Un-sappy Romance

On March 24, 2010, Marzo wrote, I’ve always wanted to try incorporating romance into my stories, but I’ve never really known how to write a romance well without it seeming, I don’t know, too sappy?  I don’t know if you’ve answered this in a different post, but do you have some tips for writing romance?
I’ve never written a book that was only a romance.  Most of mine are fantasy adventures with romance as one of the plot threads.

There must be many approaches to love and romance, and I hope other writers reading the blog will post theirs.

Even if you’ve never fallen in romantic love in real life, I’d guess you’ve fallen in like and in other sorts of love many times – with a new friend, a pet, a person you’ve known forever but have just come to appreciate.  How does it happen?  How did it happen to you?

Often it’s an accretion (if you don’t know the word, look it up!) of incidents and character traits that produces like and love.  Somebody says something that expresses exactly how you feel but have never been able to put into words, and you feel a deep connection.  This may be trite:  a smile that lights up a face can flip my heart.  Humor, as long as it’s not at someone’s expense, draws me in.  Maybe the smile is a tad sappy if all there is is a smile, but along with other details, the sappiness fades to unimportance.

Details count in writing love as in writing everything else.  The reader needs to know exactly what the heroine said that flew straight into the hero’s soul.  And the reader needs to be told enough about the hero to understand why he felt so touched.  For example, my late and much missed friend Nedda often told stories on herself and laughed uproariously.  I adored the stories and the loud belly laugh, but someone else might have been embarrassed by one or both.

When I want people to fall in love I think of them as jigsaw-puzzle pieces that need to fit together.  This bit of him has to satisfy that place in her that’s been starved, and vice versa.  Maybe I see it this way because of my parents, who remained in love for forty-nine years until my father’s death.  My mother finished college (at the age of sixteen); he didn’t complete high school.  He loved having a brilliant wife.  My father was smart, too, but very modest.  My mother loved my father’s innocence and sweetness.  She could be a wee bit tart.  He loved her complexity.  They argued sometimes, but fundamentally they filled the aspects of each other that needed filling.

So think about what your characters need and even crave.  In my Princess Tale, Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, I echo my parents’ relationship.  Princess Sonora is the smartest person on earth by a factor of ten.  She’s eager to share her knowledge, but no one wants to listen.  Prince Christopher is curious about everything, and people tire of his endless questions.  They are made for each other.  In another Princess Tale, The Fairy’s Return, Robin makes up jokes for which he is scorned by his father and brothers.  Princess Lark thinks his jokes are hysterical.  Everyone treats her with kid gloves, which makes her feel stifled, but Robin doesn’t.  They are also primed for love.

Turning to pets:  Any domestic animal needs care and calls on us for protection.  Protectiveness is part of love, in my opinion, and a mutual part, too.  The boy isn’t the sole protector.  He’s watching out for her, and she’s got his back as well.  In Ella Enchanted, for example, Char arrives in time to keep Ella from being eaten, but she saves him and his knights by making the ogres docile.  A common enemy can help bring your characters together.

Pets again:  Puppies misbehave.  Our Baxter is nine, and he still misbehaves.  Animals can’t hide their feelings.  We know when they’re happy, frightened, stubborn, jealous.  We see them at their worst and love them anyway.  They’re naked literally (unless decked out in a vest or party hat) and figuratively.  Of course, they have no choice, but their freedom makes us free.  We tell our pets our secrets and let them see us cry and pound the pillow.  This kind of intimacy and acceptance is part of love.  In my novel, Fairest, Ijori is aware of Aza’s self-loathing and loves her anyway, and she forgives him and loves him even after he lets himself be convinced that she might be part ogre.  King Oscaro loves Queen Ivi, who is riddled with faults.  When we show characters fall in love despite their frailties, we create depth and move light years away from sappiness.

Another love and like-maker is admiration.  I usually – not always – respond in kind to being highly regarded.  I think better of the person who thinks well of me, and so can characters.  Being loved can be a turn-on.  In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland’s admiration sparks Henry Tilney’s love for her.

Fun can lead to love.  For this post, I looked at romantic moments in some of my books.  The heroes and heroines are having a terrific time together.  They thrive on being together.  Mutual admiration ricochets back and forth, and each feels at his and her best, wittiest, most interesting, handsomest-prettiest, most awake.

Underlying everything is the physical side of romance, the chemistry.  You can be subtle with this, too.  There is the heightened sense of being alive, which readers will recognize.  Pleasure in one another’s company has a physical aspect.  The two can simply stand near each other and feel the air shimmer between them.  Their eyes can meet.  Eye contact is powerful, can be hostile, can be romantic, especially if the gaze is soft.  In a romantic moment one character can notice his breathing become shallow, another can feel warm in a chilly room.  One or both can blush.  I just googled “signs of romantic attraction” and read that hair touching, licking lips (one’s own), dropping the gaze and then looking back, leaning toward the other person – all can be indicators that an author can use.

And you can make up your own.  For example, suppose Maryanne has a scar next to her right eye.  It’s tiny, but it embarrasses her.  When she’s attracted to a boy, she puts her hand on the spot to cover it.  Then she thinks that may look silly, so she takes her hand away and extends her face a little.  You, the writer, put her through this quick sequence a couple of times at a party to introduce it.  (You don’t want to overdo.)  Then, two days later, she sits next to a particular boy at a school play and does it.  The reader understands instantly what’s going on.

Or Jeff becomes clumsy in the presence of someone who interests him.  Stuart pulls his shoulders back and widens his stance.  Sharyn rises on tiptoe.

I heart making people fall in love!

Here are some prompts:

•    Working from the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” write an early scene between the two.  The Beast, although severely handicapped, wants to win Beauty over.  What does he do?  Contrive the scene so that he has at least a little success.

•    One half of a romantic relationship has hurt the feelings of the other.  Show the offender winning back the affections of his beloved.

•    It is the night of July 4th.  The graduating seniors of the town high school have collected to watch the fireworks.  Penny and Nick flirted for the last four years, but nothing came of it.  The next morning Penny will leave for an out-of-town summer with relatives, and in the fall she goes to a distant college.  She wants Nick to remember her forever as his lost opportunity.  (Maybe she’s a little annoyed at him for never making a move.)  What does she do?  Write the scene.  She may succeed or not.  Go with what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

Change or stay just as you are

Big news:  My latest novel, the third in the Disney Fairies series, called Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, was released yesterday!!!!  I hope you’ll take a look at it.  The illustrations by David Christiana are gorgeous.  Hope you like the words and the pictures!

On March 18, 2010, Sage-in-Socks wrote, …Sometimes I find myself forcing a change in a character because I feel, to be a round, dynamic character he or she must change in some way by the end of the story. To what extent should a character change? Are subtle changes like a change of opinion also characteristic of dynamic characters? Or should a character by the end of the story be quite different from what he or she is like in the beginning? Are there any limits? I mean I wouldn’t want to /force/ a character to change or change her personality–I rather like their flaws.

