Just a quick post about a poetry contest for teens from fifteen to eighteen. Here’s the link: https://www.narrativemagazine.com/narrative-in-the-schools-program/sixth-annual-contest
On February 13, 2020, Samantha Pixley wrote, What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?
How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even halfway through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!
You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!
Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Igth!”?
Several of you offered help.
Katie W.: I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.
As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.
Melissa Mead: I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.
The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.
So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.
Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.
Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to.)
Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.
Song4myKing: About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.
Raina: Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.
Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything.) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.
Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.
I love Raina’s idea about finding the heart of our story. Out of sad experience of getting lost more than once, these days I write a lot of notes before I start my manuscript itself–character notes, plot notes, fictional world notes. As I’ve said here, I have to know my ending in order to write a book. Not everyone does, but for me, knowing my destination keeps me focused.
We don’t have to do this work at the beginning. A hundred pages in is a great place to stop and look around. It’s certainly not too late. We can ask ourselves Raina’s question about the heart of our story. If we’re really all over the map, we may have a bunch of possible hearts. What an abundance!
We can see what we’ve put in that supports this heart or that one. Which thread seems to dominate? Which one interests us the most? What endings are suggested by the threads? Do some of them interlock so they can be pulled together?
It’s hard to remember this, but there is no rush. My favorite and best writing teacher used to say that a story takes as long to write as it takes.
And, published or not, the only person we have to satisfy is ourself.
Joy, if we love more than one idea, even if they don’t all fit the story as it’s shaping up. The others are fodder for more stories. Save them!
Once we’ve found the thread that interests us the most and seems to have the most possibilities, we can ask Raina’s heart question. We can ask my ending question. As we write, we keep the answers in mind. We can write them on a Post-it and stick them on our laptop. Or more than one Post-it and stick them on the fridge, our mirror, our pillow. If we start meandering, we can ask if we’re going off track or if there’s a connection to our main story road.
As for wordiness, I’m entirely with Melissa Mead. I agree about first-draft freedom and the revision X-acto knife. About the first: We’re word people. If we run on, it’s out of exuberance and love of language. Writing is hard! We don’t want to take the fun out of it!
About the second: I wrote a blog post called “Down With Length, Up With Thrills,” which I posted on August 26th of last year. It may be worth rereading.
I don’t daydream enough about my stories. I love when my mind spontaneously visits what I’m working on when I’m not actually working. The daydreaming is more relaxed than writing the book itself or even than writing notes. It comes from the back of my brain, puttering along, puffing out charming figments that are often useful. The only bad thing is if I forget before I write down the conjuring.
The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre came from long-simmering ideas about “Rapunzel.” I finally saw a way to use the fairy tale and end it in a more satisfying way than I think the original does–by combining it with a fantasy version of Exodus from the Bible. Then I wondered if it could find a home in one of the worlds I’d already created, and Bamarre came to mind.
I don’t have the Igth! experience you describe. Ordinarily, I don’t reread my books, and I don’t suggest rereading old work unless we plan to celebrate our growth, as Katie W. and Raina say they have. Otherwise, we’re just making ourselves unhappy.
Lately, though, I have been reading my books on Facebook. I’m doing it as my bit in offering some respite to people suffering stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn. I hope that the routine can help. I give the same intro and wear my little fairy pendant, and it’s always my same old face and, lately, my disordered hair, plus a chapter or two of an adventure story that may be nostalgic for some and new to others. When I started, I had no idea how many books I’d get through.
So I am rereading. I’m glad to say I like my books. I’ve even been surprised at how moving parts of some of them are. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a few times I’ve been close to tears or laughter.
On the downside, I’ve noticed some sentences that I’d recast if I were writing them now. I pick up word repetitions that I don’t like. Since I’ve studied poetry, I even spot sound repetition, like unintentional rhymes, that I’m not happy about. Ah, well.
Here are three prompts, all inspired by the movie, The Wizard of Oz:
• The farm Dorothy returns to isn’t the same as the one she left. Maybe a stranger has come to live with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Maybe the house now has an attic when it didn’t before. List the possibilities of what may have changed. Think about what could result. Write the first scene of a sequel. If you like, write the whole thing. Consider what could be the heart of the new story and how it might end.
• The wizard leaves Emerald City to be administered by the Scarecrow, assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. What could go wrong? Write the story.
• On the way back to Kansas, the wizard’s balloon malfunctions and he and Dorothy make an emergency landing. Where? What happens? Write the story.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Happy New Year!
I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: https://datayze.com/word-analyzer?word=unstop. Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.
On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.
I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.
Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?
I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.
Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?
And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”
Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.
My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.
This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.
The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.
But I want to keep writing.
The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.
Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.
I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.
We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.
We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?
Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).
For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.
(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)
I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.
There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.
As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.
Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.
Here are three prompts:
• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.
• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.
• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:
Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.
Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.
Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.
Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Here’s a little grammar rant, which I hope I haven’t delivered before: Whom is dying, and I am grieving. The poor pronoun is no longer heard on the airwaves I listen to. I don’t see it in newspapers. In its style guide, an important publisher I know of instructs writers not to use the word in books for children.
