Tinker, Writer, Reviser. Sigh.

To give plenty of advance notice to those of you who are SCBWI members or plan to join (you have to be at least eighteen): I’ll be teaching a two-and-a-half-hour workshop on writing fantasy at the national conference on Saturday, February 3rd, in New York City. I’d love it if you’d come!

A shout out to those of you who are getting ready for NaNoWriMo. April Mack, who sometimes comments here, has written helpfully on her blog about NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://www.thelovelyfickleness.com/2017/10/nanowrimo-notes-plans/. And from me: May the wind be at your elbows. May the sun shine on your brain. May time slow as your fingers fly.

One more thing, a poetry competition for students from middle school through college. It does involve using The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection based on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, which you can buy or ask your local library to get for you. (Full disclosure: I have a poem in the anthology.) The form of the poem is fun, and, if you don’t want to enter the competition or are out of school or too young, it can be applied to other poems as well. Here’s the link, where you’ll find out how it’s done and how to enter: https://www.roosevelt.edu/colleges/education/community-engagement/golden-shovel-competition.

Another one more thing, a podcast interview featuring moi. You can check it out here: http://podcast.9thstory.com/. It’s an in-depth conversation, covering character development, world-building, plotting–the topics we dive into here.

On to the post. On September 10, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m trying to write a trilogy, which is on a whole different scale than the flash I usually write. I keep getting stuck on Book 2, thinking of ways I could change Book 1 that might tie the trilogy together better, and going back to tinker, even though I know I should write the whole thing first, because things could change. How do I resist the tinkering temptation and get Book 2 to come into focus?

Christie V Powell wrote in response, My way is to publish book 1 first… but I don’t think that would help in this case. I think it’s fun to find the elements of book 1 and twist them around in new ways (like Gail did with Bamarre). My current WIP takes place 500 years before my series, and I’m finding all sorts of ways to play with the world so that they work together.

One thing I do when I’m working on a rough draft but want to change something earlier is to write myself a note, like: “Edit: she’s still wearing the collar” or “Note: White Leader was promoted, not demoted.” Then I keep going.

In Ella Enchanted, Prince Char writes to Ella during his sojourn in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha that the Ayorthians say little. He goes on at length about their taciturnity. I wish he’d have shut up! Because, years later, I wrote Fairest, which is set in Ayortha, and I couldn’t write a novel in a land where people hardly ever speak, so I contradicted the earlier book. One reader called me on this, and I’m sure others noticed. If only I’d thought ahead!

So it’s great that Melissa Mead’s book 1 isn’t published yet.

If you take or have taken a Philosophy course, you’ll probably read or have read Zeno’s Paradox, which goes something like this: You want to cross the room, but first you have to cross half the room and then half the remaining space and half again, and so on. If you keep halving the distance you can never reach the end. You can’t completely cross the room! Which of course you can, and there lies the paradox.

Writing can feel like living Zeno’s Paradox, with The End forever hanging tantalizingly out there, because we keep halving the distance–in the wrong direction! We keep going backwards to fix and fix again.

I love to revise, as I’m sure writers on the blog know. I much prefer to tinker with my WIP than to forge ahead into new territory. But in general I try not to give in to my proclivities. What helps me keep keeping on is my competing desire to get to the end and find out what happens along the way.
I’m with Christy V Powell about writing a note or notes to my future self about revisions I’ll have to make, which can satisfy my itch to fix. I put the notes at the top of my manuscript, so they’re the first things I see when I start revising.

Going back may be counterproductive. As we continue in Book 2 or in our singleton WIP, we may discover that the revision we made earlier wasn’t necessary or even that the scene we revised needs to be cut. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve said here that I toss hundreds of pages in the course of writing every one of my books. But it’s nice if I can avoid deleting even a few of them by reining myself in.

However, I always go back a page or two and do a little revision before I start a day’s writing. This orients me and helps the juices flow.

But if the urge to revise is too strong to resist, we can at least contain it. We can put a daily limit, say twenty minutes, on tinkering with old territory. We can set a timer. When the buzzer goes off, we have to stop.

We can write signs and put them in key places, signs like The End justifies the mistakes left behind. Or just Onward! Or Endward Ho! I have used reminder signs for other purposes, why not this?

The popular wisdom in the writing books I’ve read advises marching forward no matter what. If the species of your MC changes mid-book, march on. If the villain changes from one character to another, march on. We’ll know best what to fix when we get to the end.

I mostly agree with this, and the books that have gone the most smoothly for me have been written in forward motion. But several times–The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Stolen Magic–I have snarled up my plot so hopelessly that I’ve had to go back. Usually, my story itself bogs down. I feel like I’m slogging through quicksand. Or I fall asleep whenever I try to write. Then I have no choice: I have to go back. Sometimes, as in the cases of Two Princesses and Stolen Magic, the book that resulted was little like the story I started. In Fairest, I kept getting the POV wrong.

If your story is contorted in tangles, too, I suggest taking a little time to figure out where the difficulty lies. We can identify the moment–maybe fifty pages back–when the story went south. Or we can suss out the problem, which may be, for example, POV or timidity about making an MC suffer. We think about what we need to do to fix it. How big will the fix be? Will the story continue on the path we had in mind? Or will it veer into uncharted territory. If it will go the way we always intended, we can confine ourselves to a note, but if major elements will change, we probably do have to go back and follow the fork in the road.

One of the best (also one of the worst!) parts of writing is that, pre-publication, we can revise and re-revise and then do it again. And one of the worst feelings in real life and in writing is regret. These five prompts are about regret:

∙ Try a memoir piece. Write a few pages about something you regret. Imagine what might have happened if you’d acted differently. You needn’t show this to anyone. However, it may pay dividends in helping you plumb the emotional depths of your characters. If you like, you can fictionalize this memory and make it come out differently–or the same.

∙ Another memoir piece. Write about something that was done to you. Imagine what would have changed if this thing hadn’t happened. Imagine receiving an apology and the effects of the apology.

∙ Back to fiction. In the second act of the musical Into the Woods, the sad consequences of cutting down the beanstalk by Jack are brought to life. Rewrite the story from the moment when the beans begin to sprout. If Jack doesn’t climb the beanstalk or kill the giant, how does his story go?

∙ In your story, the evil queen in “Snow White” doesn’t dance to her death in red hot slippers. She lives to regret her overwhelming jealousy–and she escapes from prison. Write her story of redemption–or further evildoing. Or, pick another fairy tale villain for your story. Or pick one of your own fictional villains.

∙ Speculative historical fiction works with this kind of pivotal moment. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about what might have resulted if Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given him a son who lived grew into adulthood. Change a historical moment and write a story about the consequences.

Have fun, and save what you write!


First off, two appearances: If you’re in the area this Saturday, I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua (New York) Children’s Book Festival. I’ll be there all day, so there will be plenty of time to chat.

And in the evening on October 26th, I’ll be conducting a writing workshop and speaking at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron, Michigan.

Details for both are on the Appearances page right here on the website. I would love to see you!

And let me mention for future planning for SCBWI members, that I will be conducting a two-and-a-half hour workshop in writing fantasy on Saturday, February 3rd at the SCBWI national conference in New York City.

Onto the post!

On September 8, 2017, Aster wrote, I wrote down an odd dream I had the other night, and I’d be interested in expanding it. I read Ms. Levine’s post on expanding fragments (she gave advice including delving into character- thought, feeling etc.). However, I do not think that some of those tips apply because the story is written from the point of view of a monster (more of a fictional animal), and I worry that by elaborating on thoughts and feelings beyond threatened, angry, submissive, etc., would make the character too humanesque.

Any thoughts? 

I asked for clarification, and a dialogue followed with Christie V Powell.

Christie V Powell: Have you read the Eragon books? I think it”s the last one where the narrative jumps to the dragon”s POV for a couple chapters. She still feels alien in her thought process yet you can relate to her as a character.

I also suggest looking at some of Temple Grandin”s books, like ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Temple Grandin uses her autism to describe how animals perceive the world. I tried to use the principles when my MC uses animal form– she is less flowery, doesn’t use names, notices details and especially contrasts, is afraid of sudden movements, etc.

