were too embarrassed to tell it? Perhaps something that’s terribly violent, or overly mushy, or focuses on a topic that you find fascinating but you’re afraid of being made fun of for it.


If you have, what did you do? Leave it? Change it? Tell it anyway?


I have a story that’s been rolling around in my brain for about 10 years that I *love* but have never put down on paper. It’s really romantic, and I’m afraid of what my friends and family would think if I let them read it. (Hearing all the bashing of the “Twilight” series only intensifies my embarrassment.)

Then, on February 17, April added this related question:  On a different note, I have another question—though it ties into my “embarrassed” question I asked the other week: What if you want to write a story where the main characters have a belief (moral, ethic, religious… whatever) that is very different than yours? I’m a Christian, and I worry about the reaction I’d get, both from Christians and non-Christians, if I wrote a story where the main characters clearly do NOT believe what I do, and that in their story that’s fine (vs. by the end they’ve been “fixed” to believe what I do). I hope that question makes sense.

Taking the first question first, a possible reason for not telling a story you want to tell is if telling it will hurt someone.  Years ago, I was asked to contribute to an anthology of memoir pieces about grandmothers.  Since my father was an orphan (family history that I fictionalized in Dave at Night), I had only one grandmother, and I hated her.  She had died years before, but my uncle was still alive, and I didn’t want to upset or embarrass him, so I talked to him about the project.  He said I could go ahead.

If he’d preferred I not write the story I wouldn’t have, at least not during his lifetime.  However, I’m not sure I would always feel bound by this self-imposed restriction.  If there were a story I felt I had to tell, that was very important to me, I might warn the person who might be hurt and tell it anyway.  Or, if it were going to be published in something the person would be unlikely to see, I might take the craven course and say nothing.

As for romance writing, there is romance in most of my books.  In Ella Enchanted and Ever, love is a major thread.  In literature and life, romance is an eternal theme.  At every stage in life, loving and being loved are huge.  So I think there is no shame in writing romance.  I have read and enjoyed romance novels, and if you do it well, you will be contributing to the genre.

As for shame, I can think of two possibilities, and you can do both.  Of course I don’t know your friends and family, but you can tell them that a romance is what you want to write next and see what happens.  The response may be different from what you expect, and it is likely to vary from person to person.  If you are made to feel bad you might reveal that you are a little bit fragile on the subject and you would like support and not ridicule or criticism.

And – or – you can adopt a pseudonym.  If you like, you can inhabit the pseudonym.  Ivorie Moonstar is writing this story, not April, and Ivorie is totally into romance, the romancier the better.  You can keep Ivorie your secret or you can share her.

The thing about writing is that it should always be about the writing.  Short of violating our core beliefs – you won’t tie up your children to make time to write, and you won’t rob a bank so you can quit your day job to write – we writers need to carve out intellectual and emotional space.  It may be that not writing the romance is clotting up your other writing.  Once it’s written, you may find a surge of creativity that takes you to new and surprising places.

So I say, go for it.

Now for the second question, which is also about artistic freedom.  Whenever we can pull it off, it is great, marvelous, and magnificent to invent complex characters with their own interior lives and even their own belief systems and to not judge them.  If they come to life and play out their conflicts on the page, the writer is doing good work.  I don’t always achieve this.  I’m not sure I ever do in a full way, but I value it.  I’m aiming for it.

Take Peter Pan, for example.  In the original novel by James M. Barrie, and not in any other version of the story that I know of, Peter, in addition to being brave and good-hearted, is vain, despotic, and entirely self-centered.  Barrie lets him be and still makes the reader love him.  It’s quite a feat.

One of my favorite characters that I’ve written is Vollys, the dragon in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.  She’s evil, but she’s also complicated and lonely.  Some readers wish I had made her become good in the course of the story, but if I had, I would have taken away her essence, and she would have diminished.

There’s also Wilma, the main character in The Wish, who wants desperately to be popular, not a particularly worthy or self-respecting goal.  But it is what she craves, and I decided to go with that.  She gets reformed a degree or two by the end of the book, but there’s no one-eighty.  She’s still a girl who is over-eager to be liked.  One of Wilma’s friends is a supremely judgmental character, who isn’t all bad.  I don’t change her.

On the other hand, I haven’t so far managed to have humans kill other humans in any of my books.  I may someday.  I have nothing against murder in books or movies, but I haven’t been able to commit it.

Writing for me is a largely subconscious process.  My perspective creeps in no matter what I do.  Inevitably everyone’s does.  If you can develop characters who are unlike you, whose actions may be unpalatable to you, and if you can treat them with sympathy, this is a tribute to the largeness of your nature.

But, you may be thinking, if you write compassionately about a bully, for example, then real bullies may feel even freer to behave badly.  I don’t think so.  A real bully who is a complex person (and a reader) is likely to react in any of the ways people do:  be unaffected, understand something about himself or herself, experience empathy, sympathize with the victim, laugh, cry, stop reading.

I suppose it is possible to write something that will horrify you.  You don’t have to publish it or show it to anyone.  You can revise it, tame it, and bring it back as something that pleases you.

So I say again, go for it.

If you are an adult writing for children – unless you’re aiming for the older end of young adult fiction – you do have to hold back, not so much in subject matter but in the way you handle whatever subject matter you choose.  I don’t generally find this restrictive because I’m naturally drawn to writing for kids.  If you do feel as if you’re in a straightjacket, then children’s literature may not be for you.  Or you may need another outlet as well.  Poetry does that for me.  I’ve written poems that don’t work for kids, that they wouldn’t be interested in, but that satisfy me.

