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: 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!

Inventing the Magic, Limiting the Magic

On June 6, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, Does anyone have any advice on how to create a unique magic system? I’m working on a hard magic* system for my story right now, but so far, I don’t think I’ve come up with anything that makes it very unique, which is something I want since the magic is very important for the story.

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

I guess I’m wondering what else to add. I haven’t been able to come up with any limitations that make sense to me, besides the fact you can only create/destroy, depending on which type of magic you choose. I know the amount of time you spend studying the magic correlates to how well you can use it (which goes for most things in real life anyway) but beyond that, I’m not sure. Is there something about magic systems all of you like to see? Do you have any suggestions?

*For anyone who doesn’t know, a hard magic system has specific rules and limitations that cannot be broken. Hello Future Me has some great Youtube videos about hard magic on Youtube if you want to check them out.

A great discussion broke out.

RedTrumpetWriter: I haven’t read magic systems extensively, but I think that some of the “limitations” could come from the reaction of nonmagic, or even magic users. What I mean is, do they admire magic users or are they afraid? If they fear them then they would probably create laws or ways of stopping magic users from practicing. For the magic itself I think if it physically harms users that would clearly be a limitation in not only how much or how often you could use without really damaging yourself and if it leaves physical effects like disfigurement it could cause other problems, especially if magic users are feared and have a limp or something would give them away. Also, depending on your characters, they may have sort of self-imposed limitations because they want to use their gifts for good even though they are corrupted so you could do something like what Gail does in Ella Enchanted and have people refuse to do “big magic” for fear of doing more harm than good.

Writeforfun: I like the explanation behind what you’ve got so far. It sounds pretty cool!

And sorry, no advice – but to answer you question on what I like seeing as a reader, I definitely agree that I like there to be limitations! The one thing I can’t stand is when magic is unlimited, because I never understand why it can’t be used to solve all the problems – for the good guys OR the bad guys.

I don’t know what exactly it is in your world that the magic allows you to create or destroy, but as a reader, I think I’d appreciate it most if it were clearly limited. Perhaps you can only learn to create (or destroy, whichever the case may be) one type of substance at a time – like, say, wooden objects. So, say your magic user has studied and learned to create wooden objects; but maybe at the climax they’re facing a dragon with scales that can only be pierced by aluminum. As a reader, I’m still worried about them – and I’m also not yelling at you, the author, saying “why not just create a really cool aluminum partizan and stab the dragon already!”

Sorry, that’s not a very good example! But do you know what I mean? I think I, the picky reader that I am, would still be fine with some people gaining the power to create/destroy other types of objects through more training (especially if it means they have to become monks, or something, and give their entire lives over to their study – which would require some pretty major sacrifices on their part). I just don’t like it when everyone has that kind of unlimited power – or has access to someone with that kind of power. In those cases, I’m mostly either not worried for the characters, or annoyed by all the plot holes popping up because the author forgot about their own characters’ magical abilities!

Kit Kat Kitty: It’s funny because your two examples- the monks and the dragons- are actually kind of relevant to my story. Dragons are the main enemy and monks are a significant part of the plot! Your idea to make it so they can only create/destroy certain things depending on what they study was very helpful. I’ve considered something like it in the past, and I’ll probably end up using it! Thank you!

NerdyNiña: This reminds me of a Doctor Who episode. The Doctor has his sonic screwdriver that can do basically anything. It opens doors, scans for alien tech, whatever. But it can’t do anything with wood. So in one episode, there are aliens made out of wood. He can’t do anything about it.

Even the Doctor and his sonic screwdriver have limitations.

Kit Kat Kitty: Thanks for giving me some suggestions! You made me think about my world more. I had always figured because most magic users are evil (regardless of which form of magic they use) all magic users are disliked, but I realized that should affect the story more than just being a casual fact. My characters will have to go out of their way to hide the fact they have magic, and wearing gloves all the time probably won’t work. Thanks for the suggestions!

I’m so glad the blog writers’ ideas were helpful!

And I’m with Writeforfun that what Kit Kat Kitty presented us sounded mighty good from the get-go! Original and with limitations!

Of course I wondered if the magic in my fantasies is hard or soft, and I’m not sure. I looked up Brandon Sanderson on magic, and I like what he says. Here’s a link to his first law, and from there you can go on to his second and third:

I think more about magical objects and magical creatures than about magic wielded by humans. But a main character and a few others in the first half of Sparrows in the Wind, my forthcoming novel about the Trojan War, have the power of prophecy, which has a few important limitations that I spell out. I guess that’s hard magic.

The way I work it may be relevant. As in the Greek myth, the main character, Cassandra, and her twin, Helenus, are given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, the god of truth. However, Apollo curses Cassandra’s gift so that no one believes her. Helenus’s gift isn’t cursed.

In examples of future sight that I’ve seen in movies or read in novels, the prophetess or prophet goes into a trance and receives a vision of what’s going to happen at a particularly pivotal moment. Then the writer gets to decide whether it’s a true vision or not. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t, and the decision is all up to us. Too convenient, say I, allowing us to conjure up tension without really having to work for it.

So I went a different way. You’ll see if you read the book.

The point for Writeforfun’s question and any other about magic and world-building is that we always have to have an eye out for out plot, which depends on conflict and character. What magic will support our plot and make matters hard for our MC? For example, everything would fall apart in “Snow White” if the evil queen had a magic potion that made her eternally the most beautiful. Or if she had Dorothy’s magic shoes and no magic mirror, she could be transported to Snow White, but she’d have no reason to harm her. Also, the magic mirror is awful for Snow White because she doesn’t know it exists–and there’s nothing magical about ordinary ignorance though it contributes mightily to the plot, reminding us to exploit non-magic too.

Let’s look again at what Kit Kat Kitty tells us, which is crawling with plot possibilities and, I think, with ways to increase the limitations:

So far, I know that the magic was given to the people by the goddess of everything good. If you know magic, you can either create or destroy. (It’s one or the other, not both. Magic users have to choose at some point during their training.) You can only use magic if you have specific runes written on one of your hands (hence the reason why most magic users wear gloves). Even though the Magic was a gift, it was corrupted by the god of chaos, so using it is physically painful, and unless you have a familiar (who prevents you from dying unless it dies), you’re likely to die earlier then you would’ve otherwise.

Lots of questions pop up:

• Who decides what’s good? Good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander.

• Are the gods and goddesses available? Do they intercede? Can chaos be used for good? What are the possibilities?

• Can creators and destroyers work together? Are they always in opposition? Is one good and the other bad, or not?

• Runes! Omigosh, they pulse with possibilities! Who writes them? Are you born with them? Can you read them? Can you change them? Add to them? Erase them? Do you know what they say? Is the meaning clear? What if the being who wrote them had a bad handwriting? Does it matter if the runes are on the right hand or the left? If the character is a lefty or a righty?

• What kind of familiar? How does the familiar keep you from dying? What kills the familiar? Why does one person have a familiar and another one doesn’t? Does a familiar help you the way you want to be helped or does it sometimes help you the way it thinks you should be helped?

• And many more. We can, naturally, make a list.

Let’s start with limitations. If we dig into everything good, for example, the goddess may, like the fairy Lucinda, have her own ideas about what that is. Or she may not be as dreadful as Lucinda, but she plays favorites or is forgetful. Our characters have to work around her limitations.

Or maybe creators and destroyers can work together in theory, but they can’t be in the same place at the same time. Or if a destroyer destroys something, say elevators, a creator can’t make a workaround, like escalators.

As I’ve said here before, uniqueness in a big way is probably unattainable. We all build on what’s come before, and big uniqueness might be incomprehensible to everybody but us. Originality and surprise, I think, come from our details. Also from the way the magic works in our plot, the ways our characters dream up to use magic–and the way their plans go wrong.