For expanding ideas into plots, I play around with several ideas. If it started as a dream, I’ll daydream with it, just playing around and seeing how long I can make it last. If that goes well, I ‘ll jot down as much of the dream and daydream as I can remember. Some of the characters have depth but others are cardboard cutouts or change throughout. Then I’ll come up with a fluid plot line. I do a lot of brainstorming, some lists, and some stream of consciousness. I also like to cheat and look at THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker, which gives some potential plot structure ideas.

Aster: Thank you so much for the suggestions. To clarify- I was wondering how to expand the story fragment without giving the animal/monster human qualities- like intricate thoughts and feeling other than primal instincts.

Christie V Powell: It seems like it might be tricky to have a pro-active protagonist that way– a character who reacts as well as acts. Nowadays, proactive characters are preferred, although I’ve read a few who aren’t, like WHITE FANG (Jack London ).

I admire Christie V Powell’s loose, relaxed methods for generating ideas, which Aster and all of us can use to turn our idea germs into full-blown books (not diseases!).

And I love the suggestion of looking at the writings of Temple Grandin. I haven’t read her books, but I have heard several of her interviews, which may be available online, and through them have glimpsed inside a unique mind.

Many years ago, I read a book called CREATIVE DREAMING by Patricia Garfield (high school and above). One of the things I learned and have tried a few times is to set the stage for dreams while I’m still awake. For example, we can think about a plot problem as we’re drifting off, and we may dream a solution. Aster might re-imagine her dream, and the dream might extend itself when she falls asleep. It can take a few nights for this to work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s fun to try. Have any of you done this?

Another book to look at is GRENDEL by John Gardner–high school and up–which is a retelling of BEOWULF from the monster’s POV. And one more: NOP’S TRIALS by Donald McCaig (not sure–may be okay for middle school). I remember only the dog’s POV, but I just looked online and see that his owner’s POV is in there, too. As I recall, there is nothing cutesy about the dog’s POV in this book.

These books are real achievements, because, in my opinion, it’s difficult to write from the POV of a character who is so different from us humans. One difficulty, I’d say the major one, is that readers may have trouble entering the MC, whose actions and reactions aren’t explained through complex thoughts, feelings, and speech–unless Aster’s creature does speak. We also don’t know if he–I’m making him male, but he may not be–understands language. Regardless of the difficulty, I think it’s worth trying. It’s always an interesting challenge when we limit our resources. In this case, we’ll probably have mostly action to work with.

But action isn’t possible without some level of thought. So we should spend a little time thinking about how he does think. In words? In pictures, as Temple Grandin believes (if I remember correctly) that animals and autistic people do? In sound, maybe? In colors–how cool would that be!

How can we create sympathy, if that’s what we want? This is a version of how to make a character likable. We need to use everything we can think of, his name, for example. We’ll have a different initial response if his name is Snarl than we will if it’s Purr.

We can make him save someone right at the beginning, which will prejudice the reader in his favor.

We can use the humans around. Our creature can cause speculation and misunderstanding in his observers, which could be funny–or sad. People can perceive a threat when none is intended. This can escalate; first the creature can be in danger, and then everyone can be. The reader will care.

We can learn a lot about him from his reactions and from the acts he initiates. For example, does he hide from people or go toward them? Does he respond to different people differently?

To develop a plot, we can have him want something. Then we can frustrate his desire and see what he does. We can create obstacles and have him make mistakes or bad choices in the course of going after whatever it is.

Or we can put him in a terrible situation and not let up. Again, he can make mistakes. We can give him an antagonist, who is determined to harm him.

To expand his repertoire, we can give him abilities that humans don’t have. He can have as good a sense of smell as a dog. He can perceive colors differently than we do. He can sense emotions in a complex way, even though he may not have many words to describe them.

Going in a different direction, we can write in third person, and the narrator’s voice can interpret him for the reader. Or, the story can still be from the creature’s POV, but we can introduce a character who is a sort of monster whisperer. This character can explain the creature to the other characters and the reader, but she may sometimes be wrong.

Also, we don’t have to write a continuous narrative. Our creature may lend himself to shorter related pieces. The reader can see him in various situations and can connect the dots on her own.

Experimental fiction, which doesn’t have to be linear or logical, may lend itself to our creature. We can be dreamlike and surreal and concentrate on language. We can create discontinuities.. Also, just saying, dreams are traditional territory for poems.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your creature is trapped and put into a cage in a menagerie. Write his capture and the scene that follows.

∙ Write the scene that precedes the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince is turned into a beast, assuming he becomes at least part beast internally.

∙ Getting real for a minute, your MC has a head injury, wakes up in the hospital with cognitive losses. His thinking isn’t what it used to be. In a way, he’s the monster. Write the hospital scene from his POV.

∙ Have your creature fall in love either with a creature like him or with a human. Write the scenes in which this happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The dread god of the machine

On August 6, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, The world of my would-be trilogy has humans, serpent-demons, the sort-of-angelic Aureni, and an omnipresent, basically omnipotent and benign deity, which the Aureni can heal people by praying to.

Book 2 started out as a NaNoWriMo project, and in the name of fast word count I invoked the “A wizard did it” rule and handwaved a lot of stuff. Now I want to turn it into a serious sequel, but the central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to do. (And I don’t want to invoke deus ex machina any more than I can help.)

I’m also somewhat worried about offending people’s religious beliefs (it’s already happened once), but I’m hoping that readers will understand that everybody, including the deity, is fictional.

This from me: I agree that the dread deus ex machina should be avoided! Can you go back into the first book, since it isn’t published yet, and set up conditions that will make your villain’s heinous act possible in another way? Seems to me this is another time for a list of possibilities.

And from Moryah: The villain could harness the deity’s power somehow? Coerce the deity? Coerce an Aureni/some Aureni into doing it, through mind control or bribery or blackmail (would that even work?)? The villain has an object that connects to the deity? The villain coerced an Aureni into creating such an object? If only the deity can do whatever it is you need the villain to do, then logically the villain needs the deity’s power (unless you change things up in the first book, or things in this book). So the question is how the villain can harness the deity’s power – unless there are OTHER ways of obtaining a power of that magnitude. Maybe there’s another deity (like, a light-dark balance good-needs-evil idea, idk). Maybe there’s something that’s not a deity that doesn’t like the deity and would aid your villain in one-upping the deity in power (whether or not your villain is directly striking against the deity/Aureni).Maybe a random portal opens up spontaneously halfway through the book and the villain reaches into it and rummages around and pulls out a recipe for a magic vegan cornbread that when eaten gives the eater a temporary power (read: a power that will wear off once the cornbread is digested) to talk to stars, and instead your villain enslaves the stars and uses them to blackmail the deity, or uses them to perform the act you said only your deity could do.

Back to Melissa Mead: Mm, cornbread. Maybe I should put some cornbread in the story. I know a spot in Book 3 where it might be particularly plausible.   

I wish I could give more context without being spoilery… The basic idea is that the Aureni have the healing touch, and the villain has twisted that around. I can explain that storywise on a small scale, but for the big thing I’m thinking of….

…hey, I may have just caught the tiniest whiff of an idea…!

BTW, I don’t want to get rid of the actual “deus.” (Don’t think I could, actually.) I think the scenes between it and the MC are fun. I just don’t want it acting when the finite characters should.

First off, for those who don’t know, deus ex machina means, literally, god in the machine. The term originated in classical Greek theater, where play conflict was resolved when a contraption bore actors onstage who portrayed the gods and solved all the problems.

The charm of a deus ex machina is that the writer can pile on trouble after trouble without worrying about their resolution, because the gods are going to swoop in at the end and whoosh the difficulties away. I imagine that ancient theatergoers expected this and derived their pleasure from watching the train–or chariot–wreck unroll.

Fairies in most fairy tales as traditionally told operate as dei ex machina. And we who adapt these stories for modern readers struggle against this device to give our human characters agency.

The question about offending readers has come up before, and I’ve written posts about it, which you can find under the category “giving offense.” But I’ll revisit the subject briefly. I worry about this, too, although I tell myself not to. We can’t control our pesky (hah!) readers, who may take offense at story elements we think are completely innocuous. As long as we aren’t intending to give offense–I don’t even want to write that! I don’t want to give offense in my books for kids, but I don’t much care in my poems for adults, who can watch out for themselves, and some of you may be writing for grownups. And I think an argument can be made even in children’s books for being willing to give offense. A writer may want to challenge readers, for example. My guess is that YA author M. T. Anderson wasn’t very concerned about giving offense when he wrote Feed, which is a terrific though disturbing book.