April, I’m grateful for your question.  This is such an important topic.  Alas, no prompt is coming to me, except this general one:  Set your imaginations free.  Write what calls out to you, and save whatever it is.  And have fun!

When a Word

On February 3, 2010 Inkquisitive wrote, I noticed that in Ella Enchanted your characters’ vocabulary isn’t as flowery as what we might find in, say, Shakespeare. I am writing a book for young readers and it is set in a small, fictional kingdom. I tend to think of kingdoms as “way back when” because the monarchy system has fallen out of vogue. So I see my book as a (sort of) period piece and I want the vernacular to reflect that and be believable. However, if this is really going to be a kids’ book, how do I get that “not this day and age” feel without going over the kiddos’ heads? How did you handle this/what was your rationale in Ella?

I used the word wench in Ella Enchanted and Fairest, but I’ve abandoned it, possibly because one of my teachers didn’t like it, possibly because it has a bit of a fake Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe feel to it.  She didn’t like lass either, felt it sounded Scottish.  Lately I’ve substituted girl.  Simple.  Timeless.

Timeless is what I’m going for in my fantasies.  Nobody is going to say LOL or even laugh out loud, dude.  Even the phrase going for sounds too modern in my mind’s ear, although the expression may have been around in Chaucer’s day.

Timeless doesn’t mean formal.  I’m copacetic (not a word I would use in a fantasy fairy tale) with short sentences and even sentence fragments.  I want my characters to feel real, to have thoughts that we can understand today, although most people in actual distant history may not have had inner lives much like ours.  I was particularly aware of this when I wrote Ever, which is set in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia.  I did a fair amount of research, and the lives of people then were vastly different from ours.  If you or I could time travel back then and were imbued with the language, we would still be likely to misunderstand events, actions, meaning, intention at every turn.  Mesopotamian medicine, for example, makes clear that ancient Mesopotamians lacked a modern notion of causality.  On the other hand, they were marvelous mathematicians.

Now take a deep breath and prepare to enter the wonderful world of word geeks.  Some of you may already live here.  I invite all of you to pitch a tent.

When a word seems too modern for a middle ages sort of world, I look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which is expensive but which might be in your local library.  The OED is the authority on etymology, the history of a word.  It provides the first-known written appearance of the word and a selection of later appearances – for each meaning of the word.  I just looked up the word blue and was astonished at all the subtleties of meaning.  Blue as a color first showed up in writing in 1300.  Blue in the sense of feeling unhappy, to my surprise, goes all the way back to 1550.

In an age of general illiteracy, a word may have been used long before anyone wrote it down.  Today, on the other hand, a word could appear in print before anyone spoke it.

I cannot find a really old word for funny.  Ha-ha funny (as opposed to peculiar funny) dates from 1756.  The earliest synonyms for funny began to be used in the sixteenth century, which isn’t yesterday but isn’t medieval either.  I’m sure people had senses of humor then, but whatever they called it isn’t in use anymore, or I missed it.  Of course I use the word funny, and any of the others, because they don’t ring new in my ears.

The OED has come out with a thesaurus, which I’m salivating over, but it’s not in CD form yet.  It’s in two huge volumes, and I’d guess the print is as tiny as bacteria.

If you don’t have easy access to the OED, your ordinary paper dictionary won’t have space for etymology, but there are pretty good free online alternatives.  This site is very good:  http://dictionary.reference.com/.  Once you’re there, ignore the ad and type in the word you’re interested in and you’ll get to a new screen with the definitions.  Below them you’ll find word origins for various meanings of the word.  There’s also this online etymology dictionary:  http://www.etymonline.com/, which doesn’t have every word but is still helpful.

Please don’t think I check the age of every word I use.  I only look when a word feels too recent.  Sometimes I’m right.  Often I’m wrong and astonished.

As far as reading level goes, I don’t worry much about that.  We are doing kids a kindness when we introduce unfamiliar words.  As a child my vocabulary grew through reading (still does).  If I came across a word I didn’t know, I asked a parent or looked it up or, most often, guessed at the meaning through context.  By the time I’d seem a hard word several times in different books I’d sussed out a working meaning.

Of course you don’t want your writing to be impenetrable, so don’t pack your sentences with abstruse, recondite, cryptic, esoteric morphemes!  (I had to go to the dictionary for some of those.)  Anyway, the excitement in a story is more important than vocabulary level.  If your story has hooked your reader, he will persevere even if you lob a few morphemes his way.  Ella Enchanted was recommended as a book for reluctant readers despite its sometimes tough vocabulary.

You also don’t want to throw in anachronistic (not of the time) technology.  Obviously no cell phones in the middle ages.  Messengers undoubtedly, but what else?  For example, when did people start to use carrier pigeons?  I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure I could find out online in a minute or two.

There are daily-life books that cover just about every period.  For my mystery novel, I primarily used three sources:  Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies;  Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman; Castle by David Macaulay, a kids’ book and the best of the three in its limited topic, the construction and architecture of a thirteenth century castle.  All of these are fine (if not fascinating) for readers from upper elementary on up.  Anything I couldn’t find in my books I supplemented with online searches.  And, since I was writing fantasy and not historical fiction, I felt free to invent when I couldn’t discover a fact or when the fact didn’t please me or suit the story.  Still, it is quite wonderful to have enough of a sense of a long-ago place to be able to imagine dressing for the day, walking down a street, entering a house, shopping at a market.