Here are three prompts:

• A brother and sister, separated at birth, don’t know about each other. Both work at the same castle, the brother as an under-butler, the sister as the laundress’s helper. She’s chosen to be a destroyer, and the king’s shirts and the queen’s petticoats are never stained. He’s a creator, and the king never notices when his shoe soles wear thin because they’re replaced with identical new ones before the damage gets bad. Both think they’re meant for better things, however, and they begin to experiment, with troubling results. Write the story.

• The evil magician in Aladdin creates evil robot genies who are activated only by his ring and his lamp. When Aladdin, a destroyer, comes into possession of both and starts making wishes, they all go awry. Yes, the genies make him a palace and he wins the princess, but their new home isn’t anywhere you’d really want to live, and terrible things happen inside it. However, he doesn’t realize what the source of the problem is. He adores his wife and sees that they’re both in danger. Write the story.

• The runes on your MC’s hand start changing. When she casts familiar spells, she gets unfamiliar results. The problem is, she’s physician to the king who is desperately ill. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Shy and Lovable

On May 25, 2020, Writeforfun wrote, Any suggestions for writing lovable introverts?

I am struggling with one of my main characters in my story, the only one who is an introvert. I love writing him because he’s basically me when I was his age, so it comes so easily! He is petrified of attention, introspects constantly and has a little too much imagination, has profound thoughts but has a hard time putting them into words, reads constantly, is a very good listener, is extremely self-conscious, is extremely empathetic, and has a dry sense of humor. My other two are extroverts – one is moody and overly dramatic with a witty comeback for everything, and the other is an impetuous cheerleader who always acts before thinking, resulting in a lot of either funny or awkward situations.

So far, I’ve let two people read some of the story, and their consensus is that they don’t like my introvert. When asked why, one said it’s because he makes them sad. I don’t know if this is just because he is being compared to these two extroverts and the extroverts are outshining him by nature, or if his personality just isn’t a fun one to read. I suppose I could change him to be more like the other two, but I can’t figure out a way to do it that doesn’t feel forced, and I also want them to remain distinctive. I think the biggest difference between him and the other two is how much less funny he is than they are. There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in this story, so I’ve been using a lot of humor to keep things light, and most of the humor comes from them.

I’m trying to think of other books that have done introverts well, but off the top of my head I can only seem to think of extroverts. Or at least really well-adjusted introverts. This little guy has been isolated most of his life, so I really don’t want to make him seem falsely well-adjusted just to make him more fun. Perhaps I could make use of his awkwardness to make him funnier, but I’m not sure whether that would be a good funny or a bad funny, and he is always really embarrassed about it afterward, which I’m afraid kind of kills the mood.

My question is, any suggestions for writing lovable super-introverts? Any thoughts on what I’m doing wrong?

A lot of you had ideas.

Fiona: Well, I personally think that normally extroverts are easier to connect with because we know them better because they put themselves out there. One thing you can do is dip into the thoughts of the character. Put them into situations that force them out of their shell, make it uncomfortable for them to go outside their comfort zone, but make sure the experience shows their personality. Just help him along, let the readers get to know him.

Erica: Could you have him confide in one of the extroverts, and then have one of them act on what he told them? Ex. If there were someone he liked, he told one of the other two, and they set him up with her, then his response could reveal some of his personality. As for literary introverts, try Turtle in the Wings of Fire series (MG and up). He’s an important character in book 8 and narrates book 9, but the story arc starts in book 6. (I have to recommend some of my favorite series occasionally, after all.)

NerdyNiña: Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly has a super shy, introverted narrator. He has trouble speaking up in his family of extroverts. He wants to, and you, the reader, want him to. It would be a good guide, I think.

Back to Writeforfun: I’ve been trying to do some research on what might make introverts lovable, but I’ve mostly only found information on what introverts can do to “fix” themselves and become extroverts (suddenly my introverted self is feeling extremely inadequate and realizing that most of the world sees this as a problem, not a lovable character trait!). I think I’m going to stop researching along those lines for my own sake! Guess I’ll just keep experimenting. I do dip into his thoughts a lot in all of his POV chapters (it may be why he’s my favorite to write – possibly also why he’s my problem child – because I give myself free reign for introspection in his chapters!), but I’m thinking maybe he’s just too serious compared to the other two. I think I’ll see if I can play with these suggestions mentioned, and try to find some way to make him funnier or at least a little less serious.

Christie V Powell: Uh, that’s annoying! We don’t need to be fixed!

I’m still doing some research. One website pointed out that often, we don’t realize that a character doesn’t speak a lot or is introverted because we’re in their POV and see their thoughts (Harry Potter was the example they used).

Another article suggested Jane Eyre, Mr. Darcy, Katniss Everdeen, and Jonathan from Stranger Things (haven’t seen that one). Matilda and Bilbo Baggins also come up a lot.

I like writing introverted characters because it’s easier to have them think something instead of say it, when saying something aloud would cause problems. It also reminds me to use internal dialogue. I’m looking up some examples from my WIPs:

She thought about adding that the nearby royals had the resources to defeat a new Stygian, but decided she didn’t dare reveal how close they were to the Summit.

Keita was tempted to see if Indie would talk to her, but she decided against asking. Would (love interest) be more or less annoyed if Indie obeyed her?

Keita thought about asking what (villain) called her, and decided she didn’t want to know.

Did he have any siblings? Besides her, of course, if they did share a father. She decided not to ask, not when he kept glaring at her. What was he mad about?

Leo leaned against the wall of the tavern. His eyes went vacant and his lips twitched. Walker smirked but decided not to point out that he looked half-drunk himself.

I did a find word for “decided,” and somehow a whole bunch of introverted internal dialogue came up. Make of that what you will.

Here’s a list of tropes that all have to do with introverts:

These are great!

I have shy moments, but mostly I’m an extrovert, and when I wrote introverted Addie in The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed help from my critique buddy Joan Abelove, who is very shy–because, out of ignorance, I had made Addie almost catatonic. One of the things I did, following Joan’s advice, was to offset her helpless thoughts with useful ones, and I notice Writeforfun, a professed introvert, doing the same thing, like this hopeful idea above: Guess I’ll just keep experimenting. The thought doesn’t subtract a whit from the introversion, but it gives agency. Our introvert can take action and fail sometimes and succeed other times.

Since we love him, we can recruit one of our extroverted characters to love him too. We can imagine his pal, Grace, saying something like, “You are the deepest thinker I know. I depend on you to see around the corners.” Readers, seeing with Grace’s eyes, will find the good points our introvert is too shy to bring to the fore.

Introverted Jane Eyre, mentioned above by Christie V Powell, has a backbone made of iron. When she’s sure of a thing, she acts according to the dictates of her conscience. Our introvert can be like Jane Eyre or have other qualities that make him shine–whether or not anyone notices. After all, other characters don’t have to appreciate him; only the reader does. He can be loyal, generous (anonymously), kind, and he can be these things and many more on the positive side without being rehabilitated into well-adjusted-ness. He can be a doer. Because he’s so quiet, people don’t notice him, but when they turn around, the task he’s been set has been done–magnificently.

Jane Eyre, again, narrates her eponymous novel, and the reader discovers what a sharp observer she is. If our introvert is telling the tale, he’ll reveal in his thoughts the sides of himself that other characters will take a long time learning.

He can accept the slings and arrows that come his way because he’s shy–up to a point. When he explodes, the reader, who’s suffered the injustices along with him, will cheer.

Writeforfun mentions that he loves to read. Joy is a delight wherever it pops up. We can show his happiness in a book, or in any other of his pleasures.

Because, as a shy person, he may be overcritical of himself, he may have sympathy for others and may forgive them for flaws he won’t forgive in himself. Sympathy is an attractive quality, and readers are likely to admire it.

