Whose Eyes? Whose Voice?

After my last post, Kim wrote,

How do you choose the point of view for a particular story, and what, to you, are the pros and cons of 1st person versus 3rd person POV?

My last novel was in the 3rd person, but my work in progress is (currently) in 1st person. I can’t seem to get the voice right–it feels a bit pretentious, to tell the truth, because I’m trying to write a lyrical piece–and I’ve considered going back to the 3rd person. Do certain novels scream a particular POV to you as you’re working on them? I noticed in this post that you bounced around in the POV you chose until you selected the “right” one. How did you know which POV to choose?

I have a chapter about point of view (POV) in Writing Magic. I define it there, but, briefly, the two main POVs are first person and third. In first person, the narrator is a character in the story, usually but not always the main character, and tells the story as I. In third person, the narrator is outside the story and all the character pronouns are he and she. A third-person narrator can be omniscient (all knowing) and can reveal scenes in which the main character is not present; or the third-person narrator can stick to the main character and show only scenes he’s in. It’s also possible to write from a second-person POV (you) or first-person plural POV (we), but these are rare.

In some of my books POV was the major hurdle. I was a long time getting it right in Ever, Fairest, and the final Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which will be out next June.

Fairest is my best example of POV misery. It’s a retelling of Snow White. Since Snow White bites into a poison apple and is in a coma for a big chunk of the story, I thought I couldn’t tell it from her POV. Initially, I decided to tell it in first person from the POV of a gnome. (The gnomes stand in for the dwarfs in the original fairy tale.) I decided a gnome named zhamM would be madly in love with the Snow White character, Aza. His love would be doomed, however, because he’s a gnome and she’s a human. It would be a tragedy modeled on Cyrano de Bergerac. I wrote 300 pages from zhamM’s POV, while my critique buddy kept scratching her head and telling me something was wrong. Finally I had to admit my choice had been a mistake.

I started over from the POV of the prince and wrote another 300 pages, which weren’t right either. Next I tried third-person omniscient, which I loved. I loved getting into the jealous queen’s head and into the mind of the villain in the magic mirror. However, the story clunked along at the pace of an ancient turtle. It wasn’t working, but, of course, I wrote 300 pages before I faced the truth.

Some scenes remained more or less the same from version to version, so I didn’t have to rewrite every one of those 300 pages each time. But I rewrote a lot. And finally I figured out how to go into Aza’s coma and tell the story from her first-person POV, and I finished the book.

Still, sometimes I wonder: If I had hung in with third person, could I have made it work? Did I abandon it too soon? If I’d continued writing to page 400 or 500, might all have become clear?

The point is that POV can be hard to figure out and may not be possible to decide on in advance. You may have to try telling your story one way and another (and another and another) until you find out. There may be no shortcut for a particular book.

However, when you think about POV, here are a few considerations:

Whose story are you telling? In Ever and in most of my Princess Tales series the story belongs to two main characters. In Ever, I solved the problem by alternating first-person POVs between the two from chapter to chapter. In The Princess Tales, I used an omniscient third-person POV. In the first two Disney Fairies books, the story belongs to a cast of several fairies, and the only choice seemed to be third-person omniscient. Most often, though, my stories belong primarily to one main character, and I tell it in his or her voice.

What seems simplest, most direct, even easiest? I tend to complicate my stories. My Cyrano de Bergerac idea is a good example. Writing is hard enough without setting up roadblocks to make it harder. But simplicity is only one consideration. Making the best book you can is paramount. In The Book Thief, the simplest way to tell the story might have been from Liesel’s POV, but Markus Zusak chose Death. I wonder if he tried other POV characters before arriving at Death.

Are there any plot considerations that prevent the story from being told by a particular character? (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, I’m about to give something away. You may want to skip ahead.) Maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t tell Gatsby from Gatsby’s POV solely because Gatsby dies. Maybe he had other reasons as well. A dead main character was not a problem for Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones, since the main character is writing from an afterlife. (By the way, Gatsby, The Book Thief, and The Lovely Bones are not to be read before high school, I’d guess. Check with a parent or librarian.)

What sort of voice are you looking for? I talk about this a little in Writing Magic. A first person voice needs to reflect the personality of the character. An omniscient narrator can have any sort of voice – old-fashioned, Gothic, Valley Girl, journalistic – and whichever you pick will infuse the entire book. Each voice feels different as you’re writing in it.

