Worry Wart

Got a nice surprise last week when five advance reading copies of Ogre Enchanted showed up in my mailbox. So it’s a book, not the book, but a book–always a great moment.

On December 10, 2017, Bird dog wrote, I’ve recently finished the first draft of a story, and in editing, I realized that I want to more openly display my MC’s anxiety. I can describe it accurately enough, and though it is believable, I’m worried that it will be annoying to read. As the story is in first person, I’m worried that this will exasperate the reader to the point of being unwilling to read on.

The obvious solution would be to cut out the effects of anxiety on her life, but I feel like that would be unfair to the issue. The story isn’t about anxiety, and it doesn’t present itself in every situation, but it is a part of her struggle that I feel is important to include.
If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be grateful!

Sara wrote back, First of all, good job on finishing a first draft!!!

I don’t think I’d be annoyed about a character with anxiety, because I guess to a certain point I can kinda relate. Um, of course I don’t know the story and what you feel would bug the reader, but maybe you feel like it’s stopping the action? Or that all of her anxiety attacks are the same? I feel like there’s tons of options for things that can spiral off of an anxiety attack, like your MC has to make a decision and the weight of the consequences stresses her out so much she makes the wrong one. And she has to live with that. Plus, stopping the action can be purposeful and, I dunno, be part of another conflict or something. Anxiety, like every other personality trait, can be used in a bunch of ways.

And Zoe/TheSixthHobbit wrote, I’d suggest you read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, if you haven’t already. The main character has OCD, and the author does a great job of showing what it’s like to live with that condition, and it’s not at all annoying.

I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it often: We should stifle our worries about what readers will think. It is just a stick to beat ourselves with.
A couple of days ago, I started reading a memoir I will not name and took it with me to New York City, but I hated it so much I couldn’t keep reading and switched to my addiction, Free Cell Solitaire on my cell phone. In my opinion, the writing was cutesy and way too wordy. In the first few pages, the author constantly announced what he would and would not include in the memoir, and I wished he would shut up and just tell what he planned to tell and not blather on about it in advance. So, for this post, I looked at reader reviews of the book on Amazon: “…great storytelling…”; “He writes beautifully.”; “Excellent writing style.” Obviously, readers’ opinions differ.

Another example. In this case I will say the name because he can take it. I can’t bear Stephen King for a similar reason. In my opinion, he overwrites. My husband loves his books, so I’ve tried more than once to read one or two. But my mental red pencil comes out instantly, and I’m deleting words, sentences, entire paragraphs! I prefer spare writing that disappears into the story, but millions–many millions!–disagree with me.

And a few other readers probably don’t like his work for reasons that are different from mine.

And I’ve adored books that haven’t caught on. And others that have.

And my books, incomprehensibly, aren’t the cup of tea of many readers.

Having said all this, however, we can set our fears to rest–or discover that they’re justified with a writers’ group or beta readers. One reader isn’t enough, and three are better than two. Don’t tell them what you’re worried about. Just let them read and then find out what they think. If it doesn’t come up, you can ask about the anxiety–or whatever else you happen to be concerned about.

If only one person is bothered, listen, think about it, and decide if you agree. But if more than one are troubled, and especially if more than two are, take that very seriously.

As for the anxious first-person MC, I’m with Sara on all counts. Yes, congratulations on finishing a draft! Kudos to you!

I’m a champion worrier, with a trophy to prove it, so, like Sara, I can relate, and would almost certainly enjoy a narrator who was like me in this regard.

I also love Sara’s idea of using the anxiety to advance the plot, like having it fuel a bad decision.

And I agree with her that there are many ways to portray anxiety.

It doesn’t have to show up only in description. It can appear in the elements fiction writers have at our disposal: dialogue, thoughts, action, physical symptoms. Even setting, which might be a trigger.

In dialogue, for instance, our MC can stop mid-sentence or trail off, distracted by worries. Or she can chatter uncontrollably. Or stutter. Or yell at people and even things. In the TV legal comedy, Boston Legal (high school and up), one of the MCs at one point gets so stressed that he starts speaking nonsense words and seems not to realize he’s abandoned English. I’m sure there are other possibilities.

A few other examples. Thoughts: Her mind can refuse to settle down and can rattle on and on. Action: She can walk out on a situation. Symptoms: Hives. Setting: The school where her anxiety began. There are many more options in each category.

Also, , in dialogue and thoughts and everything else, we can show our MC trying to conquer her anxiety. Her efforts are likely to make her even more relatable.

In our first draft or, as in Bird Dog’s case, an expansion, we shouldn’t worry about going over the top. We should write the anxiety as fully as we can and throw in the kitchen sink. When we’re finished and start revising, we’ll have a better idea of what to keep and what to toss.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC, a writer, is polishing the first five pages of her manuscript for submission to agents, and she is questioning every word. Anxiety is taking her over. She reads this blog, but she can’t keep herself from worrying about her readers. Write the scene, varying the ways she expresses her anxiety. Give it a happy ending, though, and create her recovery.

∙ Your MC never worries. He’s part of a team combing a wilderness to find a lost camper. Everything goes wrong, but he’s untroubled. Write the scene, and make him really annoying.