He may be contemplative rather than active, which gives him opportunities to appreciate. He can be a lover of beauty. He’s the one to notice that another character has changed her hairstyle and it looks great, or that there are buds on a hydrangea bush that hasn’t bloomed in years.

I’m wondering about the criticism by Writeforfun’s readers that her introvert isn’t likable because he makes them sad, which some how has me thinking about Hamlet the character, not Hamlet the play. I’m not crazy about him, because he makes me impatient and tires me. I don’t sympathize with his indecision, which goes on for longer than I can tolerate (in my memory anyway–I haven’t read the play in a long time). In the famous “to be or not to be” speech, he goes on and on about how terrible life is, how mistreated his imagined person is, who stays alive only because he fears that the afterlife may be worse. I would tolerate his monologue better if he occasionally dropped in something good, like that the cloud overhead is tinged with pink from the dawn and how pretty it is, and, maybe, that the dead can’t see it. I doubt that Writeforfun’s introvert is anything like Hamlet, but maybe he–and our introverts and less-than-lovable characters need to vary their thoughts and feelings a bit while remaining true to their essential selves. After all, none of us is just one thing. We’re introverts or extraverts, but we’re also good at miniature golf and nobody can beat us at making a pie from scratch, and if we try to sew on a button, we’re likely to have thread running through our nose before we’re done.

Then there’s plot. How does our introvert fit into it? Can we have him do something that helps the cause, that he’s uniquely qualified to contribute because he’s an introvert? We can look for moments like this. We can make a list! Maybe he’s quiet when the extroverts are exploding, so he notices something that turns out to be crucial. The reader blinks, rereads three pages, and breaks out grinning. Yay, Team Introvert!

Here are three prompts:

• Your two MCs, an extrovert and an introvert, meet at a silent meditation retreat. By glances and body language alone they communicate their interest in each other. Over the course of a week, they become close (romantically or platonically) without speaking. Write the week, remembering that one is still shy and the other is still outgoing, and then write the scene outside the gate of the retreat campus once the weekend is over and they are able to speak.

• Sleeping Beauty is an over-the-top extrovert, who narrates her dreams out loud for a hundred years. The prince is an introvert. Write the scene when he finds her.

• Rapunzel, an introvert, values solitude. Even the witch’s visits tire her out. The witch keeps her supplied with the kind of books she loves, and she spends most of her days happily reading. Still, she wishes for friendship from the kind of kindred spirit she’s read about in Anne of Green Gables. The prince, who is a little hard of hearing, walks by her tower every day without realizing anyone is in it. She watches him, notices how kind he is in many little ways (which you can think up) and becomes convinced he’s the kindred spirit who will give her companionship without overstimulating her. The problem is how to reach out to him. Does she dare? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Meet Un-cute

On May 6, 2020, Christie V Powell wrote, If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparable age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

A conversation followed:

Erica: Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

Katie W.: I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

Melissa Mead: Yes, but I’d love to see more books that subvert that expectation.

Raina: If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

Christie V Powell: This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

SilverSky: Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think (haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

Of course, if one (or both) is gay, the reader won’t expect romance.

I once asked a dental hygienist if the first thing she noticed when she met people was their teeth. She said Yes! and added that when she and her ex-husband got serious, she told him she couldn’t marry him unless he dealt with the disaster going on in his mouth–which he did, and the marriage lasted long enough for their daughter to grow to adulthood.

(I wondered how she could tolerate working on me and my tan teeth, caused by my weird habit for many years of chewing cinnamon sticks.)

To me, the heart of Christie V Powell’s question is how we create and manage reader expectations, especially about characters.

In our narration, we can quickly shut down a romanic expectation with something like this: Stacey’s friends were always intense, tightly focused, twitching with energy. But for romance, she preferred laid-back, go-with-the-flow types.

Then, when Brian, wound like a spring, shows up, the reader understands he’s only friend material.

For each of our two POV characters we can think of what would be romantic deal-breakers. Evie in Ogre Enchanted, for example, couldn’t fall for someone with a weak sense of humor.

The deal-breaker could be physical, though we have to be careful with that, because we don’t want readers to feel bad about the way they look. My first date, maybe at the age of fourteen, was with a boy who was at least six-feet-two and I never made it to five feet. I had to reach up to hold his hand. Nerds that we were, we went to a museum in New York City, and on our way there, people from two blocks away pointed at us and laughed. This isn’t to my credit, but I was too embarrassed ever to date him again.

Again from Ogre Enchanted, which explores romantic attachment, Evie asks her mother what made her mother fall in love with her father, who died before the beginning of the book. Part of her mother’s answer is about the tingle she felt with him. We can use absence of some variant on tingle to let readers know that love between two characters is not to be.

In my beloved Pride and Prejudice, any thoughts the reader may have of romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins, heir to Mr. Bennett’s estate, are dashed even before he shows up, by his letter, which is pompous and odd. This exchange between Elizabeth and her father follows his reading of the letter:

        “‘He must be an oddity, I think,’ said she. ‘I cannot make him out.—There is something very pompous in his style.—And what can he mean by apologising for being next in the entail?—We cannot suppose he would help it if he could.—Could he be a sensible man, sir?’
        “‘No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.’”

Mr. Collins’s goose is cooked!

By contrast, let’s look at this from Jane Eyre, following her first meeting with Mr. Rochester, when he’s fallen off his horse and she doesn’t yet know who he is:

    “The new face, too, was like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory; and it was dissimilar to all the others hanging there: firstly, because it was masculine; and, secondly, because it was dark, strong, and stern.”

Oh, my! The reader is primed in a single sentence for the cosmos-shaking love that follows.

(Just saying, I adored Jane Eyre in my teens, but when I revisited it decades later, my opinion of Mr. Rochester plummeted.)

So, we guide reader expectation in romance just as in everything else, like world-building, and, like world-building, the sooner the better. Our introduction to Mr. Collins and to Mr. Rochester don’t come early in the respective novels, but they come early in their entry to the story. We don’t want to give the reader a chance to form a different idea, which we’ll have to labor to reverse.

I don’t mean there can’t be surprises. Jane Austen doesn’t guide the reader’s idea of another possible romantic interest, Mr. Wickham, immediately. She wants to surprise the reader. That decision will depend a lot on our plot.

As always, we convey expectations to our readers through narration or thoughts or dialogue or feeling, or a combination of more than one. Anticipation about Stacey’s romantic interests are set up in my first example through narration. We can even use narration to address the reader the old-fashioned way: Dear Reader, do not expect love to spring up between these two. Yes, there will be mutual respect, but their romantic destinies lie elsewhere.

The P&P example uses dialogue, the Jane Eyre one thoughts (or narration–I’m not sure). But we can use thoughts. Here’s Brian: I walked home and ran over the afternoon in my mind. Stacey was nice, sure, but every five seconds she scratched her neck or her arm or rubbed her nose, like an itchy dog, except dogs are adorable no matter what they do.

Not promising.

Here’s Stacey’s feelings: Brian ordered spaghetti and dug in. Stacey’s stomach turned when he slurped, when spaghetti strands wriggled from his mouth, when red sauce dribbled down his chin.

Hard to get past that.

Christie V Powell, if you continued with your project since you asked your question, how did it turn out? Was there a romance?

Here are three prompts:

• Dr. Watson has broken multiple bones in a fall from his horse. He sends in his sister to sub for him as Sherlock Holmes’s assistant. Write their meeting from his point of view and show that he’s drawn to her.

• Using the scenario above, now write their meeting from her point of view and show that, while she admires Sherlock’s mind, she finds him romantically unappealing.

• Write the scene that follows the one above, in which Holmes deduces the impression he’s made and works to change it. Decide whether or not he succeeds.

Have fun, and save what youwrite!