From your description, Sage-in-Socks, it doesn’t sound wise to force change on a character.  Whatever growth comes about needs to arise from what the character does in a situation, what she thinks, feels, says.  It shouldn’t be a bitter – or sugary – pill she’s made to swallow.  Your character certainly shouldn’t do a one-eighty.  She still needs to be recognizably herself at the end.  And the changes can be small – yes, a change of opinion, maybe a new appreciation of poetry.

In Chapter 16 of Writing Magic I write about character change.  The chapter, called “Happily Ever After – Or Not,” is about endings, and in there I write that usually a character should change by a story’s finale.  Right at this particular moment, however, I’m not so sure.

Sometimes the reader absolutely does not want a character to change.  As a child, I gobbled up the books in the Cherry Ames series.  I did not want Cherry to switch even the color of her lipstick!  I loved her exactly as she was.

This is true of some series today, too, where the characters can be relied on to carry their foibles from book to book.  It’s absolutely true of comic strip characters.  Mysteries often fall into this category as well; the detective is the constant from story to story.  There are new crimes to solve, but the detective remains unaltered.  I hope to write more books following my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles.  My heroine Elodie will probably grow older and change, but I would like to keep the dragon Meenore essentially the same from book to book.

Ella’s character doesn’t vary much in the course of Ella Enchanted.  Because of her actions, her circumstances change, but she has much the same personality at the end of the book as she did when her mother got sick.  On the other hand, Addie, the heroine of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, is fundamentally altered as a result of her exploits, but I don’t think I did a better job with one heroine or the other.  Different stories have different effects on their characters.  And the degree of change may vary too.  In some stories a mere change of opinion will be exactly what’s needed.

Like so much else in writing, it depends.

Some rounded, dynamic, actual people – you know them – never change, some for the good, some for the bad.  The aunt you count on to listen and not judge goes on listening and not judging for years.  She is a rock.  The cousin who criticizes everybody continues to criticize, no matter how his harping damages his closest relationships.  He is a rock too, one with a painfully sharp edge.

Secondary characters can change, or not.  Their development may affect your story and your main character, but they’re not quite as important as your main, so I’m going to concentrate on your hero.

Sometimes, failure to adapt will result in tragedy.  In my novel Ever, Kezi’s view of the religion she grew up in evolves.  If she’d stuck to her original beliefs she would have been sacrificed to a god that the reader has come to doubt.  Even if Kezi herself didn’t, the reader would regard her death as a tragedy.

Arthur Miller’s amazing tragedy, Death of a Salesman (high school and above, I’d guess), is about a man who can’t see beyond his world view, who has staked his life on shallow values.  His values are shallow, but the play is very deep, complicated, and worth seeing or reading.

In a different story, one I’m making up this minute, tragedy might be averted by refusal to change.  Suppose a main character Marnie befriends a new boy at school.  Let’s call him Joe.  At first Joe is well liked, but then rumors begin to circulate about him, serious stuff:  he steals; he brought a knife to his former school; he lies about everything.  When Marnie doesn’t believe the rumors and continues the friendship, her other friends desert her, saying they’re afraid of Joe and are becoming afraid of her.  Even Marnie’s parents warn her against the boy, who is spiraling into depression.  Marnie hangs firm, doesn’t change, and her trust keeps Joe afloat against the accusations, which may be true or false.  If they’re true, Marnie may bring about change in Joe and help him become a better person.  Good grief!  This could be a soap opera!

Or it could go another way.  The rumors turn out to be true, and Marnie is hurt, but she still concludes that she did what was right.  Or aaa!  Marnie could be killed, and then her staunchness turns into a fatal flaw.

In some respects, Marnie will change whichever way the story goes.  She’ll learn more about her friends and about herself.  She may have a greater moral sense by the end of the story.  In most stories, your main character will change at least a little.  As the author, you can highlight the changes by having your main character reflect on them or having other characters point them out.  Or you can simply show your main character behaving in a new way.

So I guess my answer for this invented story is ambiguous and may be ambiguous in many stories.  If Marnie, in addition to her faithfulness, interrupts people often or bites her nails or needs to sleep with a nightlight, these aspects of her personality can remain untouched – or you can change them as evidence of her new maturity.  But you probably don’t want to change everything about her.  Let her keep the flaws you like.

Here are four prompts:

•    Your hero wants romance with someone artistic, attractive, and as much in love with baseball as he is.  He finds such a person, whom he likes, but this character falls short in some important ways.  Write the scene in which he assesses himself and his romantic ideas.  Does he change or not?

•    Your main character wants to reform herself, stop being bossy and become more caring.  Write a scene in which she completely fails at this self-improvement.

•    Superman gives up saving people.  Write the turning point that pushes him in this direction.

•    Wickham from Pride and Prejudice decides to no longer be a scoundrel.  Write the scene in which the change takes place or in which the seeds of change are sewn.  If you like, write a summary of how the plot develops after his transformation.

Fantastical research

Important blog note: If you go back to earlier postings – as I hope you do – please don’t post your comments or questions there.  I don’t check and may never see what you wrote.  Even if what you have to say concerns an old post, please add your comments to the most current one, where I’ll be sure to read it and so will the other writers who frequent the blog.

On March 17, 2010 April wrote, It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you’re looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?

And Priyanka wrote, April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in a cloth-bound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books.)

There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I’m not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! 🙂
I’m not an expert on research, so please keep my non-expertise in mind as you read.  I also don’t have access to university databases or live near a big public library, so I’ve never used the online databases Priyanka cites.  I do google the topics that interest me, and I use Wikipedia a lot, but the online sources that I find mostly give overviews.  When I want more depth, I read books.

As you guys probably know, most of my novels are fantasies.  Ever, for example, is set in a made-up version of ancient Mesopotamia.  To help me write it, I read two books about the period and visited the ancient Mesopotamian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  I also read Mesopotamian myths and reread the Greek myths.  I read the bible as well, which, among other things, contains information about ancient daily life.

But my purpose wasn’t accuracy, it was flavor and detail.  I didn’t mention Mesopotamia in the novel; the city of Hyte and the kingdom of Akka, where the action takes place, never existed.  If I used a detail from an online source that was wrong, it didn’t matter.

It helps me to have specific information when I write, even if the information is riddled with inaccuracies.  Reading that the houses of the period were made of baked mud helped me picture them (I’m pretty sure this detail is true).  I read about the layout of rooms, and that helped too.  If I’d discovered that these layouts were inaccurate, I would have tried to find out what was correct, but then if the correction didn’t suit my story needs, I would have gone back to what I knew to be wrong.  I make no claims of historical verity, and I hope no teacher has made Ever part of a curriculum of the ancient world.