Here’s a prompt:

Without much research, maybe just online sources, write a scene at a meal that includes family and guests.  Include description and dialogue.  The topic of conversation can be love or politics or duty of a child to a parent or anything else.  Write a scene from two or more of the choices below.  You can introduce fantasy elements, but set the scene during these time periods:

• pre-history or the very beginning of written history;

• ancient Egypt;

• a non-Western society before Europeans arrive;

• before the sixteenth century;

• during the late nineteenth century;

• the 1950s;

• today.

Notice how your language changes as you time travel.  Have fun, and save what you write!

Perfection

On February 3, 2010, Horsey at Heart wrote, ….I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it’s only a rough draft. It’s annoying, but I can’t seem to stop feeling that way.

This isn’t a question, but I think perfection is a worthy topic.  Thank you, Horsey at Heart.

Seems to me there are people at each of two ends of a spectrum with everybody else somewhere in the middle.  Some believe that whatever they write is wonderful, no revision needed.  This may be a happy state to live in – unless it covers oceans of unexplored self-doubt – but self-satisfaction rarely produces fine work.

Then there are the tormented writers who are never pleased with their writing.  Their critical selves are always powered up, hovering at the elbows of their creative selves, questioning every word choice, reviling every plot decision.  These poor people have a terrible time producing any quantity of work and then showing it to anyone, much less an editor.

The rest of us are too hard on ourselves sometimes, but we can also applaud when we pull off something difficult.  The truth, which I talk about in Writing Magic and have probably mentioned on the blog as well, is that there is no such thing as a perfect book.  It is as impossible to write a perfect book as it is to be a perfect person.

This is a good analogy, because both writing and living are works in progress.  We don’t throw up our hands and stop trying to be decent people just because we know we can’t be perfect ones.  Living and writing require self-criticism, but in both bashing ourselves over the head for our mistakes is a bad strategy, and so is endlessly excusing ourselves.

I’m feeling a little preachy, but I’m going to keep going.  Suppose I tend to be a tad judgmental, and sometimes I may hurt the feelings of people I love.  What I might do (if it was really me we were talking about here) is to recognize the situations that inspire me to rush to judgment and to breathe deeply, maybe be silent for a while and consider if I could try a different response and what that new response might be.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble in a few recent books with making my main character likeable, and I’m having exactly that difficulty in the one I’m working on now.  So I’m keeping the issue in mind.  Is Elodie annoying the reader right now? I’m asking myself.

Keeping an issue in mind is different from beating myself up.  I’m not thinking, Darn!  I spoiled her.  I’m only asking and then I’m figuring out how to have her not be irritating.

Some of you have been reading the blog for a while or have read books about writing.  You know yourselves as writers, the terrific things you do automatically and the other things that are a struggle.  Keep the struggle issues in mind as you write, as I do, sort of as a checklist.  You can write them down if that helps you remember.  You can think about them as you write.  But if that chokes off your flow, you can bring them in when you revise.

I was in New York City yesterday, my favorite place to walk.  So I was loping along, thinking of the blog and the topic of perfection, and my mind jumped to the scene I’m writing now, which introduces two hermits.  There have to be hermits in the story, or at this point I think there have to be, and I hadn’t introduced any, so I decided I had to go back and write a hermit scene, but I have pretty good forward momentum going, and I resented backtracking and wanted to rush through the scene.  As I walked I realized I hadn’t shown the reader what the hermits look like, and the scene will be hard to visualize without being able to see them, so I started to think about hermit appearance, which was fun.  I am telling you all this because it’s an example of making your inner critic your collaborator instead of the enemy.

On the other hand, the day before yesterday I looked at some of my favorite of my poems, and I didn’t like a single one.  I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this better?  I was thinking, Yuck!  So I decided it wasn’t a good time to reread my poems.  When I’m feeling hopeless while writing a book, when I’m thinking that it stinks or that I don’t know what I’m doing, I tell myself to shut up and wait till I’m finished.  When a story is in the middle of itself it can go any way in the world.  Judging it then is only detrimental.  And judging in a global way while you’re revising is also detrimental.  But it is useful to think, More dialogue here, or, I can trim this, or Show where everybody is here.

And judging in a global way when you’re all finished is detrimental too.  That’s the time to celebrate.

Here is the mantra:  Specific criticism, good; global criticism, bad.

There are two areas, however, where you want to approach perfection before you show your writing around:  grammar and spelling.  English is tricky, and you may not get absolutely everything right, but try.  Make friends with a usage book.  I use two, Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, although Fowler’s is more British.  And when you look up a word in the dictionary, be sure to read the usage note if there is one.  A great and fun book on grammar and usage is Woe Is I or for kids, Woe Is I, Jr. by Patricia T. O’Conner.

I promised Pambelina to name some writing books I like.  Most of them deal to some degree with the curse of perfectionism.  I think they’re all okay for a middle school audience.  If you’re younger, check with a parent or librarian.  Every one of these books was instrumental in my development as a writer.  My fave is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser.  The others that I love are:  Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, both by Natalie Goldberg; Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in expression but modern in ideas).  For writing poetry, if you’re interested, there are The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.  This last one is for high school level and above.  If you are writing for children, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published is excellent.  When I was starting out, I practically wore out the print with my eyes.