∙ Two characters are preparing–separately–to debate each other. Their prep methods are entirely different. Write the preparation for each of them, and then write the debate.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On December 1, 2017, Bug wrote, Do you think all stories need a plot twist? I read a book review where the reviewer complained about how predictable the plot twist was, and it made me wonder if it’s worse to have predictable plot twists, or none at all? And if plot twists are necessary, how do you write a good one?

Let’s define a successful twist as a plot event that makes the reader’s head spin. The ground has shifted; original expectations are upended; the reader gropes for understanding.

If the twist is unsuccessful, the reader sees it coming and may be annoyed. Some readers are better than others at anticipating twists. Writers may often fail with these sophisticated readers. For them and the rest of us, though, there are more pleasures than just being astonished: complicated characters, fascinating settings, fine writing, etc.

But I think the necessity for twists depends on genre. Take romantic comedy, for example, where the happy, love-fulfilled ending is guaranteed. In the movie While You Were Sleeping, the audience realizes early on that the guy in the coma isn’t the guy for the gal who saved his life, and finds out pretty quick who Mr. Right is going to be. It’s no shock that it all works out. We still love watching the way the happy ending is achieved.

Or take fairy tales. Once the reader gets the hang of the form, he expects goodness (and usually good looks) to be rewarded in the end, and he isn’t disappointed–and might be angry if a twist deprived him of that satisfaction–when Cinderella’s glass slipper is stolen from the prince’s hand and turns up fifty years later in a pawn shop long after he’s married someone else, and Cinderella has died young after a dismal life as a scullery maid.

So I think perfectly wonderful books can be written without twists.

There are genres, though, that specialize in twists, like suspense, horror, murder mysteries. I don’t know if a good book in these genres can do without them.

All fiction, however, regardless of genre, needs surprises. One of the delights in a romantic comedy or in the adaptation of a fairy tale lies in the surprises along the way to the expected ending.

When I write, I figure my reader will be surprised if I’m surprised. So how do we surprise ourselves?

My favorite tool is the beloved list, which we can use during the writing if we’re pantsers or  the outlining if we’re outliners. We bring in the list when we don’t know what should happen next or we want to shake up our story. This is how I do it:

Suppose I’m writing a story about a princess on the night before her coronation as queen. She’s in her royal bedchamber wondering if the excitement is going to keep her awake all night. No, she tells herself. She performed well in the practice coronation today. Her gown fits perfectly and is becoming. She’s been groomed her whole life for this moment. No need for disturbed sleep.

What can I make go wrong? I usually list twelve possibilities, but for this demonstration I’ll keep it to five. The cardinal rule with lists is: No idea is stupid. Everything gets written down.

∙ Sent by the crown’s enemy, masked marauders come in through the casement window and kidnap her.

∙ She’s drifting off when she hears chanting. She goes to her window and discovers protesters in the castle courtyard, yelling “Down with the monarchy.” (Or they could be protesting something else. If I like the protest idea, I may start another list of possible grievances.)

∙ By the light of her candle, she spreads her gown across her bed–and drips wax on it.

∙ Her last conscious thought as she drifts off to sleep is, “Tomorrow, I will own the magic mirror.”

∙ She sits at her secretary, sharpens her quill pen, dips it in ink, and writes, “In the event of my death…”

The last four surprised me, so they would likely surprise a reader. If I’d gone on to twelve there would have been more surprises.

I did an entire post on lists a while back. If you make a habit of using them and stick with the nothing-is-stupid rule, I predict that your mind will loosen whenever you start a new list, and loose minds release fresh ideas–surprises and, when you need them, twists.

There’s a difference between surprising or unpredictable and out of left field. Fifty pages into a contemporary, realistic novel, the arrival of a magic mirror will be in the out-of-left-field category. But if this is a world that accommodates magic, that may have fairy tale elements, the mirror may work and will be a twist, especially if the reader doesn’t realize this is a “Snow White” variant.

We want our surprises and twists to be unpredictable but also believable, so they have to be set up in advance. It’s fun to astonish our readers even after we’ve dropped clues galore. I pull a surprise on readers of The Two Princesses of Bamarre when a specter fools my MC Addie–but this is a world in which there are specters, and the reader knows that. And the reader also knows that Addie is in a particularly specter-infested place. Still, I pulled off the twist with misdirection. Look here! we tell the reader, while we’re setting something up there.

I haven’t thought about this before, but I suppose any of the elements of storytelling can be the source of a surprise or a twist: character, thoughts, dialogue, setting, even sensation, I suppose. A character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding. A dog opens its mouth, and out comes an aria from Tosca.

If the burrito tastes like chocolate pudding or the dog barks an aria, the cause can be in the mind of the taster or listener. Or it can be objectively true, and we have to be in a world where such things are possible. But they can’t be everyday occurrences, or the surprise is gone.

