Which comes first?

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m feeling grateful to all of you who follow the blog and particularly to you who chime in with questions and help for fellow writers!

And I’m aware that some of you are in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. I’m sending good wishes your way. By the time I post this you’ll be done and, I imagine, fast asleep. When you wake up, please let us know how it went and what you accomplished. Congratulations!

On November 19, 2020, Beth Schmelzer wrote, I just heard from publisher and editor Kiri, at MG Chicken Scratch Books, that you shouldn’t start with an inciting incident in the first scene or chapter, but you should ground the reader in the MC’s “normal.” What do you all think? She analyzed Dan Gemeinhart’s SCAR ISLAND with the 3 Turning Points on a webinar with the SCBWI Montana chapter last weekend.

Two of you responded:

Melissa Mead: I think you should do whatever works for that story. There’s no one right way to write.

Christie V Powell: The first scene doesn’t have to be the inciting incident (II), but it still should be an interesting hook, something crafted perfectly to show the character’s character. KM Weiland calls it a “characterizing moment”: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multi-faceted-characteristic-moment/

In my Mira’s Griffin, I opened with the main character climbing a cliff, being startled and falling off, and being rescued by a strange creature which turns out to be a griffin. Then she goes back to her normal world for a chapter and a half. The inciting incident is when she is captured by griffins. So the opening is still exciting and hints at the conflict to come, but the II isn’t until chapter 3.

I pulled another book off my shelf. High Sierra by Adrienne Quintana. The opening is when the main character arrives at a cabin and realizes her mother sent her to a “wilderness therapy” program. She’s judgmental of the “problem kids” and of her surroundings, but she’s relatable because of the conflict with her mother. The inciting incident is when their van sets out to drop off their group in the wilderness, and she meets their attractive wilderness guide.

My kids were just watching the movie Newsies in the car. It opens with setting up the setting, and introduces the main character “Jack” as someone who’s tough, respected by the other boys, and stands up for others. He speaks out against a bully, starts a fight, and manages to get away without punishment. The II comes a bit later, when the newspaper owner increases the prices the boys have to pay for newspapers.

I’m with both of you. There are no absolutes, or the only absolute is that whatever works is what we should do. The II doesn’t have to come in the first chapter, but it certainly can.

First off, the II is the event that charges up our plot, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in every book of mine or anyone else’s. The II can be something that happens to our MC (and possibly other characters too) or something our MC does. Confession: I never think about IIs when I write a story, although I think my books have them. Do you think about them? Are you a pantser or an outliner? I have to work backwards to talk about the II, to locate mine from a finished story.

We’re really talking about beginnings when we talk about the II anyway, and, for kids’ books certainly, the beginning has two parts: an II, to be sure, whenever it comes; and something that makes readers care, generally about our MC and sometimes about the MC’s world. In Lord of the Rings, for example, we care about Bilbo and about Middle Earth.

The worst example, in my opinion, of starting out by setting up the world of a story—though many readers love it—appears in the novel Hawaii by James Michener (high school and up). I don’t know how the book, which was published in 1959, would stand up to modern sensibilities or even to my current sensitivities, but I loved everything except the beginning when I was a teenager. The novel is about Hawaii and is told in several time periods, the first being the geologic formation of the island. Yawn. I never managed to read more than a page or two.

The II happens in my Ella Enchanted in the first paragraph, when Ella is cursed with obedience. Ella has no normal because she’s a newborn. I think the reader starts to care about her on the next page when she’s commanded (unintentionally) to eat her birthday cake, and she can’t stop.

In my The Wish, the II occurs in the prologue, which is a problem because many kids skip prologues. MC Wilma’s normal is set up in the first chapter, and the reader comes to care about her when her teacher reads out loud to her class a super embarrassing essay she’s written about how much her dog loves her.

But in my Fairest, the II happens on page 93. At least, that’s when I think it does. Before then, Aza hates being unattractive, but the consequences of everything are set in motion by something the queen does.

In Pride and Prejudice, I’m pretty sure we start to care about Elizabeth when Darcy refuses to dance with her and calls her looks “tolerable.” This may do double duty because it may also be the II. Or the II may come earlier when Mrs. Bennet says how much she wants her daughters to be married well. Even though Austen makes fun of her, the reader realizes how essential matrimony is for a woman who isn’t wealthy in her own right.

I’m not sure what the II is in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells. Trouble gathers slowly. Loma, my MC, is like the fabled frog in the slowly heated water. She and the reader don’t know what’s coming until it’s upon them. Or, the II may come when her grandfather becomes very attached to her and starts taking her with him when he travels—but at first that seems like a lucky break for her.

(About that frog, you probably know that frogs really can’t be lulled into allowing themselves to be boiled to death, but—argh!—according to Wikipedia, a lot of frogs suffered to prove that false.)

The normal establishes what’s at stake when matters start going south. That’s the worldbuilding that comes with every story we write. Sometimes the II doesn’t change the world, doesn’t change much at all. The normal in P&P stays the same after Darcy makes his disparaging remark. Please argue with me if you disagree.

One reason to establish normal first, though, is so that readers feel on solid ground and not flailing in deep water. Along those lines, my editor asked me not to introduce so many characters in the first chapter of Ceiling. In that case, I needed to set up normal more gradually.

On the other hand, unless my memory is wrong, here’s a story that has no normal: Alice in Wonderland. The reader never finds out what Alice’s life is like when she isn’t diving down rabbit holes.

The beginning is probably the part I revise the most because I write it when I’m least certain about how my story will unfold. This may not be true of people who outline extensively, or you may revise your outline’s beginning more than once.

It may be a tad strong for me to say that I hate when people say there’s just one way to do something in writing.  I guess I dislike it—a lot! Such advice is often constricting and can make us be hard on ourselves, especially at the beginning of a story when we’re particularly tender. I’ve talked about a few different approaches to the II, and you may, by experimentation or sheer brilliance, happen upon one that’s new to the rest of us. Don’t be afraid of it!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a new first chapter for Alice in Wonderland that sets up her normal before her descent below ground. Another confession: I’m not fond of Alice, which seems to lack causality and be little more than a string of oddities. If you feel as I do, give her a reason for following that rabbit. Make something be at stake. If you need more than a chapter, go for it.
  • Write a prologue to the fairy tale “Rapunzel” that shows the normal for the witch and reveals why she wants a baby. This can be from the witch’s POV or not.
  • In the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” not the play or the movie, the Beast comes to life only in the presence of Beauty or her father. Write a scene showing what he’s like when he’s alone—his normal.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Str-e-e-e-e-tch!

To you, pounding your keyboards in the NaNoWriMo dash, congratulations on passing halfway! I’m with you in spirit if not in fingers!

On November 17, 2020, Bri wrote, I’ve been writing short stories and have started a new one. The thing is, I want to write a longer story, but no matter what I do to my previous stories, I can’t lengthen them. I really want to write a 81-120 paged book, but I can’t do that if I only can write stories that are 10-25 pages. I’m really frustrated with myself for not being able to change anything. Anyone know how to create a longer story/lengthen an old story?

