Time Out

After my last post, Erin Edwards commented:

“How you do handle gaps in the time line, or resist showing what the character does every second of every day? I think I’ve almost got the day to day stuff figured out but I wonder how you cover it.

“Right now I’m working on describing a longer passage of time without being boring and trying to give some indication of what the main character was doing. I’m also trying to figure out how long a passage of time I should have this way too. So in a way, I guess my question is about deciding time lines in general.”

I struggle constantly with the long and short of time. I’ll start with the long and talk about the short next week.

For an absolutely masterly handling of time – if you’re a grown-up or in high school at least – read The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which I just finished. The book spans about a hundred years, but always feels immediate. The prose is gorgeous and the story intriguing.

Some story structures make handling time easy: epistolary novels (novels in letters or e-mails), novels told in journals or diaries, novels in which each chapter covers a specified period (the first chapter may be March, the second April, and so on).

For other sorts of stories, abridging time involves telling, not showing, using such phrases as The next day, A week passed, A month went by. You can also accomplish this with a theme, like the seasons, as in, Winter ended, and mud season began. Mud season ended, and black fly season began. Or a school theme, like, The second graders filled the corridors with fallen-leaf collages. Fallen leaves morphed into jack-o-lanterns. Jack-o-lanterns became Santa Clauses. But however you do it, skipping a stretch of time inevitably pulls the reader out of the story a little, and you will probably have to fill her in on what she missed.

Here’s how I do it at the beginning of Chapter Nineteen in Fairest:

A week passed. The mood in the castle was bleak. The corridor troubadours sang of pain and grief. Whenever I illused for Ivi I was sure the word trickster would appear on my forehead, spelled out in glaring blush-red. I feared sneezing or hiccupping or fainting. I felt dizzy and feverish.

It’s all tell, no show, very direct. That’s okay. Notice that everything in my summary focuses on the tension that’s moving the story forward. Keeping the tension center stage will help your reader stay interested. Suppose, for example, your characters are preparing for a siege. You can enumerate the preparations that took place during the gap. Sheep were brought in from distant pastures. The armorers repaired damaged weapons. Townspeople packed to move into the castle. A string of five or six of these events will make the reader feel up to date. Naturally, if a siege is looming, you won’t update the reader about the progress of the castle seamstress on the princess’s ball gown. Stick to what the reader is worrying about, the siege.

Your break in continuity should be as short as you can make it. The lengthier it is, in general, the likelier you are to lose your reader. If the gap is years or hundreds of years, you have a challenge I’ve never dealt with, and I would try not to plot a story this way.

Still, it won’t be so hard if the main character continues at the end of the elapsed time, because the reader will still care about him – Rip Van Winkle, for example. If he’s in a time capsule along with all the other important characters, then time matters a little, but not much. But if only the main character remains, the reader will have to adjust to a new time and new people.

If even the main character is gone when the story resumes, I would approach starting the next section as if I were starting an entirely new book and would draw the reader in with a new beginning. A page that says just “Part Two” or “Part Three” will also help prepare the reader.

Isaac Asimov does a fabulous job with multiple long time breaks in his Foundation series about the death of a worn-out civilization and the birth of a vibrant new one. He sets up two groups to bring the next civilization into being, the First Foundation and the Second. Although the characters don’t survive each time jump, the Foundations remain, and the reader wants to see what happens to them. The lesson from Asimov: Build an overarching, impending catastrophe as your temporal bridge.

Everything in writing is possible. You will discover your own ways to manage extended time, or you may already know a few. Please comment with your ideas. Have fun, and save your comments!

Ella Enchanted the Movie

After my last post, K. A. Dawn asked how I feel about Ella Enchanted the movie. I won’t go into a lot of detail because this is a blog about writing, but I have a few writing thoughts connected to the subject.

I like the movie. I regard it as a different entity from the book, which is the way I can appreciate it. They are separate with a thin thread connecting them. And in my opinion Anne Hathaway is the perfect Ella. I’ve met her (Anne Hathaway, not Ella) a few times. When I visit schools, I tell the kids that if they touch me they will have touched someone who was hugged my Anne Hathaway.

There is one particular thing I love about the movie. When Ella is given a command, she reacts physically first. The producer or director decided that her body would receive the command, and her mind would catch up a moment later. I wish I’d thought of that. A mime was brought in to help Anne Hathaway get it.