On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage people to write stories that, for example, reinforce stereotypes. As a newly old person who just turned seventy, I often cringe at representations of the elderly in the media. How many forty-year-olds can drop down and pop out twenty push-ups, heh? I can, though of diminishing depth after the first ten.

And, of course, I oppose any writing that may incite violence.

But I think we know when we’re crossing a line. Most of us are probably over-cautious and keep the danger zone too far from our writing.

Onto the deity!

Melissa says that the second book’s central premise hinges on the villain doing something that only the deity should be able to accomplish. If this is a central premise, we need to take time to set it up.

We can ask ourselves, Under what conditions might this villain be able to do this impossible thing? I haven’t in decades, but I used to read super-hero comic books, and this kind of cosmic shake-up would happen regularly, especially, if I remember right, in Superman. I’d say what I always say: make a list of conditions, and, just saying, there’s no shame in putting a few of Moryah’s ideas on it.

I’m assuming that the villain is defeated in the end, so I don’t think it’s out of bounds for the villain to accomplish this thing if the reader understands how it’s done. I love the idea of a villain wily enough to usurp a deity’s power. I’m thinking of the bible story of Job. I’m not a biblical scholar, but my recollection is that Satan manipulates God into testing Job. If Job loses all his good fortune, Satan says, he will curse God. Game on. God takes away Job’s wealth, health, and, worst of all, his children.

So Satan, a much lesser being, has pushed God into an action He wouldn’t have taken otherwise. And Job, unwittingly, can also spur God to action. His fate hangs on his response to his losses.

I’m thinking also of the very old Ingmar Bergman movie called The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death. Presumably, if he wins, he lives forever. In the movie, the knight loses, which the reader expects, but one can imagine a different story with different results.

Melissa has kind of a David-and-Goliath situation going, with the villain the underdog. There’s fun to be had in playing that out. And if the villain wins, he (she? they? it?) becomes even more scary. Look! He can out-maneuver a god!

Melissa says that this god is omnipresent and omnipotent but doesn’t mention if she (he, etc.?) is omniscient. If she isn’t, the villain can use her ignorance to get the power he wants.

As a pantser, I regularly get myself into this kind of trouble. For me, it’s setting something up without realizing the long-term consequences. One solution, which both Moryah and I have suggested, is to reexamine the conditions that underpin the story, looking for elements we can use to approach the story from a new direction. For example, does the villain have to wield this particular power to do what he needs to? Does he have to do this particular thing, or can some other action bring about the same result?

As I suggested when I first responded to Melissa, she can go into the first book and tweak things to give the villain the power to do whatever has to be done. In a single book, we can go back to an earlier point in our story to make the changes.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Set your story in a world where water is limited. Two kingdoms are vying for control of the mighty Nipar River, and each kingdom has a hero/heroine who will do most of the heavy lifting. On the supernatural side, there’s an elf king, a dragon, and a goddess of justice who has limited powers. Each being backs one side or the other, though allegiances may shift. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Pick one or more of Moryah’s ideas and use it in a scene.

∙ Taking off from the fairy tale “Aladdin,” have Aladdin usurp the power of the genie of the lamp and do something only the genie could do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Eek! Stabbing the Raised Stake

On August 3, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, I have a problem spot here. The book I’m working on concerns the relationship between my main character Keita and her twin brother’s fiancé. My beta-reader suggested a wedding scene right before the climax to heighten the stakes when the couple is in danger. I like the idea but I don’t want to add more than a few hundred words to this chapter. So, any tips on cramming something as culturally significant as a wedding into a few paragraphs? Or should I skip it? So far I have this build up:

Zuri tried to look serious but she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s been a year since we were betrothed,” she said, “and without your parents here, you’re the head of the family…”

“You want to marry now?” Keita demanded. “Your people do all sorts of fancy stuff you couldn’t do here.”

“I know.” Zuri sighed. “But Glen said we can have more elaborate celebrations at the next festival.”

“You just have to give permission,” Glen said, “and…”

“Just give permission,” Keita repeated scornfully. “If I’m in charge, we do all the old traditions… the one where you’re chained together until the next festival…”

Zuri paled. “Three weeks?”

“And you can’t keep your bride unless you defend her from all the cousins carrying arrows…”

“No,” Glen said.

“Then the kidnapping…”

“Keita, come on. We’re at war, remember?”

“In that case, I say no.”

She let them squirm almost a minute before she said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. I’m not an adult yet. You’d have to ask Aunt Laurel.”

Keita tried to smother her laughter but it burst out anyway. Both gave her dirty looks before they fled the courtyard.

A back-and-forth followed:

Melissa Mead: A wedding right before the climax sounds like drama on top of drama, with no time to let the first one sink in. If the wedding’s important, maybe have all-out fun describing it in the previous chapter, then have the newlyweds enjoying some quiet domestic bliss when BANG! Danger happens. Unless the wedding scene is just a quiet happy interlude, with no great drama? Then the climax WOULD be a contrast.
And if they’re newlyweds and get separated to who-knows-what fate, ouch!

OTOH (just brainstorming here) maybe if they’re NOT married before the climax, and they’ve been planning it for weeks or months, and then they’re in danger, we’ll have an extra reason to root for them to survive and have their wedding. What kind of danger are we talking about?

Have you read Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic? That’s got a wedding contrast to break your heart.

Christie V Powell: I have read it, but it was years ago and the details get fuzzy.

I think this chapter is going to start with the wedding and end with a battle in which Keita and Zuri are captured. I’m just not sure how much of the wedding will occur before the battle begins… or if there’s a small ‘bliss’ scene in between. I don’t want it to be too melodramatic or cliche (I just showed the kids ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and thought about ‘Harry Potter 7’: both weddings get interrupted toward the end). Glen and Zuri have been romantic through the book and Keita finds it disgusting/annoying the whole time.

April: It’s kind of difficult to give advice without more context. But basically you need to make Keita and Zuri have a rocky relationship, right? So give lots of little opportunities to have them cut at each other, with increasing intensity. So here, Keita threatened Zuri (and Glen) with a dangerous wedding, but then revealed the joke so as not to seem mean (but still clearly passive aggressive). You need more passive aggressiveness from Zuri to Keita, and from Keita to Zuri. The characters need to go from “is she just teasing me?” to “oh, no, she didn’t” and retaliation.

Off topic, but why the names Keita, Zuri, and Glen? Glen seems very Caucasian, whereas Keita is a Japanese masculine name (in fact, when I read these excerpts from your story posted here and there, I have trouble remembering that your MC is female, not male).

Christie V Powell: Thanks for the tip. The girls were good friends and they still want to be, so this divider is really hard for both of them. I’ll see where I can add more conflict between the two. Thanks.

I was going for name meanings over origin. When I first chose the name Keita, the baby-name website I preferred listed it as a female Sanskrit name meaning forest. That was years and years ago and the site has changed, but the name stuck. Glen is also a forest term. Zuri is short for Azura, because she’s from a different kingdom with water abilities.

Me: I’m adding this question to my list–mostly in terms of stakes-raising, which is super important! In the meanwhile, though, I’m not sure chapter length is the most important factor in making a plot decision.

Christie V Powell: Thanks. I don’t usually base things on length, but I’m in the final stages and have already designed the cover (including spine width).

I was working on this scene today and I think I’ve got it where I want it. I had to move a couple scenes around that I hadn’t planned on, but it’s smoother. The women are still preparing for the wedding when the attack begins.

I’m glad the problem got resolved and the resolution came for plot reasons not chapter or book length or other mechanical considerations. For any of us who think about this mechanical stuff, length shouldn’t be determined, for example, by word count for a particular genre or age range. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to be told, no longer or shorter.

Having said that, a chapter book for a seven-year old who isn’t a genius can’t reasonably be 200 pages long. But achieving a proper length will come organically from considering the kind of story that’s in synch with the level of sophistication of a child at that age. We’re probably not going to have so many plot twists that the result is a long book. We’re also going to read other books for that age group to prime ourselves for getting it right.