Erica wrote back, Make more things happen. When you feel like you’re reaching a good ending point, stop and think. What can I do to make this get worse instead of better? For example, if your characters are trying to find their way out of a maze, let them escape, but stick a dragon in the forest outside that they will have to get past in order to get back to their families. It might feel a little jerky at first, like you’re just stringing along a bunch of different short stories, but that’s what editing is for.

I’m with Erica on making everything worse. If we think of our whole story as a maze, for example, our job is, by hook or by crook, by character, plot, or world, to keep our MC wandering and lost as long as possible.

Suppose we take the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin” as an example. In my Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, the story is three pages long, a miracle of compression.

We can start by interrogating our too-short story. Imagine it, squirming under a too-bright light in a windowless room.

The impoverished miller has an audience with the king, and all he has is a beautiful daughter. To impress the king, he tells him that his daughter can spin straw into gold.

Huh?

These two start us thinking about the world the story is in: What’s the reason for the audience? Did the miller ask for it, or was he called to appear?

Now we begin to think about the characters of the miller and the king: What does the miller want from the audience? What does the king want? What causes the miller to make this wild claim about his daughter? Does he know something?

We can think about tentative answers to these questions and jot down some notes, maybe make a list or two. We probably don’t want to settle on anything yet.

But when we do settle, later on, our answers to these questions can fill a bunch of pages as we launch our story.

The daughter, when she appears before the king, is told she has the rest of the day and the whole night to spin a room full of straw into gold. If she fails, she’ll be executed.

Who is this king? What’s going through his mind when he sees her? Is he evil? Does he really plan to carry out his threat?

Does the daughter know going in that her father has made this crazy boast about her? How does she conduct herself in this, her own audience with the monarch? What does she think?

When the maiden is led into the room with the straw, she breaks down and cries because she doesn’t have the foggiest about how making gold from straw is accomplished.

If we want to stick with the original, we have to go with that. We can ask what’s happened in the past when she’s wept. Did crying get her what she wanted?

Or we can ask what the other possibilities are. Whatever we decide, we’re on the road to developing her character. From her thoughts and feelings we arrive at her actions—maybe just weeping.

And what about the setting? What’s the room like? Are guards stationed at the door? Rumpelstiltskin is about to arrive. How does he get in? And what about the straw? Is it clean? Or full of bugs and bits of—ugh!—cow pie? Might it have magical properties?

Rumpelstiltskin will spin the straw into gold in exchange for the daughter’s necklace. Whoa! She has a necklace? How impoverished is her father? Or is she independently wealthy? Just the necklace is worth a bunch of words.

Why does Rumpelstiltskin want a necklace if he can make gold out of straw? That’s just scratching the surface with him. Why does he come? He’s supposed to be the villain of the story, but he doesn’t act like a villain. There are myriad questions about him. If you feel like it, jot down ten more.

Rumpelstiltskin and the daughter are together for hours each time. Do they talk? What happens while they’re together? Does it really take him the whole night? Does she go to sleep?

Beyond the immediate problem of transmuting straw, what do these characters—the king, the miller’s daughter, Rumpelstiltskin, the miller—want? What’s in the way? What in their natures help or hinder them?

Who is telling the story?

Does our story have to end the way the fairy tale does? How else might it end up?

As we explore our ideas, our story fills out. Basically, we ask ourselves: What is unknown—about our characters, our plot twists, our world?

Having said all this, however, there are writers who excel at the short story, for whom the short story length is exactly right. Their stories appear in journals and magazines and zines. They put them together to make collections—which are as long as a novel.

Here are three prompts:

  • Write an entire story of twenty-five pages or more about what happens during the first night the miller’s daughter and Rumpelstiltskin are in the room with all the straw. Give it a beginning, middle, and end. Develop their characters and the world they live in. For extra credit, make the rest of the fairy tale unnecessary when you’re done.
  • Your MC is lost in a maze, and so is your villain, who is lost too. They aren’t together, but if they meet he’s armed and she isn’t. The other dangers are starvation, snakes, frigid nights, and anything else you like. What’s more, her baby brother will die if she doesn’t get out in, say, three days. Write the story or the novel, but make sure you write at least thirty pages.
  • Turn “Rumpelstiltskin” into four linking short stories from four different POVs: the miller, the king, the miller’s daughter, and Rumpelstiltskin.

Have fun and save what you write!

Being the Editor

To those of you who have just started NaNoWriMo: Yay for you! Kudos for every word! If you have questions as you chug along, please post them here. I probably won’t get to them quickly, but other writers likely will. Break a leg—but no fingers or hands!

On October 27, 2020, Katie W. wrote, How do you get better at editing? I ask because one of my WIP’s is my late grandmother’s novel (I mentioned this back in June, asking how to blend our styles), and I really, really, really want to do a good job on it. My grandfather is so proud of what she did (some of her shorter stories won awards) and I want to make him proud, too. But while some of the work that needs to be done is fixing consistencies in POV and deleting infodumping and such, it’s around 175,000 words, so it really needs some major shortening. The problem is, when I’ve tried to do things like that on my own work, I mangled it until it only made sense to people who already knew the characters, and I can’t afford to do that here. Any advice?

A short back-and-forth followed.

Christie V Powell: Using beta readers should help with taking out relevant information, especially if you can find new ones each time who haven’t read the story before.

Have you considered splitting the story into two or three books? You’d be able to keep more of your grandmother’s work and still have a good-sized book. Would the structure allow for that?

Katie W.: Beta readers would definitely help, but I’m not sure I could find enough of them willing to take on the whole thing. And I don’t think I can split it. It’s long, but it’s all one story, if that makes sense. There’s a side plot about the MC’s parents that I might be able to take out, but I haven’t actually finished transcribing the story from my grandmother’s notebooks, so it could be absolutely vital to the climax or something like that. I have about three-fifths of the story, but I haven’t been able to go back and transcribe the rest of it. Not like that absolutely has to keep me from working on it. By this point, I’m starting to think it’s just a convenient excuse.

I’m very aware that Katie W.’s question came in a year ago and she may have completed the revision. If so, how did it go? How much did you cut? What strategies worked for you?

Before starting the editing, we might revisit the short stories the writer (Katie W.’s grandmother) completed. How long are they, for one thing? Do they tend to be almost novellas? How resolved are the endings? What did she seem to delight in writing? And any other questions that suggest themselves. We should write down our questions and the answers we come up with.

We can also think about what she said about her writing. We might ask other people as well as consulting our own memory. What seems to have been most important to her? Character? Plot? Setting? Theme? We write this down too.

When we go into her manuscript, we can keep these matters in mind.

As important as everything else, we have to remember that we have our own esthetic. We can’t become the original writer because that simply isn’t possible. We need to respect the artistic choices we make that arise out of what we like, what we think is interesting, exciting, and pleasing. We aren’t destroying. We’re respectfully shaping and adapting the manuscript. Later, someone else (your granddaughter, Katie W.?) may want to take the work in another direction.