I’m often also asked how much influence I had on the movie. I had something called “consulting rights,” which means that the producers had to show me the scripts (plural because there were many revisions and a succession of screenwriters). I had the opportunity to comment in an advisory way. No one listened when I protested an evil uncle and a talking snake, but they did make the dialogue changes that I suggested, and they took out moments when Ella was disobedient. However, in making the movie, instances of disobedience crept back in. You can see them if you pay close attention. They’re the only parts that I don’t like.

Just before it opened, Miramax toured me across the country to promote the movie. My husband and I got to go to Ireland to watch three days of shooting, which was fascinating. And I walked on the red carpet. If you watch the Extras segment and don’t blink, you’ll see me.

But the best part is that, to this day, the movie has been great for the book and has brought a lot of readers my way. So, if any of you who are reading this are producers or know a producer or plan to become a producer, I have many more books.

Here’s the connection to writing: As those of you who’ve read the book and seen the movie know, the plots are very different. In the book, Ella’s crisis over her obedience occurs when Char proposes. In the movie it comes at the wedding. I could have done it that way too. Or I could have waited until someone – Hattie or Dame Olga or an enemy of Kyrria – actually tried to use Ella’s obedience against Char. Maybe that approach would have been more logical. Or it might have slowed the pace.

Ella Enchanted and Dave at Night were the two books I learned how to write novels on (although, of course, I’m still learning). After writing 200 pages of Ella, I had to admit that only the first twenty worked. I threw out 180 pages and kept going and finished the book I hope you know. In the pages I tossed out was a whole political system for Kyrria, including oppression of the gnomes, elves, and giants. I came to realize that the politics weighted the story down, and I abandoned that entire thread. The screenwriter, who never saw my earlier draft, put in the ideas I had abandoned. Amazing.

These two examples prove that an idea (in this case obedience) is minimally important, and the expression of the idea is everything. It’s why an idea can’t be copyrighted.

Several times, after I’ve shown a newly completed book to a friend, the friend has said – innocently, not as criticism – How come you didn’t do such-and-such? The such-and-such is always a fundamentally different approach to my story. My head spins. I never thought of such-and-such, which is obvious and great, but I don’t rewrite my book, which came out of my imagination and my need to say a particular thing in a particular way.

For example, in my novel, The Wish, a witch makes Wilma, the main character, the most popular kid in her middle school. The book follows the consequences of Wilma’s sudden popularity. The story centers on that one wish. But what if the witch were to grant other wishes to other students as well as to Wilma? These wishes may or may not compete with Wilma’s wish. The result would be a completely different story.

Here’s a prompt: Think about stories and books you’ve written or abandoned. Consider how you might have gone in another direction entirely. Can you get a new story out of this other direction or bring new life into a story you couldn’t finish? Have fun, and save what you write!

What’s the point?

The second topic my letter-writer asked about is making a point in a story, not necessarily a moral but a point. She thinks a story should make one, but when she tries, she feels preachy, and she also wonders if she has enough experience at age twenty-two to go after a point at all.

Probably by the time we’re eight, or maybe even younger, we’ve accumulated sufficient experience to tell many stories with points, even if we don’t have the skill to tell them well. Some of my earliest memories are from the viewpoint of a grownup observer looking out through my three- or four-year-old eyes. For example, when I was about three, my mother sneaked me off to New York University to have my intelligence tested. On the way home she asked me not to tell my father. I remember consenting and also understanding why she wanted the test. I’m new, I thought. She doesn’t know what to make of me yet.

Do you remember times when your understanding way exceeded your age? And certainly by twenty-two, we’ve all reached many adult conclusions.

So I think age is no obstacle. Deliberately making a point may be a problem, however.

Consider the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. We’re told that the moral is to always do one’s best. But suppose the moral weren’t handed to us. What might we conclude on our own? One interpretation might have to do with kindness. If my brother pig’s house falls down I should take him in. I shouldn’t let him be eaten, even if he could have built a better house. Another moral might have to do with solidarity in the face of a common enemy. Or the moral might have to do with the wolf. He – and by extension we – shouldn’t make empty threats. And on and on.

In “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” I think the real moral is that children shouldn’t be given responsibilities that they demonstrate are beyond them. I’ve asked second graders who they think is the villain in the tale. Many say the boy, but a big minority blame the wolf. Some blame the sheep, for not running away fast enough. A few have blamed the parents of the boy for failing to teach him not to lie.