No prompt today, except to write – in a positive way – your personal checklist of aspects of storytelling you would like to keep in mind, which you can add to and subtract from as your writing changes.  Have fun!

Special post

This extra post is to announce an appearance in hopes that some of you  reading this are in Connecticut or thereabouts.  I will be speaking and signing at  on Monday, March 15th at 5:30 in the Johnson Room of the library at Eastern Connecticut State University, 83 Windham Street, Willimantic, CT 06226.  My talk is free and open to the public, and, as a teaser, I’m going to reveal a little-known secret about each of my books!  I would LOVE to see you there! If you come, please be sure to introduce yourself.

Talk, darn it!

January 28, 2010, F posted this question:  …what do you do if you have too LITTLE dialogue?  I sometimes have to force myself to insert dialogue in a scene….  I’ve heard that there shouldn’t be too much non-dialogue in a piece of writing, because that will turn off readers. But in some scenes there just does NOT seem to be place for it!!  Your thoughts?

And the next day, Arya wrote,  …I fear I have the same problem as F.  And if I do have a moment where dialogue comes natural then I write it where almost every time someone says something I explain what they’re doing:  running fingers through their hair, staring out the window, pacing the room, biting their nails, touching someone’s shoulder).  Is this a problem or a good thing?

One reason readers like dialogue, which I discuss in Writing Magic, is that it creates white space on the page, because speech paragraphs are usually shorter than descriptive ones.  A page with just a single paragraph, for example, looks daunting.  You may have seen textbook pages like this.  My reaction is, Whoa!  I don’t know if I can handle this.  But a page with ten paragraphs of mixed dialogue and description looks much friendlier.

You can achieve comforting white space with short paragraphs, a good technique when a character is alone.  But when two or more characters are together, there’s a more important reason for them to talk than mere white space.  It’s relationships.  Put two people together, even briefly, even strangers, and there’s a relationship.

Not all situations lead to dialogue, of course.  I grew up in New York City, where people are smooshed together, often more than they like.  So in the subway and on the street they frequently guard themselves against contact with silence.  But even in crowded New York City, talk erupts surprisingly often.  Once, a woman on the subway, out of the blue, couldn’t keep herself from telling my husband that he has a beautiful nose!  If a subway train gets stuck between stations, riders may complain to one another.  If the delay is prolonged there will certainly be conversation, and sometimes friendships are formed.

Imagine three characters are scaling a wall at night.  The enemy is on the other side, and silence is required.  No dialogue, but lots of thought, and some of it about the other characters.  Take away the enemy, and they will almost certainly talk.  Okay, maybe the task is so hard that they have no breath left over for speech.  Suppose it isn’t that hard.  Suppose it’s a beginner-level wall in a fitness program, but suppose the characters have never met before.  They’re just thrown together for this task.  Still, each has a personality, and they’re unlikely all to be silent types.

Maybe one is the leader.  She’ll likely feel she needs to give some instruction.  One is scared.  Depending on who he is, he may reveal his fear in dialogue or camouflage it in different dialogue.  Or hide it in silent teeth gritting.  And maybe one is the silent type and won’t speak unless the leader checks on him.  They may not be talking much, but they’ll be talking.

Of course it’s up to you.  Don’t let any of them be silent types.  The leader may be naturally friendly.  Another climber may be given to putting herself down out loud, as in, “There’s no way I’m good enough to climb this wall.”  The third may be curious and may have a series of questions for the leader.  Or he may be nosy and be angling for dirt about each of his companions.

In most scenes your characters won’t be strangers, and they’ll have feelings about one another and be connected in various ways.  If you think about their feelings and what each wants from the others, you are likely to find dialogue inevitable.  What a character wants may be a tiny thing.  A character may even just want conversation for its own sake.  He may looking for reassurance that the other person doesn’t dislike him.  He may feel that social convention demands speech and he can’t be silent.  He may not be comfortable with silence.

Near the beginning of the mystery I’m working on now, which is in early stages and has no title yet, several of my characters are on the deck of a boat watching a dramatic sunset.  The dragon, Masteress Meenore, says,

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset,” IT said.
    Evil portents?
    “But rational creatures do not put any faith in auguries.  One can deduce nothing from them, and common sense reminds us that no sunset is the same.”

IT – the dragon – starts talking only to show off ITs intelligence.  What follows is a discussion of magic.  Some characters disagree with IT.  There’s a dispute but no real anger.  These characters are being sociable, passing time on a boat where the opportunities for action are limited.  And they’re debating ideas I want to introduce into the story.

When one person speaks, in fiction and life, another often wants to respond, to agree, disagree, ask for clarification, steer the conversation another way.  If you ask yourself what the other characters think and feel about an initial statement, you can open the dialogue floodgates.

Now for Arya’s question:  Generally it’s good – terrific! – to include movement along with dialogue if you don’t overdo it.  These little acts can reveal character or show where people are physically, and they break up solid dialogue, just as you want to break up solid narrative.  The nail biter and the pacer may be anxious at the moment or anxious as a constant state, and the reader will get that.  The character who touches the shoulder of another person may be showing dominance or reassurance or demonstrating his touchy-feely nature.  My example above would be improved by a little physicality.  This would be better:

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset.”  White smoke rose from ITs nostrils in a wide, lazy spiral.