Let’s say a character our MC adores is revealed in a twist to be evil. Even though we want the reader to be shocked, we want him also, once he recovers from his shock, to get it, so we need to drop in subtle hints. That the adored character often seems absent-minded may be enough. Or she says, “People always let me down. Except for you.” A faint alarm bell tinkles, but then she does something wonderful, and the reader is lulled–until the twist that reveals.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Use one of my coronation possibilities in a scene. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Add five more options to my list of reasons for the princess not to sleep well. Pick one of yours to write a scene or a story.

∙ Pick one of the sensations from above: a character bites into a burrito, and it tastes like chocolate pudding or a dog barks an aria from Tosca. Use it in a scene, and make it both surprising and believable. If you like, build a story around it.

Have fun, and save what you write!

*Special post! Poetry competition for teens

It’s late notice, but this just arrived in my email box from a fellow NYU alum:

I’m judging this year’s Hippocrates Young Poets Prize for Poetry and Medicine, an international award open to poets aged 14-18 for a poem on a medical theme. If you  teach high school students or have teens of your own who write poetry, I hope you’ll encourage them to submit. 

The deadline is March 1, 2018 and the prize is a whopping £500 (~$700)! 

For more information and to enter, visit http://hippocrates-poetry.org/.

If you don’t qualify–or write poems, but you know someone who does, please spread the word. Let us know if you enter, and be sure to announce it know if you win!

Reader, I’m Talking to You

On November 25, 2017, Aster wrote, I like to write in first person, but I often find when I focus on the character’s thoughts and feelings I forget to include description and sensory details, or I have a very sloppy transition from thoughts to description. On the flip side, if I “make a movie in the reader’s mind,” I often forget to include thoughts. How can I get better at including sensory details, and emotions? On an unrelated note: does anyone have any opinions about breaking the 4th wall, so to speak?

Christie V Powell wrote back, I’m not a first person writer, partly for this reason, but one way to combine sensory details and emotions is to have the details convey the emotion. For instance, if I’m writing about a funeral, the overcast sky will look gloomy, mourning doves will cry, wheels will creak, feet trudge. If I’m writing about a happier scene, even if it happened in the same setting, the sky might be beautiful swirls of gray, birds will sing, wheels dance, feet march.

And I wrote, We can be mechanical about encouraging ourselves to remember. We can type at the end of a day’s work: REMEMBER THE MOVIE! REMEMBER THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS! (I tend to do these things in all caps to distinguish them from the rest of my story.) Then the reminder will be there when we get to work again. We can also set a timer on our phone to go off every twenty minutes to remind us. If we do this kind of thing, remembering will become automatic after a while.

I’m adding your fourth-wall question to my list.

Then I asked Aster for the reason behind the fourth-wall question, and she wrote, I was watching FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF the other day, and the way the MC directly spoke to the screen confused me a little at first. I was wondering how other watcher/readers feel about this technique. I’m not currently working on something, but I was wondering how others felt about that method of writing (or film making).

I did a little research. Turns out that the term breaking the fourth wall is generally applied to plays and scripts. In prose, it’s called metafiction, and here are two Wikipedia links. First is a definition and discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metafiction. And second is a list of examples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_metafictional_works, some of which you may know, and you may think of others as well–I have. The list is by no means exhaustive.

Basically, in metafiction, the writer calls the reader’s attention to the fact that he’s reading fiction. To my surprise, I’ve used metafiction. In both Ella Enchanted and the forthcoming Ogre Enchanted, other fairy tales are mentioned. In Ella, the magic book shows the story “The Shoemaker and the Elves” twice, once just to Ella, and once to Slannen and the elves, who laugh at how tiny they are in the story. The reader is likely to think, Huh! This fairy tale is talking about another fairy tale. This realization is likely–for just a split second, I hope–to be pulled out of my book. And my Princess Tales make so much fun of fairy tales that I hope the reader recognizes the commentary without having a clue about metafiction.

I first encountered metafiction when I was little, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, one of my childhood faves, as I’ve said many times. For example, in the chapter, “The Home Underground,” Barrie writes about which lost-boys-and-Wendy adventure to reveal. Barrie tantalizes the reader by alluding to this one or that and then deciding on one. I used to gnash my teeth in frustration whenever I reread this part, because I wanted them all! But there’s no way to read Barrie’s deliberations and not be reminded that one is reading a story.

The miracle (detouring from metafiction) of this part is that I didn’t realize until five minutes ago that Barrie does tell all the tales, in summary at least.

The form of metafiction Aster pinpoints in her question is direct address, in which the writer speaks to the reader as you or as Reader. Many writers have addressed their readers, even child readers,, as young as picture book age. The third sentence in Jon Scieszka’s picture book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is “But I’ll let you in on a little secret” (italics mine). The book isn’t for newborns, but it proves that five-year olds can get and enjoy a sophisticated literary device.

One of the most famous examples of direct address comes late in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte in the sentence, Reader, I married him, but the reader is spoken to occasionally all the way through, and here’s another example, from the beginning of Chapter Eleven: A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote. We have two kinds of metafiction going on in this sentence. Bronte not only speaks to the reader as you, she also announces that this is a novel. Why?