The moral belongs in the mind of the reader. If you make your point too strongly, you may deprive her of the opportunity to find her own meaning. I’ve heard more than once from readers that Ella Enchanted made them want to be more obedient!

Your story will have a point, whether or not you are trying to develop one. It will be infused with your values and your take on the world. My book Fairest is about a young woman who is unsightly according to the standards of Ayortha, the kingdom she lives in. I wasn’t trying to write a moralistic tale about beauty. I was only trying to tell the story of Snow White from a new angle. But my ideas about beauty crept in.

Regarding another aspect of point-making, I’ve been criticized for letting my villains off too easy. The villain in Fairest, for example, is merely exiled to a castle outside the capital. Her husband still loves her. She’s still queen, still living in luxury. She certainly doesn’t have to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.

There are real people in my life history, people who were cruel to me or to someone I loved, whom I can pleasurably imagine (imagination only) tangoing in burning shoes. But I don’t hate my fictional villains. They’re often the most fun to write. My strongest feeling toward them is gratitude. So in my books maybe evil isn’t punished enough. Yet the bad acts of my villains always have consequences they don’t want and haven’t reckoned on. Most kids learn that their actions have consequences too, and sometimes mercy teaches them that lesson best of all.

Here’s a kind of prompt: Think about books you love and what their points were for you. Discuss them with pals who’ve read them too. See if you all picked up the same meanings. Now think about or reread your own stories and decide what the point might be. Think of more than one possible point, four or five if you can. Go from story to story. Do your points have a family resemblance? Notice how the real you seeps in. Find out what other people see in your stories. I’ll bet that what they take from a story is no surprise to you, based on what you know about them. Your readers melt into a story, just as the author does. It’s one of the miracles of writing.

Of course the point is, don’t worry about making a point.

Nomenclature

A reader of Writing Magic, who is also an English teacher and clearly a fellow writer, has sent me a letter in which she puzzles over two topics, the first about names. At the end of her questions she wonders if she should just “get over” herself and recognize that names don’t matter much.

Without revealing your name, Thanks! I’ll respond to your second question next week. To everyone else, I’m always looking for blog topics, so I’ll be grateful if you put them in your comments.

To my letter-writer, please don’t get over yourself! Names do matter. Picking them shouldn’t be a random act. Naturally, tastes vary. I don’t like names that are obvious, the way they are in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, with characters named Obstinate, Pliable, Goodwill, and so on. I even dislike semi-obvious names. I named a selfish fairy Vidia, rather than Invidia, as had been suggested to me. To my ear, Vidia sounds exactly right, a mean name, but Invidia lacks subtlety, and it’s too long (see below).

I’ll never name a character Stormy because she’s moody. But I may name her Stormy if her sisters are Rain, and Skye. Then, if I’m going in a certain direction, I’ll name their parents Bob and Jane; in a different direction, Yearning and Insight. (Is Yearning the father and Insight the mother? Or vice versa?) Names are fun!

One way to get a name that has meaning without being obvious is to think what the character you’re naming is like. Suppose your character happens actually to be moody. Look up moody in the thesaurus and stare intently at the synonyms. Do you see anything that calls a name to mind? Melancholy – Melanie for a girl, Mel for a boy. Petulant – Petula. Also, I have no problem with neologistic names. (Kids, maybe you’d like to look neologistic up or see if your parents know it.) The synonym irascible (irritable) can become Rassie for a girl, Rass for a boy. It doesn’t trouble me if I’m the only one who gets it.

Nicknames can also take you where you want to go. That moody personality again – his name may be Michael, but his friends call him Mope, which may make him mopier.

I prefer names of one or two syllables, three the limit, unless I’m being funny, and then the more the funnier. Or unless there’s some other purpose for the long name. Even when I’m not going for humor, a character can have eight middle names, but the name for everyday use will be relatively short, and that goes for fantasy and science fiction. I hate names that I can recognize on the page, like Xlmaeiothipnm, but not pronounce.

Sometimes readers, even adults, get confused when two names are very similar. If the main character’s boyfriend is Brad and her brother is Bart, the reader may have to work unnecessarily hard to remember who is which. If you’re writing for children who’ve just learned to read, the experts suggest that all the character names start with a different letter.