Here’s a prompt: Think about the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” one of my favorites. Look it up if you don’t remember it well. My Brothers Grimm version is told in third person, but the reader sees the story mostly through the eyes of the soldier. Try retelling it, or a piece of it, from the POV of various characters and in third person omniscient. See what happens to the story and to you when you switch. Have fun, and save what you write!

Transformations

After my last post Erin Edwards wrote:

I was thinking some more about this. It is interesting that you don’t do a lot of planning and organizing before you write, because I have found that if I don’t do at least some, I can’t write *anything* that isn’t extremely boring (if I can write anything at all.)
I am beginning to think that what some writers call first drafts and some call outlines look nothing like what I think a rough draft or an outline would look like. I learned a lot once from a conference where an editor showed the steps a manuscript took between submission and the final picture book. I wonder if you would consider showing us the rough draft of a scene and how it developed in the final book?

I asked for clarification, and Erin answered:

What I mean by a rough draft or an outline is what is the first thing you write down about a scene?

Then do you build directly on that? Or just take those ideas and start writing something new on a clean page?

I thought it would be easy to answer Erin’s questions, but when I looked at my notes I founds that my method isn’t methodical. Many many many and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I found an example, but I don’t know how representative it is.

Anyway, I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way, it’s just my method.

The notes and the three fragments below are from my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever. These are my notes for the scene. The words in parentheses are from me now.

Maybe Kezi is there when Father swears oath. Maybe she plans to be there, to have oath carried out on her. Maybe she thinks father wouldn’t carry it out on her. Maybe the 3 of them are there. Maybe mother says she’ll be ok. Maybe mother says, keep everyone from him for three days. Then the oath will have no power, or Kezi knows this. She tries to keep everyone away, but a cousin comes. Kezi saves the cousin.

If Father had sworn that if Mother recovered he would sacrifice a goat, he would have had to do it. He wouldn’t have been able to wait three days and then forget about the oath. But if he swore, for example, that if IL (god whose name changes in each version) gave him a safe sea voyage he would sacrifice the first fish he caught to IL, if he didn’t catch any fish in t first three days, he could eat the fish on the 4th day. If no one congratulated Father (Trails off here, which notes can do.)

This story fragment, the beginning of the oath scene, was written around 3/24/06:

Only IL’s altar flame is steady. I am thrumming with fear. I’m pouring Mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but I spill water on my hand anyway.
Mother is trembling more than I. Beads of sweat stand out on her forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Father paces. He sits on the divan next to Mother, dries her face with his own sweat cloth. He stands, paces, sits again.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Mother tells Father, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

In the next version, the POV changes to third person. It was revised before 4/21/06:

Only Anlil’s altar flame is steady. Kezi thrums with fear. She pours her mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but Kezi spills some of the water anyway.
Merem is trembling more than Kezi is. Beads of sweat stand out on Merem’s forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Senat paces, which frightens Kezi more than anything. Her father is always confident.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Merem says, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

This is from the copy-edited manuscript, revised in 1/08, but the scene didn’t go directly from the one above to this. There must have been more changes along the way. Notice that the POV has gone back to first person. What you cant tell from this scene, though, is that now there are two first-person narrators. Here it is:

My bones hum with fear. Mati (Mother) didn’t rise from her bed this morning. Pado (Father) and I are with her. She’s shivering with fever and sweating at the same time. She presses one hand into her belly.
Pado paces, which frightens me almost as much as Mati’s fever. He’s always the calm one. An hour ago he sent for an asupu – a physician. Asupus are called when there isn’t much hope.
Admat, the One, the All, pity my pado and me. Let Mati stay with us a little longer. As You wish, so it will be.
There is no sign from Admat. The altar flame is steady. My prayer pulses through my mind, under my other thoughts.

I’m not confident in the usefulness of this example. It’s only one scene, and everybody works differently. My problem is rarely awkward writing; it’s getting the stories and the characters right. I head off in wrong directions and write lovely scenes that I adore and mourn when I have to amputate them. In my last three novels, Ever among them – I may have mentioned this earlier in the blog – I’ve had trouble making my main character likable. A lot of my revising has gone to making her someone a reader can identify with. I don’t think this is an issue, however, in the scene above.

To get a really solid idea of the way I wander around until I get things right, one would have to go through all my drafts. It may be possible actually to do this for an author you love. The Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota holds drafts of children’s literature and I believe there are other libraries that do the same. I’ve donated to Kerlan, but never enough for a thorough reconstruction.