If we use direct address, we should eventually know why–not necessarily at first, but eventually. At first, we may be just trying it out.
I like Reader, I married him for the triumph in the simple declaration. But elsewhere Bronte seems worried that the reader needs authorial guidance to understand what’s going on. I don’t know if the guidance is needed, since I’ve read the book only her way. Anyway, that’s her reason, according to me.

Another instance just this minute occurs to me, and it comes from the last post, from Christie V Powell’s character’s journal entry, which begins, Hello! There’s no you, but this is direct address for sure. Totally justified, in my opinion. Diaries work that way, especially the diaries of young people.

And, I’d say, switching POV to a diary in the first place is metafiction. In first encountering a diary, the reader can’t help but be reminded that this is a story. After that, he may stop noticing if he’s engrossed in what’s going on.

Terry Pratchett practices a kind of metafiction when he uses footnotes in his Discworld books. Footnotes in a novel? What’s up with that? I think the purpose is to ramp up the hilarity and also to accommodate the overflow from his inventive brain.

Jon Scieszka makes the reader an accomplice in what he presents as a subversive book–which adds to the fun. And Scieszka has a charmingly, warmly ironic voice, which goes well with the device. Barrie may do it to challenge the reader’s assumptions. He certainly turned my idea of childhood upside down. I loved being told in Barrie’s loving way that I, just by virtue of being a child, was selfish.

In high school I was fascinated by a play called Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (high school and up), which I read and never saw performed. In it the play explores the nature of reality and art–

–which we can do, too, even when we’re writing for children, if it’s part of an interesting story–a standard adult fiction has to meet, too.

My friend Suzanne Fisher Staples told me she used metafiction at the end of her YA novel Under the Persimmon Tree to give the reader a wider context for the events of the story, and she used it at end of her YA novel Dangerous Skies to mitigate the sadness of the finale.

So there are lots of reasons to use direct address and metafiction. I’ve mentioned just a few, and we can come up with more for our own.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Mash together two fairy tales, say “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Try the mash-up two ways. In one, be transparent about it, so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. In the other, meld the two seamlessly, and let the reader discover the two strands.

∙ Retell “Little Red Riding Hood,” and make the narrator address the reader with a commentary on what’s going on in the story, which you can take in a new direction, or not. Give the narrator attitude.

∙ A theatrical version of “Snow White” has just been performed, and afterwards there’s a Q & A session between the two main characters, Snow White and the evil queen. Write the discussion. Remember that both characters have depended on their looks, despite the fact that one is sweet and passive and the other, well, evil.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Dear Diary

On November 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, In my WIP, adult fantasy, I have three point of view characters: two adults, and then a 15-year-old whose sections are all from her journal entries. I am having a lot of fun pulling from the style of my teenage journals, but I’m a little worried. Journals are almost all telling, and it might not appeal to adults. I’m keeping them short. I enjoy adding a different perspective than the other two characters, and I also like that I can use the voice to introduce every single person of her large family with “her brother” or whoever it is. Anyway, any advice?

For example, here’s her first journal entry:Hello! My name is Norma Filara. My dad just bought some new land, and when he was at the office he got this little notebook for me, and now I can keep a journal again! My last one got left behind when we moved. Actually, all our stuff got left behind when we moved. I guess I have to explain about that. My little brother Hamal was learning how to dream-jump, and he accidently jumped into some soldier guy’s house. We don’t know every thing that happened, but… he’s not alive. I don’t want to talk about that. It was freezing cold and we had to leave our house and everything, and Mom and little Orion got pneumonia, and… I don’t want to talk about that either.

Let’s move forward. We just came to a new city, called Grayton. My dad got a great offer on some land that no one else wanted. It’s perfectly good land too. He and my biggest brothers Altair and Leo are super busy now building buildings and digging wells. I’m supposed to be busy too. We all are, but Altair’s wife Ann is too busy watching the little ones so sometimes we middle ones get overlooked. I don’t mind. I would rather explore, and she can’t stop me!

Carley Anne wrote back, Ooo, sounds intriguing! I guess the style of writing (whether it is more telling, or more descriptive), would depend on the character of your fifteen year old, and what kind of a mood she’s in. Why is she writing? Is it just to remember a few facts, or capture a memory? Does she actually enjoy writing? (That would probably result in a more descriptive style.) I like her style of writing (reminds me of Anne Frank), but it almost feels like she could become more descriptive as she continues adding entries, and slowly becomes more “accustomed” to this journal.

I’d argue that journal entries by their nature are like dialogue, because the diarist is speaking to the reader. I call that showing. The reader is introduced to Norma’s character through the way she expresses herself. My impression of her is that she’s direct, enthusiastic, and emotional–not that she tells us she’s those things. I get the enthusiasm from the two exclamation points and her eagerness to journal. The directness is there in that she doesn’t beat about the bush, and the deep feelings are revealed in her reluctance to talk about the loss of her brother and the illnesses her family suffered.

That reluctance is an interesting choice in a journal, which won’t be read by anyone, which is the ideal place to explore pain–which suggests that Norma not only doesn’t want to discuss her troubles, she also doesn’t want to think about them.

That’s a lot of showing to pack into a short journal entry. Good job!