The reader knows that smoke spirals mean IT’s happy, so information has been revealed.  The other advantage is that I can cut “IT said,” which now takes up unnecessary space.  We don’t want every dialogue paragraph to be accompanied by a gesture, but many can be.  You can always take a few out when you think you’ve gone too far.

Here are two prompts:

The first is to go back to a scene, or more than one, in one of your stories that seems dialogue weak.  Think about the characters in the scene and how they feel toward one another, what they want, what their thoughts are, and what their thoughts might move them to say.  When one character speaks, see what another might say in response.  Put in as much dialogue as you can create.  You can delete the excess later.

The second prompt takes us on a hike through beautiful countryside in a national park.  No danger is looming.  There is no need for the characters to talk, but they do.  Try one or more of these possible groups of hikers.  In each case, limit the number of talking characters to no more than four.  Mix gestures in with the conversation.

•    A group of campers and two counselors.

•    An elder hostel group with a younger tour guide.

•    A family group.  You make up the members.

•    Participants in a program for troubled teenagers and two counselors.

•    Bird watchers.

•    Scientists engaged in finding and tagging wolves.

After you’ve written a page, have one of the characters say something that shocks everyone else.  Then write another page of dialogue.

Have fun and save what you write!

On another subject, several weeks ago Priyanka asked about writing from the perspective of characters much older than she is.  I am weeks from tackling this, but I read an excellent article in yesterday’s (March 2nd) New York Times in the Science section that has bearing on the topic.  Priyanka and anyone else who feels uncertain about inventing older characters may find the article helpful.  The title is “Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism.”  I’m sure you can access it online.

Describing and Thinking Too Much

On January 28, 2010, Wendy the Bard wrote, What about too much description and thought?  Any words on that?

In writing this blog I’ve often thought of the old song “Dem Dry Bones.”  I’m making up the bones to fit writers, but it goes something like, Your finger bones connected to your hand bones, your hand bones connected to your wrist bones, and so on, with a strong beat.  In writing, everything is connected to everything else.  So description and thoughts are connected to point of view (POV) and to voice and to all the other elements that make up a story.

If you’re writing in first-person POV or in a third-person POV that’s not omniscient (all knowing), only the main character’s thoughts can be reported and only what she sees, hears, smells, touches can be described.  Suppose she’s a landscape painter and sees herself as a colorist, she’s going to be alert to the hues wherever she goes.  You will certainly want to emphasize the colors in each setting she enters.  She may be emotionally tuned to colors too, so she might be distressed in certain environments.  She might even like or dislike someone according to the color scheme in his house or his clothes.  She may be too fascinated by the blue tones in the ocher mud caked on the green linoleum kitchen floor to conclude that the floor is dirty.

But she may not be sensitive to sounds.  She may not hear the ticking clock or the teakettle hissing as it approaches a boil.  Despite the hiss, she may jump when the whistle starts.  If there is something auditory you need the reader to know about, you may have to make it deafening, or you may need to have another character mention it.

So, thinking about who is telling the story will help limit your descriptions to only what this character would notice.

However, if your main character is, for example, a detective who notices everything, the task is harder.  He sees the mud on the floor and the footprints tracked through it and the teakettle and the absence of tea in the cupboard and all kinds of things as well, the pack of matches under one leg of the kitchen table to steady it, the frog refrigerator magnets, the wildlife calendar turned to the wrong month.  Some of these observations may be important to the mystery and others may not.  You will probably want to mix the irrelevant in with the relevant to mislead the poor reader, but you still won’t want to go on too long.

How to stop?  Your detective can be interrupted.  Someone can ask him a question or enter the room.  His cell phone can ring.  Even his thoughts can change tracks.  Suppose your detective is falling in love.  The orange tablecloth can be the same color as his girlfriend’s scarf, and his thoughts can go briefly to her.  If he’s thinking too much already, you may not want to opt for this, though.

People think differently, too.  Some think in grammatically correct paragraphs, some in phrases, some in a word or two, some in images.  When a character has a problem it may cycle endlessly through his mind.  An argument can do this too, as he thinks of all the cutting remarks he could have made.  Or if he was told something that stunned him, just a few words may echo over and over.

If your character is a loquacious thinker you can bring in the same devices to stop the thinking as you used to cut off the description.  When I’m caught on a thought treadmill in real life, I often turn on talk radio to shut myself up.  Your character can do the same, or she can watch TV or listen to music, whatever will distract her.

You can switch to telling as well, as in, I stayed up half the night going over Dylan’s words.  Then the next morning comes and the story moves on to other things.  Or, Sheila couldn’t stop thinking about the secret.  Maxie came by.  They talked, but the thinking wouldn’t go away, like the crawl under the television news.  By informing the reader that thinking is taking place, you don’t have to reveal every thought.

If you’re telling the story from an omniscient third-person POV – by a narrator who’s outside the story – the narrator’s voice can help limit description.  A no-nonsense voice will not let you spend many words on the Venetian blinds in the kitchen.  It will hurry to the boy peeking through the slats to see if the class bully is waiting outside the house.

A more lyrical voice may linger, which is fine, as long as you keep the reader in mind.  You can spend a whole page on a lovely picnic scene if the reader knows that an approaching airplane is having engine trouble and may crash land there.  In fact, in such a situation, more may be better.  Show the reader the budding dogwood trees, the girl with the five-week-old puppies she hopes to find homes for, the artist sketching the family of picnickers, and the old man sleeping with the newspaper over his face.  You can even zoom in close enough to reveal the newspaper headline about improved air travel safety.