If you’re in a critique group, you could share notes and outlines with one another. If you’re not, you might ask other writers you know how they revise. And it’s worthwhile to look through your own past work and outlines and notes to understand your personal mysterious process. Have fun!

Tense again

After my last post, Pam wrote this comment: “These all seem like things that you need to plan ahead. How do you organize your stories and plots to make sure these stay consistent?”

Most of my consistency comes from revision. For example, in the mystery I’m working on, I gave the ogre a cat as a pet. Later, the plot demanded that the cat – poof! – become a dog. If you make a change like this, you can stop where you are and go back to the beginning to transform the cat everywhere it appears, not only changing the word, but also the animal’s behavior. Or you can wait until the end and then fix. The advantage of waiting until the end, I’ve recently discovered, is that the dog could later turn into an aardvark or three aardvarks or no pet at all.

As for planning and organizing, I don’t do a lot of either one before I begin writing. I have an idea. I write a few pages of notes and develop an impression, no more than that, of the way I want the story to go. If I’m working from a fairy tale, the fairy tale itself gives me a rough outline. But most fairy tales are only a few pages long and I’m writing a novel, so I have a great deal of improvising ahead.

Let’s revisit the suspense builders of the previous post. If you are coming to my blog for the first time, this new post will make more sense if you read the one before, from October 1st. You don’t need to go further back than that.

1. Time pressure. This could be something I know before I start writing. For example, in Ever I knew from the start that Kezi would believe she had a short life span ahead of her. I took care to remind the reader now and then of her days remaining, but I didn’t have to drop the reminders in very often, because a literal drop-dead-line is potent.

If I were going to title chapters in time intervals, I might start this at the beginning, but I could also do it in revision to give the book a more visible structure.

2. Distance. Ditto.

3. Thoughts. Revealing a character’s thoughts serves many purposes, not simply raising suspense. This does not require planning. You should get in the habit of including your main character’s thoughts – and feelings – as you go along. Not at every turn, but at many turns. Otherwise your character will be a puzzlement to your readers and may even seem flat and robotic.

4. Nonstop action. If I were writing this kind of book I would know it from the start, but I wouldn’t plan each twist and turn. I would look for opportunities as they were presented by setting, dialogue, the nature of the characters – by every story element.

5. Separation from the problem. As you’ve probably discovered, many – maybe most – of the best parts of a story are the result of happy accident. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I didn’t plan Addie’s separation from her sister as a suspense creator. My story had a sick sister and a healthy sister, who needed to save the sick one. She couldn’t do it by staying at home, and Meryl, the sick sister, was too ill to travel. Voila! Separation, which I made do double duty to raise the suspense.

6. A flaw in your main character. This might have to be planned from the get-go if it’s the engine that drives the story. But, in general, you want your main character to be at least a little flawed, so she can grow in the course of the story and so that the reader can love her. A paragon is hard to warm up to. A small flaw may still give you opportunities for suspenseful moments.

7. A flaw in a secondary character. Again, if this is the thrust of your story, it will help if you know it from the start. However, even if it is the most important thing, it may not begin that way. You may have something entirely different in mind when you stumble across this character, who passes himself off as the brother of the main character’s long-dead father, and – screech, skid around a corner – you discover what you really want to write about. The story continues from there. Don’t let planning get in the way of something wondrous. Serendipity is a writer’s good friend.

Let’s skip the others. I have nothing new to say about them. The degree of planning and organization varies from writer to writer. Some writers work everything out ahead. The wonderful young-adult author Walter Dean Myers once told me that by the time he starts writing he knows how many chapters he will have, the length of each one, and exactly how many sheets of paper to put in his printer.

My jaw hung open.

I’m not capable of this. If you’re not either, you have tools to help you: Jog your memory in your notes or in a separate document of the suspense elements that you want to return to again and again. Be open to the opportunities for suspense that pop up along the way. Take advantage of the accidents that your subconscious tosses you. Even allow your whole plot to be blown apart by some surprise that happens along. Remember to include your character’s or characters’ thoughts. For consistency, revise, revise, revise.

Here’s a fresh prompt on suspense. After I wrote my list of suspense producers last week, I started thinking that just about every situation can cause tension. Here I am, typing at my computer. Suppose the words that are appearing on my screen aren’t the words I’m typing. I would freak out, and a reader probably would too. So the prompt is: As you do whatever you’re doing today, think about how each action (putting on your socks, answering your teacher’s or boss’s questions, passing a store window), or each place (your bedroom, classroom or conference room, a city street) could be suspenseful. At the end of the day or whenever you can, write down the ideas that came to you. Have fun, and save what you write!