Yes, I suppose the reader is told that this is a world in which dream-jumping occurs, but telling is an inevitable part of dialogue, as in, “Don’t shake my hand. I have a cold.” I have a cold is telling. Don’t shake my hand is showing that the speaker is probably a considerate person.

And telling is woven in with showing in narration, too. In my opinion (please argue–with examples–if you disagree), extended pure showing is impossible.

The purpose of showing, in my opinion again, is to put the reader in the story. We supply the feelings, thoughts, nuances of character, the sensations (not just sight and sound, but also smell and touch) that make it real. Writing teachers urge us to show so we don’t forget these elements in our eagerness to relate events.

Telling makes the showing comprehensible. Without telling, the reader is lost, like an infant before language. The baby is primed to discover the telling in her world. The reader is primed, too.

Occasionally, pure telling works. I’ve mentioned this novel before: Miri, Who Charms by Joanne Greenberg (definitely high school and up). There’s almost no showing, and yet the story is compelling (and tragic). Maybe it would have been better if some showing had been worked in. I don’t know.

As for adult reader interest in a fifteen-year old’s journal, well, I’m an adult and I’d be interested. POV change adds variety, as do the form of journal entries. I could be interested if the whole story were told by a fifteen year old, too. It would depend on the voice and what the teen had to say. I think that falls into the category of worries we torment ourselves with when we write.

I’ve said this before: we should whisper our worries about readers into a lead canister and then drop the canister in a well. I say this because I’m guilty of it, too. My current worries are that no one will want to read about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain more than 500 years ago, and that the book (which no one will read) will be intolerably sad. These are just sticks for me to beat myself with. Maybe no one will read the book, but it’s still the book I want to write. And I assume that Christie V Powell wants to write that fifteen-year old’s journal entries.

What I just said applies to the projects of our hearts. Sometimes writers are commissioned to write a particular thing and being paid depends on writing that thing. Others of us write for our jobs. However, for the rest of us, readers are too unpredictable to worry about. Also, chasing the market is usually futile. It stays maddeningly ahead of us. The trend that was hot when we started is ice cold by the time we finish.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write a journal entry for Tolkien’s Sauron. Can be an ordinary day in the life of the lord of evil. Or can be the morning of what he expects will be the final day for goodness.

∙ Write a journal entry for a character in a WIP whom you’d like to know better. Let his own words tell you about himself.

∙ Dream-jumping sounds fascinating. Write a scene in which a character dream-jumps for the first time. Mix showing and telling in the narration.

∙ A science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, uses teleportation, called jaunting. The discovery of teleportation is described in the book, which is worth reading. I haven’t read it in decades. My guess is middle school and up, but check with a librarian. Write your own scene in which teleportation is either discovered or invented.

Have fun, and save what your write!

Beloved beastie

For those of you who are SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) members, I’m teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon, February 3rd, on writing fantasy at the national conference in New York City. I’ll talk a bit and give prompts, most of which will probably come from this blog. Participants will write, and then we’ll discuss. The workshop will last 2 ½ hours, so there will be lots of time to get into the weeds. I’d love to see you there!

Onto the post! On October 18, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I have a “beastly” question:

What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:

The character does something literally inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.

… how do you get across the shock of what they’ve done, yet not lose reader sympathy?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Aster: Have you read the YA novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo? One of the main characters- Kaz Brekker- does some pretty horrific things yet (and this part depends on interpretations) still is a fairly likable character.

Chrisite V Powell: What about showing the inhuman culture so that the reader believes that he thinks this is normal? If it’s his POV, maybe a mini flashback about someone else who did it (maybe worse?). His reaction will also say a lot, when he’s confronted. 

Melissa Mead: That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, but I’m not sure it’s enough- or if the inhuman culture itself will turn readers off.

I’ve never issued a trigger warning for a post before, but if you’re prone to being nauseated, you may want to skip this one–not because of anything Melissa Mead wrote but because of where I take it.

Most days, Reggie and his pal Demi have a play date in our backyard. Demi’s owner and I walk around and chat while the dogs play or ignore each other or bark at passersby. Demi often takes a poop, which Reggie sometimes eats. Ew! And double yuck! This is exceedingly inhuman behavior!

I may not be willing to smell Reggie’s breath for a year, but he’s still adorable, with that big nose, pleading eyes, tell-tale tail. My love for him is undiminished despite this disgusting propensity that, like Melissa Mead’s character, he sees nothing wrong with.

So that’s one strategy: Make your monster (demon?) appealing to your POV character. If your reader likes the narrator, he probably won’t be irreversibly turned off by the monster’s behavior.

Sympathy can be agonized sympathy. I think of the TV series House (high school and up). House, a brilliant doctor, is self-destructive and insensitive. Sometimes he acts cruelly, but he’s also saving lives, not because he loves humanity but because he hates to fail and loves puzzles. He has a single friend and could be the source of the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” I used to watch and squirm and want the best for House and keep watching. A big part of my sympathy for House is that he does save lives. So that’s another strategy: Give the reader a reason to care about the monster. Rescuing others is a time-honored reason.