Names should work for your story or book’s genre. If you’re writing historical fiction, you probably don’t want to name a girl Brianne or Aspen or a boy Denver or Brooklyn (all popular 2009 names, according to an online source). If you’re writing fantasy, the names Phil and Susan may seem out of place, unless they’re visiting from our world.

I have nothing against using the names of people I know. By chance, I happen to know three Mollys, but I won’t hesitate before naming a character Molly. However, if my friend has an unusual name, I may hesitate, and I may ask the person’s permission, especially if the character is going to torture squirrels. I did name a character after a relative who has an usual name. This relative gave me permission, and the character is not only good, but also my favorite in several books, and yet my relative has not been entirely pleased. So you never know.

Also, pay attention to the names of the people you meet. Write down the good ones (probably not right at that moment!), so you won’t forget.

Sometimes having a naming theme helps narrow down your choices. The book I’m working on now began by being based on Perrault’s version of “Puss ‘N Boots,” although it’s moved away from that. Perrault was French, so I decided that all my names should be pronounceable in French. I know un peu French, so some of the names are Anglicized versions of actual French words. A few readers will catch on, but most won’t, and I don’t care. I get a chuckle out of it.

Which is the point. You get to pick. You are the final authority. Make yourself happy. Even if you don’t use a name you like, save it. It may come in handy in another story.

Life Support

The ending of the first draft of my mystery novel is glimmering in the near distance. It will need many drafts before I’m done, done, done. Still, I’m beginning to wonder what I want my next novel to be.

When I was a wannabe kids’ book writer I often heard editors at conferences say that we beginners should write from our hearts and not consider the marketplace. Excellent advice; excellent even though editors and acquisition committees always consider the marketplace. Writing is hard enough if we love our story. If we love only what the story may bring us (publication, readers, a way out of a boring job), hard becomes agony.

How does this calculation change – or does it change – when we’ve written and published a few books?

I have several unpublished picture books and one published one: Betsy Who Cried Wolf, which is less read than any other of my books, although it’s a book I love. A few years ago I had the chance to ask several editors at HarperCollins what I could do to keep Betsy alive. I thought they would say I should visit more lower elementary grades and talk up the book, which isn’t a bad thing to do anyway, but every single editor said, Write more picture books.

This is the truth I learned: Unless you write a To Kill A Mockingbird or A Catcher in the Rye, it’s important for your writing career (if you want a writing career) to have more than one book up your sleeve. You should be prolific because the reader who falls in love with your first book will want more of you. Those who read your second book first and love it will seek out your first book. And so on. I wish J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee had written more books.

This applies not merely to the number of books you write, but also to the kind. Children of picture-book age and their parents will want more picture books. Kids who are into fantasy will want more fantasy.

Regarding Betsy Who Cried Wolf, I decided to try to write another picture book, and I decided it should be a Betsy book, so I cast about for an idea. My sole motive was to write a new book to support the old one. This anecdote has a disappointingly happy ending from the moral point of view. I found an idea and wrote a bad draft, which critique buddies and my editor helped me improve and improve and improve until now I approve of it. The book, Betsy Red Hoodie, will be out next summer or fall. As with Betsy Who Cried Wolf, it will have delightful illustrations by Scott Nash, even more delightful, since the sheep now wear hats.

Still, my reason for writing Betsy Red Hoodie stank. And yet, I will try to write more Betsy books after this one. Maybe there is no moral here.

Back to deliberations over my next novel. One of the comments in my last post was a question about the sort of books Dave at Night and Ever are. You probably know that Ella Enchanted is my most read book (I don’t like to say best-selling, but that too). The closer a book I write is to Ella, the more readers flock to it. The outliers – like The Wish, which is a contemporary fantasy, and even Ever, which is an ancient Mesopotamian fantasy, and most of all, Dave at Night, a historical novel and not a fantasy – have to fend for themselves. (Writing Magic, nonfiction, is in an entirely different category and is finding its audience.)

If I could write a series about Ella, I wouldn’t have to deliberate. Lots of people, kids and adults, enjoy the comfort of a series, returning to beloved characters and finding out what new messes they’ve gotten into. I like series too. I’ve mentioned before that I adore Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

But although I’ve written three books in the Disney Fairies series, I’m not really a series writer. I don’t have a series arc in mind. I just make up new adventures each time. And usually I find writing a novel so arduous that when I’m done I don’t want to go near those characters ever again.