Before I go, thanks to everyone who’s posted comments and questions. I love knowing you’re out there, and the questions help me with new posts.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

After my last post, Hope commented in a way that made me think of suspense more than of time, so this new post is about ways to create suspense, eleven ways in no particular order:

1. Time pressure, which I’ve already written about. However, mere time pressure isn’t enough. The reader has to be reminded of it. The deadline, whatever it is, has to loom. You can make it loom in lots of ways: with count-down chapter headings; in scenes that show how unprepared your main character is; in dialogue, when the teacher repeatedly reminds his class of how many days are left until the exams that will determine your main character’s future forever.

2. Distance. Distance can operate a lot like time. Susan, your main character, is traveling toward some critical destination – a long-lost parent, a trial, someone who once hurt Susan. The chapter headings can be miles remaining or train stops to go. The history that makes the destination critical can be told in flashbacks along the way. In this case the destination has to be made to loom.

3. Thoughts. If your main character worries, your reader is likely to worry. The scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the tin man, and the scarecrow repeat “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” is a great example. The words are spoken because it’s a movie, but the refrain could just as well be Dorothy’s terrified thought loop. You don’t want your main character to worry ceaselessly – unless he has an anxiety disorder – but you do want to drop in a few thoughts about possible disaster every so often. As an added benefit, worries are a great way to end a chapter when you don’t have an actual cliffhanger handy.

4. Nonstop action. A crime novel called Slayground by Richard Stark, obviously not for kids, is a book-length chase through an amusement park that has only one exit. I finished the book in a single sitting. I didn’t like the main character much, but I hated the goons who were after him, and I had to find out how and if he escaped. The amusement park setting provided a zillion opportunities for inventive booby traps and narrow escapes.

Your story may not allow the action to be this quick and pounding all the way through, but you may be able to rev things up here and there.

5. Separation from the problem. Suppose your main character, Lucy, has an enemy, and suppose Lucy has to go on a class wilderness week. What is the enemy doing while she’s away? What’s going to greet her on her return? If you aren’t writing in first person, you can even show what Lucy is going to walk into. Of course, the wilderness week has to be interesting too.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, the main character, Addie, sets out to find the cure for her sister’s incurable disease. While the two sisters are apart and when Addie is deprived of her magic spyglass, she keeps worrying that her sister’s condition has worsened. I wanted the reader to worry too. What if Meryl has already died?

6. A flaw in your main character. If you’ve seen the Back to the Future movies, Marty cannot tolerate being called a coward and always loses control when he is. The audience cringes, waiting for his next implosion. In Two Princesses again, Addie actually is a coward. The reader fears that she won’t find the courage to help her sister.

7. A flaw in an important secondary character. Suppose your main character’s boyfriend is treacherous or unpredictable – affectionate one minute, hateful the next. His character flaw is a source of tension. Any sort of flaw can work: forgetfulness, clinginess, selfishness, stinginess, and so on, but you have to set it up so that your main character needs something that the flawed character can’t be counted on to supply.

8. Isolation. Your main character can wander away from the other campers in her wilderness group and get lost. Wild cats live in these hills. Their habitat is shrinking, and they’re hungry. In the backwoods there’s no cell phone reception. Aaa!

9. Expectation. Mom expects her son to be a brilliant student in every subject. Or, going the opposite way, Mom expects him always to fall short. His best friend expects him to sacrifice his needs for hers again and again. Or the main character can have hard-to-live-up-to expectations of himself. His efforts to break away from expectation can have your reader chomping on her fingernails.

10. Injustice. Your main character has been falsely accused. She’s misunderstood. She’s been ripped off. In my Dave at Night, Dave’s precious carving of Noah’s ark has been stolen. Much of the book’s tension comes from the search for it and worry about the repercussions that may follow its recovery.

11. A terrible situation, such as slavery, war, an internment camp, abandonment. A story can still go slack in this kind of environment, but the cruel camp guard or hunger or disease can help you get back on track.

It will probably be worthwhile to reread a few books that you couldn’t put down long enough to brush your teeth. Study the author’s suspense techniques and consider how you might apply them to your story.