Next, we might start on the manuscript itself, but before we do, this is important: Unlike almost everything else on the blog, we’re not editing our own work. The process is different. If we’re editing a living writer, we don’t want to be mean, but we owe it to that person to be honest and follow our truest ideas in the changes we make, even if we suspect they may not be welcomed. If the writer is absent from the process, there may be other people who are emotionally invested, but we still can’t let things stand that don’t serve the story.

Our first step can be to create a few new documents:

  • A chapter-by-chapter synopsis.
  • A list of characters with a brief description of each one and their role in the plot.
  • A timeline.

More are possible:

  • A paragraph or two about the themes as we understand them.
  • A plot summary in a paragraph or two.

Once we have these, we linger over them. We ask questions—and write them down along with possible answers: Do we need every chapter? Can some be combined? Do some plot or character developments repeat unnecessarily? Do we need every character? Can a few be combined? If the plot can’t be summarized in two paragraphs it may be overcomplicated. Can we simplify it to give it more force? Is the timeline stretched out? Can we compress to provide more urgency?

On a more general level: What did we admire? What did we not like? Were there places where our attention wandered? Was there too much telling? Not enough showing? Or were there spots where the showing could be summarized by telling? Does some description go on too long? Dialogue too?

However, even in a manuscript that’s too long, there may be places that we need to expand. If the story demands it, we have to do it. Take a deep breath.

My most helpful teacher when I was starting out, Margaret (Bunny) Gabel (who retired long ago), used to say that a book should be is long as it needs to be. Some are very long—David Copperfield, Moby Dick, The Da Vinci Code—to name just three.

Here are three Bible-based prompts:

  • Put the Bible story of the plagues on Pharoah into your own tale. Choose an Egyptian character for your MC, who could be someone in Pharoah’s family or a farmer or a servant—or someone else. God sends ten plagues. Meaning no disrespect, three of them involve insects. That’s a lot of bugs! Use as few or many plagues as you like to tell the story and keep it tight.
  • Noah is supervising the entry of animals to his ark. There are many more than he expected. He had no idea there were so many species. Rain is falling in fat droplets and the line stretches farther than he can see. What’s more, three people appeal to him to let them on, enumerating their blameless lives. Write the story.
  • Back to Noah for a contemporary version, which may involve a bit of research. The ark is moored in the port of Los Angeles, fully loaded with people and other animals but stuck in a supply-chain mess. Two hundred cargo ships are lined up ahead of them to leave the port.  Rain is falling. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The PP

On October 19, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course.) I know I’m a plotter (pantsing has never worked out for me), but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it and test out some different methods.

Christie V Powell wrote back, I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline. Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully, my abbreviated version makes sense).

Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win

Hook- inciting question

Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)

Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

Act 1.B: Normal World

Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

Act 2.A:

Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons

MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need

Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

Act 2.B:

Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

Act 2.C:

Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.

Truth is blatantly stated.

Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

Act 2.D:

False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win

Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

Act 3.A:

Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.

Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

Act 3.B

Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.

Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

A year later (today—10/4/21), I asked Christie V Powell to define BG, and she wrote this: I used “BG” to stand for “bad guy” (the antagonist).

I don’t know if this would help or just be overwhelming, but I did just write a new blog post that went into depth about my plotting method. It’ll have more information, and hopefully spell things out a little better:

https://thespectrabooks.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-cvp-method-story-structure.html.

I’m sure Christie V Powell’s method gives a writer security, which I’d love to have, but I’m part pantser, and we live on the edge. I hope my stories have rising action and a climax and falling action, but I don’t think about those things, or I haven’t so far.

I start with notes in which I jot down my thoughts about a possible story. Sometimes, just thinking brings me to find a knot I can’t untangle, or can’t untangle yet, so I drop the idea into a deep hole in my mind, where I hope it will simmer and untie itself (can take years). Many of my notes are questions, which I may answer or leave open.

I write lists of possibilities for what may happen. Always, I search for an ending, because I can’t start unless I have imagined the finish, which is where I part company with complete pantsers. I was a complete pantser until I got tired of getting horribly lost in book after book. So this is one strategy: We can think about how we want our story to resolve itself.

In my notes, I often write about what my story looks like if I shape it as a quest based on either what my MC wants or needs or what terrible circumstance she’s landed in. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a great example. I had intended to write a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but there were mysteries baked into the fairy tale that I couldn’t figure out, like why the dancing princes were enchanted. From somewhere along the way of attempting to write the story, I introduced a terrible disease. Eventually—it didn’t happen instantly—I realized that a quest for its cure could be the heart of the story, which would be an original fairy tale, and I was able to write it.

Most or maybe all of my fiction can be expressed as a quest. My historical novel Dave at Night is a quest for a home. Fairest is Aza’s quest for relief from her own dislike of her looks. Ogre Enchanted, like Ella Enchanted, is a quest for spell release. Sometimes, I don’t see the quest until I finished writing. But we can be more intentional about our quest for a quest. That’s another strategy: Express our plot as a quest and see if that helps it take shape.

Once we see the goal, we think about the impediments (like BGs) we can put in the way for our MC, and we can also decide what can help her. I bet you (not me) can use this quest structure to set up your rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions.

We can write a one-page summary of our story as we envision it. If it were a fairy tale, we can ask ourselves, how would it go? (We don’t need to be writing fantasy to do this. We’re just going for a story shape.)

Lately, I write an actual outline, a short one, recording events I want to make happen. I just looked at my outline for Ogre Enchanted, which can be called an outline, really, only by a partial pantser. It’s full of questions that often aren’t answered. Once I started writing the book, I mostly forgot about the outline.

That’s another strategy. We can write a short outline reflecting how, at that moment, we want our story to go, but we don’t have to attach ourselves to it with leg irons. Pure outliners, I think, change course too, but they fix the outline along with the story, so they can see how the shift affects everything that’s to come. I rarely do that. Once I start writing, I follow my characters and what they do. Still, a corner of my brain is keeping an eye on the plot and remembering where I want to go.

Character is super important to me, but plot has primacy. I’m a plot driven, rather than a character-driven writer. Alas, plot is harder for me than character is, which is why I like to use ancient stories—like fairy tale, myth, or history—as frameworks I can hang my plot on. Many writers do this, including Shakespeare!

Suppose we want to write a love story, well, we have a trove of fairy tales at our disposal. Or say we want to write about poverty, we can use “Hansel and Gretel.” If we want to bring to life the end of a civilization, we can read up on the fall of Rome in history or Troy in mythology. For self-deception, there’s always “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I’m hoping that my next novel will be a historical murder mystery about the death of a Jewish moneylender in 13th century England. I’ve just started my research, and the conditions for Jews rich or poor back then were difficult and precarious. The question that I’m asking myself is: What can I balance the sadness with—what hope? what happiness?—that will make this work as a book for kids? The question is an early step in my plotting process—as an example of how I do it.