And I’m in favor of as few words as we need. My manuscripts always shrink in revision as the verys, the reallys, the almosts get the boot. Do you guys know The Elements of Style, AKA Strunk and White? It’s a gem of concision. I just copied this snippet of a Boston Globe review: “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”

Hah! The review is backwards! I’d say, No book in more space, with more words, will help any writer as much as this persistent little volume.” It’s a 105-page style-and-usage book that came out in its present form in 1959, and its Amazon sales ranking, as students set off for college, is 38! I hope I’ve internalized most of its precepts. I used to read its sentences out loud for the pleasure of their economy and elegance.

Onto the crux of Christie V Powell’s question. I love raising stakes!

I applaud Christie V Powell’s decision to bring on the attack before the wedding. We can hike the tension just as much before as after, but the former gets us there quicker.

I’d even argue that stakes are intrinsically higher before the wedding–before fulfillment rather than after. I think this goes for any uncompleted versus completed goal. Suppose our MC Sami is the first in her family to attend college. She’s doing well in her senior year, completing a double major in international finance and Chinese. Do we want disaster to strike just before graduation or just after?

I say just before. As she’s in the middle of the crisis she thinks, I was so close. Almost made it. I find that more poignant and wrenching than her thought, At least I got my degree–though both activate the worry part of my brain. But with the first, she has more to lose as she makes choices in the story climax.

In general, how do we raise the stakes?

1. The reader has to care about our characters. In the excerpt Christie V Powell shared, I find it endearing that Zuri bounces on the balls of her feet, which is such an exuberant, young person’s gesture. As a reader, I don’t want anything to destroy that enthusiasm.

And the affection these characters feel for each other is appealing and helps them be likable. I don’t want their connection broken by separation or (gasp!) death.

2. We can strengthen a connection between our characters with thoughts, which will also raise the stakes. Going back to Sami, we can have her call her dad to tell him that she may not graduate. She can notice how grumpy he sounds when he says hello and how that changes as soon as he hears her voice. She thinks about how revealing his voice is and dreads hearing it change again when she delivers her news. As he speaks, or before she dials, she can think of the treasured box in which he keeps mementos of her academic achievements: report cards, A+ papers, debate team trophies, graduation photos. The reader can’t help loving them both–even before the conversation starts.

3. When it does start, dialogue can up the ante. Sami can start the conversation ominously by asking her dad if he’s been taking his heart meds. Oy! She cares about him so much that’s the first thing she asks, rather than launching into her problems! Oy! He’s fragile. He can reassure her that he never misses a pill, and besides doctors always try to scare patients. He feels fine. She isn’t to worry. Then he says, “What’s the good news?” A dagger enters the reader’s heart.

4. Sami can react physically to her father’s question. Her toes curl. Her fingers clutching her cell phone turn a lighter color. Her stomach seems to turn over. The reader’s stomach clenches, too.

5. As she speaks, Sami looks around her dorm room at the school pennant, the posters she brought from home, the throw blanket that her grandmother crocheted–this beloved setting.

6. We ratchet up the threat level as our story progresses. At the beginning, we establish the conflict, whatever it is. Maybe there’s a scene in which the problem appears. Let’s say Sami’s best friend catches her in a little lie, nothing consequential; the lie doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings or get Sami herself out of any difficulty, but it does give her credit in a situation that she doesn’t entirely deserve. Her friend just says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and the story moves on. However, the reader notices. As the plot progresses, the lies pile up. The reader loves Sami for all her great qualities and her humanity and becomes more and more worried about the web she’s tangling herself up in.

To take off from Christie V Powell’s story, the reader finds out about the enemy early in the story, while peace talks are going on. There is an enemy, but it’s likely to work out. Then the peace talks dissolve, but the enemy is disorganized. However, gradually, the threat looms more and more.

7. Details bring it all together. The noise of the wedding prep covers the enemy’s approach. Pots clatter. Drummers practice their rhythms. Children shout and babies wail. Glen receives a gift that means a lot to him and distracts him from his usual vigilance. Keita says something she shouldn’t to Zuri, and a chasm opens between the two. Just then, the dogs start barking in alarm.

Finally, and this has nothing to do with stakes-raising, I enjoyed the humor in Christie V Powell’s excerpt, especially the bizarre wedding rituals!

Here are three prompts, though you can spin prompts from lots of the situations above:

∙ Write the conversation between Sami and her dad. Break the reader’s heart.

∙ Write the scene that sets the stage for her being denied graduation. You can use my idea that a lie she’s told is behind it, or any other reason.

∙ Write the scene when Snow White’s evil stepmother is told for the last time by the magic mirror that she’s the fairest in the land. Foreshadow that trouble is on the way.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Dueling Myths

Before I start the post, just want to let you know that, with help, I’ve become more active on social media. If you’re interested in more of me than this blog and my website offer, you can find me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. You’ll see my dog, my husband (though he’s camera shy), our backyard, and what I’ve been up to, including a little about the summer writing workshop, which just ended.

On July 5, 2017, Moryah wrote, I have a situation and an issue. There’s this object, and two groups of people lay claim to it. Both think their claim is legitimate, and my protag is trying to find out the truth (more or less). The object is fairly ancient and steeped in myth on both sides. My problem is that I don’t know how to write a myth, much less two that conflict in just the right places and therefore lend credibility to two different claims. Also, I don’t know what, precisely, the object does (though I know what it is) or what the two groups THINK the object does or why the two groups want it. (You can probably tell I’m not a planner.)

Lots of you had ideas.

Inktail: Well, imo, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write a myth. If it’s a sort of creation myth, I would recommend the book In the Beginning by Virginia Hamilton. It’s a collection of old creation myths from all over the world. If it’s not a creation myth however, that is a bit trickier to recommend a book for. There are many types of myths. I’d say, go to your local library and just do a search for myths. Many will most likely come up; grab whatever seems like it would help!

Jenalyn Barton: I’ve never really had much trouble writing myths, so I’ve never really thought about it. But in my experience, myths are usually stories: stories made to explain something, like a phenomenon or how something came to be, stories that were originally true and grew to be bigger than the actual event (like Paul Bunyan, King Arthur, etc.), and stories about what may happen. So if you approach it as a story (which you definitely have experience with), then you should at least have a starting point to go off of.

Jenalyn Barton (again): I forgot to include examples for myths about what may happen. These are stories like Ragnarok, life-after-death stories (the Egyptian afterlife has quite an interesting story to it), and stories about prophecies.

Christie V Powell: You might consider rereading (or reading for the first time) how J. K. Rowling introduces the Hallows in Harry Potter 7. She uses a myth that she created, the tale of three brothers. I used a couple of myths in my series:

1. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44519445-may-bonus-story-earth-s-creation

2. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44078340-the-legend-of-aiyana

Angie: An example that comes to my mind is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. It’s treated rather like a mythical object, physically powerful, yet metaphorically as well, and people want it for different purposes. The story revolves around what happens to the ring, yet the characters become the meat of the story. Ultimately the object (and the way characters respond to its effects) embodies the themes of the whole series. I also agree with the suggestion to consider the Deathly Hallows and accompanying myth! The myth surrounding your object can be layered and exciting when you start thinking of the different ways people respond to it, or uses they would have for it. It would be a great way to dig into your individual characters.

Song4myKing: Another good book that includes myths is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. The story centers around an object, and, while the characters travel to find it, those who know the stories tell them to the others. The myths are Greek style, with gods and goddesses and all their squabbles.

I’m planning to write myths into one of my WIPs. I have two characters from different cultures, and I want them to have different explanations for something that happened long, long ago. I want them to each have part of the truth but not all. I have the “real” happening mostly figured out, and hope to write it someday in its own story. So I take that “real” event and try to run it through the lens of a couple thousand years and a cultural bias. I’m not sure yet how each character will tell it, but I have some ideas. One culture might be quick to attribute the strange events to magic, while the other might attribute them to the cleverness of a few of the people involved (along the lines of Br’er Rabbit). One culture might see the results of the event as a curse, and the other culture might see it as a blessing.

Now for ideas about your myths. Is it possible that your two groups of people might think the object will help them in their rivalry against the other? (e.g. In Redwall, they looked for the sword that was supposed to help them defend the abbey. Also, Cluny thought that the tapestry of Martin the Warrior was helping the defenders, since it was giving him nightmares). Think about your cultures – what is valued and what is wanted. Think about how the object could give what is needed. Once you know what the object does, perhaps you can figure out its “real” history, then tweak it for each group based on how they would view it and pass the story on.