English is a living language, which means usage changes. I favor that. I cheer for it. But I’m worried that the moribund state of whom is more than the loss of a word, because people may become ignorant–or they already are and that caused its demise–of the difference between subject and object. Whom is an object pronoun, the person to whom something is done. The doer is the subject pronoun, as in, “Who killed chivalry?” The one to whom something is done is the object pronoun, as in, “Whom did Jack the Ripper knock off this time?” (It isn’t always as obvious as this–all the more reason to know subject and object.)
Rant over. But if you think whom’s death isn’t a tragedy, please argue or at least comsole me.
Onto the regular post.
On January 31, 2020, I’dratherbewriting wrote, Does anyone know what to do when you don’t know what to do? In my current work in progress, I’ve reached a point where I’m not quite sure where to go with the plot. Everything before this point is fine (as far as first drafts go, at least) and I have a detailed outline for where I’m going after. But I’m currently in the doldrums of my plot. It’s not quite exposition, but I’m not far enough to start building up the tension. Does anyone have tips for how to push through a rough patch in the story?
Also, I’m having problems with pacing. I’m constantly swinging between feeling like I have too much dialogue or feeling like I don’t have enough. Where is the happy medium, and how do I find it?
Two of you weighed in.
Melissa Mead: What purpose is the part of the story with “the doldrums” serving? Does it need to be in the story at all, or can you convey its information more efficiently some other way? Ex, if the evil wizard’s enslaved servant girl is secretly studying his books at night, hoping to find a way to escape, instead of detailing every stolen midnight reading session, you could say “After four years of breath-stopping close calls, she managed to levitate that tiresome silver tray as high as the window, and realized that now was the best chance she’d ever have.”
Christie V Powell: When I’m stuck in a rough patch, I usually take a break–a walk is best, but doing some household chore works too. It helps my brain get moving again. I’ve probably mentioned this too many times, but I love using KM Weiland’s Plot Structure for pacing. The info is free on her blog, http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.
With dialogue, I think the issue is more to do with the quality of the dialogue than the quantity–I mean, people still read screenplays, which are almost entirely dialogue. One of my early readers complained that I had too much dialogue in my first book. The problem was mostly with scenes where the characters were chatting about world details or backstory that weren’t really relevant to what’s going on in the current story, so I shortened or removed those.
I’m with Christie V Powell on the helpfulness of breaks, and I love to walk. Playing with the dog is good too.
This isn’t exactly a break, but sometimes when I’m stuck, I amble on the treadmill in our basement, where there are no distractions, and think about the problem and what I might do to solve it. The slow pace and rhythm of my steps keep me focused.
I’m also with Melissa Mead on hopping over the slow times in a story. If time has to pass before the action revs up, we can just write A month later and get to the tension.
Sometimes I think I have to set everything up before my plot starts moving, which makes for a dull beginning, and the reader may not hang in long enough to reach the adventure to come. We have to begin to introduce it quickly while acquainting the reader with our world.
Let’s take Melissa Mead’s example: the slave girl to an evil wizard. During the day, she polishes the wizard’s torture instruments. In the evenings, she catnaps. At night, she reads magic books in his library, hoping to find a spell that will get her out of there. For three years, nothing changes.
We may have to skip some of those years simply by telling the reader that they passed. But what can we do to bring to life portions of this time?
At the beginning, our crises should be small, compared with the turning point to come, but they need to engage the reader’s sympathy with our MC, whom I’ll call Vicky.
Naturally, the reader will want to know how Vicky got into this mess. I’m not a fan of flashbacks when they can be avoided, so we can start our story with the origin of her captivity. How did this happen? Time for a list!
It’s generally useful for our MC to have an Achilles’ heel–or both heels–to increase reader worry, so we might make her capture partly her fault. That would go into our list:
• Her focus on whatever she’s doing is absolute. She’s unaware of the wizard until he’s halfway through chanting his spell.
• She know the wizard is coming and why, but some other crisis is unfolding and she has to deal with it, and she isn’t good at multitasking.
• The wizard is an old friend of her family. He’s gone over to the dark side but she doesn’t notice the signs, because she thinks the best of everyone.
Your turn. As an early prompt, add three more possibilities.
This is exciting! We write the scene of her capture, introducing the reader to the wizard along the way, including his strengths and his Achilles heel. Maybe we jump forward to her exploration of his stronghold and the discovery of the library. This is tense too, because she can’t be caught wandering around.
She finds the library and establishes a safe route to it. Now, the doldrums set in, but we need some action during the three years. First off, can we shorten the time to a month? A month is a great length for ratcheting up the suspense. If she doesn’t escape within the month and reveal his location, then the wizard will have completed his fog machine. The kingdom will be enveloped in darkness, and he’ll be able to get away with his nefarious whatever.
But if, for plot reasons, we can’t shorten the time, what can we introduce periodically?
We can decide that we need, say, four tense scenes in the three years. Two will improve Vicky’s chances and two will make everything more grim. We start another list:
• Someone new arrives at the stronghold.
• The wizard begins to suspect Vicky.
• Vicky finds a spell that she thinks will save everyone, but it goes disastrously wrong.
Your turn for three more.
The three years end. The reader hasn’t stopped turning pages, hasn’t slept in days. Time for the major crisis.