Here are four prompts. You may have seen them coming:

  • Use “Hansel and Gretel” as the basis for a contemporary story about a mother and father with two kids to support in grinding poverty and the choices they make. Who will the gingerbread witch be? Write the story.
  • Write a love story about a selkie and a human. Decide whether or not it’s a tragedy.
  • Do a little or a lot of research as the basis of a story about the downfall of a civilization. Write the story.
  • Write a story about self-deception based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

Knotted Brainwaves

On October 16, 2020, Katie W. wrote, What do you do when you just get stuck? Like when you know what needs to happen next, but not quite how to get there? In my WIP, I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background. I can explain what I need to do, I just can’t quite actually make myself do it. (Which was probably a big part of all the rambling in an earlier version.) Any advice?

In solidarity, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m in the same boat.

I’ve been on that leaky raft many times too, and sometimes the water is up to my chin before I get to dry land.

And Christie V Powell wrote, When I’m stuck, I usually switch to paper. Something about writing on paper often sparks my creativity again and gets me going. Sometimes it’s the scene I need, but usually I end up brainstorming or short-hand “blocking”. It gets pretty messy. Maybe it’s just that I know there is no way any but me will be able to read it anyway.

I like that! I’m a keyboarder all the way, but many writers swear that using the hand and arm engages the brain most wonderfully.

Urgency is not a writer’s friend, not my friend anyway. I found this lovely quote from a Wall Street Journal interview with mystery/crime/humor (and more) writer Lawrence Block: “When I’m working on something, and can devote myself entirely to it, I’ll put in a long stretch of hours.  But much of that time I don’t really seem to be doing anything.  I check email, I surf some websites, I check my Kindle sales several times an hour, I play computer solitaire, I play non-computer solitaire, and somewhere in there a couple thousand words get written.”

Look him up on Wikipedia and gape at the number of books he’s written, both under his own name and under pseudonyms, which he probably uses because his publisher can’t keep up with him. His books are fun—high school level at least.

I’m not that relaxed about writing, and I rarely put in a long stretch, either. When I check emails or play solitaire, I take myself off the clock. But I agree with the principle, that being tense doesn’t help. We distract our mind with other stuff, but our story still lurks in the background, which may be why ideas come when we’re hiking (especially if we forgot to bring a pad and pen) or in the shower, etc.

Lately, I remind myself that I’ve been stuck hundreds of times and gotten unstuck, so I’ll almost certainly do so again. Katie W., I see by consulting the blog dashboard that you’ve been commenting here for over two years and, I’d guess, have been writing for longer than that. You, too, can use the refrain: I’ve done it before.

Here are some strategies I use when I’m stuck:

My main go-to is my notes. Some of what I write there is about my story and why I can’t seem to write it. A lot is whining and worrying, as in, What if never write another book? or I should know what I’m doing by now. Whether I’m whining or story-speculating, though, my time is on the clock. I’m writing, so it counts. (This is one reason my daily goal is in time rather than words or pages.)

In my notes, I often write lists of what might happen next. A list may yield something surprising and unexpected and may be enough to get me moving again.

I may take a walk in our beautiful backyard, where the flowers in the warm seasons or our glacial-era rocks in the winter smooth out my knotted brainwaves. Or I may walk on our treadmill. If on the treadmill, I don’t consider this exercise. I set the speed at super slow, like two miles an hour, and keep redirecting my slippery mind to my writing problem. Sometimes it works.

Being stuck often makes me sleepy. I take a short nap, twenty minutes, max, and wake up refreshed. Sometimes that works.

(No single thing always works.)

As I’ve said here more than once, my mystery Stolen Magic gave me the worst and longest case of Stuck of any book. In despair, I decided to take a month off writing to do other things and recharge, which felt weird. I was sure this would do the trick. It didn’t. I was exactly as stuck when I returned to my manuscript as I had been before. But this may work for you, and you may have heirloom silver cutlery you’ve been meaning to polish for years.

Sometimes, revising my latest five-to-ten pages gets me moving again.

A good remedy more than once has been to find the spot in my story when my fingers started to feel mired in mud. I interrogate myself about what’s going on there. Did I accidentally solve a problem I need to keep unresolved? Did I start a tangent that will send me writing in circles and doesn’t have much to do with my main conflict? Did I make a minor character too important? It’s like the knots that seem to knot themselves when I sew on a button or repair a seam. Work stops. If I can’t untangle the knot, I have to cut it out and start with new thread from that spot. If we can identify the source of the evil, we can delete it and keep going.

Or I may interrogate myself about what’s coming up. Am I stuck because I see trouble ahead? Katie W. writes: I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background.

We can ask ourselves what interests us most in our plot to-do list. For me, if it were the major plot twist, I might jump to that part—in my notes—and write it. If I’m happy with it, I’ll copy it into my story. Then I’ll see what light it casts on everything else in my list. Maybe the plot twist itself answers the question or sheds new light on it. I can ask myself if I need the subplot. If yes, I may be able to reveal it quickly or wrap it in with the pot twist. I can ask myself how I can use the battles to develop or resolve my major conflict so that they’re integral to my plot.

Katie W., since you asked your question a long time ago, what’s happened? Where does your story stand right now?

Here are three prompts:

  • Your MC has stepped into magical quicksand. It’s below her ankles but it’s gluey enough to hold her. If she struggles, she’ll sink faster. Even not sinking farther isn’t good enough because a squadron of enemy soldiers are approaching. Write how she frees herself—or fails to.
  • Your MC is the innkeeper’s daughter who’s stuck to the golden goose. She had a reason for touching the goose, and it wasn’t greed. (You can refresh your memory of “The Golden Goose” fairy tale—the Brothers Grimm version—by googling it.) She needs a feather and to not remain stuck to the goose in order to save the life of the princess who never laughs. Write the story.
  • In this conception of the Camelot story, Guinevere is your MC. As a child, she studied with Merlin, and he foretold for her the downfall of Camelot, which she has sworn to prevent. She contrives to meet King Arthur in order to change the trajectory but gets sucked into events—and stuck. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

By Me, You’re a Writer

I haven’t preceded the post with anything in a while, and I hope you haven’t minded. But here’s a little language and publishing tidbit that might interest the word nerds among us (everybody, I believe). I just finished going through the copy edits on Sparrows in the Wind, my next novel for kids, which is a reimagining of the Trojan War. The managing editor queried whether Achilles’, as I had it, should be Achilles’s and cited a section in The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), most publishers’ authority. I don’t like Achilles’s, which sounds weird and ugly to me, and I found this link to the CMOS blog: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/PossessivesandAttributives/faq0057.html. Read if you’re interested. I’m going with Achilles’ as I had it, because if it’s Achilles’ heel, how can it be Achilles’s elbow? (My editor is with me on this.)

On August 28, 2020 Jen wrote, How do you deal with ‘Impostor Syndrome’? I have been told my writing is good and there are days I agree that it has promise, but then there are days when I panic and freak out that all my plots and characters are boring and cliche and that my word choices are nowhere near as good as I’d like them to be. I understand all of that can be fixed in editing, but even as I edit I still have those panic flare-ups of not being good enough. I’d appreciate all the tips anyone would like to offer.

Melissa Mead wrote back, FWIW, I’ve known pros who’ve won awards + published multiple books and still feel like this. All we can do is write the best we can at the time.