The Remodel

On April 22, 2020, Writeforfun wrote, I’ve just finished my current book! Or well, the first in what seems to have turned into a series. There’s lot’s more to go, but I’ve come to the end of this one, at least. So, yeah, happy dance! But I’m wondering – I know there are many posts on here about editing so I’m definitely going to go back over all of those – but I’m just wondering, any opinions on the best way to edit a first draft that has changed a LOT since the beginning and is rather a bit of a jumbled mess? I pantsed this book, just to give it a try (I’m usually a planner), and the story has meandered and changed a ton since the beginning, and didn’t really get on a particular track until about halfway through. Normally when I finish a book, I’ll go through from the beginning of the manuscript and just tweak things as I go (which works, since the plot hasn’t really wavered from the beginning so I’m usually only making minor changes); but this time I’m talking major changes – entire characters and plot points that I dropped halfway through, 50-page events that I need to add or remove, or shuffle or swap with different portions of the story – things like that. It’s daunting! How do you keep it all organized? I’m almost wondering if it would be better to start a brand new document and just re-write the story…although, I don’t really want to do that because I ended up accidentally making it about 500 pages long (though hopefully I’ll manage to cut that down a bit)!

I’m just wondering if there’s any particular great process for editing a book that needs a LOT of changes! Advice? I know some people are great at editing and really enjoy it. I am not, and do not – so if you have a process that works well I’d love to hear about it.

Two of you wrote back:

Christie V Powell: One thing I’ve been doing with my WIP is using Word’s styles/headings feature and labeling each scene, chapter, and act. It makes it easier to see structure at a glance and to figure out how to move things around. Another tip: save a new copy every time you start a major draft. It gives you more freedom to experiment (I copied Gail’s suggestion from “Writing Magic” about putting numbers after each draft, although the number of drafts I need has been getting smaller as I keep writing).

Erica: If you’re normally a planner, then I would suggest writing an outline of your story using whatever method you like, and then rewriting individual pieces to fit the outline better. That way, it’s easier to stay on track and you’re less likely to end up making more big dramatic changes without realizing it.

Congratulations for finishing! I hope I said that at the time too!

As I’ve said often, I love to revise. It’s my favorite part.

I like my advice from Christie V Powell’s lips! Versions are super helpful because nothing is lost. When the change is ultra-big, I rename the document so the revision and the earlier incarnation are easier to find, like one version may be called Wolf friend 3. The hugely changed version might be Wolf no friend 1–because I took out the friendship. Or, often when I’ve started revising for my editor, I might name the next version Wolf RB edit 1 (her initials). When I’m completely done and the manuscript is beyond even copy editing, I can count my versions. Many versions means this was a tough book to write. I find that satisfying to know.

I agree with Erica that an outline is likely to be helpful. It doesn’t matter that the book is written. An outline helps us see what we have. For me, the outline would go chapter by chapter, summarizing what happens in each one in a few sentences. When we think about what to revise, we can use highlighter so that what we need to do stands out.

A timeline may be useful too. Depending on the book, I’ve used them during revision–and while writing.

Also, a character-by-character description may show us how our cast fits together and which ones are essential and which can be cut. Combined with an outline, the descriptions will show consistencies and inconsistencies in their actions.

For me, another reader is important, especially at the stage Writeforfun is describing. When my manuscript is big and unwieldy, I don’t know what I’ve got, what the most important threads are, what’s working, and what isn’t. A good reader, whether or not the person is a writer, can help us see our book fresh. We may get confirmation that what we think are the problems really are, or we may be surprised. Either way, we’re learning.

As I’ve also said here many times, I almost always toss more than a hundred pages during a revision, so I think we should be willing to make big cuts. As long as we’ve saved the old version, we can be intrepid. It’s astonishing what I thought I needed and how much I discover I can do very well without.

Also, some parts may grow. We are likely to find places that are scant on detail, or where we haven’t sufficiently revealed our MC’s thoughts and feelings.

Writeforfun mentions that her plot gets on a particular track halfway through. We can consider whether the earlier off-track parts should be part of this story, which maybe should start where it finds its way. The deleted pages can be fodder for other books later or earlier in the series. Out of one, many. Cool!

The popular wisdom is to put a manuscript aside for some time, a few days or weeks, in order to get perspective. If we go back to it too quickly, we may be so invested in it we can’t see it clearly. But when my manuscript is more than two hundred pages long, I generally jump right back in, because I don’t remember the beginning well enough to endanger my objectivity.

When the macro editing is done, it’s time for line edits, the part I love most. Do my chapters end in the right place, either in a moment of excitement or in a brief rest? Am I varying my sentence beginnings and the sentences themselves, like, do I keep stringing together independent clauses connected by and or but? Are there words I’m overusing? Can I cut adjectives and adverbs, the weakest parts of speech, like very and almost?

I know I’m done when I find myself changing sentences and then un-changing them.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC, a book doctor hired to rehab a murder mystery, realizes that her client (who wrote the book that needs work) had his fictional detective miss an important clue, which points to a different perpetrator. After she makes the change, a stranger visits her in the middle of the night. Write the story.

• This is a tad sad: Your MC has invented a time machine so that she can return to the night thirty years earlier when a fire killed her father’s first wife. Sadness at the loss haunted her dad even after he married her mom–and soured their marriage. Your MC, at the risk of never being born, is determined to prevent the fire and save the fiancée. Write the story.

• Your MC, a specter–but the good kind–performs for kids’ birthday parties, creating delightful environments for children to have fun in. And when the party ends, there’s nothing to clean up. However, another specter–the bad kind–is bent on destroying her. The bad one shows up at one of her gigs after another and terrifies the tykes. Your MC suspects the baddie of planning something much worse for the mayor’s son’s party. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Time Waits for No One

On April 13, 2020, Clare H. wrote, Any suggestions on a good way to show that time has passed in a book? Currently, my character is twelve, but I want him to be 17 or 18 by the time I hit my climax, that way readers will see him grow. So far I am trying to show that the seasons are changing and I have thought about using holidays almost as checkpoints.

Three of you weighed in:

Erica: Depending on what else you have going on, you might want to put in a big time jump somewhere, such as skipping directly from 14 to 16. I would suggest either making the passage of time fairly slow or fairly fast. If you do put in a big time jump, though, try to have it occur between chapters. It’s less confusing for the readers that way.

Katie W.: I vote for the big time jump. As a reader, I find it much less confusing than simply speeding up time, (i.e., skipping ahead in a movie instead of fast-forwarding.) especially if you can divide the book into parts and have the time jump take place between parts, rather than inside one. A simple “4 years later” (or whatever time interval you want) heading works wonders.

Melissa Mead: Do you want him to go straight from 12 to 17, or show some things happening in between?

Here’s one way I dealt with a big time jump:

“(Juvenile demon) dropped into a hunting crouch beside Malak, who realized with shock that (the youngster) was now as tall as he was. (JD) had changed from a spawnling to a long-legged juvenile before Malak had even thought to notice the transformation. Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice. He’d lived years upon years, more than a Deeper One could count on hands and feet…”

Thanks, Melissa Mead, for the big-jump demonstration!

I’m with Erica and Katie W. that it’s best not to jump over changes that need to evolve in our story.

I like a direct approach, like seasons and holidays. Chapter headings or book sections can indicate the year–in our world or in a fantasy universe with a different calendar.

Depending on our story, we can use current events rather than years, like Royal Birth, Coronation, Royal Marriage, Assassination, Accession. Not in my case, but in most, we can even use height markers: 4′ 9″, 5′ 2″, etc. Diary entries can work too. July 1, 2008, March 13, 2010, November, 22, 2011. And so on.

We can get creative and have a different character mark the changes, say from a parent to a grandparent in letters, emails, phone calls, texts.