These are great, and Moryah probably used everyone’s ideas and solved her problem long ago.

I want also to shout out my favorite source of myths, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which I first read when I was little and still go back to. Hamilton includes Norse myths, but most of the book is devoted to Greek and Roman myths, and her love of them is infectious.

I’m with Jenalyn Barton’s comment that myths are stories. When they undergird a different ongoing story–in this case one with two groups claiming an object because of the disparate meanings it has for them–they’re a kind of backstory. To take Angie’s example of the ring from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien didn’t show the forging of the ring or Sauron’s loss of it in forward story time. The reader finds out about the myth from the wizard Gandalf, but that backstory is the reason for the whole plot.

(I’m not sure, though, if the ring is really a myth in LOTR, since it’s fundamental to this entire world, and its powers and history are real. But it functions as a myth and is certainly backstory.)

I confess I’m not familiar with all the examples you guys raised, but I am a fan of Megan Whelan Turner. So I don’t know how most of the myths operate in these books. Since I know it, let’s compare the ring saga in LOTR with, say, the Robin Hood myth. The entire world of LOTR depends on the ring’s backstory, and everyone’s future depends on the success of Frodo’s quest. In the Robin Hood myth, by contrast, the thief’s adventures affect only those close to him, and most of medieval life goes on and will continue to go on, with or without him.

If we’re using myths, they need to be part of our world building. So a consideration when we think about creating them is how fundamental they are to the universe of our story. Our world certainly has to accommodate the myth. At the very least, it has to be comprehensible to its inhabitants, but they don’t all have to know the story. At the most, it needs to be woven into the fabric of every life.

We get to choose which. If our story needs a myth for two different groups, the myth’s importance can be different for each. Or the same.
I love this stuff! So much opportunity for invention!

Lots of myths start out as religions. The Greek and Roman myths (which are related) and the Norse myths are examples. If that’s the case in our world, we have to create a religion, too, which doesn’t have to be fleshed out in our story–we don’t have to develop a creation myth, for example, if we don’t need one, but we have to make up enough of the religion for our own use to imagine what the mythology might be. For example, let’s imagine that the supreme god of one group is a dragon and the other group worships a pantheon of heavenly chivalric knights. The object might be an enormous round steel plate. The dragon worshipers regard it as a scale from the dragon’s neck, while the pantheon believers believe it’s the breastplate from a suit of armor of their most major god.

Some myths are cautionary tales. Christie V Powell’s second link is an example. Fairy tales, which can be seen as a subset of myths, often resolve in a moral: be kind; knuckle under; be beautiful–and all will end well. As another example, “Little Red Riding Hood” is a thinly veiled warning about talking to strangers. One of the groups can have this sort of myth attached to the object. Their system of morality can depend on it.

I love myths as exaggerated history. An example in our own hallowed history is the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which I learned as factual when I was in elementary school. First published in 1806, it lasted as truth in New York City at least into the 1950s. It’s a reassuring story about virtue in our leaders.

If we’re going to invent this kind of myth for one of the groups, we need to think about what the myth does for the population. Suppose that famine is common here. Well, we might want a myth that exaggerates the feats of a Johnny Appleseed sort of figure, a farmer with the analog of an enormous green thumb, and our object might be a rake or a scythe. A scythe is a nice choice because the shape is simple and can lend itself to a different meaning by the other group.

Then there are myths that support the dark side of humanity. I’ve been researching the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and have begun a historical novel set in this time period. In my reading, I’ve come across the underpinnings of modern antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Some of these roots take the form of myth. For example, there was the myth that Jews poisoned the wells Christians drank from. This one rises out of the spread of the plague. Recent research suggests that plague pandemics were spread, not by rats, but by airborne bacteria, and Jews suffered less than the general population–because they were confined in ghettos and had less contact with infected people. Also, Jewish rites incorporated a lot of washing, which was protective. But no one knew about bacteria at the time, so the well myth rose up to both explain the disease’s seeming selectivity and to pin the scourge on an already despised people. The myth of one of the groups could operate in this negative way.

The well-poisoning myth is a dark example of myths to explain natural phenomena, like volcanos, earthquakes. As a further subset, the myth might personify a feature of the environment. A mountain may be believed to be angry, for example. In my mystery Stolen Magic, a replica of a mountain keeps the mountain from erupting as long as the replica is kept on its stand.

So there’s a lot to choose from.

Here are four prompts, but you can build plenty more on the myth variants above:

∙ Invent two different myths about a scythe, and give the scythe two different powerful effects.

∙ Write a story in which the myth operates as a sort of villain, much as the well-poisoning myth did in European history.

∙ Write a contemporary story about an MC on a quest to prove that elves really exist.

∙ Write a cautionary myth that warns people against squandering money. Then write a counter myth that warns people against being miserly.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Starting a Shift

Seems like yesterday, but in November, 2015, Kitty asked a question about how to write a prison break and avoid cliches. In January, 2016, I wrote a post on the subject–http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2016/01/20/lemme-out-convincingly/–and recently the universe responded with its own solution–peanut butter! You may have read about this. More than one prisoner was involved, which is not what Kitty was looking for, but from the description, the break could have been carried out by just one, and it certainly avoids cliche. Happily, all prisoners have been returned to jail. You can read about it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/us/alabama-inmates-escape-peanut-butter.html?_r=0.

And this lovely, in-depth article appeared recently in the HuffPost about the twentieth anniversary of Ella Enchanted. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ella-enchanted-feminist-nostalgia_us_597bb2e7e4b02a8434b6866e.

On to this post. On July 5, 2017, Bookfanatic wrote, Does anyone have any ideas that will help me with the beginning of my story? My MC went to live with the fairies when she was six but I’m not sure how to write the transition from living with her aunt to living with the fairies.

Samantha wrote in response, How about a prologue?

And I suggested that Bookfanatic read The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which I’ve mentioned here before. In The Moorchild the process goes the other way. A half-elf whose mother is an elf is banished from the elves’ Mound and sent to grow up in a human family. McGraw begins with the grandmother in the human family who suspects that Moql (elf name)/Saaski (human name) is a changeling. After this start in current time, McGraw seamlessly transitions on page 13 to a flashback that provides the backstory. The writing is superb, and the temporal change works.

But I’m not a fan of either prologues or backstories if we can avoid them. Prologues worry me because some people (like me sometimes) skip them.
And I’m not crazy about flashbacks because they divert attention from the action moving forward. That diversion can–briefly–weaken readers’ interest, and, in a split second, we can lose them.

On the other hand, some readers and writers love them. Readers may feel a backstory lets them in on a secret, which has more than enough charm to make up for the distraction. And writers may feel they’re giving the reader a peek behind the story curtain.

So take your pick.

However, in this case, straightforward telling (and showing) seems called for. Our story can begin with our MC–let’s call her Lacy–in her aunt’s home, engaged in her ordinary routine. Let’s say she’s eating breakfast.

We don’t know if the aunt in Bookfanatic’s story is a good character or a villain. If she’s bad, Lacy’s breakfast may be half a slice of burnt toast. If she’s good, it may be a ripe peach, a fried egg, and oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar, which would have been my favorite if I had been a sensible child. In fact, my fave was six slices of white bread with the crusts removed, which, inexplicably, my parents let me eat day after day.

Let’s imagine that the aunt is bad. The fairy materializes in the kitchen, waves the burnt toast in the aunt’s face and intones in a mellow fairy voice, “This is what you give my godchild?” Before Lacy’s startled eyes, the aunt becomes a toad.

The fairy smiles fetchingly and waves her wand, and Lacy finds herself seated at the fairy’s fairyland dining table. A napkin unfolds in the air and settles gently in Lacy’s lap. Breakfast appears on the empty plate.

The fairy beams. “Dig in, darling child.”

The scents are unfamiliar, but Lacy picks up her spoon, fearing that if she doesn’t eat she’ll become a toad, too.