I find it helps to just finish a rough draft, then put it away for a week or so.

There’s an old Jewish joke, which I read in the charming Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten, that I think epitomizes the impostor syndrome. I don’t remember it exactly, but here’s the gist: A young man announces to his mother that he’s become a doctor. She smiles proudly and also shrugs. “Darling,” she says, “by you, you’re a doctor; by me, you’re a doctor; but by a doctor, are you a doctor?”

My children’s book writing apprenticeship was so long (nine years) that by the time I achieved publication, I felt like a writer. But when I went to graduate school for an MFA in poetry in 2013, I heard the joke, which is a little bit poisonous, over and over in my head. “But by a poet…” I still think it.

I don’t know the cure, but I know the medicine: Keep writing.

More medicine: Dress up as Emily Bronte or pencil in a ragged moustache to look like Edgar Allan Poe, so you are impersonating a writer—and write.

And more: Read about other writers, or read books on writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Learn from them, as I think you will, that uncertainty and self-doubt are our lot (many of us anyway, me anyway). I find this comforting.

I’ve said here before that I try not to ask myself if what I’m writing is good. I try not to ask the question at every stage of the process, from thinking about what I might write all the way to post-publication. And I pay attention to words that are in the judgment category along with good, words like mediocre word choice, boring, cliché.

And not good enough for whom, if I may ask?

I don’t succeed all the time, because the self-attack disguises itself. My latest worry seems to be: Who will read this? Which could be a real question in early planning stages, I guess, but once I get started, it’s unhelpful—

Because I can’t use it or any self-attack. Self-attack isn’t specific. It doesn’t help me see that Marla in the second chapter wouldn’t tell her best friend that she gave away a secret he shared with her. Or that my description of the best friend’s house could be reworked so it reveals something about his character.

Let’s look at mediocre word choice. That’s what a thesaurus is for! If we see a word that we think doesn’t nail what we have in mind, we go to Roget or Thesaurus.com. If we’re me and we’re not satisfied right away, we noodle around, look at more than the first page of options, click on a few possibilities to see where they take us.

Writers need criticism from ourselves and from peers—I do! But we need specifics about things like pacing, character consistency, and, yes sometimes, word choice. We don’t need attack. And we must learn to tell one from the other, especially when the wounds are self-inflicted. We have to police our thoughts!

I’m also not crazy about global compliments from friends and other writers. Good, just like bad, isn’t specific. This kind of praise gives me a sugar high, and after it wears off, I start worrying. Will I continue to please this person? What did I do that was so fabulous? Will I ever be able to do it again? On the other hand, specific praise, for a page of dialogue or a description of a landscape, is nutritious. I’m never going to have to do precisely that again, so I won’t disappoint, and, yeah, I’m glad my discerning friend noticed. Yum!

Here are three prompts:

  • Here’s a question that has plagued fairy tale fans for centuries: What is the real form of the evil queen in “Snow White”? Is she really “fairest in the land” before Snow gets old enough to take her superlative? Write a scene from her origin story.
  • Sticking with the same tale, if the evil queen is really beautiful, why does she keep doubting herself and checking with the mirror? Write a different origin story, this one about the source of her impostor syndrome.
  • Dr. Jekyll has been turning into Mr. Hyde for a while, and he’s starting to wonder which one is his true self. Write two scenes, one when he’s Dr. Jekyll considering the question, and one as Mr. Hyde doing the same—while harming someone in a grisly way.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Inquiring Mind

On August 12, 2020, Erica wrote, In my WIP, my main character hurts his arm in a well-publicized accident, and needs to wear a splint. By the time he gets out of the hospital, nearly everyone has heard about it. I’ve never had to wear anything like that, so I wanted to ask your opinions. How would people react to seeing him with the sling? Would this be different based on whether they were friends, acquaintances, or strangers?

I’m honestly getting rather frustrated with this project. I’ve had the basic idea for the past three years and started this draft a year ago. In that year, I’ve changed all kinds of details, so that the original inspiration is nearly unrecognizable. As I try to write, part of my brain is cataloging all of the edits I’ll need to make once I finish the first draft. I feel like I’ll never actually be able to finish this story, which is a shame, because it’s by far the most ambitious story I’ve ever written. I suppose my other question is: How do you keep writing when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress?

A few of us weighed in:

NerdyNiña: Oh, I feel that! I’ve been working on one of my WIPs for about three and a half years, and it keeps changing, too. Like you said, the original inspiration is almost unrecognizable. I can’t honestly say I have any ideas to help. When I get confused, I put it back on the shelf and work on something else. But I do come back to it. I think that’s the important part.

Me: I’d suggest tying your arm in a white dishtowel sling and wearing it (with you masked, of course) a few places.

Melissa Mead: Good idea! Maybe even bring along someone (appropriately distanced) to catch reactions that you might miss. In grad school, my friends and I did an assignment where we had to pretend to have a disability. Maybe it’s because I’ve already got one, but my friends caught stuff that went right over my head.

A jillion or more years ago, when I was in college, I broke my ankle in a few places and was in a cast and on crutches (which did wonders for my pecs!) for a few months. One time, a boy of about six or seven asked his father what was wrong with me, which should have been obvious to a grownup. But this clueless man told his son that my leg had been amputated, even though there it was in plain sight. I don’t remember setting the record straight, but I was angry.

Why did I care, really? The father probably belonged to the Flat Earth Society and believed the moon is a wheel of gouda cheese.

Thank you, Erica, for asking this and giving me a chance to rave about research. My little broken-ankle example qualifies as research to me—and what do we gain or learn from it?

  • An injury can yield at least one benefit, in my case buffed-up chest muscles. (Possibly useful in plotting.)
  • Avenues of speculation open. Did the father even look at my leg? What might have led him, even reasonably, to his conclusion? (Character development.)
  • What caused my anger? What did it say about me? If I’m a fictional character, we can list possible reasons and consider how they might influence my future actions. (More character development.)

Please tell us, Erica, if you tried the dishtowel-around-your-arm suggestion and how it worked out.

In addition to our own experiments, we can see if we know anyone with this particular injury and ask them about their experiences. Ask follow-up questions, for example, about daily life—like, I don’t remember if I had to just wear skirts or dresses when I had the enormous cast or if I was able to pull on pants. I do remember that my cast didn’t like wet weather and had to be replaced a few times. Was I careless? Probably (another character revelation). In the case of an arm, was it the dominant one? How did it affect eating? Writing? And more.

We can google information about wearing a splint. Here’s a link to a Canadian website on the subject, but before I post it, know that I have no expertise and can’t tell if the information is accurate. The link is to further the cause of fiction, not medicine: https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=abq3952.

We don’t have to limit our inquiry to our exact fictional injury. My ankle experience, I hope, is germane.

If we’re writing historical or contemporary fiction, we have to be accurate when we use our research, or the reader is likely to notice and stop suspending disbelief. But if we’re writing fantasy or sci fi or any kind of speculative fiction, we can deviate. A layer of herbs can be spread on the arm before the splint is applied, or, say, the splint can be made of a material that undulates providing timed massages to promote healing. Or anything else.