An aside:  I found an online dictionary of ancient Sumerian and used it to invent names, places, and a few words.  But I worried that I might have accidentally created words that exist in modern Arabic or Farsi, and I couldn’t tell if the words happened to be offensive.  My publisher found a speaker of both languages to look at my inventions.  Turned out that a couple were real words, but nothing bad.

Another aside:  I discovered, online again, numbers as they would have been written in cuneiform.  So, above the ordinary Arabic numerals at the beginning of each chapter are the same numbers in cuneiform.  If you look, you can learn to write cuneiform numbers up to sixty-nine (the number of chapters in the book)!  I love that.

My fairy tale books from Ella Enchanted through Fairest are not set in any time period more specific than pre-industrial.  I did little research.  I looked at costume books, especially for Fairest, but I roamed from century to century to find gowns that fit what I wanted.  (Some of the fashions were completely ridiculous, which suited my story.  For a hoot, take a look at an illustrated fashion history book.)  For Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, I researched armor, but not extensively.

I have gotten letters from children, thanking me for teaching them about the middle ages through my books.  When I read these letters, I shudder and feel guilty.  So for A Tale of Two Castles, which April named on the blog, I did read two books about medieval daily life, and I referred constantly to a children’s book, Castle by David Macaulay, about castle architecture.  If kids write to me about the middle ages in that book I’ll feel a little better, although I still made things up.

Children’s nonfiction is a great source for gaining nontechnical understanding of a complex subject.  In For Biddle’s Sake a fairy turns characters into frogs, and I read two children’s books about frogs.  They told me everything I needed.

It’s important to note that although I’m writing from a European fairytale tradition, there is no Europe in my books.  My fairytale novels take place nowhere on planet earth.  Even though I researched frogs, if I’d wanted to give them wings or make each of them as big as tyrannosaurus rex, I could have.  If you do set your story in a real time and place, then I think you need to be accurate.  For example, suppose your fantasy takes place in sixteenth century France, even if you have dragons dotting the landscape, you need to be true in other respects to the place and time.

When I wrote my non-fantasy, realistic historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in New York City in 1926, I did extensive research and tried to get everything right.  I read several books about the period as well as poetry and a novel written at the time.  I spent days going through the photo collection at the main branch of the New York Public Library, looked at street plans of the time, visited the Tenement House Museum and spoke to the curator, visited the New York City Transit Museum and talked to an expert on mass transit during the era.  And much more.  Best of all, I had two friends with excellent memories who were alive at the time.  If you’re writing about a period that’s within living memory of your parents or grandparents or of people you can contact, talk to them.  They will give you details and a flavor of the time that you can’t get any other way.  But then fact-check their information.  When I was little, for example, I remember telephones being only black.  I would guess that they began to be produced in colors in the mid to late 1960s, but the change may have begun earlier.  Dates in memory are often slippery.

These prompts involve research.  If you want to surround them with a story, so much the better.

•    Some emergency has arisen during the night.  Your seventeenth or eighteenth-century daughter of a duke has to dress in a hurry.  Write about her getting dressed with as much historical accuracy about her clothing as you can find.  Remember, she is rushing.

•    Describe five minutes of a medieval feast with as much historical accuracy as you can.

•    A young squire (or female equivalent) is polishing his lord’s armor and decides to try everything on.  Once he’s outfitted, he mounts his lord’s charger, just as someone unexpected (you pick) enters the stable.  Write the whole scene, including what happens next.
Have fun, and save what you write!

I’m a boy!

On March 13, 2010, Mya wrote,  One more question:  Though I don’t know why, most of my characters are boys. The only problem with this is that sometimes, I can’t tell how TO write—think—like a boy to portray him correctly. Do you have any advice on writing from a different gender’s perspective?

And on April 21, 2010, Silver the Wanderer wrote,  I’m a girl, but my whole novel is written from the point of view of a guy. Sometimes, I’m afraid of making his thoughts and dialogue sound too girly and/or out of character. Do you have any suggestions pertaining to this?

If you’re a boy or man reading the blog, please post your ideas on this subject.

I’ve written from male points of view several times.  In my historical novel Dave at Night, the POV character is an eleven-year-old boy.  My loosely historical fantasy Ever alternates chapter by chapter between a male and a female character.  And my Princess Tales, while told in third person, shift back and forth in each book from the male and female leads.

Each of these male characters is different from the others, just as every real boy is different from every other boy.  Obviously same for girls.  As I wrote in my post about writing characters older than you, one sixty-year-old will not be like another, and certainly not just because both are sixty.

This gives you a lot of freedom.

In Dave at Night, the main character, Dave of course, is based on my father, whose name was also Dave.  I imagined my father as a boy, and as I wrote I had him firmly in mind.  Because I knew what kind of man he was – spunky, smart, kindhearted, stubborn, diffident – I was able to intuit the boy he would have been.  My father didn’t express his masculinity in bluster.  In the novel he defeats a bully, but not by fighting, by his wits.

So it may help you to have a particular boy or man in mind when you write your male character.  Or you can combine people you know.  Write down the qualities that make them themselves.  How might these characteristics mark them as male on the page?  Think of the way particular boys and girls or men and women in your life behave when they’re angry or arguing or when something lovely has happened.  Compare your male teachers with your female teachers or your male colleagues with your female ones.  Or the male and female members of your family.  Think not only of their inner selves, but also their outer.  Watch the way people stand, sit, walk, run.  Girls are sometimes accused of running or throwing “like a girl.”  Go beyond the stereotype to what you actually see.  Listen to conversations.  Obviously most males, once their voices change, speak in a lower register.  Listen to what’s said, what’s emphasized, which topics are chosen.

In my mystery, A Tale of Two Castles, coming out in 2011, the dragon Meenore keeps ITs gender secret, but, without intending to, I’ve made IT read more masculine than feminine.  In revision I’ve added a few touches to muddy matters.  IT bows to Count Jonty Um, the ogre, and then follows the bow with a curtsy.  I make IT like to play knucklebones (like jacks), a girl’s game.

These two examples are shortcuts rather than deeply rooted character traits.  We need shortcuts because we don’t have an eternity to establish our characters.  But shortcuts can tend toward stereotype, so use them with care.  Here are a few that come to my mind.  You can think of more of your own.  Many boys and men, even in our enlightened twenty-first century, are more restrained about crying and more embarrassed when they do cry than girls and women are.  In dialogue a male character may be less expansive about his feelings.  He may make them known, but maybe not in long paragraphs with many explanations.  He may use bigger gestures or have more explosive pent-up energy.  I once read that women laugh more in the presence of men, and that men are less likely to laugh at a woman’s jokes.  See if you find this to be true.  Along the same lines, I read that women want their men to be funny, and men don’t say they care if their women can make them laugh.  But of course these are generalizations.