My mystery novel may also hover on the periphery. It’s fantasy, but there are no fairies and no romance. However, it’s been fascinating to write, which may be the real moral.

So these are my thoughts for my future: I have an idea for another book in the world of Dave at Night, a second historical novel. This one would be about Dave’s friend Alfie, who has to leave the orphanage because he has consumption (tuberculosis).

I would also like to write a novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which affected my ancestors on my father’s side. Our clan moved to Turkey, but the expulsion reverberated so strongly through the generations that my family went on speaking Spanish for 500 years. Although the idea is historical, I will probably turn it into another fantasy in ancient Mesopotamia, and I won’t have to do extensive research.

Then I also have ideas connected to The Wish and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. In the end, I will probably go with the story that makes me the happiest to think about. Writing a picture book doesn’t take very long. It’s like a vacation in the south of France. Ooh la la! Charmant, but over before you know it. Writing a novel is an expedition. You need a string of camels to make it to your destination; best if each camel has a dozen humps filled with enthusiasm.

What does this mean for you? It’s simply information. Get to know the kind of writer you are, what you’re drawn to. If you like to skip around and try many things, that’s fine. It’s really great, actually. If you like to write only about robots that can manipulate humans through thought control, that’s great too. Just have fun, and save what you write!

Save Me

In a comment after my last post I was asked how I organize my work to keep from losing drafts as I go along. This is how I do it. There are probably a hundred other ways.

This is an important topic. Your storytelling is you. The way you tell and revise a story is as much you as the way you chew your food or walk or laugh, and your storytelling can last; the rest is fleeting.

I write exclusively on the computer, so I have no longhand drafts. When I begin a new project, I name a folder for it based on what I think the book is going to be about. For example, I just finished a book in the Disney Fairies series. The folder is called Mother Dove, although the story turned out not to be about her. I should rename it, but I haven’t and probably never will, which will mean that a few years from now, I’ll waste time hunting for it. So if you name your folder and the name stops applying, change it. Don’t be like me.

Before I write a book, I write notes. I keep a separate file (or document) of notes for each book. Be like me that way. Don’t let your notes for one book run into your notes for another. The notes file goes in the folder for the book. I’ve posted about my notes, so I’ll say here only that sometimes I copy a few sentences or a paragraph that I’m not happy with from my manuscript itself into my notes. Then I copy that section over and over, improving as I go. When I’m satisfied, I copy the revised version into my manuscript and overwrite the original, which is gone from my manuscript but preserved in my notes. Even better, the evolution is preserved, step by step. This will simplify the work of my and your future biographers. And it’s gratifying to have a record of what I went through.

When I start the manuscript itself, it becomes a file in the folder too. I name it and follow the name with a version number, obviously 1 initially. (The file name has nothing to do with the book’s title.) Whenever I change the direction of the story, I save the old version with its old version number and then save it again with a subsequent number. I wouldn’t have to do this if I were just going to keep writing forward, but I’m probably going to go back and revise some of what I’ve already written to support the new direction. If I don’t save the old version, I’ll lose it, and what if my new path turns out to be a dead end? When I make a really radical departure, like shifting POV, I rename the file entirely and number it 1 again, although I keep it in the same folder. The reason for the new name is for me to be able to spot where I took such a different tack.

The result is that I have many truncated versions of all my books. Fairest was a ridiculously hard book to write. A minute ago I counted, just to see: eighty-nine versions and five names before I finished the first draft.

After I’ve sent the manuscript to my editor and have gotten back her edits and her astonishingly long editorial letter (eighteen single-spaced pages for Fairest), I rename the file again. I usually call it edit at that point, edit1. I’m revising now for my editor, but also for me, so I may still veer off into unexplored territory.

Even with this elaborate method, I lose small revisions, but I don’t care about those. Nothing important is lost.

On the downside, gems from an earlier version that I want to use later can be hard to find. So I have another file called extra. When I delete something I like, I copy it into my extra file. The bit I like doesn’t have to be a whole scene, although it can be. It can also be a neat phrase, or anything I think I might need at some point. My extra file is shorter than a whole version, more manageable. Usually I remember a phrase or key word from the bit I want that I can search on. My extra file gives me a huge sense of security.