Having said all this, you may still write too much description and too many thoughts.  I recommend not worrying about this in your first draft and maybe not even in your second, not until your story is solid.  Before then you can’t be sure what you need and what you don’t.

When you’re revising, try cutting sentences and paragraphs of description and thoughts – but before you cut, save the version and continue in a new version so you don’t lose what you had before.  If you’re working longhand, cross out in pencil.  See how the slimmer version reads.  Is it better?  Or do you and the reader need at least some of what you took out?

To help guide you in your cutting, ask yourself if the part you’re thinking of cutting contributes to character, setting, mood, plot.  Even if it does, question whether those elements are already established enough without these passages.

This is my prejudice:  Don’t cut humor unless it is out of place or works against your scene.  Few readers mind extra sentences that make them laugh.

Remember, you don’t need a machete to cut.  A nail scissors works fine too.  You can cut a third of a story or even of a book with a snip here and a snip there.

F and Arya, originally I thought I would get to your questions about too little dialogue, but I failed, so next week I will.

Here are prompts:  Describe a room in your house and give the accompanying thoughts from the point of view of one or more of these:
•    a burglar who has broken in at 2:00 am;
•    a teenager who’s come along with her parents on a house-hunt;
•    the family dog or cat;
•    a grandmother who’s just moved in with her daughter’s family;
•    an interior decorator who’s been invited to redo the room.

Restrict yourself to no more than two pages for each.  Then revise and see what you can do very well without.  Have fun and save what you write!

Flatly Bored

January 20, 2010, F said,  For me, what happens is, I do not want to skip ahead and write any other scene, and prefer to write in order, like the whole book in one go. I have difficulty in ‘feeling’ for my characters. If there is a scene I look forward to, I wait until I come to it. And all those scenes are the ones I am actually proud of when I read back. The others, I can definitely see that they need fixing up. Is there any tip you can give us which can help us to stay ‘in tune’ with our characters and plot, and not get bored? I really like my plot, but lack the motivation to write some (most) of the times, since my characters feel just the little bit too flat, and too listless.

I’m picking up three separate questions: writing in order, flat characters, and being bored.

Starting backwards, sometimes I get bored too.  My story can make me so sleepy that I have to do something else to keep my head from falling into the keyboard.  When I’m more awake I go back to work, until I have to stop again.  For me, the early stages of a book are especially torpor-inducing.  Often my drowsiness has no bearing on the quality of what I’m writing.  A particular chapter may be terrific, despite the fact that it’s putting me out.  So don’t assume that what you’re writing when you’re bored is boring.

If I didn’t sleep well the night before, or if the blood has left my brain to help digest my lunch, I get bored.  But even when I didn’t sleep enough and it’s right after lunch, I’m almost never bored if I’m revising, which leads me to suspect that there’s a worry component to the boredom.  I’m a confident reviser but not a confident first-draft writer.  When it’s revision time the hardest work is over.  Before then, though, I can still louse everything up.  You may be most confident about the scenes that appeal to you, not so much about the others.  I don’t know any better answer for boredom than to cope as well as we can.  I write a few sentences, walk to my office window, write a few more sentences, pour myself a cup of tea, write a little more, hope that the boredom will pass, which it often does as I push on.

Occasionally, my boredom indicates a story problem.  I’ve lost my way, and my characters are just wandering around.  Or I’m pursuing an idea that I love and I’m pushing the story where it doesn’t want to go.  I may blunder on this way, bored, for weeks before I realized what’s going on.  Often then I have to find a better path for my story, which I usually locate through notes.

Boredom can be connected to writer’s block, so it may be helpful to go back to my post on the subject, called “Playing with Blocks” on October 28, 2009 or to look at the chapter in Writing Magic called “Stuck!”

It is not a crime to abandon a story that is boring you.  You can come back to it if and when you have a new idea.  Or you may be able to move the parts that interest you to a different story you’re working on.  Or you can use these parts as the basis of an entirely new tale.  The only writing crime is not writing.

Moving on to the writing-in-order question:  I write in order too, although I admire writers who can hop around and sew everything together later.  I discussed the question with a writer friend who does leap from scene to scene out of sequence, and she suggested you try her method and see what happens.  It is possible that writing the scenes you’re eager for may help you discover what you need to do to tie them together, and you may become more interested in the in-between scenes.

If you stick with your method and mine, you might try slowing down the scenes you want to just get through, which may help with deepening your characters too.  Suppose, for example, that your main character, Marka, is a runner.  The scene that interests you most is the big race at the end of a summer of preparation.  You have it all planned out:  the perfect running shoes that go missing, the substitute shoes, the best friend running on Marka’s right, her enemy on the left, the leg cramp.

Maybe a few scenes interest you along the way:  an argument with the enemy, shopping for running shoes with the best friend, a practice run when a new boy in school runs too.  And that’s it.  You hurry through the rest.

This may be the root of the flat-character problem.  You may not know your characters well enough because you haven’t thrown them into a variety of situations.  Look at the boring scenes.  Maybe you can bring conflict into them too.  Suppose you need a scene with the running team and the coach, but you’re not interested in it.  Try thinking about some of the peripheral characters:  Coach Bumbry, the slowest runner on the team, the girl who’s fast but her crazy form is incomprehensible.  How does she move with her knees almost hitting her chin?  What’s up with Coach Bumbry?  Suppose she seems to care about every character on the team except your Marka.  How does Marka deal with being ignored?