And so on. Breakfast can be delicious or odd. We move onto the progression of Lacy’s first day, using showing to reveal her disorientation, her mistakes, and the differences between the two worlds. We can use telling to reveal the reasons, beyond burnt toast, that explain why the fairy swooped in. If we’re writing in first person, Lacy’s older self, who’s narrating the story, can provide the answers. If we’re using third person, the narrator can reveal the reasons. This explanation can be woven into the showing, a sentence here, a sentence there.

Or we can start even earlier, say in Lacy’s infancy, again using showing to set up the conditions that will lead to the fairy’s intervention. If we approach it this way, we won’t need the narrative explanations.

(Obviously, what I’ve invented probably has nothing to do with Bookfanatic’s plot. The fairies themselves may need the child. Or a zillion other possibilities.)

If the main story takes place a long while later, say, when Lacy is sixteen, we may want to use telling to sketch in a few events in her life between then and now, so that the hop doesn’t feel abrupt.

When we bring the story into the present, we can echo the original situation. Lacy, older now, is eating breakfast across from the fairy and pouring caterpillar milk into her grass-seed cereal from a china pitcher in the shape of a toad.

Lacy and the scenario I’ve laid out may be charming, but it won’t really start the story unless we introduce the central problem of the tale early. We want to get the reader worried as quickly as we can, if possible in the first scene–not full-blown, but in a less emotion-packed way. Suppose the central conflict is a lack of understanding between humans and fairies. Well, we see evidence of it in the fairy’s failure to notice Lacy’s terror when her aunt was turned into a toad.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the first scene in the Lacy story with no flashbacks, just forward action.

∙ Write the first scene using a flashback.

∙ Write the scene when Lacy leaves the fairy’s dining room and enters the wider world of fairyland. Show the differences, Lacy’s confusion, her false assumptions, her missteps.

∙ Write the beginning scene in your telling of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go back in time as far as you need to in order to write the story without flashbacks, which may be the birth of Rumpelstiltskin or something in the life of the king, the miller, or his daughter.

Have fun, and save what you write!

As It Turns Out

A little good news–for me, anyway–to start the post. HarperCollins’s marketing folks have approved Ogre Enchanted as the title for the Ella prequel. This is lucky, because I’ve never felt as strongly about a title. So, hooray and woo hoo! And thanks to all of you on the blog who’ve helped me with titles in the past.

On June 4, 2017, Samantha wrote, My work in progress is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends, and… well, his life. Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal.

Christie V Powell responded. I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect McQueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

I agree with Christie V Powell that it doesn’t sound too dramatic. If there’s going to be drama in a story, the ending is the right spot for it.
It’s been decades since I watched the movie Rocky (the original–I haven’t seen any of the sequels), but my recollection is that, in the end and against all odds, Rocky Balboa wins, and the audience is delighted. I think the reason the ending works is that so much is stacked against him. Since victory seems impossible, when it comes, we’re surprised. In my opinion, there’s a trick here that our minds play on us. We go to the movie pretty sure it’s going to come out okay. We may even choose it for that reason, but when the action starts, we drop the belief and abandon ourselves to the unfolding story.

So a complete happy ending can works if the route to it is full of surprises. In some cases, we’re disappointed if the happy ending is at all tarnished. Some of you may have seen the musical Into the Woods. I confess to loving the happy first act and hating the unhappy second act when everything falls apart.

In a way, most plots are like sporting events. Something important is at stake, and, in the end, the MC either succeeds, utterly or to some degree, or fails, utterly or to some degree.

Take Hamlet, for example. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It’s a tragedy. However, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius’s successful conspiracy to kill Hamlet’s father is exposed. They die, and the ghost is avenged. In a grisly way, those are positive outcomes. Hamlet’s death isn’t.

Or take my beloved Pride and Prejudice. ***SPOILER ALERT*** again. The main romance ends happily, but Lydia has to suffer the consequences of her disastrous flirtation. Even Elizabeth and Darcy in their married bliss have to put up with that bounder Wickham forever.

We may–because anything is possible in writing–be able to write a satisfying, unpredictable, believable ending in which everything goes right and there is no shadow. Try it as an early prompt. Your MC is a member of a team (you decide the sport, which can be a real or a fantasy sport) that has lost for ten straight seasons. His grandmother is very ill. His dog has bitten someone and may have to be put down. He is failing biology in school. His best friend isn’t talking to him. Write the story, or the final scene, and make every single thing come out well.

After those spoiler alerts, I want to mention this interesting report I heard on the radio that is at least tangentially related to predictability. Research was done that shows that people enjoy a story more if they’re told in advance how it ends. Turns out, those of us who peek ahead and turn pages in books are really heightening our pleasure.

I don’t know if the study can be replicated, so it may not be true, but the way I understand it is that a spoiler doesn’t spoil the details, the character development, the flow of the story, and readers still have the delight of discovery–untainted by the anxiety of not knowing how it will all wind up. I get this. Sometimes I’m tense enough about what will happen that I don’t take in a lot of the story in my desperation to reach the outcome. That’s why a second read is often rewarding, because I slow down and really pay attention.

We certainly don’t want our endings to feel improbable. No matter how much  luck contributes to success or failure in real life, in fiction, it can’t. Luck can come in earlier, but not at the end. If Samantha’s MC scores the final goal because, as luck would have it, the opposite team’s best athlete is injured late in the game, the reader is going to bellow, “Foul!”

So we’re going for believability. Our MC’s character has to justify the end. If Samantha’s MC, again, is so lost in depression that he doesn’t drag himself to practice very often, the reader isn’t going to buy his win.

He can be depressed! He can finish practice every day and wonder if it’s worth his effort. But he has to practice. He can even throw a game, or his part in it, earlier in the story, so that the reader can fear that he will throw this final one, too. She can believe that throwing the game and really going after it are equally possible. She’ll be stiff with suspense.

If we’re not sure about an ending, we can bring in my favorite weapon: the mighty list. As I said in an earlier post, lists are predictability poison. We can list possible endings, including scoring the final point. We can decide to list at least twelve options. And we have to remember that no possibility is too stupid to go on our list. Our brains can be exploding from effort by the time we reach number seven, but we must soldier on, because, after we exhaust the obvious, the surprises pop up. The ending that appeals to us most may arrive as number eleven, and we’d never have gotten to it if we hadn’t slogged forward.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Shannon, your MC, has the job of guarding the crown prince against both the enemies of the state and his own bad proclivities. Problem is, Shannon, a staunch patriot, doesn’t think much of the prince and is convinced he’ll make a disastrous king. Matters come to a head at a reception for the queen of the neighboring kingdom, with which relations have lately been tense. The prince often behaves badly during ceremonial occasions, and there’s intelligence of a plot against him. Write the story or the final scene.

∙ Pick one of these: “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and rewrite it as a tragedy. Moreover, make the sad ending come from something in the character of the heroine or hero. I don’t mean they have to be evil in the slightest–their own goodness can do them in. Or some other character trait that’s neither good nor evil. (This can, by the way, be comic-tragedy, if you prefer.)

Have fun, and save what you write!

Swallowing the Wallowing

On April 6, 2017, Writeforfun wrote, I love to explore people’s emotions when I write – love to – to the point that, as I look over my stories, I realize that the majority of my writing is spent detailing what is going on in characters’ heads. I enjoy writing because I get to put them in dangerous situations or scar them emotionally, and then explore all of the conflicting and interesting emotions they experience (my favorite characters to write are those who are sensitive about something). That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it’s so much fun (for me!) but I realize that it often overshadows the action and other important details. Has anyone else had that problem? How do you rein yourself in from including too much emotional exploration? I try to cut back on the detail I’ve included… but it’s too interesting to me to give it up! How to find a balance between what is going on in your story and what is going on in your characters’ heads?

And Christie V Powell wrote, I like using the action and plot to show the emotion–possibly in the present, possibly with a mini-flashback. Usually when someone is feeling emotional, there is a specific image or phrase in their heads (if I’m in the car and afraid, I probably have an image of a car wreck in my head). I like “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen as an example–I think I “inherited” some of his style and only recently noticed the connection. He uses short sentences, even one word sentences, and line-breaks for emphasis. His main character Brian’s survival story is both inside his head and in action, as he develops the attitude to survive as well as the ability.

Here’s a section from my WIP that includes a more emotional moment, but it also pulls in a little plot, a secondary character, and some backstory:

“Had anything to eat yet?”