And speaking of security, you do back everything up, right? (Kids, if you don’t know what it means to “back up,” ask your parents.) Because there’s no point to an elaborate version system if you’re going to lose your precious work anyway. So save what you write!

Come again?

I’m reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (not for kids). Atwood writes with such skill that I’m plunged into awe. I wish I could do what she does. Her prose is poetic, yet nothing about its beauty is difficult. She raises no obstacles of ornateness, and she reminds me that story needs to come first, which comforts me: If I can tell my story straightforwardly, I’m okay.

Here are some prosaic, even mechanical things that I pay attention to when I write and when I revise. The point is to make my prose lively without shifting the focus away from my story.

I vary my sentence beginnings or at least don’t let three sentences in a row start in the same way. Two identical beginnings are acceptable (my rule). When I’m writing in first person I don’t let one sentence after another start with I. However, no rule applies all the time. Sometimes repeating a beginning sets up a beat that I like.

A critique buddy once remarked that I wasn’t avoiding the verb is, which made me self-conscious and worried. I hadn’t considered is before. Is isn’t interesting, but it is unavoidable. Now that my friend pointed out my profligate ising, I’ve been rearranging some sentences to bring more striking verbs into the act. Still, whenever I read is in a string of sentences by an author I like, I think, See, even she or he does it.

In my first submission of Writing Magic, my editor found twenty zillion appearances of the word stuff. I hadn’t noticed, maybe because I like the word, which feels friendly and informal – but I didn’t like it enough to want it to show up seven times on every page. In my latest manuscript for the Disney Fairies series, I wrote “Atop the tabletop.” I didn’t mean to do that. Good thing my editor caught it.

I’m lucky to have editors who are sensitive to word repetition, but I cultivate my own sensitivity, too. Whenever I suspect that I’m overusing a word, I type it in a list above the title of my book. Just before I submit the manuscript, I do a word search on the list. If a word appears too often I consult the thesaurus for alternatives.

On the other hand, in Peter Pan, James M. Barrie repeatedly uses the phrase “of course.” I adore Peter Pan and think Barrie a supple stylist. When I write my books about the fairies of Neverland, I connect them to Barrie by scattering “of course” with abandon.

On the other other hand, in a book about writing (I don’t remember which one), I read that extraordinary words shouldn’t appear more than once or twice in a whole book. For example, I like the word susurration, which means a whispering sound, because it’s onomatopoeic, which means it sounds like what it means. But I wouldn’t use susurration more than once in a book. The reader would notice. The word would draw attention to itself and away from the story.

(Susurration seems to be a noun without a verb form. Webster’s shows no susurrate. Susurrate appears in the OED as rare. How interesting!)

My sentences tend to be short. That’s how I write. That’s my style. See? However, when I remember, I write against type and connect independent clauses with a because or since or so, because I don’t want every sentence to be four words long. Even so, lyrical fifty-word sentences are unusual in my books.

In addition to length, I switch around my sentence structures. For example, I don’t like sentence after sentence consisting of two independent clauses connected by comma and. I prefer short sentences to that. I also dislike a series of this-comma-but-that sentences that, so I use however, though, although, or, better yet, recast the ideas entirely.

This is all a matter of taste. Some writers don’t care about any of these things. When I’m caught up in reading a story, I don’t care either, but when I’m starting a novel or returning to one and I’m not yet hypnotized, I do notice. I get annoyed. I may even ditch the book.

If you want to play around with your own repetition, examine something short that you’ve written. Look for your tics – the words you overuse, your sentence arrangements – and fiddle with them. As you continue to write your longer work, keep these ideas in mind. I don’t suggest you go back if you’re in the middle of a novel. In fact, I believe that would be a bad idea, not at all worth your time. When you finish and revise, however, look for your repetitions and ask your critique pals to look too. Have fun, and save your changes!

Between a Rock and a Can of Worms

Last Thursday, a guest came and talked to the kids in my creative-writing workshop in Brewster, New York. Our visitor was Patricia T. O’Conner (spelled correctly with an e), word maven and author of many books about English. I discovered Pat because I often listen to the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC (online or at 93.9 FM, 820 AM) and I always listen when Pat is on, which is the third Wednesday of every month at about 1:30 pm. Pat is delightful, and she and Leonard Lopate have great fun with our wild and wayward language. To the workshop kids, she discussed etymology in general, the roots of some particular words, and a few reasons for the oddities of English spelling and punctuation. She was wonderful, and the kids were, too, asking questions, taking notes, obviously fascinated.