It will help if you establish your character as male clearly at the start of your story.  Don’t give him a name that could belong either to a boy or to a girl, for example.  Find a way to describe him early on.  Say that he’s the shortest or tallest boy in his class, for instance.  Have somebody say something to him that demonstrates we have a guy here.  The reader will help you once she’s clued in.  Unless you go far off gender, whatever he says, she’ll hear your boy saying it.  Whatever he does, she’ll see your man doing it.

If your main character is male, you may have an easier time by writing in third person.  You’ll still have to reveal his thoughts and feelings, but you won’t be living inside his head and giving him your feminine ideas and responses.  If you’ve been writing in first, try switching to third and see what happens.

When you write a scene or when you go back to revise it, picture your character.  Does he read as male for you?  If not, what can you do?  Change his dialogue?  He may need to say whatever he was saying, but he can say it in different words.  Or maybe the setting is wrong, and simply by moving him, he will be changed.  Or you can give him something to do while the scene is moving forward that will feel masculine, assembling a model airplane, raking leaves, digging for buried treasure (not that girls can’t do any of these things).

When you’re ready, ask a guy to look at what you’ve written and point out to you where the character feels female.  If you’re never going to be ready to do this, you can be more subtle:  Ask a few people of both sexes how they think a male character would act and think and feel in the situation you’ve set up in your story.

This has been a touchy topic, because for every characteristic I suggest as masculine there are a lot of women who have it.  But it is the sum of the person that you’re going for, not one trait or another.  Blog readers, please chime in if you have more ideas for Mya and Silver the Wanderer.  If you are an actual man or boy, what do you think?

Here are prompts:

•    Your male main character is assigned to work on a project with another male character he dislikes.  Make up the project.  Write what happens.

•    A male character is trying to release his male friend from the clutches of a possessive female centaur.  Invent the circumstances:  where they are, what the centaur’s powers are, how the friend is trapped.  Write the scene in first person from his point of view.  Now write the same scene, making the male characters female and the female character male..

•    Write a male Cinderella story: two mean stepbrothers, a mean stepfather, a wizard godfather.  See where you take the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

More talk about talk

Before I get to this week’s question, I want to let everyone know about two appearances coming up this summer. For members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), I’ll be speaking at the national conference, which will take place in Los Angeles from July 30th to August 2nd, although I won’t get there until July 31st. Here’s the link: http://www.scbwi.org/Conference.aspx?Con=6. I intend to talk about subjects that have been raised on the blog, so thanks to all of you for making my speech easier to prepare.

To those of you who are writing for kids but aren’t members of SCBWI, I hope you’ll consider joining the biggest writers’ organization in the world and the most welcoming.  For kids who are writing for kids, sorry, you need to be at least eighteen to join.

The second appearance is for high-school-age people and above. It’s a conference called The Gathering, and it will be held from July 15th to 18th in La Plume, PA. I’ll be discussing my book Ever and also running a workshop on writing for kids. This will be my fourth year doing the workshop but my first as a featured speaker. The conference is always fascinating, good food, okay accommodations, great ideas. This year’s topic is Chaos and Creativity. Here’s the link: http://www.gathering.keystone.edu/.

In June I’ll be touring for Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, but I don’t know where I’ll be yet. I’ll post my itinerary when I get it.

On March 4, 2010, Amy Goodwin wrote… How do you write believable dialogue that is unique to each character’s personality? Every time I try it seems to come out sounding so much like me and more straightforward than I want it. They all seem to say what they think and not think either logically or in directions that suit their characters. How do you get around this and write dialogue that shows characters’ personalities and gets the story moving at the same time? I’m pretty clueless on both.

When you are working out what a particular character is like, think about how she might express her nature in speech. Figuring this  out may take you an entire book or three revisions of the book, but that’s okay,  I get to know my characters slowly. You can give her a speech mannerism in the first seven chapters and decide it doesn’t work in the eighth and remove it or exchange it for something else in revision.

If you’re developing a ruthless character, for example, you might make her interrupt often, without thinking about it, possibly without being aware of her rudeness. She wants what she wants, and she doesn’t care what anyone else has to say on the subject. A character who thinks he knows everything may also interrupt – same behavior, different reason.

In my Disney Fairies books, the character Rani, who sympathizes with everyone, tends to finish people’s sentences for them, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. When the reader sees a sentence completed by a second character, he knows Rani is the speaker.

There are lots of devices – and you can invent your own – to make a character’s speech special for that character and revealing of her inner nature. In life, everyone expresses himself uniquely. You and I have different ways of speaking. We use some expressions more often than others. I may speak in exclamations, you in questions. I may fly from topic to topic. You may stick to the point. A friend may speak so softly that you constantly have to ask her to repeat. Someone you’ve met acts as if everyone else is deaf. I haven’t nearly exhausted the possibilities; they’re legion.

And then there are the gestures that accompany speech. Somebody, perhaps a schemer, twists a length of hair around her finger when she’s lying. Manic Uncle Jack uses his hands constantly as he speaks. Secretive Alma never uses her hands. Insecure Mary moves with you while she talks so you can never avoid meeting her eyes. Bashful Stephan addresses his shoes.

In a movie or a play, this is enviably easy. The audience sees the characters do their physical bits, and the actors have tonal qualities too. We can identify such and such an actor with our eyes closed. But on the page, we have to remind the reader now and then. Someone needs to say to Stephan, “Look at me!” and then the reader will remember that he never does. Somebody has to say to Mary, “Get out of my face!”

If the speaker is a major character, you definitely want his way of speaking to go with his nature. If it’s a minor character, you can go generic, mention an accent, for instance, or nothing. Not everyone needs distinctive speech, as long as the reader knows who’s talking.

Amy, if your characters always sound like you, then you know how you sound, which is good. Try underlining the parts of dialogue in your stories that sound just like you. In  notes, list five other ways of saying the same thing. Think about how your sister might say a particular bit of speech, your brother, your best friend, your worst enemy, a teacher or former teacher.

As for dialogue contributing to plot, except for out-of-control events, most of plot grows out of character, and dialogue is an expression of character. Let’s go back to the ruthless character. Suppose she interrupts someone in authority once too often… A plot event happens. Or suppose her interruptions irritate Stephan so much that he actually yells at her. Yelling and surviving it changes him. Maybe yelling at the ruthless character gives him the courage to declare his love for Mary.

Although in general you do want your characters to sound different from one another, you don’t want to overload the reader with a circus of exotic talkers. Usually somebody has to tell it like it is, and often (but not always) that will be your main character. Your main character, if you are telling the story from his point of view, is present in every scene and is the voice the reader will hear in her mind.