Keita jumped. A round, friendly-faced man stood beneath the closest cottonwoods, holding out a turtle-shell bowl of thick brown stew. A refusal was halfway out of Keita’s mouth when she remembered to bite it back. Not today.…

At last he asked, “This your first meal in a season?”

“Thereabouts,” Keita said without looking up. Her last meal had been just like this. The day was cold but crystal clear, and the stew sat warm in her stomach. Trees towered over their valley home, unscathed by the future fire that would roar through weeks later. Her father, strong, busy, alive, threaded through the crowds, while dancers proved that though winter came and Earth slept, life would come again. Now the whole valley slept, and Keita had been gone from it three seasons. Nine months. No food.

The man was still watching. Keita attempted to smile as she scooped a square of root vegetable into her mouth.

Warmth. Crunch. Salt. Savory flavor of summer richness, of festivals gone by, of happy days that would never come back. The bowl slipped from her fingers and thudded to the ground.

Warm gravy spattered her toes. The children gasped, and Bract’s eyes widened. Waste of food was sin.

Song4myKing weighed in with, I don’t generally get too detailed with emotions – I stem from a fairly stoic family :). I generally rely on memory flashbacks and things like songs, and on external details like body language. I lean toward the observable, not by a decision as much as by what I’m comfortable with.

But I do have a problem showing too much of the thought processes when a character is trying to decide what to do. I guess I feel I have to make the decisions understood, but I think I go overboard. It’s like I can’t leave any stone un-turned. I try to show every angle the character might take.

I was taking a writing class when I wrote Ella Enchanted. Every week, our beloved teacher, Bunny Gabel (now retired), would select a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book from two or three students and read them to the class for discussion. She never said who’d written the piece, and the person whose work was read wasn’t allowed to say anything, not even to ask a question. The idea was that if the words on the page didn’t communicate what the writer had in mind, no amount of explaining could help.

*SPOILER ALERT!* If you haven’t read Ella, you may want to skip the next three paragraphs:

Bunny read the chapter after Ella’s mother dies, and everyone said I hadn’t gone nearly enough into Ella’s sadness. I remember thinking resentfully, Her mother just died! Duh! Of course she’s sad!

But I revised, and when I did, I recognized the improvement.

It isn’t true that Ella would have to be sad. She could be angry. She could blame someone. She could be numb. She could even be happy, depending on the kind of mother Lady Eleanor had been and the kind of girl Ella was.

I was converted by that experience. When something important happens, I always go into my MC’s feelings about it. When something minor happens, I sometimes do, too.

I was converted as a reader, too. If I’m reading a novel and the main character seems not to be reacting emotionally, I notice. If this character happens to be stoic and I know that about her, then I want at least an indication that emotions are concealed but churning. Stoic or not, if her reaction is delayed by even a few paragraphs, I notice that too and wish the author had managed to move the feeling up.

Same goes for thoughts. Decisions seem abrupt if I’m not told the reasons behind them, and characters seem wooden, robotic.

Merely telling the emotion doesn’t do it for me, either. Emotions, if they’re significant, call for showing, another lesson I absorbed, this time from an editor, which. I wrote about years ago in a post called “Fear of Flat.” Christie V Powell’s dropped bowl is a good example of such showing. Often, we can nail the feeling by including something physical: tight throat, squeezing stomach, etc. For a character–other than our POV MC–who is gripped by powerful emotion, we can have another character describe his reaction: his expression, voice quality, stance. We can search online for images of facial expressions, like “sad face,” “angry face,” something I’ve done many times. When I look at a photo of a sad person, I see details I wouldn’t think of purely out of my imagination.

By now you’ve realized that I, too, love to delve into feelings!

But of course it’s possible to overdo. I agree that we don’t want to overwhelm our story and bring it to a halt. However, if we enjoy writing about feelings, I think we should let ourselves go in the first draft. That’s the “have fun” part at the end of every post.

One way to contain our emotions-writing, in any draft, is to use time or setting or other characters to get the action going again. We can deny our character the opportunity to wallow in feeling. Suppose our MC Melanie has just discovered that her best friend, Janice, who has passed herself off as an orphan, has two perfectly good parents and three siblings. Melanie has believed herself to be the only one who cares about Janice and has lavished energy and sympathy on her. She feels betrayed, foolish, furious, and possibly several other emotions. She wants to rant and pound her pillow and go into her closet to scream. And we want her to! But we’re aware of our propensity to dive in head first, so we put her in a car with her family when she finds out the truth. She can’t let herself go there. Maybe her younger brother wants to talk about something or play a game. Her stomach can churn; she can take it out on the brother, which will have consequences that move the action forward. For the rest of the day or week or until the two confront each other, her feelings can simmer, but circumstances keep the story moving.

The example above involved setting–a car–and other characters–Melanie’s family, especially her brother. Time can do the job, too. Melanie makes the discovery about Janice five minutes before she goes on stage in her local community theater. She has to finish getting into her costume, take a last look at her lines, and get to the wings in time for her entrance.

So if we engineer the arrival of our emotional triggers, we can contain them.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write the confrontation between Melanie and Janice from Melanie’s POV. Make it emotional for both of them and show the feelings of each, one from the inside, one from the outside.

∙ Interrupt the confrontation with something urgent. Continue writing. The feelings remain, but they’re background.

∙ Your MC is learning to be a mountain climber. The stakes are high. She will be part of a team climbing to the realm of the sentient snow leopards who have wisdom to impart that can save her family. But her balance is bad, and she isn’t progressing as quickly as she needs to. She’s frustrated, frightened, angry at herself, but giving into these feelings is a luxury she can’t afford. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Some Comfort, Maybe

On March 2, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, “The problem with querying is… that supply exceeds demand. There are more good writers out there than there are reader eyeballs.” I came across this statement by an agent recently and wondered what you thought about it.

I asked my husband, and he mentioned a study of song popularity. There is a threshold of skill, he said, but once this is surpassed, which song “makes it” and which doesn’t is completely random.

This was not comforting.

Sadly, I think this is probably mostly true. And true of all the arts. Humans are drawn to art, and many of us are good at it and love to make it. There aren’t enough readers, theaters, concert halls, museums, art galleries to provide all of us with an audience, let alone a living.

Once the skill threshold has been reached, luck becomes important. Agents’ slush piles teeter to their ceilings. The interns and junior staff who read them–I’m guessing–find no easier to say than yes.

Many of you know that it took me nine years to get a manuscript accepted. I may also have written before that at one point in my long trek it occurred to me that if I had set out to become I brain surgeon, I would already have been one (aside from the fact that I’m too squeamish even to remove a splinter). This thought jumped to the fore when I met a doctor who had given up his practice to try to write for children. Yikes! I thought. I hope he knows what he’s getting into. Yikes! I hope he has savings!

During my pre-published time, an editor visited one of my writing classes. He said that the way to get published was either to write something great or to write about something that few were expert in. The only subject I was expert in was welfare programs for people who were healthy enough to work, and that topic didn’t seem promising for a children’s book. As for great, I felt defeated right off.

Hence the nine years.

Now, let me try for some comfort.

When I talk to kids about the nine years, I ask them for the moral of my story. Hands pop up, and the answer I get is, “Never give up,” which was true for me. If you give up, you don’t get published. You also may stop writing, and for some of us, that’s like cutting off a limb.

Okay, maybe not comforting. I’ll try again.

There’s another moral. During those nine years, I took adult ed writing classes and read the Newbery-and-Newbery-honor-winning books of the prior twenty or more years. Both helped me become a better writer and one who could write for the readers I wanted. In my classes, I met other wannabe writers. We supported each other. I joined and formed critique groups and made friends. Turns out, this was one of the happiest times of my life, even though achieving my goal still seemed more a dream than a likelihood. So the second moral is: While you’re never giving up, find a way to have a wonderful time. Which will help you stick with it.

Also, a critique group and classes gave me a (tiny) audience, and one of my most important reasons for writing was to be read. 0thers were self-expression and to learn a skill.

So these are comforts, I hope, for continuing to write, regardless of the eventual outcome, which, unless we have a crystal ball, is unknown. And I still find them valid. I’m published now, but I don’t know if a particular book will catch on with readers. My audience for any one book may be small, but I’ve still added to my skill set by writing it. I still have writing pals who sustain me. This, as I’ve said here before, is especially true of writing poems.