Among the worst practices I can think of is cannibalism, and yet the late sci fi writer Robert Heinlein made a good intellectual case for it in his classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up). (This is cannibalism following death from an unrelated cause–people aren’t killed so they can be eaten. And the book was written decades before mad cow disease was discovered.) Another strategy: Make a thoughtful argument for the offending behavior. Readers will be fascinated.

I suspect it will also help if the demon makes clear his perspective on his act. For instance, he can invite other characters to do the same or participate. He can ask, If you don’t do this (the beastly thing), how do you do that (which shows how the behavior functions in his society)? And, likewise, he might react with horror at some human customs. For example, he might be aghast that humans eat together, because in his culture eating is intensely private. There’s another strategy: Make the reader understand the demon’s viewpoint.

One more: Reveal the monster’s feelings, which, presumably, the reader will recognize and identify with. If, when he becomes aware of his companions’ shock, he responds with confusion, dismay, even resentment, the reader is likely to relate. Even if he isn’t the POV character, we can reveal his emotions through body language, dialogue, the understanding reached by our POV character, a chapter in a tome about demons and demon society, and probably more. For example, I understood Reggie’s disgusting behavior better when I read in a newspaper that dogs don’t have the region in their brains that we have to register disgust.

Readers can have a range of responses to the demon’s act. They may be intrigued or pleased by the surprise–they didn’t see that coming!–or delighted by the author’s daring. They may recognize that the behavior is beyond the pale, but it fits and, if we’re really cooking, couldn’t be otherwise.

Worst case scenario, a few readers close the book. We can’t please everyone. On the other hand, some will enjoy the demon’s behavior but will stop reading a book if they think the writing is too cautious. That goes for gatekeepers, too. Editors and agents vary. Some may be put off, but others will be thrilled to find a writer who colors outside the lines.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC is picnicking with friends. The cold baked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad are scrumptious, and the ants, who invade, think so, too. Your MC or another character–you decide–picks up an ant and eats it and asks people to send more her way. Write the scene. Make the reader at least understand and tolerate the ant-eating.

∙ Write the above picnic scene from the POV of one of the ants, or, using the first-person plural POV discussed in a recent post, from the POV of the colony. While anthropomorphizing as little as possible, get the reader to be on the side of the ants.

∙ One of your characters fights the kind of fires that destroys thousands of acres. There’s no counting the people, wildlife, property, and land he’s saved. However, in his personal life he’s a relationship arsonist who blows up all his human connections. Write his reunion with his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for many years. Make this meet-up go disastrously because of his self-sabotage. In the writing, make the reader suffer out of sympathy for him and the sister.

∙ This “Snow White” takes place in an authoritarian society. When the hunter is given the order to kill Snow White, he has no moral compunctions, because it’s right and a duty to obey the queen. Write the scene in the forest when Snow White presents an alternate ethic of compassion and individual liberty. You decide if she succeeds.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.


Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Making It Personal

On September 21, 2017, Carley Anne wrote, All right, so I have a fabulously difficult journey that my main characters are going on, full of life-threatening natural obstacles, with time slipping quickly through their fingers, and an ever-looming bad guy (not to mention, getting chased by castle guards, who don’t realize that the mc’s are trying to do good!). My problem is, I feel like (although the bad guy wants to GET mc’s personally), the difficulties aren’t personal enough. I wish there was more of a Hattie versus Ella sort of thing going on, and I was hoping for some advice on getting that vibe, without changing the entire course of my plot-line.

A little lecture is in order. Sorry!

Everything is up for grabs when we write and when we revise. If a character isn’t working, we have to fix her, even if she has to change gender, go from hero to villain, get older, get younger, lose a finger or two–whatever! If our plot needs a complete overhaul, which it may not, we have to give it one.

If we don’t, as I know from sad experience, our story will bog down. We’ll feel like we’re typing with mittens on, afraid to touch this or that. When this happens to me, I get bored and sleepy. My forehead hits the keyboard. My snores resound.

Sometimes we (I) have to rewrite hundreds of pages, change tense or POV, add characters, cut characters. We have to serve our story, no matter what.

End of lecture.

I love the guards’ confusion!

I’m understanding Carley Anne’s question as being about emotional connection, and when our characters connect emotionally, in a positive or negative way, our readers will connect, too.

In the case of Ella and Hattie, the negative connection works two ways. *SPOILER ALERT!* Skip this paragraph if you haven’t read Ella Enchanted and plan to. When Hattie takes Ella’s necklace, Ella’s dislike of her is sealed and hardens to rock as Hattie continues to order her around, playing on Ella’s obedience. Hattie may not be naturally villainous, but she’s profoundly jealous of Ella, who has more charm in a fingernail than Hattie has in her entire body. Also, to Hattie’s dismay, Ella doesn’t have an embarrassing mother and sister, either. Then, at finishing school, Ella makes a real friend, a comfort and pleasure Hattie has never experienced. In persecuting Ella, she keeps trying to even the scales, which infuriatingly continue to go the other way. Ella remains appealing, and Hattie worsens because of her own cruelty.