Before she came, I wasn’t sure her presentation would fill our hour-and-a-half, which it did, but I prepared for any leftover time, just in case. In her books, Woe Is I Jr. and Woe Is I for grownups, Pat devotes most of a chapter to cliches, so I prepared a bunch of writing prompts for the kids, which I will use tomorrow, involving cliches. You get to try them out first.

Cliches survive on their power. Some, like “blanket of snow,” are just catchy ways to capture an image. But others have tremendous depth. They’re great, except for the small detail of having been way overused.

These prompts go back to my post about the whited sepulcher (WS). You can revisit it or just recall that a WS is a person who seems good but is really evil. I picked cliches that I think are meaty.

• Between a rock and a hard place. What is the rock and what is the hard place that motivates your WS? I harbor the happy idea that villains are villainous out of internal or external desperation. How does this operate in your villain? Invent a scene that shows these forces at work.

• Makes him (or her) tick. This is similar to the first prompt, but you don’t have to treat it the same way. Maybe visit the WS’s childhood and write a flashback that shows how he became bad.

• Calm before the storm. Write a scene with rising tension that reveals what sets your WS off. You may want to bring a victim into this scene.

• Can of worms. The brain of a WS is likely to be an unpleasant place. What goes on in the mind of your WS? Write what she thinks before she falls asleep or when she wakes up or when walking down the street. Consider how her thought process may be different from the thoughts of ordinary people – more chaotic, more disciplined, more or less fully formed. Pay attention to the way you think so you have a model to move away from.

• Cut to the chase. Write a tense beginning that shows your WS in action.

• 24/7. Show how your WS never has time off from his evil. Maybe his thoughts won’t give him a break. Maybe as soon as he performs one heinous act, the urge rises instantly to perform another. Maybe he ticks off his villainy the way we check off items on a shopping list. Comedy is always possible.

• World class. Show your WS getting the best of another baddie or a clever and powerful good opponent. Let your reader see what the WS’s victim (not super powerful, not extraordinarily clever) will be up against.

If your WS keeps turning into a hero, don’t worry about it. She may show her awful side eventually, or not. Just keep writing.

When you play out a cliche without using its words you freshen it up and get to the core that made it a cliche. By the way, Pat says, and I agree, that cliches are fine, sometimes great, if used well and sparingly. They’re also impossible to eschew completely, so don’t go on a witch hunt (cliche!) to eliminate every one.

Here’s a link to Pat’s scintillating website: http://www.grammarphobia.com/.

Have fun with the prompts and save what you write!

Facing the Music

Yesterday, I was part of a program in which one participant was evaluated by the others in a process called “Face the Music.” Over time, everyone in this program has to “face the music,” which isn’t a form of oral hazing; the evaluations are always kind.

But it started me thinking of trying this as a writing exercise. Facing the Music is different from an elevator story, in which you throw characters together in an elevator, make the elevator get stuck, and see how they respond. Of course, an elevator story doesn’t have to take place in an elevator – could be a life raft, a submarine in trouble, a hijacked airplane. In an elevator story, the tension originates from an outside source (the busted elevator) and builds because of the natures of the trapped people. In Face the Music, the tension, if there is any, arises entirely from the characters, and tension isn’t the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to learn more about your characters and possibly even find out where you’re letting them down.

So, what if I gather my characters together and make them evaluate one another? There are bunches of ways to do this: They can sit in a circle on hard wooden chairs in a gritty, charmless room, a setting you may see in a movie scene of some sort of group counseling. My characters will behave characteristically. The one who manipulates will manipulate; the compulsive truth-teller will be honest; the shy one will keep quiet.

Or I can give my characters a truth serum, so they’ll have to tell all. I can watch them react to finding out how their fellow characters really perceive them.

Or I can have them write anonymous evaluations, and I can pass the evaluations out to the respective characters. Despite the anonymity, I suspect some will still lie once the truth serum leaves their systems. With written evaluations I’ll see their handwriting and discover how they express themselves in writing. Unfortunately, in the book I’m working on now, many are illiterate.