But there are things that we can do to increase the odds of luck smiling on us. Some of these, alas, don’t apply until you turn eighteen.

Go to conferences, if you can afford to. At many writing conferences, the editors and agents who are speakers and panelists will preferentially treat participant submissions, which means your work won’t be placed at the bottom of the slush pile.

If the conference includes a critique option from an editor or an agent, sign up for it, even if there’s an extra fee. Frankly, these industry readers (I’ve been one) will see a lot of work that falls sadly below any reasonable threshold. Writing that rises above will be a relief. The editor or agent will be so happy not to have only bad news to deliver to the writer. You may begin a relationship that, if not immediately, may result in an eventual acceptance.

When you’re there, move outside your comfort zone. Introduce yourself to editors and agents. Talk about your work. Do not mention your uncertainty about its worth.

Also, for the comfort of community, speak with other participants. Make friends, if any of them appeal to you. Share experiences. Get tips.

If you’re old enough and you’re writing for children or young adults (which these days extends into college age and a little beyond), join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.SCBWI.org), a great organization for people just starting out–in terms of its focus on getting published as well as on craft. Get involved in your local chapter, where there may be meetings and may be a regional conference that’s much cheaper than the national one.

Send your work out! You can’t get published if no one is looking at your stories. I once heard of a critique group where the person who got the most rejections in a year got an award–because the one with the most rejections is the one most likely, after a while, to get the most acceptances. I recently went through my files. My folder of personal rejections is about three inches thick! I didn’t keep the form letters, or we wouldn’t be able to get into the basement.

Don’t get in your own way!

For example, a woman in my favorite writing class was working on a book I adored. I don’t know if she’s finished it, twenty years later. I know it isn’t published, and I also know she’s shown it, or parts of it, to this friend or that. She keeps fooling around and not getting to the point, and the world is deprived of a great story.

If you do send something out and get criticism from an agent, take the criticism seriously. Try out what’s being offered to you, and do it relatively quickly. After you’ve revised, ask this person if she’s willing to see it again.

Before you send work out, proofread it obsessively. It should be free of typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes. If it isn’t, you won’t get much of a reading. If you’re not good at this skill, ask someone who is for help–not with critiquing the story, in this case, just checking for these sort of mistakes. Same for query letters. With something as short as a letter, read it backwards, which will help you notice the itty-bitty things.

End of lecture.

But here’s a little more comfort: According to my favorite podcast, Planet Money, fiction writers are unlikely to be replaced by robots. Chances are better than ninety percent in our favor.

And new people break in all the time, and debut books come out constantly. Yours can be one of them.

So–since I have no prompts to offer this time–have fun, and save what you write!

End of the Road

On February 18, 2017, Angie wrote, I recently completed my second manuscript, and am deep into the revision stage. Something I’ve struggled with in both of my novels is writing a final, satisfactory ending. Once my characters’ stories are resolved and every plot point is checked off, I have serious trouble working up an appropriate send-off. I’m just done. I’ve received feedback that the ending in my current manuscript feels abrupt, and am struggling to rectify that problem in subsequent drafts. I’d love some help working through this end-of-the-road roadblock!

First off, congratulations on finishing not one but two manuscripts!

When I was taking writing classes and in the learning stages of becoming a kids’ book writer, the advice I heard most often from teachers about endings was, When you’re done, get out. So it’s possible that the criticism Angie received was just one person’s opinion and the ending is fine.

But let’s assume, for the sake of having a post, that the critiquer is right. What to do?

If every plot point has been checked off, have they all become equal? If yes, that evenness may give our ending a flat feeling. To break it up, we can think about which conflict is at the heart of our story. Fundamentally, what’s our story about? That conflict, the one the story turns on, should stand out in our ending, and we can look for ways to amplify it, perhaps make it come last.

Along the same lines, have we made our plot points’ success–or failure–hard won enough? If the solutions are too easy, the ending again, can feel flat or abrupt. In revision, we can go in and beef up our MC’s struggle. We can give our villains or our opposing forces more power, a few more weapons in their arsenal.

An ending doesn’t have to be unpredictable. As I’ve said here many times, when we’re working from a popular story, a fairy tale or a myth, the end is known. And even if we’re not, most stories follow arcs that readers are used to. The interest lies in how we get to the end of the rainbow. We can surprise the reader and make the ending more satisfying by throwing in lots of monkey wrenches–twists that aren’t predictable–along the way.
We can think about what feeling we want the reader to be left with. In a tragedy, for example, we want hankies to come out. Have we made our readers care enough about our MC to weep for her? Have we shown why her losses are devastating? (If I know someone has to die in a story, I usually make that character–like Ella’s mother, like Dave’s father in Dave at Night–super lovable.)

In an adventure story, we probably want a feeling of satisfaction. Our heroine has accomplished what she set out to do, with great difficulty, probably at some cost, and she’s grown along the way. We have to make sure those things have happened.

In a happy love story, we want rejoicing. Our MCs have been foolish; they’ve made mistakes; they’ve misunderstood themselves and each other. But finally, the blinders have come off their eyes. They’re together at last. We have to deliver on all the mishaps along the way to make the ending feel earned.

What else makes a satisfying ending?

My mind travels to the TV mystery series Bones (high school, possibly middle school, though I’m not sure). The series, which wrapped up recently, was episodic, meaning that, mostly, each mystery got solved in the episode in which it was introduced. In later seasons, when the mystery was solved and the murderer dealt with, the final scene almost always took place in the home of Temperance Brennan (Bones) and her husband, Seeley Booth. Chit-chat happens; often a minor spat between Brennan and Booth is charmingly resolved. The audience feels settled.

We can do something similar. After the blood has been mopped up and the main conflict resolved, we can end with a smaller scene that gives the reader time to collect himself. If we like we can use an epilogue, as I’ve done more than once, to hint at the uneventful futures of our characters.
I’d call that an order-is-restored ending. Shakespeare used this kind of ending in his tragedies, as I was taught in high school. The problem of a play, like Hamlet, is so grave that the balance of the universe is disturbed. Storms result. A ghost walks the earth. Madness afflicts Ophelia. But at the end, following the death of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, the stage littered with bodies, good governance can resume, and all will be well.

There’s also the circular story, which I devoted a post to years ago. The circular story ends where it began, and that return provides the sense of completeness. Lord of the Ring and The Wizard of Oz are examples of stories that begin and end in the same location.

Not every book ends neatly. Take Gone With the Wind–or my understanding of it. Rhett Butler says his famous line and decamps. He understands himself better than he had before, and we readers understand Scarlet, but she doesn’t understand herself, which we realize is her fate. We know that her future life will be full of events and turmoil, whatever they may be. (I haven’t read the sequel, so I don’t know what the modern writer has dished out for her.) Still, despite the lingering possibilities, Margaret Mitchell’s ending works, I think because of the way the characters become resolved.
And there’s “The Lady and the Tiger,” which I’ve talked about before here and which is a short story rather than a novel. Look it up if you don’t know it, because it ends with a question mark, and the reader has to decide what happens. I’m not sure if this would be satisfying in a novel, but it’s great in this particular short story. The story raises a big question and then asks the reader for an answer, and the answer is more revelatory of the reader’s character than of anyone in the story itself.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rewrite the unsatisfying ending of a book that frustrated you. Make it work!

∙ This is an old and silly joke that I may have told before here: A congregation’s rabbi is dying. His most important congregants gather around his deathbed to hear his final words of wisdom, which are “The world is a barrel.” His listeners are shocked. What are they to make of this? They beg him to explain. He lifts his veined eyelids. His watery eyes go from face to face. His chest heaves. His wheezes sound painful. Finally, he gasps out, “So it isn’t a barrel”–and dies.

Make the barrel world be true for at least the youngest person around the bed. Write an adventure in this barrel world and bring it to a satisfying ending, which can be the same or different from the ending in the joke.

∙ Pick a moment in history–an assassination, the fall of Rome, an election, the purchase of Manhattan from its original inhabitants, whatever. Go into it in detail, peopling it with real or imagined characters. Ignore the historical outcome and follow the characters to an ending that flows from their conflicting wishes.

Have fun, and save what you write!