Also, once you have established your characters (on the first go-round or in revision), the reader will help you. If shy Stephan is in a scene, the reader will remember (after being reminded a few times) that he’s looking at his shoes or mumbling or blushing. Part of the reader’s pleasure will be in this insider knowledge. If a teacher booms at Stephan, “Speak up, young man!” the reader will squirm right along with him.

In these prompts, think of characteristic ways of speaking, including gestures, for everybody:

• Three different characters habitually address everyone as Sweetheart, and each of them means something else by it. Write a page of dialogue for each one that shows what the speaker intends to convey.

• Two characters are accusing each other of not keeping promises. Make up the promises they’re arguing over, and write the scene three times, once for each of three different pairs of characters. In each case, what would be the plot consequences of the argument if you put it in a story? If you like, write the story.

• A character wants to do something that is certain to turn out badly. Two of his or her friends are trying to talk him or her out of it. Make up the foolhardy act. Decide ahead of time or as you write or in revision whether or not the friends succeed. Write the scene.

Have fun and save what you wrote!

Flashing back

On February 25, 2010, Jill wrote, My big problem is when my character did something important that I want the people reading to know all about.  I tried starting the story with a flashback but realized what I want them to know didn’t happen in one event. It happened over many years.  I tried skipping year to year in the flash back but I got confused just trying to write it.  I really just want to tell them what happened and move on but it’s hard to get out all the information with out making it seem like two books in one.  Any suggestions?

The kingdom of Bamarre in my The Two Princesses of Bamarre is plagued by monsters and by a terrible disease called the Gray Death.  Events in the story are connected to events during the founding of the kingdom centuries ago.  I brought the back story into the current one with an epic poem that winds through the book.  The poem, which was written in the earlier time, is known by everyone.  People quote from it, perform scenes from it, refer to it.  My main character often thinks about it.

The Blind Assassin (high school level and above) by Margaret Atwood alternates in sections between the past and the present.  In the course of the book, the back story catches up.  The past is told in third person, the present in first.  The reader quickly adjusts to the shifts, cued by the change in point of view.  The story is a sort of mystery, and the time jumps contribute to the puzzle.  It’s a brilliant accomplishment.

Margaret Atwood introduces her chapters in the past with old newspaper clippings.  You too can come up with devices not merely to start the switch, but to reveal the events themselves.  For example, you can alternate the current story with old diary entries or old letters, or you can invent fictionalized newspaper articles too.

Or you can think up other ways to bring the past into the present .  Suppose, for instance, that your main character is haunted by a memory of being cruel to her brother only a few hours before he was killed in a car accident or abducted by aliens or morphed into an alien himself, and suppose she discusses what she did with a counselor or her new college roommate, someone who doesn’t know her past.  This can become a boring recitation, however, unless you do something to bring in tension, like maybe the confidant has a hidden connection to the brother.

If the back actions were performed by your main character (not carried out before her birth or beyond her knowledge), you can start with the first act and keep going, no need for flashbacks or anything else.  I’ve begun several of my books with the birth of my main character–Ella Enchanted, Fairest, and Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep, to name a few.  The story then jumps forward through selected episodes, sometimes years apart, to the present where most of the action takes place.  This is a straightforward way to do it and the least likely to cause reader confusion.  My favorite writing teacher, years ago, disliked flashbacks.  I have nothing against them, but if there is no reason not to write in sequence from past to present, this is the way I would go.

If you use them, flashbacks can be hard to pull off because you’re wrenching the reader away from the ongoing story.  Then, you want to excite his interest inside the flashback, but you don’t want him to fall so much in love with it that he doesn’t want to return to the present.  Quick flashback scenes often succeed, since the reader comes to understand that the digression will be short.

The television series Lost – High school level?  Middle school?  I’m not sure, so check with an adult – is wild with its scene switches.  The story jumps in and out of flashbacks, and then, to further complicate matters, characters become unglued in time.   The viewer learns to expect this madness and adapts.  I don’t always admire the show, but I enjoy the craziness, and it’s worth studying how the endless complications are handled.

Of course television is a different medium.  Information can be conveyed instantly.  The viewer has only to see a telephone with a cord to know that she’s in the past.  We writers have to reveal the switch in words, which takes longer.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (high school and up) and the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along tell their stories backwards.  The novel starts with a marriage that has fallen painfully apart and progresses  back in time to the first meeting of the couple and their early love.  The musical begins with the misery of a man who has misused his artistic gifts and ends with his hopeful college graduation.  Both are tragic.  I don’t know if it’s possible to tell a happy story this way.

Saying It Out Loud (middle school and up), which I think I’ve mentioned before, by my friend Joan Abelove, moves effortlessly through time.  Joan uses flashbacks a lot, so you may want to read the book to see how she does it.

Many actors develop back stories for their roles.  They may flesh out a childhood, adolescence, family, school that never come into the actual play or movie.  But the back story adds depth to the performance.  The audience picks up on the complexity.  So it’s a good thing to have earlier events influencing the current story. 
Whatever method you use, sympathetic or fascinating characters in a difficult situation will lure your reader in and keep him in.  If he is hooked, cares about your main character, roots for her, he will keep reading and may love the all the track switches you conduct him through.

You can try any of the techniques I mentioned: flashbacks, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, backward telling, an epic poem, dialogue in a counseling session.  And here are three specific prompts:

•    Make up a back story for a character in a book you love.  If you love Pride and Prejudice (as I do), for example, make up a back story for Wickham or Mr. Collins or Charlotte beyond what Jane Austen provides.

•    Make up a back story for one of your own minor characters.  Figure out a way to introduce a bit of it into your story.

•    Develop a flashback scene in a story you’re working on now or an old story.  Keep it in if you like it.  Otherwise take it out.

Have fun and save what you write!

Pleased to Meet You, Fantasy World

Signing alert: I’ll be signing books, along with many other terrific kids book writers, this Saturday, May 1st, in Hudson, NY, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.  If you’re in the vicinity and can come, I would love to see you.  Here’s a link to the event:  http://www.hudsonchildrensbookfestival.com/.

On February 24, 2010 Silver the Wanderer wrote, Do you have any advice for writing about fantasy worlds (environment, culture, etc.) without creating a massive “information dump”?

I once googled “rules for writing fantasy” for a talk I was going to give.  The results were interesting, and I suggest you try it.  You’ll find a lot of ideas from a lot of viewpoints.  One person felt that a writer shouldn’t write about a world without knowing its entire history, culture, economy, judicial system –  more than I know about the real world I actually live in!  This person thought an information dump was unobjectionable, in fact essential.

I disagree, unless this is the sort of book you enjoy reading.  Then it may be the kind of book you should write.  Otherwise, if the economy doesn’t come into your story, the reader doesn’t have be told about it, and you don’t have to invent it.  In fact, if you include unnecessary information, you create pressure on the reader to remember everything and an expectation that it will all be important. What’s more, in creating this useless stuff, you’ll probably make it interesting to keep yourself from going crazy, and then the poor reader will be disappointed when the coinage, silver leaves harvested from a magical and environmentally threatened forest, never shows up again.