The reader sides with Ella, and so did I while I wrote the book, although I also pitied her.

In Peter Pan, the original by James M. Barrie, Hook is always striving for and failing to reach something called “good form,” which Peter possesses effortlessly, and it’s this quality that stokes Hook’s hatred. In an interesting twist, Hook goes to his end pleased in one regard: he thinks Peter has violated good form at the final moment. Barrie himself doesn’t take a position on this and suggests that the good-form standard is just Hook’s fixation. Barrie is such an original writer, and this is one example.

So how can we get an emotional connection working for us between our villain and our MC?

Jealousy stokes both Hattie’s and Hook’s enmity. We can come up with a reason for our villain to envy our MC in an overwhelming and obsessive way. Any quality in our MC can do it: beauty, brains, charm, wealth.

Other emotions can motivate our villain as well. Let’s try fear. Our MC, Carole, is the first Martian to be elected to head a planetary council. Our villain, Griffith, fears, baselessly, that this election is just the beginning, and Martians will take over and enslave the earthlings. Griffith and Carole meet at a public event. Carole, unsuspecting, says something that’s interpreted by Griffith as a put-down of earthlings. Now it’s personal for him. He starts to take steps.

The fear can work both ways, and we get more tension if it does. Carole can–realistically–pick up something off, something fanatical, about Griffith. She’s seen it before and recognizes it and becomes afraid, too. She starts to take steps to protect herself and other Martians, not always wisely.

For our villain, we can use any negative emotion or state of mind: rage; prejudice; despair, thwarted love; even obsessive love, which is creepy. And we can use negative and positive emotions and states of mind to fuel our MC, too–such as protectiveness, determination, stubbornness, a commitment to justice.

It helps if we can bring our villain and MC together at least once when we’re building their animosity. They may become enemies at that point, or the animosity may already have been festering The air can sizzle with their antagonism. What was theoretical before becomes intensely personal.

Even the natural obstacles mentioned by Carley Anne may sometimes be made to be challenging in a personal way. When we can do it, we’ll ratchet up the tension. Our MC has to scale a sheer cliff wall, but she’s terrified of heights. Or she’s trekking to save her family when a hurricane blows in. She takes it personally, believing the universe is against her and the people she loves. A forest fire breaks out, and she loses focus, overwhelmed by memories of her brother’s death in a burning building.

Here are three prompts:

∙ When the mirror tells the evil queen that Snow White is the fairest, the queen doesn’t decide immediately that Snow White has to die. The queen hasn’t killed anyone before. She loves her husband and knows he’s fond of his daughter. She invites Snow White to the throne room for a chat. During that meeting something happens that seals future events. Write the scene.

∙ Write a campaign speech for Carole and write the scene in which she delivers it, with Griffith in the audience, misunderstanding, drawing wrong conclusions.

∙ Your MC and her antagonist have never heard of each other. They meet as a result of an online dating site. They arrange to meet for coffee. Write their meeting and their rapid progression from neutrality to dislike to loathing. If you like, keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

First Among Equals

CONGRATULATIONS to the NaNoWriMo’s in blog land! You are my heroes! How did it go? Please share your experiences. What was most helpful? Least helpful? What strategies did you develop? What discoveries did you make? How will you use the experience in the next eleven months? What did you learn that might help the rest of us? And please post any questions that cropped up along the way.

On October 4, 2017, Poppie wrote, I’m writing my fairy story in first person. I tried third person and it made my MC Lio feel “distant” from me, like I couldn’t feel for him as much. First person works better for me in this story. My problem is whether or not first person is overused these days. It seems to me that over half the recently published books I pick up are written in first person.

I’m also a little tentative when it comes to first person because some of the most annoying characters I’ve ever come across in books have told their stories in first person (although Mrs Levine’s characters are wonderful in both first and third person). 🙂 Any thoughts?

Thank you, Poppie!

Two responses came in.

Song4myKing: I know what you mean about annoying first person characters. Two causes I thought of (there probably are others):

1. Sometimes, it seems the author thinks the bigger the attitude of the first person narrator, the better. Basically, the annoying or arrogant character should NOT be the one telling the story.

2. Sometimes there’s too much “telling” – relying on witty commentary or unusual ways of saying things rather than backing off and letting the reader see it. Let the reader experience the story, not just hear it.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’d worry about first-person being over-used. It’s a form of storytelling. It doesn’t fall into the same category as cliches.

Christie V Powell: I found this one of Gail’s posts helpful: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2017/01/04/showing-whos-on-first/ Personally, I prefer to stick to writing in third, but I agree with Song4MyKing not to worry about it being over-used. When you only have two choices like 1st and 3rd (unless you’re being really fancy with 2nd), both of them are going to get used a lot.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for shouting out to a past post!

I agree that first-person over-use is one worry we can cross off our list. If only there were dozens of person choices!