If we’re spanning time with a young MC, we have to think about growth. A twelve-year-old and a seventeen-year-old are different–emotionally, intellectually, and physically. The teenager will have more experience and a broader understanding. For example, if we’re using diary entries, the voice is likely to change over time. And yet, he still has to be the same person, even if the challenges in our plot also cause him to change.

In my opinion, L. M. Montgomery does a great job with this in Anne of Green Gables, one of my childhood faves. At the beginning, Anne speaks at a thousand words a minute with barely time for breath. That fades, though, as she matures. Yet, she remains thoughtful, smart, and imaginative.

These changes will mark time too, more subtly than direct markers, which we’ll probably still need (or I’d still need).

We can list ways our MC may change. Here are a few for starters:
• talkative to quiet, as L. M. Montogomery does it
• quiet to talkative, as our MC becomes more assertive
• incautious to careful
• clumsy to graceful, like Ella after finishing school

What else? List five more.

Then we have to weave these in–draw the reader’s attention to these qualities at the beginning and again later on.

We can also take advantage of plot in the aging of our MC, who at twelve will approach a problem one way, at seventeen another–different, not necessarily improved. We can change the challenges too and raise the stakes.

Having said all this, though, if we can–if our plot lets us–there’s an advantage to having our story happen in a short time, weeks and months rather than years. The advantage is just that it’s a little easier, because we don’t have to work to close the gap, as Clare H. is asking about. LOL: I should talk, because five of my novels progress from my MC’s birth or early childhood to her teen years!

Here are three prompts:

• Intelligent life in the world of your science fiction story is a species that follows the life cycle of a frog: egg, tadpole, frog. It’s a thinking creature every step of the way, but its understanding and temperament change as it goes along. Give your creature a goal or a problem from inception and write its story.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” changes as the story goes along. When the fairy tale opens, she’s beautiful and content; Snow White is barely a blip in her consciousness. After the mirror declares the girl lovelier than she is, she’s filled with rage but not ready to kill Snow White herself, so she commands the hunter to do the dirty deed. When he doesn’t, she’s ready to take over and commit murder. There’s a possible next transformation when she names the punishment that will be inflicted on her (dancing in the red-hot shoes). Write the story in a way that explains the transformations.

• Your MC Marietta is seven when her beloved older sister disappears and she swears to get her back. Your story takes her from seven to fifteen, when she either succeeds or fails definitively. Write the story, showing how she changes as she grows older.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Dreaded Fog

Once upon a time, on April 13, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I am actually writing a “Hansel and Gretel” retelling, and I was wondering – how do you figure out the plot? Like, I know that Gretel has to find out in some way that she has magical powers and then eventually go on some kind of quest and defeat some kind of witch, but I am still having trouble figuring the plot out and I’m always losing my way.

I don’t know if that was clear enough or not, but basically here is the summary: I need tips on plotting because all I am really doing is stumbling blindly through the fog of writing.

Two of you responded.

Katie W.: As someone who has stumbled through the fog of writing many times before (and who only really figured out how plotting works a week ago), here are a few tips. 1. Plots are the way characters try to reach their goals. So, if you make a list of the character’s goals and the things they do to achieve them (kind of like New Year’s resolutions), you have the bare bones of an outline. 2. Freytag’s Pyramid (the upside-down triangle that shows action rising and falling over the course of the story) can apply to anything from a scene to a series. Everything has exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution, and if you can find your story’s inciting incident (where the rising action starts), climax, and resolution, you can fit the rest of it around those three points. 3. Feel free to stumble, get hopelessly lost, and backtrack as many times as you need to in order to find your story. It’s easier to plot the second draft than the first.

Kit Kat Kitty: I’ve been where you are so many times before. And what really helped was reading a book about plotting. For me, I didn’t understand plots well enough to hit all the right beats without writing out an outline, and I didn’t know how to write an outline because I didn’t understand plot well enough. I was too scared of all the complicated outline methods out there to watch videos or read articles about them. But when I finally sat down and read a book about plotting (Save The Cat! Write a Novel) it helped me a lot. It has fifteen beats that I used to outline my current WIP. Of course, that isn’t the only plotting method out there, but it worked for me because it was simple, and a very universal outline. (All books have most if not all of the beats whether or not that’s what the author intended. The book goes into this more, and I would highly recommend reading it.) So I was able to grasp it easily.

Of course, if you’re not a plotter, being a pantser is perfectly fine! I’d still recommend reading books about plot so you can absorb all the information and subconsciously get to all the places you need to in your book once you understand what they are. This was my main problem when I tried pantsing novels, I didn’t understand plot nearly as well as I needed to.

I guess I’m saying the best thing to do is research about plot structure, and if you want to plot, research different methods. It might not be easy, but it’ll be worth it. For once, I don’t feel hopelessly lost when I’m writing. For now. I hope this helps.

I agree with Katie W. The first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect, or even good. I’m working on a zero draft right now, which is basically just throw-up in word form on a page, but once I’m done, I’ll have something to work with that’ll (hopefully) eventually become a good story.

I love the idea of a zero draft! That takes the pressure off.

In the version of “Hansel and Gretel” collected by the Brothers Grimm, neither Gretel nor Hansel does anything magical, and there isn’t a quest. You can read a plot summary in Wikipedia. The original may make the plotting easier because we can come up with our own complications.

Writing Cat Lover may be working from an adaptation, which can be tricky. If the adaptation isn’t old enough to be in the public domain there may be infringement issues. I suggest checking this out.

The old fairy tales in their original form are in the public domain, but not necessarily adaptations (a Disney version, for example) or translations (because translations are copy protected too).

By now I’ve fogged and stumbled through a bunch of novels. The sweet ones seemed to want to be written. The meanies (The Two Princesses of Bamarre and, especially, my second fantasy mystery, Stolen Magic) preferred to keep their secrets to themselves. They stuck imaginary tongues out and dared me to write them.

Stolen Magic scarred me. It took over four years to write and didn’t become even a first cousin of the story I hoped to write: a version of the 19th century original fairy tale, “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, which I love for its atmosphere but not so much for its predictable plot, which I hoped to correct.

Before Stolen Magic, I believed E. L. Doctorow’s advice that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow wrote a lot of novels, and his advice may work for some, but he led me astray.

Nowadays, I have to have the major kinks figured out before I commit myself to a book, whether it’s a retelling of a fairy tale or an original story. I may write a few pages before then, though, and call a halt to think.

But I’ve never used the inciting incident, rising action, etc. method though I assume my stories have those things. I like to adapt fairy tales or myths because they give me a skeletal plot, or I think they do. Most of them are riddled with logical holes big enough for a dragon to fall through. I have to figure them out before I can get going.

I often find my way by framing my plot as a quest, which, for example, is what pulled me through Two Princesses. I think most stories can be looked at that way. “Hansel and Gretel” can be looked at as a quest for a safe home. Or one to end the witch’s reign of terror. Or something else that we can decide.

To find the quest and our plot in general, we have to decide whose story we’re telling. Take “Snow White,” for example. In the original, the character with the most agency is the evil queen, and her tragic quest, in a way, is to stop time to keep herself from aging and Snow White from growing into her beauty. We have to rearrange things to make it Snow White’s story, which can be a quest for a safe home as it is in my mind for Hansel and Gretel. Or for power. Or for true love. All depending on how we do it.

So when we think about our plot, we need to ask ourselves questions:
• Which character is our MC?
• Who’s telling the story? May be our MC–or not.
• What does our MC want or what caused them to be at risk?
• What are the obstacles and who stands in the way?
• What qualities will help or harm our MC?
• What kind of world is this, because the answer will affect our MC’s ability to act and the sorts of actions that are possible.
• How do we want it to end? What will that look like? How will we get there?

In my case, since I tend to get mixed up, it helps for me to write notes and review and re-review my ideas, because I’m likely to forget about a snag that threatens everything, that will make me have to delete fifty pages–or much more.