I suspect that this question is best left for revision when we can tell what’s needed and what isn’t, so let’s imagine that we’ve gotten there.
I’d argue that almost everything in a story should contribute to its pace, dialogue included. I agree with Christie V Powell that dialogue that is mere chatter should be trimmed.
That said, I include a lot of talk in my books. Out of curiosity, I scanned two random twenty-page sections of Ella Enchanted. Coincidentally, dialogue appeared on sixteen pages of each sample. Sometimes, the dialogue was just a line or two.
What does dialogue do that contributes to pace? Well, it reveals character, and character is essential to plot. It builds relationships–or destroys them. It advances plot directly, as in the necklace incident when Hattie comes to understand that Ella has to obey.
Here are three prompts. For extra credit, use whom in your story, or use who in its place and feel good about it.
• Rapunzel is in her tower for three years before the prince arrives. Write three exciting scenes in the tower during that period.
• Using an expanded list, write Vicky’s capture by the wizard.
• Write the crisis when Vicky finds the right spell and casts it–but the wizard fights back.
Have fun, and save what you write!
I almost forgot to post! Thank you, Life Means Books, for reminding me!
Congratulations to those of you who raced with NaNoWriMo! How did it go? Please tell us your challenges and triumphs and what you learned along the way.
On November 20, 2020, Christie wrote, I recently picked up your book, Writer to Writer, for my daughter during the pandemic home time. I recently realized I could use a little inspiration as well. I started a business last year that has now moved completely online. With that comes the blog….for me…the dreaded blog. I was wondering if you may have some suggestions for a person new to blog writing?
I wrote back and asked Christie what kind of business hers is, and she hasn’t answered, but I moved her question up in the queue anyway because it seems urgent when so many enterprises are struggling. I hope the post will interest others, too, and I hope those of you who write a blog will offer your ideas.
I also hope Christie isn’t relying only on me for information. I’m sure there are more knowledgeable sources. I’d suggest googling and searching online bookstores. I’ll bet there are books on successful blogging.
This blog was sparked by an email from my publisher to all its authors, urging us to become more active on social media. I considered the options and decided a blog would suit me best, although since then, I’ve posted as well on Facebook and Instagram. I have eschewed (a word I rarely have a chance to use!) Twitter, because I’ve heard things about it that make me shudder.
So the impulse to blog came from the marketing side. I figure that the blog does have a small positive effect on sales of my books, and I hope that, as well as the blog, blog readers read my books, which I sometimes mention while I’m writing them. (As an aside, if you are more of a library-book reader than a book buyer, you can encourage your library to acquire my books, and I will be grateful.)
However, as the blog accumulated readers and writers started commenting, and because writing has my heart, creating it became a joy. And continues to be. As I’ve written many times, I love the helpful exchanges that take place here.
The blog has a voice, which is my voice at its most positive–but it is genuinely mine. If you met me in person, I think you wouldn’t be surprised at what I say and how I say it.
So that’s one strategy: we want to be ourselves on our blog. To achieve this, it may be helpful to look not only at my posts but also at the comments, because the comments are also written in a natural style that reflects the writer. I haven’t tested this, but I suspect I’d recognize the voices of several of you if I closed my eyes and someone read to me.
Write a page or two. Your blog posts don’t have to be long! As you write, imagine that you’re telling whatever you’re saying to a friend. Then show what you’ve written to a few supportive people. Ask them if you sound like yourself or if you’ve gone all formal. If you sound like a technical manual rather than yourself, edit for shorter words and shorter sentences. Include your own opinions about the topic, especially your enthusiasm.
I’m assuming that Christie is passionate about her business. We should make sure our readers know we care, which we can say head on. We can say, I love toenail clippers! Imagine life without them! I have devoted myself to them in all their variety, which I bring to you in my shop and now in these posts.
If you can, incorporate a little story in your post, because people are drawn to the shape of a story. Above, I gave this blog’s origin story. You can do the same. You can begin the blog with its origin story or with the origin story of your business.
As the blog continues, don’t worry about repeating yourself. I think of this blog as the writing analog of a wedding magazine. The topics are limited, but there’s always something new to say. Wedding dresses, for instance, are endlessly fascinating. Likewise, in writing: villains, plot, character development, and so on–but there are only so many.
Some people read all the posts in the blog, which is an undertaking by now. But others read just the latest one. I’m happy with either way of experiencing it.
Think about the audience you want. What will interest them? If you want to promote something in particular, consider why your audience will enjoy reading about it. I’d suggest not marketing constantly. You might give readers an insight into why you chose a certain item as something you wanted to sell. Is there a story behind it? What adventures has the business brought you to?
If you can persuade people to ask you questions, everything will be easier. (Thank you, everyone!) You’ll be certain that at least one person, and probably many more, wants an answer.
I don’t use images, but you may want to. Feel free!
My blog readers found me, with the help of NaNoWriMo. You may have an email list of customers. Let them know you’ve started a blog. Let family and friends know. Put a sign in your window. There must be other ways too that I don’t know.
Here are three prompts:
• Write a post from Rapunzel’s blog, which she writes in her tower.
• Your MC’s enemy writes a gossip blog, which is widely read. He posts viciously about your MC. Write his post. If you like, continue and write what follows.