Research is interesting for its own sake, and it almost always surprises and generates ideas. I was flabbergasted when that man opined that my leg had been taken off. What else might someone think of other than an ordinary broken bone?

What might one of our characters say? We can make a list:

  • “Her leg will never regain full function. Son, this is why you need to be at least thirty-five before you get your driver’s license.”
  • “A lawsuit made that girl very rich. Her earrings look like silver, but they’re really platinum. Did she share the wealth with her father? I don’t think so!” (I don’t like this guy!)
  • “This is a research hospital. Son, I hear their casts are really seven-league boots. Let’s follow her!”

I also love research because I come out of it knowing more, which may come in handy in another project—or not — knowledge is great for its own sake.

Now for Erica’s second question: how to keep going when we feel like we’re pushing through mud up to our armpits—it’s hard, and it’s happened to me more than once.

When a book is just my normal amount of difficult, I soldier through to the end without interrupting my flow for major rewrites. But when I’m lost and stuck and the lostness and stuckness have persisted, I go back — sometimes, alas, more than once.

If I haven’t kept a running summary of my plot as I’ve written it (I create only the briefest and sketchiest of outlines), this is a good time to do so, chapter by chapter with a few sentences about what happened in each. (While we’re doing this and everything that follows, we don’t allow ourselves to make any quality judgments. Our story isn’t bad or good or clichéd or boring; it’s just in flux.)

When we finish the synopsis, we note where we stopped sailing along. We can ask ourselves if there’s a spot—or spots—where our plot complicates itself, possibly unnecessarily. Are there characters we don’t need? Scenes? Are there places we need to fill in with more writing?

If we know the ending we’re writing toward, we can ask ourselves if we’ve strayed from its direction and if we can use the wandering to get us there in a surprising way or if we have to tweak or change what’s been going on.

If we don’t know the ending, this is a perfect moment to think about it. We can list what it might be, keeping in mind our story so far. We should take care to be free in our ideas at this juncture. Nothing is crazy.

When we have an ending that pleases us, we return to our synopsis to decide what we have that supports it and what may make it unachievable?

What we finally come up with may be quite different from our original ideas, which we still love. Maybe we have to shelve those ideas for another story. I’ve had to. We can write only the story we can write.

This process is not likely to be quick. I say, So be it. A story takes as long as it takes. You can embroider that on a sampler and hang it over your desk.

I’m allergic to abandoning a story once I’ve written, say, twenty pages. This isn’t necessarily a virtue. It’s possible I should have dropped what became Stolen Magic long before it gobbled four-and-a-half years. (A book that was not the story I set out with.) You can put your story in a drawer and, mixing metaphors, let it simmer. When it’s finished cooking, it will leap into your mind.

Here are three prompts:

  • If you remember your mythology, the Minotaur, half bull, half human, lives in a labyrinth and kills anyone lost in there with him. The hero Theseus finds his way by tying a string to the doorpost and unraveling it as he goes. In your story, he kills the Minotaur, turns to follow the string back, and discovers that it’s gone. Tell the story of his escape or failure to escape. Make it complicated. Bring in more characters.
  • Your MC has lost an ear in a bizarre carpentry accident. The bleeding has stopped. Write what happens.
  • Snow White is lost in the woods after the hunter has left her. When she reaches the dwarves’ cottage, they’re eating dinner, which, she discovers by listening at the door is a ragout of the last princess to show up looking for rescue. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Who Decides?

On July 17, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, How do you know whether or not you even have talent as an unpublished, unknown writer? I’ve only had close friends read my work, though I’ve been writing for four years now. What I would really like to know is if I even have hope of ever being published. Any thoughts on how to know if I even have potential?

Several of you weighed in:

Melissa Mead: Honestly, from what I’ve seen with other writers, “talent” really doesn’t mean much. The things that seem to help most are the ability to think of interesting ideas, accept and learn from constructive feedback, and persist in the face of rejection. And practice beats potential any day.  

Writeforfun: There’s an author on YouTube who believes that writing fanfiction is helpful for this when you’re learning to write, because you can post your writing online for wide audiences to read and review. They’ll let you know what they think and offer constructive criticism.

That said, I’ve never written or posted fanfiction, nor do I plan to, but I thought it was interesting that she recommended this.

For me, I don’t think I have talent – I just enjoy writing, so I do it. I started writing when I was fourteen or fifteen I think (when this blog was very young!), and rereading what I wrote back then is a little painful because my first books were so poorly written. But I can also see how I’ve improved over the years! Each book since I started has gotten better and better as I’ve learned and practiced.

You know, I’m actually really interested to read a blog post on this! Because, sometimes I think it’s kind of funny that we worry so much about having talent for creative things like writing. I used to draw and paint portraits for a living; but I learned to do all of that artwork through practice, not talent. Don’t you think that’s generally the case? I don’t think anyone, no matter how talented they are or think they are, can pick up a pencil for the first time and know automatically how to create a photorealistic portrait. I would be tempted to say that if I had any “talent,” I think it was only the love of drawing!

For that matter, my sister is a concert pianist and harpist who also arranges and composes music, which is another creative discipline; but that all comes from practice, too!

Melissa Mead: I think you’re right. I think learning and practice counts for more than talent.

Christie V Powell: You can definitely learn to be a good writer. Everyone has potential.

I really loved this motivational speech by Brandon Sanderson. He talks about the value of writing whether or not you publish, and setting realistic goals, among other things. Plus there’s a funny parrot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH9sJrAVeC0

It sounds like you could use a good writing group. Do you know how to find one? I found mine on facebook, in a group for writers from the same religion. I’ve also met with the local one, though more to socialize than to get feedback. One of my local friends has dysgraphia and he still publishes a book each year–he just uses multiple editors to help him.

Fiona Wherity: Honestly, I have this very same problem. I always start writing and then hate it and stop so I get nervous that I’ll never be good enough. My friends and family say they love it, but I feel like it’s their job to say that. I always end up writing and having more ideas for more stories, but then I read an amazing book I love and realize that I might not ever write as well as my favorite authors. I always try though, that’s what really keeps me going, the fact that I might. I might get there. I might finish this book. I might get it published. I just keep hoping. Hoping and trying.

Melissa Mead: Hang in there! The more you practice, the better you get.

Pleasure Writer: Thank you all so much for your thoughts! I am not a part of a writing group, though I have wanted to find one for a while. I guess I should start looking for one to be a part of. It sounds like it would be helpful.

These are terrific!

For me, the question about talent comes down to: Who decides?

I may not have mentioned here that I’m working on a memoir, mostly about becoming a writer. I don’t have a publisher yet and don’t know if one will want it, but it’s an interesting project and has drawn me back to my early days as a writing wannabe, and even before then. You may have read here or elsewhere that Mr. Pashkin, my high school creative writing teacher, wrote across the top of one of my stories, “You know your problem. You’re pedestrian.” In his inscription, pedestrian meant dull, and he meant not just my story, all of me.