Having said all this, though, the fog of writing may be the writer’s curse. Writing Cat Lover may be doing nothing wrong. It may be that, for most of us, if we’re not in some amount of fog, we’re not mining the depths that lurk in our story. A friend told me that Stephen King takes his laptop to sports events and types away, able to write and follow the game at the same time. He must not be an ordinary mortal.

Maybe I’ll be wandering in my fog and bump into you, wandering in yours!

Here are three prompts:

• Write your current WIP as a three-to-five page fairy tale.

• “Before the Law” is a parable within the novel The Trial by surrealist Franz Kafka. It isn’t my kind of thing, but it may be fun to fool around with in terms of plotting. Ask the questions I pose above to write a story that appeals to you. This summary comes from Wikipedia: A man from the country seeks “the law” and wishes to gain entry to it through an open doorway, but the doorkeeper tells the man that he cannot go through at the present time. The man asks if he can ever go through, and the doorkeeper says it is possible “but not now.” The man waits by the door for years, bribing the doorkeeper with everything he has. The doorkeeper accepts the bribes, but tells the man he only accepts them “so that you do not think you have left anything undone.” The man does not attempt to murder or hurt the doorkeeper to gain entry to the law, but waits at the doorway until he is about to die. Right before his death, he asks the doorkeeper why, even though everyone seeks the law, no one else has come in all the years he has been there. The doorkeeper answers, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

• In case you don’t have enough fog, here’s more! You may know the Greek myth about Demeter, Hades, and Persephone. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess, whom Hades (god of the underworld) falls in love with, abducts, and marries. Demeter, overwhelmed with grief, prevents anything from growing. People starve, but Demeter refuses to relent. Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger god, to get Persephone back. There’s more to the story, because Hades does something sneaky, but this is all you need for the prompt. Hermes is your MC. Write his journey through the land, which Demeter has plunged in darkness, to the murky underworld, to retrieve Persephone.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Revealed or Concealed?

On March 25, 2020, NerdyNiña wrote, How do you describe characters? I can see them in my mind, but I don’t know how to get the important details onto the page. Also, I tend to overuse certain phrases: she smiled, he looked up, I turned, etc. How can I describe physical movement and facial expressions more distinctly?

A discussion followed.

Melissa Mead: I don’t always, unless it matters to the story. Ex, the WIP has a major character named Julia. She’s important to the story, one of the people that Malak cares about the most, but aside from noting that she’s one of the few humans he knows, I don’t describe her much at all. Hopefully that allows the reader to identify with her in a world full of angels and demons.

(Ok, you got me curious. On page 341 it says “it sounded like Honored Julia, the voice of this woman he’d never seen, with her freckled, square-jawed face and untidy hair threaded with gray.” And there’s an earlier mention of demon-bite scars on her arm. But I don’t know her eye color, for example.)

So: The first thing is to decide which details matter in the context of the story. Ex, I mention Malak’s gold eyes because neither angels nor demons have eyes that color. What stands out about your character? What causes other people to treat them differently? What makes them special, unusual, honored, or shunned?

A lot will depend on the POV, too. Whose eyes are we seeing this person through? (and ditto for the other senses.)

Me: There are phrases that are almost impossible to avoid, like ones you mention: smile, turn, look up. Getting fancy will seem strange. The reader is likely to just note the action and move on, unperturbed. These are like “said,” which disappears.

Melissa Mead: I was thinking about your question and had another thought about choosing which details to mention. While I don’t remember if I thought this consciously at the time, here are some purposes those particular details about Julia serve: (I also just realized that this and the previous posts are spoilers. Malak’s not positive it’s really Julia at that point, and neither are we. If the book ever does come out, just forget about them, OK? (Actually, knowing her name doesn’t matter THAT much.))

“Square-jawed face”: They’re in a tense situation here, and this woman’s not backing down.
“Freckles and untidy hair”- When Malak first met her, she was a teenager who didn’t always follow the rules.
“threaded with gray”- Now she’s middle aged. She looks older, but Malak doesn’t. (and that’s why knowing her name isn’t too much of a spoiler, because the real question is “How much has she changed, and whose side is she on?”)

NerdyNiña: Right, so the details we include should say something about the character’s personality.

Writing Ballerina: To add to this, the details you mention will also depend on the POV character, or the character who’s noticing them. Mrs. Levine mentions how she does this in… Writer to Writer, I think it is. From THE WISH, her character Wilma loves dogs, so, because it’s through Wilma’s POV, Mrs. Levine describes other characters by relating them to dogs. I can’t quote the exact scene because I sadly don’t own THE WISH, but I know that one girl is described like a Pomeranian, with a sharp laugh and nervous darting eyes (if I got that right).

Other, less noticeable traits can be described like this. Someone who sings may notice people’s voices more. Someone who is an artist may notice the exact shade of someone’s shirt, or the shape of their jaw. This doesn’t necessarily relate to describing people, but I read a book where the POV character had perfect pitch, so they would notice that their gate squeaked in Bb or the dog’s yap was a shrill C. That also brings up the point that the POV character will affect how everything is described, not just the people.

Erica: I have a hard time with this too, especially since I have a hard time noticing/interpreting facial expressions. My only advice is that not everyone notices everything, so your character might not have to.

Thank you, Writing Ballerina, for remembering my ideas! You got it right about the Pomeranian!

These are great! I agree that a good time to drop in a little character description is when the plot will accommodate it.

I watch very little TV or cable news and rarely see a movie. Most of my information about current events, sports, and celebrities comes via radio, so I don’t know what many super-famous people look like. I make them up. For example, the first time I saw immunologist Anthony Fauci, I was astonished. I expected him to have a long, gaunt face, high cheekbones, and hollowed-out cheeks. Certainly not those stick-out ears. Doesn’t matter. I pictured him without any information.

Readers do that too. Sometimes when I read a description of a character that doesn’t match up with the ideas I’ve already formed, my own impression sticks.

In my historical novel A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, the reader picks up from information here and there that my main character Loma is: short, because everyone in her family is; darker-skinned than the Spanish royals; pretty in a way that’s never described; and plump. That’s all I remember, but I just jumped around in the book to see what I can find, and I found that the reader learns that she has thick eyelashes–on page 165. The reader finds out the color of other characters’ eyes, but not Loma’s.

We don’t need to put much in, unless our plot demands it or a character pays attention to appearance.

But we may have a plot reason. In my “Snow White” retelling, Fairest, MC Aza believes she’s ugly, and a good deal of the plot revolves around that. In narration she describes herself unflatteringly. Here’s a snippet: I resembled a snow maid, with a big sphere of a face and round button eyes. She also describes other people to compare them with herself–mostly to make herself feel bad. This is a case of plot and character-driven describing.

The description doesn’t have to be brought about by the thrust of the story. The cause can be a little plot point. In Sparrows in the Wind (which will come out someday), Paris is one of the characters who causes the Trojan War, and he’s the brother of Cassandra, my MC in the first half of the book. They don’t meet until he’s grown up and she’s a teenager. (It’s a long story, which you may know from the mythology.) He describes Cassandra because he wants there to be a strong sibling resemblance, and that’s how the reader finds out she has a strong chin.

If we’re describing a character’s face, we don’t have to touch on every feature. We can even skip the features entirely and say something about his skin or the giant pimple next to his nose.

We can describe characters in narration, either in the thoughts of our POV character or in the voice of an outside narrator.

And we can do it in dialogue, as in Anne of Green Gables, when Gilbert Blythe whispers piercingly, “Carrots! Carrots!”

There other less common ways too–in a diary; a letter; a newspaper report; even in action (think Pinocchio’s nose, for example).