• Your MC is a spy behind enemy lines. She writes a well-known cooking blog in which she conceals info for the intelligence service at home. When she realizes that her cover has been blown, she writes a final post, knowing she can’t use the usual code. Write the story and the blog posts. If you can, make the recipes part of it all.
Have fun, and save what you write!
To you who are competing in NaNoWriMo, congratulations on finishing more than two weeks! I’m rooting for you! If you have a minute, tell us your obstacles and triumphs. Questions are welcome too.
On January 24, 2020, Pleasure Writer wrote, I have a really hard time writing action scenes. They turn out so awkward and most of the time I feel like they’re boring to read, which is obviously not the goal for an action scene. Any suggestions on how to better engage my readers in the story?
Two writers responded:
Erica: For me, a good part of what makes action scenes exciting is the vocabulary. “He looked around at” is much less exciting than “He caught glimpses of.” As a general rule, use fewer, vivid words. Also, you might need to adjust the amount of showing vs. telling. I think there is an old post about how to write action scenes, but I don’t remember what it was called.
Christie V Powell: For action, you want shorter, simpler sentences, and shorter paragraphs. It makes it faster to read, and it also creates white space.
For example, the writer I edit for had a sentence that reads: “The outline of a man holding a knife in the air sent her screaming as she struggled out of her bed and ran out of the bedroom.”
I changed it to four sentences: “A shadow crossed her chest of drawers: a man with a knife. She screamed. Her feet tangled in her covers and she struggled out of bed. Somehow she made it out of the bedroom.”
Nice edits! I especially like the last sentence and the humor tucked into it.
A fundamental strategy for action scenes is to make sure the stakes are high, that the reader cares about the outcome. A reason for this is that we give up the tools we usually use to draw in the reader in favor of action. We’re not charming the reader with character development, dialogue, thoughts, emotions, or setting, though we may sneak in a tiny bit of these. In an action scene, we’re probably not going to reveal that our MC loves dogs. No one will give a long speech. Thoughts and feelings will be uncomplicated and limited to what can be conveyed quickly. The setting will be only what’s needed to make the action visible and possible.
An action scene is mostly physical, and the physical alone is just moving body parts and possibly weapons–not inherently interesting. Think of watching a sport or a game. If we don’t know the rules, don’t know the teams or the players, or haven’t placed a bet, we see just movement and aren’t engaged.
Imagine, though, that we’re watching a baseball game and a runner twists an ankle on the way to first base. We don’t know what is going on since we don’t understand the game, but we see he’s trying to get somewhere. We’re a little more interested then, because we want to see how the wounded player does. Not much is at stake, but it’s a beginning. We may put off going to the kitchen for ice cream or to another room to read.
That means everything has to be set up in advance. The poor reader has to be induced to care about the MC and the characters she values. He has to be made to hate or fear the villain or the antagonist, which might be something in the natural world–a wildfire, a storm, a bear. We can do this quickly if we decide to start our story with an action scene: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence.
We care about this POV character because she’s trying to save her mom. We care about the mom because the narrator seems to love her. And the questions about seeing and hearing make us begin to fear the peril, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.
Once the danger is over, we can add more to reveal who these people are and what the problem will be.
If the reader cares about what’s at stake, he’ll read intensely and quickly. He won’t want character development or any of the other things I mentioned because he has to find out fast! how it turns out.
That’s where the short sentences come in. The reader is stressed out! Long sentences are too complicated. I’m thinking like a reader here. When I’m reading an action scene, I’m going so fast I’m almost skimming. I don’t take in a sentence with a lot of clauses. My eyes will jump thoughts. Is the MC okay? Is the villain getting away with it? Will the trapdoor work?
The reader has to care, which we set up with a relatable MC. Whatever is at stake has to do with her, not that she has to be at risk. In the battle scene near the end of The Two Princesses of Bamarre, for example, the MC’s sister Meryl is the one the reader worries most about.
Once we’ve written a draft of our action scene, we can make it more concise so that it moves faster. We can make sure it’s clear what’s riding on the outcome.
Here are three prompts:
• Continue my beginning: “Mom!” I yelled. “Back away!” I ran toward her–what I told her not to do. Didn’t she see? Didn’t she hear the branches breaking? I vaulted the fence. Write the scene or the whole story.
• Snow White realizes that the evil queen wants to harm her and refuses to open the dwarfs’ door. Undaunted, the queen goes through a window. The poison in this apple is so potent that Snow White doesn’t have to bite or swallow. If it so much as touches her lip, she’s a goner. Write the action scene in which the queen, wielding the apple and possibly a weapon, chases Snow White through the cottage, which can be as big or small as you like.
• Sleeping Beauty has an enemy in her castle, who wants to kill her before she falls asleep, when she’ll be safe from him for a hundred years and forever. You decide who he is and why he’s her enemy. He doesn’t have to be human. Write the action scene in which she is trying to get to the spindle and he is trying to get to her.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Many of you have started NaNoWriMo. I wish you the best. May your fingers never flag. May your dreams–if you sleep–deliver scenes and characters. Put them in! May your brain send ideas: the surprising, the wild, even the ordinary–no judgment, just so they generate words. Go, writers, go!