He didn’t think I had writing or any kind of creative talent. I go into this more in the memoir, but for here—I believed him and stopped writing for about twenty years, returning to it only because I had a job that involved writing, and everyone there loved my wordcraft and encouraged me.

In the years following the release of Ella Enchanted, my first published book, success has rose tinted the nine years of rejection that preceded it. Fellow wannabes in my classes and critique groups encouraged me. They became friends. I was happy.

When I don’t have access to my laptop—and before laptops were invented—I write in steno pads. I’ve gone through those pads, and the ones from the rejection period tell a more rounded tale. After receiving yet another rejection for an early version of my historical novel, Dave at Night, I wrote that I couldn’t stop crying and my stomach was churning. 

This will see the light of day if the memoir gets published, the most derogatory of my rejections for a picture book that hasn’t ever been picked up. Here’s the body of the letter:

What I mean when I say that a story is not strong enough to sustain a 32-page picture book is that I don’t feel a young child would be captivated enough to sit through a reading. A story that speaks directly to children, that has a strong plot and interesting characters is perhaps the most successful type of picture book.

Sweet Fanopps is an example of a story which in my opinion does not have enough of a plot. The idea is very basic and it’s not very emotionally-charged—I don’t think it has enough substance to be successful.

This editor did not believe I had talent. I wish I could go on to say that she later edited one of my books–or recanted. She did not.

My steno pads are filled with these two sentences: I don’t want to write. I’d much rather read my book (written by someone else)—followed by pages of me writing, a lot of it whining about how hard both writing and publishing were, but also ideas and text of whatever thing I was working on.

I have thirty pads of this stuff. My guess is that some of you have many more. I wrote down dreams and even used two of them in a poem recently. I found a few puns, like this one, which no one but you is likely to read, and you may have to be my age or a classic car nerd to get it: Which country has the most old automobiles? Answer: Finland.

You’re groaning, but I like it.

For me, writing is hard, especially plotting. I just played the Brandon Sanderson talk that Christie V Powell suggests above, which I think is worth watching (or listening to if you don’t mind missing the parrot’s tricks). Thank you, Christie V Powell! He talked about a dark time in his early writing days when he was facing only rejection and when he decided to keep writing because he loved doing it.

To this day, I love only some of writing. I adore coming up with ideas, but the seeming infinity of time before an idea bursts through I decidedly do not love. Being stuck is miserable. When a scene is mapped out in my head, I’m happy as can be while writing it.

But everyone is different. Some enjoying revising (me); some despise it.

I don’t like whining in my pad or now, usually, on my laptop, but it serves a purpose, which is freeing me up. When I moan and complain, I don’t expect quality writing—or achieve it. If I write down a dream, I’m not shaping my sentences. Plop! There it is. If an idea arrives, I don’t censor it or make it pretty or even ask myself it’s a good idea. Generally, I explore it and see what other ideas come in its wake.

I don’t ever ask if my idea is one a talented person would have. It’s just an idea. If I decide to go with it, I don’t ask the question either. I see where it takes me.

There are readers who don’t like my books, who may think I’m not talented. A lot of reader reviewers call my books boring. If you look, you’ll see their reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. I look at the reviews for the weird and embarrassing reason that I want to know if anyone happens to be thinking about me. But I’m sure that not one of them is the Lord or Lady High Pooh Ba of goodness or talent. No one has that power!

I’ve probably said this before: When I was in poetry school and I showed a poem to more than one faculty member for a critique, I would leave thinking I had given them different poems. They never agreed or said anything alike. I took what I could use and was grateful for their various perspectives.

The talent question is, in my opinion, just one of the many ways we find to make writing even harder, to freeze us.

Being a writer isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in deciding it’s not for you. This is not a decision anyone has to make quickly, and it’s reversible. Practice and writing a lot will help you discover what pleases you, what you like to write, what you must do because unless you do it you won’t have a story (plotting for me, revising for some).

Also, just saying, since no one can coronate us as talented, as an experiment, we can try going with the opinions of the readers who like our work!

Here are three prompts:

  • Make up three which-country puns like my Finland one.
  • Invent a board game or a video game of the steps, pitfalls, good luck and bad, failures and successes, story fragments and finished stories for an aspiring writer. You decide what winning means. Winner gets an earmuff for one ear.
  • Write down your dreams for a week. Put three or more together, which will probably involve changing them, to make a story. Don’t worry about logic or sense. Just see what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Putting Poems In

On June 30, 2020, RedTrumpetWriter wrote, I was wondering how you came up with the epic poetry you wrote in the Bamarre stories, Gail, and some of the songs/poetry you’ve included in other stories like Stolen Magic. I would like to include something like that in a book I’m working on but I guess I wasn’t really sure where to start, like what examples I should look at or if there was any sort of formula that you followed. I’ve done a bit of looking but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice that would help me as I found what you did really immersive and such a cool part of the worldbuilding. (if anyone else has ideas they are welcome to chime in as well!)

Erica wrote back, I would recommend reading a lot of poetry and lyrics to find a style you like, and then going for it. Also, there was a post about including songs in your writing a while back (http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2020/01/01/tra-la-la/). That might be helpful too.

And I wrote, I’d suggest reading ballads, which I did when I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

I love questions about poetry! We can make poems work for us in lots of ways in our stories.

For Two Princesses, I read fifteenth century English ballads, like “Barbara Allan.” I’m sure you can find examples online, but my source was Volume 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which most public libraries are likely to have. “Barbara Allan” doesn’t strictly follow ballad meter, but it’s close, and it does follow the ballad’s simple rhyme scheme.  You can look up ballad meter online, but my source is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, a super useful book if you’re interested in writing poems—or more poems. I go back to it often. Just saying, the ballad form is pretty easy. I’d suggest picking simple rhymes, not only if you’re a beginner. Simple rhymes give the poet the most options.

I’m glad RedTrumpetWriter mentioned worldbuilding, because poems can help define the world of our stories, whether they’re fantasy or not. In Two Princesses, they establish a heroic culture. In The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, they highlight the martial nature of the Lakti and the artistic aspect of the Bamarre. In A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, poems add depth to Jewish culture of the time. Mine were inspired by The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, in which the poems were translated as prose. I had fun turning their themes back into verse, and the ideas in them were unlike anything I’d write on my own, so they broadened me. In my forthcoming Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, the poems are modelled on my idea of a Greek chorus, because in school, I loved the Greek chorus in classic Greek plays. My chorus is three crows.

There are lots of options!

We can also use poetry for other aspects of fiction. In Stolen Magic, I was thinking of limericks, and they reveal a lighthearted side of the dragon detective Meenore—so they add to character development.

I know a poet who, as a child, spoke only in iambs (meter—da DUM, da DUM) to a friend, who answered the same way. This says a lot about who they were! You can invent characters who speak in rhyme or who use poetic devices, like alliteration, in their dialogue, combining dialogue and character development. Or a character can decide, for an entire week, never to use the word but. What do these proclivities say about a character’s personality, specifically, spontaneity? If these practices are kingdom-wide, for example, we’re back to worldbuilding.