When it comes to describing a character we see clearly in our minds, we can ask ourselves what we see first, what stands out. Say it’s our character’s mouth, which always looks sad. We can start with the mouth then. Maybe it doesn’t turn down but it’s always flat even when something funny or happy or very sad is happening. That flat mouth seems incapable of showing feeling though feeling is clearly there. Or it’s her posture or her height.

We can ask how her character and personality show in her looks or are hidden by them. Maybe she’s secretive, and her lidded eyes give nothing away. Or he’ll believe any lie, betrayed by his rounded eyebrows.

There are other questions we can consider. How is the character different from or like the people around her? How does he resemble (or not) others in his family? What about them do others respond to, positively or negatively? What physical qualities will help or hinder our character as the plot unfolds?

These kinds of questions are likely to take us to surprises, usually a good thing.

Two pitfalls that I can think of to watch out for: 1. Having a character look in a mirror and describe what they see has been done many times, including by me in The Wish. It’s hard to find a fresh way to do it, but if one pops up in our imagination, we can go for it. 2. Stopping the action for a long description of a character’s appearance, a mini infodump. We can do this too, but we need a good reason. For example, lengthy character descriptions are a frequent feature of detective novels, and readers expect them–and clues and red herrings may be wrapped up in them.

As for physical movement, I think simple is fine, unless there is something extraordinary about the way someone moves. We can think about this too when we’re imagining a character. Their nervous nature can come out in their quick movements or be belied by their languor.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a scene or a story based on this: He could read my thoughts and I couldn’t even interpret his expression. This is why telepaths were hated. Even I hated him.

• Write a contemporary “Rumpelstiltskin” in a modern world in which short beings are the underclass.

• Start your story here: Sleeping Beauty opened her eyes, rubbed them, and stared at the prince.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Sharing the Limelight

On March 25, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’ve started plotting a new book out (usually, I’m a pantser, but I’m trying this out), and I’ve run into a bit of a problem. I have two main characters, a boy and a girl. The boy is the actual main character, but the girl is a close second. The premise is that the boy is trying to get to the underworld and retrieve the soul of a man he killed by accident a year ago. (It’s a long story. There are gods in the story, and the boy happens to be the son of the death god, so he accidentally killed someone by touching them.) Anyway, he’s just starting out on his quest when the girl shoots him with an arrow that causes him to fall in love with her (that is also a long story; she didn’t want to, but she was worried her mother would love her less if she didn’t, and her mother is a goddess). The point is, I realized that the girl has just as much growth to go through as the boy, and the whole “love arrow” sub-plot is really only a hindrance for the boy but it’s a big deal for her, so I was wondering if I should make her a POV character as well. I also think her story would be very interesting to write about. Any advice?

A conversation ensued.

Katie W.: Go for it! Writing from someone’s viewpoint (especially 1st person) is a great character-building exercise, even if the scenes get cut later on. Unless you have a deadline, there’s no reason not to experiment. Sure, there will probably be a lot of garbage, but there may very well be some really good stuff, too.

Melissa Mead says: Sounds like a fascinating premise! Good question! Is the story more about him, or them? What would 2 POVs give you that 1 doesn’t?

Kit Kat Kitty: My main concern really comes down to trusting myself to make the right call. If the story ends up being two POVs, it’ll go in a very different direction than if I only do one. I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting. I suppose it really comes down to what kind of story I want to tell, and I’m thinking that one POV is better, but I think I’ll try writing a few chapters from the girl’s POV too, as Katie W. suggested.

All that said, I’m still not 100% what I’m gonna do or what’s gonna happen.

Melissa Mead: “I have a nasty habit of deciding to write from a character’s POV just because I think they’re interesting.” Sounds logical to me!

Kit Kat Kitty: I guess it does, doesn’t it? I guess I’m just worried about what people will think. I’ve been warned before not to write two POV’s in a story just because I want to, but since I’m in the really early steps, I don’t think it’d do any harm. I guess I just need to remind myself that I write because it’s fun.

Melissa Mead: I think the most important thing is to make it clear when you’ve changed POV, and why. Ex, don’t do it in the middle of a scene, because the reader will get confused.

I agree with Katie W. and Melissa Mead and with Kit Kat Kitty that we write because it’s fun.

Sometimes it isn’t. But we write for the fun times. And some of the fun is in experimentation and the growth that follows.

I’m certainly with Melissa Mead that the story premise is fascinating.

As you probably noticed, this question arrived over a year ago, and Kit Kat Kitty probably finished her story long ago. If you’re reading this, would you let us know how it went?

I’m in favor of experimentation. Timidity puts me to sleep when I’m writing and puts readers to sleep if a timid story manages to get finished.

I’ve written two books from two POVs. The cake in terms of number may be taken by Bat 6, written by National Book Award winner for True Believer (and my friend) Virginia Euwer Wolff, which is told by–count them!–twenty-one first-person narrators. It’s an excellent book and worth reading. Also, you’ll see how she pulled it off.

When we’re thinking about multiple POVs, we need to consider what we’ll gain, and Kit Kat Kitty, in my opinion, makes a good case for trying it. Both characters are children of gods, which affects them differently. The girl adds a complication to the boy’s quest. She reacts one way; he another. There’s a lot to explore in their differences.

My first two-POV book was my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever, which is told in alternating chapters by each POV character, one a mortal girl in the city of Hyte where the people believe in a single god, the other the young god of the winds from the kingdom Akka, where there is a pantheon of gods. The chapters are labeled by who’s telling, so the reader always knows.

It’s a love story, and I don’t think I could have brought the love aspect to life in the sole POV of either of them.

The second is my Trojan War book, Sparrows in the Wind, for which I am waiting (endlessly, according to me) for edits from my editor, who is almost certainly not reading these words. In Sparrows, the first half of the book is told by Cassandra, the seer whose prophecies are never believed. The second half is told nine years later by Rin, an Amazon girl who rides to the aid of Troy with her mom and eleven other Amazon women.

In Sparrows, my initial reason for the two POVs was because Cassandra ages out of childhood while the war continues, so I felt I needed to introduce a fresh girl character. Since this is fantasy, I could have shortened the ten years and stayed with Cassandra, but I wanted to stay as faithful as I could to the established mythology. I didn’t anticipate that the double POV would create a buddy story, and I was happy about that. I’d never written one of those before.

In both stories and in Kit Kat Kitty’s as she’s described it, the POV characters have different backstories and different perspectives, which form their varying responses to events. We can keep that in mind when we consider what we’ll gain from the added complication of more than one first-person narrator.

In Sparrows, for example, Cassandra lives in a society in which women have no freedom. Zero. Except for religious festivals, they rarely even step outside the women’s quarters in their houses. Turned loose in the wild, a Trojan woman wouldn’t last long. On the other hand, an Amazon can fend for herself and better; she lives to hunt, fight, raid villages, and collect spoils. Amazons are contemptuous of so-called “village women” and prefer death to captivity.

Aside from chapter headings in Ever and the passage of time between the two halves in Sparrows, we want readers to always know who’s speaking. In Ever, I tried to make the two voices different. I reasoned that Olus, the god of the winds, would be more educated than a mortal girl, and I tried to give him an advanced vocabulary and to have him think and speak in longer, more complex sentences. I don’t think I succeeded. But when I just opened to pages at random I always knew who was talking. Their history and world view are so different that it affects everything. Besides, since Ever is a love story, each one is usually either speaking to the other or thinking of him or her.

In Sparrows, to differentiate speakers and also for plot reasons, I wrote the first part in the past tense and the second in present. That alone differentiates the two, but also the world views of the two of them have little in common.

These are two strategies for differentiating the POVs. There must be many more. For example, one POV could be told through journal entries, another through live action. One might even be presented in italics.

If we’re working from a traditional tale, like a fairy story, more than one POV will expand its scope and most likely lengthen our page count. We can consider if we want that.