On January 21, 2020, Writing Cat Lover wrote, I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!
Several of you responded.
Christie V Powell: I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.
I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.
Melissa Mead: Exactly! “This happened, which caused X, and because of X…”
Raina: I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:
- Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitional (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).
- Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two Lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).
As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.
Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).
And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.
I love reading everyone’s approaches, because we all get to the same place–story–by different routes. And I’m with Raina on the infinite possibilities of revision.
Here are some approaches that I use that may be helpful:
Even though I’m mostly a pantser, I do need to know the overall problem of my story. At the moment, I’m thinking about my next project, and I’m turning the fairytale “Aladdin” over and over in my mind. The problem is the problem, because I’m not sure what that is. Is it the love story with the sultan’s daughter? Defeating the evil magician? Wielding the genies’ magic? If I’m going to go forward, I’ll need to know.
Knowing helps with the links. When a scene wants to be written, we can think about how it relates to the problem. If it doesn’t relate, we can explore how it might be shaped so that it does. (This may require a list.)
Once I’ve figured out the problem, I move onto my characters. What kind of person will my Aladdin need to be to both overcome the problem and struggle with it? Who will the princess be? The genies? What sort of villain will the magician be? These can change, as Raina says, but to get started, I need a preliminary idea.
Same with the ending. From the start, I need to know where I’m heading. Even pantsers can know that much. The ending is a beacon that lights and guides the writing road. As we write, we can ask ourselves how the scene we’re about to write will move us toward the end, either by throwing up obstacles or by overcoming them.
All of these will automatically pull the story together and forge links.
Most of my novels are from a single first-person POV, though the Trojan War manuscript I’m revising now is told in the first half by one character and then, several years later, by another. Unity is natural when there’s one teller. The reader reads her thoughts and understands how events connect.
But even with multiple POVs, a POV character’s thoughts can pull plot points together.
Writing chronologically also creates links, which is similar to the causality that everyone above wrote about. This happened, then that happened–and the reader connects them.
I’ve written here about handling flashbacks and backstory, which are fine techniques–please use them at will!–but they do wrench the reader away from the current action and make the linking harder. Even foreshadowing does that. If our story is getting unruly, we can stay in one time zone.
Lately, from more than one sad experience of losing my way, I do write a very basic outline, a few paragraphs, maybe a page–even though I’m almost intolerably bored by the exercise. Once I start writing, I forget the outline, but it influences me anyway.
I also do a sort of rolling outline sometimes. In my notes, I write about what will come next based on the scene I’ve just written, what arises from it. This may yield bullet points that will carry me through a few more scenes, when I have to regroup again and plan ahead.
If we’ve already written, say, fifty pages, that don’t seem to link, we can look them over with a dispassionate eye. We can ask questions about what we have. Is there a problem that seems more pressing than any other? If yes, how can we make it filter into everything else? If not, is there a problem that particularly interests us? Can we punch it up? Which character (or two or three characters, probably no more) interests us most? Can we relate the problem to this character? How might the problem end? We can list possibilities.
We don’t have to wait until we reach the end to revise. We can reshape our fifty pages and then continue, keeping our eye on the problem and the ending we’re aiming for while remembering that we can change any of it.
Finally, trust yourself! Trust your mind! Don’t yell at it or poke it. Let it meander and find the connections.
Here are three prompts:
• Let’s take another fairy tale that continues to confound me: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” The reader is supposed to rejoice at the success of the soldier in figuring out why the princesses wear out their shoes every night, but these young women come out of it without gaining their freedom, and the reader never finds out what’s really up with the underground dancing princes. In my opinion, the story solves the mystery of the shoes, but not the more interesting problems. Decide what the problem is, who the MC is, and what the ending might be, and write the first scene. If you like, keep going.
• Look at three unrelated articles in your newspaper. Stare at them. Imagine they are somehow linked. Consider what the links might be. If the three don’t yield links, you can add more articles. Find a story in them, with a problem, an MC, and an ending. Write the story as another news article with a banner headline.
• Personify an inanimate object, a plant, and an animal. Write a paragraph about each, including its personality, problems, backstory, and anything else you think is important. Look at what you have. Did you happen to include common elements that you can expand? If not, look for connections. Decide which of the three will be your MC, which your villain (if you need a villain). Write a first scene. If you like, keep going.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Good luck and courage! to all who will be starting NaNoWriMo before I post again. I admire you!
On January 13, 2020, Chechu wrote, Sorry if I write something wrong: English is not my first language. I am from Argentina, I speak Spanish. I have a question. I’ve started a novel but I’ve got stuck.
I’ve got the two MCs defined and a less detailed image of other characters. I have an idea of the conflict. I know what the MCs want and, of course, is related to the conflict. I want the characters to grow, to get better, to overcome themselves and I want the conflict to push them in that direction. The problem is that, though I know what the villain wants, I can’t picture what he would do to try to achieve it and, in consequence, the obstacles the MCs are going to have to fight.