Start your fantasy in the ordinary way, with what’s important to the story: character, action, setting, dialogue.  In most cases you want to let the reader know right away that this is fantasy.  In Ella Enchanted, I began with a curse by “that fool of a fairy,” but I didn’t go into what a fairy looked like till page 25.  Initially the reader had to know only that there were fairies.

If there is going to be a plot development later in your story that involves a particular fantasy element, you do need to prepare the reader.  For example, if late in the tale your main character rides a flying horse, you don’t want the reader to see her leap on the horse’s back at the same moment he discovers that there are such horses.

This doesn’t mean you have to plan your whole story out ahead of time.  You yourself may not know about the flying horse until your heroine needs to make a fast getaway.  In that case, you can go back to earlier pages and add references to these creatures.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed to bring in the epic poem about the hero Drualt right away, because it was such an important plot thread, but the poem had nothing to do with what was going on in the first pages.  I didn’t want to confuse the reader and make him unsure which way to direct his interest, so I rewrote that beginning dozens of times before I got it right.  You may have to, too.

When you write contemporary realistic fiction, you and your audience have the benefit of shared experience.  Most readers can imagine a school, a city street, a park.  They won’t visualize exactly the school, street, or park in your mind’s eye, but close enough.  In your narrative, you can describe the important landmarks so the reader sees them as you do.

There’s less shared experience in fantasy, but there’s some.  If you’re writing a medieval or Renaissance fantasy, most readers have seen enough movies and TV and read enough books to picture a castle, a princess gown, swordplay.  You don’t have to say that a castle has towers and a moat, but if it lacks one or the other or both, the reader should probably be told.  Also, you need to show the reader the setting, so even if the towers are ordinary, you may want to point them out the first time they come into view.  They may add to the mood or have emotional meaning for your main character, represent home or the enemy, for example.

Ever (for readers age ten and up) is set in two quite different cultures in a fantasy of ancient Mesopotamia, which is less familiar to readers than the Middle Ages.  So I had to show more, but information about the world is still incorporated into the action.  How to do this?  In the second chapter, for example, the mortal girl Kezi is introduced.  A snake is oozing through the house’s courtyard, where Kezi is drawing in clay what will become a design for a rug.  If instead she were chopping vegetables and the house were struck by lightning, the reader wouldn’t have a clue about the historical nature of this fantasy universe.  So consider where you set your action and how you can drop in clues, which the reader will pick up quickly.

Your reader will assume that the rules of our natural world apply to your story unless told otherwise.  You don’t have to mention that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the sky is blue.  But if the planet in your story has two suns, the reader must be told.  However, don’t give your planet two suns just for the heck of it.  You need a plot, character, or mood reason.  Simplicity is usually best, and take pity on the poor reader who has a lot to follow.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (middle school and up, I think, but middle schoolers should check with a parent or librarian) is beautifully set on quite a different planet from ours.  You may want to read the book to see a master at work.

Readers should be able to imagine your fantasy elements, see them, hear them, smell them, feel them.  If something is invisible or inaudible, then the other senses should be able to fill in.  This bit of advice, of course, reflects what I like.  I have little patience for silent, invisible force fields crashing into immovable, invisible, imperceptible objects – unless the writer is being funny and I get the joke.

I’m sure I’ve written this on the blog before: Don’t have one character tell another something they both already know just so the reader can find out about it.  For example, Princess Phillippa shouldn’t say to Prince Phillip, “Remember last month when the evil knight visited the castle and used his magic net to kidnap our father the king?”  Prince Phillip, unless he has amnesia, is unlikely to have forgotten the event, and he also knows that the king is his father.

If you have any suggestions for Silver the Wanderer about building fantasy worlds, please jump in.

Here are four prompts:

•    Write a scene in which you introduce a fortune teller and show the reader that his power is real.

•    Begin a story with dialogue among a statue, an elf, and a sorcerer.

•    Write a market scene, and show how commerce is conducted in this world (without going into the entire monetary system).  Make something threatening happen.

•    Start a story with the arrival of a character who is more than he seems.  Show the reader hints of the hidden aspects of this character, but don’t reveal everything.

If you like, keep going with the story.  Have fun, and save what you write!  And I hope to see some of you on Saturday!

The Old Character

On February 22, 2010, Priyanka wrote, …as a young author, how do you convincingly write an older character?

I’m currently working on a story that revolves around three women- a 19 year old born in the US, her 45 year old mother, who immigrated to the US as a newlywed, and her 65 year old grandmother, who has lived in India her whole life but is deeply involved in the lives of her family overseas.

Now, as a nineteen-year-old myself, it’s very easy to get into the mind and thoughts of that character.

However, I immediately run into problems when trying to create a convincing inner voice for both the mother and the grandmother. I’ve attempted to observe my own family and their friends to get a grasp on how they interact with each other and how they see the world, but I always feel so…artificial, I suppose, is the best way of putting it-when I try and write a passage from the perspective of someone so much older than me. I feel almost presumptuous to be making the assumption that I could possibly understand their perspective.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, one of the sisters, Addie, is very shy.  Although I’m not off-the-charts outgoing, I’m comfortably sociable.  I didn’t know how to write Addie, so I went too far and made her shyness almost catatonic.  My friend Joan, who is genuinely shy, helped me and pulled me back from the brink of caricature.

So you may benefit from showing the parts of your writing that feel artificial to actual older people.  If you’re reluctant to share with your family, try a teacher, a librarian, a friend’s grandparent.  Also, you probably should approach your character’s age with a light touch, which I failed to do at first.

You certainly don’t want to lapse into stereotype.  Nothing (well, almost nothing) is likely to annoy an older person as much as seeing older characters playing Bingo every evening and taking out their false teeth at night and talking about those gosh-darned newfangled telly phones.  I don’t care for it, and my friend who will turn ninety in July wouldn’t care for it, either.

I’m sixty-two, and, frankly, I could go on beyond the tolerance of anyone under fifty about being this semi-advanced age.  Age is a big part of our lives, no matter how old we are and how old we feel.  Age suffuses work, family, romance, health, even if we’re healthy, as I am.  What we do for most of the day has an age aspect.  When we’re young, we’re in school; older, we’re working or taking care of children; older still, we may be working or retired.

A friend to whom I posed Priyanka’s question said, “Language,” and language is certainly worth thinking about.  I don’t mean the “gosh darned” I mentioned above, but something more subtle.  The “wow” and “out of sight” of my ‘60s adolescence has faded from my conversation, and when I use more current expressions I’m generally being playful and deliberate.  I may say “down with it” or “dude” or “awesome,” but not by accident, so my English is probably a little more standard than it used to be.  I have nothing against “dude” or “go” instead of “say.”  They just don’t bubble out of me.  You can apply this both to dialogue and thought.  I never think, “Dude.”