Multiple POVs will also complicate the arc of our story. For pantsers (like me, mostly), that will make the telling more difficult. I would want to come up with a skeletal outline. But this isn’t to say that complete pantsers shouldn’t try it. The pleasure is in the journey!

Here are three prompts:

• Tell “Jack and the Beanstalk” from two POVs, Jack’s and the giant’s. You may have to give the giant a backstory. What were his hopes and dreams when Jack brought him down to earth?

The English version of the tale has this rhyme, which you can read about on Wikipedia: Here’s the rhyme:

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.[

If you want to use this, you can bring in geopolitics!

• Tell the fable of the hare and the tortoise from three POVs: the hare, the tortoise, and the fox, who judges the race.

• Go wild. Tell the story of a spelling bee from the POVs of the final seven contestants, a sibling of one of them, and the judge.

Have fun, and save what you write!

A Wild Parade

On March 18, 2020, SilverSky wrote, I’m writing an experimental book where I play with things like gender, age, and the five senses. I’m working on each of these one at a time. I’m almost finished with the gender and age part but, I’m coming up on senses and I’m trying to figure out a balance between writing too many details and not enough. For example, I think too many details would sound like, “I walked into the dark room. I heard the creaking of the floor boards as a large, grey rat ran across the dark oak floor. The room smelled dusty and moldy with a hint of smoke. It was so dusty that I could taste the dirt on my tongue. I placed my hand on a cold, rough table and a floor board began to break beneath me” or is that just enough details? Would it be better to briefly write what I’m trying to say like, “I walked into the dark room. A rat ran across the floor. Everything smelled dusty. I put my hand on a rough table and the floor gave out below me.” Or not?

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how can you find the balance between too many details and not enough? And, does the book get boring after a lot of details or does it get more interesting?

I know you already answered a few questions about details but I thought maybe you could elaborate on using the 5 senses when writing details.

A discussion broke out.

future_famous_author: I haven’t read a book that went in too much detail in a while… but the book I am reading right now does it in a very interesting way. The author doesn’t usually explain how things look, except characters, but even then only sometimes, but when the character is coming across a new place (castle, house, field, woods, etc.) she seems to explain every detail! While this is a time when details are necessary for the reader to fully understand the story, I don’t think that she should go so in detail with the setting, and then completely forget about other things.
Also, I think that your first example may have been a little too much, but I also think that it could be condensed. Maybe like this: “I walked into the dark, dusty room, smelling of mold and smoke. There was so much dust that it coated my tongue, and the table that I placed my hand upon as a rat ran across the squeaky floorboards. As the squeaking of the rat disappeared, a floorboard began to break beneath me.” I’m sure I’m not any better at description than you are, and there is really no right way, but that’s just how I feel like it should go. Fewer words, almost the same amount of description. Also, if you don’t pile all the description on the reader at once, adding details as a character explores a place, they may be more likely to grasp what you are saying, and to enjoy it.

Melissa Mead: I think the important part is to pick the details that are important to your character. Are they scared of rats? Allergic to dust, mold, or smoke? Is there something special about the table?

future_famous_author: And not just what is important to your character, but what will be important to the plot. Will the rats spread a disease? Will the darkness mean they can’t see their enemy? Does the smoke show that there was a fire, one that killed an important character? Does the dust show that this place has not been occupied in a long time, meaning that whoever they thought might be there is long gone?

Erica: Make sure that all of the details you include are reasonably observable in the situation. For instance, in your first example, you mentioned that the floor was made of oak. Could your character really tell what wood the floorboards were made of in a dark room, or did she already know? Questions like that help me make sure that descriptive details don’t go overboard.

future_famous_author: Oh, I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s interesting!
Also, if your character did mention that it was oak, maybe it’s because she has a past with wood, because a relative taught her what different kinds of wood looked like. Thinking about what a certain character might say about a certain place might help.

Christie V Powell: I’m just throwing in a resource here. I enjoyed “Word Painting: A Guide To Writing More Descriptively” by Rebecca McClanahan. It’s a whole book filled with tips for describing things, and the language she uses, both examples and narration, show that she knows what she’s talking about.

Melissa Mead: I hope it’s ok to throw this in too. I went to HS with the author. He’s a writer, English teacher, and cartoonist, and he illustrated the book with cartoons:

These are terrific! I particularly agree that detail supports both plot and character development.

However, these may be less important in a work of experimental fiction than in other literature. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on experimental literature: Writers of experimental fiction may expect more of their readers than other writers do and may not feel the need to create a page-turner. They may believe their readers will make the effort, to be interested in elements other than plot, character, dialogue, and setting–elements, for example, like language and the unexpected.

Such literature is a bit like poetry. Poets expect their readers to linger over a poem, to let it unfold gradually, some poems more gradually than others.

If we’re writing experimental fiction and playing with the five senses, what’s too much or not enough is entirely up to us, and I’d say that in this case more is better. I like the dirt-on-the-tongue example. If we’re exploring taste, for example, we can keep going. The MC tastes the dirt. How does it taste? Salty? Bitter? Chickeny? Does it dissolve or linger? Does it call up memories of other odd tastes? Think of this as Alice following the white rabbit down the hole of the taste of dust. The dust can taste like the color blue. It can make the MC’s tongue swell–or shrink. It can affect her other senses. She can smell in the dirt its history. Readers can be treated to a geology lesson on the origins of the dirt in the last ice age. A woolly mammoth can appear. Enter the other senses, as the MC looks into the small, angry eyes, jumps on the mammoth for a wild ride, feels its coarse hair, aches from the impact as the beast rears, hears its excited squeals.

We can stretch whatever we like. We can report on the vision of the mammoth, which we make up. Its vision is the sense of sight just as ours is. What would it see if it were presented with an eye chart? Our MC can imagine what she looks like to the mammoth.

And so on. Especially in a first draft, I’d suggest writing a lot. Later, we can decide what should stay. For this, I’d suggest choosing the parts we enjoy. The reader can take it or leave it. We shouldn’t judge good and bad for this (or for anything else, as I often say).

We can also go into the sensory ability of our MC, whose senses can be heightened or reduced. In plot terms, the loss of sensation can call forth a crisis, as may its opposite, a painful intensity. That can be the tension or part of it.

I suspect that sensation is a subset of touch. Or maybe it’s another sense. Please weigh in if you have an opinion. I’m thinking of physical pain or a racing heart or the feeling of fever or sneezing or itching, being hot, being chilly. We can delve into those too. Some of these have an emotional side, but the physical is there too. In experimental writing, we can let ourselves run on with sensation.

If we’re not writing experimental fiction, then the amount of detail does matter, mostly when it comes to pacing. Too much detail will slow things down. Two little, and the reader won’t be able to imagine what’s going on and enter into it. Here too, though, I suggest not worrying much in the first draft. Too much is better than too little, because it’s easier to cut than add when we revise. We do want our details to support character development, plot, and setting, as Melissa Mead and future_famous_author suggest.

Also a sense of wonder if we’re writing fantasy–or even experimental fantasy. Wonder can be introduced into any sense: the dirt that tastes like the sky with a teaspoon of honey and smells like peaches; the floorboards that creak out a song; the rat in tap shoes that gives the floorboard’s song a beat; the wall mold that, when a light is lit, depicts a forest scene.

And, as Erica says, we have to make sure that the details are ones that our MC can experience.

Here are three prompts:

• Write a paragraph on the (imagined) taste of dirt. If you can, write a page. Do not taste anything that may harm you! No poisoning for the sake of art!

• From the POV of the woolly mammoth, write its sensations when the human appears. Write at least a page. If you like, turn it into a story.

• Your MC is in on her way to meet a friend for an important reason–you decide why. On the way, by whatever means of transportation you choose, her sensations go haywire: intensify, fade, play tricks. Despite what’s happening to her, she needs to reach her destination. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!