Here’s a new idea: What if I introduce myself into the exercise? What if I’m the one evaluating my characters? I’m more than halfway through this novel, so I should know them pretty well. Oh, this is interesting! One is an underachiever. I had much higher hopes for this character. And I hate this other one, who isn’t my villain. I didn’t know that I hate him until now. He doesn’t pay much attention to my main character, who adores him, and I feel bad for her. He’s a cold fish. I absolutely like my villain, who, if he or she weren’t a killer, would be a complete delight. My main character is unfocused. I wish she’d concentrate on one thing and stick with it. The king is what he should be: selfish, unfeeling, ambitious. He gets an A+ for coming through just right.

I can also have my characters evaluate me. Some will want out of the book entirely, but others will want me to make them main. They will want their wishes more indulged.

You can play Face the Music with your characters in all these ways. One way or another may prove the most useful. The form that just worked best for me was evaluating everyone myself. Now I know that I have to give my underachiever more to do, and I have to make my main character choose what she most wants to want. And I’m glad to know how strongly I feel about the character I hate. I need to decide if I want to make him more hateful or not hateful at all. Cool.

If you play Face the Music, have fun, and save what you write!

Fear of flat

When my first and excellent editor, Alix Reid, would edit my manuscripts, she used to sprinkle the word flat here and there – at random, it seemed to me. Flat was the edit I most hated to see. What’s wrong with this? I always thought and never asked. I just tried to make the flat words plumper, rounder, better. Whatever I’d written usually did get better, just because if you pay close attention to anything, you can improve it.

Now that Alix has left New York publishing, I think I finally know what she meant. A sentence like I’m scared. might warrant a flat. I’m scared is a summary statement, not specific, not very interesting. The reader might reasonably want to know how this particular character is scared–

which I find hard to express in an un-flat, original way. The other day I needed to describe a character exhibiting fear. He isn’t my POV character, so I had no access to his thoughts. I hunted for new ways to show fright by googling images of “frightened person.” My sad discovery was that we all look a lot alike when we’re scared. These are the symptoms I saw: mouth open in a scream or partially open with the lips curving down, curled hands near the neck or mouth, a lot of whites of the eyes, raised eyebrows. Then I googled “fear response,” not in images, but on the web, and read about fear. We all look much alike when we’re afraid, because the same processes are going on in the brains of all of us. The article didn’t mention the brains of trained assassins or the insane, just normal people’s. When terror strikes, the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the sensory cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus get into the act. Blood rushes away from our skin (so we pale) to the muscles that can fight or carry us away. Our hearts speed up, likewise our blood pressure. This inner brouhaha causes the images I saw.

Weirdly, as I learned about fear, my heart started racing.

In just about every book I’ve written my main character’s heart has pounded once or twice. I never want to write the cliche, but I do like to terrify my characters. After scaring them a few times and writing more interesting reactions, my ingenuity runs out, and, their hearts pound. In the case of the character I mentioned before, however, since he’s not the POV character, I can’t even pound his heart, because I can’t tell from the outside what his heart is doing. I don’t have to be inside him for him to speak or scream. If he did, maybe something un-flat would come out, but he’s a stoic, silent sort. Very difficult.

It’s easier with a POV character because we do have his thoughts to work with, although in a panicky moment he doesn’t have much time to think. A lengthy rumination would slow the action and drain away the tension. But a short, surprising thought is great, if you or I or he can come up with one.

In my books about the fairies of Never Land, I have extra options. The fairies are surrounded by a halo of light – their glows – and they have wings. This is wonderful – wings flutter or freeze; a fairy drops suddenly; the glows change color or dim or flicker or go out or flare up. If only people had glows and wings or even reacted idiosyncratically: one person’s hair turning purple, another’s ears spinning, somebody else’s chin lengthening – temporary responses or permanent evidence. But these fascinating changes are beyond us. So what else is there?

One of my early jobs after college took me into unsafe neighborhoods in New York City, long before cell phones were invented. It was a job I loved, and I felt scared only when the streets were deserted. What I did then was to talk aloud to myself like a lunatic. I don’t remember my words, nothing useful, no teleporting spells. I haven’t put this fear technique of mine in a book. The right moment hasn’t come, but my compulsive speech is worth remembering.

You might find it useful to recall your own scary experiences and what you said and thought and did and felt. You could ask other people about their frightening memories and write the answers down. You can build up a stockpile of these and never go flat when your character is afraid. I think I’m going to do that. Have fun!