Take the slowest runner.  Why is she on the team?  How does she relate to Marka?  Does Marka help her, stay away from her as if slowness might be catching, spy on her?

The girl with the weird form.  What might Marka do with her?

You may want to expand your story.  Maybe there’s some home conflict.  Marka’s mom might be convinced that the time Marka spends running is the reason she’s flunking English.  Marka’s dad may be irritable because he’s quitting smoking.  Marka’s older brother may be applying for college and sucking up every scintilla of parental attention.  Whatever.  How does Marka react to all this?

If you throw Marka into lots of situations, if you complicate the boring scenes, you’ll know more about her when the climax arrives.  Her actions are likely to be more layered; her thoughts will be surprising.  And you may enjoy the writing more, too.

Prompt:  Add three new scenes to one of your old stories or to a story you’re working on now.  Put your main character into an. unfamiliar setting.  Have him spend time with a minor character.  Make someone he trusts surprise him in an unpleasant way.  See what he does.  If you need to adjust the rest of your story to accommodate the new scenes (if you’re happy with them), go for it.  Have fun, and save what you write!

Setting Set Up

On January 14, 2010, Gail Zuniga posted this comment:  I’m wondering when you are writing a novel do you have to describe where it takes place in the first chapter or can you drop little hints here and there and later on go into detail of what the town or city looks like?

In general I like the hints approach.  I worry that loading down a first chapter with description will prevent a reader from getting engaged in the story.  But there are many exceptions.  You may want to start with description to create atmosphere or to set a mood.  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt starts this way.  The entire book turns on a first descriptive chapter, and I love it.  The first chapter of Hawaii by James Michener (not for children) is devoted to the geological development of the island.  Many readers adore this chapter, but I never managed to drag myself all the way through it, although I enjoyed the rest of the book when I read it decades ago.

A setting may be intrinsically fascinating, and knowing it may be critical to reader understanding.  For example, suppose your story starts in a tunnel that’s inhabited by giant spiders whose webs are works of art and a bunch of eco-tourists is entering the tunnel, then you may want to go into some depth (no pun intended) about the tunnel and the webs, and I’d guess the reader will be happy.  I certainly wouldn’t toss a book for going on about spider art.

Of course the kind of story you’re writing has some bearing on how much setting you include.  If you’re working on a thriller or an adventure story, and you want action-action-action, you may need to keep setting to a minimum.  The reader gets only the details he needs.  If there’s a bicycle chase, the reader will probably need information about the bikes.  The villain on a lightweight racing bike will have an advantage over the hero on a mountain bike, unless a mountain is involved.  And you’ll probably want the reader to see the bikes – possibly shiny red for the racing bike and rusty green for the mountain bike.  The reader will need to know if the chase is in a city or on a rural dirt road, and maybe or maybe not that it starts in front of the courthouse.  Almost certainly the reader will not have to know that there aren’t many free parking spots along the street – unless that’s important.

Everything depends on everything else.  In a thriller or an adventure story, the author may decide to skimp on other elements in addition to setting.  Thoughts, depth of characterization, dialogue, relationships among characters, all may be streamlined for the sake of a fast pace.  I’m not making a judgment.  I like a story that gallops.  And other kinds of stories, too.

Sometimes setting is a tool for character development.  When the reader sees Kevin’s bedroom, for instance, she learns something about Kevin or his parents.  The route Kevin takes to school, if he has a choice, will be revealing.  Maybe he likes to pass a particular house because his old math teacher used to live there.  The author may want to linger at the front gate and show what Kevin cares about.

Setting can be an instrument of plot.  In my novel, Dave at Night, Dave is sent to an orphanage so forbidding that he is desperate to get away.

This is the beginning of Fairies and the Quest for Never land, which will be out in June:

    “Gwendolyn Jane Mary Darling Carlisle,” Grandma whispered, putting down her teacup with trembling fingers, “you are Wendy Darling returned to life.”
    For her seventh birthday, Gwendolyn had come to breakfast wearing a white dress trimmed with eyelet lace.
    “Fetch the scrapbook from my dressing table, dear,” Grandma said.  “I want to see.”

I never tell the reader whether breakfast is eaten in the dining room or the kitchen or what the room looks like or even what Gwendolyn or her grandmother eat.  I do happen to mention orange juice in passing, but that’s it.  However, later, I tell the reader about Gwendolyn’s street of row houses because the information is momentarily necessary in the story.  I provide much more detail about Fairy Haven on Never Land, both because the place is central to the plot, and also because it’s central to Gwendolyn herself.

Setting isn’t an issue only in the first chapter of a book.  Stories move.  We have to reveal setting continuously.

So how do you present setting to your reader?  As it comes along for the most part.  If you’re writing from a single viewpoint, whether in first person or third, you can show the reader the sights, sounds, and smells as your main character encounters them, even in a place he knows well.  It’s always handy when a main character is in a new place, though.  If Kevin starts a new school, he’ll be paying attention, and the description will come delightfully naturally.