Some months ago I wrote the first chapter. And I couldn’t start the second because there’s going to be a conversation that’s going to introduce the main girl to the conflict. And I don’t know how to do that conversation because there are a lot of things that I haven’t decide (or found out) about the conflict yet. Specially because I am not a very political or strategic person so I don’t know what a man who wants to obtain a place of power would do to achieve it (the villain).
Also there’s magic in this world, for the main masculine character is a mage. And the girl is very artistic. So I want to focus on things that I really like, like magic and art, and bravery, heroicity and magnanimity. But there is a politics conflict and they care. They want to bring the true king back to the throne, though it may be difficult and dangerous.
I don’t know what to do. Any advises?
Writing Ballerina wrote back, I would say to write the chapter anyway, as much as you can, then go back and fix it later.
You can also do some planning on a different document to figure out the conflict a little better before writing the chapter.
I’m with Writing Ballerina on writing notes in a different document.
When I start a story, I don’t know much more about my characters than age, gender, and the situation I’m going to thrust them into. I discover them through their actions, reactions, thoughts, feelings, and what they say.
For the villain, we might focus on the challenge he faces rather than on him and get to him through that. All we know about him is that he’s power hungry, he lives in a monarchy, and the true king is not on the throne.
We can ask what the obstacles are to his gaining power. Let’s imagine for starters (because we have to start somewhere) that the true king went hunting one day five years earlier and didn’t come back. His grieving queen sent out search parties, but every lead turned into a dead end. The queen has been ruling in his absence and doing her best.
Our villain will look for weaknesses that he can exploit. Time for a list! We can list the possibilities:
• The queen doesn’t have the common touch. Her subjects think she’s stuck-up.
• Skirmishes have broken out on the border with a neighboring kingdom.
• Unlike the king, she knows no magic.
• Before he vanished, the king nearly emptied the royal treasury.
• A drought has brought about widespread food shortages.
You think of five more.
But we don’t want to make things easy for our villain. Another list. What obstacles will he face?
• The western provinces where the queen grew up know her best and are fiercely loyal to her.
• She is very smart and a good strategist.
• He gets bored easily.
• Her son and daughter are skilled at magic.
You think of five more.
We can stare at our lists and think of strategies a villain might use to exploit the kingdom’s weaknesses and get around its strengths. This may call for lists for each weakness and each obstacle, because there probably are several approaches to every one.
Next, we stare some more, looking for links among the strategies. Might the same person who is fabulous at bringing people to his way of seeing things also be wealthy enough to replenish the kingdom’s coffers–or have a magical power that will help him do so? We’re not going to use all the ideas we came up with in our lists. Once we begin to flesh out the villain, we can let some of them go.
Naturally, we can’t give him all the power. We need to think about what he’s bad at too, what may trip him up. This calls for another list, considering as we write it how our new ideas fit in with what we’ve already decided. Once that’s done, I’d suggest writing the next chapter.
Success, alas, isn’t guaranteed. We may have to rethink and revise and go back to earlier chapters to plant things that we didn’t see ahead to. The great (and terrible) thing about writing is that it’s endlessly fixable. Pity the poor actor who garbles a line in front of a full house. That mistake cannot be unmade.
Here are three prompts:
• In the scenario above, your villain, Boran, spies on Serena, the captain of the queen’s guard, and discovers that she spends half an hour alone every day on the castle ramparts, planning the day’s deployment of the guards. Boran goes up there to meet her and see how persuadable she is to helping him–what levers he can pull with her, how she might be vulnerable. He plans to kill her if he can’t use her. Write the scene and show both his strengths and weaknesses. You decide if he succeeds with her or not.
• Boran, in armor, rides to the border where the skirmishes are taking place. Write a scene showing what he does when he gets there. Does he fight on the side of the queen, or on the other side? Does he fight at all?
• Boran convinces the steward of the castle that he should be appointed the prince and princess’s tutor. Write what happens during the first lesson.
Have fun, and save what you write!
On January 3, 2020, Maddie wrote, Hi, Ms. Levine! I’ve got a bit of a long-winded question. Several years ago, when I was an exceptionally awkward young teenager, you were kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Now I’ve graduated college and am slowly but surely overcoming my writer’s burnout (I’ve got an anthropology degree, so I did almost nothing but write for 4 years). I’ve finally decided that I want to try to write fiction seriously again! But I have a problem that I can’t figure out how to get over.
Back when I was first asking you questions, I believed in my writing. I knew it wasn’t great and that I had lots to improve on, but I had confidence that I was a storyteller and that people would want to read what I had to say. Now that’s completely gone.
A large portion of it comes from having the worst imaginable Comp 2 professor freshman year. She would do things like spend required office hours yelling at me that my work was terrible without giving advice for improvement or ask questions in class and berate me for answering them. I struggled to write all through college after that, and the standard microaggressions from being a Native woman only made it worse.
I still love my characters, but now the only potential I can see in my writing is the potential for people to hate it. I’ve still had encouragement from friends, and even other professors, whose opinions I honestly respect a lot more. Heck, even the tutor I tried to take a Comp 2 paper to told me that the awful professor was just being cruel! But I can’t find it in me to have confidence in any part of my writing anymore.
I was going through some of my old stuff (I still always save what I write!), and I saw a lot of things I had written off of your prompts. I figured that if anyone could help me, it’s the writer who made me believe I could be a storyteller in the first place. How do I get that back?