And here are two prompts:

Think of five more suspense builders. You can remember exciting stories of your own or by other people. Consider how they or you ratcheted up the excitement. Write down the techniques. Or think of new stories and come up with your own fresh builders.

Use one or more of your or my suspense makers in a new story or in a story you’re working on. Have fun and save what you write!

Time Times Two

This is my second post about time. As time goes by, maybe there will be more.

When you’re considering the time span of your whole story, intensity is a variable. If a few characters are trapped together (think of a stuck elevator, a haunted house, a jury room), everything will be compressed. Your characters will be forced to reveal themselves quickly. They don’t have to form long-term bonds. They need only to solve the crisis. The story may take place in just a few hours or a few days. The urgency creates tension – delightful for the writer.

Out in the world, where you do want some of your characters to form deep relationships, you need more time. In the mystery novel I’m working on (which I just finished the first draft of, hooray!) Elodie, my main character, is given refuge by Meenore, another major character. As soon as Elodie is safe, the mystery begins and they separate again. Wrong! They haven’t formed a bond yet. As I revise, I have to build in a few days, maybe a week, for them to get accustomed to each other, and I have to work in some tension while they do.

My Mesopotamian fantasy, Ever, was inspired by the bible story of Jephtha and his daughter. Kids, this is a disturbing tale. If you look it up, you may want to discuss it with a trusted adult. For our purposes you need only know that Jeptha’s daughter has two months before something horrible is going to happen to her. My book isn’t much like the bible story. Among the many changes I made was shortening the two months to one. Two months felt squishy. One month felt tight. Enough time for relationships to form, not so much that boredom sets in.

On to short-term time– Take this scene: Three friends go out for ice cream. I want to demonstrate what they’re like, so we see that Bree can’t decide among four flavors. She twists a strand of hair around her finger and enumerates what she likes and dislikes about each flavor. Vanilla is too plain but also pure. Chocolate has to be rich but not too rich, sweet but not too sweet. And so on. Luna interrupts to order a scoop of mocha in a cone, no sprinkles. Tim tells Bree she has to make up her mind because he wants to have a scoop of whatever each of them has, which sends Bree into more agonies of indecision while Luna tells him he needs to find out what he likes, not what they like, and he thanks her for the lecture. We’ve learned something about each of them, but I’m stuck in real time in the ice cream store. They have to pay, and there’s got to be shtick about that, because Tim has only forty-eight cents, and Luna gets mad when she learns that the store doesn’t take credit cards for purchases under twenty dollars.

Five pages have gone by, and even if I ever get them out of the store, there are a million diversions on the street. What to do?

First of all, I don’t have to lay the detail on quite so thick. Bree can dither among three flavors or even two, for example. But detail is good, so I don’t want to cut too much.

I can just pick a point in the dialogue and hit an extra space bar to create a gap and start again at a later time or in a different place. This works best if the last speaker says something that rings at least a little bit final.

Or I can wrench the story away with a statement like, After half an hour, the three left the store and separated for the day, each one IMing the others by the time they were two yards apart. This introduces telling rather than showing, but that’s okay. Nonstop showing is impossible.

If I’m writing from the point of view of a character rather than an omniscient narrator, my POV character can help. I can imagine Luna saying, “Enough! I’m out of here.” She leaves and I’m gone too. It’s cool when I can do it that way.

Or, an omniscient narrator can simply jump in with something like Meanwhile, across town.

Sometimes I can bring the real-time segment to a crisis, and this is my favorite technique. Suppose Bree thinks Luna is bossy, and Luna is feeling that everyone is criticizing her. If I have Bree say, “Yes, Mommy,” Luna might blow up. If the friendship is important to the story, Luna’s explosion might be powerful enough to end the chapter. Then, ta da! you can start the next chapter at a later point.

Anyway, it’s not so bad if you do go on too long. In early drafts you can let a scene drag, finish it finally, and keep writing. When you revise, you’ll be better able to judge what to cut and what to keep. Just don’t do what I often do: tinker forever to get the segue just right. Then, later, I find that the whole scene is unnecessary and cut it.

It also helps simply to be aware of time. How many minutes and hours are ticking by during a scene or chapter? Is it still morning? Has time arrived for a meal? Is everybody getting hungry? Are they starving because a week has gone by and you (or I) haven’t fed them?

As I revise my mystery, I’m going to write a chronology by days in a separate document. For each day I’ll list the events that happened. I should have done this in the first draft, but I’ll do it now. I have time.

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!