Sometimes it’s hard to work in setting information.  Say Kevin visits his friend Julie, which he’s often done in the past.  They sit  in the living room where there’s a fish tank.  The fish are going to be part of the story, so the reader needs to know about them, because you don’t want fish erupting out of nowhere.  I don’t like it when writers convey information in an unnatural way.  I’m opposed to having Kevin say, “So, Julie, I see your dad is still keeping the fish tank.”  Kevin wouldn’t say that, because they both see the fish tank and know it’s Julie’s dad’s hobby.  But he might say, “I always think the fish are staring at me.”  Or you might describe the room in Kevin’s thoughts.  Since he’s been there before you need a hook, not much of a hook, something small, like, The room always looked heavy, as if its gravity could sink the house.  Two long sofas, five chairs, the fish tank, the cabinet full of china, the thick drapes.  If Kevin has a poetic mind he might think that even the air, with its dots of filtered sunlight, have weight.  And there, nestled in with the other details, is the fish tank.  This method is particularly effective if you don’t want the reader to linger on the fish.  Suppose you want the fish event, whatever it is, to be a surprise.  You’ve informed the reader that the tank is there, but you’ve emphasized something else, the somberness of the room.

Setting is a big topic, and this has been a long post.  If you have more questions on the subject, please post them.

Here’s a prompt:  Your main character has lost something.  She (or he) backtracks to search for it.  In the time since she was there, even if that was only five minutes before, the place she goes to has become haunted.  This place may not be a house or a graveyard.  Go!

Save what you write, and have fun!

Both Feet in the Story Door

On January 13, 2010 Maybe a Writer definitely wrote, What I can’t seem to get, is what happens right after my beginning.  I sometimes don’t even know where I’m taking the story, but I have a tiny idea for a plot. The story I’m working on is the most well-planed out I have, but I’m still on page three. Any ideas?

Alas, I’m having the same problem right now, and this will be my twenty-first book, counting just the published ones!  I’m on page thirty-one, not three, but I haven’t figured out how to move further into my story.  What I think I’m working on is a fantasy mystery sequel to an old Gothic story that involves embodiments of the south wind and the king of a river.  The issue may be that I haven’t made either of them real in my mind yet, so they’re not working as characters.  So far I haven’t even introduced them into the story.

I haven’t run into this particular problem before, although I’ve written about all sorts of creatures.  I don’t believe in fairies, but I’ve had no trouble making them come alive on the page.  I’m writing notes to figure out how I’m stuck and where I can go next.

For you, Maybe a Writer and anyone else who shares our predicament, there may be something inside your story that’s stopping you.  In 1993 I wanted to write a novel based on Cinderella, but the fairytale itself got in my way.  Cinderella is so disgustingly good and so incomprehensibly obedient that I didn’t know what to make of her, and I didn’t like her.  I couldn’t get started until I thought of the curse of obedience.  When I had that, I understood her and I was able to write about her.

If your trouble is inside your story, try my method and write notes about it.  But notes don’t work for everybody, and they don’t always work for anyone.  You can talk to a friend or relative about the way your story might go.  You can even talk out loud to yourself about it.  It may also help to look at my post of October 28, 2009 about writer’s block.

This prompt comes from a writing book called What If?, which is full of terrific prompts.  (Kid alert:  Most of this book is fine for writers and readers of any age, but some chapters are for high school and above.  Check with a parent or a librarian.)  The prompt comes from the book’s title.  Take whatever you’ve got as a beginning and ask yourself “What if?” about what might happen next.  Ask this repeatedly and write down the possibilities, whatever ideas come to you no matter how crazy they are.  As in, What if the girl in the green dress who is all alone at a party sees a framed photo on the mantelpiece and recognizes one of the people in it as her sister.  Or what if she starts writing on a wall of the living room where the party is happening.  Or what if she interrupts two dancers and starts dancing with them.  And so on.

Write ten what-ifs before looking them over.  Try the one that appeals to you the most and see where it takes you.

This is a variant on another prompt in What If?:  Write ten beginning scenes without thinking about what might come next, and make the scenes at least three pages long.  The purpose is to get away from anxiety and think only about what will grab a reader. 

When you’re finished, pick five and write another scene for each.  Next, pick three out of the five and write another scene for each of them.  Then see if you want to continue with any one of them.

I generally write in order, but you don’t have to.  You might try taking the characters from your first scene, those three pages, and write another scene for them, out of sequence.  If there are no characters yet, this is a good time to invent some and take the pressure off plot.  The new scene could be something you have in mind to happen later in the story, or it could be something that went before.  Or it could simply be an exploration of the characters’ relationships with one another.  Write the scene in the world of the story.  If the story takes place in the kingdom of Wohadfub, keep it there.  If the story is set in your home town, keep it there, too.

If you’re a kid, under twenty-one, say, I don’t think you need to worry about finishing stories.  The problem will take care of itself if you keep writing.  You will eventually start a story that you can finish.

If you’re over twenty-one, you probably shouldn’t worry either, because worrying does no good.  But for me there is always some gritting of teeth to get myself to the end of a book.  And stubbornness.  I’m utterly unwilling for a book to get the better of me.

I’ve mentioned that I’m writing poetry for adults, and I’m unpublished as a poet.  While I would very very, as many verys as can be, like to be published, there is freedom in not being.  Nobody cares what my poems are like, because nobody (except a few other aspiring poets) is reading them.  Little is at stake.  I can take chances and be outrageous.  If you aren’t published, I hope you will use your freedom.  And I hope you’ll have publishing success too.  But for now, experiment!  Have fun! And save whatever you come up with!