We can—but we don’t have to—stick to one kind of poem in a novel. In Lost Kingdom, the Lakti sing simple warrior songs, while Bamarre poetry is more varied and complex. And Bamarre proverbs are short rhyming poems.

Poems can even be used for setting. In Two Princesses, a poem by Drualt describes a prison. We could use a poem even more directly for setting. Suppose a character is stuck in a labyrinth, and the only way out is to say a rhyming poem while the way unwinds—but the labyrinth will complicate itself again if the character stops speaking. This one even advances the plot too.

We can imagine poetry contests that will advance the plot too. Our villain can cheat!

I’ve used poetry for spells too, sometime in made-up languages, which move my story along. Rhyming is easy when we’re inventing the words!

And poetry is a subtle instrument, which I love about it. It’s hard to hit a reader over the head with a poem!

A couple of editors have suggested that I write a whole book in verse. Might be fun, but I’m a slow enough writer as it is. Writing poems, for me at least, is slower going than writing prose. And I worry that writing only in verse would leach the fun out of it.

If you’re not confident as a poet, I’d suggest leaning on forms, which will support you with structure. Forms help with where to end a line, whether or not to rhyme, and sometimes with length. I’d suggest also reading about rhyme because I think you’ll be surprised by the possibilities.

Here are three prompts:

  • A poem form I especially love is the pantoum, which can be as long as you like. Lines repeat, and the poem ends where it began. Look up the form and write a pantoum about a journey from home and back again—like the Lord of the Rings, but shorter!
  • At the triumphant beginning of the tragic myth of Oedipus, he manages to enter the city of Thebes because he correctly answered the Sphinx’s riddle. Imagine a distant descendent of the Sphinx who has parked herself outside your home town or outside a major city. She is devouring anyone attempting to enter who can’t answer her rhymed riddle in a rhymed answer. Traffic is blocked halfway around the world. Your MC answers the riddle with a poem and then asks the new Sphinx a rhymed riddle in return. Write the riddles and the story.
  • Look up the ballad form and write a summary, either of the next story you plan to write or of one you’ve written, as a ballad.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Creative Voice Meld

On June 22, 2020, Katie W. wrote: How do you combine your writing voice with someone else’s? My grandmother left around fifteen notebooks of information for a novel, and I really want to finish it, but I’m worried about keeping it true to her while, at the same time, keeping it true to my own writing. Essentially, what I’m wondering is how do you finish something someone else started?

I love this question!

Since it came in more than a year ago–Katie W., where are you in the project?

And I’m so sorry you lost your grandmother!

In one of my favorite classes in poetry school, we had to read a poetry collection every week and write an analysis and an imitation poem. One of the poets we read was Matthea Harvey, whose work is only for adults. The collection I read is ironic and tragic.

When I wrote my imitation poem, I felt like she took up residence in my brain and I was just taking dictation. But that mind meld I felt didn’t happen automatically (and Harvey herself might not think I had imitated her at all). I read her poems exceedingly closely. Her lines are long. She uses punctuation rarely, and the reader has to figure out what’s going on when the end of one unpunctuated sentence becomes the beginning of the next. She loves alliteration and detail and images. There are surreal surprises.

I did the same analysis of the work of the other assigned poets and felt that I always caught something of their work, but never as close as I thought I came with Harvey.

Katie W. Says she has “information” rather than manuscript pages. When I write notes, I don’t craft my sentences. I leave them as they come out, plop! Anyone hoping to imitate my fiction voice wouldn’t find my notes useful. So, to study notebooks of information for writing voice may not work. But maybe Katie W. has some fiction-writing of her grandmother’s or even letters or emails that she spent time drafting. The point is to concentrate on whatever reflects the voice of the writer we want to merge with.

We look at sentence length. Are the sentences short, long, or varied? Same for paragraphs. Word choice: many syllables or one-to-two? Is her writing direct, or does she circle around? Serious or funny? Easy to understand, or does she make the reader work? If we’re looking at fiction, is there much dialogue? Description? Detail? Images? Sounds? Smells? What’s the ratio between showing and telling?

Then we can try a paragraph, assess, revise. We can take something that is to happen in the novel and write a little bit of it as a scene, consider it, revise. Once we’ve analyzed our model’s writing, we know how to approach the revision.

Obviously, I don’t know Katie W.’s grandmother, and you probably know I have no children. But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, or even a great-grandmother. I like the idea of a grandchild picking up a beginning of mine or an idea and running with it. This is all speculative of course, but I’d want the grandchild, grown up or not, to enjoy themself and not be worried about whether or not I would approve. This is how I feel about my prompts on the blog–have fun, and save what you write. I also am perfectly happy if people change the prompts to suit what they want to write.

On the other hand, wanting to honor a memory is worthy. If we want to, we can do that.

When the Disney Press asked me to write a book (which became three books) in the world of the fairies of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, I wanted to respect the original, which was one of my favorite books when I was little.

I found the imitation astonishingly hard, really impossible. Barrie is a such a supple writer! He can start a sentence heading west, twist it a quarter turn, twist again, until it’s facing northeast. I couldn’t figure out how he did it! Take a look for yourself, now that the book has entered the public domain: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16/16-h/16-h.htm. If you’ve never read the novel, you’re in for a treat–except for the dated parts, some of which are cringe-worthy, like his treatment of native Americans.

I noticed that he uses of course often, so I tossed in the phrase with abandon, the least I could do, and it seems to have become habit now. I kept features of Neverland as much as I could, and preserved the personalities of Peter himself and Captain Hook whenever they appeared.

But I also made artistic choices. Barrie uses direct address, meaning he speaks to the reader, and I didn’t want that, so I didn’t–or I don’t remember doing it.

We can decide what our priority is too, which may be honoring a beloved grandmother even if the best story isn’t the result. We can write more than one story, too, one true to the original and one striking out on our own. If family members are interested in the project, one version can be for them and another for a wider readership.

One more thing, which I think I’ve said here before: Imitation is an exceedingly valuable skill for a writer. To do it well, we have to take apart someone else’s work, put it back together, examine it under high magnification, turn it this way and that in the light, back away, come in close again. We’ll wind up with more tools and a bigger range. We are much richer writers in the end.

Here are three prompts. If you’re so disposed, post what you come up with:

• Here’s a little bit of prose from Shakespeare, Hamlet speaking. Imitate Shakespeare! Write about something that depressed you or about a stomachache. See if you can catch his style:

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

• Here’s a little bit from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which her dry humor is on display. See if you can do something like it, either based on people you know or a few of your characters:

Elizabeth took up some needlework, and was sufficiently amused in attending to what passed between Darcy and his companion. The perpetual commendations of the lady, either on his handwriting, or on the evenness of his lines, or on the length of his letter, with the perfect unconcern with which her praises were received, formed a curious dialogue, and was exactly in union with her opinion of each.

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”

He made no answer.

“You write uncommonly fast.”

“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”

“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”

“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”

• Write an imitation paragraph of advice on some aspect of writing, say, setting, or anything else–in my voice!

Have fun, and save what you write!