The next several paragraphs are more my ideas about age than direct writing advice.  I hope some of you reading the post will weigh in with your thoughts to help Priyanka and other young writers.

Viewed optimistically, the human race ages and acquires wisdom as time passes.  I have wisdom that I can’t attribute to age, that has come to me because of advances in knowledge.  For example, when I was younger things like relaxation techniques and meditation were unknown in my circle of friends and family.  I don’t remember any talk about stress, although certainly stress existed.  We’re in a more self-aware age now, and I’m wiser because of it.

An older person is more likely to have experienced loss of a loved one through death, is more likely to have had some health challenges, will certainly have suffered more from “ageism.”  But young people can also be very sick, can have lost someone, can have gone through some other kind of hurtful discrimination.  Each of us – old, middle-aged, young – react to these life events uniquely.  One person will talk about his troubles.  Someone else will hold it all in.  There are complainers and people who rise above circumstances at every age.  The saying, People die as they lived, is also true of aging.  People age as they’ve lived.

I don’t mean we fail to change and grow.  Some of us do, most, I hope.  But even when we do, we don’t disconnect completely from our former selves.  It’s like looking at a family photo album.  You can usually pick your mother out of her kindergarten class, even though she’s much taller now and hardly ever wears pigtails anymore.

This is true of our inner lives, too.  We start an interior monologue as soon as we learn words.  It’s continuous, absorbing new understanding so slowly that we don’t notice the difference.  It’s like seeing someone who’s on a diet every day.  The dieter may be disappointed that his family isn’t commenting much on the change.  It takes a family reunion for a distant cousin to tell him how great he looks.  When my father turned seventy, he commented at how surprised he felt about his age.  Inside, he said, he felt no different.

Naturally, some things are likely to dramatically change an inner life:  dementia; mental illness; a catastrophic event, like surviving being in the World Trade Center on 9/11.  But for most of us, change comes almost imperceptibly.

You can do research.  Read about geriatrics.  There are books about the stages of life.  Try reading a few issues of the magazine that AARP publishes.  Join in activities in which you will be the youngest participant, maybe your mother’s book club.  Visit a kindergarten class and feel yourself the oldest person in the room after the teacher.

Most important, respect your characters, and try not to worry about their age.  A joyous character is likely to stay joyous, and a whiner is likely to go on whining.  Write them as you see them – joyous, whining, brilliant, stupid, selfless, selfish – and as they feel to you on the inside.  Put it down, and you can go back later to fine tune.

This prompt is to write about an extended family’s a move to a new home.  You can write about moving day or packing up or the moment the decision to move is made.  Write the move separately in first person from each of the perspectives below.  Be sure to include the characters’ thoughts.  When you’re done, if you like, weave them together into a story.

•    The thirteen-year-old son.

•    The seventeen-year-old daughter.

•    The four-year-old daughter or son.  In my opinion, this is the hardest (maybe impossible) to get right, because there is so much a young child doesn’t understand and is likely to interpret unexpectedly.

•    The mother or father in her or his forties.

•    The grandmother in her sixties.

•    The great-grandfather in his eighties.

For extra credit, now go back and make one of the characters blind.  Put another one in a wheelchair.

Have fun!  Save what you write!


On February 21, 2010, Mary wrote, …I’m having title trouble. Last year, we had to write a fully fledged book for a contest at school.  Mine was probably the longest and was 12 pages long, typed. I came up with a cute title, but now that I’m revising it, I’m not sure it fits….  I’m halfway done with my second draft and it’s 21 pages long, and much less whimsical than my title. I’m sort of attached to the title, it’s what I’ve called my story from the very beginning, almost a year ago. I don’t really want to change it, but I feel that I have to. The title doesn’t represent the main idea any more, but I don’t know how to fix it. Any ideas?

In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “The Right Moniker” that talks about book titles as well as about naming characters, so you may want to take a look at that.

The first title of Ella Enchanted was Charmont and Ella, because I originally thought that Char was going to be as important a character as Ella.  When I realized he wouldn’t be, I shortened the title to Ella, but when the book was accepted for publication, my editor didn’t think that title good enough, so I was asked to come up with a list of alternative titles.  One of the titles I thought of was Spellbound, which I still like.  It’s also the title of a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Another title I submitted was Enchanted Ella.  My editor switched the words around, and the book had a title.

The title of the third book in the Disney Fairies series (to be released in June) is Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which is okay, but not my favorite of the titles I came up with, which I had to agree were far too long.  They would have taken up the whole cover, leaving no room for art.

But sometimes a long title is a plus.  I’m thinking of The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Actually, I’m in title trouble right now.  The fantasy mystery I’ve been telling you about has no title.  All along I called it A Mansioner’s Tale, which has not met with my publisher’s approval.

Here are some ideas I’ve considered for this book and for others that may help you find your own titles :

The main character’s name may be enough.  Think of Heidi and Peter Pan.  Or you can use more than one name, as I tried with Charmont and Ella.  Or you can make the name part of the title, as in another “Cinderella” variant, Just Ella.

A location can be a title.  Think of Wuthering Heights.  The location can be combined with the main character’s name, as in one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables.

You can list words and phrases that reflect the nature of your story.  My novel Ever has this kind of title.  If none of the words and phrases is right, go to a thesaurus and look for synonyms of the words.  One may be your title.

If you are retelling a fairy tale, your title can come from the original.  Most people can guess that my Princess Tale called Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.”  Beauty by Robin McKinley and Beast by Donna Jo Napoli are both versions of “Beauty and the Beast.”

I haven’t tried this, but I’m going to when I get home (I’m on a train to New York City):  I’m going to look at titles in my bookshelves, not to use one of them, but for ideas.  Likewise, I’ll look at our collection of DVDs and CDs.

Alliteration can help make a title sing, such as The Wind in the Willows or Ella Enchanted.  So keep alliteration in mind in your title search.

Sometimes a book grows into its title.  I’m not sure The Two Princesses of Bamarre is the best I could have done, although I thought it was at the time.  Still, the book has had that title for so long that by now it fits.

As you know, notes are always part of my process.  I write down the possibilities and think about them and try to conjure up some more.

When Mary wrote that her title is now too whimsical for her story, she was definitely on the right track.  You want the title to reflect the mood of your work.  Not only the mood, but also the genre and the age group it’s intended for.  For example, Enigma reflects the mystery in my book, but the title is too serious, too thriller-ish.  The Case of… can be a good title for a whodunit, but probably not for a fantasy whodunit set in the Middle Ages, which mine is.