Three responses came in, one from me.
Me: There’s a book! Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser is about exactly this–the negative voice in our brains that tells us whatever we do stinks. It was more helpful to me than any other book when I started writing seriously, and I’ve gone back to it a zillion times over the years.
When I’m writing, I try to never make judgments about my writing on a global level–just specifics: work on pacing, smooth out this sentence, a little word repetition going on here. Never that what I’m writing isn’t any good.
Christie V Powell: You can also try it NaNoWriMo-style. For one month, you write everything down, good or bad, and you’re not allowed to edit. Our local group leaders print out pictures of little gremlins to represent our “inner editors,” and they lock them up in a box at the beginning. You ignore the critical voice inside you and just throw things out. I’ve heard it described as making a pile of sand. Only once you’ve got a big sand pile do you start shaping it into a pretty castle. It works for some people. You might give it a try.
Song4myKing: When I get discouraged, I remember why I started writing in the first place. So far, most of my stuff has been middle grade and young adult. And when I started, I was that age and those were the stories that fascinated me, the stories I wanted to read. Now when I get to thinking that my book is too far fetched, or has a too perfect ending, or a too cliched premise, I try to put myself back into my twelve-year-old self. If my book would have pleased me as a twelve-year-old, then that’s all it needs to do. And chances are, it will please other twelve-year-olds as well. Their parents might roll their eyes, but what does it matter if the intended audience loves it?
I guess what I’m saying is, write for yourself. Ask yourself if you, or rather, a pre-college version of yourself likes it. If so, that’s all you need for now. And most likely you won’t be alone in enjoying it.
I completely agree with us!
Did I ever talk here about Mr. Pashkin? He was my Creative Writing teacher in high school, and he wrote on the top of one of my stories, “You know your problem. You’re pedestrian.” Pedestrian meaning boring.
He didn’t even say just my story was boring, but that I was. I had the absolute worst response. I was too embarrassed to ask him what he meant. And I believed him. I’m a very practical person and was even then, which I understood as boring.
I stopped writing stories.
For twenty-five years.
Because how could a boring person write an interesting story?
I do not want that to happen to any of you who follow the blog!
What got me back to writing was a job. I worked in the Small Business Division of the New York State Commerce Department, where they had me writing correspondence, meeting notes, and public service announcements. They loved my writing, and I especially loved writing the public service announcements, which had to be a certain number of seconds long. I relished fooling around with the phrasing to pack the most possible meaning and punch into the fewest possible words.
During my nine years of rejection by editors, I might have repeated my response to Mr. Pashkin, because one rejection letter in particular was pointedly unkind. But I was sustained by the encouragement of writing buddies, who were going through the same experience I was. And I loved learning to be a better writer.
I also gained some perspective when an editor rejected a picture book manuscript by saying it was too clever. I understood by that that some editors at least had limitations. Later, after Ella Enchanted was published, my editor asked me to expand that very manuscript into a chapter book, which became The Fairy’s Mistake, the first book in The Princess Tales series.
More recently, as some of you know, I went to poetry school for a Master of Fine Arts, which was a marvelous adventure. However, in one class, a teacher yelled at me. I spoke to the assistant director of the whole program about dropping the class, since it was early in the semester, and I said, “But maybe, at this late stage of my life, I should learn how to deal with a bully.” He said, “I guess, but why should you have to?” I found that single sentence healing. And I dropped the class.
Why should we accept and even internalize teacher and editor cruelty? We shouldn’t. It truly is their problem, just as a stink bomb that pollutes the air isn’t the fault of the person who breathes it in. I hope this analogy is startling enough to be remembered!
Some people, but very few, think more highly of their work than it deserves. Most of us are too hard on ourselves. We need to learn that this is an obstacle, even a flaw that we have to fight.
A few days ago, I sent a manuscript to my editor, who thanked me and said that she’s swamped and it will be a while before she gets to it. I am busy thinking of all the reasons she may find to hate it. However, I managed to keep those thoughts at bay during the writing. They’re unpleasant now, but earlier, they would have made it hard for me to continue. As I say in Writing Magic, we have to tell that negative voice within to Shut up!
Here are three prompts:
• Earth is invaded by tiny worms that crawl into the ear and infect the brain with negativity. The worms’ strategy is to wear people down so that when the entire worm population spaceships in, humanity will believe that even quarter-inch worms are better equipped, smarter, and more qualified to rule the earth than they are. Write the story of the resistance to the worms. Decide who wins.
• Long before Cinderella goes to the ball, she figures out how to deal with her step family. Write the story.
• At the ball, Prince Charming says to Cinderella, “You are lovely. No one else here interests me.” How does she receive this? What happens? Write the story.
Have fun and save what you write!
On January 1, 2020, Alyce wrote, How do you write songs and poetry? I’ve tried, and if it’s not a haiku I can’t manage. I just can’t seem to get more than a couple rhyming lines out, usually not even that. I can memorize poetry just fine, and make any rhymes I want (one of my characters blurts out anything that rhymes with the word she’s actually thinking of). I just can’t make those rhymes make sense most of the time. Or if I can, they don’t come out the way I want, and they don’t pass the message I want (or anything, really, they’re just a lot of impressive-sounding nonsense). Does anyone have any suggestions?