On that score, I wonder if it would be possible to write an entire novel in first-person plural (we). Has anyone encountered such a book? One possibility might be a Greek-chorus sort of narrator. Or twins or triplets. I’ve always been intrigued by the myth about the Myrmidons, descendants of ants who were turned into human soldiers by Zeus for Achilles’ grandfather’s benefit. In the Iliad, Achilles’ soldiers are called Myrmidons. A Myrmidon, or a squadron of them, could narrate in first-person plural. Or, there could be a dystopia in which group-think has taken over, and the narrator is the group.

I agree with Song4myKing that a first-person narrator’s voice–in general–needs to be straightforward and to not call attention to itself. Whether our narration is in first-person or third, it should get out of the way of the unfolding story.

But I say in general because if a more idiosyncratic first-person voice works, then it’s fine. In writing, the rules can be broken. The only absolute law is: Thou Shalt Be Clear. We can deliberately confuse a reader along the way, which can be fun, but at the end, he should know what happened in the story–unless we’re writing experimental fiction. An unresolved ending is okay, as long as the reader understands it’s unresolved on purpose.

When I think of successful quirky voices I think of Mark Twain. I love his narrators! And I give Twain a pass, as I usually don’t, when the narrator runs on a tad too long. I tried, though not exhaustively, to find a contemporary quirky voice I like. Salinger’s narrator in Catcher in the Rye (high school–maybe middle school, I’m not sure–and up) is certainly quirky. Originally published in 1951, I doubt it can be called contemporary, and I can’t say I like it, because I read it many decades ago and, though it was an important book for many of my friends, it wasn’t for me. I didn’t dislike it.

The keys to a successful quirky voice, in my opinion, are likableness and interest. If the reader loves this MC, he’ll love the odd voice–especially if we don’t overdo it or make it hard to read. And if what this crazy narrator is telling our reader is fascinating and in synch with the voice, he’ll want the story served up exactly that way.

When we’re not going for quirky though, the voice can be similar to a third-person narrator’s, telling and showing what’s going on and reporting thoughts and feelings. Our character can be full of personality and still narrate simply. Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins is a marvelous example of this. The reader will experience the personality through dialogue, action, thoughts, and feelings. The last two can be told rather than enacted. For instance, let’s take fear. Our first-person MC can report symptoms like icy hands, rather than narrate Aaa! Eek! Yikes! Oh, no! which, piled up, is likely to become tiresome in a hurry. (One Yikes! is fine.)

When I write my post and you guys comment here, we’re all writing in first person, our own first person. We each come off a little different. We sound like ourselves, and we’re not annoying. We have something to say, so we say it. Same for our first-person narrator, who has a story to tell.

The delight of first-person narration is the opportunity to reveal character through storytelling. Our narrator reflects the world as she sees it. Her responses can be different from what ours would be in her place. Empathy is called for. How would someone like her react to this or that? We come as close as possible to another person–even though that person is invented.

And the sensory data we talked about in the last post can flow naturally. Our MC, on the spot, tells the reader: I felt the wind, shivered in the November chill, saw the ordinary backyard in flashlight glow, tasted the vinegar of my unease, heard the rustling fallen leaves as Reggie veered here and there–and then choked and snorted on the stink of skunk. (As you may guess, this has happened to Reggie and me more than once.)

One last thing: choice of narrator. Usually our MC is our first-person narrator. So far, all mine have been. I’ve tried and failed to narrate from the first-person POV of a secondary character. Someday I’d like to succeed. Two examples of secondary narrators are found in the Sherlock Holmes tales told by Dr. Watson and The Great Gatsby (high school and up) told by Nick Carraway, both of which I love. In each, the secondary character tells the story because, I think, the MC is by nature unable to. Imagine Sherlock Holmes as a narrator! The digressions! The technical language! The abandonment of the story for a new case.

There can be other reasons for a secondary narrator. This secondary narrator, unlike the MC, may be on the spot for all the story’s important moments, or may be a more reliable narrator, or may care about our MC in a way we want to convey. We can try more than one narrator before we settle.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your telepathic team is engaged in a difficult enterprise. They may be building a seawall against an expected tsunami and time is running out, or protecting their citadel from a much bigger force of non-telepaths, or mounting a political campaign to restore democracy in a dystopian future. You pick which and narrate the scene in first-person plural.

∙ Write the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” from the first-person POV of the fairy who prevents Beauty from dying.

∙ Pick a scene in one of your stories that’s written in third person and translate it into first. Do more than just change pronouns. Make the first-person version more internal.

∙ Your MC has trouble focusing on anything. He worries constantly and has synesthesia. Here’s a link to a description of this quality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia. He is assembling a seven-foot-tall model of a dinosaur for his cousin whose birthday is the next day, who has had a tough year, and who adores dinosaurs. The manufacturer’s directions are hard to follow. Write the process in the voice of this quirky narrator. Your goal is to make the reader like him and not be put off by the odd voice.

∙ Write a scene of a family dispute told from the first-person POV of the dining room table.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Movie Making

Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!

And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!

On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?

And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.

And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!

And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.

I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.

The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.

Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.

In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.

Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.

As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.

The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.

I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.

So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.

One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.

Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.

One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.

I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?

Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.

Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.

We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.

We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.

In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.

It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.

Here are three prompts:

∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.

∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.

∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.

Have fun, and save what you write!