If your story is going to be published, you don’t have only yourself and your audience to please.  The publisher has to be happy too, and the publisher is happy when you present a title that its sales people think will sell.  The sales force has experience and should be heeded, but, of course, no one can predict with certainty what will take off, and a strong story is the most important factor of all.  (And a good cover. A book can fail because of the wrong cover.)

Here are two prompts:

•    Go back to three stories you’ve already found titles for and think of four new titles for each one.  Use the methods I suggest above and any others you think of.  You may come up with a better title or decide in the end that you like the original one best, but you’ll have had the experience of exploring, if you’ve never approached titles this way.

•    Try to come up with the title for my mystery.  If you suggest a title that becomes the title, I will acknowledge your contribution in print in the book itself.  This is probably a one-week deal, because the publisher is getting impatient.  Maybe the challenge is impossible, because I can’t give away the whole story, but here’s a little bit to go on:  Elodie, age twelve, arrives in the town of Two Castles.  Her parents have sent her off alone to be apprenticed to a weaver, but that doesn’t work out, and she is on her own.  She is a talented mansioner (an actor).  The most important characters are:  Elodie; the dragon, Masteress Meenore (not a he or a she, but an IT); and the ogre, Count Jonty Um.  The story is a mystery.  The mood is upbeat, happy, humorous, and it’s written for kids from eight to fourteen.  HarperCollins would like a one-word title, but I have proposed longer ones, and I will continue to.  The people there don’t want the word ogre or dragon in the title.  I’ve decided not to tell you the myriad titles that have been rejected because I don’t want to send your minds down any particular path.  I hope you can think of something.  If you do, post it (one or more) as a comment.  Otherwise the book may have a cover and no title!  Good luck to you and me!

Have fun, and save your titles!


On February 19, 2010 Katie wrote, …how do you get… ideas? I really like to write, but I can never think of anything good to write about. How do you come up with such good ideas?
In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “Eureka!” about getting ideas.  You may want to read that as well as this post.

In my opinion, the most important word in Katie’s question is good, which is a stifling word, especially when you’re in the idea stage.  My definition of a good idea is an idea that makes me think of more ideas.  It may feel stupid, for example, to write a story about a girl with an enormous left thumb.  So you abandon the idea and feel hopeless about ideas.  But suppose you don’t abandon that thumb and let your mind roam.  What would happen if you yourself had a big thumb?  Would you keep injuring it because it gets in the way?  Might you spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office at school?  And in the nurse’s office might you discover a boy who’s there almost constantly, a boy who’s been seen by hardly any other of the students?  What’s he like?  Why is he always sick?  This line of thought could get you started on a story.

Or suppose the thumb belongs to your main character.  It’s a family trait that has skipped five generations.  The last one to have the thumb was a pirate who was hanged, and the queen herself came to the hanging.  But there’s a family legend that someone else was executed in his place, and he’s still sailing the high seas.

Or suppose the big thumb hurts at particular times–during family arguments or before earthquakes or whenever a political figure anywhere in the world is about to be assassinated.

If you decide too soon that an idea is rotten, you lose the chance to hop on its back and fly to all the follow-up ideas.  So I say relax.  When you’re fooling around with ideas, nothing is at stake but some thinking time.

Ideas come to you for a reason, often a reason you (and I) aren’t aware of.  Whatever the idea is, stupid or not, it has meaning.  You don’t ever have to find out what that meaning is, just know that it’s there and try not to judge your idea, because it’s part of you.  Conceivably it’s the goofy part, but goofy is playful, and playful is good.

Suppose you really are dreadful at coming up with initiating ideas, the ones that start a story.  Well, you can borrow someone else’s idea.  This is not theft.  As Maybeawriter commented on the last post, nobody owns an idea.  It’s the expression of an idea that becomes the writer’s intellectual property.  If you want to write about a maiden who’s strangely obedient, feel free.

Copyright law is complicated.  If you write about a character named Ella who is cursed with obedience by a fairy named Lucinda, you may be poaching on my work.  But just the bare bones idea is yours for the taking.  If the story you’re thinking about is very old, you can even borrow the characters including their names.  If you want to call a character Hansel or Gretel, you can.

People have built on stories forever.  Shakespeare did it.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw did it.  I do it (to put myself in exalted company) when I adapt fairy tales for my own use.

Once you pick up an established idea, obviously you have to make it your own, which calls for secondary ideas.  Even a short story needs lots of ideas.  Where is your story going to go?  What characters do you need to take it there?  What obstacles can you throw up to make it hard to reach the ending?  Staying with a goofy idea, you may want goofy obstacles and goofy characters.  The ideas in my series The Princess Tales are mostly goofy.  Goofy, not bad, not stupid.

Without drawing on a particular story, you can ask yourself the kind of story you want to tell:  fantasy, historical, romance, contemporary, mystery, whatever.  Write down your answer or answers.  Think about subcategories.  For example, if you love mysteries, do you especially enjoy the historical ones or the contemporary?  Hard-boiled or soft?  Do you like the emphasis to be on the puzzle or on the action?  Speculate about how you might write that kind of story, where it would take place, who would be in it.  Write notes.

Before I started my mystery novel, I remembered how much I loved the Nero Wolfe series (okay for middle school and above and maybe below, I think, but check with a parent or a librarian.  If you want to build up your vocabulary, these books are great.)  My favorite aspect of the series was the relationship between Nero Wolfe and his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin.  (We named our first dog Archie.)  I wanted to do something similar, create a detecting duo, in my case a girl and a dragon.

For what to do when no ideas come, when you are utterly empty of ideas, try notes.  If idea emptiness describes you, look at the chapter in Writing Magic, because I have a bunch of suggestions there, which I don’t want to repeat. 

Here are a few idea-priming prompts:

•    Pick an object, something in your house, anything, the stove, your violin, your uncle’s needlepoint.  Separate it in your mind from its real history and invent a history for it.  Think of the drama, the tragedy, the comedy that went into its creation, its passage from owner to owner, its effect on the lives of its owners.  Write a story about it.

•    Pick an emotion:  anger, joy, sadness, fear.  Remember the last time you felt that emotion or you watched someone else experience it.  Now move that feeling to a new setting.  Suppose your brother was mad at you for hogging the computer.  Put a character who stands in for him on a rowboat, and make him be the one who wants to row.  What happens?  Or move him to archery practice in Sherwood Forest, and he thinks it’s his turn next.  Think of situations that have built-in tension (possible drowning, arrow wounds).

    If the emotion you pick is joy, you need to make the feeling short-lived.  What will destroy your character’s happiness?

•    Pick two characters from stories you know and put them together in a tight situation, a sinking ship, for example.  Rapunzel and Cinderella.  Captain Hook and the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”  Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” and Snow White.  What would they make of each other?  Would they understand each other?   How can you make them join forces?

Have fun, and save what you write!