Erica wrote back, Why do you find a haiku easier than other poetry? If you can write haikus fairly easily, then I would recommend trying either limericks or free verse next, depending on what your precise difficulties are. If your problem is just that your rhymes don’t make sense, try either blank verse or free verse for your poems.
I’m with Erica on trying poetry that doesn’t rhyme.
Songs are a different matter. They should use meter, and, usually, rhymes. I say they should be metrical because meter provides rhythm. And rhyme helps with rhythm too. There is no law. If a song or poem works, it works.
Meter means a regular sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. I just looked online for a link that lays out kinds of meter in a straightforward way, but the subject is complicated, and I couldn’t find a site that I thought is perfect, but please google poetic meter and see what you get.
I’ll take a short stab at it, though, using iambic meter as an example. In iambic meter, an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. In this line from Shakespeare, I’m capitalizing the stressed syllables:
a HORSE, a HORSE, my KINGdom FOR a HORSE.
Another term you should know is poetic foot. A foot is the unit of stressed and unstressed syllables. So in the sentence above, a HORSE is a foot. The second a HORSE is the second foot. Notice that a foot can end in the middle of a word, as in the third foot above, my KING. dom is in the next foot. There are five feet in this Shakespearean line. A five-foot iambic line is said to be written in iambic pentameter, pentameter for the five feet.
The ballad form may be something Alyce and others will take to. Each stanza has four lines. The first and third lines have four iambic feet, second and fourth three iambic feet. The second and fourth lines rhyme; the other two don’t.
Trochaic meter uses a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. Feet aren’t always two syllables long, either. An anapestic foot, for example, is three syllables long, two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
If you come up with your song’s melody first, you can figure out the beats and find the words to go with them.
Another way to get rhythm is to take a poem or song that already has a rhythm you like. Analyze the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables and follow them in your own poem or song with different words.
A thesaurus is great for finding words with the stresses we’re looking for. For example, suppose in our poem somebody goes crazy, but the first syllable of CRAzy is stressed and we need the second syllable to be the stressed one. The thesaurus will offer us inSANE as an alternative.
For rhyme, there are rhyming dictionaries. I use RhymeZone online: https://www.rhymezone.com/, which offers near rhymes too, like rhyming street with free. Near rhymes, also called slant rhymes, are often just as good or even better than exact rhymes. Better because there are more words to choose from. The ear will pick up the similarity in sound even though the match isn’t exact.
In general, simple rhymes work best even in sophisticates songs and poems. Complicated rhymes can seem forced. And simple ones make the poet’s life easier.
But, returning to the beginning, in poetry one does not have to rhyme! Most contemporary poems don’t. There are other ways to achieve poem-iness.
Image is a tool of poetry. Doesn’t have to be a beautiful image either. For example, someone stretching to reach a high shelf can add a poetic note.
Sonic elements also contribute. Alliteration–the repetition of initial letters, like blue bowl–makes a sound pattern that pleases the ear. Same for assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. This also works for internal perfect rhyme or near rhyme, rhyming words that aren’t at the end of the line.
Repetition is a poetic device too: words or phrases that keep coming up. Some poetic forms add structure without rhyme, generally by using repetition. I love pantoums (they don’t have to rhyme but can), which repeat specific lines in stanzas. Triolets operate similarly. Wickedly hard is the sestina, which repeats the last word in a line according to a sequence. The tritina is sestina-light, because it follows the same principal with many fewer lines.
By studying her poems I discovered (or think I have) a strategy used by one of my favorite poets, Lisel Mueller (high school and up). She’ll pick a theme for a poem and explore it in different ways (reminds me of my beloved lists). For example, in her poem “Necessities” she considers a different necessity in each of five longish stanzas. Each necessity is italicized: A map of the world; The illusion of progress; Answers to questions; Evidence that we matter; the old things first things.
We can do something similar, approach the poem we’re trying to write by looking at its topic in as many ways as we can think of. Let’s say the topic is escape. We can ask, escape from what? And we can come up with alternatives: our house, our thoughts, a conversation, the world of cause and effect. What do we have to say about each of these? We can ask about methods of escape and apply the same process. Same for destination, what we’d take with us. And so on. We don’t have to use everything we come up with, but as long as whatever we come up with connects with our topic, our poem will be coherent.
Poetry is a big subject, so I’ve only scratched the surface. A book that I use again and again to help me find forms to hold my poetic ideas is The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett. If you check it out, look at the chapters on meter and rhyme, which are in alphabetical order: Foot, Rhyme, and Rhythm.
Here are three prompts:
• Write a poem with escape as its theme, and try the method I propose above.
• Write a ballad about a particular escape, because ballads usually tell a story. Here you’ll be using rhyme.
• Write an entirely new poem that uses the same meter as William Blake’s “The Tyger.” You don’t have to write as many stanzas as he did, or you can write more, and you can decide whether you want your poem to rhyme. (I’ve always wondered how Blake pronounced symmetry.) Here’s the poem, which is in the public domain:
BY WILLIAM BLAKE
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Have fun, and save what you write!